Thursday, June 27, 2024

Spring's Favorite Reads

 As you’ll soon see, the spring that just ended was a good season for reading, at least for me. Two vacations, one of them extended, gave me more time than usual for reading. I did not waste it.


The Monkey’s Raincoat. Robert Crais. A lot of writers tone down the things that made them popular once they become bestsellers; I guess it’s the way of the world. Once you’re on top, the publisher wants to keep you there, which inevitably leads to writing books they hope will attract a wider audience than the core group that launched you; the core will stay, whatever you do. This is not to imply Crais has watered down his writing in recent years, but I decided to go back and read the early Elvis Cole books in order, so I got myself a copy of The Monkey’s Raincoat and had at it. It was a pleasure to be reminded of what attracted me to his writing in the first place; this is as good a first PI novel as has been written since The Big Sleep. No question I’ll stick with the plan and work through these in order now.


All Them Wrong Things, James D.F. Hannah. I began to include as yet unreleased ARCs in these reviews about a year ago, but this is the first time I’ve included a book that is not yet under contract. Hannah is hot right now, with awards and nominations and inclusions in annual anthologies. Best known for his Henry Malone PI stories, All Them Wrong Things  is a departure for Hannah, the story of a decent man caught up in small town corruption and a brother who is an asshole for the ages. All the action and great dialog you’d expect from a Malone book is here, with a story sensibility more in the direction of Elmore Leonard or S.A. Cosby. Let’s hope this one finds a home quickly.


Joey Piss Pot, Charlie Stella. (I read an ARC; the book drops in July.) No one since George V. Higgins has captured the sense and attitudes of organized crime better than Stella, and even though it’s been a while since he wrote in this genre, Joey Piss Pot shows the author hasn’t lost an inch off his fastball. The book abounds with intersecting plot lines, characters who aren’t as smart as they think they are – or need to be – and dialog that reads like you’re at the next table in the bar eavesdropping. Stella’s fans will be delighted, and Joey Piss Pot should also bring him some new ones.


The Outfit, Richard Stark. The fourth Stark/Parker book I’ve read and, for my money, the best of the four. Stark spends more time in other people’s heads than usual here, and the effect is engrossing, as he takes events tangential to the main plot and spends entire chapters on them without making you wonder when he’s going to get back to what the book is ostensibly about; that’s a gift. Stark is on my list of writers I’ll make a point to read at least once a year and I see no reason why he shouldn’t stay there.


The Hot Kid, Elmore Leonard. This is a book that holds special significance for me. It came out in 2005, when I was not only not published, I wasn’t even what could be called a member of the writing community, more like a reader with delusions of writing adequacy. I won a contest with HarperCollins for an ARC of The Hot Kid so long as I wrote a review they could use. I used what I wrote for them as my audition to be a reviewer for the New Mystery Reader website. NMR editor Stephanie Padilla liked it, started assigning books to me, and gave me my first look inside. This exposed me to a lot of books and authors I would not otherwise have discovered, and interviews with several of them – notably Ken Bruen, Declan Hughes, and the aforementioned Charlie Stella – brought me inside the community; the interview with Stella led almost directly to my first contract. It’s been almost twenty years since I read Carlos Webster’s exploits, so I decided to see how well the book held up. The answer is, very. It rambles a little, but the action and dialog are all top-notch Leonard and the book is as much fun to read as anything he wrote, right up there with Get Shorty.


Killer’s Choice, Ed McBain. There isn’t much to recommend this 87th Precinct novel over any of the others. There’s also nothing that makes it not at least as good as most. In short, it’s a solid McBain Eight-Seven story, which means it’s outstanding.


Resurrection Walk, Michael Connelly. I was off Connelly for several years, mostly because his writing doesn’t have the kind of voice and style I like as much as do some others. I picked this up on an impulse because it had both Mickey Haller and harry Bosch, and now I’m back on board. For whatever reason, I picked up on Connelly’s journalistic voice better here than before. Couple that with an exceptional and well-crafted story and he’s now on my list of authors to read at least once a year. I’ll not say more about Resurrection Walk lest I spoil something. Just go and read it.


The Last Few Miles of Road, Eric Beetner. Beetner is an underappreciated gem. Not by other writers, where his reputation was solidified years ago; the general public should be more aware of him, and would be if the big houses weren’t so timid. There are more plot twists here than in any few miles of road. They’re all surprises, and all are prepared so your typical reaction will be “Is should have seen this coming,” even though you didn’t. Much as I like to read for style, Beetner gift for keeping out of the way of the story and characters is so well developed, and works so well, it’s something young writers – and writing teachers – would do well to at least be aware of.


Thursday, June 20, 2024

From the Archives: "But is it Art?"

 I’ve been traveling and unable to come up with a worthy blog post for this week, so I dipped into the archives to see what I thought about things ten years ago. The literary vs. genre debate seems to have lost steam, but it’s always good to look at issues afresh, especially if one is stuck or a new topic.


Will Self got his knickers in a bunch a couple of weeks ago about the death of the novel. Well, the death through lack of sales and public attention of what he considers to be “the novel,” by which he appears to mean “literary novels,” more specifically, “his novels.” I don’t expect you to read the entire diatribe. I couldn’t. If this self-absorbed and condescending essay is any indication of his fiction, then his novels aren’t just dying; they’re committing suicide.


This is, at its core, another self-pitying example of a “literary” writer lamenting a lack of sales and recognition compared to what he considers to be inferior work. As The Beloved Spouse would say, “wah.” To begin such a discussion is to admit defeat. The writers of the past, whose recognition the modern “literary” writer seeks to duplicate, did not, by and large, think of themselves as writing for posterity. They became “literary” after their deaths, because their books outlived them, not because that was the original plan.


Musicians have this debate all the time, though it centers along the lines of, “Why are programs so overloaded with dead composers? Where is the new music?” There is a lot of new (classical) music out there; few want to listen to it, with good reason. Not because it’s bad, but because around a hundred years ago composers started writing for their peers. Not even their peers, really, but those they liked to think of as their peers. A culture grew where an ever-smaller cadre of composers praised music that became ever more obtuse or formulaic in its adherence to arbitrary rules. Music that contained traditional elements (melody, harmony, tonality) was dismissed as “reactionary.”


This is a not uncommon situation in the arts. I was once coerced into a trip to the National Gallery of Art by someone who wished to appear more cultured than she was. (Editor’s Note: I am not claiming to be more cultured than she, just that I make no effort to appear otherwise.) At one point we encountered a painting that looks very much like this (bonus points to anyone who can identify the actual painting; its name escapes me):

A red circle on a white background

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Our discussion proceeded along these lines:

Her: What do you think?

Me: Huh?

Her: What do you think it means?

Me: You’re shitting me, right?


I’m a believer in art for art’s sake. I don’t consider my writing to be art—an opinion in which I need not stake out a lonely outpost to defend—I do it for the pleasure and satisfaction of the act, much the way a preschooler is more interested in process than results when finger painting. That doesn’t mean I sympathize with authors/musicians/artists who deliberately create for an audience so far to the right of their perceived bell-shaped curve no one else can understand it, let alone “appreciate” it. Too narrowly self-defining one’s audience guarantees its limits; the creator cannot then reasonably complain about a lack of acclimation.


This is not to say current cultural standards are not deplorable. Not enough people read, or listen to music, or, hell, even think about things beyond what’s right in front of them. This is not a new concept. Just as old ballplayers claim the game was better in their day, the erosion of cultural standards has been lamented since the origins of cultural standards. Here’s the thing: if you want to be popular, create things the general population can get into, and not things you think the general population should get into, if they had a clue. By all means, create those things; just don’t bitch when they’re not popular. No society owes any artist a living, not when there are too many people hanging on by their fingernails.


Thursday, June 13, 2024

What Makes a Bestseller?

I’ve written about bestsellers before and I’m not here today to go over the same ground; I’m going over the ground right next to it, so you may have to look closely to see the difference in terrain.


I don’t read a lot of bestsellers and I sure as hell have never written one, so sour grapes is the obvious motive for these posts. I also make a concerted effort to continue to learn and today I’m primarily concerned with what makes a bestseller, or doesn’t. (Yes, my name on the cover places it into the “doesn’t” category. I’m talking about more general things.)


First, and most important, a bestseller has to have a good story. It doesn’t much matter what the story is about. Could be boy wizards, vampires, hobbits, doctors, war, childhood, parenthood, anything. Whatever the story is, it must make it easy for the average reader to continuously suspend disbelief, allowing them to reside in a place where they can imagine themselves somehow involved in the story. To use John Gardner’s phrase, to create a “vivid and continuous dream.”


This is aided greatly by having relatable characters. Not necessarily likeable characters, though those are best for large volumes of sales. The characters need to be people – or animals or aliens – the average reader can relate to in some way so they will care what happens to them. How the author does this is far less important – if important at all – than being successful at it.


Another thing most bestsellers have in common is they were written by people who have published other bestsellers. The single most important determining factor as to which book a reader will buy is author name recognition, especially if they have read this author in the past and liked the book.


I hate to bring up this next one because publishers try to do everything they can to avoid it, but good marketing certainly helps. Authors are more responsible for this all the time, and those with existing platforms are the most likely to get the big advances, but it’s safe to say a book cannot sell a hundred thousand copies if fewer than a hundred thousand people know about it.


Last, and far from least, is luck. Any bestselling author who tells you luck did not play a significant role in her or his success is lying to at least one of you. No less an authority than Dennis Lehane makes no bones about the fact his career took off when a clip of Bill Clinton carrying a copy of Mystic River was shown repeatedly as part of an ad for 60 Minutes.


Capturing the zeitgeist is part of this. Some books, and authors, barely miss blowing up because they’re either a year too early, a year too late; or the timing is right but the mix of ingredients is half a bubble off the sweet spot. No one can predict this. Hitting that sweet spot is akin to winning the lottery. Yes, you have to buy the ticket, but a lot of people bought tickets. The author’s unique and unmatched talent is not likely to be the determining factor.


What a bestseller does not need is to be particularly well written. We’ve all read bestsellers where the dialog is wooden, the similes are execrable, the description overflows with adjectives and adverbs, and the plot has more holes than St. Andrews. How does this happen?


Because the average reader doesn’t care about that shit.


Notice how I’ve been talking about the “average reader?” That’s because they are who buys books in sufficient quantities to create a bestseller. I venture a guess that at least 90% of those who read this blog are writers. Make peace with this right now: writers are, by definition, outliers. What we look for and care about in a book makes as much difference to the average reader as the weather in Poland does to a raccoon in North Carolina. These people don’t give a shit what we think of a book; they know what they like.


And they’re right to do so.


Life is short, and too many things compete to see which can make us the unhappiest. Everyone chooses books based on the qualities they enjoy most when reading. Writers may care more about the writing than the story; that’s okay. It’s also okay for someone who has worked an eight-to-ten-hour day, taken care of urgent household chores, and helped the kids with their homework before getting them off to bed to pick up a book solely to escape for half an hour before falling asleep.


I still don’t read many bestsellers for all the reasons I have expressed over the years. I have also learned that I am an outlier and take pains not to ruin anyone else’s enjoyment of any book, no matter what I might think of it. Entertainment is subjective and I can read with no one’s eyes except my own. Whatever you read, enjoy it. Life is too short not to.

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Goddess Fish Promotions

 I recently did a twenty-day blog tour though the auspices of Goddess Fish Promotions. Having (tried to) put together blog tours myself in the past, I was not looking forward to the process. A good friend pointed me in Goddess Fish’s direction and the process turned into not only being easy, but a lot of fun.


Indie writers are always looking for ways to promote their books that won’t break either their banks or their backs. Below is my conversation with the two woman who run Goddess Fish for your information, should you be so inclined. For even more information, check out their website.


One Bite at a Time: Let’s start with the obvious question and work from there: Where did the name Goddess Fish come from?


Judy: I’m the extrovert and B-type personality (well… we actually say I’m type Z, because I’m SO laid back) … and very much a “yes” person (as in, Marianne says, “I have an idea … let’s do this thing.” and I say, “Okay, yes. We can do that thing.”).  All of those associated with the sites started saying that I would wave my wand and get it done … and my nickname became “The Goddess”. 


Marianne: I, on the other hand, am more Type A, driven, more introverted and less a people person (despite somehow always ended up in customer service for work).  I’m always polite, but it takes a while for me to be authentically friendly.  And one of the folks who works on the site said she was reminded of Abe Vigoda’s character on Barney Miller (yes, we are dating ourselves here), “Fish”.  And the nickname stuck.  Don't know who he is?  Here’s is a tidbit:


Both:  When the time came to create Goddess Fish Promotions, we combined the two.  And Marianne (“Fish”) said to Judy (“Goddess”), “Can we make the logo a fish with big pink lips, a wand and a crown?” and Judy said (of course), “Yes.” and she made it so.  Because that’s what a goddess does.


We love the fish …


OBAAT: Now that folks can concentrate on why you’re really here, what does Goddess Fish do?

Judy: We started out just doing virtual book tours.  At the time we started, there was only one company doing them and they were breathtakingly expensive.


Marianne: I’d just published my first novel, and wanted to promote it, but I couldn’t afford the price of that company, so I organized my own virtual tour.  I hated every minute of it, lol.  It was an incredibly difficult task and took hours and hours to book it, to promote it and to follow up with hosts. I understood why that company was charging so much. However, I realized then there were likely other small press authors like me who couldn’t afford the only other company in town, so we decided to dip our toe into the virtual tour business.  That was fifteen years ago. As far as I am aware, we are the second ever virtual book tour company in existence and we’ve expanded since then.


Judy: When we started the company, we were both editors for a publisher.  We ended up having to leave that as the business got busier, but we decided a few years back to offer editing as another service we provide, and we’ve had well over a hundred satisfied editing clients since (most repeat with us, which is the highest compliment.)


OBAAT: I know there’s a Marianne and a Judy. What are your backgrounds and how did you get together to form Goddess Fish?

Judy:  My background, as it pertains to the work we do is that I have published a novel, worked as an editor for a new defunct online eZine as well as the publisher we mentioned before, and I have a Bachelor’s Degree in English.


Marianne:  My background isn’t quite as illustrious as Judy’s.  But I am multi-published, worked as an editor and have been a grammar nerd since birth. 


Judy: A funny story is that we only met IRL a few years ago (2021) even though we’ve been business partners for nearly 20 years—and how is that possible?  We “met” virtually in 1999, when we were in an online writer’s group together at Writer’s Village University and magic was born!  


Marianne: We actually started out in business by creating an online review site (Long and Short Reviews) that focused on small press stories and books because, at the time, it was difficult to get anyone to review them.  Once we started Goddess Fish Promotions, we really handed over the day-to-day running of LASR to our volunteers there, and they do an amazing job with it.


OBAAT: What’s the division of labor and how do you coordinate?

Judy: Every morning, we made a to do list with each item on a piece of paper and throw them in the air.  Whoever’s desk they land on does the job.


Marianne: *I* was going to say that I get all the best clients and since you worked primarily with me, clearly you are an all right person.  LOL…


Okay, in truth, mostly Judy handles initial requests and processes the tours when they first come in.  Marianne makes the banners, and posts the tours on the blog, as well as creating the sign-up form. Then Judy makes the media kits for each tour. At that point, we split them up by tour type and fill them up. 


Every week day we’re up at the crack of dawn checking every scheduled tour stop and promoting them on social media. That’s a job we share.  Otherwise, we try to make sure all business is conducted via email (instead of phone or zoom, etc) so there’s a record of everything for every tour in case something happens where one of us needs to take over. We’ve had family emergencies, illnesses, etc. that have kept us from working now and then… though we try to work through it all.  Judy brought her laptop into her husband’s hospital room and worked after he’d had a stroke.  She wouldn’t leave his side, but she did what work she could.  Our clients depend on us, so we don’t like to use any excuse. If we CAN work, we DO work.


And we are very good at helping the other whenever necessary.  We’re more than business partners.  We’re also BFFS. 


OBAAT: You recently organized a twenty-stop blog tour for me. I once put together a tour of five blogs and can honestly say it was a pain in the ass. How do you pull it off so seamlessly?

Judy: Well…. I waved my wand… seriously, we are a lot like that duck who appears to be swimming effortlessly on the lake. But, below the surface (and behind the scenes) there's an awful lot of pedaling going on!


Marianne: Also, keep in mind we have a pretty good process set up after all these years, as well as a strong rapport with our tour hosts, who we adore and couldn’t do what we do without. 


OBAAT: Are there genres you work with more easily than others?

Judy: As far as us working with them, not really.  We have a great group of hosts, most of whom work with a wide range of genres. Romance, Young Adult, and mystery/thrillers are among the genres that are most popular with the hosts.


Marianne: To be fair, we work largely with the top three genres: romance, mystery and Sci-Fi/Fantasy.  Not because we choose to, but because it’s what’s most popular and numerous.


OBAAT: Full disclosure: When I got my list of eighteen blogs to respond to – two were review only, no input needed from me – and saw what I had on my plate, I was a little intimidated. Once I got into the process, I had a lot more fun than I anticipated. What advice do you have for authors who are considering a blog tour, especially along the lines of what to expect and what attitude to bring with them?

GF: It CAN be fun. Writers write, so enjoy the process when you are doing guest blogs and interviews… don't think of it as a chore. Part of the reason for the interviews and guest blogs, in addition to getting to know you as a person, is to give the readers a look at the writing style. We have both bought books that we've toured simply because the guest blogs were so entertaining--- if you can interest a reader that way, the chances are good they will enjoy your writing. And, conversely, unfortunately, the opposite is also true. 


We send out pretty comprehensive instructions when you start a tour with us, and one line says this: “Please make sure that each post is unique, verbose and entertaining.”


We don’t say that to make it harder for you. We say it because engaging potential readers is really important and short one-line (or one word, ugh) responses are worse than useless.


Thank you so much for having us! This was fun J