Friday, June 14, 2013

Speaking at Mystery Book Club!

On Wednesday, Mama and I visited the Mystery Book Club at the Barnes and Noble store at the Firewheel Mall in Garland, Texas. The club meets on the second Wednesday of every month around 7 PM to discuss the book they've chosen for that session and to talk about mysteries in general.

We got there early and had our choice of seating. Soon the group sponsor/leader, Theresa, joined us, and I showed her the books I had brought (a couple of copies of each of the mysteries and one copy of each of the others, including the Shalanna Collins oeuvre) and nattered on about my writing. In a few minutes the member who had so kindly invited me, Cassie Wilson, came along, and I spoke a bit more about writing and the current state of publishing. By 7 PM the rest of the membership had come along to fill in the circle, and the meeting officially started.

I do NOT know why I can't remember to get everyone to stand up for a group shot! Again I forgot about this. Aaarghh! But I like the candid sneak shots I did get.

Going around the circle, we had each person introduce herself. (It was a hen party this time, as I'd expect with mysteries, if not SF/Fantasy. But that's the fun of it.) One was a special ed teacher who works somewhat near us, then the coordinator who works at B&N, then a retired librarian/English teacher, then a psychologist, then the president of the Dallas Rose Society and other garden clubs, then another retired librarian . . . all devoted readers. I got the chance to pass around each of my books and to give everyone my promo postcards. I also gave out some of my business cards that show my blogsite and Web page. I'm hoping some of the attendees will investigate me further and perhaps visit my Amazon author pages.

One of the topics we touched upon was the increasing grittiness of most mystery/suspense titles that are coming out today. It seems that just about half of the titles I pick up or look at on the Kindle Storefront deal with serial killers.

"I don't WANT to be in the head of a twisted person," said my mother. "I want to be entertained, amused, comforted, and learning something interesting when I read. I already know those people exist, and I wish they didn't. What's interesting about someone who just wants to kill you?"

"Yes," said Cassie firmly. "It's far more interesting when there's a group of suspects instead who were pushed into a corner or felt they had to murder in order to save their careers or marriages. The motivations and desperation of the people are lots better than a serial killer deal."

We agreed that often, a real PAGE-TURNER is too plotty, with events happening just so that something "exciting" can be going on, and weak motivation from characters. When a character is lauded as "sooo smart" but then goes on to make poor choices and prove that he's Too Stupid to Live, it's really disappointing for the reader. What do you remember from a book--the plot? Or the characters? I'll bet that you can remember the plot sort of sketchily, but when you think of the characters you've loved, they come back in living color.

The discussion of the book assigned for the meeting began. It was Lisa Scottoline's first book, Everywhere That Mary Went. Everyone agreed that the writing was good and the style interesting, and a couple of people confirmed that the behavior of workers in a big law firm is indeed as she portrays it. But just about everyone said that the ending happened too fast, that it seemed the author simply "picked one" from the short list and made that person the perp. I thought the ending was one of the book's major weaknesses myself (I went back and read the book last night on the Kindle), because the perp just suddenly APPEARS and has flipped out with no warning at all. It's kind of contrived and forced, to me. I also thought that everyone in the book was pretty unethical, but maybe that's just me. However, the ENTIRE group gave the book thumbs-up, so who am I to argue? They said they'd be looking for other books by the author.

Next month's book is by Bill Crider, The Wild Hog Murders, and they're really looking forward to it. I'd better find a copy so I can keep up! Bill Crider is one of our cohorts over on the DOROTHY-L mailing list, and I always enjoy his novels with a Texas flavor.

Mama started getting asthma about ten minutes before the club broke up for the evening, but she enjoyed herself and got to talk about her favorite books. (To Kill a Mockingbird and the "Murder, She Wrote" tie-ins.) Talk about Atticus Finch and the anniversary of TKaM ensued. I think the group enjoyed her.

I don't know whether my books made an impression or not. It's so common nowadays for someone to have written and published books that it's just not remarkable any more, and everyone assumes that your book is a "Chiclet"--one of the hastily cranked-out works that is not meant to last, but is intended merely as a quick read for $.99 or so. I get discouraged when I walk into gigantic bookstores and see all those glossy, beautiful titles stacked on the tables and lined up on the shelves. It's the competition! Who but a fool would keep doing this when it's basically hopeless and SO MUCH WORK? But oh well. I never said I had to make sense.

If you're in the area, come on down and join the fun! You don't have to have read the book-of-the-month, although it helps. You can just come to hear people who love books talk about books and about their thoughts. It's something worth doing.

We're going to try to make this club a regular stop. If I can bribe the hubby to watch the Pomeranian again and keep him OUT OF THE FLOWERPOTS, I mean.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Our goals as writers or readers

Reading Mary Montague Sikes' latest blog entry, "What Are Our Goals as Writers?" made me think about what my goals actually are, versus what most people think they are or should be. (LOL)

First, I want to talk about our goals as writers.

She mentions winning writing contests. Well, I've done that. I can do that. I won the Golden Rose award a couple of years ago with APRIL, MAYBE JUNE. (Their award is an actual gold-plated rose. My mother went crazy over it, and I put it on one of her bookshelves to be admired. It didn't come with a publishing contract or make anyone interested in the book, though.) I won prizes in the Robert Benchley essay contest a couple of times. (This year, they haven't yet announced the contest. ???) The way I got into Oak Tree Press was via winning the Dark Oak Mystery contest and getting NICE WORK published in 2011.

But I've noticed that contest winners aren't much appreciated. The St. Martin's Press contest would seem to be a major big deal, and you'd think winning one of their contests and publication would be a coup. However, I don't really see sales going big for those who win the contest, not since Donna Andrews was discovered (her books are that perfect blend of over-the-top funny and believable.) One recent winner has gone off to publish newer books with small presses, saying that she has more freedom there. I don't know whether winning an award of any kind does anything for your career. Getting your book made into a film or TV show, on the other hand . . . yes.

She also mentions financial success. That has always eluded me. I haven't made it a major goal, though. As I see it, those who attain financial success are usually the people who can schmooze and sell. If you are a born salesman, you can sell yourself, and the people will want your product. This sort of thing has never been my strength. I haven't had to rely on my writing to make a living so far, which is definitely a good thing.

What about readers? What are our goals as readers?

For many readers nowadays, it's ALL ABOUT PLOT. They don't mind wading through clunky prose (they have no ear for it, or don't care one way or the other? Don't know which) and aren't bothered by stereotypical flat characters. They're reading for WHAT HAPPENS, and if things aren't happening fast enough for them, the book hits the wall and they grab another (so many free downloads out there, why bother to push through all that thinking or feeling?) They were weaned on action movies, and they want to see things blow up and see people make snap decisions, whether or not the decisions are wrong.

But that's not STORY. Teresa Nielsen Hayden once said, "Plot is what happens, but story is a force of nature." I believe people need/use story to make sense of life, to understand what life wants from them and what they want from life. A story is a promise to the reader that they're going to learn something or have some sort of insight as a result of reading it. Otherwise, they close the book and say, "So what? What was all of that FOR?" They "got nothing out of it." It was "a waste of time that they can't get back." This is not what we're aiming for, I'm sure.

Story has always been a means of transmitting the culture down to the next generation(s). The Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens--the Great Books, if you will--have passed along the great ideas of Western culture over the centuries. A great story should give you some new insight into the human condition. It shouldn't feel hollow when you finish, as though you were waiting for the author to make his or her point but never got anything. You can write solely for entertainment and still have a point . . . I'm not saying that everything has to be Ponderous and Meaningful. But most people want to feel they've learned something from your book, if only that the Kelvin temperature scale goes down to absolute zero or that 73 is the perfect number (because it means "Best regards" to hams!)

It seems that the popular kids have decided they're going to write books. They never wanted to do this before, but now that it's a matter of typing into a word processor rather than feeding endless pages into a typewriter, they want to. EVERYONE is writing a book and putting it on the Kindle or going with a self-publishing deal. Writing books was always uncool before. It's kind of nice for it to be The Latest Thing, but I suspect that these same people tried to be rock stars and found they couldn't sing even WITH AutoTune, and turned to writing because they wrote in journals all through school and figured, "How hard could it be?" Some newcomers to writing are natural writers, of course, but I suspect that some just fell into it and have had lots of luck (and lots of friends who like them and therefore read their books). There are more books being published every minute these days than there were every YEAR in past decades. Lots of choices--good. Lots of slush--check. (LOL) Many books that leave you feeling hollow, as though "is that all there is?" were the question.

So why DO we bother to write books, when there is so much else out there that our stuff probably will come and go without being noticed?

My purpose in writing stories has always been to be heard--to reach those I would never otherwise reach with my voice or during my lifetime. I have always hoped that my book would be sitting on a shelf (or waiting for a download, wink) when someone who needs its message/philosophy/theme right then comes along and picks it up or downloads it to read. This person may be younger or older, in the future or in the present, but whoever the person is, he or she needs to hear what I have to say with this book, needs to be entertained with witty banter, needs to commiserate with the dilemmas and celebrate the happinesses of my characters. This person can experience vicariously a hot-air balloon ride, hear about someone's fairy godfather, work on perfecting the Schubert Moments Musical, and do whatever my characters do . . . it's a tour of my mind in my voice that no one else can give them, and I like to think it can enrich their lives and make them happy for a moment and then for several moments as they think on these issues and ideas I have brought to them.

That has always been my goal, and that is why I often resist making my books into action movie screenplays. I like to leave in the parts that made the books I have loved throughout my life into "keepers." I haven't thought much about temporal success, although my family and friends are quite fixated on the dollar; I do know that money is the way most people keep score, and the way they judge your work's quality, at least initially, so I guess I should at least TRY to do a popular book so my other books can have a chance at being checked out.

What if no one were keeping score? (Grin) If I serve art (Art) (whatever), that should be enough (but it probably isn't.)

So what are your goals? What is your purpose in writing stories?