Maine Crime Wave, Sisters in Crime 30th anniversary, online workshops — lots of great stuff for spring!

It’s kind of like Groundhog Day — if the kitty doesn’t want to go outside, it’s still winter.

Is it possible winter is nearly over? It almost feels like… wait for it… no, ha ha! It’s Maine, come on. We’re not out of the woods, or rather the snow-ice-wind-sub-zero temperatures, yet.

But there’s hope, and with hope comes a whole bunch of great spring events that I want to let you know about.

My spring tour season starts out with the WZID Women’s Expo in Manchester, N.H. Right, I know it’s not technically spring on Saturday, March 11, but we can pretend, right? I’ll be at the Sisters in Crime New England table from 12:30 to 2 p.m. and would love to see some of my NH friends — as well as any others who are traveling through. Sisters in Crime is a fantastic organization that supports writers, both male and female, and I’ve benefited greatly from it.

Also as part of the organization’s 30th anniversary gala, I’ll be at Biddeford’s McArthur Library with my world-famous slide show at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, April 20, and at the Wiscasset Public Library Saturday, April 29, with a bunch of Maine mystery writers. More details on that one coming soon.

Speaking of bunches of writers, April also means it’s time for the awesome Maine Crime Wave! I’ll be on a panel of recently published writers talking about how we got there, part of this day-long fest of mystery and crime writing. It’s at the University of Southern Maine in Portland and a great, great day for both writers and readers. It kicks off the night before when Tess Gerritsen (yes! She lives in Maine!) is given the inaugural CrimeMaster Award.

A BIGGGG event on my calendar is the Friends of the Haverhill Public Library annual meeting on June 14 in Haverhill, Massachusetts, where I’ll be the guest speaker. I was a newspaper reporter at the former Haverhill Gazette way back early in my journalism career and spent a lot of time at the library, so this is a really special kind of “homecoming” for me.

I love talking to readers about writing, books, Maine — anything you want to discuss. I’ll have books to sell and sign at all of these events (and the ones with other writers? They’ll have them, too). But if you just show up to say hi, that’s great, too.

And I’m really excited to be part of Short and Helpful Online Writer Workshops. My workshop, Backstory and Flashback, will be available in May and I urge all writers, aspiring and established, to check out this great program!

And if you can’t get enough of me, be sure to check out my podcast, Crime & Stuff, with my sister, artist Rebecca Milliken. What’s it about? Crime. And stuff. Of course. You can find out everything you need to know about it at crimeandstuffonline.com.

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries, on Twitter at @mmilliken47, and check out her website, maureenmilliken.com for information, events and to sign up for email updates. Cold Hard News and No News is Bad News are available through S&H Publishing and all online outlets. Both books are also available in digital audio through Audible and iTunes. Listen to her and her sister, Rebecca, an artist, on their podcast Crime&Stuff.

 

 

 

How Maine is keeping working writers (and others) from making money

Maine is a state that values hard work. Most Mainers, no matter what their political affiliation, agree.

It’s necessary to work hard in a state that has a small economy, vast stretches of empty space with very little public transportation and other issues that make a more leisurely, high-paying life difficult. The evolution of the digital age has helped a lot of Mainers — and there are many — who either have to forge their own career or work a second job. The new “gig economy” is perfect for the state.

Or maybe not.

Many who laud self-employed workers, artists, craftsmen and entrepreneurs would probably be surprised to know that legislation passed three years ago and championed by Gov. Paul LePage keeps hard-working self-employed writers, artists and entrepreneurs from making money. Money that our counterparts in neighboring New Hampshire and Massachusetts happily rake in.

As a published author, I’m always looking for ways to expand my platform and get my work out to people who may enjoy it. I consider writing a career, though my mystery novels bring in a tiny fraction of the money my late journalism career did. When writing colleagues from other states over the past two years trumpeted the benefits of creating audio versions of novels and the joys of podcasting, I was all in. I’m a creative person who likes to do new things, loves to mess around with technology and all its benefits and, as I said, is always looking for ways to get my work to people who can enjoy it. As a writer with a very small publisher, the digital sales world is essential to me given the difficulty of getting books into stores.

Amazon keeps a huge chunk of what listeners pay for the audio books produced by Audible which is the only game in town for digital audio. Royalties for writers and producers are small. But it pays a $25 bonus to writers and producers when a new subscriber to the service starts with that writer and producers book. Since I partnered with a professional narrator, Trudi Knoedler, on my two books, we were each in line to get $25 whenever a new Audible listener bought one of my books. The bonuses are a lure to authors to produce their books with the service — a way to make more money so the tiny royalties don’t hurt so much. The fact I, not my publisher, own the audio rights to my books seemingly made this a great opportunity for me.

 

The cover for the audio version of Cold Hard News.
The cover for the audio version of Cold Hard News.

So imagine my surprise a year ago when the audio version of my first book, Cold Hard News, came out and I found that I wasn’t eligible to get the $25 bonus for new subscribers who bought my book first. Trudi, who lives in California gets it. But I don’t. I now have two books out on Audible — No News is Bad News came out two months ago — and while it’s not a fortune that ACX, the production arm of Audible , is keeping from me, it’s money that I could use. If I lived in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, or almost any other state, I’d be getting it.

Six states are shut out of those bonuses. I tried to find out last year from ACX  what the Maine state legislation is that keeps us from getting the money, and got a boilerplate response telling me I wasn’t eligible because I live in Maine. I already knew that. Further research didn’t turn up any legislation I could find that covered that type of payout.

Surely, it’s some kind of mistake, I thought. There’s some legislation that deals with some other thing and this bonus — so minor in the world of big money, but meaningful to writers — is collateral damage that no one was aware of.

I still hadn’t found the answer last month, when I attended a panel on how to create a podcast. My sister had been after me for some time to do one, but I didn’t feel the time was right. Now I did. Not only would it be a nice addition to my author platform, but it would be a lot of fun. The speakers on the panel, Rebecca Lavoie and Kevin Flynn, the creators of the Crime Writers On… podcast, talked about how they monetize theirs with an Amazon button. That button allows listeners to go to their website and click through to Amazon to shop. A small portion of what those buyers spend goes to the podcast owners. It costs the shoppers nothing and everyone is happy. Easy peasy. Or so my sister and I thought.

We’re producing our podcast, Crime&Stuff, on a shoestring. A little, tiny broken one that you have to tie halfway up the shoe. We have a “recording studio” in a conference room at Think Tank Coworking, made possible through the generosity of  Director Patrick Roche. We bought some equipment and paid for basics for a website for a year, a total of about $300. We created and maintain our website ourselves and my sister, Rebecca, designed our logo (necessary to get a podcast published on iTunes). We researched how to “do” audio, downloaded the software, and are learning as we go. We have no money for a sound engineer or any better equipment than what we’ve got, including the ancient balky laptop that serves as our soundboard, the website creator, as well as my main writing computer. We joke that it’s the podcast you’d do if you didn’t have anything better to do, but the reality is most people who don’t enjoy banging their heads against a concrete wall the way the Milliken girls do would probably not do it.

candslogofinal-1071x1071-2Don’t get me wrong, I’m not whining about the work. We are having a lot of fun and no creative process comes without an effort. But the thought was sweet of being able to make a few dollars to help offset our costs, and maybe even compensate us a little for the hours a week a it takes to record, edit and produce it, update the website and everything else.

When I researched the monetization, though, I found out that just like those $25 bonuses from Audible, Mainers are shut out of the Amazon Associates program.

I worked a little harder this time to find answers, now that I knew the program had a name, and here’s what I  found out: Amazon ended it’s program with Maine because the state in 2013 amended its sales tax law to try to get more money from out-of-state online sales.

Here’s how Booksellers This Week described it at the time:

Maine amended its sales tax law “to require remote retailers with a network of online affiliates acting as sales agents in the state to collect and remit sales tax to the state. Now, as it has done in a number of other states with similar laws, Amazon has fired” the Mainers in the Associates program.

And a 2013 Portland Press Herald story at the time said::

“LePage … has said (the amendment) will ensure that companies that do business in Maine pay sales tax. The governor, along with the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, has argued that uncollected sales taxes put Maine-based businesses at a competitive disadvantage. The law passed with broad bipartisan support, but was opposed by lawmakers in the House who are aligned with the conservative tea party movement.”

The story said the state estimates it loses about $20 million a year from out-of-state online purchases that aren’t taxed. Mainers making the purchase are supposed to report them when they file their state taxes. The state estimates less than 10 percent do, according to the Press Herald story.

“Amazon’s decision appears designed to limit its exposure to the portion of Maine’s law that broadens the definition of a company’s physical presence in the state,” the story says.

The story also quotes a LePage tax policy official as saying that while the law’s goal is to get some of the lost revenue from online sales, they still don’t expect to get much. So, not a whole lot of benefit for the state from the amendment.

Meanwhile, Amazon keeps rolling along, dropping its Maine associates probably not much of a big deal and the sting of Maine’s law a little mosquito that it can wave away. Whatever you may think of Amazon, writers — from the self-published to the small-published and even the big-published — rely on it. So do other entrepreneurs and artists, particularly those who benefited from using that Amazon button on websites and blog posts to reap a little bit of the millions and millions and millions of dollars Amazon pulls in a year from people like me and you. Because I betcha you use it even as you sneer at it.

My audio book partner in California felt so bad she was making more money off the recordings than I am, she offered to split hers with me. I told her no. She worked hard to make them sound good and deserves to be compensated. No reason someone in California should be making less money because of a Maine law.

I never thought I’d ever agree with the tea party on anything, but it seems to me as though the state passed a law that it doesn’t expect to benefit much from. Designed to keep Maine companies competitive, it’s taking money out of the hands of the get-up-and-go hard workers who are putting their hearts, creativity, time and money on the line to make a living in the state of Maine. Doing it while we watch our counterparts in New Hampshire and Massachusetts and 42 other states make money that’s being withheld from us.

Part of me wonders if the governor and Legislature understood what the fallout would be when they decided to give a big middle finger to the Internet despite the fact it would have little impact on revenue.

I plan to write to my representatives asking they reconsider the amendment, or somehow fix it in a way that may soften Amazon’s stance and help out the Mainers who are losing money while still accomplishing the goal they’d hoped for in the first place. I’m not sure what that solution is, but I have to believe it exists. Other states seem to manage it.

Don’t get me wrong, I realize Amazon, too, is punishing the little guy by “firing” its Maine Associates. Somehow, though, I think my plea will resonate more with my fellow Mainers, no matter what their politics. Mainers who admire people who aren’t afraid to put it out there and are only asking they can get something in return for their hard work.

If you agree, let your representatives know. The writer, artist or entrepreneur in your life, or down your street or across the coffee shop from you, will appreciate it.

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries, on Twitter at @mmilliken47, and check out her website, maureenmilliken.com for information, events and to sign up for email updates. Cold Hard News and No News is Bad News are available through S&H Publishing and all online outlets. Both books are also available in digital audio through Audible and iTunes. Listen to her and her sister, Rebecca, an artist, on their podcast Crime&Stuff.

Writers, the reviews are in! We hope…

I was thrilled to find the complete works of Louisa May Alcott on Kindle today. It contained every single thing she wrote professionally, complete with notes and original illustrations, for $2.99. While I checked out the product information to make sure it was what it said it was, my eyes strayed to the reviews. And there, at the top, was a reader who “took away a star” because the collection included stories the person didn’t want to read.

Ouch. Tough crowd out there.

Louisa May Alcott is NOT thinking here "Geez, someone just dunned me a star on Amazon for putting too much stuff in my complete works collection."
Louisa May Alcott is NOT thinking here “Geez, someone just dunned me a star on Amazon for putting too much stuff in my complete works collection.”

Louisa May Alcott doesn’t need the stars. Even if she hadn’t been dead for more than 125 years, she’s got pretty solid cred and her books are sellers.

But for those of us writing in the 21st century, stuff like that may seem like a major blow. Writers are dependent in many ways on Amazon, whether they’re self-published or published by the biggest house out there. And that means what happens with our books on Amazon is the subject of a lot of attention and talk — including the reviews, what they mean and what impact they have on everything from how the book is promoted on Amazon to the book sales and author rankings.

Some authors got all worked up last month when Amazon announced it was cracking down on incentivized reviews for products sold on the site. Those are reviews in exchange for a product — be it a book, a vacuum cleaner or anything else.

I’m not sure why writers would get so upset if they’re doing things the way they’re supposed to. Many writers and publishers give away books in exchange for an honest review, and that’s not what Amazon is focusing on. As far as I’m concerned, that exchange is no different from sending a free book to a reviewer at a newspaper, magazine, website or blog. The writer and publisher are rolling the dice that the reviewer will like the book.

Still, Amazon now weights its star rankings toward verified purchases, and that doesn’t include free books. (Newer reviews and whether other readers found the review helpful also add weight to the star ranking).

I’m not aware of many traditionally published writers who try to play games with the Amazon algorithm. Those of us with traditional publishers don’t control how our books are presented on the page and our publishers play by the rules. I don’t try to delve too deeply into it, because it makes my head hurt. “Algorithm” is not a word I use very frequently, nor is it a concept I want to spend any time thinking about.

I know there are writers who get their “friends and family” to all write reviews, but I think that’s a fairly obvious ploy that most readers can see through. I’m thrilled when someone I don’t know reviews one of my books — not only because it means a total stranger read my book and liked it, but because it adds legitimacy to my feedback. Reviews with criticisms? Bring them on, if they’re sincere. It means you read the book and cared enough about what you read to feel something about it.

I once submitted a story to a self-publishing site, just for kicks, and charged 99 cents for it. One of the reviewers gave me one star and the review said, “This was okay for the price.” That’s the entire review, right there. At first I thought, “why did this guy even bother?” But then it occurred to me that I must have pissed someone off enough that they want to submarine me with a one-star damning-with-faint-praise review. Next to the couple other reviews, all which had four or five stars, it looked a little silly and ended up not bothering me at all.

Here’s how I feel about it all: As far as pure marketing to readers who are looking for a good book to read, nothing helps like a sincere, positive review. When someone compliments one of my books, I often urge them to write a review on Amazon or Goodreads. I find many people are shy about it. “Don’t worry,” I tell them. “Just say what you told me.”

The bottom line is that I’d like people to read my books. If they like them enough, I hope they tell others. Any writer who takes what he or she is doing seriously would say the same.

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EVENT: Maureen and fellow Maine Crime Writer Jen Blood will be at the Belgrade Lakes annual holiday fair, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, December 3, at the Belgrade Community Center for All Seasons. Books for signing and sale. Stop by and say hi and get some Christmas shopping done!

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries, on Twitter at @mmilliken47, and check out her website, maureenmilliken.com for information, events and to sign up for email updates. Cold Hard News and No News is Bad News are available through S&H Publishing and all online outlets. Both books are also available in digital audio through Audible and iTunes. 

Want to do what’s in your heart? Get off Maggie’s Farm and play it f-ing loud

I read an Eleanor Roosevelt quote tonight on Facebook: “Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticized anyway.” I wasn’t the only one who “liked” it. Lots of people did. About 200 the last time I looked, with a lot of comments by people saying they do the same thing.

But let’s be honest. Roosevelt’s quote is more about having the courage to follow “in your heart what you believe to be right” than about the amount of criticism you get either way. Almost everyone, from the ones we’re friends with on Facebook to the ones we work with and live with to the ones we read about in People magazine, go through life eating shit to some extent because it’s better to eat someone else’s shit than to have it thrown at you.

When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature a couple weeks ago, there was almost as much criticism of him as there was joy. It didn’t end after the prize was announced — the fact the Nobel committee “couldn’t find” Bob (though the fans going to his shows seemed to have no problem) — added more fuel to the anti-Dylan fire. You could feel Roosevelt nodding from her grave. Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. Dylan won’t fit into the tight little box everyone thinks he ought to be in, so he even gets criticized for winning one of the highest honors a writer can.

Don’t worry, though. This isn’t some gushy Dylan fangasm trying to bring you in. If you don’t like him or “can’t take his voice” there’s not much I can say to convince you otherwise. (Though I will say, even if you don’t understand what’s so great about him, I’ll bet your favorite rock star does and worships at his altar).

Bob Dylan goes electric in 1965 and changes the world. (Photo from PBSthisdayinhistory)
Bob Dylan goes electric in 1965 and changes the world. (Photo from PBSthisdayinhistory)

If you still want to understand, though, how driven Dylan was to follow his heart and the price he pays for it, watch the documentary “No Direction Home,” Martin Scorsese’s incredible arc of what happened when Dylan went electric. When Dylan plugs in at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and blasts out “Maggie’s Farm” he knows exactly what he’s doing. The song is the greatest middle finger, musical or otherwise, to others’ expectations. To eating someone else’s shit. It lays out, as clearly as it possibly can, that he’s going to do things his way and his alone, and everyone else can go to hell.

While he’s stunned at the reaction he gets, it doesn’t stop him. He takes off on a tour marked by boos, jeers and death threats from those who want him to be their Bob Dylan, not his own Bob Dylan.

Most people want to live by their hearts, but they can’t. Life may be Maggie’s Farm, but at least there’s a warm barn to sleep in and you get handed a nickel or a dime once in a while. On Maggie’s Farm, even though Dylan “tries so hard to be just like I am, everybody wants you to be just like them.” Few venture out from the farm, because being “just like I am” can be a battle, even if you end up with a Nobel Prize.

And let’s face it, most of those who leave the farm aren’t going to win a Nobel. Or make a lot of money, or get their picture on the cover of a magazine. They do it anyway because their heart won’t let them be anything but “be just like I am.” There’s a satisfaction in that and the life that comes from it, and for those who are creative, what’s created out of it that counts a lot more than Ma and Pa’s nickels and dimes. Those of you who are musicians, artists, writers or do something else that drives you no matter what the price understand.

Dylan was vilified for his 1965 Newport performance. He was. Don’t let the revisionist history, even in “No Direction Home,” fool you. He was booed there and wherever he went and told what he was doing was crap. It obviously hurt him. Despite the pain, he didn’t consider stopping or changing.

Near the end of the Scorsese documentary, he’s backstage with his band before they go out and his exhaustion is obvious. In the same sequence he tells an interviewer, “I just want to go home.”

When he takes the stage, someone in the audience loudly and clearly yells “Judas!”

Dylan leans into the microphone and says, “I don’t believe you.” Plays a couple chords. “You’re a liar.”

Then he turns to The Band, smiles, and yells “Play it FUCKING LOUD.”

That’s the stuff Eleanor Roosevelt was talking about.

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EVENT: Maureen will be one of a dozen mystery and crime writers reading from their works at Noir @ the Bar, 3-5 p.m., Sunday, November 6, Bull Feeney’s in Portland. Also reading will be Brenda Buchanan, Gayle Lynds, Gerry Boyle, Jen Blood, Barb Ross, Lea Wait, Bruce Coffin, Jessie Crocker, Brendan Rielly, Dick Cass and more!. Kelly’s Books to Go will be selling books at the event by all of those who are reading. Come on over for a great afternoon!

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries, on Twitter at @mmilliken47, and check out her website, maureenmilliken.com for information, events and to sign up for email updates. Cold Hard News and No News is Bad News are available through S&H Publishing and all online outlets. Ask for them at your local bookstore! 

 

 

For thirty years, I was that kid on the roof: goodbye, journalism

presscardcrop
And so it began…press card from summer of 1982 internship at the Portland Press Herald.

The night was hot and humid, but not so humid the fireworks weren’t spectacular. In old school newspaper style, Harry, the night editor, had the office girl get some beer and she came back with a 30-pack of Budweiser. Most of the newsroom climbed up the back staircase to the roof of the old Union Leader building on Amherst Street in Manchester, New Hampshire, to watch the show.

Once the fireworks were over, fellow reporter Paula Tracy and I stayed up on the roof, drinking beer and talking. I don’t remember most of the conversation. We were single and 27, so you can imagine. But I remember a lot of laughter as we sat against the brick wall, the city below us, the night sky above us. The beer was warm and the night was humid, but we were kids and we didn’t care.

I’ve thought about that night on and off over the years — a slice of the good old days. A couple weeks ago, as my 33-year journalism career came to an end, a moment from that night came back to me with sudden clarity. Me saying something like, “Aren’t we the f—ng luckiest girls in the world?” and Paula saying, “We f—ing are.” We clinked our beer cans in a toast to ourselves and laughed.

At the dawn of our careers, we were already a couple of old veterans telling war stories, but it was underscored by the giddiness that came from being young, knowing we were kicking butt. Possibility and wonder rolled out ahead of us forever.

We were kids charging at the world full throttle and it was ours to take. We were too young to know it would ever come to an end and wouldn’t have cared or believed anyone who told us it would, because that’s what it means to be that age and hold the world in your hand.

And we were Doing Something Big. Don’t roll your eyes. It’s true and we knew it. The obligation to readers and the community was always there with me, whether it was a feature story about a pumpkin carving contest or a look into why the alderman’s buddy got the paving contract, and everything in between. I grew up in a journalism family and I took the responsibility seriously. Not a day went by when I didn’t feel honored to be part of the absolute foundation of our democracy.

Paula (who became Paula Tracy Cowie soon after) is now a television and freelance outdoors reporter. She’s one of many from those heady days to peel off to forge a different kind of career as the industry changed. When I mentioned that night to her today — by Facebook message, of course — she remembered it clearly. “We had a 30 rack of Bud and watched the fireworks.”

She added, “Getting the job done without cellphones; knocking on doors and asking to use the phone; dictating copy with notes only.”

“Those were the good old days.”

I had a summer job in 1978 at the Bath-Brunswick Times-Record updating the clip file when I was 17. I was a correspondent the summer of 1981 at the Kennebec Journal in Augusta and had a full-fledged reporting internship at the Portland Press Herald the summer of 1982. The day after my last college final — May 11, 1983 — I started at the Biddeford Journal-Tribune. We were a wild group of really young kids that included photographer Bob Bukaty, who has won a Pulitzer Prize, and Joe Battenfeld, who has been a political reporter for the Boston Herald for decades and has won three New England Emmy Awards for reporting. Those two, like many from that era, are still doing great journalism every day.

I worked at the Haverhill (Mass.) Gazette, the New Hampshire Union Leader and most recently the Kennebec Journal (again and where my dad was once managing editor) and Morning Sentinel in Waterville.

And yet my decision to break from journalism comes with no regrets. I’m not crying in my (after work long into the wee hours of the morning way past last call arguing laughing gossiping) beer. I’m thrilled to be a published mystery writer, a new career where I can tell a different kind of truth and work a part of my brain that has been patiently waiting its turn all these years. I also don’t mind doing something else to pay the bills — something that’s not journalism and I can leave behind when I leave the workplace. In fact, I embrace it. Three decades of helping to carry the torch day in and day out can wear a person out.

Newspapers have changed a lot over the past few decades. You don’t need me to tell you that. Those years where we tumbled like puppies through car accidents and puffy features, presidential primaries and city elections, floods and power outages, fires and murders (sometimes both at once) were a lifetime ago.

There’s a lot that can happen when you work at daily newspapers for 33 years straight. Inspiring journalism and shake-your-head-awful crud. We had lots of laughs, but also heart-shredding moments, things that chewed you up and spit you out then stomped on what was left just to make sure.

Despite the wild ride, one thing never changed. Every single day, no matter what the job was, where it was or what was going on in that newsroom, when I walked in I was still that 27-year-old girl who sat on the roof that night drinking warm beer and laughing at a future that seemed as endless and full of possibilities as the New Hampshire night sky, knowing I was one of the lucky ones.

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EVENT: Maureen will be one of a dozen mystery and crime writers reading from their works at Noir @ the Bar, 3-5 p.m., Sunday, November 6, Bull Feeney’s in Portland. Also reading will be Brenda Buchanan, Gayle Lynds, Gerry Boyle, Jen Blood, Barb Ross, Lea Wait, Bruce Coffin, Jessie Crocker, Brendan Rielly, Dick Cass and more!. Kelly’s Books to Go will be selling books at the event by all of those who are reading. Come on over for a great afternoon!

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries, on Twitter at @mmilliken47, and check out her website, maureenmilliken.com for information, events and to sign up for email updates. Cold Hard News and No News is Bad News are available through S&H Publishing and all online outlets. Ask for them at your local bookstore! 

Writing, justice, the Jesuits, Stephen King, Boo Radley and me

It all started with an interesting question, one I hadn’t thought about before, at an author panel I was on Saturday. One multi-hour ride later that featured an interior discussion that ranged from St. Ignatius to Stephen King, with a liberal dose of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I had a startling epiphany about my writing.

Now I’m going to share it with you.

Arlene Kay, Sharon Healy-Yang and I, all members of the Sisters in Crime New England Speakers Bureau, spoke Saturday at Marston Mills Public Library on Cape Cod about “Stealing from the Dead.” As always, these events gallop across all sorts of topics, and one of the questions we were asked was what we think of mysteries in which the villain isn’t brought to justice.

A question from a reader at the Marston Mills Public Library, seen here Saturday, spurred a writing epiphany.
A question from a reader at the Marston Mills Public Library, seen here Saturday, spurred a writing epiphany.

My immediate thought was legal justice, and my response was that books have to have it, or readers are dissatisfied. I know I’ve read books in which the killer gets away with it, and I can’t remember many that sold it so I was happy about it. I told the audience that the one I could think of where it worked perfectly wasn’t a mystery at all, To Kill a Mockingbird.

This would be a major spoiler alert, but the book has been out for more than 50 years, so deal: At the end of the book, Boo Radley kills Bob Ewell, who was attacking Jem and Scout with murderous intent. Atticus, the children’s father, thinks 13-year-old Jem is the one who killed Ewell, and immediately starts fussing over how it should be approached legally, and not covered up. The sheriff, Heck Tate, has a hell of a time, without coming right out and saying it, getting across to Atticus that it was Boo Radley, the town’s perceived boogeyman, who killed Ewell and there’s no way he’s going to charge him.

Atticus is just not getting it, so a frustrated Tate finally spells it out for him, telling him charging the reclusive Radley and bringing him out into the limelight would be a sin. “And I’m not about to have it on my head…Bob Ewell fell on his knife.”

Scout, of course, gets it, telling her father, “It’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockinbird, wouldn’t it?”

The ending pages of that book are some of my favorite in literature, with great moments that still give me chills, and much of that has to do with the pivot Scout’s understanding of Boo takes, and what it says about humans and what we mean to each other. [Yes, alert reader, I HAVE written about that before.]

At Saturday’s panel, fellow author Arlene Kay pointed out that while many in her own books don’t get legal justice, justice is served other ways and that’s the way she prefers it.

My ancient copy of To Kill a Mockingbird.
My ancient copy of To Kill a Mockingbird.

While driving home, I thought about that question and what it really meant for me as a writer, and realized that I’m more in Arlene’s camp that I thought I was. I thought about my To Kill a Mockingbird answer, and realized I was almost there, but missed my own point. Why did the killer not being brought to legal justice work in To Kill a Mockingbird? Duh, Maureen. Because a bigger justice trumped it.

One point of writing is to speak to bigger truths. Even mysteries. Books that just have a plot that everyone lumbers through until the clever sleuth says “Aha!” at the end and marches the bad guys off to jail are just not that interesting.

The truths in my books often have to do with how people relate and the damage they can do to each other — way more than just the damage of the actual murder at the heart of the mystery. While the bad guys get caught at the end (sorry, spoiler) and I presume almost always will, I’m not very interested in the trial or aftermath. Readers can assume legal justice gets served, I always figure. I rarely watch court procedurals, and when I watch true crime shows like 48 Hours Mystery and Dateline, once the guy is caught and the case goes to trial, all I care about is the verdict, not the legal wrangling.

Writers, at least this one, like to think about — shred, agonize over — the thematic elements of their books. Aside from the plot and the murders, what are we trying to SAY? Those truths I mentioned before. Mystery writers seek to make some order in their fictional worlds out of the reality we can find so frustrating and often painful. Thinking about the justice question from Saturday’s forum made me realize that the only role legal justice really plays in my books is as a vehicle for the bigger truths. That I don’t mean to create an ideal world — it’s a murder mystery, after all — but do seek to to make a world where there’s some understanding and a small amount of justice for those who don’t normally get it.

I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic elementary school and a Jesuit college. While the whole religion thing didn’t take with me, some of the lessons did and became part of my moral fabric. Not because of their relation to god, but because of their relation to humans living together on earth.

I don’t remember a big emphasis at my Catholic schools on “an eye for an eye.” I’ve never been interested in reading or writing books with revenge justice or vigilante justice. I don’t ever remember being taught in school or at home that that kind of justice is, well, justified. In fact, a New Hampshire case of vigilante justice angered me so much, it formed the core of Cold Hard News.

St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, always interested me on an intellectual and emotional level. He supported a faith of compassion and believed god and faith were best served by helping those in need. Even the least and most “undeserving” should be helped, and often they were the ones who needed it most, he believed, with friendship and love, without judgment, but with understanding.

Yes, I'm crying. The religion part just didn't appeal to me. But some of the lessons stuck through the decades.
Yes, I’m crying. The religion part just didn’t appeal to me. But some of the lessons stuck through the decades.

Not to go all religious here — my writing, like me, is about as secular as it it can be. But on that long ride home, thinking about justice and how I deal with it in my writing, I realized that it’s always been important to me to give a voice to the misunderstood, to knock down social convention about who is good and who isn’t. Come to think of it, I may owe some of that to Stephen King, too. One of the things that first drew me to King’s writing and keeps me coming back is his empathy for the misfit and misunderstood. Hasn’t everyone at some point been Carrie? Not that extreme, of course, but that character comes out of a deep feeling that people who don’t deserve it can be seriously damaged by the wrongs done by the smug “cool kids” of the world.

I know that when I wrote my first mystery novel, Cold Hard News, as well as the second, No News is Bad News, I wanted to approach it from the point of view of the people who get kicked around a lot, rather than the ones who get to do the kicking. It wasn’t so much a conscious decision, as an approach I felt compelled to take.

I considered the end of To Kill a Mockingbird as I drove home Saturday, that it’s ultimately a book about two justices: real, human justice versus legal justice. An innocent black man dies after being horribly wronged by the legal system. Human justice also fails him — the few who stick up for him are vilified. But in the end, an innocent white man, judged poorly by his community, gets the justice he needs by compassionate people who recognize it and protect him.

That human justice doesn’t triumph so much, but becomes part of the world view of the young girl through whose eyes the story is told. It’s a bittersweet truth, because the reader knows even if she doesn’t, that the small moment of compassion and triumph of human justice is just that, a small moment.

Thinking about all that, I realized that’s been my attitude toward justice in both Cold Hard News and its sequel, No News is Bad News. Too late for the forum, but not for my writing. All because of one little question by a mystery reader; a fellow author who saw the nuances of the question; a boost from St. Ignatius, Stephen King and Boo Radley: and a long ride home. I love when that happens.

EVENT: Maureen joins a dozen other crime and mystery writers at Murder by the Book Friday night and Saturday, Sept. 30 & Oct. 1, at Jesup Library in Bar Harbor, Maine. Come join the fun!

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries, on Twitter at @mmilliken47, and check out her website, maureenmilliken.com for information, events and to sign up for email updates. Cold Hard News and No News is Bad News are available through S&H Publishing and all online outlets. Ask for them at your local bookstore!

 

Reading? A waste of time? Never.

I was going to cram a lot of stuff into this weekend. Lots of stuff.

If you’re like me, you work long hours during the week and weekends become the spillover do-all-the-other-stuff days.

But it’s July. It’s hot as hell out. I have a nice cool porch. And I’d bought a book Saturdayby one of my all-time favorite authors.

I did some of the stuff I needed to do. But not much of it. Hardly any, actually.

I sat on my porch and read instead.

I know some people believe reading is a waste of time. Or if not a total waste, it’s something that should be done when there’s not something “more important” to do.

But I didn’t feel guilty at all about not doing all those things on my long list, even the ones related to my own writing that I’d been putting off.

Taking a vacation from vacation to read. Members of my family do just that at Baxter State Park last year. This wasn't planned, BTW. It just happened.
Taking a vacation from vacation to read. Members of my family do just that at Baxter State Park last year. This wasn’t planned, BTW. It just happened.

Reading should be a top priority. Easily as important as many of the things on your list. More important that a lot of them.

For writers, few things are as beneficial to your craft as reading. Every writer should make time to read for pleasure. I can say this with certainty: if you aren’t a good reader, you’re not going to be a good writer. I always learn about writing from reading. Granted, I learn more from poor writing than good writing. When I’m reading something that’s poorly written, I’m thinking about the writing and what’s wrong with it.

So-so writing — those books that are not great, but not bad — can also be a good lesson. What that writer did, how it could have been done better. It’s hard to be a writer and not think about those things while reading. Hopefully it becomes a tool for your own writing.

It’s good writing that’s the problem. If you’re like me, you get pulled into the story don’t thinking about the writing at all. It seems effortless and you forget you’re reading. You’re just there.

The book I spent the weekend reading is good. Really good. Maybe I’ll talk about it more in a blog post on another day. The author isn’t a mystery writer, but as I start on my third mystery novel, I’m trying to understand what it is that makes his writing so good, while at the same time trying not to wreck the experience by picking it apart while I’m reading. It’s easy to not wreck the experience, because I keep forgetting to think about the writing until I’ve put the book down.

That’s the short lesson today for writers, but even non-writers should take the time to read even when they think they’re “too busy.”

I won’t go into all the reasons reading is important and necessary to life. You’ve heard them all. I will say this, though: Our lives are busy and crammed with duties, obligations, thoughts, conflicts, obsessions. All sorts of things that we don’t choose to think about, but have to get through. We’re poking and swiping at screens, busy busy busy liking and sharing and comparing. It’s very hard, with all the things pulling at us, to get out of our lives and our heads for a few hours.

Pick up a book, a good book, though, and it’s just you and the book. All that other stuff can go away. Nothing is more important than taking that kind of break.

I could go on and on, but it’s still hot out and tomorrow’s Monday.

And I’m only halfway through that book and want to turn off the computer and get back to it.

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. The second in the series, No News is Bad News, was released earlier this month. Follow her on Twitter @mmilliken47 or on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Go to maureenmilliken.com for more information or to sign up for email updates.

EVENT: Maureen will talk about writing, mysteries, Maine and other stuff, sponsored by Maine Today Media, at the Maine Lakes Resource Center, 6 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 10. Go to centralmaine.com for more information and to sign up for this free talk. Light refreshments, of course!

Book group questions? Coming right up!

I was asked recently by a cousin whose book group is reading No News is Bad News, the second in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series, if there were book group questions.

The short answer? “Coming right up!”

My cousin Helene's book group in Silver Spring, Maryland, prompted my questions (and commentary) for Cold Hard News, my first book.
My cousin Helene’s book group in Silver Spring, Maryland, prompted my questions (and commentary) for Cold Hard News, my first book.

I admit, it’s not something I immediately think about providing — weird journalism hours since 1983 means I’ve never been in a book group — and my publisher didn’t ask for any. After Cold Hard News came out, a series of questions and comments from a cousin whose group read it (different cousin, big family) prompted me to come up with some questions for that book, along with some involved commentary to go with each question.

This time around, though, instead of giddily thinking about all the things someone might want to know about the background that led to the questions I formed, I thought more deeply about the point of book discussion questions, no matter what book they’re for.

In general, they should be questions for which there are no wrong answers. The purpose should be to spur further discussion and possibly make readers look at the book from an angle they hadn’t considered before.

One question I’ll never include: If the book were made into a movie, who would play the characters? I know from experience that’s a big one with book groups and readers in general. I joked recently on Facebook that, at the risk of making readers hate me, it’s a question I don’t enjoy answering. Why? It has to do with how I write, how my head works and how reading works. I don’t go into a lot of detail about how characters look when I write them because I believe that readers’ imaginations are fertile enough to draw their own picture and I don’t want to get in the way of that. Some characters in my books are more detailed than others, but none are extensively detailed. When I’m asked that question, I never have a good answer, because the pictures in my head are of my head and I’d no more compare one of those characters to an actor than, well, I would compare myself or my mom or my boss to one. The question stalls me as I struggle to come up with something to please the asker, but I never can follow through because I can’t come up with something to please me.

That said, I realize readers will play that game, and that’s fine with me. Once they’ve read the book, the characters they have in their heads are theirs to do with as they please.

One big resolve on my part was that the questions I’d come up with wouldn’t invite negative responses about the plot, the writing style or choices I’d made. For instance, “Did the flashback scenes confuse you?” or “Do you feel any characters didn’t ring true?” or “What were the holes in the plot?” I don’t know if such questions are the norm, but I’d be nuts to set off a discussion that had the sole purpose of criticizing the book. I figure if people have issues or don’t like it, they can easily make those points without my help.

When someone reads one of my books, I'm hoping they'll feel something. A lot of elements go into making that happen.
When someone reads one of my books, I’m hoping they’ll feel something. A lot of elements go into making that happen.

In the end, my biggest goal was to prompt readers to think about the elements of the book that were important to me when I wrote it. I want readers to feel something and be drawn in. Did that work? If so, how? So the questions are designed to prompt that type of discussion. But I also know people want to talk about things that aren’t as deep. A little less English-classy. What they liked, reactions to characters or what the characters do. The — ugh — plot (toughest part of writing for me). So some of the questions are geared toward those type of things.

I know enough about how such discussions work to understand that they’ll veer off topic. I think that’s great and hope it spurs more questions. I’d love it if book groups sent me their own, or told me how it went.

The most important thing to me, as always, is that people are reading my books and care enough to talk about them once they’re through.

Isn’t that what all writers want?

To see how I did, go to the book group page on my website, maureenmilliken.com.

UPCOMING EVENT:

Maureen will have a reading and signing at The Children’s Book Cellar, 95 Main St., Waterville, Maine, 10 a.m. to noon, Saturday, July 23. Come by and say hi!

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. No News is Bad News, the second in the series, was released earlier this month. Follow her on Twitter @mmilliken47, on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries, and sign up for updates on her website, maureenmilliken.com.

Do I outline? No. Know the end? Not really. Writing!

A friend who’s going to be teaching The Maltese Falcon to a class in Kenya this summer emailed me this question:

Did you say that you don’t fully conceive of the plot of your books before starting to write, that the characters kind of take the actions that they take as you write? 

He wants to describe different writing styles to the students, and Falcon seems very plotted out, as though there were a blueprint.

My answer? The opposite of that. I do not conceive of the plot before I start. Not at all.

The same day I got the email I was one of the featured authors at a library local author opened house. I was asked that same question, in different ways, by two different people. Do you outline? You must at least know how the book is going to end, right? Um, no.

coldhardnewscoverOne of the many reasons it took me so long to get going on Cold Hard News, my debut mystery novel, is that I didn’t know what was going to happen, so I thought I couldn’t write it until I did.

I wish I knew when I first started what I know now: that every writer is different and you have to let the process find you. Stephen King’s excellent advice is to just start writing. So that’s what I did.

Here’s what I started with:

Plot ideas. A snowbank would melt and a body would emerge. A shooting would happen that looked like one thing, but turned out to be something entirely different (inspired by a real-life shooting in New Hampshire that I didn’t like the investigative outcome of). These are snapshots, obviously, not a fully-formed plot.

Theme ideas. I wanted people’s perceptions of who the good guys and bad guys are poked. Are the rich powerful people above the law? Why do people give them more slack than, say, the pot-smoking ne’er do well or the homeless guy who collects bottles? Is the police chief who everyone revered worthy of the idolization? Was he a better chief than the new one, from away, whose not respected?

Relationships: What happens to friendship and loyalty when it gets mixed up in trauma and the damage people do emotionally to themselves and others? How can two people have the same conversation, but by making assumptions, come out with different ideas of what’s said? What happens when someone makes a mistake that betrays someone they consider a friend, and how do they come back from that?

Characters: I had an idea of who I wanted the main characters to be. I wanted Bernie O’Dea, the female protagonist,  to not be one of those superwomen who can beat people up and shoot a gun and bed the handsome guy without thinking twice about it, is beautiful and glamorous and always does and says the right thing. Rather, I wanted her to be someone people could identify with more. I also wanted a variety of women in the book who were strong in their own way, but not cliche characters. Men, too. But mostly women because I feel in a lot of books they end up being superficial characters, and I wanted mine to make a difference.

Setting: I want my books to reflect the Maine I know so well.
Setting: I want my books to reflect the Maine I know so well.

Setting: I wanted it to portray the Maine I knew so well rather than a storybook, cliche Maine. I also wanted to portray journalism as I knew it and say a lot of things about journalism that I felt needed to be said, but usually weren’t.

Writing: I wanted to avoid cliches and trite characters. I wanted the book to have the voice in my head, rather than a cleansed, generic voice. I wanted to describe things the way I felt them, rather than use the standard traditional words and descriptions. I wanted the writing to have a certain rhythm, even if that meant using sentence fragments or grammar that wasn’t perfect. I didn’t want to “over-describe” or spell everything out for the readers, but let them use their imaginations to paint the picture in their head.

Plot? It came last. As I wrote, I tried to figure out where things were going, and often had to go back and rewrite chapters and add things to make the plot work.

IMG_2426I didn’t write wither of my books, Cold Hard News or the next in the series, No News is Bad News, in a linear way. It was two steps up and one step back from start to finish. I did outline — as I wrote as a way to sort out the plot and scenes and what was going on. With Cold Hard News, I took all the elements above and used it as the foundation and hoped a story would eventually come from it. In No News is Bad News, which is due out the first week of July, the characters were developed and it gave me a chance to explore some backstory and some new themes. But there was no outline and I didn’t know what was going to happen with the plot aside from, again, snapshots and themes.

I know there are writers who have it all plotted out — that’s never going to be me. I’m more interested in getting the story going with the characters, and seeing what happens from there.

Readers are frequently interested in my writing process. Some of it goes beyond explanation as much as I try to explain it. I feel as though the book is in my head, but I have to work like hell to find it. I have to write consistently, daily and for hours, for it to fight its way out from where it’s hiding and get onto the page, scenes emerging I never dreamed would emerge.

When I’m done with a first draft, both times it’s been about 10,000 or 15,000 words longer than my 95,000-96,000 goal. The first time, it depressed the hell out of me. The second time, I was thrilled I had it there — the characters, the themes, even the plot. All I had to do was chip away the excess for it to emerge.

I get asked about writing a lot at author events and appearances. I’m never sure if my long tortured journey, with all its detours and alleys, is what those who ask want to hear. I try to streamline it, make it easy to digest. I often see fear or confusion or the dreaded lack of interest in their eyes as I try to explain.

So the short answer is, no, I don’t know the plot. No, I don’t know the end (except the final scene with my two main characters, which is always crystal clear). No, I don’t outline. At least not before I start. I do lots as I go, endless outlines, some of which I never even look at again. Somehow, out of all that, comes a book.

Maureen Milliken is the author of Cold Hard News, the first in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. The second in the series, No News is Bad News, is due out in July. Follow her on Twitter: @mmilliken47, or on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates and find out more about Maureen and her books at maureenmilliken.com

 

Finding your passion: Be a Dylan, not a du Pont

I recently saw a magazine ad for AARP depicting a woman probably about my age with a look of pure joy on her face as the ad proclaimed something like “It’s time to find your passion!”

It made me sad.

Don’t get me wrong AARP and getting older don’t make me sad. In fact, I recently gave in to AARP’s five-year relentless campaign to get me to join. I joined for two reasons. Actually three. First, members get discounts and it must be a symptom of my impending geezerhood that discounts appeal to me. Second, it came with a free gift (that I have yet to receive) of a walking bag that will just fit a tablet (cuz us old folks got game when it comes to the new technology) and some other stuff that I don’t want to put in my pockets. Since I’m walking more (a geezer issue for another day’s blog post) and don’t carry a purse (a Maureen issue for another day’s blog post), I really really wanted that bag. Third, I’m hoping that by finally giving in, the amount of junk mail piling up on my kitchen table, much of it from AARP begging me to join, will diminish.

But back to the sad part. The woman in the ad was may age, thereabouts, and still casting around for a passion. Hell, life is running out. It’s more than half over. What have you been doing?

This isn’t a knock at that woman, though. This whole finding a passion thing, I imagine, is hard. I’m one of the lucky ones. I didn’t find my passions — yeah, I have two — they found me. I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life than being a journalist and writing mystery novels, and lucky me, that’s what I’m doing.

I know other people aren’t as lucky.

Bob Dylan,  in the image used as the title shot for No Direction Home,.
Bob Dylan, in the image used as the title shot for No Direction Home,.

A big part of getting going on my first mystery novel, Cold Hard News, after decades of stalling was seeing the documentary No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s excellent essay on Bob Dylan. It’s a great narrative of a small but hugely important part of Dylan’s career and the big takeaway is that he was going to do things the way he wanted, no matter how anyone else felt about it and the hits he had to take. He was driven. He HAD to do what he was doing, couldn’t do it any other way.

I saw two documentaries this week that were the other side of the coin. The Prince of Pennsylvania and Team Foxcatcher both explore John du Pont’s tumble into craziness that culminated with him fatally shooting wrestler Dave Schultz in 1996. Among all the other lessons in both documentaries is the heartbreaking reality that for all his scads and mountains of money, du Pont a very lonely man who had no sense of self. His efforts to become a star athlete like the ones he collected are uncomfortable to watch (as are those athletes’ indulgence of his fantasies so they could keep his support).

He was an unformed human being. Aside from the life he took, his own was wasted as he cast around, at prime AARP age, to become someone, anyone,.

Anyone who’s grown up from the 196o’s on has heard two major pieces of bullshit their entire life: Be yourself and follow your dreams. Not that these aren’t worthy pieces of wisdom. But no one gives kids the tools to do those things and most of the other things they hear and see tell them to do the opposite.

Because here’s what else kids are told and see in action every day of their lives: Don’t be weird. Don’t be different. Want a career in music, writing, acting, art? It’s okay to dabble, but turn your mind to something more practical. Imagination is all right as long as it fits into the box set up for it by others. Kids who see the world or their place in it in a different way than standard expectations are told in many ways subtle and not so subtle that they’re off base.

It’s part of human nature to want to feel passionate about things. The fact that people are told to but then herded into society’s boring corral helps explain things like religious fervor, Patriots fans, people who can quote every line from a mediocre movie that EVERYONE in their generation has seen a gazillion times, and many marriages. People have a need to feel there are things in life that are passions, are causes, are reasons for being here, and those are accepted outlets.

First shipment of Cold Hard News arrives in May
First shipment of Cold Hard News. Making a dream a reality.

If you’re really rich and powerful and no one will tell you no, like John du Pont, the inability to find a true passion goes haywire. He was raised along in a big house with a mother who had very strong ideas about behavior and social standing. The money made it a luxurious box, but it was still a box.

Most people don’t live the extremes of Dylan or du Pont. But there are many people whose lives must be dull, unfulfilled, aimless slogs through each day. They try — possibly, probably — to feel passionate about things, but something is missing.

I’m not sure what the answer is. Sorry it took 1,000 words for you to find out there’s no magic bullet. I will say this: It’s up to the person, not the world around them, to find the passion. In fact, the world is probably going to keep getting in the way if you listen to other people too much and not your heart. So maybe that’s it.

I sure hope the lady in the AARP ad finally found her passion after what I imagine is five decades of boredom and drudgery.

I wonder how many books, songs, movies, paintings, cures, inventions, brilliant thoughts and other cool stuff we don’t have in this world because someone was afraid to rock the boat, or gave in to people who thought they were silly, or told they were weird and needed to get back in the corral?

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. The second novel in the series, No News is Bad News, will be available in July. Follow her on Twitter: @mmilliken47, or on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for updates on her website, maureenmilliken.com.