Best Advice Redux

By John Gilstrap

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that today’s post start as a response to Michelle’s post from yesterday regarding the best and worse writing advice we’ve received. Michelle pretty much nailed everything on the head, but there’s one more that plays to the heart of this whole author-as-marketer thing.

When my first book, Nathan’s Run, was published in 1996, the Internet as far as I knew it, consisted of the AOL Writer’s Club—singularly the best virtual writers’ hangout I’ve ever been affiliated with. Those were the days when you paid for online time by the hour. Between the newness of my writing career, the newness of the technology, and the overall coolness factor of it all, I spent a lot of time with my friends in the Writer’s Club. Enough time, in fact, that it prompted my editor at the time to issue the following bit of advice:

Don’t let being a writer interfere with actually writing.

Writing the next book is the single best thing you can do to gain support for the previous book. After a while, an author’s body of work becomes sort of a self-sustaining marketing tool. The poster child my editor named as the antithesis of this advice was Truman Capote, whose writing quality was, he believed and I agree, inversely proportional to his fame.

This advice resonates loudly with me every year when conference season rolls around. Properly selected and managed, I think that conferences are the single greatest marketing tool available to writers—both budding and established. The real work is done in the bar, whether you’re a drinker or a teetotaler. You just need to screw up the courage to talk to people. It’s not the place to pitch your books, but it is the place to meet and impress fans and industry people alike.

Even though I recognize the value of conferences, it would be entirely possible for an author to spend 75% of his annual allotment of weekends traveling the country and talking about himself. There comes a point of diminishing returns. I have my favorites—ThrillerFest, Bouchercon and Magna Cum Murder—which I try to make every year, and I might throw in one or two more if I’m invited or if it’s close to home, but that’s it. It has to be.

Standard book signings are to me a waste of time. Ditto book tours.

Facebook and Twitter are great as tools, but I believe they work best as subliminal pleas for business. If you post and say something smart, I might try your product. If you send me a direct request, the likelihood drops dramatically. For the life of me, I don’t understand why writers flog their work on writers’ boards. One or two posts per day on social media are ideal because I don’t think anyone does more than two things per day that are interesting enough to tweet about.

When all is said and done, I think the truth about effective book marketing is harsh news for new writers: You’ve got to build a fan base, and the only way to do that is to churn out a consistent stream of good product that is appropriately priced. Every minute of self-promotion that takes away from your ability to churn out at least one book per year (but probably no more than two), is doing so little good as to perhaps be doing harm.

The First Line Game

James Scott Bell

A number of my novelist friends share an e-mail loop, and from time to time we put up the first lines of our WIPs. It’s always fun to strut our stuff and see what others are doing.
First lines can also be an idea generator. Dean Koontz, in his book How to Write Best Selling Fiction (1981), told how he used to do this all the time, in order to find material. One day he wrote this:
“You ever killed anything?” Roy asked.
He stared at it awhile, then decided Roy was fourteen and talking to a younger boy. And from that one line he developed what became The Voice of the Night.
Joseph Heller wrote this line, without knowing anything else: In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid. This became the genesis of his massive satirical novel, Something Happened. (The line was moved further in by Heller once the book was finished, but it was the line itself that suggested the larger work).
I was at Bouchercon last week, in a good place because I had just submitted my manuscript to my editor. I am about to begin another novel, so sitting in the hotel lobby one afternoon, I was “in between.” I took out my notebook and wrote this line:
He had loved her since she was six years old.
Now, that is not my usual style, and it has the word had in it, which I would normally try to eschew. But that’s what I wrote. Then I kept on writing, to find out what the scene was about. When I got to the end of the page I had made two startling discoveries, both of which I’ll keep to myself as I may actually want to write this thing!
It is very cool to find ideas this way. Do you ever do that?
Okay, if you’re a writer, do you want to share the first line of your WIP?
If not, what is a favorite first line from a recent book you read? 

Writers of the Lost Arc

The annual Anthony Boucher Memorial World Mystery Convention, or Bouchercon for short, is coming up this week in San Francisco. It’s a good time for writers to gather with readers and colleagues, yak on panels, talk about writing, the business, sign books.
And hear things.
I always enjoy listening to Lee Child. He’s got this great English accent and droll delivery, and says things that are usually contrarian and funny.
At last year’s conference, Child was on a panel when the subject of character change came up. A constant drum beat in fiction classes and books on writing is that your character must change in some way. There must be a “character arc.”
“Why?” Child asked rhetorically. “There doesn’t have to be character change. We don’t need no stinkin’ arcs.”
Everybody in the room cracked up. Child went on to explain that he loves Dom Perignon champagne, and he wants it to taste the same each time. And so, too, he wants his Jack Reacher books to offer the same pleasurable experience every time out. Reacher doesn’t change. Reacher does his thing. It’s how he does it that provides the pleasure.
And I do love a good Reacher.
Then another of my favorite authors spoke. Michael Connelly was interviewed in a packed convention. The Harry Bosch books are the best series maybe  . . . ever. Connelly spoke about his decision twenty years ago to have Bosch age chronologically. So in each book Bosch is about a year older.
And that means he changes. He has varying degrees of inner development. Talk about your arcs! It’s still going on and it’s a wonder to behold.
So there you have it, a tale of two writers and two approaches, both of which work. They provide different experiences and readers can choose which they like best—or go with both, for variety.
When I teach about character work, I do say that a Lead character does not have to change in a fundamental way.  For example, in the film The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble does not become a new man. He does not have to discover his “true self.” What he has to do is grow stronger as he meets extraordinary challenges.
Similarly, Marge Gunderson in Fargo does not change, but shows her inner strength by solving a horrific crime, far beyond what she’s had to deal with before.
So in this kind of thriller, the character is already who he or she needs to be, but gets tested and strengthened.
A nice wrinkle to this type of story is when the Lead’s strength inspires another character to change. That’s what happens in The Fugitive. Kimble’s relentless search for the killer of his wife turns Sam Gerard from a lawman who “doesn’t care” about the facts of a case, to caring very much indeed.
In Casablanca, you have both kinds of change. Not only does Rick Blaine change radically, from a man who wants to be left alone to one who joins the war effort, but so does the little French captain, Louis.  Rick’s act of self sacrifice at the end inspires Louis to leave Casablanca with Rick, also fight the Nazis. It is, of course, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
So let’s talk about what you like in a series character. Do you want to see development over the life of the series? Or would you rather be able to pick any title at random and have it be pretty much the same—only enjoyably different?
What are the hallmarks of your favorite series?

Hello, my name is…

by Michelle Gagnon

A confession:
You know those people who claim they never forget a face?
I’m not one of them.
In fact, I’m terrible with faces. Which wouldn’t pose that much of a problem, but I also happen to be awful with names.
My current line of work has only exacerbated the problem. As a writer, I probably meet a few hundred new people a year. Dozens of other writers, readers, and booksellers introduce themselves to me at conferences, readings, events. I make a valiant effort to to commit their faces to memory, even use mnemonics to try to remember their names. And all I end up with is a nearly overpowering desire to shout out, “Mayonnaise!” whenever anyone looks vaguely familiar.

I have a private theory that if my brain wasn’t completely clogged up with early eightie’s song lyrics, I’d be better at this. You should be able to erase files from your mind as easily as you do from your computer (heck, my computer erases files all the time, on its own, without any help from me whatsoever). Gone would be Duran Duran, and the next time I sat at the bar at Left Coast Crime, the name “Anne” would pop into my head when a woman approached.

Alas, despite my best efforts, that hasn’t happened.

Context is also problematic. Say I run into a former classmate at the grocery store. It doesn’t matter how many fourth periods we suffered through together. Without a blackboard and erasers handy, my best guess will be that she goes to the same gym. (I run into people who claim they go to the same gym as I do on a regular basis. It’s all the more puzzling since I rarely set foot in the place).

When I first dove into social networking sites, I was hoping they would prove the answer to my prayers. All those faces and names matched up to each other–perfect! I’d finally have a handy reference to skim before any major event.
And then what do people do? They post a picture of Bruce Lee next to their name. Or a photo of themselves taken in 1972. Or of their dog. Not helpful, people.

In two weeks I head to Bouchercon in Indianapolis. For those who don’t know, it’s one of the largest crime fiction conferences. Thousands of new faces and names to remember.
Some of the people I encounter I will have met before. Chances are I shared a drink with them at some point as well (I find that sadly, alcohol doesn’t help my faculties. Shocking, I know.)

I’ll arrive armed with a welcoming smile and jars full of gingko biloba, and will rummage frantically through my dusty memory files as they remind me that we sat next to each other at a banquet for two interminable hours a few years ago. I’ll pretend to remember, when the truth is I probably don’t (I’ve been to more than my fair share of interminable banquets). The name badges can be helpful, but at conferences they tend to function as de facto wallets/PR material holders, which means that nine times out of ten the person’s name is obscured. I also have yet to master the art of reading the badge without being painfully obvious about it.

I have a friend who has a trick to compensate for this. He always exclaims, “How long has it been!” as soon as anyone approaches him. Generally, this induces said person to provide some helpful tips that narrow the field. He also has a charming Irish accent, which glosses over the discomfort when it turns out they actually have never met. I could try to fake an accent, but I’m not very good at those either.

So, I’m asking a favor. If we have met before, please don’t take offense at the blank expression on my face. I really am doing my best to remember, but all I’m hearing is “Hungry Like a Wolf” on a steady loop.

Are you here for the conference?

by Michelle Gagnonconference

Until I received an invite to Bouchercon, I had no idea conferences like that even existed (and until relatively recently, I had no idea how to properly pronounce Bouchercon, either, as it turns out. I have to stop myself from French-ifying it).

How cool, I thought- the opportunity to meet some of my favorite authors and discuss their books with like-minded fans. When I joined some of the online mystery groups and found out that not only could I attend, but I might even be asked to serve on a panel, it was downright mind-boggling. So the year my debut thriller was released, I devoted most of my marketing budget to conference fees, flying everywhere from Anchorage to New York.

Was it worth it?

Well, I had a great time, that’s for sure. The camaraderie at these conferences is fantastic- where else could I spend a night kicking back with Jeffery Deaver and Harlan Coben? But after two years of attending as many as I could afford, I’ve developed some basic parameters:

  • Cost and release dates: My last two books had summer releases: great for conferences, since most of the big ones occur between March and October and they’re clustered in the summer months (I always think of Bouchercon as closing out conference season). THE GATEKEEPER will be released in November, so I’m cutting back dramatically on what I attend since I’ll just end up pitching BONEYARD to people, many of whom already heard about it last year. Cost is always an issue- even if the conference fee isn’t very expensive, once you factor in all the ancillary costs (travel, hotel, etc), each conference runs me at least a grand. And that adds up quickly. Which leads to…

  • What do I hope to get out of it? Mind you, I love hanging out with fellow writers and fans, but it’s hard to justify spending a thousand dollars over a weekend to do that (especially in this economy). So ideally, I hope to get on at least one good panel, and to network with people I haven’t met yet. There’s always a lot of debate on the lists about which conferences are worth attending, and I’m certain that everyone has a different experience. You might sell more books at smaller regional ones where you’re one of a handful of authors, whereas at larger conferences you might get lost in the shuffle. Yet at those big conferences there’s an opportunity to meet domestic and foreign editors, booksellers, and agents, and to get your name out to a larger cross-section of mystery fans.And sometimes the regional conferences are skewed toward local authors, so if you’re not from the area, you might find yourself relegated to the panel on bug detectives (not a well-attended one, in my experience). So it largely depends on what your career goals are at that given moment. Personally, I’m doing the same thing with conference attendance that I do with my financial portfolio: spreading it out between smaller conferences like Left Coast Crime (they had me at “Hawaii”) and big ones like Bouchercon (which I always seem to get a lot out of).

  • Is it a fan conference, or a writing one? Not that writers aren’t fans- we all are, obviously. But some conferences specialize in helping new authors hone their craft and pitch agents- which is invaluable for them, but I’ve discovered that at those conferences, I spend most of my time dodging requests to pass a manuscript on to my agent. I’d much rather go to a true fan conference, where most of the attendees are readers who want to meet their favorite bestselling authors, and who might be persuaded to try a new one as well.

  • Which genre does the conference emphasize? I’ve gone to a few romance conferences, and so far haven’t had much luck with those (although I know my friend Alex Sokoloff has had a much more positive experience). For me, going to RWA felt like starting over again; I didn’t know the lingo, and since romance isn’t a major component of my books, I drew a lot of blank stares. I’m considering giving Romantic Times a shot when it lands a bit closer to home, but flying to Orlando isn’t a possibility for me this April.

Even though I’m cutting back, as of right now I plan on attending Left Coast Crime, LA Times Festival of Books (a cheap flight, and I can stay with friends), Book Passage (local, and no conference fee), and Bouchercon. I’m on the fence about Thrillerfest, since NY is just so darn expensive, and I’m skipping BEA since my ARCs won’t be ready yet. Also, no Edgars for me, sadly, or Sleuthfest (I could really use a trip to Florida, too. Oh well).

On the plus side, this leaves my summer largely free. But I have to wonder what poor Harlan and Jeffery will do without me. So my question for the day is: are you going to any conferences? Which ones, and why?


By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Inspired by my panel at Bouchercon on social issues in crime fiction, I thought that I should be clear and unapologetic – yep, I have a feminist heroine and I’m proud of it.

One of my fellow panelists also pointed out that I have a lesbian main character too and that it was great that this was not an issue in the book at all. In Edwardian England the concept of female ‘close friends’ was tolerated in a way that male ‘friendship’ most certainly was not – so in both Consequences of Sin and The Serpent and The Scorpion, the sexual orientation of Winifred Stanford-Jones is really only background to the plot and not a social issue per se.

One of the questions I and my fellow panelists (the terrific Neil Plakcy, Karen Olsen, Charles O’Brien, Frankie Y Bailey and moderator extraordinaire, Clair Lamb) were asked was whether we had a particular readership in mind when we considered addressing social issues in our fiction – to which I replied that I guess for those who didn’t believe that women should have got the right to vote, my books were probably not for them.

Other than that though we all agreed that the issues were integral to the story but not a pulpit from which we were determined to preach. In The Serpent and The Scorpion I raise all sorts of issues – the rise of socialism, the potential culpability of the so called ‘merchants of death’, feminism, Jewish settlements in Palestine, Egyptian nationalism – but none of these issues was something I necessarily felt compelled to write about – they all arose organically out of the creative process – through research on my settings, history, character and plot.


Nonetheless it was interesting to hear about the ‘ghetto-ization’, particularly of gay and lesbian as well as African-American crime fiction. Seems that all too often these books will be marginalized in bookstores – often placed in a hard to find corner somewhere at the back of the bookstore (probably near self-help). Typically I have found my books are placed squarely in the mystery or general fiction sections – sometimes the historical mysteries are separated out but not usually hidden away where no one can find them!

On our panel we got to explore the ways in which mystery and crime fiction in general can provide a framework in which to view the world – to focus in and illuminate social issues that transcend genre as well as time period. I’m not even sure we can divorce crime fiction from social issues (crime is after all a social issue!)

People after all do not change. Their vices do not change. There is still injustice. There is still a passion for change. One day let’s hope there will be no need for boundaries and labels – genre fiction will no longer be considered literary fiction’s ugly stepchild and crime fiction, no matter who the protagonists are or what the social issues may be, the books won’t be marginalized in a bookstore but will be out there for all to see, find and read.

Ghosts of Bouchercon Past

I’m heading back east this week for Bouchercon, the conference that is de rigeur for crime writers and fans. This year’s event takes place in Baltimore, burial site of Edgar Allan Poe, and there are a staggering number of people attending. Which got me thinking about my first experience, lo those many years ago…

Not really. I was one of the happy few who braved the cold (and, apparently, the Russians) for the conference in Anchorage, Alaska last year. The ringing refrain appeared to be, “This isn’t a normal Bouchercon, no one’s here!”
But it was my first, and having nothing to compare it to, I had a rip roaring good time. Sure, the panels weren’t necessarily packed, but how could you complain when sidewalk vendors sold reindeer sausages, there was a late night Karaoke bar directly across the street from the hotel, and at least two “police actions” occurred nightly within a three block radius? For better or worse Anchorage appeared closer to “Deadwood” than “Northern Exposure.” So I thought I’d take advantage of this post to reflect on the high- (and low-) lights of Bouchercon 2007, aka “Bearly Alive.”

-Wandering down the streets at night looking for the next publishing party that featured an open bar (which seemed to consume a good chunk of every evening,) we ran into a drag queen in full Wonder Woman regalia. Here in San Francisco, that would mark an ordinary stroll, but in Anchorage?! Kudos to her for braving the cold, those wrist bracelets couldn’t have been doing much to keep her warm.

-Brian Thornton bringing down the house with his rendition of AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” I’m starting a petition to get Brian on American Idol, he was a giant among ants that evening.

-Apparently the Anchorage zoning laws mandate that every block have ten bars, ten gift stores selling virtually identical souvenirs, and one run-down restaurant with the ubiquitous reindeer sausage. God help you if you need a pharmacy, although considering that number of assaults and stabbings that occurred during our stay there, a pharmacy would seem to be a valuable addition to downtown.

-Why was I one of the only people who didn’t manage to see a moose? To hear others tell it, they were tripping over them every time they left the hotel. I suspect they were confusing moose with drag queens in superhero attire.

-Alexandra Sokoloff, Jason Starr, and I badly mangling Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” What Brian Thornton did to elevate the art of Karaoke, we erased with a few verses. I blame a lethal combination of reindeer sausage and whiskey, which combined to convey the delusion that we, too, might be able to sing. We couldn’t, as it turned out. Seriously, it was grim.

-Best panel: the one with the drug sniffing dog chasing David Corbett out of the hall (that didn’t really happen, but wouldn’t it have been funnier if it had?)

-Best author 30 minute slot: Declan Hughes. There’s a man who puts on a show when he’s reading. And there was juggling at the beginning. A tough act to follow.

-2nd Best author 30 minute slot: Rumor had it that Laura Lippman took everyone who showed up for her session out for drinks. Classy. And again, tough act to follow (I’m raising this argument with my publisher to explain why I need a bigger advance next time. How else am I supposed to buy rounds?)

-Worst 30 minute author slot: mine. My flight arrived late, and I didn’t receive the programming schedule until breakfast the following morning. At which point I discovered that I had been enlisted to spend 30 minutes entertaining strangers, and I had to be there in five minutes. I killed five minutes reading the paper with them, them mumbled for the duration. Awful. I promise to do better this year.

-Lukas Ortiz, Alex Sokoloff, Jason Starr, and I managed to get completely lost on a bike ride that began as a three-hour tour of the shoreline and concluded with us pedaling onto the tarmac at the Ted Stevens International Airport. And still, no moose.

Like I said, a rip roaring good time. I can hardly wait to see what happens during “Charmed to Death 2008.” Baltimore is going to have a tough act to follow, at least in my book. Perhaps they should import some drag queens, and maybe a moose…

PS: if you’re attending the conference, here’s where you’ll be able to subject yourself to more of my non sequiturs:

10:30AM Thursday: Author Karaoke with fellow kill Zone authors Kathryn Lilley and Clare Langley-Hawthorne. We WILL NOT SING, this I promise you. We will discuss book blog tours. And we might juggle.

11:30AM Thursday, Int’l E: I CAN’T STAND UP FOR FALLING DOWN: Booze, hootch & firewater in crime fiction. Ali Karim(M), Ken Bruen, Michelle Gagnon, Con Lehane, Elizabeth Zelvin

11:30AM Saturday, Int’l D: PSYCHO KILLER: Why are we so fascinated by serial killers? Brian Lindmuth(M), Mark Billingham, Michelle Gagnon, Jonathan Hayes, Alan Jacobson

PPS: For truly brave souls…
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A KILLER WORKOUT is out today in bookstores!

Today marks the official debut of A KILLER WORKOUT in bookstores across the country. It’s a brand new adventure for the series heroine, Kate Gallagher. In this story, our intrepid reporter heads for a boot-camp style exercise retreat to do a little downsizing on her butt, only to wind up sugar-crashing it in the middle of a gruesome crime scene. She soon discovers that exercise can really be murder!

To celebrate the launch, I’ll be at Bouchercon this weekend, meeting and greeting readers and booksellers. I’ll also be teaming up with my fellow Kill Zone authors Michelle and Clare for an author’s karaoke event on Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m. But don’t worry, we won’t be singing (that would really be a crime, at least in my case!). We’ll discuss all aspects of a blog tour, from brainstorming niche blogs that might serve as hosts, to tailoring content, to building traffic that translates into sales. A few members from the audience can present their elevator pitch and we’ll help them craft some ideas.

Oh, and by the way, if you’re in the general Santa Barbara region today, Tuesday, you can catch me on the radio at 8:47 a.m. on KZSB Radio, AM 1290. My host will be the wonderful Baron Ron Herron.

Stay tuned!