Monday, December 31, 2007

Writing Resolutions

I'm back from my brief hiatus, fully recovered from the flu, back from seeing family, and just in time for the writer's New Year's resolutions. I did it last year and like J.A. Konrath, I've decided to make it a tradition and add a few more:
  • Never Give Up Sure, there have been plenty of times when I've considered packing up my laptop, getting out my resume and searching for a real job. There have been rejections that hit below the belt, articles that were cut at the last minute, and books that haven't sold. But nothing worth having is easily obtained. You have to fight for it.
  • Be More Productive Maybe this New Year's eve, instead of going out and partying, you can spend it getting organized and coming up with a plan. It's a given that there aren't enough hours in the day, but the real problem is, how you spend those hours. Take some time and organize your desk, get a day planner, make a task manager and a set of future goals. If you spend less time trying to find a dictionary or trying to remember what article was due when, you can spend more time actually writing.
  • Submit Submit Submit Even if you don't have a book finished, you should still be submitting on a regular basis. Short stories, book reviews, magazine articles, anything that can put your name out there and earn you a publication credit. Never been published? Online zines don't pay, but they're a lot more likely to take a chance on a newbie writer. Once you get your foot in the door, you can go after the paying gigs.
  • Promote Promote Promote This applies to the newbies as well as the published writers. People have bad memories and even worse brand loyalty, so writers constantly have to promote in order to remind the reading public who they are. Don't have a book coming out? Blog, write articles, talk on a panel, make yourself known. Still getting started? Attend conferences, submit short stories, comment on author blogs, sign up for Backspace, put yourself out there as an aspiring novelist. The people you meet not only are the ones you'll be looking to for blurbs, but they're readers as well.
  • Team Up Two heads are better than one and ten are even better. This year, be a part of a writing community by attending readings, forming a critique group and going to writer's conferences. The act of writing may be a solo sport, but the rest of the job doesn't have to be.
  • Read and Write More As always, the more you read and the more you write, the better you get. Everyone, even Norah Roberts and James Patterson, could stand to read and write a little more. Did you write a thousand words a day consistently in 2007? Try for 1500 in 2008. Read about a book a month last year? Try to up it to two.

Have a wonderful and productive new year and feel free to leave your own writing resolutions.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

My Point of View

Back in grade school, in your language arts class, you learned that there were three different points of view: first, second and third, I, you and he/she. Then in high school, maybe college, you learned that there were different types of third person: close third, third person omniscient, etc. If I remember correctly, though it hasn't been that long, most books I read picked one point of view and stuck with it. If they picked first, I was with one character for the entire novel. If they picked third, they could skip around between characters from chapter to chapter. If they picked second, their names were Chuck Palahniuk or Hubert Selby Jr.

Each had its benefits and limitations. First person allows readers to get close to the character, really get inside their head. But the reader can only see what the character sees, know what the character knows, which can be very limiting. Third person allows for more freedom. The reader can follow numerous characters in the book, often knowing more than the protagonist does. But because there is a narrator other than the protagonist, it can be difficult to get close to the characters and really hear their voices. I won't even touch on the benefits and difficulties with second person. Maybe on another post.

But the last few books I've read got greedy. They couldn't settle on just one POV. The authors told the protagonist story line in first person but then added chapters of third. They took the benefits from each point of view and got rid of the limitations. We, as readers, are close to the main character because we're in his/her head, but we gain bigger knowledge of the story because of the third person chapters and learn things before the protagonist does. Genius or cheating?

I personally lean toward close third person. I like using multiple view points to create a sense of sprawl, to indicate the story is bigger than just the one character. But the manuscript I'm working on seems to lend itself to first person. My main character, Dani, has a strong voice and I feel it's being hindered by the third person POV. But in order to make the story work, I need to include chapters from the POV of other characters. So why don't I take my cue from these novelists and have my cake and eat it too? Because something doesn't feel right about it. Personally, it feels like I'm cheating.

I had a professor tell me that a novel was a problem and it was the author's duty to solve it. I think that's the perfect way to put it. There is so much emphasis on conflict and raising the stakes, we put our characters through hell so it seems that there's no way they can possibly triumph. But it's our job to ensure that they do. In my mind, I feel that it is also the author's job to fix the problem within the realms of believability and without coincidence. I once read a horrible mystery novel that the killer had a woman trapped in a house and, luckily, she found a gun in the nightstand. How convenient.

The previous example is flat out cheating, the shifts in POV don't fall into that category. But to me, it's the idea of convenience. These authors had a story to tell and they wanted to tell it in a certain way. They wanted to get the characters' voices on the page, but they also needed to include scenes that the protagonist wasn't a part of. So they took the convenient route, the easy route and wrote two different viewpoints. Nothing wrong with that. They're not breaking any rules. But personally, I don't know if I can do it.

Disclaimer: the two particular books I have in mind were great. I really enjoyed reading them. I thought they were well written, interesting, and well thought out. My comments are not on the authors or the books, but on the technique itself. I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts on this. Is it cheating to switch from first to third? Is it the easy way out? Or is this technique appealing and just as valid?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

My First Bad Review

Yes, I'm a nerd who Googles her own name once a week, but here is a perfect example why: I found my first bad review, probably my first review period. No folks, you don't need to write a book to get criticism; all it takes is a short story.

Ann, Florida educator and online poet writes (on Everyone Loves a Leo from The Queer Collection):

"A prose piece by Dana Kaye describes the dance of a cocktail waitress as an 'epileptic seizure,' using an analogy that might disturb persons who suffer from epilepsy. Again, no intervention by the editor."

Therefore, I would like to publicly apologize to all of the epileptics I have disturbed or offended. It is my fault, and apparently the editor's, for not being more sensitive. And Miss Ann, I would encourage you to read on to the second paragraph of the story where it says that Michelle is a 16 year old visiting Tulane, not a cocktail waitress.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Recently Read

After vigorously writing for 30 days straight, I'm finally getting a chance to catch up on my reading. While two of the books won't be out for another few weeks, they're definitely worth pre-ordering on Amazon or using all the Borders/Barnes and Noble gift cards you receive over the holidays:

Dave White's debut kicks ass and takes names as he introduces the Jackson Donne series about a widower PI who drinks too much and often is on the receiving end of a punch. This first installment begins when Donne's friend is a victim of a hit and run, setting off a chain of events that turn Donne's world upside down. The characters are flawed yet likable, none are all good or all bad, which I find interesting. He's not afraid to take risks, giving the characters less-than-honorable traits and breaking the mold of a typical PI novel. White is a great writer and a master plotter and something tells me, he can only get better.

Sakey's second novel blew me away and although it won't be out until January 22, it should be the first book you pick up in 2008, and I'm not just saying that. Discharged soldier, Jason Palmer, returns from Iraq to find a similar war raging in his south side Chicago neighborhood. When his brother is murdered, it is up to Jason to deliver justice, protect his nephew, and to grow up and be a man. It's gritty, suspenseful, and contains great social commentary on Chicago and the world at large.

Laura Caldwell got her start in Chick-Lit, inched toward Romantic Suspense, and although The Good Liar does revolve around a relationship, she has definitely crossed into the realm of espionage and international thriller. After a recent divorce, Kate Livingston didn't think she'd fall in love again so quickly. But when her friend Liza sets her up with a colleague, just to take her mind off her ex, they hit it off immediately and end up getting married. At first, the rush and spontaneity is romantic, but soon Kate realizes her husband isn't exactly who he seems, and neither is her friend. Another solid read, Caldwell kept me glued to my seat and flying through the pages, not letting up until the very end.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Waving the White Flag

With about 14 hours left of the Nanowrimo madness, I am officially throwing in the towel and calling it quits. It was a good run, I got a little over 40,000 words written, and although I had originally planned to glue my ass to the chair and churn out 10k words today, I decided against it. As much as I hate, HATE, quitting anything (I'm already having thoughts of abandoning the post and going for my word count) here's why I have come to this decision:
  • Purpose Sometimes, things happen so fast that you lose sight of why you do them in the first place. Looking back on some of the assignments I've taken or conferences I've attended, I don't understand why I did it. That's the way I began to feel about Nano this year. I was churning out page after page, knowing that it wasn't any good and I kept telling myself it doesn't matter if it's good, just get your word count. Then I remembered, I've written a novel before. I've written three novels before. I have nothing to prove. The original purpose of Nano was to light a fire under me and to get me started on the story. It did. I've learned a lot about my characters and which plot lines are going to work (more like which one's aren't). But to sit here and churn out 10k bad words that I'm not going to use later just because of an internet challenge, serves no purpose.
  • Time Although writing time did play a small role in my Nano short comings, a lot of it had to do with lack of preparation. Although I claim I seldom outline, which is true, I always have a mental outline drawn out in my head. This time, I didn't. I was just writing and writing and it seemed like I was going in circles. Some writers work like that, some writers end up surprising themselves (and therefore the reader) with plot twists and turning points they never expected to happen. I don't. My characters usually end up in a kitchen, talking about what's going on over cups of coffee (I don't know why). I kicked Nano's ass last year because I had a plan, because the story had been marinating inside me for so long that it couldn't wait to be told. So November, instead of being Novel Writing month, has been marinating month for me. I've had the time to realize my characters, work out some plot kinks, and in about a week I should be ready to start my story from the beginning.
  • Self Control I know it sounds weird to quit a writing challenge because of self control, but let me explain. I am a competitive person and I'm only starting to realize how competitive. I never do things half-assed either. I get obsessed. I did a sprint triathlon, now I want to do the Ironman. I beat a swimming state record, now I want to beat ALL the state records. It took me 6 months to write my first book, then I wanted to do it in one. I won last year, I want to do it again this year, even though I was completely unprepared. It's a compulsion. But I know, deep down, that this is not an effective way to spend my writing time, that I'm far better off using today to plot and outline (or read and do the laundry I've been neglecting) than to slave over 10k words that have no chance of being usable, even if I technically "lose" this challenge.

I do believe that Nanowrimo serves a purpose; that for many, including myself, it can be a very beneficial way to spend a month. Last year, I started the book that is now being submitted to agents. Knowing that there are thousands of people all over the world working toward the same goal, truly gets you motivated and, more importantly, gets you writing. Although I won't be joining the winner's circle this year, I did come away with more developed characters, a better sense of story, and about 150 pages of throat clearing, which I can never see as wasted time. It's like a scrimmage, practicing for the main event. Any time spent writing, is never a waste, because it serves as practice, helping you get better and more prepared for the next time around.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

Things Every Writer Should Be Thankful For:

  • Coffee, Red Bull, and all those lovely, caffeinated liquids that keep us plugging away at the keyboards
  • Wikipidia, for making research that much easier (and more fun too!)
  • Backspace, Crimespace, Myspace and Facebook, for connecting writers from all over the country and giving them another outlet for procrastinating
  • Critique groups, for reading our work, supplying helpful feedback and providing deadlines.
  • Sarah Weinman, for summarizing every blog, interview, article, and review so we don't have to sift through them ourselves.
  • Publisher's Marketplace for keeping us up-to-date on deals, industry news and who's who in publishing.
  • Our friends, family and significant others, for reassuring us that our work is good (even when it isn't) and for putting up with our neurotic, borderline OCD behavior.
  • For our computers. Even though they sometimes freeze, crash or go crazy, they're still better than typewriters.
  • And finally, to all the brilliant authors who serve as inspiration, the agents who work their butts off to get us the best deals, and the editors for committing themselves to our work and sometimes taking a chance on us. We thank you.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Revisiting a Classic

Seldom do I get to review books that have already been published, let alone books that were published decades ago. But eMusic made it possible for me to revisit one of my favorites and review The Fountainhead for their new audiobook section. Both strange and time consuming to listen to the 800 page book (total of 32 hours), but the narration is excellent and the characters seem to come to life on tape.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Day 16

We just passed the halfway point and, unfortunately it is not translating into my word count. As of today I have about 19,000 words finished but I am confident that I will reach 50K by the end of the month. I attribute my lagging to two reasons: lack of planning and commitment issues. I didn't plan this year; November sort of snuck up on me. So when I began to write, I knew very little about my characters, my story and where the plot was heading. Because of this, every word was a struggle and, at about day five, I decided to scrap my original idea and start on something completely different. Big mistake. First rule of novel writing is to commit to your story. And, as can be expected, the new project was just as much of a struggle. Part of me wanted to wave the white flag and surrender, but the weekend in Milwaukee gave me much needed time to think and plot and now, I am happy to say, the words are finally spilling out with ease.

I've been writing now for quite some time, but I'm starting to realize that learning about your writing process never ceases, so here are some of the things I learned this Nanowrimo:
  1. Plan Ahead - Some people can just close their eyes and let the inspiration flow. I'm not one of those people. It's difficult enough to find the perfect wording, give your characters depth and snappy dialogue, I can't be thinking about what should happen. By planning ahead and knowing what I'm going to write about before I sit down at the computer prevents me from staring at the blank page for hours trying to channel inspiration.
  2. Don't Give Everything You Got - Although I plan ahead for a few chapters, I seldom know what exactly is going to happen in the entire book. By not writing everything I know, by leaving a scene or two for tomorrow, I can, again, eliminate the thinking and the plotting during my writing time. Which brings me to my next point,
  3. Know Your Cycles - I sometimes forget that I get less productive as the day goes on and that if I don't write in the morning, I probably won't get much writing done at all. It's much more effective to wake up really early than it is to stay up late. Plotting I can do anytime. It's a different skill set. The actual act of writing requires motivation and inspiration, something that fades with me as the day goes on.
  4. The Scenes You Don't Want To Write Are the Scenes You Don't Want To Read - I hate writing scenes with lulls. I hate writing police procedural scenes or interview scenes, or any scene that is for the purpose of conveying information. How do I solve this problem? I don't write them. Any scene without tension or a powerful driving force does not make it's way into the manuscript. When I read, it's always the information gathering scenes I skip over. I find them boring. So that has become my screening process. If I'm having a hard time writing it, people are going to have a hard time reading it, so cut to something else.

I'm sure there will be more as the month moves on. Feel free to add any other tricks of the trade or new things you've learned about your process during this hectic National Novel Writing Month.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Murder and Mayhem recap

Just returned from a lovely weekend in Wisconsin where authors, librarians and 200 fans came together for Murder and Mayhem in Muskego. It was very different from the usual conferences: smaller, everyone attends the same panel, they serve homemade brownies and cookies, there's no bar, etc. One day, low cost, and an opportunity to hang out with some wonderful writers. Be sorry you missed it, sign up next year, and for now, enjoy the photos!

Marcus Sakey helps prepare Sean Chercover for his Robert Crais interview...and doesn't look too happy about it

Ruth Jordan, Jennifer Jordan and Laura Lippman sign copies of Expletive Deleted with the encouragement of Alison Jenson

Greg Rucka and Gregg Hurwitz sign books. Anything for the fans...

Like I said, there was no bar. We just had to make do behind the gas station across the street. High school flashbacks anyone?

Playing either the best or the stupidest game ever. You be the judge.

Chateau Le'Jordan, more reading material than anyone in Milwaukee!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


I'm not a careful person. I don't take care in the things I do. Ever since we moved into the condo, this fact is becoming more apparent. I hang up pictures without measuring, I clean the exposed surfaces but omit the parts under the couch or behind the toilet, if a bottle says to let something dry for 24 hours, I usually think 12 is enough. Although it seems more evident now, looking back, I'm pretty sure I have always been this way. I always finished tests too fast, wrote essays without going back to edit, applied to colleges that I wanted to go to as opposed to ones that would actually accept me. So really, Nanowrimo is the perfect activity for me...maybe.

It is evident that my carelessness translates into my writing. I'm a drafter. I'll churn it out, read it over, churn out another version, read it over again and repeat the process. But I'm not one of those authors who is obsessed with everything being perfect. I won't get caught up in revisions thinking that my project will never be good enough. I'll work on it until it's as good as it's going to get, no more. Once it's acceptable, once it's decent enough, I'm sending it out. Does that mean I've submitted things that aren't as good as they could be? Probably. But for me, when I'm close to the project, when in my mind the story is completed, it's difficult to go back.

This is not the best approach, in fact, it's pretty bad. But am I any worse off than the authors who sit for hours pondering the perfect sentence or dwelling on the ideal word? Probably not. While they spent half their day worrying about language I just churned out my thousand words. As I could stand to take more care with my writing, they could stand to let language alone for a bit and just tell the damn story. Nanowrimo gives me permission to be careless, enables me to continue my bad habit. Banging away at my keyboard for hours letting the words flow isn't necessarily making me a better writer. Feel free to leave your thoughts.

8000 words and counting...

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Let The Games Begin!

It's November already and that means another fun-filled month of NaNoWriMo. For those of you who don't know, November is National Novel Writing Month and every year, writers from all over the world set out to write an entire novel in just 30 days. Last year, I drafted Street Walk, and although I planned and plotted, I still found myself writing in a few surprises and having to redo much of the story in later versions. So this year, I'm flying by the seat of my pants. No outlining, no plotting, just a concept and a few characters.
I don't have a title yet, I've just been calling it The Writer's Lounge, but the new book is about Dani Goldberg, high school art teacher and former graffiti artist, and her twin brother Simon, currently serving time downstate on drug charges. When the guy who ratted out her brother is murdered, Dani finds out Simon was released the day before and all of Chicago's finest are looking for him. Now, in order to find her brother, Dani needs the people she turned her back on years ago: the taggers in her old crew.
I'm looking forward to seeing how this process works and praying I don't write myself into a hole. Wish me luck and let me know if you are a fellow Nanowrimo participant.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Creative Solutions

There is no question that the Book Section is an endangered species in newspapers. They have been moved to days with lower circulation or sometimes cut completely with the editors claiming lack of funding and readership has left them with no other choice. So how are other papers still doing it? Why are some book sections folding while others continue to stay strong?

I used to review books for a certain publication, but quit due to lack of assignments. Nicole still subscribes to the magazine and I, of course, persuse the book reviews and week after week, almost every single review was written by the editor himself. Why? My prediction is that it is a lot cheaper for him to review books than to hire a freelancer.

More and more I'm noticing book sections making creative decisions when it comes to reviewers. The trend seems to be getting staff writers to review books, even if they're background isn't in the arts. I've seen everyone from the business manager to the local news section intern review books for the publication and my assumption is that it is soley about the money.

I've previously written about reviewer credibility, but what about credentials? What background or experience is needed to review books? Is it about a person's ability to write or ability to read or both? When I apply for a freelance position, I send clips and a resume, things that I've built up after years of paying dues. But would it have been easier to get a job scrubbing toilets at the Tribune building and then walk into Elizabeth Taylor's office and say, "Hey, I could review some of those books for you?"

The other problem I have with handing out review assignments to any random staff writer is with reputation. All reviews are a matter of opinion, so if there is a different group of writers reviewing books each week, how do I know whose opinion to trust? Joe from accounting writes a rave review, but when I read the book, I hate it. So now I know Joe and I don't share the same opinion. What good does that do if he never reviews another book?

I understand that these creative liberties are taken in the interest of saving book sections themselves, but personally, I think there should be a stronger screening process when it comes to assigning book reviews. As a reader and a writer, I think reviewers should know good writing and what makes a good book. I think they should know what readers want to learn before forking over twenty-five bucks for a new hardcover. I think reviewers should pay their dues and learn from the ground up. I'm no more qualified to cover the Bears game than a sports writer is to cover the new Stephen King. Is it just me?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

One Less

My apologies for the lack of posting, but it has been a bittersweet week. First, Nicole and I moved into our first home together and between no Internet, unpacking, and dealing with the developer, cable guys, and insurance people, it's been difficult to find time to blog.

On another note, Chicago Contingent member and dear friend Frank Crist, passed away last week. It was sudden and unexpected and it hasn't truly sunk in yet. Our new place is just around the corner from his and I couldn't wait to be neighbors. He was a great writer and a great friend and he will be truly missed.

Sin, the Chicago Contingent anthology to be published by Avendia in June 2008, will be dedicated to Frank and Reservoir Magazine is accepting tributes to be published this week.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Chicago Blues review

Check out my latest Sun-Times article about the new crime fiction anthology, Chicago Blues, edited by Libby Fischer Hellmann.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

How It All Began

I remember when I was applying to Columbia, one of the essay questions was to write about the moment I knew I was an artist. While I can honestly say there was no point in my life when I thought I'd be any type of artist, there were plenty of moments when I dreamed of some day becoming a writer. I could have written about the time in my middle school language arts class when I argued with my teacher over a creative writing assignment because she said the stories couldn't be science fiction or romance. I could have written about my creative writing class in high school, when I was asked to read my story aloud, and how exhilarating it felt to read my work in front of an audience. I could have written about my awful semester at Michigan State, the semester I posed as a business major when the only thing getting me through each day was my writing. But instead, I wrote about reading, because whenever I was curled up with a book, I knew that this is what I wanted to do.

I reached out to my fellow writers and reviewers and asked them a simple question: What three books made you want to be a writer or reviewer? What books made you want to get into the world of publishing? Everyone had trouble limiting it to just three, but I think it is interesting to see what everyone replied with. For me, my three books are The Bell Jar, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Mystic River. The first I read in 7th grade (probably not recommended) and it was the first time I realized that I could enjoy reading. The second gave me permission to write how I speak, which made me want to be a writer even more. The last, I read in college, so I was already was on my way to becoming a writer. But it is beautifully crafted and so well written, that after I finished it, I knew it was the type of book I aspired to write.

Click on the links to see which authors picked the books and get out your reading list:

Catcher In The Rye
East of Eden
The Long Goodbye
Snow Falling on Cedars
Salem's Lot
First Blood
Lord of the Flies*
The Fountainhead*
The Books of Blood*
*submitted by Marc Paoletti, author of upcoming novel Scorch
Anywhere But Here
My Traitor's Heart
The Last To Go
To Kill a Mockingbird
I, The Jury
The Neon Wilderness
On Writing Well
Moi, Pauline
A Drink Before The War

Jon over at Crimespree, wrote, "Reading George Chesbro did it for me because I wanted more people to read his books.His books were all but out of print and the last two hard covers to come out had a very small print run."

Author Laura Caldwell said, "This is probably not helpful, but for me it was the lack of books that gave me the idea to write. I was standing in a Super Crown, searching for a book. I kept thinking that I wished there was a book about a woman who went on vacation and the vacation would change her life--everything from her family life to her love life to her friends to her work. When I couldn't find it, I decided, right there in the book store, that I would write that book. Burning the Map was published 10 years later."

Author Libby Fischer Hellmann named The Staked Goat, but went on to say, "I have to confess that I read any number of bad mysteries (they shall remain nameless), threw them across the room, and decided I couldn’t possibly do any worse… so in that sense, they were a motivating factor for my writing."

And finally, author Marcus Sakey has such an eloquent response that I have to quote him directly, "Let's go with Jack London's CALL OF THE WILD, which was one of the first books I truly loved. It was on the shelves of a summer house my family rented when I was in second grade, and I spent the whole week of vacation indoors, reading about the arctic. Then William Gibson's NEUROMANCER, just a stunning work of popular fiction; prescient, yes, but more than that, entertaining and evocative as hell, without a scene that doesn't crackle. And finally GLITZ, by Elmore Leonard, one of the first crime novels I read and which flat-out blew my socks off."

Whose reading list just got longer? Feel free to chime in with more!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Brand Name Shopping

Think about going grocery shopping. What makes you buy certain products? Is price the sole consideration or does the brand name factor into the equation? What leads you to certain brands? Advertising? A recommendation? How likely are you to purchase a brand that you have never heard of?

All of this is true for book buying. Seldom do readers pick out books solely because the back sounds interesting or it has a cool cover. People seek out books that they know they will like, that will meet their expectations. They don't want to throw down 25 bucks on a hardcover unless they know it's going to be good. How do they know? Aside from reviews, word-of-mouth, and advertising, they buy the brands they trust.

Authors like J.A. Konrath have made their careers on the idea of branding. He writes:

But your brand is more than just your writing. It's your personality. Your expertise. Your persona. It's what makes you special, and what makes others want to seek you out.Remember that no one can look for you if they don't know you exist. So a large part of your brand is aligning yourself with something that people do seek out, so when they look for it they will find you.What about you and your work is interesting? Unique? Similar? Important to others?Think about it. Think long and hard. Anyone can find you by Googling you. You need to make them find you when they're looking for something else.

When I pick up a Konrath book, one with a drink name for a title, I know what I'm getting: a police procedural in Chicago, usually with a serial killer, blood, guts and a few laughs. Creating a brand isn't just about having recurring characters; you have to write in a similar style, have similar conflicts, and a gimmick always helps (how else do you explain the success of cat cozies?). Of course, the book itself has to be halfway decent. Otherwise people will stop buying your brand.

There are many upsides to creating a brand:
  • Easier to build an audience
  • Better for name recognition
  • Marketable
  • If someone likes one of your products, they'll usually buy the rest

But for me, and lots of other writers I know, even mentioning the idea of branding causes me to cringe. Not for me as a reader, but as a writer. After spending six months to a year on a book, my characters, which used to be good friends, turn into these imposing house guests that I cannot wait to get rid of. The idea of writing about the same characters and the same themes book after book, year after year is like eating one food for the rest of my life. There is only so much chocolate I can stomach.

The downsides of branding:

  • Harder to break out
  • You're in danger of becoming a commodity
  • More difficult to differentiate your books; they become interchangeable.
  • Once you've created your brand, even the slightest deviation or experimenting will lead to angry letters from your readers and possibly losing parts of your audience.

Most career novelists treat writing like a job, and justifiably so. I agree that creating a brand tends to be better for business. But it has to be a good brand, a quality product, otherwise people won't buy it. And for someone like me, someone who has more of the artist mentality, any time I am forced to write within tight confines, the product suffers. I prefer the free reign, to write what's pulling me, without fear of pissing off an audience or my publisher. Does this make me less marketable? Perhaps. But I think it's worse to have a bad product, even if it's brandable.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Happy Birthday!

Just one year ago, after a fun-filled, alcohol-infested Bouchercon, I sat down at my computer and started this blog. In the beginning, it was to put my name out there and perhaps help other aspiring writers find their way in the world of publishing. It was a place to write the articles and review the books that didn't make it into a publication. It was instant gratification; no waiting for my editor to e-mail me back the proofs, no milling around the magazine stand waiting for my article to come out, no pitching newspapers and magazines insisting that I have a great idea for an article. It was immediate, my words were published with a mouse click. It doesn't seem like it's been a whole year, but then again, at times it seems like I've been doing this forever...

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Trust No One

As if I don't already have enough "required reading" I recently joined a book group, mostly for social reasons but also to force me out of the crime fiction bubble and give me an excuse to dive into something more literary. Although this month's selection, Suite Francaise, was deemed a must miss, the discussion was lively, the people were intelligent, and it was a lot of fun to sit and talk about a book for a couple hours.

Later on, I asked one of the members about some of the other books that they had read. One was, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, which is one of my favorite books this year. But saying this induced a grimace from my book club colleague and a "Really? You liked that book?" I know that grimace. I have given that grimace. But that expression got me thinking. In the subjective world of publishing, whose opinion can you trust? Can you even trust your own?

For every book that is loved by millions, there will be at least ten people who hated it. As a reviewer, it's not good to be one of those ten. I'll be honest and give an example: The Shadow of the Wind. Everyone I know loved it. I hated it. Why? I thought it was boring. That's all I could give. There was nothing wrong with the writing, the characters were fairly well-developed, but I, personally, did not enjoy it.

If I was reviewing that book, as always, I would be honest. But what would that mean for my credibility? Would everyone stop listening to my opinion because I clearly don't know what I'm talking about? Would it deter them from even reading the book? And the big question, would a review, good or bad, affect their opinion of the book, even after they had read it? The answer, to all the questions is, probably.

For instance: My mother recommends books and movies to me all the time. But she doesn't just say she liked them, she says, "Oh, it was phenomenal! You MUST watch/read it!" Some of her recommendations are good, some are okay, others are just bad. So what happens? She has lost credibility as a critic (sorry mom!). But when I mention a book and she says it was bad, it definitely deters me from reading it because, after all, this woman loves everything and if she thinks it's bad then I definitely won't enjoy it. Furthermore, any time my mother says anything, good or bad about a book or movie, it immediately affects my opinion. If she says it was bad, then I know it's bad. If she says it's phenomenal, then I'm still skeptical because she thinks lots of things are phenomenal. Or worse, when I think something is amazing and the says, "Eh, it was okay," I immediately start questioning my opinions and wonder if I'm becoming too lenient a critic. See how this works?

When it comes to books, movies, art, etc., everyone has their own opinion. The trick is finding someone who usually shares yours: a critic, a librarian, a friend. I believe that life is too short to read bad books, but sometimes you just have to find out which books are bad by reading them yourself. And while it's easy to be affected by other people's opinions, as a reviewer, I try to stay neutral and write what I honestly thought of a book, even if that puts me in that small group of ten.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Who's the Boss?

Self-employment is not for everyone. If you have difficulty initiating tasks, feel the need to report to somebody, or don't enjoy thinking about work outside the hours of nine and five, you're better off working for someone else. Me, I have issues with authority, like to set my own hours, choose my own dress code and work as much or as little as I want. Self-employment is my only option.

Being a writer, doesn't necessarily mean you have to be self-employed. There are plenty of companies and publications that will hire you as a staff writer. But most of us, the freelancers and the novelists, aren't punching a clock every morning, other than the snooze button the alarm. Here is where many writers struggle. If you're not reporting to a boss or going to an office on a daily basis, how do you stay on top of your deadlines?

The first step is to figure out how you work best. I'm a procrastinator. I work best under pressure. I crank out my articles in one sitting, usually one or two days before my deadline. Some people can't work like that; they crack under the pressure. Some like to work on an article gradually, writing a few paragraphs everyday until the article is finished. With books, I like doing drafts. Others revise as they go. Once you acknowledge your work habits, you can better formulate a plan to complete tasks and meet your deadlines.

Just because you set your own hours and don't have a boss breathing down your neck, doesn't mean you shouldn't have a work schedule. Every night, I mentally list the tasks I want to complete the next morning and prioritize them. It's difficult juggling the fiction and non-fiction; just because one has a deadline and the other doesn't, does not make one more important than the other. I allot myself a certain amount of time to work on freelance, work on fiction, and to read. Creating a realistic schedule with realistic deadlines is necessary to staying on track and focusing your attention.

Most of us work from home. Our homes are our offices. But the rest of the world doesn't see that. They see us in our pajamas, sitting at a laptop and playing Spider Solitaire, uh, I mean writing. It is important to create some boundaries. Try not to schedule personal appointments during writing times, and if you must, make sure you tack on an extra hour to your writing day. I personally, can't work well at night. After a long day, it's difficult for me to be creative. So if I know I have an appointment or something I can't get out of during the day, I wake up an hour earlier to get my writing done. I've also stopped answering the phone during my writing time unless it's writing related. If I was at an office my machine would get it, and when I'm writing, I am at the office.

The most important thing for a self-employed person, in any field, to remember is to plan ahead. If you're a career freelancer, you know the turnaround time from assignment to payment is comparable to an acorn growing into a tree. Some people would tell you to pitch something every day. I'm not one of those people. Know how much work you need to make rent and how much work you can handle without developing an ulcer and then access how often you should be seeking assignments. But do not wait until you've completed an article to start soliciting, or chances are, you'll have a month of no deadlines (and no money).

When it comes to self-employment, I'm still learning, so I welcome and tips and suggestions. It seems to be one of those things I learn as I go. Even though it has its disadvantages (no health benefits, no steady paycheck), for me, self-employment is the only way to work.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Friday, September 14, 2007

All Bad or Nothing at All?

Most of the reviewers I know, myself included, are very much a part of the literary world. We go to writer's conferences, we sit at bars and schmooze with authors, we attend readings and book launches. On top of being reviewers, many of us are aspiring authors as well. This is where things get a little sticky.

Although I receive most of my review books from the editors, I do get quite a few mailed to me directly, most including a note, "It was great to meet you at (insert conference/bar/reading/launch here) and I wanted to make sure you got an advance copy of my book, etc." One of the main reasons I started writing reviews is because I wanted to help launch the newbies. I wanted to discover a great debut novelist, or a little known restaurant or some Indy Colombian film that no one had ever heard of and give them some press. I try and read everything that is sent to me, but I do admit that when books are sent to me personally, somehow they find their way to the top of the stack.

But what if the book is not good? What if I do not like the book written by the author that I sat at a bar with who took the time to think of me and send me their ARC? Do I write an honest review and just hide when I see them at writer's conferences? Do I not review the book at all and just make up some BS about why it didn't make the cut?

I feel that there is still no consensus among authors and publishers as to whether it is better to have a bad review than no review at all. If it was up to me, I prefer writing no review at all. Why would I want to finish a bad book?

However, books that are assigned to me by editors get a review no matter what. A good example is a book I reviewed for Time Out. I really didn't enjoy the book and, if it had been sent to me privately, I would have put it down. But since I was assigned it, I plowed through and wrote a brutally honest review. In the moment just before I saved and sent it, I did envision the author, running to the news stand to check out her review and feeling crushed by my words. After all, I'm an author myself. I know how it feels to have someone dog your hard work. But in the end, the author did come away with something, managing to take the one line of praise and use it as a blurb.

My advice for authors is this: think about what you really want when you, or your publicist, send out ARCs. If it comes to me first, it will either get a good review or no review at all. The upside to it is if I REALLY like a book, I'll be its biggest advocate, pitching it around to different publications, trying to get some feature articles. But if I don't like it, I'm putting it down and there won't be any bad press for you. If you send books to an editor, two things could happen. If it's a big publication, it could get lost in the stacks and not get reviewed anyway. Or, it could get assigned to a freelance reviewer, like myself, and definitely get a review, but you take your chances whether it will be positive or negative.

I think I speak for most (good) reviewers when I say that we got into this business for our love of reading and nothing makes us happier than praising a book. We don't want to hate the books we're assigned, we don't want to write scathing reviews. But, just like the authors I try and promote, I am trying to make a name for myself as a credible critic, and I can't do that if I'm positive about everything that comes across my desk.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Just Say No

When I began freelancing, I got into the habit of never saying no. If someone asked me to write an article, even if I knew nothing about the subject, I would say yes. If my editor asked if I can make a deadline, even if it was close to impossible, I would say yes. If I was offered a gig, even if my plate was full, I would say yes.

In the beginning this was a good strategy: it showed that I could work under pressure, that I was a writer editors could depend on, and I was able to gain lots of experience. But is there a point when you start being more honest? Do you ever say, "No I cannot make that deadline" or "I'm really not qualified to take that assignment?"

The day I got back from Israel, I received an e-mail from a prospective agent asking for a synopsis. I, as I loathe writing such things, did not have one, but of course said I could write one over the weekend. It was a reflex, a force of habit. Someone wants something, you give it. But, if I had looked at my schedule over the weekend, I would have seen that Nicole was moving into my apartment on Saturday, I was working on Sunday, and that I had a lunch and dinner plans on Monday. So in between unloading the truck, teaching kids how to swim and eating at the Labor Day festivities, I was at my computer drafting my assignment. I would say that this is an instance where it would have been okay to say, "No, I cannot get you a synopsis by Tuesday. How about the end of the week?"

Some times it is okay to say no:
  • When the deadline is not realistic. It's much better to turn down an assignment than it is not to make your deadline. If the article requires research and/or interviews, just because you can work under pressure doesn't mean your subjects can. If completing your assignment is dependent on the input of others, make sure to give yourself plenty of time to work around their schedule.
  • If you are not qualified. If you do not speak French, know how to fix a car, have twins with juvenile Diabetes, don't claim that you do! With libraries and Internet, it's easy to become an expert on anything, but becoming that knowledgeable, again, takes time. In a job interview, don't say you know HTML if you don't. Don't write a theater/music/book/film review if you have no experience in that field. If you are not qualified to complete an assignment, it is perfectly legitimate to turn it down.
  • When it is a conflict of interest. I have discussed this on previous posts, but when you begin freelancing on a regular basis, often times you are faced with conflicts of interest. Take my advice: play it safe. If your editor wants you to cover an event that you already covered for a rival publication, turn it down. Don't review the same book for two rival publications, or any publications without clearing it with both editors first. Again, it is much better to turn down an assignment than to risk burning bridges by demonstrating a lack of loyalty.
  • Not enough compensation. In the beginning, we all had to work for free. We had to take on whatever assignments we received just to build up our resume and put together some clips. Beggars can't be choosers, but after a few years, you are no longer begging. This may be the hardest part for writers, but it is okay to turn down an assignment if you don't think there is adequate compensation. No one will think you're a bad person. Of course, you should be realistic. If you are a newbie, you won't be paid a dollar per word for a thousand word feature article. But then again, if you've been in the industry for a while, you should expect a higher wage for your services. Ultimately, you have a decision to make. Is it worth your time and effort? If the answer is no, it's okay to decline the offer.

Feel free to add others as you see fit. I'm still in the habit of always saying yes no matter what, and man, it is a tough habit to break. But if you slow down a bit, look at what your editor is asking and deem it not feasible, it is better to turn down an offer than to write a sub-par article or worse, not make your deadline.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Visiting the Homeland

This afternoon I'm heading off to Israel, just me and my Dad going to visit my grandpa, aunts, uncles and about 300 cousins. The long skirts are packed, the piercings are out, and my Hebrew phrase book is in my pocket. Will return in ten days with photos...

Film Frenzy

Lately, I've been on a movie watching kick. Like novels, it seems like I'm always behind, that there aren't enough hours in the day to see every film when it comes out. So forgive me if some are a bit old, but if your like me and missed them in the theaters, there are a few worth renting. Disclaimer: I have a wide range of movie tastes often including sappy, cheesy, predictable, it's-been-done-before flicks...and I'm not ashamed of it!
  • Maybe it's just because I'm a swimmer or that I love sports movies, but Pride was definitely two hours well spent. Based on a true story, Terrence Howard plays a former collegiate swimmer who has battled racism at every meet despite his unbeatable talent. Now out of work, he takes a job from the employment agency to clean out a park district that the city has decided to shut down. But instead of cleaning it out, he cleans it up, taking in the local kids and teaching them how to swim. The plot is somewhat predictable, but the acting is so terrific and the story is so uplifting that you won't care. At least I didn't.

  • I know I'm probably the last person to see Blood Diamond, but if I'm not, you must head out to Blockbuster right now and pick it up. I'll save the summary and say that seldom do movies make my heart race the way this film did. It has all the things that I love about books: flawed characters that you learn to love and that you watch change throughout the story, suspense that comes from more than just gun fights and exploding cars (although there was a lot of that too), and strong social commentary that is done in such a way, you don't feel like you're being preached to. The acting was fantastic and the special effects made me wish I saw it on the big screen.

  • After that, I needed something a little lighter, so I got Stomp The Yard. I love dance movies especially when they have no plot (when I was younger I'd watch Breakin' all the time). This was a little different, focusing on Stepping in Black fraternities and sororities, but it definitely lived up to my expectations. Again, the plot is predictable and a little weak, the characters are only slightly developed, but the dance moves are great and so is the soundtrack, which is really all I'm expecting from these types of movies.

  • If you want a great thriller, I'd pick up Shooter, especially if you're a fan of Training Day. Mark Wahlberg plays an ex-Marine scout sniper who gets framed for the attempted assassination of the president. Lots of great explosions, cool gadgets, and lots of interesting plot twists. Kind of reminds me of a Gayle Lynds book, on screen.

  • I liked the book, so I picked up Fast Food Nation. The film itself was pretty bad, not a very good adaptation. But what was striking to me was how images as opposed to words can have a more powerful affect. When I read the book, of course I found it a little disturbing and haven't eaten McDonald's since, but when I watched the movie, when I saw the cows being slaughtered and gutted and skinned, I haven't touched red meat since. Guess my imagination isn't as vivid as the director's.

  • Last night it was back to Africa for The Last King of Scotland. Not the most feel good movie and definitely enough gruesome violence to make me close my eyes. But, the actors did an amazing job, especially Forest Whitaker who portrayed Idi Amin, and the story was so riveting, the two hours flew by in what seemed like seconds.
Finally, there were two movies that I have labeled "must-miss". First Daddy's Little Girls. The first 30 minutes were promising; I was getting into the characters, the dialogue was fresh, there were some interesting conflicts arising. But as the movie continued, it started to fall apart. The plot was loose and unresolved and the ending couldn't be described as anything but cheesy. Save your 3 bucks and your 2 hours. Next was Night at the Museum. I know, I should have expected it to be bad. But sometimes, I like dumb movies. Dumb movies can be really funny. And I thought the premise was kind of cool: museum exhibits come to life. But there weren't any laughs except at the plot attempts and corny dialogue.

So I guess the cat's outta the bag: I have questionable tastes in movies. Guess this is why I couldn't be a film critic. But all I'm really asking for is an interesting premise and characters I care about. And besides, sometimes you just need a good, bad movie.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Daily Dose

Can't wait for the Sunday paper to get your book review fix? Check out The Book Room, the new Sun-Times blog and you can get a daily dose.

Monday, August 13, 2007

My Kind Of Town

Yesterday, a friend and I took a long swim in Lake Michigan, an activity that usually occurs once or twice a week. It's a great way to be outside without dying in the heat and it gives me time to think. Each time I turned to take a breath, I would catch a glimpse of the lakefront path and the tall buildings lining Lake Shore Drive. And when I looked forward, swimming back towards the beach, I could see Navy Pier, The Drake Hotel and the John Hancock building. Each moment I spent in that lake reminded me of how much I love this city and, therefore, how much I love reading about it.
But not everyone can write Chicago with authenticity. Not all writers can make their readers feel the vibrations from the El, smell the faint sweetness of chocolate in the West Loop, hear the crowd cheering from Wrigley Field. Not everyone can write each of Chicago's neighborhoods like they've lived in them for years or tell a scene in a bar like they themselves are regulars. Not all writers can write this city with the love and compassion it deserves. In fact, plenty of books have caused me to cringe, stumbling upon a mistake or misstep, a tell that lets me know this author and this character are not true Chicagoans. If you're going to write the Windy City, or any city for that matter, take my advice:
  • Know the hoods Don't just know where they're located, know what they look like, smell like, sound like. I have no problem with authors taking fictional liberties, as long as they fit. Each Chicago neighborhood has a different personality so make sure your characters live and work in a neighborhood that suits them. Once you know the neighborhood, you can utilize it. For example, the Cabrini Green housing projects used to be located (they're in the process of tearing them down) smack dab in between the affluent neighborhoods of Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast. Putting your character in that area would call for conflict and/or heighten the existing tension.

  • Know the streets You would think with Mapquest and Google Earth that authors would stop making mistakes when it comes to streets. But they don't. Chicago works on a grid, which makes it easier, but there are still plenty of books with parallel streets intersecting, freeway exits that don't exist, and other types of silly errors. Want to show a reader you don't live in the city? Making these mistakes is the easiest way to do it.

  • Know the food Do not have your character put ketchup on their hot dog or drink a Miller Lite at a Cubs game or order a Pepsi at the Billy Goat Tavern. Chicagoans love their food and they love it a certain way. Double check with a hardcore Chicagoan before handing in any scenes in bars or restaurants.
  • Know the crimes Whenever I would travel abroad and tell people I was from Chicago, I would hear one of two things. At the time it was either, "Oh! Michael Jordan!" or "Chicago! Bang bang!" Historically, Chicago is known for two main things: organized crime and crooked politicians. Now, it's lots of gang and race related violence... and still lots of crooked politicians. When I read Chicago crime fiction, I expect these crimes to be a part of the story in one way or another.

To me, Chicago is a perfect place to set a novel, but if you're gonna do it, do it right. With all the technology we have at our disposal, there's no reason to make mistakes. And, to be perfectly honest, I have put down books because the author made too many mistakes like these. As with any type of writing, research is key. But ultimately, it's the passion for the city that makes the setting come alive on the page.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Listen Up: Thoughts on AudioBooks

This weekend, I drove up to Michigan and I was faced with a last minute dilemma. My car, a 94 Buick Skylark that I bought off an old lady, does not have a CD player and my MP3 player was broken. Knowing I couldn't bear even an hour with just the radio or, heaven forbid, silence, I stopped at the library to pick up an audio book.

Over the past year there has been much discussion about whether or not listening to a book is actually considered reading. Personally, I have harbored a slight bias when people tell me they listened to a book, didn't actually read it. I thought of them like the kids in high school who bought the Cliff Notes and was reminded of a certain Seinfeld episode. But as I drove and listened to my audio book, I was thinking how much better it was than listening to music and, how much "reading" I could accomplish by listening to books in the car instead of NPR or crappy pop music. I think this is the mentality of most audio book listeners, that they can multi-task.

My step-mom, an AVID audio book listener, mentioned that in book groups, participants were not allowed to listened to the books, that they were specifically told they must read them. At first, I found myself nodding in agreement, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how silly that was. Stories began as an oral tradition, long before written words and bound books. In writing workshops, pieces are read aloud to catch any snags in dialogue or awkward sentences. We go to hear authors read from their books, longing to hear the voice behind the words. So why all the uproar about listening to books?

Me, personally, I would rather read than listen. Audio books don't compare to the feeling I get sitting with a book in my lap and turning the page. And to be honest, since my Michigan trip, I have not resumed listening to the book. But that's me, and now I do not judge those who prefer audio books. While there are many differences between the two mediums, I do not believe one is superior to the other. Anyone disagree? I'd love to hear people's thoughts on this.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Notes on Self-Publishing

As a reviewer, I'm often asked why we don't review self-published books. There are many reasons; some more straightforward than others. But as a person who always roots for the underdog, listens to self-produced music, and reads plenty of start-up literary magazines, it seems that if anyone would review self-published books it would be me. The easy reason is that my editors wouldn't accept the review. But here are the real reasons:
  • When a publishing house puts out a book, I know it has jumped through a series of hoops. I know it has been read and edited by countless pairs of eyes, hopefully catching mistakes and rewording awkward sentences. When a book is self-published, usually, it is only the eyes of the author that have seen the final product, and this usually leads to mistakes. I know some self-published authors turn to their critique group or significant other or whoever to read the book and give feedback, but many don't. Many just write a book, do maybe one more draft and then put it out there. Too many self-published books read like first drafts and that's not what I signed up to review.

  • The point of reviewing is to promote books, to let readers know what's out there and if it's any good. Self-published books aren't out there. They are not easily accessible. My review may help get the person's name out there, but in order to sell books, the books have to be readily available, preferably in Barnes and Noble or Borders, but Amazon works too.

  • I'm a skeptic and a cynic, so this last reason may just be me. When someone hands over a self-published book, my immediate question (in my head of course) is why the book was self-published. Is the writing bad? Does the plot have holes in it? Did the author try to sell it to a house or get an agent? I am well aware that not all good books sell, let alone get published, but many of the self-published books that have seen, didn't get published for a reason. That is not to say all self-published books are bad books, but like in my first bullet point, if they had gone through the editing process, the editor and author would have worked out the kinks.
As with every rule there are exceptions. And his name is Darren Callahan. I've read two of his books (the latest one is on the way) and one of his screenplays and this guy is a very talented writer. Who's his publisher? Kinko's. Darren prints out his books with a high quality printer and then takes them to Kinko's to get bound. The whole thing cost him five bucks. He sells them on his website for ten. And because he's a marketing genius, he's sold thousands. I won't steal his thunder and talk about his reasons for publishing books the way he does, but I will say I respect his decision.

Basically, my advice for those who weren't able to sell their book: don't self-publish. Keep it in that drawer, write another book, and maybe someday that first novel will reappear on bookshelves everywhere. Because when it comes to marketing and selling a self-published book, unless your Darren Callahan, it is close to impossible.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Cracking Under Pressure

Recently, the Chicago Contingent (our writing group) decided to jump on the anthology bandwagon and put out a compilation of our own. At first I was excited, thinking that it's a great way to promote our work and start getting our names out there. But now it's time to start writing...well last week it was time to start writing and although I have millions of novel ideas, I am struggling to find one that works as a short story.

But here's what's been bothering me: I have written plenty of short stories. I have written plenty of freelance articles, on assignment, on subjects I had no previous knowledge of. It would be reasonable to assume that a short story assignment would come as easy. Wrong. Every time I sit down to brainstorm or go to the computer and try to write a few scenes, it's like I get stage fright. I freeze under the pressure.

I'm coming to the conclusion that the problem has to do with order. When I'm writing fiction, I begin with characters, sometimes a scene or a concept. I start exploring and developing the world that I'm writing about and go from there. If the concept and plot don't seem to be enough for a novel length piece, I aim for a short story. As I said in previous posts, I write until the story is finished.

So now we've gone and mixed up the order. I've been assigned a word count and a theme and I have to go from there. It's like my creative brain doesn't understand, unable to function if the process isn't organic.

But I keep brainstorming and ideas are slowly coming. I never miss a deadline so this story will be completed no matter how many times I have to hit myself in the head with my laptop. But I'd love for some people to weigh in, especially novelists who have been asked to write short stories for anthologies. Is it harder to write shorter and for a specific market? How is the process different? Any pearls of wisdom would be greatly appreciated!

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Long And The Short Of It

Remember when you're girlfriend told you size didn't matter? She was lying.

If you want to sell your book, particularly your first book, size does matter. If your book is too short or too long, agents and editors will see it as unmarketable. Not sure how much truth there is to their assumptions. Some of my favorite books are way over 500 pages while others are well under 200. You may ask, "How many words was Catcher in the Rye or The Fountainhead? Those didn't fall between the word count boundaries." And your answer is, when you're J.D. Salinger or Ayn Rand, you can write whatever you want no matter how short or how long. But you're not Salinger and you're not Rand.

But even the boundaries seem to be a bit disputed. Some writers or publishers say a novel should be between 80k and 90k words. Others say they won't accept anything under 100k. One non-fiction writer on Backspace says his contract specifies between 50k and 65k. Another memoirist says his contract specifies 70k. Like everything else in the publishing world, there are no hard and fast rules. To figure out how long your novel should be, look at other books in your genre and look at the publishers. Harlequin romances, I believe, are around 65K while Kensington thrillers are way over 100k. The average P.I. novel seems to be around 80k while thrillers fall around 90k. Literary fiction is all over the place Your best bet is to stay in the middle, aim for an average length as it pertains to your genre.

Let me preface this by saying, I went to art school. Don't hold it against me. I was taught to write where the story takes me and write until the story resolves itself without worrying about plot and manuscript length. I did that for Street Walk and trust me, it doesn't work. My first draft came out to be 67,000 words, way too short for a novel, way too long for a novella. But the second draft was a little longer, and the third even longer, until the sixth draft was of acceptable length (although still a little on the short side). But with each revision, I wasn't just fluffing it up; I was adding description, slowing down action scenes, telling the story so the readers can see it. All that takes words, words I needed to add.

On the flip side, I've never written anything that was too long. Don't know if it's my ADD, laziness, or that I'm just careful with my words. But if you're the type of person that writes too long, try this: go through the book, one page at a time, and omit needless words. Ask yourself at every sentence, what this sentence, what one word, is doing for the overall story? If you don't have an answer, the answer is cut it. Say your hero gets shot. Do we need to see him at the hospital? Is that furthering the overall story? Or could you just summarize it in one line, "After he was discharged..."

The other, and better option, it to write your novel within the proper word count the first time around. Don't worry, it's almost as simple as it sounds. Planning ahead is the first step. I've gone on record time and time again saying how averse I am to outlining. Well, I've been converted. Outlining before you write helps you write better first drafts and therefore, saves time. When you write your outline, make a note of what word count you should have at each turning point. It will help you stay on track and know if you're giving too much or too little description. If you reach the midpoint and you're only at 35,000 words, chances are, you wrote too fast, skimming over important details. If that's not the case, you may need to add another plot line or further develop a secondary character.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where size does matter. And while there are hundreds of exceptions to the word count rules, it's much easier to sell a book if you're not one of them. Save yourself time and energy. Plan ahead. Think about word count as you write instead of waiting until the end (and then having to write five more drafts to get it right!)

Monday, July 16, 2007

News and Updates

Still not fully recovered from Thriller Fest, so I'll keep my recap brief. All in all, it was a successful conference. I met a lot of interesting people, got to catch up with old friends, went out for some delicious meals and even more delicious drinks. I wished the atmosphere was a little more intimate and a little more centralized, but I still had a pretty good time and managed to take a couple pictures:

Author Rebecca Drake at her signing. Who's that handsome fan?

Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey in a rare moment: when they don't have drinks in their hands

Me and Chicago Contingent member, Jamie Freveletti at Hudson's Bar and Books. Great drinks and great cigars...what more do you need?

Sean, Marcus, Tasha Alexander and Jamie Lavish at the cigar bar

And to make the trip even better, two great things were waiting for me when I got home. First was the second edition of my podcast on The Future is Bleak. The second was my new Sun Times article featuring Chicago author, Renee Rosen.

Still want to know more about Thriller Fest? Ask Sarah Weinman, Dave White, David Montgomery, or Robert Gregory Brown.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Lost In The Shelves

I love bookstores. That's no surprise. I can wander through them for hours, perusing the shelves, reading back covers, searching for the newest releases. But behind each of those books is an author...and an agent...and an editor and a publisher and a publicist. And what are they all doing? Trying to sell you the book.

When you walk into a bookstore like Borders or Barnes and Noble, the first thing you see is the shelf of bestsellers. Walk further inside, you get the hardcover and paperback new releases. Then there are the tables and the end caps. It takes a while to get to the general fiction or mystery section, if you make it there at all. Often, by the time I get past the bestseller and new release shelves, I have enough books for my budget and head to the checkout counter without even going to the back shelves.

So what does this mean for mid-list authors without a huge marketing budget? In my mind, it's kind of ridiculous. Michael Chabon and Cormac McCarthy don't need help selling books, so why do they get to be in the front? It seems like there are hundreds of books being released each month; why do some get on the new release shelves while others don't?

If you're an author, you can't leave it up to your publisher to market your book. You have to take matters into your own hands. And while it may seem impossible to lure people past the pretty co-ops to get your book, here are a few things that may remedy the situation:
  • Call it unethical if you want, but I tend to move things around in bookstores. That's right booksellers, I'm the culprit. I'm the one turning my friends' books outwards or putting them on tables were they don't belong. The idea is to get your book noticed, get it to pop off the shelves. So turning them outward, scattering them in numerous sections, placing them at eye level will hopefully get a potential buyer's attention.
  • If you want to do it the ethical way, I have one word for you: schmooze. Booksellers don't just pick books at random to display on the front tables. If you want that honor, you have to finesse the people in power. Set up meetings with booksellers, send them ARCs, send them a muffin basket if you think that would help. Go in to the independent bookstores in your area, introduce yourself as a local author, offer to sign their books. That's a quick and easy way to get into that coveted window display.
  • If you're book still rests on the back shelves, make sure it's easy to find. On your cards or fliers or whatever you're passing out to promote your book, make sure it says which section it's in. Too often, someone will give me their card that says their book is a mystery, but I'll find it in the horror section. By the time I finish looking for the book, I probably picked out a different book to purchase instead. It's like the food commercials: "Now available in your grocer's freezer!" "My new novel, now available in the mystery section!"
  • Above all, for me at least, appearances are what sell books. I go to a lot of readings and when I hear something I like, nine times out of ten I'll go home with their book. For new authors, I know it's extremely difficult to get people to attend signings, which is why you don't go it alone. If you want to do a book signing at a bookstore, team up with another author, one whose writing is similar to yours and, preferably, one who'll draw a crowd. Or, offer to read at an already established event such as Reading Under the Influence or Twilight Tales. That way, you'll have a ready made audience and an opportunity to put your name out there.

Feel free to add more suggestions as I am still a newbie writer and have not had the chance, first hand, to market my book. But the next time you're in a bookstore, take a look around. What do you notice about where books are place and how the store is set up?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Say It Again: Some Tips on Writing Dialogue

When it comes to writing dialogue, I find that people either love it or hate it. Those who love it, are usually good at it, and those who hate it, usually struggle. I could be wrong, it's just what I've observed.

I'm on the "love it" side, in fact, most of my first drafts look like screenplays rather than novels. I'll get the pages back from my critique buddy and there will be notes like, "only one line of exposition in this chapter" or "Who's talking? Where are they?" Why does this happen? Because when my characters talk, I hear them, even if I don't have a clear sight of them.

I attribute my knowledge of dialogue to my freelance work. After I interviewed someone for an article, I would transcribe it, one of the most tedious activities imaginable. But listening to the way the subject talked, how they would trail off or not use complete sentences, really showed me how to give authenticity to my characters' conversations. We take for granted our use of slang, sentence structure, the way we interrupted each other or change subjects abruptly. Authors like Elmore Leonard, Hubert Selby Jr. or Richard Price had/have a keen ear for that and it shows in their dialogue.

Besides reading the authors I mentioned, here are some good activities to strengthen your dialogue skills:
  • Overheard Conversation Go to a restaurant, bar or coffee shop and eavesdrop on someone's conversation. Try to record it, by hand, word for word. You'll probably only get bits and pieces, but just notice how people talk and interact. You can bring a tape recorder, but that could border on stalking.
  • Screenplay Challenge Ever tried to write a screenplay? Take a scene in your novel or a short story you've written and try to rewrite it as a screenplay. There's no space for exposition, no scene set up. Every tone and feeling has to come through what the character says. After you're finished, get someone to read it with you, or better yet, get two people to read it and you just listen. Does their dialogue seem authentic? Are they stumbling on the words or is it flowing naturally?
  • Same Story, Different Character We all don't speak the same way. Depending on our educational level, socioeconomic background, region in which we live, even our occupations, everyone speaks differently. Ever listen to fire fighters talk with each other? What about an Irish bricklayer from south Boston? A middle aged socialite from Manhattan? They all use different vernacular, different sentence structure, different slang. Take a familiar story, like The Three Pigs, and write it with three different narrators. How would an LA gang banger tell it differently than a rancher from Wyoming?

I think these activities are a ton of fun and help develop your dialogue skills. Because truthfully, as a reader, dialogue can make or break a novel. I've picked up books with great concepts and great characters, but the dialogue was nearly painful to read and I had to put it down. Besides, it's within the quotation marks that the characters jump off the page and are truly brought to life.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Windy City Times

My short story, Lesbian Failure, appeared in the Windy City Times yesterday. Unfortunately, no one told me so I didn't pick up the paper, but it's available online!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Stereotypical Writer

For the past month or so, I've been training for my first triathlon. I've never been much of a biker or a runner, but somehow I got it in my head that if I can swim, I can do a tri. In addition to my usual swims, I've been biking close to 50 miles per week and running about 10, determined not to be the last person to cross that finish line.

So, you can imagine my surprise when, at a party this weekend, my girlfriend tells me I'm not athletic. True, I'm clumsy, lazy, and have no coordination whatsoever, but I'd think with all my recent training I would gain some type of athleticism. When I defend my position, she replies with a laugh, "Come on! You're a writer! How athletic can you be?"

Her comment got me thinking about the stereotypes regarding writers: the overweight, anti-social, chain-smoking, alcoholic, recluse who hasn't seen anything but his typewriter in months. I picture Kafka or Tennessee Williams or Jack Kerouac. But contemporary writers aren't like that. They're extremely social, although they can definitely hold their liquor, I wouldn't say that most writers are alcoholics, only about half the writers I know smoke and most of them are in pretty good shape.
Writing is my passion, no doubt about it, but I think most will agree with me when I say that it's not the only thing I enjoy. I like visiting with friends, going on a long bike ride, seeing the light of day once in a while. Even though I love writing and can do it for hours, often losing track of time, I don't think I would be happy if that was all there was to me. I wouldn't be happy if I was a pale, overweight, chain-smoking alcoholic, but is that what people assume I am when I say that I'm a writer?
I thought most of these stereotypes were dead, ideas of the past only to be joked about among writers at conferences. But are these stereotypes alive and well? And do they stem from some truth? As writers, what stereotypes do you fit or defy?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Power of Three

Summer is the time when movie theaters are infested with mindless films with tons of special effects and not a whole lot of plot. But this year, as I'm sure everyone has noticed, there seems to be a glutton of 3rds: Oceans 13, The Bourne Ultimatum, Shrek the Third, and, what Nicole and I recently went to see, Pirates of the Caribbean 3. I hadn't seen the first two so, being who I am, spent the previous evening catching up on my pirate viewing.

The first one was fantastic, but when I got to the second one, I was pretty disappointed. I know I should have expected it, when it comes to movies they usually get worse with each one. But the first one was so good that I was hopeful, and wrongfully so. First, if you hadn't seen the previous film, you'd be totally lost. They did little to no character development or explanation, not even a hint of what had happened to the characters previously. Not only had I just watched the first in the series less than an hour ago, but when it comes to movies, I'm very good at following along, and I was confused. I kept poking Nicole, "Who's that again? Why do they want that? What's going on?" But she didn't have the answers either.

So despite the shortcomings of the second, we still went to the theater to see the third and as expected, I was even more confused. No character development, overly dramatic scenes that bordered on corny, and the film itself was entirely too long. What a waste of eight bucks.

But this got me thinking. As a reader, I LOVE series. Harry Bosch, John Rain, Jack Reacher, Kenzie and Genaro, all great characters that I can't get enough of. And while I of course started at the beginning with each of these characters, I believe that a reader can pick up a book anywhere in the series and not be confused. The authors give enough character development so new readers know who these people are, but they aren't redundant enough to bore the veterans. Furthermore, the characters change over time. At the end of each book, the protagonist is changed in some way and therefore different in the beginning of the next in the series. In pirates, the characters didn't change much and if they did, it was sudden. We didn't see it build.

So why is it that books do it so well and movies continue to fail time and time again? Is it the industry? The audience? The screenwriters? I believe it is a combination of all.

First, I don't think that movie producers know when to quit. They see a movie that pulled in a ton of money at the box office and think, "We should do that again!" Lehane knew when it was time to retire Kenzie and Genaro. Connelly took a few breaks from Harry Bosch. Child created Reacher in such a way, that he may never run out of ways to get into trouble. Furthermore, I believe movie producers don't recreate characters, they recreate concepts. Just look at Speed or The Mighty Ducks or The Matrix.

Also, it's the writing. Screenwriters have about a third of the pages novelists have. They need to get in and get out. When words are taken away, when scenes have to be cut, what goes? Right, the character studies. Why would you cut a high packed action sequence (never mind that it's doing nothing for overall plot)? Books take a lot more time to build the world of the story, time that movies don't have.

Lastly, I do believe it's the audience, especially when it comes to action movies. People want to see high speed car chases, explosions, not what a character is feeling. To me, in books, the emotional factors make the action scenes all the more effective. When the stakes are high, both physically and emotionally, the scene is completely gripping. But, like in Pirates 3, if I don't care about the characters, I don't really care if they live or die.

If anyone knows of a movie sequel that was just as good, if not better than the first, please do let me know. Kill Bill doesn't count since, to my knowledge, it was originally meant to be one long movie. Otherwise, I'll stick to reading my series characters and avoid them in the theaters.