Saturday, November 29, 2008
The Mayan calendar ends in 2012, or so I’ve been told. I have been thinking about the future a lot and I have a few thoughts I’m almost sort of fairly sure of. Firstly human life on earth will probably survive 2012––the actual year and possibly even the movie of the same name. If the world does end in 2012, I’ve gotten one hell of a deal on my mortgage as I will have only paid five of the thirty years worth of payments they are expecting me to make. If the world does end, it’ll be a shock to a lot of people, but not for long. Most of us will be in denial way after we find the world dead, and denial is one of my favorite states of being.
Lately I’ve been thinking that maybe I would have been better served to have become a sheet metal bender, or a very sexy model and sometimes prostitute, or a super hero with some really neat power like mentally cashing checks across state lines. Being a writer is just so hard. Truth is, this week I’ve got nothing at all to write about. I mean my son did strike out to go back to school after the holiday and his car broke down and I had to drive a million miles and deal with his car and bring him back until I can get his car fixed on Monday, and I'm thinking being a parent never stops being hard, expensive and tiring. And what with Thanksgiving and Black Friday with a Walmart worker being crushed in the melee and the end of the world coming up in five years I think I’ll slide this week and stop this before this gets really ugly.
Plus I'm making venison sausage this weekend.
Friday, November 28, 2008
It’s tradition in the Gilstrap house that Christmas decorations go up on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and come down on New Years Day. In the past 25 years, there have been no exceptions. And when I say decorations, I mean decorations. In my book, you can’t have enough lights or greenery or Santas or Nativity scenes. It’s never about impressing the neighbors, either; it’s about celebrating the season.
This is a time of year when I can get a little weepy—but in a good way. It’s a season of kindness and good deeds. As the decorations go up in DC, moods lighten palpably. People say hello and hold doors for others. More people wave with all their fingers instead of just one. For me, it’s the time of year when the impossible seems more plausible, where quiet moments bring more pleasure than usual.
I love the fact that the Christmas season celebrates ritual. The box in which we keep the treetop ornament of my youth is lined on the bottom with the New Years Day Atlantic City Press from 1964, the year my family moved into the first house I can remember as a child, and on the top with the New Years Day Washington Post from 1985, the first holiday my wife and I celebrated as spouses. The mantle ornament is one that my mother bought for us before she died. The tree ornaments include decorations made in childhood by my wife, my son and me. I still hang a stocking that was handmade by my grandmother, and still holds the silver dollars that Uncle Henny gave me when I was four or five years old.
Tree ornaments commemorate every trip our family has ever taken together, as well as other significant moments along the way. We all agree that some of the older ornaments are certifiably ugly, but they get places of honor as well.
Over the next four or five weeks, my son and I will watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, Home Alone, The Santa Clause and The Polar Express, because we love the movies, and because they each, in their own way, capture the essential heart of the season. It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story were dropped from the list a few years ago, but who knows? Maybe they’ll make a return.
As I write all of this down, it occurs to me that it all seems a bit regimented, and maybe it is, but I’ve always been a big believer in traditions, because within traditions there lies evidence of a family’s love for one another. If, one day, my son’s traditions include well-told stories about how over-the-top in love his old man was with all things Christmas, that can’t possibly be a bad thing.
I understand that the season brings dark feelings to some people, and I know that many of my artistic brethren look with cynicism on the commercialization of the Christmas season. To both groups I extend heartfelt condolences. Cynicism is only as deep as your next kind word, and as fragile as a charitable act for a stranger.
Truly, God bless us every one.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Of course, there's the usual: my health, my family and friends, the fact that I didn't have to board a plane today and brave the madding crowd. I'll be enjoying my turkey right here in (relatively) warm and sunny California, thank you very much.
But this year, I do have a little something extra to be thankful for: my new two book contract. Because as many of my writing friends have recently discovered, this is a tough, tough environment for book sales. I share writing space with nine other authors. Two of them had contracts fall through in the past few months. Two others have manuscripts that their agents think would have gone into a bidding war earlier in the year: but as of right now, they haven't had a single offer.
With the news that Houghton Mifflin has stopped acquiring manuscripts for the time being, many writers' worst fears are confirmed. Forget the automakers: how are writers going to survive the economic downturn? Is it time for us to hand in our private jets, God forbid? If my contract had been negotiated after the crash, I suspect my publisher would never have offered the amount we settled on. In this industry, so much comes down to timing.
Of course, it's not as though much happens between Thanksgiving and New Year's in the publishing industry anyway. Much as they are loathe to admit it, it's the only American profession that seems to mirror the European vacation calendar. Most agents won't even bother trying to shop a manuscript this time of year. And August: fuggedaboutit. The Da Vinci Code could land in an editor's lap and they'd toss it aside while rushing off to catch the jitney to the Hamptons. Mind you, I'm all for that. Especially since most editors spend their days in meetings and their nights and weekend working on manuscripts. It's definitely not a job you go into for the money, by and large. So time off is well-deserved.
But since the lack of acquisitions at this time of year is largely a given, why did Houghton Mifflin even bother making the announcement? Their "temporary freeze" is a bad sign. Will it last through January, or longer? Will it spread to other houses? Does this mean that the publishing industry is throwing in the proverbial towel, and will eventually only publish a handful of titles every year about vampire detectives with difficult (but beloved) dogs who reveal religious conspiracies while recording their downward spiral into drug addiction followed by their inevitable redemption? Or, God forbid, Paris Hilton's latest musings on hair, boys, and other national security issues? Because let's all just admit that Paris Hilton can walk into pretty much any publishing house and get a seven figure deal before you can say "Salman Rushdie."
The irony here is that all things considered, books are cheap entertainment. And historically, entertainment has done well during economic downturns, when people need to take their minds off their troubles. Little known fact: more books sold during the Great Depression than in the period immediately before and after. Sure, in the new millennium we have many other distractions available to us, from television to video games to bulldogs on skateboards. But what if the publishing industry banded together and advertised reading as the ultimate inexpensive pastime? Something along the lines of the dairy industry's "Got Milk" ad campaign? Who knows, it might make a difference. And hoping to shore up the industry by releasing fewer and fewer titles doesn't seem like the best option.
Anyway, that's my thought for the day. And I'm hoping that by the spring of 2010, when my renewal comes up, the economy will have recovered somewhat. Until then, I'm honing my vampire knowledge base.
As promised, my killer (no pun intended) Pumpkin/Ginger Cheesecake recipe, in case you're in charge of dessert:
- 1 gingersnap crumb crust baked and cooled
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup chopped crystallized ginger
- 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
- 2 large eggs
- 1/4 cup whole milk
- 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup canned solid-pack pumpkin (from a 15-ounces can)
Make the gingersnap crumb crust:
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus additional for greasing
- 1 1/2 cups cookie crumbs (10 graham crackers or 24 small gingersnaps; about 6 oz)
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- Special equipment: a 9- to 9 1/2-inch pie plate (4-cup capacity)
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly butter pie plate.
Stir together all ingredients in a bowl and press evenly on bottom and up side of pie plate. Bake until crisp, 12 to 15 minutes, then cool on a rack to room temperature, about 45 minutes.
Cook's notes: • To make cookie crumbs, break up crackers or cookies into small pieces, then pulse in a food processor until finely ground. • For pumpkin ginger cheesecake pie, use 4 (not 5) tablespoons melted butter plus additional for greasing.
Then, for the cheesecake part:
Keep oven rack in middle position set at 350°F.
Pulse sugar and ginger in a food processor until ginger is finely chopped, then add cream cheese and pulse until smooth. Add eggs, milk, flour, nutmeg, and salt and pulse until just combined.
Reserve 2/3 cup cream cheese mixture in a glass measure. Whisk together remaining 1 1/3 cups cream cheese mixture and pumpkin in a large bowl until combined.
Pour pumpkin mixture into gingersnap crumb crust. Stir reserved cream cheese mixture (in glass measure) and drizzle decoratively over top of pumpkin mixture, then, if desired, swirl with back of a spoon. Put pie on a baking sheet and bake until center is just set, 35 to 45 minutes. Transfer to a rack and cool to room temperature, about 2 hours, then chill, loosely covered with foil, at least 4 hours. If necessary, very gently blot any moisture from surface with paper towels before serving.
They'll love it, trust me.
By Joe Moore
I love being a writer, I just don't always like writing. I find first draft writing to be painful. So much so, that I don’t know how I’ve managed to finish a single book, much less four novels. Some writers love the process and have an easy time at it. But many of my fellow author friends are like me—we fight for every word. It seems to be the nature of the beast for many of us. But what I do love is the process of rewriting. There, the pain is replaced with pleasure and fun as more and more meat is added to the bones.
One of the methods I have to cope with first draft writing is to use the advice I received from one of my beloved mentors who said, “A bad plan is better than no plan.” To equate that to writing, I believe you must have some plan of action before you can start. There are many writers who claim they can sit down and start writing from the first word, and complete their book in a stream of consciousness. I can’t do it. It rarely comes out freely like water from a hose. So I always create a plan of action. I hate to use the dreaded "O" word: outline. But that's what it is. Some writers complain that outlining inhibits their creative muse. For me, it's no different than taking a trip and using a roadmap. You might take a side trip now and then but the destination is always predetermined. I just keep it simple, basic, easy to understand—enough to have a general idea where I'm going at any given time. That way I always know what I'm working towards.
Someone once said that first draft writing is a lot like looking out over a fog-shrouded sea with only the tips of mountainous islands pocking up. With a plan of action, I know enough about the islands to realize that I must navigate to each one. What I don’t know is what will happen in the fog. My plan helps me get through it.
Do you outline? If so, how basic or extensive is it? Or do you just wing it?
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Digital book sales, aka e-books, continue to soar.
According to the AP and other news reports, Random House has announced that they are digitizing thousands of additional books. Excerpts will be available online.
This move comes in the wake of the explosive growth of Amazon.com's Kindle reader, which Oprah put on the map. I haven't tried the Kindle yet, but if I'm lucky, maybe I'll wind up on Santa's list for it this year.
In general, it sounds like the heads of the book publishing industry must read the pixels on the wall and embrace ebooks, or risk becoming that industry's next version of Detroit's Big Three.
Of course, buried in the recent news reports about rise of e-books was the caveat that digital book sales represent only a thin slice of publishing's pumpkin pie--estimated to be about one percent. But I'm old enough to remember when Japanese car makers had only a small piece of the American automobile market. Today, they're cleaning our clock.
I do love the idea of being able to sample book excerpts and audio books online. That's a powerful "sales lead-in" that's going to encourage hard-core hardback book readers like me to jump aboard the e-book wagon.
I think it's time for all of us to stop mourning the nongrowth of paper book sales, and celebrate the new digital age. It's the future. Let's embrace it. For example, last week when I posted, I was freaking out about the changes in the industry. This week, I have decided to reframe my thoughts about the book publishing crisis, and seek out the hidden opportunities in those changes.
Because ready or not, the digital era is here.
So what about you? Are e-books in your library yet? Have you asked Santa for a Kindle?
Update: Speaking of changes in the industry--in the comments, Joe alerted us to the fact that Houghton Mifflin has told its editors to stop acquiring manuscripts. Here's a link to the article.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Believe it or not, a number of Americans have asked me how we celebrate Thanksgiving in Australia...before I remind them (with a cough) that Australian don't celebrate Thanksgiving - it's (another cough) an American ritual...and believe it or not they often seem genuinely shocked.
I am an unapologetic adopter of celebrations - I figure when in Rome...So my family are the ones cheerfully flying the American flag and organizing the Fourth of July street party. We take our boys trick or treating (something that growing up in Australia we never did) and at Thanksgiving we oblige by going through the whole nightmare of traveling, visiting and cooking - all in honor of our adopted home. I like celebrating. I like eating and drinking (I am, after all, an Australian!) and we get to enjoy the best of both worlds.
Nothing in my research however is as funny as seeing American reactions to one very famous public holiday in Melbourne - one celebration that reveals the quirks of Australia that Americans would probably find hard to believe. That day is Melbourne Cup Day - the first Tuesday in November. It's my all time favorite holiday mainly because my birthday quite often coincides (as it did this year) and who would ever complain about having a public holiday on their birthday?! So there you have it - in Australia we give everyone the day off in celebration of a horse race.
As immigrants we get to enjoy bringing the rituals from our home and taking on the rituals and celebrations of our adopted home, America. This Thanksgiving week I like to think it gives me the opportunity to reflect on how fortunate we are to be able to do this - to freely celebrate or not as we wish and to enjoy the welcome we have received here. America has been very good to me - it gave me the opportunity to fulfil my dream of being a published writer. I have been able to achieve things here that frankly I doubt I could have achieved in Australia. For that I am extremely thankful - but believe me when I say, I will never, ever be able to stomach pumpkin pie, no matter how many Thanksgivings I attend...
Some food for thought...what rituals and celebrations have you adopted and what have you brought with you from your other home (if you have one)? And in the spirit of Thanksgiving what are you thankful for?
Saturday, November 22, 2008
The Kill Zone is thrilled to welcome author Scott Pratt for a discussion of outlandish cases and how they can influence your work. Publisher's Weekly called AN INNOCENT CLIENT a "brilliantly executed debut," and awarded it a starred review. I can attest that it's a remarkable book, not to be missed.
People often ask me what it was like practicing criminal defense law, representing guilty people, being close to murderers and rapists and various other scumbags. They want to hear the stories. I write about those stories now in my novels, but there’s one that’ll never make it into a novel. A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine who worked for the public defender’s office found himself representing a dog rapist…
These are the facts:
Truck driver and wife fall out of love. Wife leaves home and files for divorce. Truck driver is miserable, drinks too much, and becomes lonely. Wife has moved into an apartment that doesn’t allow pets, forcing her to leave her beloved Irish setter with the truck driver. The only way she can see the dog is to visit her former home. She usually goes by right after work – around 5:00 p.m. – and lets herself in with her key. This particular day, however, she is forced to work late and then runs a couple of errands. Believing her soon-to-be-ex-husband is out of town, she stops by to say hello to the setter. When she walks in through the kitchen and enters the living room, however, she is greeted by a horrifying scene – hubby is on his knees on the floor in the corner, trying to insert his penis into the dog. Wife calls the cops.
Under the Tennessee animal cruelty statute, a person could be found guilty for committing a litany of offenses against animals: starving them, neglecting them, beating them, etc. But screwing them was not one of the elements listed in the statute. This important bit of information was passed along by my buddy to hubby, who was relieved to know that he couldn’t be convicted under the animal cruelty statute. What’s more, Tennessee does not have a statute on the books that makes having sex with an animal a criminal offense – called a “bestiality” statute in many states. Subsequently, hubby took a hard line and refused to plead guilty to any offense. He didn’t want to pay any fine, he didn’t want to pay any court costs, and he didn’t want to do any time in jail or be placed on probation. He even asked my friend about suing the police to recover the money he had to pay out for bail. When my friend relayed this information to the district attorney prosecuting the case, the D.A. said, “Fine. I guess we’ll have us a little trial in a couple of hours.” In the meantime, the prosecutor got on the phone and called the local media and asked them to come down to the courthouse. He filled them in briefly on the details, and being the dedicated journalists they are, they came running. The prosecutor also asked the wife to go get the dog and bring it to the courthouse.
After the lunch break, hubby walked in and saw the dog sitting with the wife in the hallway outside the courtroom. He also saw the television cameras and the reporters. He asked my friend what was going on, and was told that someone had apparently called the media to cover the trial.
“What the hell’s the dog doing here?” the hubby said.
“She’s here to testify that the sex was Ruff!” my buddy said.
Okay, that last line is a lie. But the rest of it’s true. Once he was confronted with the possibility of testimony being presented in a public trial, hubby pleaded guilty to animal cruelty, paid a fifty-dollar fine and served fifteen days in jail. His explanation to my buddy for his conduct? “I was drunk. Besides, I wouldn’t have hurt her none. Me and her has always been close.”
Hubby moved away less than a month later. Nobody’s heard from him since.
The stories that do make it into my novels are all based – sometimes loosely, sometimes not - on things I’ve done or seen, things I’ve been close to in the profession of criminal defense. It’s a fascinating world, full of zany characters, but it’s also a world that can be dangerous. The murderers aren’t always handcuffed, the guards aren’t always close enough, everyone you meet seems to be playing some angle, and there are guns and steel bars at every turn. I felt like I was suffering from battle fatigue when I finally got out, but I’m glad now that I stayed as long as I did. I have enough material to write at least ten more novels.
You might be saying to yourself, “Good for you, but I’ve never been a lawyer. Where am I going to get that kind of material?”
All you have to do is look around. Conflict is everywhere, and the world we live in is filled with danger. Mix in a little talent and a little imagination, and it’ll appear from the murk. The nugget we’re all panning for… drama.
I am writing this on Tuesday because when it runs Saturday I’ll be deer hunting in dear old Mother Mississippi, and by 7 AM EST I very likely will have knocked down at least one deer. I hunt in November and December with the same boys, now older men like myself, whom I’ve been hunting with for forty-two years. My family eats venison all year long. I love it, my wife loves it, my sons love it, and their children love it. Yum, yum. I have never killed a deer I didn’t eat and I guess I’ve killed two or three every year I’ve hunted. Venison makes the best chili meat, the best crock-pot roast, the best tenderloin medallions, the best ground hamburger. Aside from the possibility that they eat grass tainted with pesticides or fertilizers, they are grass fed, acorn tempted and pure. Game won’t add weight to you either. Game and fresh vegetables is the best diet there is if you ask me. Nobody in my family is fat, nor are any particularly wormy-looking.
I sometimes hunt wild hogs in Tennessee and although wild pork smells dreadful when you cook it (we do that outside on the grill) it makes the best spaghetti sauce I’ve ever tasted. I also love boar chops, wild pork tenderloin, and Bar-B-Q. Store-bought meat has nothing on game. Game is 100% natural with no harmful fat, antibiotics, steroids, or other drugs in their systems. It keeps better than store bought. My wife cans it or freezes it. It is apparent that God put game on the earth to feed man correctly, and every time I take a game animal I thank Him for supplying the food. I almost forgot. Another good thing is, because I write about deer hunting in some of my novels, I get to call it research.
We just harvested a whole bunch of meat chickens we raised from chicks, and after 8 weeks their dressed weight ranged from 4.5 to 6.8 lbs. We fed them organic feed that comes from a local feed mill where they grind everything themselves from quality ingredients.
Our laying hens eat only organic feed, free-range for bugs and plants two hours a day, and our eggs are at least twice as tasty as store bought. I have fourteen, but want fifty or more so I’m building new quarters for them. Those I will not kill. When they stop laying, I have a friend with a large farm and he will let them pasture there as long as they live.
I do not think it’s the end of the world yet, and I’m pulling for President Elect Obama, but even if the country doesn’t collapse with half the country out on the street, food riots and infected zombies roaming the countryside, I’m serious about surviving as close to the bone as I can during the next few uncertain months and years and part of that is feeding my family as best I can. The farming community around here sort of roll their eyes at us, and probably think we’re being secretly filmed as part of some kind of reality show, but that’s okay. We are trying, and having one heck of a good time.
I know some people are opposed to killing animals, and frankly I don’t enjoy that part of hunting or harvesting, but there’s no other practical way to separate animals from their meat.
Hunting and raising animals gives me a chance to enjoy nature and think about my life and what I want to write, and sometimes even if I intend to keep doing it at all. Not that I don’t love writing, because I do and it has been good to me over the years. I just keep thinking that I should start some kind of a family business that involves my sons and grandkids. Maybe we can manufacture some sort of widget nobody can figure out how to live without owning. I do know that it should be some sort of business that won’t fail miserably, but I just don’t know what that could be yet. Feel free to give me some sure-fire ideas.
Friday, November 21, 2008
Manuscript written: check. New title determined: check. D&A payment processed: check. Let’s see . . . What’s next?
Ah, yes. Time to collect blurbs. Of all the rituals of the publishing business, this is the one I hate most. I contact friends of mine who also happen to write books and I ask them to read my manuscript and say nice things so that my book may better compete with theirs on bookstore shelves.
It’s amazing, when you think about it. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a Crest toothpaste ad with an endorsement from Colgate. But the community of writers is small enough and collegial enough that the blurb is rarely denied; and when it is, it’s usually because of encroaching deadlines and such. That collegiality is one of the things I love most about being an author. It’s like being a part of a giant, supremely talented support group.
As much as I get uncomfortable asking for blurbs, I love to give them. Mine is not a big enough name to get much of that, but when the request comes, I rarely say no, so long as the book is under contract with a legitimate publisher.
That’s not to say that every manuscript I’m sent gets a blurb. I do have standards, and I’ll never lie on the page. Sometimes, I don’t care for the story or the writing, in which case I will likely just “never get around” to the book. I’m certainly not going to give a negative blurb. What would be the point?
And that brings me to the nerve-wracking part of the blurbing process. A few readers at a time, the population of people who have read No Mercy will grow, which means if my assessment of my own writing is flawed, the delusion will soon end, and the news will be delivered by people I respect more than any others.
Because I love my book, though, I’d be shocked to find that others might not. So there’s no rational reason to expect anything but positive blurbs. Then, when they arrive, I’ll wonder whether they really liked the book, or if are they just doing a colleague a favor. This really can be an insecure business.
So, Killzone colleagues, what are your thoughts on blurbs? Do you seek them yourselves, or do you let your publisher take care of that for you? Have you ever given a positive blurb that you didn't really mean? Any that you've regretted giving in the firstplace?
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Which got me thinking: what an enormous wasted opportunity. Now I'm far from a publishing expert. Despite years working as a freelance writer, book publishing is still relatively new and shiny to me. And perhaps because of that I can see when they're dropping the ball.
After all, not to begrudge Stephen King these promotional efforts, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say his sales are probably consistently healthy. When Stephen King has a new book coming out, his die-hard fans will know about it months in advance. And it's not like that's a small following. In addition to the commercials, there were probably full page ads in major book review sections and magazines, special mailings to bookstores, co-op placement...which is all well and good. But since a major complaint in the industry is that there are fewer and fewer of these blockbuster authors to rely on these days, why not seize the opportunity to create more?
For example, what if part of the commercial was devoted to a relatively unknown author whose work is similar to King's? Showcase both titles, so that once the fans have torn through King's latest offering, when they're still hungry for more, another book leaps into their mind. Perhaps even set up some sort of promotional marketing, a reduced price for the purchase of both titles. You let King's fans know about his latest release, and hopefully you introduce them to someone new. Why not take advantage of a built-in readership and expand on it?
Sounds pretty basic, right? Especially since when a J.K. Rowling decides to hang up her hat, or Dan Brown takes years to produce his next runaway bestseller, publishers start reeling as their sales plummet. Compare it to a sports team: put all the money in your stars and lose depth. If Peyton Manning gets knocked out of the lineup, you're in deep trouble. But build a solid stable of players behind those stars, you've still got a chance of making the playoffs, or generating solid sales.
(On a side note, I actually have a tremendous amount of sympathy for Dan Brown. Go ahead and laugh, but can you imagine the pressure that poor man is under, having to write a follow-up to Da Vinci Code, knowing that the critics are waiting with knives that grow sharper by the year? I picture him locked away in a room somewhere a la Howard Hughes, naked and filthy and pacing. But maybe that's just me).
Anyway, that's my two cents. Build a team for the future, with a wide, solid base, not one that perches precariously on a few backs. But I'd love to hear what you think...
by Joe Moore
One of the most frequently asked questions Lynn Sholes and I get is “How is it possible for two people to write fiction together?” The answer is, it ain’t easy. At least it wasn’t at first. Collaboration on non-fiction is somewhat easier to understand. In general, with non-fiction, the “facts” usually already exist and the collaborators’ job is to organize them into a readable document that has a beginning, middle and end. A good outline and knowledge of the subject matter along with professional writing skills may be all the authors need.
But with fiction, nothing exists. It’s all smoke and mirrors (a great title of a great thriller by my fellow KillZone blogger, John Ramsey Miller, by the way). Fiction is a product of an individual’s imagination. It might be inspired by actual facts or events, but only the individual has a specific vision of those events in their head. So how can two people have a similar enough vision to be able to write a novel?
I can’t speak for the handful of other writing teams out there, but Lynn and I have managed to complete 4 thrillers together because of a number of reasons. First, we love the same kind of books—the ones we read are like the ones we write. Second, we have an unquestioning respect for each other’s writing skills and a deep belief that whatever one of us writes, the other can improve. Third, we believe that there’s always a better way to write something. Fourth, we never let our egos get in the way of a good story. This comes from spending over 10 years in a weekly writers critique group. Fifth, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and are willing to admit them. Sixth, we agree on the same message in each book. Seventh, we believe that we are on the same level of expertise. And last, we believe that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Those points cover the mental portion. Now, how do we handle the mechanics of the job. We talk, and talk, and talk. At least once a day we conference call, brainstorming and telling and retelling each other the story. Our two favorite words are: What if? Whether it’s global plot points or an individual scene or character motivation, we keep telling each other the story until that little imaginary movie in our minds becomes as in sync as possible. Then one of us will declare they have a “handle” on the scene or character or chapter, and create the first draft.
We write very slowly because each chapter must go back and forth many times for revision. Years ago, when we first started, everyone could tell who wrote what as we tried to write our first book. It took three years of hard work before we melted our voices together. Now, because the process goes through so many revisions, even I can’t always remember what I wrote and what she wrote. I rely on my co-writer so much that I’ve come to wonder how individuals can possibly write a book on their own.
There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to collaborating. A disadvantage is that you split any money you make. So you'll always make half of what you could as a single author. And like any relationship, there is always a chance of a falling out. And something could happen where an ego can become inflated and affect the process.
One of the pluses is that we never experience writer’s block. One of us will always have an idea on how to get out of a jam or move the story forward. And unlike our family, friends, trusted beta readers, and everyone else, a co-writer has an intimate, vested interest in the success of the story that no one else could have.
Lynn and I are approaching the mid-point of our fifth thriller together. I’ve found that creating the first draft of a chapter is just as exciting as getting a new chapter from her and seeing where the story has gone. I guess the whole thing boils down to trust. Trust in each other and in the goals we both want to achieve with the story and with our careers.
So, now that you know how we write together, do you think you could ever collaborate on a novel? Or is writing fiction too private an experience. Do you believe two heads are better than one or would you rather not have anyone sticking their nose in your work?
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
The Kill Zone is thrilled to have author Lisa Cotoggio join us today for a post on podcasting, with an eye both on the past and the future...read on to discover more.
by Lisa Cotoggio
Recently I moderated a panel for the Mystery Writers of America’s New York Chapter Dinner, the topic, “Solving the Promotional Mystery”.
Now, while I thought I had assembled an interesting group of publicists, marketers and authors, who I must say gave an excellent overview of all authors can do to extend the sales and shelf-life of their books; the audience seemed to focus all their questions on one single point: Podcasts. Which, by the way, can be attributed to Jonathan Santlofer’s keen insight on the subject.
As an author, it made me ponder the thought: Are we as authors missing out on a generation of readers whose maturity has impaired their eyesight? Though the answer to that question is quite obvious we now through the magical technology of Podcast have the ability to change it in our favor. And why shouldn’t we?
Looking back to the early days of my childhood my father used to tell me of the nights he spent with his family gathered around the radio listening intently to every word of The Shadow, The Lone Ranger; and of course, The War of the Worlds, made infamous by the actual belief of an alien attack.
And while I belong to the tail end of the “Babyboomer Generation”, the opening lines to those three shows still haunt the dark corners of my mind merely through memories of conversations with my father, born during the era known as the “Silent Generation”:
Who knows…what evil…lllllurks…in the heart of men? The Shadow knows!
A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty 'Hi-yo, Silver, away!' The Lone Ranger!
We interrupt this program to bring…
Riveting. Wouldn’t you agree? Of course you would, which brings us back to our topic: Podcasting. A series of audio or video digital-media files which are distributed over the Internet by syndicated download through Web feeds to portable media players and personal computers. The radio of the future.
Wouldn’t we all like to have that kind of gripping attention by a beloved audience of readers? Yes. And they on the same hand would love to have us read to them. The thought of being able to relive a fascinating part of one’s childhood is a cherished moment, especially late in one’s life.
Monday, November 17, 2008
By Clare Langley-Hawthorne
Having spent most of the weekend with a sick toddler with stomach flu (thankfully it afflicted only one of the twins – so far at least!) I was reminded once again of how motherhood has changed me. I absolutely hate any kind of stomach ailment but as I comforted my distressed son I found myself wishing that it was me, not him, who was going through it all. As a mum all I want is to take away my children’s pain. I feel a ferocious sense of protectiveness that has never extended to anyone else. I certainly empathize when my husband is sick, but do I wish it was me instead? Not on your life. When it comes to children though – there is no limit to what I would do.
I haven’t ever explored this in my writing but as a reader I have found a renewed appreciation for books such as Sophie’s Choice. When I first read this I was horrified and saddened but I had no real point of reference. The decision, unimaginably awful as it was, remained an abstraction. Now I’m not sure I could re-read the book, I would feel so such a visceral reaction to the decision that Shopie had to make. How could a mother decide which of her children would be saved?
The power of fiction for me is how character’s decisions – their guilt and torment – resonate with readers. I have found that since becoming a mum there are certain things that resonate now that never fully resonated before. It may sound obvious but I think this fact alone has made me realize how as a reader my experiences have changed the reading experience as well as the craft of writing. I don’t think now I could face writing about crimes against children – for the horror of such things now affects me in a way it never did before. I could, however, imagine a parent (and I'm not just limiting myself here to women) doing almost unimaginable things to protect their children. The question for me is not what would a parent resort to in such-and-such a circumstance but what would they not do.
If a visceral response to a character's choice and actions is so dependent on a reader's own life experiences, I wonder how, as a writer my work will change and grow. Will there ever come a time when I can dispassionately write about things that, as a mother, I now find impossible to even contemplate? I certainly would have no problem writing about a mother who would totally kick-ass to protect her children. Sarah Connor would have nothing on what I could imagine doing.
What books have resonated with you based on your own experiences? What issues provoke such a visceral response that you too feel like you would take up the Sarah Connor mantle?
Saturday, November 15, 2008
The Sophomore Principle
By John Ramsey Miller
When I speak to book clubs, writing students in high schools and colleges, I often tell them the story of my pre-career and payment of dues, but not my fall from grace and resurrection.
I wrote four books in my low-rent apartment bedroom on a computer set on a door supported by sawhorses. I spent five years writing my fiction full time while my wife worked at a bank. Our family car was a 1981 Camaro with 200,000 miles on it. To accommodate our youngest of three I made a jump seat of foam to go over the center hump in the back and I installed a seat belt for him since the car was designed for four people, not five. Most people who knew us during those years thought I was a parasitic deadbeat until I sold my first novel. My wife believed in me and she insisted that I give writing everything I had for a few years, and that I would know when it was time to move on. She never doubted that I would succeed, and that trust in my ability was my fuel and my inspiration.
After the first attempt at a novel, I acquired an agent who schlepped my first four around to the major and minor houses. I accumulated over 100 rejection slips before I sold The Last Family to Beverly Lewis at Bantam. She had my first three, rejected them all, but she saw something in them she liked, and she called and told me that if I would rewrite the draft taking into consideration her concerns, that she would like to see it again. I did and she made an offer on THE LAST FAMILY.
THE LAST FAMILY was something of a hit. It sold 40,000 copies in Hardcover, did amazingly well in paper back, was a Literary Guild Main Selection, was translated into a dozen languages, was optioned for a film, and gathered a stack of glowing reviews. The publisher offered a money-back-if-not-satisfied guarantee on the HC and they ran full-page ads in USA Today. I went on a 13-city tour at the request of Books A Million. I was wined and dined by the publisher and was offered a three book, seven-figure contract. After years of working hard, I thought I’d been escorted to the front of the line, and I was going to be right up there with my literary heroes.
I was no longer a deadbeat. Our friends said they’d always known I was a talent and that I’d eventually sell a book. I was an honest-to-God-fiction author with a big contract. I bought a four-bedroom house, wrote checks for a minivan and a Honda Accord, and the Millers moved to a wonderful and small southern town with good schools for my sons and nice neighbors. I had a large comfortable office in the new house, but I was so swept up in being a successful author, that I failed to concentrate on my writing. I had a deadline for my second book, and I made the date easily with a nice thick manuscript entitled THE DOWN DOGS. The trouble was, my editor didn’t think it was up to snuff (or more likely up to my pay grade), and to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t a worthy follow-up. I tried and tried to get it right. It was a book with decent enough characters, but structurally it had weak bones and I couldn’t make it work because I couldn’t see that I just wasn’t thinking hard enough and writing before I had thought things through. It was so frustrating that my editor suggested we scrap it and start from scratch with a new book. The publisher flew me to New York so I could pitch a new book idea, which was not bad at all, and so I went back to work. My contract was in jeopardy and I knew it. Now I was working in panic mode, and fear is a killer of creativity. I sent in a first draft and the publisher decided to pull the plug and I was released from my contract. Luckily I had earned out the advance, so there was no financial ugliness. Nobody was happy about it, and my editor and I kept in touch and she never stopped pulling for me, and I’ll never forget her continuing encouragement and the fact that she was always willing to talk to me about what I was working on.
After a few years spent actually writing every day and thinking about my work and being supported emotionally by friends like John Gilstrap, I got a new agent and went back in search of a publisher. As fate would have it, a highly respected editor at my old house read INSIDE OUT and wanted to buy it. Due to the publisher’s less-than-positive experience with me, she fought an uphill battle, but after a rewrite and an outline for a follow up novel, I signed another three-book contract. After those books were completed, I signed another. I have just delivered the last book under that last contract and I’m not sure I’ll be offered another one. My publisher loves the books, they even like me, but it’s the bean count that matters in the end. If I write this next book without a commitment from a publisher, so it goes. I’ll survive, and write without knowing if it will sell.
Being under contract actually only means the publisher has first refusal on the books in that contract, so I never know from one book to the next if I’ll be able to interest the publisher in the book I’ve just written. It’s been psychologically preferable to selling one book at a time, and usually the publisher does publish the books under the contract. It also allows an author to work with the same people book after book. Some think a publisher's level of interest lags with familiarity––especially if the author doesn't break out as soon as they would like. So I guess the question is whether changing publishers and sales teams a good thing or a bad thing?
Friday, November 14, 2008
Sorry to hog the day with a second post, but I wanted you to know that the novel formerly known as Grave Secrets will be published in June, 2009 with the title . . .
(And the title actually even works for the story line!)
Thanks, everyone for your many suggestions and good thoughts.
I’m not making this up:
About seven or eight years ago, a former business colleague of mine called to tell me that his twenty-something son wanted to write a novel, and to ask if I would be willing to show him the ropes. I said yes, of course, and we all gathered at a Northern Virginia restaurant for dinner.
His son—we’ll call him Mark because I can’t remember his name—sat quietly through most of the meal while his father, Lloyd, explained this lavish plan he had put together to make his son a fortune by writing a hit book. Writing is a business, Lloyd explained, and since Mark wants to write full time, Lloyd pulled some strings to assemble a board of directors to fund the start-up costs (folding money for Mark) and to provide quality control for the product (the book). Mark would submit each new chapter to the board for approval, and then together they would determine the plot points that would generate the most revenue, based on market analyses of what sold well. With proper business oversight, they would have a product that they could all be proud of.
As this presentation ground on, complete with market charts, I watch Mark sink further and further into his chair. When Lloyd was done, he got to the reason I was there: to give some tips on what plot points sell the best. I was also offered a seat on the board, but I refused. Instead, I told him that if torturing his son was really the point of this exercise, then pulling out his toenails with pliers would be more merciful. Toenails grow back with time; that kind of assault to self-esteem lasts forever.
The meeting ended shortly after that. We didn’t even have dessert.
I think about that meeting often, especially when I talk to my writing colleagues who are losing their publishing contracts and editors who are losing their jobs because the suits at the top of the corporate chart decided that we need more of X, and that Y just doesn’t sell the way it used to.
I believe that if the publishing industry as we know it dies (and I don’t think it will, even though I think painful times lie ahead), it will be at its own hand; under the weight of the business model it has chosen. Gone are the days when art producing businesses were run mainly by lovers of the art form. Now those art businesses are run as profit centers of behemoth companies. It’s not enough to turn a profit at the end of the year; you have to hit target goals.
Hey, I’m a free market guy, a great believer in capitalism, so at face value, the model makes sense. After all, a publicly-owned company has responsibilities to its stockholders. I’m all over that. If cinnamon toothpaste doesn’t sell, it makes no sense to keep the cinnamon toothpaste division in business. You gotta go for mint toothpaste. People like mint toothpaste. You build your market share by differentiating your product in other ways, but you start by acknowledging that everybody’s doing mint.
Thing is, art is not toothpaste, and it defies market analysis. Sure, we can declare Painter X to be the best gol-durned artist on the planet and talk people into buying his mass-produced canvases at ridiculous prices, and in the process we can have success. With enough success, we can push the independent art gallery on the corner out of business and flood the market not just with Painter X’s work, but with knock-offs of his work.
But what about people who want something else—people who dare to like what others don’t? They might try a Painter X just so they can talk about it with their friends, but they’re not going to buy another one. In fact, maybe they’re going to move away from galleries altogether and just paint murals on their walls. A few years down the line, people will wonder why the art market is shrinking.
The big publishers today anoint “lead titles” on which all the “co-op” money is spent to “package” the book in a way that will give it the best “placement” in the store. The idea is to hit a home run every time. If the ball falls inside the park instead of blasting over the wall, then it will of course be the author’s fault, and we all know how many more of those are out there to take his place.
To hedge the bet, the B-school graduates at the top look at what people have bought in the past, and they push writers to create more stuff just like that. That’s what they buy, and that’s what they push. There’s very little future for a writer these days who merely earns out his advance. It’s The List or nothing, baby.
And then we wonder why the public prefers the fresh, unlimited (even occasionally awful) content on the Internet over plunking down $25 for a rehashed version of a book they’ve read a dozen times already.
I’ve vastly over-simplified here, and I of course exempt myself and my Killzone colleagues from any of the above. What do you think?
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Recently, both Joe and John have been kind enough to share their title traumas. Funny how these things seem to go around, it's like lice in a schoolyard. I thought I'd seize the opportunity to discuss what's been happening in my neck of the woods.
More of the same, sadly. A few weeks ago my new editor (which bears discussion in a later post, the revolving door aspect to the editor/author relationship these days) announced that she no longer liked the title for my next book. Neither did anyone else at the publishing house, apparently. The words "it induced grimaces at the editorial meeting" were mentioned. She gently suggested that they would, in fact, much prefer a new title. Ideally in a week or less.
Now, I'm already up against a killer deadline with this book. I need a finished draft by January 1st, which means I'll ideally finish my extremely rough, nightmarish, barely-legible draft by December 1st, then spend the next four weeks frantically trying to fill in all the bracketed spaces marked "physics stuff." (Sadly, I am not kidding about this. Since nuclear physics has never been my strong suit, and the contract negotiations dragged on interminably, I was unable to devote much time to research prior to starting the book. So "physics stuff" it is, until I figure out exactly what I need to ask my wonderful, kind, and knowledgeable friend Camille Minichino during the editing process.) At some point in there, I'm presumably expected to celebrate the holidays, too, with everything that entails.
Facing a grueling schedule like that, when I'm trying to crank out 10 pages a day, minimum, the last thing I wanted to think about is coming up with a new title. And as John said, you become attached to titles, develop a certain affinity for them. I'd already changed the working title once, from "K & R" (which stands for Kidnap & Ransom) to "Tiger Game," something my agent and I settled on after long consideration. And I thought, all things considered, it was a solid title for a thriller. Paired with good cover art, possibly a great one.
But no: the publishing house had decided that "Tiger Game" simply would not do. New title, please. Oh, and by the way, we'd really like it to be something powerful, with a lot of punch. But not something that's been done to death. So please steer clear of "War and Peace" and it's ilk.
Yikes. Part of the problem was that my previous two book titles derived largely from their settings. Both took place in small, relatively-contained locales. I knew the titles before writing a word of either story, and no one ever complained. In fact, they loved "Boneyard" so much that the main comment has been, "Can't you come up with something more like "Boneyard?"
The new book is a bit of a departure for me, however, in that it jumps around the country, from San Francisco to New York to San Antonio, and the story involves everything from skinheads to border crossings to dirty bombs. Not exactly something that lends itself to pithiness.
So I did what I could. I canvassed my friends. Who are lovely people, but as it turns out, not so good in the title department. Offerings included "Watch Your Back!" and "The Obama Project," which, as my book has nothing whatsoever to do with the President-elect, I chalked up to pre-election day exuberance. "Bungee Jumpin" was also mentioned, although there are neither bungees nor jumping anywhere in the storyline.
Thrown back on my own resources, I rounded up the usual suspects. I scoured a 181 page book of gang slang terminology, which produced such gems as "Diamond Shine" and "Thunder and Rain." I searched the web for nuclear terms, eliciting "Top Off" and "Kill Radius." I pored over quotes from militia members and other extremists, and (oddly enough) while following this vein skimmed through speeches of our forefathers. Books of poems were opened, then shut in frustration. I sent email after email to my editor with potential titles, over 100 in all. "Dirty Chaos," sounded too negative. "Invictus" was too esoteric. "The Patriot Project" generated a ripple of excitement, until it was shot down by higher-ups.
Things started to take a grim turn indeed. There was talk of postponing the book launch, which until then had been scheduled for November '09. Which was not necessarily the worst thing in the world: when it comes to a book purchase most people are swayed by the title and the accompanying cover. So if it came down to going to market with a title we were lukewarm about, or waiting for inspiration to strike, I was all for waiting, The question was, if that happened, when would I get on the calendar? A crime fiction author wants their books to come out yearly, ideally around the same time every year. We were already going to miss that window with a November release date, but if forced to wait until 2010...
It was stressful, to say the least. I spent every spare moment poring through books on the border patrol. I started a contest through my newsletter, offering a $50 Amazon gift certificate to anyone who supplied the perfect title. (This generated a lot of responses, but although some came close to the mark, none quite hit it).
It's not an easy thing, to find a title that resonates with me as an author. After all, I was the one whose name was going to be on the book. The one who would be referring to that title ad infinitum, mentioning it nightly on a tour. Years into the future (with any luck,) this title might even be included in my obituary (I'll admit, I have a tendency toward morbidity. Those of you who have read my work are probably not surprised to hear that). The search became somewhat all-consuming. I'd wander through my house, chanting titles over and over to myself until the words lost all meaning. I typed them out, all caps, in enormous font sizes to get a better sense of how they'd look on a cover. I agonized.
And then I woke up one morning, after spending hours the night before clicking through an online "random word generator," contemplating "Desert Day," "Rock Sundae," and (I kid you not) "Saint Cobbler." "Bungee Jumping" was starting to sound pretty darn good in comparison. "Bungee Jumping" could be a winner.
Thinking that, I opened my trusty "Alternate titles" file, which was now pages long, and there at the top were the words "THE GATEKEEPER."
I have no idea where that title came from, honestly I don't. I initially thought it must have originated via the contest, and went back through all the emails I'd received in the week prior: nothing. Checked my internet history: nothing. It's a mystery.
But I loved it. It struck a chord. Turns out there was a Clinton-era border patrol initiative called "Operation Gatekeeper," which jibed perfectly with my storyline. Sent it to my agent to double-check that I hadn't lost my grip on these things: he loved it. And my editor practically swooned.
So, barring any unforeseen circumstances (and as every author knows, unforeseen circumstances are the nature of the publishing beast), THE GATEKEEPER will be released as planned next November.
Now I just have to finish the darn thing.
So I'm curious: what do you all think? Is it a winner? Or should I have gone with "Bungee Jumping" instead?
Please say you love it.
by Joe Moore
I was a guest at a recent writer’s event. I got to discuss my new book, THE 731 LEGACY (co-written with Lynn Sholes). Afterwards I took part in a meet-and-greet with the audience. Among the questions, someone asked me: What was the most important advice I could give a new writer? My answer was to realize that you can just say no.
I explained that publishing is a manufacturing industry. But unlike most other industries, publishers don’t manufacture anything. Instead, they have an endless tsunami of writers constantly beating down their doors with pre-manufactured product. Yes, they have to know what the customer is looking for. And yes, they need to edit, package and market it in a professional and appealing manner. But publishers will never run out of product because there will always be writers wanting to be published.
New writers want to be published in the worst way. Unfortunately, their journey to publication can turn over time from excitement and enthusiasm to desperation and fear. You write a book, send out queries, start getting rejections. But you don’t give up. You revise your query, send it out again, and get more rejections. So what happens? You become desperate. You think that maybe you’ll never get published or never find an agent. Never see your precious work on the shelves of Borders or B&N.
Out of fear, you become so desperate that you are ready to take the first offer that comes along. Because when it does and you don’t, you may never get another shot.
Then the call or letter finally comes and someone is willing to issue a contract. What do you do? You jump at it without a moment’s hesitation. You just want to be published. And you finally got an offer. You go for it.
Now, stop and consider this. Did you marry the first person that asked you out? Did you buy the first car you saw for sale? Or the first house?
When that offer to publish finally comes along, ask yourself: Is this publisher perfectly matched to my writing? Will this publisher put in place the appropriate marketing and distribution to get my book to the correct audience? Do they have the expertise? Do they understand the genre? Will I get the quality and personalized service I need? And most important, do they have the ability to help me grow my career as a writer?
Remember that desperation is not a reason to say yes. It’s a reason to stop and realize that you can say no. Because getting married is blissful, but getting a divorce is not. Always remember that you can just say no.
What is the most important advice you can give a new writer?
Monday, November 10, 2008
searching for signs of hope that the book publishing industry is not modeled after a Model T or a dinosaur, doomed by an era of digital entertainment to be consigned to the museum or bone yard.
What I've found so far is not encouraging. For example, I stumbled across a piece by Boris Kachka in New York Magazine, "Have We Reached the End of Book Publishing As We Know it?" Per the well-researched, well-argued article, the book publishing industry as we know it is doomed, as evidenced by the following:
- Upheavals in the corporate executive suites
- The mad rush to e-book publishing
- The continuing woes of midsize publishers
- The declining fortunes of in-store booksellers, including Borders
- A "vertical market grab" by Amazon
I hope the article exaggerates, but just in case, I’m getting prepared. Did I mention I have a great story about our newly adopted cat? Her name is Bianca--she'd a lovely blue-eyed Siamese who is teaching me how to be more human. Tie-ins include a lovely "Wisdom of Bianca" cat calendar. Details to follow.
Now, about that million dollar advance…
Please someone, talk me down. Is the publishing business model really broken? Is there no hope?
If you can't reassure me, then tell me about about a heroic puppy who teaches a cat how to be more human.
Otherwise I'll have to order the e-book version from Amazon.
It'll be here in ten seconds.
My husband and I were walking with out boys to our favorite coffee shop - Peets in Berkeley when we saw a model T Ford parked on the road in all its early glory. The boys were (of course) fascinated but seeing this anachronism made me reflect on the world today - the model T Ford converted what was a luxury that few could afford into something attainable to 'the masses'. Now GM veers towards bankruptcy...hmmm...what's wrong with that image? Publisher's today are hardly on the verge of bankruptcy but GM's position makes you think - GM once had over 50% of the US market share but they failed to see change coming and didn't adapt to the market in time...
So what about the publishing industry (not known for being fleet of foot at the best of times)?
Are we in danger, just as the auto-makers are, of failing to see our own redundancy? Failing to heed the warning signs? What about the publishing industry as a whole - are they equipped to cope with the changing market - hell, are they equipped to cope with the changing world?
I have a biography on the man who established my own publisher - Penguin - who strived to bring (affordable) literature to the masses but now we have a system in which a few major players dominate and the lure of what is 'affordable' and 'accessible' as lost some of its attraction. If it's all about the bottom line, you have to wonder, how do publishers survive and how will they survive into the future? Are they merely waiting for the next Dan Brown to deliver his manuscript? Are publishers (the way we know them) going to rise and fall on the fortunes of the few at the top? Will there even be a 'reading public' in twenty years or are we just kidding ourselves? I have to admit that most of my readers are well into their 40's, 50's and 60's (and beyond) - so what happens when those who buy the books are no more? How will the industry adapt so my children will be as excited about books (in whatever form they may be) as I was?
We certainly live in interesting times - so what do you think? How will the publishing industry adapt to survive in the future? How will writer's adapt - hell - how will we even survive???
Sunday, November 9, 2008
By guest blogger, M.J. Rose
Growing up in Manhattan you don't bump into history on every street corner - mostly you're bumping into other people or great shopping or eating experiences. In New York you have to go out of your way to find eighteenth century history, but it's still alive on every block in Vienna. There's so much of it you are literally breathing it in. Arts and sciences have flourished here for centuries and whatever your passion you can visit museums, monuments and memorials to art, music, architecture, literature philosophy and psychology.
And visit them we did including making visits to homes of many famous people who'd once lived there, and since my husband is a musician, the trip turned out to be what I now jokingly call our Beethoven pilgrimage.
There are several of the great composer's residences in the city proper and its environs, and we visited every one of them as well as churches, cafes and music halls Beethoven frequented. We walked the streets he walked following the routes he took and spent one day wandering the woods he wandered during the summers he spent in Baden, a spa town an hour out of the city.
The house at Probusgasse 6 is in a neighborhood called Heligenstadt at the bottom of the Kahlemberg, which in Beethoven's time was outside the city and filled with vineyards that are still growing there. And it was there at the end of the summer of 1802 that the 31-year-old Beethoven wrote the heart-wrenching Testament to his two brothers documenting his anguish at the onset of his terrible deafness.
The upstairs of this small apartment is open to the public, and we walked through the ordinary rooms where he lived. Wandering over to the window I looked down at a simple courtyard where there was a single tree growing.
I stared at the gnarled, twisted trunk and the rich healthy verdant green leaves and realized that Beethoven must have once stood there and looked down at that same tree. Suddenly the composer's ghost was standing there with me looking out the window.
Later I told my husband what I had been thinking and he said: “You're going to write about that aren't you?” Until that moment I hadn't thought about it but after he said it, I couldn't stop thinking about it.
At home I read several biographies about Beethoven and in one discovered the great composer had been fascinated with Eastern philosophy which includes a strong belief in reincarnation. His own notebooks contain quotes of passages from Bhagavad-Gita. As well as a quote from William Jones that was included in his Hymn to Narayena; "We know this only, that we nothing know."
And with that piece of information the idea at the heart of my tenth novel revealed itself.
The Memorist is not about Ludwig Van Beethoven although he does play a small part in it. Rather it's a suspense novel about a woman on a search for her own ghosts, but it was Beethoven's spirit that inspired the book and his everlasting gifts to us are at the heart of the mystery I attempted to unravel.
The Memorist has been chosen as the People Magazine Pick of the Week (11/10), garnered starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, is on the November Indie Next list. Please visit MJRose.com and Reincarnationist.org to read an excerpt and find out more about M.J. Rose and her work.
Saturday, November 8, 2008
I’m tickled shitless the Presidential elections are over. I despise the process. As an old advertising practitioner I saw the election race as one big three card Monty game fueled by a billion plus dollars and piloted by armies of self interested suits. Call me cynical because I am. I used to get angry, but I’m older now, and I get to say, “I told you so” …a lot.
I hate the constant ads, the barrage of invasive robo phone calls from urging me to dislike this candidate, or to love that one, or to believe the worst or the best small minds could come up with to wrestle my vote from me by any means necessary. I resent the fact that a president is selected in what is no more than a long and tiresome beauty pageant. I resent that we are just buying one product over another based on largely inaccurate, untruthful, and manipulative ads. We are asked to choose a leader the way we are asked to decide between a Ford and a Chevrolet. And no politician ever does what he or she says they will do to get elected. “They” are all always going to give us “change”, but what we get is the same sack of wind spray-painted a different color.
My kids supported Obama because of his promise of affordable health care. I told them to listen to what he was actually saying. He said that he believes everybody “ought” to have it¬¬, never promising that he would “give” them affordable health care. I told them as soon as he was elected he would start explaining why he couldn’t come through on most of his “promises”. I told them that he’d say something like, “Due to the failed policies of the W guy, I can’t give you what I said I could. (This is always the case because a politician “never” admits they made a mistake or lied). Maybe I can do what I said I’d do in my “second” term.” And it would have been just as true with McCain. I’m not a psychic, I’ve seen it over and over. Politicians rarely make good on their promises because that old reality thing gets in their way. If you buy a product that doesn’t do what it advertised, you can take it back. With defective or non-performing politicians you’re stuck with them for years.
I’ve known quite a few politicians, and none are in danger of becoming my close friends. I think you have to be sociopathic to be a successful politician–-to want to rule supreme over some little corner (or large corner) of the world. And I don’t think it really matters all that much who the president is since they are all owned by the people they owe who are going to be calling the shots, or actually steering their course for four or eight years. It isn’t that they don’t do some good, because most do some good even if it’s incidental. After all it’s necessary to please some people in order to stay in office and keep gathering a power base.
The truth is I didn’t vote for Obama, but I am willing to support him as long as he doesn’t betray the people who did vote for him as well as those of us who didn’t think he was the right choice of the two we ended up with. I’m proud that we have a black President, and I’m praying he can impress this old cynic by governing in the best interests of all Americans, not to the detriment of those who didn’t support him due to philosophical differences. I am a centrist, which is a schizophrenic blending of liberal and conservative philosophies. I can live with, and even support, a liberal president. All I can say is I’ll be watching what he does and who he hangs with, and whether he can reach across the aisle and govern from the center, because he won’t have to do that unless he wants to be the president who’s better than the last one, not the same one in a different suit.
Yes we’re the greatest nation on earth, maybe in history, but I truly believe that America is great despite her leaders, not because of them.
Oh, yeah, this is suppose to be about writing. Okay–– All of this watching and listening to politicians gives us (authors) great material, insight into the human animal––especially villains, and into the human condition as well as the state of our country.
Friday, November 7, 2008
So there I was on Tuesday—election day—giving a presentation to about a hundred people as part of my big-boy job when my cell phone buzzed. A casual glance at the caller I.D. revealed a 212 area code. New York City. The source of some of my life’s most exciting calls—and some of the most disappointing. But you can’t very well answer the phone in mid-speech, can you?
Maybe a minute later, the phone buzzed a second time, and I knew that the caller had left a message. Twenty minutes to go.
Applause. Questions. Finally, the phone. The message was from my editor. “We have a major problem with GRAVE SECRETS,” she said, referring to the book that comes out next June. “Call me.”
So much for another of life’s most exciting calls.
“We can’t use GRAVE SECRETS for a title,” she told me. “The name Grave—” It’s a reference to my protagonist, Jonathan Grave; it has nothing vaults for the dead. “—makes every cover concept we come up with look like a horror novel.”
So all we have to do is change my baby’s name. No problem. Yeah, I’d been living with GRAVE SECRETS as a title for a couple of years, and yeah, I’d planned a franchise of similar titles for the series, but that kind of attachment is all emotional. It should be easy to overcome. Publishing is all business, after all, and nowhere do market concerns play a bigger role than with the title.
So change it already.
Hey, I stitched 120,000 words together to write the damn thing in the first place; how tough can it be to stitch two or three more to get a title?
But we need a title! It’s almost time to go to press with the advance readers copies. C’mon! Two or three lousy words!
I’ve got long lists of two-word phrases, but none that really work as a title.
I can do this.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
It's been a tough few weeks for fiction. We've recently lost some of our greats, including Tony Hillerman, Elaine Flinn, and yesterday, Michael Crichton.
While I had never had the privilege of meeting Crichton, when I opened my Yahoo page and saw his obituary, I experienced the sort of shock you normally feel when you've lost an acquaintance.
May of 1993. I had just finished writing my senior thesis, a series of short stories based on my Grandfather's WWI diaries. I actually finished the book a few days early, shockingly enough (and, as my editor would assure you, not at all true to form). Connecticut was in the full throes of spring, and on a warm, sunny day I brought a copy of Jurassic Park onto the lawn in front of the library and dove in. I generally didn't read thrillers, but the back cover copy had lured me with the promise of a complete escape from the tomes I'd been struggling with for eight semesters.
And I was completely swept away. That book was such a breath of fresh air, I was riveted. What a genius concept: a theme park, with real dinosaurs created from ancient DNA preserved in amber. It hooked me, and from then on I was a devout thriller fan.
Despite the fact that I didn't agree with all of his political stances, you have
to admire a man who never shied away from hot button issues. And Crichton undeniably possessed the Midas touch, prior to JK Rowling storming on to the scene he was the most successful author in the world. It can be argued that he not only revitalized the techno-thriller, paving the way for the success of Douglas Preston, Lincoln Child, and James Rollins, but he also made medical dramas sexy again with ER. In addition to his novels, he collaborated on screenplays for films like "Twister." He was remarkably prolific, once claiming to churn out 10,000 words a day. As someone who considers herself fortunate to clock 10,000 words in a week, that's simply staggering.
Not to mention the fact that he was once chosen as one of People's 50 Most Beautiful People, a title that few writers have possessed (shall we call it the "paper ceiling?")
A remarkable writer, and a remarkable person. He will be missed.
There have been a number of significant events in my lifetime that personally changed or affected me such as the tragic losses of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lennon. And there have also been the joyful moments including seeing an American astronaut walk on the moon, my marriage, the birth of my two sons, and seeing my first book published.
Growing up as a son of the South, I witnessed bigotry and hate—I still remember signs declaring “Whites Only”. As an adult, I discovered that prejudice wasn’t exclusive to the Deep South. But as Mr. Dylan sang, “The Times, They Are A Changin’”.
At 11:00 PM on Tuesday night, an African American was elected to the highest office in America. Barack Obama was not appointed nor did he inherit the Presidency. He won it. And this may prove to be the biggest milestone in my life. Because it tells me that people can change. Countries can change. Times and thinking, and the world can change. It tells me that we have matured as a nation.
There was a time when I would have bet this day would never come. But it has. And if we can collectively change our hearts and minds like we did on Election Day, what other great things can we do?
President-elect Barack Obama is about to set sail on a great journey. Soon he will step onto the bridge, take command and set a new course. We are all passengers on this great ship of America. I wish him fair winds.
Monday, November 3, 2008
“Every writer has a writer's tic,” a famous author once told me.
As a writer, you challenge is to identify your own writer’s tic, and stomp it out of your manuscript.
In my own case, when I’m writing my first draft, I give free rein to my writing tics. But in the second draft, I hunt them down and stomp them out.
Here are a few of my own writer’s tics that I have to wipe out in the second draft:
- Worthless words.
My first draft is always studded with superfluous words such as very, apparently, obviously, suddenly, and surely. In the second draft, I do a global search for these serial offenders. Out they go!
- Ding-dong, the dash is dead. Also the ellipses.
I have a bad habit of “dramatizing” the rhythm of sentences with dashes and ellipses, which have to be removed.In fact, you could me the Queen of Dashes—or the Empress of Ellipses…
- Lazy-man’s time reference: “By the time.”By the time I get to Phoenix, I realize I need to delete all my instances of “By the time.”
How about you? What are your “writer's tics” that you have to stomp out before you submit your manuscript to the editor?