Monday, February 28, 2011

To Fizz or Not to Fizz

Deb: I've just finished my second copy edit in the last three and a half weeks, the first for the UK, the second for the US. The scribbled-on manuscript went into the Fed Ex drop at at quarter to six this afternoon, just under the wire. We writers all know what a HUGE relief that is . . . sort of.

But it's also wrenching, the last birth pang of a book that's taken us a good few months, and sometimes years, to bring to life. It's our last chance to get it right, to participate in the story, to check our logic, to make sure that our characters have done and said all the things we'd like for them to do and say. Because the next time we see these pages, they will be typeset--a real BOOK. And although we'll read for type-setting errors, we will then be outside the story. Observers, not writers.

Today, the book is out of my hands. So elation is mixed with a smidgen of sadness. My brain is fried. (I meant to blog about a very interesting true crime, but discovered I simply could not contemplate the repercussions of DNA testing. Not today.)

So what did I do to celebrate? Champagne? Dinner at Rick's Chophouse? (the most elegant option in my town.) Not exactly.

I was thrilled to wash my hair. I made tortellini and watched a little mindless TV. I thought about how much I would LOVE to clean my house and do a little work in the garden Read a good book. Sleep.

But by tomorrow, I suspect that the next book, put in abeyance
these last few days, will be making nagging demands. And that perhaps I can contemplate that champagne cocktail.

So what about you, my fellow Jungle Red writers, and you, dear
readers? How do you celebrate the last touches to a book, or a major milestone?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Wrinkles in Time and Space

DEB: Jetlag

Such a simple word, and one we toss off so casually. According to my very respected source ( the term was coined between 1965 and 1970, and means "a temporary disruption of the body's normal biological rhythms after high-speed air travel through several time zones."


"Temporary disruption" my . . . Well, you know what I mean. I'm just back in Texas after fifteen days in London, and finding it as difficult as ever to slip back into the current of normal (glamorous, as Julia has revealed) life. It's not just trying to eat and sleep on the right schedule, it's trying to remember where the spoons live in this suddenly strange kitchen, being shocked not to find the BBC on the telly, wondering what it is that we usually eat on Friday nights . . . (And what IS that disgusting stuff in fridge?)

How could I possibly have been driving through Hyde Park in a taxi, gazing at the London fruit trees bursting into bloom, only a few hours ago?

What we are really talking about when we say "jetlag" is severe temporal, geographical, physical, and emotional displacement.

How do you think Meg Murray felt in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time when she tessered for the first (or second or third) time and wondered how she could be suddenly in one place when she had just been in another? (Queasy, if I remember correctly) L'Engle's novel was published in 1962--interesting when you consider that commercial jet travel had only become a viable reality four years earlier, in October, 1958, when, amid much fanfare, Pan American inaugurated its New York-London route, ushering in a new era in the history of passenger aviation. (This flight stopped over in Iceland. It wasn't until the next year that true intercontinental New York-London routes were opened.) Was L'Engle prescient in the matter of jetlag?

Now, here we are fifty-ish years later. We may not tesser yet, but we fly faster and farther, and I don't think anyone has come up with a better way of adjusting our bodies or our psyches.

I think I could call myself a seasoned international traveler, having, in the last thirty-some-odd years, made more trips between the US and the UK than I can count. (By seasoned, I mean that no matter how much advance warning I have, I end up in a blind panic, packing and repacking my suitcase in the wee hours of the morning before a trip. I invariably take all the wrong things. I forget something essential. I leave my house looking as if it's suffered the passage of a minor hurricane. And then I do the same thing in reverse, except I have to tidy the London flat before I leave, AND find room in my suitcase for the books I didn't mean to buy.)

Every trip I swear the next one will be easier, that I will be a new, organized person, but it never is, and I never am. So I fantasize about the QE2, of having a slow, luxurious in-between time where I can plan and think and accustom myself to the reality of arriving in a different place. And then of course there's the even more seductive fantasy of coming home to a clean house, a perfect desk, meals ready and waiting, and a valet to unpack and put away my clothes . . . (Jeeves, where are you?)

What about you, girls? Are you sophisticated, organized travelers? Have you discovered the secret to the glamorous jet-setting life? And if so, will you SHARE?

HALLIE: Whenever I get ready to travel I think of Rosemary and her box of Cheerios. I always always always pack a bag of trail mix. I'm more worried about going hungry than I am about not having the right clothes.

These days I travel with less and less. Just bought myself a really little (half-size) rolling suitcase and I'm determined to use it through my book tour - starting in under a month! Here comes COME AND FIND ME. Wish I were going to London to flog it and having to return jet lagged.

HANK: Welcome home, Deb! And much applause. I was once the QUEEN of overpackers--you never know when you'll be invited to tea at the castle, or horseback riding, or a red carpet event, right? But once on a trip to the Caribbean, my bulging suitcase was lost by the airlines. I arrived in Nevis with NOTHING. I went to a shop, bought a long black skirt, a tank top, a bathing suit and some flip flops. I wore my husband's shorts and t-shirt. I was FINE. When my stuff finally arrived, it was embarrassing.

Now I, so virtuously, just bring what I can carry on. (My secret? Really? Packing with tissue paper. It takes up NO space, and nothing ever wrinkles. It's astonishing.

ROBERTA: Congrats on your first blog appearance Deb--and welcome home! I have one of those little half suitcases too, Hallie. I feel so virtuous when that's all I bring:). But traveling is stressful--I'm anxious the entire week before a trip. Feeling like I have to have EVERYTHING in order--straightening piles that I haven't looked at in months, arranging for pets and plants and mail...I can begin to see why people decide to just stay home.

And ps, my neighbor, who's very well traveled, insists that the secret to avoiding jet lag is refusing to lie down the first day you arrive. Immediately switch over to the new time zone and avoid all temptation to nap. Easier said than done!

RHYS: Welcome dear Deb. I have become the queen of light packers. We went around the Australian outback for 3 weeks with a 20 inch rollaboard. I find I do well with a couple of pairs of khaki pants, coordinating T shirts, sweater, pashmina for unexpected cold an one broomstick skirt that can be rolled into an old pantyhose. I take a silk scarf in case I have to dress up. However, I always manage to arrive after a long flight looking as if I've just been released from a horrible jail--pale, hollow eyed, unkempt, while those around me look jolly and fresh. And I've never learned the trick with jetlag. I always go straight onto local time, take a sleeping pill the first night, AND still feel like death warmed over. I always feel like a zombie for two days in London (you should hear the BBC interview I gave once the afternoon I arrived!)

I'm waiting for one of those thingies they had in Star Trek, but then they'd probably send half my molecules to India by mistake!

JAN: What your talking about Deb is a Re-entry problem, not jet lag. I have it every time I travel. You've been gone from home (or one of your homes) and while you've been gone, life and responsibilities have continued. And now, where ever you have been has slowed you down or altered the rhythm of your life -- this the worst when you've gone on a sailing vacation or to a an island - and now you have to come back to the INSANE PACE we live at. You just have to declare the first week back a catch up week, and lower your expectations.

As far as packing goes -- every time I pack light I regret it. I still am shallow enough to care more about what I have to wear, than what I have to eat. My husband laughs at me every time. I've decided I'm incorrigible.

ROSEMARY: On adventure trips everything is about comfort for me - and not being cold. On business trips I have no problem wearing the same black pants and just changing tops and jackets. It's those pesky "fun" trips where I seem to think I'm going to wear all the jewelry that I never wear at home...and different scarves..and belts and shoes. And dresses...why do I have so many dresses? I'm going to Paris this weekend and I'm probably not bringing a dress. If you're not going to channel your inner Audrey there, where are you going to do it?

Will go carry on, with black pants, black jacket and a scarf. I ignore wrinkles, and re jet lag there's nothing a Red Bull or 5 hour Energy shot in the right direction can't fix
BTW Hallie, I've upgraded to Heart to Heart - the caviar of cereals!

Writers Challenge Week Six

JAN: Well, its over. Done. We can all pat ourselves on the back for our efforts and calculate our word count and page numbers. Or maybe we just feel good about figuring where our story is headed - the hardest part of writing isn't writing, it's thinking.

Aside from practically finishing my novel (I'm halfway through the changes based on first reader comments), my biggest accomplishment has been the distance I've put between myself and my email.

I realized halfway through this, that urge to check email is directly connected to brain fatigue. In other words, it's just another way to space out or avoid hard work. Why waste any of that precious early morning caffeine time on email or any Internet vices?

Late in the afternoon, when the blood sugar dips, the temptation to check email or go online is still strong. Willpower weak. Maybe I'll have to invent a new challenge to address that!

How has the challenge worked for you, and how did you calculate your own success? So please, tell me how relieved you are that this is finally over and how much you accomplished a long the way. I'll be selecting names at random this week and announcing all winners next Sunday - so stay tuned!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Day in the Life of the Author

Julia: Many people come up to me and say, "Hey! Julia! What's it like being the glamorous author of bestselling mysteries?" I usually just draw my full-length mink closer to myself and hurry past, but occasionally I like to share glimpses of my exciting life with "the little people." Forthwith: Twenty-four-hours (more or less) with The Author.

6:00 am: The Author snuggles beneath her downy featherbed while fat snowflakes fall gently from the pearly skies above her Maine farmhouse.
6:15 am: The Author's son wakes her up when he rushes into her bedroom looking for socks he should have gotten yesterday.
6:30 am: The Author attempts to go back to sleep.
6:45 am: The Author's son wakes her up a second time, needing a check and a signed permission slip.
7:00 am: The Author attempts to relax clenched jaw and go back to sleep.
7:15 am: The Author's clock radio goes off. Sadly, she is not greeted by the dulcet tones of Steve Innskeep and Renee Montagne of NPR's Morning Edition, but by the Boston-based sports talk station her husband was listening to the night before.
7:18 am: The Author staggers into bathroom, attempts to rub sleep-creases off face. Discovers they don't rub off.
7:30 am: The Author awakens her youngest child before going downstairs to start the electric kettle.
7:35 am: The Author awakens her youngest child before making The Author's husband's lunch.
7:40 am: The Author awakens her youngest child and then feeds the cats and the dog.
7:45 am: The Author's husband comes into the kitchen. "Don't you think you ought to wake the princess up?" he helpfully asks.
7:46 am: The Author drags youngest child out of bed, sets her to dressing, eating, washing, brushing, loading book bag.
8:05 am: The Author lovingly shoves husband and daughter out into the snow. Time for a cup of tea!
8:10 am: The Author quickly checks her email.
8:15 am: The Author decided she had better see what's up on Twitter and Facebook.
9:00 am: Maybe a few publishing industry blogs.
9:30 am: And Regretsy. She'll just take a peek at Regretsy.
10:00 am: The Author notices the fire in her quaint New England kitchen woodstove is dying down. She puts on boots, parka, hat and gloves and treks out to the wood room for a couple armfuls of well-seasoned oak.
10:05 am: Oh, my Lord. It smells like a mouse died in here.
10:15 am: After building up a fire, time for another cup of tea!
10:18 am: The Author opens her current work in progress. It's at a delicate point, where she must bring together several key characters in a scene that opens the action in a new direction, while subtly revealing motivations the character's themselves are unaware of.
10:23 am: More tea!
10:47 am: The Author's marketing person emails her, asking for a 2000-word piece describing the creative process and an updated bio to go in a promotional flyer. Due in two days, please.
11:00 am: The Author struggles with finding just the right language to etch the fictional landscape into the reader's mind, creating echos of the books theme in the natural world.
11:10 am: Litterbox duty.
11:25 am: The Author's friend calls. "Want to meet me at the transfer station?" The Author agrees, and begins stomping cardboard and sorting glass and cans into separate bags.
11:35 am: The Author drags recyclables into her station wagon, discovers the town plow has been by since the Boy shoveled them out. The driveway is blocked by a two-foot-high snow dike.
11:40 am: Shoveling and cursing.
11:50 am: Cursing and shoveling.
12:00 pm: The Author meets friend at the town transfer station, spends an enjoyable half-hour gossiping over stacks of old newspapers.
12:30 pm: The Author, home again, lugs in another armload of split logs. The wood room isn't smelling any better.
12:45 pm: The Author mixes leftover baked beans with leftover mac and cheese. Not bad.
1:00 pm: The Author gets back to work on a scene where two red herrings must be invisibly laid alongside a clue that will only be recognized two-thirds of the way through the book.
1:15 pm: Better take the dog out for a walk.
2:00 pm: The Author's publicist calls about upcoming book tour. Next half-hour spent hashing out difference between Manchester, Vermont and Manchester, New Hampshire.
2:30 pm: The Author realizes she has one hour of work time before kids and husband return home.
2:45 pm: More tea!
3:00 pm: The Author throws some frozen meat in the microwave. Maybe if it's already defrosted, husband will be inspired with an idea for dinner.
3:30 pm: The Author remembers now-defrosted meat. Removing it from the microwave, she spills jus on the kitchen floor.
3:35 pm: The Author's husband and daughter come through door just in time to see the author mopping up puddle of blood from the floor. "What are you doing?" the Author's daughter asks. "Research," the Author says.
3:45 pm: The Author's husband asks if she has remembered an interview due today. With a sinking heart, the author opens the interviewer's email, to find fifteen questions asking for enough detail to pass as a national security clearance questionnaire.
4:00 pm: The Author works on interview answers while listening to account of daughter's day and explaining that yes, daughter still has to empty the dishwasher even if she is scared to go back into the kitchen.
5:00 pm: Still working on interview. The Author's husband wanders in. "Have you given any thought to dinner?"
5:30 pm: The Author's husband comes back in. "Shouldn't the Boy have gotten home on the activity bus by now?" Remember school play rehearsal is running until 6:00, and all cast members need to be picked up by parents. Offer husband choice: dinner prep or drive time.
6:00 pm: The Author waits outside the darkened high school for son. Snow is beginning to fall. Again.
6:15 pm: Returning home, the Author quizzes son on homework, delivers lecture on the importance of turning in work on time.
6:30 pm: The Author resumes working on interview which should have been done the day before.
7:00 pm: Dinner. Macaroni and cheese. The Author sighs.
7:30 pm: Everyone into the family room for tonight's episode of Babylon 5, streaming from Netflix. "Do I write as well as J. Michael Straczynski?" the Author asks. The Author's husband prudently keeps mouth shut.
8:30 pm: The Author tucks in her daughter. Explains that, no, that wasn't real blood mommy was cleaning up. Just pretend blood.
8:45 pm: The Author settles into comfy chair, keeping feet well elevated away from drafts creeping along the floor of her 190-year-old house. She is ready to relax and enjoy an advance reader's copy of Rhys Bowen's Bless the Bride.
8:55 pm: The Author's dog emits horrible noxious gas, forcing the evacuation of the room.
9:30 pm: The Author drags son away from computer, lectures him on the importance of an early bedtime and healthful sleeping habits.
10:30 pm: The Author's husband appears downstairs in flannel pajamas. "It's late. Aren't you coming to bed?" The Author promises she will after one more chapter.
11:45 pm: The Author guiltily sneaks into bedroom with ARC tucked under her arm.
11:55 pm: The Author snuggles beneath her featherbed, promising herself she'll get more writing done tomorrow. "Did you hear the weather report?" her husband asks. "Looks like another snow day. We'll all be home with you!"
12:00 am: The Author stares at the darkened ceiling, listening for the sound of snow plows. A sound that will not come until it is far, far too late.

For more of the #GlamorousLifeOfAuthor, follow me on Twitter.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Q & A with Agent XT- Christina Hogrebe of the Jane Rotrosen Agency

ETA: Announcing the winners of this weeks ARC and book giveaways! Monday's winners of the One Was A Soldier ARC: Beth Anderson, Laura DiSilverio, Rayelenn and Donna Coe-Velleman. Wednesday's winners of One Was A Soldier: Laura Benedict, Michelle, Elizabeth D and Janet. Winners of Bury Your Dead: Carolyn and J. Winner of Drive Time: Leslie Angel.

E-mail me (julia at juliaspencerfleming dot com) with "JRW Winner" in the subject line and your mailing address. USPS trucks are standing by!

: Beside, behind, and in front of almost every successful writer you will find a literary agent assiduously paving the way for th
at success; believing in and supporting the author even when precious few others do. When I signed on with the Jane Rotrosen Agency, Christina Hogrebe was working as a first reader, assistant, and spunky girl sidekick. After serving her apprenticeship, she began representing her own clients. I've seen her develop from a "baby agent" to a literary powerhouse-in-the-making, with an impressive and growing list of authors. She's agreed to answer some typical questions posed by the as-yet-unpublished writer and by the experienced professional. Christina plans to be available for comments on the backblog, so please get involved in the conversation with questions of your own!

The Novice: What does a literary agent do? Do I have to have an agent?

: The best literary agents wear many hats. Depending on your needs, an agent may be a coach, a cheerleader, a consigliore, and a sounding board. But primary to any of that, an agent is your business partner; he or she will help create ideas and edit your material (depending on your needs), help you set goals and work to grow your career, promote your interests, create opportunities for growth based on current relationships in the business, negotiate agreements, vet your contracts, collect and process payments, and-this is key-be there to protect you if anything goes wrong.
With a few exceptions, traditional (non-independent) publishers will not accept un-agented material. But logistics aside, an agent is a specialist who can manage your business, allowing you to do what you do best: write.

The Novice: What is the best way to contact you, or any literary agent, if I'm trying to market my first manuscript?

Christina: I read my own queries, and I encourage first-time authors to pay careful attention to submission guidelines listed on an agency's website. You can see my specific guidelines here and learn more about our agency on our website,
I know that first-time authors agonize over the query process. Don't! If you've spent months honing your query letter and hundreds on a query doctor , you're not asking the right questions. If you're like me, and you love books, they're not just a pastime; they work their way into every corner of your life, and happily so. So my unsolicited advice to authors is this: become involved. Attend conferences, and readings, and signings. Get to know authors and bump into agents. Talk to booksellers and librarians and read, read, read within your genre. Read reviews, join a book club, and connect to other readers online. Tell an author how much you admire their work, knowing that a kind word from a reader means more than any bad review.
It's worth noting that the majority of JRA clients come through client referral. And that doesn't mean that your great aunt Buffy has to play bridge with a New York Times bestseller for you to get an agent. But it does illustrate the power of being involved.

The Novice: Can an author send a manuscript to more than one agent at a time?

Christina: Sure, but never to more than one agent within the same agency and it's always considerate to note when it's a simultaneous submission. I'll also add that if you are submitting to multiple agencies and you receive an offer before hearing from everyone, it's professional courtesy to notify the other agents of the offer, noting the timeframe for their response should they wish to throw their hat in the ring.

The Novice: Do I have to pay an agent? Do you have a contract with your authors?

Christina: Agents don't work for free. Agents make money when you make money. Period. You can read more about how reputable agents are compensated at the website of the Association of Authors' Representatives .

Not every agency requires a contract with clients. Our agency agreement outlines terms of our working relationship. Keep in mind this is a business partnership and before you enter into that partnership officially, whether the agreement is verbal or in writing, you should understand the expectations and have an opportunity to question those terms.

The Pro: What if I'm not entirely happy with my current agent? What's the ethical way to seek new representation? Do I have to discharge my old agent first?

Christina: If you've discussed your dissatisfaction with your agent, and it's clear that the relationship has run its course, the most ethical way to proceed is to first sever the relationship in writing before looking for new representation.

The Pro: I want to start writing in a genre my agent is unfamiliar with. Do I need to get an additional agent to represent my new work?

Christina: An agent can't be a specialist in every genre. If you're considering changing genres, that should be part of a calculated business strategy which you've discussed with your agent beforehand. Since your agent is already ga-ga for your writing (that was part of the reason you chose her, right?) it's possible that same affection will translate to any genre you write. Many agents will not work with other agencies because in most cases it muddles the contractual waters.

The Pro: I'm querying agents after being unrepresented for a time. What's reasonable for an agent to request before she'll represent me? All my prior sales data? Or my most recent book?

Christina: When entering into a new relationship, it's important that you clearly express your expectations for the road ahead to your new agent. With that in mind, it's crucial for a new agent to know the details of your sales history. I'll say it another way. The agent should be privy to the same information that publishers and booksellers will have when they decide whether or not to buy your new work, and at what level. Bad track records can be overcome, and it's crucial to discuss those obstacles-and your strategy for clearing them-up front.
In addition to sales history, your new agent may ask about your past contracts so that she understands your obligations to any past publishers.

The Pro: I don't feel like I really have my agent's attention. What's a reasonable amount of time between making a call/emailing and getting a response?

Christina: I can't answer with specifics, since situations vary. Universally, it's always important to keep communication lines open and money flowing in a timely manner. If you feel as if your voice isn't being heard, that needs to be the topic of a serious conversation.

The Novice and the Pro: The big question everyone wants to know is: how can I tell a good agent from a bad agent?

Christina: Good agents live and breathe the life of the book. They have contacts in the New York publishing industry that they maintain on a constant basis, regardless of where their home office is located. A good agent reads your work, all of it, and can tell you how to make a big book bigger, but she also finds time to read for pleasure. She's vocal, persuasive, and knowledgeable. She knows how to meet your goals and she knows how to stage a rebuild. She knows when to admit that she's wrong, she knows where to go to learn more, and she's always a tireless advocate for your work. A good agent is all of these things at once.

The Pro and the Novice: Okay, you sound good. But why should I consider representation with a young agent?

Christina: I've been at Jane Rotrosen Agency close to 8 years, but the agency has nearly 40 years of experience backing me. They didn't just turn me loose my first day on the job. A younger agent at a well established agency has probably grown as an apprentice to an agent, and will have the resources of her peers, the time and hunger to help you develop your work, and will be interacting with up-and-coming editors with the same mind frame.

I love meeting authors and other book people and am scheduled to attend the following events. If you're there, say hello.

April 27: MWA Agents & Editor Party, New York, NY
April 29-May 1: Malice Domestic, Bethesda, MD
May 14: CTRWA Fiction Fest 2011, North Haven, CT
June 3-4: NJ SCBWI Conference, Princeton, NJ
June 28-July 1: RWA National Conference, New York, NY
July 7: International Thriller Writers AgentFest 2011, New York, NY
October 21-22, 2011: NJRW Put Your Heart in a Book Conference, Iselin, NJ

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ice Cream Social Media - Q&A with Paul Hochman, SMP Director of Social Media

Most writers today know they can't get away with locking themselves in their garrets to churn out the next great American novel. In a 24/7, information-streaming, Web 2.0 world, readers want a more personal, in-depth relationship with their favorite authors. The possible ways to stay in touch are staggering—and confusing. Where do I reach my readers? How much time should I take away from the actual work? What makes a satisfying social connection? At publisher's offices, in conferences, via emails, writers are asking each other these question. Today at Jungle Red Writers, we have some answers.

Our guest Is Paul Hochman, the Director of Social Media at St. Martin's Press. Paul doesn't place books in a retail setting. He doesn't schedule authors for interviews or signings. He doesn't solicit reviews. But increasingly, all of these activities depend on what he does do: create relationships online. Prior to joining the team at St. Martin's, Paul managed Content, Community, and Social Media at Barnes and Noble.

DEB:I think we can all see the importance of social networking. But it seems very overwhelming--a full time job when WRITING is our job. So my biggest concern is: what three forms of social media are the most important for an established author?

PAUL: With 600 million users on Facebook, 200 million on Twitter, and 2 billion videos viewed per day on YouTube; that's where authors should be concentrating their social efforts. That said; you can cover all your social ground in 20 minutes a day.

HALLIE: Is the answer the same for a midlist author with a new book? What about for one who's come close but never made best seller and wants to break out this time?

PAUL: The above applies equally to a midlist, debut, or bestselling author. There's no better space to market your book and reach your readers -- and it's virtually free!

HANK: Is it better to be all over the place--Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Goodreads and so on--or to concentrate on one and give it your complete focus?

PAUL: If you can manage (post content and respond regularly) on multiple social sites (see my first answer), all the better exposure-wise, but choosing one channel and really running it well is just as effective in many cases.

JULIA: What are the big "don'ts" in social media marketing?

PAUL: The biggest don't is dishonesty. Under no circumstance should you misrepresent yourself, post bogus reader reviews of your work, or try to game the system. Keep in mind, Social Media is ever-evolving and you'll need to constantly craft your content to figure out what resonates best with your audience. You're going to stumble occasionally -- fail fast and learn from your mistakes.

ROSEMARY: How can an author make the best use of all that Amazon has to offer?

PAUL: I'll need more specifics on which offerings we're talking about here but I'm all for blowing out your author profile. As I said earlier, the more exposure, the better.

HANK: I have lots of Twitter followers. But I keep thinking--so what?

PAUL: Great! Start involving them in the conversation. Elicit their opinions. Give them something to talk about -- a first chapter, a cover reveal, or a pivotal plot point. Simply telling them your new book is now available is a huge win.

JULIA: And finally, since things change and evolve so quickly, where do you see the future of social networking headed? If a crime fiction author had a book coming out one year from now, what sort of social media strategy would you recommend?

PAUL: Social Media is changing every minute of every day, but as long as it continues to be a space where readers congregate to share recommendations and content, authors absolutely need be there to facilitate and join those conversations. Remember, nothing sells books better than word of mouth and there's no better tool for word of mouth marketing then Social Media.

Do you have a question for Paul? Comments? Please join us on the back blog and let us know your thoughts on the brave new world of social media.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Conversation with Louise Penny

One of the best aspects of being a mystery writer is the chance to meet and get to know other authors. It’s been a great pleasure, over the past few years, to call Louise Penny my friend. I can’t recall who sent me the ARC of her first book, Still Life, for a possible blurb. My reaction to it was the same as hundreds of thousands of other readers after me: Wow. I knew I was reading the first book by a major talent, and I have taken a great deal of satisfaction in seeing the rest of the world agree with me. Louise has won the Anthony, the Agatha (three times!), the Barry, the Dilys, The Arthur Ellis and the New Blood Dagger awards, has perched at dizzying heights on the NYTimes Bestseller list, and has been on so many “Best Book of the Year” lists she can probably paper her bathroom with them.

On top of that, she’s tall, graceful, funny, and she and her charming husband Michael still hold hands everywhere they go. Really, it’s almost too much to bear.

Julia: You and I are both bringing the traditional village mystery into the 21st century. Do you see yourself as reinventing? Paying homage? Or just updating?

Louise: You know, I don’t actually see myself as doing anything in particular. I really just sort of bumble along. If ignorance is bliss, I live in a perpetual state of it. I know that sounds lame, but I guess I just set out to write a book I’d love to read, it turned into a series and here we are. My books are definitely inspired by the novels I’ve read all my life - the Christie’s, Tey’s, Dorothy L’s etc - but I didn’t realize they were known as ‘traditional’. I knew there was a genre called murder mysteries - but not that there were sub-genres. And it never occurred to me this wasn’t literary fiction. It comes as a surprise when people say I break rules - since I didn’t realize writing had rules. So, I basically just plod along, happily writing books and while I’m very proud and happy to be writing traditional mysteries, I really let others decide what they are. Certainly ‘traditional’ is more polite than what some people have called them!

Julia: Have you found blending the police procedural with the, shall we say, softer sides of the stories difficult? Because I know for the first two books or so, I struggled with getting the balance right.

Louise: God, that’s hilarious - because you sure nailed it! In those books and subsequent ones. I actually don’t really think about that a lot. I must sound like a complete numb-skull, and perhaps I am. I’m not completely oblivious to issues of writing - especially as I go along I’m much more aware of the choices and issues facing me and the books. One thing I have become more aware of is the language I use - I think early on, mostly in the second book, I might have over-used the ‘f’ word. I still use it, but perhaps not quite as much. What I really struggle with is the balance between plot and character development. The personal lives of the characters and their story lines which might mirror the main plot but often doesn’t really have anything to do with it, and the murder mystery itself. I’m never sure I get that right and it’s interesting to read the comments and reviews by some who feel I’m top heavy in one direction or the other. I’ve now reached the stage where I read fewer and fewer reviews and comments and just keep my head down and write what seems appropriate for the stories and character - and hope people agree. I’ve sure made some mistakes, and will again, but at least they’ll be my mistakes. Do you read reviews, Julia? Do you find they affect you?

Julia: Not so much reviews, no. I do find that getting out and listening to what my readers say has influenced some aspects of my story. The status quo of my series changed dramatically by the end of the fifth book (I’m tip-toeing around here so as not to give away any plot points) in part because of what I heard time and again from my readers. It wasn’t really even a conscious decision--more like my readers created the gravity which bent the story arc naturally in a certain direction.

Including more of the police procedural--and letting it exist side-by-side with the personal lives of the characters--had more to do with my own sense of comfort as a writer. Maybe I figured since I was getting away with it a little, I could stretch the boundaries. I notice (this is an observation rather than a question) that within 5-6 books, both of us turned to a much more strictly procedural story (All Mortal Flesh, Bury Your Dead.)

Louise: That’s true. Again, I’m not sure why that is. I suspect it’s just a natural progression and exploration. I’d really hate to be imprisoned in one location or ‘genre’. I think I’d get bored and I think the characters might get boring. Part of what I wanted to explore with Bury Your Dead was to put the lie to this whole sub-genre you do. There are elements in BYD that are historical fiction, parts police procedural, part traditional, part noir and part cozy. Actually, this makes it sound like a bit of a dog’s breakfast! But I hope it sounds like life. Sometimes my life is hilarious, sometimes tragic. Sometimes I’m furious, sometimes I’m gentle and kind. These aren’t contradictions, these are just living a full emotional life. Or maybe being psychotic. Don’t you find that the more aware of yourself you are, the better the books will be?

Julia: Absolutely. You can’t write real people unless you understand real people, and you can’t do that without understanding yourself.

Louise: I also think that the more screwed up I am, the better the books. I can relate to all the odd and sometimes deeply unpleasant things my characters think and feel. And do.

Julia: How are you dealing with what I call the “Cabot Cove” issue--the very small town with a very high murder rate? Other than relying on the goodwill of readers to suspend their disbelief.

Louise: Again, the numb-skull factor comes into play! When I wrote Still Life and it became a series it never occurred to me the “Cabot Cove” syndrome might be a problem. But, of course, by the time I was halfway through book 3, I realized my fictional village of Three Pines was producing both bodies and murderers at an alarming rate. And it was becoming increasingly difficult to describe Three Pines as idyllic, when clearly it isn’t. So, after the third book I’ve set every second book away from the village. This also keeps me fresh and allows me to see the main characters of Chief Inspector Gamache and his team in different settings. For me, and for you too I believe, the setting is also a character, so in changing the settings to other Quebec communities I get to write about other locations. Then go back to Three Pines, and feel excited to be back in the bistro, and back with those characters.

Julia: Kate Miciak, one of Bantam-Dell’s legendary editors, once told me a good writer must be able to feel her characters intimately and still keep them at enough distance to allow bad things to happen to them. I have to say, I think you’re a genius at this, since the residents of Three Pines can be both appealing and appalling, sometimes within a few pages’ span.

Louise: Yes, isn’t Kate amazing. Quite formidable too. Scares me to death. So there’s no way I’d ever dream of disagreeing with her. And actually, I don’t. I think this goes to something you and I’ve discussed over lunch, and that’s pouring our own experiences into our characters - so that they have a rich and sometimes unpleasant interior life. As I mentioned before, I know that the more screwed up I am, the more in touch with my interior life I am, the more I’m able to admit that I’m sometimes petty and jealous, lonely and hateful - as well as joyous and grateful and loving....well, then I can give those qualities to my characters. This bodes well for the future since I expect to become even more screwed up. Though, as you know, Julia, many readers have been very upset with where I’ve taken some of the characters - one in particular. I was amazed by their anger. And, frankly, their lack of trust.

Julia: We’ll tip-toe around this part too, to avoid spoilers...

Louise: I’d hoped after five books they’d appreciate that no one adores my characters more than I do, and if I do something dreadful to one of them it wasn’t done on a whim. But I guess that shows how much people care for the characters.

Julia: That’s it exactly. I think if you do it right, if you do it well, characters take on a life independent from us, their creators, and independent, in a way, from the books themselves. They come to exist in the minds and imaginations of readers, who want them never to come to grief. But our job is different than a reader’s job. Ours is to watch what the characters do and report it faithfully back.

Louise: Do you worry at all about what the readers will think?

Julia: I don’t consider it when I’m writing. Readers would be more than justified to scream if I broke their genre expectations--if the murders turned out to be committed by a nest of redneck, upstate New York vampires, for instance. But if a young man everyone likes had to die, well, that’s just because he had to die. It makes me sad, too, but that’s no reason to alter his fate.

The big question with any series--and especially a small-town series--is how to keep it fresh. What techniques have you used? What do you have in mind in coming books to change things up?

Louise: Besides the vampire sub-plot?

Actually, I’ve found that moving the location away from Three Pines every second book is not only helpful, but necessary. The next one, A TRICK OF THE LIGHT, is set in Three Pines and the one I’m just about to begin writing (which after much thought I’ve decided to call Book 8) is set in a remote monastery. (Had to learn how to spell monastery - kept spelling it monestary). I also set each of the first four books in a different season, so that was fun - to bring the seasons alive.

Julia: I do that, too! I love to circle around the seasons. It adds so much to the sense of place (which we both agree is vital.)

And finally (you can’t imagine how much pleasure I get from asking this question) your novels consistently land on “book of the year” lists, you’ve won almost every mystery award out there, and there are rumors the Agatha is going to be renamed the Penny. How has all this public adulation affected you?

Louise: People might not realize that I simply make-up literary awards, and present them to myself. For instance, I have only just now won the Julia Award! Thank you.

Actually, I should be giving you the Louise Award, for outstanding contribution to not only my career, but the careers of so many mystery writers! My career started taking off after you endorsed the first book, introduced me around, and really opened doors. I owe you a great deal!!! And have had the amazing pleasure of reading your latest - ONE WAS A SOLDIER. OMG!!!! Your fans are going to go crazy!!! They’ve had to wait for it, but I can absolutely guarantee them it will be so worth it.

Buy the book!!Julia: Thank you, dear. Your five spot will be in the mail tomorrow.

Louise: Getting to write is a dream. Getting to write and be published still astonishes me. And then to find that people, some of whom are even sober, like the books just blows me away. Not a day goes by I don’t count my blessings. And am very aware of my good luck. One day all this will go away, and someone else will take my place in the sun - and when that happens I want to step aside with good humor, having been aware of each and every golden moment. I don’t take this, or the readers, for granted. But, having said that, I don’t think there is a writer who is more generous to readers and other writers than you - as this interview shows. How wonderful to have Julia Spencer-Fleming as a friend.

Louise has the rare ability to strike me speechless. I can only reply by meeting her generosity: I have four Advance Reader Copies of One Was A Soldier and two copies of Bury Your Dead to give away. Leave a comment to be entered in the drawing.