Saturday, April 19, 2014

What Sara Says

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Jim Jackson is such a numbers guy! He's the only author I've ever heard who describes rejections by weight. And--because Jim can talk about math in a fascinating way--it actually makes sense.

And what do Sara Paretsky and peanut butter have in common? Jim can explain that, too.

Keeping Faith

 After I finished my “practice novel” and had it rejected by tons of agents (I figure it at 7.5 tons: 100 agents at an assumed average 150 lbs.) I despaired. Mostly the feedback was a simple rejection, but on several occasions the feedback included a statement that they couldn’t sell it people my protagonist didn’t fit what people were reading.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to take a master class from one of my favorite authors. Sara Paretsky taught the class in conjunction with a Love is Murder conference. She gave us an exercise to write using as fodder several seemingly random words. (I remember peanut butter being one.) 

We shared our pieces aloud, and mine felt pathetic compared to most of the other offerings.

But after the class was over, Sara came over to me and told me that I had an interesting voice and I shouldn’t let people try to change it. At the time I had no clue exactly what that meant, but I knew enough to realize she was talking about my writing, not my dulcet baritone.

When I eventually understood what she meant by voice, Sara’s little pat on the back became only one of two gifts from her. Her second was her own example. When she wrote her first VI Warshawski novel (published 1982) people weren’t reading books about female PIs. A few such novels existed, and when it came to women, people seemingly cared more about “Charlie’s Angels” than about a realistic woman.

Which did not stop Sara or Sue Grafton. They wrote what they wanted and changed the rules for female crime protagonists.

I wanted to write about Seamus McCree—a good guy; a guy who cares deeply for his son, a guy who struggles with relationships; a guy with a strong sense of right and wrong, but who is faced with choices that are shaded in grays; a guy who abhors violence because he senses he is carrying anger inside himself; a guy who has succeeded financially in the world, but knows that isn’t really what matters.

 I chose to write about financial crimes because those are what interest me, and I can explain complex finances in ordinary English that people can understand.

Sara by word and example gave me permission to write the kind of book I wanted to read, regardless of whether an agent ever wanted to represent it. After writing about Seamus for several years I now think of him as a mash-up of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport and Winnie the Pooh.
Midwest Review concluded its recommended pick review of Cabin Fever, “With its combination of social consciousness, political action, intrigue, and family relationships, Cabin Fever will satisfy any mystery or thriller reader."

To that wonderful black and white statement, I’ll add some gray. If a mystery reader wants a nice cozy they’ll find I use some bad language and show some violence. And I don’t write a superhero who singlehandedly saves the world. I do have faith though that there are enough readers who will like my protagonist and want to read my kind of writing.

If that’s the kind of book you’d like to read wrapped in a fast-paced story, then give me a try. I hope you’ll enjoy Seamus and his friends, because if enough of you do, I get to keep writing about them.

Regardless, I am enjoying my writing. So Reds, anything you were told is a waste of your time that you knew deep down was bad advice?

HANK: Bad advice. Huh. Still thinking about that. But good advice? How about this: Leave a comment for us, and we will give a copy of the Jim-book of your choice to one lucky winner!  

James Montgomery Jackson
"Writing about when Honesty Isn't Everything"
CABIN FEVER (Seamus McCree mystery #2) Released April 8, 2014
BAD POLICY (Seamus McCree mystery #1) [2013]
ONE TRICK AT A TIME: How to start winning at bridge [2012]


Mark Baker said...

My day job (when I have one) is as an accountant. I'd love to win a copy of this book because it sounds like something I'd really enjoy. (And yes, I know I'm the cozy guy, but I do venture into darker waters some, and I think this would fit the bill.)

Joan Emerson said...

I have a great deal of admiration for anyone who can talk about math and actually have it make sense . . . .
It’s a good thing that Sara convinced you to have faith and write what you wanted to write . . . I’m looking forward to reading the next Seamus McCree story . . . .

Kathy Reel said...

Rats, Mark. I thought I would be first tonight/this morning. LOL!

James, you sound like one smart guy to me. If an author doesn't enjoy writing about something, how can he/she do a story justice? What happened to the old advice that you should write about what you know? Of course, I could argue with that one just a bit, in that the authors I read do great research and can easily stretch that knowledge boundary.

I love the main character's name, James. Seamus McCree fits so perfectly together. Cabin Fever sounds like quite the exciting book. Congrats on being true to yourself and it working out.

Kathy Reel said...

Joan, the world is as it should be, with your comments now posted.

Reine said...

Jim, I love the way you describe Seamus. I'm paying attention to the good advice you got. Thanks for telling us about it.

Anonymous said...

Sounds good.
I have all kinds of weird advice and, it seems, the next person comes along and says the exact opposite. ;)

Pen M

Edith Maxwell said...

Don't enter me in the drawing, because I was lucky enough to read an ARC of this fabulous book and delighted when my blurb appeared on the cover and the bookmark!

I rarely read mysteries with male protagonists, but I'll read any Seamus McCree story you write, Jim.

I was told, while trying to sell Speaking of Murder, "the odds are against you." I said, "Well, somebody's going to be published, so it might as well be me."

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Thanks so much, Hank for having me here.

Mark -- It is good to know what you like to read. I call my books "medium boiled." They do have some violence but it's not gratuitous nor described in great detail, so I think cozy readers won't find it too much of a stretch. Oh, and I guess congratulations for commenting first -- you guys have a race each day?

~ Jim

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Joan -- I've found a quote attributable to Albert Einstein to be of great value: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

Kathy -- sorry you lost the daily posting lottery today . About research: once you are done you are back to writing what you know. The rule holds, but order is important.

Of course there was a REDS discussion about Harlan Coben's "I just make it up" approach -- which is maybe what he knows?

~ Jim

~ Jim

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Reine & Pen: All advice should come with a well-filled salt shaker. Good advice early in one's learning should be reconsidered later, which may be why there are so many "rule" conflicts.

Neil Gaiman had a blog going around the internet recently about writer rules that writers should ignore. After reading them, I think he missed an adjective and it should have been "experienced" writers should ignore.

~ Jim

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Edith, thanks for your kindness. There are always the naysayers who will point out how bad our odds of success are because they are not willing risk failure themselves.

AS long as I am channeling Einstein today he had three good ones on failure that I'll paraphrase:

"Failure is success in progress."
"Anyone who hasn't made a mistake hasn't tried anything new."
"You never fail until you stop trying."

~ Jim

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Oh and Edith -- it's good that you persevered over that less than helpful advice, because I enjoyed reading Speaking of Murder and look forward to the next "Tace Baker" book. ~ Jim

Ramona said...

If a person followed all the rules, they'd never try things like applesauce on pizza. :-)

Explaining any complex issues in ordinary English is such a gift. I'm glad Seamus is out there speaking for you, Jim.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Ramona -- you made me smile with the applesauce comment. For those who don't know: in an interview I fessed up to putting applesauce on pizza as my "signature dish."

Ramona was the first editor to get her hands on Seamus with the short story, "Accidents Happen" that appeared in the anthology Fish Tales, which also takes place in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. ~ Jim

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Good for you for persevering Jim--congratulations!

It's so hard at the beginning because no one I know started out as a great writer. There's a lot to be learned and it takes a thickish skin to hang in there and figure out what feedback helps. I think I remember all my lousy feedback--one teacher told me I had the worst case of "adverbitis" she'd ever seen. LOL

Hallie Ephron said...

James you were so fortunate: "Sara came over to me and told me that I had an interesting voice and I shouldn’t let people try to change it." I was lucky that I sold one of the first essays I wrote to NPR... small miracle that sustained me for the next 4 years of NOs.

BUT but but... I've got to say, if I hadn't listened to criticism and been willing to 'slash and burn' I'm absolutely sure I'd never have gotten published. The hard thing is knowing which advice will work for you, and which won't. And SAVE AS before every major revision so you can dial it back if you need to.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Hallie -- What a wonderful start to your writing career. The first thing I ever sold was a little memoir piece (but nothing so wonderful as to NPR). And thank goodness for criticism without it how can we improve?

My computer filing system is to have a separate document for each draft and in between I'll often keep versions labeled with the date.

And backup the whole dang computer religiously. ~ Jim

PS I've just discovered in running the Captcha if I ask for a new code I'm getting numbers, which I can always read better than those letters.

Karen in Ohio said...

I loved Fish Tales, Jim! Will have to go back and reread your entry. So many good stories in that anthology.

And I will definitely have to find Cabin Fever. A guy with a Winnie the Pooh side sounds like my kind of crime solver. :-)

All my life people told me I couldn't do stuff, especially my mother, who is fearful about everything. If I let that bother me I'd never have left the house. My feeling is that it's a big world, and somebody, somewhere will want what I do or have or create.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Lucy/Roberta -- At least "adverbitis" isn't fatal and the cure requires only a painless knife to excise the critters followed by a regimin of strong verbs. :) ~ Jim

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Karen -- great that you were able to overcome the worrywarts of the world (not that a little worry isn't useful now and then). ~ Jim

PPS and once I wrote about getting those numbered Captcha's all I get are letters -- who knew Captcha's paid attention?

Karen in Ohio said...

Jim, that's true, but since I'm surrounded by worriers--my mom, daughter and husband, and my father-in-law when he was alive--I feel as though the worry part is covered for me. :-)

Captcha is a puzzle, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

I would dearly love to win a copy of this book - Jim sounds like a friend... I am very feminine, but my protagonist is a male, ex Navy commander and former CIA agent. I thought I did well in showing him as a real feeling person - til I just reread Tom Clancy's Without Remorse - and saw the incredible depths of feeling and emotion his top guy - in this book shows to the reader... I would give anything now to talk with Tom --- God Rest His Soul... and ask him where he got such an amazing ability to show a tough guy's gentle side... Thelma straw in Manhattan

Kaye Barley said...

Math scares the daylights out of me. But your work sound like something I will enjoy, and I look forward to reading about Seamus McCree. (Actually, I picked up Bad Policy after meeting you in Birmingham and it's right here in my TBR pile).

How cool to hear encouraging words from Sara Paretsky! wow! Now those are words to hold close, for sure.

See you at Malice!

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Thelma -- Masters are masters for a reason, aren't they? It can sometimes be difficult for male protagonists to show feelings well because many males aren't exactly in touch with their feelings. (I know, I know, kind of stating the obvious with this group.) Seamus gets some of it, but sometimes others have to point out the obvious to him. ~ Jim

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Kaye -- looking forward to seeing you again. Wasn't Murder in the Magic City and Murder on the Menu so much fun? ~ Jim

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

RUnning in running in! HI everyone! Grandchildren in town..and there was a big break breakfast...

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Yes, Kaye, that's one of the great things about Jim's boos--they make readers feel smart. Jim, did you think about that as you wrote?

And I wonder if that's when what for some author would come across as "research" instead feels very natural.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

LOL Hank -- I'm hoping "Jim's boos was supposed to be Jim's books!

I think readers are inelligent. I don't appreciate people who try to show how smart they are by hiding information in a cloak of confusion, so I try to make my writing clear when I am talking about things that may not be in a readers comfort zone (like math).

Have fun with the grandchildren. ~ Jim

Deborah Crombie said...

Hi Jim! What fun to see you here!

Your books are on my list--if you can make math understandable to me, you truly are a genius:-)

And I love your Sara P story. She is fabulous, and such a role model for all of us.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Deborah -- I want you to know that I was so far out of the running for the MacArthur "Genius Grants" there were five other James Jacksons ahead of me!

Sara is amazing, isn't she, and a role model in many, many ways. ~ Jim

Deb Romano said...

Anyone who can make math interesting and understandable is my hero! I like what you wrote about Seamus, and I'd be happy to read any of the books about him.

NoelM said...

Hi Mark -- Welcome!

I was told two things when getting rejected —

1) Women (ostensibly my audience) didn't want to read about war, especially war in the 20th century. Women only read historical fiction in Regency, Victorian, or Tudor periods.

2) My voice was "odd" — was my writing funny or serious? Was I trying to be camp? Why did my characters make so many jokes? Historical fiction isn't supposed to be funny! How can we possibly market this?

(Nerves from enduring the Blitz, I say — I'm always cracking jokes during horrible times. I'm a laugh-riot in the ER. It's how I deal with stress and fear.)

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Oops, that was me, Susan -- forgot to sign Noel out!

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Let's try this again….

Hi Mark -- Welcome!

I was told two things when getting rejected —

1) Women (ostensibly my audience) didn't want to read about war, especially war in the 20th century. Women only read historical fiction in Regency, Victorian, or Tudor periods.

2) My voice was "odd" — was my writing funny or serious? Was I trying to be camp? Why did my characters make so many jokes? Historical fiction isn't supposed to be funny! How can we possibly market this?

(Nerves from enduring the Blitz, I say — I'm always cracking jokes during horrible times. I'm a laugh-riot in the ER. It's how I deal with stress and fear.)

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Susan -- don't all professions that deal with traumatic events use humor, often dark humor, to dispel the stress? And during wartime whole populations adopt the same survival tactic.

(gosh just looked at the Captcha below and dang is stressed isn't the first "word" - synchronicity in action)

It seems to me the advice you received is so 20th century and here we are well into the second decade of the 21st century.

~ Jim

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Susan, that is fascinating! YOUr writing seems so effottless--:-)-- and it's such a pleasure to read, I can't imagine anyone not instantly falling in love.

Reine said...

Susan, I love reading your books! But now I'm sad, because I was just about to look up Noel's author bio... damn.

storytellermary said...

Best advice from an assistant principal, "Choose your battles." She was referring to my attempts to reach an unreachable child . . . and pointing me toward the 179 other students in my six-classes-a-day schedule.
Worst . . . just about everything ever said by the principal who inspired "The NCLB Murder." I mean, DIDN'T . . because "any resemblance to any person living or dead . . ." ;-)
I will be checking this out . . . Bad Policy has me thinking about my Prudential days . . .

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Mark — yes, apparently there was no black humor in the early- to mid-20th century…. ; )

In all seriousness, in the early to mid-90s, I did get a lot of: "we really like this but don't know how to market this."

Now, post-Maisy Dobbs and Downton Abbey, it seems like a no-brainer….

Reine, Noel DOES have two books — 10 MINUTE PUPPETS and BOX! (all about cardboard creations….)

Tracy Weber said...

I have no bad advice to share, but I had to say I am intrigued by your character description. "I now think of him as a mash-up of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport and Winnie the Pooh" That alone makes me want to read the book!

Mary Sutton said...

I hate it when people say, "Oh women don't read…" or "Men don't read…" I read all sorts of stuff. Don't tell me what I do or do not read.

Humor under stress? Talk to any EMT, soldier, police officer, etc. I read a book about coroners and the black humor was mind boggling. But sometimes that's the only way you can deal with death day in and out.

People have criticized me for writing a male protagonist - as a woman. But I have plenty of men in my life to ask, "Would a guy actually say/do this?" so I don't feel hampered.

I love the advice to stick with it and don't let someone change you (while listening to criticism at the same time). Someone once told me, "There is a reader for every book, you just have to find him" and I believe that to be true.

Best of luck, Jim. I'll have to go back to Fish Tales to find your story. Like many other here, my math skills are sketchy - so anyone who can make it make sense is a genius to me. =)

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Storytellingmary -- yep, choosing your battle is a great piece of advice that I have ignored to my regret more than once (well, that would be considered the understatement of this blog).

Tracy -- so nice to see you here. I frequently see Jan (my much better half for those who have not met her) using her Downward Dog Mysteries cup for her morning coffee. After you read one of Seamus's books, let me know if you agree with the mash-up description.

~ Jim

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Hi Mary -- so wonderful that many of the REDS are familiar with Fish Tales (the SinC Guppies first anthology). It seems so long ago -- I hope the story is okay (he gulps with a bit of worry).

I am wholeheartedly with you about what men or women do and don't read. There are 100 million males (give or take) who can read in the U.S. If only 1% of them read my kind of book and did, I think I might be, oh say, ecstatic?

The question indeed is finding those who like what you write.

~ Jim

Kaye George said...

This isn't bad advice, but good advice I didn't heed. My English Composition teacher in college told me to keep writing and in 20 years I would be very good. I didn't! I took it up again, seriously, years later and wished I had those 20 years under my belt.

I also have read the book, so don't use my name in the drawing.

Great post--enjoyed it!

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Kaye - Don't you hate it when someone provides excellent advice and you don't take it? That might be reason enough to kill them in your next book. :)

~ Jim

Christine Finlayson said...

When I started my first novel, I received OODLES of advice, some helpful and some not. Over time, I've learned to listen to the advisors, let their ideas simmer, and then follow my gut. (I especially chafe at the phrase, "Nobody wants to read books about X" -- can anyone really say what "nobody" wants?!?)

I love that Sara Paretsky said not to lose your unique author voice. That is stellar advice!

Thanks for sharing the story behind Seamus McCree. Can't wait to read Cabin Fever!

Mark Baker said...

James, as long as the violence fits the story, I think I'll be fine with it. I really am anxious to give it a try.

And we don't have a race per say. Joan almost always posts the first comment. I just happened to be doing my web surfing at the same time this post showed up last night.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Well, Jim, it's a good thing you took Sara's advice, isn't it? I've certainly come to value your unique voice and good editorial skills in our days on Writers Who Kill.

Ellen Kozak said...

Thinking about the prof in the ONLY creative writing course offered at my college when I was there. I wrote a horror story. Classmates liked it (as much as they liked anything-- people at my college were not known for their enthusiasm). Then I wrote another one for the second project.

The prof, an essayist who apparently didn't get genre fiction, told me that once you'd read one of my stories, you'd know what was coming in the other. (Luckily Steven King didn't have an instructor like him).

Fast forward 20 years, and (thanks to an agent who believed in me) I had a multi-book contract for a science fiction series. Guess what-- NOBODY complained about the fact that each book involved the same main characters stopping at different planets.

By the way, Mr. Essayist never taught us how to write and sell an essay. I picked that up without any help from him. He is one of the people-- along with the 1964 college dean of studies and the chairman of my high school English department who didn't think anyone could handle the amount of reading involved in taking two English classes at once (I graduated early)-- whose grave I'd like to dance on.

So often, the old saw is true: those who can't, teach-- and some of them have no idea what the are talking about, but when one is young and vulnerable, one doesn't know that.

(For the record, decades later, after I managed to shake off the criticism: nine traditionally published books, one of which was named best in the state for the year it was published, and over a thousand published essays, articles and stories. And writing is my secondary career. What dance is appropriate to do on a grave? Flamenco, perhaps?)

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Christine -- That simmering thing works well as does recognizing that if multiple people are saying the same thing about a manuscript we at least need to think hard about whether they are right.

I have your Tip of a Bone in my TBR box of books I have waiting to take north with me for summer's reading.

Linda -- You are right as one of the comments on my early report cards that appeared frequently was does not follow directions well.

Ellen -- it's good to find those who believe in us and leave behind the "psychic bleeders" who want to suck the life out of everyone so all of us will feel as bad as they do.

~ Jim

Polly Iyer said...

I'm not surprised you're good at math because you're good at bridge. The two go hand in hand--excuse the pun. Seamus sounds complicated, and that's the best protagonist for me. Looking forward to reading both your books, Jim.

Worst advice I got was my mother thought I should be a nurse. Horrors. I'm a firm believer in writing what you want. It's even better if no one else is writing what you're writing. See you in Bethesda.

Pam De Voe said...

Your advice about staying the course--if you believe in it, is much appreciated. And, as we all know & you say as much, staying the course doesn't mean being rigid and not improving.

Good advice. Thanks.

PS Don't enter me in the drawing--I've had the great pleasure of reading Cabin Fever & it's a memorable read!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Jim, you are marvelous...thank you so much for being here today!

Pick a winner-and we will announce tomorrow!

See you at Malice, I hope!

LynDee said...

What a great post! I suppose the advice I thought was wrong (or that I didn't take, anyway) was the "don't start a sequel until you sell the first book" line.

While I see the merit in it, I figured I wrote the first one for fun, and it looked like selling a book was pretty difficult. Since I loved the characters and was still having fun, I started another book. :)

Lucky for me, it worked out.

Looking forward to reading your work--if you can get numbers to make sense to me, you have some sort of secret magic.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Polly -- Did your mother want to be a nurse or was it one of the things a woman was "allowed" to do at the time?

Pam -- Thanks for the positive comments. It was great talking to you earlier this week.

LynDee -- Gosh I received lots of misguided advice, but not writing the sequel until the first sold was fortunately not part of it.

Oh, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that I'll be using a random number generator to pick the winner. Check back later and Hank will have it posted.

~ Jim

Diane Russom Harrison said...

Women don't read...blah, blah, blah. That's a bunch of hooey. I cut my teeth on John D. McDonald's Travis McGee books and I really loved Dell Shannons books about Luis Mendoza as well as her police procedurals under her other name Elizabeth Linnington. James, you sound like a mash-up of authors I love so now I'll give your books a whirl. About advice? While I am always grateful for advice from experienced authors I do also rely on my gut voice. It's never let me down!