Self-Publishing Words of Wisdom

Self-Publishing Words of Wisdom

Last September I gave a presentation on self-publishing at the Newport, Oregon Public Library, for the Coast Chapter of Willamette Writers. It was well-attended, and there were a lot of thoughtful questions asked by the engaged audience. One of my challenges was focusing on evergreen advice rather than tips for the passing moment. Digital self-publishing has seen a lot of changes since 2008. Gold rushes have come and gone, as have marketing fads. The market has matured. But, you can still make money, possibly pretty good money, perhaps even enough to live well on, and, as important, you can still reach readers directly.

With that in mind, this Saturday’s Words of Wisdom shares excerpts on self-publishing from past January Kill Zone posts. James Scott Bell gives timeless advice on succeeding as a self-publisher, while Joe Moore gives tips on editing yourself, and P.J. Parrish looks at giving your book covers a makeover. It is always a challenge being selective in choosing an excerpt, but especially today. All three posts are worth reading in their entirety, and I provide links to each below.

So what does all this mean for the indie writer, new and used experienced? Is the “gold rush” over? Is the sky falling?

First of all, just like in the Old West, the gold rush made scant millionaires. There were never going to be abundant strikes except for the few. If the gold rush in digital publishing ever was, it was irrelevant to the vast majority of authors.

Second, the key to making a living as a writer (subtle plug for my book of the same name), has not changed and will never change, because it’s always been the same!

To wit:

You have to write books that are good enough to get the people who read them to want to read more from you, and to recommend you to their friends and social circles.

It doesn’t matter how glitzy your marketing or how cleverly you try to game algorithms. You have to be good at what you do. Imagine that! You get rewarded for merit, not gamesmanship!

And that also goes for discoverability, a word that has overstayed its welcome and is too often used as a Cassandra cloak for expostulations of impending doom.

Phooey.

The indie writers I know who were making a living writing in 2013 were still making a living—and in most cases, a better one—in 2014.

I’ve noticed a few things they have in common:

  1. They know their craft.All the successful indie writers I know personally paid their dues back in the “trad old days.” They studied and wrote and sacrificed and wrote and submitted and got rejected and kept writing. They spent years getting good at what they do. When the trad publishing contracts started looking grim compared to what self-publishing offered, they jumped in with one or both feet. And they were ready.

So what does this mean for the newbie writer? It means that you must set your standards high and create what I call a grinder. You must set up a system that holds your writing feet to the fire, and makes you get better at your craft.

Early in my career I was fortunate to work with one of the best fiction editors in the business. He would send me long, single-spaced letters, ripping into my books at the plot, character, and style levels.

I feared those letters. I would place them unopened on the corner of my desk and just look at them for a few days. I had to work myself up into readiness. Finally, I would read them several times, highlight things with a felt-tip pen, and then take a few hours to recover. Then I’d start revising.

I also had to get rid of any chip on my shoulder. I had to be willing to make changes. Yes, on occasion there were things I fought for. But I came to realize that this editor knew his stuff, saw things I could not, and thus made me a better writer.

As a new author, you have to figure out a way to get this kind of grinding feedback, and be willing to dig in and work hard. Some time ago I listed a way to do that with beta readers and a professional editor. Look for it within this post.

James Scott Bell—January 11, 2015

 

The next type of editing is called line editing. Line editing covers grammar and punctuation. Watch for incorrect use of the apostrophe, hyphen, dash and semicolon. Did you end all your character’s dialogs with a closed quote? Did you forget to use a question mark at the end of a question?

This also covers making sure you used the right word. Relying on your word processor’s spell checker can be dangerous since it won’t alert you to wrong words when they are spelled correctly. It takes a sharp eye to catch these types of mistakes. Once you’ve gone through your manuscript and performed a line edit, have someone else check it behind you. A fresh set of eyes never hurts.

On-the-fly cut and paste editing while you were working on your first draft can get you into trouble if you weren’t paying attention. Leftover words and phrases from a previous edit or version can still be lurking around, and because all the words might be spelled correctly or the punctuation might be correct, you’ll only catch the mistake by paying close attention during the line edit phase.

The many stages of editing are a vital part of the writing process. Editing your manuscript should not be rushed or taken for granted. Familiarity breeds mistakes—you’ve read that page or chapter so many times that your eyes skim over it. And yet, there could be a mistake that you’ve missed every time because you’re bored with the old stuff and anxious to review the new.

Read your manuscript out loud, or better yet, have someone else read it to you. Mistakes and poor writing will become obvious.

Spend the time needed to tighten and clarify your writing until there is not one ounce of fat or bloat. And once you’ve finished the entire editing process, put the manuscript away for a period of time. Let it rest for a week or even a month if your schedule permits while you work on something else. Remember that indie publishing means that you set the deadline and pub date. Then bring it back out into the light of day and make one more pass. You’ll be surprised at what you missed.

Joe Moore—January 20, 2016

 

What I think we should pay attention to is:

  • Professionalism
  • Consistency of brand
  • Messaging

Professsionalism means you can’t get away with a lousy, cheap-looking cover. Because it yells in neon to a potential reader “I am an amateur!” This applies especially if you are just starting out. Like they used to tell us in “women’s magazines” — dress for the job you want, not the one you have. Don’t design your own cover unless you have solid graphic background and even then — GET INPUT! Would you edit your own story? No…you get beta-readers, you hire copy editors. (If you do edit your own books, you’re a fool). You might have to hire a pro to do this. There are lots of good ones out there. Please don’t skimp on this. Please.

Consistency of Brand means your books have to look alike. I don’t mean literally, but they have to all be of a kind so potential readers can immediately sense a unified brand.  All good authors do this. And periodically, they go back in and re-design their older books en masse to give them face lifts. Time for an object lesson….

My friend Neil Plakcy (a member of my old critique group) has been publishing his Golden Retriever mystery series for about ten years now. His books are a lot of fun (the dog helps solve the crime), light in tone, but also deal with some serious issues. (his hero did prison time for computer crimes.) Recently, Neil decided he needed a make-over.  The first line is before, the second line is after. Click to see enlarged.

What was wrong with the first ones? Inconsistency in type-faces. Type too small. The main important image (the dog!) was usually too small and static (the dog is just sitting or standing around mainly). No one compelling image for the eye to focus on. The pictures didn’t capture the books’ playful tone. Dull colors. And hard to find Neil’s name!

What is right with the second ones? The type is consistent and DOG is set bigger and in contrasting color to drive home the content in a glance. The subtitle “A Golden Retriever Mystery” is always the same size and in the same place. Neil’s name is consistent and authoritative. There is negative space for blurbs. And the dogs are so cute they make you want to adopt them. These covers look designed, not slapped together.

Disclaimer time: My sister Kelly designed the new covers. She does this as a side business and this is not an infomercial to get her work because I don’t want her attention on anything else but our stuff for now. But she and I also are redesigning our own back list covers.  And, I gotta tell you, it’s not been easy.

P.J. Parrish—January 1, 2019

***

Are you a self-publisher?

What evergreen tips do you have?

What constants do you see in self-publishing?

Tis the Season for Holiday Words of Wisdom

One of my favorite times of year is almost here—the stretch of days from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we can have rain, frost,  snow, even clear and sunny weather. A special time of year to spend with friends and family. Today it’s my good fortune to share past holiday-themed insight and advice from members of our Kill Zone Blog family.

First, Jordan Dane provides “Holiday Food for thought on character conflicts, with great advice on finding and deepening those conflicts. Then, P.J. Parrish asks if your “Book is a Christmas Sweater” in the description department, and discusses how to dress your writing for success. Finally, Debbie Burke gives “Five New Year’s Techniques On Avoiding Butt-in-Chair Syndrome” from 2018.

I encourage you to check out the full posts for each (date linked below) and comment on them. I hope they provide an inspiring basis for discussion today.

What does your character want and why can’t they have it? Conflict is vital to creating memorable characters. No conflict(s), no story. I can’t emphasize this enough. If there is a common mistake many aspiring authors make, it’s not having enough conflict to keep a story flowing through to the end that will drive the characters and keep their story interesting.

Your EXTERNAL CONFLICT might be the villain or the insurmountable situation, but the most unforgettable characters will also contend with their own flaws or biases (INTERNAL CONFLICTS) or demons, so they have a journey toward self-discovery. If you have a hero who is in conflict with a villain, while he’s battling his own demons, then think about creating a heroine who has opposing conflicts where one of them must lose in order to be together. Conflicts are best when layered and made more complicated.

Find your characters’ greatest weaknesses or fears—their internal conflicts—and demand they deal with it. Torture them. It’s legal. Rubbing their nose in it generally comes from the influences of the external conflict—the plot. The one-two punch of the external and internal conflicts adds depth to your character. Make him/her suffer, then ramp up the stakes and the tension. It’s all about drama!

Add Depth to Each Character—Give them a journey
• With any journey comes baggage. Be generous. Load on the baggage. Give them a weakness that they’ll have to face head-on by the climax of the book.

  • Make them vulnerable by giving them an Achilles Heel. Even the darkest street thug or a fearless young girl with magical powers should have a weakness that may get them killed and certainly makes them more human and relatable.
  • Whether you are writing one book or a series, have a story arc for your character’s journey that spans the series. Will they find peace or love, or some version of a normal life? Will they let someone else into their lives or will they be content to live alone? Will a villain have a chance at redemption? Do what makes sense for your character, but realize that their emotional issues will cloud their judgment and affect how they deal with confrontations. By the end of a book, they should learn something.

Use Character Flaws as Handicaps
• Challenge yourself as an author by picking flaws that will make your character stand out and that aren’t easy to write about. Sometimes that means you have to dig deep in your own head to imagine things you don’t want to think about, but tap into your empathy for another human being. You might surprise yourself.

  • Stay true to the flaws and biases you give your characters. Don’t present them to the reader then have the actions of the character contradict those handicaps. Be consistent. If they have strong enough issues, these won’t be fixed by the end of the book. Find a way to deal with them.

Jordan Dane—December 6, 2018

So how do you find your happy medium? How do you know when you’ve gone too far or haven’t gone far enough? How do you resist gilding the lily? There are no easy answers but here are a few things to think about:

Don’t generalize: Try to avoid abstractions. Be concrete in your descriptions. Instead of saying someone played a board game, say it’s Monopoly. Instead of a “bad smell” use the specific “like sour milk.” But again, don’t reach too hard or you look silly.

Don’t forget to compare and contrast. The secret to originality is the ability to see relationships. If you’re describing something green, it’s your job to come up with something fresher than “grass.” Here’s one of my faves from Steinbeck: “The customers were folded over their coffee cups like ferns.” And come to think of it, Alice’s description of Calvin Coolidge as “looking like he was weaned on a pickle” is pretty good. But again, don’t strain for originality or you just sound pretentious.

Don’t lean on adjectives: Just lining up a string of modifiers is lazy writing. (ie tall, dark and handsome). Try to find one vibrant adjective rather than several weak ones. But again, don’t strain or reach for the Thesaurus. Sometimes a lawn is just a lawn…not a “verdant sward.”

Don’t use cliches: It’s easy to slip into tired, flabby words. If you want to say something is white, you can’t use “white as snow.” It’s not yours! Neither is “thin as a rail, sick at heart, hard as a rock” or even “overcome with grief.” Time has eroded all those. It’s your job to find new ways of making your reader experience your fictional world.

Yeah, it’s tough to dress your writing for success. But don’t despair. Description is one of the things that you can get better at. Believe me, I know. I used to lard my paragraphs with lovingly crafted images that dammit, were going to stay in there because I worked so hard on them. But then my sister told me one day that I was — ahem — dressing to impress. I made every writer’s biggest mistake: I fell in love with the sound of my own voice and was trying to be “writerly.”

Finding your style — be it writing or fashion — is a lifelong process. When I went to my prom, I looked like a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and a Kabuki dancer. Through practice, I look a little better these days. Likewise, in my writing, I have learned what to leave off, what to cut out. In fact, I have gone too far with my WIP so my critique group friends tell me I am now underwriting and they are advising me to add more description.

P.J. Parrish—December 17, 2013

 

Vision 

Do you have 20/20/20 vision? No, that’s not a typo, but rather an exercise suggested by eye doctors to counteract eyestrain and blurry vision from too much screen time.

Every 20 minutes, look away from your screen to an object at least 20 feet away and focus on it for at least 20 seconds.

For more eye exercises, check out:  http://www.allaboutvision.com/cvs/irritated.htm

 And finally, my favorite exercise…

Go for a walk 

When you take your dog for a walk, she knows what she’s supposed to do. The writer’s brain can be trained and reinforced with praise the same way you train your pooch. As you move muscles and increase blood flow, your brain expels waste.

I confess during walks I’ve left many hot, steaming piles along the pathway. The best part is, unlike the dog, I don’t need a baggie to pick them up!

Once waste thoughts are cleared out, there’s room for new ideas and solutions to bubble up from the subconscious (Check out Jim Bell’s classic post about “the boys in the basement”).

Start training your brain with a small problem: let’s say you’re seeking a particular word that’s eluding you, despite searching the thesaurus. Go for a short walk and let the brain relax. After a few minutes of exercise and fresh air, the elusive word often pops up from the subconscious.

Give yourself a pat on the head and praise, “Good brain!” 

A Milk Bone is optional, your choice.

 Pretty soon, the subconscious learns that when you take a walk, it’s expected to perform, just like Fifi. While it sniffs the bushes and chases a squirrel, it’s also learning to deliver fresh ideas and solutions. The more you positively reinforce the subconscious for its results, the better and more frequently it comes up with solutions.

Walking works for me 100% of the time because my brain is conditioned. If I’m stumped about what a character should do next, or if the plot gets lost down a rabbit hole, I take a spin around the neighborhood. Before long, the uncertain character now knows her next move; or the rabbit hole has led to an unexpected escape route. I can’t wait to rush back to the keyboard eager to implement the solutions my subconscious offered up.

Debbie Burke—January 25, 2018

***

There you have it– putting conflict into your characters’ lives, avoiding your description becoming the literary equivalent of a Christmas sweater, and techniques to avoid the physical consequences of “butt-in-chair” time.

  1. What’s your sure fire way to put more conflict into your characters’s lives?
  2. How do you find the description “happy medium?”
  3. What physical challenges does butt-in-chair time pose for you? How do you mitigate any challenge?

This is my final post of 2022. I wish everyone a wonderful Holiday Season and all the best in 2023.

Writer Worry; Tone; Breathing

“Writer worry” is something many of us deal with. I have in the past, and switching genres from science fiction and fantasy recently created new writer worries.  I dove into the KZB archives and again found gold. Today’s first Words of Wisdom excerpt is from a 2009 post. James Scott Bell lays out his approach to dealing with writer worry.

Getting the tone of a novel right is an issue I have spent a lot time thinking about, since I went from writing the thriller-esque urban fantasy Empowered series to the lighter Meg Booker mysteries. Especially since I am aiming to hit the right notes in a specific sub-genre. An excerpt from a P.J. Parrish 2014 post tackles this challenge.

The last selection is from December 2019. Sue Coletta discusses the calming power of breath to help with body and mind. “Belly breathing” is something I learned while practicing yoga. Sue dives into how it works and how it can benefit us.

As always, full posts are linked from the date provided at the bottom of each excerpt. It is worth reading the full posts. Please let us know what you think about any or all of these topics

Call this my own, personal modus operandi for dealing with writer worry. It will work for you if you follow these steps:

  1. Take a moment to note the benefits of your worry. You are engaged. You are alive. You have blood coursing through your veins. You are not a chair.
  2. Remind yourself of the truth handed down by a wise Jewish carpenter, who once said, “Who by worrying can add one cubit to his span of life?” IOW, worry does absolutely no good regarding future outcomes and you know that.Tell yourself over and over until it sinks in.
  3. Now, figure out what’s the worst thing that can happen if you don’t get your desired result. Let’s say you’re waiting to hear about a submission to Penguin. What’s the worst? You get rejected by Penguin. That’s it. (Do not let your imagination run away with you. The very worstthing that can happen is that the acquisitions editor is so angry at your abuse of literature she hires a hit man to take you out. I mean, be reasonable).
  4. Next, write down all the ways you can come back strong if the worst thing happens. You got rejected by Penguin. How do you come back from that? You can a) submit elsewhere; b) prepare another project; c) rework the current project according to feedback; d) schedule a talk with your agent; e) study some aspect of the craft you’re weak on. And so forth.
  5. After going through steps 3 and 4, tell yourself that you can live with the worst thing.If it happens, it’s not going to debilitate you. It’s not going to stop you. Determine to accept the worst if it happens.

James Scott Bell–December 6, 2009

 

Tone is so important. And it’s not really the same as mood. Tone is the narrator’s attitude toward the subject — be it playful, ironic, dark, hardboiled, romantic — whereas the mood is what the reader feels by virtue of the setting, theme and voice. And I think tone is something often overlooked by some beginning writers. You, the writer, have to know in your heart what kind of book you are setting out to write. And then you should bend all the powers of your craft to that end. Poe called it Unity of Effect and wrote about it in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition.” He believed that a work of fiction should be written only after the author has decided which emotional response, or “effect,” he wishes to create. And once that was decided, everything else — theme, setting, characters, conflict, and plot — should serve the effect.

We do this via the countless choices we make as writers. What words we use, what imagery is in play, what the sentence structure is, what details we put in (as well as those we leave out). Here’s a visual.:

Both are photos of the Everglades. I’m choosing them because I also went on a “swamp walk” hike in the Corkscrew Swamp this week. The first photograph is by Susan Schermer. The second is by Clyde Butcher. Schermer’s is lush and color-saturated, with emphasis on the birds and setting sun. Butcher’s is desolate, empty of all apparent life and in stark black and white. The first is somewhat sentimental; the second almost existential. Both artists made choices about what details they wanted to include — or leave out — in their work, how they lit their landscapes, the types of trees, the quality of the water.

Same subject, different tones. Each is successful in its own way. But you can’t mistake one for the other.

So what’s my point? I’m not asking anyone to buttonhole their work. It isn’t necessary to try to psyche out editors and the folks who shelve the books at Barnes and Noble. (Is this neo-noir? Is it chick lit? Is it teen dystopia? Do we even care anymore?) I’m not even talking about all the sub-genres we tend to impose upon crime fiction. Some of the best stuff being written in crime fiction right now crosses so-called divides and genres.

What I am asking for, I think, is consistency. And honesty. Be honest with your readers. I don’t mean be predictable. Being honest means finding a tone for your work and sticking with it so that the reality you create on your pages is believable and satisfying. If you want to write romance or romance suspense, go for it and do it well.

P.J. Parrish—March 25, 2014

When chaos starts shaking the to-do list in my face, I close my eyes, lean back, and breathe… It’s amazing what a few deep breaths can do. There’s a running joke in my family that I’m so chill, I’m practically a corpse. It’s true! My blood pressure rarely, if ever, rises above 110/60, even under stressful conditions. And you know why? Because I take advantage of the most powerful and the most basic gift we have — the ability to breathe.

It may not sound like much of a superpower, but controlled breathing improves overall health. Controlled breaths can calm the brain, regulate blood pressure, improve memory, feed the emotional region of the brain, boost the immune system, and increase energy and metabolism levels.

The Brain’s Breathing Pacemaker

A 2016 study accidently discovered a neural circuit in the brainstem that plays a pivotal role in the breathing-brain control connection. This circuit is called “the brain’s breathing pacemaker,” because it can be adjusted by alternating breathing rhythm, which influences our emotional state. Slow, controlled breathing decreases activity in the circuit while fast, erratic breathing increases activity. Why this occurs is still largely unknown, but knowing this circuit exists is a huge step closer to figuring it out.

Breathing Decreases Pain 

Specifically, diaphragmatic breathing exercises. Ever watch an infant sleep? Their little tummy expands on the inhale and depletes on the exhale. They’re breathing through their diaphragm. We’re born breathing this way. It’s only as we grow older that we start depending on our lungs to do all the work.

Singers and athletes take advantage of diaphragmatic breathing techniques. Why not writers? If you find yourself hunched over the keyboard for too long, take a few moments to lay flat and concentrate on inflating your belly as you inhale through your nostrils. Then exhale while pulling your belly button toward your core. It takes a little practice to master the technique. Once you do, you can diaphragmatically breathe in any position. The best part is, it works!

Count Breaths for Emotional Well-Being

In 2018, another scientific study found that the mere act of counting breaths influenced “neuronal oscillations throughout the brain” in regions related to emotion. When participants counted correctly, brain activity showed a more organized pattern in the regions related to emotion, memory, and awareness, verse participants who breathed normally (without counting).

Sue Coletta—December 16, 2019

***

There you have it: steps to deal with writer worry, tips on getting your book’s tone right, and diaphragmic breathing to help with your body and mind.

  1. Do you have any writer worries? How do you deal with them?
  2. Have you ever struggled with a novel’s tone while writing? Have you ever stopped reading a book that was “tone-deaf?”
  3. Have you tried breathing to help with focus while writing, managing stress, discomfort, etc.?

Suspense: To Be Exciting,
You Need To Be A Little Dull

peyton1

This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.– Oscar Wilde

By PJ Parrish

Sunday, I picked up the latest by a bestselling thriller writer and about halfway through, I realized it was sorta…unthrilling. So I put it aside and tuned into the Broncos-Colts game. I didn’t expect much in the way of entertainment here either because I knew this old story. I mean, Denver was 4-0 and Indianapolis was 3-5. Denver has Manning and Indy has, at best, a little Luck.

But lo and behold! The Colts were winning 17-0. Well, I thought, this is kinda interesting. So I stuck around. And then, Denver returned a punt 83 yards for TD.

Hmmm.

Then Peyton Manning hit for a TD, Denver got a field goal and suddenly, we were all knotted up at 17-all. Early in the fourth quarter, Andrew Luck threw a TD but Manning answered with one of his own and we were tied again! Until Adam Vinatieri, who is 95-years-old and never misses despite having only seven toes, kicked a field goal putting the Colts ahead by three!

Six minutes left. But I was definitely not turning this one off now because Denver was driving. And how’s this for a twist? Peyton was only 30 yards away from becoming the leading passer of all time, surpassing Brett Favre!

Tick…tick…tick.

OH MY GOD! Peyton is picked off!

Can the Colts hang on? There’s four minutes left and Frank Gore is running the ball but he’s 105-years-old and has a habit of putting the rock on the ground. Denver uses its last time out. But here is the back story that I already know about this drama: Peyton leads the league with 43 fourth-quarter comebacks.

Can he do it again? Will he break the passing record? Will the Broncos stay perfect? Will Frank cough up another hairball like he did last week?

The suspense was killing me.

Frank is tackled on third down. Ninety seconds left! Peyton’s going to get the ball back! Wait! Is that a flag? Some guy named Aqib Talib poked a Colt in the eye and Denver gets flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct!

It’s over. Colts win.

{{{Whew}}}

Now that was suspense. After that, I had no desire to go back to my book. Because despite the book’s stellar blurbs and the reputation of the author as the Master of the Twist, it wasn’t near as good as that football game.

The game was classic David and Goliath with a little Joseph Campbell The Hero’s Journey thrown in, yet it still went against my expectations. It had a good mix of pacing, with zip-fast passing attacks and slow grind-it-out running. It had setbacks and surprises. It had heroes and eye-gouging villains. And just enough twists to keep me guessing.

Think there’s a lesson here?

A good sports game has a lot in common with a good book or movie. Sitting on your barstool watching Daniel Murphy commit that error in game four and wondering if the Mets are doomed. Sitting in the triplex watching The Fugitive and wondering if Harrison Ford is going to jump off the dam. Or turning just one more page to find out if Amy is alive or is the girl gone for good. They are all related.

There’s the old Hitchcock formula: 1. A couple is sitting at a table talking. 2. The audience is shown a time bomb beneath the table and the amount of time left before it explodes. 3. The couple continues talking, unaware of the danger. 4. The audience eyes a clock in the background.

The surprise, Hitchcock said, didn’t come from the bomb itself; it came from the tension of not seeing it.

Speaking of formulas, there actually is one for suspense:

Suspense: t = (E t [(µ¿ t+1 – µ t)²])½

I didn’t make this up, believe me. It was created by Emir Kamenica and Alexander Frankel of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. It is basically an equation about time and expectations: “t” represents the period of time a moment of suspense is occurring, “E” is the expectations at that time, the Greek mu indicates your belief in the next thing to happen, the +1 is your belief in the future, the tilde represents uncertainty, and the subtracted mu is the belief you might have tomorrow.

That made your brain hurt, right? Mine, too. But hey, you sat through my football metaphor, so stay with me a little longer. The Chicago guys also developed a formula for surprise, which is easier to stomach for us math-challenged types. It boils down to this: what your beliefs are now minus what your beliefs were yesterday.

Their paper “Suspense and Surprise” (co-written with Northwestern University economics professor Jeffrey Ely) was published in the “Journal of Political Economy.” It was inspired by their observation that in various types of entertainment – gambling, watching sports, reading mysteries – people don’t really WANT to know the outcome.

What they DO want is a “slow reveal of information.” As one of them put it in an article in the Chicago Tribune: “To be exciting, we found that things need to get dull.”

Information revealed over time generates drama in two ways: suspense and surprise. Suspense is all about BEFORE, ie something is going to happen. (the ticking bomb under the chair). Surprise is about AFTER, ie you’re surprised that something unexpected happened. (the bomb didn’t go off!) If you are led to believe one thing is going to happen (Broncos will win!) but then are surprised by the unexpected (Colts prevail!) that can be pretty powerful.

So how do you translate this to your own writing?

I’ll let Kamenica explain. He goes back to the Hitchcock formula: “Let’s take that idea and ask a mathematical question: How much suspense can you possibly generate?’ Putting that bomb there generates suspense, but how long can you leave it there? Can you leave it the duration of the movie? Or is that boring? Once you put it there, when do you decide for it to go off? One-third of the way through? One-half? If I am invested, as a viewer, how frequently should uncertainty be resolved? You have a threat, information that (a bomb) will explode, then it gets resolved, the movie continues. But will these people survive the next danger? How often can you do that — change an audience view?”

He has the answer, of course: Three times.

“Say you are writing a mystery,” Kamenica goes on in the Chicago Tribune article, “Zero twists is bad. And one thousand twists is also bad — again, for something to be exciting, it must occasionally become boring. So, three. The math delivers surprisingly concrete prescriptions. That number is constrained to a stylized view, characteristic mystery novel: Is it the maid or butler who did it? Does the protagonist live or die? A novelist must lead you in one direction then …”

Added his colleague Frankel: “The thing is, we also found that you can’t really have a definite number of twists. Three is average. Yet if you know there are three twists, those twists are not actually twists — you are now waiting for the twist.”

And that, to me, is the major lesson here. Not that your book must conform to a three-twist formula. Because if your readers know you have three twists, you’ve lost the suspense. The lesson, to me, is less might just be more.

That’s why I gave up on that book I was reading. Its pacing was overly frenetic, with no slow moments for me to catch my breath. And the writer — excuse me, Master of the Twist — was so intent on forcing me through one more complication, one more bend in the road, one more plot gymnastic, that I began to anticipate his next move. I put the book down because the enjoyment was gone. The fun was leached away. The thrill was gone.

If your readers know you will have a dramatic unexpected twist at the end, then your book will no longer have a dramatic unexpected twist at the end.

So maybe it comes down to this: If you want to be thrilling, you also have to be willing to be boring very so often.

 

 

Indie Book Store Confidential

books

Editor’s note: Kris is up in the wilds of Northern Michigan helping her sister Kelly move into a new condo. She is busy painting the kitchen so Kelly is stepping in today. All these stories are true but the customers’ names have been withheld for obvious reasons.

It was a dark and snowy night. I was working the late shift all alone at Horizon Books in Traverse City. The cavernous store was as empty and quiet as Al Capone’s vault. The windows dripped with sweaty heat. Across the street, the red neon sign of the Milk and Honey Ice Cream shop beat blood-red, like a broken heart.

I was leaning on the counter, reading a copy of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I only cracked it open because it was my job to know what’s hot and I always did my job. But I was only twenty pages in and I was already tired of characters named Thomas.

Suddenly, the air turned cold, sashaying over me like a discarded mink stole. I saw a dame standing near the door. Red heels, silk stockings, red skirt and a high-collared leopard fur coat with a matching hat, cocked with sass. She wasn’t young but I could tell she had paid a lot of money to have folks think otherwise.

Her baby blues jumped left and right and her red lips pursed slightly as she approached the counter. I knew what she was going to ask for. I knew because not only is it my job to know what’s hot, I got a knack for knowing exactly what people want.

She was an easy read. Before she ever reached the counter, I discreetly reached into what we at the store called “The Case.” The Case is where we keep the VHS Porn Movie Guide, Cannabis Culture magazines, Naked Art Books, the Karma Sutra, and a handful of other titles low-lifes have a tendency to sticky-finger out the door.

I wrapped my hand around the slick spine of a trade pulp and laid it silently on the counter. The dame blushed and reached her for dough. It cost her sixteen Washingtons, all shades of green, but I had a feeling that she would’ve paid fifty, one dollar for each shade of Grey.
Then she was gone into the white confetti of the Michigan night, just one of a hundred happy Horizon readers, eager to experience literary new worlds.

I was just being introduced to yet another Thomas in Wolf Hall when the door opened again. This time, it wasn’t milk and honey but milk and cookies. Shirley Temple with red hair and Sock Monkey mittens. She could barely see over the counter.

“Do you have Mable Makes a Move by Anne Mazer?”

I love little kids who read. There are so few nowadays. I punched at a keyboard that was so old it looked brushed with fingerprint dust, and scrolled through our 1990s WordStock system for the title. Yeah, the computer’s as old as the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, but hey, it works. And indie bookstores don’t have much cash flow. Nothing came up. Section 904 -– younger young adult — is not my area of expertise. I’m a hard-boiled kind of clerk.

“Is that part of a series?” I asked.

She gave me the How-dumb-are-you? eye roll. “It’s the Sister Magic series. Book Six. Anne Mazer. M-a-z-e-r.”

Feeling a hundred years old, I strolled to the 904 aisle to get the book for Miss Sassy Pants. But I found myself standing there in a maze of pink and purple books, all with glittery spines and little blonde girls and unicorns on the covers.

“There it is,” the girl said as she snatched the book from the shelf. She was back at the counter with the exact change before I could bag her up.

“You’ll enjoy that book,” I say to make conversation as she counted her pennies.

“It’s not for me,” she said. “It’s for my younger sister. I’m reading The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. It’s very old but holds up well. Thank you.”

I sighed in satisfaction as I watched her go, amazed and hopeful for the next generation. Finding the right book for the right reader is the best part of my job. But that’s only part of what goes on in an independent bookstore.

Kelly posing with our book HEART OF ICE and a very nice Horizon Books customer

Kelly posing with our book HEART OF ICE and a very nice Horizon Books customer

We all wear many fedoras here. We shelve new arrivals and ship out the flash-in-the pan hardcovers when they fall off the NYT list. We find impossible-to-find out of print titles for discerning readers. We babysit authors for signings, from the local geezer who wrote a fly-fishing guide to the likes of Steve Hamilton and Mardi Link. We tote books to business luncheons, library fund raisers and school carnivals. And yeah, we make coffee, too. Some of us even know latte art.

You learn a lot working behind the scenes. Some things you might not want to know, like what’s really in a Jimmy Dean sausage. But if you want the dope on how you, as an author, can get the “bulge” (advantage) when working with an indie store, well, maybe this hardboiled old bookseller can give you some hints:

1. Don’t piss off the Author Events Manager.
2. Do not bring in consignment books without being asked.
3. When you first approach the Events Manager, please arrive with sufficient materials in hand so the manager knows what the book is about. A copy of the book might be good.
4. Do not call every Sunday and ask how many books you sold this week.
5. Do not show up late for your event. Maybe, just maybe, people might be waiting.
6. Don’t be a stump. Most events will not require you speak to a group. Your first store events will be done at a table, behind a pile of books. STAND UP. Talk to people, and smile. Have postcards or flyers with a synopsis and let the customer walk away and read your stuff. Pretty good chance they will come back and buy. Flyers can be printed at home!
7. If your book is non-returnable, do not expect your bookstore to carry it on any basis but consignment. You bring it in and get paid only if you sell one.
8. If your book is consignment, do not be surprised if your local store refuses to carry it or do an event. It’s just the way it is. However, even if your book is from Createspace, if it has local interest, many stores are very likely to not only carry it, but actively promote it.
9. If you visit your bookstore as a reader, do not ask a salesperson to look up a book and when you find out the store does not have it but can order it for you, do not tell them you are going to go home and order it from Amazon, where you can get it cheaper. You might find yourself with a boot up your butt as you go out the door.
10. Remember that the folks who work in indie bookstores usually are there because they really love books. And writers. But remember that they are human and just might be having a bad day at the latte machine or just had to deal with a really dicey customer.

Which brings me back to that dark and snowy night. It was near closing and I had already done most my duties: run out the stragglers, reshelved the books people sat and read for eight hours, cleaned the coffee bar, took out the trash, and rolled the pennies for the day shift.

I was this close to a clean getaway when another cold blast of air made me look to the front door.

The kid was standing there wet and bedraggled. As he slurped over toward me, I saw the piercing in his nose and the desperation in his eyes.

“I need a book,” he whispered.

I had already locked up The Case and wasn’t about to open it for another would-be weed farmer.

“We got books,” I said.

“I need it for school,” the kid said. “It’s called One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The kid looked like he didn’t have the strength to go get it himself, so I hopped over, came back and slid the slender paperback across the counter. He stared at it like it was a dead walleye.

“Is this hard stuff?” he asked.

“Not too bad.” I paused, feeling a moment of pity for this pathetic creature. “You seen the movie?” I asked.

His eyes brightened. “There’s a movie?”

“Yeah, it’s a little dated but it’s good and has a powerful message on the mental health system in America.”

The light left his eyes.

“Hey, you can’t go wrong with Jack Nicholson,” I said.

“Who’s he?”

I shook my head and picked up the wad of crumbled bills the kid had set on the counter. I bagged up his book and sent him back out into the night, locking the door behind him. I watched him until he disappeared into the swirling snow.

Life wore a man out, wore a man thin. Tomorrow would be a better day.

I pulled the string on the light and the neon – BOOKS! OPEN! – sign went silent.

Hooks, Lines and StinkersIn Praise of Great Openings

By PJ Parrish

The opening line of your book is the single hardest line you write.

Many writers would disagree with that. But for my money, those writers are:

A. those lucky devils for whom all things come easy;
B. those diligent do-bees who can scribble down anything just to get started and then go back and rewrite or
C. those types who aren’t really very good at what they do or maybe are just phoning it in.

Yeah, C is probably a little harsh. But I truly believe this. I have great respect and envy for writers who create wonderful openings and I also little regard for those who never even try. And can’t we all tell the difference?

I am not talking about “hooks.” I’m talking about those rare and glorious opening moments in stories that are telling us, “OO-heee, something special is about to happen here!” Hooks? I am firmly of the mind that anyone can write a decent hook. You’ve seen them, those clever one-liners tossed out by wise-ass PIs, those archly ironic first-person soliloquies, those purple-prose weather reports that substitute for mood.

We crime writers talk a lot about great hooks and how to get our readers engaged in the first couple pages. We worry about whether we should throw out a corpse in the first chapter, whether one-liners are best, if readers attention spans are too short for a slow burn beginning. This is especially true if you are writing what we categorize as “thrillers.”

But I’m tired of hooks. I’m thinking that the importance of a great opening goes beyond its ability to keep the reader just turning the pages. A great opening is a book’s soul in miniature. Within those first few paragraphs — sometimes buried, sometimes artfully disguised, sometimes signposted — are all the seeds of theme, style and most powerfully, the very voice of the writer herself.

It’s like you whispering in the reader’s ear as he cracks the spine and turns to that pristine Page 1: “This is the world I am taking you into. This is what I want to tell you. You won’t understand it all until you are done but here is a hint, a taste, of what I have in store for you.”

Which is why, today I am still staring at the blank page. We turned in our book last week to our new publisher and now it’s time to start the whole process all over again. I give myself a week off but then I try to get right back in the writing groove. I have an idea for a new book but that great opening?

Nothing has come to me yet. And I know my writer-self well enough by now that I know can’t move forward until I find just the right key to unlock what is to come. So here I sit, staring at the blinking curser, thinking that if I can only make good on my beginning’s promise, everything else will follow. Because that is what a great opening is to me: a promise to my reader that what I am about to give them is worth their time, is something they haven’t seen before, something that is…uniquely me.

Oh hell, I’ll let Joan Didion explain it. I have a feeling she’s given this a lot more thought than I have:

Q: You have said that once you have your first sentence you’ve got your piece. That’s what Hemingway said. All he needed was his first sentence and he had his short story.

Didion: What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.

Q: The first is the gesture, the second is the commitment.

Didion: Yes, and the last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one. That’s how it should be, but it doesn’t always work. I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities.

Didion gave this interview around the time she published her great memoir after her husband’s death The Year of Magical Thinking, the first line of which is: “Life changes fast.”

Here are some more openings I really love:

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

That’s from Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex. To me, it’s magic, because there in that one deceivingly simple declarative sentence lies the all tenderness, irony and roiling epic scope of his story.

And then there’s this one:

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.”

That’s from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. This is the first line of a long paragraph of description that opens the book, yet look at what it accomplishes — puts us down immediately in his setting, conveys the book’s bleak mood and hints with those two words “out there” that he is taking us to an alien place where nothing makes sense (the criminal mind).

And here is the one I always bring up:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta..

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry (out of envy) when I read that one.

What is so terrifying about openings, I suppose, is that you only have so much space to work with: the first line, the first paragraph, that’s it. Because once you’ve moved deeper into that first chapter, that golden moment of anticipation is gone and then you the writer are busily engaging all the gears to move the reader onward. The opening is the moment before the kiss; the rest is relationship. And you only have precious seconds to make a good impression.

I read a lot of crime novels. I do this to keep up with what’s going on in our business but I also do it out of pleasure. But it seems to me that lately I am reading too many genre books that just aren’t trying hard enough, and you really can see it in the openings. Maybe this has something to do with the pressure to put out a book a year. Maybe I am reading the wrong people. But I find myself wishing for less “hook” and more artfulness.

That said, I pulled a couple books from my crime shelf and found some “oldies” that I like:

We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped a girl off the bridge. — John D. MacDonald, Darker Than Amber

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. — James M. McCain, The Postman Always Rings Twice

The girl was saying goodbye to her life. And it was no easy farewell. — Val McDermid, A Place of Execution.

Not bad for one-liners. Then there are the more measured openings:

Death is my beat. I make my living from it. I forge my professional reputation on it. I treat it with the passion and precision of an undertaker – somber and sympathetic about it when I’m with the bereaved, a skilled craftsman with it when I’m alone. I’ve always thought the secret of dealing with death was to keep it at arm’s length. That’s the rule. Don’t let it breathe in your face. But my rule didn’t protect me.

That’s from my favorite Mike Connelly book, The Poet, and it works because it succinctly captures his protagonist’s voice and the theme of the story.

There is a bullet in my chest, less an a centimeter from my heart. I don’t think about it much anymore. It’s just a part of me now. But every once in a while, one a certain kind of night, I remember that bullet. I can feel the weight of it inside me. I can feel its metallic hardness. And even though that bullet has been warming inside my body for fourteen years, on a night like this when it is dark enough and the wind is blowing, that bullet feels as cold as the night.

Lovely writing from Steve Hamilton. See how the bullet, the setting and the key point of Alex McKnight’s backstory coalese around theme?

These are writers who understand the difference between a hook and an opening. They declare their authority as master storytellers right from the start. When a writer presents me with an opening like this…well, I would follow them anywhere.

Seasons Greetings

AWREATH3It’s Winter break here at the Kill Zone. During our 2-week hiatus, we’ll be spending time with our families and friends, and celebrating all the traditions that make this time of year so wonderful. We sincerely thank you for visiting our blog and commenting on our rants and raves. We wish you a truly blessed Holiday Season and a prosperous 2015. From Clare, Jodie, Kathryn, Kris, Joe M., Nancy, Jordan, Elaine, Joe H., Mark, and James to all our friends and visitors, Seasons Greeting from the Kill Zone. See you back here on Monday, January 5. Until then, check out our TKZ Resource Library partway down the sidebar, for listings of posts on The Kill Zone, categorized by topics.

It’s time once more for…(Gasp! Oooh! Yes! Yes!)The Bad Sex Awards!

By PJ Parrish

Wow, and this could not have come at a better time, right?

I mean, it’s been a sort of depressing year. (Go read Mark’s Saturday post if you need a reminder). And I just got home from my bagel place where I was reading in the New York Times about Congress’s Cromnibus spending bill, which told me that tucked inside the $1.1 trillion is a provision that requires the Obama administration to include white potatoes in government nutrition programs for mothers and infants. Your tax dollars at work…making the world safe for starch.

But I digress. Let’s get back to the important stuff — sex.

A quick aside before we get properly into this topic, I met a friend of mine for coffee last week – she is also a writer and was telling me all about how she found her boyfriend checking out penis pumps at aiclegal. She told me the whole situation has inspired her to get writing again! It’s amazing what can help you to escape a writer’s block…

Now, we have talked here often about how hard it is to write good sex scenes. A lot of writers find that in order to write about good sex, they need to have experienced it. I think that most of us crime writers do a pretty good job with sex. We get in and out without much ado and many adjectives. Which is why I get such a big kick out of the annual  Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction awards.  It’s sort of fun to see the literary types muck things up.

This year’s winner is Ben Okri. Never heard of him? Well, he won the prestigious Booker Award back in 1991 but his latest novel The Age of Magic, snagged the big bad sex award. His story follows a team of documentary filmmakers who wind up in a hotel by a lake in the shadow of a looming mountain. The winning scene involves Lao, the film’s presenter, and his main squeeze, Mistletoe.

Are you ready? Small children, sensitive dogs, and those easily offended should now leave the room:

Sky rockets in flight. Afternoon delight!

“When his hand brushed her nipple it tripped a switch and she came alight. He touched her belly and his hand seemed to burn through her. He lavished on her body indirect touches and bitter-sweet sensations flooded her brain. She became aware of places in her that could only have been concealed there by a god with a sense of humour.

Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her. He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, till she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail … The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.”

More? Give me more, you say? Okay, here are some of short-listers who came close but no cigar:

Is that a penguin in your mouth or are you just glad to see me?

“He kissed the slight, rose-coloured trench that remained from her knicker elastic, running around her belly like the equator line circling the world. As they lost themselves in the circumnavigation of each other, there came from nearby shrill shrieks that ended in a deeper howl. Dorrigo looked up. A large dog stood at the top of the dune. Above blood-jagged drool, its slobbery mouth clutched a twitching fairy penguin.” 
— Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

I’d like to buy a vowel, Pat, and maybe a period

I continued to tell her flesh of its gifts, such pleasure, gently but insistently given, even biting her earlobe with my front teeth, sweeping her hair from her face, her neck, as she cried, and breathed less jaggedly, “It hurts, it hurts.” I did not stop until it stopped hurting, until I heard pleasure articulated from her. Her throat as open as her body, wet everywhere from tears and the coming, and I did hear it, a long high twisting cry and a twisting in my arms as my fingers dove up and up into the full expressive wetness of her. Hold me, hold me. Here and here, she said after she came, placing one of my hands between her legs to press again, another over her breasts. Hold me tight.

 — Amy Grace Loyd, The Affairs of Others

That girl can really do the Rhombus!

The girls entwined themselves lithely around Tsukuru. Kuro’s breasts were full and soft. Shiro’s were small, but her nipples were as hard as tiny round pebbles. Their pubic hair was as wet as a rain forest. Their breath mingled with his, becoming one, like currents from far away, secretly overlapping at the dark bottom of the sea. These insistent caresses continued until Tsukuru was inside the vagina of one of the girls. It was Shiro. She straddled him, took hold of his rigid, erect penis, and deftly guided it inside her. His penis found its way with no resistance, as if swallowed up into an airless vacuum. She took a moment, gathering her breath, then began slowly rotating her torso, as if she were drawing a complex diagram in the air, all the while twisting her hips. Her long, straight black hair swung above him, sharply, like a whip.

 — Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

All the cats who dig striptease prayin’ for a little breeze

Her hair was piled high, but when she shook her head it came cascading down in a glowing wave over her shoulders, and fell as far as her knees. This rippling curtain did not cover her breasts which thrust their way through it like living creatures. They were perfect rounds, white as mare’s milk and tipped with ruby nipples that puckered as my gaze passed over them. Her body was hairless. Her pudenda were also entirely devoid of hair. The tips of her inner lips protruded shyly from the vertical cleft. The sweet dew of feminine arousal glistened upon them.

— Wilbur Smith, Desert God
Like a virgin, baked for the very first time

She was moaning softly now, her breath coming faster. She tasted of apples. Her soft warm flesh was driving me crazy – that dish of delight my tongue was now lapping at frenziedly. Her suppressed cries were coming faster and faster. I unbuttoned my pants, pushing them down past my hips, and my beast, finally released from its cage, sprang up wildly. I started inching my way back up, continuing to stimulate her manually, until the beast found its way in. She opened her eyes and said softly, ‘I’m still a virgin, please be careful.’

I kept myself quiet for a moment, kissed her and said, “I’ll be very gentle, all right?”

Running her tongue over her lips she nodded; she was as hot as boiling water in a distillation flask, and it wasn’t long before I was able to really get going. We both came at the same time. I stayed inside her for a few seconds, gazed at her, and smiled.

— Saskia Goldschmidt, The Hormone Factory

Those are the only ones I can print. Click here for more.  Go on, you know you want to.

So who finds all this dirty stuff? If you want a behind the scenes look at the process the Literary Review goes through every year, watch the video below. But it’s like Bismark said: “Sex is like sausages, it is better not to see it being made.” Or something like that.

Happy holidays, fellow crime dogs. Peace and out.

Women Doing Men…and Vice Versa

Got a great fan letter the other day from a lady named Rose O’Malley:

Dear P.J.: My husband is a Stephen King fan. Has read all his books and needed a new author. We went to the bookstore and found your first Louis Kincaid book. Well, he is hooked and is always looking forward to the next one. Here’s the funny part. He doesn’t think women can write as good as men. He thinks P.J. Parrish is a black man. I just found out when I went to your website [that you are women]. This is a good one. I can’t wait to tell him.”

Wish I could say this is rare. But we get a lot of fan letters that come addressed to Mr. Parrish. Whatever the reason — that our protag is a man or our style hardboiled — many of our readers assume we are male.

Now I’m a card-carrying feminist. (Well, I would carry one if there WAS a card). And I used to be miffed about this Mr. Parrish thing, believing that I had a duty to carry the standard for female crime writers. (Maybe I did strike a blow for the crime writing sisterhood in the O’Malley household at least.) But you know, after living fifteen years now as the neuter P.J. Parrish, I no longer take offense. I’ll let reader Wade Beeson, in his email to us, tell you why:

“As a compliment, I could not decide if you were male or female, as you seem sensitive and understanding of both sexes. Thank you for a provocative read.”

The women writing men and men writing women thing is a pretty hackneyed subject. It’s dragged out for at least one conference panel a year. And I suspect the men are as tired of explaining how they “do” women as I am tired of talking about how I “do” men.

It boils down to one thing for me: If you can’t slip into the skin of another sex (or race or anyone outside your paltry sphere of experience) you have no business even trying to write. Failure to write believable characters of ANY kind is the supreme failure of the imagination.

Madame Bovary is one of my favorite books. From the first time I read it, I was awed by Emma. And by her creator’s ability to bring her to such vivid life. At that time in my life, I had just run my Visa up buying a designer purse when my rent was overdue. How did Flaubert understand how I sank to that nadir?

Flaubert “did” women well. But when he said “Bovary, c’est moi,” he wasn’t claiming he was his character. Actually, he once admitted he was terrified by “the need to invent.” (Which I find vastly comforting!) He was a literary magpie who read medical textbooks to write about clubfeet, observed the town folks around him, and when he had to write a chapter about an agricultural fair, actually went to one.

It’s said he probably even stole the whole idea for Bovary from a scandal that was going on near his town at the time, buying into the advice of his friends who told him “write what you know.”

For years after his book came out, he peevishly maintained he just made the whole damn thing up.

But Flaubert WAS Bovary in a very basic way. His powers of observation, his imagination, his sensory antennae, his understanding of human nature — all those things that make up what we call writer’s talent — it all allowed him to inhabit other skins. It allowed him to create one of literature’s greatest female archetypes.

This man-woman thing is swirling in my head today as my sister and I write chapter 38 of our new book. The finish line is in sight, but it has been a hard race. See, this book is the first in a new series featuring a female protagonist. Now we wrote a female protag before when we gave Louis’s lover Joe Frye her own stand alone. But this charcacter isn’t a tough homicide cop like Joe. Gaslight.) Also, she is an unreliable narrator, which is a bitch to write well. It is exhausting being in her head. So for the first time in years, I can sympathize with those of you just starting out — those of you still trying to fit into that new skin. She’s a rich socialite whose life goes to hell when she comes to believe her husband is trying to kill her. (Yeah, I know…Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight.)

Our new woman is taking shape. As are the men around her. A whole new world is coming to life every day under my fingertips. It is frustrating, frightening all over again. And deeply thrilling. I tapped into something inside myself to become Louis. I will plumb the female side of myself for this new chararacter. (I have never been a rich socialite, after all…despite buying that designer purse.) I’ll willingly lose something of myself.

Here’s Flaubert talking about that process:

“What a delicious thing writing is — not to be you anymore but to move through the whole universe you are talking about. Take me today, for instance: I was a man and woman, lover and mistress; I went riding on a fall afternoon beneath the yellow leaves, and I was the horse, the leaves, the wind, the words he and she spoke, and the red sun beating on their half-closed eyelids, which were heavy with passion.”

Isn’t that, in a nutshell, why we write?

First Round Picks…and BustsWhy Big Advances Can Be Bad

By PJ Parrish

I was thinking yesterday how much two of my favorite icons — Dan Marino and John Grisham — have in common. Stay with me on this.

I love the NFL. From the start of training camp in July through Super Bowl Sunday in February, I am in hog heaven. And the fact that my Dolphins and my auxiliary team the Lions are doing well makes things even better. But when football season is over, like many NFL geeks I resort to a sad substitute, The Draft. I read the magazines, check out the websites and listen to the talking jock-heads on ESPN. Will Oregon QB Marcus Mariota go No. 1? Will the Jets take another QB flyer on controversial Seminole Jameis Winston? Will my Dolphins go for tackle La’El Collins to beef up their O line?

Yeah, I know. I need a life.

On a recent Sunday, after the games were over, I turned to the New York Times. There I read about Stephanie Danler. (That’s her at left). She is a young waitress in a upscale French bistro in the West Village. One day, while serving Random House vice president Peter Gethers his steak tartare, she talked him into reading her manuscript about a young waitress who works in an upscale New York bistro. Gethers, used to getting hit on after 30 years in publishing, deflected her with a polite “have your agent sent it to me.”

I bet you know where this plot is going.

Gethers was smitten after reading 10 pages and, to make a long story short (click here to read it), Danler’s novel Bittersweet was acquired by Knopf for “a pre-emptive high six-figure two book deal.”

Now you’d think that with all the challenges traditional publishing is facing these days, that Danler’s dream deal is rare. It’s not. There has been a string of debut novel big deals lately. Random House recently paid $2 million for 25-year-old debut novelist Emma Cline’s The Girls. St. Martins just picked up New York Times reporter Stephanie Clifford’s debut novel Everybody Rise for over $1 million. And first-timer Imbolo Mbue got a seven-figure deal with Random House for her book about a West African immigrant who works as a chauffeur for Lehmann Brothers.

Which leads me to wonder: Are Knopf and Random House making shaky bets on future prospects?

Which takes me back to Grisham and Marino. Both were overlooked in their drafts. But both took rejection and turned it into a positive. Both turned out to be huge assets for their bosses. Marino was taken by the Dolphins with the 27th pick. That means 26 teams took a pass on the guy who became the first rookie QB to go to a Super Bowl and is a first ballot Hall of Famer. Five teams chose QBs ahead of him. The Colts drafted John Elway knowing they couldn’t sign him. Kansas City took Todd Blackledge. Buffalo took Jim Kelly. New England took Tony Eason. The Jets took Ken O’Brien.

Now let’s look at John Grisham. He struggled to write his first book A Time To Kill while working fulltime as a lawyer. Grisham was turned down by thirty-some publishers. “Everybody said no,” he recalls. After a year of rejection, his agent sold A Time to Kill to the tiny Wynwood Press. The book sold 5,000 copies, most of them by Grisham hawking them from the trunk of his car. Wynwood went bankrupt leaving Grisham with no one to publish the second book he had been laboring on, The Firm. But then a bootlegged manuscript of The Firm surfaced in Hollywood, and as Grisham has explained: “Some guy ran 25 copies, said he was my agent, and sent them to all of the major production companies. He got nervous when they started making offers. At some point he called my agent in New York, and the rest is history. It was an unbelievably lucky break, and I had nothing to do with it.”

But like Marino, Grisham did go on to have a rather long and productive career.

Traditional publishing is a lot like the NFL draft. Every year, there is buzz, hype and great hopes surrounding a handful of hot prospects. Is what goes on in the booths of BEA so much different than the machinations in the war rooms of the NFL, where team owners place multi-million-dollar bets on unknown kids in cleats? Is a publisher dazzled by a pretty face and a “media platform” any different than a scout besotted by a 4.4 and a good Wonderlick score? And is an editor any better at predicting which writer will have a sophomore slump than a coach is at foretelling which rookie will blow out a knee?

No coach can predict which guy is going to be the next sixth-round steal Tom Brady and which one is the next first-round dud Todd Marinovich. Likewise, no editor can predict who’s going to be the next J.K. Rowlings and who — despite all the money they throw around — is going to be the next John Twelve Hawks. (Remember him?)

Or how about Jonathan Littell? A couple years ago, Harper paid him a cool million for the rights to publish his first novel The Kindly Ones in the U.S. It was published in France first where it won prizes and sold well. But it’s 1,000 pages long, Michiko Kakutani hated it, and the book sold only 17,000 copies out of a 150,000 print run.

Then there’s Gordon Dahlquist. Bantam inked him to a $2 million two book deal but his debut thriller The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters sold only 22,000 copies of a 120,000 print run, earning the publisher about $851,500 back on its gamble.

Now, I am not suggesting that all big-buck debuts are bad. Two of my favorite books of all time were expensive debuts: Chad Harbach got $650,000 for The Art of Fielding. It was named a ten best books of the year by the New York Times, shortlisted for the Guardian first book prize, and almost made it to an HBO series. It sold 117,954 hardcover copies so it made back its advance. Another book I adore is Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner. He was 26 when he got $1.2 million advance for it. It was a bestseller and Werner Herzog optioned it for film.

But here’s the bottom line: According to Time Magazine 70 percent of novels do not earn back their advance, so the higher the advance the greater the sales expectations. And when a debut writer gets a huge deal and sales fall short, well, the writer is less likely to score a big second deal. I have a dear friend who found this out the hard way: She scored a seven-figure deal on her second contract and didn’t come close to earning out.  Her career never recovered. (Click here to read a good overview of the economics of book advances.)

Truth is, the people whose careers depend on drafting players and authors have no real idea how they’ll turn out, if they will be one-season wonders or if they’ll have a long and prolific career. Like my guys Marino and Grisham.

So will Stephanie Danler bring home the Lombardi for Knopf? Or will she just be this year’s Stephen Carter? I dunno, but if there were a fantasy league for writers, I’d be tempted to take a pass on this one and find a couple second-round gems with — as the sports cliche goes — a good upside. But what do I know?

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And now, as my other favorite cultural icon Monty Python says, for something completely different:

Kelly and I got some great news Saturday morning. Our latest Louis Kincaid thriller HEART OF ICE won the Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original at Bouchercon. The award is given out by the Private Eye Writers of America and we are, to say the least, thrilled and honored. Especially since this book was Louis’s swan song as a PI.  Yup, he’s hanging up his gumshoes. (But returning in a new book with a badge again). What a great note to go out on.