Monday, August 31, 2009
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Some years ago I was teaching at a writers conference in New Mexico. After lunch I noticed one of the conferees sitting at a back table, looking distressed. I went over and asked her what was up.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Am I ever going to get anywhere? I see all these people, they all want it just as much as I do. How do I know if I’ll ever make it? ” Tears started down her cheeks.
I handed her a napkin for the tears, then took another and drew a pyramid on it. I divided the pyramid into six sections. Inside the pyramid are writers, I explained, with each section representing a different level of achievement.
The bottom, where most of the people are, is the realm of the “want to.” Or “I think I have a book inside me.” But outside of some scribblings, maybe a short story or two, perhaps an unfinished novel, these people never move on to the next level…
…which is where people like you are (I told her). Those who actually try to learn something about writing. Who buy writing books, go to conferences, take classes…and write.
Above that is the level for those who actually finish a full length novel. This is a great place to be. This is where real writers come from.
The next level holds those who write another novel, because the first one is probably going to be rejected. They do this because they are novelists, not just someone who happened to write a novel.
Next are those who get published. Above that those who are published multiple times.
Sitting on top of the pyramid is a Wheel of Fortune. This is where the breakout hits come from. The wheel goes around and lands on a book like Cold Mountain. Or The Da Vinci Code. Or Harry Potter.
No one can control this. No one know how to guarantee a hit, or it would be done every time out.
Your job, I told the young writer, is to keep moving up the pyramid. Each level presents its own challenges, so concentrate on those. As you move up, you’ll notice there are fewer people, not more. People drop out of the pyramid all the time. But if you work hard, you might get a novel on the wheel, and that’s as far as you can go on your own. After that it’s not up to you anymore.
The conference went on and I forgot all about this incident.
A couple of years later I bumped into her at another conference. She told me that this conversation and the diagram had a profound effect on her, and that she was going to keep going, and was finishing her first novel.
Two years after that she wrote to tell me she had landed a book deal. She is now a published author.
Writer, if you want to be published, if you want a hit book, don't worry about things you cannot control. Don't grasp at phantoms. Focus on the page right in front of you. Make it the best it can be, and build these pages into a book. And then another.
Keep climbing the pyramid.
That's your job.
P.S. Adapted from the forthcoming The Art of War for Writers.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
I'll have a real blog next week. This week political thoughts were all I had.
Friday, August 28, 2009
My next book—the second installment of the Jonathan Grave thriller series, to be published next July—finally has a title: Hostage Zero. It’s got heft, I think. It sounds intriguing. And it provides lots of opportunities for the art director to design a terrific cover. At the end of the day, that’s what a title is all about, right?
Good title + great artwork = interested consumer.
For me, a title and a cover have done their job when they compel a potential customer to pick up the book and crack the spine. After that, the prose of the book takes over as sales agent. A book is a consumer product, after all, and packaging matters.
I just wish that the journey to nail down a title was less arduous. I’m coming to grips with the fact that I’m just not very good with titles. They rarely stick. Here’s my publishing history to date (my original titles are in parentheses):
Nathan’s Run (Nathan!)
At All Costs (Most Wanted)
Even Steven (Even Steven)
Scott Free (Scott Free)
Six Minutes to Freedom (Six Minutes to Freedom)
No Mercy (Grave Secrets)
I know it looks like a three-three split, but no one in the entire publishing pantheon liked Six Minutes to Freedom as a title, but it stuck because no one could think of anything else.
A week or so ago, I floated a title trial balloon via Twitter and Facebook to see what people thought of Hard Target as a title for the new book. The response was swift and overwhelmingly negative. Who knew that a bad Jean-Claude Van Damme movie could sully a two-word phrase forever? And who knew how many people are titillated by the word “hard.” I mean really, people. . .
Over the weekend, I got what I thought was a great inspiration for a title, and I floated it to my colleagues here on The Killzone: The Cost of Betrayal. The response was supportive (although not particularly enthusiastic), but it was received warmly enough for me to proffer it to my publisher. The return email read, “er . . . keep thinking.” It was too specific, I was told. We need to think more “atmospheric.”
I have no idea what an atmospheric title is, but on Monday, I floated the possibility of either Mortal Wounds, Mortally Wounded or Precious Cargo. Yeah, I know they all suck, but I wanted a damn title. I’m tired of calling a year-long project Grave 2.
Then I got this email from my editor: “Here’s a title I like a lot: Exit Strategy. This won a ‘great’ from [our sales manager].” I liked it. Done deal, right? I mean, if the author, the editor and the sales manager like a title, what could go wrong?
The publisher hated it. Yep, even used the H-word. I don’t know why she reacted so negatively, but she’s really good at what she does, so I concede to her tastes.
Finally, someone came up with Hostage Zero. It feels right and it tastes right. I have a title!
So what about you folks? How much do you stew over your titles? Do your working titles typically last through to publication, or do they change? As avid readers, do titles matter beyond that first impulse to look at a book? Are titles more than just marketing devices?
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Jason Starr joins us today, filling in for Michelle Gagnon. Jason's latest thriller, PANIC ATTACK, is on-sale now from St. Martin's Press. Michael Connelly calls PANIC ATTACK "the ultimate page-turner" and Jerry Stahl says PANIC ATTACK is "the perfect thriller." It's a terrific beach read, so be sure to pick up a copy today.
Hey, great to be back here, and thanks to Michelle for letting me fill in and blog for her while she is, no doubt, lounging on some exotic beach somewhere, sipping drinks that have little umbrellas in them. Ah, the life of an international best-selling thriller author... Meanwhile, I'm here in dank, sweltering Manhattan, pounding away on my keyboard, like a bad parody of Mickey Spillane. But who said life is fair?
With a new book, PANIC ATTACK, out I've had marketing on my mind lately, and I think this week may turn out to be a key moment in book publishing history. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating...a lot...but I think the announcement of Sony's new Daily Edition reader is really going to shake up the electronic publishing landscape, and maybe the entire publishing landscape.
The Daily Edition is a far cry from Sony's old reader, which wasn't as sleek at the Kindle and couldn't download content wirelessly. Early reviews say the Daily Edition is a potential Kindle killer as it does one big thing the Kindle can't (and won't) do--it lets readers download books for free. That's right, via their local libraries, customers will be able to take e-books out on loan for two or three weeks for no charge.
With so much free content available, how will publishers and Amazon be able to charge full price for books? For example, if Michelle, on her exotic beach vacation, wants to read a copy of James Patterson's latest, where is her incentive to buy the e-edition of the book when she can download it (and as many other books as she wants) for free? Will publishers have to change the way they sell books to libraries, and alter the prices of their e-books? It's hard to imagine that if readers have a free option for e-books that they will continue to shell out the 10 dollars or more that Amazon is currently charging for new hardcover titles.
Daily Edition also allows for other booksellers to distribute their content onto the device. This could be a great chance for Indy booksellers to get into the e-books game, but it could also create even more price competition.
But the main question about e-readers remains--are these devices here to stay and are books as we know them on life support? A little disclosure here. Late last year, I received a Kindle 2 as a gift. When I'm traveling and commuting it's amazing. The ability to send Word files to my Kindle is a God's send for reading manuscripts on the go. Lately, though, I find when I'm home and want something to read I go for an old fashioned book. I guess I feel like I look at a computer screen all day long, and when I want to relax I don't want to hold a gadget, no matter how easy the screen is on the eyes. So, while a few months ago, I was telling people e-books are the wave of the future, I'm not so sure anymore. I see e-books becoming mainly for travel and commuting, and the regular book sticking around for every other use.
As an author, though, I'm excited about the potential proliferation of e-readers because they create the possibility of infinite book sales and could potentially make "book distribution" obsolete. For example, if The Today Show calls tomorrow and wants me on to discuss PANIC ATTACK, my publisher would have to reprint to satisfy the sudden demand. By the time the books arrived in stores, the demand would no longer exist. But in a world where everyone on the planet has an e-reader, a big national media appearance could generate tens of thousands of sales instantly.
So what do y'all think about all this? How are publishers going to price their books in a landscape where Sony is going to effectively start giving away many titles for free? Are you authors out there embracing e-books or would you rather they disappeared?
Tonight, August 27, at 9pm Eastern Time you can "see" me--well my well-endowed Avatar anyway--on the Second Life Talk Show "Virtually Speaking" I'll discuss PANIC ATTACK and lots of other stuff. You also can listen to the broadcast live at 9 pm Eastern Time on Blog Talk Radio.
Find out more about Jason Starr and PANIC ATTACK at www.jasonstarr.com
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
By Joe Moore
For most novelists, one of the easiest things to come up with is an idea for a story. It seems that intriguing ideas swirl around us like cell phone conversations—we just use our writer’s instinct to pull them out of the air and act upon them.
The next step is to develop our characters and stitch together the quilt of a plot that will sustain our story for 100k words. And right up front, we must consider what plot motivation will drive the story and subsequently the characters. Fortunately, there are many to choose from.
So what is a plot motivator? It’s the key ingredient that provides drama to a story as it helps move the plot along. Without it, the story becomes static. And without forward motion, there’s little reason to read on.
Here is a list of what’s considered the most common plot motivators.
Ambition: Can you say Rocky Balboa.
Vengeance: Usually an all-encompassing obsession for revenge such as in The Man In The Iron Mask.
The Quest: Lord Of The Rings is a great example as is Journey To The Center Of The Earth.
Catastrophe: A disaster or series of events that proves disastrous like in The Towering Inferno.
Rivalry: Often powered by jealousy. Remember Camelot?
Love/Hate: Probably the most powerful motivator in any story.
Survival: The alternative is not desirable. Think Alien.
The Chase: A key element in numerous thrillers including The Fugitive.
Grief: Usually starts with a death and goes downhill from there.
Persecution: This one has started wars and created new nations.
Rebellion: There’s talk of mutiny among the HMS Bounty crew.
Betrayal: Basic Instinct. Is that boiled rabbit I smell?
You can easily find a combination of these in most books especially with a protagonist and antagonist being empowered for totally different reasons. But the global plot motivator is usually the one that kick starts the book and moves it forward. Which ones have you used in your books? Which are your favorites? Are there any you avoid and why?
Coming Wednesday, September 9: Forensic specialist and thriller author Lisa Black will be our guest.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Maybe it's because we're in the dog days of August, but I've been spending a ridiculous number of hours doing research on the web this month. Which is to say I've been wasting a ridiculous number of hours this month. For example, I love the rhythm and sound of certain phrases, so today I went through the entire alphabet of collective nouns for animals over at askOxford.com . An ostentation of peacocks, a host of angel fish, a leap of leopards--I now know exactly the right way to refer to a group of any number of creeping, crawling critters.
Monday, August 24, 2009
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Mystery writers everywhere honor the name of that master detective, Sherrinford Holmes, and his good friend, Ormond Sacker.
Mystery writers everywhere honor the name of that master detective, Sherrinford Holmes, and his good friend, Ormond Sacker.
And what about that great heroine of the Civil War South, Pansy O'Hara? Remember her?
Of course you don't. Because Margaret Mitchell thankfully scotched it after briefly considering it for her lead in Gone With the Wind. Props also to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for choosing Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, after toying with those other names.
The name of a Lead character, especially one who will be the star of a series, is not to be randomly selected. Sherlock Holmes is perfect. (Doyle admired Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.; Sherlock may have been the name of Doyle's favorite cricket batsman). And Scarlett is just right for Miss O'Hara.
The name of a Lead character, especially one who will be the star of a series, is not to be randomly selected. Sherlock Holmes is perfect. (Doyle admired Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.; Sherlock may have been the name of Doyle's favorite cricket batsman). And Scarlett is just right for Miss O'Hara.
Travis McGee, the popular creation of John D. MacDonald, has a sound like the character himself--living on a houseboat, few cares in the world, hard when he needs to be.
Could any gumshoe be tougher than Sam Spade?
Ignatius J. Reilly and Myrna Minkoff definitely belong in John Kennedy Toole's oddly structured comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces.
And so it goes, with other names like: Winter Massey, Kate Gallagher, Cotten Stone, Ursula Marlow, Jonathan Grave and Kelly Jones.
Good, solid monikers all. I wonder what the naming process was for the creators of these characters? Perhaps they'll share it with us.
Here is what went into naming my own series character, Ty Buchanan, whose latest appearance is in Try Fear.
Tyler is from Fight Club. Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt in the film) is primal, nihilistic, violent. In Try Dying, the first book in my series, Ty Buchanan has to contend with similar feelings as his world is turned upside down. An up-and-coming lawyer in LA, Ty has it all. But his fiancée is killed (on page 1) and when he goes looking for answers, he’s forced into a street existence that both engenders and requires a hard-edged response.
Buchanan is from a favorite Western of mine, Buchanan Rides Alone (1958, dir. Budd Boetticher), starring the iconic Randolph Scott. He is, in the best western tradition, an anti-hero and loner, but with a strong inner code of honor. He doesn’t look for trouble, but when it finds him, he fights. And he always displays an insouciant good humor.
I wanted these two dynamics to play out within Ty Buchanan. They provide counterpoint and inner conflict, as the Buchanan side is often at odds with the Durden aspect. Thus, the name.
So, writer, how did you choose names for your Lead characters? Is it more than a sound for you? Is there a deeper meaning you look for? Or do you just run your finger down the white pages of a phone book?
And you, reader, what names come to your mind when you think of memorable literary heroes?
Saturday, August 22, 2009
One of the perks of being a published author is that authors and publishers will ask you for blurbs. Some are gems and writing a blurb is a pleasure, and you get to see and understand how difficult it is to write a great blurb that will do the book justice. Flip the coin.
Sometimes you eat the bear…
This week I received a book from an editor at Delacorte asking for my opinion on a book she edited that is being published in January 2010. I read the manuscript and the first 8o pages literally rocked my world. I’m serious. I found myself holding my breath as I read. This is a first novel by an unknown author and I read the book in five hours and I was blown away. Blown away. Blown away. The terms: an exciting new voice, and a talented storyteller, are tossed around every time a first novel is introduced, and often they are just marketing fluff from the book of standard sales phrases that was written in about 1820. I’ll just say one thing with conviction. This woman can flat write a coon up a tree backwards. The author’s name is Carla Buckley, and THE THINGS THAT KEEP US HERE should be a huge success. Hopefully this will be the first of many. It’s manuscripts like this that keep me excited about the requests and ready to read another manuscript.
Then …. sometimes the bear eats you.
I have also been asked to blurb a book and after reading it, wished I hadn't said I would. Occasionally the author is a friend, or connected to a friend, the best I can do is write something that isn’t dishonest. Years ago, I hated to disappoint people. Now I say I only blurb books scheduled for publication and submitted to me by the publisher. Years ago I didn’t want any aspiring author to think that I thought I was too good to help them out. Yesterday I found a list of blurbs I wrote ten years ago and sent to an author who was a friend of a friend and owed this weekend author his life or something. I’ll withhold the name of the publisher (an internet on-demand publisher) and the author, who is no longer among the living.
Here are a handful:
“Few authors would have even attempted to incorporate so many seemingly unrelated characters and plots into one novel.”
“ ___________ is an author who is truly in a class of his own.”
“Never before has an author utilized so many genres in one novel.”
“You will laugh and you will cry and you will not believe just one person wrote this book.”
“I was so entertained by _______________ that I found myself reading long sections of the book over the phone to my friends until my voice played out.”
“A rich tapestry of plots, genres and styles that will have the reader laughing one minute and crying the next.”
“If you live to be 100, you’ll never again read anything like ___________________.”
The author actually used two of the blurbs on the cover. I didn’t lie in any of the blurbs, and everybody was happy.
The book whose name cannot be said, was literature's PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. It had a time-traveling villain who wore white robes so he could appear in any time period without drawing stares, a vampire dog, a thirty page sea battle that it turned out was a tank commander’s dream, a virus that could destroy the earth’s flora and fauna, a haunted house where a child lived with an old pirate, a gay ghost who followed the tank commander around, a lesbian detective who looked like Rip Torn, an alcoholic cigar-smoking chimpanzee, and more. Characters appeared suddenly, delivered a volume of information, and just vanished forever. The author wrote one chapter in first person and narrated the next. One chapter was simply dialog between a deer and an alligator as they discussed the viral threat to their habitat from the mad scientist villain. A gay ghost (I kid you not) lamented the fact that being protoplasm made him able to create suction. There was a battle between an evil army of swordsmen and a villain turned good by love, at the end that broke up an opera. The lesbian detective fired her pistol at the bad villain and accidentally killed the fat lady before she could sing. And the audience sat watching until it was over, whereupon they applauded. What New Yorker who attends operas would actually know a battle in the aisles was not part of the opera they had paid to see? And the gay ghost who had simply vanished halfway through the book returned to sit in the audience for the action. Out of about nine plots, none was more important than any other and none of the loose ends were tied up so (as the author told me) there could be a sequel. The author also told me that he never planned anything he wrote ahead, and always had a drink or two then simply wrote the characters that appeared and “pen to paper” he went traipsing wherever the characters led him. I suspect he was completely unaware that they’d taken LSD and led him on a wild goose chase through a burning asylum.
Some have it and some don’t.
So, authors, got any good blurb stories?
Friday, August 21, 2009
Have you ever noticed how much of our lives are spent preparing for failure? We set our “sights high, but our expectations low.” We “say a little prayer,” while we “plan for the best but expect the worst.” Then, when good news does arrive (and let’s be honest: good outweighs bad in the end for most people), we hesitate to celebrate as we “wait for the other shoe to drop.”
Most people, it seems to me, are perfectly happy to be around others who talk themselves down, yet get uncomfortable around acquaintances who say positive things about themselves. We are awash in pejoratives for people who are confident in their own abilities—narcissistic, egotistical, too big for his britches, precocious, swelled head—but where are the pejoratives for people who keep their talents hidden?
I can’t think of a single one. Instead, we call those folks humble, and we pretend to hold humility in high esteem.
Such hypocrisy. Talent denied is a key ingredient for mediocrity—a lifelong role in the chorus while the soloists command the spotlight. Mediocrity is beige. It’s safe, it’s boring and it’s comfortable, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s no way to live life. I guess it’s fine for those who are genetically predisposed to the ho-hum; but if you want to squeeze all of the drama out of life, and certainly if you want to make a living writing books, or acting, or practicing any other art form, then you’d best start living loud colors.
Start by owning up to your talent. I think you owe God that much for giving it to you.
Somebody asked me the other day when I first realized that I could write well. Not too long ago, I would have hemmed and shuffled and said something self-deprecating about how a lot of people would tell you that I still don’t write well. I’d have played it for a laugh and then said something about having been lucky in my life.
In short, I would have dodged the question. But that was before my new commitment to honesty and living loud colors.
For this questioner, I took the truth for a test-drive. I told her that I’ve known I was a good writer for as long as I can remember. I knew it, in fact, long before I had any tangible proof that I was right. I knew it because I wanted so badly to be good. In elementary school, I was the one who wrote stories for fun, and then re-wrote them four and five times because I wanted them to be better.
I’ve known for as long as I can remember that I was going to be a published novelist. Truly, there was never a doubt. I had no idea how long it would take, but that didn’t matter because I was willing to do whatever was necessary to learn the craft. I knew it would happen because I wanted it so badly, and because I was well enough read to know that my stuff was good. I knew that my storytelling was better than a lot of what I bought at the bookstore. If, in fact, I never did publish a novel, it would have been because I’d died too early.
I’ve rewritten that last paragraph six times now trying to make it sound not-arrogant. If I failed, forgive me, because I don’t feel arrogant. I feel blessed. And it ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.
If you feel blessed by talent, you should say it out loud when people ask. Try it now. Come on, we can do it together: “I’m proud of the gift I’ve been given. I’m proud of the endless, continuing hard work I put into it. I will be successful.”
If you can’t say it, how can it ever happen? I’m not talking self-delusion here, or new-age gobbledygook about some Secret where visions make your dreams come true. I’m talking simple honesty.
When I’m elected king, children will be taught to drench themselves in the exotic colors of life and to pursue their dreams with focus and vigor. Beige will be outlawed for all but those who are born to be boring. Adults will be as honest about their successes as they are about their failures, and they will be utterly shocked every time they don’t win.
What we envision for ourselves defines who we can become.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
As many of you know, if I weren't writing crime fiction my dream job would be movie reviewer. And while I love watching arty indie films in the comfort of my home, if I'm going to shell out nearly $100 (tickets, parking, sitter) I really want to see things explode. Preferably in space.
So summer releases are my guilty pleasure. I greedily devour all the pre-release press, watch the trailers online, and plan my weekends according to what will be showing. And invariably, some of the films I was eagerly anticipating prove horribly disappointing. But then, there are also always some surprises. Here then, in descending order, are the films I managed to see this summer. The top ones were my favorites, bottoms were just that- not even rent-worthy.
Wow, did they save the best for last. I deliberately avoided all reviews before going to see it this since there are always spoilers, so I was on the edge of my seat for even the earliest plot twists. One of my friends argued that this wasn't really a blockbuster, and in a way he's right- this is a thinking person's Sci-Fi film, with the capacity to provoke questions and debate for days. Discussions of human rights, apartheid (setting it in South Africa was genius) and balancing the needs of the individual over the interests of the population at large aren't things I usually leave a blockbuster debating, and yet this time I did. On top of that, there were some knock-down drag-out action scenes (although at times, I could have used a little less handheld camera work) and the aliens were some of the best I've seen, creepily but believably "other." See this one on the big screen if you can (but don't bother bringing snacks. For the first time in recorded history, I was unable to finish my vat of popcorn. There were some extremely gross scenes).
If you had told me at summer's outset that this would come in near the top of my list, I never would have believed you. I'm not much of a Star Trek fan, and the trailer looked silly. But I loved this film. It delivered everything a top notch blockbuster should: good action sequences, a solid plot, decent acting, and memorably cheesy lines. Bonus points for some of the best casting in Hollywood - even I got some of the inside jokes about the original characters. J.J. Abrams revitalized this tired franchise in the same way that Batman Begins and Casino Royale brought back Batman and Bond. Hopefully they'll be able to keep it up in the next one.
Not nearly as funny as Borat, yet I still laughed more than at any other comedy this year. Paula Abdul, discussing how she "just doesn't feel right unless she's helping people" while sitting on a day laborer? Stage parents cheerfully agreeing to allow their kids to participate in a photo shoot at high speed, without a car seat, holding flaming objects while dressed as mini-Nazis? It's all here, folks. The single-running joke ran out of steam for me before the film ended, however.
I actually had to look back through the release list to remind myself about this film, which pretty much sums it up. Not terrible, not great- forgettable. The acting was fine, the story seemed to drag, I found it difficult to care about the characters. But watchable. It was desperately trying to be THE UNTOUCHABLES, but didn't even come close.
Remember how at the outset of the original Terminator film, there's that ominous opening scene set in the future with cyborgs walking through the tattered remains of human civilization, and you thought, "Wow, I'd love to see an entire film set there!"
Well, this is that film. And somehow, they managed to make that future boring, despite hundred-foot tall robots and a CGI budget that could probably solve the world hunger problem.
While this wasn't a terrible film, those of us who were hoping for another T2 to clear the lingering aftertaste of T3 from our mouths were let down. And casting Christian Bale as John Connor was a mistake- every time he came onscreen I wondered where the batmobile was. Stick to one blockbuster franchise at a time, Bale- and you were clearly already starring in the better one. The real star, surprisingly, was unknown Sam Worthington. He almost managed to save this film.
TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN
I know, I know; what was I thinking? The first film was little more than a two hour car commercial, so how one earth did I end up trapped in a theater with the sequel?
The answer: breathtakingly horrible. This was a convoluted nightmare. I don't expect much from a Michael Bay film, but this one really surprised me. How on earth did he manage to make a story based on a toy robot line so completely muddled and confusing? It was impossible to tell the "bad" transformers from the "good" ones, I had no idea what the leads were trying to do half the time (and the other half was devoted to attempting to figure out where they were). Worst film of the summer, possibly even the year.
Of course, this isn't an exhaustive list (again, $100 to go to the cinema here in charming San Francisco). There are many I wanted to see but missed, including Up, The Taking of Pelham 123, Year One, Harry Potter...I'm hoping to catch a few before they vanish into the ether to await DVD release. But I'd love to hear which should be at the top of my list, and which I can wait a bit longer for.
By Joe Moore
It’s Thriller Awards submission time again. ITW announced the winners of the 2009 awards in July during ThrillerFest. Jeffery Deaver won Best Thriller for THE BODIES LEFT BEHIND. Tom Rob Smith took home Best First Novel for CHILD 44. Alexandra Sokoloff grabbed the Best Short Story award for THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN.
As previously discussed on this blog, the hard cover and paperback originals were lumped together into Best Thriller for 2009. For the most part, this was based upon the belief that a good book is a good book no matter what the format.
For 2010, things have reverted back to separating the hardbacks from the soft. So the categories are Best Hard Cover original, Best Paperback Original, Best First Novel, and Best Short Story.
ITW has announced the call for submissions. Competition is open to anyone who meets the requirements which include being published by one of the organization’s recognized publishers. You don’t have to be an ITW member to enter. A complete set of rules can be found on the Big Thrill website.
For a look at the 2009 Thriller Awards Banquet and ThrillerFest conference, visit the ITW photo gallery.
Now that the Thriller Awards are back to separating the hard cover from the soft, do you think there’s a preconceived prejudice between the two? In other words, if a book is published in hard cover, do you think readers consider it to be “better” that one released as a paperback? Or is it true that a good book is a good book?
Monday, August 17, 2009
My current WIP uses a first person perspective which is new for me. New, not only because I usually write in third person (a close third person voice I grant you), but also because this time the first person narrator is a seventeen year old. Oh and living in 1914. So last week I just rewrote the first chapter for a third time - not because I'm anal (well...) but because I hadn't nailed the voice yet.
For any novel I think voice is important but when dealing with a first person narration it's critical - as far as I'm concerned a reader has to fall in love, has to inhabit the 'body and soul' of the narrator, right from the first page or (I fear) the novel is doomed to fail.
Why did I chose the first person POV for this book? Well, almost all YA novels adopt this perspective and I think wisely so. The journey normally taken in a YA novel is, after all, a journey of self discovery, one we want the reader to identify with as closely as possible . However, once I adopted the first person it was much harder than I had anticipated to get the voice just right. I've had a 'challenging' few weeks...and the process I went through to try and establish the 'voice' of my protagonist Maggie Quinn was far from perfect, but here's what I did...
- I reserved and read as many YA historical/paranormal books I could. I took note of how the authors approached the issue of voice and how they appeared to achieve making that voice as authenticate and compelling as possible. The best YA book I read so far was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (an awesome book which is also illustrative of the fact that great YA books are really just great adult books with strong YA characters and themes).
- I started compiling a backgrounder for Maggie and brainstormed ideas about her inner self - delving even deeper perhaps than I have done for other characters in previous books (but then again that may also be because my husband is convinced Ursula Marlow is actually me!).
- I then walked around for a week or so with Maggie in my head, ruminating on how she would act and react to things.
- I drafted a prologue and first chapter.
- Read it. Realized the voice was not there.
- Got despondent. Decided perhaps I should focus on research for a day or so...
- Tossed the prologue - don't need one!!!
- Rewrote chapter one. Wrote snippets of key parts for chapters two, three and four (as an outliner I already had these place marked:))
- Read second draft...realize I have no talent for writing whatsoever (shit!). Got even more despondent.
- Watched teen movies. (John Hughes, come back!)
- Did more historical research....
- Walked around a bit more with Maggie in my head. Still despondent.
- Rewrote chapter one again...and then a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Maggie is finally taking form. (hmm...is that 'lucky' number 13??)
So how do you approach the issue of voice? How do you know when you 'have it' or you don't? What challenges do you see for someone attempting a first person POV - any advice on the do's and don'ts? I'm already realizing it's limitations but believe it or not, I think I'm starting to finally enjoy it...until next week when I reread chapter one and decide Maggie's voice (and my writing) sucks once more.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
On this date in 1977, Elvis left the building for good.
He was found face down in his bathroom at Graceland. The official cause of death was heart failure. He was forty-two years old.
Elvis immediately took up residence in the pantheon of pop culture icons. The Soviet newspaper Pravda announced that America could be thanked for three things: Mickey Mouse, Coca-Cola and Elvis Presley. A new industry – Elvis imitation – sprang up, bringing employment to thousands. In fact, everyone started doing Elvis, even around the office. How many times have you heard a fellow worker give the Thank you. Thank you very much line over some trivial favor?
Last month I went to a Dodger game with a friend. I thought it was just going to be baseball. But it was "Elvis night." Elvis songs were featured between innings, and numerous fans were decked out in Elvis regalia—fake sideburns and sunglasses and big black wigs.
And every time the JumboTron showed one of these ersatz Elvises, the crowd would go wild.
Thirty-two years after his death.
A true American original, Elvis. Yeah, you kind of have to overlook the years he made such masterpieces as Harum Scarum and Change of Habit. And we all know his last years were not happy ones, on the concert stage or in his personal life.
But early on, moving and shaking, all that energy and appeal and singing ability, that was true Elvis. The Elvis who amazed Sam Phillips and blew away Roy Orbison, not to mention sixty million viewers of the Ed Sullivan Show. The Elvis poignantly recaptured in his 1968 "comeback" special.
There are no guarantees in the arts. But the ones who make it big usually do so by finding that spark of originality within them—that certain passion that ignites their creativity—and wedding it to a practical look at the commercial marketplace.
You want to sell? You have to do both. When you write, you should feel a little like 50's Elvis. Shake it, go for broke. Give freedom to your voice and vision, the twins that make up the definition of originality. As Elvis put it in a 1956 interview, "Some people tap their feet, some people snap their fingers, and some people sway back and forth. I just sorta do 'em all together, I guess."
To break through, you have to find out what it is you do well "together," and do it for all it's worth.
But you also need a little "Colonel" Tom Parker in you, understanding that publishing is indeed a business, and you are offering a product for consumers.
It's an ongoing balancing act. You must never let your desire to be published drain you of your spirit and singularity (your inner Elvis). But if you want to be published by someone other than Kinko's, you need market sense, too.
So how do you find the right mix in your own writing? Do you think about both sides of the equation early and often? Or does doing so get you all shook up?
Don't be cruel. It's now or never. Discuss.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
I live in the "rural" South. She nurtures me in those big warm arms, and she shares her stories with me, and it’s because of her that I speak with that pleasing twang we southerners share like a genetically induced cowlick. I’d rather set a book in a small southern community than in New York City, and I find a character who goes shirtless and eats instant coffee from a jar with a spoon infinitely more page worthy than a slumming detective who’s secretly a multi-millionaire playboy. I am known as much for my oddball characters as for anything else in my novels. My oddballs aren’t a stretch for me. I actually saw a man eat Sanka because there was no hot water. It was not a pretty sight, but one that stuck in my mind in the way piping-hot mozzarella cheese clings to the roof of my mouth. I don’t hang out much with multi-millionaire detectives so I have little idea as to how they behave.
Here in the sticks I see a lot of mullets and other accoutrements of Out-Of-Touch-With-High-Fashion-and-I-Don't-Give-A-Hoot disease. Last night in a local restaurant I saw a middle age man with a Prince Valiant hairdo, a work shirt, jeans and hunting boots. Here in the outer regions I am often among people in 12 step programs due to a WALMART shopping habit. I have heard music dance mix tapes have both country and hard rock music on them. I spend time with people whose social filters were due for a change 100,000 interactions ago. Out here you can wear a NASCAR t-shirts and jeans and sport coat to church and be overdressed. Women may have a closet full of camouflage fashion accessories, consume their alcoholic beverages from cans, have a distinct fascination with mud and four wheelers, and spit at the ground to accent a point they’ve just made. Their men are a lot rougher around the edges than the gals.
The other afternoon my wife had to stop because a 40 lb alligator snapping turtle was sunning in our driveway and wouldn’t give her right of way. I took the turtle by its tail (at some peril since I have seen these reptiles snap a broomstick in half) put it in the back of my SUV and drove to a large pond between here and the town nearest my house. And the whole time I was lugging this prehistoric monster down the bank, and I was trying to hold it out to keep from losing a chunk of right leg, I was thinking about the turtle soup from Commanders Palace. For a few seconds that shelled critter came close to a cooking pot. I seriously considered looking on the Internet for instructions on dressing out a snapping turtle and searching for a recipe for that soup I do love so. Only a reluctance on my part to do the necessary research saved it. Well, that and my desire to save a creature so stupid he’d wandered from his pond and into the woods. It’s possible that it was on its way somewhere and I interrupted turtley vacation plans. God, I love the sticks.
This weekend I am going to be digging post holes in the earth to sink 4x6s for a new chicken coop that I’m building and for setting fence posts. I have 50 chickens arriving next week and I've waited until the last moment to shelter them. So, I’ll be sweating and smiling and thinking about the healing power of hard work. And next week I'll be writing again, which (as we all know) is far harder than digging holes or building structures for Henny Penny.
To end on a high note, here's a picture of my youngest grandson sitting in my wife's lap that I took this afternoon. He is quite a character, and this is what life is all about.
Friday, August 14, 2009
Thank you for inviting me to your store to sign copies of No Mercy. And thank you for the work you do. You are the lynchpin in the machinery that keeps the book world on its axis despite a culture that seems to value the written word less and less. It’s important that we work together to do whatever we can to pull people into stores to buy books. That’s why you invite me, and that’s why I show up. We’re a team.
It’s a shame we didn’t sell more copies, but it was great getting to know you and your staff. I’ve been thinking about the event since we last saw each other, and I believe I might have found some areas for improvement in the future:
Perhaps you should consider putting me inside your store. Yes, I know that things are a little cramped, but customers aren’t seeing me out there in the mall. They’re just seeing a guy at a table with a bunch of books, and judging from the looks on their faces, I think they’re a little creeped out by it. It’s the way they pull their children a little closer as they pass. Let’s share retail space as well as love.
The signage was a great idea; thanks for that. There’s actually only one L in Gilstrap, but hey, these things happen sometimes. Next time, though, along with the big picture of the book cover on the sign, could you display the picture of me that my publicist sent? If people can match a face to a poster it might take some of the creepiness out of the whole guy-sitting-at-a-table thing.
Please don’t think me ungrateful or overly pushy, but for the brief time I’m taking up space in your store, what say we all sell my book? That’s right, mine—the current Gilstrap; not the next Grisham or Baldacci or Miller. Sure, they’re fine authors, but they’re not here right now. Remember that lady who came to the desk while I was there and asked where she could find the new Jack Reacher book? That would have been the perfect time to say, “Oh, if you like that kind of thriller, you might want to meet John Gilstrap. He happens to be sitting right there.”
Perhaps I’m not the best judge on this particular form of etiquette, but it seems reasonable to inform every customer that there’s an author in the house. Perhaps it seems obvious what with the table and all, but believe me it’s not. People get tunnel vision when they shop. They need a little nudging. Ask around. Many of the independent stores and the more experienced chain stores do it that way. Hand selling really moves books.
While we’re on this topic, let’s talk about all those books you stacked around me at the table. It made for a great display, but I think half of them or even more should displayed inside the store away from me. I think it’s intimidating for people to evaluate the merit of a book while the author is watching. Just ask my wife. (I’m a hoverer as she reads my manuscripts, but that’s not important right now.) I think copies should even be stacked at the register so that the salespeople can hand each customer a book while they inform them that there’s an author in the house.
Thank you for your time and attention. As I close, I’d love to hear how I and my fellow authors can make your bookselling job easier. Should I have made up bookmarks and handed you a stack, or would you just see that as more clutter for your desk? I know I end up doing little but sitting at that table, but would you prefer that I walk around and chat up your customers? Truthfully, because of the aforementioned creepiness factor, I hesitate to approach readers on the prowl.
Finally, please know that I’m grateful for all of this. How else can we make the book signing thing more beneficial to everyone?
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Thanks so much to everyone for helping The Kill Zone celebrate our one year anniversary with such enthusiasm! We're looking forward to many more...
...And I won't keep you waiting any longer. Here are the answers to last week's "Liar's Club" quiz:
Clare was lying. Although she was clearly a shoe-in for Miss Melbourne, she refused to take part in such a competition, mainly because of her extreme aversion to self-tanner.
2: What's the most "outrageous truth" about yourself, one few people would ever guess?
John Ramsey Miller. Yes, this question was a bit flubbed with an erroneous date stamp. For the record, John does have a stalker, but she only pursued him to four cities out of eleven.
3: What's the craziest/most dangerous thing you've ever done in the name of research?
I was lying. I mean, really, people- have you so little faith in me? Volunteering to be tasered? That requires a neglect for self-preservation that is truly rare to behold. Unless, of course, you happen to be Rick Sanchez.
4: What's the worst line you've ever read in a review or rejection of your work?
James was lying. I recommend going back and reading all of those other brutal reviews if you ever receive a bad one yourself. We've all been there, clearly. There were even more that I didn't use...
AND the winner is...drum roll puh-lease....
J.J. was the only reader to guess three out of four correctly, so bravo! Send me your mailing address off list, and I'll make sure all of our latest releases make their way to your mailbox.
Because the truths piqued some interest, we've decided to elaborate a bit on the things that really have happened to us...
John Gilstrap and John Wayne: "Contrary to what you might read on IMDB, John Wayne's last recorded performance was as guest star on Perry Como's 1978 Christmas special, "An Early American Christmas," which was shot in Williamsburg, Virginia. I was a junior at the College of William and Mary at the time, and a member of the William and Mary Choir as well as the Botetourt Chamber Singers. To my knowledge, it's one of only two performances in which Duke sings (part of a verse of "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"). Anyway, the William and Mary Choir is featured throughout the show, but there's one scene in particular, shot in Chowning's Tavern, where I'm on screen a lot. I'm the fit, good-looking guy with the luxurious long hair and beard (I haven't changed a bit) wearing the white poofy shirt and red vest. For what it's worth, Perry Como insisted that all the flagons be filled with real ale, so by the end of 8 or 10 takes, starting at six in the morning, we were all pretty looped."
James, our very own nobleman: "My grandfather did a big family tree for us that takes us back through the first Duke of Wellington. I therefore have never suffered from a Napoleonic complex."
Me and Maury: "I was invited to participate in a Maury Pauvich show focusing on the best bartenders in Manhattan. I didn't realize until I arrived on set that they wanted me to lie down and have someone from the audience do jello shots off my stomach. I politely declined, and was promptly replaced. My fifteen minutes, therefore, turned out to be more like two."
Kathryn stalks Ted Kennedy: "When I was a senior at Wellesley College, I worked as an intern for a very demanding Political Editor of a Boston TV station. My job was to maintain his schedule, attend meetings, and keep track of politicians. At one point he sent me off to Ted Kennedy's house to see if he was there. The editor told me to make sure he was there, and so of course, I started creeping up the driveway, trying to see something. I think I heard a dog bark at one point, or maybe a cop car came by, so I dove into the bushes."
Clare and the piranha-infested waters: "My husband and I traveled down the Orinoco River a few years ago – and our experiences there formed at least part of the idea for my first book, Consequences of Sin. After hours in a tiny boat in lashing rain we came to our ‘hotel’ perched on the banks of the Orinoco opposite the mission San Francisco. It was close to the delta and all around were hundreds of tributaries snaking their way through the dense jungle. One day we went out in the dugout canoes the local Indians (called Warao) use. At one point our lunatic guide grabbed a piranha from the water and opened its jaws with a pocket knife just to impress us. He then warned us not to trail our hands in the water or (for the guys I assume) pee in the river as there were also electric eels whose charge can apparently traveled quickly back up a stream of urine…(who knew?!)…When we visited shore we also managed to disturb some horrible waspy insect nest which caused even the local Warao guide to go running and when we returned to the canoes we were warned to watch out for jaguars…Not a bad adventure in the name of ‘research’ for a wuss like me. It inspired me to wonder about the early British explorers to the region who (undoubtedly) would have gone mad…"
John Gilstrap and the Big House: "When I was writing NATHAN'S RUN, I lived only a few miles from the now-defunct Lorton Reformatory in Lorton, Virginia. During the author photo shoot, the photographer thought it would be a good idea to use the prison as a backdrop. The place was surrounded by multiple ranks of razor wire-topped chain link fence. Just for grins, I thought I'd pose as if climbing the outermost fence, telling the photographer that it will be interesting to see how long it takes for guards to respond. Answer: Not long at all, and when they arrive, they're not happy."
John Ramsey Miller and the KKK: If you missed John's excellent post last week on his hate group photo exhibit, "What Evil Lurks," check it out here.
James and Chuck pump iron: "A couple years ago I was hired to write a script for Chuck Norris's company and worked on it at his California home, where he has a room of Total Gyms. I have one, so I asked him to show me his workout. He did. The man uses what he sells and is in absolutely amazing shape. Don't ever doubt that. You would be wise to remember that there is no theory of evolution--only a list of creatures Chuck Norris has allowed to live."
Kathryn and the best revenge: "That patronizing rejection came from an agent who'd insisted on an exclusive. I quickly got a much better agent, plus a publishing contract. Success is the best revenge!"
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
By Joe Moore
One topic that seems to show up often with beginning writers is word count. Questions like: Are there rules for counting words? Is my fantasy too long at 600k? How long should a novella be? A short story? How do you get an accurate word count?
Word count can vary depending on genre. And in some cases, genre dictates word count. Readers tend to expect a certain word count in the genre they enjoy and will shy away from books that are longer or even shorter than what they’re used to.
Before we had computers and word processing programs with built-in word count features, the general rule used to be 250 words to a double-spaced manuscript page. Obviously, this was always going to result in an estimate, but a fairly good one. Today, it’s easy to determine your word count. For example, MS Word 2007 displays a running total at the bottom of the screen. So getting an accurate word count is no longer an issue.
How about what’s expected of a contemporary novel? I think the magic number to always aim for is 80k words. Eighty thousand is a good, safe number, especially if you’re a first-time author.
The thing that new writers sometimes forget is that more words mean more pages. More pages mean more printing costs. Does the publisher want to invest additional money into a new author just because he or she won’t give up a single word?
So if you’re writing a mystery or thriller or romance, you’ll be safe if your book is at least 80k words.
What about short stories? The answer is that in almost all cases, the word count on short stories is specified by the publisher. Check the submission requirements of the magazine or anthology to make sure you’re within the guidelines.
I think it’s important to remember that there’s always going to be some wiggle room with word count. No agent or publisher is going to reject your book if you missed the count by 1k or 5k or even 10k, especially if the story blows them away. But try to be accurate. There’s no excuse not to.
As a general rule of thumb, here’s a basic guideline to work count:
- Epic: A work of 200,000 words or more.
- Novel: A work of 60,000 words or more.
- Novella: A work of at least 17,500 words but under 60,000 words.
- Short story: A work of at least 2,000 words but under 7,500 words.
- Flash fiction: A work of less than 2,000 words.
Does your contract specify word count? Have you ever had to trim because the publisher felt the book was too long for your genre? Or add because it was coming in too short? Do you think about word count as you write?