Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Shocking Series

Series characters are tricky.

When Dennis Lehane finished Prayers for Rain, he said that Patrick Kenzie’s voice went away from him.  He didn’t hear Kenzie and because of that he moved on to other ideas—Mystic River, Shutter Island, and so on.  Eventually he came back to Kenzie—or, rather, Kenzie came back to him, and Lehane wrote Moonlight Mile.

Back in 2007, I was working on the Jackson Donne series.  Jackson Donne started out as the typical private eye, someone mourning the death of his fiancĂ©e Jeanne.  She drives the series, motivates Donne and some other characters. 

The first Donne novel, When One Man Dies, was about to be published and I was working on the sequel The Evil that Men Do—which would be published in 2008.  I was deep into Donne by then, his voice throwing ideas at me left and right.  And then, just weeks after Evil came out, my publisher dropped me.

I needed to reboot, try something new.  I wrote Witness to Death, a book set in the same universe as the Donne series, but with nary a mention of Mr. Donne.  I moved on to other things, and even briefly considered leaving writing—focusing on my teaching career.  I got married, had a kid,  and went back to grad school for a while.

Jackson Donne didn’t stop talking to me, I stopped talking to him. 

Somewhere in there, I self-published Witness to Death and it did quite well.  And for while, I thought about what I would do next.  I’d start a short story and stop it.  I’d scribble some novel ideas down.  Things weren’t going anywhere.  Occasionally, I’d think about Jackson Donne, and wonder if the series was over.  I had no ideas from him.  I was different now, much different than when I wrote about him.

Series characters are tricky, and it’d hard to surprise readers form book to book.

One afternoon, I sat down to watch Doctor Who.  It was during Matt Smith’s second season.  I remember this very, very clearly—mostly because Steven Moffat, the writer of the series, surprised the hell out of me.  He took a character that had been around for 50 years and managed to do something that I didn’t expect.

Steven Moffat killed the Doctor. 

An astronaut came out of a lake and shot him dead, on screen.  Now, we all knew that the Doctor wasn’t really dead.  That somehow, Eleven would find his way back to life somewhere over the course of the season.  But that particular moment came out of the blue. 

And that’s when I really started to think about Jackson Donne again.  About series characters, and about how to surprise readers.  Suddenly, I had it.  The moment that would turn the series on its ear. 
Jeanne wasn’t dead.

I sat down and wrote a chapter.  Then another.  Then another.  I mentioned the idea to Jason Pinter—my original editor at Random House, and now the founder of Polis Books.  He loved Jackson and he loved the idea.

And, as I wrote the book, Donne himself started to surprise me.  He was no longer the typical private eye—actually wasn’t even typical in When One Man Dies.  He’d grown, changed, and evolved in the years since I’d wrote about him last.  He was talking to me, and I was talking to him.

Now, after a 7-year absence, he’s back in Not Even Past, trying to find out why and how Jeanne is still alive.  I’m talking to Donne again.

Yes, series characters are hard—because each book has to be the same, but different.  However, if you’re willing to dig deep and try something different, you can mine new angles and still be shocking.

And, just like Doctor Who surprised me, I hope Not Even Past will surprise new and old readers alike.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Living Wage and the Book Business

by Holly West

Recently, a beloved Bay Area bookstore announced it would be closing in March 2015 due to the increased payroll costs caused by San Francisco's recently passed measure that increases the city's hourly minimum wage to $15 by 2018.

I support the living wage. I hate the idea that a person working 40+ hours a week must still live in poverty and/or take a second job to make ends meet. Of course, I've heard the argument that able-bodied adults with households to support shouldn't be toiling in minimum wage employment in the first place. "Get yourself a skill," opponents say. "Those jobs are for teenagers looking to earn some pocket money." But we all know that "getting a skill" this isn't always a feasible option and that even educated workers often find themselves in positions that require them to take minimum wage paying jobs.

You might call me an idealist (hell, I call myself one), but to me, the real people living in a dream world are the ones who espouse the idea that all it takes is hard work to get ahead in our society or that intervention by the government isn't sometimes needed to ensure (as best it can) that all people are given a fair-ish shake. The playing field isn't even and never has been and if you've managed to somehow convince yourself that it is, well, I respectfully disagree.

It's a complicated subject, and not one I'm willing to discuss in depth in this post. But I bring it up because it's directly related to what I do want to talk about. The bookstore in question was, by their own account, doing relatively well for an independent bookstore. We all know the struggle that these establishments have faced in recent years, but this particular store had successfully weathered many financial storms in their 18 years in business and were optimistic about the future. Then, the minimum wage increase hit and once everything was taken into consideration, management came to the reluctant conclusion that their only option was to close.

And this is where I begin to question, if only slightly, on my support of the minimum wage increase. The issue, for me, isn't whether the concept of a living wage is a good thing (clearly, I think it is), it's whether certain businesses should be exempt from such increases.

The problem, as put forth by this bookstore, is that the book business differs from others in that they can't raise their prices to cover their new payroll costs. Publishers set the price of a book and it's printed right there on the cover. Furthermore, even if they could raise their prices, consumers don't want to pay retail for books in the first place, and with large online retailers and big box stores offering huge discounts, they don't have to.

The pricing "quirks" of the book business and the competition brought by ebooks and online retailers have been an issue for independent bookstores for years now. Some have managed to continue, and even prosper, while others have had no choice but to close. But what happens when an independent bookstore has managed to stay afloat amid all of these challenges, only to be derailed by a government-mandated minimum wage increase?

Some would say it's the cost of doing business (literally and figuratively). It's no different from anything else that affects the financial well-being of an establishment and if it can't find a way to make up for the losses, then so be it. Kind of the free market argument turned on its head, given the circumstances. But this isn't a case of fat cats getting fatter off of the hard work of its low paid workers. This is a small business that has itself worked hard to keep their heads above water. When do they catch a break?

Lordie, if I had all the answers to life's complicated questions, I'd be writing this post from my yacht in Capri. That's where people with yachts take them, right? But I'm really just a simple country girl (I can say that now that I've left the big city) trying to make sense of complicated issues that so many people seem to want to make clear cut. They're just not.

And so I turn to you, dear reader, for your take on this matter. The bookstore I'm talking about recently set up sponsorship opportunity for customers who'd like to support the store. When I learned about this, I was dubious for a number of reasons (a topic I might take on in a future post) but as of this writing, it seems as though they've been successful enough to remain open for the rest of the year. That, to me, is a good thing. Perhaps, with a bit of time on their side, they'll come up with other viable ways to keep the business going. I certainly hope so.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Thanks Jeff VanderMeer!

It was great to see Jeff VanderMeer's Area X books rampage across the book universe last year.  I've been following him and his work for more then a decade and this level of acclaim and popularity is well deserved. But today I just wanted to take a moment to thank him for his years of book recommendations. He wrote an Amazon Listmania List! (remember those) called Entertaining But Different: Strange Fiction that came along at the right time for me and opened up my eyes to new books and authors. Around that same time he wrote an article called The Shadow Cabinet (which I stole for my Mulholland Books article) that again pointed me towards many books and authors that I just wasn't that aware of.

Authors are told to read read read if they want to write. This means read widely and deeply. I think this is good advice for anyone regardless of any writing aspirations that may or may not be present. I try to do both of these things as a reader and I think that, in part, it's a philosophy I owe to VanderMeer.

So thanks Jeff, for all of the book recommendations over the years.

A selection of the books and authors that Jeff VanderMeer put me on to (or made me bump further up my TBR) plus his latest work which you should read if you haven't yet.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Tales from the Query Trenches: Dream Agent

By Kristi Belcamino

Happy Sunday!

*I dropped the ball this week so I'm recycling an old blog post about being in the query trenches.*

When I first started querying my novel, Blessed are the Dead, I didn’t yet have a “Dream Agent.” I’d heard other writers talk about the Dream Agent, but I was such a newbie, I didn’t even know how to choose a Dream Agent.

Until I came across her. The more I read about her, the more convinced I was that she was my Dream Agent.

This agent killedslaughtered, took hostages, in the crime fiction market, pulling in spectacular book deals with the flip of a wrist.

And on top of that, she was hella cool.

Soon, I was day-dreaming about hanging out with her at bookish events, closing out the bar at Boucheron — and of course — me on a kick ass book tour after she sold a boatload of my books.

Her clients actually had a name, a Team Name. And they were all friends. And I was the wallflower wanting to hang out with the popular kids. More than anything I wanted to be part of her team.

But as nice as she was – and she was extraordinarily nice AND helpful — turns out that my writing wasn’t her thing.

It happens. Fair enough. We all have different tastes.

So I switched my allegiance to a new agent – this one, SHE loved me. That became my new criteria for a dream agent — an agent who LOVED me back. Screw that one-sided love.

This agent saw a future for my books. Then why wasn’t she offering representation? I was confused.

I’d been wooed and left in the dust before. I’d had two hour long conversations with agents who told me how much they loved me and then dropped me like a hot potato.

Total radio silence.

Without any explanation. Not even a response when I emailed to say I’d had an offer of rep from another agent. Fickle people these agents.

I call it the agent tease. I’ve seen this flirtation between other agents and other writers and the outcome has been nothing more than a tease – no offer of representation to seal the deal. Agents on Twitter who become BFF’s with writers and say, “Send me your work, darling. I love you so much.” And maintain a Twitter relationship for years talking about how much the agent LOVES the writer, without ever responding to the writer about the manuscript she or he sent.

Luckily, I avoided that toxic relationship.

So back to the agent who became my new Dream Agent.

Like the other agent, I wanted to hang out with her. And this agent had more in common with me than the other one. The more I got to know her, the cooler she became to me.

So much so that I wanted our families to hang out and our children to grow up as best friends. I imagined long nights in New York City having great discussions over wine and good food. Basically, I wanted us to be new BFF’s.

I think she felt the same way. But still – no commitment – just a flirtation.

So, I didn’t put my eggs in one basket. I kept flirting with other agents, sending out my manuscript, seeing if they liked me.

Then one day, my dream agent told me she wanted to talk on the phone about my book. I didn’t think too much about it (see agent above who spent nearly two hours telling me how much she loved my book and then dropped off the face of the earth).

But this time, Dream Agent offered. I was stunned. I was thrilled. I was so excited to be BFF’s with her. All my dreams would come true. Our kids would be friends. We’d exchange holiday cards and talk on the phone like gal pals.

But I didn’t accept immediately. I’m a rule follower.  I’d studied up on what to do when you got an offer – let all the agents who had your manuscript know about this. (Including the one agent who’d had it for 18 months and kept in touch with me without rejecting it. I’m NOT kidding. She liked the the book, was waiting to see what others had to say about it, yada yada.)

So I sent out emails to all the agents who had my manuscript. I told them I had an offer and was going to respond to the offer within a week and wanted to give them a chance to review the manuscript first.

Then, the ego flailing part happened – agents started dropping like flies – bowing out, wishing me luck. Holy smokes.

This scared the crap out of me. I was on cloud 9 so I hadn’t expected the crushing ego blow of people bowing out. I had no idea this would hurt. Let’s face it, rejection is rejection, any way you dice it. Even when an offer of representation is sitting there on the table, rejection still smarts. But a few agents didn’t dump me.

On Friday night, I got a message from an agent I hadn’t stalked (lucky her, I guess) who said her colleague had passed the manuscript on to her and that she wanted to talk on Monday.

And the agent who had the manuscript for 18 months also emailed to say she’d get back to me, as well.

My ego was stroked. Two other agents besides Dream Agent might like me. I felt like a schoolgirl with multiple offers to the prom. I was “popular!” Who cares about all the agents who dropped off and bowed out when I told them I had an offer. I had the love of THREE agents. My ego was restored.

That was all it meant to me at the time — because after all, I already had established a love affair with My Dream Agent. I am a loyal person. It’s my nature. So, I knew I was going to accept her offer. She knew me, she loved me, and I loved her back.

But then on Monday, I talked to the new, heretofore unstalked agent.

And everything changed.

Not only did I realize there were other Dream Agents out there, but also I knew by the time I hung up the phone with her that there was no possible way I wouldn’t sign with her.

I was, frankly, stunned.

During one phone conversation, she had completely won me over.

Her sales pitch and her personality and her attitude were everything I hadn’t even known I wanted until I talked to her. She was the one.

My choice was clear.

Immediately, I was flooded with guilt. What about my love affair with my so-called dream agent, the one who had wooed me for months?

Part of me tried to justify breaking up with her, saying, well, she could have made an offer to me months before and I would’ve signed with her. But in her defense, she probably was also feeling out the terrain to see if we’d be a good fit.

But the bottom line was that I felt awful dumping her. I was sick to my stomach before I called her back to tell her I was going with someone else. But I had no choice. Every bit of my gut and mind told me this new agent was the right one for me.

So, I made the call. It was one of the hands down shittiest moments of my writing career. I felt like a heel, breaking up with a really wonderful person. But I knew I’d made the right decision – for me and for my career.

Don’t get me wrong — I still want to be BFF’s with the other agent. I really do. I still think the world of her and would love to buy her a drink one day and talk writing, but I have no doubt I made the right decision for my career and for my writing.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Time to Put Up or Shut Up

Scott D. Parker

More nuts and bolts stuff in the offices of Quadrant Fiction Studio this week. Two major things I got to cross off the list this week was the DBA and the bank account.

I had jury duty on Thursday. My report time was 12:30. Imagine my happiness when I learned that the very building for jury duty was the exact same building the county clerk's office was in. I could get my DBA and then just hang around until the appointed jury time because, you know, there's gonna be a line. Not really. I was in and out in under thirty minutes.

Holy cow, I thought, I might have time to head on over to the bank. It had been years since I opened a checking account and I'd never opened a business account. I figured I could do that and still get back to the county annex building. Just about an hour later, I walked out of the bank with a brand new checking account registered in my business name. I was grinning ear to ear and let out a little cheer of happiness.

Then it hit me: I was really doing this. I was a small business owner! All these months of talking and writing about becoming an independent publisher was at an end. It was time to put up or shut up.

I'm putting up.

More news next week.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Conversation with Laura Lippman

As you begin to get rolling as a writer, I think your influences become clearer - beyond the very basic “I like this person’s work” to a more fine-tuned sense of where certain things come from and why. 

When the germ of Pete Fernandez popped into my head, I figured it had something to do with the books I was burning through at the time - the Nick Stefanos trilogy by Pelecanos, the Pat and Angie books by Lehane and Laura Lippman’s excellent Tess Monaghan series. It was only over time, as I wrote more (and hopefully got better) that I started to see the influence come into focus. That process gave me a deeper appreciation for Lippman’s work specifically - her smooth prose, flawed characters and a deep-seated sense of place. These are just a few of the great things in store for you when you read a Lippman book, whether it’s a Tess adventure or one of her many acclaimed standalone novels.

I’ll admit, I get antsy when series characters go away for a while and come back. And, it’d been a little while since Tess was around. But I needn’t have worried. Hush Hush is arguably Lippman’s best Tess novel, and not only pulls the accidental detective through her most challenging and dangerous case, but also asks important and unexpected questions about who we are and just what it means to be a parent and individual. In short, it does what the best crime fiction should do: make you think while telling a great story.

I had the chance to speak to Laura about her new novel, her work in general and what’s next. It was a pleasure and I’m thankful she took the time.

Hush Hush is a great crime novel - and like the best crime fiction, takes a look at bigger issues, specifically parenthood and the day-to-day challenges of having a child. I imagine a lot of the experiences were drawn from your own life and people you know. When you first put pen to paper, did you have that in mind as part of what you wanted to accomplish with this book?

I definitely wanted to write a book about how judged we feel as parents. Until I had a kid, I didn't feel as if I were constantly being evaluated all the time. Maybe I was, but I didn't feel that way. As a mom, I hear the things people say under their breaths when I get on a plane with my kid -- quite unfairly, she's a pretty good traveler -- I have to endure really personal questions and unsolicited advice from strangers.

One of my favorite things about Tess is that she's supremely human - she doesn't feel like someone's idea of a PI or an idealized version, she evolves and changes and is flawed in believable ways. Each book has consequences and situations that affect her beyond the pages of that installment. Did she spring into your head fully formed? What do you think has kept her around this long?

Tess did, in fact, spring into my head fully formed. There are some details I regret in the earlier books -- I think the tension with her parents in the first book is a little overblown. But, luckily, she was a young woman, so I had the advantage of letting her mature. I guess we both learned from my mistakes.

What are some of the challenges of keeping a series like this going? I don't think it's a stretch to say that a lot of people were probably wondering if you'd finished up your run of Tess books before The Girl in the Green Raincoat - and on the flipside, I think the last two Tess books are two of the strongest entries in the series.

It's an interesting question. The pleasures of a series tend to be static. We return to them because we don't want things to change too much. And yet if Tess hadn't changed, she would have been a terribly callow person. I do think, however, that it's nice for series to have fixed endpoints and I'd like to think I'm going to design a graceful, organic way for the Tess series to end.

I'm a huge fan of Edward Eager, an American children's writer who was very much influenced by E. Nesbit. In Eager's books, children discover some source of magic -- a coin, a book, a thyme garden. But it's always understood that the magic is finite. Tess, to me, is like one of those magic talismans in an Eager book. She can't go on forever.

Hush Hush doesn't feel like a "reunion record" book, if that makes sense. Or, an author returning to a series to try to recapture something lost. It feels like we're picking up with an old friend facing a new and polarizing challenge - in HH's case, it's Melisandre and the questions she raises. Was that more a byproduct of the story coming to you as opposed to you deciding to write another Tess book?

I honestly don't remember why I decided to write Hush Hush when I did. I have zero memory of how it came about. I know that I figured out at some point that I needed to run straight at the challenge of Tess being a mother. And I read a lot about infanticide, an interesting thing to do when one is the mother of a young child.

My favorite detective series feature place in a meaningful way. The way you portray Baltimore in the Tess books (in all your books, really) seems hugely informative but effortless at the same time. How important is it to you to show how your city is and evolves?

It's very important and it occurs to me from time to time -- I need to get out more! Because Baltimore is changing, all the time. The other day I was running errands and I stopped at this new-ish butcher store/restaurant in Remington and there were all these young men with interesting facial hair and artisanal pickles. I kept expecting to see Crow and Carla Scout, eating boudin and German potato salad.

What are you working on next?

I'm working on a novel set in Columbia, Maryland, the so-called New Town that was created in 1967. I went to high school there and it always seemed like a very rich setting to me.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Better Watch Saul

by Holly West

This post will be a mish-mash of topics but I named it Better Watch Saul because if you're not watching it, you should be.

Better Call Saul
Saul Goodman wasn't my favorite character on Breaking Bad. Not even close. I've never been much of a Bob Odenkirk fan and Saul wasn't all that interesting to me--I mean, the character worked for Breaking Bad but I really didn't have any need to explore him further. So when I learned they were making a spin-off series based on Saul, I wasn't all that excited, even if, as a big Breaking Bad fan, there was never any question whether I'd give Better Call a Saul a chance. Three episodes in and I'm pretty much hooked.

Thus far, the series stands completely on its own. If Breaking Bad had never existed, I'd still love the show. In Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman was mostly an annoying stereotype of an ambulance chasing lawyer who provided much needed comic relief, but in this prequel, Vince Gilligan's skillful writing and Odenkirk's nuanced performance take this previously shallow-ish man and make him sympathetic and compelling to watch. I'm eager to learn more of his story. Of course, I can't help but keep Breaking Bad in mind while I'm watching Better Call Saul, but it's just somewhere there in the background.

Ten Authors Walk Through the Door
Author Travis Richardson documents ten great entrances in crime fiction.

Recently, an anthology I was really looking forward to contributing to was cancelled. Or, as the editors put it, it was placed on "indefinite hold." I suppose I should count myself as lucky because it's the first time this has ever happened to me. Aside from my long experience with querying agents, I really haven't suffered much rejection as a writer, though I think this is because I don't submit material very often, not because I'm just that talented. I'm just not a very prolific writer.

But this particular project was important to me for a few reasons. One of the editors is a fellow author who I respect a great deal. The fact that he'd asked me to contribute to the collection was an ego boost, for sure. The subject of the anthology was a challenge for me and I'd already put in quite a few hours of research. As a result, I was excited to write my story--I was just on the verge of outlining it when I got the dreaded email. And finally, it was to be published by a comic book publisher and being a big fan, this appealed to me.

In the realm of publishing disappointments this isn't the biggest I'm likely to suffer. The lesson I learned from this one is not to count on potential projects until the damned thing is printed and in stores (or wherever it'll be sold).

Tess Gerritsen's Gravity Lawsuit
This post is a few weeks old, but if you haven't read it yet, you might find it interesting.

Freelance Editors
More and more of my friends are turning to freelance editors to help them polish their work for querying and/or self-publishing. I hired one myself for Diary of Bedlam (the book that eventually became Mistress of Fortune). Her name is Jennifer Fisher and I met her at Left Coast Crime in Sacramento a few years ago.

Jennifer did a developmental edit and some very light copy editing for me. It took about four weeks and I received a detailed edit letter. About a week after receiving it, I scheduled an hour-long phone call so that we could discuss it. If I'm not mistaken, the call was included in the price of editing, which was a bit less than $1000 for an 80,000 word manuscript.

I was completely satisfied with the experience and I'm curious to hear about your own experience with freelance editors. So, if you've hired a freelance editor and would like to recommend one, please do so in the comments.

Have a great week!