Literary cold readers are unsung heroes, the Yodas of the writing world that read first or second drafts—the proud mess we create before the final manuscript. My cold readers saved my tail more often than I can count, at times seeming to understand my characters better than I do. I pour over every critical comment, agree to disagree, let them change my mind, and trust their judgment in the stretch. I don’t know what I would do without them. My current group of cold readers is golden, but occasionally other people offer to join in on the fun.
“Let me edit your book for you. All my friends at work use me to check everything they write. I have the best grammar and punctuation.”
“I’ll read your book for you in advance. Send me a copy and I’ll give you ideas.”
Though I respect and appreciate the gesture, my response is generally a non-committal nod or a gentle thank you because giving an unedited novel to an acquaintance seems something like leaving a baby with a new sitter. Will they care as much as I do? Will they be wise, smart, truthful?
One time I gave in, and received my funniest review ever. A mystery-loving friend had helped me with research on a tricky and unfamiliar subject for my second novel, Bruja Brouhaha. When he offered to read the final draft, I decided his input on my treatment of the topic would be valuable. Handing him a printed copy for comment, I told him I had a month before the submission deadline.
“I can’t wait to read it,” he said as we parted.
A week passed, no word. Okay. He’s busy. I get that. Two weeks in, I was a little nervous but still had time to correct flaws when he got back to me. Six days before deadline, I lived in panic. He hated the novel. That’s why he dodged my friendly “How are you?” email. Two days before deadline (I still had time!) curiosity overcame self-respect and I called him.
During our “Hey, how’s it going?” chitchat, not word about the manuscript. I felt like a supplicating fool but the paranoid writer in me HAD to know. “Um, did you read my book?”
“Oh! Didn’t I tell you? I had the flu. I read a few pages then got too sick to finish. I will. I promise. But the paper you printed it on is FANTASTIC. What kind is it?”
The paper??? Head-smacking special stock from writer hell. Fortunately, days earlier my trusted cold readers gave me a thumbs up on the last draft. I submitted the manuscript to my editor and moved on. The novel, Bruja Brouhaha, recently won the Watson award at Left Coast Crime.
Tuesday, May 7, marks the release of my third novel, Hex on the Ex. Divorced psychologist Liz Cooper thinks she left her emotional baggage behind when she moves into her new home, but the past comes back to haunt her in a bitter clash with a former rival whose murder casts a shadow on Liz as suspect #1. She enlists her family, friends, and a colorful defense attorney to clear to her name, but only Liz’s boyfriend—occult expert Nick Garfield—may be able to decipher the cryptic, devilish clue the murderer left behind.
I hope you enjoy the read!
“I’m so glad I saw you, Rochelle. I just finished your new novel,” an acquaintance recently said. She showed me the copy of BRUJA BROUHAHA in her designer carryall. “I loved the story.”
I flashed back to nights of tearing my hair out over some damn scene to perfect the plot, and the full year I spent completing the novel—not even counting the subsequent efforts of my editor and publishing staff. The approval on the woman’s face and in her voice made the hard work worth the effort. “Gosh, thank you so much,” I said, beaming. “Would you like me to sign your copy for you?”
“Oh, no, this copy isn’t mine. It’s Jane’s. She liked your novel so much she lent it to me to read. I’m giving it to Marylou, I know she’ll love it, too. We’re going to pass your book around to all of our friends.”
Um, cool. Sure. Fabulous. Free advertising, baby.
We all do the share thing, the pass-around-a-good-thing thing. In fact, my neighbor’s Mad Men Season 1 DVD is on loan upstairs in my player. Word of mouth is the most effective form of advertising available. We promote hand-outs and encourage contests, review copies, previews, and goody bag donations to drum up talk.
Sharing is friendly. In kindergarten we learned sharing is good. Plus, the economy sucks and the budget-stretched consumer deserves a break. Passing around the already-paid-for-once-stuff gives the creators additional free advertising.
Disappointment over a few lost sales might be considered nervy, perhaps greedy. But then again, free advertising was a justification I heard from students in a Computer Science class discussion on sharing copyrighted software. Free advertising was an excuse given to the music business when Napster introduced peer-to-peer file sharing and sent an industry into crisis.
The entitlement train left the station with the majority of the 18+ crowd long ago. But I have this wild idea on how to teach young students the value of intellectual property: assign a semester-eating term paper accounting for something dramatic like 50% of their entire grade. Make the topic demanding, creative, time-consuming, rigorous. On the day the students turn in their work, bring local authors, songwriters, screenwriters, artists, and software developers in to swipe the finished papers off the students’ desks, thanking and complimenting the kids profusely for their efforts.
“What about our grades?” a student may ask.
“Oh, that,” the artists and writers might say as they leave. “We don’t have anything to do with your grade. Thanks a ton for entertaining us. Can’t wait to copy these for our friends.”
“No. Stop. You have to give our papers to the teacher so we can get credit. We put in an entire semester creating those. We did the work. We earned the right to a grade. The grade affects GPA, and GPA affects college admission.”
*Note: I know I can’t change the world, but I can change myself. I returned my neighbor’s DVD. I’ll watch old Mad Men episodes via my Netflix subscription.
In my pre-eBook youth many years ago, I worked on 42nd Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan and walked home to my midtown apartment every night. One of my routes took me past a huge bookstore chain and, because I can’t resist a bookstore like I can’t resist a well-done order of fries, I always strolled inside to browse. Others may head straight to the bestseller wall, perhaps the biography, romance, sci-fi, or history sections. I made a beeline for mystery or non-fiction, depending on my mood. Hungry for adventure? Give me a mystery or a thriller and make it a series, please. Feeling a bit off? A selection of How-to-Snap-Out-of-Whatever or Quotes-to-Buck-Oneself-Up filled my arms at the cash register.
One late evening in the throes of literary ennui I wandered into the General Fiction section. To me, taking a chance in General Fiction was like online dating—what I saw on the profile (book jacket and title) rarely represented who walked into the café. By the middle of the first date latté (Chapter Three) I’d be planning an exit (DNF).
I cruised the wall of books—nope, nope, nope. Could it be? Would I walk out without a book? Would I be sentenced to, God forbid, prime time television?
An illustrated cover with a Post WWI-styled couple lit a twinkle in my eye. He sipped tea, with she smoking and twirling her pearls, and a snobbish butler offering a tray. A screwball comedy fan from way back, I took P.G. Wodehouse’s Much Obliged, Jeeves, to the register and—What ho!— began my infatuation with Wodehouse’s world of Bertie, Jeeves, Stiffy, Bingo, Gussie, and the aunts, et al. Seduced by a cover.
Wodehouse may not suit everyone’s taste. There was a definite language barrier to shellac as I read over my eggs and b with a rainbow round my shoulders. Once I conquered the pie-faced, plug-ugly task of suspending disbelief, I realized I was onto a good thing. I cheerfully ankled to the bookstore weekly until I exhausted their larder of Plum’s novels. Needless to say, but I will nonetheless, on my first jaunt to London I scuttled to a local bookshop and bought a copy of every Wodehouse novel unavailable across the pond.
I’ve been told Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry are genius as Bertie and Jeeves on PBS, but they’ll never replace the pair in my imagination. Happily, Simon Brett’s Blotto and Twinks series re-tickled my fancy for British humor, complete with a new language to absorb, and adding (to my delight) mystery with “the unavoidable presence of a know-it-all polymathic amateur sleuth.” Well done, Brett.
But here’s the fly-in-the-ointment, the troubling aspect, the cloud over the picnic: What if back when I strolled into that NY bookstore for a diverting tome, I had instead been able to surf the ‘net for entertaining kibble to read on my Nook/Kindle/iPad/computer? Would I have tired of looking through 41,555,250 book titles before I reached the “W’s”? Never bothered to explore beyond the 101,970 offerings of Mysteries & Thrillers, or the 917,543 non-fiction selections? It hurts my heart to think Bertie, Jeeves, and I may never have met.
Visit a brick and mortar bookstore. Fall in love with a stranger on the shelves.
Three weeks ago I attended the Greater Los Angeles Writers’ Society Summer Bash, won the Best Hawaiian outfit contest, and did a live reading of the first scene in my new novel, BRUJA BROUHAHA. My winning outfit wasn’t captured for the ages, but my live read is posted here on YouTube.
I set my latest novel BRUJA BROUHAHA in current day Westlake near MacArthur Park, a neighborhood dubbed the “Champs-Élysées” of Los Angeles in the early 20th century, and then romanticized by Jimmy Webb in his classic 1985 song. Today the multi-cultural area is a mixture of Hispanic and Asian culture with the park and the shops on Alvarado Street providing a weekend tourist attraction. During daylight, that is. You see, the area is also rife with gangs—a fact of life in contemporary L.A. and an unavoidable evil in my story’s plot.
To paraphrase Gracie Allen, I learn everything I know from writing about things I don’t know anything about. So how did an Anglo gal in Studio City write fiction about mid-city gangs with authority? Did I need to write with authority? Damn straight, I did.
My years in the record biz talking to rappers helped, but rappers with recording contracts aren’t exactly living on the street anymore. It’s like asking the CEO where the paper is for the Xerox machine. I have friends who grew up in gang-infested neighborhoods—fifty years ago. Do you know how many slang swaps occurred in the past fifty years? You do? Groovy.
I needed the real deal on gang research, fast, and I found it, homie. One sunny Saturday morning while out-of-towners in Hollywood boarded buses to see homes of dead movie stars, I signed a waiver and climbed onto the Los Angeles Gang Tour bus. Me, three tourists, a local couple, and two members of the DA’s office took off with our crew of ex-con guides for a journey past the notorious landmarks in the history of L.A. gang life.
Our first locale was the last stop for most gang members: the Twin Towers jail and the high security federal prison in the heart of downtown—one or both former residences for our guides. We moved on, slowing near the Los Angeles River bed (ground central for graffiti) for an education on types of tagging and the more experienced “flaring”—both felonies. We cruised by the Pueblo del Rio housing projects—home for the Bloods and a current hotbed of illegal activity.
As we toured ground zero for the Watts Riots I learned the language of tattoos: A clown—smile now, cry later. A skull—mess with me and die. A dollar sign—I’m in business.
The spirit of the tour shone through in the personality of our guides—Max, Dennis, Scorpio, Melvin, and Renee—ex-cons who turned their lives around to dedicate their time to gang intervention. They candidly shared experiences growing up in gang life, a generational curse passed from father to son, brother to brother, cousin to cousin. From learning street survival as “puppies” at age eight, to stealing Pumas in junior high—like most other kids in their neighborhood they became trapped in a cycle of crime, caught, and sent up. “The diet was a spoonful of hatred,” said Scorpio who spent 23 of his 39 years in jail.
Some of the gang life questions I needed answered for book research drew curious looks (Why is this woman asking for specifics on drive-bys?) but the guides were cooperative and helpful, answering nearly everything I asked. “Do gang members still call other gang members ‘homies’?” “Yeah, but only our friends. We call the other guys ‘rivals’.”
Like most research adventures, I gathered far more information than I used in the novel. I learned just enough to feel confident the gang representation in BRUJA BROUHAHA will dodge a woofing*.
*woofing=verbal ass whooping by a gang member.
BRUJA BROUHAHA—a murder mystery enveloped in mayhem, a puzzling disappearance, and a vindictive Santeria hex—is being released this Tuesday, August 7.