Friday, May 29, 2015

Touchy Situations

There are so many things they don't tell you about when you become a writer. Recently, I've had to side-step a situation that is very uncomfortable for me. That is telling friends they absolutely cannot come along on an interview.

This is a hard and fast rule that I've developed because of my first experience. I was working away on a historical book back when I lived in Kansas. A lady I hardly knew wanted to come with me to Atchison, Kansas and show me around. I could have shown myself around. It's not hard to find places in Kansas. But it was important to her to go that day, so I foolishly said yes.

I appreciated all the things she could tell me about the town. But things fell apart when we went to a convent and I interviewed a nun who knew a great deal about her order. My companion could not have been more insulting. An interview to collect an oral history is not an antagonistic interview.

I don't conduct an interview with the stance of a lawyer or a reporter from CNN. I want to gain the person's trust and evoke memories. I am interested in their opinion. That's all. Objectivity is a myth when it comes to family stories. Your own account of an event will differ widely and wildly from your sister's brother' memories.

Sometimes it's easy to gain an interviewees trust. Sometimes not. However relationships change the moment someone new enters a room. Like throwing a rock in a pond. Ripples pulse.

My companion that day obviously hated Catholics. I mean seriously. She challenged every statement. Her attitude ruined the interview.

Writing is such a learning process. There are so many things that are not written down.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The good (little) guys and Big Macs

I read Rick's excellent and thorough post How writing is a mirror of what is happening throughout society and was struck by how accurate – and bleak – his take on the current state of publishing is.

Make no mistake, if you're a mid-lister, the publishers hold the upper hand.

But I was also struck by Rick's conclusion: "But there are a lot of good guy publishers out there, manned by people who get it. Here’s to the companies that resist temptation and are interested in everyone making money fairly. They seem to be few and far between – and are an endangered species themselves."

I've never been with a large publisher. In my twenties and agent-less, I sold my first novel, Cut Shot, to tiny Sleeping Bear Press, which was sold to a conglomerate a couple years later. Then I moved the series, in 2001, to the University Press of New England, which published the next four Jack Austin books. In 2013, Five Star/Gale published This One Day, a standalone. And I'm with Midnight Ink, an indie specializing in crime fiction, now.

Based on my experience with Midnight Ink, I'd say this house fits Rick's description of a "good-guy publisher." This opinion is based on an embarrassing trend emerging in my own writing life: for the second consecutive year, I missed my May 1 deadline, and Midnight Ink Publisher Terri Bischoff has read the work-in-progress and offered a thorough critique that I use as a write the final third of the novel. What this means for me is that I get Terri's input before I get my editor's feedback. Therefore, I'm getting two thorough reads on each novel. Lots to think about, yes, but I'm thrilled for the feedback.

This example speaks to the differences I see between working with a large publisher and an indie. When my agent was shopping my Peyton Cote US Customs and Border Protection series, she got some interest from New York. I called a trusted writer friend who has been in the game longer than me and who has been successful enough to be writing full time. I asked him about the New York house and about Midnight Ink. "Everyone I know who's with Midnight Ink is happy. Everyone I know who's with [large New York house X] isn't." The large publisher's business and promotional models that my friend described (and which, based on discussions my agent had with them, seems accurate) was simple: offer a two-book contract, publish them, and see what happens. If (when) they don't sell, walk away. Throw them at the wall, and see if they stick.

Indie houses don't use this mass-production business model; they can't afford to. That model seems better suited for Big Macs than books. It might mean the smaller advances Rick wrote about, but, as a writer, I'd rather take less advance than have my work be treated like a fast-food product.

Here's to the little good guys.

As an aside, tonight I'll be at the 2015 Maine Literary Awards given by (this is somewhat ironic, given this post) the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance in Portland, Maine. Bitter Crossing is a finalist. It should be fun.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

As Sick as a Parrot

Sybil here. I’ve been working through the comments from my editor for my next book, Paint the Town Dead. As usual, she has many useful things to say. And, as usual, some cliches have managed to slip through. To keep the flow of writing going, I don’t worry about cliches in the first draft, but I do try to excise them from the one I send to my editor.

This exercise got me thinking about cliches and how to get rid of them so I consulted my trusty(?) internet and came up with a few websites that I thought you all might find interesting.

The first one that popped up was from the Oxford Dictionary, which had a procedure to help get rid of cliches in your writing. (‘Cause as a former programmer, I can relate to algorithms and procedures.) What struck me as funny about this one was the first “cliche” noted on the site: as sick as a parrot. Well, as a United Statesian*, I had never heard of this one. Had to look it up on the internet to find out it means “to be very disappointed”. I’ve never read or heard this anywhere here in the U.S. I assume, given this is an Oxford Dictionary site, this is a British thing. Is it common in Canada as well? Has anyone heard it in the U.S.?

The next site I visited was tips from Grammar Girl on avoiding cliches. This one has some interesting historical tidbits on where some cliches come from as well as suggestions on how to get rid of them. Plus there are some links at the bottom of the article that I found interesting.

One in particular was the Phrase Finder where you can type in a word like “cat” and it’ll tell you phrases that include that word. Raining cats and dogs, no room to swing a cat,... For each phrase there’s a discussion on its origins. Great fun if you want to avoid doing real work.

And the last site I found before I gave up on searching was

I’m sure there are a lot more sites out there with tips but I must get back to my edits since they’re due in a week.

*United Statesian – see Donis Casey’s post awhile back on Thanksgiving where she mentions the phrase in a footnote:

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

How writing is a mirror of what is happening throughout society.

by Rick Blechta

It seems as if every day brings a new report of some corporation or other shuttering factories or closing down altogether. “The jobs have are all being moved to [enter third world country name here],” as if these things happen by accident. It’s almost like “Honest! We came in Monday morning and all the jobs had gone to China. We have no idea how that happened! When we locked the doors on Friday all the jobs were here. Then this morning, poof! Every single job (except mine, of course) has moved out of the country.”

Another trend is making do with less. Taxes are as high as ever but the services they pay for keep shrinking. Here in Toronto, we get far less garbage pick-up, door-to-door postal service is being phased out, we’re paying more and more for programs that used to be free, and our infrastructure is still falling about. That’s just on a local level.

Closer to home (for writers), we’re also being expected to do far more for far less. When the idea of advances against royalties was first adopted, it was put forward so that a writer could support him/herself while writing the book. It wasn’t free money by any stretch. If the book did reasonable business, the advance would be paid off and the company would begin handing out more royalties when it was. In the meantime, the writer didn’t have to try to juggle a day job and writing or risk starving to death along with their families. An advance against royalties was also a vote of confidence by the publisher that the book would do well enough. If they picked well and promoted well, they’d get their advance paid off.

In more recent times, the playing field has shifted dramatically and each shift has been away from writers. Here’s a partial list:
  • The value of advances has plummeted. These days a writer is lucky to get even $5000. Quite often it can be under $1000. For most of us, that’s a few weeks of very frugal living, certainly not long enough to write a full-length book.
  • Authors are expected to do the majority of their own promotion. Publicity departments even ask us to write ad copy. Ad copywriting is a very refined and arcane art. I don’t believe most authors are equipped or experienced enough to do it effectively. Why are publishers asking for this to be done when it’s in no ones’ best interest?
  • Most authors have to organize their own live appearances, book signings, readings.
  • We’re expected to have websites and pay the cost of them.
  • We’re expected to blog (which is precisely why I and the rest of the Type M members are here).
  • Need to travel for research? Pay for it yourself.
  • Need to travel for an appearance? Get someone else to pay for it.
The real changes in publishing, though, have gone by with fairly a whimper.

Here’s one: Advances given out for one book, may be paid for by the royalties of another. It works like this: Book 1 gets an advance of, say, $1000. It does okay but royalties on sales made only reach $500. Book 2 also gets a royalty advance of $1000 and is far more successful, paying back its advance quickly. The royalty statement comes in. What’s this? The author should have received $400 in royalties from Book 2, but they aren’t there. They’ve been applied to what was owing on Book 1. That is not the way the system was set up. Advances become a much more win/win situation for the publisher. (And don't get me started on the dodge that royalty periods are now a year because it’s “so expensive to calculate and produce royalty statements”. It’s done by computer. You must have bought the wrong software, bunky!)

Here’s another: Due to technology changes, books no longer go out of print. Even if they don’t have stock, a publisher can do a print run as low as 1 book at any time. Voila! We’re back in print. E-books serve the same function since they only exist as a file stored on a computer. Technically, the book is always in stock. So if the author wants the rights to their work back, good luck with that.

A third one (and this is a really troubling trend): An author gets a book deal for a new series. A clause in the contract states that the publisher gets the rights not only to the novel but also its characters. Huh? That way, if the author moves on, the publisher holds the rights to the characters so no new books in that series can be written by the creator for another publisher. The goal of this is two-fold: the publisher can hire another author to continue the series, or the publisher can demand cash to sell their rights to the character. Either way, the author is left in a terrible bind. This one is on the new-ish side and not all publishers are doing it, but my guess is that it will spread.

Agents can help with all of these things, but in the end, the publisher generally holds all the cards or has at least a very strong hand. Quite often (with new authors especially) it’s presented as “take it or leave it”, and many are desperate enough to get published that they take it.

We’re all in this together. Publishers have always claimed poverty. In some cases, it’s true, in others, not so much. Either way, we’ve been so conditioned to expect less and less, who can blame corporations and businesses by trying to use the paradigm shift in general society to their own advantage?

But there are a lot of good guy publishers out there, manned by people who get it. Here’s to the companies that resist temptation and are interested in everyone making money fairly. They seem to be few and far between – and are an endangered species themselves.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Perils of Technology

By Vicki Delany

I enjoyed Barbara’s post on the complications of crafting a plot around modern technology, cell phones in particular. In the Constable Molly Smith series, I have to always be thinking of DNA results, fingerprint analysis, cell phone records, bank warrants, and on and on, when what I really want my characters to concentrate on is what the suspect says, and how they react, what the witnesses saw, and what they only think they saw.

But now that I’m writing cozies for Obsidian and Berkley Prime Crime, I am delighting in not having to worry about most of that stuff. Because the so-called-sleuth isn’t a detective or police officer, she doesn’t have access to any forensic methods, or computer data bases. She can’t order suspects to talk to her or obtain a warrant to check bank or phone records.  

Cozy mysteries are often called traditional mysteries. Somewhat of a misnomer, I think, but in this one aspect the name fits. The sleuth has none of modern policing and forensics at her disposal. All she has to go on is her observation of human beings, what she knows about people, what she can detect from what’s happening immediately around her. And gossip, of course, where would the amateur sleuth be without gossip?

Usually obtained at the bakery or coffee shop over a latte and blueberry scone.

I am enjoying writing these books a lot, and part of the reason is that I can forget about all that techo stuff, and just concentrate on the people. It’s all about the people. Sometimes people lie, or they forget, or they misrepresent, and it’s up to the amateur sleuth to parse her way through lies and misdirections. Sometimes she’s not so good at it. And that’s the fun of the writing too.

However, there’s still the sticky problem of cell phones and calling for help. Even an amateur sleuth has a cell phone. In the second book in the series, Booked for Trouble, I had to tie myself into knots when someone is kidnapped and spirited away in a car and Lucy Richardson chases them in her mother’s Mercedes SLK (and was that a fun scene to write!) Why the heck, the reader might ask, does Lucy not just phone the cops and tell them what’s going on?

You’ll have to read the book to find out how I got around that one.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Up and at 'em!

Finally, after five long years, my new book is out, Rescue From Planet Pleasure. What took so long?

Well, first of all, I had to write the damn thing. But it's more complicated than that. In 2010, after my fifth book in the series was released, HarperCollins chose not to renew my contract. The reason? Sales. The situation baffled to me. Everyone told me each book was better than the previous, but as you tracked my sales numbers, they declined with every new title. So I was frustrated and bitter with publishing. Seems that no matter what I did, I felt like Charlie Brown trying to kick that football. Let me qualify that. I was and am grateful for all the success that I've had, but I can't deny my frustration at trying my best and coming up short.

I had cooked up some new stories which I submitted as partials. But no bites. So for two years I was spinning my wheels with nothing new in the pipeline. Since no one in publishing showed interest in my stories, I didn't finish them. Meanwhile, the Amazon ebook boom was taking off, and I had nothing to offer. But day by day, fan emails trickled into my mailbox. "Where's the new Felix story?" "You left so much unresolved. You owe us." So I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and got back on that horse to start writing book six. My intention was to self-publish but at Comicpalooza in Houston, TX, I ran across the WordFire Press booth in the dealer's pavilion. I was impressed by their hustle and presentation. WordFire is a regional press owned by SF writer extraordinaire Kevin J. Anderson. He and his stalwart crew have not only put together an impressive stable of writers, they also formed partnerships with other publishers to juice everyone's authors. I decided to throw my hat into their ring. I commissioned an artist friend, Eric Matelski, for the cover and he did a fantastic job. WordFire did the legwork with the editing and formatting. This weekend an advanced copy will be available at Denver Comic Con.

Am I happy? You bet. How am I celebrating? By writing Book 7, Steampunk Banditos. Coming next year.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Finding a Character's Achilles Heel

In the mythology of Archaic Greece, Thetis, a sea goddess, marries the mortal hero Peleus. To give their son, Achilles, immortality, she – in one version of the myth – dips the infant into the Styx, the river of Hades. But she holds him by his heel, and that part of his body remains vulnerable.

Although Achilles becomes a legendary warrior, he is killed by Paris with an arrow to his heel.

I have been thinking about Achilles and his heel. I've also been thinking about the "tragic flaw" that is the undoing of Shakespeare's heroes – Othello's jealousy, Macbeth's ambition, Hamlet's indecision. I've been thinking about vulnerabilities because of the two main characters in my 1939 historical thriller. I have an upright, highly moral hero who right now would be chewed up and spit out by my villain. I have a villain who is vile and despicable, who will not hesitate to do what is required to achieve his goal. My hero is a black college-educated sleeping car porter and son of a Southern Baptist minister. My villain is a white New South business man, the son of a doctor and grandson of a Civil War general. Right now, I'm finding my hero's minister father and my villain's father, the doctor, a lot more interesting than hero and villain.

Something's wrong. And I know what it is. My thriller is a big story – moving through the real life events of 1939.  But my hero isn't up to the task. Easy enough to have him discover that something is a-foot. But not at all believable right now that he would pull together his own team of men to pursue the villain and his co-conspirators. Right now, I can't imagine my sweet, idealistic hero doing battle with my villain at the end of the book. My hero must grow. I need to find what it is that would push him to do the things that he can't imagine doing – taking charge, going after the bad guys, taking them down. Idealism will only get him so far.

And then there's my villain. I need to get him out of that black cape – not that he's wearing one. In fact, he seems to be a amicable, cultured, man of integrity. But in my head, he is wearing a black cape and twirling his mustache. I don't like him. But I need to know him. I need to find the Achilles heel, the tragic flaw (from his point of view) that will make him vulnerable. What will shake my villain? What will make him hesitate or make a questionable choice? He will have all the advantages in this game, but I need him to have an Achilles heel.

I've been thinking about these characters for a while, and I had hoped to know them better by now. I've never tried to write a thriller, but I know that the kind of thriller I want to write requires characters who are both three-dimensional and bigger than life. My villain has a plot of epic proportions. He has the money and the knowledge and the access to carry it off. But the question is why would he? Making him a mad man is too easy. I need him to be a zealot, a believer in his cause, a man who thinks he is can do this and get away with it. I need him to at the same time be a son and a friend and a man who is in love. I need to use what is "good" about him to make him three-dimensional. And then I need to give him an internal conflict. He needs to be a man bent on a course, but something makes him stumble or overreach or get careless.

As for my hero – my poor, sweet, kind hero – what is going to fire him up? The book will only work if he is who he is. Right now, I can hear his voice, but it's a voice that is so alien to me that I'm resisting letting him be who he is. I think my only solution is to dig deeper in my historical research and understand him better. College-educated, working as a porter, saving money to go to law school – about to take on a task that he could never imagine. Why? Because he is who he is and can't turn to the police or the FBI with his suspicions. But he's still not up to this. He is smart enough, but not determined enough. He believes in justice. He is optimistic about the future. Now, I need to have him believe that the future he imagines for himself and his country is in jeopardy. He needs to believe as passionately as my villain does that he needs to do what has to be done.

My hero, my villain, and I have a long way to go before the final confrontation. But writing this post has helped me see what I need to do. I need to believe in this story that I want to tell. I have a plot. I have characters. One more dip into research and then I need to start writing and see what happens. Sometimes a writer needs to take a leap of faith.