Friday, February 26, 2016

Audible Deal and More

Zestful Blog Post #149

Dearest Zestful A-lister,

As promised yesterday, here’s my newschat that went out this morning. Forgive and delete if you’re already on that list.

Newschat for Brighter Skies

Dearest Correspondent,

We know there are only four seasons, but scientists have recently determined that winter actually has five subseasons: 1) holiday buildup, 2) holidays, 3) holiday downslope, 4) gray skies, and 5) despair. Even in Florida people complain about winter. The locals get out their coats and fur boots when temperatures plummet into the low seventies, while seasonal people get upset if it’s too windy to golf. Be that as it may. Here now the news, with bright-sky wishes for you and yours.

1) The audio book company Audible made an offer on all five of my Lillian Byrd crime novels, and we signed the contract last week. This was in the works for quite a while. Am thrilled that Lillian will have a voice! Was able to approve the narrator; more about her next time. Mega thanks to the team at the Donald Maass Literary Agency for making it happen: Rights Director Katie Shea Boutillier and Agent Cameron McClure.

Not sure when the audio books will be available, though the rumor is several months out from contract signing. Funny thing: I realized I need to reread those books closely and make pronunciation notes for the narrator, so I’m doing that in betwixt and between other stuff. Detroiters have developed idiosyncratic pronunciations for countless streets and places. Ask a Detroiter how to get to Gratiot or Livernois or Ecorse.

2) In honor of this weekend’s Oscars (which I don’t usually watch, but hey, it’s a good excuse to do a promo), The Actress – Rita Farmer mystery #1 is free on Amazon Kindle.

If you haven’t snagged it yet, please do. I hope you enjoy it! Maybe it will whet your appetite for the next two in the series, The Extra and On Location. (I might note that you don’t need a Kindle device to download the book; you can get the free app for just about any device you can use to get connectivity.) And yes, I know I’ve been promising the fourth in the series forever, but bear with me. I swear I’ll get it out there.

3) Meanwhile, I’m nearly finished with final edits on a mainstream standalone that I’ll be self-pubbing through my imprint Spruce Park Press. Crimes in a Second Language was inspired by my Aunt Tracy, who befriended her cleaning woman after discovering that she was not only illiterate, but had barely attended school at all in her native Mexico. My story takes two similar women on a twisty road through education, insight, deception, and (naturally enough) dangerous malfeasance. More soon.

4) It’s a little late to report this, but Lillian Byrd #5, Left Field, did in fact win a Goldie award at last year’s GCLS conference. Very happy about that. And no, I can’t make it to the GCLS con this year—too much other travel going on. Hope to have news of other appearances soon.

5) With enormous help from Marcia, my website got a makeover last fall, and I couldn’t be happier with it.

6) My blog keeps going, as well as articles for Writer’s Digest magazine. Most recent is “Power Tools” in the January issue. Currently I’m writing one for them on “The Little Things” that are easy for writers to overlook but can make a huge difference in the quality of your work.

7) My work will also appear in the forthcoming Crafting Dynamic Dialogue: The Complete Guide to Speaking, Conversing, Arguing, and Thinking in Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books, June 2016). I was honored to be asked to write an original chapter on internal dialogue for it. Also, they’ll be using some material from my book You’ve Got a Book in You.

Thanks for your company! Wishing you happy (ice-free) trails and blue skies. Love,


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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Pulitzers and Oscars and Harper Lee's Lawyer

Zestful Blog Post #148

When writing or speaking about the craft of writing, I often give examples from famous books. As it happens, a great many famous books have been made into movies. This is not by accident, I tell my audiences. Stories that resonate deeply in the human heart find their way around.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was one of the first novels I ever read. I remember being so young I didn’t know what rape was, and I didn’t understand that Mr. Ewell did NOT fall on his knife. Growing up, I read the story dozens of times, and still reread it every few years, in spite of having been told by a college professor that it was a contemptible book. This professor, in the middle of teaching Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, somehow found a way to bring up To Kill a Mockingbird and sneer at it, because in the end, the little white children are safe “and everything’s all nicey-nice.” I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t recap the plot of Mr. Sammler’s Planet if my life depended on it.

Harper Lee’s smash hit book was made into a terrific movie, which is as beloved as the book. I’m writing about this because it’s Oscar time. The film version of Mockingbird won a few Oscars. I’m getting to my point.

Which has to do with Harper Lee’s other book, Go Set a Watchman, which got published last year. Just to get this straight, Mockingbird brought tons of attention to Lee, who hated the attention, who retreated from public life, who said she’d never publish another book, but oh, my gosh! Her lawyer “finds” this ol’ manuscript—just now!—and gets an idea! And at the age of 88, after having a stroke and being in an assisted-living facility, Harper’s like, cool, I’d thought that stack of paper was lost for good! Let’s dust this puppy off and publish it! Heck, yes. I can’t wait! And what’s more, I really don’t need to do any edits, or even talk to the publisher myself; my lawyer will handle everything. She has my best interests at heart.


So the book, which I haven’t read because I’m boycotting it, reportedly portrays Atticus Finch as a racist, and puts an ugly coda onto the one brilliant gift Harper Lee gave the world. Do we think Watchman is going to win the Pulitzer? They’re talking about making a movie of it. No doubt they will. Suppose that’ll win some Oscars? A Pulitzer and some Oscars?


And that’s my point.

Here’s a tiny gift for you, dear reader who has stuck with me all the way to the bottom: Advance notice of our latest giveaway: Starting at midnight Pacific time tomorrow, Friday, The Actress (Rita Farmer mystery #1) will be free on Kindle through the weekend. In honor of the Oscars, naturally! This is the first time it's been free. Also, stay tuned for a newschat coming tomorrow with more announcements. I’ll post it here on the blog as well as send it to my newschat list.

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Thursday, February 18, 2016

No More Bad Self Label

Zestful Blog Post #147

When my mother turned 50, she decided to learn to play the piano. I, age about 16 and a serious musician, was surprised, because Mom had never evinced any musical talent or ability, ever. But I was happy that she wanted to learn. She bought a piano (only a spinet, but at least it was new) and hired a teacher, who set her to work on the rudiments of reading music and playing simple tunes.

I was able to help her a little between lessons, and I enjoyed plinking around on the instrument myself. God, isn’t the sound of a piano lovely? Mom’s progress was slow, but so what? One day, however, she dropped her hands into her lap and said, “Oh, I’m so bad!”

I said, “No, no, you’re just starting to learn.”

She  shook her head. “I don’t expect to be the next Van Cliburn. All I want is to be able to come home from seeing a musical, and just sit down at the piano and play all the songs from it!” She pantomimed playing lush chords with her left hand and fast melodies with her right. My blood ran cold as I understood how clueless she was as to how much experience and skill such a seemingly casual feat would require.

 Mom constantly felt discouraged, and I saw that it was because of her unrealistic expectations. “I’m so bad,” she would say all the time. I couldn’t get her to understand the difference between being a novice at something and being bad at something. We knew a bad piano player. “Look at the Jordans’ daughter,” I’d say. “She’s a bad piano player. Why? Because she’s been taking lessons and playing for twelve years and she still sounds like crap. No feeling, no heart.”

That didn’t cut any ice with Mom. Eventually she quit and gave the piano away. “I was just so bad.”

This story relates, of course, to any art. A novice must learn the craft, gain the skills, study up, and practice. Progress, generally, is uneven: often slow, but occasionally you make a breakthrough and something that was hard is now easy. Patience, laddies and lassies, patience and persistence. Novices must not think in terms of bad or good. Learning and gaining facility is all that matters.

A bad writer is a person who has developed a mediocre level of facility (at most) and who is satisfied by that, and who does not seek to improve beyond it. A good writer is a person who has achieved a respectable level of facility (at least) and who continues to strive to get better, and whose work indeed shows development and improvement over the course of his or her career. The striving to get better part makes a good writer exactly like a novice. It’s a Zen thing, really: If we bring beginner’s mind—that is, open, eager, receptive, committed—to everything we do—

Well, let’s just try it and see what happens.

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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Valentine Post: Love and Free Book

Zestful Blog Post #146

As I haven’t yet figured out how to package and deliver pure love to you, my friends and family, I thought I’d do the next best thing by giving away a story that has love in it. Well, love and violence, of course, being that it’s a Lillian Byrd crime novel. Easy Street is free on Amazon Kindle through Tuesday. (And ya don't need a kindle device to get it--just the free Amazon app.) Love to you and yours!

 [Cover by my talented buddy Ann McMan.]

"You'll be happy to know that Lillian has returned in all her dry, witty splendor to pull us all into yet another totally enjoyable and satisfying mystery."
The L Word Literature Review

Lillian Byrd's battered Caprice is convulsing through the last of its death throes; her pet rabbit, Todd, ails; and as usual she's single—and flat broke. For a few extra bucks she signs on to help an old friend, retired police detective Erma Porrocks, renovate her house, but of course nothing ever goes smoothly in the life of Lillian Byrd. The end of her first day on the job yields a partially demolished wall, a mysterious stash of cash, and a fresh corpse. And Lillian's attentions are diverted by the appearance of a drop-dead gorgeous neighbor.

Nonetheless, Lillian throws herself into chasing down every complex thread, especially after Porrocks is injured in a suspicious accident. The action ranges from Porrocks's Detroit riverfront neighborhood to a nursing home in Cleveland, where Lillian and Todd pose as animal therapy workers to shamelessly coax information from an elderly resident. From there Lillian goes undercover to Boise, Ft. Lauderdale, and points beyond, facing deception and danger the whole way—as well as the bewildering emergence of her own dark side.

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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Lying is Good for You

Zestful Blog Post #145

Writers need to keep their brains sharp and guts alive, and one way to do it is be on the lookout for opportunities to lie. I’m not talking about the lying we do in our fiction, which is, of course, the whole point. Neither am I talking about malicious lying; my subject here is recreational lying. Recreational lying pumps your adrenaline and challenges your wit. I discussed this a little in Zestful Post #54 (“5 Good Reasons to Make Stuff Up), but want to expand a bit on it here.

Life is just too damn boring sometimes. Enough bloggers rant about our hyper-risk-averse culture and our increasingly ensafened public spaces (rubber cushions beneath the monkey bars; helmet laws). But I feel one’s comfort zone is one’s own business, and it’s up to us to stay in it or step out of it. Lying is such an easy way to walk on the wild side.

One of my favorite recreational lies happened at a summer polo match in the Detroit area back in the 90s. (Someplace like Farmington Hills, as I remember.) The Borders Book Shop I managed in Birmingham was an advertiser on the local classical radio station, so I regularly got invited to thank-you parties, which was a nice perk. For one such party, the station (WQRS, anybody fondly and sadly remember it?) set up a lavish hospitality tent at a polo match. Though I’d never been to a polo match, I guessed correctly that one should dress nicely and be on good behavior.

I wore a crisp chambray skirt and a sleeveless top, which just happened to expose the fresh blackwork tattoo I’d received on my right upper arm a month before. It was a grasshopper, or locust, designed by me and inked by a well-known artist in Ann Arbor. (Anybody remember Suzanne of Creative Tattoo? Another bygone entity.) I’d wanted a symbol of strength and lightness, and thought the hopper a good choice. Being so new, the tattoo was profoundly black and stark against my white-girl skin.

[As seen in Skin Art magazine, vol. 1, no. 7. For real.]

It’s safe to say mine was the only visible tattoo on the whole polo grounds. I might characterize the other guests as upper crust; most were prosperous business owners and their spouses. I was experienced enough to know, however, that most of them would be somewhat nervous coming to such a hoity-toity event—this was Detroit, after all—and therefore vulnerable and credulous.

As the horses thundered to and fro, I snagged a mimosa and headed for the buffet of first-class delicacies. Three society gals of a certain age assembled behind me in line. I heard a brief whisper, and turned. Decked out in pastels and their afternoon pearls, they were staring at my tattoo. One found her nerve and said, “Where did you—what’s—?”

“Oh,” I said with a smile and a shrug, “I used to live in Los Angeles, and I was in a girl gang for a while. This was the initiation tattoo we all had to get.”

Their faces were just so fabulous. Just writing about it, I feel the rush all over again.

Most recently, I recreationally lied at a restaurant in Mount Dora, Florida. Marcia and I were getting up to leave, and the couple at the table behind us were interested in the pork chop special. “What’s it stuffed with?” asked the guy. The server took off to check for sure.

Without thinking at all, I leaned in and said, “Ze pork shop, eet ees fabulous. Ees ver’good—ver’ good. You try eet, OK?” Somehow I sensed zey deed not speak Frainch. They gazed at me with respect, and when the server returned, the guy ordered the chop. I nodded my approval, though I had eaten the steak salad. The couple’s eyes followed Marcia and me to the door, and I just felt that much more alive.

There’s nothing wrong with taking vitamins and obeying the speed limit in school zones. But recreational lying is downright good for you, your brains, and your guts.

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Thursday, February 4, 2016

Story Writing Demo II

Zestful Blog Post #144

One of my favorite myths, since I could read, is the story of Baucis and Philemon, first written down by Ovid. (Baucis is properly pronounced Baw-kis, and with Philemon you place your emphasis on the first syllable.) They were an old, poor but hardworking couple who lived in a hut. I believe a thin cow lurked outside. Cows in these tales are always thin.

One day Mercury decided to have some fun on Earth. He took off slumming, disguised as a hiker, and around noontime approached the humble hut. He wondered if he might have some refreshment. Baucis and Philemon welcomed him in, and set the table with all the food they had: a loaf of bread, some cheese, some grapes, and a pitcher of milk (remember thin cow). Mercury ate some food, and they all shared the milk. When Mercury asked for more, Baucis sadly upended the pitcher to show it was empty—but what do you think?

Milk spilled all over, and the pitcher never went dry again; it always brimmed with fresh, delicious milk. They would never starve. What’s more, Mercury asked the couple what their dearest wish was. They answered that they’d like never to be apart. Mercury went away quietly, and saw to it that their wish was granted. When they died, they became an oak and a linden tree, which grew intertwined forever. I’ve seen other versions of the story in which the magic pitcher contained wine instead of milk, which, hey, cool. (Picture of Baucis and Mercury from my Wonder Book by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1935 edition. Illustration by Milo Winter. Note friendly snakes from the god's caduceus ready to lap up the spill.)

The moral, of course, is that one should be good to everyone, because one never knows who that stranger really is. This is part of many spiritual teachings: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.” Do good for the sake of doing good, and reward will come in the form of good karma, or possibly eternal life, or maybe even a new Corvette. You never know.

How to translate this to a modern story? First let’s unpack it. We have: the poverty and kindliness of Baucis and Philemon; the powerful god who can confer reward as well as, we assume, punishment; the enduring love of the old couple; and finally, the god’s kind heart, which matches the mortals’. There’s a lot of material here, and storytellers have used it over and over. Plus wasn’t there some reality show about a kindly angel who grants wishes to good people?

To make the story fresh for today, how about creating a sort of anti-god who runs around doing stuff? Yeah, how bout a garbage collector who snags broken toys from the rich neighborhood, fixes them up, and gives them to the kids in the poor neighborhood? One day he’s got a cold, but he’s on the job, and it’s extra miserable because the boss is being a bastard. Some little poor kid sees the garbage guy’s runny nose and dashes inside to bring him some orange juice. He might secretly reward that little kid for years, just because.

The power differential is key here. What is true power? There’s material power: I can confer gifts to you. And there’s spiritual power: I can love you. Couldn’t we keep riffing on this for hours? Yeah. Take it away. I love you.

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