Thursday, December 18, 2014

Dark Digital Sky: Pulpy techno-thriller


I had the chance to read Dark Digital Sky by Carac Allison and to ask him some questions about writing. Dark Digital Sky is one of those novels that unfolds as you go along reading it, that seems fluid in its movements, solid in its muscle. It clearly falls into the slot of “high-tech thriller” and carries itself along through its action-filled plot, while gripping you with its troubled main character.  The premise is straightforward, though the promise is a bit more complicated. Anyway, here’s what the pros say about the book --

A gripping high-tech crime novel mixing the pulpy spirit of the past and the security threats of today
Chalk is an ex-FBI agent whose specializations are cults and computer forensics. The tools of his trade as a PI are a Porsche 911, an unregistered Glock, modified cellphones, radios, and an eclectic collection of computers. He suffers from bipolar disorder, lives alone and hopes, one day, to be able to see his son without the constraints placed on him by the courts. 
Chalk’s mission is simple: find three biological sons of one of Hollywood’s sleazy successes whose origins lie in a sperm bank donation he made decades ago. Chalk finds all three, each as twisted as the father in very different ways. It seems his task is complete when Chalk discovers all three are being recruited by a demented General who is looting vast pharmaceutical warehouses and planning a major domestic terror attack.As Chalk digs further into the brothers’ plot, he uncovers a secret military weapons program embedded deep in the Hollywood special effects and technology industry. It will take every bit of techno savvy he has to strip away the illusions and the politics and find the real source of the threat.

Now, on to the show:

DSD: You've got a background in plays, yeah? Does that help writing dialog?

Carac Allison: I hope so. Playwriting is about structuring action. The language is performative. Characters talk themselves into problems and try to talk themselves out again. They are created on the stage as they interact with each other.
When you’re writing a play you have to make it happen instead of just describing it. And I’ve always heard the voices of my characters.


DSD: This book is part techno-thriller and part noir mystery. Were you consciously balancing this as you went?

CA: No, not really. I wanted to create a hardboiled PI that followed in the tradition of the great pulp detectives. The technology is just a product of our time. Chalk needs to crack into computers and use modified cellphones to get the job done. 

DSD: How do you go about creating a damaged character still worth rooting for?

CA: Chalk’s worst enemy is himself. His control of his emotions and his thoughts are tenuous at best. Readers empathize with his anguish. Because they’ve struggled with mental illness themselves or they’ve supported family and friends who have.
A lot of PIs and Detectives talk about being alone. Chalk is totally isolated in his own head. And he is going to live through a lot of pain in the coming books.
 

DSD: With the technical advances in getting words down, do you feel you're in a better position to write than, say, Mary Shelley or James Joyce? Does technology make the writing easier? What's your process like?

CA: Technology makes it easier to get words down—to be sure. This is why there are so many bad novels. Almost anyone can type 60,000 words now.
But I don’t believe technology has made it any easier to become a writer. To find your voice. To learn the discipline. To pound out the 20 bad novels you need to get through to write your debut book.
I can’t speak to my process. No one would believe me.


DSD: You've written elsewhere about how technology impacts our learning, especially in higher education. What is that impact?

CA: We are assaulted with information every moment of every day. We’re forced to passively learn about celebrities, climate fears, politics. It takes an effort of will to learn actively. To block out the noise and focus on something.
When you do block out the nonsense, technology makes it possible to learn anything. You just need the time and the drive. 
So Universities and colleges no longer have a monopoly on learning. They offer an opportunity to meet people with similar interests. Beyond that you pay for the paper—the diploma. 


DSD: As this book is structured with mini-mysteries leading into a bigger story -- solve this and get to the next step -- can you explain your thoughts on pacing? How do you keep the reader moving forward?

CA: Action on every page, brother.


Dark Digital Sky is now available on Amazon.com, Google Play, Barnes & Noble, the iBooks Store and the Kobo Store.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Lingering Questions

By Holly West

As my year as a debut author comes to a close, it's fun to reflect on how much I've learned about writing and the publishing business. I wouldn't give it up for anything.

In late 2012 I signed a contract to publish two ebooks with Carina Press, the digital imprint of Harlequin. The first book, MISTRESS OF FORTUNE, came out in February 2014 and the second, MISTRESS OF LIES (which I spent most of 2013 writing), came out in September 2014.

I absolutely loved the process of editing a book with a professional editor--I'd done it with a freelance editor (also a pro) before I got the deal to publish MISTRESS OF FORTUNE, but working with an editor in the publishing house was even better. It gave me confidence about my writing. For example, when I turned in MISTRESS OF LIES in November 2013, I knew it was a good story, but I hadn't had nearly the same amount of time I'd had with MISTRESS OF FORTUNE to edit it on my own. I was terrified my editor would say something to the effect of "you're kidding me with this, aren't you?" But no. She loved the book and while she had a few developmental edits to suggest, overall the book I turned in is very close to the book that got published.

It felt good knowing I could write a book worthy of publishing in less than a year.

My one disappointment with this process (and it's a big disappointment) is that sales of both books have not been as good as I (and my publisher) would've liked. I know that happens to a lot of writers and I don't think of it as a reflection of my abilities, but more a combination of factors. This has led to a couple of lingering questions as I think about my year as a debut author:

1) I decided to take the deal with Carina Press because Harlequin is a large publisher and I thought it was possible they could position my books--even without a print version--better than a smaller imprint. But now, I'm wondering if that's true. Carina Press publishes a variety of genres but they're not as well-known for their historical mysteries (or even their mysteries) as they are romance. Furthermore, the crime fiction community has still not fully embraced ebooks and having only ebooks available left many doors closed to me.  Would I have been better off with a smaller publisher if I could've gone into print? 

I honestly believe that I would've been, though it must be said that I didn't have such a deal on offer at the time.

2) Ultimately, should I have self-published?

There's no question that having a "traditional" publishing deal was good for me in a couple of ways. First, it allowed me to learn about the publishing business and the way it works. I really wanted that with my first go around as an author. Second, it did give me a little more credibility (perhaps this credibility is only perceived by me at this point). Still, at the end of the day, I've published two books with a major publisher and that feels good.

However, given the fact that my sales are not great, does it even matter that I was published "traditionally?" If I had self-published, I would've retained all of my rights, I would've had control over the whole process, and I could dictate how I wanted to proceed with the series. Yes, I know some of the same doors that were closed to me as an ebook author would still be closed if I self-published, but damn it, I would have control over everything. I feel like I have none of it now.

I signed away my print rights when I took the deal with Carina. It is very unlikely that those rights will ever be exploited. I knew this going in but when I signed the deal this somehow had less significance. Now it kind of bugs me. There's no way to know what the outcome would've been and there's no going back in time to un-sign the contract, so I try not to dwell on it.

Either way, I'm proud of what I've achieved. 

I really am. When I signed my contract with Carina, I did so with the confidence that this would be my first book deal. If I made mistakes, that was okay. And I did make mistakes. But I went into this with the understanding that this was my chance to learn about the industry and to learn something about myself as a writer. I enjoyed working with Carina Press because their staff, especially my editor, are great.

As this year draws to a close, I there are still those lingering questions. But I'm not sure I'd change anything, even if I could. Mostly, I'm just proud and happy to have had this experience.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

20 Questions with Dana King

I run a regular feature on my blog, One Bite at a Time, called Twenty Questions, where I get to grill authors about their newest books, and writing in general. Holly was kind enough to submit to one when Mistress of Fortune was released, before performing her due diligence on what she was getting into. When I asked about possibly pinch-hitting on Do Some Damage to promote A Small Sacrifice, Holly showed she has a long memory and thought it would be great fun to make me answer all the questions I made her answer. So, if you don’t like this, it’s her fault.

Holly West: Tell us about A Small Sacrifice.

Dana King: It’s a story about a Chicago PI named Nick Forte, who is hired by Shirley Mitchell to clear her son’s name. Doug is assumed by everyone to have killed his five-year-old son, Justin, a year ago, but the police have butchered the crime scene and there’s not enough proof for an arrest. Forte is about convinced Doug did it, too, until something happens that turns the whole investigation around.

HW: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)

DK: The idea came to me when John and Patsy Ramsey were on television almost every night, talking about their daughter’s murder. Just about everyone assumed they killed the girl, and were lying, so much so “those lying” seemed to have become part of their names. (As in, “Did you see those lying Ramseys on TV last night?”) I got to wondering, what if they’re innocent, but have to lie because the truth is even worse? From that point forward, I stopped watching any interviews or reading anything about them. I wanted the story to have as little to do with the facts as possible, beyond the original germ of the idea.

Dana - front cover

HW: How long did it take to write A Small Sacrifice, start to finish?

DK: A little over a year of actual writing. I went back a couple of years later for some changes when an agent showed interest, and did a little polishing before I released it as an e-book last year. From first draft of Chapter One to final e-book file took about twelve years.

HW: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?

DK: Nick Forte is a former musician, teacher, and cop, now turned private investigator. He’s a divorced father who adores his daughter and is constantly aware of the things he can’t do for her because they don’t live together anymore. This is a large part of how Shirley Mitchell is able to get him to try to prove a negative: she guilts him into it. He has trouble sustaining relationships with women because he doesn’t want to have more children, worried his daughter, Caroline, will wonder if he loves the kids he lives with more than he loves her. He’s better at doing what he has to do than he thinks he is, but the violence he encounters as this case unfolds is more than he bargained for.

HW: In what time and place is A Small Sacrifice set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?

DK: Today, or recent times, in Chicago and the northern suburbs. Lake City is a stand-in for any number of affluent communities north of the city. I worked hard to make Chicago a part of the story, but, to be honest, there were a number of cities I could have picked and probably made things work just as well. I was living in Chicago at the time and loved it, so it was the logical place to set the story. Now I associate Forte so closely with Chicago, I can’t bring myself to move him, though I’ve considered it from time to time.

HW: How did A Small Sacrifice come to be published?

DK: It had an agent at one time, and seemed to be very close to a sale, but things never quite worked out. By the time all was said and done, I had a few more Forte stories the agent wasn’t interested in, since this one didn’t; sell, and she wasn’t interested in the standalone I’d written next. I left Forte in the drawer for several years until he made a well-received guest appearance in my first contracted book, Grind Joint. I thought I’d see if people might be interested in more of him, so I published A Small Sacrifice myself, straight to e-book on Amazon.

HW: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?

DK: Mostly crime fiction. Almost all of everything else I read is non-fiction, primarily history and true crime. I kept trying to broaden my fiction horizons, but found the stories I liked, those that spoke to me best about conditions in the world today, were crime stories at some level. I also like tightly-written prose, and most crime fiction writers keep things to the point. There is often an understated brand of eloquence, but it’s rare to see a crime writer write a beautiful sentence for the sake of writing a beautiful sentence. It has to serve a purpose. Good crime writers seem better at killing their darlings than a lot of mainstream or literary writers.

Favorites? Wow, so many I’ve actually created a spreadsheet to keep of track of who I want to be sure to read, so I get to them in turn. Of the big dogs, my current favorites are Robert Crais and Dennis Lehane. Tim Hallinan and Declan Hughes are great writers whose work I never miss. Charlie Stella is the Godfather of mob fiction, for good reason. Most of what I read are writers who are not quite broken out yet, people like Declan Burke, Adrian McKinty, John McFetridge. Terrence McCauley is doing great things with Depression and Prohibition-era stories. Tim O’Mara is about to become a best selling writer, if he isn’t already. Scott Phillips is a genius. There are at least twenty others in the regular rotation, and I apologize for not listing everyone.

HW: Who are your greatest influences?

DK: So far as getting me going, the usual suspects: Chandler, Leonard, McBain. George V. Higgins after I discovered The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which I think might be the greatest crime fiction novel ever written. (That, or The Maltese Falcon.) Reviewers tend to cite Leonard and Higgins—which is immensely flattering—though one reviewer said he found elements of James Ellroy, which is also flattering, as I’m a huge fan and wish I wrote more like him, Frankly, I don’t see him in my own work.

HW: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?

DK: Outline. Always. It’s not a real detailed outline, maybe a sentence or paragraph about each chapter, unless a scene grows organically in my mind before it’s time to write it, then the notes for that chapter can get pretty long. As a rule, though, it’s just enough so I know what has to happen. Everything else I make up as I type, always while wearing pants. Well, at least boxers.

HW: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?

DK: My first drafts sometimes almost read like screenplays. I’m a dialog-heavy writer as it is, and if it’s flowing, I’m acting out the scene while trying to transcribe what’s going on. The next day I’ll go back and tidy things up before starting on what’s new, to get me back in the mood I was in when I left off. Once the first draft is done, I’ll let it sit for a while, then do usually three more drafts: one to add and remove things that will turn a series of chapters into a coherent story; one to add the little touches that make books fun to read; and one anal and OCD three-step process to get everything just as I want it.

HW: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?

DK: Have a vision for your writing. Raymond Chandler once said, “Don't ever write anything you don't like yourself and if you do like it, don't take anyone's advice about changing it. They just don't know.” (I’ll use a Chandler quote at the drop of a hat, even if I have to drop it myself.) It’s not pessimism to note the vast majority of those who actually get a novel published—in excess of 90%--will never be more than a blip on the public consciousness, if that. Would you rather that be because you took your best shot and it didn’t work out, or because someone else told you to try something, or to do it their way, and it didn’t work, and now you’ll never know if your original idea would have? Then you can’t find out because whatever influences you accepted have changed you permanently.

HW: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.

DK: Hanging with The Sole Heir, but she’s 23 now and about to start grad school, so I don’t get as much chance as I used to. Spending time with The Beloved Spouse, reading, watching the Pirates and Penguins.

HW: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?

DK: Good reviews, which is good, as I’m not making much money. That’s not a complaint—I made peace with that aspect of the writing business long ago—but I guess what I mean is I get a great deal of satisfaction when I see people I respect “get” what I was going after in a book. That keeps me going, to be spoken of as a peer by those I consider to be my betters, as least as writing goes. It’s also a lot of fun, now that reviews are coming in from complete strangers. That’s immensely gratifying, to know someone has invested their most finite resource—time—and think I made it worth their while.

HW: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?

DK: I was a real prick when I came up with this one, wasn’t I? Actually, I think this was suggested by a commenter on my blog, after I’d asked for suggestions.

My answer will probably appall a lot of people, but, yes, I would quit under those circumstances, though I’d have to have the agreement in writing and the money in escrow. As much as I said I enjoy writing above—and I do dearly enjoy it—it is not the defining feature of my life. There are plenty of things I’d find to do if I had the time in which to do them, which I would if I didn’t have to work. I’d miss writing, but I had to give up being a musician, too, which was the only things I ever really wanted to do, and it didn’t kill me.

HW: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.

DK: I’ve tried all three, and, given my place right now, I think Option 2, though any can work given the right breaks. Option 1 works best for those who already have a foothold on the public consciousness, or are willing to work twenty hours a day on marketing. And are good at it. And write well enough for the marketing to matter. Option 3 can leave you in the cold if the big house doesn’t think you’ll be one of their breakouts, and the blemish on the record will be yours, not theirs. I think Option 2 leaves the best opportunity for a partnership with people who know the business end, though, of course, even there the match has to be right.

HW: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?

DK: Beer. My favorites run in cycles. Right now it’s Bass Ale, though I’m sure Foster’s and Heineken will get their turns again. Sam Adams when I’m in the mood.

HW: Baseball or football?

Dana King Author Photo

DK: Baseball is the single greatest thing ever devised by the human mind.

HW: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?

DK: That one.

HW: What’s the answer?

DK: “That one.” (I’m sorry, I stole that from Todd Robinson’s interview, but it’s such a good answer it ruined me for all time after I read it.)

HW: What are you working on now?

DK: Summer is when I put new work on hiatus, though I am polishing another Nick Forte novel so it’s ready for e-book formatting, or for the agent. In September I’ll start work on the edits for the fourth book in my Penns River series, currently laboring under the clever title of PR4.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Police, torture, and crime fiction

(I really didn't know what to call this post)

A couple of days ago our very own Jay Stringer asked where now for procedural writers in the wake of Fergsuon?

My response, in short, is: nothing. What happened in Ferguson will have no meaningful impact on the police procedural genre. If only because this kind of thing happens all the time.

For years I've argued that the police procedural genre is primarily a fantastical one because it is so divorced from reality. On TV we regularly see things that don't or can't happen in real life like: a suspect breaking in 30 seconds; using a missing persons cell phone data to determine a location without having to get a warrant; taking a door; rarely showing the process of obtaining a warrant to take said door; suspects, specifically affluent ones never lawyering up; making The Promise and then delivering on it in 42 mins.

These examples arguably are more benign (and focus heavily on TV shows since it is mostly taken from the linked post). There are other, far more serious, realities of policing that aren't presented.




Are cops aware of the immense power they have? The power to arrest someone is awesome; any cop, at any moment, can take temporarily take your freedom. Yes, there are courts to protect the rights of the innocent, but in the meantime, a police officer can still put handcuffs on you, shove you in the back of his vehicle, fingerprint you and lock you up for at least a couple of hours; and lock you up with some pretty mangy people if he so desires. That is real power, traumatizing power. Society grants police officers that power, but in exchange, we must expect certain things — that the police officer granted this responsibility show more patience, more kindness, and better judgment than the average citizen.

C'mon dude, stop being so melodramatic.


In January of 2013 a man named David Eckert didn't come to a complete stop leaving a store parking lot. He was asked to exit his vehicle. The officer believed that Eckert was clenching his butt cheeks because he was hiding drugs. They obtained a warrant and proceeded to give him multiple enemas and a colonoscopy against his will. They found nothing. And they billed him for all of the procedures.

These horrific things weren't/aren't done by renegade, lone wolf cops. They are done by every day cops that are part of a system that is interested in protecting its own interests and actually benefits from keeping it's lower ranked members (ie: the police that citizens deal with) uninformed.


You see, police officers are protected by a doctrine called qualified immunity. Police officers can also be shielded by something called the Good Faith Exception at trial.

In other words, the banality of evil at work.


I think this is why the David Simon penned cop shows come the closest to a realistic interpretation of the job. Because he understands the systemic forces at work. Or at least recognizes that they exist.


Another facet of this is that the historical role of police officers, has morphed into a much more militarized beast that isn't fully represented in cop fiction.

I actually don't mean this as a hit piece on cops. I just wanted to illustrated some of the ways that fiction differs from reality, and how significant some of those differences are.

Recent current events shine a light on another way that fiction differs from reality. This time I'm speaking of the torture report.





How many times have we cheered on a character who explicitly or implicitly tortures another character to extract information because in the fictional situation that has been set up and presented to us it's deemed not only appropriate but worthy when we may be against the practice in real life?   Most of us would be appalled if a police officer violated our rights but happily cheer on a fictional cop/spy/solider/etc when it's done. 


If a person, who otherwise believes themselves to hold a different opinion, roots for a character who tortures another character does that mask a latent belief that the person holds or just someone getting pulled into the narrative structure and arc of the story? I don't know but I think it's an interesting question.
 
Then there is the question of the fiction affecting the reality. In other words can exposure to something affect your belief in it? A few years ago the term Jack Bauer Effect (aka The 24 Effect) was getting some play. Specifically, that effective torture scenes in a post-9/11 world was making torture more palatable to people. Is this effect real? One thing we know is that it reinforced your opinion of torture if you already believed in using it. Hence the rise in so called Right Wing Thrillers. Glen Beck for example is constantly recommending certain fiction books to his audience. As for the rest of us? Maybe.

But there is also something called The CSI Effect that has been around for years. It states simply that juries expect a lot of forensic evidence in trials, which raises the  standard of proof for prosecutors.  Sounds silly right, that a show could have so much influence on public perception. But it is nothing new. In 1986 there was a paper written on Lawyer portrayals in mass media. You start looking at the way governments have used propaganda films to effectively sway people one way or another and...

I admit to finding the questions that all of this raises fascinating. Is there a morality gap in fiction? Specifically in how often consumers of fiction (movies, TV, books, etc.) will happily cheer on characters who represent something they disagree with. Can an author be unaware of thematic subtext when constructing a story? What is the author's responsibility in how they portray their fictional worlds?

Thoughts?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Being Published Isn't For Wimps

By Kristi Belcamino

Being a published writer isn't for wimps.

You have to develop a tough skin and learn to let criticism roll off your back.

Otherwise, might as well thrown in the towel now. Because trust me, you are going to have people who HATE what you do, who RIDICULE your word babies, and who SCOFF at your life's work.

You can't give a rat's you-know-what if you want to make it in this business.

That's why it is important if you are a beginning writer to learn how to take feedback and use it to your benefit instead of letting it crush your little ego into smithereens.

Last week I raved about my writing group. And as I await their feedback on my third novel, I have no apprehension. I have spent years finding the right critique partners that I value and trust. I also use beta readers or critique partners SPARINGLY. What that means is now I only send my manuscripts to my writing group plus one writer friend who is a crazy good critique partner.

It wasn't always this way.

When I wrote my first book, I sent my manuscript out to as many people who would agree to read it. I'm pretty sure at least twenty people read that first book and gave me feedback.

As you might imagine, it was overwhelming. And soul crushing. And useless.

For many reasons.

It also was complicated. What one reader loved, another one hated.

One reader was incredibly upset that I had so many characters with names that began with the same letter. It drove her crazy. Couldn't even read my book it was so annoying.

So, I took all the feedback in and learned what to pay attention to and what to ignore and let slide off my back.

With hindsight, this was a good training ground for the rest of the publishing journey, but not always helpful at the time.

What I learned was some people have a gift for feedback and others ... not so much.

It had nothing to do with how good of a writer they were. It had nothing to do with how much I personally liked them. It was something some people had and others didn't.

So, what I have learned over the years, is that if you are lucky enough to come across someone who is gifted at giving feedback, do anything in your power to keep them reading your novels.

But here is a general rule of thumb I like to share with anyone who receives feedback —whether it is from beta readers, agents, editors, or someone else.

ONLY pay attention to feedback that:

a) is voiced by more than one person.

What that means to me is that I usually need at least three people to tell me the same thing about a scene or a character or a plot point before I seriously consider changing it. Every once in a while, I'll change it if only two people echo the same thing but usually follow the rule of three.

b) ignore the above advice if only one person says it but it RESONATES with you.
You know what I mean—when someone makes a comment about your writing and you want to slap yourself in the forehead and say, "By golly, you're right!"

If you follow this general rule of thumb about feedback, you  have a good chance of keeping your ego intact at the same time you are most likely learning and growing and becoming a better writer.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Year 2014: Measuring Progress and Favorite Things

by
Scott D. Parker

In a fortnight, 2014 will be history. Seriously. Seems almost like last month I was making resolutions for 2014 and now it’s time to account. The year 2013 was a huge breakthrough with my writing. I basically went from writing barely anything in the seven years before it to writing over 200,000 words spread over one novella, two novels, and a short story. One would think that to make 2014 more productive, I’d need to write more. Well, I define “more” as more completed projects, not necessarily more words. Thus my four completed project this year trumps my three from last year. Progress achieved. And, when I think of the milestones achieved this year—new focus on shorter works; completing a novella in the month of November—I’m darn proud of my progress.

The year 2015 will be yet another milestone: publication. I am working hard on getting my first story ready for the world. When I publish one book next year, it’ll be a triumph. My business plan calls for more than that, but that first one will be sweet.

As for writing, I plan on continuing the pattern I set in November: write more efficiently and productively, and expand the types of books I write. I’m pretty sure I’ll always like a mystery in my stories, but I’ll be branching out in genres to include more westerns (Calvin Carter and more!) and science fiction. It’s going to be an exciting 2015.

The Lists

We all like lists at the end of the year. Here are some of my favorite things of 2014.

Books:
The Martian by Andy Weir
Honor Among Thieves (Star Wars) by Timothy Zahn
Face the Music: A Life Exposed by Paul Stanley
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
As You Wish by Cary Elwes

Music:
Ace Frehley - Space Invader (love this album!)
Chicago XXXVI “Now”
Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga - Cheek to Cheek
Bruce Springsteen - High Hopes
“Sue (or In a Season of Crime)” by David Bowie (in front of a jazz orchestra!)

Film:
Guardians of the Galaxy
Edge of Tomorrow

Podcasts:
I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere
Fatman on Batman
The Creative Penn*
Rocking Self Publishing Podcast*
Self Publishing Podcast*
America’s Test Kitchen*
PodKISSt
Hollywood Babble-On
Kobo Writing Life Podcast*

*Discovered in 2014

I’ve left off things that I’ll slap my forehead when I remember them, but these are what come to mind.

What are some of your favorite things of 2014?

Friday, December 12, 2014

Ghosting Stories

By Russel D McLean

If, like me, you were only vaguely aware of Zoella (The online name of Zoe Suggs) through TV ads for Youtube (I honestly thought she was an actress showing an example of what could happen, which shows how desperately old and out of touch I've become), chances are that this week you know far more about her than you did before thanks to the storm in a literary teacup that is the revelation she may have had "help" writing her first novel. Or, in plainer language, some people have said she may have used - shock, horror, etc - a ghostwriter.

Ghostwriters, for those not in the know, are not literally ghosts, but the unseen hand in a novel. They typically remain un-named or un-acknowledged and they usually do the majority of work on a book. So, that Katie Price book you thought was all from her hard-typing fingers, it was ghost written. And lest you believe this terrible, immoral (please not the sarcasm here) dishonest practice was a sign of times, its worth noting that "Carolyn Keene", the "author" of the Nancy Drew Mysteries was in fact a cover for a slew of ghost writers creating fiction to the house style, as was "Franklin W Dixon", creator of the Hardy Boys. Personally, I had to sit down and take a very deep breath when I realised that Alfred Hitchcock was not in fact writing those introductions to - or indeed even writing the text of - the Three Investigators mysteries. And, of course, many autobiographies by non writers (sports-folk, actors etc) are ghosted, too. Sometimes for very good reasons: to make an interesting story more readable (and sometimes for bad: to rush out a book to capitalise on five minutes of fame, but there's always a downside to any part of the industry and let's take the good with the bad). So I don't see why there's all this fuss about Suggs's book being ghosted: its not something that thousands of others haven't done before.

Look, my point is this: ghostwriting has always been around in one form or another. Its another form of marketing, and marketing in literature is not some dastardly new invention of greedy capitalist publishers. No, its something that is - as distasteful as this may be to "purists" of a literary bent - absolutely essential to keeping the health in book sales. I would gladly, tomorrow, claim that all my books were written by James Patterson if a) he offered that and b) it meant that my book sales went up by more than three thousand percent.

The issue with ghostwriting, of course, does come down to one of money. Zoella's book - allegedly written in whole or in part by bestselling children's author Siobhan Curram - sold somewhere in the region of  78,109 in its first week alone. Reports (cribbed from this article in the Guardian) estimate that ghostwriters up for the position of working with Zoella/Suggs were offered between £7,000-£8,000 flat fee. Now, in that same report in the Guardian, Andrew Crofts - a professional ghoster - implies that this is a bit of an insulting amount. But the fact is that some writers (such as me) would kill for an amount like that (most of my money is currently brought in doing reviews, editorial reports and so on - the books help, but by God, advances at my level don't come anywhere close to even that) even at a flat fee. And I admit I think that is a bit stingy - to write (allegedly) 80k words in six weeks is a tall order. But in a world where so many writers are asked to work for "exposure", the knowledge that you a) wrote a succesful book and b) got paid a semi-decent amount for it (Having worked in retail full time, I think eight grand for six weeks work is actually not bad) is enticing. I would, if offered, have no real issues with ghosting. I wouldn't think it beneath me. In fact the challenge of being a writer is stretching and disguising your style; experimenting with different voices. But I'm drifting from the point here. And the point is this:

Zoe Suggs is no different from James Patterson, if she did indeed use a ghost (and we're not sure - nor do I think we really need to know - how much impact Curram had on the final product: Suggs refers to her more in mentor terms than stating she wrote the whole book, and that's fine, because Suggs is not a writer by training, but someone starting out and of course at that stage its a good thing to have a mentor who knows the industry etc). Yes, Patterson puts the other author's name on the front of the book, but very few of his readers really care about that: they just see the name Patterson and they buy the book. Yes, many people (and I've been guilty of this) mock Patterson for his conveyer belt of releases, but you cannot deny that they sell and that people read them. And this happens because of marketing. And sometimes it means that they move on to other books, too. I'm still pleased to have seen Patterson recommending Ken Bruen for people to read a few years ago; he wants people to move on from his books and into other authors, too (while still buying his, of course). And that's a pretty admirable thing.

In one of the articles I read, a parent complained that "young girls" were buying Zoe's book and that they were being lied to and that this was a bad thing. So let's go all the way back to the top of this entry and look at The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and The Three Investigators. I read all of these as a kid. I later realised they were ghosted. It didn't change my love for the books themselves. And it didn't stop me reading anything ever again. It didn't change the words. It didn't change the fact I bought the book. And it didn't make me burn the ones I had bought. Yes, ghostwriters go as the unsung of writing, but I don't think its a dishonourable thing to do. In the same way that exec producers in TV don't write all the scripts themselves, I see nothing wrong with someone having a marketable idea and bringing in someone else to write for hire. Do I think they should be paid well for this? Yes. More so, I think, if they are never going to be acknowledged and have to work fast. But given that authors who write under their own name are often paid so little anyway, if all parties are amenable to the idea of ghosting, then I think we really need to stop acting like its the crime of the damn century. If people are buying and enjoying the book, then that's the only result that matters.