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.