Five gifts you don’t want to unwrap this holiday season

We’re coming off a pretty depressing month of November, so I thought I’d kick-start the holiday season with a few early reflections about gifts: Gifts given, gifts received. The Good, the Bad, and the Butt-ugly.

When it comes to worst-ever gifts, it’s not the gift per se that counts. If you get a hideous Rudolf the Reindeer sweater from your Aunt Minnie, at least you know she meant well. (Unless she’s like some of the Minnie-hahas around my tree).

The worst gifts are ones you know were chosen with malice aforethought; they reflect–badly–on you, or on the relationship between giver and givee.

Here, in no particular order, is my own Top 5 list of worst-ever gifts:

  • A set of Franklin Mint quarters, given to me by a buddy who kept borrowing money.
  • A refrigerator alarm that oinked, the year I put on a few holiday pounds.
  • A paper shredder, right after I announced my plan to become a professional writer. (I already had an organic paper shredder–my cat).
  • A set of candles that was regifted to me, from the person I’d given it to the previous year.
  • Any of the “For Dummies” books I’ve ever received. (And I hate to admit, there’ve been more than a few.)

To be fair, here are a few clunkers I’ve given over the years that didn’t go over so well:

  • A Christmas card I regifted in the first grade. It had the original recipient’s name erased, but still clearly legible.(I was only six, okay?)
  • An Epilady hair remover, for a hirsute friend.
  • A jumbo box of See’s Candy, for someone who was on a diet.
  • A set of carving knives, for a soon-to-be ex.

Looking over that list, I’m…I’m ashamed. And I solemnly vow not to leave any passive-aggressive lumps of coal in any one’s stocking this year.

So what are some of your worst-ever gifts given? Received?

Poll results: Why you bought your last book, and where you bought it

By Kathryn Lilley

So last week I ran a (very unscientific) poll about book-buying habits, and here are the results:

Poll #1: When you purchased a book recently, what was the MOST important criteria for you?

More than 50% of the voters said they’d most recently purchased a book by an author they’d previously read, and liked.

“Tried and true” seems to be the guideline for people buying hardcover books. They don’t want to spend $26 dollars on someone they’ve never read before, and who can blame them?

This result would suggest good news for established writers, not so good for debut authors. In the comments, however, people indicated that they sampled new authors from libraries and second-hand vendors, opening the door to future sales of books by those writers.

Poll #2: “The last time I purchased a book, I bought it from…”

A majority of people (30%) purchased their last book from Amazon. Not a promising result for bricks-and-mortar bookstores, or for authors’ or publishers’ profit margins.

I’m going to leave the polls up there, add new ones, and report back from time to time with updated results. I’m undertaking this polling because I’m frustrated by the dearth of hard data about consumers’ book buying habits. (And if that data exists, someone please point me to it!) I’m tired of the standard answer of “nobody knows anything.”

This week’s conclusions

Debut authors can’t count on robust hard cover sales. If a publisher wants to get a debut author’s career rolling, I suggest they include free e-books of debut authors with books by similar, established bestselling authors, to get the reading public familiar with the new writer. After a limited free e-book distribution, the publisher can charge for the next book and future versions of the debut novel. This approach would mean that publishers would have to look for writers to support over the long haul, not just a one-book wonder.

Don’t feel too envious of “established” writers, though. If you think that life is easy once you hit the NYT list, check out this post by bestselling author Lynn Viehl. She actually posts her royalty statements and gives a good insight into the tough career that is known as authordom. It’s an exhausting climb, even for those standing (at least momentarily) on the peak.

My other conclusion of the week is that Amazon is eating everyone’s lunch.

But then, we all already knew that. Didn’t we?

Buy my soap–it’s rounder

By Kathryn Lilley

Publishers could learn a lot about market research by studying soap makers.

Consumer brand-makers have long studied every nuance of customers‘ shopping habits; they understand what makes a shopper reach for a particular product–why they reach for Dove soap, for example, as opposed to a nearly identical brand. Size, shelf placement, branding, color combinations, labels, price points–it’s all been studied, calibrated, and expertly wielded to part you from your money the next time you’re in the grocery store.

But in the publishing world, consumer marketing research seems to be woefully lacking. What makes a book-shopper shell out $25 for a hardcover book by an unknown author? Does anyone really know? Damned if most people in the publishing business seem to.

Authors don’t know, either. We’re always told, “Just write a good book, and readers will come.” I have visions of writers building ball parks in Iowa corn fields, waiting for Shoeless Joe to arrive for a book signing.

I’ve decided to run an unscientific poll to learn exactly why people bought their most recently purchased book. Is the conventional “superstar” theory correct, and did you buy a book by a major author? Or did you hear about a book or author from a review? From a blog? Did you wander the shelves and get drawn like a moth to a compelling cover and jacket copy? Or were a couple of factors involved?

Visit my poll, vote, and let me know how you made the decision to purchase your most recent book. Let me know how the poll can be refined or tweaked, and if there are any other polls you think would be worthwhile.

I’d also be interested to hear if anyone is aware of any hard core data about reader buying habits. Right now I get the sense that writers and publishers are simply wandering the corn fields. And we’re going to be stuck out there for a long, long time.

Feet that “whisper,” and other interesting word usages

Like all writers, I love discovering slightly fresh uses for words. Recently I ran across the following passage in The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin, which describes a waitress in traditional dress:

“Her white-mittened feet whispered over the tatami.”

I think “white-mittened” and the verb “whispered” in this sentence perfectly convey the woman’s movements, creating an effect.

In my own writing I always have to root out what I call “garden variety” words, including –gasp–cliches. Whenever a particularly interesting word strikes my fancy, I jot it down in a writing file, and keep the file updated. Sometimes the word itself isn’t that unusual, but can seem fresh when used in a slightly different way.

When I hit upon a goodish-sounding word that suits my purpose, unfortunately I have a tendency to overuse it. For example, in one manuscript I discovered that I kept using the verb “freshened.” It became my verb du jour–a breeze would freshen a flag, stuff was freshening all over the place. I had to go back and rework them all. I also repeat certain words in my everyday speech. My sister recently pointed out that I’d started using the word “draconian” a lot. Things weren’t simply bad anymore–suddenly, everything had become draconian.

Are you the type of writer who systematically collects words that you find interesting, or do you rely on brainstorming and free flow? Do you have any interesting new sources for words?

“Grading” your author’s web site?

By Kathryn Lilley

My latest book, Makeovers Can Be Murder, has entered its early trials–a 12-week, Darwinian period during which the books are cast upon the shelves of bookstores across the country. Newly published books are typically given 12 weeks–3 months–to live or die. If they “live,” this means that all the books sell out, and then customers order more. If the books “die,” well…we call that Remaindered Hell. Remaindered books are sent back to the publisher, where they languish in warehouses, or are simply destroyed.

During this 12-week period, most authors make frantic efforts to promote their books–a process that typically includes sprucing up their author’s web sites.

For most of the year, I tend to ignore my web site,; I lag behind in making updates (except for the Twitter app that automatically displays updates). Recently I noticed that I’d even let my newsletter account expire. (This may be due to the fact that, because I don’t like getting newsletters, I assume other people don’t like getting them–even the ones who sign up for my newsletter. Or it might be just laziness on my part–I hate writing ’em).

But from time to time I make solemn vows to improve the site. Recently I ran my URL through Website Grader, an SEO service that grades web sites according to various criteria, including meta data, inbound links, and a bunch of other things that I barely understand. It also compares a given site to similar sites. My web site had a score of 47. Now, when I went to school, a 47 was a big, fat “F”. The site also had a Google page rank of 3. That’s probably not good either, although I have no idea what is considered a “good” Google page rank.

The Website Grader issued a report that suggested various ways that I can improve my statistics: Adding a page title, metadata, and listing the site on web directories, among others. I’ve since heard that those suggestions for revisions are based on “old” technology, and no longer valid. But honestly, I have no idea. I’ll take a stab at making the improvements, just to feel like I’ve done something useful.

As an author, how much attention do you pay to your web site? Do you let it languish like an unwanted stepchild, or do you nurture yours? If you’ve done a major overhaul, have you been pleased with the result?

A book that changed your life

By Kathryn Lilley

Last weekend I heard a great program on This American Life called “The Book That Changed Your Life.”

It reminded me of a recent discovery I made: I learned that a book I gave to a friend 30 years ago had actually changed his life.

Thirty years ago, I was 23 and newly graduated from Columbia Journalism School. He was 22, and a charming slacker. We dated just long enough for me to conclude that he had a serious pot habit (I was naive about drugs 30 years ago, and slow to catch on).
As our relationship hit the rocks, I gave him a copy of a book I was reading at the time, The Republic. I marked up passages that I thought applied to him. I don’t recall which ones they were–probably the sections that described Plato’s concept of a well-ordered society. I’m sure it was a bit of a reproachful gift, a pseudo-intellectual parting shot.

Recently I received a long, thoughtful email from my former friend. It was a thank you note. He said The Republic had had a huge impact on his life; he credited it with helping him give up drugs and recalibrate his approach to life. He’s now a successful businessman.

It’s hard to believe that one book was responsible for all that, but I was glad to hear his story.

I can’t think of any books that changed my life in such a profound way (I do recall faking a southern accent for an entire year after reading Gone With the Wind, and another year of nightmares after reading When Worlds Collide, but those don’t count).

How about you. Have any books changed your life?

You might never upload a photo to Facebook again

I’m a heavy Internet user, so I jumped at a chance last week to attend a Webinar (that’s a Web seminar, for you non-heavy users). Its purpose was to teach investigators how to use online techniques to research suspects, gang members, deadbeat parents, etc.

I learned that it’s possible to use online techniques to find out information about almost anyone. Here are a few of the tips we heard:

Look at pictures that are posted by your suspect on social media sites (such as Facebook), and study the backgrounds of the pictures. Team logos, landmarks, or other things in the pictures can indicate where your subject is living. You might see drugs in the background, worth noting if you’re trying to establish drug-related connections.

Note any other people in your subject’s photos. That’s one way to discover gang associations or other criminal connections. Even if your subject keeps most of his uploaded information private, you might be able to find out information from his friends’ postings.

We were advised to always capture information as soon as we find it (Snagit was a recommended tool for screen captures), because the Internet constantly changes.

We learned how to refine Google searches on the web to focus and narrow down results. Using boolean operators to do searches, trying different spellings and search engines, and using cache to get archived information were some of the suggestions.

Some of the techniques will come in handy for my writing. One thing is certain–going forward, I’ll be much more selective when I upload personal information and photos. And I’m also happy that I use a pen name for my writing–there’s less surfacing of personal data that way.

Do you have any favorite search tricks or online research techniques? Are there any rules that you follow for uploading personal information online?


This week’s post will be brief because I woke up this morning with flu-like symptoms that have been making me feel achy-breaky most of the day. Authorities tell us that any flu this season can be assumed to be H1N1, formerly known as swine. The good news is that most cases are going to be relatively mild. But don’t take that for granted–the husband of a close friend of mine (who suffers from asthma), spent three weeks in St. James Hospital here, and it was touch and go for a while after it it settled into his lungs as pneumonia. If you have any type of lung or pulmonary issues, and you come down with flu, don’t wait before getting treatment. Do it right away.

The flu has fallen out of the media spotlight, but it has spread to just about everywhere by now. Here’s the CDC flu map, in case you haven’t been following the story lately.

Muscle aches aside, I do want to pull the topic back to writing, so I’ll list some of my favorite stories involving viruses: The Andromeda Strain, The Hot Zone (nonfiction and not well written, but it did scare the hell out of me). And now I’m putting Robin Cook’s Contagion on my TBR list. I saw Mr. Cook speak at Thrillerfest, and it’s amazing how brilliant and prolific as an author he is.

What are your favorite medical thrillers? Did any scare the bejeezus out of you?

My summer vacation: Dodging bullets in Chicago

Okay, I didn’t literally dodge any bullets. But it felt like that last week when I was in Chicago, getting my daughter settled into art school.

It was my first-ever visit to the City of Big Shoulders, about which Saul Bellow famously said, “No realistic, sane person goes around Chicago without protection.”

Day One: My husband and I are eating in our hotel’s cafe when we hear a symphony of sirens filling the air. Outside the window, police cars are jamming into the street. We quickly discover that an aggressive panhandlers has gone ballistic; when the police try to pepper-spray him, he grabs an elderly man and holds a knife to his throat. The police surround him and shoot him at point-blank range. The panhandler is dead, the elderly man is okay; a police officer is also hit, but saved by his bullet-proof vest.

Day Two: Sometime during the move-in of my daughter into her new dorm, my wallet gets lifted by a pickpocket. Within two hours of the time I lost my wallet, the pickpocket buys a bunch of stuff at Bed, Bath and Beyond and launches a shopping blitzkrieg into Best Buy.

Day Three: During the parent orientation at my daughter’s new school, an administrator tries to reassure us about safety. They say that the kids can be escorted from building to building. Somehow I am not comforted by this announcement.

Day Four: I try to cash a check at our Marriott hotel (where we’re staying), and am told that I need my license to do that. I spend copious amounts of time discussing with a stone-faced clerk the reasons why this isn’t possible, since my wallet has been stolen. I even produce a copy of the police report. Stone Face is not impressed.

Day Five: I discover that it’s easier to get on an airplane without ID than it is to cash a check at the Marriott. Overall, boarding a plane sans license is a very instructive experience. The TSA grills me about the streets outside my home, where I was born, what states I’ve lived in, specific addresses where I’ve lived, the names of current and former employers, where I went to school, etc. I find it a bit alarming that the government has so much personal information in a file that they can access instantly. Then I start to worry that I’m flunking the test, because the TSA and I disagree about which states I’ve lived in. However, they let me board the plane.

Day Six through Now: In addition to suffering from empty-nest syndrome, I worry that I’ve released my chick into a flock of knife-wielding, pickpocket seagulls.

Of course, it’s all great material for a writer. But I seriously would have preferred to come up with a pickpocket story without the “research.”

How about you? Have you had any summer adventures you can share?

Finding inspiration far from home

My family and I are on vacation in Washington D.C. this week, tromping through all the major museums and monuments. Despite 95-degree heat and 100-percent humidity, I’m having fun seeing everything with my art-major daughter. The two of us–she with her sketch book, I with my notebook–have been recording our observations of the city. Most of my notes have little to do with the impressive sights all around us. They have more to do with the rhythm and flow of the city: The jazz quartets that seem to be playing on every street corner, the surprising curtness of the service people who work in this tourism-oriented town, the scary speed of a subway train as it rushes through a long, black tunnel. In the Natural History Museum, I spent an inordinate amount of time in an exhibit about forensic anthropology, taking notes about every aspect of how scientists can determine information about a person’s life from his bones, even hundreds of years after his death. Someday I’m sure, that information will come in handy in a story.

I love they way leaving home helps me jar loose a little creative inspiration. It seems so easy to see foreign locales with fresh eyes. How about you? Have you been anywhere this summer that has served as an inspiration for your writing? Have you ever gotten a story idea from a trip you’ve taken?