“Living the Legend” by World Fantasy Award winner Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this site for one week only. The story’s also available as a standalone from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and other ebook sites.
SHE WATCHED HIM from the waves, her arms resting across the rocks, her body hidden among the seals. He sat on a log, looking out to sea, and she fantasized that he was looking for her.
The seals smelled of wet fur and fish. Merlisa pushed herself higher on the rock, her arm nearly slipping into a tide pool. He hunched over as he stared. She couldn’t tell what he looked like—the strange cloth that protected his skin hid him from her—but she knew that he was the one.
The water broke behind her and Kalina surfaced. “Grandmere says you’re too close to shore.”
Merlisa leaned her head against the rock. Its craggy edges were cold and wet. “She always says I’m too close.”
“About the legend, I know.” Merlisa turned back toward the shore. The man was sitting up now. The sun reflected off his eyes as if they were made of smooth water. “Tell her I’ll be home in a little while.”
“She won’t like it,” Kalina said.
Merlisa turned. Kalina had a sea lily tucked behind one ear. Kalina always listened to Grandmere. “I don’t care what she does and doesn’t like,” Merlisa said. “I’m staying here.”
Kalina shrugged and dove under the water, her blue-green tail fins slapping against the surface. Merlisa watched her disappear and then turned back to the man. She had been coming to the coast for years now, but it wasn’t until she saw him that she knew why. She would meet him. She had to.
NICHOLAS FOCUSED HIS binoculars on the seals. Their oily smooth faces revealed nothing. He could have sworn he saw a woman on the rocks and then another appear behind her, but now he could see neither of them. He panned the surface of the rock and thought he saw skin. He brought the binoculars back to the spot. Nothing. The seals were in the way.
He sighed and brought the binoculars down. Ever since he had arrived on the Oregon Coast, he thought he had been seeing women in the water. Naked women with high breasts and white hair. Naked woman, he corrected himself. And he knew why he was seeing her.
Running away from Jody had been a stupid idea. Telling her that it was over, and then leaving, made him feel the residue, as if something were unfinished. He kept seeing her from the corner of his eye, her long, white-blonde hair trailing down to her waist, her slender body swaying as she walked. He had stayed with her for three years, thinking that at last he would stop looking, at last he had found someone. The fact that he felt no passion didn’t discourage him. He had lived thirty-three years and had never experienced passion. And yet it was the lack of passion that made him walk away.
The rock seemed very distant without his binoculars. He stood and squinted again, seeing something move above the seals’ heads. In his fancy, he thought he saw an arm. He brought the binoculars back up. Seals lolling on their sides, the setting sun leaving shimmers of light across their fur, and bits of rock were all that he saw. He let the binoculars drop heavily against his chest. Perhaps if he got closer . . . .
He scrabbled out along the rocks, across the wet sand toward the rolling sea. The waves were thick and fierce, almost moaning as they broke along the shore. He hadn’t been this far along the rocks before, and the nearness of the water excited him. The locals had warned him to stay clear of the ocean, to never turn his back on it, and he didn’t plan to. He could see how fierce the water was, how possessive it was of its own domain. The waves pushed against the rock he stood on, sliding around it as if the rock were moving instead of the water.
Nicholas fumbled for his binoculars, and put their cool edges against his eyes. For a moment, he found himself staring at the sea. Large waves grew against each other, creating white foam along their surfaces. He caught a glimpse of a long blue-green tail that bobbed along the water and then disappeared. He turned his head slightly and saw the seal rock. Some of the seals had slid off into the sea. He scanned for the area where he had seen the arm, and saw her.
She had hair the color of sea foam and green eyes that seemed to dominate her small face. She was leaning against the rock, half in the water and half out. Her naked back glistened in the sunlight. She seemed so close that he felt as if he could touch her sand-dark skin.
A look of alarm crossed her face only a second before the wave hit him. He fell against the rock, cringing as pain flooded through him. The water grabbed his ankles and dragged him forward. He flailed with his arms, but couldn’t surface. Salt water filled his nostrils, and he was suddenly very cold.
A pressure started growing in his lungs. He hadn’t got much air before falling. He reached down to push off the rock, but found nothing below his hands. Only water. He reached in front and found more water. If he kept calm, he would be all right. But he always calmed himself by taking deep breaths. The air was seeping from him. Black spots were dancing in front of his eyes. He had to remain conscious. Had to or he would die. Had to—
Someone grabbed him by the hair and yanked him up. His face surfaced, and he took an involuntary breath, swallowing more water than air. He blinked and found himself against the seal rock. His presence had scared the seals, and they had left, sliding into the water with the ease of alligators. He grabbed onto the wet stone, feeling it carve into his sodden clothing. His teeth were chattering and he coughed up water. He had nearly drowned. He had been stupid and nearly drowned.
The hands removed his clothing, rubbed the water from his eyes, patted him on the back, and made him breathe. Then another body pressed his, and the warmth felt so good that it took a moment before he realized that the person beside him was female.
He opened his eyes and saw her. Her hair was white and soft as it brushed against his skin. He reached up to her, and she kissed him. He caressed her sand-dark skin, touching her firm breasts, her nipples, her narrow waist. Her hands kept him warm, bringing him to the peak of arousal, and down until he could stand it no longer. He tugged at her breasts and brought his fingers across her buttocks until his palms found—
Scales. Scales sharp and oily, biting into his skin. She had no legs, no thighs, no place for him to join with her. Only scales, blue-green scales that trailed along the curves where her legs should have been.
He tried to pull away, but she held him until he looked at her. Her dark green eyes held something like sadness. She touched his temples and his panic eased. Words like the shush-shush of waves washed over him, and he grew drowsy. As he eased into sleep, a tear fell on his lips. The drop was as cold, heavy, and clear as a mountain river during spring runoff. He reached for her, ready to forgive her the scales, her strangeness, but sleep overcame him and his consciousness faded away.
MERLISA WAITED. SHE caressed his skin and held him tightly, wishing that he would respond as he had before. She had frightened him. Her tail had scared him because his kind did not have tails. She explored his body, the strange separation into legs, the exposed genitals that changed with touch, and wished that there could be more than glances and dreams. She waited until she heard laughter on the beach, and remembering the old legend, watched to see if the laughter came from a female.
It did not, a child ran after a dog, and then a couple followed. Three humans, none of them dangerous. He would fall in love with no one else. Merlisa lifted him off the rock and swam with him to shore, careful to keep his face above water. She let waves push her as deeply into the shallows as possible. She laid him against the sand as the wave receded, and made a crying noise.
The couple turned. Merlisa ducked and cried again. The man spoke garbled, air-filled words and pointed in her direction. Another wave flowed in, and she held her man’s head above the water. She had to get back to the sea. She wasn’t used to being this close to shore. The water seemed less oxygen-rich here, more sand-filled and briny. Her gills felt as if they were clogging, even though her hips were still underwater.
The couple climbed over the rocks, and Merlisa pushed herself back, deeper into the water. She watched from her perch as the couple found her man. They lifted him away, without a single glance backward at her.
She waited until another wave came in, and let it drag her back to sea. Now she would have to go home and explain why she was late to Grandmere. And Merlisa wouldn’t dare say anything about the man.
HE WOKE UP between cool sheets, smelling antiseptic. Even with his eyes closed, he knew that he was in a hospital. His chest ached and his muscles throbbed. But he checked his entire body for unusual pain and found none.
Nicholas opened his eyes. Across the room, a television peered down at him as if it were spying for the medical staff. Sunlight poured in from a small window, half-hidden by brown net curtains. He glanced to the bed across from him. It was empty.
A nurse peeked her head around the door. When she saw that he was awake, she smiled. “Hello,” she said.
He didn’t smile back. “What happened to the woman?”
“Which woman?” The nurse had come in. She had curly grey hair and laugh lines around her eyes.
“The one that brought me here.”
The nurse picked up his arm, held his wrist between two cool fingers, and looked at her watch. “Mr. and Mrs. Crenshaw were over from Portland. They left a number if you wanted to reach them.”
Mr. and Mrs.? “No,” he said. “Another woman. With white hair, dark skin, and green eyes.”
The nurse shook her head. “I don’t know, sir,” she said. “I could check with admitting.”
Then he remembered the feeling of scales against his palms. “No need.” He watched her pick up his chart and scribble something on it. “What’s wrong with me?”
“You must have slipped into the sea, and you were unconscious for the past twenty-four hours. I’ll have Dr. Nysten come and check on you.”
He frowned. He remembered falling, remembered the woman and how she had tasted of salt water. He remembered everything, even falling asleep in her arms. He lifted his hands just before the nurse left, and saw that they were wrapped in bandages.
“What happened?” he asked.
“You sliced them. They were bleeding quite badly when you came in.” Sliced them, he thought, on scales.
WHEN MERLISA ARRIVED home, Kalina had already told Grandmere. Merlisa could tell by Grandmere’s stance outside the weed branches. Grandmere had wrapped her sea-green tail around herself in a show of displeasure.
“I warned you about playing too close to shore,” Grandmere said.
“He almost drowned,” Merlisa replied and wished she hadn’t.
“They drown in these waters every year. If they didn’t, I would have no work.”
Merlisa bowed her head. Grandmere collected things from the drowned and dying: cloth, trinkets, hair, and memories. She stored it all in case someone in the tribe needed to use something. Grandmere could release the power of those items. Merlisa had been waiting to see if Grandmere would teach her how, but the lessons never happened.
“I’m going inside,” Merlisa said.
Grandmere grabbed her arm. “It would do you well to remember legend, child.”
“Myth, Grandmere,” Merlisa said as she swam through the entrance into the weed branches. Papa sat near a slit in the weeds, staring into the murky water. He grew melancholy when he bred. Mama always left after depositing the baby in his mouth, and he would be sad until she returned.
Merlisa swam to the food area and took out some shellfish. She knew the legend. Grandmere didn’t have to remind her. They had all been raised on the story of the merwoman who had used the tribe’s magic to become human because she had fallen in love with a human man. Then she learned that humans could not be trusted, and sacrificed herself for the good of the tribe. Grandmere did not want Merlisa to become a sacrifice.
But, oh, he was beautiful. She remembered the strange smooth skin, the long free legs. Somewhere in his eyes, she recognized the man that he was, as if she had known him once, in a long-distant memory. The wise woman had said, during Merlisa’s first reading, that Merlisa had an old soul with old debts. The words had made Grandmere cry, but the wise woman explained to Merlisa that the old soul marked her as special.
The shellfish tasted stale. Merlisa spat it out, and the half-chewed food spun in the water’s thick undercurrent. Even though it wasn’t time, she knew that she would have to visit the wise woman again.
NICHOLAS SPENT THE first afternoon back in his bookstore, researching mermaids. He reread the Hans Christian Anderson, of course, remembering the version he had heard as a child. His father had bought him a record with Gregory Peck retelling the story, Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A rolling behind the words like an ocean supporting sea creatures. Nicholas had loved the story and would listen over and over again. He had forgotten about that.
He closed the last book and looked up. The round school clock he had bought at a garage sale showed five o’clock. He pulled down the shades, took the money from the cash register, and locked the store. Then he left.
He knew without consciously knowing that he was going to the beach. He stopped at the bank and made his nightly deposit and then drove to the spot where he had nearly drowned. He pulled the car over and stared at the foaming ocean.
She haunted his dreams. Each night, as he slept, he felt her hands on him, the warmth of her lips. Sometimes he would wake and lie in bed with his arms behind his head. All of his life felt like a quest for this woman. The only women he had ever been attracted to were tall and high breasted, with sea-green eyes and white-blonde hair. When he met Jody, he remembered that feeling of disappointment as she looked deeply into his eyes. She had had nothing, as if he were looking for some sign, some recognition of who he was before they had even known each other.
She had recognized him.
The thought sent a shiver through him. He yanked open the car door. The sea breeze smelled tangy. He wrapped his coat around his shoulders and stared at the seal rock.
His binoculars had disappeared the day of his dowsing, but if he squinted, he could make out dark shapes on the rocks. Was she there, watching him, keeping him safe as she always had? Or had she returned to someone, something else in the deep?
He didn’t know. All that he did know was that, according to the legends, the next move was hers. And he would be on the beach, waiting for her.
THE PATH DOWN to the wise woman’s caves was dark and cold. Merlisa had swum there once before, with her Grandmere, for the first reading. Second reading wasn’t supposed to happen until Merlisa was mated. But, she felt, in a strange sort of way, she was.
Large fish swam out of her way. The giant rocks glistened red, leading the way to the wise woman.
The wise woman lived alone. She was the tribe’s oracle, its seer and prophet. She prescribed the magic that others, like Merlisa’s grandmother, performed. Merlisa swam down deeper, feeling the chill sink into her scales.
When she reached the first cave, she started. The wise woman’s bright red tail flickered. The wise woman was sitting among the weeds, waiting. Merlisa frowned. She had never thought that the wise woman would go so far into the regular ocean.
“You have come to fulfill the prophecy, Merlisa,” the wise woman said.
Merlisa’s body tightened. She had come to live the legend, if tradition allowed. She knew that her people had the power to make her human.
“Come into the first cave.” The wise woman turned and swam inside. Merlisa followed. The cave itself seemed colder than the water around it. The wise woman sat on a carved stone throne, surrounded by flickering red trinkets. Perhaps that was where her red tail came from. Merlisa remembered asking Grandmere after their first visit, and Grandmere had simply told her to hush.
“You saw him on the beach,” the wise woman said. She rested her long thin arms on the sides of the throne. Merlisa frowned. The wise woman seemed frailer than she remembered. “And he nearly drowned, thereby coming to you.”
“You’ve talked to Grandmere.”
“No, child. I recognize the signs. And I remember your prophecy.”
“What should I do?” Merlisa asked.
“First, you understand why.” The wise woman picked up some of the trinkets and ran them through her hands. She began to chant, just as she had at their first meeting, retelling yet again the myth of the beginning.
Merlisa tried to concentrate, but she had heard the myth of the beginning perhaps a thousand times in her life. The merrace and the human race came from the same blood, but they split as their warring increased. They signed a pact, giving the merrace the sea and the human race the land. The races were linked and yet separate.
“A couple like you form once every few generations,” the wise woman said. Merlisa snapped back to attention. “I don’t know if you were once human or if he was once mer. All I do know is that you have a history, and your separation is the result of problems between you both. You have to resolve that before you are together again. And you cannot resolve it while you live in the sea and he lives on land.”
“What should I do?” Merlisa repeated.
The wise woman handed her three trinkets. They shone redly and were as smooth as water-tempered stone. “Show these to your grandmother. Tell her I said that you must fulfill the prophecy.”
Merlisa looked at the stones. “And what if I don’t want to?”
The wise woman touched Merlisa’s cheek. “It has gone too far, child. You are living the legend whether you want to or not.”
NICHOLAS SAT ON the log near the back of the beach. He wrapped his ski jacket around his body. The coast seemed colder, the ocean wilder, with each passing day. It had been nearly two weeks, and he had yet to see her. He grabbed the binoculars he bought at a secondhand shop. They weren’t as good as the binoculars he lost, but they would do.
He scanned the seal rock and the ocean, seeing nothing. He was beginning to wonder if she had been the product of some dream caused by lack of oxygen and fear. The perfect woman appeared in his life, in unattainable form. What would Freud say about that?
Nicholas smiled to himself and brought his binoculars down. He stood, unwilling to sit any longer, and walked to the tiny Oceanside café. He pulled the door open and stepped into the warmth.
The café smelled of coffee and fish. Nicholas took a seat on a ripped brown plastic booth overlooking the sea. From here, he could see her without freezing. He stared at the ocean as the waitress served him coffee. Stared at the ocean and saw nothing.
God, he was tired. A man obsessed with a fantasy. He had been in the town only a few months. He ran his bookstore during the day and went home alone at night. The only people he talked to were his regulars, and while they discussed books, they didn’t care if he ate alone seven nights running or if he wandered around his apartment looking for something to do. His interest in the mermaid was getting in the way of his social life.
He looked away from the ocean. A young couple sat in the other booth; tourists, by their summer dress. Only tourists believed the ocean was warm. The Oregon Coast was chilly, wild, not at all like the bright blue waters of California.
A waitress passed. If he were to come here every night, he could talk to the waitresses, make them his friends. She set food down at the couple’s table. He could see the lines on her face, the wisps of grey hair slipping from her bun. He didn’t really want to know a waitress. She probably had two kids and an absent husband, no time to read and no desire either. He knew what sort of woman he wanted, a woman with long white-blonde hair and eyes the color of the Oregon ocean. He wanted a woman who didn’t exist.
GRANDMERE SAID NOTHING when Merlisa returned. The older woman merely led the way into her shop. Merlisa followed, feeling more curiosity than fear. Grandmere had never let any of the grandchildren into her shop. It was, she used to say, a place for the desperate.
Human cloth and trinkets hung from the weeds. The shades of drowning victims were imprisoned in a rope net off toward the back. Long, flowing strands of hair seemed to be growing from the walls.
“Sit here.” Grandmere patted a flat rock in the middle of the room. “Some of this will hurt.”
Merlisa sat. The rock felt warm against her scales. She didn’t move as Grandmere wove human hair with her hair, as the older woman’s fingers caressed her skull. Only when Grandmere closed Merlisa’s eyes and mixed human memories with her own did Merlisa cry out. It felt as if her head were being stuffed, as if too much information were trapped inside.
Then Grandmere helped her stand. “Swim to the surface, and you will have your wish.” Grandmere handed her a dagger. “If you want to return, you must cover your legs with heart’s blood.”
I will not return, Merlisa wanted to say. Instead she said, “Thank you, Grandmere.”
“Do not call attention to yourself, Merlisa. He must notice you. If you force him, you will lose him. Do you understand?”
Merlisa nodded. Her grandmother’s words were frightening her. “Grandmere, I want to be with him.”
Grandmere looked away, her eyes glowing in the gentle motion of the water. “What you want, child, doesn’t matter. All that matters is what you do.”
Grandmere bent to kiss her and then moved away. With a push of her hand, she led Merlisa out of the shop. Merlisa was halfway to the shallows before she heard her grandmother’s voice, but she couldn’t make out the words. Merlisa looked back at the shop. It seemed small and far away. She could see Grandmere, floating beside the entrance, watching.
Merlisa waved. Grandmere did not wave back.
NICHOLAS WATCHED HER from the restaurant window, the tall, leggy woman with the white-blonde hair. She looked something like Jody, something like his mermaid. He wanted to go out and talk to her, but he was afraid that, like the mermaid, she would disappear.
Three weeks and still nothing. Nicholas took a sip of his coffee. The liquid was brown and bitter. It tasted of beans. Sometimes he thought this quest of his silly, yet he could not seem to abandon it. His dreams spoke of something old, something unfinished, but exactly what, he didn’t know. Sometimes he thought it her fault, sometimes he thought it his, but whatever it was, he knew that he was paying for it now.
The woman crouched on the sand and dug at it with a stick. She wore a leather jacket and tight blue jeans. He liked her long hair, liked the way she moved. The urge to touch her rose strong within him, but he knew it was too soon. He would sit here, watch her, and wait.
MERLISA KNELT ON the booth behind him, and as she reached up to close the blinds, she found herself staring at his hair. It was long with a slightly ragged cut, bleached blond mixing with sandy brown. His collar held half the strands inside, and she longed to flick them free knowing that they would feel soft and smell of summer sunshine.
The blinds clattered down beside her booth, hiding the wave-swept beach, the ocean glistening beyond the rocks. Nicholas—she had heard him introduce himself to a local the day before—ignored her, preferring to stare at his cup of coffee. The menu beside his hand was closed, had been closed since he ordered. He would drink and leave, as he always did, with barely a word for her, barely a smile.
As she stepped back on her scuffed white work shoes, sharp shooting pains ran through her legs. When she walked, it felt as if she were treading on daggers, not on the cushy rubber soles that the shoe salesman had promised her. She limped behind the counter and grabbed the coffeepot, feeling the half-familiar plastic beneath her fingers. The memories her grandmother had scraped from the dying and newly drowned still seemed foreign. Merlisa spoke English with an accent, an accent, she thought, that burbled with the sea.
“More coffee, sir?” she asked, wishing that he would look at her. One glance would save them both.
He lifted his head without raising his eyes. “No.” His look was for the ocean, for that grey-green moment of twilight when she had first held him. She wanted to speak to him of it, but she knew that she could not.
Merlisa put the coffeepot back on the burner. She heard, as she knew she would, the rustle of his jacket, the clink of coins on the Formica tabletop, and the jingle of the bell on the front door. She sighed.
The first week had been easy and difficult. She had sold the wise woman’s trinkets and used the knowledge Grandmere had given her to find a home and a job. Yet she couldn’t get Nicholas to see her. Nicholas, with the soft hair and the warm dark eyes. She missed the constant murmur of the sea in her ears, the ease with which her body flowed through water. Sometimes she found herself wondering if she had made the right choice, and then she would try to silence her mind.
She glanced back out the window. He was walking along the edge of the sand, hands thrust in his pockets, looking very alone. She would have gone to him if it weren’t for her grandmother’s words, if it weren’t for the stricture against calling attention to herself. She wanted to fling herself in his arms, to apologize for things she only dimly remembered, to hold him against her forever.
He was walking away from her. She wished that he would look up, but she was afraid that he never would.
THE SEA SMELLED briny, and the wind was chill and damp. Nicholas’s cheeks stung with cold. He shoved his hands in his pockets and walked through the sand to the waterline. The sun was setting, but its rays were golden. It took a minute for him to realize that he was following her, that his loneliness had finally driven him from his self-imposed isolation.
He sat on a piece of driftwood. Pursuing her in this mood would be foolish. It would lead to another Jody.
A hand touched his shoulder. He looked up into the woman’s face. Instantly, he knew that she wasn’t the woman he was waiting for. Her eyes were green and warm, but they held no recognition.
“It gets cold here at night,” she said. “I have a fire.”
She pointed down the beach a ways to the small fire smoldering beside a rock. Her smile was soft. And he hadn’t realized how lonely he had become.
“Sounds good,” he said and joined her.
HER REFLECTION IN the warped mirror over the bathroom sink looked like her reflection in a tide pool. Merlisa tugged a strand of hair. Here, on land, her hair had become a golden blonde, whitish, but not white. Deep circles ran under her eyes, and her hands were becoming roughened from their contact with the air.
The strain of remembering things that were not her memories, pulling details into focus, was wearing her down. Sometimes she couldn’t remember how a dolphin laughed or the way the sea molded her grandmother’s hair. Sometimes Merlisa couldn’t remember how unhappy she had been in the tribe even before she had saved Nicholas.
The memory made Merlisa shiver. She wrapped her uniform tightly about her body, but her legs—the legs that felt as if she were being stabbed with each step—showed beneath the skirt. Pain. Grandmere had warned her about the pain. And Merlisa could take the sharpness in her feet if only he would look at her, if only he would see the eyes that had held him so captive once before.
She pushed open the bathroom door and saw that his booth was taken. A white-haired woman sat there, staring out the window. Merlisa sighed. He would be disappointed. He liked that booth, liked its view. But perhaps the change would make him see her when she told him that he had to sit somewhere else.
She grabbed the coffeepot and the menu and walked to the booth. She was nearly there when she saw him, sitting across from the white-haired woman, gazing wistfully at the sea. The woman spoke and nodded, but he still looked at the twilight and the setting sun.
Merlisa stopped before the table. He had a right to sit with another woman. He still stared at the sea. But she dropped the menu she had meant to set down. The laminated paper landed with a slap, and for a minute Merlisa thought that he would turn, but it was the woman who looked up. The woman, with her grass-green eyes and moonlit hair.
Merlisa poured the two cups, her hands shaking. She wondered if she spilled the liquid on him, if that would count against the magic by calling attention to herself.
Merlisa poured the coffee. She set the cups down and returned to her other customers. When she looked back at his booth, the couple was gone.
THE ROLLING BOOM of the waves reminded him of the deep, rolling, opening chords of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A. For a moment, Nicholas was transported back to his childhood, to Sunday afternoons spent listening to that record. Since then, he had always associated Grieg with the sea, and mermaids with the realm of the possible.
It had just been a dream.
He had been telling himself that ever since the night of the fire, the night he and Lisel had hit it off so well. They walked now arm in arm, her body a buffer against the cold sea wind, but he couldn’t help looking and hoping for the grey-green light easing across the water. If he had a choice, he would go into the sea and find her, the woman with hair the color of sea foam and blue-green scales that had cut his skin.
“You’re quiet,” Lisel said.
He nodded, not wanting to shatter his mood. He felt as if he had walked into the fairy tale, as if somewhere behind the rocks, the mermaid watched, her little heart snapping in two.
Suddenly, he didn’t want to be with Lisel anymore.
“I think I am going to turn in,” he said.
She smiled, apparently taking his words as an invitation. “It’s still early.” She pressed her body against his, and his loneliness, his frustration, silenced the voice in his head. Her kiss, deep and warm, tasted of coffee and lipstick, and he drank from it, although he really wanted lips that tasted of the sea.
SHE WATCHED THEM kiss through the dirty pane of the restaurant window and knew that he left her no choice. No tears touched her eyes, but she felt an ache, a dull ache, around the center of her heart. She could live with the pain in her feet, the loneliness, the strange memories superimposed upon her memories, but she could not watch him go for woman after woman looking for her. By the time he found her, he would never recognize her. She would be a dream, a figment, a woman still young after his youth had gone.
Pain. Grandmere had not explained what type of pain.
Merlisa limped into the kitchen. The burgers sizzled on the grill, and her stomach turned. She still wasn’t used to cooked meat. The cook flipped the burgers over and reached for two plates. Merlisa crossed the kitchen and went to the employee’s lounge. She took the dagger out of her purse and stared for a moment. The blade was long and thin, obviously man-made. It was also old and stained with use. She had carried it since she had arrived, although she didn’t know why.
Now she did.
She left the lounge and returned to the front of the restaurant. Nicholas had his arm around the white-haired woman. His hand was resting in her back pocket. They walked slowly—Merlisa didn’t think she would have been able to follow otherwise—and as they walked, he looked out to the sea.
Merlisa looked too. The waves frothed over the rocks. The turbulent surface hid the tranquil life below. She would take the heart’s blood, the only blood she could, and still meet the destiny her old soul had planned for her.
MIDWAY THROUGH THE lovemaking, Nicholas found himself thinking of her salty kiss, the softness of her high breasts, the strange feel of her scales. Outside he could hear the roar of the surf. The feeling of magic, of destiny, rose in him and he shivered.
Lisel, thinking the shiver was passion, pulled him down on her. Afterward, she drifted to sleep while he stared out the window at the moonlit beach.
If he hadn’t been awake, he wouldn’t have heard the rustle. Faint, almost like the whisper of water moving sand. Nicholas sat up. He knew then that the scars on his hands weren’t the stigma of a strange dream, that she had been out there, her small heart breaking, and now she was going to go home.
Home. The culmination of the fairy tale, the gruesome bloody part that his mother had hated. She had finally taken the record from him because he would listen with fascination as the littlest mermaid raised her knife over the prince and his bride, and then plunged the blade into her own broken heart.
Something silver reflected moonlight. “Stop!” he cried and grabbed her sand-brown wrist. The knife dug into his upper arm, and he felt the blood coat the opening and drip. Her sea-green eyes caught the moonlight, and he recognized her outfit as the waitress uniform from the restaurant where he had spent his evenings.
All those evenings, and he hadn’t even looked at her.
Lisel moaned and rolled over. Nicholas got up and took his mermaid by the hand. Gently, he took the knife from her and set it on the night table. “You don’t have to go back,” he whispered.
She flung herself into his arms, clinging, until he pulled back enough to kiss her. She tasted as he remembered, warm and salty and so good that he couldn’t get enough. Lisel sighed, and he felt strange kissing his woman in the moonlight while another woman slept in his bed. He put his arm around her and headed for the living room.
“What is it?” he asked.
“My legs,” she said. “They hurt.”
Her pain was his pain. He picked her up. She was light. Her legs were smooth and muscular, human. He found he almost missed the scales. He carried her into the living room and set her on the couch. Then he turned on the light.
Her hair glistened, the color of sea foam when it hit land. Her eyes were wide and green and so full of love that he wondered how he ever could have turned to another woman, why he hadn’t waited for her. He put his hand on her thigh as he leaned over to kiss her. The skin was warm, and coated, coated with blood.
They both looked down. The blood from his arm had covered her legs. Already the dark red droplets were changing, scaling, binding her feet together.
“No,” she whispered. “Not now.”
“You can stay here, can’t you, with me?”
She shook her head. “Not if I change back. I can’t stay out of the water long.”
She ripped the corner of her skirt and began wiping the blood off her legs. He grabbed some material too and wiped, but even as the cloth stroked her skin, he saw little scales shimmering where the blood had been.
“It’s too late,” she whispered. For a moment, her eyes closed. “Too late.”
He shook his head. “We have to do something.”
She kissed him, deep and full. He kissed her back, feeling the desperation in both of their actions. He knew as well as she that as long as they were different, they could only watch each other, viewing with love from across their separate worlds.
Her arms twined around his neck, pulling him toward her, against her, nearly drowning him in her grasp. He held her and tried to memorize the moment at the same time. They held each other until she started to shiver.
“What is it?” he whispered.
Her face was pale under the darkness of her skin, and her eyes had hollowed out like that of a woman in pain. He kissed her one last time, then he picked her up and took her out the door. The wind had risen, sending sea salt and droplets of rain through the air. The ocean boomed against the shore, and the slight hope he carried, of going with her, died with each crashing wave.
By the time they reached the sea, her legs were immobile, even though he could still see the mixture of skin and scales. She held him tightly, caressed his hair. He kissed her again, but she pulled away from him. She would take him with her if she could, he knew that. But the frothy water was his death as clearly as the air was hers.
He set her on the sand below the waterline and stepped back as a wave rushed up to take her. She raised her arms to him. “I love you,” she called. The words seemed to burble with the sea. The water took her, swept her away, until all that he could see was the red of her scales glinting in the moonlight.
THE WATER WAS cold, ice cold. The pain in her legs was gone, but the pain in her heart remained. So close, so close and still she was here, in the dark, cold water of the sea, swimming home.
Heart’s blood, her grandmother had said. And Nicholas was Merlisa’s heart.
She swam deep into the sea caves because something called her there, some feeling that she should see the wise woman before going home. The wise woman was waiting outside her cave, her red tail flicking. Merlisa stopped and hovered. There, in the clearer water, she could see the wise woman for the first time. The wise woman seemed ill. Red scales floated around her, and her stomach seemed bloated.
“I’m sorry, child,” the wise woman said. The sympathy in the words brought Merlisa down closer. The wise woman smelled faintly of death. The wise woman took Merlisa by the hand. “Pain brings wisdom.”
The words seemed to swell the ache in Merlisa’s heart. She remembered those moments in the living room, on the beach, the warmth of his body against hers. “Like love draws fools,” Merlisa said.
The wise woman wrapped her tail around Merlisa’s. Merlisa looked down. She hadn’t noticed until now that her own tail was red too. The wise woman saw Merlisa’s glance. “Just remember,” the wise woman said, the words burbling out of her, “that only fools have the chance to be wise.”
Copyright © 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Amazing Stories, November, 1990
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2014 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Katalinks/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
On Fiction River, I act as series editor with Dean, making sure the content of the stories fits with what we’re doing with the anthology series. I also am the line editor. For some volumes, I don’t have to do much because the guest editors are great at line editing. For others (including the ones I edit), I do quite a bit. I was pretty hands-on with the volume I worked on in July.
The nice thing about series and line editing, though. I get to read all of the stories closely. And they’re worth reading closely. If you want to see what I was line editing last year, check out Fiction River: Universe Between, which just appeared. Dean’s a surprising editor, in that you might think you know what the anthology will give you from the title, but you’ll be wrong.
When I say I don’t have reading time, I often mean reading time outside of my assigned tasks.
The pieces listed below are the things I loved that were outside of anything I’m working on. There’s not a lot here, but what I’ve listed is truly wonderful stuff. Enjoy!
Brenner, Marie, “Robert Capa’s Longest Day,” Vanity Fair, June, 2014. I’ve long admired the work of photographer Robert Capa. Best known for a breathtaking and devastating photograph he took during the Spanish Civil War, Capa went on to serve in several of the 20th century’s ugly war zones, finally dying in the First Indochina War in 1954—at the beginning of a war that became synonymous with the nation where it occurred: Vietnam.
Brenner’s article depicts Capa’s experience at D-Day. He went in with the troops and somehow managed not to die. He took rolls and rolls of film, managed to get them back to England through a courier, only to have the film developer overheat the negatives and ruin all but a few of the shots. Still, some of the iconic photos of D-Day came from Capa’s lens.
This article reads like a thriller short story. And I firmly believe Capa was one of the most interesting men of his time. Read this one. It’s fascinating.
Edsel, Robert M. with Brett Witter, The Monuments Men, Little, Brown, 2009. I’ve been reading about the work of the Monuments Men and Rose Valland in particular long before the Clooney movie came out. In particular, Lynn Nichols’ The Rape of Europa which I recommended in the June 2008 list. Somehow I missed Edsel’s work. It covers some of the same ground, but in a much different way.
The more I read about World War II, the more impressed I become with what happened in those years and how people responded to all the tragedy. This book deals with art, but also with devastation. It’s easy to read and compelling, and much more coherent than the film. Really worth your time.
Greenburg, Zack O’Malley, Michael Jackson, Inc: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of a Billion-Dollar Empire, Atria, 2014. This book is not a biography of Michael Jackson. It’s a biography of the business that Michael Jackson Performer became—and still is. There are charts in the back about how much money the corporation earned, both in Jackson’s lifetime and afterwards and, as with Elvis, once the overspending star in the center was gone, the revenue went up.
This book is utterly fascinating. Jackson did have a business mind, and took a lot of creative artistic risks that ended up paying great financial benefits. He lost his way by 1988, mostly by firing advisers who actually argued with him and replaced them with yes-men. And then, of course, there were court cases and scandals.
The court cases continue—his family is still suing to be included in the will, which Jackson (in repeated versions of his will) always said should not include anyone but his children and his mother. Still, the suits continue. (This is why I advise you to make sure you have a will and an estate in order—particularly if you expect to have some money and copyrights in that estate when you die.) Those expenses do have an impact on the business, but they’re less important than they were when Jackson was alive.
The shrewd business moves are fascinating, but even more fascinating is Jackson’s understanding of the importance of copyright and trademark. He often took less money on a deal so that he could own his own copyrights—and the copyrights of other musicians. Sometimes he outspent musicians to get the copyrights to those musicians music. (The most famous case of this involves Paul McCartney.) I am not going to go into too much detail here, but if you’re running a creative business—writing, music, comics—it would behoove you to read this book. Start thinking like a business person. Jackson did and, as long as he also had advisors who weren’t afraid of him, made excellent choices. So excellent that even firing those advisors and replacing them with idiots had less of an impact on his bottom line than I would have expected.
Kinsley, Michael, “Have You Lost Your Mind?” The New Yorker, April 28, 2014. Sometime in the 1980s, Michael Kinsley became the infant terrible of magazine publishing. Nine years older than me, he was getting press about being the young turk when I was holding similar jobs in the sf publishing world. I was happy to stay out of the big public eye, considering the press he got for his youth.
Imagine my surprise when I came across this article. Fast-forward about two-plus decades, and we’re both establishment. Kinsley, whom I had stopped paying attention to maybe 15 years ago, received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s when he was in his forties. I had no idea. He’s soldiered on, and continues to write. If this essay is any indication, the disease isn’t slowing him down.
But it worries him. There are similarities to dementia and Alzheimer’s with Parkinson’s. So he took several tests for all of those diseases, and reports the results and his reactions to them here. The essay brims with honesty and fear and braggadocio. Memorable and a bit frightening.
Kleypas, Lisa, Blue-Eyed Devil, St. Martins Paperbacks, 2008. I put off reading this bookbecause the description didn’t sound like anything I’d be remotely interested in, even though I love Kleypas’s work. But I’ve been waiting months and months for her next novel release, and I finally gave in. I decided to read the books I hadn’t been interested in.
I’m glad I read this. There’s a bump at the beginning. The novel’s in first person, and I don’t think I’ve read a first person romance in decades, if at all. I hadn’t realized how used I’d become to the third-person romance.
Once I was past that, I read this book incredibly fast. Haven Travis marries the wrong man against her family’s wishes, and suffers for it—not because of her family’s cruelty, but because of her husband’s. She has to put herself back together and find the courage to love again.
I’m a sucker for a good redemption story and this is one, oddly enough. Some of the reviews called it a game-changing romance. I think had the industry been different in 2008, it would have been a game-changer. As it is, Blue-Eyed Devil is a highly original romance that tugs at the emotions in all the right ways.
Lewinsky, Monica, “Shame and Survival,” Vanity Fair, June, 2014. I almost didn’t read this article, for obvious reasons. Plus the PR machine hyped it to death, and then there was a backlash (how dare she complain about her treatment when she poses in a sexy fashion for the article—and frankly, that pose is more comfortable [and metaphorical] than sexy). I figured it was all hype.
Instead, Lewinsky has composed a thoughtful critique of the culture that nearly ate her alive—maybe did eat her alive, since she is still associated with something she did in her twenties.
She examines how the 24/7 media has nurtured a culture of shame and humiliation. And just before I read the article, I had been thinking the same thing—how Americans seemed addicted to dissecting the mistakes of others, and then replaying those mistakes over and over and over again.
I’m not sure if the article is worth reading, since we’re all going to read it through the prism of our politics and our relationship to that rather insane year in the late 1990s, so I almost didn’t recommend the piece either.
But Lewinsky’s points have haunted me for nearly a month now. She got me thinking, and I always value that. The article’s short; see if you find her points as thought-provoking as I did.
“Trains” by World Fantasy Award winner Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this site for one week only. The story’s also available as a standalone from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and other ebook sites. If you like “Trains,” you might like “Substitutions” as well.
The free story will be available for one week only. If you missed this one, click on the links above. There’s another free story lurking somewhere around the site. Track the story down, read, and enjoy!
What got me out of my head-down-full-speed-ahead mode is the release of a new Fiction River volume. Dean edited it, and as usual, he surprised me with his choices. He’s an amazing editor. Read the stories in order when you get the volume. You’ll see the incredible flow.
I have a story in the volume–”The Space Between Hope and Dreams”–which surprised even me in the writing of it. I join twelve other writers whose work I just love. I’ve been reading some of their stories for years. In the volume, you’ll find stories from Lee Allred, David H. Hendrickson, Richard Alan Dickson, Darcy Pattison, Phaedra Weldon, Rebecca SW Bates, Jamie McNabb, Steven Mohan, Jr., Kellan Knolan, Karen L. Abrahamson, Dean, and Rob Vagle. I’m putting up the Amazon link to the trade paper because I’m lazy, but if you want to order from another site, go to this post on WMG Publishing’s website. You don’t have to follow links either. You can find trade paper and ebook versions of the book at all your favorite retailers. Or you can subscribe here.
“Rose in Dreamland” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story is also available as a standalone from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other ebookstores.
The free story will be available for one week only. If you missed this one, click on the links above. There’s another free story lurking somewhere around the site. Track the story down, read, and enjoy!
“Alien Influences: The Short Story” appears in a different form in the novel Alien Influences, which was a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
“Alien Influences: The Short Story” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story is also available as a standalone from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and other ebookstores.
The Short Story
The free story will be available for one week only. If you missed this one, click on the links above. There’s another free story lurking somewhere around the site. Track the story down, read, and enjoy!
This chapter is a lot more general than the previous chapter I posted, and so, doesn’t need all those assumptions and stuff at the end. I do encourage you to look at the Discoverability posts online, though, so you can see a lot of the topics mentioned here in more depth.
I’m going to keep the words “chapter” and “book” instead of “blog” and “blog series” here, primarily because I’m lazy, and don’t have time to change everything.
Here’s the missing post:
Generally speaking, a good publicity campaign starts by defining the campaign’s target audience.
Here, however, instead of figuring out your campaign’s audience, we’re going to figure out who you are. Because until you know your strengths and limitations, you can’t do any planning well.
What I know about you is that you’re a writer. I hope that you’re an established fiction writer, because established fiction writers are this book’s target audience.
I also know that you want as many readers as possible to find your books. In a perfect world, the readers would find your work without anyone doing anything.
But the world’s not perfect, and to get attention for your book, you’ll have to do a few things. I’ve outlined a lot of those things in the chapters of this book.
Some of those things are passive marketing, which I define as a one-and-done type of marketing. (Many of the tricks of passive marketing form the invisible marketing that I mentioned in Chapter One.)
Other things that I’ll discuss in future chapters are active marketing, which means that you’ll have to do something on a regular basis.
As I wrote about all of these things on my website, I heard from my regular readers. They were frightened or upset, worried that they couldn’t do anything I suggested for a variety of reasons.
Some writers lacked the funds.
Many writers lacked the time.
But mostly, the writers lacked the will.
Believe me, I understand.
I’m very good at marketing. But that doesn’t mean I like all of it. In fact, I hate some of it. I know how to do it, and I would rather have someone else help me than do it myself.
However, I also know there are some things that will take me five minutes and take someone else hours. I do those things, and maybe, someday, I’ll train the other person.
Part of my attitude toward marketing comes from the fact that I have done it since I was a teenager. I learned to write ad copy in junior high (yes, in the days before those years were called “middle school”). I learned to write good ad copy in college. I did a lot of PR and marketing for various companies in my twenties.
And, for my sins, I did countless on-air pledge drives for the non-profit radio station I worked at. When you do on-air pledging, you know immediately when your pitch is working and when it isn’t. The phones ring in the studio if you’re doing well, and they’re silent if you’re not doing well.
(By the way, on-air pledge drives are all call-to-action (See Chapter One). Literally. And just as annoying as any other call-to-action.)
I have trained myself to do most of my marketing as a matter of course.
I don’t even notice most of the passive marketing that I do. But throw me into active marketing, and I’ll do it very well.
I’ll also bitch about it to my friends.
Before I do any active marketing these days, I also weigh it’s importance compared against the time I spend writing.
Award-winning writer, Scott William Carter, has actually come up with an acronym for this weighing. He calls it the WIBBOW test. The acronym stands for this:
Would I Be Better Off Writing?
Usually, the answer is yes.
As I say throughout this book, the most important commodity you have is time. And the best thing you can do with that time, my writerly friends, is to write.
Finish the next book and the next book and the next.
The more product you have on the market, the greater the chance that readers will find you. It’s the simplest way to market your work and the one most suited to writers.
But we’re all different.
Which is a real bummer. Because what most writers look for is one-size-fits-all marketing.
If the marketing strategy used by Writer John put his first novel on the bestseller list, then clearly that marketing strategy will work for every writer. Right?
Sorry. Nope. It doesn’t work that way.
Marketing follows a standard statistical model. The outliers are complete opposites. The successful outliers are the handful of people who invented the strategy. The complete failure outliers are the handful of people who are the very last people ever to try that strategy.
The packed middle is filled with all the writer-lemmings who follow the one-size-fits-all marketing crowd. They have some success, but mostly, the strategy gives them just enough traction to disappoint them—because those writers didn’t make millions like the successful outliers.
Writers get the idea for one-size-fits-all marketing from a couple of places.
First, the writers want easy marketing strategies because most writers would rather write than market their work. I get that. So would I. You have to do minimal marketing (most of it passive), but there are marketing models that allow more time for writing and less time for active marketing.
We’ll discuss those in this book.
Second, as we’ll see in Chapters Eight through Ten, traditional publishers have used one-size-fits-all marketing for nearly eighty years.
The idea that each book is the exact same product, the way that each jar of peanut butter is the same product, is hard-wired into the conventional publishing wisdom.
As readers, we know that’s wrong. What Huckleberry Finn has in common with The Goldfinch is that they’re both novels. But they are not the same book or even the same kind of book.
They appeal to different readers.
Sure, you could do a Venn diagram of the readers for each book, and find a overlapping subset of readers who like both books (that subset includes me), but most of the readers only like (or have read or want to read) one of those two books.
The books are dramatically different. The way that peanut butter and hummus are different. Peanut butter and hummus are both food. They’re (usually) both brown. They can both be spreads for bread or crackers. But peanut butter and hummus don’t provide the same eating experience.
They’re not even close.
Just like Huckleberry Finn and The Goldfinch aren’t even close.
So why market those two books the same way?
We’ll talk about how to market different titles in different ways later. I’ll give you lots to think about on that topic.
But right now, we’re discussing you, and your writerly expectations. You expect, indeed you probably hope, that you can just do what other writers have done when it comes to marketing, and your books will automatically sell.
Hell, I hope for that each and every day, but in my nearly forty-years in publishing, I have never seen any plug-and-play marketing that actually works.
(And right now, I’m feeling a bit stunned that I’ve been in the business forty years, and must remind myself that I started publishing professionally at sixteen. [Breathe, Kris. Breathe. Before your ancient lungs explode…])
Writers tend to form communities, and in those communities, you meet all types.
We know the “writers” who talk a great game but have never committed a word to the page. We know the writers who write a lot, but can’t publish or mail anything. They put every word in a drawer and never let their writing see the light of day.
We know the writers who produce a lot; writers who never talk about what they write ever; writers who publish more than anyone else combined; writers who made a million dollars with their very first book; and writers who promote every single thing they write so heavily that you avoid them so you don’t have to buy their latest because you feel forced into it.
Sometimes one person embodies several of those types.
There are the sales-enthusiast writers who hit the New York Times bestseller list, they say, because they flogged the hell out of their latest book. They’re intimidating.
(They combine the promotion writers with the production writers.)
And then the writers who seem like lottery winners. They also hit the New York Times bestseller list, but they rarely leave their house, and they hate to talk on the phone, and they really don’t want to go into public ever.
(Those writers are usually a combination of the writes-a-lot writer and the never-talks-about-it writer)
We define the lottery-winner writers as “lucky,” and the sales-enthusiast writers as “hacks.”
We say that the stars aligned for the “lucky” writers. They hit the cultural zeitgeist with the right book.
We say that the “hacks” conned the unwashed masses into buying a subpar book because the unwashed masses wouldn’t know quality if they saw it.
We’re wrong about both types of writers.
Both are excellent storytellers whose books caught the national attention. Each part of that sentence is important. The books wouldn’t have sold at all if their stories were bad. And they wouldn’t have sold well if the books hadn’t (somehow) caught the national attention.
(Please note that I didn’t say the books were well-written. We’re not writers, folks. We’re storytellers. I explain the difference in my blog in these posts which you can see for free and also in a book called The Pursuit of Perfection.)
The thing you must remember throughout this book is that we’re talking about marketing. We’re not talking craft, except that we assume you (the established writer) knows your craft so well that readers enjoy your books.
When we discuss marketing, you need to remember that all we’re talking about is informing the consumer that a book (or an author or a series of books) exists, so that the consumer can purchase that book.
Bestsellers share something in common besides a well-told story. They share the fact that somehow a mass of consumers discovered the book at the same time.
Bestsellers in America (and most countries I’m familiar with) are based on velocity—a lot of copies have sold in a short period of time. A bestseller will hit a list by selling thousands of copies in a week. If that book stops selling the next week, the book still gets the bestseller label.
If a book sells tens of thousands of copies over the space of a year, but never more than 600 or 700 copies per week, that book will never hit a traditional bestseller list—yet it’ll sell more copies than a bestselling book.
We’ll discuss this more in the section titled “The Old Ways,” but I will repeat it a lot, because it’s important. Traditional publishing is not set up to handle the slow-selling book that will eventually outsell the bestseller.
But as an indie publisher, you can nurture those books and let them form the basis for your entire business.
I’m telling you all this here, because marketing, particularly in entertainment (books, games, movies, comics) is velocity-based, geared toward the sales that spike and then trail off.
The books that hit traditional bestseller lists have had great informational marketing—the active kind, the kind we all notice.
The books that sell tens of thousands of copies, but at a much slower rate? They often have little more than passive marketing. They’re word-of-mouth books. The readers end up promoting those books more than the writer ever does.
We discuss that in the section marked “Passive Marketing” and in Chapter Twenty-One, Word of Mouth.
Most writers would rather have the slow-selling book than the velocity book, not because of the numbers, but because most writers would rather be writing.
For my promotion of most of my books, I would rather let those books speak for themselves, and let the readers determine which books sell well and which ones poke along.
However, every once in a while, I finish a book that I want to have shouted to the rooftops. I want active marketing and a lot of it. I’ll spend the funds to buy ads and I’ll go out in public to flog that book, if I believe the flogging necessary.
Everything I mention in this book is something I have done.
I just don’t do those things for every book. And some of the things I mention I’ll never do again.
But that’s me.
I’ve learned over decades what works for me the writer-person and what doesn’t.
Now, you need to start figuring out what works for you.
How do you do that?
Writers are great at imagining themselves in other people’s shoes. That’s what we do for a living. So imagine what it would be like to be the Hottest Literary Figure In The World. Do you want J.K. Rowling kind of attention? Do you want to be on every TV book show, attend conventions every weekend, speak at libraries?
How would that impact your writing?
Think about it before choosing it.
Writers are lucky. Our various communities share information. Some of those communities are online, and some are in person. They’re all subject to horrid infighting (I think writers love to fight more than they like to write), but they can also be very supportive as well.
Observant writers will note that we all seem to “grow up” with the same types of writers. And by “grow up,” I mean that new writers will find communities of other new writers and befriend those writers. You might be different ages, but your careers will start at the same time.
The careers will never go in the same direction. Some writers will fade, others will rise. Some writers will quit, some writers will seem unstoppable.
But we’ll all encounter the intimidating go-getter writer. That writer is a promotions maven. If there’s a trick to promoting a book, that writer will do it. In fact, that writer will do it while producing a lot of good work.
When I was in high school, I was the intimidating go-getter writer. Then, in college, I met Kevin J. Anderson, and realized I was an amateur when it came to going-and-getting. Kev is a marketing and promotions maven and he manages to write as many (or more!) words than I do per month.
I don’t have that kind of energy. I never have.
As my community of writers broadened, I realized that there are writers in the world who make Kevin’s go-getter nature seem like he’s standing still.
These writers rocket into the consciousness of a genre or of the entire literary world. Some of these writers rocket into the cultural consciousness in the United States. Others (a handful every year) rocket into the international consciousness.
Sometimes the rest of us think we have to be just like the go-getter writer to succeed. And we don’t.
I tried to be like Kevin for a few years, before I met Dean and he helped me figure out how to use my own talents to promote (or not promote) my work. I relaxed when I realized I didn’t have to follow Kevin’s model to writerly success.
What I didn’t know for years was that Kevin worried he had to follow my model to writerly success. I intimidated him just like he intimidated me. We both knew that the other person was better at some things, and not as good at others. And we wanted it all.
Stephen King was the big hot international writer when I was getting my start, so imagine my surprise when I found out that King hadn’t achieved his vision of writerly success. His was based on his English major roots—good reviews in The New York Times Book Review, awards, and recognition as a good writer, not a hack.
He got that in the last fifteen years, as the “hack” label moved to other good writers like J.K. Rowling (because of her phenomenal sales).
We all watch, learn, and envy a little. And we’re always feeling like we should do more.
We need to understand how different we all are.
We have different work habits. We write in different genres. And we have a different level of tolerance for promoting ourselves and our work.
For example, I’m an introvert, although I present as an extrovert.
The different between introverts and extroverts is that introverts get exhausted by their interactions with others, and extroverts draw energy from being around others.
Introverts don’t hate other people. I love watching and listening to others. I like people a lot. They just tire me out.
Conversely, extroverts might not love other people. Extroverts just draw energy from others. I’ve known a few extroverts who are true misanthropes.
Extroverts aren’t necessarily the best at promoting their work. Extroverts often forget that other people in the room have valuable opinions. But extroverts often know how to work a crowd.
There are extroverted writers. I know several of them, some with a lot of success, some with none.
The danger for the successful extroverted writer is that the in-person promotion becomes an addiction. Getting the rock star treatment is wonderful—the massive hotel rooms, the fantastic meals in fantastic restaurants, every move profiled (positively) by the entertainment media.
The problem with that isn’t what you think I’m going to say—that the media will turn on the rock-star writer. (It will, but writers are smart; they’re aware of that.)
The problem is that the extroverted writer will stop writing. You’ll often see comments about celebrity writers (sometimes in their obituaries) that their best work came early. That’s because most celebrity writers stop writing and become celebrities instead.
Introverts have the opposite initial problem, but the danger is the same: the introvert also stops writing.
Traditional publishing forces all its bestselling writers to go on book tours to promote their work. Those writers often get minor celebrity treatment (and sometimes get rock-star treatment)—the same lovely hotel rooms, the same fantastic meals, the same media coverage.
Only all of that drains the introverted writer, and brings a crowd into her workspace. I don’t know for certain if Harper Lee stopped publishing because she stopped writing; I do know that she was an introvert who became a celebrity writer, and she hated it. Just like J.D. Salinger.
Both of those writers withdrew from the public.
And because their only choice fifty years ago was to publish traditionally, they had only one way to withdraw. They stopped publishing.
Indie writers can choose what kind of marketing campaign we use for our work. We can be very public in our promotion or we can be very quiet about it.
We can hire people to do a lot of the targeted marketing for us, or we can save the money and do it ourselves. By hiring people, I am not talking about hiring a publicist. (Publicists charge and arm and a leg and most of them do—you guessed it—one-size-fits-all marketing.)
We can write a lot or write a little.
We can choose.
And so, now, can traditional writers. The introverts can say no to the book tours and the big press coverage. If publishers don’t like it, then the introverts can move to another publisher or they can indie publish their own work.
They don’t have to do what their publisher demands, if that doesn’t work for them.
Choice is the watchword for the modern era of publishing.
Or, to be more specific, we have a watch-phrase: Writers Can Choose.
As you read this book, think about what you want from your marketing efforts on your own titles. Then think about the assets you have.
Those assets are:
Then figure out what your limitations are.
The limitations are similar to the assets:
Most importantly, you need to figure out what you want from that marketing. (See the Chapter Four, How To Measure Success)
Then you marshal your assets and your limitations, and figure out the plan that’s best for you.
Your plan will not be right for me.
Nor will it be right for other people in your writing community.
This is your plan—and it might vary from book to book.
Realize that one-size-fits-all marketing is the worst way to market. Put some thought into marketing, and then do it your way.
If that way doesn’t succeed, try again.
But always keep your eye on that WIBBOW test—and write the next book.
The Discoverability book will come out in the fall, and you’ll be able to see how all the posts fit together to make a cohesive whole. Thank you, everyone, who has commented or pointed me in the direction of various links or donated to keep me writing as the topic of promotion/marketing/discoverability started kicking my butt.
I couldn’t have done this without you.
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“The Business Rusch: “What Kind of Writer Are You?” copyright © 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
WMG Publishing has Discoverability, the book based on the posts I was writing from November to April, on the schedule for the fall of 2014, which meant I had to get off my butt and assemble those posts into something coherent.
I had hoped to have the large Retrieval Artist project done before I assembled Discoverability, but no such luck. I had a window between Starbase Human (which will come out in May [thanks for asking]) and the final book Masterminds (which will appear in June). So I’ve spent the last week reordering the Discoverability posts, setting up chapters, cutting out information that’s no longer relevant (in less than a year!) and realizing what I’m missing.
As I have, I’ve realized I’m missing three chapters, an introduction, and an appendix. I won’t subject you to the introduction, but you’ll get the chapters. (I’m undecided about the appendix.) I’m not going to change the language from book stuff to blog stuff, though. I’m just putting up the chapter as is, referring in some ways to other parts of the book.
If that other part exists on this blog, I’ll link. Otherwise, you’ll have to look at the finished book to see it.
If you want to read the bits and pieces that I’m assembling into the Discoverability book, you can find all of the links here. The book will present all of that information (and some current stuff not in the old blog posts) in an organized fashion rather than as I thought of it and wrote it down.
As my Retrieval Artist fans know, I write out of order. I do that in nonfiction as well. (You can compare the finished Freelancer’s Survival Guide to the original posts that are also on this website if you want to see how that works.) I write the pieces, and then I build the bridges to hold them together.
This post is one of those bridges.
Now remember, the Discoverability posts were for established writers, not newcomers. I’m attaching the list of assumptions from the original posts below. If you’ve never read any discoverability posts before, please read the assumptions and requests I’ve posted below before commenting. Thanks.
…besides a modern buzzword?
Discoverability is, in its purest form, marketing. The problem is that in modern American culture, salespeople and marketers have become the butt of a thousand jokes. Dumb, loud, clueless, the salespeople and marketers have become the people that the rest of us laugh at.
Until we need them.
Then, the savvy among us realize that sales and marketing done right isn’t just a cookie-cutter process: it’s an art. And the best practitioners of that art are often invisible.
Their artistry is also invisible.
We live in a consumer culture, surrounded by mostly invisible marketing that influences us in subtle ways. Most of what we notice and call marketing are the loudest forms of marketing.
Let me give you two examples:
1. The Call To Action:
A call-to-action is exactly what it sounds like. You address an audience or group and give them an instruction that includes an immediate response.
Buy Now! Hurry, Before This Sale Ends! Tell Your Friends!
Those late night infomercials? The ones that put up a phone number and say, “Call in the next fifteen minutes, and we’ll throw in a kitchen sink,” those are call-to-action commercials.
You’ll note that until the FCC changed the rules here in the United States, Call-To-Action commercials were often louder than other commercials.
There’s a reason for that. The reason is to get your attention so that you will take the action (whatever it is) immediately.
2. Push Marketing:
In marketing, there’s something called a “push-pull strategy.” Most of us only notice the “push” part, and don’t realize when we’ve been subjected to the “pull” part.
Most television commercials are push marketing. The advertiser pushes the product to the consumer, loudly and often. The point of push marketing is to push the consumer toward the product and force the consumer to buy.
Clearly, push marketing works only in certain cases. Movie studios use push marketing in the week before a major release, advertising a movie trailer over and over again until most of us can recite the contents of that trailer. Once opening weekend starts, the push marketing usually ends.
Pull marketing is the opposite of push marketing, in that the advertiser doesn’t advertise the product. Instead, the advertiser uses a variety of subtle techniques to pull the consumer into the store.
Consumers pull products. They pull the products off the shelves (virtual and otherwise). And sometimes, companies let consumers do all the work—the pulling.
The bulk of the marketing you see and don’t realize you’ve seen falls into the pull-category. Book covers pull the eye to the book. The scent of baking bread pulls you into a bakery.
The problem is that a consumer must already be onsite before pull marketing usually works. In this day and age, pull marketing often happens on the internet, so you’re already online. You are pulled without even knowing it has happened.
Most companies use a combination of push-pull. They push until you’re familiar (overly familiar) with the product, then let the product pull you to buy it. Movie marketing has evolved into push-pull. The trailer pushes the movie, and then once the movie’s released, the consumer gets pulled in—and, if the movie is good, pulls in friends as well, through word of mouth.
Marketing is a very complicated subject. Universities offer majors in business and marketing. Entire schools are dedicated to the subject. I urge you to visit the marketing listing on Wikipedia. If you hit the link that takes you to types of marketing, you’ll find 75 different types of marketing listed, and I know that’s not an inclusive list.
Think you know everything about marketing? People who teach marketing don’t know everything about marketing. People who have been in the marketing business for thirty years don’t even know everything about marketing. You don’t either.
Because the biggest key with marketing is that it evolves.
Someone somewhere will come up with a whole new strategy that will do the job, and then others will jump on the marketing bandwagon. They’ll refine that strategy for different industries, and after time, that strategy will become old and stale.
Then someone else will revive an ancient strategy and make it new.
Conventional wisdom is not marketing.
Marketing is always new, always fresh, and always exciting.
That’s why advertising execs burn out. Because to be fresh, exciting, and new takes energy, and at some point, even the most savvy exec must take a break. Renew, rethink, and revive.
Because we associate marketing with its loudest and most obnoxious forms, we think it’s easy. After all, we know how to demand that people buy our work. We’ve seen it done millions of times. Literally millions.
Actually, though, the best marketing isn’t easy. It’s hard to do well, and it’s almost invisible. The best marketing makes you think that buying the product at that moment in time was your idea, not the idea of the company that made the product.
And yet, chances are, that the reason you bought that particular product wasn’t because you needed it, but because someone had marketed it to you.
Since we’re doing definitions here, let’s deal with marketing.
I love how Wikipedia defines marketing:
Marketing is the process of communicating the value of a product or service to customers, for the purpose of selling that product or service.
I love that definition because that’s primarily how I’ll be dealing with marketing in this book. Marketing, in this definition, is discoverability (with the hope of selling the book after it’s “discovered.”)
But honestly, in business, marketing has a larger meaning. The fact that it has a larger meaning confuses the issue, particularly when writers read blogs written by true business marketers. The writers don’t understand that there are parts of the business marketing definition that writers should ignore—because we are dealing with an art product, not a manufactured product.
The Business Dictionary defines marketing like this:
The management process through which goods and services move from concept to the customer.
The Business Dictionary then goes on to define the process, using another marketing phrase—the 4 P’s of Marketing (and no, I’m not making that up). The 4 P’s of Marketing are items that businesses believe to be in their control.
Remember: there’s a lot about business that is outside of your control. Worrying about those things gets you nowhere.
So, in business theory, the four things you can control (the 4 P’s of Marketing) are:
Product, Price, Place (Distribution), and Promotion
We will discuss all 4 P’s in this book, although not quite in that way.
In a regular business—such as a manufacturing business (where you make cars for instance)—you can refine the product to appeal to the most buyers. Most writers believe refining the product means writing to market—i.e. if vampires are currently selling well in novels, then the writers should write a vampire book.
That belief is wrong.
Writers create art, and art is best when it’s not manufactured. You write what you write, and then you market it.
This is why I said in the introduction that if you can’t think of your finished book as a product, you aren’t ready for the material in this book.
You commit art first. Then you declare it finished.
Then you look at that art, wave your magic wand, and transform that art into a product. Once you have a product, you must figure out how to package that product to appeal to the correct readers.
So in our 4 Ps of Marketing, we’re not going to have Product. We’ll have Package.
Please remember that.
We spent a lengthy section on Price, and revisited that topic often. Because price isn’t something arbitrary or something that your friends had success with. It’s a strategy that you have to understand before you set the price for your product.
Mostly, I don’t deal with Place or distribution in this book, except to tell you how to maximize your distribution efforts. In the assumptions from the Introduction, I assume you have already distributed your book to every available ebook and paper retail venue that you can reach.
The more places your book is available, the better chance you have at selling a lot of copies of that book. It seems logical, but traditional publishers have never followed that model.
Finally, Promotion will be the other pillar of marketing that we’ll discuss in this book.
Writers who have no business background think all marketing is promotion. That’s only one small part of marketing and/or discoverability. I spent a lot of time on Package strategies and Promotion strategies.
By the end of this book, you should see how things as subtle as the correct image on your cover will help with your discoverability efforts.
You don’t have to be loud to get your book discovered. You don’t need to price your book in the discount section of the bookstore to do it either.
What you need is a great story, proper packaging, and just a little thought about how you want to present your product when you take it to the market.
My goal with this book is to help you market your novels in the most effective way possible. That effectiveness will be about time as well as money. In fact, as I say throughout, time is more important than money.
The more time you save, the more you can write.
The more you write, the better all of your books will sell.
My nonfiction blogs are the only part of my website that has a donation button. That’s because I started writing nonfiction without an advance here on the blog, and I need a bit more than the usual encouragement to continue writing nonfiction here. Financial incentives help.
I’ll be putting up at least two more nonfiction blogs in the next two weeks, so watch the site for those.
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“Business Musings: “What is Discoverability,” copyright © 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
Request: Please look over the list of already published blog posts on the Discoverability topics to see if I’ve already addressed your point. If I have, please read that post before commenting.
Assumption #1: With only a few exceptions, we will be talking about fiction here. There are promotion techniques that work for nonfiction—even on the first book—that do not work for fiction. I don’t want to muddy the waters here. We’re discussing fiction in these posts.
Assumption #2: You have learned your craft well enough to intrigue readers. You know how to tell a good story, you have grammar, spelling, and punctuation under control, you create interesting characters, and you write what you love.
Assumption #3: If you have indie published your work, then your work has a good blurb, a great cover, and a well-designed interior. Your work is available in ebook and trade paper formats. (I also hope you have audio books, but for our purposes here, I’m not going to assume it.)
Assumption #4: If you have indie published your work, your ebooks are available in every ebook venue you can find. Your paper novels are in extended distribution through your print-on-demand publisher. In other words, if a bookseller whom you don’t know and never will know wants to order your paper book, that bookseller can call up a catalogue from a major distributor (Baker & Taylor, Ingrams) and order your book at a bookseller’s discount. We have already discussed discounting. Look at the list of blog posts to find it.
Assumption #5: If you are traditionally published, your books are with a company that makes the books available in e-book and paper formats, and your books are still in print. (If they aren’t, ask for those rights back and then publish the books yourself.)
Assumption #6: You have at least a minimal web presence. You have a website that readers can easily find. You have a list of your published books somewhere, also findable. You have some passive marketing in place. (A mailing list, a social media presence, or a contact button on your website. Something.)
Assumption #7: You have published more than one book. Most of what I tell you won’t work on one novel. You’ll need several—or at least a novel and some short stories. If you’re haven’t published much, make sure you’ve done 2-6, and write the next book.
Those are the assumptions and requests.
Now, I have one big WARNING:
Everything I say here, everything, MUST take place after you’ve finished writing your story/book/novel. Do NOT take ANY of this advice into your writing office. None of it. Be an artist: write what you love. When you’re done, then worry about marketing it. This new world of publishing allows us to write whatever we want and publish it. Please take advantage of that. When you write, be an artist, be a great storyteller, not a marketer or a salesperson.
I know, I know. Lots of warnings, requests, and assumptions. But I had to be clear, because these points are extremely important. I don’t want to explain myself over and over again. I’d rather you read what I wrote before than try to say it all again in the comments section.
“The Silence” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story is also available as a standalone from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and other ebookstores.
I ended up more than two weeks late posting this because it’s longer than the usual list, and it took me forever to write about what I liked.
I liked a lot in June. I read short stories and novels and essays and magazines—I guess I retreat to the written word when life is difficult.
Life may have kicked me in the butt, but reading was a true pleasure. Here’s the best of the best.
Alexander, Gary, “The Essence of Small People,” Ice Cold, edited by Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson, Grand Central Publishing, 2014. An absolutely wonderful story set in Ho Chi Minh City, in the shaky years after the Vietnam War. Somehow, in only a few thousand words, Alexander manages to convey the culture, the characters, the crime, everything. And the last line is absolutely perfect.
Barlow, Tom, “Smothered and Covered,” The Best American Mystery Stories, 2013, edited by Lisa Scottoline, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Well written, tough story, set mostly in a Waffle House. A young girl shows up, gets in a car with the wrong man, and the people inside watch it all happen. Events unfold exactly the way you’d expect—at first—and then, well…there’s a reason this is in the best-of-year volume.
Clark, Rod, “Voice Over,” Rosebud, Spring, 2014. Rod Clark’s essays that start every issue of Rosebud are always worth reading. This one, about the death of an old oak tree, is particularly good. At his best, Rod can be lyrical, and this is one of Rod’s best. Check it out.
Cook, Alan, “Checkpoint Charlie,” Ice Cold, edited by Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson, Grand Central Publishing, 2014. No one except historians, people over forty, and readers of spy fiction know what Checkpoint Charlie is any more, and that’s a good thing. Checkpoint Charlie was the name of the area where you either left or entered “the West” at the Berlin Wall. For someone like me, who loves historical fiction, spy fiction, and reading about that time period, the title alone caught me.
The story holds up to the title. The story opens as Gerhard Johnson, an American, crosses from West Germany into East Germany. The Wall wasn’t up the last time he had been to the GDR, and he was going back, for a reason we slowly understand. A taut suspense story which had me at the edge of my seat.
Deaver, Jeffery, and Benson, Raymond, Mystery Writers of America Presents Ice Cold, Grand Central Publishing, 2014. An anthology of Cold War spy stories. I love the MWA anthologies, for the most part. Only one has been a total dud for me. This one is one of the best.
Honestly, I expected it to be pretty mediocre, not because of the writers involved, but because I thought it would be hard to do a good Cold War mystery at the short length. I was wrong. While there were one or two duds, and one great disappointment for me, the bulk of the stories were spectacular. I’ve listed the best of the best throughout this list.
De Noux, O’Neil, “Misprision of Felony,” The Best American Mystery Stories, 2013, edited by Lisa Scottoline, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. I think O’Neil is doing some of the best writing about New Orleans post-Katrina that I’ve seen anywhere. This story ties the events post-Katrina to other dark places in New Orleans past. As with so many mystery stories, if I say more, I give it away. Read it.
Dreyer, Eileen, “The Sailor in the Picture,” The Best American Mystery Stories, 2013, edited by Lisa Scottoline, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Eileen Dreyer is one of my favorite writers. Usually, she writes romance or romantic suspense. (She also writes categories as Kathleen Korbel.) She’s moved into historical romance and her voice is a bit dark for that sub-genre, but worth reading all the same.
Here, though, she writes a spectacular mystery story, set on V-E day in New York City. The picture referred to in the title is the famous picture of the sailor kissing the girl in Times Square. Well written, heartbreaking and empowering, this story does so much in such a small space that you should, y’know, read it.
Dubois, Brendan, “Crush Depth,” Ice Cold, edited by Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson, Grand Central Publishing, 2014. Marvelous, twisty story set near the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine. If I say much more, I’ll ruin it, except I’ll add that this story has Brendan’s wonderful characterization and empathy. Excellent.
Finder, Joseph, “Police Report,” Ice Cold, edited by Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson, Grand Central Publishing, 2014. What starts like a typical police procedural set on Cape Cod proves to be anything but a typical story. I haven’t read a lot of Finder’s work, but I’ll look for it now. Again, another story that I can’t tell you much about except to ask you to read it.
Friedman, Steve, “Blown Together,” Runner’s World, May, 2014. We know what happened at the 2013 Boston Marathon. We know people were injured and people died. We know that one bomber died and the other is awaiting trial. We know how they planned the bombing. But generally, we know little about the impact the bombing had on people’s every day lives.
The May issue of Runner’s World dealt with the bombing in anticipation of this year’s marathon (run in April). Most were short 100-word pieces, but Steve Friedman’s piece is much longer. It’s about an aimless college student, a runner who was watching the race, a police officer, and a firefighter. The woman who was watching the race nearly died in the explosion. The college student saved her life in the immediate aftermath of the bombing—he ran into the chaos, not away from it—and got the cop and the firefighter to help quickly enough to keep the woman from bleeding to death.
They’ve become friends over time, and that one moment has changed all of their lives forever. Read this. It’s amazing.
Howard, Clark, “The Street Ends at the Cemetery,” The Best American Mystery Stories, 2013, edited by Lisa Scottoline, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Clark Howard has an amazing talent for titles. The title tells you what will happen in the story, and yet the title comes organically from the story itself. By the time you get to the end, you’ve forgotten the title, and then you look back—and wow, you remember everything.
This little gem starts with a prison guard who breaks a rule by driving a female visitor home from the prison during a rainstorm. And everything happens from there. Enjoy. Howard is a master.
Kocsis, Andre, “Crossing,” The Best American Mystery Stories, 2013, edited by Lisa Scottoline, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. This story is utterly fantastic, maybe the best story I’ve read all year. An adventure tale which originally appeared in The New Orphic Review (which I’ve never heard of), the piece uses every single detail in the opening to pin the reader to her seat. A guide who lives in Canada because he was evading the Vietnam War occasionally smuggles people into the United States over the border that goes through the western mountains—dangerous, dangerous country.
This group that the guide takes across looks wrong from the beginning, but for good story reasons, the trip happens. And goes horribly horribly awry. There’s a reason this tale appears in the best mystery stories of the year. There’s a mystery here, and many crimes, and a lot of snow and heroics and scenes that rival the best thrillers. I loved the story, and suspect you will too.
Krigman, Eliza, “Radio Daze,” On Wisconsin, Spring, 2014. I admit: back in the day, I was an incredible snob. By the time I got a tour of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s little lakeshore radio station, WHLA, I already worked at WORT and freelanced for WHA and NPR. I was very unimpressed.
I did not know the history of that little radio station—until I read this article. The way the students fought for the station, the way they sacrificed time to build it, the passion they had for it. And how difficult it was to run.
I apologize for my private snobbyness. I had no idea. And now I do.
Lahr, John, “Joy Ride,” The New Yorker, March 31, 2014. Thank God I don’t live in New York City. Because if I did, I’d go broke seeing every single show on and off Broadway. (Not to mention the amount of time I would spend in the theater, and away from writing!)
This article is about Susan Stroman’s Tony-nominated musical “Bullets Over Broadway,” based on the Woody Allen film. All of the previews and press happened while Allen was again under suspicion of abusing his daughter Dylan. So in addition to the usual Broadway stuff these articles have, it also featured the difficulties of dealing with possible problems, caused by the artists involved.
Stroman herself is an interesting woman, and there’s much of her history here as well. If you find Broadway or the arts interesting in any way, read this piece. It makes those of us who write our own little entertainments in the quiet of our own homes seem like we’re not working at all.
Mallory, Michael, “The Amazing Clayton Rawson,” Mystery Scene Magazine, Winter 2014. One of the things I love about Mystery Scene is the way it respects the history of the mystery field. This article, by Michael Mallory, discusses a writer and editor I’ve never heard of—yet I should have. Clayton Rawson wrote books about magic and murder, and worked all over the publishing industry. He was an art director, an editor, and a co-founder of Mystery Writers of America. Fascinating article, just the kind of thing that I love reading and learning about.
McPhee, John, “Elicitation,” The New Yorker, April 7, 2014. McPhee has been publishing a lot of pieces on writing in the New Yorker lately, some I agree with, some I don’t, and some that are just plain fascinating, because it’s cool to see another writer’s process. This piece is about reporting, and since I consider McPhee one of the best reporters of his generation, I found this essay particularly fascinating. I doubt things would be done the same way now, but still, worth the read.
Medsger, Betty, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, Knopf, 2014. Fascinating well written book about the burglars who stole the secret FBI files from FBI headquarters in a small Pennsylvania town in 1971. These folks were non-violent anti-war protestors, and were trying to stop the Vietnam War. Instead, they discovered thousands of pages of illegal activity by Hoover’s FBI. (I used some of the information they found to write The Enemy Within—after someone else published that information, of course.)
Betty Medsger is one of the reporters who received the information directly from the burglars, without knowing who they were. In those long past days, copy machines were hard to come by, and the burglars—after discovering this stuff—copied it and sent it to a handful of reporters, some of whom did not publish. Medsger, who was with The Washington Post, did.
The burglars never got caught. The statute of limitations passed, and finally, one of them confessed to Medsger, who knew the person through other means. All of the burglars but one (I think) spoke to her for this book, giving their side of the story for the first time. Most spoke under their real names, although two insisted on anonymity.
The book is well written, vivid, and unbelievably tense. It goes sideways toward the end when she tries to tie everything to stuff going on now. I slowed down there. (I wondered as I read it if her publisher hadn’t asked her to add that bit to sell the book to a modern audience.) But the burglars, their motivations, and their subsequent lives are interesting.
I could never imagine doing what they did—even for something I believe in—and then living with it for decades. All of the burglars went on to fruitful lives. Many, for a variety of reasons, believe that their anti-war stance was wrong. Others still believe what they did was important.
This book is fascinating, not just for the historical details or the time period stuff which she manages to capture beautifully, but also the way she handles the legal, ethical and moral conundrums here, not to mention the horrors these burglars stumbled upon. If you write mystery, you will want to read this. If you read mysteries, you’ll enjoy this as well.
Scottoline, Lisa, editor, The Best American Mystery Stories, 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Jon Breen’s review of this volume in Mystery Scene calls it the very best volume in this series ever and I’m inclined to agree. I had to skip one or two stories for personal reasons (there are certain types of stories I’ll never read, no matter how well written), but otherwise, I read and enjoyed everything. I’ve pointed my favorites throughout this list, but really, you can’t go wrong with anything in this volume. Pick it up. It’s marvelous.
Schulz, Kathryn, “Final Forms,” The New Yorker, April 7, 2014. A fascinating article on the evolution of the death certificate. How it came about, why it came about, and what it tells us about our culture. Also, how it helped determine diseases and causes and oh, just read this one. It’s wonderful.
Shoumatoff, Alex, “The Devil and the Art Dealer,” Vanity Fair, April, 2014. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the Nazi art thefts (and yes, I saw the movie, but I’ve been doing research in this area for years before Clooney ever discovered it). We’ll talk about some of that reading more next month. But because of The Monuments Men movie, the press has picked up on all the missing art. And then there was the big discovery of the treasure trove in Munich, held by the son of a Nazi art dealer. This article discusses the German laws governing the artwork, the recluse who held onto this stuff for decades and decades, and the art itself. It’s one of the more complete articles I’ve read on this particular case, and interesting in its own right.
Silva, Daniel, The English Assassin, Signet, 2002. While I’m working on this long Retrieval Artist project, I’m having trouble finding novels that engage my mind. Mostly, the brain is busy with my own novels, so whatever I read needs to have excellent writing (yeah, I get snobby about word usage when I’m distracted), great characters, fantastic setting, and a plot that’s just engaging enough to hold me, but not so wonderful that it takes my mind off what I’m doing.
The Silva ended up being the perfect thing. He’s a fantastic writer, and his settings come alive. The plot here was a basic thriller plot—until the end, when it became both surprising and just plain perfect, in my opinion. I’m now working my way through the rest of Silva’s Gabriel Allon series, starting with the first one, and I suspect this will continue until I find a new mystery short story collection (mystery shorts are incredibly well done, and they’re…um…short) or until I finish the big project which I hope is any day now. (But realistically, it’s not until the end of the summer.)
This novel was a pleasant surprise, and the fact that Silva has more than a dozen books is also good news. I’ll be bingeing this summer. Yay!
Silvis, Randall, “The Indian,” The Best American Mystery Stories, 2013, edited by Lisa Scottoline, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. The Indian in the title of this story is a motorcycle. As in the Clark Howard, above, the title factors into the story in the very best way, and you don’t realize it until you’ve finished reading.
One of the longest pieces in the book, “The Indian” features an incredibly dysfunctional family and the thing that destroys them. This train wreck is apparent from the first paragraph. Once I read it, I was hooked, and I couldn’t look away. You won’t be able to either. Really, really well done.
Smith, Dean Wesley, “Morning Song,” Smith’s Monthly, June, 2014. Dean includes a full novel (which he then publishes separately) in each Smith’s Monthly. Somehow, in this month’s novel, he managed to combine what Gardner Dozois calls “pure quill” science fiction (hard sf) with a romance and a hint of space opera. This is set in Dean’s Seeders universe, which I would have called space opera until he put the science fiction underpinning into the series with this novel.
I’ll be honest: the science fiction aspects of this book interested me way more than the relationship. But I enjoyed it all nonetheless. And admired his world building skills, and his ability to write something this vast, and yet keep it focused on two people (really, a small group of people). Well done.
Spoon, Marianne English, “Creative License,” On Wisconsin, Spring, 2014. I remember when I first encountered the cartoons of Lynda Barry. She published them in Madison, Wisconsin’s weekly free newspaper, Isthmus, which published me (under a different name) back in the day. I loved her cartoons, and figured she lived in Madison. I remember being stunned to learn she lived in Seattle. But she was born in Richland Center, and in 2002, moved back to the Madison area. Now, she teaches a course in interdisciplinary creativity at the University of Wisconsin. And oh, oh! I want to move back just to take that course.
Barry’s ideas on creativity are so nifty, and the class sounds like so much fun, at least the way it’s portrayed here. If you’re at all working in the arts, you need to read this article. Even a little taste of Lynda Barry wisdom is worthwhile.
Valby, Karen, “The Cure For Pop Culture Exhaustion,” Entertainment Weekly, April 18/25, 2014. Yes, I’m behind on everything, including my Entertainment Weekly’s. Yeah, I read the TV recommendations when the magazine arrives, and then it goes into a pile for those nights when I’m too tired to even look at a novel. And in June, that was very few nights.
When I read this short little essay by Karen Valby, I felt a moment of kinship. She follows pop culture, just like I do, and does it for her job, just like I do, and for enjoyment, just like I do, but there are times…days…weeks…months…when the sheer volume of stuff becomes overwhelming.
The gift of community – of Twitter, or your book club, or a magazine like Entertainment Weekly – is that it invites conversation around united passions. But it can also make it hard to respond intuitively to a creative work with an open mind.
So she recommends what she calls “a cleanse.” Go it alone on something everyone else has already discussed. Shut down the Twitterstream and silently watch something, read something, and do it alone.
Which I do. Often. I had started this long before the whole social media thing (yes, when I had to walk uphill in the snow both ways to crank the phonograph just to listen to music), because my home is the sf community which has always taken snark and know-it-all-ness to an unbelievably high level. Or maybe, I started this in school, when teachers told me that what I read would pollute my mind. Or at home, when my mother would throw out my comic books (yes, she was one of those; in her defense, she thought they were periodicals, like [ahem] Entertainment Weekly or a newspaper, and should be disposed of after the week of issue).
Anyway, if you’re in need of a cleanse or if you just had one, read Valby’s lovely essay for taste of community—without the snark.
Vincent, Bev, “The Honey Trap,” Ice Cold, edited by Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson, Grand Central Publishing, 2014. I’d never heard of Bev Vincent before I read this story, and midway through, I was thinking that this woman really knew her men. The story was about a phenomenon I’d heard my husband and other middle-aged men discuss—the fact that at a certain age, men seem to disappear from everyone’s radar, particularly from the radar of attractive women. I was so surprised that Vincent got this right, I flipped to the biography, and realized I had oopsed. Bev Vincent is a man.
Doesn’t take anything away from this story. It’s still incredible. But it’s a bit more understandable—rather than a reach, something a woman wouldn’t think of, it’s something men know and rarely discuss. Vincent uses this to great advantage. Read the story. It’s marvelous.
Wallace, Joseph, “Deep Submergence,” Ice Cold, edited by Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson, Grand Central Publishing, 2014. Probably the most memorable story in the book for me. It took a moment or two to absorb the voice, but once I was in, I went in deep.
A story about a Deep Submersion Vehicle and its operators off the coast of California in 1968, this piece taught me some history I didn’t know, and really put me back in the Cold War mentality. Well done.