Bacon-wrapped Innovation

by Michelle Gagnoncreme brulee guy

Bear with me, in this post there are going to be some metaphorical leaps and truly questionable analogies. I partly blame an excellent roundtable discussion by the JungleRed crew on “weeding someone else’s garden,” both literally and figuratively.

That post was on my mind when I went to my monthly book club meeting last night. Now, I love my book club for many reasons- it forces me out of my reading comfort zone (especially when it comes to non-fiction, which research aside I rarely read willingly), and also because I usually return home with some fascinating new bit of information. Last night was no exception.

One woman was complaining about a strange-let’s call it a compulsion- that her husband has developed. At 10:30 at night, he’ll suddenly get a message on his Blackberry and will run for the door, yelling, “I’ve got to go. He’s on 24th and Mission.”

Sounds suspicious, right?

Well, it turns out that her husband is a religious follower of the bacon-wrapped hot dog guy. That’s right, there’s a guy in San Francisco who operates a guerilla (read: unlicensed) food cart, selling bacon wrapped hot dogs. He moves constantly, staying one step ahead of the authorities (hopefully)–and people find him thanks to frequent Twitter updates.

This story struck me on many levels. First, how on earth is it possible that I’ve lived in a city for over a decade and had no idea that we even had street food vendors, never mind ones who sold bacon wrapped hot dogs? After further investigation, I discovered that the bacon wrapped hot dog guy is not alone. There’s a muffin man, a creme brulee guy, and a “magic curry cart.” Even one of my favorite restaurants, Chez Spencer, has a cart. This is critical, potentially life changing information.

magic curry cart This discovery also marks the first time I fully understood the point of Twitter (please don’t jump all over me, tweeters- I just hadn’t grasped any practical applications until now). The vendors post where they’ll be appearing, and followers flock to that intersection for $1 chai and amuses bouches. Genius.

When interviewed, a few of the vendors explained that thanks to the recession they lost their high end restaurant jobs, or couldn’t get one in the first place. So, rather than give up on their passion, taking jobs in telemarketing or retail, they decided to branch out on their own. It’s a lot of work, the margins are slim, but they’ve each managed to build up a steady and devout following (my friend’s husband apparently has many cohorts who share his obsession for the food carts- a tweet goes out, and they all flock to the nearest one. It’s become an impromptu party for them).

I found their commitment and creativity inspirational.

Okay, brace yourselves for the leap.

I spoke with my agent yesterday. He returned from BEA somewhat disheartened- apparently all anyone was talking about was the downturn of the industry, the plummeting sales. And when sales are down, acquisitions are down, which creates a self-fulfilling death spiral. Editors are even more overburdened than usual; if they still have a job, chances are they’ve picked up numerous projects that were initially acquired by laid-off colleagues. There were fewer vendors at fewer booths, and as opposed to previous years the air was heavy with doom and gloom (although whether or not that is a deviation from the norm is largely a matter of opinion).

Which is exactly what the restaurant industry is experiencing. Fewer customers, smaller margins, a sharp downturn. Maybe the publishing industry should take a lesson from the street vendors- when times are tough, it’s time to innovate. Maybe that means authors take advantage of something like the new Scribd publishing program we’ve discussed in earlier posts. Maybe it means eliminating remaindering and starting with smaller print runs, or figuring out a way to build support for new authors by tapping into the popularity of more established ones. Heck, maybe we should start wrapping our books in bacon. Adapt or die, as they say. And while you’re doing it, you might as well eat well.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just got a tweet. The Korean Taco guy is a few blocks away, gotta run…

And special thanks to Cym Lowell for providing a link to this article on food cart vendors nationwide. I’m trying to convince my husband to visit DC so we can try the mango lassi popsicles.

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I don’t like Twitter

By Joe Moore

I don’t like Twitter. I know, I know, it’s the latest craze in shorthand communication on the Internet and by cell phone. And a bazillion people are joining ever hour. And you can “follow” your family and friends and famous people instantly.

But I don’t like it.

twitter Before I tell you why, let me explain what Twitter is for those that have been living in a mountain top monastery in Tibet and are excited that they are only now getting push button phones.

Twitter is a simple means of communicating between anyone and everyone. You type a description of what you’re doing right now such as what you had for breakfast, what color you painted your garage floor, what you thought of Adam on American Idol, whatever is on your mind, then share your tweet with your friends. Here’s the catch: you must deliver your message using 140 characters or less. The Twitter system sends your “tweet” to all your “followers” which are anyone that signed up on Twitter and then chose to “follow” you. And you get to see the tweets of those that you are following.

Twitter relies on cell phones for much of its interaction hence the 140-character rule. That’s about the limit of most mobile phone text messages. You also get your own special webpage to post your tweets and see the tweets of those you’re following.

The goal of Twitter is to make it easy for you and other tweeters to post and update their status from anywhere, anytime. So like their coffee in the morning, many tweeters post their first tweet while waiting for their Chock Full O’ Nuts to finish brewing. And there’s a lot of tweeters who make it a point to wish everyone goodnight as the head off to Dream Weaver Land. In between wakeup and lights out, you’re bound to read rants, raves, rehashes, relishes, and restaurant recommendations along with every other activity in a tweeter’s life.

There’s a Twitter-style shorthand—not quite as BFF-cryptic as cell phone text messaging, but almost. It takes a bit of getting used to, but you catch on quickly. And because you are limited to 140 characters, it’s created a cottage industry for long-character URL conversion to short-form at sites like TinyURL. That way, if you want to include a link in your tweet to some cool website, you can convert the address to a shorter form that saves on characters.

There are a couple of things you need to know before you start twittering. The system seems to crash often. This is because another bazillion members just signed up. So you’ll get errors and strange page configurations throughout the day. In order to see the latest tweets, you have to “refresh” your browser window. This gets old fast. And then there’s the question, If someone follows you, should you follow them back? If you don’t, is that considered an insult? You can also “unfollow” someone. This of course is the ultimate punch in the gut to your estranged followee. Tough love.

So, why do I not like Twitter? Because it’s usually more interesting than anything I’m doing at any given time, and I don’t have the willpower to turn it off and get back to what I do: write books. I don’t like Twitter or the people who invented it or the people who follow me or the people I follow or the people that I will start following today. I have a lot more to say on this subject but I have to run update my Twitter status. Happy tweets!

How about you. Do you love Twitter or, like me, hate it? It is a way to fill in the gaps of your life or is it a total waste of time? Please limit your answer to 140 characters (or more).

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Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.

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Social Networking Showdown

by Michelle Gagnon

At Left Coast Crime a few weeks ago, I was part of a great panel on utilizing the Internet to market your book. This is a bit of a double-edged sword: now that much of the marketing burden falls on authors’ shoulders, being able to reach people without an insanely expensive direct mailing is invaluable. However, online networking can also become a tremendous time suck, drawing valuable hours away from what writers should primarily focus on: their manuscripts. Today I’ll discuss which sites I’ve found most valuable in a head-to-head match up, as well as sharing how I stay on top of them without losing my mind.

facebookFacebook vs. MySpace

I confess to being one of the “old people who joined up and ruined Facebook.” I now have more than a thousand friends, and probably post something to the page once or twice a week. I’m also on MySpace, but have found Facebook to be far more user-friendly to someone as technologically challenged as myself. (However, if I was working on a YA novel, MySpace would probably be where I devoted more of my focus). A couple of things to bear in mind when using these or other social networking sites:

  • Public vs. Private: I keep my pages public, and will friend anyone who asks. So anything that’s truly personal, such as family photos, etc, doesn’t get posted there. And if anyone tags me or mine in such a photo, I immediately remove the tag. myspace
  • In order to maintain my sanity, I go onto each site once a week (Facebook on Mondays, MySpace on Tuesdays). That’s when I accept friends, answer emails, and respond to comments. If I stumble across an interesting article online, I have the “share on facebook” tab incorporated into my browser, which makes it oh-so-easy to post it to my page (another clear benefit of Facebook over MySpace).
  • The cocktail party rule: I rarely post anything political on any of my pages. Again, this is a matter of personal preference, but I would rather discuss my books or interesting developments in publishing than who I voted for.

Shelfari vs. GoodReads

shelfari The trick to these is joining groups that read books similar to yours. I’ve generally found Shelfari to be more useful, although I do get updates from GoodReads discussions as well. The Shelfari groups just seem to more active, especially the “Suspense/Thrillers” one, which graciously invited me to lead a discussion of Boneyard last August. Every so often I’ll remember to log in and update my home page with the books I’ve read recently.

  • One caveat: if I don’t like a book, I don’t review it, period. Other authors have no problem posting negative reviews, so it’s largely a matter of personal goodreads preference. But I know authors whose feelings were hurt when one of their peers negatively reviewed their book on these sites, and figure it’s better to follow the, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” rule. The crime fiction writing community is a small one, filled with people who possess an encyclopedic knowledge base of how to kill someone and get away with it. Bear that in mind when you’re considering giving a book one star out of five.
  • I join in whenever people are discussing a book I really enjoyed, or an author whose work I admired. After all, I’m a reader as well as a writer.
  • Be careful in how you participate. When someone I’ve never heard of joins one of the discussions and proceeds to blatantly flog their own work, it’s a huge turn off. Probably better not to participate than to do that. This isn’t to say that you should never mention your book- but other members will be more receptive if you’re someone they’re already familiar with.

Twitter

twitter I’m not a big tweeter. I post links to my Kill Zone posts (and guest posts,) and occasionally link to articles or posts that I found interesting, but I simply don’t have time to announce what I had for lunch every day.

siamese Crimespace et al

I know other crime fiction authors love Crimespace, but I haven’t used it much. Most of the Ning circles (and I’m part of five) don’t seem very active to me. This could be my own failing- I find them challenging to navigate, and frankly my other pages are so easier I forget about these. Same goes for Gather, Bebo, Linked In, etc. You might have better luck. If you write books with a Siamese Cat sleuth, and there’s a Siamese cat appreciation group on one of the social networks, by all means take advantage.

Newsletters:

I have a pet peeve. Say we met at a conference and chatted about marketing. I offered to continue the discussion by email. Then, I find myself getting a deluge of newsletters from you, none of which I signed up for. Or worse yet, you mined my email address from a mass email sent by a mutual friend (note: always bcc people on those emails). This has happened to me more times than I can count. DO NOT add people to your newsletter unless they have specifically asked to be included. Have a sign up sheet on your website, and make it easy for people to unsubscribe.

And that’s my two cents. So what have the rest of you found to be useful? Any tips to share?

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Story Logic—Spell It Out

by L.J. Sellersljsellerssmall

Today The Kill Zone is thrilled to host the lovely and talented L.J. Sellers, author of The Sex Club, which I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed. Without further ado…

For the last two days, I’ve been filling in the details of my outline, working out the timeline, and crafting a sizzling ending that brings it all together. I’m already 50 pages into writing Thrilled to Death, and it felt like to time to solidify some plot points. I know many writers don’t do this; they prefer to wing it and see where the story takes them. (Stephen King, for example) I rather envy that style.

But I write complex mystery/suspense novels, and the outline/timeline has become more critical with each novel. In a police procedural, so much happens in the first few days of a murder investigation that a timeline is essential. For complex, parallel plots with multiple points of view, mapping the story in detail is the best way to avoid writing yourself into a dead end or writing 48 hours worth of activity into a 10-hour time frame. I speak from experience.

TheSexClubThen yesterday for the first time, I put in writing what I termed story logic. I’ve always done this in my head to some degree, but this was the first time I put it on the page in summary form. In a mystery/suspense novel, some or much of what happens before and during the story timeline is off page — actions by the perpetrators that the detective and reader learn of after the fact. Many of these events and/or motives are not revealed until the end of the story. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to convey to readers how and why it all happened.

So I mapped it out—all the connections, events, and motivations that take place on and off the page. Bad guy Bob knows bad guy Ray from prison. Bob meets young girl at homeless shelter. Young girl tells Bob about the money she found . . .

It was an enlightening process, and I highly recommend it. Summarizing the story logic forces you to think specifically about character connections and motivations. It points out holes and inconsistencies and gives you an opportunity to tighten and improve your plot. It may even force you to rethink and rewrite your outline. But it also may keep readers from getting to the end of your novel and thinking, How did he know that? Where did that come from?

I mentioned the process on a Twitter/Facebook update, and another writer asked me about it. So I explained it to her (in 140 characters!). She got back to me with this message: “I wrote the foundation of my book and did the ‘story logic’ for the rest before writing thestorylogic book to fill in details. It led me in a completely different direction. I took some risks in the outline and a lot fell into place. I’m psyched!”

I admit, all of this takes some of the spontaneity out of the writing process. But for me, writing isn’t magic. It’s work, and it needs the same detailed planning as any other project. Of course, I’m flexible. If better ideas or connections come to me as I write, I will modify my outline and resummarize the story logic.

Do you map the story logic? Do you outline? Can any of you wing it with complex crime story?

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, novelist, and occasional standup comic based in Eugene, Oregon. She is the author of the highly praised mystery/suspense novel, The Sex Club, and has a second Detective Jackson story, Secrets to Die For, coming out next year. When not plotting murders, Sellers enjoys cycling through the Willamette Valley, hanging out with her extended family, and editing fiction manuscripts.

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