Q & A with Oline H. Cogdill

ThCOGDILL20Ae Kill Zone is thrilled to have Oline H. Cogdill, Mystery Fiction Columnist for the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, joining us today. She also reviews for McClatchy Tribune Wire Services, Mystery Scene magazine and Publisher’s Weekly. Her reviews appear in about 250 newspapers and publications world wide. She is a judge for the 2009 and 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Oline also blogs about mysteries, the publishing industry or anything else that amuses her at www.mysteryscenemag.com/msblog and at

Q. What happens when you review a friend’s book and you don’t like it?
A. I don’t review friends’ books. I am often called a “friend” or a “friend of mysteries,” but that is like using the word “friend” as one does on Facebook. I genuinely like most of the mystery writers I meet or are on panels with. But I am not their friend. There is a difference between being friendly and a friend. I’ll have a drink with them, or even a meal, but that is as far as it goes. (And I pay my own way.) I completely put the identity of the author out of my mind when I am reading a novel to review. I am focused only on the work, not the book. If I felt I was really too close to an author, then I could not review their book. My husband is working on a mystery; I have read the first six chapters and I think he is onto something good. Naturally, I would never review that, although because we have different last names I probably could slip it by. But it would not be ethical.
I want people to respect what I do.

Q. How many pages of a book will you read before you decide it’s not for you?

A. For me, the litmus test would be about 50 or 60 pages, but this actually seldom happens. Once I make the decision to review a book, I am committed to it: good, bad or indifferent. Since the books space at the Sun-Sentinel has been severely limited – and we have no idea what the future holds – the Books Editor and I made a conscious effort to try to publish reviews only on those books we liked. The idea being that we ‘d rather steer readers toward something than away from it. However, that said, if I begin a novel that I have chosen or one I must review and it is dreadful, I am committed to that book.

But there are a lot of exceptions. For one, if I just really hate a novel and don’t want to spend another minute in those characters’ company, I would just move on. Another exception is if it is a local author published by a small publisher. If I hate that book, I would not be serving anyone. I would put the author’s book signings, info in my Local Book News column and move one. Another reason for me not to continue with that novel would be if the publication I am reviewing for doesn’t want negative reviews. When that happens, I call the editor and ask that the book be assigned to someone else.
I take no pleasure in writing negative reviews, and would rather spend my reading time enjoying myself.

Q. How do you decide which books you will review?
A. For Mystery Scene and Publishers’ Weekly, the novels are assigned to me. It is kind of interesting to have novels assigned, because since I started reviewing mysteries sixteen years ago, I have always chosen what I read. Mystery Scene and Publishers’ Weekly have assigned me novels I may not have selected otherwise, opening up my world further.

For the Sun Sentinel or MCT, I choose the books. First criteria: if the author is local. Any South Florida or Florida author gets priority. Second is if the author is coming for a book tour. I can’t do everyone who swings through South Florida, but I try. There are a few – for me – must review authors such as Michael Connelly (who also has a strong Florida connection), Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, Harlan Coben, Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin and Val McDermid (those are not my only “must review” authors, but a sampling).

After that, I look for something new, something different. I tend to review a lot more hard boiled than cozy or traditional, but I also try to self check myself and maintain a balance. Whether an author is male or female, a minority, etc., shouldn’t matter. It is the work I focus on. On a larger plane, it matters a great deal because I want to give readers a balance. I also try to remember authors I meet at Bouchercon or Malice, anyone who might have something different to bring to the table. Last year at Bouchercon in Baltimore, my husband and I ended up talking to two newbies. They had no idea who I was until at the end of the conversation, when I gave them my card and told them to make sure their publisher contacted me. (I think they are both with St. Martin’s, but that is the only hint.) The books they were describing sounded interesting. Whether they will be or not remains to be seen.

Q. Does a book have to be published by an accepted house (think ITW and MWA members’ books) for you to review it?

A. I don’t know what the accepted houses for MWA and ITW are. For me they have to be a legitimate publisher, not a glorified vanity press or a subsidized one (meaning the author pays part of the cost). I will not review novels from any publishers like that. No self published. There are so many books being published by legitimate houses, both large presses and small, that I can’t keep up with those. Cream rises to the top. If an author has to go the subsidized route, then I wonder why. Yes, I know there are some books that got their start that way, gaining a following and rising to a legitimate press; but those are the EXCEPTIONS, not the rule.

Q. Do you review mainly hardcovers, or does the format the book is printed in not make a difference?

A. It should not make a difference, but in reality it often does. I used to do a paperback a month but now with the cutbacks in space, I will often do a paperback or two a month and put the review on the blog at www.sun-sentinel.com/offthepage and then put it on the MCT wires. That way I can cover it. And those reviews on the wires get picked up a lot. Last year, the ones I did on the novels by Jeffrey Cohen and Julie Hyzy ended up in about 100 different spots.
For the newspaper, the editors prefer hardcover but sometimes I will slip in a trade paperback if I think it is really good. Or a paperback by a local writer such as P.J. Parrish. But as a rule, the novels that are reviewed for the Sun Sentinel are hard cover.
Let me add that I am a fan of paperback originals. A lot of excellent authors got their start in paperback originals. Sometimes the paperback original authors (Joel Goldman, Rick Mofina, Michelle Gagnon, P.J. Parrish) are as good if not better than many of the authors being published in hardcover.

Q. Do you agree with Dick Cavett that there are two ways to tell someone their book isn’t good: A) You book was not my cup of tea, and B) I put down your book and just couldn’t pick it back up?
A. Another thing to say would be “Your fans will love it.” But, ha!, no, I disagree with Dick Cavett. Those are kind of cocktail party responses, things you say to people to not hurt their feelings, though if you think about those responses they are hurtful in a way. I grew up watching Dick Cavett and realizing there was a whole world out there beyond my home town. But that is a milquetoast thing to do. I may try to soften a review, especially if I have liked everything else the author has written, but in the end I have to be frank.
Case in point, I reviewed a nationally known and admired author last year. I have followed this guy since his first paperback original, and have seen him get better and better until he now regularly lands on the best sellers list. But I did not like his latest one. It hurt me to not like it, but that was the reality. So I had to give it a negative review.
A book may not be my cup of tea, but it could be yours. However, I am the one writing the review.

Q. Are there any standardized rules for reviewers, such as not quoting too directly from the book or tempering your praise/criticism?
A. My two main rules are not to give away a plot twist that will spoil the book for a reader and not to fall so in love with my own voice that I forget who the review is for. The first rule is pretty standard – I hate when a reviewer gives away a plot. I remember some review of a Michael Connelly novel (don’t remember the publication or the book title) that seemed to take glee in giving away everything twist and turn. As a reader, that made me mad.

The second rule: I think too often reviewers get so caught up that they go on too much and forget that they are writing that review for the reader, not to hear themselves be clever.
I think all reviewers should follow the rule ( I think it’s from Star Trek), “to do no harm.” That doesn’t mean you can’t and shouldn’t rip apart a book if it deserves it, but review the book, not the author.
Quote from the book as much as you want to – most of the time that is just padding out a review – but don’t give away those vital plot points.

Q. Now that many reviews/reviewers are moving online, do you worry that they won’t adhere to the same journalistic codes?
A. I absolutely worry about that. I believe I am an ethical reviewer and I hope others think that too. I see a lot of reviews on Dorothy L and on a lot of online sites and, for the most part, they seem to be OK. Some of them are not especially well written but they are from the heart. But I worry that people are basing their reviews on grudges, agendas, friendship or anything else. Everyone now seems to be a reviewer. The rise of food review blogs, etc., seems to give many people permission to give their opinion on everything. When certain ethics such as being as objective as you can, approaching each book with a blank slate and others are not followed, I worry that it cheapens all reviews.

Q. What’s your take on ebook readers? Pros, cons as a reviewer?
A. If you mean like a Kindle or a Sony or whatever, I think those are just fine. It is another means to read a book. I like holding a book, that invisible connection to an author conveyed by holding their work. But if you read the book on a device or via the printed page, does it matter? I don’t think so. I would not find that a pro or a con as a reviewer.
The convenience might even encourage more people to buy books and that would be a good thing!
Actually, I wish the
New York publishers would get together and put their advanced copies on a Sony or whatever for reviewers. That way I could take an unlimited amount of books on vacation rather than limiting myself to 10. The publishers would save a ton of money, too.

Q. Amazon book reviews: many people think that readers pay attention to those starred, “street” reviews of books. Do you think they’re having a significant impact on book-buying decisions?
A. Lord, I hope not. Anyone can publish a review on Amazon. I know an author (self published) whose wife posted this glowing review on his Amazon site. Like me, she had kept her maiden name so no one else they knew the couple would know they were married. When they got divorced – and I bet you see this one coming – she posted a nasty, vicious review. Again, these reviews on Amazon are fraught with agendas, grudges, etc. I am sure some of the people posting their reviews are writing from the heart but others aren’t.

Developing a theme through characters

Before there was story structure–before there were even novels—there was theme. A story’s theme is the fundamental and universal idea behind its plot. In King Lear, for example, one of its themes is authority versus chaos.

But to me, a novel’s theme is not merely the abstract principle behind the plot; I believe that you have to bring a story’s theme to life through its characters. Ideally, several of the major characters should portray a variation on the underlying ideas that inform the story. Those characters will reflect the light and depths of your theme, the way the facets of a diamond show off its hidden fire.

In A Killer Workout, the second installment in the Fat City Mysteries, I created a “Mean Girls” theme. I wrote several different characters to illustrate that underlying idea. One character had been victimized by bullies in her youth–another was herself a bully. Still another character had grown up to become a protector of abused young women. Through each of these women’s stories and backgrounds, I explored the ideas of bullying, emotional abuse, and “mean girls” in various ways.

I use my characters to do a “360” exploration of the theme of each of my novels. The secondary characters’ experiences in terms of the theme are usually more intense and extreme than my protagonist’s. They act as “theme foils,” and they also propel her journey through the plot.

What about you? How do you develop the theme for your stories? Do you create your theme at the beginning of your writing, or does it emerge slowly as you write? And how do you illustrate your theme?
Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Tim Maleeny, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, Steve Berry, and more.

“I hate scrabble”: Q & A with Hallie Ephron

Hallie-Bricks-smaller Today The Kill Zone is delighted to welcome Hallie Ephron. NEVER TELL A LIE, her first solo thriller, has drawn wide acclaim. It received a PW starred review and was described by the San Francisco Chronicle as, “A book to be gobbled up whole, its pace never slackens.” A renowned writer, book reviewer, and writing teacher, Hallie was kind enough to share how she feels about reviews of her own books, and why she doesn’t play Scrabble.

Q: As a reviewer, how do you feel about reading reviews of your own work?

A: I hate it. Doesn’t everyone? Oh, the good ones are great, but every little jab and jibe goes right to the jugular.

Q: What influence do you feel reviews now have in an online world where everyone can blog/review a book?

A: I think the influence is still very significant. As I watch my Amazon numbers (a bad idea; don’t do it) I see a very significant bump when a good review comes out in the mainstream press. A nice blog review? Not so much.

Q: Along those lines, what’s happening to the book publishing industry, and where does book reviewing/reviewers fit into the picture? Can they help save it?

NeverTellALie_cover-smaller A: Like every other industry, the publishing business is shrinking. I think book reviewers have always, and I hope they will continue to guide readers to worthy books.

Q: NEVER TELL A LIE starts with a seemingly innocent yard sale. What’s the best yard sale purchase you’ve ever made? Ever had a bad experience? (hopefully not as bad as what happens in the book!)

A: BEST: A Stickley 2-door, glass-fronted oak bookcase with hammered copper pulls—the real deal—for $25!

WORST: Well, there was 1920’s bakelite “tombstone” radio I bought at a friend’s yard sale for $20. When I discovered it was worth over a thou, I returned it to her. Moral: Don’t shop at a friend’s yard sale.

Q: Do you believe that there is now gender equality in terms of the reviews and/or coverage mystery books get – particularly thrillers?

A: I’m not sure about equity, but I’d be surprised if differences are measurable. Publishers are very bottom-line oriented—they want to publicize what sells.

Q: Your previous novels were written with a writing partner, Donald Davidoff, under the pseudonym G.H. Ephron. How was it different for you to fly solo this time?

A: The writing was the same because I did the writing for the partnership. But plotting is a bear. Coming up with ideas, working my way out of plot-holes, coming up with credible surprises are so much easier when there’s someone else in the boat rowing. Brainstorming really requires at least two brains.

Q: What are your next plans? Another solo novel, one with your writing partner, or a non-fiction work?

A: I’m finishing “The Bibliophile’s Devotional” – a book for each of 365 days. And I’m in the middle of a solo novel.

Q: Do you think there is any self-published crime fiction out there worth reading?

A: Of course there is. But there’s too much crime fiction being well published by mainstream publishers for there to be time (for me) to look at self-published work.

Q: Why don’t more reviewers come to writers’ conferences or participate in panels?

A: One reason: it’s so darned expensive. And given that, a lot of them do, they just don’t advertise their presence. At the New England Crime Bake, we invite crime fiction book reviewers and ask them to speak or chair panels, and we try to comp their registration – as a result we’ve had quite a few come.

Q: What are the well-regarded review sources, and the ones to watch out for? (Not counting NYT, LAT, Boston Globe)

A: There are the trade publications like Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal that review in advance of publication. They can make a huge difference in terms of pre-orders from bookstores and library sales. Beyond that, there are just a few mainstream newspapers that regularly review crime fiction. You’ve mentioned some. The wonderful Oline Cogdill no longer works full time for the Sun Sentinel, but the silver lining is that her reviews now get picked up by papers nationwide. And then there are a gazillion self-anointed reviewers who write about books on the bookseller web sites, on blogs, on listservs, on FaceBook and other social networking web sites, and on it goes. So many! For an author that’s daunting and hard to know exactly how to crack.

Q: You come from a family of writers. I’m curious: do family Scrabble games get a little too intense?

A: I HATE Scrabble. I know that’s anathema. But I’m married to a lovely man who can beat me and everyone I know or am related to. I long ago gave up playing because, to put it bluntly, I hate to lose.

Q: And along those lines, Kathryn wanted to know: “Does Nora still hate her neck? I’ve been contemplating having a neck lift ever since reading her book.”

A: It’s not something I’ve asked her lately. She does have a movie coming out next summer. It’s based on Julie Powell’s wonderful book “Julie and Julia” – that delightful memoir about cooking all the recipes in Julia Childs’s cookbooks. Meryl Streep plays Julia (can’t wait to hear her do the voice) and Amy Adams plays Julie. Scuttlebutt on the movie: it’s going to be a blockbuster. Nice distraction from a saggy neck.