Category Archives: writing

THE EX is an Edgar Award Nominee for Best Novel

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I am beyond thrilled that THE EX has been nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Novel. The Edgar Award, named for Edgar Allan Poe, is awarded by The Mystery Writers of America to honor the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction, television, film, and theater.  This is especially delicious news, because so many of my talented, supportive friends are also nominated this year.

Winners will be announced on April 26 at a banquet in New York City. That’s going to be quite the party!

You can see the full list of nominees here.

In other EX-related news, THE EX was also named a Best Book of 2016 by the Boston Globe and a biggest thriller of 2016 by Book Bub.

And the New England Law Review selected THE EX to serve as its centerpiece for an upcoming symposium, “The Novelization of the Criminal Justice System and its Effect on Pop Culture.” Open to public, Feb 9, 4-6 pm, 154 Stuart St, Boston, Mass.

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Finally, THE EX will be out in paperback on January 31!  Find links to order in the format of your choice here.

Rewriting v. Editing

I just finished a book.

I’ve been in a position to use that glorious sentence eight times.  The first seven times, I spoke the sentence immediately after typing the final period on the final page.  I even typed THE END to mark the moment.

Did that mean I was completely done with my work on the book?  Of course not.  My agent and editor needed to read it.  I would listen to their good feedback.  I would make changes, some of them big.  The book would be better for it.  And then we’d do another pass.  And then copyediting.  But that’s all editing.  The book was “finished,” as I use that word.

Book eight?  I typed an ending a month ago, but, for the first time, I didn’t type THE END.  I didn’t say, “I just finished a book.” Instead, I paused a moment to celebrate having a beginning, middle, and an end.  I may even have had a drink or two.

One of each, please!

Then I opened a new, blank document on my computer and started again from the beginning.

Yep, I rewrote my book.

Now, a month later, I’m willing to say I finished.  I even typed THE END.  The celebratory drinks made those first ones look like amateur hour.

Having to reach an ending twice before typing THE END got me to thinking about what made this time different.

1.  Why wasn’t the first ending the finish line?

At a spotlight interview during last year’s Bouchercon, Gregg Hurwitz asked Michael Connelly if he had any publishing regrets.  After initially saying no, Michael backed up and said he wished he had submitted his first novel earlier.  It was done, but he kept tinkering and refining on his own for nearly three years.

Little did he know as an unpublished writer that the book would get even better with an editor.  By Michael’s calculation, if he’d sent the book out earlier, he would have benefitted from an editor’s feedback sooner, and he could have started his second book instead of working on his own for all that time.  The world might have an additional Connelly novel or two as a result.

His observation made me think about my own process.  I don’t generally tinker and refine on my own.  I type THE END and send it away.  But I’ve been able to do that because I force myself to get it right — or at least my own best version of right — the very first time.  I nitpick at myself constantly during the first (and only) draft.

For this book, I decided to let all that go.  I made myself write, even when I knew a certain scene or a certain plot twist wasn’t exactly right.  It’s not a process I would have been comfortable with seven books ago, but I’ve learned by now that that finishing sooner is better than finishing later.  I’ve seen for myself — seven previous times — how much better a book can be once you finish that first pass of editing.  Plus I heard Michael Connelly say it, so it must be true!

But changing my objective from finishing my very best draft to simply finishing a draft necessarily changed how I felt about “finishing.”  All I could say was that I had a beginning, middle, and an end.  I couldn’t really say I had finished the book.  I couldn’t type THE END.

2.  Why I Called it a Re-Write

In my previous seven edits, I made some pretty big changes.  But I made those changes directly to the document.  I cut and pasted if I switched the order of two scenes.  I added chapters.  I deleted entire pages. Overall, however, the narrative arc of the plot and characters remained intact.

This time, I decided that an “edit” — even a big edit — would not suffice.  I wanted to start with a blank document.  I wanted to revisit every decision I had made the first time around.  I would reimagine the book with more information than I had all those months ago.  I’d pull over scenes, character, words, sentences, paragraphs, and entire chapters only as helpful.  I’d skip the rest.  I’d write new scenes and characters as I went.

Two characters completely left the page.  One arrived a hundred and fifty pages earlier.  An affair that happened suddenly didn’t.

When I reached the ending of this new book, I knew it was better.  I knew I was proud of it.  And I knew I was actually done.

I’m not certain I’d recommend this process to anyone else.  The messiness of it has me wishing once again that I could outline a book chapter by chapter, scene for scene, prior to writing.  But at least I’m able to say that I have finished my eighth book and am very happy with it.

THE END

The Anxieties of Final Edits

Remember that manuscript I was so happy to complete in early August?  It has already reached the copy-editing phase.  I honestly don’t know whether this editing cycle moved more quickly than years past or whether this is simply another indication that time moves faster as one ages.  Regardless, my little baby (named LONG GONE)  grew from barely hatched to escaping the nest in what felt like record time.

My husband would like me to view the briskness of the editing as evidence that this manuscript was my strongest draft yet.  Because I never turn down the opportunity to embrace a compliment, I’m choosing that version of the story.

I’m reading LONG GONE aloud to myself right now, word by word, with caution and scrutiny, trying to reach the highest level of polish.

So NOT how I look when I read aloud to myself. Who comes up with this stuff?

So far, my changes have been pretty minor.  Some random pages, for example: On page 32, I’ve changed “watching him” to “monitoring him,” and changed “watching his back” to “checking his back.”  (I apparently had the word “watch” bouncing around my synapses a bit too much the day I wrote that one.)  I also changed “wine” to “Chardonnay,” because I now know a very minor character well enough to say she’d drink Chardonnay. On page 229, I’ve changed “house” to “home.”  On 243, I changed “out to the country” to “up to the country.”

I’m pretty sure these aren’t the changes that will make the difference between a starred review and not, or a bestselling book or not, but they are changes I value even if no one else notices.  I also find comfort in their insignificance.  If I can read an entire novel aloud and find myself wanting only these tiny little amendments, then I can be proud knowing this is the very best book I’m capable of writing.

But… Oh, c’mon, you knew there’d be a but.

Some of the changes I’ve made aren’t that small.  Well, let me qualify that.  They are in fact small in that they aren’t big.  I haven’t suddenly decided that a character’s motives need to change or that a plot twist doesn’t actually work.  That kind of discovery would send me leaping from the nearest window.

But some of the changes I’ve made really NEEDED to be made.  I’m slightly halfway through the manuscript and have caught two — count ’em, TWO — typos.

That’s right… typos, the literary version of bedbugs.

Some might say that two typos in 250 manuscript pages ain’t bad.  But those two little errors have placed a lump solidly in the base of my stomach, because they really shouldn’t be there.  I try to write every page as well as I can the first time around.  Then at the beginning of each new writing day, I read what I wrote the previous day to make sure I’m happy with it.  When I reach the final chapter, I read the entire book on my own and make further changes.  Then my editor reads it.  Then I read it again, with her comments in mind.  Then I do another edit, which necessarily requires more reading.  And then the copy-editor gets a hold of it.

And so why are there still two typos (so far) in this fracking manuscript?

At a cold, cognitive level, I know the answer.  The human mind fills in gaps.  Read this sentence and count the number of F’s: “FINISHED FILES ARE THE RESULT OF YEARS OF SCIENTIFIC STUDY COMBINED WITH THE EXPERIENCE OF YEARS.”

How many did you count?  Three?  Four?  Nope.  Believe it or not, there are six letter F’s in that sentence.

If you counted them all on the first try, you’re a genius.  And you should be my copy-editor.  But if you counted fewer, you, like most people, glossed over the f’s in the word “of,” which is used three times in that sentence.  We read for content.  We skip over those pesky articles and prepositions.  And so we make mistakes.

At least I know it’s not me.  I find typos in books all the time.  A few years ago, a #1 bestselling thriller had a typo in the very first sentence.  (Gold star if anyone can name the book.  I won’t.)

But despite the fact that typos are understandable and common, I won’t stop trying to stomp out every last one.  Finding one typo now will save me the scores of emails I’ll surely receive down the road, informing me I’m an idiot. (See this post for my thoughts about these kinds of emails.)

And so here I sit in my office, reading each and every word aloud, with caution and scrutiny, because that — combined with the the layers of check within my writing process — is all I know how to do.  The fact that I’ve found two makes me terribly nervous.  If the layers of review missed two in the last version, how many did I miss this time?

I love to learn from others, so if you have any tried and true tips for finding those pesky typos, please share them in the comments.  Bonus points if you’re willing to share any typo gems.  Here’s a doozie. Earlier this  month a reporter for website tbd.com published the following correction based on a typo: “This blog post originally stated that one in three black men who have sex with me is HIV positive. In fact, the statistic applies to black men who have sex with men.”

(And if you find any typos in this post, which you surely will, feel free not to tell me.)

The Generosity of Friends

Earlier this month I attended a memorial celebrating the life of a wonderful friend, David Thompson, manager of Houston’s Murder by the Book and Publisher of Busted Flush Press.  Since his death, plenty of his friends (including me) have posted tearful tributes, so this won’t be another one of those.

But the last few weeks have had me thinking about generosity.  David was as generous a soul as this world has to offer.  As a bookseller, he welcomed his customers with an infectious smile as if greeting them in his living room.  He’d knock himself out to build to-be-read piles filled with books his customers would never find on their own.  By handselling books that would be sold no other way, he helped energize the careers of young and independently published writers otherwise forgotten in a world of Wal-Marts and CostCos.

As a Publisher, he not only published but tirelessly promoted the works of his authors.  The last time I saw David in person was at this year’s Edgar Awards, where David continued his tradition of making sure his nominated authors were there, supported by their publisher – something even major New York publishers don’t always do anymore.

David Thompson and wife, McKenna Jordan, at Edgars 2010

And as a friend?  As a friend, David was so generous in every way — with his his time, money, humor, and love — that I can’t even begin to offer specifics without risking another one of those tearful tributes.

But David wasn’t the only generous person in the world of crime fiction.  Instead, he seemed to exemplify a supportive spirit that permeates the writing community.

Take a look at any of your favorite crime writers’ websites, and you’ll most likely find evidence of generosity.  Blurbs.  Photographs from joint events.  Blog posts describing the emotional support and sounding boards that other writers provide for us when our thoughts go dark or blank.

Who are some of the people who have been generous to me in this writing world?  I’ve been blessed to have almost all of my favorite writers read and endorse my work: Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Sue Grafton, Linda Fairstein, Jan Burke, Tess Gerritsen, Tami Hoag, Sandra Brown, Faye Kellerman, Kathy Reichs, and Lisa Gardner.  I know these recommendation don’t come solely from generosity.  They have to be earned.  But these writers are all busy people who could sit back and worry only about themselves, but they’re the types who send the ladder back down for others to climb up, waiting at the top to offer a hand.

And it’s not just the blurbs.  Harlan Coben agreed to do a joint event with me when he was booked for The Poisoned Pen in Phoenix on the only day I could fit in a stop over spring break.

Michael Connelly gave me a shout-out in the Wall Street Journal when asked about his summer reading list.  Laura Lippman traveled up to New York City on her own dime to address the local chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and all I had to do was ask.

Lee Child’s support could fill its own blog post: giving me a ride from JFK to my parked car at LGA when he knew nothing about me other than the fact that I stupidly managed to fly home from Bouchercon into the wrong airport; helping me fill a Manhattan Barnes & Noble by agreeing to play a much hotter James Lipton by interviewing me for the launch of Angel’s Tip; and let’s not forget about that two-night-stand Jack Reacher had with my Samantha Kincaid at the beginning of Bad Luck and Trouble.

The gang at Murderati has been generous, welcoming me into their group blog even though they really didn’t need another blogger, especially one who sometimes goes missing from her computer for a few days at a time when the day-job transforms her into a 24/7 law professor.

Independent booksellers and librarians have been generous, helping introduce my work every day to new readers.

The readers who are on this website are ridiculously generous, talking up my books to friends and neighbors, sometimes driving hundreds of miles to greet me on tour, and serving as my virtual kitchen cabinet on Facebook.  (I think more of my readers voted this month on my new author photo than in the midterm primaries!)

And where would I be without my people who see me through the dark times?  I’ve never been a writing-group kind of writer.  No critique exchanges for me, please.  As far as actual content goes, I sit in the sandbox by myself until the castle is done.

But having friends who face the same unique struggles of this enterprise — self-doubt, fighting to find writing time and energy, the frustrating publishing industry quirks — saves me a hell of a lot of money on therapy.  Some of these people probably don’t even know how much they’ve shouldered me, either day to day or in a singular moment forever etched in memory: Lisa Unger, Maggie Griffin (Partners and Crime books), Teresa Schwegel, Jonathan Hayes, Dan Judson, Karin Slaughter, Reed Farrel Coleman, James Born, Michael Koryta, Ben Rehder, David Corbett, Val McDermid, Chris Grabenstein, Jane Cleland, Margery Flax (Mystery Writers of America), and, once again, Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, and Lee Child.

In the last few weeks, I’ve seen this little crime-fiction world turn on its generosity full force to support Murder by the Book, Busted Flush Press, and David’s widow, McKenna, but it’s a generosity that is always there, benefitting all of us, including me.  I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that many of us, like David, have found a second family in this world.  I wanted to spend today writing about the gratitude that I always feel but am usually too snarky to express.

To my generous friends and readers: Thank you!

Which of Your Books Should I Read First?

I am a better writer today than I was in 1999 when I started my first book, Judgment Calls.

I make that observation neither to apologize for my debut novel nor to boast about my current abilities.  In my humble and biased opinion, Judgment Calls is a good book.  I’d say PW and Booklist were probably about right in describing it “a solid first effort” and a “promising debut,” respectively.  (Proving that reviews can be scattered, The Rocky Mountain News may have been overly generous in comparing it to the “best of the genre,” while The UK’s Guardian was undoubtedly harsh in dubbing it their “Turkey of the Year.”)  And though I say I’m a better writer now than I was when I wrote that book, I know I can still develop further in my craft.

But the objective fact remains that I am better today than I was then.  So, therefore, are my books.  In fact, after just finishing my seventh novel, I can say (and I think my readers would agree) that each novel — without exception — has improved upon its predecessors.  I chalk the advancements up to hard work and confidence.  I try to write every single day, challenging myself to be better with each session.  And with each book, I have been more willing to trust my instincts, experiment with form, and follow my characters on their journey.

It turns out I am not the only writer who believes she has improved with age.

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending a Q&A with Lisa Unger at The Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan about her new book, Fragile.  I asked her whether she viewed her earlier books, published before she was married under her maiden name Lisa Miscione, as part of the same body of work, or whether she preferred the later Lisa Unger novels to be treated as works by a different author.

I found her response to be such a wonderful description of how many of us might feel about our development as artists.  She expressed a sincere pride in her early books and made clear that she was not one of those writers who seek to distance themselves from certain books through the use of another name.  But she also noted that she started her first book, Angel Fire, when she was nineteen years old.  She tries to become a better writer everyday (I obviously liked that part).  And, interestingly, she said that readers who picked up Angel Fire and Fragile would not recognize them as having been written by the same person because she was not the same as she was as a nineteen-year-old.

Harlan Coben recently found a different way of expressing a similar observation about his own work.  When his first novel, Play Dead, was re-released, he wrote the following note for the front of the book:

If you ever doubted Harlan’s ability to be humble and funny, you probably don’t anymore.

The writers I most admire aren’t the ones who shoot out of the gate with a shattering debut that subsequent books just never quite measure up to.  They’re the ones — like Lisa and Harlan and Laura Lippman and Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane and Lee Child and Karin Slaughter– who keep rolling out bigger and better books, delving deeping into their own souls to find fresh material year after year after year.

But there’s one question that I’m asked multiple times a week that must give pause to any writer who believes she’s improved with every book:  Which of your books should I read first?

In some ways, there’s really no better question to find waiting in your e-mail or on your Facebook page.  It means a new reader has found you.  Someone has heard about you from a friend or has finally seen your name enough times to be interested in your work.  Woot!

The downside to the question is you’ve got to answer it.  And what’s the right answer, particularly if you write a series?  No matter how hard you’ve tried (as I do) to make each book work as a standalone, most genre readers like to proceed in order.  On the other hand, if you’ve become a better writer with each book, you might know (as I do) that, as proud as you are of that first novel, it’s not as good as the last.  So, for me at least, there is no short answer.

What I want to tell people is to read in order, but to expect each book to get better and better, and to stick with me through the end.  But that sounds simultaneously boastful and apologetic.  It also assumes a new reader is going to devote herself to your entire oeuvre.  So instead I say each book can be read alone, referring readers to the chronological list on my website.

I have to admit that when asked that impossible question, I wonder whether it would be better to be one of those people who torpedoed out of the gate only to come to a slow limp in later books.  And when I say “better,” obviously I don’t mean better.  I guess I mean something like luckier.  No, I mean easier.

To explain what I mean, let me invoke some television shows as examples, since I love me some TV.  I absolutely loved Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty at the get-go.  Great characters.  Great hook.  Pulled me right in.  And then, you know, stuff happened.  Silly stuff.  Lame stuff.  But I was already invested, so I didn’t stop watching.  Other shows — shows like Friday Night Lights and, as I’ve been told at least, True Blood and Mad Men — had impressive enough starts but then blossomed into some of the best series on the tube.

Creatively, of course you’d rather be the creator of the higher quality material.  But commercially?  An early peak can be pretty sticky as far as an audience is concerned.  If my first book had been my best, it would be so easy to tell new readers to start there.  Start with that first, awesome book, fall in love with the characters, and then stick with me even as I phone it in.  See how easy that would be?

But I don’t want writing to be easy.  I don’t want to phone it in.  I’m incredibly proud of the fact — yes, fact — that I’ve written seven books in about a decade, each being better than the previous.  I hope to write twenty more in the next two decades and be able to say I’m still a better writer every day.

But, my God, that trajectory sure does make it difficult to answer that damn question:  Which of your books should I read first?

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How Worser Can You Write?

We’ve all heard about the magic of a book’s first sentence.  Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” or Orwell’s “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  Some sentences stay with you forever.  At the very least, we writers want our first sentences to set the tone for the novel and persuade the reader to give the book another few pages.

There’s no shortage of commentary about good first sentences: examples, why they’re important, how to make them good. I won’t try to add to those lessons.

Instead, I want to talk about the bad first sentences.  No, not sad, pathetic bad.  Funny bad.  Intentionally bad.  Hilariously bad.

"I have had it with these m-f'n' snakes on this m-f'n plane! Everybody strap in! I'm about to open some f'in' windows. "

Turns out there’s an award for worst imaginary first sentences.  Named for the author of Paul Clifford (as in “It was a dark and stormy night”), the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest promises that its www stands for “Wretched Writers Welcome.”  And wretched are the submissions indeed.

In the genre of detective fiction, the winner, from Steve Lynch (San Marcos, CA): “She walked into my office wearing a body that would make a man write bad checks, but in this paperless age you would first have to obtain her ABA Routing Transit Number and Account Number and then disable your own Overdraft Protection in order to do so.”

I also enjoyed this “dishonorable mention” for purple prose: “Elaine was a big woman, and in her tiny Smart car, stakeouts were always hard for her, especially in the August sun where the humidity made her massive thighs, under her lightweight cotton dress, stick together like two walruses in heat.” -Derek Renfro (Ringgold, GA).

Like these guys

And the overall winner, from writer Molly Ringle: “For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss — a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil.”

Pretty good (meaning bad) stuff, right?  But as atrocious as those first sentences are, I suspect we can reach even higher (lower?) levels of literary abomination.

I’ll get this party started.

The first sentence of my next novel (NOT!):  “Harlow felt oddly detached from the sight of her own fat, rumbling inside the lipo hose like tapioca and cherry slurpee, as she wondered if her newly flat abdomen might bring Trevor back home.”

Can’t wait to see what y’all come up with.  Go for it!

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The Day I Accidentally Walked 20 Miles

This has been a joyous week for me, thanks to a visit from one of my BFF’s who recently left New York (boo!) for an academic position elsewhere.  It has also been an active week.  See, here’s the thing about people who know and love New York, but who are limited to occasional visits: They have a tendency to pack a month’s worth of their favorite routines into a single day.  And, thanks to my friend’s kamakaze fly-by, I had the pleasure of living one of those days.

We didn’t set out to walk twenty miles.  The morning began simply enough with a morning stroll with my french bullog, the Duffer.

We walked through the west village to the river up through the Meatpacking District, then back over through Chelsea to my place near Union Square.  We picked up Starbucks and Bagel Bobs along the way.  Stopped in Washington Square Park to snack.

But then we dropped off the Duffer and realized it was still only ten in the morning on what we’d sworn would be a true no-work day.  Soon enough, my friend’s friend happened to call.  He needed someone to help carry a new art acquisition from a Chelsea Gallery to his loft in the fashion district.  Off we went, back to Chelsea.

By the time we finished moving the canvas, it was time for lunch.  Back to the Meatpacking District.  Bloody mary and a dozen oysters outside = yummy.  Pitstop to the Apple Store for my handy, dandy, and completely unnecessary iPad.  Woot!

Next on the route was SoHo, requiring a stroll down from the Meatpacking District through the west village.  In SoHo, we hit six different furniture stores, researching the perfect pull-out sofa.  Turns out, there’s no such thing.

Suddenly it was five-thirty.  Back to the apartment for a quick shower before catching our Broadway play, Next Fall (marvelous, by the way).  Small post-theater snack and glass of wine at the lovely Aureole.  Subway back to Union Square.  Still hungry.  One a.m. stop at the late-night taco truck for corn tortillas and Horchata.  By the time I checked my Bodybugg, we had logged just over twenty miles!

I went to bed exhausted.  And really, really full.  And incredibly inspired.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my need to walk away from the keyboard and free my brain when I really need big-picture creative inspiration.  Based on my near-marathon city walk, I now believe those walks away from the desk should always be through the city I now love and write about.

Among the various quotidian details, all inspired by my long walk, that you’ll likely find scattered through my next novel:

The New York foodie’s never-ending search for the best food trucks:

The chess-game culture of Washington Square Park:

The way a texting New York pedestrian will slam into another human being and then scream at that person for being in the way:

The Highline, an elevated park with a uniquely Manhattan blend of industrial chic and actual nature:

The Standard Hotel, whose floor-to-ceiling windows above the Highline have proven irrestible to exhibitionists:

And, not sure this will make the book, but I did learn that there is a chair called the “Do Hit Chair.” Price: $8,000, or $15,000 if beaten by the actual artist.  I’m not making that up.

Best of all, I somehow came home with a major plot point magically worked through.  A day of friendship, a plot development, new energy about the urban landscape of my books, and three thousand calories burned to-boot.  I’d say my hooky day turned out to be productive after all.

A Chat with Bestselling Author Lisa Unger

If you don’t know about Lisa Unger, you should.  A talented thriller writer, Lisa is also one of the most generous people.  While I’m juggling tour, she’s helping me out on my Murderati blogging duties with a thoughtful and thorough Q&A today.  We cover her book, DIE FOR YOU (out this weekend in paperback), the effect of place on writing, and her adventures touring with her whole family.  Check out the full interview on Murderati, where I’m also raffling off a free copy of the excellent DIE FOR YOU.

Author Bios: What’s Missing from the Back Inside Flap?

I promise this next sentence is an honest intro to today’s post, not just BSP: This weekend I officially joined the board of directors of Mystery Writers of America and became President of the New York chapter. (Pause for applause.)

In preparation for the annual MWA board funfest (aka orientation day), the unparalleled Margery Flax requested a biography to distribute to fellow board members. I sent her the usual jacket copy:

A formal deputy district attorney in Portland, Oregon, Alafair Burke now teaches criminal law at Hofstra Law School and lives in New York City. A graduate of Stanford Law School, she is the author of the Samantha Kincaid series, which includes the novels Judgment Calls, Missing Justice, and Close Case. Most recently, she published Angel’s Tip, her second thriller featuring Ellie Hatcher.

Her response was polite, quick, and resoundingly clear, something like, “Are you sure that’s all you want to include? This is usually a longer fun one, only for internal board distribution.”

In other words, Yawn, Snore, Zzzz….

I can take a hint, so I gave it another try. Borrowing in part from my website, I allowed myself thirty minutes to hammer out something that would give those who hadn’t met me yet some sense of who I am and where I’ve been. Margery’s assurance that this was purely internal was freeing.

After I submitted my specially-designated “MWA board bio,” I couldn’t stop thinking about the sterileness of those book jacket author bios, scrubbed clean of all personality. As writers, we’re committed to exploring the human stories that lurk beneath the superficial, but when asked to describe ourselves: Yawn, snore, zzzz…..

I’ve spoken a few times during author appearances about a hypothetical world in which books (like the law school exams I grade as a professor) would be published anonymously, their authors known only by a randomly assigned number that readers could use to “identify” the authors they consistently enjoyed. After all, what separates reading from television and film is the active role of our mind’s eye. To read books without knowing an author’s age, gender, race, religion, region, education, attractiveness, or work experience might truly unleash our imaginations.

Despite my musings about a utopia of anonymous publishing, I’ve come to realize why publishers emphasize (and readers desire) personal information about authors. The most delightful unexpected benefit of writing has been meeting some of my favorite authors. I already read these folks religiously before I met them, but I’ll admit that I read them differently — and more richly — now. I recognize the wry winks in Laura Lippman’s most leisurely paragraphs. I hear Michael Connelly’s quiet voice in Bosch. I think I really know what Lisa Unger means when she writes on Ridley Jones’s behalf that she’s a “dork.” And those short, little, maddeningly frustrating sentences from Lee Child are now sexy as hell.

But I didn’t get any of that from the book jackets.

As the traditional print media and personal appearance opportunities for authors to introduce themselves to readers continue to dry up, many of us have taken to the Web. We do that not only to get our names out there, but also because we recognize that readers are more likely to experience our written work as intended if they come to it with a sense of who we are. (For example, an online reviewer once dissed a line of Ellie Hatcher’s, something like “kicking it old school.” The fact that it’s corny to talk that way is of course precisely why she’d say such a thing. And if the reader “got” Ellie or anything about my work, he’d know that’s — ahem — just how we roll.)

So as we’re knocking ourselves out to convey our souls to readers, maybe we should take another look at book jacket bios. The publishers are going to type something beneath that favorite photo: It may as well be interesting. And so, even though Margery promised to keep this unsanitized bio a secret, I’ve decided to blast it out to the world:

Alafair Burke is the author of six novels in two series, one featuring NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher, the other with Portland prosecutor Samantha Kincaid. Although reviewers have described both characters as “feisty,” Alafair might accidentally spill a drink on anyone who invokes that word to describe her or anyone she cares about.

Alafair grew up in Wichita, Kansas, whose greatest contribution to her childhood was a serial killer called BTK. Nothing warps a young mind quite like daily reports involving the word, bind, torture, and kill.

From Kansas, Alafair dreamed of fleeing west. Fearing their daughter might fall prey to a 1980’s version of the Manson Family (um, Nelson?), her parents prohibited her from attending school in California. Ironically, she ended up at Reed College, where the bookstore sold shirts that read “Atheism, Communism, Free Love,” and Alafair found herself (lovingly) nicknamed Nancy Reagan and The Cheerleader.

From Reed, Alafair went to the decidedly less hippy-ish Stanford Law School. Although she went with dreams of becoming an entertainment lawyer so she could make deals at the Palm and score seats at the Oscars, she eventually realized she had watched “The Player” one too many times, and instead decided to pursue criminal law because she was obsessed with the Unabomber.

Most of Alafair’s legal practice was as a prosecutor in Portland, Oregon, where she infamously managed to tally up a net loss on prison time imposed during her prosecutorial career. (Help spring two exonerated people from prison to put a guy called the Happy Face Killer behind bars, and it really ruins your numbers.) As hard as it is for her to believe, she is now a professor at Hofstra Law School.

When Alafair is not teaching classes or writing, she enjoys rotting her brain. She runs to an iPod playlist with three continuous hours of spaz music (think “It Takes Two” by DJ Rob Bass, “Smooth Criminal” by Alien Art Farm, and “Planet Claire” by the B-52’s). She insists that Duran Duran, the Psychedelic Furs, and the Cure hold up just as well as the so-called classics. She watches way too much television, usually on cable. She wants Tina Fey to be her BFF. She likes to drink wine and cook.

She discloses TMI on the Interwebs, blogging regularly at Murderati and logging teenage-territory hours on Facebook. She will golf at the drop of a hat even though she’s bad at it.

Most importantly, Alafair loves her husband, Sean, and their French bulldog, The Duffer. She also loves her parents, but if you ask her about them, she’ll ask you about yours.


What do you think? Should all authors let loose on their jacket flaps? Would it affect that crucial decision of whether to purchase? Would it change how we read? If you’re a writer, what should your author bio REALLY say? And if you’re a reader, what would you like to know about some of your favorite writers?

Creating a Culture of Innocence: Lessons from Hofstra and Duke

Today I blog at Huffington Post about the false rape allegations against five men on the Hofstra campus and contrast the case to the charges against Duke lacrosse players in 2006. An excerpt:

“Both accusations turned out to be false. Both cases were eventually dismissed. The Hofstra defendants spent three nights in jail before prosecutors dismissed charges. The Duke defendants spent nearly a year under indictment and reportedly millions of dollars in legal fees before charges were dismissed.

“Why the difference? The apparent credibility of the accusers? The relative strength of the exculpatory evidence? I doubt it. The difference between three days and twelve months lived under the long shadow of accusation was simply luck of the draw. The Hofstra defendants drew one set of prosecutors, and the Duke defendants got Mike Nifong.”

I should disclose that I am on the faculty of Hofstra Law School, but have no personal knowledge of any of the people involved. Instead, I write about the case from the perspective of a former prosecutor and argue that prosecutors should create a culture of innocence. Read the complete piece here. I’m still earning Huffington Post’s love, so I hope you’ll take the time to click on the story, become a fan of my blogs for them, or post a comment in response.

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