by Clare Langley-Hawthorne
by Clare Langley-Hawthorne
Some years ago I was teaching at a writers conference in New Mexico. After lunch I noticed one of the conferees sitting at a back table, looking distressed. I went over and asked her what was up.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Am I ever going to get anywhere? I see all these people, they all want it just as much as I do. How do I know if I’ll ever make it? ” Tears started down her cheeks.
I handed her a napkin for the tears, then took another and drew a pyramid on it. I divided the pyramid into six sections. Inside the pyramid are writers, I explained, with each section representing a different level of achievement.
The bottom, where most of the people are, is the realm of the “want to.” Or “I think I have a book inside me.” But outside of some scribblings, maybe a short story or two, perhaps an unfinished novel, these people never move on to the next level…
…which is where people like you are (I told her). Those who actually try to learn something about writing. Who buy writing books, go to conferences, take classes…and write.
Above that is the level for those who actually finish a full length novel. This is a great place to be. This is where real writers come from.
The next level holds those who write another novel, because the first one is probably going to be rejected. They do this because they are novelists, not just someone who happened to write a novel.
Next are those who get published. Above that those who are published multiple times.
Sitting on top of the pyramid is a Wheel of Fortune. This is where the breakout hits come from. The wheel goes around and lands on a book like Cold Mountain. Or The Da Vinci Code. Or Harry Potter.
No one can control this. No one know how to guarantee a hit, or it would be done every time out.
Your job, I told the young writer, is to keep moving up the pyramid. Each level presents its own challenges, so concentrate on those. As you move up, you’ll notice there are fewer people, not more. People drop out of the pyramid all the time. But if you work hard, you might get a novel on the wheel, and that’s as far as you can go on your own. After that it’s not up to you anymore.
The conference went on and I forgot all about this incident.
A couple of years later I bumped into her at another conference. She told me that this conversation and the diagram had a profound effect on her, and that she was going to keep going, and was finishing her first novel.
Two years after that she wrote to tell me she had landed a book deal. She is now a published author.
Writer, if you want to be published, if you want a hit book, don’t worry about things you cannot control. Don’t grasp at phantoms. Focus on the page right in front of you. Make it the best it can be, and build these pages into a book. And then another.
Keep climbing the pyramid.
That’s your job.
P.S. Adapted from the forthcoming The Art of War for Writers.
I’ll be back next week. I do have one thing to say. Or rather to show you. This woman is a member of the House of Representatives elected by actual voters. How, I ask you, can this country be in any trouble?
I’ll have a real blog next week. This week political thoughts were all I had.
By John Gilstrap
My next book—the second installment of the Jonathan Grave thriller series, to be published next July—finally has a title: Hostage Zero. It’s got heft, I think. It sounds intriguing. And it provides lots of opportunities for the art director to design a terrific cover. At the end of the day, that’s what a title is all about, right?
Good title + great artwork = interested consumer.
For me, a title and a cover have done their job when they compel a potential customer to pick up the book and crack the spine. After that, the prose of the book takes over as sales agent. A book is a consumer product, after all, and packaging matters.
I just wish that the journey to nail down a title was less arduous. I’m coming to grips with the fact that I’m just not very good with titles. They rarely stick. Here’s my publishing history to date (my original titles are in parentheses):
I know it looks like a three-three split, but no one in the entire publishing pantheon liked Six Minutes to Freedom as a title, but it stuck because no one could think of anything else.
A week or so ago, I floated a title trial balloon via Twitter and Facebook to see what people thought of Hard Target as a title for the new book. The response was swift and overwhelmingly negative. Who knew that a bad Jean-Claude Van Damme movie could sully a two-word phrase forever? And who knew how many people are titillated by the word “hard.” I mean really, people. . .
Over the weekend, I got what I thought was a great inspiration for a title, and I floated it to my colleagues here on The Killzone: The Cost of Betrayal. The response was supportive (although not particularly enthusiastic), but it was received warmly enough for me to proffer it to my publisher. The return email read, “er . . . keep thinking.” It was too specific, I was told. We need to think more “atmospheric.”
I have no idea what an atmospheric title is, but on Monday, I floated the possibility of either Mortal Wounds, Mortally Wounded or Precious Cargo. Yeah, I know they all suck, but I wanted a damn title. I’m tired of calling a year-long project Grave 2.
Then I got this email from my editor: “Here’s a title I like a lot: Exit Strategy. This won a ‘great’ from [our sales manager].” I liked it. Done deal, right? I mean, if the author, the editor and the sales manager like a title, what could go wrong?
The publisher hated it. Yep, even used the H-word. I don’t know why she reacted so negatively, but she’s really good at what she does, so I concede to her tastes.
Finally, someone came up with Hostage Zero. It feels right and it tastes right. I have a title!
So what about you folks? How much do you stew over your titles? Do your working titles typically last through to publication, or do they change? As avid readers, do titles matter beyond that first impulse to look at a book? Are titles more than just marketing devices?
Jason Starr joins us today, filling in for Michelle Gagnon. Jason’s latest thriller, PANIC ATTACK, is on-sale now from St. Martin’s Press. Michael Connelly calls PANIC ATTACK "the ultimate page-turner" and Jerry Stahl says PANIC ATTACK is "the perfect thriller." It’s a terrific beach read, so be sure to pick up a copy today.
Hey, great to be back here, and thanks to Michelle for letting me fill in and blog for her while she is, no doubt, lounging on some exotic beach somewhere, sipping drinks that have little umbrellas in them. Ah, the life of an international best-selling thriller author… Meanwhile, I’m here in dank, sweltering Manhattan, pounding away on my keyboard, like a bad parody of Mickey Spillane. But who said life is fair?
With a new book, PANIC ATTACK, out I’ve had marketing on my mind lately, and I think this week may turn out to be a key moment in book publishing history. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating…a lot…but I think the announcement of Sony’s new Daily Edition reader is really going to shake up the electronic publishing landscape, and maybe the entire publishing landscape.
The Daily Edition is a far cry from Sony’s old reader, which wasn’t as sleek at the Kindle and couldn’t download content wirelessly. Early reviews say the Daily Edition is a potential Kindle killer as it does one big thing the Kindle can’t (and won’t) do–it lets readers download books for free. That’s right, via their local libraries, customers will be able to take e-books out on loan for two or three weeks for no charge.
With so much free content available, how will publishers and Amazon be able to charge full price for books? For example, if Michelle, on her exotic beach vacation, wants to read a copy of James Patterson’s latest, where is her incentive to buy the e-edition of the book when she can download it (and as many other books as she wants) for free? Will publishers have to change the way they sell books to libraries, and alter the prices of their e-books? It’s hard to imagine that if readers have a free option for e-books that they will continue to shell out the 10 dollars or more that Amazon is currently charging for new hardcover titles.
Daily Edition also allows for other booksellers to distribute their content onto the device. This could be a great chance for Indy booksellers to get into the e-books game, but it could also create even more price competition.
But the main question about e-readers remains–are these devices here to stay and are books as we know them on life support? A little disclosure here. Late last year, I received a Kindle 2 as a gift. When I’m traveling and commuting it’s amazing. The ability to send Word files to my Kindle is a God’s send for reading manuscripts on the go. Lately, though, I find when I’m home and want something to read I go for an old fashioned book. I guess I feel like I look at a computer screen all day long, and when I want to relax I don’t want to hold a gadget, no matter how easy the screen is on the eyes. So, while a few months ago, I was telling people e-books are the wave of the future, I’m not so sure anymore. I see e-books becoming mainly for travel and commuting, and the regular book sticking around for every other use.
As an author, though, I’m excited about the potential proliferation of e-readers because they create the possibility of infinite book sales and could potentially make "book distribution" obsolete. For example, if The Today Show calls tomorrow and wants me on to discuss PANIC ATTACK, my publisher would have to reprint to satisfy the sudden demand. By the time the books arrived in stores, the demand would no longer exist. But in a world where everyone on the planet has an e-reader, a big national media appearance could generate tens of thousands of sales instantly.
So what do y’all think about all this? How are publishers going to price their books in a landscape where Sony is going to effectively start giving away many titles for free? Are you authors out there embracing e-books or would you rather they disappeared?
Tonight, August 27, at 9pm Eastern Time you can "see" me–well my well-endowed Avatar anyway–on the Second Life Talk Show "Virtually Speaking" I’ll discuss PANIC ATTACK and lots of other stuff. You also can listen to the broadcast live at 9 pm Eastern Time on Blog Talk Radio.
Find out more about Jason Starr and PANIC ATTACK at www.jasonstarr.com
By Joe Moore
For most novelists, one of the easiest things to come up with is an idea for a story. It seems that intriguing ideas swirl around us like cell phone conversations—we just use our writer’s instinct to pull them out of the air and act upon them.
The next step is to develop our characters and stitch together the quilt of a plot that will sustain our story for 100k words. And right up front, we must consider what plot motivation will drive the story and subsequently the characters. Fortunately, there are many to choose from.
So what is a plot motivator? It’s the key ingredient that provides drama to a story as it helps move the plot along. Without it, the story becomes static. And without forward motion, there’s little reason to read on.
Here is a list of what’s considered the most common plot motivators.
Ambition: Can you say Rocky Balboa.
Vengeance: Usually an all-encompassing obsession for revenge such as in The Man In The Iron Mask.
The Quest: Lord Of The Rings is a great example as is Journey To The Center Of The Earth.
Catastrophe: A disaster or series of events that proves disastrous like in The Towering Inferno.
Rivalry: Often powered by jealousy. Remember Camelot?
Love/Hate: Probably the most powerful motivator in any story.
Survival: The alternative is not desirable. Think Alien.
The Chase: A key element in numerous thrillers including The Fugitive.
Grief: Usually starts with a death and goes downhill from there.
Persecution: This one has started wars and created new nations.
Rebellion: There’s talk of mutiny among the HMS Bounty crew.
Betrayal: Basic Instinct. Is that boiled rabbit I smell?
You can easily find a combination of these in most books especially with a protagonist and antagonist being empowered for totally different reasons. But the global plot motivator is usually the one that kick starts the book and moves it forward. Which ones have you used in your books? Which are your favorites? Are there any you avoid and why?
Coming Wednesday, September 9: Forensic specialist and thriller author Lisa Black will be our guest.
And what about that great heroine of the Civil War South, Pansy O’Hara? Remember her?
Of course you don’t. Because Margaret Mitchell thankfully scotched it after briefly considering it for her lead in Gone With the Wind. Props also to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for choosing Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, after toying with those other names.
Travis McGee, the popular creation of John D. MacDonald, has a sound like the character himself–living on a houseboat, few cares in the world, hard when he needs to be.
Could any gumshoe be tougher than Sam Spade?
Ignatius J. Reilly and Myrna Minkoff definitely belong in John Kennedy Toole’s oddly structured comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces.
And so it goes, with other names like: Winter Massey, Kate Gallagher, Cotten Stone, Ursula Marlow, Jonathan Grave and Kelly Jones.
Good, solid monikers all. I wonder what the naming process was for the creators of these characters? Perhaps they’ll share it with us.
Here is what went into naming my own series character, Ty Buchanan, whose latest appearance is in Try Fear.
Tyler is from Fight Club. Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt in the film) is primal, nihilistic, violent. In Try Dying, the first book in my series, Ty Buchanan has to contend with similar feelings as his world is turned upside down. An up-and-coming lawyer in LA, Ty has it all. But his fiancée is killed (on page 1) and when he goes looking for answers, he’s forced into a street existence that both engenders and requires a hard-edged response.
Buchanan is from a favorite Western of mine, Buchanan Rides Alone (1958, dir. Budd Boetticher), starring the iconic Randolph Scott. He is, in the best western tradition, an anti-hero and loner, but with a strong inner code of honor. He doesn’t look for trouble, but when it finds him, he fights. And he always displays an insouciant good humor.
I wanted these two dynamics to play out within Ty Buchanan. They provide counterpoint and inner conflict, as the Buchanan side is often at odds with the Durden aspect. Thus, the name.
So, writer, how did you choose names for your Lead characters? Is it more than a sound for you? Is there a deeper meaning you look for? Or do you just run your finger down the white pages of a phone book?
And you, reader, what names come to your mind when you think of memorable literary heroes?
John Ramsey Miller
One of the perks of being a published author is that authors and publishers will ask you for blurbs. Some are gems and writing a blurb is a pleasure, and you get to see and understand how difficult it is to write a great blurb that will do the book justice. Flip the coin.
Sometimes you eat the bear…
This week I received a book from an editor at Delacorte asking for my opinion on a book she edited that is being published in January 2010. I read the manuscript and the first 8o pages literally rocked my world. I’m serious. I found myself holding my breath as I read. This is a first novel by an unknown author and I read the book in five hours and I was blown away. Blown away. Blown away. The terms: an exciting new voice, and a talented storyteller, are tossed around every time a first novel is introduced, and often they are just marketing fluff from the book of standard sales phrases that was written in about 1820. I’ll just say one thing with conviction. This woman can flat write a coon up a tree backwards. The author’s name is Carla Buckley, and THE THINGS THAT KEEP US HERE should be a huge success. Hopefully this will be the first of many. It’s manuscripts like this that keep me excited about the requests and ready to read another manuscript.
Then …. sometimes the bear eats you.
I have also been asked to blurb a book and after reading it, wished I hadn’t said I would. Occasionally the author is a friend, or connected to a friend, the best I can do is write something that isn’t dishonest. Years ago, I hated to disappoint people. Now I say I only blurb books scheduled for publication and submitted to me by the publisher. Years ago I didn’t want any aspiring author to think that I thought I was too good to help them out. Yesterday I found a list of blurbs I wrote ten years ago and sent to an author who was a friend of a friend and owed this weekend author his life or something. I’ll withhold the name of the publisher (an internet on-demand publisher) and the author, who is no longer among the living.
Here are a handful:
“Few authors would have even attempted to incorporate so many seemingly unrelated characters and plots into one novel.”
“ ___________ is an author who is truly in a class of his own.”
“Never before has an author utilized so many genres in one novel.”
“You will laugh and you will cry and you will not believe just one person wrote this book.”
“I was so entertained by _______________ that I found myself reading long sections of the book over the phone to my friends until my voice played out.”
“A rich tapestry of plots, genres and styles that will have the reader laughing one minute and crying the next.”
“If you live to be 100, you’ll never again read anything like ___________________.”
The author actually used two of the blurbs on the cover. I didn’t lie in any of the blurbs, and everybody was happy.
The book whose name cannot be said, was literature’s PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. It had a time-traveling villain who wore white robes so he could appear in any time period without drawing stares, a vampire dog, a thirty page sea battle that it turned out was a tank commander’s dream, a virus that could destroy the earth’s flora and fauna, a haunted house where a child lived with an old pirate, a gay ghost who followed the tank commander around, a lesbian detective who looked like Rip Torn, an alcoholic cigar-smoking chimpanzee, and more. Characters appeared suddenly, delivered a volume of information, and just vanished forever. The author wrote one chapter in first person and narrated the next. One chapter was simply dialog between a deer and an alligator as they discussed the viral threat to their habitat from the mad scientist villain. A gay ghost (I kid you not) lamented the fact that being protoplasm made him able to create suction. There was a battle between an evil army of swordsmen and a villain turned good by love, at the end that broke up an opera. The lesbian detective fired her pistol at the bad villain and accidentally killed the fat lady before she could sing. And the audience sat watching until it was over, whereupon they applauded. What New Yorker who attends operas would actually know a battle in the aisles was not part of the opera they had paid to see? And the gay ghost who had simply vanished halfway through the book returned to sit in the audience for the action. Out of about nine plots, none was more important than any other and none of the loose ends were tied up so (as the author told me) there could be a sequel. The author also told me that he never planned anything he wrote ahead, and always had a drink or two then simply wrote the characters that appeared and “pen to paper” he went traipsing wherever the characters led him. I suspect he was completely unaware that they’d taken LSD and led him on a wild goose chase through a burning asylum.
Some have it and some don’t.
So, authors, got any good blurb stories?