Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Writer's Block Wednesday: Q&A with Robin Burcell

Today, The Chicago Contingent welcomes Anthony Award winning author, Robin Burcell. She's here to discuss her latest book, THE BONE CHAMBER, recently released with Harper:

Dana Kaye: You've made a distinct shift from Police Procedurals to high-octane thrillers. What motivated the transition?

Robin Burcell: I read one of James Rollins’ thrillers and I was hooked! There was something about the excitement and adventure of jetting off to other countries, exploring new cultures, and vicariously living the life of an operative working for the government that thrilled me, made me want to experience it for myself. Suddenly, my own life of investigating crime as a police officer seemed so… ordinary. It may have something to do with my passion for the old “Man From U.N.C.L.E” shows when I was a kid. I wanted to be a secret agent. I decided to write a book where an ordinary law enforcement officer was thrust into the midst of a government conspiracy, thus allowing me to live the dream of being a special operative from the safety of my own computer desktop.

DK: How does your background as a police officer and forensic artist inform your writing?

RB: Quite simply it allows me to instill my experience from over twenty-seven years working as a police officer and forensic artist into the book. My protagonists benefit from that experience, since my training is their training. Granted, while I’ve been to Rome I’ve never jetted off through Europe, chasing after criminals and investigating legendary caches of treasure. My crime fighting has only been done on the local level. But that is what imagination is all about.

DK: After publishing five novels, how has your writing process changed?

RB: I’ve started writing on a larger canvas, so to speak. I am allowing my characters to take bigger risks, move outside their comfort zone, travel to new places and fight bigger villains. The writing process itself has not changed that much—unless you count the research. Where I was writing about San Francisco PD in past books, I am now writing about foreign countries, the most recent being Italy. And naturally, traveling to Italy was necessary to make sure my scenes rang true. I might have to set more books in foreign countries. Traveling to foreign countries for research is a lot of fun.

DK: In this economic climate, are you making any changes to your marketing efforts? Doing anything differently this time around?

RB: Internet, internet, internet. I am running a contest on Facebook and Twitter, and hitting various blogs, giving away copies of books to lucky readers as well as some other choice prizes. But I am also visiting a few key independent bookstores in hopes of introducing my work to new readers.

DK: What's the biggest piece of advice you could give an aspiring writer?

RB: A page a day is all it takes to finish a book. I wrote my books working full-time and raising three children, so I understand a busy schedule. At first the idea of writing a book under these circumstances seemed daunting. But when you break it down to small steps-a page a day-it becomes a manageable and enjoyable endeavor.

Robin is heading out on book tour, so visit her author page to see if she's coming to a bookstore near you. Chicagoans, she won't be doing a formal signing in the windy city, but she'll be in town January 28th for stock signings at various local bookstores.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Must-See Monday: The best of 2009

As the year comes to a close, lets take a look back on some of the best literary events of 2009. Missed any? Make it your New Year's resolution not to miss these must-sees in 2010!

RUI: Reading Under the Influence: 1st Wednesday of every month
This long standing series is a mix of reading, trivia, and of course, drinking. Featured readers take a shot, read a piece of published work, and then ask a few trivia questions before taking their second shot. Prizes include books and drink tickets, what better way to spend your Wednesday evening?

Local Authors Night at Book Cellar: 3rd Wednesday of most months
I've found this is one of the best ways to learn about new, local authors. Every month, the Book Cellar wrangles 3-4 Chicago authors to discuss their latest books. Guests have included Jamie Freveletti, Marcus Sakey, Libby Fischer Hellmann, Laura Caldwell, and the list goes on...

Homolatte: 1st and 3rd Tuesday of every month
This queer performance series is the perfect combination of prose and music. Twice a month, host Scott Free invites a queer author or poet and queer musician to showcase their work. I've been introduced to many talented writers this way and I almost always walk out with the musician's CD.

2nd Story Festival: Multiple Ongoing Dates
Another great combination of prose and music, only at this reading, the two go together. Organized by the Serendipity Theater group, readers preform pieces of fiction set to music. Depending on the venue, a wine flight is also included in the ticket price.

Did I miss any must-sees? Feel free to comment!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Chicago Contingent On Vacation

I'm out of town for the holiday and will be putting blogging on hold until my return. But stay tuned next week for new must-sees and an interview with author Robin Burcell!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Must-See Monday: Your Independent Bookstore

Because of Christmas, literary events are hard to come by this week. So, instead of trekking out to an Open Mic or book signing, stop by your favorite independent bookstore and pick up something to read over the holiday. Don't know where to go? Here are a few of my favorite Chicagoland indies:

57th Street Books in Hyde Park
Barbara's Bookstore UIC location
Book Cellar in Lincoln Square
The Book Stall in Winnetka
Centuries and Slueths in Forest Park
Myopic Bookstore in Wicker Park
Quimby's in Bucktown
Sandmeyers Bookstore in the South Loop
Unabridged Bookstore in Lakeview
Women and Children First in Andersonville

Friday, December 18, 2009

Weekend Reading

Wow, I actually managed to post on the correct day today! Since 2009 is coming to a close, this week's recommendations come from my "Best of 2009" reading list. I know I'm missing a few, and to be fair, I'm not including any of my publicity clients (sorry guys!). But don't head into the new year without reading these amazing novels:

IN THE DARK by Brian Freeman. I'm a big fan of the Stride/Dial series, and Freeman gets better with each book. He knows how to craft a story, create suspense, and write dark, beautiful prose.

LORDS OF CORRUPTION by Kyle Mills. If you enjoyed the movie, Blood Diamond, you'll love this book. Instead of exploring the diamond trade, Mills dives head first into the corruption of the NGO's in Africa. It's evident that he did his homework, but Mill's knowledge and research never slows down the action.

THE LAST CHILD by John Hart. This haunting cross between lit fic and genre pulled me in from page one. Hart expertly establishes the bond between twins, and one happens to one when the other goes missing.

THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE by Stieg Larsson. No summary necessary, by now I'm sure everyone is familiar with this amazing trilogy. I enjoyed the slow rhythm to this book and how the character development unfolded on the page. This novel is much different than American crime fiction and it read like a breath of fresh air.

THE WAY HOME by George Pelecanos. Another master at character development, Pelecanos explores the relationship between a boy and his father. While there is plenty of external conflict and tension, it's the internal conflict that's the most compelling as they search for redemption. The book is beautifully written and like its characters, impossible to turn your back on.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Writer's Block Wednesday: Etiquette

No, Chicago isn't a day behind, it's just me! But better late than never, right?

Today, I'd like to discuss etiquette. As an author, there are many things you wish you could do: lash out at the idiot who gave you a bad amazon review, heckle all the agents that rejected you, call Janet Maslin every day until she agrees to review your book for the New York Times. Obviously, you cannot do any of these things without ruining career, but there are other actions that go against etiquette which many not be so obvious.

The Follow Up: If you sent your book to a reviewer or bookseller, you're probably chomping at the bit to hear back. You sent it priority mail, you know they read fast, why haven't they gotten back to you yet? Rest assured. The package didn't get lost in the mail, your book isn't lost in the slush piles, and the person didn't forget about you. People are busy and nagging won't help. If you sent a query or pitch, make sure to review their guidelines before following up. If an agent or editor doesn't have follow up guidelines on their website, give them 6-8 weeks for a query, 3 months for a manuscript. If you're pitching media, 1-2 weeks is sufficient for pitches. If they request a book, wait 3-4 weeks before following up. Jumping the gun can leave a bad taste in people's mouths and may discourage them from working with you.

Online Protocol: Many people don't realize that when they twitter or blog about a subject, it's out there for the world to see. Unless you delete it, it's out there forever. Though it may be tempting to vent about how the new NYT bestseller sucks or how a certain author is such a hack, but keep those thoughts to yourself. Don't vent about your agent or editor over twitter, they may be listening. Don't discuss an upcoming book that you're publisher wants to keep secret. Don't post any photos you wouldn't want a fan or colleague to see. Though most of this seems obvious, I continually see authors talking about their publishing team or dogging books online. Not a smart move.

For Your Fans: Your fanbase is one of the most important elements to your success as an author. They are the people who will buy your books and remain loyal without regard to reviews or bad press. When your fans approach you, treat them as you would a friend. Chit chat, sign their book, ask them questions. I don't care how tired you are, where you are, or how little you want to talk to a stranger. Embrace your fans and treat them with respect. Your publisher may write the checks, but your fans are the ones who determine how large those checks will be.

Networking and Events: Attending conferences and book festivals is a great way to expand your name recognition and connect with your fans. But too often, I see authors conducting themselves in a way that's a turn off rather than a turn on. The biggest one is authors acting "too cool". We're writers. None of us are cool. This ties in with the previous section: embrace your fans. Another is authors getting sloppy drunk and making inappropriate comments. I know you're out of town, the wife and kids are at home, and you want to have a good time. But you're on a business trip, you're there to meet fans and sell books. Getting hammered and being offensive is the quickest way to lose your fan base.

What other etiquette taboos do authors need to be aware of? As readers, what behavior can an author exhibit to make you not want to read their book?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Must-See Monday - Tuesday edition

I'm blaming yesterday's lack of posting on a brain cramp. I had written everything out, just forgot to click publish. Luckily, the post was restored in my drafts folder and no must-sees were missed yesterday!

This week, check out the Gerber-Hart library annual Holidaze Book Sale. Head over to this longtime LGBT establishment for some great deals on books, music, and DVD's. Check out their website for more information.

Stop by Hopleaf Bar (5148 N. Clark) tomorrow night at 7:30pm for the popular Bookslut Reading Series. Tomorrow's guest is the talented Daniel Nester, author of HOW TO BE INAPPROPRIATE.

Can't catch Nester tomorrow? He'll also be reading with novelist Claire Zulkey at The Book Cellar (4736 N. Lincoln) on Thursday at 7:00pm.

Head over to Barbara's Bookstore (1218 S. Halsted) on Thursday at 7:30pm to hear punk author of PLEASE KILL ME, Legs McNeil chat with Joey Ramone's brother, Mickey Leigh. They recently co-authored I SLEPT WITH JOEY RAMONE: A Family Memoir. This is one conversation you don't want to miss!

Return to Hopleaf Bar (5148 N. Clark) on Saturday, December 19th for Drinking & Writing IV: The Twelve Steps of Christmas. Celebrate two loves that always go together!

For a non-literary event (but one which I'll be attending), swing by the AJ Kane Gallery (119 N. Peoria) on Friday, December 18th from 5:30pm-midnight to catch photographer Megan Baker's Chicago debut. This talented artist has photographed musicians such as Jason Mraz and Gavin DeGraw and her work has appeared in Eyemazing and Kurv photography magazines. Oh, and did I mention she's only eighteen? So come out, have a drink, and be the first to view this groundbreaking series!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Weekend Reading - The Holiday Gift Guide

Still haven't finished your holiday shopping? Not sure what to get your in-laws, siblings, or family friend? Instead of Weekend Reading, I'm giving you a holiday gift guide (but of course, you could read all the books here too!)

Mom or aunt: If she enjoys fun fiction, pick up Laura Caldwell's Red Hot Trilogy. The mass market paperbacks will fit perfectly in her purse. If she's into literary, Oprah's book club type books, give her THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett. Mom who doesn't read? Pick up Think Thin One-Pot Meals by Ruth Glick. This helpful cookbook is something every mom needs!

Dad or uncle: My dad is into non-fiction, so this year, I'm giving him HEROES AND BALLYHOO: How the Golden Age of the 1920's Transformed American Sports by Mike Bohn. If he likes crime fiction, try THE AMATEURS by Marcus Sakey, GONE TOMORROW by Lee Child, or EVEN by Andrew Grant. For something high concept, try RUNNING FROM THE DEVIL by Jamie Freveletti.

Sister: A lot depends on what type of a sister she is and what you want your gift to say. For something meaningful and heartfelt, give her A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith. My sister is into Victorian novels, so I'd give her TEARS OF PEARL by Tasha Alexander or Murder on Bank Street by Victoria Thompson. If she enjoys fun chick lit, GOOD IN BED by Jennifer Weiner. If she's the corporate type, stuff her stocking with CLIMBING THE CORPORATE LADDER IN HIGH HEELS by Kathleen Archambeau.

Brother: My brother doesn't read anything except the sports section, so I'm giving him THE BOOK OF BASKETBALL by Bill Simmons. If he's into shows like The Wire and Oz, try LUSH LIFE by Richard Price or THE SWEET FOREVER by George Pelecanos. If he's a music buff or tech geek, give him RIPPED by Greg Kot.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Writer's Block Wednesday: Self-Publishing Today

It seems that lately more people are turning to self publishing. Instead of going through conventional channels, they are printing their work with Lulu or other print on demands, uploading Kindle editions, and marketing the books on their websites. Does this mean that the publishing industry is changing? Absolutely. Does it mean self-publishing is a better option over traditional publishing? No way.

I wrote about this subject a couple years ago, so I won't repeat myself, but a lot has changed since then. E-books no longer carry the same stigma and, in some cases, are actually more profitable than print books. Most of our society has moved from print to digital and books are slowly following. When writers are rejected by agents and big houses, self-publishing seems like a viable option. After all, you get to control your product, the way its marketed, and if you need to, you can change it.

I understand why more and more authors are going down this road, but despite all the changes, the downside of self-publishing is still far greater than the upside:

The Cons:
  • No Distribution. Chain stores won't carry the book and the indies that take it on consignment will take a large chunk of the profits. In order to hit it big, your book needs to be available everywhere.

  • No Financial Help. Even though publishing houses don't have huge marketing budgets, they will still give you something. Whether it's free copies of the book to send to critics, promotional bookmarks and business cards, or even providing you with a webpage, the publishing houses offer you something. When you're self published, all those review copies, promotional materials, and shipping costs come out of your pocket, and even though it doesn't seem like much, after a while it begins to add up.

  • No Resources. Publishing houses have a lot of pull. If you want to be on a panel at a conference, have a book signing at a local bookstore, or land a guest spot on a radio show, your publishing house has the backing to make those things happen. The publicists and marketing team have contacts and long standing relationships that you don't have. If you self-publish, all the market research will have to be done yourself unless you hire an independent publicist, which again, takes money.

  • Lack of Media Coverage. Even with all the changes in e-publishing, book critics still won't review self-published books. This is due to reasons I explained in my previous post. Media coverage is necessary to marketing a book, and without it, your book cannot succeed.

My advice to writers is get published through traditional channels. If you get 400 rejections, it has nothing to do with the quality of your manuscript. It could be the current market, sales trends, or for whatever reason, it simply didn't strike a chord with anyone you queried. Fight the temptation to self publish and simply put the book aside and start a new one. Once the new book is completed, return to the query-go-round. Eventually someone will bite.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Must-See Monday

It's a light week for all things literary. So if you're not going to head out into the snow and cold for either of these must-sees, might I suggest staying in and curling up with a book? Preferably one purchased from an independent bookstore....

Literary/art magazine, "Two With Water" celebrates the launch of their debut issue on Tuesday, December 8th at the Empty Bottle (1035 N. Western). Stop by at 7:30pm to meet contributors Denise Dooley, Bobby Evers and Nick Sarno, and hear music by four Chicago bands.

It's that time of year! What better way to celebrate Chanukah than with two Jewish, Chicago authors at a neighborhood bookstore? Join Sara Paretsky and Libby Fischer Hellmann at Women and Children First (5233 N. Clark) on Sunday, December 13th at 5:30pm for readings, signings, and of course, latkes.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Weekend Reading - Mass Market edition

The holidays mean traveling, which means airplane reading. No one likes to carry a huge hardcover on a plane, so mass market paperbacks are the perfect travel companion. Here are a few of my favorites:

Just out in paperback is Steven M. Forman's BOCA KNIGHTS. The first in a series, this debut novel features Eddie Perlmutter, a Jewish detective in Boston whose arthritic knees can't take the New England cold anymore. He retires down to Boca Raton, looking forward to a life of golf and sunbathing, but even paradise is not without its crime. It's a hilarious, fun read that, after dealing with security and airport hassles, is guaranteed to put the smile back on your face.

Another recent paperback release is THE DARKNESS by Jason Pinter. Selected for Indie's Next List, the fifth installment of the Henry Parker series opens with young man found murdered, his bones crushed nearly to dust before his body had been dumped in New York's East River. The suspenseful follow up to THE FURY will keep you hooked from take off to landing.

For another nail-biter, pick up Rebecca Drake's THE DEAD PLACE. This psychological thriller chronicles a serial killer who preys on college students in a small university town. As I said in my review of her first novel, DON'T BE AFRAID, don't let the soccer mom exterior fool you, Drake's writing is dark, twisted, and never lets up.

If you prefer pulp fiction for your holiday travels, pick up any of the mass markets published by Hard Case Crime. A few recent releases include THE CORPSE WORE PASTIES, QUARRY IN THE MIDDLE, and THE VALLEY OF FEAR.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Writer's Block Wednesday: The Gimmick

Most authors have gimmicks nowadays. Tom Schreck has beer cozies, J.A. Konrath has coasters (I'm sensing a theme here), Joanna Campbell Slan has scrapbooking, and Luisa Buehler has coffee. A platform is a theme for what your book is about; a gimmick is something you use to market that platform.

Two questions arise from this observation: what makes an effective gimmick and do gimmicks actually sell books?

An effective gimmick will help you remember the author, or better yet, will never let you forget them. At last year's Love is Murder conference, Jamie Freveletti (a black belt in Aikido) and Tom Schreck (a trained boxer) performed a fight scene demonstration. The image of this petite woman bringing a six-foot tall boxer to his knees is forever burned in my memory, which makes it an effective gimmick.

Giveaways like coasters and beer cozies can be effective because they're things you'd actually use. I still use my BIG CITY BAD BLOOD notepad and my Jack Reacher USB which looks like a Swiss army knife. Pens are kept but seldom looked at, bookmarks and postcards can be easily thrown away, and anything high tech and fancy will be expensive. The items which are used and kept are more effective because people will see your name everyday and, like in the case of my notepad, others will too.

Though effective gimmicks work well to brand an author and increase their name recognition, will it translate into sales? I've never run out and bought a book because someone gave me a cool pen or a snazzy matchbook. Bookmarks tell me a bit about the book and about the author, which could theoretically lead to a sale. However, the fight scene demonstration definitely sold some books.

The difference is personality and author recognition. A pen or bookmark picked up from a freebie table won't directly sell books. A pen or bookmark given to you by an author with a few minutes of conversation might. A unique demonstration or moving speech is likely to translate into sales because readers get a glimpse of the author. A glimpse of the author is a glimpse of their writing, so the more readers know about the author, the more likely they are to read the book.

Not every author has a platform and not every author will have a gimmick. But if something sets you apart, if something differentiates you from others, find a way to utilize it. If you're unique, you'll stand out amongst a crowd of authors, and so will your books.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Must-See Monday

Kick off December with Tuesday Funk at Hopleaf Bar (5148 N. Clark). Hear fiction, poetry and essays from authors Jennifer Scappettone, Jotham Burrello, Nicholas Michael Ravnikar and Nicholas Kryczka. The night kicks off at 7:00pm.

On Wednesday, December 2nd at 7:00pm, head over to Sheffield's (3248 N. Sheffield) for RUI: Reading Under the Influence. This month's theme is "Snow and Whiskey" and features Literary Death Match champion Jill Summers, performance artist Sean Ewert, 2nd Story ensemble member C.P. Chang and local author Jeff Phillips.

On Thursday, December 3rd, swing by Chicago Comics 6:00-8:00pm for the YI SOON SHIN: Warrior and Defender Issue #1 launch party. Help celebrate the launch of this historical comic book series with complimentary drinks and mingle with the Chicago author, Onrie Kompan.

Depaul hosts a Holiday Book Bash on Friday, December 4th 6:00-9:00pm at the John J. Egan Urban Center (1 E. Jackson). Hosted by "The Today Show" correspondent Mike Leonard and Young Chicago Authors president and WBEZ radio personality Sylvia Ewing, the event features over 30 authors, including Elizabeth Bracket and Janice Metzger. Tickets are $50, $15 for students. Visit the Young Chicago Authors website for more info.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Writer's Block Wednesday: Q&A with Onrie Kompan

Joining the Chicago Contingent just before the Thanksgiving festivities, is comic book author, Onrie Kompan. Onrie is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago, a native to the area, and his first comic book series, YI SOON SHIN: Warrior and Defender, launches today!

Dana Kaye: What was your motivation for writing this series?

Onrie Kompan: I grew up reading many comic books and have always been intrigued by the struggles that super heroes dealt with. I always felt like I could relate to them on a personal level but there was always this line that couldn’t be crossed because none of these heroes actually existed.

When I first started writing comics I found that nothing I had produced was adding any value to the medium. Then one day, I came across a TV show called THE IMMORTAL YI SOON SHIN.

Like many super heroes, Admiral Yi endured very difficult hardships and I believe he stands out more because he existed. Not only is he real but you can also relate to him because he was just as human as everyone else. His philosophies not only guided me through the process of producing the series, but they also had a significant impact on my life in general.

Because so few people outside of Korea know who Yi Soon Shin is, I feel it is my calling to bring his story to the center stage of the world.

DK: Speak a little bit about the writing process. How is it different for comics and novels?

OK: I spent 5 years learning how to write novels and then spent two years unlearning it all. Not that writing novels is a bad thing but comics have a very different flow to them than novels. You need to get the point across very quickly.

In college, many of my professors asked me to slow down when I was writing so that I could see everything on the page. This forced me to pay attention to all the fine details going on in each scene, but I was no longer focused on the actual story itself and I often found myself stopping and asking, “Wait, what’s this about again?” In other words, when it comes to writing, I have a severe case of A.D.D and memory loss.

In prose forms, you control the whole playground and I find that to be a bit distracting. I like to get close to my characters and I like to watch them interact with one another. Writing comics has always felt natural to me because I can let my artist worry about the background details. I’m all about character interaction.

DK: Since this is your first series, what has surprised you about the publishing process? Anything you wish you knew going in?

OK: Oh yeah! I’m still learning things as I go and I’m making lots of mistakes and having lots of breakthroughs. I had many mentors who helped me along the way. Mort Castle and Len Strazewski taught me how to write and produce. My father taught me how to conduct business. All of them have been extremely supportive.

Putting my production team together was a dream come true but there were some difficult moments. Till this day, none of us have actually met each other face-to-face. David (the editor) and I talk on the phone fairly often but the rest of the team is pretty spread out. Gio’ lives in Italy and Adriana and Joel are from Argentina.

Despite our distance and how difficult it can sometimes be to communicate with each other, I have never worked with such a committed group of artists. They are all extremely talented and it’s a great honor working with them.

In my humble opinion, the ride isn’t worth it if you know what’s in store for you. If you decide to get involved in comics, you’re already taking a risk and are in store for a ton of surprises. Some are great and some just really suck. But there is nothing more gratifying than accomplishing the goals you set for yourself and standing out from everyone else.

DK: Which book or series made you want to write comics?

OK: Growing up, I was a huge Spider-Man fan and I always knew that I wanted to write comics professionally.

Over the last ten years, I began exposing myself to more mainstream comics and eventually started developing an interest in independent graphic novels.

I have a great deal of admiration for writers that choose to maintain their integrity and know when to walk away from a project. Alan Moore’s works are a prime example of that.

I would love to write all kinds of comics but I also feel that it’s important to add to the medium. The comic book industry as a whole is in dire need of afresh perspective in order to survive and attract new readers.

For decades comics have been seen as a childish form of entertainment. That’s something I would like to see change over the course of time and I’m really glad to see that there are so many talented writers out there who are telling their own stories.

Want a signed copy of Issue #1? E-mail Onrie and he'll send you one! For more information on Onrie and YI SOON SHIN, visit his website.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Must-See Monday

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Check out "Going Pro" at the Chicago Cultural Center (77 E. Randolph). StoryStudio founder Jill Pollack, author Carol Saller, and Agate Publishing president Doug Seibold discuss what it takes to become a professional writer tonight at 6:00pm.

2nd Story returns to Red Kiva (1108 W. Randolph) on Wednesday, November 26th at 7pm. Check out this long-running reading series where authors put their prose to music. Tickets include wine tasting.

Friday, November 28th at 8:00pm, head over to the Playground Theater (3209 N. Halsted) for Christopher Piatt's Thanksgiving Spectacular. The Time Out Chicago theater editor has put together a show of storytellers talking about their families. The catch? The families have to be present. No doubt, there will be plenty of laughs. And don't worry if you burned through your paycheck at the Black Friday sales, the event is free!

If you don't laugh enough on Friday, stop by Book Cellar (4736 N. Lincoln) on Saturday, November 29th for Comedy Night with the Kates. The literary stand-ups who once preformed at Kate The Great's Bookstore have now made the Book Cellar home. Show starts at 7pm.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Weekend Reading

This weekend I'll be inundated with upcoming releases (STEIN STONED by Hal Ackerman, THE DARKNESS by Jason Pinter, WHY MY THIRD HUSBAND WILL BE A DOG by Lisa Scottoline), but there are still plenty of great books out on the shelves now:

Michael Connelly finally did what his fans (and publisher) have always wanted him to do: write 2 books in a year. Detective Harry Bosch returns in NINE DRAGONS, and Connelly explores the world of Asian gangs. When the most important person in Bosch's life is taken from him, he's forced to do something he seldom does: leave LA.

If you ask Andrew Grant which book made him want to become a writer, he'll tell you it's ICE STATION ZEBRA by Alistair Maclean. It was published before I was born, so the book was never on my radar. But after Andrew's recommendation, I picked it up and couldn't put it down. If you like Espionage or Action/Adventure, ICE STATION ZEBRA is right up your alley. And if you want to write crime fiction, it's a necessary read.

Last weekend, I was up all night reading THE JOKER by Brian Azzarello. Even if you're not a graphic novel fan, it's impossible not to get sucked in to the gripping story, spot-on dialogue, and impressive illustrations. THE JOKER was published prior to The Dark Night's release, but judging by the similarities in illustrations, it's clear where the Hollywood guys got their image.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Writer's Block Wednesday: Expectations

I'm a firm believer in having reasonable expectations. This doesn't mean you shouldn't set lofty goals or you should have a pessimistic attitude. It simply means accepting the reality of situations and knowing that not everything is going to go perfectly or as planned.

Many authors have lots of unreasonable expectations and I'd like to address a few. This is not meant to be mean and I'm not trying to be a downer. It's simple honesty and I believe the more reasonable your expectations, the better chance you have at exceeding them.

The Expectation: I'll be rich and famous
The Reality: I always laugh when people think we become authors for the money, but apparently, a lot of writers do have the expectation of wealth and fame. Unfortunately, there is only a very small percentage of authors who make six figures and there are more authors who make less then 10K. This isn't to say if you work hard and market yourself you can't get up to that eight-figure-four-book contract, but it's not going to happen with your debut novel. Fame is even less likely. Even authors who I deem famous (Dennis Lehane, Nora Roberts, Junot Diaz) are still unknown to many non and infrequent readers. If you want to be rich, go into finance. If you want to be famous, star on a reality TV show. Write because you want to write.

The Expectation: You'll go on an extensive book tour and pack bookstores across the country
The Reality: Aside from your home town, you will be lucky to have 5 people at your book signing. Many times, it will be you and the two bookstore employees. The reality is, it is very difficult to get people to go to book signings, even for well known authors. I attended a duel signing with Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos at the Borders downtown. There were about 20 people in attendance. That was for two bestselling authors. Over time, you'll build up an audience and there may be a few signings where you do pack the room. But don't be surprised or disappointed when attendance is light. It's just the reality.

The Expectation: Your book will be reviewed in the New York Times and Washington Post, you'll have a feature on the Today show, and your book will chosen for Oprah's book club.
The Reality: If you have a decent publicist, the odds of landing a handful of newspaper reviews and radio spots are good. Odds of appearing on network television? Slim. Big media is hard to land, especially if you're a debut or mid-list author. Even the bestsellers don't always have luck. Online reviews can be just as effective as those in newspapers and an appearance on Leno isn't a guarantee that your book will be pushed up into the NYT bestseller list. Work to attain any possible media coverage rather than focusing on the most prestigious.

The Expectation: You won't have to market or promote your book; that's what the publisher is for.
The Reality: Unfortunately, writers cannot simply sit at their desks and churn out product while their publisher handles the promotion. Bookstore visits, writing conferences, and utilization of social media are all necessary steps for a successful writing career. If you have a supportive publisher, they'll attempt to attain press, maybe take out a few ads, but the grassroots marketing is all up to you. The most successful authors are accessible to their fans, which means attending conventions and scheduling bookstore signings.

Feel free to comment with additional unrealistic expectations. The more aspiring authors know about the business, the better, even if the reality can sometimes be harsh.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Must-See Monday

Tonight, stop by Book Cellar (4736 N. Lincoln) at 7pm for the debut of Essay Fiesta. This new reading series features readings of personal essays and a raffle to raise money for Howard Brown Health Center.

On Wednesday, November 18th, Jonathan Safran Foer will appear at the Harold Washington Library (400 S. State) at 6pm. The author of EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED and EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE will be reading from his latest work, EATING ANIMALS, a book about vegetarianism.

Young and Single? Like comic books? Stop by Holiday Club (4000 N. Sheridan) on Thursday, November 19th at 7:00pm for Dating for Nerds. Though this isn't actually a literary event, this month's guest emcee will be Chicago comic book author, Onrie Kompan. Stop by for board games, comic book trivia, and a chance to meet that special someone.

Head back to Book Cellar (4736 N. Lincoln) Saturday, November 21 at 7:30pm, for the Monkeybicycle and Knee Jerk Magazine readings. The event will feature contributing writers Billy Lombardo, Aaron Burch, Amy Guth, and others.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Writer's Block Wednesday: What I Learned at Court

For those of you who follow me on Twitter or are friends with me on Facebook, know that I've spent the last couple of days serving on a jury. It was a criminal case, a drug dealer on Chicago's west side, and although it was extremely disruptive to take off work for so long, I did find the whole experience rather intriguing. I learned a lot about how our legal system works (or sometimes doesn't work), procedures cops must follow when apprehending a suspect, and really how hard it is to convict someone of a crime. All of this information, all of the details I experienced during my two days, could be used in a novel.

Though most of our research is done via the internet, nothing compares to the authority of personal experience. I can go on Google Earth and look at an aerial photo of a neighborhood, but it's not the same as growing up on that block. I truly believe the best research is active research, where you are experiencing something first hand rather than reading an account of it on your computer.

So, should all crime writers stand on the most violent corner to witness crime first hand? Should romance writers attempt to get involved with an unattainable man and overcome obstacles where love triumphs in the end? Of course not. We write fiction because it's more interesting than anything we've experienced. But there are small things we can do to research and bring more authenticity to our novels.

Talk to People. Say you're writing a police procedural or some novel involving a cop. Do not write a single word of dialogue before talking to a couple police officers. Cops have a different way of speaking, a specific way of saying things, and it's necessary to capture that on the page. Is one of your characters a lawyer? An ER nurse? Talking with people in these professions will give you insight into their daily lives, which you will bring into your book.

Explore the City. Most of us are perfectly content to stay in our house for days on end writing and not seeing the light of day. But if you're writing about people and places, you need to get out and experience them. I find driving or biking through different neighborhoods gets the creative juices flowing. If you know what certain neighborhoods look like first hand, your knowledge will shine through in your writing. You don't have to visit every location in your book, that takes too long. But if you're writing about a neighborhood you've never been to before, it's probably worth a trip.

Try Something New. Do you know what it feels like to hold a gun? To dig a ditch? To ride in a helicopter? Trying a few of these things can also help bring authenticity to your book. Again, you don't have to experience everything you write about, that's why they call it fiction. But if you have one or two new experiences a year, you'll eventually build a large stash of knowledge. Visit a shooting range (or in some states, Wal-Mart) and ask to hold a gun. Go on a helicopter ride. Even something as small as swimming in the ocean can serve as important research.

With all of these suggestions, comes a warning: Research is fun, sometimes more fun than writing. Don't get so caught up in the research that you use it as a way to push the writing aside. Remember your goal is to write a novel, a good novel, and while research is necessary, it does not take the place of writing.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Must-See Monday

Stop by The Hideout (1354 W. Wabansia) on Wednesday, November 11th for Funny Ha-Ha, the monthly comedy and reading series hosted by Claire Zulkey. This month's guests include Tribune critic Maureen Ryan, The Onion's A.V. Club, novelist Kevin Guilfoile, and filmmaker Steve Delahoyde.

Also on Wednesday, Time Out Chicago Kid's editor Judy Sutton-Taylor, reads from her contribution to P.S.:WHAT I DIDN'T SAY, a collection of unsent letters written by women to their friends. Stop by the Book Cellar at 7pm to hear readings from the anthology.

Feel like a road trip this weekend? Head up to Wisconsin for Murder and Mayhem in Muskego. This great library event features appearances by Marcus Sakey, Jamie Freveletti, Andrew Grant, Tasha Alexander, Michael Koryta, Sean Chercover and...who else...oh yeah, myself! Sign up for the Friday evening cocktail reception where I'll be interviewing Freveletti, Alexander, Grant and Koryta and stay Saturday for a long lineup of authors.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Weekend Reading

This weekend, I hope to read CHRONIC CITY by Jonathan Lethem, which was recently chosen for Indie Next List. For this book, he moves the setting to Manhattan, but hopefully it will be just as gripping as MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN.

Another one in my To Be Read pile is Martin Limon's G.I. BONES. Part of the Sueno/Bascom series, this military novel is set during 1970's Korea. Limon is a master at setting the scene and transporting readers into his world. If you're not familiar with the series, I encourage you to start from the beginning with JADE LADY BURNING.

If you're a sports fan or a history buff, pick up Mike Bohn's HEROES AND BALLYHOO: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports. This nonfiction book profiles the great American sports heroes of that era , including Babe Ruth, Red Grange, and Bobby Jones. He goes further to explore those behind the scenes: sports writers, press agents, etc. Bohn is a knowledgeable storyteller and his book is a fascinating read.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Must-See Monday

Lots of big name authors are coming to Chicago this week, most as a part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. I've picked my favorites, but visit their website to get the full lineup.

Stop by Sheffields (3258 N. Sheffield) on Wednesday, November 4th for the monthly reading series RUI: Reading Under the Influence. This month's theme is "Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes" and features Chicago authors Kathie Bergquist and Geoff Hyatt.

Also on Wednesday at 7pm, the talented John Connolly reads from and signs his latest novel THE GATES at the Albany Park Borders (6103 N. Lincoln).

University of Illinois's literary magazine Ninth Letter celebrates the release of their latest issue at 57th St. Books (1301 E. 57th) on Thursday, November 5th at 6pm.

Head up north for another lit mag launch on Friday, November 6th. Fifth Wednesday Journal celebrates the release of their fall issue at Book Cellar (4736 N. Lincoln) at 7pm.

Also on Friday, Margaret Atwood reads from her latest novel, THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD at the Merle Reskin theatre (60 E. Balbo) at 7:30pm. Her novel is a follow up to ORYX AND CRAKE. Tickets are $20 for the public and $10 for DePaul students.

Sunday, November 8th at 12:00pm, radio host Victoria Laufman interviews bestselling author Jonathan Lethem at the Art Institute (111 S. Michigan) in the Fullerton auditorium. Tickets are $5, but Lethem fans will agree with me, it's totally worth it.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween Weekend Reading

When I think of Halloween reads, I immediately think of Anne Rice. If you enjoy vampire tales, try INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE or THE VAMPIRE LESTAT. If you prefer witches, try any of the books in the Witches of Mayfair series.

For contemporary paranormal, try Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series, inspiration for the hit show True Blood. Probably best to start at the beginning with DEAD UNTIL DARK.

If you want a non-paranormal Halloween read, pick up Ray Bradbury's SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. The psychological horror story takes place in small-town Illinois one week before Halloween when an eerie Carnival rolls into town and begins to destroy the lives of everyone who participates in its attractions.

Lastly, what Halloween would be complete without the Horror-master himself, Stephen King? My favorites include THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, IT, and THE SHINING even though they all kept me up for days.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Writer's Block Wednesday: The Blurb Revealed

What's one thing writers hate and editors will always require? Asking for blurbs. Those little snippets on the back of books from New York Times bestselling authors and prominent book critics. They rave about the characters, claim the book kept them up all night, and praise the exceptional prose. A great blurb can give a lesser known book a boost and being paired with a NYT bestselling author in Amazon searches always helps. But are blurbs really accurate recommendations?

Well known authors can receive as many as ten manuscripts a day from authors requesting blurbs. Many of them, in the interest of helping fellow writers, will try and read as many as they can, but obviously, can't get to them all. Others will blurb based on the back cover and first 50 pages. Some will give an okay book an exceptional blurb by finding one or two things the author did really well.

The blurbs are not mean to deceive readers, but to help writers. However, if you pick up a book because your favorite author blurbbed it and the book was bad, does it make you feel different about your favorite author?

After years of reviewing and spending a lot of time with authors, I've learned that there are four types of blurbers:
  1. The Blurb Whore - This is the big name author whose stamp of approval seems to be on every single new release, whether it be a crime fiction novel or a low-carb cookbook.
  2. The Fair blurber - This author will blurb a fair amount of books, but only ones they honestly enjoyed.
  3. The Newbie - This is the recently published author who is so flattered when approached by authors for blurbs, they feel obligated to provide one, even if they didn't enjoy the book.
  4. The Coveted Blurb - This is a blurb from an author who never blurbs anything, and if s/he said something wonderful about your book, it must be amazing.

As a reader, you learn to identify the difference, and the blurb whores will soon lose credibility. A book with a coveted blurb may rise to the top of your list and a blurb from a newbie author may have no affect at all. As an author, it's important to identify a big name author who will enjoy your book and who doesn't dole out blurbs by the dozens. You can go after the coveted blurb, it may pay off, but it's risky and time consuming.

Lastly, there's the issue of conflict of interest. Can an editors ask one of their big name authors to blurb a book by one of their lesser-knowns? Can an agent? Would people outside of the industry notice?

I think now, with Amazon reviews and book bloggers, blurbs aren't playing as much of a part in book buying. Most people will consider reviews and friend recommendations rather than solely relying on a blurb to tell them whether a book is good or not. But looking at all the implications of a blurb and all the outside factors, it's impossible to say without a doubt that the quotes on the back of the book are accurate recommendations.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Must-See Monday

Head over to the Music Box (3733 N. Southport) on Tuesday, October 27th at 7pm to hear Augusten Burroughs read from his new collection of holiday short stories, YOU BETTER NOT CRY. Tickets required.

Stop by Manny's (1141 S. Jefferson) to hear David Sax read from his new book SAVE THAT DELI. Not only does the book sound entertaining, Manny's is arguably the best Jewish food in Chicago.

Stop by Red Kiva (1108 W. Randolph) on October 28th at 7:30pm for the Halloween edition of 2ND STORY. This long-running series features authors reading their work with musical accompaniment.

For something different this Halloween, stop by the Irish American Center (4626 N. Knox) 11:00am-9pm Saturday and Sunday for iBam! A Celebration of Irish Books Arts and Music. Author Malachy McCourt, cartoonist Jack Higgins, and Irish rock band Black 47 are all scheduled to attend.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Weekend Reading

This weekend, I'm diving head first into the stack of books I took home from this year's Bouchercon. My list includes:

DEAD MEN'S DUST by, Matt Hilton. This debut novel had been on my reading list for quite a while, since it released in June. The protagonist, Joe Hunter, is reminiscent of Jack Reacher: a former military operative and ex-CIA agent who gets the job done. When his estranged brother has disappeared because he stole from the wrong man, it's up to Hunter to find him.

BOULEVARD by, Steven Jay Schwartz. This I managed to read when it first came out, but if you haven't, definitely pick it up this weekend. Protagonist, Hayden Glass, is a robbery and homicide detective in LA. He's also a sex addict. And when a string of murders, executed by a sadistic, sexual killer, his two worlds collide.

I'm not familiar with her work, but I also snagged EVIL WITHOUT A FACE by, Jordan Dane. This book is the start of her new series featuring bounty hunter, Jessica Beckett. She's on the hunt for an online predator who's abducted a teenage girl, but soon realizes, she's nothing but a pawn in a terrifying global conspiracy.

Lastly, the book that was on everyone's lips this Bouchercon, is DOUBLE EXPOSURE by Michael Lister. For most, it was the Michael Connelly recommendation that had everyone rushing to pick up this book. For me, it was the back cover. I'll let it speak for itself:

Following his dad’s death, Remington James returns to the small North
Florida town where he grew up to assume his father’s life—taking care of his
dying mother and running the local gun and pawn shop.One fateful fall evening,
as the sun sinks and the darkness expands, Remington ventures deep into the
river swamp to try out some new equipment and check his camera traps.
Encountering the kind of wildlife that made him want to be a photographer in the
first place, Remington gets some of the best shots of his life, but he’s about
to happen upon the most dangerous animal of all—a feral, patient, sociopath who
wants Remington dead.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Writer's Block Wednesday: What I Learned at Bcon

Get a bunch of writers in a room, guaranteed you'll leave with some helpful writing tips. This weekend, we had a hotel filled with authors, and I left with lots of great insights into the world of writing:

"Everyone has to have skin in the game." --Marcus Sakey
I think this is something a lot of writer's forget. They let their minor characters meander through the book, not serving any purpose. A good rule: if the character has a name, s/he should have something at stake. This doesn't mean cut your cast of characters in half. Instead, give those characters something to gain and, more importantly, something to lose.

"I don't do much research, I just make shit up." --Harlan Coben
Besides causing a lot of laughter from the audience, I know this quote struck home with a lot of writers. We spend so much time doing research - police procedures, setting details, etc. - that we sometimes forget we're writing fiction. Research can give writing authenticity, but it can often serve as a form of procrastination. Don't waste all your time doing research, just make it up. Once the story is on the page, you can authenticate it later.

"Write what your passionate about. Write the book you want to read." --R.J. Ellroy
This is a good alteration to the old adage, "write what you know." For most people, what they know isn't too exciting. Or maybe it is, maybe you're a homicide cop in south central LA. But if you're not passionate about the life, if you have no interest in reading LA crime fiction, then don't write it. Most people take 10 months to write a book, that's too much time spent on something you're not passionate about.

The last quote I picked up was spoken by so many authors, I couldn't give attribution:

"You sell books one reader at a time."
I honestly believe this. While there are many who read reviews or hear an author on the radio before racing to buy their book, most of us rely on word of mouth. If you impress one reader, they'll recommend the book to other readers, creating a snowball effect. Many authors are so concerned with numbers, signing attendance, and media coverage, they forget who's doing the buying. Even after all the technological advances, I still believe word of mouth is the best way to sell a book.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Must-See Monday

It's a busy literary week here in Chicago! Creative Nonfiction week kicks off today at Columbia College, so be sure to check out the following events at the Film Row Cinema (1104 S. Wabash, 8th floor):
  • Student Reading today at 3:30pm
  • Pulitzer finalist Luis Alberto Urrea reads from a selection of his work tonight at 6:30pm
  • Sam Weller, author of THE BRADBURY CHRONICLES, hosts Words + Music, featuring Sun-Times writer Laura Emerick, blogger Max G, musician Laura Lindeen, and Time Out Chicago music editor Brent DiCrescenzo tomorrow at 3:30pm
  • The South Loop Review launches their latest issue Friday at 3:30 in the Hokin Gallery (623 S. Wabash).

Events unrelated to Creative Nonfiction week include:

MARLEY & ME memoirist, John Grogan, reads from his new novel, THE LONGEST TRIP HOME, at Barnes and Noble (1 E. Jackson) tomorrow at 5:30pm.

Chicago author, Joe Meno, reads from his new novel, THE GREAT PERHAPS, at Literacy Chicago (17 N. State) Wednesday, October 21st at 6pm.

Also Wednesday at 6pm, Michael Chabon reads from his new memoir, MANHOOD FOR AMATEURS, at the Harold Washington Library (400 S. State).

And if that's not enough Literary activity for a Wednesday night, head up to Book Cellar (4736 N. Lincoln) for Local Author night. Readers include Libby Hellmann, Lise Marinelli, and Craig Hickman.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Off to Bouchercon

I'll be heading down to Indianapolis first thing in the morning and won't be blogging in my absence. I will, however, attempt to Tweet a few of the highlights. If you want a more comprehensive play-by-play, check out The Rap Sheet.

The Chicago Contingent will be back with Must-Sees first thing on Monday.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Must-See Monday

Tonight, Monty Python fans should head over to Borders (830 N. Michigan) to see comedian and author Eric Idle. He'll read from and sign copies of his new book, MONTY PYTHON LIVE!, written in collaboration with fellow Monty Python comedy troupe members.

Chicago author Sara Paretsky visits the Newberry Library (60 W. Walton) on Tuesday, October 13th at 6:00pm. She'll sign copies of her latest V.I. Warshawski novel, HARDBALL.

Billy Lombardo, another Chicago author, will read and sign copies of his latest novel, HOW TO HOLD A WOMAN at Barbara's Bookstore (1218 S. Halsted) on Wednesday, October 14th at 7:30pm.

Not much going on this weekend since everyone worth seeing will be down at Bouchercon Indy. This mystery convention is like 100 signings, book launches and readings rolled into one! Good news is, it's not too late to register. Here are a few events you won't want to miss this weekend:
  • Thursday at 6:00pm - presentation of the Barry, Macavity, Derringer and CrimeSpree Awards
  • Friday at 9:45am - First novelists speed dating event, get a chance to chat with 24 debut novelists attending Bouchercon, including Jamie Freveletti
  • Friday at 10:30am - Character Is Destiny panel with Marcus Sakey
  • Friday at 1:30pm - Michael Connelly interviewed by Michael Koryta
  • Sunday at 9:00am - Books Bazaar hosted by J.A. Konrath, get free signed copies from over 100 of your favorite authors

Friday, October 09, 2009

Weekend Reading - Bouchercon Edition

Next week is the 40th annual Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, one of the largest in the world. I deem it the world series of writer's conferences. For those of you heading down to Indy, spend the weekend reading the works of authors in attendance. It'll give you something to talk about at the bar. There's still time to register, but if you're unable to attend, read these books anyway and see what you're missing:

Heavy Hitters
Michael Connelly - THE SCARECROW
Linwood Barclay - FEAR THE WORST

Marcus Sakey - THE AMATEURS
Sean Chercover - TRIGGER CITY
Michael Koryta - THE SILENT HOUR
Laura Benedict - ISABELLA MOON
Theresa Schwegel - LAST KNOWN ADDRESS
Libby Fischer Hellmann - DOUBLE BACK
Robin Burcell - FACE OF A KILLER

Rookies of the Year
Rebecca Cantrell - A TRACE OF SMOKE

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Writer's Block Wednesday: Q&A with Rebecca York

This week, bestselling author Rebecca York joins The Chicago Contingent. She is the author of over a hundred novels and her latest, DRAGON MOON, was released yesterday by Berkley.

Dana Kaye: Tell us a little about your writing process. How has it changed over the years?

Rebecca York: Every book I write begins with what I’d call a “cool idea.” For DRAGON MOON, the germ of the book comes from the idea: What if a frightening dragon-shifter monster from my parallel universe planned to invade our world? What if he sent a spy here–and she had to figure out how to free herself from his hold on her?

I always get as much of the story down in outline form as I can before I start to write. And I try to develop plot and character together–because they are so intertwined. The characters must fit into the plot, and the plot must keep the reader interested and illuminate the characters.

I always plan to start with a gripping first scene that will plunge the reader into the action. In DRAGON MOON, Vandar, my dragon-shifter monster, flies over his domain, lands and gathers his slaves so he can execute one of them by drinking his blood. Then he thinks about his current project–invading our world and how he’s going to accomplish it.

When I write the first few chapters of my book, I get to know my characters. Although I have an outline, I’m free to abandon any part of it if I think of something better. As I said, I try to write ten pages a day. I always start the next day by editing what I wrote the day before, which gets me back into the story. I try to write fast. Then I spend a lot of time editing my manuscript. Each book I write gets edited on the screen at least once. Then I edit on paper two to four times. I also try to write fast to give myself time to put the book away for a few weeks or months. When I get it out again, it’s like someone else wrote it, and I can be very objective about what works and what doesn’t.

Really, my writing process hasn’t changed much over the years. I just understand it better. When I wrote my first novel, I said to myself, “Let’s see if I can outline part of this book before I start writing.” When I’d come up with part of the plot, I felt comfortable starting the chapters. I wrote the first part of the book while working on the outline. And just as I do now, I edited over and over to make the story better.

DK: What inspired you to write a mix of paranormal, romance and suspense? How does each genre inform the other?

RY: My chief reading material when I was young was science fiction and fantasy with some mysteries and adventure novels scattered in. I didn’t even know that “romances” existed. So it was natural for me to start off writing science fiction. My first published novel was a kids’ science fiction story. Then the romance field heated up, and a friend asked if I wanted to write one. When I told her I’d never read a romance, she brought me shopping bags full of paperback romances. I LIKED them. I’d always loved reading about the development of a relationship between a man and a woman (like the strong romance element in THE PUPPET MASTERS, by Robert Heinlein, for example), and romances were all about that relationship. I wrote a few, but I wanted more plot with my stories. So I was one of the early modern writers of romantic suspense, beginning with the Peregrine Connection series for Dell in 1986-87. In my first books for Harlequin Intrigue (in the early 90's), I started sneaking in paranormal elements. At first I wrote what I call “stealth paranormals” because I had to hide the weird bits until well into the story. The reader didn’t know the hero was a space alien or a clone being trained for a suicide mission until she’d already gotten to know and like him.

As paranormal became more acceptable, I got more overt about using it. I wanted to use those elements that I’d liked so much in my own reading. One book that stuck with me for years was DARKER THAN YOU THINK, by Jack Williamson, about a man discovering his werewolf powers. It made me want to BE a werewolf. Later I read THE WOLF’S HOUR, by Robert McCammon, and that rekindled my interest in the subgenre. I wanted to write my own werewolf story, but I was sure I couldn’t sell one unless I wrote the whole book. It was hard to make myself do that since I was selling to Harlequin Intrigue on short proposals. But finally, I HAD TO write KILLING MOON. That was my first single-title paranormal, and I’ve been deep into the weird ever since. DRAGON MOON is the latest example.

The heroine of DRAGON MOON, Kenna, is a slave from my alternate universe, sent here to help Vandar, her ruthless dragon-shifter master, invade our world. She meets werewolf Talon Marshall, is drawn to him, and desperately wants to tell him the secret she’s been commanded to hide. But every time she tries to reveal her plight, excruciating pains stab into her head. Even as Kenna and Talon fall in love, he knows he can’t trust her. And she struggles to break through the barriers that control her mind. It’s classic romantic suspense, with the paranormal twists that add so much to the book for me. I love writing stories about men and women falling in love against a background of suspense and danger, so I always have a fast-paced plot with plenty of frightening incidents that my hero and heroine must deal with. But the most important thing about any plot element is how it affects the hero and heroine emotionally. Like when Talon comes home from a wilderness expedition to find Kenna attacking a man who came to Talon’s lodge to burn it down. Or when Kenna’s programming forces her to rob a nearby house, and Talon watches her in wolf form. Knowing she’s a thief sends him off on a near disastrous course.

DK: In this economic climate and with the world of publishing drastically changing, how are you shifting your marketing efforts? Are you doing anything differently this time around?

RY: I’ve been looking for more ways to bring my books to the attention of readers. Several books ago, I decided there was value in having a book trailer made because it’s something you can “show” people. Circle of Seven, which produced all my book trailers, is offering more services to go along with the trailer (like podcasts), which I’m taking advantage of. I’m also doing more guest blogging, and I’m taking more advantage of Facebook and Twitter, and trying to increase my followers.

DK: What piece of advice can you give aspiring writers?

RY: Don’t think that because you’ve written something, it’s set in stone. Be prepared to revise and improve your work. Shoot for the best markets first. Don’t try “easier” publishers until you’ve struck out with the bigger ones.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Must-See Monday

Marcus Sakey will be signing copies of his latest novel, THE AMATEURS, at 57th St. Books (1301 E. 57th) Tuesday, October 6th at 6:00pm.

Stop by Sheffield's (3258 N. Sheffield) on Wednesday, October 7th for RUI: Reading Under the Influence 7:00-10:00pm. This month's theme is "Where the Wild Things Are" and will include readings by Devin Polderman, John Flaherty, Rob Duffer, and Jesse Jordan.

Also on Wednesday is Patrick Somerville at the Harold Washington Library (400 S. State) where he'll read and sign copies of his debut novel, THE CRADLE. The reading is part of the Chicago Book Festival which lasts until the end of October and will host events at libraries throughout Chicagoland.

On Thursday, October 8th, Prose, Poetry and Pints returns to Wild Pug (4810 N. Broadway). This month's featured readers include the talented Darwyn Jones, Mark Richard Zubro, and Rick Karlin. There's also an open mike component, so don't forget to bring something to read!

Friday, October 02, 2009

Weekend Reading - Birthday Edition

Today marks the three year anniversary of The Chicago Contingent! I remember when it all started: after attending Bouchercon Madison in 2006. So, in honor of my blog's birthday, I'm recommending books published around the time The Chicago Contingent was born. Some books will be a trip down memory lane, others you may have missed the first time around:

THE MEPHISTO CLUB by Tess Gerritsen. She's among my favorite authors and one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. I had read all her previous books and I remember anxiously awaiting the release of her latest.

Just as nice and just as talented is Julia Spencer-Fleming. When I met her at Bouchercon Madison, ALL MORTAL FLESH just came out. I never thought I could enjoy a book whose protagonist was a priest, but Julia proved me wrong.

And of course, the lovely John Connolly and THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS. Not a mystery, but a sort of fairy tale for adults. He demonstrates that it's always possible to cross genres, as long as you do it well.

Lastly, I couldn't forget the publication of THESE GUNS FOR HIRE. This short story anthology, published by Bleak House, seemed to include every author I could think of: David Morrell, Lawrence Block, Sean Doolittle, Marcus Sakey, Max Allan Collins and others. Lots of great stories, all about hit men.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Writer's Block Wednesday: Q&A with Jason Pinter

This morning I have the pleasure of hosting Jason Pinter, author of the Henry Parker series. His latest installment, THE FURY, launched yesterday from Mira Books.

Dana Kaye: Tell us a little about your writing process. How has it changed from book one to book four?

Jason Pinter:Writing the first book, the hardest thing for me to learn was pacing. I think most every first novel is a little overwritten, and when writing a thriller the first think you need to do, as Elmore Leonard so wisely said, is cut out the boring stuff. So I trimmed probably about 70-80 pages from THE MARK. Now as the series progresses, I feel like I have the pacing down pat, but I want to make sure that every book keeps the characters growing and changing. If the book doesn't have some sort of emotional impact on the character, it's not worth writing. I want readers to have a stake in what happens to the characters, so that's something I've worked hard on, especially in the new books coming out.

DK: THE FURY is out now and the THE DARKNESS is out in December. Multiple books a year seems to be the growing trend. What led you to publish two books back to back? Is this something you'll be doing every year?

JP: When it came time to write the fourth book in the Henry Parker series, I wanted to do something different and bigger. Probably my biggest inspiration for these books was James Ellroy's masterful L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. And what I loved about that book was how he took a seemingly isolated incident, the Nite Owl murders, and as you looked closer you saw it was the tip of a massive and sinister iceberg. I'm no Ellroy, but I wanted to write a story that was much larger in scope, intimate in character, but possibly a snapshot of the time (as Ellroy's book was of 1950's Los Angeles). I'm not sure if this will happen every year, but I think that because these two books should be read back to back it works well.

DK: You came from a publishing background as an editor. How has this shaped the way you write?

JP: I think I'm a good self-editor, and I also listen to my editor (who is very, very wise). I've fought battles before with authors who refused to believe that I had their best interests in mind. And anyone who thinks their prose doesn't need a fresh set of eyes probably isn't a very good writer. So I'm a pretty ruthless self-editor, but I also almost always defer to my own editor, as she's really made every one of my books better.

DK: Newspapers are shutting down, indie bookstores going under and kindle sales on the rise. How has the rapidly changing world of publishing changed your marketing strategies?

JP: Much more attention has shifted online, and that's both a blessing and a curse. Rather than add to newspaper coverage of books, online coverage seems to be replacing it. Newspapers in a lot of ways signed their own death warrants, but I'll never understand how they can ignore some of the biggest problems with their book sections. Many papers, including some of the biggest in the country, seem to almost willfully ignore the books that people are actually reading. And when you lose touch with your readers and the community, you're living on borrowed time. Thankfully the online community is full of passionate hardworking reviewers, critics and bloggers who don't care about what other people think they 'should' be covering--they just write about what they love. Which is why there's such a great mix of online sites devoted to mysteries, thrillers, romance, literary fiction, non-fiction, and everything else. I only wish newspapers would embrace such diversity.

DK: You mentioned earlier that James Ellroy inspired THR FURY. Has Ellroy read THE FURY? Any joint signings in your future?

JP: I wish and I wish. Though Ellroy is on Facebook, so perhaps I can cyberstalk him. Can one be 'The Demon Dog of Facebook'?

DK: What's one piece of advice you can offer aspiring writers?

JP: Use rejection as fuel. We've all been there, we've all faced rejection, but the successful writers internalize that frustration and anger and use it to hone their craft. It's easy to blame external forces--editors, agents, the industry--it's harder to sit back, look in the mirror and work your butt off. Success is often as much about discipline as talent.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Must-See Monday - Tuesday edition

For me, the only must-see yesterday was the inside of my synagogue. But despite the late start, there are still plenty of literary happenings this week:

Tonight's featured must-see is James Ellroy who will speak at the Harold Washington Library (400 S. State) at 6pm. Don't miss the "Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction".

Also tomorrow at 6pm, Audrey Niffenger will be signing copies of her long awaited second novel, HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY, at the Newberry Library (60 W. Walton). Don't want to miss Ellroy? Niffenger is also signing tomorrow at 7:30pm at the Swedish American Museum (5211 N. Clark).

The Chicago literary magazine, MAKE, is having their release party on Thursday, October 1st. Stop by the Roots and Culture Contemporary Art Center (1034 N. Milwaukee) at 7pm for readings by Rob Schlegel, Rob Duffer, Brian Anderson and Emily Ferris.

On Friday, October 2nd, head up to the Book Stall in Winnetka (811 Elm) for the Ragdale Foundation opening cocktail reception and supper at 6pm. Ragdale is a wonderful organization and reservations are required, so visit the website for more information.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Weekend Reading

Seems like I only recommend fiction, so this weekened, I've decided to post a few of my favorite non-fiction books:

Ray Bradbury fans should pick up THE BRADBURY CHRONICLES by Sam Weller. Sam is a Chicago author and spent months with Bradbury in preparation for this biography. It's a fascinating read and you learn everything you could possibly want to know about the world famous author.

More than biographies, I love reading writer's journals to gain insight into their life and their writing process. Some are comical, some are profound, others can be very dark. A few of my favorites include THE DIARIES OF FRANZ KAFKA, Albert Camus's notebooks 1951-1959, THE UNABRIDGED JOURNALS OF SYLVIA PLATH, and WINDBLOWN WORLD: The Journals of Jack Kerouac.

I believe that all writers should read ON WRITING by Stephen King (which I mentioned in a previous post) but I'm also adding LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING by David Morrell to that list. The book includes much of the same information given in his talks or panels, but those of you who haven't seen the accomplished writer speak should definitely pick up the book.

Lastly, for you Chack Palahniuk fans out there, check out STRANGER THAN FICTION. The true accounts are often more absurd and more unsettling than his novels and short stories.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

I Want Fans, You Want Books

Don't forget about The Facebook 50 contest!

The Facebook 50
When Kaye Publicity has 50 fans, everyone will be entered to win one of these fabulous books:
THE BLADE ITSELF by Marcus Sakey (2 copies)
TALK OF THE TOWN by Sherrill Bodine
THE END OF BASEBALL by Peter Schilling
LOSERS LIVE LONGER by Russell Atwood
One of the "Moon" books by Rebecca York
We have something for everyone: crime fiction, women's fiction, historical, pulp, and dark fantasy. Have a preference? Write on the Kaye Publicity wall!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Writer's Block Wednesday: To Blog or Not To Blog

Writers often ask me, "Should I blog?" Many editors and publicists are telling their writers to start blogging before they even ask. Blogging is a great marketing tool and an effective way to expand your name recognition. I love reading writers' blogs because I can see who they are and how they write before I buy their book. However, if a writer has nothing informative to say, blogs infrequently, or only blogs to say, "Buy my book!" then it's a turn off.

My rule of thumb is don't blog unless you have something to say. JA Konrath blogs about the world of publishing on a regular basis. Sarah Weinman reviews books and blogs about industry news. The Outfit Collective is a team of Chicago authors (since a daily blog was too much of a commitment for any one writer). All of these blogs are clear, focused, and updated regularly. Therefore, they are effective marketing tools.

When I started this blog three years ago, I did it because I had something to say. I had just started reviewing books, recently graduated from college, and had lots of thoughts and musings about writing. Now, I have become more focused, using this blog as a way to promote talented writers, especially those in Chicago, and to help aspiring authors write better books and get published. Full disclosure, this blog is also a great place to promote my clients and my business. But promotion isn't the only reason I blog, which is why, I think, The Chicago Contingent works.

For the authors still unsure whether or not they should start a blog, ask yourself the following:
  • Do I have something to say?
  • What would my focus or angle be?
  • Do I have time to blog? (Depending on length and speed, posts can take up to an hour)
  • Would people be interested in reading it?
And don't forget all the benefits. Blogging:
  • Gives readers a preview into your writing style
  • Expands your name recognition and Google-ability
  • Helps you hone your craft. The more you write, the better writer you become.
  • Is an outlet to market your books and interact with your readers.
Bloggers? Non-bloggers? Care to weigh in?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Must-See Monday

Tonight is Open Mike night at Twilight Tales, the monthly reading series. Head over to the Bourgeois Pig (738 W. Fullerton) at 7:30pm and bring your speculative fiction.

Local author Jeff Phillips reads from his new book WHISKEY PIKE at Quimby's (1854 W. North Ave.) on Wednesday, September 23rd at 7:00pm. His book is described as a "bed-time story for adults", complete with illustrations. I'd go just to see what an adult bed-time story would look like.

If you want something that won't put you to bed, head over to Washington Square Park (901 N. Clark) on Saturday, September 26th for the Banned Books Week Read Out. Between 12:00pm and 3:00pm, authors will read from their banned or challenged books with a signing to follow.

Friday, September 18, 2009

High Holiday Weekend Reading

Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown, officially kicking off the high holiday season. In honor of the New Year, I'm recommending books by some of my favorite Jewish authors.

Of course, I'd begin with Phillip Roth, one of my favorites. I first read PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT in college and it blew me away. I thought, "You mean, all Jewish mothers are overbearing and don't have boundaries?" I then read the trilogy of AMERICAN PASTORAL, I MARRIED A COMMUNIST, and THE HUMAN STAIN. All great books, but the next Roth book that really left me breathless was PLOT AGAINST AMERICA. I loved the alternate history and his clever story line.

For a glimpse into the lives of Orthodox Jews in Chicago, pick up CROSSING CALIFORNIA by Adam Langer. It is a great exploration of the northwest side neighborhood, and since I came from a family of Orthodox Jews, it was exceptionally poignant.

Myla Goldberg's BEE SEASON is one of my favorite books of all time. It is an authentic, well crafted story, not to mention beautifully written. This coming of age novel explored Jewish mysticism, parental pressures, and sibling relationships. I picked up BEE SEASON when it first came out, didn't put it down until I finished, and have re-read the book several times since.

There are hundreds of great Jewish authors - E.L. Doctorow, Paul Auster, Studs Terkel - but these are a few of my favorites. Feel free to comment with yours and have a happy new year!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I Want Fans, You Want Books

I've decided to take my own advice and run a contest for Kaye Publicity:

The Facebook 50
When Kaye Publicity has 50 fans, everyone will be entered to win one of these fabulous books:
THE BLADE ITSELF by Marcus Sakey (2 copies)
TALK OF THE TOWN by Sherrill Bodine
THE END OF BASEBALL by Peter Schilling
LOSERS LIVE LONGER by Russell Atwood
One of the "Moon" books by Rebecca York

We have something for everyone: crime fiction, women's fiction, historical, pulp, and dark fantasy. Have a preference? Write on the Kaye Publicity wall!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Writer's Block Wednesday: Ask an Agent

This week I wanted to blog about querying agents, but since I don't have an agent myself, I'm not an expert on the subject. Instead I've invited Sara Wolski of Calliope Content to answer some frequently asked questions:

Dana Kaye: What is the first thing you look for in a query letter? Is there something that can make or break that submission?

Sara Wolski: A good query letter is clear, concise, and follows a specific format. I get almost all of my queries via email, and there can be a few pitfalls to that medium. Informality is one pitfall, along with casual errors, typos, improper grammar, and my favorite, accidentally addressing the query letter to another agent or something standard like “Dear Gentlemen.” A great query letter is one that tells me (succinctly) what the book is about, a brief introduction to the author and his writing credentials, and hopefully, it piques my curiosity. Nathan Bransford, an agent with Curtis Brown, has an excellent blog on the anatomy of a good query letter (

DK: After you've asked for pages, what do you look for? What's your decision making process?

SW: If the query letter has done its job and hooked my interest, I’ll usually ask for the first three chapters or the first fifty pages. Less frequently, I might request the full manuscript. At that point, I’m looking for a story in which I become completely absorbed – I know what I’m looking for in writing quality so the winning combination is if the craft is there structurally and I can get lost in the story. Assessing the market is also a consideration (i.e. is there a book already published that’s exactly like this, has this story been told before, etc), but overall, if a book has a great story, compelling storytelling, and strong writing, chances are there will be a publisher for it. Sometimes books that don’t quite fall into a clear genre (genre-benders or “hybrids” and whatever else they’re calling them these days) are a bit harder to sell on principle, but “General Fiction” has become a genre of its own these days, so sometimes that’s not a huge factor in my decision-making process.

DK: Agents are always inundated with manuscripts and pages often get lost in the piles. Is there anything writers can do to stand out? Is there anything that will make you dig someone's manuscript out of the slush pile?

SW: The slush pile can be very daunting, but again, a well-written query letter automatically stands out from the rest. Queries printed on scented, pink paper do not stand out in a positive way, nor do query letters with fancy fonts or photos. Authors often forget that this is first and foremost a business, and agents love it when authors are on the same page – kitsch and cute is not the way to an agent’s heart. A professional query is always best. Once a manuscript is requested, if the author is sending it by post, the best way for it to not get lost in the jungle of paper is to label the envelope with “Requested Material” in large, clear writing. Sending it certified mail is another way to assure its arrival without bugging the agent. Sometimes assistants and interns handle the mail and requested manuscripts (and at times will even read it first), so certified mail can be a less obtrusive way of confirming this. However, I don’t mind at all when authors follow up with a short, professional email 3-4 weeks after sending their requested manuscripts. With agents dealing with a million different irons in the fire, a polite reminder can be helpful.

DK: Many agents are saying now, "If you don't hear from me, I'm not interested." What is the follow-up protocol?

SW: This is a product of the emailed query letter, unfortunately. I know how frustrating it can be to send missives out into the ether and wonder if anyone is ever even reading them, so I try to follow up with every query letter with either a “No, thank you” or a “Yes, please.” Some agencies put on their websites that replies are not guaranteed with emailed queries, which is somewhat better, but the best practice is to research each agency to learn their submission guidelines. The way email is, sometimes queries get snagged in spam filters. This is unavoidable, but again, I think it’s acceptable to send a short, professional, and polite follow up to ensure that the query was received and read. If there is still no response, I’d move on. The fact of the matter is that publishing can be a long process and with the amount of agencies out there, there’s no sense in dwelling on whether one of them received a query letter. Authors should be submitting to as many agencies as possible – hundreds if possible! It’s such a subjective process too, so the more agents queried, the better chance an author has of attaining representation.

DK: What is the most common mistake made by writers?

SW: I find that the biggest mistakes made by writers all stem from not understanding the publishing industry. Authors have to realize that this is a business, and even though it’s virtually impossible to be completely objective about one’s book, authors have to separate the rejection factor and the business methods from their intellectual property. Directly related to this is the mistake of letting emotions get in the way. I can’t tell you how many nasty responses I’ve received over the years from authors I have rejected. As a writer myself, I do understand the frustration and desolation of rejection. What writers might not realize is that agents have to deal with rejection with almost every book they sell. Georges Borchardt, one of the most famous agents (with clients like the Tennessee Williams estate, Ian McEwan, Kate Millett, the Samuel Beckett estate, the list goes on!) talks about how Elie Wiesel and William Faulkner were rejected from several big publishing houses before finding their editorial homes in a recent interview he did with Jofie Ferrari-Adler in P&W ( With email it’s so easy to just click “reply” and send an ugly tirade of insults to the agent that did the rejecting: regardless of how polite and sincerely regretful the rejection may be, some authors insist on having the last – bitter – word. I guess it gets it out of their systems. Needless to say, this does nothing to help them. I have had some severe replies to very nice rejections and have not hesitated to tell my agent colleagues about it. The bottom line is that graciousness and professionalism speak volumes in every situation.

DK: What is the biggest piece of advice you can offer writers seeking an agent?

SW: My advice is to do the homework and stay active. Even when an author is published, there is no time to sit back. To get an agent, read agents’ blogs, research how to write a strong query letter, look up the agencies you’d like to submit to and follow the submission guidelines. Don’t agonize over whether everything is perfect – make the materials as strong as you can and run with it. Send it out to as many agents as possible that represent books similar to yours. Once the submissions are out, don’t sit back and wait. Submit short stories to literary magazines whenever possible, submit articles and make contacts within local publications – learn how to pitch articles to magazine and newspaper editors. The more you develop your pitching skills the better you will be at pitching your book to agents and editors. Create a website and blog frequently and on topic. The more active an aspiring author is about furthering his writing career through every avenue and means possible, the more likely an agent will find him and offer representation – not to mention that the stronger an author’s platform is, the easier it will be to publish the book and most importantly, sell copies.

Sara Wolski is the founder and president of Calliope Content, a full-service literary agency. She is newly based in Chicago after spending four years in the publishing industry in New York and London. She enjoys general fiction, educational books, children's literature, historical fiction, thrillers, mysteries, literary fiction, memoir, narrative non-fiction, and business books for the trade. Visit her online at

Feel free to comment with follow-up questions for Sara and she'll do her best to answer them.