Saturday, April 18, 2015

Sunday Guest Blogger: Clyde Phillips

It is an honor to bring you Clyde Phillips this week. Clyde is a bestselling crime novelist, the former executive producer of the Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated Showtime series Dexter, for which he won the prestigious Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting; and he currently serves as executive producer for the network's acclaimed Nurse Jackie. He also created the television series Parker Lewis Can't Lose, Suddenly Susan, and Get Real (starring Anne Hathaway). In his spare time, he is the author of the Jane Candiotti novels, Fall From Grace, Blindsided, Sacrifice and, most recently, Unthinkable.

I met Clyde via happenstance: his daughter, Claire, a very talented writer in her own right, was in the AP English class I taught. I had no idea who or what he was. One day after class, Claire approached my desk and said, "My dad writes stuff you'd like." She was right. He does. And I do – I like his stuff a lot. Below are Clyde's thoughts on his approach to writing.

by Clyde Phillips

Whenever someone asks me what I do for a living and I get to respond “I’m a writer,” I always feel an immense sense of pride. The follow-up question is usually “What kind of stuff do you write?” Well, the answer to that is: everything.

I’m a television writer in both half hour comedy and one hour drama. I’ve written several feature screenplays. And I’ve published four best-selling crime novels. So, then the question inevitably comes, “what’s the difference in your approach to writing in each of these media?”

The answer is simple: there is no difference.

I’m a storyteller; and it’s my responsibility to tell that story in the most authentic and entertaining way possible.

Each time I start to write a script or a book, my initial task is always the same. Outline, outline, outline. That’s the real heavy lifting. I’ll often sit with a writing assistant (an aspiring writer who gets the benefit of my experience while I get the benefit of someone taking notes) for weeks or months and bounce ideas around. Snippets of dialogue. Character traits (especially flaws). Action. Plot. When the outline is done – and an outline certainly isn’t a binding contract. I often stray from it if and when a better idea comes along – then the fun begins. The actual writing of the piece.

An outline for a half-hour comedy is usually about seven pages. For a one-hour drama, it’s ten to fifteen pages. And for a novel (at least for me) it can be up to one hundred pages. Seriously.

But that hard outlining is like intense training for game day.

Once the outline is ready (or nearly so), I let it sit and percolate for a few days (if I don’t have a deadline); waiting for some internal magic to bubble up. It invariably does. And then I grab that magic (a character’s secret, a crucial and unexpected plot twist) and weave it into the outline.

And then the anxiety floats away and a sense of calm washes over me.

And then I write.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Catch 22

I caught a psychological break this week and I needed it. One of my Poisoned Pen pals, the charming Tina Whittle, introduced a stunning topic to our newsgroup. She offered a post from Delilah S. Dawson's blog, whimsydark, entitled, "Please Shut Up: Why Self-Promotion as an Author Doesn't Work."

In it, Dawson discusses the oversaturated state of the book market and the futility of book promotion. She pretty well covers all the social media outlets. I've been thinking about this a lot lately, because I have an academic book coming out next spring. This book is important to me and it took an awfully long time to write. I don't intend to write another one. The research was mind-boggling and I want to do right by my publisher, University Press of Oklahoma.

The main point Dawson makes is that we are just sick of folks begging us to buy their books. I have made the point in a couple of blogs that once we read a book, we either love the author, or are not interested. In the first case, we read everything they have ever written. In the second case, we never read one again. All the promotion in the world can't persuade a reader to read that second book.

Even before self-promotion was regarded as a matter of life or death I was aware of how obnoxious a lot of it was. Dawson reinforced what I had already suspected: some of the best writers rarely promote and the most fiercely aggressive promoters offend nearly everyone.

But there's a problem. A classic catch 22. I believe we owe it to our publishers to do our best to get the word out. That being a very simple message: we have written a book, we hope you will read it and here's where you can buy it.

I am humbled and deeply appreciative of the opportunity to be published by a press held in such high esteem. It has an reputation for excellence in producing books about the American West. I have a point to make about 19th century blacks on the Kansas Frontier. I'm giving a lot of thought to making people aware of this book.

But thanks to Dawson's timely post, I won't drive myself crazy thinking up new approaches. And I won't drive readers crazy either. But just for kicks, I would love to hear from all of you.

What was the most obnoxious promotion by an author?

Here's the link to Dawson's post:

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Boats Against The Current: More Bookstore Tales

With Amazon owning 22 percent of the bookselling industry and indie stores claiming a mere 6 percent of the market share, it comes as no surprise that bookstores as we know (or knew) them are going by the wayside.

You remember them. Some weren't fancy: preferably scuffed hardwood floors, tilted shelves, and (gasp) physical books to leaf through. But a recent loss — particularly in one region — has me reeling.

First things first: Admittedly, I have an Amazon account. And, admittedly, I use it. But recently, the declining number of physical bookstores hit me. Full force. In the face. The second book in my Peyton Cote series, Fallen Sparrow, hits shelves June 8 everywhere. But not exactly everywhere.

It won't hit any shelves in the region where the novel is set.

Yes, that's right. In the region — the entire county, in fact — where it's set. And this isn't just any county. It's the largest county east of the Mississippi. Aroostook County, Maine, has a land mass the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined but has fewer than 80,000 people. Therefore, its longtime bookstores — all three, including a chain store — have gone the way of the dinosaur.

Hard to believe? It is for me. I lived in the area for a decade, did many signings (and buyings) at the three area bookstores — two indies and a B. Dalton. Perhaps the scariest fact of all is that the area is dominated by an aged population. Therefore, I can't attribute the make-the-bookstore-disappear trick to a rising number of young people reading e-books rather than physical texts. What's that say about the role books play in people's lives?

Let's not think about that. That thought is scarier than Stephen King's fright-filled Salem's Lot.

So what's a writer to do? There are, of course, a few libraries. And I can certainly hit those, but the lack of stores in the region where the series takes place is a major blow. I'm relying on newspaper ads and (hopefully) reviews and features.

So, as F. Scott wrote so elegantly, we beat on, boats against the current. And self-promote like hell.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Book Signings

I read Barbara’s recent post on her adventures in book signings with some envy. Looks like she's had some great adventures touring in her writing career. I'm sure there'll be many more to come.

I’m just starting my own career so I don’t have much experience in book touring. (I have one, count it, one book out—Fatal Brushstroke. That’s it so far.) I did a short tour of Los Angeles area bookstores with the lovely Diane Vallere showing me the ropes. And I’ve done one library event, been on a panel at one convention (Bouchercon last year). So I don’t really have many stories to tell...yet.

This weekend, I’ll be signing for the first time at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on the University of Southern California campus. (My alma mater. Always happy to get a chance to check out the campus and see what’s changed. A lot, believe me!)

I worked the Sisters in Crime/LA booth for many years, but this is the first time I’ll be there as an author. I’m looking forward to it, but am also a bit nervous. I’m not the most outgoing person, so it’s a little daunting.

My signing times, in case you’re in the area:
  • Sisters in Crime/LA booth—Saturday, April 18, 2015, noon – 2 p.m.
  • Mysterious Galaxy booth—Sunday, April 19, 2015, 10 a.m.
 Then a couple weeks from now I’ll be at Malice Domestic, on my first panel there. And I have a library event coming up in May at the Wiseburn Library in Hawthorne, California so I’m starting to get myself out there.

I know I should probably do more events, but, I have to admit, I’m struggling with juggling writing and publicity events these days. So I've been very select on how many events I do. If anyone has any suggestions or tips on how to keep all those balls in the air, let me know. I could use them. In the meantime, I will be keep on trucking...

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Brought up short!

That’s me playing piano.
I enjoy listening to the radio. Sometimes I’ll even go out and sit in the car and listen to a favourite show or a ball game (if it’s the right time of year). I nearly always have the radio on when I’m driving anywhere. Interesting thing is, I’m generally not listening to music — an odd thing when one is a musician.

But this musician is also a writer, so it should come as no surprise that I enjoy listening to interview shows and documentaries, stuff like that. Talk shows drive me crazy.

Fortunately, I live in Canada where we still have the CBC and a lot of their radio programming, especially in the evenings is excellent.

This morning, I was driving home from an appointment, and listening to an interview on Q with a Scottish singer/songwriter, Stuart Murdoch, and a lot of the talk was around   his composing. I always find that sort of thing interesting since I’ve written some of my own, including a complete musical in my last year of university. (Sidebar: It had 8 performances and I even got paid for my troubles!)

Anyway, I’m driving along listening intently to what Stuart had to say (he’s very erudite), but then he uttered something that really caught my attention. I don’t remember his exact words, but it was something about walking around with a whole bunch of characters in his head. These were the people he made up whose stories he then told through the lyrics of his songs.

Whoa! Believe it or not, I'd never thought that the little “stories” making up songs had something like characters in it. You may be slapping your forehead into your palm and this point since it’s a pretty obvious thing and I’m a complete dunce for not coming to this enlightenment a heck of a lot earlier, but there it is: song writers make up characters in much the same way prose writers do and for the same reasons.

Perhaps this whole point was lost on me since most of the songs I’ve written had lyrics supplied by someone else. My job generally involved melody, harmonic structure and much of the musical treatment of each particular song.

Now, I’m forced to think of every song I’ve ever heard and will hear with a completely different mindset. It’s a heady idea: making up a character, giving them some sort of back story and then tell a small, concise portion of their life. Maybe the structure that most resonates is this: a good song is a musical short story.

Funny, but I’d never considered that, and to say that I’m gobsmacked by this very late revelation is putting it mildly.

Does it make me want to write a song? Not really. I learned a long time ago that this is something that I don’t do well innately, and since I have so many other things in my life that need my attention (see last week’s post), it’s best that I don’t add any more to my to-do list.

But I know I’m going to be closely listening to the lyrical content of any song I run across from here on in – except for songs by the progressive rock band Yes whose lyrics make no sense to anyone – with a new sense of engagement, and try to reconstruct the character the lyricist conjured when writing the song.

How about you?

Monday, April 13, 2015

What am I working on?

By Vicki Delany

A heck of a lot.

I am juggling a lot of writing balls these days, so I thought this would be a good time to let you know what I’m up to.

Other than a couple of day trips over the spring and summer, I have no book tours planned until the Suffolk Mystery Festival in August.  I am hoping to squeeze in a vacation to London in the fall. I love to travel, both for book events and for holiday, but I have to stay at home sometime and work!

The weather here in Southern Ontario has been nothing but gloomy for the past week. Which is a pretty good thing for the productivity.

As I write this, I have just finished four days of solid writing and managed to do 14,000 words. Which is pretty mind-boggling, as most authors will tell you. That’s about 14,000 good words. Very few of it will be discarded when I do edits.

A lot of people have written to ask me if there will be another Molly Smith, and I am happy to say 

I’m working on the eighth book in that series now. The nice people at Poisoned Pen also asked me for another. How can I say no?

Here’s what on my plate:
Constable Molly Smith #8 – half finished first draft.

Lighthouse Library. #2 – Booked for Trouble.  Completely finished and waiting for copy edits back. Publication date September 2015.

Lighthouse Library #3 – Reading up a Storm. Finished and now with my editor. She may, or may not, want changes major or minor.

Lighthouse Library #4. No contract as of yet. That will depend on how books 1 and 2 do. It’s all up to the readers now (Hint, Hint).

Christmas Town #1 – Rest Ye Murdered Gentlemen. Completely finished, edited and waiting for copy edits back. Publication date November 2015.

Christmas Town #2 – We Wish You a Murderous Christmas.  Ready for me to give it one last polish before going to the editor.

Christmas Town #3. Nothing done yet. (But heck, it’s not due until April. That’s April 2016)

Ray Robertson #2 (A Rapid Reads Novella) – Haitian Graves. Completely finished and in production. Publication date August 2015

Ray Robertson #3 – outline and opening chapters sent to editor for her approval.

Oh, and one last thing.  Proposal for a new cozy series. Three chapters and series outline are now with my agent.  No hints until (if) I have a contract! So stay tuned. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Working Intuitively

Rick's post earlier this week came at a time when I, too, was wondering how I was going to get everything done. I'm still wondering that, but I stumbled on something this week. I could be wrong, so I'm not offering this as a strategy. I'm just saying that I happened to do this and it worked well enough for me to experiment.

I have been focusing for the past week on a project that I need to get done. My co-editor on the project has finished his part and now I need to wrap up mine by next week. So I've been doing nothing else -- other than what is necessary to teach my two classes. I have been keeping up with obligations like guest posts, but other than that I have put my marketing plan for What the Fly Saw on hold until after next week. I've also not finished making some tweaks to my nonfiction book proposal that I intended to do quickly and send back to my agent. I've been focusing and getting work done. But in the back of mind all my undone tasks have been nagging away and stressing me out.

Then something unexpected happened. I was working on the project that I need to finish, and suddenly the solution to the problem I had been having with the nonfiction book proposal popped into my head. Normally, I would have stopped what I was doing and rushed to the proposal to catch the idea before it was gone. But this time, I had established a rhythm for what I was doing. I was "in flow" and I had made a bet with myself that I could finish the section that I was working on before I stopped.

Today I had planned to plunge right into the next section of the project. Except the day didn't go as I had intended. I had an appointment with a consultant about a cooling system for my house. And then I went to pick up prescription cat food from the vet, stopped at the supermarket -- been trying to get there for three days -- filled my nearly empty gas tank, dropped cat food and groceries at home, and went in to work. By the time I'd finishing sending a librarian the handout I needed copied and my power point for an author's talk on Saturday and checked in with a curator about media for a local history talk next week, it was almost three o'clock.

I was feeling guilty about not working on the project all day. But I found myself opening the file for my book proposal. I started writing and it was effortless. I zipped through several pages of the proposal, revising based on the idea that I thought was only half-formed. I even started revising one of the sample chapters. I was on a major roll. I stopped when I began to slow down. It was getting late anyway.

I drove home, put a frozen lasagna into the oven (takes 50 minutes that way but leaves more writing time than a microwave) and pulled out my project. But my head still wasn't there yet. So, with all the work I had to do, I watched today's episode of "The Young and the Restless". And then I played "bird" with my cat because he needed the exercise. Finally, at around 9:30, I settled down with the project again.

Technically, I had lost most of the day's work on the project. But I'm not feeling as stressed out as I would expect. In fact, I think that I might do better if I work intuitively. That would mean going with what is flowing at the moment. That would mean not allowing myself to be drawn away to something else because I've had an idea. Instead, give that idea time to germinate, assume that I need a break away from that (whatever it is) and that my subconscious will be working away until I get back to it.

Whether this is true or not, I'm going to let myself believe it for the next week. At least, I'll go to bed and get some sleep. I know that five hours or less of sleep a night is not making me more efficient. So to bed, to sleep, and wake up tomorrow and see if I zip through the next section of my big project.

Anyone else tried working intuitively? I'll report back on my own experiment. And I think I'll pick up this book. According to the blurb, the author has some thoughts about intuition and creativity.