Sunday, April 29, 2007

New Gig

I am starting to review books for the Chicago Sun-Times. I am stoked to be writing for such a wonderful publication. My deadline isn't until the end of May but I will be sure and announce when my first review is in print.

Switching Teams

I love books. I love reading them and writing them. When people ask me what kind of stuff I read, I reply by saying, "Everything." Sure there are certain types of books or certain story lines that aren't my cup of tea, but in the end, good writing is good writing, no matter what the genre.

My girlfriend is not like this. She likes Literature with a capital L. I don't think she's ever set her eyes on the popular fiction section in Borders. The opposite is true of others. I've met plenty of people who only read mysteries, or romance, or sci-fi. This is not a criticism by any means; people like what they like. Who am I to argue?

This morning, I finished one of the best books I've read this year: The Price of Silence by Camilla Trinchieri. It's a beautifully written novel with intriguing characters and I couldn't put it down. I told my girlfriend that she would love it and she asked if I was reviewing it for Crimespree. Immediately, I knew what she would say when I told her I was: I just don't like mysteries. So I found myself trying to convince her that she would like it, telling her it was character driven, that crime wasn't the focus, etc. It's all true. In fact, if I was a bookseller, I wouldn't really know where to shelve it.
Later this afternoon I was reading the books section of the Sun-Times and saw that Michael Chabon's latest book was reviewed. My girlfriend is, I think, THE biggest Chabon fan. She pre-ordered The Yiddish Policemen's Union weeks ago and has cleared her schedule so she can read Tuesday, the moment it comes out. But when I read her snippets of the review, one in particular stuck out:

"Chabon unleashes a noir murder mystery that is part Raymond Chandler, Part Isaac Bashevis Singer..."

In my mind, being compared to Chandler is an incredible compliment, but to Nicole, it was cause for worry. Here is one of her favorite authors, the creator of Kavalier and Clay, she's been looking forward to his latest book for nearly a month and what does she get? A "noir murder mystery."

I am open minded when it comes to genres, but my girlfriend demonstrates that most aren't. Most readers have great genre loyalties and when beloved authors cross over to the dark side (or just to the other side of the bookstore) they run the risk of losing fans. Tess Gerritsen blogged about her experience when Harlequin began re-releasing her old romance novels. She says:
"The problem is, my readers get upset with me when they buy a Tess Gerritsen book, expecting a gritty thriller, and find they’ve bought an old romance novel. My first reaction is to say to them: ”Hey, try it, maybe you’ll like it.” But a lot of them think they’ll get cooties or something from reading a romance, and then they write me angry letters. Or even worse, they stop buying my books altogether."
Because I am as open minded with my writing as I am with my reading, this scares the hell out of me. Sure, I love writing mysteries/thrillers, but what about later? Will I always want to stay in this genre or will I get an idea for a story that's totally different? Should I be more careful about the genre I write in now because it's what I'm going to be writing for a really long time? Or do I go back to my artist attitude of "write what's pulling you" and not worry about my future in publishing?
Once your published, developing a fan base is extremely important. But those fans aren't necessarily loyal to you, they may be loyal to your genre, to your brand. They may be loyal to your serial killers, your government conspiracies, your social commentary. Change your product, they may go looking for a new brand. Trust me, if my girlfriend can doubt the brilliance of Michael Chabon based on genre, your fans can and will do the same.
In my mind, the story is what's important. Good writing is important. Interesting characters are important. In the end, I could care less what shelf I found the book on. But am I the minority? I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Curve Article

Want a funky new haircut? Check out Not Your Mama's Beauty Parlor, my latest article in Curve Magazine.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Who You Know

Most writers I know, defy the stereotype of the loner, Salinger-like author that never goes out and has no friends. In fact, writers are some of the most sociable people I know. Maybe it's because we know how to tell a story, maybe it's because we can all bond over our love for books, but whatever it is, we can drink and chat until the wee hours of the morning.

Over the years, I have acquired numerous writing buddies: people in my critique group, people I went to college with, people I met at conferences, on Backspace, through the blogosphere. The act of writing is such a solitary experience, that it feels nice to walk away from the computer and have a drink with people that know exactly how it feels.

When I've mentioned the authors or reviewers I know to people outside the community, I have gotten the same response: "That must really help your career!" In the beginning, I never really thought about it like that. When I'm talking to people at writers conferences, I never think about how they can help me. And I think we've all been in that situation. Someone introduces themselves and immediately, you get the vibe of "I hope your someone important because otherwise I won't waste my time talking to you." It's awkward, the conversation is strained, and connections aren't made.

That being said, I attribute many, if not most, of my successes and opportunites to people I have met. I began reviewing books for Crimespree because I met Jon at Love is Murder. Reviewers like Sarah Weinman and David Montgomery have recommended me to their editors. Ken Bruen, bless his heart, not only read but blurbed my yet-to-be-published novel. When I met these generous people, I wasn't thinking about what they could do for me. And it's because of that, because I had no hidden agenda, that they have done so much.

When it comes to publishing a novel or getting freelance gigs, your work is what's important. It doesn't matter who your friends are if you have a bad product. Honing your skills, perfecting your craft, and writing the best book you possibly can should be priority number one. Networking comes later. Knowing people in high places may get your foot in the door, but it's not going to close the deal.

The world of publishing is a tough one and I'll do anything I can to help another writer out. Fortunately, other members of the community feel the same way. We look out for each other, push each other's books, listen to the experiences of others and dole out advice when we can. The act of writing may be solitary but the act of publishing certainly isn't. It goes back to the old saying: it takes a village to raise a child. And man, we've got quite a village.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


The occupation of "author" is perhaps not the most practical career choice. It probably goes along with "musician" or "painter" in terms of stability. But I emphasize career choice; you choose what you do for a living. My knack for writing could have been applied to numerous jobs, practical jobs, ones with vacation time and a 401k. But I chose freelancing, I chose novel writing, despite the lack of stability. It's what I love and I know I cannot be happy doing anything else.

Tess Gerritsen had an interesting blog post about the lack of Asian-American authors, saying that as a race, there is much emphasis on the sciences and families encourage their children to pursue careers in that field. Gerritsen became a doctor before pursuing her career as a novelist, and she wonders how many Asian-American Pulitzer Prize or Academy Award winners are out there working in the sciences.

I completely understand where Gerritsen is coming from, but I don't think it is simply an issue of racial differences. Although culture and upbringing play huge roles in shaping a child's future, I think many, if not most, Americans are working somewhere other than their dream job. How many people have told you, "I've always wished I was a rock star/movie star/president/etc?" Far more, than people who have told you they love what they do and wouldn't want to do anything else.

But it's more than just doing what makes you happy, it's also doing what your good at. I love to sing, but I save it for the shower because I sound horrible. Scratch rock star off the dream job list. My mother always wanted to be a forensic scientist, but flunked high school chemistry because she accidently burnt all the textbooks with acid. Talent+Passion=dream job. Can't have one without the other.

So that leaves us with the people who have a talent for something, but don't have a passion for it. My girlfriend is a brilliant accountant, but it's hard for me to believe that she'd rather audit than do anything else. Why does she do it? Because, as she says, "Having a CPA is like money in the bank. I'll always have a job." She does it for the stability (and the nice paycheck). My father, when he was in high school, told his mother that he wanted to be a plumber. She gasped and pleaded for him to set his goals higher, but he said that being a plumber was a stable occupation, that he would never be without work. (Side note: he is now an accountant).

Writing was never seen as a stable occupation, and now, with people reading less and less, it seems even more impractical. But to me, going to school for creative writing wasn't as dumb a decision as practical people may think. Writing is a skill, a trade, and I went to school for it. In nearly every career, writing is a necessary skill, one that many professionals, sadly, do not have. To me, I can always get a job writing and my degree is far more "practical" than others.

I've always had a "follow your bliss" attitude, but I can see where it's difficult for others to have the same. Stability is important, but to me, it's more important to do something you love. Fact of the matter is, whatever you love to do and whatever you're good at, there's someone out there who will pay you to do it. My girlfriend has a passion for tea and a knack for business and I always tell her to open up her own tea shop. My mother loves helping people and is great at solving problems and listening, so she became a therapist. I love to tell stories so I became a writer, and can be one of those people who say, "I love what I do and wouldn't want to do anything else.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Where is your ARC?

I just got back from a wonderful trip to San Francisco, a city I had never been to and will hopefully return to soon. Like most tourists, we hit up Alcatraz and Fisherman's Wharf, took long hikes, drove across the Golden Gate bridge, etc. But with every new city I go to, unlike most tourists, I check out the mystery bookstore. This one was a quaint storefront connected to a house where, I assumed, the owners lived. Perusing the shelves, I happened upon a whole wall dedicated to advanced reading copies, all adorning the labels "uncorrected proofs" and "not to be sold". I asked how much the ARCs were going for and the counter person told me that they were all ten dollars. Guess they ignored the labels.

It is my understanding that authors (or their publicists) send ARCs to bookstores so the owners can read them and hopefully recommend them to customers, not to make a profit. The author receives no compensation for the sales of ARCs. My initial reaction was frustration. Authors slave away for a year writing the book, they send out ARCs to put their names out there and hopefully generate sales, but instead of reading the books, this bookseller just places them on a shelf to generate revenue for themselves. I have expressed this frustration in a previous post regarding used books; authors should be compensated for their work.

But then another thought came to mind. The point of these advanced copies is to put your name out there. You send them to critics to get reviews and to booksellers for customer recommendations. So even though you don't receive royalties for the ARCs sold, you could potentially gain readership and therefore ensure future sales. But perhaps this is being optimistic.

My girlfriend is into book collecting. Okay, she has become an addict of book collecting. She seeks out first editions, rare printings, anything she thinks "could be worth something someday". To her, the ARCs are an investment, and she seriously considered purchasing an ARC of The Blade Itself (even though she already has three first edition, first printings) because she thinks it will gain in value. When she buys a rare first edition online or from a book dealer, the author doesn't receive compensation from that sale either, so does the same go for ARCs? Because they're rare, do they cross over into the realm of collector's item?

Call me a stickler or a goody goody, but I feel like if something says "not to be sold" I don't think it should be sold. Why should someone make a profit off of my work without giving me a cut? But I'd like to put it out there for the published authors (or non-published if you have an opinion). How do you feel when you see your ARCs on Ebay or being sold at local bookstores? Does it help build readership? Is it good publicity? Or is it just someone trying to make a buck off of your hard work?

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Too Predictable?

I've always been good at predicting movies. When I saw The Sixth Sense I figured it out halfway through and ruined it for everyone in the theater. Primal Fear and The Illusionist, which were known for their "twist" endings, didn't fool me either. For me, the mark of a good movie or book is the ability to surprise, for the ending to be unexpected but make sense at the same time.

So when I got feedback on my third draft of Street Walk, I was very disappointed to hear that both my mother and girlfriend figured out the mystery on the same page, chapters before the big reveal. Where I thought I was just dropping a hint, a seed to make the ending tie in later, I was actually giving it away. They both assured me that they still loved the book and there was still the suspense of how the killer was going to be caught, but it didn't change the fact that, in my mind, my book was predictable.

When I had lunch with Lee Child a few Bouchercons ago, I asked him about eliminating predictability in books and how important it was to him that people didn't figure out the mystery too soon. He said that even if a person thinks they've figured it out, they'll still read to the end to see if they're right and ultimately, you just want the reader to keep reading.

For someone like me who becomes a harsher critic with each book she reads, figuring out the ending too soon definitely changes my opinion of a novel, especially a mystery. If the whole attraction of the genre is to figure out the who and the why, wouldn't a predictable ending defeat the purpose of reading? While some people may find satisfaction in figuring out the killer before the big reveal, I get disappointed, thinking that it was the writer's job to fool me and fool me well.

There is certainly a fine line between revealing too much and too little. Give away too many clues and readers will figure it out prematurely. Withhold too much and readers will feel cheated, like it came out of nowhere. Authors use red herrings to steer readers in the wrong direction, but if a character is too likely of a suspect, it's a safe bet that they didn't actually do it.

Ultimately, crafting the mystery seems like every other aspect of writing: practice makes perfect. So I will return to my manuscript and make the necessary changes, not wanting my story to be predictable. But I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts. How important is the element of surprise? If you figure out the mystery too soon, does it change your opinion of the novel? Or does the saying ring true, is it about the journey and not the destination?

New Tess Gerritsen Post

Today, Tess Gerritsen writes about what to expect when tackling the second draft. Definitely know where she's coming from!