Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Enough already.

by Michelle Gagnon

I feel like there's been an increasingly acrimonious discourse lately on traditional vs. self-publishing, and frankly, I'm tired of it. I'm seeing it at conferences, online, and everywhere in between. Both camps are equally guilty here, in terms of snide comments and blatant put-downs. Those who are under contract with traditional publishing houses sniff at the fact that self-published authors skipped over hurdles to publish what they suspect (but rarely say publicly) must be drivel, or what one writer friend of mine referred to as a "tsunami of swill."

In the other camp, the self-published authors extol the fantastic revenue returns they're receiving, a far greater percentage than what they would have gotten from a standard publishing contract. They make lots of references to an archaic business model, implying that anyone who still partakes in it is a fool.

Enough already.

I don't really care how someone is published, or how many books they sell, or how much money they're making. But the overall nastiness that's becoming commonplace is off-putting. The prevailing attitude used to be, "we're all in this together" among writers, whereas now there's a schism. And that's a shame, because both models have their merits.

To those (like me) who are still publishing with the major houses: I've read wonderful novels in the past few years that failed to find a home. Sometimes the reason for that was clear--the book was aimed at a very niche market, one where publishers couldn't envision making a profit. Other times, I was at a loss to know why a particular book didn't sell. One was an amazing YA novel written by a friend of mine, who ended up self-pubbing on Wattpad. After reaching an extraordinary amount of downloads, she moved it to Amazon and started charging for it. And it's doing well- IMHO, the publishers lost out on this one. 

To self-published authors: The traditional houses aren't going anywhere. People frequently point to the music industry, which is a fantastic example. What they fail to take into account is that musicians still aren't, by and large, self-producing music. Eighty-five percent of the music sold worldwide is still produced by the same music companies that were producing it a decade ago. Many of those companies have merged and/or consolidated, sure. But they're still around, for the same reason that the big 6 will still be around in a decade. Like it or not (and I'm not, personally, a huge fan of this, but so be it), most of the houses are part of much larger conglomerates. And News Corp and CBS aren't going anywhere; they're also unlikely to shed an industry that still feeds into their film and TV franchises. So, no, people who still follow the old model aren't going to be shoved out, by and large. The midlist might diminish further, but books will continue to be released by those companies well into the future.

There are pros and cons to each model. Self-published authors don't have the benefit and protection of a contract, so if Amazon decides tomorrow to change those royalty rates, they're well within their rights to do so. It's also far more difficult to secure foreign and film/tv rights when you self-pub, and that tends to be the bread and butter of traditional authors.

Traditional authors, meanwhile, do lose out on some royalties that they could potentially be getting. They also have to wait months, and occasionally years, for a book to finally appear on shelves. And advances are not what they once were.


But there's no right way and no wrong way. Write your book. Publish your book, however you prefer. But please, stop with the mud slinging. At the end of the day, we're all still pursuing the same dream.

Haunted Theater

By Joe Moore

halloween1

Happy Halloween!

As far back as I can remember, Halloween was and is my favorite holiday. My first memory of All Hallows Eve is when I was 6 or 7 and was invited into a neighbor’s house where my two best friends lived. At one point, their mother showed me a small trap door in the ceiling inside a linen closet. She said that it led to the attic where Hector, their family ghost lived. As my friends and I sat around eating the candy we had collected earlier that night, I swear I heard something moving around up above our heads. Hector was my first ghost. There have been others.

Down through the years, I did my share of tricking and treating once the sun went down, and loving every minute of it. And the #1 reason (besides my never-ending hunger for candy corn) that I loved Halloween so much was that it was the one day of the year when I could be anyone or anything I wanted. I could take on a totally different persona and it was okay. Sometimes the real alter ego would emerge. Sometimes it would surprise my family and friends. Most times, it would surprise me. Interestingly enough, I’ve found a way to duplicate that Halloween identity switch every day. I became a novelist. Whenever I want, I can take on my characters’ identities and live through their lives within a world that exists only in my mind. What a cool job!

When our two boys were growing up and Halloween rolled around, I would take the day off from work and spend it getting the house ready for what we called Haunted Theater. I had a huge 6’ Sony front projection TV and an equally huge bay window. I would roll the TV up to the front window and move my big theater speakers outside. Each year we would show a traditional Halloween movie like Ghostbusters or Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy, and invite all the little ghosts and goblins to come back to our front yard after they had roamed the neighborhood. At our house, they could enjoy their sweet bounty while watching a great movie. We served Halloween spirits to the moms and dads from a caldron overflowing with dry ice fog. There were many years when we had 20-30 kids camped out on the grass watching that year’s feature film. It became a decade-long tradition.

Years later, when my wife and I would be out at the mall or a restaurant, we would often run into a stranger who would say, “Weren’t you the guys who showed the movies on Halloween?” It always reaffirmed that using up a vacation day each year to get the house ready was worth it.

So tonight when the knocks come on your front door and the shouts of Trick or Treat echo through the neighborhood, remember that Halloween is a night dedicated to kids and fun, and an evening that those boys and girls will remember for the rest of their lives. Make it special. Happy Halloween!

What about you? Any Halloween memories or traditions you treasure?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Guns: Fiction vs. Reality

As mystery and thriller writers, we here at TKZ are required to have at least a passing familiarity with firearms. Ian Fleming might have copped to being "rather bored by the whole question of expertise in these (technical) matters", but the rest of us must beware the fact checkers. No one wants to fail the sniff test when it comes to writing about the smell of cordite in the air. (See the excellent post by TKZ'er Emeritus John Ramsey Miller for the lowdown on accuracy).

When it comes to our attitudes toward guns in real life, however, I would guess that writers' opinions vary wildly. My own relationship with guns is complicated. I was raised as a regional hybrid; I spent half my youth in the Deep South, where guns are considered a rite of passage. The other half I spent hanging around Harvard types in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that bastion of anti-gun sentiment.

The South won the first battle. I was shooting skeet by the time I was 14, and target practice was a regular hobby. As a freshman at Wellesley College, I thought it was wildly amusing when I posted one of my shot-up targets on the door of my dorm room (doing that today would undoubtedly get me sent straight to Mental Health).

After college, my interest in guns waned. I didn't want to own them around children. Plus, I'd witnessed first-hand how firearms and flinty Irish tempers can prove a volatile mix, especially when combined with alcohol. (One male relative in my extended clan was shot--twice, on separate occasions--by his then-girlfriend. The couple later wed. I'm still scratching my head over that one.)

Recently my feelings about guns have been put to the test. I'm about to inherit a small arsenal of weapons from a gun-toting relative. I have mixed feelings about this impending bounty; on the one hand, the children are out of the house, and there's been a recent uptick in violent crime in my area. A gun might be useful, especially if I could somehow wrangle a concealed carry permit. On the other hand: owning a gun is still an awesome responsibility. I never can quite relax when there are guns in the house.

For now, I'm simply trying to get familiar with the darned things again. One of my bequests-to-be is a Walther PPK, the gun of choice for James Bond.  With apologies to Ian Fleming, it doesn't seem all that easy to use. When a bad guy's coming at you, who has time to draw and then push back a balky slide before aiming?  Maybe the one I'm getting needs oiling. Or maybe I need training.

For now, I'm just having fun getting acquainted with all these firearms. We took a few pictures--I think the fur adds a certain Jane Bondish je ne sais quois, don't you?







Monday, October 29, 2012

Low Down on The Numbers

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Janet Reid, a literary agent, posted an item on her blog last week on the issue of self-published authors querying agents in the hopes of getting a larger publisher to notice them. She emphasizes  that basically you need to have sold more that 20,000 copies of your book to have even a remote chance of having this happen. She went on to stress just how daunting this can be (no kidding!) and though she states that it isn't her intention to dissuade someone from self-publishing, her main point is that self-pubbed authors need to be realistic about what they can accomplish.  Needless to say this blog post got me thinking...


  • So for all of you our there considering the indie route - what numbers are you aiming for? Are you considering this a first step towards getting an agent and a traditional publisher, a parallel option, or are you solely going for the indie route? What sales figures would you be content with?

  • And for those who have already gone the indie route - what kind of sales figures are we talking about? (if you don't mind me asking - I confess to being clueless on this front). Do you agree with Janet's statement that you probably need to sell in excess of 20,000 copies to get the attention of traditional publishers?


Janet also states that self-publication cannot launch a mystery series and I must confess, I don't see why not - but perhaps some of you TKZers would like to weigh in on this as well!




Sunday, October 28, 2012

Field Report From the E-Book Revolution #2





UPDATE: Well, that didn't take long. Random House and Penguin have announced their merger. So what will that mean for authors? Agent Richard Curtis has one opinion. So does The Passive Voice.

***

David Letterman once did a Top Ten list of headlines that would cause a panic. Such as:

“Sometimes When We Touch” Made National Anthem.

Constitution Thrown Out in Favor of Old “Marmaduke” Cartoon.

Willie Nelson Discovered Washing Hair in New York City Water Supply.

That last one is very troubling. And in the publishing industry, it seems there are headlines each week that, if they don’t cause a panic, at least give traditional publishing executives the jimmy-legs at night. Headlines like the following:


Indeed, it was inevitable that the Big 6 would become the Big 5, and maybe even the Big 4, and that soon. I predicted this would happen sometimes in 2013. Well, the talks are happening right now.

"It's a recognition that they don't individually have the scale to be able to stand up to companies like Amazon or Apple," Philip Downer, former chief executive of Borders UK who now runs the retail consultancy Front of Store, told the BBC.

Thus, it seemed apt to file another field report on developments in the e-book revolution. It was a year ago that I filed my first one. Happy anniversary:

1. The Business Cycle as a Funneling Sump Pump

Traditional publishers are in the midst of a horrible business cycle (not necessarily in terms of income, but in terms of sustainability and growth of income). We all know that, and the merger talks are a sign.

Another sign: In an effort to “streamline operations,” Simon & Schuster has reduced its adult publishing divisions from six to four, with accompanying layoffs.

Layoffs, hires and re-structuring are all focused on digital now. For example, Hachette announced changes in its sales force with an appropriate press release: “We are changing our current structure to enable HBG to meet the needs and challenges of our ever-shifting world, where digital has made a deep and lasting impression on the way HBG sells and the customers we sell to, the platforms we advertise on, and the manner and type of content we publish.”

On the other side of the publishing fence (an electric fence, BTW):

• In 2011, 39% of books were sold via some form of e-commerce. Only 26% in bookstore chains. (Source: Bowker)

• The number of self-published books produced annually in the U.S. has nearly tripled, growing 287% since 2006, with 235,625 print and e titles released in 2011. (Source: Bowker)

• And a company that recorded $13.8 billion (with a “b”) in sales this past quarter did not make a profit, but rather a $247 million loss. That company is Amazon. But it is also Amazon’s strategy. As Jeff Bezos puts it:

“Our approach is to work hard to charge less. Sell devices near breakeven and you can pack a lot of sophisticated hardware into a very low price point. And our approach is working – the $199 Kindle Fire HD is the #1 bestselling product across Amazon worldwide . . .The next two bestselling products worldwide are our Kindle  Paperwhite and our $69 Kindle."

Is this just sound and fury? Or is it, as Forbes magazine puts it, a crafty strategy worthy of Steve Jobs? For it just may be that what Amazon is after now is Apple. As Bezos says, in a shot across the bow from the above release:And we haven’t even started shipping our best tablet – the $299 Kindle Fire HD 8.9.”

And this in light of Apple’s disappointing iPad sales this past quarter.

2. The New Vanity?

“Vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” wrote Solomon the Wise. Was he thinking of self-publishing Ecclesiastes? Or was he hoping to sell it to a big papyrus company? One writer has gone so far as to call traditional publishing the "new vanity publishing."

According to this HuffPo post, many writers “are willing to forego the benefits of self-publishing for the unshakable belief in the "prestige" of signing on with a ‘real publisher.’” He concludes:

Think about how much you are willing to sacrifice for a "real publisher." Is the "prestige" of a traditional publisher's imprint mostly illusory in the context of the new world of publishing? Ask what traditional publishing will do for you in the long run if you don't get effective distribution and publicity. Which platform is more likely to bring you sizable sales? Which will help you build a large following for marketing future publications? These are critical questions that deserve serious attention, especially if you are planning a career in writing.

Is the imprimatur of traditional publishing the new “vanity” plate? Perhaps that’s not the right designation. Vanity publishing was about paying your way in with a crummy book. Traditional publishing requires a great book (and/or platform, and/or celebrity co-writer who does not really do any of the real writing but is on TV.)

But more and more authors are asking what specific benefits are there for a new writer within the walls of traditional publishing. Especially in light of low advances (or, in the case of digital only, no advance at all), the semi-fixed royalties in the publishers’ favor, the shrinking of shelf space, and the lack of a significant marketing push unless you have a “name.”

If deals are to be made favorable to both sides, they will have to be creative, forward thinking, shared-risk and flexible. This is my message to the Big 6 or 5 or 4, or whoever is left standing when we file our next field report.  

As Jane Friedman (not the former CEO of HarperCollins Jane Friedman, but the publishing world observer Jane Friedman) recently wrote:

In a nutshell, I suggest that—given the changes happening in the industry—traditional publishers will need to be more author-focused in their operations by offering tools, community, and education to help authors be more successful, to everyone’s greater benefit. If publishers fail to do so, then authors, who have an increasing number of publishing options available to them, will depart for greener pastures.

3. Remember Sony Reader?

With all the talk about Kindle, Nook and Kobo, it’s easy to forget the first kid on the block, the Sony Reader. Yes, it’s still out there and people still have them. But if Kindle is Godzilla, and Nook is The Hulk, and Kobo is Mothra, what would Sony Readers be? Jean-Claude Van Damme?

Because at least they are alive and kicking. From a press release this week:

Today Sony Reader Store has announced the launch of its inaugural virtual Book Club, the ‘Sony Readers Book Club.’ Each month, Sony Reader Store will select a book of the month. During each month, Reader Store will host a virtual Book Club meeting, an online chat with the author, on the Sony Reader Store Facebook and Twitter pages, giving participants the opportunity to interact with the author and each other and ask questions related to the book. The Sony Readers Book Club will also offer special discounts and book club extras for download, available to U.S. customers at Reader Store.

Upcoming chats will feature Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Connelly. Not a bad start. I wish them well.

4. Happiness as the New Currency

In Field Report #1 I wrote this: Authors who are succeeding at being completely independent are those who are able to bring entrepreneurial analytics to the task. If you're going to publish successfully as an indie, you have to think like a business.

Which is why, not long after, I published Self-Publishing Attack! The 5 Absolutely Unbreakable Laws for Creating Steady Income Publishing Your Own Books. I’ve used the formula successfully for going on two years now, and am holding workshops to help others do the same.

Because I want writers to be happy in their work.

I have a friend who is a New York Times bestselling author. He has found advances decreasing and the publishing lag time of 18 months – 2 years intolerable. So he has self-published his new book, in both e form and POD (Print On Demand). He has set up his own book signings with independent bookstores. And he’s happy about it.

I have another friend who is a successful screenwriter. But he now finds the whole vibe of the business “soul sucking” and longs to get out and just write fiction. He has self-published a thriller, and I’m helping think things through.

You see, sometimes being happy as a writer is worth trading in other things that just don’t matter so much anymore.

Happiness just may be the new currency in the writing game. Make your choices accordingly.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

Fixing the Tool


A computer is at its core a tool. For a writer, it can be the mother ship of tools. It can be a research tool, a production tool, and a communications tool, among other things. If it suddenly goes wobbly, it can be a real problem that leads to other problems such as expense, downtime, and inconvenience. There is a way around it, if your mind is clear and your hand is steady and your heart is brave: you can, in many circumstances, fix it yourself.

I am the IT guy in our house. We --- my wife, my daughter, and my bad self --- each have our own computer. It goes without saying of course that we all share our respective machines with our cat (those of you who are owned by cats know exactly what I mean). My daughter, just to complicate matters and enable me to broaden my scope of knowledge, has an iMac. Since I spend the most time on a computer of anyone in the house it has fallen to me to be the fixer of all things technological. To that end, I have established the “three-minute rule” of computer aggression: if you can’t get the computer to do what you want it to do in three minutes, stop doing what you are doing and come and get me. Don’t sit there for three hours hitting the “Print” button because you’re going to get a surprise when your printer decides to start printing, yes indeed. You’ll see exactly how many times you hit the print button (“Thirty-two copies of the lyrics to the new One Direction single, huh?”) in due time.
How did I acquire my expertise, you might ask? I don’t have any. I have simply become good at looking things up and following directions. I am able as a result to resolve most resolvable computer problems with three things which you probably have as well: 1) internet access; 2) a computer or smart phone that works; and 3) the ability to follow simple directions. I started doing my own troubleshooting due to a combination of circumstances. For one, I don’t like strangers coming over, which precludes people in golf shirts driving up in vans to help me out. For another, I am somewhat tight-fisted when it comes to spending money to repair things that I should be able to repair myself. And for a third, I don’t like My Precious out of my sight for more a few minutes, which removes the possibility of my laptop spending the night with someone else.

I am totally serious.  I discovered this latent skill when, a few years ago (when all three of us, including my poor, deprived daughter, had PCs), I awoke one morning and discovered that all of our computers were displaying the “blue screen of death.” I figured out the problem was --- a Windows update that had been automatically sent to all three computers did not get along with something that was already on them --- but that didn’t help me with the main problem, which was how to repair each and all of the computers in the house. Fortunately, I had a smart phone. I did a search for “how to restore service to a computer displaying the blue screen of doom” and got the answer --- do a “system restore” --- and instructions for doing it. I had all of the computers working in a half-hour.

I will confess that doing this makes me feel useful.  I was having a delightful breakfast with some people at Bouchercon a few weeks ago when one very nice lady’s iPad froze up. I don’t own an iPad, but I fearlessly asked her to pass me her temporarily useless tool. I took out my phone, googled “How do you unfreeze an iPad?” got the answer, and…well, unfroze her iPad by pushing two buttons. A friend called me a few weeks ago because her daughter had a paper due the next day and couldn’t access Internet Explorer. Problem solved. But there is nothing special about me. There are folks who will attempt to fix their dishwasher utilizing a Google search (yeah, I did that too) but won’t even attempt to jump start their computers in the same manner. If you are going to do this, it helps to be as exact as possible when making your query. Googling “why did my pc just pass a sandcastle?” for example, will not be as effective a query as “why is my Lenovo B570 with Windows 7 displaying everything upside down?” It might be important to get an answer and use it five minutes ago, however, whether you are downloading pictures off of Tumblr or reading Facebook news posts or just wrapping up twenty more pages of a manuscript, when, God forbid, your computer freezes.  If you can frame a descriptive question halfway decently and follow directions a step at a time, Enterprise-style (boldly going where you haven’t gone before) you can very often help yourself. Some folks even post YouTube videos showing how certain procedures, such as installing new memory cards, are performed.  Most of the time the helpful people who post this information will give you an idea as to how difficult the task may be. Sometimes it is as easy as pressing F5, or restarting the computer; sometimes it involves more than that.

Which brings us to our question(s) of the day: When you have a computer problem that doesn’t involve smoke rising from the side vents, what do you do? Do you try to fix it yourself? Do you call a friend? Do you take it into a shop? Or throw it out the window?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Reader Friday: Writing Links Roundup

We all know there are a ton of great writing resources out there. What are some of your favorite go-to resources on the web for inspiration or information about writing? (In addition to TKZ, of course!)


Thursday, October 25, 2012

Self-Publishing in AUDIO

By Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Sorry for the delay in posting. I just got back from the trip from traveler’s hell. I had a speaking gig in the beautiful Madison, Wisconsin, but the weather on departure day resulted in our flight being cancelled. It took us two days to get back. I felt like I was in a John Candy & Steve Martin movie, without the trains.

For this post, I wanted to share my recent experiences with creating an audio book for my YA debut, In the Arms of Stone Angels. My publisher omitted audio rights from my contract, which gave me an opportunity to try Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), a site from Audible that I learned about through the International Thriller Writers (ITW). Others  using ACX are: Neil Gaiman, M. J. Rose, award winning voice talent Tavia Gilbert, Tantor Audio, and Random House (a key ACX launch partner). ANY narrator with a home studio (or access to a studio) can be listed as a voice actor and audition for work.

ACX provides a central location where authors, publishers, agents, narrators, studio producers, and other rights holders can match up projects to create an audiobook for distribution through Audible (and elsewhere) under two different royalty models.

Parties can create a profile of the project for others to see. Narrators can audition, audiobook publishers can express interest, producers can make offers, and rights holders don’t have to let their rights languish. Setting up a profile is easy. I started the project in July and listed my book. Within a short while I had narrators auditioning, but I waited to see if I could get an audiobook publisher or producer interested, since I had no experience with this.

Narrators can be their own producers. I could have been more aggressive about seeking narrators and sending them a message through ACX, but I waited to see what would happen. In October, Audible added a stipend incentive to my project, meaning they offered to subsidize a producer to create my book by giving them $150/finished hour (up to $2500) for a 10-hour completed project. This stipend flag brought more auditions and producers to my project. The stipend had a deadline so Audible could get my book by year end for the holidays.

Once I decided to be more proactive in pushing my project, I decided on a narrator who had experience, awards, and a solid producer to go along with her voice actor talent. The steps from there are all online. I extended the offer, based on a royalty sharing model with my narrator, so I wouldn’t have to shell out money. The Audible stipend helped entice the narrator and producer I chose. Royalty rates will vary depending upon whether you give Audible exclusive or no-exclusive distribution rights. You decide how this can work and set it up. For more details on how ACX works, click HERE. For FAQ, click HERE.

Once I extended the offer and the deadlines ACX wanted for the stipend, I got a standard agreement printed through ACX between the parties, and my narrator had her deadline for acceptance (up to 72 hours). I talked with my narrator on the phone to share my thoughts on my central character, to help her create the voice of my teen girl, sent my book in PDF for her to read, and a 15-minute narration came within 5 days for my approval. In 60 days, I will have a finished audiobook to approve, but Audible will also act as a quality control checkpoint. If you opt for Audible to be your distributor, your book will be set up for distribution through Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. If you don’t give Audible exclusivity, you can distribute your audiobook anywhere you want to go.

I’m very excited to “hear” the voice of Brenna Nash, my character, through my award-winning narrator, Michelle Ann Dunphy. ACX has been very easy to use and I like the control aspects I keep with this project. I’m working with my German cover designer to develop the audiobook cover now. ACX is self-publishing for audio.

If you’re an author, do you retain your audio rights? How many of you like to listen to audiobooks? I love them for long road trips and for camping, listening to a story over a blazing fire.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Keeping a Dirt File

By Nancy J. Cohen

For mystery writers, having a dirt file is akin to keeping a gold mine in your house. What is it? I’m referring to a folder full of clippings you've taken from the newspaper or magazines that may be relevant to your work someday. I get out a pair of scissors whenever I read a paper copy of the Sunday newspaper. A recent issue’s headline caught my eye: Bomb Case Awash in Mystery.
newspaper
As soon as I saw mention of a pipe bomb found under an SUV in a suburban neighborhood, I knew I'd hit gold. Suspect A noticed something strange under his car. It turned out to be a homemade bomb. He accused his wife's lover of planting the device. This man, suspect B, said that he was framed by Suspect A and the wife. But it didn't help his claim of innocence when the wife was found to have a $500,000 life insurance policy on her husband. Then the lover’s DNA was found on the bomb. But was it rigged to go off, or was it set as a false trail? To complicate the issue, police discovered videos of Suspect B and his stepdaughter having sex. Oh, man. I couldn’t have made this up! You know how truth is stranger than fiction? Here’s a perfect example.

When might I use this information? When I'm determining the suspects in my next mystery. I'm always looking for motives and secrets people may hide. Or an article like this might kick off a new plot. Think about the puzzles here. It seems an open-and-shut case about the wife and her lover trying to do away with the husband. But what if it's really the husband and wife trying to frame the lover? Why would they do that? What if…? And here we go. Our imagination is off and running.

Stockpiling clippings doesn't only apply to the mystery genre. For my science fiction romances, I obtain articles on futuristic technology, whether it's on flying cars or electromagnetic weapons. Even the power of invisibility has a basis in reality. I have articles to show for these topics. I also cut out stories of true adventure travel. You never know when my hero might have to explore a volcanic crater or traipse through a jungle. Even off the beat pieces that tickle my fancy go into a general research file. You might need inspiration and one of these printouts could fire your imagination.
  
So are you a crazy clipper like me? I make sure my husband reads the newspaper first before I put holes in it. What kind of dirt do you look for?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Ugly Babies

By PJ Parrish
If you could go back and change things, would you?
Not your life. Your first book. That thing that burst from your heart and took flight and lifted you up there with it, making you feel on top of the world.
Until, maybe, you went back and read it again.
Did you still love it? Or did you see its little warts and uneven gait? Did it seem to maybe need a little grooming or a good flea-dip? If you had the chance, would you try to clean it up so it would be more...adoptable?
Our first book was DARK OF THE MOON. It’s a good story that we’re proud of. It got some great blurbs and reviews. But it got one bad review from Kirkus, which is the Life cereal of the publishing world. (“Give it to Mikey, he hates everything!”). Here is part of what Kirkus said:
“Clumsy prose, stereotyped people and a first novelist who has to learn that in plotting the twist is better than the wrench.”
I’ve submitted this review every year to Thrillerfest’s worst review contest but I keep losing to folks like John Gilstrap. The prize is fossilized poop. I really want that damn award.
Here’s the thing: We own the eBook rights to DARK OF THE MOON so my sister Kelly and I started formatting it for Kindle et al. As we were going along, we realized we could tweak things here and there if we wanted. So we started tweaking.
Then we realized it needed more than a tweak. It needed a full-bore heavy-muscle pipe refitting with one of those giant wrenches you see hairy men with butt cracks carrying out of Home Depot.
Here’s the second thing: As good as our freshman book is, it contains transgressions that now, twelve books later, we teach would-be writers in our workshops not to do.
It has heart but no head. That means we wrote with great passion, especially for our hero Louis, but we didn’t have complete control over our craft. What were our sins exactly?
STRUCTURE: We switched point of view in mid scenes. Our transitions between chapters had continuity lapses. We had too many unnecessary scenes “on camera” often showing things we had already covered. And our timeline was confusing. We now keep detailed chronologies and use big story boards to keep track of each “day” in our plot. See picture above of Kelly employing our two vital writing tools –- Post-Its and wine. 
CHARACTER: We veered into stereotypes, an easy thing to do when writing about the Deep South, and we used clunky dialect. Our fictitious Blackpool was also a one-dimensional character. Even the rattiest place on earth has something redeeming about it. We chose not to see it.
THEME: This might have been our biggest sin. We now believe that every good book has a theme, an underground railroad on which your plot progresses. Without a theme, you have nothing to say. Although we were writing about the effect of a 30-year-old lynching on a small southern town, we didn’t really connect this plot to the larger question of what this meant for our hero.
We didn’t ask ourselves the most important question we now ask of every character we create: What does Louis want? It wasn’t that he wanted to identify the lynching victim. It wasn’t even that he wanted to bring the murderers to justice. We didn’t realize that what Louis really wanted was to find his sense of home (and “home” meant his identity as a biracial man). Now this theme colors everything Louis does and every book we write.
So if this book is so awful, why are we putting it out in eBook?
It’s still a good book and readers like it. They forgive us our sins. But for now, we have put it aside and are readying our second book DEAD OF WINTER for eBook. See, we learned a lot by the time we started that one, just as parents learn a lot about babies by the time their second one comes along. DEAD OF WINTER must have been okay. It was an Edgar finalist.
But our first born? I remain undecided, reluctant to send this homely thing out into the world a second time. But my sister, who holds the book much closer to her heart than her writing brain, is not so sure about permanently closing the DOM yellow folder. It is, after all, the story that started a series and career, but also changed our relationship as sisters.
And when something is that special, as writers it’s had to let it just lay unloved and unread by our loyal readers. So, I am sure, one day when we are between books and novellas and conferences, Kelly will convince me to reopen DARK OF THE MOON and together, we will begin the necessary surgery. Maybe with a scalpel instead of a wrench.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Blue Pencil Sessions



Just a few short years ago, I began attending writers’ conferences as an unpublished newbie—tentative, worried that I wasn’t a “real” writer, afraid of taking up the valuable time of published authors with my utterly basic questions about the business and craft of writing. I’ve since come to realize that the attendees are friendly and open to meeting new people, everyone who writes is a real writer—whether they’re published or not—and published authors are there because they want to share their hard-earned knowledge with those learning the ropes.

Now I’ve just returned from the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, attending a conference for the first time as an invited speaker. This time I went with a whole new set of worries—would I have anything useful to say, would I be able to speak for ninety minutes about topics that I feel I’m still learning, would the organizers think they’d made a big mistake by allotting a precious speaking slot to me? (I should have realized from the beginning that all this worry meant I was a real writer).

My new worries turned out to be as unfounded as my old ones. Many of the attendees who came to my workshops told me afterward how much they got out of them. I had so much to say in both of my workshops that I had to race to finish at the end (ironic, since one of the workshops was on pacing in novels). When I get the written evaluations, I’ll have a better idea of whether I’ll be invited to return (which I’d love to do, if any of the conference organizers are reading this).

But the one part of the conference I was really dreading was the set of three blue pencil sessions I had been scheduled for. SiWC is unique among the conferences I’ve attended in that they ask all the presenters to set aside time for attendees who would like an assessment of a few pages of their work. I didn’t ask, but I imagine they’re called blue pencil sessions instead of red pencil sessions because they’re intended to provide constructive critiques in an encouraging way.

I wasn’t dreading the sessions because I thought they would be dull or tedious. I was dreading them because I didn’t know if I was qualified to give feedback on other people’s work, and I didn’t want to dash anyone’s dreams when I saw something that needed to be edited. I know how hard it is to show a stranger the story you’ve spent hours crafting, hoping that you’ll hear how wonderful and skillful your story and voice are, but prepared for the eye-rolling and tsking over poor writing that you fear will be the first thing out of the reader’s mouth.

I’ve been that newbie writer, so I know how much courage it takes to approach me now sitting on the opposite side of the table, me with the presumed authority of just over two years as a published author. A very short two years from my end.

So I did my best to read the samples carefully and dig into what was and wasn’t working for me. I did my best to provide encouragement no matter how raw the writing was. I did my best to make those fifteen minutes count for both of us.

It ended up being one of my favorite parts of the conference. I enjoyed the one-on-one discussions with authors. I could see it in their eyes that what I was saying was meaningful to them, that they felt I was helping them to improve their work in whatever small way I could. And I learned as much as they did about what it takes to become a better writer.

That exchange was what was so great about the conference. The attendees might have thought that they were the ones there to learn, and I’m sure they left with an education and memories that will resonate for many years. But as a first-time instructor, I might have gotten even more out of the experience than they did.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Baloney Advice Writers Should Ignore



Some time ago I cheekily posted the three rules for writing a novel. It produced a spirited discussion on what is a “rule” and what is a “principle,” but by and large there was agreement that these three factors are essential to novels that sell.

Today I’d like to discuss some writing advice writers would do well to ignore.

Where does such advice come from? I have a theory that there is a mad scientist in Schenectady, New York, who cooks up writing advice memes and converts them to an invisible and odorless gas. He then secretly arranges for this gas to seep into critique groups across the land, infecting the members, who then begin to dispense the pernicious doctrine as if it were holy writ.

I now offer the antidote to the gas.

1. Don’t start with the weather

Verdict: Baloney

This meme may have started with Elmore Leonard, who once dashed off a list of “rules” that have become like sacred script for writers. If his advice were, “Don’t open a book with static, flat descriptions” I would absolutely agree.

But here is why the rule, as stated, is baloney: weather can add dimension and tone to the opening disturbance. If you use it in that fashion, weaving it into action, it’s a fine way to begin.

Look at the opening of Bleak House by Dickens, or the short story “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away” by Stephen King. Or the quieter beginning of Ann Lamott’s Blue Shoe. All of them use weather to great effect. Here’s a Western, Hangman’s Territory, from a great writing teacher, Jack Bickham:

   The late spring storm was breaking. To the east, boiling blue-gray clouds moved on, raging toward Fort Gibson. To the west, the sun peered cautiously through a last veil of rain, slanting under the shelf of clouds and making the air a strange, silent bright yellow. The intense, muggy heat of the day had been broken, and now the early evening was cool and damp, and frogs had magically appeared everywhere in the red gumbo of the Indian Nations.
   Eck Jackson threw back the heavy canvas under which he had been waiting. His boots sank into the red mud as he clambered out of his shelter between two rocks and peered at the sky.

If you think of weather as interacting with the character’s mood and emotions, you’re just fine to start with it.

2. Don’t start with dialogue

Verdict: Baloney

Starting with dialogue creates instant conflict, which is what most unpublished manuscripts lack on the first pages. Sometimes this rule is stated as “Don’t start with unattributed dialogue.” Double baloney on rye with mustard. Here’s why: readers have imaginations which are patient and malleable. If they are hooked by dialogue, they will wait several lines before they find who’s talking and lose absolutely nothing in the process.

Examples:

"TOM!"
No answer.
"TOM!"
No answer.
"What's gone with that boy,  I wonder? You TOM!"
No answer.
The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room . . . 
        - (Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)

 “Any thoughts that you’d like to start with?”
“Thoughts on what?”
“Well, on anything. On the incident.”
“On the incident? Yes, I have some thoughts.”
She waited but he did not continue. He had decided before he even got to Chinatown that this would be the way he would be.
       -  (Michael Connelly, The Last Coyote)

“Name?”
“Robert Travis.”
“Occupation?”
“Mining engineer.”
“Place of residence?”
“Seventh Base, Jovian Development Unit, Ganymede.”
“Reason for visiting Luna?”
“I’m checking on performance of the new Dahlmeyer units in the Mare Nublum fields. We’re thinking of adapting them for use in our Trendart field on Ganymede.”
“I see . . .” The port inspector fumbled through my papers. “Where’s your celemental analysis sheet?”
- (Dwight V. Swain, The Transposed Man)


3. No backstory in the first fifty pages

Verdict: Spam (a step up from baloney)

If backstory is defined as a flashback segment, then this advice has merit. Readers will wait a long time for backstory information if something compelling is happening in front of them. But if you stop the forward momentum of your opening with a longish flashback, you’ve dropped the narrative ball.

However, when backstory refers to bits of a character’s history, then this advice is unsound. Backstory Bits (I call them BBs) are actually essential for bonding us with a character. If we don’t know anything about the characters in conflict, we are less involved in their trouble. (Read Koontz and King, who weave backstory masterfully into their opening pages).

I’ve given writing students a simple guideline: three sentences of backstory in the first ten pages. You may use them together, or space them apart. Then three paragraphs of backstory in the next ten pages, together or apart.

I’ve seen this work wonders for beginning manuscripts.

4. Write what you know

Verdict: Baloney

Sounder advice is this:

Write who you are.

Write what you love.

Write what you NEED to know.

5. Don’t ever follow any writing advice

Verdict: Stinky baloney

There may be a few literary savants out there who can do this thing naturally, without thinking about technique or craft. And those three people can form their own group and meet for Martinis.

Every other writer can benefit from putting in some time studying their craft. I’ve heard some writers say they don’t want to do that for fear of “stifling” the purity of their work. Some of them get a contract and their books comes out in a nice edition that sell 500 copies. And then they get bitter and start appearing at writer’s conferences raging how there is no such thing as structure and you’ve all wasted your money coming here, and you should just go home and write. (This has actually happened on several occasions that I know of).

So here is my final bit of advice for today: don’t be that kind of writer.