Monthly Archives: June 2011


Well, that was fun. Most of you reading this know, or at least suspect, that there was quite the uptick in visitors over here this past week. Due to someone else’s blog post Saying Nice Things and linking to my review of Bill Cameron’s terrific new book COUNTY LINE.

Are they gone yet? Good. Because that kind of thing, while very nice and flattering and ego-boosting, can also be fucking terrifying. Seriously, it will mess with your head if you let it. And I’m telling you, as a writer: you can’t let it.

I don’t usually give advice to other writers, so I’m making an exception here. I’m going to say this once and then we will never speak of it again. Because we have better things to do.

This post is for all the relatively inexperienced writers out there, in the event they ever wander back this way. The ones who came over here last week hoping to identify some elusive quality that attracts or is supposedly worthy of attention. If you’re a successful published author, this is not for you. Go write another book or something.

Writers are a strange bunch. We spend so much of our time in these days of internet access obsessed with visibility and popularity. Twitter followers. Facebook friends. Blog hits. We jump up and down, flailing our virtual writing-cramped hands saying, “Me, me, look at meeeee.” And then people unexpectedly focus their attention on us and we’re all, “Whoa. No, don’t look. Wait, don’t leave. Hell, I didn’t wash my hair today. Come back! Just, OMG, don’t look. I mean, yes, look here!”

We’re psychotic. And horribly vulnerable. But mostly psychotic. Or maybe that’s just me.

This is not the first time that some random “something” out there on the internet has led a bunch of people to my blog. Far from it. It’s not even the first time an agent has linked to my blog. Although this was the first time so many people visited in such a short period of time. Not big numbers by most standards, not even close. Still, pretty big for me.

But for every person who chose to comment on that post (nine at last count), there were at least 100 who did not. That’s not 100 total, but more than 100 for each person who commented. And they’re still coming. Think about that.

Then think about the fact that some publishing houses and literary agencies have a web host name that is their company name rather than, for instance, Verizon or Road Runner. So while you might not know who your visitors are, you look at your blog stats and you know where some of them work. Or that they’re in New York. Or Canada. Or the UK or India or Australia. Or that they came over to read your book review and then spent two entire days clicking on dozens of past blog posts. Posts you don’t even remember writing at this point.

You want that kind of attention? Are you sure? Because this kind of thing has the potential to make you crazy. Crazier.

The double-edged sword of having access to blog statistics, and everyone with an ounce of sense does these days, is that it’s a really great feeling to know so many people made their way over to your dusty corner of the internet and visited your obscure little blog. The downside, and you might not realize this until it happens to you, is that you have NO IDEA what any of them thought. But I can guarantee you that a good number of them rolled their eyes and left wondering what the big deal was. “Voice? Nope, I just don’t see it.” And many who didn’t comment were simply following their mother’s sage advice: “If you don’t have anything nice to say…”

Now before people start jumping all over me, I’m not putting myself down. My ego is just fine. I’m being realistic. For every person who loves your “voice” or your writing, there will be several more who are unimpressed or who actively hate it. You don’t believe me? Go pick out ten books at random in a bookstore and read the first three pages and tell me how many you love enough to want to buy them. One? Two? None? And yet several people loved those books enough to publish them. Opinion about writing is subjective. Granted, some opinion is more experienced or respected than others, but it’s still subjective.

In light of that, the other thing I want to tell all you new writers out there is that “getting attention” is not, should not be, your GOAL. Attention by itself is meaningless. Worthless. Well, unless someone is paying you per blog hit. If you’ve found someone willing to do that, please contact me immediately. After which you will meet with an unfortunate accident and I will generously offer to take your place. You’re welcome.

This should be a separate post, but let’s just get this over with. I know this contradicts every piece of advice out there that tells unpublished writers how important it is to be seen, to gather followers. I disagree. And I’m serious about this. Your goal should be to produce great writing. Period.

The thing about getting attention for its own sake is that, once you get it, people will think it’s undeserved. Unwarranted. Unfuckingbelievable. You have a popular blog? So what. How many books have you published? How many have you sold? How many readers are willing to stand in line at midnight before the release date of your next book? How many people are shoving your book into the hands of strangers, telling them they just have to read it?

I’ve been over here quietly writing blog posts for almost five years. I don’t promote this blog other than a tweet, maybe two, when I write a new one. Sometimes I post a link on Facebook, if I remember. I suck at Facebook. I haven’t even put up a sidebar link over here to my page. But when I comment on other blogs, in that little box that says “website (optional)” I dutifully enter my URL. If people want to find me, they will. Several do.

This blog is a place to say things I want to say when I have no other place to say them. The place where I practice, where I stretch and warm up and get comfortable with my voice. Where I make mistakes. Get feedback. Where my writing has space and time to get stronger and more confident. A place to stay in touch with people who like me and want to read my books someday. I do it because I enjoy it.

But my ultimate focus is not on “promoting” myself. It’s on writing a great book. Great writing promotes itself, compels other people to talk about it, share it and come back for more. Without that, all the attention in the world doesn’t do you a damn bit of good.

For me, the internet is about making friends and having fun. Pushing back the encroaching dark edges of writerly solitude. I wander around hoping to do that and sometimes I get lucky and meet interesting people who like me back. Last spring, I made a new friend. He wrote a book. I read it and loved it. I could not wait to tell my other friends, the handful of people who read this blog regularly, how great it is.

In my opinion, that’s the only kind of “self-promotion” worth doing, the kind done in support of others. The only kind that has a chance of standing up to the scrutiny of strangers.

If you’re a writer and you’re doing anything other than that, you’re doing it wrong.


Filed under deep thoughts, writing

COUNTY LINE by Bill Cameron: a book review

Bill Cameron’s new release COUNTY LINE occupied a special place in my heart long before the final draft was finished. Because I got to name a character in it [see links below]. I know how much time and attention writers give to naming characters, so I expected the character with the name I chose — Nash — would be killed off at the earliest opportunity. Imagine my surprise and delight when Chief Nash not only survived but also turned out to be someone who was mentioned more than casually. He even has lines of dialog. (BTW, I really really REALLY like this character.)

Oh, but wait, before I go any further, thanks to the FTC and my conscience, probably you should know the following, if you don’t already:

DISCLAIMER #1:  I am not a book reviewer. You can tell because I do it all wrong and go on at length here before I even get around to talking about the book.

DISCLAIMER #2:  Bill Cameron is a Very Nice Guy and I kinda like him, even though I’ve never met him, and not just because he’s one of three people who will occasionally talk to me on twitter (okay, there are maybe four). I mean, really, he could be from Minnesota. He’s that nice. Even his agent is nice. (What? She totally let me win that bid.)

DISCLAIMER #3:  I did not pay for my copy of COUNTY LINE so, technically, it was free. Then again, I only got a free copy because I was the highest bidder (aka, Most Tenacious Participant) in one segment of an online auction held last spring to benefit flood victims in Nashville. As a result, I also received “free” copies of Cameron’s other books: LOST DOG, CHASING SMOKE and DAY ONE as well as the anthology KILLER YEAR in which he has a short story. Since it’s public knowledge that my bid was $333.00, one might alternately conclude that I paid $66.60 for each of those five books. I know, that’s sort of ridiculous, budget-wise, except it was for a good cause. And a rare opportunity to have fun and say completely outrageous things in public.

In any event, one might question my judgment here, either as a reviewer or a purchaser of books. Probably both. And you might be right, but the fact is that I read a crap ton of books and rarely review one and only do so when I think it is in some way exceptional.

So… in my humble opinion, you all should buy COUNTY LINE simply for the exceptional dedication. And because I’m also mentioned in the acknowledgments.

Okay fine, I’ll be serious.

In spite of receiving those four books from Bill Cameron roughly a year ago, I haven’t read any of them. Partly that’s because I’ve become thoroughly addicted to ebooks and the books I received were print versions and they were so… damn… heavy. I mean, they each weigh, like, fifty pounds. Maybe more. Plus there’s all that strenuous manual labour of turning pages…

The real reason? I started reading DAY ONE and got about a half chapter into it and, even though it was interesting and well written, I just knew it was not going to end with rainbows and unicorns. My head was in a very dark place at that time and I pretty much needed to read something more along the lines of lighthearted romance. So I set it aside. And never got back to it. My bad.

Then, a couple weeks ago, along comes COUNTY LINE. Finally! Cameron sent me the ebook version (and incredibly, generously, also put a signed HC copy to me in the mail!) (did I mention he’s nice?), so no excuses about weak arm muscles and lack of stamina. I’ve been SO looking forward to this book but was genuinely afraid to read it. Because, you know, I really kinda like Bill Cameron. What if I hated his book? Crime fiction is not exactly my favourite genre, though I can overlook that. But what if he wasn’t as good a writer as I suspected he was? What if I had nothing positive to say about this book? What if there were plot holes and inconsistencies and… and… and, I don’t know, typos! Or BEARS!!

Have I ever mentioned my tendency to worry needlessly? I need to stop doing that.

Here’s the actual review. Once Amazon fixes the unholy mess they made by listing information about a completely different book, I’ll post it over there too:

COUNTY LINE is a masterpiece of storytelling. Some critics have described it as “crime noir” — I’m not entirely certain what that means, but it seems to fit: the book has an undeniably dark tone and crimes are committed. It’s a genre in which I’m not well read. But I know good writing when I see it, regardless of genre, and in reading this book it became patently obvious very early on that Cameron is a fiercely talented writer.

The protagonist, Skin Kadash, a homicide cop for 25 years, is now retired and living in Portland, OR. Ruby Jane, the woman he cares about — even he seems reluctant to define her as something more serious, given that he’s not quite sure his feelings are reciprocated — has gone missing. And there’s a dead guy in her bathtub. So Kadash sets out on a mission to find her. This book is about his relentless journey halfway across the country and back, and deep into Ruby Jane’s painful past, to find a woman who seems determined not to let anyone discover where, or who, she really is.

Kadash is smart and also a bit of a smart-ass. He’s wryly self-deprecating while at the same time projecting a tough quiet confidence in his knowledge and experience as a cop. He’s not afraid of physical pain, in fact seems to expect it, but is vulnerable to emotional anguish — his own, but especially that of others. It’s a delicate balance and Cameron draws that line with finesse.

Ruby Jane is a pure mess. We see her primarily though the hellish yet oddly matter-of-fact first hand account of events from her distant past. She’s a character featured in earlier books, but I haven’t read those so my first impressions are not of her as a grown woman but as a teen, a girl with experiences and responsibilities beyond her years. Her story is heartbreaking without being maudlin. Her strength and resilience stand as defiant affirmation without the lecture. Again, an incredibly difficult but brilliant characterization.

In fact, the depictions of Ruby Jane’s horribly dysfunctional home life and of teenage girls with their capacity for cliquish cruelty are handled so well, with such simple unflinching authenticity, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend COUNTY LINE as a YA selection.

Cameron employs a complicated and potentially disjointed method of telling this story, switching between present and past events and offering narrative from diverse alternate points of view, but he pulls it all together seamlessly. There’s just enough wry humour to keep it from being too dark, just enough sensitivity to serve as a salve to the brutality, and definitely enough “what the hell is going on?” to make it gripping and unpredictable all the way to the end.

I highly recommend COUNTY LINE to anyone who loves a darkly compelling story with flawed yet fascinating characters and appreciates a writer who demonstrates a commanding facility with language. Not to mention a deft hand with a dedication.

I’m giving it 5/5 stars.

Frankly, I’m sort of intimidated now, in awe of Cameron’s talent as a writer, and will probably never talk to him on twitter, ever again. [Did I just hear a distant sigh of relief?]

Not that I’ll have time to spend on twitter any time soon. I’m going to have to start lifting weights so I can read that hefty backlist of his sitting over there on my bookshelf, sulking in all its neglected magnificence.

Or maybe I’ll just buy the ebook versions…


Filed under book reviews

Flash Fiction: A Mother’s Love

Another week, another writing challenge from Herr Wendig. [Yeah, I know, I just posted one of these. But that was from the week before, plus it wasn’t fiction.] I’ve been avoiding the challenges over there that provoked something creepy or scary. I don’t enjoy scary stories. They give me nightmares that are far worse than whatever was written. I think that’s what the good ones do: leave something to the imagination. But I’ve sort of been wondering whether I could pull it off. Then Wendig offered up this picture as the prompt. He didn’t say it had to be a creepy story. But how could it be anything else? So I decided to give it a try. Let me know whether you think it works.

Flash Fiction: A Mother’s Love

The cop wasn’t interrogating me, exactly. I wasn’t under arrest. Hell, I’d called them. He just wanted me to tell him everything I remembered about those doll heads.

“I own a small shop down by the river, in the heart of old town. I inherited it from my great grandmother. I sell… oddities. Mostly old hand-crafted items, from another era.”

The cop nodded. “Bessie’s Trunk.”

“I get locals in search of things unique or spooky, even the occult. But mostly tourists looking for a souvenir, something unusual they can’t get at the airport gift shop.”

I paused, gathering my thoughts.

“A man came into the shop last week. He was old, maybe mid-70s. He looked sad. No, more than sad. Beaten down. Haunted.”

I took a sip from the bottle of water they’d given me.

“David Sommers,” the cop said.

“Didn’t give his name. He was carrying an old drawstring cloth sack, the kind children used to keep wooden blocks in. He said his wife had died and he was seeing to her last wishes. She made him promise he’d bring the bag to Old Bess — that’s what people called Gran — that she’d know what to do with it.

“I told him Bessie had been gone for two years and I owned the place now. He stared at me for a long moment. Then he said, ‘So it falls to you. You’ll do.'”

“Those were his words?”

“It was an odd thing to say. He opened the bag and tilted it toward me and inside– ” I drew a shaky breath. “Inside were doll heads. Old white china doll heads. Each with delicately formed mouth and nose and ears. And empty dark spaces for eyes.”

I shuddered as a chill raced up my spine and into my scalp. My throat was dry and I desperately wanted another sip of water but my hands fumbled with the cap. I wrapped them around the bottle to still the trembling.

“He said, ‘These belonged to our daughter. She was a good girl, our Lucy. Didn’t take much to people. But she was one to collect things. After she lost the baby.’ He glanced around as if seeing the shop for the first time and said, ‘She’d’ve liked this place.’ When he looked back at me, he eyes seemed to hold the pain of a thousand losses.”

I hesitated, remembering that unguarded moment of grief.

The cop was relentless. “And then?”

“He told me Lucy called them her babies. And how she made her mother promise to never throw them away. To always keep them together, like a family. I wanted to ask what happened to Lucy, but decided I didn’t want to know.”

I finally got the damn top screwed off the bottle but then twisted it right back on again. Tight.

“Then he pulled the drawstring closed and tied it with a fancy knot that made me think he’d been in the Navy, gave me a hard look and said, ‘I know you won’t break that promise either.’ Then he turned and walked out, leaving the bag on my counter.”

“The Navy?”

“My dad used to make knots like that.”

The cop grunted. “You kept them.”

“Some of my regulars are crafters, always looking for raw materials. As creepy as they were with their sealed lips and dead eyes — I figured they’d sell. I cleared a space on an old roll-top desk and arranged them in a pile on top of the cloth bag. I priced them as a group.”

“How many?”


“The heads. How many were there?”

Too many. “Thirteen.”

The cop scribbled a note before he said, “Someone bought them.”

This was the hard part. The part I didn’t want to think about.

“A woman came in two days ago. I watched her because she was carrying several bags. She didn’t respond to my casual greeting, just started wandering through the shop, her eyes not really focused on any one thing. Until she got near the old roll-top.”

This time I did manage a gulp of water before I resumed twisting the cap.

“She gave a startled cry, like she was in pain, and dropped all her bags. She rushed over and stretched trembling hands out toward the doll heads and said, ‘My babies! Oh, my babies.’ And she began to weep.”

I wasn’t sure I could finish this. The cop shifted uncomfortably. “Please. It’s important.”

“By the time I got to her, the woman was holding the cloth bag and gently placing the heads into it, softly murmuring to them. I asked whether she was all right. She turned with a look of such rage on her face that I took a step back. She screamed, ‘These are MY BABIES!’ Then she picked up one of the other bags and threw it at me and said, ‘Take these. They’re all WRONG.’ Then grabbed her other bags and ran out of the shop.”

“What was in the bag?”

“Doll heads. Modern plastic ones. With– ” My hands clenched, crumpled the bottle. “With black marker scribbled on the faces.”

“You never saw her again?”

“Not until this morning. The picture in the paper.”


“She killed babies? And they released her?”

He answered reluctantly. “The father was told Lucy died years ago. When the mother died, the support payments stopped. She used assumed names. Oakhill had no other contacts. Their police inquiry was… delayed. They released her.” He paused. “You sure there were 13?”


His phone rang. He answered, listened intently. “Good work.”

He hung up and said, “We believe Lucy killed 15 infants before the mother institutionalized her. She came back, looking for the other two heads.”

“Came back? To my shop?”

“Our guys just picked her up.”

“Oh, thank– ”

He interrupted. “Odd thing, though.”

I waited, tense with dread.

“Those other heads? They’re still missing.”

And inside my head, something screamed.


Filed under just for fun

Flash non-fiction: An Unexpected Guest

Chuck Wendig issued another Flash Fiction challenge last Friday: to write about An Unexpected Guest. I wasn’t planning to participate this time because I’ve been busy writing and also doing a non-fic beta read for a friend. But I kept thinking about a post I wrote several years ago — about a time when I had an unexpected guest. And I wanted to re-post it. But it felt like cheating because it’s not fiction, plus it’s 50 words over the 1000-word limit. But it kept nagging at the back of my mind. Then I figured, what the hell, I’m not one to follow rules anyway.

So here it is, again, with its original title. Let me know in the comments about a time when you had unexpected company. Did it end well? Did they ever come back? Did you end up utilizing shovels and a black tarp by moonlight in the back yard?

Tis the Season . . . for Company

I’m probably not the only one who has ever rolled her eyes and groaned at the thought of having out-of-town company, but it’s not always a bad thing. For instance, I’m convinced the only time my house is really clean is just before overnight guests arrive. But why do they always want to talk to you? Isn’t it enough that you’ve supplied clean towels and fresh fruit? Apparently not. They invariably turn on the TV at top volume and settle in for a long chat. Why don’t they ever want to just sit quietly and read for a while?

Of course, there are the horror stories. My mother-in-law was a lovely person, but nothing could summon a sense of dread quite like hearing her say, “Don’t worry about me while you’re at work, I’ll find something to do.” Like the time she did laundry and down-sized three pair of pants and a favorite sweater. Or when she threw away my potato peeler and bought a new one that “worked.” Ahem. I’m left-handed, that peeler worked great. And the time she informed me — after I shopped for all her favorite meat-and-potato meals and had a roast in the oven — that she and my father-in-law had switched to a low-fat, low-cholesterol, no carb diet.

There are those too infrequent visits from my mom, which summon not dread but gratitude — with just a smidgen of guilt. Like the time I came home from work and she said, “I noticed you had a few apples on the bottom shelf of the fridge so I made a batch of apple-cinnamon muffins.” Delicious. Thanks, mom. Or, “Well, I was a little bored, here alone all day, so I washed all the inside window panes.” Above and beyond, mom. Thank you. Or, “Your daughter and I had the best time after school today with her homework project, constructing a scale model of the Coliseum out of toothpicks.” There truly aren’t enough words. Thank you for saving me from that agony.

There’s the sister who visited recently and we had a great time and she managed to leave while we both still wanted her to stay. Incredible timing. It doesn’t always work that way with sisters.

There are the old college friends in town for one night, with whom you talk awkwardly about old times, painfully conscious of how much you all have changed and how seldom you ever think about old times.

There’s the company who makes you want to count the dishes after they leave — not because you think they stole anything, but because you need to know how many dirty plates and cups they left sitting in various odd locations throughout the house.

And then there is the company that comes out of nowhere, with no warning. Last week I got a call from my daughter the day I was to pick her up from college for Thanksgiving break.

“Mom, can you give Susie [not her name] a ride home, too?”

“Sure, no problem.” It was 38 degrees and raining. I was sure her mom would appreciate not having to go out in that.

“And can she maybe spend the night?”

“Yeah, that’s fine.” After all, Susie’s mom lives 15 minutes away from my house and the less time spent driving that cold rainy night, the better.

“And, um, maybe would it be ok if she spent the weekend, too?”


“It’s a long story. I’ll tell you later, ok? But can she? Spend the weekend? If she needs to?”

“Well, of course, but–” What?

Incredibly, Susie’s mom had told her it would be best if she found another place to stay Thanksgiving weekend. Let me clarify something here. Susie and my daughter have been friends for more than six years. Susie is smart, cheerful, funny and loving. She has a smile that could light up three square city blocks. I’ve helped her get ready for prom, told her when she went overboard with makeup and even curled her hair, for godsakes. This is not a bad kid. I can not imagine her doing anything that would make her mother ban her from home.

So I was stunned.

Wednesday night I found myself sitting on the couch watching football with Susie while my daughter escaped to her room for a private phone conversation with her sort-of boyfriend. And Susie turned to me and said, “I just don’t know what to do about my mom.” And I heard her side of the story.

I’ll be the first to tell you, my kids are far from perfect. They have on occasion caused me to feel extremes of anger, sadness, hurt and disappointment. But I know, way down deep in that unconditional place where mothers know these things, that there is nothing they could do or say that would ever make me tell them they could not come home. So it doesn’t even matter to me what Susie might have done, there is just no excuse for this banishment. Do I sound judgmental and full of condemnation? Imagine that.

Seeing the hurt and confusion on that sweet face, hearing the vulnerability in her voice just broke my heart. And hearing her thank me repeatedly while in the same breath she apologizes for the “inconvenience” of me having to take her in this weekend makes me see red.

Unfortunately, I know her mom well enough to make conversation, but not well enough to call and ask what the hell she thinks she’s doing. Plus I’ve learned that the best intentions are usually the worst reason for doing anything.

When there is nothing you can do, you need to do something else. So today the kids will rake some leaves. If that isn’t penance enough for imagined sins, on Sunday they will help me bake Christmas cookies. I’ll probably force them to eat a few, maybe even insist they take some back to school. That should erase any lingering guilt about accepting impromptu hospitality.

Company. The good, the bad and the can’t-wait-til-they-leave. I thought I’d seen it all. Until this weekend brought a new kind, one not previously encountered. The kind you want to hold close and comfort and yet, at the same time, the kind you hope you never need to entertain, ever again.


Filed under parenting