Monday, June 29, 2009

The best (worst) rejection letters

All writers experience rejection. Most published authors get turned down by numerous agents and editors on the road to publication. Learning to deal with “No” is part of the writing process—I'd even say it's an important part. You have to be able to handle rejection to stick with writing long enough to get anywhere.

But no matter how you rationalize it, being rejected feels like crap. So whenever we get the dreaded “Not for us” email or letter in the mailbox, it can be comforting to recall the rejection-war stories of other writers:

In his book On Writing, Stephen King describes the wad of rejection notes he had stuck on a spike in his bedroom, and the encouragement he felt when he finally got one that said something along the lines of, “Not for us, kid, but try again—you’ve got talent.”

NPR’s Liane Hansen did a story that told the story of how soon-to-be famous writers, including Jack Kerouac and George Orwell, were rejected by the publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Possibly the best of the lot was the one that rejected Kerouac's On the Road, in which an editor reportedly stated, "I don't dig this one at all."

My most memorable rejection came from an agent who had requested to read my manuscript on an exclusive basis. (My advice? Never give an agent an exclusive. It's a better deal for the agent than the writer.) After keeping me in suspense for a long while, she eventually sent me an email along the lines of, “Dear Kathryn: I really wanted to like this story. But I just didn’t like the character; I didn’t like the story; I didn’t like the voice. In fact, I just didn’t like anything at all about it.” Ouch. Fortunately, the next agent who read the manuscript loved the story, agreed to represent me, and quickly got me a series contract.

What about you? What’s been your best/worst rejection letter thus far?

How many books can you write in one year?

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I just read an article about Nora Roberts in The New Yorker (a couple of weeks back I fear – I can never keep up!) and my jaw dropped when I read that she publishes five novels in a typical year: two installments of a PBO trilogy; two J.D. Robb books; and, each summer, a hardcover stand-alone romance novel (otherwise known as a “Big Nora”). She estimates that it takes, on average, 45 days to write a novel. When I read that I thought – what they hell have I been doing with my time?! I’ve just finished my draft of Unlikely Traitors (which we can only hope in this publishing climate will get to see the light of day!) which brings my tally, after Lady Coppers was finished a few weeks ago, to two books. Yep, just two in on year. So I thought hey, it’s only June so how many more books can I write before December??

I haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance of meeting Nora Roberts’ book tally but I am hoping to write another book this year as well as a few proposals. Why? Because I feel in this economic climate I have to write, write and write – just because things are so uncertain. I think it’s very necessary (for me at least) to spread my genre-wings and fly. My plan at this stage is to write a young adult book and start a historical novel set in the mid 19th century – I also want to write a proposal (or two) for a romance novel. Panic is a wonderful motivator…

I think that Nora Roberts is phenomenal – she treats her job as a profession – one in which she respects her readers and fulfils her obligations. I am also in awe of her productivity. Not every writer can meet her level of output – nor should they. Writing is a solitary art and producing a novel is something that can take months to years to accomplish. When I finished the article, however, it made me think about expectations – my own as well as the expectations of readers and publishers. I think a fine balance has to be struck between quality and quantity but I also think that in the current publishing climate publishers aren’t often willing to invest or maintain their authors (just look at how many great mystery writers have had their series dropped) so many writers have to churn out a considerable chunk of work just to keep in the game (even if it means that many manuscripts go unpublished). For me I am seriously evaluating both my productivity as well as the breadth of my work – it’s a survival mechanism necessary if I’m going to succeed in maintaining a writing career.

But I wonder- do popular writers necessarily sacrifice quality for quantity? Is there really ever 'over exposure’ for a bestselling writer? And for those of us who aren’t quite at Nora Roberts’ level yet, what’s the best strategy for dealing with the current climate (apart, of course from writing the best damn books we can?!)

For me it's all about one word – perseverance.

If Nora Roberts can do it, so can I.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Soundtrack of Suspense: How Music Influences My Words

Our guest today is best-selling author Robert Liparulo, a former journalist with over a thousand articles and multiple writing awards to his name. His novels include COMES A HORSEMAN, GERM, DEADFALL, and this year’s DEADLOCK, as well as the young adult series, DREAMHOUSE KINGS (the latest of which is TIMESCAPE, releases July 7). He is currently writing, simultaneously, an original screenplay and novel, with the director Andrew Davis (THE FUGITIVE, THE GUARDIAN).

By Robert Liparulo

Liparulo Pace. Rhythm. Tension. It’s no coincidence these terms describe both stories and music. In fact, for me, music has always helped me create stories. When someone mentions a favorite scene from one of my novels, more often than not, I immediately remember the music that was playing in my headphones when I wrote it: Olaf’s attack on Brady and his son in Comes a Horseman (“Elk Hunt” from Last of the Mohicans); Stephen’s confrontation with the killer Atropos in Germ (“The Battle” from Gladiator); Hutch’s apprehensive readiness to rise from charred ground and fight at the end of Deadfall (“Death is the Road to Awe” from The Fountain). Music gets me in the mind-set to write specific scenes—its rhythm reminds me of the pace I’m looking for as I work to find just the right words; its mood holds me in a sort of suspended animation within the scene, regardless of outside distractions or the time it takes to write it.

Years ago, as movie critic, I’d sometimes see films before they were finished, without a musical score. At one screening, the director stood in the aisle humming the music that would accompany each scene. That was more distracting than the film’s symphonic nakedness, but I understood the poor man’s panic over having his film seen that way: music can make or break a movie. It not only adds a rich layer of enjoyment to the viewing experience, it cues the audience to the filmmaker’s intentions—“OK, time to get scared” or “In case this guy’s mask made out of human skin isn’t enough to let you know, he’s the bad guy!” That’s why the tracks of musical score are called “cues.”

Timescape (I’ve dreamed of including a playlist—even the actual music in digital form—with my novels. Readers could then start a soundtrack with each chapter, heightening their experience of the story. Of course, individual reading speeds make that impractical; few things are worse than out-of-synch audio tracks. And, yes, I realize it’s part of the author’s job to create the same emotional response in readers that music does, using only words. Still, I sometimes imagine myself acting like that director: leaning over a reader’s shoulder, and at the right moment going, “Da-da-da!”)

It’s hard for me to experience a story, in any medium, without musical accompaniment—whether in my ears or my head.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve listened to music as I wrote—through years of writing magazine articles and intermittent screenplays. It started as a way of deadening the sounds of screaming kids, vacuum cleaners, and when I rented an outside office, the shouts coming from the divorce attorney’s office next door. Then I started writing novels, and the type of music I played suddenly mattered.

Faster tempos do help keep the pace up—if not within the story, then at least with how fast my fingers move over a keyboard; but then, volume helps with that as well. The louder, the better. More important than tempo is how a piece of music makes me feel. A cue that starts off slow and builds to a triumphant crescendo can carry me through a fast-paced action sequence as well as any nonstop, staccato rhythm. “Chevaliers de Sangreal” from The Da Vinci Code, for example: a hero’s theme if ever there was one.

Over time, I’ve built a library of music categorized by the mood it puts me in when I write. Take, for instance, Clint Mansell’s haunting music for Requiem for a Dream. Its cues seem to be teetering on the edge of something, without relief or execution. No wonder several of the titles have the word “Tense” in them. When I launch into a suspenseful scene, I’ll often queue up my Requiem playlist.

Here’s a specific example of a partial scene and the music I was listening to when I wrote it:

“With the speed and fluidity he had practiced a thousand times, Hutch drew back on the bowstring and released it, all in one, smooth two-second motion. He held still for another beat to make sure the arrow cleared the bow. Then he dropped his right arm to a second arrow rising from the ground beside him. His bow arm never moved. His head never moved. His eyes never came off of Bad. As the arrow sliced a groove through Bad’s skin at the temple, Hutch was already nocking the next arrow.”

Most likely, Quentin Tarantino would go with something fast and exotic, like NEU!’s “Super 16” from Kill Bill. Because the scene is a mix of suspense and action, I powered up “Betrayal” from Enemy at the Gates—from the scene in which they discover a young boy murdered and hanging from a crane. It’s emotive and heart-wrenching, and prior to the “discovery” almost painful in its anticipation.

My writing-music of choice is almost always film scores. It seems to me that movie moguls are the benefactors of today’s great composers, Hollywood the new Vienna. I also like that the structure of a good story—with its cycle of tension and relief, despair and triumph—forces a wide variation in music within one recording. I used to think the strong bond between a movie’s images and its music would cause me to think only of those images while listening to the score—Russell Crowe plucking his violin in Master and Commander. However, I’ve found that the spirit of the music takes over and I can claim it for my own. That’s why filmmakers often listen to other movies’ scores while on set. They’re not trying to imitate another movie’s scene; they’re letting the music help them get in the mood for their own scene. The director Ridley Scott is known for doing this.

Thankfully, most movie scores don’t have lyrics. I’m too much of a word geek to write with lyrics pounding into my eardrums: I’m always trying to listen to them. Every now and then, however, a song with lyrics is perfect for getting me into the groove of a scene (though usually it’s something in its rhythm, tempo or melody, rarely its words that attracts me to it). When that happens, I play it over and over until my mind stops Deadlock trying to catch every word and hears the vocals as it does any other instrument. Felix da Housecat’s remix of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” comes to mind; I listened to it while writing the scene that introduced Brendan Page, my latest novel Deadlock’s villain, a true sinnerman with a penchant for “cool,” which the song captures.

It’s all about what works for the individual writer. When writing action scenes, Meg Gardiner (The Memory Collector) says Gladiator, The Day After Tomorrow, Jarhead and 300 “get me in a fightin' mood.” David Dun says he listened to “the womb-like sounds of a whirlpool hot tub with all the jets running” while writing The Black Silent. Whatever works.

When I write to music, it does more than nudged me into a specific pace or help me with atmosphere. It reminds me of quality, that musical notes, played on varied instruments in a specific order and speed can touch people in ways that are mysterious and wonderful. It can lift heavy spirits and wring tears from long-dry eyes. It can unsettle sad memories and tickle a laugh out of you when you need it most. It stirs the listener and paints unimaginably vivid pictures—exactly the things I want my words to do, as well.

Do you listen to music while you write? What are your favorite tunes?


Watch for Sunday guest blogs from Julie Kramer, Anne Hawkins, and Grant Blackwood. And coming July 26. James Scott Bell joins the Kill Zone as our new fulltime Sunday blogger.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

54% of the People Who Read This Have Nothing Better To Do. 42% Percent Will Be Sorry They Took Time To Read It. 4% Percent Can’t Read.

By John Ramsey Miller

Statisticians are working overtime to furnish us with statistics. The world runs on numbers and those numbers types are never going to slow down. As long as things happen, they will continue to crunch and spout. Long after we tire of listening to the results of their crunchings, they will be sitting in cubicles around the world comforted by their calculations. Even if they have to re-crunch old numbers and regurgitate them. And the numbers are always changing even as society changes.

In my world, Yahoo is the largest publisher of insipid crunchings. The top ten anything you want to know about will appear there on the home page along with the most frightening news available, the cutest animals, or just plain boring celebrity news they can accumulate. Want to know the top ten worst-smelling cities on earth? The top ten friendliest hell holes, The cutest kitten’s top ten favorite planets? How many dogs just like Obama’s people will be sell to people who want to be just like the President, but without the ears. The top ten best smelling decaying objects? It’s all there because somebody thinks we want to read the lists in order to improve our lives. They’ll never give you the names of the stat-crunchers until they want to list the top-ten-most-beaten-up statisticians in the United States. I’ve had way too much of this endless top tenning. It’s time for about 90% of statisticians to be in the unemployment lines.

Here’s another one that has stuck in my mind for eight point three percent of my adult life. A few years ago some scientists somewhere announced that fully ten percent of the matter in the Universe was unaccounted for. I still can’t wrap my mind around that one. How many scientists did it take to go out and weigh the mass of the Universe, to count the atoms and decide that a full ten percent was simply gone? Maybe it’s in the pants pockets of God, like so much dryer lint. Or maybe he made Paris Hilton’s ego with it. I don’t know a lot about science, but I have a God-given bullshit meter that goes off several times a day. I guess the scientists who made that statement will eventually sober up, or they will discover which Black Holes have sucked up the missing matter. I didn’t take it and I don’t really care who did.

I guess everybody has a calling in life, but list compilers are called from the ranks of accountants and actuaries who want more excitement, some way to introduce creativity, into their dull, number-generating careers.

Okay, I’m being unfair to statisticians. Some people need the comfort of numbers to make decisions. Me, I just run blindly from one situation to another, flying by the seat of my pants. I’m an emotional creature and I don’t generally make sound decisions based in reality, or on numbers. My wife will attest to this seventy percent of the time.

My business partner and I once hired a full-time statistician for our ad agency. I can’t remember why. It was doomed from the start. Perhaps it is like the time we got loaded and bought a quarter dozen pythons for our reception area. Seemed like a good idea at the time. We often did things like that. I guess we hired him because we were trying to kill the party reputation created by the festive snakes our clients were greeted by. That boy flat bubbled over and lit up like white phosphorous when he had new numbers to present to us or to a client. Clients love numbers that show growth. They hate numbers that point to stagnation or a reversal in sales. A good statistician can make the numbers sing his tune. Instead of ninety-nine-point nine percent of the readers of the newspaper didn’t act on our ad. Our guy explained that one-point-one percent of the people who read the newspaper acted on our ad, so it was amazingly effective. Stats were made to be spun like a drunk square-dance girl. Okay spinning stats could explain why one day coffee drinking is good for you, and the next it will shorten your life.

The truth is that I have no pressing use for that missing matter, so I vote we stop funding scientists to look for it and ask them to do something more constructive with the 90% of matter we have. One thing’s for certain, if it was my matter, I’d never be able to find anything close to ninety percent of it at any given time. Right now, the top ten things I can’t find [to save my life] would include my cell phone, phone book, car keys, and my electric razor.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Waiting Is Over

By John Gilstrap

All right, this is it. Next week, anticipation becomes reality as No Mercy hits bookstores everywhere. I submitted the manuscript last August and finished the final revision in November. Since then, there have been copy edits and galley proofs, but I haven’t touched a word of the story since February.

Next week, everybody gets to decide for themselves if the characters are interesting and the story exciting. I certainly think they are, as do my editor and agent, but we’ve had our vote. Now it’s all in readers’ hands; which is why, for me, this is the scariest time in a book’s life cycle—the point where potential and reality finally intersect. On any given day, a writer has precious little control over his own career; but at this stage, the powerlessness feels to be in higher relief.

I thought I’d dedicate my blog this week to a behind-the-scenes peek at our marketing/publicity preparations.

Here’s what No Mercy’s publisher (Pinnacle) has done for me: they designed a kick-ass cover; they printed and distributed a couple hundred gorgeous advance reader’s copies (ARCs); they negotiated really strong sell-ins at the major big-box stores, as well as with distributors for the likes of Wal-Mart and your local grocery store. The book should have a big presence in airports, too. At ThrillerFest next month in New York City, No Mercy will be featured as a bag stuffer for a couple hundred attendees.

Here’s what I’ve done on my own nickel to market the book: I’ve bought advertising on well-visited blog sites that will bring 4 million views over two weeks; I’ve updated my website to be something worth visiting (; I’ve hired a publicist who will get me on lots of local radio and television shows, plus she’s snagged me a few bookstore signings. (For details, please check the “Events” page on the aforementioned website.)

In July, I’ll be on the faculty of the Midwest Writers Conference at Ball State University. As the writers conference schedule heats up again in the fall, I’ll be making appearances everywhere—all of it to sell a book that I haven’t touched in months. All of it as I put the (not-so) finishing touches on my next book, which I’m supposed to deliver to my publisher in August so I can begin the cycle all over again.

On the one hand, it’s all very exciting; but as one who’s walked this walk a few times already, I know that none of it matters unless all of the promotion and marketing combine with the X-Factor that creates “buzz” about a book.

Buzz is what happens when book lovers start talking about a title among themselves. I’ve published to Big Buzz in the past, and I’ve published to silence. I could guess at what makes the difference, but I’d probably be wrong. Buzz hides in the cracks between the cushions of all the things over which I have no control.

Another factor of nervousness to throw into the mix is the fact that No Mercy is my first paperback original (PBO). The rules are all different for PBOs, or so I’m told. At $6.99 a pop, they’re considered to be an impulse buy, as opposed to a hardcover, which is a more targeted buy. The theory in my case is that people will be far more apt to try out a new series character for 7 bucks than they would be for $25. We’ll see.

Lord yes, we’ll see.

Now, just this once, in light of the Big Event, please forgive me for . . .


No Mercy is the first book in a new series starring freelance hostage rescue specialist Jonathan Grave.

When a loved one is taken, you just want them back safely. You don’t care about gathering evidence for a future trial, or about Miranda warnings or search warrants. You just want them brought home. That’s why you call Jonathan Grave.

In No Mercy, when Jonathan’s meticulous plan to rescue an Indiana college student explodes into a deadly shooting spree, the local authorities are out for blood—and they’re not alone. Someone wants to control a devastating secret . . . someone willing to capture, torture and kill anyone to keep it. Even the people Jonathan loves most.


Wish me luck! We now return you to your regularly scheduled Kill Zone.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

IKEA: A Veritable Treasure Trove of Titles

by Michelle Gagnon

So I'm moving this week, which means that this post will be brief- as I type, I'm also packing boxes one-handed (I'm considering adding that newly acquired talent to my official resume).images

It also means that I've been spending an inordinate amount of time at stores that I have a love/hate relationship with, like Home Depot, Bed Bath and Beyond, and...yes...IKEA.

While wandering the aisles the other day, lost once again in "Home Organizing" and unable to find the exit, I was struck as always by the product names. Where other than IKEA can you purchase a Godmorgan, and at such a reasonable price?

So I propose that today's post be more of a writing exercise. I'll provide the names of IKEA items, you provide a brief summary of what a book entitled that might be about. Here are some examples to get you started:

  • FLORT: A hilarious coming of age story about a high school girl with an odd affliction, and how it impacts the boys she develops crushes on.

  • MANSTAD: Based on the true story of a Crimean War prison break, and the men that history forgot.

  • KORT: An eye-opening and heartrending look at the American judicial system, as viewed by today's hottest slam poets.

I've listed some options below to get you started, but feel free to choose any item from the IKEA product line for inspiration.




I can't wait to see what everyone comes up with. In fact, I'll send the best entry their very own Flort- how's that for incentive?

A boy and a dog

By Joe Moore

boy-dog I got an email the other day from a beginning writer who was working on her first book. She had read some of my novels and enjoyed them, and she asked if I had any advice on helping her strengthen her writing. I could have given her many answers to that question including creating an outline, researching carefully, developing strong characters, accuracy, compelling plot, etc. But what I decided to tell her was that the best way to strengthen her writing was to choose the right words.

I know that may sound almost too basic. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the right words in the right order can make for good writing. But I suggested that once she completed her first draft and started the rewriting process, she spend time considering if she needed an alternative to her action and descriptive words. I’m not advocating a thesaurus-intensive approach to writing, just a conscious effort to consider if there’s a better, stronger, more visual alternative to power and descriptive words.

If you strip away all the words that you can’t change such as proper nouns, character’s names, conjunctions, prepositions, and other necessary parts of speech, what’s left are words that the writer can consider changing to strengthen the story.

And here lies the true craft of storytelling: choosing the right word.

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is like the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Choosing the right word helps create a stronger visual image in the reader’s mind that should closely resemble the image in the writer’s mind. And the closer those two visions synchronize, the more intimate, meaningful and thrilling the experience can be for the reader. The first words to fall target for change are descriptive words.

Here’s a short exercise in choosing the right descriptive words. It’s a one-sentence story I call A Boy and A Dog. As the writer, I see the action clearly in my mind, but do you see the same scene?

The dog ran toward the boy.

Pretty simple, right? Do you have a clear image of the dog? The boy? Do you see what’s happening with the action? Maybe, but there’s a great deal of room for interpretation. Our collective visions are not synchronized because the descriptive words—dog, ran, boy--are vague and general. Let’s try again.

The big dog ran toward the small boy.

Any better? Do you see the same dog and boy in your mind that I do? Are we talking about a poodle or a collie? Boxer or Doberman? Does small mean that the boy is short or young? Let’s revise.

The big black dog ran toward the small frightened child.

OK, now we’re using some better descriptive words. Are you starting to get the same picture in your mind that I am? Can you see the big black dog? Is it the same dog and child I envision as I write the story?

OK, let’s get serious about using descriptive words.

The pit bull charged the screaming toddler.


Watch for Sunday guest blogs from Robert Liparulo, Julie Kramer, Anne Hawkins, and Grant Blackwood. And coming July 26. James Scott Bell joins the Kill Zone as our new fulltime Sunday blogger.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Food - More Frightening Than Any Thriller

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I literally just got home from seeing this incredible documentary Food Inc, and am still shuddering over much of what I saw. I tell you some of the behind-the-food-you-eat politics, processes and industrial intrigue is enough to put any thriller to shame.

Although I was already a proponent of organic and local foods, this movie opened my eyes to the food production industry in a way that I never expected - It scared me. From contamination of our food sources to horrific conditions (for workers as well as animals) and the unconscionable practices of companies that perpetuate the dangers in our current food production system - this movie affected me as viscerally as any horror film would.

I wept for the mother of 2 1/2 -year-old Kevin who died after eating a hamburger contaminated with the E. coli strain O157:H7 and I was sickened by images of chickens who are artificially bred so that their limbs cannot sustain their own weight anymore. I honestly thought I would vomit after seeing images of how meat is processed in this country - not because I am squeamish, but because I was so outraged at the chemical treatments that are now needed to prevent contamination - contamination due to the fact that we now feed corn rather than grass to our cattle. Don't even get me started on immigrant worker issues or the practices of companies such as Monsanto...because my outrage would just be stirred anew.

The greatest thing about this movie, however, was not just that it lifted the veil on the food production industry in America but that it also made me feel empowered to make the changes that will hopefully, one day, alter the system forever. As a writer I want to delve deeper into some of the stories behind the reports in this film - because truth seems stranger and more terrifying than any plot I could have concocted. As a mother, I can make a difference to my family each day and with every meal - and have vowed to become a 'mindful eater'. I have no excuse now not to eat organic, local produce that is in season and which comes from companies who respect their workers, their animals as well as the environment. Pretty easy in California but the film recognizes that for many struggling families it is cheaper to buy a cheeseburger than a head of broccoli (what kind of crazy system lets that occur?!)

I tell you, after seeing this film, if I do write a dark noirish thriller, it won't be called "The Firm" or "The Chamber" it will be called "The Farm".

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Collaborating with Cussler

Our guest today is New York Times bestselling author, Paul Kemprecos. Paul is the co-author with Clive Cussler of eight NUMA Files books. Before collaborating with Cussler, he had written six underwater private detective books set on Cape Cod. His first book won a Shamus Award for best original paperback. He and his wife live on Cape Cod

Kemprecos, Paul People often ask me about the nuts and bolts of my collaboration with Clive Cussler. I must admit I’m as mystified about the process as when we started writing the NUMA Files series around ten years ago at a time only a few fiction writers were working together. Clive still kids me about making the jump from a regional Cape Cod private eye to world-wide thriller-adventure novels but at the time it was a daunting proposition. And still is.

I decided from the first not try to be another Cussler. The Grandmaster of Adventure is several inches taller than I am, so there was no way I could fill his shoes. And we had differing backgrounds and styles of writing. I would simply write the best adventure story I could, keeping the tone--whatever that is--similar to that of the Pitt novels.

Clive sent me the bios of the NUMA Special Assignments Team and it was up to me to flesh them out as believable characters. Then we were off and running on the book that would become Serpent.

serpentWith a cast of characters in place, next there had to be a story line. Clive suggested having the lost continent of Atlantis found under Antarctic ice. I gathered some material and was digging through the pile when he called and said he was going to use his suggested story line in the Dirk Pitt novel that would become Atlantis Found. He had another idea: a conspiracy to keep secret contact with America that pre-dated Columbus. It was pretty sketchy, but I said I would see what I could do. I said I had been thinking of using the Andrea Doria sinking in one of my PI novels and thought that the collision with the Stockholm that led to the sinking of the Italian luxury liner might be a good way to start a NUMA File. The collision could have been a deliberate act I suggested. He thought that was a good idea and suggested that the ship was sunk to hide an object on board that would unravel the conspiracy. Start writing, he said.

I sat down with some books and a diagram of the Doria and the prologue turned out surprisingly well. Clive said it was great and told me to keep going. I knocked off another hundred pages. This time Clive called to say the second batch of pages I had sent kinda stunk. I agreed with him, and said I was badly in need of some guidance. A few weeks later I flew out to Scottsdale, Arizon where Cussler lives. I was convinced that I had gotten in over my head with the NUMA Files, but we spent a couple of days going back and forth and carved out the plot and characters that would put Serpent on the best-seller lists.

medusa This is pretty much the template we have followed in our collaboration, right down to our latest book, Medusa. I run some concepts by him. He says yes, no or maybe and offers suggestions. I start writing, get into trouble about half way through the manuscript, then I fly out to have a story conference that sets things straight and head home to write the rest of the book. He hasn’t called recently to say something stinks, usually saying it indirectly by hinting I might want to come at something a different way. We’ve worked together long enough for me to pick up on his suggestions, however subtle they may be. I’ve learned to trust his instincts even if they run counter to my own. When he keeps returning to a subject it usually means this is a good thing to keep in the story.

Every writing duo comes at the task in its own way. Some write alternating chapters. Or one person works on story while the other does the actual writing and they meet somewhere in the middle. James Patterson said at a Thrillerfest talk that he writes long outlines for others who do the actual writing.

I think that whatever way works is the right way. Clive and I have a loose arrangement, but we are on the same creative wavelength. I will never be the story-teller Clive is. And he says I’m a better writer than he is. Even so, when we get into our Good-Guy, Bad-Guy discussions, we are talking the same language.

I guess it works. Medusa was scheduled to come in at number two today, June 2, on The New York Times bestseller list.

Have you ever collaborated with another author, and if so, how do you approach the task? If you haven’t, do you think you could? And as a reader, how do you feel about books written by two writers as opposed to single authors?

Watch for future Sunday guest blogs from Robert Liparulo,  Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Serial Killers ….Not In My Books, and New Babies

John Ramsey Miller

I almost didn’t make it here this week because my middle son’s wife had a baby yesterday and we have been keeping their two-year old. I haven’t had a moment to do anything but gather the rope and throw the lasso as he roars by. I hate it when people show pictures of newborns because most are either ugly or featurless, and really ...who cares. I just put this picture here because this isn't true in my family. For some odd reason, all of my grandchildren are born looking like movie stars.

My blog this week was going to be about serial killers and this is what I got done on that...

Someone asked me the other day if I had written any novels with serial killers in them and I said not yet, and probably not ever. All of my books have killers in them, but the motivation for my killers is usually based on self-interest. A person who kills over and over again for sexual gratification holds no interest for me and I’m not comfortable writing about them. My killers are usually murdering for revenge, profit, in self-defense, or due to a twisted sense of justice. My killers [those who are main characters] are complex individuals. They are usually intelligent, but almost all have a warped perspective on the world.

I like writing villains. A protagonist usually has to win more or less fairly against an opponent who isn’t into the rules so much. Not adhering to any rules of engagement usually gives my killers an edge against their opposition. Yeah, it really wasn't going anywhere near new ground.

So, tomorrow is Father's Day, and as it turns out between the new baby (see above), my older son's family doing something because he is a father of four, it will be a smaller than normal turnout. It will also be 99˚ (after weeks of rain--think sauna) so I'll be staying close to the air conditioner.

So I ramble back and try to tie something together...

Now I have six grandchildren, three-and-three, and instead of merely messing up the house, they can wreck several acres when they visit together for Sunday dinner.

I've always heard that the worst killer imaginable would be a three hundred pound three-year old, and I believe it. My oldest son doesn't allow his children to use the word "kill", but his children (6 & 4) have "accidented" two baby chickens, legions of frogs, lizards, bugs, etc... Now children will do these things when they are together, never on their own. Thrill killing on the farm. They are good kids, but kids are like adults. As long as they are not accompanied by other adults they don't usually get into mischief. Two or more people and there is a chance for escalation. The clear exception is writers who do all of their mischief when they are alone.

By the way the new baby (born yesterday) is Shay Aurora Miller and she weighed 6 lbs 13 Oz, and I only mention this because I'll call her Sam, because I should caption the picture.

Friday, June 19, 2009

My Crazies Are Better Than Your Crazies

By John Gilstrap

My home city, Washington, DC, is blessed with a vast community of writers. Every three or four months, my dear friend Dan Moldea pulls a bunch of us together for an Authors’ Dinner at the Old Europe Restaurant in Georgetown. The one requirement to be a “member” of the otherwise non-exclusive group is to be a published author.

As you might expect for Washington, non-fiction outnumbers fiction ten-to-one, and the politics of the room lean decidedly to the left. My own lean a bit to the right, as do those of a few other members, and this is a group that loves to talk politics. And you know what? It remains civil throughout.

Most writers I know are intellectually honest; they understand that two people can easily view a set of facts and draw entirely different conclusions. It’s refreshing. People accept that a well-reasoned position is at least, well, reasonable. Discussions get heated from time to time, but the heat is 99% passion, not anger. I’m certain that few minds are changed, but at least people listen. How rare is that in this day and age?

I’ve been an avid debater of issues for as long as I can remember, and here’s what a lifetime of political discussions has taught me: Most “liberals” and “conservatives” are actually “moderates” whose political outlooks hover somewhere between 47 and 53 on my imagined 100-point political spectrum. Why, then, are the airwaves filled with take-no-prisoners extremists on every significant issue?

Come to think of it, when did it become so offensive to discuss politics among friends? Why is it so offensive? Could it be that too many of our fellow citizens don’t truly understand what they think or why they think it; that they are merely parroting what they hear from Keith Olbermann or Rush Limbaugh or Oprah Winfrey and know that they can’t possibly defend their positions? I know a lady who routinely asks people at nearby restaurant tables to stop talking politics among themselves because the discussions make her feel “uncomfortable.” In her mind, it’s rude to discuss issues within earshot, but it’s not rude to inject herself into an eavesdropped conversation. How’s that for an interesting social compass?

Hey, look, I’m not suggesting that anyone be rude to guests at a dinner party by putting them in an uncomfortable position, but it seems to me that silence on issues comes with a heavy price. When reasonable people don’t afford themselves the opportunity to vet their thoughts, the issues themselves get hijacked by extremists, and the debate becomes polarized by gas bags who make their living by filtering and shaping the “truth” into something that in fact bears little likeness to it. Comity and compromise become the first casualties.

For the sake of votes or ratings (the common denominator in either case being money), the gas bags assign labels wholesale to people on the “other side” of issues. People stop listening to ideas yet start parsing phrases to perpetuate presumptions. In legislatures throughout the country, I worry that what used to be the loyal opposition has simply become the enemy. Majority control is becoming a license to bully.

It’s scary, it’s bipartisan, and we’re allowing it to happen in part, I believe, because we’re afraid of speaking our minds.

A friend of mine, whose politics rest around 48 on my imagined political spectrum while mine hover around 52, put it best when he told me, “John, we vote for different candidates because the crazies in your party scare me more than my crazies in mine. But only by a little.”

What do you think? How do we bring civil discourse back into fashion? Is it even a good idea? Can a democracy (or even a representative republic) continue to exist without it?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Why I Love My Television

by Michelle Gagnonedie falco

So I became engaged in a heated debate the other day with a group of friends over the relative merits of television. One friend was a holdout who was caught by surprise with the recent switch to digital- she'd never owned a cable box, and didn't care to start now. I thought that was a shame, and said so. And here's why: Hands down, I think some of the most interesting stories are being told on television. A series opens up the possibilities of a much broader story and character arc than any film, in my opinion. Which isn't to say that there aren't some great movies out there, but I think some of the current TV programming beats the majority of films hands down.

Here are my favorites:

  • Nurse Jackie: Granted, there have only been two episodes thus far, but wow. I have a hard time imagining a movie studio greenlighting a project like this. Edie Falco proves there's life after Carmela Soprano, the supporting cast is great, and I can't wait to see what happens. It's the most caustically funny comedy out there right now.

  • the wire The Wire: Season after season this series paved new ground. I think it was the best police procedural ever made, and that includes Homicide, in which to be honest my interest waned halfway through.

  • Deadwood: Shakespeare in the Wild West. Swearengen was one of the best villains ever written, complex, smart, funny- he stole the show season after season. It's a shame this ended so soon.

  • Mad Men: It makes one yearn for the days of three martini lunches. A brilliant portrait of life in America at a time when everything was about to change.

  • United States of Tara: An Emmy is almost a given for Toni Collete in this role that allows her to chew the scenery. Roles like this for women of a ceUS Tarartain age just don't exist in film anymore. And Diablo Cody proves that Juno wasn't a fluke, she's a major talent.

  • The Tudors: The trashiness is leavened by the period costumes and fine acting of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.

  • The Shield: Dark, gritty, and one of the best and most realistic endings to a drama ever televised.

  • It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: This show is so weird and out there I can't get enough of it. You so rarely see cannibalism explored in two dimensions, alongside race relations, white guilt, and character so completely devoid of any sense of humanity.

Note that all of these air on cable networks- my argument for investing in a box over an antenna. Granted, there's a lot of trash out there, but there are some true gems as well.

So I'm curious to hear what everyone's current favorites are- there are many I haven't listed here that are mainstays on my TIVO, but these are the ones I rush to see when they're on.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What’s in a number?

By Joe Moore

The authors here at TKZ blog write in the mystery/thriller genre. We cover the gamut of action and suspense themes. All our books contain totally different stories and different styles from different perspectives and voices. We are individual writing original fiction.

But there’s one thing we all have in common with each other and every other published writer. Somewhere on the cover of our books is a number (usually displayed with a bar code) called the International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Recently, someone asked me what the number meant, besides just identifying the specific book. I had no idea, so I went searching for a answers.

Here’s what I found.

isbn An ISBN is assigned to each edition and variation (except reprints) of a book.

The ISBN system is universal. So anyone with knowledge of the numbering system can decipher what it means including where it was published.

Up until January 1, 2007, ISBN’s contained 10 digits. Now they have 13.

An ISBN-13 is made up of five parts usually separated by hyphens. The first part is 978 to comply with something called the GS1 global standard.

The second part is a group or country identifier. English speaking countries start with 0 or 1. French with 2. German with 3. Japan with 4. Here’s a list of all the group/country identifiers.

The next part is the publisher’s number. Publishers usually purchase blocks of ISBN’s.

The publisher’s numeric title of the book is the next number.

The final number is called a “check digit” used for error detection and to validate the ISBN. It is always a single digit, so if the formula used to determine the check digit produces a 10, it is designated by the Roman numeral X.

Here’s some additional info on ISBNs.

A new ISBN number is required if you change the title on a reprint, make a substantial revision (approximately 15-20% of the text), and change the format or binding such as going to audio or hard cover to paperback.

There’s no need to use a new ISBN on additional printings or if the price changes.

You can never reuse an ISBN on another book if the first goes out of print. Plus, even if a book is declared out of print, many booksellers such as Amazon are involved in the selling of used books. So the title and ISBN can remain active long after the publisher has stopped printing.

Although it’s a dry topic, the ISBN is a common thread that binds all published authors together. And like so many other elements in the publishing world, we should all be aware of what that little number means on the back of our books.

Coming Sunday, June 21, Paul Kemprecos tells us what it’s like to collaborate with Clive Cussler. And future Sunday guest bloggers include Robert Liparulo, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Getting unstuck: Dealing with writer's block

I thought about titling this post Coming unstuck, which lets you know how I feel about today's topic: Writer's block.

I never used to understand what people meant by "writer's block." I 'd always felt immune to that scribe's disease. When I wrote the first two books in my current series, I had a machine-like discipline. I'd get up at four a.m. every morning and write for at least two hours. No. Matter. What. My progress was always slow but steady. I wrote almost the same number of pages every day. My writing group members were in awe of me.

But then along came Book Three, and I went into a bit of a slump. Actually it felt more like an avalanche. Even though I loved the story I was working on, sometimes I'd find that days would pass without any progress at all. I eventually had to ask for--gasp!--an extension from my editor, who graciously granted it to me. But even then I kept running behind. Ultimately I made the new deadline, but barely. Now I have a recurring nightmare about missing the deadline, which has replaced my old nightmare about discovering that I've missed an entire semester of a class, just before the final exam.

So what exactly is writer's block? I think the term is a bit misleading. It implies that the writer doesn't know what to write about -- such as a lack of inspiration, perhaps. In my case I knew the story I wanted to write, but I seemed to have lost the daily writing rhythm along the way. Maybe what I had was actually energy block. Or focus block.

So here were a few of my cures for The Block. All of them proved to be helpful at times:

  • Write 15 minutes a day
    You can write for at least 15 minutes today, even if you're the busiest person on the planet. Doing that small amount per day helps you get the habit and rhythm back. Over time, your progress will add up.
  • Write at the same time each day.
    I think this is the single most helpful habit that will enable you to break through writer's block. If you sit your butt down in a chair at the same time every day, your body starts to learn that this is the time for writing. Your writing flow will start to kick in at that time.
  • Free writing
    This technique is where you grab a couple of random words and "free write" them into your WIP for a set amount of time. Actually, this one has never worked that well for me. Whenever I try free writing, I get stuck at the same damned spot that I'm stuck in my regular writing. And then I get even more depressed about my writer's block. But I know that free writing works wonders for some people. For great tips about free writing and other ways to break through The Block, I recommend Barbara DeMarco-Barrett's book, Pen On Fire: A Busy Woman's Guide To Igniting The Writer Within. (Guys can pick up a few tips too!)
  • Put your writing first
    I have many acquaintances who have endless reasons for not writing. Anniversaries, birthdays, conflicting deadlines, vacations, relatives get the idea. Unsurprisingly, these people are frequently blocked writers. Your writing needs to be a first priority in your life, or you'll be doin' time inside The Block.
What about you? Have you ever wrangled with writer's block, or energy block? Any solutions you can share?
Coming Sunday, June 21, Paul Kemprecos tells us what it’s like to collaborate with Clive Cussler. And future Sunday guest bloggers include Robert Liparulo, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

We're not in Kansas Anymore

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I'm in the Hilton at Chicago O'Hare airport typing this post so apologies if I don't get to comments until late Monday as I'll be flying home from the Historical Novel Society conference. I had a lovely time because for once I didn't feel like the nerd in the room full of cool thriller writers:)...okay so I still felt like a nerd, it just wasn't quite as obvious...

On Sunday I moderated a panel on writing about non-Western cultures with a terrific line-up of panelists: Michelle Moran, Jade Lee, Kamran Pasha and Eileen Charbonneau. Of all the (fabulous, of course!) questions I asked, the one that struck me the most related to resistance within publishing houses to publishing books about non-Western cultures. Not surprising but saddening none the less. For most of the panelists, publication sprung from the faith of the one cool editor out there who fell in love with the project and was determined to see it succeed. That's true for most writers but still the need to justify and convince the marketing and sales force of the commercial viability of such a project remains a unique challenge for the writer of a 'non-Western' book.

What I think depressed me the most (though I have to confess much of what the agents, editors and fellow published writers were saying at the conference about the state of the publishing industry was depressing) was the sad truth that in bad economic times most readers want to escape to something they are comfortable with - which usually means something they can easily relate to culturally. I guess readers want the comfy old sweatshirt rather than the exotic shirt they can't seem to button up. For me, when I start worrying about the economy, I re-read English favorites like the Brontes or Jane Austen with a nice hot cup of tea in my hand - so I readily admit I'm just as bad (though I hope I'm forgiven because I usually have wider, culturally diverse tastes!)

As was evident from our discussion, one of the driving forces behind most of the writers on the panel was a desire to overcome stereotypes (and in Kamran's case overwhelmingly negative ones regarding Muslims) and to help inform readers about the true nature of a culture which remains to many readers both foreign and inaccessible.

Which brings me to some questions for you all: In a sales driven market, how can writers help broaden the publishing industry's cultural horizons? What makes a so-called alien culture (and I don't mean sci-fi or fantasy) accessible for you as a reader?

Despite the economic times, I think we need tolerance and cultural understanding now more than ever. Before I embrace the blogosphere with a group hug (okay, I'm sleep deprived, so cut me some slack here...) I also want to know how do you think readers, writers and the publishing industry can help bridge the cultural divide?

Coming Sunday, June 21, Paul Kemprecos tells us what it’s like to collaborate with Clive Cussler. And future Sunday guest bloggers include Robert Liparulo, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.

The King Is Back

Our guest today is New York Times bestselling author, Steve Berry. Steve’s books have been sold in 49 countries and 39 languages with over 8 million copies in print. His novels include The Amber Room, The Romanov Prophecy, The Third Secret, The Templar Legacy, The Alexandria Link, The Venetian Betrayal, and his latest, The Charlemagne Pursuit. His next thriller, The Paris Vendetta, will be available December 2009. In addition to writing novels, Steve serves on the International Thriller Writers board of directors as co-president.

By Steve Berry

berry-steve2Over the past six years I’ve been asked countless times by the press, fans, and friends about The Da Vinci Code.  It’s a natural question since my stories are constantly compared to it.  Dan Brown even provided a wonderful blurb for my first novel, The Amber Room, (calling it “sexy, illuminating, and confident . . . my kind of thriller”).  I still like reading that comment from time to time.

Dan achieved what every writer dreams about.  He wrote a story that utterly captured the imagination.  One of those tales that rang with a sense of originality.  Remember all the press.  The hype.  The talk.  The buzz.  It was amazing.  People flocked into stores and bought The Da Vinci Code by the millions.  The result?  A guy who barely existed after his first three novels, was catapulted into a worldwide household name.  Eventually, non-fiction books, more fiction, television shows, games, memorabilia, a movie, you name it, and that book spawned it.

dan-brownBut that will not be Dan’s legacy.


What he did is bigger than all that. 

Dan will be remembered for bringing a genre back to life. 

Here’s reality:  When the Cold War ended in 1990, the traditional, tried-and-true-good-old-fashioned-spy-thriller died.  By 1995 the genre was virtually gone.  By 2002 editors simply weren’t buying, and people weren’t reading, spy thrillers.  Sure, if you were Cussler, Follett, Ludlum, and Forsyth you were okay.  Those long standing audiences were fully developed and totally assured.  But if you were anyone else, especially a rookie trying to break in, times were tough.  During the 1990s my agent submitted 5 separate thrillers to New York houses.  They were rejected a total of 85 times.

Then, in March 2003, the world changed. 

That was when The Da Vinci Code was released. 

tdcFor the next 36 months The Da Vinci Code was either #1, 2, or 3 on The New York Times  bestseller list, mostly in the #1 slot.   On every other American bestseller list the story was the same, as was the case from around the world.  Few books can claim such a feat.  A genre that what was once called ‘spy thriller,’ re-emerged as the international suspense thriller, a blend of history, secrets, conspiracy, action, and adventure. 

Just exactly what I, and many others, happen to be writing.

Many of us received our chance to find an audience thanks to what Dan Brown and Doubleday did in releasing The Da Vinci Code.  Thrillers were hot once again.  Hundreds of new books appeared.  The resurrection led, in no small measure, in 2004, to the creation of International Thriller Writers, an organization now of over 1000 working thriller writers. 
Happy days were here again.

Every few years a book comes along that literally changes things.  Stephen King’s Carrie.  David Morrell’s First Blood.  Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent.  John Grisham’s The Firm.  Those books fundamentally altered their genres.  They also opened up opportunities that, before them, did not exist for others.

The Da Vinci Code is such a book too.

I tell the story that every time I pass a copy I stop and bow.  Perhaps that’s an over-dramatization but, in my mind, I always utter a silent thanks.  Maybe I would have made it to print one day.  Maybe not.  All I know is that I did make it in 2003 thanks to Dan Brown, Doubleday, and The DaVinci Code.

In September, The Lost Symbol will be released.  This time Dan and Doubleday will not just resurrect a genre, they could well revive an industry.  Book sales have been decreasing over the past two years.  Print runs are down.  Re-orders are slow.  Backstock is disappearing.  Already, bookstores and booksellers are salivating at the prospects this fall offers.  People will, without question, return to the stores.  Books will be sold, and not just Dan’s.  The ripple affect will be huge.  Everyone’s bottom line will be positively affected.  This is precisely what the publishing industry needs.  The Lost Symbol will certainly debut at #1 and remain there for many months, if not years.  Already it is the single largest first printing in Random House history (5,000,000), but my guess is that number will increase before the fall. 

Welcome back, Dan.

For the past six years, many a prince has fought over your throne.  Several have laid claim, but none emerged to take your place.

Now they all must move aside.

The king is back.

May his reign be long and prosperous.

So what do you think? What effect will Dan Brown’s new thriller have on the publishing industry? Will it surpass The Da Vinci Code?


Coming Sunday, June 21, Paul Kemprecos tells us what it’s like to collaborate with Clive Cussler. And future Sunday guest bloggers include Robert Liparulo, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

My Wife Went to Prison Last Week

John Ramsey Miller

My wife’s bank was purchased by this other huge bank with offices in San Francisco and she was in that fine city all week, while I was at home with the chickens and dogs. Monday she went to Alcatraz Island and took the tour. She called me to say that she couldn’t believe how bleak the place was and how small the cells were. I knew that already since I’ve been in prisons before. And I reminded her that she had been there too, albeit only in the visitors area.

When I was photographing country music artists for album covers and magazine features I went to “The Walls” in Nashville with Tammy Wynette and Mel Tillis to photograph their concert for CBS Records. I got pictures of Tammy walking around in a huge room filled with a few hundred inmates armed only with a microphone, and she was a safe as she would have been sitting at home, where she actually died some years later. One of the inmates was also taking pictures and I talked with him about photography. The walls was a gothic prison where Burt Reynolds filmed the Longest Yard. Tony M., the inmate with a camera, was there doing 54 years for armed robbery.

A week later, I was approached by the warden at the prison (who later lost his job and, if memory serves, went to prison himself for borrowing money from inmates) who said Tony had asked him if I could help him set up a photographic darkroom for use by the inmates who put out the prison newspaper and I agreed. I looked at the space, which was across the main yard where the inmates spent their days. I designed a well-equipped darkroom, which Tony was to run. Tony was a very nice guy for an armed robber. In fact he was a nice guy period. The inmates liked him because he furnished them with pictures for their loved ones. In exchange they traded him things for the pictures, which is how prisons work.

For a period of a few weeks I would present myself at the gate and the guards would open the gates and let me in and I would wander to the designated darkroom space. I had nothing to fear because the inmates knew I was helping Tony, and I walked around unaccompanied by guards as safe as a newborn puppy. I went everywhere with Tony and being under his protection and I spent a lot of time talking with inmates. I taught Tony how to use the equipment I selected, and he was a natural. After Tony was moved to a newly built facility two years later I would take my wife and two-year-old son to visit him on Sundays and my son would sit in his lap.

Later I went to Leavenworth, Kansas to photograph Johnny Paycheck in concert in that federal facility, and it turned out that the warden was a nephew of Bill Monroe, the Bluegrass Icon. Bill Monroe was a casual friend of mine, and I had done a couple of his album covers. I was invited to go coon hunting with him. The warden gave me the celebrity tour, and I visited the rooms where the Birdman of Alcatraz had done his bird thing. The bird man was a cold-blooded sexual predator and murderer who had a soft spot for birds. The warden told me that the birdman killed several inmates after he’d raped them and that was the reason he was never released on parole. Hard to imagine Burt Lancaster filming a scene like that for the movie. I met well-known mobsters, a Brinks truck robber, killers of people with Federal implications, and other famous criminals. It was the kind of tour normal people didn’t get. That day I was with the warden, who walked around without an escort. I was amazed.

In 1981 I was living in New Orleans, and one night at a dinner for a mutual friend (Tony Dunbar, a lawyer who worked for Amnesty International). I was seated beside Sister Helen Prejean who lived in the projects and ran a ministry from her apartment. She worked with death row inmates. This was before she wrote DEAD MAN WALKING and I found her brilliant and totally delightful. She asked me how I felt about the death penalty and I said I was all for it. Long story short she said if I knew the inmates she worked with I couldn’t hold that belief. Two years later I found myself on Death Row setting up a formal portrait studio in the main hallway and loaded film in a cell on death row at Angola. During those two years I had spent untold hours negotiating with attorneys, inmates, and prison officials in order to do portraits of the men under sentence of death. In 1981 executions had been halted for a few years, and the big burn was in the works as cases wound through the courts. I met and photographed Elmo Sonier (Son-yay) one of the two men turned into one for the movie. The other was Robert Lee Willie, I didn’t photograph him. Elmo was one of an impromptu two-man team who raped a teen-age girl and murdered her and her boyfriend. The pictures ended up running in John Grisham’s The Oxford American in the largest selling issue in its history. The pictures, formal large-format portraits of smiling men dressed in street clothes ran years after the men in the pictures were executed. The handcuffs and leg shackles didn’t show in the portraits. If you saw MONSTER BALL, you saw Death Row and depictions of the guards. None of the guards were pro death penalty (at least they told me they were against executions) because they spend their days with the men they would have to help kill.

I have never written about prisons in my books, even though I am familiar with them and got to know more than a few inmates. After that series, I lost interest in photography, and began writing. When those men were executed it depressed me. I was depressed because I felt deep compassion and empathy for the victims, and I felt a sense of wasted lives of the inmates. I look at the pictures of smiling death row inmates and I try to imagine how their victims saw them in their last moments alive. It was impossible to imagine these men as cold-blooded murderers, but they were, and had done horrific things I won’t go into here. They did the crime and they each paid the price society exacted. As long as people harm others, prisons will be necessary. A lot of prisoners shouldn’t be there, but a lot should and have to be. The death penalty has the purpose of making certain that people who are executed never kill again. But the truth is that killers don’t think they’ll ever be caught, much less convicted and executed. It isn’t a deterrent. And it is certainly barbaric. Not much I can do about the people in there, but I can live my life hoping I can help someone make better choices, and know they are valuable.

Here I go wandering again and not blogging about writing, but talking about my life. (It’s all about me). Everything is about writing because our sum totals go into everything we write. The fact is that people flat amaze and astound me. That’s a huge part of why I write, and the people I’ve been fortunate enough to know furnish parts of the characters I put on paper. It seems to me that we all have an amazing capacity for doing good things and being positive influences on people in our lives. At the same time we all have the capacity (hopefully unrealized) for channeling evil and destroying lives. Although most of write about evil, it rarely if ever wins in the end, and good triumphs in the end. I like to think life is like that and good will always shine through and prevail.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Dare To Dream

By John Gilstrap

It’s June, so another graduation season is drawing to a close. In high schools and colleges all over the United States, proud students are donning caps and gowns, and posing for pictures with even prouder parents and grandparents. Late spring is the time of unbridled opportunity. Those young men and women literally own the future—their own, to be sure, but also mine, by extension. Given the inherent joy of the season, I wonder why so many adults seem to take pleasure in screwing it all up.

When the announcement is made at the family dinner that young William or Wilhelmina has a computer science degree or a business degree, or that they’ve been accepted to the law school of their choice, the sense of approval is palpable. Everybody knows that those kids are set for life. Their future will be filled with money and material gain.

Have you noticed that music majors or creative writing majors or acting majors don’t receive the same universal acceptance? Is it because the presumed path to wealth isn’t quite so linear? Is it because liberal arts and social sciences aren’t as important to society as harvesting a new crop of lawyers? This bothers me.

I find it difficult to believe that at the doddering age of 21, every law school inductee is truly pursuing his or her passion. I could be wrong—I’ve spent a lifetime being wrong many, many times—but whenever I see a newly minted lawyer or accountant, I get the sense that in more than a few cases, their beaming smiles are reflections of just their own ambitions, but those of Mom and Dad as well.

Maybe I don’t want to see so young a person with so pedestrian a dream as being a lawyer or accountant. Age forty-one is the time for 12-hour work days and heavy responsibility, not twenty-one. Is this really their dream? For some, yes. For many, I suspect no.

You want to see lofty dreams? You want to be inspired by a youthful spirit? Sit down and talk to those creative writing students and the musicians. They know that the odds of success are stacked against them, but they don’t care. They’ve got a passion, and they’re going to pursue it to the end, until they either succeed or are forced by finances or a broken spirit to declare defeat.

If they beat the odds—and let’s face it, they are long odds—naysayers will pronounce them to be “lucky.” But that’s only if the success is huge. Like George Clooney or John Grisham huge.

Otherwise, in my experience, people will find a way to diminish true success and turn it into something less than it is. It’s only a TV movie, not a real movie. It’s only being published by a small press, not a major house. It’s only the Washington Opera company, not the Met. It’s only the touring company, not Broadway. Sure, he made it to the Chicago Bears, but he never made it above second string.

It’s a shame about William. He never really made it. Never mind that William is doing what he loves.

I feel sorry for the kids who have been career tracked by their parents. It’s foolish to think about becoming an artist, they are told, because it’s impossible to make any money at it. They'll prove their point by reciting a litany of one hit wonders and abject failures from among their own childhoods. Give up now, son; you’ll never make it. This from the same mother or father who said never give up on the soccer field or in Math class. Those are important. Without the connections and the A-plus report card, Harvard is off the table, don’t you know.

I know that I am painting with a very broad brush here, but I’ve known these parents. I’ve had to justify why I was ruining my own son’s chances at success by not shipping him off to boarding school where he could start networking at age fourteen. (I’m not making that up. I turned the debate around, though, when I asked the overachievers why they were willing to surrender custody of their adolescent children at the moment in their lives when they most needed the steady hand and constant love of their parents.)

So listen up, graduates: It’s your life now. You have the God-given right to live it as you please. If acting like you’re forty when you’re 20 years younger is your thing, then go for it. But if you want to start a rock band or become a poet or set a new standard for sculpture, this is the time. If it doesn’t work, how much harm can you do to an accounting career that hasn’t started yet?

How do you even know that you want to be an accountant if you haven’t tried a dozen other things? I’ve got nothing against accountants, don’t get me wrong, but this is an important life choice. Suppose you hate being an accountant? Changing your mind becomes a lot harder after you’ve got kids and a mortgage, and I think that the seeds of doubt over what might have been if only you'd tried could be crippling.

I say if you’ve got talent and a dream, pursue the hell out of it. This is the time. Success only comes to those to endeavor to achieve it. Failure only comes to those who surrender.

And to surrender without trying, well, that’s just cowardice.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Why Bother with Bookscan?

by Michelle Gagnonbook

So here's something I didn't find out about until after my first book was published: Nielsen, the same company that ranks TV shows, is responsible for maintaining records of book sales. And, as with the TV ratings, there's a vast disparity between what those numbers say and what the reality might be (does anyone honestly believe that many people are watching the "Ghost Whisperer?") Among all the industry people I've spoken with, it's generally acknowledged that Bookscan tends to be wildly inaccurate.

Case in point: I know for a fact that, when compared with my royalty statements, Bookscan only counts about a third of my sales (and that's a year after the fact). Despite their claim to "provide weekly point-of-sales data with the highest possible degree of accuracy," there are a number of sales venues they simply don't factor in. Amazon, for example. Or Walmart. Or airports, drugstores, supermarkets; in other words, pretty much anywhere paperbacks are sold. I've heard that the numbers come closer with hardcovers, but with mass market paperbacks they're way off the mark.

So why, then, do these numbers matter? For the sad truth is that they do. During my agent search, one agent looked up my Bookscan numbers right in front of me. And few people seem to know exactly how far off they are. From various editors I've heard that they double, triple, or even quadruple the Bookscan numbers to approximate actual sales.

In this day and age, why isn't a better system in place? My publisher produces "velocity reports" the first six weeks of a book's release--they know by the end of each week exactly how many copies have sold. So where do those numbers come from, and why aren't those reported to Bookscan?

Big box stores like Barnes and Noble and Borders also know exactly how many books they've sold, almost on a minute to minute basis. If they stock eight copies of a book and sell five, they'll only buy five copies of that author's next release (or even fewer; sad but true. Which is why, as Joe noted yesterday, so many authors adopt pseudonyms these days in an effort to beat the system). So now that all of this information is computerized, why is the one "central clearinghouse" so wrong? A friend who works as an editor in Germany claims that they can get an accurate tally at the end of each and every day. Granted, Germany is a much smaller market than the U.S., but still. There has to be a better way.

Mind you, most authors don't have access to their Bookscan numbers- publishers and distributors pay a fee for that information. I'm a big believer in transparency, and one of the most maddening aspects of being a writer is that getting a sense of where you stand is a constant uphill battle. This is why some authors become compulsive about checking their Amazon ranking, or trying to get feedback from their publisher regarding how sales are progressing. I'm not sure why that information is in short supply, but the Bookscan monopoly can't be helping.

Coming up on Sunday, June 14, our guest blogger will be New York Times bestselling author and ITW co-president Steve Berry discussing the impact of Dan Brown’s new thriller THE LOST SYMBOL on the publishing industry.

And watch for future Sunday guest blogs from Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Just say no to dialect, y'all

I'm visiting my family in North Carolina this week, and was pleased to run across an article in a local paper that described the enduring value of regional dialects.

However, I don't love it when authors use too much dialect in fiction. I think the over-use of dialect in dialogue is a huge story drag.

I once belonged to a writing group where a writer insisted on loading down his eighteenth-century naval adventure story each week with enough historically "accurate" dialect to sink a clipper ship. And what's worse, he'd write phonetically
accented dialect, so that it became taxing simply to wade through a few paragraphs. By the time his characters had been at sea for five minutes, I felt like I'd been reading for five hours.

But every time I suggested to him that there was too much dialect, he'd come back with, "
But that's the way people really spoke."

And my thought-response to that was,
so what? Reading it was hell.

With all due respect to Mark Twain, I think writers today need to convey dialect through techniques that don't involve making the reader slog through irritating, hard-to-decipher dialect. We must try to give the
rhythm of natural and regional speech without making readers suffer through a surfeit of "sanging," "you'uns," and "Oh, Law's."

These tools include:

  • Local phrases - The article I linked to earlier mentioned that mountain folk might refer to a child born out of wedlock as a "woods colt." When you sprinkle local phrases such as that into your dialogue, your readers will know exactly the type of speech your character is using.
  • Slang - You can use slang to clarify a character's speech, but I'd use this tool sparingly. Slang can make your writing seem dated. For example, how many eras could utilize the slang phrase "booty call"?
  • Grammar - a character's use of grammar communicates a wealth of information about his or her education, socioeconomic status, and other personal traits. But again, use that tool lightly so that ungrammatical speech doesn't become annoying.
But maybe it's just me. In my writing group, I seemed to be the only reader who was highly allergic to dialect. What about you? Do you mind reading dialect in books? As a writer, what are some of the do's and don'ts that you employ to portray a sense of dialect without turning off a reader?

Coming up Sunday, June 14, our guest blogger will be New York Times bestselling author Steve Berry. And watch for future Sunday guest blogs from Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.