Sunday, November 29, 2009

Twice a Hero, Once a Rascal

At the Outfit we tend to shine a light on Chicago’s political, legal, and police corruption. But we shouldn’t forget that Chicago has some of the best sports scandals in the nation as well. And when sports intersects with politics and religion, the stories can be fascinating. Like this one by guest poster, Mike Bohn.

Bohn is the author of Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports, recently published with Potomac Books. His other books include Money Golf, 600 Years of Bettin’ on Birdies (2007), The Achille Lauro Hijacking, Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism (2004), and Nerve Center, Inside the White House Situation Room (2003). As a freelance writer, he regularly contributes features and golf reporting to a group of newspapers in Virginia. For more information, visit his website

As the tryouts for the 1924 American Olympic swimming team approached, Chicago’s Johnny Weissmuller was a mortal lock to make the team. He had broken thirty-eight world records over the course of 1922 and 1923.

Yet as Weissmuller prepared to travel to Indiana, a dark cloud descended over the family home at 1521 Cleveland Avenue in the German Town section of Chicago. U.S. Olympic officials had asked all team aspirants to provide proof of citizenship. Stunned, Elizabeth explained to her anxious son that he was not an American. She and her husband, Peter, had emigrated from Austria in 1905 when Johnny was seven months old.

After arriving in America, the family initially had settled in Windber, Pennsylvania, where their second son, Peter, was born. After moving to Chicago in 1908, Papa Weissmuller worked in a bar, and Elizabeth as a cook. Neither had the time nor inclination to apply for U.S. citizenship.

Johnny burst onto the American swimming scene as a seventeen-year-old in 1921. Bill Bachrach, the swimming director at the Illinois Athletic Club in Chicago, had taken the raw youngster and molded him into a swimming sensation. Bachrach was both an able coach and an inspired con man. He and Johnny connived to shave just tenths of seconds off records instead of shattering them. New records meant new headlines; more headlines brought more money to the IAC.

Just before the Indianapolis meet, word leaked to the press that Johnny had been born in Austria. U.S. Representative Henry Rathbone of Chicago further muddied the, um, water, by asking the U.S. department of labor to investigate.
Elizabeth spoke to the press and, with her fingers crossed, tearfully claimed that Johnny had been born in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune reacted with a positive story—“Can’t Bar Weissmuller from Olympiad; Was Born Here.” Rathbone pulled back slightly in the face of an emotional mother and sought a politically safe middle ground.

Johnny and his mother then decided to have him swap birth certificates with his American-born brother. Bachrach was likely involved because he was the Olympic swimming coach, plus Johnny was his meal ticket at the IAC. Within a few days, someone altered the baptismal records of Windber’s Saint John Cantius Catholic Church. Peter Weissmuller suddenly had a middle name—John—albeit written in different ink and penmanship. Bachrach stood ready to spin the press about how the family had always called the boy by his middle name.

Back in Chicago, Johnny gave the Olympic Committee his brother’s birth certificate. Officials, eager to have Weissmuller on the team, quickly accepted the unexpectedly tidy solution to a messy problem. The federal investigation fizzled, Rathbone retreated, and Elizabeth said ten Hail Marys.

Johnny, now as American as apple strudel, swam to Olympic glory, winning a total of five gold medals in 1924 and 1928. A hero twice over, he also starred in eighteen Tarzan movies in the 1930s and 40s. Reportedly worried that he might have to return his Olympic medals, Weissmuller never revealed the secret of his actual birthplace.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


by Barbara D'Amato

Several years ago a friend who had been in a writing group told me this: “There was a lot of competitiveness and sniping at each other. I changed groups and the next one was good, but I had expected published writers to be competitive and envious, too. I’ve been very grateful for the mutual support I see in the mystery world. Friends are actually happy when I get a contract from a publisher.”

I’ve been thinking lately about the various surprises that come to writers when they finally sell a book. Some of the surprises are not very pleasant, but many are. I asked a few people what their experiences were.

Michael Allen Dymmoch:
What surprised me and enabled me to become a published writer was all the help I had getting there. Police officers like Hugh Holton, psychologists, and other professionals gave me information I hadn't thought to ask for. Your gracious offer to read and critique my manuscript--after you'd given me the terrific suggestion to novelize the screenplay I couldn't sell, encouraged me to finish the first draft and helped me make it better. And Ray Powers, my first agent, took me on even though the manuscript wasn't ready for prime time. The two rewrites he insisted on were what enabled the book to win the Malice Best First Mystery award.

Libby Fischer Hellmann:
That there were other (first time) authors like me, and we could do events together. Made road trips so much more enjoyable
That readers sometimes sent me emails with comments on the book
The most delightful part is holding the finished book in your hands and realizing you really did it..

Laura Caldwell:
Book clubs make me incredibly, incredibly thankful. To be in a room (usually with wine) with a bunch of people who have read your book and carefully considered it is amazing. And then there's the book club who do themes surrounding the book. It's so delightful. Once, in A Clean Slate, I had a character with a few freckles under his left eye. The book club made a massive batch of sugar cookies and decorated them with man's face, a few freckles under the left eye. They sent me home with a few on a paper plate and I still have them in my freezer (and this was seven years ago). Thanks, guys!!

Recently I’ve realized too how chancy it is. Over the years I’ve read a lot of manuscripts for people. Some were eventually bought by publishers but many deserving ones were not. A manuscript has to hit a buying editor at the exactly right moment. To those writing I would say keep trying. For my good fortune in finding editors who wanted to buy—thank you.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I dropped out of grad school…

by Michael Dymmoch

…to avoid writing a thesis. At the time—40 years ago—writing a thesis seemed like an impossible task. All that research. All that writing. All those pages to fill. (With no Wikipedia or spell-checker!) I’d never written anything longer than a college term paper, and that was a month late because I kept putting it off. Doing a bit more research. Taking a few more notes. Tweaking the prose. Fortunately for me, I had an understanding instructor who accepted the late paper, even gave me an A-. (When she handed it back—with numerous spelling errors marked in black, she asked if I ever proof-read anything. My response surprised her: “Yeah, but if I misspell it in the first place, how would I recognize the error when I proof it?” She subsequently gave me a sweatshirt with the legend: BAD SPELLERS OF THE WORLD UNTIE!)

That was lucky. She was the first teacher who ever gave me the idea that I might be able to write, that I might even be good! But it was also unfortunate. I’d gotten away with procrastinating. In fact, all through college I put off writing papers until the night before they were due. And I got away with it. But the result was that a tremendous dread would set in whenever I got an assignment. And I’d procrastinate even more.

For a few years, I had a job writing meeting reports for a boss who, apparently, liked writing even less than I. He demanded that my work be done on schedule, and after a few all-nighters which left me half dead the next day, I learned to get it over with before the dreaded deadline. That discipline, and the excitement of telling stories that just had to be told, the peak experience of writing itself, carried me through nine novels.

But now that I’m my own boss, I seem to be relapsing. Putting off writing. Doing a bit more research. Taking a few more notes. Tweaking the prose. Procrastinating.

Before you say, “Nine novels is more than most people write. Why not just call it enough?” I have to point out that I can’t. I’m a writer. I have to write. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking about it. Or writing about it. Or feeling guilty that I’m not doing it. And I agree entirely with Rita Mae Brown: I believe that after exhausting all other alternatives, I’ll behave reasonably. Which, for me, is sitting down to write.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Symphony of Science - We are all connected...

By Sean Chercover

Okay, so I'm getting better from my flu-bug, but not 100% quite yet. Not up to a clever post this week. Promise I will have one for you next time.

In the meantime, check out this really cool video:

Here are the lyrics:

[deGrasse Tyson]
We are all connected;
To each other, biologically
To the earth, chemically
To the rest of the universe atomically

I think nature's imagination
Is so much greater than man's
She's never going to let us relax

We live in an in-between universe
Where things change all right
But according to patterns, rules,
Or as we call them, laws of nature

I'm this guy standing on a planet
Really I'm just a speck
Compared with a star, the planet is just another speck
To think about all of this
To think about the vast emptiness of space
There's billions and billions of stars
Billions and billions of specks

The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it
But the way those atoms are put together
The cosmos is also within us
We're made of star stuff
We are a way for the cosmos to know itself

Across the sea of space
The stars are other suns
We have traveled this way before
And there is much to be learned

I find it elevating and exhilarating
To discover that we live in a universe
Which permits the evolution of molecular machines
As intricate and subtle as we

[deGrasse Tyson]
I know that the molecules in my body are traceable
To phenomena in the cosmos
That makes me want to grab people in the street
And say, have you heard this??

(Richard Feynman on hand drums and chanting)

There's this tremendous mess
Of waves all over in space
Which is the light bouncing around the room
And going from one thing to the other

And it's all really there
But you gotta stop and think about it
About the complexity to really get the pleasure
And it's all really there
The inconceivable nature of nature

For more, visit

Peace, brothers and sisters.

The plot thickens...

By David Heinzmann

I forget which one of my fellow bloggers told me a while back that when you have a book coming out—as I do next month--it’s acceptable to shamelessly self-promote for at least a couple months worth of posts here on the Outfit. But interesting Chicago crime stuff keeps happening that I think people might want to read about. This week is no different.

Last Monday morning, a little after 6 a.m., I was rudely awakened by an email on my phone that said: Michael Scott is dead. His body found under a bridge in River North.

I jumped out of bed and made a call to a source, and learned something new and chilling. Scott had a bullet in his head.

The last time I had talked to Michael Scott, a longtime close ally of Mayor Daley, he accused me of being out to get him. It wasn’t the first time he’d said it.

Over the summer, my coworker Todd Lighty and I wrote several stories about Scott’s real estate dealings, and their troubling connections to his role as president of the Chicago school board, as well as his position on Daley’s Olympic committee. We had two significant stories, first that Scott was angling to take control of city-owned vacant lots next to the West Side park where the Olympic cycling tracks would be built. The land was currently almost worthless, but if the $30 million Olympic complex was built, the condos and stores he planned to build could have been worth a fortune. Read the whole thing here,0,2216786.story… And we followed it a few weeks later with this story about Scott’s ties to an even bigger development, here,0,2667598.story

After our first story, Daley backed Scott, and Olympic officials initially said it was OK. But when I pressed them with questions about their conflict-of-interest policy, they eventually said it wasn’t OK, and made Scott sever his ties to the development.

It was an embarrassing summer for Scott, and it wasn’t getting any easier. Over the last couple of weeks, Lighty and I were planning to report another story—that Scott had billed the public schools for his $3,000 trip to Copenhagen to be with the Olympic team when the 2016 host city was chosen last month. An internal investigation over Scott’s use of his expense account had been percolating at the schools headquarters since Lighty filed a demand for documents eary this month.

But none of these problems seemed like something an experienced politico would kill himself over. While we dug for reasons last week, the murmurs from Scott’s friends grew louder that it couldn’t have been suicide. Somebody must have killed Scott.

The questions bubbled over toward the end of the week, after the Cook County Medical Examiner ruled the case was a suicide, and Chicago Police Supt. Jody Weis balked, saying the police investigation wasn’t ready to rule either way. Then some raving woman ran up to the Tribune Tower and heaved a brick through the plate glass of WGN's streetside studio. She was ranting that we were covering up Scott's murder.

Every cop I’ve talked to about the case, including some who were at the scene, has said this was definitely a suicide. Scott’s own gun. Gunshot residue on his hand. Little details, like the fact that he was left-handed and was shot in the left side of his head.

So why did he do it? I think we’ll be digging on that question for a while. It’s one Chicago’s more compelling mysteries at the moment. And that’s saying something.

I think all of the novelists on this blog would agree, sometimes it’s difficult to come up with plot lines that are stranger than the truth of what goes on in this town. I mean, Patti Blagojevich on reality TV in the jungle would have seemed like it was stretching things a bit if Christopher Buckley had made it up.

But then again, this can give us all a liberating measure of license. Who says it couldn’t happen? This is Chicago.

Oh, and by the way, the next time I blog will be three days shy of my Dec. 9 publication date. I promise (to myself) to shamelessly self-promote A Word to the Wise (AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER NOW!!!) then.

Friday, November 20, 2009

What Do You C? 3, I hope

A violinist I know who's part of The New Millennium Orchestra told me they're working on a business plan these days. Up to now, if they had money they paid the musicians; if they didn't, everyone played for free. The musicians are all young, energetic, and very hard working. They travel long distances to teach to make enough money to continue with their art. Or their profession.

They grapple with making old music fresh. When an orchestra looks bored, they lose connection with their audience, even if they're still playing well--anyone looked at the CSO strings lately while they're playing Brahms?

I was listening to my violinist acquaintance the day after reading Libby's recent Dispatches from the Road. On the one hand, there are far too many gifted writers who are scrambling, like Declan Burke, to make any kind of income from the many hours of toil they put into their work. And on the other hand there are some writers going through the motions: maybe a series has run out of steam and either out of laziness, or market position, or because the publisher won't take anything else, we keep sawing away like a tired violinist playing Brahms' 4th for the 4004th time.

Musicians get typecast just like writers, I learned. If you play with a dynamic young group like 8th Blackbird, now in residence at the University of Chicago, you can't get playing gigs for doing 18th or 19th century music: you are strictly a "new music" group.

How do you keep a sense of freshness to your writing when you're writing what your publisher wants, not what you want? How do you keep your writing from being mechanical if you measure your work in words per day? How do you keep going at all if you can't get into print, or can't sell enough copies when you're in print (the issue Declan was confronting.)

An orchestra can establish itself as a 501-C-3 and apply for grants or other tax-deductible support. Maybe the Outfit needs to establish a charitable arm that supports road trips for writers. We travel great distances at great expense to bring our art to tiny audiences. If we had a charity that gave grants to members on the road, at least we'd cover our costs. What do you think?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Kind of Class Everyone Should Attend

by Laura Caldwell

Dick Devine, the former Cook County State's Attorney, is now a law professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. In particular, Dick is teaching a death penalty seminar, which I have been fortunate enough to audit. As the former prosecutor, some might assume Professor Devine is a dogged proponent of the death penalty and that he might push his views on the students. On the contrary, Devine understands the myriad issues surrounding the death penalty. He's taken great pains to probe the topic from every angle and has ensured that the speakers who attend class weekly are representative of the wide range of philosophical, emotional, legal, practical and intellectual views about capital punishment.

One of the classes pitted a current state's attorney who has frequently sought the death penalty with a staunch opponent, Rob Warden of Northwestern's Center on Wrongful Convictions. I don't know how else to describe the debate except to say that it was an intellectual cage match between two learned and passionate people. The class should have been held outside the Acropolis.

Professor Devine has also invited victims' families who have had loved-ones killed. Some strictly believed in the death penalty, others are working to oppose it. Also speaking to the class was Scott Turow, the writer, who as a former federal prosecutor felt the death penalty was "an ugly necessity," but is now an opponent of capital punishment. Numerous other attorneys spoke including those who had worked on the John Wayne Gacy and Richard Speck cases and many others where the death penalty was imposed or sought. Devine even invited jurors who decided a capital case and made the agonizing decision on whether or not someone should be put to death.

I continue to think of a couple of things as I attend this class. One, I'm learning so much more now that I don't have to memorize anything or write a paper. Two, this is the kind class I wish everyone could attend—one with honest, frank, emotional discussions about issues in our culture and our society with view points from every possible person, where concepts, ramifications, feelings and philosophies are widely discussed and where students are ultimately left to their own devices in terms of their thinking.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Impulsive Decisions and Endless Staircases

by Marcus Sakey

I love to travel. Cultural hotspot or primeval forest, demanding tour or beach paradise, I’m in. So when a high school buddy emailed to see if I would be interested in doing some kind of adventure trip, I was all over it. We started chatting, and decided that we were both in the mood for something that was a bit of a challenge. Something we’d have to prepare for, something unlike other trips we’d taken.

Which is how, before I’d thought the idea through, I was laying down a deposit on a trip to climb Mount Rainier.

Rainier, for those who don’t know, is the tallest mountain in the contiguous US, at 14,411 feet tall. It’s by and large not a technical climb, but it is, in the words of the guide I spoke to, “a beast.”

To which I replied, “gulp.”

My fault, really. I’d looked at the conditioning section of the website, but not with much care. I was too excited by the pictures, by the silence at the top of that mountain, by the thought of watching the sun come up as we ascended. And since I’m in pretty good shape to begin with, I figured what the hell.

Yeah. Hmm.

Turns out that it’s actually going to be a monster commitment. They recommend that as part of your training, you take regular spend 2 – 3 hours hiking up stadium stairs, carrying a full-weight pack. On the day of the actual ascent, we’ll be covering 12.5 miles across 14 hours with an escalation gain of 5,000 feet, carrying a 30-pound pack in 10-degree weather.

I’ll admit, my first thought was panic. But I’d already committed. And there was that sunrise. Plus, while the idea of training for a marathon has always seemed completely unappealing, training for a goal like this I could get.

So I’m going to try for it. I’ve begun upping my gym time—a lot—and while it’s challenging, I’m seeing results already. Which is gratifying, and gives me hope.

Besides, what’s really at stake? Work hard for the next six months to get myself in the best shape of my life so I can climb the tallest mountain in the country?

Doesn’t sound so bad put that way.

Funny thing, though, is that if I had read that conditioning page more carefully, there’s no way I would have agreed to do it. Leaping without looking led me to a place I wouldn’t have gone—but am excited to be. It’s daunting, yeah, but I believe the payoff will be worth it.

Any of you ever had that experience? Leapt without looking, and ended up liking the view?

And while I’m at it, any of you ever climb Rainier? I’m open to tips…

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Justine Conundrum

by David Ellis

I’ve had a couple of interesting things happen with regard to my latest book, THE HIDDEN MAN. One is just a lesson I learned, which I will share briefly. The other one has become a debate in my mind that I’d ask for your feedback on.

And before that, I guess I should give one of those trendy SPOILER ALERTS! This entire blog will give away a minor surprise, by which I mean, not the “final” plot twist but something you will learn somewhere around page 41 of the book. (I hate that, by the way; I like to have internal surprises, before the final twist, but it makes it a lot harder to promote the book, because you’re afraid to say anything in the promo. Most of the reviews and blogs that describe my protagonist give away the early surprise.)

First, the lesson. Let’s just say, if you’re going to have little girls who wind up dead in one of your books, make sure that, before choosing the names of those dead girls, you (or your wife) have passed the child-bearing years. Or, pick names for those dead girls that have absolutely no chance of making a short list for your own children’s names.

I already announced recently the birth of my new daughter, Julia Grace. Love the name, and it’s kind of a family name, and I wouldn’t trade it now for anything … but our first choice for a name was the name of a dead girl in THE HIDDEN MAN. I was informed, by no less a literary giant than critic David J. Montgomery, that I absolutely, positively could NOT name my daughter after a recent dead girl in one of my novels. Bad karma, said he. As always, my wife and I follow everything Mr. Montgomery says. (Except that one piece of advice, a couple years back; strawberry jelly, Barry White and silk sheets are not a match made in heaven, Dave.)

Now for your help. I did something in my novel that confused people. It was a flashback, and it involved a child named “Justine.” Without giving too much away, people weren’t sure whether Justine really existed or was a figment of my protagonist’s imagination. The artist in me was very disappointed in myself. I should have seen that potential for confusion, because even my editor called my attention to it. But I missed it. And I have received somewhere between 50 and 75 emails from fans saying, “Loved the book but I was scratching my head ….” The absolute last thing I wanted was for readers to be confused on this point, to be scratching their head. This passage in the novel was NOT, by any means, integral to the novel. It could very easily be discarded.

So, my plan is to tell my publisher to take out those couple of paragraphs from the paperback edition. Solve the problem. But then the artist in me heard a knock on the door. The person knocking was a very rare visitor: The promoter in me.

50 to 75 people emailed me about the book for this reason. 50 to 75 new email addresses for my mailing list. 50 to 75 people with whom I had a brief conversation, all of them grateful for the personal reply and, presumably, walking away with positive feelings. The math would say that with the higher paperback distribution, that could be 400 to 500 emails from new readers next year. Keep in mind, this passage, while confusing, really doesn't affect the plot at all. That's why I was so mad at myself ... but also why you could make an argument that it's no big deal.

So, dear friends, fellow artists and promoters, I ask you: Who wins? The artist or the promoter? Do I take out this confusing passage in the paperback edition or leave it in?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Dispatches from the Road

by Libby Hellmann

As some of you know, I've been on tour the past few weeks. Does it help? Is it worthwhile? I don't know. I just know that, notwithstanding today's difficulties in the marketplace, as described here and here, I'm afraid NOT to tour... afraid my work will be forgotten or ignored. The bad news: I'm bone tired, cranky, and way behind in my writing. The good news: I got to meet new readers, visit new places, and get to know other writers. One of those writers is Keith Raffel who hails from Palo Alto, and with whom I did a series of events out west. His second novel is SMASHER. We decided to trade blogs today and write about each other. What follows is his impressions of me. (You can read my impressions of him here.)

Jack Kerouac went on a road trip with Neal Cassady and the American classic On the Road was the result. I hit the road with the talented and charming crime fiction novelist Libby Fischer Hellmann. (His words... not mine, although my bank account has taken a sudden dive...)

Last spring I got an email from Cara Black, who’s as great a friend as she is a writer. She suggested that I get in touch with Libby since we both had books coming out this fall. The idea of listening to myself drone on for days scared me. I knew Libby, loved her books, and was up for the adventure if she was. She was.

We divvied up the work and set things up for five events in LA in 28 hours and then five more in the Bay Area at the more leisurely pace of one per day. I’d drive down to LA and pick her up as she arrived at the airport from Phoenix. I did and an hour later we’d stopped at Book’em in South Pasadena. We were off.

Here’s what I learned.

She’s tireless. When I picked her up in L.A., she’d already been in Texas and Arizona. We did our ten stops in eight days together and then she headed back home for an equally grueling schedule. She was just as focused in talking to fans at the third event of the day as at the first. Wait, let me amend that. Some nights at dinner around 10, she was definitely ready to call it a night. But that’s just when she was with me and other friends. If there’d been fans there, she would have been as peppy as ever.

She’s neurotic. An example. Most writers slip into their events with seconds to spare. Not Libby. She demanded that my right foot push a little harder against the accelerator so that we would arrive at an event 30 minutes early.

She’s a great sport. At the Redondo Beach Library on the night before Halloween, she was at her best as the witty Ashley Ream questioned her. Unfortunately, the members of the audience could be counted on one hand. When we stopped at a Barnes and Noble to sign stock and they didn’t have copies of her Doubleback as promised, she calmly spoke to a manager without losing her cool. (The B&N eventually got 10 copies in)

Lucy knows all. As Dionne Warwick sang, “L.A. is a great big freeway.” I had no idea where we were going in the noodle soup of highways and boulevards that is Southern California. But Libby follows Lucy’s commandments as if she were listening to God on Mount Sinai. (Lucy looks a lot like a portable GPS, but if Libby wants to treat her words as gospel, who am I to argue?)

She’s a fan. Our event at the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood was followed by one featuring the terrific writer John Connolly. Even though we faced a six-hour drive from LA back to the Bay Area, she wanted to stick around because she loves his writing. “He’s pretty cool,” she said.

She has buttons that can be pressed. As stated above, Libby is a great sport, but I guess there’s still a mischievous boy inside me. I couldn’t resist saying that I write with a quota of 5-7,000 words a week. She would have gladly shot me or at least that’s what she told the audience. She finds writing the most difficult thing she's ever done and struggles to get her daily word count.

She’s yin. To my yang. Libby moved to Chicago and years later took up crime fiction there. I left my birthplace of Chicago as a child and started writing crime fiction as an exile. Libby agonizes over a first draft, but loves to edit. I love the spontaneity and creativity of the first draft, but editing seems perilously close to work.

Yin and Yang we might have been, but the adventure was terrific. I got to know Libby – which was a great thing.

PS Libby again. Just got back from the fabulous MURDER AND MAYHEM in Muskego. What a weekend.. although we missed you, Sean. I was lucky to emcee with the one-and-only Tom Schreck, aka Duffy Dombrowski, whose gloves I can only hope to fill. Thank you Penny.. and Jon.. and Ruth...and the Friends of the Muskego Library.

Friday, November 13, 2009

We'll Order Now What They Ordered Then

By Kevin Guilfoile

This week I received a box of new foreign editions of CAST OF SHADOWS. That's always a special thrill, seeing new covers, new page layouts, new visual interpretations of your novel.

When I opened the Chinese edition, I discovered this beautifully designed, tri-fold insert advertising EVERY SECRET THING by Laura Lippman. And I couldn't stop looking at it. I spent much more time examining this piece of advertising than I did exploring the new incarnation of my own book. I turned it over carefully in my hands, wondering exactly what was printed on it. I assume it has an excerpt of some kind. Quotes and blurbs. Maybe even a discount offer, I really don't know but it was such a pleasant surprise.

I know the future of book promotion is in new media. I'm certain of it. E-readers have become more affordable and easy to use, and when we start hearing real numbers for ebook sales over the next year I suspect we will be surprised at the rate at which people are adapting to the new technology. We shouldn't be. But we always are.

The problem is we're still in the experimental stage when it comes to influencing people with online media.

For instance I think book trailers might someday be an excellent means of promotion. In some cases even necessary. For my second novel, which comes out next year, I'll almost certainly make one. But I'm worried that I haven't seen many book trailers that I think actually work. They are targeted too randomly, for starters. In terms of production they always pale in comparison to film trailers. And promoting a big book with a little movie is a little like promoting a painting with a radio sketch. The experiences are just not transferable.

On the other hand, this elegant piece of paper, printed in China and which I couldn't even read, made me want to buy a book far more than any web trailer I've ever seen (admittedly, I've already read and enjoyed EVERY SECRET THING, but that's beside the point). It was testament to the power of print. And to the fact that old media still has a few bullets in its gun.

My shelves are lined with vintage paperbacks with ads for other books printed on the aftermatter, and here was evidence that this old idea can still be a good one. A reader has purchased a particular book and the publisher is saying if you like this book, here's another you might enjoy. It's a benefit to the reader, it's a branding opportunity for the publisher. It's advertising that is relatively cheap and precisely targeted (the latter always being the hardest thing to achieve). And for those of us who still believe there is something magical about words printed on paper, the pitch is made in an especially seductive way, on a gorgeous piece of paper that I might keep. As a bookmark, or just an object of admiration.

Maybe there's a lesson in that. It made me feel good, is all I'm saying.

Also, an update. Two weeks ago, I posted about some home videos taken by my wife's family--one of Chicago's great snowstorm of 1967, and another of Chicago's great snowstorm of 1939. Scott Jacobs of The Week Behind was inspired to find more videos from local snowstorms of yore. Good stuff.

Follow Kevin on Twitter.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


by Barbara D'Amato

From my living room window, I can look out at Lake Michigan. In many ways this is very, very nice. I enjoy seeing the clouds and seagulls. The colors of Lake Michigan change as the sun moves. It’s never the same and always interesting.

However, I also see people jogging, rollerblading, racing, power-walking, and bicycling on the esplanade. And swimming until a week or so ago. Whether I’ve been slothful, hanging around the house, or have just come in from a two-mile walk, watching them makes me feel lazy.

I realize the ones I saw jogging or bicycling this morning are not the same ones running, rollerblading, or skateboarding at noon or in the evening—or if they are, they’re nuts. But they make me feel like a lazy slob, whoever they are.

The same thing happens with writing.

I asked one of my writing friends some years ago whether she subscribed to Publishers Weekly. She said, “Absolutely not! All those reviews would make me feel I wasn’t working fast enough.”

I have other writing friends who say either that they never read online reviews, writers' gossip sites, or other sites about new books that have come out, or that they read them only right after they’ve sent their book to their publisher.

When I read review publications, it seems like everyone in the world has a new book out. I should be working faster, working harder, working smarter. Even bookstores, which I love, make me feel like a lazy slob. They are a reproach to me.

Why am I still on page 129? I’ve been on 129 for three days.

Why did I just waste half an hour playing two games of computer crossword? Why do I keep going to the anacrostic site when I should be writing? Why did anybody invent online jigsaw puzzles?

Do you writers out there feel the same?

I should get to work right now. But maybe just a short round of drop quotes to wind down.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


by Michael Dymmoch

Saw this sign on a gas pump recently and I had to take a photo. (With a digital camera, photos are quicker than notes and proof of things you’d have to see to believe.)

Anyway, I shot the sign because I was under the impression that trafficking blood was illegal in Illinois. And I wanted to verify or disabuse my assumption. Because I’ve spent too much time in the last year waiting on hold and stumbling through phone mazes, I thought I’d try looking up the Ilinois statute on blood donation before trying to find a government employee familiar with blood donation laws. (Yeah, I could have just called a blood bank, but what would I blog about?) And I guess I like to do things the hard way. So….

I started with the Illinois Department of Health website…

And immediately got detoured by the law requiring that traumatic injuries be reported (and to whom). Now I have a copy of the law and the form reporters are supposed to use sitting on my desktop. The form consists of two full pages of boxes to check or fill. (No wonder hospital visits cost so much.)

The blood-law information that was easily located in the Illinois Compiled Statutes* site seemed to be limited:

The public Health laws also contained (410 ILCS 535/) Vital Records Act, which distracted me again because a recent trip to the Lake County (IL) Coroner’s Office for an autopsy report (a public record that anyone can get for $30 since the dead have no right to privacy) and a toxicology report (ditto; $15) had made me wonder whether just anyone could get your birth or death certificate. (Short answer, not legally.)

By this time at least an hour had passed and I still didn’t know whether it’s legal to buy and sell blood in Illinois. Since I hadn’t even made it halfway down my day's list of things to do, I gave up and called the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Chicago office. The lady who answered the phone told me to call 217-782-7412, which turned out to be a downstate number for the ILDPH, Division of Healthcare Facilities and Programs. When I dialed the number, I got the division’s office hours and a phone maze, including the suggestion to check the website I had just visited unsuccessfully, and the advice to “stay on the line for an operator.” I did and got an answering machine. I left a message. (I did get a call back, but the woman who returned my call didn’t know the answer. She said she’d ask someone and get back to me. I’m still waiting.)

Since I’d now spent two hours “researching”, I decided to cut to the chase and call Life Source. One phone maze and two live conversations later, I still didn’t know if selling blood is legal. I did know (what I’d known before I called) that Life Source doesn’t pay for blood.

I decide to see if the Illinois Attorney General’s office could answer my question. The website's "Contact us” supplied no phone numbers, just a form to fill out with the following caveat: “E-mail messages are forwarded to the appropriate staff person and will be responded to by regular mail via U.S. Postal Service in the order they are received. Because of the large volume of e-mails received daily, there may be a delay in our responding to your message.” (I’m still not holding my breath.)

So I gave the IL Department of Public Health website one more try and found this:


Which answers one of my origingal questions: “Is it leagal to use purchased blood in Illinois?” But it raises another: “Is the ad legal and the company that placed it on the up and up?” I don’t have the time to pursue it any further. And I’m beginning to see why lawyers can get so much for their services.

* An explanation of how ILCS--the Illinois Compiled Statutes--are organized, takes up several pages at .

Monday, November 09, 2009

My Brain Hurts!

-Sean Chercover

NOTE: To those of you attending (and you should) Murder & Mayhem In Muskego this coming weekend ... rest assured, I'm headed to the doc in the morning, so if I'm there, I'm not contagious.

Okay, so I'm sick. Had this stupid cold for a few days, no big deal, but now I've got a fever...

...and a monster headache...

...and other symptoms too unpleasant to report here, so it seems to have turned from a stupid cold into a stupid flu.

Anyway. My brain is addled, and I can't think of a damn thing to blog about.

Tomorrow morning, after the doctor tells me I just have the regular flu and not the piggy flu (knock on wood), I plan to curl up in bed and drink Neo Citran and watch movies all day.

Got any recommendations for me?

The happiest place on earth

By David Heinzmann

Whenever I walk up the sprawling front steps of the Cook County Criminal Courts Building, I murmur to myself that this is the happiest place on earth. That’s stolen from my friend Jeff Coen who would call it that whenever something particularly medieval happened within the walls of that giant meatgrinder of American justice in the years that he covered 26th and Cal for the Tribune. Then I remove my belt, empty my pockets and make my way through the metal detectors. When I entered last week I headed up to courtroom 301 to check on a case.

The little courtrooms are especially gloomy, with their low ceilings, cramped rows of gallery benches and tinted glass walling off the public from the actual court proceedings. I sat down among a dozen Hispanic and black women who were waiting for a glimpse of their sons and boyfriends in custody. On the other side of the aisle were several people in bright blue t-shirts emblazoned with some kind of Chicago Police Department logo. One of the women, a middle-aged blond who sounded like she was used to running an office, seemed to be in charge.

Every so often a deferential young prosecutor would step through the glass doors and say, “Now, you know this is just a status date? Nothing will really happen today.”

The blond woman kept answering knowingly. “Yes, we know. We’ve been following this from the beginning.”

It turned out they were there for two young women charged with defacing the police memorial near Soldier Field, and this crowd was coming to every court date to make sure the judge saw them out there, standing up against any disrespect shown their fallen brethren. When the case was called, all the people in blue t-shirts stood up, as if to testify themselves. The prosecutor was right, nothing happened and the case was bumped to a new date sometime early next year. The blue t-shirt brigade gathered up their things and trooped out of the courtroom, leaving behind a lone man who had been sitting quietly behind them. Late forties, paunchy, bald, wearing a camel hair jacket and a tie.

They had a lot in common with the guy, but the police supporters would not be there when Officer John Haleas’ case was called. He was, however, the reason I was there. Once the cop who made more DUI arrests than anybody else in Illinois, Haleas produced headlines last year when he was charged with lying on police reports to make his questionable drunken driving busts stick in court. What was worse, the case had come to light because he had brazenly done it in front of two assistant state’s attorneys, who rode in his squad car one night to see how traffic arrests are made.

Haleas was in court trying to get his case dismissed and Judge James Obbish was ready to announce his ruling. The defense lawyer argued that the investigation had been tainted by prosecutors using forbidden evidence. Early in the case, Haleas had been required to give internal affairs a statement about the accusations as part of a police department administrative probe. Refusing to give such a statement is grounds for firing but a U.S. Supreme Court ruling holds that using such forced statements for criminal charges would violate the officer’s 5th Amendment rights. So it’s off limits to prosecutors.

The prosecutor involved specialized in police misconduct and insisted he treated the Haleas case like all his other cases over the years, carefully avoiding the compelled statement. But the internal affairs investigator involved claimed that, for some reason, he had told the prosecutor all about Haleas’ compelled statement, thereby poisoning the prosecution with the taint of the forbidden fruit.

Judge Obbish sided with the internal affairs version, declared the case compromised and threw out Haleas’ indictment. Prosecutors will appeal, but Haleas, who had become a pariah over the last year, walked out of the courtroom a free man.

I immediately stepped into the hallway and thumbed out a quick and dirty version of the story on my BlackBerry for the Trib’s online breaking news page. The story was up in minutes, while I was still in the hallway talking to lawyers, and soon readers were posting comments.

Most of the comments expressed outrage of the something fishy here bent. The alleged dirty cop gets off on a technicality because of a bush-league investigative error. Cops looking out for their own, the fix was in, etc.

I don’t check the infamous cop blog all that often, but sometimes I can’t resist. Especially on a story like this. As I had expected, cops saw things very differently. There was a chorus of rejoicing, applause for the judge “following the law,” and congratulations to Haleas for beating the rap.

The difference in perspective between cops and civilians struck me, though I’m more than a little familiar with it.

In a city as corrupt as Chicago, many people fear the power of the police. And the Haleas accusations seemed to tap right into the disastrous run-in with a bad cop nightmare for many people.

On the other hand, in a city of such polar extremes, so cosmopolitan and beautiful in some quarters but so bloody and vicious in others, a lot of cops feel beaten up an abandoned by the politicians they obey and the citizens they protect.

Some people believe the system will always protect cops. Some cops believe the system is always out to get them.

It wasn’t quite an OJ-verdict moment, but as I left the happiest place on earth I did wonder how the folks in the blue t-shirts would have reacted if they had stuck around to see the Haleas case go down the drain.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

And the Winner Is...

I'm reading short stories for the Edgars, and I confess that I'm dismayed by the amount of graphic and degrading sex contributors use. Eight-year-old girls are abused by sexual predators and no detail is omitted. Beautiful rich girls are decapitated in technicolor.

Time Magazine's October 14 issue proclaimed that women have more power but are unhappy. Maybe because we're being raped and decapitated in record numbers in film and fiction.
Sarah Weinman, one of the most thoughtful writers in the blogosphere, has an interesting post on this called "Getting Re-Sensitized to Violence."

Weinman starts the post with a quote from Jessica Mann:
When a female corpse appeared on the jacket of a crime-writing colleague's new book, she pointed out to her publisher that the victim in the story was actually a man. Never mind that, came the reply, dead, brutalised women sell books, dead men don't. Nor do dead children or geriatrics. Which explains why an increasing proportion of the crime fiction I am sent to review features male perpetrators and almost invariably female victims — series of them. Each psychopath is more sadistic than the last and his victims' sufferings are described in detail that becomes ever more explicit, as young women are imprisoned, bound, gagged, strung up or tied down, raped, sliced, burned, blinded, beaten, eaten, starved, suffocated, stabbed, boiled or buried alive.

Side-by-side with this comes PW's list of the 10 best books of 2009. It's not just that all ten were written by men, but many of them were tired old paeans to male sexual fantasies. Jeff in Venice, for instance, takes place in two sections. In the first, set at among academics at the Venice Biennale, we get pages and pages of the hero doing lines (under a Tintoretto ceiling, among other places), while having sex with a predatory American art historian. David Lodge did a better job of sending up the academy decades ago, and, well, Portnoy's Complaint isn't exactly news these days.
What gives with this? Why, when women's wages have reached the heady historic high of 77 cents on the dollar paid to men, when three of the last four Secretaries of State have been women, and even one or two Fortune 500 companies have women chairs, why are women being raped and beaten into oblivion?

What's in a Title? Everything (a/k/a Help, please)

by Laura Caldwell

Titles are the one of trickiest parts of writing a book. I learned that years ago with a novel of mine that was, ultimately, called The Night I Got Lucky. Originally, the book had been named What You Wish For. It was about a woman who got everything she ever wanted overnight and not only has to deal with the consequences but with the feeling of not having contributed to her life. Ultimately, I hoped the book was an essay on the tests of marriage. But the original title wasn't working for a number of people on my team, and so we went back to the drawing board. What should we call it? We came up with hundreds of titles in the next few weeks, but none of them seemed right. I’d written three women’s fiction novels (“chick lit,” if you will), and everyone thought we needed a title in that vein, something sassy, beguiling. We went round and round. Finally, still no perfect title in sight, we settled on The Night I Got Lucky, a (hopefully) catchy reminder that the character, in one night, had gotten it all. Of course, the title had a sexier implication. And that’s the way most readers saw that title. I have to admit, I’ve never liked it, never been comfortable with it, although I love the book and I’m immensely proud of it.

This summer my Izzy McNeil trilogy was released. I know y’all are sick of hearing about it, but just as a reminder for the purposes of this blog, the titles were Red Hot Lies, Red Blooded Murder, and Red White and Dead. I'm now writing four more Izzy novels, and we're trying to decide again about the titles. Should we stick with the red theme? Izzy is, after all, a redhead and red is a powerful burst of the word with lots of mysterious implications. But I'm afraid readers might get confused. They might wonder, did I read that red one or that other red one? I know this confusion because the same thing happened to me with Robert Ludlum’s books featuring Jason Bourne. I couldn't distinguish between the The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Ultimatum or The Bourne Hell (was that one of them? Kinda like that title). So, now we're trying to decide whether to move onto another color. A blue series perhaps? Something like, (just tossing these out there) - The Blue Room, The Blue Hat, The Blue Diamonds? Is that too simplistic? Maybe we should stick with red albeit in a different way, maybe using synonyms like ‘crimson’ or ‘scarlet’? And if we were to cast aside the red, how could we keep that theme in there somewhere? Perhaps have my name in red? Or have a red icon on each cover? We're all brainstorming over here. If you have any thoughts, we'd love to hear 'em.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

What Are You Trying To Say?

by Marcus Sakey

I do maybe 30% of my writing on a laptop from various locations: in front of the window, standing at the counter, on the porch with a cigar. The remainder I do in the second bedroom we've rigged as a den. The split system works for me; mobility shakes me up when necessary, but generally, what I need is a room with a door that closes and a window that looks out onto a brick wall.

As a fringe benefit, this means that most of my writing is done facing a proper desktop monitor. And like any proper monitor, I’ve covered it with scraps of paper.

I started this back when I was freelancing as a copywriter. Sometimes the work is about headlines and campaigns, but more often, especially when freelancing, the work is body copy, which is essentially the text inside the brochure. It’s considered less glamorous, but—no surprise—I always liked it, because done well, that’s the part that is really going to sell someone.

I don’t remember the specific project I was working on, but it was something lengthy and detailed, with lots of information that needed to be conveyed without boring the reader. And so I found I kept repeating one of my writing mantras to myself. It’s a line I go to all the time when trying to trying to craft an argument, formulate a tricky sentence, or organize my thoughts:

What are you trying to say?

Simplistic, I know, but it’s one of the all-time great clarifiers.

Find yourself bound up? What are you trying to say?

Can’t figure out which information you need to include? What are you trying to say?

Wondering how to structure an essay? Well, what are you…you get the point.

Anyway, I was repeating it aloud so much that I printed it out and taped it to my monitor, front and center, so that every time my eyes and attention drifted, I was reminded of a first principle.

As you can see, one thing led to another.

The quotes framing my monitor have been collected over years, and each had to grab me, shake me, and, most important, help me. Real estate is at a premium, so it's a zero-sum game; for a new ont to go up, an old one has to come down. Some are my ideas; some are from other people. But even after staring at them for years, I still find them helpful, so I thought I’d share them. If you're a writer, these are gold:

“The Ideas aren’t the hard bit. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build. My idea of hell is a blank screen. And me, staring at it, unable to think of a single thing worth saying, a single character that people could believe in, a single story that hasn’t been told before.”
-Neil Gaiman

“There is a wall that I hit during the writing of every book. It’s usually around the halfway stage. I start to doubt the plot, the characters, the ideas underpinning it, my own writing, in fact every element involved in the process. Progress slows.

There is always the fear that this book, this story, is the one that should not have been started. The idea here isn’t strong enough. The plot is going nowhere, I’ve taken a wrong turn.”
-John Connolly

“If you don’t feel that you are on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then probably what you are doing isn’t very vital. If you don’t have some doubt of your authority to tell this story, then you are not trying to tell enough.”
-John Irving

“There are very few mistakes in life that can’t be corrected if you got the guts.”
-Richard Price

“I half commit myself to some distant future date. But most of the intervening period disappears in a kind of anxious state of walking about. You cannot start until you know what you want to do, and you do not know what you want to do until you start. Panic breaks that cycle. Finally a certain force in the accumulated material begins to form a pattern.”
-Tom Stoppard

“Get the story launched at full gallop. Introduce characters who are, if not completely likable, at least people with a core sense of integrity. Keep the plot complex enough so that there’s always a twist coming. Pay attention to your character’s emotional lives. Learn to introduce conflict in every chapter.”
-Tess Gerritsen

“The best must never be allowed to drive out the good. In the absence of genius, there is always craftsmanship.”
-Robert Harris

I've got three lines of my own up there, reminders of my own personal foibles:

“What are you trying to say?”

“You are hereby released from writing the perfect novel.”

“Terror is better than ennui.”

Oh, and there's also a cartoon of a naked woman drawn by my wife. That doesn’t really help with the writing, but does make me smile.

So what about you? Anything you’ve read or heard that helps with your own creative process? Anything taped to your monitor?

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Trust and Hope

by David Ellis

Yesterday on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Peggy Noonan wrote that
Americans no longer have hope, that they no longer think their leaders can solve the problems facing them. She made the point that during the economic troubles of the 70s and early 80s, Americans still had optimism that things would turn around; today, she argued, they do not have such hope.

I suppose the fashionable thing here would be to say that I disagree. But I think she may be right. I look at some of the problems we face and wonder whether the word solution even applies to them.

Will we ever settle the debate about free markets versus governmental regulation? No, because we never have a serious enough discussion about it. Politicians will throw out bromides and the robotic media will lap them up and then talk about the latest sex scandal. We’ll regulate the hell out of business until … well, until it hurts our economy enough that we de-regulate … and then that will work out just fine (see Reagan administration, second term) until the investor class and the Fortune 500 companies have ripped off and hurt people enough that we have no choice but to regulate them again (see Obama). And we will overreact, of course, every single time. We will regulate way too much and then we’ll de-regulate way too much. But will we ever get it right? No, because there is no “right,” and even if there were, who would say so? Politicians? No, they’ll never say, “Y’know, things are just perfect right now, so let that incumbent stay in office.” The media? Please. “Things are working out just fine” is not a headline you see a lot. Doesn’t sell a lot of newspapers, does it?

Terrorism. Do we think our leaders will solve that problem? And first off—what is the problem? How is it defined? I think most Americans define the problem as wanting to feel safe. But what we really mean is we want to feel safe while continuing to have the same liberties and freedom we previously enjoyed. That’s the catch, of course. So we react and overreact. We go too far with a Patriot Act after 9/11 and then, after we’re feeling safer many years later, we overreact the other way and talk about repealing the Act in its entirety and closing Gitmo and holding civilian trials for terrorists. These issues are way too complicated to be settled during campaign season in sound bites, as President Obama is surely discovering. The bigger point is that we’ll never feel entirely safe. What about safer? Well, what does that really mean? Either you’re surprise-attacked or you’re not, and you never know when it’s coming. Safer? I don’t think the concept even makes sense.

Is Peggy Noonan right that we no longer believe our leaders can solve the problems? There is no perfect answer, of course, but I think that, by and large, she is correct. I think people are realizing that many of these problems just don’t get solved. We just see-saw back and forth, too extreme on one side, too extreme on the other, with our leaders whispering sweet nothings, their challengers shouting doom-and-gloom, the media just along for the ride (especially if there’s sex or corruption involved). We have stopped trying to solve anything and moved toward simply trying to mitigate our problems as much as possible, and I’m not sure the public trusts their leaders even to do that much anymore.

Monday, November 02, 2009

On The Road

by Libby Hellmann

I'm still on the road with DOUBLEBACK, and my mind is mush. The highlight so far has been Sedona, AZ, which I'd never visited before. I did a workshop at Kris Neri's wonderful Well Red Coyote Bookstore (Thanks again Kris and Joe). Btw, Kris has a new book out, too.

So I used the event as an excuse to spend the night in Sedona. My friend Terry and I went hiking the next morning, then drove through Jerome-- which is like entering a time warp -- on our way back to Scottsdale.

For those of you who already know the beauty of that part of the country, enjoy the pictures. For those of you who don't, get yourself out there. It's majestic... and humbling. And there might be something to all those vortexes. I really did feel calmer driving through certain parts of town.