The Mystery Bookstore Mystery

It was the talk of Left Coast Crime in El Paso, whispered in the corridors, at the bar, and by the Spanish-speaking cashiers at the Arby’s across the street…

Have you heard about Shelly?

2larcandshellyThey were talking, of course, about Sheldon MacArthur, the  proprietor of the Mystery Book Store in Westwood (and, for many years before that, The Mysterious Bookshop in West Hollywood).  For a little guy, he’s one of the biggest personalities (and opinion-makers) in the Southern California mystery scene… the Yoda of crime writing.  If you’re serious about mystery novels,  as a writer or a fan, you make the pilgrimmage to his store to get his advice and his blessing.  He’s a polarizing character… people either love him or hate him.  I’m one of the guy’s who loves him… I was a loyal customer long before I was an author and I can sit for hours talking about mysteries with him.

Well, I could...

Lately, he’s been missing from the store and rumors about his disappearance are running rumpant.  The story is that he’s on "extended leave." But I’ve heard lots of other explanations. Some say he had a nasty fight with the other investors in the store and he was kicked out. Others say he’s left to deal with a family emergency. Then there are those persistent rumblings about satan worship,  gambling debts to the mob, and wild sex parties involving cats, quilts, and people dressing up as Robert Crais and Gregg Hurwitz.

I was in the store earlier this week and tried pumping the staff oh-so-subtly for information ("So, what’s the real story with Shelly? Is he sick? Has he been fired? Is he having an Extreme Make-Over?"), but they were tight-lipped. All they would tell me, Stepford-like, was that he was "on an extended leave."

So is  Jimmy Hoffa, if you know what I mean.

The Mystery Bookstore’s anniversary party is this Saturday… and if he’s not there, his absense is sure to be a hot topic among the mystery writers and fans in attendance (who will include Robert B. Parker, Thomas Perry, Tod Goldberg, Patricia Smiley, Jerrilyn Farmer, Don Winslow,  April Smith, Gregg Hurwitz, Bill Fitzhugh, Scott Frost, and, of course, yours truly).

I’ll report back on Sunday…

(that’s Shelly in the picture with Bob, who is doing his "I’m a grim mystery writer" face. I hear they have consultants now who teach mystery writers how to look street instead of cul-de-sac. Either Bob is practicing the face, or he just heard his production bonus check for HOSTAGE got lost in the mail. You can click on the photo for a larger image)

Left Coast Crime 5

This post started as an email to the DorothyL list and, mid-way through, I realized I was really writing a blog entry.  So I sent what I had to the list and came back here to finish it up.

The El Paso LCC was a terrific convention… well organized and lots of fun. Like the Doubletree in Monterey last year, The Camino Real was a pleasant, open, and bright venue with a floor-plan that encouraged people to hang out and chat. There were many large and small gatherings, day and night,
throughout the lobby, bar, and convention floor. The pleasant, warm atmosphere of the hotel, and the convention itself, was especially appreciated considering how unappealing the city itself was. 
(El Paso is a hell hole)

All the authors I spoke to enjoyed the convention as much as I did. It was unlike any LCC I’ve been to before… perhaps because the authors appeared to  outnumber the fans, aspiring writers, and booksellers. As a result, the LCC had  the feel of a "professional" gathering…with authors having the opportunity to spend more time with one another than usual at these events. That’s not to say
fans were excluded… far from it. I think the fans there got to spend more time with individual authors than ever before. But I think author/attendee ratio gave the conference an entirely different vibe than past ones. It felt very collegial, very casual, without the sense that anybody was really there to
"sell" themselves and their work. It felt to me more like a very long party than
the promotional and networking opportunity, which is how too many authors treat these events.

I was struck, as I have been many times in the past, by how friendly, supportive, and open the mystery writing community is… particularly the authors, who could easily be snobbish, egotistical, and intimidating. Coming from TV, where there is so much ego, competitiveness, and back-stabbing among writers, the overwhelming kindness and congeniality of the authors is truly  refreshing and, at the risk of sounding maudlin, heartwarming.  Bestselling authors are as open and approachable as the first-time authors proudly clutching the ARCs of their  soon-to-be-published paperbacks. 

This convention, more than any other I’ve been too, gave me the chance to spend time with authors and fans alike. Even the panels I attended seemed to have a more casual, easy-going, light-hearted quality about them.

I credit the organizers for a lot of this… but also the authors, who came not to sell books, but to enjoy the company of  their friends… and to make new ones.

Left Coast Crime 4

I just got back to L.A. tonight… I’m sure you’ll be seeing a bunch of new posts after I unpack, read my mail, and catch up on the trades. In the mean time, here are some photos from the Left Coast Crime  conference… with more photos to come.  You can click on the pictures for a larger images. Joelleevictor

Up first are Joel Goldman, myself, and Victor Gischler at the big, mass signing on Friday night…just a few hours before Joel and Victor hit the dance floor. The next photo is me with Chicago Sun Times critic (and frequent commentor here)  Montgomerylee_1David Montgomery, who  left with a suitcase full of ARCs.  Criderleejpg That’s the multi-talented Bill Crider with his arm around me… and hey, look, Morrellleethere’s me with author David Morrell, co-president of the International Thriller Writers,  plotting world domination.Img_0568 Finally, here’s a big group photo of  the mob of us going to dinner on Wednesday night…I’m the guy you don’t see taking the picture. The folks are Nan Lyle, Mrs. Bob Levinson, Mr. Bob Levinson, Harley Jane Kozak,  Joel Goldman, Twist PhelanDr. Doug Lyle and Dan Hale.

Left Coast Crime 3

The Left Coast Crime convention wrapped up today and it was one of the best I’ve ever attended… despite how unappealing the host city was (how can anyone live in El Paso? They must spend all their waking hours imagining the day they can leave).

For me, the highlight of the convention was all the authors I met for the first time (or those I only knew slightly before)  and had the opportunity to get to know over drinks in the bar, long dinners, or across a poker table… like Reed Coleman, David Morrell, Barry Eisler, Carl Brookins, Jim Born, David Ellis, Suzanne Frankel, Charlaine Harris, Joan Hess, Kirk Russell, John Billheimer, Jim Fusilli, Harry Hunsicker  and J.A. Konrath (who moderated perhaps the most unusual, and entertaining, panel I’ve ever been on. You’ll just have to buy the tape to find out for yourself). In fact, I met so many people, and had such a wonderful time talking to them, it’s hard to keep track of them all.

Every night I had dinner with a different group of authors (usually at the pricey, but delicious, Cafe Central across the street from the hotel) and learned so much about the craft of writing, the state of the publishing industry, and the intricacies of promotion…we talked about other things, of course, but those conversations about what we do were invaluable to me.

I also got lured into the nightly poker game with Parnell Hall, Bill Fitzhugh, SJ Rozan, Gary Phillips and others… and although I’m certain I embarrassed myself with my inexperience (I haven’t played in 20 years), I had great fun and appreciated their patience with me. I can’t remember the last time I stayed up until 2:30 in the morning doing anything besides writing…

And I don’t think I will ever forget watching Victor Gischler’s smooth moves on the disco floor, where he taught El Pasoans the true meaning of boogie with Gary Phillips, Reed Coleman, Suzanne Frankel and Meg Chittenden, among others…

Perhaps when I’ve had some time to reflect on the weekend I’ll have something more to say than all this name-dropping and gushing…

Left Coast Crime 2

It’s mid-day Friday at Left Coast Crime… and it’s shaping up to be another lively day at the conference. There was a interesting, and very funny, panel on mystery reviewing moderated by Steve Brewer and featuring David Montgomery and Carl Brookins. I had to leave mid-way through to do a panel of my own — Why Would Anyone Want to Read a TV Show? — and had a lot of fun telling stories about TV. I sat in on Lewis Perdue’s talk about what happens when events in your novels come true… and caught up again with David Montgomery and Nathan Walpow to talk about the reviewing biz and small press publishing. Then it was off to the book room, where I tried to avoid buying by chatting with Victor Gishler and Denise Hamilton about balancing family and writing committments. I just finished a nice, long lunch with Bill Crider, Charlaine Harris,  Bob Levinson and Walter Satterthwait, talking about ghost writing, panels we’ll never forget, and other stories from the writing life.

It’s already been a pretty full day… and it’s only 1:15. I’m on a panel coming up on funny things that have happened at book signings… sadly, I have LOTS of stories I can tell…

Left Coast Crime

Howdy from El Paso, the ugliest city I have ever been too…which is all the more reason to stay in the Camino Real hotel and hang out with all the authors who are here (who seem to outnumber the fans). Not much to report… I haven’t been to a single panel yet, but I’ve spent a lot of time catching up and talking shop with my friends.

I had a terrific dinner at Cafe Central on Wednesday night with authors Joel Goldman, Twist Phelan, Harley Jane Kozak, Doug Lyle, Bob Levinson, Reed Coleman, Dan Hale, Kirk Russell and a number of others… sharing funny anecotes and horror stories.

I started my day Thursday tooling around El Paso with Joel… and discovering there wasn’t much to see. We were back at the hotel by noon, just in time for the opening of the book room, where I spent too much money buying vintage paperbacks by Vin Packer, Dan J. Marlowe, and Bart Spicer. I caught up with my friends (Bill Crider, Victor Gishler, Barry Eisler, Zoe Sharp, Meg Chittenden, and David Montgomery) and made some new ones, like Walter Satterthwait and Carl Brookins. 

Walter and I had a thoroughly enjoyable lunch under the Tiffany glass dome in the Camino Royale bar, discussing writing, our experiences at St. Martins,  and some forgotten authors from the 50s and 60s.  Later, Carl and I sat for quite a while in the bar, talking about publishing, the TV business, and the late, great Harry Whittington.

After the early evening reception at the El Paso Museum of Art, it was off to a BBQ joint in New Mexico (about 11 miles away) with SJ Rozan, Denise Hamilton, Jim Born, Doug, Joel, Kirk, and Reed where the lively discussion included the pluses-and-minuses of outlining, the insecurities we share about writing, and the best way to integrate "clues" into our narrative. 

I always leave these dinners so energized… the sense of community among mystery writers is really unique and truly helpful. It’s such a relief to know that all the obstacles and set-backs I experience are shared by other writers, too!

Tomorrow morning I have two panels…one on writing tie-ins, another on funny experiences at book-signings. It should be fun.

A Writer’s Life

This weekend was a good example of what life is like for a professional writer:

  • I wrote an article about writing DIAGNOSIS MURDER: THE WAKING NIGHTMARE for MJ Rose’s excellent Backstory blog.
  • I traveled to San Francisco to speak at a writers conference.
  • I  proofed the copyedited manuscript for my fifth DIAGNOSIS MURDER novel, which has to arrive in NY no later than Feb. 23.
  • I proofed the galleys for my novel THE MAN WITH THE IRON-ON BADGE, which have to arrive on my editor’s desk no later than Feb. 23.
  • I revised the manuscript for my sixth DIAGNOSIS MURDER novel, which is due March 1, but that I need to finish by Feb 22, so I can stick it in the FedEx packet with the copyedited manuscript for DM #5… because I am leaving on Wednesday to attend & speak at Left Coast Crime in El Paso.
  • I drove back to L.A. from S.F…and thought about the plot for my seventh DIAGNOSIS MURDER novel.  I made  some notes when I stopped for lunch.
  • I posted some articles on my blog.
  • I wrote some notes for a network pitch meeting that’s set for Tuesday.

And this was a light weekend… I didn’t have to write a script or write a chapter in a book.

Is a Story Really Necessary?

Today, I spoke at the San Francisco Writers Conference about screenwriting and breaking into television. Afterwards, I was cornered by a senior citizen who showed me his scrapbook from his days in Hollywood and rambled on endlessly about all the stars he met. I don’t know why he wanted to share this with me…but we had to go through every single page, clipping and photo. Then I mingled with the attendees,  got asked some incredibly stupid questions and had some bizarre conversations. Here’s a sampling…

"I’ve written a novel and everyone tells me it’s a script," one woman said. "How do I turn it into a script?"

"Well, you write a script." I said.

She stared at me. "How do I do that?"

"You get a book or take a course, learn the principles of screenwriting, and then you write a script."

"That’s too much work," she said. "Isn’t there software that can do all of that for me?"

"Yeah," I said. "The same way Microsoft Word wrote your book for you."

* * * * * *

Another person came up to me and asked me if I wrote for television. I said yes.  She then asked, "How do you do that?"

"You mean, how do I write for television?"

"Yes," she said.

"I write screenplays," I said.

"Which is what, exactly?"

"The story, the action, the words that the characters say," I replied.

She stared at me. "Somebody writes that?"

"Yes," I said, resisting the urge to strangle her. "It’s like a writing a play, only for the camera instead of a theatre audience."

She shook her head.  "No, it’s not."

* * * * * *
"I’ve written  a book but everyone tells me it s a TV series," the man said.  "How do I make it into a TV series."

"You can’t, " I said, and gave my standard speech about how ideas are cheap and execution is everything, how networks go to people with TV experience, or who have written hit movies, or who have written bestselling novels, blah blah blah.  And when I got done, he stared at me. I got stared at a lot today.

Hee said:  "How can I get around that?"

"You can’t," I said.

"Why not?"

"Because you haven’t established yourself  as a writer in any field," I said. "Why would a network, studio or producer buy a TV series idea from you?"

"Because I’m smarter and more talented than they are," he said.

"It’s not going to happen," I said.

"Is it because I’m black?" he said. "That’s it, isn’t it. It’s because I’m black."

* * * * * *

"Did you have to sleep with a lot of people to get into TV?" a woman asked me.

"Just my wife," I said.

"You were lucky it wasn’t someone else," she said and walked away.

* * * * * *
"I have a great idea for a movie," a woman said to me. "What’s the market like for true stories about black lesbians in the 1880s?"

"I don’t think studios are looking for scripts to fill that particular niche," I said, "but there’s always a market for good stories that are told well."

"Oh," she said. "That’s going to make it a lot harder to sell."

* * * * * *
"Mysteries are hard work,"  a man said to me. "Could I write an episode of a mystery show but leave out the mystery for someone else to do?"

"No," I said.

"But my talent is character and I’m brilliant with dialogue," he said. "I really don’t know how to plot a mystery."

"Then don’t write a mystery," I said.

"But that’s what’s selling," he said.

"Don’t try to write what’s selling," I said. "Write what you enjoy. Write the story you want to tell."

"The thing is, I don’t know how to tell stories," he said. "But I write killer dialogue. Is a story really necessary?"

"Yes," I said.

"You people in Hollywood don’t make it easy, do you? That’s  the problem with the Industry. They are constantly creating obstacles so people can’t get in."


The Edgar Nominations just came out… and LAW AND ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT got four out of the five "Best Teleplay" nods.  It’s astonishing to me that the judges could do that when there are so many great mystery shows out there…  THE WIRE, THE SHIELD, THE SOPRANOS, LAW AND ORDER SVU, CSI, WITHOUT A TRACE, NYPD BLUE, NCIS, THE PRACTICE, 24  and COLD CASE to name just a fewWe are enjoying a bounty of crimes shows on TV today… but you wouldn’t know that looking at the narrow nominations. Instead of celebrating the wonderful diversity and quality of  crime shows on TV today, we nominate L&O:CI four times.

It’s no mystery why it happened: the committee didn’t reach out beyond what was sent to them. Rene Balcer, the executive producer of L&O:CI, inundates the committee with cassettes of every single episode. No other show, or producer, is as diligent about submitting work as he is. He makes it easy for them.

I’m not saying L&O:CI isn’t deserving of nomination ( it certainly is) or that Rene was wrong to submit as many episodes as he could (I would, too!)  but giving the show four out of the five slots? That’s just wrong. Did the committee members actually watch any television this year?

When I’ve served on the best movie committee, we didn’t wait for the films to be officially submitted…we went out and watched every mystery/crime movie that was released on our own.  We took some initiative (otherwise the only nominees would have been the two producers who sent us their movies). Clearly the committee this year didn’t take the initiative… and it’s a shame. The Edgars, at least in TV, are less relevant because of it.

By the way, here’s a list of the shows that submitted episodes/screeners to the committee…you’ll notice more than half of the 55 submissions came from L&O:CI (16) and L&O:SVU (14).