Feeling Powerless

As the publishing industry evolves and new models are tested, it will be interesting to see if the role of the author changes. Specifically, I wonder if authors will gain more control over the product they create.

Currently, in the traditional publishing world, authors often feel powerless. They have little or no control over what the book is named, when it’s released, or how many copies are printed. They also have no guarantee that their publisher will pick up their next book. For non-bestselling authors, every novel feels like starting from scratch in the process.

This is the reason some authors self-publish. They want control over their product and how it’s presented to readers. They like to know their work will reach the market, regardless. They choose not to feel powerless. Who can blame them?

This subject is on my mind today because I evaluate manuscripts for a large self-publishing company. A few of the stories are good, many are unreadable, and many are written by doctors. Why are doctors writing and self-publishing novels?

My theory is they sometimes feel powerless too. Doctors’ novels are always about an individual MD making a dramatic improvement in the healthcare industry. I can only assume some physicians must also feel powerless to change a system they’re entrenched in and dependent on. So they write out their fantasies and pay to get their stories to the public.

This is the only power writers have: to create a story that entertainers, enlightens, or simply shares their way of looking at the world. For everything else, we must cross our fingers and hope for the best.

Staying True

Sometimes “no” is the right answer.

In early February I started a job at the Register-Guard, our local newspaper. I work 19 hours a week with no benefits, and I have one responsibility: write copy. It’s perfect (except for no health insurance). I work three days a week and write chunks of my novel every morning before going in. I supplement this income with freelance editing and manuscript evaluations.

Three weeks after I started, a full-time job opened in my department (special publications). Of course, I applied for it. In this economy, it makes sense to seize an opportunity for a nice steady paycheck, plus health insurance. Part of me really wanted the job too. I thought it would be a nice change of pace to concentrate my money-making energy into one place. As a freelancer, I’m scattered in many directions at once, and it gets a little crazy. I also wanted the health insurance and the security. Not that anyone working at a newspaper has job security.

But I didn’t get it. And when my boss told me I had not been chosen, I have to be honest and admit that my first physical and emotional reaction was relief. It would have meant a major lifestyle change. It would have meant that writing novels was no longer my primary focus. The job would have come with a lot of responsibility. It’s not the kind of position you can walk away from at the end of the day and forget about. My husband thinks it would have made me unhappy.

I see this as a sign from the universe that I need to keep novel writing as the focus of my life. It’s scary and exciting and insecure. But I’m wrapping up edits on the third Detective Jackson story this week. Early readers love it. By Friday the manuscript will be in the mail to an editor at a major publishing house, who is waiting to read it.

Everyone comes to these forks in the road. I’m glad I got pushed in the right direction. Have you an experience like this? What helped you decide which path to take?

What’s Wrong with Good Guys?

A post on on Salon about detectives said most characters “…fail to capture our imaginations the way a gritty detective with a bad attitude and a drinking problem does.”

It went on to say: “But even cops get boring after several decades of prime real estate on the small screen. That’s why we need shows about time-traveling cops (Life on Mars), clairvoyant cops (The Mentalist, Medium), teenage detectives (Veronica Mars), obsessive-compulsive detectives (Monk), evil cops (The Shield), cops who work the system (The Wire) and many, many more.”

Does this premise apply to TV watchers only or has the need for quirky/morally-challenged/addicted cops taken over detective novels as well? Do cops have to have a “bad attitude and a drinking problem” or some other major character flaw to be interesting? What’s wrong with regular a good guy/gal who has a clear understanding of what’s right and wrong? A detective/FBI agent who is sober, thoughtful, and doing his/her best to balance work and family?

I say nothing is! In fact, my recurring Detective Jackson is such a character. He’s not perfect, but his flaws are minor. If I had a daughter, I wouldn’t mind if she got involved with him. That’s not a bad test for whether your cop character is a good person: Would you want your daughter to date him? Would you be upset if your son married her?

Of course, there are the much-loved, loner-type Jack characters (Jack Reacher, Jack Taylor, etc.) who are fun to read, but in reality would cause sane women to run in the other direction.

Most of us read a mix of crime stories, from cozies to slasher/serial killers. But who are your favorite cop characters? Are they datable? Or are you attracted to those with “a drinking problem and a bad attitude”?

Blogathon! Be AFRAID!

Mystery/suspense/horror novelist Jack Kilborn (aka J.A. Konrath) stops in today to evaluate his experience with a blog tour promoting his latest release, AFRAID. I’ve seen reviews on the mystery list servs and they’re all great. Several people have said, “I don’t usually read horror, but I couldn’t put this book down.” I started it yesterday and am having the same experience. Very compelling!

Meanwhile, Joe has been on a nonstop blog book tour for 27 days, hitting multiple blogs each day. Few authors could keep up that kind of pace, but Joe is not your average guy. Now we find out if it’s been worth the effort.

You said earlier that you won’t know how successful the blog tour has been until you see your Amazon sales on April 1st. Did you set goals before you started? What kind of numbers will make you happy?
All authors have a love/hate relationship with Amazon, because it is the only way we can immediately view the results of our self-promotional efforts. If you do something on the Internet, and your Amazon ranking goes up, obviously some people just bought some books.
But Amazon ranks are confusing, and are far from hard science. The only way you truly know how you’re doing is when you get a royalty statement. If, in April, AFRAID is ranked higher than 20,000 on Amazon, I’ll be happy. It’s already spiked past there a few times this month. For a first book by an unknown author without a big marketing campaign, that ain’t bad.

Did anything about the tour surprise you?
It’s been a bit challenging to not repeat myself. By the end of the month, I’ll have been on close to a hundred blogs. That’s a lot of blogging. I’m pleasantly surprised that people are still tuning in, still following the tour. Personally, I’d be really sick of me by now.

Did it improve your promotional skills and repertoire?
It allowed me the opportunity to try different styles. My blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, is basically me lecturing about the biz. I don’t get very personal, and don’t do much self-promotion.
With this tour, I had the chance to blog about many topics I’d never do on Newbie’s Guide. I got to answer a lot of great questions, talk about my new book, AFRAID, goof around, and try to match my writing style to be simpatico with the blog hosting me. It was a terrific learning experience.

Can any author pull this off or do you think the blog tour is suited to certain genres and certain author personality types?
The best way to answer that for yourself is to go back to Day #1 of my tour, follow it up until now, and ponder if it’s something you think you could do. I can’t really speak for anyone else. I don’t think it has to do with genre. It’s more about networking, time constraints, and a willingness to adapt.

You’ve created a lot of momentum by doing 73 blogs in last 27 days. How important is it to have that kind of schedule? And is it worthwhile for authors to do a blog tour even if they can’t maintain your frenetic pace? And, BTW, how much coffee does it take to keep you going?
I have sort of a “go all in” personality. But I think there can be benefits from doing this no matter the scale. Obviously the more places you appear, the better off you are, but I’ve said before that you can’t every compare yourself to any other authors. Your race is with yourself, not with me. And my coffee machine is hooked up to me intravenously.

Why should an author follow another author’s blog tour?
We can all learn from each other.

Why should a reader/fan follow a blog tour? What do they get out of it?
Information and entertainment. But if you’ve been following this tour, you probably knew I was going to say that. ☺

Would you do it again? And if so, what would you do differently next time?
I would do this again, that’s for sure. But I’d plan it next time. I announced this blog tour on Feb 28, on a whim. In the future, I’d try to set things up in advance, and not be so rushed and disorganized.

If someone has never read any of your work, should they start with AFRAID? Or do you recommend they read your Jack Daniels’ series first and ease into this scarier stuff?
People who like horror, will like Afraid. People who like thrillers, will like my Jack Daniels series. People who like both will like both.

Was it liberating to break away from your recurring characters and write a standalone? Was it harder?
It was fun. Writing is always liberating, no matter the genre. I’m the luckiest guy in the world, being able to do what I love for a living. The worst day I ever had writing is still a wonderful day.

Any negative feedback from fans (or publishers) who often just want more of the same?
Some people think AFRAID is too extreme. They’re probably right. It’s a pretty intense book. But I’m all over the place when it comes to genre. I’ve published mystery, thriller, horror, sci-fi, paranormal romance, humor, and a few genres I’m probably forgetting. If someone likes one type of my work, but not another, I’m fine with that. Everyone has a valid opinion.

Cop Characters Credibility

Neil Placky’s excellent guest blog on The Kill Zone recently got me thinking about the nature of mystery series, police procedurals in particular. The series seem to fall into three camps: protagonists who are always linked to the criminal case being solved, cops who are sometimes linked to the case at hand, and detectives who rarely have an emotional connection to the case they’re working on. I’m not as widely read as I’d like to be, so my examples here are broad.

In the first category, the TV show Murder She Wrote comes to mind (as well as most cozies). In the third category, there’s John Sanford’s long-running series about Detective Lucas Davenport and Ridley Pearson’s series about Detective Lou Boldt. Neither detective hardly ever has a personal stake in their cases’ outcomes, yet they are favorites of mine—and millions of other readers.

My own series (and many others) falls into the middle. But even when Detective Jackson has a link to the case he’s solving, it’s not an intimate first-person connection.

I know many readers like emotional connections, but the question this raises for me is credibility. If your protagonist (whether a cop, an FBI agent, reporter, or private detective) is surrounded by people who can’t stay out of trouble, does he or she start to seem suspect? If every crime he/she solves is somehow personal, does your series start to lose credibility?

I’m thinking about this now because I’m plotting my fourth Jackson story and wondering how important the personal connection is to readers.

Writers: Do you connect your protagonist personally to his/her cases? Is it working for you?

Readers: How important is the personal connection? Can a series lose your respect if the protagonist has too many personal connections to criminal cases?

Junk Mail That Makes Me Crazy

Has anyone noticed how hard it is to cancel a magazine subscription these days? They simply won’t let you go. They may stop sending you copies, but the invoices just keep coming. Usually with some pitch like: “If you pay this low, low amount, we’ll keep you on our list.” I canceled my subscription to Entertainment Weekly at least three years ago and have moved twice since, but still I get “invoices.” How do they know where I live?

And what about those mailings with the block printing that says: “Warning: $2,000 fine, 5 years imprisonment, or both for any person interfering or obstructing with the delivery of the letter. “ As if it’s REALLY important mail from the CIA or something. And then it’s some mortgage company offering to refinance your house. They need to get over themselves, stamp “Junk” on the envelope, and recycle it themselves.

Get this one. I recently started work for our local paper. So my paid subscription (which I’ve had for 20 years) got transferred to a free subscription (woohoo, my one benefit). So now the newspaper I work for is sending me surveys asking me how I like my new subscription. Save your money!

And then there are the free AAPR issues I’ve been getting recently. No thanks. Back off. I’m not there yet. (But how do you cancel a subscription you didn’t order?)

It’s one thing to kill trees for no good reason, but to annoy me at the same time? I always think about watching Andy Rooney one night on 60 Minutes talking about stuffing junk mail from one company into a return envelope from another company and mailing it back just for spite. That was a good laugh!

It can’t just be me. What kind of crap mail do you still get? And how can I stop mine?

Writing Action Is Like Writing Sex—Advice from Novelist Mark Phillips

Today’s guest blogger is Mark Phillips, author of The Resqueth Revolution, a gripping, highly recommended sci-fi story with thought-provoking social commentary. But forget the social commentary for now. Mark’s here to talk about writing action scenes. As the editor of this new release, I can attest to his skill. I kept getting so caught up in the action, I’d have to go back and read again to do my job. As a novelist, I learned a lot about writing action from his story. In this blog, Mark describes how writing action scenes is a lot like writing sex scenes. So sit up and take note.

How to Write Exciting Action Scenes – Part 1 of 2
Action scenes most often involve physical violent confrontation between characters in your story. They can also involve characters trying desperately to avoid a direct confrontation, as in a chase scene or even characters fighting to stay alive in a natural disaster—trying to ski out of the path of an avalanche say.

Action is often violent, but not all violence is action. A slasher film can be all about violence and suspense and yet have little or no action.

Good action scenes ought to be exciting. They should vicariously provoke within you the fight or flight response, raise your heart rate, make you breathe faster, get your adrenalin pumping, make you feel focused in the present moment and vibrantly alive, ready for anything.

Suspense is similar to action except the option of physical release is withheld. As our characters labor to defuse the bomb and agonize over cutting the red versus the blue wire, the suspense may have many of the same effects on us, but what makes it all the worse is that we are forced to just sit there with our character’s face inches from the bomb. We can’t save ourselves by violent physical exertion. Indeed, in novels or movies with both suspense and action, action is the release for suspense, much as major chords provide relief after prolonged stretches of minor chords and dissonance in music. It works the same in sexually explicit material: prolonged episodes of teasing find their release in raw sex.

I suspect that a great many writers who have trouble writing exciting action scenes also have trouble writing exciting sex scenes or avoid writing sex scenes altogether. On the other hand, if you already know how to write exciting sex scenes, the transition to action scenes will be all the easier.

The first rule of action writing is counterintuitive: slow everything down. In real life, action happens so damn fast that many of us have no time to react effectively. In movies action mostly happens in real time, coming at us in an overwhelming rush. But in writing, your job is to slow everything down.

Real life and movies are overabundant in details. All the most relevant details need to be in the written version, which means hundreds or even thousands of words for all those images and sounds. Your reader has to understand the setting and the relative positions of opponents. You must describe anything that may contribute to the outcome of the action before it comes into play—you can’t have your heroine slip on wet pavement without having previously told us about the rain. Tactical decisions that in real time are often nearly instantaneous and subconscious need an explicit examination; options need a thorough analysis. Then consider all the necessary expressions of thoughts and emotional details.

Martial artists and combat veterans often describe a subjective time dilation, where everything plays out as if in slow motion. Often, action scenes in movies use slow-motion literally to slow down the action. Viewers need time to notice and absorb all the details. Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge in American Gunfight, a nonfiction account of the assassination attempt on President Truman, take nearly 350 pages to describe fully a gunfight that lasted 38 seconds in real time. The reader wants to know what everyone is doing, their positions, what they are thinking, what they are feeling at every moment. If your character uses a weapon, the reader will want to know how it feels in the hand, its heft and the sound it makes in use, exactly how it operates, and the exact devastating effects it has on the character’s opponent. That all takes time and your audience will give you their attention as long as you are making it possible for them to experience vicariously the exciting action.

Action scenes are really writing in microcosm. The reader wants to know how the story ends, but will delay that gratification so long as the journey to that resolution is enjoyable in itself. We must exploit the interplay between suspense and release, between arousal and orgasm, dissonance and harmonic resolution. The audience naturally wants us to resolve the conflict. They are desperate to know how it turns out, but at the same time they are reveling in the action itself and want it to go on forever. Like a pornographer, your job is to keep them desperately craving orgasm, but so thoroughly enjoying the details of the preorgasmic procedures that they simultaneously enjoy and regret the moment of release.

But, all that said, the final product cannot dawdle. You are not describing lilacs in bloom. Your prose must sweep the reader along as if caught in mad, crashing, unstoppable rapids. Use action words, the smaller the better, and short declarative sentences with only the most crucial adjectives. (The purple prose school of action writing revels in the adjective-laden poetry of it all—if the muse moves you toward this, don’t necessarily shut her up. I personally enjoy purple prose of the old pulp variety.) If grammar gets in the way of the natural flow, you may occasionally opt for sentence fragments. Without sacrificing essential detail, condense descriptions into the quickest, leanest prose possible. Think of a fast movement in music—more notes per bar and smaller notes than before. Think bodybuilding—you pack on the muscle mass but also lean out that muscle until definition is everything, until your prose is “ripped.”

What do you think about the sex/action scene analogy? What is your favorite action scene in a novel? Favorite action scene in a movie? (Commentors have a chance to win a copy.)
For the second half of this great article, stop in Thursday at The Dark Phantom. Tomorrow Mark will do an author interview at Katie Hines’ site.

Followers of the 2009 Resqueth Revolution blog tour will have two opportunities to win a copy.

  • Everyone who leaves a comment on the tour will receive one drawing entry per comment per blog site. Two entries will be drawn at random, and the winners will receive a signed copy of The Resqueth Revolution.
  • Everyone who answers all quiz questions correctly will be entered into a drawing for the grand prize — a signed copy of The Resqueth Revolution, a Resqueth pen, magnet and calendar, and a signed copy of Hacksaw, the first in the Eva Baum Detective series. Quizzes will post on March 21 and 27.

Defining the Blog Tour

This month I’m hosting two authors who are on blog book tours to promote their new releases. Mark Phillips, author of THE RESQUETH REVOLUTION (a book I’m proud to have edited) will be here on Tuesday the 17th to talk about writing action scenes. And JA Konrath, aka Jack Kilborn, will be here on the 27th to discuss his new release, AFRAID. JA also wrote an interesting post on blogging in general.

So blog touring has been on my mind, and I’m starting to plan my tour for this September when SECRETS TO DIE FOR is released.

The strategy for most tours seems to be: find blogs that relate to your novel and line up guest appearances every day for a month. (See the guru for more on this.) It seems straight forward, but hugely overwhelming to write all those Q&As and/or guest blogs in such a short timeframe and interact with guests every single day. Especially for authors who have day jobs. What I’m wondering is: How important is it to guest blog every day during a single month? Wouldn’t it be just as effective to guest blog every other day for two months? Or be on tour three times a week for three months?

I’m also wondering how many people actually follow an author on his or her tour, reading each blog stop on the way. And if you do follow tours, at what point do you buy the novel? Or do you already have the novel and are following just for fun? The real point of a tour is to reach new readers at every stop. In a traditional book tour, the author is on the road stopping at different bookstores every day because of the nature and convenience of travel. But from the comfort of your own home, couldn’t a book tour be more leisurely? Or does the everyday blogging in new locations actually build more momentum?

Tell me what you think. Are there other strategies I’ve missed?

Beta Readers—Are They Useful?

I have a rough draft of new novel completed (yea!), and people are offering (wanting!) to read it. One offer is from a somewhat well-know writer who will give me a good blurb if he likes it. And the other offer is from a fan/editor who will give me good feedback if it needs work. Great news for me on both.

The novel is completed, a fully developed story, and I’m a little nervous about sending it out. What I didn’t do this time was have beta readers review the story as I was writing, offering their input on the story development. When I was writing The Sex Club, I sent the first 100 pages to a story consultant and got great feedback from her. When I was writing Secrets to Die For, I sent the first hundred pages to several beta readers—because a lot of people seemed to think it was necessary to getting published—and the comments from them were so contradictory, they were useless to me.

One reader said, “I love the date/time references at the beginning of every chapter because it adds to the sense of urgency.” Another said, “I found the date/time references annoying.” One reader loved the cliffhangers at the end of chapters. Another hated them. One reader didn’t like that the mother was a drug addict, which was the underlying premise for the opening of the story.

When you have beta readers offering completely different ideas about what they like and don’t like, ultimately, you have decide how you want your story to go. In another blog discussion, several writers said they often ignore what their writing group suggests because it’s not how they see the story.

I write rather unusual crime stories, so maybe that’s a factor. Maybe beta readers are more useful in some genres than others. I’m thinking about this now because I’m outlining my next novel and wondering if I should get some feedback.

What do you think? Are beta readers useful? Has a beta reader ever improved or saved your story?

Authors Shoot Themselves in Both Feet

Two reader-forum discussions highlight how author protectionism can go too far.

The first being the Kindle 2 and its text-to-speech feature that allows users to have the book read to them in that robotic way only a machine can do. The Writers Guild and other author groups complained loudly about this feature, claiming Amazon was essentially producing audio books, which it had no right to do. So Amazon has backed down and only those books with publishers’ permission will be available in this format.

Writers gain nothing from this. The idea that they’re losing a royalty from a hypothetical audio book sale is ludicrous. No one in his/her right mind would buy and listen to a text-to-speech version of a book if a professionally read audio book was available for purchase. Calling these things equal products is like saying a hard-boiled egg is the same as a slice of quiche.

Who loses are the blind people, and perhaps other handicapped individuals, who might have listened to a book on Kindle because an audio version was not available. And if they enjoyed that author’s work, they might have purchased one of his/her audio books in the future when they became available. Or bought another of the author’s Kindle books. Or recommended the author to their book club or their large book-loving family. Limiting access to a novel from a paying customer makes no sense. As I said, a shot to one’s own foot.

The second writer-protectionism discussion is equally short-sighted. Some authors complain about readers purchasing used books and thus not supporting authors with royalties. How can you hope to stop this? By producing books that self-destruct when the final page is read? And why make readers feel guilty about buying your book?

Having a book in circulation, moving from reader to reader, is better than not having a book in circulation. Every time someone reads an author’s work and likes it, they become future buyers and great word-of-mouth marketers for the author. Many readers try out new authors by getting their books from the library or buying an inexpensive used version. Once they become a fan, they often support the author by purchasing his/her new books.

I know many authors will disagree with this position, but my feeling is that a little flexibility and generosity can go a long way.