Sunday, December 24, 2006

Stealing Books

Tis the holiday season which means, if you're anything like me, the bank account as taken a serious hit. Buying presents, taking trips, and of course, going to bars has caused you to take a double take when you look at your checking account balance. This year, I was trying to be thrifty by making gifts and utilizing the sales, but there is one thing that I couldn't bear to do: buy books used.

Now, almost every DVD that you watch opens with that anti-piracy ad. You know the one. You wouldn't steal a car or rob a store. Buying pirated DVDs is theft, blah blah blah. But when you buy a book from a used book store, the author doesn't receive any compensation for that sale. Isn't that in the same ball park?

In our neighborhood there is a great thrift store, Brown Elephant, where used books are only a buck. Nicole and I have spent many an afternoon searching the shelves for rare first editions that people donated unaware of their value. But occasionally, I have felt torn when I find the new Michael Connelly or Harlan Coben paperback priced at only fifty cents. I mean, I've given them (and Barnes and Noble) a lot of my money already, what's the harm in saving myself some green? And since they are already bestsellers, how much will I, one person, hurt them by buying their book used?

I'm not perfect, there have been a few times that I gave into temptation. But 99 times out of 100, I follow this rule: only buy used books by dead authors. After all, the market is bad enough without more people buying their books on Some people look at a book and only see paper with words on it. I see the authors who wrote those words and who are trying to make a living by selling them.

Of course, my opinion doesn't count for much since I am a novelist that has yet to be published, so feel free to leave comments. But I know that when my book comes out, I better not catch any of you buying the ARC on Ebay.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Their Daughter the Writer

Chanukah is finally here, and you know what that means: family dinners. And because my parents are divorced, the family dinners are doubled. So this past weekend I spent the second night of Chanukah with my mother and the third with my father, and I couldn't help but laugh at how different the two evenings were. Besides the fact that my father is an accountant who reads biographies of dead presidents and listens to country music and my mother is a therapist who attends yoga and Buddhist meditation groups, the way they speak of me and show their support is very different.

My mother thinks everything I do is wonderful. She subscribes to Time Out, Crimespree and buys whichever issue of Curve I have written for. She speaks of my work as if it deserves a National Book Award, as if getting a 200-word book review published in Crimespree is a feat only to be accomplished by the most talented of writers. To tell you the truth, I could vomit on a piece of paper, hand it to her, and she'd say how she loves my experimental writing style and my willingness to take risks in my work. After dinner and presents, she proceeded to take out her box filled with my publications and pass them around so the family could read. Nicole, of course, gives me the look that I've seen a million times, the one that says, "No wonder you have such a swelled head!" But we all need this person in our lives, the blind cheerleader who will always tell us how wonderful we are, even if we suck.

My father, on the other hand, is more practical. He wants to know how much I get paid for each publication and gauges his support from there. He is more impressed that I am able to support myself financially than he was when I got an agent. I hear him on the phone, telling his friends proudly, "Yup, she's finally off my tab." A whole different type of support. And at this dinner, as I am grilled about the status of my novel and my father makes suggestions about grad school, Nicole gives me a completely different look. It is the look that I've seen a million times, one that says, "Don't worry, I think you're wonderful." But we all need this person in our lives, the skeptic that you want to prove wrong by actually being successful. Sometimes this is what drives me, more than making my mother proud because that is easy. Sometimes I am driven by my stubborn determination to prove my father wrong, and this can be just as effective.

Whenever I talk to writers, especially ones that are still working toward publication, I love hearing about their parents and what they think of their children's writing. My friend Marcus, always raves about how supportive his parents are, how they are always his first readers, whereas Dennis Lehane says that his father still asks when he is going back to teaching to earn a steady living. Some parents think their writer offspring are ruining their lives while others think they are G-d's gift to the literary world. My mother would buy fifty copies of my book when it gets published, while I'm pretty sure my father would just get it at the public library. I could never publish anything and my mother would still think I'm talented. My novel could hit the NY times bestseller list and my father would still ask if I wanted to pick up some extra cash by helping him at his office.

Some may prefer one support method over the other, but I think having a mix works best, when you have one parent swelling your head and eliminating your insecurities before the other takes a pin and bursts your bubble, bringing you back down to earth.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Freelance Prostitution

I took a freelance applications class at Columbia not knowing what to expect. I had always considered myself a fiction writer, not a journalist, but I thought it would be productive to expand my horizons. As the semester progressed, we had many guest speakers, who pretty much all said the same thing.

The career freelancer is always working on numerous deadlines, pitching constantly, and even then, it's still hard to make a living.

Fortunately, I have a day job and wasn't looking to make a living; I just wanted some publication credits. But when I began pitching to magazines and websites, I soon learned what they meant. The turnaround time from pitch to publish takes forever. Right now I'm working on an article, which I got assigned in November. It's due in January and won't hit the shelves until February, which is when I'll receive my pay check. If I was counting on assignments in order to pay my rent, I would always have to be on a deadline. I would have to pitch every day, probably write an article a week, conduct interviews, juggle deadlines, researching possible markets, etc. Even then, would it be enough?

Another lesson I learned in that class was about loyalty. I have always stuck to the mantra, "write what you know" not only because it's true but because I loathe research. It makes no sense for me to pitch to House and Gardens about decorating ideas for the Christmas season when I'm Jewish and decorating-retarded. In the class we did numerous exercises brainstorming about what we know. I came up with a few things: lesbian, Judaism, swimming, writing, books, and Chicago. Not much, but it was a start. So I began pitching to publications such as Curve, Bitch and Time Out, I even pitched to Child Magazine because they pay a buck a word and I thought I could do an article about children's swim lessons. But as I pitched, I thought about how a lot of my article ideas were similar and if one got accepted, would I have to turn down others for purposes of loyalty?

Another woman in my class had been writing for boxing magazines about the Golden Gloves and other tournaments. She pitched to two publications, both of which got accepted. One article was about going to the Golden Gloves and how it was a fun event to attend. The other was about the history of the Golden Gloves, more of a profile piece. When the first "fun thing to do" article came out, the second publication contacted her, saying how they were appalled that she had written a similar article for a competing publication. While both articles were completely different in content and slant, because they were about the same event and both were written for Chicago publications, the latter article was killed.

If we are constantly pitching and writing, trying to make a living freelancing, is it unrealistic to expect completely different ideas and subject matter to be churned out at such a high frequency? If I write regularly for one publication, is it disloyal to pitch to one of their competitors? I'm not on staff, I'm freelance, doesn't that mean I'm free to write for any magazine I want?

Anyone who has worked with me knows that I have an exceptional work ethic. Because of that, I'm very wary of where and what I pitch. However, it seems that freelancers are the prostitutes of the writing world: we'll take clients wherever we can get them, even if a few of them are "competitors" and we have no loyalty to the publication we are writing for. We do the job, the check's in the mail, and it's on to the next assignment. If we write an article for the Chicago Tribune one week, we wouldn't turn down an assignment from the Chicago Sun-Times the next. This is where my work ethic comes into play. Because I write so regularly for Curve and Crimespree, I don't think I could, in good conscience, write for Girlfriends or The Strand. I love my editors and wouldn't want to do anything to jeopardize my relationship with them. But just because I've written one article for Gapers Block doesn't mean I can't write for another Chicago lifestyle publication again.

While a conclusion has yet to be drawn, I think it is an important question that freelancers should ask themselves. When pitching to magazines and newspapers, desperately trying to get enough assignments to pay the phone bill, you should always keep in mind your previous publications. Have you written a similar article for a similar publication? How would that affect your relationships with current contacts? Just because your prostituting yourself for a publication credit, doesn't mean you shouldn't do it with a little bit of class.

Friday, December 08, 2006

First Lines

Any writer, reader, or editor will tell you how important first lines are. It is the first taste of the book, the first chance to pull the reader in. And for me, the first line is usually the first thing I think of when I begin a writing project. Because I was curious, and I had an hour to kill before work, I thought I'd go through my book shelf and pick out some books with great first lines. See if you can guess who wrote it and click on the quote to see if you're right!

"I understand now that innocence is relative." Immediately, I want to know why the character thinks that and why they didn't until now.

"When I was seven, I was plucked from my uneventful life deep in darkest Massachusetts and dropped into a Tang Instant Breakfast Drink commercial." The thing I love about this line, is it gives a sense of the author's voice. Immediately, I know it's going to be humorous and sarcastic. The line also evokes quite an intriguing image.

"The old lady had changed her mind about dying but by then it was too late." Clearly, this line draws the reader into the novel, knowing that this old lady is going to die. But the writer chose, instead of opening with her death, to get inside the lady's head and give her final thoughts.

"If you're going to read this, don't bother." I don't think anyone would listen to the narrator's request and put the book down. The second person point of view addresses the reader and creates an urgent need to read on.

And last, by far my favorite first line ever:

"When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter." In just 12 words, we know that the protagonist has been shot, that there will be another bullet coming, that he has a daughter. Fantastic.

Feel free to comment with your favorite first lines as I'm sure there are plenty out there that I failed to mention.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Reality of Publishing

I'm a realistic person. Despite my dream of being a career novelist, which seems to be the opposite of realism, I have a fairly practical mindset. So when I graduated from Columbia, my completely useless degree in hand, I told myself that I would give it a year. I would give myself a year to become a published novelist and if I didn't get anywhere with it, I would go out and get a real job.

So within the year, I got an agent, and besides the jumping up and down for joy because someone wanted my book, it was also a huge relief that I wouldn't have to buy a business suit, type up my resume and go out into the real world. I could continue to work in my pajamas, sit in smokey coffee houses, and while I would still have to eat Ramen Noodles and dodge my student loan officer, I could call myself a writer.

It's been six months, which from what I hear is no time at all, but my book is still on the desks of publishers and I am still in my pajamas, waiting. My insecurities force me to think about the next year deadline, what will happen if it doesn't sell, if I don't have what it takes to become the career novelist that I always dreamed of being. The realist in me is already preparing my resume and looking for journalism jobs.

But today, I read a post on Tess Gerritsen's blog. She says:

If you really want to be a published novelist, you’ll stick with it. You won’t say “I’ll give it a year, maybe two.” You’ll say “I’ll keep at it, I’ll keep improving my craft, year after year. Even if it never happens.”

I thought about this for a while, reminded of my self-imposed career deadline. Even if I got a real job, did the nine-to-five, would that stop me from writing? Would it stop me from attempting to get published? Of course not. All it would do is give me less time, which would mean less sleep, not less writing. Her comment made me think of all the musicians, artists, and actors who are in the same boat as I am. They all dream of hitting it big, of preforming on Broadway or having an exhibition at the Art Institute, just as I dream of seeing my name on the New York Times Bestseller list? They all do what they have to do to pay the rent, but it doesn't stop them from auditioning, from playing, from making art. They don't say, "I'll give it a year."

I'm a realistic person, and it's unrealistic for me to think that I could ever stop writing, no matter where I work, no matter where my income comes from. Even if this novel doesn't sell, even if the next five I write don't sell. I'll keep at it, and churn out novel number six, because publishing ain't easy. It's not going on interviews or responding to classified ads. It's an occupation that you have to make happen for yourself. And sometimes, that takes a little time. Okay, a lot of time. That is the reality.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Reading Habits of Writers

Because of NaNoWriMo, I hadn't been reading as much as usual, so the first thing I did after completing word count, was devour a couple of books: Dry by Augusten Burroughs and Panic by Jeff Abbott. Although very different genres, both are fantastic and highly recommended, and it made me realize how much I missed reading!

It amazes me that I still meet writers who, almost proudly, claim that they seldom read. For me, it was my love of reading that made me want to become a writer in the first place. Seeing how authors construct their sentences, weave in the plot layers, develop characters that are relatable yet flawed, was how I cultivated by writing skills. Sure, I sat in workshops, went to critique groups, wrote everyday like breathing, but that would have only taken me so far.

Most writers I meet at Mystery and Thriller conferences, say how they were reading genre fiction since they were kids. Myself, I hadn't heard of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, or even James Patterson until I reached college. When I enrolled in classes at Columbia, it was to expand my writing, to try new things and take risks. So, I signed up for Patricia Rosemoor's Suspense Thriller writing class. When I got there, my first semester or freshman year, I listened as all these writers went around the room talking about their favorite authors. What did I do? I took notes, jotting down Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Tess Gerritsen, all the authors I had to read if I wanted to write thrillers. I remember when it was my turn to say which authors I read, I honestly answered that I took the class because I didn't know a damn thing about thriller writing. And I vividly remember Patricia giving me this look that told me, "I hope you know what you're getting yourself into."

More than the class, more than the critique, it was the reading that taught me how to write mysteries. When I read the work of the masters, I learned how to plot, how to develop meaningful characters, and cultivate ideas. I looked at published novels, saw what these authors were doing well and brought it to my own writing. To this day, when I'm struggling with voice or pacing, I pick up a novel and see how others handle it.

In my second year at Columbia, one of my short stories was chosen to be adapted into a movie for the film department, and I was asked if I wanted to write the screenplay. Of course I said, "Hell yeah!" but realized I didn't have the first clue about writing a screenplay. So what did I do? I went online and downloaded scripts to some of my favorite book adaptations, see how the writers handled dialogue, exposition, etc. When I began to get freelance gigs, I didn't have any journalism training, I just read the publications and used the articles as models. And I know that if something else comes up, a writing challenge for which I have minimal experience, I will learn from reading.

To me, any writer that boldly states, "I don't read" is selling themselves short. I understand with the pressures of writing deadlines and other obligations that it is difficult to squeeze in reading time. But the books on the NYT bestseller list are there for a reason. Those authors must be doing something right. Filmmakers watch movies, painters go to art museums, and writers read...or at least they should.