Friday, May 29, 2009

Weekend Reading

I picked up THE WAY HOME by George Pelecanos yesterday and have not been able to put it down since. His new novel straddles the line of literature and crime fiction, beautifully written with compelling characters.

Also released this week is Michael Connelly's THE SCARECROW. His latest novel features newspaper writer Jack McEvoy, the same protagonist from THE POET and one of my favorites.

If you need a quick read over the weekend, and you're into e-books, check out SERIAL by Chicago author Jack Kilborn and Blake Crouch. This slim novella tells the story of two serial killers and what happens when they find each other. Lots of violence and twisted characters, but grips you from beginning to end. Best part; the book is free.

Need more recommendations? Check out my reviews in Crimespree Magazine.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Writer's Block: A Writer's Library

When I first started writing genre fiction, back in my freshman year of college, I knew very little about it. I had never read mysteries or thrillers, I didn't know anything about plot structure or outlining, and I had no idea about the process of publishing a novel. I was a natural story teller, that's why I went to Columbia College in the first place, the other aspects of writing I learned through classes, conferences, peers, and best of all, books.

There are lots of books about writing; some are better than others. Since not everyone can attend a creative writing program and not everyone lives in an area where there are other writers, books about the craft of writing can be extremely helpful. Here are a few of my favorites:

Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This is a must-have for any writer. It's a slim paperback, but it's full of helpful grammar and style tips. Middle school language arts was a long time ago and this trusty guide will remind you of all that was forgotten.

On Writing by Stephen King. This is a combination of memoir and writing book. It's divided into three sections: One where King talks about his childhood and how he became a writer, another where he talks about the craft of writing, and the last section is a brutally honest telling of his accident and what came after. The second section is extremely helpful and the other two are simply inspiring.

Write Faster, Write Better by David A. Fryxell. Anyone who thinks it will take years to finish a novel, needs this book. Fryxell is has great ways to organize, plan ahead, and overall, write more efficiently. If you think a novel is daunting now, you won't after reading this book.

The Writer's Market. This massive volume is packed with agents, publishers, freelance opportunities, writing groups, conferences and more. Some of the information can be off so make sure to check websites for up-to-date mailing addresses and submission guidelines, but this book will send you on the right path.

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. I read this just as I was finishing up my first manuscript, and by the time I was done, I felt like I needed to rewrite my entire book. Maass clearly knows the industry and gives great advice to writers wanting to breakout from the midlist. Also check out the workbook companion.

Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron. Obviously this mostly applies to mystery writers, but I believe her tips, outlines, and characterization charts can be applied to any type of novel. The book includes extensive worksheets illustrating how to effectively plot your book, create compelling characters, and how to build suspense. I found it very helpful when I was attempting to write my first mystery.

The Successful Novelist by David Morrell. I myself have not picked up this book yet, but many writers I know rave about it, so I felt I should include it. Morrell is the author of First Blood and the creator of Rambo. He is also a professor at the University of Iowa in their creative writing program. He's been writing and teaching a long time and with that experience comes a wealth of knowledge.

Feel free to comment with any books that have been helpful in your writing career!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Must-See Monday

Get over the beer and BBQ hangover with a little dose of literary:

Jane Hamilton and Elizabeth Berg read from their latest novels at Women and Children First (5233 N. Clark) Wednesday, May 27th at 7pm. This is one of my favorite bookstores and they always put on a good show.

Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos team up to sign copies of their latest books Wednesday, May 27th. Catch them on your lunch hour at Borders downtown (150 N. State) at 12:30pm or after work at Barnes and Noble Skokie (55 Old Orchard Center) at 7:30pm.

The poetry press, Switchback Books, is hosting a fundraiser at Irish Eyes (2519 N. Lincoln) on Thursday, May 28th at 7pm. No readings scheduled, but come out and support this small press. Switchback staff will be bartending.

In the mood for something racier? Check out The Sunday Night Sex Show at The Burlington (3425 W. Fullerton) Sunday, May 31 at 7:30pm. This lively reading series is a Metromix pick, includes prizes and trivia games, and is held the last Sunday of every month.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Memorial Day Weekend Reading + Contest

The three day weekend calls for extra book recommendations! Read to the end and check out The Chicago Contingent's first contest....

For something new, check out Lee Child's GONE TOMORROW, the latest installment of the Jack Reacher series. Reacher fans will be blown away; it's easily the best one yet. If this is your first introduction, never fear, GONE TOMORROW does stand on its own. Personally, I'd recommend checking out a few others before this one, just to see how far Reacher has come: KILLING FLOOR, TRIPWIRE, and THE PERSUADER.

This week, the committee announced this year's Anthony Award Nominees, so I'll be reading those nominated for best novel. Check them out:
Trigger City by Sean Chercover
The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly
Red Knife by William Kent Krueger
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

Finally, for this weekend's Chicago author, I suggest author and renegade publisher Darren Callahan. I met him at a writer's conference and was skeptical when he handed me a home-made book. But I took it home, I read it, and I fell in love. Check out DOCUMENTIA and CITY OF HUMAN REMAINS and order them here. _______________________________________________________

Now for The Chicago Contingent's first contest! The first five people to comment on today's post and include their suggested weekend reading, will receive a free copy of Jack Kilborn's AFRAID. Read about it here!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Writer's Block: Getting Down To Business

Whether you're a novelist, short story author, or freelancer, being a writer means owning your own business. You are responsible for obtaining contracts, creating your schedule, and maintaining your contacts. Writing may be an art, but profiting from writing is a business.

Some first steps to running a successful writing business:

  • Create a webpage and print business cards. When you meet people at conferences, parties, or other social functions, if their interested in you, they'll ask for a business card. It's not professional to write your name and number down on a cocktail napkin. When they get home, the first thing they'll do is check you out by typing your name into Google. Having a webpage is having some control in what they find. Make sure your page clearly illustrates who you are and what you do. Novelists, print your latest book cover on your business cards and post it on the landing page of your website.
  • Get out there and schmooze. Once your webpage is up and your business cards are in hand, it's time to network. For novelists, that means signings, conferences, and bookstore visits. For freelancers, that means e-mailing editors, attending social events, and forming relationships with possible interview subjects. Whatever the end goal, the more people you know, the more opportunities you'll have. Be social, friendly, and don't treat conversations like sales pitches. Form the relationship first, pitch later. Everyone is a potential reader, a potential client, a potential interview subject. Don't write someone off just because you don't think they can do anything for you.
  • Learn from the best. When I first started doing publicity, I called and e-mailed a handful of book publicists around Chicago. All of them talked with me, one even met me for coffee to talk about the business. The more you know, the easier it is to avoid common pitfalls. If you're a debut author, talk to authors who have been at it for a while. If you're a freelancer, e-mail a writer from your favorite magazine or newspaper. Most people love to talk about themselves and share their knowledge.
  • Get organized. If you're a freelancer, you're juggling numerous deadlines for a variety of publications, not to mention pitching new story ideas and following up with editors. Novelists are marketing their current book, completing edits on their second, and coming up with ideas for their third. There's a lot to keep track of. Utilize Excel, Outlook, and other programs to ensure you stay on task and meet deadlines. Forming daily to-do lists isn't a bad idea either. Keep a filing system to keep track of contracts, article payments, and clips.
  • Plan ahead. If you want to make it as a freelancer, you should be pitching every day. Even if you're swamped with deadlines, you should still plan ahead and solicit future assignments. If you're an author, make sure you send out ARCs to reviewers and the media as soon as their available. Book reviews have a long turnaround time, especially with the diminished space in print publications. For short stories, it can be a up to a year from acceptance to publishing, and payment can be even longer. Complete the immediate tasks, but everyday, you should be planting seeds for the future.

Treat the act of writing as an art, but everything else should be treated as a business. Ultimately, you're selling a product (book, short story) or service (writing), and when it comes to sales, professionalism goes a long way.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Must-See Monday

Looks like weeknights are busier for fiction fans! Check out this week's must-sees:

RUI: Reading Under The Influence is on a special night this month: Monday, May 18th at 7:00pm at Sheffield's (3258 N. Sheffield). If you've never attended RUI, definitely check it out. It's one of Chicago's most lively reading series. A reader takes a shot, reads a portion of published work (usually with a theme) then asks the audience trivia questions before downing another shot. Correct answers get drink tickets and free books! Tonight's readers include Joe Meno, John Berger, Julia Borcherts, Rob Duffer, Jesse Jordan, Gabriel Levinson and Amy Guth.

Writer Brian Flitsch joins musician Keith Hampton at Homolatte on Tuesday, June 19th at 7:30pm. This bi-monthly GLBT reading series meets at Big Chicks (5024 N. Sheridan)

Local Authors night at Book Cellar (4736 N. Lincoln) on Wednesday, May 20 at 7:00pm. Authors Jamie Freveletti, Gillian Flynn and Lenny Kleinfeld will be signing copies of their latest novels.

If music is more your thing, check out Tribune music critic Greg Kot at the Lincoln Park Borders (2817 N. Clark) also on Wednesday, May 20 at 7:00pm. Kot will be signing copies of RIPPED, his book about the digital music industry.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Weekend Reading

This weekend, be sure to pick up a copy of Andrew Grant's debut novel, EVEN. He's a talented writer, a really nice guy, and I have a feeling he's going to go far in this business. His series protagonist, David Trevellyan, is a Royal Navy Intelligence operative who's been set up for murder. He's used to working undercover and getting out of sticky situations, but when his bosses in London turn their backs on him and he's handed over to the Feds, Trevellyan must act alone to clear his name and seek justice.

This week, I noticed the The Outfit Collective has added a few more authors to their queue, including Laura Caldwell and David Ellis. Both are talented authors, so if you're not familiar with their work, check them out. My favorites are THE GOOD LIAR by Laura Caldwell and JURY OF ONE by David Ellis.

Finally, for all you authors out there, be sure to pick up Lissa Warren's SAVVY AUTHOR'S GUIDE TO BOOK PUBLICITY. It's a must-have for any author or newbie publicist attempting a successful publicity campaign.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Writer's Block: The Online Campaign

Most advance reading copies I receive come with an insert or blurb about the book's marketing campaign. I'm not sure why this would be helpful to a reviewer, but I read them anyway. The latest trend I've been noticing is the "Online Marketing Campaign", and I'm not surprised.

Where marketing teams and publicists used to hit print publications, TV, and radio, they're now hitting blogs, online papers, newsletters, and using e-mail blasts to promote a book. They're focused on website hits, e-mail lists, and uploading book trailers to YouTube. Is this more effective than other promotions? Hard to say. One thing's for sure, it's a hell of a lot cheaper.

Web-based promotion costs very little. There's no toner, no paper, no postage or shipping costs. Web advertising is far cheaper than print, but most publishers won't pay for advertising at all. They'll focus on contacting e-zine editors and bloggers to interview authors or write feature articles instead. Why buy space on the web when you can get it for free?

There are many pros to web campaigns other than cost. You don't have to work on web-based campaigns during normal business hours. The web never closes. Once something is up on the web, it's there forever, unlike newspapers and magazines that get recycled or TV interviews that only last a few minutes. The web publicity sticks around until someone deletes it, which means it usually stays there forever.

The last major appeal to the web campaign, is the ability to track traffic. Using StatCounter or Google Analytics, you can see if a blog post or online article brought people to your website or to IndieBound and Amazon. It's a lot harder to see the effects of a magazine article or radio interview.

As print newspapers die out, so will the print marketing campaigns. Marketing and publicity follow the trend, and so far, the trend is online.

Two good examples of this type of campaign are J.A. Konrath aka Jack Kilborn and Jamie Freveletti. Instead of beginning with a traditional book tour to promote his latest book, Konrath did a blog tour, appearing on a different blog everyday in March. He is also giving away a free e-novella, hoping that if he gives away a free taste, people will go out and buy more. Jamie Freveletti's debut novel is about an ultra-marathon runner, so she's been appearing on various running blogs. Her book trailer is also being hosted on various websites, many of which are running related rather than literary.

As a reader, notice where you're learning about book releases or new authors. If you're reading this blog, chances are you get most of your info from the web. As a published author, think about the best, most efficient, and cost effective way to reach the widest possible audience. Chances are, it will be with an online marketing campaign.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Must-See Monday

May is a busy month for Crime Fiction, lots of new releases. The best part about this week is the debut authors. Be sure to check them out!

Debut author Andrew Grant launches his novel EVEN at the Clybourn Barnes & Noble (1441 W. Webster) Tuesday, May 12th at 7:30pm. He's a talented author and a really nice guy, so it should be a fun evening.

Debut author Jamie Freveletti signs copies of her book RUNNING FROM THE DEVIL at the Oak Brook Borders (1500 W. 16th st.) Wednesday, May 13th at 7:00pm.

Don't feel like heading out to the burbs? She's also hosting a talk at Fleet Feet (1620 N. Wells) on Friday, May 15th at 7:00pm with 3-time Olympian Tim Seaman.

This American Life contributor Cheryl Wagner reads from her new book PLENTY OF SUCK TO GO AROUND: A Memoir of Floods, Fires, Parades and Plywood at Quimby's (1854 W. North Ave.) Saturday, May 16th at 7:00pm.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Weekend Reading

Be sure to pick up RUNNING FROM THE DEVIL by Chicago author, Jamie Freveletti. I'm a little bias as Jamie is a friend and colleague, but I wouldn't recommend something that isn't good. RUNNING is a balls-out action thriller that is easily read in one sitting. Ultra-marathoner Emma Caldridge's plane is downed in the jungles of Columbia and it is her athletic prowess that allows her to escape. While there is the immediate conflict (how will she make it out alive?) there is also the underlying puzzle of why this plane was hijacked and what the hijackers want with Emma. This debut novel was chosen as the May Indie Notable Book.

In the mood for something slower paced? I recently finished Richard Price's LUSH LIFE, though I should have read it ages ago when it first came out. Price has always been a master at capturing setting, but he has outdone himself with this depiction of New York's Lower East side. The novel contains a large cast of characters and it's almost as if they're passing around video camera, each having an opportunity to tell their story. LUSH LIFE may be a slower read than most mysteries, but the writing is just as gripping.

Since SANCTUARY by Ken Bruen releases next week, #7 in the Jack Taylor series, I'd spend this weekend reading CROSS, which is #6. Ken Bruen is a talented writer and Taylor is a great series character. If you're not familiar, start at the beginning with THE GUARDS.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Writer's Block: From Premise to Plot

Most of my book ideas start from a premise: hypocrisy of ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel, a reformed prostitute living on the north shore, tagging crews in Chicago. These are ideas, bases from which stories can grow, not plot. The premise is the who, what, when, where and why of your story. Plot is the how. The plot is how your story ideas and characters get from point A to point B. Novel premises and ideas come all the time, usually without effort. Plot takes time, craft, and lots of thought.

The process of starting a novel can be daunting. You have an idea, you have a few characters, maybe you even know how the story is going to end. But where do you go from there? Do you start writing and see where the story takes you? Or do you outline first, plan ahead?

The answers are different for every writer, but over time, I've grown quite fond of outlining. My first two books had all types of structure problems and I would have loved to figure all that out before I spent months writing hundreds of pages that ended up in the trash. I don't outline in great detail, so much of the plot changes as I go. But the core points remain the same, which allows me to keep focus and hopefully minimize future revision.

There are many different ways to outline. Some writers use dry erase boards, others use post-its. I've seen a few use enormous rolls of butcher paper. A few years ago, I covered my dining room wall with index cards. I'm a visual person; I need to see my story and be able to rearrange it before my eyes. For others, it's enough to take notes or mentally craft the structure. Whichever method you choose, remember the following:
  1. Focus on internal plot points as well as external. Better yet, plan how the two weave together.
  2. Think in terms of pages. Once you have the main turning points figured out, think about where they come into the story. You don't want your first major turning point happening halfway through the book.
  3. Think about different possible scenarios. There are many ways to kill a person, for a P.I. to discover a crucial piece of evidence, or for two people to come together. Think of a few different ways to achieve the same goal and weigh the pros and cons of each. You may run into a problem during the writing that requires a plan B.
  4. Run the outline by your writers group. They'll definitely have questions, concerns and feedback about your plot structure. Much better to hear it in the beginning phases rather than 200 pages into the writing.
  5. Know the ending, or at least have an idea of it. If you don't know the ending, your writing will lack focus. You want every chapter, every scene, every paragraph, to drive the plot towards your end goal. With the exception of some literary works, I'd say it's impossible to write a book with a tightly woven plot without knowing the ending ahead of time.

Writing a novel is far less daunting if you have a plan. It's no fun to stare at a blank page for an hour, thinking about what you're going to write. With an outline, you know exactly where you're going before you even turn on your computer. Know that scenes will change, plot points may shift, and that's okay, as long as you've spend time thinking about the structure of your story and where you want it to go. Just because you have a premise, doesn't mean you have a plot.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Must-See Monday

A slower week for bookies, but remember it's quality, not quantity. And the events listed are definitely quality:

Story prize nominee, Joe Meno, reads from his new novel THE GREAT PERHAPS at Quimby's Bookstore (1854 W. North Ave.) Thursday, May 7 at 7:00pm. Meno is a gifted writer and it's always a pleasure to hear him read.

Chicago Dramatists (1105 W. Chicago) preform works-in-progress Saturday, May 9 at 2:00pm. Though I myself have yet to attend this weekly reading series, I have heard good things.

Second City/Third Person is a new reading series held at Book Cellar (4736 N. Lincoln) Saturday, May 9, 7pm. All stories are written in the third person will highlight a different street each month. This month, stories will relate to Western Ave.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Weekend Reading

There is no doubt what I'm reading this weekend if I can get my hands on it, and that's Joe Meno's latest novel THE GREAT PERHAPS. It wasn't scheduled to come out until 5/11, but Amazon, Indie Bound, and B&N all seem to have it in stock. His new book tells the story of the Casper family, husband and wife scientists with two daughters living in Chicago. Though I haven't read his latest, I have read everything else this man has ever written, and exploring human relationships and human nature with great insight and a dash of humor is what Meno does best.

May looks like it's going to be a hot month for crime fiction: Jamie Freveletti, Andrew Grant, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Ken Bruen and John Hart all have novels coming out. While you wait, check out their previous books, and if the author writes series, try to catch up!

Also, today has been declared Buy Indie Day. Head out to your local indepnedent bookstore and buy a book!