Monday, May 31, 2010

First draft? And lunch with Deon Meyer.


When I first began writing, my first draft was pretty much a complete novel. There were subsequent drafts, of course, to clear up ambiguities, plant more red herrings, expand character motivation etc. etc. But generally speaking I approached the day’s work as if that day I would produce something publishable.

As my career moved on, and I wrote more and more books things began to change. I realized this last week when I was writing a scene for Among the Departed, Molly Smith #5. This scene is pretty close to the end of the book. Several police officers are gathered in the lunch room. Just chatting. Sergeant Winters and Detective Lopez arrive, Lopez in search of a pop, talking about sending the cold case Winters’ is investigating back to the basement. One of the officers says something off hand, Winters picks up on it, and BANG, the case, as S. Holmes once said, is afoot.


This scene is pretty much all dialogue, but what’s missing is any description before and after of the situation in the lunch room, or of any introspection while the conversation is going on.

The next day, re-reading the scene, I realized that I was prepared to leave all that stuff until the second draft.

Which I did.

This is a major change for the way I write, and it seems to have evolved slowly, without my quite realizing what was happening. Perhaps I have come to understand that it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time, and that no publisher is going to reject the book on the basis of the first draft. No one, in fact, is going to see it. Not even my critique partners.

The hardest part of a book, IMHO, is just getting the darned plot and character development down. Having it flow easily, make sense, have the characters achieve (negatively as well as positively) what I want them to achieve. Description and emotion and introspection add atmosphere, are essential for a good read, but it now works for me to leave those things until later. Is one way better than the other?

Probably not. As with almost everything about writing, what works for you is what’s best.

Had a great time at Bloody Words in Toronto. The event was topped off by the Sisters in Crime lunch at East Restaurant on Queen Street West. I was fortunate enough to snag a seat across from the hugely popular South African writer Deon Meyer, who I wanted to speak with as I lived in South Africa for 11 years. What a nice man. Writes great books too! Check them out: www.deonmeyer.com

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Magic Character

Last week I said that I was within a gnat’s whisker of finishing the new book and am only making a few changes as per my editor’s suggestions.  The plan was to have the MS to the publisher, ready to go, by the first of June. 

Oh, foolish woman.

Once I got into it, I realized that it isn’t quite that easy.  As I was pondering ways to expand one character’s part and add a bit more legerdemain* and misdirection, it came to me in one of those lightning strikes authors are so familiar with that if I add an extra character I’ll be able to kill all my birds with one stone.  In fact, this new character is tying up threads and making story connections that I hadn’t even considered before he came on the scene.  It’s quite amazing.

It’s interesting to see how his very presence affects the tale, just as the sudden insertion of a real person into a group changes its entire chemistry and dynamic. Adding a new character into a book that is to all intents and purposes finished gives the writer a jolt of energy that is unusual, for the normal feeling an author (at least this author) has right at the end of the process is a combination of weariness, total loss of perspective, and an inability to let it go even though it’s done.

I don’t expect that I’ll have to make huge additions or alterations in order to accommodate the new man, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to take some time--a week or two longer than I planned.  I foresee a couple of new scenes, at least one major rewrite of an existing scene, and a careful re-read to make sure he’s mentioned wherever he needs to be mentioned. You have to be careful not to overdo it if you’re going to try something like this. It’s amazing how little it takes to make big changes.

This is not the first time I’ve gone back and added a character after the manuscript is almost finished.  Whenever I have done such a thing, it has been as though the character was on the sidelines the whole time, like a relief quarterback, just waiting to jump into the game and throw the winning pass.  For my most recent book, The Sky Took Him, it was Ike the cat.  I don’t know he did it, but that cat tied the action together with a big red bow. He was a magic character.  I can only hope that my new guy has the same juju.

________

*a couple of weeks ago, my brother’s wife posted this on Facebook: “My husband confuses me with big words.” When I read that, I got a sudden blast from the past.  Memories of me and my sibs spending hours trying to outdo each other with the most pretentious, multi-syllabic coinages, malapropisms, and cliches we could come up with.  We were like a bunch of vocabulary heroin addicts.  Now here it is thirty years later and we’re all ruined.  Ruined.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Homeward Bound

A little over two months ago I was sitting on a bench on the platform of the railway station ten minutes from my home in south-west France. It was cold, it was wet, it was still winter. I was excited, stressed, depressed, all at the same time.

I was waiting for a train that would take me to Paris, and from there to the United States, where ahead of me lay two months of touring, talks and travel, to promote three new books which had come out at the start of the year.

I was daunted. And, to be honest, if I could have turned around there and then, and gone straight back home, nothing would have made me happier.

A song kept going around and around in my head.

I’m sitting in a railway station got a ticket for my destination...
... And every stop is neatly planned for a laundry and a one-night stand...

Homeward bound, I wish I was... homeward bound...

Ok, so I amended the lyrics a little, but you get the point.

Two months on, here I am sitting at Gate B41 at Dulles International Airport in Washington DC. I have given more than 20 talks at events in bookstores and libraries all over the country, culminating at Borders at Bailey’s Crossroads just outside of DC, and the LaPrade Library in Richmond Virginia.

I find it hard to believe that it was eight weeks ago that I flew into Minneapolis, jumped into a rental car, and drove immediately to Uncle Edgar’s bookstore to sign the piles of books that Jeff Hatfield had waiting for me. Since when I have lost my coat and found it, lost my cellphone and (miraculously) found it, lost my voice and found it, and lost my heart to a dog called Odin. I also lost my way in the dark of southern California, and almost got shot. In the end I very nearly lost my sanity - and I’m still looking for it.

But here I am, finally... homeward bound. And I have that song going around and around in my head again. As they call my flight...


Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Second (and Clearer) Look

Writers often revisit their first books with the loving eyes of a conflicted parent. At once, the author has unconditional love for the book, yet after having two or three more he is not blind to the imperfections of his first effort. I read somewhere that a Noble Prize-winning writer once insisted on rewriting her first novel because it pained her to think of what she could do if given the chance to revise that first (in her eyes) mediocre effort. Similarly, I had a graduate professor who claimed to revise stories that appeared in the PARIS REVIEW simply because, years after publication, he knew he could do better.

The potential for e-publication has given me a reason to rewrite my first novel, and it has been an insightful and enjoyable process, to date.

CUT SHOT (Sleeping Bear Press, 2001) is my first Jack Austin PGA Tour mystery. I wrote the original draft when I was twenty-five or twenty-six; it was published four or five years later. As the Austin series progressed, so too did my proficiency, and I later grew to think of that first novel in terms of what it could have been. When the book went out of print in 2006, I thought the novel had met its final resting place. However, reading about J.A. Konrath’s electronic exploits and discovering the ease in which a novel may be uploaded on Kindle and the like, I’m taking the opportunity to go back in time, so to speak, and revise CUT SHOT. I’ve hired a graphic designer to create a new cover (never really liked the original one anyway) and plan to spend the next few months revising.

To date, 35 pages in, I have added one character and an ensuing subplot, punched up the tension in several scenes, and rewritten the opening chapter three times. One of the interesting things has been learning that despite departing from the Jack Austin series for three years, I am able to immediately step back into that first-person voice. I thought it might be difficult because I’ve written three different novel in the subsequent years, two in the third-person point of view and voice of a female and a first-person male P.I. An unexpected challenge, however, has been the tightrope walk that is making changes while honoring the integrity of the series. I am constantly torn by wanting to make a significant change that might add to the novel, but I do not, as I'm leery not to alter the cohesion of the series. CUT SHOT is not a stand-alone; it is the first book in a five-book (so far)series. Wholesale changes could alter details of character’s lives in subsequent books.

This is where I’m at this week. It’s not everyday a writer gets to go back and right his wrongs. The e-format has given both CUT SHOT and its author a second chance.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Homework

I’m with Donis on the topic of writing plot summaries. To my mind, they are about as enjoyable to do as high school homework, and just as tedious. I tend to avoid them at all costs.

Still, reading over her Saturday blog entry got me thinking. As a musician, I know my tendency is to, at worst, try to avoid practising things I find difficult, and at best, force myself to work on them. Either way it’s a struggle, but I know if I do slog through those troublesome notes and rhythms, I’ll become a better player.

I realized that doing a plot summary might be the same sort of thing: good for me, but something I avoid because I find them difficult and unenjoyable. I mean, why spend time working on one when I could be spending that time either working on a novel or editing it, both of which I find a lot more enjoyable.

I’m also only in the beginning stages of a new novel. I can’t really write a plot summary because I don’t really know all that much about the plot yet. There I sat yesterday — Victoria Day here in Canada — with lots of good intentions and nothing to apply them to. Still, I felt I should take advantage of my mindset before the beautiful day beckoning outside got the better of me.

So I spent about 5 hours trying to write a plot summary to a novel that doesn’t exist yet. And a curious thing happened: it slowly began to pull together. (Hopefully, you won’t sit there and say, “My God, what a dolt!” If you do, please keep it to yourself.)

After about an hour of scrambling around, doing an awful lot of cutting and very little pasting as I tried to get past the latest plot point I do have for the novel, ideas started suggesting themselves to me: of course if this happens, it follows that will have to take place. It was as if my cast of characters began forming a circle behind my seat, making interjections, telling me which ideas were completely full of shit, and which ones might actually work. A new character walked in midway to ask if he could be in the book, and another suddenly took on new importance to what I wanted to accomplish.

Okay, I’ll say from the outset that I might chuck the whole thing out the window as I move along through the writing process, but it showed me that I really could think far ahead into my story in a linear fashion. Usually, I work from one distant point to another, the ideas I have being separated by what I’ll realize only as I try to from one to the next. It’s sort of like standing on a mountaintop and seeing the next mountaintop I have to stand on, while in between, there’s a valley of fog.

From where I stand now, there’s very little fog, and that’s a big change.

I’ll get back to you in several months to let you know how it all worked out.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Libby Fischer Hellmann


I am so pleased to welcome guest blogger Libby Fischer Hellmann to Type M.  Libby is the author of half a dozen novels, including  DoublebackEasy Innocence, and An Image of Death, as well as innumerable short stories. She enjoys a successful career as a traditionally published author, but has seen the e-future and tackled it head on. 
_____________________________________________

To E or Not To E


That does seem to be the question. Should we go ebook, and, if we do, how much should we charge? What about brick and mortar stores? What about the iPad? And hey --  what about royalties?


I don’t know any more than any of you about the current market. But I do believe that ebooks are here to stay. Furthermore, I also believe the estimates that in 10 years or so, ebooks will commandeer 30 per cent of the market. (Some say higher, some lower, but let’s go with that for the moment)


But what kind of a market will it be? Everywhere you turn, you hear about the amazing opportunities ebooks offer: namely, that as authors we have the chance to bypass publishers altogether and go directly to potential customers, ie readers. Joe Konrath, who is a good friend, heralds this Brave New World regularly on his blog. (Btw, if you haven’t read him, you should. He has a unique– and disturbing to some – viewpoint) But who are those readers? And what are they looking for? 


That’s the rub, at least for me. We already know that the numbers of those who regularly read fiction have declined year after year, especially in this economy. We also know that those who download ebook fiction (I’m generalizing here) tend to be younger. So it kind of makes sense that the stories those readers like are not necessarily the same stories the previous generation of readers liked. 


The good news is that it appears that crime fiction may be the most downloaded type of ebook to date. I have no hard data, but scanning Kindle bestsellers, it appears that within the crime fiction genre, thrillers and women’s stories dominate. 


About prices: we know the publishing industry is in a quandary, wondering whether to charge $6.00, $10, or more. For mid-list authors, I think Joe Konrath has the right idea –the prices we charge should be MUCH lower. I have the rights to EASY INNOCENCE and DOUBLEBACK, and I’m charging $2.99 each. But my objective isn’t to make a pile of money.  It’s to get new readers to try me, and they’re much more apt to do so if I keep the prices low.  And, btw, I did see the volume effect. When I first lowered the prices, I sold a LOT of ebooks. For about two months, I made over $100 per month. And my share of that $2.99 royalty was barely one dollar. That’s going to change in July, btw, when Kindle gives author/publishers 70 % rather than 30%.


So, what should you do? 


Bottom line, IF you can keep the erights, and IF you can publish a nice-looking version (I don’t do HTML – I send it to someone who does), and IF you can promote it effectively (which is the subject of an entirely different blog), I think ebooks are a great opportunity. Even if you don’t have the rights, or any control over the price, you can still promote your ebooks and let the world know you’ve gone digital.


I think there’s a good reason to do so. It’s important to get your books out now, before the market gets too cluttered. If you’ve been paying attention, you already know that B&N, among others, has created a division for self-publishing. The floodgates are about to open, and I’m concerned that the ebook market  is going to be a vast sea of self-published work.


Which is where we midlist authors have an advantage. We have been vetted. We have been edited. Our work has been deemed worthy of publication. I think, therefore, that we need to get our work out there—now – so that people know that we’re not part of the self-published masses. That we do have something of interest that should be read


In that spirit, I jumped in. Over the years I’ve written over 15 short stories that were published in various magazines and anthologies. So I decided to put them together in a collection. NICE GIRL DOES NOIR (Volume 1 and Volume 2) should be up on Kindle and Smashwords in a couple of days. I had a friend create (what I think are) smashing covers. I had other friends (Joe Konrath and Kent Krueger) write introductions.


I intend to promote them online, and maybe, if you want, I’ll report back on my results later this summer.  For now, though, I’m considering this an experiment. It’s the first “original” work that I’ve put strictly online. It wasn’t expensive. It wasn’t painful, and I’m anxious to see how they do. You can find out more about them at my website. And if you want to buy a copy or two, I sure wouldn’t mind. 

________________

 Libby's books have JUST gone up on Kindle and Smashwords. For anyone who's interested, here are the links:

NICE GIRL DOES NOIR on Kindle:
http://www.amazon.com/Nice-GIrl-intro-Konrath-ebook/dp/B003NHT4UE/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2&s=digital-text&qid=1274629332&sr=1-1


NICE GIRL DOES NOIR on Smashwords:
http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/15100


Saturday, May 22, 2010

How to Write a 250-Word Summary

I’m approaching the finishing line on the manuscript for the new book.  I’m making a few changes as per my editor’s suggestions, and hope to have the MS to the publisher, ready to go, by the first of June.  I’m on the publishing schedule for February of 2011 and I have already received the dreaded author questionnaire.  This is the multipage document many presses ask their authors to fill out with detailed information about the book, the author, publicity plans and ideas, and lists of institutions, groups, and people who may be interested in receiving an advance copy of the book for review.

One of the more painful exercises is the creation of a short summary the publisher can use to create ad copy.  How do you reduce your brilliant tome to its barest essence in such a way that readers will be whipped into a frenzy of anticipation and beat down the doors of their local bookstore in their desire to get their hands on your book the minute it comes out?

The regular contributors to Type M are all writers with media, advertising, and literature backgrounds who have learned from hard use and sheer practice how to go about it.  Some may even enjoy it, but I still find it painful.  Yet being able to summarize your book in a few words and make it interesting is an incredibly important skill for an author to have. Some of our Type M ad men have given us wonderful pointers in the past, and I’d be very interested to hear how other veteran authors go about it.  

Here’s the technique I’ve developed over the years:  I start by writing a summary of the story that is as long, wordy, flowery, poetic, and descriptive as I think it needs to be, and word-count take the hindmost.  Then I go back and cut out the flowers and the poetry.  Then out comes the descriptive. I don’t need to say who this character is. This plot point  or side story which I mentioned is not a crucial element of the story. In the fifth draft, I realize I don’t need this sentence.  In the sixth draft, I don’t need this clause.  This word. By the the tenth draft, the summary is as distilled and to the point as Scotch whiskey.

Practice makes perfect, too.  For Crying Blood, which will be my fifth book, it only took me five drafts to reach the mark.  Draft 1 - 663 wds.  Draft 2 - 535 wds.  Draft 3 - 450 wds.  Draft 4 - 353.  Draft 5 - 256 wds.

And Bob’s your uncle.

Next trick: the fifty word teaser.

Finally, I’m very pleased to announce that our guest blogger tomorrow is the incomparable Libby Fischer Hellmann. author of many novels, including one of my favorites, last year’s Doubleback. Libby is also quite a successful short story writer whose two-volume collection of her previously published mystery stories, Nice Girl Does Noir. will be available this month as an e-book.  How did she go about getting those stories into an e-book and available for sale on Amazon Kindle and Smashwords all by herself?  Tune in and see.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Time to Write?

As I write this, I am preparing for an eight-hour drive south and west from New England to the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for a Saturday morning event at the Mystery Lovers’ Bookshop at Oakmont.

It is seven weeks now since I left home to embark on what has been a gruelling, if rewarding, two-month tour of the US to promote three books which came out at the start of the year.

Anyone who has been reading my blog will have followed me through the ups and downs, highs and lows, laughs and miseries of the last seven weeks. I am hardly daring to believe that I am so close to the end of it - not least because there are several bookstore and library events remaining that deserve my full concentration.

On the way I have researched and developed an idea for the second book in my new trilogy, which kicks off with “The Blackhouse” next January. I have embarked on the writing of a screenplay for the third of my China Thrillers, commissioned by the French film producers who have bought the film rights.

I have written upwards of twenty posts for my personal blog, and I think this might be the eighth for TM4M.

My latest EnzoFiles episode, “Freeze Frame”, was given a great review in the New York Times, and I have just received news by email that the French translation of “The Blackhouse” has been shortlisted for the Readers’ Prize at a prestigious festival of crime novels at Avignon, which I will be attending in October in the south of France.

A week from today I will fly back to Paris and get the train south to my home in the Lot. Back to work, you might think. But no such luck.

Throughout most of June I will be promoting my book around France, followed by a research trip to Scotland, another book festival on Corsica at the beginning of July, then another research trip - this time to Hong Kong, for the movie.

By the time I get through with all that I won’t actually have written a single word of my next book for more than six months - a book which is due for delivery before the end of the year.

More and more it seems that the demands of promotion reduce the time available for a writer to actually write. That’s how I make my living, after all, and that’s what it is I enjoy doing best. But making a living at it means you also have to sell. And to sell you have to promote.

I would like nothing better than to lock myself away in my study and devote the next year to writing. But I know it won’t happen. And I’ll tell you what I fear the most - that my life becomes so involved with the paraphernalia of writing, publishing and promotion, that I stop living in the real world. Which is where, after all, we find our inspiration.

Help!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

E-Optimism?

I am still trying to get a handle on e-publishing, how it will work, and what it might mean to me and others. So I continue to research. Recently, my Type My colleague Peter May posted “Talk of the Devil” in which he questioned the need for publishers, suggesting writers use the e-book format to go it alone. I countered that theory in my post “Why We Need Publishers,” but I’m still not sure about any of it.

However, a recent article has me thinking.

The May 17 online edition of Publishers Weekly has an industry news brief titled “Konrath Moves 'Jack Daniels' Series to AmazonEncore.” The article made me more than a little curious and, upon reading more on the topic, has me thinking optimistically about some options for my first novel CUT SHOT, now out of print.

After publishing six novels with Hyperion, Konrath is changing publishers in large part because of Amazon’s electronic means. “I signed a print deal with a company that can e-mail every single person who has ever bought one of my books through their website,” Konrath wrote on his blog A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, “plus millions of potential new customers. I’ve never had that kind of marketing power behind one of my novels. I’d be an idiot not to do this.”

When it comes to e-publishing, Konrath knows what he’s talking about. He pays to have covers designed, uploads to books using Amazon's Digital Text Platform, and charges only $1.99. Some of his titles were never published, having been rejected by New York’s traditional houses. He reports that by keeping his prices down, he currently sells 180 e-books a day. I have no way to verify his sales figures, but PW took his word for it. And, according to a recent interview, Konrath estimates that given such a brisk sales pace coupled with Amazon’s new electronic royalty rates (70%), he’s on pace to earn $134,000 a year on e-titles.

Too good to be true?

I don’t know. I have read Konrath’s blog for years, so I am well aware that few writers know grassroots promotion as well as he does. But I think 180 books a day is pretty remarkable. Konrath says he’s “making $4k a month selling ebooks that NY rejected.”

Monday, May 17, 2010

It's almost time for Bloody Words!


If you haven’t already registered for next week’s Bloody Words Convention in Toronto you had better rush over and do so. www.bloodywords2010.com. I am on the organizing committee this year, and I can tell you it is going to be just great. The dates are May 28 to 30th.

There is a whole line up of experts from agents to a forensic dentist to a specialist in art fraud to a detective with the Toronto police’s Forensic Identification Services Unit. The police officer who taught me some moves in Close Quarters Combat for my book will be there discussing what police are taught about fighting. That talk might even include a demonstration on yours truly.

The guest of honour is Giles Blunt and the International GoH is Deon Meyer. The toastmaster at the Saturday night banquet will be Linwood Barclay. If you love Linwood’s books but haven’t met him in person, you are in for a treat. I hope he tells us about his vasectomy. I never tire of hearing that story.

Plus there will be author panels featuring your favourite Canadian authors, and some who might just become your favourites. Authors, everyone from Mary Jane Maffini to Peter Robinson, will be taking and reading in the Mystery Café, and three workshops are going to be presented on Sunday morning, including Maureen Jennings’ discussion of how the Murdock books were translated to TV.

And a Friday night party to celebrate the tenth anniversiary of Bloody Words.

So it’s going to be a great weekend in Toronto. I hope to see you there.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Charles Benoit Returns!

Hi there, Type M types. I am very pleased to announce that an old friend has returned for a Sunday visit. Charles was one of the original members of Type M for Murder way back when computers still ran on steam and the Internet was a newly-minted wonder. Well, perhaps I exaggerate slightly, but the fact is, I recently asked Charles to let us all know what he's been up to. Here is the answer.

Thanks, Charles and best of luck with your new novel!

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

“So I hear you’re writing Young Adult now.”


A little over a year ago, I was happily plugging away on my next mystery, the first in a series that would follow the Flashman-esque exploits of Eddie Nichols — con artist/cat burglar/outright thief — as he traipsed through the second half of the 20th century, stealing stuff from the most influential people of the era and always finding himself in the middle of what the textbooks like to call Key Turning Points in History. Then I got a note from my agent and everything changed.

After over a year of shopping it around, she had sold the young adult novel I had written to HarperCollins Children’s Books. It was a two-book deal with a nifty advance, so that meant that I had to put other projects on hold and focus on writing my second YA. I had over a year to complete it and it only had to be 45,000 words – about half the length of my adult mysteries. I assumed I’d zip through it and get right back to writing Eddie’s book. After all, I had left the poor guy behind German lines, impersonating an SS officer, with the plans for the defense of Nazi Germany in his briefcase, just as an Allied bombing raid was destroying the building he was hiding in. I owed it to him to get him out of that mess.

Eddie is still waiting.

Writing for young adults has proved to be much more challenging than I’d assumed it would be, not because young adults are remarkably different from other adults, but because they aren’t.

Young adult readers expect the story to make sense, the characters to seem real and the dialog to ring true — just like adult readers. But unlike adult readers, many (most?) young adults aren’t reading for pleasure. At this point in their lives they’re often reading because somebody told them they had to so they can pass the course so they can get their diploma so they can go to college so they can get a job so they live on their own, at which time they’ll realize that reading is their only escape from the meaningless monotony that is their mortal coil. But I’m jumping ahead.

While adult readers are willing to look for a reason to stay with a book to the end, young adult readers look for any reason to give up on it. Action lags? Gone. Character takes forever to develop? See ya. Pages of beautifully written descriptions of stately mansions and peaceful gardens? Cliff Notes, please. I can’t blame them. When I was handed a book to read for school, I automatically assumed I wouldn’t like it. Everything else about school followed that rule so it was a safe assumption. Writing for young adults means never giving the reader the slightest chance to say ‘this sucks’.

The young adult books I write don’t involve vampires or wizards or rival cheerleading squads out to win national titles. They’re books about average guys who find themselves in situations they didn’t expect, with no clue how they’re going to get out of the mess that they made for themselves. Just like my adult novels. And instead of exotic, around the world settings I used in Relative Danger, Out of Order and Noble Lies, my young adult novels take place in same boring, predictable places we’ve all been trapped in, the places that we dreamed of getting out of without knowing where we wanted to go. And that has nothing to do with age.

The most common question people ask me is if I miss writing for adult readers. I tell them I never stopped.

* * *
Charles’ first YA novel, YOU, will be published August 25th by HarperCollins Children’s Books. Visit Charles’ brand new, spiffy website at CharlesBenoit.com

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Wired Writers Webinar


Tomorrow, Sunday, May 16,  from 2pm-3pm, Pacific Time, Larry Karp (that's him at right) and I (Donis) will talk with author-host Don McQuinn, on the Wired Writers Webinar. Larry (for the most part) and I  both set our books in the United States of roughly 60 to 110 years ago. Please drop by and hear what we two Poisoned Pen Press writers have to say about the whys and wherefores of what we write, and how we go about the process. Information and free registration for the webinar is at https://www1.gotomeeting.com/register/212854609 . This will be an open forum - you can ask me or Larry questions, or you can just listen. 

Wired Webinars not only give people a chance to listen to their favorite authors discuss their work, but also to interact with them on a personal level. Webinar speakers are professionals who know the craft of writing and have something to share with the writing world. Some of the upcoming personalities scheduled to speak include Elizabeth George, Charlie Newton, T. Jefferson Parker, and James Rollins.  I’m honored to be counted alongside such accomplished writers.

The Wired Writers website is a gathering place for authors. They send regular newsletters including interviews and presentations with published authors and other authorities in the world of writing and publishing, as well as hold Advanced Classes for a select group of aspiring writers. Wired Writers is administered by Don McQuinn, an award-winning and best-selling author and former President of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. Mr. McQuinn is also the professional voiceover performer, having done voice work for television, radio, and video games. For more information about their newsletters, workshops, and upcoming presenters and interviews, or any other questions, please send an email to info@wiredwriters.net.

See you Sunday on the computer. 

Friday, May 14, 2010

To Fool and be Fooled

Have you ever been asked: “Where do you get your ideas from?”

Of course you have. If you have ever written, then you have been asked this annoying question. A question which is impossible to answer. Like: “How long is a piece of string?”

I used to tell people that I kept a black lacquer box on my desk in my study. A box inlaid with mother of pearl and lined with red velvet. It’s where I kept my ideas, and when I needed one I just opened the box and took one out.

My favorite response to the query, however, came from a Scottish author with a penchant for colorful language, James Kelman. He described how he waited for a dark, moonless night, and snuck out into the unlit backstreets of the city of Glasgow. There he would find a darkened doorway where he would wait, unseen, until some unsuspecting reveler took a shortcut on his way home. Kelman would leap out, grab the hapless individual by the lapels, and scream in his face: “Gimme your f***ing ideas, NOW!”

I loooved the idea of mugging someone for their ideas. If only it was that easy.

Ideas, of course, come from nowhere and everywhere. They are amorphous seeds that lodge in our brains, where we water and feed them with imagination and research until they begin to take form.

And that’s when the REALLY hard bit begins. The plotting.

I never usually have problems with characters. They generally speak to me, and I write down what they say (and, yes, I have consulted my therapist about this). But plotting is altogether different. The problem is, when writing a mystery, that you KNOW whodunnit. But you really don’t want the readers to figure it out until you want them to.

At the same time you don’t want to spring it as a complete surprise that they could never have guessed. You want them to look back and say: Of course! How could I have missed that? So you have to plant the clues. And that’s the really tricky bit. Because how can you ever know if you have done enough, or too much? You can’t. It can only be a matter of judgment - your judgment. And you will never know whether or not you got it right until someone else reads it. But that can be entirely dependent on who that someone is. A husband or wife might be easier to fool than your editor. But the hardest people of all to misdirect are the diehard mystery readers.

A few years ago I was reading the New York Times No. 1 Bestseller (and later film), “Presumed Innocent”, by Scott Turow. I was hugely disappointed to figure out who the killer was on page forty-six. Turow had very carefully worked through his plot, and planted the clues that would later satisfy the reader when all was revealed. The trouble is, that as a writer, I always find myself questioning everything I read. Why am I being given this piece of information (regardless of how well buried it might be)? What is the point of this bit of history, or this list of items lying on the bed?

And I guess mystery readers approach a book in the same way. They are hard-bitten, cynical readers who have seen it all, heard it all, and read it all before. And in the end, they are the ones you have to both fool and please at the same time.

Which you will never know if you have really done until the book is out there.

By which time is it too damned late!

Oh, the joys of the genre.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

That One Book

I was asked recently to suggest one book students at Pomfret School, where I work, should, in my opinion, read before entering college. (I offered Great Expectations.) The question got me thinking about what I would say to a mystery writer about to embark on his or her own crime-writing career. Then I read Vicki’s excellent and thought-provoking post “A Study of The Girl Who Played with Fire. What Makes a Good Book?” The combination of the question and Vicki’s post led me to this week’s entry.

I would like to suggest that The Big Sleep (1939) is the one crime-fiction novel I believe any crime writer should read before starting his/her crime-fiction journey, and I say that in large part for the same reasons Vicki recommends Stieg Larsson’s novel.

Chandler’s work emerged after Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon (1930). But he took Hammett’s cue and wrote a page-turning crime novel in which, I would argue, the plot is so convoluted it becomes secondary to the characters. On the heels of Agatha Christie, whose plots were airtight because she wrote her novels in reverse order (last chapter first, etc), Chandler’s plot is about as linear as a series of figure 8s.

Yet the novel is wonderful and is so in large part because Chandler introduced us to Philip Marlowe. I won’t delve into a description of Marlowe. Most readers of this blog know all about him already, and those who have seen shades of him in many of our contemporary works. I teach The Big Sleep to teenagers who know cell phones more than they know saps, yet almost to a student, they embrace the book. That speaks well of Philip Marlowe’s (and Chandler’s) sustainability.

Raymond Chandler deviated from the plot-driven works of the 1920s to create a unique character that changed the landscape of our genre. And he did it by breaking all the rules associated with the crime fiction of his period: his plot seemed to circle and spiral endlessly, and Chandler’s reliance on coincidence is huge (a similarity to a point Vicki made in regarding Larrson’s novel). After all, who can forget the line “Fate stage managed the whole thing”?

The Big Sleep may not even be Chandler’s best, but it was his first. Thus, I offer it here as my must-read because it changed the way writers thought about crime fiction. No longer plot-driven, crime novels of the 1930s to present became more and more books about people, books about life, in essence literature—a large debt owed to Chandler.

I’d love to hear what my Type M colleagues list as their single must-read novels for any aspiring crime writer.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Internet Brain Rot

What? Did he just say what I thought he said?

Well, folks, do yourself a favour and read this article from Salon.com: “Yes, the Internet is rotting your brain”, by Laura Miller.

Now, you Internet lover, you, what do you think? Hot air or hitting the nail right on the head?

Here’s a personal observation. At one time, when I was playing in bands, I could carry around in my head the keyboard parts to literally hundreds of tunes, some of them very complicated and complex. Am I a genius? Do I possess a photographic memory? No. It was just something that hundreds of musicians do, if for no other reason than who wants to carry around all that music in physical form?

Now, when I play a gig (rare on keyboards these days), I usually use some music, at least rudimentary chord changes. There just aren’t that many I still remember and it takes me longer to memorize things than it used to. Why?

Maybe this article about a very interesting book has the answer: use it or lose it.

After reading the article cited above, I thought about my own personal reading habits and what the author describes about poor attention spans could well be written by me. I now find it hard to get totally lost in a book, reading for hours without realizing it. My mind does wander and I did think it was old age creeping up on me.

Now I’m wondering. Am I using the Internet too much? Read the article and see if you don’t begin to agree.

So tonight I am going to turn off the computer early (unless my writing is going particularly well), and spend some quality time with a good book.

It’s the least I can do to prevent Internet brain rot. I don’t want to become a statistic!

-=-=-=-=-=-
PS This entry builds on some thoughts Vicki has had lately about the deterioration of concentration and the future of long novels. Thanks to her for sending me the article and then allowing me to write a blog entry on it.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Study of The Girl Who Played with Fire. What Makes a Good Book?

I am currently reading The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that the three books in this series are an international publishing sensation.

This article is not intended to be a book review, just some observations I have made to myself while reading it.

I’m enjoying it very much. I’m about ¾ of the way through at this point.

Larsson is breaking just about all of the rules we are taught in Crime Writing 101 as well as putting in all the things that editors and agents tell us to take out.

The book is over 700 pages, but the print is large and is almost double spaced. I have to believe that the publishers wanted it to look larger than it really is. In normal paperback print it would come to about 400 pages. What does this tell us about the trend towards shorter and shorter books?

The murder happens around page 250. Remember this rule: A mystery must have a body in the first chapter?

Several major coincidences propel the first part of the plot. We have not one or two but at least three instances of character X walking into a bar or down the street and seeing character Y or Z. And this is in a big modern city.

Extensive listing of what the character buys on a shopping spree and her grocery list. Huh? Lisbeth Salander goes to Ikea and everything she buys is mentioned – by brand name. Same with her groceries.

Re-telling of what happened in the first book.

Computer jargon.

A character who is not only super computer-savvy and a mathematical genius but also an expert in disguise, speaks many foreign languages, and can change accent as required – in those foreign languages. That strains credibility.

But you know what? None of it matters. The long list of Ikea furnishings helps to establish that the character is obsessive. It certainly doesn’t matter that the murder doesn’t happen until more than a quarter way through, the tension is building and we know something is going to happen. The character’s skill with disguise and language is what helps her to avoid her enemies, and we are rooting for her to do so.

The book is excessively long; it breaks many of the supposed rules; the character strains credibility.

Yet it not only works, it works well enough to be one of the biggest books of the decade.

Maybe the traditional wisdom in publishing is all wrong.

I'm just asking.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Better late than Never on a Sunday

Peter here. My apologies to all. Such have been the demands of my US tour, plus the work load I am carrying with me, that I was unable to fulfil my obligations in providing Friday's post.

And I flew in, Friday, to Houston in Texas, without a response from the guest contributor I had asked to provide Sunday's blog. So I'm afraid I will have to fill in the blank myself - sitting in a darkened hotel room at six in the morning tapping away on my (life-saving) iPad.

I was interested in John's post picking up on the debate about e-books, and the relevance of publishers in the electronic age, and found myself in complete agreement with Hannah Dennison's comment about small publishers being more supportive of their authors than the larger ones (unless you are a best-seller).

Most of my best experiences have been with small publishers. As a young writer in the UK, I was taken under the wing of a new, equally young publisher called Judy Piatkus. Judy picked me up when none of the big publishers would look at me, and published me because she believed in my writing - not simply because she thought I might make an immediate impact on the bestsellers list. Judy followed her instincts, and not market trends, and ended up creating a highly successful London publishing house.

I remember my first meeting with her over afternoon tea in Brown's Hotel off Piccadilly, in London. When I look back on it now it seems like a very long time ago - like something out of a Somerset Maugham memoir. I was a gauche young writer just off the train from Scotland, and she was a young publisher stepping out on her own. We had a fruitful on-off relationship over nearly fifteen years. She recently retired, leaving behind her a still thriving publisher.

My China Thrillers series remained unpublished in France until picked up by a small regional publisher called Editions du Rouergue. Now a part of the most prestigious publishing house in France, Actes Sud, Rouergue was created and turned into the success it became because of one woman's vision - Danielle Dastugue.

Danielle is similar to Barbara Peters of Poisoned Pen in some ways - she, too, began by opening a bookstore before graduating to create her own press. Rouergue is now a player among the big boys because Danielle followed her instinct, publishing only what she personally believed in. She turned my series into bestsellers in France, and bought my forthcoming book, "The Blackhouse", when it had been turned down by all the major publishers in the UK. Having taken world rights she has now sold it all around Europe - UK included.

Strangely, she has just retired, too (I hope I am not driving all my publishers into retiral).

The UK publisher which bought "The Blackhouse" is another small publishing house, set up in London just a few years ago by two men who didn't like the way the industry was going. They set up Quercus to publish only those books in which they had personal faith, regardless of what the marketing people might be saying. Their first published book was a Number One bestseller. They have gone on to publish a string of highly successful and award-winning books, including Stieg Larsson's staggeringly successful Millennium Trilogy.

And, of course, I come finally to Poisoned Pen Press, which owes almost everything to the individual vision of Barbara Peters. I moved to PPP mid-series, from one of the biggest publishers in the States. Not because that publisher didn't want to continue with the series, but because they were too big, and I didn't come high enough up on their list. Barbara promised to publish me better, and she did. I have sold many more books since moving to the Press.

There is a pattern emerging here: small publishers who buck the trend and follow their instincts - which is what publishing always used to be about, before the conglomerates took over and transformed it into a money-making industry concerned only with turning a profit. In some cases they might as well be selling ball-bearings.

It is the small, individual, idiosyncratic publishers that I would like to see survive the upheavals of the electronic age. They are the lifeblood of our business - the business of writing and reading. And we should support them in every way we can.

- A small footnote: John raised the question of how electronically self-publishing authors would get their books into the hands of reviewers. The irony is that publishers themselves are now moving rapidly towards providing reviewers with electronic review copies through dedicated online sites, like NetGalley. No reason those writers couldn't do the same thing themselves.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Road

I hope you will all bear with me as I indulge in some literary nepotism today.  My husband Don Koozer’s book of poetry,The Road, is scheduled to be published late this month. 

It’s an odd thing.  Don and I met in graduate school, and one of the things that brought us together in the first place was our mutual interest in writing.  Neither of us ever lost our literary bent, yet reality intervened, and we both spent much of our married life earning a living.  Here it is, thirty-five years later, and we’ve come full circle. We aren’t exactly the Burkes, or the Kellermans, but we are both finally doing what we aspired to do so long ago.

Don was homebound for much of 2009.  After the first month or two, he was able to move around pretty well, and spent many hours sitting on our back patio, doing nothing but enjoying the sun, and trees, and birds, and the neighbor’s cat.  Eventually, he began to write poetry while sitting there.  He built up quite a body of work, and had many poems published in small literary magazines all over the country.  

Late last year, he was contacted by the editor of one of said poetry mags, Bellowing Ark, out of Washington state. Bellowing Ark Press publishes not only the magazine, but poetry books as well, and the editor liked Don’s poetry enough to ask if he would be interested in letting the press issue a chapbook collection of his work. Of course, Don said he would be honored. Now, a small paperback book of poems published by a small poetry press is not going to make Don famous, and it sure isn’t going to make him rich.  But how often is an author actually solicited by a publisher who wants to publish his work?  

We at Type M have been exploring the direction that the publishing industry seems to be going, and wondering how the rise of the cyber-world is going to affect us in the future. Though The Road is poetry and not a mystery novel, the story of how this book came to be fits in with our discussion about the strange and twisty road to publication.

I have no insight into the future.  I can only observe what is happening to myself and the other authors.  I think that if one can make a tidy sum by selling his e-books on Kindle for $2.99, then more power to him.  I also think that there is a difference between writing fiction strictly to make money and writing strictly as an artistic expression.  Some are talented enough and lucky enough that art and money overlap, maybe in an e-book, maybe in a traditionally published book.  Which way will lead to success?  It’s a mystery.  It’s like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

As for Don’s book, he and the publisher are still in the throes of pre-pub preparation - covers, arrangement, mailing lists, reviews, etc. When the book becomes available, I’ll post that information. Until then, Dear Reader, allow me to share one of the shorter poems with you. 

Darkness

The last light

Of the setting sun

Surrenders to the night

And the evening star.

The end,

Like the beginning,

Is veiled in darkness.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Why We Need Publishers

The e-book format and its ensuing business model have everyone talking—and guessing where the book industry is headed. In their respective posts last week, Donis and Peter raised compelling (and somewhat opposing) points regarding the need for publishers as e-books gain traction.

I see the pro and cons of each of my colleagues’ stances.

Peter pointed out that writers could hire independent editors, sell e-books themselves, and thus take the "lion's share" of the earnings. No one can dispute James Patterson’s commercial success or his promotional foresight. Patterson basically challenged the industry’s sales model when Along Came a Spider was released in 1993. Formerly chairman of J. Walter Thompson in North America, Patterson brought a career's worth of advertising knowledge to the release his first best-seller. When he saw his publisher’s cover design and proposed advertising campaign, he took over the promotion of the book (including funding TV ads). His marketing theories worked—Harvard Business School now teaches a case study of Patterson’s techniques—and continue to work in large part because most best-sellers are created not written.

Patterson’s success speaks to Peter’s point: we live in a capitalistic society; thus, your book will go as far you (as a promoter) take it. Yet what happens to the upstart, the guy writing his first book in a closet office lit by a single overhead light bulb? No advertising budget for this guy. Does he take out a second mortgage? Maybe he does. Vince Flynn self-published his first book, caught the attention of a major crime-fiction agent, and earned a two-book deal for an advance that guaranteed commercial success. I’d like to point out, though, that Flynn’s publisher saw the potential in his work and that led to a six-figure advance, forcing the house to put its advertising money where its proverbial mouth was. My feeling is that if Mr. Flynn had self-published all of his books, he would certainly not be where he is today.

I'm a guy who has been recently snake bitten by the industry. I walked away from a small press after five books when I wrote the first book in what would be a new series, hoping to cash in on my small-press success (starred reviews and solid sales with limited distribution) at a major house. What I have found was that when economic times skid, NYC puts money into established series rather than purchasing new ones. That’s probably sound business, and if my manuscript was a concept-driven stand-alone thriller that guaranteed flawless segue to film rights, someone would have doubtless picked it up by now.

But I don’t write concept thrillers, and I don’t think about movies when I write novels. And that’s okay. I’m not ready to self-publish. Financially, it wouldn't make sense to do so, but even if my last name was Kennedy, I wouldn't do it. Will it be financially possible to self-publish in the coming age of the e-book? You bet. But I want my work to have passed some sort of quality-control test, to have been deemed worthy.

Before you call me an antiquated literary snob, consider one of Donis’s points last week: who will push for reviews, if one self-publishes? My publisher routinely sent 250 copies of each Jack Austin novel to reviewers. Would I have time to send those review copies? Not likely? And major reviewers don’t like to hear from writers, so another facet of the industry model would have to change. Reviews mean a lot to me. I’m not an egomaniac, probably the opposite: I need to know my work is good, rather than it sells. Sales are not something I have a lot of control over. Reviews, though, are different.

When I go to Amazon, I find over 92,000 books deemed “mysteries.” If we turn the industry into an electronic free for all, both reviews and sales will be harder to come by. Raymond Chandler saw this day coming in the 1930s when he wrote that it was hard to judge the quality of a mystery novel because they all contain similar elements and because there are so many of them. “Even Einstein couldn’t get very far,” Chandler wrote in “The Simple Art of Murder,” “if three hundred treatises of the higher physics were published every year, and several thousand others in some form or other were hanging around in excellent condition, and being read too.”

I will never forget the day I got “the call” from an editor saying he wanted to buy my first book. That’s a day I will never forget, and I hope every first-time writer gets to experience that feeling. I fear that self-publishing in the age of the e-book might very well lead to the rich getting richer and the upstarts getting lost among their multiplying brethren.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Goth or Not?

Didn’t Thomas Wolfe only wear white linen? And Louise Nevelson layers of false eyelashes? I had someone help with some redecorating once who explained away her tardiness with the declaration that she was an artiste. Some of the coffee I was drinking at the time came out my nose.

I’ve always figured: a.) what’s an artiste anyway? b.) I have enough trouble getting my work done on time to bother changing out of sneakers and T-shirts. c.) Pretentiousness makes coffee come out my nose, not an attractive trait.

But yesterday I nearly ended up—uh, how to put this—very noticeable. If not pretentious, then bizarre.

I needed a change in hairdressers, and got a referral from a friend whose haircut I liked. This appointment was a bright spot in my week. First, you have to know that there are no real blondes over thirty-five. Sigh. Sad but true. Our hair—well, mine, anyway—darkens to a mousy, fine brown. With scattered gray threads, of course. Not a nice color gray, either. So I get those nice sunny streaks put back in.

There’s a story to go along with my old hairdresser, but I’ll save it for later if you want to hear it. Let’s just say he’s an 82 year old lecher and he gave me a haircut that made me look like I'd just taken off a baseball cap.

So I say to the new guy, “Can you get rid of this yellow? One of my friends told me I look like a golden retriever.”

He beams. “No problem. We’ll do the highlights first, then add a light toner.”

I beam. “Great.”

I get layers of those folded aluminum foil packets and read an ancient People magazine for twenty minutes. Don’t ask me why I forgot Doug Corleone’s new book, but I did. Duh.

I put my head in the sink, where an adorable aide adds squishy gunk from a bottle. We wait ten or fifteen minutes, she shampoos me, gives me a very nice head massage, wraps a towel around my head, and I stroll back to my new hairdresser. He’s working on a lovely fine-boned woman with short, ethereal silver hair. She’s beautiful.

I sit back down and he whips the towel from my head. I only look up from a spread on Brangelina because the room goes still. The towel hangs suspended from my new hairdresser’s hand like a crash flag at the Indy 500 and his eyes blink like warning lights at a railroad crossing. My own gaze follows his, to the mirror.

Wow. But kind of interesting. If I were thirty-five years younger, I’d keep it, at least for a day or two. My hair is dark purple.

But let's be honest. I’m a middle-aged mom and writer of crime fiction, which I hope portrays a gritty realism. So even if my sun-streaked hair is also fictional at this point of my life, purple is over the top. As a writer friend once told me, there’s a difference between truth and believability.

Just in case you’re wondering, my hair looked normal when I left an hour and a half later. It took about three more processes, more chemicals than I come in contact with in the average month. Please, don’t anyone light a match.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Marketing 101

I’ve looked up Mr. Sargent (mentioned in Peter’s blog entry of last week), and it’s easy to see why he’s getting damnation. Suggesting switching business models will do that, and charging more for downloads will do that, and thinking outside the box always does that. They may or may not be good ideas, but I give Macmillan a lot of credit for at least trying something. Let’s just deal with the price, thing, though.

In order to get people to try something new, the usual (successful) marketing tactic is to price the item low. As the product takes off, you raise the price. It’s tried and true and it works. You didn’t think that Amazon was always going to keep the same price, did you? Once e-book sales catch fire, you watch them jack the price up.

On the other hand, this marketing tactic has been abandoned with things like new technology and pharmaceuticals because, in the beginning, they are expensive to produce, plus the originator wants to get the maximum return on investment before other. Remember the price of CD players when they first came out. Or closer to home. The first terrabyte computer hard drive a few years back cost nearly $2000 if memory serves. I bought one last week for $99. The difference? Competitors catching up.

What the e-book market desperately needs is one format for all books. It would make purchasing them that much easier, make selling them more streamlined, and make them instantly more attractive to buyers. Why should I shell out for a book for my [fill in the name of your current favourite e-book reader here] only to find out that they’ve gone out of business, or dropped manufacturing readers, and then find if I want to read my book again, I have to buy it again in another (current) format?

Anybody have any beta cassettes at home? Hmmm?

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Introducing Guest Blogger Doug Corleone

Five years ago, when I was doing a signing for The Green Room, a charming yet serious young man introduced himself. You guessed it, the writer was Doug Corleone, and his first book is now in stores and online. Doug's new adventure brings back the joy and the excitement of the first book, and I can't wait to spend my Sunday afternoon with the brand-new One Man's Paradise.

Exposing Yourself (on the Page)


When I first sat down to write One Man’s Paradise, it was for an audience of one. Of course, I had dreams of publication, but I’ve never been one to look very far down the road. Even knowing my goals - and believing I could accomplish them - I never once considered censoring myself. Never once did I hesitate at the keyboard, thinking Are you sure you want others reading this? And so the character of hotshot criminal defense lawyer Kevin Corvelli was born.

A few years later, friends and family members are meeting Kevin Corvelli for the first time. And they all seem to recognize him. It does no good to remind them that Kevin is a fictional character, a mere figment of my imagination - they want to believe Kevin is me. I didn’t help my cause any by writing One Man’s Paradise in first person, present tense. The text has an air of immediacy that conveys to readers: this is how the author thinks; there is no question as to who Kevin Corvelli really is.

And to some extent the readers are right. Kevin Corvelli is an exaggerated version of me, with all my flaws and shortcomings, blown out of proportion so that the character is larger than life. Kevin drinks and curses and lusts after every attractive woman he meets. He’s willing to cross ethical boundaries both in and out of the courtroom. At one time, he admits, he was even driven professionally by fame and greed. But Kevin is evolving, maturing, adapting to an idyllic lifestyle, and trying to put his past to sleep. To some extent, don’t we all share similar goals?

So why do I cringe whenever someone inadvertently calls me Kevin to my face? Well, I suppose it’s because Kevin Corvelli is unapologetic about who he is. He’s much more comfortable exposing himself on the page. And the funny thing is, readers (even some tough critics) seem to love him for it. For all his flaws, Kevin is brutally honest - he hides nothing from the reader. To use a fitting analogy, Kevin leaves the door open when he pees. And, perhaps ironically, that’s why readers are rooting for him.

Honest fiction may sound like an oxymoron, but personally, I’d love to read more of it. And I certainly intend to write more of it. It was writers like Charles Bukowski who exposed their tired, indecent souls on the page who first inspired me to pick up the pen. Bukowski’s alter ego Henry Chinaski wasn’t, of course, a neurotic lawyer from New York, but he wasn’t any less afraid to share some of the less virtuous thoughts to pass through his alcohol-soaked brain.

The one thing I can promise my readers is that Kevin Corvelli will never turn into some cookie-cutter hero who always does the right thing. He will continue to face moral dilemmas, and he will continue to make mistakes. Kevin Corvelli’s life will have its ups and downs, but Kevin will always remain just as human as me. In other words, kids, close your eyes. Because even as I mature as a writer, I will never stop exposing myself on the page.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

More Questions Than Answers About the Future of Publishing

Peter was at Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale a week or so ago, and I took this picture of him and Patrick Milliken when I went up there to see him. I liked it so much that I thought I'd post it.  This was the first time I've actually met Peter and Janice in the flesh.  Peter was working, of course, so we didn't get much chance to visit, but I did get to talk to Janice for a bit, which was a real treat, for me at least. Interestingly, there is a picture on Peter's blog  of this event that Janice took at almost the same moment, but a much wider angle, and there I sit, in the green blouse, off to Patrick's left. 

As I read over the last few of my blogmates’ posts, I found myself with more questions than answers, or even intelligent opinions, about the way the publishing industry is going.  I think that technology can be a very good thing, and I am by no means convinced that the advent of iPads and Nooks and electronic publishing spells the end of life as we know it. It might end up being a wonderful thing for authors.  One thing experience teaches us is that there are always unintended consequences, good and bad, that can’t be anticipated.  We’ll just have to wait and see.

Peter asked what a traditional publisher has to offer that we can’t just do ourselves? We can find professional editors, and most authors end up doing most of their own marketing, anyway.  What about getting oneself reviewed, I wonder?  In the past few years, all kinds of online review sites have popped up, and sites like Shelfari.  For a relatively small potatoes mid-lister like Yours Truly, library sales are quite important. Is having a traditional publisher a requirement in order to be reviewed in PW and Library Journal?  Will it continue to be?

What about agents?  Will having an agent still be more useful than not for getting one’s material distributed and sold in different formats and venues. How about a publicist? People like Peter and his inestimable wife Janice Hally are extremely media savvy and ahead of the curve when it comes to taking advantage of the Brave New World of Publishing that is coming into being as we speak.

I write a series set at the turn of the Twentieth Century, and how my characters are trying to cope with the amazing changes in the world. Now, here it is another new century, and I’m the one who's trying hard to cope. But I grew up in a world that required an entirely different set of skills. It’s like all the younger people coming up are learning to speak Chinese as their native language. I can learn to speak Chinese, too, but I’ll never be as fluent as a native speaker. 

Moving to China, or into the future, is exciting and exhilarating.  You have to keep moving, keep learning. The possibility exists that we will be freed from all the conventions and baggage of the past that held us back.  Even so, at the odd moment, I long for the comfort of my native language, and a country where I understood the customs. If I could just spend a few restful days in the 1970s...