Thursday, 27 September 2012

A Sudden Reduction in the Number of Wings by Zoë Sharp

Next week sees the start of the Bouchercon Mystery Convention 2012. I, along with many hundreds of other crime fiction fans and authors, will be making my way to Cleveland Ohio for the event.

And for the majority of us that means entrusting ourselves to <gasp> the airlines.

Let’s face it, unless you’re one of the rarified few who happens to have a sparkly new LearJet 85 on permanent standby, this means entering the special hell that is today’s modern airport.

Passengers―who are so often viewed as a necessary evil only there to make the day-to-day running of the airline more difficult―are extruded from plastic check-in desk, via Duty Free shopping to plastic departure gate, and squirted down a toothpaste tube onto a plastic aircraft, where they’re told to sit down, shut up and don’t annoy the staff before being fed plastic food with plastic cutlery.

Last month I flew to Greece, into a tiny airport with only two gates. (Well, if I’m being picky it had actually two doors leading from the same lounge.) No tubes, we merry passengers were actually trusted to amble across the tarmac without behind shepherded every step of the way to our waiting aircraft. It had real steps to front and rear doors, with a charming lady checking seat numbers who instructed those sitting closer to the rear of the plane they needed to go “Back side!” to climb aboard.

Ah, it all takes me back to a simpler time.

But the reality of next week’s flight will be having to remove half my clothes to get through security, and allowed to carry on board only a micro amount of anything even vaguely squishy, never mind actually liquid. I’m not looking forward to having to clear Immigration in Atlanta and then make an onward flight for Cleveland. Or trailing luggage single-handed along miles of tiled corridors.

But actually being in the air? That I do still enjoy. For one thing, the views are stunning, of mountains and landscapes that are totally different from the way they appear on the ground. Even the most industrial cities have a certain beauty from the air.

I’ve had some ‘interesting’ flights, sure. I’ll draw a veil over making an unscheduled approach into JFK with one engine shut down and rows of fire engines lining each side of the runway, or the ground crew having to clear the runway of sheep so we could set down by helicopter in the Scilly Isles off the Cornish coast.

Mostly, I think the memorable flights are down to the cabin crew―good or bad. There was one dominatrix on American who came round with the food cart and growled, “Chicken or beef?”

When I had the temerity to ask for more information about the chicken dish, she put her hands on her hips and said, “Honey, it’s airline food. It’s chicken. Cluck, cluck.”

But the best in-flight service is done with style and humour and for that SouthWest wins hands down. I’ve heard better stand-up comedy routines on SouthWest flights than on Open Mic nights, that’s for sure. Here are a few pearls:

 “We don’t anticipate any problems with our aircraft today … or I would have called in sick!”

“If you’re travelling with children ― we’re sorry. Fit your own oxygen mask before helping them. If you’re travelling with two children, pick the one you like best. If you don’t like either of them, at least pick the one with the most potential …”

Whispered over the mic after a late-evening takeoff, with the cabin lights low: “You are all feeling very sleepy… You don’t want any drinks… Nuts give you gas…”

“When you leave the aircraft please ensure you have all your belongings with you … or they’ll be on eBay tomorrow …”

And there was that wonderful safety briefing skit on an old UK comedy show called Not The Nine O’Clock News that included the line:

“In the event of an emergency there will be a loss of cabin pressure and a sudden reduction in the number of wings …”

So, Hardboiled Crew, what horror stories or moments of comedy do you have to report from your forays into the air? Come on, give me something to look forward to!

This week’s Word of the Week is propugnation, from Shakespeare, meaning a defence, from the Latin pro for, and pugnare to fight.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Under Review by Zoë Sharp

Once again the thorny subject of reviews has raised its head in recent days―and particularly ugly it looks in the cold light of day, too. Reviewing has always been a matter of opinion, but up until relatively recently I always assumed it was, at least, the honest opinion of the reviewer, good or bad.


Not the case, it seems.


Most authors are delicate flowers and our fragile little egos are crushed by stinging criticism―especially the kind that’s doled out anonymously—but I try not to let unfavourable reviews affect me by the simple expedient of not reading them unless someone else has told me I really ought to.


Now, I fully admit this may seem like the Ostrich Method of Problem Solving (stick your head in the sand and hope the problem goes away by itself) but hey, it works for me. I read somewhere recently that writers take more criticism in a year than most people have to face in a lifetime, so a little avoidance occasionally is more than understandable, in my view.


But although critical reviews may hurt, that doesn’t mean I’d ever manufacturer glowing reports on my work. Nor would I ever take swipes at another writer from behind the safety of an online avatar.


That doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it, but as far as I know they can’t lock you up for that—not yet, at least. The closest I’ve come to this form of BSP (Blatant Self-Publicity) was, some years ago, considering sending out books to people I knew who might possibly enjoy them on the proviso that, if they did, they might like to write a review somewhere.


This grand plan for world domination never made it past the consideration stage.


Mainly, I think, because I find it very difficult to solicit praise. It’s a little bit like my very first UK publisher. Two years after they’d been publishing my books, my editor had still not invited me out for coffee, never mind lunch. So much, I thought, for the wine-you-and-dine-you attitude that I’d been led to believe prevailed. Eventually, my agent at the time bullied her into it, which I felt rather defeated the object. After all, they should value their authors enough to do that kind of thing automatically. And if you have to beg, it’s surely not worth having.


I feel much the same way about reviews—if someone enjoys the book enough to say so spontaneously, that’s absolutely wonderful. But if you have to ask them to comment …


I found I simply couldn’t bring myself to do it.


When I launched my first e-book last year—the e-thology of Charlie Fox short stories—I gave away fifty copies via my newsletter list to people in the hopes that, if they enjoyed the collection they might be prepared to say so. But I didn’t chase them afterwards, despite being told I should, and I certainly didn’t specify that only effusively positive reviews were acceptable.


I can’t even rally support from the online community to vote down less-than-enthusiastic reviews on Amazon, as I know some authors do. If they’re genuine and not somebody hiding behind a pseudonym, then they’re entitled to say if they didn’t enjoy the book. As long as they don’t give away rampant plot spoilers, I shall deal with their criticism by the Ostrich Method mentioned above. C’est la vie.


As for the infamous sock-puppets that seem to be rife at the moment, the practice mystifies me. I know authors spend a lot of time listening to the voices in their heads—or, in my case, the people I keep locked in my basement—but that doesn’t mean I’d ever let them out in public. And I would find writing glowing reviews of my own work so cringingly embarrassing, never mind throwing rocks at other authors I considered my ‘rivals’.


What rivals? I mean, aren’t we all in this together? Unless you can churn out a book every couple of days, surely even the most prolific authors can’t write fast enough to keep a keep reader supplied all year round? In which case, isn’t it in every writer’s best interest to keep readers reading by recommending other similar books they might enjoy?


Ah … just me then.


The problem now is that I’ve been looking for a couple of non-book-related products—a mesh-lined shoulder bag for travelling, and a mosquito-repellent wristband. Some of the reviews on sites like Amazon claim they’re the best thing since the proverbial sliced bread. Others state they’re a total waste of money. Do I believe either, or are the good ones put-up jobs from paid reviews or employees of the manufacturer, and the bad ones spiteful digs from jealous rivals?




Not all criticism is a bad thing, of course. Sometimes it can be highly entertaining. I offer these examples as a case in point:


The first is the by-now infamous review of the hair-removal product Veet For Men, which has been viewed thousands of times and caused great amusement.


The second is the brilliant critique of the food on a Virgin flight from India, sent to Sir Richard Branson.


And finally, the hilarious reviews on the BIC For Her ballpoint pens.


So, Collective Crew, what are your opinions on reader reviews? Do you read them, write them, solicit them, take any notice? And what about other items, not just books? Have we come full circle and are back to word-of-mouth by trusted friends as the only true recommendation?


Or are all our friends in on the conspiracy, too …


This week’s Word of the Week is trichotillomania, meaning an abnormal desire to pull out one’s hair, from the Greek trich- the stem of thrix, meaning hair, and thus trichologist—the person who cuts your hair.


And finally, a little gentle BSP, if I may be so bold. I was honoured to be asked to contribute to the excellent MAKING STORY: Twenty-one Writers on How They Plot, available on both Amazon UK and Editor Timothy Hallinan has done a wonderful job of pulling all this disparate information together, and it should prove an invaluable resource.


See, when it’s other people’s work, I find it much easier to praise it!









Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Out of the Gutter Online: Brit Grit Alley

Out of the Gutter Online: Brit Grit Alley: Brit Grit Alley features news and updates on what's happening down British crime fiction's booze and blood soaked alleyways. By Paul D. Brazill. See what's happeing this week.