Don’t call me lucky

We have a weird relationship with luck.

There are definitely times when “lucky” is good. Like when we avoid disaster by the skin of our teeth, or enjoy some unexpected good fortune. My son sure felt lucky when he found twenty dollars frozen to the ground the night he took the garbage out. That kind of luck is okay.

But when we’re successful after a lot of hard work, well, lucky kind of takes a negative spin. As in, “your book is going to be published – you’re so lucky.” The unspoken implication is that you’re not being published because you worked your butt off for years, wrote, revised, took classes, got feedback and tried to better yourself as a writer. No, you were lucky. And “lucky” can happen to anyone, right?

Other people scoff at luck. There’s no such thing, they say. Chance is just someone’s justification or cop-out. But is it?

So, I recently read about a Harvard study on the role of chance, or “luck,” in popularity (I looked for a link to the study, honest, but I can’t find it). And surprisingly, it comes down to this.

Once you have achieved a certain level of quality, it is chance, luck, that propels it to popularity (or so the study argues). In other words, the reason the Mona Lisa is so popular has less to do with the quality of the painting (again, assuming a benchmark level of quality), a more to do with popular opinion. The more people like a thing, the more they tell their friends about the thing, and the more new people flock to the thing. This was all studied through creation of virtual worlds and computers. If you can find the study (and if you do, shoot me the link), it’s kind of fascinating. At least to me. For the first time, someone actually sat down an quantified, or at least attempted to quantify, the role of luck in success.

Of course, authors should know this. We really should. Because what sells books? Survey after survey says the same thing: word of mouth. Amazon reviews. Goodreads reviews. Conversations in your local bookstore. Your friend reads a phenomenal book, so she recommends it to you (presumably because she thinks you’ll feel the same, sometimes not, but often yes).

As a reader (because all writers are readers, perhaps we’re readers first), this is profound. I never left book reviews because it felt kind of funny doing it. But now, I see it as my contribution to chance. Sure, my one book review might not make the difference. But teamed up with the hundred other reviews, well, that might be a game-changer. In that way, I’ve affected luck – the publisher’s luck (the book is a financial success), the author’s luck (maybe she gets a new contract to write another book), the bookseller’s luck (she gets to stay in business), and even my luck (I get to read another book).

So does luck exist? I’m pretty sure it does. And it’s not a bad thing either. So the next time someone tells me, “Oh, you’re lucky,” I won’t think it’s a negative comment. It just means that the weight of popularity and chance has shifted my way.

What about you – do you think public opinion influences luck, and is that good or bad?

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Why Reading Makes You A Better Person

There are days when I wish I could blow off every obligation that I have and spend the day in bed.  I could do it.  I just know it.  Give me a good book, and maybe bring me some popcorn somewhere during the day, and I’d be set.  What a glorious, indulgent waste of time it would be!

Or would it?

I find that when I read, my writing improves.  A part of my brain is occupied with someone else’s ideas, which allows a different part of my brain to tackle my own creative roadblocks.  Not only do I see the other writer’s words, combinations that I might never have considered using myself, but I discover plot devices and characters. Twists and denouements that have worked for others.   I can get totally lost in a mystery that was written before the age of cell phones, and I don’t even notice the lack of technology.  I can appreciate the challenges to writers now, who are publishing manuscripts penned before cell phones became de rigueur.  I’m especially fond of the scatterbrained main character who is constantly misplacing her phone, or letting the battery die, because as clichéd as it sounds, she is me.

But, I digress.  Spending the day in bed with a good book, not such a bad thing, I think.  Tune out distractions like the Internet, work, laundry, word count.  Allow your brain the opportunity to frolic in someone else’s playground.  Just don’t forget to turn off your cell phone, too.  Or, maybe just misplace it for a couple of hours.   You’ll thank me. 

Why I Wrote Blessed are the Dead – Part II

To truly explain why I chose to write about kidnapped children and serial killers, I must go back a few years to my first job as a newspaper reporter.

I worked at a small weekly newspaper in a Minnesota suburb writing about everything from the school board meetings to craft fairs to city ordinances on keeping chickens in the backyard.

One day a big story landed on my beat: A 19-year-old local girl who had joined the military had been abducted from a Texas military base. Traci had been talking on a pay phone on base when someone grabbed her and ran.

The story was astonishing and beyond disturbing.

I met with her father over coffee at a local café. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes as he told me about his shining star daughter, who was every parent’s dream child. Now missing.

I was struck to the core by this story. I thought about this teenage girl constantly. I even dreamed about her. A few weeks later, when they found her killer and he led police to her body, I cried.

My job was to write about Traci and I poured my heart and soul into it like I had never done on any story before.

I sat in the back at her funeral and wept. It was my all-consuming goal to write stories that did justice to this girl.

Later, I moved back to California for a newspaper job in Monterey. This time, it was a 13-year-old girl named Christina. She had been walking the family dog on the Fort Ord military base when she was abducted. Her father opened his doors to the media. I remember sitting alone in her girly pink bedroom, trying to find a way to do justice to her in my story and struck numb by the realization that she might never come home.

They found her body seven months later in a rural area on the base. Nobody was ever arrested.

As a reporter, I interviewed people like Jerry Seinfeld, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Clint Eastwood. But I also met people like Marc Klaas, whose 12-year-old daughter, Polly, was snatched out of her own bedroom during a slumber party by a man with a knife. Her killer was arrested and is on death row.

I also met Kim Swartz, whose daughter, Amber, was taken from their front yard. No trace of her has ever been found. (I’m going to come back to Amber’s case later in part three of this story.)

I began writing a series on cold cases – unsolved crimes. For one, I wrote about Nikki Campbell, who was taken while riding her bike to a friend’s house.

Even though I never met these girls, their faces and stories are permanently engraved on my heart.

The family I grew closest with was the aunt and grandmother of a little Vallejo girl, Xiana, who disappeared on her way to the bus stop.

In fact, I keep in touch with Xiana’s aunt to this day. We share a special bond. There is nobody else in this world that knows like she does what it was like to sit down face-to-face and talk to a monster that preyed on children. We both know the psychological impact that has had on us over the years and how it has affected us as people, and especially, as mothers.

This story — Xiana’s story — hit me the hardest. I had a hard time maintaining my reporter’s objectivity while I covered this story. I became friends with this family and spent countless hours with them, sometimes for a story, but more often just to be there with them in their efforts to find Xiana. I became consumed with her story and her kidnapping. Before they found her remains, something else happened: another little girl in her city was kidnapped. And escaped.

Her kidnapper, Curtis Dean Anderson, was caught and jailed. In jail, he began to give interviews to the press, including me.

Then, he told me he had been kidnapping and killing girls for 20 years …

Part Three to come next month..

If you missed it, you can catch Part One here.

Book-lucky

What makes you feel lucky? Not in the Clint Eastwood, “Do you feel lucky, punk?” kind of way, but in the make-you-feel-good and put-a smile-on-your-face kind of way. For me, it can be many things: attracting a fabulously flashy new bird to my feeders, an unexpected hug from my child, finding money in the pocket of the coat I just pulled out of storage. 

This weekend, I had one of those moments. You see, I have this HUGE pile of books beside my bed. It’s so large, it’s moved from the nightstand to the floor. It’s so large, in fact, that I forget what’s in it. On Saturday, I happened to knock the pile over–yes, this is the lucky part–I realized that I had Julia Spencer-Fleming’s latest book, in hard cover, hiding in the pile. (Signed, too!) Joy! Giddy, dance around my bedroom joy at this find. 

Yep, books definitely make me feel lucky. I love finding new authors to read, new series to try, new characters to fall in love with, and so on. I had a different lucky book moment a week ago. I discovered one of my favorite cozy authors (Janet Bolin) had a new Threadville Mystery available, and I had missed it! The lucky part was finding it by accident (and having time to read that particular day). Oh, and my favorite modern-day author, J.D. Robb, just released her latest. I have had the most book-lucky week! I think those might be my favorite kinds.

I love moments like these. What makes you feel lucky?

Interview: James M. Jackson

Please welcome James M. Jackson, author of the Seamus McCree mysteries and other works.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
My perfect day would occur at our “camp” in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. [Note: “camp” in the U.P. can mean anything from CabinFever-Cover (200x300a rude fishing shack, standing only because it doesn’t have enough ambition to fall down, to a Rockefeller-type hunting lodge with a gazillion rooms. Ours is a nice house with all the amenities.] I awake after a good night’s sleep to the call of a loon on the lake. I write in the morning, taking a break to watch the sun rise over the hill behind me, and then turn around to observe how it paints the opposite shore with its light. I breakfast on the deck, my editing frequently interrupted as I watch birds flit in the woods and gather the sunflower and thistle seeds I have provided for their sustenance and my entertainment. I gently scold the hummingbirds to “play nice” when they perform their aerial duels around their feeders.

Later in the day I take a leisurely stroll through our woods with camera in hand to capture butterfly pictures, or interesting mushrooms, or moss, or shadows, or nothing at all. I go for a run or bicycle ride and cool off in the lake. After dinner I sit on the screened-in porch and read, frequently interrupting myself to watch light play on the water and later to marvel at the sky as it turns pink, orange, red, and purple.

And I fall asleep to the yip of coyotes and howl of the resident wolf pack.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
Oh gosh, I wish this question had been later in the interview, because I always get strange looks when I fess up that I am particularly fond of applesauce on pizza. The best is my partner Jan’s homemade applesauce on her homemade pizza.

I do not yet have any signature accessory. I will be wearing a boa to celebrate the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime at the SinC annual Malice breakfast, so who knows…?

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Sara Paretsky for three reasons: (1) Because she had the courage to break with “tradition” and write a strong female character succeeding in roles previously restricted to men; (2) for founding Sisters in Crime; (3) for pulling me aside after a masters class and telling me that my writing had an “interesting voice” I should keep.

Early Robert B. Parker for his tight writing.

My son’s 9th grade English teacher who I overheard say that no work is ever finished; the author finally chooses to abandon it.

Do you listen to music when you write?
I often write in silence—the better to hear character voices. Early in the morning before the rest of the world has risen is my preferred time to write because I am a morning person and it’s quiet. However, if others in the house are making noises that intrude, I’ll stick on headphones and play either classical or new age.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Cabin Fever would be a box of mixed chocolates with the identifying sheet removed. The outside of each piece (character) suggests what might be inside, but the consumer (reader) can’t always tell what the filling is, so there will be surprises.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
Jan and I overwintered at our camp in 2006-7 and loved it even though we were isolated deep in the woods, fifteen miles from the nearest place you can buy anything. I wanted to use the isolation of the remote U.P. during the winter to reflect Seamus McCree’s internal state. To that character and landscape setting I added the mystery elements necessary for a good story.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
Fundamentally it is all about relationships. I also reflect on the problem of seeing a grey world as only black or white. Thirdly, I’m interested in exploring when ends do or do not justify the means.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
At a young age, Seamus McCree lost his father, a Boston cop. It made him angry. He’s sublimated that anger: first into joining a gang, then into becoming a pro soccer player, and finally into being a successful hard-charging businessman. He is principled and impulsive. He quit a lucrative job on Wall Street on the day he found out a boss had changed one of his reports to please a client, giving up a six-figure bonus he could have earned if he had waited a short while before quitting. Because he’s bottled his feelings inside, he has difficulty forming close relationships—although so far he has succeeded with his son, Paddy.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Robert B. Parker’s Spenser + John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport + A.A. Milne’s Winne-The-Pooh

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Nevada Barr, Barry Eisler, Graham Greene, Laura Lippman, Sara Paretsky, Robert B. Parker

What’s next for you?
Cabin Fever’s official launch is April 8th. I’m currently working on the third Seamus McCree novel with a working title of Doubtful Relations. This year I will also return to writing a few short stories. My previous short stories have been both mysteries and literary.

***

James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mysteries, Bad Policy (March 2013) and Cabin Fever (coming April 2014), published by Barking Rain Press. Bad Policy won the Evan Marshall Fiction Makeover Contest whose criteria were the freshness and commerciality of the story and quality of the writing. Known as James Montgomery Jackson on his tax return and to his mother whenever she was really mad at him, he splits his time between the Upper Peninsula of Michigan woods and Georgia’s low country. Jim has also published an acclaimed book on contract bridge, One Trick at a Time: How to start winning at bridge (Master Point Press 2012).

Website: http://jamesmjackson.com
Facebook: (http://on.fb.me/17NSLhC)
Twitter (@JMJAuthor)

He regularly blogs at Writers Who Kill (http://writerswhokill.blogspot.com/)

Interview: Michael Marshall

Please welcome Michael Marshall, author of We Are Here and other novels.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
Waking up with my wife and son in a nice, urban hotel room on the first day of a trip to some big, vibrant city, in autumn… having an early coffee at a sidewalk café watching the world go by and plotting how to spend the morning, though probaMarshall_WeAreHereMyste#3ACbly ending up just walking the streets… then being magically transported to some rugged miles-from-anywhere wilderness for the afternoon, for more walking and talking, with drinks and dinner — and maybe a few games of pool — in some wood-paneled local dive before retiring to sleep in a cozy log cabin in a snowy forest. With a couple of cats on the bed. And a nice cup of tea.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I’m seldom seen without my iPhone, doubtless smell of cigarettes, and possibly say “Interesting…” a little too often. Doesn’t make me sound like a captivating combination, I know. But I have cash on me.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Nicholas Royle, whose work and encouragement first got me sending short stories out; Stephen King, who made me realize the kind of engagement with the reader that I aspire to; and Kingsley Amis, who showed that everything in human life — however grim or annoying or frankly tedious — can be food for amusement, and that every single word is worth choosing carefully.

Do you listen to music when you write?
Very seldom. I find music picks at my ears, making it impossible to do anything except sit and listen to it. Once in a while I do find it helpful, however — usually when fighting through some particularly knotty section — and will put some Bach on, or perhaps a Hans Zimmer movie soundtrack, or one song with exactly the right atmosphere, on endless repeat.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
An After Eight. This is a distinctively English chocolate, and I guess the nearest functional US equivalent would be a Junior Mint, though they’re different both in form and how they’re perceived. After Eights are very flat and thin and square and are seen as something of a treat. They have a rippled dark chocolate outside (the noir and suspense elements), with a bitterness that is in strong contrast to the velvety mint fondant interior (the all-important threads of human emotion, and warmth). There are more boutique and expensive versions of this combination — but I don’t want to write exclusive, highbrow fiction: I like books that are accessible to everyone.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
A lot of songs and books are written about love. That’s understandable. It’s a big thing, and often sculpts people’s lives. But friendship may be even more important, and the way in which it threads through our lives — and the impact of its loss upon how we feel about the world and our selves — is just as critical. The conceits in We Are Here seemed to give me a new way of looking at these ideas, of concretizing the role of friendship in our lives.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
The importance of love, and friendship, and family, and our pasts — and what happens to us, sometimes years later, when darkness arrives in these areas, and how we may hope to recover and rebuild our worlds when that has happened.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
We Are Here is an ensemble piece — there are a few ‘main’ characters, their stories interweaving — but I suppose the protagonist is a man called John Henderson. He’s now living in a tiny apartment in New York, working as a waiter, and in a new relationship with a tough young woman called Kristina. Though We Are Here is a standalone novel, John previously featured in a book of mine called Bad Things, in which his past as both a lawyer and special forces agent are covered, along with the break-up of his marriage after the death of his young son in very mysterious circumstances. John is a strong, forceful man, with a sense of humor. He’s made some pretty big mistakes in his life, however, and knows all about the darkness threaded through the world, and through human nature.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
I’ve thought about this long and hard, and actually find it impossible. I spent nine months writing his story and he seems very real to me, as a character in his own right rather than amalgam of other people.

If you could host an author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, P. G. Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, Kingsley Amis, and Stephen Jones. I don’t want to even think about the hangover that would ensue, but it’d be fun getting there.

What’s next for you?
Right now I’m in the middle of a new novel, set around the town where we now live — Santa Cruz, in Northern California — and co-writing a movie adaptation of a previous novel of mine, Killer Move. I’m also assisting BBC America with the television series adaption of my novel The Intruders.

***

Michael Marshall was born in England but spent his early years in the United States, South Africa, and Australia. After spending twenty-five years in London, he recently moved to Santa Cruz, California, with his wife and son. His previous novel, The Intruders, is about to go into production as a BBC America series.

Website: www.michaelmarshallsmith.com

Guest Post: Lev Raphael

Dissing Mysteries

No, this is not a blog about people who think mysteries are trash and not worth reading because they’re nothing more than “escape reading.”  The latter charge has always amused me, because I’m not alone in thinking that all reading is a form of escape, whether it’s Murder at the Vicarage or Madame Bovary.

This blog is about people who don’t respect the genre they’re ostensibly working in.  Years ago when my Nick Hoffman amateur sleuth series was just getting started, Woody Allen did a profoundly misguided film called Manhattan Murder Mystery.  It was slapdash and sloppy, and missing a crucial piece: there was no discernible reason for the amateur sleuth to get involved in investigating the murder.  Yes, there were some funny lines along the way, but the movie was hollow at its core because it didn’t make sense.  It’s one thing for cops, PIs and other professionals to investigate a murder, but the motive for someone untrained has to be believable; leaving that key element out as if it doesn’t matter shows a lack of respect for the genre–and its fans.  To me, the film was tossed off with an anyone-can-write-a-mystery attitude.

I just tried watching a film called Columbus Circle about a wealthy, mysterious agoraphobic living in an exclusive Midtown building whose neighbor is murdered.  The new, classy-looking neighbors who take over the dead woman’s apartment suddenly have a trailer trash brawl out in the hallway and as soon as it happened, I thought 1) they’re faking it 2) they’re doing this to lure the shut-in out of her privacy 3) they’re somehow after her money.  All of that proved to be true within minutes.  Worse still, the new woman neighbor badgered the wealthy agoraphobic into walking down the hallway and there was absolutely no reason why her intended victim should have succumbed to the pressure. So not only was the psychology bogus, the writers didn’t respect the thriller genre enough to make it remotely believable or suspenseful, and I see this on film and on TV way too often.

A more recent case in point is the hugely popular Benedict Cumberpatch love fest, aka Sherlock.  It’s gained viewers each season as it’s become less coherent and extravagantly devoted to special effects demonstrating the processes of Sherlock’s thinking.

The show started out as fiendishly clever in the first season, everything you’d hope for in a brand new take on Watson and Holmes.  The show even wittily played with the homoerotic nature of their bromance, not just as seen by outsiders like their landlady and a restaurant owner.  The leads themselves discussed it, Sherlock with aplomb, Watson with annoyance.  Most amusing.

But the special effects that were entertaining in Season One seem to have run amok and at times they not only upstage the story–such as it is–but the inimitable Cumberpatch himself. One fan told me that he enjoyed the FX because they were a fine demonstration of the chaos in Holmes’s mind.  This strikes me as a basic misunderstanding of Holmes’s character: his mind is anything but chaotic.  It’s brilliantly organized and makes connections we ordinary mortals can’t.  Between the effects and the frantic editing, I’ve had to replay some scenes to follow them.  It’s one thing when there’s explosively fast editing in a Jason Bourne movie, but that’s out of place in Sherlock because his internal processes should be a marvel, not stupefying.

There’s also much less actual story in the show than there used to, and that’s been very puzzling to me.  The answer came when I happened to see the show’s writers happily confide in an interview that for them, Sherlock was not going to be about him “solving a crime ever week.”  Seriously?  What’s the point, then?  Why try breathing new life into a character with so many lives in books and in film and then totally subvert his genius?  Holmes is a brilliant detective.  With a level of insight that’s uncanny, he observes, deduces, and detects, either in the field or just sitting in his armchair.  But the writers are apparently bored by all that, and prefer playing with toys instead.  Their attitude shows contempt for the genre they’re in.  Why not make him a plumber or an astronaut?

Elementary with Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu is a true mystery, even as it offers viewers  an even bolder take on Holmes.  That’s not immediately obvious because it’s not as flashy.  Elementary doesn’t just make Holmes a recovering addict, it turns Watson into a woman and his “sober companion”–at least when the show debuted.  There’s no show-offy camera work or FX here, but plenty of substance, and crimes are consistently solved, not ignored.  Sometimes the motive in a crime might seem weak, or the suspect obvious, but perfection on a weekly basis isn’t really achievable.  Nonetheless, the show is a real mystery that respects the source material but gives it plenty of smart contemporary twists.  Elementary never loses sight of who Sherlock is and why he’s held our imagination for over a century.  Best of all, by making Watson a woman, it’s opened up the Sherlock story in a whole new way–just as Laurie L. King’s wonderful series breathed its own new life into the Sherlock legend.

Lucy Liu’s Watson is a strong, complex, fascinating woman.  Part of the joy of this show has been watching her develop from a sober companion into an amateur detective and Sherlock’s partner in crime-solving,  Just as enjoyable is the fact that her relationship with Sherlock does not feel stereotypical.  You don’t sense the writers taking the clichéd tack of pushing a male and female lead together because what else can happen between them?  I’m actually surprised at how many mystery fans I know who haven’t ever given Elementary a try, even the ones who are tired of Sherlock for many of the same reasons I am.

Do I love crime fiction, mystery films and TV?  Absolutely.  That’s one reason I was thrilled years ago when the Detroit Free Press expanded my brief and made me their crime fiction reviewer, a spot I held for about a decade. And I admire writers who value the genre, so I’m sorry when people cash in on it–or try–without really understanding its essence.

***

Lev Raphael is the author of seven Nick Hoffman mysteries set in the crazy world of academia, as well as seventeen other books in genres from memoir to Jane Austen mashup. His books have been translated into nearly a dozen languages, some of which he can’t recognize. But he has been able to do readings in German when he’s done book tours in Germany, thanks to a good tutor. Lev has been writing since he was in second grade and currently is a guest teacher of fiction writing, crime fiction, and Jewish-American Literature at Michigan State University. That university’s Library purchased his current and future literary papers for its Special Archives, carting off 93 boxes of all sorts of materials related to his long career. His attic is now navigable again.

For more about Lev’s books, check out his web site:http://www.levraphael.com.

Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LevRaphael

Read his book blogs at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lev-raphael/