Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fifty Shades?

Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey? Um, I haven't. But whoa, lots of people have. It's right there, all over the best seller list, and I have to say I fret for the authors who're pushed off the lists because of it.  In fact, off the record, one such author told a pal of mine that s/he considered herself three places higher in the list because s/he wasn't counting Fifty Shades. But that's a story for another day.

Anyway,  I DID read Bryan Gruley's STARVATION LAKE.  I had no choice. I was going to be the moderator of some panel--do you remember what it was, Bryan?--and since Bryan was on it, I was obligated to read his book. 
(I promise you this has a point.)
I say obligated--because I will admit to you I wouldn't have, otherwise. Because I thought it was about--hockey. Hockey! Until the year the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, I'd never even watched a hockey game. Fine. Sue me. I hadn't.
But panel responsibilities are panel responsibilities, so into Starvation Lake I went.
And it was life changing. First, it wasn't really about hockey.
Second--it was fabulous. Wonderful. Brilliant. So when Bryan won the Anthony and the Macavity for Best First novel, I had to say--well, of course!  

Now hes on his third novel--a copy of which we'll award to a very lucky commenter. Now Bryan is no longer a newbie, he's an award-winning mystery novelist on his way to stardom. And along the way, Bryan has been considering what that means. And the journey. And who he's met on the way. And a little bit about Fifty Shades of Gray. (See? I told you there was a point.)

If It's Not a Rhapsody

My pal Matt likes my books. He makes a lot of money trading options and would love to see me make a lot of money too. He wonders if I should shorten my sentences, maybe simplify the plots a bit, so I'd sell more books and get rich and, like Matt, have Bon Jovi play at my house.
 Matt's a good guy who wants the best for me (except the Bon Jovi part). Shorter sentences and easier plots might well make me a bestselling novelist, or at least a better-selling one. But, as I told him when we talked books over after-work beers, I don't need to bend over backwards for the sake of sales.

 Is that because I'm an artiste, so deeply committed to the purity of my lyrical prose and penetrating tales that I deafen myself to the siren song of commercial success?

 Nah. I'm all in favor of my Starvation Lake novels rising to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List. I'm about as commercial a writer as you can find--just not when I'm writing fiction.

 For nearly thirty-three years, I've been a journalist, writing and editing for newspapers in Michigan, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Now I write long narrative articles for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. It's a blast. I love seeing new places, meeting interesting people, piecing story puzzles together. It pays the bills and then some. Because, from the Kalamazoo Gazette to The Wall Street Journal to Businessweek, what I do is strictly commercial.

 Each of the six publications I've worked for has its own audience. That audience has expectations. You write your stories to meet those expectations. People who pick up the Journal don't expect stories on yesterday's Chicago Cubs loss any more than Chicago Tribune readers want a 1,500-word dive into the ephemera of the Federal Reserve.

 I used to tell a fellow Journal reporter, one of the most passionate journalists I've ever known, that our newspaper's core mission was to make rich people richer. Even though it was a joke, this drove him crazy because, like all jokes, it carried some truth.

 I'm not saying we in the non-fiction world pander. We tell folks plenty of things they'd rather not hear (lots of Cubs losses, for sure). But as we choose what we're going to write about--or, just as important, not write about--we're ever mindful of the age, income, and geography of our audience, lest we lose their interest and, in turn, their subscription and advertising dollars. It's business and, for me, money-grubbing fun.

 Which means I can afford to be, if not an artiste, then a purveyor of sentences longer than See Jane Kill  and a creator of plots and characters more textured than those in The Hardy Boys. I see certain trendy books dominating the bestseller lists and I feel for the authors who've been bumped off the list as a result, especially those who truly need that big break, who aren't as day-job lucky as I've been.

At the same time I admire them and all the writers who put words to paper because a story is burning a hole in their hearts. And I remind myself that even those mega-selling authors, at least most of them, are doing the same, writing what they need to write, writing because they must, because it's as important to them as eating, because no amount of fame or money can outweigh the knowledge that you have done your very best.

 I'm lucky that I don't need to write novels to stay current on our mortgage. Still, I wake up each morning and feel that essential need to sit down and make stuff up. If fortune follows, okay with me. But if it ever does, I'll be inviting Alejandro Escovedo to play at my house. You're all invited.

HANK: So I said to Bryan: who's Alejandro Escovedo? And he said: 

 Escovedo is an old ex-punk rocker turned alt-country artist who mixes 'em all together in songs with lyrical stories. And he can rock. For harder stuff, try Real Animal or Street Songs of Love. For mellower, try A Man Under the Influence. My favorite lyric (perfect for writers):

 If the melody escapes me,
 I will stumble upon it soon,
                                                               If it's not a rhapsody,
                                                               It'll just have to do
Wonderful, huh?
So, reds--a commenter will win a copy of Bryan's newest--so let's discuss: Have you /will you read Fifty Shades? Or--if someone said: "write this way, and I'll guarantee you get big bucks"--how would you feel about that?

Bryan Gruley is the award-winning author of three novels set in Starvation Lake, a fictional town in northern lower Michigan. His new book, THE SKELETON BOX, debuts June 5. The Detroit native lives with his wife in Chicago, where he is a reporter at large for Bloomberg News.


  1. Hi Bryan, Nice to meet you..although we met very briefly at RT last month. I love that Starvation Lake is "not a hockey book." Years ago when I was at Crown Pub. they released a book called Nop's Trials, which was "not a dog book." It was but it wasn't. Kind of the way, my books aren't "gardening" books, but they are to some. People will call you what they need to call you. Before the awards and all of your success, did you have a hard time with the "hockey book" label. Did you have to do much convincing?

    Re 50 Shades. I doubt that I'll get around to reading it. I don't even have enough time for the books I really want to read.

  2. Ugh...that's me, Rosemary, who pulled the trigger too soon..that's why it just says Jungle Red

  3. Congratulations on your series, Bryan. Good to learn about yet another must-read! (And Fifty Shades isn't on that list for me.)

    I just want to write the best book I can and have people love it. I don't think I could write to a formula at all.

  4. Thanks again to Jungle Reds for introducing me to a new to me author. I will look for Brian's books. 50 shades, probably never as I too do not have the many lifetimes I would need to read all the books on my t-b-r list. Dee

  5. I met Bryan at the bar, Bouchercon 2009, just as STARVATION LAKE, was coming out. We laughed over a big coincidence: We had both worked for the same financial editor, him at The Wall Street Journal, me 20 years earlier at the LA Times. I told him some stories and wished him luck -- which he obviously didn't need -- but I never got around to reading the book. I don't like hockey. I will if I win, though.

  6. JAck, you will like hockey if you read Bryan's books! And I love those small-world stories.

    We could probably have some fun rewriting the classics into more modern prose--I must say, my books are full of short sentences. They are also full of long sentences. Sometimes so long I wind up creating new punctuation systems--which my editor never lets me get away with. I'm big on the: clause, dash, clause, question mark, dash, clause, period.

    It works for me, but apparently not anyone else.

    My producer coma in yesterday, in the midst of reading fifty shades. She actually got kindle on her iPad to read it. She's--appalled, she said. SHe thought it sounded like a college student wrote it. SO interesting! HOw many copies has it sold? Anyone know?

  7. JAck, you will like hockey if you read Bryan's books! And I love those small-world stories.

    We could probably have some fun rewriting the classics into more modern prose--I must say, my books are full of short sentences. They are also full of long sentences. Sometimes so long I wind up creating new punctuation systems--which my editor never lets me get away with. I'm big on the: clause, dash, clause, question mark, dash, clause, period.

    It works for me, but apparently not anyone else.

    My producer coma in yesterday, in the midst of reading fifty shades. She actually got kindle on her iPad to read it. She's--appalled, she said. SHe thought it sounded like a college student wrote it. SO interesting! HOw many copies has it sold? Anyone know?

  8. Bryan, I picked up your book this week at a book signing for Bruce DeSilva!! I'm a former cops reporter turned mystery novelist and asked DeSilva to recommend someone else who gets it right. So, I walked out with Bruce's book and Starvation Lake. Looking forward to reading it. It's next in line.
    As far as 50 shades, Hank, I won't read it. There are just too many good books out there on my nightstand (see above) and I wouldn't write a certain way just to sell books, but then again I don't think any true writer would. However, any real writer would do whatever it takes to write the best book he or she can. xoxo

  9. I sense that one of the themes here is that certain books get read and certain books don't, and all because of their perceived subject matter/popularity/sin qua non/whatever. But best sellers prove only that they sell best, not that they are read. Fifty Shades sells well, but from what I've heard, it's also well read, primarily because sex is a fascinating subject - not only intellectually, but also hormonally (is that a good way to characterize it?). So the odds are pretty good that not only are those books selling well, they are being well thumbed.

    That can't be said about a lot of other so-called best sellers. I think people buy a lot of what the NY Times, or the LA Times or USA Today says is a best seller, put it on the shelf, and never read it. I know I have quite a few examples on my shelves. Best intentions say "buy"; time and life say "mañana". The Bible, considered the single leader in best seller status, is reputedly the least read book compared to the number of books sold.

    I'm not sure what my point is here, other than to say Bryan's books deserves the accolades, and if anyone is reading anything, no matter what its status is, that's a good thing. Female erotica, religious scripture or mysteries about hockey. Just read 'em. Reading a bad book is a far sight better than reading none at all.

  10. Kristi, I can see why Bruce recommended Bryan's books--they both have the same kind of--style, droll wit, and insight into the journalism business. And an incredible amount of heart. And wonderfully drawn characters. (okay, gushing over.)

    Oh, John, so funny about he best-selling-but-unread books. So true--but why does that happen and how does it start?

  11. Just yesterday I was in the bookstore where a huge display table groaned under the weight of stacks and stacks of“Fifty Shades of Grey.” Funny thing, though . . . everyone was simply walking past with nothing more than an idle glance. No stopping to thumb through a copy, no grabbing a book on the way to the checkout counter.

    "Fifty Shades Of Grey”is not on my“got-to-get-this-book”list, it's not on my eReader, and it's not ever going to join the wonderful books eagerly awaiting me in my“to-be-read”stack. [If I don't intend to read it, I don't buy it although there are a few "iffy”books on my eReader that I may not get to since the only reason I got them in the first place was that they were part of“Free Friday”offerings and looked marginally interesting. But, I digress . . . .]

    I cannot imagine what it would be like to be told“write this way”or“write that way”. . . writing comes from some place deep inside and does not seem to me to be capable of being“money-malleable”[that is, constructed merely for the sake of sales] if one is to remain true to oneself and the reason one writes in the first place.

  12. Hi Bryan, glad to meet you. And thanks again, Reds, for another good book(s) tip. I'm all about the books where I learn something new alongside a great story.

    I read 50 Shades, and I can unequivocally say, don't bother. The writing is not good (I'll leave it there to be polite). Maybe like the pet rock fad, there's not much there there?

  13. I read about 100 pages of 50 Shades, just so I could comment on the book, and all the hubbub and then put it down because it's not my kind of thing.

    I wish I could just write instead of working a day job, but maybe that means I haven't found the right day job yet.

  14. I probably will read at least some of Fifty Shades because I've heard so much about the book I'm curious. (A friend has already offered to loan me her copy.)

    I used to write commercials, so I can imagine writing to a formula in the right circumstances, i.e. if I needed the money for something and the "formula" seemed like a sure thing. At one time I proofed very dry academic papers. Writing to a formula has to be better than that.

  15. I have bought FIFTY SHADES but haven't read it yet. I just have way too many books ahead of it in the queue; it sounds interesting but not interesting enough to read it before the rest of my to-read list!

  16. Now I have to read the Starvation Lake books, too; I used to like to go to hockey games, and even a little of that is fun!

    I've written two books on spec (non-fiction), with varying results. One was a success; the other was not, and earned a kill fee. Sometimes it is not easy to understand what the publisher is trying to pull out of the writer, especially if the publisher isn't real clear on what that is in the first place. (She kept changing it.)

    Sex sells, and it always has. The big news with 50 Shades, for me, is that it's been such a long time since a novel with a largely prurient appeal has been on the bestseller lists. Consider this list of blockbuster hits, all from the 50's and 60's:

    The Story of O
    The Carpetbaggers
    Valley of the Dolls
    Lady Chatterley's Lover
    Peyton Place
    Tropic of Cancer

    Interesting, no?

  17. OH, laughing SO hard. What a list!! I sneaked The Story of O when I was--how old would I have been? I still get wide-eyed, thinking about what I thought when I read it.

    Valley of the Dolls--I don't consider that in the same category. That's more Sidney Sheldon-ish--like--what was that great one? The other Side of MIdnight

  18. Sheila Connolly is trying to post and her comment won't stick--so she says:

    Bryan, love the series, can't wait for the new book.

    As for Fifty Shades, no, because (a) I read all the classic porn in my youth (my mother hadn't hidden the books very well) so what could possibly be new? and (b) I hear tell it's sexist, and I always want to give submissive women a kick in the pants (no, that's not torture).

  19. No to 50 Shades. I heard the author read a bit on an a.m. show, which was more than enough for me.
    As for hockey, I'm not a sports person, but a well-written book with good characters would transcend that aspect. I used to tell students that they should write what they loved, and I read some wonderful accounts of sportsmanship!

  20. Shh, don't tell anyone, but I used to sneak most of those novels out of my mother's underwear drawer!

    Valley of the Dolls had some really steamy scenes, Hank. It was a better story, though.

  21. Thanks for reading, everyone!

    I read somewhere that Fifty Shades has sold 100 million copies. I will not be 100-million-and-one, but my wife's reading it. In fact, she bought all three and is on the second one, shrugging: What's the big deal?

    Newspapers and magazines are very big now on their "Most Popular" lists online. I told one of my WSJ editors that, by the same sort of measure, Kelly Clarkson is a better musician than Van Morrison, Danielle Steel a better writer than Alice Munro, and the National Enquirer a better newspaper than the Wall Street Journal. He laughed. Nervously.

  22. Thanks, Hank! I wasn't familiar with Bryan's work, but I'll add it to my TBR pile--which is huge and growing, in spite of the fact that I read more than anyone else I know in actual real life (as opposed to online, because I know lots of you read the way I do). So there's no room on it for something that's just hyped but lacking merit. (I put 50 Shades and Franzen's Freedom both in that category--I'm an equal-opportunity book snob.)

    Hank, you write like I do--I never saw the dash, semi-colon, or parenthesis I didn't like!

    As far as 50 Shades of Grey goes, I've read excerpts from it in articles and reviews. I have no interest in reading it, not only because I don't really want to read about non-consensual BDSM, but because the writing is very poor. However, I suspect the author didn't write this, at least originally, cynically to fit the market. There was no such market out there at that time, and it was originally written as fan fiction based on the TWILIGHT books. (How you get from sparkly vampires to using duct tape to imprison your girlfriend so you can torture her for erotic purposes, I just do not know.)

    Even a bad book is a lot of work. I think few writers set out to write a bad or meretricious book. Most of us are writing the best books we know how to write. And what hits the NYT list is (way too often) a fluke. That's why I'm so pleased when good writers like my JRW pals hit it. That sort of balances out the 50 Shades and Snooki entries.

  23. Whenever I get feeling grumpy and want to think that some popular writer is writing strictly to market demand, I recall one of the Amazon or Goodreads reviews that accused me of same, and I let it go.

  24. Another Domer done good -- yay, Brian!

    My parents met on a blind date, a double date with his sister and her husband, at a hockey game. So, hurray for hockey!

    Surprised to hear that Shades is available at Costco. Like those 10 pound tins of Almond Roca aren't sexy enough.

  25. Well , don't we all figure that writing to the market is writing something someone will love to read? And you've got to think George rr Martin and jk Rowling had something other than marketing going on in their heads when they

  26. Hi Bryan! Having written a rowing book that was about a lot more than rowing, I'm happy to try hockey! I love books that give me an insight into new things and places, so the Starvation Lake books are going on my list.

    As for 50 Shades, nope. Didn't read the Twilight books, either. Too many good books, not enough time, and don't like the whole domination theme. Yuck.

  27. This utterly shocked me, but when I watched a hockey game I discovered that I liked it. (Shh! this is a secret, so if anyone here even suspects that they know my friends or relatives,do NOT tell them!) So, Bryan, I plan to look for your books! Now, I have not watched TV for a couple of years so I haven't seen any hockey games. I especially enjoyed Olympic hockey.

    NO plans to read however many shades of grey.

  28. I love Bryan's books, and also write with a day job. Great article. I have no interest in 50 Shades, I have to admit. More than that, I wouldn't be able to write that kind of book. Writing is such a long game. How can I fake interest in a topic or a style long enough to finish a book? How can anyone?

  29. Can't bring myself to read "Fifty Shades." Didn't read "Twilight" either. Just not interested in the plot and I find the prose uninspiring.

    And no, I don't think i could write in a way other than mine no matter how much money I was offered. I might try - but I'd probably suck because my heart wasn't in it.

  30. I love when I discover new books I want to read. Thank you, Hank and Bryan!

    Me? I can't write any other way but the way I love. That's that. I have an income, so I don't have to worry about the mortgage, either. But... I still could not write any other way but the way that suits my stories. Being free now, of academic writing, is a blessing.

    It just about killed me when I had to give up reading my favorite mystery author, when he started writing dialogue like:

    "Have a beer," he said.

    "Thank you," he said.

    Going off now to check out Alejandro Escovedo. Again, thanks.

    Fifty Shades of Grey? What're they? What is that? Huh?

  31. 50 Shades, big N-O for me. The moment I heard the term "fan fiction" I wrote the trilogy off. It wasn't even the S&M that bothered me.

    At writers retreats, I'm told that we shouldn't write to the market; we should write what's in our hearts. (Catch that semi- in action!) Yet, at conferences, I attend talks about how to write to particular genre markets. I find it all very confusing. :-)

    Bryan, happy to see you here! We met at Bouchercon 2010. Love your books, and I'm so not a hockey person! We have mutual friends: the Pestas. Love those two, too!

  32. In the car on my iPhone so hard to type but having fun reading this...interesting though that we have no qualms about tightening and pacing. . Everything we do is to make it more "readable" and page turning .. I do, at least.

  33. I have no qualms with pruning and shearing either--that's good craftsmanship. However, sometimes I wonder if the nature of the stories I want to tell (even though they're mysteries) are less marketable somehow...It's hard to tell, but then publishing is fickle and what's considered "marketable" changes. (However, if "fan fiction" is all the rage now, then, well, shoot--that sucks.)

  34. Fan fiction? Good grief. What is that?

    As for writing to market, of course. Twisting and turning and writing crap for a quick buck? I don't believe I could. If I would. What for?

  35. I know it, Reine...I was so desperate there for awhile that I developed novel ideas that seemed more marketable (i.e. they were simpler stories) and then I couldn't write them. I retained no joy at all in the process.

    I don't get fan fiction either. Apparently, 50 SHADES is fan fiction based on the TWILIGHT series...I *think* (operative word) this means that the author modeled her story arc on the TWILIGHT story arc. Does anyone know what "fan fiction" is exactly?

  36. I know it, Reine...I was so desperate there for awhile that I developed novel ideas that seemed more marketable (i.e. they were simpler stories) and then I couldn't write them. I retained no joy at all in the process.

    I don't get fan fiction either. Apparently, 50 SHADES is fan fiction based on the TWILIGHT series...I *think* (operative word) this means that the author modeled her story arc on the TWILIGHT story arc. Does anyone know what "fan fiction" is exactly?

  37. Hi Bryan,
    Welcome to Jungle Red.
    As a fellow journalist and even a fellow business journalist (and fiction writer) , I can't tell you how GREAT it was to read your post.

    I might even print it out and stick to my bulletin board to REMIND me of your philosophy.

    Hope to meet you sometime!

    All best,

  38. Mary,
    There reason I am not writing Fifty Shades - even though it is on my Kindle, because my son used my Kindle account to buy it to review for the NYDN -

    is because my daughter made me read the first Twilight book and I hated it. So why read the fan fiction?

    Plus as my son says:
    "Fifty Shades of Gray is not a good book in the same way a Monster Truck is not a good car:

  39. Read 50 Shades when I could download it for $1.99 each. I wouldn't pay the $9.99 each now. Could I write that? Nope. Not even for that kind of money. I only read them to see what the fuss was all about. My only thought was: "How they heck are they going to make a movie about those three books?"

  40. Well if anyone out there wants to give me a gazillion dollars to write soft core porn my email address is Guys, I don't think the author was aiming for the Booker Prize. I would have more to say about the publisher who ran after it.

  41. I don't expect writers to ignore what might sell. I am happy to let other people write whatever they want for the market. It's good to improve skills and to sell books. Not selling a book won't make me happy, but writing a story that will sell, just to sell, is not what I want to do.

    Many authors put notices in their books and their blogs that they do not approve of fan fiction, because it is stealing - and please not to send them any fan fiction of their books. That's why I'm confused about the topic of Fifty Shades of Grey. If fan fiction is writing a book as if it were a story from someone else's work, isn't that infringement of copyright if published?

  42. Jan, I love what your brilliant son said--"50 Shades is not a good book in the same way a Monster Truck is not a good car."

    Lisa and Reine, fan fiction takes characters from a work and uses them in situations and stories that the fan wants to see them in. These situations are usually sexual and often homosexual and/or "transgressive" anymore. There is a whole field called "slash fan fiction," that is Frodo(slash) Samwise or Sherlock (slash) John in hot, sweaty sex scenes. Usually male/male characters. Usually written by (surprise!) women. The fan puts these up online and their "creation" develops other fans. If they get a lot of them, as this gal did, they pull the fan fiction site down, change character names, and self-publish e-books, as this gal did. Then publishers come along, and the rest is history.

    Info above is from my youngest son who used to like fan fiction back in the day until it took this weird turn. He reminds me that the great Temeraire books had a beginning as Master and Commander fan fiction way back before fan fiction took this turn into sex.

    Incidentally, the @#$&* captcha has gone into the weirdest things like blurry scans of microscopic documents. I'm on my third try now.

  43. And I think some authors actively don't read the fan fiction--because they are afraid of the FF writers suing them if they happen to come up with a similar idea and use it in the real book.

    Its interesting , Lisa, about a marketable" idea. You know one when you hear one, isn't that a funny truth? (But then, gotta wonder how Richard Adams pitched Watership Down..well, see, I'm thinkin', there are these rabbits..)

  44. Linda, thank you for braving the world of the new Captchas to explain fan fiction! It sounds like something I might have done for fun as a child.

    Hank... Watership Down... the bunny rabbits pitch... too funny.

    Okay, my captcha has a photo of a bunch of ojects that I'm supposed to find a number in? Here goes... !

  45. I'm so grateful to have been invited to Jungle Red. I've learned about "fan fiction," which I willnow employ in everything I write, including for Businessweek. I learned that Jan Brogan has a brilliant son. I learned that Lisa Alber knows the Pestas, and I think she means Jesse, of the WSJ, though she could mean John, of my high school hockey team. And I learned that there are a bunch of passionate people who visit here. I'll drop in more often. Thanks. My book tour begins Tuesday, check my schedule and stop by--I'll buy you a drink!

  46. My daughter wrote Harry Potter fan fiction for a while, during her middle school and early high school years. It was a creative outlet, and way too bizarre for anyone to buy, especially since so many others were doing the same thing.

    Come to think of it, that might be one reason why there was resistance to paying for ebooks, early on.

  47. Oh, John, so funny about he best-selling-but-unread books. So true--but why does that happen and how does it start?

    Not sure. Probably because some of us are true readers only, while some are mere collectors? But most are probably a little of each. We love to have books, becuase we love to read them, and it doesn't take a lot to pique our interest in a book, and we then buy them, fully intending on reading them, until the next one comes down the pike and we have to buy that one, etc. ad infinitum, until all of a sudden we have more books than we can read in a lifetime.

    {blinks}. Yea, that last part is me.

  48. Yeah, John Purcell. Exactly. Me, too. Someday we should have a blog showing all of our TBR piles! Or-maybe not.

    Almost time to announce the winner of Bryan's book--but there's still about an hour!

  49. Thank you, Linda, for defining "fan fiction" -- now I truly get it, and it's yuckier than I thought...ugh.

    Hank, yes, that is a funny truth about marketable ideas. When I hear one (usually not my own, alas), I feel this "yes, yes" feeling in my body. Strange.

    Bryan: Jesse, Abigail too.

  50. For the record, when my daughter was writing fan fiction it had not yet evolved to what it is now.