Showing posts with label Michael Connelly. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Michael Connelly. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Art of Writing Back Copy:
Boiling Your Book to its Essence


By PJ Parrish

Congratulations! You finished your novel! You typed those two sweet words THE END. Right there on the bottom of  your Word doc is that magic line: Words: 96,788.

Okay, now the hard work begins. Now go back and write your book again – this time in 200 words.

Yes, I’m talking about back copy. I know. You don’t want to deal with it. It’s one of those tangential things like publicity, P&L statements, website algorhithms, or finding a good editor, that writers don’t want to think about but know they have to because that’s the way the book business is rolling these days. Writers have become one-man bands. We do it all or we die.

I can hear some of you out there saying, “I can skip this one today.” But you can’t really. Because being able to articulate what your book is about in 200 words or less is really valuable. Why? Here's five reasons:

  1. If you are self-publishing with Amazon, you have to write your own back copy.
  2. If you are querying agents, you have to have compose a great hook for your book
  3. If you are going to a conference and meeting an agent, you have to be able to give a 30-second elevator pitch.
  4. If you’re doing a speech or a signing, you need to articulate what your book's about in two or three sentences.
  5. And maybe most important: Being able to boil your story down to its very essence is a great exercise unto itself, one that will help you understand what, in your heart, you are really trying to communicate. 

Both of my traditional publishers, Kensington and Pocket, let us edit our back copy and a couple times we even wrote it. And we write all the descriptions that appear with our self-published backlist titles on Amazon.  I've written my share of query letters. I had an unnerving 10-minute pitch session with an editor from Harpers at a writer’s conference. And I've sat at card tables in malls trying to talk people into buying my books when all they really want is directions to the Piercing Pagoda.

I’m actually not bad at boiling down a story. I think it is because I made my living for years as a newspaper copy editor and once you get the hang of writing headlines that can be grasped by a guy driving by a newspaper box at 40 miles an hour, well, having 200 words to sum up a whole book doesn’t seem that hard.

But I know it actually is. One of the hardest things to do is to write with both brevity and verve.  As a reporter, I was always way over in my word count and my editor never bought into the Mark Twain quote that I would have written shorter if I had more time. So whenever I see back copy done well, I appreciate the care that goes into. Here’s two off my bookshelf that I really like:
A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones and when the snow falls it is gray. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food – and each other.
   * * *
More than a year ago, mild-mannered Jason Getty killed a man he wished he’d never met. Then he planted the problem a little too close to home. But just as he’s learning to live with the reality of what he’s done, police unearth two bodies on his property – neither of which is the one Jason buried. 
The first is from Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It's good because it captures not just the plot but also mimics style and mood of the novel. The second is from Jamie Mason's Three Graves Full. I like it because it is short and very seductive.

On the flip side, I see a lot of bad back copy out there these days. In the New York Times book review today, I saw an ad for a print-on-demand publisher touting its books with the headline: UNFORGETTABLE STORIES. Here are some sample descriptions:
In the summer of 1863, an eighteen-year-old Amish farm boy feels trapped between his religious heritage and his fascination with the world outside his small Pennsylvania town. His solution is to leave home. And so begins his unforgettable adventure that will change his life forever.
[Title redacted] is a highly engrossing work of fiction, set in the north of England, extrapolated from the realities of the world of front line regional newspaper reporters and the sort of situations they they on a daily basis.
Abused and mistreated, Jane grew up in the field of restraints which she calls a prison. And she hopes there is still an ounce of sanity left in her which leaves her with the choice of breaking away from the [title redacted].
[Title redacted] is author [redacted] new novel that looks into the lives of the people who survived the 1998 Nairobi bombings and how they struggle to cope with the pain and loss.
[Name redacted] returns from the war minus a a leg and discovers that his wife has left him and his engineering business has shut down. Forced to re-invent his life, he and his family battle to overcome war's damage.  
Now, these could be very good novels. But from the blurbs, there is no way to know. None of these entice readers or capture the tone or mood of the books. They are wordy ("feels trapped"), filled with cliches ("unforgettable adventure") , vague on plot points, filled with generalities ("struggle to cope"), confusing, and devoid of any hint of conflict or suspense.

Writing great back copy is a fine art. It's nearest kin might be advertising copy in that its form is short and specialized, and its purpose is to seduce, tease, and make us buy into something. It's no accident that some pretty good novelists emerged from the advertising industry --  Don DeLillo, Fay Weldon,  Joseph Heller.  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote streetcar sign slogans for $35 a week. Dorothy Sayers made a name for herself writing a mustard slogan before she got hot with crime novels. Salman Rushdie, who wrote ad copy while trying to finish his first novel, recalls taking a test for the J. Walter Thompson agency where, "they asked you to imagine that you met a Martian who mysteriously spoke English and you had to explain to them in less than 100 words how to make toast." And then there was that guy who started out as a junior copywriter at  J. Walter Thompson, rose to CEO, and turned his ad experience into James Patterson Inc.

So what's the secret? Our own Jodie Renner and James Bell laid out some great tips in a post here last year. CLICK HERE to read it.  And if you want some really helpful tips from a real agent on how to write good query letter hooks, CLICK HERE to go to the Miss Snark archives. But I'd also like to offer up some of my own tips, if I may.

Don't give a plot regurgitation. Give just enough story to hook the reader's interest while you also hint at the larger picture behind the book. Here's a great tease:
From a helicopter high above the California desert, a man is sent free-falling into the night . . . and Jack Reacher is plunged into the heart of a conspiracy that is killing old friends.

Reacher has no phone, no address, no ties. But a woman from his former military unit has found him using a signal only the eight members of their elite team would know. Then she tells him about the brutal death of one of their own. Soon they learn of the sudden disappearance of two other comrades. But Reacher won’t give up—because in a world of bad luck and trouble, when someone targets Jack Reacher and his team, they’d better be ready for what comes right back at them.
Know your audience. Make sure the tone is right. Hit the high notes of your genre or the genre’s tropes. Romance or romantic suspense tends to stress the characters and relationships over plot. Thrillers tend toward the opposite. Just like your cover, you have to convey the exact mood of your story. Use language that appeals to the reader’s emotions. You won't mistake Elaine Viet's Shop Til You Drop for Lee Child:
Once on the fast track to success, Helen Hawthorne is going nowhere fast. Forced to trade in her chic life for a shabby one, she's now on the run trying to stay one step ahead of her past. After two weeks as a new clerk at Juliana's, Fort Lauderdale's exclusive boutique, Helen still feels out of fashion. But in a shop where the customer's collagen lips are bigger than their hips, who wouldn't...
Start with a great headline. If you’re having trouble coming up with the perfect headline, write the body copy first. Later, go back and read what you wrote as if you were a consumer seeing it for the first time. Somewhere, buried in all that copy, you will find your headline. Here's a sample you can find in our special Kill Zone Zone 99-cent Amazon offering Thrill Ride:
A KILLING SPREE. A MISSING BOY
A PLACE WHERE ONLY THE STRONGEST SURVIVE
A deep freeze is bearing down on the Florida Everglades, the kind of brutal storm the locals call a killing rain. For Detective Louis Kincaid, the coldest night of the year has brought a terrifying new chill -- a grisly murder that tightens his every nerve in warning. This is no routine case. It's the start of a nightmare.
Watch how it looks on the page. Is it too long? Are the sentences too long and hard to digest in one quick reading? Did you break it into paragraphs, if needed? Think about the best advertising copy you see. The block of copy must register in the eye as a fast read.

Tell us who your hero is and where we are. It's a good idea to work in your protag’s name, profession, and the location(s) of your story. Readers want to be able to tell at a glance if the protag is male or female, what kind of person it is, and where you are going to take them. Geography is important to many readers. Here's some effective copy from a Steve Hamilton book that does all this and gives us a little backstory:
Alex McKnight swore to serve and protect Detroit as a police officer, but a trip to Motown these days is a trip to a past he’d just as soon forget. The city will forever remind him of his partner’s death and of the bullet still lodged in his own chest. Then he gets a call from his old sergeant. A young man Alex helped put away—in the one big case that marked the high point of his career—will be getting out of prison. When the sergeant invites Alex to have a drink for old times’ sake, it’s an offer he would normally refuse. However, there’s a certain female FBI agent he can’t stop thinking about, so he gets in his truck and he goes back to Detroit.
Don’t give away too much. Good copy writing is a seduction. The back copy should make the reader want more. Think foreplay. One good tip is to pick a spot in the your plot, usually a quarter or a third of the way in, and don’t include anything that happens after that point.
TV reporter Candy Sloan has eyes the color of cornflowers and legs that stretch all the way to heaven. She also has somebody threatening to rearrange her lovely face if she keeps on snooping into charges of Hollywood racketeering. Spenser’s job is to keep Candy healthy until she breaks the biggest story of her career. But her star witness has just bowed out with three bullets in his chest, two tough guys have doubled up to test Spenser’s skill with his fists, and Candy is about to use her own sweet body as live bait in a deadly romantic game – a game that may cost Spenser his life.
Avoid passive voice and weasel words, clich├ęs, twenty-dollar vocabulary. Don’t use big hard to grasp words. Again, back copy is like good advertising copy: It appeals to the senses and emotions. You can pile on the details and pretty writing inside the covers.

Hint at what’s at stake. Go back and read the bad examples I listed above. Each of them has the same core problem: There is no defining of the central conflict or what the stakes are. This is a complaint I hear often from agents about query letters. A successful hook in a good query letter works much the same way as back copy does -- it makes the agent want to know more -- NOT about plot points but what this all means for the protagonist.

End with a question.  We see this device a lot in back copy but for good reason. It works. It creates suspense.  (“What will John do when he discovers Jane's deception?”) It hints at future complications (“When their investigation leads them to a city hall conspiracy, can their love stand the test?") It sets up possible suspects, like in this back copy:
On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s beautiful wife disappears. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy's diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?
Go for the Big But. This  is a cliche construction in back copy writing, but hey, it works. First you set up a scenario of normality for your protagonist then you use a conjunction bridge to a new development in that person's life (ie a crime) that has sent them on a new course. Go back and look for all the BUTS I have highlighted in blue and you'll see how common this is. Here's a sample from John Creasey's Parson With a Punch:
The Reverend Ronald Kemp came to the East End of London with definite ideas of right and wrong, which was only fitting for a minister of God. But the people of the East End had a few ideas of their own and the Rev. Kemp quickly finds his world torn asunder...
From Michele Gagnon's Bone Yard:
FBI agent Kelly Jones has worked on many disturbing cases in her career, but nothing like this. A mass grave site unearthed on the Appalachian Trail puts Kelly at the head of an investigation that crosses the line...Assisted by law enforcement from two states, Kelly searches for the killers. But as darkness falls, another victim is taken and Kelly must race to save him before he joins the rest...in the boneyard.
From Michael Connelly:
Mickey Haller gets the text, "Call me ASAP - 187," and the California penal code for murder immediately gets his attention. Murder cases have the highest stakes and the biggest paydays, and they always mean Haller has to be at the top of his game. But when Mickey learns that the victim was his own former client, a prostitute he thought he had rescued and put on the straight and narrow path, he knows he is on the hook for this one.
Hyperbole? Heck, why not? It's not uncommon for back copy prose to get a little purple, especially in crime fiction. We see a lot of this kind of stuff: "Time is running out..."  "As the nightmare increases..." "Even as danger mounts..."the shocking truth is revealed." You can use this -- but in small doses, please. Readers will turn on you if they sense you're just throwing a bunch of adjectives at them like "dazzling" or "breathtaking." CLICK HERE to read a bookseller's take on how hyperventilating blurbs turn readers off.  And if you're writing humor, please be careful tossing around stuff like "hilarious" and "side-splitting."

Here's back copy for Sherrilyn Kenyon that's corny as all get out but hey, it works for me:
He is solitude. He is darkness. He is the ruler of the night. Yet Kyrian of Thrace has just woken up handcuffed to his worst nightmare: An accountant. Worse, she's being hunted by one of the most lethal vampires out there. And if Amanda Devereaux goes down, then he does too. But it's not just their lives that are hanging in the balance.  Kyrian and Amanda are all that stands between humanity and oblivion. Let's hope they win.
A few final things to consider as you put together your back copy:

  • When you’re done, read your blurb out loud.  
  • Prune out all unnecessary words. See if you can cut out 30 percent.
  • Go into Amazon and read some blurbs in your genre for good books. Read the backs of paperbacks. Mimic the ones that work. 
  • Run your blurbs by beta readers and see if they salute.
Whew. Long post today. Sorry about that. I would have written shorter if I had had more time.






Tuesday, June 17, 2014

You Can't Bulls**it a Baby:
Kids and the Writing Life


“When people say they don't have time to write with small children, well, for me it was the opposite. I didn't write anything before I had them. They gave me that.” —Toni Morrison

By PJ Parrish

I don’t have kids. Would I be a better writer if I did?

Let’s leave that one for you shrinks out there for the moment. I have my own ideas about it, which I will answer at the end. Normally, a topic this personal wouldn’t even be on my writer radar; you guys know I prefer stomping around in the weeds of craft. But I read an interesting blog over the weekend by the novelist Lev Grossman called “Fatherhood Ruined My Life Plan – And Made Me The Writer I Am.” Here’s the money quote:

 When I came back to my book, after Lily was born, I saw it for what it was: cold, dull, lifeless, massively overthought – a labyrinth with no minotaur inside. I told myself I was just taking a break from it, but the truth was I binned it and started something new. I picked up an idea I’d had years before but hadn’t taken seriously at the time, because it was fresh and weird and risky and different from anything I’d ever tried before. Six months after Lily was born, I took a week off from work to explore it, and I wound up writing 25,000 words in five days. I’d hit an artery, and the story came surging out hot and strong. Not only was it the most productive week I’d ever had, I enjoyed it more than I’d enjoyed doing anything for literally years. I was more proud of it than anything I’d done in my entire life.
Something was afoot. I was waking up. Somewhere inside me the emotional pack ice was cracking and melting, ice that had formed long ago in the Fimbulwinter of my childhood, and feelings that I’d been avoiding for decades were thawing out and leaking through, both good and bad: joy, grief, anger, hope, longing. I was like some frozen extrasolar planet, where even gases exist only in neat, handy solid forms. But now I was warming up, and buried things were surfacing.
Interesting stuff. And it poses a question for writers. But not the obvious one about how do you find the time and energy to write when you have kids? But rather:  How do life experiences mold our fiction? Grossman's essay is part of a book called When I First Held You: 22 Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood. In it, writers such as Dennis Lehane, Rick Moody and Justin Cronin talk about the transforming power of parenthood. To be honest, most of it is of the pedestrian "you can't be cool with drool on your jacket" variety. But there is the occasional insight about the writing life.

What interests me most about this topic is the deeper question that Grossman is getting at: What are the primal forces that make us open a vein and bleed our emotions onto the page?

I used to work in the newspaper business. Every reporter and editor I knew either wanted to write a novel or already had tried to.  After I got published, I read quite a few manuscripts as favors to friends. For the most part, they weren't bad. But something was always missing. For a long time I couldn't figure out what it was then it hit me: The writers were not willing to expose themselves emotionally on the page. Journalism trains you to be detached and impartial. And you can't be that way with fiction. Unless you are willing to crawl inside another person's head and heart -- and muck about in all the messiness, gore, grief and passion that is there -- you can't make characters come alive on the page.

For some, becoming a parent might be the catalyst to make this happen. Years ago, I read an essay by Michael Connelly in which he said that having a daughter made him a better writer. (Sorry, I can't find it). It also changed his character Harry Bosch. Nine books into the series, in Lost Light, Connelly gave Bosch a daughter he didn't know about: Here's Connelly on the why:

Up until Bosch became a father, I had been creating a character who viewed himself as being on a mission. He was someone who was skilled enough and tough enough to go into the abyss and seek out human evil. To carry out this mission, he knew he had to be relentless and bulletproof. By bulletproof, I mean he had to be invulnerable. Nobody could get to him. It was the only way to be relentless. And this idea or belief bled into all aspects of his life. He lived alone, had no friends, and didn’t even know his neighbors. He built a solitary life so that no one could get to him. All that suddenly changed in one moment (one page) when he locked eyes with his daughter in Lost Light. Harry suddenly knew he could be gotten to.
Did having kids (fictional and real) make Connelly a more humane writer? I don't know. It made him a different one at least.

I might be wrong about this (and I hope you all will weigh in), but I think this question is different for women writers. I think women look at the effects of children on their creative life more practically. Some claim it forces discipline. P.D. James, mother of two, got up at 5 a.m. every morning to find time to write. The novelist Candia McWilliam once said, “Every baby costs four books.”  I asked my sister and co-author Kelly if having kids (she has three) makes you a better writer. "Only if you write tragedy," she said. (she was joking. But barely.)

I do think the fiction of women writers is maybe uniquely shaped by motherhood. Jane Hamilton's novel A Map of the World is about the effects of the drowning of a child on a family and a community. Jacquelyn Mitchard's bestseller The Deep End of the Ocean is about a kidnapping. Both were written after the authors had their children. Who can say if the stories were possible before that?

Abby Fruch's novel Polly's Ghost is about a woman who dies in childbirth and returns as a ghost to guide her son. Fruch has said she "softened" after her daughter was born and couldn't read anything violent. She rewrote her novel Blue Water to change its theme from betrayal to forgiveness.

The poet A. Manette Ansay wrote a fascinating essay called "Drowning the Children: To a Writer, Interruptions Are Life. Yes, she talks about the time suck that kids create. But like Lev Grossman, she taps into a larger realization. After having kids, she says...

...I found myself louder and more unkempt than I used to be, more interested in food, physical activity and sexual pleasure, more interested in the physical pleasure of words, their sound and sensation in the mouth and throat. The poems I had written before were tentative and cerebral; the new ones were confident, maybe funny, and full of physicality. Being with children made me matter-of-fact. Like dogs, babies and small children don't swerve from their attention to the present moment and they take no shame in the expression of strong feeling. They have an undisciplined sense of humor. Having children didn't give me confidence in my writing but I learned to write whether the result would be good or not -- as parents, too, we learn to abandon hopeless perfectionism.
Boy, I can relate to that -- the idea that writers need to live in the moment and give up the idea that they can make everything perfect. Like I said, I don't have kids but after I adopted two stray mutts, I did learn to slow down and savor a nap in the sun. (That's my snoop doggies above) And where once I couldn't go to bed if there was a dirty glass in the sink, now I don't sweat dog barf on the sofa. I write faster, enjoy the process for what it is, and I no long try to torture each sentence into perfection.

A couple years ago, Amanda Craig created a dust-up when she wrote in the Telegraph that bestselling Irish author Maeve Bichey would have been a better novelist if she had kids. It was a snarky thing to write and I don't agree.  Because here is where I come down on this whole thing:

Having kids might make you a more honest writer. As Lev Grossman says in his essay, "You can't bullshit a baby." (Or your readers). But I don't think making a baby will make you a better writer.

I truly believe that your unique voice is the sum of all your life experiences, but that what really makes you a good writer is being able to tap deep into your powers of empathy and observation.  Then having the courage to cut open your vein.

____________________

Postscript: I hope you all will indulge me and allow for a little BSP.  I got word a couple days ago that our book Heart of Ice has been nominated for the Shamus Award. (Private Eye Writers of America). Just made my rezzie to go to Bouchercon...haven't been there in years. Kelly and I are thrilled, needless to say.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Stealing From Other Writers


By P.J. Parrish

When I write, I don’t read. Because I know, from experience, what happens when I do.  I steal.

Now, don't get me wrong. All writers steal. At least, the smart ones do. Because this is partly how you learn to write a novel, by reading other novels, figuring out how the person structured the story, analyzing how the characters were layered, how the motivations were laid out, how the words were put together to elicit an emotional response. We learn by digesting the craftsmanship of others.

Here's the thing though:  You have to steal in the right frame of mind. And for me at least, that is NOT when I am working on my own book. If I see a way of structuring a scene or chapter that is clever, I will try to replicate it in my own book. If I read a passage that sings, I will try to mimic it even if it's not my style. When I am writing, I am in this weird fugue state and my brain is very porous and open. The temptation to take things that really don't belong to me is too great.

But something changes once I am done writing my own book. I binge read for pleasure. Freed from my own insecurities and writer ego, I hear other writers more clearly. And when that happens, I learn more about writing in general and the lessons sort of sit in my brain, baking and bubbling, until I need them.

So, yes, I steal from other writers. Here are some of the things I have taken and the people I took them from:

Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action. I stole this from Kurt Vonnegut. About ten years ago, I was struggling mightily to write my first short story.  I went back and read Cheever, Hemingway, Saki and O Henry. I discovered John D. MacDonald’s The Good Old Stuff.  But it wasn’t until I got to Vonnegut's Bagombo Snuff Box that I hit pay dirt. In the preface, Vonnegut laid out his eight rules for writing. (Click here to read them all.) His idea that every sentence must reveal character or advance plot was a light bulb moment for me. It now informs everything I write.  And when I teach, I try to impress on writers that every scene, every chapter, must work hard in service to the twin poles of character and plot.

Kill Your Darlings. Nope, I didn’t get this one from Faulkner. I stole this from E.B. White. And by “darlings” I mean good characters.  Charlotte’s Web is my favorite book, maybe the one that most influenced me as a writer. It has many great lessons but the most enduring is that a writer can – must – be brave enough to kill a good character. I’ve written about this before, so click here if you want to read more.

Fall in love with the sound of language.  Stole this one from Truman Capote after reading Music for Chameleons. This is a miscellany of stories and essays published in 1980 after a 14-year drought following Capote's brilliant In Cold Blood. It contains passages of exquisite beauty and it taught me, when I was just starting to write, to pay attention to what words sounded like. Like those chameleons in the lead story, I was mesmerized by the music, and have spent all the years since trying to make my own. (In his preface, Capote writes: “When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip for self-flagellation.” Ha!)

Don't be afraid! This one I got from Mike Connelly's The Poet. For most of our Louis Kincaid series, we have stayed mainly with a third-person intimate POV because we think filtering the story through our hero's consciousness enhances the reader's bond with him. But when we started our first stand alone thriller, The Killing Song, we realized our protag and villain were equally important. We needed something special to drive home their dichotomy of good and evil, so we decided to copy Connelly's The Poet and mix first and third POVs. Our first chapter was written in first-person from the killer's POV and the second chapter switched to third-person from the hero's POV. But it wasn't working. And we couldn't figure out why.  I ran into Mike at Bouchercon and told him I stole his idea. He smiled, shook his head and said, "But give the first-person to your hero. It's his story." We took his advice and the story took off. But I wouldn't have had the guts to try without reading The Poet. 

There have been other lessons learned from my life of crime. From Stephen King, who has tried everything from horror to westerns, from eBooks to novellas, I learned not to let expectations box me into one genre or style. This has given me the courage to use an unreliable narrator in my WIP. As E.B. White said, "Sometimes a writer, like an acrobat, must try a trick that is too much for him."

From Flaubert's Madame Bovary, I stole the idea that a protagonist can be deeply flawed. From Jane Austen's Emma I learned to pay attention to secondary characters because they might hold the key to the story (In the end, George Knightley won Emma's heart). From Pete Dexter's Paris Trout, I got the revelation that all good crime stories are not about the crime but rather its rippling effect on the people and the town. And last but not least, From Anne Lamott, I learned that my quest for perfectionism is death. She wrote in Bird by Bird: "The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts."  Which might be the best advice for writers I have ever heard.

Who do you steal from? And what treasure did you get?

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Stars Are Out at ThrillerFest

by Boyd Morrison

I would love going to an actors’ convention where I could have dinner with Sandra Bullock, take an acting class from Michael Caine, audition for a role in the next Spielberg movie, and share laughs at the bar with the cast of Castle. Won't ever happen. It sounds too good to be true because it is. But that kind of dream conference does exist for thriller writers and fans. It's called ThrillerFest, which will be held in New York City on July 10-13, 2013.

The attendees this week include writers who live on the New York Times bestseller list. The five spotlight guests alone--R.L. Stine, Anne Rice, Michael Connelly, Michael Palmer, and T. Jefferson Parker--have sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 million books. And everywhere you look at the conference, you're blinded by the star wattage: Lisa Gardner, Steve Berry, Lee Child, Catherine Coulter, Douglas Preston, Heather Graham, Brad Meltzer, Joseph Finder. It's as if you could get into the Oscars merely by paying a registration fee.

But the really amazing thing about ThrillerFest is that you get to meet and talk to these people, not just ogle them from afar. When I was a newbie unpublished author at the inaugural ThrillerFest in Phoenix seven years ago, I didn't know a soul. At the opening cocktail reception, I spent most of the time ambling about, listening in on snippets of conversation as I tried not to spill red wine down my shirt. Then I spotted Jon Land, an author I'd been reading for years. I gathered up my courage and nervously introduced myself, telling him that I was a huge fan. To my shock he asked me to join his group for dinner, where we had a fantastic time. In what other entertainment medium could that happen?

While I've mentioned some of the big names you can hobnob with, there are also plenty of up and coming writers who attend, some of whom will be household names in a few years. Imagine getting to know Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer just before they hit it big. And because I've gone to the convention every year, I'm lucky to count many of these future publishing phenoms as friends.

ThrillerFest is also a great deal for unpublished authors looking to break into the business. Through an event called AgentFest, aspiring writers can pitch their novels to a who's who of the biggest agents in publishing. I was fortunate enough to find my own agent there. Before I met her my manuscripts barely got a nibble. Now I’m the director of AgentFest, my sixth thriller, THE LOCH NESS LEGACY, has just come out, and my novels are published in 22 languages. If I hadn't attended ThrillerFest, who knows what I'd be doing?

For those looking to hone their writing skills, CraftFest offers a wealth of knowledge that is available nowhere else. You can actually take writing classes from legendary authors like Connelly, famed for books such as THE POET and THE LINCOLN LAWYER, and David Morrell, the creator of Rambo. The biggest problem is the information overload you might experience trying to cram every nugget of wisdom into your brain.

The best part of the conference is hanging out with these authors at the bar, the central gathering place. At first you'll regard them with awe that they have descended from the heavens to walk amongst us. Then when you're introduced to them, you'll realize that they're just people, too--although extremely talented, friendly, fascinating people. They're happy to greet fans and share their insights about the business. Buying them a drink doesn't hurt, either, though this being New York you'd better hang onto your wallet for a bumpy ride.

If you do get some of these writers liquored up, don't be surprised if you laugh yourself silly as they spin wild tales of publishing wackiness, crazed fans, and book tours gone wrong. After all, these people know how to tell a story.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Have Gun? Won’t Travel.



Films and TV shows have been getting grittier and more nuanced in the last decade. Even superhero films like The Dark Knight have taken the plunge. Campiness is over. We want to feel like what we’re watching could really happen. However, in many of these stories, there are plot holes both minor and major that are glossed over by viewers and critics alike. I understand what a challenge it can be to balance the realism with storytelling momentum. The question is, when does it reaching the breaking point?

I don’t have a problem with unlikely events or million-to-one chance occurrences. Those can actually happen. Just look at Captain Sullenberger’s miracle landing on the Hudson. I’m talking about more mundane and prosaic details that don’t fit in the real world as we understand it. As an author I spend a lot of time thinking how important it is to maintain realism in thrillers.

Adhering to realism may be less a problem if you’re writing a mystery or police procedural. I don’t think Michael Connelly has any trouble keeping the story elements close to what detectives actually do for their jobs. But I write big adventures with huge action set pieces and world-threatening stakes. I strive to keep my plots in the realm of plausibility, though the combination of events would be extremely unlikely. To me, that’s what makes a story worth telling: a scenario that would almost never happen.

Yet I still want to believe the story—that if these people were thrust into this situation, it might actually turn out the way the story is told. That’s true whether I’m the creator or consumer of the tale. It should feel real.

Realism for its own sake, however, can be super boring. Shows like CSI, NCIS, and Castle would take forever if the police had to wait for DNA testing to come back in the amount of time it takes in the real world (months) instead of TV time (hours). On TV, captains get impatient if it takes more than two days to bring in the killer, but in the real world it can take weeks or months to gather enough evidence to make an arrest, if they ever do. And the DNA evidence on TV is always exact and decisive, to the point that actual prosecutors now have to routinely remind juries that such evidence is rarely definitive. Many viewers don’t understand that we simply accept these unrealistic accelerated timetables so that we can get to the good parts of the story.

The blockbuster action-adventure movies seem to get away with bigger plot hand-waving. You won’t find a bigger James Bond fan than I am, but I'm perplexed that for fifty years Bond has flown around the world with his trusty Walther PPK pistol. How? It’s never explained why he can breeze through airport security carrying a loaded weapon in his luggage. Is it plastic? Does he have diplomatic immunity? Does he pay off the TSA agents? Never mind that he's a member of the British Secret Service who tells just about everyone he meets what his real name is. The real secret is how he isn’t nabbed by authorities the minute he gets off the plane.

In The Dark Knight, the Joker stuffs two ferries with hundreds of drums of explosives. When did he find time for that? How did the crew overlook them? And how does the Joker roam around Gotham City with that hideous makeup on and no one ever notices him?

In Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt finds a large cache of weapons and technology in a railcar outside of Moscow. Every law enforcement agency on the planet is looking for him and his team for blowing up the Kremlin, yet he shows up in Dubai a day later with the full load of guns and ammo in a hotel suite. The audience is just expected to accept that Hunt has a way to smuggle all of that contraband thousands of miles while on the run from the authorities.

I wonder whether novels are held to a higher standard than other media when it comes to suspension of disbelief. I don’t think a novelist could get away with those kinds of plot holes without being called on them by readers. I think the difference is in how the media are consumed. When you’re watching a movie, it doesn’t give you time to think about the plot holes until it’s finished, and by then you’ve already formed your opinion about whether or not you liked it. But it takes six to ten hours or more to read a book, sometimes over the course of weeks. The reader has plenty of time to think about potential plot holes, and if they’re glaring they may even make the reader put the book down for good. On the other hand, a movie has to be pretty bad for me to stop watching halfway through (I’m looking at you, Batman and Robin).

The acceptance of plot holes may also have to do with how we use our imaginations in the different media. With TV and movies, the visuals and sounds are supplied for you in a constant stream, and we accept them as the reality of the story. However, with novels we generate all of the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes in our minds. Creating all of them from scratch requires effort on our part, and if they don’t fit into the logic of the story, it becomes much more noticeable. Would Raiders of the Lost Ark have been able to convince readers that Indiana Jones rode on top of a submarine for two days to that island where the Ark was taken if it were a book? In the movie we see a diving montage and a map sequence showing a 500-mile trip, but due to selective editing Indy is ready to beat up Nazis as soon as they come into port—starvation, thirst, and hypothermia be damned (not to mention holding his breath for two days).

Without those quick cuts in a novel, readers would have the time and imagination to realize Indy isn’t Aquaman. That’s why I put plenty of thought into potential plot holes. I may not eliminate all of them, but I try to make them as tiny as possible. The process takes up a good chunk of my writing time, and my beta readers still bring many to my attention. So if you’re a writer, I highly recommend that you have a few people read through your book as a logic consultant. You may be surprised at how many plot holes they find that you thought you’d plugged.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

10 Ways to Sabotage Your Writing



This writing life has enough gremlins—rejection, bad reviews, economic uncertainty, short actors playing your 6’5” hero in a movie version—that a writer shouldn't be adding his own. Here are the top ten to watch out for. Maybe you have some to add to the list: 

1. Thinking about your career more than about your writing

Guess what? No matter where you are in your writing career you can always find a reason to be unhappy about it. You’re unagented and you want to get an agent. You’re unpublished and you want to be published. You’re published and you want to be read. You’re read but not read in the numbers you hoped. You’ve gone indie and your books aren’t selling enough to buy you a monthly mocha.

You can always find something to be unhappy about. What you ought to do is write more. When you’re into your story and you’re pounding the keys and you’re imagining the scene and you’re feeling the characters, you’re not camping out in the untamed country of unfulfilled expectations.

It’s fine to plan. In fact, I’ve written a paper to help you do that. But once the planning is done, get to work.


2. The comparison trap

I’ve written a whole post on this one. What good is it going to do you to look at somebody else’s success and hit the table and cry out for justice? Writing is not just. It just is. You do your work the best you can and you let the results happen, because you can’t manipulate them. You can’t touch them, you can’t change them, you can’t fix them. You can only give it your best shot each time out.

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” - Epictetus


3. Ranking Obsession

Another thing you can’t control is your ranking on Amazon or the various and sundry bestseller lists. Or sure, there are things writers do to try and “game the system.” The paid reviews scandal was one of the more egregious examples of this.  But in the end, the game playing is not worth the knot in the stomach.

Don’t worry about rankings and lists. Worry about your word count, plot and characters. If you do the latter well, the former will take care of itself.


4. Envy

Another useless emotion. But it seems to be a part of most writers' lives. Ann Lamott and Elizabeth Berg both lost friendships over it. Envy has even driven authors to set up sock puppet identities not merely to hand themselves good reviews, but to leave negative reviews for their rivals' books.

“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” (Proverbs 14:30). Try to have a heart at peace by getting back to your story while, at the same time, developing the next one. 

5. Trying to be the next James Patterson. . .

. . . or J. K. Rowling, or Michael Connelly. Wait a second. We already have those. And they are the best at being who they are.

Become the leading brand of you, not the generic brand of someone else sitting on the shelf at the 99¢ store.

This is not to say don’t write in the same genre or try to do some of the good things other writers do. We can certainly learn from those we admire.

But when we write, we have a picture in our heads, a sort of writer self-image. And if we imagine our books being treated like Connelly’s books, or we see ourselves in LA Magazine interviewed like Connelly, we’ll just end up writing like a second-rate Connelly.

Do that and you stifle the thing that has the chance to set you apart—your own voice. 

6. “I’m not good enough to make it.”

That’s not the issue. The issue is: do you want to write? Do you really?  Do you want it so much that if you don’t write you’re going to feel diminished in some way, and for the rest of your life?

You should feel like you don’t really have a choice in the matter. Writing is what you must do, even if you hold a full time job. Even if you chase a passel of kids around the house. You find your time and you keep writing. Keep looking to improve. You can improve. I’ve got hundreds of letters from people who have validated this point.


7. Fear

Fear of failing. Fear of looking foolish. Fear of what your writing might say about you. We are actually wired for fear. It’s a survival mechanism.

So it has a good side so long as it is not allowed to go on. In fact, when you fear something in your writing it may be a sign that this is the place you need to go. This is where the fresh material may be. You need to go there, and assess it later.



8. Hanging on to discouragement

When my son was first pitching Little League baseball, he'd get upset when someone got a key hit or homer off him. This would affect the rest of his performance. So I gave him a rule. I told him he could say "Dang it!" once, and hit his glove with his fist. This became the "one Dang It rule." It helped settle him down and he went to a great season and a victory in the championship game.

When discouragement comes to you, writer friend (and it will), go ahead and feel it. Say "Dang it!" (or, if you're alone, exercise your freedom of speech as you see fit). But time yourself. Give yourself permission to feel bad for thirty minutes. After that, go to the keyboard and start writing again.


9. Loving the feeling of being a writer more than writing

The most important thing a writers does, said the late Robert B. Parker, is produce. Don’t fall into the trap of writing a few words in a journal, lingering over the wonderful vibrations of being alive with the tulips of creativity budding within your brain, and leaving it at that.

You’ve got to get some sweat equity going in this game. I don’t mean you have to crank it out like some pulp writer behind in his rent (though I like this model myself). But you do have to have some sort of quota, even if it is a small one. Writing only when you feel like it is not the mark of a professional.


10. Letting negative people get to you

Illegitimi non carborundum.


Next time that know-it-all says you haven’t got the stuff to be a writer, smile and repeat this Latin phrase. And as he looks at you puzzled, turn your back, get to your computer, and proceed to prove him wrong.

And plan to make 2013 the most productive year of your writing life. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Baloney Advice Writers Should Ignore



Some time ago I cheekily posted the three rules for writing a novel. It produced a spirited discussion on what is a “rule” and what is a “principle,” but by and large there was agreement that these three factors are essential to novels that sell.

Today I’d like to discuss some writing advice writers would do well to ignore.

Where does such advice come from? I have a theory that there is a mad scientist in Schenectady, New York, who cooks up writing advice memes and converts them to an invisible and odorless gas. He then secretly arranges for this gas to seep into critique groups across the land, infecting the members, who then begin to dispense the pernicious doctrine as if it were holy writ.

I now offer the antidote to the gas.

1. Don’t start with the weather

Verdict: Baloney

This meme may have started with Elmore Leonard, who once dashed off a list of “rules” that have become like sacred script for writers. If his advice were, “Don’t open a book with static, flat descriptions” I would absolutely agree.

But here is why the rule, as stated, is baloney: weather can add dimension and tone to the opening disturbance. If you use it in that fashion, weaving it into action, it’s a fine way to begin.

Look at the opening of Bleak House by Dickens, or the short story “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away” by Stephen King. Or the quieter beginning of Ann Lamott’s Blue Shoe. All of them use weather to great effect. Here’s a Western, Hangman’s Territory, from a great writing teacher, Jack Bickham:

   The late spring storm was breaking. To the east, boiling blue-gray clouds moved on, raging toward Fort Gibson. To the west, the sun peered cautiously through a last veil of rain, slanting under the shelf of clouds and making the air a strange, silent bright yellow. The intense, muggy heat of the day had been broken, and now the early evening was cool and damp, and frogs had magically appeared everywhere in the red gumbo of the Indian Nations.
   Eck Jackson threw back the heavy canvas under which he had been waiting. His boots sank into the red mud as he clambered out of his shelter between two rocks and peered at the sky.

If you think of weather as interacting with the character’s mood and emotions, you’re just fine to start with it.

2. Don’t start with dialogue

Verdict: Baloney

Starting with dialogue creates instant conflict, which is what most unpublished manuscripts lack on the first pages. Sometimes this rule is stated as “Don’t start with unattributed dialogue.” Double baloney on rye with mustard. Here’s why: readers have imaginations which are patient and malleable. If they are hooked by dialogue, they will wait several lines before they find who’s talking and lose absolutely nothing in the process.

Examples:

"TOM!"
No answer.
"TOM!"
No answer.
"What's gone with that boy,  I wonder? You TOM!"
No answer.
The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room . . . 
        - (Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)

 “Any thoughts that you’d like to start with?”
“Thoughts on what?”
“Well, on anything. On the incident.”
“On the incident? Yes, I have some thoughts.”
She waited but he did not continue. He had decided before he even got to Chinatown that this would be the way he would be.
       -  (Michael Connelly, The Last Coyote)

“Name?”
“Robert Travis.”
“Occupation?”
“Mining engineer.”
“Place of residence?”
“Seventh Base, Jovian Development Unit, Ganymede.”
“Reason for visiting Luna?”
“I’m checking on performance of the new Dahlmeyer units in the Mare Nublum fields. We’re thinking of adapting them for use in our Trendart field on Ganymede.”
“I see . . .” The port inspector fumbled through my papers. “Where’s your celemental analysis sheet?”
- (Dwight V. Swain, The Transposed Man)


3. No backstory in the first fifty pages

Verdict: Spam (a step up from baloney)

If backstory is defined as a flashback segment, then this advice has merit. Readers will wait a long time for backstory information if something compelling is happening in front of them. But if you stop the forward momentum of your opening with a longish flashback, you’ve dropped the narrative ball.

However, when backstory refers to bits of a character’s history, then this advice is unsound. Backstory Bits (I call them BBs) are actually essential for bonding us with a character. If we don’t know anything about the characters in conflict, we are less involved in their trouble. (Read Koontz and King, who weave backstory masterfully into their opening pages).

I’ve given writing students a simple guideline: three sentences of backstory in the first ten pages. You may use them together, or space them apart. Then three paragraphs of backstory in the next ten pages, together or apart.

I’ve seen this work wonders for beginning manuscripts.

4. Write what you know

Verdict: Baloney

Sounder advice is this:

Write who you are.

Write what you love.

Write what you NEED to know.

5. Don’t ever follow any writing advice

Verdict: Stinky baloney

There may be a few literary savants out there who can do this thing naturally, without thinking about technique or craft. And those three people can form their own group and meet for Martinis.

Every other writer can benefit from putting in some time studying their craft. I’ve heard some writers say they don’t want to do that for fear of “stifling” the purity of their work. Some of them get a contract and their books comes out in a nice edition that sell 500 copies. And then they get bitter and start appearing at writer’s conferences raging how there is no such thing as structure and you’ve all wasted your money coming here, and you should just go home and write. (This has actually happened on several occasions that I know of).

So here is my final bit of advice for today: don’t be that kind of writer.