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.