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.