Let’s Help a New Writer Out

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Got an email from a reader of my craft books, who is finally ready (he says) to complete a novel. He wanted some career advice before taking the plunge. Below are his questions and my answers. Let’s put our heads together and help him out. We can continue the discussion in the comments!

[NOTE: I am assuming the writer is going the self-publishing route, based on question #2. If so, my opening advice is this—put your novel through the same grinding process you would if you were going to submit it to an agent or editor. Being indie is no allowance for being skimpy when it comes to prepping for publication.]

1. You mention learning to love a marketable genre. I’m a mystery and crime fan, but I realize the old school historical noir pieces may not sell. Here’s my plan: write the following sub-genres under a single pen name: (a) Hard-Boiled Police Procedural series a la Michael Connelly, (b) humorous detective/cozy a la Carl Hiaasen/Big Lebowski, and (c) romantic suspense because romance is huge but the crime element makes it interesting for me to write. Does this make sense? Would I spread myself too thin? Am I too far off the commercial mark? For example, should I go whole-hog into Romance and leave crime behind just for the money?

Establish yourself first in a single genre. You need to build up a readership and fan base, and that’s best done when you a) write a crackerjack book in a genre; and b) follow that up with another crackerjack book in the same genre.

The traditional publishers know this. It’s called branding, and they want to keep their money-making authors on brand because that keeps their bottom line in the black. When you start to sell gazillions of copies per book you can convince your publisher to let you try an off-brand novel…before getting back to your basics. See, e.g., John Grisham, James Patterson.

As an “authorpreneur,” you can make the call when you want to try something different. One of the benefits of indie is that you can branch out in short form as an experiment. For example, I write full-length contemporary thrillers, but have a comedic series of novelettes about a vigilante nun. I did some boxing stories for the love of it. But I always return to full-length suspense.

As for going “just for the money,” my advice is that you find the sweet spot where a marketable genre meets your love for the material. As you rightly point out, I believe you can learn to love a genre if you give yourself to the characters and make the stakes death (as explained in my craft books). At this point, ask yourself where you would find the most joy. Joy has a way of translating onto the page in a way that takes competent fiction up another level.

2. Kindle Unlimited is a great way to become discoverable, but is that a long-term solution? Do you plan to eventually “go wide”?

There’s an ongoing debate about this. To boil it down, those indies who favor “going wide” have concerns about the future of Amazon and possible digital disruption to same. Those who are Amazon exclusive are looking at what’s working now.

This is my personal view: since the future is unknowable, I opt for present-moment lettuce. I was wide with my fiction during the first seven or so years of the indie boom. My income via Kobo, Nook and iBooks was steady but not exciting. When I moved to KU, my income experienced a sharp increase. An added bonus is when I land a BookBub deal, my “pages read” (the way an author gets paid in the KU program) go way up for several weeks.

I know many folks have an issue with Amazon’s dominance, but betting against the company has not proved a winning strategy in the past. I recall in the late 90s when Barron’s dubbed the company “Amazon Dot Bomb.” I only wish I’d bought my shares then.

3. I used to be a pantser and, to show for it, as mentioned above, I’ve finished precisely 0 novels. Your books convinced me to outline, but I find some of the beats and plot points vague. Should I start building from the vague outline and drill down in detail until I have a card per specific scene?

Taking your question as a whole, by “vague” you mean you don’t have a sufficient idea in your mind of what the scenes would actually look like, not what the scene should accomplish within structure. That said, the beauty of the “signpost scenes” idea is that you don’t have to “drill down” before you write—unless you want to! As a pantser, you’re not used to summarizing all scenes ahead of time. In the alternative, you can start with the first couple of beats, and when you’ve gone that far look ahead to the next beat or two. You are driving at night with the headlights on, as E. L. Doctorow put it. You can always see ahead to the next signpost.

For both my plotting and pantsing students, I prescribe the “killer scene” brainstorming exercise. Go to your favorite local coffee house with a stack of index cards and start brainstorming scene ideas, not worrying about structure or where they might fit. Come up with 30-40 cards. Go back the next day and shuffle the cards and go through them, selecting the most promising. Figure out in which act—1, 2, or 3–those would logically fit. You’ll be amazed and happy.

4. When do you know to abandon a series or subgenre experiment and move to something more commercially viable?

There is an easy answer to this in the traditional publishing world: when your publisher does not offer you another contract.

Being indie, my view is that after three books in a series you should have a pretty good idea of how it’s going. Look at sales trajectory and reviews. Then ask yourself how wedded you are to the series. It may be that your next book is the one that brings attention to the others.

Or not. Erle Stanley Gardner developed several series characters for the pulps, including Speed Dash, Sidney Zoom and his police dog, and Ed “The Phantom Crook” Jenkins. But when he felt his writing had stalled he tried out a character he named Perry Mason. The rest is publishing history.

5. You studied under Raymond Carver. I’ve read each of his collections and am a huge fan. I’ve loved minimalist prose since I started reading Hemingway as a kid, and Carver’s style to me is a joy to read. Did he share anything specifically with you or your class you could pass on to me as to writing lean?

The main thing I picked up from Carver was his use of the “telling detail.” He was a master at putting a simple image into a scene that illuminated the emotional moment and often blew you away. Hemingway, at his best, did the same.

When a genre writer pulls this off, the effect is glorious. So glorious, in fact, that I am going to make this the subject of my next TKZ post.

Onward, writer. Carpe Typem! Seize the Keyboard!

Over to you, TKZ community. Help this new writer out.

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Book Expo America 2018

MONTANA AUTHOR TAKES A SMALL BITE OUT OF THE BIG APPLE

The population of my Montana home town is around 25,000—about the same number of people I encountered during six days at Book Expo America (BEA) and BookCon in New York City.

BEA is the biggest annual convention of book publishers, booksellers, distributors, librarians, and authors in North America. With 840,000 square feet of exhibit space at the Javits Center and nearly 500 exhibitors, the show is so big that Publishers Weekly covers it with daily tabloid reports of 70-100 pages each.

The event is open to industry professionals, not the public. I was fortunate to be invited to check out the inner workings of the business. What a learning experience it was!

Big names draw big crowds. Celebrities launching new books stayed busy autographing advance reading copies (ARCs). Some wait lines rivaled Splash Mountain at Disney World. This year’s stars included a couple of guys named Patterson and Clinton who co-wrote a thriller, along with Nicholas Sparks, Sally Field, Barbara Kingsolver, Trevor Noah, and more.

Debbie Burke and Hank Phillippi Ryan

 

I was delighted to meet the charming Hank Phillippi Ryan at the signing of her new book Trust Me. A few weeks before, I’d watched Hank teach a great online class sponsored by International Thriller Writers (TKZ’s own James Scott Bell also taught a segment of the webinar).

One Librarian’s Bounty

 

 

Librarians from all over the country flock to BEA to pick up bagfuls of free ARCs to help them decide what to order for the coming year. Their biggest expense must be the charge for overweight checked baggage!

Important lesson to authors: librarians are your best friends. If librarians get behind your book, their efficient network can put millions of eyes on your work.

 

 

Not surprisingly, Amazon isn’t exactly the most popular kid on the BEA playground. The headline of one daily report read: “Amazon’s Actions Remain a Problem,” a quote by the CEO of the American Booksellers Association. The article talked about the impact of “lost jobs, stores, and uncollected taxes” due to the online giant.

The Big Five (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster) had large showy booths on main aisles. In contrast, Amazon’s booth was in a distant corner, far from the entrance.

Since Amazon’s Kindle Press had published my thriller Instrument of the Devil, I trekked all the way to the rear of the exhibit hall to visit them. But when I got there…..

Black curtains surrounded all four sides of the booth. Through the gauzy fabric, I could see people moving inside. But there was no entrance.

Hmmm.

Upon further investigation, I was told Amazon specifically requests a private booth for book publicists to meet with major media to pitch upcoming titles.

Oh.

In addition to the Big Five, scores of indie publishers had booths, representing niche markets for religious, ethnic, political and social issues, health and fitness, food and cooking, short fiction collections. No matter what off-the-wall subject you imagine, chances are someone has published a book about it that shows up at BEA.

Children’s and YA book publishers were out in force, introducing thousands of new products: print books, graphic novels, puzzles, interactive 3D devices, plus tie-in merchandising like costumes, cuddly stuffed characters, sports equipment, etc. There were even quaint retro items like pens and stationary. Could writing actual letters be making a comeback?

Waiting for autographs from their favorite authors

 

BEA runs from Wednesday through Friday for industry pros. BookCon follows on the weekend and is open to the public. Thousands of readers crowded the Javits Center on Saturday and Sunday. They pored over new releases, waited in line for autographs from favorite authors…

BookCon 2018

 

…and posed for photos dressed up as popular book characters.

Older folks (like myself) often complain about young people zombie-walking through life with bent necks, mesmerized by their smartphones. Yet at BookCon, I didn’t notice a single example of that disconnection. Kids engaged with each other and were excited about new adventures in reading. Witnessing that gave me hope.

 

 

Audio book sales continue to grow by double digits, 30+% increase in the last year alone.

A major BEA sponsor for 2018 was Blackstone Publishing. In 1987, the family-owned independent audio publisher started producing cassettes in a garage in Ashland, Oregon. They tapped into the town’s renowned Shakespeare Festival for narrating talent.

Three decades later, Blackstone has expanded into a full-service publisher of print and e-books in addition to audio, employing more than 200 people. Still headquartered in Ashland, they’ve increased their presence in NYC with acquisitions editors, audio narrators, and a sound studio that’s second to none.

Blackstone also showed me firsthand what a debut author’s dream launch should look like.

Excited debut author Susan Purvis with the banner of her new book

Last April, I wrote about cadaver dogs and mentioned Susan Purvis’s upcoming memoir, Go Find, which Blackstone is publishing. At BEA, they rolled out the red carpet for Susan, including a 10-foot-tall banner at the entrance of the Javits Center.

At their booth, lighted signs showcased new releases. Book covers were displayed on video screens. During signings, representatives guided people through the waiting line, graciously giving out swag including postcards, book bags, and ARCs.

This contrasted sharply with some author signings sponsored by bigger houses where I wondered if cattle prods might be in use!

 

Blackstone’s good treatment of authors has resulted in them picking up bestsellers like Orson Scott Card, cozy queen M.C. Beaton, and mother-daughter fantasy writers P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast.

Despite BEA’s gargantuan scope, it offered opportunities to make personal contacts.

A couple of hours into the first morning, I sank down at a vacant table, already exhausted, eyes glazing over. A woman with a similar dazed expression sat across from me and we commiserated about feeling overwhelmed. Her name was Bee Kapitan, a designer from Vancouver. She had just received an Independent Publisher Award for her interactive e-book How To Say Cheese. I showed her the proposed cover for my new book, Stalking Midas, and she graciously made suggestions. She introduced me to the burgeoning world of interactive book design. We’ll be keeping in touch.

I’m learning from Umair Kazi (l) and Francesco Grisanzio (r)

Another valuable connection occurred with the Authors Guild. I knew of their excellent advocacy for writers but hadn’t gotten around to joining. At their booth, I talked with staff attorney Umair Kazi and digital services coordinator Francesco Grisanzio about rights reversion. Their guidance helped me make a career decision I’d been putting off. Needless to say, after their assistance, I signed up to become a member.

Another service they offer to authors is contract review. Before you sign a publishing contract, AG attorneys will review it and clarify the Byzantine maze of legalese. That alone is worth the $125 annual dues.

Authors Guild has also forged a communication channel into Amazon to register author complaints. Hopefully AG’s advocacy will temper Amazon’s review policies that, to authors, often appear capricious and arbitrary.

BEA gave me amazing insight into the publishing business. If I included all the adventures and interesting people I met in the Big Apple, this post would run into next week!

I’ll stop now and turn it over to TKZers for questions and comments.

A final post script: on the trip home I was privileged to meet a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor. That story is too long to add here but it can be found on my blog.

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What’s the Deal on Dreams in Fiction?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Check out this first page from a brave author:

The house alarm is screaming out, not the early-warning beep but the piercing you’re-totally-screwed-if-you-don’t-move-now squeal. I don’t know how long it’s been going off, but it’s too late for me now. The searing oven-blast heat within the four corners of my bedroom. The putrid black smoke that singes my nostril hairs and pollutes my lungs. The orange flames rippling across the ceiling above me, dancing around my bed, almost in rhythm, a taunting staccato, popping and crackling, like it’s not a fire but a collection of flames working together; collectively, they want me to know, as they bob up and down and spit and cackle, as they slowly advance, This time it’s too late, Emmy—

The window. Still a chance to jump off the bed to the left and run for the window …

The author is Mr. James Patterson (along with his co-writer David Ellis). The novel is Invisible. Mr. Patterson is “brave” for choosing this opening gambit, for later on in the scene we learn the above is only a dream!

And that simply isn’t done.

At least you would think so if you’ve spent any significant amount of time around writers talking writing. Surely at least once a week, in some critique group somewhere, someone is uttering, as if citing stone tablets, that you must never begin a novel with a dream. Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One (Writer’s Digest Books), is unequivocal:

Never, ever, ever begin a narrative with action and then reveal the character’s merely dreaming it all. Not unless you’d like your manuscript hurled across the room, accompanied by a series of curses. Followed by the insertion of a form rejection letter into your SASE and delivered by the minions of our illustrious postal service.

Les brings up a practical matter. If you’re submitting to an editor (remember the old days of the SASE?) and you pull the dream-opening thing, it’s almost certain he or she will consider your manuscript amateur hour.

But what do readers think?

The aforementioned Mr. Patterson, it may be safely said, is unequaled in his ability to gauge the pulse of the reading public. He has at least one other novel, Maximum Ride, that opens with a dream. (And last time I checked, Mr. Patterson’s manuscripts are not being returned.)

So what’s the actual deal on opening with a dream?

I don’t like it. There! That settles it.

Okay, just my opinion, folks. But it always feels like a cheat to me to get me caught up in the action, only to have the character wake up.

In all fairness, however, I’m hyper aware of craft. Most readers are not.

Maybe they don’t care in the slightest.

Let me make a subtle yet critical distinction here. One of the most famous openings in literature is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It begins:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.

Here we have the first-person narrator telling us about a dream. That’s not the same as the “dream fake-out”—beginning with intense action that turns out not to be real.

Practically speaking, then, if you’re a writer seeking a traditional book contract, I would counsel you not begin with a dream, for the reason Edgerton suggests. Most editors won’t go for it.

If you’re self-publishing, you have the choice.

I’d still advise against it.

Here is my further thought on dreams in fiction: Unless dreams are an integral part of the plot (e.g., a character has recurring, prophetic dreams), I would suggest limiting yourself to using a dream only once, if at all.

For what purpose? To show the emotional state of the character at some intense point in the book. Or to reveal backstory that is affecting the character’s psyche. I would also make sure the reader knows up front it’s a dream, as in the beginning of Chapter 15 of The City by Dean Koontz:

Eventually I returned to the sofa, too exhausted to stand an entire night watch. I dropped into a deep well of sleep and floated there until, after a while, the dream began in a pitch-black place with the sound of rushing water all around, as if I must be aboard a boat on a river in the rain …

Another option is to eschew a dream sequence altogether, and simply have the character describe the dream and how it is relevant. Thomas Harris does that in the aptly titled The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling is a young FBI trainee tasked with extracting clues from the notorious killer and creative chef, Hannibal Lecter. Lecter trades her clues for intimate details about her life. At one point Clarice tells Lecter about the haunting memory of being at her uncle’s ranch, when she was ten, and hearing the screaming lambs being led to slaughter. And how she still dreams about it.

Lecter tells her that’s why she’s obsessed with catching Buffalo Bill. She thinks it will stop the lambs from screaming. It leads to the moving last line of the book:

But the face on the pillow, rosy in the firelight, is certainly that of Clarice Starling, and she sleeps deeply, sweetly, in the silence of the lambs.

To summarize my take:

  1. Don’t open with a dream fake-out.
  2. Use dreams sparingly (like, once) unless it’s an integral plot element.
  3. Let the reader know up front it’s a dream.
  4. Consider characters talking about a dream rather than giving it to us as a scene. Just make sure the dialogue has conflict or tension. (For example, the character doesn’t want to talk about the dream, but the other character drags it out of her, as in The Silence of the Lambs.)

Now it’s your turn, O Writer and (especially) O Reader. What do you think about dreams in fiction?

 

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Poke-what?! by Joe Hartlaub

pokemon go

I vaguely remember my older daughter becoming briefly infatuated with something called “Pokemon” in the mid-1990s.  I bought packs of cards at toy and drug and grocery stores, and I think many of them are still around the house, languishing in  in a box mislabeled “silverware” or something under a bed or in a closet underneath some books. The internet wasn’t quite as pervasive back then as it is now; cell phones were the next generation of car phones, and an “app” was what you filled out when you heard about a job opening somewhere. Much has changed, and I thought that Pokemon had gone the way of eight track tapes, replaced by games that you played on your computer or phone called “Warcraft” or “Minecraft” (no, I don’t know what the difference is either).

Two weeks ago my nine-year old granddaughter mentioned Pokemon to me. I let it pass because she then started talking about reading BLACK BEAUTY and I wanted to encourage that over some role playing game. A few days later, however, I started hearing about something called “Pokemon Go.” It’s a smart phone application game that intersects with the real world and it seems to have taken over the minds of a segment of the population. People are breaking into buildings, jumping across rooftops, falling off of cliffs (Darwinism in action, perhaps?) and running through graveyards chasing the Pokemon. The news about it is all-pervasive. And that bothers the hell out of me.

jimmy books

Here is why. Did you know that James Patterson has launched two new book imprints? One is called “Jimmy,” and is aimed at getting younger people to read. The motto of this imprint is, “We want every kid who finishes a Jimmy Book to say: ‘PLEASE GIVE ME ANOTHER BOOK.’” Nice, huh? Patterson could have gone for the plug (notice how nicely “PLEASE GIVE ME ANOTHER JIMMY BOOK” would work) but he didn’t. Please give me another book. Like BLACK BEAUTY. Or The Hardy Boys, or Warriors. Or a Shell Scott… well, wait a few years on that. But give me anything but chasing some cyberworld construct around the city. Jimmy Books. Patterson launched this imprint about a year ago, and has been aided collaboratively by Chris Grabenstein, a fine and talented guy in his own right who has been fighting the fight for children’s literacy for awhile as well.  Did you know about this? No? Are there headlines all over about young folks reading these books? No? I know that a new book imprint for kids is not as exciting as falling into the ocean chasing some monster that doesn’t exist, but please. Patterson is tackling incipient illiteracy here. Isn’t that important too? And he’s pouring his share of the lucre back into reading programs. That sounds like dedication to me.

jim born

I said two imprints. The second was just launched a month or two ago and it’s aimed at adults who don’t read. It’s called Bookshots; each book features Patterson with collaborators such as Maxine Paetro or James O. Born (as well as a host of others) working across a number of genres. The books are around one hundred sixty pages apiece and and are priced at about four bucks. I know a lot of folks who have four bucks in Starbucks drive-through window change rolling around on the floor of their cars. They are designed to only require a few hours to read. And these books are entertaining. They’re not in the league of Cormac McCarthy or James Lee Burke, but your average adult who doesn’t read much anymore isn’t going to reflexively reach for a classic when the mood strikes them. Did you know about this? I just heard about it around a week ago. Where are the headlines? Patterson is launching this for the same reason he launched the Jimmy books: as he has indicated elsewhere, he wants people to exercise their brain muscle. God bless him. What he is doing may not be as glamorous or newsworthy as the fallout from a new phone app, but it’s certainly more important.

So, my fellow readers and authors: how do we get the word out? It obviously takes more than Facebook and Twitter. What can publishers do? What can we do? I’m not interested in what the book industry has been doing wrong recently…I want to know what you think could be done right, to help make reading a valued activity again. Any takers? Or is it a lost cause?

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