Little Ms. Weird, Part I

I used to think I wrote for everybody. You know, we all love books. We are are all one.

Then I realized that Code Blues, the first Hope Sze mystery, opens with a swear word.

Code Blues is character-based and contains a sex scene, sarcasm, and a reference to racial injustice before Black Lives Matter. Cue the angry reviews. Cue even more because it’s free at the moment.

Okay! Well, Notorious D.O.C. sticks much closer to the mystery genre. Hope tackles a cold case on psychiatry after a woman asks her to investigate her daughter’s death. Not controversial at all, right?

Shoot. Maybe not everyone wants to read about poo on the first page.

Most readers immediately grasp the gravity of Stockholm Syndrome, where a kidnapper targets Hope and a woman in labour. But I don’t hold back on my description of the obstetrics ward, and one agent told me his assistant almost threw up after reading my first paragraph. I thought that was was pretty impressive considering that the first paragraph is literally two words: Birth smells.

Guess my writing ain’t for everyone after all.

When Kristine Kathryn Rusch first read my stories, she said, “They will have to create a new category for you. You’re so direct, you’re almost scary.” She paused. “You’re not supposed to compare writers, but Bob Jeschonek is the same way, for another reason. If you ask him to write a story about a space ship, he’ll write from the point of view of the space ship.”

Which may explain why I’ve always been fascinated by Robert Jeschonek’s writing. I hoover up stories in all genres, but he always does new things that had never occurred to me. For example, in A Pinstriped Finger Puppet’s My Only Friend, he starts off a section called Tomorrow.

Mind blown. How can you start in tomorrow? But he does wild things all the time, wandering in and out of the R-rated section, constantly inventive and challenging.

That’s why I’m honoured to take part in the Weird Bundle he curated at Storybundle. For once, my strangeness becomes a feature, not a bug.

Pay what you want. If you choose $20 or more, you unlock all the books, including Robert Jeschonek’s exclusive Dog & Pony Show and my own Dog Vs. Aliens, Grandma Othello & Shaolin Monks in Space, and you can contribute to the charity Able Gamers. Only available for 21 more days, right here.

Let’s do this!

Why should I go to a mystery convention? To prostitute myself, of course. Bloody Words, Part I.

I was very worried about losing money at Bloody Words 2014.

Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith had beaten into me that the surest path to success in writing is simply production. Sit in your garret and write, day and night, month after month, year after year. Your craft will improve, and once you have hundreds or thousands of items for sale, someone will take notice. You don’t need to go to cons and promote if you don’t want to.

But then I got this Facebook message from Steve Steinbock:

Melissa, I decided to come to Bloody Words this year. Here are seven (or so) reasons why you should come: (1) To push Terminally Ill, (2) to join me, Howard Shrier, and Ken Wishnia in a Yiddish cussing contest, (3) celebrate the publication of your short story in Ellery Queen (whenever it comes out), (4) administer first aid when I fall off the dais, (5) sign my copy of Terminally Ill, (6) buy a drink for the reviewer who plugged your book in Ellery Queen, and (7) be the final name on the attendees roster (beating out S.G. Wong).

How could I say no? I plunked down $190 for the conference fee. I’d already booked that weekend off for Yocomo, the Montreal yoga conference. But I’d go to Bloody Words instead. Maybe I’d sell a few copies of my book.

Then it started to haunt me. What if nobody bought my book? What if I spent $199 per night at the Hyatt Regency and just went into debt? I started calling my friends to angst about it. My friends Bob Jeschonek and Richard Quarry told me not to think about it like a return on investment, just go and network.

My friend Kandy said to have fun. “You get to go to Toronto. You’re getting away from your kids. You don’t have to cook or do dishes. What are you complaining about?”

“OH MY GOD,” said her husband, Vince. “You’re going to a con? GO AND PROSTITUTE YOURSELF, LIKE ANY AUTHOR.”

So I did.

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This is me. On Pixabay. Obviously.

I drove myself to downtown Toronto and hurried to Scene of the Crime Books, the book dealer who would sell my books during the con. Right afterward, I realized that I had lost my phone. With cash in the case.

Aaaaagh! After worrying about losing money, I’d just lost an smart phone plus cold, hard cash.

I’ll save you the suspense. Someone had already turned it in. THANK YOU.

I don’t know what I would have done with myself next, since everyone else was saying “Hiiiiiiii! It’s so good to see you!!!!!!” and I was more like this tree:

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Fortunately, I already had plans. I headed out to dinner at Aroma Fine Indian with my Medical Post editor, Carol Hilton. I tried the fiery Goan prawns, in honour of my most recently completed book, The Goa Yoga School of Slayers, sequel to The Italian School for Assassins. We talked about everything from medical politics to technology to travel. Kind of like the Medical Post, actually. Thanks, Carol!

Did you know that Carol has a degree in marine biology? Pretty nifty, eh?

Did you know that Carol (on the left) has a degree in marine biology? Pretty nifty, eh? And did you know that it’s hard to take a selfie in front of a window?

I hurried back to Bloody Words for Steve’s cool panel called The Sage, the Saint, and the Sleuth (religion, philosophy, and the “modern” sleuth). I didn’t want to rush up and mob him at the end, and it was possible he might not recognize me from my teeny Facebook photo, but he walked up to me, hugged me, and said, “It’s my newest best friend.”

Aww.

Steve Steinbock & me, "Melissa Yi." The bag is medical swag because Mrs. Steinbock is a radiation oncologist who helped take care of Stephen King. And Steve interviewed Stephen King for Ellery Queen. I move among royalty now, people. Kings and Queens.

Steve Steinbock & me, Melissa Yi. The bag is medical swag because his wife is a radiation oncologist. Another fun fact: Steve interviewed Stephen King for Ellery Queen. I move among royalty now, people. Kings and Queens.

We ended up having dinner and drinks with Tanis Mallow, a Noir writer, co-host of Noir @ the Bar in Toronto, and a warm and funny person; John McFetridge and his wife Laurie, who would whip out appropriate props like his latest book, Black Rock, and the newest issue of Quill & Quire with John on the cover. (Wow!) I’d already Tweeted Rob Brunet, because he’s a fellow Canadian who had a story accepted to Ellery Queen, as well as many other markets—he tries to have a new story published every month, and his novel, Stinking Rich, will debut in September. Ken Wishnia did show up to offer some Yiddish swear words, but it turned out that his writing has also been nominated for the Edgar, the Anthony, and the Macavity Awards. Uh huh.

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Rob Brunet & Steve Steinbock

Steve said these mystery conferences are like Brigadoon, a town springing out of nowhere. What I saw was a tribe of intelligent, crime-loving writers and super readers who enjoyed meeting like-minded people. One thing I find really sad about general North American society is that intelligence is undervalued. “You’re smart, aren’t you” isn’t always a compliment. Neither are the terms “intellectual” or “perpetual student.” Asian and Jewish cultures value scholars, but outside of universities, you’re a bit isolated. But here, you’ve got a bunch of people who like the same things you do! What a miracle!

I have to give a special shout-out to Steve Steinbock, though, and not just because of this, which I already blogged about here:

By a stroke of luck, all Bloody Words participants received this copy of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The one where Steve pronounces Hope Sze an "utterly likeable character." I'll just keep repeating that. When I'm on my deathbed, I'll be like, "utterly likeable character," and my great-grandkids will be like, Wot?

Steve signed this and wrote, “Thanks for sending me Hope!” Words cannot express the goodness of this man. By a stroke of luck, all Bloody Words participants received the July 2014 copy of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The one where Steve pronounces Hope Sze an “utterly likeable character.” I’ll just keep repeating that. When I’m on my deathbed, I’ll be like, “utterly likeable character,” and my great-grandkids will be like, Wot?

Steve is a walking encyclopedia, certainly of the mystery genre, but of Jewish mysticism and, I’m sure, other topics. He was embarrassed that I called him a scholar, but it’s rare enough to meet people who genuinely love learning. Not for a degree, not because of publications or prestige or money, but just to discover. Perhaps more importantly, he’s kind and caring. Rob Brunet said that Steve had taken him under his wing a few years ago, and Steve’s obviously doing the same for me. Most people have their group of friends and figure they’re busy enough, but Steve will recruit newbies and make sure they’re not just standing in the corner, looking agonized.

I did buy Steve a drink (he said I didn’t have to, but I spoke to the waiter), and ended up paying for his salad too, which embarrassed him again, and Steve and Tanis and Rob walked me back to my apartment, since I stayed at a lovely airbnb instead of the Hyatt.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.’

I have two things two say about this. Nowadays, most people lead lives of unseen desperation. They’re not necessarily quiet. They may be loud. Buy my book! I have a new car! Check out my abs! I am so smart! My cat is cute!

The problem is, it seems like no one else cares. For example, you may write a book, but no one reads it. Or they read it and tell you it’s terrible.

Steve read Terminally Ill. And when I asked him if he understood how the plot twists incorporated the idea of magic and illusion (one of the book’s themes is magic, and Steve is a magician as well), not only had he understood it, he told me the magical term for it: misdirection. He said that in the past, mysteries used to rely on plot twists more than an escalating body count, and he respected that. He told me that my greatest strengths were my character, the fascinating setting, and the plot. When I said, okay, so what are my weaknesses, he looked at me and said, “No weaknesses. Just keep working on your strengths.”

You can tell that, between medicine and writing, I’m always waiting for the left hook.

I respect Steve even more because, I, personally, would find it hard to listen to desperate writers blather on and on about their work. It would be easier to turn away and say, “Don’t worry. Have a drink.” And I’ve heard that many critics grow bitter, forced to read and review books they don’t like. So imagine Steve going to a con on his free time and surrounding himself with writers instead!

Steve Steinbock & Melissa Yi, without the medical swag. Why am I repeating our names? I heard it's good for SEO optimization. But I know it's annoying. Sorry.

Steve Steinbock surrounded by writer Melissa Yi, without the medical swag. Why am I repeating our names? I heard it’s good for SEO optimization. I know it’s annoying. Sorry.

To get back to the Thoreau quote, I’m generally cheery. My friend Yasmin once told me I was one of the happiest person she knows. But between medicine, writing, and life in general, I have tasted despair.

With Steve and the rest of my new friends, though, happiness wins.

And I loved how the people at Bloody Words were singing their song, loudly and clearly. The rest of the world may not understand or appreciate their writing or their weirdness, but they kept on singing.

I finally realized that Bloody Words was not about making or losing money. It was about friendship.

Also creativity and craziness. Like this.

What are these shenanigans?

Oy oy oy oy oy. Oy.

Why am I wearing a sign with my book cover? What am I doing to Ken Wishnia? Did I sell any books? How can a con inspire creativity? Tune in to my next blog post, Bloody Words Part II, for the answers.

The Next Big Thing (It’s Big! It’s Massive! It’s Chocolate Bun Cake Goodness!)

I kind of hated tag as a kid, because chasing other kids or running away from “it” just made me think, Why am I doing this?

“The Next Big Thing” is a much better sort of tag.

To wit, the insanely talented Cindie Geddes tagged me as the next big one so that I can talk about my next big one. I know, it sounds like a porno, but it’s actually writers hand-selecting other writers they admire to answer ten questions. Here we go.

1) What is the working title of your next book?

Terminally Ill

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

The unofficial title is “The Escape Artist.” I was listening to a podcast of DNTO and they interviewed an escape artist named Dean Gunnarson who nearly died after he was handcuffed, chained, and nailed into a coffin that was submerged into a river on Harry Houdini’s death day. I’d already started writing the third Hope Sze medical thriller, but that plot required a lot of research. Plot is not my forte when I’m sleep-deprived between my small children and my shift work as an emergency physician. But once I heard Dean’s story, I immediately envisioned him coming to Montreal for his stunt, with Hope as the doctor resuscitating him. It was so much fun, I just started writing.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Medical thriller

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

To be honest, ideally, I’d like to play Hope myself. Yes, I am an actor manqué. But if not, maybe Zhang Ziyi with Sandra Oh’s voice? (Hope doesn’t have an accent and is not soft-spoken like Zhang. We already know Sandra can handle the hard-hitting doctor persona and medical jargon, but she’s so closely associated with Christina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy, people would keep projecting that character on Hope because, well, they’re both female Asian doctors! Can’t have more than two of those in the world.) As for Tucker, Ryan, or Alex, I’m not up on hot male actors because I rarely have time to watch movies. Can someone help me out?

On second thought, Hope is not transcendently beautiful like Zhang Ziyi. I’d rather give the part to an unknown who needs a break. Like, have you seen Elaine Marcos in Every Little Step? I thought she was great, but her Imdb profile is full of parts like “Sexy lesbian” or “Paramedic #2.” I’d love to cast some relative unknowns burning with talent and ambition. Underdogs unite!

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

After Dr. Hope Sze resuscitates an escape artist who nearly drowns while nailed and chained in a coffin, she must deduce who sabotaged his act and wants him dead.

 

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Indie pub all the way, baby.

 

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Started it April 25th. Started winding it up October 8th. Now I’ve set it aside to gestate while I work on my African travel essays/poems, but I’ll pick it up again.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’m no good at comparing, but I’d love the readership of Tess Gerritsen and C.J. Lyons.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

See #2.

I will add that I wanted to write a medical book because I returned to the ER after maternity leave, and I thought, I need to work hard on my skills so I don’t end up being “the dumb doctor.” If I write about medicine while I do medicine, I could kill two birds with one stone. Plus, nearly all my Amazon.com sales are from The Most Unfeeling Doctor in the World and my two Hope Sze books (Code Blues and Notorious D.O.C.), so the readers have cast their vote.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Sheer awesomeness.

Seriously, I don’t know what to say, except I love romance, so there’s still the Tucker-Ryan love triangle going strong, with Ryan pressuring Hope to transfer to the University of Ottawa and leave Montreal (and Tucker) behind. There’s the escape artist angle, with a bit of Harry Houdini lore thrown in, so if you like magic/crazy people who risk their lives for fun, that’s something new. On a more serious note, I talk about palliative care and end of life issues. The escape theme runs throughout. Will Hope escape Montreal and her reputation as the detective doctor? When is death an escape from life? If your life was unbearable, what kind of steps would you take to escape from it? That sort of thing. I’m trying to describe the plot without spoilers. So hard. Moving on.

On December 12th, Maggie Jaimeson (http://maggiemeandering.blogspot.ca/2012/12/the-next-big-thing.html) will take over the reins as the Next Big Thing. I consider Maggie one of the hardest working women in the writing business, combined with excellent business and research skills, not to mention a kind heart and a sense of humor—exactly what you need for long-term success in the field. Her latest romance, Healing Notes, is her best yet. I can’t wait to read her next big thing, Chameleon, an SF/Fantasy YA about lichen modifying human behaviour. Well, I guess it’s about the people. But I’m very excited about the lichen because I’m a geek that way.

Leslie Claire Walker (http://www.leslieclairewalker.com/?p=551)

My next Big Thang is Miss Leslie. I’ve been friends with Leslie since we were both winners and roommates at Writers of the Future in 2000. At a novel workshop seven years later, I literally cried because her writing was so good (and because I thought mine hadn’t improved like hers, but anyway). She writes about characters at the edges of society, about magic, about possibilities. Read Leslie. And read Hunt while you’re waiting for Demon City!

Three other writers I recommend, who are also Big Things:

Robert Jeschonek

Brilliant. I hate writers who bore me, and Bob never does. He’s got everything: heartfelt characters, thrilling adventures, humor, pathos, and a wild imagination. Run out and read him.

Steve Mohan, Jr. (also writes as Henry Martin)

I usually don’t read techno-thrillers because of cardboard characters (usually alpha male vs. The Bad Guy, with a love interest who isn’t very interesting), but Steve combines real characters with tough choices and stirring action, exploding genre lines.

Maxwell Innes

He’s six, so this is a long term bet, but according to me, his hopelessly adoring mother, he writes the most beautiful poetry I’ve ever seen.