Short Fiction, Satisfying Endings and Reader Expectations

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

This month a writer named James Patterson (who has had some lg-bookshots-cross-killsuccess and may break out soon) began a new enterprise. It’s called BookShots. These are to be what he calls “short novels” and what everyone else calls “novellas.”

Patterson, the former advertising man, is nothing if not strategic, even visionary. He is always looking for ways to expand his product line and this plan is brilliantly counterintuitive –– find new places for physical books. 

According to a story in the New York Times, Patterson “wants to sell books to people who have abandoned reading for television, video games, movies and social media.” He wants to write fiction that is “shorter, cheaper, more plot-driven and more widely available” than full-length books. But here’s the part that really intrigues me:

[E]ventually, Mr. Patterson and his publisher want to colonize retail chains that don’t normally sell books, like drugstores, grocery stores and other outlets. They envision having BookShots next to magazines in grocery store checkout lanes, or dangling from clip strips like a bag of gummy bears.

“Those venues are very inhospitable to traditional publishing, but we think this is a type of book that could work very well there,” said Michael Pietsch, the chief executive of Hachette Book Group, which publishes Mr. Patterson’s books in the United States through its Little, Brown imprint. “He has enough recognition that his name can make it work.”

In some ways, Mr. Patterson’s effort is a throwback to the dime novels and pulp fiction magazines that were popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, when commercial fiction was widely available in drugstores.

It’s an ambitious plan, and I doubt any writer except Patterson, backed by mega-publisher Hachette, could pull this off. Maybe Stephen King if he also branded his name as Patterson does. For that is part of the strategy as well:

Hachette is betting that Mr. Patterson is famous enough to overcome … obstacles. The company is planning to publish 21 BookShots in 2016, including thrillers, science fiction, mysteries and romances. The first two, out in June, are “Cross Kill,” a book by Mr. Patterson starring his popular recurring character Alex Cross, and “Zoo II,” a science-fiction thriller written by Mr. Patterson and Max DiLallo. All the books will be written or partially written by Mr. Patterson, except the romances, which will be labeled “James Patterson Presents.”

All well and good. This is a business, after all, and no one has been a more astute businessman than James Patterson. He provides a product. That product entertains. There is an exchange of money for perceived value. And everyone’s happy.

Well, almost everyone. I hopped over to Amazon to have a look at the first BookShot, Cross Kill. Some of the reviewers have a complaint: the ending is incomplete. As one reviewer put it: The story is good, typical Patterson but it ends with a huge cliffhanger and that is what I do not like. … I had expected a short book, like a short story and I liked the idea but now I must say I am disappointed. It would be good if it could be explained where in the Cross Universe these Bookshots fit.

Had the book been advertised as the first part of a serial, all would be well. That’s what Stephen King did back when he and his publisher released The Green Mile. It was done in six installments, and that’s how it was advertised. So readers knew when they purchased one of the short books there would be another to come.

So what does all this mean?

It’s a great new era for short fiction. Short stories (up to 7k words or so); novelettes (7k – 20k); novellas (20k – 50k); and short novels (50k – 70k). You can use these to hone your skills, establish a digital footprint, and make new readers. I’ve been pleased that my series of novelettes about a vigilante nun, Force of Habit, which I did purely for fun, has generated its own little fan base. That’s the pulp fiction idea, and I love that it’s available to us now via direct digital publishing.

But write your stories to completion! No matter the form, the ending has to satisfy the reader. They expect an ending, unless in your marketing you are absolutely clear that you are writing a serial.

I remember years ago when my wife was reading a thriller and kept telling me how good it was. I would say, “But what about mine, honey?” And she’d say, “Shh, I’m reading.”

Anyway, she got to the end and … there was no ending! She was at first confused, then ticked off. I had a look at the book. It was a bit shorter than a “big” novel. And it indeed left off right in the middle of a crucial moment.

Only later did I learn that the publisher had decided to take a “really big” thriller and divide it in two. Their thinking was, “Hey! This is a good novel, and we can double our money by making it two books! The readers will be panting for the rest!”

Only they did not pant. They punted.. They did not want to be “tricked” again. The second book went nowhere.

So don’t treat your short fiction as a throwaway. Over the last few years most of the A-list writers, at the behest of their publishers, have dashed off short ebooks to augment their series or help sell an upcoming release. In several instances these have been less than stellar efforts, garnering a spate of 1-star reviews from fans. Maybe the A-list can get away with it, but the rest of us can’t. We need, more than anything, to establish “trustability.”

So, kids, write the best short fiction you can, every time out. And that means –– unless it’s a serial and the readers know it –– that you give them a satisfying ending.

Have you ever been burned by a story you thought was going to end, but didn’t? Or ended in such a fashion that it ruined all the good stuff up to that point?

And what do you think of this new pulp fiction idea? Do you think there’s a market for it?

_____

Speaking of thinking strategically, if you’d like to pick up a book on how a writer can do that very thing, here it is..

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Getting the Word Out

As a literary promotion, it straddles the line between wretched excess and the epitome of cool. James Patterson published Private Vegas, his latest novel (co-written with Maxine Paetro), on January 26, 2015 and decided that getting the word out via commercials or word-of-mouth just would not do.

One of the sub-plots of Private Vegas involves a series of high end automobile explosions; Patterson accordingly gave away one thousand eBooks of Private Vegastimed to sell-destruct after twenty-four hours. The idea was to read it, but read quickly. The big news, however, was that Patterson was also selling one physical copy of the book that would explode — literally — twenty-four hours after purchase. The cost? $294,038. For that nominal sum, one receives a first class flight to a secret location, two nights in a luxury hotel, dinner with the author (that would be Patterson), gold plated binoculars (the better to watch the explosion from a discreet distance), and, one assumes, a team of professionals to handle the explosion. The event got plenty of  publicity, beginning with a mention in The New York Times and proceeding from there, and maybe even a purchaser. The important thing for purposes of this discussion is that it got the word out that Patterson (with the assistance of Paetro) has a new book out. Will it prompt folks who wouldn’t have otherwise bought or read Private Vegas to do so? That remains to be seen. Let’s give the man A for effort, however. And just for the record…it’s worth your while to read Private Vegas, even if it takes you more than twenty-four hours.

Patterson is well versed in advertising; he worked in the field prior to turning to writing full-time, and is very much hands-on in marketing his own books.  After reading about his efforts with Private Vegas,I thought I would toss our TKZ readers and contributors the keys to the Lexus (imaginary, of course) and see where whimsy takes us. Authors, published and prospective: if you were in charge of marketing for your book, and given a blank check to make it happen, what would you do? Readers: what type of publicity works best, with respect to making you aware of new novels (outside of recommendations from friends)?  My plan for world literary domination would involve a raffle. I would issue a press release asking each reader to send me the original receipt showing that you have purchased my book within thirty days of publication. I would pick at random one receipt  from those received and autograph that reader’s book after lunch at St. Charles Tavern in New Orleans, all expenses paid, including transportation and five nights at one of New Orleans’ haunted hotels (to be selected by the lucky winner from a list). Sound interesting? Let us read your idea. 

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Sometimes You Gotta Suck It UpAnd Write the Darn Outline

By PJ Parrish

Before you read this, I’m going to suggest you back up one day and read Steven James’s Monday post, “Fiction Writing Keys for Non-Outliners.” It’s a really good argument against outlining and I agree with almost everything Steven says.

I hate to outline. To me, it’s on par with pap smears, getting your teeth cleaned, filing taxes, and watching the Raiders play the Jets. It’s tedious, painful and feels utterly pointless. It’s not fun. It’s a major buzz-kill.

But after reading Steven’s eloquent argument, I abandoned my post-in-progress and decided I needed to respond. Because I believe – hack, hack, hack! – that sometimes you just gotta suck it up and outline.

Did I mention I hate to outline?

First, some context. I have published, via the traditional New York house route, fifteen books. My first book was bought as a full manuscript and that is the norm. First-timers don’t usually get in the door without a finished book. But for my next book (in a two-book contract), I had give my editor a full outline. This was because I had not yet established my reputation and they needed assurance I wasn’t a one-trick pony. So I did the grunt work and wrote a detailed outline.

Did I mention I hate to outline?

This outline pattern stayed in place for my second two-book contract, but by book five, I went to contract on the strength of a five-paragraph concept. This was because by this point my editor knew I could write, make deadline, and sustain my series momentum.  But when I switched to a new publisher, I had to go back to outlining because my new editor wanted a stand alone thriller. But for the four books that followed (which were back in my Louis Kincaid series), I was able to go back to contract via concepts.

I haven’t had to slog through the outline exercise for six years. Which brings us to the present. About a month ago, I submitted a detailed concept and 100 pages of my WIP to an editor at a traditional publisher. She loved it but she had to send it to the acquisitions committee, which okays every deal. (This is SOP for traditional publishing houses; everything is run up the flagpole to be saluted by editors, market types and bean counters). To do this, I had to give the editor…an outline.

Now, given my druthers, I am a confirmed pantser. My sister and I start with an idea, flesh out our main characters, then we plot-then-write in chunks of about four chapters at a time. But my new publisher wanted to know the major dramatic arcs of the story so Kelly and I spent two weeks not doing what we love – writing – but doing what we hate — brainstorming and sweating blood creating a plot map.

They bought the book.

Did I mention I hate outlining?

So I’ve swung both ways. Outlining is awful but it can be very useful if it gets you where you want to go. And every writer is different. Some of us thrive on structure; others crave chaos. There is no one path to the truth, grasshopper.

So who outlines? Let’s pull back the curtain and see…

John Grisham starts with 50-page outlines, with a paragraph or two about each chapter, setting out major events and plot points.

Michael Palmer spends four to five months outlining and goes to contract on outlines. His outlines are 40 to 60 single-spaced pages and his editor “clears” the outline before he writes one word. Sez Michael: “When I get down to the actual writing, I feel free to deviate from the outline, but out of courtesy, I will call and discuss any major deviations from what was agreed upon with my editor. There are those writers who can pen a novel and then do it over again if the story doesn’t work. With my busy schedule as a doctor and a daddy, I am not in that group. Reworking a detailed outline is possible for me. Rewriting an entire book would be disastrous.”

James Patterson writes a detailed outline and then hires someone to write the scenes, usually in 30 to 40 page chunks, which he reviews. Patterson describes it: “The outlines are very specific about what each scene is supposed to accomplish. I get pages from [the collaborator] every two weeks, and then I re-write them. That’s the way everything works. Sometimes I’ll just give notes. I’ve done as much as nine drafts of a book after the original comes in.”

Self-published eBook phenom Amanda Hocking (now in print with St. Martins) hand-writes her outlines before formatting them. “I’ll write usually about two or three outlines, so by the time I do write the book I’ve got the story completely mapped out in my head,” she says.

Joseph Finder describes writing without an outline like doing a high-wire act without a net, saying that his book Power Play, “took me several months longer than usual, simply because I wasted a lot of time on plot and on characters that I ended up cutting out.”

Robert Ludlum’s outlines routinely ran to 150 pages. I don’t know what he does now that he’s dead. I’d like to think he’s up there being a happy pantser.

Who doesn’t outline? Lee Child, for one. And Harlan Coben, who describes his process thusly: “I usually know the ending before I start. I know very little about what happens in between. It’s like driving from New Jersey to California. I may go Route 80, I may go via the Straits of Magellan or stopover in Tokyo but I’ll end up in California.”
 
That driving metaphor is a riff on E.L. Doctorow’s famous quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I’ve written both mysteries and thrillers, some romance and even fat historical sagas. Some came easy; others fought me all the way. And while being a pantser is my default method, I have come to appreciate that outlining can be useful. Here’s why:

1. It helps you get rid of bad ideas. This is very important because we all have bad ideas and bad ideas are like the Devil — they often assume a pleasing shape. (Wow! What if I have the bad guy sneak some plutonium into a White House toilet, then the Senate minority leader comes out of the john with green skin and…)  If you write your bad ideas down they won’t lurk in the shadows of your brain.
 
2. You might have to produce an outline to go to contract with a publisher. If you’re lucky enough to get a multi-book deal, outlining is often specified in contracts. Also, you get paid in lumps: part on signing, part on turning in the manuscript, part on publication. But sometimes, one of the lumps comes via outline.  Also, your editor might have to approve the outline before you begin working on the book.

3. It can speed up the writing process. Just seeing a map on paper can often help you manage your writing time. If you have some idea of the journey, you can budget your time more efficiently. This is important as you get farther into your career and must produce a book or more a year.

4. If you write big complex plots, it can keep you on track. Ken Follett starts with an outline between 25-40 typed pages that details chapter-by-chapter events and includes bios of all characters. He shares this with his editors before he starts writing. He also rewrites his outlines!

I rewrite the outline – and this may happen several times. Typically there will be a first draft outline, a second draft outline and a final outline, so it would twice go through the process of being shown to a number of people. The whole process of coming up with idea, fleshing it out, doing the research, drafting the outline and rewriting the outline comes to about a year all told. There are quite often a couple of false starts within this. I may spend a month working on an idea before I realise that it isn’t going to work and abandon it. But after this whole process, I’m ready to write the first draft.

5. If you’re trying a new genre, it gives you confidence. I have a friend who, after a long and successful career writing a light amateur sleuth series, is making the switch to darker fare. She has always been an avid outliner but with this new project, she found even more extensive outlining gave her sure footing in her new territory.

6. It keeps you motivated and focused. While working on my new book, the hardest thing I had to deal with was my sense of being at sea. Because I was working without the security of a contract for the first time since starting out, I often felt myself drifting into a lot of “what ifs.”  What if I can’t pull this story off? What if no one buys it? What if I’ve run out of good stuff and it’s time to hang up the creative cleats?  But there was something about writing an outline — having to do the elbow grease of the mind and produce on deadline — that injected juice back into my story and resolve back to my spine. If nothing else, I finished the damn outline.

So, yes, outlining is a good thing. But…

Can I add my caveats? If you outline, please don’t let it put a strangle hold on you and your story. It is a guide, a suggested route, one way to go but never the only one. I love this quote from Donald Barthelme:

“Not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of the mind moving in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.”

So even if you do outline, leave room in your planning for serendipity and detours because, as Steven said so well in yesterday’s post, that is where your story is hiding out waiting for you.

Think of an outline as those colored lines they paint on the linoleum in hospitals to help you find your way. The red will get you to the cardiac unit, the yellow to the cafeteria, the black to the emergency room. But sometimes you just gotta follow the blue and go look at the babies.

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Keys Ways to Add Layers to Your Writer’s Voice

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane
 



Joe Moore’s guest blogger yesterday, editor and author Jodie Renner, had a great post on Developing a Strong Third Person Voice that stirred other ideas for me to dove tail off. I thought of experiencing a scene through the senses of my POV narrator and giving that character an opinion of his surroundings to add setting description color as well as insight into the narrator to reflect on him or her. By making each word choice serve more than one purpose (to add color as well as insight into the character) an keep the pace moving without bogging down the narrative.

James Patterson talked about this at a Romance Writers of America conference in Reno in 2004 to a packed house of writers that filled two ballrooms. He said on his computer, he has words that inspire him to remember the basics. BE THERE were the words he posted to remind him to put the reader into the scene by using their senses to trigger images from the words on the page.

When writing any scene, get the words down, but then go back and layer in other elements to enhance the voice of your narrator and make the reading experience more vivid for the reader. Ask yourself what your character would be seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and how something would feel when they touch it. Adding these elements can bring depth to the scene and draw the reader into the world you are creating, by triggering the “familiar” with them.

Below is an excerpt from Robert Crais’s The Sentry, one of my favorite authors. This comes from the very start of the book.

The Sentry – by Robert Crais
Monday, 4:28 AM, the narrow French Quarter room was smoky with cheap candles that smelled of honey. Daniel stared through broken shutters and shivering glass up the length of the alley, catching a thin slice of Jackson Square through curtains of gale-force rain that swirled through New Orleans like mad bats riding the storm. Daniel had never seen rain fall up before.
     Daniel loved these damned hurricanes. He folded back the shutters, then opened the window. Rain hit him good. It tasted of salt and smelled of dead fish and weeds. The cat-five wind clawed through New Orleans at better than a hundred miles an hour, but back here in the alley—in a cheap one-room apartment over a po’boy shop—the wind was no stronger than an arrogant breeze.
     The power in this part of the Quarter had gone out almost an hour ago; hence, the candles Daniel found in the manager’s office. Emergency lighting fed by battery packs lit a few nearby buildings, giving a creepy blue glow to the shimmering walls. Most everyone in the surrounding buildings had gone. Not everyone, but most. The stubborn, the helpless, and the stupid had stayed.
     Like Daniel’s friend, Tolley.
     Tolley had stayed.
     Stupid.

This very visual and sensory description from Crais’s excerpt incorporates elements of the senses, as well as metaphors and analogies to describe an opening scene. Using adjectives like “arrogant” to describe a breeze is unexpected yet effective to say that the hurricane winds had been tamed. You can taste and smell the rain. It “tastes of salt and smells of dead fish and weeds” which adds to the raw feeling near the gulf. The narrow French Quarter room was “smoky with cheap candles that smelled of honey.” “Broken shutters” give you more than a visual when you can feel the chill of the hurricane through the “shivering glass.” The notion of “mad bats riding the storm” give the bluster a sinister feel too.

Having given these examples, it’s important not to overwrite the setting/scene. In this excerpt, there is a laser focus on setting the mood and the word descriptors are deliberate choices, like using dead fish and weeds to describe the rain in the French Quarter. It adds to the ambience without being overdone or by being unrelated to the location or mood. Recently I read a book where the metaphors and similes stood out because they were not only unrelated to the other examples on the first few pages, but these comparisons did nothing to enhance the mood or give insight into the character or setting. It made the author appear like a student trying to impress the teacher, with not much thought going into the word choices and how they pertained to the story.

We are Visual Learners
Many people are visual learners, so using the senses (and/or metaphors and analogies) can bring in the visual using something familiar. These ideas can quickly suggest a setting without slowing the pace with too much word description. They give a quick snapshot of the scene in a way to trigger the reader’s mind and delve into their own experiences to make things more vivid. These images can also trigger emotions, such as comfort or fear, at the same time. Adding these elements can not only bring color and distinction to the voice, but they can also layer in elements of emotion and visual triggers to enhance the voice. So let’s talk about metaphors and analogies.


Metaphors
A metaphor is an implied comparison that brings two dissimilar things together and implies that the two things are alike or comparable. Metaphors can be used to describe a complicated concept or setting, to make it more easily understood or relatable. They can enhance the imagery by adding a familiar feeling, such as the lightness of taking flight when you describe being in love, or describing death as a candle that is snuffed out.

Examples:

  • Ideas can mushroom
  • Love has wings
  • A brave man has the heart of a lion

Analogies
Just like a metaphor, an analogy makes a link between two dissimilar things, but implies there is a difference between the two things, while a metaphor treats them as the same.

Examples:

  • A fish is to water, what a bird is to air
  • A CEO is to a company, what a General is to an Army
  • A mother giving birth to a child, is what an author would be to the creation of a novel


I wanted to include other excerpts that use a visual imagery well in terms of metaphors and similes. One of my favorite books is The Book Thief. If you’re a regular at TKZ, you’ve heard me talk about this book before. I hope you enjoy these:

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
“She was the book thief without the words. Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.” The Book Thief by Markus Zusak 
 
“Upon her arrival, you could still see the bite marks of snow on her hands and the frosty blood on her fingers. Everything about her was undernourished. Wire-like shins. Coat hanger arms. She did not produce it easily, but when it came, she had a starving smile.” The Book Thief by Markus Zusak 

Anne Bronte – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
“His heart was like a sensitive plant, that opens for a moment in the sunshine, but curls up and shrinks into itself at the slightest touch of the finger, or the lightest breath of wind.” The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

If you are a reader – what are some of your favorite and memorable lines from books you’ve read that enhanced the mood, setting, or characters? If you are a writer – do you have any tricks to share on adding layers of a unique voice to your work?

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Analyzing Book Description Copy

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


One of the key elements of selling online these days is the ability to write book descriptions (also called “cover copy”) that sizzle and do the job in three paragraphs or so. In this age of short attention spans, you can’t afford to waste any space. You can read about one method of generating good cover copy here(h/t Jodie Renner).

For amusement recently, I randomly looked at some descriptions from bestselling authors. You ought to do the same. Go through Amazon and study the best books in your genre. See what professional marketing people have come up with. Figure out what works and doesn’t work for you. Then write your own copy accordingly.
Below are links to Amazon for three book descriptions (I didn’t want to overstep copyright concerns by producing them in full). Give each a quick read and then come back for my analysis.
Innocence by Dean Koontz

The first line is pretty good. Captures me and makes me want to read the next line (which is the whole secret of copywriting).
But that second line is a bit soft. I would change “do her harm” to “kill her.”
I would like to see more specificity in the third paragraph. What is it that creates the “bond”? What sort of “reckoning” are we talking about here? Why are these two people involved?
The last line, of course, is purely for the author. If you’re Dean Koontz, you deserve such praise. But my advice for us mere mortals: do not use over-the-top fluff. You can mention kudos, but only if you back it up with something like a nice blurb from a well-known writer, or a review from a trusted source. I don’t care how good your self-published thriller is, it is not going to “leave readers transformed forever and change the course of history for all mankind.”  
***
NYPD RED 2 by James Patterson & Marshall Karp

This copy starts with a “headline” style, which is often a good idea. But only if the headline is short and to the point. Here, I would take out the whole parenthetical statement and leave this: NYPD Red hunts a killer who is on an impossible mission.
The next two paragraphs are excellent. They are specific and to the point and tell me exactly what type of story this is. It has both outer plot (serial killer) and inner journey (Kylie has been acting strange recently). It’s all there.
The puffery about Patterson is, of course, also well-deserved. But notice that it is backed up with a clip from a trusted source.
***
Stand Up Guy by Stuart Woods
The headline focuses on the series character, which is fine. Readers of the series will want to know about it. “Edge-of-your-seat adventure” is a cliché, of course. I wonder if readers have a slightly negative reaction to such things, even subconsciously. Maybe it doesn’t matter. I’m not sure. What are your thoughts on it?
The first paragraph has some issues. What is a “well-deported” gentleman? I had to look up deported, and found out it’s an archaic word for “conduct.” Key copyrighting tip: Don’t make readers work hard! Write in such a way that a middle school student could read the copy and not get tripped up by any of it. 

Also, is there enough at stake? Does “keenly interested” indicate enough trouble? 
The second paragraph gets us a little closer to specifics and how they involve the lead character. I’m okay with that.
***
Now here’s one for a short story:
Sometimes, comedy can seem like death…
For Pete “The Harv” Harvey, stand up comedy is a serious business. At least, he wants it to be. But the struggle to make it in the glitter dome of L.A. hasn’t exactly been a smashing success.
One night, after bombing onstage at a local club, Pete wonders if his next stop is managing a car wash. Then a man sits next to him at the bar–a man with an almost unbelievable proposition. One that could mean a whole lot of money to Pete “The Harv” Harvey, who will soon learn that deals too good to be true are no laughing matter.
I think the author did okay with that. It’s brief and to the point, gives the set up and then gets out of the way.

And here’s more news: This story, “No Laughing Matter,” is FREE today through Wednesday on Kindle. The favor of a review is requested.
Go ahead and get the story now. I’ll wait.
Welcome back! Now dive in and leave a comment on book descriptions. What do you think works, or doesn’t work? What grabs you? What makes you shrug your shoulders and go “Meh”?

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Summertime, and the Reading Is Easy

It’s time for another couple of questions for our readership. Summer starts today (as I am writing this) which traditionally (if not necessarily accurately) signals an upsurge in reading. I accordingly am curious as to what YOU are reading, right now (yeah, I know, you’re reading me. I mean when you’re done here). I of late (the past several months) have found that I can read more quickly if I juggle several different books at once: fifty pages or so at a gulp, and then on to another, and so on. I mention this because I am currently reading six books at once, which works out roughly to one for each of my personalities (none of us like to share). I review books for bookreporterdotcom; five those books are for review, and the sixth is one that I picked from my reading bucket list. Here’s what we’re reading this week:


SECOND HONEYMOON — James Patterson & Howard Roughan
THE SILENT WIFE — A.S.A. Harrison
EVIL AND THE MASK — Fuminori Nakamura; translated by Satoko Izumo
NORWEGIAN BY NIGHT — Derek B. Miller.
EYE FOR AN EYE — Ben Coes
and from the bucket list: MAIGRET’S RIVAL by Georges Simenon


Your turn. What are you reading now? And do you read one book at a time, or a couple, or several?
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10 Ways to Sabotage Your Writing

This writing life has enough gremlins—rejection, bad reviews, economic uncertainty, short actors playing your 6’5” hero in a movie version—that a writer shouldn’t be adding his own. Here are the top ten to watch out for. Maybe you have some to add to the list: 

1. Thinking about your career more than about your writing
Guess what? No matter where you are in your writing career you can always find a reason to be unhappy about it. You’re unagented and you want to get an agent. You’re unpublished and you want to be published. You’re published and you want to be read. You’re read but not read in the numbers you hoped. You’ve gone indie and your books aren’t selling enough to buy you a monthly mocha.
You can always find something to be unhappy about. What you ought to do is write more. When you’re into your story and you’re pounding the keys and you’re imagining the scene and you’re feeling the characters, you’re not camping out in the untamed country of unfulfilled expectations.
It’s fine to plan. In fact, I’ve written a paper to help you do that. But once the planning is done, get to work.
2. The comparison trap
I’ve written a whole post on this one. What good is it going to do you to look at somebody else’s success and hit the table and cry out for justice? Writing is not just. It just is. You do your work the best you can and you let the results happen, because you can’t manipulate them. You can’t touch them, you can’t change them, you can’t fix them. You can only give it your best shot each time out.
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” – Epictetus
3. Ranking Obsession
Another thing you can’t control is your ranking on Amazon or the various and sundry bestseller lists. Or sure, there are things writers do to try and “game the system.” The paid reviews scandal was one of the more egregious examples of this.  But in the end, the game playing is not worth the knot in the stomach.
Don’t worry about rankings and lists. Worry about your word count, plot and characters. If you do the latter well, the former will take care of itself.
4. Envy
Another useless emotion. But it seems to be a part of most writers’ lives. Ann Lamott and Elizabeth Berg both lost friendships over it. Envy has even driven authors to set up sock puppet identities not merely to hand themselves good reviews, but to leave negative reviews for their rivals’ books.
“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” (Proverbs 14:30). Try to have a heart at peace by getting back to your story while, at the same time, developing the next one. 
5. Trying to be the next James Patterson. . .
. . . or J. K. Rowling, or Michael Connelly. Wait a second. We already have those. And they are the best at being who they are.
Become the leading brand of you, not the generic brand of someone else sitting on the shelf at the 99¢ store.
This is not to say don’t write in the same genre or try to do some of the good things other writers do. We can certainly learn from those we admire.
But when we write, we have a picture in our heads, a sort of writer self-image. And if we imagine our books being treated like Connelly’s books, or we see ourselves in LA Magazine interviewed like Connelly, we’ll just end up writing like a second-rate Connelly.
Do that and you stifle the thing that has the chance to set you apart—your own voice. 
6. “I’m not good enough to make it.”
That’s not the issue. The issue is: do you want to write? Do you really?  Do you want it so much that if you don’t write you’re going to feel diminished in some way, and for the rest of your life?
You should feel like you don’t really have a choice in the matter. Writing is what you must do, even if you hold a full time job. Even if you chase a passel of kids around the house. You find your time and you keep writing. Keep looking to improve. You can improve. I’ve got hundreds of letters from people who have validated this point.
7. Fear
Fear of failing. Fear of looking foolish. Fear of what your writing might say about you. We are actually wired for fear. It’s a survival mechanism.
So it has a good side so long as it is not allowed to go on. In fact, when you fear something in your writing it may be a sign that this is the place you need to go. This is where the fresh material may be. You need to go there, and assess it later.
8. Hanging on to discouragement
When my son was first pitching Little League baseball, he’d get upset when someone got a key hit or homer off him. This would affect the rest of his performance. So I gave him a rule. I told him he could say “Dang it!” once, and hit his glove with his fist. This became the “one Dang It rule.” It helped settle him down and he went to a great season and a victory in the championship game.
When discouragement comes to you, writer friend (and it will), go ahead and feel it. Say “Dang it!” (or, if you’re alone, exercise your freedom of speech as you see fit). But time yourself. Give yourself permission to feel bad for thirty minutes. After that, go to the keyboard and start writing again.
9. Loving the feeling of being a writer more than writing
The most important thing a writers does, said the late Robert B. Parker, is produce. Don’t fall into the trap of writing a few words in a journal, lingering over the wonderful vibrations of being alive with the tulips of creativity budding within your brain, and leaving it at that.
You’ve got to get some sweat equity going in this game. I don’t mean you have to crank it out like some pulp writer behind in his rent (though I like this model myself). But you do have to have some sort of quota, even if it is a small one. Writing only when you feel like it is not the mark of a professional.
10. Letting negative people get to you
Illegitimi non carborundum.
Next time that know-it-all says you haven’t got the stuff to be a writer, smile and repeat this Latin phrase. And as he looks at you puzzled, turn your back, get to your computer, and proceed to prove him wrong.
And plan to make 2013 the most productive year of your writing life. 

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What Lucy taught me about writing

It’s three in the morning and I can’t sleep — again. My story is a giant hairball in my brain but it’s more than that. I am obsessing about the world of publishing and my little place within it. There is so much uncertainty in our business right now. Bookstores are closing, advances are shrinking, publishers are paring their lists, and we are all groping for something to grab onto as the eBook earthquake rumbles beneath our feet.
I retreat to the sofa, remote in hand, searching for something to quiet the questions in my head.
Have I used up all my good plot ideas?
Is it too late to switch to erotica? Which might be adapted into Nu Bay Videos?
Should I take out a loan to go to Thrillerfest?
How did that hack get a movie option?
What should I write about for my first Kill Zone blog?
Did I remember to feed the dogs?
In the darkness, the ceiling shimmers with fifty-seven channels of nothing on. Then, suddenly, there she is — Lucy Ricardo. My muse, my all, my Ambien.
Before I know it, eight episodes have passed and the sky is lightening with a new day. I have an epiphany! Everything I need to know about surviving in publishing today can be learned from “I Love Lucy.”

Speed it up!

When Lucy needed to make money she went to work in a chocolate factory but found out it wasn’t easy keeping up. Time was we could get by doing one book a year. Not anymore. Maybe we can blame James Patterson who is fond of comparing novels to real estate — i.e., the only thing that matters is how much room your books take up on the shelf (real or virtual). But the eBook age has accelerated the metabolism of publishing and many of us are pulling extra shifts, churning out novellas, short stories and even an extra book a year. (Lee Child just put out his second Reacher story “Deep Down” and I’m working on a novella prequel to our March 1012 Louis Kincaid book HEART OF ICE). Lisa Scottoline in this New York Times article, calls it “feeding the maw.”  What I call it can’t be printed here. Sigh. But I get it.

Reinvent yourself!

What did the artistically thwarted Lucy do when she wanted to be in the movie “Bitter Grapes?” She went to a vineyard and became Italian. Is your series on life support? Are you in midlist limbo? Maybe you just need a change of identity. If you write dark, try light. Leave your amateur sleuth and write a standalone thriller. Got the “bad numbers at B&N blues”? Adopt a pen name and start over. Or. . .go over to the dark side. I know, we aren’t supposed to like this eBook thing. But it has given new life to some authors, like my friend Christine Kling who put out Circle of Bones when no publisher would. It’s the Wild West and if you want to be a pony soldier you gotta mount up!

Make friends!

When Ricky and the Mertzes forgot her birthday, Lucy joined the Friends of the Friendless. (“We are friends of the friendless, yes we are! We are here for the downtrodden and we sober up the sodden!”). Truth is, publishers aren’t putting out anymore (publicity-wise). So we writers just need to get ourselves out there more! No, a pretty website isn’t enough. Now you need to be on Facebook, Quora, Writertopia, Writers Café, MySpace, Tumblr, Foursquare, Goodreads, Shelfari, Fictionaut, Broadcastr. You need to Tweet even if you’re a twit with nothing to say. Oh, and when you have couple free moments, post something on your blog and what do you mean you don’t have a book trailer on YouTube? It’s all about buzz, Bucky. Or is that branding? I don’t know…
I need a nap. Or maybe a glass of good Sancerre. Probably both. All this advice about what we should be doing to sell ourselves and our books. And you know whose voice I keep hearing? Neil Nyren. He’s the president of Penguin-Putnam books and a friend of mine. (Yeah, I’m namedropping.) At SleuthFest one year, Neil said, “all the time you’re doing that other stuff you could be writing a better book.”  I need to remember that.
That and what happened to Lucy. She tried too hard and ended up too sick to eat chocolate and dyed too blue to get in the movie. I think it’s time for a new muse. Maybe Wonder Woman is available.
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Author Affirmations with Stuart Smalley

by Jordan Dane

“Because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggoneit, people like me.”
Stuart Smalley, Saturday Night Live (Al Franken)


I’ll be on a panel at the Romance Writers of America annual conference in Anaheim in July – “The Care and Feeding of the Writer’s Soul.” Ever since I committed to doing it, I’ve been pondering my contribution and examining my own practices when it comes to nurturing my writer’s spirit.

But I wanted to open the topic up for discussion here to get your input. If you could create a box of affirmations for the writer, what would be your personal contribution?

On my computer I have been collecting sayings that have meant something to me over the years. These have come from author speaking engagements, emails, or things I’ve found online that inspired me enough to post it where I could see them every day. Affirmations can be reminders of author craft you want to repeat or they can be a way to keep a positive attitude or make progress in your career.

Here are a few sayings on my computer that mostly deal with author craft:

“Stick with the action.” Romance author Dana Taylor
When I muddled an intro action scene with back story, Dana wrote these words in an email after she critiqued the scene.

“Be there.” James Patterson
Patterson was a speaker at am RWA conference in 2004. He filled a ballroom, standing room only. By these two words he meant to put your reader into the scene using all their senses. He also said that he puts as much care into the first sentence of each chapter as he does the first line in any book. (I wonder if all the James Patterson(s) do this?)

“Trust the talent.” Robert Crais
I heard Crais present this on a video he sent via email in one of his newsletters. He talked at length about how he writes in constant fear, but that he trusts the talent that has brought him his success. It reminded me that all people have doubts. That’s human nature, but when you have a natural storyteller inside you, you should trust it.

“Get in, make your point, then get the hell out.” Robert Gregory Browne
Rob spelled this out when he explained ELLE on a blog post. Enter Late, Leave Early. The method is best explained by the TV show “Law & Order” where the scenes are sharp, concise, and don’t over-explain to slow pacing. The barest essentials of the scenes are captured to move the story along and a viewer’s mind fills in the gaps in action. The same works for books.

Here are a few that would be my contribution to keep a positive mental attitude:

“The next pair of eyeballs to see this proposal will be the ones to say, Yes!”

“I strive to be better with every book. My best story is always my next one.”

“I touch new readers with every story.”

“My books are unique because they are filtered through me and my personal experiences. I’m not in competition with anyone, except me, to be the best author I can be.”

Here are a few silly ones:

“I never get my page numbers wrong. I must be good at math.”

“When I kill people on paper, they stay dead. Booya!

As for practices to keep me positive, I have a shredding ritual for any rejection to expel the negativity from my house. Try it. It’s liberating. When I complete any project, I also treat myself with something that isn’t food—time off, vacation, fun evening with friends or family, attend a book signing, buy a new outfit. I used to think that each positive step in my quest to become a published author was only a small part of a longer future—that celebrating too much is a distraction that can swell your head. But now I celebrate everything. Life’s too short not to cherish even the smallest of pleasures.

Please share your thoughts. What would you write and contribute to an author’s affirmation box? What practices do you have to keep your mind positive and your writer’s soul nourished?

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Guy robs bank

Whoops. I fell asleep thinking about a topic for today’s post. That doesn’t sound promising, does it? So. It’s late and I’ll be brief. And appropriately, I’ll take about midnight inspiration.
Most of us keep an ink pen and paper on the nightstand next to a phone in order to write down a message for someone else or a reminder or a telephone number. It’s a holdover from a bygone, primitive age, but it’s still a handy one. And for writers, it’s a method by which we can preserve that random idea, that bit of dream world flotsam or jetsam, which we write down at 3:16 AM, when it seems so clear, so brilliant, so worthy of preserving, an transform it the next day into what will no doubt become the spring board for a franchise on the order of Spenser or Dave Robicheaux or Raylan Givens. The problem which occurs more often than not, however, is that upon awakening, one discovers that the phrase, hurriedly scrawled on that piece of paper, turns out to be something on the order of “guy robs bank.”
If dream ideas worked, I would be James Patterson or something like them. I have heard apocryphal tales of unnamed authors who transformed such hastily scribbled nocturnal notes into literary gold. I’m not sure if they are true. Michael Mann, the story goes, was wide awake in his office, seated at his desk, when he wrote down the phrase “MTV COPS” on a notepad. It was the beginning of Miami Vice. I’ve written down such gems as “nosebleed” and “empty rooms” and “she’s a rabbit.” When I turn one of those feathers into gold, you’ll hear about it here first.
So…have you ever written anything down into the dead of night that turned into a novel or story over the course of the following several weeks and months? If not, can and will you share some of the phrases that seemed like such a great idea in the dead of night, but could not withstand the light of day?
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