Tag Archives: Sisters in Crime

Wow. Reposted on Sisters in Crime.

Since coming back from Bouchercon, I have been overwhelmed with real life – mostly work, but also laundry, grocery-shopping (almost $300 last night, since we didn’t shop at all last weekend and were out of EVERYTHING, including toilet paper), etc.  Plus I had 5 Chicago Tribunes and New York Times to read.  As I said, overwhelming.

So I haven’t posted (guilt, shame).  But I did have good news – the Sisters in Crime blog asked to repost my post about the pre-Bouchercon SINC writers’ workshop.  This led to 1) my feeling validated about my position in the world (I am reposted, therefore I am), and 2) me joining the Guppies – for writers who haven’t had a book published yet.  I feel a little old to be a guppy but figure I can always learn something more, and the dues are only $12/year.

But I was embarrassed to see that they lifted the photo from my “About” page – not that I don’t look awesome, but I don’t generally run about looking as if I have just triumphed in some bizarre writerly athletic event.  So here are some potential new profile pictures.  Feel free to vote.

Most recent pic. New glasses?

After I got my hair back.

Cam & Me in Central Park

With pal Mark Rubin, pretty recent.

Just Kidding. But super-cute, right?

With my brother. Insanity is genetic.

Greetings from Bouchercon!

I’m on a four-day literary extravaganza! Bouchercon is the annual fest for fans and writers of mystery, crime, thriller, suspense, and related subgenres (graphic novels, anyone?).  Mostly a fan event, numbers are not in for this year, but attendance in 2010 topped 1,600.

Although I know more writers than I did in the past, I’m still bowled over to be in the room with luminaries such as Val McDermid, Jan Burke, Parnell Hall, Jeremiah Healy, Charlaine Harris… the list goes on.  And on.

Yesterday began with a six a.m. pickup from my friend Addy, chauffeur and roommate extraordinaire.  (For which I am eternally grateful – she had to get up at 4:30 to make this happen!)  We drove to St. Louis, checked in to the super-lovely Renaissance Grand Hotel, and then walked over to the ever-so-opposite Holiday Inn Select, where Sisters in Crime was holding its pre-conference workshop for writers.  It’s the only event specifically for writers… so I was pumped to go.

The event was an incredible value for the $50 reg fee.  Speakers included:

  • David Wilk, CEO, Booktrix, on the state of publishing
  • Libby Fischer Hellmann, author (most recently, Set the Night on Fire, a standalone thriller), on comparing traditional and e-publishing
  • Cathy Pickens and Jim Huang (author and bookseller respectively) on getting your book into print
  • Marcia Talley and Ellen Hart, popular mystery authors with long backlists, on do-it-yourself publishing on Kindle

Most useful session for me?  Do-it-yourself publishing on Kindle.  Marcia and Ellen talked very knowledgeably about what to do, step by step.  For published authors with a backlist of out of print books, this means new life – and new money- with this new channel for introducing your fiction to new audiences.  (Get your rights back!)

Personally, I have a super-fun book that I have given up on pitching – it’s not a mystery.  I came away convinced that I can freshen this up (wrote it so many years ago that my popular references are sure to be dated), format it myself, get an ISBN number, get my ever-so-talented graphic designer husband to do me a cover, price it at $2.99 or $3.99, upload it to Amazon and let my employer know I’m about to retire. (Just kidding on that last one.)

The Sisters in Crime Event included a banquet with a very amusing after-dinner speech by author Meg Gardiner. Meg writes the Evan Delaney series about a Santa Barbara attorney and the Jo Beckett series about a forensic psychiatrist which were published worldwide, but not in the U.S., until Stephen King wrote an article about her books in Entertainment Weekly. Fourteen publishers called the next day.  I was drinking coffee and paper-and-penless during her speech, but I sent myself a series of emails so I could remember some key points.

Email #1:  Meg’s blog is called Lying for a Living.   She’s also on WordPress. Sister!

Email #2:  First published book was China Lake.  I bought it – and several others she authored – today in the Bouchercon book room because when she talked about China Lake, she commented that “a big, big story will expand your readership.”  Now I want to see a big, big story… I fear mine are tiny, itsy-bitsy stories…

Email #3:  “Left Behind in the E-book Rapture.”  Or at least that’s what my email was supposed to say, iPhone corrected it to “Left Behind in the Snook Rapture.” I love the phrase and the point she’s making – e-books are not going away. Not there?  It’s not too late.  And if you can focus on a big career, this is going to all come naturally.

So that’s it.  I have a giant list of cool blogs, websites, resources, and more… a bulging book bag full of new purchases and a Bouchercon tote bag full of books that I got FOR FREE repeat FOR FREE… several new friends and a few days to go.  More later.

Lit Fest: D’Amato, Hellmann, Keller shine at Grace Place

Grace Episcopal Church in Chicago’s South Loop is an amazing place… beautiful, unusual architecture that leads to a feeling of community and contemplation.  In short, an amazing place for Lit Fest’s session where the Tribune’s Julia Keller interviewed Barbara D’Amato and Libby Fischer Hellmann.  Of course, the photo here – from the church website – features more sacred use of that place!

Barbara D'Amato

Both Barb and Libby have been president of the national organization Sisters in Crime, founded by Sara Paretsky and others to bring attention to the clear preference among publishers, reviewers, and others for male authors.   The movement began with a letter from novelist Phyllis Whitney to the Mystery Writers of America re: sex discrimination in the awarding of the Edgar Awards.  At that time, in 41 years, only seven women had received Edgars.

Libby Fischer Hellmann

Asked by Keller about Sisters in Crime, the panelists shared that the organization still monitors reviews, reporting that a full 70% of books reviewed have a male author.  By pointing out the lack of balance directly to the reviewers, some progress had been made (60/40), but backsliding has definitely occurred.  SINC looks at published reviews, and everyone agreed that although these are highly visible and very important, the growth in reviews on the internet, through blogs, Amazon, and the like, has become a big factor in recent years, and this is more egalitarian.

I’m a member of both the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and support them both.  But it is interesting to see the trajectory of various authors, and there does seem to be a “pecking order” that places thrillers above police procedurals above cozies, for example.

But there’s no doubt Barb D’Amato and Libby Fischer Hellmann are masters of the craft, and they shared some pearls with the audience, many of whom were aspiring authors:

  • Libby makes sure to put a clue in the first few pages; she likes to “play fair” with the readers and thinks that withholding all the clues until late in the book is not doing so.
  • Barb uses a couple of sheets from a legal pad to plot out all the “surprises” in the book… mostly “to keep them all from showing up in chapter 3.”
  • Both women have experienced “pauses” – it hasn’t all been success and roses.  Barb had two books published, then six fallow years.  Libby said her first book sold was actually the fourth book written.  She didn’t want to revisit, though she has cannibalized characters!
  • Although both Barb and Libby are almost constantly writing, they agree that “the book you’re not writing yet is the best one.”  Julia commented that Iris Murdoch said that “every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.”
  • What authors do these authors enjoy reading?  Agatha Christie, Val McDermid, Peter Robinson, Marcus Sakey, Kent Krueger, Sean Chercover, Declan Hughes, and Dennis Lehane were all mentioned.

The conversation was very ably moderated by Julia Keller, who writes for the Tribune and is a published author herself, with two previous books and her first mystery coming out in the coming months.  She’s articulate and insightful, and listening to her in conversation is as pleasurable as reading her work in print.  

Building suspense with Libby Fischer Hellmann

Sisters in Crime – Chicago met today at Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore in Forest Park (thanks, Augie!) for a great workshop on writing suspense.   Libby Fischer Hellmann, author of the Ellie Forman series of mysteries, was the lecturer.  It was a great way to spend 90 minutes… my only regret was that it couldn’t be longer!

This is the first workshop I’ve taken from Libby, but I got a lot of good ideas from it, so it won’t be the last.  She started out by defining suspense and outlining factors which differentiate suspense from mystery.   She then spent some time explaining the techniques for building suspense, including ideas such as hooking the reader by starting in the middle of a scene, ending the chapter with a cliffhanger (or “sting”) to keep the reader reading, and raising the stakes so that just when it seems the protagonist’s situation can’t get any worse, it does.  What made the information relatable was was the way Libby could illustrate the information she provided by quoting familiar books or drawing parallels with popular movies.

Especially fun were two exercises she had us do – the first was to write a first sentence that would start the story in a way that left the reader hanging, wanting to know more.  I used the start of a short story I’ve already completed:  Since he left her, his only pleasure in life was bowling with Jimmy Lerkowitz. That one was rated okay.  But my second one was grabbier:  All she took were her favorite jeans and my Mercedes. I wish I’d written down some of the others’ sentences… the creative juices were really flowing!

In the second exercise, we had ten minutes to write a scene using the techniques of suspense we had been discussing and a scenario that Libby distributed.  Reading them aloud, it was clear that even given the same starting place, the directions we were taking were wildly divergent.  Who knew there were so many ways to build suspense by using a cell phone?

Libby will be back at a SINCC program at Centuries & Sleuths in March, along with members of her writing group, to address how to set up a successful writing group.  I’m currently in my third writing group.  It’s new and we are still learning how to work with each other and how well we fit together.  Mutual respect, similar expectations, and being in the same place in terms of commitment seem to me to be the most important factors.  In the meantime, I’ll be reading her new book, Doubleback, when I’m not hard at work on my own second mystery, In Scene.  I owe my group 50 pages and I’m short 20!

Desperately seeking … writers’ group success

I’m now on my third writers’ group.   Finding the right group of people, a process that works for everybody, and maintaining it through all the ups and downs is tough.

My first group included several published mystery writers.  They’d been together forever (or at least many, many years) and, looking back, they could not possibly have been nicer to me, the eager newbie.  But the group included a couple of people who were “not currently writing” and they spent a good part of each get-together catching up on personal stuff.  Plus, they used the “reading aloud” method, which wasn’t really the way I liked to do things.  So, I bid them adieu with good wishes and moved on, deciding to take a couple of courses in creative writing, instead.  Looking back, I could have really learned a great deal from this group!  Plus, having gone through a number of distracting issues at work and at  home, as well as being diagnosed with breast cancer (that’ll give you writer’s block for about a year!), I’m now a lot mellower about the idea that the ability to focus on writing is not necessarily the most important quality I should be looking for.

After taking a couple of courses at The Writers’ Studio at the University of Chicago, I ended up in a writers’ group made up of people who had been in class with me.  Tom, Julie, Stephanie, and Matt were all pretty successful people with interesting lives and writing talent.  We built up a good level of trust, a process that worked well, and genuinely enjoyed reading each others’ work.  What happened?  Tom got married.  Stephanie went to law school.  Julie enrolled in a low-residency MFA program.  In other words, we put the group “on hold for now,” but it’s not likely we’ll ever get together again.  I still see Matt, and I run into Julie on the street every now and then.

As I’m now feeling antsy and wanting that connection again, I put a listing in the Sisters in Crime Chicagoland newsletter; coincidentally, so did other people who were also interested in starting a writing group.  We’ve met twice so far, still working out our process.   The group includes several new writers, including one who hasn’t written anything yet and has skipped the first two meetings – I hope she’s not too ambivalent to come next time.  My old friend Matt, from my previous writing group, went to the organizational meeting but not the most recent one.  One bright spot is that one of the folks in the new group has a really interesting premise and I like the way she gives feedback and takes it.  We’ll have to see how the next few meetings go to see if we will gel or not!