Over at NPRMusic this week, they posted Bruce Springsteen’s keynote address to the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas. In this speech, Springsteen discussed his life’s inspirations and aspirations, what influenced him, and what he contributes to the greater musical community. It’s a fun speech, peppered with a few bits of foul language and a little guitar playing to even out things. As I listened to his near hour-long speech, I got to thinking: what would my keynote address be like?
What things made me the person I am today? That, of course, starts me asking another question: who am I? What is the sum of my parts, my influences?
Seeing as how this is a blog devoted to mystery and crime fiction, I’ll leave out some of the other stuff that makes up who I am--Star Wars, KISS, Chicago, comic books, and jazz to name a few—and focus on the mystery part only.
That I am here, with my fellow DSDers, on a mystery fiction blog is due, in large part, to a single book: Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. Up until 2001, I read little crime or mystery fiction. Sherlock Holmes was there, of course, and the Three Investigators and the Hardy Boys were present in my youth, but I rarely selected a mystery to read. By chance, I heard an NPR interview with Lehane on the way home from work. His description of his book, specifically the time gap and how the sins of youth can affect adulthood, is what hooked me. I took a chance and bought the book.
And was blown away.
A few weeks ago, I asked if mystery literature can have a sense of wonder. By reading Mystic River, a whole new universe of books and concepts opened up for me. I put myself on a crash course to catch up with most of what many of y’all already know. Lehane led to Pelecanos to the many authors of the Hard Case Crime. Recently, in the past year or two, I’ve become interested in the more traditional mysteries with Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead the latest addition. I like that I can pinpoint the exact moment my love and appreciate for mystery fiction happened.
What would be part of your keynote address?
Tweet of the Week:
Also, criticism doesn't imply hate. If you automatically reject anyone who disagrees with you, how do you grow as a person?
--A. Lee Martinez
Album of the Week:
Esperanza Spalding “Radio Music Society”
I have listened to this album every day (sometime multiple times) for over a week. Love, love, love this music and this artist. It is a breezy, jazzy, summery, effervescent record that harkens back to when jazz was on the radio.
Russel thought it might be a good idea if I took his place for a day, so here I am. Hope you’ll forgive him if I disappoint. Both Russel and I write fairly hardboiled material, so I thought I’d try to write an article quite different from anything he’s likely to produce. The topic is as the title of the post says. Think of it as some of the “sordid junk that goes through a writer’s brain.”
Puerto Rican cursing is almost an art form in its own right – every curse comes in a dozen varieties and stringing them together can be the work of a master. Here are some basics.
“Oye Cabron!” Now that’s rude. Not the rudest thing you might hear a Puerto Rican say, but still not the way to greet a friend – except that times are changing and teens are now saying it – think of it as the Puerto Rican equivalent of “What up, bitch?” Except that instead of “bitch” cabron denotes a man so dumb he doesn’t realize his wife is sleeping around. This strikes at the core of so much of Puerto Rican cursing – it’s much more focused on sexual insecurity than American cursing.
“Hijo de la Gran Puta” – Son of the Great Whore – a reference to the Great Whore of Babylon mentioned in the book of Revelations and associated with the Anti-Christ. Also a knock on yo’ mama. Puta, of course, means prostitute. Puto – male prostitute. “Hijo de la Gran Ramera” means the same thing, but “ramera” is a bit obscure, so you’re probably foaming at the mouth if you’re angry enough to trot that variation out. “Hijo ‘su Mai” is shorthand for “Hijo de su Madre” – Son of your Mother.
“Carajo” – Might have had a sexual connotation to it once, but now just an impolite way of saying Hell as in “Where the Hell are we?” Or “What the Hell are you doing?” – Que carajo haces?
“Pendejo” – Idiot. Don’t know the root (pubic hair doesn’t sound right), but it’s impolite.
“Coño” – Literally, a woman’s hoo-ha, but now used as an interjection like “damn,” as in “damn, what a pendejo…”
“Puñeta” – Literally a man who pleases himself by hand, but usually a really strong way of saying “jerk.” Did someone just cut you off on the highway? The offense might merit rolling down your window to shout this.
And finally, “Maricon” – A man who pleases other men orally. This is about the strongest personal insult you can launch. Still, while powerful, it’s lost a good deal of its original meaning in the same way one of the stronger English curses (rhymes with “other-ucker”) is literally about incest, but no one thinks of it that way anymore.
Note that this is all specifically Puerto Rican – in other countries, these words may be thought of as more or less offensive than I’ve depicted them here. Some may mean very little indeed. “Chingado” which is quite naughty in Mexico, is a word I’ve never even heard in Puerto Rico. Maybe I just don’t hang out with the right crowd.
Steven Torres was born and raised in the Bronx, but has lived in Puerto Rico, Upstate New York, and now Connecticut where he shares his home with his wife and daughter. He's the author of a hardboiled novel called THE CONCRETE MAZE and the fiction editor at CRIMESPREE MAGAZINE.
Last week I started writing the third book in my contract. It's triggered a week of lots of rambling thoughts about writing. Here's some of them.
This being the third book in a series, and the fourth book I've written, I think I've got only one thing that I can say with any certainty is true of writing; Each one is a new thing. I once had the thought that writing one book made it easier to write the next one. That each successful tilt at the windmill would make the next one look a little smaller.
Not so. Each book is a different breed, with it's own quirks and challenges. That's not to say craft doesn't carry over from project to project. Over time you pick up new skills and a deeper understanding of the craft. But having a great understanding of the human form, and a better set of tools than before, doesn't mean you'll find it any easier to produce your next painting. I'm going to learn how to write this book as I write it. And it'll be fun, but already I can see it wants to throw me.
Something else that I can say is true, but only of me, is that I ease into it. OLD GOLD is an exception, because I didn't know I was writing a book at first. But with the three since, I've learned I start off slow. A thousand words here, a thousand there. It's not until a few weeks in, when I've made a few failed attempts at finding the books voice before I start to grasp it, that I really get up and running. I've figured out that this is because of that first point again. As I start book 3 in my Eoin Miller trilogy, I find that I keep hesitating, because it's not going the way that books 1 and 2 did. At this point, around 5 chapters in, I keep doubting myself, and thinking I'm clearly getting it wrong because it doesn't feel the way it did the last time.
But that's a trap. Firstly, I'm not remembering the tentative steps I took when I started the first draft of book two. What I'm remembering is how it felt as I worked on the second or third draft. How it felt once I knew what the books voice was, and how the pieces needed to fit together. Secondly, the book should feel different to the first two. that feeling of fake nostalgia is really a guide to what the book shouldn't be, but it feels warm and compelling because it comes before I've figured out what the book should be. If I was Chuck Wendig, I'd probably have 25 tips for how to skewer that nostalgia, and what sauces to cook it with. Really the thing that slows me down at this stage of the book is a key part of the writing process.
One of the main things that's unique to this book for me is that it's the third act. I've always been a seat-of-the-pants writer when it comes to plotting, but coming to a book that's closing out a story cycle means I already know where the characters need to find themselves in the closing stages of the book, give or take one of them surprising me. In fact, by this point, I have a large cast of characters who each want a speaking part, and each can make a compelling argument for me showing the end of their arcs. With all of this comes a different skill set. I'm having to craft a stand-alone story from the ground up, but I'm balancing that with whittling a pre-exisiting story down to it's most important parts. Who's going to get shorted? Who gets more scenes to chew? At which point do I let some fucking teddy bears with sticks run in and attack people?
The final thing I'm noticing so far is something Joelle has mentioned before; The difference of writing under a contract. Oh, I know, woe is us, right? No. This is a wonderful pressure to have. But it is an interesting change. Book one was written by accident then rewritten with research, feedback and hard work. But it was simply me setting the pace. That book then secured me an agent, so as we discussed, edited and shopped it, I started writing book 2. Still, really, the only thing setting the pace was my own drive with an added sense of obligation that, hey, this other person is showing some faith in you, so you really should produce more work. But then I sign a three book deal, and as I'm writing this one I can feel -rather than see- a ticking clock.
When I was in bands, I could never stand to use a metronome for recording. I hated click tracks. It simply wasn't the way my brain worked, and I never adapted. Now, as a writer, I find that I have one, deep down somewhere. It's not one that's worrying me, I'm well in advance on this project, but still it's there keeping time. It's a reassuring feeling.
And I'll leave you with a strange habit of mine. At the beginning of big projects like this, my mind and hands both seem to want to be busy with something else. Before the draft of book 2, I stripped my esquire guitar down, rebuilt it, touched up the laquer and experimented with the wiring. I followed that by building a couple of other telecaster guitars that I sold on ebay. Recently I was working on another project, an adventure novel, and before that I spent time trying to learn to draw, and learning how to make my own book covers as well as drawing the character from the book. As I sit here starting another book, I find my eyes drifting to ebay looking at guitar parts, and also find myself picking up my esquire and thinking, would I like a better neck? Would I like a Texas special bridge pickup? How about an S1 wiring harness?
So It seems my brain needs to kick out something physically productive as a starting process for me working on something mentally productive. I need to get my hands messy.
So, I was wondering whether self-publishing is to publishing what minor league baseball is to the big leagues.
Skipping to the end, let me say that I don't think so. I think they're all in the same ballpark.
But let's look at Jeff Shelby, fellow #TeamDecker member, who posted this week about his publishing history.
Jeff said that years ago he'd sold his Noah Braddock series to Big Six. Two-book deal. Hooray. Two books come out. They don't hit the top of the NYT best seller list. No one wants the third. A few years go by. He writes more, gets a new agent. Gets a new deal for the third book in the series and sells another series.
But what's really amazing is this: He self-pubbed a book on Kindle. The book takes off. (Details here.) And then, once the book hits the top of Amazon and hangs out there for a good while, as he says,
I’m the first to admit this has all caught me unprepared. I didn’t expect for people to be clamoring for the next book in the series. I didn’t expect for people within the publishing industry – digital and print – to show interest. I didn’t expect for so much to change in such a short amount of time.
It's a struggle. The two-book deal in 2006 plays out. Eventually, with a new agent, he gets more action. And then he really hits it out of the park once his self-pubbed book takes off.
Now, knowing a little something about "self-pubbed" books, I know it's a bit of a misnomer. Jeff may have worked with private editors, including his uber-talented agent. He may have hired his own cover artist. I don't know. (I could find out by email and surfing, but if I leave this text editor, I may never make it back, so shut up.)
But here's the deal -
Have we gotten to the point where putting your work up on Kindle is like playing at the AAA level? Maybe it's like playing college ball.
Are publishers now acting as scouts, trolling through the best seller lists on Amazon to find the next Bryce Harper? Um, I mean, Amanda Hocking?
Let me clear here. I'm not saying Jeff Shelby was sitting alone in a bus station, upped his dragon romance onto Kindle, and is now playing for the New York Yankees. Hard work. Support and help from talented folks. Timing. Hard work. More hard work. (Check out his LIQUID SMOKE from the good folks at Tyrus Books.)
But what we have is a market in which publishers are having a tougher time making money. So, doesn't it make sense that they'd see what works before offering money?
Maybe self-publishing isn't minor leagues at all -- maybe it's just a different team.
Ten years ago, maybe the scouts did travel around, see who the agents were pushing, meet players, um, writers at conferences.
But now, I guess, there's only so much money left. Snooki is still going to get her money, of course. So when publishers and editors want to find what will work, maybe they're not travelling to Birmingham to see a young supposed phenom. Maybe they're looking across at the box scores for another team. Maybe they're looking at Amazon sales, seeing who is batting .400. Maybe there's going to be of that going on.
Maybe when the New York Yankees are looking for the next new thing, they watch middle relievers from other teams.
From what I'm told by Teh Olds, publishers used to sign up writers and watch them develop. Maybe they set them up on a AA imprint before pulling them up to the big leagues. But they writer would be given a few books to develop the craft. Not so much anymore, it seems.
Now publishers and editors want you to be able to knock it out of the park your first time at the plate. Signed to a two-book deal and your first book doesn't make it out of the infield? Um, no promotion for your second book, pal.
But if publishers can see that your self-pubbed ebook is topping the charts, heck, let's have a little chat about a contract. It's like going on Let's Make a Deal and waiting to choose until they've pulled all the curtains back. Take the car, not the goat.
It's like waiting until Tuesday to buy Monday's lottery ticket.
Look at Albert Pujols and Janet Evanovich. Once Pujols delivered, once he showed that he's tops in the game, the Anaheim California Angels of Los Angeles signed him to a 20-year deal worth France. Meanwhile, over in publishing, once Evanovich showed she could fill the stadiums, she got her $50million deal. Not while they were developing. Once they'd proven they could play.
Maybe publishing doesn't have minor leagues anymore. Maybe there is not money for developing talent.
Maybe self-publishing isn't the Desert City Rattlers after all. Maybe self-publishing is the New York Mets.
In January, Nick Mamatas wrote about advice people should stop giving to writers, and #1 on the list was a kick in the gut to many.
1. Don't Give Up Consider your audience. Who are you telling not to give up? The illiterates, the douchebags, the certifiable graphomanics, the people who think watching a movie is the same as reading a book? Some people should give up. Most people should give up. Find out whether someone has any potential first before arbitrarily telling someone to waste years of their lives, and worse, moments of the lives of editors who have to look at their nonsense.
I agree with some of Nick's points wholeheartedly. Other points, I can only agree with within a certain context. Initially, I thought about responding to some of the points I didn't completely see eye to eye on, but over time, I realized that the real issue with advice to writers is that it often lacks common sense. Nick's first point underscores that. Why are people running around, telling aspiring writers to follow their dream, to fight the good fight, to not give up, when they often haven't read anything the person's written? I think it's often because we don't want anyone to burst our bubble or tell us that our dream is just that, and will never be reality.
Look at the faces of all those people on American Idol who get told they'd be better off sticking with flipping burgers. Who would want to be responsible for making someone feel that way?
And yet it's often an inherent unwillingness to be honest with people, to tell them the harsh truth when necessary, that keeps people from correcting mistakes, from learning, from improving when possible and from switching gears when it makes sense.
The intent of this post isn't even to focus on aspiring authors and whether or not they should pursue their writing dream. I'm just going to give a few tips to avoid burning bridges.
#1. Write clean. If you're going to write a cover letter, write sentences. Spell the words properly. Be appropriate with the content. If you can't write a cover letter properly, chances are I won't be reading your story. No, it ISN'T my job to read whatever you send me, and read all of it, and see the genius through all your mistakes. It's YOUR job to demonstrate that you take your writing seriously enough to convince me I should publish your story, instead of another submission. Or, in our case, instead of dozens of other submissions.
#2. Did I mention that you should be appropriate in your communication, and with your content? Guys, stop sending your photos to my author email account. I DON'T CARE WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE. That will not change whether I like your story or not, or publish your story or not. And I'm married, so not only is what you look like NOT relevant, this is really inappropriate.
#3. Don't argue with an editor over a rejection. Everybody gets rejections. Telling the editor they're wrong and you'll show them is only going to ensure you're remembered for all the wrong reasons. Be polite, even if you're silently calling them a $@!%head.
For heaven's sake, people, the writing world is a small world, especially within genre fiction. Editors change publishers all the time. And we talk.
#4. Follow through on your contracts unless you have legal or legitimate grounds not to. If your story is accepted for publication, and an editor takes time to edit the story with you, and it's about to be published, and you've even provided a release selling the rights to the story for publication, do not pull the story from publication so that you can enter your edited-for-free story in some writing contest. Maybe some editor won't care that you wasted their time. I mean, there might be one in the known universe someone. But it's more likely that your name will go straight to the top of their shitlist. (And yes, Spinetingler has one. We have a manure file.)
(I'm not saying this applies when you haven't signed a release or been edited. If a publication has been sitting on your story for months with no word, you have the right to follow up on it, and even to withdraw it. Just understand reasonable timelines. It's not uncommon for work to sit for a year before publication. Don't email someone a month after you've submitted a story and flip out on them because you haven't heard anything. If your story was accepted but you haven't done a contract or edits or heard anything for ten months, you should definitely follow up with them.)
#5. If you sold your story and it was published, accept that fact. Say you sold your story to a magazine, anthology or ezine. You provided a release agreeing to terms. You received payment for your story.
YOU DON'T GET TO 'UNPUBLISH' IT AND GIVE IT AS AN EXCLUSIVE TO ANOTHER PUBLISHER. It's not an exclusive. It's been published. It's been read. YOU WERE PAID. Do I really have to explain this?
And why the hell aren't you celebrating your publication, and mentioning your publication credits?
#6. Even if something that was published is out of print, or off the internet now, it was still published. That means that if someone reviewed your work and wasn't favorable, and you subsequently badger the publisher to remove the story, that doesn't mean the reviewer will take their review down. It doesn't mean it's an unpublished story that you can submit as a new story to a publisher, either. And if you're such an idiot that you use publication online as a means of editing, suck it up. You put your mistakes out there for the world to see, and the only person in the world who's likely to think sunshine springs from your arse is your mother.
You can't ask people only to like you, and not expect an honest response from them. It doesn't work that way. You have the right to dislike a book or a movie or a short story or a play or a song or TV show. Other people have the same right.
People, this is why when you start to be published you learn to critique the work and not the person. If someone gets personal and dirty with you, being upset is understandable. If someone doesn't like your story, learn to deal with it. The world is a big place. There are people who don't like Harry Potter, either, and JK Rowling did just fine with her sales.
#6. Respect people's time. Wasting the time of editors or agents is never a good idea. Time is money. Every person out there has obligations. Don't impose on people and assume they have all the time in the world to give to you. Don't waste people's time. This connects to #4 and #5.
#7. Follow the submission guidelines.
The next person who emails me to tell me their story isn't formatted properly, who submitted it without formatting it according to our guidelines because they thought they were such hot $!@& that the guidelines didn't apply to them, because they're special, will have their emailed author photo that was sent to my personal email printed and tacked dead center in our dart board.
#8. Make the most of every opportunity. Every person you're in contact with is a potential contact. Every encounter with them contributes to your reputation. If you have a bad reputation, you'll miss out on some opportunities. It's even possible you'll miss out on a lot of opportunities.
#9. Be careful about publicly criticizing publications. Don't look down your nose at any legitimate publication venue. I remember when people told me being published online wasn't really being published. Then, I was told Spinetingler wasn't a real publication. Spinetingler is MWA-approved and what we publish can be submitted for the Edgars. Not really published my ass. And we pay.
I'm sure there's a lot more I could say, but there comes a point where people stop processing it. However, under all of these tips, there's a fundamental principle at work, and if it's the foundation of your behavior as a writer, you'll be fine. Be professional. Treat your writing professionally, and treat all your communications professionally.
On a personal note, I've realized I can eventually overlook or forgive most things, especially if a mistake is made by a new writer who's still learning the ropes. However, there's one thing that's unforgivable, and it ties to this final tip:
#10. Be willing to learn. Especially when you're starting out, at least try pretending to be humble. If you respond as though you know it all, it's a sure sign you don't. The smartest people in this business take advice, process it, and then decide if it's good or bad. The dumbest ignore everything because they already know it all.
And I'll tell you right out that if you aren't willing to learn, there isn't a thing I can do to help you.
In the end, every writer sinks or swims based on what they put on the page. There's no amount of good advice in the world that will help you if you won't listen to it.
There might be some who read this and think I'm a real bitch. I'm mean.
This is my personal time. This is when I could be writing my own work, or playing pool with my husband or walking the dog. I've chosen to take the time today to give some blunt, practical advice, so that the people who really do want to succeed and are willing to learn will hopefully avoid making a few mistakes along the way.
If all you come away with after reading this is that taking my personal time to provide some common sense suggestions for aspiring authors makes you think I'm mean, well, there probably isn't anything you ever need to hear from me anyway.
Fear is a funny thing. For each of us, fear takes hold at different times and manifests itself in different ways. Some people are scared of bugs. Others are terrified of the dark. Fear can cause you to scream aloud or go soundlessly still.
The dark doesn’t scare me. And I admit to enjoying the rush of adrenaline that strikes when I watch horror films or go through a haunted house. Things that go bump in the night make me laugh and spiders….well, as long as they aren’t huge and hairy, I’m pretty happy to smack them with a shoe and move on. Does that mean I’m without fear? Ha! Not in your life. Lots of things scare me. Especially failure.
Which is funny when you think about it. My entire adult life has been comprised of fields that involve rejection. Acting, singing, modeling, writing…. You would think I have spent most of my existence cowering next to the dust bunnies under the bed. (Yes, my bed has dust bunnies under it. Sue me!) And yet, for some reason, I have never equated rejection with failure. Not being a good fit for something doesn’t mean I have failed. It just means I’m not quite right this time. Semantics? Maybe. But it works for me. My fear doesn’t arrive when I’m hoping to hear yes. It comes after the fact. That’s when my fear of failure sets in.
I realized this years ago after snagging my first professional lead. After getting the phone call, I danced around the room, called my family to share the news and bounced off the walls for a couple of hours. Then reality set in. Fear set it. Was I good enough to pull off the role? Would my leading man (being flown in from NYC for the show) think I was too young and inexperienced? Would the press blast me in the reviews?
All that before I ever step foot into a rehearsal. Do I know how to be neurotic or what?
Good news is that I made it through rehearsals. My leading man was awesome. The reviews were good. The next time I got the call telling me I made a show the fear wasn’t as strong. Because I knew I could do it. Maybe I wouldn’t always be perfect. But I’d get the job done.
I find I am reminding myself of that experience a lot lately. Why? Because once again I am terrified of failure. I have turned in the second round of revisions on THE TESTING to my amazing editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s and have started writing book two of the trilogy. And fear has set in. This is not the first book that was under contract before I started writing it. But it is the first with huge expectations from the publisher. Being the lead title for Spring of 2013 is exciting. It is also terrifying.
Trust me when I say I’m not complaining. I am grateful for this chance even as I am terrified that I will blow it. That book 2 will not be what the publisher hopes. That I will disappoint. Which is why I keep reminding myself of my first professional leading performance over a decade ago. Back then, no matter how scared I was, I walked on stage and told the story. I will do no less now. Will I be brilliant? Maybe. Maybe not. But the show will go on. The story will be told. The deadline will be met.
As writers, we battle fear in our own way every day. Some days we win the battle. Some days the fear overwhelms us. But we always get up, dust ourselves off and sit back down at the computer ready to try again. Published or unpublished—we all face the same blank screen and the worry we aren’t doing the story justice. And yet we make the choice to keep writing. Yeah—we’re all nuts. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.