Eventually, You Have to Bring Order to the Story Stuff

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Last week my lovely wife and I were in New York for ThrillerFest, and as usual found time to enjoy some of the city. We did the Strand bookstore (where I scored an autographed Mickey Spillane from a spinner of used paperbacks), then walked up Park Avenue to my favorite building in all of New York: Grand Central Station, the beaux-arts beauty of midtown.

Why do I love it? Start with the clock tower sculpture, because it captures the robust spirit of classic New York, back a hundred years ago when the city was the unapologetic colossus of commerce. That’s why you have the three Greek gods above the clock. Mercury, god of merchants, dominates the piece, with Hercules (representing strength) and Minerva (representing the arts and professions) on either side. I love coming out of the subway stop, looking up and seeing this magnificence.

Inside Grand Central, the main concourse always seems larger than I remember. You can’t help thinking of Cary Grant at the ticket window in North by Northwest, or any of a number of movies from the 30s and 40s featuring New Yorkers getting on trains. There’s a dining concourse below, with our favorite oyster bar. Cindy and I shared a dozen, along with a nice chardonnay.

And we attended the International Thriller Writers Awards banquet, where I was honored to receive the award for Best E-Book Original (for Romeo’s Way). (And thank you for all the kind comments that have already been posted here at TKZ.) It was a delight for Cindy and I to share a table with the amazing Joanna Penn and her husband, Jonathan (Joanna, writing as J. F. Penn, was a Best E-Book Original finalist for her novel Destroyer of Worlds.)

The coolest thing about ThrillerFest is all the off-the-cuff conversation with fellow writers, usually at the hotel bar following the day’s proceedings. That, in fact, is where I caught up with brother John Gilstrap and one of our longtime TKZ commenters, Basil Sands. We were soon joined by weapons expert Chris Grall, and it wasn’t long before John and Chris were instructing us on the best way to cut people to ribbons with a sharp knife … and exactly what a body does when hit by a blast from a shotgun.

Also got to chat with TKZ emeritus Boyd Morrison and current blogmate Mark Alpert.

Reed Farrel Coleman (photo by Adam Martin)

Another guy I always like to see at these conventions is Reed Farrel Coleman. Reed was an ITW Award finalist for his novel Where It Hurts. At the Awards “after party” I had a chance to ask him about his writing method, as I’d read in interviews that he describes himself as a pure “pantser.”

I started by asking what his novel was about, and Reed gave me the backstory of his lead character, Gus Murphy. How he was a cop with a family, but now is divorced and off the force, working a low-end job, drowning in grief due of the death of his son. “That’s where the book starts,” Reed said.

“So you start with a character and a set-up, and then start writing?” I asked.

Reed nodded, then added that he goes “over and over” the first fifty pages until he feels they are just right. Then he moves on.

“How many drafts to you do?”

“One,” he said, with a definite twinkle in his eye. Then he quickly added that he revises and revises as he goes along, so in effect he’s doing multiple “drafts” by the time it’s all wrapped up.

I wrote Reed a follow-up email. “My thought is that as you are making your way through after those first fifty pages, your brain is starting to come up with future scenes. IOW, the ‘outline’ is taking shape organically, in your imagination, and you start to write toward those scenes.”

Reed answered, “Yes, unconsciously, at least, knowing those early pages cold lets my mind work on an outline for the rest of the book. I don’t think of it that way, but it’s a fair assessment of what’s going on.”

And Reed, of course, understands beginning, middle, and end. He knows what has to happen for a character to pass through the “Doorway of No Return” and into the confrontation of Act 2. When I teach, I tell students the main character better be through that doorway, at the latest, by the 20% mark, or the book will start to drag.

Guess what happens at the 20% mark of Where It Hurts? Yep:

When I heard the sirens, I went back around to the front of the house and waited. But I was through waiting to make up my mind. I was in now, with both feet.

And just to amuse myself, I went looking to see if Reed, by way of his storytelling DNA, had included a mirror moment. You bet he did, and right in the middle where it belongs:

Was this, I wondered, what it was like coming out of a coma? Is that what Krissy, Annie, and I were doing? Were we coming around at last? Had enough time elapsed? Had we all finished acting out? Had we finally proved to ourselves and one another that no amount of pain or grief or self-flagellation or magical thinking or deals with God or guilt or fury would restore to us what we had lost? Was it okay to live again?

My goal as a writing instructor is to “pop the hood” on what writers have technically accomplished (even if they don’t realize how they did it), take it apart, and explain how any writer can assemble similar parts for a similar effect.

Reed’s method is one way to go about things. (See? I come in peace, my pantsing brothers and sisters!) By churning over those first fifty pages, Reed is firming up the foundation for his entire novel. By rewriting his previous day’s work, he’s letting his mind suggest scene possibilities that build upon that foundation. “Plotters” do the same thing, only the churning comes before the writing as they prepare a map, strategy and tactics.

The important thing is that the writer, sooner or later, brings order to the story stuff. That’s what structure is all about. It’s getting things lined up so the readers can best relate to the tale you want to tell them. Even more, the story you want to move them. Without order, no matter how “hot” or “creative” you feel about what you write, most readers are going to be frustrated or, worse, annoyed.

My advice: try to avoid that.

I love New York, but it’s always great to get back to L.A., where I am currently in the process of bringing order to my next Mike Romeo thriller.

What about you? Where are you in the “ordering” process? 

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An Interrogation Tip

This will be a brief post because I’m attending the ThrillerFest conference this weekend. I just wanted to share a tidbit I got from one of the FBI agents who spoke to the thriller writers assembled at the Grand Hyatt this morning. An agent who works out of the FBI’s New York City field office said he was investigating someone he suspected of stealing an extremely valuable vintage baseball card, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The agent went to the suspect’s house without any warning and the first thing the agent said was, “You know why I’m here?” The suspect looked stricken and said, “It’s about the children, right?” It turned out he was a child molester in addition to being a baseball-card thief.

The agent said he uses that opening line all the time, “You know why I’m here?” Contrary to popular belief, most criminals aren’t devious masterminds. Tormented and corrupted by their sins, most of them secretly want to talk about what they did, and will do so if you give them an opening.
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The Stars Are Out at ThrillerFest

by Boyd Morrison

I would love going to an actors’ convention where I could have dinner with Sandra Bullock, take an acting class from Michael Caine, audition for a role in the next Spielberg movie, and share laughs at the bar with the cast of Castle. Won’t ever happen. It sounds too good to be true because it is. But that kind of dream conference does exist for thriller writers and fans. It’s called ThrillerFest, which will be held in New York City on July 10-13, 2013.

The attendees this week include writers who live on the New York Times bestseller list. The five spotlight guests alone–R.L. Stine, Anne Rice, Michael Connelly, Michael Palmer, and T. Jefferson Parker–have sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 million books. And everywhere you look at the conference, you’re blinded by the star wattage: Lisa Gardner, Steve Berry, Lee Child, Catherine Coulter, Douglas Preston, Heather Graham, Brad Meltzer, Joseph Finder. It’s as if you could get into the Oscars merely by paying a registration fee.

But the really amazing thing about ThrillerFest is that you get to meet and talk to these people, not just ogle them from afar. When I was a newbie unpublished author at the inaugural ThrillerFest in Phoenix seven years ago, I didn’t know a soul. At the opening cocktail reception, I spent most of the time ambling about, listening in on snippets of conversation as I tried not to spill red wine down my shirt. Then I spotted Jon Land, an author I’d been reading for years. I gathered up my courage and nervously introduced myself, telling him that I was a huge fan. To my shock he asked me to join his group for dinner, where we had a fantastic time. In what other entertainment medium could that happen?

While I’ve mentioned some of the big names you can hobnob with, there are also plenty of up and coming writers who attend, some of whom will be household names in a few years. Imagine getting to know Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer just before they hit it big. And because I’ve gone to the convention every year, I’m lucky to count many of these future publishing phenoms as friends.

ThrillerFest is also a great deal for unpublished authors looking to break into the business. Through an event called AgentFest, aspiring writers can pitch their novels to a who’s who of the biggest agents in publishing. I was fortunate enough to find my own agent there. Before I met her my manuscripts barely got a nibble. Now I’m the director of AgentFest, my sixth thriller, THE LOCH NESS LEGACY, has just come out, and my novels are published in 22 languages. If I hadn’t attended ThrillerFest, who knows what I’d be doing?

For those looking to hone their writing skills, CraftFest offers a wealth of knowledge that is available nowhere else. You can actually take writing classes from legendary authors like Connelly, famed for books such as THE POET and THE LINCOLN LAWYER, and David Morrell, the creator of Rambo. The biggest problem is the information overload you might experience trying to cram every nugget of wisdom into your brain.

The best part of the conference is hanging out with these authors at the bar, the central gathering place. At first you’ll regard them with awe that they have descended from the heavens to walk amongst us. Then when you’re introduced to them, you’ll realize that they’re just people, too–although extremely talented, friendly, fascinating people. They’re happy to greet fans and share their insights about the business. Buying them a drink doesn’t hurt, either, though this being New York you’d better hang onto your wallet for a bumpy ride.

If you do get some of these writers liquored up, don’t be surprised if you laugh yourself silly as they spin wild tales of publishing wackiness, crazed fans, and book tours gone wrong. After all, these people know how to tell a story.

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Don’t Read Your Reviews

by Michelle Gagnon

As part of Thrillerfest one year, they gave a special award (if a piece of fossilized poop can be considered an award) to our very own John Gilstrap (even though he’s no longer officially part of this blog, he’ll always be the Friday guy to me). The award was for the Worst Amazon Review, and he won for this little nugget (no pun intended): “The glue boogers in the binding were more captivating than Gilstrap’s torpid prose.”

I know this is going to sound counter-intuitive, and for many authors, nearly impossible, but here’s my advice: don’t read your reviews, ever. Turn off that Google alert. Skip the Amazon reviews section. Ignore your GoodReads ratings. And if you must know what a blogger or traditional media reviewer is saying about your book, enlist someone you trust to skim the contents and give you the highlights.

This applies not only to negative reviews, but positive ones. Because here’s the thing. As we all know, a reader’s opinion of a book is enormously subjective. The way they approach a story can vary at different points in their lives, or even their day. They read things into it that you might never have intended–and they’re all going to have vastly different opinions about what worked and what didn’t. I’m always startled when I get feedback from beta readers–everyone always manages to come up with different favorite sections, and least favorites. So when taking their advice, I usually try to find the commonalities, the issues everyone zeroed in on. In the end, much of what they say is taken with a serious grain of salt.

The same applies to reviewers, naturally. Maybe Marilyn Stasio ate a bad oyster before reading your book, and the nausea she felt skewed her experience. Maybe the Kirkus reviewer was going through a divorce, so the way that you depicted a couple falling apart resonated too strongly with him (or not strongly enough). I know that for my last book, several reviewers felt the plot was tremendous, but the character development was weak. Others loved the characters, but the story left them cold. When writing a review, even when you loved the book, there’s an irresistible inclination to find something to pick at. That‘s what many of us were taught to do in school; otherwise it doesn’t feel like we’ve done the review justice.

As writers, we already have enough voices in our heads. Resist the temptation to let new ones in. This is particularly critical if you’re writing a series; if one reader hated your protagonist, do you really want that small seed of doubt planted in your head? Do you want to be swayed by Merlin57 if he declares that you should be the next winner of the fossilized poop award? 

Even when a review is entirely positive, there are drawbacks. Say a particular reader took a shine to a relatively minor character, and hopes to see more of her in the next installment. Should that be factored into your writing process? I say no, not if that wasn’t part of your initial vision for the narrative.

It’s a challenge not to dive into the fray–especially since, with all the blogs out there, there are potentially dozens of opinions on your prose just waiting to be perused. But avoid the temptation; don’t dive into the rabbit hole. If your book is amassing lots of great reviews and accolades, you’ll hear about it from your editor, agent, and friends. But knowing precisely what’s being said can be detrimental.

*side note: I’d also advise against doing a Google Search for fossilized poop. Trust me on this one.

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Ugly Babies

By PJ Parrish
If you could go back and change things, would you?
Not your life. Your first book. That thing that burst from your heart and took flight and lifted you up there with it, making you feel on top of the world.
Until, maybe, you went back and read it again.
Did you still love it? Or did you see its little warts and uneven gait? Did it seem to maybe need a little grooming or a good flea-dip? If you had the chance, would you try to clean it up so it would be more…adoptable?
Our first book was DARK OF THE MOON. It’s a good story that we’re proud of. It got some great blurbs and reviews. But it got one bad review from Kirkus, which is the Life cereal of the publishing world. (“Give it to Mikey, he hates everything!”). Here is part of what Kirkus said:
“Clumsy prose, stereotyped people and a first novelist who has to learn that in plotting the twist is better than the wrench.”
I’ve submitted this review every year to Thrillerfest’s worst review contest but I keep losing to folks like John Gilstrap. The prize is fossilized poop. I really want that damn award.
Here’s the thing: We own the eBook rights to DARK OF THE MOON so my sister Kelly and I started formatting it for Kindle et al. As we were going along, we realized we could tweak things here and there if we wanted. So we started tweaking.
Then we realized it needed more than a tweak. It needed a full-bore heavy-muscle pipe refitting with one of those giant wrenches you see hairy men with butt cracks carrying out of Home Depot.
Here’s the second thing: As good as our freshman book is, it contains transgressions that now, twelve books later, we teach would-be writers in our workshops not to do.
It has heart but no head. That means we wrote with great passion, especially for our hero Louis, but we didn’t have complete control over our craft. What were our sins exactly?
STRUCTURE: We switched point of view in mid scenes. Our transitions between chapters had continuity lapses. We had too many unnecessary scenes “on camera” often showing things we had already covered. And our timeline was confusing. We now keep detailed chronologies and use big story boards to keep track of each “day” in our plot. See picture above of Kelly employing our two vital writing tools –- Post-Its and wine. 
CHARACTER: We veered into stereotypes, an easy thing to do when writing about the Deep South, and we used clunky dialect. Our fictitious Blackpool was also a one-dimensional character. Even the rattiest place on earth has something redeeming about it. We chose not to see it.
THEME: This might have been our biggest sin. We now believe that every good book has a theme, an underground railroad on which your plot progresses. Without a theme, you have nothing to say. Although we were writing about the effect of a 30-year-old lynching on a small southern town, we didn’t really connect this plot to the larger question of what this meant for our hero.
We didn’t ask ourselves the most important question we now ask of every character we create: What does Louis want? It wasn’t that he wanted to identify the lynching victim. It wasn’t even that he wanted to bring the murderers to justice. We didn’t realize that what Louis really wanted was to find his sense of home (and “home” meant his identity as a biracial man). Now this theme colors everything Louis does and every book we write.
So if this book is so awful, why are we putting it out in eBook?
It’s still a good book and readers like it. They forgive us our sins. But for now, we have put it aside and are readying our second book DEAD OF WINTER for eBook. See, we learned a lot by the time we started that one, just as parents learn a lot about babies by the time their second one comes along. DEAD OF WINTER must have been okay. It was an Edgar finalist.
But our first born? I remain undecided, reluctant to send this homely thing out into the world a second time. But my sister, who holds the book much closer to her heart than her writing brain, is not so sure about permanently closing the DOM yellow folder. It is, after all, the story that started a series and career, but also changed our relationship as sisters.
And when something is that special, as writers it’s had to let it just lay unloved and unread by our loyal readers. So, I am sure, one day when we are between books and novellas and conferences, Kelly will convince me to reopen DARK OF THE MOON and together, we will begin the necessary surgery. Maybe with a scalpel instead of a wrench.

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What Lucy taught me about writing

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

Speed it up!

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

Reinvent yourself!

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

Make friends!

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


Last week I had the honor of being the first author to final for an International Thriller Writers Award for a self-published work, One More Lie. ITW has been forward thinking in this new era, recognizing that the future is now and a thrilling story works no matter what the delivery system.
Although I didn’t take home the top prize, it was cool to be there (along with former blogmate John Gilstrap and others) and to be confirmed in this: it’s no longer an either/or publishing world, but a both/and and why-the-heck not?

Mrs. B and I had our usual wonderful time in New York, where I used to pound the boards as an actor. We had dinner with my agent, Donald Maass, at a nice bistro in the Meatpacking District (really hopping these days). We talked about the craft, natch, and something Don said in passing I had to write down (this happens a lot when you listen to The Man): “Backstory is not just for plot motivation, but deep character need.”
Chew on that one for awhile.
Dear wife and I saw a hysterical Broadway show, One Man, Two Guvnors.It’s hard to describe, but suffice to say the Tony Award winning lead, James Corden, is a comedic genius.
Also saw about two hours of the amazing 24-hour film on time called The Clock.
And I got to teach at CraftFest. The room was packed! Then I realized Lee Child was teaching right after me….still, a good time was had by all.
The most interesting talk at the Fest, for me at least, came from Jamie Raab, senior vice president and publisher at Grand Central Publishing. Some notes:
Ms. Raab stated that, of course, the industry is in flux. Mass market paperbacks, for instance, are in steep decline as a category. Ms. Raab did not see any way for that format to come back to what it once was. Just what this means to the industry is not known at this time (like so many other things!)
Hardcovers, too, are heading south, simply because they have to be priced too high to cover costs of production. But, as we all know, prices are trending downward as more and more ebooks become available at consumer-friendly price points. Consumers are getting used to certain levels, and there’s no way to fight that. Consumers are co-regents with content in the marketplace.
Ms. Raab spoke about the thrillers she’s read over the years that were “game changers.” Not merely good books or great reads, but books that did something so amazingly original or compelling they actually changed the way the books after them were done.
The titles she mentioned:
Marathon Man by William Goldman
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
The Firm by John Grisham
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
Absolute Power by David Baldacci
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Each of these titles did something “more.” Marathon Man, for example, had one utterly unforgettable scene. You all know what it is. If you’ve ever been to the dentist, that is.
Absolute Power begins with another unforgettable moment, a burglar hiding himself in a swanky house, witnesses the murder of a young woman by the President of the United States. That scene, and book, changed the course of political thrillers.
So here is what you ought to consider as you write: what are you doing that is “more” than what you’ve read before? What is it about the idea, the scenes, the characters, the plot itself that comes from the deepest part of you?
Here’s the nice thing, as Leonard Bishop once put it. “If you boldly risk writing a novel that might be acclaimed as great, and fail, you could succeed in writing a book that is splendid.”
Splendid isn’t a bad place to be.
Are you reaching for “more” in your writing? 

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Conference season and the pitch

By Joe Moore

ThrillerFest-VII-logo-500

This week, ThrillerFest VII, the annual writer’s conference sponsored by the International Thriller Writers is taking place once again in the heart of the publishing universe, NYC. Like many other major conferences held each year, ThrillerFest is a great opportunity for writers and fans to come together and celebrate their love of the genre. If you’ve attended a conference like ThrillerFest, you already know the benefits. If you haven’t yet experienced a conference, make a goal to do so soon. You won’t regret it.

ThrillerFest is actually a combination of 3 events: CraftFest, AgentFest and ThrillerFest. CraftFest is a 2-day series of workshops taught by some of the most successful mystery and thriller authors on the planet. Names like Berry, Sandford, Gardner, Coulter, Palmer, Morrell, Rule, Child, and TKZ’s own James Scott Bell are just a few of the instructors on staff this year.

ThrillerFest is a 2-day collection of discussion panels and spotlight guest interviews culminating in the naming of this year’s ITW Thriller Awards.

AgentFest is an insanely popular opportunity for writers to pitch their manuscripts to over 50 top New York agents and editors. The pitching exercise is what I want to talk about today.

We all know how important it is to prepare when pitching a manuscript to an agent: look professional, act professional, be able to summarize your premise in a couple of sentences, and know that not every book is right for every agent (most of the time, that’s why they say no).

But what about those things you don’t want to do; those things that could wreck you presentation or turn off the agent? Here are a few pitfalls to avoid:

Never refuse advice or feedback. Even if the agent or editor is not interested in your book, many times they will offer suggestions or advice on making it more marketable. Never have a closed mind and think that it’s your way or the highway. Professional agents know the market and are aware of what the publishing houses are looking for at any given moment. Also remember that just because an agent is not interested in your book doesn’t mean the book is not publishable. It’s just not for them.

Don’t begin your pitch by saying that “everyone loves your book.” Of course they do, because everyone is probably your family and friends, and if per chance they don’t like it, the last thing they want to do is hurt your feelings. If they didn’t like the book and were completely honest with you, it would be like hitting your ego with a sledgehammer. Now on the other hand, if John Grisham, Ken Follett or Stephenie Meyer read your manuscript and loved it, I would mention that somewhere right after "hello".

Don’t be a pest. By that I mean sending the agent multiple emails, phone calls, letters, presents, or anything else that would quickly become annoying. If the agent says no, the likelihood of you turning them around with a box of Godiva chocolates is not good. Send it to me instead.

Don’t suggest that if the agent wants to know all about you they can visit your website or blog. It doesn’t matter if Michelangelo designed your graphics, James Patterson wrote your text, and Lady Gaga composed the music for your book trailer. The agent doesn’t care. All she wants to know is: who are you, what is your idea, and can you present it in a logical, concise and professional manner.

Even if your manuscript has been rejected before, don’t volunteer that information. As far as the agent is concerned, they’re getting the first look at your idea. They’re also realistic and know it’s probably been pitched before. And the fact that you’re standing there means that if it was, it was rejected. Always remember that rejection is as much a part of the publication process as line editing or cover design. It happens to everyone. Move on.

Don’t claim that no one has ever written anything like your book before. If that’s really true, there’s probably a good reason no one has. But trust me, claiming that what you’ve written is a brand new idea is as compelling as claiming you have the winning numbers for tomorrow’s lotto. What you might want to do is suggest that you’ve completed a unique and original treatment of a well-established theme or premise. That will make sense to the agent.

Never say that your book is going to be the next blockbuster or that it should be made into a movie. The top professionals in the publishing and motion picture industries cannot predict with certainty what will be the next blockbuster or bestseller. Neither can you.

In general, always assume that an agent or editor has already heard every variation on a theme there is, because they have. Much of your success in capturing the attention of an agent is you, not your story. Be enthusiastic but not obnoxious, knowledgeable but not condescending, proud but not conceded, prepared but not pushy. And most of all, be friendly and professional. Your presentation is a foreshadowing of what it would be like to work with you. Agents don’t want to spend a year or more in a wrestling match with a jerk.

Remember that literary agents and editors are people, too. Yes, they can have a tremendous impact on your writing career, both positive and negative. But just like the rest of us, they get excited when they hear a great idea. Treat them as people, not gods.

If you practice all these tips and you have a killer idea for a book, there’s a good chance the agent will hand you her business card and ask for a partial. And if by chance, she asks for a full, go celebrate. You’ve accomplished more than most ever will.

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PCS

By Joe Moore

I’m suffering from PCS–Post Conference Syndrome. Just about all writers including myself live a self-imposed life sentence served in solitary confinement. Sure I can leave anytime I want. After all, it’s a minimum security prison. There are no walls, barbed wire or guards—well I do have a watch-cat who keeps a suspicious eye on me in between catnaps. But in general, writers don’t get out much. As Nancy Cohen remarked in her post last week, she works in a “writer’s cave”.

So it’s a special treat to receive a temporary furlough and head to a writers’ conference. In my TFVI-logo1case, it was ThrillerFest, held each year at the Grand Hyatt in NYC. What an amazing feeling to be awash in a sea of creative minds surrounded by hundreds of writers and fans. And at ThrillerFest, everyone is accessible. Having a casual chat with Ken Follett, Lisa Gardner, James Rollins and Jeffery Deaver is commonplace. But the thing that gets my blood flowing faster is the electric atmosphere created by so many amazing writers all breathing the same air, enjoying the same camaraderie, and sitting side by side in panels sharing so much wisdom and advice.

Running into fellow TKZ blogmate, John Gilstrap is always a pleasure. And there was a rumor that TKZ’s Kathy Pickering was in attendance, but I could never track her down.

A couple of tidbits from the industry panels included some agents predicting that the ratio of ebooks to print books will eventually stabilize at 70 percent ebooks and 30 percent printed books. Someone also pointed out that because of the hundreds of thousands of self-published ebooks now flooding the market, it could result in the eventual end to what many consider a novelty for would-be authors publishing their own manuscripts.

Literary agent Simon Lipskar (Writers House) gave an interesting comment in which he compared the ebook/digital revolution to the industrial revolution. He predicted one possibility that because of the rapid changes in publishing, we might see digital and audio books being released as one. A reader could be listening to a book in her car, pause and enter her house, and resume the book on her e-reader.

The conference wound up with the Thriller Awards going to John Sandford (hardcover), J.T. Ellison (paperback), Chevy Stevens (first novel), and Richard Helms (short story). R.L. Stine was named 2011 ThrillerMaster, and Joe McGinniss received the True Thriller award. The Silver Bullet for her Save The Libraries program went to Karin Slaughter.

ThrillerFest-VII-logo-smallNext year’s ThrillerMaster is the legendary Jack Higgins.

Overall, a good time was had by all. Now I’m back in solitary confinement trying to jumpstart my current WIP, still light-headed from all that creative air and looking forward to next year’s conference.

How about you? Do you like to attend conferences? Which one is your favorite? And do you suffer from PCS?

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The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

By John Gilstrap

It’s Launch Day! This is the day when Threat Warning hits the stands (actually, it’s been on the stands for a week or so, but July 1 is the official launch date). This is my eighth time at bat, and it never gets ho-hum. Far from it, in fact. Each time a new book comes out is another pinch-me moment.

There was a point in my life—the first thirty-eight years—when the thought of publishing a single book seemed ridiculously unachievable. Then, along around 2003, the smart money said that my fourth book would be my last. Now, thanks to a hard-wired resistance to listening to people who tell me what I cannot do—and the good fortune to be introduced to Kurt Muse, who introduced me to the world of Special Forces—I’m basking in the glow of the release of my eighth book while I pound away on my ninth (Damage Control, to be released in July of 2012).

I don’t mean to get all sappy, but honest to God, sometimes I have to step back and wonder what good deeds I did in my past lives to justify the ride I’m getting in this one. Next week, I’ll be in New York City for ThrillerFest, hanging out with some of the best writers and smartest people on the planet, trying my best to be more friend than fan, though I confess that the difference is separated by a hair-thin line.


If you’re planning to be there for CraftFest—the writing program that begins on Wednesday—please consider dropping in on my session, “Who’s Story Are You Telling?”, a workshop on effective use of POV. Alternatively, please pop in on Saturday to the panel I’ll be leading on the future of the military thriller.


ThrillerFest is one of two indispensable meetings for writers of suspense fiction. Whereas Bouchercon—the other indispensable meeting—is mostly about meeting fans and gaining new ones, ThrillerFest is about professional development. Yes, T-Fest is expensive, but New York is an expensive city, and it is the heart and soul of the publishing industry. At the receptions and the bar and the banquet, you’ll find dozens of editors, agents, publishers, sales reps and publicists. It’s not the place to pitch your book (unless asked), but it’s the place to hang out with the power brokers and learn the industry.


Enough about that. This is Launch Day! In Threat Warning, Jonathan Grave and is team confront homegrown terrorists who are much more dangerous than they appear. Quoting the cover copy:


“The first victims are random. Ordinary citizens, fired upon at rush hour by unseen assassins. Caught in the crossfire of one of the attacks, rescue specialist Jonathan Grave spies a gunman getting away—with a mother and her teenage son as hostages. To free them, Grave and his team must enter the dark heart of a nationwide conspiracy. But their search goes beyond the schemes of a madman’s deadly ambitions. This time, it reaches all the way to the highest levels of power…”


I hope you give it a try. Even more, I hope you enjoy the story. One way or another, please let me know what you think.

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