Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Five Star Killer

I'm not a proponent of big brother conspiracy theories. Maybe I'm naive, or ignorant, or think too small, but I can't get myself too worked up when Big Brother stories circulate. So this is not the direction my mind goes, but after about six weeks of evidence, I've begun to believe that there is a Big Brother.

He works at Amazon.

(Perhaps it's a Sizeable Sister, but whatever. They work at Amazon.)

The BB/SS was brought to my attention by a sweet librarian in the Midwest who was baffled by strange goings on surrounding the removal of a review she submitted for Sammy Keyes and the Power of Justice Jack.

Perhaps authors should have better insight into the workings of this book-selling giant. I'm sure some do--I'm just not one of them. I spend my time writing, not analyzing Amazon. So when the correspondence came from this librarian, I initially thought that her experience reflected a simple glitch in the web giant's posting system. After all, the review (which she sent me) had nothing objectionable in it, and she was a legitimate reviewer--an educator at a middle school. What reason would Amazon have to remove it?

After I told her I was clueless about why it would be removed, she waited a few days and when she was sure her review was not magically reappearing, she contacted Amazon directly.

They wrote her back, saying:

We do not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product. As a result, we've removed your reviews for this title. Any further violations of our posted Guidelines may result in the removal of this item from our website. 

She wrote them back explaining who she was and that she had no vested interest whatsoever in the book.

So they reinstated her review.

And the next day it was, once again, removed.

This librarian works at a school that annually does an all-school read to tie in with a theme. This year their theme is"super heroes" and their book of choice was Justice Jack. They liked the book's theme--that one person can make other's believe in and act upon doing the right thing. So lots of people at this school have read this book. And in addition to the librarian's review, the assistant principal posted (from a separate computer and through a separate Amazon account) this review: 

Sammy Keyes is a great read! I am an assistant principal, and I have always tried to read the books that the young people I am working with may be reading.  I recently read Sammy Keyes and the Power of Justice Jack and found it to be a wonderful read.  The book was very entertaining. It flowed very nicely, kept my interest, and made me laugh at the escapades of the superhero Justice Jack.  I love the author’s colorful descriptions of her characters.  The characters are easy to relate to, and the moral behind the story was positive and easy to discuss with young people with an opportunity to encourage them to incorporate it into everyday living.  I strongly recommend this book to read with your children. In fact, I read this book with my eleven-year-old daughter, and it was a great father-daughter bonding experience.

Very nice, and nothing that puts up any red flags that I can see. But it, too, was mysteriously removed shortly after it was visible on the site.

When the librarian told me this, I searched the ol' gray matter for a reason. There had to be a reason! And what I hit on was that the school had ordered a large quantity of books through Amazon and somehow Amazon could track the school's computer system (BB/SS!!) and saw the reviewers as having some resale interest in the title.

But guess what?

The school did not order their books through Amazon!

Since nobody could figure out what's going on, the librarian contacted Amazon again and asked for an explanation. She got the same message as before. So at this point she was ticked off enough to track down a real person via phone (not an easy thing to do). She explained the situation to this real-life person, and the next day both 5-star reviews were reinstated.

Twelve hours later, poof, they vanished again

About twelve hours later, poof, they were back up! 

Then poof! they vanished again!

At this stage this librarian and I are e-mailing back and forth like mad. They're up! They're down! They're up! They're down!

And I'm finally the one who says, "Man, this feels so Big Brother."

In the end, after Amazon threatened the librarian with future reviews (for any books) being automatically blocked should she persist, I told her that she didn't have to be a superhero about it. She could just let it go. 

Which she has. 

But not before sharing Amazon's final correspondence: 

"I understand that you are upset, and I regret that we have not been able to address your concerns to your satisfaction. However, we will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on this matter."

That was it. No actual explanation.

My theory is that the librarian was dealing with two people at the Big A. One daytime, one nighttime. And as the Up and Down Battle ensued, the person in a position of greater authority exercised that authority and shut down the conversation. 

Who knows what the actual truth is. After all, they're "unable to offer any additional insight", so that leaves it to our dangerous imaginations.

Besides not being able to get to the bottom of this mystery (and the little fact that the Five-Star Killer got away), what irritates me is that there are presently only 2 reviews--one 5-star (from a legit outlet) and one 2-star (from someone who clearly has no sense of fun or humor). So the average star rating looks pretty bad! Which is sad because everyone tells me that the book is really good! 

People are entitled to their opinions--I can live with the negatives. But Amazon shoppers do judge a book by the customer reviews (I know I do), and to have the positives excised without justification seems wrong.

Justice Jack would be appalled!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sammy Update!

The problem with a mystery is that once you've read it you know whodunit. There's no ah-HA moment the second time. It's like a joke--it isn't really funny after you know the punchline. So I never share my work-in-progress Sammys with Nancy (my editor, for you newbies). Key to me is finding out from her when she knew who the story's culprit was. Her first read is very valuable because she's an astute reader as well as mystery buff.

Usually I manage to pace the story in a way that reveals things such that she solves the mystery at a satisfactory time -- ideally around the same time Sammy does. If something tips her off too early, she can point to a sentence, an action, or even one word that can be changed. I can't stress how important her first read is.

My goal with Sammy Keyes and the Killer Cruise is to have it be an homage to the mystery genre because it's the last true mystery in the series written in a genre that has provided me with reading enjoyment since I was a young girl. So I set out to make this a classic mystery, with heroes and villains trapped on a cruise ship, sleuthing and snooping and, of course, Sammy sassing!

But it's also the book where Sammy (and we) get to know her dad.

Which is A BIG DEAL.

And as much as I like sleuthing and snooping and Sammy sassing, I loved the progression of the relationship with her father. It became the aspect of the book that shined through everything else for me.

Nancy loved this subplot too, but when she told me she'd figured out the mystery early on, I knew I was in for a big re-write. After all, if you set out to write a fabulous mystery but  your editor's figured it out by page 100, you've definitely fallen short of your goal.

In early September she sent me a letter.

I read it and mulled.

In mid September we spoke on the phone for an hour about plot changes.

I mulled and then got to work.

And that's where I've been--buried in a rewrite. And as difficult as restructuring the story is, it started to become fun when I let go of the old and let Sammy be Sammy. In the original manuscript, there was a lot of Sammy talking to the villains. Now she's up to her eyeballs in spontaneous (read: dangerous) reactions, and rash (don't try this at home...or on a cruise ship!) actions.

She may be turning 14, but (as Marissa points out) the shadow of 13 is definitely following her!

Man, I'm going to miss that girl.

A little page-count update: I'd said in an earlier post that I was aiming for a slightly shorter overall length. Maybe 250? Some of you were, NO! but I saw it as an (extended) bell curve, where the series started under 200 pages and would taper to The End the same way.

In my mind it made for nice aesthetic symmetry.

Well, (although I'm sure things will change slightly) as of tonight we're weighing in at 302.

(Can I hear a chorus of YES! please? There is a huge difference in work between 250 and 300 pages.)

So much for aesthetic symmetry.

I hope you're also happy to learn that since we'll have some extra (blank) pages at the back of Sin City, it looks like the first chapter of Killer Cruise will be included when SC is printed up. (It was either that or include ads for my other books...I'm thinking you'd prefer the first chapter of KC, am I right?)

Finally, I hope you enjoy the cover art for Killer Cruise. (That will probably be tweaked, too, as you know, but I thought you'd like a sneak peek.)

Looking forward to your comments (and YESes) :)

Thanks for stopping in. See you next week!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Kansas And The Two Minute Timer

I made like Dorothy this week and went to Kansas. I'd have preferred ruby slippers as a means of transport, but I was stuck in sardine class on a couple of puddle jumpers each way.

I try to work on the legs of my flights because I find it makes the time go faster. Usually it's edits to manuscripts in paper form because that way I don't have to wait for the all clear to turn on my electronic devices. Because I've figure out that from the time you get onboard to the all clear for your electronic devices, there's a lot you can accomplish.

I actually learned from brewing my afternoon cup of tea that you can get amazing things done in just two minutes. While my teacup with water is heating up in the microwave, I can completely unload the dishes from the dishwasher. By the time the microwave goes off, ping, I've got the dishes empty, and the "dishes bowl" filled with pre-scrub water for the ones waiting to be loaded. Then I take the teacup out, put the teabag in, cover the teacup and put the microwave timer on for two minutes ('cause I don't like tea that's too strong or bitter and 2 minutes is the perfect brew time). While those second two minutes are ticking, I can reload the dishes, wipe down the counters, and get a load of laundry started.

Part of why I get so much done in 2 minutes is that I started noticing how much I could get done in 2 minutes, and have turned it into a little afternoon game with myself--on your mark, get set, go!

So that's where my awareness of what you can get done in two little minutes came from and why I can't stand waiting, like, thirty or forty minutes for a plane to take off and and for permission to turn on my computer. All those wasted two minutes! I could have, like, cleaned my whole house!

Or, at least, revised a chapter.

So I do the paper and pen(cil) thing when I travel, only I invariably get the question from the person sitting next to me: "Oh, you're a teacher?"

And then the whole conversation thing starts.

And you get zero editing or writing done if you're talking or listening.

Now, sometimes people are fascinating. The woman on my leg from Phoenix to Kansas City was a great example. If I hadn't already written Swear to Howdy I would have been taking notes. What a character. I got very little editing done, but the time flew by, so that was okay.

The way back was a different story. Oh, I got very little editing done, that's the same, but now my neighbor was a woman with baby. A squirmy bruiser-boy baby. The mother, in contrast, was down to skin and bones. (I know that look. No rest for mama.) So I wound up helping her with her squirmy boy. I had the window seat. He loved the lights. He wasn't so sure about me, but he was willing to risk standing on my lap for the view of lights.

Two minutes (not to mention 3 hours)  is a very long time when you're on your own on a plane with a 14 month old bruiser of a boy and you're desperate to get him to quit squalling because everyone around you is giving you the Can't-You-Keep-Him-Quiet? glare. So, yeah. I wasn't going to be one of those. And so my work went undone.

But I was talking about Kansas, wasn't I?

I did eventually arrive, and was put in a very nice new hotel on the campus of Kansas University. It's the first hotel I've been in where the windows have thick, solid wood shutters in front of the windows, and a white-noise machine available alongside hermetically sealed packets of earplugs on the nightstand.

The earplugs had notes stapled to them which read:

We hope you enjoy the vibrant nightlife that is ever present so near the KU campus. Unfortunately, this fun is often accompanied by late-night noise. Please make use of the complimentary ear plugs if you feel necessary. Have a good night sleep!

Which is all to say that it's the traveling that saps you. I love the actual work I'm asked to do, and I love meeting the students and teachers. If only I could just click my Converse and appear.

And then, you know, click them again and disappear!

Think of how much more I could get done!

Anyway, glad to be home, thanks for checking in, and next week I'll give a Sammy's been a while and I know some of you are anxious to hear the latest.

Meanwhile, have a good week!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Importance of Showing Up

My father died when I was twenty-two. My mother didn't arrange an official funeral or wake or, you know, public gathering. It was a very private goodbye and consequently people had no real vehicle or method or deadline to express their condolences. I remember feeling devastated and very alone during that time, and it was one of those periods where I gained a new perspective on what it means to be a friend.

When we're young, we don't know what to say to someone who's faced something awful. We want to say something--we want to say the right something--but we're sort of at a loss of what that is and we're afraid of saying  the wrong something, so very often we wind up saying nothing.

One particular gesture from that time has stuck with me ever since. A childhood chum of mine drove up from my old hometown to take me out to dinner and talk about my dad. Three hours on the highway up, an order of enchiladas (with no rice or beans) for dinner, two hours of talk and assurances that my father had done more living in his 52 years than most people could fit into 90, and then three hours on the highway back. I was so touched by this gesture of friendship and what I learned that night is the value of showing up.

A week ago Mark and I attended the funeral of the father of one of my high school students. His death was an accident and a shock. I didn't really know the man, except from back-to-school night and similar functions, and it's been at least 15 years since his son was my student. But I had an impression of the family from things the son had said (and the character that he exhibited) and I had a sense that this family of 7 was extraordinary because of their closeness and humor, which were obvious to anyone who even brushed up against them.

The funeral was held about an hour and a half drive from my home, and I had all the reasons in the world not to attend. It's not like I would be missed. But ever since my father's death, I've understood that it's important to show up. So I did.

Over time I've seen that this doesn't just apply to funerals. In big ways, in small ways, it applies to everything.

Friends show up.

That's not to say that if you don't show up, you're not a friend. I can't be everywhere and I sure don't expect my friends to be everywhere, either. But the friends who show up are remembered and appreciated and treasured.

And even in this small way, here you are.

Thank you for showing up.