Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Making a book cover sing

Blechta once again.

Okay, I haven't worked enough places to know if it's a really common term, but we often talk in the design studio where I work about design "singing". What that means is that it's really working the way it's supposed to. Now, understand that this is a relative term. Graphic designers are very much like musicians or editors in one crucial way: everybody has an opinion -- and quite often they can conflict. One designer's singing is another's "vomit on paper". (Another highly amusing term I've heard along the way.)

Here's something else I've learned: good typography is invisible. If typography is calling attention to itself so that you feel like saying, "Oh my, isn't that clever," then the designer hasn't done the job.

Now this doesn't mean that you shouldn't notice what the type says. That's the whole point, isn't it? So how does one accomplish this feat of typographical legerdemain?

I don't know. It's a mystery. How do you design something that draws attention to itself without drawing attention to itself?

This is where really knowing what the book you're designing the cover for becomes invaluable. I'll use an example from the cover design for one of my novels. (You can see what I'm talking about by visiting my website. Just click on the link below my ugly kisser over to the right.)

For Cemetery of the Nameless, it was decided pretty early on that the title needed to be formal and timeless. This is where we ran into trouble. We couldn't find just the right fit for these two things. A little research into typefaces popular in Vienna over time didn't lead us to anything that sang.

Then a friend said the phrase that caused us to cry out, "Eureka!" He's an avid reader who is also artistic, and after viewing our current top 5 at that time, said, "You know the title and photo are all about a cemetery, why not use a headstone?" With a bit of Photoshop work, we came up with the carved stone look using a very formal setting of Copperplate Gothic, a typeface designed for just what its name suggests: engraving on copper.

My name not being the big selling point, we wanted something more toned down that looked like old somewhat calligraphic penmanship. You know, the sort of thing you'd see on the title page of a Beethoven manuscript. A great deal of research led me to American Scribe which is a digitization of the hand of the man who did the Declaration of Independence you're probably all familiar with.

Both typefaces are very distinctive and provide something striking to look at, easy to read (that's why the stone engraved title is on black and my name is in stark white) and most of all, can be read at a distance. I call this "a 20-foot cover", meaning it scans well at 20 feet. But more importantly, both typefaces used added a great deal to the feel we were trying to create for the whole cover. We were selling the sizzle, not the steak. It matched the story, subliminally giving book browsers a rough idea what the book might be about. In short, the design sang.

As this entry is getting a bit long, I won't discuss the digital manipulation of the four images used on the cover and how the effects were achieved. We broke nearly every rule for book cover images, but since we knew them well, we can break them with more impunity than those who don't. The whole cover proved very effective and successful. (By the way, that photo really is Vienna's Cemetery of the Nameless).

How do I know we were successful? Well, lots of people told me how much they liked it. But more importantly, because nearly every store that I visited had the book faced on their shelves or out on a table, not spine out, buried anonymously in some far book case. It gave me more than a fighting chance to make that sale.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Net, I Don’t Need a &^$* Net!

Cast your mind back, way back, to January, when the snow was falling and the wind was cold (those of you in Hawaii and Arizona can pretend). I wrote to say that I was taking a different approach to the new book and flying without a net, so to speak, as I didn’t have an outline or even a conclusion. In fact, I didn’t know who did it or why and I was worried about whether that approach would work for me. Here’s the link: http://typem4murder.blogspot.com/2008/01/flying-without-net.html

Well, I’ve finished the first draft and the approach worked (I hope – my editor and readers might think differently!). I was nearing the climax – I knew what I wanted to happen there – but I was still unsure between two possible candidates for the role of villain. Over the course of the writing, I had several people in mind, but as it evolved only two were good prospects. I felt sort of like a real Constable Molly Smith, judging the suspects and juggling clues until, with a burst of inspiration, I solved the crime!

It was a fun way to go about it. Will I do that again? No. It worked this time because I had a very definite idea for the opening of the book and I was prepared to work my way forward from there. But all in all, I prefer to have a good outline before beginning.

My second drafts are usually a lot of work, but with this book, it’ll be even more so. Because I didn’t know that X was the guilty party, I have to make X know more than they seemed to and Y know less. The personality of X didn’t change much throughout the book, but it will have to be tweaked a bit to make the crime more plausible, and to drop a few clues here and there. And all the clues that pointed to Y might have to be toned down a mite.

Next time, I’ll put that net up first.

Time now to come up with an exciting and unique title. Is that as difficult for anyone else as it is for me?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Thoughts From a (Hippie?) Proofreader

NOTE: Ever wonder what goes on in the mind of a person whose job it is to spot all the things we writers do wrong? Today's gust blogger, professional proofreader and part-time editor Dusty Fox, is ready to shed the light. -Charles

___________________________________________________________________________

I wonder if I’m a proofreader by day and a hippie by night. When you think of a proofreader, what do you envision? Well, I’ll give you one hint: I’m a woman. Ok, so a suited woman, hair nicely styled in an updo of some type, glasses? 4-inch wide Merriam’s Dictionary lined up neatly with some other grammar reference books on her desk? A bit stodgy, don’t you think?

Good, I’m glad you agree. That is so not me. When Charles invited me to be a guest blogger on the Type M for Murder blog, he motivated me with thoughts on what would be interesting to read about: How did I study to become a proofreader? When I find errors in my own writing does it drive me up a wall? Do I fix my friends’ emails and send them back grammatically correct? These questions, among others, led me to a much deeper question: How has proofreading affected my life?

OK, a bit dramatic? Maybe. Let’s start with the easier questions first. I never studied to become a proofreader – I went to college for copywriting actually, and that’s how I ended up at Dixon Schwabl, the very same ad agency where Charles works. As a student of copywriting, I didn’t go home studying the dictionary late into the night, or take extensive English classes for that matter. I just practiced exercises for creative thinking, reviewed lots of award-winning work, and practiced writing clever ads, billboards, radio spots, etc. A copywriting internship under my belt (and an extremely tough career field not acting in my favor for my initial two and a half years out of college), a junior level creative position opened at the agency, and I came onboard. More than a year and a half later, and with a flashy new title in tow, proofreading is just one of my daily responsibilities.

And before I get back to some of the whining I have in store for this posting, let me just say how great a proofreader’s job really can be. I get to read the work of all the writers in our agency, weigh in on what makes sense and what doesn’t, and ultimately make sure we’re sending out the best copy possible. Pretty cool, huh? The great thing about our agency (and our writers) is that with my copywriting background I can always throw in my suggestions on improving copy that we’re sending out into the marketplace, along with my regular proofreading comments (“delete the extra space after that period,” “yes, ‘desert’ as in the Sahara is spelled with one ‘s,’ not two,” and “that client likes us to keep the word ‘team’ in all caps – it’s kind of their thing”).

Now regarding my own writing, I’m probably a bit tougher on myself than the other writers. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve sent out an agency-wide email, gone back and read it, and found a mistake. Ooh, that never goes over well. Then comes the eternal struggle of whether to “reply all,” admit my mistake, and offer a correction, or just ignore it and assume all the non-proofreaders of the world won’t even notice my error. I usually side with the latter offering. Just because I’m a self-admitted copy freak who notices inconsistent usage of a series comma, doesn’t mean the team down in media gives a hoot.

Well that leads me to the big question I posed earlier: How has proofreading affected my life? I can’t not notice when something written is wrong any more. I’ll be minding my own business, driving down the highway, and notice a billboard with the word “cooperation” spelled “coperation.” Or reading a book, and catch a double “or” (as in, “I’d better let the publisher know about this mistake or or they’ll print it again in the reprint). Luckily, that hippie part I mentioned earlier sneaks in and keeps me from getting too worked up about it.

Oh, and back to the last question posed from Charles above: Do I fix my friends’ emails and send them back grammatically correct? No. A flat no. And if I ever do, I expect that friend to send me one dirrrrty reply email, telling me to mind my own bizness.

(Lastly, if you find a typo above, I wouldn’t be surprised. Just because I’m a proofreader doesn’t mean grammar is always my best friend. Can we ignore it or or will I have to post a “reply all” type message in the comments section?)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

What a Place to Be From

Reading about Charles' trip to Belize has filled me with envy and discontent.  I've never been to Belize, and I want to go.  I've never been to Central or South America at all, which is just a crime.  One of my sisters lived in Santiago, Chile, for nine years, for crying out loud.

Consider the settings we choose for our novels.  Charles has thus far set all his novels in distant locales - Thailand, Egypt, India, Singapore.  Debby sets her novels in Hawaii.  Oh, so delightfully exotic!  Rick and Vicki spin tales of Canada, which is as foreign to me as England or Australia.

I write about Oklahoma (Discordant note sounds)  How very unexciting.  Plain Oklahoma, America, the West, where I grew up.  Common as dirt, which by the way, is what 'Oklahoma' means in the Choctaw language - 'Red Dirt'.

However...

This reminds me of one of my favorite stories, so pull up a chair.

Many years ago, when I was a rose-lipped maid of twenty-one, I took a flight from New York to Limerick, Ireland.  I was seated next to a lovely older woman, who was probably younger at that time than I am now, but I'm speaking relatively.  This woman and I fell into a pleasant conversation and talked for some time, until out of the blue she said, "Wherever are you from?"

This had nothing to do with the topic of conversation, so I was momentarily taken aback by her tone, but I figured out quickly enough that she was wondering about my accent.  "I'm from Oklahoma," I reply, all innocent and matter-of-fact.

She laughed!  "What a place to be from!" she said.

I was more bemused than insulted, and I asked where she was from, to which she replied, "Teaneck, New Jersey."  Then it was my turn to laugh, because in my experience, Teaneck, New Jersey, might as well be the moon.

This small incident made a lifelong impression on me, and is one of the reasons that I set my stories in a place that is as familiar to me as my own skin.  For after all, Thailand, Hawaii, and Canada may be unfamiliar to me, but to the people who live there, they're just home.

And the moral of this story is that no matter how mundane and unexciting you consider the place you live, to the great majority of the other people in the world, it's unbelievably exotic.  And as it turns out, Oklahoma is as wild and wooly and colorful as anyone could hope to see.   Who knew?  I'm only a native.

Friday, July 25, 2008

I'm with the band


Charles here, back after Rose and I spent a week in Belize. Much fun, phenomenal scuba diving, expensive drinks, lots of lounging and, honestly, no writing. I realize that that might sound strange to many aspiring writers out there, that I would pass up the chance to spend additional time writing, but this was our vacation, and that means we spend the time together. Every night of the week when we’re not on vacation, Rose watches as I retreat into my office to write for several hours. It’s not a lot of time but it’s time we could have been spending together. And I have a way of stretching ‘just a couple of hours’ of writing into a full weekend. Besides, we were in Belize for crying out loud, home of some of the most amazing dive sites in the western hemisphere. What kind of adventure writer would I be if I didn’t have an adventure now and then?
Anyway, we’re back and I’m already days behind all the stuff I need to do for work, and then yesterday I played my first gig…
Faithful readers will recall that I count among my many talents the ability to play the tenor saxophone like a child prodigy. A tone-deaf, uncoordinated, slightly addled child prodigy. And for the past few years at the ad agency, I’ve suggested that we put together a little company band, just to play around after work. Fortunately, people had simply ignored my suggestions, but then a couple months ago somebody screwed up and the next thing you know, there’re seven of us playing some tunes in the studio space outside my office into the wee small hours of the early evening. We set as our goal playing at the agency’s summer picnic and foolishly announced we’d be ready. Yesterday was that day and, low and behold, we were ready. Well, as ready as we’d ever be.
I should point out that I am the weak link in this band—the drummer, the bass player and the guy on lead guitar are all outstanding musicians with lots of band experience. Both of the rhythm guitar players are self-taught but quite good—one’s even a regular in a bar-playing band. The lead singer is a natural showman with solid pipes. And then there was me on the tenor sax. Or at least I thought it was me since when I heard a recording of our set the sax parts sounded pretty darn good. That’s why I’m convinced somebody must have snuck in and joined the band behind my back.
I’m telling you all this not because I’m hoping that you’ll call for a booking of the band (because email is sooo much easier) but because the way I approached the saxophone and the band is how I first approached writing—not because I thought I was brilliant or even especially talented, but because I wanted to do something fun with my time on this mortal coil. And while I have achieved some success as a writer, it still comes down to one simple thing—it’s fun. When it stops being fun—or when something more fun shows up—I’ll hang up my keyboard and move on.
Last night, as we stood around drinking after our whopping 5-song set, we started making plans for new songs to learn and promised (threatened?) to play again at the company’s fall party. And when I finally got home, I fired up the computer and spent an hour wrapping up the chapter I had left unfinished before I left for Belize.
It was fun.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Trying to make a book stand out



Vicki here. I missed my regular day of Monday so thought I’d slip something in today. I've put up a couple of pictures showing the view from my desk at my new house in Prince Edward County, Ontario.

I enjoyed learning a bit about the business of book covers from Rick. It’s quite a challenge trying to make one book stand out in a virtual sea of titles. Next time you’re in a big box book store, just stand at the entrance for a moment and have a look at what’s in front of you. Pretty humbling, if you’re an author.

I was sitting in my living room the other night, looking happily around admiring my new home, when I glanced at my bookshelf. And one spine absolutely leapt out at me. It was Above Suspicion by Lynda La Plante (of Prime Suspect fame). Her name was in a tall, thin font, coloured bright gold on a solid black background. All the other books on the shelf sort of blended together, but Lynda La Plante stood out as if there was a spotlight on it. I started studying the spines of the books, wondering what works and what doesn’t. On most of them the titles and the authors’ names are unreadable from a couple of feet away. The worst are books with dark backgrounds where the font is a shade lighter than the background. It might be readable if you’re holding the book in your hands, but not from a distance. I could recognize the name Ian Rankin on the spine of Exit Music; it was a thick font in pure white on a dark blue background, but I wondered if I could read the name because I know what it says – the letters were so thick they touched each other.
What is all this observation worth? Probably nothing. Few of us have any input into our cover designs, much less the content of the spines. But it is another thing to consider if you do have any control.

I did up a couple of suggestions for the cover of my new book with Rendevous Crime, Gold Digger. Fortuitously, I suggested a gold font, just to tie into the name of the book. They may not use it, but I tried.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Introducing Lise McClendon

Our guest blogger this Sunday is Lise McClendon, who has been a savvy member of the mystery community for years (she started young:-). She's served on MWA's National Board, on Edgar Award Committees, with Sisters in Crime, and is the author of six mystery novels, an award-winning short film, and travel essays. Probably there's more that I have yet to discover!

Fishing for Karma, by Lise McClendon

This is my second summer on the Madison River in Montana, one of America's blue ribbon trout streams. I'm a journeyman flyfisher with a lot to learn but I've gleaned a few insights while ankle-deep beyond the fact that rocks are slippery and fish are wily. Stick with me for a minute while I work through this extended metaphor between my old love, fiction writing, and this new one.

Writing and fishing have a few things in common but the most apt one is persistence. Stick-to-it-tiveness, if you will. To catch a fish you have to have a fly on the water. You don't catch anything worrying, untangling your line, or brooding on the banks. You have to keep casting. You have to get wet. Early on in my writing career (if I can call it a career) I realized that the people who succeeded were those who stuck with it the longest. They aren't always the most talented, they don't always have the slickest way with words or the most original ideas, but they have one thing none of us writers can live without -- a solid, rock-bottom belief in themselves. That is the basis of persistence. A vision of success, in some form. A belief that you can do it, you can write that novel, publish that story, that somebody somewhere will get you.

In fishing it's a trout that gets you. Tricked by your sly way with feathers and yarn, he looks up, and without a second thought, takes a lunge. In writing you first attract an agent or editor with your style, your imagination, your slant on the world. Then you hook the reader the same way. Suspension of disbelief is what you want. The reader is seduced into feeling this story is true, these people are real. You make them laugh real laughs, cry real tears. But you're telling lies. You just hope the reader can't tell.

The road to success in any form in writing can be grueling. It's important to be nice to yourself, celebrate the small wins. (In fishing we celebrate the fact that we hooked a fish even if he got off by calling it a "long distance release.") Even announcing to friends and family that you're writing a novel can be scary. I remember the first time I told someone outside my family. My voice shook. I was declaring myself, and I knew it. (Who did I think I was? A writer? The balls!) When the first agent asked to read the entire manuscript, I bought champagne. No matter that these small victories led to nothing in particular. They made me think differently about myself. And that led to success eventually.

I had been working hard on my first novel, then my second novel. I had gone to a writer's conference or two, made some writing friends, joined a local writers group. One day my husband asked me if I thought I'd ever be published. I suspect it was painful to him to keep reading those rejection letters. But I said, yes. I thought I would one day be published. Again, the declaration. I thought I had what it took. The statement, aloud, made me realize that I really could see it. I knew I was close. Those rejection letters didn't discourage me. They still said no, but they were personal, and had nice things in them too -- if you read close enough.

But of course, not everyone catches a fat rainbow on a salmon fly pattern, and not everyone gets published, little money, big money, or no money. It's harder than ever these days. I think I was lucky in the '90s when there was money, and optimism, in the business. I am bringing back that first book, The Bluejay Shaman, in trade paperback via print-on-demand technology, unheard of in 1994 when it was first published. Although it's harder to get published in this market, in some ways the author does have a little more control. Now for a small investment I have my first novel back in print, a feat none of my publishers cared a rat's ass about, but is important to me. I converted it to a kindle book too. I plan on continuing with the other books in that series, and will publish an original or two. It's a whole new world out there. If you asked me even three years ago if I would ever self-publish I would have laughed in your face.

But I believe. In me. I don't think I'm great or anything, I know better. Tons of people write better than I do. But nobody can do what I do so I have to do it myself. It's that simple. I have no choice. I also believe I will catch a brown trout over twenty inches on a fly too. One of the days.

There is a funny poem about fishermen that I have adapted here, because it applies to the fiction writer as well. My apologies to "Behold the Fisherman."

Behold the Fiction Writer.
She riseth early and disturbeth the whole household [with the grinding of the beans.] Mighty are her preparations [with outlines and note cards.]
She goeth forth [into the story] full of hope.
When the day is spent, she returneth, smelling of strong drink [and photocopies.]
And the truth is not in her.

Read more of Lise McClendon's lies at her website, http://www.lisemcclendon.com/homepage.html
Or at her blogs at Red Room and with Katy Munger: http://breakfastinbed2.wordpress.com/

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Speaking Chinese

Donis here.

A word about revisions (see Debby’s entry below). I much prefer doing revisions to writing the first draft of a novel. In my metaphorical little world, writing the first draft of novel is a coarse, rough, sweaty process. You slap that gesso on the wall by the bucket load and slather on the background paint. It’s messy and hard and, for me, a daily act of will to accomplish. But rewriting takes real skill. It requires a true eye, real delicacy and finesse to shape that big old expanse of plaster into a work of art.

I love the rewrites. I love to see the story change shape and, if you’re lucky and skilled enough, grow into something beautiful. Of course, there are those horrible moments when you realize that you’re going to have to lose a scene that you really liked, or that word of which you are so enamoured because it no longer fits the picture. I think perhaps that’s when you know you’re a real writer, when you can cut good stuff for the greater good of the story.

In other news, I'm finally getting high-speed for my computer. Yes, I've been working with dial-up for the last eleven years. It's no wonder working on-line is such an ordeal for me. The Cox people are coming out to look over the situation next week. I don't expect they'll be able to hook us right up, because believe it or not, we've never been wired for cable, and we've been warned that they'll probably have to "run a drop" to the house, which will entail getting permits from the city and could take up to two weeks.

Okay, so we're backwards. We are always about twenty years behind the times when it comes to technology. I wonder sometimes if the reason isn't because we have no kids to shame us into keeping up with the times.

For my purposes, a slow computer and six television channels have been good enough. But finally the times have overtaken me. I need to be able to go faster. Maybe post a picture, or watch a streaming video.

My sister Martha and I recently discussed the horrible problem of technology. For those of us who attained majority before the advent of the computer age, it just ain’t fair. We aren’t stupid. But we grew up in a world that required a whole other set of skills. It is as though all the younger people coming up are learning to speak Chinese as their native language. We oldies can learn to speak Chinese, too, if we have to, but we’ll never be as fluent. We’ll always have an accent.

By the way, I enrolled in a computer tutorial. My Chinese needs work.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Revisions and other writing processes

A few weeks ago, I was on a fiction panel at the Jackson Hole Writer’s Conference (a great conference, if anyone’s looking for one. I felt fortunate to be part of it). The conference director asked the four authors on the panel to pick a topic, and it took only one round of emails to come up with one—REVISIONS. Apparently, each of us had recently suffered through the procedure.

Should I use the word "suffered?” For me, it’s a difficult process, and I’ve recently begun to realize that revision starts before the pen hits the paper. As Justice Brandeis said, “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”

If we look at building a house as a metaphor for creating a novel, then maybe choosing and preparing the site would be deciding on plot and theme. Then the worker/author moves to setting up the foundation and framework. The foundation could be the characters, and the framework the outline—which brings up another question. How much do you outline? I know, this varies all over the place depending on the writer, but it seems everyone does some, even if it’s mental.

Jump in and add your two cents at any time. I’m still trying to work this out.

Where do those doors lead? What events lead to the protagonist’s next adventure or revelation? What motives and needs drive the characters?

And here’s where the building becomes tricky. If we’ve hung the drywall, which might be fleshing out secondary characters and allowing our primary characters freedom of choice, we’re going to find that someone’s done something unexpected. One of the characters gets pregnant, with or without falling in love. Someone dies or leaves. An accident occurs. A close friend/confidant turns out to be a betrayer. Our protagonist’s choices have unexpected consequences.

And we have to tear down some of that drywall, let alone trash the intricate paint job we thought was so brilliant. In fact, we have to move rooms around.

The next step is to ride out the despair and uncertainty and dig back to our foundation—the characters. We’ll find our answers there. In fact, we’ll start to see the questions we wanted to ask all along. Keep at it. Be sure to give ourselves the time to do it, which is a whole other issue.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Book Covers and Marketing

Blechta in command (God help us).

Vicki has brought up several good points and I'd like to riff off them, if I may.

I am indeed one of those rare birds: an author who gets to design his own books covers.* As a job, it's fun, scary and a hell of a lot of work. We did 47 designs of the cover for Cemetery of the Nameless before we took that timorous step of showing it to the client, er, my publisher. I came up with a 48th after that and submitted it, but she'd already fallen in love with the previous one, so that was that.**

Now, I'm going to let you in on a deep, dark secret. Sit closer to your screen because I don't want anyone to overhear us. Good.

When an author is shown the cover of his/her book, usually by the editor, he/she had better like it. Why? Because that's probably all you're going to get, even if you're a very big name. The reason is because the company has already spent a chunk of change for that abomination you're holding in your hands -- and they're not likely to spend any more. The worst ones are those covers that contain an illustration or a custom-shot photograph. Those suckers cost a lot because not only does the illustrator or photographer need to be paid, but also the graphic designer.

If the author really digs in his/her heels about the cover, the editor will invoke the following magical charm: "I'm sorry. This is the cover we're going with. It's a marketing decision."

There is no comeback to this. Case closed. Print that cover.

I'm here to tell you that's so much bull patootie. It's not a marketing decision.

You see, I've been involved with book covers other than mine. Here's a flashback scene to illuminate how we got to this place...

[Phone rings on Blechta's desk at work] "Castlefield Media. Whaddaya want?" (I attended the Annie Potts School of Phone Answering Charm)

"This is Ron L'Editor down at Really Big Books. We'd like you design a cover."

"Sure. If you got the bucks, I got the time. What's it about?"

"There's this guy who lives on the coast of Scotland."

"And?"

"That's all you really need to know. Marketing thinks if you put a boat on the cover, that will be enough."

"Why?"

(exasperated) "Because there's a boat in the story."

(The feeling is that boats look good on covers. People also find bears on covers to be eye-catching. Perhaps I could put a bear in the boat...a baby one! That ought to sell some more books!!)

"Can I see the manuscript?"

"Why?"

"Because it might help me come up with a really good design."

"I suppose I could send you a few pages..."

"Not the whole book?"

"Sorry, no. We're in the middle of the edit."

"Can you at least tell me a little more about the story? Is it a biography? A book about nature? What?"

"It's a mystery novel. Put a boat on the cover. Make the cover mostly blue."

"Why?"

"Marketing thinks it will look good."

"What kind of boat?"

"Look, do I have to tell you everything? That's why we're hiring you!"

(sighs and picks up pen) "All right, what's the name of the book and the author's name?"

"Oh, right. Guess you'll need those."

There you go. I come up with probably two designs for what they're paying. There's much too-ing and fro-ing with the editor (or whomever hired me), several revisions most likely and finally we settle on The Design. Not knowing much about the book the cover is going on, I have no idea why my effort is suddenly successful, but there you go. After all, it is a mystery.

The really frightening thing is that I actually had a conversation similar to this one. I have changed the details and genre of the book to protect the not-so-innocent. I received a one-paragraph description of the book and had a short phone conversation twice, and that was it. Oh, yeah, and they sent me over the 50-word blurb that was going to go on the back cover.

So you see, Dear Donis, how important that #$(@% 50-word blurb is!

*I have help in the form of Andre Leduc, my photographer buddy who also has an amazing eye for making that photograph just pop on the cover. He is frighteningly brilliant.

**Why is everyone using footnotes all of a sudden?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Jacks and Jills of all Trades

Vicki here on a pleasant summery Monday.

It does seem as if mid-list authors have to do a lot more than write books these days. Donis mentions that she dreads coming up with the 250 word blurb and, worst of all, the 30 or 50 word summary. Which, before I continue, reminds me of a story that I will never be allowed to forget.

My eldest daughter, Caroline, is a great lover of the classics. Not only Pride and Prejudice as with young women her age, but she’s read many of the ‘greats’. She gave me Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Emma as her contributions to my retirement party favourite-book-giving. When she came home for a visit some years ago, she was just beginning Anna Karenina.

- Have you read this book?
- No, the only thing I know about it is that at the end she throws herself under a train
- Look of total horror – WHY DID YOU TELL ME THAT!!!
- Everyone knows that
- I didn’t.

Sorry Caroline. I guess my attempt at a blurb for Anna Karenina didn’t work very well.

I don’t mind writing the blurbs. Didn’t we all have plenty of practice with our first book when we were sending out the dreaded query letter? I think it does help to focus your mind on what is key, what is truly important, about this book, and that way you’re ready when someone at a party says “So, what’s your book about.” And you tell them.

As long as never again in all my life do I have to write a synopsis. That is indeed a killer – strip all the life and action and anything of interest out of your book and recite it like a Grade 9 boy’s book report on the abovementioned Pride and Prejudice. There’s this girl, who doesn’t like this guy, even though he’s got lots of money and ....

But beyond writing the blurbs, and the jacket copy, some writers are even designing their own covers. Rick does every detail of his own, right down to the font used in the chapter headings. (And he does a fantastic job of it). For the first time, I’ve sent some suggestions for a cover to my publisher for Gold Digger (note the change in spelling since my last post – an executive decision). I’m not a graphic designer by any means (Damn it, Jim, I’m a writer not an artist!) and my feeble attempts at a cover design were done in Word, but they were only meant to be suggestions. My ideas may not see the light of day, but I tried.

Aside from the question of where the writer is supposed to get the time to be the cover designer, the blurb writer, the marketer, the sales person, the advertising person, as well as visit every chain book store in North America, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I recently read a book by a writer with a top of the line British publisher. The book takes place on the rugged coast of Scotland; the body is found in the deep woods; a minor bit of action takes place on a sail boat at sea. The cover shows a picture of a rowboat drifting on a calm, misty lake. The cover had so little to do with the plot I wondered if they’d mixed it up with another book, and perhaps somewhere there is a book about fishing for trout in Northern Ontario with a picture on the cover of a storm lashing the crags of Scotland. What happened, I am sure, is that the cover artist never read so much as a précis of the book. Similarly, how many books have blurbs that read as if they’re a plot summary out of TV guide?

Jones must find the killer before... He races to catch a killer. ... Before he kills again. ... Before it’s too late. Blah, blah, blah.

IMHO the purpose of advertising departments is to stifle originality and promote group-think (with some exceptions, I can’t imagine that Charles has a conformist bone in his body). Sometimes you do need the author to keep control of their product. *

* The above opinion is not in any way intended to discourage any publisher from unleashing a multi-million dollar advertising budget on any works by Vicki Delany

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Guest Blogger Lou Allin

This week's guest blogger is my friend Lou Allin. Lou has recently moved from snowy Northern Ontario to balmy Vancouver Island, and has correspondingly moved the location of her mystery series. Please visit her at www.louallin.com. Incidenly, the picture of me to your right was taken on Vancouver Isand at Clayoquot Sound saved from logging some years ago by national and international protest. But, of course, nothing is saved permanently, and the guardians of the rainforest are still on guard.

Tell Me the Landscape

Northern Ontario and Canada’s Caribbean are as far apart in reputation as in distance, but they’ve been my home. Seven months of winter or of rain, I made peace with my environment by taking Ortega y Gassett’s advice: “Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.”

The Nickel Capital of Sudbury, ravaged for a century by logging, mining, smelting, and acid rain, is no longer the black moonscape where astronauts supposedly trained. In the thirty years that I lived there, an immense regreening program turned the city into a model of environmentalism. Rye-on-the-rocks brought back the grass, and over twenty million pine seedlings were planted in an effort shared by community, business, and government.

Living on a vast meteor-crater lake north of the city, I was blessed with crown land in all directions. Not only could I forge for hours on my own paths with my dogs, but I could paddle a canoe to quiet inlets where bass bit and peregrines nested on high cliffs. The landscape called me to sing its praises. In a paradise of two hundred lakes, I gave my realtor sleuth Belle Palmer a specialty in cottage properties so that she could roam, too.

My first mystery, Northern Winters are Murder, opened with a snowmobile accident and the cover picture of a hand frozen in a lake. Like me, Belle rode a modest 250 Bravo, VW of the snowmachine world. What better ending than a rip-roaring chase from jewel to jewel with the ice thawing at the edges? Winter freed us from summer’s limitations.

Switching seasons, Blackflies are Murder’s cover had a pail spilling blueberries and suspicious blood dotting the bushes. The bear-baiting in the initial scene was taken from memory, an ursine smorgasbord of doughnuts tied into alders and lemon pies on rock shelves. Bug dope stained every page, and I have the memory welts to prove it.

The wilderness was ideal territory for dogs, and Belle lived with Freya, a hardy German shepherd. But what about sending a mini-poodle puppy into a blizzard? Bush Poodles are Murder featured an apricot devil whose paws had to be thawed from ice balls every ten minutes on the snowshoe path. Tiny Strudel (Friday in real life) became a mighty huntress of shrews. On the cover she posed proudly in her Anna Karenina cape.

The beauties of autumn presented a new challenge in Murder, Eh? The final chase scene ended at Thor Lake, faithful to topographical maps. Since each of my books featured a relevant recipe, luckily a deserted cabin had the ingredients for nutritious bannock. To add a macabre touch, the remote lake, accessible only by train, was the scene of a murder-suicide this year.

The final entry, Memories are Murder served up the fly-ridden Burwash area, former scene of an Ontario prison from which no man ever escaped. Elk had been relocated there in a pilot program a few years ago. Belle’s old high-school boyfriend, a zoologist, came north to study the animals and drowned mysteriously. In another life-imitates-art moment, just before the book appeared, hunters found the body of a missing woman very near the opening scene location. Though evidence pointed to the husband and an accomplice, charges have not been laid.

After leaving behind my plow truck, two snowblowers, five shovels, and a scoop, I moved to Canada’s Caribbean, the southeast coast of Vancouver Island, where the rain forest meets the sea. Bananas and kiwis grow in my yard. Bugs flee the salt air. “Welcome to Paradise,” the realtors say, but they know that BC also means “Bring cash.”

The climate is mild, neither too hot nor too cold. The snow-capped Olympic Mountains in Washington State across the Strait of Juan de Fuca assume a life of their own as mist rolls in and foghorns moan. But gone is the wilderness. The timber companies have been raping the land for over a century, threatening job losses if challenged. They own the major portion of the island and prefer to log near the water where it’s more convenient. Only through world pressure was the treasured Clayoquot Sound saved from the saw. With the market for lumber floundering, their latest plan is to convert their leases to real estate and reap a million dollars an acre. Only sensible zoning can prevent that, and it’s going to be a hard fight.

In my new series, starting with And on the Surface Die, Holly Martin, RCMP corporal, commands a small detachment west of Victoria. She may not have blizzards, but the book ends with a century typhoon that hit as I arrived in 2006. There was no Christmas that year, only two five-day power outages as thousands of three-hundred-foot Douglas firs fell uprooted across power lines, crushing cars and houses. It’s a rough way to make the front page of The Globe and Mail, my neighbour said, her seven-acre waterfront estate of Sitka spruces now a war zone. Woodpiles will be stocked for years, but burning the debris (landfills are scarce on an island) filled the air with smoke January to June.

Learning about my new home has brought more guidebooks. Instead of blueberries, we have salmonberries, salal berries, and the toughest plant in the world, Himalayan blackberries. Tomatoes won’t grow on this windy coast, but artichokes thrive. Bald eagles soar, and western jays squawk. We still have bear aplenty, and deer, too, but elk have replaced moose. How odd that the island has no foxes, but small wonder that it has a rabbit overpopulation. No poisonous snakes, but poisonous salamanders. And an unusual gift, banana slugs, a helpful detrivore which scours the environment and has only one lung! Always present is the generous beast of the Pacific, bringer of crab, shrimp, salmon and “hali,” in this former fishing village, Sooke. With its intertidal zones, world-famous Botanical Beach sets the murder scene in And on the Surface Die. At low tide, the sea creatures emerge. Mussels, starfish, anemones, rock crabs, and the primitive chitons, especially the gum boot variety, huge pink erasers weighing several pounds.

As I was an ambassador for Sudbury, showing its beauties to the world, I’m now sounding warnings for this spectacular part of Canada. Vancouver Island stands on the brink of disaster not only because of the logging, but because so many people want to come and live here. Locals feel like “pulling up the drawbridge,” and perhaps the rising ferry fares will do that. It’s not just our whales that need saving from “development” and the attendant pollution. It’s the land itself. Will the green forces succeed or will we be paving paradise again?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Attention

Charles’ tale of editing a 20-minute training film down to 7 minutes illustrates a perfect exercise in getting down to the essence of what you’re trying to say.

Before a new book comes out, many publishing houses ask their authors to fill out an enormously lengthy questionnaire. You are to provide every piece of information about yourself and your book that could conceivably be used to publicize the novel. I can’t speak for anyone else, but the first couple of times I filled out this form were hell on wheels. I still don’t enjoy doing it, but it does get easier, since by book 3 or 4, you’ve already written your autobiography, every book you ever read that may have influenced your writing, and everyone you’ve ever met who might be interested in reviewing and/or publicizing your novel. And as onerous a task as it is to complete this questionnaire, it really does help you plan your publicity campaign.

The really hard part to fill out, though, is the section which asks you to provide two summaries of your book - an official detailed description in 200-250 words, and a short description of the book not to exceed 50 words. If you’ve never tried to distill the description of a 300 page book down to 50 words then you have a treat waiting for you. You not only want to give an idea of what the book is about, but you want to make your description so compelling that whoever reads it can’t wait to rush right out and buy your novel.

Try it. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

It’s not easy, is it? I’ve always managed to do it, but I’ve never been satisfied with any of my efforts. Fortunately, the publisher isn’t shy about punching up my blurbs. I went to lunch with a writer friend of mine earlier this week, and we discussed this very thing - the one-sentence pitch. She had come up with a pretty good one for her book. She told me that she had been advised to list individual words that described what her book was about and construct the sentence around them.

All of this talk of editing has made me ponder how writing styles have changed in the last twenty-five or thirty years. It’s well known that our attention spans are getting shorter. I have read that movie producers now don’t want individual scenes to last more than two minutes, as a rule of thumb. Books have followed the same pattern. Once upon a time, an author could spend many pages on the set up of a story before anything actually happened. Many very famous books of yore would never be published now, unless some editor took a hatchet to them. When I was a girl, my very favorite book was Beau Geste, an oh-so-romantic French Foreign Legion adventure/mystery which has been made into a movie at least twice that I know of. It is a ripping yarn of the first order, but the first 70 pages are dull as dirt.

Readers don’t seem to have the patience any more to allow a story to build - you have to grab ‘em quick, especially if you are a first time author and haven’t built up a reservoir of good will among your readers, like, for example, Steven King has. I think that fans of Steven King would give him the benefit of the doubt and keep reading even if a character didn’t have his arm ripped off on the first page.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Edit this

Charles here.

Rick was right. In his post (below) he said I’d be telling all my colleagues about Age of Persuasion and I have been. Good stuff.


As Rick noted, I work in advertising as a senior copywriter slash producer. The slash producer part of the job has me directing, producing and editing video projects for our clients, and it’s proving to be the most interesting parts of my day. And before you start thinking iPod commercials or Chevy spots, what I do is a lot different. Think training films, company profile videos and webcasts. I was about to write that producing these pieces has little in common with my writing, but of course everything has something in common and that goes for this as well.


This week I’ve been working with cameraman/editor Matt Robinson on finishing a recruitment video for an area healthcare provider. We felt that the best way to tell the story was without a narrator, just string together a bunch of interviews, documentary style, and let the people who know the company best put the story in their own words. This is a common concept and it’s popular because it works. I proposed three main topics…the client came back with a list of 16 people who had to be interviewed, and when a client says that, it means that they have to appear on camera. Keep in mind that the video has to be under seven minutes, preferably under six and a half. That works out to about 25 seconds each, which sounds like a lot but you have to figure in transitions, into footage and closing footage, so in the end it’s closer to 20 seconds each. Still, it sounds like plenty…until you do the interviews.


When we were done with shooting all the interviews—from the CEO to the maintenance worker—we had about 200 minutes of footage to shift through, Now most of it was me asking questions and them giving answers that I knew as I heard them I wasn’t going to be using. But I still had to sit through all the tape a couple times to identify the appropriate quotes, making sure I wasn’t taking things out of context, finding the best quote that helped tell the story, double checking to make sure I used everyone we filmed at least once. These all get written down on 3X5 cards, by the way. When I was all done, I spent a couple hours laying the cards out to find the best way to tell the story that needed to be told, then Matt transferred my notes to the footage and we had our first rough draft.


It was 19 minutes, 44 seconds long.


The first round of editing was easy. I pulled the lines I liked but that didn’t advance the story all that much. That got us down to around 12 minutes. In the next round we lost all those artistic reaction shots and that heartwarming story that illustrated a key point. These were the hardest to cut because we liked them so much, but we needed the time and are working under a tight deadline—the final is due to the client Tuesday of next week. Those cuts got us to 10 minutes, give or take a few seconds. Then Matt went to work, trimming the quotes down to their essence. For example, the person might have said, “What is really, uh, what I think is important about what we do here and what I do in particular is that whatever we do, we are doing it in a coordinated way. We’re a team. That makes us better in the end.” Matt would trim this to, “What is really important is that we’re a team. That makes us better.” Same message, just a lot leaner. Matt has a good ear for that, and when he was done he announced he had the footage down to 6 minutes, ten seconds, but that he still had to tack on the opening montage and add in all the B-roll footage. We’ll finish under seven minutes, but not by much.


Is it the story I wanted to tell, or the story Matt wanted to tell? No, but it’s the story the client needed us to tell, and we only got there by brutally editing out all the stuff we thought was necessary to make it a good video.


So there you have it, a story about editing.


There’s a lesson in here somewhere, but I think it got edited out.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Age of Persuasion

Some of you may know that, like Charles, I work in the advertising field. Not in the thick of it as he does, but mostly doing advertising work that the design firm I work for makes the bulk of its income from.

So it should come as no surprise that a radio show broadcast on CBC 1 on Saturday mornings is one of my favourites. It's called The Age of Persuasion and it's the creation of Terry O'Reilly, one of the major figures in Canadian advertising. It's witty, wise and really lets you know just how advertising works -- in every facet of our lives.

Last week's show was especially fascinating. It was centered around the effect that Youtube.com has had on media and especially advertising.

The heart of the discussion was how it has changed advertising into a two-way street. In the past, advertisers talked to consumers. The best you might get is a (rhetorical) question from them: "Want relief from acid indigestion?" "Looking for a great new car?" Etcetera, ad nauseam.

The example used for the paradigm shift was a promotion/contest by Chevrolet where people could build their own commercial for one of the Chevy SUVs, using soundtracks, images, clips, and such available on a special website. You could then upload them and the best one got a prize. (Or something like this.)

At first everything went really well. Folks sent in some very clever commercials. Then something changed. Commercials started to be posted that were very negative (some extremely so) and were used as vehicles (pun intended) for those who have a problem with pollution, wasting of resources, even the way cars are marketed. All of a sudden, the consumer could comment directly on products. Once Youtube got hold of these, no matter what GM did, they wouldn't go away.

Over the last little while, Youtube uploads have moved even more in this direction and it signals a sea change in the way the public interacts with corporations and their products.

Now, why am I going on about all this? Because it seems to me there is a tremendous marketing opportunity here. If I could do something really clever visually for one of my books, I might be able to get an awful lot of free milage from Youtube.

I aim to figure it out, in which case I'll let you know -- after I've put it into play for myself...

If you want to listen to episodes of the best show I've ever heard on advertising and marketing, go here:

www.cbc.ca/ageofpersuasion/

I think you'll find this show absolutely intriguing. All shows are available to listen to. Charles will want to play them for everyone he works with.

And if you want to see one of the Chevy commercial parodies:

youtube.com/watch?v=4oNedC3j0e4/

There are plenty more. Consumers (finally) strike back!

Monday, July 07, 2008

The fine art of editing.

Vicki here, and I am currently reading a new book by a woman who’d probably rank as one of my top five favourite authors. And a super nice person, to boot. It’s an excellent book, but, I have to ask, does she not have an editor?

The main character is an American, he is big. He is a big man. He has big hands. Did I mention that he is big? The other main character is an Englishman. He is small. He is a small man. Did I mention that he is small? For F&^*%’s sake, almost every single page, sometimes more than once on a page, we are told that the American is big, or that the Englishman is small. There is only one American in the entire book (so far) the adjective is not necessary, we get the point. For a while, towards the middle of the book, the appearance of those words began to drop off. But suddenly, towards the end, they’re back.

Herein begins Chapter 52. XX sat at his desk eyeing the big American across from him. If there were 37 and a half Americans in the room you might need to use an adjective to describe one in particular. There is only one American, actually only one other person, who xx could be eyeing. But just in case we missed it the previous three hundred and twenty times, we need to know that the American is big. Similarly if these people didn’t have names you might need to describe them. But towards the end of Chapter 51, we read that the small man stopped. Again, there are only two people in the room. How about Grey stopped?

The writer seems to have lost her Thesaurus. If it is necessary to constantly use an adjective to describe these characters how about gigantic, enormous, miniscule, tiny, over-sized, under-sized, colossal, gargantuan, petite, diminutive?

This is not, from a reader’s point of view, a minor point. I am thinking of getting a pen and circling every instance of the word small or big. It is annoying me so much, that were the book of only a slightly lesser quality, I’d have stopped reading long ago. I once began a book by Quentin Jardine. I never finished it, and never picked up another, because of the overuse of one word. And, you guessed it, it was BIG

Perhaps this stands out for me because when I give workshops one of the things I tell my students is that we all have weasel words or crutch words. Words we use over and over. It doesn’t matter in conversation, but sticks out like a BIG sore thumb on the page. No one knows what their crutch words are until someone else points it out. This is one reason, I always say, that you have to have someone else read over your manuscript.

Otherwise, your readers just might throw that SMALL book out the BIG window.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Hannah Dennison

I'm so pleased to introduce the Hannah Dennison as our guest blogger this Sunday, and hope that any of you Dear Readers who haven't read her witty and wonderful A Vickie Hill Exclusive will hie yourselves off to the nearest bookstore forthwith.
*****
I first met Donis at The Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale and was immediately taken with her warm personality and wry sense of humor. When she invited me to be a guest speaker as the Sunday-slot guest on Typem4murder, my first thought was “how exciting” and my second, “what could I possibly say that was interesting.” But Donis suggested I relay my journey to publication—and it’s certainly been an unconventional one.

One fateful Friday night—henceforth known as The Night of the Cheap Red Wine—I was drowning my sorrows in a bottle of merlot in my haunted (yes, I have seen the ghost), fifteenth century rented cottage in Chailey Green, England. I was a single mum; I’d just lost my job working as a flight attendant on a private jet because the owners decided to sell it; Sarah, my ten-year old daughter—after begging me for months—had gone off to boarding school, and my practically non-existent love life was at an all-time low. I was lonely and depressed.

I wasn’t planning on becoming a novelist. I also wasn’t planning on moving to Los Angeles—the one city in the world I swore I’d never visit, let alone live. But as my dear old mum says, “you never know what’s around the corner.” Perhaps it was just as well I didn’t.

I’d always enjoyed writing diaries and letters and, as a child, had been told I had an “over-active imagination.” This was said in a tone that implied “we might need to get her medicated.” At nineteen, I took a job as a trainee reporter on a local newspaper in southwest England, but I soon got bored of standing at church doors recording the names of all the mourners and then going off to write lively obituaries. I was the official funeral reporter, but what I really craved was adventure.

Instead of joining the circus or running off to sea (though I did spend 5 terrible days in the Royal Navy but that’s another story), I took to the skies and happily served for more than a decade as a flight attendant.

A few months before The Night of The Cheap Red Wine, I’d taken Sarah to California to stay with her Godparents. A friend of theirs was some big shot at New Line Cinema. In passing, he’d said if I ever wanted a job in “Hollywood” to give him a call. At this point I must add that on one of my private flights, I was fortunate enough to meet Steven Spielberg. He is one of the most inspirational people I have ever known and on hearing of my writing aspirations, he told me in no uncertain terms to stop dreaming and get on with it. Another industry friend insisted I HAD to move to Los Angeles if I wanted to be taken seriously because it’s all about networking. This is true in any industry. But I digress…

After finishing the merlot, I remembered the New Line Cinema conversation (hazily) and made a “Drink-and-Dial” call to Los Angeles mumbling a prayer to the Universe that “if being a writer is what is meant for me, then show me a sign!”

To cut a long story short, three weeks later I was on a plane with my two cats and embroiled in a custody battle—though Sarah and all my furniture followed three months later. I got a work permit that suggested I wanted to work in marketing and to this day, I am not sure how that happened. Eventually I got a green card on the strength of my knowledge of the now defunct Pitman Shorthand. I always wondered why it was hammered into my brain whilst working on that rural newspaper. It just goes to show that when one is open and willing, all sorts of miracles can happen—and no experience is ever worthless.

As my first job was receptionist in the marketing department at New Line Cinema, my father couldn’t believe I was moving to the land of “fake tits and freeway shootings” just to answer the telephone. I, too, was filled with fear and doubt. What was I thinking? Dragging my daughter halfway across the world to follow a dream? I longed to run home, but at that time, the quarantine laws in England meant that returning pets had to stay six months at Heathrow airport in tiny cages. Many animals remained traumatized for years. I could never do that to my cats, so I just knuckled down and made the most of it.

I stayed at New Line Cinema for a few years and studied the craft of screenwriting. I became a story analyst and read, literally, hundreds of scripts. I wrote dozens of screenplays and even though I was optioned a few times, nothing was produced. It was a very disillusioning experience. My daughter graduated from High School and went to college in England, whilst I eagerly waited for the introduction of pet passports, and the chance to follow her once I could take my cats home.

I said goodbye to Hollywood and took a job as an executive assistant for the chairman of an advertising agency for what I assumed would be just six months. That was nine years ago! I met my future husband—another completely unexpected surprise—and we were married in 2006. To keep my imagination in check, I also enrolled in the UCLA Writers Program to learn the art of long-form narrative—screenwriting is a completely different discipline. I’m sure no one believes me when I say that I honestly didn’t see publishing as the end result.

At UCLA, I met the wonderful Claire Carmichael, instructor and novelist (who writes as Claire McNab) and under her mentorship, I shaped what started as those vague memories as a funeral reporter a quarter of a century ago into what became A VICKY HILL EXCLUSIVE! I wrote eleven drafts over three years before sending it to an agent. From that first draft, the novel had undergone multiple transformations. I wrote several versions in the third person before Claire said, “I hate to say this dear, but it’s not working.” So I switched to the first person - and you can imagine the work that creates from page one onward. All I wanted was to become a better writer. I learned to take criticism with grace—to take the relevant bits and ignore the rest. Negative comments still hurt.

I took many classes and will continue to do so. I enjoy the camaraderie, support and weekly deadline. After completing a one-year intensive Master Class, I landed an agent immediately. Finding a home for my book was a little more complicated.

After several rejections at major publishing houses, Berkley Prime Crime (Penguin USA) said they’d be “interested” if I “made the following changes.” Please note they said, “interested”—they weren’t offering me a contract. I had to rewrite the plot, make it contemporary and I also had to pitch a storyline for a sequel. It was very hard to take those suggestions with grace! But it was the only offer I had.

The end result was a much improved novel, and I think this experience just goes to show all of us writers that those bona-fide editors who run successful publishing divisions know exactly what they’re talking about. They liked my revised draft so much they offered me a three-book deal. The first, A VICKY HILL EXCLUSIVE was published in March of 2008. I have already written the second, and now must complete the third by December. Not much time when one juggles a busy and demanding day job as I do. I have also learned the transition to full-time writer without having to supplement income is a process that can take six published books or more, as a novelist develops a following of readers while they prove they’re not a one trick pony. But full-time novelist is certainly my dream and I am well on my way to making that happen.

I would never have guessed in a million years that I would ever live in Los Angeles and be published—or even married again. I guess my mum was right. But for now, I think it’s time for a glass of wine.
*****
Please check out Hannah's web site at http://hannahdennison.com/

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Spooky Art

Between working on the final corrections to the ARC of The Sky Took Him and trying to make headway on a new book, I’ve been reading Norman Mailer’s book on writing, The Spooky Art. If there is anything that can help an author realize that s/he’s not totally neurotic or bordering on the insane, it’s reading something by a writer as famous, acclaimed, and well-established as Norman Mailer and discovering that he suffers the same pains with the process that the rest of us do.

I’m in a Dostoyevskian mood, all dark and Russian. Sometimes it almost takes more sheer will to sit down and write than I can muster. Almost. I do it anyway. I write in a void. Is what I’m doing any good? Mailer says that in his case, "there is always fear in trying to write a good book ... I’m always a little uneasy when my work comes to me without much effort. It seems better to have to forge the will to write on a given day. I find that on such occasions, if I do succeed in making progress against resistance in myself, the result is often good. As I only discover days or weeks later."

Whew!

I observe that sometimes too much thinking gets in the way. If I try too hard to figure it out, I become paralyzed. Is this better than that? Perhaps I should do this instead. I become Hamlet in drag, unable to take action. When I do enjoy myself, when I read what I’ve written and find it good, I have a strange feeling of dislocation, as though the words came from someone else. Mailer experiences the same phenomenon. "On happy days," he writes, "one is writing as if it’s all there, a gift. You don’t even seem to have much to do with it."

How does it come to other authors, I wonder? Is it such a spooky art for everyone? Mailer again : "The act of writing is a mystery, and the more you labor at it, the more you become aware after a lifetime of such activity that it is not anwers which are being offered so much as a greater appreciation of the literary mysteries."

Be sure and read Debby's entry below. It's a testament to how attending events with other authors can inspire and energize a writer.

On a less Jungian note, I have begun uploading excerpts of my books onto my web site, for any who are curious. Thus far, I have excerpts from the beginnings of The Old Buzzard Had It Coming and from Hornswoggled. I hope to have an excerpt from The Drop Edge of Yonder in a few days.

Finally, and most happily of all, our guest blogger Sunday is Hannah Dennison, author of the witty and wonderful A Vickie Hill Exclusive. A job writing obituaries for a newspaper in England, a conversation with Steven Spielburg, and The Night of the Cheap Red Wine led Hannah to move from her native England to LA -- where she landed a new job, found a new husband, and became a mystery novelist.

Friday, July 04, 2008

How'd it get to be Friday already?

Argh, I’m red-faced and embarrassed to have missed my designated day (again) due to mere spaciness and jet lag. Consequently, I’ll comment very briefly, as I’m intruding on Donis’s or Charles’s space. Last week, I was at the Jackson Hole Writers’ Conference, where I had the honor of being on “faculty.” Tim Sandlin, a noted author himself, is a terrific and empathetic organizer for this 100+ student gathering. He keeps it small so that attendees get to interact in an intimate atmosphere with authors, agents, and publishers. His keynote speakers included Jane Hamilton, Elizabeth George, and Gail Tsukiyama.

Tiffanie DeBartolo, Bill (William Haywood) Henderson, Tina Welling, and I had a fiction panel where we discussed revisions. A lot of people attended, and though the warm room and post-lunch hour might have lulled some to sleep, no one snored or fell out of his or her chair. I often struggle with lethargy around then, but that day I was too thrilled to be with such esteemed writers. Bill, a Wallace Stegner Fellow, has taught at such lofty universities as Harvard, and Tiffanie studied with Tim O’Brien, one of my idols.

The point of all this is—I had that surge of emotion familiar to anyone reading this. I’m so lucky! I love writers, writing, and books. More on this later, but if you’d like to check out the website, the url is: http://www.jacksonholewritersconference.com/index.html

I suppose I should write something about this being the 4th of July…

But I won’t. Instead I have three things on tap for you, oh our faithful readers, and I think I’ll start by pontificating on the things Vicki said in her blog below.

I used to believe in procrastination, but I’ve come to see it more as a negative term applied to a necessary process. When I whip up a pot of homemade soup1, I gather all the ingredients, chop, slice and dice as needed, but I don’t toss them all in at the same time. No, I know2 that a pair of ingredients need some time alone together, to get to know each other and get flavorfully intimate. Tossing everything in at once would be like inviting the wedding party along for the honeymoon night3. For the soup to be its best, you have to add the ingredients when it’s time. So how does this already stretched thin analogy? It’s just this—when you are doing something other than writing when you have the time to be writing, you really don’t want to be writing. And maybe, just maybe, that’s your Inner Creative Genius telling you that he/she is busy trying to work out a sticky plot point and that you should just leave them alone for a while to do it. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.4

Point number two on the blog is something that came as a huge and wonderful surprise—I am mentioned, by name, in Carolyn Hart’s latest book, Death on Demand. Wow. On page 181, Annie Darling, proprietor of Death on Demand, hand sells a copy of one of my books to a customer. Q: Does it get better than this? A: No. I honestly don’t know what would inspire Ms. Hart to bestow such a kindness, but I want her to know that if she ever needs a kidney she should give me a call. And if mine isn’t a match5, I’ll find one. So everyone, hit your local bookstore and scoop this up. I believe it may be her best work ever6.

Finally, yesterday I was the guest Blogger over at Working Stiffs. Check it out. And bookmark that site as it’s a lot of fun.

With the day off, I plan on finishing Richard Dooling’s Bet Your Life. What? You haven’t read anything by Richard Dooling? And you call yourself literate. I suggest you fix that glaring omission in your education. Start with White Man’s Grave and take it from there. By the way, this blog post by Mr. D should be required reading before anyone starts writing a novel.

Cheers.

1This is purely hypothetical as I have yet cracked the magic behind ‘whipping up’ a can of Campbell’s Noodle Soup. However I have been know to whip up a fine pizza deliver number in no time.

2In the theoretical sense, as knowing what goes on in a Black Hole.

3I’m not opposed to this practice, I just wish it would have been common when our attractive friends were all getting married.

4On second thought, no I’m not. It’s a stupid idea. Turn off the TV and get back to the keyboard. Geeze. Next thing I’ll be believing in gnomes and auras and luck. Oh and “guardian angles”. I can’t believe I wrote something that stupid. Ugh.

5It’s A or B, or maybe AB. Oh, and it’s either positive or negative. Maybe neutral. And trust me, it’s well lubricated.

6But don’t take my word for it. Publishers Weekly said, “This tight, Agatha Christie–style puzzler will keep readers guessing to the end.”

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