Thursday, May 28, 2009

Remember When You Spilled Coke All Over Your Blouse?

By Kevin Guilfoile

A few weeks ago, my friend Matthew Baldwin called. He wanted to know if I had ever read the novel Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

It was a question loaded with guilt and shame for me. Infinite Jest came out when I was still in my twenties, when I considered myself at the edge of all things literary. I remember the hype that preceded the publication of IJ, my anticipation as the release date neared. I remember going to the bookstore to buy it. I remember how excited I was when I spotted the cover. I recall taking it off the shelf, opening to a random page.

I remember thinking, "This looks hard."

I didn't buy it that day, obviously. Over the years I became a fan of David Foster Wallace, mostly through his essays and non-fiction. I've recommended Everything and More, his book on the history of the concept of infinity. I was saddened last year when I heard that he had died. But I never read his most famous novel and when Infinite Jest comes up in conversation, I am always mildly embarrassed.

But Matthew had a cure for all that, which he called Infinite Summer. His plan was to put together a small crew of four people including himself who would read Infinite Jest between June and September and comment each week as they went along. He would also solicit essays from people who love the novel, who hate the novel, people who knew David Foster Wallace, people who were experts on the book. And, of course, he would invite anyone who was game to read along with us.

Matthew was offering me a way out of my shame. I didn't hesitate to say yes.

And it looks like we'll have company. In just one week the Facebook group for Infinite Summer has notched over 1,300 members and the project already has more than a thousand followers on Twitter. There is a renewed and rigorous discussion over at Metafilter. There are corporate and media sponsors. It's going to be a whole lot of fun.

So if you've ever wanted to tackle Infinite Jest but just couldn't quite find the motivation, please join us starting June 21. There will be no better time but this summer.

In the meantime, though, I wonder if any of you have a book that got away. A novel that you've always meant to read and have always felt a little bad that you never got around to it. A book that taunts you from your bookshelf.

Admitting it is the first step toward reading it.

Follow Kevin on Twitter.

Are Mystery Conferences in Decline?

by Barbara D'Amato

Several previously popular mystery conventions and workshops canceled this year, and others, like Malice Domestic, one of the best-run and best-liked, almost didn’t happen. Love Is Murder on Dark and Stormy Nights is taking a year off. I won’t list the ones that have closed down—I just hope they bounce back. But things are looking bleak.

It’s the economy, stupid? Well, yes, but I don’t think it is entirely the economy.

Some say the conferences are competing with each other, drawing from the same customer base. Too many conferences with, too often, the same speakers and same panels. And it is certainly true that conferences proliferated in the last ten or fifteen years.

I think there’s something else going on, though.

When I first joined MWA in 1982, the chapter meetings were the only place I could chat with fellow authors. Who else was going to sympathize with complaints about covers? Who else cared whether your publisher was a hyphen-phobe or hyphen-phile? Those were days when the only other ways to chat with fellow writers were to telephone or to send a letter. On paper! So real discussions were obtainable only at chapter meetings or Bouchercon, one of the very few conferences in existence then. Of Dark and Stormy Nights was the first mystery-writing workshop.

For years I went to every single chapter meeting and enjoyed them and learned a lot.

Now it’s DorothyL or Murder Must Advertise, or any of a dozen socialnets and hundreds of blogs, let alone the websites of the organizations and even of the conferences. I feel part of a large, chatty, opinionated, vigorous world of writers without leaving my keyboard and monitor.

Really, I still enjoy conferences. There’s something exciting about the gathering-of-the-clan feeling you get when you belly up to the check-in desk and see friends from California and Virginia and the U.K. checking in, too. But attendance is down.

I’m wondering how people feel about this. Do you think virtual fellowship is enough? Has it replaced some of your conference-going?

Is this blog diminishing the delights of meetings?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

That first cover

By David Heinzmann

Libby’s post a couple days ago seeking input on her next book cover had my full attention. As it happens, I’m eagerly and anxiously waiting to see my own cover, which the publisher’s designers are working on right now. I can’t wait. All the line editing is done, and I’ve seen the formatted pages of the book, but laying eyes on the cover will just make the whole process seem that much more real to me.

As I’ve noted before, A WORD TO THE WISE is my first book so this is all new and exciting.

At the Love is Murder conference in February I met a novelist who said tears came to his eyes when he saw his first book cover. In his mind, it was perfect. The designers had heeded his suggestions, and the cover distilled the central threads of the book into a single dark image. It was everything he had hoped for. He’d written several books that were never published, so that first one was a wonderfully cathartic experience.

I hope I’m so lucky. I helped pick the main image from a stock photo catalog, so if I’m disappointed I’ll have myself mostly to blame.

My protagonist, Augustine Flood, lives in a River North high rise with a nice view down on the Chicago River. The book is set in the middle of a brutal January, and Flood occasionally looks down at the jagged plates of ice filling in the river like puzzle pieces fitting together as it gets colder and colder.

Over the several winters that I’ve trudged across the Wabash and Michigan Avenue bridges on my way to the Tribune Tower, I’ve loved watching the river freeze over in pieces like that.

So we went looking for stock images of that ice on the river. There wasn’t much available, but I eventually stumbled on a twilight photo of the distant skyline taken from somewhere along the shore south of the Loop. Although it’s not the river, the foreground is full of those jagged shards of ice piling up in the shallows. With the arresting color and light in the photo, I was more than willing to compromise.

It’s wonderful to be dealing with these tasks because a year ago I had pretty much given up on seeing this book in print. My agent, Jeff, had been encouraging about the prospect of selling it after he read it—three years ago. He’d taken a pass on representing an earlier book I’d written, so his enthusiasm about this one had really gotten me excited. Early on we had some good nibbles, but nobody bit for real. And then the rejection emails started to stretch out over the months. Meanwhile, I was finishing a second Flood book, which I felt was better than the first. But what was I going to do with a second book in a series if the first was never published?

Then came Jeff’s email, out of the blue, while I was vacationing with my extended family in northern Wisconsin. Five Star wanted to publish A WORD TO THE WISE. Granted it was late and I’d had a few when the message came, but I had to read the note four or five times before it sunk in.

Then I woke everybody up in the cabin and had another drink.

Ten months later, here I am fretting over the cover. I’ll post it here as soon as it arrives.

And for the record, I liked 1A and 1B best among Libby’s potential covers.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Elmore Leonard and Anthony Neil Smith and Adverbs

by Sean Chercover

On July 16, 2001, the New York Times ran an essay on writing, penned by the master, Elmore Leonard. The essay was called “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points, and Especially Hooptedoodle.” In it, Leonard presented his 10 Rules of Writing, perhaps the most oft-quoted of which is:

#10 - Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

It was a brilliant essay, and caused quite a sensation among crime writers. Leonard’s 10 Rules ended up posted all over the Internet, usually as bullet points without the accompanying commentary. Which was a shame, really, because it was Leonard’s commentary (including his exceptions to some of the rules) that really brought the thing to life.

But a couple years ago, the now-legendary essay was published in book form, titled (appropriately enough), Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.

Of course I bought a copy.

An aside: If you write fiction, and have never read Leonard's fiction, you are in danger of becoming (as FizzWater would say) a dumbass. Reading any Elmore Leonard novel will teach you more about good writing than a dozen “How To Write” books. And besides, they’re terrific fun to read. Go read him.

Where was I? Oh, right. So a couple weeks ago, I ran across a blog post by Anthony Neil Smith (another great crime writer you shouldn’t neglect), over at First Offenders. The post is called Smith’s Rules, and it is both a hoot and a holler.

I may not be in complete agreement with all of Neil’s rules, but certainly most of them. And I was happy to see him echoing Elmore Leonard’s disdain for the liberal use of adverbs.

Smith’s Rule #4 – Would you get rid of the adverbs, already?

Leonard’s Rule #4 – Never use an adverb to modify the verb ’said’ . . .

And in the commentary, Leonard continues, “To use an adverb in this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.”

So these guys are no friends of adverbs. Nor am I.

Another aside:
Why do bad writers use “hungrily” in a sex scene, and then “lustily” when a character scarfs down a slice of pizza?

Granted, there are a few great writers who make adverbs sing. But in almost every case, you will improve a sentence by cutting the adverb and finding a better verb to replace the weak one that you were trying to prop up. More often than not, when you see a lot of adverbs on the page, you are in the presence of lazy writing.

Okay, so here’s your assignment: Go read Smith’s Rules, then come back and post one pithy rule of your own. I will send my copy of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing to the person who comes up with the best new (to me) rule.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Help Me Choose My Book Cover

by Libby Hellmann

My sixth crime fiction novel, DOUBLEBACK, will be published by Bleak House Books in October, and for me the most enjoyable part of the process is right now. With 4-5 months before the book is released, it's all possibility. The galleys are about to go out; promotion is underway; everything is still fresh and new. The struggle of slogging through the manuscript and revisions is forgotten; no reviews --disappointing or otherwise-- have come in; travel fatigue is just a concept. It’s much like the first day of school when you show up with new clothes, school supplies, and high hopes.

The only thing I’m uncertain about is the cover. I do know the right image (and font and colors) will grab readers. But I also know it’s subjective. What grabs me might not grab you. And I’m a writer -- not a designer or artist – so I really don’t know my ass from my elbow in terms of cover art. I was lucky with EASY INNOCENCE (its cover is on the right). I knew as soon as I saw the image that it needed – no had -- to be on the cover.

This time I’m not so sure. Below are some possible covers. I think the designer did a great job, and I like them all, but I’m not sure which is the most effective – each emphasizes different elements, sometimes subtly. So, can you help me out? Let me know which one(s) you like best and why. Both Bleak House and I will be listening -- the image with the most votes will indeed be the cover of the book.

Here’s what you need to know: DOUBLEBACK is a thriller that pairs both my series' protagonists, Ellie Foreman and Georgia Davis. It starts with the kidnapping of a little girl in Chicago but ends in Arizona near the US-Mexico border.

Now for the covers:

#1A and #1B

#2 (the sand will look different, more Sonoran, like #3 or #4, and the title will be more prominent)


#4A and #4B

So, what do you think? Since this is a Chicago book -- at least in part-- you're welcome to vote early and often. Thanks!

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Vampire Sucks Your Blood

“It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” This is the captivating opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

If you want to write a bestseller and are too lazy to think of anything original yourself, you are pretty well guaranteed success if you tamper with Jane Austen.  Especially with Pride and Prejudice.  We’ve had at least twenty spin-offs in the last few years, including Mr. Darcy’s Daughters, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and The Bar Sinister, in which Mr. Darcy has fathered an illegitimate child on the Pemberly estate.  Austen believed Darcy to be a moral and ethical person, but what did she know?

I am baffled by the trend of taking other people’s work, or lives, and using it for one’s own fiction.  I think of such books as vampire books, where someone else is sucking the blood of the original creator.  Do people do it because they don’t have confidence in their own creative ideas?  Is it a form of laziness?  Or does it stem from a desperate search for common cultural markers in a world where we’re inundated with Twitters and Faces and Jerry Springer and a host of other shouted comments?

I confess, too, to a dislike of novels based on historic figures.  It feels both like an invasion of privacy, to take over another person’s life, and a limitation on one’s own creativity: the ending, indeed, the trajectory, are already determined.  As my granddaughter, then seven, said when her mother wanted to take her to see Gibson’s movie, The Passion, “I already know how it comes out.”  

A few years ago, I read a book whose author claimed to know the effect of the Manhattan Project on Fermi and his family.  It wasn’t based on Fermi’s life or letters or the memoirs of others who knew him, but on the author’s anger over the development of the bomb, projected back on to Fermi.

Searching around for a book topic? Make up your own physicist. It will allow you to explore the human experience more fully if you’re not constrained by a pre-determined outcome.  Create your own Regency family.  And make up your own damned Zombie!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Introducing Laura Caldwell

Laura's been having some technical difficulties, as we say, so I'm posting her first message for her. Please welcome her to the Outfit.

When Libby Hellmann asked me to join The Outfit, she told me, “We generally blog about Chicago, crime, and writing.” I laughed. "Well," I said, “that pretty much sums up my life".

The same would not have been true ten years ago. Back then, I was a lawyer representing doctors who had been sued, and I spent my time taking depositions and figuring out how to perform things like carotid endarterectomies so I could later explain that to a jury.

What a difference a decade makes. I’m still an attorney, but now I’m a professor at Loyola University School of Law. (Actually, my title is Distinguished Scholar in Residence, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue very easily). I teach Advance Litigation Writing and International Criminal Law, and I run the Life After Innocence Project. The project offers guidance to people who were wrongfully convicted and then exonerated (such as by DNA evidence) or those who were wrongfully prosecuted and received a “Not Guilty”. It’s interesting because if you are a convicted felon, someone who did the crime and then the time, and you got out, you would receive a parole officer. You would be entitled to health benefits and other services.

But if you didn’t actually do the offense they accused you of, and if later the truth comes to light and you’re released? You’re not entitled to any such guidance or services. What the state gives such a wrongfully convicted person upon release is a bus card and a sweat suit. Seriously. Now, we’re lucky to live in a state like Illinois which is one of 25 states that provides some compensation to the wrongfully convicted. However, that compensation is relatively minimal and often takes a year or two or more to reach the individual. So, at the Life After Innocence project, we try to help these gentlemen with whatever we can—big things like getting jobs and education, little (but important) things like learning how to email and text and use a cell phone. Think of how busy most of us feel today with text and Twitter and Facebook and email. Now imagine if you had just stepped into the world for the first time in a decade (or two) and you didn’t know what any of those things were—you didn’t know how to email your sister or text a friend or work a cell phone. These guys have a LOT of learning to do. We just try to help along the process. And meanwhile, our clients are the coolest people on the planet. Very, very inspirational guys. You can learn more about them and the project here:

The other job I have now is being a novelist. When I discuss the first four books I published, I usually call them ‘women's fiction’, but a lot of people called them ‘chick lit.’ I never cared very much what anyone called them. The ‘chick lit’ term certainly got me on a lot of front tables at Barnes & Noble. After those books, I wrote three mysteries - Look Closely, The Rome Affair and The Good Liar. Next up, I'm trying to combine both types of my writing plus add a dash of myself.

A friend of mine recently gave me a t-shirt that read, Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel. I thought the shirt was funny. I framed it and put it in my writing room. However, it wasn't really true of me. I’ve never been the type to share my private life in my public, novel-writing side. However, I’ve decided to span the gap.

This summer, it’s going to be a red hot one, because my publisher, MIRA, is releasing my Chicago mystery trilogy. The first---Red Hot Lies—comes out in a week. I'll be going on WGN Radio with Steve Cochran on the afternoon of May 28th, and my street team (so cool, I’ve always wanted a street team) will be handing out a hundred free, signed copies in front of the studio on Michigan Avenue.

And on June 3rd, there will be gathering to launch the book. My character's name is Izzy McNeil, and so of course the party will be at Lizzie McNeill’s ( It's a great Chicago pub on the river, the kind of place, my character (and I) love to hang out. It starts at 6. The fantastic band Hello Dave will be playing at 7:30 or 8. Please come. Bring friends, bring enemies. And if you can't make the party, check back here because I’ll be blogging every two weeks with these authors who I am absolutely—absolutely—in awe of. Thanks guys for having me!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

GUEST BLOGGER: Stacey Cochran

Besides being a talented novelist, our guest today is a book marketing guru. Stacey Cochran's television show, which offers detailed interviews with some of the best suspense novelists working today, airs in Wake County to 90,000 households, and then on YouTube for a global audience. He's here to share some tips about self-promotion for authors, especially on television. Feel free to grill him; he'll be sticking around to answer questions.

-Marcus Sakey


First off, thanks to all the members of The Outfit for having me today; not only are you all extraordinarily gifted writers, you're extraordinarily generous as well. Thanks so much for the opportunity.

Some of you have probably seen the interviews I’ve done over the past two years. We’ve had Michael Connelly, J.A. Jance, Jeffery Deaver, John Hart, Margaret Maron, Carl Hiaasen, and many others on the show. 40 total episodes. So today I’d like to talk about some of the things I’ve learned that you can do to both land an interview and do yours well.

  1. Figure out who the program director is and address them personally. Most radio and television stations have a director in charge of programming, and the stations have websites. A few years ago, I looked up every NPR affiliate across the country and looked up online the name of each program director at each station. If you address an e-mail to the program director, chances are you’ll get a response. If you can’t find a director of programming, you might try the host or news director.

  2. For a TV interview, make sure you show up on time. Usually ten to fifteen minutes early is ideal. If it’s a Live broadcast, you probably want to arrive closer to twenty minutes early so they can do a sound check and make sure your lighting levels are right.

  3. Keep your answers under 90 seconds. I usually try to tell our guests this before we get started, but some hosts aren’t going to. Nothing can turn off an audience faster than an answer that goes on too long. That said, a good host is going to cut you off if you start rambling. My advice? Don’t make them.

  4. If you have time, be sure to introduce yourself to the folks working behind the camera. These people talk after a guest leaves, and if you come off as an asshole, a lot of times they’ll say as much once you leave the set. (Better yet, bring free copies of your book to hand out and sign.)

  5. Make eye contact with your interviewer, not the camera. We’ve all seen folks who don’t know where to look when they’re on camera. Unless you’ve been given the green light to address the television audience, keep your focus on the person asking you the questions.

  6. For crime fiction authors, you might consider looking up who the crime reporter is at a local TV station. At our station in Raleigh, for example, our crime reporter is a published author of true crime. A crime reporter might be inclined to respond to a crime fiction author’s request for an interview…. and most veteran reporters are given the freedom to develop their own stories. Your book could be their story.

  7. Be sure to follow up your interview a few weeks later with a simple e-mail to say thanks to the folks you met at the station. This simple step goes so far towards creating a friend and ally.

  8. If time allows, you might ask the host, crew, or program director if they’d like to get a bite to eat afterwards. You’d better believe if Michael Connelly asked me if I wanted to get a bite to eat, I’d say “yes.” And as a local, I can steer him toward the other media outlets in town and the right bookstore managers to talk to.

So, who are some of your favorite interviewers of all time? I’m a huge fan of Letterman, Carson, Merv Griffin. I love Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. Charlie Rose would be really, really good if he could inject some humor into his style. And of course Larry King is the greatest. How about you…who is your favorite interviewer? Or do you have any other questions about television, or how to land and nail an interview?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Sean Chercover has two Anthony nominations--Best Novel for TRIGGER CITY and Best Short Story for "A Sleep Not Unlike Death."

Yay, Sean!

The Long Hello

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of (moderate) wealth and (questionable) taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Fought for the State of Illinois’s soul and faith

I was around when Blagojevich
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure the Senators
Washed their hands and sealed his fate

Pleased to meet you
Hope you read my books
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of their hooks.

Okay, wore that joke a little thin in the last verse. Some of you might be too young to even catch the Stones reference. My name is David Ellis. My friends call me Dave. I’m a Chicago novelist who, for the past couple of years, has not lived in Chicago and hasn’t done much novel writing. How’s that for an intro? My day job as a lawyer has taken a rather central role since I came down to Springfield and became the legal counsel for House Speaker Michael J. Madigan. This coincided with the moment in time that our former Governor, Mr. Blagojevich, accelerated his narcissistic and corrupt ways that ultimately led to his arrest last December on federal corruption charges…

… which led to me serving as the House Prosecutor who tried and convicted the Governor before the Illinois Senate. To say the least, it was an historic and unforgettable experience. I tell you this, not because I wish to brag, but because—well, actually, it was mostly to brag. It also explains why I’ve fallen behind in writing novels.

I have five books under my belt so far. The first few are generally described as legal thrillers. In stark contrast, the last couple have been thrillers about lawyers. Yes, I know—the versatility. By the way, I also consider them mysteries because they feature unsolved murders, which is cool for me because I always get selected for that ubiquitous book convention panel titled, “What’s the difference between a thriller and a mystery?” I always thought with the best books, you couldn’t tell the difference.

I absolutely love being a novelist and never take it for granted. I look forward to having this chance to talk books, crime, politics (though I will probably have to watch myself), and most of all, writing. I like to take chances and try new things and write about stuff I’ve never covered before, which is sometimes maddening to my publisher, but essential for me.

I wrote my fourth book, In the Company of Liars, backwards—in reverse chronological order—almost on a dare to myself. I wanted to challenge myself and you, the reader. I got an interesting reaction from most people, including my agent at the time: People didn’t think mystery readers would want to undertake the project of a reading a novel that goes backwards in time, from the end to the beginning.

And to their surprise, not mine, they were wrong. It certainly wasn’t for everyone, and I did get some negative mail for the first time, but the overall reaction was very positive. (Maybe it was the corny marketing that did it: “The end is just the beginning!”)

Point being, I still believe that in this world of entertainment that gives us 3 CSI’s and 3 Law and Orders, and where most of the bestselling novelists feature series characters, your everyday reader still likes a challenge.

Look, I’m not very plugged in, as they say, in the book community. I haven’t been able to hit many bookstores or attend conventions lately; I would struggle to name five literary agents (and two of them are mine); when my fellow authors were pondering the effects of Kindle on the publishing world, I was pondering, “What the hell is Kindle?” So I may not be too helpful at giving marketing advice. (My fellow bloggers, Libby and Laura, would be happy to attest to this fact.)

But I can say this much: The old adage, write what you know? I say, write what you love. Whenever I find myself bored with what I am writing, I delete it and move on. If I can’t even be interested writing it, how can I expect you to enjoy reading it? Enthusiasm is infectious. It bleeds onto the page.

It seems to me, admittedly from a distance, that a lot of novelists are rather cautious. We think about the business and try to find the right niche to make a splash. Grisham and Turow got hot and everyone wrote legal thrillers. Dan Brown went crazy and everyone’s writing conspiracies. (I was waiting for CSI: Opus Dei.) Hey, that’s cool. I’m not being judgmental. We’re all trying to make it in an increasingly tough business.

But I say, if you’re passionate about what you write, it will shine through, and you’ll be at your best as a novelist. All spin and splash aside, I continue to believe that the best ticket to sustainable success is simply writing a great novel, no matter the genre or theme. It would be great if you could summarize your novel in a catchy 3-sentence elevator pitch, too, but don’t put the cart before the horse here.

Everyone get that? Write.A.Good.Book. That is my magical prescription for success. Next time, I’ll reveal that the key to being a bestseller is to sell a lot of books.

Monday, May 18, 2009

clichés and metaphors

by Michael Dymmoch

A great teacher once defined poetry for me as the ultimate economy. Anyone who’s read Norman Nathan’s “Betrayal”— Although no blood flows/This pain is too thorough for ill health/And I lie broken… (Though Night Remain, 1970) or Denise Levertov’s “Despair”—It seemed the woman/believed whom she loved heard her,/heard her wailing, observed/the nakedness of her anguish,/ and would not speak. (Relearning the Alphabet, 1970) is aware of the concentrated power of perfectly chosen words. And perfectly crafted metaphors.

Unfortunately, overuse can transform the most brilliant metaphor or simile into a cliché or idiom, useful shorthand in conversation, but literally unintelligible. What—literally—does out of the blue mean? Or bottom line; at the end of the day; or mint condition? Why does cut and dried mean— What does cut and dried mean? (Why can’t the Let them learn English contingent understand how hard it is for adults to learn a language with so many idioms and exceptions to its own rules of grammar?)

Ugly duckling is a cliché we still use because it’s great metaphor—able to leap… (Sorry. Wrong cliché.) The trick is to use clichés consciously, aware that they are clichés, not just pat (and lazy) ways of expressing something. Experienced writers have consistent styles because their word choices and rhythms have become autonomic. But not automatic. Good writers realize that if something sounds just right it may be a cliché, so they may have to invent new metaphors to make their points. (How about the recent vehicular Tourette's for the obscene babble some drivers are driven to utter behind the wheel? It’s a great metaphor. Is it a cliché yet?)

Sometimes we use clichés ironically—saying of photographs, for instance, that tragedy cut them and they were dried by the camera’s eye. And good writers use clichés in dialog—sparingly—all the time. Dialog in great writing is to real conversation as poetry is to prose—economic, with all the ers and ya knows eliminated to avoid boring the reader. (Some writers are tone deaf—they don’t get poetry.) Some writers have never bothered to root clichés out of their prose because clichés are an efficient way to get the idea across without busting your brain to find a new metaphor. Unfortunately, efficient can be as sterile as synopsis. And only acquiring editors and Hollywood producers prefer a synopsis to a fully fleshed-out tale.

That's my take. (Yeah, I know that's a cliche.)

What do you think?

Friday, May 15, 2009

It’s Like Pulling When You Ought To Be Shoving

By Kevin Guilfoile

When I was an undergrad at Notre Dame there was a student newspaper with a liberal bent called Common Sense. They agitated on a number of topics, but this was the late 80s and the dominant issue of the time was apartheid. The Reagan and Thatcher administrations advocated something called "constructive engagement," in which western companies could still make profits in South Africa while they waited for the eventual collapse of the apartheid regime. Liberals, on the other hand, were in favor of sanctions and boycotts to hurry things along. There was a communist bogeyman at the center of it all. It's pretty much exactly the same argument we're having currently over Cuba, except now the conservatives want sanctions and the liberals want engagement.

Anyway, Common Sense was printed overnight and early on Wednesday mornings student volunteers would distribute stacks of the paper to the dining halls and the student center and the library so kids could pick up a copy on the way to class if they wished.

Then one day, the papers started vanishing.

By the time students woke up and emerged bleary-eyed from the dorms, every single copy of Common Sense had disappeared from campus. The next week it happened again. It happened the week after that.

Many students saw a conspiracy. The Chairman of the Board of Trustees was an executive at Coca-Cola and Coke did big business in South Africa, so it was easy for some to believe that the University might be directing the mysterious thefts at the order of a powerful alumnus. Then some genius Nancy Drew decided to just stake out one of the stacks and catch the guy red-handed. Turned out it wasn't the University or Coca-Cola. It was Ken. Ken was a weird guy who lived in my dorm. At some point an ultra-conservative Catholic group called Opus Dei had recruited Ken to join them.

Now in Dan Brown novels, Opus Dei is a super-secret and creepy organization with an army of self-flagellating, albino monk assassins. In real life Opus Dei is a super-secret and creepy organization with an army of goofballs like Ken who steal newspapers they don't like and toss them in the dumpster behind Wendy's. Opus Dei wasn't liked by the administration, but disaffected teenage Catholics are the lifeblood of OD's recruiting operation and so it often had agents lurking about, trying to pick off the most vulnerable and anti-social students to join its ranks. When I became a resident assistant I was told by one Holy Cross priest to "keep an eye out for those douchebags."

These days, a coalition of conservative political groups and self-appointed religious watchdogs--most of which have nothing at all to do with Notre Dame--have been trying without success to get the university to rescind its invitation of Barack Obama to speak at commencement, allegedly because of Obama's position that abortion should be "legal but rare." (I encourage everyone to read Eric Zorn's thorough debunking of Obama's alleged "infanticide vote" in the Illinois senate.) Confirmed nutbag Alan Keyes (whom, not coincidentally, Obama destroyed in the 2004 election for US Senate) was arrested on campus last week while pushing a stroller with a fake baby covered in fake blood. He and others will be protesting this weekend, and you'll see it all over the news. Ordinarily I'd hardly pay any attention. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and both George Bushes have given commencement addresses at Notre Dame and there were protesters at every one. My commencement address was given by Bill Cosby and there was even a last-minute improvised protest by African-American students against him.

Notre Dame has had all kinds of commencement speakers from Eugene McCarthy and Andrew Young to Condoleezza Rice and William F. Buckley; from Tom Brokaw to Vernon Jordan; from J. Edgar Hoover to Earl Warren; from Henry Cabot Lodge to Pierre Trudeau to Kofi Annan. Before Barack Obama, nobody has ever suggested there needed to be a litmus test of a person's beliefs before they could speak on campus. (As for the suggestion that it is the honorary degree to which they object, not the address itself, that's a distinction without a difference. Every Notre Dame commencement speaker since 1909 has received an honorary degree. For Notre Dame to have given one to Erma Bombeck and the editor of Commonweal magazine but not to the first black president in US history--one whom a majority of Catholics supported, by the way--would be absurd in the extreme.) 

I doubt half the faculty could pass the ideological fitness test now being demanded of Barack Obama--according to the Trib the university needed a lottery this year to determine which professors would get tickets. As for the actual students you will probably be able to count the seniors who will skip the ceremony on your fingers and half your toes. And speaking of the graduates, if we require recipients of honorary degrees to conform to a specific political ideology, wouldn't we need to require the same from recipients of actual degrees?

If you disagree with somebody of something, and you want to protest him or it, that's terrific. Have at it. If you have an issue with Barack Obama, whether it's his actual position on abortion or his stance on the torture photos, by all means put on some comfortable shoes and make your voice heard. But I've seen opportunistic outsiders try to step into the Notre Dame spotlight before, so understand the three basic kinds of people who will be protesting this weekend. There will be a few individuals who are more concerned about the legality of abortion than they are with its frequency, who believe life issues begin and end with terminated pregnancies and have nothing to do with war, the death penalty, health care, or torture. There will be some frustrated social conservatives who want to use Notre Dame's high profile as a fulcrum to leverage their distaste for the president. But mostly there will be guys like Ken who don't think a president they don't like should be allowed to speak on campus at all. These people don't want Catholic universities to be cultivators of critical thought, they want them to be instruments of propaganda. And if you ask them they'll even admit it. (With regard to Pat Buchanan's breathless assertion in that video that he has the names of ten Holy Cross priests who are opposed to the president's visit, I have news for Pat Buchanan: There is a gigantic priest retirement home right in the middle of campus. I could walk in there this afternoon and find ten Holy Cross priests who think Cloverfield is not a movie.)

Notre Dame is a place I love dearly. But the fictional biosphere of unchallenged doctrine that Alan Keyes and Pat Buchanan and sadly Cardinal George would like it to be is not a place I ever would have attended. Not in a million years.

At its core this manufactured hoop-dee-doo isn't really about morality and the Catholic church. It's not even about abortion. It's about intellectual rigor and the free exchange of ideas on the campus of a prominent American university. It is our obligation to call bullshit when people attempt to use their right to speak freely in order to restrict others from doing the same, especially when it happens inside college gates.

In an eloquent letter to this year's graduates, Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins quoted an earlier ND president, Father Hesburgh, who had described Notre Dame as both a "lighthouse and a crossroads," a place where issues of ethics and morality could be illuminated, but also a "crossroads through which pass people of many different perspectives, backgrounds, faiths, and cultures."

He also said this to the graduating students: "You have discussed this issue with each other while being observed, interviewed, and evaluated by people who are interested in this story. You engaged each other with passion, intelligence and respect. And I saw no sign that your differences led to division. You inspire me. We need the wider society to be more like you; it is good that we are sending you into that world on Sunday."

Well, amen to that.

Follow Kevin on Twitter.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mrs. O'Leary's Cow Was Innocent

by Barbara D'Amato

October 8, 1871,was the end of a hot, dry summer and fall in the Midwest. Two hundred miles north of Chicago in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, farms were being battened down, wood stacked for heating, livestock herded into barns. At nine-thirty in the evening most hardworking farmers were probably in bed, when a firestorm came out of nowhere. In "Firestorm at Peshtigo", William Barnes describes it as “…nature’s nuclear explosion. Here’s a wall of flame, a mile high, five miles wide, traveling at 90 to 100 miles an hour, hotter than a crematorium, turning sand to glass.” When it was over, a million and half acres had been burned, an area twice as big as Rhode Island, and 1,200 to 2,500 people had died. The area was rural; the actual death count has never been known. But the immense Peshtigo Fire is largely forgotten, because that same evening was another fire—

Chicago. The fire burned for two days and the area was too hot to enter for a week. The conflagration was made fiercer by the use of wood in building and by the storage of wood for heating and cooking near houses. Destroyed were over four square miles, virtually all of the city center, the opera house, churches, hospitals, and theaters. An estimated two to three hundred people died. Famously, the fire was blamed on Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a kerosene lantern.
A reporter for the Chicago Republican, Michael Ahern, admitted in 1893 that he had made the cow story up because he thought it would be colorful copy.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time in Holland, Michigan, across the lake from Chicago and fifty miles farther north. I was told of the fire that destroyed Holland on the same night as the Great Chicago Fire. People said it had been caused by burning sparks from the Chicago fire, but I couldn’t imagine how they would stay hot traveling a hundred miles over Lake Michigan.

About ten years ago I visited a library at Manistee, a hundred miles north of Holland, but like Holland, on the east coast of Lake Michigan. A great and mysterious fire had destroyed Manistee the same night

There were fires that night in Grand Rapids, South Haven, Port Huron, Muskegon, Wayland, Big Rapids, Lansing, Saginaw, Sturgeon Bay, and Menominee. A steamship in the lake said that the Manitou Islands were afire. Smaller fires occurred in Ohio, southern Canada, and Minnesota, No cause was ever found for any of them, except poor Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, and that explanation was a fraud.

Blamed were the dry hot summer, wooden dwellings, and leftover waste from timbering work. People said the fact that the fires happened on the same day was coincidence. Just horrible, horrible chance.

It was suggested first in 1882 that the fires had been caused by a meteor shower. Later there was a theory that the tail of the comet Biela was flaming and had set fire to the Midwest. Or maybe pieces of meteorite. But meteorites are not hot enough when they strike the earth to cause such fires.

And comets’ tails are not afire.

The meteor theory was discounted for years, but recently Robert Wood, an aeronautical engineer and physicist who had worked for McDonnell Douglas and Douglas Aircraft, returned to the comet explanation with more up-to-date information.

Not the tail of the comet, but Biela’s Comet itself, which had split in two in 1845 and had been seen to be breaking up in its previous passes near the earth. The body of the comet, Wood says, was likely made up of frozen acetylene, methane, and other combustible gas. Heated by the friction of entry into the earth’s atmosphere and fed by the oxygen in our air, the chunks became enormous balls of fire. Eyewitnesses reported “fire balloons” that came down out of the sky and ignited whole forests. The impact map [above] resembles the conical path of a shotgun blast from the sky.

Biela’s Comet has never been seen again, but parts of it may make up the annual Andromedid meteor shower.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Scandal, redemption and another year in purgatory

by David Heinzmann

Lately, Chicago Police Supt. Jody Weis has been sending a lot of cops who’ve been in trouble back to the streets.

Over the last several weeks at least eight officers who had been stripped of their badges because of links to headline-grabbing scandals—three connected to the Special Operations Section investigation and five who had been involved in the Jefferson Tap videotaped bar beating—have been given their careers back after two years in limbo because Weis decided they had been exonerated to some degree.

This flurry of reinstatements made me wonder if Weis had also tapped Bridget McLaughlin on the shoulder and sent her back to her job as an investigator in the Internal Affairs Division.
So I checked. Nope. She’s still answering phones in the police department’s 311 call center—a purgatory where officers living under a cloud are sent to do no further harm while their fates are decided.

The problem with McLaughlin’s case is that she’s never been accused of doing anything wrong. In fact, several police insiders regard her as something of a whistle-blower in the SOS fiasco. Back in 2004 she was assigned to investigate an allegation that a few of the SOS officers had falsely arrested two Mexican-immigrant factory workers, and then robbed their houses and terrorized their families while the men were in custody. When McLaughlin looked into the case, she found that the same group of cops had hundreds of allegations of almost identical crimes. False arrests. Home invasion. Robbery. But the department had cleared them in almost every case.

She was troubled enough to write a memo to her bosses documenting the number of cases and suggesting that there sure seemed to a pattern there—maybe there was something to all these allegations.

A few days after she wrote that memo, McLaughlin’s boss stripped her of her badge and sent her to the 311 call center. She’s been there ever since. Two years later, Cook County prosecutors charged seven SOS officers with hundreds of crimes just like those in McLaughlin’s memo. Several more officers have been implicated in the crimes, and the feds are still investigating whether there was a cover-up to protect the cops.

Anyway, in 2007 I got hold of McLaughlin’s memo, and a similar one written a few months later by another Internal Affairs investigator, and wrote a few stories for the Tribune revealing what had happened. When I asked police brass back then why McLaughlin was stripped of her badge, they denied she’d been punished for suggesting bosses had been looking the other way, but they acknowledged she was marooned in the 311 call center for “personnel reasons,” not disciplinary reasons.

So, a veteran investigator who’s never been accused of misconduct is in her fifth year answering phone calls that aren’t important enough to merit dialing 911. I’m still trying to make sense of that case.

Much of what I’ve done as a reporter at the Tribune over the last few years has been picking at stories like this one, digging, looking for sources, and trying to explain what’s really going on. Over time, I hope, Tribune readers have a more complex understanding of crime in Chicago.
For all the misery in the newspaper business these days, the job is still a privilege and a profound responsibility. It can also be a real kick in the pants. A couple years ago I spent a whole week crisscrossing the city and banging on doors to track down a list of prostitutes and crack addicts who’d spent the same 24-hour stretch in a South Side women’s lockup. And a few months ago I had a front row seat in a federal courtroom when the arrested governor of Illinois walked in wearing a track suit and looking more than a little out of sorts. I can’t think of another job that affords that variety of experience.

So, every couple weeks on this blog I hope to share some of the color and context that I’ve picked up along the way. Maybe readers find it interesting. Or maybe I’ll be voted off this island in a month. I’ll also be filling you in on my experiences as a first-time novelist. As Libby noted a couple weeks ago, my book, A Word to the Wise comes out in December. While the other nine members of The Outfit are all vets with multiple titles on the shelf, this is my first time out. Many of you will be able to relate, I’m sure.

I hope to have a conversation about crime and writing and whatever else is on readers’ minds. The more comments and questions, the better. I’m really thrilled to be involved and still can’t believe this crew asked me to join them.

Lastly, a plug for my reporter colleague Jeff Coen and for the wonderful Centuries & Sleuths bookstore in Forest Park. Jeff will be there Saturday at 2 p.m. talking and signing copies of his book about the historic Family Secrets mob trial. Don’t miss it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Talking Religion & Politics & Writing

By Sean Chercover

If you responded to Marcus’s recent post with a request for “more writing, less politics” – worry not. This may seem like a post about religion and politics, but I assure you, it is not. While cleverly disguised as a post about religion and politics, it is actually a post about building three-dimensional characters. You’ll see...

I feel the urge to toss a little religion in with our political conversation here at The Outfit. So, like the proverbial bull in a china shop...

Check out this survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center for their Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life. The survey results reveal that the more often (white, Christian) Americans attend church, the more likely they are to support the use of torture by the government.

54% of those who attend church “at least once a week” say that torture can “often” or “sometimes” be justified. Of those who “seldom or never” go to church, only 42% agreed.

Limited in scope, the survey only polled White Evangelical Protestants, Non-Hispanic White Catholics, White Mainline Protestants, and those Unaffiliated With Any Church.

We don’t have enough information to compare with people of other specific faiths or races, but the number for the American population in general is 49%.

And this is fascinating . . . The percentage of each group who say that torture is “often” or “sometimes” justified:

White Evangelical Protestants: 62%
Non-Hispanic White Catholics: 51%
White Mainline Protestants: 46%
Unaffiliated with any church: 40%

I cannot say that I’m surprised, but I am deeply disturbed by this survey.

Speaking of Evangelicals who disturb my head…

I recently came across the now-infamous “gay storm” ad, brought to us by the National Organization for Marriage (And Bigotry). When I first saw it, I thought it was an SNL parody. But no. Just a case of unintentional self-parody:

Is it just me, or do most of the men in that ad seem, uh, kinda gay? Could this be a case of hating the thing you most fear about yourself?

Apparently it isn’t just me, as evidenced by this Colbert Report parody:

I guess it’s obvious that I oppose torture and support gay marriage. And no matter what pretzel-logic I try on, I fail to see how gay marriage threatens my marriage.

More important than my support of gay marriage, however, is my belief that gay people’s relationships are none of my (or the government’s) damn business.

But (and here’s where we come to the writing technique) my opinions and beliefs are not shared by all of the characters I create when I write. In fact, none of the characters I create (including protagonists) share all my opinions. Where would be the fun in that?

So here’s an exercise: Pick a character you are writing and ask yourself… Does s/he believe in God? What kind of God? Which doctrine? And how do these beliefs (or lack thereof) manifest in the words and actions of this character?

I find it a worthwhile exercise. Hope you do too.

(See? It was about writing, after all.)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day, Me, and Drew Peterson

by Libby Hellmann

by Libby Hellmann

I am not a Mother’s Day person. To me it’s always been one of those made-up, Hallmark holidays that primarily benefits florists, restaurants, and card makers. Not that that’s inherently a bad thing, but why hang the angst and emotion of parenting or being parented on a lovely Sunday in May? Why not just have a “Buy-a-Card-or-Flowers-or-Go-Out-To-Eat-day?”

I never thought of myself as having “mother issues.” My own mother rocks, and I'm the mother of two wonderful kids myself. Yet I’ve felt guilty for not considering Mother’s Day a “real” holiday for a long time, and I never quite knew why. Then, a few years ago, FLASH… EUREKA moment – it came to me.

I was about 12 when the mother of one of my friends committed suicide. Mother’s Day was about a month after that, and my friend spent the night at our house. I usually picked flowers from our rhododendron and azalea bushes and arranged them on a breakfast tray we carried up to my mother, but that year I remember feeling very self conscious about it. I had a mother, but she didn’t, and I didn’t want to remind her of it. At the same time, I didn’t know what to do. Should I ignore the holiday? Forego the bouquet and the breakfast tray and pretend it was just another day? Or should I do what I normally did on Mother’s Day? I remember settling for half measures. I did pick the flowers, but I made sure to say. “oh, it’s no big deal.” As if I picked flowers for my mother every day.

Of course it was a big deal. For both of us. And I don’t know if I did the right thing. Probably not. She and I never discussed it. Like many people from one’s childhood, we’re not in touch any more. But I wonder.

That memory surfaced again when I heard about Drew Peterson's arrest. Yes, I’m glad that he’s finally being held accountable for his third wife’s murder. And I think his red jump suit, private shower, and 90 minutes of exercise a day at the Will County jail are probably more than he deserves. More to the point, though, I’d like to know how HE observed Mother’s Day. He’s accused of killing Kathleen Savio, the mother of two of his children. And he’s the major suspect in the disappearance of Stacy, the mother of his two other kids.

So, how did he celebrate the day? Before he was arrested, did he honor the memory of his kids' mothers? Or did he ignore the holiday altogether... pretend it was just another day? Come to think of it, what does he say when his kids ask about their mothers? Or, in Stacy’s case, when she’s coming back? Does he tell them they were the best mothers in the world? Or does he tell them they were bad mothers and thank god they’re out of the way? Are there moments on Mother’s Day when he feels uncomfortable in his own skin? Even guilty?

Probably not. Sociopaths rarely do. I’m sure whatever answers he gives his kids are about as credible and persuasive as the rest of his lies. But I’d sure like to hear him weasel his way through them.

What do you think? What’s Mother’s Day to you? And what about Drew Peterson? Are you glad he's in jail? What about his kids?

Friday, May 08, 2009

Writing Awards

By Barbara D’Amato

A couple of days ago I got home after attending the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards in New York and then the Malice Domestic Convention’s Agatha Awards in Washington, D.C. The events were fun for attendees, rewarding to the nominees and winners, and in my opinion, good for the mystery/crime writing field.

There are always complaints. The wrong novel won. It’s just a popularity contest. Plenty of wonderful books didn’t make the list. Even “Why do we bother?” or “It’s fixed anyway.”

The Edgars and the Agathas represent two different types of awards. The Edgars, like the Shamus and Thrillerwriters, is a judged award. The Agathas slate, like the Bouchercon’s Anthony, is arrived at by nominations sent in by people who are registered to attend, and then after arriving the attendees vote for the final winner.

Over the years I’ve served on several Edgar Awards committees—the short story a couple of times and chaired it once, the best novel at least twice, best play, best fact crime a couple of times and chaired it once, best several others. The last time I served on the best novel committee, we received 554 books. Okay, I’m easily caught. But one thing I can tell you, and that is, it’s not fixed.

Sean Chercover’s good post “Confessions of an Edgar Judge . . .” got me thinking about the misunderstandings people have about these awards. Most judges are like Sean, earnest and fair. I haven’t run into any like the one Paul Guyot referred to in his comment, who said he knew what was good, so he didn’t need to read the books. People being people, there probably are a few like that, or at least some who don’t give a fair try to books of a type they don’t like. However, people are all we have available to use. One of the big boons of judged awards is that books that haven’t made bestseller lists are often nominated. This gives recognition to writers who get far too little. Check the lists of winners for the last few years and I think you will see that few big bestsellers are actually nominated. I just love it when a writer who has received little attention wins an award and proceeds dazed and delighted to the stage.

The convention-vote awards are criticized for being popularity contests. Well, duh. However, they are popularity contests in the sense that readers have actually enjoyed the books. Here again, the nominees and winners are usually not the big bestsellers, and aren’t the bestseller lists the real Big Popularity Contests? And frequently criticized for being fixed?

There are other awards arrived at somewhat differently, like the Macavity, or the Love Is Murder Lovie. But they all do one thing—give recognition to authors who might otherwise receive none. I don’t agree with the people who wish awards didn’t exist.

If you have suggestions about improving the processes, great. Let’s hear them.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

What’s Your Pleasure?

by Marcus Sakey

We’re coming up on three years of running the Outfit, and as you know, adding some excellent new members. I for one am excited to have them come aboard. They're all good folk, and more important here, each will bring something new.

To be honest, when we first started this blog, I thought that after a year or so it would peter out, if for no other reason than sheer redundancy. But while there are certainly topics to which we frequently return—politics, crime, media, writing—I’ve been delighted to see that by and large we haven’t been dishing up leftovers.

Now, my other Outfitters are smarter than me, so I’m not surprised that they’re able to bring the fresh every time. But I’m willing to admit that there are weeks when I feel like I don’t have anything to say.

At that point, what I usually do is write something lightweight. I talk about a book I read and loved, or what I’m listening to, or I rant about something. Doing that has two interesting results. First, by the time I’m done with the piece, I usually find that I did have something to say after all. And second, those posts often generate the most discussion.

Which got me to wondering—as we head into our third year, is there anything you, our readers, would like to see? Anything you wish we talked about less, or anything you wish we’d spend more time on?

Do you want to read more about writing and publishing? More about what moves us? Greater political detail? Excerpts from our work in progress? Backhanded slaps at our half-articulate blog trolls?

Do you want this to be a discussion you take an active part in? Or would you prefer to lurk?

Honestly—what would you like?

Monday, May 04, 2009

Wrong + Wrong = ?

by Michael Dymmoch

Recently, I had an argument with a friend about the relative importance of the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp and the events that occurred at Abu Ghraib. My friend had seen video footage of the beating of a teenage girl by a mob of radical men, and a feature on how suicide bombers are recruited and brainwashed. He believes—if I understand his argument correctly—that in comparison to societies that tolerate or even encourage horrific behavior and de facto genocide, GITMO and Abu Ghraib are irrelevant.

I don’t agree. I think two wrongs never make one right. The behavior of the terrorists who use children as heat-seeking missiles is understandable—if unforgivable. People with nothing have nothing to lose. And if—besides nothing—all they have is their power to destroy those they see as a threat to that power, they’ll use it. I don’t see the phenomenon as any different now than it was when Cro-Magnon Man exterminated the Neanderthals. Absolute power has always been absolutely corrupting. I suspect that in a post-apocalyptic world, techno man—“Homo sapiens”—would be as ruthless as any al-Qaeda operative. Our present state of economic crisis is a clue. As is the fact that the “civilized” United States turned rabid over the 3000 casualties from 9-11, but hasn’t even noticed the 60,000 children killed in this country in the past ten years by fellow citizens with guns, or the 13,000+ people killed annually by drunk drivers.

My friend thinks that GITMO will be virtually forgotten in ten years time. He may be right. But I think that if GITMO doesn’t matter in ten years, if Vietnam doesn’t matter today, what terrorists do in the meantime won’t matter—ever. They’ve already won.

What do you think?

A Sean Chercover Twofer

Congratulations to Sean for not one but two Macavity nominations!

Confessions of an Edgar Judge...

by Sean Chercover

The 2009 Edgar Awards have been awarded and the judging committees made public, so now it can be told...

I served as chair of the Best First Novel (by an American writer born on American soil) committee. The Edgar Award went to Francie Lin, for THE FOREIGNER. I loved it, and I recommend it without reservation.

Truth is, all of the nominated books were terrific. Here they are (in alphabetical order by author name):

THE KIND ONE - Tom Epperson
SWEETSMOKE - David Fuller
A CURE FOR NIGHT - Justin Peacock
CALUMET CITY - Charlie Newton

I hope you will click through the links and give these debut authors a try. You won't be sorry.

A few reflections on the judging process:

Every year, when nominees are announced, a few disgruntled people pop up in the comments section of various blogs to decry the process. These people have never served on a jury, but they claim to know that the awards are a popularity contest, that judges are voting for their friends, that they're influenced by reviews and/or publishers' hype, that they only consider books published by the big NYC publishers or books written by MWA members, and other such nonsense.

I can tell you that none of these claims are true. What we did is: we read the books. That's it. We didn't talk about buzz or hype or the personalities of the authors. We didn't read the reviews or even visit the author websites. We read the books. After reading the books, we voted.

Of course it is subjective. But it is the collective subjective reactions of five judges - young-ish and not-so-young, male and female, cozy and hardboiled and thriller and paranormal and humor writers. A very diverse group, giving their honest opinions, trying to select five books to honor as the best in that category, that year. You can't ask fairer than that.

The judges put in a hellish amount of time, put aside all their descretionary reading for the year, and they do it because they want to give back to the community. And then people show up on blogs and take pot-shots, claiming (with no knowledge whatsoever) that the whole thing was a "popularity contest". Phooey. I wonder if these naysayers even consider the fact that they're impuning the integrity of real human beings. I doubt it. People say stupid things on the Interwebs that they would never say face-to-face.

So, after you've bought and read the excellent debut novels listed above, check out the works of Annette Meyers, Bob Morris, Kat Richardson, and Greg Rucka. They served on the jury with me, and they all did a fantastic job.

Once again, congratulations to Francie Lin, and all the nominees. Well done. I can't wait to read your next books.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Indie Day

Okay, Kevin, I made my trip over to the Seminary Co-op, and bought Barrie's version of Peter Pan, Robinson's Home and a third book whose title escapes me.  I thought there should have been tags, like on Donut Day.  Maybe next year.  Who else has celebrated Indie Day?