How Important is Research and Authenticity in Fiction?


Our own Clare Langley-Hawthorne recently posted about getting professional (especially military) details right. She wrote a seemingly self-evident bit of wisdom:
In mysteries and thrillers we often have protagonists with a military or law enforcement background and, given that many of our readers will have similar backgrounds, we need to get the details right. As writers we have an obligation to do our research and try and paint as accurate a picture as possible.
And yet . . .
One of my favorite shows of all time is Law & Order, especially when Michael Moriarty was on it. As pure storytelling, it was an amazing achievement week after week. Using the same structural template, it managed to create compelling characterizations and unique plot details so that each episode seemed fresh.
But there is one thing about the show that drives me nuts. Well, two.
The first is when the detectives slap cuffs on a suspect. It may be on the street or in the workplace, but immediately they begin with their Miranda warnings: “You have the right to remain silent . . .anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law . . .you have the right to an attorney . . .” etc.
The only problem is that no detective (at least, no detective who knows what he’s doing) Mirandizes a suspect at the point of arrest. That’s because he wants the suspect to talk, to babble, to make statements, which they often do. And yes, those statements are admissible evidence, so long as they have not come as a result of accusatoryquestioning.   
Yet it is now a virtual cliché on cop shows and in fiction that at the moment of arrest the cops give the rights admonition. And because of that, the public largely believes that’s the way it should be done every time.
So you have the ironic situation that a reader could write to tell you your cop forgot to Mirandize a suspect, and why don’t you do simple research, fella?
Another item from Law & Order. They usually sit the suspect down in an interview room, separated by a table. Now thatis when you’d Mirandize, and have the suspect sign a written waiver.
Anyway, the questioning begins and it isn’t long before one of the cops (usually Chris Noth) loses his temper and starts screaming at or threatening the suspect.
But as my friend, interrogation expert and fellow author Paul Bishop, says, being aggressive like that only gets a suspect to clam up. Paul, a 35-year LAPD vet (30 of them in sex crimes) now teaches interrogation nationwide to law enforcement agencies. He says he raised his voice during an interrogation maybe five times in his career.
Another thing: Paul doesn’t want a table separating him and the suspect. The table cuts off his view of half the body language. Recently Paul gave a talk to some local SoCal writers on interrogation. He showed the way he did it, by putting his chair directly in front of the suspect, sitting so close their knees touched. He speaks calmly, asking strategic questions in order to get the suspect’s body to betray signs of anxiety.
I tell you, I was sitting in the audience as Paul demonstrated with the moderator, and I was ready to jump out of my seat and confess to something. It was awesome.
But is this ever shown in cop shows or fiction? More dramatic to have a cop throw a chair.
Which is why many writers, even longtime and bestselling veterans, choose the more dramatic alternative, even when it flouts real life. It is also well known that certain A-list writers don’t care much at all about research and flatly make up as much of it as they can.
Is anyone going to arrest them for it? Read them their rights?
So there may be a continuum here. For example, if you’re going to write about weapons, it’s my experience you better get that right, because there are too many gun aficionados out there who will rake you over the coals if you get a detail wrong.
But on the other side of the range, perhaps it’s not as crucial. I recall Lee Child talking about one of his books where Reacher is going through Georgia, a place Child has never  himself been. He received a detailed rejoinder about the impossibility of Reacher’s itinerary from someone who knew the particular roads in that part of the state. But as this error did not seem to impact sales, Child was more sanguine than disturbed by it.
Harlan Coben has also said he is of the “make it up” school of research. Doesn’t seem to have slowed down his sales, either.
Personally, I like to get things right. I’ll do on-site research here in LA, take pictures, walk the streets I’m writing about, feel the vibe of the neighborhood. When it comes to procedures and professional details, I also want to be accurate.
But I also recall something Lawrence Block wrote in the first book I ever read on the craft: Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print. Discussing research in general, and his Evan Tanner books (which take place in settings all over the world) in particular, Larry wrote, “Equipped with a decent atlas and a library of travel guides, it’s not all that difficult to do an acceptable job of faking a location. A few details and deft touches in the right places can do more to make your book appear authentic then you might manage via months of expensive and painstaking on-the-spot research.”
That’s really the point in fiction, isn’t it? We are all faking it, so the appearanceof authenticity is what we’re after. If a made-up detail can suffice for effect, why not?
Just don’t have your cops give Miranda warnings to your arrestees on the street, or I’ll send you an email.
So what’s your take on research in fiction? Are you a stickler? How important is it to you that bestselling writers get all the details right? (Note: I’m flying home today from Denver, so won’t be able to comment for a bit. Meanwhile, have at it!)

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The Funny Thing About Thrillers

By Boyd Morrison

My friend Brad Parks has graciously agreed to stop by today to discuss a topic that has been kept quiet for too long, a topic we all acknowledge exists but don’t have the guts to address. Brad, however, has taken the brave step forward and is putting his reputation on the line to take on a subject many may consider taboo. Brad, take it away.

——————

       May mother wash my mouth out with soap, but I’d like to talk about the F-word. Or, at least, what some in the crime fiction community consider the F-word:

       Funny.

       This, believe it or not, is a (rare) serious missive from a guy who appeared on the cover of Crimespree dressed in a Tom-Wolfe-meets-pimp white suit. And the question I’d like everyone to ponder – and not in the grubbing-for-comments way that some guest bloggers do, but in a genuine I’m-really-curious-for-your-thoughts way – is this:

       Is it a blessing to write funny mysteries or a curse?

       In this space a few weeks back, P.J. Parrish had a post about how hard it is to write funny. My question is more: do you even want to?

       I ask this because Boyd, my host today, and the other Kill Zone authors are, on average, much smarter than me and I know they’ll have interesting things to say; because I was just nominated for a Lefty Award, given at Left Coast Crime to “the best humorous mystery,” and therefore need to steal the your comments so I can sound clever on panels about this subject later this month; and because I have a new book to hawk (it’s titled THE GOOD COP and Booklist called it “a tautly written page-turner with charm and humor,” so please buy it or Michelle Gagnon will kick a puppy).

       Anyhow, back on topic, I’m now on my fourth book, and I’ve learned that while some people really seem to enjoy a helping of humor in their mysteries, others think the phrase “funny mystery” is the world’s biggest paradox – on the order of “jumbo shrimp” or “compassionate conservative.”

       It’s a curious thing, because in person – or even online – thriller writers tend to be a joyful, often hysterical lot. I often come home from a conference feeling all I’ve done is laugh. And yet while in most aspects of life, this kind of funny is good – human beings are wired to enjoy laughter, after all – the conventional wisdom in the publishing world says funny can taste a little strange when it’s served next to murder.

       “Humor and suspense are contradictory emotions,” said one well-known book critic when I asked him the blessing-or-curse question. “If you’re feeling one, you’re not feeling the other.”

       You’re not supposed to laugh at crime, the thinking goes. Violence and its impact on survivors, which is the substance of most mysteries, are not humorous subjects. When you look at the thrillers that fill the high reaches of the bestseller list, almost none – other than Janet Evanovich – are laughers.

       What’s more, even writers who started off with humor in their work eventually ditch the yucks in favor of more somber stuff. Harlan Coben is a great example of this. His early Myron Bolitar books are often madcap romps. But he didn’t “make it” commercially until he started writing what are essentially humorless standalones. Even now, when he writes a Myron Bolitar, it’s mostly without the comedy that mark his earlier books.

       So does that mean it’s bad to write funny? Some folks seem to think so. I actually got an e-mail from a friend saying she hoped I didn’t win the Lefty, because then no one would take me seriously.

        (“No one takes me seriously anyway,” I wanted to say. Oh, and, incidentally, I also told her she was out of her flippin’ mind. When it comes to awards, I have tried both winning and not winning, and I have found the former to be infinitely more satisfying).

       And yet, for all the critical disdain funny stuff sometimes gets, readers love it. So, up to this point, my own take on the blessing-or-curse question has been that conventional publishing wisdom has it wrong, that it grossly underestimates the intelligence of its readership. I get out quite a bit and the readers I’ve met are, on average, far smarter than the average bear. They are perfectly capable of switching between lighter and heavier moments in a book.

       And so, perhaps as a result, my fourth book in the Carter Ross series has its serious stuff. It starts with the death of a police officer and deals with the issue of illegal gun trafficking. But it also has two elderly Jewish con artists, slinging Yiddish insults at Carter; an intern who is made to perform pregnancy tests on toilet water; and a student who is majoring in “death studies” and helps Carter break into the county morgue while drunk on absinthe.

       It’s all in good fun, of course. And I’d like to think it doesn’t get in the way of the plot or the pacing.

       But it is a mistake anyway? Discuss…

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See Me, Touch Me, Feel Me


Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits. I was doing the former on the Thursday last, wondering how I was going to fill my Saturday space, when my UPS delivery man (one of God’s truly good people) provided me with the answer. It came in an over-sized black padded envelope, and didn’t feel quite like a book, even though it bore a return address from the fine folks at HarperCollins. I was able to open it after a bit of struggle and the deployment of a knife, scissors, and a flamethrower (in that order). Demonspawn, our family cat, immediately appropriated the envelope, and was last seen attempting to contact his darkworld masters through the closed end; I took possession of the contents. These consisted of an oversized milk carton and a mass market paperback titled “and she was” by Alison Gaylin. The milk carton is a four-sided advertisement for the book.  My initial reaction was, “What the fu-heck is this?” My second was, “This is pretty cool.” I have been described as easily amused, and hard to impress. This little bit of advertising slight-of-hand, worthy of Donald Draper, managed to do both.
The conventional wisdom is that you’ve got to get out on social networks, groom and cultivate your website,  and make friends with a fourteen year old to show you how to use Twitter if you want your book to have a chance of getting noticed, let alone of selling copies.  And it’s probably true. But this milk carton as marketing tool is retro thinking out of the box. “and she was” concerns a missing child, and indeed, there is a picture of the child on one side of the carton. The other sides contain blurbs from Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, Lee Child, and Lisa Gardner; an essay from Ms. Gaylin about Hyperthymestic Syndrome, an element which figures prominently in the book; and some bullet-point marketing information with a photo of the book cover.  
Expensive marketing? Sure. But. The milk carton is our new kitchen table centerpiece. Unlike Facebook and websites and Twitter and the like one can pick it up and touch it and be reminded of the fact that the book is out there and for sale and there’s a copy of it sitting nearby, waiting to be read.  No one has asked me to review the book, but of course this is what the whole package is all about. And the premise certainly looks intriguing. Hyperthymestic Syndrome involves the ability of a person so afflicted to remember, in full, any given day of their life, with all five senses. If I had learned of the book via e-mail there is a 50-50 chance I would have read it. Send me a milk carton, and I’m your loving baby boy.  I’m going to read “and she was” and I’m going to review it.
Am I old-fashioned? Or is there a marketing genius at HarperCollins who is taking us back to the future? If we all are using Facebook and Twitter and e-mail blasts to hawk our wares, are we making their particular needles stand out? Or are we all busily building a brand new huge haystack in cyberspace? And does it mean that to really, really make your book stand out, it is going to take more money than ever  to do so?
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See Me, Touch Me, Feel Me


Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits. I was doing the former on the Thursday last, wondering how I was going to fill my Saturday space, when my UPS delivery man (one of God’s truly good people) provided me with the answer. It came in an over-sized black padded envelope, and didn’t feel quite like a book, even though it bore a return address from the fine folks at HarperCollins. I was able to open it after a bit of struggle and the deployment of a knife, scissors, and a flamethrower (in that order). Demonspawn, our family cat, immediately appropriated the envelope, and was last seen attempting to contact his darkworld masters through the closed end; I took possession of the contents. These consisted of an oversized milk carton and a mass market paperback titled “and she was” by Alison Gaylin. The milk carton is a four-sided advertisement for the book.  My initial reaction was, “What the fu-heck is this?” My second was, “This is pretty cool.” I have been described as easily amused, and hard to impress. This little bit of advertising slight-of-hand, worthy of Donald Draper, managed to do both.
The conventional wisdom is that you’ve got to get out on social networks, groom and cultivate your website,  and make friends with a fourteen year old to show you how to use Twitter if you want your book to have a chance of getting noticed, let alone of selling copies.  And it’s probably true. But this milk carton as marketing tool is retro thinking out of the box. “and she was” concerns a missing child, and indeed, there is a picture of the child on one side of the carton. The other sides contain blurbs from Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, Lee Child, and Lisa Gardner; an essay from Ms. Gaylin about Hyperthymestic Syndrome, an element which figures prominently in the book; and some bullet-point marketing information with a photo of the book cover.  
Expensive marketing? Sure. But. The milk carton is our new kitchen table centerpiece. Unlike Facebook and websites and Twitter and the like one can pick it up and touch it and be reminded of the fact that the book is out there and for sale and there’s a copy of it sitting nearby, waiting to be read.  No one has asked me to review the book, but of course this is what the whole package is all about. And the premise certainly looks intriguing. Hyperthymestic Syndrome involves the ability of a person so afflicted to remember, in full, any given day of their life, with all five senses. If I had learned of the book via e-mail there is a 50-50 chance I would have read it. Send me a milk carton, and I’m your loving baby boy.  I’m going to read “and she was” and I’m going to review it.
Am I old-fashioned? Or is there a marketing genius at HarperCollins who is taking us back to the future? If we all are using Facebook and Twitter and e-mail blasts to hawk our wares, are we making their particular needles stand out? Or are we all busily building a brand new huge haystack in cyberspace? And does it mean that to really, really make your book stand out, it is going to take more money than ever  to do so?
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Can A Bestseller Be Engineered?

By John Gilstrap

In 1997, a literary author named Bradford Morrow made big headlines in the book industry when he allegedly told a reporter from New York Magazine that his publisher, Viking, was trying to engineer a bestselling thriller out of his next novel Giovanni’s Gift. To support the book, and to give it a leg up on sales, the publisher spent a lot of dough promoting it. That’s a good thing, right?

Well, not necessarily. When the New York Magazine story was published, New York Times Book Review writer Walter Kirn tore apart not only the book, but also the author and publisher. Here’s a link to a piece that Salon did on the brouhaha: http://www.salon.com/march97/media/media970331.html.

While some reviews leave room for interpretation, I think intelligent minds can agree that this is gratuitously awful: “an unintentionally campy blend of artistic ambition and commercial cynicism … a case study in the novel as gilded kitsch — a book that proposes to elevate its readers even as it takes calculated aim at their presumed stupidity … a thin romantic melodrama insulated in operatic twaddle.”


Morrow’s offense, such as it was(n’t) was his decision to share with the world his desire for commercial success. (In future interviews, he maintained that he never writes for money.)


How the world has changed, huh? In a mere fourteen years, we have come to a place in history where it’s okay for an author to publicly state his desire for commercial success. (I’ve long believed that even literary writers secretly want to make money off what they write.)


Carrying on with this week’s theme of finding the right strings to pull to engineer a bestseller, I continue to question whether any individual writer can do anything to significantly influence sales. Sure, there are outliers and exceptions (paging Joe Konrath), but in Joe’s case you have to give credit to the power of being first.


Yesterday ended a 10-day run for my book At All Costs on the Kindle Top 100. (As I write this, it sits at #105, having gotten as low as the 20s.) This is great news for a book that was written in the same year when Giovanni’s Gift was released. Could it possibly be that my fan base has finally reached that self-sustaining critical mass?


Maybe. I hope so. But I have serious doubts about that. If that were the case, my Nook sales rank would be substantially lower than 10,223, which is where it sits as I write this. So, what’s going on?


The answer in two words: Paid Promotion.


My publisher is spending real coin at Amazon on my behalf for banner ads and email blasts that alert anyone who has ever bought my work or the work of anyone who writes similar thrillers that there’s a new Gilstrap eBook out there at the readily affordable price of $1.99 (down from the original $4.50-ish). I assure you that it’s no coincidence that everyone who buys the At All Costs eBook will get to read the first chapter of Threat Warning, the front list book coming out on June 28 as an eBook and July 1 as a pBook.


Words cannot express how grateful I am to Kensington for getting behind me and my work this way. It’s all part of a strategy that was engineered and is continually tweaked by several departments of professionals who promote books for a living. If they’re doing this for li’l ole me, can you imagine the horsepower that’s behind the likes of Baldacci, Coben and Deaver? Sure, at the end of the day, the quality of the work is paramount—an author has to entertain his audience—but a lot of the frenzy that surrounds the release of a book is bought and paid for, including much of the stuff that seems spontaneous.


I have no idea what the price tag of all of this is, but I’m going to guess that it’s significant enough to be out of range for most people I know. It’s not just the absolute value of the time and the cash that’s involved; it’s the risk factor, too. There’s no guarantee that they’ll ever see a return on their investment.


My writing career is eight books deep now—eight books published, anyway. I’ve hired two independent publicists in that time, I’ve arranged book tours, I’ve typed my fingers bloody on blog tours, yet I can tell you without hesitation that nothing I’ve done in self-promotion comes close to providing the results of what Kensington is doing for me. And it’s not just the money; it’s the know-how.


I’m the first to say that I’m perhaps overly blessed at the moment, but some really dark times preceded the last couple of years. This is a tough, tough, business, and with few exceptions the road to success—whatever that means to whoever it means it to—is paved with divots and bloodstains.


Jeffery Deaver and I used to meet for drinks and dinner every Thursday evening for five or six years, and during the darkest of the dark times he endured my pity party for a while. Then, when I asked him what he’s doing right that I’m doing wrong, he put it in perfect perspective for me: “I’m twenty books ahead of you,” he said.


And there it is: the secret to publishing success. And after the twentieth book comes the twenty-first. I’ve come a long way since that chat with Jeff, but I have a long way to go.


Finally, at long last, I’m part of a team that supports me; but part of the reason they support me is because they feel I’ve earned it, a book at a time and a fan at a time.


Can you engineer a bestseller? I believe it’s done all the time. But key elements of the blue print include an established, enthusiastic fan base, and a proven ability to turn out good work.


Can a first time author engineer a bestseller on his own? The occasional exception notwithstanding, I believe the answer is no.

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The Great Backstory Debate

Last week we looked at the great semi-colon debate, which was a bit tongue-in-cheek (but only a bit!) Today we look at a real writing controversy, a little thing called backstory. Specifically, how much (if any) do you put in your opening pages?
You will find those who argue that there should be no backstory at all in those first chapters. Why not? Because, by definition, backstory is what has happened before your narrative opens, and you want to establish the action first, get the readers locked in on that.
This is, on the surface, sound advice. These days we do not have the leisure time, a la Dickens, to set the stage and do a ton of narrative summary up front. Or, a la Michener, begin with the protozoa of the pre-Cambrian earth and record their evolutionary development into the Texans of today.
I am an advocate of beginning with action (which doesn’t mean, necessarily, car chases or gun fights). The best openings, IMO, show a character in motion. And further, manifesting a “disturbance” to their ordinary world.
I tell writing students, “Act first, explain later.” A big mistake in many manuscripts is that chapter one carries too much exposition. The writer thinks the reader has to know a bunch of character background to understand the action. Mistake. Readers will wait a long time for the explanations when there’s a character in motion, facing a disturbance.
However, I believe in strategic backstory in the opening. I say strategic because you do have a strategy in your opening, one above all—bond your character with the reader.
Without that character bonding, readers are not going to care about the action, at least not as much as they should. Backstory, properly used, helps you get them into the character so there is an emotional connection. Fiction, above all, should create an emotional experience.
I also stress properly used. That means marbled within the action, not standing alone in large blocks over several pages.
The guys who do this really well also happen to be two of the bestselling novelists of our time, King and Koontz. You think that’s a coincidence?
So here’s the simple “rule.” Start with action. Let’s see a character in motion, doing something. Make sure there’s some trouble, even minor, on the page (disturbance) and then you can give us bite-sized bits, or several paragraphs (if you write them well!) of backstory.
An early Koontz (when he was using the pseudonym Leigh Nichols) is Twilight. It opens with a mother and her six-year-old son at a shopping mall (after an opening line that portends trouble, of course). On page one Koontz drops this in:
To Christine, Joey sometimes seemed to be a little old man in a six-year-old boy’s small body. Occasionally he said the most amazingly grown-up things, and he usually had the patience of an adult, and he was often wiser than his years.
But at other times, especially when he asked where his daddy was or why his daddy had gone away––or even when he didn’t ask but just stood there with the question shimmering in his eyes––he looked so innocent, fragile, so heartbreakingly vulnerable that she just had to grab him and hug him.
Koontz bonds us with this Lead through sympathy. We don’t know why the boy’s father isn’t there, but we don’t have to know right away, do we? In this way Koontz also creates a little mystery which makes us want to keep on reading.
Now, a word of warning when writing in first person POV. It’s much easier for the narrator to give us a backstory dump. But the “rule” remains the same: act first, explain later. To see how it’s done, check out the opening chapter of Harlan Coben’s Gone for Good, which begins:
Three days before her death, my mother told me – these weren’t her last words, but they were pretty close – that my brother was still alive.
We then cut to the mother’s funeral, and the narrator, Will Klein, leaving the house to walk through his old neighborhood. He has a specific place he’s going, the place where a terrible murder happened years before. Along the way he describes the setting and drops in some backstory, especially about one night when his big brother explained the “facts of life” to him from a ninth grader’s perspective. It’s a warm, human bit that creates sympathy. But Coben weaves it in with the action, which is about the narrator getting to the murder spot. That happens on the very next page. Very little time is lost to backstory.
Some time ago I interviewed Laura Caldwell, author of the Izzy McNeil series. She told me the following:
“I wish I’d known how to weave in background information instead of dumping it in big chunks. It’s still something I struggle with, although I think I’ve improved a lot. It’s a skill that has to constantly be refined so the background information which gets delivered reads and feels organic right at that point in the story.”
Good point from Laura.
How do you handle backstory in your opening pages? Are you strategic about it?  

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My Writer’s Costume

by John Gilstrap

This blog entry is scheduled to post on September 17, 2010 at 12:01 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, so as you read it, chances are that I am either asleep or on my way to (or I have already arrived in) Salt Lake City, where I have been invited to speak at the annual meeting of the League of Utah Writers. Actually, I’ll be speaking a lot. I’m the luncheon keynoter, and I’ll also be teaching two instructional sessions.

Here’s my question to Killzoners: What would you coinsider appropriate speaker’s attire for such an event?

If this were a keynote address for my Big Boy Job, the wardrobe selection would be easy: Any color dark suit combined with any color white or blue shirt and conservative tie. But as a writer–as a “creative” person, the question is more complicated. I’ll never forget the laughter I evoked from a Warner Brothers studio head when I wore a business suit to a story meeting at his office. It was so not-Hollywood chic. You can make light, but these things matter. Like anywhere else, first impressions are important.

If I were 25, I could get away with fashionably torn jeans, shirttail out and a sports coat. That’s the new creative chic wardrobe, from what I can tell. But I’ve been 25 twice now (with change to spare), and I can’t pull that off anymore. Even if I could, I’d feel stupid.

I’d also feel stupid in a business suit and republican tie. It’s a weekend, after all, and I’m a writer, not a lawyer. In this venue, I’m not even the association executive that I play during the work week. So what’s an engineer/thriller writer to do?

A former publicist told me years ago that there should never be any doubt who the celebrity writer is. She stressed that speaking gigs are work, and as such, one should never forget that work is about sales, and that sales are about image. That means, she advised, finding the right balance between mystery, professionalism and approachability. Think about it. That’s a hell of a balance.

When I think back on the various conferences I’ve been to, some writers truly do wear writer’s uniforms that are unique to them. Parnell Hall is always (except this last summer at ThrillerFest) in blue jeans, a T-shirt and a blue sports coat. Harlan Coben is famous for his wild ties, and Robert Crais is Mr. Hawaiian shirt. I have never seen Mary Higgins Clark or Sandra Brown when they are not dressed to the nines. Sharyn McCrumb is always . . . flowy. (That’s not a slam at all, I don’t know what else to call the look.)

Thomas Harris told me one time that the reason why he does so few interviews is because he feels that the less he is known, the more people are intrigued by his books.

The photo you see of me among my Killzone colleagues to the right is what we call my “badass” photo. It’s supposed to look like a guy who writes scary books–and I guess it does–but it’s not at all my personality. I actually like people, and lord knows I love a party; but there’s a legitimate argument to be profferred that the writer-John should more closely resemble the book-John than the real-John. Okay, fine.

I don’t buy it, and maybe that’s because I know I couldn’t pull it off. For others, though–Lord knows Thomas Harris has sold a lot more books than I have–maybe therein lies the recipe for success. Who knows? As for the League of Utah Writers, I think I’ll wear the same uniform I wore at ThrillerFest: a nice gray pinstrip suit with a black shirt. No tie, though. I’m a writer, after all.

So, what do you all think? What is your writer’s uniform? What do you expect of favorite authors when you see them in person?


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Death to Prologues?

James Scott Bell


“First thing we do, let’s kill all the prologues.” ––Shakespeare (hack writer Chip Shakespeare of Schenectady, NY)


Last week we discussed one of those “fiction rules” that begins to get trumpeted about until it gets chiseled in a tablet as an unbreakable command. Here’s one that seems to be developing: No prologues!

You hear this occasionally from agents and even readers. So it behooves us to ask if there’s something to this mushrooming new “rule.”

I think there is––and isn’t.

Let me explain.

First, a definition. A prologue is a scene (or sometimes a group of scenes) that precedes in time the main plot. So the question to ask yourself is, if it isn’t part of the main plot, why am I including it? And why should a reader bother with it?

Some reasons you might include a prologue:

• To start the book with intense action that hooks the reader.

• To set up an intriguing mystery that will pay off later in the book.

• To show a significant incident in the Lead’s life that haunts him in the present.

• To demonstrate the evil deeds of the bad guy, setting up the stakes for the Lead.

What a prologue should not be is merely an excuse to give us backstory, the sort of information about the Lead that can wait to be revealed later. Only if the material in the prologue is absolutely essential, riveting and has real impact on the story, should it be used.

Maybe that’s why agents are suspicious. They see too many prologues that don’t need to be there.

Some readers report that they skip prologues. Why would they do that? Perhaps because it seems to them that it’s just setup information and they want to get right on to the story.

So what should you do if you’ve got a great prologue that makes sense? That accomplishes just what it’s suppose to?

Should you give up and bow to the blanket rule that you should never use a prologue? I don’t think so.

Instead, be deceptive.

That’s right. I said deceptive. You’re a fiction writer, after all. That’s what you do.

So here is a simple strategy: never label a prologue as “Prologue.” That’s an invitation for a reader, not to mention an agent or editor, to skip this part or toss aside the manuscript.

Instead, if it’s in the long past, you can start with a date stamp, like this:

November 22, 1963

Or you can simply decide to call it “Chapter One.”

Another option is simply not to put anything at all. I like this move. You just go halfway down the page and start your scene. Then, you can number the next scene as Chapter One. This was the strategy used by Harlan Coben in Tell No One. There is no call out that the book opens with a prologue. It simply gives us a riveting scene about a husband losing his wife and getting knocked out. Then, the next scene is headed:

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Eight Years Later

But Coben wrote such a great opening scene that you don’t stop and say, “Hey! He fooled me! That was a prologue! I want my money back!”

So here’s my bottom line advice. Don’t start with a prologue unless you have an absolutely clear reason for doing so. Make it short, too, unless you can justify the longer opening––as in, say, Mystic River, where the opening scenes, in the long past, are essential to understanding the plot as it unfolds. Dennis Lehane knew what he was doing.

Make sure you do, too, and then just don’t call it a “Prologue.” Problem solved.

Or is it? Do you tend to be let down if you see the word Prologue at the beginning of the book? Do you care? Is “Kill the Prologues” one “rule” we should nip in the bud?

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Nobody Pinch Me

By John Gilstrap
http://www.johngilstrap.com

I’ll start with an apology for shirking my blogging duties last week. I was at ThrillerFest and had neglected to plan ahead. I suppose I could have just ignored the parties and . . . Nah, people who know me understand that I am incapable of ignoring the parties.

Those who’ve been to T-Fest know that the parties there are different. Those other people in the bar or at the receptions aren’t just regular folks that you see at work every day. To a person, the people I met there in New York—from fans to fellow authors and everyone in between—were friendly, intelligent and fascinating. It’s what makes the conference a not-to-be-missed event for me every year.

I arrived on Wednesday afternoon on the heels of some media events in Boston the previous day, and I went to dinner with Jeffery Deaver. We had drinks at a little hotel bar on 44th Street, and then we ate at a largely forgettable restaurant whose name I’ve in fact forgotten. We were done by 9:00 and not yet ready to go our separate ways, so we wandered into the bar at the Algonquin Hotel. THE Algonquin Hotel, of Algonquin Roundtable fame.

That’s when it hit me: I’m living my own dream. Sitting there in such a famous room, I realized that had I been around in 1925, I might have had a place at the table. I might have participated in the conversations of those literary and critical giants, laughing at their jokes and maybe even offering up a few of my own. (Conversely, I might have been rejected as a commercial hack and banned from their presence, but this is my fantasy, so let me run with it.)

Now, of course, all of those giants are dead. Instead, I spent my time engaged in conversations with Joe Moore, Jeff Deaver, David Baldacci, Harlan Coben, Andrew Grant, Gayle Lynds, Joe Finder, Brett Battles, Kathryn Lilly and dozens more brilliant, witty writers. Forgive a moment of aggrandizement, but it occurred to me that collectively we might all be remembered as the next famed group. Given the level of talent in the room, I’m certain that at least a few will be tagged with greatness.

And I was there. God willing, I’ll be there again.

When I was a kid, I was in awe of writers and writing. I had little opportunity ever to meet an author in person, but on the occasions when I did, I stood there star struck. To think that I might ever join that elite club—if not as an equal, then at least as a colleague—was beyond my ken.

Yet there I was in New York, surrounded by talent. During the course of the next few days, I would have lunch with Anne Hawkins, my agent, and dinners with Michaela Hamilton, my editor, and Sam Franco, the producer who optioned Six Minutes to Freedom.

I’ll say it again: Agent, editor and producer. Never in a million years would I have dreamed that the guy at those meetings would be me.

Last Wednesday, as we sat in the Algonquin sipping scotch and chatting about whatever we were chatting about, I asked Jeff if he ever stopped to think about how cool this whole experience is, about how lucky we are.

“Every day,” he said.

Exactly. Every day. I am an author. I am what I’ve always wanted to be, and every day I wake up wondering what I did to deserve the good fortune.

And I pray that I don’t do something to screw it up.

Does anyone else find themselves amazed at where they are, and fearful that it might all go away?

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The Results are in…

by Michelle Gagnon

The ITW recently posted the nominees for their Thriller Awards. Some of you might remember a post I wrote last August, when it was first announced that the paperback original category had been eliminated. Henceforth all of those books would be battling it out with the hardcovers for the moniker “Best Thriller.” There was a range of responses to my post, everything from “Hear, hear!” to “It’s silly to have different categories for different formats.” A few people chastised me, saying that any bias against paperbacks was only perceived, that I didn’t have enough faith in my fellow authors to judge a book based on its merits alone.

Well.

The results are in, and I am shocked, shocked! to report that not a single paperback original made the cut. thriller-award

Here are the finalists:

BEST THRILLER OF THE YEAR
Hold Tight by Harlan Coben
The Bodies Left Behind by Jeffery Deaver
The Broken Window by Jeffery Deaver
The Dark Tide by Andrew Gross
The Last Patriot by Brad Thor

Now, I’m not claiming these aren’t the best thrillers of the year- of the five I’ve read three, and they were great. But I also read a slew of PBO thrillers last year, and I’d rank them as high (or higher) than those three. The ITW is always battling charges that it’s morphing into a club for NY Times bestselling authors, and judging by this list, that might be the case. Granted, books are subjective little beasties, and what I love others might loathe. Perhaps these were the best thrillers of the year. I plan on reading the other two to satisfy my curiosity (and because they’re probably good books).

But I still don’t see where having a separate category for Paperback Originals does any harm. If paperbacks are consistently passed over in favor of their hardcover brethren for another few years, I believe there will be an exodus of PBO authors from the ITW. Which would be a shame, considering the fact that this award was initially conceived to address the fact that few thrillers were acknowledged by the established mystery awards. And making PBOs the red headed stepchildren of the organization doesn’t help anyone.

That’s my two cents.

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