Saturday, January 31, 2009
With five authors (and guests) blogging on this site, there is going to be some overlapping since we are all thinking about similar things; our creative process, problems and the obstacles writers face on a daily basis including expanding our reader base. I’ve been thinking about the most important question after who is going to publish my book––how will I connect with my readers and what can I do to add more? How do I get a chance to sell my story to readers? How do I get through and make an impression they will act on?
Mind pictures help me, so I might imagine readers as fish swimming in a vast ocean. Each species of fish are fans of a genre, and they often swim through many schools of other fish of differing specie, eating what they are eating and then moving on to feed with various other sorts of fish. Food in the ocean is plentiful, and for the fish it becomes a question of which food they decide to open their mouths to take in. Imagine authors as a navy of fisher people, each in boats, trying to catch as many fish as possible. Each fisherman has to put their bait in front of constantly moving, well-fed fish who can eat whatever and as much as they like. Our dilemma is that the fish don’t need our bait, so we have to use some other way to entice them to try our bait, which frankly to the fish looks to be pretty much like the familiar bait they usually eat, and keep returning to. I love fish stories.
Given that there are tens of thousands of new stories to choose from, and readers are barraged with choices and they can only select so many, and the challenge is capturing their attention. I learned in advertising that it takes (I’ll say nine) impressions for a potential customer to act on an advertisement. This is more complex since most of us pass about a hundred thousand messages daily, and our brain (which sees them all) simply blocks out the ones that do not pertain to our needs or wants as a form of protection and I suppose to keep our brains from filling up (think computer ram). So if I am open to new tires, brain will tell me when it sees something related to the tires I’ve decided I want. If I like Good Time Tires, when I read the newspaper or watch TV or pass a Good Time Tires sign, my brain will shout, “Look, they have your tires right there! DO something!” And then I may buy, or I might just be nearing the time I have to make a decision, and my brain says, “Oh, they sell your tires. We’ll have to remember that.” Now at some point my brain will know that it is time and I’ll act and actually call someone who sells my tires, or pull into a dealer with the sign over the building. So, it’s the same with reading material. If I admire President Jimmy Carter, when I see a book by him or about him I might be more open to buying a book on him, and not one about Hoover, McKinley, or my favorite president, Jefferson Davis.
So, if you read the whole fish thing, it is a matter of finding our readers by capturing their attention, and at the present time everybody is thinking about a lot of things besides what to read. Our products are medicine for the mind and offer the client a way to escape their own problems and fears by getting involved and invested in someone else’s life or death dilemma, and best of all someone who doesn’t actually exist. And in most cases they get to see an underdog face impossible odds and actually come out on top, which gives them hope.
So how do we get to potential fans and convince them that our story is preferable to that of someone they know already, or several someones who have pleased them? How many of us have heard a reader say, “I loved Art Goobertug’s first book, but I haven’t enjoyed any of the last six he wrote.” After you close your mouth, you might well ask, “Why do you continue to buy books you don’t like. There are thousands of choices of authors who write good books, and maybe authors who write better books every time they write another.” These loyalists may say any number of things, and I have heard most of them, but it boils down to the experience they had the first time they read them, and they sincerely want to recreate that (might I use the word) experience again. I think it boils down to this––they bonded with that author, and, although they have been disappointed by the subsequent offerings, they haven’t given up on that author, and they hate to face searching the stacks for another author to enter into a relationship with.
Why are some authors more successful than others? Some few authors will become a James Patterson and others will remain Fred Futzwiggin. What’s the difference? You tell me. If you can, you’ll be rich… As best I can tell it’s a matter of bonding with readers and you can’t explain that.
The question I want to ask is, do you as a writer know how to form a mutually beneficial relationship with readers––and more importantly and firstly a way to get them to open your book for the first time and let your story into their minds? Can you do what Patricia Cornwell, Harlan Coben, John Grisham, and other successful authors have done and continue to do? The answer is, perhaps. Well, you have their kind of talent, but can’t seem to connect with large numbers of potential readers on a meaningful level, and then, as they do, figure out new and innovative ways to get your work out of the stacks and piles, and into hands. The worst part is even though successful authors will often share their secrets, but the formula is always shifting.
We all have to keep trying new things and methods to better our chances in an ever-changing world, and we have to do that ourselves because the plain truth is, nobody else will. Any secrets to share?
Friday, January 30, 2009
When I first met Kurt Muse about eight years ago, and he told me the story of his clandestine efforts to topple Manuel Noriega, and of his subsequent arrest and escape at the hands of Delta Force, I confess that I didn’t believe him. The story was too spectacular—too big—not to have been written about already. But it all checked out.
After Kurt and his wife, Annie, met with my wife, Joy, and me at the always-wonderful Café Renaissance in Vienna, Virginia, we shook hands and a pact was made. Together, we would write a book about courage and patriotism; about success over outrageous odds. It would be a story of public servants who truly serve the public, about people who risk everything for strangers with no expectations of recognition or thanks.
No one would touch it.
First, we were told, the Central American setting is the death knell for any book. Americans don’t care about the other Americas. One editor declared that he’d be delighted to buy it if we’d be willing to re-set it in Eastern Europe. It’s non-fiction, I told him. But books set in Eastern Europe sell, he replied.
The advice from everyone in the proposal stage was for me to forget the project and move on to something else.
I refused. It was a good story—it was an important story—and on the heels of 9-11, I thought it was the kind of story that people craved. At every turn, I was told I was wrong. Everybody loses in war, and no one believes in that patriotic stuff anymore. But it really happened, I’d say. What’s not to believe?
Rejection after rejection kept piling up until one day it occurred to me that Steve Zacharias over at Kensington Publishing is not only a fan of my work, but the kind of guy to whom a story like this may well resonate. Bingo. We had a publisher, albeit one with still relatively low expectations.
Finally, five years after the saga to publish this story had begun, Six Minutes to Freedom arrived in bookstores, and it outstripped everyone’s expectations. It went into a second printing, and then a third. Meanwhile, all the non-patriotic, we’re-the-bad-guy movies of the past few years all tanked at the box office. When Kurt signed books, military people and firefighters and police officers—the kinds of public servants who might not understand what sells, but do understand what it means to put their lives on the line for the benefit of others—stood in long lines for his signature.
When we visited Delta Force headquarters on Fort Bragg, members of the Unit bought books five and six and ten copies at a time. They wanted their friends and families to know that they were not the caricatures painted by embittered Hollywood directors, but rather peace-loving men and women whose job requires violence. I lost track of the number of times I heard people tell Kurt about how they had studied his exploits in various military training classes.
And the presses kept printing books. On November 6—the day after we elected President Obama into office—Six Minutes to Freedom was listed on amazon.com as the number one book on political activism. I have no idea why, and it has since dropped away, but that’s still kinda cool when it happens two and a half years after it was first released.
Now I’m pleased to report that we have optioned the movie rights for SixMin to an independent producer who seems to really get it. He’s committed to telling the kind of story that honors its subjects. And best of all, I’m attached as the screenwriter.
So at least for the first draft, the screenplay will stay true to these remarkable people.
Really, truly, sometimes the good guys do win.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
I stumbled across a few interesting articles this week, one in Time Magazine that asked, "What's the Matter with Publishing?" and another on Shelf Awareness that offered a glimpse of Harper Collins Studio, a new division of the parent company. They serve as interesting counterparts to each other.
Starting with the Time Magazine piece, I was surprised to learn that literary reading by adults has actually increased 3.5% since 2002, the first such jump in almost a quarter century. So, they postulate, the audience isn't the problem. The trouble lies in the antiquated business model publishers have been following, which dates back to the Depression. Something like 40% of the books printed today are eventually pulped, which is not only environmentally criminal, but horribly costly for both publishers and stores. And an author who doesn't sell through a certain percentage of their print run, in the age of computerized ordering systems, either must change their name or hope their publisher offers them another chance. And sadly, the latter doesn't happen often. Bottom line is this is a business, dictated by numbers. No matter that the publisher printed far more copies of the book than you (or they) could hope to sell, especially if they didn't back up that print run with marketing, which is generally the case. Authors have no say in how many copies of their book will be printed, making it a frequent topic of hushed conversations at conferences. Did you hear that John Doe had over 100,000 printed and barely sold 10,000? Or that Jane's publisher printed so few copies she couldn't get in any of the big box stores?
Actual print runs are a closely guarded secret, I haven't encountered many authors willing to reveal their numbers. But we all live and die by those percentages. If you sell 5,000 copies of your debut, and your print run was 10,000, you're in pretty good shape. Conversely, if your print run was 100,000, and you sold 20,000, good luck getting that next contract. It's madness.
Which is what makes the Harper Studio model so intriguing. No more returns. And no big bidding: they cap their advances at $100,000 (although most authors will probably get far less up front). What they do offer is more "creative" marketing assistance and higher royalty percentages (a 50/50 split-wow). And my favorite part: they've got a plan to encourage buyers to purchase ebook and audio formats of the same book for only a few extra dollars. Wherein lies the genius, in my opinion. Finally, a publisher that sees opportunity in the ebook format, and not just a threat. I love my Kindle, but it's hardly ideal for the beach or baths. So how perfect would it be if I could start reading a book on my Kindle while waiting for a train, then continue reading at home in the tub that night, then listen to the conclusion in my car the next day? All for around what I would have paid for the hardcover version alone.
It's an intriguing idea. I'm curious to see how it turns out. So far Harper Studio is apparently focusing on nonfiction, but if the model works, who knows? Maybe they'll expand to fiction titles. Maybe more publishers will stick their toes in the water. In truth, anything would be better than how it is now, at least from the author's point of view. In my experience you're left with very little input into the production process and even less assistance on the sales and marketing end. It's sort of the business equivalent of tossing a bird from the nest to see if they'll fly, and sadly most authors end up plummeting to earth, their dream over before it even really began. And that is truly a shame. So I'm all for trying something new, adapting to the changing world and making sure that people continue to love and read stories. Because in the end, isn't that what matters?
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
By Joe Moore
John Updike (1932 - 2009) The writing community lost another great one on Tuesday. John Updike was the author of over 50 novels and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, Updike was best known for his "Rabbit" novels. Mr. Updike had a rich, poetic writing style that captured the hearts of millions. He will be missed.
On a recent writer's forum, someone asked the basic question: “what makes a good book?” Or, better yet, why is it that some books are hard to put down while others are easier to put down than a bucket of toxic waste?
From a technical standpoint, we could analyze the grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, command of the language, and a dozen other things we studied in school. (Which begs the question: why aren’t all English professors bestselling authors? But that’s something for another blog post.)
We could also discuss the book's premise, theme, plot, voice, style, pacing, point of view, accuracy, and all those issues that were topics at the last writers’ conference workshop.
But my answer to what makes a good book is simple: soul. By that, I mean the soul of the writer. The more a writer involves or reveals his or her soul in the writing, the more the reader can and will relate to the story. Since soul is what separates us from the chimps and fish, it’s the element of a story for which we can all connect.
So how do you put soul in your writing? First, I believe you must write about something you love; chose a subject you care deeply about. If you find a topic you care about, it will become obvious and others will care as well. It’s impossible to hide your love for your story. It’s the caring and love of your story, not the plot or theme or point of view that will be the most compelling and seductive element of a good book.
It's worth repeating: it’s impossible to hide your love for your story.
Now don’t be confused with some authors' love of their own words. That will sink you faster than yesterday’s NYSE. No one likes being talked down to or an author who is so into himself that he gets in the way of the story from ever becoming real. No, the soul of a story—your soul—must come through. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a cozy murder mystery with cute cats on the cover or a gritty Noir with dead cats on the cover, it must contain generous portions of your soul, your love of what you do and how you do it. Without it, as Truman Capote once said, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
Put your soul into your writing. Love your story. The result is the answer to what makes a good book.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
By Kathryn Lilley
I love being ahead of the curve.
Last week I blogged about the fact that we authors need to make our own book videos to stay alive in the new-millenium publishing paradigm.
Well today, our friend Neil Plakcy
alerted us to the fact that the New York Times ran an article about the same subject...yesterday.
Yes folks, some authors are paying big bucks to have a Book Trailer(R) made. But meanwhile there's something else happening over at YouTube that is much more interesting. Authors are making multiple-channel videos to communicate with their reading audience. The multi-video concept is simple. It's not a question of, "Make one video, sell many books." It's make many videos. To sell to one audience.
See the difference?
You see, in the YouTube world, videos are the equivalent of the author's writing blog. Over here at The Kill Zone, we post a blog made of words. Over at YouTube, millions of people are posting videos about their lives. And they watch other video "blogs", and they're looking for fresh content every day.
That's what we writers do. We provide content.
We simply have to learn how to master the unfamiliar visual platform to communicate with our readers.
Some of the most successful authors are already doing it. Hop over to YouTube and search on Dean Koontz or Meg Cabot, and a gazillion videos will pop up. And they're certainly not all formal book videos. They're interviews, goofy riffs, appearances, and what-have-you's. They're the author's dialogues with his or her readers.
The question is, I know--does all that video-traffic sell books? Can't say. I know in my case, I've posted my own (home-made, very humble) book video, and I'm running some meta-data reports on YouTube "impressions" and "click-through" data, trying to find the answer to that question. If I find out, I'll let you know. And as soon as the second draft for my next book is turned in on 2/15, I'm going to start making lots more videos and posting them. I'll be thinking of videos as a logical extension of blogging. And because I can barely hold the camera steady, you can be sure that my videos will be very goofy.
Once I started thinking of book videos as blogs instead of formal book trailers, it all began to make sense. And YouTube is totally set up for video blogs. You even get your own "Channel."
And here's the bottom line: The big-buck authors are already over there, making video-merry. You should check it out.
And a question for you: Do you YouTube?
Monday, January 26, 2009
And I have one extra for my list - one book where I would have really liked to have been told all the lurid details - Wuthering Heights - and you just know they had to have done it - Oh to have been a fly on the wall...
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Today The Kill Zone is delighted to welcome Hallie Ephron. NEVER TELL A LIE, her first solo thriller, has drawn wide acclaim. It received a PW starred review and was described by the San Francisco Chronicle as, "A book to be gobbled up whole, its pace never slackens." A renowned writer, book reviewer, and writing teacher, Hallie was kind enough to share how she feels about reviews of her own books, and why she doesn't play Scrabble.
Q: As a reviewer, how do you feel about reading reviews of your own work?
A: I hate it. Doesn’t everyone? Oh, the good ones are great, but every little jab and jibe goes right to the jugular.
Q: What influence do you feel reviews now have in an online world where everyone can blog/review a book?
A: I think the influence is still very significant. As I watch my Amazon numbers (a bad idea; don’t do it) I see a very significant bump when a good review comes out in the mainstream press. A nice blog review? Not so much.
Q: Along those lines, what’s happening to the book publishing industry, and where does book reviewing/reviewers fit into the picture? Can they help save it?
Q: NEVER TELL A LIE starts with a seemingly innocent yard sale. What’s the best yard sale purchase you’ve ever made? Ever had a bad experience? (hopefully not as bad as what happens in the book!)
A: BEST: A Stickley 2-door, glass-fronted oak bookcase with hammered copper pulls—the real deal—for $25!
WORST: Well, there was 1920’s bakelite “tombstone” radio I bought at a friend’s yard sale for $20. When I discovered it was worth over a thou, I returned it to her. Moral: Don’t shop at a friend’s yard sale.
Q: Do you believe that there is now gender equality in terms of the reviews and/or coverage mystery books get – particularly thrillers?
A: I’m not sure about equity, but I’d be surprised if differences are measurable. Publishers are very bottom-line oriented—they want to publicize what sells.
Q: Your previous novels were written with a writing partner, Donald Davidoff, under the pseudonym G.H. Ephron. How was it different for you to fly solo this time?
A: The writing was the same because I did the writing for the partnership. But plotting is a bear. Coming up with ideas, working my way out of plot-holes, coming up with credible surprises are so much easier when there’s someone else in the boat rowing. Brainstorming really requires at least two brains.
Q: What are your next plans? Another solo novel, one with your writing partner, or a non-fiction work?
A: I’m finishing “The Bibliophile’s Devotional” – a book for each of 365 days. And I’m in the middle of a solo novel.
Q: Do you think there is any self-published crime fiction out there worth reading?
A: Of course there is. But there’s too much crime fiction being well published by mainstream publishers for there to be time (for me) to look at self-published work.
Q: Why don’t more reviewers come to writers’ conferences or participate in panels?
A: One reason: it’s so darned expensive. And given that, a lot of them do, they just don’t advertise their presence. At the New England Crime Bake, we invite crime fiction book reviewers and ask them to speak or chair panels, and we try to comp their registration – as a result we’ve had quite a few come.
Q: What are the well-regarded review sources, and the ones to watch out for? (Not counting NYT, LAT, Boston Globe)
A: There are the trade publications like Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal that review in advance of publication. They can make a huge difference in terms of pre-orders from bookstores and library sales. Beyond that, there are just a few mainstream newspapers that regularly review crime fiction. You’ve mentioned some. The wonderful Oline Cogdill no longer works full time for the Sun Sentinel, but the silver lining is that her reviews now get picked up by papers nationwide. And then there are a gazillion self-anointed reviewers who write about books on the bookseller web sites, on blogs, on listservs, on FaceBook and other social networking web sites, and on it goes. So many! For an author that’s daunting and hard to know exactly how to crack.
Q: You come from a family of writers. I’m curious: do family Scrabble games get a little too intense?
A: I HATE Scrabble. I know that’s anathema. But I’m married to a lovely man who can beat me and everyone I know or am related to. I long ago gave up playing because, to put it bluntly, I hate to lose.
Q: And along those lines, Kathryn wanted to know: “Does Nora still hate her neck? I’ve been contemplating having a neck lift ever since reading her book.”
A: It’s not something I’ve asked her lately. She does have a movie coming out next summer. It’s based on Julie Powell’s wonderful book “Julie and Julia” – that delightful memoir about cooking all the recipes in Julia Childs’s cookbooks. Meryl Streep plays Julia (can’t wait to hear her do the voice) and Amy Adams plays Julie. Scuttlebutt on the movie: it’s going to be a blockbuster. Nice distraction from a saggy neck.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
I missed the Obama inauguration because I was writing something, and I honestly just forgot it was on. By the time I tuned in I’d missed the swearing in, but I read his address online. Although I had my reservations, I think if he can bring about real change in Washington it will be good, if that change makes life better for Americans it will be very good, and if he can fix the economy, it will be a miracle, but one I approve of. If the economy gets better, maybe they’ll work on the fundamentals to help it stay that way. I’ll be watching as his term progresses, and I’ll be hollering at the TV a lot. I’m a TV talker and it drives my wife crazy. My grandmother talked to the TV, answering any questions the actors asked with personal comments. Once I heard her address James Arness, Matt Dillon, tersely when he asked Miss Kitty a question, “mind your own business! You don’t know me that well.” She wasn't in control of her faculties, but she had a good time in Lu-Lu Land and it entertained us kids. I tend to be sarcastic and abusive when something on the TV touches a nerve. When Justice Roberts flubbed the oath because he didn’t have crib notes, if I'd been Obama I would have said, “Check the damned script, your honor!” I also suspect that Chief Justice Roberts used the Hussein part of the President’s and messed up the text on purpose because Obama opposed his nomination to be the Court cheese. I think he thought it would make Obama look silly, if he knew the oath and said it correctly. Imagine just one of them had practiced over and over in front of his Blair House mirror the night before.
The publishing and book-selling industry is no doubt getting a lot of business from the spate of Obama books that have shot from the presses like stomped shrimp, but it won’t inspire anybody to start reading other books, the way Harry Potter did. So (in a way) President Obama is helping the economy and he didn’t have to give the publishers billions of dollars of tax money. However, that said, books are one of the few our country actually still produces from raw material to finished product. Well, that and cheese. And books are as necessary as weapons for our armed forces. The sharing of knowledge is paramount to maintaining our country’s greatness, and literacy is a national treasure. The best thing about Obama being elected is that inner city youths can see the value of education and how simple knowledge can get you ahead in life more surely than a trick shot on the basketball court, or throwing or catching a pass accurately under pressure. I hope this spurs an interest in reading, and that everybody benefits from it, which they’d have to. Stupidity is forever, but ignorance is fixable.
I found it astounding that out of two million visitors to Washington on Tuesday, there was not one arrest related to the people attending the inauguration ceremonies. They did make one hell of a mess. The Mall looked like Woodstock after that event. Astounding. Woodstock, in comparison, even given the love-and-peace theme, didn’t even come close since a lot of the music worshipers were arrested, beaten, overdosed on that brown acid and stuff like that. Seriously, I have never seen so many smiles and people who’d, in a lot of cases, given up a lot to get to DC and went to a lot of trouble to be in attendance. I find that amazing, awing, heartwarming and hopeful. If this man can bring so many different kinds of people together in such a joyous manner then there is hope. The President is just a figurehead really. He can do a lot officially like start wars, and earmark stimulus money, and raise hell on TV, but it's just a shame that he’s going to be working with the same old people who are corrupt and shortsighted and nearsighted and greedy for mo power.
I like to think there is hope and that reading will become popular once more with young people as it was with my generation. People are still reading, buying books, When I was fourteen my mother enlisted me in The Book of the Month Club, and I chose my books and I waited for them to come the way kids wait anxiously for a new video game. If Obama can do just that––just bring back a sense of awe for books by his example, I’ll be in awe of him. That’s the kind of change I’m looking for. Have at it, Mr. President, and best of luck.
Friday, January 23, 2009
Perhaps the future is not as bleak as we fear it to be.
According to the January 19, 2009, edition of Publishers Weekly, the National Endowment for the Arts reported last week that the population of fiction readers in the United States has increased by 16.6 million since 2002, “creating the largest audience in the history of the NEA survey.” No one knows why, exactly, but there’s general agreement that this is a good thing.
I have to tell you that the news doesn’t surprise me. For years—even during the days of the booming economy—I’ve listened to publishers and frightened authors complaining that no one ever reads anymore; yet when I walk into a B&N or Borders anywhere in the country, the aisles are fairly packed with people, and I have to wait in line before I can check out. Who are these people if not readers?
More recently, we’ve heard about the “collapse” of the publishing industry, with the concomitant panic response of layoffs and such, but then we hear of net sales declines of less than one percent. I understand that negative growth is never good in business, but a gnat’s whisker from break even—on the heels of five years of record growth—is hardly a “collapse.”
Years ago, when I was a junior officer in the fire service, a veteran captain gave me one of the great antidotes to panic: a good old fashioned deep breath. When you roll up on a working fire in the middle of the night, where people may or may not be trapped, and there’s a fleet of additional fire trucks on their way, and you have to make a thousand relatively irreversible decisions in just a few seconds, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The captain’s specific advice was to sit in the cab of the fire truck for five seconds, and allow myself a couple of cleansing breaths before I say anything to anyone. It always worked.
I think the CEOs of the major publishing houses need to take a breath. I think authors need to take a breath, too. There seems to be this snowballing of doom that is augmented by rumors of more doom. This despite the fact that bookstores are still crowded, and more people than ever are reading. More books than ever are being published. Writers make the Times List for the first time every year. The Internet is an unexplored new frontier.
There are a lot of positive things happening. Sure, there are negatives, too, but I choose not to concentrate on those.
For the time being, I get to write books and get paid for it. No, really. Think about it. I get to write books and get paid for it! The publishers and their distribution networks will find their balance, and good times will return; but even when they do, I'm still going to have to work just as hard as I do now. In fact, no matter how good the business becomes in the future, this business of living one’s dream will never be easy.
As writers, we face far greater challenge than any of the suits in the publishing houses: We have to stay relevant.
I think of that great line from Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” Nowhere is the statement truer than in the entertainment business--our business. The reading public is building everyday. They're building new tastes in new media. They're seeking new inspiration, and they're facing new fears. They're telling us all as clearly as they know how what they're looking for.
But will we come? Will we be the ones to satisfy their needs, or will that honor fall to others who spend less time looking behind, and more time thinking like entrepreneurs? They’re the customers, after all. We are merely the supply chain.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
I explained that I usually enjoy the research, which inspired a fresh round of shudders. "Ugh. Don't you wish you didn't know about it?"
I was about to explain that in fact, writing about the dark side of the human condition can make it seem less scary. But I stopped myself. Because when I really thought about it, I realized there are things I've stumbled across in the course of doing research that I would much rather not know about.
The subject of when violence crosses the line into gratuitous territory is a perennial source of debate for mystery groups. I generally don't participate. While I can't sit through a slasher film, and rarely read horror, even the most explicit scenes of most thrillers don't unsettle me. And that's not entirely due to the fact that I've become desensitized (although that's probably part of it). What always crosses my mind when I read diatribes against that level of violence in books is this: if you only knew. Honestly, I have no idea how homicide investigators sleep at all, considering the things they encounter in the course of doing their job.
When I was writing BONEYARD, I immersed myself in everything I could find on serial killers. And believe me, the reality is so much worse than anything depicted in fiction. I made the mistake once of mentioning a tidbit about Bundy to my husband over dinner. His fork froze over the plate, and he gave me a look I'd never seen before, saying, "Please, don't ever say anything like that again during dinner. Or ever. I don't want to know."
On The Daily Show the night before the Inauguration this week, Bush's press secretary Dana Perrino appeared in a taped segment during the show's final moments (and no, I'm not making this up) and donned a pair of sunglasses. Holding up a replica of the memory-erasing device immortalized in Men in Black, she said, "This will just take a minute. Please focus on this spot." It flashed, and the segment ended.
There are times that I want that device. Terrible stories pop into my head at inopportune moments, flashes of the very worst people are capable of. So maybe my friend was right. There are things I'd rather forget.
By Joe Moore
In her post yesterday, my friend Kathryn Lilley asked, "I'm also wondering how the book publishing business is going to survive in general?"
Like so many other segments of American business, publishing is hurting from the economic downturn. Publishing houses are downsizing, merging, laying off employees, and in some cases, temporarily halting the acquisition of new titles. Assuming that a congressional bailout is not in the cards, are there any other ways publishers can take action to save money and stay in business? Here are a few suggestions I think could help.
During the Great Depression, Simon & Schuster was the first publisher to offer booksellers the privilege of returning unsold copies for credit. The idea was to allow bookstores to take chances on new titles and help get unknown authors onto the selves. The practice has been in place ever since. With another possible depression on the horizon, maybe it's time to change that practice. What if publishers offered stores incentives not to return books? Or eliminated the practice altogether? It would greatly reduce cost on both ends; the house could cut down on the costs of handling returns while the bookstore could take advantage of deeper discounts and rebates to increase their margins. Just because that's always the way it's been done, doesn't mean it's still the right way.
How about eliminating ARCs? Rather than facing the small-run, high printing costs of advance copies, put the galleys online and send an email to the reviewers with a private link to download a PDF to their computers. Even better, give the reviewers an ebook reader like the Amazon Kindle and let qualified advance readers download and read as many galleys as they want for free. You only have to give them one reader but it would be good for hundreds or thousands of downloads. It’s a cheap, green solution to the high cost of printing ARCs.
And to attract more readership cheaply, what about publishers using inexpensive social networking to market titles to increase their market share? Set up Facebook or MySpace pages with links to sample chapters of new titles and catalogs along with author interviews and book trailers using YouTube-style videos. Include the ability to click to purchase ebook or order a print version on the spot.
The bailout isn’t coming, but tweaking the publisher's marketing and selling business model could reap results right away. Any other ideas out there to help publishers survive the hard times?
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
No, the Killers at the Kill Zone aren't taking a vote by tiki-torch circle to kick someone off our little blogger island.
I put the word "Survivor" in the heading because I've been thinking a lot recently about how I am going to survive as a writer in the coming years. I'm also wondering how the book publishing business is going to survive in general.
Here's my conclusion: we could learn a thing or two from our new President.
As a candidate running for election, President Obama (Like the sound of that name? It's official now) turned political conventional wisdom on its head. He ran his campaign from the bottom up, in a grass roots, internet-savvy way.
I think that's what we writers have to do. Social networking, viral marketing--we have to take the marketing reins for our books in our own hands, and make it work.
Easier said than done. After a dismal fall in which I evaded many of the usual marketing chores, I recently decided to try to brainstorm ways to approach marketing from a bottom-up direction. I decided to start by creating a book trailer for A KILLER WORKOUT and posting it on YouTube
Michelle blogged about her trailer for The Tunnels that's been up on YouTube for awhile. It's a very good one, but I wanted to create mine for no money. So I spent hours over the weekend, reading how-to articles and seeking advice from my social networking sites. The results have been interesting. I first posted a video that included a shot of a woman who was completely naked except for a thong. I thought the picture was artistic, but some of my friends thought it was a bit too much. Anyway, I've reworked the trailer and put it back up on YouTube. Next I'm going to work up a new trailer for Dying to be Thin.
One interesting statistic from the book trailer got my attention: In the first day it was posted on YouTube, the video got 17,000 impressions--an "impression" is a video that was displayed in front of the viewer, but was not clicked for viewing. Sure only a fraction of those people clicked on the video and watched it but still...seventeen thousand!
I did an analysis of who was actually viewing the video: The vast majority of people who watched the book trailer for A KILLER WORKOUT were kids (I have to assume girls) who had searched on the word Twilight.
Uh, as in Twilight the book and movie? Aka Vampire love.
You probably need to have an adolescent daughter in the house to have heard of this movie.
I threw the word Twilight into the search terms when creating the metadata for my trailer thinking, "Aw, hell, Twilight is selling a gazillion copies. Couldn't hurt."
And evidently it didn't. I got fourteen thousand Twilight-generated impressions, plus some kind of miniscule click-through percentage that I don't understand yet because I refuse to understand math.
I have no clue whether this translates into any sales of books. A friend of my adolescent daughter took a look at the trailer and went, "A book trailer? But isn't it already out?"
Uh, yeah. Movie trailers come out before they're released, I explained. Book trailers...well, they're different. But good point. Should we call them book videos to avoid confusion?
So anyway, viral marketing is one of my goals for 2009. Do you have any marketing goals to add for the year?
Monday, January 19, 2009
Sunday, January 18, 2009
We've been graced with some extremely talented guest bloggers these past few Sundays, and today is no exception. I'm thrilled to introduce author Laura Benedict, whose debut ISABELLA MOON kept me up all night when I read it (and certain passages induced further insomnia the nights that followed). Her latest is CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS, and based on the stellar reviews it's also a must-read.
Without further ado...
I worry sometimes that I’m corrupting the nation’s youth. (Okay, maybe just a teeny-tiny portion of the nation’s youth. Perhaps nine or ten of the little darlings.) I worry that the line between adult and young adult fiction—particularly fiction with a supernatural bent—is so blurred that young readers are stumbling into material that they shouldn’t be exposed to. Back in the day (let’s not go too deeply into which day), the lines were pretty clear: Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Dean Koontz were all the rage with their edgy language and adult situations. Fourteen and fifteen year-olds could pick up the books without too much criticism, though they were hardly fodder for school libraries. Soon after, the brilliant R.L. Stine came along for the younger kiddies, and J.K. Rowling blew off the door to the (not too) dark side for eight and nine-year-olds. The kids who grew up reading Harry Potter, as well as their younger brothers and sisters, are now looking for more: more fantasy, more witchcraft, ghosts and vampires. They’re looking for escapist literature.
Many have found Stephanie Meyer and her Twilight series. My own teenage daughter adores these books. I haven’t taken the plunge. At sixteen, Pomegranate’s a fairly mature reader. She’s got a strong background in Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman literature, so she’s no stranger to edgy sexual and social relationships in fiction. She loves Shakespeare. I don’t worry too much when she reads, say, The Godfather or Hannibal because she seems to keep the violence and language in perspective—plus, we talk about what she’s reading.
A few days ago, I was signing books at my local Barnes and Noble when an eleven or twelve year-old girl picked up one of the paperback copies of my novel, Isabella Moon. Isabella Moon is a ghost story. The girl started reading the copy on the back of it, and when her mother came up to the table, the girl told her she wanted to buy it. I tensed.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to sell books. I just don’t want to sell books to children. I don’t write books for children. I write books for adults.
Both Isabella Moon and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts are full of what one might euphemistically be called “adult situations.” Meaning lots of sex, buckets of violence and language that might not make a sailor blush, but will instantly bring a scowl to my mother’s face. There are vast numbers of adults who don’t like their books spiced with such things, and sometimes it’s hard to tell from a book’s cover what it might contain inside. (Sometimes clichés are spot-on.)
I’m certainly not casting any blame on J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer. I celebrate them because their books have brought kids to the bookstores in droves. It’s their subject matter that muddles the situation. J.K. Rowling’s books—for the most part—have a Halloween kind of darkness to them. Like every good Disney protagonist, her hero is an orphan. He lives in a boarding school. He’s goofy, but kind of cool. My understanding of Stephanie Meyer’s vampires is that they’re edgy in a West Side Story kind of way. Strictly PG or, maybe, PG-13.
But true evil isn’t PG-13. I look at evil as something that can insinuate itself into a person and wreak emotional and spiritual havoc. I look at it as something that can overflow into life-shattering chaos. Its habits and proclivities can be seductive, but they can also be brutal, sexually-charged and terrifying. Evil is chaos. Evil is unpredictable. It’s never pretty—at least not for long. I explore evil through my own work, but, in the end, I know that my work—just like Rowling’s and Meyer’s—can only approximate true evil. Even so, I have to ask, "How much is too much?"
My daughter has read my books in manuscript form, though I must confess that they were lightly redacted versions. Several pages had large Post-Its placed over the titillating parts like pasties on an exotic dancer. (Yes, the last time I saw an exotic dancer was in an Ann Margaret movie!) I don’t know if she peeked. Perhaps she did. And that would be a shame-on-mommy kind of thing. But I know her. I know that if she has questions, or something freaks her out, I’m there to answer her honestly.
Unfortunately, I can’t be there for every thirteen or fourteen year-old who picks up my books. I can only hope their parents are around, paying attention.
I told the mother of the girl at Barnes & Noble that she might want to look at Isabella Moon before her daughter read it, that it contained some adult material, and was quite frightening. The mother appeared unconcerned, and even bought Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts for herself, bless her. Perhaps the daughter was a mature reader, just like my daughter. I’m skeptical, though. I gave them my card with my email address and asked them to email me with their thoughts about it. Maybe it’s just the mother in me, worrying.
So, speaking as a mother, if you’re under seventeen, don’t buy my books!
Saturday, January 17, 2009
There is an oft-told story about William Faulkner and I’m not sure if it’s true, but it probably is. One day he was walking near the downtown square in Oxford, Mississippi and someone who knew him socially spoke to him, but he didn’t so much as turn his head to look in her direction when she saluted him. Later she complained to Mrs. Faulkner, who said, “Don’t take it personal Honey, Bill was writing.” It’s a great story, and it applies to so many authors I know. It’s quiet where I live, and I have the luxury of not being interrupted through the days and nights. I do my best writing when I’m using a chain saw, building something, or driving, and when I’m plotting in my head I am oblivious to everything.
We fiction authors are a group of individuals who have so much in common. What we do is ninety percent mental and ten per cent physical. Kate Miciak, my editor at Bantam, told me that good writing requires deep thinking, and I think about what I’m going to write a lot more than I write. I think that’s true for most of us, and if it isn’t it should be. If you are writing without planning where you are going, your work could probably be a lot better.
I’ve had a long-running discussion with Gilstrap over many a cocktail ….many, many a cocktail about process. We’ve discussed this and I think John may have blogged this one, and if so I apologize for repeating it. I heard an author say recently that he creates his characters and follows them around recording what they say and do. My characters don’t write the books, I do, and I can’t imagine how much LSD I’d have to eat so that I could follow them around and record what they do. It seems absurd to me that you can let fictional characters dictate to you, but it may be true. I create my characters and I dictate what they will do on my pages, and by God they do it. Unless my editor says they can’t, or they shouldn’t oughta do it, or that it couldn’t happen in a hundred million years, not even if we’re talking California. And I never talk California, nor do I allow my characters ever to go there. They can go as far west as Las Vegas, but no farther. A character off on their own could get stuck in California, and I’m not about to go way out there to fetch them back, or follow them across Death Valley with my pen flying.
I haven’t been writing much for the past few days because I’ve been winterizing my pump house, and the chicken coop because the Yankees are sending their damned cold weather down here. Heated water bowls, brooder heat lamps, thick layer of sawdust on the floor, covers on the outside faucets, stacking firewood close to the house, and gathering chestnuts to roast. I don’t want my rooster’s comb to get frostbitten and turn black, which can happen and could seriously diminish his sex appeal although he’s the only rooster in the yard and the hens have no choice in mates. Cold is an unwelcome export and definitely not a Southern thing and from here on out none of my characters will be allowed in the North in winter, although my villains might well come from there.
I am going to try to write a few hours every day on my new book, regardless of the weather. It’s hard to write on a book that’s set (at its beginning) in the Louisiana Lakes area south of Houma in August. Think par-broil. I fish there a few times a year, and there isn’t a more beautiful place on earth and although I’ve used the locale in other books, I’ve never had a Cajun protagonist before. I like Cajuns. They talk funny but there’s nothing funny about them if you piss them off. How do y'all feel about Cajuns?
That’s it for this week.
Friday, January 16, 2009
If you’ve ever been a thirteen-year-old boy, chances are the title of this blog entry made you chuckle. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just say it out loud.) When I was a kid, this was the Holy Grail of setups. I lived for the moment when I could set up a friend or a teacher—or, ideally, a store clerk—to help me find my friend. As far as I know, the only time it ever worked was in the movie, Porky’s, but at least I had a goal.
Thinking back on those days, it occurs to me that language is funny. It’s such a regional thing. Where I grew up, a group of more than two people were greeted as “y’all.” Where my wife’s family comes from in the Pittsburgh area, that same group would be “y’uns.” Each of us thinks and writes in the language that resonates to us.
Cussing was part of my kid culture. I’d have cut out my tongue before I did it in front of my mother—or any adult, for that matter—but the creative use of the F-word was a major league sport among my friends. By the time I joined the fire service, I considered myself a veteran potty-mouth; but man did I have a lot to learn. Hanging out in a firehouse was like a master class in creative cussing. Way beyond the words, there was that magical combination of cynicism, dark humor and truly foul imagery. It was inspiring. Seriously, if you’ve never been chewed out by a fire captain, you’ve really never been yelled at.
It makes sense, then, that my potty mouth would transfer to my writing. My first book, Nathan’s Run, is replete with cuss words—enough, in fact, that the book has been banned in some school districts, despite the fact that the protagonist is a 12-year-old. There are F-bombs galore, more than a few GDs, and a character who calls herself The Bitch. I didn’t put the words into the book with any intent to shock; I just wrote it the way I heard it in my head. Who knew that the rest of the world would be so offended? If I had, I would have written it differently.
While F-bombs and GDs ruffled a few readers’ feathers, nothing—nothing—brought as much hate mail as my assassin’s one-time use of the C-word in a sentence. As in, “I’m going to effing kill you, you effing c-word!” Whoa.
It seems horribly naive, I know, but this was a dozen years ago, and I had no idea that that word carried the burden that it does. I’m not sure I fully understand it even now, but I sure as sh . . . shootin’ know not to use it again. In fact, now that I know that bad language actually offends a lot of readers, I’ve recently made a concerted effort to de-effify my writing. The F-bomb still detonates from time to time, but now it’s a conscious decision on my part, and it’s used to make a specific point.
Writing is ultimately about the reader, not the writer . . . right? What accommodations to readers' tastes have y'all made in your writing?
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
At least, this week it is.
We've spent a fair amount of time on this blog discussing gender issues, but far be it from me to stop flogging a dead horse. Here's what happened.
My new car needed to be taken in for servicing and a few minor tweaks. My husband graciously offered to run this errand since I was swamped. So he drove to the dealership, and they offered him a choice of two vehicles. One was basically the same car we bought: a wagon, which is used to shuttle kids in car seats, dogs, groceries, the odd dragon costume, etc around town.
As he was leaving, the salesman said, "Oh, and we have another one you could take. There it is, over there."
This, my friends, is the car that the dealer offered my husband:
I'll let you guess which one he chose. The practical car, which could easily handle everything we throw at it for a week? Or the two-seater with terrible gas mileage and worse crash records, which by the way happens to be a standard?
For anyone wondering just how bad things have gotten for the auto industry, there's your answer. You hand them a wagon, they give you the keys to a Porsche Cayman. That can't be good.
And here's the real kicker: I don't know how to drive a stick shift. Never had the chance to learn, since all of my cars have been practical, work horse automatics.
Did I mention that this was to be my car for the week? My husband uses a motorcycle to get around the city, and keeps a ridiculously large Dodge 3500 truck in storage for his job towing boats around the state. Driving a truck the size of a small house around San Francisco is not my favorite activity, which is why we agreed to a loaner car in the first place. Seriously, to parallel park that thing requires a full ground crew, complete with waving flashlights and orange cones.
Don't get me wrong, I love a sporty car as much as the next person. And I'm not unsympathetic. I understand that, as my husband describes it, "I wasn't thinking. My eyes just glazed over. Never in my life has someone handed me the keys to a Porsche and said, 'Have fun with it.'"
Sure, I get it. But under the same circumstances, I can pretty much guarantee that I would have held the keys longingly for a moment, before sighing and handing them back as I said, in a voice laden with regret, "I'm afraid we'll have to take the wagon. Our toddler has trouble holding on to the roof at high speeds."
So there you are: gender differences. What leapt to my mind was the infamous scene in "As Good As It Gets," where misogynistic romance writer Melvin Udall (as played by Jack Nicholson) is asked (by a woman), "How do you write women so well?"
And he replied, "I think of a man, and then I take away reason and accountability."
Reason and accountability, eh? Hmm. To every woman who cringed at that line, I offer you this: my husband, handing me the keys to a Porsche, our (temporary) new family car. Without even blinking.
By Joe Moore
A few days ago, my friend and blog mate, Clare Langley-Hawthorne, asked the question: Can the Introverted Writer Succeed? I think we all agreed that, yes, just about any writer can succeed given the right set of circumstances including big doses of talent and luck. Of course we could say the same holds true for winning the lottery; given the right set of numbers, anyone can be a winner.
But whether you’re introverted and shy or known as the life of the party, I believe the first step to becoming a successful writer is to adapt a successful attitude. By that I mean, if you act like a success, there’s a good chance the world around you will treat you in like manner.
Now, we can get into a heavy discussion of what success means. For some, it’s big money and a slot on the bestseller list while others feel successful in just completing a manuscript. Certainly it’s important that each of us determine what we consider to be a success and then work toward it. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter. I believe that success in a state of mind.
If you don’t feel that you’ve achieved success in your writing yet, it shouldn’t stop you from taking on a successful attitude.
Many years ago, the wonderful comedic actor Billy Crystal played a character called Fernando on Saturday Night Live. Fernando’s famous line was “It’s better to look good than to feel good.” I think in many ways we should embrace Fernando's advice. We should look successful now in anticipation of achieving success later. No, I don’t mean spending thousands on fancy clothes or showing up at a book signing in a stretch limo. Nor do I suggest lying about your success or attempting to deceive anyone.
Having a positive attitude is not deceit. In fact, it’s addictive and usually produces successful results.
Someone once said, “You are what you eat.” I think that concept goes way beyond food. For example, if you complain about the results of your writing or constantly bad mouth the state of the publishing industry, chances are you will quickly develop a self-fulfilling prophecy and those things that you find negative will continue to come your way. Your writing will suffer, your head will become clouded, and at some point, you will consider yourself a failure because you just might be.
Successful writers (or any profession) become so because they believe in themselves and their ability to succeed. And the more they believe, the more they attract success. Act the part, walk the walk, think as a successful writer would think, and before you know it, your writing gets better, your advances grow, your sales increase, and your publisher pays for the stretch limo.
Listen to Fernando.
Monday, January 12, 2009
This morning I pressed SEND on my first draft for MAKEOVERS CAN BE MURDER. The manuscript should now be safely in the hands of my editor in NY. Ahh...sweet sigh of relief.
I was especially relieved to send this draft off. Because let's just say that it was a bit...overdue.
Which brings me to today's blog topic: the many rich, varied, and creative procrastination rituals that are employed by writers.
Yes, we writers have some amazing ways to delay the inevitable pasting of butt-on-chair-and-typing that is required to complete an actual finished work.
For example: I have a sitcom-writer friend who cleans every drawer, organizes every closet, and sharpens every pencil in her house before she starts working on her scripts for the Zack and Cody Show. And she doesn’t even use pencils.
Internet surfing has become a big-time Writer's Time Sink. In fact the Internet is learning how to surf us. For example, even if you try to ignore those omnipresent pop-up ads, they know how to leap off their launchpads and grab hold of your cursor. It always takes me a half minute of muttering and banging around with the mouse to drive those damned Wells Fargo horses back to their window. I wonder if there's some way I could customize my cursor into a whip?
Excessive procrastination sometimes causes writers to fall seriously behind on our overall writing output. We have even...gasp! been known to miss our deadlines.
When that happens, there's a temptation to come up with complex and creative excuses for why one’s manuscript isn’t being turned in to the editor on time. But fair warning: Editors, or at least the editors in New York, have heard every excuse known to creative mankind for not meeting a deadline. These include:
* I was on the wrong side of the International Dateline (thank you Gary Busey)
* The lack of reliable mail distribution in your neck of the woods (not a workable excuse in a major metropolitan area)
* The impending demise of a close relative (but don't make it too close lest it prompt the sending of an embarrassing bouquet of sympathy flowers)
* The onset of a persistent-but-vague immune-deficiency ailment that saps the energy required for sustained bouts of writing (but not for attending conferences where one is observed singing and pounding the bar with fists at wee hours of the morning).
So do you have any excuses you can add to the list? Any good procrastination stories you've heard?
Click here if you feel like procrastinating some more with the Marx Brothers.
Saturday, January 10, 2009
Today The Kill Zone is thrilled to host Robin Burcell, despite the fact that her credentials make some of us feel horribly inferior in comparison. For more than two decades Robin has worked in law enforcement as a police officer, detective, hostage negotiator, and FBI-trained forensic artist. As if that wasn't enough, she's won an Anthony Award for her Kate Gillespie series. We especially appreciate her post since it addresses cliches that can be terribly vexing for crime fiction fans. One lucky commentor will receive a signed edition of her latest book. Read on to find out more...
Let's say you're writing a book (or perhaps reading one) and you want to verify that the cop stuff is correct. Where do you turn for accurate info?
The secret is… watch CSI.
Just kidding. The real secret is to ply me or any other current or ex cop at mystery conventions with alcoholic beverages, then remind us of whatever promises we made in our drunken state to answer questions you might have on your work in progress. But what's a writer to do if they can't get to those conventions and bribe us with free drinks? I thought I'd compose a Top Ten Stupid Cop Things in books to help you guide your way until you can meet us in the bar.
10. Getting the jargon/slang wrong for a particular department or part of the country. It's more than the age-old discussion on perps versus suspects. I'm talking the everyday lingo. It's the difference that tells me which generation of cop is talking. Saturday Night Live could have done a whole skit on some of the double entendres of this stuff. Typical phrase heard on the radio: "Put your unit at the back door." For years I resisted, instead calling my or anyone else's "unit" by the more recognizable name of "patrol car." We won't even go into the whole "back door" thing. And I also resisted calling the detective bureau the "dick squad." I don't think I was the only generational upstart who started reshaping the language in a department.
9. Really dumb radio transmissions no cop would ever make. Short transmissions are a must. In real life, if you have a long transmission, you “break," for any emergencies that might arise while you’re hogging the mike. So if your characters are busy saying anything longer than one or two short sentences on the radio, have them pick up the phone instead. Radio transmissions vary by region. Some talk in "ten" code, some in "nine,” and many are moving to "plain English," because who the hell remembers the damn codes when the $#!+ hits the fan?
8. Not knowing the elements of the crime, or what constitutes a crime. A cop looks up, sees a young lady falling to the ground, sees a man running away, and thinks: Purse snatch, a felony. He and his partner jump out, chase after the suspect. One problem. No one saw the crime. They assumed. At least have your cops stop and ask the victim before they get in a foot chase, tackle the suspect and cuff him for a crime they think he committed--because when those officers get to court, the defense is going to rip them apart.
7. The clichéd loner, alcoholic cop with the rumpled raincoat, whose wife and kids were murdered by the serial killer while he was out eating donuts. Why doesn't this scenario work? Because the whole donut eating thing is so passé. Let's pause for history. Donut shops were the only thing open on graveyard shifts where the coffee could be found. That cliché would never work in California. There’s a Starbucks on every corner, and a bagel shop two doors down. And who buys their bagels from Starbucks, when you can get really good ones from Noah's?
6. Having cops hired/fired on a whim. Unless a cop resigns on his own, it’s almost an act of congress to hire or fire one. But an even bigger pet peeve is the shoddy hiring background investigations I've seen in some really Big Name novels. Backgrounds that allowed, say, the FBI to hire someone who had an arsonist serial killer for a father, but the father's guilt (and the suspect's identity) are questionable, and so we should be surprised when our agent turns out to be the real killer. And if they do pass the background, are you saying these arsonist/serial killers are going to pass the psych? There’s a reason why it takes months to complete the background investigation. It almost takes that long just to fill out the background application, which is longer than the average book contract.
5. Evil or stupid police supervisors. Repeat after me: Only some of the bosses are evil or stupid (and no, they didn’t all work for my department). There are actually some pretty decent supervisors still out there. The standing joke is that to get promoted to Sergeant, you have to first have a lobotomy. To make it to Lieutenant and Captain, you have to have your spine removed. True in all cases? No. But some…
4. The hated, despised Internal Affairs cop, who is usually evil or stupid. See # 7 above (which is not to say that if you're the one being investigated, you don't tend to think of the IA cops that way, but that's a different story).
3. Dirty cops planting phony evidence in that overdone bad cop cliché manner. If you’re going to write this, do it better than anyone else. One of the best scenes I saw in a movie was where a dirty cop was seen committing a crime on a surveillance video which was booked into evidence and was going to nail him. The dirty cop set up a “window smash” of a business—with a highly magnetic device used to shatter the window. It in turn was booked into evidence right next to the surveillance tape, which it then demagnetized and was rendered useless. Such a scenario would be difficult to accomplish in this digital age, but back then it was way cool.
2. Stupid blunders at crime scenes. Being aware of what can contaminate a crime scene takes more than simply watching the latest episode of CSI. Just knowing the basics can help, everything from keeping a crime scene log to what constitutes trace evidence and cross-contamination. Keep this in mind next time your sleuth picks up a phone at the scene of the murder, tromping across a carpet, leaving fiber evidence.
And the top ten pet peeve, in my opinion?
1. Bad officer safety. This is equal to the sleuth investigating a noise outside, when she knows the killer is lurking around somewhere. Cop-wise, I'm talking things like cops showing up at a suspect's house without backup. These guys are assigned partners for a reason. Safety is one of them, but so, too, is having a second set of eyes and ears for investigative purposes, as well as for testifying later in court. I hate it when writers shove the TSTL syndrome (too stupid to live) on their characters to foster an exciting climax.
So, aside from the age-old "safety on a Glock", what are your stupid cop (or amateur sleuth) pet peeves in books?
Robin Burcell, a veteran cop of twenty-something years, dutifully avoids all the above pet peeves in her latest novel, FACE OF A KILLER, about an FBI forensic artist. You can verify this fact by reading the first chapter on her website