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...