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.