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Not that anybody would ever ask, but if a book publisher offered me a $1 million advance to write a book about the Amanda Knox murder case, I’d turn it down.

Seriously.

Given the circumstances of this case and the nine-ring circus surrounding it, I just can’t see how an author could a) write a good book that would b) sell very well.

Why do I think this? Here’s 11 reasons why I wouldn’t touch this story with an 11-foot pole.

1. What Really Happened? Given the gaps between the forensic evidence and the statements of the witnesses and the accused, I think it’s almost impossible to put together a coherent, factual narrative of what actually happened that late fall night in 2007 when Meredith Kercher was killed. A narrative without bias, that is. How does a writer objectively decide whose statements are true and which are lies? The Italian justice system made a mess of it … how can one writer improve upon that? Not saying it can’t be done, but in my view, it would take a team of Ph.D-level criminologists working for months to pick everything apart and put it back together. There’s just an overwhelming volume of stuff to sort through, only some of which is probably reliable.

2. Can You Walk The Tightrope? The nine-ring circus surrounding the case is part of the story. Given the sheer volume of blather and shrieking from all quarters, how does a lone writer pick through it all and pull out only the most representative and worthy of anecdotes and perspectives while still keeping the core narrative moving forward? And without plumping the book up to an untenable page count?

3. Will You Develop Stockholm Syndrome With Your Story? What’s more likely to happen, given the senationalist bent of the case and its polarizing nature — the people who most closely follow the case have split off into “she did it” and “she didn’t do it” camps — is that more than one book will be written with one of those points of view. I’m sure there’ll be “Amanda Knox: Victim Of Alien Justice” paperbacks just as much as I’m sure there’ll be “Amanda Knox: The Succubus Of Perugia” pulp. These books will cherry-pick the evidence and testimony to support their points of view, much as at least half a dozen books did during the O.J. Simpson trial.

And what emerges? A version that may provide cold comfort to one side or the other — the family of a dead woman and the family of a woman who will likely be inside prison until she’s almost fifty — but ultimately leaves more discerning readers dissatisfied because they’ve been brought no closer to the truth. Writers who write books that don’t satisfy generally don’t have long careers.

4. When Should You Shut Your Piehole? How do you write a book that examines a) the minutiae of the case; b) the nine-ring circus surrounding it; c) the student expatriate experience; d) the Italian justice system; e) the Madonna/whore contradiction; and f) Italian culture … and keep it under 500 pages, let alone 5,000? I know I’d make myself crazy about 5,000 times over agonizing over what to keep in and what leave out. The salad days of comprehensive, 700-plus page true-crime tomes like Joe McGinnissFatal Vision and Blind Faith are a quarter-century behind us. In these risk-averse, cost-conscious-crazed times in publishing, editors are going to fight you over every word — and they’re going to win.

5. Will Everybody Talk To You? A lazy writer could slap together an insta-book based on media coverage and other public-record documents; a better one will write a better book because he or she has the tenacity and skill to develop key relationships with the people closest to the heart of the case. But is there one writer out there who will have access to everyone needed to write the most cogent and comprehensive book possible? Think about it: Amanda Knox, from prison, will cooperate with one writer … maybe. (And that writer will have to convince me that he or she did not trade advocacy for exclusive access.) Same with Raffaele Sollecito. Who will that writer be? Will that writer have equally strong contacts in both the Knox and Meredith Kercher families? Does that same writer have access to Mignini, the prosecutor, and other key Italian officials? I personally don’t want to read a book about this case, let alone write one, that has less than near-comprehensive access and perspective. (Part of the reason I’m working on the true-crime book I’ve got in play is that I have access to every single person at the center of the crimes. With one exception so far, everybody has agreed to share their stories with me. That comprehensiveness the only reason I believe my story will work, and will be worth reading.)

6. Are We Ready to Relive The Case? Don’t underestimate the burnout factor. Many of the O.J. Simpson books that came out once the verdict was rendered were not particularly strong sellers, I’ve read. And that was before the Internet — blogs, in particular — had become a major factor in disseminating news and commentary. In other words, in the mid-’90s, information about the O.J. case — despite the 24/7 cable-TV-commentary machine — wasn’t nearly as easy to get as it would be now. Today, however, you can find online just about anything you want to find on the Amanda Knox case. Seattle writer Candace Dempsey keeps a well-followed blog, as do people representing the Meredith Kercher side, and there’s several others, all with their own particular bent. Why them, one might well ask, would I want to pay for a book when I can find all the information I want for free online? And why, that same person might well ask, would I want to read more about the case when I’ve spent two years immersed in it on a daily basis through online coverage and commentary?

While there is something to be said about having a complete narrative in one source, it won’t just be one source. There will be more than one book, and probably upwards of a dozen or more once British journalists, American journalists and Italian journalists finish making their publishing deals — not to mention the family members and other insiders looking to cash in for themselves or raise money for other people. These will inevitably vary wildly in quality, and make the non-burned-out consumer’s choice a far more difficult one. How would my book stand out in this global cacophony?

7. Just How Much Hatred Can You Take? While the true-crime writer always runs the risk (and many would say “inevitablity”) of receiving threats of bodily harm, there’s been a toxic level of that in the Knox case. I’ve been following the sheer ocean of vitriol swamping Dempsey, who will have a book coming out next year called Murder In Italy on the circumstances surrounding the case. She even had members of her family targeted for harassment. I could put up with a certain level of that toward myself. But probably a lot less than Dempsey has — and I’d have just about a zero-tolerance policy for hate aimed at my family. I’m not sure I’d back away from a project in which I’d already invested a lot of time and money, but I would be very careful in picking and choosing my projects from the outset with that kind of acidic potential — and the “emotional beatdown factor” would be part of the consideration criteria. And in a case with global impact like the Knox one, there’s always the chance that the negativity associated with one’s name would stay firmly attached when it comes time to look for future projects — and negotiate future deals with publishers.

The author that comes to mind is Jon Krakauer, the onetime Seattle resident whose books include Into The Wild, Under The Banner Of Heaven and the recent Where Men Win Glory. But, in the public consciousness, I get the impression that Krakauer will always be “the guy who got a climber killed on Mount Everest” from his own role in the mountain-climbing tragedy depicted in his Into Thin Air book — an episode for which he was buried under an avalanche of vilification, to the point that he disappeared for several years. That stigma hasn’t killed his career, but it certainly slowed his momentum — and I think he’s no longer the widely celebrated and respected literary-adventure figure he once was.

I want Jon Krakauer’s career, but I don’t want to be Jon Krakauer … as unfair as that may be. And I certainly don’t want Candace Dempsey’s e-mail inbox. I can be tough when I need to be … but I don’t usually seek out situations where I’ll need to be as tough as I can possibly be. And on the Amanda Knox case, especially given all the other problems with writing the right book on it, I’d say “pass.”

8. Million Schmillion? One million dollars sounds like a fantastic amount, but think of how fast that would evaporate in the Amanda Knox case. Between the costs of travel, the costs of the lease needed to stay in Italy for several months or even a year or more researching the case and covering the trial, the costs of meals and greasing the palms of Italian officials (where pay-for-play is much more widely the custom than in America, if that’s possible) and the costs of subsidizing a life back home, I’d think that million would pretty well evaporate within a year or so. And that doesn’t even include post-publishing costs like publicity and book tours, which publishers increasingly expect authors to cover themselves.

And God help me if my book doesn’t “earn out,” in industry parlance. If my book doesn’t sell well enough to cover my publisher’s expenses — including my advance — then not only can I expect to never see a royalty statement with a positive balance, but given the financial failure of the book, my chances of getting a decent deal for any future project in this economically-crushed, risk-averse time in publishing is somewhere between “slim” and “none.” And, as I’ve said before, I think the chances of an Amanda Knox book being a huge Sarah-Palinesque bestseller are equally between slim and none. I could be wrong, but I think I’ve got pretty good reasons for thinking I’m not.

9. Does It Keep Good Time? There’s a lot of bad timing all around. Let’s say that I successfully pitched my book to a publisher once it became clear that Amanda Knox was headed to trial. I would do so having no idea how long the trial would last. Let’s say my publisher gave me a deadline well in advance of the verdict, which they almost certainly would given the publisher’s need to meet the demands of its marketing arm to slot the book into a firm schedule for promotion purposes. What kind of book would come out of that? And who would want to read a book about a case that ends with no resolution? I sure wouldn’t … and I sure wouldn’t want to write a book like that.

Then again, let’s say my publisher agrees to let me deliver my manuscript after the verdict. My guess is that I’d need a minimum of two months to finish writing and a minimum of four months for several rounds of revisions. The publisher would then, I think, need a minimum of eight months for legal review, marketing plan development and all that other fine-print crap that publishers do. Then it has to fit into a scheduling slot in its catalog. I think it would take, altogether, a minimum of 18 months after the verdict for the book to show up at your neighborhood Barnes & Noble. Now, while I’m sure there’s still interest in the Knox case, I’m also sure that most of the people in the world will have moved on. There’ll be other sensational murder cases, other pretty and pathetic young women in distress, other things to chatter about on Nancy Grace’s TV show. Unless the book promises to be a shocking expose of lies and corruption — and actually delivers to the point that a retrial is possible — I can’t see the book as something a significant number of people will pay $28.95 for in the summer of 2011.

10. Does Truth Get In The Way Of A Good Story? While noble crusades against injustice make for good fiction, they rarely make for good nonfiction. One, they’re just not 100% reliable. If the author has an agenda to, say, prove Knox’s innocence, he or she will mold the facts to fit that premise — whether or not they’re intending to do so or even aware that they’re doing so. Two, the narratives behind the injustice and the crusade are often complicated, with all sorts of undisclosed motives, and don’t lend themselves well to coherent narratives. And three, it’s likely that nobody will care except Knox’s true believers, and while they might buy the book out of loyalty to the cause, chances are they already know or embrace 95% of what’s in the book.

11. Is This Really A Satisfying Career Move? What it comes down to is this: I just wouldn’t want to do it. I have no desire to build my name and my fame by riding a brief but intense wave of bottom-feeding media to its inevitable crash upon the sands of the public’s short attention span. I’d much rather find good stories of human character and motivation that the public doesn’t know about, so I can make them feel like they’re getting something worth their while from me that they can’t get anywhere else. That’s what books represent to me — the opportunity to offer something new to know, not something that amalgamates what we largely already know. But hey, that’s just me.

None of this should be taken to mean that I don’t wish every success to those who have decided to undertake a book about the Amanda Knox case (check that; I hope anybody pumping out an insta-book crashes and burns and suffers painful boils). Everybody’s honest sweat and toil in this business should be rewarded in equal measure.

In fact, thanks to a mutual friend, I may soon be able to line up Seattle author Candace Dempsey for an interview about her book. As with my other interviews, I’m less concerned with what the book is about than how it is about it. Stay tuned.

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Camille KimballCamille Kimball, like everybody else in Phoenix, lived in fear during parts of 2005 and 2006 as the “Serial Shooter” prowled the city streets day and night, wounding and killing people and pets at random. In all 29 people were shot, eight fatally, and 13 horses and dogs were also hit. And like everybody else, she was relieved — and intrigued — when it turned out the “Serial Shooter” was actually two people. The veteran broadcast journalist decided to turn her interest in the case into a book — and emerged a few months ago with her debut, A Sudden Shot: The Phoenix Serial Shooter. Camille, a Facebook friend, agreed to share with me how this book came together — and what challenges she faced pulling this multifaceted story together into a coherent narrative.
Q: Tell me about your background as a journalist.

A: I stumbled into a radio newsroom when I was 17 years old and I pretty much never found my way out. I’ve been a columnist for the Arizona Republic. I have an Emmy in investigative reporting. I’ve had bylines in the L.A. Times and the Irish Times of Dublin. I’ve had work appear in Newsweek and in Sports Illustrated. I did take several years off to have a brain tumor. That was fun. Then I came back to write this book.

A Sudden ShotQ: Before A Sudden Shot, did you have much experience with long-form writing?
A: Not really. Switching from short form to long form is far more than a matter of word count. It’s a whole different structure. And it requires the development of different skills. Just remembering what you’ve already included can be an Olympic sport! While journalism is an excellent background for these books, you have to be willing to put some of your journalism habits in a drawer and try out some new and uncomfortable ones. If you can’t do that, your project will strangle itself to death.

Q: What were you doing when the Serial Shooter killings began? Did you provide daily coverage of them as one of a group of Phoenix journalists?

A: At the time of the shootings, I was inside a newsroom doing anchor work. So I didn’t get out on the street for stories. A radio audience heard me delivering the stories.

Q: At what point did you see the potential for a book in this story — and see the potential for you to be the author?

A: The day an arrest was made. An entire town — a major U.S. metropolis — had been held captive. How could that not be a book? I thought I could write it because my agent thought I could and I’ve learned not to argue with her!

Q: Once you decided to write a book, how did you go about getting an agent and a contract? Was the book a tough sell?

A: I already had an agent. She did a great job getting the proposal in front of the right people. Then it became a matter of timing. Publishing is a lot of hurry up and wait with sudden flurries of activity.

Q: How did you decide how to get your arms around this story, given that so many people and so many criscrossing storylines are involved? Talk about how you approached the organization of A Sudden Shot, and developed a focal point for readers to peer through and not get lost?

A: Imagine yourself standing in a pile of five billion facts. You are the tiny little scribbler at the bottom of the skyscrapers. I did the only thing a professional can do and that is just start writing. After awhile, I began to see a potential structure. You know, all Michelangelo and stuff — once I had the clumps of words, the shape inside revealed itself. For jurors at trial, the prosecution began at the very beginning and I knew this was very hard for the jurors. I couldn’t do that to the reader. I decided they had to care about individuals right off the bat and glimpse the epic battle between villain and heroes surrounding those individuals.

Q: How did you develop your inside access to the law enforcement people at the heart of this story? Did you get access that nobody else in the media received?

A: Yes! of course I did! I did it the old fashioned way, picture a fedora with the “press card” tucked in the band, making cold calls and meeting in hallways and restaurants out of view of others. It was pretty cool, actually, as they began to trust me because at first they didn’t, of course. These are people with jaundiced eyes who are trained to sniff out the worst in people. None of them knew how the book would turn out until they bought their own copies. So can I have that laminated? “This Person Passed by Homicide Detective Gauntlet.” I’d like to tuck that in my fedora from now on.
Q: Was there a risk for you of developing a sort of Stockholm Syndrome with the cops you got close to — to the point that you questioned how objectively you could tell the story of their investigative work? Or was maintaining the right distance and detachment from them never a problem?

A: As a longtime journalist, I hope my objectivity skills are intact. I got to know the players first as names on documents. It’s hard to develop Stockholm Syndrome with a stack of search warrants and transcripts! I knew none of the cops personally until long after the arrests. It didn’t matter if any of them ever talked to me or not, I would have written it the same way. If I had found a major weakness in their work, I would have exposed it. But facts are facts. The bottom line speaks for itself — these serial killers were captured in record time.
Q: One of the tougher things for you in A Sudden Shot must have been the realization that because of the sheer volume of victims, you couldn’t tell the stories of all the victims — those who lived as much as those who didn’t — with the same sort of character development and personal color that you were able to with survivor Paul Patrick. Did you struggle with the unfair reality that not all victims could be equal in the book?


A: What would have been more unfair would have been if none of their stories were told and they all continued to suffer the aftermath in lonely obscurity. I reserved a special page to tell all the players that the book had to stand in for everyone involved, whether or not their own particular story was fully explored in it. Each one could have been a book of its own. When the families call me, they never complain they didn’t get enough ink. They all shower me embarrassingly with thanks.
Q: Once you had a contract in hand for the book, did you have a deadline for it that disregarded the timing of the trials and sentencings? Or did your publisher give you the time you needed to give the story the ending it needed?

A: The publisher does give a true crime author a deadline, or at least mine did. They need to work the book into their catalogue schedule and you have to have it ready so everyone else at the publishing house can do their jobs. I believe the ending in this book is exactly what it needed. Crime is about people, not laws. The judicial process will continue to play out over many years to come. The bad guys are convicted by the end of this book, what else is necessary?

Q: Did you approach Sam Dietemann or Dale Hausner, the convicted killers, for interviews? If so, what happened?

A: The most truth Dale ever spoke is on the wiretaps. He testified he deliberately lies to reporters. I sat through many days worth of Dale’s speaking on the stand at hearings as well as at trial. I sat near him during over 6 months of trial. I observed him up close and listened to him as much as anyone ever wants to. There was nothing to be gained. More lies and denials? Which pages would I replace in the book to add more of that?

Similar story with Sam. I’ve been near him quite a bit over the last couple of years. His wiretaps, his testimony and police interviews are voluminous. I felt it was both more raw and substantive having him speak for himself through those venues.

Q: Did you work with assistants or researchers at all? Or did you do all the digging yourself?

A: Assistant? What is this creature of which you speak?

Q: How much time did you have to do the actual writing? How did you work — just lock yourself at home and unplug all possible distractions for as many hours a day a possible as you could physically endure? Or was the process not quite that gut-churning?

A; Oh, the process is gut-churning. As a reporter, you think you’re pretty good at deadlines but taming a 325 page beast with its tail trapped in New York City is a challenge you haven’t contemplated. Distractions? they don’t bother me. A hectic loud newsroom is my natural habitat. But there is the fickle finger of fate. Phoenix is an annex of hell during the summer and, due to a freak storm, we were without power for days. Try doing this without air conditioning when it’s 115. Or any form of electricity. There were many such freak obstacles and at times I didn’t think it was possible to continue.

Q: How did the revisions process go with your editor? Was there cleanup work here and there, or wholesale structural changes? Were there disagreements between you and she about how the final version should be structured and written?

A: An editor’s eye is very helpful. Books are experienced in a different way than TV is or newspapers are and you really need the editor to help you make the shift. Moving a paragraph from page 283 to page 147 can suddenly make all the sense in the world, when your editor points it out. One of my favorite things she did was organize the photos to tell a story of their own and that was beyond my ability to conceptualize even though my background is in the visual medium of television.

Q: Were you concerned at all about prose style, or just getting the bones of the story onto the page? Did you want to write a new In Cold Blood, or just a good piece of Phoenix journalism? How big were your literary ambitions?

A: I guess I would have to say over time I thought less and less about my literary ambitions and more and more about making people count. People across the country are crying for Claudia and cheering for Paul. Both cops and families are thanking me tearfully. Isn’t good literature supposed to move people? I guess I can exhale, then, both for my ego and for my soul.

Q: How has the book been received so far? Good reviews? Have sales met expectations — or have expectations even been outlined?

A: I keep being flabbergasted that people like it so much. After one has read the drafts eleventy million times, it’s hard to have any opinion about one’s own work. So, yes, the reviews are good and I’m so grateful. Number One best selling mass market paperback at the influential and international Poisoned Pen right now, so sales seem good, knock on wood! (it’s hard to come by hard numbers, otherwise, at this point)

Q: Is the book seen as having reader appeal beyond Arizona? To what extent is your publisher promoting the book on a national level? How have your personal publicity efforts gone outside Arizona?

A: Caught on tape secretly reveling in their crimes and tailed by law enforcement while actively hunting prey — these are the only serial killers I know of where you can get that. By my standards, that’s pretty interesting. Does the D.C. Sniper interest people outside Washington? Does the Zodiac spark interest beyond San Francisco?

I have done publicity outside of Arizona and it has gone quite well. It’s a compelling story with intriguing people in it and that is universal.

Alas, with true crime, you have to move on to your next trial and that curtails the amount of out-of-state promoting you can personally do. Gotta have your kiester sitting on a hard bench downtown, you can’t just write on a laptop in a hotel room.

The book is available at any store coast to coast and it’s going to have to pull its own weight while I sit behind another killer at another defense table!

Q: I see on your blog you’ve had a number of signings and group appearances with people from the book — have they all been good sports about becoming major public figures?

A: Watching the cops become celebrities has been a delight to me! These are guys who work in the dark streets as a breed apart for their entire careers. They can’t believe people actually want to thank them, get an autograph. I knew it, though, and I love watching them blush!

The victims are living in a different emotional register. It makes my heart flip over for them to receive the well wishes and condolences of good-hearted people. They already know how horrific their suffering has been: what they don’t know is that anyone else cares. The signings are a time for fellow citizens to speak up and tell them they are not alone. Yes, they like it.

Q: How comfortable are you being a public figure? Any creepiness attached to that? Any jealousy or backbiting from the media community there?

A: All of them have wished me well and personally thrown their support behind it. I couldn’t be more blessed and I’m proud to be a part of them! I can’t speak for them but the feeling I get is that all my fellow reporters see this as their own baby or at least a nephew and they all have a stake in seeing it succeed!

I also couldn’t have finished this book without the help of KTVK reporter Mike Watkiss or Arizona Republic reporter Michael Kiefer. Really, there’s so much good energy about this book it’s remarkable. And they are all fans! As a book author, you’re able to do far more digging than they are able to do as daily reporters. They are all knocked over at how much more there was to the crime spree.

A good example is Melissa Sharpe of KYOT, who titled her review of the book, “The story you thought you knew.”

Q: What’s the best and most memorable thing anybody’s said to you about A Sudden Shot?

A: So many, so many. How about this text from Adriana, who lost her sister to the spree: “In the name of my sister in heaven and in the name of my parents, a thousand thanks.”

Or when Paul Patrick’s daughter wrote on the Facebook fan page: “This book is his voice, without it, who knows if he would have had the will to survive?”

Or when fan Erma Pais wrote that “never has a book moved me so much.”

Or when Running with the Devil author Kerrie Droban purchased a copy and later let me know that she had by saying, “Your book made me realize suddenly why I write true crime — to inspire and to tell an amazing story that no one else has the guts to reveal.”

Or when the orphaned 13-year-old of one of the characters in the book was brought to me for his own private signing?

I could go on and on but then I’ll cry for the rest of the day so I better stop.

Q: What’s next for you? Do you have another book in mind? Do you have a contract for a second book?

A: I have what’s called an “option book” written in to my contract. And, yes, I do have things in the pipeline. I would be very glad to notify this blog when we are ready to make announcements, how’s that?

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To me, it was a mystery worthy of, well, a mystery novel.

A Seattle mystery author publishes three novels. All are reviewed reasonably well; all sell reasonably well. She’s under contract to write two more. But that fourth book never materializes. In fact, the author disappears … and is never heard from again. As an author, anyway.

Fourteen years later, had the trail grown too cold for the truth to emerge?

I decided to find out.

And the solution I found to this mystery is, to many I’m sure, a much greater mystery:

I found a writer who simply didn’t want to be a writer any more.

What — or who — killed her ambition?

Here’s my investigator’s report.

*****

To explain this properly, let me go back nearly two decades in time. In the spring of 1991, I was the Ellensburg correspondent for the Yakima Herald-Republic newspaper (central Washington cities, for those of you who don’t know the area).

I was also a voracious reader of mystery novels, in an era when Seattle-based mysteries were going through something of a golden era. And I was envious, too — I had taken my own hack at writing mysteries but couldn’t seem to figure out how to do it right, how to do proper pacing and plotting. So I kept on reading to find out how it was done. And I kept on reading because the books were so damned fun to read.

There were J.A. Jance’s novels about surly-but-sweet-hearted Seattle police detective J.P. Beaumont. Ridley Pearson‘s Lou Boldt series covered similar but somewhat darker ground. G.M. Ford and Frederick Huebner were just cranking up a head of hard-boiled Puget Sound steam. Earl Emerson made a big splash with his snappy noirish novels about Seattle private dick Thomas Black and small-town fire chief Mac Fontana. And Mary Daheim grabbed me from the get-go with the small-town entanglements of fortyish newspaper editor and publisher Emma Lord.

210X3YFV4WL._SX106_And there was Janet L. Smith, the Seattle attorney whose 1990 debut novel, “Sea Of Troubles,” was a skillfully entertaining diversion. In fact, I bought that book at Jerrol’s Bookstore in Ellensburg, where, I learned shortly after, a caravan of six mystery authors would be making an afternoon stop. I don’t remember every name, but the tour included Sequim author Aaron Elkins, the author of several mysteries featuring anthropologist Gideon Oliver; children’s mystery author Willo Davis Roberts, and Emerson and Smith.

I happily flitted around Jerrol’s during the entire visit, schmoozing with as many of the authors as I could. (In fact, I wound up writing features on two, Emerson and Roberts, for the next day’s Herald-Republic.) The event was pretty sparsely attended, as far as I can recall, and I don’t think any of the six sold many books (other than the dozen or so I snapped up, of course). But everybody seemed to have a good time anyway, visiting with the few people who did drop by, and with each other.

I got Janet L. Smith to sign my copy of “Sea Of Troubles.”

*****

In thinking back on that event, I realized that almost every single one of the authors I met and read in those days is still in business. Most, in fact, still pump out at least a book a year.

In fact, there are just two exceptions: Willo Davis Roberts, who died in 2004, and Janet L. Smith.

I got thinking about Janet a few months ago, when I was cleaning up my garage. I came across a box full of old paperbacks, and among them were Janet L. Smith’s three novels: “Sea Of Troubles,” (1990) with the author’s signature still there in faded ink on the inside page; “Practice To Deceive” (1993); and “A Vintage Murder” (1995).

I re-read each one. And I’ll say this: They’re not great, but they’re pretty good. They’re well-paced and well-plotted, authoritative on legal procedure, maybe a little light on character development and distinctive prose style. But I bought all three when they came out … and would have kept right on buying them if they had kept on coming out.

But, of course, they didn’t. And I set out to find out why.

Finding her wasn’t too difficult. A Google research revealed a Seattle law practice for Janet L. Smith. And, as big as Seattle is, I figured the odds of two Janet L. Smiths practicing law there were pretty long.

As it turned out, I played the odds right. I sent off an e-mail, and got one back less than two days later. Not only did I have the right Janet L. Smith, but yes, she’d be willing to meet with me and tell me her story.

We met Sept. 22 at a Starbucks on Aurora Avenue, not far from the Northgate-area office where she practices eldercare law. A smiling woman in her mid-fifties, Janet let me buy her a latte.

I jumped right in. So … what’s the deal? I asked. Why are you no longer a writer?

*****

Janet smiled.

“When people me ask me that, I say, “Nobody asks someone why they didn’t write another Ph.D thesis.'”

That much fun, huh?

She then cautioned me, still smiling, against the assumption that she had failed.

Then she talked about introverts and extroverts. She was very much the latter, she said. Most authors don’t like being public figures, much preferring to hole up at home and write. That, Janet said, is not her.

“If I was doing writing 100 percent, without talking, I’d go stark raving out of my mind,” she said. But that, of course, is the discipline of novel writing, the one that doesn’t get talked about much. The reality is that writing a book is damned hard work, and requires a concentration that usually insists on isolation from all distraction. Some of us thrive on it. And some of us are like Janet.

Luckily, Janet didn’t have to worry about that, at first anyway, as she was juggling her part-time writing career with her legal work. At the time she landed her deal for her first book, “Sea Of Troubles,” she was working as an administrative law judge for Washington state, having moved on from the corporate law for Boeing and other clients. While her career was only intermittently satisfying, she did know legal work of some kind was what got her juices flowing the most.

“I have a high need for a lot of challenge,” she said. “What makes me happiest is solving complicated problems.”

For a while, she could balance the boring work with meeting that need through the novels. After all, her fictional alter ego, Seattle attorney Annie MacPherson, solved complicated problems, too. And at the time Janet broke through, heroines like Annie MacPherson were just what the publishing industry was looking for. Mystery authors like Sue Grafton, Sharyn McCrumb and Sara Paretsky, with tough, sexy, self-sustaining heroines, were just completing their ascents into the sales stratosphere.

“I hit a moment in time where what I was selling was what they were looking for,” Janet said. “They wanted women protagonists, a strong regional flavor, nobody who was a cop or an FBI agent.”

That said, breaking in wasn’t a slam-dunk. Janet did what most aspiring authors did in the pre-Internet era, which was write dozens of letters to agents whose listings were found in the annual Writers Market reference books. “No luck,” she said in reference to her efforts to get attention for “Sea Of Troubles,” which was actually completed in 1989. “And I must have paid a fortune for copying and postage.”

But, Janet added, “I got encouraging rejection letters. That kept me going.”

And, at last, she broke through, with a small Bay Area press called Perseverance Press — an outfit so small, Janet said, that at the time it put out just one book a year. At the time, Janet was working in the state capital city of Olympia and recalls regularly visiting the small mystery bookshop there — Whodunit Books, which is still around — to babysit her book.

Then, mysterious good things happened. “Sea Of Troubles” got a positive review in The New York Times, even though it had never been submitted for one as far as Janet knew. (The reviewer said that “the novel has “an intelligent heroine, a glorious setting, an ingenious murder and a romance that doesn’t overwhelm the crime-solving procedures.”) A buyer for Fawcett/Ballantine books spotted it, and eventually a mass-market imprint publisher — Ivy Books — picked up the paperback rights.

213NAYCZHVL._SL500_AA140_That led to a new deal which saw her second Annie MacPherson book, “Practice To Deceive,” come out in hardcover as well as paperback. And led to her developing a public presence as an author. She attended the major mystery-writer conferences — Bouchercon, Malice Domestic and Left Coast Crime among them — and became active in the Sisters In Crime organization. She made friends among the Northwest writer community. Some of those she got close to were Emerson, Elkins, Huebner, Bellingham’s Audrey Peterson and Seattle historical-mystery writer K.K. Beck.

That part was fun. The actual making-the-books part, not so much.

“For me,” she said, “the process of writing just isn’t fun.”

210BY75NRRL._SL500_AA140_There were other factors, however, more beyond her control. After three books, her sales were steady but flat, trapping her in what she called “the comfortable midlist.” “Practice To Deceive” had done slightly better than “Sea Of Troubles,” and “A Vintage Murder” had done no worse than “Practice,” but neither represented the great leap forward that author and publisher both hoped for. That was being reflected in her publisher’s so-so support for the books; Janet’s regional tours to promote them were largely self-financed.

“Going from the midlist to something more probably wasn’t going to happen,” Janet said. “I probably wasn’t going to make that leap into Sue Grafton territory. My publisher didn’t see me having gold foil covers.” That’s the point, she said, where “they put you in a box and tell you where you belong.”

By 1995, she said, “I realized I was getting bogged down with the writing.”
Part of the reason for that were the other factors more within her control. In 1992, Janet had traded in her administrative-law judgeship for part-time private practice, dealing with worker-compensation cases.

And in 1994, as work wrapped up on “A Vintage Murder,” she and her longtime boyfriend got married. Soon after, Jim — her husband — started work on launching a company dedicated to geriatric care management, and Janet found herself increasingly invested in getting that business up on wheels.

By 1996, Janet had lost interest in Annie Number Four. “I was struggling with the outline and character development stage. I wasn’t happy with my progress,” she said.

So she went to Ivy, her publisher, and asked to be let out of her two-book deal.

“They were very gracious,” she said. “I choose to believe they were disappointed, but they didn’t give me any grief.”

It was a good time to get out, Janet recalled. “The number of publishers were decreasing, and editors were getting fired left and right. My editor was involuntarily retired. People were scared.”

There were no regrets, nor any time for them. From their West Seattle home base, Janet and Jim’s business, Elder Care Solutions, launched in 1997. Janet kept her law license active, and eventually helped steer the business in a legal direction. By 2000, things were going well enough that she let go of her other legal work.

“It was a very, very satisfying time,” she said.

Everything went fine, in fact, until Jim died unexpectedly in August 2004.

“I had to regroup and rethink,” she said.

Little more than a year later, Janet created the Seattle eldercare law practice she has today. “It was the logical thing to do,” she said.

And today, it’s a thriving business. “Unfortunately, we’ve got a lot of bad people out there trying to take advantage of Grandma,” she said.

And things are just as satisfying for Janet on a personal level. She has a new man in her life. And even though he relocated to Arizona not long ago after being laid off from his Seattle job, she’s making it work, spending about 10 days a month in Tucson with him.

That happiness means leaving her mystery-book days in the past. She’s not even a particularly voracious reader of them. She still loves her old favorites like P.D. James, however, and calls Florida author Carl Hiaasen’s novels her “go-to airplane books.”

And she’s left her days an author in the past, too. Well, mostly.

She laughed as she recalled a moment from earlier this year in which she caught her practice’s office manager, during a slow day, reading one of her books — totally unaware that the author was her employer.

“I asked her what she was reading, and she was so embarrassed to be caught that she just said, ‘Oh, just some crap.’ I asked her who the author was, and she looked at the cover. It took her a moment to figure out that I was that Janet L. Smith.

‘I didn’t mean ‘crap!'” the office manager howled.

Janet teased her about it. “‘Not only are you reading on the job,” she recalled saying, “but you’re reading fluff!’ She had to tell everybody in the office about it.”

And that’s about the sum of her literary legacy, she said.

“It’s a trivia fact of my life,” she said. “Not much more than that.”

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I suppose it’s both good and bad that I notice with surprise that it’s been nearly a week since my last blog post.

Good, because I have been busy.

Bad because it’s not been all about book-writing. (I won’t bore you with the Homerian epic saga of my Saturn and its failing catalytic converter.)

Good, because there has been a lot of book stuff in there, anyway.

Bad, in that for the passage of a week, there’s still so much I’m waiting on. And I don’t have the patience to be patient.

But let me catch you up on the good stuff.

As you might recall, 11 days I earlier I live-blogged from the hearings of the state Clemency and Pardons Board in Olympia as I trolled for new cases of crime, punishment and redemption to write about.

One of those cases jumped out at me far more than the others — a case in which one man (with two accomplices) held up another in a Seattle-area drug deal, tied him up, stuffed him in a duffel bag and dumped him in a freezing river to die. Only, somehow, the guy lived. And, 12 years later, at the hearings, he spoke in support of his attacker’s plea to be released from prison. (Or, technically, as the victim made clear, he was “not opposing” his assailant’s release.)

You might remember I wrote: “This guy is fascinating … I gotta talk to him.”

As it turns out, that man, Les LeMieux, found me … by doing a Google search on the hearing and finding my blog. That led to an exchange of e-mails and a phone call last week in which we made plans to meet. He’s expressed interest in sharing his story with me.

At this point, we’re talking about meeting for lunch in Tacoma on Thursday. (Assuming my damn car cooperates, of course.)

The same day, I exchanged e-mails with the paralegal with whom I deal on Clemency and Pardons Board matters at the state Attorney General’s Office.
If I want copies of the court files, police documents and correspondence of each case heard before the board, I have to formally request them through her.

At first, she told me that fulfilling my requests — for partial and complete files on six of the nine cases heard that day — would take 90 days. That means that to get my hands on the file concerning Aaron Borrero, the imprisoned attacker, I’d have to wait until a week or two before Christmas.

Not good. Not if I want to produce a book on this case in six months. So I wrote back and said, well, what if I request just the Borrero file for now? Could I have that one in, say, 30 days? And she allowed that that was possible. So I may have my hands on the factual backbone of this story in three weeks or so. Definite good news.

But, of course, there’s one big missing piece in this puzzle — the cooperation of Borrero himself. To that end, I sent a letter last week to him at the state prison on McNeil Island, where he resides in minimum custody. If I’m lucky, I’ll hear back from him — or somebody close to him — by the end of the week. If I’m luckier still, I’ll hear that he too is willing to work with me. I have every reason to think I’ll be that lucky, though — he’s got nothing but incentive to share his story as he waits on the governor to decide his fate, and that’s a process that could take several months. Having received a thumbs-up from the Clemency and Pardons Board, it behooves him to make his case for early release more compelling in the governor’s eyes. Especially since she has been known to overturn the positive recommendations of her handpicked panel.

But, for now, I wait.

In the meantime, though, there’s plenty of stuff to work on. Novels and short stories. Other stories based on Clemency and Pardons Board cases (on any given day, I read documents or write correspondence on three to five cases from among the dozen or so I have in play).

And there’s platform-building exercises. For one, I was recently invited to write for Reading Local: Seattle, and have been working on my first project for those folks: A review of a new historical true-crime book called “The Road Out Of Hell” and a profile of its author, Anthony Flacco. In fact, I’ll be interviewing Flacco tonight at his home in my hometown of Bainbridge Island.

For two, I’m writing a two-part series on how to get book publicity in the news media for another Seattle-based literary collective called 1st Turning Point. One part has been delivered; the second part will be delivered by week’s end. I’ll share the links with you when they’re online.

For three, I’m developing a series of Q&A with authors for this blog. First up will be an interview with Janet L. Smith, a Seattle writer who published three well-regarded mystery novels between 1990 and 1995 — and then stopped. Why did she stop? I’ll find out tomorrow afternoon, when she and I meet for coffee and an interview. Hopefully that blog will be ready to go in a few days. I’m excited for it; we’re all so obsessed in the literary world with what’s new and what’s hot that we rarely take the time to look back at what was new and hot, say, 20 years ago — and wonder what happened. The reality is that not every author has a long and happy career. Many, like Janet, vanish from the scene. Don’t ever you wonder why? I do.

So, that’s me for now. Hopefully, a week from now, I’ll have much more to report — and have reported some of it well before that week elapses.

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One of my favorite writers groups on Facebook is the Suspense/Thrillers Writers groups, moderated by Denver author Pat Bertram. Why? Because it’s not just an idle aggregate of like-minded folk, but an active hotbed of moderated discussion among prominent authors and would-be authors alike. You don’t need to work in the suspense/thriller genre to get a lot of useful mileage out of the perspective shared by these folks — let alone the occasional polite disagreements.

Recent roundtable subjects I especially recommend include managing multiple points of view, naming characters, developing characters, coping with negative reviews and dealing with how much sex to put in stories. All are well-attended. And I took a lot away from each one.

Today, the topic is one near and dear to my wanna-be’s heart: How to promote yourself and your book well before the book is ready, led by Seattle-area mystery author Ann Charles. (She’s a member of a group dedicated to author self-promotion strategies well worth your time called 1st Turning Point.)The discussion goes on as long as it goes on (usually a few days), and once you join the group (simply by clicking “Join This Group”) you can chime in with the discussion if you’re so inclined.

And the discussion on this one is pretty damn good so far. Need proof? A few people on there say that they don’t understand the question!

The best part of these discussions is that if I see a comment from somebody whose words particularly resonate with me, I can add them as a friend on Facebook and continue a more personal discussion of the topics on my own.

And, it should go without saying that if you aren’t already signed up on Facebook, you should be. It is simply the easiest way I know (not to mention the most fun and the least costly) to build a tailored community of friends, fellow writers, fans and potential future fans. It should be one of the first building blocks in any writer’s platform — especially those looking to get established.

I have nearly 1,300 friends on Facebook. And because I’ve put in the hard work of cultivating these friends — many of whom I might never meet in person — I feel certain of selling at least 500 copies of my book out of the gate when I’m ready to go. For a first-time author, that’s huge. And I owe it all to this wonderfully intuitive social networking medium, which is where I’ll be at least half of everybody you know has a presence.

Oh, and it’s free. For a first-time author, that’s even more huge.

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Two weeks ago, I attended the annual Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference in Seatac, just south of Seattle. The PNWA is clear about the conference’s focus — to help unpublished authors gain the industry savvy they need in order to pitch their book projects and possibly even land publishing deals. It is a polite indoor version of a Persian bazaar.

It had been years since I’d attended a writer’s conference, but as an aspiring author with a book in the works, it made sense for me to make some contacts and get an up-close look at how the publishing industry works from the people who populate it.
In my case, I was pretty sure going in that I would be better off self-publishing my book — but I knew that I’d be foolish not to test that belief against the wisdoms of those of represented a potential alternative.

So, here’s one thing I took away:

“Platform” was by far the biggest buzzword of the entire three-day event.

Put simply, “platform” is what an author brings to the table when it comes time to sell and market a book — your credentials, your name recognition within your chosen field, your established abilities and willingness to work your ass off on the book’s behalf.

Why the need for platform? Because another heavily recurrent theme at the conference was this: The days of the publisher bankrolling and handling all of a book’s promotion and sales are over. It’s not just the recession; it’s a fundamental; shift in the economy of book publishing to meet new realities. While the publishers still put your books in all the mainstream distribution pipelines and give you some money or resources for publicity, it’s mostly on you (unless your name is Grisham or King or Cornwell or Evanovich) to make your book move.

If you think being an author means turning in your book and turning to your next one, book publishing isn’t for you and you’re likely to be deeply disappointed at how weak your book sales are. There are simply too many things competing for our attention these days; something that doesn’t even bother to try is unlikely to grab hold of our cerebral lapels.

You simply have to work like mad on a number of fronts to connect your work with the people you want to buy it. You must have a Web site. You must keep a blog. You must have an active presence on social networking sites. You must join associations, give readings, speak before any civic group that will have you. You must write articles in your field and sell them (or give them away). You must throw parties, host signings, appear at festivals, learn how to put yourself in the newspapers and on the radio and on Internet community sites. You often must arrange your own reviews (outside of the big boys like Publishers Weekly and the Library Journal) and put together your own tours. Sometimes you’ll have the help of a publicist, if your publisher pays for it … and sometimes you won’t. That all depends on factors within your publishing house that you can’t control.

In short, you must be out there. (And, really, aren’t most of us writers more than a little out there already?)

To a certain extent, I’m pointing out the obvious. I’m told that the “platform push” is pretty much standard-issue at most writer’s conferences nowadays, and authors like Lissa Warren and Portland’s Christina Katz are carving out a credible niche by helping would-be authors define and develop their platforms. And virtually everybody else in the business, like literary agent and popular blogger Nathan Bransford, hammers the point home every opportunity they get.

Then again, you might be surprised by how many people haven’t yet received the memo. On the first day of the PNWA conference, when the platform push was driven home at an agents’ panel discussion, I observed several dozen deeply disappointed faces all around me — mostly on the large number of middle-aged and elderly folks at the conference looking to make deals for their memoirs. Those folks, at least, harbored dreams of making the big time in old-school style.

It’s a beautiful dream. But that’s all it is, folks.

The good news for me: I knew all this going in, because I’d been doing my homework for months. And I actually look forward to it. I frankly think that being a reclusive Thomas Pynchon type would be boring, and the appeal of his “mystique” is utterly lost on me. I look forward to promoting my book because I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than use something I believe in to connect with people who might want to hear about it (that, is, that doesn’t involve the words, “I’d like to talk to you about Jesus”). I not only want to collect readers, I want to collect friends. And, as a longtime member of the news media, I have a few ideas about how that might smartly be done.

In fact, if you’re here, it’s just possible that maybe I’ve already figured it out. Maybe.

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