Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Networking for Writers

It’s always great to gather with other writers and talk about the craft you love. Recently, I had the privilege of presenting a Fiction Writing Workshop to Florida Sisters in Crime. If you live in Northern Florida, consider joining this dynamic group. We met at a library and their community room was filled with over 50 attendees, all eager to take notes.

We covered fiction writing essentials in the morning and business aspects in the afternoon. In between, people met each other and mingled. That’s the best part of conferences, too. You never know who you’ll discover sitting next to you in a seminar or at the bar. You’ll make new writer friends, greet old acquaintances, and learn the industry buzz. Everything I’ve learned about the business of being a professional writer, I have gained from other authors.
This past weekend, I attended a meeting over on Florida’s west coast. The Southwest Florida Romance Writers meets regularly in Estero, located between Naples and Fort Myers. Whoever wants to meet for lunch first gathers in the Bistro downstairs at the Miromar Design Center. The meeting with a speaker begins at 1:00 on the third floor. Member Michael Joy shared some tips he’d learned during a residency in a Master of Fine Arts program. I enjoyed his teaching technique as much as the tools he mentioned on creating realistic dialogue.
Writers are very generous in sharing what we know. Attending local meetings, reading online blogs, going to conferences, and entering writing contests offer a tremendous amount of valuable information and feedback. In Florida, we have branch chapters of RWA, MWA, and Sisters in Crime. This year the Ninc national conference in October will be held here, too. It’s New Rules, New Tools: Writers in Charge, an essential and dynamic topic. And in case you didn’t already know, Sleuthfest will be moving to Orlando next March so you can bring your families along.
Don’t know what all these abbreviations mean? Then jump on the bandwagon and find out. There’s nothing more gratifying than schmoozing with fellow authors and sharing industry news. Join as many different writers organizations as you can afford and attend meetings. Get to know authors in other genres and exchange ideas. Let’s mingle!
If you live in SE Florida, there’s still time to sign up for the remaining classes at the Author’s Academy. All workshops are held at Murder on the Beach Bookstore, 273 NE 2nd Avenue, Delray Beach, FL. Instructors are multi-published authors. Call 561-279-7790 or email for reservations. $25 per person per class.
Saturday, September 10, 10am – Noon
How To Get Published. Learn what it takes to get your work published.
Instructor: Joanna Campbell Slan, author of Photo Snap Shot.

Saturday, September 24, 10am - Noon

Finding an Agent. Query Letters, Synopses, and the Pitch!
Instructor: Nancy J. Cohen, author of the Bad Hair Day mysteries.

And More Local Author Events:

Tuesday, October 11, 6:30 pm - 7:30 pm
, Sun, Sand & Suspense Panel, “Three Dangerous Dames,” Nancy Cohen, Elaine Viets, and Deborah Sharp; Broward County Main Library, 100 S. Andrews Avenue, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33301, 954-357-7444

Saturday, October 29, 2:00 – 3:30pm,
Florida Romance Writers Panel Discussion and Signing, Delray Beach Public Library, 100 West Atlantic Avenue, Delray Beach, FL 33444

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

INTERNET RESEARCH: Not Always the Deep Throat of Trusted Information

By: Kathleen Pickering

When turning your research sights on Internet sources for your writing, how can you be certain you’re discovering trusted information?

deepthroatIt’s not like back in Watergate days, when Bob Woodward spoke to a voice on the phone who gave him enough evidence to prove he was reliable enough to deserve the title, “Deep Throat.”

Those were the days. Drama while researching a story. Nice. Now, who knows from where comes the wellspring of Internet “facts”? How can we be sure the information we pull from the digital ether won’t leave us with egg on our face? Or worse: some reader sending an email proving our information was wrong. Major story killer!

Personally, I prefer on-site research for my stories, and so far have been able to use that tool successfully. However, I do rely on the Internet for facts. Ironic as it sounds, I searched the Internet to find guidelines for researching reliable sources on-line. I found the most reliable tips from websites for university libraries. Since the first tip was to check the authority of a source, I thought colleges would offer the most unbiased tools for determining reliable information.

research3I found when choosing an article, blog, website, government document, historical journal or any resource posted online five key areas should be considered:

1. The Authority of the author/publisher of information.

You should be able to identify the author of the work/site, his/her credentials, relevant affiliations, and past writings. The article itself should offer information, or sources like Who’s Who, the  author’s home page, or Google search the publishers/author’s name to see what other works support their credentials.

2. The Objectivity of the author.

What is the motive for your source’s article, blog, website? Does your source admit to a particular bias? Offer historical, medical or industry facts and not opinions, or affiliation viewpoints? Can you compare the information to other independent sites/articles to verify facts?

3. The Quality of the information:

Do the facts agree with your own knowledge of the subject? Can you insure information is complete and accurate by comparing with other specialists in the field? Does this author list other sources for his/her information, as well? And, believe it or not, check the site, article or blog for grammatical and spelling errors, typos. These usually indicate a non-professional delivery of information, making the facts suspect.


4. Evaluate Date of information:

When was the information published?  Check the date on the web page for publication date and revision dates. Is the information current? Does it update old facts? Substantiate other materials you’ve read? 

5. Establish Relevance of the information:

Are these facts popular vs. scholarly? (Huffington Post vs. Wall Street Journal)Does the information use raw data, photographs, first-hand accounts, reviews or research reports? Has the information been analyzed and the resources cited? Are footnotes, endnotes or bibliographies listed?

Remember, Wikipedia is no the end-all of resources, since anyone can edit it. And, a rule of thumb is to ensure you tap at least five different sources to verify your facts before accepting your information as usable.

So far, I’ve been lucky. But, I’ve only just begun my writing career. Has anyone out there put facts in their book they pulled from the Internet only to discover the source was wrong?


Monday, August 29, 2011

The Future is Theirs

Finally everything seems to have calmed down at the Langley-Hawthorne household - Dad's recovery is going well, Jasper's cough no longer elicits shrieks of horror and Sam's face is healing nicely after he and the asphalt collided last Monday. I've been to see doctors, dentists and teachers and we now seem to be in the clear (touch wood...) for this week at least.

On Thursday, I went into my sons' classrooms to talk about 'being an author' as part of their school's 'book week'. Honestly, I wasn't sure what reception I'd get with the 6 year-old set but I was pleasantly surprised - I think the long touted 'death of the book' has been grossly overstated. At least among kindergarteners, we authors rule (though, of course, I was no where near as cool as a children's book author would have been).

The most telling moment was when I asked the class if any of them ever wanted to write their stories down or write a book - literally all the hands sailed into the air (even both teachers'!). The desire to listen to and tell stories is alive and well (thankfully) and for that, I think every author can take heart. Stories have not lost their significance - no matter what the delivery format (e-books, paperbacks, hardbacks, papyrus...) books still remain integral to many children's lives.

Now of course I am totally biased, as I shamelessly inflict reading on my boys in every shape and form. We listen to audiobooks on the way to and from school (we just finished the Harry Potter series), sit down and read picture books as well as chapter books every night, and the boys see me reading research books, magazines, newspapers (sadly only iPad versions now) all the time. It would be nice to think this was normal for everyone, but even if it's not, I took comfort from seeing all the eager faces in the classroom as I spoke. There was no child who sighed or looked bored and no child who groaned at the thought of having to hear about stories. Hurray! I thought, my confidence in the future of books restored.

Some of the questions I got were pretty off the wall, from "If you write all day how do have time to make lunch?" to "How do you write so neat and straight?". Other questions prompted a few heart palpitations ("What do you do when you run out of ideas?") and I had to laugh at the responses I got, when I asked how long they thought it took someone to write a book. "An hour," said one little girl. "20 million years," said a little boy. I compromised and said somewhere between the two.

It was so inspiring to see all these kids excited to learn about books and writing. It was only when I was sitting in my car afterwards, that I suddenly thought about all the adults out there who have lost their love of reading. When does that happen? How does such promise and eager appreciation for stories get snuffed out?

At least we can all take heart that, among 6 year olds, we are celebrities. Long may that continue:)

PS: Any one got any ideas for what my boys can listen to next - after finishing the Harry Potter series we are quite bereft. We have Roald Dahl and some Enid Blyton but what we really need is a juicy new children's series!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

You've Got to Please Yourself

James Scott Bell

But it's all right now,
I learned my lesson well.
You see, you can't please everyone,
so you
got to please yourself.

- "Garden Party" by Ricky Nelson

So, writer, do you write to please yourself? Do you write for "the market"? Or is it something in between?

I advocate that you know about the market, have a sense of what's out there. This is, after all, a business. Publishers actually want to make money. Editors will talk about seeking fresh voices, but they also know they can be "too fresh" to sell to their pub boards.

But in the end, when you finally decide what story you're going to devote a significant chunk of time to, you've got to please yourself.

This is the pattern I followed for Pay Me in Flesh. I came up with a concept I thought was great for the market, something that hadn't been done before. Kensington took it on and I proceeded to write a book that pleased me—because that's the only way you can write something ultimately refreshing to readers.

That’s my view, anyway.

Which brings me to Edna Ferber.

(What? How did he go from zombie legal thrillers to Edna Ferber? Watch!)

No one seems to read Edna Ferber much anymore. But in the early twentieth century there was scarcely a more famous, or more popular, American writer. From her first novel in 1911 to her last in 1958, she had one of great careers in American letters. Not just novels, but plays (co-writing, among others, Dinner at Eight and The Royal Family), short stories, memoirs and newspaper columns.

I didn't know all this a year ago. All I knew about Miss Ferber was that she wrote the novel for a film I've never been able to get into, Giant (1956). I find the movie overlong and mostly tedious. I'll watch some of it when it comes on TV for two reasons: a) to look at Elizabeth Taylor in her prime; and b) the final fight scene where an aging Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) takes on a bigoted diner owner.

Anyway, one day last year I got a miserable head cold that had me whining around the house like a bored five-year-old. My wife finally told me to get out of her hair and into a sick bed. Too miserable to read, I turned on TCM to watch whatever was on.

It turned out to be a 1953 film called So Big, starring Jane Wyman and Sterling Hayden, both of whom I like. So I just started watching it and what do you know? I got caught up in the sheer storytelling. It's about a Chicago girl who grows up wealthy, only to see father lose everything. She's forced to take a teaching job in Dutch farm country well outside Chicago city limits.

It would seem like a recipe for a disappointing life. But Selina Peake is a woman of grit, with the ability to see beauty in the mundane. The practical Dutch don't get her at all, until she catches the eye of the big farmer, Pervis DeJong. They marry and have a son, and the story covers about thirty years after that.

I enjoyed the heck out of it.

The film was based on Edna Ferber's 1924 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize. So I thought I should read some Ferber. I ordered a used copy of So Big and downloaded what's free from Project Gutenberg.

So Big was just as enjoyable as a novel. There is also an interesting afterword in my edition, a bit about Miss Ferber's life and craft. She started to get critical blowback the more popular she became. What a surprise. Some critics said she should have "written better" prose.

Edna Ferber's response is the reason I wrote this post and titled it as I did:

"Those critics or well-wishers who think that I could have written better than I have are flattering me. Always I have written at the top of my bent at that particular time. It may be that this or that, written five years later or one year earlier, or under different circumstances, might have been the better for it. But one writes as the opportunity and the material and the inclination shape themselves. This is certain: I never have written a line except to please myself. I never have written with an eye to what is called the public or the market or the trend or the editor or the reviewer. Good or bad, popular or unpopular, lasting or ephemeral, the words I have put down on paper were the best words I could summon at the time to express the things I wanted more than anything else to say."

So, writers, what do you think about that?  

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Matter of Time

John Ramsey Miller

The world is so connected now that a film taken seconds after a bomb kills civilians in Nigeria is on our computers minutes after the event––perhaps before the bodies have been lifted into ambulances. A purchase can be made in Europe using a credit card stolen in California minutes earlier. It is flat amazing how connected we all are. The faster things happen, the more I want to write about a time when a war could be at full tilt and most of the world be unaware of it for weeks, months or years. Hard to imagine a time when fingerprints were all but useless in connecting people with their actions. I long to put my mind, my writing ability, in a slower world.

I write this blog every other week, and I don’t always write about writing, because my life isn't about "How To-ing." Although connected to authorship, I'm not ruled by writing. Life takes up most of my time, and I can go weeks without writing anything but this fleeting missive.At the moment I am waiting for my daughter-in-law and two of my grandchildren to arrive from Wilmington, NC fleeing from a Hurricane Irene and my dear friend Dr. Phillip Hawley, who wrote STIGMA, a few years back is coming to visit. Phillip is a pediatrician from LA, who had a business degree, before he went to medical school. And he is a talented writer, who writes when he has time. His book is now available on KINDLE, and it’s a great thriller.

I have decided that, with the time I have left, I am going to adhere to a tough schedule and write the books I want to write, and to publish electronically from here out. I ain't at my first rodeo and I can probably sell my books as effectively as a publisher can. I will have to find an editorialista who wants to work with me, and I am going to control my own future to the extent we can control anything. If I chose to write over the top, here and there, I will do it. I won’t care if my characters are not PC, or if they are more graphically violently inclined than someone else thinks is proper for the readers they think I have.

I also want to write my favorite continuing characters, and my publisher didn’t think the number of people who bought the books were adequate to keep the series going. The writing is what I love. The publishing part of the business has often gotten in the way of the creating.If forty thousand people read Winter Massey’s adventures, that is worth the time it’ll take to write. Starting on Monday I’m going to start polishing a standalone novel I completed last year so that it should be available for e-readers in six or eight weeks. I’ll let you know how it goes as it goes.

I think I’ve got time for a dozen books in the next three or four years. Then maybe I’ll take some time off.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Let’s Learn the Right Lesson

By John Gilstrap
NEWS FLASH:  We interrupt this blog post to bring you a special bulletin.  My novel Hostage Zero has been nominated by the Private Eye Writers of America for the Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original.  Winners will be announced at a private banquet in St. Louis during Bouchercon in September.  Fingers crossed.

Now, on with the blog post . . .

There’s an old joke about a scientist who amputates the legs from a specially trained jumping frog.  After the wounds have healed, the scientist spends days saying, “Jump Froggie, jump!” yet the frog just sits there.  Based on the empirical evidence, the scientist concludes that frogs go deaf after you cut off their legs.

I thought of this joke several times yesterday, following Jordan’s great post about S&S’s decision to distribute John Locke’sbooks.  Some of the responses troubled me, both in tone and in content.  People seemed to be taking away from that story lessons that I don’t think apply.  Moreover, they seemed to be taking away lessons that could prove harmful to them in the end.

Wrong Lesson #1: Locke’s deal is replicable by others.  Think Amanda Hocking, right?  This is the new wave of publishing.  Joe Konrath, too.  Finally, the authors have the publishing world on the ropes.  A new day has dawned.

Okay, I’ll concede the new day thing, but only to a point.  First, let’s consider how the system worked fifteen years ago, when I was a rookie in the publishing league.  I wrote the book and my agent sold the book.  I cashed the check and started writing the next book, earning back at the rate of $3.25 per copy sold.  The publisher took all of the risk, paid all of the designers, established all of the distribution, handled most of the publicity, and in return might or might not make any money out of the transaction.

In Locke’s case, the publisher waited on the sidelines until a writer took all of the risk, paid out all of the marketing money, and dedicated countless hours to promotion, selling a million-plus copies at $0.99 apiece.  Seeing a sure thing, S&S stepped in to make money with near-zero risk.  This was not a David v. Goliath moment.  It was a sound business transaction that was preceded by the literary equivalent of a lightning strike.  Ditto the Amanda Hocking deal.

To me, Locke’s deal is the equivalent of General Motors telling an untried engineer, “Tell you what, kid.  If you design the car, build the factory, manufacture a few thousand copies, road test them, market them, get them written up in Car and Driver and build a loyal customer base, I’ll let you use a corner of some our show rooms to sell them.”  It’s a sound business decision, but it’s hardly a model for every young engineer.

Wrong Lesson #2:  The smart new author needs to retain his digital rights, granting a publisher only print rights.  Two words come to mind for this one: career suicide.

Let’s take this one from the point of view of a publisher who’s dealing with a brand new author:

I don’t need your book.  I’m awash with books.  No one knows who you are, but I’m willing to try and change that.  The odds are woefully stacked against us, but I’m willing to commit thousands of dollars in designer time, editor time and marketing time to help your book rise above the noise.  Our editors will help you be a better writer than you could ever be on your own.  Plus, I’m going to pay you—not as much as we pay Grisham or King, but that kind of money is there for you when you get those kinds of results.  You get to keep the advance money, too, even if I lose my bet on you. 

But if you want to profit from my expertise, you have to give me the tools with which to earn it.  The print business is shrinking, baby.  The future lies in eBooks, whatever form they’ll take in the coming years.  I’ll put you in catalogues that those eBook originals will never see.  I’ll show you off in Frankfurt at the Book Fair, and I’ll give away ARCs at the ABA convention.  We’ll put you on our website, which is visited not just by readers, but by bulk buyers and libraries.  Think of all of this as thousands of dollars in free services, all because we believe in you.

What’s that?  Still not convinced?  You just want to leave me with what you perceive as the dregs so that you can have only upside?  Run along, young author.


This publishing game is a business, and the author is only a small part of the machine.  I think there’s way too much hype out there vilifying the publishing industry as some kind of parasite, and it’s just not true.  Publishers are the gateway to success.

Fifteen years ago, authors who weren’t very good turned to vanity presses that stoked the fires of artistic egalitarianism.  Every now and then, a Christmas Box phenom broke out and fired unwarranted dreams that ended up in garages full of unsold printed books.  Now, those same authors, or authors like them, are turning to eBooks with irrational hopes.  A few will make it, but many will not.  Of those who do make it, most would have done better if they had pursued the traditional publishing route.

The hook to indie e-publishing is the lure of 70% (or whatever the number is) of the cover price of every book sold, versus the 25% that is quickly becoming the standard in the traditional publishing world.  Ultimately, authors must ask themselves which is better: 70% of 1,000 books sold (or 10,000 or 25,000) at $0.99 apiece, or 25% of 150,000 books sold at $4.50 or $9.00 apiece.  They need to ask themselves if their true expertise is in writing or if it is in publishing.

One thing seems clear to me in all of the self-pub success stories: In every case, the author established a reliable fan base before the Big Deal was closed.  There’s no easy way to do that, but some ways are way easier than others.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Another Coup for Self-Publishing

Dovetailing on Joe Moore’s great post yesterday on “Show Me the Money,” I saw an article in Publishers Weekly and wanted to share this very interesting deal.
John Locke is my hero.

No, not THAT John Locke! This guy…
Publishers Weekly reported on Aug 22nd that John Locke, the self-pubbed Kindle bestseller phenom, closed a distribution deal with Simon & Schuster. The deal, negotiated by his agent, is an exclusive arrangement where S&S will handle Locke’s eight Donovan Creed novels and get them into retail markets for print books. These novels are expected to start releasing in Feb 2012 with more titles to follow.
This seems like a really different idea, but a rep at S&S said this concept mimics the type of arrangements made between distributors and small publishers. Whether you consider this unorthodox or not, this is news, people. Locke still distributes his e-books and retains his rights as publisher on all digital fronts. S&S is only getting the right to sell print books to retail markets. S&S sees value in print and paid accordingly for that privilege, but Locke didn’t have to give up his lucrative digital rights.
If Locke hadn’t self-published, he never would have known his true value in the marketplace.
I see this as very encouraging for aspiring authors. The digital marketplace has become the new resume, a proving ground. It requires work to market your own books, but traditional publishers expect authors to do this anyway. Quality and author craft is still important to this process, but I believe if an aspiring author has talent and a marketing platform to get the word out, this new digital world can be the best way to showcase work.
Published authors benefit from this development too. Striking a similar deal, they would get to focus on their writing, get their books into the public faster without all the approval and production schedule delays, and push the genres they write without NYC filtering the content for placement on shelves in retail stores. Established authors already spend time on promotion. Nothing new there, but there would be no more waiting to see if the publisher will spend money on promo or coop dollars for often limited time on the shelves. And the author retains control of cover art, book jacket summary, copy editing, and formatting, if they want it.
Even though S&S has limited access to Locke’s work, it can be looked upon as a WIN-WIN, in my opinion. S&S gets access to books that have a proven readership. They don’t have to “guess” whether a series will gain traction or not. They get exclusive print distribution rights for a known commodity. Not a bad thing to try in a changing world.
The author gets to take the risk of whether his or her book will find success, so they can push the genre or create a new trend—AND keep the rights that are most lucrative these days. The author would also free up time to write more, rather than spend time with the print side of the business—and gain access to retail markets he/she would not have reached on their own. PLUS a proven winner like Locke would also have the attention of NYC with his next project, opening more doors. Definitely a WIN-WIN!
I see this as a very positive arrangement—a healthy one for the industry. Both sides benefit from something they would not have tried otherwise. If a traditional bundled publishing deal can be broken apart for perceived value, how do you think this might change how deals can be negotiated in the future? Can digital rights be retained by the author for the right project? How would an agent’s role change? Would an author have to be a proven bestseller to have enough clout to negotiate a similar deal or does a deal like Locke’s foreshadow things to come for all authors?

Show me the money!

By Joe Moore

dutch11First, some breaking news to share--MONTEZUMA'S WRAAK, the Dutch version of my new thriller, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES (co-written with Lynn Sholes) was released on August 18 by my Netherlands publisher Karakter Uitgevers.B.V. Here’s a look at the cover.

And now for today’s post.

According to a recent article in Forbes, the sale of adult hardcover novels was down 23% in the first half of this year. Despite the downturn, some authors are holding their own. Their names may be familiar. Chances are you’ve read a few of their books. So why are these guys doing so well while most of the industry is in a state of funk? Forbes attributes it to the increasing popularity of ebooks, but even more so the diversification of these writers’ personal brands.

money (Small)James Patterson is a good example. Mr. Patterson signed a 17-book, $150m book deal in 2009 with Hachette. Teaming up with a number of co-authors, he placed 20 titles on Publishers Weekly’s year-end bestseller list. Those titles totaled 10m copies. In addition, he sold 750k ebooks. He’s also expanded into the YA market with great success.

Other examples of authors doing well in tight times is Stephenie Meyer, whose Twilight series at one point accounted for 15% of all books sold in the US; and J.K. Rowling, who is about to jump into the electronic book market by launching Pottermore, her new virtual online bookstore. Pottermore will offer ebook versions of her novels compatible with any e-reader. Other collateral merchandise will be offered as well.

What the numbers don’t show is the quality of the writing. That, of course, is in the eye of the reader. Much criticism has been leveled at James Patterson that his books lack the depth and magic of some of his early works. I see comments on writer forums saying that Patterson has sold out and become an assembly line pouring out books just to make money. The commenters don’t understand why people keep buying his books. It reminds me of what people say about a very popular local restaurant. “No one ever goes there, it’s always too crowded.” The reason James Patterson makes so much money is because bazillions of readers around the world are willing to buy his books. Why? Because they like reading them.

Now for the list of the highest paid authors (May 2010-April 2011). Get out your royalty statements and compare.

James Patterson ($84 million)
Danielle Steel ($35 million)
Stephen King ($28 million)
Janet Evanovich ($22 million)
Stephenie Meyer ($21 million)
Rick Riordan ($21 million)
Dean Koontz ($19 million)
John Grisham ($18 million)
Jeff Kinney ($17 million)
Nicholas Sparks ($16 million)
Ken Follett ($14 million)
Suzanne Collins ($10 million)
J.K. Rowling ($5 million)

What does this mean for writers that make less money that these folks? It means that people still want to buy books and be entertained with good stories. I consider all this to be a very positive sign. How about you? How does this list of mega-authors make you feel? Are you deflated or defiant?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Rave reviews, for a fee

Note: Clare was on sick duty yesterday, and I must piggyback on her excuse with my own today. A close family member had a stroke last week, and has just returned home  from the hospital. I'm helping him with his recovery, so I must beg off.

I'll leave you all with a link to an interesting article in the New York Times. It describes the emerging trend of fake book reviews--positive reviews that are purchased for five bucks a pop. Here's the link:

In a Race to Out-Rave, 5-Star Web Reviews Go for $5 

Just a few years ago, rave-only reviews were likely to come from the author's friends and family. Now, it turns out, you can buy 'em by the bushel. The practice even extends to book blogs, where you can buy full-length, positive reviews.

Many people don't pay attention to online reviews, but for those that do, do you think that this practice will devalue them? Have you run across any reviews you suspected weren't "real"?

(My thanks to Patricia Smiley for bringing my attention to the NYT article.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Just call me Nurse Clare

So another apology and another missed blog post. After returning from the USA to help look after my Dad, I've had one boy suffering from croup and a horrible plague-like cough and another boy who I just picked up from the school health center after falling badly in PE (cut up face, blood nose, wounded knee - he did a good job with that face plant on the asphalt!)...So instead of writing my blog post, I am on full 'nurse mom' duty as of now! Hopefully next week things will have calmed down and we will be back to my normally scheduled blog!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

No Fear, No Envy, No Meanness

James Scott Bell

Liam Clancy was one of the great Irish balladeers and a key figure in the folk renaissance of the early 1960s. Naturally he ran across 20-year-old Bob Dylan who was starting to get noticed in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village.

In the superb Martin Scorsese documentary, No Direction Home, Dylan recalls Clancy giving him some advice (fueled by more than a few pints of Guinness). "Remember Bobby," Clancy said, "No fear, no envy, no meanness."

That is a trinity of sound advice for writers, too.


You have to go to new places, new depths, if you're going to be worth anything as a writer. Fear will keep you safe but it will never get you up the mountain.

Fear is not something we can always control. It's a feeling that sneaks up on you, and is actually healthy in certain situations. It can keep you out of a biker bar at midnight, for example. Not a bad thing.

But fear can also debilitate you and hold you back from your best work. Joan Didion said, "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear."

Go there. Write fearlessly. Let loose. Don't be afraid to fail aggressively.


Socrates called envy the "ulcer of the soul," and the wise old sage knew what he was talking about. Envy is a useless emotion that is, unfortunately, something most artists are prey to, even if they don't want to be. Suffice to say if you envy another's success you are only hurting yourself.

Besides, envy is baseless. The person you think "has it all" probably doesn't. I've known some bestselling authors who are miserable, to themselves and other people. A few are paranoid. You would not want to be them.

Just work hard toward your goals and leave other people's success out of your equation. Practice gratitude. That is the key to happiness.  I love what I do and what I have, my family and friends and career. I'm not going to poison that with pointless comparisons and petty thoughts.

Epicurus, one of the few Greek philosophers who got a whole school named after him, said, "Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not."


Meanness in a writer is something I just don't understand. Most of the people I've met in the writing business are good, decent folks. I count many of them as among my closest friends in life.

There are exceptions. The diva. The narcissist. The sun around whom the rest of us are expected to orbit. I remember being at a book conference once when one of these exemplars was getting ready sign (as I was). But a sufficient supply of books was not at the booth, so this paragon of magnanimity started barking at the poor staffers, though they had several other tasks to attend to. The smile that was reserved for the public was gone, as was any hint of charity or appreciation.

It was all about this writer, you see.

As author Michael Bishop once put it, "One may achieve remarkable writerly success while flunking all the major criteria for success as a human being. Try not to do that."

So there you have it. Simple, clear and solid advice from Liam Clancy, an Irishman who lived it: No fear, no envy, no meanness.

Try it. You'll be the happier for doing so. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Damned with faint praise. Or something like it.

Damned with faint praise

I was stuck on what to write for this week’s offering but as usual something came up, and it wasn’t that quesadilla I had for lunch. It is a wondrous age we live in, and it seems that for good or for ill, something new is developed every day. So it is that there is a new development that the authors in our audience --- particularly the mid-list folks who, imho, provide the solid backbone of the publishing industry --- might want to be made aware of. Amazon is slowly adding a feature, or element, or whatever you might want to call it, on their book title pages titled “What Do Customers Ultimately Buy After Viewing This Item?” and which consists of a list of four or five titles, accompanied by the percentages of buyers who bought another book to the exclusion of the one they were originally looking up. This is to be distinguished from the “Customers who bought this book also bought” (emphasis added) feature. No, the “ultimately buy” feature tells the world what percentage of the audience looked at your book, found it wanting, and bought another book by someone else instead! It’s kind of like sitting in the autograph room at Bouchercon and hoping that someone will come up to your table, and just as someone does, their friend says, “oh, let’s go meet ______ ____________ instead.” It’s not being done with every book by every author, and, at least as far as I can tell, it’s only being utilized by Maybe the Brits have thicker skins, though I don’t think so: I learned of this feature from a British author, whose novel had received the implicitly rough treatment, and the author was, uh, not happy.

I don’t think that this new feature is going to be welcomed with open arms by authors on either side of the Atlantic. Am I wrong, here? What I sense is a suggestion to the effect that if you’re looking for something to read, you might find something you like better elsewhere, and we have a jury of your peers to tell you so. As for the authors themselves, I could see this busting up some friendships. I mean, if you have ten books published, and Amazon is noting with each one that a certain percentage of people would rather buy a book by, say, Author A, that might create a problem. I really don’t see how it helps anything, either. It’s might be intended as a sort of “Recommended If You Like” referral, but it isn‘t, and they have one of those already with their “ People Who Bought this book also bought“ feature. It strikes me as more of a “Why would you want to read this when you could read that?” Or to put it another way, it’s almost like an article in your neighborhood newspaper which states that while your wife might still love you, she would rather be tupped by your next door neighbor, as would seventy per cent of the women on the street. Oh, and your Kindle books aren’t safe from this thing, either.

So what do you think of this? I would include a link to an example of this, but I don’t want to embarrass anyone, even indirectly. But have you seen this? Have you been a --- I hate to use this term, but there is no other --- victim of it? And should Amazon, UK or US or otherwise, get some feedback about it? What say you?

Friday, August 19, 2011

For the Love of the Game

By John Gilstrap
I hate what professional sports has become.

I blame free agency. Yes, I understand that from the players’ point of view free agency is the equivalent of emancipation, but I don’t think of sports from the point of view of the player. I’m a fan—a paying customer—and I miss the days when teams were about, you know, teams. I miss the teaching moment that was built around the pre-free agency notion that the individual was subservient to the team. That’s why we put our kids into sports, right? So that they can learn the lessons of teamwork?

Nowadays, professional sports is all about the money. Okay, it’s always been about the money, but I lament the migration of the prima donna from its former exclusive domain of opera to the gridiron and the baseball diamond.

In a few short weeks, I will once again, for the forty-seventh time, walk into the whirling propeller that defines being a Washington Redskins fan. Yes, Dan Snyder is Satan incarnate, and I won’t recognize eighty percent of the names on the roster, but dammit, this team is the descendant of Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer (yes, and Joe Thiesmann, but decent Washingtonians don’t speak of The Ego). The Redskins will yet again lure me into their web with early season wins, and they will yet again fall apart in mid-October. I’m not a sports stats fan, but I’ll bet bucks to buttons that no team on the planet has given up more fourth-quarter leads than the Redskins.

The disparity that separates real sports from their professional cousins is most widely illustrated this time of year during the Little League World Series, currently being televised on ESPN. It’s refreshing to watch 12-year-old athletes giving their all to win a game simply for the right to proclaim themselves winners. If you haven’t watched any of these six-inning games yet, you really ought to take the opportunity to do so.

First of all, it’s great baseball, complete with breathtaking offense and defense, but also littered with the occasional egregious error. I cannot imagine the thrill these kids must feel when they watch the recordings of themselves, complete with sportscaster commentary and instant replay.

And here’s the heart-wrenching part: Often as not, the losing team cries. These boys have put everything into the game, and while their athletic prowess might have matured, their emotions have not. They’re kids, and they’re all heart. Someday, the best among them will probably join the ranks of free agents, but for this brief slice of time, they’re just athletes, pure and simple.

There's a writing analogy to be made here--those who write for the love of the craft versus those who write because their franchise demands it--but I'll leave it to you, dear Killzoners, to connect those dots.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

My White Whale

by Michelle Gagnon

There was an interesting post on Slate this week entitled, "Overrated: Authors, critics, and editors on 'great books' that aren't all that great.

The article got me thinking about which stories endure, which eventually fall by the wayside, and why. In a world where people now fit their innermost thoughts into 140 characters or less (counting spaces), lengthy descriptive passages such as those found in TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES probably strike the modern reader as tedious, while back when it was first published, that type of writing was the norm. It's also interesting to see that some of the people quoted cited both GRAVITY'S RAINBOW and Joyce's ULYSSES as being overrated, but for very different reasons.

I've read a decent number of the canonical 'great books,' and enjoyed most of them (including TESS, although I'm not generally a big Hardy fan).
But there's one that has become my own personal white whale: appropriately enough, MOBY DICK. It's one of the few books that I've never finished, despite gritting my teeth and picking it up a half dozen times. I always enjoy the beginning, and sweep through the first twenty chapters.

Then I hit
Chapter 32: Cetology, and my eyes glaze over. I have yet to make it through Ishmael's attempts to classify whales scientifically. I read a page or so, then set the book down. One thing leads to another, and MD inevitably ends up back at the bottom of my TBR pile. I suppose I could always just skip the chapter, but I've never done that with a book before and something inside me balks at the thought.

Plus, I honestly have a fairly limited tolerance for sea shanties.

Yet this is supposed to be one of, if not
the, "Great American Novels." So am I really missing out by not finishing? Or has Melville passed his expiration date? How relevant are the classics to our contemporary lives now? Are some so outmoded they no longer qualify as great literature? More importantly, are certain books lauded as great simply because they've managed to survive the tests of time?

In the article, Elif Batuman points out that, "the right book has to reach you at the right time, and no person can be reached by every book."
I love that observation. Sometimes I wonder if I'd still enjoy Milan Kundera as much if I read him now, or if Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 YEARS OF SOLITUDE would make such an impression. I rarely go back and re-read books- there are simply too many amazing new stories coming out every week.

So today's question is this: which great book let you down?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cover Copy

How are you at writing back cover copy for your story? Most fiction writers don’t train for the advertising biz, and yet we’re expected to come up with log lines and blurbs and back cover copy. Recently, I read another author’s blog where she talks about optimizing your bio and cover copy for search engines by using keywords. Huh? And here I thought my profile was pretty good. As for cover copy, I can never come close to the witty style my former publisher used to promote my Bad Hair Day mysteries. I can write the story, but condensing it into a few lines that are entertaining while employing keywords is beyond my scope. Here is one area where I’m glad to get editorial input.

Let’s say we’re writing a mystery about a produce grocer who operates a booth at a weekday morning farmer’s market. When one of the other vendors ends up dead, suspects may include mutual customers, rival vendors, conniving relatives, and snarky suppliers. To make it easy for me, we’ll set it in Florida. So what would our keywords be here?

Amateur sleuth
Cozy mystery
Culinary (especially if vegetarian recipes are included)

I’m sure you can come up with more keywords. Anyone want to pitch in?

Now let’s have a go at the cover copy:
Before he can take a bite out of his organic Gala apple, green grocer Jimmy Octagon notices a commodity not on the menu at the farmer’s market. Normally a beehive of energy, honey seller Aldreshia Meyers is dead as a turnip over by the onion stand. With the mayor threatening to shut down the market and Jimmy’s vendor license on the line, he’d better find the killer fast or else he might become the next victim of the lethal Green Menace.

Okay, I warned you I’m bad at this, didn’t I? Note that I neglected to use a single keyword. Why don’t you give it a try?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


By: Kathleen Pickering

heroin_powderDeadlines are like  heroin for me.

Hold on, now! Don’t get me wrong. I’ve never done heroin. And, I can say with an open heart and clean conscience that heroin is slotted nowhere in my life schedule.

However, I do have an addictive personality. So, I’m thinking that if it is irresistibly alluring to be addicted to something others consider awful, I am irresistibly addicted to deadlines!

I have self-published four books that required no deadlines. I had one other novel released by a publisher years ago. So, I’m pretty much a newbie to the workings from an editor’s desk. 

Well, last Thursday was my first deadline with Harlequin. (I know. Not a mystery, but hey, love can mislead one, kill another, or solve deep mysteries, no?) So, I am pleased to announced that I main-lined that first deadline directly to my editor’s in-box with time to spare.

What a freakin’ rush!!

That defining moment was capped with a lovely, complimentary email from my editor thanking me for meeting the short notice. She then went on to suggest that I should kick back and relax until the line edits came back.

I thought, “Huh? No way!” I NEED another deadline! That felt soooooo good. Having those characters run through my blood, live in my brain and rush into the keyboard to find a happily-eva-afta! I must, must, must do it again. Gotta have it!

But then, I thought. Hey, that was a lot of work. You don’t want to burn out. So, I took one day. Friday. I consciously wasted time to regroup, detox the adrenaline rush, and just enjoy that I’m a normal kind of gal. Maybe go shopping. Call a friend. Play with dolphins? 025_25

I’ve heard this sage advice from all my seasoned author friends: When you’re not BICHOK (Butt In Chair Hands On Keyboard) be sure to waste your time consciously. Be aware that you have chosen not to write in order to regroup, percolate, smell the roses, drink the coffee and see what’s happening outside that closet in your mind.

Wasting time consciously in itself is healthy, but when you have an addictive personality such as mine, it’s hard to let go of the deadline craving. Without thinking twice, I may think I’m consciously wasting time, but I’m really using these hours to open a vein into which the next story can flow. (I’m sure the sage heads of those who know are nodding.)

The best high about being an author is that everything I do can trigger a story. I could, without trepidation, consciously waste time because the possibilities I might find would simply take me back to my dealer . . . um, I mean, editor.  (Coughing into fist with embarrassment.)It’s pretty clear that if I deliver another good story, she’ll give me what I crave most: a DEADLINE. Ahhh. It doesn’t get better than that.

So, I did it. I consciously wasted a day, with great abandon until the tug came back. The tremors began, and that hunger bit deep. I got on the keyboard to my editor and said, “Thanks for the excellent suggestion, but if you don’t mind, ten hours was enough. I’m hammering out my next proposal, immediately. I need another deadline fix. NOW!!

I should be feeling better soon folks. No worries. Smile

So, tell me, my writer, artist, and business-minded friends. How do you consciously waste time between creative processes in order to rejuvenate?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Publicists in the New Digital Age

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

As I am still virtually 'in communicado' after my father's knee replacement surgery (still on 'duty' helping my folks out before I fly back to Australia tomorrow), I haven't got any meaty blog post for today. I do, however, have a question about publicity in the new 'digital age' of publishing. I was musing over it just this morning, wondering whether the traditional 'publicist' is, in many ways, redundant for authors now. With the ever increasing use of online and social media for book publicity, I have to wonder how much value an independent publicist can offer these days.

So what do you think? Would you bother to hire a publicist if you had a book coming out now and, if so, what would you expect them to do for you?

PS: Thank you all for your good wishes. My Dad is doing great!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Don't Be Afraid to Fail Aggressively

I like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

We all know he made his name as a wrestler, then got screen time as the Scorpion King. Then he kicked it up a notch with The Rundown and Walking Tall.

But Johnson wanted to break out from just being the next action guy. He wanted to expand his range, into comedies. So he started working toward that end. Some folks were skeptical. But in an interview with People magazine just before Get Smart came out, Johnson said, ''I would rather fail being aggressive than being passive."

I loved that quote. I put it on a card and displayed it in my office. Because at the time I was taking a big risk, too.

After over a decade in the fiction game I had a secure following in the Christian publishing arena. I could count on a solid number of readers every time out. I also liked the people and the companies I worked with.

That market, however, was trending toward a more "romance" feel, with a rather surprising uptick in books depicting Amish life. Now, in our chaotic times, I well understand the appeal of fiction that depicts steadier, simpler ways. I do not at all hold it against thee if thou likes Amish fiction.

But that's not my particular crevice in the fiction world.

So I had to make a decision. Stay put and play it safe? Or try something new and unproven? Continue as I had where everyone knew me, or put oars into the waters of the vast ocean of mainstream publishing?

Which is when I read the Dwayne Johnson quote. And I thought, If I don't try this now, I'll look back and regret it. It could end up being a ten story dive into a glass of water, but Bugs Bunny did that, why can't I?

The worst that could happen was that I would "fail aggressively." There's no shame in that. It's what's driven all the innovations and breakthroughs in history. Edison failed more than he succeeded, but would never have succeeded at all if he hadn't been aggressive. 

So I took the plunge and sold a zombie legal thriller which is, I would say, a bit outside the box of my previous engagements!

Am I glad? Oh yeah. I love Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law. And I've been getting some lovely email from my readers. If I may be allowed to share one comment in that regard: "If a great story is about someone we can care about who wants something we can identify with and faces odds that are relatable and believable, then it doesn't matter what Mallory IS. What matters is what Mallory wants and why she wants it. And the best part is, she is sassy, smart and funny."

When you get a comment like that, one that says you accomplished what you set out to do in a book you've poured your heart into, it makes the whole thing worth it. 

Yes, there will be dissenters. We who write professionally know that well. But while there is no sure formula for success, there is one for failure: try to please everybody. 

As writers we have to be willing to fail aggressively. If we don't, if we play it too safe, if we spend too much time worrying about the market and how to chase it down, we will lose that chance to be what the world prizes most—an original.

Sure, use market sense, but put all that through the prism of your unique voice and vision and heart and desire. Then go for it. Don't be afraid of failure. You may be on the pathway to a breakthrough.

Listen to The Rock.