Saturday, December 29, 2007

Down But Not Out

I took these snapshots of my tree (yes, you're right; it is grossly overladen!) with the intention of posting them on Christmas Eve, but a nasty stomach bug had other ideas. I don't seem to be having good luck with holidays this year. Anyway, here they are, albeit a bit late.

If there's a silver lining to spending Christmas week sick, it's that after the first few days I was able to focus enough to read. I plowed through a fascinating biography of Ben Franklin and another of his son, William (yes, it's research for the next St. Cyr mystery), two wonderful historical novels and another really awful one. More about that when I can think coherently.

In the meantime, I hope everyone is having a better holiday season than I am! Here's to a great new year for us all. Cheers!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Miniature Worlds

There’s something magical about miniature worlds. Doll houses, toy trains, Christmas villages—just looking at them fills adults with a childlike wonder and delight. Both of my grandmothers had villages under their Christmas trees. My father’s mother had several largish houses of cardboard and ducks on a pond, while my mother’s mother had a large village of wooden houses made by one of her sons and peopled with little lead figurines.

My villages aren’t large. One sits on the buffet in the dining room; the other is creeping across the bottom of the tree (the electric train was a Christmas present from Steve last year). Last night, the four of us spent about an hour just staring at the glowing tree and village and watching the train go around and around.

What is it about these miniature worlds that is so fascinating? Is it the nostalgia for a lost world of peaceful snow-covered villages and a less-hurried way of life? Do villages somehow help us recapture the magic of toyland? Why? How?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

On Contracts, Proposals, and Bouncing Back

We’ve just accepted a contract for two more contemporary thrillers—sequels to THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT. The new books will be published in 2009 and 2010.

This means that in addition to the Sebastian St. Cyr series, I’ll also be writing a contemporary thriller series featuring the characters from ARCHANGEL: October Guinness, a reluctant remote viewer dragged back into the Navy, and Jax Alexander, a cynical CIA type. At this stage, it’s a series still in search of a name. That’s the problem with duel heroes—one can’t simply call the series by the hero’s name.

While I haven’t blogged about it, the road to this new contract has been rocky. I originally planned the second book in the series to be THE BERMUDA EFFECT. I did tons of research on Cuba and South America and the Bay of Pigs and Iran-Contra. I liked the story so much I wrote beyond the necessary 35 pages/3-5 first chapters to the first turning point—nearly 100 pages. In other words, I invested a lot of time in that proposal, which I sent in last spring. After sitting on it forever, the publishers turned the proposal down in mid-August.

Yes, it can happen. I’ve seen it happen to two writers I know—multipublished, highly successful writers of established series. Which is why smart writers don’t continue working on a proposal until after they’ve heard back from their editors. I didn’t make that mistake, but I did make the mistake of spending too much time researching the book, I wrote too long of a proposal, and I plotted the book out in far more detail than was necessary at that stage. All mistakes I will never make again.

Having the proposal rejected meant I had to come up with a new idea, research it, and write the new proposal, all the while rushing to get SERPENTS in on deadline. Which is why my life has been very hectic, why I am now behind on my writing schedule, and why I am taking a much-needed break this Christmas.

The second book will now be called THE DEADLIGHT CONNECTION. I had originally planned this to be Book Four in the series (yeah, I was doing the alphabet thing with the titles, but that will now have to go away). DEADLIGHT is a neat idea involving Nazi subs and Russians and terrorists, and my publishers are very excited about it. The third book will, if all goes well, be set in Morocco (with Casablanca in the title, naturally).

Having the original thriller proposal rejected and thus having to invest another six weeks frantically coming up with a new proposal means the next ten months will be pretty tense, with two books to write in a scarily short span of time. Right now, I’m working on the proposal for the fifth Sebastian St. Cyr book. And I’m going to be careful not to overdo it!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Bring on a Character in Character

It’s a good rule to follow: if a character in your book is an actor, when he’s first introduced to your readers, he should be in a theater. A painter should be painting. A hit man should be killing someone or at least scoping him out. A character with a quick temper should be shown in a rage. I know this. Yet for some reason, in the first draft of WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP, I slipped up.

The hero of my historical mystery series, Sebastian St. Cyr, has a nemesis named Charles, Lord Jarvis. Jarvis is the Machiavellian powerbroker behind the throne of the weak regency of the man who will eventually become George IV. Yet the first time we met him in the original version of SERPENTS, he was simply in the library of his house. Yes, during the course of the ensuing scene he ordered one of his henchmen to do some dastardly deeds. But while I talked a lot during the book about how powerful and all knowing he was, I never actually showed it. Until, that is, my editor pointed it out. Bless her.

Now, in the new version, we first meet Jarvis when he’s dealing with the Prime Minister. There is no doubt that Jarvis is the more powerful figure. We see him controlling a network of spies and agents. In short, in the final version of WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP, I bring Jarvis on in character.

Perhaps I slipped up because this is book four of a series, and I was forgetting the need to reestablish each character in each book. Perhaps I slipped up because, after all these years, Jarvis’s character is so engrained in me that I didn’t even realize I wasn’t showing it. Whichever, I’m thankful my editor caught my mistake, and I intend to be very careful not to do something similar in future books.

In essence, it’s just one facet of the old maxim, Show Don’t Tell. Show me your character is a jockey or a drug dealer, don’t tell me.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Real-Life Stories that Resonate

Why do certain real-life stories haunt us for years, while others are forgotten almost instantly?

Several years ago, a friend of mine gave a party where the guests were asked to bring an object or a photograph and tell a story from their past. I’d just been organizing some old papers, and I brought a series of pictures my dad, a photographer in the South Pacific in WWII, had taken of a funeral in New Guinea. Since I found the photos after my father’s death, I never knew whose funeral it was. He must have meant something to my father, since he kept the photos all those years. But what horrified me about the photos was the background. Row after row of stark, newly dug graves. At the time I first found them, I was grieving over my father’s death. Those pictures made me realize he was one of the lucky ones; he survived and came home to marry his sweetheart and father two children and enjoy a long and rewarding career. Just this weekend, someone who was at that party told me her husband still retells that story. It obviously struck a chord with him.

I remember reading years ago about an American man and his Vietnamese wife who were on the last plane to take off from Saigon when the city fell to the North Vietnamese. The woman had just delivered a child by caesarian, and as they ran to catch the plane, her stitches burst open. But what etched the story in my mind was the fact that the newborn baby, still in intensive care, had to be left behind. The child survived, but it was something like twelve years before her parents were able to see her and bring her to the States. Twenty years later, I still remember reading about it.

I suppose we all have stories like that, little snippets of other people’s lives that affect us so profoundly that they become a part of us. What do you think those stories have in common?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Of Writers and Friends

You’re looking at an incredible group of people. We are the men and women of Sola, the Southern Louisiana chapter of the Romance Writers of America, gathered here for our third post-Katrina Christmas Party. Every one of these people has a story to tell, of heartbreak and trauma, of loss and triumph. Some lost family members to the storm, many lost houses or suffered devastating damage. Even those whose homes miraculously escaped nevertheless endured long periods of evacuation, survivor-guilt, and all the craziness that is a part of living in a devastated city still partially patrolled by the National Guard.

We held our first post-Katrina meeting just two months after the storm. We sat around in a circle in a half-gutted room and simply listened as, one after the other, we took our turn telling our stories. Some tales were harrowing, others hilarious. Together, we laughed, we cried, and we forged a bond that is still there and probably always will be.

Jamie, the woman who hosted this year’s party, has almost finished rebuilding. This house is in Lakeviw, about a mile from the levee break. There’s a plaque about six feet up on the entry wall, marking their Katrina water line. Many of her neighbors are gone, their houses now empty lots. But an encouraging number are back, or at least in various stages of rebuilding. As we drank wine and laughed through Sadistic Santa, we could hear the distant whirl of a saw and the steady tapping of hammers. The sounds of our city, coming back.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why we’re holding food packages, it’s because we also collected foodstuffs for the local foodbank.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Throw Me Somethin’, Santa!

You might think this Santa is waving at the crowds. He’s not. He’s on a float in a Louisiana Christmas parade, and he’s just thrown a pair of beads! Down here, a parade’s just not a parade if the riders aren’t throwing something. It isn’t just at Mardi Gras. They throw cabbages and carrots at St. Patrick’s Day parades, candy and toys at Christmas parades. And, of course, beads. Always beads. In this case, red and green.

Clinton (in East, not West Feliciana—sorry!) is a wonderful little gem of a town full of antebellum civic buildings and homes. In addition to putting on a fun Christmas parade, once a month—twice a month right before Christmas—they also hold a community market on Saturday. Every time we go, I’m stunned anew by how friendly people are up there, how much they laugh, how relaxed they are. Their next big event is the reenactment of the Civil War battle of Jackson Crossroads. We saw the photos of last year’s reenactment, and I’m determined not to miss it again.

Oh, and my back is much better. Thanks to all who wished me well. And the best part is, I’ve just sent off the revisions of WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Heating Pad Blues


We spent the weekend up in West Feliciana Parish, enjoying their Christmas festivities and painting the lake house. One would think after living with this messed up back of mine for a couple of decades I’d learn, but when you’re up on a ladder and you realize you won’t have to move it again if you reach just a little bit further… Ouch. As they say, all suffering comes from greed, or at least laziness, which is a form of greed.

I took some great pictures of the town of Clinton’s Christmas Parade and Community Market, and I’ll post them as soon as I can sit upright for more than a few minutes. In the meantime, since I can’t do much else, the revisions of SERPENTS are coming along just great. I’ll have more to say on that, too, as soon as I get off the #$%@ heating pad.


Friday, November 30, 2007

Thus Spoke the Marketing Department

I’ve always known that many males are reluctant to pick up a book written by a woman. After all, that’s why J.K. Rowling is “J.K.” rather than…what is her first name, anyway? But did you know that some women are reluctant to read a book written by a man? It was news to me. Of course, since more women read books than men, women are an important part of any new book’s audience. Therefore the Powers That Be (otherwise known as the marketing department) have decided that my new thriller, THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT, will sell better with vague, androgynous first initials rather than with the macho name “Steven Graham” on the cover.

Say what? I was originally told to take a male name in order to disguise my double X chromosome. Now I need initials to disguise my nonexistent Y chromosome?

Whatever. If the marketing department wants initials, I’ll give them initials. Thus, Steven Graham has now become C.S. Graham. Doesn’t have quite the same ring as C.S. Harris, but anything to make the marketing department happy.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Back to Work

I’ve taken a few weeks off writing to focus on all the mundane things that inevitably pile up when I’m in that desperate final push to get a manuscript in on deadline. I’ve cleaned my office—routine after every book. I’ve tackled my garden, which has been so woefully neglected since Katrina. Since Danielle was home for Thanksgiving, we spent some a few days decorating the house for Yule Time, although the mammoth undertaking that is the tree will have to wait until she comes home at the end of the semester. I was hoping to paint the newly installed trim in my office and get more done on the garden, but it didn’t happen. Monday I took a deep breath, hauled out my editorial letter and WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP, and set to work on the revisions.

Some are easier then I’d anticipated, but others are keeping me awake at night wondering how the devil I’m going to work in that extra scene or necessary bit of explanation. I’m anxious to get this book truly finished, anxious to move ahead with the proposal for Book Number Five, tentatively entitled WHAT HELL MARKS. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and the next book will always turn out better.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Thanksgiving to Remember

We always have my mother over for dinner on Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter, and every year she dutifully eats the vegetable risotto, or vegetarian lasagna, or whatever vegetarian fare we put in front of her. The only time she actually complained was when we fed her soy hotdogs for the Fourth of July. But I know our vegetarian feasts never actually seem like a holiday meal to her, so I decided this Thanksgiving we’d give her a real turkey dinner.

My girls said, “You’re cooking a WHAT?”

Yes, we cooked a turkey—or at least a turkey breast. With mashed potatoes and green beans and carrots and cranberry sauce and…the works, or the lot, or however you want to say it. I set the table with my best china and crystal and silver, because ever since I thought I’d lost all that stuff to Katrina I’ve vowed to use it and to hell with what gets broken or chipped or stained. What was I saving it for? Everything was going great until 15 minutes before the turkey was done, when my new post-Katrina just-off-warranty oven started beeping and flashing ERROR, ERROR, and turned itself off. What is it about me and mechanical objects?

And then there’s my car. Yes, my beautiful, shiny red brand new car. Smashed new car.

In the scheme of things, I know this is small stuff. I might even think it’s funny.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Murder By the Book

Murder By the Book in Houston is one of those wonderful independent bookstores where the magic of words and the love of books seem to wrap you in a warm, embracing glow the instant you step through its welcoming doors. At my signing last Saturday, I talked about early nineteenth-century England and writing historical mysteries with a group of friendly, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic readers. The staff was wonderful, and I had an all-around great time. I also made a nice discovery: travel is sooo much easier when a publicist takes care of every little detail for you!

On a side note, check out Shauna Roberts' interview with me at Love of Words. Also, thanks to the trip I finally finished Martin Cruz Smith’s STALLION GATE. I’ve been reading it forever, in between nonfiction research books, so it was nice to be able to focus on it and enjoy. Not a mystery exactly, but still an incredible read. I now have only two of his books left, and I think I’m going to ration them and force myself to pick something else from my towering TBR pile. Unfortunately, it’s more a Books I Feel I Must Read for Market Research pile than a simple To Be Read pile, so it’s hard to summon up much enthusiasm. That’s one of the hazards of being a writer—all too often, reading becomes work rather than pleasure.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Dirty Dozen: Twelve Things NOT to Say to a Writer

My writers group had fun with this tonight. Here’s the list we came up with:

1. I’d love to be a writer but I just don’t have the time.
2. I have this great idea for a book. How about if I tell you about it and you write it, and then we can share the money when it’s a bestseller?
3. I bought three of your books just last week at the used bookstore.
4. I’ve got your book on order at the library.
5. I’ve lent your book to everyone I know.
6. I liked your book, but…
7. How much money do you get for a book?
8. Will you read my manuscript and tell me how I can get it published?
9. Oh, you’re a writer! Are you someone I’ve heard of?
10. You write romance/fantasy/horror/mysteries? So are you ever going to write a real book?
11. Are the sex scenes in your novels taken from your own experience?
12. You’ve written TWELVE books? Wow, you must really churn them out!

Tomorrow, I hope to have some pictures up from my signing at Murder by the Book in Houston. In the meantime, Shauna Roberts at For Love of Words has an interview with me posted on her blog. She asked some great questions.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Do You Want To Talk About It?

Don't you love it when science "proves" something we already knew? According to a recent study from UCLA, attaching words to a feeling reduces activity in the part of the brain that controls our biological response to emotion, basically short-circuiting the body's reaction by preventing stress hormones from being released.

In other words, talking about what's bothering you literally makes you feel better. We already knew that, of course. But now we know why.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My (Abbreviated) Book Tour

Most authors dream of being sent on a book tour—those glamorous whirlwind trips through Spain and Germany and Japan, or at least to New York City and Boston and Philadelphia. On a book tour, one is feted and wined and dined and treated as a celebrity. Quite a thrill for writers who normally labor in relative obscurity.

Do book tours really help sell books? According to the conventional wisdom, the answer is no. Americans don’t turn out for booksignings they way they do in, say, Europe. True, local press will sometimes feature a visiting author, and that kind of impact is difficult to measure. But for the most part, book tours are said to be expensive and exhausting. Yet authors still continue to yearn for them, and to go on them when asked. John Connelly recently finished a three-month, around the world marathon. I saw him half-way through and he said he was starting to feel his age. I think he’s 39.

I’ve never been sent on a book tour. But this weekend, my publisher is flying me to Houston for a 4:30 booksigning on Saturday at Murder By the Book. One destination can’t exactly be called a “tour,” but it is a step in the right direction.

Now, if I could just make my next stop Paris…

Monday, November 12, 2007

A Dangerous New Toy

I’ve just discovered that has what they call their Historical Mysteries Bestseller List. I’m not sure how long it’s existed, but I wish I still didn’t know about it. It’s updated hourly, and it allows neurotic authors to track how well their latest release is selling compared to other historical mystery releases. Did I mention it’s updated hourly?

So now, in addition to agonizing over our sales ranking, we can also agonize over how we’re stacking up against the competition. Hourly.

For the last ten days, the Number One spot has been firmly locked down by THE JANISSARY TREE, the recent Edgar winner about a eunuch in Turkey. WHY MERMAIDS SING has occasionally flitted with the Number Two spot, more often hovered around Number Three or Four, bur sometimes slipped down to Number Six or even lower. Thanks to this list, I can see that the paperback release of WHEN GODS DIE is not doing well. In fact, the paperback of WHAT ANGELS FEAR is selling better, I guess to people who liked MERMAIDS and have now gone back looking for the first in the series. Hopefully they’ll then go on to buy GODS (although I still think the cover killed that book).

Obviously, MERMAIDS is a long ways from making the NYT bestseller list, but the sales so far have been encouraging. The first ten days traditionally see the biggest volume of sales—they will fall off rapidly from here.

Sales are always such a curious thing to tease out. What’s selling this book? The great cover, obviously, helps. But people going to Amazon for the book aren’t like buyers lured by an evocative cover from across a bookstore. Good reviews? Some, perhaps; except WHEN GODS DIE received those three starred reviews, which I’m told was quite phenomenal; MERMAIDS has received good reviews (ignoring the idiot who posted on Amazon—a pox on her), but only the Library Journal gave it a starred review. Word of mouth? Always good, but that can’t have kicked in yet.

So what is causing MERMAIDS to sell so much better than the two previous books in the series (at least on Amazon; I don’t know what it’s doing in the bookstores)? I suspect it’s the Entertainment Weekly mention. It’s the only thing I can think of that’s different. Now if we could just get someone like Angelina Jolie to be photographed carrying the book….

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Surviving the Editorial Letter

What is an editorial letter? It’s the letter your editor sends you after she’s read your manuscript. Anywhere from a week to a couple of months after you send in your manuscript, your editor will send it back. Minor corrections or questions will be noted on the manuscript, but more detailed or involved suggestions will be spelled out in what is called an “editorial letter.” I just received my editorial letter for WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP. It’s six pages long. Single spaced. Gasp.

My first reaction, whenever I receive an editorial letter, is consternation. Chagrin. Dismay. Despair. And, always, always, Tears. I think, “I can’t do that! There’s no way I can make these changes!” It’s not that I think my editor’s suggestions are wrong—she’s always spot-on. In fact, many of her suggestions are things that niggled at me when I read through the final draft, but my thoughts ran along the lines of... I don’t know how to fix it. Or, I don’t have time to fix it. Or, Maybe no one will notice.

Editors always notice. They always start out telling you how much they loved your manuscript, how they think it’ll be a great addition to your series. BUT… Don’t you hate the Buts?

So, what kinds of things do editors put in their editorial letters? Here’s some samples from my latest:

“TOO MANY DEAD BODIES. By the end, there’s an incredibly high body count. I understand that there are many reasons why that can’t be avoided in this novel, but at one point it seems that in every new chapter we hear of another death. I wonder if some of these people might be allowed to live…”

“MORE FULLY EXPLAIN REFERENCES TO PREVIOUS BOOKS: In the few places where you mention or refer to characters and events from previous books, I generally feel that more explanation is needed. For example…”

Sigh. At this point, I am sick to death of WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP. The last thing I want to do is pick it up again, but tackle it I must. Some of these suggestions are not going to be easy to implement, but I know I’ll figure out a way in the end (although there’ll be a few tense moments when I think, “This is never going to work!”) I also know I’ll have a better book when I’m done. My editor is brilliant—one of the best in the business—and I know I am lucky to have her.

But editorial letters ain’t pleasant.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Entertainment Weekly Reviews WHY MERMAIDS SING!

This week's ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY is running a review of my new Sebastian St. Cyr mystery, WHY MERMAIDS SING. It's my first-ever Entertainment Weekly review, so I'm pretty excited about it. Not sure I'd have described the book this way, but hey, I'm not complaining! Here it is...

Why Mermaids Sing
by C.S. Harris
Reviewed by Tina Jordan

Regency-era London--abuzz with the grotesque murders of several wealthy young men--looks to noblemen/sleuth Sebastian St. Cyr to solve the crimes

MOVIE PITCH: It's Hannibal Lecter--early 1800s style!

LOWDOWN: A serial-killer thriller set 200 years ago? It may sound incongruous, but it works, thanks Harris' pacing and fine eye for detail. A real plus: the murk and stench of the age only heighten the suspense.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

2007 Louisiana Book Festival

The Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge was this past weekend, and as always, it was a wonderful, enriching experience. Plus, look at that shirt-sleeve weather, in November! Ya gotta love southern Louisiana.

My six-hour workshop on Friday went great. I had a fantastic group of enthusiastic writers, and I can only hope they enjoyed the experience as much as I did. Although I must admit, I have a new appreciation for just how exhausting elementary and high school teachers must find their days! The most I ever had to teach back when I was a university prof was two classes a day, well spread out. Even though we took plenty of breaks, by the end of the day I’m not sure how coherent I was!

Then, on Saturday afternoon, Laura Joh Rowland and I did a panel entitled “Clean Breaks and Balancing Acts.” Basically, we talked about making career changes, and the fine art of juggling two very different series—an interesting comparison of our two experiences. After that came my booksigning, and then it was time to dash across Baton Rouge and pick up my new car! Finally!!!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Revisions Revisited

After my last discussion of revisions, Liz posed a question: How much of my hatred of revisions stems from the time constraints created by my publication deadlines? An interesting suggestion, and it prompted me to remember my attitude toward revisions before I started writing to contract.

In my experience, pre-published writers fall into one of two camps. In the one camp are those writers who dash off their manuscripts very quickly. They send them out, get rejected, toss the inadequate manuscript aside and start writing the next book idea. In the other camp are their opposites, the pre-pubs who take forever to write their first one or two or three manuscripts. They write a book, and then they rewrite it, over and over and over again.

Both tendencies have their plusses and minuses. The non-revisers have lots and lots of ideas churning around in their heads, clamoring to be written. Their ability to come up with saleable ideas matures as they learn what works and what doesn’t. But because they move on too quickly, they never learn to analyze their manuscripts and they never learn how to polish. Yes, they learn to put together better ideas, but they never learn from their WRITING mistakes. I know non-revisers who’ve produced more than a dozen manuscripts without selling one.

The revisers, on the other hand, learn to analyze what works and what doesn’t in their manuscripts; they learn how to rewrite, and how to fix problems. The downside is that their first book ideas are usually flawed at some basic level. They could spend a lifetime rewriting those manuscripts, but they would never be publishable because their basic idea was, well, flawed.

I understand it is really, really hard to walk away from a manuscript you’ve been revising for years. “But I’ve invested all those years in it! I know I can make it work. I understand the process now.” To these writers I say, “Great. Now take what you’ve learned and apply it to a fresh, new idea.”

That can be scary. The trick is not to become too wedded to any one book idea. Keep a “plot idea book” where you jot down conflicts and character sketches for future books. Force yourself to turn your back on your darlings and learn to love again. Tell yourself you can always come back to your first or second or third born in another year and rewrite it again, if you still want to. But move on.

So by now you’re probably wondering, Which category did I fall into before I was published? I was a reviser. I revised my first two books to death. I turned a sweet Regency into a sexy historical. I turned my dashing villain into the hero and made my dull old hero the foil. I wrote a contemporary suspense, then changed the plot line, the characters, the inciting incident; I rewrote the first chapters so many times I barely remember the original beginning. I started a new historical romance, about a convent-bred orphan who inherits a whorehouse in a Colorado mining town, and rewrote it to death, too. I spent eight years rewriting the same damn three books. It was only when I moved on and started the manuscript that became NIGHT IN EDEN that I finally sold a book—and the only thing I had to revise was the ending (I personally liked my originally ending better). I then revised the Colorado whorehouse book (THE BEQUEST) and sold it, too. I have at various times had publishers willing to buy the first two manuscripts, but only with so many changes that I knew it wasn’t worth it—I could write an entirely new, better, book in the same time. I said, No, thanks.

So, given my history, why do I now hate revisions? I think I kept revising when I first started writing for all the usual reasons. My first manuscripts were so precious to me, I couldn’t bear the thought of them not being published. But I suspect I also did it because it seemed easier to rewrite than to come up with an entirely new book idea. Now I have more ideas churning around in my head than I have time to write.

I suspect Liz is right: the time constraint now adds tremendous pressure. Trying to write two books a year, do the kind of self-promotion publishers demand, take care of two daughters and an aged mother, rebuild a hurricane-devastated house, and still keep myself healthy and sane is not easy. Finally making that first sale is nice (okay, it’s HEAVEN); but my writing income is now a critical part of the family budget, which means that a lot rides on every book. And the revision process, coming at the end when the time crunch is on and I’m forced to confront all my manuscript’s weaknesses, is never a good time.

On another front: If you’ve been following my car saga, the slow boat from Germany has finally—allegedly—docked. I could have had a silver or a gray months ago, but I wanted red, with a sunroof. And I should have it on Saturday. Do you know how many months it’s now been since my little Golf drowned? I am deliriously happy. So is everyone who’s been driving me around for the last six months!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


I sent the final draft of WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP off to my editor yesterday. I'm so busy at the moment with Dani home for her fall break and pumpkins to carve and this six hour workshop looming on Friday that it was a couple of hours before it hit me: I'm finished!

Until I get the workshop out of they way, I'm not even going to think about my next project, which is the proposal for the fifth Sebastian St. Cyr book. At the moment, all I have is vague swirls--an ancient crypt, William Franklin (Ben's Loyalist son), and a heartbreaking secret from the past. It's my Rule of Three: the best book ideas are really an intersection of THREE ideas.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Why I Hate Revisions

So many bloggers have waxed eloquent about the joys of the revision process that I spent some time last night figuring out why I hate it so much.

I don’t hate sitting down first thing in the morning with a cup of tea, a pen, and the chapter I typed up the day before. I don’t consider those revisions. At that stage it’s just a matter of smoothing out language, moving things around a bit, taking a first look at the rough product of my previous day’s creation and making it prettier. That can be pleasant.

What I hate are those crucial, end-of-the-book kind of revisions. At that stage, the pressure is on. It’s time to fill in all the blanks I skipped (frequently I literally type BLANK), figure out some way to finish those scenes I left hanging, find just the right words for those expressions of emotions that wouldn’t quite gel before. It’s time to plug those plot holes I didn’t see, provide a motivation I’ve suddenly realized is lacking or at least weak. Everything I’ve put off dealing with either because it required me to invest days of research finding some niggling little fact, or because figuring out how to make it work was just too hard, must now be dealt with. The time for putting off is past. Worse, at this point I’m usually under a gun with my deadline barreling down on me. And with it comes the inevitable fear: What if I can’t pull it off? What if I can’t make this book work? What if I’m just not good enough? It’s a hideously stressful time. I don’t sleep well, and it goes on for weeks.

I really, really wish I enjoyed revisions. But I don’t think I ever will. Now I understand why.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Progress Report

I’ve printed out the penultimate draft of WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP. It’s now resting for a few days, waiting patiently until I can come at it with fresh eyes for one last read through. All the major changes are done; this is just a matter of catching typos and little rough patches that need to be smoothed over.

There was a point not too long ago when I honestly didn’t think I was going to get this sucker done on deadline. I’d even emailed my editor and warned her I might be late (editors appreciate advance notice). So it’s a huge relief to be able to tell her I’ll make it, after all.

I’ve only missed my deadline once. MIDNIGHT CONFESSIONS was due 10 September 2001. I didn’t make it to the post office before 5 on Saturday, so I went down on Monday the 10th and overnighted it. Well… Obviously, my late manuscript was the least of anyone’s worries come Tuesday morning. I figured it was probably some of that paper we could see blowing around Manhattan, but it actually did resurface a couple of weeks later, albeit a little the worse for wear. By that point I’d finally emailed it to my editor.

I’m now pulling together the material for the workshop I’ll be giving 2 November up in Baton Rouge—Six Secrets of Bestselling Genre Fiction. It’s a six-hour marathon (six hours, six secrets; get it?). Charles Gramlich over on Razored Zen is pondering public speaking for writers this week—very timely. His first point? Don’t talk for more than 40 minutes.

Monday, October 22, 2007

A New Look!

Finally, it's up! My new website went live tonight. Madeira James, my designer, is wonderful. See the results of all this hard work at

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Website Changes

My website is currently down as we move the domain hosting to a different server and my new site goes up. Should just be a few more days now. My blog will be getting a new, coordinated look, too. I can hardly wait.

Of course, this is all happening while I'm in the midst of frantically finishing WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP, and getting ready to teach a six hour workshop up in Baton Rouge on November 2nd. Oh, and my younger daughter is coming home for four days for her fall term break, and we've a new half-dead stray cat we've adopted and are coaxing back to health, and we've hired the carpenters who were rebuilding the gallery to also replace the siding on the east and south sides of the house, and I STILL don't have my new car so I can't go anywhere to escape the noise.

When this is all over, I am going to need a serious break.

Friday, October 19, 2007

One Way To Get People To Come To Your Booksigning

An item from yesterday's Pub Lunch, the free email update on the book business put out by Publishers Weekly: Learning Annex president Bill Zanker paid people to line up outside the BN store on Fifth Avenue and 46th Street in New York for a signing by Donald Trump of their joint book THINK BIG AND KICK ASS IN BUSINESS AND LIFE. Zanker dispensed $100 each to the first 100 people in line, $50 each to the next 100, and $10 each to the next 1,000 or so people.

Do the math. That's $25,000! Just to get people to stand in line for your booksigning? I wonder, did they buy the book, or did they just stand in line? And what is the purpose of this? So they could get a picture of that long line stretching around the block?

And if you're a writer, check out Steve Malley's posts this week. The most recent is a brilliant examination of lazy and effective ways of expressing character emotion, while the one below that is on structure. Insightful stuff!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Oops I Did It Again…and Again…and Again

The Friends of the Jefferson Parish Library Book Sale was this past weekend. I keep telling Steve, “We need to quit going to this thing!” But of course we’re always there when they open the doors on the first day.

I’ve learned to head straight to the history tables. History is still my first love and I’ve noticed that section clears out fast. It’s always filled with all sorts of wonderful books being purged from the libraries because no one has checked them out in two years. I filled two boxes in half an hour. That’s what happens when you are passionately interested in everything from ancient Greece and the Middle Ages to Regency England and World War II. Are there any history books left in the public libraries?

After that I move on to the literature table. Here I browse for nice hardcover copies of paperback classics I’d like to replace with something more durable—and more attractive. This year I found a lovely blue and gold three volume set of War and Peace, nice copies of Caesar’s War With the Gauls, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and Pride and Prejudice, among others. I then look at the poetry, but pickings there are usually pretty slim. This year I found only one nice copy of Renaissance poetry, volume one of a three volume set. I spent forever scrambling around under the table looking for the other volumes in the boxes of books they hadn’t put out yet, but without success (I had to do the same thing—with more success—to get all three War and Peace).

Next comes hardcover fiction. These tables are Steve’s first objective, so he’s already been at work. Here I’m looking for hardcover copies of authors whose books I’ve enjoyed and would like to keep. Sometimes I snag a Pat Conroy or a James Lee Burke, but it’s rare. This year I did find a hardcover copy of Martin Cruz Smith’s ROSE. It was the only one of his books I didn’t have in hardcover, so that made me happy.

After that I’ll cruise the hardcover mysteries, looking mainly for Elizabeth Peters and Ellis Peters. The latter are always purged library copies, and this year there were none. Does no one read Ellis Peters any more? Then it’s on to the health table—this year I got a great yoga book—and the travel table, where I got a couple of neat travelogues on China and Russia (always useful if I decide to set a book in either).

The one table I only glance at, at the end, is what they call Choice Fiction, “choice” meaning—with a few exceptions—bestselling crap. (Hey, it’s my blog and I can be blunt if I want to!) Some of these authors—and I use the term lightly—have a stable of writers that turn out virtually a book a week. The tables are overflowing with what often seems like dozens of copies of the same book. Because these books are “choice” they’re more expensive than the others--$5-6 dollars as opposed to $2-3. And they still sell like crazy. Just not to me.

This is just our first day’s take. We went back again on Saturday, and then dropped in again briefly on Sunday afternoon when everything is half price (this is when I go to the Choice Fiction table and buy Anne Rivers Siddon—I’ll never understand why she’s there because no one else buys her). The question now is, Where in God’s name do we put all these books? There really is going to come a point when we will have surpassed our house's ability to absorb any more books. Looking at all these new boxes, I'm wondering if we're there already. At least this year we didn’t have Danielle with us since she’s down in Florida (and she was very, very unhappy about it, although I did find some things I knew she’d like—a biography of Mark Twain and a lovely boxed copy of Twenty Years After, among others).

It’s an interesting experience, spending all those hours looking at books and watching the book lovers who’ve come to pour over them. But that’s another blog.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Too Much of a Good Thing?

I don't have my new car yet, but my computer is back...

It's indescribably wonderful not having to squint at a tiny screen, and having everything be exactly where I expect it to be. My washing machine is also working again...

Yes, I know I said it was fixed before. But we've had ANOTHER visit from the washingmachine repair man, and this time, I think, we're good to go. You might say I'm on a repairing roll. Except...

Yup. I snapped this pic through my office's French doors. You remember the carpenters who were supposed to come rebuild our gallery back in July? Well, they finally showed up. They say they should be finished in two weeks.

My book is due in two weeks.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Five Writing Strengths

Shauna Roberts at For Love of Words tagged me for this deadly meme: identify five of your writing strengths. I could have come up with five of my writing weaknesses in a heartbeat. But strengths? It’s taken me a couple of days, but here it is:

1. Characterization. This is something I do purely by instinct. I sit down to write and strange, wonderful, distinct, well-rounded people simple come to me out of the ether, surprising me. I could never give a presentation on characterization because I don’t know how to do it. I just do it.
2. Plotting. This is something I do not do by instinct. Back in my prepub days, I asked a published author I respected what she thought was my greatest weakness as a writer. She said, “Plotting.” Stung, I read everything I could on plotting. I analyzed well-plotted books and badly plotted books. I thought long and hard about plotting. It’s now one of my strengths. I could talk your ear off, telling you about plotting.
3. Hard work. See #2 above. I am willing to work very, very hard to make a go of this writing thing. I research my books to death. I study writing and writers. I constantly analyze the market and why people read what they read. I preplan and rewrite. If I have to change—whether it requires changing genres, or even changing the way I write—I will. I write two books a year, which is really, really hard for someone who’s not naturally prolific. There are lots of other things I’d like to do in my life—paint, learn to play the guitar again, read more, travel more, sleep more. I take care of my family, and I work.
4. Versatility. I’ve written and sold romances, contemporary thrillers, and mysteries. They are all very different, requiring different skills and calling on different parts of my personality. It has helped me grow tremendously as a writer.
5. My background. As a historian, I bring to my stories a strong, in-depth understanding of various historical periods and trends. I’ve lived in and traveled to lots of different places, so I can draw on that, too. And I’ve done many different things in my life—ridden camels, fired flintlocks, fenced, survived volcanic explosions, hurricanes, riots and revolutions, spent years training in tae kwan do, worked on archaeological digs all over the world—and a few other things I’d rather not mention!—that I can call on when I need them to enrich my stories.

Any one else willing to do this? Steve? Charles? I warn you, it’s hard!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Press Cat

Since I blogged about him yesterday, I thought I'd post this photo of Press Cat peeking out from behind the breakfast room table and chairs. Like Press, the table and chairs went through Katrina--they're just some of the 36 pieces of furniture I've restored over the last two years.

Now, back to writing!

Monday, October 08, 2007

As the Thunder Rumbles

I'm having a hard time settling down to write on this dreary, rainy New Orleans Monday morning. Part of it is the distractions of the past few days--painting my mother's bedroom last Thursday and Friday, then going up to the lake over the weekend to work on that house (what kind of masochists try to renovate three houses at the same time?). But I suspect most of the blame lies with the thunder rumbling in the distance, the heavy gray cloud cover pressing down on me, the echoes of horror and despair that continue to whisper in my memory no matter how much I try to ignore them. The worst of our hurricane season is, thankfully, past. I know this is just a little squall. But I can't help it. I once loved the power of storms. Now, I hate storms.

Press hates them, too. Press is our half-feral foundling cat. He'll lay at my feet for hours, purring. But reach for him and he's gone. Which is why Press was left in our house--with lots of food and water--when we evacuated with the other cats for Katrina. We battled our way down to rescue him exactly one week after the hurricane hit. He was scared, but okay; we have a two-story house and we "only" got one foot of water. But to this day, at the first clap of thunder, Press leaps up off the floor onto the nearest sofa or chair. Which sort of answers our question about where exactly in the house he was when the water came sluicing in!

Friday, October 05, 2007

This and That

As well as frantically trying to finish WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP, I've also been busy with my web designer, finalizing my new website. It should go up next week, and it's shaping up to be stunning.

On another front, they fixed my washing machine today! And this time it actually works. You wouldn't believe how giddy I am. I still don't have my computer back yet, nor has my new car arrived, but maybe I'm on a roll here.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Pantsers, Planners, and the Box Myth

Sphinx Ink has an interesting response to my question, How Do Pantsers Write a Book Proposal? It seems that after she mused on the subject, author Tim Hallinan—a pantser--contacted her by email.

According to Hallinan, he writes the first 10,000 words of his manuscript, brain storms possible developments and plot points both by himself and with friends, writes it all up into a short synopsis and sends it off.

You know what? That’s actually not all that different from my approach. I suspect the main difference is that I take the time to think those developments and plot points through a bit more carefully, write it all down, and then use those brainstorming sessions as a guide when I sit down to finish my novel. Hallinan basically ignores his synopsis and sets off on a journey of exploration. Some of those ideas he uses, some he doesn’t.

There seems to be this myth that pantsers write character-driven books while those who preplan their books create plot-driven stories that become—to use Tim Hallinan’s unflattering description—“a box to squeeze characters into.” No, no, no, no!!!

When I sit down to preplan my books, I don’t build a plot and then stick my characters into it. I ask, What would X do next? How would Y react to that? What is he thinking and feeling at this point? What’s the worse thing that could happen to X? (“Put your hero up a tree and throw rocks at him.”) My plots are very complicated with lots of twists and I like being able to shift things around at the planning stage rather than after I’ve invested months writing scenes that then need to be changed. It’s why the more books I’ve written, the more I’ve tended to preplan. I’m a basically lazy person. I don’t like wasting time and effort, and I don’t like tying myself in knots with rewrites. I also have this thing about control.

I understand that for pantsers, preplanning takes out all the fun. For me, it takes out a lot of the frustration and anxiety and severely reduces rewriting. It’s a trade off I’m willing to make, and can make, since I still enjoy the process of fleshing out the scenes I’ve envisioned.

How much do I preplan? That varies. Sometimes I’ll write down snippets of dialogue if they come to me. But mainly I focus on the conflict in a scene, and the outcome. When I was writing my medieval, THE LAST KNIGHT, for instance, I had a segment where the hero is thrown into prison and the heroine is locked up by her uncle. In my outline I had written, “They escape.” When I finally got to that point in the book, I looked at those two words and thought, “Yeah, right! HOW do they escape?” That was not preplanned. That was a fun, rollercoaster exploration that was actually four escapes—the heroine escaped from her room, then freed the hero, then together they escaped from the castle, and then the next morning they escaped from the walled city. Was it plot-driven? Yes, in the sense that I knew they had to escape (or the story would have ended). But it was also character driven, and character revealing. My heroine was the kind of woman who was risking her life to save her brother; of course she wasn’t going to simply sit in her tower room and say, “Pass the embroidery thread.”

There are also times when I’ll reach a scene and realize it’s wrong, that a character wouldn’t do what I’d envisioned. What I don’t do is squeeze my character into my preconceived plan. I change the plan. In MIDNIGHT CONFESSIONS, I was halfway through when I decided I needed to change the murderer. I’m a big girl. I can handle that.

But I also don’t allow my characters or my imagination to lead me astray. I keep a fairly firm hand on the reins, always conscious of where I’m going. That’s a personality thing, though, and has nothing to do with whether I write plot-driven or character-driven. I mean, I used to write historical ROMANCES, remember? No genre is more character driven than that!

Monday, October 01, 2007


No, it’s not a word. It’s a concept developed by our Monday night writers group to describe a certain kind of book’s appeal. Probably the best way to explain it is to talk about the novel I’ve just finished reading.

Since I’m still luxuriating in my recent delayed discovery of Martin Cruz Smith, that book was WOLVES EAT DOGS. In this installment of the trials and tribulations of Moscow investigator Arkady Renko, Arkady ends up in the Ukraine—in Chernobyl, to be exact.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t read or heard much about Chernobyl since the big bang. So one of the (many) aspects of reading the novel that made it so enjoyable was the incredible wealth of information I acquired in the process. Chernobyl today is a strange, frightening place, and it was fascinating reading about it. This background—life in the area around Chernobyl after the accident and all the implications that has for a future many others will doubtless someday face—gave the book “aboutness.” So in addition to experiencing a great novel, I also learned about something that interested me.

This is a tendency surveys have disclosed before: readers like to feel they’re learning something from the fiction they read or the movies they watch. THE GODFATHER helps us to understand the Mafia, SHOGUN teaches us about ancient Japan, Clancy thrillers tell us everything we could want to know about modern weapons technology and techniques, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA gives us an inside peak at the fashion industry.

The trick to “aboutness” is finding something that interests readers/viewers and then making them think you know what you’re talking about even if you don’t. It isn’t enough to take readers someplace they haven’t been before—it has to be someplace they want to go. Americans in the Cold War wanted to learn about life in Moscow, hence the huge (and well-deserved) success of GORKY PARK. Were readers as eager to learn about life on a floating arctic fish factory? Probably not. I personally found POLAR STAR an even better book than GORKY PARK, but PS never touched GP’s sales.

Of course, all too often what we “learn” is wrong. Martin Cruz Smith is fanatical about his research, which is why his books take so long to write. Others are considerably more careless. The infamous DVC, while touted far and wide as an “intelligent” book, made so many mistakes about everything from art to history that I was laughing by about the third chapter. And since I’d already read HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL and JESUS THE MAN, that theory was yesterday’s news and I could see exactly where the story was going. The “aboutness” didn’t work for me. But boy did it work for millions upon millions of other people around the world. Likewise, I quit reading Patricia Cornwell when, in the space of about twenty pages, she called Iranians Arabs and introduced a Navy general. If she made such simple, careless errors, how could I trust anything she said about forensics? After all, it wasn’t even her field. But again, her sales figures tell us that most readers are more trusting.

Where am I going with all this? No place, really. It’s just a useful concept to keep in mind when the stray wisps of a book idea start forming in our minds. If you can take your readers someplace they want to go, teach them something they want to know, give them a glimpse at a way of life that is normally hidden from them—in other words, give your book Aboutness—you will only up its appeal.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Why Every Author Should Have Two Computers, or, Finding a Repairman in Katrinaville, Part Two

I’m typing this on the laptop we bought my mom so she could email Sam when Sam was doing her junior year in Cairo. It was then handed down to Dani, who replaced it with a new one to take off to college. It’s old and small, but thank god it’s here because I’m told my Mac won’t be ready for three weeks.

Did I mention my book is due in five weeks?

It’s seems there’s only one Apple technician in Katrinaville. But it could be worse because he’s only been here two weeks. The last guy left in May. That’s right—they have a four-month backlog. Which is why I’ll be lucky to get my computer back in three weeks.

Oh, and my new car, which was supposed to have been delivered 6 October, has been delayed another week. BUT we did get my mother a new dryer, so at least I have someplace to do my laundry while I’m waiting for my washer to be fixed.

And I can even take my “new” laptop over there!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Technology Karma

I've obviously enraged the technology gods. My computer is now wheezing and gasping, and after spending three days on the phone with Apple, I've been told to take my baby to the hospital.

It's not like I'm on deadline or anything!

Anyone recommend some incense I can burn? Chants? Sacrifices? Please, just make it stop!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

MERMAIDS Makes Its YouTube Debut

Well, I did it. The book trailer—or book video—or whatever you want to call it—for WHY MERMAIDS SING is up on YouTube.

Now that I see it on YouTube, I’d probably do it differently if I had it to do over—black writing instead of white, for instance. Do I expect this video to help sell the book? No. So why did I do it?


Sunday, September 23, 2007

List Inflation

You’ve heard of grade inflation. Well, now we have list inflation.

As of this week, the New York Times will split its paperback bestseller list into Mass Market Paperbacks and Trade Paperbacks. Their reasoning is that splitting the list will enable them to focus more attention on literary novels that are typically printed in trade paperback and that don’t usually have the velocity of sales necessary to put them on the standard bestseller list.

Yet there’s a boon here for genre paperback writers, too, since removing those rare but powerful literary novels that stay on the list for years, such as THE KITE RUNNER, will open up more slots for genre writers. Of course, many non-literary novels are also printed in trade paperback. Nicholas Sparks, for instance. Trade paperbacks have also become the form of choice for houses chasing the success of Philippa Gregory’s THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL. So I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot of books with period paintings of headless women in fancy dress on their covers making the new trade paperback list, despite their actual mediocre sales.

The New York Times did this once before. When publishers complained that HARRY POTTER was gobbling up almost half the spots on the list, the Times created a separate list for “children’s books.”

Does all this really matter? Well, yes. Recent studies have shown that while the sales of established writers such as John Grisham are unaffected by their appearance on the list, “hitting the Times” gives a huge push to new, lesser-known writers. Michael Korda actually wrote an entire book on “Making the List” (although I think he used the PW list, since it's been around longer). So making the Times is a Big Deal. Many writers even have clauses in their contracts that call for them to receive a bonus of from $2-20,000 for every week they’re on the NYT.

There are lots of other lists, of course. There’s the PW list, the USA Today list, the Ingrams list, the list, etc. There are even lists for regions or individual cities. This is why you’ll sometimes see a writer referred to simply as “bestselling” without the NYT added. I, for instance, can rightfully call myself a “bestselling” author because my romances regularly used to hit the Ingrams (distributers) list, even though I’ve never been near the NYT list. But despite all the grumbling that the methodology used by the Times is flawed and that the USA Today list is really more accurate, no other list has close to the clout of the Times.

The official List used to be the first fifteen slots. Recently, the Times has also been releasing what they call the extended list, which is slots 16-30. Just making the extended list is a big deal, although not as big a deal as making THE List. Traditionally, a writer needed to hit the real List to be dubbed a “New York Times Bestselling Author.” But lately some publishers have been cheating and bestowing that coveted title on writers who “only” hit the extended list (leading to predictable snide whispers).

For reasons I’m not real clear on (but which probably have much to do with sales and marketing), the Times has now decided to expand THE List from fifteen to twenty. Which means that every week, if you add all the lists together, an extra thirty-five authors will now be able to officially style themselves as a “New York Times Bestselling Author.”

Of course, my opinion of bestselling fiction has never recovered from an extensive study of the List I made several years ago. To the general public, “New York Times Bestselling Author” means “good author.” Once, that may have been (mostly) true. Today, however, it generally (but not always) means “commercial, selling-out-to-the-lowest-common-denominator author.” And no, this isn’t sour grapes. I recently saw a list NYT authors from a date in the 1950’s (Hemingway, Lawrence, Pasternak) compared to a list from the Nineties (Patterson, Cromwell, Steele). Things had definitely changed, even before the Times started proliferating and expanding their lists. As for now?

Am I the only person who thinks that what is inflated is diminished?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Finding a Repairman in Katrinaville

This is just venting, so you can go away if you want. After three weeks, I finally got a repair man to come look at my nearly-new LG washing machine. He replaced the computer (what idiot got the bright idea of putting a computer in a washing machine?), then announced the motor also needs to be replaced and he'll be back... in two weeks. Maybe.

I'm supposed to live FIVE weeks without a washing machine? I'm beginning to wish I'd simply thrown the #$%@ thing out and bought a new one (not an LG!) when it broke down for the third time. That's right, this is the third time in thirteen months the sucker has died. Of course, NOW it's no longer on warranty...

Thanks to Katrina, we have all new appliances. Unfortunately, it seems that after Katrina all the appliance manufacturers kicked their production into high gear and let quality control go out the window, which means that we now have a collection of new, expensive lemons.

I'd take my wash over to my mother's house, except her DRYER is broken...

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Betes Noires

It’s a dirty little secret shared by almost every author I know. Even authors regularly hitting the NYT have one. They’re given different names—betes noires, doppelgangers, nemeses. What they are is the particular fellow writer who becomes the burr beneath our skin or the red flag waved in front of our inner bull. They are the lightening rod for all the injustices and neglect we suffer (or think we suffer) as authors. They are, to put it more bluntly, the focus of our all our petty jealousies.

To be most effective, an author’s bete noire needs to have first been published at the same time as our author. But while they might have started off at the same point, our author soon sees her bete noire pull ahead. She gets a bigger print run, a dream advertising campaign. Or maybe her books ride to popularity on a plethora of tasteless hot sex or blatant appeals to the resurgence of American militarism. For whatever reason, the bete noire soon outsells our author (in the case of a NYT-selling author, that can mean just hitting higher or staying longer on the list). And—here’s the clincher—the bete noire’s books are BAD. After all, if her success were deserved, then our author would applaud it. Instead, our author is left chagrined, confused, and outraged. Why are her awful books selling while my books—which are oh-so-much better—are not?

This may be just a female thing; I don’t know. But the tendency is so pervasive I suspect it must serve some purpose. I know I had a bete noire when I was writing romances. Since I’ve left the genre, her success (ill-deserved, of course!) has lost its power to sting (her career is also on a long, steady decline, but I’m not going to crow about that). Do I have a new bete noire? Yes. Am I going to tell you who it is?


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Back to Work

I put my sister on a flight back to San Francisco this afternoon, then immediately plunged into something like a panic when I realized I’ve only six weeks left to finish WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP. Normally I’d go up to the lake and let the peaceful seclusion work its magic, but I still don’t have a car! (Now they're saying mid-October.)

My mum had a great ninetieth birthday party, by the way (once I get organized I’ll post a photo). I certainly hope I inherited her genes. When I took her to the doctor yesterday she charged up two flights of stairs because she doesn’t like elevators.

Now, back to work!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Book With a Thousand Names

My fourth Sebastian St. Cyr book--still not quite finished--has been a Book in Search of a Name from the beginning. It's been through so many working titles that I can't keep track of them all. Where Dragons Sleep, Where Demons Sleep, Where Virgins Sleep/Lie--the list goes on and on.

This week I received an email from my editor. She said, "We need to decide on a name for this book." I thought the choice was between Where Virgins Sleep or Lie, But it seems the book went into their catalogue as WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP (I don't even remember that one), no one ever changed it, and she's decided she has issues with Virgins. No one has complained about the Serpents title, so, it's now official: WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP.

At this point I'm like, Whatever. Just pick a name! Although actually, I find I do like it.

On other fronts, I'm having a bad week. My new LG washing machine has broken down for the third time. Steve's car is in the shop, Sam's car is being towed this afternoon, and my sister is in town for a visit and my mother's birthday party is this Saturday. So I probably won' be sticking my head up again until next week.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Author Photos, Part Two

Why do people want to see a photo of whatever slightly deranged human wrote the book they’re reading—or thinking about reading? Vulgar curiosity? A search for insight into the psyche that produced the story?

I’ll admit that sometimes when I’m reading a book, I’ll flip to the author photo and spend several moments contemplating it and wondering, What is this person really like? Can we actually get that from a picture? Yes and no.

Ironically, despite the publishing industry’s recent fixation on the young and the beautiful, I find the craggier, more individualistic authors the most interesting. There is a certain sameness in youth and beauty (my own two beautiful young daughters being the exceptions, of course) that is far less evocative then the rugged individualism of someone like, say, James Lee Burke.

Yet I once shared a chatty elevator ride with JLB on my way up to listen to him talk at the Louisiana Book Festival and didn’t even recognize him. He looked as if he’d been ill; he was pale, he’d lost weight, and he was wearing a business suit and a tie, of all things. Does this mean I think JLB should redo his author photo to save future fans from a similar embarrassment? No. Because the photo that typically appears in the backs of his books beautifully encapsulates the man and the experiences that shaped his books, even if that photo is twenty years old.

At one of my book signings several years ago, a reader came up to me and said in a decidedly annoyed, accusatory manner: “You don’t look like your picture. You have short hair in your picture.” I just blinked at her and said, “Uh…yes.” The Author Photo was less than five years old at the time and I really hadn’t aged much; I’d simply grown my hair out a few inches (I went through a short-short hair phase at one point). Yet this was enough of a change that the reader seemed to feel I had cheated her in some way, as if authors are supposed to change our photos every time we change our hairstyle or gain or lose a few pounds.

That said, I’ve definitely known some authors who let too many years pass between photo shoots. I once met a romance author who in her author photo was elfin thin and had long dark hair. When I met her, she had short gray hair and weighed about 250 pounds. I would never, ever have recognized her. Does she sell more books because her younger, prettier self is on them? Probably. Do I blame her for not changing her photo? No. I can understand, just as I try to understand those who’ve succumbed to the pressure and joined the Nick and Tuck Crowd.

I remember one time when I was in high school I went dress shopping with my mother. My mother turns ninety this Saturday, so she was already middle aged when she had me. I remember saying to her, “Why do you always make that funny face when you try on clothes and look in the mirror?” And she said, “Because I can’t believe that fat old woman in the mirror is me.”

Who among us over a certain age doesn’t suffer a shock whenever they look in a mirror? I suspect most people have a “set” age inside. Inside, I’m thirty-five. So when I look in the mirror, I do a double take. Whoa! Who put all those smile lines there? How can that woman be me?

The photo that will go on the back of my books is just a tiny slice of me in time. But as I was floating on that raft out in the middle of the lake the other day, it occurred to me that if I again wait eleven years before I redo my author photo, by that time I’ll be….Eeek!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Author Photos, Part One

Why is Candy making this funny face? Because Candy is standing on a raft in the middle of a lake, and the raft is starting to tip. Why is Candy standing on a raft in the middle of a lake?

She’s having her Author Photos taken.

I hate having my picture taken. I hate it so much that I haven’t had an Author Photo done since I sold my first book eleven years ago. I detested that photo so much (professional photographer, two separate shoots, a desperate call from New York saying, “We need your photo NOW.”) that I swore I’d get a new, better photo taken for Book Number Two. Never happened.

The photograph NAL uses in my Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries was actually taken by my daughter, Samantha, on my old Minolta SLR. She was eleven years old at the time. I set and focused the camera, told her where to stand, and said, “Tell me if I’m making a funny face.” The results were much better than the ones for which I’d paid a horrific price, mainly because she didn’t hesitate to say, “You’re making a dorky face.” or “Your hair is sticking out funny.”

The problem with Author Photos is that as the years pass, they resemble the author less and less. At the same time, our author knows that, due to the passing of those years, she/he will look infinitely worse in any new photo she/he has taken. This is not an incentive.

Nevertheless, after putting off my fate for all the usual reasons (“I want to lose ten pounds first.”) and a few unusual ones (Katrina), I finally sucked it up this week and charged forth to humiliation. And near drowning.

I promise, Part Two will be a serious discussion of this very, very serious topic.

Synopses for Pantsers

I received some great answers to the question I posed last Thursday, so if you haven't read the comments on that entry, do. Steve Malley contributed a great riff on what a synopsis should do. It's one of the reasons the things are so scary--they are so important.

One of the reasons I asked this question is that in a few months I'm going to be teaching an all-day writing workshop. I am trying to be sensitive to the differences in the way people write and to suggest alternatives, so I appreciate everyone's input.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

A Question for Pantsers

I have a question for any writers out there who write by the seat of their pants.

Once writers become published, standard publishing practice calls for them to submit a proposal to their editor for each subsequent book. This proposal typically consists of 35-50 pages and a synopsis. On the basis of this partial, editors offer the writer a contract (or knock back the proposal and say, “We don’t like it. Submit something else.”) Obviously it is much safer for a writer to have their novel idea approved—or rejected—at the proposal stage, and it helps financially when a big chunk of the advance comes before the book is actually written.

So my question is, If you don't plot your story out ahead, how do you come up with a synopsis for your proposal?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Graceful Art of Fudging

I spent last weekend laying flooring in the upstairs hall and writing the synopsis for my next thriller proposal. If you’re thinking, “Didn’t she already do that last February?” you’re right. Someday, when I’m calmer, I’ll explain. But for now I’m going to talk about synopses.

It’s called “the dreaded synopsis” for a good reason. Most writers suffer all kinds of torturous spasms at the mere thought of having to produce one of the suckers. Everything from your book contract and your career to your mortgage and your kids’ college tuition can ride on your ability to create a brilliant synopsis, yet they are notoriously difficult to do well.

Synopses for romance novels can be troublesome, but because you’re dealing largely with emotions and interpersonal relationships, it’s comparatively easy to slide over huge chunks of your story and still have the synopsis make sense. All you romance writers out there sputtering indignantly please note that I said “comparatively.” Compared to what? Thrillers and mysteries.

The problem with synopses for thrillers and mysteries is that those genres are very tightly plotted. That makes them very, very difficult to simplify. And simplify you must. Editors are busy people who tend to read proposals—even proposals from writers they like—very quickly. If you try to follow every twist and turn of your story, you’ll both bore and confuse your editor. And bored, confused editors have a nasty tendency to decide they don’t like your proposal and turn it down. So what’s a writer to do?


Well, maybe not lie, exactly. Just sort of bend and twist things so that they fit into an exciting storyline that’s easy to follow despite the fact you’ve left out suspects, characters, huge chunks of motivation, clues, etc, etc. The fact is, writers actually have two stories to tell—the longer story that is our novel, and the shorter story that is our synopsis. Both need to be gripping, both need to flow, both need to make sense. Maybe some writers are such gifted synopses-crafters that they don’t need to fudge a few details. But the fact is, if you’re writing a proposal for a book that isn’t written yet, the finished product is probably going to differ in significant ways from your outline anyway. So you’re not exactly being dishonest just because you don’t slavishly follow an outline your editor is never going to see anyway.

I’m not talking about making major changes here. I’m talking about combining two minor characters into one, or shifting sequences, or simplifying explanations–no more than it takes to keep from tying yourself into knots and getting bogged down in details. And who knows? In the process of telling your story in synopsis form, you may actually find ways to improve your novel.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Wanted: Attractive Young Writers. Writing Ability Optional

I know I’ve blogged about this before but it seems to be getting worse. Here’s an article from The Phoenix, Aesthetic genius: Why can’t more writers be smart enough to be beautiful, handsome, or at least cute . It's interesting, although this author seems to think I should feel sorry for these attractive young Ivy League writers because people think they're getting such a huge push just because they're attractive young Ivy League writers...

My thanks to Sphinx Ink for the link.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Katrina Plus Two

I’d planned to write about New Orleans today. But then I got together with a group of writer friends for a Katrina Survivors Anniversary Lunch, and as I drove home (actually, RODE home—I still haven’t replaced my car) past the usual miles and miles of empty storefronts, of boarded up houses and weed-grown empty lots, I realized, I can’t write about New Orleans today. So I’m going to write about Katrina and me.

I had an epiphany of sorts this past weekend. Spurred on by the imminent ninetieth birthday party we’ve been planning for my mother, Steve and I spent the weekend painting the upstairs hall and getting ready to lay flooring. If you’re wondering why we keep doing this work ourselves, the simple reason is that it’s impossible to hire anyone for small-scale projects here in Katrinaville. We were part of the vanguard of residents who returned just days after the storm. Faced with the choice of waiting until construction crews filtered into the city or starting to rebuild ourselves, we set to work. As a result, we were one of the first families in the neighborhood to move back into our house. Also as a result, we’re still not finished rebuilding (along with hundreds of thousands of other people).

I was pondering this irony—and the looming two-year anniversary—last Sunday as I caulked crown molding and sanded trim. That’s when it hit me. You see, there was a time when I was so caught up in Katrina and what it had done to the city and to my family that I couldn’t see beyond it. Yet at some point in the past six months, without my even realizing it, something shifted. At some point, all of my experiences in those dark, terrible days settled down to become a part of who I now am.

When I started this blog nearly a year and a half ago, I blogged more about Katrina than about writing. An old friend stumbled across one of my early posts and quoted me that saying, ‘What doesn’t destroy you makes you stronger.’ I told him I didn’t believe him. I might still be alive, yet I felt diminished, weakened. But you know what? He was right. Thanks to Katrina, bitch that she was, I am stronger today. I say that not with arrogance, but with a kind of wonder.

Don’t get me wrong. I still wish with all my heart the storm had never happened. I still mourn my city, the loved ones I lost, the way of life we all seem to have lost. But I now know that I can watch my house destroyed and build it again with my own hands. I have found a new peace and joy in yoga and meditation. And I now appreciate as never before what incredible children I have and what a wonderful man I married barely twenty months before a hurricane turned our lives upside down.

I know I am one of the lucky ones. There are many who suffered so much they will never recover from what this storm did to them. Ironically, that realization of how lucky, lucky, lucky I am is another gift from Katrina.

A Bookseller's Thoughts on the Publishing Industry

Indie bookstore owner Jim Huang has a long, interesting post on the publishing industry at his blog The Mystery Company. Depressing but insightful. I hear this sort of thing often from writers, but Jim brings a bookseller's perspective to the discussion.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Readers Guides

My publisher recently suggested I draw up a Readers Guide for WHY MERMAIDS SING, my next Sebastian St. Cyr mystery. As you know, Readers Guides are those lists of questions intended for book clubs.

I belonged to a book club once—for two and a half months. We read THE INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST and THE QUINCUX. I struggled manfully (womanfully?) through both. I forget now what the next month’s selection was, but I decided the book club scene was not for me and withdrew with politely murmured excuses about time. We weren’t a particularly organized book club, so we didn’t use Readers Guides. If we had, I would have left after two and a half minutes.

Nevertheless, having received my assignment (publisher’s suggestions are generally treated like commands), I Googled “Readers Guides” and set about looking at some examples. Yikes. (If you yawned through any college lit class, you can skip these examples and go straight to the next paragraph.) Consider this from THE LIFE OF PI: “Yann Martel sprinkles the novel with italicized memories of the "real" Pi Patel and wonders in his author's note whether fiction is ‘the selective transforming of reality, the twisting of it to bring out its essence.’ If this is so, what is the essence of Pi?” Oh my God! Then there’s this example from THE DUEL: “Like much of Russian literature from the nineteenth century, The Duel deals explicitly with ideas and ideologies and how they function in the ‘real world’ depicted in the novel. Chekhov’s story plots the conflict between two protagonists who espouse antithetical worldviews: Von Koren and his Social Darwinism, in which only the fittest should survive, and Laevsky and his “Hamletism” (“My indecision reminds of Hamlet”), that is, his tendency to blame his own hypocrisy and moral turpitude on the corrupting influences of his time and civilization. Identify and discuss some of the passages in which the two characters discuss their own and, more important, each other’s worldviews. In what ways do these two protagonists embody their self-professed beliefs?” Okay, maybe Chekov was a bad choice. I keep looking, and find this: “I’m Not Scared is preceded by an epigraph by Jack London: ‘That much he knew. He had fallen into darkness. And at the instant he knew, he ceased to know.’ Why has Niccolò Ammaniti chosen to begin his novel with this quote? How does it illuminate what happens in the story? What is the literal and symbolic significance, in terms of the novel, of falling into darkness?”

Are you running screaming for the door yet?

These are the kind of questions that make college kids think they hate fiction. But I tried. I tried to come up with questions that wouldn’t make a reader’s eyes glaze over, that would perhaps stimulate some positive thinking about my book. I sent them to my editor this morning. Her response? “If they remind you of an English class then maybe they’re boring questions. Try to come up with the kinds of questions a group of women sitting around with coffee and cookies would like to discuss, something that relates the story to their own lives.”

Um. Okay. How about… “How would you react if you found a partially butchered body with the severed hoof of a goat in its mouth? Compare and contrast your reaction with Sebastian’s.” Or maybe… “How would you feel if you discovered you were sleeping with your sister?”

Somebody just shoot me now.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

When Bad Things Happen to Good Writers, Part Two

Our second tale involves a writer done dirty by a bookstore. That’s right, a bookstore. You know, one of those huge bookstore chains that can make or break a writer. We won’t say which one.

First, a bit of backstory: Our writer—we’ll call her Honey—is the author of (among other things) two historical mysteries. Her mysteries were originally published several years ago in hardcover for an unusually large advance. Unfortunately, the books didn’t come close to earning out that advance and, rather than print the third book in the series, the publisher dropped Honey. Not all that uncommon, you say, and she did have those two fat advances to assuage her grief. But wait—it gets worse.

Flash forward a few years to the summer of 2007. Honey’s publisher has decided to reissue Honey’s historical mysteries in trade paperback with a planned release in the fall. Now this is a Very Lucky Break, almost unheard of in the industry. And then something even better happens—a Mega Bookstore Chain contacts Honey’s publisher and suggests they release her first book early, in August, to coincide with the release of the latest Jane Austen flick. You see, the MBC has a grandiose plan to feature Honey’s book on a table in the front of all their stores under a big sign that says, “If you like Jane Austen, you’ll love these books,” and they put in a nice big order for Honey’s trade paperback. With visions of high sales dancing in her head, Honey also begins nourishing hopes that her publisher will, finally, pick up the third book in her historical mystery series. Every author’s dream, right? Wrong.

Two weeks before Honey’s book comes out, the MBC decides—for reasons unknown—to scrap their plans for the Jane Austen table and they cancel their big orders for Honey’s books. But by this time, 10,000 copies of the book have already been printed and over 1/3 of those were destined for the MBC. Guess what this does to Honey’s “Numbers”?

What do these two very real stories have in common? Both feature writers tantalized by a chance at success only to be crushingly disappointed and let down in the end by people they trusted. This happens in the publishing industry so much, it’s scary. I suppose the lesson here is an old one—It ain’t over till the fat lady sings, or Don’t count your chickens before they hatch—you know the drill. But it doesn’t hurt to repeat the warning.

Writer beware.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

When Bad Things Happen to Good Writers, Part One

I’m about to tell two stories that are, sadly, only too true. I tell them as a warning to all who think they really want to get into this crazy publishing business and as a reminder to those who are already here to always, always look a gift horse in the mouth—at least when the gift horse comes from a New York publishing house.

Our first story stars a writer we’ll call Annie. Annie is (or maybe we should say, was) an up and coming writer of historical romances. She’s a smart lady, having earned a PhD in an earlier incarnation, and she’s been at this writing business for enough years that she was starting to attract some serious attention. She wrote for a strong house with an enviable reputation for putting even mediocre romance writers on the Times. She hadn’t exactly “made it,” but things were definitely looking good. So what happened?

Well, an editor from a rival House That Shall Not Be Named heard Annie was up for contract and approached Annie’s agent with a wonderful offer. The HTSNBN would give Annie a three-book contract at twice the advance she was making from her previous house. Not only that, but they also promised the moon and the stars, in the form of co-op (if you don’t know, that’s the money publishers pay to get an author’s book displayed at the front of stores) and oodles of promotion. Flattered and flush with visions of her imminent success, Annie switched houses. So what happened?

The HTSNBN didn’t provide either the promotion or the co-op. Without these inducements, advance orders were thin. The print run for her first book with the HTSNBN was smaller than her print runs with her old publisher. There was no way this book was going to come even close to earning out its stellar advance. Frightened by the hemorrhaging red ink, the HTSNBN gave Annie’s second book an even smaller print run, and if the print run for her third book had been any smaller, it’d have been a negative number. At the end of her three-book contract, the HTSNBN dropped Annie. Annie now has no contract and “numbers” that are in the toilet. Through no fault of her own, her career is perilously close to being ruined.

Why did the HTSNBN do this to Annie? I don’t know. It’s just weird. After all, they approached her. They should have known that without the co-op and other promotional activities they’d promised, there was no way her books were going to earn out a high advance, yet somewhere along the line they made the decision to yank their support and simply throw her books out there to disappear into the ether.

It’s tempting to think, “Well, maybe she turned in books that weren’t as good as they expected.” But that isn’t it. The sad truth is that Annie’s story is unbelievably common. I’ve seen something similar happen to my sister (Penelope Williamson), to me, and to more writers than I could name. And it isn’t just the publishers you need to watch out for. You also need to be wary of bookstores. That’s right, bookstores.

But that's for Part Two…

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Punch It Up

We all know the “rule”—that the last sentence of every scene, like the last sentence of a chapter and the last sentence of a book—needs to be powerful. This is a concept my writers group has been kicking around for a while, and we’ve realized the same thing is also true of paragraphs. The more wallop packed by the last sentence of every paragraph, the more effective the writing.

And then we noticed something else—the last WORD in each paragraph needs to carry a punch. We looked at a poem written by Charles (which happened to be handy at the time we were discussing this). The last words in his stanzas were evocative words like misery, peril, aura. Then we looked at a poem by another writer. The last words in his stanzas were pedestrian words like it, them, then. The difference was startling. It might be more noticeable in poetry, but the same principle applies to prose.

Yes, there are times the humdrum word choice can’t be avoided, or when the flow and cadence require the invisible “said.” But glance through a few novels, just looking at the final words in the paragraphs, and you’ll quickly notice the difference. I pull SUNSET LIMITED by James Lee Burke from my shelves and I see paragraphs ending with words like fingers, skin, heat, stars, breathe, glow, porch, bone, scrawl. I look at a bestselling thriller written by a former romance writer and see sentences ending with words like him, it, is, to, out, up, out, here, well, that, on, down, had.

This is something the best writers do instinctively. But it doesn’t hurt to be aware of this concept. It’s one more tool that can be brought into play at the revision stage, when you know a passage doesn’t “feel” quite right or lacks the necessary punch. Look at the last words in your paragraphs.

Friday, August 17, 2007

On Pacing

If you’d asked me a couple of days ago how to make a book fast-paced, I’d have said, Keep it moving and up the stakes. It’s the typical advice. In his Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight Swain tells us to increase pace by expanding scenes and cutting sequels—in other words, more action, less thinking and feeling.

But I was reading something by David Griffith last night, and he says the way to keep up a fast pace is to set and answer questions, doing this continuously from scene to scene and from sequence to sequence, thus keeping your reader in a state of anticipation and expectation until the end. As soon as you answer one question, you immediately raise another. That way, we enter each scene with a question hanging over us from the previous scene, and we immediately get out of that scene as soon as a new question is raised. According to Griffith, it’s when a writer fails to keep raising these questions that a book or movie becomes slow and the audience loses interest.

Intriguing stuff. I know I deliberately do this in my mysteries—Sebastian learns something to make him think Suspect A is the killer; he chases down this new information, only to discover there is an innocent explanation. But before I swerve away from that scene, he learns SOMETHING that raises a new question in his head and sends him off after Suspect B, and so on. From the very beginning I have made a conscious effort to make the series fast-paced, and editors and reviewers alike constantly comment on how fast the pacing in this series is. Yet I never connected the pacing with the question/new question technique I was using. And it never occurred to me to apply it to other genres.

A fascinating idea. I’m going to take a look at the plot for my next thriller, and make sure I keep those questions coming.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

On Titles

Coming up with the right title for your book is so important, it’s scary.

While it’s true that some great books with great titles have died hideous, unjustified deaths in the “numbers game,” it’s also true that a great title (especially when allied with a catchy idea) has lifted more than one ho-hum book into the winners’ circle. Which means any writer wanting to succeed in this crazy business needs to pay a lot of attention to titles.

So what makes a great title? According to James Bonnet, a title needs to clearly signal the book’s genre. That sounds like a no brainer, but for some reason it struck me as profound. You see, I’m aware of the need not to send a FALSE signal to readers (hence my decision to name book number four in the Sebastian St. Cyr series WHERE VIRGINS SLEEP rather than WHERE DRAGONS SLEEP). But for some reason I wasn’t as clear on the need to have a title--like a cover--that clearly telegraphs my book’s actual genre to a reader. I tend to focus instead on finding a title that sounds intriguing or evocative, or that fits the book. Silly me.

Think about it: TITANIC immediately tells us we’re dealing with a disaster movie, just like THE PRINCESS DIARIES tells us this book/movie plugs into the Cinderella fantasy and THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA tells us we’re dealing with a book/movie about shopping. Romances are often ridiculed for their titles, from the days of SWEET SAVAGE LOVE to YEARNING HEARTS. But mysteries are just as bad, using the word “death” ad nauseam, along with words like “sin” and “prey” and, of course, “murder.” Unoriginal? Yes. Effective? Yes.

Another clever insight from Bonnet is the importance of making sure that your title immediately conveys your genre’s prime emotion—fear for horror, intrigue for mystery, lust for erotica, etc. I’ve picked up some other good tips from Bonnet, and I’ll talk about them next time.