When Will I Die, and Why Do Dogs Eat Poop?: Redux

Ah, yes, another oldie but goodie from the past (Sept. 2009), for your reading enjoyment; be aware these responses are from 2009, and some contain graphic wording: 

jpg_0627QUESTIONIt all started when when I wanted to use my silicone Bundt cake pan for the first time. Just before placing it in the oven, I wondered: Should I use a baking sheet to support the wobbly pan, or is this pan designed to use alone? I decided to do what anyone with a computer does: I Googled it. I intended to Google: “Should I use a baking sheet under a silicone pan?” but as soon as I typed, ”Should I,” a drop-down of popular suggestions appeared. I couldn’t ignore the juxtaposition of these responses. Some of the highlights (beware a graphic one) as they appear on Google:

“Should I…”
should i refinance my mortgage
should i stay or should i go (55.9 million results)
should i call him (85.4 million results)
should i shave my pubic hair
should i file bankruptcy
should i get a divorce

Magic 8 ballI didn’t know that Google had become a substitute for the Magic 8 ball (The Mattel Magic 8 ball, a toy used for seeking advice, was invented in 1946 by the son of a clairvoyant. You can even try an online version here).

(Concentrate and ask (Google) again….)

Typing “Should we…” in Google reveals a drop-down of the following:

“Should we….”
should we break up
should we get married (25 million results)
should weed be legal (over 45 million results)
should we have dropped the atomic bomb
should we file jointly
should we eliminate fats from our diet altogether and increase our proteins
should we move in together
should we get back together (99.9 million results)

Should I check “Does…”? (It is decidedly so.)
Does he like me (114 million results)
Does Obama smoke (over 30 million results)
Does hydroxycut/extenze/smooth away/alli work (responses condensed)
Does he love me
Does UPS delivery on Saturday
How about trying “Why”? (Without a doubt.)


why is the sky blue (25.2 million results)
why did the chicken cross the road
why men cheat
why did chris brown beat up rihanna
why do dogs eat poop
why did I get married (26 million results)

What kind of answers are Googlers expecting? (Reply hazy; try again.) What kind of answers are they finding? (Cannot predict now.)

I was on a roll. A peek at the results of “when,” “when will,” “how can,” and “how does”:

whejpg_Earth-from-spacen is the superbowl
when will i die (893 million results)
when i grow up
when will the world end (176 million results)

“When will….”
when will i get my tax refund
when will the recession end


when will the economy get better
when will i get married (30.7 million results)

“How can…”
how can you tell if a guy likes you
how can i make my hair grow faster
how can you tell if a girl likes you
how can i get pregnant
how can you tell if a girl is a virgin
how can you tell if someone is lying (over 9.2 million results)

This is like eating potato chips…

“How does…”
how does a bill become a law (173 million results)
how does birth control work
how does david blaine levitate
how does google make money
how does unemployment work
Questions surrounding finances, birth control, the end of life, relationships, and hair growth seem to be of utmost concern for so many inquiring minds. I thought the popular question about how a bill becomes law was promising.

Is anyone finding meaningful answers to such major life decisions online? (Cannot predict now.) Will Googlers stop asking such questions? (Very doubtful….)

Just one more? (Yes, definitely.)
“Can I…”
can I has cheeseburger
can I have your number
can I get pregnant on my period
can I afford a house

Oh ~ and the answer to my question about silicone bakeware? A baking sheet is recommended to stabilize. The chocolate cake came out just great!


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Back to Reality

I’ve recently gone back to work full-time, and, boy, has that been an adjustment. I’ve done freelance assignments and written fiction for six years, and I haven’t written a word of fiction since taking my job a month ago.

That is not good.

officeI enjoy writing fiction, but it has been years since I’ve come home from putting in eight hours and set down at the computer again. I write or edit most of the day now, and I find myself doing household chores, vegging in front of the TV, or reading. When I was working from home, I was reading an average of three books a week. Gone are the days…

I like to think I’m going through a period of adjustment…and I hope I get adjusted pretty quickly. My writing partner and I have published two books, and recently had Harlequin back out of our deal for a trilogy for their now-defunct e-book line. That has made it difficult to write too, just the sheer sadness of such a loss.Home

What do you do when you motivation has reached an all-time low? I like to put inspirational quotes on the refrigerator and my computer, so I’ll have visual reminders of what it is I want to do.

How about these?

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”  Mark Twain

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” Richard Bach

“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.”  Phillip Roth

“There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.”  Doris Lessing

These are good quotes, and I’m feeling more inclined to put fingers to keyboard. I mean, I wrote this, didn’t I? Now all I have to do is read the last chapter I wrote so I can catch up on my fiction.


Fidelity or Adultery? That is the Question

bed_frameI’ve come to a definite conclusion about the things I read and watch of late.  I find I’ve become increasingly uninterested in plots that include infidelity in a marriage. It seems so easy to me for characters to forget promises they’ve made and loyalty to a spouse to enjoy the secrecy and intrigue of adultery. The marriage bed is no longer sacred.

I know this happens in real life. My husband and I were part of a group of eight couples when we were newlyweds. Before we moved away from our hometown, there was only one other couple besides us still together. Nearly all of these marriages ended with adultery. One husband engaged in a work-place romance. Another friend lost her husband to her best friend. With another, the affair was between two men. I’m not foolish enough to think it never happens, but I am tired of seeing it as a gratuitous sex on the screen and between the pages.

I’ve been wondering if other people feel the same way. One thing I enjoy about murder mysteries is while the crime is often about passion, it can be passion about anything, not just love and sex.

I still enjoy romance novels, and I love the many mystery series I read. While John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport was a real lady’s man when he was single, he hasn’t been unfaithful to Weather since they married. Eve Dallas and Roarke value each other and their commitment too much to consider infidelity. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser adores Susan even though they have never married.

I also know I can choose the “hotness” of the books I read, but I’ve always enjoyed a variety of genres and books. I’m just tired of seeing adultery as a key plot element.

Anybody else thinking this way?

You may be right, but Poe’s handwriting makes me suspicious

There’s a new book, The Poet Edgar Allan Poe: Alien Angel by Jerome McGann, which is, very aptly, all about his poetry. (I’m ignorant enough not to have known what a fanboi Baudelaire was.) However, from reviewer Dominc Green’s perspective in The Weekly Standard (emphasis mine):

Poe is an acquired taste, like whiskey or opium. He was a poet in the way that William Blake was an artist: idiosyncratic and obscure, a commercial adventurer who lacked business sense, a marginal antagonist who became a national treasure, an etcher of sharp and violent lines with a dazzled eye for overdone color. His hero was Byron: a first-rate celebrity but a second-rate poet; really, a debauched Augustan. No less conventionally, Poe called Tennyson the greatest living poet. If Poe’s biography is Byron’s catastrophe on a budget, his poetry is Tennyson unhinged by Thomas de Quincey. As heroic Romanticism slides into boggling horror, meter becomes an avalanche.

Poe was a peerless self-destructor: He was a liar and a plagiarist, a drunk in the office and a beggar in the street, who pandered to a public he despised and married his 13-year-old cousin. McGann skirts the biographical disaster and concentrates on Poe’s writing. But without the tragic setting, Poe’s verse wilts into melodrama, and as McGann forgoes context, he takes Poe at his own assessment, which Poe, a chronic self-publicist, supplied in his marginalia and essays.

Well, okay, all this may be so–it’s certainly the commonly-held view of the wild rebelliousness and dangerous edge that Poe himself seems to have cultivated among readers to provoke and sell papers. Disclaimer: I’m cognizant of the incompleteness of my knowledge. I’m not saying that artifice is the only cause for Poe’s reputation and that it was nothing more than his flair for showmanship. But smart Poe people who I’ve asked seem to read in his words–some of which I got to peruse myself– that his self-cultivated sensationalism was at least part of the hype surrounding him. Now, when I’m reading florid summaries of Poe’s epically rock-n-roll ‘tude, I always think back to visiting the Poe exhibit at the Morgan library. Something popped out at me then that my own lying eyes cannot forget. I further blame my former stints as a bartender and all the mysteries and crime fiction I’ve read.

On diplay were many long scrolls of hand-written manuscripts in a beautiful hand, some impossibly small and perfectly-placed. For publicity and commemorative purposes, Poe made lavishly calligraphed works on scrolls. If you saw this kind of execution in Poe’s own hand–and perhaps you did, too, so share in the comments!– and the sheer volume of other documents, revised copies, bound books, and even ledgers in tiny, almost-impeccable script, you might have your doubts, too, about his being a career drunk. First of all, where would he have found the time to spend what must’ve been endless hours in painstaking transcription? For a guy on the hustle, and always in need of scratch, hours away from the writing board were hungry hours, and he did have his little family who he’s reputed to have cared for.

When people blithely cite Poe’s years of alcohol abuse, I think what they likely mean, and it’s a big difference, is long stints of near-teetotaling sobriety–which are documented in at least a couple spots by him as being his intention–punctuated with blackout binges. From the people I spoke to at the exhibit, it wasn’t even attested that Poe could really “put it away,” like a hard-core drunk. He was a small man and likely a lightweight. When he did fall off the wagon, he would’ve been a cheap date, to mix my metaphors. Perhaps his outsized reputation is why, at his death, people may have been dragging him around town, pouring ever more down him, not aware that a sporadic binger couldn’t tolerate it like a hollow-legged merchant marine. Then again, maybe they didn’t care.

Yes, writing was Poe’s business and he’d have had more automatic, muscle-memorized skills than many, but seriously. In a career drunk, as we say, the eyes go blinky and the hands go wobbly long before the liver fails. No man with regularly-pounding hangovers, throbbing vision, delirium tremens (or whatever else the popular perception of his condition) could have, in my view, penned the regularly exacting duplicating work I saw any more than one could be so impaired while illuminating in one’s monkish cubicle at the scriptorium or even painting on a grain of rice at the mall. The advent of word processors, with their endless, invisible corrections was a gift to sozzled writers everywhere.

1849-Poe-EssayThe document above is not able to be enlarged to readability (sorry!), but it is a page from an essay Poe handwrote in 1849, the year he died. The image and dimensions are from the PoeMuseum.org. This page, one of three, is 10″ x 8″. It’s far from the tightest, cleanest copy I saw. Nonetheless, as I roughly calculate it by number of lines and word spacing, to fit all this onto the page, around 500 words, Poe’s work here is approximately 11pt font, single-spaced. I’m not sure I can do that now, and I know I can’t do it evenly and legibly.

Edgar-Allan-Poe-Analyzes-HandwritingMaybe that’s why I noticed his penmanship after all, because mine is so foul. But Poe was so attentive to the art, he actually wrote his own treatise on graphology, including literary criticism and analysis of major literary figures of his time.

To me, this is exactly the kind of situation where a visit to a museum or archive to look at the original source material can offer so much more food for thought than just a transcription of words that were on the page. Whether I’m right (or write), after seeing the flourishes of all his beautiful words, I’ll never look at Poe the same way, and I’ll never be able to take those “everybody knows” biographical claims of his grinding, utter dissolution at purely face value.

That’s only my opinion–feel free to share yours!

Poetry and Short Stories: Descent From Art to Craft?

Classical-Art-Vegetable-CarvingIn an article for The Smart Set, Michael Lind compares writing poetry to making carrot carnations, the work of well-intentioned hobbyists. Yes, the courts of feudal lords and kings had professional bards, but not tons of them for each territory, and most of these positions evolved through rigorous apprenticeship in their form. The phenomenon of there being thousands and thousands of literary non-hobbyists, millions if we count teachers and librarians and publishers and booksellers and reveiwers as there surely are today, is very recent in human history, and the product of societies and civilizations with broad amounts of time and wealth to spare. To me, this article sounds like it could be the disappointment of a person in a moment of cultural change, when one’s most beloved style goes out-of-fashion. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but as a person whose interests put me permanently “out,” maybe I don’t comprehend enough what’s been lost. Lind writes:

With the exception of rap, which has a mass audience, poetry has moved from the category of a minor art to a craft. In the course of numerous readings of my own published verse, I gradually came to the conclusion that almost everyone in the audience at a poetry reading is a poet or aspiring poet. My guess is that a majority of people who read poetry also write poetry.

Poetry in the twenty-first century is like pottery, woodworking, or the making of carrot carnations. Sophisticated verse was never a major art, and having lost even a small non-practitioner audience, it has lost its status as a minor art. At hobbyist conventions, celebrated practitioners of a craft address an audience made up of other practitioners of the craft, who will then go home and work at the art themselves. Poetry has more residual cultural prestige than carrot carnation making and other hobbies, but that is only because most of the poet-hobbyists are professors with MFAs, while there are no professors of table-setting.

The short story, like poetry, already may have gone from being a minor art to being a craft. When I worked as an editor at Harper’s magazine in the 1990s, many acquaintances would comment on our essays and features, but I never heard anyone mention one of the short stories we published. The short story writers whom we published were almost exclusively MFAs who made a living by teaching short story and novel writing at liberal arts colleges. I may be mistaken, but I suspect that the same group that writes short stories today makes up the majority of those who read the short stories that are still published out of a sense of cultural responsibility in magazines like The New Yorker and Harper’s.

The literary novel, too, may be on its way to losing its minor art status and becoming a pure hobby of the creative writing professors who produce most of it in their spare time, while teaching writing courses. Some time ago, I was surprised when the editor of a highbrow magazine and of a major book review, respectively, both told me that their favorite contemporary author was Patrick O’Brien, author of “Master and Commander.” You hypocrites, I thought. You don’t even read the literary fiction that you publish or review. You read well-written genre fiction on your own time. Goodbye, Jonathan Franzen, and ahoy, matie!

Just a dog gone minute--who are you calling a fuddy duddy?

Who are you calling a fuddy duddy?

I wasn’t sure if he so speedily dismissed rap, an enormous category of work that appeals to younger wordsmiths, because he doesn’t like the form or because it doesn’t support his assertions of obsolescence. Yes, well. You can read it all and decide what you think. He’s right about one thing: I don’t read short stories in Harper’s generally. I mostly read the truly excellent work being done in loads of genre and genre-bending forums, especially online, and at all lengths, including micro-fiction that gets damn close to poetry itself. I also think someone from an earlier century might’ve said, “With the exception of Tennyson/Wordsworth/Frost/Angelou, which has a mass audience, poetry has moved from art to craft. You hypocrites. You don’t even write 15,000 line epics like the Iliad anymore.”

Contemporary, lightning-speed communication allows for increased whimsicalities of style. (And when they bring back the gauchos of the eighties, that’s the hill I will choose to die on.) But I don’t usually conflate trends of delivery method or shifts of activity from one forum to another for abandonment of the underlying form. IMO, the careful crafting of verse and story, whether in the packaging I’m most accustomed to or not, is right here and now powerfully conveying understanding, artistic endeavor, and human elevation.

What do you think of poetry, short stories, and/or elaborate vegetable garnishes? (I’m pretty sure the leading image is photoshopped, but it makes me happy anyway, go figure.)

Riding the Roller Coaster

At the end of 2013, my writing partner and I (we write as Neely Powell) were on a high of success. Our first book came out in November 2013, and we had signed a contract for a trilogy with a major romance publisher. The first book came out in March 2014 as part of a new digital venture. We were thrilled. We completed the second book and went through he editing process; it was scheduled for later in the year, and we began work on the third book.

Months passed with no word from our editor. Emails went unanswered or vague references were given for the delays. We began to worry and learned in November that the publishing line was being shut down. We are still waiting to get the rights back and finish the third book. At least if we offer it to someone else, we’ve got two complete and edited manuscripts.

roller coasterAnd so the roller coaster ride of writing continues.

I’ve been through this before. My first book was bought by the second publisher I offered it to, however, they ended up going out of business before it was published. I’m beginning to feel like Jinx, the character in the old Lil’ Abner comic strip who walked around with a cloud above  his head that was always dumping rain on him.

We’re not giving up. My partner and I are looking at agents, other markets, and self-publishing. At this point we have no idea what we’re going to do, but we’ve had contact with other writers in this publishing line that are going through the same thing. Misery loves company.

The one thing I know we won’t do is stop writing. Our first book is still available for sale, and we do promote it.

It’s up and down, but it’s what we’ve chosen. How are you feeling about your writing right now?



Do You Like Crime Novel Prologues?

Considering prologues in novels, this image that opens Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais looks so wonderful and important, how could any reader distrust its quality?

In a recent guest post at Writer’s Digest, Jeff Gerke trots right across one of my personal landmines, The Prologue Beginning, demonstrated with an example that rekindles my rage every time I recall it:

Game of Thrones (the HBO series based on George R.R. Martin’s novels) begins with a prologue showing less-than-minor characters discovering a new danger in the land.

YES! And some of us rubes were interested, too. Do you know how long adherents to that “story promise” had to wait to get back to The Others?! Aaaaaarrrrgh. (Yes, I’ve read 4 and then some in the cycle. I refuse to finish reading the last one extant until their creator finishes his part. If GRRM can leave me hanging, seemingly conscienceless, well, right back atcha buddy.) And this illustrates one of my principle problems with many prologues: their disconnection from the essential story being told. At worst, they’re a bit of optional or even misleading set dressing, and let’s be frank, in crime novels, our especial concern, there are dangerous temptations. For example, the scary dream sequence. You know, something like this:

…The blood was her own!

Dr. Gina, the extremely intelligent but also incredibly sexy profiler, found herself awake again, the sweat from another nightmare sticking her tissue-thin shirt to her enviable corpus. She had survived [name of the supergenius serial killer about-to-escape from prison], and the scars had healed so well they’d barely needed Photoshop on her recent Person of the Year cover. So why was she so afraid?

Then again, there’s always the lure of the serial killer’s internal monologue:

It was always the same. Always different and yet new. Always in italics and with gender-obscuring pronouns or lack of same. The headaches again! No, Mommy, I won’t let you down this time!

I’m picking on the serial killer tales a bit, but I’ve read a lot of them and feel entitled. (Doesn’t mean I’ve given up, however. As I once heard an acquiring editor for sff say: I never wanted to read another dragon story, and then I read this one, and knew I needed at least one more. Yep. That’s how they get you.) Here’s the more illuminating stuff Mr. Gerke had to say about the anti-prologuers, a position into which I fear I may have hardened like an insect in amber, needing the chisel of a great new story to set me free.

As you probably know, we’re in disputed territory when we talk about prologues. Many fiction experts tell writers never to write a prologue, while others (like me) say prologues are great.

The Anti-Prologuers argue that: 1) No one reads prologues; 2) Prologues are just dumping grounds for backstory; and 3) Prologues prevent you from getting to the main action of the story.

The Pro-Prologuers (Pro-Loguers?) contend that: 1) 95 percent of fiction readers do read prologues; 2) Any portion of a book that is a dumping ground for backstory should be cut—not because it has the word prologue at the top but because telling instead of showing is lazy writing; and 3) Prologues allow you to set the right tone for your novel without having your protagonist onstage doing something heroic.

In the post, also discusses 3 more approaches: the Hero Action Beginning, the In Media Res Beginning, and the Frame Device, which you can go read more about. They’re all excerpted from his book Write Your Novel in a Month. But for my our purposes here in CrimeTown, do you have a strong opinion on prologues, pro or con? Naturally, any of yours are excepted from any objection of mine, and I’ll give bonus points for directing me to any other great recent crime prologues I’ve missed that will make me eat my words!

Leading image via the University of Adelaide.

How to Moderate an Author Panel (well, one way)

How-To-Moderate-An-Author-PanelThere is, actually, NO single, right way to moderate an author panel, so I’m offering my own thoughts only. Many outstanding moderators and panelists view it differently, but here’s my take on both roles. By the time you read this, I may be already moderating my first panel of three at this year’s Bouchercon *gulp*

Like many people, I do get nervous in advance of public appearances. I still get jitters–not cripplingly, but notably–even after doing a lot of them and even though I enjoy doing them. That’s because I want things also to go well this time, and you can’t know whether it worked until it’s all done, like a manuscript. Part of my insuring things go well is that I have a clear idea of my own rationale for such appearances. It’s served me well enough so far, and I stick to it. Whether you think my tips have merit, finding any approach you like for such situations (since like public readings, author panels are something fiction writers are encouraged to do) and being consistent will help provide a buffer against anxiety.


Alfred Hitchcock interviewed by Dick Cavett

AS A MODERATOR: When I’m asked to moderate, I approach it like the authors are showing up to do the Dick Cavett show. I pick Cavett as an example, though I wasn’t alive for his whole run. But in interviews I’ve seen (and there are a bazillion worth watching online–just search), he comes across as upbeat and well-versed, confident, but with a light touch that keeps the focus on the guests. That is a smooth quality, IMO, so that’s what I try to be: an engaged, friendly person who’s done enough homework to offer the authors a positive and interesting way to showcase their work.

Now, I don’t have a team of research assistants or junior production staff, but I’m blessed by the times. For bios and book info, I’ll search. If there’s a featured interview online or guest post, I’ll find it. So, the only info I ask from authors is to let me know if there’s a specific question I should or should not ask, and whether their online materials are correct. I’ll always mention their latest publications or endeavors–that’s what will most likely be available in the book room after all–but occasionally, there’s something specific to an audience’s interest or something late-breaking that ought also to be part of their intro. There are also occasionally landmines (could be contractual or related to partnerships or series) or sensitivities (a recent online contretemps or blow-up) that an author wishes to dodge in panel conversation. I can’t control the audience Q&A, but I can and will steer clear of such things myself if notified. Yes, the latest tempest may be the most recent topic of interest, but I’m there for the work first.

I do read a lot a material for panels, but probably not an author’s entire bibliography and maybe not even to The End of the latest novel. My goal is to get enough of a feel for anything I don’t know yet (since I’ve already got some major genre mileage on my eyeballs) that I can harvest it for questions. I frequently use an author’s words, quoted in brevity, as a launch pad for my questions. If I want to ask questions about characters, I’ll read a sentence of the novel’s description about the protagonist. Humor? I’ll quote from a a funny interview the author gave. I make these quotes brief, and I mean brief, because the mod should never be the focus for too long. But when I’m spring-boarding from the author’s own work or words, I’m always confident of being on-topic. Talk To Me About Your Work is my mantra. It’s the source, the wellspring, the safe harbor to which I will return for questions again and again.

Attention-Please-Hurry-UpNow, backing up some, even if supplied the text by authors or their websites, I may need to cut panel introductions down. If you recall my How to Read Fiction Aloud post, when reading material for an audience, I’m at the pace of about 150 words/minute. Therefore, I like an author intro that’s no longer than 30 seconds, about half that time, or about 75 words at max. Why? 30 seconds can seem like a plenty loooong time to simply be reading from your notes, but audiences aren’t there to hear me, and they won’t recall all the fine details anyway. In fact, because of this, rather than introduce everybody all in a row at once, blab, blab, blab… I like to give the intro at the time when I ask each author the first question. To me, this links their bio more memorably to the question and response. Think of it like a cinematic establishing shot. (Yes, I may ask general questions for the whole panel’s response later, but I always start with an intro and question for each individual. ) To some people, this approach seems weirder than rattling all the intros off at once, but I think it gives each author’s intro pride of place, attention right at the time they can respond to it, like a natural conversation. YMMV. To condense bios, I may summarize a list of by-name awards down to “three lifetime achievement awards from international organizations.” It’s easier to recall, still sounds impressive, and lets us swiftly get onto the conversation.

I do try to retain anything unusual from the bio that will help the author stick in the mind, however, especially for those building series and careers. So sue me, I’d rather mention your parents’s ostrich ranch than each of the titles of your past four books. If I mention the series name or protagonist, interested readers can and will look up the book list themselves, but they’ll be more likely to remember they wanted to if they can mentally link your name, series, and the interesting detail of a growing up on an ostrich ranch. And since I got all that from your online materials (right?), a general search of “cozy mystery bike shop ostrich ranch” will bring your site right to the top of the list. Ta-da, your prospective reader has found you, even if the convention program and schedule get lost.

Let’s suppose your sadly impoverished bio has no ostrich ranch, no, don’t bother making one up. I’m most focused, as the audience will be, on having the conversation. Without doubt, it’s the conversation that audiences remember most of all! Casual, pithy, relevant remarks are the ones that get recalled and retold. As moderator, I’m trying to give the maximum opportunity for a conversation that feels unique to the time and place and crowd, something candid, not canned. This becomes increasingly important with authors and audiences that have a lot of panels in their pasts. I’ve heard about every crime fiction topic ever invented, I’d guess, but I still leave grinning after terrific panels. While at the dais, IMO, the moderator and panelists should work together to cultivate a spontaneous, genuine feeling and to promote generous participation (and that’s whether the topics are funny or deadly serious, or even feel at the outset to be threadbare or misconceived). That authenticity and goodwill happen in the moment. It’s not necessarily related to any advance cramming, it’s about enjoying the experience in real-time, about making the most of sharing with like-minded fans. For an audience, that creates a positive emotional impression of the experience that will outlast the details.

talk-micAS A PANELIST: Please speak right into the mic (but don’t yell) with genuine enthusiasm about your own work. If you don’t seem to care, who else will? Yes, yes, many authors are introverted and shy by nature. But, if you can sit in the dentist’s chair for an hour and resist the urge to fight back, you can overcome your other natural instincts long enough to smile for people who may actually want to invite your work into their imaginations and pay you for it!  That said, here are some of my Pet Peeves for Panelists:

1) If there’s a great story you like to tell, please don’t use the same verbiage or punch line unless it’s popular enough to be a t-shirt and people expect it. Do feel free to allude to the fact you’re aware the audience may have heard it before. In stuffy conference rooms, and especially after lunch, eyes glaze over with lusterless repetition. Make sure it’s really worth the risk to jam in that old chestnut. Didn’t something silly happen with your neighbor’s dog and the laundry last week? Survey your family’s Facebook stories, and find a way to work them in–you’re a creative liar, remember? You can always ask your friendly mod (yes, ask me!) to bring up the subject The question might be a set-up, like in a late-night talk show, but your having fresh material to share and discuss is more important.

2) If your work is a really bad fit for the panel you’re on (which definitely happens), grousing about that or other conference logistics during the panel will only make you look like a sourpuss. Your gripes may be well-founded, but is the impression you want to leave with prospective readers that you’re person who’s a drag to spend time with? Or instead, if you’re inviting readers into your written adventures of life-and-death and injustice, is there a chance you could, for the short-term, embrace a bold and adventurous can-do attitude yourself?


Even if nerves make you chatty, don’t get labeled as a glory hog.

3) Don’t steal all the airtime. As an audience member, you already know how much you hate when this happens, but be especially aware if you’re a habitual blatherer when nervous. *my hand is raised* No one, not your mother or your literary agent, wants to hear all the details of the dream in three acts you had the night before you started writing your novel. “I got the idea during a nightmare” is perfectly interesting (and Tweetable) and leaves the audience wanting to know more, not wishing you’d wrap it up. Don’t get so caught in your own head that you fail to look at anyone else–they’ll give you cues to their interest. Also, if I’m doing my mod job right, after you open an interesting topic, I can invite your follow-up or check if another panelist has had a similar experience, leading to an expanded discussion. We’re with you then, captivated, not simply held captive.

4) Your opinions are yours. Yes, you should share them (re: that authenticity I keep harping on about), but as your personal convictions and from your perspective, always leaving respectful room for disparate views–there are plenty, which is what makes life and fiction entertaining.

So many panels fail in just these simple aspects, that I can guarantee if a panel session feels genuine and collegial (of whatever style the moderation or topic or authors), people will tell you it was a great panel. Really! Take my word for it, and see you at the next panel!

Talk to me mic image via ShizzleDizzleMagic‘s 9 tips for public speaking.

How to Read Fiction Aloud: Slowly, 150 words/minute

Laura and I are back in one piece from last weekend’s Noir at the Bar, and what a fun time it was! Lots of writers, yummy crepes. It was cozy and collegial, and that was a night with many terrific readers, but it made me think about readings in general. The idea of authors reading their work is supposed to amount to entertainment for the audience and a good promotional opportunity for the author. However, too often IMO, it’s neither, and most often, I think it’s because writers assume that familiarity with their own work through having created it is enough to take them most of the way through a reading. Erm, well, I’m not so sure about that…

So, here are tips, in case you haven’t done a public reading before and wonder where to start, or hope to stop getting cut off before you’re done, would like to feel more engagement from listeners, or want to have more confidence and fun doing them.

Confusing-ActionSELECTION: Do NOT pick a selection of complicated choreography–it can be difficult to follow by ear if there’s too much action. I don’t mean action in general, but the kind where it really matters that he feinted clockwise on his heel then to the left, or that the tiny blue wire was affixed, just behind, but not quite out of sight of the barometric gangliwrench. If you’re going to read lots of action, read action that’s direct and easy to visualize, but I would make sure it has alternating moments of internal reaction to the action as well. People attach to characters first, so I probably ought to care about the guy who’s wrestling an anaconda, or I might want the wrong one to win.

In reaction to my caution above, do NOT pick a selection of extensive description or backstory where there’s no action at all, just exposition. There needs to be some arc and movement through what you’re reading to provide dramatic rhythm. Think about a hook-y beginning, an immersive middle. a breathtaking finish. Yes, even short readings should have that structure, because all of us campfire ghost story fans understand intrinsically how that works, whether it’s a joke being told or half of your Chapter 8.

Do NOT pick a selection where you think you’ll have to spend lots of time just explaining the context of the scene to make it comprehensible. Most often with this latter problem, you may think you need this, but clever listeners really can jump aboard a moving freight train with more agility than authors may assume. We do it all the time. Think of the micro-seconds it takes us to figure out the premise of a 15-second radio commercial. I don’t need to know these people’s names or backgrounds. There’s a dad with a lazy teen who keeps going overboard on his text messaging. I’m ready for what’s next.

Do NOT feel you have to do an early introductory scene, if it’s not the most easily carved into a dramatically-paced selection. Do NOT be over-concerned with spoilers. If you don’t give listeners some good stuff, they’ll never read your book to get spoiled at all.

DO try to pick a scene with one of your leading characters, because they’re likely  to be the most richly developed, and it’s part of letting people know who you are as a fiction writer. DO try to pick a scene without crazy detail, but with some specificity that will help it stand out in the crowd. Miscellaneous talking heads on a street or over a table is usually less memorable than a conversation over a flat tire, while buying sixteen yards of duct tape, while hanging upside down from a bar. (But you know that, that’s why there are so many otherwise prosaic conversations over straight-razor shaves in barber chairs.)

Dramatic-MomentDO try to pick a scene that’s easy to explain and inherently dramatic. I was reading a complete story, so it didn’t/shouldn’t need additional set-up, but if you’re reading from the center of a novel, think about setting up your premise for listeners in a single sentence. Hard? Sure, but you’re a writer. “The wounded detective returns to the station, only to learn the prisoner who stabbed her is loose in the building with a police uniform.” So maybe you’d begin, not with her thinking about her life and limping thoughtfully up the gray, granite steps, because it’s an introduction to her, but instead, with the detective’s profane yell at the sergeant in full voice as her blood drips on the floor. You might feel odd about beginning your reading with a yell, but if you’re brave enough to do it, people will remember (and I’d dare say enjoy) your reading, and if you’ve got a thriller, it’s perfect. What listener wouldn’t want to know more?

LENGTH: Now everyone is a little different, of course, and I’ve often heard (and even told people before now!) to plan on reading about one MS page per minute, so usually, around 250 words. However, over time, I’ve now decided, at least for my own work, to really deliver it the way I want, the speed is a LOT more like 150 words/minute.

Nervous-SpeakerNervousness, once in front of a real audience, almost always makes readers speedier, and that can really impact the listener’s ability to follow the thread of the narration. Also, the occasional, deliberate pause is extremely important for effect and emphasis, as well as comprehension. Please take that breath!

In my case, I really thought I had the final selection done, but once I started practicing aloud, it was clearly way over my 10-minute allotment, so I went back to editing and editing until I had the right time. Finally, finally, it fell in at about 1670 words in 10 minutes. For me, that was almost 6 full, double-spaced manuscript pages in 12 pt font. If I’d already known how slow I was really going to want to read–and I won’t forget now that I’ll have this post to remind me–I could have saved myself some time tweezing at the margins while I still needed a machete.

In the case of my very-short story, which I was aiming to read in its entirety, I believe my repeated cut-downs made it stronger, because every word had to serve a purpose to be allowed to stay. Yes, I know we all hear that this should be our goal in every sentence, but let’s be frank, in a 90,000 word novel, there will be some prose that’s a little less purposeful and muscular, so to speak. All the re-reading during the revision process also made my reading smoother, so when I got to doing it live, I was more comfortable, having half-memorized it in the process.

By my lights, 10 minutes is about the maximum enjoyable duration for any single piece in a setting that’s not designed for performance. By that, I mean not in a theater, not by a voice actor, no paid tickets, stuck in the corner of the library’s reading room, that kind of thing. So, once my selection was appropriately whittled down, I printed out a fresh copy for the evening’s real notations.

Highlighter-pensPREPARING COPY: I love e-books, and if you have a lot of capacity in your reading app for markup, a digital copy may be fine, but for public readings, I really prefer having a printout, double-spaced, since that gives plenty of room for me to scribble. I also collate and staple my one-sided pages at the left corner. Once I’m reading, I don’t want to be shuffling pages, flipping back and forth reading duplex, dropping any sheets, or suddenly panicking that I’ve disordered something. Any of these fumbling misfortunes is only abetted by performance anxiety. Once I have my printout ready, I read it aloud with a timer and start marking it up with a pen and highlighter. (Some people prefer pencil, in case they need corrections.)

My markup includes highlighting any word that I wouldn’t naturally emphasize, but which ought to be in this selection. For example, I’d naturally tend to emphasize a word in italics, but what about that weird name of a Rottweiler when it’s called across the park? I’ll highlight things like that, even underline them for max effect. When you highlight this way, your eyes will catch it as you’re working down the page and you’ll be ready for whatever kind of vocal expression is called for when that bit comes.

I also scribble pronunciations next to any difficult words. Pronunciations are especially good to have in the margins if I’m reading work that’s not my own. Perhaps there are foreign words I had to look up, or words I’ve only seen written before and just learned to say (or say differently). Is the philosopher Pliny pronounced more like PLINNY or PLEINY? I don’t want to decide wrong on the fly, or worse, freeze up in confusion when I get there. Not sure what’s going to be difficult? Read it aloud. Again. (This is the cure for almost any problem.) Any place that trips you as you read, no matter how dumb it seems that you stumble there, is a place for you to give yourself some guidance. The Future You will send her fervent appreciation from the podium.


Note the many additions and underscores. Good enough for JFK should be good enough for any speaker.

I had a sentence in my recent story that I just couldn’t say without mangling. Yes, I wrote it, but there was something about the way the consonants fell. I kept screwing it up in my classically dyslexic fashion. In this case, I had the ability to edit those words into something I could actually say, preciousness of my own prose be damned. If I can’t change the words, I can at least put in a note to Slow Down just before that part. (This, too, is practically a miracle cure for difficult sections.)

Long, complex sentences with big words (hello, Henry James) may have several emphasis points within their phrases, and in that case, I like to use a highlighter on any word I want to be sure to hit plus slashes to separate the text into logical phrases, and even double slashes or brackets where I want longer than usual pauses. This is my personal, bastardized way of marking up copy, something I learned and then forgot the proper way to do for radio copy in the distant past. If slashes don’t tell you to pause, put something else in. Red dots, tall X’s, unhappy faces. It’s your personal lexicon and the more effortlessly understandable it is to you, the more instantly and helpfully it will speak to you when you’re in the limelight.

DELIVERY: You’re on! So you’ve practiced reading aloud–and you have, right? And your copy’s well-prepared–and it is, right? Once you’re in front of an audience, it’s STILL Very Important to read More Slowly than you think you need to, and to emphasize with More Dramatic Pitch and Rhythm Changes than feels natural. Form the words More Deliberately than you do in conversation. All this, because nervousness makes monotonic mumble-mouths of us all.

Stand in a relaxed pose, one where you won’t need to weave, because lots of fidgeting or swaying can be distracting. But don’t lock your knees. (Many a high-school choir concert has seen fainting off the top riser from locked knees.) Try to keep your shoulders down, your chin up and your chest open, so you have plenty of air for your biggest moments. If you can, hold your copy in front of you, not flat. It’s pretty natural to want to hold the copy like a tabletop, then to curl your neck and head over to read it. However, your listeners are probably in front of you, not in the floorboards with the termites, and for the sound of your voice to get to them, it’s much better if you aim it in their direction, and the occasional bit of eye contact is always appreciated. The second issue is that crunching your windpipe like a shepherd’s crook isn’t very conducive to deep breaths either, the breaths that keep you calm, help pace your work, and provide support for dynamic range in your reading.

Feel it and see it! You know what it’s like when you tell someone something unusual, and they seem unmoved, so you respond by repeating it in a more emphatic, amped-up way to persuade them to get it? “I said he married the dog!” That second, more intense form of the communication is exactly what we’re listening for, so let yourself feel the emotional tides of your selection. That doesn’t mean you have to twirl an invisible mustache when you say “He was a bad man,” but if you can let that lousy ratfink appear in your mind while you’re telling us, he’ll come across. Really! That’s reason number infinity for advance preparation, because if you know the material well, your mind has enough spare wattage to visualize what you’re saying, and that really does help your delivery immensely.

Happy-AudienceI’ve never heard anyone call out “Read it with less feeling!” Also, no one will ever complain you’re too slow, as long as you’re within your time–and if none’s specified, think 10 minutes–it’s magic. The only thing better than a great 10-minute reading is a great 5-minute reading, seriously. You’re there to tantalize with a sample of your work that makes them want more. Boring them or overstaying your welcome is never in the service of that cause. (Also, I’d like to recommend a special cul-de-sac of Hell be assigned for writers at a group reading who chew up everyone else’s time and wear out the audience by going way over, because they didn’t bother preparing and tried to wing it.)

When you’re comfortable with the material you’re presenting, you feel confident, you can express dramatically, but still naturally, not stiffly, reacting to the listeners in the audience as they react to you. And when you have prepared great material, don’t be afraid to use it again, because those people in the crowd who’ve heard it may enjoy the encore!

Hard to believe there’s more to talk about, isn’t it? But I’ll have to save the rest for another post–this one’s enormous already! So, look for more later–I will not promise when–on reading with mics and sound systems, for the cases when you have that capacity. I’ll talk about what to DO with mics, what to AVOID, what can be easily ADJUSTED by you or someone else, and what you may just have to SUFFER through.

Hope this was at all useful. Happy Reading and Knock ‘Em Dead!

Burglar Swipes Snickers

jpg_Royalty-Free-RF-Copyright-Safe-Magnifying-Glass-With-FingerprintFor sixteen of my twenty-one-years with the Suffolk County Police Department, while assigned to Public Information (liaison with the media) and Crime Stoppers (taking anonymous tips from the public to help solve crimes and locate wanted persons), I developed a sense of which kind of stories appealed to the media and public.

This recent story about two men being arrested in Southold, Long Island, caught my attention.

First, the seriousness of the crime must be addressed.

The 46-year-old suspect, identified in Newsday as Kenny Belcher of Riverhead, broke into a Mattituck home at 10 pm on Friday, March 28, 2014. As he was confronted by the homeowner, he demanded money. She refused. On his way out, he swiped a bag of Snickers.


The article doesn’t mention if the homeowner was injured; however, it’s a harrowing experience when a stranger breaks into one’s home. Even if the perp leaves “peacefully,” the shock of what happened and what could have happened may haunt the victim –now and in the future.

Newsday reports, “Southold police were called to the area of Pacific Street in Mattituck about 10 p.m. Friday after a woman said she observed Belcher peering into her neighbor’s windows and trying to open a door. Belcher had knocked on the woman’s door a few minutes earlier, police said.”

This suggests Mr. Belcher was trying doors.  jpg_door501

About 26 years ago, I was home alone one night when someone forcefully banged on the front door (the first ‘sign’ of trouble, as the side door was the preferred entrance and exit; all neighbors, friends, and relatives knew this). As my pulse raced, I had only seconds to decide what to do; if I remained silent, he might assume the house was unoccupied and attempt to break in.

Wishing to avoid that scenario, I remained opposite him, behind the solid locked door. I firmly asked, “Who is it?” and he began uttering an excuse (with the hesitation reminiscent of comedian Jon Lovitz — aka Tommy Flanagan/The Pathological Liar, when he’d finish a sentence, “Yeah, yeah, that’s the ticket“), saying he was from the car repair service…from down the street…and had information on special offers for car work.

Yeah, right.

“No, thanks,” I insisted. This jerk kept at it, repeatedly asking me to “just open the door.”

“I’m calling 911,” I said. He beat feet.

I recall wondering if an unsuspecting, overly-trusting elderly person might have opened the door.


I’ll never forget what a boss on the job once said to me: When a burglar breaks into a home knowing it’s potentially occupied, he’s mentally prepared to commit homicide.

Since this occurred at night, Mr. Belcher was indeed risking it.

If a resident takes measures to protect him or herself — which he/she has every right to do (the “castle doctrine,” which varies by state) — then the burglar might be poised to attack.

Avoiding confrontation is (usually) the foremost concern of a burglar, hence the majority of break-ins occur during the day.


The police found Mr. Belcher and another man, identified as Willie James Blackmon, age 88, leaving the area. The police found a loaded revolver in Blackmon’s car.

Newsday reports that Belcher faces charges of first-degree burglary, two counts of criminal possession of a weapon and one count of criminal possession of stolen property.

Blackmon is charged with one count of felony criminal possession of a weapon.

gif_ss_usa26Both men were being held pending arraignment in Southold Town Justice Court.

While we’re on the subject, here’s a list from HowStuffWorks on “Top 10 Simple Ways to Discourage Break-ins.”

With full understanding of the severity of the crime, let’s turn to some comic relief. 

Might the burglar refer to the popular Snickers ad campaign,”You’re Not You When You’re Hungry,” as his defense? (Yes, my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek.) But, as the burglar sought to steal cash, he couldn’t have anticipated the enticing presence of a bag of Snickers — therefore, it was a crime of opportunity (unless he spotted the bag after peering through a window, and that was his motive, too). In New York, one of the crime elements of burglary is to “knowingly enter and remain unlawfully in a building (or dwelling) with the intent to commit a crime therein,” so even if he refrained from stealing the Snickers, he’d still face a charge of burglary.

The shocker is that the 46-year-old burglar’s alleged accomplice is an 88-year-old man. 


The Suffolk Times reported that after appearing in Southold court, Belcher was held without bail. Also, get this: the suspect had been arrested for heroin possession in Riverhead just days before the burglary. He had been charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance, taken into custody, and later released on $200 bail with a ticket to appear in court.

He appeared much sooner than expected.

Mr. Blackmon remains held on $10,000 cash bail or $50,000 bond. A loaded .32-caliber Smith & Wesson was found in his Cadillac when police pulled the pair over during a traffic stop.

Elizabeth Fasolino at The East Hampton Patch wrote about the crime in a post entitled: “Your Snickers or Your Life: Riverhead Men Busted for Burglary.

When Newsday articles are posted online, readers start adding comments. Newsday removes inappropriate content. Regardless of the nature of the story, the comments can be sympathetic, empathetic, rude, sarcastic, and then there’s some that are downright mean, and others simply hysterical.


Here’s a sampling of the 90 comments regarding the Mattituck Snickers Burglary, with a warning from one of the commenters:

“Warning: comments may have you laughing uncontrollably and holding your stomach. Use the facilities before proceeding.”

“If they had been exposed to Common-Core, they would have been college and career ready, and would not have had to resort to this kind of life style.”

“They will probably do more jail time than those LIRR crooks who stole hundreds of thousands. What a screwed up justice system.”

“Snickers really satisfy!”

“88 year old thieves. What an economy.”

“Was the gun found on the 88 year old’s car a black powder musket?”

“Too bad he didn’t steal some bacon. Then he’d be a ham burglar.”

“We used to be the wet bandits. Now we’re the Snickers bandits. S N I C …” “Shut up Marv!”

“Well, now we know what he’d do for a Snickers; the question is, what would he do for a Klondike bar?”

“Bad Grandpa II.”

“Prison medicine is better than OBAMACARE.”

“The homeowner also caught a Yeti stealing his wheat thins.”

“88 years old, some getaway driver, s.s. needs to be raised.”

“Would be worse if he was 88 and driving a Prius or worse, a motorized wheel chair…no fast get away there!”


Follow me on Twitter @katcop13.