Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Translating bestsellers to the screen

by Michelle Gagnon

I stumbled across this piece the other day in the LA Times, which dovetailed perfectly with a conversation a friend and I had recently about the pros and cons of getting your novel optioned. Several current NY Times bestselling writers were virtually undiscovered until their book was made into a film (Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child with THE RELIC come to mind. On a side note: great book, terrible movie).

For many authors the possibility of having their work made into a film, whether the end result is a masterpiece or not, is the dream goal. Because if nothing else, the amount of free advertising garnered by a film release exponentially outpaces what most of us receive from our publisher's marketing departments.

Yet paradoxically, all too frequently a book that was a runaway bestseller on its own flops at the box office.

I can give a few examples. Let's start with THE LOVELY BONES, hands down one of my favorite reads of the past several years. I thought the adroit manner with which Alice Sebold handled such a difficult storyline was absolutely astonishing. Having a murdered young girl watch her family deal with what happened from the vantage point of heaven could have been unbelievably trite, cliched, and painful to witness. Yet she was so skilled and deft with the story that it worked. It remains one of the only books I've ever read that moved me to tears.
When I heard that it was being made into a film, I recoiled. Even though the director was someone whose other work I loved. Because for me, this was a story that I'd experienced so viscerally on the page, nothing onscreen could match it. And so much of what Sebold accomplished had little to do with the actual story, and everything to do with the way in which she wrote it.

THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE is another example. Constructing a linear narrative via a plot that jumped back and forth through time, frequently showcasing different decades on the same page--that was simply astonishing. I became invested in the characters despite the fact that from the opening pages, I knew something terrible was going to happen. But did I want to see Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams as those characters? Not really. Again, they're two actors whose work I generally enjoy. But it felt as though watching someone else's interpretation of the book would taint a reading experience that was extremely cathartic for me.

The flip side of the coin is books that actually worked better onscreen. As I wrote in an earlier post, I was underwhelmed by THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Interesting characters and one interesting plotline (out of two), but any positives for me were lost in what appeared to be an unedited manuscript.
The screenwriter did the smart thing by focusing on the main storyline, eliminating unnecessary details, characters, and red herrings, and condensing it all into something that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Granted, it's rare, but those few times that a filmmaker manages to improve upon a book, the end result is remarkable (I still think that the cinematic ending of ABOUT A BOY was superior to Hornby's original). One of the listservs I frequent is currently engaged in a heated debate about the casting for the film version of Evanovich's ONE FOR THE MONEY. Is Katherine Heigl the right actor to portray Stephanie Plum? She's not what I imagined for that character, but given her comedic flair, she might surprise me. And how about Angelina Jolie as Kay Scarpetta? Apparently so far Cromwell's fans are voting 10-1 against the casting. But is the issue that they think she's wrong for the role, or that they just can't imagine any actor matching what their imagination conjured up for that character?

So which books would you never want to see on the big screen? And conversely, which movies do you think in the end produced a superior experience?

Technology and You

Overdrive software ( allows patrons to download ebooks and audio books from their local library. It’s not necessary to own an ebook reader. Anyone can download these files to a computer, smart phone, or Apple device.

I’m happy that my out of print books reissued in ebook format are now available for this market. As for me, all I can do on my cell phone is make calls, send text messages, and go on the Internet for brief intervals. Would I really want to check out a virtual book from the library for 21 days to read on my phone? Would you? And what happens after your three weeks are done— the book vanishes from your device? What if you haven’t finished the story?

An article from the Sun-Sentinel titled “Libraries go high-tech with audio, e-books” by Doreen Christensen says you can read ebook library titles on the Sony and Nook readers and soon on the iPad. Or on your phone, if you have an iPhone, Droid, or Blackberry. This is great for old folks or people who can’t get around, but do they possess these devices? If not, that leaves it up to tech savvy young’uns and middle agers to download ebooks and audio. Young people today are growing up with these devices, but what about the rest of us raised in the day when computers didn't exist?

In addition to computer classes at our libraries and adult education schools, I think we need to add hands-on workshops on How to Work the various gizmos. Here are some topics I’d suggest:

  • How to Choose a Smart Phone.
  • Which Ebook reader is for you?
  • How to download a pdf file to your Ebook reader.
  • Playing an Audio Book on your Handheld Device.
  • How do you convert your doc format into a readable file that works on your device?
  • What else can you do on your phone besides make a call?
  • What’s an App?
  • I want to check movie listings and order a pizza. How can I do it on my device?
  • How to browse the library shelves from your home office.

We have all these wonderful options now, including borrowing books from the library by a simple download onto our smart phone or ebook reader. But the more technology advances, the more we need someone to demonstrate what we can do with these wondrous devices. What kinds of questions would you want answered?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Promotion versus privacy

The importance of online privacy is an emerging issue for the public at large, including writers. Recently Newsweek ran an article about American authors, including J.D. Salinger. A photo of the famously reclusive writer shows him in his bedroom. As the article points out, the viewer can't help noticing the industrial-strength lock on his bedroom door. The image of the lock underscores the way Salinger guarded his privacy ferociously for nearly a half century.

I don't know whether Salinger owned a computer (we'll probably find out in the upcoming biography, The Private War of J. D. Salinger, by Shane Salerno and David Shields), nor do I know what he thought about the way most authors go the opposite way today. We typically court publicity (and sales) by using social networking, publicists, and other self-promotion strategies. But I'm sure he would have frowned on the loss of privacy that follows in the wake of becoming "known," even to a small degree. Before their first published book hits the store shelves, authors are often advised by publishers: Get a web site; get on Facebook and Twitter; start a blog (The Kill Zone, by the way, is one byproduct of my being given that advice by my own editor).

What is the privacy downside of all this online activity during an age in which almost everyone has a "public" face? For children, the threat of Internet predators is an obvious concern. But what about the rest of us? I've had my own minor brush with the downside of posting too much information online. A few years ago, someone reached out to me via my web site's email; we exchanged some pleasantries. Then, the day after Christmas, as my family gathered in the living room in the traditional post-holiday food coma, the doorbell rang. A messenger delivered a package--inside the box was a gigantic, framed portrait of me. It turns out that my "friend" had commissioned a painting based on a web photo of me, and had it delivered to my daughter's house(!). As we put the thing on the couch and gaped at it in all its life-sized  glory, my brother-in-law said, "That's just wrong."

With that incident serving as an alarm bell, I started reducing my online footprint. I haven't gotten to the point where I lock my Facebook and Twitter posts, but I've tried to raise my awareness of the unintentional information that can be mined from online activities. One thing I'm grateful for is that my pen name is different than my married name, so there's a slight privacy firewall between my social and professional identities.

Whether you're a writer or not, here are some things everyone should consider when posting online:

According to the NY Times, burglars have targeted houses based upon people's Facebook updates.

When you upload a photo that was taken with a smart phone, people can determine your location. For a demonstration, see I Can Stalk U. (You can turn that GPS function off, but many people don't know it's there.) This one's really scary to me. If you click on the "Map It" link, you can see where the people posting their Tweets work or live, and they probably have no idea.

Sometimes one social network can "out" your identity from its sister site without your knowing it. In one example, people who thought they were playing music privately online were actually broadcasting their musical selections to their entire network.  More here. So imagine if all your cool friends discovered that you actually listen to Neil Diamond. The horror!

The most recent privacy-scare story I heard came from one of my friends: He joined a service that was supposed to manage all his social networks from a single point of control. His wife was linked to it, and as soon as it was turned on, all his past Tweets, plus every message he'd ever posted to chat boards, started scrolling before her on the screen. These missives included several to women that she considered to be...questionable. The poor guy had to endure a lengthy, detailed grilling about each and every one of them. He never unsubscribed from something so fast, he said!

How about you? Have you had any funny, odd, or horrible stories related to online privacy? Is privacy a big concern of yours?

Monday, September 27, 2010

What do you expect from your editor?

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

After Jim's post yesterday about rejection letters, I started to think about expectations and how, for many authors, that is the hardest thing to manage. Your expectations when you send out that first query letter (a thousand calls to represent you!), your expectations about the acquisition process (everyone will fall in love with the book instantly!) and then, of course, the expectations once you are published (immediate bestsellerdom and movie deals by the fistful!). When I started out I had no real idea what to expect from any element in the publishing process. I certainly had no idea what to expect from my editor. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised and I remain very grateful to have had three great editors - yes, that was one part of the process I hadn't anticipated- that two of my editors would fall pregnant, have babies, and then leave the publishing house! All this before my second book had even hit the shelves!

So what should we expect from an editor? At the very least I think you should receive professional support and editorial guidance but in an ideal world, I believe an editor should be:

  1. Your greatest champion within the publishing house. This is easiest when your editor is the one who acquired your book, but even when an editor takes over a project, I think authors should feel like their editor is the one singing their praises and going in to bat for them.

  2. Your greatest and most constructive critic. A great editor can help transform your work into something better than you thought possible. Editing itself though is only part of the process, I also think a great editor should be able to communicate her thoughts as constructively as possible so an author truly feels as though she has a partner in the process.

  3. Your Organizer/Juggler Extraordinaire (or the one who makes sure all the work that needs to be done gets done on time!). An editor is like the foreman on a construction site, supervising all the work that needs to get done within the publishing house: from blurbs to jacket/cover and layout. I also think an editor who can effectively juggle all the other department needs (publicity/salesforce etc.) to make sure the author's interests are served is worth her weight in gold.
So how do these three 'ideals' measure up to your expectations when it comes to an editor? What do you want to see and have you received the level of support you wanted in the past or not? I suspect many authors' expectations differ from what their publishers/editors expect - so, for all you editors and writers out there, how do you deal with mismanaged expectations? What should a writer realistically expect from an editor and what can an author do to make sure the partnership between editor and writer runs as smoothly as possible?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Handling Rejection

James Scott Bell

There's an old Peanuts cartoon, where Snoopy is reading a rejection letter which says Please don't send us any more. Please, please!

With a wry smile, Snoopy thinks, "I love to hear an editor beg."

That's one way to handle rejection.

There are others. We all know rejection is part of this crazy business. Whether it's agent or editor, the default setting is to say No. Which means you have to find a way to handle the inevitable.

The best way is by continuing to write and submit. Here are a couple of quotes I like on the subject:

Let rejection hurt for a half hour, no more.  Then get back to your word processor. –Jacqueline Briskin

Never assume that a rejection of your stuff is also a rejection of you as a person. Unless it's accompanied by a punch in the nose. — Ron Goulart

No matter how many rejections you've received, it's probably not as many as Jack London, who apparently had a whole trunk full. Or Stephen King, who put his on a spike on the wall until the papers were falling off. They persevered to publication.

You can also look through the legions of rejections famous writers have received. The little book Rotten Rejections (Andre Bernard, ed.) has some gems.

A rejection of Tony Hillerman's first Navajo detective novel: "If you insist on rewriting this, get rid of all that Indian stuff."

Or this, for George Orwell's Animal Farm: "It is impossible to sell animal stories in the United States."

Maybe the most famous rejection was penned by Samuel Johnson: "Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good."

So there you go. It's universal. It happens. The key is how you handle it.

How do you? Does rejection follow you around like a bad smell, or are you able to get past it and back to the keyboard?

Friday, September 24, 2010

You mean this does that, too?

It was a day of extremes.

I went yesterday to our local senior center to drop off some books for their library. I had a conversation with the ladies at the reception desk. Neither of them had heard of Kindles, or e-books in general. I directed them toward the Amazon home page, which for years has had that huge Kindle feature that kind of smacks you in the face and almost makes you forget why you arrived at Amazon to begin with. They looked at it, took the electronic tour, and decided that nothing beats a book.

I returned home later and another country was heard from. My daughter walked through the door after a day at middle school and advised that students, who cannot have cell phones with them during school hours (they have to be stored in their lockers), are now permitted to bring Kindles to school to use during study halls. And indeed, her fellow students are taking advantage of this policy Are they reading? Well…yes, reading what they are happily tweeting back and forth on Twitter and commenting on Facebook. I’m sure that this was not what the administration intended. In fact, it is quite possible that the school officials are unaware that Kindle is not just for reading anymore. It can be used for web surfing, listening to music, and yes, tweeting back and forth to keep one’s friends up to date on what is happening (“How R U I m soo bord!”). This hasn’t exactly been trumpeted by Amazon, but if you have a Kindle 2.0 or later, go to the home page, use the menu to go to the “experimental” link, and take a look. If the school thought that their charges would use this tool to catch up on their Cormac McCarthy or Robert Louis Stevenson (okay, or their Stephanie Meyer) they are about to be kissed by the goddess of disappointment.

As someone noted recently, the rate of change is accelerating everywhere, it seems, except at your local Bureau of Motor Vehicles office. Take phones, for but one example. Every time that I have been tempted to trade in my weathered but still functional Blackberry Pearl for the cellular equivalent of a trophy wife I have backed off. It seems that each day brings a new phone with a host of new functions. There are things that I could probably do with the Pearl --- Jack Bauer used to download schematics of nuclear power plants with his --- that I not only don’t know how to do, but also don’t know that I can do. Better to keep the less attractive but comfortable and familiar companion I have than to have to learn the bells and whistles of a new model. My son threatens to buy me a Jitterbug, which would be okay, actually. As far as technology in general is concerned, however, the demographics seem split into three groups: one that does not even know what technology is available; one that is aware of it but underutilizes it; and one that takes the potential to its designed limits, and even beyond. And that is true of the Kindle as well. There are still folks who think a Kindle is something you do to a fire. The majority of people who know it as an e-book reader may be unaware that you can do more with it than read on a sunny beach. And then, of course, there are the younger whiz kids. If that son or daughter of yours has suddenly seemed to acquire a newfound interest in reading which is manifested by taking a Kindle to school you might want to quiz them on what chapter of what book they’re reading. DY feel me?

* * *

What I'm reading: THE FALL by Del Toro and Hogan. Not that it's scary or anything, but I'm on my second box of Depends.

Must the Desert Be So Dry?

by John Gilstrap

Last weekend, I had the honor of teaching a couple of workshops and delivering the lunchtime keynote address to the League of Utah Writers meeting in Salt Lake City.  It was a terrific conference, I met a lot of great people, and the Wasatch Mountains make for a delightful backdrop.  As a special bonus, I finished the manuscript for Threat Warning (the next Jonathan Grave novel) while I was there.  Can it get any better?

Actually, yes, it can.  I had been to Utah before, but I didn't remember it being so dry.  Oh, I remember the desert; I just didn't remember that alcohol was considered a controlled substance.  The full realization didn't hit me until I attended the Friday night pre-dinner social hour in the lobby and saw that they were serving water.  Really, water.  Not tea, not soda.  Water.  And it smelled kind of bad.

Well, it's a small conference, I told myself.  Surely there'd be wine with dinner, if only through a cash bar.  They were serving beef tenderloin, after all, and nothing augments the flavor of a nice cut of beef like a good red wine.  Wrong.  In fact, the drink of choice during dinner was . . . wait for it . . . pink lemonade.  I'm not big on lemonade in general, and pinkness somehow makes it worse.  I stuck with the water.  I was tempted to ask for an olive to put in my water glass just so I could pretend, but I ultimately lost my nerve.

I understand that certain religious groups eschew alcohol, and I suppose that if the reception and dinner were held in a church meeting hall, I would have anticipated that there'd be no alcohol served; but this was at a hotel.  It never occurred to me that the Volstead Act still applied in Utah.  Given that I was flying in from Washington, DC, I'm a little shocked that no one thought to mention this one peccadillo of the Utah landscape.

I don't know why this annoys me so much, but it does.

Here's another thing that annoys me:

My flight from Washington to Denver en route to Salt Lake City was completely full.  I wasn't able to upgrade, so I had a window seat in coach, which was perfectly fine until the ENORMOUS middle-seat occupant arrived.  I'm not talking fat here--although he could have lost a few pounds; I'm talking linebacker big, probably six-six, three-twenty.  I'm talking seat-and-a-half big, with beefy arms that expanded way beyond the arm rests on either side.  Because of his girth--and I'm not slamming him for his size here; he is who he is--I had to spend three hours and change crammed between him and a very non-flexible bulkhead.  Our arms were continually pressed against each other, and this guy had the core temperature of a woodstove. 

How is this reasonable?  When the airlines upcharge for everything but the breathing air, how come I have to pay full price for two-thirds of a seat?  Stated differently, with all respect, shouldn't Gigantor have to pay for two seats?  Yeah, I know it's not his fault, but it's not my fault, either.

By the time I finally arrived in Salt Lake City, boy did I need a drink.  (See above.)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

TEN TIPS on Pace & Structure of a Thriller

Writing a thriller is so much more involved than ten tips, but the checklist below is a good start. You notice I used the word TIPS and not RULES. I hate rules. Think of these as talking points to chat about and explore in your own writing.

1.) Start with a BANG and Explain Later

• Start with the moment that changes the character’s life forever.

• Or throw the reader right into the middle of action.

• No backstory or introspection

• Stick with the action

• Be patient with dropping mystery hints & clues, thread thru plot later.

• Place the reader in the midst of it—using all their senses.

• Remember that your protagonist might be ducking gunfire or are in a dangerous situation. It's all about action, reaction and pace.

2.) Alfred Hitchcock’s Definition of Suspense & Basics on Structure
I’m not a plotter, so this part won’t be about plotting.

Hitchcock believed suspense didn’t have much to do with fear, but was more the anticipation of something about to happen. When I read this, it was a HUGE epiphany for me. The idea changed how I thought about scene and chapter endings. In a recent work-in-progress, I kept the same words that I’d started the book with, but ended scenes and chapters with this idea of anticipation. It gave the book a different dynamic and enhanced the pace. Don’t be afraid to cut off a scene or a chapter in the middle of the action. Here are some examples:

• One of my chapter endings in NO ONE LIVES FOREVER (RT nominee Best Intrigue 2008) has my hero in the middle of a steamy jungle, handcuffed and on his knees with a gun pointed between his eyes. The last sentence of that chapter is - And that’s when he pulled the trigger.

• Another chapter ending in my next thriller EVIL WITHOUT A FACE has my bounty hunter woman blinded by the headlights of an oncoming SUV about to run her down in an alley. With only seconds to consider her options, she plants her feet and raises her Colt Python, aiming for the faceless driver behind the wheel. And the last line to the chapter is - Time to play chicken with six thousand pounds of steel.

• Don’t let readers put down your novel.

• Give the reader a sense of foreshadowing or plant the seed of a red herring to sustain the pace and tease them with things to come.

• And the teaser doesn’t always have to be a major calamity. It can be something as subtle as a person walking into a room. For example, if an author has built a growing mystery surrounding an individual, have everyone in a courtroom turn to see who is walking in, then stop the action. In the next chapter, the author carries the story forward, drawing it out so the reader must finish the next chapter too—and so on and so on.

• Short sentences (as well as short chapters, scenes, and paragraphs) adds tension.

• Switch between key scenes – back & forth with the action like is done in movies to build tension.

• Or tell the story from different points of view (POVs) to build momentum on action sequences.

• 9-Act Screenplay Structure - Most blockbuster movies use a plot structure like this. (Check out my website under the FOR WRITERS page to see a 9-Act outline as well as other handy articles from craft to promotion.) This 9-Act structure is similar to the Hero’s Journey. And once you become familiar with the plot structure, your mind will automatically think in terms of it when you’re working on future projects. I’m not a plotter but I saw potential in this structure.

3.) The concept of Enter Late and Leave Early (ELLE) – The “Law & Order” Concept

• ELLE – Enter Late, Leave Early maintains pace and leaves the reader wanting more.

• The TV show “Law & Order” is a good example

• ENTER LATE refers to starting a scene in the middle of the pertinent action, such as AT the crime scene staring down at the body, not the drive over in a car.

• LEAVE EARLY refers to an ending that foreshadows something or raises a question or creates more of a mystery, not showing the detectives driving back to the police station.

• Quick snippets of plot suggest pace/movement and a reader can fill in the gaps on what happened in between.

• This principle does not apply to dialogue. Don’t make the reader guess what your characters are talking about. Start at the beginning of the dialogue for clarity.

4.) Torture Your Characters – It’s Legal

• Torture can be deviously fun—on paper, that is.

• Make the reader understand why your character is worthy of being the star of your novel.

• Your characters have to rise to the occasion—even if they are an average Joe—and go up against insurmountable odds.

• And we’ve all heard the phrase “Write what you know.” It should be “Write what you fear…what you love…what you hate.” Writing what you fear conveys human emotion that will resonate with readers. Tapping into what makes you afraid will translate into a trigger for the reader as well. And this goes for other emotions too. Drawing on a reader’s emotions will pull them into the story.

5.) Weaving in the Threads of Clues – No Surprise Suspects or Miraculous Databases

• Pretty self-explanatory. We all laugh when one of the CSI shows can turn around DNA analysis in minutes or they have access to amazing databases that don’t exist that allows them to wrap up the show in five minutes.

• I read about the “RULE OF THREE” on a mystery loop and it made sense. If you want a hint or clue to sink in for a reader, you subtly weave it into your plot in three different ways and places within your book. The repetition reinforces the importance and plants a seed with the reader, but don’t telegraph it in a huge way. It’s a balancing game of subtlety.

6.) Layer the Conflict & Allow Your Hero/Heroine to Be the Star

• Put up roadblocks and heap on complications.

• Use internal and external conflicts as a driver.

• Give them emotional baggage that the reader can relate to.

• Force your characters out of their comfort zones. Make them do the one thing they would never do.

• Action by itself can be boring if you don’t add the right balance of the human struggle and emotion into a story.

7.) Ramp Up the Stakes & Make it Personal

In my release, EVIL WITHOUT A FACE, I start with a 17-year old girl being lured from home by an online predator pretending to be another young girl. You’ve heard this story before, but I catapult this troubled Alaskan family into a massive global conspiracy with the clock ticking. A tangle of unlikely heroes attacks this conspiracy from different angles and they converge in a fight for their lives.

• The conspiracy is far reaching and it’s deadly.

• And because one young girl is caught up in it, it’s personal.

In my debut book, NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM (Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2008), my woman homicide detective was burdened by the abduction and murder of her younger sister and filtered every new investigation through her pain and guilt.

• She’s flawed and makes mistakes in her investigation of a cold case.

• Puts herself in the cross hairs of treacherous men - unable to be objective.

• Her emotions drive her to be heroic and also become a weakness that can get her killed.

8.) The Clock is Ticking – Then Shorten the Deadline

• Give your characters a deadline—a race against time—then shorten the timetable.

• Force your hero or heroine to make really tough decisions.

• Make them do the one thing they would NEVER do—with the clock ticking.

9.) Give the Reader a Big Payoff & Tie Up the Loose Ends

• No hype – give readers a big finish. Don’t disappoint them.

• Exceed their expectations – go over the top.

• Tie up all loose ends.

• And tie up the emotional journey too.

10.) Restore the World, but Don’t be Afraid if it’s a Different Place

• In a series, you have greater flexibility in how you choose to end your story.

• Happily Ever After (HEA) isn’t always necessary because you are writing a bigger story arc in the series. My books tend to read as standalones in plot, but the characters’ journeys continue and they grow with each book.

• I still like the idea of restoring the world—a certain amount of redemption—but it doesn’t have to be the same world.

• Crime affects people in a bad way, so they are forever changed. Don’t be afraid to show the aftermath.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Libraries, an endangered species

By Joe Moore

I’ve been reading news stories lately about the changing role of libraries, and to a certain extent, their demise. Some blame the economy is killing libraries—shorter hours open less days per week with fewer features. Others heap a lot of blame on the rapid growth and popularity of smart-phone technology and e-books. In reality, it’s probably a combination of both along with a changing demographic in the community.

No doubt, someday in the future, history students might study the rise and fall of these cavernous, book-loaning institutions. They may wonder why this somewhat inefficient system of printing and storing large quantities of books ever made sense. And they may chuckle at pictures of endless shelves housing thousands of books with their ever-yellowing pages that, from the day they left the printer, were on a non-reversible journey to the landfill.

It wasn’t that long ago that you couldn’t read books on a handheld electronic device or a cell phone. You couldn't easily download a book onto a computer laptop to read it. The world wasn't debating whether libraries would one day be unnecessary, as book reading and book loaning become possible, even probable, online or wireless. And, more importantly, money wasn't so tight that libraries would be considered an unaffordable luxury.

I live in South Florida. Down here, municipalities are having to decide whether some libraries should be consolidated or closed, and whether hours can be cut back even further. Library regulars are dealing with more of the electronic book world sooner than they expected as they see traditional library buildings closing. County government is wrestling with a budget that's steadily dwindling. Library jobs are being cut and the hours of operation are being significantly reduced. All branches are now closed Saturdays, and they will no longer be open past 6 PM on weekdays. The county is not ready to close all the library doors and send patrons online yet. But it’s not out of the question for the future.

Electronic book readers are still too pricy to loan out, but many librarians are predicting a time when they’ll be cheap enough to do it. I’m surprised that a manufacturer hasn’t stepped forward with a specialized, scaled-down e-book reader that can be used just for that purpose—perhaps with a built-in GPS (like cell phones) for retrieval in case of theft or overdue status. Or better yet, sell the specialized e-readers to registered library customers at a greatly reduced price or as a rental. Maybe the device would have access to the content of that particular library system only.

Funding is one way to save a library. But with property values plummeting along with property tax revenue collections, libraries are way down on the list of priorities. I recently read that one in three people who visit a South Florida library are not there to read or borrow books. They’re there for computer access or training. With the jobless rate so high, many people can no longer afford Internet access at home. They head for the local library to job search and electronically apply for employment. And if they have a laptop, they’re in the library to take advantage of free Wi-Fi offered at some locations.

So what does the future of libraries look like in your community? Should library systems join forces with companies like Starbucks and have a café in each branch to generate revenue? Are there ways for them to self-fund? Is the day of free books coming to an end?What will help libraries keep their doors open and their patrons not left high and dry?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Overcoming your greatest weakness as a writer

I'm still feeling a little depressed after reading Clare's post yesterday about the passing of a great bookseller, David Thompson. I didn't know David, but just hearing about the loss of someone special in this literary world is enough to let me wallow in a stew of malaise for an entire day.

I quickly journeyed from feeling sad about David to feeling sad about other things in life, including my own shortcomings. As a writer, my current liabilities seem to be a lack of discipline and a firm writing schedule.  I used to write in a heavily regimented way. Two hours every morning before work, come what may, you'd find me at the laptop. I wouldn't quit until I had a couple of new pages.

Now, I'm not working a full time job, so I should be able to get at least three times as much writing done, right? But does that happen? So far, not so much. Sure, I could blame the fact that I've been struggling with some gnarly health issues this summer (and evidently long before that, although undiagnosed). But that's no excuse.

"Apply glue to butt, sit on chair," is what my Dad always used to advise when I was facing a school deadline. So now, even though I'm sans deadline,  I think that advice still applies.

At times like this I start browsing around for inspiration, even looking online for  nuggets that will help inspire me. (If nothing else, it lets me burn up the time when I'm Not Writing). I did find a cute video featuring Ray Bradbury discussing the value of writing persistently. He could have been speaking directly to me, Ms NonPersistence. Here's the video, and then tell us if you will, what is your greatest weakness as a writer--really now, no fibbing! What do you do to combat it?

Bookseller Gems

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Last week we lost a real gem of a bookseller and a wonderful man when David Thompson, co-owner of Murder by the Book in Houston passed away suddenly. He was only 38 years old. I was stunned and devastated to hear the news. I still remember the email I received from David soon after my first book, Consequences of Sin, came out in hardcover. I was a complete newbie at the time - I had never been to a mystery convention or a MWA or SinC meeting - and I hadn't even heard of the bookstore (yes, I really was that dumb!). My publisher, Viking, had set up a local tour of bookstores in Northern California and I was just coming to the end of this when I got an email from David. He said how much the staff at the bookstore loved the book and asked if it was at all possible for me to come out and do a signing. He went on to tell me how much they wanted to try and garner support for me and my books, just as they had for authors like Jacqueline Winspear (whom they, very kindly, compared me to).

I subsequently flew to Houston to do the event and received a much needed ego-boost from them all. David would continue to email me and ask for bookmarks just so they could continue to promote me and my books. When Consequences of Sin came out in paperback he emailed me saying how much they loved the new cover and how much better they believed it would sell now that it looked more like what the book was about(:)). By the time the second book, The Serpent and the Scorpion, came out, Penguin committed to sending me on an expanded book tour that included Murder by the Book - and I think that decision was almost certainly a result of the terrific support I received from independent booksellers like David and McKenna.

It's hard to explain just how much David, McKenna and the rest of the MBTB staff's support meant to me at the time. I still believe that for new authors, independent booksellers continue to play a major role, despite the stranglehold of the big bookstore chains and online sellers like Amazon. I will miss having a champion like David in my world but am very thankful that I had the opportunity to get to know him, even if it was just a fleeting chance. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife, family and friends but I think we should also take the opportunity to celebrate the power of the bookseller - the ones like David who love the genre, know just what recommendations to make, and who want their customers to become, like them, avid lifelong fans.

So for all of you who have a great bookseller story, share it now, so we can celebrate the hidden gems that mean so much to us as writers and readers.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Does Writing Make You Happy?

James Scott Bell
I'm on the road this week, teaching at the ACFW Conference in Indianapolis. Instead of a normal post, I want to hear from you. I'm interested in how you would answer this question. So have at it:

Does writing make you happy?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The People Next Door

Three years ago I decided that I wanted to live where I could breathe more private air so Susie and I bought a place out in the country where life is slower. Our neighbors were standoffish, but after three years we have gotten to know most of them, and our lives are richer for it. As Michelle said in her post, people do not get to know their neighbors like they used to. The fact is, I get to know my neighbors. I always have done. I have had neighbors I cared for less than others, but the idea of living as a stranger in a place and not knowing who I share air with is alien to me. Maybe it's because I grew up in the south in small towns, or maybe it's because I've always had this curiosity about people and things.

When I was playing census worker a while back, I often asked someone about the people next door to learn that they had no idea who their neighbors were. Even when I lived in large cities I knew who my neighbors were. If you aren't curious about people and don't get to know them, how can you write about people?

I got this Kindle 3 and I've been reading a lot since. It's weird at first, but I've gotten the hand of it. This week I'm reading Ken Follet's WORLD WITHOUT END, the follow up to PILLARS OF THE EARTH. Great book. Rich characters. Kenny flat knows people and understands psychology and conflict. You don't get that way by shutting people out. He was one of the best thriller authors of all time. EYE OF THE NEEDLE was one of my top five all time favorites, and still holds up today.

Do yourself a favor and speak to the people around you. Some of my best friends have been people I've lived near. Go out of your way and be a good neighbor and your neighbors will surprise you. Who knows you might just find characters who'll put your next book over the top.

Friday, September 17, 2010

My Writer's Costume

by John Gilstrap

This blog entry is scheduled to post on September 17, 2010 at 12:01 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, so as you read it, chances are that I am either asleep or on my way to (or I have already arrived in) Salt Lake City, where I have been invited to speak at the annual meeting of the League of Utah Writers. Actually, I'll be speaking a lot. I'm the luncheon keynoter, and I'll also be teaching two instructional sessions.

Here's my question to Killzoners: What would you coinsider appropriate speaker's attire for such an event?

If this were a keynote address for my Big Boy Job, the wardrobe selection would be easy: Any color dark suit combined with any color white or blue shirt and conservative tie. But as a writer--as a "creative" person, the question is more complicated. I'll never forget the laughter I evoked from a Warner Brothers studio head when I wore a business suit to a story meeting at his office. It was so not-Hollywood chic. You can make light, but these things matter. Like anywhere else, first impressions are important.

If I were 25, I could get away with fashionably torn jeans, shirttail out and a sports coat. That's the new creative chic wardrobe, from what I can tell. But I've been 25 twice now (with change to spare), and I can't pull that off anymore. Even if I could, I'd feel stupid.

I'd also feel stupid in a business suit and republican tie. It's a weekend, after all, and I'm a writer, not a lawyer. In this venue, I'm not even the association executive that I play during the work week. So what's an engineer/thriller writer to do?

A former publicist told me years ago that there should never be any doubt who the celebrity writer is. She stressed that speaking gigs are work, and as such, one should never forget that work is about sales, and that sales are about image. That means, she advised, finding the right balance between mystery, professionalism and approachability. Think about it. That's a hell of a balance.

When I think back on the various conferences I've been to, some writers truly do wear writer's uniforms that are unique to them. Parnell Hall is always (except this last summer at ThrillerFest) in blue jeans, a T-shirt and a blue sports coat. Harlan Coben is famous for his wild ties, and Robert Crais is Mr. Hawaiian shirt. I have never seen Mary Higgins Clark or Sandra Brown when they are not dressed to the nines. Sharyn McCrumb is always . . . flowy. (That's not a slam at all, I don't know what else to call the look.)

Thomas Harris told me one time that the reason why he does so few interviews is because he feels that the less he is known, the more people are intrigued by his books.

The photo you see of me among my Killzone colleagues to the right is what we call my "badass" photo. It's supposed to look like a guy who writes scary books--and I guess it does--but it's not at all my personality. I actually like people, and lord knows I love a party; but there's a legitimate argument to be profferred that the writer-John should more closely resemble the book-John than the real-John. Okay, fine.

I don't buy it, and maybe that's because I know I couldn't pull it off. For others, though--Lord knows Thomas Harris has sold a lot more books than I have--maybe therein lies the recipe for success. Who knows? As for the League of Utah Writers, I think I'll wear the same uniform I wore at ThrillerFest: a nice gray pinstrip suit with a black shirt. No tie, though. I'm a writer, after all.

So, what do you all think? What is your writer's uniform? What do you expect of favorite authors when you see them in person?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Know thy neighbor

by Michelle Gagnon

I returned from vacation to sad news. My next door neighbor, Jane, had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and the day before we left the doctors told her it was untreatable. Two days later, Jane passed away.

From what I knew of her, Jane was a wonderful person- sweet, smart, funny. But truth be told, since we moved in a year ago, I've probably only had a dozen conversations with her. Most revolved around keeping an eye on each other's houses when we were out of town, or the obligatory exchange of cookies at Christmas. She and her husband have lived on this block for more than a half century. She was always so sweet and welcoming, always willing to talk. And I was always in too much of a hurry. I'd wave as I passed by on my way to the store, the gym, or wherever I happened to be going.

At her memorial I had the chance to speak at length with her sister, and learned more about Jane and her life in that half hour than I had in the past year. And as I sat there listening to how Jane and her husband had met, what their house had been like when they first moved in, it struck me that in the past year I've been running around like a crazy person. Part of that is the combination of having a small child paired with seemingly nonstop deadlines--I had to squeeze work in whenever possible, and every other spare moment was consumed by parenting and keeping our household running.

And what got lost in all that rushing around was getting to know someone like Jane, a lovely woman who taught high school English for decades, loved reading, and lived right next door.

Coming off a weekend where I had also been completely shut off from the internet and telephone, and yet (miraculously!) survived, it was eye opening. I realized that I've been spending so much time working on my books and maintaining virtual relationships on social networking sites, I've been terribly negligent at building them with the people all around me.

Part of this might be due to living most of my adult life in cities--in most of the apartments I rented in New York, neighbors were only dealt with when they were doing something unpleasant and/or inappropriate, like playing their bongos at 3AM or letting their snakes roam the halls at night (both of which happened in one building on the Upper West Side).
Yet in the suburbs where I grew up, I have distinct memories of neighbors stopping by to introduce themselves when we moved in- and of my mother baking up a storm whenever a moving truck showed up at the house down the block. But that's never happened to me in San Francisco or New York. And that's a shame.

While we were gone, there was also a terrible gas main explosion in San Bruno, just south of San Francisco. Numerous homes were destroyed, four people so far are confirmed dead. And some of the most amazing stories to emerge from the incident involved neighbors rushing to each others' aid, shuttling people to hospitals, getting them out of burning buildings. Many of those people were apparently just meeting for the first time.

So I'm going to make an effort to get the know the people around me better. I'll be spending less time on listservs and SN sites. And the next time a moving truck shows up on our block, I'll bake cookies and bring them over.

You can’t make this stuff up

I’m excited to welcome my friend and fellow ITW thriller author Lisa Black back to TKZ today. Lisa is stopping by on her virtual book tour to share some thoughts with us as she promotes her newest novel, TRAIL OF BLOOD. 

imageI am a certified latent print analyst and crime scene investigator for a local police department in Florida. Before that I worked at a coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio. Moving to the police department—the front lines, as it were—has been quite an education, and this is what I’ve learned: people are strange.

A teenage burglar broke into a house and stole a TV—not a flat screen, an old-fashioned boxy thing—but since she didn’t have wheels, merely staggered up the sidewalk to get her booty home. There might be cities in the US where this would not look suspicious. Cape Coral is not one of them.

clip_image002I was dragged out of bed one night to process a break-in at a local sports bar where the burglar had ignored the cash register to stand on the bar and try to take the flat-screen mounted high on the wall. They always expect those things to just pop off like a picture frame. Anyway, the officers had also found a still half-frozen filet of fish behind the building and wondered if perhaps the guy had decided to pick up something for dinner after striking out with the TV. I went out to photograph it but a local cat had already decided that this particular piece of evidence wasn’t relevant to our investigation. I called out in protest, and the look that cat gave me left me with nightmares. Apparently the only reason I’m still alive is because he didn’t feel like licking the blood off his fur. Again.

Everyone lies. And many times they’re not lying to fool the police; they don’t really care what the police think. They’re lying because they need to come up with a story for their spouse, their parents, their boss. We had a guy who reported a carjacking at gunpoint. He was stopped for a light at one of the busiest intersections in town when a man jumped in with a gun and demanded the car. Instead of running into the McDonald’s, the gas station, the grocery store or any one of the fifty other businesses in the area, he runs twenty blocks to the house he shared with his girlfriend to call the police. The car was quickly located about one block from the intersection, covered with mud and crashed into a fence. The story unraveled shortly from that point: he had decided to go four-wheeling in his girlfriend’s two-wheel-drive four-cylinder sports car and slid the fender into a wall. Need I go into outraged taxpayer mode to point out that the entire police force was out looking for an armed carjacker (a scary crime in this sleepy burg) just because this bonehead didn’t have the guts to ‘fess up to his chick?

We had two 11-year-old girls call the police to say they had seen two men in a van (they’re always driving a van) kidnap their neighbor and classmate from her driveway. Police respond, alert goes out. The girl eventually arrives home…she and her family had been enjoying dinner at Applebees. At the same time we were dealing with a situation in which a mother had shot and killed her young son and then herself, and resources were diverted for two little girls’ flight of fantasy. I hope they were grounded for life.

We had to assist another town’s department by taking a look at the former home of a particular family. The house was still vacant and I accompanied a detective. Apparently there had been a cockroach problem. ‘Problem’ is putting it mildly. ‘Infestation’ would be putting it mildly. They were all dead (otherwise you wouldn’t have gotten me in the place) because someone had laid an inch of boric acid throughout and over every single surface in the place, so every room was this sea of white powder flecked with dead bugs. It looked like an indoor snowstorm of vanilla bean ice cream. If I tried to describe that in a novel, reviewers would say I was trying too hard for the gross-out factor.


Speaking of gross, once I found a brain in the back seat. The victim had been shot, the body snatchers collected the body, a Cleveland fingerprint analyst was processing the car and all of a sudden he says, “Hey, do you want this brain?” Excuse me, brain? Apparently the gunshot had cleaved off the top of this guy’s head and it landed in the back seat. It sounds really gory but actually it wasn’t. It just sat there looking all pink and convoluted and really quite neat.

I swear I am not making it up!

Have you ever put something outrageous in your book that actually happened, only to have readers think it was hysterical/offensive/ridiculous and completely invented?

trailofblood_16 Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue, working as a forensic scientist in the trace evidence lab until her husband dragged her to southwest Florida. Now she toils as a certified latent print analyst and CSI at the local police department by day and writes forensic suspense by night. Her fifth book, TRAIL OF BLOOD, involves the real-life Torso Killer, who terrorized Cleveland during the dark days of the Great Depression. For more information visit her website:

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Conveying fear on the page

I spent a lot of time last weekend thinking about fear. It started with the 9/11 memorials. Being the morbid creature that I am, I watched the replay of the real-time events of that traumatic day--not once, but twice. I was amazed at how composed the newscasters remained as the world seemed to be collapsing all around us.

Fear was very much on my mind on Saturday night when my sister and I happened to visit a Russian attack submarine, the Scorpion, which is docked next to the Queen Mary in the port of Long Beach. It was amazing to see this relic of the Cold War transformed into a tourist attraction. It has been preserved exactly as it was for the Russian sailors (except, I assume, for the on-board nukes). You can see the torpedo tubes and attack periscope, the cramped quarters, piping, and weaponry, everything that made it yesteryear's "terror of the deep."  The sub spawned a lively discussion about which era was scarier--the Cold War, or today's climate of fear surrounding terrorism. I argued that the Cold War was scarier, mainly because we were facing the possibility of the extinction of the human species with the pushing of a few buttons from vehicles like the Scorpion.

Fear can be found everywhere. Recently I heard about a crime wave in Mobile, Alabama, where I have lots of kin. Robbers follow people home from an ATM, rob them and shoot them in the head. I think those particular criminals have been caught, but nevertheless, some people in my family have gotten very proactive in handling their fear. One of my aunts, a very feminine, genteel southern lady, now has a license to carry. She totes her gun in a designer purse (it has a cunning little pocket designed just for that purpose). Auntie takes lessons at the local shooting range, and woe to the punk who breaks into her house and threatens her or her nine cats.

As writers, it doesn't matter what type of fear we are trying to convey--we have to "bring it home" to the reader by making it seem real and visceral. In my current WIP I'm struggling to convey a fear that human society as a whole is going to be changed unless our hero--or the villain, depending on how you see him--succeeds in his mission.

In your current WIP, what type of fear are you writing about? World disaster? Danger to a loved one? Female in jeopardy? What types of techniques do you use to make it real for the reader?