Thursday, January 31, 2013

Don't Read Your Reviews

by Michelle Gagnon

As part of Thrillerfest one year, they gave a special award (if a piece of fossilized poop can be considered an award) to our very own John Gilstrap (even though he's no longer officially part of this blog, he'll always be the Friday guy to me). The award was for the Worst Amazon Review, and he won for this little nugget (no pun intended): "The glue boogers in the binding were more captivating than Gilstrap's torpid prose."

I know this is going to sound counter-intuitive, and for many authors, nearly impossible, but here's my advice: don't read your reviews, ever. Turn off that Google alert. Skip the Amazon reviews section. Ignore your GoodReads ratings. And if you must know what a blogger or traditional media reviewer is saying about your book, enlist someone you trust to skim the contents and give you the highlights.

This applies not only to negative reviews, but positive ones. Because here's the thing. As we all know, a reader's opinion of a book is enormously subjective. The way they approach a story can vary at different points in their lives, or even their day. They read things into it that you might never have intended--and they're all going to have vastly different opinions about what worked and what didn't. I'm always startled when I get feedback from beta readers--everyone always manages to come up with different favorite sections, and least favorites. So when taking their advice, I usually try to find the commonalities, the issues everyone zeroed in on. In the end, much of what they say is taken with a serious grain of salt.

The same applies to reviewers, naturally. Maybe Marilyn Stasio ate a bad oyster before reading your book, and the nausea she felt skewed her experience. Maybe the Kirkus reviewer was going through a divorce, so the way that you depicted a couple falling apart resonated too strongly with him (or not strongly enough). I know that for my last book, several reviewers felt the plot was tremendous, but the character development was weak. Others loved the characters, but the story left them cold. When writing a review, even when you loved the book, there's an irresistible inclination to find something to pick at. That's what many of us were taught to do in school; otherwise it doesn't feel like we've done the review justice.

As writers, we already have enough voices in our heads. Resist the temptation to let new ones in. This is particularly critical if you're writing a series; if one reader hated your protagonist, do you really want that small seed of doubt planted in your head? Do you want to be swayed by Merlin57 if he declares that you should be the next winner of the fossilized poop award? 

Even when a review is entirely positive, there are drawbacks. Say a particular reader took a shine to a relatively minor character, and hopes to see more of her in the next installment. Should that be factored into your writing process? I say no, not if that wasn't part of your initial vision for the narrative.

It's a challenge not to dive into the fray--especially since, with all the blogs out there, there are potentially dozens of opinions on your prose just waiting to be perused. But avoid the temptation; don't dive into the rabbit hole. If your book is amassing lots of great reviews and accolades, you'll hear about it from your editor, agent, and friends. But knowing precisely what's being said can be detrimental.

*side note: I'd also advise against doing a Google Search for fossilized poop. Trust me on this one.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Readers at Sea

I just came from the Florida Romance Writers cruise conference aboard the Liberty of the Seas. For a full report and photos, check my personal blog later in the week: http://nancyjcohen.wordpress.com

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What I want to talk about here are the readers onboard. In this era of electronic games, apps, and programs, it’s heartening to see people lying on lounge chairs and reading books. Some perused print editions and others had iPads or Kindles or other devices. No matter the method of delivery—what counts was the proliferation of readers out there.

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When people do have leisure time, many folks still choose to pick up a book. That makes me, a writer, feel good about the world. Despite the doomsday predictions and the bookstore closings, people are still interested in storytelling. The method of delivery may be evolving, but the love of fiction remains.

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This observation was reinforced during a booksigning event we had on board. It was held with ten authors in a dining room and was advertised in the daily newsletter. As a result of the notice, readers flocked into our venue and left with stacks of books. I’d only brought 12 copies of Killer Knots, my cruise ship mystery, and I sold out. Imagine! I did better here than at most other conferences. And had I brought along a few of my romances, I bet I’d have sold those too.

NanRoz


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Charlaine

The picture above shows our charming keynote speaker, Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels that are the basis for the True Blood TV series.

I’m hoping that this enthusiastic passenger response will prompt RCCL to welcome such an event again. Their gift shop personnel sold the books and the cruise line took a percentage, so it’s to their benefit to repeat the experience. The readers are out there, it’s just a matter of connecting with them.

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When you’re on vacation, do you check out the pool area to see what people are reading? Have you ever seen someone reading YOUR book?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Writing funny




Okay, I give up. I can't do it. I can't write funny. Those of you who can do it, I can hear you out there going: BWAAAAA-HAAAAAH! Because you know how hard it is. Sometimes you don't get as much respect because you write humor or lighter stuff. Book critics and award judges have a pie-chart they use to decide what to pay attention to and it divides up roughly like this:

Hardboiled depressing stuff 25%
Burned-out ethnically diverse PIs 20%
Cute guy writers from UK 15%
Cozies 15%
Small press neo-noir with cleavage on cover 10%
Chick lit crime 10%
Humorous crime 5%

Now consider that Carl Hiaasen alone takes up about 8% of humor and you can see that those who write funny stuff get the crumbs. That's because any idiot can tell a joke. But very few can tell one for 250 pages.

A couple years ago, Kelly and I were between Louis books and we were sitting in a cafe on Fort Lauderdale beach. We were watching the flesh parade, sipping our wine, and trying to figure out what the next book was going to be about. Nothing was coming. I looked out over the ocean and saw one of those cruises-to-nowhere heading out of Port Everglades. These are mini-ships that go out to sea just far enough to get legal, they hand you an umbrella drink, then they break out the blackjack tables. You get drunk, lose a lot of money and then they turn the boat around and you come home. Tourists love this.

You can guess where I am going with this. My sister worked in the gaming industry all her professional life. We were on our third glass of wine. And suddenly, we were going to write a mystery series set in the gambling world. And it was going to be FUNNY!

(Hint. no. 1: Don't drink while plotting.)

The next morning, I woke up with a hangover and the book still in my head. Worse, the main character had started talking to me. When that happens, as you know, you tend to listen. Especially if they are loud. 

(Hint no. 2: Don't listen to every voice in your head. Sometimes you're just picking up random stuff, like that gospel station from Watonga, Oklahoma that comes in clear as a bell when you drive west on I-40.)

The problem was, this woman was very insistent. She was fresh, she was funny. She was going to make me rich. 

I sat down at the computer and started typing. Soon Kelly was contributing to what we came to call "The Vegas Book." Four months later, we had a 95,000-word novel! All excited, we sent it our agent. She was sort of cool but promised to send it to our publisher. They turned it down. So did ten other publishers. 

What the hell was the matter with these editors? We had won awards! We had made the Times extended list! Didn't they get it? This was great stuff. This was FUNNY!

(Hint no. 3: Just because you once played air guitar to "I Feel Fine" doesn't mean you can step in for The Edge.)

The Vegas Book went into cold storage. We went back to writing our gritty Louis books. Then about a year ago while I was cleaning the office, I found the Vegas Book on an old external drive. Yeah, I opened it. You know what they say about letting your manuscript "bake" a while before you go back in and read it cold, how this will help you rewrite with a clear eye? The Vegas Book had turned into Limburger.


(Hint no. 4: Don't serve Limburger at your Super Bowl party this weekend. It is fermented with brevibacterium linens, which is the same bacteria that makes our feet stink.)

It was as clear as, well, that gospel station. The Vegas Book wasn't funny. Technically, it was a hot mess because in my effort to show I could do what I thought was easy, I had lost all control of the very things that had made our other books successful. Worse, it just didn't feel true. The Vegas Book was as fake as Vegas.

I still want to try this again some day. I have this new idea and darn it, the characters -- there are four women this time, God help me -- are really hilarious. But I am thinking that maybe writing humor is like a foreign language. Maybe I can hear it okay but I just can't translate it. 

Sigh. I am not an unfunny person. I can even tell a joke. (Well, only one and it's so filthy few have heard it). So why can't I write funny? You funny types out there....tell me the secret. No joke.

Monday, January 28, 2013

But I Want Success Now!



When I was a writer aspiring to be published, I went to a book signing here in Seattle where number one bestselling author Lee Child was making an appearance. As I stepped up to get his autograph, I mentioned that I had finished three books and was struggling to find a publisher. He told me, “Remember, it only takes ten years to become an overnight success.”

At the time I thought he was just being kind to a newbie, giving me encouragement that I would someday reach my goal. It wasn’t until a few years later when I was a published author and knew Lee a little better that I ran into him at Bouchercon and reminded him of what he’d said. I told him that I understood he hadn’t been pandering to me, and Lee nodded in agreement. Although he won awards early in his career, it took him eight books before he made an appearance on the NY Times list, and several more years before he became LEE CHILD, brand name author.

I think the Internet has only accelerated our skewed expectation that you should become a huge success as soon as you type “The End” on your first manuscript. Writers focus on promoting their first novel to a fault. I see that mistake frequently when I go to writers’ conferences and spot an author pitching agents the same book they’ve brought three years in a row. I see it with authors flogging their one and only book on social media over and over in the hope that it will take off.

Our excessive exposure to the one-in-a-million shots only exacerbates the problem. We see someone like E.L. James, Kathryn Stockett, or Stephenie Meyer reach a massive audience with their first novels and think that will happen for us. It does happen, about once a year out of the over 200,000 books published, but we don’t often read about the back stories behind other authors who toiled in relative obscurity for years before hitting the big time.

Everyone knows mega-selling author Dean Koontz. He’s been producing work for so long that it’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t on the bestseller lists, but many don’t realize the dues he paid to get there. Before he published Whispers, his big breakout hit, he wrote thirty-eight novels in twelve years. During that time he was making a living, but he wasn’t a household name like he is now.

The ranks of the current bestseller lists are filled with similar stories. It took twelve years and eight novels for Steve Berry just to find a publisher. Dan Brown published his first three books to little fanfare, and then The DaVinci Code turned them into bestsellers.

Tess Gerritsen wrote nine novels over nine years before she released her first NY Times bestseller, Harvest. Lisa Gardner wrote twelve books over seven years before reaching the next level with The Perfect Husband. Janet Evanovich wrote at least twelve novels before hitting it big with Stephanie Plum in One for the Money. In the self-publishing realm, romance author Bella Andre wrote two series over seven years without much notice and then began self-publishing, after which she became a regular on the bestseller list.

These stories of determination and persistence are the rule, not the exception. While it’s possible to land on that one killer premise from the get-go, building an audience, working on the craft, and developing your voice seems to be the steadier path to ultimate writing success.

I often think of a story from Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. They write about a ceramics teacher who, on the first day of class, divided the students into two sections: one half would be graded on the perfection of a single pot, while the other half would be graded on the weight of their output—an A for fifty pounds, B for forty pounds, and so on. At the end of the semester, the results for the quality vs. quantity test were remarkable. The students being graded on poundage had thrown pots that were of significantly superior quality than the ones by the students who had studied and ached about how to create that one perfect pot. Practice ultimately made the “quantity” students produce better quality as well.

I believe being an author is the same. Thinking about writing doesn’t make you better, writing does. And if you have a large body of work, it’s much more likely a publisher or readers will discover your writing.

So don’t perseverate on perfecting that one novel. If you want to make writing a career, your publisher and readers are going to want many more books. Sit down at your computer and throw those pots. When you’re a success and looking in the rear-view mirror ten years from now, you’ll wonder how it went by so quickly.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

When Writers Get Dumped

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


In December I got to spend a few weeks in paradise.

My lovely wife got the idea some time ago of renting a beach house for a month. I could use it for writing and recharging, she’d use it for de-stressing and reading, and we could have our kids come visit for eating and game playing.

The house was forty-five minutes from our home in LA, which is just about right. I had a couple of meetings in town to dash to, but I could dash right back up to the beach. The weather was incredible. I love New York in June, but December in Southern California is amazing. Sunshine and seventies this year.

In the mornings I’d wake up, make the coffee, get to the keyboard. I like to start the day when it’s dark. Then the sun would come up and I’d walk down to the beach and look at the sea. I grew up with it--summers at the beach, body surfing, playing Frisbee and football on the sand. The Pacific Ocean has a rejuvenating effect that’s hard to describe. 

One afternoon I was sitting on a beach chair gazing at the suds. The waves were high, and a few surfers were out.

In front of me was a guy in a kayak. He was having the time of his life riding the waves. He’d paddle out, catch a swell, manipulate his position with the double-blade paddle and then ride the curling break to the wet sand of the shore.

One time he caught a big one, and let out a whoop of absolute elation. It sounded a little like Slim Pickens riding the hydrogen bomb in Dr. Strangelove. My kayaking friend was in a moment of pure joy made up of water, speed and emotion.

But two seconds later the wave turned him over like a mad baker slapping bread dough on a board. The churning waters took the kayak all the way to shore, dumping it upside down on the sand. The kayaker slogged his way back to the boat, turned it over, grabbed the nose rope and pulled it back out to the water. He jumped in and started paddling out to do the whole thing over again.

And I thought, this is the writing life, isn’t it?

I mean, you know what it’s like when you catch a wave in your story, when you get a scene idea that jazzes your fibers, or when a character starts surprising you in absolutely pleasing ways. When that emotional moment comes alive inside you. When that dialogue hums. When a twist pops into your head, or that perfect chapter ending sneaks up from your subconscious basement and plugs right into your text.

You whoop inside your writer’s soul, don’t you? You are that kayaker. You are riding a wave.

But then, somewhere along the way, you get dumped.

Could be a rejection. Or a negative review.

Maybe it’s the tyranny of unmet expectations. Or some know-it-all in your critique group telling you there’s backstory on page two, so you’re a hack.

For some writers it might be a royalty statement with no royalties. Or a traditional publishing house that decides to cut you loose.

Sometimes it’s a family member or friend who looks at you with a pitying half smile that calls you a fool. 

Maybe it’s just a day when the words don’t come, when the kayak is stuck in a kelp bed and you’re just slapping the water with the paddle.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Not if you’re willing to grab the nose rope again and charge right back into the blue. Because you know that nothing, nothing, matches the feeling of catching a wave—or a wave catching you.

If you want to write, and make something resembling a career out of it, you’re going to get wet.  You’re going to get dumped. Lots. You’re going to get sand in your swim suit. You’re going to swallow salt water from time to time.

But you are going to ride. For a true writer, that joy is unmatched. It’s what keeps you coming back to the page. Even with all the churning and overturning, all the wet and upside-downness, let me ask you this: would you have it any other way? Would you sacrifice the elation of creating worlds and people and dreams? Would you give up the ecstasy of art for the sodden sameness of imitation, just because the latter isn’t so painful?

Are you content to put on water wings and float in the shallow end?

Or do you keep heading out into the surf, no matter how many people scream at you to come back in and stop acting so foolish?

How is it with you? 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Censorship Sucks

by Mark Alpert

Like many writers, I’m avidly following the turmoil at Southern Weekend and the Beijing News, the Chinese newspapers where reporters are challenging the censorship of Communist Party propaganda officials. It’s an irresistible story because the heroes are journalists -- hooray! -- and they’re fighting a repressive political system that may finally be on the brink of major change. I have a special interest in the story because my upcoming novel, Extinction, is set mostly in China, and the book’s plot involves the repression of political dissent there. (And I just learned that a Chinese translation of the book will be published, albeit in Taiwan, not mainland China.) But the controversy also reminds me of a humiliating incident that took place thirty years ago when I was starting my journalism career. I discovered firsthand that censorship occurs in America too.
 
It was the summer of 1983. I was in graduate school at Columbia University, studying creative writing, but I knew I couldn’t stay in school forever and I’d have to find a job soon. So I got an unpaid internship at the Scranton Times in Pennsylvania (the newspaper is now called the Scranton Times-Tribune). I was a journalism neophyte -- I hadn’t even written for my high-school paper -- but now I had a golden opportunity to learn the trade. For my first assignment I called a bunch of local travel agencies to find out where Scrantonians spend their vacations (actual headline: “Cancun, Disney World Are Favorite Vacation Destinations”). Most of the stories I wrote that summer were fluffy feature articles that could be safely assigned to an inexperienced reporter (another headline: “Elderly Have Happy Time At West Side Senior Center”). But as every journalist knows, real news sometimes pops up unexpectedly.
 
On July 25th the newspaper sent me to a meeting of the Scranton Plan, a group of community leaders who were encouraging businesses to set up shop in the Scranton area. In truth, it was a pretty dull assignment, which perhaps explained why no one but the summer intern was willing to go. The Scranton Times was intimately connected to the Scranton Plan; the newspaper’s co-publisher at the time, George V. Lynett, Sr. -- whose family owned the Scranton Times and continues to run it to this day -- also served as a co-chairman of the community group. Lynett opened the meeting with a review of the group’s strategies and a summary of the business advantages of Lackawanna County (cheap power, large labor pool, etc.) In the middle of this phenomenally boring discussion, someone else at the meeting -- sorry, I don’t remember who, and I lost my notes a long time ago -- wondered aloud if the group was neglecting to mention one of the prime advantages of the area. He said they might want to consider publicizing the fact that Scranton had a much smaller minority population than New York and other big cities.
 
Suddenly, I was all ears. I expected Lynett to scold the local bigot. I thought the publisher would firmly rebut the troglodytic view that large minority populations were somehow “bad for business.” But instead, to my astonishment, Lynett said the Scranton Plan didn’t need to publicize the area’s dearth of minorities because the fact was already implied in the group’s promotional pamphlets, which had pictures of only white people.
 
Even though I was a neophyte, I recognized that this was news. How could a newspaper publisher in the 1980s say such a thing? What’s more, Lynett knew I was there to cover the meeting. Did he expect me to simply ignore what he said?
 
When I returned to the newsroom to write the story, I included the controversial comments. The copy editor passed the text to the managing editor, who dutifully passed it on to Lynett, and soon afterward I was called to the publisher’s office. To his credit, Lynett was polite and apologetic. He told me that if we were in a journalism class, most of the students would agree that he should run my story as I wrote it. But this was the real world, he said, not a class. He said the story would make Scranton look bad and possibly hurt the local economy, which had been struggling for decades. He deleted all the comments about minorities from the article, turning it into a dry, boosterish account that wouldn’t embarrass the newspaper or its publisher. (The censored story is pictured above.) I was disappointed and dismayed, but there was nothing I could do.
 
I’d just seen the truth of journalist A.J. Liebling’s famous maxim: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” And I would see it again: four years later, when I was a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama, the newspaper’s publisher tried to water down a series of stories in which I described the unyielding racial segregation in that city. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare this kind of interference with the strict press controls that the Chinese government imposes. But any kind of censorship is insidious. If writers truly want to be heroes, we have to be constantly on guard against it.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Reader Friday: It's Never Too Late

"It's never too late to be who you might have been." - George Eliot (1819 - 1880).

True for you?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

10 Life Lessons I Learned from my Dog(s)


Jordan Dane
@JordanDane


Dogs know stuff. Sometimes I believe they carry souls who are on a higher level of existence than we are because they have the secret to being happy. Here are 10 things I have learned from my dog(s).


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Sancho - walking trouble




1.) Wake up every morning as if each day is an adventure – I am reminded of this every morning times TWO. My dogs love their rituals and seeing me is top of their list, it would seem. At least they make me feel special. And isn’t that important for everyone?

2.) Carrying grudges is for cats – Dogs might get scolded for something, but two seconds later they are back with enthusiasm. A short term memory and a brain the size of a walnut helps, but I believe dogs know that carrying around negative thoughts weighs down your heart and life is too short for that.

3.) All you need is the fur on your back – Dogs can pick up and go without taking a toothbrush. Yeah, they may have their toys, but they are perfectly able to share them with others. They are self-sufficient and know what’s truly important. Material possessions take a backseat to the people they love.

4.) Be loyal and love unconditionally – If you ever have a bad day, go play with your dog. They always know when you need a little love, because they dispense it all the time and in every way. They never hold back their affection. Even if you feel you might not deserve it, they will always love you with sloppy wet kisses.

5.) Make friends – My dogs are ALWAYS ready to make new friends. They see a dog walking down the street and they are pulling at their leash to say HELLO. For this to apply to humans, I would dispense with the butt sniff, but that’s just me. Maybe your neighborhood is different.

6.) Having a little discipline gets you stuff – Dogs may not feel the need for discipline, but they know it gets them stuff. Think of your daily word count as something worthy of a treat. The sooner you get it done, the quicker you’ll get that sweet morsel of accomplishment and know that you’ve earned it.

7.) When loved ones come home, greet them with a grin and a butt wag – Dogs don’t take ANYONE for granted. Anyone walking through their door is someone to play with and love. There is nothing wrong with that.

8.) Let people touch you – Who doesn’t need a good head pat or butt scratch? Enough said.

9.) Run, romp, and play daily – My dogs NEVER have a bad day. Ever. When was the last time you truly had a BANG ON splendid day from start to finish? Well multiply that by 24/7/365 and you’ve really got something.

10.) If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it – Dogs have single-minded persistence when it comes to the things they truly want. They focus and they dig until they score. They trust their instincts to know it’s there and a little hard work is nothing when it comes to something that makes you happy.

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Taco - my sweet girl
 





There are many more things I could write. I have two rescue dogs and they both teach me different things, but I’d like to hear from you. What has your dog taught you?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Death Wish motivation

By Joe Moore

How often do you watch a movie with the sound turned off? Not too often, I’ll bet. Not only would you be missing a key sensory ingredient of the story, but you would have to guess at what is motivating the characters actions. Without the sound or dialogue, motivation is vague, ambiguous, and downright impossible to determine. And without motivation, there’s little or no story to enjoy.

Motivation directs a character’s actions and reactions. When someone reads a book, they rarely go digging for motivation, but they know when it’s missing, or worse, when it’s present but farfetched or forced. For instance, motivation becomes unbelievable when it’s cliché such as the old, worn out white hat-black hat characterization. The bad guy must be bad because his appearance is that of a stereotypical villain.

Another stumbling point is when the protagonist’s actions go beyond the realm of reality to the point of stopping the reader cold. The motivation didn’t provide the justification on why a character acts in a certain manner. This is critical when a character, especially the hero, deliberately risks his own life. If the motivation hasn’t been sold to the readers in a convincing manner prior to the protagonist taking a dangerous risk, they won't buy into the scene and will consider it manufactured. That’s where they stop reading and put the book down.

A character’s motivation can be an obvious goal that must be achieved in order for survival or it can be a series of ever-building events that propel her forward into an inevitable conflict. It’s the writer’s job to develop motivation to a point that the reader won’t question the character’s actions, especially by the time they reach the climax of the book.

First, let’s talk about external motivation: incidental versus major.

Incidental motivators are the events that occur in and around the character at the scene or setting level of the story. He’s late for work. She’s annoyed by the neighbor’s barking dog. He spills his coffee on his business report. She has an argument with her mother. He gets cut off in traffic. She loses her earring. In and of themselves, these incidental events don’t motivate the hero to run into a burning building to save a stranger or the heroine to spend years tracking down the murderer of her child. But they all add up—or at least they should. They are the bricks and cement of character-building that must augment and support the grand motivation that kicks off the story—the major motivation.

Major motivation is the biggie. A great example is the Death Wish scenario—the classic 1974 Charles Bronson movie. An ordinary guy becomes a one-man vigilante deathwishsquad after he witnesses his wife murdered by hoodlums. The major motivation—the brutal crime and ensuing obsession for vengeance—shapes and forces the character into taking action outside his comfort zone. And because he’s such a “Mr. Everyman”, the reader will probably consider what he or she would do in the same situation. The protagonist gets sympathy and support from the reader even though he’s committing acts of violence just as extreme as the original major motivation.

Another factor in believable character motivation is matching the actions of the protagonist with his personality—an internal motivation. A 95-pound, soft-spoken computer geek shouldn’t try to physically take on the 330-pound former linebacker henchman in a fist fight. But he can use his fine-tuned intellect and problem solving abilities to bring down the bad guy in the arena of the brain, not brawn. The actions of the character fueled by motivation must be consistent with his personality. This is not to say that an ordinary guy can’t take on an extraordinary situation and win, only that it must be consistent with his makeup and therefore believable in the mind of the reader.

There’s also the internal issue of motivational growth. The protagonist should grow or change in some manner over the course of the story. And this growth must be the result of internal forces in opposition. For example, greed and generosity, anger and patience, or caution and boldness. The protagonist is a highly cautious individual and shows it while reacting to a number of incidental events. But when the major event comes along—perhaps a direct threat to his family’s safety—he steps forward to become a bold defender of what he treasures most.

When dealing with motivation, we can’t forget that the antagonist needs his share, too. It’s a given that conflict and tension are what keeps a reader turning pages. So not only does the protagonist need the appropriate amount of convincing motivation to be propelled through the story, but the antagonist must meet the challenge with an equal amount of motivation to push back. It’s not good enough to say that the bad guy is insane or wants to rule the world. There has to be motivation that is undeniable in the mind of the reader.

Finally, to create strong, believable motivation for your characters, remember to always ask yourself, How would I react in a similar situation?

===============
THE BLADE, coming in February from Sholes & Moore
"An epic thriller." – Douglas Preston
"An absolute thrill ride." – Lisa Gardner
”Full-throttle thriller writing.” – David Morrell
"Another razor-sharp thriller from one of my favorite writing teams." – Brad Thor
"History and suspense entangle from page one." – Steve Berry

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Dreaming up a great story, in toto


I'm one of those people who dreams constantly at night. I must sleep in a constant REM stage, the optimal state for dreaming, because the moment I close my eyes, I plunge into an exciting nocturnal realm. My dreams are complex and richly textured, full of subplots and action. They seem compelling and  cohesive in real time. But the moment I wake up, they make no sense.

A couple of nights ago, however, I had a rare treat: my dream delivered an entire story. It was a family drama set in the context of Sci-Fi suspense, incorporating elements of artificial intelligence, corporate espionage, and time travel. The dream-story built to a boffo climax, like a great onscreen thriller. Best of all, it still made sense when I woke up! It was such a great story that I didn't trust the experience. I actually checked the TV schedule to make sure an episode of The Twilight Zone hadn't been playing while I was asleep. (Normally if the TV is on when I doze off--usually it's tuned to the Military History Channel--whatever is playing will work itself into a dream. Which probably explains why I have so many nightmares about being pursued by Nazis in tanks).

I don't know if I'll do anything with my dream-story; Sci-Fi is a little outside my comfort zone.  But it made me think--wouldn't it be great if our "boys in the back room" delivered more stories this way? Instead of having to coax plot lines and characters from our brain's ether, we could have them delivered to us as dreams at night, like pizza.

Have you ever written a story that came to you in a dream? Or do you find your dreams to be useful in some other creative way?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Website Essentials

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Having done final, final, final edits for my agent on my latest novel (all smiles here on that front - and no small measure of relief!),  I am focusing on a much needed update to my author website (very much overdue I fear!) but, horror of horrors,  I've realized that the book world has altered so much since I set up my website, I am now at sea as to what changes I really should be making.  Sure, I have all the obvious tabs: Author bio, appearances, book news, links to blogs, excerpts/readings and 'what's new', but what I really need is to focus on what additional elements that truly add value to my readers (and yes, I also know I need to update my news/appearances too...)

As a reader I know I enjoy websites that are beautifully designed, visually appealing, easy to read (no weird fonts or jarring colors) and which offer lots of value added information that keep me coming back. That being said, it's often hard to translate that into what is needed for your own website (and also, it's a slippery slope, I don't want to spend all my time writing website content rather than novels!).

So as I so often do, I am turning to you, the Kill Zone experts to find out what you think works/doesn't work on author websites. 

Here are some of the ideas/questions I am currently mulling over:

1. As I am venturing into YA territory should I have a separate tab for this on my current website or should I have an entirely different website designed - given that these are two separate genres?

2. How much 'value added' content is worthwhile including on a website. Given that I write historical fiction (for both my mysteries and YA books) does giving  information on the period provide a useful value add or would links to other websites and resources be sufficient. It's always hard to know just exactly how much information/effort an authors should give to what is essentially background information.

3. Are giveaways and competitions really worthwhile?

4. What about books trailers or videos?

5. Do you (as a reader) appreciate any other value added elements/information on an author website?

And finally, have you got an examples of what you think are truly first-class author websites or ones which just don't meet the mark?

  


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Is Traditional Publishing the Raging Bull of Industry?




Jake LaMotta, the middleweight boxer who was the subject of the Martin Scorcese/Robert De Niro film, was known as the Raging Bull. He’d never stop coming at you, and he simply would not go down.

No matter what punishment was rained upon him (most savagely by Sugar Ray Robinson), Jake LaMotta refused to be knocked out.

Sort of like the traditional publishing industry.

I mean, look at the beating trad publishing has taken in the last few years:

BAM! The Kindle.

BOOM! Amazon offers authors 70%.

WHAM! Barry Eisler turns down half-a-mil from St. Martins.

SMACK! Department of Justice.

OOMPH! Borders goes under.

BOP! Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar stores on the ropes.

Traditional publishing is reeling! Cut! Blood is on the canvas! The referee steps in to see if he should stop the fight. "How many fingers am I holding up?"

"You're holding up big six fingers. No, five..."

The referee lets the fight continue. We’re in Round 6 of a scheduled 12 rounder. Will traditional publishing avoid the knockout?

That was the question on everyone’s mind at the Digital Book World Conference in NYC last week. Reports are that the publishing executives who attended were remarkably “upbeat” about the future, even as it remains an uncertain and challenging one.

According to a commissioned survey of 53 publishing executives, 85% of respondents were “optimistic” about the digital transition and 64% say publishers are “capable of competing” in the new digital marketplace. A 55% slice were confident that their own companies can compete. However, both of the latter two figures are down 10% from the same survey last year (source: Publishers Weekly). From the same PW story covering DBW, key executives “offered perspectives that ranged from an enthusiastic embrace of the new technology . . .to being a little bewildered over selling direct.”

Direct! That is one of the key areas where publishers must learn to compete. But according to Marcus Leaver of Quarto Group Publishing, “We sell directly to consumers, but I’m not sure we’re good at it or ever will be good at it.”

Former Macmillan president Brian Napack, now a senior advisor at Providence Equity Partners, was interviewed at DBW about trad publishing’s future. While admitting that the former “big six” may well end up as the “big three,” he believes “the power of innovation often flourishes in markets during periods of consolidation and new companies.”

That last prognosis is the one we’re all waiting to see show up. Traditional publishing is unsteady on its feet right now. It’s wiping blood from its eyes. But it’s not down for a ten count. 

What will it have to do to survive and, perhaps, thrive again? At the top of the list has to be substantive responses to the needs and concerns of their sole asset: writers.

Reports are mixed on whether, as a whole, trad publishing is getting that message. A survey of 5,000 authors -- aspiring, traditionally published, self-published and “hybrids” (those who are both traditionally published and putting out a self-publishing line) – reveals the following:

One-third of traditionally published authors are interested in self-publishing their next book. Writes DBW online: “This trend should be worrisome for traditional publishers, which are struggling to demonstrate to the marketplace that they add value to the publishing process in an era where anyone can publish a book.”

That’s the key: Add value. Where does that come from? It used to be via distribution to physical bookstores. But as shelf space dries up, how will that advantage compare to the digital platforms that writers are perfectly able to exploit on their own?

The survey did reveal a spot of good news for Jake LaMotta: Not yet published authors hold a high opinion of traditional publishing, showing the “prestige factor” still remains. Publishers can build on this. But it will require some significant changes in practice, as indicated by the responses of those who have been published traditionally:

While outsiders who probably have among them the next generation of best-selling authors believe that publishers can help them and have fairly high opinions of publishers, those who have experienced both publishers and the alternative have a very low opinion of publishers, by comparison.

Perhaps it is because those authors who have both self- and traditionally published are unreasonably bitter as a group by some slight they experienced at the hand of a publisher. Or perhaps they have made a reasoned comparison of what the publishing industry offered them and what self-publishing offered them and were more satisfied with the latter. Either way, it would suggest that traditional publishers could do more to woo and impress published authors.

The good news for publishers is that aspiring writers still believe in their ability to help them. It’s not too late for publishers to improve their services to authors to attract and retain the next generation of best-selling authors.

So will this Raging Bull of industry still be around in twenty years? I think so. I’d like it to be. I’m a hybrid, and traditional publishing’s been good to me. But it will have to fight smarter, not just harder. (One comment made by an editor at DBW shocked the binding out of me. He said at his company “there are 42 people who have to touch a book to get it published." Unless he was kidding, or answering the ultimate question of Life, the Universe and Everything, that is not a recipe for fast feet and effective counter punching.)

So consider me sitting at ringside, shouting, “Cover up! Watch his left! Work the body! The body!”

What are you shouting to the traditional publishing industry?

Jake LaMotta, by the way, is 89 years old. And he’s still on his feet.



Saturday, January 19, 2013

Why the Well Never Runs Dry


Happy 2013 to you! I have no idea where the time goes, but it is hard to believe that Christmas was just a bit over three weeks ago. I know where the time went: I was gifted with a time bandit popularly known as a “Kindle Fire,” and I have been carrying it everywhere with me. You can read with it, write with it (with a bit of smacking called “sideloading,” which we won’t get into here, at least not today), and also derive inspiration from it, should you lack an idea to use as a springboard for a novel or story. The Kindle Fire enables you to surf the web, as so many objects do, and if you can surf the web, you can visit news websites, and if you can visit news websites, you can find ideas for stories, novels, and even a series…whatever you want your next project to be.

I start each day by reading the web versions of my local paper, my (former) hometown paper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and The Drudge Report. There is always something that can serve as a springboard for a tale. This past week in New Orleans two women were arrested in a downtown hotel and charged with prostitution. One of them had a baby with her. A prostitution arrest in New Orleans is not unusual; the presence of a baby…that’s something else. The infant, as innocent as an innocent can be, was placed with Child Services.  I wondered: what is going to happen to this child? Will he placed in foster care and live happily ever after? Or will he be returned to mom who then bounces him from town to town along the Gulf Coast, viewing life through the windows of a series of seedy hotel rooms? Or worse? There are a several potential possibilities here, all of them interesting, though few of them are pleasant. I subsequently encountered another gem. Submitted for your perusal: a 911 operator in Illinois receives a call from a church rectory. The caller identifies himself as a priest and requests assistance. He is handcuffed and needs to be freed. He is hard to understand, due to the fact that his voice is muffled by the mask he is wearing. This occurrence was reported by several newspapers, whose reporters had a jolly good time writing witty headlines for the story. But…but…while I had my own chuckle over the report (I am unfortunately unable in many circumstances to resist a wallow or two in the lake of schadenfreude, even when the poor devil involved could have been me!) I couldn’t help but wonder: what seemingly innocent path in life, no doubt encountered years, even decades, previously, led the padre to his unfortunate public humiliation of that particular night? You could obtain twenty different guesses from twenty different people and there is an excellent possibility that none of them would be the same, or, for that matter, correct. 

So you think you’re out of story ideas? You’re not. Read the news and try to pick only one story that you could transform into a bestselling work of fiction or award winning tale. If your local paper doesn’t report anything interesting, take a look at The Drudge Report, which isn’t a “report” but rather a page with three dozen or so links to news articles and stories of many varied stripes appearing in periodicals all across the political spectrum. I just checked the page, and found a link to a CBS-NY article about a possible New York mayoral candidate named Joe Lhota. I ask long time Kill Zone contributors and readers: does this perhaps remind you of someone we know? Anyone for a parallel universe story?


Now, if you would please: check your local newspaper this morning, online or otherwise, find an incident that you think would provide the beginning of a great story, and share. What’s happening in your part of the world?