Sunday, May 30, 2010
RO: I can't tell you how many times people have asked me who I see playing Paula Holliday in the film or tv version of the Dirty Business mystery series. Unless they know something I don't, it's not a question I'm going to have to give serious thought to in the forseeable future. But I'm asked all the time (as I'm sure the rest of you are.) I recently had the most fun exchange about this at the New Haven Free Public Library.
Once again I had no quick answer for Paula's role. In the past I've said Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lopez, Kate Hudson..the list goes on.
It's not that I don't know what she looks like - she's in her thirties, long dark hair and she's athletic. But that's about it. I haven't given her flashing green eyes or a pert turned up nose..or a hunchback. She's of Italian-Irish extraction so she could look like anyone. So far I've preferred to let the reader fill in some of the blanks.
That said, I have always felt that Babe would be played by Ellen Barkin. I bumped into her once at Canyon Ranch. She's of a certain age, still hot and appears to take no crap from anyone. (Ellen, if you're out there this is a great role for you. I'll even write the younger boyfriend back into the next book.)
ANYWAY..at this book discussion, all the attendees had read Dead Head. One thought Babe should be played by Susan Sarandon. Another said the actress from Alice (no one could remember her name, older, but it wasn't Linda Lavin or Ellen Burstyn.) But my favorite suggestion was Pam Grier. Pam Grier...Foxy Brown! I loved it. Each of us thought we had the perfect Babe and they couldn't have been more different. Which is why it's fun to sometimes let the reader decide.
So now I will ask you all the same question..
ROBERTA: Ro, I am so out of touch with Hollywood that I have a hard time answering that question about Rebecca Butterman when it comes up. Your list is very good--can I have whoever is left over? Of course my favorite actress is Meryl Streep and I have complete faith that she could play someone in her late thirties. So if she's free, I'll take her!
When my golf mysteries were au courant, one dear friend was insistent that he would play the golf psychologist in the series, Dr. Joe Lancaster--young, tall, handsome and athletic. Never mind that my friend is short, Jewish, and in his 80's. If he wanted to imagine himself as Dr. Lancaster, who was I to argue?
RO: That's funny. I have two friends who think they're Lucy Cavanaugh. I used to see her as Parker Posey...a very good indie actress.
HALLIE: I've been on tenterhooks wondering if NEVER TELL A LIE will get made into a Lifetime movie -- it's been optioned by a production company twice but it's still not, as I've learned that they say in the biz, not greenlighted. But if I were casting Ivy Rose, a very pregnant and 'interesting looking' thirty-something, it would be a young Debra Winger. Or Laura Linney. Or Catherine Keener. And wouldn't it be great if it was an actress of that calibre?
RO: I love Catherine Keener...she's terrific.
RHYS: I had a very heady Hollywood moment when Her Royal Spyness was optioned and I had lunch with the producers and they asked me what my feelings were about Keira Knightley. We actually came to the conclusion that Emma Watson might be a better bet. As yet the project is moving forward, so they say, and an English production company is on board but we haven't got to the casting stage. It's all pie in the sky and rather fun in the abstract.
However a Welsh website did once ask who should play Constable Evans in a TV version and the winner was Euan Gruffydd (I think that's how he spells his name). There is an option on that series too, but I'm being realistic about how few of these come to fruition.
I must say it would be strange to watch my characters interacting on the screen. I've just been contacted by the actress who is going to read for the audio version of the Royal Spyness books and she was kind enough to ask how I wanted various things pronounced. I might even listen to these. I've never listened to one of my audio books before.
HANK: Oh, Rhys, I love Ioan Gryffud (maybe that's right?) He was Horatio Hornblower, too, and I thought he was terrific.
For Charlie? No question, Rene Russo. (She can look fabulous, all gussied up, or just regular-normal. Just like Charlie.) Rene! Are you out there? For Josh, Gregory Peck. Oh, that won't work, more's the pity. Jeremy Northam?
RO: Do I really know two people who know who someone named Ioan Gryffud is?
JAN: I don't know who she is, Ro. always thought Sandra Bullock would make a great Hallie Ahern. But I'd really love to see Parker Posey in the role. A younger Kevin Kline would make the perfect Matt Cavanaugh.
HANK: He! (And he's very very attractive, I might add.) Netflix Horatio Hornblower. Really wonderful. And then there'll be more of us who know who he is!
RO: I love that they're all strong women and not a bunch of cutie-pies. Although if one of the cutie-pies wanted to option our books, I'm sure we'd say yes.
Friday, May 28, 2010
By Alicia Rasley
"This is a bestseller? I write way better than this!"
You've probably thought that. You've probably said that, after you finished reading the latest not-so-great bestselling novel. And that can be an effective way to get motivated on your own writing and submitting. Let's take our inspiration wherever we get it, right?
But there is danger also in fulminating about bestsellers. I hear it all the time, from my writing friends and the commenters on my blog (and I've been known to say it myself):
• "Wait a minute. Everyone says not to start with backstory, but this book does, and it's a bestseller!"
• "This bestseller isn't fast-paced. I thought bestsellers were fast-paced!"
• "My book is written better than this bestseller."
• "I used to read this author all the time. But since he's become a bestseller, all his books are sort of formulaic."
• "It's not fair. How come he gets all the publicity and talk shows, when this book isn't as good as half the books that die on the shelves?"
• "This editor just rejected my much better book. It's not fair! I should be the bestseller, not (Insert Big Name Author)!"
Hey, it's natural to kvetch. We're writers. It's our job to observe and comment on life. But I'd like to point out some ways it's futile and some times counter-productive to spend much time worrying about the worth or lack thereof of bestselling novels. So here follows my Top Ten Reasons Not To Wonder Why This Book Won't Make You a Bestseller Like (Insert Big Name).
1. Bestsellers are bestSELLERS, not "bestbooks." That is, they don't purport to be the best books out there. They just purport to have sold a lot of copies. And quality (or your or my judgment of quality) is by no means the primary criterion for selling a lot of copies. The fact that this book over here is a bestseller and yours isn't is no commentary on your quality. So stop feeling insulted by someone else's success.
2. Publishing is not a zero-sum game. The Harry Potter series proves that (and many other important publishing points). Harry Potter brought new readers into the publishing marketplace, and once having discovered the unique pleasures of fiction, most of them kept reading. Those weaned on Harry a decade ago were very likely the buyers of the Phillip Pullman bestsellers five years ago, and they're now buying the Jonathan Safran book. (I'm telling you—if anyone could have saved this industry, her name is J.K. Rowling, and every novelist should send her flowers.) And I bet during this decade, they didn't just buy bestsellers. Reading is addictive, and she got 'em hooked.
3. Bestsellers might create "constant readers," but constant readers don't create bestsellers. Okay, if an author has over twenty years and twenty books gathered a couple hundred thousand faithful readers, she might need no more than those to achieve the lower rungs of the bestselling ladder. But to reach the highest reaches-- #1-10 on the NYTimes list, say—usually the book has to attract a whole lot of buyers who are buying books as gifts for others, a whole lot of travelers looking for a distraction in the airport, a whole lot of customers attracted by a flashy poster and an author appearance on the Today show. Bestsellers attract an additional readership (or buyership, anyway) which tends to be more affluent, less experienced in reading fiction, and especially, more male than the sorts of readers who buy three books a month and keep their library cards in weekly use. What does that mean? Well, I'm not saying sexism is an influence here, but you want a NYTimes bestseller first book first time? Don't use a female name, and don't aim for a primarily female readership. (Women will buy books by male-named authors with male protagonists, but the reverse is seldom true.) (Yes, there are bestsellers with women's names. But usually those authors have been publishing many years and released many books before getting there.) Hey, folks, I don't make the rules, or those Joanne Rowling books would be titled "Harriet Potter."
4. These days, bestsellers are usually 1) the latest book in a longstanding series by a long-published author, or 2) highly promoted by the publisher because the concept of the book happens to be "hot" at the moment. If your book is neither, it might be terrific, get well-published, get a good advance, garner terrific reviews and lot of fan mail, but it probably won't be a bestseller. Can you live with "just" great reviews, lots of fan mail, and a book you're really proud to claim? Yeah? Me too.
5. Envy is ugly. Turns you green.
6. Don't use bestsellers as the excuse for slacking off. Never learn negative lessons from other books, like "John Grisham gets away with XYZ, so I can too!" Your aim should never be "getting away with something". Read the bestseller to find out what it did right, not wrong. What did it do that captured the reader's attention? If there's a hot premise or high concept, how was it unveiled? How long are the scenes and chapters? How do the scenes end, and how does that keep the reader reading? You'll learn more about bestsellers by assuming they're doing something really right, than from scouting out what they're doing wrong.
7. Bestsellers are, to some extent, a genre of their own, with its own expectations and conventions and genre voice. So even if a bestseller is nominally in another genre, you don't learn much about how to write a bestseller from reading non-bestsellers in the genre. To learn more about how to create a romance bestseller, read Nora Roberts, not Anne McAllister. Both are very good, but only one of them is a bestseller.
Remember what I said about the unusual readership? If you're writing for a less-experienced reader, you might highlight rather than conceal clues, ramp up the emotion, overwrite rather than underwrite. There's nothing wrong with this—you should indeed consider your audience—but there's no shame in saying that this kind of writing isn't what you want to do. If you want to write subtle, underplayed novels for a sensitive, even jaded, veteran reader, don't expect the publisher to give you the sort of promotion that leads to a bestseller.
8. There are, actually, some bestsellers that are subtle, underplayed, and aimed at the experienced reader. They're what we call "surprise bestsellers," and if you want that surprise, study those—Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, Frasier's Cold Mountain, the first Harry Potter. Notice that surprise bestsellers often come from much smaller publishers that decide that this is the book they're going to push this year. I wouldn't suggest kissing up to an editor, certainly not! But let me just say an aggressive agent and an editor senior enough to have a say in promotion will make a bigger difference in a smaller press. And they're more likely to make the push if you make known very early how willing you are to do publicity for the book.
You probably need a powerful agent who believes in you and the book—before you submit the book to publishers. The agent is the one who gets the publisher to make that big investment in you, so if you really want to be a bestseller, choose the agent wisely.
9. Bestselling novels don't necessarily make you rich. I know, good old JK is the richest woman in the world, but generally, your first bestselling novel can be traded for one late-model high-end Mercedes. The money and sales number differences between #20 and #4 on the NYT list can be extreme. Staying on the list for more than a week or two is where the money is. So if that's your aim, look at the top of the list, not the bottom. It's entirely possible to make more money with less stress in the midlist.
10. Bestsellerdom isn't as glamorous as you might wish. The expectations of the publisher increase a great deal when they've given you a big advance and promotion budget. You might have to attend many booksignings and library bookclubs, and be baffled at how you can make a bestseller by selling only two copies here, driving 100 miles, and selling four copies there. But the purpose is not selling so much as showing a willingness to promote and meet the people (booksellers and reviewers) who can start that all-important word-of-mouth promo going. No one thinks this is fun. A bestseller I know said that you shouldn't aim for bestsellerdom unless you're happy to get up at 3 am and drive to an interview with a Kokomo, Indiana, radio show, and it can't bother you that the interviewer hasn't read your book (except the sex scenes, which he reads aloud). Then again, her British publisher (don't you wish you could say that? "My British publisher.") put her up at the Ritz-London, so it's not all bad.
Don't just assume you want to be a bestseller and are a failure if you never make the Big List. There are other routes to big sales and big advances than quick bestsellerdom, and those might be more compatible with your career and life plans. Sit down and think through what your vision of success is, and what achieving that will really take, and whether that works with who you are and how you live. It comes down to this: Know yourself, and know your writing, and know what you really want.
Alicia Rasley has never made a bestseller list, but she has high hopes for The Richest Girls in Town, to be released by Bell Bridge Books, February 2011.
She has a bunch of typical writer jobs (high prestige, low pay), teaches at a community college and in an MFA program, and gives workshops online and throughout North America. Her writing articles are archived at The Writer's Corner, and she blogs about editing and writing at Edittorrent. Check out her writing books, The Power of Point of View, and The Story Within Plot Guide.
Roberta: thank you Alicia for all your words of wisdom! Questions? Comments? Alicia is happy to answer them...
Thursday, May 27, 2010
By Simon Wood
I like basing my fiction on real events, but headline stories rarely inspire me. They're too public. Too visible. The public is keenly aware of them and by the time they make it into fiction they're blasé. I’m always mining for stories featuring life’s oddities that fly so low under the radar we miss them. The unusual business of buying and selling other people’s life insurance policies was the inspiration for ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN. The suicides of three coworkers sparked WE ALL FALL DOWN.
The odd and obscure play a part in my latest book, TERMINATED, which focuses on workplace violence. In the USA, twenty people will die this week at their place of work at the hands of a violent act. That’s right—twenty people. Some will die as the result of a killer entering a place of work while the others will fall prey to a violent coworker. Either way, that’s a scary statistic. I’m quite glad I work from home where the greatest threat to me is a green cheese sandwich at the back of the fridge that I’ve been too afraid to dispose of.
That statistic wasn’t the inspiration for the book. Instead, the precautions some firms are taking to combat workplace violence is what grabbed my attention. Some firms are employing private security companies to investigate, avert and defuse threats from violent employees. The reason for this is simple—the cost. When you tot up the cost of lawsuits, rehiring, loss of productivity, not to mention the harm done to employees, private security firms are quite a cost effective solution to a potentially dangerous outcome. I couldn’t ignore this wild situation. It had novel written all over it.
And because I’m a devious little so and so, I wasn’t interested in exploring how industry is involving private security firms in their daily affairs (and it has nothing to do with no one willing to talk to me about it). I’m sure I could make a fun story about private security operatives going all out to protect a threatened employee. No, I was more interested in how the best-laid plans can be meant to protect us, but at the end of the day, the only person who can save us is ourselves.
So in TERMINATED, Gwen is the rising star at her firm, but her employee, Stephen Tarbell resents her success along with everything else others achieve in this world. What makes Gwen the focus of Tarbell’s ire is a poor rating on his performance evaluation. The systems in place to protect Gwen fail, forcing her to take matters into her own hands. While this might seem like a minor thing to take umbrage over, it’s not. My research into workplace violence uncovered amazing motives why some coworkers have come to blows. All I can say is watch what you say to the person in the next cubicle. Think about that when you send a snotty email to the guy that snatched your tuna on rye from the staff lunchroom.
So TERMINATED is in the bag and I’m in search of another quirky news story for my next book—and I think I’ve found one. What would you do to keep a wayward spouse in line—and how much would you pay?
Yours with my arms out for the next story to fall,
ROBERTA: Thanks for a look into your devious mind today Simon! Simon is the Anthony Award winning author of Working Stiffs, Accidents Waiting to Happen, Paying the Piper and We All Fall Down. As Simon Janus, he's the author of The Scrubs and Road Rash. His latest thriller, Terminated, is out in mass paperback. He's standing by for comments and questions!
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
ROBERTA: Lila Dare is visiting today on the occasion of her book launch, TRESSED TO KILL. Most amazingly, after five years of slogging through the process of writing and trying to sell a novel, she sold 10 in one year (writing as Lila Dare and Laura DiSilverio)! I am tired just thinking about her writing schedule. Welcome and congratulations! And by the way, your author photo is hysterical! Will you tell us how you stuck this out while you awaited your big break?
LAURA/LILA: Thanks for inviting me to Jungle Red today. It’s the first blog I read every day. As to my “overnight success” in selling ten books in twelve months . . . As with many such stories, it took much longer than one year to make this happen. I started writing full time in August 2004 and gave myself two years to land a book contract. Hah! (That’s the sound of the universe laughing at my naivete and hubris.) Then I came up against reality. My mystery, when I finished it, was 120,000 words long and I was convinced every one of them was a sparkling gem, the removal of which would lessen the whole. You writers, published or un-, can see where this is going. I couldn’t get an agent. I’m pretty sure agents I didn’t even query sent me rejection letters, just to get in on the trend. So, I took the advice of an editor I met at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference and started trimming, then cutting, then full-scale slashing and burning. The new version was a much better paced, tighter 80,000 words. And it got me an agent. My unpublished days were over, I rejoiced. Publication was just around the corner. (Cue evil laughter.) My agent tried hard to sell the book but we never found a home for it.
In the meantime, however, I’d been working on other projects, attending writing seminars/conferences, taking an on-line writing class, and working with a critique group. When my agent came to me and said Berkley Prime Crime was looking for someone to write a series about a Georgia beauty shop, I was ready for the challenge. (Note: This is one reason you want an agent—s/he will hear about things you’d never get wind of.) They signed me to a three-book deal on the basis of a couple of chapters and a synopsis. The first of my Southern Beauty Shop series, Tressed to Kill, debuted on 4 May. While I worked on those books, my agent sold one of my other manuscripts to Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Minotaur, and then we pitched another idea to Berkley and they bought three books in the new series. Less than a month after that, we got an offer for a series idea I’d pitched a whole year earlier, so I had another three book contract. I’m writing like a maniac through 2012. As you can see, there was nothing “overnight” about my “success.” Actually, I hesitate to use the “S” word until sales to readers warrant it . . . and that may be a long way down the road.
LAURA/LILA: It has been suggested by my nearest and dearest that I am a bit obsessive. I prefer to think of it as organized and focused. At any rate, I do treat my writing like a career. I write five days a week and try to take weekends off. I set goals for number of words written per day (2,000—a number I got from Steven King’s book On Writing), and rely on schedules and to-do lists to get promotion and marketing tasks done (everything from writing bios and short synopses, buying bookmarks, writing blog posts, updating social media, etc.).
My “individual development plan” includes the things I plan to do to become a better writer, everything from conferences to classes. This year, for instance, I attended a seminar taught by Donald Maass. And I’m teaching a two-hour seminar on revision at the Colorado Gold conference in September, which will require me to develop some exercises and analyze the revision process more closely. I’m considering attending the Sisters in Crime-sponsored class the day before Bouchercon. I am constantly working on my craft.
I give myself performance reviews, too, and rate such things as meeting my words/day goal, meeting deadlines, and improving the weak areas in my writing. I might reward myself from time to time with a day off to go hiking or shopping with friends. My overall goal is not “Sell more books.” My goal is “Tell better stories more effectively” (which I hope translates to more sales).
I am passionate about writing and feel blessed to be able to do it every day. I know that the long slog toward my first book contract made me a better writer and made me appreciate that first sale even more when it happened. I wish a similar satisfying journey to each of you in pursuing whatever your passion is.
ROBERTA: Lila/Laura is giving away two signed copies of her new book to two folks who leave comments today. You will love this book--it's a perfect, funny cozy with wonderful characters and a terrific voice. Read more about it at Lila's website.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
ROBERTA: Authors sometimes dream that a current event will dovetail with their book's launch and bring it to prominence. This is not the case for Susan Cerulean, the co-editor of Unspoiled: Writers Speak for Florida's Coast, a collection of thirty-six essays and poems contributed by writers including Connie May Fowler, Janisse Ray and many others. For Cerulean and her co-authors, the BP oil disaster on April 20 occurred just as their book is about to be launched, and embodies their worst fears. They can only hope that Unspoiled (to be released by the Red Hills Writers Project on June 1) will push forward the case for protecting the fragile coastal environment.
Welcome to Jungle Red Sue! (And ps, Sue happens to be my fabulous, multi-talented older sister!)
Tell us first about UNSPOILED. How did the idea come about? What kinds of writers agreed to contribute?
SUSAN: For nearly thirty years, our state has stood firm against oil and gas drilling off Florida shores. But last fall, a cadre of lobbyists began to push hard to nullify the long-standing law protecting our Gulf of Mexico. All we could think to do in response was what we do: Write.
So, we invited dozens of colleagues who share our love of the Gulf to donate a short piece to an anthology we hope will remind our fellow Floridians to stand up and participate in the public conversation. Some are students, some are scientists, many are well-known Florida writers. They hail from the Panhandle to the Keys and range in age from seventy-two to just nine years old.
ROBERTA: Why an anthology?
SUSAN: I'm a big believer in anthologies; this is the fifth collection I've shaped and co-edited. I love the creative energy of working with a group. Anthologies extend the reach of a book, and you have 36 built-in marketers.
Also, recruiting writers and editing come more easily to me than writing my own book length works!
ROBERTA: The whole country is watching the fight to contain the oil spill and its consequences. Are there lessons you hope we'll draw from this disaster?
SUSAN: Definitely. First, we cannot let corporations have such unbridled access to our irreplaceable commons. Second, we must shrink our own use of petroleum, our own carbon footprints. And, third, Florida must pass a constitutional amendment to ban all offshore drilling.
ROBERTA: I imagine there are plenty of folks who agree with the concept of stopping drilling in fragile ecosystems, but wonder where else our energy needs can be met. Comments on that?
SUSAN: Unspoiled reminds us that now is the time to shift from the oil dependent, industrial economy that is devastating our planet and driving climate change. We've got find our way into culture based on clean, renewable energy sources.
You can preorder Unspoiled: Writers Speak for Florida's Coast, and read a sample chapter at www.unspoiledbook.com. And Susan is happy to answer questions and comments!
Florida writer and activist Susan Cerulean's nature memoir, Tracking Desire: A Journey After Swallow-tailed Kites (University of Georgia Press) was named Editors' Choice by Audubon magazine 2005. Her writing has been most recently anthologized in To Everything on Earth: New Writing on Fate, Community, and Nature; A Road Runs Through It: Reviving Wild Places; and The Atlantic Coast and Piedmont: A Literary Field Guide. Cerulean edited Between Two Rivers: Stories from the Red Hills to the Gulf, The Book of the Everglades, The Wild Heart of Florida, and others.
Monday, May 24, 2010
ROBERTA: Some years ago, nearing the end of my training in psychotherapy, I described a new patient who had been assigned to me for therapy to my supervisor. He told me how much he loved starting with a new patient. Anything could happen. All kinds of fascinating information would be revealed. He found the beginning to be the most exciting part of the therapy relationship. I was surprised. I felt better in the middle of the process after I'd gotten to know my patient pretty well and had begun to feel we were making progress in sorting out their problems.
Recently I saw a post on the Guppies listserv (unpublished Sisters in Crime chapter) about how exciting starting a new book could be. Peg said: "I'm in the beginning stages of plotting a new manuscript, and I've been struck anew with how much fun this is! All the frustrations of rejections aside, there is such a great feeling about creating a world, characters, personalities, motives, etc. The actual writing down of words can be an exercise in hair pulling, but this part is pure fun!"
The parallel with therapy seemed amazing! And it works for reading too--it got me thinking how much I enjoy being in the middle of a good book, rather than just beginning to delve into the book's world.
So what do you like about writing--or reading--a book? Getting started? Plowing through the middle? Wrapping things up?
HALLIE: I think more books have good beginnings than have good middles. And fewer still deliver at the end. So when I'm reading a book that's still good in the middle or end, I'm blissed out.
As far as writing, I find it all excruciating. Typing THE END the first time is the high point, and rewriting is much more fun.
And I think I'm glad your supervisor wasn't my therapist...since the 'pleasure' that he finds in his work seems to come from satisfying his own curiosity rather than seeing growth in his patients.
ROBERTA: Oh no, I don't think that was it at all Hallie! I'm sorry if I made it sound that way. He found people so interesting and he really enjoyed the process of getting to know someone and then working on their issues. But the beginning was full of surprises.
RHYS: I love toying with a first paragraph, long before I start a book, but I have to confess I find the first chapters hard. I don't work from an outline. I don't really know where I'm going so it's sort of panic-driven floundering for the first fifty pages or so. Then I start to breathe normally again and can see my way ahead and by page 150 I pick up speed like a horse sighting its stable.
JAN: I confess that I'm resistant to starting new books. It It takes more and more for the writer to get me to buy in. I'm a hard sell. But then at the end, I'm so sad that world is over.
So I guess I'm with you Roberta on middles.
The same goes for writing. The beginning, while fun, presents so many possible choices, there's always the anxiety it won't work. The middle, while rife with problems to solve, means full engagement with this world I've made up.
There's always a point in any article, essay, or novel I'm writing where I get this AH-HA moment and I JUST know it's going to work. That's my absolute favorite part.
RO: Reading is all good - either I love it or I put it down and pick up something else that has the potential to be great. Right now I can't wait for July. I have a stack of books I'm anxious to plow into.
OTOH, Now that I'm in the endless re-write stage of book four, I'm thinking back to the beginning and remembering it as fun. But it's all work. Sometimes fun, sometimes "how can that just be three pages....??" or "will anyone believe this ending or was it obvious from the start?"
ROBERTA: Knock wood, knock wood. And yes, Rhys, yes, panic-driven floundering, that's where I am! Wondering whether Jan's Ah-ha moment will ever come... How about you readers and writers, do you love the beginning, the middle, or the end?
Friday, May 21, 2010
Then, as she does every year, she puts stuff out on the street--this year it's a tidy row of paint cans, pieces of lumber, and plumbing innards. Beside these, she plants a hand-lettered sign: “FREE.”
Just watching her inspires me. Suddenly I’m ready to tackle that walk-in clothes closet I haven’t been able to walk into for months.
I know my husband will be inspired as well – inspired to clean the gutters and rake the lawn so he'll be in position to grab off any of the neat stuff she throws out.
Every spring, he and I play this zero-sum game. I cheerfully make my way from room to room, measuring my progress by the heft in a black plastic garbage bag, while he just as cheerfully cruises the neighborhood looking for castoff treasures. While I’m sneaking away, carting stuff off to the dump or Goodwill, he’s sneaking his finds into the basement.
Just for example, last spring I got rid of an old television that only got channel 4, two tired kitchen chairs, and a floor lamp that sizzled and smelled like vomit when you turned it on. He dragged home a set of World Book Encyclopedia (every volume except one), most of the interior of an old piano, and a bench with an enormous mushroom growing out of it.
My husband, the scientist, claims this demonstrates some basic principle of conservation of mass.
Uh oh. A couple of local kids are carrying a washing machine out of my neighbor’s garage. She’s telling them to put it out on the street. It’s pale green and black with a clothes ringer attached -- the perfect addition to my husband’s collection of vintage appliances.
Sure enough, a little while later my husband hollers, “Gotta mow the lawn,” and heads outside.
I feel strangely exhilarated. Two bags full of stuff we don't need should more than offset what he's about to acquire.
It will be a challenge but I'm up to it. After all, it’s spring.
Are you the dragger-in or the dragger-out in your household, and is it a zero-sum game?
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
HALLIE: Congratulations, Raffi, on the new book! Your main characters, Boston Police Detective Angel Alves and Assistant DA Connie Darget, are working homicides in the midst of what looks like a gang war. You used to be a DA and Chief of Gang unit in Boston. Did you have to change the real world of Boston gangs in order to write the novel?
RAFFI: I tried to keep the book as real as possible. I used some actual street names and neighborhoods, although I did take some liberty in fictionalizing these places. As for the people involved in the gang violence, young men who are caught up in dealing drugs for a living, I drew on my real life experience to depict how these kids react in certain situations, especially when they are dealing with police and DAs who are trying to solve crimes.
HALLIE: There's also a serial killer the press calls the "Prom Night Killer" -- his victims are white suburban college kids, and law enforcement and the media treat those murders very differently from gang killings. Is that something you saw on the job?
RAFFI: Most of the people I worked with in law enforcement treated every case and every victim the same. It would certainly be easy to put in a greater effort for a sympathetic, "innocent" victim as opposed to a gang-involved victim. But when you're talking about a homicide, there is always a family that is devastated by the loss. It's the mothers, fathers and grandparents that deserve justice for their loved one.
As for the media, they provide us with what we want as an audience. When there is a murder in a certain neighborhood that is plagued with violence, we are less likely to be shocked, which means we are less likely to be interested in it as a new story, and the media are less likely to cover it.
HALLIE: How do you write about violence without romanticizing it?
RAFFI: I try to keep most of the violence off stage. When I do write a violent scene, I try to make it ugly, because it is ugly.
I think back to an old Alfred Hitchcock movie, "Frenzy," where a serial killer is raping and murdering women. Hitchcock did an amazing job of depicting those scenes as the horrible crimes that they are. Although it is difficult to do when writing a serial killer thriller, I try not to perpetuate violence against women and children as these two groups are often the most likely to be victimized in real life. My killers are more equal opportunity killers.
HALLIE: "Frenzy" is one of the scariest movies I've ever seen. Neckties have never looked quite the same. The dialogue in the book feels so authentic. Do you just remember what people say and how they say it, or do you have to take notes?
RAFFI: There are times when I hear a great line and jot it down, but mostly I try to remember, not necessarily what people say, but how they say it. I've been fortunate enough to read many trial and grand jury transcript as well as conducting direct and cross examinations of witnesses at trial.
HALLIE: What authors influenced your style?
RAFFI: Thomas Harris created the best depiction of a serial killer as well as the psychology of the killer. George V. Higgins influenced me with his ability to create "real" dialogue. One trick in fiction is that dialogue has to approximate the way we speak. If dialogue were truly real, it would be boring and repetitive. James Patterson provided the structure and the use of third person multiple point of view.
HALLIE: Three masters of their craft. Can you tell us where the title, “2 in the Hat,” comes from?
RAFFI: 2 in the Hat is an old mob term for someone taking two bullets to the head. But it can also describe a killer who is dealing with multiple identities.
HALLIE: I didn't realize that. And not to give away anything (I read the book!) but that is really neat. Because this book has one of the most surprising twists at the end ever.
Thanks for stopping by, Raffi.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
When I went to start yesterday’s blog on words, I searched bookshelves for my thesaurus but it wasn’t there. Then I remembered--awhile back, I got rid of it because I needed the shelf space more than I needed a paper version of something that’s just as complete and easier to use on the Web.
Ah, the digital age. Countless thesauruses and dictionaries and encyclopedias have been consigned to the dump. Typewriters, their keys harvested to become jewelry, molder there, too, like great tuskless elephants. Reel to reel tape recorders and VCRs and film cameras. Rotary phones--we have one in our front hall, and it’s such a pleasure to pick it up and hear “Dial 1 to hear an important message”-- and after a power outage it’s the only one in the house that still works.
Even species born in the digital age like fax machines and scanners are becoming obsolete.
Which made me think about all the other things that have gone belly up or are gasping their last breaths as the Internet offers the same thing...sometimes for free.
- Newspapers and magazines, of course
- Cookbooks. Travel books.
- Video rental stores
- Channels that you can watch just by plugging in your TV
And you know this idea that it's free? We’re now paying for...
-- Cable TV
-- Cell phones and house phones and office phones and...
-- Computers and modems and printers and...
Not to mention the constant flow of electricity that ALL of that stuff draws when I'm not even using it. Couldn't they at least make it easy to really turn the things off?
I refuse to give up my old TV. It works. My ancient green porcelain and stainless steel milkshake machine. My clock that actually ticks and needs to be wound. And of course, novels with covers and pages that I can dog ear.
Are you going with the electron flow or getting dragged kicking and screaming?
Monday, May 17, 2010
Do you agonize over finding, as Flaubert would have it, "the mot juste", the precisely appropriate word, torturing your brain and anyone with the bad luck to be in the house with you when you're writing, or Googling thesauruses until you do?
Or do you grab the first word that comes to you, following author Roddy Doyle's sage advice: "Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, e.g. 'horse,' 'ran,' 'said.'"
Do you eschew or embrace the Thesaurus? (Do you eschew or embrace "eschew"?)
HANK: Oh, when we're writing a news story and searching for words, my producer always says--"get the Thesaurus!" And I say: "No, we can think of it on our own. The Thesaurus never works. Never." (The other difference is that when she goes to the thesaurus, she goes on line. I turn for my battered book. But that's another blog.)
So in my real job, no. I don't use it. The right word is never there.
How, um, ever. When I'm home, and writing books, sometimes when I get stuck I pull up the Thesaurus, yes, on line, and read through the words. I hardly ever use any of them. But it's just--shopping. And seems to get my brain working.
HALLIE: "Mercy buckets"... as we used to say when I was a kid. Followed by "Yucca, yucca, the laugh of the desert puh-lant." Can't find that in a Thesaurus.
RHYS: I am dismayed at the way our vocabularies have shrunk these days. Everything has to be quick and efficient--CU Later. when I read letters written by Victorians I am ashamed at how we have let them down. On the other hand I do not like reading books in which the writer has tried hard to be "literary" and has agonized over a metaphor or a poetic description. When I write I don't want my readers to be conscious of the words on the page. I want them picturing the scene I am creating.
Occasionally I'll get stuck and usually reach for something called The Word Menu which is like a Thesaurus-lite. I often find the word is on the tip of my tongue and as I browse it suddenly comes to me. Sometimes when I'm writing and I can't come up with the word I want I'll leave a row of xxxx's and come back to look it up later. That way I don't break the flow of a tense scene.
ROBERTA: I tend to keep things simple too--but I do have a thesaurus on the desk and I do also Google a word if the prose sounds too boring. Yes and I use Rhys's technique of the row of xxxx's--for everything--names, words, plot points! Words seem to evaporate more easily these days from my overloaded brain so I don't mind using any prop that works.
JAN: Usually what I'm fussing over is a new way to express an action, so it's a verb I'm looking for, and a verb I plan to use in a slightly different way, so the Thesaurus wouldn't be any help at all.
And I agree with Hank most of the time the Thesaurus doesn't work, but every now and then, when I know the word I'm searching for but just can't access the brain file, the Microsoft Thesaurus bails me out.
HALLIE: Ah, verbs. I remember in "Mary Poppins" P. L. Travers describes one of the children as "trapezing" across the floor. I confess to having stolen it...once.
ROSEMARY: I tend to put the pedestrian word in the first draft and if it needs jazzing up I hope I remember it the next time around. Sometimes it strikes me as silly to have someone "sprint, bolt or jog" when run would do just as nicely, so I let them run.
I do have to remind myself to put in adjectives and I try not to use "beautiful, nice or very" but I'm sure I do! In those instances a thesaurus might help but I think mine is holding up a plant...
HALLIE: That's not a bad thing. After all, the fiction writing gurus tell us to eschew adverbs and adjectives and stick to nouns and verbs.
So what's your word for word?
Synonyms: term, expression, name, verbiage...
Friday, May 14, 2010
HALLIE: I think there's a diagnosis for this. No, I do not think my frying pans are talking to me. Or my curtains or hand sanitizer. But I do get into the birds that come to our birdbath. Sometimes there are as many as 6 little sparrows perched on the edge while a seventh takes a dip, and I imagine I can hear their bawdy comments or offer to hold little towels for each other.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
JAN: April Cushing, a reference librarian for 22 years, is my favorite librarian. This has a lot to do with the fact that she's also the unofficial head of my book group and not only offers us terrific recommendations (The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips, I'm reading it now, it's terrific), but also procures the books for us. She also used to write the funniest Christmas letter, ever, spoofing the form to a degree that my daughter and I would rip through the Christmas mail every year waiting for it. But now she's turned her wit to column writing called "Nothing Personal" for the DAILY TRANSCRIPT. And here, she agreed to make fun of her library patrons for me.
APRIL:When Jan asked me to write a short blog for her writer’s group, the only blog I could think of was Julie Powell’s. I actually met her before she became a big cheese at an event arranged by Porter Square Books. We had a three-course French dinner at Chez Henri in Cambridge, met the author and got an autographed copy of Julie & Julia. But back to the blog. Hers just happened to turn into a book and a movie and made her a millionaire so naturally my first reaction was, do I have to? But when Jan threatened to interview me instead, suddenly the blog thing didn’t seem so bad. She said to just write something light and funny about the library.” Does the word oxymoron come to mind?
Library patrons, on the other hand, are another story. I could write at length about them but I don’t want to cross the line. OK, I really don’t care about crossing the line; I just don’t want to lose my job. It goes back to that fear of being sent to the principal’s office. I know the correct spelling because I was taught “the principal is my pal” although we all know he’s anything but, and when you’re summoned to see the principal you can be sure he’s not thinking pal-sy thoughts of you either. But I like working with the public, mostly, and it’s fun to talk books with other readers. I recommend stuff, they tell me what they liked, and I get good suggestions for my book group.
The part of the job I like least is teaching the Dreaded Computer Classes. We all hate this because the patrons we attempt to teach are generally not your model students. Take John, the guy I had last week for the hour-long Basic Computer class. Mid-seventies, affable in a too-loud sort of way, and completely untainted by prior computer experience. The supposedly self-guided Palm Beach, FL “mousing around” tutorial (you can Google it) takes the tyro through the fundamentals like holding the mouse, clicking, scrolling, dragging, double clicking (now we’re getting into advanced territory) and right clicking. Intentional right clicking, I mean. Tedious, but not what you’d call taxing.
Boy, was I wrong. I could not get John to successfully click on a link, any link, to save my life. I adjusted his hand, demonstrated how to hold the mouse gently but firmly, described the motion in excruciating detail and tried every trick in my admittedly modest arsenal of teaching weapons. I could not get the guy to click. “I don’t know what else to say,” I told him, practically in tears. “I don’t know why it’s not working.”
What I somehow managed not to say was, “how can you not know how to click, for Christ’s sake? This isn’t rocket surgery,” as my friend would say.
The one remotely amusing moment was picturing my daughters as flies on the wall watching my near meltdown. I could hear them say, “Are you serious, Mom? You got a master’s degree for this?” The other thing that kept me from totally losing it was the arrival of 25-year-old Jenna, fresh from URI library school and a whiz at computer training. Sensing my desperation, or maybe it was the way I grabbed her arm, Jenna, with infinite patience, taught John to click. Kind of. When I asked how she did it she said, “I could tell right away he wasn’t an auditory learner but a visual one, so I just showed him how I did it.” Right.
After almost two hours the tutorial was mercifully over. I was back at the reference desk grateful that John was finally gone and no one had gotten hurt when I heard a familiar voice bellow, “I want to sign up for the Internet class next.”
Then he proceeded to walk out the emergency exit door and set off the alarm.
JAN: I feel very lucky, not only do I get to hear some of April's war stories first hand, I get to drink wine with her at book group!!
If you want to read more of April's unique take on the reading world, check out some of her columns. Scrabble lovers, especially, should follow the below link.
Are there any other librarians out there with some good war stories?? Anyone else want to tell us about their least favorite jobs or cute Luddite patrons??
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
JAN: Nancy Means Wright is the author of 15 books, including 5 mysteries from St. Martin’s Press, and now, an historical novel, Midnight Fires: a Mystery with Mary Wollstonecraft (Perseverance Press).
Mary Wollstonecraft is a fascinating historical character. Clearly the material for a terrific protagonist. You’ve written a chapbook of poems on her life, but how and where did you first discover her, and how did you decide she should be a sleuth?
NANCY: Years ago in a college library I stumbled upon Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she called arranged marriage “a legal prostitution,” advocated a female’s right to equal education with boys, and divorce with impunity.
Her peers labeled her “a hyena in petticoats.” After reading her letters about kidnapping a depressed sister from an abusive husband, and later forcing an English captain to rescue French sailors from a sinking ship (she eschewed bigotry and injustice)—I figured she’d make a terrific sleuth.
JAN: What are the special challenges of writing with a protagonist who really lived versus one you’ve completely made up?
NANCY: Unlike a fictional protagonist, Mary has to remain in her own time and place—I can’t have her running down a villain when in real life she was hovering about her mother’s death bed. In 1786 she was en route to be governess to the notorious Anglo-Irish Kingsborough family, who lived in Mitchelstown Castle, a sort of creepy gothic manse, so I started the book there. But of course I had to research the historical characters connected with that castle, so that was an added challenge.
JAN: What made you write a historical novel—and do you find it more difficult?
NANCY: More difficult because of the challenges noted above, and the worry of Do I have it right?
On the other hand, I’ve had Mary seething in my head for decades (I love a flawed character), and now I’ve a ready-made time line and plot, like the stormy conflicts between Mary and Lady K, or the womanizing Lord K who got an earlier governess pregnant and later shot his daughter’s lover.
JAN: Publisher’s Weekly said about the book “deftly illuminates 18th century tensions.” Can you tell us about those tensions and how different/same they are to tensions today?
NANCY: In 1786 English Protestants were in ascendancy after Cromwell crushed an earlier Irish uprising. Landlords charged huge rackrents and exported the food peasants grew, so when blight hit the potatoes, people starved.
Inspired by the American Revolution, cells of rebel Irish like the “Defenders” began a clandestine rebellion against the aristocracy. Mary’s pupil Margaret later renounced her own class to join the United Irishmen (everyone blamed Mary for that
JAN: I understand this will be a three book series. Tell me what’s next? And are you always on the lookout for historical figures who make great sleuths?
NANCY: Book #2, The Nightmare (‘11), is set in London just after Mary has written Vindication, and fallen headlong for artist Henry Fuseli. She proposes to join him and his wife in a ménage à trois—“platonically,” she insists—as the door slams in her face. Fiction meets fact when Fuseli’s famous work “The Nightmare” disappears, and a dead woman turns up with an incubus on her breast .
In book three,. Mary rushes off to revolutionary Paris “neck or nothing” (book #3) —and while heads roll, loses her own head (metaphorically speaking) to a feckless American. I might write a fourth when the cad, who keeps a mistress back home, ships Mary and their illegitimate child off to Scandinavia. After that? There are a lot of unsung female rebels lurking there in the mist.
JAN:Nancy, who lives in Vermont with her spouse and two Maine Coon cats, was was an Agatha winner for a children’s mystery, and has published stories in American Literary Review, Level Best Books, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. To learn more about her, check out her website at www.nancymeanswright.com
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Not by a publisher. Or an agent. Or even awards committee.
I’ve been rejected by an insurance company.
Because I’m a writer. I thought my husband was kidding when he told me that I had to call the insurance agent about our new umbrella policy because there was a problem with my profession. That I was a liability.
The umbrella policy had nothing to do with writing. We wanted one because we have a rental property I had a hard time figuring out how what I made up on the page affected a potential slip and fall claim.
I called Jane, our insurance agent, and explained that all my books were murder mysteries. Fiction. Just some fun that could not be construed, in any way, to libel people. She checked with the company. “They don’t like you,” she said.
Tell them I don’t even have a book coming out this year, I said. She got back to me: “They still don’t like you.”
Apparently, they were worried that someone out there might think I was using them
as a model for one of my characters and thus libeling them.
(As a financial aside, since I draw a lot on my own journalism experiences in the creation of Hallie Ahern, my protagonist, I wonder if this means I can sue myself and make a killing?)
At any rate, Jane, who really is an insurance agent extraordinaire, eventually solved the problem, but it required a search. She had to find a special insurance company in LA that….. and get this: “insures celebrities.”
That’s right. Me and Angelina Jolie. We have the same kind of insurance problems.
The policy cost more money, but they, that’s just the price of celebrity!!
So have any of you other writers out there ever heard of this?? Or had to pay the higher premiums yourself?
Monday, May 10, 2010
Saturday, May 8, 2010
Booklist on City of Dreams
"Can I interest you in saving America?" That's what a Wall Street bigwig asks Peter Fallon. Before long, Peter and Evangeline are chasing a mahogany box containing $20,000 worth of Continental bonds from 1780--bonds that represent the unretired debt of the American Revolution. With interest, those bonds are now worth over a billion dollars.
Do you know Peter and Evangeline? To millions of readers, William Martin's creations are as familiar as Nick and Nora, as Tommy and Tuppence, as Tracy and Hepburn in Adam's Rib.
Series characters are our entry into each new mystery world. Our guides and our pals through each adventure. We root for them, and wonder what will happen in their relationship. William Martin's latest adventure with his series characters might be called a treasure hunt through time. The story drops into Manhattan history at the end of three centuries, in the midst of three financial crises, as three September disasters loom for the City of Dreams.
Listening to eloquent and compelling historian William Martin is always mesmerizing--go hear him if you get a chance! But today--he's all about his characters.
Two Lovers and a Series That Spans Thirty Years
On Tuesday, Peter Fallon and his girlfriend, Evangeline Carrington, will be back for their fourth adventure in City of Dreams.
They met thirty years ago in Back Bay.
Peter was a graduate student writing his dissertation on the life of an old Yankee shipper named Horace Taylor Pratt. Evangeline was a Pratt descendant living on a trust fund that the old shipper had built over century before.
They both had what you’d call issues. Peter’s father thought his son had wasted his time earning a history PhD. instead of a law degree. So Peter was out to prove something to pa. Evangeline thought Horace and her other male ancestors had made money the old fashioned way, amorally, and she didn’t want any part of their tradition.
They got together, got into trouble, and got me onto the New York Times Best Seller list at the age of twenty-nine.
I never intended to revisit them. I went on to write five other books, only one of which, Cape Cod, was at all like Back Bay – a lost treasure, modern characters hunting for it, and in alternating chapters, the story of the treasure’s passage through history to the present.
But about twenty years later, my agent and I were brainstorming over lunch: How about a novel on the history of Harvard? Written like Back Bay. Contemporary suspense-thriller meets historical novel. The treasure? A lost Shakespeare manuscript from John Harvard’s collection of books. And maybe it’s time to revisit the protagonist of Back Bay in midlife? Make him a guy who hunts for rare books and documents, or as his ex-wife calls him, “Indiana Jones in a monogrammed shirt.”
About a quarter of the way into the book, Evangeline appeared in Peter’s office. She hadn’t seen him for fifteen years, and they started cracking wise right away.
I knew then that I had a series, with a smartass couple who argue a lot but take care of each other, too. Think Nick and Nora Charles for the twenty-first century. In some ways they’re opposites that attract, but they’re very similar, too, just like the best couples.
Harvard did so well that I gave them a wider scope in the next book – locations in all six New England states. The Lost Constitution made the Times list, too. Then I wanted to write something completely different. But the pubs said, “You’re on a roll. Two more Peter and Evangeline books, please.”
And when your publisher says that, don’t complain. Write. And realize that a series can give you all the freedom you want and a kind of liberating discipline, too.
You don’t have to worry so much about the main characters, because they are already there, already alive, already doing what they’ve done in other books – investigating, treasure hunting, whatever. Just make sure they do it well. That’s the discipline part.
Make them like old friends to your readers. But don’t let them go static as human beings. In each story, add something new, some bit of tension. Make them evolve.
In Back Bay, Peter and Evangeline meet. In Harvard, they re-connect after twenty years. In Constitution, they are split up and must re-connect. In their latest, City of Dreams, Peter’s old girlfriend shows up and it’s… big trouble.
At the end of Constitution, Peter and Evangeline had decided to get married. As this novel begins, Evangeline is in New York, her city of dreams, in a rare book store. She’s shopping for a wedding present for Peter. She’s advancing their relationship, to use the writing-class term, when something larger intervenes: she overhears a conversation about a box of ancient bonds that may still be accruing interest.
She calls Peter, and the story takes off into the history of New York. Readers return for the familiarity in a series, but they stay for the new complications. The love relationship between Peter and Evangeline is the glue that holds the books together.
Hitchcock made the greatest thrillers, but they were always about the love relationship. Remember Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint?
I’ll only tell you that at the end of City of Dreams, Peter and Evangeline haven’t gotten married yet. My editor likes it that way. He thinks it gives more tension to their relationship. (What, Mr. Editor, sir? You don’t think there can be tension in a marriage?) Not sure what will happen. I’ll just have to wait till their next adventure to see. But that’s the fun of it.