Showing posts with label Elizabeth Zelvin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elizabeth Zelvin. Show all posts

15 December 2012

Authors Who Blow My Mind: Lois McMaster Bujold

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Lois McMaster Bujold is another of those authors whose work sits squarely on the three-legged stool of writing, storytelling, and characterization. The blurb her publishers put on many of her book jackets, with which I agree heartily, is SF writer Anne McCaffrey’s comment, “Boy, can she write!” The difference between her work and Michael Gruber’s, about which I’ve already written, is that Gruber’s language is the kind that we think of—in the most positive way—as “prose.” Bujold’s prose is the invisible kind whose sole purpose is to focus our attention on the story and the characters.

One aspect of Bujold’s genius is the deft mixing of genres. The Vorkosigan saga is inevitably shelved as science fiction. Its fictional universe is galactic in scope, and Bujold, the daughter of an engineer, handles the scientific aspects of speculative fiction with intelligence and without getting tedious. But many of the books are also mysteries that are solved only because Miles Vorkosigan is very, very smart, doesn’t need much sleep, and has a genius for thinking outside the box.

Although the series takes place in a galactic setting, it focuses on the conflict between a science-fiction kind of universe and a planet that has recently emerged from a low-tech Time of Isolation, complete with horses and a feudal aristocracy. The stories are engrossing, the world-building impressive, wit and ideas and moral dilemmas abound. On top of that, The Warrior’s Apprentice and The Vor Game are coming-of-age novels. Memory is definitely a character-driven mystery. Komarr is a political thriller with elements of romance and psychological suspense. Cryoburn is science fiction, mystery, galactic political thriller, and immensely satisfying character-driven novel all at once.My favorite, A Civil Campaign, crosses galactic space opera with comedy of manners and comes up with a complex, intensely satisfying, and laugh-out-loud funny read. Bujold dedicates the book to Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, and Dorothy—and I think Austen, Bronte, Heyer, and Sayers, once they adjusted to the premises of the SF genre, would all love it.

And the characters—oh, the characters! Those typing monkeys could never have come up with Miles: stunted and fragile due to exposure to poison gas in utero, hyperactive, magnificently brainy and irreverent, complex, sensitive, and attractive to women smart enough to appreciate him. One of his tribulations is the fact that on his planet, still recovering from being nuked two generations ago, they have an aversion to mutants and are just beginning to learn not to kill deformed babies at birth. Another is the way he gets punished for pushing himself physically, from breaking both legs during a military training exercise to getting killed in a galactic battle, which would be okay, because he’s immediately prepped for cryorevival, except somebody goes and loses the container they’ve popped him into, and when he wakes up he has amnesia....

Here’s the flavor, in a delightfully feminist scene at the end of Komarr between Miles and Ekaterin, who’s been badly burned by an emotionally abusive marriage in a culture that represses women.
“Have you had a great many girlfriends?” If he hadn’t, she’d have to dismiss her whole gender as congenital idiots. The man could charm snakes from their holes, nine-year-olds from locked bathrooms, and Komarran terrorists from their bunkers. Why weren’t females following him around in herds?...

“The usual progression, I suppose. Hopeless first love, this and that over the years, unrequited mad crushes.”

“Who was the hopeless first love?” she asked, fascinated.

“Elena. The daughter of one of my father’s Armsmen, who was my bodyguard when I was young.”

“Is she still on Barrayar?”

“No, she emigrated years ago. Had a galactic military career and retired with the rank of captain. She’s a commercial shipmaster now.”


“Yes....There was Elli, She was a free mercenary trainee when I first met her.”

“What is she now?”

“Fleet Admiral. Actually.”

“So she was this. Who was that?”

“There was Taura.”

“What was she, when you first met her?”

“A Jacksonian body-slave....”

“So what is she now?

“Master Sergeant in a mercenary fleet.”

“The same fleet as, um, the this?”


... “And...?” she led him on, beginning to be immensely curious as to how long he’d keep going. Why in the world did he think all this romantic history was something she ought to know? Not that she would stop him....

“Mm...there was Rowan....”

“And she was...?”

“A technical serf of House Fell. She’s a cryo-revival surgeon in an independent clinic on Escobar, now....”

...Tien had spent a decade protecting her so hard, especially from anything that resembled growth, she’d felt scarcely larger at thirty than she’d been at twenty. Whatever it was Vorkosigan had offered to this extraordinary list of lovers, it hadn’t been protection.

... “So...what about the unrequited mad crush?”

“Ah, that was Rian. I was young, just a new lieutenant on a diplomatic mission.”

“And what does she do, now?”

He cleared his throat. “Now? She’s an empress.”

Miles and Ekaterin remind me a lot of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. And like Lord Peter and Harriet, Miles and his family and friends are the kind of people readers like me fall in love with, wish they could meet and befriend and invite over for dinner, and hunger to hear more about. They are endearing, smart, and funny—intensely real, achingly delicious. I can read about characters like these till the cows come home, over and over.

09 December 2012

The Woo-Woo Farm

by Leigh Lundin

save your life

trim your tree

kangaroo down

get you sober

help leave him

extend vacation
This past week, I've been reading Elizabeth Zelvin's Death Will Save Your Life, one of her Bruce Kohler Death Will… series. Not having read Elizabeth before, I wasn't prepared for the fast, snappy, almost furiously funny story.

Let me put it this way— If you're aware the three main recurring characters– best friends– are either recovering alcoholics or co-dependents and you know the author is a very serious top flight New York psychotherapist, those preconceptions may set you up for, well, sober expectations. And you'd be wrong.

Published by booksBnimble, the feel is witty with an ambience between cosy and chick-lit, at least if the latter allowed male main characters. Originally intended to be a novel, the author slimmed, trimmed, and streamlined the tale to novella length, enhancing its bright and light drollery.

The story takes place in what New Yorkers call 'the country', meaning upstate at a new age retreat named the Aquarius Institute but referred to by the cynical as the Woo-Woo Farm. Yep, I side with the cynical.
Crystal Mary

We interrupt this programming with an aside. An acquaintance, Crystal Mary, would fit in well with the farm. To outsiders, she's a strident psychic feminist lesbian, a Premie, a believer in all things paranormal, and a psychosomatic practitioner of new-age healing. Friends worry when she follows guru Prem Rawat to India and Australia without seeing the sights and that she spends too much on phony gadgets to ward off nasal scoliosis and electrical appliance radiation burns. Privately, she enjoys art, collects beautiful healing crystals, and confesses lesbianism isn't sealed in stone. Mary would fit right in the Woo-Woo Farm.

Underlying the humor, the author's command of dialogue is superb, possibly a listening skill developed in her psychotherapist profession. Zelvin's dialogue is at its best when she does banter. I especially enjoy the patter between the main characters.

And those protagonists are fun. Bruce prays the vegetarians haven't screwed up breakfast and his friends advise him to take the line to the right– the left one is all veggie. Just my kind of people.

Bruce's friend Barbara talks a mile-a-minute while driving, oblivious to the outside world. She seems to glide among other characters like an Indian scout through a forest. She makes us smile when she criticizes another woman for her 'thin shiksa thighs'. Husband Jimmy is her anchor in a positive sense.

The book slips in a wide variety of conversational detours from flowers and foods to subtle references of kinkiness. And for the romance-minded, the story, er, lays a foundation for that too.

The author manages to murder two victims, both with remarkably unpleasant dispositions. This follows the tradition of cosies where we don't much mind liquidating odious characters. If it weren't that good people could be falsely indicted, we might be willing to give the murderer a pass.

The detective on the case, while not a bad guy, isn't exactly a fine fellow either. Of course being a good guy isn't his job, but he gets under the skins of our three intrepid sleuths.

There are a raft of suspects– literally. The baddie– well, can't tell you that except to say you wouldn't want to swim with this perpetrator.

I've offered Elizabeth my own title in the series: Death Will Get You Laid (to Rest) That oughta sell!

Rating: lots of stars. When you're up for a light, fast and funny read, pick up Death Will Save Your Life by Elizabeth Zelvin. It will make your day.

01 December 2012

Authors Who Blow My Mind: Michael Gruber

by Elizabeth Zelvin

SleuthSayers Monthly Giveaway: It's my turn to play elf and conduct a drawing for a copy of Death Will Get You Sober, first in my series of mysteries featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends OR a copy of my brand new e-novella, DEATH WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE. To enter: leave a comment on today's post any time this week and check back next Saturday (above John Floyd's post) to see if you're the winner.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about readers in my years in the mystery community, it’s that every individual’s taste is different. You may hate the books I love, and vice versa. My own husband and I are yin and yang in this regard. Even within the narrow range of books that we may both pick up—a certain kind of high-quality historical or fantasy fiction—I get bored if the battles go on too long, while he gets bored if the relationships and feelings go on too long. (Same with movies, but that’s another story.) This is the first of what may turn into several posts about authors on my personal list.

Michael Gruber is usually referred to as a thriller writer, but he isn’t highly visible in the crime fiction world, although his last book, The Good Son, was short-listed for the 2011 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger award in the UK. His best work has in abundance what I consider the three essential elements of great novel writing: storytelling, writing, and characterization. My favorite is The Book of Air and Shadows (2007). I’d call it literary crime fiction in the best way. There’s an element of caper, and it’s certainly a whodunit.

The McGuffin is a completely unknown Shakespeare manuscript, a play about Mary Queen of Scots. The plot is twisty and clever, and the tension never lets up. The writing is superb, and the characters are vivid, complicated, and memorable. Then there’s voice, that mysterious element of the writer’s craft that distinguishes a master. The voice is delectable; it puts a big grin on my face page after page. He treats the reader to a literate sentence filled with educated vocabulary and felicitous turns of phrase—and then pop in a zinger, some colloquial term or trendy reference, to remind us that we’re in the real world and not some ivory tower. Or sometimes he’ll drop an apposite apple reference into a grove of oranges at just the right moment.

Here’s an example. Jake, one of the protagonists, is talking about a literary forger who almost got away with faking a new bad quarto (don’t ask) of Hamlet.

“And it might have become part of the critical canon had not L.H. Pascoe delighted in delicious young fellows with smoky eyes and pouting lips, and having such a taste, not promised one of these a trip to Cap d’Antibes, and a new wardrobe with it, and having so promised, not reneged, causing the young fellow, naturally enough, to drop a dime on his patron.”

The whole passage is delicious, but it’s that “drop a dime” that makes it sublime.

Here’s another, as Jake describes what started as an ordinary day in the practice of intellectual property law.

“Quiet meetings, billable hours, the marshaling of expertise, and the delicate suggestion that lawsuits in this business are largely a waste of time, for Chinese piracy of rock album cover images is an unavoidable cost of doing business in our fallen world.”

The zinger in this sentence is “fallen world,” a reference, if I’m not mistaken, from born-again Christianity.

I’m not a big fan of explicit sex scenes, but I don’t mind Gruber’s, because his descriptions are so perfect. Here’s the end of one such passage.

“In the end she made a sharp single cry, like a small dog hit by traffic. Then she rolled over without a word and seemed to go to sleep, in the manner of a guy married for years.”

Believe me, those monkeys with the typewriters could not come up with lines like these, not in a million years. And while he’s writing up a storm and entertaining the reader with this fantastic voice, he’s unrolling the twisty, twisty plot, keeping that feather in the air by blowing it steadily and gently.

This Gruber is a very, very smart guy. I don’t know anybody who does multiple points of view with such panache. In The Book of Air and Shadows, his fictional 17th-century character (the protagonist of the manuscript within a manuscript) describes the unknown play in such a way that you can tell it could have been written by Shakespeare at the height of his powers. The playwright’s commission is to make Mary Queen of Scots a sympathetic character and make Queen Elizabeth look bad. Instead, he shows the nuances and ambiguities of both women’s characters. The character telling us about it thinks this is a bad thing, while the author knows that the 21st century reader will think it’s a good thing. In short, it’s the sneakiness of a master storyteller.

I could go on. This is the kind of read that makes me want to say, “Listen to this!” But instead, I’ll say, “Read the book.” And read the rest of Gruber’s work, especially The Good Son, which engages our sympathies with a terrorist, no mean feat, and the Jimmy Paz trilogy, hardboiled detective stories with a little magic, and all in that gorgeous and hilarious prose.

19 May 2012

Shooting the Severed Hand

by Elizabeth Zelvin

One of the things I enjoy most about being a mystery writer is the license it gives me to be cheerfully gruesome on occasion. It’s a lot of fun to talk over with fellow literary ghouls (preferably over dinner in a crowded restaurant) what kind of gun will fit into an evening purse or which toxic plants you can grow in your garden and brew up when needed. (Part of the fun is not even hinting you’re talking about fiction.) Researching a mystery isn’t always lively, but it’s invariably informative. After hearing the Poison Lady, Lucy Zahray, wax enthusiastic about arsenic, which she said you could obtain by buying Grant’s ant poison at Walmart for $2.69, I went online (New York may be the only city in America that doesn’t have a Walmart) and found that, at least a couple of years ago, Walmart didn’t sell household chemicals online. I just googled the product again. You can get Grant’s Kills Ants on Amazon, and the product description doesn’t say a word about arsenic. So you’re good to go. Just don’t use your credit card!

My all-time favorite bit of online shopping was the purchase of my severed hand. Before the e-book market exploded, creating a widespread need for authors to design their own covers, I was already creating covers for short stories that had been published without illustration in anthologies and magazines, but which I wanted to give out as chapbooks for promotional purposes.
I needed the hand to execute the bright idea of showing a victim buried under a tangle of Christmas lights for “Death Will Trim Your Tree.” I wasn’t thinking “severed” at the time. I googled “bloody hand,” and after scrolling through book titles and historical arcana, found what I needed among Halloween and theatrical props. Arms were more expensive than hands, and I economize on promotional expenses when I can. So the image came out a little more gruesome than I had originally intended. I love it. Don’t you?

Now I needed to amortize the $6.95 I’d spent on the hand by using it again. In fact, it inspired further bursts of creativity, like the illustration of “Death Will Tank Your Fish.”
I took these photos in my own apartment. But I took the severed hand show on the road when I needed an image for Death Will Extend Your Vacation that I could put on bookmarks months before the book’s publisher was ready to design a cover. So I packed up my hand and my digital camera and took a trip to the beach.

In Chapter One of Death Will Extend Your Vacation, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends find a body on the beach. My first shots were taken at the waterline, where the victim is found in the book. That presented several problems.

First, I had to frame my shot so I got the ocean in the picture without risking a wave washing the hand away.

Second, I didn’t want the footprints of passersby providing unintended clues. Soft sand leaves no footprints, but the damp, hard-packed sand above the low tide mark, while perfect for strolling, is both visible and pristine only for a moment.
I had to tramp along the shore to find a quiet spot, and fascinated rubberneckers kept coming by. I could ask them to stop for a minute while I shot my photo, but I couldn’t spend the whole afternoon shooing people away.

Third, while surf crashing into foam and running up the beach and down again is one of the most beautiful sights in nature, it’s hard to turn into an interesting composition.
So in the end, I took my hand to higher ground, where dunes and spiky grass provided a more dramatic setting. It’s not a literal illustration of the text, but the image works. Even better, it turned out my publisher was willing to use it for the cover of the book.

05 May 2012

What If? The heart of the story

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I’ve heard it said that every story starts with a “what if,” a question in the writer’s mind that provides the seed from which all the rest grows. It makes sense to me.
Let’s look at the classics. Romeo and Juliet: What if the children of two families engaged in a bitter feud fall in love? King Lear: What if a man divides his estate among his heirs while he’s still alive? Hamlet: What if a man finds out his uncle may have murdered his father—but he’s not sure? Pride and Prejudice: What if a rich bachelor moves into the neighborhood of a family with an entailed estate and five daughters with no dowries? Jane Eyre: What if a man with a mad wife locked in the attic falls in love with the governess?

In a whodunit or a novel of suspense, “what if” can trigger the action, the plot, the mystery itself. Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar: What if a foundling with a yearning to belong is persuaded to impersonate the missing heir to a family whose members look just like him and share his passion for horses? Stuart Woods, Chiefs: What if a serial killer is a pillar of the community who spreads his murders out over 40 years? The DaVinci Code: What if Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had a child whose descendant still lives in the present day? The Hunger Games: What if in a dystopian future America, teens chosen by lottery are forced to fight to the death on reality TV?

But for some writers, the plot is not the starting point. A situation, setting, or relationship can generate a “what if” that becomes the stage on which the solving of the mystery is played out. Or the “what if” may generate a whole series. Laurie R. King: What if the aging Sherlock Holmes meets a young woman who’s just as smart as he is? Margaret Maron: What if a modern Southern woman whose father was a famous bootlegger becomes a judge? In science fiction, sometimes called speculative fiction, “what if” is the whole point. But mystery writers too need a reason to set their characters in motion, a burning curiosity that they can impart to the reader.

I didn’t consciously think “what if” when I sat down to write Death Will Get You Sober (2008), the first mystery in my series about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler. But when I applied the question to what I’d written, I realized that my central “what if” did not pertain to the murder and its solution but to the characters I had created to solve it and future mysteries in the series: Bruce, his best friend Jimmy, and Jimmy’s girlfriend Barbara. What if there were two best friends, inseparable from childhood? What if both were alcoholics? What if one of them got sober and the other didn’t? What if fifteen years later the other one stopped drinking too? What would happen to the friendship? What if we throw in a codependent girlfriend who cares as much about what happens between them as they do—and is much more eager to talk about it? To me, the relationships of the protagonist and his friends gave life to the mystery.

I knew all along that I was not going to allow Bruce to drink again. There are enough novels about the struggle with the bottle. My mission was to write about recovery , which as an alcoholism treatment professional with many years’ experience, I know can be rich, complex, rewarding, moving, and sometimes hilariously funny. In Death Will Help You Leave Him (2009), I needed a new “what if?” What if Bruce, having dealt with his addiction to booze and achieved stable sobriety, discovers that codependents, who become addicted to destructive relationships in which they try in vain to control and rescue the alcoholics and addicts that they love, are not only “those other people who have to go to Al-Anon” but also alcoholics like Bruce himself? Bruce had to struggle against being hooked in a relationship with his crazy ex-wife that could destroy them both.

In the new book, Death Will Extend Your Relationship, I wasn’t ready to give Bruce yet another addiction. I wanted him to enjoy his recovery in the clean and sober group house in the Hamptons where, as it says on the jacket flap, “somebody’s not abstaining from murder.” So what if this group of holiday housemates is as dysfunctional as an alcoholic family? What if one of Bruce’s friends gets blindsided by another kind of addiction? What if “as the summer heats up, secretes and lies start buzzing around this dream vacation like flies at a beach picnic”?

21 April 2012

Outrageous Older Woman: Getting the Music Out There

by Elizabeth Zelvin

As some of you know, I’ve recently released an album of original songs, Outrageous Older Woman. While I’m an experienced writer who knows as much as any author can claim to about today’s rapidly changing book publishing marketplace, this is my first foray into the recording industry.
I’m not looking for a record deal or an American Idol career. At my age, and at my modest level of musicianship, I’m happy to have my songs out there in the world and accessible to those who might enjoy them. And I did get a double handful of terrific musicians and harmony singers to play and sing along.

I’ve met a fair number of independent singer-songwriters over the years, so I was not surprised when my co-producer on the album, who actually makes a living from his music, confirmed that the best place to go for distribution of indie music is a website called CD Baby. For a small fee—which in fact was paid by the company that made and packaged my CDs—they offered a user-friendly way for listeners to preview excerpts of the songs and buy either the CD or mp3 downloads of the whole album or individual songs. This can be done on either my CD Baby page or a click-through embedded in my own music website. And for no extra charge, CD Baby handles digital distribution to iTunes, Amazon, and numerous other music vendors on the Internet.

All I had to do was sign up with CD Baby by completing their online registration and send them five copies of my CD. So far, so good. I was pleased they asked for information I thought it was important for music lovers to know, such as a description of each song. I had already done some thinking about what musical genres to check off in order to attract folks who would actually enjoy my music: urban folk, country-folk, acoustic singer-songwriter, and (coached by my co-producer, who’s an old hand at this) “roots” and “Americana”—designations for music that isn’t slick and formulaic enough, not Nashville enough, to be played on commercial country stations.

I even managed to come up with the requested “three names of famous artists whose music yours is like.” I’ve always had trouble with this stuff with my fiction, since I don’t think my work is quite like anybody else’s. (“If you crossed Matt Scudder with Stephanie Plum, you might get my recovering alcoholic protagonist Bruce Kohler’s third cousin.”) So I hope no one is too disappointed when they hear my music after reading that I’m like Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and the Dixie Chicks. At least we’re in the same ballpark.

But one phase of the registration process knocked me for a loop. For every one of the sixteen songs on the album, I had to check off whether it was “clean” or “explicit.” Now, I’m a word person, and I know that “explicit” does not mean “dirty.” If you ask me to be explicit about my origins, I can tell you that I’m a nice Jewish girl from Queens, the daughter of immigrants from Hungary and Russia. To be explicit about my favorite meal, I can describe the cut of meat and its degree of doneness and exactly how I like my potatoes prepared. But I’m no dummy, and I know they meant “explicitly obscene” or “explicitly profane”—in other words, is each song suitable for young children to hear, or is it dirty?

As I found out later, ie after checking off “clean,” as it happens, for all my songs, the source of the hoopla about this is “the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) American committee formed in 1985 with the stated goal of increasing parental control over the access of children to music deemed to be violent, have drug use or be sexual” (Wikipedia), spearheaded by Tipper Gore. This raised a furor on the issue of censorship in the arts. Apparently the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) decided to have its members put a voluntary parental advisory (the Tipper sticker) on works that were considered “explicit.” Wikipedia says, “It is uncertain whether the ‘Tipper sticker’ is effective in preventing children from being exposed to explicit content. Some suggest that the sticker actually increases record sales.”

Independent labels that are not RIAA members are not required to use the sticker. A 2007 message board post on the subject that popped up when I googled “CD Baby + RIAA” said, “I suspect that over 99% of the users of...CD Baby...are NOT RIAA members.” ( But CD Baby itself does comply with the advisory. Once I knew what to look for, it was easily found in the contract I signed in order to use CD Baby’s services.

Parental Advisory Labeling. You will be responsible for complying with the Recording Industry Association of America’s (“RIAA”) Parental Advisory Logo (“PAL”) Standards, as applicable, for so long as you use the Services.

So I guess I’m not gonna try to boost my record sales by adding “explicit” language to my lyrics. Click below to listen to the previews, and see if you like ‘em.

Liz Zelvin: Outrageous Older Woman

28 January 2012

“I’m like, ‘Whaddaya mean, like, a verbal tic?’”

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Is it only teens and young adults who commit this crime against the English language, or has the latest substitute for “I said” spread to the general population?

Normal English:
“He said, ‘Lady, you can’t go in there,’ and I said, ‘Who do you think you are?’”

Current parlance:
“He’s like, ‘You can’t go in there,’ and I’m like, ‘Who do you think you are?’”

I’m not sure exactly when “like” became a placeholder to be used indiscriminately between any two spoken words, regardless of part of speech, but it’s become, like, universal. This is not to say that mangled English is a new phenomenon. When I was growing up in Queens in the 1950s, I had friends whose anecdotal style included similar locutions:

“He sez, ‘You can’t go in there!” So far, indistinguishable in speech from the grammatically acceptable historic present “He says.” But then, the giveaway:
“So I sez, ‘Who do you think you are?’”

More extreme:
“He goes, ‘You can’t go in there!’ So I go, ‘Who do you think you are?’”

I personally never let either “He goes” or “I sez” pass my lips. My mother woulda, like, killed me. Throughout my childhood, one of her friends liked to tell about an incident from when I was maybe four. She responded to some question of mine by saying “Yeah,” and I, little prig that I must have been, announced, “My mother pronounces it ‘Yes.’”

But the egregious “like” is a persistent verbal tic that I can’t claim I’m never guilty of using. In that, it resembles the pervasive “y’know” and “I mean” that mar so many public speeches, especially the extemporaneous, uttered without reference to notes or Teleprompter. Or is it a tic? It seems to me that the insertion of “like” into a declarative sentence adds a nuance of tentativeness. When James Cameron won the Oscar for the movie Titanic, he drew worldwide disapproval for expressing his delight by throwing his arms wide and quoting a line from the film: “I’m the king of the world!” Would the media and millions of viewers been equally censorious if he had instead cried, “I’m, like, the king of the world”? Perhaps the self-deprecating “like” would have met their standards for a becoming modesty in someone who’s just won big.

For me, the frequent use of “like”—as much as several times in a single spoken sentence—damages the credibility of the speaker. Another locution, uptalk, which was most noticeable in the 1990s but has not completely vanished, also conveys the impression of uncertainty or tentativeness to the detriment of credibility, or perhaps more accurately, authority.

“I’m Liz Zelvin? Your speaker for today? I’ve been writing my whole life? I’m going to talk about how to, like, promote your book?”

It is possible to use even the most unpromising locutions effectively. I recently saw the concert movie of the TV show Glee. This show (which I haven’t watched, but might some time) has been very successful in reaching young people with its message that those who are “different” (obese, gay, born with disabilities, and a variety of other departures from the stereotype of attractive and popular teens) are worthy of love and capable of success. As a songwriter myself, I always pay close attention to lyrics. I was amused, even charmed, to realize that the refrain of one high-energy number (evidently a big hit on iTunes) was, “I’m, like, Forget you!” To a target audience of teens, that was downright clever.

14 January 2012

Novels and Short Stories: Can A Writer Do Both?

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I have writer Mike Orenduff’s permission to quote something he said on the DorothyL e-list a few weeks back:

I’m often asked at talks and signings about how to write short stories. My answer is if you want to write books, don’t write short stories. A short story is to a book what a sprint is to a marathon. Both are worthwhile and fun, but you need to choose just one because training for one actually harms your ability to do the other.

With due respect to Mike, I couldn't disagree more with his statement that training for short stories harms your ability to write novels and vice versa. After all, they’re both storytelling.

Learning the fiction writing skill set (which builds on and differs from the general writing and editing skills I'd been honing all my life) started with the first novel. Creating a coherent structure, pacing, starting and ending scenes in the right place, developing and differentiating character, sharpening dialogue, avoiding information dumps and excessive backstory, and killing my darlings in revision in the first and subsequent novels were all essential in writing short stories.

Writing short stories taught me when to stop, how to tighten structure and pace to the max, literary contraception so darlings that might need killing were never born, and how to end with a twist and a bang, which in turn enhanced my scene, chapter, and novel endings. Writing short stories also showed me that my series character's voice was not the only voice I had in me, and further, that beyond writing the straight whodunit from the detective's point of view, I could explore my dark side, switch subgenres to write historical, paranormal, and flash fiction, and even find the voice of a killer or two. Both of my series, one a series set in today’s New York and featuring a recovering alcoholic and the other, set on the voyages of Columbus, with a young Marrano sailor as protagonist, consist of both novels and short stories. If I may say so myself, both formats work for me.

When I surprised myself by writing my first short story, I was amazed to find how spacious 4,000 or even 3,000 words can be, and that impression has been sustained through a dozen published stories, three of them Agatha nominees. I’ve never had a sense of having to cut description, character, or dialogue. That insight has helped me see when enough is enough in drafting and revising each 70,000-word novel. Just as novelists who used to be journalists find it easier to produce a set number of words every day and take critique better than the rest of us because they’re used to being edited and even deleted, short story writers bring to their novel manuscripts a keen understanding of when enough is enough.

When I first heard of flash fiction, I was astounded that some writers could tell a story in 1,000 words or less.
But when I thought it over, I realized that I had been creating concise narratives of 150, 250, and other limited word counts for decades: some were poems, others were songs. I don’t decide in advance how long a tale I’m ready to tell will be, unless I’m writing for submission on a particular theme with a particular length requirement. It depends on what the characters tell me and where the story takes me as it unrolls in the mist before me. Without getting into any debates between science and theology, I can’t help imagining whoever is in charge of the universe taking the same journey (or is it a voyage?) through the primordial soup, with all of creation unrolling into an endless story.

31 December 2011

Why I Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I write about some variant of this topic every year at around this time, but no matter how many times I say it, a lot of people still don’t believe it. I keep saying it, thinking that this time they’ll get it.
And they keep asking: “Really! You really don’t make New Year’s resolutions? How can you not make New Year’s resolutions? But you must make New Year’s resolutions!” They think that if they ask again, maybe this time my answer will change. And that’s the resolution process in a nutshell.

It’s not as if the millions of people who faithfully list the elements of the fresh start they’re going to make, come January 1, are actually going to keep these resolutions. Year after year’s experience belies their ability to maintain the changes they’ve resolved to make. Take dieting. Americans value being thin more than any other physical characteristic. As a nation, we enjoy greater abundance than anywhere else on earth. Our holidays, our advertising, even our blogs extol the joys of good food. Our health professionals tell us that life-threatening obesity is endemic among us. They also advise physical fitness as a way to ensure good health and promote long life, and a billion-dollar industry has grown up to sell us products and services to enhance our fitness. (Remember when walking and running and climbing stairs used to be free?)

To resolve these chronic contradictions, people diet. On New Year’s Day, they declare, “This year, I’m going to stay away from junk food. I’m going to eat fewer desserts and more vegetables.”
The erosion may set in as early as the neighbors’ New Year’s brunch, at which the pastries look sooo delicious…. If not, a bare six weeks or so away is Valentine’s Day, which can’t be celebrated without chocolate…. If we really expected to make permanent changes in our eating habits, why would we launch them as part of a ritual that we celebrate every single year?

But the fact that resolutions tend not to work in any lasting way is not the only reason I avoid them. As a shrink and as a person old enough to have amassed some life experience, I’ve come to believe that planning for a year is neither an effective nor an emotionally healthy way to live my life.
You know the common expression about seeing no light at the end of the tunnel? Mental health professionals call it projection. We give ourselves a lot of agita anticipating scary things that never happen. A popular acronym for fear is “future events already ruined.” How can we avoid the stress, anxiety, and dread that can feel overwhelming at times? By not looking down the tunnel. Some folks may dismiss “one day at a time” as psychobabble, but it actually makes life a lot more manageable. So on January 1, I’m going to look around me and say, “What a beautiful day—I wonder what I’ll do with it?” And then I’ll do my best to fill my waking hours with as much pleasure, productivity, and love as I can manage. And on January 2, I’ll do it again.

17 December 2011


by Elizabeth Zelvin

1. an aerial bomb containing high explosives and weighing from four to eight tons, used as a large-scale demolition bomb.
2. a motion picture, novel, etc., especially one lavishly produced, that has or is expected to have wide popular appeal or financial success.

As a writer of both novels and short stories and a reader of both mysteries and other kinds of fiction, I was thinking about the differences among these forms and genres this morning and found myself musing about the nature of a blockbuster. When I looked it up, I found that the common usage most of us know is only the second definition. I was also surprised to learn that the novels to which it may be applied aren’t necessarily long, though they do have to be explosive.

I just finished reading a novel that could be called a blockbuster by any standards: Pat Conroy’s Beach Music. The original hardcover edition, published in 1995, was 628 pages and weighed in at 2.4 pounds shipping weight, according to Amazon. The trade paperback edition I read came in at 800 pages and still ranks under 25,000 on Amazon, which means a lot of readers are still buying it. (For comparison, the Kindle edition of my second book, published in 2009, ranks 467,500 and change.) Conroy, author of Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, is frequently referred to as a beloved American author. Extrapolating from the definition, part of what makes a blockbuster is an author’s prior best-seller status. But let’s look at what Conroy manages to cram into his story of a dysfunctional family that manages to love and come through for one another in the end (a surefire recipe in itself), along with the vividly detailed setting in the low country of South Carolina, described in lush and lyrical prose that would make the book a literary novel if it hadn’t sold so darn many copies.

Into the hopper:
domestic violence
survivor guilt
the Holocaust
the Vietnam War
the 1985 terrorist attack on the Rome airport
the Catholic Church
the military
the South
Sherman’s march to the sea
a near-death-at-sea experience
the fight to save the loggerhead turtle from extinction

Have I missed anything? I don’t think Conroy did.

As I read, I couldn’t help thinking about how Conroy constructed his story in a way that wouldn’t have got past a good critique group, no less an agent or editor, if it were a debut manuscript: paragraphs and paragraphs of lush description, masses of information about cooking, fishing, and architecture, and backstory or flashback sections running as much as 100 pages between sections that moved the story forward. I also popped out of lost-in-a-book trance at a couple of psychological anomalies: the cheater’s shortcut he took in dealing with the suicide by saying upfront that in this rare case, everybody who knew the lovely young victim forgave her instantly; the portrayal of the schizophrenic as a lovable eccentric who remained manageable even at his most unmanageable; and how much love remained in this severely dysfunctional family. But maybe that’s no different from any fiction, including movies, where the rigid, intolerant, or obstructive character sees the light in time for the happy ending.

03 December 2011

Editorial Crimes

by Elizabeth Zelvin

In a recent talk to a group of mystery writers about editing, critique, and craft (“The End Is Just the Beginning”), I ruffled a few feathers among the professional editors present by indicating that I had had some negative experiences in this aspect of getting various manuscripts into print. I salute the many excellent substantive editors who can improve a manuscript’s structure, pace, and clarity, as well as those copy editors whom authors rightly credit with making their writing clean, crisp, and grammatical. I spent fifteen years as a damn good editor myself, back in the days when you could get a decent full-time job in a publishing house shepherding a work “from manuscript to bound book.” Unfortunately, there are exceptions.

I never edited fiction, so I never had to worry about that mysterious and essential ingredient in a damn fine story (please have patience with the “damns,” I’m going somewhere with them), voice. Everybody involved in publishing novels says how important voice is, but it’s remarkable how many seem not to recognize it when they see it or can’t trust the author enough to leave it alone. In a third-person narrative, the authorial voice can be distinctive; in first person, it’s even more crucial. Some crime fiction writers are masters at varying their voice. Ruth Rendell is one: her Inspector Wexford novels sound completely different from the psychological suspense standalones she writes as Barbara Vine. Other successful and popular writers have a voice that works and that readers love, but it seems to be the only voice they have. To my ear, Robert B. Parker’s Sunny Randall sounds exactly like his Spenser.

I am both fond of and grateful to the editor who worked on my forthcoming Death Will Extend Your Vacation, third in the series featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler. My first-person protagonist is a streetwise New Yorker with a smart mouth and a not too well concealed heart of gold. He used the word “damn” half a dozen times in the course of the book in constructions analogous to the “damn good editor” and “damn fine story” above. My editor, bless her heart, is a lady, and one who knows her grammar. She added “-ed” to every “damn” that Bruce uttered. Bless her even more for not giving me a hard time when I deleted the “-ed” throughout, explaining that Bruce would never have said “a damned fine wake” or “damned insulting questions,” not to mention “damned yellow tape,” “damned boat,” or “whatever damned thing she wants to say,” not in a million years. Being a New Yorker with a smart mouth myself, neither would I. Dr. John Watson, yes. Amelia Peabody, yes. But not me and Bruce (and no, please respect my voice and don’t make that “Bruce and I”).

Luckily, I was able to persuade the editor of an earlier Bruce story not to insist on making Bruce say “not sufficiently far” for “not far enough” and “an alcoholic such as I” for “an alcoholic like me.” I can laugh about these distortions of my character’s voice when I catch them in time. What makes me nuts is when they’re inserted after I’ve signed off on the manuscript (after correcting galleys, in particular), so that I don’t discover them until I see the book in print. There were two in my last novel, Death Will Help You Leave Him, that still make me squirm in embarrassment. I’d rather attribute them to the final proofreader than to the editor who I wish had checked her work and consulted me if she wasn’t sure. She did email me when the proofreader asked if I really meant a night security guard on Wall Street to ask my characters to “state your name and who you got the apperntment with.” (“Did you mean ‘appointment’?” “No,” I write back, grinding my teeth and glad we’re not Skyping, “it’s what used to be called Brooklynese.”) Maybe the editor is simply too young. I suspect the issue was sense of humor with one I didn’t catch because she didn’t ask me. It involved a character I’d described on page 34 as follows:

Vinnie frowned. His bushy black eyebrows almost met above a massive beak of a nose. I doubted even a broad smile would make more than a centimeter of breathing room in the middle.

Much later in the book, Bruce and his sidekick Barbara are reviewing possible witnesses and suspects.

“We haven’t talked to his friend Vinnie—the nice one from the funeral,” Barbara said.
“I don’t think he was no nice,” I objected. “I didn’t like his eyebrow.” I waggled mine like Groucho Marx.

Guess what appears on page 191 of the printed book. Yep, “eyebrows.” They went and tromped on my joke.

My final example, from the same book, involves an error, also introduced in the final post-galley proofreading, that in striving for grammar makes a hash of meaning. Instead of describing it, I offer the two versions—the first as submitted and passed through several stages of editing with my approval, the second in print. Let’s see if you can spot what’s wrong.

19 November 2011

Executive Protection

Elizabeth Zelvin

At a recent dinner meeting of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America, the speakers were the founders of an outfit called Management Resources Ltd of New York. A temp agency? Nope. Human resources consultants? Nope again. Robert H. Rahn, a retired NYPD lieutenant and homicide detective, and Kim Anklin, also a retired cop with a background in crime and intelligence analysis, gave their private investigation firm a bland name because their corporate clients didn’t want the information that they’d hired PIs to spread all over the company. They’re not completely undercover, though: their website is

While Management Resources is a full-service investigations firm, they came to MWA to talk about one of their specialties, executive protection. That’s motorcades and bodyguards and everything the Secret Service does for the President and A-list visiting heads of state. Lesser lights—such as the numerous members of the Saudi royal family—as well as celebrity actors and athletes—make do with private firms like this one. The amount of protection that they get (from a single bodyguard to an eight-person team or from a single car to a mini-motorcade of four) depends on both the level of threat and the client’s budget.

When a client hires them for protection during, say, a three-day visit to New York, the firm starts by getting a detailed schedule and sending out an advance team of two or three operatives to analyze, measure, map, and if possible photograph the details of every venue the client expects to visit, especially the approaches: the principal, as the subject is called, is most vulnerable when entering and leaving the venue. The team that protects the principal during the visit is thoroughly briefed beforehand. Unscheduled stops are strongly discouraged, though if the principal insists, the team adapts. As someone pointed out during the Q&A, the kitchen where Bobby Kennedy was shot was an unscheduled stop.

According to Rahn, the way protection teams work changed significantly as a result of the shooting of President Reagan. When it happened, only one bodyguard got the President into a car and away from the scene, while all the others converged on the shooter. Nowadays, it’s the opposite. In Reagan’s case, the bullet seemed to have breezed under his armpit, leaving no apparent wound. The car was headed back to the hotel when a bloody froth at the mouth, which the protector luckily recognized as indicating a collapsed lung, sent them to the hospital instead.

 After explaining how it works, Rahn called on eight volunteers, including me, to perform a demonstration. I had the right front position in the formation, which made me the person who would tackle the attacker, if trouble came from the right. All the rest would converge on the principal, whose safety is the team’s priority. (Principals who want them to walk the dog and pick up their laundry—actors are the worst offenders--get nipped in the bud.) Rahn admitted that he and his staff, all retired law enforcement, have had to unlearn their instinct to go after the guy with the gun. What impressed me as a participant was how broad the range I had to keep my eye on was, even though I had to cover only one quadrant of the space around the principal.

The National Arts Club, an immense old mansion on Gramercy Park with multiple approaches to every room and plenty of shadows and hiding places, made a great demonstration venue. Waiters and bartenders came and went. (On a job, they would have been investigated in advance.) At one point during the role play, a door on the left opened unexpectedly, and a brand new staff person appeared—fortunately not packing a gun.

Everybody agreed that the audience had more questions for the speakers than at any other talk in recent memory. I’m always interested in whether novels, movies, and TV get it right. I was interested to learn that there’s no personal contact whatever with the principal, except to direct him (“Come this way, sir.”) or respond to requests (“He’s a friend, let him through.”). In other words, Kevin Costner definitely should not have slept with Whitney Houston.

22 October 2011

Do writers write to market trends? Should they?

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Writers know that the most important strategy for success is to write the best book they can every time. Countless successful authors, publishing professionals, and writing teachers tell aspiring writers, “Don’t try to chase a trend. The trend will be gone before you get your manuscript to market. And if it’s not what you passionately want to write about anyway, that will show.” At the same time, agents say, “I can’t sell this if the editor can’t tell the marketing department what shelf to put it on.” Some include in their submission guidelines, “Commercial fiction only,” or even, “I’m looking for the next big blockbuster.”

If anyone could predict what will next catch the public’s fancy, the publishing industry might not be in as much trouble as it is these days. On the other hand, none of us want to spend a year pouring our hearts and souls into an unsalable manuscript. So how do we strike a balance? Some writers do it by moving out of their comfort zone to explore subgenres that have a better chance in the marketplace.

Potential inspiration for at least three cozy series
I have several cosy writer friends who spent years writing and revising manuscripts that ranged from romance to thrillers to noir, querying agents, and in general doing everything they could to hone their craft and join the ranks of the published, before signing contracts for paperback series about suburban or small-town female amateur sleuths who trip over clues as they go about their daily business in a variety of occupations or pursuing popular hobbies.

These are good writers. They work hard to bring their characters to life, keep their dialogue lively, and provide fair-play plots with logical solutions. Some of them have made the New York Times bestseller lists, been nominated for and occasionally won awards, and signed contracts for extended and in some cases multiple series. Cosies are popular, and sales recently got a big boost when one of the big box stores (can’t remember whether it was Walmart or Costco) decided to start carrying them. That means big print runs, bigger readership, and bigger royalties. And if the price is for the author to include recipes and knitting patterns with each chapter, so be it.

I am not talking about potboilers here. “Potboiler” is a derogatory term for something that doesn’t exist: a novel tossed off effortlessly in a few weeks for readers the author despises, doing it only because its success is guaranteed, although the author could surely produce the Great American Novel if offered a big enough advance. The truth is, almost all of us do write the best book we can every time. It’s a necessary condition for publication, if not, alas, a sufficient condition in these difficult times for writers.

My own dilemma is that I don’t seem to be able to write fiction about anything but what I actually want to say. A few years ago, I heard a senior editor at a fairly big press say, during a talk to writers, that they published only serial killer thrillers and stories that you could put a puppy or a kitten on the cover of, even if there was no puppy or kitten in the book—nothing in between. Since I write precisely in between those two extremes, I crossed that publisher off my list on the spot. It’s not a matter of ethics or aesthetics. The particular gifts and skills of writers differ, and I can’t do either bloodbath or cosy.

08 October 2011

What really happened when Columbus discovered America

by Elizabeth Zelvin

We’re coming up on Columbus Day, and having researched and written two short stories and a Young Adult novel about the events this holiday celebrates, I have quite a different perspective on the matter than most Americans.

The Santa Maria, 1492
For starters, it has nothing to do with Italians. Yes, Columbus was born in Genoa. But the three ships’ crews on the historic first voyage were Spanish. The names of 87 out of 90 have survived. The roster included one Genoese sailor, one Calabrian, one Portuguese, and several Basques. On the second voyage, when the fleet of 17 ships carried more than 1,200 men, the only Genoese, a childhood friend of Columbus, was a rapist and a boor to whose ugly tale I tried to do justice in my novel. Apart from a cabal of Catalans, who at one point mutinied, stole three caravels, and headed back to Spain, these first conquistadores were Spanish, their policies dictated by the needs and desires of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in their drive to unify Spain, fill its coffers, expand its dominion in land and trade, and purge it of any taint of dissension from its Christian faith.

The crime connection in this true story is the genocide of the Taino, the indigenous people of the Caribbean islands where Columbus landed, and especially in Hispaniola (Quisqueya to the Taino, Haiti and the Dominican Republic today) where the first settlements were built. It followed the conquest of Granada, the last Moorish (ie Muslim) stronghold in Spain, the expulsion of the Jews on the exact date, August 3, 1492, that Columbus sailed, and the similar extinction of the Guanche, the natives of the Canary Islands, which Spain was in the process of conquering, island by island, at the same time.

The people who greeted Columbus and his crew were peaceable and friendly. They had never seen horses or metal weapons. Columbus described them as “robust and comely.” In a letter to the king and queen, he said: “They are so ingenuous and free with all they have, that no one would believe it who has not seen it; of anything that they possess, if it be asked of them, they never say no; on the contrary, they invite you to share it and show as much love as if their hearts went with it.” He was already considering what good servants they would make. When he failed to find enough gold to impress the sovereigns, the Taino morphed in his mind from potential Christian brethren who must be converted to that valuable commodity, slaves.

The Spaniards were convinced that the Taino had no religion, good news in that no former beliefs would form obstacles to their conversion to Christianity. One of the priests who accompanied the second expedition collected what he called folk tales and published them on his return to Europe. How ironic! In fact, the Taino were describing their religion to Fray Pane, and he didn’t get it. These were a people who settled disputes not by war or litigation, but through a ball game, batey, a team sport similar to soccer. Games also had a ceremonial function, and sometimes they were played for fun.

There is a good explanation for the Taino’s generosity. It was the keystone of their ethical belief system. Matu’um, generosity, was a virtue. But the Spaniards didn’t get it, and neither did Columbus. They took all they were offered—water, food, labor, goods, and especially gold, from nuggets to elaborately worked masks—and took whatever they wanted, including sexual favors, with or without Taino consent. But when two Taino took a couple of European shirts, not even keeping them but bestowing them on their cacique (chief), Spanish justice was immediate and cruel: their noses were slit in the presence of their families, and they narrowly escaped execution.

It’s sometimes said that what really killed off the entire Taino people was illness: European diseases to which they were not immune. This is a copout. Within three years of Columbus’s first landing on October 12, 1492, one-third of the Taino population was already dead. Many committed suicide, using cyanide extracted from cassava, their staple food, rather than endure the penalty for failing to pay the monthly “tribute” of gold that they did not have. In February 1495, the point at which my novel ends, the Spaniards rounded up 1,500 Taino and herded the 500 most likely prospects for slavery into ships’ holds no better than those of African slavers in later centuries. More than 200 were dead and dumped overboard before the ships landed in Europe.

Eurocentric culture has long declared the Taino extinct, although some Caribbean Americans who carry Taino DNA identify themselves as Taino, making efforts to reconstruct the language and their cultural heritage.

Happy Columbus Day.