Thursday, January 31, 2008

This Is Progress?

I’m in the process of going through the copyedited pages of THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT. Normally I get back my own manuscript pages with the copyeditor’s changes marked in blue. No longer. This time the publisher required me to send in a disk with my final version. The copyeditor inserted her changes on the document, using the function in Word that lets you track changes. Supposedly.

There’s the rub. She obviously went through the entire manuscript with the search and replace function, and wiped out all capitalizations of things like the Colonel, the President, the Administration. None of these changes are flagged. Do you KNOW how long it’s going to take me to go through and find all of those? I, of course, do not have the electronic version. At this point I’m only allowed the printout sheets, since all sorts of printer instructions have also been inserted.

But it gets worse. Perhaps it’s something about the process of sitting at a computer rather than blue-penciling a manuscript, but she also seems to have been inspired to rewrite chunks of my manuscript, changing my style to something far more anal and, well, English majorish (my apologies to all English majors out there), as well as just plain different. The brothers whom I described as being “around eight or ten” become “nine or ten.” A young woman talking about a “guy” now talks about a “man.” My favorite is when the villain, rather than squeezing the trigger of his gun, squeezes his gun. At one point, the heroine is groping to find the words to describe the remote viewing experience. She says it’s like a daydream, or a memory she holds in her mind. My helpful copyeditor changed it to “it’s like a memory.” Period. Well, gee; I could have thought of that myself, if that’s what I wanted to say! I’m surprised she hasn’t taken it upon herself to rename my characters.

I could go on and on and on, but I won’t. And don’t get me started about all the times she changed the sense of what I was saying, so that the text now says the opposite of what it did before. I have now published thirteen books and I have never, ever, had anything even remotely like this done to my manuscript.

I’m not a prima donna. I really appreciate copyeditors who catch my mistakes. But she’s not catching mistakes, she’s inserting them, and completely changing the tone and style of the work. that’s not her job. Someone take away this lady’s computer and make her use a blue pencil!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Author Branding, Part Four

Now that we’ve decided on our brand image, the next question is, How do we convey this brand to the world?

For authors, this can be tricky, since the two most important and visible ways of conveying an authors’ brand—book covers and book titles—are the two things over which an author has little or no control. But I suspect that the writer who talks to her editor and her house’s publicist, and comes up with a coherent and promising brand image, will dramatically improve her chances of keeping her titles and getting covers that convey her brand’s image.

Keeping in mind my newly formulated Sebastian St. Cyr brand image, I took a look at the titles of the first four book in my series. I realize that I intuitively selected titles that conveyed my brand image of mystery and danger. The “question’ words immediately evoke mystery, while “Fear”, “Die”, and “Serpents” are all “danger” words. Even “Why Mermaids Sing” works, since it calls to mind the image of Sirens luring sailors to their deaths. No sex here (except, I suppose, in the Mermaids image), but in brainstorming titles for the fifth book in this series I’ve come to realize that it’s very, very hard to come up with titles that convey both sex and danger and yet don’t sound like the title of a porno flick.

In analyzing my covers, I now understand why the cover of my second book, WHEN GODS DIE, didn’t work. I’ve talked to many readers who liked that cover, but I never did. Now I can articulate why: it’s totally static, with no movement or danger or threat. It’s just a guy standing there looking at a building, and does nothing to convey the series’ image. When it comes time to cover conference my next book and my editor asks for my ideas, I’ll be in a better position to articulate the kind of covers I think we need to come up with—dangerous, action-oriented, sexy.

But if covers and titles are out of an author’s control, the one obvious way an author can influence his brand’s image is with his website. In looking at my website I realize that, again, I intuitively chose images that were dark and dangerous, and the site plays up my background as a professional historian. No emphasis on the sexy hero, though. Hmmm…

Another important way to convey your brand is through interviews. Once you know what that brand is, you can repeatedly make it a point to emphasize it. Fantasy writer Charles Gramlich always mentions Burroughs when he talks about his Taleran books, and he says it works. Journalists are busy people; give them a good hook and they’ll use it.

The important thing to remember is that, once you’ve decided on your brand, you need to stay consistent. This is why so many writers rebel against branding, and yes, it can be a straightjacket. But it doesn’t have to be. And being consistent doesn’t mean staying the same.

If you think of a brand as a personality, then you’ll realize that if it’s always the same, it starts to get old and boring. When I was young, I used to like a band called The James Gang. I bought a couple of their albums, but then I quit. Why? Every song sounded the same as the last, which is probably why the band disappeared. Now think of the Rolling Stones. They’ve been around forever. Why? Because they evolved with time. Every time they come out with a new album, it’s a little bit different. Only 5-10% different—you don’t want to change too radically all at once, or you’ll lose people—but it’s still enough to keep them interesting. We all know authors we once read but dropped because each book was just like the one before. (Judging by those authors sales, obviously many readers are not troubled by this!)

But what if your brand does start to feel like a straightjacket? What if you write fast-paced, dangerous historical mysteries about a sexy Regency Viscount and you get the urge to write a contemporary thriller about a twenty-something female remote viewer? Does this mean you can’t do it?

No. But it does mean that it’s a good idea to write your contemporary thriller under a pseudonym, and create and market a new brand. Because the truth is, not all of your old readers will want to follow you. Some people read both historical mysteries and contemporary international thrillers; some people only read one or the other. But if you come up with the right image and convey it well, new readers who’ve no interest in historical mysteries but love contemporary thrillers will find you.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Defining Your Brand

So, we’ve done some research into what our readers like about our books, and we’ve looked at what readers like—and don’t like—about the competition (yes, I know we’re all supposed to be one big supportive writing community, but we’re talking marketing here). Now what?

Now we look at our readers’ comments, and think about our books, and come up with a list of what makes our books interesting, attractive and different. We add to this list anything that makes us, as writers, interesting, attractive and different. Why? Because while it may not be fair, the truth is that if you’re young and pretty and graduated from Harvard or Oxford, it will help sell your book.

This is the tricky part. To quote marketing guru Malcolm Schwarzenbach, “The real genius is in the editing.” Getting this part right requires an intuitive, up-to-the-minute grasp of our current culture—everything from the emergence of a “sustainability” movement (which, since it’s about saving us instead of saving the world, seems to have caught on in a way the Green movement never did) to “casual collapse” (the loosening up of society, less attractively known as cultural decadence) to political trends. Ask yourself, What’s going on out there that’s interesting and that connects with me and my books? Who out there would buy what I’m writing?

This is where knowing and understanding the competition helps. What else is out there that people are buying? Why are they successful? What is the market crying out for?

This is also where I have a hard time. Having lived so much of my life abroad, I am woefully out of step with modern America (I still remember the time when I was visiting my mother from the Middle East and noticed a magazine near the checkout in Borders; I asked my companion, “Who is Oprah?” and twenty people turned around and STARED at me.). I don’t watch TV. I get my news from international sources online, although I have started checking abcnews every day just so I have some insight into the “news” most people are seeing (so yes, I do know the latest in Britney’s life). If you’re culturally challenged like me, you may need some help here. The trick, as I understand it, is figuring out what is unique and different about your books, and yet not too unique and different. Even I know that now is not the time to try to sell a thriller with a hero named Mustafa Haddad.

To look at our earlier examples, What was so interesting about Anne Rice’s vampires? My guess is New Orleans and sex. Tom Clancy? Uh…I know guys like gadgets and…somebody help me out here.

Anyway, in pondering all these questions, I’ve concluded that the selling points of my Sebastian St. Cyr series are:
*fast pacing and action-packed suspense
*a sexy, Regency-era hero (hey; sex sells)
*my own background as a professional historian
I’d like to try to work in some of the other things people said they liked about my books, but I can’t see how to encapsulate those important aspects of my work into an easily conveyed image or tagline.

Now, having decided on our brand, the next step is to figure out how we convey that image to the world. I’ll talk about that next week.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Author Branding, Part Two: Market Research

In my last post, I talked about the concept of author branding. Today I’m going to look at the first step in creating an author brand: research. This involves asking some questions. The most obvious question to address is, What do my readers like about my books? This tells us what to stress. After all, we don’t simply want to attract readers to our books; we want to attract the readers who will LIKE our books. You see, branding isn’t about telling lies; it’s about recognizing what’s unique and interesting about each of us, and then using it to sell our books.

While it isn’t always possible to get either an honest or an informed answer, for published authors, an obvious place to start our research is with reviews of our books. (Unfortunately, while this will work for my Sebastian series, I don’t have that option with my up-coming thriller series; more about that later.) Unpublished authors can canvas all the writing colleagues, friends, and relatives who’ve read their manuscripts over the years.

So, what do my readers say they like about my Sebastian St. Cyr series? The most frequent responses are, in no necessary order: fast-pacing; complex, richly layered plots; action and suspense; historical accuracy that takes readers into all strata of Regency society; an ensemble of strong characters including a sexy hero; the overarcing mystery in the hero’s personal life (interestingly, the last is inevitably mentioned in person but rarely in written reviews).

For comparative purposes, I then looked at two very different bestselling historical mysteries from 2007: Mistress of the Art of Death and Silent in the Grave (neither of which I have read, so I have no personal prejudices here). Both have female protagonists. “Mistress” is a gritty story about the murder and sexual mutilation of children, set in the time of Henry II (“CSI meets Canterbury Tales”). “Silent” is a cozy set in Victorian England. So, what did the readers of these books like? Fans of “Mistress” repeatedly mention the strong female protagonist, the fascinating historical tidbits and CSI-like forensic details, the secondary romance, and the literary snob appeal of the Chaucer link. Fans of “Silent” liked the strong female protagonist, the Victorian setting, the clothing details, the secondary romance with a dark and mysterious stranger, and the humorous, breezy voice.

I also glanced at what readers of these books said they did NOT like. The secondary romance in “Mistress” annoyed many readers; no one complained about it in “Silent.” This tells me that readers attracted to cozy period mysteries are happy with a romance, whereas at least some readers of “gritty” mysteries will find it an annoyance. Various readers complained of historical inaccuracies. In certain cases these complaints were valid (activities in Victorian England that, while possible, would have raised eyebrows rather than merely earning indulgent smiles; a medieval cholera plague when cholera didn’t actually hit Europe until the 19th century; Sephardic Jews speaking Yiddish, etc); in other cases readers complaining about historical inaccuracies were actually wrong themselves. Some readers of “Mistress” found the prose awkward. Some readers of “Silent” found the breezy voice annoying, and the “strong” female protagonist an idiot. One of my readers said reading my book caused her to suffer what she called “chase-anxiety;” she prefers less suspenseful, less action-packed mysteries with no sex. Several other readers found Sebastian too liberal-minded for their tastes (scary thought). I also know from a link I belong to (CrimeThruTime) that many historical mystery fans didn’t even pick up “Mistress” because they don’t like reading about serial killers of children. Inevitably, the very aspect of a book than attracts some readers will turn off others.

Armed with this kind of information, the author-in-search-of-a-branded-identity then needs to ask some more questions. What is it about my books and about me as a writer that’s different or unique? Who out there would buy what I’m writing? What else is out there that people are buying? What is the market crying for? How do I connect with my readers?

More on that next time.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Author Branding

“Author branding” has become an increasingly “hot” concept in the publishing industry. So, what is author branding, and how does an author successfully “brand” him/herself? With special thanks to brand study and research expert Malcolm Schwarzenbach, I’m going to spend the next two or three posts exploring this topic.

As modern America consumers, we all understand the concept of a brand. It’s the set of expectations that come into our minds when we hear a product’s name. Think about cars. Mercedes=expensive, luxurious, high-maintenance; Honda=reliable, practical, affordable. To use Malcolm’s example, if Mercedes and Honda decided to make watches, you’d already know what they’d be like, wouldn’t you? Now, think about the expectations and associations evoked by bestselling authors’ names. We hear Tom Clancy and we think: military, suspense, bestseller, technothriller. We hear Anne Rice and we think: vampires, witches, New Orleans, sexy-scary.

In essence, a brand is a simplifier. In our society, simple is good. We have so many choices today that no one has the time to do all the research necessary to really make an informed choice. Branding makes life easier.

Some writers might revolt at this concept. Why do I have to be pigeonholed? Why can’t I just be known as a “good writer”? The problem is, of course, that “good” is a value judgment and unless you’re Oprah, no one’s going to take your word for it. As for being pigeonholed…see simplifier, above.

Okay, you might be thinking; I can see how this could be good for sales. Only, how do I decide what my “brand” is?

The first question a writer needs to ask is, What do my readers like about my books?
The problem with asking this question is that readers frequently aren’t very good at articulating the reasons they love a book. They also lie.

Consider a certain wildly popular writer of romantic sagas who shall remain nameless. Several years ago, when I tried a couple of her books, I was bemused to discover that they involved a significant amount of mild S&M, i.e., the hero and heroine both get raped and whipped. In both books. (I don’t know if the series continues this tendency because I quit halfway through the second book.) Now, I’m not saying everyone who reads her books reads for those elements, but given their frequency of occurrence, I suspect they’re a solid part of the books’ appeal with a significant percentage of this author’s readership. And here’s the weird part: except for one writer friend who also found those elements peculiar, I’ve never heard any of this writers’ millions of fans mention them. When Suzie Soccer Mom goes on to rave about her favorite writer, is she going to say, “And I really love the part where the villain rapes the hero!”? No. She’s going to gush, “I love the characters. And the books are soooo historically correct.”

So, getting accurate answers to this question can be tough. Nevertheless, in the interest of market research, I decided to do something I usually avoid doing: look at my reviews. I always read my professional reviews—PW and Kirkus and the like—because they have a huge impact on my career. But I avoid my Amazon reviews because I tend to go ballistic when some idiot gets on there and rants about how my portrayals of my 19th century characters’ thoughts are anachronistic (as a historian, the history of thoughts and ideas was my SPECIALTY). To make my market research more effective, I decided to also read the Amazon reviews of two other recent historical mysteries. One of these books falls into the “cozy” historical mystery subgenre; the other can be described as more “gritty.” I was interested to see how their readers’ comments differed from each others’ and how they differed from mine.

I’ll talk about the results of that interesting venture next time.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

It’s Mardi Gras Time Again, and Brrrrh!

Last week we were basking in 80 degree weather. But for this weekend’s first Carnival parades, the temperatures plummeted down into the 30’s. Does this girl look miserable, or what?

With wind chill factors down in the 20’s, we never made it to last night’s Krewe du Vieux parade through the French Quarter. But we did brave the cold for the Driftwood Parade.

This is a neighborhood parade, and always a great time—even when mittens make catching beads hard!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

On Foreign Rights

This is a topic sparked by questions I received after I posted my Aussie covers a couple of days ago. It’s one of those nuts and bolts issues in publishing that beginning writers usually don’t think about until someone sends them their first contract. So, what’s it all about?

Consider Joe Author, who has just sold his new book, The Great American Mystery, to St. Martin’s Press. On the advice of his agent, Joe cedes his publisher World rights. What does that mean?

Contract clauses vary, but typically a writer ceding foreign rights to their publisher does so on a 50-50 bases. In other words, if Joe’s North American publisher sells the rights to his mystery to a British publisher for $1,000, Joe will only get $500 of that. Actually, Joe might not ever see that $500. Because the sale comes under Joe’s contract with St. Martin’s, the money from the British sale won’t go directly to Joe; it will be applied against his advance. Only when Joe’s mystery earns out will he receive his $500 from the British sale. (Except of course that, even then, Joe won't get the full $500; Joe only gets $425 or $450, depending on whether his agent takes a 10 or 15 percent commission.)

Now, compare Joe’s experience to Mary’s. Mary signed a contract retaining all of her foreign rights. Mary’s agent sells her French language rights to Paris for $1000. So, how much of that does Mary actually get? Agents typically take 20% of foreign sales, simply because they’re more time-consuming and therefore more expensive to negotiate. But Mary still makes $800 out of her foreign sale, compared to Joe, who only made $425.

From this you might conclude that it’s a no brainer for authors to retain their foreign rights. Well, like so much else in the publishing industry, it’s not that simple.

First of all, sometimes a house will refuse to budge on foreign rights. You can either sign over all your foreign rights, or go find another publisher. Hmmm.

At other times, a house will pay more for a book if it comes with world rights. The thinking here is, We THINK this book will earn out if we pay $30,000 for it, but we’re not sure. If we hedge our bets and hold onto World rights, we can up our chances of covering our asses if the book bombs. So the publisher tells the editor, “Offer Joe $25,000 for North American rights only, but $30,000 for World.” Again, the author has a choice to make. It’s possible he could insist on retaining his world rights and then never make a single foreign sale. Bzzzzz. You lose $5,000.

A lot depends on the author’s agent. Large, prestigious agencies like William Morris have dedicated foreign sales departments. Their clients typically—but not always—retain their foreign rights. On the other hand, most small, one-man agencies are seldom equipped to make foreign sales. Their clients are best advised to sign over their foreign rights to their publishers and be happy with 50% (minus the agent’s 10-15%, of course) of whatever rights their publisher sells.

Frequently a publisher will insist on retaining World English rights. This means the author can sell the book to be translated and sold someplace like France or the Czech Republic, but only the original North American publisher can sell the book to Britain or Australia.

That’s the nuts and bolts. What’s my personal experience? When I first started out in this business, I was with William Morris, and they saw to it that I retained all my foreign rights. When my agent, Helen, left William Morris to marry a Hollywood producer and move to California, I went with her. Her agency is small, but she works with a dedicated foreign sales agent who is very effective. We usually retain foreign rights, but we sometimes cede World English. More about that later.

Just how lucrative are foreign sales, anyway? I know some authors who’ve sold to German and French publishers (typically the best-paying markets) for six figures. That is rare. Most foreign sales are for $1-5,000. But if an author sells to fifteen or twenty different countries, that can add up. Particularly when you figure this is “found” money—essentially gravy on top of whatever you made from your sale to your North American Publishers.

Of course, not all books sell well overseas, and not all overseas markets are easy to enter. I’ve found that romances sell much better than historical mysteries; I’m STILL selling my romances to new foreign publishers. I’ve also found that Britain is a really, really hard market to crack. My advice to beginning authors is, If your publisher wants World English rights, let them keep them. For some reason, publishers seem to have more success selling to Britain and Australia than agents.

There are lots of other rights that authors and publishers wrangle over at contract time—film rights, large print rights, audio rights—lots and lots of rights. But for every author who sells her book to Hollywood, hundreds more will make a foreign sale. So while we all dream of seeing our book made into a movie, we’re more likely to find ourselves renting storage space to have someplace to go with all those boxes and boxes of books in Russian and Dutch, Italian and Chinese, Romanian and Bulgarian, Spanish and Swedish, Danish and Slovakian…

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

ANGELS and GODS Downunder

I've just received the gorgeous Australian covers for the first two books in my Sebastian St. Cyr series, due to be released downunder this spring (well, autumn there). Aren't they great?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Dan Brown, Cassie Edwards, and the Scarlet “P”

There’s a big brouhaha brewing in the worlds of romance and publishing. The bloggers at a site called Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books have discovered that Cassie Edwards, a popular author of historical romances, makes it a habit of dumping tidbits of research into her novels without bothering to substantially alter the wording. In other words, she’s guilty of plagiarism. Well, sort of.

While her unattributed borrowings might have earned her an “F” on a history paper back in school, it’s also true that no one could sue her for plagiarism and win. Which is why Penguin, her publisher, is saying that what she did is NOT plagiarism, but falls under the category of “fair-usage.”

This response by Penguin enraged the Smart Bitches to the point that they called for a boycott of all Penguin books. A bit of calm reflection, however, was enough to make the Bitches come to their senses and realize that while a publisher as huge as Penguin could easily weather such a boycott, Penguin’s poor, innocent authors might well see their careers ruined by such an action. (As one of the House of Penguins’ poor, innocent authors, I’m naturally glad the Bitches realized they weren’t being so “smart” after all.)

Now, I can get pretty irate about plagiarism. I used to be a college professor, after all. And yet I find myself not so much irate as disturbed. Why? Because of Dan Brown.

My first thought when I read the Bitches’ examples—typically a sentence here, two sentences there—was, “Well, at least she bothered to do some research!” I’ve read far too many historical romances, and historical mysteries, and even thrillers, whose authors were too lazy to do even that. Then I heard Edwards has written over a hundred romances in 25 years. I mean, really! Do the math. This lady is frantically churning those suckers out. I’m not saying that excuses her, because it doesn't. Her "borrowing" is far more extensive and systematic than I at first realized. But what precisely do her readers and publishers expect? Leaving time for revisions, copyedits, and galleys, she’s writing her books in less than three months each. As the ever-wise Steve Malley pointed out, what we’re dealing with here is sloppy writing.

Which brings me to Dan Brown, also accused of plagiarism. By multiple people.

One of them, Lewis Perdue, wrote THE DA VINCI LEGACY and THE DAUGHTER OF GOD, in which an art historian is killed, but not before he manages to write a message. In blood. On his own body. Our hero, falsely accused of the crime, sets out with our heroine on a quest that involves secret messages in paintings, a key, a safe deposit box containing another clue, a secret brotherhood with links to the Vatican who try to stop our hero and heroine from finding documents that will rock the Catholic Church to its very core since it seems that there was this woman who was really, gasp, the daughter of Jesus Christ…

When Perdue pointed out these “borrowings” and complained, Brown and Co. hit him with a lawsuit.

And then there are the authors of HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL. Having read HB, HG back in the 80’s, I was stunned when I started reading Brown’s THE DA VINCI CODE. I kept saying, “I can’t believe this! How can this guy get away with this? This is blatant plagiarism.” Except, of course, that legally it was not. As we all know, the authors of HB, HG sued. And lost. (In a sense it served them right for trying to pass off their half-baked conspiracy theory and pseudohistory as real. I have a feeling Danny Boy didn’t realize they’d made most of it up.)

There are many others who “contributed” to Danny Boy’s work. A Russian art historian who wrote a paper called “The Da Vinci Code,” from which Brown allegedly took the, well, “code.” Authors of books on the Goddess tradition in Western culture, authors of books on art. Even an article called “Leonardo’s Lost Robot,” written by robotics expert Mark Rosheim. We're talking big chunks, taken virtually verbatim. Maybe if these guys could have gotten together and brought a class action lawsuit against DB, they’d have won.

The thing that gets me about all this is that Dan Brown, who in my opinion has the ethical standards of pond scum, managed to come out of it smelling like the proverbial rose. Instead of snide articles in PW and the TIMES a la Cassie Edwards, journalists rushed to say, "Well, when you write a bestseller you have to expect to be sued," as if those making the accusations had no case but were driven by shear greed. As a result, there are still MILLIONS of people out there buying his books, calling him brilliant, eagerly awaiting his next--well, I hesitate to call it his "creation." Why is this guy not reviled? Ridiculed? Laughed out of the industry, never to be published again? Why, in other words, was he not treated the way Cassie Edwards is being treated? At least no one is accusing her of not coming up with her own characters, plots, and situations. Comparing her to Danny Boy is like comparing a shoplifter to the perpetrators of the Great Train Robbery.

Is it because she’s a woman? Because she writes romances rather than thrillers? Because Dan Brown made megabucks from the tale he so clumsily cobbled together from the works of others? Because the mainstream media who gushed about his "brilliance" had so much invested in his “success” that they didn’t want to admit that the megastar they’d helped create was, well, something far less than admirable? Like a cheat and a liar and a sneak?

Because in the end, what is plagiarism except theft?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Frustration Loves Company

I'm obviously not the only one with title issues. This is from ANSIBLE, a scifi e-newsletter:

The tile of "SIMON R. GREEN's latest novel had to be changed: 'It was originally called JUST ANOTHER DAMNED HERO, but the publishers said it couldn't be called that, because none of the book chains in the US would accept a book title that had the word "damned" in it. Really. In this day and age. So, the book now has a new title: JUST ANOTHER JUDGEMENT DAY.' Perhaps THIS is why Tim LaHaye's 'Left Behind' series wasn't rapturously entitled 'You're All Damned, Ha Ha, Except For Some Of My
Buddies.' "

Thanks to Sphinx Ink for the above tidbit.

And you'll have to pardon me over the next few days as I adjust to my new computer. I finally gave up on my old Apple and took the plunge on a new one. Not only does this one do what it's supposed to do and refrain from doing what it's not supposed to do, but certain features (such as, ahem, iTunes) work only too well!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Title Tales

After my last post on the rejection of my new title, "What Hell Marks" (due to concerns about the word "hell") Steve Malley suggested a great substitute: "What Blood Marks." I eagerly ran it past my editors. The response?

"Blood" sounds so violent. It might put off some readers.

Um... This is a mystery series, right? Mysteries generally involve murder, which typically involves blood and violence. But what do I know?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Title Woes

I had no problems at all with the titles of my first three Sebastian books. They came easily, and my editors loved them. But that was yesterday, and yesterday’s gone.

The last book, WHERE SERPENTS SLEEP, was in naming fits for the better part of a year before ending up right back where it started. Book Number Five is shaping up to be even worse. I’d called it WHAT HELL MARKS, which is taken from a Shakespearean quote, “Sin, death, and hell hath set their mark upon him…” It really, really fit the book, but after my last experience, I decided to run it past my editor. Her response?

“I’m afraid some of the accounts (“accounts” are New Yorkspeak for booksellers) might not order a book with ‘hell’ in the title. We don’t want to give them any reason not to order the book.”

Sigh. I’ve spent the better part of a week trying to come up with something else, playing with words, all to no avail. I thought about, “What Death Marks,” but it just doesn’t excite me. I’m afraid I’m in for another long slog.

And I don't know what's happened to the blog header, but I'm trying to get it fixed.

Thursday, January 03, 2008


Shauna Roberts at For Love of Words awarded me a Roar for Powerful Words. It asks me to name what I consider the three most important essentials for powerful and effective writing. It’s taken me a while to settle on my answer, but here it is. I’ve taken the liberty of interpreting the question to apply to FICTION writing.

1. Characters. Whether we write about people, horses, ghosts, or Martians, it’s the characters that bring readers to our stories. If the Titanic had gone down in the middle of the Atlantic with no one on board, would we care? No. It’s the human element of that tragedy that has fascinated us for nearly a hundred years now. Stories are not about society balls or explosions or chase scenes; stories are about characters—people (or people-like creatures) facing choices, experiencing emotions, dealing with life. The more powerful our characters, the more powerful our books.

2. Storytelling. “Let me tell you a story…” This is where it all begins, and this is where the power is—in crafting for our characters a series of intertwining events and actions that provoke emotions and intrigue and inspire and delight. I want to tell stories so powerful they’ll stay with my readers long after they’ve closed the pages of my books.

3. Respect. I think this is the single most important aspect of powerful writing—and this applies to all writing, not just fiction writing. Respect for one’s craft, respect for oneself as a writer, but most importantly, respect for one’s readers. This is what drives me to spend days researching an illusive fact, that inspires me to deepen my characters, to polish my prose, to close up my gaping plot holes, to plumb the depths of each scene’s emotional potential. It’s because I respect my readers and my craft that I strive always to avoid the overdone, the hackneyed, the melodramatic; that I don’t let myself take the easy way out, that I always push myself to reach that little bit further.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Years Resolutions

Every year I list them. At times I’m tempted to give up the exercise as futile, but the truth is that once in a while, they work. Every year I resolve to eat better, exercise more, and lose weight. And you know what? Last year I did. What made the difference? I suspect it was the discovery the week before Christmas that a first cousin just two years my senior had stage three ovarian cancer. I looked up preventing cancer, and there it was: exercise, stay lean, eat well. Suddenly it was no longer just about vanity; it was about my health and being here for my girls (yes, I know they’re grown, but they still need their mother) and for Steve. As a result, my resolution this year is simply “keep exercising and eating well.” And by the way, my incredible cousin is still alive—in fact, she hosted the family’s Christmas Eve party.

So what else is on my list this year? Number One: Stop Procrastinating. I’m a terrible procrastinator. ‘Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow’ could be my motto. This was actually a late addition to my list, but when I realized that doing this one thing would probably help me accomplish most of the other things on the list, I gave it top billing.

Number Two: Get More Sleep. Since I’m a terrible insomniac, I’m still trying to figure out HOW to do this, but it’s my second priority.

Number Three: Keep a Cleaner House. Living first as a refugeee, then in a building zone after Katrina, I learned I could either tolerate mess or go insane. But what was once adaptive has become habitual. Enough is enough. Notice it does not say, “Keep a Clean House.” That’s asking too much for a writer with two book contracts. But cleaner would be, well, an improvement.

Number Four: Cook More. Pre-Katrina, Steve and I sat down to a proper home-cooked dinner most nights. Now, it’s rare. Typically, he’ll open a can of beans and I’ll have a fruit and yogurt smoothie. Yes, our nest is usually empty these days, but the occasional fish and veggie meal would be nice. I married a great cook, so this is really a joint resolution. He just doesn’t know it yet!

I thought about putting “Finish rebuilding the house” on the list, but I decided that would only raise my stress levels and work against #2, so I left it off. Hopefully #1 will help motivate me to at least paint the trim in my office. I realize that Numbers One, Three and Four will probably also work against Number Two. Ah, well. I’ll let you know at the end of the year how I did.

Thanks to all who wished me well. I'm feeling much better. Happy New Year to all!