Thursday, June 30, 2011
Every writer keeps files with ideas, plot summaries, lines of dialog. Mine are in a folder titled "Great Beginnings." Sometimes, when I access it to add something I don't want to work on but don't want to forget, I reread one of the files. I did that today and discovered something I scribbled in 2009, something I'd forgotten I wrote:
One of those rainy October mornings, with the streets imperfectly reflecting sky and traffic lights, collecting red and yellow leaves along the gutters. I was passing Saks in Highland Park. They had the bronze security gate halfway up, and a young woman was kneeling to clean the smudges off the glass doors. As she paused in her task, she gazed out at the rainy landscape. Her expression seemed to reflect the wet gray sky.
I observe my surroundings,
especially the people around me.
I observe myself observing.
It's not unlike the glimpse of absurdity
you get in a fun house,
where a mirror reflects
a smaller reflection of itself
reflecting a smaller reflection of itself
Friday, June 24, 2011
My students assume that when well-respected writers sit down to write their books, they know pretty much what is going to happen because they've outlined most of the plot, and this is why their books turn out so beautifully and why their lives are so easy and joyful, their self-esteem so great, their childlike senses of trust and wonder so intact. Well I do not know anyone fitting this description at all. Everyone I know flails around kvetching and
growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.
...your first writing is as delicate as a seedling. Don't show it to some yahoo who wouldn't know an orchid from kudzu.Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See
If you use a colloquialism or a slang word or phrase, simply use it; do not draw attention to it by enclosing it in quotation marks. To do so is to put on airs, as though you were inviting the reader to join you in select society of those who know better.The Elements of Style, Strunk and White
Sometimes you just have to be stubborn. No matter how difficult the writing task, how slowly the words come, how altogether discouraging the act of writing seems to be, your stubborn streak keeps you going.The Daily Writer, Fred White
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing
Just for fun, agree with criticism directed toward you (then watch it go away)Don't Sweat the Small Stuff...and it's all small stuff, Richard Carlson, PH.D
And my own: enjoy every minute of it.
Thursday, June 16, 2011
I was diagnosed with ulcers in February, and I know the exact day they started to form. It was the day I realized the entire way I’d been marketing my books over the past 10 years had, in the digital e-book age, become obsolete. I remember realizing that I’d have to learn a totally new way of promoting: all online, all “soft” marketing, all very time-consuming.
Not the thing a hard-charging, results-oriented former marketing person wants to hear.
Four months later, the ulcers are – thankfully -- gone, and I’m feeling better about marketing, too. I went back to school (metaphorically) to learn the ABCs of e-book promotion. I teamed up with a couple of writers’ groups to share the load; started keeping tabs and submitting my books to new websites and blogs like Cheap Daily Reads and Kindle Nation Daily, as well as other emerging gatekeeper sites; polished my Facebook fan page; started using Twitter more; joined a couple of blogs; plus a hundred other things that, by trial and error, I’m either doing or not.
And while surviving in the digital age requires a lot more effort and has significantly slashed my writing productivity (at least for now), there are other perks. There is no question that the Digital Age has presented authors with opportunities that used to be only a dream.
Like producing an audiobook.
I am in the midst of producing the audio of SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE, my seventh novel, and I’m having more fun than I’ve had in years. Mostly because I used to be a video producer. I worked in both corporate and broadcasting jobs – in fact, my first “real” job was at KYW news radio in Philadelphia. For me audio is “theater of the mind.” You have the voices, the effects, and the words, but you get to visualize the characters – the way they look, their expressions, their body language. It’s the bridge between reading and film, and it’s a medium I’ve always cherished. There’s just nothing like closing your eyes (as long as you’re not driving) and letting your imagination wander.
So far two of my novels and four short stories have been produced on audio. However, in each case, I’ve had to wait years for them to become available.
Now, with everything digital and online, it’s possible to produce an audiobook quickly, at a reasonable cost, and still have a professional product. Which is what I’m doing. No, I’m not voicing it myself -- I’m not that crazy. But I have a friend – a published writer herself – who’s also an actress and whose voice is a dream. When she started reading a sample chapter, she read it exactly the way I wrote it, which is a testament to her talent. She changes her modulation, her volume, and her tone, depending on the character. And she does perfect accents.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I knew enough to realize that recording the book is in some ways the easiest part. The trick is to hook up with a distributor who can get it on the most popular audio download sites. While that market has coalesced -- Audible, iTunes, and Amazon are the major distributors today – there are smaller venues that I wouldn’t know. But a distributor does. So before we started recording I Googled audio distributors.
Imagine my surprise when a familiar name popped up: the wife of a friend who used to work at Mystery Bookstore of Los Angeles (RIP).
I immediately emailed my friend.
“Is this YOUR wife?” I asked.
“It is,” he said.
“How did I not know she was into audio books?” I said.
“You never asked,” he said. “She’s been doing this for years.”
We immediately connected and I emailed her a sample MP3. At the time I thought I’d be able to record on my Mac with a Snowball mic. Unfortunately, she emailed back that the quality wasn’t professional enough. Too much “noise.”
So I called an old friend who owns a video studio near my house, worked out a reasonable rate, and we started recording. We’re over half way through. The best part is that I can bring home the tape, import it into Audacity and edit each chapter. Did I ever tell you how much I love editing? Whether I’m editing words, audio, or video, I love the process of assembling raw footage, sound, or words, and creating a compelling story. What’s more, compared to film, audio is easy. Audacity makes it simple. Essentially, it’s a word processing program for sound. It even has the same commands as Word. (It’s also free, btw). I’m able to make cuts and splices, eliminate breaths and sibilants, extend pauses, and take out unexplained clicks and clacks. It’s a very satisfying process.
We have about three weeks left to go. Then we will do a final mix with a sound engineer who’s done audio books before. After that, I’ll email the final product to my distributor who will do her thing. With luck it will available by fall.
I waited two years for the audio to EASY INNOCENCE. It will be three years for A PICTURE OF GUILT. But SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE came out last winter. Barely eight months later, it will be available as an audio book.
There are times I love technology.
Monday, June 13, 2011
When I first started writing I used to sit in conferences rolling my eyes when a writer talked about character taking over the plot line and acting in unpredictable ways. I'd think, "are these people crazy? Their character isn't real!"
Until it happened to me.
It first happened in a manuscript that I still have on shelf--my first completed novel--called Black Money. One of the characters was supposed to be a crazy, fun and irresponsible musician. In every scene where I expected to write a nutty response to a situation, this character was the voice of reason. I kept trying to make him insouciant, but I continued writing sane. Finally I bowed to whatever my subconscious wanted and wrote the character as if he wore a suit to work, did the right thing and just happened to be employed in a band. The juxtaposition worked. He ended up being one of the best characters in an otherwise uneven piece.(Black Money is staying on the shelf because the occasional flashes of brilliance are not enough to save the first draft. It needs a rewrite, which I simply don't have the time to do right now).
The phenomenon of a character taking off in another direction just happened again in my latest manuscript. There I was, minding my own business, and everything started to go haywire. This time I have no excuse. I saw it happening and just leaned into the change. Figured, "oh what the heck, just run with it." Need I say that the character is better than the synopsis I submitted to my publisher those many months ago? Need I say that my fingers are crossed that the publisher thinks so as well?
I've learned to embrace such moments because they usually herald a nice switch up from standard. By standard I mean the "serial killer is crazy," or the "killer is smarter than the rest of the world" familiar character that we've all come to know and love. While at BookExpoAmerica I did a short video interview. They didn't clear the questions first, so when the interviewer asked me "how do you keep a thriller fresh" I said, "It's genre fiction and some things are expected" which was shorthand for "you'd better have some moments that, while standard, define the genre." Don't write a long piece about the lovely scenery or readers will think they've wandered into the wrong novel. Do write some tension, action and suspense.
But having said all the above, I find that these moments "off topic" usually end up making the manuscript fresher than it would have been otherwise. I don't write from an outline and now you know why, because I can't seem to even stay true to my own short synopsis. I think this form of creation may lend itself to more tangents. Some, like the one I just took, are all for the better. Yes, one can write oneself into a corner, but I don't often find that to be a problem. Fiction writers have the world at their disposal. We just bend it to fit the story and keep on going!
Thursday, June 09, 2011
By now probably half the world has heard about the recent attacks carried out by a group of teenagers against three different people, one a 68 year old. Crime in a big city is not so unusual as to create headlines, but mobs of teenagers heading out of their neighborhood to hit another and doing it in the early evening is news.
Earlier in the year I posted about my concerns involving Chicago's red line subway stop at Chicago/State. You can see the post here. Not surprisingly, the mobs used the red line and exited at this station to get to their victims. Also not surprisingly, the McDonalds there was the scene of an earlier disturbance, where it is alleged over 70 teens converged and the restaurant had to be shut down for several hours.
Two weeks ago I emerged at this corner on my way to the Magnificent Mile and found barrage of police. At least a dozen officers stood in front of the McDonalds. I knew that something must have happened, but this was several months after the McDonalds incident, so now we're talking new. While the show of force was good, it was another thing Chicago is, to my mind, becoming famous for: big talk and little action. And couple of weeks later the attacks happen only two blocks over on Chicago Avenue.
I'm not suggesting that the police can contain all crime, but I am suggesting that Chicago's residents are a pretty jaded group. We have several ex- governor felons, one in jail, one being tried and whole members of the infrastructure being indicted, but still the voters stay home. Our budget is in a shambles, our schools deteriorating and still the voters stay home. Now the one area that may be actually generating the tax base that Chicago needs to continue as a going concern is being attacked by roving gangs of teenagers and journalists wring their hands over whether they should identify the attackers' race (black, and they didn't) and another writes a piece on how the south side is different from the downtown area and crime there isn't reported or acted on enough, as if two wrongs somehow should make a right. And the mother of one of the attackers is quoted in the paper echoing this sentiment by complaining that the bail was too high and if her child had attacked someone on the South Side he would have gotten a lighter bond.
Notice how neither addresses the core problem: crime.
Enough. There is lot of handwringing, but basically a big shrug in the end. Chicagoans need to be outraged. They need to demand better and they need to get their butts to the voting booth and make a change in the best way that they can. And this new Mayor needs to crack down, and by that I mean inside his own City Hall. We've had enough crime start there as the round of indictments show and it spreads outward. As the saying goes: the fish rots at the head.
Let's hope this new fish can get it done. In the meantime, I'm headed to the dojo and then to the track to run. Looks like I'd better keep both skills honed.
Sunday, June 05, 2011
I attended the Printers' Row Lit Fest here in Chicago this weekend. Here's a picture of the panel I was asked to moderate. From the left: the Outfit's own Kevin Guilefoile, Andrew Gross, me and Keir Graff.
We discussed thrillers, how we wrote them, what we thought of our protagonists and writing and reading. Here are the highlights:
- Andrew Gross met Charles Manson when he was a boy (!)
Andrew's next book, Eyes Wide Open, launches on July 12th. In the book he describes a similar meeting. He told us this mirrors (a bit) of the actual event. Apparently Andrew lived in California at the time that Manson and his crew was wandering around the hills. There are several reasons that you should read Andrew's book, it's a terrifying psychological thriller, but this scene is just one more reason.
- Keir Graff received a blurb from James Grady
The Price of Liberty was not only compared to one of my favorite books: Three Days of the Condor, he actually received a blurb from the author. Keir confirmed that it was a great day when he received that news. (And see the comments below re: Three Days--any input on why all versions now retitled Three Days?)
- Kevin Guilfoile's novel is compared to Katherine Neville's The Eight
I was a huge fan of The Eight and unfortunately mistakenly sent my first edition to a charity donation. (It got caught up in a box of books). Kevin's The Thousand is every bit as good and very cool. Another must read.
- Not surprisingly, Andrew Gross outlines
I say not surprisingly, because he wrote with James Patterson for six books and Patterson is known to outline his novels.
- Kevin Guilfoile outlines as well
- Keir Graff has a simple, three section outline.
This last information about outlining was a bit surprising as I can't remember ever hearing a panel of writers that all outlined. Most of the time writers are evenly split between outliners and seat of the pants writers.
I never outline. I just come up with a premise and go.
The panel was a lot of fun and these panelists were a breeze for me, the moderator. They all are at ease in front of an audience and entertaining as well. Thanks to all who came out to see us!I was unable to attend a lot of the fest this year due to a family graduation party, but I want to thank those readers of this blog who stopped by at the Mystery Writers of America tent when I was there. It's so nice to meet in person.
My next event is in NYC for Thrillerfest and would love to see you there.
Thanks all for your support!