Wanted: artists!

The next book in my Inspector Ramirez series, Hungry Ghosts, will be out next June, and I’ve been thinking that for the  book launch, it might be fun to try to get have some art related to the Inspector Ramirez series donated and hold a silent auction. We could auction off the art and  donate the proceeds to an appropriate charity. Maybe something related to the missing and murdered Aboriginal women, since that’s a huge part of the plot. Or one of the many organizations providing relief to Cuba.

I’ve always had my book launches in an art gallery; I’m sure we could get a good crowd. What do you think? Anyone in? The series is set in Cuba but Hungry Ghosts has a big part of it set in northern Ontario on a reserve, so that ought to push some creative buttons. Can’t give tax receipts, but I can give anyone who participates a book!

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Dealing with criticism.

As authors, we put our work “out there.” Not everyone likes it, anymore than not everyone we meet will like us either, or we them. But I think it’s important that we pay attention to readers’ criticisms. We can learn a lot from them.

My book, The Poisoned Pawn, was recently panned on one of the discussion threads on the Absolute Write Water Cooler, an online chatroom that I belong to. (The person who read it felt strongly enough about it to start a new thread!)

The criticism levied against it (that it’s an info-dump) spawned a very interesting discussion in which a number of authors talked about the differences between info-dumping and exposition, and how we sometimes overdo it.

We’re often advised as authors that we shouldn’t to respond to a negative review, but I thought that as the author whose book was on the table, I should maybe introduce myself.

Have a look at what happened. (Click on the image to enlarge it.) These are extracts: there were lots  of other comments before and after each one, as you can see by the numbers in the upper right corner. It was an informative exchange about the challenge of writing for different audiences and how important it is not to turn readers off.

I think the more important lesson here, though, is that when people are critical of your work, you don’t have to stay out of the discussion:  there are ways to respond that can make the whole experience pretty positive.

(If you belong to AW, you can follow the entire discussion about info-dumping  right here.)



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Pet Peeves – Dialect instead of Dialogue

I confess: I really hate reading books where the authors have decided to write dialogue in dialect. I don’t want to read a book where I have to struggle to figure out what people are saying. As soon as the dialect makes it hard to read, I give up and put it down. (Yes, I know Mark Twain got away with this, but that was a long time ago. Writing in dialect doesn’t work quite so well now.)

There are ways to let a reader know a character’s culture or ethnicity without turning their language into gibberish. Brad Smith does this beautifully in Crow’s Landing, for example: he has a Russian character who “reads” as Russian because of the words he uses and  a few dropped prepositions.

Will Ferguson won the Giller Prize for 419, a story partly set in Nigeria. He told me in a TV interview on my show, Getting Published, that he realized  quickly that he only needed a few Nigerian words here and there to get his characters situated and that trying to write dialogue with an accent wouldn’t have worked.

I tried reading a historical novel recently where all the “you’s” had been replaced with “ye’s” and it drove me absolutely nuts.

One of the best books I’ve ever read is a novel set in the 1400s called The Moor’s Account, which is due to hit bookstores this month. It  managed to totally convey the time, setting, and the different nationalities of characters who ranged from Moorish to Spanish to indigenous without altering the English language; one could imagine the characters speaking with different accents without being smacked upside the head with them.

I am in the final stages of writing  a historical novel set in the 1600s. My characters are French, First Nation, and English. I’ve conveyed their ethnicity and cultural differences by the words they used to describe things and the way they see the world. Their voices are completely different; some are formal, some are youthful, some are skeptical. It’s those voices that tell us who they are; I don’t need to force them into dialect for a reader to know which person is speaking or where they’re from.

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Blurbs: What they are; what they mean, how to get them.

A “blurb” is one of those endorsements that appear on book jackets, kind of like the one line movie reviews we see in movie ads. “A captivating ride!” is the kind of thing you might see. “Brilliantly written, engaging … will keep you up all night!” might be another.

The most useful blurbs are provided by the A-list authors: the Stephen Kings or Lee Childs, for example. The idea is that if Stephen King says he was “riveted” by a book, a reader will be, too. The A-list authors don’t need blurbs anymore to help their sales, but those of us starting out do. Or at least that’s the conventional wisdom.

A lot of people think blurbs are paid advertisements. That isn’t true.  I don’t know of anyone who gets paid to blurb a book. Reading a book takes time. Frankly, there are a lot of published authors out there who wouldn’t have the time to do it even if you paid them.

The busier and more successful the author is, the harder it is to get them to blurb your book. Which is why a blurb from a Stephen King or a Lee Child is so great — but also so hard — to get.

I’m at that point now where I get asked from time to time to blurb another author’s book, most often by my publisher, although I’ve been asked by other publishers to blurb their authors’ books too. I almost always say yes, because I love to read, and I figure it can’t hurt to have my name showing up on someone else’s book jacket. It’s another way of getting my own name out there.

Sometimes I offer to blurb a book I’ve really loved without being asked because I love to promote other authors whose work I really like. Those are easy. The harder ones to blurb are where you like the book well enough but aren’t blown away by it. You don’t want to be tepid in your praise (that’s kind of like seeing a really ugly baby and telling its parents how wonderfully interesting it is), but you don’t want to oversell it either, since a blurb reflects on your own credibility.

I usually try to find something to say in a blurb that expresses what I really think.  A book that’s “a great read at the beach” didn’t have me thinking about it for days or months later; one that’s “action-packed” may not have a lot of character development but  could be perfect for the reader who likes that kind of thing.

So how do you get a blurb? You can ask; if you don’t ask, you’ll never get one. But don’t be disappointed if an author you admire says no. Be grateful if you’ve had a chance to interact with them (most don’t respond at all)  and that they’ve taken some of the time from their busy schedule to respond. If they say no, it’s not personal.

Asking for a blurb is a lot like querying, and you can expect to be rejected most of the time so get used to it. You’re usually asking people who don’t know you to do you a major favour. I remember getting a request for a blurb turned down by Jeffrey Deaver who was so kind in his “I’m sorry I don’t do blurbs anymore ” response that it was several days before I realized he’d said no. Lee Child’s assistant was terrific, too: Lee was too busy to blurb books anymore, she said, and besides, in a year from now, I wouldn’t need a blurb; the book would do so well. (Really, how sweet was that.)

By contrast, Henning Mankell’s assistant indicated to me that if he had time, he would read The Beggar’s Opera but would only provide a blurb if he  liked it. I sent off the book, and never heard a word. I’d like to think he ran out of time ….


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Historical Fiction and why I need a map.

I’ve just finished writing the draft of my historical fiction manuscript, The Jigonsaseh (or Famine Bay as I call it sometimes), and I’ve decided it needs a map. Maybe a couple. It’s set in  17th century North America, and a lot of the names of places and First Nations have disappeared from common use. I can’t really use the contemporary maps either, although there are a few, because they’ll confuse my readers too: most were French and they had their own words for places and people that were quite different from those used by the English, not to mention the First Nations themselves.

The French, for example, called the Mohawks, Agniers and the Senecas, Tsonnontouans, so those are the names that appear on French maps. And nothing is really to scale; after all, we’re talking about very early maps that were being put together at the same time that people were exploring new territories. Needless to say, they had none of the technology we take for granted now. Some of these early maps are covered with sketches of what these travelers/explorers/missionaries found interesting, like bears or elk or porcupines, or different tribes they encountered.

I’ve done a glossary of terms to include: here’s a few examples so that you can see how  how confusing it would be without some kind of guide:

Haudenosaunee. People of the Longhouse, also called the League. Known by the French as Iroquois Confederacy and by the English as the Five Nations: Mohawks, Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, and Oneidas.

Hurons. French name for the Wendat Nation displaced by the Five Nations in the 1650s and driven to Michilimackinac. Their traditional territory was between what are now called Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay.

Illinois. One of the western nations at war with the Five Nations. Located near Utica in present day Illinois.

Irondequoit Bay. A large bay that flows into Lake Ontario at its northern end, fed by Irondequoit Creek to the south. Located in present day Monroe County, New York.

Kanagaro. Mohawk village (Bear clan). Built in 1677 on the north side of the Mohawk River near present day Montgomery in New York.

Kaskasis. Main village of the Illinois. Located near present day Utica, Illinois, across from Starved Rock.

Kenté. Bay of Quinté. Located on the north shore of Lake Ontario near present day Picton, Ontario.

My pal, Victor Konrad, who is a very highly regarded historical geographer is going to give me a hand with this: he’s written extensively about this time period and some of the events that happen in my story.  I’m hoping Victor can do a map for me that has the names I need as well as their present day locations, but whatever assistance he can lend me will be fantastic.

This manuscript has been super hard to write. When I finished the draft yesterday and re-read it, I finally had the sense that I’d created something that might draw the reader in; it was flowing the way I wanted, and I’d managed to introduce some humanity, and humour, into it. Fingers crossed my agent likes it! A big shout-out to my external readers who didn’t pull any punches this time around.  I needed a good kick in the pants to remember that the history shouldn’t drive the story and that it needed to be character-driven throughout. Much appreciated.

A big shout-out to the Canada Council for providing me with a grant that gave me the time to do this. They’re awesome!


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Tips on being an external reader

We authors will often turn to external readers (called betas) to read our early work with a critical eye so we can figure out how to improve it. Those who agree are usually trusted friends — trusted, because that feedback, if not well handled, can be destructive.

The most useful feedback an author can get, and what we usually want to know is what’s working and what isn’t. I’ve had external readers get caught up in edits and send me a long list of typos, when that’s not the point of the exercise: at this stage proof-reading is way down the road.

I’ve also had external readers give me sweeping, general comments that weren’t very helpful either.  “I liked the second half of the book better than  the first half ” doesn’t tell me what you didn’t like or why. Think of external readership as a little bit like  a report card. Little John may need to work harder,  yes, but unless he knows where you think he’s slacking, the comment is pretty useless.

The best feedback comes from external readers who take the time to look at each chapter and each character. “I found this part confusing,” they might say. “This part was a bit of a slog; can you tighten up the pace?” “I liked this character but found her behavior puzzling.”

The ones who find plot holes and gaps are worth their weight in gold. And even better is when they can point to a paragraph or a sentence or a page and say “I loved this,” because it tells us what to do more of.

Don’t just toss off a series of criticisms without balancing that with what you think works well. I’m not a mindreader. I’ve had manuscripts where I ripped out parts in response to feedback only to find out that the parts I removed were actually sections my beta liked; the comments were too general for me to know that.

Don’t tell them (as a beta  told me) that they didn’t like the first 25 chapters and wouldn’t have continued reading if I hadn’t asked them to. That didn’t tell me anything about why those chapters didn’t work. What it did do, though, was discourage me from wanting to work on it  any further  (I thought: what’s the point? It sucks. I’m wasting my time.). Only some subsequent back-and-forth with that beta established that she actually thought it was a good story. Remember, by the time an author asks you to be a beta, they’ve put a lot of work into their manuscript, a lot more than you will in reading it. Be kind.

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It’s a tricky business, writing historical fiction

It’s not easy to write historical fiction, I’m discovering as I continue to work on my manuscript, Famine Bay.  It’s no wonder that books like Shogun are classics; there are so few that do it well.

I’m writing about a period in the 17th century, the 1680s. I can’t even use certain adjectives without first checking to see if the things they refer to were invented at the time. Before I could use “gunmetal grey,” for example, I had to first check to see if guns had been around. Turns out they were invented by the Chinese in the 12th century, but these were handheld cannons that evolved into flintlocks, and then muskets, not handguns. These weapons were made mostly of wood. Scrap that descriptor: a character would never describe something as gunmetal grey in those circumstances.

I had a character peer into a mirror in New France,  to give another example, only to discover later that the only mirrors available at the time were Venetian, and they were very expensive and not likely to be found in a colonial settlement.

I can see, though, how it would be  easy to get so caught up in getting the history right that you lose sight of plot and character development. Historical fiction requires world-building in a world that none of us has ever been to. We can write sci-fi, by contrast, and use contemporary language and thoughts, but we can’t pull that off in historical fiction. The language doesn’t have to be formal, but you can’t use the common clichés and metaphors that we’re used to hearing today, since most of these developed much later on.

Now, it’s not like someone from the 1600s is going to criticize my errors. It’s easier, in that sense, to write this book than it was to write about Cuba as I did in my Inspector Ramirez series. When I got something wrong there, readers let me know: thousands of them have been there after all, whereas no living person has ever been in 17th century anything. But I want to at least try to get things right.  I have a doctorate in Aboriginal law/history and a degree in Canadian History so I have no excuse for not trying.

In my case, it’s made more difficult by the fact that some of the French and Haudenosaunee words in the historical documents can’t be translated. No one knows what they mean anymore, not even the professional translators I’ve consulted, not the traditional people. The Aboriginal names of some of the nations that the Five Nations Confederacy claim to have conquered, for example, no longer have content. We don’t know who these people were or where they lived.

And what was the cheval marin that French soldiers killed on the Richelieu River? The Jesuit priest accompanying them drew a terrifying sketch of this horrible monster, and called it a sea horse, but his sketch has long since disappeared into the shadows of time.

I have a character in the manuscript who muses that as long as there is a child somewhere who can learn the language of a dying nation, whole nations can be reborn. For some reason, it made me think of the last passenger pigeon, the one that died in a museum: there’s some attempt to resurrect her apparently by merging her DNA with a common pigeon. I would guess that as close as they come, it won’t be the same.

There were billions of these birds in the 1800s; there could be a million in a single flock. They make an appearance in my manuscript too — a flock of thousands of birds that dips and turns like one single creature, darkening the skies, until they fly away gracefully. I imagine myself watching them five hundred years ago in the midst of constant conflict and warfare and change, thinking at least those birds would last forever.




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Hi everyone – I’m back with some news!  First of all, our Homes with Woofs fundraiser was last Thursday and was an amazing success, despite the election, the World Cup soccer game and the rain. We raised around $ 10,000 for the Humane Society!

We had phenomenal press coverage  — probably because the doghouses that local trades/artisans built and donated were so amazing. We were covered by Global National; there were two stories in The Ottawa Citizen,  one in print before the event and another after the event was over that  was online only; we were on CTV twice, and Ottawa Life ran a story about us too.   Meeting Damon Bennett, who offered to be one of our celebrity judges, was an absolute pleasure: he’s offered to be the celebrity face of our event in the future, so that was pretty cool.

We had so much fun! Here’s a sample of a few of the doghouses (this one was built by a team at Minto: it was 32 sq ft and weighed 1,100 lbs!). That’s a picture of the crew in front – they’ve already told us they want to come back and do it again next year.



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So that was fantastic and I’m glad I took the time to get it organized. But I have good news on the book front too! The wonderful folks at Simon and Schuster Canada will be publishing book three (Hungry Ghosts) and book four (Umbrella Man) in the Inspector Ramirez series. (They even donated a bunch of books to our Homes with Woofs silent auction. They’re terrific.)  I’ll let you know when I have more details but Hungry Ghosts will be out sometime in 2015. Woohoo!!!

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