Monday, May 31, 2010

The power of the voice

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Happy Memorial Day weekend!

Having survived the two-day drive from Oakland to Tucson this weekend, I have a renewed appreciation of the power of the audiobook. Okay, so I admit with twin 5-year olds I was listening to children's books the entire time but nonetheless I had to admire the 'power of the voice' to keep us all enthralled during the two most deadly-dull interstates (in my opinion) - I5 and I10. Best of all was hearing Jeremy Irons narrate Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach. He was so good at portraying the dreaded Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker that my boys were still talking about it when we had dinner. Despite the 100 degree heat we are so pleased to be here at my folk's place in Tucson - and, as you will hear about over the next few months, this is the first step in our summer odyssey that will take us through almost all the National Parks in the American West.

I'm pretty beat now...the toll of the heat and the driving, no doubt...but the trip was made delightful by the power of both the story and the voice - boy, am I ever grateful for the invention of the audiobook!

So what's the best audiobook you've ever heard? Any other tips for surviving deadly-dull interstate drives? Because believe me we have some ahead of us I'm sure...though even the most scenic of drives might also be enhanced by a good story. Let me know what you recommend! In the meantime, I'm off for a nice glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with my hubby...(yes, I am composing this Sunday night not early Monday morning:)!)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Word of Caution

James Scott Bell

John's post on Friday sparked a healthy combox on the subject of self publishing in this new age. We all know it's now possible to send an entire novel out to the e-osphere without having to pony up for printing or warehousing. Dreams of making a good sum of money this way, a la Joe Konrath, are dancing in many heads, like visions of sugarplums. Since it isn't Christmas yet, I feel the need to offer a word of caution.

If you upload your self published novel before it's ready, you're more likely to turn off future readers than gain them. If someone plunks down even 99¢ to take a chance on your book, and is disappointed, they are not going to plunk down that money again. If you want to have a career as a novelist, you have to reverse that dynamic. You have to offer books that readers love and leave them wanting more.

Now, this is America. We have free speech and free enterprise. You can put your novel out if you want to. But before you do, I would urge you to consider the following:

It takes a long time to learn how to write narrative fiction. I would guess that 98% of traditionally published authors paid years of dues learning their craft. That same 98% would probably look with horror at their first attempt at a novel. That novel likely sits in a drawer, or on a disk, and will stay there—as it should. Many of these writers have multiple efforts that never saw the light of day.

But let's say you've written and studied and been critique-grouped to the point of psychosis. You have determined you are ready. Hold the iPhone. Before you publish, do the following:

1. Get your manuscript to five "beta" readers. These should be people who are not just going to gush over your work, but people you can trust to give you direct comments on likes and dislikes. Make sure 4 out of 5 give it high marks, and the fifth is pretty close.

Note: this is not your critique group (if you're in one). Such groups have their own peculiar dynamics. What you want are people who will experience the book as the average reader would. Be prepared to make substantial changes based on the feedback.

2. Hire a freelance editor. It's well worth it to find somebody who can go over the manuscript, catch glaring errors, and offer fixes. Do your research, though, and make sure you get what you pay for.

3. Pay for a good cover design. Nothing looks cheesier than a typical, self-pubbed, self-designed cover. I recently went browsing at the Kindle store, looking at self-published works. The covers were, by and large, terrible. Unless you have strong graphic and artistic ability, find someone who can design you a great cover.

4. Even after your upload, do not get overconfident. The odds are stacked against you making walk-away-from-your-day-job money this way. If you want to be a real writer, and not just somebody who has made an e-book available, keep growing and working at the craft. Every single day. Then maybe your efforts will start to pay off, down the line.

The modern self-publishing movement, which began with Bill Henderson's The Publish-it-Yourself Handbook (1973) has just taken a quantum leap forward with e-publishing. But the same caveat that applied then applies now: just because you wrote it doesn't mean it's ready.

Be patient. Take some time. And don't go it completely alone.

Then, if you want to play, you're free to try your hand at this. As Henderson wrote back in '73: "Publishing-it-yourself is in the individualistic tradition of the American dream."

Just do your dreaming with your eyes wide open.

Any other words of advice or warning for those who are itching to jump into self-publishing?

Saturday, May 29, 2010


John Ramsey Miller

I'm in a hurry but I'll tell you what's on my mind. Tonight I am driving my wife and three-year-old grandson to Panama City, Florida to attend a family wedding. Little Rush is a good rider, but it's frankly a long, long drive even for adults. I have been driving picturesque county roads counting heads for three weeks, and it's time for a break. So I get to drive twelve hours, attend a wedding the next day and leave for home a day later alone because I've been asked to stay on with the head-counters and move my interviewing and persuading talents to work in a new region driving county roads and counting heads and figuring out ways to get the goods from reluctant individuals. Sometimes I get to become a detective and search out the elusive members of society, who enjoy not participating in the big count.

I have been gathering characters that I want to use in a new book and I've been thinking about writing a non-thriller for a change. (I know I've said this before) I mean I can't write a book without a degree of violence because life-or-death situations are the sort of stakes that matter to me. I'm not the sort of author who can write about the coming of age in the deep South without putting in the KKK or a dangerous adversary, but I want to write at a pace that allows for deeper character development––a different pace. I've been dancing the Boo-Ga-loo and I'd really like to try my hand at a waltz. I think the Thriller is as important and reaches as lofty a roost as any other genre. If Wally Lamb has anything on Ken Follet I'll never say its so. Anybody who looks down on our genre has never tried to write one. Thrillers are serious literature and if anybody disagrees we'll send our characters to wreak havoc on their houses and lay waste to their fields.

In my job I don't tell anyone that I am a published author, and I think it might have made things different, made me more of an outsider to my co-workers. I thought it might have made my comrades suspicious of me, and guarded in what they said and how they related to me. I've been just another worker bee in the cog of the Government wheel and it's been ...well fun and fulfilling in a way I'm not accustomed to.

So after I complete my depression-era gangster novel, I think I will take the time to write that different book. Don't get me wrong, I love writing thrillers, but like the horse looking at the grass on the other side of the paddock, I'm yearning to make a change. I'm looking to write without a ticking clock, to string together rug tugs, plot bombs, and surprising twists. I had an editor ask me once what the next book was going to be about. I said betrayal. She smiled and said, "Aren't most thrillers about betrayal?" I guess it's true. We all hate betrayal and having the protagonist's danger coming from someone he or she trusts is a standard last twist in most thrillers.

For the past few weeks I have been experiencing life up close. As an observer, and thief of life for so many years, I think I have missed actually living to a great extent. I haven't been getting out and experiencing the trenches, more like observing at a distance and imaging it as I think it might be to those involved in it.

It seems that most authors with day jobs envy authors who write full time. I find myself envying authors who work at something unrelated to writing and write because they have something to say about their lives, and are always meeting people from a different angle than I think I do. I like being anonymous in social situations. When people know you are a writer, they relate to you differently.

I never had a mid-life crisis, but I'm yearning to try new things while holding on to what I have, to participate more in the lives of my children and grandchildren, to stop coldly observing so much, and get down on the floor and play. And I want to play with my writing.

Do any of you think you're not climbing into life enough?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Such Anger

by John Gilstrap

Last week, Michelle Gagnon reported on Joe Konrath’s presumably groundbreaking deal with AmazonEncore. In essence, his next book will be published first as a Kindle-only edition, and then as a traditional book, with Joe pocketing more attractive royalties than are offered by any mainstream publishers. It was presented as a really big deal. Maybe even a game changer.

Earlier this week, Publishers Weekly
posted a story on its website that refuted most of the claims made in Konrath’s press release. The tone of the PW piece was snarky at best, and maybe even a little bit mean. Konrath posted a retaliatory blog encouraging his legions of fans to let PW know that the magazine’s reporter got a lot of facts “wrong.” I put “wrong” in quotation marks here because I’ve got no dog in this fight, and I don’t know any of the facts. I’m certainly not in a position to take sides, and deep down inside, I don’t much care.

What I find startling about the whole thing is the level of anger out there focused on the publishing industry. Publishers, you’ll learn, wouldn’t know quality writing if it kissed them on the nose, and agents are evil incarnate, allegedly in cahoots with the evil publishers to make sure that the world’s most talented writers are never allowed to have a voice in print.

It’s like stepping through some twisted version of Alice’s looking glass. The publishing world alleged by some of the most spun-up of these sites and others represent the exact opposite of my own experience. In the publishing world I know, every agent is desperately hungry for the next great voice in authordom, and every publisher is betting the corporate treasury every day on new talent. They might now be doing it millions of dollars at a time as they were in the 1990s, but they’re certainly doing it tens of thousands of dollars at a time. New careers are being launched every day.

According to many of the posters on the screaming websites, the publishing industry as we know it is locked in denial of the fact that they are dinosaurs that refuse to accept that they’re dying. In their death throes, they refuse to admit that the future lies in self-published novels and ebooks.

It’s hard for me to imagine a more foul-smelling steaming crock of bull poop. Alternative publishing will certainly change the business model—who knows, it might derail it completely—but if that happens, it won’t happen because publishers are evil; it will happen because readers change their habits.

Which leaves us with the anger. Where is this coming from? Isn’t it remotely possible that the preponderance of the rejected manuscripts out there are in fact rejected because they aren’t very good? Or if they’re good, they’re not marketable? Doesn’t the traditional publishing model exist at least in large part because the model provides quality control?

Is it possible that Joe Konrath’s success—which I do not dispute—actually provides false hope to authors who aren’t very good at what they do? As an author who has had at least some measure of commercial success, is it possible that Joe’s success at independent publishing is not relevant to the average aspiring writer?

Series Finales: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

by Michelle Gagnon

Let's talk about endings today. I've been in a bit of a fugue state since LOST concluded on Sunday night. Endings tend to be bittersweet, and this one got me mulling over the final episodes of some of my other all-time favorite shows. Fans of LOST, THE SHIELD, THE WIRE, LAW & ORDER, SEINFELD, THE SOPRANOS, and SIX FEET UNDER, here's your warning: if you haven't seen the final episode of these series yet, there are spoilers ahead...

I became hooked on LOST early on. Over the past six seasons it was sometimes fantastic, occasionally maddening, and always puzzling. At the moment, how to draw something to a close is a particularly relevant subject for me, since I recently finished the fourth book in my series. All of those books have primarily focused on the arc of two characters, and with this final book, that arc needed to draw to a close. Mind you, I'm not done with the series, but the focal point will shift with the next book. Because of that, I really wanted to wrap things up in a way that was ultimately satisfying (although not necessarily "happy"). It's a challenge that most series face. Some rise to the occasion, others fall flat.

So here's my rundown of the best and worst television series finales. Feel free to chime in on what you thought of each:

  • LOST: To be honest, I didn't have high expectations for this finale. I knew going in that there were so many dangling threads, there was simply no way the writers would be able to tie them all up. Yet I was pleasantly surprised. What I think they gave us, in the end, was viscerally satisfying. The characters that we've grown to care about all completed their journey, there were some nice tie-ins to incidents going all the way back to the pilot. That initial episode concluded with Jack saying, "If we can't live together, we'll die alone." As it turned out, living together meant that when they did die, they weren't alone. The finale didn't answer every lingering question (what was the island after all? Just a giant MacGuffin?) but it managed to deliver what the show has alwayLost.jpgs provided in its best moments. Since the debut it was an emotional ride, focused on the characters and the journey they've undertaken together. It provided enough answers to give some satisfaction, while still leaving quite a bit open to debate. I suspect that if the writers had known from the outset how many episodes total they'd have to play with, it would have been a much tighter story arc. But alas, that's not how the world of TV works. Going in, they never could have guessed what a hit the show would become, and how many slavering fans would dissect every scene. That being said, I think they did a great job. In the end the series shone a light on the true meaning of love and friendship, redemption, and mortality. Some people complained that it was mawkish and maudlin. For me, the sentimentality worked. After all, I'd spent years with these characters. I cared about what happened to them. I wanted things to work out for them- and based on my interpretation of the finale, it did.

  • THE WIRE: Still, hands down, the best show ever produced for television. And the conclusion delivered. As always with this show, things weren't tied up with a neat bow, because real life isn't like that. But we saw the torch being passed to a younger generation, for better and for worse. We saw redemption for McNulty, justice for Daniels, and Bubs getting a new lease on life. This was probably my favorite series finale ever. Well done across the board.

  • THE SHIELD: Tough one here. I loved the show from the outset for the moral gray area that all of the characters occupied. Like the WIRE, it felt more real than the vast majority of police dramas. It was never as simple as the good guys vs. the bad guys, the-shield.jpg because every character possessed the capacity for both good and evil acts (even Dutch: remember him strangling that cat?) And the conclusion here was grim. In the end, Vic Mackey ended up losing his family and friends, stuck in a day job that was for him a living hell, with all of his crimes brought to light. Things didn't really end well for most of the characters we cared about: they were either dead, in jail, or alone and isolated. It was the furthest thing from a happy ending, yet it was satisfying, because there was a sense that justice had been done, and everyone ended up paying the price for it.

  • SIX FEET UNDER: This finale if right up there for me. The final few minutes in particular, when Claire was driving away from her family to start a new life, interspersed with flash forwards that tied in so nicely to the opening of every episode, were sheer genius. Viewers witnessed the death of every major character in a sort of time-lapse montage video: some demises were funny, others tragic or mundane. Thanks to those snapshots of their future lives, it was probably the most satisfying series ending I've ever seen.

  • LAW & ORDER: I just watched this last night. I'm not sure if the writers were aware that this particular episode would mark the end of the second longest-running drama on television. Either way, I like that they didn't over do it. Most of the episode was just like any other installment, although this time (interestingly enough) there was no actual homicide (and if you're going to get picky, no real reason for Lupo and Bernard to be investigating a potential terrorist threat. But I digress). The final scene with the lieutenant was heartwarming, although the great strength of the show was that viewers were left largely unaware of the personal lives of the characters. You were treated to tantalizing tidbits here and there, but the focus always remained firmly on their work lives (this is why they were able to keep going for twenty years despite a slew of cast changes, in my opinion).
Now, on to some finales that disappointed.
  • I realize that this is probably going to spark some debate, but I was one of the people who really loathed THE SOPRANOS finale. There were many far more interesting things they could have done, as opposed to that surreal, disjointed final scene in the diner (Speaking of which, if you missed the LOST alternate endings odeadwood.jpgn Jimmy Kimmel, see them here. Brilliant). The writers could have gone back to the pilot, bringing back those damn ducks. They could have had that Russian finally wander back out of the woods (speaking of threads that were never tied up). While I appreciated that they ended with the family, which is largely what the show was about, I still felt let down.
  • SEINFELD: Terrible. Just awful. Having the characters end up in jail was absurd, and not in the trademark manner of the rest of the show. It felt forced, nasty, and just plain silly. Worse yet, there was nothing funny about it- which is downright criminal for the conclusion of one of the all-time funniest sitcoms. I have never been more disappointed by the end of a series.

  • DEADWOOD: This show ended prematurely, and on a flat note thanks to some serious missteps by HBO. It's a shame that they'll probably never be able to get everyone together again for that hinted-at film that was supposed to make up for it. What started with a roar ended with a whimper.
So I'd love to hear what you think of these, and other shows I might have missed. Who did it well? Which finales bombed?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Is #2 more important than #1?

By Joe Moore

image Here’s a question that popped up recently on a writer’s forum: has being published made it easier for agents and editors to accept your future work? Are they more lenient because you’ve already been published or do they give your writing the same level of scrutiny that unpublished submissions?

There are many factors here that can affect the publication of a second or third book. Obviously, the success of book one will certainly help getting a contract on the next one. But just because you had the first one published is no guarantee contracts will be issued on follow-ups.

I think that being published through traditional, legitimate methods means that you’re writing on a professional level. And people who write at a professional level usually have an easier time at getting published. Publishing credits do help in getting read, but there’s no substitute for a great book.

I also believe that the most important book you'll ever write is your second one. Number 2 is THE book. It's far more important than the first or the third, perhaps the most important of your career. Many folks can write one book, but the number declines when it comes to that second novel. It's the one that can make, damage or even destroy a future in fiction.

What do you think? Did you feel it was easier to get that second book published after the first hit the shelves? Do you think #2 is critical?

Don’t forget to download a copy of FRESH KILLS, Tales from the Kill Zone to your Kindle or PC today.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Open Tuesdays

image As we announced last week, while our blogmate, Kathryn Lilley, is on medical hiatus, we’re opening up the Kill Zone on Tuesdays for general questions, comments and discussions. If you have a question about writing, publishing or taking the 2010 Census in rural areas, ask away in our comments section. We’ll do our best to get you an answer.

And don’t forget you can download a copy of FRESH KILLS, Tales from the Kill Zone to your Kindle or PC today.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Hiring your own Publicist

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Last Tuesday, one of our readers asked a question about hiring an independent publicist in addition to the in-house publisher that is often allocated to publicize an author's latest release. As someone who initially relied on my in-house publicist (basically, because I didn't know any better!) and then hired my own independent publicist to help plug the gaps and get further media, here's my advice to approaching the issue...

  • First, make sure you know exactly what your publisher is proposing to do in terms of in-house sponsored publicity. Are they sending you on a book tour? If so, where? Where are they sending your ARCs? What media, if any, are they arranging?...These are all critical questions that you need to have answered before you consider hiring your own publicist. In my experience, it can be difficult to get the level of details you want from your publisher so you might have to probe and push to get the information you need. I was given a publicity/marketing plan so I did have an overall sense of what my publisher was and was not going to do (though my publisher was still reticient about giving me specific details regarding media/other event contacts made). For The Serpent and The Scorpion, I was fortunate my publisher sent me on a book tour and that my in-house publicist was willing to work with my independent publicist on media opportunities and events in parallel to what she was organizing.

  • Outline your own publicity plan, identifying what you can do on your own - this will help you identify publicity needs that an independent publicist can fill. There are many things you can do on your own - it's just a question of time and identifying the appropriate contacts - but you need to ask yourself how much time you are willing to devote to setting up media events etc. and whether you feel comfortable doing this on your own.

  • Next, you need to seriously consider what opportunities exist that an independent publicist can assist you with. Fiction can be a hard sell publicity- wise, so you need to consider what angle(s) a publicist may be able to take advantage of - and you need to be realistic in terms of your expectations. Just because you hired an independent publicist does not mean you'll be appearing on Oprah...

  • You need to also consider what you are willing to do - and what strengths/weaknesses you have. For instance, are you willing to do radio? Do you enjoy public speaking? Are you an introvert who would simply die if you had to address more than 10 people at an event? It's important that you play to your strengths and are honest about your own abilities...

  • When you have decided that an independent publicist could add value to your publicity campaign, then you need to think long and hard about that dreaded word - budget. You need to consider what are you willing to pay and what results you expect for the money you plan on plopping down...which leads to my final point...

  • Negotiate so you set expectations up-front and so you know exactly what you're getting for your money. Many publicists work on retainer and make no promises as to outcomes - this can be frustrating if you find yourself doling out the money and getting little in return. Other publicists work on a 'per-gig' basis so you only pay for the radio interviews/TV appearances/reviews/events they actually set up. In my opinion, the latter is the better way to go but you must still be up-front in terms of your expectations. There's no point you envisaging an appearance on the 'Today' show when your publicist can only get you a community cable TV spot...that's just a recipe for disaster!

So what other tips do you have in terms of hiring an independent publicist? Any horror stories to share? Any insights that might help your fellow authors in making this decision?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Future of Reading...and Everything Else

James Scott Bell

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't. - Mark Twain

Twain's words remind me of one of the formative movies of my youth, The Time Machine. In this version of the H. G. Wells story, the narrator (Wells himself, played by Rod Taylor) goes far into the future where he discovers the Eloi. They are placid people, living without passion or curiosity--and therefore powerless victims of the Morlocks, who reside underground.

What disgusts Wells is the discovery that the Eloi have given up reading. Their books have crumbled into dust. They have no repository of collective knowledge, except in a museum they don't frequent.

Thousands of years of building up civilization, gone! So that they can become what they are, virtually mindless beings who spend their days seeking pleasure (only to be enslaved, and eventually eaten, by the Morlocks)

In an essay in the L.A. Times entitled "The Lost Art of Reading," Times book editor David L. Ulin reflects on the increasing difficulty people are having focusing on, and "inhabiting," the world of a book:

"Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time."

We know this to be true. With a smartphone and/or an iPad or iTouch, or any other similar item to come down the pike, one never has to face a moment of silence or contemplation again.

So what does this portend for the future of reading? And writing long form narrative fiction? What, in fact, does it portend for the future, period?

I'm asking you. What do you think?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Every Author Wants A Great Review

By John Ramsey Miller

Over my career I have been extremely lucky because I have mostly had positive reviews for my works. The only negative reviews I've had were on Amazon left by skunks, idiots, or enemies. What sane person pans one of my books? At least one hopes bad reviews are a result of a conspiracy. Those Amazon reviews you can mostly ignore, especially when you discover the reviewer is a fan of one of your competitors (whom you may have been compared to somewhere), or someone who always reviews your books and gives less than positive reviews, a failed author who hates everything because it's inferior to their own misunderstood opus. I th
ink that if a reader doesn't like your first book, why would they keep reading consecutive novels by you and adding negative reviews for each? Perhaps it could be someone you fired or someone whose manuscript you didn't send to your publishing house with a note demanding it be published forthwith and a massive advance paid. Some of these authors will assume you are jealous of their talents and trying to suppress their greatness. Whatever it may be, the reviews on that place shouldn't depress or impress.

Of my seven novels, none got a starred review in Publisher's Weekly. It's a big deal, as we all know well. A very big deal considering the number of books published and the few slots available. Most reviewers find something to not like as much as they like
the rest. Gilstrap, whom you might have figured is a close friend of mine, (although I have never seen him in a Speedo) would never have put this review in his blog, but I can put it in mine because he deserves to have it shared by those who value him and understand what a struggle his career has been and how hard and diligently he has labored at this game we play. Nobody writes or thinks harder than John Gilstrap, and nobody deserves a dollop of praise more.

May I present:

Hostage Zero
John Gilstrap, Pinnacle, $6.99 (448p) ISBN 978-0-7860-2088-1
The addictively readable second thriller featuring freelance hostage rescue operative Jonathan "Digger" Grave (after 2009's No Mercy) marries a breakneck pace to a complex, multilayered plot. When two teenage boys are inexplicably kidnapped from a Virginia residential school for children of incarcerate
d parents, Grave and his crew set out to locate the victims and apprehend the abductors. Then one of the boys is drugged and left to die in a field, saved only by the fateful intervention of a passing homeless man, and Grave's investigation begins to turn up leads that point to government and organized crime connections. A roller-coaster ride of adrenaline-inducing plot twists leads to a riveting and highly satisfying conclusion. Exceptional characterization and an intricate, flawlessly crafted story line make this an absolute must read for thriller fans. (July)

We've all had good reviews with a bomb somewhere in the body of the review. I had one review where the woman, who was not a fan of fiction and said so, said the opening chapter of my book was like walking into a mens locker room and kicking over a bucket filled to the brim with adjectives. I've had one of my books praised as one hell of a read, then described as "Gun" fiction. I thought that was a pretty good plug. Last night I went to a birthday party for a friend and I gave him a box of 9mm tracer ammo I'd had in the closet gathering dust for a few years.

Reviews have been discussed here before and will again. Nothing lights up your day like a review in a place like PUBLISHERS WEEKLY or KIRKUS because those reviewers know books and everybody in the industry and most book buyers read those reviews and often base buys on what they say. We don't know how many sales are generated by reviews because there's no real way to measure that. Oprah could (and probably can still) sell millions of copies by mentioning a book. I believe reviews do affect sales, but probably not as much as we think they do. The best sales tool is word of mouth, or BUZZ, which when it comes, usually vanishes just as quickly. Think cigarette smoke in a wind, more than oil spewing from a pipe a mile underwater which nobody can figure out a way to plug. We are depending on the same scientists to save the world and they can't plug a ten inch pipe.

I also wanted to share a picture of John and I taken at Magna Cum Murder.

So, how many of you have received less-than-stellar reviews? What was the most distressing or comical lines, if you can remember them? And do you think reviews really affect sales? Have you ever kissed John's head? Do you know the taste of Turtle Wax?

Way Too Much Information

John Gilstrap
Last week, you may have noticed (I certainly hope you did) that I was MIA from my blogging duties thanks to an emergency cholecystectomy. That’s what normal people would call the separation of one’s gallbladder from one’s viscera. Mine had decided to die on me, and it turned out it had intentions to take the rest of me with it. Murderous bastard. In the end, good triumphed over evil, with Mr. GB incinerated in a medical waste bag, and its betrayed sponsor going home to his family.

I had suspected for a few weeks that my gallbladder was plotting against me. Even as two sonograms confirmed that no calculi (gallstones) were present, and that there was no telltale thickening of the organ’s walls—the two diagnostic indicators of cholecystitis—my symptoms persisted, including vomiting and the feeling that a woodland animal was trying to eat its way out of my abdomen. I’m no doctor, but I know when stuff’s not right, and that stuff was not right.

But it also was not perpetual (thank God). My worst attack lasted about 12 hours; most would run their course in four or five hours. When they were done, and I’d had a chance to rehydrate, I would feel more or less normal. Not so the past six weeks, however, in which I had multiple attacks. We’re talking Technicolor attacks here, shot in biological 3-D VistaVision, complete with Dolby sound. As tests came back negative, I was actually disappointed. I knew what I had, dammit. Why wouldn’t the doctors stake their reputations and their futures on my intuition?

The Alamo of gallbladder tests is the HIDA scan (hepatobiliary iminodiacetic acid). They inject a nuclear tracer into a vein, and then you lie under a camera for an hour. I actually fell asleep. That is, until the results uncovered my gallbladder’s murder plot. From there, it was directly to the ER, and from there to the OR.

During those few weeks when no one could prove what everyone suspected, I did research on my own. The Internet teems with information on cholecystitis and cholecystectomies. You can actually watch videos of full operations. I learned a lot about laparoscopic procedures and about the function of the gallbladder. Since this was my first medical procedure of any import, and because my personality borders on obsessive-compulsive, my thirst for knowledge was insatiable.

And for all that, I never did find the common-sense answers to the practical questions that concerned me the most. So, with the guarantee of providing way too much information, here, for the benefit of others, are the answers I wish I had found (not that the answers would have changed anything):

1. Yes, they shave you for laparoscopic surgery. Crown of my head notwithstanding, I am a fairly furry fellow, and at the risk of sounding vain, this is the summer season, and, well, you know. I was concerned. For good cause. They mowed everything from the right of mid-left abdomen, from nipple line to pubic line. They do it after you’re sedated. Now that it’s done, the cosmetics worry me less than the prospect of a lot of itching over the next few weeks. (Months? I have no idea how long it takes to grow back.)

2. Urinary catheterization is not a routine part of laparoscopic surgery. Unless your name is John Gilstrap. Turns out that the opiates they use to anaesthetize you and control your pain have the side effect of paralyzing the urinary sphincter at the same time while your kidneys are processing the flood of liquids they’re receiving from your IV. In all fairness, they gave me ample opportunity to urinate through normal means, but there comes a point of no return. As soon as they tapped me, I filled the bag with slightly more than a liter of liquid. (Hey, I warned you about TMI!) At the time, I confess that the relief of pressure trumped the discomfort of the catheter. I later learned that I'd been tapped by an I/O catheter (in & out, I think), the little baby of the catheter family.

3. The Foley catheter is a whole different animal than the I/O catheter. My case differed from most cholecystectomies because during the removal procedure, the surgeon discovered impacted calculi in my common bile duct, prompting a second emergency procedure (an ERCP—endoscopic retrograde cholangeopancreatography) the following day. When I returned to my room from the ERCP, my urinary bladder had officially taken the day off, and the guy who mans the sphincter was pissed (rimshot!). My kidneys, meanwhile, were churning like a Kentucky still. The nurses broke the news: I needed “long-term” catheterization.

3a. Note to nurses everywhere: When you’re talking about shoving a 15-inch tube into a man’s winkie, you have to choose your words carefully. I heard “long term” and panicked. Turns out they were thinking along the lines of 18 hours. Sorry, ma’am, but unless you’re a fruit fly, 18 hours is “short term.”
3b. Second note to nurses everywhere: I was wrong. Eighteen hours is freaking eternity when you’re tied to your bed by your winkie. They tell you you can get up and walk with that snake installed, but it’s a trick that requires staff. With one hand on the IV pole and the other trying to preserve some dignity despite the open-backed gown, I never figured out what I was supposed to do with the eight-pound bag of effluent. One of my nurse-technicians was kind enough to show me how I could actually hook the collection bag to the IV stand, but during his demonstration, the bag rose higher than winkie-level for a moment, and let me assure you that it’s a very special sensation to have urine run back into your body. (How’s that meal sitting, dear Killzoners?)

4. Panic aside, none of the catheter/winkie nightmares you have during the night come true. Once it’s removed, everything functions just fine.

5. A two-day hospital stay for laparoscopic surgery makes you fat—but only for a while. Between the gas they pumped into my belly for the surgery and the fluids they flowed into me to keep me alive, I came home with three inches more girth than when I first checked in. Good news: physical activity (i.e. walking) triggers the mechanisms to relieve the discomfort. Bad news: you don’t want to be in genteel company when those mechanisms kick in. I literally peed away six pounds in my first 24 hours at home. As for the residual gas, well, you get rid of that exactly how you would imagine.

5a. Suggestion for all scheduled surgery patients: If you have the luxury to plan your trip to the OR, first go to your local Salvation Army Thrift Store and buy a pair of pants that are way wider than your current waist size, and plan to wear them on your trip home. You'll thank me for this one.

I apologize that none of this is topical to the subject of this blog, but since you’ve read this far, allow me one last indulgence. I write books about people who save the lives of perfect strangers, but this is the first time that I’ve ever played the role of the stranger. People I’d never met literally worked overtime to return me to my family with a shining prognosis. I make light here, but understand that the humor is a cover. How do I return that kind of favor? The phrase, “thank you,” seems sort of hollow under the circumstances, but it’s all I’ve got.

So, listen up, Dr. Trad, Dr. Shah, Dr. Aziz, and the entire nursing staff at Reston Hospital Center: On behalf of my entire family, thank you.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Konrath & AmazonEncore strike a deal

by Michelle Gagnon

I'm a huge fan of Joe Konrath's 'Jack' Daniels series (written under "J. A Konrath"). So it was with tremendous excitement that I read this news:, Inc. today announced that AmazonEncore, Amazon’s publishing imprint, will release the newest book in bestselling author J.A. Konrath’s Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels series, “Shaken.”

This is a huge step forward, both for Joe and for Amazon's imprint, which traditionally has only published reprints of self-published books by new authors, not original titles from known authors.
Clearly Amazon is now throwing the gauntlet to the traditional publishing houses, starting with a writer who has already carved out a name for himself by publishing over a dozen books using Amazon’s Digital Text Platform (in addition to his success in the traditional publishing milieu).

Joe played coy regarding the actual details of his advance with AmazonEncore, saying only that he received a very favorable contract. The digital version of the book will be available on Kindle four months before the print version.

So what does it all mean? It brought to mind an interview a few weeks ago with a Newsweek editor. Responding to the news that Newsweek had been offered for sale, he said that he felt they'd been doing things backward in recent years, compiling a weekly magazine while simultaneously offering daily articles on In the future, he thinks the most viable model will be to start with the daily articles, compiling the most popular into a print edition at the end of every week for readers (such as myself) who prefer reading in print form.
In other words, the online content will drive the print content, not vice versa.

Coming on the heels of my post last week about the recent uptick in digital vs. print sales, this was big news. I've felt for a long time that if Amazon got their act together by offering Kindles at a lower price point (which hasn't happened yet, but must be on the horizon), they could easily position themselves to dominate the industry, effectively cutting out traditional publishing houses. They already have massive marketing and distribution resources at their disposal. All they'd have to do was hire a team of editors, and offer the mainstays of the industry (Patterson, King, Child, Steel, etc) a larger percentage of the royalties. As Konrath says in his press release, "[This] company can email every single person who has every bought one of my books through their website, plus millions of potential new customers. I've never had that kind of marketing power behind one of my novels. I'd be an idiot not to do this."

As with the music industry, what I suspect will end up happening is a consolidation of the various houses into a few major players (with, most likely, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple among them). A few months ago the industry seemed to wake up to this threat, leading to the "agency model" battles between MacMillan and Amazon. (The “agency” model is based on the idea that the publisher, not the vendor, is selling to the consumer and, therefore, setting the price.)

I think that in the end what the publishers need to fear is not that Amazon will set the prices for their new releases, but that they'll take them over entirely.

I'm not saying this is good news for writers-it remains to be seen if this will lead to a larger publishing base, or a more narrow one. But it does appear to be the first volley over the decks in the coming battle.

What is sellthrough?

By Joe Moore

Someone emailed me the other day and asked what sellthrough means in regard to publishing. Sellthrough is one of those buzzwords that helps a publisher evaluate their current and future relationship with a writer. It’s determined by the amount of books that were shipped and paid for, and it’s expressed as a percentage. For instance, let’s say a writer had a print run of 5000 books and the publisher shipped 4000 (orders). Of those, they received payment for 3500. The sellthrough would be 87.5% since 3500 is 87.5% of 4000. And a sellthrough that high would be a very good thing.

Now, the next question sent to me was: How important is sellthrough in the eyes of the publisher?

For that answer, I went to my friend Neil Nyren. Neil is senior vice president, publisher and editor in chief of G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Here’s his response:

“Sellthrough is important for a couple of reasons. Every book has returns, no matter how successful it is – that’s just the nature of the business. But returned books cost money. We’ve printed and shipped them, but they haven’t sold, and so now all we can hope to do is sell them as remainders. So the fewer books that come back, the better the potential profit picture, for both the publisher and the author.

“Sellthrough is also an important indication of the traction a writer is acquiring in the marketplace. If your sellthrough is 80%, that means the books are sticking and the accounts have a positive history with you (after all, for every five books they ordered, they sold four). And that means a publisher can use that as a springboard to get them to order more copies next time (“Look how well you did!”). It’s an indication that – even if the figures are still small – there may well be growth potential there. It’s a very positive sign – and we can use all the positive signs we can get!”

So for all the published authors out there, it’s easy to calculate your sellthrough. Check your statement and divide the number of books sold by the number shipped—some publishers even calculate the sellthrough for you and display it on the statement. In the above example, the answer is .875 or 87.5%. For those who aren’t published yet, when you finally do get your first statement, you’ll already know one number to watch for that can tell you and the publisher a great deal about how you’re doing.

Download FRESH KILLS, Tales from the Kill Zone to your Kindle or PC today.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Where is Kathryn?

lilleyOur lovely and talented blogmate, Kathryn Lilley, will be taking a medical hiatus for a while. As she makes a speedy recovery, we are going to open up Tuesday’s as a general discussion day for any topics relating to publishing and writing (or anything else you think we can answer). Is there a term or buzzword you’ve heard but don’t quite understand? Are foreign rights a mystery? Do all contracts pay an advance against royalties? What’s the difference between a novel and a novella? How can you get a discount when ordering those free-range eggs from Miller?

Post your question in the comments and we’ll try to answer any and all for the next few weeks while Kathryn is away. So let us know what’s on your mind but were always afraid to ask.

BTW, I’ll be discussing the term Sellthrough in my post tomorrow so be sure and come back for that.

Monday, May 17, 2010

What's wrong with readin' that?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

The Guardian book blog recently had a piece entitled 'nothin' wrong with teen fiction' which discusses the 'raised eyebrow and indrawn breath' that we all remember so well when we were caught reading something that was (disapprovingly) considered 'teen fiction'. You remember the books - the ones by Judy Blume or VC Andrews - the ones that your teacher regarded as something akin to eating Lucky Charms for breakfast rather than whole-grain granola, in the belief that teenagers should be eating a diet of classics by the likes of the Brontes, Jane Austen or Charles Dickens.

Now that I am in the midst of final edits to my own young adult WIP, I am reminded of the snobbishness with which high school teachers seemed to regard these popular teen books and I'm starting to wonder, with the advent of bestselling series such as Harry Potter and Twilight, whether the same prejudices still apply when it comes to genre or mass-market teen fiction. Are teachers still curling their upper lips and flaring their nostrils or are they just relieved to see teens reading anything at all?

My own guilty pleasures as a young teenager included Len Deighton and Alistair MacLean thrillers, a drippy historical girls' school series in which I got to channel my fantasies of going to a Swiss finishing school and marrying a doctor, and various TV/movie tie-in books which had all the literary merit as a bowl of cocoa puffs. I have to also confess to devouring Georgette Heyer's Regency romances, but at least this was something my English teacher could relate to...she reserved her horror for the girls who tried to do book reports on novels by Jackie Collins or Danielle Steel.

There is only one book, however, that I remember was (virtually) banned at my school. It was a coming of age book called Puberty Blues and for a young teenager (I must have been about 12 at the time) the fact that my own mother disapproved of it was enough to ensure that I had to clandestinely procure a copy. Now I think back I can't understand what all the fuss was about - except for the sex and drugs there was nothing controversial:) Today's teenagers would no doubt think it very lame.

So here's my question - what books do you remember drawing the ire of your parents and teachers? What 'teen fiction' books were you guilty of enjoying? Do you think any of this snobbery has changed or are popular teen books still looked down and frowned upon?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Boyd Morrison Interview

James Scott Bell

Boyd Morrison does not know what he wants to be when he grows up. So along the way in his life's trek he got himself a PhD in industrial engineering, worked on the Space Station Freedom project at Johnson Space Center, got some really tough duty managing an Xbox games group at Microsoft, was and still is a professional actor . . . and, oh yeah, made a little stop on TV to became a Jeopardy champion.

One other little item: he's got a hot new novel that just came out from Simon & Schuster. It's called The Ark.

Boyd's journey to publication covers about 13 years, and I wanted to interview him for TKZ because I saw someone who approached this whole business wisely and systematically. In this interview, along with everything else, you'll find Boyd's tips about getting the most from a conference. Pure gold. Be sure to learn more about Boyd at his website,

JSB: Publication of your novel, The Ark, is a success story with a unique background. How did you get the idea?

BM: Engineers usually get a raw deal in thriller fiction, which is something I pay attention to because I'm an engineer myself. When the strapping hero needs some critical piece of technology to save the world, he turns to an engineer for said object or solution and then proceeds to kick butt (think James Bond getting his gadgets from Q or Captain Kirk demanding more power from Scotty). And I got sick of that, so I decided to cut out the middleman and create an action hero named Tyler Locke who IS an engineer. Nerds rule!

While I was looking for an adventure for Tyler to swashbuckle through, I saw a documentary on the search for Noah's Ark. I'm a skeptic by nature, so my first thought was, "Yeah right. They're going to find a 6,000-year-old ship intact on a snowy mountaintop." But then I got the inkling of an idea: maybe the reason we've never found Noah's Ark was because we had been deceived all these years as to its true location. And maybe the Ark held such a terrible secret that it could very well mean the end of mankind if it were ever found again. Noah was the first engineer (who else but an engineer could build the Ark?), so it was the perfect object for Tyler to search for.

JSB: How did you get an agent to represent The Ark?

BM: The Ark was the third book I wrote, so I had already gone through two rounds of rejections from agents (both of those books have since been acquired by Simon & Schuster). But I had gotten pretty good at pitching my novels, and I'm a big believer in meeting agents in person. It's so much easier to get your first three chapters read by an agent when you can put "Requested Materials" on the envelope. So I attended the very first Agentfest at the Thrillerfest conference in 2007.

Today Agentfest is done speed-dating style, but the first Agentfest was more leisurely paced, with an agent sitting at each of the tables during the luncheon session. I was late to the luncheon, so I snagged a seat at the very last table. Irene Goodman, who is a highly regarded agent, was attending because she was looking at extending her client list to include thriller authors. She asked every aspiring author at the table to give her their pitch. I had practiced mine so that I could rattle it off. It went like this:

"A relic from Noah's Ark gives a religious fanatic and his followers a weapon that will let them recreate the effects of the biblical flood, and former combat engineer Tyler Locke has seven days to find the Ark and the secret hidden inside before it's used to wipe out civilization again."

I could have stopped at the words "Noah's Ark" because once she heard them she asked to read the first three chapters. I was still working on my own revisions, so it took a couple of months before it was ready to send to her. She told me later that she started to wonder if I'd forgotten about her, but she was one of the first agents I sent it to (I sent it to my five highest agent choices as a simultaneous submission).

She got the chapters on a Monday, read them right away, and then called me when she was done. That day. I practically keeled over in my chair when I got the phone call because no agent had ever called me before. She said she loved the beginning and asked me if I would mind overnighting the rest of the manuscript (note to aspiring authors: it's a good sign when the agent is that eager to get the manuscript). I told her I'd have to think about...oh, who am I kidding? I was already in the car on the way to the post office before she had finished her question.

Irene received the manuscript on a Tuesday, and I figured it would be at least a week before she got back to me. She called on Thursday. With an offer of representation. This time, I did keel over. But I pulled it together and told her I would have to contact the other agents who had it before I could give her an answer. After a few frantic phone calls to the other agents who had the submission, I called Irene back on Friday and said I would love for her to be my agent.

Again, all of this was in 2007. So for those of you who think getting an agent means a smooth path to publication, I'd like to remind you that it's now 2010. The book that Irene snapped up in five days took three years to get published.

JSB: You have been very good not only about attending the top conferences, but getting the most out of them by meeting people, networking and so on. What tips can you give unpublished writers in this regard?

BM: Virtually every person I know in the writing and publishing industry I met at conferences, so I highly recommend that unpublished writers attend them. I could write twenty pages on writers conferences, but I'll boil it down to a few key points.

Know why you're going

Attending a conference is well worth the time and money when you know what you want to get out of it. If you want to meet agents, going to a conference like Bouchercon or Left Coast Crime will be a waste of time because few agents attend them, and then it's usually to serve on a panel, not to search for prospective clients. But if you want to meet writers and readers, Bcon and LCC are perfect. There are plenty of conferences featuring agents looking for new clients. Check out the back of Writer's Digest magazine for conferences near you.

Don't be afraid

Everyone I've met at conferences was incredibly welcoming to me when I was unpublished. No one looks down on unpublished authors. In fact, they're very encouraging. So go up to people and introduce yourself. You'll probably make many friends, as I have. It doesn't matter if they're writers, agents, editors, or readers. Everybody there wants to meet other people. And one important tip: agents and writers hang out at the hotel bar at night; having a drink with them (or even buying a round) is a great way to hear the best industry stories.

Have your pitch ready

If you're pitching a novel, it needs to be a completed manuscript. Nothing disappoints an agent more to hear the idea for a great novel and then find out it won't be done for another year. Have your novel boiled down to a sentence or two that outlines the premise for the plot and the main character that the reader will be rooting for. Then you can elaborate if and when the agent asks follow-up questions. Memorize the pitch so that you can say it without thinking. If you ramble about your story for five minutes, you're going to confuse agents and make them think your manuscript will be just as rambling.

Be nice

This last point should go without saying, but it needs to be emphasized. Be friendly and polite. Smile. You can introduce yourself to agents even if they're not in a pitch session, but don't follow them into a bathroom or slide your manuscript under a stall (believe or not, this happens). Don't put writers on the spot by asking for blurbs in person. If you get to know them, follow-up later with an email asking if they have time to read your manuscript (don't be offended or take it personally if they don't; published writers are super busy as I've recently discovered first hand).

Have fun

Writing is a solitary business, so enjoy yourself in the supportive community of a conference. Every writer gets their batteries recharged by hearing from other writers who've been through exactly what they're going through and made it as a published author. Those conference memories help keep you going when you're sitting by yourself in front of that white screen.

JSB: Tell us a little about your acting self (that makes about three or four "selves" I count for you).

BM: My acting hobby is the exact opposite of my day job as a writer. Writing is rewarding and fun, but it is not interactive or, for that matter, active. Acting--well, it's right there in the word--gets me up on my feet in a collaborative environment with a lot of other talented people. And it's a blast--I mean, they are called "plays" after all. For some reason, I have a need to perform, usually at great peril of making an idiot of myself. I've done stand-up comedy, musicals, improv, stage productions, commercials, and films. I've even done some print ads, and I appeared on the packaging for an herbal tea while wearing a space helmet (you think I'm joking, but I'm not).

Plays are my favorite. There's nothing better than getting that audience reaction when you make them laugh or cry or gasp in surprise. For me, comedies are the most fun. I've done some of the classics, including Noises Off, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Barefoot in the Park. Last year, I appeared in Leading Ladies, a Tootsie-style play featuring yours truly trying to pass himself off as a woman to get an inheritance. And I just finished a five-week run in Rumors by Neil Simon, a farce in which I played a politician who keeps putting his foot in his mouth.

JSB: Boyd, many thanks for giving us the time and benefit of your experience getting to publication.