Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Today I am on my way to the Novelists, Inc. conference at St. Pete Beach. As I am contemplating what to say here, I’m thinking about the benefits of spending a wad of money to attend a writers conference. Ninc focuses solely on the business of writing for career professionals. You must have two published novels to join, so the membership consists of multi-published authors. This makes it different from any other conference, which may be aimed toward fans or writers at all levels.
Ninc doesn’t aim to teach you to write. It aims to get you up to date on industry news and trends in publishing; the how-to’s regarding promotion & marketing, indie publishing; legal aspects like literary estate planning and forming a collaborative group to produce a book box package; how to use Amazon or Book Bub or Goodreads effectively. Reps from Kobo, Amazon, iBooks and more will be present. I can’t wait to attend. I can pick anyone’s brain there for any career questions I might have, and I have plenty. Ninc is a goldmine of seasoned, professional authors.
So why should you attend a writers, as opposed to a fan, conference? Here are some of the benefits:
· Networking with other authors and making new friends
· Career guidance from more experienced authors
· Attracting new readers, as authors are readers, too.
· Workshops at all skill levels
· Editor/Agent appointments
· Name recognition
· Meeting authors whom you might ask later for an endorsement
· Giving back to the writing community by offering a workshop or volunteering
I have been attending SleuthFest for years. This premier mystery writers conference will take place Feb. 26 at Deerfield Beach, FL. And new this year is the Flamingo Pitch Tank, where you get the chance to pitch your novel to every attending editor and agent at once. This is in addition to one-on-one appointments. You’ll learn about marketing and brush up on your other writing skills. Last year I attended workshops on Kobo and ACX. So check out this event before it sells out. James Patterson and Dave Barry are guest speakers.
What other reasons can you offer for attending a writers conference? As I will be unable to respond, please talk amongst yourselves. I’ll respond next week when I am back home.
Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Writing is a nerve-flaying job. First of all, what the Symbolists said is true: clichés come to the mind much more readily than anything fresh or exact. To hack one’s way past them requires a huge, bleeding effort. For anyone who wonders why seasoned writers tend to write for only about three or four hours a day, that’s the answer. Anthony Burgess...concluded that a writer can never be happy: “The anxiety involved is intolerable. And...the financial rewards just don’t make up for the expenditure of energy, the damage to health caused by stimulants and narcotics, the fear that one’s work isn’t good enough. I think, if I had enough money, I’d give up writing tomorrow.”But I think writer’s block is a luxury of literary types. If you write for the commercial market, you can’t afford to wait for the muse to come around every couple years. My story stall and my move to coffee shop got me to thinking about all the ways we can use to un-stick ourselves. I'll bet you guys have some good tips to add.
Change Your Habits or Habitat
Switch Point of View
Simplify Your Plot
Pick a Different Point of Entry
Write Your Book’s Back Copy
Print Out Your Chapters
Quit While You’re Ahead
Get an Imaginary Dog
Get Some Imaginary Kids
Monday, October 20, 2014
Vigilante heroes – including Dylan Hunter, the hero of my vigilante thriller series – break lots of laws and conventions. I confess that I occasionally do the same about the laws and conventions of fiction-writing.
For instance, one cardinal rule, taught by many fiction instructors, is:
Avoid expressing your personal views about politics, religion, and other controversial issues in your fiction.
Your job as a novelist, they say, is solely to entertain—not to “preach.” If you get up on your soap box, you’ll only alienate many potential fans. To attract a broad readership, you should suppress the desire to push divisive “agendas.”
Or, as movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn famously admonished a screenwriter: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”
But is it true that you shouldn’t express controversial views in popular fiction?
Well, it is true that readers of popular fiction don’t want to be lectured to or harangued. Some authors, believing they have important ideas to convey, beat readers over the head with their views. In static scenes on porches, in drawing rooms, and around dinner tables, characters don’t converse; they deliver speeches and soliloquys. Too often, these wooden, one-dimensional “characters” are little more than premises with feet.
I had to confront this issue head-on when I decided to move from nonfiction into fiction. You see, I have strongly held views and have never hidden them. My writing career began with “advocacy” journalism: essays, reviews, and other opinion pieces. So, when I decided to write thrillers a few years ago, it felt natural to incorporate my views into my stories.
First, I rejected the belief that there’s an inherent contradiction between entertaining fiction and thought-provoking fiction. Shakespeare, Ibsen, Hugo, Dickens, Tolstoy, Orwell, Dostoyevsky, Rostand—all wrote works that entertained millions while taking sides on the controversies of their times. Taken literally, the “no politics” rule would have deprived the world of Les Misérables, 1984, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin—serious novels of ideas that still won vast popular audiences.
Moreover, if you watch marketing expert Simon Sinek’s influential talk, “Start With Why,” you’ll see that building compelling stories around your passionately held beliefs can become a great marketing strategy. They will attract those who share your views, making them loyal fans, even evangelists for your work. Distinctive views also help to “brand” you, making you and your work stand out from the crowd and become more visible.
But how can authors with “something to say” avoid the pitfalls of heavy-handed preachiness? And how do I incorporate controversial ideas into popular thrillers, without turning off readers looking mainly for a good rollercoaster ride?
I think many opinionated writers fail to entertain because they engage in extraneous pontificating, rather than make their ideas integral to the stories themselves. The trick is to weave a provocative theme or premise into the very fabric of your story, making it the thread that connects your characters to each other and to the events of the plot.
In his classic how-to, The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri devotes the first chapter to structuring a story upon a “premise.” Egri shows how to develop a controversial theme, first by creating major characters that hold uncompromising, opposing positions. Their clash of values drives the plot’s central conflict, which is resolved at the climax. The climax “proves” the story premise. Minor characters play complementary roles, representing “variations on the theme.” (Of course, your challenge as a literary craftsman is to make your characters seem three-dimensional and fully real—and not mere mouthpieces for arguments.)
I used Egri’s approach with my first thriller, HUNTER, which draws upon my past investigative reporting about the criminal justice system. It dramatizes the outrageous leniency I discovered, in which vicious criminals are routinely recycled back onto the streets to prey on new victims. The major antagonists are my hero, mysterious investigative journalist Dylan Hunter, and a wealthy philanthropist funding “alternatives to incarceration.” The complication is that Dylan doesn’t know that his sworn enemy also happens to be the father of the woman he loves.
This orchestration of characters allows the thriller’s theme—the injustices caused by excessive leniency—to be not only articulated and argued, but to be dramatized in action, with all the scary violence, intense suspense, and sizzling romance that thriller fans expect.
For the sequel, BAD DEEDS, I set the story in even more controversial territory: the clash between environmentalists and the “fracking” industry. Here, my views are not what most readers would anticipate. But once again, I present villains who uphold ideas and values opposite those of my hero. Once again, the plot brims with action, suspense, colorful characters, and white-knuckle thrills. And once again, the climax “proves” the theme.
At first I feared that my maverick opinions would turn readers off. Instead, HUNTER became a Kindle and Wall Street Journal bestseller. And the even-more-controversial BAD DEEDS is maintaining an Amazon customer rating of 4.9 out of a possible 5.0 points.
So, if you write mysteries and thrillers, relax! You don’t have to avoid touching hot-button controversies. In fact, doing so can become a badge of distinction, helping your work to stand out in the overcrowded marketplace. I describe my novels as “thrillers for thinkers.”
And in an era of recycled plots and worn genre retreads, that’s not a bad brand.
Robert Bidinotto is author of the Kindle and Wall Street Journal bestselling thriller, HUNTER, and the thrilling sequel, BAD DEEDS. Robert earned a national reputation as an authority on criminal justice while writing investigative crime articles as a former Staff Writer for Reader's Digest. His famous 1988 article, "Getting Away with Murder," stirred a national controversy about crime and prison furlough programs and was named a 1989 finalist for a National Magazine Award. Robert is author of the acclaimed nonfiction book Criminal Justice? The Legal System vs. Individual Responsibility. He also wrote Freed to Kill—a compendium of horror stories exposing the failings of the justice system. Robert drew upon this background and his personal experiences with crime victims to write HUNTER.
Sunday, October 19, 2014
Friday, October 17, 2014
Please answer the following question:
When the 24-hour news cycle delivers nothing but lemons, how are you affected as a writer?
A. Full Stop. I make a stiff lemon-tini, and then I spend the rest of the day watching CNN Breaking News, and reading #ebola updates on Twitter.
B. I write faster! Like a depressed person who feels happier when it rains, I actually get energized by grim news.
C. Meh, the daily headlines don't affect my writing. I just tune it out.
D. Other. (Explain.)
Thursday, October 16, 2014
Just a short blog post today from me, but I could really use your help. I'm interested in hearing from those who have good resources for self-publishing regarding formatting and sales ops. Since we have a wealth of experienced followers on this blog, I'd like to hear your thoughts to broaden my horizons. Self-publishing is a HUGE topic, but I'd like our chat to be focused on the questions below.
Here are some of the things I'm interested in getting updated on:
1.) Do you have format service companies or individuals you would recommend?
I'd like to find a one-stop company or individual who formats for all the major sales outlets: Amazon, B&N, ITunes, Kobo. Please share your experiences.
2.) What format add-ons do you recommend (as far as website links or features) that have worked for you? (ie website links, mailing list signups, retailer sales links, etc.) In other words, what marketing tools do you add to your formats that you would recommend?
3.) Within your format of text, are there navigational aspects or enhancements (bells & whistles) you would recommend to add to your content? (ie chapter list with links to easily navigate within your book, audio enhancements, etc. Some of these might be costly, but I'd love to hear any new ideas.)
4.) Does anyone have a special format service provider for Lightning Source? I hear the LS set up is expensive and corrected proofs must be reloaded. This could be cumbersome, but I hear the quality is good and LS does hardcovers with different distribution outlets. It's something I'd like more information on.
5.) Regarding sales outlets, are there any new players worth considering?
If you have a site, please post it and comment as to why you would recommend it. I'm thinking the sites mentioned above encompass the majority of sales, but if you've found other sites worth considering, I'd love to hear about them.
6.) Has anyone added sales/purchase capability onto their website where a reader could buy from the author directly? I've seen this done via a secured PayPal app, but had concerns on sales tax and shipping. I wondered how this worked (for anyone who has experience).
7.) I know promotion is a big topic, but for the purposes of discussion and brevity, what one promotional activity or service provider do you use without fail and would recommend to anyone?
I haven't mentioned editing, because again that is a must have for any author and the cost can have a wide range, depending on services needed from line edits to book doctoring. I also haven't asked about book cover designers. I work with Croco Designs and love Frauke Spanuth. But feel free to mention any other self-publishing services you've found helpful.
I bow to your infinite wisdom, TKZers. Please share your thoughts.
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Today I welcome back to TKZ my friend and fellow ITW member, Lisa Black. Lisa has one of the most unique day jobs, especially for a suspense writer. As she likes to describe it, she spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. She was a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office where she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department in Florida. Her books have been translated into six languages and one reached the New York Times mass market bestseller’s list.
I asked Lisa if any of her experience developed into a story and she related one of her first published works to me. She wouldn’t tell me where it was published, only that it was in one of those “sleazy true detective magazines” back in the day. Enjoy!
Yet another case of a mild-mannered, suburban murdering mom
I wanted to write true crime before I even got into forensics. But since only the military had an internet back then, I had to find stories to write about the old-fashioned way, via the library and newspaper indexes and microfilm and this wonderful window at the Justice Center where they had to give you copies of the basic dispositions of court cases (public record, after all). And one of the first stories I chose was the mundane yet chilling tale of Terri Sramek.
One summer night Terri called the Middleburg Heights police to tell them that she had returned from church to find her husband, William Sramek, gone. There were no signs of disturbance and nothing missing from the house. She went on all four local channels to plead for information. A MHPD detective happened to catch the news and immediately sensed that something was off about Terri Sramek. She just didn’t add up.
The case had indeed been assigned to him, and he promptly received a call from an FBI agent who knew nothing about William Sramek but a lot about Terri. The detective tried to follow his monologue: In Billings, Montana, Terri worked as an executive secretary for an insurance company which handled, among other things, the Miss Montana beauty pageant. Funds turned up missing. Terri and her boss invented a robbery and then even a new ledger, except for the wrong year. She pled multiple personality disorder but couldn’t fool the court and got 10 years, while telling one boyfriend she was actually in LA attending flight attendant school.
After her release she went right back to work—her type of work—for a Salt Lake law firm and met William Sramek. When the firm discovered $65K missing the couple moved to Cleveland. Terri found a job with a financial services firm…which then, somehow, lost $40K.
The FBI caught up with her on behalf of Utah, and she promptly went into the hospital with heart palpitations, though her doctor failed to back her up. But she was also pregnant, so Utah delayed enforcement of their warrant.
Now the Middleburg Heights detective found that Terri had been trying to sell William’s coins and responding to other men’s personal ads.
That didn’t sound good.
Exactly a week after he was reported missing, a police SWAT team searched the city surrounding the Sramek home. Rangers, the law enforcement body of the Cleveland Metropark system, searched the park areas on foot and on horseback.
The hunt lasted all day. They found nothing.
But Terri Sramek was arrested again, for not informing the probation authorities of her arrests. She didn’t know it yet, but she had just enjoyed her last day of freedom for a long, long time.
Salt Lake City reinstated the charges.
Then, in the middle of August, a birdwatcher pursued a bundle of plumage into some tall grass and found a decomposing body. The skull had lost almost all its flesh and had bullet holes in its base and forehead.
Terri’s lawyer, accompanied by the victim’s family’s private investigator, went to see her in jail.
For reasons known only to herself, Terri Sramek told the two men that she had indeed shot her husband. When William suggested they go for a walk in the park, she slipped a new .38-caliber automatic into her purse, next to a bottle of baby formula. They strolled through the pretty parks and argued about money. Then, with their baby strapped to her chest, Terri shot her husband in the head and face and left him to the elements.
The baby did not cry, Terri insisted—an unusual reaction for an infant—and Terri set off to dispose of the murder weapon.
The PI told the MHPD about this confession and they told the Rangers. Their turf, their murder.
The ranger looked at Terri Sramek and felt no sympathy for someone who could put her kid in a baby carrier and then kill the little girl’s father, leaving him where he lay so that weeks later the cops would have to spoon through his bodily fluids just to recover his teeth. The ice in her veins reminded him of the movie Black Widow, in which the character played by Theresa Russell researched and wooed rich men in order to kill them, carefully covering her tracks each time. She mates, then she kills.
In an interview the Montana detective also mentioned the movie, though it hadn’t even been made when he knew her.
In jail, tearfully, hesitantly, delicately, Terri Sramek promised to cooperate. She told them that she had thrown the gun in the water while walking along the lake shoreline somewhere around Huron.
But meanwhile, yet another suburb’s PD conducted a diver training exercise. They began at a beach but weather conditions were so ideal that they moved to the Rocky River, where what looked like a human hand startled one of the divers. It turned out to be a rubber glove containing a .38 caliber revolver. Zebra mussels, the scourge of the Great Lakes, had not yet attached themselves to its surface. They sent out a “gun found” teletype, which neither MHPD nor the Rangers received, but the head diver had read about the Ranger’s search for a gun in the paper; he told a Cleveland homicide cop who happened to be a friend of the ranger. Almost simultaneously both men called the ranger. The dive team then found more bullets, and Ohio BCI recovered the scraped-off serial number. It led to a gun store and a receipt made out to Terri Sramek.
Huron, incidentally, sits on Lake Erie about fifty miles to the west of the rivers of Rocky River. Even her confession came out half lies.
Terri skated on the embezzlement charges, cut her losses and pled, getting fifteen years to life.
She is still in jail.
When we invent villains for our books, we usually make them ingeniously clever, meticulous planners. They cross every t, dot every i, are voraciously ruthless. But the scariest killers are the real ones, the ones who aren’t criminal masterminds but making it up as they go along, the ones who have jobs and children and do dishes. The ones who seem as ordinary as white bread and yet feel entitled to take what isn’t theirs—including someone else’s life.
They’re the really scary ones.
Lisa Black’s latest thriller is CLOSE TO THE BONE, a story that hits forensic scientist Theresa MacLean where it hurts, bringing death and destruction to the one place where she should feel the most safe—the medical examiner’s office in Cleveland, Ohio, where she has worked for the past fifteen years of her life. Theresa returns in the wee hours after working a routine crime scene, only to find the body of one of her deskmen slowly cooling with the word “Confess” written in his blood. His partner is missing and presumed guilty, but Theresa isn’t so sure. The body count begins to rise but for once these victims aren’t strangers—they are Theresa’s friends and colleagues, and everyone in the building, herself included, has a place on the hit list. Visit http://www.lisa-black.com/