Saturday, July 26, 2014

San Francisco: An Animated Corpse

The New York Times is talking about how hipsters are taking over San Francisco, and how the art scene here is dead. I just smile and nod, since people have been saying a version of this for decades.

San Francisco was born in revolution and chaos: taken from the Ohlone by the Spanish, liberated into Mexico, planned and built by a Spanish-English coalition, ceded by Mexico to the United States. It’s been shaken by earthquakes, and economic and political upheaval, every twenty or so years.

I don’t think a silver bullet and wooden stake could kill this town of “the cops, the crooks, and the big rich.” 

Paddling on Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park
Yes, it’s expensive to live here. It felt expensive when I first moved here in 1979, and lived in a roach-infested one bedroom flat on Post between Polk and Larkin for $400 a month. We lasted just a few months before we fled for a cheaper city.

And yes, an awful lot of tech employees have moved into the Mission and there’s been a kerfuffle of protest. Meanwhile, 4,000 additional people moved into my neighborhood just last year. We didn’t make the news, because OMI isn’t hip, hell, it’s just newly reclaimed from serious drug violence. Its petite charms are yet to be discovered by the press and the hipsters.

The view from my office in OMI
Quiet, child-rearing techsters are moving into the OMI as those originally forced to move here in the 1960s are selling off their inherited properties before the next housing bust. It’s a quiet, orderly changing of the guard, and I hope it happens just as slowly as it possibly can. My neighbors on either side are sweet, wise women who help keep their kids’ lives together in the face of still-rampant racism and underemployment.  Nobody hates us over here in OMI, not yet anyway. It’s not a badge of honor to be one step above drug-trade violence, but I’ll take what I can get.

You can see where the hipster stereotype is coming from. At a recent visit to a Mission coffee shop, I saw a lot of people in porkpie hats, completely absorbed in their digital devices, ignoring the world around them. So I think the hipsters, who are spending upwards of 70% of their income on rent, have a little more work to do if they want to belong instead of be reviled. I know it’s possible, because I see it in my OMI neighborhood every day.

San Francisco, the first beautiful thing I found after my mother’s death, has artists and writers who live and work here without angels, municipal, corporate, or private--it's not any more artistically dead here than when the Summer of Love morphed into the Winter of Dirty Sidewalks.  Whether it's Noir City, LitQuake, Outside Lands, or smaller salons and gatherings, we’re here, and we’re creating every day—directly, or indirectly by supporting city-wise initiatives like San Francisco Beautiful or 826 Valencia. Perhaps we could be less iconoclastic, and instead grow better skills of cooperation with each other but we’re not dead. Far from it, my friends. And, like the rollickingly open port city we've always been, we welcome you, whether or not you live within our 47 square miles.

Here’s a list of just some of the  local writers’ activities you might can check out:

What’s your favorite SF arts organization?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bookstore Fun

Last year, we wrapped up the Pens Fatales blog after we felt it had run its course and we each needed to focus on our quickly-expanding writing careers. But once we did so, we missed it! So earlier this year, we bought it back. But as you may have noticed, we haven't been as active as we were in our first incarnation. We asked ourselves what was different. The answer wasn't what we expected:

It's been interesting to realize that in this world where social media is ubiquitous, we connect more *in person* than online. You'll still find us online individually (e.g. Juliet loves Facebook, Gigi loves Twitter, Rachael loves her blog, Mysti is part of another group blog), but when we get together as a group, more often than not it's at a cafe or a bookstore instead of here on the blog. Case in point: this past month, several of us did bookstore events together.

Here are a few photos from our events at Borderlands Books in San Francisco and Village House of Books in Los Gatos.

Borderlands Books manager Jude Feldman with Juliet Blackwell.

Juliet Blackwell signing books at Borderlands in San Francisco.

Gigi Pandian, Juliet Blackwell, and Kate Carlisle at Borderlands Books.

Sophie Littlefield, Rachael Herron, and Gigi Pandian
at Village House of Books in Los Gatos. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Bunny at the End

The much lauded, and always delightful Gigi Pandian invited me to a blog hop. Thank you, Gigi, for thinking of me!

A blog hop is a chain of writers answering the same questions. If you're curious,  you can follow the chain backwards. If not, just consider me the bunny at the end of the hop.

What am I working on/writing?

I much prefer to do one thing at a time in writing. In my home life, you might catch me with half a room cleaned, half a collection organized, and one third of the bathroom scrubbed, but with my writing, it drives me crazy to work on more than one thing at a time. 

Writing three things is not this hard!
I'm working on three things right now, and it truly is making me itchy. The number one priority is a novella, The Last Vacation, which I promised to Stark Raving Press in March. In the story, two women head out on vacation, but only one of them comes back. It's sexier and more violent than I've written in the past, and it is by turns thrilling and disgusting to write. In other words, I'm in writer heaven!

The second priority is my private fraud investigator novel, By The Numbers. It's got one of those beginnings that just won't behave. Finally I realized that a writer's conceit (wouldn't it be cool if I...) was choking the start of the story. As soon as the novella is done, I can get back to this dear old book, fix the beginning by doing a chapter-ectomy, and then it'll be ready for some agent and editor love. The main character keeps me up some nights, asking when I'm going to get back to her. Patience, dear!

And finally, I started the next book in the same series as By The Numbers. I started Numbers Never Lie before I realized that there was a simple, if not easy fix, for By The Numbers. Every few days, characters from these two novels demand attention. Just another few weeks, please, ladies and gents, and then you may roam free!

How does my writing/work differ from others in its genre?

I'm not sure my work is very different from thoughtful, thrilling work like Gar Anthony Haywood or Megan Abbott. My stories tend to borrow a lot from old-fashioned noir: more Cornell Woolrich than Tarantino-influenced noir. Also, the gender roles are switched in my stories, which tend to feature homme fatales and cynical, tough women investigators. Megan Abbott owns the frightened woman - weak man scenario, and Gar Antholy Haywood makes me feel like I've lived in L.A. when I read him. Here's hoping my humble work can create similar experiences for readers as my craft improves.

The University of San Francisco MFA program couldn't beat the genre impulse out of me, so my stories move quickly (after a proper edit), and there are more fisticuffs than motes in sunbeams. 

I'm sure I'll grow up someday!

Why do I write what I do?

I'm fascinated by two questions:

1. What does it mean to be a moral man in an immoral universe?
2. How does the answer change if the man is a woman?

Alienation and grief are common themes in my work, born of early loss and of always having a foot in at least two different camps as a child. With all that sorrow and isloation, some sex and violence has to be there, just to keep things moving along. 

How does my writing process work?

It's in direct opposition to my day job: principal technical writer for an enterprise software company in the cloud space. Oh, everyone is in the cloud now. HBO is in the cloud. 

The company I work for is generous, accepting, and tolerant of my crime-writing habit. But they do expect me to show up every day and give them my best work. So does my husband. In order to keep everyone happy, my writing process is an endless series of compromises and deals: "I'll gladly work Saturdays for a month if I can just sneak off to Bouchercon" or "sorry, novel, you'll be a week late because this architecture guide is not going to write itself."

In other words, what process? Here are some things that work fairly well:

  • Meeting other writers in the cafeteria an hour before work.
  • Throwing my husband out of the house on Saturday.
  • Impromptu writing dates either in person, via Twitter, or on Facebook. 
  • Reading something great, for inspiration.

But most importantly, I talk to other writers. They bust me when I'm being lazy or making excuses, encourage me to get back up when a rejection letter or a really bad set of pages knocks me down, they share their stories so I know that crazy as it seems to want to craft artful lies for a living, I'm not alone.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Counting Bodies

I'm not lying, not even a little bit. This is the conversation with which my husband and I started our day:

ME: That Laura Lippman is something else! She doesn't just count how many women vs. men authors get awards, she counts the gender of the protagonists!
HE: Huh. I wonder what would happen if you counted the victims. I bet the pages are littered with women.
ME: (After a stunned silence)...Um, I think I've only killed men so far...
HE: Of course!

But the thing is--I didn't do it on purpose! And to make it worse, I mostly only killed off nice guys. (I'm sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry!!!!!). So I've managed to commit the same sin, in reverse, of many authors: thoughtlessly killing off the other gender.

Gender and fairness are in the air this month. At my company's offsite of "directors and above," women were clearly only 10%-20% of those attending. And our leaders weren't happy about it, though honestly everyone seems a bit stymied about how to fix it: outreach in the schools to promote STEM (or STEAM--someone said the arts shouldn't be separated from science, technology, and math), work harder to recruit those women who are already in tech, work harder to promote those women in the company who aren't yet acknowledged leaders, or...?

And I have dark and dour days when I feel like women judge women as harshly as men. Remember way back in the early 1980s when everyone thought that women joining the workforce would improve the workplace because we'd bring all our warm, nurturing, consensus-building skills?

Not so much. Women tend to judge the exact same assertive behavior as negative in a woman, positive in a man, just like men. No matter what you think of Lean In, it's got a boatload of painful data about this. We've a long row to hoe, as Dad used to say.

But like our company leader, like Laura Lippman, like the nice guys who don't want to finish last nor turn into a sociopath to succeed, I'm not sure what to do.

I'll try harder not to respond to assertive women as if they're "too bossy." I'll rip the softeners out of my speech, even though it means risking getting labeled "too pushy." I'll support the ambitions of my friends and family, and most importantly, I'll make sure that my fiction doesn't shy away from the hard question of how we make the world a better place for our daughters than it is for us.

I guess it's about time we all go a little Rosie the Riveter.
If you've got any ideas, please send them my way. I've only got another decade or two on this planet. It seems like just being strong and "bossy" isn't enough.
P.S. My husband wasn't being mean or derisive when he said "Of course." He knows I'm writing a noirish story with an homme fatale, and sincerely expected all the tables to be turned in my book. His faith in me is amazing.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

5 Tips for Getting the Most out of Bouchercon

by Gigi Pandian

Named for mystery author and editor Anthony Boucher, Bouchercon is the big convention for fans of mystery fiction. It takes place each autumn, and the location bounces around the world. Mystery readers and writers gather to talk mystery, meet their favorite authors, discover new books, and generally have a good time.

Juilet Blackwell, Gigi Pandian, Sophie Littlefield
at Bouchercon 2009 in Indianapolis.
I attended my first Bouchercon five years ago, in 2009. I was taking my writing more seriously, but I wasn't yet published. Two author pals suggested I attend Bouchercon with them. I admit it sounded a bit daunting, because I knew only a handful people in the mystery community, and there were going to be over 1,000 people attending. But I figured as a huge fan of mysteries, I owed it to myself to check it out. It turned out I had such a great time that I've been back multiple times, and can't wait for this year's convention! Murder at the Beach takes place in Long Beach, CA, from November 13-16, 2014.

For those of you thinking about registering but who haven't yet done so because of reservations such as the ones I initially had, here's what I can tell you to put your mind at ease:

5 Tips for Getting the Most out of Bouchercon

1. Realize that many mystery writers and readers are introverts, so you're not alone! The vast majority of us are pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones when we attend big conventions. But everyone I've met over the years has been friendly, so with only a small amount of effort, you'll find yourself with new friends in no time.

In the photo directly below, taken at Boucheron 2012 in Cleveland, I hadn't met half the lovely women in the photograph before that weekend, but by the time I flew home, I thought of them as friends.

Gigi Pandian, Juliet Blackwell, Victoria Laurie,
Chantelle Aimée Osman, Susan Boyer, Lesa Holstine
at Bouchercon in Cleveland..

2. Though the schedule is jam-packed with fabulous programming, you shouldn't feel you have to do everything. Take time for coffee breaks with new friends, as well as solitary breaks back in your hotel room to recharge. Truly. Give your brain at least a little bit of time each day to rest. You might even get out of the hotel and see some of the sights in the city you're visiting. (This year they've got some cool organized tours.)

Bouchercon is a lot bigger than mystery conventions like Malice Domestic (celebrating traditional mysteries) and Left Coast Crime (the West Coast's mystery con), meaning there's so much to see and do -- but also that it's even more important to take a break. 

Mysti Berry, Gigi Pandian, Sophie Littlefield. 

Meeting online friends in person.

3. As soon as you arrive, look through the program book and circle the events you want to be sure to attend. That way you can be sure to get in the good stuff you want to see, such as a panel on a topic that interests you or an interview with one of your favorite authors. Trust me. If you don't write it down on paper or put it in your phone calendar, you'll miss things you meant to see. I've done this multiple times, so I need to follow my own advice!

4. Once you've figured out everything you absolutely must attend, be open to new experiences. One of the reasons I had such a good time at my first Bouchercon was because I had no expectations. I didn't have a book out to promote, so I was attending to see what the convention was all about. I loved picking up bookmarks from new authors, having hallway conversations with people as passionate about mysteries as I was, and meeting interesting people at the bar. None of  those things were formal parts of the program, yet they were core parts of the Bouchercon experience. 

Opening ceremonies of Bouchercon in Cleveland
at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

5. Don't forget to look over the attendee list. The long weekend will be over before you know it, and you want to be sure to connect with people you might not have another opportunity to see. Be it saying hello to a favorite author at their signing, or meeting up with a friend you know through an online mystery discussion group, making a checklist of names in advance is helpful. 

I hope to see you at this year's convention

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Family Stone Box Set, Jar of Hearts, and supporting causes

Hello Pens Pals,

Sorry I've been absent for a few months. I've been writing up a storm and finally have some news to share!!

The box set of the Family Stone novellas is out now!

It's available at Amazon, BN, Kobo, and AllRomance and will soon be on Apple iBooks (pretty darn excited about that!) for $5.99 and includes the first five books in the Family Stone series. Stone Cold Heart, Carved in Stone, Heart of Stone, Still the One, and Jar of Hearts.

Within the box set, the final book is Jar of Hearts. This will also be released in an individual book next week. I am waiting on a cover and then it will be in stores. Jar of Hearts is the story of Shane Washington (the on call pilot you met in Heart of Stone and got to know better in Still the One) and Keisha Johnson (who first appeared in Stone Cold Heart with Jess and Colin and again in Still the One). Their road to romance was a bit rocky but I had a lot of fun exploring their characters. :)

More fun news: All the Family Stone books will soon be available on iBooks!

Blowback is finally available in paperback! Right now it is available at Amazon and soon will be available at other retailers! :)

And finally supporting causes...I have a donation in the Brenda Novak For The Cure auction to raise money for Diabetes research.

I'm donating the Family Stone Box Set and a $25 Amazon gift card. If you've already bought my books, check out the site anyway. There are hundreds of amazing items to bid on and it is for a great cause. :)

Hope you are enjoying Spring...Happy Reading!!


Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Validation has been on my mind a lot lately, as I rush to finish some projects in order to pitch them to agents, editors, and writers I dream about working with.

It all started with some observations made by various writer friends over the years. Every now and then, usually when the liquor was mostly drunk and the evening reached with ragged sleeves toward dawn, someone complained about how darn much self-esteem writer X had. How did X have bullet-proof confidence in all defiance of every objective measure of his talent?

Those pre-dawn venting sessions stuck with me. It’s always frustrating to us humble folk, who dash from gatekeeper to gatekeeper, hoarding the smallest compliment in our camel’s hump of self-esteem, to run into a lucky bum with a lousy book. How dare he be so proud of a limited vocabulary, of familiar tropes, of stereotypical characters? How dare he?

Well, actually, it was usually doing him a lot of good. When was the last time you bought something from a diffident salesperson?

Then one day I met a motivational speaker, who said she’d noticed that in her seminars, men most often looked to themselves for validation, and women looked most often to external sources for validation.  She went on to say that there’s two components to any skill: competence and confidence. Far too often, she said, women throw all their energy into acquiring competence and yet still feel that unless someone else says so, their competence isn’t valid—regardless of how skilled they might actually be. “Imposter syndrome” is another term for it.

I thought of those loud and preening gents who sold their first novel well before I did, who got contracts for books with plots as thin as onion skin.  Is there any way to be more like those fellows and less like me in the confidence department? Can I simply decide to look to myself for validation?

Photo of Helen Mirren
How can I harness my inner Helen Mirren?

Here’s a few things I’m trying:

  • ·      Every time I notice myself thinking “they won’t want to talk to me,” I imagine the roles are opposite. I almost always want to listen to someone pitch me an interesting idea or tell me about an interesting book.
  • ·      Every time I feel that desperate scream for validation escaping, I think about a time my words moved someone. The screenplay scene that gave a classmate nightmares, or the lovely passage a published writer called out when reading my work, or that one day when I found a paragraph so perfect that I thought someone else must surely have written it. This is real, I tell myself. That feeling that someone else must say I’m good is not real.
  • ·      I think about my women friends, incredibly talented, doubting themselves. Letting someone else tell them what to write, or how to write. Believing all the negative comments and none of the good ones. Of course they are mistaken—so likely so am I.
It’s okay to be wrong—I don’t have to be the first person to know I’ve made a mistake. It won’t kill me to fail in public. Not experimenting enough to fail and learn, now, that will cut me off from my creativity and leave me cowering in the corner, afraid to write the wrong word.

Let our confidence be reborn and become the strong twin to our competence. 

Please comment and tell me how you've learned to look to yourself for validation!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Malice Domestic

Juliet Blackwell and Gigi Pandian at a 2011
Sisters in Crime reading: Juliet reading from her
witchcraft mystery series, Gigi reading from
her first locked-room mystery short story.
Next week, Gigi and Juliet will be at Malice Domestic, the book-lovers convention that celebrates the traditional mystery. If you'll be there, be sure to say hello! Details about their panels are below. 

But first, a fun little story: In 2007, both Gigi and Juliet were new to the mystery world and didn't know a soul. The 2007 Malice Domestic convention was the first either had attended. Juliet was up for an Agatha Award (for Feint of Art, writing with her sister as Hailey Lind), and Gigi was being awarded the William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant (for Artifact, when it was an unpublished work-in-progress). Though the two would come to learn they lived only a few miles from each other in California, they first met at the opening ceremonies on the other side of the country -- when Gigi told Juliet how much she loved Feint of Art! -- and immediately became friends. 

Since then, Juliet has had more than ten books published, and this year Gigi is up for an Agatha Award for her locked-room mystery short story "The Hindi Houdini." What a fun ride it's been! 

MALICE DOMESTIC 26: May 2-4, 2014
Hyatt Regency Hotel, Bethesda, MD

Gigi's panel is Saturday at 9 a.m.
Make It Snappy: Our Agatha Best Short Story Nominees
B.K. Stevens (Moderator), Barb Goffman, Gigi Pandian, Barbara Ross, Art Taylor

Juliet's panel is Saturday at 2 p.m.
Witches and Werewolves and Ghosts, Oh My!: Woo-Woo Authors Appear in Character
Dina Willner (Moderator), Juliet Blackwell, Dana Cameron, Jim Lavene, Leigh Perry/Toni Kelner

Friday, March 28, 2014

Guest Annette Dashofy: Mom, the Realist

Friend of the Pens Annette Dashofy has a new book out this week! If you’d like a chance to win an Advance Reader Copy of CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE, leave a comment below.

My mother, God love her, has never understood my “writing thing.” She watched me as I “penned” stories—in crayon. She worried over my sanity when I told her tales of my “imaginary friends.” You see, Mom is of hearty stock, born and bred a farm girl with little time for flights of fancy. She’s an introvert with her feet planted firmly in the reality of hard work. I would mention that she’s about to turn 94, but she would give me one of her stern Mom looks if I gave away her age.


Oh, well. Anyhow, she humored me over the years as I wrote stories, even though she never understood why I wanted or needed to do such things. Reading, in Mom’s view, involves the daily newspaper (print, not electronic). She recently told me the last time she read a book was probably back in high school.

So I guess all those books I’ve bought her for gifts over the years were a waste.

Finally, last summer I signed a three-book contract with Henery Press. Mom wasn’t impressed. She’s watched me face disappointment so many times, I don’t think she believed it was going to happen. To be honest, I kept waiting to wake up from the dream, too.

I didn’t wake up. The ARCs arrived. And I started planning my dream book launch party at Mystery Lovers Bookshop, where I’ve been a loyal customer, supporter, and—more recently, member of the staff—for the last ten years. I’ve seen other authors do events there, so I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted.

I wanted my family there. Including my mom. I wanted her to see this was the real deal. My writing pals weren’t more imaginary people in my head. (She’s still concerned about my sanity, I think). But after she agreed to come, I worried—what if no one else shows up? What if she gives me that sad my-poor-child face?

My launch party was last Saturday. It was a smashing success. Sales were incredible, and my signing line circled all around the store—or so I’ve been told. I was too busy scrawling my illegible name inside books to look around much.

Mom was impressed. She hugged me when we got home and told me she was happy for me. Then she told me she was going to read my book, although she admits it may take a year or two.

Now I’m remembering all the swear words in it. Here comes the stern Mom look again.

Annette Dashofy, a Pennsylvania farm gal born and bred, grew up with horses, cattle, and chickens. After high school, she spent five years as an EMT for the local ambulance service, giving her plenty of fodder for her Zoe Chambers mystery series including CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE (Henery Press, March 2014) and LOST LEGACY (Henery Press, September 2014) Her short fiction, including a 2007 Derringer nominee, has appeared in Spinetingler, Mysterical-e, Fish Tales: the Guppy Anthology, and Lucky Charms: 12 Crime Tales (December 2013).
CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE: Zoe Chambers, paramedic and deputy coroner in rural Pennsylvania’s tight-knit Vance Township, has been privy to a number of local secrets over the years, some of them her own. But secrets become explosive when a dead body is found in the Township Board President’s abandoned car. As a January blizzard rages, Zoe and Police Chief Pete Adams launch a desperate search for the killer, even if it means uncovering secrets that could not only destroy Zoe and Pete, but also those closest to them.

Leave a comment to be entered for a chance to win an ARC of the book! 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Why Conventions Are Inspiring

Gigi here. Last week, I was in Monterey for a mystery convention. I already posted a bunch of photos from Left Coast Crime on my own blog, but I wanted to talk about a different aspect of the convention today: why conventions are so inspiring.

Aspiring mystery authors quickly learn the difference between craft conferences and fan conventions. When I was learning how to write a book I attended wonderful writing conferences like the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference. Now I primarily attend fan conventions as an author. I've heard some new authors complain that they get lost in the shuffle at fan conventions. It's true. You might not sell many books. You might be seated at a signing next to an established author who has a line of fans out the door, while you twiddle your thumbs. You might speak on a sparsely-attended panel. But you know what? None of that matters. Because you'll also meet readers you never would have connected with if you hadn't been there. You'll connect with other writers who are going through the same things you are. You'll catch up with old friends who live across the country and you only have the opportunity to see at conventions. You'll see authors who inspired you to become a writer yourself. It was an exhausting few days (especially for us introverts who need time alone to recharge), but when I returned home I was more inspired than I'd been in months.

Photos of some of the inspiring happenings at Left Coast Crime: 

Seeing friends be brilliant on panels.
Juliet Blackwell speaking on a paranormal mystery panel. 
Mysti Berry speaking on a San Francisco mysteries panel.

Running into one of my literary idols, who has become something of a mentor. 
Aaron Elkins and Gigi Pandian.

Hanging out with friends I don't see nearly often enough.
Gigi Pandian and Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts.

Dressing up. I rarely have a reason to don a dress and Fluevog shoes! 
Pat Morin, Gigi Pandian, Sue Trowbridge (LCC Fan Guest of Honor).