Sunday, May 30, 2010
To E or Not to E
by Libby Hellmann
That seems to be the question. The answers to who should e-publish, who should retain rights, and how much ebooks should cost has dominated the conversation in the publishing industry for over a year now. Moreover, the spin-off issues that have evolved threaten to shake up the way authors and publishers do business. Not surprisingly, in some quarters the conversation has turned shrill. Even misleading, as friend-of-the-Outfit and uber-Kindler Joe Konrath discovered.
What isn’t misleading, though, is the effect ebooks are having. In 10 years it’s estimated that over 30% of all books sold will be in digital formats. That’s a lot of books. For authors, it presents an unprecedented opportunity to take our work directly to readers without spending a lot of money or time. No middle men, no publishers, no limitations. If you have the rights to your backlist, going-e is a terrific way to give those titles new life. And if you (or your agent) can manage to keep those rights as you continue to publish, you'll find that royalties accrue instantly, with nothing held in reserve.
Not bad... But...
Unfortunately, I’m a proponent of the “other shoe theory of life.” So following is kind of a reality check, at least on ebooks. Don’t get me wrong. All of my novels and other work are on Kindle and some are on Smashwords (more about that in another post), and I will continue to make them available.
But it’s important to note that your mileage may vary. In several ways.
First, the money. You’ve no doubt heard the six-figure income Joe’s on tap to reap from publishing his books on Kindle. But Joe is an anomaly. My books sell, but nowhere near his level. Joe has “broken through” the e-universe, and deservedly so. There is no one who has worked harder to promote himself and his “platform” although he disagrees. (I hate the word "platform," btw.) Remember the 500 bookstore tour? The library promotion? His My Space page? He has thousands of followers. He has reach. He’s versatile, and he tells a great story. But what about the rest of us? I’m not so sure.
Second, and this is more a theory than fact, it seems to me that a significant chunk of Kindlers and ebookers are younger, hipper, i-Phone-ish readers whose attention spans are –um— just a tad imperfect. Is what I write going to be of interest to them? Will they stick with it? I don’t know. Notwithstanding Harry Potter and Twilight, the number of fiction readers keeps declining, so the challenge becomes one of appeal. The ebook authors who can stay relevant to hipper, more wired readers will have more success. Unfortunately, that won't be all of us.
But here’s my biggest concern. If you’ve been paying attention, you already know that B&N, and now Apple ,among others, have created divisions for self-publishing ebooks. The floodgates are about to open, and the ebook market is going to be a vast sea of self-published work.
Theoretically, we midlist authors who have been previously published should have an advantage. We have been vetted. We have been edited. Publishers stand behind us. But how are we going to get that message out? What kind of filters will be in place to differentiate our work from work that hasn’t been vetted? Will anyone pay any attention? I don’t know.
Those are my worries. But there's good news too.
Despite the fact that publishing is contracting and going digital, there are several emerging trends that are positive for midlist authors. One of them is described in this article about the collaboration between a midlist author and a small publisher. Whether you’re publishing in print or ebook or both, I thought this was a clever way for both author and publisher to survive in today’s market. There are other MOs out there, as described here that new authors are using to get their work out.
I hope we’ll see more of these innovations. It's clear the industry is changing, and that's good. It will force authors to become better businesspeople, give us more control over their careers, and hopefully make publishers more accountable.
OK. Enough from me. What do you think?
Friday, May 28, 2010
Peck Away at it or Binge?
At writing workshops people often ask for the “secrets” of getting published. There aren’t any, of course, except work, but people ask what kind of paper to print on, whether to bind the manuscript, and I’ve even been asked whether I think it’s better to use a red, blue, or green pen for correcting your paper manuscript at home. Like I knew? I want to say, whatever works for you.
But one question seems important. Frequently, a beginning writer will tell you, “I wait until I get a real inspiration and then write a lot of pages in a few hours.” If I ask how much of their draft is finished, they usually back off or admit not very much.
My friend, the late Hugh Holton, said that he never made any progress in his writing until he decided to write four pages every day and not wait for a burst of inspiration. He wrote, no matter how late he got home—and it was frequently very late because over those years he was commander of the Seventh Police District, then Commander of Personnel, then Commander of the Third District. All lightning rod positions and all requiring frequent evening meetings with the brass or with the public. By writing four pages a day no matter what, by the time of his death he had published nine thrillers. He added that he did a lot of editing.
I feel like telling people to write something every day, even if it’s just a page. Like we all say, if you write a page a day you have a book in a year. But what right have I to make bossy statements like that?
I can only think of one successful, major writer who has told me he just writes when he feels like it. But maybe many do. I wish some of you would respond with your work habits. Do you work every day? Sure there are boom and bust days. Sometimes nothing comes. And sometimes real life intrudes. But do you regard writing as what you do every day, not just when the spirit moves you? Do you feel guilty on a day when you don’t do at least one page?
Changes at the Outfit
This will start Monday, May 31. (Actually Barb should be posting later today, so feel free to check back in this afternoon.)
Btw, the new schedule will give us one or two official "guest post" days a month. So if you're interested in guest posting, drop me an email.
Have a great Memorial Day weekend! I'll see you on Monday.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
It’s all about story…
…as Mary Harris, my favorite screenwriting guru, points out. Eleanor Taylor Bland told me years ago that Country music always tells a story. I didn’t think much about it until Randy Travis came out with Three Wooden Crosses.
It’s pure schmaltz but a great story with a twist.
I’ve blogged before on how the human brain seems programmed to respond to stories. What else are the creation myths that all cultures seem to have?
The Bible is a collection of stories. Jesus was a great story-teller, and His disciples (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John anyway) carried on His tradition by telling stories about Him.
When someone’s behavior perplexes us, we ask, “What’s his story?”
Politicians enlist our support by telling us their version of our national story.
The best commercials are mini-movies, telling us a story in 60 seconds or less. And the You-Tube videos that get the most play are stories—2 to 4 minute movies.
Solicitors hit us up for money with stories about rescued dogs and cats or disadvantaged children. Cancer Centers of America has patients tell their stories of compassionate care delivered after heartless doctors have given up.
Song stories have the advantage of gripping us with the tale and the tune. Even before I was a writer, I was drawn by such stories.
Some of my other favorites…
Billy Currington’s People are Crazy (written by Bobby Braddock & Troy Jones).
Dierks Bentley’s What Was I Thinking?
Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville
Lola by The Kinks
Johnny Cash’s A Boy Named Sue
Reba McEntire’s Fancy
So what are some of yours?
Monday, May 24, 2010
The Mayhem Roundup
I was sitting at the Tribune’s city desk the other day with my boss, working on a story I was writing, when the editor next to us hung up the phone and said, more or less, you’re not going to believe this.
Mayor Daley just told a reporter he was going to stick a gun up a reporter’s "butt" and pull the trigger. And it’s on tape.
City Hall reporters apparently huddled around their tape recorders for several minutes after the mayor’s press conference listening over and over again in a bit of disbelief. Did he really say that? Is it really possible?
So then Saturday afternoon a cop called me as I was driving home from the Niles library’s The Big Read event (where I’d appeared with fellow Outfitters Libby Hellman and Newsman Gruley, as well as friends of the Outfit, Sam Reaves, Bob Goldsborough and Luisa Buehler). You should ask whether he committed a crime, the cop said.
Certain forms of intimidation are against the law, after all, and when a person of such authority is waving a gun in the air, well…
Except it was a press conference and everybody in the room has a strong presumption the gun was unloaded and, um, it was Daley.
Anyway, this is a measure of how much the cops in this city can’t stand the mayor of this city. What’s worse, the Daley sideshow happened on the day after an off-duty Chicago police officer was murdered when four knuckleheads tried to rob him of his motorcycle at gunpoint in front of his father’s house and across the street from the park the cop has pledged to rid of gang violence. Cops believed Daley was trying to make political hay out of a police officer's death in his effort to see a gun ban in the city upheld.
It’s an absolutely awful story told amazingly here by my colleague, Annie Sweenie. By coincidence she had interviewed Thomas Wortham IV a week before about his efforts to take back Cole Park from the gangbangers encroaching from different neighborhoods.
One of the strange realities of newspaper journalism is that sometimes we do our best work writing about the most tragic circumstances.
At this point, I’m reminded of Laura’s post a few days ago about what a hell of a summer it’s going to be with all these trials—Burge (the police torturer), Blago (our most recent indicted governor) and Drew Peterson (our collective offering to the Tabloid TV gods)—unfolding.
They’re picking the Burge jury starting today and USA vs. Blagojevich is right around the corner.
When I used to work Sundays in the newsroom I’d invariably get assigned to write the “mayhem roundup,” which was a shortish story combining all of the shootings and crime that we couldn't fit into the paper on their own into one tidy story. The mayhem story was a reflection of the fact that there was just too much death and destruction in the city day after day to write a story about each tragedy.
This summer is really shaping up into a Mount Olympus of mayhem roundups. There’s just too much to pay attention to. All the trials Laura mentioned, plus a murder rate creeping back up – seems like there’s a car found with three bound, gagged and executed bodies in it every other day—plus the daily dramas of the Daley Show, plus a bunch of juicy political races, including U.S Senate and governor. (Hey, everybody, Scott Lee Cohen is back! Running for guv, and this time he’s got former Gangster Disciples honcho “Wallace Gator” Bradley on his side!)
It’s like a stimulus package for the news business. So buy a newspaper, grab a cup of coffee and a donut, and read all about it.
One postscript: last time, I blogged about heading off on my annual fishing trip in northern Wisconsin. Praise the Maker, I got no speeding tickets this time. The actual fishing was godawful, but no matter, I gained five pounds in beer and venison weight, and thoroughly enjoyed both books on tape that I checked out of the library. Michael Connelly’s The Closers on the way up, and then le Carre’s Mission Song on the way back. Actually, I’m not finished with the second one, so I’m still driving around town listening to it here and there. The narration by an actor named David Oyelowo, is really out of this world.
Friday, May 21, 2010
Every Stamp In My Collection Is a Place We Could Go
I've mentioned the MoOM here before. When I was working for the advertising/design firm Coudal Partners, we started a site called the Museum of Online Museums. The MoOM is a collection of links to unusual collections that people have uploaded to the internet. Occasionally one of these collections touches on a subject we're discussing here on the Outfit and I'll point to it.
The latest MoOM update includes a site called DeQuinceyJynxie, which is operated by an anonymous Russian/Brooklynite blogger and drug user who posts all the packaging his dope comes in. He also includes great stories about running out to buy his drugs, and he reviews his rushes and highs. Sometimes the stories are so good you almost wonder how real it all is, but then other times they're really kind of ordinary and funny/sad and you believe it.
Before this trip knowing that Newark can be quite dangerous and stuff so to calm my nerves in the unknown territory I consumed 3mg of Klonopin. It made me very relaxed but also a bit disoriented and I have a tendency to pass out in very unpredictable situations. I run into light pole, nod out while crossing street, etc.
Klonopin in such amounts can be very dangerous since you cannot control when and how you will nod out.
So finally with my dope stashed well I walked into Newark Penn station. Oh God ! This terrible thing happen I happen to nod out while checking out arrival departure display board. Only for a second I thought. Next thing i know this burly cop grabs my arm and tells me to come with him... I will not go into details of unbelievable harassment and abuse NJ cops subjected me to, but at the end I was given citation for "loitering with purpose of obtaining illegal drugs" !!! In Newark Penn Station no less! I did not know they sell it right there, then I wouldn't go to Pennington Court for shit.
But anyway I thank God everything worked out fine since I have an unpaid fine in NJ from 2001, that constitutes warrant isn't it? I was already imagining myself in county jail and whole nine yards.
Along with the latest update, Coudal created a documentary called The Curators (directed by Steve Delahoyde) about three of the collections in the MoOM. Perhaps because I still hold the title of "Collections Director," they asked me to host and narrate. The doc comes in three parts. The first is about designer Bill Keaggy's grocery list collection:
Part Two explores Brian Collier's classification system for "Very Small Objects":
And Part Three features writer and commentator Jennifer Sharpe, who rescued a remarkable collection of photographs from a dumpster:
Finally, I'm holding a contest over on Twitter in advance of the August release of my new novel THE THOUSAND. I'm looking for a thousand followers, and when I get them I'll pick 10 at random to win an advance reader's edition of THE THOUSAND. One of those ten will also win a one-of-a-kind, handwritten, deleted chapter from the book that I have illustrated with sketches and drawings and doodles. Ten others will win a gift package from Field Notes. There will be other contests throughout the summer, too, so follow along if you want to win.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
Who needs TV when you live in Chicago?
So, my favorite show, The Good Wife, is just about done for the season, Project Runway is over as well, and the Real Housewives of New York are winding down. Normally, the departure of my go-to shows would make me a little cranky. But not this year. Not this summer.
Instead, the summer of 2010 in Chicago is going to be a doozie because we have three big-by-big trials ready to roll.
On tap first, the federal perjury trial of former Chicago police detective, Jon Burge. Burge's name has become synonymous in the city for torture during police interrogations. His tactics allegedly included administering electric shocks to the testicles and anus, suffocating suspects with typewriter bags and shoving pistols in suspects' mouths. A columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times once wrote of Burge, "[He] could have squeezed a murder confession out of Mother Teresa." In the late 1980s, Burge was investigated by the Office of Professional Standards who determined he had engaged in systematic torture for thirteen years, but a civil suit against him for police brutality resulted in a hung jury. The current charges by the U.S. Attorneys Office claim Burge lied about his torture tactics during that civil case.
Burge's trial starts on Monday and although I'm usually a supporter of the ban on cameras in Illinois courts, I really wish I could curl up with a bowl of popcorn and watch this one. The good news? John Conroy, the stellar journalist who has covered Burge for decades, will be blogging about the trial for WBEZ.
Next up will be Rod Blagovecich. Blago. Say no more, right? I don't think I need to recap this one. Suffice to say we're in for an interesting trial as the U.S. attorneys set out to prove that Blago was trying to sell Obama's senate seat. A former lawyer and advisor to Blago has recently plead guilty, again, to various charges in order to get a reduced sentence and, more importantly, in exchange for his testimony at the trial. Senator Dick Durbin has been subpoened to testify too, along with a host of others. Blago's team has even attempted to get President Obama to testify. Their request for the Prez's deposition was denied, but the issue was left open, so there does remain an ultra-slim chance that he'll testify. The circus is set to begin June 3 unless the U.S. Supreme Court grants Blago's request to postpone. (The fact that the Supreme Court of our great nation has to deal with Blago in any way shape or form is so very wrong). The case will be covered with a plethora of local, national and even international coverage, and I just might have to head down to the courthouse once or twice myself.
And finally, over in Will County, they're preparing for the June 14 trial of Drew Peterson, whose insane narcisim only rivals that of Blago's. This case has an OJ tinge to it, since everyone involved (and much of the public) seems to resoundingly believe that Peterson killed 2 of his wives. But they're trying him for the murder of the one whose death has actually been confirmed. Most interesting, from a legal standpoint, is the new Drew Peterson hearsay law, crafted just for this case, which allows "testimony from the grave" --that of Peterson's fourth wife who, before she disappeared, told her pastor that Peterson had admitted killing the wife who had come before her. Legal scholars around the country will be watching to see how this one plays out.
So, with all this going on, I'm not wanting for entertainment this summer. It's all right here in the Chicago area, and I won't be missing the Good Wife. Not one bit.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
FADE OUT Preview
One of the best days of a novelist's year is the one we print out the finished book. It's great fun the first time you finish, but it's all the sweeter after you've revised it, sent it to your editor and agent, listened to their notes, wrestled with the changes they suggest--which always improve the quality of the work, but that's not the same as saying they're fun--revised it again, and, finally, printed it again.
For me, yesterday was that day. Book the Fifth, tentatively titled FADE OUT, is sitting on my kitchen table, markered up with polishes and minor changes and notes. I've got a couple more days of work on it, and then I'll send it off.
In celebration, I thought I'd post the first few pages. I've not shared it publicly before--hope you enjoy.
He was naked and cold, stiff with it, his veins ice and frost. Muscles carved hard, skin rippled with goosebumps, tendons drawn tight, body scraped and shivering. Something rolled over his legs, velvet soft and shocking. He gasped and pulled seawater into his lungs, the salt scouring his throat. Gagging, he pushed forward, scrabbling at dark stones. The ocean tugged, but he fought the last ragged feet crawling like a child.
As the wave receded it drew pebbles rattling across each other like bones, like dice, like static. A seagull shrieked its loneliness.
His lungs burned, and he leaned on his elbows and retched, face down, liquid pouring in ropes from open mouth, salt water and stomach acid. A lot, and then less, and finally he could spit the last drops, suck in quick shallow lungfuls of air that smelled of rotting fish.
In. Cough it out. In. Out. There. There.
His hands weren’t his. Paler than milk and trembling with a panicky violence. He couldn’t make them stop. He couldn’t remember ever being so cold.
What was he doing here?
Like waking from sleepwalking, he couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter. The cold was filling him, killing him, and if he wanted to live he had to move.
He rolled onto his side. An apocalyptic beach, water frothing beneath a shivering sky, wind a steady howl over the shoals, whipping the sawgrass to strain its roots. Not another person as far as he could see.
Had to move. His muscles screamed. He staggered upright and tried a tentative step. His thoughts were signals banged down frozen wires; after an eon, his legs responded. His feet were bloody.
One step. Another. The wind a lash against his dripping skin. The beach sloped hard upward. Each step brought muscles a little more under his control. The motion warming them, oh god, warming them to razors and nails, his blood gone acid. He concentrated on breathing, each inhale a marker. Make it to the next one. Five more. Don’t quit until twenty. Goddamn you, breathe.
The boulders the ocean had broken to pebbles gave way to those it hadn’t yet, broad stones with moss marking the leeward side spaced with pools of dark water where spiny things waited. He stumbled from one rock to the next until he reached the top.
As lonely and blasted a stretch of earth as any he’d seen. Black rocks and foaming sea and sky marked only by the passage of birds. Only. Wait.
He blinked, tried to focus. Two thin dirt tracks led to a splotch of color, a boxy shape, a car. A car!
Legs cramping. Breath shallow. He couldn’t force his lungs to take. To draw enough. Air. The shivering easing. Bad sign. His feet tangled and he fell. Inches from his eyes, pale grass spotted and marked by the appetite of insects. The ground wasn’t so bad. Almost soft. Easy now. Easy to go.
Crawl. Elbows scraping. Knees. Forearms going blue. Blue berries, blue water, blue eyes.
He reached the trunk, pulled himself up, the metal burning cold. Slouched his way to the door and bent stiff fingers around the handle.
The door opened. He maneuvered around it and fell into the smell of leather. His legs wouldn’t move. It took both arms to pull them in, one at a time. Gripping the burnished handle, he yanked the door shut. The wind’s laughter died.
There were keys in the ignition. He fumbled for them. They danced away, jingling. Come on, come on, come—
The engine roared to life.
The man turned the heat all the way up and collapsed against the seat.
A soft time. Warm air making his body ache and tingle and finally ease. For awhile the man stared at the ceiling, head lolled back. Content to watch the drifting spots in his eyes. Tiny floating things that he could only see when he didn’t try to look at them. He didn’t think about where he was, or why, or who the car belonged to and when they might return, or whether they would be happy to find a naked man dripping on the leather seats.
Just cowered like an animal in his den, the doors locked and the heat blasting.
After a long time—how long he had no idea—he felt himself coming back. Surfacing like he was waking from a nap. Words and questions swirling like leaves blown from an October tree, tossed and swirling and never touching the ground.
Gasoline. That was one. Gasoline. What did…
Oh. He straightened, rubbed at his eyes. His muscles weak and languid. The fuel gauge read almost empty. He switched off the ignition.
So. Where was he?
The car was nice. A BMW, according to the logo in the steering wheel, and well-outfitted, supple leather and wood-grain inlays. A pair of Nikes rested on the floorboards on his side. The passenger seat was buried in maps and takeout bags and a soda cup and empty blister packs of ephedrine and gas station receipts and a worn
He opened the whiskey, swallowed half the remainder in a gulp. It burned all the way down in the best possible way.
Now that it wasn’t killing him, the world outside the glass had a kind of desolate beauty. Lonely, though. Other than the narrow two-track the car was parked on, there was no sign of people in either direction. And while he hadn’t been fully conscious the whole time, he hadn’t seen anyone since he’d climbed in the car.
How had he gotten here?
Where the fuck was here and what was he doing in it?
Easy. Don’t panic. The worst is over. You’re safe. Just think about what happened. How you ended up here. You…you…
He closed his eyes, jammed them shut. Opened them again. Nothing had changed. Had he been drinking? Drugged? Maybe. So retrace your steps.
It was like that terrible moment he sometimes had waking up in a strange environment, in the dark of a friend’s living room, or in a hotel somewhere, that period where his brain hadn’t come online yet and everything was automatic, just panic and readiness and fear, the tension of waiting for certainty to click, for normalcy to fall like a warm blanket. That moment always passed. It passed, and he remembered where he we was and what he was doing there.
He set the whiskey down, gripped the steering wheel with both hands. Focus. Focus!
Outside, the wind whistled. The trees looked like they’d been on fire, dark black trunks spreading to broad limbs marked by a handful of stubborn orange and yellow leaves, the last embers.
Okay. Easy. Something must have happened. An after-effect of hypothermia, maybe, some kind of shock. Don’t try to force it. Tease it, coax it out. Like the floaters in your eyes, you can’t drag this front and center. Come at it sideways.
Your brain seems to work. Use it. Where are you?
A rocky beach. Cold. He could taste the salt on his lips, knew this was an ocean. Which one?
The question was crazy, but he ignored that, just focused on answering it. Let one thing lead to the next. The dashboard clock read 7:42. The sun was only a brighter shade of gray above the waves, but it was higher than before. Which made it morning, which made that east, which made this the
Why not. Roll with that. “This is
His eyes fell on a bank envelope curled in the cup-holder. Inside was a stack of twenties, a couple hundred dollars. Under the envelope there was something silver that turned out to be a stainless steel Rolex Daytona. Nice watch. Very nice watch.
What else. He leaned over to open the glove box. There was an owner’s manual, three pens, a pack of Altoids, a sealed box of No-Doz, and a large black gun.
He stared. An owner’s manual, three pens, a pack of Altoids, a sealed box of No-Doz, and a large black gun. A semiautomatic, he noticed, then wondered how he could know that and not remember where he had been before he woke up on the beach. Or worse, even his own—
Stop. Don’t go there. If you don’t face it, maybe it’s not true.
He stepped out. The wind whipped his naked body, and his skin tightened into goosebumps. His balls tried to retract into his belly. He stepped gingerly to the back of the car on bloody toes.
Would there be a body in there? Handcuffed and shot in the head, maybe, or rolled in a carpet, hair and boots spilling out.
No: it held only a set of jumper cables and a plastic shopping bag with a red bulls-eye on it. He opened the bag. A pair of designer jeans, a white undershirt with pits stained yellow, crumpled boxer-briefs, wadded-up socks. Someone’s laundry.
He looked around again. In for a penny.
He shook out the underwear, stepped into it. The jeans were soft and worn, expensive-looking. Too fancy for Target, and dirty to boot. Maybe the Target purchases had been a change of clothes. He wriggled into the shirt then slammed the trunk. Climbed back in the car, the air inside wonderful, stiflingly warm. The sour smell of feet rose as he wriggled into the sneakers.
Then he sat and stared out the window.
How had he known that red bulls-eye was the Target logo? How had he known the watch was a Rolex? Or that Jack Daniels was whiskey, and that he liked whiskey?
How was it that he had been able to count the money, knew
He reached for the owner’s manual in the glovebox, careful not to touch the gun. The manual was bound in black leather. Inside the front cover was a registration card and proof of insurance. Both in the name of David Hayden, resident of
He climbed out of the car, walked to the back.
Who wandered away from a sixty-thousand dollar car, unlocked, keys in the ignition? Where would they go in the middle of nowhere?
And the clothes. The shoes fit. The jeans felt familiar.
Calling yourself David Hayden is a start. Try it on, just like the jeans.
David got back in the car, put on his watch, then cranked the ignition and pulled away.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Writing Damaged Protagonists
By Jamie Freveletti
It’s no surprise to anyone reading crime fiction these days that the damaged protagonist is quite in vogue. We all write ‘em. The former alcoholic, drug addict, sexual abuse survivor, incest survivor, sex addict, and even former hit man turned medical doctor. We have serial killers as protagonists on television (Dexter) and paid assassins who attend their high school reunion in the movies (the very well done Grosse Pointe Blank).
What makes these protagonists fun to write is that the conflict is obvious from the beginning. The vice detective battling his own sex addiction (Stephen Jay Schwartz’s Boulevard) and the assassin who attends his high school reunion and wants to hook up with his high school love (John Cusack in a great performance as Martin Blank) make for some excellent stories.
They can be humorous, too. My favorite crazy protagonist searching outside of his milieu is the drug dealer turned physics aficionado in the cult book “Cosmic Banditos” by A.C. Weisbecker. This book makes drug cartels seem funny, but underneath the humor you get a real glimpse of the sheer insanity of the players. The description of one of the more nihilistic characters, a guy who was drafted by the NFL but ended up dealing drugs in South America, gives insight into just how nuts the players are, and that the protagonist swims with this crowd without going under is a testament to his ingenuity.
Notice I say “his” ingenuity. This is a deliberate choice, because I haven’t found a female protagonist who can be matched up with the others- at least in the humorous vein. In the male driven stories the damaged protagonist often ends up going “straight.” In the female, it’s not so clear. You have The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wreaking her revenge, but that is one dark story. You also have Hello Kitty Must Die by Angela Choi, but there she ends up turning even darker. I haven’t found a humorous story where the damaged female protagonist turns good and marches off with the man into the sunset. If you know of one, do tell, and I’ll add it to my “to be read” list.
The joy of damaged characters is that, as the writer, you can have them do some seriously sick things and point to the past as motivation. Writing an average guy (or woman) in an average job during an average day is a lot tougher to make interesting. Writers in the cozy genre have this problem in front of them, and I am always impressed with how they deftly manage to create an interesting world out of daily life. As a thriller writer I love the idea of average person in unusual circumstances, but the “average” person in a thriller usually has some specific strength that is a bit above the rest, and the trouble they get into can’t be resolved by the protagonist’s power of deduction in between drinks of tea. Cozys are puzzlers. Thrillers can be, but the protagonist is often in grave danger while solving it.
I don’t write damaged protagonists currently. I write heroes. Female heroes, to be exact. And writing a hero presents a unique challenge. One I’ll blog about later. In the meantime, keep those damaged protagonists coming. I’m always fascinated by the trouble they get into and the vices they overcome.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
Anthony Award Zone
There are only about 12 days until the deadline for Anthony Award nominations, and I need help. I don’t know what books to list. After 20 years I’ve finally started to keep a list of books I read, so I looked over my 2009 list. Unfortunately, most of the books I read (or listened to on audio) were published prior to 2009, or were ARCs of upcoming 2010 books. But I am going to Bouchercon, and I want to participate.
So, please, let me know the books you really enjoyed last year. I have just enough time to browse through them, read a few, and make my list. And, yes, if you want to recommend your own book, feel free.
In that spirit, if you haven't made your list, several members of the OUTFIT have 2009 novels that are eligible, including:
For Best Novel:
Doubleback, by Yours Truly
Foolproof, by Barb D’Amato (and Jeanne Dams and Mark Zubro)
The Hidden Man, by Dave Ellis
The Amateurs, by Marcus Sakey
For Best First:
Running From the Devil, by Jamie Freveletti
Starvation Lake, by Bryan Gruley
A Word To The Wise, by Dave Heinzmann
For Best Paperback:
Red Hot Lies, by Laura Caldwell
Of the 2009 books I did read, I do want to give a shout-out to
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
The Defector by Daniel Silva
The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson
especially, Outfiteer Emeritus Sara Paretsky's Hardball.
OK… your turn! What 2009 crime fiction novels do I need to check out before the end of the month?
Friday, May 14, 2010
Patricia Cohen in an article in The New York Times books section [May 10, 2010] posed the question, For Crime, Is Anatomy Destiny?
Records from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries found that shorter men are twenty to thirty percent more likely to go to prison than taller men.
Not that physical shape causes criminality. I found it very interesting that while today being heavy is associated with a higher risk of prison, when Gregory N. Price and Howard Bodenhorn studied 19th century prison records they found higher body weight associated with a lower risk of crime. Back then, Cohen says, “brawn was an advantage.”
Cohen mentions that economists have shown each additional inch in height is associated with a 2 percent increase in earning. Employees rated as beautiful earn 5 percent an hour more than average and those rated plain 9 percent less.
Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw jokingly suggested taxing taller people more, saying that, controlling for gender, weight, and age, a six-foot-tall man earns $5,525 more per year than one five feet five inches.
Unattractive high school children receive lower grades and have more suspensions and more problems with teachers. It’s all chicken and egg, of course. Do less attractive students have lower self-esteem and therefore fail to make an effort, participate less, and therefore fail to develop social skills? Or are they penalized from the beginning for their appearance?
Physical appearance – and of course there are many more elements of stereotyping than height, weight, and beauty -- is a problem fiction writers constantly wrestle with. We are probably all aware of falling into too-obvious stereotyping traps or intentionally casting our characters “against type.” In descriptions, I tend to go very lean on physical characteristics because I like the reader to form his or her own picture of the characters from their actions and talk. But sometimes you just can’t avoid the physical description. My impression of fellow writers is that physical description is an area where we struggle a lot, rewrite, and question our decisions. I know I do.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Focus, or lack thereof
When I was at the L.A. Times Festival of Books a couple weeks back (no, I didn't win the Book Prize for best thriller, but it-was-an-honor-to-be-nominated and really a blast overall), the panel I was on concerned thrillers. It was a great group: Karin Slaughter and Andrew Gross, neither of whom I had previously met, and one of my favorite writers and people, Gregg Hurwitz.
These panels are helpful to me because they get me to focus. And they sometimes remind me how unfocused I can be as a writer. People will often ask me why I chose some character, or this plot twist, or that theme, and more often than I would care to admit, my answer is that I don't have much of an answer. It seemed cool? It just sorta happened?
We talked on the panel, for example, about the amount of violence we show in a novel. To listen to my comrades, you'd think they thought through this question very carefully. Their answers were informative and interesting. I stuttered through an answer that went something like this: Whatever the novel requires.
"Whatever the novel requires" is basically my answer for everything. How much sex? How much violence? Length of the book? Gender of the main character?
Rules can be helpful, and general rules that allow for certain exceptions are more helpful still. Especially if your biggest goal is to be a best-seller.
I'm just not good at them. Maybe that's because I have a job with the government, which has very rigid rules, and I like having none when I write. Maybe there's some other reason. But when I'm writing, I like to take my hands off the steering wheel and let things happen, and in my experience it has made the novel better for having done so. More marketable and commercially successful? Maybe so, maybe not. But more fun for me, which fortunately or unfortunately is the most important criterion for me.
Still, I'm going to re-focus on focusing. Put more advance thought into characters and plots ask myself the "why" question in a deeper way than I normally do. Maybe it will make some perceptible difference in my writing. And maybe it will help me have snappier answers at the ThrillerFest and Bouchercon panels this year.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Are you mad as Hell?
Really, really mad? Mad enough that you’re not gonna take it any more?
What are you going to do about it? Besides complain?
Carol Marin’s column last week in the Sun-Times, “Want to send a message? Elect Claypool. “ offered one suggestion.
Here’s another: Next time somebody bitches about the state of the State of Illinois, ask him if he voted. And for whom. If he says, “Why bother?” ask him how many blank personal checks he’s handed out lately. And why he isn’t demanding that politicians who overdraw taxpayers accounts aren’t having their accounts closed.
Ask him why it takes a Federal indictment to get a blatantly crooked politician off the ballot, a conviction to eject one from office. Ask him why he comparison shops for TV sets and cars, but happily “buys” the first hack his favorite political party offers up. (Or, more recently, the latest nutcase rich enough to run as an “independent.”)
I’m happy to say I helped a lot of other pissed off citizens vote Todd Stroger off next November’s ballot. And I wrote Mickey Mouse in for governor because there wasn’t a candidate I could stomach on the ballot. (Which doesn’t mean I won’t vote for the least awful of the pitiful choices in November.)
Politics in Illinois is crass and Machiavellian. But no more complicated than Monopoly or the office football pool. And in case you need a score card, there are plenty of brilliant reporters covering it (Carol Marin and Mike Flannery to name just two).
Tiny children manage to “get” Monopoly. “Grown-ups“ play it with fake money for fun. Why don’t “adults” bother to notice how elected officials and their cronies are monopolizing taxpayers’ real dollars? If more people paid attention, we might get a better class of elected official. Attentive voters might even find “the game” entertaining.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
You Gotta Read This...
I've posted here before about some of my favorite books on writing, and many folks commented to recommend their favorites as well.
Here's another book you should read. A book not just about writing, but also about getting published, promoting your work, issues faced by the publishing industry, the rise of e-books, and so on.
THE NEWBIE'S GUIDE TO PUBLISHING, by J.A. Konrath.
Joe Konrath has been blogging about his publishing journey since he was a newbie, and is one of the most generous writers in the business. He's gone out of his way to help publishing newbies who've come after him, and to help aspiring writers graduate to newbie status, themselves.
And now Joe has now collected the best of his blog essays into a book.
An e-book, actually. At over 1100 pages, it is not something you'll finish in an afternoon, but it is well worth your time. And at only $2.99 for Kindle, it is a steal. If you don't do Kindle, it is also available as a PDF download on Joe's website, for free. See what I mean about Joe being generous?
It also includes an excellent series of essays by bestselling thriller writer (and all-around great guy) Barry Eisler.
Now, I don't agree with all of Joe's opinions. Joe is somewhat of an iconoclast - I don't think even he agrees with all of his opinions - but he asks the hard questions, challenges the status quo, and we all come away richer for it.
A story: When I was writing TRIGGER CITY, I got stuck on a plot issue. Over many beers at The Red Lion, I explained to Joe how I'd written myself into a corner and would never find my way out. Then Joe started talking. And a rapid-fire burst of solutions poured out, one on top of another, competing for attention.
In five minutes, Joe came up with 2,193 different ways to fix my book. Some better than others, but all workable. What amazed me even more was that Joe's suggestions were not mere plot contrivances, but all stemmed from character issues faced by my protagonist.
The guy is a force of nature.
Go get THE NEWBIE'S GUIDE TO PUBLISHING. You won't be sorry.
Monday, May 10, 2010
Once when I was in my twenties and had a month between newsroom jobs, I decided to drive to California to see some friends. I wanted to see a friend in Winona, Minnesota, as well, so I took off in my regrettable little Plymouth along I-90, up through Madison and LaCrosse, headed west.
Parts of that trip still linger in my mind: winding through the Black Hills on the Dakota-Wyoming border in the middle of the night, going slow for fear of hitting a deer or driving off a cliff. Sleeping in my car and waking up shivering in a rest-stop near Cheyenne. Limping into Elko, Nevada with a nail in my tire and being lucky enough to find an actual “service station,” where they fixed a flat for ten bucks. Having my breath taken away by the grandeur of Lake Tahoe, even from the mundane vantage point of I-80. Wearing out my cassette of Emmylou Harris’s Live at the Ryman along the way, and finally rolling through the endless suburbia of the Bay Area at sunset.
I haven’t seen the high plains or the Rockies from the road since, but I’ve driven I-90 through Wisconsin almost annually over the last decade, and that road will always be defined for me as something more than just a leg of the trip into the lakes and rivers of the North Woods. In the back of my mind, it will always be my gateway to the West.
I never feel that pull and possibility more strongly than when I drive that trip solo, as I’m about to do this weekend on my annual trek to meet up with my brother and some guys from my hometown for a long weekend of fishing, beer drinking and extravagant eating.
It always happens somewhere past Madison, as the light is falling, the hills start rolling and the pine trees crowd the road a little closer. I feel like I might wake up in the Badlands instead of a cabin on Little Clam Lake.
I typically enjoy the drive nearly as much as three days of fishing. It’s the only time I listen to books on tape, and it typically takes the drive up and back to finish one. I guess I should say “audio books” because they’re on CDs. (Right, I still don’t own an iPod.) The first couple years I made the trip, it was le Carre books. (I remember stopping a block away from my house at the end of the trip back so I could listen to the last five minutes of The Secret Pilgrim.) Last year, it was Michael Connelly’s A Darkness More than Night, which was good but will always be marred in my mind by the darkness I felt in the middle of the night when a Wisconsin State Trooper pulled me over south of Eau Claire at midnight and wrote me a ticket for doing 81 in a 65. Basically, the speed of traffic out on the big road, but more than 15 over the limit and I sat there feeling the air go out of my lungs as I studied the ticket in the dome light, realizing I had just gotten tagged for $236. I ejected Mr. Connelly from the CD player and drove the last two hours of the trip brooding in silence.
It took a 9 a.m. can of Bud, a healthy portion of bacon and the promise of grilled venison at lunchtime to revive my spirit the next morning. When I said this trip delved into “extravagant eating,” don’t get notions of fancy foodies comparing notes on edible flowers and polenta recipes. These are men who, for the most part, slaughter and butcher all of the meat they eat and feed their families, whether it’s pigs, cows or deer. Lots of deer. Venison and ducks cooked over fire. That’s what this is.
I have noted here before that I do not hunt, and I prefer not to handle firearms. But I do take my cooking seriously and over the years have tried to contribute interesting and even daring kinds of meat to this rolling feast. For the most part I failed, creating a near scandal among the troops by bringing links of sopressata for everyone to snack on. Surely, such fine Italian salamis would be scarfed up nearly immediately. Instead, these brave men cowered in the living room like superstitious natives, terrified of pork that had been cured but not cooked or smoked. Explaining that Europeans had been eating this stuff safely for centuries only made things worse.
Then last year I took a different tack. I was in a certain Italian grocery store on Grand Avenue early last spring buying a sandwich for lunch and wondering why my cell phone always stopped working the second I set foot in the door, when I noticed the exquisite coils of Italian sausage in the deli case. I returned before the trip, bought five pounds of the stuff, a giant jar of the home-made giardineira, packed it in my cooler and headed north. We grilled it for lunch one day, and a star was born. This year I’ve been asked to bring three times as much.
Now, I just need to set the cruise control to fly under the radar. And I need a book for the trip. Recommendations?
Friday, May 07, 2010
There Are Some Things You Can't Cover Up With Lipstick and Powder
Every few years folks make a meme of the Bechdel Test for Movies. It originated a quarter century ago in a comic by Alison Bechdel and it's making the rounds again thanks to this video. Simple and ingenious in its construction, the Bechdel Test applies these three questions to a film:
1. Are there at least two women in it (with names)?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. Do they talk to each other about something besides men?
The video shows a long list of recent and successful films that don't meet the criteria.
These days I don't get to a lot of movies that don't have penguins or talking chipmunks in them so I applied the test to the last dozen or so novels I read. Two-thirds didn't make the cut. And they weren't all written by men.
Books are a little different from films, of course, in that you have virtually an infinite number of titles to select from. If you wanted to read exclusively nurses-in-Swedish-prison novels you could probably find enough to fill what remains of your expected life span. But if you restricted yourself to literary and popular fiction--and especially fiction in the mystery/suspense/thriller genre--you'd find the selection narrowed considerably. There are plenty of novels that pass, but run down your most recent list of reads and count just how many don't.
I'm not going to call out a bunch of books here because I don't think the test is particularly meaningful when applied to a specific work. Few would suggest that Cormac McCarthy should have added a few more characters to The Road just to be sure two women are having a conversation. The same could be said of The Hurt Locker, although perhaps it's instructive that the first time a female director won an Oscar (well-deserved, I think) it was for a movie that was almost exclusively about men.
I'm sure there is an argument that the market--or at least the perception of the market--has created this. Conventional wisdom says that women will read books about men, but men won't read books about women. If you believed that to be true and you were targeting a general audience you would mostly publish books about men. This is particularly interesting (and perhaps counter-intuitive) in the context of Jason Pinter's excellent article in The Huffington Post, arguing that men don't read because publishers target most of their titles toward women (who make up most of the readers and around it goes).
As a writer it's possible to overthink litmus tests, even ones as simple as this one. Every story should make its own rules. But when we're away from the keyboard it should make all of us ponder the degree to which our own work is sub-consciously influenced by formulas. By market forces. By conventional wisdom.
And forget about me as a writer. If eight of the last twelve books I've read don't pass the test, what does that that say about me as a reader?
Thursday, May 06, 2010
How in the Hell Do You 'Stay Present' When You're A Writer?
You can't get away from it these days. Everyone from Oprah to Bret Michaels talks about staying present and being in the moment. I get it. I agree that generally life is better lived not in your mind, but in the world that's right in front of you. And I appreciate that if you practice accepting the moment and going from there (rather than running around in your head with panic alarms going off) things go a lot smoother.
But how are you supposed to do these things--how are you supposed to be present and in the moment--when you're a writer? When your livelihood (or just one of your hobbies) requires that you completely remove yourself from the moment and get into someone else's, someone who actually doesn't exist?
My friend, the author, Elizabeth Flock, recently told me about something that happened to her. While she was making lunch, a family member kept trying to talk to her. When Liz wasn't very responsive, the family member continued to attempt to get her attention. Finally, Liz had to explain to the person that since her job was being a writer, even though it looked as if she was simply preparing a tofu salad, what she was actually doing was walking around in the body of a young girl who happened to live in North Carolina. She was, in her head, writing. She was absolutely not in the present, and she was irritated when someone tried to bring her back to it.
That's how it is when you're really into writing something--there's a constant push/pull between the moment you're in and the moment you're character is in. Maybe the trick is to just be fully present in either? To not worry about the other things when you're writing (or making your lunch and writing in your head), to not think about the law students you have to call back and the press release that you have to greenlight--but rather just fully sink into the character who's body you're living in for the moment. And then when you are, later, reading that press release, being totally there? Any other suggestions? I'd love to hear 'em.
Tuesday, May 04, 2010
And the Winner Is ... Not You!
OK--tied with the other four nominees who didn’t win. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Congrats to Stefanie Pintoff, who did win Best Debut Novel for In the Shadow of Gotham.
It was a great night, as each of my writer pals predicted it would be. I met Michael Connelly, had Harlan Coben slap me on the back, jawed with Columbine author Dave Cullen, and shook hands with Ace Atkins, who nearly broke my arm. I watched New York bookseller Otto Penzler whoop and dance like a nine-year-old when he won the Edgar for Best Critical/Biographical Book.
Sure, I was bummed about not winning, but not for long. My wife was with me and, after all, there were free drinks. I was actually more disappointed that I didn’t get to give the 60-second acceptance speech I had prepared.
So I’m about to foist it on you, dear readers, for reasons that should become apparent.
Naturally, I would have thanked my editor, my agent, my wife, my kids, and the Detroit Red Wings. But the important part would have gone something like this:
In my day job, I’m a journalist. Some years back I wrote a story readers liked. They sent me a lot of nice emails. One stayed with me. It said simply: “Your profession exists so people like you can write stories like this.”
Of course I liked the compliment. But the email stayed with me because of the way the reader phrased it: `Your profession … people like you … stories like this.' It wasn’t really about me. It reminded me that I was part of something much larger and more important than myself. And I really liked that feeling. I feel the same way tonight as I stand in a room filled with great writers and editors, and especially my fellow rookies-of-the-year. Thanks for having me.
I share this because I believe it. Writing is a lonely pursuit. It's made easier, at least for me, by the knowledge that I actually belong now to a world of people—like my pals in the Outfit--who open their veins and let them bleed on pages for all the world to see (and carp about on Amazon, Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, etc).
If that was more than 60 seconds, please don’t tell Margery Flax at Mystery Writers of America.
Now how about a free drink?
“How To” Books for New Writers—Have a Favorite?
by Jamie Freveletti
I’m preparing a presentation to a group of new writers and writing a list of “How to” books for them.
Like most debut authors, I spent a few years writing, rewriting and reading about how to write. I’d get stuck in the process and race to the Harold Washington library here in Chicago to a group of shelves that held books written by writers on writing. I’d yank one out, read it on the subway ride home, and plunge back into the novel. Some were quite helpful, some not so.
There are a few “standbys” that we all know, Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” and Elmore Leonard’s wonderful, fun read: “10 Rules of Writing” (Rule #3: Avoid Prologues).
I’d add the following:
1. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and how to avoid them), by Jack Bickham.
Bickham’s short, numbered mistake list, with a bit of explanation for each, is bound to hit on one that every writer will recognize as one they have made or are still making. At the time I grabbed this book I was deep into the first manuscript and nothing was going well. Mr. Bickham clued me in: I was protecting my protagonist and having a sidekick interact with the main second character. Why? My protagonist was married, and unless she was going to have an affair, there was no way she could run around with the male character in the story. I rewrote her as single, lost the sidekick, and continued forward.
2. Give ‘Em What They Want: the right way to pitch your novel to editors and agents by Blythe Camenson.
This is a must read for any author in the query stages of writing. I used this book religiously when creating my query (along with the advice of a good friend) and it really helped me see what agents needed in order to evaluate the novel. What’s great about this book is that many of the agents interviewed are still in the game and they are generous with advice about what they want to see in the queries they receive.
3. Making a Literary Life: advice for writers and other dreamers, by Carolyn See.
See’s book is one of the few that really helps published authors as well as the unpublished. Her “So what?” approach to reviews and her advice to use a form of “literary aikido” to take a negative event and spin it positively is a quite helpful (and as a black belt in aikido, I loved the analogy). See addresses whether to have launch parties in New York (better to wait and be sure you’ve got enough friends to back you) and gives a lighthearted account of her attempts to get an editor to accept some of her freelance work (pictures of goats were involved).
These are my current favorites, but if any of you have a book to recommend do tell!