Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Falling Short in '08

This would usually be the time that I do a round-up for 2008. I scan my shelves, my notes, my reviews and compile a list of best books I read this year. I usually have trouble deciding which to include because there are so many I loved. This year, I didn't have that problem. I actually found it difficult to find a book that really blew my hair back.

There were many, like TRIGGER CITY and GOOD PEOPLE, that were well written, gripping, all of the things I ask for in a good book. But usually there is a few, one at least, that was amazing, one that I couldn't put down, one that reaffirmed my love of fiction, one that was impossible to forget even a year later.

Book critic David Montgomery addressed this a few weeks ago, but what I've been thinking about is, why? What was it about 2008 that made it a weaker year for fiction? Have publishing standards changed? Have audience standards changed? Or was 2008 not weaker? Is it simply taking more to impress the critics?

After spending all Chanukah thinking about this, I've come to a few conclusions:
  • The more you read, the more it takes to be impressed. After reading hundreds of crime fiction novels, it's hard to stumble upon a truly new idea. A plot or character that would have impressed me years ago, may be old news today. If the book isn't fantastic, if it doesn't have a new writing style or plot idea, it tends to blend in and is more easily forgotten.
  • As we know, the publishing industry is in trouble. People aren't buying as many books, they're not taking risks on debut authors, etc. Because publishers need to make money, they often publish books that are similar to previous bestsellers. After DA VINCI CODE, how many foreign thrillers centered around legends and artifacts were released? How many celebrity moms have parenting books on the shelves? Publishing a new concept or an author with a new writing style is risky, and in this climate, publishers aren't about taking risks.
  • I think this has also been a particularly bad year for debut authors, which attributes to a weak 2008. Debut novels are fresh, new, and often very well crafted. A debut novel is the one the author spent years working on. No contract, no deadlines, writing until it was the best it can possibly be. While most authors get better with practice, I can usually see the labor that went into that first one. Finding a new author is a memorable moment, and there weren't many of those this year.
  • Looking back, I also have to say this wasn't a particularly great year for movies either. The artist in me thinks it's both lack of inspiration and innovation on the part of the story teller. One of my favorite books is LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN by Hubert Selby Jr. and one of my favorite movies is DONNIE DARKO. What do these two have in common? First, they both tell a story in a different way. Selby plays with sentence structure and punctuation to make the story sound the way he wants. DARKO is a mix of fantasy and reality, is told forwards and backwards, to get the screenwriter's message across. Both are emotional, both have memorable characters, and both are different than anything I've ever read or seen. I don't think we had any of that his year. I think everything I read was told in standard, narrative form. There were no characters that were different or surprising. There was an overall lack of risk taking, which makes fiction fall short.

I hope that this changes in 2009 as I'd hate to lose my passion for reading. While I'm more motivated than ever to write an innovative, gripping novel, it's hard when there is a lack inspiration lining my shelves. With the publishing world deteriorating the way it is, part of me thinks that it will only get worse, even though I try to stay positive and hope for the best.

So as not to end on such a pessimistic note, here are a few books that I really enjoyed and that are still memorable all these months later:

Friday, December 12, 2008

Ending it All

A great ending is extremely difficult to write. Building the tension slowly, tying up loose ends, all without being cliche is a very daunting task. I won't say that the ending is the most important part of the book, but a bad ending can definitely change my opinion of the book.

I drafted the first draft of STREET WALK in a month (courtesy of NaNoWriMo). I rewrote the first 250 pages in about four months. The ending, the build-up to the grand finale, has taken me close to two. And while I hope to complete the ending in the next couple of weeks, the slowness of the process has taught me a few things. Most of them I knew in theory, but they didn't sink in until I actually applied it:
  1. The last third of a book is the build-up to the ending. I used to think it was just the last 50 pages, but it actually begins a lot sooner. While reading a book, you usually don't realize it, but a good author will begin dropping hints and setting up obstacles for the grand finale in the last 100 pages. You only realize those hints in retrospect.
  2. Build the tension slowly. I hate reading rushed endings, so I'm trying not to write one. In crime fiction, most climaxes are filled with action, something that's easily rushed through. If you slow down the action, heighten the protagonist's personal goals as well as the external, the writing will be more gripping. As a reader, I never remember the jam-packed action scenes from books. I remember plot twists and the moment when the protagonist is faced with either their greatest fear or the possibility that they will not reach their goal. Those moments aren't done in a page.
  3. Don't cop out. Never take the easy way out, not for you as a writer or for your protagonist. Don't plant a gun that your protagonist can "fortunately" grab in the nick of time. Don't have the cops storm in just before your protagonist is killed by the villain. Be creative. You got your protagonist into this mess, it's your job to get them out of it.
  4. Be unexpected, but not too unexpected. Ideally, you want to strike a balance between a predictable ending and one that is so out there that it is unbelievable and would never happen. In a mystery, when the villain is unmasked (so to speak), you don't want readers to say, "Oh, I knew that the whole time." You also don't want the villain to be a minor character that was barely in the book or someone that makes utterly no sense. You want readers to feel like the killer was under their nose the whole time. They just didn't see it. Same goes for thrillers. You want your protagonist to save the day, but not make it too easy on them. Throw some unexpected obstacles their way and force them to rise to the occasion.
  5. Stop and brainstorm. I used to be obsessed with reaching a word count or a page count for the day, so much that I'd often not give myself time to think. I'd just plow along and make things up on the fly. But good ideas aren't instantaneous. Slowing down and thinking of a few different possibilities for an ending can be helpful and aid in avoiding major revisions later. It's also great to bounce ideas off fellow readers and writers. Give them a few different scenarios for endings and see which ones they respond to best.
  6. Trust your gut. We all have an inner censor, and more often than not, it doesn't go off for no reason. If it feels cliche, it probably is. If it feels too rushed, you probably need to slow down. If you're super self-deprecating and your own worst critic then maybe you can ignore your inner censor. But most of us are good at knowing the difference between good writing and something that should be thrown in the trash. If you don't trust your gut, find someone you can.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Blagojevich Arrested

Anywhere else, this would be shocking. Here, it's just another corruption scandal in Illinois government. Ok, it may be a big corruption scandal. All I have to say is, finally!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Demand the Supply

If you're not concerned with the state of the publishing industry, you're not paying attention. With hundreds of layoffs, acquisition freezes, newspapers going under, it's getting harder and harder not to panic. As writers, we depend on these larger companies, and if they're not taking on new projects, then editors won't be the only ones out of a job.

So, as readers and writers, what can we do? Since there's no supply without the demand, we can show publishers and booksellers that people still want to buy books, good books. As Jason Pinter points out, most of the recent deals are made with celebrity authors such as Sarah Silverman, Mike Piazza, and (groan) Dustin "Screech" Diamond. The reason? Name recognition. Easy to market and almost guaranteed to sell.

By buying books written by debut authors or those published by small/independent presses, we accomplish a few things:
  1. We support debut authors and small/independent presses.
  2. We show booksellers that there is a demand for debut authors and books published by small/independent presses, which causes them to order more of these types of books.
  3. Because the booksellers order more books by debut authors, crime fiction, etc., publishers are more likely to make these types of acquisitions in the near future.

It's a pretty simple concept. Demonstrate a demand and sellers will supply. So how do we know, as readers, what to demand? That's up to the author. And with all the cutbacks, don't expect a big marketing budget. Check out this post if you need some suggestions on how to market yourself.

Be on the lookout for the small presses, debut authors, and anything local. Show publishers that we don't want fluff written by celebrities. While you're at it, get a newspaper or local magazine subscription. Demonstrate the demand for quality publications and hopefully it won't be too long before the publishing industry is back on track.

For more frequent and extensive updates on the publishing industry, check out GalleyCat, Publisher's Marketplace, or just follow Sarah Weinman on Twitter. Tess Gerritsen also has some interesting observations over at her blog.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Books

A little late to post this, but check out my contribution to Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Holiday Shopping Guide: Recession Edition

With more government bailouts, more people losing their jobs and homes and more panic spreading across the nation, it's pretty hard to think about the approaching holidays. Most years, we'd be gearing up for the after-Thanksgiving sales, strategizing how to hit as many stores as possible for the early bird deals. Now, people are scaling back, not buying the extravagant gifts they did last year.

But there is one thoughtful gift that won't break the bank: a book. Giving books this holiday doesn't only support authors, the publishing houses and your local booksellers. A book is the perfect way to show people you put thought into their present and reading is the perfect activity for holiday traveling or being holed up on snowy winter days. And so I offer my recommendations for every person on your holiday shopping list:

Gift For: Your father who doesn't read anything except the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the occasional presidential biography.

Gift For: Your mother who always reads the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winners and who has never missed an Oprah Pick:

Gift For: Your school age sister, niece or cousin who's going through a goth phase:

Gift For: Your high school brother, nephew, or cousin who thinks reading is stupid:

Gift For: Your Grandpa who loves watching Law and Order and CSI:

Gift For: Your uncle who does a lot of business traveling and enjoys "quick reads":

Gift For: Your friend from Art School who's into "weird shit":

Note: Because a lot of these books aren't my personal preference, many of them I haven't read. The books marked with a ** are those that I have read and can truly recommend. The others are just suggestions based on the opinions of others.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

More Than a Writer

I recently finished a non-fiction book proposal, something that is completely different than what I usually write. It was definitely an eye-opening, learning experience and it made me realize how being a writer isn't just about putting words on a page or telling a story. All writers are, or at least should be, the following:

Problem Solvers. If you're writing fiction, your job is to get your characters into jams and then get them out of it. Crichton created Jurassic Park, but then he had to figure out a way to get his main characters out alive. If you're writing non-fiction, you're usually addressing a problem in today's society and providing an answer. Textbooks provide answers to research questions, Self-Help books solve people's personal problems, etc. If there is no problem to solve, there generally isn't a book to write.

Sales People. Writers don't just have to sell their book to readers, they also have to sell it to agents, editors, and reviewers. And once your published, your publisher is going to expect you to sell, sell, sell, market, market, market. You may be a wonderful storyteller, but if you can't sell your story, your story won't get sold.

Small Business Owners. Whether you do it full time or part time, being a writer is owning a small business. You have to cover your own health insurance, pay extra taxes, and move with the ups and downs of good months and bad months. You have to think about sales, about budget, advertising, about bringing in new business and maintaining the business you have. You get to work in your pajamas and make shit up for a living, but maintaining the financial/administrative side is what separates the writers from the dilettantes.

Translators. This is especially true for freelancers, but also applies to novelists. As writers, it is our job to translate an idea to the page and make it understandable. As a freelancer, you may get a press packet that you have to boil down into 200 words or less. A reviewer has to convey the essence of a 300 page book in about 300 words. A novelist has to mold and shape an idea into something that is easy to follow and understand. Writers translate ideas and information to make them more accessible.

Politicians. I may be stretching it with this one, but hear me out. In publishing, whether it be magazines, newspapers or novels, there are plenty of politics, plenty of games that have to be played. You have to schmooze editors, other authors, talk to people in a way that gets you what you want. You have to present yourself in a likeable, professional way, be well spoken and thoughtful, and of course, have a platform. You should know how to shake hands and work a room. Hopefully, you're slightly more honest than the DC bigwigs, but the better politician you are, the more successful you'll be.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Panic Over

There are many stressful experiences for writers: a looming book deadline, negotiating a contract, reading the first batch of reviews. But I am certain there is one stresser that outbeats all of them, one that I had the pleasure of experiencing this weekend: a computer virus.

If you're Facebook friends with me and you got that suspicious message from me on Friday, I'm sorry, and extra forgiveness if you opened it thinking, "Dana wouldn't send me anything suspicious" and got the virus yourself. Once your infected, the blasted thing sends messages to all your friends, from you, telling you to click on a link. I got a message from my friend, I clicked, and thus began the panicked, stressed out, ulcer-and-gray-hair-inducing weekend.

Last week I read a post about the importance of backing up. I thought it was a good post and I was proud of myself that I do most of those things. I save everything to a USB and e-mail myself the important documents once a week. But like I said, this happened on Friday, pre-back up.

Thankfully, I caught it in time and thanks to my trusty anti-virus, anti-spyware, the helpful people at Microsoft and a half bottle of tequila, I'm back online and all my files seem to be in tact. But I could have just as easily lost a lot of work. A whole week's worth of writing, gone. So please, go to Joe's blog, read what he has to say about all the ways you can avoid losing your writing. Don't think you're immune. I have an anti-virus, I have a firewall, I don't open strange e-mails from people I don't know, and yet, I still managed to get a virus. I guess I could always go Mac...

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

R.I.P. Michael Crichton

This just in via Sarah Weinman: Bestselling author, Michael Crichton, has died at the age of 66 after a battle with cancer. Very unexpected and very sad.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Accept the ADD

I'm a multi-tasker. Ok, I'm borderline ADD. As I write this I'm also doing laundry, working on a book proposal, and ordering a new swim suit from SwimOutlet.com. To sit still and focus on a single project is too much pressure. If I get stuck while working on the novel, I can wash the dishes while I think, but if I simply sit and try to get myself unstuck, I'll keep drawing a blank.

The ADD translates into my writing as well. Currently, I'm reworking one novel, researching and plotting another, writing a nonfiction book proposal, and writing two short stories. This is on top of whatever book review or magazine article I have due that week. The good part of this is I always feel like I'm accomplishing something. Seldom does a day go by when I don't work on some form of writing. But the question is, am I spreading myself too thin? Does the work suffer or does it just take longer to complete?

I know authors who write 2-3 books a year on top of whatever short stories they submit to anthologies. Others, write just one book a year. Literary authors (and Dennis Lehane) can take up to five years working on a single project. Is there a difference in the quality of the work? Sometimes. I don't think Nora Roberts is known for her brilliant prose and innovative ideas. But who sells more? Her or a Pulitzer Prize winner?

I read a lot of mid-list genre fiction writers who, in my mind, could stand to take a little more time with their work. A lot of writers are talented, but rush the process which leads to a mediocre novel. But there's a pressure - from publishers, agents, and fans - to produce. The majority of writers who earn a living solely from writing books are genre writers producing a book a year. Like any other job, the more you work the more you make.

If you're one of those people who can write two, brilliant books a year without breaking a sweat, well I hate you, but I still tip my hat. Most of us need time to produce quality work. Looking back on the first book I wrote, I see how most of it's problems could have been avoided if I had simply slowed down and let it marinate. The question is, if I had let it marinate and used that time to write a short story, would I have ended up with both a quality novel and a quality short story?

Most of this boils down to process. Some people write fast, others don't. Some need to busy themselves in order to overcome writer's block while others need to sit in the chair and stare at the computer. Some can take on numerous projects while others need to be fully absorbed in the piece they're working on.

Often, I need to remind myself that if I start too much, I won't finish anything. But sometimes, the multi-tasking is more effective. I'm the type of person who can easily shift their focus without letting the work suffer. In fact, I'd argue that the work would suffer more if I sat in the chair and trudged through the novel because it would come out sounding forced.

But if it's a question between quality and quantity, which is more important? Is it better to produce lots of mediocrity or a few high-quality pieces?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Out with the old?

Yesterday, Nicole and I went to see our friend in a production of Pirates of Penzance. The singing was great, the acting was great, but I felt like the play itself was so slow paced. I laughed a few times, I know the play isn't as much about the story as it is about the comedy, but so often I felt like screaming, "Get on with it already!"

At intermission, I looked through the program and saw that the play was first performed in 1879, long before "talking pictures" and television. The expected pace for telling a story was different. Now we want movement, more forward momentum at a quicker speed. We have a low tolerance for meandering.

The question is, does this translate into books? I love Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, but they certainly told a story at a different pace. I can't say that any of their books could be described as, "gut-wrenching suspense" or "edge of your seat reads". Poe is one of my favorite authors and although is work is creepy and brilliant, I wouldn't call it fast paced.

I talked about this in a post last month, but I find it interesting that the issue of pace continues to come up. Is it an issue of a generation? Have we become too accustomed to instant gratification that the books and plays of the 19th century are too dated to enjoy? I remember taking 19th century literature and hating it, partially because there was too much Jane Austen, but mostly because the books couldn't keep my attention. Was it simply a style of the times? Is our style much better?

I have yet to draw a conclusion on any of this, but I do think it's sad that it has become difficult to appreciate the classics because of their long-winded prose and meandering storylines. Nowadays, more emphasis is placed on pacing and plot than it is on style and prose. But is this a good thing? Or could we stand to learn something from our 19th century ancestors?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Back from Baltimore

I'm back and almost fully recovered from the fun-filled weekend. This was easily one of the best-run Bouchercons ever, thanks to Judy Bobalik and Ruth Jordon. Everything was organized, easy to find, and the panels were interesting and well-attended. Some of the highlights:

Hope everyone who attended is recovering and those who missed it will consider attending Bouchercon 2009.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

This just in...

Pick up Time Out Chicago tomorrow to read my review of Sean Chercover's TRIGGER CITY. The book officially launches at Bouchercon, so the timing is perfect!

Bouchercon Baltimore

Tomorrow I'll be heading off to Baltimore for Bouchercon, the biggest (and arguably the best) mystery/thriller conference. As always, I look forward to seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and of course, having the opportunity to talk about books all weekend. In a way, these conferences are business. You go to network, make contacts, reconnect. But I've found that the more you can just relax and enjoy yourself, the more contacts you'll inevitably make.

I think of it like this. Most Americans (or at least the ones I know) don't like to get sold to. If they see a canvasser on the street asking for donations, they cross to the other side. They breeze right by the Gap greeter and say, "Just looking!" They avoid Avon ladies, Mary Kay representatives and the dreaded Amway salesman. We don't want to hear the pitch.

Too often, I hear newbie writers attempting to network with agents or editors by "selling" their book. Never works. The editor or agent will tune out or give looks to a buddy to come bail them out of the situation. Like most Americans, they're not interested in being "sold" on the "next big novel".

But there are two lines that never get tuned out: "I'm a big fan of your work. Can I buy you a drink?" Taught to me by a master networker (and drinker), these lines provide the agent/editor/big name author with two things: The opportunity to talk about themselves and to get free booze. Who would say no to that? In turn, you have the opportunity to learn about them, about the industry, and since one drink usually leads to another, you'll have time to solidify that contact.

Eventually, agent/editor/big name author will tire of talking about themselves and ask you a question, such as, "What are you working on?" or "Do you currently have any books out?"

You can then talk to them in casual conversation without it feeling like a business transaction: "Actually, I'm in the process of querying agents now. My book is about (insert elevator pitch here)."

If your pitch is good enough, agent/editor/big name author will ask for more. They may ask who you've queried so far. If they're really interested they may offer to read it or big name author may offer you a reference for his/her agent. But give it time. Remain at ease, enjoy the conversation, and if it leads you to nothing other than a, "Nice meeting you," you still made a contact that may come in handy later.

Another word of advice is not to seem like a leech. There's nothing less appealing than someone only talking to people that could maybe help their career. I was at one conference and a small-time author asked me if I was someone important. Joke was on him because a month later, his book came across my desk and I didn't review it solely because of how he acted. (I know it seems spiteful and childish but ask any reviewer and they'll tell you they'd do the same thing). Everyone, whether it's a fan, a fellow newbie, a big name author, or a reviewer, could be helpful in some way. Seldom do I have a conversation where I don't learn something. Acting like a social climber is a turn off so don't be so quick to dismiss people.

On that note, I offer everyone safe travels to Charm City. I'll be heading straight from Synagogue to the airport ao I'll be arriving a little later on Thursday evening. Be sure to check out my panel, MONEY BACK GUARENTEE on Friday at 3:00pm in International A. I'll be talking to Lee Child, Patti Abbot, Ali Karim, Bill Crider and Rae Helmsworth about the books they love.

Happy networking and I'll see you all there!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Embrace the Kindle?

After reading Tess Gerritsen's blog post and having a discussion about it at Rosh Hashanah dinner and after having a long debate with my girlfriend about whether or not I need to get rid of some books, I feel inspired to blog about e-books and the Amazon Kindle. I was skeptical of e-books and whether or not they would have a place in the market. Now, I think most of us agree they won't only have a place in the market, but that they will change the publishing world forever. Personally, I have yet to convert to e-books and I do not own a Kindle. I like having actual books. I like holding them, seeing them on my shelf, having them stacked in my office. We use so much technology every day, it's nice to put it to rest a few hours. But for all the cons, most of which are silly and stem from people's fear of chage, there are plenty of pros to E-Books:

They take up less room. When I go on vacation, I have at least four books in my suitcase. We have over five bookshelves in our apartment, double stacked, with an extra row of books on top of each. We have books under the bed and stacked on the desk. A Kindle can hold 200 books. That's one whole, double-stacked bookshelf you can fit into your carry-on. Forget about planning which books to take when you go away for the week; you can take them all.

They're more Eco-friendly. I hadn't really thought about this pro until we visited the Smart Home at the Museum of Science and Industry and they had a Kindle displayed. Think of all the resources that go into producing a book, all of which could be eliminated by switching to digital. Plus, they yield a lot less waste than a library full of books.

They can be more user friendly. Eyes not as strong as they used to be? The Kindle can enlarge the print so you don't need reading glasses. Like to underline passages and scribble things in the margins? The Kindle allows you to do that, plus you can edit your notes later. It even has a built in dictionary and access to Wikipedia. Everything you need is in the palm of your hands.

Books are cheaper. Sure you're shelling out a few hundred dollars for the device itself, but the books you buy for it are no more than $9.99. Tess proclaims in delight that the King James Bible can be downloaded for under two bucks. If you normally buy a lot of books you end up saving money, but if you're an infrequent book buyer, you'd probably just break even.

It's not just for books. You can also have magazine and newspaper subscriptions via kindle. Nowadays, most people read those online, but the Kindle is a lot easier on the eyes.

So with all the pros, what are the cons? Other than being old fashioned, or skeptical of technology or having no other reason other than simply liking real books, the biggest danger of E-books is piracy. Now there are regulations in place that you can't download NYT bestselling books for free, but if the trend catches on, I guarantee someone will develop the technology to pirate e-books. It changed the music industry a great deal, but I fear that since there isn't as much money in publishing, that piracy and free downloading could put many publishers in jeopardy. It's far harder to steal a book out of a store than it is to steal a file online.

I'd love to hear people's opinions on this. Whether or not your a fan of e-books, I think we can all agree that they're growing in popularity and that they are going to change the future of publishing. Are there more pros than cons? Will actual books always have a place in our society? I used to say that newspapers would always be around, even if the majority of people read them online, but recently, I'm not so sure.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

SIN Reading Tonight!

If you're in the Chicagoland area tonight and feel like having a drink, listening to some readings, and hopefully buying a book, come down to Quimby's bookstore for another SIN Anthology launch party. Joining me are A.C. Frieden, Alverne Ball, Julia Borcherts, and author of RUNNING FROM THE DEVIL Jamie Freveletti, all reading from the anthology. It will definitely be a lot of fun.

Male-Dominated Bookshelf

Last week, M.J. Rose made a comment on her blog that nearly all of Oprah's book selections were written by men. I'm not entirely certain of the criteria for being an Oprah Book Club pick, but it seems surprising to me that a female icon picks so many books written by men for her predominantly female fan base. And, isn't she supposed to be about equality?

But before I passed judgement, I stepped away from the computer to take a look at my own bookshelf. Out of about a hundred hardcovers, only eleven were written by women. I was totally surprised. I know that the mystery/thriller genre is dominated by women, but most of my hardcovers are literary fiction, which I thought to be more balanced. Guess not.

Is it simply because there are more male writers out there or is there a difference in writing styles? When I run through my favorite books - PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT, LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN, SURVIVOR, MYSTIC RIVER - all of them are written by men. Is it just a coincidence? There isn't really a pattern: a crazy Jewish family with a child addicted to masturbation, a collection of short stories about the drag queens and junkies living in one area of Brooklyn, the sole survivor of a creedish cult about to crash his plane, and how a childhood abduction changes the lives of 3 friends forever. Any pattern I see speaks to my tastes in fiction, not my preference in author gender.

As a female writer myself, I'd hate to think that like so many other industries, writing is so male-dominated. But looking at the books on my shelf and thinking back to my days in fiction classes, I have to admit, men definitely outnumbered the women. There are so many wonderful female authors out there. They're making it to bestseller lists, they're winning awards, and yet the playing field still doesn't seem to be level.

Take a look at your bookshelf and see if you have a similar realization. I believe the only exception would be if you only read romance, a genre where women do dominate. Is it a coincidence, do you prefer male authors, or is it simply because there are more books out there written by men?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Pace Yourself

When someone talks about a book they love, how do they describe it? A page turner? Impossible to put down? Gripping? Thrilling? They probably wouldn't praise it's slowness or meandering way of storytelling. Whether it's mysteries, romance, or literary fiction, pacing plays a huge role in the success of a novel.

At every writing conference I've been too, there has been a panel about pacing. Thriller writers, agents and reviewers talk and preach about ways to pick up the pace of a story. Add a time constraint. Raise the stakes. Make it seem impossible for the protagonist to triumph. I agree that if you do all of these things you will have a "thriller that's impossible to put down." But is it always necessary? Does the protagonist always need to race against time?

I bring this up because I'm currently reading NOTHING TO LOSE by, Lee Child. For those of you who aren't familiar with his work, this NYT bestselling author is known for his suspense and intriguing series protagonist, Jack Reacher. His novels are mysteries, but they are often referred to as thrillers because they're so suspenseful. But this book is different. The story unfolds slowly and Lee takes the time to describe Reacher shaving, eating, thinking. His motivations for investigating suspicious activities in this small Colorado town stem from pure "curiosity". It's not about life and death. His motivations aren't personal (at least not in the beginning). And yet, he executes the story in such an intriguing way, that it is still "impossible to put down."

Throughout the book I have wondered if a newbie author could get away with such a thing. Because it's a Reacher novel, and I love Reacher novels, I've stuck with the slower pace and let myself be pulled into the story. But if it was an author I was unfamiliar with, would I have put it down 50 pages in? Possibly.

I always respect authors taking risks in their work, but if they want to be successful, I think it's smart to take those risks after they've established a loyal audience. The Reacher fans of this world aren't going anywhere and Lee can afford to try new things. But with newer authors, I think it's better to go with the pace you've established in previous books. If you're first book was a gripping, race against time, you better stick with that pace in the second.

It just goes to show you that there are no hard and fast rules in the world of fiction. While I usually want fast pace books that raise my heart rate and make me question how a protagonist could ever get out alive, I happen to be enjoying the slower pace of this book. The plot and characters are intriguing and as the book moves on, the pace definitely picks up. To me, the gripping part stems from Reacher's curiosity. His drive to uncover the truth carries over to readers and we try to solve the mystery along side him. At this point, I haven't really feared for his life, though maybe that's because Reacher is very capable in the survival department. Like Reacher, I simply want to know the secrets of this small town and that want will keep me reading until the very end.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

In Lieu of Real Content...

Unfortunately, the flu has prevented me from blogging, reading, and any other activity other than lying down. So for your literary fix, I refer you to the following:

Enjoy and hopefully I'll be back to normal by the end of the week!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Buy My Book

As we approach the release of SIN, The Chicago Contingent Anthology, promotion has been at the forefront of my mind. Postcards are being printed, websites are being updated, readings are being scheduled and hopefully the word is being spread. But it is difficult to tell what works and what doesn't, what's cost effective and what isn't. So, let's take a look at some promotion options:

Postcards and mailers
Cost: Moderate
Time Consumption: Moderate
It's a fast and simple way to spread the word, but it's difficult to measure how well it works. Lots of people throw advertisements away without even looking at them and how many of the people who read the mailer actually go out and buy the book? At conferences and other networking events, handing out postcards or bookmarks can be more effective. At least then, you're looking your potential audience in the eye.

Book Trailers
Cost: Moderate to High
Time Consumption: High
I'm still skeptical about a book trailer's ability to sell books. I'm not a person that spends much time on YouTube, so the book trailers I've seen come from the author's website or blog. If I'm visiting the author's site, chances are I'd buy the book anyway. If the trailer is good, people will send it to their friends and word will spread. But good trailers tend to be costly and I don't think that they sell enough books to break even.

Website or Blog
Cost: Minimal
Time Consumption: Minimal to Moderate
I'd say the web is the most cost effective way to promote. A website can reach people all over the world, it doesn't take much time or money to maintain, and the internet has the ability to spread the word fast. In order to maintain site traffic, it's necessary to update your website frequently so people have a reason to come back and visit.

Cost: Moderate
Time Consumption: Minimal to Moderate
If your publisher sends Advance Reading Copies to every major publication and reviewer in the country, consider yourself lucky. Most authors have to research and mail out copies themselves. I do believe good reviews and blurbs sell books, but they can be harder to come by. The cost of shipping ARCs can really add up, but if someone like Janet Maslin gives you a blurb, it was all worth it.

Facebook and MySpace
Cost: Nothing
Time Consumption: Minimal to Moderate
I've gone over my feelings about social networking sites in a previous post so I won't spend too much time on this one. Basically, it doesn't cost anything and doesn't have to take up too much of your time. I'm not convinced that having a thousand friends and telling them to buy your book actually does anything, but if it's a free form of advertising, why not? Just don't spend too much time searching for friends or looking at people's profile pictures.

Cost: Minimal
Time Consumption: Moderate
If I go to a reading, and I enjoy hearing the author, it's almost a guarantee that I'm going to buy their book. Readings allow people to sample the product. Hopefully they'll like what they hear. Of course, the hardest part is getting asses in the seats. Places like RUI and Uptown Writer's Space have ready made audiences so you don't have to panic that no one's going to show. But if you're reading at a bookstore, make sure to update the website, invite every single Facebook and MySpace friend, and hope for the best.

To effectively promote, it takes a combination of a few methods, and you always have to weigh the cost and time consumption against the potential results. Any other methods I'm missing? Anyone have a unique and effective way to spread the word?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Swimming is over, Blogging returns!

I have returned to my life on this planet after having spent the last week glued to my television watching swimming. Thankfully, it's the only sport I truly love to watch, so as the Olympics move on, I can return to the world of blogging.

In my absence, I did manage to make it over to a friend's book launch and hang out with some three-dimensional people. There, I spoke with a friend about a recent experience he had with a reporter from a certain newspaper. He was interviewed for an article, but when he got the proof, the reporter had made up all kinds of quotes and taken a weird and unexpected slant on the article. As a freelancer who routinely interviews authors, I was appalled that a writer would do this. But my friend just shrugged and replied, "Hey, ink is ink."

I'm not naming names since I think it would be poor form and ultimately it doesn't matter. But the reporter is fairly well known and, in my opinion, should know better. To edit and chop up quotes is one thing (still not a fan of it), but to blatantly make them up is unacceptable. If I was in my friend's position, I'd be calling the publication and speaking with the executive editor. But he's not pissed. He's just happy to get his name in print.

Since I'm not a published author, I guess I don't know. A lot of authors I've spoken with have told me they'd rather get a bad review than no review at all. Is it better to have a reporter print lies as long as he spells your name right? Maybe I'm simply to anal or ethical as I wouldn't misquote interview subjects or make accusations that weren't true. Is this a common practice among feature writers?

I was still reeling from when my friend told me about his experience, but I just got a chance to read the actual article this morning. It was poorly written, choppy, and I could tell which quotes were fabricated. If the writer was going to make things up, he should have at least done it well. But hopefully, people will overlook the quality of writing and my friend will sell a few books. Because that's the whole point, right?

Monday, August 04, 2008

It's all been done

With millions of books in print and new ones hitting the shelves every day, it seems impossible that any of them are something truly original. Whatever book you pick up, nine times out of ten you can find four more books that cover similar subject matter. There is the murder mystery, the boy-meets-girl story, the coming of age story, etc. All of which have been told to death.

I've seen so many writers beating themselves over the head, trying to come up with an "original" idea. To me, this seems like a waste of time. Having a good idea is far more important than originality and the way you execute the idea can make or break your story.

One of my favorite types of thrillers is the story of an ordinary man in extraordinary situations. Authors such as Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay have made their careers off of this type of novel. Even though the basis for the story is the same, each book they write is different. The characters, the circumstances, the stakes, all change from novel to novel, making the stories feel original even if their basis is not.

To me, it's kind of like a car crash. Five different people can see the same accident, but no two people would describe it in the same way. Everyone's murder mystery or boy-meets-girl story is different because no one sees the story with the same pair of eyes. The originality lies in the way you tell it and the insight you bring to the story.

I wouldn't bother wasting time trying to come up with a completely original idea. Chances are, it's already been done. Instead, ask yourself these questions:
  • How can I reinvent the typical coming of age or boy-meets-girl story? How can I tell it in a new way?
  • How can I make my protagonist stand out amongst the millions of characters in fiction today? What makes s/he different and interesting?
  • How can I use my setting in an original way? How can I utilize my protagonist's surroundings to raise the stakes and heighten tension?
  • What about my story is intriguing enough that a reader would pick up the book? What is the hook? And how can I maintain enough tension and suspense to draw readers in and keep them turning pages until the very end?

We all tend to read the same types of stories over and over again. But it doesn't get redundant because each story is a little different. It's nearly impossible to come up with an original idea, and even then, you're not guaranteed that it'll be a bestseller. But I believe writing a good book and telling the same old story in a new way will ensure readership.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Mind of a Lifer

In my mind, there are two types of Chicagoans: the transplants and the lifers. The transplants are the ones from Indiana and Michigan, people from small towns who took the bus to the nearest big city as soon as they graduated high school. They see the city with different eyes; everything is new and exciting. The lifers have always been here, the city is like a childhood friend. They know the ins, the outs, and its deep dark secrets.

My father is a lifer. He grew up in South Shore, went to UIC which he still refers to as "circle", drove a cab to put himself through college and later grad school. Name two points in this city, he can tell you the fastest way to get there and where to stop for a good hot dog along the way.

I've acquired my father's knowledge of the city. Sometimes it feels like I know every side street, back alley, or short cut in this town. For this, I often find it difficult to read books about Chicago. While I love reading about my city, especially when the author can deliver the details, it can be obvious when the novel is written by a transplant and frustrating when they get the details wrong. Getting the facts straight isn't the only problem. The tell is in the dialogue, in the way the author describes scenes. Other lifers can tell you: Chicagoans think and talk about their city in a different way, and it carries over into the writing.

There have been plenty of fantastic books written about my fair city, and a good number of them were written by transplants. I could always tell. Until now.

Marcus Sakey, like many Chicago transplants, grew up in Michigan. But when I read his latest book, Good People, I forgot that he wasn't a lifer. He talks about the city the way my father does. He knows about the corruption, how the police and press work, the mindsets of the city's citizens and its criminals. Not only was it a gripping, suspenseful, give-you-a-heart-attack type of read, but it utilized the city, making it the perfect backdrop for his story. Hands down, it's the best Chicago book I've read this year, maybe ever, and the fact that it wasn't written by a lifer makes the book even more impressive. It's hard for me to see another transplant topping it, but then again, Sean Chercover's Trigger City is next on the list...

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Your Market

One piece of advice newbie novelists are often told is not to write for the market. What is selling today might not be selling by the time your book is ready to go to print. Ultimately, I think this is good advice; you shouldn't create your story based on what types of books are hitting bestseller lists. I also believe that writing a compelling story should be the top priority, but I think there is some advantage to considering a market.

In a perfect world, the newbie novelist will finish a book, find a great agent, find a publisher and an editor and the book will hit the shelves without any road blocks. But which shelf will it hit? Should it be shelved in mystery or literature? Literature or young adult? Young adult or fantasy? The newbie novelist usually doesn't think about these questions, but agents and editors do, and if there are too many questions about how to market a novel, it probably won't get sold.

It doesn't hurt to think about audience when plotting your book. Ask yourself, "Who is going to want to read this? Who will I be marketing this too?" If you're writing Romance, your male audience is minimal. If you're writing Sci-Fi or Fantasy, you should think about what ages your novel will appeal to. In my mind, the broader the audience, the more the book will sell. The best example I can think of is Harry Potter; clearly a fantasy story, but one that appeals to both children and adults.

The issue of shelving and audience is definitely something I've dealt with in my own writing. As both a reader and a writer, I am more drawn to characters than I am to plot. I find it more gripping when the protagonist is faced with an internal conflict than an external one. However, in the world of crime fiction, the external conflict needs to be there. If there's too much character and not enough action, you'll lose your suspense fans. But literature fans probably won't even pick up the book because it's shelved in the crime fiction section. Currently, I'm going through the book to up the suspense and endanger my protagonist more. The book will be better and easier to sell, but the decision to change plot directions was purely based on the market.

The first step is writing the best book you possibly can. If your book isn't good, it won't sell. But there are plenty of good books that don't sell either, and I believe one of the primary reasons is that the book isn't marketable. Thinking about the potential audience and marketing possibilities as you write can be a good thing. It can steer you in a particular direction, making your story more solid and focused. By no means should you try to write the next Harry Potter or next DaVinci code, but looking at why those books were successful can help you shape your own novel and make it more appealing to agents and editors.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sun-Times Article

My Chicago-Lit piece ran in today's Sun-Times. Click here to read how Patricia Rosemoor and Marc Paoletti joined forces to create THE LAST VAMPIRE, published by Del Ray.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Live from ThrillerFest

I was very disappointed to have to miss ThrillerFest this year, but fortunately for me (and you) bloggers are reporting on the action. Check out Dave Montgomery's notes from the discussion "Biggest Mistake even Bestselling Writers Make."

Monday, July 07, 2008

What, When, Where, Why and How?

As a freelancer, writers are constantly asking me the following questions:
  1. How do you pick which books to review?
  2. How far in advance do you need a book in order to review it?
  3. Do I need a press kit, author bio, video trailer, etc?
  4. Why didn't you review my book?
  5. In your blog you said you loved the book. Why didn't you review it for Time Out or The Sun-Times?

Some of these issues have been addressed, but I thought I'd give a few of my own answers.

  1. There are many factors in choosing which books to review, even read. #1 is what the book is about. I tend to stay away from cozies, romance novels, westerns, etc. I read the back cover or the press release and if it sounds interesting, I'll start it. Then I'll keep reading until I don't want to anymore. That's the biggest trick to getting a book reviewed: write a book that a reviewer can't put down. But time is another factor. It can be a great book, but if the pub date has already passed, I can't really review it. Which brings us to...
  2. Get reviewers advanced copies ASAP. If your publisher doesn't do ARCs, ask the reviewer if they'd mind reading it in manuscript format and send it off yourself. Turnaround time can be super slow, especially with limited print space. Most of my editors are asking me for books that are to be published in September and October. That means the "to-be-reads" I have with August publication dates most likely won't get reviewed.
  3. Ultimately, I don't care about all the bells and whistles. Don't waste your press kits on me. But I'm not just a reviewer, I also write profiles and conduct Q&A's. If there's something interesting in your author bio, I want to know about it. You may end up with a 800-word feature rather than a 150-word review.
  4. Of all the questions, this is the one I hate the most. Just because I didn't review your book does not mean it isn't good. It usually means one of two things: either it just wasn't the book for me or because of any of the factors listed above, I couldn't review it. Even some of the books I loved couldn't get reviewed because of print space, timing, whatever. It's not a reflection on the book. But I think I speak for most reviewers when I say I hate getting asked this question and it will make me think twice before reading anything by the person who asked it.
  5. Another question I can't stand and part of me still doesn't believe I've been asked this. Part of the reason I have this blog is to give press to books that deserve it but for whatever reason, couldn't get in to print. It's for those books that I loved but were sent to me late or have too much of a niche market or for whatever reason my editors passed on. While I have control over what I read and what I review, I don't have control over what goes to print. The Sun-Times prints one page of reviews a week; whoever gets in is damn lucky. This is true for papers across the country. In a market where it's getting harder and harder to be reviewed, I say take press where you can get it. Trust me, if I love a book, I'm pitching it wherever I can and the only reason a book ends up on my blog is because I think it's worth mentioning.

I hope this clears some things up for authors. Of course, every reviewer works a little differently, but I'd say most would agree.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Getting Past the Speed Bumps

While I do not believe in writer's block, I do believe in writing speed bumps. There are points in the process where you're speeding along, where your fingers can't type fast enough and then all of a sudden, something in the road makes you slow down. Whether it's a plot problem, a character flaw, or the uncertainty of what comes next, there are numerous bumps throughout the journey that cause you to back away from the computer and think.

Every writer I know handles this stage differently. Some take a walk, others do housework, some read or do a crossword, while others simply stay in the chair and stare at the screen. I personally think that stepping back and letting the problem marinate a bit is healthy, but when does it become an excuse rather than a productive break? When are you simply avoiding the problem rather than working towards a solution?

I think the first step is identifying your habits. When you hit a speed bump in your writing, what happens? Do you suddenly remember a phone call you have to make? Do you look around and realize how cluttered the house is? Do you check your e-mail, then your facebook, then you're friend's facebook, then their friend's website, then click on a YouTube link from that website and so on? Knowing your usual attempts to run from a writing problem is the perfect way to avoid them. While I truly believe that taking breaks can be productive, I also am a firm believer in staying in the world of your story and that when you pop out of that world, you are avoiding the problem.

I cannot speak for other writers, so I will use myself as an example. When I hit a point in the writing that I need time to think and brainstorm, I cannot sit at the computer. So I do some laundry, wash the dishes, go for a run or a swim, anything that is quiet and that I can stay in my head. If I surf the web, I'm back in reality. If I read a book, I'm in someone else's fictional world. I strongly believe that, when you're writing, you should stay in the world of your story even if you need to step back from the computer. But our minds wander, it's inevitable. I'll be unloading the dishwasher thinking of how I can kill one character without another character knowing, and I'll see something or hear something that sends me on another train of thought. That's when you have to bring yourself back to your world, to the task at hand. Otherwise, you're not writing, you're just doing dishes.

While it may work for some people, I cannot understand how anyone can read a novel or watch TV as a way to get inspired or fix a problem in their story. Tasks that require lots of thinking and concentration generally don't work either, it takes your mind off your story. Identify things that inspire you without distracting you. Listen to music, take a walk, do some research, something that will keep you thinking about your story while letting new ideas and possibilities enter. Checking in every few minutes to make sure your mind hasn't wandered too far is usually necessary to keep focus.

I understand that this whole concept seems weird and vague, but I really think it's something that every writer struggles with. While we're into the writing and we're on a roll, there's nothing anyone can do to pry us away from the keyboard. But in order to have those spurts, it is necessary to plan and hitting bumps in the road is inevitable. The time spent away from the computer can be just as important as the time spent actually writing. Identifying the common distractions is the first step to avoiding them. That way, when you're significant other comes home to find you doing the crossword, you can honestly tell them that you're writing.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Character Debate

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about character. In my mind, characters are what make or break a book, which is why books like DaVinci Code and Jurassic Park didn't really interest me. All plot, no character.

I was talking with my neighbor yesterday about TV shows, particularly those on HBO and Showtime. He said he could never get into Oz or The Sopranos (two of my favorites) because he couldn't stand any of the characters.

"They're all horrible people," he said. "They're murderers who cheat on their wives and exploit people. I didn't care if they lived or died."

While I disagree that Tony Soprano and the inmates at Oz have no redeeming qualities, it proves my point that characters are the key element in a book's success. Protagonists don't necessarily have to be all good, but they certainly cannot be all bad. In my mind, the characters who are somewhere in between are the ones that are the most interesting. But ultimately, readers have to care about the characters in order to enjoy the book.

So how do you do it? How do you create characters that are memorable, interesting, and most importantly, characters that readers will care about? Let's look at some of crime fiction's most beloved characters (or at least my favorites):

Sam Spade, created by Dashiell Hammett, was good looking, meticulous, and could always get the best of anybody. Granted he was shifty and sometimes cold, but he was charming, cocky and easily captivated readers. In that 007 kind of way, he was always acting in the interest of justice and did it without breaking a sweat.

Jack Reacher, created by Lee Child, could easily be considered one of the most popular series characters in contemporary crime fiction. Reacher is an ex-military cop with no home, no phone, no driver's license, no ties. Although he has killed many and broken a few hearts, Reacher is always working for the greater good. His idea of justice does not always coincide with that of the authorities and he always works on his own. If any man was an island, it would be Reacher. But under the tough, not to mention good-looking, exterior, he cares for people and has a passion for making things right.

Chili Palmer, created by Elmore Leonard, is the perfect example of a bad boy that's easy to root for. Palmer is loan shark and aspiring film producer who rolls with Miami's criminal underground. He's slick and smooth with eyes in the back of his head. Yes, he's a criminal, but he's a criminal with a conscience. The people he's extorting aren't good people; they're not innocent. His charm allows readers to overlook the criminal label and root for him throughout the book.

Harry Bosch, created by Michael Connelly, is a more controversial series character. I find that people either love him or hate him. This LAPD homicide cop is a maverick and sometimes too stereotypical as a detective. He drinks too much, works too much, and to him, each case is personal. But his passion for crime-solving carries over to the reader, and you can't help but root for him. His intelligence and determination make it possible to overlook his flaws.

John Rain, created by Barry Eisler, is another controversial protagonist as he is a Japanese assassin. He is a hit-man who specializes in making his victims appear as if they've died of natural causes. So how can he be a hero if he's a criminal? He has a code: he doesn't kill women or children, he doesn't kill non-principles, etc. Ultimately, this killer has a conscience, and like Reacher, he's smart, smooth and has minimal ties. Rain's code is what allows readers to overlook his hit-man occupation and his personality and charm is what makes them fall in love.

All of these characters are, in a sense, good people. This makes them relatable. They are all flawed, which makes them interesting. They work toward the greater good and want to deliver justice, which makes it easy to root for them. Most of them are charming and good looking, which always helps. Personally, I care about all of these protagonists when I'm reading them. I want them to succeed. If I didn't, I couldn't enjoy the book.

Feel free to comment on your favorite characters or give traits that are necessary for a character to be captivating.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Good and the Bad

Maybe it's just a Jewish thing, but when someone tells me they've got good news and they've got bad news, I always want to hear the bad news first. In fact, the good news has little to no importance. Because no matter how good that news may be, I know that something bad is attached to it.

When it comes to critique, I think most people are like me. They hear all the praises, how this character was really interesting, how that paragraph was really well written, but in their minds, it doesn't really matter. They're waiting for the "but", for the criticism. They want to find out what's wrong with their story and fix it, they don't care about having their ego stroked.

Most critique groups are like mine, everyone starts by telling the author what's working before leading into what's not. So why do we do it? If all we want to hear is the bad so we can make revisions, what's the point of giving positive feedback?
  • Reassurance. An all bad critique could easily send a sensitive author out on a ledge. Even the most hard-core, no nonsense writers need to know that they do not suck. By starting out with positive feedback, you let the author know that there were lots of parts you enjoyed and that the story has some merit.
  • Credibility. By telling an author what you enjoyed about their piece, you're letting them know that you are interested in the story and wanting to make it better. If I know someone liked the chapter I handed in, I'm far more receptive to their critique. Even if it needs a total rewrite or there were some major flaws, knowing that the reader is invested makes me more open to making those changes. If someone isn't invested or even interested your work, are you going to take their comments to heart?
  • Knowledge. By knowing what's working, it's easier to identify places where it isn't. Say someone tells me, "I'm really pulled to this chapter because of the sense of place. I can clearly see and the city and it's adding to the suspense of the novel." If another chapter feels flat, and I know that place plays a big role in the story I'm telling, heightening that sense of place can breathe life into the chapter. Your strengths are your tools, they can be used to fix problems, but first, you have to know what those strengths are.
  • Positive Criticism. This is something I learned at Columbia that I have taken with me to various critique groups. Some call it sugar coating but I call it positive criticism. Say there's no real sight of the main character; you don't really know what he looks like. Instead of flat out saying, "I need a description" or "I have no idea what this guy looks like" you put a positive spin on it. Say, "I'm intrigued by the protagonist. I want to know what he looks like, get a better sight of him." Which comment would inspire you to go back and revise? Next time you're in a critique session and the story feels rushed and summarized or a plot point feels too convenient, try putting a positive spin on it. Say, "This scene is really poignant. Is there a way to slow it down, really make me feel it?" or "Everything up until this point has been really well crafted and this plot point sticks out as convenient. Is there a way to change it so it's just as tight as the rest of the story?" It may feel like sugar coating, but try it some time and see how the author reacts differently.

While I tend to focus on the bad news rather than the good, I know that positive feedback has its place in a critique session. Care to weigh in? In critique group, do you just like to hear the bad stuff or do you care about the good? Are there other ways positive feedback can help the writing?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Head-Hopping Overload

Often, reviewers are asked, “What is your biggest pet peeve in books? What is the one thing that would make you put a book down, even if it was good so far?” My answer has always been the same: head-hopping.

Head-hopping is shifting point of view without a section or chapter break. For example:

Jane shook with panic as she stared down the barrel of the gun. She was sure Dick didn’t want to kill her, it wasn’t like him, but a fire burned behind his eyes that she never saw before.

“Stay where you are,” he commanded when he spotted her inching towards the door. He couldn’t let her get away, not after what she did. He watched as a single tear dripped down her cheek and he knew then that she needed to die.

While the entire passage is written in third person, we’re in Jane’s head one minute and in Dick’s head the next. Those shifts are jarring and pull me out of the story, enough where I need to put the book down. There has been the occasional literary novelist who is able to pull it off, but in genre fiction, I believe head-hopping to be the mark of amateur writing.

Unfortunately for me, there seems to be a surge of authors who head-hop throughout their novels, causing many partially read books to find their way into my giveaway pile. The last three books I picked up, had a jarring POV shift before page 50. And what’s very unfortunate, is that many of these books are well plotted and have interesting characters, but every time the point of view shifts mid paragraph, my reading is stalled, the flow halted. I’m not an unforgiving reader, if the story is keeping my interest, I’ll overlook one or two POV issues. But if the author continuously switches and head hops, reading becomes more frustrating than enjoyable, and I have to put the book down.

Head-hopping is something I learned about during my years at Columbia, but I was sure most writers figured it out at some point down the line. Has there been some change? Are they now teaching that it is okay to shift point of view mid-paragraph? Is it the writers that are head-hopping more and more or are the editors turning a blind eye? Before hitting the shelves, a book has to pass inspection by so many people, so I don’t believe the POV shifts are mistakes that weren’t caught.

Is it just me?

Monday, May 12, 2008

More Reviews

My reviews of STALKED, LADY KILLER, EASY INNOCENCE, and NO TIME FOR GOODBYE which appeared in issue #23 of Crimespree Magazine are now available online. Or support the magazine and buy the print edition. Issue #24 runs my reviews of FIRST THE DEAD, CITY OF HUMAN REMAINS, and CITY OF THE SUN. (It also showcases a horrible photo of me from Love is Murder. I'll remember this Jordon!) Enjoy!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Augusten Burroughs Q&A

Click here to check out my interview with one of my favorite authors, Augusten Burroughs, which ran in today's Chicago Sun-Times.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Clarifying the Qualifier

Mystery. Thriller. Suspense. Crime Fiction. Cozy. Hard Boiled. Noir. Pulp.

All of these are labels and, as I've said before, labels make a difference. But do people really know what these labels mean? I have had countless Lee Child fans claim they don't like mysteries or Harlan Coben fans say they're not big on noir fiction. Because there are so many sub-genres, so many qualifiers, many readers (or writers) have lost sight of their meaning.

Mystery vs. Thriller: Gayle Lynds had the perfect explanation of the distinction between mystery and thriller. She says that in a mystery, the bomb goes off in the first chapter and the story is spent trying to figure out the how and the why. In a thriller, there is a bomb in the room and the story is spent trying to prevent it from going off. In mystery, the big event happens at the beginning of the book and in thrillers it happens at the end. This is the best explanation I've heard, so this is the one I go with.

Suspense: This one is pretty self-explanatory. Suspense novels are books that are driven by suspense. This could apply to both mystery and thriller, even romance and historical. Usually, I deam suspense novels to be mostly plot driven, but there are no hard and fast rules. But just because it's a page turner, doesn't necessarily make it a suspense novel. If the thing that's most important to the central character is put at risk (family, life, the world), and that risk is driving the story forward, I'd say you have a suspense novel.

Crime Fiction: Again, pretty self-explanatory. Any work of fiction that centers around a crime. Therefore, most mysteries, thrillers and suspense novels can fall into the category of crime fiction. It's a very broad label and therefore, it's the one I use when people ask me what I write.

Cozy: Cozies are books where all sex and violence takes place off stage. Think Agatha Christie and anything with a cat on the cover. Usually, this qualifier applies to mysteries; I'd think it'd be difficult to write a Cozy Thriller. Historically, it was the British way of writing mysteries, though there are plenty of Americans who have carried on the tradition.

Hard Boiled: It's the opposite of cozy fiction. Not only does Hard Boiled crime fiction portray violence and sex, it does so in a very hard, unsentimental way. Think Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Just because the book contains violence or sex doesn't necessarily make it hard boiled, it depends on the way the violence or sex is written. No sentimental love scenes in hard boiled fiction.

Noir: Noir and Hard Boiled fiction tend to be confused. While both have the same gritty, unapologetic writing style, I think of Hard Boiled as specific to detective fiction. In Noir fiction, the main character is someone tied directly to the crime, usually a victim or a suspect, rather than a detective called in to solve a crime he had nothing to do with. But to me, noir has more to do with the tone and style of the book than the subject matter.

Pulp: Pulp fiction originally referred to the cheap short story magazines and mass market paperbacks of the 1950's. Think glossy covers of damsels in distress with hunky detectives or action heroes coming to their rescue. Pulp fiction can span all genres, but the stories are usually violent and crime-related. I think of pulps as centrally plot driven with little to no character development, but I'm sure there are plenty that would prove my theory wrong.

Hopefully this will shed some light on the various sub-genres and help you figure out what type of fiction you like to read and write. And when an author tells you he writes hard boiled mysteries or pulp noir, you'll have an idea if you would like their books.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Facing the Revision

Over a month ago, I had reached the conclusion that Streetwalk, the novel I'm currently querying agents with, deserved a rewrite. A couple trusted agents and one of my lovely critique members gave some wonderful feedback that called for major structural changes. I would have to rehash most of the plot, pretty much rewrite the entire book, and scrap pages upon pages of my hard work. That was over a month ago.

Revision had always been daunting to me and one of my least favorite stages of writing. I liked writing the new stuff, exploring, creating. Plus, my difficulty stepping back and looking at the story as a whole made the process even more tedious. So I spent a month thinking and brainstorming, something my girlfriend likes to call procrastinating. I hate it when she's right, so I had to prove her wrong.

I spent Monday coming up with a game plan. I created lists of items that needed to be addressed, I recreated the outline to fit in with the story structure, I cleaned the house and I stocked the fridge. I wouldn't give myself any excuses.

On Tuesday, I unplugged the phone, turned off the internet and wouldn't let myself leave the house until I had a grasp on this revision. And you know what? It worked. I went through, page by page, deleting and rewriting and cutting and pasting, and though I threw out six chapters and wrote whole new ones, it wasn't as difficult and as tedious as I thought. I have hit my stride. Tuesday night, after working from 7am to 7pm, I had revised over 100 pages of the novel and let myself call it quits. And though I can't ignore my e-mails, phone calls, and chores everyday, getting the rhythm and proper foundation has made all the difference.

Revision Tips:
  • Have a plan. If you have an outline or at least an idea of where you need to take your story, you won't get blocked midway through the process
  • Rewrite. I've seen many people just tinker with existing scenes, trying to make them fit into the new story. It's better to chuck it and start anew. The scene will come off as fresh and it will be more fitting to the story. Later, you can always add bits of dialogue or description from the previous version.
  • Don't give in to distraction. If you're like me, when you're in the writing zone, nothing could tear you out of it. But with revision, you're more removed, more in tune with the world around you, especially when you hit a block. Don't let yourself check the internet or turn on the TV or sit down with a book. Glue yourself to the chair and force yourself to work through the hard stuff.
  • Don't leave when you're blocked. I can't revise an entire novel in one day, therefore, at some point I'm going to have to stop and leave it for tomorrow. The temptation is to leave when you lose steam or you reach a point where you don't know what's going to happen next. That is not where to stop. It will just make it more difficult to start work the following day. A Chicago Contingent member calls it the 80-20 rule: only write 80% of what you know and leave that last 20% until you figure out more. It makes it easier to start work for the day if you know exactly what you need to do.
  • Talk it out. It always helps to bounce ideas off of someone but if you don't have anyone to listen, talking it out to yourself sometimes helps. Tell the story, in your own words, like an improvised synopsis. If you hit blocks when you're telling it, chances are you'll hit blocks when you write it. If the plot sounds cheesy or coincidental when you say it aloud, it probably is. Talking the story through before it hits the page often helps work out some of the kinks.
  • Don't edit or fact check. That comes later. First, get the best draft that you can, tell the best story that you can. Line editing and fact checking aren't creative endeavors; you can do them whenever. Don't lose your creative drive by stopping to check the syntax of a word or to make sure a street really exists in the city you're writing about. Just write.

I've always hated the revision process and I've always had to tell myself to get used to it. Once I think I've "finished" this book, enough to send out to agents at least, the revision process has only begun. The agent will want revisions, then if it sells, the editor will want at least two. We're always learning things about our writing processes and this week, I learned that revision isn't such a bad stage. I just had to approach it with the right attitude and from the right angle.

Feel free to leave your revision strategies, because I assume I'm not the only one who finds this process daunting. But it's a necessary step in the writing process, just as much as reading aloud or writing query letters. We have to do it, so it helps to have a plan.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Is Brand Name Better?

When it comes to publishing and promotion, many authors like to talk about branding, that like any product being sold, people look for brand name recognition. I believe there are a few ways book buyers consider brands:
  • Brand-name author. People buy books all the time just because of the author, myself included. If you are publishing numerous books with consistent style and content, you create a brand for yourself and people will buy books solely based on track record.
  • Brand-name series. This isn't only applicable to series characters, there can be other series branding as well. Soho Crime publishes books that are set in foreign countries so when you pick up a Soho book you expect to be transported. Blogs like The Outfit group authors together and send the message, "If you like one of our books, you'll probably like the others."
  • Brand-name publisher. When I receive books to review, one of the first things I look at is the publisher. Admittedly, it makes a difference. There are certain lines and certain houses I tend to enjoy over others. This has nothing to do with how large or small the house is; it has everything to do with track record. If I've read three lousy books released by publisher X, what are the chances of me picking up another?
  • Brand-name genre. The genre you write in is another form of brand, and within that genre, there are dozens of sub-genres. Do you think cat cozy fans read the backs of those books before they buy them or do they just see "cat" in the title and know they'll like it? Why do you think people subscribe to Harlequin, receiving whichever title is released that month? People are loyal to their genre and will pick up books solely based on where their shelved or how they're categorized.

Some of this may sound silly and superficial. After all, we read books based on content and quality of writing, right? It doesn't matter who published it or where the book is shelved. The reason we continue to read certain authors or certain genres is because they're consistently good, but if the book is bad, it's bad.

But how many people consistently buy authors like James Patterson and Tom Clancy, who barely write their own books anymore? If we're all about quality and consistency, wouldn't we notice when a different author is writing each of their books? To me, it's like the drug companies changing their formulas or Starbucks changing coffee roasters. Will people notice a difference? And if they do, will they even care?

As a person who buys generic everything and couldn't care less about labels, I find it interesting that such superficial branding has found its way into book buying. Like anything, publishing is a business and branding is vital to sales. But what happens when the quality of the product suffers? What happens when people buy books for the author or publisher regardless of the writing quality? Where does that leave newbie writers who are talented, but don't have a brand?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Marc Paoletti, Chicago Contingent member and talented writer, has finally launched his website. Check it out here and be sure to pick up copies of his novel SCORCH, due out May 16.

My People Magazine

I find that one of the most common questions fans ask writers is, "How much of it is true?" or "Are you a lot like your protagonist?" Whether it's fiction, creative nonfiction, or has a big memoir stamp across the front, readers want to know whether they're reading about the author or an entirely made-up character.

As much genre fiction as I read, the truth is, a really enjoy a good memoir. Authors like Augusten Burroughs, Dave Sedaris, and James Frey make their living off telling their life stories. When people asked me if I ever thought about writing memoir I always told them you get one life story, but these authors seem to have a never ending batch. Other authors, like Virginia Woolf, Truman Capote, and Sylvia Plath told fictionalized versions of their life stories, changing details and exaggerating events to create a more interesting read. Knowing that these books do not have the memoir stamp, I search between the lines, looking for the authors within the characters, wondering which events are true and which are fiction.

This week I interviewed a memoirist for the Sun-Times, and it was the oddest sensation of feeling like I knew everything about this person because I read their book. And I really think it's because I have this desire to know about the lives of authors that I read memoir and love writing author profiles.

I don't know actresses or pop stars. I don't read the celebrity rags or watch E! True Hollywood Story. I don't know which actress adopted a baby from Cambodia after divorcing the hot costar of her recent Hollywood blockbuster. And frankly, I don't care. But is reading memoirs the equivalent of reading People magazine or the unauthorized biography of some under age pop star? Is viewing author websites and signing up for their newsletter the same as joining some TV actress's fan club? Time and time again, I have said how disgusting our obsession with celebrity gossip is and I don't understand why people are so drawn to it, but am I any better?

While books enhance your brain and I'm pretty sure fluff magazines could cause it to rot, I believe the intention is pretty much the same. We all have a desire to learn about the artists we love, to meet them and see what they're like. Some people watch Access Hollywood, others read Us Weekly. I read memoirs and author websites and occasionally, I have the opportunity to interview a writer and find out for myself who is the real person behind the novel.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Not So Standard English

Spending a week with my Brooklynite family and reading Richard Marinick and June Hampson's latest novels has left me thinking a lot about dialect. Anyone who has heard Brooklyn Jews talk knows that there’s not only a specific accent, but specific lingo and sentence structure as well. The subject comes at the end of the sentence, such as, “A saint is what he is!” or “So beautiful, her face!” Of course, if the speaker was from an older generation, they would say “A mentsh is what he is!” or “Sheyn punim!” All week, I was immersed in this dialect to the point where I began inserting bits of Yiddish into my sentences and shaking my hand as I spoke.

I’m currently reading June Hampson’s Damaged Goods, a thriller set in 1960’s Britain, and the dialect the characters use is far different from what I’m used to. My brain has had to translate the various British sayings and reread the words phonetically spelled out to convey the English accent. It brings authenticity and easily pulls the reader into the world of the novel, but at times, my need to translate interrupts the flow of the storytelling.

So when is it too much? When accents and dialects are true to the setting it can add an interesting facet to a story. But when does it become too overbearing? When does the need to translate and think about certain words take away from the suspense and flow of the storytelling?

When I was writing Thou Shall Not, I was constantly questioning when to insert the Yiddish or Hebrew I knew the characters would use and when to hold back and give the English translation. Fortunately, I live with a shikse who went through the manuscript and told me which words she couldn’t translate through the context of the sentence, but for most writers, it’s a judgment call. In the case of Hampson’s novel, I think she could have held back some of the phonetic spelling and left it up to the reader to hear the characters’ accents, but I am still able to follow the story. In the case of Marinick, I found the dialect too complicated to follow and I ended up putting the novel down. It was too hard to get into the story or be drawn to the characters when I had to read each paragraph twice and translate it in my head. Authors like Dennis Lehane and Russell James know how to strike a balance between dialect and standard English, knowing that it is sometimes necessary to hold back slang for the sake of readability.

A good trick I’ve learned is to read things aloud. If your tongue trips on words or stumbles through certain paragraphs, you should revise. I also sometimes like to write two different versions of the sentence. If you take away the slang or the accents, is anything lost? What do you gain by including vernacular? Is one sentence clearer than the other? Easier to read?

Though there are plenty of books I’ve enjoyed with highly stylized writing or that were heavy on slang, they tend to be exceptions to the rule. Authors such as Irvine Welsh and Zora Neale Hurston have made careers on writing in dialect, but their novels are far from easy reads.

I’d love for others to weigh in on this. Is dialect a turn off or turn on? Should authors only worry about staying true to their characters or should they hold back for the sake of readability? And lastly, is writing in dialect the same as creating a series character? Are you branding your writing as highly stylized or heavy on slang?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Tax Tips from the Accountant's Daughter

Well, it's that time of year again, when we all scrounge up receipts, collect year-end statements, and try to remember every possible deduction. And though many of the writers I know make most of their income as a cafe barista or a Borders clerk, that doesn't change the fact that their primary occupation is writer and that they can deduct the necessary business expenses. Fortunately, my father is an accountant and has taught me many tricks of his trade. So in honor of tax time, here are some deductions writers should never forget:
  • Travel. Anytime you traveled for research purposes, to and from a conference or book signing, all of those expenses can be deducted. The cab ride to the airport, the airfare or the miles driven on your car, all should be reported to your accountant. (There are different rules for different deductions so I'd let the expert sort that out.)
  • Home Office. Most writers work from home and therefore have a slew of things to deduct. If you have an office that you use exclusively for writing (or are at least able to prove that you do) you can deduct a portion of your rent or mortgage. If you purchased a new computer, printer, or fax that you'll use exclusively for writing, you can deduct that as well. In addition to the obvious office supplies and postage stamps, you can also deduct a portion of your electric and gas bill. If you're working from home, all of the things you use to keep your office going can be deducted as business expenses.
  • Entertaining. Though you cannot deduct entire bar bills and dinner checks, it is possible to deduct portions of your entertaining expenses. If you take another writer out for drinks, treat an agent to dinner or take them to a ball game, all of that should be reported to your accountant. Little tip, next time you're at a conference, each member of your entourage should offer to get a round. That way, instead of each person only paying for themselves, they are paying to entertain colleagues and can therefore deduct it for tax purposes.
  • Research. This one can get a bit tricky and I believe deciding what to and not to deduct as research expenses is a matter of risk taking. If you're writing a book set in Japan, by all means, go to Japan and deduct the trip, hotel stay and various restaurant and bar bills as research. If your protagonist is a bartender and you deduct every bar bill, every weekend, as research purposes, that's a bit more risky. When doing research for a novel or article, make sure that everything you spend is a necessary expense and that it is directly related to what you're writing about.

*Note for the newbies. Just because you didn't earn a lot as a writer this past year, doesn't mean you are not a writer and cannot deduct these expenses. The general rule of thumb is that you should make a profit within 5 years. And even then, you only run the risk of being audited, and if you do get audited, you only need to convince the IRS that you are in business to make a profit. Come on, we're writers. We can convince the pope that Jesus was just a hippie. If you are serious about writing, you will eventually make a profit, probably well within the 5-year expectation, but until then, don't be afraid to deduct.