New Kid In The Zone

by Laura Benedict
@laurabenedict

A few weeks ago, the incredibly generous Joe Moore invited me to blog here at TKZ on alternating Wednesdays. It was an easy “yes” for me because I’ve visited before, and I admire both TKZ’s reputation for excellence and its smart and talented contributors. I toyed with the idea of jumping right in with a specific writing topic, but then I decided it might be better to introduce myself first. So I’ve asked and answered a few questions that will help you get to know me. (Forgive the slightly snarky tone of the questions. Sometimes I’m a grouchy interviewer.)

Let’s start with an easy question. Where are you from?

I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, but grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. I graduated from college and worked in St. Louis, then moved to rural West Virginia where my husband’s family had a dairy farm. After a chilly two-year excursion to Holland, Michigan, we went back east to Roanoke, Virginia, for eight years. Now we live in Southern Illinois, which is an hour closer to Tupelo, Mississippi than it is to Chicago. Setting plays a big role in my fiction, and up to this point I’ve stuck pretty closely to those locations.

When did you start writing fiction?

As a child and young adult, I was always a reader, but I didn’t have the confidence to imagine I could be a writer—amateur or professional. It wasn’t until I was working for A Great Big Beer Company in St. Louis, and found myself tinkering with the professional copy I was buying for sales promotion projects, that I even considered writing fiction. (You’ll note the connection in my mind between ad copy and fiction.) By then I was in my mid-twenties. I didn’t publish my first novel until I was in my forties.

What kind of books do you write?

I’ve always been drawn to the darker side of fiction, and perhaps that’s why I can never find happiness writing about those quotidian epiphanies that are so popular in academic/literary circles. It wasn’t until I wrote my third novel that I really found my voice—and it was a supernatural story called Isabella Moon, about a woman who tries to solve the murder of a little girl while on the run from her psychotic husband. That novel was the first one I sold, as part of a two-book deal with Ballantine. My latest novels are a gothic trilogy set in a haunted house in a fictional Virginia town: Bliss House, Charlotte’s Story, and The Abandoned Heart (Pegasus Crime, October 2016). Despite their pretty covers, they are not quiet books for the faint of heart. As I mentioned, I write short stories as well. They show up in various places and run the gamut from straight mysteries to the horrific and surreal. In fact, my absurdly talented writer husband, Pinckney Benedict, and I edited an anthology series of southern surreal stories called Surreal South. You can take a peek at my website or author page to read more about all of my work.

You look like such a nice lady. Why do you write creepy stories?

I look forward to talking about how I—and other writers—choose stories to write. But as to the why? Sorry. That’s between my therapist and me. As you get to know me better, you might hazard a guess or two—and I just may tell you if you’re right!

Why are the most ragged, dog-eared books on your bookshelf Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca? Talk about a peculiar pair.

I’ve never been one for chasing down celebrities, but I confess I’d love to have had dinner with Daphne and Cormac just to see what they’d make of each other. But—with apologies to every writer here—I’ve found that most writers aren’t so great at talking about or even understanding their own stories. It’s the books that are important. Besides being darned good reads, Blood Meridian and Rebecca both contain elements that appeal to me as both writer and reader: complex, disturbing crimes, unforgettable characters, and settings that are, themselves, active characters.

Pantser or Plotter?

I suspected this question was coming. To borrow a description from my friend, Jordan Dane, I’d say I’m a recovering pantser. Up until very recently, my mantra excuse was, “If I figure out the plot ahead of time, I’ll have told myself the story and I’ll be bored and won’t want to write it.” What I’ve learned—the hard way—is that there’s a lot of pleasure to be had in pondering plot and character before getting into the writing. And there’s much, much more to it than saying this needs to happen, then this, etc. The first inkling of each story nearly always comes to me as a vivid image—usually of a protagonist or a setting. But that’s not a heck of a lot to hang a novel on, and thus the plot often reveals itself with an agonizing slowness that undermines my production goals. I’ll get into this later, but for a long time I bought into the notion that the story was a sacred object, and if I manipulated it, it would become over determined and wouldn’t work.

Do you have an MFA? Have you been educated by highly trained writing professionals?

No, and let me think about that for a moment.

Approximately a hundred and fifty years ago, I got a B.S. in Business Administration with a major in finance. I didn’t take a single writing class until I was well into a promotions career with the subsidiary of A Great Big Beer Company in St. Louis. After I took a couple undergrad creative writing classes, I talked my way into a grad fiction workshop and was promptly and roundly mocked for my plot-heavy stories. The professor said they were too old-fashioned to be published. Ouch. But being a contrary sort, I decided to forge ahead. I understood that I wasn’t trained to write literary fiction (which I consider a genre, not an end-game—more on that later, too), and after the workshop experience, I wasn’t much interested to learn. So I read more than ever (classics, literary and commercial fiction and non-fiction) and wrote even more. I wrote short stories and entered many, many contests. In 2000, I discovered a Joyce Carol Oates story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and told myself that if she—one of my literary idols—wrote for EQMM, then I should give it a shot. They published my story, The Hollow Woman, in their Department of First Stories in 2001. (My third EQMM story, The Peter Rabbit Killers, is in the recent July issue. And you can listen to me read The Erstwhile Groom on their Podomatic website.)

When I decided to write novels, I swallowed my pride and took a couple of independent studies and workshops to give myself some deadlines. I know I learned at least as much from the other participants as I did from the teachers. Of course, the best teachers are always books themselves.

Do you know anything about independent publishing, or are you strictly about traditional publishing?

When the great publishing purge of 2009/2010 occurred (does anyone else remember that, or was it just my personal cataclysm?), I was dropped by my publisher. I panicked and pouted for two years, but I also kept writing and, after my next novel didn’t find a traditional home, I delved into the brave new world of independent publishing. My husband and I started our own small press and put out my third novel in ebook and paper. Since then I’ve published my backlist, a Bliss House short story, and a couple of anthologies. There’s more on the way.

I’m a big believer in using the right delivery system for the right story. And never giving up. I’m happy to share what I know, and am always anxious to learn from others in the business.

Do you have a day job, or do you just sit in your house and write all day?

For the past twenty-four years, parenting and writing have been my competing jobs. I homeschooled my daughter at various points up until high school, and am now partially homeschooling my sixteen year-old son. My mornings are for writing business, promotion, research, and/or social media. Homeschool is in the afternoon, then I write before dinner and into the wee hours. I have raging ADHD but can’t write on medication, so staying at my desk to write is a major act of will for me.

If you follow astrology profiles, you already know that my early July birthday makes me a Cancer, and Cancers are often introverted homebodies. Though I do like to get out and meet readers and socialize at conferences and book festivals. If you’re wondering what I’m currently up to, let’s get together on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and at my website.

Do you teach writing, or do you just write?

I’ve taught at many writing workshops over the years, including the residential Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop at Hollins University, and the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop. I’ve also done many smaller writing workshops for both children and adults.

What do you bring to The Kill Zone party?

I bring my love for the written word along with me, and my enthusiasm for sharing what I’ve learned with emerging writers. I bring my curiosity and hunger to learn and adapt. Also, I always have chocolate to share, and occasionally even a salad in my purse.

I’m thrilled and delighted to be here, but that’s enough about me. Tell me a bit about yourself and what brings you here.

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I Screamed, I Cried, I Threw It Across the Room

                                                              

I love lists of things and I found another good one this morning. It is “18 Films You’ll Never Watch Again”, courtesy of the folks at movieseum.com. It’s not that the films that make the list are poorly done; they are not. They are by and large wonderfully done, but their subject matter is of the type with which you don’t want to deal, unless you have a half-gallon or so of bleach to pour into your sulci when you’re through. There is plenty to agree with (Bad Lieutenant made the list, as did Sophie’s Choice to name but two) and with which to disagree (The Devil’s Rejects? Are you kidding?!) but the list is worth perusal when you get a moment as it is wide-ranging and lists a few films that even the most ardent film buff might have missed.

So. Where is the list of books that are worthy of being read but, topic-wise, were more than could handle? I imagine that a number of folks would put THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy on that list (the film version had its own entry) because of the dark, unrelentingly grim, subject matter. I would not, even though there are passages in that book which in their entirety haunt me still. No, my entry is PET SEMATARY, by Stephen King, the novel, which, according to King himself, the novelist Tabitha King begged him not to write. I agree with her; while I was reading the book, I screamed, I cried, I through it across the room, I stomped it, and then I finished it. The book concerned two things that I handle: the death of children and the death of pets. That PET SEMATARY deals with those subjects (and I’m not going to tell you how, if you haven’t read the book; no spoilers here, Bucko) would have been bad enough, but then King, God Bless him, takes things a step further with a very subtle, brilliantly conceived and wondrously executed “what would you do” scenario. I know what I would do, in a circumstance similar to that which confronted Louis Creed: I would do exactly what Creed did, even knowing what would happen, on the chance that something different might occur.  And that, my friends, is what I can’t deal with. I have more stories unpublished than otherwise, with mayhem and mortality and violence visited upon the innocent and the guilty alike, but I have never harmed a child or a pet in any of them. It’s someplace I can’t go.

If I may, then: what book did you find fearfully and wonderfully written that you nonetheless refuse to ever read again? Why? What elements of that book for you are the spiders in the shoes at the bottom of the closet, those shoes you won’t wear anymore? And can you write about your fears in your stories, or do you leave them unspoken, so as to rob them of life? 
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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, clichés, 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.

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Purging the Editor

I believe it is a given that those of us who aspire to write are also vociferous readers. A reader is a wonderful thing to be; however, I have come to the conclusion that sometimes this state of mind and being can be an impediment to an author aborning.  Reading a novel by James Lee Burke or Karin Slaughter or John Connolly or Chelsea Cain can inspire a reader to think, “I want to do that.”  Yet it can also be discouraging; one reads BLACK CHERRY BLUES by Burke and thinks, “I can never be that good; why bother?”  The fleeting dream is set aside, sometimes permanently. Part of the reason for this state of affairs is that in the case of a book (or a film, or a painting, or a music project) we rarely see what came before, the early stages that led to the final result.

Such does not hold true with respect to a construction project, to name but one example. We recently had the opportunity to watch an all but vacant shopping center in our area be transformed over a period of several months into a wholly done, over, remodeled, commercially successful unit. It was fun to watch. Readers generally do not get to watch the process by which their favorite author transforms a few hundred blank pages into a cohesive, occasionally unforgettable, experience. So it is that the novel, upon publication, seems to have sprung from whole cloth, seemingly effortlessly. We know better, of course. But it is difficult sometimes to fully appreciate it without seeing the ultrasound ourselves.

I hit an emotional low point this past week for a number or reasons that aren’t really important to this discussion; what is important is what brought me out of it, at least so far as creativity is concerned. I happened across an article in Slate entitled “Cormac McCarthy Cuts to the Bone.”  You can find the article here. It is an extremely interesting piece which, among other things, reveals that McCarthy’s classic novel BLOOD MERIDIAN was a far different book at publication than it was at conception. What really attracted me to the article, however, was the reproduction of two pages from McCarthy’s original draft.  They are instructive, even if you have never read a word that Mr. McCarthy has written or alternatively would not reflexively grab your copy of BLOOD MERIDIAN or THE ORCHARD  KEEPER if confronted with a fire and the resultant dilemma of what to save.  BLOOD MERIDIAN did not flow out of McCarthy’s mind without deep and dark consideration. If you’re having trouble getting your words out of you and onto the page, don’t let it be because you in your own mind aren’t “good enough” or “as good” as your favorite author. When your favorite author started writing, they weren’t good enough either. It takes several drafts, several cement pourings, if you will, before things solidify and become right. Don’t put your handprints and your initials into your work and ruin it before it is dry. Purge yourself of what playwright John Guare so brilliantly called “tiny obnoxious editor living in your head,” the one who tells you that you will never be as good as Stephen King or Elmore Leonard or whoever. Then let the construction begin. 

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Which Book to Read — or Write — Next?
I’m like a cat when it comes to books or music: whatever I have immediately at hand is never quite what I want. It’s a ridiculous predicament to be in, particularly when you have a collection/accumulation of either/or which exceeds five hundred or so, but it is what it is. There is Pandora for music so that if, for but one example, you like Guided by Voices but aren’t necessarily in the mood for it you can find something close to it. For books, there is now a website that will get you close to what you want to read next. It’s called Whichbook —  http://www.whichbook.net/ — and it’s not perfect, at least not yet, but it’s pretty cool.
Okay, most of you have stopped reading this and clicked on the link, and that’s fine, I understand. For both of you who are still with me, however, let me give you a brief one and back on how the site works. You will find a menu running down the left side of the home page consisting of a series of fields, each of which contains two antonyms (those would be opposite words, for those of you who started school after 1978), such as “Happy/ Sad,”  “Safe/Disturbing,” “Expected/Unpredictable,” and “Optimistic/Bleak.” Click on one and John Gilstrap will come out to your house and mow your lawn for a month. Oops. Wrong website. Let’s try again. Ahem. Click on a field and a red cursor pops up which you can set closer to one word or another. You can do that for up to four word pairs; then click on “Go” field and you get a list of books that match the qualities you input. Using the fields I mentioned above, I chose “Sad,” “Disturbing,” “Unpredictable,” and “Bleak,” pressed “Go,” looked up, and Courtney Love was in my office, pointing a shotgun at me. Just kidding. I got a list of about fifteen books which were recommended to me, with reviews, summaries, excerpts, and links to Amazon to buy them. I had never heard of many of them, which is fine. That might be just what you want with a site like this. I found it passing strange, however, that something like The Road by Cormac McCarthy wasn’t listed. But Whichbook has that covered too. There is a suggestion page — more on that in a minute — and a page which lists the authors featured on Whichbook .  You can also go to another page where you can make selections based on character, plot and setting, which is nicely done (though not perfect) as well.
This looks to be a great tool for readers. However, it has the potential to be a great tool for writers and already-published authors as well. For authors…I see no problem with suggesting your own books for inclusion, or having your spouse, significant other, or even both of them doing that for you. For writers, Whichbook is a quick tool for framing the underpinnings of your basic plot. Go to the character, plot and setting page. After due deliberation, you have decided that your  next potential bestseller is about a mixed race, bi-sexual female between the ages of 26 and 50 who succeeds against the odds in a tale set in Ohio, who becomes involved in a violent, disturbing, and unpredictable series of situations with lots of sex. Okay. Maybe using Whichbook’s search engine to begin your next project is  a little like using a hammer for a screwdriver.  At the very least, however, Whichbook will get you thinking about what you want to read next. And for authors? Whichbook has the potential to be yet another tool to get your book in front of that ever-elusive reading public. 
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Santa List

Ah, the holiday season…time of looniness and mayhem… Today, being my last blog post for 2009, I’m going to channel the holiday spirit and write about conspicuous consumption (of books of course!) and my family’s current wish list for Santa.

Now first up (appropriately enough) are my parents. Notoriously hard to buy for as they devour their favorite authors’ latest books as soon as they come out, they have few books still on their list so I’m going for the audio book approach: I figure I can’t go wrong with Good Omens by Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (my father is a huge fan of both) or The Screwtape Letters by C.S Lewis…only problem, not sure Santa’s up on the whole ‘bureaucracy of hell’ or ‘the end is nigh’ stuff – might dampen the ho, ho, ho…but, bah humbug, that’s what they’re getting.
My twin boys are so much easier – I’ve already indoctrinated them into loving mystery books (the old fashioned, English kind, of course). Once again, Enid Blyton rules and my boys are already obsessed by the Secret Seven mystery series (seven kids, a dog named Scamper and lots of English village mysteries to solve) and are about to discover the Adventure series (four kids, a talking parrot and mysteries in exotic locations). Santa is fully up to speed on their book requirements though (sigh), Lego is still number one on their Santa list.

My husband is always a trickier proposition, book-wise. He barely has enough time to start a book let alone finish it, but I recently introduced him to a terrific Australian thriller writer, Michael Rowbotham, so I know he’ll be trying to read him over the holidays. As for his list, well I’m going for non-fiction instead with Michael Chabon’s latest, Manhood for Amateurs. I wasn’t quite ready to put his wife’s book, Bad Mother, on my Santa list (my fragile ego couldn’t cope with unwrapping it on Christmas Day…) but I’d love to read it all the same.

I have a veritable library of titles on my list for Santa…and certainly not enough time to read them all…but my top three are: AS Byatt’s Edwardian saga, The Children’s Book; Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic, The Road, and Juliet Nicholson’s non-fiction account of collective mourning in the aftermath of WW1, The Great Silence.

So what books are on your Santa list??
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