But I Want Success Now!

When I was a writer aspiring to be published, I went to a book signing here in Seattle where number one bestselling author Lee Child was making an appearance. As I stepped up to get his autograph, I mentioned that I had finished three books and was struggling to find a publisher. He told me, “Remember, it only takes ten years to become an overnight success.”

At the time I thought he was just being kind to a newbie, giving me encouragement that I would someday reach my goal. It wasn’t until a few years later when I was a published author and knew Lee a little better that I ran into him at Bouchercon and reminded him of what he’d said. I told him that I understood he hadn’t been pandering to me, and Lee nodded in agreement. Although he won awards early in his career, it took him eight books before he made an appearance on the NY Times list, and several more years before he became LEE CHILD, brand name author.

I think the Internet has only accelerated our skewed expectation that you should become a huge success as soon as you type “The End” on your first manuscript. Writers focus on promoting their first novel to a fault. I see that mistake frequently when I go to writers’ conferences and spot an author pitching agents the same book they’ve brought three years in a row. I see it with authors flogging their one and only book on social media over and over in the hope that it will take off.

Our excessive exposure to the one-in-a-million shots only exacerbates the problem. We see someone like E.L. James, Kathryn Stockett, or Stephenie Meyer reach a massive audience with their first novels and think that will happen for us. It does happen, about once a year out of the over 200,000 books published, but we don’t often read about the back stories behind other authors who toiled in relative obscurity for years before hitting the big time.

Everyone knows mega-selling author Dean Koontz. He’s been producing work for so long that it’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t on the bestseller lists, but many don’t realize the dues he paid to get there. Before he published Whispers, his big breakout hit, he wrote thirty-eight novels in twelve years. During that time he was making a living, but he wasn’t a household name like he is now.

The ranks of the current bestseller lists are filled with similar stories. It took twelve years and eight novels for Steve Berry just to find a publisher. Dan Brown published his first three books to little fanfare, and then The DaVinci Code turned them into bestsellers.

Tess Gerritsen wrote nine novels over nine years before she released her first NY Times bestseller, Harvest. Lisa Gardner wrote twelve books over seven years before reaching the next level with The Perfect Husband. Janet Evanovich wrote at least twelve novels before hitting it big with Stephanie Plum in One for the Money. In the self-publishing realm, romance author Bella Andre wrote two series over seven years without much notice and then began self-publishing, after which she became a regular on the bestseller list.

These stories of determination and persistence are the rule, not the exception. While it’s possible to land on that one killer premise from the get-go, building an audience, working on the craft, and developing your voice seems to be the steadier path to ultimate writing success.

I often think of a story from Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. They write about a ceramics teacher who, on the first day of class, divided the students into two sections: one half would be graded on the perfection of a single pot, while the other half would be graded on the weight of their output—an A for fifty pounds, B for forty pounds, and so on. At the end of the semester, the results for the quality vs. quantity test were remarkable. The students being graded on poundage had thrown pots that were of significantly superior quality than the ones by the students who had studied and ached about how to create that one perfect pot. Practice ultimately made the “quantity” students produce better quality as well.

I believe being an author is the same. Thinking about writing doesn’t make you better, writing does. And if you have a large body of work, it’s much more likely a publisher or readers will discover your writing.

So don’t perseverate on perfecting that one novel. If you want to make writing a career, your publisher and readers are going to want many more books. Sit down at your computer and throw those pots. When you’re a success and looking in the rear-view mirror ten years from now, you’ll wonder how it went by so quickly.

No Kids Allowed!

LBenedictAug08 We’ve been graced with some extremely talented guest bloggers these past few Sundays, and today is no exception. I’m thrilled to introduce author Laura Benedict, whose debut ISABELLA MOON kept me up all night when I read it (and certain passages induced further insomnia the nights that followed). Her latest is CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS, and based on the stellar reviews it’s also a must-read.

Without further ado…
I worry sometimes that I’m corrupting the nation’s youth. (Okay, maybe just a teeny-tiny portion of the nation’s youth. Perhaps nine or ten of the little darlings.) I worry that the line between adult and young adult fiction—particularly fiction with a supernatural bent—is so blurred that young readers are stumbling into material that they shouldn’t be exposed to. Back in the day (let’s not go too deeply into which day), the lines were pretty clear: Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Dean Koontz were all the rage with their edgy language and adult situations. Fourteen and fifteen year-olds could pick up the books without too much criticism, though they were hardly fodder for school libraries. Soon after, the brilliant R.L. Stine came along for the younger kiddies, and J.K. Rowling blew off the door to the (not too) dark side for eight and nine-year-olds. The kids who grew up reading Harry Potter, as well as their younger brothers and sisters, are now looking for more: more fantasy, more witchcraft, ghosts and vampires. They’re looking for escapist literature.bene_lonely heartscopy

Many have found Stephanie Meyer and her Twilight series. My own teenage daughter adores these books. I haven’t taken the plunge. At sixteen, Pomegranate’s a fairly mature reader. She’s got a strong background in Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman literature, so she’s no stranger to edgy sexual and social relationships in fiction. She loves Shakespeare. I don’t worry too much when she reads, say, The Godfather or Hannibal because she seems to keep the violence and language in perspective—plus, we talk about what she’s reading.

A few days ago, I was signing books at my local Barnes and Noble when an eleven or twelve year-old girl picked up one of the paperback copies of my novel, Isabella Moon. Isabella Moon is a ghost story. The girl started reading the copy on the back of it, and when her mother came up to the table, the girl told her she wanted to buy it. I tensed.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to sell books. I just don’t want to sell books to children. I don’t write books for children. I write books for adults.
Both Isabella Moon and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts are full of what one might euphemistically be called “adult situations.” Meaning lots of sex, buckets of violence and language that might not make a sailor blush, but will instantly bring a scowl to my mother’s face. There are vast numbers of adults who don’t like their books spiced with such things, and sometimes it’s hard to tell from a book’s cover what it might contain inside. (Sometimes clichés are spot-on.)

I’m certainly not casting any blame on J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer. I celebrate them because their books have brought kids to the bookstores in droves. It’s their subject matter that muddles the situation. J.K. Rowling’s books—for the most part—have a Halloween kind of darkness to them. Like every good Disney protagonist, her hero is an orphan. He lives in a boarding school. He’s goofy, but kind of cool. My understanding of Stephanie Meyer’s vampires is that they’re edgy in a West Side Story kind of way. Strictly PG or, maybe, PG-13.
But true evil isn’t PG-13. I look at evil as something that can insinuate itself into a person and wreak emotional and spiritual havoc. I look at it as something that can overflow into life-shattering chaos. Its habits and proclivities can be seductive, but they can also be brutal, sexually-charged and terrifying. Evil is chaos. Evil is unpredictable. It’s never pretty—at least not for long. I explore evil through my own work, but, in the end, I know that my work—just like Rowling’s and Meyer’s—can only approximate true evil. Even so, I have to ask, "How much is too much?"

My daughter has read my books in manuscript form, though I must confess that they were lightly redacted versions. Several pages had large Post-Its placed over the titillating parts like pasties on an exotic dancer. (Yes, the last time I saw an exotic dancer was in an Ann Margaret movie!) I don’t know if she peeked. Perhaps she did. And that would be a shame-on-mommy kind of thing. But I know her. I know that if she has questions, or something freaks her out, I’m there to answer her honestly.

Unfortunately, I can’t be there for every thirteen or fourteen year-old who picks up my books. I can only hope their parents are around, paying attention.

I told the mother of the girl at Barnes & Noble that she might want to look at Isabella Moon before her daughter read it, that it contained some adult material, and was quite frightening. The mother appeared unconcerned, and even bought Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts for herself, bless her. Perhaps the daughter was a mature reader, just like my daughter. I’m skeptical, though. I gave them my card with my email address and asked them to email me with their thoughts about it.  Maybe it’s just the mother in me, worrying.

So, speaking as a mother, if you’re under seventeen, don’t buy my books!

Notes From the Handbasket
CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS, Now available from Ballantine Books!
ISABELLA MOON, Available in trade paperback

My Obsession with Twilight

twilight And no, I don’t mean the wildly successful book by Stephanie Meyer, or the film based on the book. Although I hear they’re both excellent.

Something became painfully clear to me last week as I mapped out the timeline for my next book, The Gatekeeper. Since I never start with an outline, one of my final acts before handing in the draft is to map out exactly when and where each scene takes place. The main action in all of my books occurs over roughly a week, give or take; that’s never the problem. No, what I invariably discover is that almost everything happens at night. Particularly at twilight. I’ve been known to have twenty-five incidents of twilight in a weeklong span. It’s not pretty, trust me.

I wish I knew where this unhealthy predilection originated. I’m a big fan of the daytime, and there’s no good reason why, in a thriller, critical scenes can’t take place, say, mid-afternoon. There is admittedly something spooky about the darkness, but in Gatekeeper, spookiness wasn’t really what I was after. So why was the sun constantly going down?

Another problem I quickly discovered: teleporting. This is the first time I’ve attempted to write across time zones. My first book took place entirely on a college campus, then with the second I widened the scope to a region (The Berkshires). Now I’m attempting to portray multiple points of view scattered across the country. Worse yet, the characters fly from one to the other with abandon. Or rather, based on evidence in my initial draft, they teleport, since they frequently get from New York to California in mere minutes. Even with the time change, they probably shouldn’t be landing at precisely the time they left: twilight, of course. (Although after traveling over the holidays, I’m wondering if teleporting is ever going to be a possibility. I’d even settle for a flying car: weren’t we supposed to have those by now? A two hour flight from Phoenix involved three hours of waiting at the airport, another two on the tarmac, no water, threats to divert to Monterey, and an extra $100 because we dared to check bags. Beam me up, Scotty).

So I spent the better part of a week mapping out the action scene by scene, minute by minute, checking flight times to insure that my characters were experiencing the same travel nightmares the rest of us undergo on a regular basis. (It’s pretty much the only time in my life I use Excel, but wow, I love that program. I just wish it was easier to get everything to fit on one printed page).

I rewrote scenes so that characters were no longer darting through the shadows cast by moonlight. I eliminated their flashlights and night vision goggles (another weakness of mine: flashlights have been prominent in nearly every book. There must be some sort of twelve-step program that deals with this). I gave them sunscreen instead and pushed them out the door into the light.

After a lot of work, I got it down to a week of sunrises and sunsets, with plenty of light in between. There are, granted, still scenes that occur at night, but at least now it’s not all of them. And as always, now that the draft is done, I’ve promised myself that next time in an effort to avoid this problem I will absolutely try to work off an outline. (I won’t, though. I never do. I might as well promise to stop eating mass quantities of soft cheese, it’s just as unlikely to happen.)


Why is the paranormal still hot?

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

On the New York Time’s bestseller list for mass market fiction, ten of the top 20 are novels that deal with the paranormal – looks like (despite predictions that it’s heyday was on the wane) that paranormal is still hot. The mega-success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and recent movie certainly confirms it and I have to confess, caught up in the wave of interest, I spent most of Thanksgiving week reading the Twilight series. Seems as though the angst ridden teenager inside me has not yet disappeared…and that got me and my good friend Charysse talking. What is it about the paranormal – particularly the vampire novel – that continues to intrigue us?

After some wine and way too much food our respective husbands disappeared into the other room and we talked some more. I was particularly interested as a YA idea had been percolating in my brain and while I didn’t see any paranormal bent to it as yet – it did have some of the Gothic hallmarks of the fantasy and paranormal YA books that seem to be popular today. I’m not one to write to the market but the question was undeniable – why do we continue to be fascinated, as children, young adults and adults by the paranormal. What draws us to the mythology of the ‘other-world’? Why continue to explore the question of whether vampires, werewolves or other demonic forms walk amongst us?

We decided that sex was one of the first reasons – hey, in the romance world, sex with vampires is pretty darn hot. Maybe the lure of the paranormal is the lure of out-of-this-world sex…or not?…One of the main attractions I think for the Twilight series was the fact that sex was too damn dangerous between mortal and vampire. That somehow made the repressed, tortured emotions and desire of young adulthood all the more fraught. And here was a guy who said no…the ultimate in teenage girl fantasies perhaps? Gorgeous, brooding, dangerous, immortal but also the quintessential gentleman…At this point my friend and I both shook our heads and asked WTF???!

So if sex (or the lack of it) isn’t the allure – is it the bloodlust? Is it the fact that paranormal explanations for truly horrific crimes make them somehow easier for our human minds to digest? Does it provide us with some kind of reassurance that there are demons that are not human (as opposed to only those who are?)

I confess I’m happy to read paranormal novels as much (if not more) than the next girl. I was a huge Buffy fan and am someone willing to drink in (if you’ll pardon the pun) many a vampire novel. I love Gothic tales and revel in an imaginative story that conjures up another world.

Nonetheless the continued appeal of the paranormal intrigues me – what do you think drives the continued demand for these types of books? Do you think interest is on the wane and if it is…what is likely to replace it?