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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Call Me Ishmael. Or Call Me Easy.

I was browsing through Paste Magazine, one of my favorite websites, when I happened across this article about a website named “Call Me Ishmael.” I couldn’t get the Ishmael website to work, but the idea behind it is intriguing. There is a telephone number that you can call and leave a voice mail about a book that particularly affected you, and how and why it did so. The person running the website transcribes at least one message per week and posts it to the website. That is the idea, anyway. Again, I couldn’t access the website; hopefully that is simply due to increased traffic due to the Paste article. I love the concept, however. It’s kind of a “Post Secret” or “Whisper” on a somewhat smaller scale for readers.

Everyone had great fun a couple of weeks ago discussing Kindle Unlimited, and while we aren’t done with that yet I thought maybe we’d dial things down a notch as we head into summer’s warmest month and present our own, modest, one-day-only version of Call Me Ismael without resorting to voice mail, since a lot of people don’t use it any more, anyway. What book(s) changed your life? How? And why?

I have two: LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL by Thomas Wolfe and ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac. I read LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL and was immediately swept up into the magic of words. I decided moments after reading the first chapter that I wanted to spend my life writing, in one form or another, and to a greater or lesser degree I have done that. ON THE ROAD gave me wanderlust. There are few things better in God’s world than getting into an automobile and driving for several hundred miles at a stretch to a destination that you love or have you yet to love. In what I fear is the initial manifestation of the onset of dementia, I have recently been haunted with the thought of jumping on board a Spyder RT (yes, the irony is not lost on me) and tooling down to New Orleans, then across I-10 to Houston and beyond. So far I have talked myself out of it. So far. If I succumb, please blame Kerouac and my lifelong friend William D. Plant III, the gent who shoved both books into my hand and who also happens to be one of this and last century’s best unpublished authors.

Enough about me and what I may or may not do and why.  To yank things back on track: what book changed your life? How? And why?

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The Serial Killer

I am very fond of series fiction. I always have been, going back to The Hardy Boys and their (much) lesser known peers, The Walton Boys (not the ones on the mountain). I probably will be for as long as I am able to read. I’m having a problem, however, with that wonderful and delectable corner of the genre or whatever you want to call it where the new book in the series builds upon what has happened before. More often than otherwise, a year or more passes between books in the series, I’ll go to pick a new one up, and I have no freaking idea what happened previously. I can remember the main characters, and usually a supporting character or two, but past that…it can be really hit or miss.

Some authors are aware of this and do an excellent job of doing a back-and-fill to bring new readers (and yes, older, forgetful ones) up to snuff without bringing the narrative to a grinding halt and having the characters engage in an awkward dialogue designed to summarize the mayhem that has occurred over the past x number of books. Others don’t. That’s fine. But let’s not put too fine a line on it. We have an aging population and not everyone who reads a series is necessarily going to remember, in the words of my favorite limerick, who was doing what and to do twelve months ago. Accordingly, when Detective M shows up in the squad room sans the ring finger on his right hand there are a few of us who might not recall how that happened.

If you write series fiction, why should you care? Someone probably has added the information to a Wikipedia entry somewhere that lays it all out. Maybe so. I would submit to you, though, that most readers don’t want to have to stop in the middle of the narrative and look things like that up. If I had ten bucks for every reader who has told me, “Yeah, I used to read them but it got so I couldn’t figure out what was going on” I’d have a house next door to Sandra Bullock in New Orleans’ Garden District. Well, maybe a room over a garage in rear of the house next door to Ms. Bullock’s; but I hope you take my point.

Here is what I would request of those wonderful authors who labor mightily in the grammar mine of series fiction, and yes, those who publish them, and to whom I have been grateful for over fifty years and will continue to be so: take a cue from your cousins in the television medium. Each time I turn on an episode of Justified or Hell on Wheels or 24 any of the other half dozen or so dramatic series I watch the first thing I hear and see is, “Previously on (you fill in the blank)…” and short clips of what has happened before, as are relevant to the current episode, are presented. Could we have a “what has gone before” introduction of anywhere from a few paragraphs to two pages to refresh our memories — if you don’t do so elsewhere in the narrative — in the latest installment of your series? And maybe, if appropriate, could we have a listing of characters as well once you have more than say, seven folks with histories bumping into each other on a regular basis over the course of several books? I would consider it a favor to me, and to your legions of readers, acquired and potential.

So tell me: is this a problem? Or I am just grumpy today? Or both?  Or neither?  Is what I advocate reasonable? Or is it too much trouble to go to for what is a minor problem? 

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The Serial Killer

I am very fond of series fiction. I always have been, going back to The Hardy Boys and their (much) lesser known peers, The Walton Boys (not the ones on the mountain). I probably will be for as long as I am able to read. I’m having a problem, however, with that wonderful and delectable corner of the genre or whatever you want to call it where the new book in the series builds upon what has happened before. More often than otherwise, a year or more passes between books in the series, I’ll go to pick a new one up, and I have no freaking idea what happened previously. I can remember the main characters, and usually a supporting character or two, but past that…it can be really hit or miss.

Some authors are aware of this and do an excellent job of doing a back-and-fill to bring new readers (and yes, older, forgetful ones) up to snuff without bringing the narrative to a grinding halt and having the characters engage in an awkward dialogue designed to summarize the mayhem that has occurred over the past x number of books. Others don’t. That’s fine. But let’s not put too fine a line on it. We have an aging population and not everyone who reads a series is necessarily going to remember, in the words of my favorite limerick, who was doing what and to do twelve months ago. Accordingly, when Detective M shows up in the squad room sans the ring finger on his right hand there are a few of us who might not recall how that happened.

If you write series fiction, why should you care? Someone probably has added the information to a Wikipedia entry somewhere that lays it all out. Maybe so. I would submit to you, though, that most readers don’t want to have to stop in the middle of the narrative and look things like that up. If I had ten bucks for every reader who has told me, “Yeah, I used to read them but it got so I couldn’t figure out what was going on” I’d have a house next door to Sandra Bullock in New Orleans’ Garden District. Well, maybe a room over a garage in rear of the house next door to Ms. Bullock’s; but I hope you take my point.

Here is what I would request of those wonderful authors who labor mightily in the grammar mine of series fiction, and yes, those who publish them, and to whom I have been grateful for over fifty years and will continue to be so: take a cue from your cousins in the television medium. Each time I turn on an episode of Justified or Hell on Wheels or 24 any of the other half dozen or so dramatic series I watch the first thing I hear and see is, “Previously on (you fill in the blank)…” and short clips of what has happened before, as are relevant to the current episode, are presented. Could we have a “what has gone before” introduction of anywhere from a few paragraphs to two pages to refresh our memories — if you don’t do so elsewhere in the narrative — in the latest installment of your series? And maybe, if appropriate, could we have a listing of characters as well once you have more than say, seven folks with histories bumping into each other on a regular basis over the course of several books? I would consider it a favor to me, and to your legions of readers, acquired and potential.

So tell me: is this a problem? Or I am just grumpy today? Or both?  Or neither?  Is what I advocate reasonable? Or is it too much trouble to go to for what is a minor problem? 

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Urban Wandering

I write this while sitting in a boutique hotel (it has fewer than thirty rooms and doesn’t have a pool) a block and a world away from St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. I’m here to attend a music law seminar, visit with friends and clients, and get new ideas for stories. Always with the new ideas.

I resolved that on this trip I would pay a visit to what might be one the most infamous address in New Orleans, that being 126 Exchange Place ( also known as “Exchange Alley”). The street was and is one of the less fashionable areas of the French Quarter; it runs “north” (that term doesn’t mean the same thing in New Orleans as it does everywhere else) off of Canal Street between Chartres and Royal Streets. In the first third of the Twentieth Century it was notorious as a gay cruising spot, and I suspect that such activity has not entirely absented itself from the area, for reasons that I need not go into here. From the 1940s through the late 1970s or so it was what real estate agents would optimistically refer to as a “mixed use” area, with gambling dens, gin joints, and rooming houses comprising the primary industries.  It was at one of these rooming houses, located over a pool hall at the same 126 Exchange Place, where a divorced woman named Marguerite Oswald lived between 1955 and 1956 with her teenage son, a lad named Lee Harvey. There is no plaque noting Oswald’s relatively brief residency there, or anything at all that would incline one to perhaps linger somberly for a moment and reflect how badly lives can turn and then  affect so many others, incidentally changing the course of history.  The minimal signage, in fact, pointedly discourages loitering while informing any potential loiterers that the property is under twenty-four hour surveillance and that loitering is forbidden. And yes, there are exterior surveillance cameras that track one’s progress. Another sign above one of the sets of freshly painted double doors on the property indicates that there is a “resort” business of some sort within, though there is no listing that I can find online under the name given. The property is not on the real estate tax records, either. ‘Tis passing strange, as a great detective once said.

I took a picture of myself — what you young people like Jordan Dane would call a “selfie” — in front of the property and waited for a moment to see if someone would come out and ask what the fu-heck I was doing, but nothing occurred.  Maybe I will wander by again at some point on my way to and from the seminar site, just for grins and giggles. This short brush with history, however, nudged my muse.  I got two pages from it. What occurrence, event, accident, or happenstance has nudged your creativity recently, for better or worse?
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Parched For Readers

A few years ago I met a gentleman in New Orleans who had never heard of Stephen King. He was thirty-three years old at the time, a musician for whom a classical education even at the elementary level had never been a priority but who nevertheless was still knowledgeable of pop culture. Still, he was unfamiliar with King and Carrie, The Stand, The Shining, and the other King books which had been adapted for film. He didn’t have a book in his house; neither, as it happened, did his mother, or the five of his eight siblings whose homes I visited.
Stephen King, I think I can safely say, is a household name, so people such as my acquaintance who have never heard of him are probably the exception rather than the rule. That no-book thing, however…that bothers me. I know people who watch Castle, which begins its sixth season next month, who haven’t read a mystery novel in decades, if ever. Dexter? Longmire? I still find people who have no idea that these popular dramas are based on novels. Justified slyly winked at Raylan Givens’ literary origins a couple of years ago but I doubt it increased sales of Raylan, which was published on season premiere night.
James Bell’s question from last week regarding the future of publishing was an interesting one which evoked a number of interesting responses. Almost all of them, however, implicitly made an assumption that I don’t think we can make anymore, in this era of entertainment everywhere: we’re each and all of us assuming that there will still be readers. Do you walk into homes without books in evidence? When you’re out somewhere and see people reading, how many do you not see reading? How many times in the past month have you been talking to someone about the last book you’ve read and heard them say, “Gee, I haven’t read a book in years. I just don’t have the time”?
I’m not attempting to be an alarmist here, or a Chicken Little. What I think I’m seeing, however, is a situation where the problem isn’t that we’re drowning in books; it’s that we’re parched for readers, and we’re fighting a battle of attrition. There are plenty of books out there worth reading. For every book I read there is at least one, often more, that I don’t get to and that winds up on my “someday” list. That’s not the problem, as I see it. The difficulty is that for everyone one of me, and you, there are, it seems, five or six who just don’t care. They’d rather watch reality television or something like that.

Am I wrong here? Or am I pointing out the 800 pound gorilla in the room that we’re all trying to studiously ignore?
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Area Code 504.1

I love New Orleans on the installment plan. A week is plenty; more than that, and I would no doubt find myself permanently seduced by the city’s many temptations, ending up bivouacked in a fly-blown room in a no-name hotel along the Chef Menteur Highway, a shotgun across my knees and an army of urchins by my side while I stared at the door and whispered “the horror…the horror…”  Then of course, the culinary temptations of the city are such that, should I stay much longer, I will be involuntarily assigned my own area code, 504.1, or some such.
I am presently in New Orleans for a legal seminar and a couple of film role auditions, but as always I come away from New Orleans with extraneous stories. I have two I will share. The first took place on Tuesday, when I introduced two friends of mine who had never previously met, despite living with five miles or so of each other in Baton Rouge for most of their lives. Doug Wolfolk is a former deputy secretary of state of Louisiana; Carl Causey is a builder, contractor, inventor, and the husband of author extraordinaire Toni McGee Causey. Carl is proof that a “ten” marries a “ten.” It is impossible to spend more than five minutes in Carl’s presence without 1) making a friend for life and 2) coming to the realization that he is one of the most brilliant minds on the planet. Carl’s company has been busy with a huge project in New Orleans at Southern Scrap. Southern Scrap is tucked into a far corner of the lower ninth ward. To call Southern Scrap a junkyard would be an over-simplification, erroneous, and all sorts of words to that effect. With Carl expertly behind the wheel, Doug and I bounced around in  Carl’s jeep for well over an hour between and around mountains of cars, buses, and objects unknown, as they were crunched and bunched and then separated by metal class to be recycled and reused. I am not a tree hugger by any stretch of the imagination but I have hated to see things wasted since I was five years old; it was amazing to watch that which was old take the first steps to becoming new again. Any heavy duty product that you purchase in the next six to eight months made out of recycled materials will almost certainly contain something from Southern Scrap and have been in close proximity to Carl or his crew. While all of the reclamation was impressive, the author in me was also busy imagining climactic gun battles taking place as a protagonist and antagonist chased each other and dodged bullets until one or the other was fed into a grinder some fifty feet over the facility. 

That wasn’t the end of the day, however. After lunch at a treasure of a diner named “Sammy’s” on Elysian Fields Avenue, where we tucked into shrimp po’boys (a po’boy is a sub sandwich big enough for three people) and gumbo, Carl drove us to Wilkinson Street in the French Quarter. Wilkinson is a short, two block stretch just above Jackson Square, an all-but-forgotten part of the Quarter which at this point is the wallflower to its more famous and attractive sisters with names like Bourbon and Royal. That state of affairs may change. Carl and Toni are in the process of transforming a long-vacant warehouse into their new home. Where Doug and I saw an abandoned building, Carl several months ago had seen a stunning three story residence which is on its way to becoming a masterpiece. I hope to give you an updated report next time I was there.
The other high point of the week took place on Wednesday when I had the privilege of meeting and having dinner with author Victoria Allman, a loyal Kill Zone reader and frequent commenter to this blog. Victoria very graciously drove from Biloxi to New Orleans to join me at my favorite establishment in New Orleans, a proud dive named The Saint Charles Tavern. Victoria, who is yacht chef renowned throughout the world has published two books — Sea Fare: A Chef’s Journey Across the Ocean and SEAsoned: A Chef’s Journey with Her Captain, detailing her exploits of a life as a chef and a captain’s wife at sea, as well as dozens of her recipes — has not let her culinary talents transform her into food snob. She gamely ate the house specialty — a boudin ball po’boy — as a sat amazed at her ability to do so without spilling a drop. I cannot eat a meal in New Orleans without wearing some portion of it; Victoria finished hers without the trace of a mishap, all the while brightening the dim and dingy bar with her smile and presence while she listened to my interminable stories while actually convincing me that she was interested. Her tales are much more fascinating than mine, but you will have to buy and read her books (a third will be published next year) to discover that for yourself. The evening ended all too quickly but we will hopefully meet again soon, next time with Captain and husband Patrick present as well.
I have another thirty-six or so hours to go in town (assuming I don’t go all Colonel Kurtz, and my wife sends John Miller down here after me) at which point I will return home for a few days before leaving for Bouchercon! More later. In the meantime: would you each and all please share a travel story?
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Location, Location, Location

I fell in love with New Orleans before I ever stepped a foot into the city. James Lee Burke was the matchmaker, and all it took was THE NEON RAIN. Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January novels, as well as Burke’s subsequent Dave Robicheaux novels (Right up to and including CREOLE BELLE) sealed the deal. I lost my heart, probably forever. I had of course been exposed to New Orleans through literature and other media well before I read those books. When I was a wee tad there was a police drama entitled Bourbon Street Beat that I watched religiously; and I studied the plays of Tennessee Williams in high school. But it was that Burke book caused me to lose my heart, probably forever.
I was thinking about this today because I started reading Linwood Barclay’s new novel, TRUST YOUR EYES. This is a very different book for Linwood, one that I would strongly recommend to both old fans of his and new readers based just on the first few chapters which I’ve read so far. One of the primary characters is a gentleman who is obsessed with maps, to the extent that he spends hours and days and weeks visiting cities through the magic of a Google Street View- type tool. When offered the opportunity to actually physically visit one of the cities that he treads in cyberspace, he declines. There are reasons for this — read the book, please — but my reason for bringing this up is that there have been any number of novels that, unlike Linwood’s character, have made me want to trace the footsteps and tire tracks of the characters, to experience the sights and smells and sounds in real time and real place. I will be in Louisiana in a month or so and plan to make a quick trip to New Iberia to do just that — Burke and Robicheaux, once again — and on the way back I’m going to try to stop in Nashville just long enough to drive past some of the haunts which J.T. Ellison features in her novels. And who could read DRIVE or DRIVEN by James Sallis and not tempted to visit — with the windows rolled up, of course — some of the dustier sides of Phoenix?
So I’m curious. Have you read novels that have affected you in the manner? Has a particular book or author motivated you to visit a particular city or place and undertake a self-guided tour, using a story as a guide? Has a fictitious character or account actually prompted you to pull up stakes and move? And if you’ve had an experience such as this was it everything that you hoped it would be? Or were you disappointed?
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Morning, Noon and Night

Morning, Noon or Night
Early morning, noon, or night?
When is your favorite time to write?
I hesitate to start this entry with rhyme, particularly since we have some real poets among those who contribute to The Kill Zone. But I thought it would be a good way to get your attention, which is what this is all about, anyway. So…

Keep in mind that the query is presented with the understanding that one can write anytime, anywhere. You don’t have to go to the local coffee shop and commandeer a booth, although it looks cool as all get out. Inspiration comes and goes at any and all hours. I was in New Orleans last year when my computer cra…er…passed a sand castle and died. I wrote a couple of chapters of a work in progress using the Swype feature on my droid phone. It wasn’t pretty, but the job got down. And I wrote while riding on a streetcar in the morning, waiting for dinner with a frosty bottle of Barq’s Root Beer, and in the afternoon during a part of a seminar when my attention span was MIA. I’ve seen others do it too, of course. I was leaving John Ramsey Miller’s home after a delightful evening when he and his lovely wife Susan hosted my family and as I pulled down the driveway I spied John at his desk, typing madly away at 10:00 PM.
But…the question is: when is your favoritetime to write? Mine, since I asked, is early morning. I get up before everyone else, feed the cat (as he does figure-eights around my calves, crying, I ask him: “It’s a real bear, not having opposable thumbs or a soft palate, isn’t it?” and he agrees) and the guinea pigs who whistle like tea kettles until the food is served up. By then the Keurig has done its thing and I am set to go to work in the grammar mine. There are no interruptions, the slate is clear, and the word stream has the effect of pushing the nightmares away. For a while, anyway.
So when is your favorite, or most productive, time to write? And if you are a reader and not a writer, when is your best time to read? 
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Now We’re Cooking

I cook the Thanksgiving Dinner at casa de Hartlaub each year. It involves some basic planning, such as buying a frozen turkey on Sunday. It sits in the refrigerator and thaws and by Thursday it’s ready for the oven. The real planning comes Thursday. I start at 7:00 AM with the pies. The lasagna goes in the over at 9:00 AM and at 9:35 I begin preparing the turkey and its stuffing. The whole kit and caboodle goes in the oven at 10:00 and then I stuff the potatoes, sit back and mfive hours later and it’s time to bake the rolls and prepare the mixed vegetable dish. By 4:00 PM dinner is served.

It occurred to me this year — probably because I had a blog entry to write — that preparing Thanksgiving dinner is a lot like the act of writing. The first and foremost step is that I have to get up and start. Getting up whenever I happen to wake up and having a cup of coffee and taking 20 to 30 minutes to transition between into it is not going to do it done. Before I know it I’ve lost half of the day. I have to get up and start.

The second element is making a schedule and doing everything I can to stick to it. Sometimes things, like life, get away from me, like that fire in the kitchen. We still had dinner that Thanksgiving, however, even though the dog got part of one of the pies. Since there were all males in the house, however, we ate the rest of it without worrying about germs. So too, when I’m writing: sometimes the idea will get away from me and I’ll find myself far afield, being just as clever as can be but not with anything that helps the story. I drag myself back and get on target and on schedule. And the sooner that I do that the better off I am.

The third element is the possession of the proper tools to get the job done. I discovered at the last minute that I didn’t purchase one of those turkey broiling pans that I use every year (one dollar at uh, The Dollar Store) and had to go out and get it. I had everything else all lined up and ready to go. Writing, I use Word and Google docs, but when my computer crapped a sandcastle while I was in New Orleans in September I used Evernote on my T-Mobile MyTouch to take notes and write whole chapters. My fingers will never be the same, but I got it done.

The fourth step is sticking with an outline. My outline for dinner is laid out above in my first paragraph. I have a more difficult time outlining a novel, but I’m finding that things work out a lot better when I do; otherwise I dislocate my arm patting myself on the back for a great beginning and a strong ending. It’s hard to fill that vast expanse of white space in between the beginning and end when your arm is dislocated. I’ve started using Scrivener, and that helps. It’s almost as good as…well, as a reliable oven.

That aside: I hope that you had a great Thanksgiving. I’m thankful to have lived much longer than I really should have and to have the love I don’t really deserve from so many wonderful people. That would include, first and foremost, the family I prepare dinner for every Thanksgiving, and who are my most loyal readers. And it would include you for stopping by here regularly. Thank you, and God Bless.

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