Thursday, July 30, 2015

Why we Compete

Zestful Blog Post #117

As it happens, Left Field won a Goldie award (Mystery/Thriller category) at the GCLS conference last weekend in New Orleans. Notice I say ‘a Goldie,’ not ‘the Goldie.’

Everybody knows awards processes are inexact and nervewracking. While waiting for the ceremony to get going, I consumed two martinis (Tanqueray, dry, up, olives), a charcuterie plate, then a plate of lettuce-sashimi wraps, then two pieces of s’mores pie, which I would never do in real life. (The pie.) (It was free.)

As the show started up, I thought about the Olympics, which I avidly watch every time. I always find myself envying, in a way, athletes whose medals depend on empirical measurement (fastest, highest, most goals), and pitying, in a way, athletes who rely on being ‘best’ according to judges. At least in the Olympics the judges have lists of exacting criteria to apply, which help quantify the aesthetics. Not that that eliminates controversy.

But in literature? Articles have been written, letters sent, feuds fought over prizes. Do you remember the shitstorm back in 1987 over Toni Morrison’s Beloved? If you weren’t born yet, that’s OK. The book was shortlisted for the National Book Award but lost to Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann. Forty-eight black authors wrote an emotional open letter that was published in the New York Times book review, saying that Toni should have won a National Book Award or Pulitzer by then. Lo and behold, a few months later, the Pulitzer went to Beloved. Did that letter have any effect? Who can say?

So last Saturday night my name was announced and I jogged up to the podium and said in part that such things are always a crapshoot, because judging is by definition subjective. And I thanked the judges, which one should always do.

Having been both a winner and loser of literary competitions, and a judge in several of them, I know just how idiosyncratic the process is. You have preferences in style and theme. You might have heard some scuttlebutt about an author that makes you frown—or smile. And how can you decide which piece of art is ‘best’ among a bunch of good ones? But you strive to be impartial, because you have a horror of someone judging your work in a cavalier way. You bear karma in mind. It is what it is.

The GCLS organizers address the inherent-unfairness issue by awarding more than one prize per category, depending on the number of entries/finalists. This dilutes the distinction of the prize and makes the losers feel even worse, but it does exponentially increase winner happiness by letting two or three people go home with

a piece of crystal and bragging rights. The other winners in my category were Anne Laughlin for The Acquittal and Nene Adams for The Consequence of Murder. Congratulations, women!

I might add that this practice also increases the number of times the GCLS is mentioned and discussed. The organization and conference have grown from just a handful of women to many hundreds. This year’s conference attendance was about 350. That’s significant.

Why prizes at all? Because prizes, along with bestseller lists and reviews, are our report cards. They influence customer choice. And that’s why we put ourselves through this imperfect, disquieting process. Yay for me—this time around.

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

New Anthology and a Freebie

Zestful Blog Post #116

Given that not all my blog followers are also signed up for my newschats, I’m putting up today’s newschat here. Apologies if this is a repetition in your inbox, but at least I’m enclosing a shot of the cover of the new antho, which I forgot to do in the newschat.

A few pieces of news from World Headquarters:

I am Calico Jones is a new short e-book from my imprint Spruce Park Press. A collection of four of my short stories, it leads off with my all-time fave, “I am Calico Jones.” If you’re a fan of that fictitious detective whom Lillian Byrd follows so avidly, you’re going to enjoy this. The story originally was anthologized years ago and has been out of print for a long time. Now it’s back!

It’s partnered with a couple more stories that were also out of print forever: “For Faye,” a tale of love, grief, and joyful healing; and “Untold Riches,” the story of a romantic loser who becomes a bank teller and befriends—a thief? Also there’s a new story original to this collection, “Kerchief and Pearl,” which evolved from a short ghost story I made up for a friend and became something completely different. And if you read the collection and like it, I’d be obliged if you’d consider posting a review. If you hate it, just email me privately. That’s the best way, don’t you agree?

The book is available on Amazon, and I might add that you don’t need to own a Kindle to read it; their free app is easy and fabulous.

I might also note that the story “Untold Riches” is available in another new anthology, along with many other quality stories: Lesbians on the Loose: Crime Writers on the Lamfrom my good friends at Launchpoint Press.

In honor of Left Field, Lillian Byrd #5, being a finalist for a ‘Goldie’ at this weekend’s Golden Crown Literary Society conference (New Orleans), it’s free on Amazon Kindle now through Sunday. If you haven’t gotten it yet, now’s the time. Rave reviews much appreciated, needless to say. As I write this message, it’s #1 on Amazon’s free list in the Women Sleuths category.

Yes, I’m at the conference. Come up and say hi! Gonna do several panels, a reading, signing, and more. One of the panels I’ll be on will be open to the public: It’s called “Liar, Liar,” and I’ll be trading  autobiographical tall tales with Dorothy Allison, Georgia Beers, Melissa Brayden, and Andi Marquette. Carsen Taite is the moderator, and I guarantee a good time. That’s on Friday afternoon. So local friends, come on down! Dorothy will be giving the keynote on Saturday.

(And in answer to your next question, our housesitter and his twin pitbulls are holding down the fort back in Fla.)

Speaking of Fla., I’ll again be on the faculty of the Florida Heritage Book Festival and Writers Conference September 24-26. I’ll lead a special critique session on Thursday, then on Friday will deliver my electrifying presentation, “Fearless Writing.” The web site has all the info on signing up. It’s a very nicely run conference in the totally cool town of St. Augustine. If you get into my critique group you’ll get a written consult from me on your first 10 pages, plus the opportunity to learn and ask questions all day long.

And I’m sorry about missing the Florida Writers Association’s conference this year, but hope to make it next year.

I love you I love you. XXOO

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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Everyday Scholarship

Zestful Blog Post #115

Recently while killing time in a strip mall, I went into a used bookshop, which started a chain of events that led to this post. I call these events everyday scholarship, and here is the story.

In that shop I came across a 1941 Modern Library anthology of American plays (full cloth binding—God, those were the days) and bought it for a few dollars. Opened it the other day and commenced reading Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, which I’d never read or seen on stage. Not to be confused with The Children’s Hour.

Almost immediately, I felt like I was reading the play in a vacuum. What was the author intending to communicate in this piece, which is set in 1900 and had its premiere in 1939? Even knowing something about the political and social landscapes of those two eras, I couldn’t immediately grasp it.

Briefly, The Little Foxes centers on a well-to-do Southern family not far postbellum, who fight, argue, and scheme against one another. The object of the game is a vaguely described cotton mill and the wealth and power it would bring to whoever owns the largest share.

I already knew Lillian Hellman was decidedly leftist in her politics and thus one might expect that point of view to be advanced in the play. But I wanted some more gloss, so I could be a more acute reader. I searched on line and discovered just the thing: a lengthy review of the play by Elizabeth Hardwick in the New York Review of Books. This review was written in 1967, of a Broadway revival in that same year. Yet another era, with its own social and political context!

Hardwick was pretty scathing, stopping just short of calling the play commie propaganda. But she also compared it against her own standards of good drama. Her main complaints were over-simplified characters (divided into good and bad), and implausible motivation for the key character of Horace. He’s a retired banker, whose money could put the family over the top in their quest to complete the sizable downpayment on the mill.

Horace is against putting money into the mill, and Hardwick questions why a banker wouldn’t recognize the terrific investment opportunity and release the money? I also read the fierce letters to the editor on the review, and Hardwick’s answering of them. Literary feuding at its best! It was almost as good as drinking a martini at the Algonquin.

I finished reading the play expecting to agree with Hardwick’s opinions, and I did agree with some of them, especially her criticism of Hellman’s relentless lefty preachiness. But I felt the Horace character behaved reasonably, given the framework of the play: He recognized that the mill would be run in an avaricious fashion by his crummy brothers-in-law, and while profitable, would not be a force for good.

In this post, I’ve attempted to answer the question: Why should I read literary criticism? Answer: because it makes your brain better, and because it’s a deep kind of fun. When your own curiosity drives you to learn and think, well, it's fabulous. The Web makes it so easy to find viewpoints and counter-viewpoints on practically everything. What an era we live in.

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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Wild Kingdom

Zestful Blog Post #114

I’m currently working on a new article for Writer’s Digest, this one on using just two tools to fix any problem in a fiction manuscript. Curious? So am I…

But so hey, one of my correspondents had a few questions via email, and after answering, I thought yall might like to hear it too. (Thank you, C./M.)

The questions concerned a manuscript nearing completion, and what should be done about getting it into the world.

Here’s what I say:

Regarding Spruce Park Press, I’m not publishing anybody except myself at the moment; not sure if I ever will; gotta see how that goes. It’s a wild kingdom out there in our business right now. I was thinking I’d stay self-published from now on, but am considering writing a novel expressly for my agent to shop around, and give the Big 5 another go.

 [My friend Jan Kimmel took this photo in Kenya. Wild, you know, kingdom.]
The so-called Big 5 are the largest 5 publishers in New York, at the moment Penguin Random House (yes, all one name; they merged a while back), Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster. My Rita Farmer series was initially published by Macmillan.

Most newbies want to try to break into the Big 5; if that’s you, you should start submitting to agents when your ms is as ready as it can be. Have you had a professional edit yet? I strongly recommend one, whether you try for representation or self-publish. There are lots of good editors out there; I’m one of them. I’ve just freshened up my  service page  with some client raves.

Regarding Big 5 vs. small press. You’d get the same royalty rates from either, pretty much. Big 5 will give you more exposure in stores, but you’re a minnow in a big pond, unless you get a mega deal right away. Smaller presses can do a very good job in other ways, and some writers are happy with their smaller press. I do, however, remember being at the Lambda awards the night I won, sitting next to my (small-press) publisher, who, in answer to my question about, like, any plans to expand?, leaned back in his chair, laced his fingers behind his head, and said, “I like being small.” My next title was in production, and I was under contract for the next, but was outta there after that.

The option to self-pub will always be there. If you shake the bushes and nothing falls out, you can always DIY.

News on appearances:

1) Golden Crown

I’ll be attending the Golden Crown Literary Society conference in New Orleans in a couple of weeks. Left Field is a finalist for a ‘Goldie’ award, therefore I will suffer through the awards ceremony, prepared for both best and worst. It’s all worst, actually.

Have never done three panels in one conference before:

My own (I’ll moderate) called “Breaking Bad: Writing about Lesbians Drinking, Smoking, Drugging, Swearing, Stealing, and Fighting” with Cheyne Curry, Isabella, Riley Adair Garret, JM Redmann, and Ann Aptaker.

Then I’ll join “Liar, Liar”, moderated by Carsen Taite, with Dorothy Allison, Georgia Beers, Melissa Brayden, and Andi Marquette. We’re all to come prepared with a few true outrageous stories about ourselves, as well as one false one. Audience gets to guess. I hope there will be huge prizes for the winners. This one will be open to the public. (Dorothy is doing the keynote address this year, as well. Stay away if four-letter words combined with the names of deities bother you…)

Also I’ll be on “We’ve Come to Murder”, moderated by Baxter Clare Trautman, with Mavis Applewater, Erica Lawson, and Martha Miller.

Plus I’ll do an author reading & chat with Jessie Chandler, Justine Saracen, Wynn Malone, Lacey Schmidt, and Kenna White.

So that’s actually like four times I have to show up somewhere…

2) Florida Heritage

For the second year in a row I’ve gotten roped into presenting at the Florida Heritage Book Festival and Writers Conference in September. I’ll lead a special critique session on Thursday, then will deliver a presentation on Friday, “Fearless Writing.” The web site has info on signing up for everything, including critique day. It’s a very nicely run conference in beautiful St. Augustine. If you join my critique group you’ll get an individual written consult from me on your first 10 pages, and the opportunity to learn and ask questions all day long.

And no, I can't make it to the Florida Writers Association conference this year, but hope to be there next year.

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Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Gift of Stupidity

Zestful Blog Post #113

As an author, I’ve long been a student of the human condition. Actually, I commenced being a student of the human condition in my earliest sandbox days, then turned to writing as a form of self-defense.

Mainly, I’m fascinated with one question: What makes people do what they do? A major sub-category of this question is: What makes criminals do the crazy shit they do? Or, perhaps more accurately, what makes a person do crazy shit for which they get caught and slapped with humiliating criminal charges?

I remember reading Our Lady of the Forest by David Guterson, in which there’s a mention of some guy who broke into a dentist’s office for the nitrous oxide, which he inhaled for the high while masturbating. He quickly died after getting too hypoxic. The incident was just a mention and not part of the plot; I think Guterson put it in mainly to help establish atmosphere. But it stuck in my mind. That novel was set in and around Forks, Washington, a remote, poverty-mauled outpost in the Olympic rainforest later made much more famous by Stephenie (yes, that’s the right spelling) Meyer in her Twilight series.

[A river runs through Forks, more or less. Photo by M. Burrows.]

At the time, I was living on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, not far from Forks. And I happened to know the mayor of Forks (we were both Area Musicians), who also happened to be a counselor to a whole lot of messed-up Forkians who had run afoul of the law in one dumbass way or another. I asked him if he’d ever heard of a nitrous-oxide incident like the one in Guterson’s story, and he said he didn’t know if it had really happened, but he could easily believe it, given what he handled on a daily basis.

I asked him WHY people get into such messes, and he answered, “Bad decisions.”

Well, yeah.

My friend is a compassionate man. But I mean, we’re talking stupidity, right? Can we call a dolt a dolt here? I know substance abuse can rob people of their common sense. But it seems there are lots of stone-sober idiots out there as well. But, too, not every dumbass does stuff they can get arrested for, drunk or not. Mostly they just wind up in emergency rooms.

The mystery of stupidity is something I wonder and wonder about. What would authors do without characters who make bad decisions?

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