Wednesday, February 25, 2004

And now, silence 

I'm just about to get on a bus to Toronto, where I shall be following job leads (real or otherwise), spending some quality time with friends and relatives, catching up on my reading, and taking care of some unfinished business. So blogging for the rest of the week will be sporadic at best. But I've posted a ton of stuff in the last few days, so for all those who have just arrived, making the last couple of days a record-breaker in terms of page views (thanks!), welcome, and glad you've stopped by. Hope you stick around and enjoy my musings about crime fiction, publishing, and whatever else catches my fancy.

See you next week--if I don't succumb to the urge of checking in once in a while.

Everybody's doing it so why can't I 

Lizzie first linked to a quiz asking "What kind of book are you" (originally seen at All About George.) So what the hell, I did it as well, and got a (perhaps) surprising result:

You're Anne of Green Gables!

by L.M. Montgomery

Bright, chipper, vivid, but with the emotional fortitude of cottage
cheese, you make quite an impression on everyone you meet. You're impulsive, rash,
honest, and probably don't have a great relationship with your parents. People hurt
your feelings constantly, but your brazen honestly doesn't exactly treat others with
kid gloves. Ultimately, though, you win the hearts and minds of everyone that matters.
You spell your name with an E and you want everyone to know about it.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

Considering that my nearly complete L.M. Montgomery set is the group of books I've owned the longest (thus belatedly answering question one of Terry's five-question survey) I guess it's not that shocking a result....

And more on Scott Phillips 

Steve Miller, who is a regular contributor to Mystery News (including a great piece a few months back on one of my favorite authors, Ross Thomas) writes in regarding last week's post about Scott Phillips' new novel COTTONWOOD:

I share your admiration for Scott Phillips. I was very intrigued by your comments about why he is as successful as he is, despite confusing the suits at Ballantine. May I offer one other possible reason why he has been a marketing challenge? In the four year since THE ICE HARVEST came out, he has only published two other books, rather than four or five. The man takes his time on his work and doesn't just crank them out to meet the annual expectations of his publisher. Scott is probably able to do that with the assistance of generous advances (and I think both previous books have been optioned for film), but I appreciate the fact that he marches to the rhythm of his own drummer (as does his obvious mentor, Crumley). I mention this as I have come to the conclusion that the main problem afflicting crime fiction today is way too damn many mediocre second and third books by promising new writers. I attribute most of this to the maniacal practice of publishers trying to make newbie writers more prolific than they are, coupled with writers who think 'hell, if Michael Connelly can do it, sure I can, too'. The result, as you know, is generally crap.

I think Miller's point is very well worth looking further into. In genre fiction, there's a sense that for whatever reason, fans will disappear if you don't write a book a year. But I don't believe this to be the case, as I said way back in October:

If a book is good--or perceived to be that it merits word of mouth or a massive publicity campaign--then no matter what the time lag since the last one, it's going to find an audience. Look at Dan Brown. THE DA VINCI CODE is the biggest selling book of 2003, and his previous book had come out 3 years prior and sold bupkes at the time. There's no word when his next novel will be out, but you think he's under as much pressure to produce a novel a year? Look at Dennis Lehane, who because he turned in his 4th Kenzie/Gennaro novel, GONE, BABY GONE, so late, had to "crank out" the next one (PRAYERS FOR RAIN) in a matter of months in order to keep the book-a-year deadline. Now he writes a book every two years at most and has far more success than he ever did. I worry for writers like Stephen Booth whose books get longer and more complicated with each installment, whose time is increasingly constrained by promotional obligations on both sides of the Atlantic, and are still required to crank out a book a year (in Booth's case, he just signed a contract for 3 more books in his highly acclaimed Cooper & Fry series to be released in the next 3 years.) Is this really healthy?

Obviously, there must be some balance struck, because taking an inordinate amount of time between books has its share of pitfalls as well. But I highly doubt people are going successfully convince someone like Dan Brown to start cranking 'em out every year, or Lehane (though lord knows there are always people kvetching about when his next book's out. It'll be out when it's damn good and ready, is what I say.)

But when the culture already exists, it is difficult to change. I think, in the end, whatever led to Ballantine's indifference to Phillips' new book has more to do with the perceived lack of marketability and the idea that fans wouldn't follow him from his earlier noir novels rather than the time lag between books--but I can see this being a contributing factor of some sort.

Wednesday tidbits 

A Brazilian court is about to rule whether the grandfather of Gabriel Garcia Marquez will get his military honors back and be promoted to general--sixty years after the man's death.

Bill Perrie is organizing an unusual task: a pub crawl all across Canada. "It should take about five months," the optimistic man says. The question is, how trashed will everyone be by the time they reach Vancouver?

John Cusack, Monica Bellucci, and Billy Bob Thornton will star in the movie version of Scott Phillips' THE ICE HARVEST. Harold Ramis will helm the movie, which is due to begin shooting in April.

Susan Shapiro, who interviewed five ex-boyfriends for her new memoir THE FIVE MEN WHO BROKE MY HEART, is interviewed in today's Freep. The book's not chick lit by any means; according to Shapiro, it's meant to be "soul baring."

Myles Knapp rounds up the latest in "tripe fiction" (I swear, this label exists; check your nearby Canadian big-box bookstore for this), including Reed Arvin's THE LAST GOODBYE, for the Contra Costa Times.

What kind of genre is most popular with prisoners? Crime fiction, naturally, according to those who keep watch over the prison libraries. Especially popular are authors like John Grisham and Martina Cole. (registration required.)

The 2004 Kiriyama Prize for works in English with any relation to Pacific Rim subjects has been announced. In fiction, the nominees are Monica Ali, Peter Carey, Shirley Hazzard, Shan Sa, and Samrat Upadhyay. (link from the Literary Saloon, which has more extensive coverage of the matter.)

And finally, Mark links to a story about a lawyer who paid money to be in Elmore Leonard's newest book. This kind of thing is ridiculously common in the mystery world; for example, at last year's Bouchercon, they held an auction the second night of the convention, and by far the most popular items were "win a place in Author X's next book." I think someone paid like $12,000 to be in Lee Child's upcoming book, THE ENEMY. What's nice about this, though, is that in almost all cases, the money is donated to the charity of the author's choice, so they benefit greatly from these auctions.

Me, I didn't have to pay to be "Tuckerized" (as the saying goes.) Although in one case, I'm really still not sure how I ended up in the book....

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Jayson Blair is a bad bad man 

Michael Cader (of Publisher's Lunch) riffs on the recent New York Times internal memo that's made the rounds this week:

Dear Kids,

We know that most of the time you lead a pretty sheltered life. So Mommy and Daddy wanted to warn you that next month, a bad man is publishing a book that says mean things about all of us. Worst of all, he says he was wrong and pretends to apologize, but he doesn?t really mean it. You?ll probably hear your friends talking about it, and you might even get teased at school, even though none of it is true.

Mommy and Daddy promised the bad man?s lawyers we wouldn?t say anything in public about the book until next month if he would let us read it now?even though it?s not worth reading, and you shouldn?t because it will just make you upset. (Your two daddies from when the bad man used to live in our neighborhood are also writing books, but they won?t be out for a long time so you don?t have to worry.)

Mostly, we wanted to let you know that Mommy and Daddy are very proud of you, and love you very much. And Grandpa says ditto.

A viable third party candidate 

Roger Simon ponders who a good third-party candidate would be, because Ralph Nader's just not going to cut it (besides, that eye tic the man has is extremely creepy. I mean, would you want Ralph lurking on your street corner, let alone as the guy you'd vote for? I think not). Hey, as far as I'm concerned, there already is one.

Responding to Caitlin Flanagan 

(ed. Though things move at warp speed in the blogiverse, I'd been holding off on a response to Caitlin Flanagan's recent cover story in the Atlantic Monthly well, because I didn't really have much to say on the matter. But I knew someone who would, and who had a perspective that most bloggers--critical or not--did not have, because she's a working mother of two children. So without further adieu, I turn the floor to Alina Adams, most recently the author of the figure skating mystery MURDER ON ICE.)

* * * * *

Before I embark on the umpteenth Caitlin Flanagan/Atlantic Monthly web-based rant, I offer full-disclosure: I am a wife. I am a mother (of two). I have a full-time day job in media. I write mystery novels on the side. I cook dinner (almost) every night. I have a nanny. (She is, however, not Black or Latina, but Eastern European--does that make me less of an exploiter, or more of one?)

And now, on to Caitlin:

The professional-class working mother is oppressed by guilt about her decision to keep working, by a society that often questions
her commitment to and even her love for her children, by the labor-intensive type of parenting currently in vogue, by children's stalwart habit of falling deeply and unwaveringly in love with the person who provides their physical care? There isn't a nanny in the world who has not received a measure of love that a child would rather have bestowed on his mother. To con oneself into thinking that the person who provides daily physical care to a child is not the one he is going to love in a singular and primal way--a way obviously designed by nature herself to cleave child to mother and vice versa--is to ignore one of the most fundamental truths of childhood.

Uhm? who is this mythical woman mentioned above and what did she do with the anti-depressants her doctor prescribed? Personally, I really have a hard time mustering up the enthusiasm necessary to care what "society" thinks. Do I feel guilty about leaving my children with a nanny? Not really. The nanny is wonderful. She takes good physical care of them, showers them with love and attention, and is even teaching them a foreign language (at my request). As for my child's "falling in love" with the nanny? I say, "Thank goodness!" In addition to my fourteen million daily tasks, I also volunteer for a charity that brings Russian orphans to America. Believe me, I have seen children who never had the chance to "fall in love" with their caretaker. It's not pretty. My sons love their nanny. They also love me, their father, their grandparents, and each other, and they know that they are loved in return. Can Ms. Flanagan explain to me how it's a bad thing for a child to have as much love as possible? When, exactly, did love become a finite thing to be hoarded and rationed?

I did not have a single dream about moving into the world of work when I was a girl... What I dreamed about was getting married and
having babies and running a household. I had expected, merely upon the simple fact of giving birth, to be magically transformed from the kind of woman who likes to spend most of the morning lying on the couch reading and drinking coffee and talking on the telephone to the kind of woman who likes to spend most of the morning tidying up and thinking about what to cook for dinner and inviting other mothers over for a nice chat. It didn't happen. Play dates--a sort of minimum-security lockdown spent in the company of other mildly depressed women and their
tiresome, demanding babies--brought on a small death of the spirit, the effects of which I feared might be cumulative. I also felt resentful and
sometimes even furious about almost any domestic task that presented itself: why was I supposed to endlessly wipe down the kitchen counters and lug bags of garbage out to the cans and set out the little plastic plates of steamed carrots and mashed bananas?

So, let's take the complaints in order, shall we? Caitlin does not want or enjoy working--ergo, her situation is in no way analogous to women who actually enjoy their jobs. (I spend my day hobnobbing with TV and sports stars. Is it fun? Hell, yeah!). And yet, alas, poor Caitlin does not enjoy taking care of her child, either. Who in the world could have guessed that a toddler is not the most scintillating of conversation partners, that they repeatedly make messes, don't listen, argue and throw tantrums? Clearly, this has never happened to any other mother on earth, so how could Caitlin have expected it to happen when she stayed home with her own child? Obviously, she was cruelly tricked and deceived into assuming her stay-at-home mother duties. Like Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin, she signed up for that "other" stay-at-home-mom job. The one that came with immaculate, always loving, and quiet children, plus lots of downtime. As to why she is the one cleaning the counters, I am going to go out on a limb and guess that it's because SHE IS THE ONE STANDING THERE WHEN IT GETS DIRTY. Would it make sense for the dried food to remain on the counter/furniture/floor where it was initially dropped to harden and spoil, or for the person who is there when the spill happens to wipe it up?

With the arrival of a cheap, easily exploited army of poor and luckless women--fleeing famine, war, the worst kind of poverty, leaving behind their children to do it, facing the possibility of rape or death on the expensive and secret journey--one of the noblest tenets of second-wave feminism collapsed like a house of cards. Any supposed equivocations about the moral justness of white women's employing
dark-skinned women to do their shit work simply evaporated.

Of course! How could I have been so blind? Rather than paying these women money so they could save their lives by staying in America and helping them save up (or send home) money to support their children, it's a much greater kindness to send them back home or ignore their existence all together. At least there, their exploitation will be at the hands of a coup-entrenched, militia-enforced government, which will make both the woman, and me, feel oh, so much better about ourselves. After all, it was never about working mothers or the poor or even the children. It was about feeling guilty. And look how easily that last one was solved.

Next issue!

Tuesday Morning QB  

Kate Elton, who had been associate publisher of the Century imprint of Random House UK, has been promoted to publishing director of Arrow, the company's mass market imprint. She will still, however, keep editing her Century authors, including LIKE A CHARM editrix Karin Slaughter, even as she takes on the added duties.

Anna Blundy is a foreign correspondent who has turned to writing crime thrillers, the first of which, THE BAD NEWS BIBLE, is out now from Headline. She talks to the Evening Standard about how her father's death was a huge influence on the subject matter she tackles in the new book. I'm intrigued because it's set in Jerusalem and wonder how she'll portray the city from a journalist's point of view.

Helga Schneider's mother abandoned her as a child, and the writer always wondered why. Then, in a reunion decades later, she found out the horrible truth: her mother had been a Nazi guard and relished what she did.

Whoopi Goldberg, children's author? Oy gevalt, but it seems to be true as Hyperion has just signed her up for their African-American specialty imprint Jump a the Sun.

Speaking of children's icons, a French author is taking on Disney, accusing the company of ripping off his character, a friendly clown fish named Pierrot, for last year's huge hit FINDING NEMO. Oooh, taking on the Mouse House....I wish him luck.

Michiko raves about Ana Menendez's LOVING CHE, deeming it "an elliptical and finely nuanced meditation on the mysteries of memory and identity." Cool.

Chris Lehmann finds Hanif Kureshi's slim novelette THE BODY to be somewhat wanting in its exploration of the physical human condition (and then plugs the "far better" THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI, which he reviewed a week or so ago.)

David Montgomery of Mystery Ink fame reviews James Carlos Blake's HANDSOME HARRY for USA TODAY, calling it a "smooth, entertaining read."

Alexander McCall Smith, of #1 Ladies Detective Agency Fame, recently hosted an auction of first editions of some of his books to benefit Zimbabwe charities. He raised over 2000 pounds--not a bad sum at all.

Can someone please tell me why any and all articles about Kyle Smith's LOVE MONKEY must feature Scott Mebus's BOOTY NOMAD? This article's the third one in a row, and it's getting kind of ridiculous. I mean, hello? Are they trying to tell us something? Are they Siamese twins or an Ambiguously Gay Duo? I must be enlightened. (link from Maud and Emma.)

Clive Cussler is pissed about the upcoming movie "adaptation" of one of his Dirk Pitt novels. Dude? Just take the money and run like hell; they'll never get the movie to be like the books.....

Sarah Dunant offers up her top ten books on Renaissance Italy, the setting for her newest novel, THE BIRTH OF VENUS.

Lev Raphael really, really likes Daniel Silva's newest novel, calling it "masterful" and a thriller that's "more than entertainment."

Babs Deal, the author of more than a dozen mystery novels (and nominated for an Edgar) has died at the age of 74. (News first seen at Jiro's site.)

Erik Larson is in Michigan to promote the paperback edition of the Edgar-nominated DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, and speaks to the Ann Arbor News about the book.

And finally, dead people do tell tales: Hyperion plans to publish two new books by Mister Rogers. Maybe they'll finally reveal his secret of how he tied his shoes so damned fast! (link from Bookninja.)

Monday, February 23, 2004

Evening humor 

What with the raging brouhaha all over the 'sphere today, sometimes it's best to step back and have a good laugh. To indulge this, I offer a few choice bits:

An accurate representation of "teenage girl behavior." (link from the warped mind of Ray Banks, who got it from his wife Ana.)

And from my favorite sports columnist, Jon Wertheim: The Best Tennis Limericks! (scroll down to the end of the Mailbag.) My favorite? Has to be this one from Rodney of New York:

When Roddick steps up to give service,
The line folk and ball kids get nervous
Returning is torture
For each is a scorcher
And old ladies cry, "Saints preserve us!"
The game of Juan Carlos Ferrero
Excites me like hearing "Bolero"
His artful display
Of lightning fast play
Delights me right down to my marrow
With Agassi, I am enthralled
For, like him, I shave myself bald
And some years past thirty
Just like salsa verde
His wall-like returns still can scald.

Now that's comedy.

What to look for in an agent 

Maud links to a fascinating post by Teresa Nielsen Hayden on the type of agents that exists and why "having a bad agent is worse than having no agent at all". The four categories that agents can fall into, according to Nielsen Hayden, are a) real, b) gormless, c) not very helpful and d) scammers. Most agents, she says, are in the latter three categories. So what exactly is a "real" agent?

Real agents learn how to be agents by working for other real agents. It’s like a medieval apprenticeship, except the authorities don’t bring back the ones that run away. After a while the young assistant becomes a sort of junior agent (I’m a little vague on this part) and starts taking on authors. Eventually they decide to set up on their own, taking some fraction of their former employer’s client list with them. This is not always accomplished without friction, but as far as we can tell, that’s part of the natural life cycle of the agent.

The advice Neilsen Hayden offers is, to my mind, very straightforward: don't pay, run if they don't provide a client list, no book doctors or freelance editors, and so on. Very practical and important, but at the same time--do people really not know this?

The whole point of agents is that they work for you. It may not seem that way, what with the rigamarole involved in landing one, but if they take you on, it's because they want to sell your work. They sell it, they make money. That's why the good ones are so "picky" about who they land, because trying to hawk something that isn't publishable a) worsens their rep in publishing b) worsen's the author's rep in the industry. It does no one any good to do that.

If they work for you, then they are supposed to have your best interests. Paying them is not in your best interests. Getting involved in vanity publishing (hello, PublishAmerica) is not in your best interests. Book doctors and editors who are not part of the actual agency are not in your best interests.

Then there's the issue of client lists. I suppose I understand the argument that some authors don't want aspiring writers knocking on their door asking for advice, but frankly, that's a bullshit argument. I'd even go so far as to say that Gerard Jones' Everyone Who's Anyone site doesn't go far enough because it just lists agents' and editors' email addresses and not their clients. Because an agent's success is directly tied into the success of his or her clients; so if, on balance, an agent has a list of authors who sell to reputable houses and do all right, that's a good agent to target (at least, if the authors on said list are a good match for what you're querying) while an agent who seems to rep only vanity presses or authors of dubious claim is not a good one to query.

What Nielsen Hayden doesn't bring up, which I find the most interesting, is what happens when a "real" agent becomes a "not very helpful" one. Agents, like anyone, are limited in resource and capacity. They can't all do things equally because they don't have the same contact base or connections or financial power. Esther Newberg, Binky Urban, Jonny Geller and Ed Victor (to name a few top agents in the US and UK respectively) are in a different league than Agent X through experience, connections, and so on. But big agents, or agencies with long client lists, can't serve each author equally. Some get lost in the shuffle. Small agencies can work better because they concentrate more of their time and energy on said client, but they may not have the same clout. So what to do?

I think the biggest problem is that many aspiring writers think their job is done when they land an agent or an editor. Not at all. The right tool for the right job, as I've said before, and if your agent isn't doing that job properly, or to the best of his or her ability, then--tough as it may be to do so--a breakup might be the best way to go. Because if an agent is suddenly hard to reach, not returning phone calls or emails, and generally distant, then something's amiss, for any variety of reasons. If you're a writer, your career is your primary goal, and the support system is key. Why have people around who (knowingly or not) sabotage it? Sure, if you're hooked up with a Fabulously Successful Agent with Big Name Authors, the cachet is nice, but if they don't pay attention to you and have the enthusiasm for your work that you deserve, then that's not the right agent for you. Simple as that.

Anything You Say Can and Will Be Used Against You 

My review of Laurie Lynn Drummond's debut collection of short stories is now up at January Magazine. If the review doesn't make it perfectly clear, this will: I'd be hard-pressed to find a better short story collection that will be published this year. Drummond's stories of five female cops are drenched in authenticity, procedural detail, and a wonderfully evocative writing style that's extremely assured. I've been talking about this in email with Craig and we both agree that it's ruining us, just a little bit, for more conventional crime fiction that feature police officers. It's that good.

Monday Morning roundup 

The top story, obviously, is Naomi Wolf vs. Harold Bloom. The New York cover piece is up, and responses and additional reports are starting to trickle in as well.

Oh, it's the loveliest thing when people slag their exes. It's especially interesting when both are dead, and one happened to be a famous author already the subject of controversial biographies. Who's that, you say? Why, none other than Iris Murdoch, the subject of a brutal vivisection by the posthumous (and published without permission) memoirs of Elias Canetti, who had a three-year affair with Murdoch in the 1950s. In the memoir, Canetti attacks her personality, her intellect and writing, and her ability in bed. Which begs the question: if a memoir is written and no one's supposed to read it, should it be published in the first place?

Horace Silver was once a feared gangster, inches away from death or prison or worse. Now he's turned to crime-writing in his debut novel (out now from the Do-Not Press), a barely-fictionalized account of his life in gangs, naming names (of sorts) and shining a light on a shadowy world. Tony Thompson speaks to him.

Janet Maslin looks at two teenage memoirs by Alison Smith and Martha Tod Dudman. She likes both, but for different reasons; Smith's is more literary and gut-wrenching but Dudman excels on the little details.

Patrick Anderson digs the latest 87th Precinct novel. Well, what other reaction can there be to McBain? He is a master, after all.

Jon Jordan, who has interviewed more crime writers than anyone I can think of, has a few more that have just been posted. Read about Blake Crouch's somewhat complicated route to publication, Don Harstad's writing style and his thoughts, as an ex-cop, on cop shows, and Bill Crider's take on his long and extremely prolific career. And, of course, we get to find out what in these writers' refrigerators.

While another ace interviewer of crime writers, Craig MacDonald, has just posted one he did last month with Tim Dorsey, whose latest book, CADILLAC BEACH, is out now.

Walter Mosley's appearance at Left Coast Crime over the weekend is described in the Monterey Herald. By all accounts, the convention as a whole was a big success, with over 800 registrants, a record number for LCC.

The latest book by New Mexico native Judith Van Gieson is reviewed in her local paper, the Albuquerque Journal.

Suzi Feay of the Independent interviews David Mitchell, one of the "least controversial" members of Granta's Best Young Writers list.

Rosemary Goring comments, somewhat archly, on Edwin Morgan's appointment as the first Scottish Poet Laureate.

A collection of rare books and manuscripts that chart Melbourne's developing history and valued at $50 000 (AUS) is now up for auction.

And finally, the Toronto Star goes gaga for David Daniels, counter-tenor to the stars. Me, I like this guy better. Although he doesn't get nearly as much recognition as Daniels does, his voice is really quite good, especially on oratorio repetoire.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

You heard it here first 

Just reported at Publisher's Marketplace:

Well-known 28-year-old UK mystery blogger and high-end prostitute “Belle de Jour's” (who is not Toby Young) LONDON CALLING, from the winner of the Guardian's Best-Written Web-Site of the Year Award 2003 to Helen Garnons-Williams at Weidenfeld & Nicholson/Orion, in a good deal, in a pre-empt, for manuscript delivery in August 2004, by Patrick Walsh at Conville and Walsh. Italian rights to Rizzoli and Dutch rights to House of Books, both in pre-empts, with a Spanish auction underway.

Christy Fletcher at Fletcher and Parry is selling US rights this week, and there has already been considerable film interest.

Well, well, well. I can't say I'm surprised (in fact, I remarked on another blog that I'd rather read Belle's book than Tracy Quan's), because frankly, that blog had "book deal" written all over it. Only a question of when.

UPDATE: The fabulous Eurotrash imagines the complications that may ensue should Belle tour for the aforementioned book.

The plight of the synopsis 

I didn't include Robert McCrum's column in the Observer in my weekend roundup because I wanted to focus more closely on what he had to say. He starts off by commenting on the recent axing of HarperCollins' Flamingo imprint and the merging of Random House UK's Harvill and Secker & Warburg sections into Harvill Secker. Not surprisingly, both pieces of news has caused great alarm in the publishing industry--what would this mean for diversity, and at least in the former case, what the hell is up with HarperCollins that they are cancelling an apparently successful imprint? McCrum feels that such merging and axing is symptomatic of a greater issue in the industry, which is overproduction (what with ~120 000 titles released per annum in UK publishing alone) and how books are actually acquired nowadays.

Not all that long ago, an author signed a contract on the basis of what he or she produced; that is, an entire manuscript, or at least substantial portions, had to be completed before the book was slated for publication. (I'm only talking fiction as non-fiction has, to the best of my knowledge, been a proposal-driven sub-industry.) Now, there's been a shift in how publishers do business. Once an author was established, he or she was often left alone to write the book as he or she saw fit. The contract may have been signed ages ago but there was a sense of trust that something would be delivered. Now, the tide has turned. Authors don't have to have a full manuscript completed upon signing a contract; rather, they can submit a synopsis alone, or at the very least, 50 pages of the new book and a synopsis for the rest. Even aspiring novelists can play this game; Cecelia Ahern got her million-dollar contract on the basis of a synopsis-based proposal, as did Lauren Weisberger. Of course, putting all your eggs in a short synopsis can lead to other problems, as McCrum points out:

The synopsis, however, has become an end in itself to an absurd degree. One talented, unpublished young writer of my acquaintance is suffering not from writer's block but from synopsis block. He says he simply cannot start work on his typescript until he has completed (and sold) his cherished outline.

I've heard this from other authors as well; not that novel-writing is easy--far from it--but there's a special talent in boiling down 100,000 words of typescript into perhaps 5,000 to describe the entire work. It's bloody hard; such distilliation is why few authors even attempt to write their own jacket or back-cover copy. So one has to ask, as the Literary Saloon did earlier today, whether the proposal culture is a negative one, or "irresponsible"?

I see it from a number of vantage points. For an established author on a one-book a year schedule, the publisher requires, nay, demands that at least a smattering of information be made available to all facets of the company--acquisitions, sales reps, promotion and publicity, so on and so forth--in order to produce the book to the best of their abilities. Unless you're Thomas Harris or someone equally reclusive and bestselling, it just doesn't cut it to keep your publishers in the dark about what you're working on. A year may seem like a long time to some, but in publishing it can be too little time to get everything together. There are a lot of hands that must talk to each other and communicate smoothly, so the author has to at least indulge that--at least a little bit.

Also, submitting a proposal is a quicker way--at least in theory--of ascertaining whether a book will actually sell. Let's say author X writes a mystery series that's sold increasingly well with each successive installment. Now he wants to write a standalone, but chooses a topic that has, at best, extremely limited appeal. Will this topic gain him new fans, alienate the old ones? So it's a waste of everyone's time if he goes ahead and writes the book anyway if no one wants it after all. If the proposal's rejected in a timely fashion, at least he can go back to the drawing board and come up with a new, more workable idea, but one that's still stretching his literary wings.

But the flip side is when a proposal goes awry. Let's say the author in question submits a workable proposal that is approved, and he goes ahead and writes the thing. What happens when the book veers completely away from what he intended? The contract is still in place, and now there can be greater headaches. I wonder if this is what happened with the now-infamous cancellation of the McLaughlin/Kraus contract for CITIZEN GIRL; that the original proposal promised one thing, they delivered something that "wasn't it," stamped their feet for a while, gambled and lost. Could this debacle have been avoided had they simply limited their "proposal" to a few words and submitted several chapters at a time along the way? Hard to say, of course.

And related to that is that many authors simply can't write to an outline. They submit one that's a placeholder--if that--with the implicit understanding that they can do whatever they please. Are people like Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke, two authors well-known for not outlining, not going to be published because they didn't submit a synopsis (or at least, a synopsis they stick to?) I can't really imagine any idea they come up with at this point in their careers would be rejected at the publisher's gate.

McCrum brings up a lot of points I do agree with, but one that I'm less inclined to concur with is that debut authors can get contracts based on proposal alone. Sure, Ahern and Weisberger did, but they are almost exceptions that prove the rule--and the reviews certainly have not been kind to them. But elsewhere, considering that first fiction has to be of high enough quality that any rough errors cannot be in evidence, then it's fairly unlikely that they are published on proposal. Rather, authors slave and slave for years on a manuscript, work with an agent on improving it for publication, work with others--and only then do editors accept the work (only to work on it some more.) If anything, debut fiction is still very much a manuscript-driven business. The books thereafter are, perhaps, another story altogether.

Left Coast Crime Awards 

Over the weekend, four prizes were given out at Left Coast Crime, as follows:

The Bruce Alexander award for best historical mystery of 2003: Rhys Bowen, FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE

The Otter Award for best Bay Area Mystery: Meg Chittenden, MORE THAN YOU KNOW

The Dilys Award for the book that International Mystery Booksellers Association members most enjoyed selling: Jasper Fforde, LOST IN A GOOD BOOK

The Lefty Award for Most Humorous Mystery: Jerrilyn Farmer, MUMBO GUMBO

Congratulations to all the award winners!

Reviving the Pulps 

George Easter, the man behind Deadly Pleasures Magazine, got an email recently from Charles Ardai, the editor of a new line of paperback originals set to launch this fall. Hard Case Crime is aiming to bring back the feel and style of the pulps of old, and are doing so by reissuing such works by genre masters like Lawrence Block, Max Allan Collins and Donald Westlake along with more recent and up-and-coming authors like Domenic Stansberry and Allan Guthrie. On why Ardai and his partner chose to start this new publishing venture, he says:

[We] were both born too late to write paperbacks for lines such as Gold Medal or Lion or Popular Library, and in some small way this project is our way of recreating that era, or at least the type of book published then. We think these books will appeal not just to people who remember the paperback original era fondly, but also to the much wider audience that snaps up each new title by authors such as Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain, and Lawrence Block, or that turned movies like "Ocean's Eleven," "The Italian Job," and "Mystic River" into huge hits at the box office.

The website doesn't have much on it right now, but all it needs is the cover art of some of the books and wow, they are gorgeous. I can't wait to see the books themselves on newsstands, and hopefully HCC will expand beyond the six books they are publishing in 2004 and in 2005.

Another small press that's focusing on pulp novels is Wit's End, which also aims to revive Southern literature and Florida-based novels. Founded in early 2003, they first released two Charles Willeford reissues, with two books by Douglas Fairbairn (and another by Allan Guthrie, TWO-WAY SPLIT) forthcoming later this year. They, too, are creating a nice "look" for their books, which is more than welcome. As mainstream publishing houses reduce their author stable and concentrate on the bottom line, it's great to see (hopefully) viable, vibrant alternatives spring up to fill the void that is left when niche authors are orphaned or unable to get their work in print.

Crime fiction and sundry 

Some weekends, there's barely anything genre-wise of note, and other times it's like hitting the motherlode. I mean, when Laura Miller gets in on the act, you know that something's in the water. Especially because she's written something that I really can't mock in any form because in this case, she's right--all this DA VINCI CODE crap is wince-inducing and reprinting non-fiction books that have been debunked (though naturally, everyone's forgotten) just makes matters more annoying.

The Times in general seems to be awfully mystery-happy this week, and it's not just because Marilyn Stasio's roundup is in the mix. Though she has deemed Scott Phillips' COTTONWOOD worthy of her attention, and basically agrees with my own sentiments though of course, she's far more coy about coming right out and saying so. Still, she admires Phillips' "wit and gusto" and his refusal to cop out or rewrite history for the sake of creating a sympathetic protagonist. In short? She digs. Also meriting her critical gaze are new books by Robert Barnard (good review) Laurence Klavan (gleeful popcorn) Nevada Barr (strong start, disappointing finish) and Michael Dibdin (pretty damned fine.)

And Charles Taylor, better known to some folks as Salon's mystery columnist, gushes, positively gushes about Ian Rankin's A QUESTION OF BLOOD. I must admit though that I was distracted by the photo of Ian, dating from last year, for two reasons: one, it was taken at Partners & Crime! I can totally recognize the outline of the fireplace and the back office where all the ARCs are hiding. And then, sadly, there is Rankin's hair. For someone as well-regarded and bestselling as he is, it never ceases to amaze me how his hairstyle never quite passes muster. I suppose the situation could have improved in the last few months, but I'm not optimistic.....

Turning to the Globe and Mail, the trend continues. Margaret Cannon's crime column gives a big thumbs-up to Robert Harris's POMPEII, Walter Mosley's THE MAN IN MY BASEMENT, is mostly positive about John Grisham's THE LAST JUROR and Mark Nykanen's THE BONE PARADE, and finally, reviews a mystery novel by one of Canada's most beloved broadcasters (though one I frequently mock because I saw way too many episodes of his fanboyishly cloying SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES as a child), Elwy Yost. Although she likes that his book, WHITE SHADOWS, makes use of Elwy's knowledge of film and its history, she has a problem with its penchant for too many plots. Sorry, Elwy.

Meanwhile, Martin Levin columnizes about Peter Robinson (whom I discussed at length yesterday for very different reasons) , why his latest novel, PLAYING WITH FIRE, is so good, and discusses where the genre is heading in its slow shift from "whodunit" to why and how.

The Washington Post Book World is less about actual mystery books reviewed than having said authors do the reviewing. Laura Lippman looks at a memoir of Rosemary Dew, a female FBI agent who worked the beat in the 1970s and 80s, and finds it a fascinating work although not necessarily insightful on current Bureau attitudes. Meanwhile, David Liss is enchanted by Sarah Dunant's historical novel THE BIRTH OF VENUS, which is set in Renaissance-era Florence.

Other reviews of note in this week's Book World include Dennis Drabelle's rave for Canadian author Guy Vanderhaeghe's THE LAST CROSSING, and a less-glowing review for THE FOREST LOVER, Susan Vreeland's ficitionalized account of Canadian artist Emily Carr.

At the Guardian Review, there are a couple of thriller-y reviews like Matthew Lewin's roundup of books that have been reviewed in a zillion places already and PD Smith's look at a dark biotechnology tale by Paul McAuley, but (especially for Mark) there's also John Banville's review of a non-fiction work about the men responsible for splitting the atom, and a lengthy profile of Canadian author Mavis Gallant, who at 81 is still going strong and editing her journals for future publication.

While at Sunday's Observer, Laura Baggaley is unsure what to make of Janette Turner Hospital's 9/11 aftermath thriller DUE PREPARATIONS FOR THE PLAGUE, and Irish author Maggie O'Farrell was expecting a girl--the doctors said so! Thus it was a surprise when she gave birth to....a boy.

In news not confined to book review supplements, Bob Walch gives another overview of the currently ongoing Left Coast Crime Convention, where more pictures have trickled in at various undisclosed locations. Looks like everybody's having a blast....

Jack Batten's crime column in the Toronto Star concentrates on Val McDermid's THE DISTANT ECHO, using the novel as a means of discussing the whole cold case phenomenon in general.

Sue Turnbull appreciates Stephen Knight's scholarly approach to crime fiction and his thesis that the genre has "always been postmodern."

R.B Strauss reviews the new historical mystery AMBROSE BIERCE AND THE ONE-EYED JACKS.

Dame Muriel Spark is still alive, kicking, and thriving, and speaks to the Sunday Glasgow Herald about her latest book and where her life is going at the moment.

Andrew Crumey is less than impressed with World Book Day's questionnaire to discern reading patterns.

Deborah Moggach is interviewed in Scotland on Sunday in the wake of the news that one of her books will be filmed shortly.

And finally, the second series of ITV's WIRE IN THE BLOOD is airing now. Based on Val McDermid's novels, they are now filming original scripts. But Ian Bell at the Glasgow Herald isn't terribly taken with the show, wondering why Robson Green was cast in the first place (um, maybe because in spite of his star-like appeal, he can actually kind of act?)

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