Sunday, July 22, 2012


How fun: I just found this -

I just get all excited about these italian covers. La Rinascita apparently means "Rebirth," which kinda makes sense, 'cause that's what the book was called in the US. But I'm not really sure what "Tomorrow" means in Italian.

Anyway, it's coming out next month, so I'll have a cannoli or something to celebrate.

Meanwhile, I have been given a sneak preview of my AFTERTIME mass market series covers, but I forgot to ask if I can show them to you yet. But I'm having dinner with my Harlequin gang next week at RWA, so maybe I'll find out!

Speaking of which....any of y'all coming to RWA National? Juliet and I would love it if you come to our workshop!  It's at 10:00 Saturday morning, and it's called "Slaying Your Inner Slacker." I promise we'll have a blast!

From the program:

Slaying Your Inner Slacker (WRITER’S LIFE)
Speakers: Juliet Blackwell and Sophie Littlefield
Award-winning authors discuss how you can go from frustrated to finished faster than you imagined.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Thrillerfest Report!

\What a madcap week! I arrived Tuesday in time to have lunch with Abby Zidle, my new editor at Pocket Books. She and I recently finished the edits on our first project together (BLOOD BOND, November '12) and so we were in a celebratory mood. In fact, we were so celebratory that we kept partying all the way through Thursday evening, when I monopolized her at the Irene Goodman Literary cocktail party. I just couldn't bear to let anyone else get a word in, so I cornered her by the cheese cubes and talked books for eleven hours.

Anyway, one thing that distinguished this trip is that I had one of my more perplexing hotel experiences, which is saying something a I am quite a hotel adventurer (also cheap). My hotel was booked entirely with Italians, the power didn't always work, and neither did the elevators (that twelve-floor trek was invigorating!) and I had the pleasure of sleeping in a twin bed. Yay!

Lunch with fellow authors Carla Buckley and Pam Callow.

Okay, so David Hewson is still a bit taller than me. I kept trying to convince him that what his fellow English authors need is a visit from a middle-aged Californian guest instructor. But he resisted the idea.

Yeah, yeah, there were famous guys everywhere. Here's Steve Berry with Steven James.

Yeah. I giant inflatable rat...I don't know.

How adorable is Camille Minichino? Just seeing her in the halls made me happy. And guess what's on her scarf? Tiny little periodic table elements, of course!!

Me and my brother Mike Cooper. We had lots of catching up to do, and for once we had the time to do it, which was wonderful. They even put us on the same panel!

And here is that panel: David moderated, and that's Doug Lyle, Maggie Sefton, me, A.J. Hartley, Brandt Dodson, and Mike. We talked about point of view and managed, I think, to make it interesting!

My people!  I hadn't seen Graham Brown in a long time and it was so, so good to catch up with him. And that's Barbara Poelle, our agent, squished between us. And that is Vicki Pettersson photo-bombing us. Don't let all that cool, elegant beauty fool you, she is a big goober.

Randi Morrison - Boyd's wife - was my comfort object. She was always there when I needed a little encouragment. (With Carla Buckley)

Finally, a thank you to everyone who makes Thrillerfest tick. It takes a lot of volunteers to pull off a conference like this, and they rarely get the credit they deserve. Among the many who were constantly on the job: Doug Lyle and Kim Howe, below.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Thrillerfest Shoe Contest

I'll have my full report from Thrillerfest 2012 up tomorrow, but for now, it's time for the Second Annual Thrillerfest Shoe Contest, in which you get to match the shoe to the owner. This year, I've chosen several women from Harlequin Mira for my contest.

This year is both easier and harder than last year: easier, because there are fewer entrants, and harder because the Ladies of Mira are a rather swish bunch so you may find yourself dazzled by the sheer audacity of these shoe choices.

In keeping with the theme, the prize is your choice of any of my Harlequin books, which include AFTERTIME, REBIRTH and HORIZON. (I wish I could offer you an advance copy of GARDEN OF STONES, which will be coming out in January, but the Mira team is putting the final touches on those and they aren't yet available. But SOON!)

Anyway, in alphabetical-ish order:

Pam Callow, author of TATTOED, Mira, May 2012
Valerie Gray, Editor
Margaret Marbury, Editor

Simply match the shoe with its owner in the comments (just name them L-R). In the event of multiple correct responses, I'll choose at random. Good luck! :)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Alan Cheuse Gets a Spanking, Part Two

Yesterday I shared the first of two gripes I had about NPR Book Critic Alan Cheuse's summer reading list. Today I'll tell you my second, and then I promise I'm done (for now!)

Cheuse loved Gillian Flynn's GONE GIRL.  I loved GONE GIRL. So we're good, right?

Not quite. Cheuse makes no bones about the fact that Flynn's book is the "fun" one on his list, the frivolous one. I suspect that's because it's a thriller - commercial fiction rather than literary, as are the others on his list.

I've said it all before so I won't belabor the point too much: a genre work can be every bit as weighty, as relevant, as affective as its literary cousin.

I will admit my argument falls apart a little as GONE GIRL trundles along into its second half, where it does become a bit more of a set piece, with the emphasis on device perhaps more than language or character.

However, i would put Flynn's character work up against that of any contemporary literary writer. The book pulses with it; the device mentioned above would never work without it.

This is no trivial feature of a novel. It is the novel, and I'm not the first or only to make that claim; while I don't want to bother to find examples now (I'm supposed to be getting my other words done, my fiction words), great writers in every genre have said, each in her own words, that readers remember character and forget the rest.

Cheuse, when inviting the listener to consider GONE GIRL, says he is making a "descent into the lower tones," into "good nasty fun."

And yet I would say that the landscape for GONE GIRL - a flawed marriage - is no more "fun" than a 70's commune (Groff) or adult children recalling their parents' foibles (Ford). And by calling it that, we diminish it.

When my first book came out, I asked for a blurb from a writer I admire, one whose fiction is certainly beautiful and "important." He gave me a nice quote and then told me I had written a "fun little book," the equivalent of a pat on the head for an eager child.

I allowed his assessment to diminish my opinion of my own work for quite some time. It's only now, several years after A BAD DAY FOR SORRY came out, that enough women have come up to me at book events to tell me how much the book meant to them, empowered them (their words) that I realize I did something, well, important.

Please, Cheuse & Company, consider your words carefully. You called GONE GIRL "a beach book you won't mind being seen with this summer" - that praise is a bit too damning for my taste.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Alan Cheuse Gets a Spanking, Part One

I guess I didn't get all my vitriol out of my system in last Sunday's post about genre ghettoization. Someone needs a spanking, and I'm just the gal for the job.

Alan Cheuse
I promise to back off from the pique after this two-part post, but I've got a couple gripes that are sticking like burrs in a sock. This all came about after I listened to NPR Book Critic Alan Cheuse name his summer reading picks the other day. (Check it out, it's short.) Cheuse included Gillian Flynn's GONE GIRL along with his (*yawn*) totally predictable other two candidates, Toni Morrison's HOME and Richard Ford's CANADA. (He also chose Lauren Groff's ARCADIA - more on that in a moment.)

Today's gripe concerns the anointing process that seems to be a byproduct of the drastic shrinkage of traditional review space. Does it seem to you like the few remaining critics have gotten together in a bar - bloodstained and battle-weary from the carnage that decimated most of their colleagues' turf, perhaps - and timidly agreed to agree on what to tout each season? It does to me, and I don't like it. I give publishers more latitude in what might be argued to be a parallel effect - promoting the top dogs heavily while the undercurrent languishes - because there is a legitimate (note I did not say "right" or "good", only legitimate) business case to be made for doing so. (You can read about that phenomenon pretty much anywhere; it's too depressing to go into here.)

But critics are unshackled by such concerns, and I expect better and broader from them. Their collective voices can, along with publisher push, create our next men and women of letters (hence, I believe, the emergence of Groff), and while undoubtedly I'm just jealous and you wouldn't be reading this post if it was a *Littlefield* novel that had gotten the seal of approval, I must object that climbing on to a momentum-gaining bandwagon is *not* the best way to select the novelists we introduce to a public looking for a good book.

Let me give an example. This breaks my own rules because I don't believe in criticizing books in the public space, as an author, particularly because I find it difficult to weed out bias that comes from my own tastes. But I'm not really slamming a book here, merely holding it up as an example of a pretty good book that got the Reviewers' (capitalized to indicate the gravitas club, the traditional review venues) seal of approval.

- - personal opinion alert - - 

In 2011, Tom Franklin's CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER was a superior book to Karen Russell's SWAMPLANDIA.

Okay, for this argument to work you'd have to agree with me on that very subjective point, but let's just agree that it's so, or sub in your own example. Now, SWAMPLANDIA caught the attention of the reviewers and managed to send a fairly significant review snowball rolling down the hill until it snagged a nomination for the ALA's fiction award and the biggie, a Pulitzer nomination. I was, frankly, very surprised (as were, apparently, some of the Pulitzer committee, since they ended up not awarding a prize).

Franklin's book, on the other hand, got an Edgar nomination, the very unscientific top-approval-rating of my personal circle of friends, a couple of trade reviews and a nice nod from USA Today. Not, in other words, a thunderous reception. Did Harper Collins fall down on the job, failing to recognize its potential? I'm not an editor or a member of a marketing department (and I don't say that lightly: I am not those things and I lack the skills they bring to publishing) but to my unskilled eye, the book could have been a huge breakout.

I think the real break in the book's ascendency came in the review process. And yet, the two are intertwined, perhaps so much that it's disingenuous to discuss them separately. Publicists have only so many slots to push individual books, so they can and do direct reviewers' attention to specific titles. And yes, it's human nature to be swayed by trends, so if they can get enough of a buzz going, it builds itself.

I guess my gripe is that I expect a little more sophistication from the Reviewers. "I am no one's errand boy," i imagine them shouting, en masse, when prodded toward a particular book. Especially now, I expect them to take seriously their obligation to discern hype from merit, to sift through the obvious candidates looking for elusive gems.

Can the two not exist side by side? I'm not really asking that the old guard be shoved unceremoniously from the shelf to make room for, well, me. Obvious candidates must receive their due; it *is* an event when a new book comes out from one of our beloved voices. A new Irving book should be read, digested and commented on, for instance. But in the process of identifying the new "big" voices, I expect more ingenuity, more creative thinking - frankly, more elbow grease - from the Reviewers.

To sum up, Richard and Toni and Lauren and Gillian probably wrote great books (I can say for sure that Gillian did; more on that tomorrow) but that's kind of uninteresting news. Dullsville, as my dad would say. Come on, Alan & Co., make a brave choice. Give us something fresh.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Thrillerfest: Start Where the Story Starts

Jamie Freveletti winning her Thriller award last year! with Barbara and me
I've got about twelve hours before I leave for Thrillerfest, and about twelve thousand things on my to-do list, so that should work out just right. As I pack (and I'm trying to do this in a carryon, people, so no one is allowed to judge my wardrobe for the next seven days!!) the first thing into the suitcase is my notes for my workshop with my agent, Barbara Poelle. I really hope some of you might be able to make it, (Wednesday, July 11, 9:00am at the Grand Hyatt) but just in case New York City isn't on your schedule for the coming week, I thought I'd share a preview.

There are a few pitfalls that plague nearly every aspiring writer, and among the most pernicious is the Chapter One Info Dump. This is when you have so much to share with the reader about your characters, your world, the fantastic crisis you have created that you have to tell EVERYTHING ALL AT ONCE. You've heard that we readers must meet your hero/heroine right away, so you figure you'll go ahead and really help us get to know her, including all the facts and history that will help us understand who she is when she faces conflict.

Unfortunately this is the exact opposite of what will engage your reader.

Readers are delicate beasts, as fickle and easily diverted as middle school boyfriends. They have to be kept interested at every turn, and that means you have to use every trick that, well, your mom ever told you about boys. Actually, wait, that's wrong: you must use ever trick in the 1950s snag-your-man playbook.

shake it, bake it, whatever it takes, people
- make a big first impression: Your first line has to be HUGE, people, and I know you already know that. Your first paragraph, page, and scene must live up to it. But here's a little tip you may not know: this hook does not have to be a faithful foreshadowing of what will come. Be devious, if you like - it's the equivalent of this date I went on where the guy led with "I'm a government security expert, specializing in bomb detection" and it turned out he was a TSA agent.

- but then, play hard to get: Immediately drop back. You've seen this device a thousand times: in the first scene, we witness - perhaps even viscerally experience - a crime or other dramatic act. Then chapter two throws us back into the ordinary world. Set against the adrenaline rush, the relative serenity of the everyday has us looking for portents.

- keep it mysterious: Go ahead, give a few mis-impressions. Red herrings. Blind alleys. Yes, I am a natural blonde, as a matter of fact...that guy? oh heavens no, just weekends? mostly volunteer work and working in my organic garden. Yes, you can lie to your reader; in fact, many of the best thriller writers do so routinely, because guess what, sisters: once hooked, your reader actually likes to get jerked around; it keeps him guessing.

- after that first contact, hold something back: Wow, great date, can I take you out again next week? No? The week after that? No? You're that busy? Obviously the danger here is losing that ardent reader, but if you dole out the goodies slowly and carefully, you'll fan the reader into a virtual froth of longing.

- never give without getting: if you're going to wear that Spanx for six hours and drop fifty bucks on a shellac manicure, he better be taking you uptown, am I right? As a writer, never give away a clue, and never give your hero/heroine any satisfaction, unless you shift the story an equivalent amount in return. This may involve your characters' suffering or sacrifice, or you may take the opportunity to drop in some backstory or narrative now that you're on the downbeat of the action.

Don't worry, this slightly tortured analogy was just for my own amusement. In the actual workshop, we'll be talking about how and when to introduce backstory and internal conflict without dulling the impact of the inciting action. I've got a worksheet that I'm quite proud of, that you can use to find your own story's best starting point. The hour's going to fly by and I'm hoping we'll all come out a little smarter and a lot hungrier to get to work.

See you soon, people!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Props to Pals

I was getting caught up with my review reading and realized that many friends have had recent releases and I have failed to remark on their good news. Here's a partial list. I know I'm leaving tons of people off and I'm so sorry, y'all - mostly I just want to say that I'm proud of each and every one of you for getting your good work out there.

Juliet Blackwell, my intrepid sidekick (actually I think I'm *her* sidekick) is climbing the charts with her latest, IN A WITCH'S WARDROBE

Agency pals - we're a tight bunch over at Irene Goodman Literary!
Kris Kennedy's DECEPTION and Jen Haymore's PLEASURES OF A TEMPTED LADY (RT gave them *both* 4 1/2 stars!)
Heather Snow's second, SWEET DECEPTION (RT calls Heather's heroine brilliant and intriguing)

The awesome, awesome awesome Megan Abbott has DARE ME out. This book is based on a short story that I read years ago. It was incredible and I can't wait to read the book.

My old MurderSheWrites sister, Lorelei James, is tearing it up as usual with ONE NIGHT RODEO. PW takes note of the "sizzling chemistry"!

Local SF-RWAfriend Carol Culver has the second Pie Shop Mystery out: NEVER SAY PIE - PW liked it and called her characters charming

Occasional roommates - Victoria Laurie - LETHAL OUTLOOK and Robin D. Owens - HEART SECRET

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Benton, the Elite's Whipping Boy

Every well-brought up Missouri kid has an affection for Thomas Hart Benton. We claim him as ours, though the biography that inspired this post calls him "America's portraitist,"a notion that makes me feel grumpily cheated. (We can't claim all that many cultural heros, so we're perhaps understandably possessive about our Twains and Binghams.)

Reading the review of a new Benton biography in the Times, a thought occured to me: there is a strong parallel between the intellectual dismissiveness of "accessible" artists like Benton and the disdain shown toward writers of certain genre fiction, particularly, as I thought about it this morning, cozy mysteries and romance. (Fuck you, NYTBR, for not reviewing romance! There, I always have to say that. Done.)

Pollack, once a close friend and protege of Benton's, said (and he was evidently an insufferable, insecure little jerk so maybe take this with a grain of salt) that Benton's work was "something against which to react very strongly."

Does this bring to mind remarks you've heard, or perhaps made, about certain authors? I will admit right now that I have been dismissive of fiction I consider lesser. I'm absolutely guilty, despite my passionate defense of all genres, of calling books "fluff" or "irrelevant" which are well-written and serve a grateful readership. I regret that, and I'm working on it.

This is where I often think, or someone else says, "- but no cat mysteries!" I wonder if Benton is like the cat-mystery author, doomed to sneering obsolescence. But consider this. Benton's early years were spent running around with his congressman father on rural campaigns, and he was deeply affected by the everyday experience of average people. His paintings celebrate a populist vision. Isn't that what our best-selling fiction does? One of the things that enrages many of us about authors like Franzen, and makes us bitterly resent the reviewing media's slavering enthusiasm and willingness to crown him king of American fiction, is his steadfast repudiation of readers with popular tastes - readers who might, if he wasn't such an asshole, actually enjoy his work. (Well, they probably enjoy his work plenty, but would not enjoy tossing back a cold one in a bar with Franzen, who gives the impression that he'd raise an eyebrow at the beer you ordered and talk about birding as though it were more interesting than anything you might contribute.)

Stung once too many times, Benton vilified intellectuals (and come on you guys, my fellow genre authors - sorry, I'm now contradicting myself - don't we give literary writers such a hard time for similar reasons?) - despite being something of an intellectual himself. He was not a naive artist. He worked smack in the middle of, and certainly understood, and even tried the techniques of, Impressionists, Cubists, Abstractionists, etc. The review points out similarities, and a possible influence of, El Greco, which i had never considered, but wow, yeah:

...and El Greco is one of the anointed. It's like saying that - well, hell, rather than pick on anyone else I'll use my own work.  It's like saying that AFTERTIME was influenced by THE ROAD. Which it was! - but McCarthy is one of Our Men Of Letters and I'm ....well, I'm in danger of being Benton, I guess.

So if I may be so bold...may I suggest, as we head into the conference season, that we all try to be a little more tolerant of each other's work, and carve for ourselves a broader appreciation of contemporary fiction?

Incidentally, the book in question was THOMAS HART BENTON: A LIFE by Justin Wolff. And the excellent reviewer (ah, i have such a fetish for dense, thoughtful criticism!) is Holland Cotter.