Monday, December 27, 2010

How to Write a Popular Blog

My agent, still hoping that I can turn myself into a popular and successful author, has recommended assiduous blogging.

How to become a popular blogger? Probably a bad idea to use words like assiduous. Writers love words, readers maybe not so much. Readers want a good story. Readers want what they want.

What do readers want? I went online to find out how to do a successful blog, and was advised that I must first ask myself this question, before I even begin blogging. Writing my books, I don't ask this question. I ask myself, what would I find charming and compelling? And then I write it. Those that like it, find it, or many of them do, and the others don't hear about it, which is what is bothering my agent.

Still, blogging is another animal. The successful blogger must find out people's needs and fulfill them. It is said that one can do this by analyzing Google statistics. I was discussing this with Harold at Sneddon's this morning as we ate breakfast. He said, "Ah. Airline reservations, travel information..." This didn't sound like something I was prepared to offer. I came home and looked up Google statistics. It seems that what people really want is advice on anal fisting and how to have a miscarriage.


I need hardly tell you that I don't find these topics charming or compelling. So I'm making a New Year's resolution. The public be damned. If what you want is kinky sex, questionable medical advice and tiny little words, you must look elsewhere. I hereby resolve to write charming and compelling things on my blogs, in big words if I feel like it. I'm going to please myself. Stick around if you want to.

Monday, December 20, 2010


It struck me like a thunderbolt. It was the strangest thing.

I was sitting at the dining room table here, talking to my husband and a friend of ours, my fingers idly roving over the keys of my Macbook. I can't even remember what made me think of it, but a children's book I used to own popped into my mind and I found myself doing a search on the title.

Suddenly, there it was.

When I say I used to own this book, I mean it was the book I used to look at all the time when I was little, the one I used to read to my sister, the one on which we based a large part of our fantasy life for years and years. Peter Pan. The story of a bunch of little kids with no parental supervision.

It was the lack of parental supervision that made the story attractive to us. My father built a dollhouse for my sister, and a nice one, too. My mother crocheted rugs for it. We had, I think, a dozen thumb-sized babies who were supposed to live in it. Our parents gave us a mother and father to take care of them, carefully dressed and groomed grownup dolls made of rubber-covered wire in a scale of one inch to the foot. The mother had black eyeliner and red lips. The house was splendidly furnished and decorated.

But whenever we played with the dollhouse stuff, the babies put the plaster of Paris cakes and ham and the tiny pillows and blankets into a bus we had made out of erector set parts, climbed aboard, and hit the road. Mom and Dad stayed behind in the dollhouse. We had the most charming adventures, none of which I can remember now. Peter's gang. I can't remember exactly when we stopped playing Peter, but it must have been when we got to be teenagers. We grew up.

My mother gave me the book at some point. She said she meant to give it to Liz, but I had written my name in the front of it, Kathleen Gallison, probably in the first cursive I learned to write, back in third grade. I cherished it for a long time, but I can't remember seeing it in this house. We have lived here for twenty-seven years.

Sometimes I used to look for it. I would have liked to read it to John when he was little. Not that I would have wanted him to shun parental authority. When he was a small child, though, he used to remind me of the children in that book, the one illustrated by Roy Best. They were so beautiful. Their cheeks were so pink. The images have stayed in my mind all these years, so that when I saw that the book, the very edition, was available online for mere money, I had to have it.

"Why?" the men said. "What will you do with it?"

"I'll look at it," I said. "It's beautiful." I showed them the pictures. "This was Roy Best's masterwork. All the rest of his stuff was nothing but tacky pinups." Our friend thought that Tinkerbell was hot.

"The pinups probably paid the rent," my husband said.

"All the same." Ninety dollars was a lot of money for an old book, but quite cheap for a work of art. Hadn't I just gotten a check for royalties on my e-backlist? I would be a fool not to buy it, the desire of my heart. A few clicks of the mouse and Peter Pan was mine.

Lying in bed that night, I thought, I ought to give it to my sister for Christmas. It means as much to her as it does to me. Then in the morning I realized there was probably another one for sale out there. We could both have it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Trailer Park

Book trailers are all the thing right now. Nobody knows whether they do any good for one's sales or not. Still, a number of us have them, both writers who sell well and those who sell not so well. I made a great book trailer last year to promote The Edge of Ruin, because editing film is a hobby of mine. Here it is again, in case you missed it:

Now I have to make another one for The Brink of Fame, which is due out in August of next year, and for some reason it's harder. The music to play behind the trailer does not come readily to mind. The arc of the trailer is elusive. The computer I made the first one on was so clogged with stuff when I went to use it that I had to format the hard drive, reinstall Windows and then try to find drivers for my peripherals. That ate up a couple of days. The book is really good. I like it a lot. Maybe I'll just tell people the book is really good and I like it a lot.

It might be that a slick, professional looking trailer is no longer necessary after all. This one by Stuart Ross might be the worst trailer of 2010. Or it might be the best. The Huffington Post can't decide, but you can, if you want. Leave me a comment. Tell me what you like in a trailer.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Inspirational Comic Book Characters

A fad of some sort was going around Facebook last week whereby we would all put up pictures of favorite comic book characters from our childhood, instead of pictures of our own faces, to be our profile pictures. This was supposed to strike a blow against child abuse somehow. I don't quite get that, but I'm game for anything that will postpone the work I have to do on my novel.

So I decided to give it a shot.

You must understand that when I was growing up comic books were it, as far as entertainment went, comic books and radio shows. We're talking about the forties, a decade when women were strong, because they had to be. The role models I found in the comics were stronger and hotter than even my mother could stand, which is why I had to sneak my comic books under the covers and read them by flashlight.

Naturally, I wanted to grow up to be Wonder Woman. Except that Wonder Woman seemed to get captured and tied up all the time. What was up with that?

Okay, the Dragon Lady was good. The worst thing that ever happened to her was that she was kind of sweet on Terry, of Terry and the Pirates. Meanwhile she got to be the boss of everyone in sight.

Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit, wrote interesting women. (For those of you under a certain age, The Spirit was a comic-book sized supplement that came with the Sunday paper, and Eisner was a genius.) I didn't like Ellen Dolan all that well--she was the police commissioner's helpless, often-kidnapped daughter, The Spirit's sweetheart--but the bad girls were people I wanted to grow up to be. They tied him up on occasion.

I wanted to be P'Gell.

Al Capp, creator of Li'l Abner, drew a few cool females. My mother, unhappy with my untidy room, called me Moonbeam McSwine once. Moonbeam was certainly a strong woman, in more than one sense of the word. But I did not grow up to be Moonbeam, or P'Gell, or the Dragon Lady. Instead, I grew up to be Mammy Yokum, wearer of hats, mother of sons, worker of amazing miracles.

And that's not a bad thing.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Where Writers Get Their Ideas

Inspiration comes from many places.

Today we had our annual parish meeting at Saint Andrews. Father Townley told us he had been talking to a colleague or two about the financial struggles the church faces, the struggles most churches face in the modern day.

One of his colleagues pointed out to him that St. Andrews is an aging parish. She meant this not in the sense that the church has been standing on the corner of York and Main for 130 years (it has), but in the sense that most of us in the pews are getting old and gray.

Another colleague advised more internet exposure. Tweet on Twitter, he said. Establish a presence on Facebook. Launch into the blogosphere. Maintain the web page. That ought to pull 'em in.

Putting these two concepts together--the old, gray parishioners with their fountain pens and Underwoods, versus the new forms of communication--tickled me. Behold the geezers grappling with modern technology for the glory of God, snarking on Twitter, oversharing on Facebook, fighting tooth and toenail for a higher rating on Google for their web page. I could write a short story. It would be a simple matter to work out a story arc, bang out a handful of pages and sell it to a magazine that prints charming, fluffy fiction. But, wait. There aren't any magazines like that anymore.

All right, then. I have another idea. On Friday I was lunching at Sneddon's with Harold and we got to talking about what he's been reading lately, a succession of grim-jawed men's thrillers that are wildly popular with modern readers. Heavy enough to hold the door open in a stiff breeze, these tomes, though penned by a number of different grim-jawed men, have certain elements in common. Besides the length. It should be possible to use these common elements to whip up a thrilling grim-jawed men's potboiler.

The adventures of Butch Bammer, for instance. Former CIA agent Bammer fights for freedom and justice against the forces of the evil federal government/evil Democratic party/evil Hunterdon County sheriff. Homeless, he keeps a stash of weapons and clean underwear in every major U. S. city. His superpower is the secret knowledge of the time and location of every AA meeting in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston.

As our story opens, Bammer stands in a public shower, admiring his hair and muscles and washing somebody else's blood off himself.

It's true that I have difficulty writing anything longer than 60,000 words. How to make it long enough? Here's yet another idea. We could get every member of the parish to write a chapter. It would be swell. We could sell it to Simon and Schuster or somebody, publicize it on the internet, tweet about it, make the New York Times best-seller list. We could get the sprinkler system installed, the gutters fixed. Think of it.

Next Sunday I'll mention it to Father.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Infrequent Flyer

Last week I flew to Houston and back to see my sister. I tried to do this without spending inordinate amounts of money. For those of you who don't travel by air very often, I thought it would be good if I shared some crumbs of flying knowledge I picked up in my travels.

First of all, air travel is not what it used to be. I'm sure you've heard this, if you haven't experienced it first hand, but I'm going to talk about it anyway. The first time our mother and father flew anywhere it was so long ago that the airplane had propellers and flew in and out of Chicago without any problems. They came home with airline goodies. Presents from the airline. It might have been TWA. There were cocktail napkins and fancy stirrers, and I think there was a cardboard sign that said "occupied" or "do not disturb" or some such thing. The exact use of such a sign escaped me; the "occupied" sign was supposed to be left on your seat when you went to the loo, I guess; the "do not disturb" sign could be balanced on top of your hat if you wanted to pull it down and take a nap.

Years later I had a boyfriend who flew frequently. He used to bring me silver envelopes containing the most divinely seasoned almonds. But that was then, this is now. Remember airline food? Whether you thought it was good or not, at least they fed you. In the twenty-first century we get one little silver envelope of pretzels for lunch, washed down with a few ounces of ginger ale. Almonds, schmalmonds.

And the boarding process. Ah, the boarding process. Not that long ago, families with small children used to be invited to board before anyone else. No more. Big strong executives and executive-ettes swagger onto the plane first, while mothers of three-under-three wait patiently, screaming babies hanging in their hair. This is what business class is all about. If your ticket is paid for by an international corporation, you get to board the airplane ahead of the suffering peasants.

So what? you say. That's what I thought, too. I can be patient. You have no idea how patient I can be. But there are consequences for being last, as I was to discover.

After the golden few in business class take their seats, zone one gets to board, and then two and so forth. Silly me. I thought the zones were geographical. They are not geographical, folks. They are hierarchical. The higher your zone number, the more the airline gets to crap all over you. Zones have nothing to do with seat numbers, or with efficient boarding practices, or whether you'll be in people's way when they are trying to get settled.

My boarding pass said Zone 7. As I straggled down the boarding ramp behind all the other passengers, a flight attendant announced that the overhead bins were all full. I was forced to surrender my roll-on before I got on the plane. They smiled and gave me a tiny yellow ticket in exchange for it. So much for my plan to bypass the baggage pick-up process. It was one of those wrenching moments. I was supposed to change planes in Atlanta. I thought, "I'll never see that bag again."

"I'll never see that bag again," I said to the woman in the seat next to mine, in row 17, not so far back in the plane or so far in the front that I would have to be in zone 7. She reassured me that the airline seldom lost bags. "What zone are you?" I said. She said, "Zone one."

"How is this possible? My ticket says zone 7, and I'm sitting right next to you."

"We paid an extra ten dollars when we reserved the seats online."

Ah. Money.

So now I know something I didn't know before, and I pass it on to you, in case you're as unsophisticated as I am about flying. Sooner or later I'll figure out how to game the system, if I fly often enough. Maybe I'll even fork over the ten dollars.

You'll be happy to know that my roll-on made it safely to Philadelphia.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Candy from Strangers

I was sitting in Madison Square Park, watching the dogs come and go with their owners, counting the instances of red-soled Christian Louboutin pumps, and enjoying the Manhattan experience generally while I waited for six o'clock to come. At that hour the November meeting of the New York Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America was to begin. It was a pleasant afternoon. Nothing seemed amiss.

As I sat on my bench, loafing and resting my feet, two young people came up to me with a clipboard. "Do you have five minutes to fill out a questionnaire?" the girl said, in lightly accented English. "We are German students, and we are doing a survey."

"Certainly," I said. "I can give you half an hour." I was way early for the meeting.

She handed me the clipboard, stacked with filled-out questionnaires. It seemed the survey had to do with attitudes about 9/11. I remember that one of the questions on the front of the sheet was, "Do you have a conspiracy theory about 9/11? If so, what is it?"

That one was easy. Al Qaida planned and executed the attacks under the direction of Osama Bin Laden. If that isn't a conspiracy I don't know what is. I wrote it down.

Then they wanted to know whether I knew anybody who died in the attacks, and the answer was no. I turned the sheet over. Had my behavior changed since 9/11, and if so, how?

Of course it has. I didn't know how, exactly, except to say that I no longer open my mail on the dining table. That's because of the anthrax attack. That mail went through my post office.

So I filled out the last of their questions and handed the clipboard back to the girl. The two smiled and thanked me. She handed me a cellophane packet of German gummi bears. Here's a picture of it.

They went off down the path, looking for another subject. I gazed after them for a while, and then looked down at the candy in my hand. I started to laugh.

Did they honestly think I was going to eat that?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Grapes of Sourness
a short story
Beauregard Marin adjusted his tie in the men's room mirror of the National Arts Club. Why is it, he asked himself, that no one but me seems to know anymore how to tie a decent bow tie? Why is it that no one seems to recognize a properly written English sentence any longer? Why is it, in fact, that no one reads? He combed his few locks of white hair across his bald spot, flicked a bit of lint from the lapel of his good suit, and brooded over the latest statistic his wife had brought him from the internet. Seventy percent of American adults never put their noses inside a bookstore. Eighty percent never read a book. As a professional crime writer he viewed this news with alarm. As a novelist, chronicler of the inmost workings of the human heart, he wondered: what were the other ten percent doing in the bookstore if they never read a book? Drinking coffee and picking up dates for Saturday night?
Perhaps there was no reason in the twenty-first century to tie a bow tie. Perhaps there was no reason to read. Marin squared his shoulders, sucked in his stomach and went forth to face the membership of the New York chapter--the most powerful chapter, everyone said--of the National Association of Crime Writers. Marin was to be one of the speakers at tonight's meeting. The subject of the panel was "Resurrection: How a Writing Career can Rebound from the Depths of Failure." Marin had come to the end of a number of projects, and changed publishers a number of times. Never had he regarded these events as occasions of failure. You write something else and carry on. Nevertheless the program chairman had included him in what his colleagues were now calling the failure panel, along with two other writers who as far as he knew had never been failures either.
When he was invited to participate he had agreed, thinking, this will be something of a hoot. I can give fatherly advice to the younger writers. They will eat their chicken and look up to me, the dean of all the crime writers, their mouths hanging open in admiration. But between the time of his acceptance and the day of the panel he received a phone call from his agent informing him that the publisher had dropped his series. Butch Bammer would fight crime no more.
Marin, less resilient than he had been in his youth, was deeply distressed by this news and began to mope around the house in his underwear. "Publishers. They suck the juice out of you like an orange, and cast your empty rind on the garbage heap. We'll have to live on Social Security now." His wife expressed sympathy by patting him and mooing. Eventually she went on the 'net and gathered all the information she could, the same as she did when one of the family got physically sick. The news she brought him did no more good than the coffee enemas with which she had treated her mother in the last days of the old woman's illness.
"Beauregard, this is terrible. Something like ten thousand new crime novels are published every year just in the United States alone. Who can read ten thousand books in a year? You'd have to read more than a book an hour, and that's if you never took time out to sleep. And that's just crime novels. Of all the fiction books, it's more like forty-five thousand. Of all the books, it's a million. A million new books in a year. And if you missed one of last year's books, forget it. You'll never have time for it. Or the space. Imagine trying to find room in the house for ten thousand crime novels. Every year."
"There are too many books. The publishers are making too many books."
"I think the idea is to get the books into the hands of readers, dear."
"Well, there aren't enough readers either. It says here that thirty-three percent of high school graduates never read books after they finish school and forty-two percent of college graduates never read books after they get out of college. What do you think of that? A million books. No readers." Yes, he was doomed. Bring on the coffee. "It's the publisher's business model that's failing, don't you see? They're beating a dead horse. It's not your fault."
She was right, of course, it wasn't his fault, but the fact did not cheer him. Marin could not escape the conclusion that none of what he had been doing for all these years was worth doing. There were too many books. Why write more? Books were useless trash, fit only to be pulped. When these thoughts took hold of his mind Marin suffered the literary equivalent of a priest's loss of faith.
Nevertheless, on the third morning of his disgrace he shaved his face and pulled himself together. Because one aspect of his problem had suddenly come clearly into focus. And it struck him that he had it in his power to do something about it.
The time had come for the failure panel. Marin nodded in passing to the portrait of Joyce Carol Oates that hung in the elegant hall of the Arts Club and strode boldly into the dining room. With his chin up he made his way between the tables to take his place on the dais between the moderator and the other two failure panelists. The faces of the diners turned to him like flowers to the sun, expectant. They were the faces of some of the foremost talent in crime fiction, all still getting published, big guns, best sellers among them.
So Marin was here to tell them how to survive failure. The New York writers. Writer X, whose book won a contest for unpublished writers four years ago and went on to become number one on the New York Times list, where it remained ever since, together with its sequels, so charming to the many admirers of vampire cats. Writer Y, who bought a house in the Hamptons this year on the strength of his latest advance. Every Friday the in-crowd met there to play high-stakes poker. Writer Z. Even Marin admired Z's work. It was a shame about Z, a shame about all of them, really, but you had to break eggs to make an omelet. Anybody could tell you that.
The caterers had left the dessert all alone in the hall while they served the entrée. Doctoring it had been a simple matter.
It wasn't so much that there were too few publishers, or too few readers, or too many books. The problem was that there were too many writers. Marin considered explaining this to them as the first bodies hit the floor.