Saturday, August 8, 2009

Making Stuff Up In The Great White North

by Mike Knowles

Koan: If a Canadian writes a crime novel set in Canada, does anyone read it but his mother?

I would have to say that I have been lucky in terms of publishing. I wrote my first book over the span of a year or so and typed it while I taught summer school (and don’t go scratching your head about how I did both at once. I can do plenty of things at the same time just like you can read this blog and simultaneously wonder who I am). I submitted the book to two publishers who accepted on-line submissions and one said yes. I got a three book deal out of a really raw manuscript and the ball started rolling.

Soon after manuscript acceptance, began the process. The book first got bent over by an editor and pounded into something better than I had first handed in. Then, the publisher printed a bunch of Advance Copies. I got two of them when I went to my first conference and I gave one away within ten minutes to Quentin Jardine who dazzled me with praise, and that magical glint in his eyes, and promised to write about it on his blog. I read that man’s blog for months, but there was never a write up. My wife tried to console me with, “I know he said he’d write, but maybe he just didn’t like your book that way.”

I didn’t let the literary one night stand with Quentin slow me down. I contacted as many authors as I could and got them to agree to read an advance of my book in hopes of providing me with a blurb to put on the cover. There were an unbelievable number of cool writers out there who were willing to take the time to read something by someone they had never met. I am in debt to writers like these and I don’t ever think I will be able to pay them back.

So Victor Gischler, Allan Guthrie, Thomas Perry, and John McFetridge all gave me positive blurbs (you’d think all that name dropping would make the page scroll down on its own). I was on a high. People I respected, hell loved, thought I was doing something right. Then came the reviews in newspapers and magazines. I thought with the huge star power on the cover I would get Barbra Walters knocking on my door – I got a few local, one national, and two from the States. It wasn’t Barbara, but it was great to have anyone read the book. Luckily, all the reviews were pretty much positive. And this dear friends is where our ride ends. I got good blurbs, positive reviews, and that was about it. There was no offers to buy the book rights, no fantastic sales, just a book available everywhere with nothing to show but two Amazon reviews (I’ll deal with them next week).

Now I know what you are thinking. You think I’m being unrealistic. Tons of people write books that end up sitting on shelves or fading into the background of used bookstores. There is nothing special about a book not making it to the big time. I totally agree with you and I am fine with the idea of writing books that aspire to one day reach the heights of cult status. But I learned something interesting a few weeks ago. My agent, yes I got one; he is Scottish and he loves me for me not like Quentin Jardine who says he will write but never does. My agent told me that a book he was shopping around for me was denied because it was, and get ready, too Canadian. I thought the book was good (I’m too humble to say awesome), my agent thought it was good (he’s not humble, he says the book is awesome), the publisher we submitted it to thought it was good, but they told us that they already had a Canadian on the roster and they thought another would be just too many. Two Canadians are too many? I was shocked. Could it be my citizenship that was holding me back. Could I be the next Spillane if I just set my books an hour away in Buffalo?

The reason this comment floored me, I think, was because I found it so ridiculous. Reading fiction is pure escapism plain and simple. No one reads books about the mundane things that take place in their own lives. Books like that are called diaries and they are usually only interesting to your mother or your little sister. I write crime fiction in which people fight, steal, kill, and do all kinds of other bad things. It is the same kind of bad things that take place in American and European crime novels. Does geography change the potential interest in a murder or a theft? Does it make a novel suddenly unpalatable? I would argue no because I generally read books that aren’t about where I’m from and I find them interesting. I’ve read crime from America, Britain, Scotland, Ireland, Russia. Egypt, and Japan. The locations in all of these books is itself an entity in the story which changes characters, motivations, and laws into something different. It is these differences that often make the books I read fresh and entertaining.

Or could the problem be me? Do I have the stink of a Canadian on me? Are there too many aboots, eh’s, and hockey references in the book for an American audience to understand what I am trying to say?

And riddle me this: if setting a book in Canada is such an issue how does science fiction work at all. Would I have been better off setting the book on Mars and giving everyone lazer guns so that they could commit space crime? And would the science fiction suddenly become less publishable if the space ship were Canadian?

This blog is supposed to cover seven people’s thoughts on reading, writing, publication and modern media. My thoughts this week as I wait to find out the fate of my unpublished book revolve around the publication process. Most people are probably unaware that there is more to getting published than just writing a good book. You have to also get past the publishing bouncers who have a strict guest list in mind. If something about you is not on the list, you won’t cross that velvet rope. I’m not saying you will never get published, this is just the experience of one guy, but the bigger markets might be out of bounds for some right away. It just seems like a shame that something good could be shot down not on its merits, but rather on its components. It would be like opting out of dining at a four star restaurant because it happens to be Italian food in favour of a McDonalds because it’s more American.

I wonder how many good books I missed over the years because they didn’t fit the mould. How many times was a new idea shot down in favour of another big city private detective with a sassy mouth and skeletons in the closet, or a cop going mano-a-psycho with a devilish serial killer?

I think more people should make more of an effort to buy their books like they buy their fruit. Buy local, check out home-grown authors as often as you can. And every now and again try out something new from a far off place and see if you found something you like. It worked out well for me and papaya.

Of course, this could all be complete nonsense. The whole “too Canadian” thing could be completely fabricated by my agent as a way to let me down without hurting my feelings.

If you are one of those skip to the end of a blog kind of people, or you are just trying to get to someone else’s blog, here’s the gist:

1. Canadians are people too. We’re not that different than you. If you came to Canada we would invite you into our igloo’s with open arms.

2. Quentin Jardine is a heartbreaker.

3. Good is good. It shouldn’t matter where you’re from or where you set a book if it reads well that should be all that matters.

4. If a Canadian writes a book more people will know than his mother. She will tell at least three friends.


Jay Stringer said...

I love Canadian hard boiled crime. DUE SOUTH is one of my favouritest shows in the wurld.

I kid.

(not about due south, I do love it.)

Interesting thoughts. And not really limmited to publishing, I would say. We put up some strange boundaries around our tastes, don't we?

I like to buy a local book in every city I visit, but that can sometimes be hard - even the booksellers in the shops sometimes struggle to suggest something fresh and local amid the top sellers.

Steve Weddle said...

Canada has crime writers, too? Taking me long enough to work my way through Scotland.

Everybody's fickle, I suppose. That a new book has be like someone else's and completely new and fresh, well, I still find this kinda goofy at first glance. Yet, the publisher folks have studied the market and know how long they have to sell your passing eyes on a book by the cover.

Your new book GRINDER has Richard Stark's name on the cover. He ain't Canadian. Heck, neither was that Donald Westlake guy. (Checking the great W online to be sure, hmmm, nope. Brooklyn)
Richard Stark on your cover -- "above the fold," as my people would say -- is gonna make some folks stop. What I don't understand is why is someone not going to buy the book because you mention hockey on page 114. (I don't know that's where you mention hockey. I have to wait until flippin October to find out.)
So why would having the guts of the thing be "too Canadian" matter?

I'm only one reader, but my take on it is that I like nationality in a book. I like local flavor.

Why would I want to read the same book again? Well, I wouldn't. But I'd like to read a book that is sorta, kinda, maybe a little like the book I just finished, because I enjoyed this one.

GRINDER is up for pre-order and available in October. If folks love it as much as they loved Darwin's Nightmare and you get some traction, "too Canadian" won't be an issue, of course. If GRINDER sells a ton of books, I'd imagine the publisher will be asking you increase the Candadian-ness (Canadability?) of the third one.

Sometimes the first book just doesn't catch on for some reason. Then folks dig the second one and go back and pick up the first one while they're waiting for the third. I've done this with many authors. Think about it this way -- now that GRINDER is coming in October, you've got twice as many chances to make fans.

Mike Knowles said...

I always worry that having any comparisons to Richard Stark, or Spillane, on the cover is a sure fire way to get punched in the mouth by a hardcore fan.

John McFetridge said...

"Canadian" is a funny thing. We often hear how we Canadians are polite and quiet and inoffensive.

Except at hockey tournaments where we hear that we're thugs and bullies.

I can't imagine what other Canadian books people think Darwin's Nightmare and Griner might be like. I guess they must be thinking of The Blind Assasin that hardboiled Atwood, or Life of Pi, those Yann Martel fight scenes jump off the page, too.

If your books were amateur sleuths in a small town, I might get the, "Too many Canadians already," but all this tells me is that people didn't read the book but are tryng to be polite.

So Canadian of them.

Dana King said...

You can't swing a dead cat here in Baja Canada without hitting at least two Swedish crime writers, at least one of whom is dead. Assuming they're telling you the truth about too many Canadians, it just shows the people in charge of getting books published and promoting them don't know half as much as they'd like us to think they do.