Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Art of the Interview

Riding home on the EL last night, I was approached by a young Northwestern student wanting to interview me for an article he was writing for his journalism class. Even though I was looking forward to reading a book on the hour-long train ride, I agreed, wanting to help out a newbie writer in any way that I could. He began by asking me my full name, age, place of residence, etc. before moving into some controversial questions about the situation in Iraq. Never ashamed to voice my political opinion, I answered his questions honestly. But as the interview went on, I couldn't help but feel some disconnect, that something was off. And then I realized what it was: his interview style. He asked a lot of yes/no questions, didn't respond to my answers with follow up questions, he was even reading his questions off a pre-printed list. And although I was tempted to give him a few words of wisdom, I kept my mouth shut.

Greg Kot, rock critic for the Chicago Tribune and contributor for Rolling Stone, once told me that interviews should feel like a conversation. When I began freelancing, I was always anxious about interviewing subjects, but I kept his words in mind and hoped that everything would go okay. Prior to meeting with the person I was interviewing, I would dig up as much information as I could so I could talk with them intelligently and ask productive questions. Even though I would prepare some questions prior to the interview, by list would usually be thrown out the window, because our conversation, not interview, would take on a life of it's own.

So although I didn't preach to the Northwestern student, I thought I'd share a few interview tips with everyone. I'm sure I'll miss at least a hundred so feel free to comment with pearls of your own.

1) Don't ask yes or no questions. Seems like common sense right? But believe me, it's hard not to. You want to ask questions that spur on answers. Yes/no questions don't do that. Instead of asking, "Did you enjoy working with so-and-so?" ask "How did it feel to work with so-and-so?"
2) Know your subjects. Before an interview, I always Google the person I'm interviewing. If they have a website, I peruse it. If they wrote a book, I read it (at least the excerpt on Amazon). My first real interview was Shannon Blowtorch, dancer with goth band All The Pretty Horses. I had never heard of her or the band, but I made sure I had listened to their tracks and knew her bio before giving her a call.
3) Think on your feet. Although I said you should research your clients, it sometimes comes back to bite you in the ass. I was assigned to interview Nikki Weiss and Carole Antouri, agent and make-up artist who made a pilot about the Baton. But when I googled, up popped all these articles about gay adoption advocates. Fortunately, there were photos so I knew when I got to their door that it was a different Nikki and Carole. But a lot of my prepared questions focused around adoption. Too many times, you'll be thrown for a loop and have to be prepared to respond. Interviews take on lives of their own and if you can't think fast, you may not have enough material for your piece.
4) Have a back-up plan. There have been too many times where my tape recorder has failed me or my Internet was down to not have some sort of back up plan. Even if you're recording, always take notes as well. If you have scheduled an e-mail or chat interview, have the person's phone number as well, just in case. Also, don't wait until the last minute. Often I'm writing on tight deadlines and something comes up where the person I'm supposed to interview isn't available. Always give yourself an out. Don't schedule an interview the day before an article is due.
5) Be both friendly and professional. You want your subjects to be at ease when they talk to you and often times that means being friendly and trying to break down the barrier of subject/interviewer. However, you can't lose your professionalism in the meantime. It's easy to get on tangents and want to discuss your personal life. After all, the person you're interviewing is telling you everything. But you have to keep a certain distance to remain neutral. Also, after an interview, always e-mail the subject to thank them for talking to you. I usually give them a call when the article comes out to congratulate them on the press and make sure that they were happy with the piece.

Interviewing is honestly my favorite part of freelancing. I get the chance to meet interesting people that often times I would never have met otherwise. The quality of your article is directly related to the quality of your interviews, and, as with everything, practice makes perfect. Hopefully this tips are helpful; maybe I should pass them along to the folks at Medill...

Monday, February 19, 2007

Quality vs. Quantity

Whenever I'm in a bookstore, usually a few times a week, I wander over to the "Writing/Publishing" section. The usual suspects are there: Writing for Dummies, Get Published Now!, Writing the Bestseller, etc. It takes a while to sift through the garbage and find a few quality books on the craft of writing and the publishing industry. Over the years, I have collected numerous writing books, some better than others, many contradicting each other. Some say write fast, that the more you write, the better you get. Others say take your time, let the story marinate. Some say write numerous drafts, others say take your time and write better first-drafts. It's enough to make the newbie writer throw in the towel and choose a new career.

There is no one way to write, only the way that works for you. Whether your Nora Roberts who seems to write a book by lunch time or Dennis Lehane who takes a few years to unveil his masterpiece, as long as you make your contracted deadline, there are no rules about how long you should take to write the actual manuscript. It seems that most genre authors are on a book-a-year contract, but what they do in that year varies greatly. Lee Child spends 6-8 months on the manuscript, 2 months promoting his latest book, and whatever is left he takes for himself. J.A. Konrath, to my understanding, sequesters himself for a month to write his book and spends the rest of the year marketing and promoting. Other authors take almost the entire year completing their next book, writing and editing while doing book tours.

For me, I write fast and I write a lot. I finished Thou Shall Not in about 5 months and Street Walk, after 4 months, is in its final stages. Does that make me better than those who take a year? Obviously not. It's just the way I write best, gluing myself to my chair and purging the words onto the paper. People have asked me, "What's the rush? You're not on a deadline." And it's true. I could take years if I wanted. But I don't. When a a story is pulling me, I can't help but write it. If I take too long, the story loses its freshness, its excitement, and it will show in the writing.

I truly believe that writing, like any sport or craft requires practice. The more you do it the better you get. Last summer, I joined a swim team, practicing 1-2 hours a day five days a week. Intense and a little insane, I know. But the more I swim, the faster and better I get. If I miss a week, it shows. Writing is the same way. I meet a lot of writers who say they can't help it, they must write everyday, like breathing. I commend them. For most of us, it's easy to succumb to television or books or bars or any other activity we enjoy. But we have to keep practicing, improving our craft, and that includes writing something, anything, every day. If you're in between books, try your hand at a short story or essay. If you're blocked, journal a bit. Blog. Write your grandma a letter. Something. Anything. Every day.

Whether you write slowly or fast, a lot or a little, the important thing is that you write. A book written in 3 months can be just as good as a book written in 3 years. Ultimately, we all strive to write quality fiction, but most of the time, the quality of our work is proportional to the quantity that we produce. Read the writing books, take from them what you wish, but you have to find your own way, not someone else's.

I'd love to hear feedback from everyone regarding their writing frequency. How many words per day? How many hours per day? Maybe we can compile our own "How To Write" book.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Tess Gerritsen Blog Post

An interesting post by Tess Gerritsen. Are readers ever satisfied?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Pants on Fire

Author n. 1. The writer of a book 2. A person who creates something

I am an author. I write books and I create. I'm a bullshit artist, a liar. Don't believe a word I say.

I have yet to meet a writer who doesn't bring their talent for storytelling into their daily lives. We exaggerate, spin yarns, have a flexible definition of what is true and false. When we get pulled over, we tell the cops elaborate stories about our sister who's in labor and we're driving fast to try to make it there on time. At parties, we make intelligent comments on recent news headlines or political legislation even if we haven't watched the news or listened to the radio in weeks. At conferences, we claim to have read every book that every author has ever written, and are able to speak intelligently on the various characters and plot lines. It comes naturally, like breathing.

My love for fiction writing stems from laziness, that I'll admit. While I'd rather write freelance articles than punch a clock everyday, I still get annoyed when I have to research or go on interviews. I get irritated when I need something more than my mind to get the job done. When I started writing, I loved the fact that all I needed was a pen and paper, or a computer, and my brain to produce. But I soon learned that even writing fiction requires research, requires truth and accuracy.

We've all heard it time and time again. Research. Get your facts right. Readers will crucify you if you make too many mistakes. I admit, when I read novels about Chicago and they get street names and neighborhoods wrong, the author immediately loses my trust. But then again, we're just telling a story. It's fiction. Why all the focus on facts?

For years I relied on the George Castanza theory: It's not a lie if you truly believe it. If you tell a story with enough authority no one will question its accuracy. Most authors (that I know of) have never shot a man, never spent a day in prison, never hijacked a plane or caught a terrorist. But their knack for storytelling, their belief in what they write, gives off a sense of authority and we don't question it. We believe that this is what killing someone feels like, that this is what it's like in prison, that their story illustrates the way to successfully hijack a plane. I can research the prison system, read serial killer websites, check out books from the library on the effects of poison, but I will never actually experience it.

Ultimately we are authors, creators, not the bearers of truth. The research we do for our novels adds authority to our stories, to our voices, forcing readers to believe our bullshit. Make too many mistakes and you lose credibility, but show enough facts and readers will follow you anywhere. At parties, my girlfriend may roll her eyes as I criticize the recent Oprah pick knowing that I hadn't read it, but the rest of my audience will listen, will believe me, because I state my opinion with authority. It's not a lie, if you truly believe it.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


There is much debate about what it takes to sell a book. As authors, the burden of marketing usually falls on us (unless you're James Patterson or Norah Roberts who have insane amounts of publicity money). So what does it take? Print advertising? Book signings? Many authors blog about the best ways to market a book, but since I've yet to publish a novel, I'm going to take it from the perspective of a book buyer. What makes me buy a book?

1) Plot. Ultimately, if a book doesn't sound interesting I'm not going to buy it. With the review books it's different; I give most books a chance even if they are different from my usual taste. But when I'm shelling out ten bucks, I want to make sure the book I'm buying sounds interesting. I always read the back cover and usually the first chapter. If it catches my interest, I'll put it in my cart.
2)Word of Mouth If someone I trust tells me that a book is amazing, I'll go looking for it. If I read a review or an article and the book sounds interesting, I'll usually pick it up. Again, it comes back to plot. It could be an excellent book, but if it's just not my thing, I may not invest.
3) Appearances This weekend I met Tom Schreck whose novel was just released with Midnight Ink. My first introduction was when he handed me a beer cozy with his book cover on it. Now, that beer cozy alone would not have made me buy the book. But we got to talking and he's a nice guy and his book, the story of a part time boxer part time social worker, sounded interesting. When I meet authors face to face and they talk to me about their work, it usually leads me to bookstores looking for their novels. Panels and book signings alone may not do it, but if we have a drink afterwards and make that face-to-face connection, it helps a lot more.
4) Scandal Now this may be harder to concoct, but if you're book is causing controversy, I'm going to read it. Maybe it's just me. When Ken Bruen told me that there was a push to ban his book, immediately I wanted to read it. When Oprah dissed James Frey and all the controversy arose, I wanted to be in the know, so I read Million Little Pieces. This point may not be as helpful to most authors, but I felt I had to include it. Scandal sells books, and if you're writing on a controversial subject, chances are, I'm going to pick it up.

Things like cover art and publisher may come into play a bit, but they're not deal breakers. Although word of mouth and author appearances play a large role in introducing me to the books that are available, ultimately it has to be an interesting story. Your first job is to write the best, most interesting book you can. Then, when it comes to marketing, get out there, meet and greet, cause a buzz and if you can, get your book banned!

Monday, February 05, 2007

Love is Murder recap

I am finally recovering from the draining (yet incredibly fun) Love is Murder weekend. The three days were filled with great people, great conversation, and of course, lots of drinking. I got to meet a lot of new authors, catch up with old friends, and I even made it to a panel or two. Although no one jumped in a lake this year, some of the highlights included:
  • Meeting and mingling with bestselling author Ken Bruen, who is one of the sweetest, funniest, most entertaining people I have ever met.
  • Getting to be on a panel with the brutally honest and wildly entertaining Jennifer Jordan. She's a great reviewer and a lot of fun to hang out with.
  • Getting my hands on Darren Callahan's latest script, an adaptation of his novel Documentia. Can't wait to dive in.
  • When the soon-to-be-published Jamie Lavish traded his hand crafted cowboy boots for Ken Bruen's watch at two in the morning. Don't know how fair the trade was, but Ken wore the boots for the rest of the conference.

Overall it was a fun couple of days and I can't wait for Thriller Fest this summer. Enjoy the photos!

Darren Callahan, Sharon Doering and Tasha Alexander

Marcus Sakey and James Lavish

Laura Caldwell and Marcus Sakey

Friday, February 02, 2007

Writer's Digest Article by Sarah Weinman

Guess I should be a little more careful about what I write! Check out Blog and Burned by Sarah Weinman.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

All The Answers

Admittedly, my motivations for starting this blog were selfish. I had something to say and I wanted people to hear it. I had views on publishing, on writing, that I wanted to put out there, and hey, exposure never hurt anyone. But the more blogs I read, the more I wonder about people's motivations. To sell books? To vent?

This past year, I have spent a lot of time talking with people about writing. So many people from high school, from work, have come up to me and said, "I want to be a writer. How do I get started?" I obviously laugh and tell them that I'm just as clueless as everyone else, but I tell them about my experience and what I have learned. But I remind them that it is simply that: my experience. Someone else could have an entirely different take. So I guess this is what this blog is becoming: a documentation of my experiences and what I've learned about the writing field.

Unfortunately, all blogs are not this way. Too many of them claim that this is the way it is, that they have all the answers and anyone who disagrees is clearly mistaken. Given, many of these blogs are written by published authors, and in order to be published in this market you have to be doing something right, but if I've learned anything it's that there is no one way to do things. There are certain things that are universal and hopefully common sense, like meet your deadlines and make sure to spell the person's name correctly on your query letter. (Note: I misspelled an agent's name on one of my query's and he still made me an offer, but I don't recommend doing the same.) But other than that, it's a shot in the dark. Do you need an agent to sell your book? Not necessarily. Do you need to attend conferences in order to promote your work? It's probably a good idea, but not going to conferences doesn't automatically make your book a failure. I've been told over and over that there are two things you can't kill in your book: animals and babies. Do I advise it? No, but that doesn't mean that it hasn't been done in some very successful books.

There are no hard and fast rules in this industry, and be wary of anyone who tells you that there are. All I can share is what I learned from my experiences and my education, and that doesn't mean that how I do things is the be all end all. I'm not the first person to give writing advice as I am still an aspiring novelist, but I'm certainly not the last. You can read blog after blog, books on how to write, attend panels at conferences, but the most valued lessons you'll learn will come from your own experiences. And who knows, you may disprove my theories and all the advice that you've read over the years. Because anything written about the publishing industry is simply that: a theory, an opinion, not a stone-written rule.