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.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Letting Go

I've just spent an exhausting, heart-rending week delivering my youngest to college in Florida. It's an incredible place--a small liberal arts college right on the beach, complete with great vegetarian food and a wonderfully supportive faculty and staff. She's already already signed up for sailing lessons and the search and rescue team. I know she'll have a great experience there and that does help. A little.

Yet this morning I found myself needing to reach for The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran, and rereading this passage:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Good News!

Writing is taking a backseat with me at the moment as I’m busy getting daughter #2 ready to head off to college. An exciting and heartbreaking time.

But, I’ve just learned that my next Sebastian St. Cyr mystery, WHY MERMAIDS SING, has been picked up by the Book of the Month Club and the Mystery Guild! I had book club sales for my romances, but this is my first mystery book club sale. They’re always great publicity, and they’re also great for a sagging morale.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Reading Casablanca in Louisiana

My writers group has been doing something interesting the past few weeks. As part of exploring how screenwriters handle exposition through dialogue, we’ve been reading the script of Casablanca. I mean, literally reading it. Every Monday night for the last couple of weeks we’ve been sitting around and reading the script aloud. Just to make it fun we’ve mixed up the sexes. I’m Rick, and Charles is Ilsa.

Amusement aside, it’s been an interesting exercise. Going over the script aloud, taking turns at reading our parts, has given us a new appreciation for how great a screenplay Casablanca is, even after all these years. Not only is the exposition well done, but the characterization is superb. We hope to finish it tonight, then next week we’re going to have party and watch the movie!

Oh, and the new homepage for my website is up! The entire new site won’t be ready until late September or so, but the temporary entry page looks great. Check it out at

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Book Videos, Part Two

It wasn’t until I started looking into this new promotional phenomenon that I realized there are actually several different categories of book videos. They range in cost from less than $500 up to and beyond $50,000.

The most elaborate—and expensive—involve live actors dramatizing a scene or scenes from the book. Some of these videos run to four or five minutes or more. At the other end of the spectrum are thirty-second quickies that basically involve panned shots of the book’s cover, sometimes with a voiceover and music, sometimes not.

I spent several hours wandering around looking at these things, visiting both the sites of the companies that make them and offer examples of their productions on their sites, and the websites of various authors I thought might have them. My reactions? Mixed.

For one thing, I realized that when you’re not a book’s target audience, it’s pretty hard to judge how effective its book video is. Many of the videos struck me as laughably silly—but then, the books they were pushing struck me as laughably silly, too. So maybe if I were an eager reader of those genres, I’d have found the videos enticing.

Yet even when the video was pushing a book that might have appealed to me, I found I did not like those videos that used actors doing live dramatizations. Why? Maybe it was because most of the actors basically weren’t very good. Almost without exception, the “dramatizations” just looked lame. Once again I found myself thinking, “This is silly.” This was true even of examples such as the book video for Dean Koontz’s THE GOOD GUY—and you know that, at least, was a high-end video made with reasonably competent actors.

Some book videos are just basically author interviews. Now, I generally enjoy listening to authors talk about their books, but for some reason these didn’t seem to work very well either.

In general, the ones that I liked the best tended to feature either stills or short, generic footage of things like planes taking off or aerial shots of Paris or whatever. And the shorter the better. I bore very easily and anything over 30 seconds generally lost me. My vote for the best video company? But then, their most successful book videos were funny. When it comes to book videos, I think funny is a lot easier to do than serious. My vote for the authors with the best book videos goes to Douglas Preston and Lincoln Childs—but then, theirs were made for TV, so of course they’re good!

Ironically, I found that most really “big name” writers don’t seem to have book videos on their sites (although of course, some do). Book videos seem to be most popular with romance writers. Some of the examples I found under “What you get for $20,000 to $50,000” were done for romance writers—and some of those writers couldn’t be making more than $5-10,000 a book. That’s crazy.

Do book videos help sell books? I suspect that depends on a book’s audience. As more and more people get more and more of their information from the Net, I suspect we’ll be seeing more book videos. Am I going to jump on the bandwagon? Not for $20,000, especially for a live-action video I'd probably find silly anyway. But for $500?

The jury’s still out.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Are Book Trailers the new Blog?

First we had websites. Any author who wanted her publisher to take her seriously (and renew her contract) needed a website—the more extensive and frequently updated, the better. Then came blogs. More personal than websites and constantly updated, blogs became the new, “must-have” tool for bookselling. Now, we have book trailers. And so the pressure begins.

I do think websites are useful. When I hear about a new writer, one of the first things I’ll do is look up his or her website. I don’t think I’ve ever bought a book because of a website, although there have been quite a few times I decided NOT to buy a book because of what I’ve seen on a website (more information isn’t necessarily a good thing). But I suspect I’m unusual in that. Romance readers in particular seem to love interactive authors’ websites.

The self-promotion frenzy that typifies the romance industry also helped drive the proliferation of blogs. How effective are they at attracting new readers? I suspect that, at first, they did work. Now there are so many blogs that I have to wonder who’s reading them all. Certainly, given the time involved, they are a sinkhole. Yes, they’re a way of saying to your publisher, “Look, I’m self-promoting!” (Are you sensing a theme here?) But beyond that? I suspect that with few exceptions, only people who already read an author’s book read her blog. I blog because I’ve found I enjoy it. I enjoy practicing what is essentially a different kind of writing from what I do all day, and I enjoy exploring ideas with other bright, interesting people from around the world who so often open me up to new ways of looking at various things. But how many people actually read my blog besides my sister-in-law, my friends, and my ex-husbands? I don’t know.

Now I find myself coming under pressure to do a book trailer. No, my publisher hasn’t actually said anything to me yet. But when the newsletter for Novelists, Inc, arrived yesterday with a long article about book videos, I felt pressured enough to spend most of the evening cruising the net and looking at examples. Since this is already getting long, I’ll save my thoughts on what I saw for another posting. But did I see any book advertised that I wanted to buy? No.