Book Expo America = Both Exhausting & Amazing!

May 29, 2011

I spent most of the past week at Book Expo America in New York City, and I’m still coming down from the high. Or is it resting up? Let’s say it’s a combination of the two.

I took the train to New York on Monday, getting into town in plenty of time to freshen up at my hotel, the Kimberly in midtown Manhattan. I’d stayed there twice before with Steve and the girls, and knew it was awesome. A nifty thing happened when I was checking in. A bobby walked by. You know, the British cop with the hat. He was followed by more British police officers. The desk clerk told me that not only were they really British, but they were from Scotland Yard! Can you be any safer than in a hotel filled with Scotland Yard officers?

The freshening up was so I could meet  Claudia, one of my husband’s colleagues in the NY office. We’d never met, but had exchanged e-mail about my BFF Charlaine Harris’s books, and I knew the office was near my hotel, so I’d asked if she wanted to get together for drinks. She did, and we had  great time that turned into dinner. Isn’t it great to meet somebody new and really get along with her? It was a lovely evening.

The next day was busy busy busy. I met Jodi Rosoff, the Ace Books publicist, downstairs at the Kimberly, and we were picked up by a car service car driven by the charming José. Then we headed for Charlaine’s hotel to get her on our way to the enormous Javits Center, where BEA was being held. As soon as we stepped inside the door, it was immediate sensory overload but in the best way possible. Picture an enormous hall filled with publisher booths and books on display and writers and people who love books as much as you do. It was just awesome!

We found the Mystery Writers of America booth, where Charlaine and I were scheduled to sign, then wandered around for an hour or so admiring forthcoming books and picking up swag. (I did try to control myself, honest! I only brought home three tote bags, about a dozen books, about the same number of comic books, some bookmarks and catalogs, and one pen. And the pen was a Rick Riordan pen for Valerie.) Then it was back to the MWA booth for Charlaine and me to sign copies of Wolfsbane and Mistletoe. I pause here for a moment to appreciate the unflagging energy of Margery Flax, who keeps the MWA running.

It was really gratifying to see the line of people wanting books. Now you’d think that getting a line for free books is no big deal, but there are so many authors at BEA and so many free books that it really is an accomplishment. We gave out 50 copies, and still ran out out of books before we ran out of people.

I can’t remember all the people we saw, but I know the list includes our agent Joshua Bilmes; writers Seanan McGuire (who gave us her new book), Darrell James (who gave me his new book), Ken Isaacson of the MWA board, and Sophie Littlefield; editors Ben LeRoy of Tyrus Books and Claire Eddy of Tor; and a quick glimpse of Temple Grandin.

Jodi, Charlaine, and I next headed off for an interview Charlaine was videotaping with Rome Quezada of the Science Fiction Book Club. The interview was at the Standard, an astoundingly trendy hotel in the Meatpacking District. How trendy? It has a bathtub right next to a full-length window, and that was in the bedroom. I particularly enjoyed the video installation in the elevator.

Next it was lunch at Dos Caminas, which serves the strongest strawberry margarita I’ve ever had. Well, I had half of. I had to give up in order to be sure I’d was able to walk afterward. I wanted to walk, because we headed back to the Javits to wander, admire books, and people watch. Among other encounters, Charlaine and I introduced ourselves to John Grace, who edits the audio editions of our anthologies for Brilliance Audio.

Finally our feet gave out, and we relaxed and gossiped…  I mean talked shop at Charlaine’s hotel until time to head for dinner with our editor Ginjer Buchanan at L’Ecole, which is the restaurant of the French Culinary Institute. May I say “YUM!”

We were still filled with energy, so changed into our clubbing clothes and hit a couple of the hotter dance spots in town. No, just kidding. I was worn slap out and was happy to be dropped off at the Kimberly to collapse.

The next morning Charlaine was one of the three honorees at a BEA breakfast, so I headed off to wander on my own, and ran into Seanan McGuire almost immediately. We joined forces to swag hunt…  I mean to explore the displays of forthcoming books. I understand there were plenty of show biz celebrities around–Jimmy Fallon, Kevin Sorbo, Diane Keaton, John Lithgow–but I managed to miss them all.

One speaker I did catch was Bill Willingham, who writes Fables, which is one of my favorite comics of all time. (You haven’t read it? Why not? It’s available in graphic novel format, so go get some.) He was talking mostly about his young adult novel Down the Mysterly River, which sounds like great fun. I’d hoped to get a copy during his signing a little later, but the line was as long as the Mysterly River, so I decided I would get one later on.

There were less formal encounters with Carrie Vaughn who I’d only met via e-mail, Harlan Coben who I’ve known for years, and Paula Munier who is actually from around here.

I know I didn’t see all there was to see, but I had enjoyed as much as I could stand, so I bid a fond farewell to the festivities and caught a cab to Bryant Park, where Charlaine was scheduled to be interviewed at the Reader’s Room. I’ll be honest here–Charlaine was only part of the draw. Oh, she’s a terrific speaker, but I have heard her before. What I was more interested in was hearing Melissa Marr doing the interviewing. Melissa is like Carrie, an anthology contributor I’d only “met” via e-mail, and I was looking forward to seeing her in person. That made the event a double treat, especially since she did a terrific interview. The gorgeous weather, the friendly Charlaine fans like Beth and Chris, and my new friend Claudia coming made it all just perfect.

After Charlaine signed a slew of books, and I got one signed by Melissa, Charlaine and I gave up on book stuff for a while and went shopping at Bloomingdales. Whee! It was great fun, even if we didn’t find the perfect necklace we were hunting for. We split up after that, with Charlaine going to get ready for a cocktail party hosted by People magazine and I was off to meet somebody else new.

A while back, I signed a TV option contract for the “Where are they now?” books with Rosalie Muskatt of Inwood Productions. Everybody knows how rarely these things come off–there’s so much good material floating around that the chances of any one project making it to fruition are microscopic. Still, having somebody intrigued enough by my work to want to make it into a series is pretty darned cool.

Rosalie is based in New York, and this was my first time to meet her. Even though I’d initiated the dinner meeting, I was a little nervous about it. I needn’t have been. She was charming and interesting and wonderfully enthusiastic. Now I really hope the project makes it because I’d love to see what Rosalie’s vision of Tilda would be.

After that, all that was left was to pack up and collapse again. The next morning I got up and headed back for Penn Station to take the train back home. (In Curse of the Kissing Cousins, Tilda takes the train to NYC, saying it’s the only civilized way to make the trip. I think she’s right.)

In looking at all I did and saw, I have a hard time believing I was only gone for four days. My head is still whirling. I keep thinking I should have some profound conclusions about where the industry is going, but I’m afraid I don’t. I just have a few observations:

  • Young adult books are still hot. I suppose that’s no surprise, given the success of the Rick Riordan books, the Harry Potter books, Twilight and its sequels, and the Hunger Games series. There seems to be plenty of excitement for Bill Willingham, too, given the length of his signing line.
  • Paranormal books are also still hot. That’s also not a surprise, given that Charlaine’s new book Dead Reckoning has been #1 on the New York Times best seller list for three weeks. But she’s got plenty of company: Melissa Marr, for one, whose first adult novel is out now.
  • There’s a lot of interest and activity in e-publishing, as I think everybody in the field realizes. Amazon’s foray into publishing their own books was much talked about. Nobody is quite sure how things are going to shake out in terms of the ratio of paper books to electronic books, but the feeling seems to be that there are a lot of opportunities for a lot of people.
  • Despite the talk of e-publishing, there are still plenty of paper publishers out there. There are the Big Six, of course, but some really excellent smaller publishers. In mystery alone, there’s Midnight Ink and Akashic among others.
  • Despite the truism that writing is a solitary occupation, it’s fascinating to see how many people are devoted to getting books to readers: agents, editors, publicists, cover artists, book designers, proof readers, marketing people, booksellers, librarians, readers for audio books, artists for comic books, and more.
So that’s my trip to BEA–it was exhausting and exhilarating all at once. There’s one last thing I came away with: I love being a part of the publishing world!

Taking it Personally

May 28, 2011

Twice recently, I’ve been accused of taking things too personally online. So I’ve been trying to decide what that means, exactly.

The first time was on a mystery fan listserv I’ve been a member of for years and years. The topic of vampire books came up, and several people jumped in to say how awful vampire stuff was and how they couldn’t wait until the trend went away. I was really surprised by the vitriol. It hurt my feelings, too. My novels have been straight mysteries, but I do write paranormal short stories and edit urban fantasy anthologies. And there are other writers of paranormal mysteries on the list. So I posted that I was really disturbed by those reactions, and that it was the first time I’d felt unwelcome on this list. This was particularly true because I knew some of the posters personally, not just online.

Some of the responses were positive, along the lines of “Don’t let a few bozos worry you,” but a couple of indignant posters said, “We’ve got a right to our opinion!” and “Why are you taking it personally?” Another declared that he’d never read anything I ever wrote because I had dared to discuss my emotions and hurt feelings.

I let it go after that, but I couldn’t help wondering why it was such a bad thing to take comments personally. I know not everybody likes paranormal books, and of course people are entitled to their opinions, but I’ve got an opinion, too. And in my opinion, there’s an important difference between “I don’t like vampire books,” and “Vampire books are crap!” And I think if you make a statement like “Vampire books are crap!”, people who write vampire books are going to be offended.

The second incident was on a general writing group. A woman quoted what she said was an old saying: “Best sellers are evil smellers.” I commented that I found that amazingly offensive, that some of my books had been on bestseller lists and many of my friends were on best sellers. (In fact, the previous day one of my BFF Charlaine Harris had just found out she was going to be #1 on the New York Times list for the third week. And to link back to the other incident, she writes paranormal books.)

The response was again to ask why I was taking it personally, adding, “I was referring to an ‘old saying’ that I’ve heard repeated many times.” First off, I have never heard this old saying.  (I Googled it, and though I found the phrase “best smellers”, that was as close as it got.) Second, plenty of old sayings are really offensive. Stuff like, “A woman’s place is in the kitchen.” And once again, I’m not sure why I shouldn’t take it personally. As I said to her, “If you heard me say women named <her name> have funny looking feet, wouldn’t you take it personally?”

Maybe I am nuts for taking these blanket statements personally, especially online. I just keep hoping for a scenario like this:

Person on list: Short people are stupid.

Me: You may not realize this, but I’m short. Are you saying I’m stupid?

Person on list: No, you’re not stupid. I’m sorry I said that.

Personally, that’s a conversation I’d love to see.

Don’t try anything funny!

May 13, 2011

There’s an old story about an actor or comedian on his deathbed who is asked how it feels to be dying. He shrugs and says, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Certainly the common wisdom among mystery writers is that it’s harder to write funny than to write serious–it was stated several times on the Sisters in Crime list this week. But is it true? Is it harder to write funny?

After consulting with the highest authorities available–my daughters while we drove to school this morning–I’ve reached the following conclusion.


But yes.

Here’s the thing. I personally don’t find it harder to write funny. I automatically gravitate toward a lighter tone or at least a sarcastic voice–I have to rein myself in to write dark-n-gritty. And there’s outside confirmation that my work is humorous: I get on the humor panel at conventions a lot, and at last year’s New England Crime Bake, I was asked to teach a class in using humor in mysteries.

Then again, there’s a bit in Curse of the Kissing Cousins that I thought was so hilarious when a friend told me about it that I stuck it verbatim in the first chapter. If you’ll forgive me quoting my own work, I’ll put it here.

The office’s front door slammed open, and when they heard the raised voices in the lobby, Cooper, Shannon, and Nicole quickly posed themselves as busy worker-bees. Tilda didn’t bother—what was the point of being a freelancer if not to avoid that kind of playacting?

As it turned out, the staff members could have been demonstrating the lambada for all the attention they got. When Jillian and Bryce, respectively editor in chief and managing editor of Entertain Me!, stormed in, the only thing on their minds was continuing their discussion.

“Fuck you!” Jillian said.

“No, fuck you!” Bryce replied.

“No, fuck you!”

“No, fuck you!”

Tilda would have noted the irony of such an argument between two people who were supposedly devoted to publishing clever articles and essays, but she suspected that ironic detachment was no longer in style.

Now I’ve already owned up to thinking this is funny, and I’ve had readers who agreed with me. Then again, I’ve had readers complain about the use of foul language, which is all they took away from this section. (I was recently on a Malice Domestic panel about taboos because of dropping the f-bomb, too, but that’s another post.)

So this points out the tough part about writing humor: it’s really subjective.

Consider the following comedies:

  • The Three Stooges
  • Saturday Night Live
  • The Colbert Report
  • “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
  • “The Importance of Being Earnest”
  • Beavis and Butthead
  • M*A*S*H on TV
  • M*A*S*H the movie
  • The Big Bang Theory
  • Peanuts
  • Pearls Before Swine

All have their fans who claim they’re hilarious, but I don’t think very many people would laugh at all of those. Not everybody even loves Everybody Loves Raymond. 

Language isn’t the only barrier. There are age differences in your readers, varying backgrounds, a multitude of cultural references. Even Thurber’s work got lost in translation in the UK, and that’s theoretically the same language!

So while it may or not be easier to write humor, it’s definitely harder to write universal humor.

Now that issue applies to all kinds of humor, but I think writing humorous prose has some other challenges.

  1. Have you ever heard the secret of humor?Pause.Pause.Pause.TIMING!To put that another way, have you ever heard the secret of hu–  TIMING!

    Now that old joke is a whole lot funnier when spoken out loud because of the–say it with me–TIMING! You just can’t dictate timing in a book.  Sure, there’s pacing, which is similar, but it’s just not the same as a pie appearing out of nowhere.

  2. Have you ever heard about Joe, who went to a comedian’s convention expecting to hear lots of great jokes. Except when he went to the bar, all he heard was people yelling numbers. One yelled, “12,” and everybody laughed. “47.” More laughter. “24.” A fellow fell out of his chair laughing. So Joe asked Mo, the comedian sitting next to him for an explanation. Mo said, “We know each other’s material so well, so now we just call out the numbers and we all remember the joke.”  Joe asked, “Can I tell one?” Mo nodded. Then Joe stood up and said, “13!” Silence. Mo just shrugged and said, “Some people just can’t tell a joke.”Likewise, some jokes don’t come through in print–they have to be spoken. Shakespeare’s comedies are way funnier when performed, with appropriate intonations and gestures to go along with the wit. I once read a book of Jeff Foxworthy‘s “You might be a redneck if…” books, and was underwhelmed, but when when I heard him tell those same jokes with a twinkle in his eye, they were a riot. Moreover now I can read the books, picture Jeff delivering them, and enjoy them.
  3. People don’t laugh as much when they’re alone.There’s a reason why we say, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you.” My husband Steve did standup one summer, and he quickly found that if one person laughed at a joke, other people would likely join in. Steve started bringing along our friend Kim Allman, who has one of the most infectious laughs ever. I don’t know if people were embarrassed to laugh alone or what, but I know that when Kim laughed, everybody laughed. (That tendency explains sitcom laugh tracks, too.)

    Unfortunately, unless you’ve got Kim with you while you’re reading, you’re not going to have that cue that it’s okay to chuckle. And not even enhanced e-books come with laugh tracks. (Though I probably shouldn’t say that too loud–next year’s releases might include that as a feature.) Of course, you can think something is funny without laughing out loud, but I believe there’s a psychological link between actually laughing and perceiving material as funny.

So I come back to the same answer. No, but yes. And to do this right, I’d end this post with a punch line.

Yeah, it’s a pun and a sight gag, and since a lot of people hate puns, and it’s a sight gag, which isn’t appropriate to prose, and the humor is dependent on your knowing about an ad campaign for Hawaiian Punch. That means I’ve just lost a certain percentage of you people reading this blog.

Humor is funny that way.