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.
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.”
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.
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?
“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:
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?
By John Gilstrap
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?
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.
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.