Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Output Insights

I recently attended a conference on internet publishing organized by the New York City chapter of RWA. The day was immensely informative. Though I found one segment perplexing.

My agenda was to pick up tips on e-book promotion. One of the speakers addressed that exact topic. An energetic author with a professional demeanor. I’ll call her Anna.

She spoke of her experience marketing her e-books on line. “I went from a few copies here and there to selling a truckload,” she said.

She quoted a number that certainly sounded like a truckload to me. Then she moved on as if no further explanation was needed. My hand shot immediately into the air.

“What were your promotion techniques?” I asked.

She claimed to have done no online promotion. I wasn’t buying that but I shut up for a bit anyway. Eventually she did say that her road to the truckload involved frequency of publication.

“How frequent?” I shouted no longer able to maintain my non-troublemaker guise.

"Once a month," she said.

My heart plummeted. There’s no way I could manage that. Same for most of the authors I know. Though Anna did allow that some of those pubs were short pieces.

Then I remembered Jo Beverley. I was her agent until I retired but we first worked together when I was an editor. Jo came to that relationship with two huge advantages.

First she is remarkably talented. Read any of her books and you’ll find that to be remarkably true.

Second she had a backlog of unpublished novels and a couple of novellas also as I recall. Together these advantages presented me with a winning strategy.

We’d submit Jo’s gems to be released one after the other. Not so fast that they’d glut to market. Fast enough to grow her name recognition in record time. Not a book a month of course. This was print publishing after all.

The strategy worked. A pile of stellar reviews later Jo was a star. She’s kept on shining ever since.

My point is this. If you’ve been authoring for long you most likely have a backlog of your own. Lying fallow among old files. Hiding on your hard drive.

Open up those oldies. You just might find some digital darlings among the leftovers of your analog days. And they just might upload you into output mode.

Maybe not once a month. But possibly on the delivery schedule your career truckload requires.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Delving into Dark Stuff

I’m writing difficult material now – wretched and wrenching and even scary. Any author aiming for emotional impact must mine this territory.

We’re not just plucking heartstrings here. We’re going for the gut. That means we must grind our own guts in the process.

I’m not only talking about true life stories – memoir like I’m writing now. We struggle through similar terrain writing fiction and other forms also.

If your purpose is to carry your reader into a dark valley you must go there first. On your own with every nerve ending stripped for maximum sensitivity. You have to feel it all the way.

Feelings are the medium by which you plunge a reader into maximum engagement with your work.

Make them feel and you’ve got them hooked. Keep them feeling and you’ve got them hooked all the way through. Turning pages whether they be pulp-based or digital.

But first you as writer must brave the tough part and that’s not easy. In my writing workshops I quip about it as oven cleaner writing. I’d rather clean the oven than write it. Most writers agree.

These are the passages anyone would just as soon run away from. You arrive at the edge of the abyss and suddenly you absolutely must check your email – or walk your pet even if he’s a goldfish – or clean the oven though it can clean itself.

 Too many authors avoid such writing. They maneuver around or skim over. As a literary agent I received many of their manuscripts and chose not to represent them. They didn’t hook me. They wouldn’t hook an editor or reader either.

So once more into the breach it must be. Hold your nose and dive deep into the stuff that hurts the heart and singes the soul. You can soar back to the light of triumph later.

For now you brave the darkness. Because there – sparkling amidst the murk – lies publishing pay dirt. And I don’t mean the kind I find in my oven.

Monday, August 15, 2011

What is a Crime Novel?

On Saturday I attended my first Mystery Writers of America event since my return to New York City. In honor of that enjoyable and informative experience I address the above question from my most recent Writing the Thriller-Mystery Novel to Die For seminar.

Some may quibble about my answer but here it is.

I begin with the market angle. Mystery novels and thrillers – sometimes referred to as suspense novels – are very different commodities when it comes to marketability.

The market for traditional mystery novels – with a few exceptions such as the stellar Berkley Prime Crime line – is generally modest. Thrillers on the other hand dominate the field and the bestseller lists.

One element of the traditional mystery novel – generally divided into hardboiled’s and cozies – is a market plus. That element is the series hero – a compelling main character who continues from book to book in a series.

A well-written series protagonist appeals to readers and that appeal grows with each new encounter in each new story. Until the reader is not only hooked but hooked deep.

The market appeal of the thriller is all about the thrills. This is a fast-paced high-impact story that takes the reader on a wild rollercoaster ride from beginning to end. The wilder the ride the deeper the hook is set.

The crime novel is a happy medium between these two. Happy because of high sales potential.

The pace of the crime novel is fast like a thriller. The story situation is intense with high stakes and a truly terrifying evil villain. The hero is both tough and determined.

In other words the crime novel is as thrilling as a thriller novel. The difference is that the savvy crime novelist has also borrowed wisely from the more traditional mystery.

Most crime novels have a continuing character as story hero. We fall in like with this character in the first book and that like turns to love as we cleave ever more tightly with each heart-stopping adventure.

An example of this for me is my newly minted infatuation with Mickey Haller of The Lincoln Lawyer. I first discovered this character in the film. Then couldn’t wait to read the book which thoroughly hooked me on the author.

I’m a latecomer to Michael Connelly’s work. Now I can hardly wait to know him better via Harry Bosch in The Black Ice where Harry’s connection to Mickey is introduced.

These stories are perfect examples of how techniques of the mystery novel are incorporated into the intensely dramatic and powerful story situation of the thriller novel.

In true mystery fiction fashion the hard driving hero investigates relentlessly – discovers clues and suspects – and refuses to be satisfied until the truth is revealed and evil is vanquished. All of which is accomplished at the cost of considerable risk and often damage to the hero.

This is the best of both worlds box officewise. Just ask James Patterson or Patricia Cornwell or Jeffrey Deaver or J.D. Robb aka Nora Roberts.

Or better yet read a few crime novels and find out firsthand. I suspect you will enjoy the ride.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

How Far Will We Go?

Most of us approach memoir writing determined to tell the truth – the whole truth – nothing but the truth. That certainly was my intention.

Then a savvy editor advised my savvy agent that I should expand my triumphant cancer story into my entire life story and make that triumphant also.

My original approach had been to tell my story by telling other stories. Of the many people who carried me through my ordeal to survival and thrival. I loved that story but it was a cancer book.

“Too many of those out there,” savvy editor said. “Too much of a niche book. We [meaning, mainstream print publishers] can’t afford to do niche books these days.”

So I shifted gears and began again. From where I literally did begin – with Grandma. This section was definitely triumphant. A thumbs-up period of my life. Almost too good to be true.

Then Grandma died. The tone of my life took a sharp left after that. Out of her sunny garden into the dark world of my mentally disturbed mother. Not much triumph there.

I did my best to give the telling an upbeat twist via small victories and instants of help along the way. I also only skimmed the surface of the truly dark stuff. I didn’t leave it out. I didn’t dive in either.

That turned out to be a wrong choice in commercial mainstream publishing terms. The darker the better, I was told. The deeper the dredging the closer to pay dirt you get.

Sensation sells. Violence and sex. Danger and damage. The brutal the bad and the ugly. Plus terror and a torrent of tears.

The ante toward all of that is rising in the memoir genre. Annals of angst flood the marketplace. Each one in most cases is an attempt to top the rest as a terrible tale. The goal – to attract mass attention by mining the downside.

The story of my years after Grandma gets very downside indeed. If I were to go truly damaged and dirty I could match melodramas with the best – or perhaps the worst – of them.

At this point in the prodding of my marketability consciousness my savvy agent asked me a couple of questions.

“Do you want to do this? Is this what you want to be known as?”

After decades of struggling out of my personal shadows into the light beyond. After re-creating myself to be taken seriously as a proficient profession and healthy human being. Is my unhealthy history what I want to be remembered for?

In response I returned to my original story. How I beat cancer with a lot of help from friends and strangers who became friends.  With a new title now – Lifted to the Light: A Story of Struggle and Kindness.

My savvy agent tells me that the digital market appears to work for niche books. The digital market just happens to be how far I’ve been wanting to go.