Sunday, January 31, 2010

So She Comes Out Laughing

There's a man in London, an advertising exec, who talks in his sleep. His wife got a voice activated digital recorder so she could record what he says. Then she started putting those words on a blog that has well over a million hits now. You can read the story here.
He says things like, "Elephants in thongs are not something you see every day. Enjoy it." Much of what he says is laced with profanity. He admits to being "pent up." I'd say so.
There's also a "sleep talkin' theologian," Dr. Fred Sanders of Biola University, who talks in his sleep. His wife jotted down many things he said during graduate school, mostly as he was in that phase of just waking up. Sometimes she would prod him with questions and, half asleep, he'd answer. Here are some of the transcripts:
Coming after me
Walking on their hindquarters.
Taking a picture
Of those two foreigners,
And two others.
And mostly it’s us loading our camping equipment into the car
It’s like walking through the woods.
He tossed a coin, and I have to get the rest of the stick
I was in Esau’s soup.
He was going to eat me up.
[WIFE: how did you get out?]
You got me out.
Cut up into little pieces.
More of the same.
A bunch of dull people.
There was a roller coaster right in the middle.

So what does any of this have to do with writing? A lot, if you're attentive to it.

Dorothea Brande, in her well known book Becoming a Writer, advocates getting up in the morning and, first thing, jotting down what's in the mind. It is here that rough gems are buried. The trick is to get them out, then choose the ones that are worth polishing.

Stephen King calls this phenomenon "the boys in the basement," the writer's mind and imagination working in the background.

It's something to be nurtured.

Often when I'm in the middle of a novel, working out scenes to come, I'll go to bed with a pad and pen on the table nearby and drift to sleep asking myself questions. Or I'll create a scene in my mind and try to "fade out" with it playing.

Then, first thing in the morning, I'll either jot something on the pad, or get my coffee and start typing the things that come to me.

Not everything is great. In fact, most of it isn't. But quite often, stuck somewhere in the middle or down at the bottom, there's gold. I try to find it and refine it and see what it's telling me about my story.

There's a great line in the classic movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The old prospector, played by Walter Huston, is schooling two fortune hunters (Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt) on the fine art of panning for gold. He puts some sand in a pan and pours water over it, then lazily manipulates the pan. Slowly, some flecks start to shine in the sun. He says that finding the gold takes patience. "You got to know how to tickle it so she comes out laughing."

So here's what to do, writer:

1. Tickle it. Be purposeful in the use of "the boys in the basement." Ask yourself questions at night, or watch a scene as you drift off to sleep. Be ready to get to your keyboard or pad as early as possible the next day.

2. So she comes out laughing. Write for at least ten minutes, without stopping, letting the words and thoughts flow. Don't try to be coherent. Go fast, putting down whatever comes to mind. If you get on an interesting tangent, follow it. See where it leads.

3. Refine it. Later in the day, go back to your notes and start culling for the good stuff. Highlight what you like. Keep these pages in a journal or e-file. At the very least you're going to end up with an interesting diary of your imagination.

So what tricks or techniques do you use to tickle the gold, come up with ideas and get inspired by the muse?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Wonderful Time To Live

John Ramsey Miller

It is snowing outside and I spent the day getting the old place prepared for the storm by cutting kindling, stacking logs on the porch, covering woodpiles and steps with tarps, gassing up my SUV and making room under the carport for it, making sure the chickens had plenty of water and food, putting a cover over their heated container, putting covers on the faucets outdoors, building a fire in the wood burning fireplace, and all while babysitting my granddaughter who was out here sick from school while her parents worked. I have a motorized wheelbarrow and I was making trips back and forth while she stood in the window waving at me. When she is well she rides in it.

Lately Sasha is preoccupied with her grandmother and me being soooo old. This afternoon she told me that I was getting too many sparkles on my face and hands. I said, “Sparkles?”
“No, that isn’t the word,” she said.
“Wrinkles?” I asked.
“Yep, wrinkles. Too many wrinkles. CAuse you're old.”
On the way home she said, “Look, Dotz, it’s a graveyard.”
“Yes, that’s a graveyard,” I agreed.
“Is that where you and grandma are going to sleep when you die?”
“Well, no,” I said. “We’re going to a much nicer graveyard where they have cable TV and Wi-Fi for our computers.”

My grandsons are more interested in what they can have when we die. They have asked for very little but are very specific about it.

Like Gilstrap wrote on his blog, I also think and write about death and destruction and it’s a subject I know better than I'd like. I have seen death and the destruction guns and knives and cars can do to human beings and it made quite an impression on me starting at an early age. We lived across the street from a funeral home when I was ten or so, and that was where my experience began. Our neighborhood kids used to lie on our stomachs and watch Mr. Barry embalm people in the basement. He always had the louvered-glass windows open and he never saw us as his back was usually to us. It was like watching horror movies. We used to run when we heard the ambulances heading for the hospital and we’d stand, an audience of innocents, watching as some unfortunate victim was wheeled in on a gurney. Often the ambulance (again Mr. Barry) would often make a quick stop before putting the vic back into the ambulance (it doubled as the hearse for black funerals at the other Barry home in another part of town) and it had red lights in the grill and a howling siren. The lights were covered with black cloth baggies for funerals. It showed me a side of death I’ve carried with me since.

I have a problem in that I never know what to tell kids about death, how to explain it without instill fear and worry in them. I told Sasha that the old moves aside so the young can have room to grow up, that it was true with every living thing. I told her that dying was just like being born into this world but in another place. I’m not sure about that but I don’t mind lying to children about that.

Before my funeral home days in Starkville, Mississippi, when I was five or six, my eighty-four-year old grandfather died, and I remember how empty I felt and how sad it made me. I took little consolation in people telling me he was in heaven. I only knew he was never coming back and that I’d never sit in his lap and use his pocket knife to carefully cut cubes of tobacco for him to chew. I’d never hear him tell me stories about his life as a cattleman, about gunfights in downtown Hazzlehurst, about driving cattle in storms, of lean times, of being gored by a bull and thrown by horses into bad places. Although I took no consolation in the idea of Papa in heaven, I did in the fact that he died of a stroke while cheering the Friday Night Fights on TV in the nursing home. I am so glad that I knew him for the years I did, and how he called my mama, “baby” and I thought she was truly old.

As I’ve grown older I’ve seen a lot of people I knew and loved die, and it’s never easy. Never. But it has given me feelings to run my fingers over and to put into my words.

Sasha told me she liked graveyards with rocks in them, not just lots of vases with flowers in them. I agree, those graveyards with flat plaques are pastoral but bleak, and if I intended to end up in one, I’d want to be in an interesting one where people come and walk around and read inscriptions, and maybe even sat lean against a tombstone to read a book on a warm summer day.

After we passed by that bleak country graveyard, I also told her that although I seemed old to her, I was going to live a long, long time and that I planned to be there when she was older and maybe I’d even drool into my lap at her wedding. And I told her I’d be there to hold her babies just like I held her when she was one. I don’t know if I’ll be true to my word, but I plan to try.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Violence Threshold

by John Gilstrap

The first corpse I ever saw outside of a funeral home was that of a twenty-something newly-wed who'd been given a terminal diagnosis by his physician earlier in the day. Unwilling to face death in slow motion, he decided to die on his own terms. He stripped naked, sat Indian-style on his bed and rested his forehead on the muzzle of a .357 magnum revolver, his thumb on the trigger. His wife heard the shot from downstairs and rushed up to find the resultant horror show.

I got involved as a rookie firefighter riding as "third aid" on the ambulance. (That means I got to carry the heavy stuff and do my best to stay out of the way.) "Horror show" didn't touch the reality. The panic-stricken wife, streaked red from her efforts to revive her husband. The anatomical eruption that was the bullet's path. One of the most vivid memories for me is the fineness of the blood spatter, and how it settled on everything. To this day, I wonder how anyone can live in a house where a shooting has occurred. I guess you just have to replace everything.

Subsequent to that first fatality, over the course of fifteen years in the fire and rescue service, I witnessed hundreds more fatalities, more than a few the result of violence. Unless you've experienced it, I'm not sure you can understand how it changes you; how it molds you into the person you ultimately become.

Now I'm a thriller writer. People die in my books, and every now and then I get slammed by a critic for over-the-top violence, and every time I read that, I am shocked. Certainly, the violence is vivid, true to my memories of what bullets and knives and baseball bats do to people, but to my mind, I never cross over into what I think of as violence-as-pornography. The violence in my books has consequence. Every time my protagonists are forced to take a life, they become damaged goods. The violence evolves them, shapes them into more interesting, darker people. Consider those creative values against the consequence-free pornographic bloodfest that is The Matrix and its ilk.

In movies, books and television, I wonder sometimes if the downplayed violence--the off-screen murder that drives the meat of the plot--isn't more of a disservice to society than their couterparts which take you and your senses into the true horror that violent crime inflicts. The dead butler in the library didn't just arrive there to provide a puzzle for our sleuth to solve. He was a person whose last moments were anguished and wracked with agony. I'm not sure it's good that the likes of Miss Marple, Jessica and Hercule are so able to push that aside.

Obviously, tastes vary. I respect that different forms of suspense attract different readers, but when it comes to desensitizing people to violence, I do wonder which form erodes the social fabric more. Or, as an alternative, does fiction have a measurable impact at all on such real-life sensitivities? What do you think? What are your violence thresholds?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Music to My Ears

by Kelli Stanley

First, I gotta thank my hostess, thriller author extraordinaire Michelle Gagnon, and the rest of the fiercely fabulous Kill Zone team.

So I admit it. I’m old enough to remember the days before the Sony Walkman, let alone the iPod. The days before music and entertainment because so personalized, so catering to both whim and instant gratification, that you waited around listening for “Jack and Diane” to play on the FM station. It usually did, in between the Go-Gos and Pat Benatar.

Of course, the irony with all this personal cocooning is that people now have an even greater need to socialize and share ... but instead of playing a boom box, you can post an iTunes play list or even pretend to be a DJ on Blip.FM.

And, of course, if you write books, you can share what you listen to through your writing.

Quick poll for authors—raise your hand if you’re influenced by music when you write. Do you listen while you type? Does it set the mood, the tone, the pace for your scene? Do you channel Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho for your serial killer segments and switch to Bach for your upbeat ending?

This is one way to use music, and I’ve heard other authors claim that they like writing with the volume up. Me, I’ve never been able to hear my words and Gershwin at the same time, so I don’t actually listen when I write. But to sort of set the stage, to get in the mood … that I can do. I’ve always been a fan of jazz and the Great American Songbook, an affinity that served me well with my latest novel.

Y’ see, listening is particularly helpful when you’re trying to lose yourself in time. Because City of Dragons is set in 1940, I immersed myself in a lot of music from the era—and had to be very careful to not access something anachronistic. I wanted to hear what my characters did, and I was writing about a period in American culture when music was truly a mass medium of popular entertainment … and when our entertainment—thanks to radio drama—was more audio than visual.

The music was key to me feeling like I could capture the past. And then it became about character, too, about my protagonist reacting to that world, particularly the irony of achingly romantic big band swing juxtaposed to the atrocities of war.

So I found myself becoming immersed in the music, actually using it in the book. And I felt confident about being able to, since some writers I greatly admire—like George Pelecanos and Ken Bruen—reference music and lyrics in their works.

The rub, of course, is the permissions phase … something I didn’t know much about. But warning, all you Springsteen fans who want to include “The River” in your latest novel … the author is responsible for either acquiring permission or rewriting the scene.

In my case, I found out too late and had to rewrite certain scenes, retaining a line of lyric and hopefully the flow and rhythm and emotion of the original draft. But—like a DVD director’s cut—I was able to link up a City of Dragons playlist on my website, so that, whenever possible, you can listen to the music my characters do.

It’s a cool way of sharing not just what I like to listen to, but what became an intrinsic element of the book, and a kind of instant time machine back to February, 1940.

So … how do you respond to music in books? And what’s on your playlist today?

Kelli Stanley's second novel, City of Dragons, has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist, is an RT Book Reviews Top Pick, and an Indie Next Book for February. Kelli's debut novel, Nox Dormienda, won the Bruce Alexander Award and was nominated for a Macavity. She lives in San Francisco, and frequents old movie palaces, speakeasies and bookstores. You can find out more about her and her books at her website:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Threshold of Pain

There’s been a great deal of discussion here at TKZ as well as on other blogs and forums about the changes taking place in the publishing industry. Most of it revolves around the rapid emergence and popularity of e-books and electronic publishing, and how it’s affecting traditional publishing. The industry as a whole appears liquid and seems to be changing almost by the day. Many of us are trying to find a stable place to stand as the ground shakes around us.

I don’t have any solutions to present here today. If I did, they would probably be outdated by the time I post my next blog. But I do have some observations.

For over 20 years, I worked in the video postproduction industry. During that time, one of the biggest advances in television and motion picture production was the advent of digital technology. Before high definition digital video, the only way to capture high quality images was on film. Even for personal home use, there was nothing better than standard 35mm film (some formats in the professional arena were larger sizes). For decades, no one envisioned that high quality images could be captured and delivered on any other format than film. (Note that film is still far greater resolution than high definition video). Even with its inherent grain, its ability to attract dirt, its somewhat fragile, easily damaged surface, and its constant weave and jitter through the projection system’s gate, it was as good as it can get. No other image delivery method could match film.

Today, most major motion pictures are still shot on film due mainly to the fact that film, unlike video, has much wider latitude and dynamic range, and still has the highest resolution available. But the image delivery system is changing. Now, original negative is transferred from film to video and color corrected within the digital domain. It is then projected in digital format rather than analog. Instead of individual frames passing through the gate of a projector, the images are retrieved from a hard drive or transmitted via satellite and projected electronically in resolutions up to 4k. It’s called digital cinema. No more scratches and weave, no more prints wearing out or film breaking. The thousandth time the movie is projected, it looks exactly like the first time.

Has the movie-going experience been hurt by digital cinema? No. In fact, it’s been enhanced beyond what the audience even realizes. The image is rock solid, crystal clear, and comes with multiple channels of digital audio for a totally entertaining experience. In most viewers eyes, it’s better than film.

How does this relate to analog vs. digital books? We must remember that what readers get when they purchase a book is a container holding our writing. Just like film and digital files can contain the same images, analog and digital books can hold the same words. An analog or printed book is simply a delivery vessel—something that contains our words and delivers them to our readers.

Remember Kodachrome film? It was first manufactured in 1935 and quickly became the most popular method of capturing and delivering images to the casual photographer. Eastman Kodak canceled production in 2009. Why? Because digital cameras had finally surpassed film as the most popular method of taking pictures. No one was buying Kodachrome anymore. But pictures were still being taken. Only now, the delivery system—the container—is digital files.

Could that happen to books? Maybe. And if it does, it probably will take a long time. After all, it took Kodachrome 74 years to die. But I hold to the theory of the “threshold of pain”. When something new comes along—let’s call it a widget—the first adapters must experience a certain amount of pain in order to try it. As the widget is further developed, refined and perfected, the pain starts to diminish. As the pain continues to decrease, more customers migrate to the widget because they learn of its pleasures and are willing to tolerate or ignore any remaining pain. At some point, the negatives along with the price dips below the threshold of pain, and the widget is embraced by the majority of the audience.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Here’s an example. Six years ago, I bought a 60” Sony HD TV. They were mostly available in high-end electronics boutiques. Top resolution was 720p. It cost me over $5k. There was a lot of pain in my wallet and the fact that it took months to get any kind of HD into my home. Today, I can get the same size screen at 1080p resolution at Wal-Mart for less than half the price. Hardly any pain. A whole lot of pleasure. And HD TV’s are as common as toaster ovens. The TV is a delivery system. What it delivers is images—or more specific, entertainment.

I believe that as a delivery system, analog books can be replaced if the replacement brings the user more pleasure than pain. If the reading experience is as good or better than analog. If they are reasonably priced. Easy to read from. Easy to use. Massive storage. Unlimited battery life. Unlimited selection of books. Scratch-‘n-sniff paper smell. OK, that last pleasure is future-ware.

Are e-books the answer? I don’t know. But what has happened is that due to the economy, competition, and a shifting marketplace, the electronic publishing flood gates have begun to open. A lot of new widgets are flowing out. The one thing they all have in common is that they are delivery systems. But what they deliver will never change. Our words. Our art.

Are you an early adaptor who likes living on the bleeding edge of technology? Or do you sit back and let others be the lab rats before you pull out your wallet and head over to Wal-Mart?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The benefits of traveling with a herd

Writing can be a lonely business. Social networking can help us break a sense of isolation, but only in a virtual way. One of the best ways for writers to connect is to become active in professional writer's organizations. These groups, such as ITW (International Thriller Writers), MWA (Mystery Writers of America), and SiC (Sisters in Crime), have national and local chapter meetings and events that serve many useful purposes, including networking, advice, and support. 

To get full benefit from the organizations, it's important to become active, not just attend meetings. Several writers on this blog are active in national and local writer's organizations. I've been a member of the board of the Southern California Chapter of MWA for the past year, and I recently became the Program Chair. Our first program of 2010 was "Tales from the Publishing Trenches." It featured Kristen Weber, a former Senior Editor at Penguin Group (and my former editor), who regaled a packed house with stories and advice about the real world of NY editing. Kristen was interviewed by bestselling author Patricia Smiley (Kristen is pictured on the left, below. Patricia is on the right).

When you become actively involved with your writing organization, you contribute, make contacts and get your name out in the public.  As a writer, I am capable of going long periods of time with little human contact except for my family and cats (who think they're human). If nothing else, attending the meetings makes me drag my butt out of the house.

I'd be interested to hear about your experiences with professional writers' organizations. How active have you been, and have you found the groups to be helpful or enjoyable?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Ghostwriters, Co-authors and The Great Oz

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

The NYT's magazine yesterday ran an article on James Patterson's amazing empire (James Patterson Inc.) and I confess my jaw dropped when I read that he published nine original hardcovers in 2009 and plans at least that many for 2010. Of course, James Patterson doesn't write all of these on his own - he has a stable of co-authors that work with him. Now, I am probably the only person on earth who has never actually read a James Patterson book (I know, I know...) but the sheer volume of this man's output is astonishing. The NYT's article states that one out of every 17 hardcover books bought in the US was written by James Patterson - and this started me wondering - is the Patterson publishing model the way of the future?

We've all heard of ghost-writers who help propel celebrity memoirs to bestsellerdom but we often accept this as a necessity, given the fact that the celebrity in question is usually not a writer (or even capable of being one...) - but in this case Patterson recruits other thriller writers to help expand his brand and increase his output. I'm not sure how I feel about the co-author issue - are they really 'joint' writers in the traditional co-authorship sense or 'assistant authors' helping to churn out books for another, better known, author? As I said, not having read any of Patterson's books I can't really comment on the difference between the books he authored alone and those he authored with another writer but I do have to wonder - does the quality of the writing suffer at all? Do readers care if the book that has James Patterson emblazoned on it wasn't actually written by him?

From what I read in the NYT's article, the brand and business that is James Patterson requires a team approach. Don't get me wrong, Patterson is clearly intimately involved with every step in the publishing of his books. He does a detailed outline for each of them and provides editorial oversight and quality control over all the material - but (equally obvious) the business of James Patterson Inc. could be nowhere near as profitable (or prolific) if he had to write each of his books by himself.

Given how centralized publishing is becoming, with marketing resources concentrated almost exclusively on the few top sellers in each publishing house, it will be interesting to see how common the James Patterson model will become. Will it be the model adopted by future bestselling thriller writers? Will those authors become responsible for churning out plots and outlines for others to complete rather than actually writing the books themselves? (Will readers even care?)

So what do you think? For those of you who are Patterson fans, can you tell a difference in quality between the ones he authored alone and those he has co-authored? Has quality diminished over time as a result of his amazing level of output or not? Do you think we will increasingly see this kind of approach where bestselling authors rely on a stable of co-authors to produce a prodigious number of titles each year, thereby centralizing sales even further among the few top sellers? Or will readers eventually tire of this approach - concerned that behind the branding facade lies nothing more than the 'great Oz' ?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

What the New Kindle Deal Means for Writers

by James Scott Bell

You've no doubt read up on's bold play this week to shore up its Kindle market share (estimated already to be 90% of all e-readers). They announced a new program, taking effect June 30, which offers a 70% royalty on Kindle editions priced between $2.99 and $8.99. That's double what they have granted before (and was timed to come just before Apple's announcement of a similar plan for their new iTablet. For more on the coming "price wars," see this article in Fortune).

This represents quite a nice chunk of the pie, even though the price point is low. For authors, it works out to be a very good deal, when 10% of list is not an uncommon number, especially in mass market.

Which is the point I want to make, one I have been pondering ever since the Kindle broke out wide: we authors may be entering an era that is very much like the mass market explosion post World War II.

What that ushered in was a golden age of paperback fiction in the 50's. Names like Mickey Spillane, John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, Jim Thompson. Some of the old pulp writers, like Erle Stanley Gardner, found new life and sales. While the old pulp magazines dried up, there was a market for good stories among the slicks—e.g., Collier's, Saturday Evening Post. The better writers got stories published there and made some extra scratch.

So what do we see now? Another mass market platform, this time electronic. The price points are equivalent to what people in the 50's would have paid in the drug store. True, publishers could actually get into the drugstores, on racks and spinners. But we have that analogue in the e-world. Buyers on amazon, for example, are directed to other titles they might be interested in, and so forth.

For authors, especially commercial authors—those who deliver an entertaining read—the prospects are intriguing. If they write great stories, word of mouth will spread, just like it does in traditional publishing. But now there's a 70% royalty, which is a whole lot better than the pittance the paperback writers of the 50's got.

But there's more good news, especially for writers like myself who have a ton of stories and concepts we'd like to write. We will be able to write different varieties of fiction––short form, novella and novel length, and see them brought to market in a fraction of the time it now takes to get one book out the traditional way.

I can see nice prospects for publishers and writers teaming up to take advantage of this new platform, even if it's just to supplement the traditional print model.

The short story especially interests me. I love doing them, but the short story market has long been a dead letter. Suddenly, there's new life. In fact, my colleagues and I here at Kill Zone are going to soon release our own anthology: Fresh Kills. It's been a matter of only a few months, from idea generation to writing to editing to e-publishing. And we don't have to print or warehouse the book.

Now, the temptation, especially for new writers who are thinking in terms of self-publishing, is to start throwing up (and I use that term purposely) their stuff before it's ready. We're going to see a lot of that. But a kind of Darwinism will take over, where the weak will be weeded out. The idea is to become one of the fittest and survive, even thrive. I would therefore advise new writers to hire a good freelance editor. You will only hurt your long term prospects if what you offer is junk.

How are traditional publishers going to react to all this? I don't know. Random House has entered an agreement with Apple, and that will change the landscape. The landscape will keep changing. We're in a whole new ballgame here, and the rules get updated almost daily. But as I said, I think there is a great chance for publishers and authors to partner up and make the best of this situation. I don't know that we're ever going to go back to hardcover prices. The production costs are too great, and consumers are rapidly being taught they don't have to pay hardcover prices, even for a new book by a celebrity author.

What that means for you, writer, is to keep concentrating on doing what you do, making your stuff the best it can be, then going to market. If you can write short stories (which are, in my mind, the hardest form of fiction), so much the better. Bottom line: if your stuff is killer, people will find it. If you write it, they will come.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


By John Ramsey Miller

Last week I mentioned I'd tell you about my experience felling a tree, so I’ll make good but warn you, dear reader, that this is not directly connected to my writing, but what I do between the pages. It's also an explanation as to how I find the material for writing my incompetent characters.

I have a wood-burning fireplace in my living room that opens to play fireplace for our grandkids to roast marshmellows in when they stay over in the winter. When it’s got a bunch of logs burning in it, it will flat run you out of the house and into the yard. We have several acres of trees on the place and we only buy wood to supplement what I cut that is standing dead on the farm.

Okay, maybe I’ve seen too many segments of Ax Men on TV. Those guys drop monumental trees exactly where they want them to hit, and they do it with amazing ease. I love the smell of a fresh cut trees. I have been using a chainsaw most of my adult life, and so I’m not without some experience at it. Two weeks ago I dropped several trees on a nearby farm to help a neighbor lady cut, split and stack firewood. Susie and I joined several of her friends in sub-zero weather to cut dead-standing trees of decent size one recent Saturday. We cut a couple of cords (for you non-woodsman types that is a stack four feet wide, four tall and eight feet long). A cord, while seeming enormous doesn’t last very long if you heat with logs like she does since it’s her only source of fuel. Did I tell you I live out in the woods with my wife, 70 chickens and two dogs?

I’ve had this sixteen-inch-diameter-dead tree standing beside my shop/shed since we moved in and over the three years it has shed rotten limbs like a drunk carrying a four foot tall stack of boxes of chocolates up a flight of stairs in the dark––each barely missing the shed’s tin roof. I hadn’t cut it down previously because due to lean it needed to be tied off near the top and to have increasing winch tension-(I have one of those on my four-wheeler that was in the shop with a blown motor)-put on it to make it fall in a direction it was not inclined by design, physics, and the non-flexible principles of weight distribution and balance to take. When the most major limb fell off a few weeks ago and left it looking like a pole, I decided that, although it was leaning ever so slightly toward a collision with my shed roof, that like the Ax Men, I could cut it so it would have no choice but to buck nature and fall where I desired it to drop.

Taking out my Echo ES 440, with a newly sharpened chain, I stood and peered up studying the fifty odd feet of tree for several long minutes. It was cold, but there was no wind to help or hurt my enterprise, and so I cranked the saw and after revving the hell out of it for Ax-Man effect I carefully cut a perfect and deep watermelon slice out of the debarked trunk. She (we farmers call any inanimate object of substance “she”) was not as rotten through the base as I’d imagined, which was good as it would make nice firewood, and firm centers reduce the danger that it might twist as it was cut through. From slightly above the center of the wedge I started the blade on a downward angle in her backside as to hit the apex of the missing wedge. [Think of the missing wedge as being a wide-open mouth.] Also to make sure I was being an Ax Man I cut in about ten inches and inserted a wedge behind the blade to induce her to fall forward. As I cut I used a small two-pound sledgehammer to drive the shim deeper to nudge the tree so it would more definitely fall where the nose would be pointing if there had been a tree nose above the open mouth.

All went as planned until the cut was almost through to the apex. Unlike the show, my tree defied everything I believed and pinched my saw blade as I was pulling it upward and free. The tree headed backward bound for my shed …and time stood still.

It hit the tin roof under which I normally park my four-wheeler when the engine isn’t blown, my motorized wheelbarrow, and the zero-turn radius mower, which I had moved, just in case. The old gal, despite my efforts at pushing, fell backward the corner of the open structure and she landed on the roof like she had been punched out by a giant. I noticed that my chainsaw was missing its handle, which is never a good thing, so I couldn’t even cut up the tree to get it down in sections. For several minutes I felt almost as let down as I do when I receive a rejection notice from an editor.

I have a shirt that says, “Professional Author. Don’t try this at home.” I should have one printed that says, “Amateur Ax Man….”

Taught me a valuable life lesson. "Life teaches you lessons–boy does it ever!" Just because someone else can do it doesn’t mean I can. Writing isn’t cutting trees, thank God. I don’t know anybody who’s ever harmed more than the English language doing it either. Oh well, like writing, you’ll never know unless you try.

Friday, January 22, 2010


By John Gilstrap

In my non-writing life, I am a safety engineer. My job--my nature, actually--forces me to look at any given situation at any given time, and project what can go wrong. We don't burn a lot of candles in our home because open flames are essentially nacent conflagrations. We have an artificial Christmas tree because I know from my fire service experience how explosively combustible live (actually dead) evergreens are. I am all about controlling risk.

It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that I am paranoid about losing data. Think about it. As an author, I create people and places out of my imagination, and the only place where they exist is on the page. If the pages burn up, everything goes away. Even the DNA is gone, because no DNA ever existed outside of the controlled psychosis that is writing.

It's worse than that, though, because in this day of the computer, the characters that exist only on the page aren't really ever on the page until very late in the process. They exist exclusively on a disk--magnetic media that I don't begin to understand. If the computer drive fails, everything on it fails with it. I can't imagine the emotional trauma of losing 100,000 words and many months' work to a power surge. It's the stuff of nightmares.

My hedge against the nightmare is my flash drive. I bought this USB storage device five or six years ago, and it literally contains every word I've ever written professionally. All seven books, plus the first twenty pages of Book Eight--the untitled third book in my Jonathan Grave thriller series. When I settle in for a writing session, I call up the version of the manuscript that is stored on the flash drive, and I write away, saving frequently. When that writing session is finished, I save that version to the hard drive of whatever computer I'm working on (home, work or laptop). That way, if a disaster happens, a current copy exists on at least two points of storage. The flash drive remains in my right front pocket all the time. All. The. Time. My flash drive has seen every corner of the world.

Last week, I lost the flash drive. I wore a new pair of slacks that happened to have shallow pockets, and when I got home, the flash drive was gone. I called the hostess of the party, but no, she couldn't find it. Crap.

And wouldn't you know it? I had violated my own long-standing personal rule to always back up to the hard drive, and thus, the entire first chapter of my new book was gone. No back-up anywhere. Okay, it was only 20 pages, but they were a really good 20 pages. Damn.

Title of this blog entry notwithstanding, I'm not one to panic over anything. I truly am the person you want to be with in an emergency. I am, however, one to cuss and kick at the floor when I get caught doing something stupid. What the hell was I thinking, not backing up the beginning of a new story? Sometimes, God gobsmacks the guy who takes his eye off the ball. It's what you call one of life's sobering moments.

I'll certainly never do that again.

Good news: three or four days after I'd lost my flash drive, the hostess of the party called and told me she'd found it. I'd dodged a bullet, but the lesson was learned.

So, what about you? Share your paranoia with us. What do you do to protect your data as you write a new story? If, God forbid, your house burned to the ground, would you be able to continue on with your book?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Marketing Recap

by Michelle Gagnon

So the smoke has finally cleared from my latest marketing efforts for THE GATEKEEPER, and I thought I'd share a bit of what I learned.

First of all, Google Analytics is vastly superior to other stat counters. With my older one, ninety percent of the traffic sources were listed as undetermined. Not so with Google Analytics-finally I have clear information as to which links brought visitors to my site, and which didn't.

And here's the funny thing: I spent a significant chunk of money on blog ads, Facebook ads, and Goodreads ads this time around. Each of these generated a fair amount of clicks- but nothing even came close to what I received from random sweepstakes sites. Because I was offering a big ticket item as a prize (a MacBook Laptop computer), a lot of contest sites picked up the link. And I received hundred of hits a day from those sites, significantly more than from any other source.

The question is, are the newsletter subscribers elicited by those sites actually interested in reading the book? Although I received fewer hits from the other sites, they were geared toward a more targeted readership. So it's tough to say which worked better. But in terms of getting the word out there about a new book, offering a major prize definitely didn't hurt. Next time around I'll probably stick to a shorter time frame for the ads I'm paying for, and will count on the sweepstakes sites to balance things out.

I've also decided to more or less avoid touring next November when RACING THE DEVIL is released. Mind you, I love meeting booksellers, and had a wonderful time visiting Seattle, Phoenix, San Diego, and LA, among other cities.
However with a mass market paperback, the reality is that most of my sales occur in big box stores, supermarkets, drugstores, airports, and newsstands. The touring is always grueling, expensive (since most of it is on my own dime), and it doesn't have much of an impact on my overall sales. I'll still visit a few local stores, but after seeing the results of marketing three books this way, I simply can't justify the cost in both money and time anymore. I won't be attending as many conferences, either, for the same reason.

Social networking: I primarily logged on to FaceBook and Twitter this time around. That investment definitely produced some sales, and based on my experience the fans those efforts yielded tended to be much more enthusiastic about me and my books. I also did an exchange with some other authors, promoting THE GATEKEEPER on their pages the days of its release. That generated a few sales, but not a significant number as far as I could determine. However it was fantastic for prompting people to attend events.

I find it frustrating that there's no way to get ebook sales totals yet (at least according to my publisher). I suspect that those have jumped considerably now that there are more eReaders out there, especially after Amazon's report that for the first time on Christmas Day eBook sales trumped physical books. Once again, I'll have to wait months for my royalty statements to arrive before I have a completely accurate picture of my sales this time around. It seems a little silly to me that in a computerized age this information isn't more widely available.

So to recap:

Google Analytics: great
Touring: not so great
Social networking: moderately helpful
Big ticket prize: definitely worth it

I'm curious to hear if other authors have a similar rundown. Or if you have any marketing questions, feel free to fire away...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

ISHTAR II and the Slush Pile

Almost from the beginning of words chiseled in stone, there has been a slush pile—literally the mountain of unsolicited manuscripts that accumulate in the offices of publishers. And for decades, it was the hope and dream of unknown writers to have their hidden gem plucked from the pile and go on to be a bestseller. Despite the ishtar odds, which are slightly worse than Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty remaking ISHTAR, there have been a few slush-pile hits, or at least career starts. My friend Kris Montee tells me that she got her first break in 1984 when her manuscript THE DANCER was plucked from the Ballantine slush pile. Kris and her sister Kelly went on to become NYT bestselling authors as P.J. Parrish.

In a recent WSJ article by Katherine Rosman, she noted that CARPOOL by Mary Cahill was the last book published by Random House that originated from their slush pile. That was back in 1991. Today, most major publishers have a strict policy of not accepting unsolicited manuscripts.

There are a number of reasons for the death of the slush pile, the biggest being shrinking budgets. Now you’d think that having an unending supply of material at your disposal without even asking for it would be a plus, right? No. First of all, the publisher has to pay employees to weed through the slush. They simply can’t afford it anymore. The rare chance of finding a winner is greatly exceeded by the waste of time reviewing unpublishable work. Let’s face it, there’s usually a good reason why unsolicited work goes unpublished.

Another reason for the demise of the slush pile is the fear of being accused of and having to defend against allegations of stealing someone’s work. Again, it’s all about money. Why even take the chance.

And believe it or not, the anthrax scare after 9/11 became a major reason no one wants tons of unsolicited mail sitting around their offices. Even with no shrinking budgets, money can’t defend you against toxic death.

So how can a new writer hope to get their toe in the door? Get an agent. Next to writing the best book you can, it’s crucial that you find a literary agent. With few exceptions, publishers will only consider material sent to them by an agent. The agent is the primary filter and first line of defense for the publisher. And in some cases, it not only has to be an agent, but one they already know and have an established relationship. Today, there’s much more responsibility placed on the writer/agent than ever before.

A bit of good news: despite all the drawbacks to the slush pile, publishers are of a belief that a diamond might still be hidden among the mountain of coal. As long as there’s even a slight chance, there needs to be a way to find it. So some publishers are creating virtual slush piles. For instance, HarperCollins introduced a website called Authonomy that allows writers to upload a manuscript. Visitors can read the work and vote on their favorites. The HC editors will then review the five highest scoring submissions each month with an eye for publication. How are your chances? Over 10,000 manuscripts have been uploaded so far with 4 bought.

We should be seeing more of these virtual slush piles popping up as time go on, especially with the public doing all the work and only the overhead of the site being the primary cost.

So how did you get your start? Did you submit cold or acquire an agent first. If you aren’t published yet, have you ever sent in an unsolicited manuscript? What was the result?

BTW, anyone know when ISHTAR II will be released?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Happy Birthday, Edgar! And welcome "home"

Today is the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, who is one of my literary heroes. He would have been 201 years old (no spring raven), and is considered the inventor of the detective-fiction genre.

According to AP and other media reports this week, Poe's descendants have decided that the author's official "home" city will continue to be Baltimore, where Poe died in 1849. Other cities that were competing for the title of Poe's hometown include Boston, where Poe was born in 1809, and London, where Poe lived as a youth. While living in London, Poe was reportedly inspired by the ravens at the Tower of London.

We tend to think of Poe as cadaverous and depressed-looking, based on daguerreotypes of the author. But a new  watercolor image of Poe unveiled this week shows the author as a vibrant--even happy-looking--young man. 

Oh, and not to bury the lead, but Joe reminded me that MWA has just announced its list of Edgar nominees for 2010. Good luck to all!  

On a sad note, the mysterious visitor who has been delivering roses and cognac to Poe's grave on his birthday for 60 years, failed to appear this year. We hope this doesn't mean that any ill fate befell the mystery visitor.

My favorite story by Poe remains  The Tell-Tale Heart, which was inspired by a superstition known as the Evil Eye. The plot was based on a true crime that took place during Poe's lifetime. This story was the first one that introduced me to the concept of an unreliable narrator--you don't know whether he is insane, or whether supernatural forces are actually at work. This type of narrator is still my favorite in paranormal stories (I don't have much use for in-your-face paranormal characters: werewolves and vampires, oh my!) 

What's your favorite work by Poe?

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Midnight Hour

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne
I admire those writers who get up in the wee hours of the morning to write - I cannot even function before about 6am and even then I need breakfast, The New York Times crossword and a big cup of tea before I can even contemplate writing. Granted every morning I have the boys to get to preschool so inevitably it's 10am before I even get started writing (and that's on a good day). When I was writing my first novel, Consequences of Sin, I had the 'luxury' of being pregnant so I could spend all day writing (and most of the night since I found it almost impossible to sleep), then the twins were born and I had to try and fit revisions into naps. Suddenly I realized I wasn't going to be able to write when the mood struck - I was going to have to write in whatever free minute I could find.

Five years later and I am still struggling to find a writing schedule to fit. Never one to be able to write late at night, I now find myself routinely writing until 11 pm (which becomes 2am when I'm trying to meet a deadline). When friends ask me how on earth I find time to write I answer that I just 'find' it wherever and whenever I can. I laugh when people tell me about how they prepare themselves with mood music and incense, getting themselves into 'writing mode'...I haven't the time to 'prepare myself' (for me any form of preparation has to be research) but it's true that there is always a lead time needed before the writing starts to flow. I still find the time factor difficult to manage. When I was lawyer I billed in 6 minute increments, now I find it hard to feel as if I have achieved anything of substance unless I have had a good 1-2 hour chunk of time. It takes me at least that long to find the rhythm of my writing - but (and here's the rub) it seems so hard to capture that length of time uninterrupted. I often find that I am just getting into the flow of things when my time (literally) is up.

So what kind of writing schedule do you maintain? How do fit your writing in? Are you someone who gets up early or stays up late? Any advice on how to become a more effective 'writing time' manager?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Dreams, Schemes & Chicken Wings

John Ramsey Miller

In a dream I had the other night I was teaching a creative writing course and in class we were having a round robin and each student proposed a character and a setting. I chose three characters (the maximum number allowable by my rules) and I chose the time and place. Each student used those elements and came up with a plot. The short stories were written and I was going to put them all together in booklets without the author’s name being included and the students would vote on their favorite. I thought the only problem would be a perfectly split vote, but I was wrong as all of the students turned in the same story, which meant that all but one had cheated.

I think I remembered the dream correctly, but looking back I doubt that the dream could have lasted long enough for all for the segments I just wrote to be faithful to what I dreamed. So I probably perked the dream over the past few days, which brings me to the point of my blog. We get ideas from sparks we catch in our everyday lives, and those sparks grow into flames over time. It doesn’t take much to trigger our imaginations, and to give us the basis for a story. The same idea tossed out to a group of individuals would become a group of stories that would be entirely different. There really are no new ideas, just variations in execution of those ideas.

I have never been afraid of anyone taking my big idea and writing the book I was going to write. They could write a book, as can I, but they would be as different as scotch and grape juice.

I don’t mind telling people what I’m working on, but not for fear that they will steal the concept and beat me to the punch. I don’t talk much about what I’m working on because in my case I think it robs the project of crucial energy. When authors (let’s say aspiring authors) ask me about the safety of sending their golden pages off to an agent or to publishers and fearing someone will loot their MS for their great ideas, I assure them that there is no shortage of ideas, just a shortfall of quality executions of ideas. What publishers want is decent-selling authors who can deliver a well-executed book at regular intervals. Oh, yeah, they want each book to sell enough to make up for the ones that don’t sell, but that’s a different story.

We all see the world differently. Each of us filters what we write through our experiences just as we write in our own personal styles and we more or less can’t help but do it that way. Someone asked me recently what my style was, and I replied that I wrote like I talk, like I think, then tried to cut out 75% of the words on the draft pages.

This week my wife wrote a story for, which is a great lifestyle site her sister coproduces. I read the first paragraph and thought it was something I had written about our chickens. I made a few minor tweaks for her, but truthfully it was every bit as well written as what I write, maybe better than what I had written on the same two incidents. It was clear, clean, concise and humorous She said, “writing is fun.” She’d discovered my secret––one I’d managed to hide from her for 34 years.

My editor once told me that writing was only hard if you do it right and I agree. I think most things are that way, especially building model cars.

I watch AX MEN, but I'm not sure I should. Next week I’ll tell you about dropping a dead tree that I feared would fall on my shed, and felling it directly onto my shed.

So long, and good writing.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Solid Structure

[Note: John Ramsey Miller and I are switching days this week.]

I love to teach structure, and Joe's post on Wednesday brought up a tremendously important question. Someone in another writing forum wanted to know how you figure out where to end Act 2, and go into Act 3.

The question of where the act breaks go, and what they entail, may be the most crucial in all of dramatic structure, because if they are weak, the entire edifice of the story will be unsound. Knowing how to fix them will go a long way toward making your novel more readable.

Think of novel structure as a suspension bridge.

As is obvious from the picture above, the suspension bridge is held up primarily by the two supporting pylons, one near the beginning of the bridge and one near the end. Without these pylons in those exact spots, the bridge will not be stable.

Now looking at the picture you can see that it perfectly represents the 3 act structure. A solidly constructed novel will look just like a solidly constructed suspension bridge. If that first pylon is placed too far out from the beginning, the first "act" of the bridge will sag and sway. In a book or movie, it means the first act is starting to drag.

Similarly, if the second pylon is misplaced, you'll end up either with anti-climax (the pylon too far away from the shore) or a feeling of deus ex machina (the pylon too close).

In my book, Plot & Structure, I refer to these pylons as "doorways of no return." I wanted to convey the idea of being forced through doorways, and once that's done, you can't go back again. Life will never be the same for the Lead. If you don't have that feeling in your story, the stakes aren't high enough.

Now, the first doorway is an event that thrusts the Lead into the conflict of Act 2. It is not, and this is crucial, just a decision to go looking around in the "dark world" (to use mythic terms). That's weak. That's not being forced.

A good example of a first doorway is when Luke Skywalker's aunt and uncle are murdered by the forces of the Empire in Star Wars. That compels Luke to leave his home planet and seek to become a Jedi, to fight the evil forces. If the murders didn't happen, Luke would have stayed on his planet as a farmer. He had to be forced out.

In Gone With the Wind it's the outbreak of the Civil War. Hard to miss that one. No one can go back again to the way things were. Scarlett O'Hara is going to be forced to deal with life in a way she never wanted or anticipated.

In The Wizard of Oz, it's the twister (hint: if a movie changed from black and white to color, odds are you've passed through the first doorway of no return).

In The Fugitive, the first doorway is the train wreck that enables Richard Kimble to escape, a long sequence that ends at the 30 minute mark (perfect structure) and has U. S. Marshal Sam Gerard declaring, "Your fugitive's name is Dr. Richard Kimble. Go get him!"

The second doorway, the one that closes Act 2 and leads to Act 3, is a bit more malleable, but just as critical. It is a clue or discovery, or set-back or crisis, one which makes inevitable the final battle of Act 3. It is the doorway that makes an ending possible. Without this, the novel could go on forever (and some seem to for lack of this act break).

In The Fugitive, at the 90 minute mark (the right placement for a film of just over two hours), Kimble breaks into the one-armed man's house and finds the key evidence linking him with the pharmaceutical company. This clue leads to the inevitable showdown with the "behind the scenes" villain.

In High Noon, the town marshal reaches the major crisis: he finally realizes no one in the town is going to help him fight the bad guys. That forces him into the final battle of Act 3, the showdown with the four killers.

By the way, this structure works for both "plot driven" and "character driven" stories. It's just that the former is mainly about outside events, and the latter about the inner journey. But that's beyond the scope of this post.

Now, there is always some well meaning literary genius howling in protest at the idea of structure. Too rigid! I don't write by formula! I am a rule breaker, a rebel! An artist! Away with your blueprints and let me run free! The 3 act structure is dead!

Let me say, first, I understand this artistic impulse. A good writer is a rebel, someone out to make waves.

But let me also say that the literary waters are littered with the works of those who ignored the basic principles of the suspension bridge. Unreadable novels with pretty words that didn't sell.

You want to write an experimental novel? Go for it. Just be aware that not a whole lot of people are going to care.

What they care about are characters, dealing with trouble by fighting their way over a bridge—meaning, through a plot that matters and is laid out in the right way.

Structure is "translation software" for your imagination. You've got a great story in your head. The characters, the feeling, the tone, the gut appeal, the thing you want to say. But it means squat unless you can share it with other people, namely, readers.

Structure allows you to get your story out with the greatest possible impact.

"But that's formulaic!" Well guess what, Skippy: formulas are formulas because they work. Try making an omelet without eggs. What you, the writer, need to do is get people so caught up in the characters and stakes that they can't see the structure.

Many published authors know this instinctively. But if there are problems with their novels, they may not always know where to look for the fix.

Is the first act slow? Does the novel take too long to end? Does act 2 seem interminable? Is the ending anti-climactic?

Most likely, the problem is structural. Get a grip on it, and your writing will only get stronger.

Your novel, in other words, won't end up as a bridge to nowhere.