First Page Critique – The Halcyon Vengeance

By John Gilstrap

Another brave anonymous writer has submitted a first page for review and comment.  Y’all know the drill by now: First the piece, and then comments on the other side.  NOTE: The italics are all mine, a way to differentiate whose writing is which.

THE HALCYON VENGEANCE

              Adrian Steele stared out the 10th floor window in the direction of Sheremetyevo. Snow drifted lightly down. His jaw clenched. He was in Moscow. In winter. Again. He glanced over to Natalya who recited the final brief for his assignment in Cuba. Steele kept his expression neutral, his impatience hidden. He traced a finger through the condensation of his breath on the cold window. His hand remained steady. Good. He wasn’t nervy.

              “Steele,” Natalya said softly after a pause, “please remember why you’re here.”

              “You’re sounding like Pierce. Doesn’t suit you.”

              Natalya grimaced, stepping to the knapsack she’d left on the chair. She handed him an unmarked envelope.

              “That’s all there is. It could be my job for helping you. Especially with this.”

              “Clothes?”

              She tossed him the knapsack. “No trackers, I checked them myself.”

              Steele thought about the trackers that she’d doubtlessly put in.

              Natalya turned her head to the dark window as he changed his clothes. She’d watched him before. Now she wouldn’t. He’d need to lose the clothes, then.

              After he pulled on a thick parka she handed him a battered ushanka. 

             “Remember, flaps up. Or you’ll look like a pussy,” she muttered.

              Steele nodded. He knew.

              “And don’t die. Or get wounded. You need to be back by 0300 for your flight to Havana.”

              He put his hand out. Natalya bit her lip as she passed him a Makarov PM and two magazines.

              “Don’t fret, I won’t leave a mess.”

              “You’re lucky, going to a tropical place,” she muttered wistfully.

              “I wouldn’t exactly call it lucky.”

              “But the weather’s better.”

              “Yes, it is. Spasiba do svidaniya myshonok,” he muttered as he opened the door, checked the hallway, and slipped away.

              Natalya pulled the mobile from the inside pocket of her jacket. “Did you get all of that?” she asked Pierce.

              “Yes. But he lied, our Adrian did.”

              “You mean –?”

              “Oh, he won’t miss his flight, he knows what’s on the line.”

              “But he’s off the leash…”

              “I let him do this, or he won’t do the job in Cuba. He’s the only one who can and he knows it. I’m not sure what he’s got planned, but it’s going to leave a hell of a mess.”

              “Will he kill Voschenko?”

              “He wants to. Thank you for your help Natalya. You should go to ground.”

              “But…”

              “Leave myshonok. Disappear. Now.”

It’s Gilstrap again.  First, by way of full disclosure, I had some real formatting issues transferring the original email onto the blogging platform.  So, Anon, if I screwed up any of the paragraph breaks, I apologize.

First, the positives.  I like the tone of this story.  It has a very Cold War Ludlum feel to it.  No one trusts anyone.  I like that stuff.  I also like the flow of the dialogue for the most part.  It feels like a real scene, populated with believable characters.

On the downside, I have some quibbles with the prose, which I’ll discuss below, but the most urgent issue here is the fact that it’s confusing.  So, let’s get to all of that.

First things first: I hate the title. It doesn’t mean anything. Titles are supposed to draw a reader in.  It’s among your most important marketing tools. 

Now let’s go section by section:

           Adrian Steele stared out the 10th floor window in the direction of Sheremetyevo. Snow drifted lightly down. His jaw clenched. He was in Moscow. In winter. Again. He glanced over to Natalya who recited the final brief for his assignment in Cuba. Steele kept his expression neutral, his impatience hidden. He traced a finger through the condensation of his breath on the cold window. His hand remained steady. Good. He wasn’t nervy.

I get that it’s not my place to rewrite Anon’s work, but I think the opening line should be “Adrian Steele was in Moscow.  In winter.  Again.  He stared out the 10th floor . . .”  More people have heard of Moscow than have heard of Sheremetyevo, so the quicker you anchor the reader’s head to the setting, the better off you’ll be.

Anon, I urge you to cleanse your work of -ly adverbs. “Snow drifted lightly down” implies that snow can “drift” through the air heavily.  In this case, the word, drift, is strong enough to carry the entire image you’re looking for.

The image of Steele tracing his finger through the condensation implies to me that he is very close to the window, yet he’s receiving a mission brief.  This confuses me.  Is there something outside that he must watch? Is there a reason for him not to be fully engaged in what Natalya is telling him?

This is the paragraph where the confusion starts.  An assignment in Cuba could be a job as a missionary as well as an assassin.  I think you should plant something more specific as to the nature of what he’s going to do, just so the reader can get his head in the right place.

              “Steele,” Natalya said softly after a pause, “please remember why you’re here.”

More confusion for me.  Natalya’s admonition seems unearned.  To me, there’s no indication that he’s not remembering why he’s there. It doesn’t help that we the reader don’t know, either.

              “You’re sounding like Pierce. Doesn’t suit you.”

A one-sentence explanation could clarify who Pierce is.  Alternatively, Natalya could respond with a pithy remark like, “Impossible.  His voice is much higher than mine.”  Anything that would give us a hint of character.

              Natalya grimaced, stepping to the knapsack she’d left on the chair. She handed him an unmarked envelope.

Here again, the grimace feels unearned.  Is she in pain?  As she steps to the knapsack, where is she stepping off from?  In my mind, they were sitting, so she would have to rise before she steps.  We need more description of the setting.

If she’s briefing him, why is the knapsack someplace other than where she is?

              “That’s all there is. It could be my job for helping you. Especially with this.”

Until this line, I thought Natalya was the boss.  Also, shouldn’t there be some reaction from Steele?  A few lines later, we learn that he’s confident that she’s a liar, so it makes sense that he wold have some kind of cynical reaction to her fear that she might lose her job.  Given that Steele is risking his life, wouldn’t he be a little bit snarky, if only in his head?

            “Clothes?”

              She tossed him the knapsack. “No trackers, I checked them myself.”

Here we have back-to-back non-sequiturs (sp?). Steele asks a one-word question and Natalya gives a non-responsive response.  Is Steele naked?  What does he need the clothes for?  Is he asking if clothes are in the knapsack?  

              Steele thought about the trackers that she’d doubtlessly put in.

Yes!  I like this bit.  I’m not fond of the word, doubtlessly, but the sentiment works.

              Natalya turned her head to the dark window as he changed his clothes. She’d watched him before. Now she wouldn’t. He’d need to lose the clothes, then.

More confusion.  Changing clothes from what to what?  Why?  That she’d seen him without clothes implies that they are (or were) lovers, so why turn away?  Again, this seems unearned.

              After he pulled on a thick parka she handed him a battered ushanka. 

I have no idea what a ushanka is, so therefore I have no image.  Without an image, the next line makes no sense.

             “Remember, flaps up. Or you’ll look like a pussy,” she muttered.

              Steele nodded. He knew.

He knew what?  That he’d look like a pussy?

              “And don’t die. Or get wounded. You need to be back by 0300 for your flight to Havana.”

This is the best line of the entire piece.  I would break it into two parts, though:

“And don’t die.  Or get wounded.”

“I can’t,” he said.  “I’ve got an 0300 flight to Havana.”  He put . . .

             He put his hand out. Natalya bit her lip as she passed him a Makarov PM and two magazines.

              “Don’t fret, I won’t leave a mess.”

Okay, the Makarov PM is a clue. Unless the assassin is using old surplus equipment, the story must be set sometime between the late ’40s and early ’90s.  Now that he’s got his pistol, what does he do with it?  Is there a holster?  Does he slip it in his pocket? Surely he must load it (unless the two magazines Natalya hands him are extras).  My point here is that once you introduce an object, yhou can’t just let it disappear from the page.

              “You’re lucky, going to a tropical place,” she muttered wistfully.

              “I wouldn’t exactly call it lucky.”

              “But the weather’s better.”

              “Yes, it is. Spasiba do svidaniya myshonok,” he muttered as he opened the door, checked the hallway, and slipped away.

Jim Bell blogged last Sunday on using dialect and foreign words in manuscripts.  “Spasiba do . . .” translates in my head as blah, blah, blah.  Also, where’s the emotion?  They talk about the weather, and then Steele just walks away.

This section highlights a lack of point of view.  Whose scene is this? I’d like to be in someone’s head, but instead, I’m just watching the players move around on the set.  I’d like to feel something from someone.

              Natalya pulled the mobile from the inside pocket of her jacket. “Did you get all of that?” she asked Pierce.

              “Yes. But he lied, our Adrian did.”

What is the lie?

              “You mean –?”

I’m lost.  I don’t know what they’re talking about.

              “Oh, he won’t miss his flight, he knows what’s on the line.”

              “But he’s off the leash…”

              “I let him do this, or he won’t do the job in Cuba. He’s the only one who can and he knows it. I’m not sure what he’s got planned, but it’s going to leave a hell of a mess.”

              “Will he kill Voschenko?”

              “He wants to. Thank you for your help Natalya. You should go to ground.”

              “But…”

              “Leave myshonok. Disappear. Now.”

I sense that here at the end, I’m supposed to be fearful, but I’m not.  Dialogue can carry a scene only so far.  As a reader, I don’t want to feel like I’m merely eavesdropping on someone’s conversation.  I want to understand what’s going on.  I want to understand the stakes.

What say you, TKZers?  It’s your turn.

 

 

2+

Cracking The Big Mystery
Behind The Bestseller Lists

 

The bestseller list is the tip of the iceberg. — Michael Korda

By PJ Parrish

William Peter Blatty was hot off the blockbuster success of his book The Exorcist when he met the devil he couldn’t defeat — the New York Times best seller list.

Angered that his novel Legion, the sequel to The Exorcist, didn’t make the list, he sued the Times for $6 million, claiming the Times ignored actual sales figures from his publisher and that Legion was kept off the list because of “either negligence or intentional falsehood.”

It gets better. Or worse, depending on your point of view.

The Times, which had always claimed that the list was compiled from computer sales,  countered in court that its list “was not mathematically objective but was editorial content and thus protected under the Constitution as free speech.”  Blatty appealed to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. Thus the ruling stood that the New York Times bestseller list was “editorial content, not objective factual content” and that they had the right to exclude whatever book they wanted.

And that, crime dogs, is pretty much where we still stand today.  How any book cracks the New York Times bestseller list remains, to paraphrase Churchill’s famous quote about Russia, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in fish wrap.”

I used to dream about being a bestseller.  Because this is what happens: Your publisher takes you to dinner at Le Bernardin. You get a new seven-figure contract with cover approval and world tour. Spielberg buys the rights. Your agent starts to return your calls. And you make so much dough your long-lost brother from Bullhead hits you up for a car loan.

Like I said…it’s just dream. We actually did make the Times list, with our third book Paint It Black. It was only what they call the “extended list” which means we didn’t crack the top 15 but hey, we hung on our toenails for a while.  We made the extended list two other times but have not repeated the feat recently. But that’s okay, because it’s sort of like making Eagle Scout. Once you get your badge, no one can take it away and you can wear that badge until your teeth fall out.

So I am not here to tell you that making a bestseller list is a fool’s goal. It doesn’t open doors so much as widen the crack, and it gives you credibility with readers, booksellers, critics and such. But I am here today to ask you not to think about it much. Because the bestseller list game is sort of rigged.

This is not news to many of you. But whenever I am asked about this subject by readers or some newbie writers, I am always shocked at their naïveté. What, you’re telling me it’s not based on real book sales? they gasp.

I don’t think much about bestseller lists anymore. I don’t even look at them when I read my New York Times book review section. But yesterday I did stop and read the paper’s “Inside the Times” article.  It was titled “We Don’t Have to Like ‘Best Sellers’.”  In it, once again, the Times felt compelled to explain to the world how it compiles its lists.

This controversy is not new. A book industry report in the 1940s found that best-seller lists were a poor indicator of sales, since they were based on “misleading data.” Fast-forward to a 2004 report that quoted a senior book marketing executive who said the rankings were “smoke and mirrors,” and a report in Book History found that many professionals in the book industry “scoffed at the notion that the lists are accurate.”

And writers have been trying to game the Times system since before the quill pen.  Jacquelyn Susann and Wayne Dwyer, among others, bulk-bought their own books to get on the list. And until recently, you could hire a company called ResultSource that would contract with you to manipulate lists through “bestseller campaigns.” (I tried to find their website but apparently ResultSource has since gone dark).

Last summer, an unknown book by an unknown author from an unknown publisher rocketed its way to first place on the Times’s young adult hardcover best-seller list. But the YA Twitter community discovered it wasn’t because a lot of people were reading Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem. The author and her publisher bought the book’s way onto the list by strategically ordering large numbers of the book from stores that report their sales to the New York Times. The Times quickly removed the book from its list.

So it’s no surprise the Times is still playing defense. Here’s a sample from their Q&A yesterday:

How do authors get on The New York Times best-seller lists? Do their books have to be sold at certain stores?

The New York Times best-seller lists are very competitive, which is what gives them the cachet they have within the book industry and with the public. Our lists reflect the reporting from our confidential panel of tens of thousands of retailers. We do not reveal those sources, in order to circumvent potential pressure on the booksellers and to prevent people from trying to game their way onto the lists.

Translation: The Times has a network of “reporting stores” which include selected independent bookstores and some but not all big-store outlets. The last figure I found was 4,000 stores and “undisclosed wholesalers.” The exact methodology is considered a trade secret. I have been told by store owners that the reporting figures are not even based on actual sales to customers but on the number of books ordered to stock.

How do authors get on The New York Times best-seller lists? Do their books have to be sold at certain stores?

The New York Times best-seller lists are very competitive, which is what gives them the cachet they have within the book industry and with the public. Our lists reflect the reporting from our confidential panel of tens of thousands of retailers. We do not reveal those sources, in order to circumvent potential pressure on the booksellers and to prevent people from trying to game their way onto the lists. A number of variables go into whether a book will rank on a given week. Weeks where there are blockbuster debuts in multiple categories will be different from quieter weeks. Rankings reflect unit sales reported on a confidential basis by vendors offering.

Do the books have to have been reviewed in The New York Times?

Books that get ranked may or may not get reviewed by the Book Review and vice versa. Our best-seller lists and the editorial decisions of The Times’s book editors and critics are entirely independent. This means our lists are not a judgment of literary merit made by the editors of the best-seller lists, who remain impartial to the results. These are best-seller lists, not best-reviewed lists.

Translation: But if you happen to work at the Times, some critics have charged, your book will not only get reviewed but it has a pretty good chance of being “considered” by the panel of folks who watch over the list. Which leads us to…

How do The Times’s ranking methods ensure objectivity?

The best-sellers desk is staffed by three full-time editors who work independently from our news, opinion and culture desks; from the Book Review and the books desk; and from our advertising department. Our nonfiction lists feature books from authors across ideological and political spectrums. In the last year, politicians and commentators who identify as conservative have performed as well as, if not better than, liberal ones on our lists. Trends depend on publishing schedules and what is happening in the cultural zeitgeist.

One question they don’t address, but one I am asked often is: How many books does it take to crack a list?  It depends…

On who else you’re competing against that week. On what time of year it is. On whether someone has a similar book already out there. And on what list you’re aiming for. The general figure these days (way down from the olden days when I started out) is you need to sell at least 5,000 in one week.  But that means from Monday to Sunday if you want to be a Publishers Weekly best-seller, and from Sunday to Saturday if you want to be a New York Times best-seller.

It’s a jungle out there, Martha. Even if you want to aim a little lower, say for USAToday, The Wall Street Journal, a regional list like the Chicago Tribune or maybe Indiebound, you have a whole different set of hoops to jump through for each. Every bestseller list out there is compiled differently. Here’s a breakdown I found at Vox.com:

Publishers Weekly: Compiles data from the Nielsen service BookScan, which is what most publishers use to track their competitors’ sales. BookScan claims it tracks 80-85  percent of the sales of printed books in the U.S. (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart, as well as a number of independent bookstores.) But it does not track books sold at independent bookstores that use older systems incompatible with BookScan’s tracking, or books sold outside of the general bookstore ecosystem, ie, at conferences or gift shops or toy stores, or even sales to libraries. It also doesn’t track the sales of e-books.

USA Today: Gets its data from both a handful of independent bookstores and many of the usual-suspect big sellers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, etc. It doesn’t make any claims about what share of books sales it tracks, so it’s a broad sampling of books sold every week from different types of stores. Again, like BookScan, it does not track books being sold outside the bookstore ecosystem.  It doesn’t divide its list into any specific categories, but instead reports the top 150 titles sold across all genres and in all formats except for audio. So your crime novel will compete against Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I know, I know…insane.

Indiebound: This is compiled by the American Booksellers Association. The ABA uses sales data drawn from about 550 independent bookstores to create its list, but it doesn’t rank titles by overall sales volume. Instead, it weights the books on its list according to the sales rank each one reaches at each individual store. I don’t understand that either but there it is…

Amazon: It has two different best-seller lists: Amazon Charts and Amazon Best Sellers. Charts comes out once a week, tracking the books that have sold the most copies in any format (on Amazon, and in its Kindle store, Audible store, and brick-and-mortar storefronts), and the most read or listened-to books on Kindle and Audible. It’s not broken down by category or format, and it only reflects what’s happening on Amazon and its subsidiaries. (Since Amazon has a 65 percent market share, that’s actually a pretty decent sampling.) Amazon Best Sellers, in contrast, is updated once an hour, and it is broken down by categories. This latter one is what we crime dogs fixate on.

Okay, you’re saying, what about us self-published guys? Do we have a chance at getting on any kind of list? Yes, you can crack the Amazon list.  We got to no. 1 briefly in the thriller category when we self-published our back-list title Dead of Winter. And it used to be alot easier before Amazon started messing with their algorhithms. There was a story every week about some self-pubbed phenom. But for reason behind my ken, that has tapered off. (Maybe some of you can explain in comment?) I did see a figure this week that was astonding — that you need to sell between 3,500 to 5,000 copies in a 24-hour period to hit no. 1 on Amazon. But then I also read recently that Lee Child sells a book every eight seconds…

By the way…those three books at the top of this blog today? You might recognize them. You might not know that they were all self-published before they were massive bestsellers.

But what about the Gray Lady? Well, according to their Q&A yesterday, here are the books they don’t track:  “perennial sellers, shopping guides, comics, reference and test preparation guides, required classroom reading, textbooks, journals, workbooks, calorie counters, puzzle books and self-published books.” If if makes you feel any better, this means the Bible doesn’t qualify. Neither does The New York Times Monday Through Friday Crossword Book, even though it is currently #3 on Amazon’s bestseller list.

So, does this matter? Is this something you should you worry about this?

Well, it’s a gold star on your homework, but it isn’t a true gauge of success. And here’s something weird I found:  Hitting the Times list works better for unknown  authors than the Lee Childs of the world.

According to an economics professor Alan Sorensen, who has studied the effect of bestseller lists on sales of hardcover fiction, relatively unknown writers get the biggest benefit, as much as a 57% increase in sales. But for perennial best-selling authors such as John Grisham, being on the list makes virtually no difference in sales. Most sales occur soon after a book hits the shelves and gradually peter out. “If anything, what appearing on the [bestseller] list does is not so much cause your sales to increase from one week to the next, but rather to decrease at a slower rate,” Sorensen said.

Why can’t the bestseller system be fixed?

With the sophistication of software now, you’d think there would be a better way to keep track of real book sales. The model, some say, is the music industry, with its bestseller list in Billboard. The magazine tracks every single album sold at every single music store in the United States. SoundScan, the company that began tracking CD and tape sales with a bar code system, was the force behind the creation of Bookscan.  But BookScan is too expensive for many bookstore owners.

And here’s the bigger rub: The publishing industry really doesn’t want a single list of what’s really selling. They want lots of different lists that they can manipulate to benefit their own bailiwicks.

So…write your book and kept your heads down, crime dogs. The rest will come.

Which brings us back to William Blatty.  Despite great reviews, The Exorcist laid such a giant sales egg at first that Harper and Row reported getting returns by “the carload.” But then sales took off and the book made the New York Times bestseller list for 57 straight weeks and at the No 1 spot for 17 of them.

And years later, not long after Blatty filed his lawsuit against the New York Times, Legion made it all the way to no. 15 the Times list for one week.

 

9+

Comic Relief

Photo courtesy Natalia Y on unsplash.com

Happy New Year! I hope that your holiday was as good as mine. I learned something which may have some major repercussions for me going forward.

I am not sure how what follows originally came up for discussion. The source, however, was my twelve-year-old granddaughter. She talks quite a bit about some things and not at all about others, with the border between the two constantly shifting and changing. Sometimes it is hard for me to keep up, which is okay. It gives her the freedom to chatter away and me the impetus to keep trying to figure it out. So it is that during one day of her Christmas vacation she was at one moment talking about a manga character and the next was talking about something she called “comic sans.”  I assumed at first that she was referring to comic book character that she particularly revered. As she continued for a bit longer, however, I realized that she was referring to a type font.

We each and all have a favorite font. Actually, that’s wrong. We each and all have a font that we use by default. Mine, since Jesus was in short pants, has been the boring and predictable but nonetheless popular Times New Roman. Many prefer Arial. It’s not something we usually even think about, particularly when reading. A great number of books make a point of referencing, usually on a page at the back, the font in which the book is printed and providing a three or four sentence summary of its history. To wit:

This book was printed using the Beelzebub font designed by a group of renegade Tantric monks in the early 18th Century. It was once popular but fell out of favor due to the spread of a superstition that the Universe would end upon the setting of the one-billionth charact

I in any event never really paid much attention to the topic other than to occasionally check out the pull-down menu on whatever word processing software I am using and to marvel for a moment at all of the choices. I realize that my choice of Times New Roman is similar to walking into Baskin-Robbins, checking out the thirty-one flavors of the month, and choosing vanilla. Most editors and the like prefer Ariel or Times New Roman, however, so it’s a safe bet. Only…only…there seems to be a bit of discussion among the younger set regarding “Comic Sans MS.” or “Comic Sans” for short. It was originally developed as a typeface for comic book narration and word balloons in 1994. A short, light-hearted video about it with a sample can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34fOZgy4TqI One doesn’t use it for formal documents such as a will, a contract, or an all-important postgraduate thesis. But. But. The discussion taking place among the young ones concerns the use of Comic Sans as a creative tool. Proponents say that there is something about it that aides the creative process, one that seems to cause words to flow almost unbidden from brain to fingers and beyond. Opponents (my younger daughter, among them) say it doesn’t do any such thing and looks like crap besides.

 

Photo courtesy Raphael Schaller on unsplash.com

I checked Google Drive to see if I had Comic Sans as a choice and sure enough, there it was, theretofore unnoticed in the menu. It looked godawful though somehow familiar. The familiarity should not have been a surprise, given that it mimics the text that was popular in comic books, which I read by the boxfuls for decades. I opened up a new document and started writing with it. Two hours later I was still writing, stopping only after being entreated to make a pizza run. I was, as they say, in the zone. I found that for the first time in my life I actually preferred writing to reading. The words simply seem to flow, just like the kiddies say with Comic Sans than with Times New Roman or anything else I have used. God forbid that I would submit anything in Comic Sans unless it was specifically called for, but it is certainly easy enough to convert into another format for a submission or final copy.

Check it out, particularly if you are having problems, as we all sometimes do, with getting things going in the grammar mine. I can’t really explain why it works for me and apparently for others, but work it does. I find that writing with purpose is often a struggle — as with many things (but not all) it’s a lot more fun to want to do it than have to do it — but the line has been blurred. I’ve been writing and writing quite a bit, each and every day, since I have made the change. If you would, please check out the typeface — I’m having a PICNIC (Problem In Chair Not In Computer) problem so I can’t duplicate Comic Sans here — and please tell us what you think.

Photo courtesy Ilnur Kalimullin on unsplash.com

I have to mention something else. I think it is terrific that young people, or at least a segment of them, even give a flying fig about a font, what helps them write, and what makes them better writers. My generation at that age really didn’t care or even think about fonts. We only thought about the print being large or small. We knew there was a difference in fonts among newspapers, books, comics, and instructions but we didn’t remark on it or give a flying fig. Younger folks do and they’re talking about it and other elements on their way to writing the best stories that they can. They are not just writing. They are reading, which is encouraging, or should be, for all of us.

 

6+

Know What You’re Writing

By Elaine Viets

What kind of mystery are you writing?
I ask this question whenever I give a talk to writers, and I’m surprised how many people can’t answer it – at least fifty percent of the audience doesn’t know.
You need to know your sub-genre to sell your book to an agent, or to promote it.
Here are a few types of mysteries. Remember, some of these categories can cross over. Your police procedural may also be a hard-boiled novel.

Cozy mysteries are written in the style of Agatha Christie. The murder takes place offstage, there’s no blood or gore, no graphic sex or cussing. Animals and children are never harmed in a cozy, though Dame Agatha killed at least one Girl Guide. Agatha is the queen of cozies. Cozies are not all tea and crumpets. Many of them address social issues, including racism, poverty and pink-collar inequality. A good example is Margaret Maron’s cozy series featuring Judge Deborah Knott. Long Upon the Land won an Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel.

Chick lit is light mysteries, usually written for women readers. Chick lit centers around female friendships, with a splash of romance and a dash of murder. I’ve written ten chick lit mysteries in my Josie Marcus mystery shopper series, and I have a contest give-away at the end of this blog. Kellye Garrett writes award-winning chick lit. Her first novel was Hollywood Homicide.

Soft-boiled mysteries are between cozies and hard-boiled: some violence and the occasional four-letter word. The best example is Sue Grafton’s alphabet series.

Police procedural. The name says it all. This is a mystery that gives a realistic look at some type of police work, including criminal investigations, forensics, search warrants, and interrogation. Michael Connelly writes top-notch police procedurals, especially his Harry Bosch novels. Start with The Black Echo and keep reading.

Hard-boiled. These mysteries are much darker than cozies. Readers may encounter violence, sex scenes and graphic language. Children and animals can be kidnapped and killed. Hard-boiled mysteries often take place in cities. Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Ross MacDonald write first-rate hard-boiled mysteries.

Noir, with its dark view of life, is closely related to hard-boiled mysteries. The protagonist is often up against a corrupt system or a wicked world. Women are often viewed as betrayers and heartless temptresses. Many protagonists are self-destructive. Don’t expect a happy ending. Cornell Woolrich writes true noir.

Thrillers are action novels with high stakes: Someone wants to kill the President, blow up New York City, or kidnap a busload of school children. The protagonist races against the clock to save them. My favorite thriller is Thomas Harris’ Black Sunday.

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Win an e-book of High Heels Are Murder, my Josie Marcus, mystery shopper mystery. Click Contest at www.elaineviets.com

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Creating Characters: You Can Always Start With the Car

 

Stock photo via GoDaddy

 

So. You’re ready to create a character.

What does your character look like? Eat? Worship?

Do they exercise? Do they jump up on boxes and grunt, or are they a mall walker?

What high school did they go to? Freak or geek, prom king/queen, or regular Jane?

Do they color their hair? Clip joint, or fancy salon?

Gluten-free? Dairy free? Pescatarian?

Do they eat creamed corn? Do they look at porn? (Obviously I went for the rhyme there.)

Shoplifter, despite having millions?

Boxers, briefs, thongs, or commando?

Tampons or pads?

401K or under the mattress?

Acid reflux, heart palpitations, heartbreak of psoriasis?

Wrist watch, pocket watch, no watch, sundial?

Fast talker?

Lousy lover?

De-canterer of wine before guests arrive to hide how cheap they are?

You figure out all this stuff before you sit down to write, right? If you do, congratulations are in order. You’re about a hundred steps ahead of most writers—Okay, when I say most writers, I mean me, at least.

I envy writers who spend lots of time defining their characters, then put them onstage with ready-made conflicts. You bought me briefs instead of boxers? Are you even my wife?!

Goodness knows I torture encourage my writing workshop participants with character-building exercises. It’s a lot of fun, especially when they begin to see their character as something more than a mannequin with brown eyes, curly dark hair, a cruel mouth, and wearing a nose ring and expensive jeans. You only have to look around you to see that there is no such thing as a generic human. Family members make excellent character models, and the nice thing is that they rarely recognize themselves—Particularly if the character is unlikable. And there’s nothing like taking revenge on a dreaded former coworker or high school frenemy by putting them in a book.

Sometimes all your imagining will be for naught when it comes time to get into writing the story. Thriller and other genre writers don’t necessarily have the luxury of languorous character development because the action tends to move fairly quickly. This is where series characters really shine. A series gives a writer many opportunities to grow and deepen their personalities and habits. At the moment I’m reading Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike novel, Lethal White. Strike is a solid, well-defined character whose enormous, damaged body looks amazing in a well-tailored suit. And I think he likes squash soup? Okay, maybe I made that part up, but he’s not too shy to engage in a bit of dress-up roleplaying behind closed doors with his current girlfriend. Seriously, I could not have made that up.

I rarely did even minimal character sketches before I started using Scrivener about six years ago. Its template is on the minimalist side, with blank spaces for a character’s role in the story, physical description, occupation, mannerisms, internal conflicts, external conflicts, and background. This approach gives you plenty of latitude, without driving you crazy. I confess, I don’t often even fill these templates out completely. BUT I am one to go back and fill them in as I write the book. I like for the character to surprise me. It’s also extremely useful to keep track of all those details, like when two of your characters hook up and you’re not sure what color your heroine’s eyes are.

If you ever get stuck, I have a simple fix. Decide what sort of cars (if any) your characters are driving. Americans often express their personalities via their cars, and we all have ideas about what kind of people drive a particular model.

The protagonist of The Stranger Inside, my suspense novel that’s coming out the first week of February, drives a Mini-Cooper. Kimber isn’t quite forty, and she likes the option of being able to drive away with speed when she wants to escape her problems.

There really is no wrong way to design your characters, as long as you’re telling the story they want to tell.

What’s your process for creating and defining characters? Tell us about a favorite character that you created.

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How Authors Can Help After a Disaster

 

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

NASA Goddard Photo of the Camp Fire, Paradise, CA

The Camp Fire in Paradise, California killed scores of people and destroyed 13,972 homes, 528 commercial structures and 4,293 other buildings (according to NPR, 11/27/18).

Our nephew and his wife were among those who lost their homes, barely escaping with old family photos and two pairs of pants—the size 36 jeans he was wearing, and the size 28 US Navy trousers that had belonged to his grandfather (my father-in-law) when “Pop” served on the USS Enterprise during World War II.

The fire destroyed countless memories, mementoes, and relics of history—the foundations upon which people build their lives, identities, society, and culture.

Amid the devastation, the Paradise Library remained standing, although damaged.

Beth Zimmerman, a national expert on disaster recovery says, “The library will be a key to providing [survivors] a known place to gather and take time to commune with their neighbors. Libraries can soothe children’s fears and help them cope, especially if they are used to going there.”

When everything familiar and comforting is lost, books can help recreate a sense of safety and security.

Melanie Lightbody, head of the Butte County Library System says, “The library is one of the few buildings which survived and therefore will be even more crucial to the community as it rebuilds. A symbol of possibility and hope.”

Efforts are underway to rehabilitate the structure and contents. Author Phil Padgett is spearheading a pledge drive for books to repopulate the library’s shelves. A former FEMA reservist who deployed to New York after Hurricane Sandy, Phil understands the complex, long-term logistics of rebuilding.

Unlike immediate necessities, such as bottled water, food, clothing, and construction materials, books fall into the category of way-down-the-road work. Yes, they are needed but what do you do with them in the mean time when there is no place to put them?

For now, Phil is compiling a list of authors who have pledged to donate their books. In coming months, he will coordinate collection, cataloguing, and storage. Later, when the library is ready to receive the books, he will arrange for shipping.

Books can be solace in time of tragedy, taking people’s minds off their troubles.

One of the best compliments I ever received came from a reader in Florida. My thriller Instrument of the Devil was released at the same time Hurricane Irma hit. The woman said my book had helped her pass the long, difficult week when she (and millions of others) had no electricity.

As authors, we don’t necessarily run bulldozers or nail up plywood but we can help rebuild lost culture.

If you’re an author who would like to donate to the Paradise Library, Phil’s email is: philip.j.padgett@gmail.com 

 

 

 

Does your Amazon holiday gift card have spare change left on it? Catch the January sale of Debbie Burke’s award-winning thriller Instrument of the Devil  for only 99 cents. Or read for free on Amazon Prime. Click here.

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Morality and the Modern Writer

Happy New Year!

I’m going to dive right into 2019 by raising the tricky and controversial topic of what I’m calling ‘morality and the modern writer’. I’d been mulling over aspects of this issue ever since the MWA controversy over Linda Fairstein, when yesterday (quite serendipitously) the NYT published an article entitled ‘Must Writers be Moral?’. This article got me thinking (again) about how we deal with, and differentiate between, the actions and ‘morality’ of an artist as opposed to their work. In the Fairstein controversy, the MWA withdrew her Grand Master award following an outcry over her involvement in the infamous Central Park Five case. While I don’t intend to discuss this particular case in any detail, it highlights the very public way we are now seeing the line between art and artist play out in society today.

The NYT article (a link to which is provided here) adds a further dimension to the discussion by highlighting the increasingly widespread use of ‘morality’ clauses in publishing agreements today (something, I must admit, I was completely unaware of!). The article details the use of clauses that release publishers from their obligation to publish a book if (in the words of a Penguin Random House contract) “past or future conduct of the author inconsistent with the author’s reputation at the time this agreement is executed comes to light and results in sustained, widespread public condemnation of the author that materially diminishes the sales potential of the work.” Some contracts go even further, requiring authors to return advances should their contract be terminated. As this article outlines, even though publishers’ concern over the marketability of their authors is understandable, the issue of ‘immorality’ can be a slippery concept (especially if the publisher has sole discretion over determining an alleged infringement) and, when it comes to public condemnation, often a moving target. Some prominent writers, such as Masha Gessen, have refused to sign these clauses arguing that there is too much ambiguity involved in these kinds of ‘morality’ clauses, not to mention concerns over censorship as well as public vitriol.

In 2018 there were some very public book cancellations (most notably Milo Yiannopoulos) and scandals involving authors such as Junot Diaz that reflect the post #MeToo era. While I don’t want to engage in a heated discussion about these particular controversies, I am trying to get my head around the distinction (especially when it comes to ‘morality’) between the artist/writer and their work. Any student of literature knows that many famous writers were hardly angels – instead history is strewn with womanizers, drunks, addicts, racists, anti-semites, misogynists..and the list goes on. So how do we separate the person from his or her work? Should we judge an artist solely on their works or is the work inextricably linked to them as people (and thus, their behavior and attitudes)? In the current publishing environment it seems that writers are being held up to scrutiny in both their professional as well as their private lives.

So TKZers, what do you think about these so-called ‘morality’ clauses in publishing contracts? How do you view the distinction between a ‘writer’ and his or her ‘work’? Is such a distinction even relevant in today’s social media age?

 

 

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Five Ways To Become A Happier Writer

By Mark Alpert

First of all, notice that the title of this post isn’t “Five Ways To Become A More Successful Writer.” There’s plenty of information already out there about how to write better books and sell more copies. I can’t add much to that topic, and I’m not the best authority on it either, because my success in this business has been modest.

No, I want to focus on happiness, not success. The two goals are often linked, but not always. There are miserable authors on the bestseller list, and there are jubilant writers who work in blissful obscurity. Which goal is more important? Well, if you’re looking for success alone, writing novels isn’t the most promising occupation. The competition is fierce and the monetary payoffs are meager. In financial terms, you’re better off investing in the stock market, even with all the current volatility.

It’s much easier for a novelist to reap emotional rewards. There’s the joy of writing a beautiful sentence, the satisfaction of creating a likable character, the sneaky elation of engineering an unexpected plot twist. And those rewards are magnified when readers recognize a novel’s virtues and share their admiration with the writer. I love getting emails from readers who’ve enjoyed my books. It’s one of the best feelings in the world.

But there are other forces in the publishing business that can spoil the party. Rejection by agents and editors always hurts. Bad reviews aren’t fun either. Worst of all, perhaps, is the massive indifference of a nationwide audience that already has too many novels to choose from and is reluctant to try new authors and new kinds of books. After a writer spends months or years perfecting his or her manuscript, it’s deeply disappointing to see it ignored.

So how can a fiction writer maximize happiness and minimize distress? I’ve come up with five useful tips:

1. Don’t let your happiness depend on things that are beyond your control. This rule applies to everyone, not just writers. I repeated it all the time to my kids when they were working on their college applications. I urged them to make their college essays as good as possible, but I also warned that there were no guarantees. Sometimes a college will reject even the best applications, for no evident reason. Let’s say you’re a straight-A student from Weehawken who can compose operas and pitch no-hitters and solve differential equations; you assume you’ll be a shoo-in at the college of your choice, right? But if that particular college has already accepted a different student from Weehawken who excels at baseball, math, and music, the school might not want to admit another. You’ve done the best you could, but the final decision is out of your control. So the smart strategy is to apply to at least a dozen colleges, increasing the chance that one or two of them will recognize and reward your talents.

The college-application game has become ridiculously competitive, but it’s a cakewalk compared with the process of winning a book contract with a major publisher. Thousands of brilliant manuscripts are rejected or ignored every day. Publishing a book in the traditional way is a worthy goal, but don’t let your happiness depend on the often arbitrary decisions of literary agents and editors. They have to consider many factors when deciding whether to represent or buy a novel, and a good number of those considerations have nothing to do with the quality of the book. (For instance, has the publisher just issued a very similar book? Is the agent already overloaded with promising clients? Is the editor about to make a job change and therefore not interested in buying anything at that moment?) Given that all these random influences are at work, it seems absurd to sulk after a rejection or pin all your hopes and dreams on your next submission. Don’t withdraw from the game; just understand that it’s a crapshoot. That way, you won’t be so disappointed when you lose, but you’ll still be just as excited when you win.

2. A writer’s happiness is not proportional to his or her number of readers. Because we live in such a competitive society, we create lots of rankings. In the publishing business, the critical measure of success is the number of books sold. Certain categories of books sell better than others; short-story collections, for example, don’t do as well as novels, on average. A traditionally published debut novel that sells only 1,000 copies would, in most cases, be considered a commercial failure. Conversely, a debut novel that sells 100,000 copies would be considered a commercial success (unless the publisher paid the author a seven-figure advance for the book, in which case it too would probably be considered a disappointment).

But what about the happiness dividends of publishing? Even a novel that sells only 1,000 copies will give its author a fair amount of pleasure. There’s the joy of seeing the novel at your local bookstore, perhaps stacked next to the masterpieces written by your literary heroes. There’s the burst of pride you’ll feel when sharing the book with friends and family. And your novel will most likely be catalogued in the Library of Congress and perhaps a few local libraries as well, giving you at least a smidgeon of literary immortality. I’ve had eight novels published so far, and though none of them was a huge commercial success, each made me very happy.

Now consider a novel that sells 100,000 copies. It will no doubt give the author more pleasure than the thousand-copy-seller, if only for financial and/or egotistical reasons. But will it provide a hundred times more happiness? I don’t think so. So why obsess over sales numbers?

3. Write about things that make you happy. Now this doesn’t mean you should limit your fiction to Christmas stories, tales of adventurous puppies, and other feel-good subjects. Stories of murder and mayhem also give pleasure to readers and writers. If you love to write about serial killers, go right ahead. If zombies or vampires are your thing, take a stab at it. It’s much better to give free rein to your fictional passions, whatever they are, than to force yourself to write about a subject you hate, no matter how commercially appealing it may be.

My latest novel, THE COMING STORM, is about an erratic U.S. president who persecutes immigrants, ignores global warming, and orders the creation of an American Gestapo. Writing this kind of novel probably wouldn’t have been fun for most writers — it hits a little too close to home — but I loved it. During the months when I was working on the book, my wife would sometimes spot the secret smile on my face and interrogate me: “Why are you smiling? Did you kill off one of the characters in your novel today? Someone in the White House?”

4. Figure out how important writing is to your happiness, and adjust your life accordingly. There are many gradations of pleasure. For example, I love skiing, but only in small doses. Skiing once every winter is enough for me. I enjoy cycling once or twice a week, but doing it more often would get boring. And then there are the pleasures I would enjoy every day, if I could: dark chocolate, good coffee, sex, listening to music, hanging out with friends. Some authors feel the same way about writing fiction — they can’t miss a day of it — but for me, the passion waxes and wanes. I write one novel each year; if I tried to write two books a year, I’d probably be miserable. I need some downtime between books. Each year, I spend six or seven months hammering out a novel, and during the rest of the year I do freelance journalism, participate in a video-art festival, and toss around ideas for the next book.

That’s the writing schedule that makes me happiest. What works for you?

5. When good things happen in your writing career, celebrate like crazy. I love throwing launch parties for my novels. I invite all my friends to an independent bookstore in Manhattan and arrange a FreshDirect delivery of beer and wine and party platters. I chat with everyone, I do a reading, I sign books. It’s a ton of fun.

Some authors stage a celebratory ritual when they finish a manuscript. (Remember that scene in Stephen King’s Misery?) Others party hard at writers’ conferences. The publishing world can be stingy about doling out rewards, but that shouldn’t stop us from rewarding ourselves.


Speaking of parties, this week I’ll celebrate the publication of THE COMING STORM. The novel has already received some great reviews, and I’m scheduled to do a radio interview to promote the book on Tuesday. You can learn more about THE COMING STORM at my website, and the buy links for the book are here. I hope it makes you happy!

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Tips on Writing a Domestic Thriller

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

image purchased for use by Jordan Dane

Domestic/psychological thrillers have found greater traction since Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL & THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins. James Scott Bell’s YOUR SON IS ALIVE is a great example of a domestic thriller. Laura Benedict’s upcoming book THE STRANGER INSIDE is a novel I can’t wait to read. I’ve pre-ordered it and you can too. Release is coming Feb 5, 2019.

These books remind us that readers are drawn to “reading what they know” but with a twist. The domestic thriller brings terror into the home/life of an average family or allows readers to see what might be held secret behind a family’s locked doors.

This seems like the ultimate terror, to set a story inside anyone’s house, but it can keep your writing sharp and focused on tough subject matter. Maybe your story will hit too close to home, making it a challenge to write.

Keys Factors for Writing Domestic/Psychological Thrillers

1.) Set your domestic thriller in familiar settings. Give the reader comfort until they realize your novel doesn’t take place in Mayberry. Set your story in a small town, on a commuter train, in a home with a family who could live next door to you, or create a situation that seems harmless at first until it escalates into a terrifying tale. Much like Stephen King is partial to turning everyday objects into nightmares–I’ll never use a turkey carving knife again–it’s important to think through an effective setting that lulls the reader into a false sense of security until you pull the rug out.

2.) Make your story hinge on familiar subjects. I’ve suggested a few below, but I’m sure you could come up with more that could be turned on its ear with escalating tension. Use your own personal experiences to discover what might touch your readers.

  • A marriage that doesn’t need much to send it over a cliff
  • Sibling rivalry
  • Neighbors from Satan
  • A clandestine love affair
  • School rivalry/Helicopter moms competing against each other
  • Parenting – Lots of possibilities
  • Family relationships
  • Boyfriends/Girlfriends/Jealousy

3.) Now ask yourself the critical question of “what if…” What are the worst plot twists that could happen in the world you’ve created? Think WAY out of the box. Use a dartboard to add some unpredictability to your brainstorming.

4.) Make your character(s) real. Imagine people you have known, but elevate them into a major player’s role in your story. It helps to start with the familiar to make it real, but then your character would take on his/her own journey. Remember, your characters need to be real and not supersized into movie star status. Take “every man or every woman” and force them to step into an horrendous plot. Make your starring character(s) believable.

5.) Give your characters flaws that could prove to be fatal. It’s a balancing act to pick vulnerability that doesn’t make them appear too weak. Give them insecurities they can overcome in a believable way, without making them whiners. Force them to face their insecurities. Are they capable of overcoming their worst fears? Give them a chance to do it. Will they? Dig deep with a journey for your character to survive through your plot. They must struggle to gain ground or appear that they never will. Nothing trite will work here. It must seem insurmountable. I found a great resource for character flaws – 123 Ideas for Character Flaws

6.) Unreliable narrators are gold in this genre. What if your main character doesn’t know what going on? Use it. Are they so paranoid that their very nature can’t be trusted? Great plot twists can abound with the use of unreliable narrators or unreliable secondary characters. Once the readers starts to question what’s going on, you have them hooked deeper.

7.) Bend those plot twists. In order to play with the minds of your characters, you must get into their heads and mangle their reality. It’s not easy to write and set up a major plot twist, so plan ahead and let your imagination soar. Sometimes you will know the plot twist that will come at the end – the big finale twist. Other times you can filter unexpected plot twists through the novel at key intervals to escalate the stakes & create key turning points that take the plot in different directions.

8.) Don’t be afraid to SCARE your readers. Make their skin crawl with the anticipation of something bad about to happen. Titillate them with the build up and add twists to keep the tension going. What would scare you? Picture times you might have told ghost stories around a campfire and what made you jump. That adrenaline rush is what you want to give your readers. I often like to walk the edge of the horror genre, but these days, books are written with multiple genres to tell a good story. Don’t be afraid to add elements of horror or mystery to your suspense thriller.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Share your current writing projects & genre. What has got you excited in 2019?

2.) Have you read a good domestic thriller lately? Please share the novel and the author.

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Networking For Writers

By John Gilstrap

Like any other business, this publishing game is built in part on personal relationships. Want to rise to the top of an agent’s slush pile?  Want to get a blurb from a big-name author? Want to know how to deal with the frustrations of cover designs, finding an editor, or fleshing out the technical details of your plot?  All of these challenges and just about everything else you want to know or do can be flushed out through networking.  That’s what I want to talk about in the paragraphs ahead.

In no particular order of importance:

Followers, Friends, Likes and Contacts don’t count. There’s a widespread presumption “out there” that the way to start a writing career is to build an enormous social media platform.  I see the logic when it comes to nonfiction expertise, but when it comes to fiction, it makes no sense to me to concentrate on finding customers for a product that doesn’t yet exist.  Yes, I suppose a well-done blog about one’s writing process could be interesting to other writers, but here’s the sad truth: Writers don’t buy books. I’ve overstated that, of course, but in large measure I think it’s true when it comes to writers’ blogs.  I’m not being bitter here at all, but we get statistics every week on how many people visit TKZ every day, and trust me: If all those people bought all our books, we’d all be driving better cars.

Now, think of the number of writing-related groups and blogs you subscribe to through Facebook and LinkedIn and all the other social media platforms.  I get that those are the safe spaces that make you comfortable, and give you an opportunity to actively participate in conversations, but if you’re writing, say, about police procedures, might your time and efforts be better spent on groups and blogs that talk about those things?

I don’t think it’s insignificant that the social media push is largely driven by people who make money by helping people build their social media platform. I mean, think about it: Authors are brands and books are products. Would you be more inclined to buy a Chevy over a Toyota because the president of Chevrolet posted a picture of his breakfast?

Step out of the virtual world into the real one. Given that you’re currently reading a blog about writing, I feel a little awkward telling you to push away from the computer and stop reading blogs about writing. None of us are truly who we pretend to be in public forums like this. Many of us try to be genuine–I know that I do–but my armor is always up in an online interaction.  My inner-cynic won’t let me get but so close in a cyber-relationship, and I expect the same level of cynicism from others. I would never dream of asking advice or asking a favor from someone I have not met in person.

Go to where the experts are.  It’s no secret to TKZ regulars that I’m what you might call a gun guy.  I like firearms and I know a lot about them. I also know that there are people who know far more than I do, and that a large percentage of those people will gather in Las Vegas at the end of January for the annual SHOT Show, which is to weapons systems what the Detroit Auto Show is to automobiles. I need to be there.

My first SHOT Show was in 2012, and it was there that I met a guy who is a world renown expert in martial arts and edged weapons. We bonded and became friends. Through him, I’ve met a number of Special Forces operators, and through them some FBI special weapons experts.  I try not to bother them too much, but they always take my phone calls and answer tough questions.  They trust me never to write things that I shouldn’t and I pay them every year with an acknowledgement and a free book. Most of these guys have become good friends.

But you don’t have to go to Vegas.  Want to know about how cops interact with each other? Start with a community ride-along program and chat up the officer who’s driving you around.  Listen not just to the words, but to the attitude.  Ask that cop if he can introduce you to other cops–say, a homicide investigator–so that you can ask a few questions.  I think you’ll be surprised by the results.

BTW, for police-related immersion learning, you cannot beat Writer’s Police Academy.  Lee Lofland puts on one hell of a 4-day show every year. His blog, The Graveyard Shift, is informative, too.

You need to meet other industry professionals.  Pick a conference, any conference. They grow like weeds around the country–around the world, for that matter.  I can’t speak to other genres, but in the world of mysteries and thrillers, you could spend virtually every weekend at a conference.  Yes, they cost money, but before you complain about that, remember that writing is a business, and every business requires investment.

  • 100% of all business at a conference is conducted in the bar. You don’t have to drink, but just as lions on the hunt target watering holes for their dinner, smart rookies scope out the bar at the conference hotel to meet people. Authors of all stature are there to hang out with old friends and meet new ones. Agents and editors are there to develop relationships with existing clients and to scope out new ones.
  • Have a plan. Are you attending the conference to simply get to know people and hang out, or are you going there to accomplish a particular goal?  If you’re on the hunt for an agent, be sure to research who’s attending and what kind of books they’re looking for.  Basically, read the program booklet.
  • Don’t be shy. Okay, you’re an introvert and are uncomfortable around people.  I get that.  Now, get over it. This is a business, and contacts are not going to come to you. To a person, everyone you see at the bar knows that they’re in a public place among hungry strangers, and they’re willing–anxious, even–to talk with shy rookies.
  • Know what you want. After sharing a laugh and a few stories about life and family, be ready for the question, “So, how can I help you?”  That’s your cue for your ten-second elevator pitch delivered without notes. With a smile.  The home run here is a request to send a manuscript. Then chat some more.  This is a people business, so be a real person.
  • Hang out with the crowd you want to belong to.  I’m always amazed–and a little dismayed–at conferences when I see all the rookies hanging out with each other, while the veterans and bestsellers hang out separately. I don’t mean to be crass–and remember, this is a business conference–but your fellow rookies are not in positions to help you.  If Connolly and Lehane and Deaver and Gerritsen are all hanging out, drinking and laughing, pull up a chair.  If the Agent of All Agents is holding court, join the crowd. Unless it’s an intense one-on-one business meeting, I guarantee that no one will ask you to leave. (And why in the world would anyone choose such a public forum for an intense one-on-one business meeting?)

Overall, “networking” as a concept attempts to complicate something that is inherently simple. You have goals that you wish to accomplish, and you want to get to know people who can help you get there.  As an alternative step, you want to get to know someone who can introduce you to someone who can help you.  It’s as easy–and as hard–as showing up and asking.

So, what do you think?  What have I missed? Where am I entirely off base?

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