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Once Upon a Crime


Rules of the Mystery

Monsignor Ronald Knox was an avid reader and essayist on mystery fiction in the early part of the Twentieth Century. An Anglican, he converted to Catholicism in 1917. In 1928 he published his "Decalogue of the Mystery: The ten rules of detective fiction."

Introduce the murderer early, but reader should not be allowed to know the murderer's thoughts.

All supernatural or preternatural agencies are to be ruled out.

No accidents or unaccountable intuition.

Only one secret passageway is allowed.

All clues must be shown at once.

Never make the detective the killer.

No exotic rule-free killers (actually, he said no Chinamen).

No undiscovered poisons.

No unprepared-for twins or doubles.

The stupid friend of the detective must never conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind, and his intelligence must be very slightly below that of the average reader.

These ten rules have guided crime fiction writers ever since. Of course, many fine authors have and continue to twist, bend and violate these rules. But, as Beethoven is purported to have said to one of his students of composition, "it is hard to effectively break the rules until you know what they are."


Giving Good Interview

Now you've sold your mystery novel so it's time to do a little promotion or BSP as it's sometimes called (Blatant Self Promotion).

How about a book tour? What a good idea! What Fun. You'll travel around the countryside, see the sights, visit funky book stores, meet interesting people, sell some books and sign them. Maybe you'll give a lecture or two and tell folks about your book. Your publisher will love you for it, and you'll sell some books. Did I already mention that?

Just don't expect your publisher to offer much support or even make the arrangements for you. In this effort, we authors are pretty much on our own. If you can afford it, you might hire a publicist to guide you and help set things up. If you're going to be your own publicist, secretary, and scheduler, what follows may help you over a few rough spots and offer some suggestions to improve your impact on the book buying public.

Get organized! Keep good records. You won't endear yourself to anyone if you miss a bookstore signing, or a media appearance. And speaking of the media, what about them? Not the newspapers. You've already contacted local newspapers along your route, yes? Your local library can give you access to professional directories of periodicals of all types and you've already created a press packet of some kind to distribute.

But what about the Other Media? Have you overlooked venues in addition to bookstores, libraries and newspapers through which you can recruit potential readers? The other media are electronic: as in radio, cable and broadcast television. They can have significant value to you. They are receptive to you, but they have to know about you.

That may have sounded a tad basic. Of course you know about radio and television! You're a successful, knowledgeable, even sophisticated author. Right. In 1996 during Bouchercon 27, hundreds of authors came to the convention in St. Paul. None of them, insofar as I am able to determine, offered themselves to the producers of the seven or eight locally produced cable, broadcast television or radio programs for promotional purposes. Tsk.

Of course, it helps to have a little knowledge about such things. Since I was once in the broadcasting biz, here are some ideas that can make it more likely that you'll get on the air, on the channel, and do a nice, professional job while you're at it—even increase the possibility that you'll be asked back.

Know your area outlets. Just as with print media, your local library carries professional directories. Once you fix your itinerary, find out what radio, television and cable stations are in each town where you'll be stopping. Suggest to the bookstores and libraries where you're arranging signings or other events that you're up for interviews with radio, TV and cable folks. Ask for their advice as to programs, hosts, telephone numbers and addresses. If your contacts are ignorant of such things, go back to your own local library. You may have to ferret out contacts for smaller outlets but they are there. Keep lists for next time.

Do it just the way you do with newspapers or magazines and bookstores. Write or call to find out whether each station has a program on which you might appear, live or recorded. Try to talk to the director or producer well before the date for the program or taping. It's mostly the networks that have multiple producers. In many cases, the producer will turn out to be the host of the show, or the director, so be accommodating from the start. Call ahead. Don't wait until you get to town to make the contacts.

Most radio and television programs, including live shows, are planned weeks or months in advance. Unless you have hard or breaking news, you won't make it on the air with less than two or three weeks' warning. Unfortunately, the release of your novel, even if it's a dynamite debut, is not breaking news, even in your own home town. Of course if your novel is a story closely connected to something happening in the real world, such as the outbreak of war in Iraq, that's different. The ideal circumstance is for an interview to be scheduled for airing while you are in town, but that's often not possible.

Some professional advice suggests that the way to get a gig on television is not to flog your book, but to become an expert in a related subject, thus increasing your chances for a spot. This is often true for network broadcasting and in a few large cities, but it is not necessarily true in smaller markets. In most circumstances your presence as a touring author is the key factor. On the other hand, if you provide evidence in the preliminary arrangements that you are more than a self-obsessed author, you'll get a more positive response. What follows is a series of common-sense hints and a few tricks of the trade to make life easier for you in the presence of lights, cameras, and radio and television hosts.

Try to remember during a taped interview that you probably won't know the time of day or day of the week when the segment will be broadcast. So try to avoid language that reveals specific days or dates or time of day. Instead of good morning, say hello. Use general terms for the days of the week.

Be general when talking about when you appeared, or are appearing, at such and such a book store, unless you know the piece will be released prior to your appearance. But do mention the name and location of the bookstore! Do not forget this. A bookstore owner who has gone to some trouble to get you an interview isn't going to be pleased if you don't mention the name of that store. Get that in as early as possible so you'll have a chance to mention it again at the end.

Many radio stations like to use the telephone to do long distance interviews. They can reach out and touch someone anywhere in the world. So by now the producer has called and you've set date and time for a telephone interview. The wise author does a little preparation before the interview.

Always assume there will be no editing! Know who you are talking to. Write down the host's name phonetically if it's difficult to pronounce. An occasional mention of the host's name is useful. Know the location of the station. It's embarrassing to hear an author referring to the lovely trees in downtown Winona, Wisconsin, when everybody listening knows Winona is in Iowa. No it isn't! Winona is in southern Minnesota.

From the moment you pick up the telephone and connect to the host, until you hang up after the interview, assume the recorder at the station is recording everything you say, every word, snort and snuffle. Lock the kids, the dog and the cats two rooms away from the telephone. Don't answer the door if the bell rings. Radio people don't like dead air so you can't leave the phone to deal with a sudden crisis. Try to have someone around who can control unexpected distractions, like the cat suddenly taking a bite out of the dog's nose. Sit at a table or uncluttered desk, and give yourself room to have previously prepared notes readily at hand. Please don't suck your teeth or rattle your loose denture. Humming is a no-no. It can be distracting between questions. Remember always that bad-on-air etiquette won't get you edited; it'll just get you canceled. Worse, the producer won't return your phone calls the next time.

Have the name, the location and the dates of each bookstore appearance close at hand so you can work them into the conversation accurately and more than once. Pitching your upcoming appearance with the wrong name for the bookstore and the wrong address will not help your cause and will not endear you to the bookstore owner.

Make a short list of the points you want to get across. Never stretch the truth or guess about the town you'll be visiting. Someone will know the truth and call you or worse, call and complain to the station.

You can do a remote interview in your raggedy old robe, in the nude, or in your floppy pink slippers. Personally, I suggest neat and casual. Appropriate dress seems to impart a sharper edge to the interviewee's attention. The listener gets more cogent answers and a more interesting interview. In a five minute piece, if you and/or the interviewer haven't mentioned the name of your book and where it's available at least twice, you haven't done your job. Did I already mention that?

Be prompt. This is particularly important if your appearance is live. The most difficult thing for a talent producer to deal with is a late arriving guest. Or a no-show.

For television, dress is important. Under the bright lights of the studio, highly reflective white blouses, dresses or shirts are frequently a problem for the lighting person who wants a good looking show and doesn't want to be yelled at by the host or the director.

Your purpose in being there is to sell yourself, your book and your signing and to avoid causing problems for anybody. So please wear something becoming. A soft pastel or neutral shirt, blouse or dress is good. In particular, avoid neckwear, rings, ear or nose rings of polished metal. They reflect light into the eye of the camera and thence into the eyes of the viewers, sending all eight of them fleeing from the room. Avoid clothing with narrow horizontal patterns. Electronic scanning of the television tube is in horizontal lines (535 to the screen, if you care, until the digital revolution is complete) and you run the risk of interfering with that scanning. It's called the moiré effect and it inevitably causes everyone watching to develop headaches.

Many television stations have live morning shows inserted around their network feeds. Others may have crowded commercial schedules so strange studio times are possible, such as a taping scheduled for five a.m., just after your red-eye flight arrives from the other coast.

Unless you are seated at a table, watch your posture. If you are seated at a table a la Charlie Rose, watch your posture. If there's no table or other modesty screen, you may encounter other considerations, but watch your posture. Keep your knees together, sit up straight and look alert. It doesn't matter whether you are wearing pants or a skirt, keep your knees together. Regardless of what you are wearing, wide-spread knees can be distracting as hell to the interviewer and it looks sloppy to the viewing audience. Bruce Willis can get away with it but you shouldn't try. Once again, remember your purpose.

Mention the book, the bookstore, the location and the time of signing. Since the program may be aired more than once (this is particularly true of cable programs) and at different times of the day, you want to create a positive image, so if you show up on the tube at five a.m. wearing clothes more suitable to the cocktail party you've just left, what sort of impression does it leave? And oh yes, don't drink and interview. Don't carry a bottle of water onto the set. If you're going to need water, and water's better than hot coffee, ask for cup or a glass of the stuff.

It's always a good idea to ask the show's producers if you can have a straight chair or a hard cushion. Lie if you have to; say you have a bad back from all those hours hunched over a hot word processor writing your book. Soft, overstuffed chairs and couches are guaranteed to make you look rumpled, overweight and out of sorts. No matter how good your legs are, women are never going to look presentable in a skirt when they're sunk half out of sight on a big davenport. If there's no choice, remind yourself to sit up straight, legs crossed at the ankle, knees pointed upstream, that is, away from the camera. Don't let your shoulders touch the back of the couch.

If you have to walk onto the set after the show has started, present your best, most friendly smile. Unless you have great hips and legs, and don't mind showing them off to crew and viewers, avoid tight short skirts and tight pants.

Take some advice by critically watching some of the interview programs on TV. The David Letterman show on CBS is a good example. Watch several guests on his show, or on the Leno program. Take a look at some local cable interviews if you have access. Decide what kind of image you want to project. Look at the way the stage is set on Letterman's program. Do you seriously think those guest chairs are placed like that so David can stare at the guest's left ear?

Smile and look happy, even if it is five a.m. Always assume people are watching, or listening, even at five a.m. (they are). In the worst scenario, you still have the chance to win over four or five technicians in the studio to buy your book. Haven't you been to a signing where nobody showed up? If you are worried about your upper lip sticking to your teeth, do what models and beauty pageant contestants do: smear a tiny dab of cold cream on your upper front teeth. Problem solved.

All right, we're in the studio, bright and perky, waiting for some kind of cue. Here are some more things to think about. Always assume, from the moment you enter the studio until you walk out the door, that there is a live microphone somewhere near you. Stories abound about sorry and vulgar things said in unguarded moments that have ruined careers or impressions. Avoid becoming another such legend.

Unless your interviewer turns out to be a total sexist jerk of a boor, try to avoid giving really really short or one-word answers. Many interviewers are using the time during your answers to frantically find a note for the next question, or trying to work that bit of breakfast bacon out of a crack between their teeth. Or they may have to prepare a lead-in to the next commercial. Don't be frightened if a make-up person appears to be attacking you and the host during commercial breaks.

Avoid saying things like, "Gosh, these are bright lights. I don't know how you can work under these conditions." It is usually a good idea to ask the host or a producer a leading question before you start. "Is there anything I should know about before we go on?" Of course you can't ask the host if this is a live show, but there's usually someone around, even the makeup person may have a key insight that will ease things for you.

These programs are artificial conversations. Speak in you normal clear conversational level. Projecting, the technique we learned in elocution or acting class, won't get your voice out there further. It just irritates the sound guy. If you have a video camera, practice with it.

Talk to your host. As early in the interview as possible, mention the name and location of the store where you are signing. Or were signing, if the interview is after the fact. If you wait for the host to ask, unless the local bookstore happens to be the sponsor of the program, the host won't do it. If you accomplish this early enough in the interview, you may get a chance to repeat it later, especially if you can be complimentary about the store people in the bargain.

Never argue with the host. They have the power to make you look silly, ridiculous and incompetent. Turning a question around so the host gets a chance to say what he/she thinks can turn hostility to near friendship. It may also give you valuable clues as to the local social and political climate. This can be especially important if you've written a mystery in which the hero is a bad guy who gets away with the crime. Here you are in an uptight law-and-order community where the son of the mayor has just embezzled the city treasury and decamped to South America. Gosh, it sounds just like the plot of your book. Could the jerk have gotten his idea from your book? Don't go there! You came here to sell yourself and your novel, not get lynched.

When the host asks you what happens or what you meant by the scene on page 47, don't reveal that you wrote that scene five years earlier and haven't seen it since the galleys went back to the publisher two years ago. Try to keep two scenes in mind, one near the front, possibly a set up, depending on how your novel is structured, and one toward the end that doesn't reveal the mystery. If the question of what's on page 47 arises you can say, "Oh, you mean the scene in which John lures Mary to the barn."

It's probable the host won't recall exactly what's on page 47 and certainly won't say so even if s/he has actually read your novel, not a likely circumstance. Assume the host has not read your book. Yes, some do, and that's the basis on which you've been asked to do an interview, but the hosts are busy people and many simply haven't the time or the inclination to read your book. If you can sell your host, maybe you'll get a free-lance mention on a later program.

Avoid swearing, blaspheming, using bad grammar and profanity. Howard Stern you ain't. Park your ego at the studio door and by all means, complete your personal toilette before going on camera. Pulling, tugging, tucking, twitching, scratching, hair-combing, nose picking, or removal of wax or shower soap from one's ears is terribly distracting to the viewer, unless, like Drew Barrymore or Madonna, that's your schtick.

Don't be self-deprecating. You worked hard writing, polishing, selling and now promoting your book. You are owed a little respect. (not much but a little) Never mind that it's five a.m., you've been on the road for fifteen straight one-night-gigs, and you're exhausted. Thank everyone after the program is over, including members of the studio crew, especially if it isn't a live program. I know one author who always showed up with donuts for the whole crew. Every time.

Keep a record so the next time you are in town flogging another novel, you know to whom to offer yourself as a guest. Or not! If they remember you with pleasure, they'll invite you back. Best of luck. We'll see you down the road.


© Carl Brookins.
Permission is hereby granted for reproduction of any material contained in this web site for purposes of publicity and promotion related to the sale of our books and/or appearances by Carl Brookins.