Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Michael Crichton’s Top 5 Writing Lessons
In memory of Michael Crichton, who died in late 2008 at the age of 66, last April, Writer's Digest Magazine asked me to share what I learned as a writer from reading my idol’s books. Here’s what I said:
1. CHALLENGE YOUR READER. Don’t be afraid to tackle complex topics such as quantum physics or manipulating the genetic code. Readers love learning something new. Stirring their curiosity is just as important as grabbing them from the first page.
2. SURPRISE YOUR READER. No one reading The Andromeda Strain could have guessed the ending. Novels should be novel. Unpredictability is key.
3. KEEP THE CLOCK TICKING. Timing, tension, momentum, pace—Crichton set the bar. A pounding heart keeps the reader reading.
4. GET YOUR FACTS STRAIGHT. Whether the details pertain to science, history or setting, readers expect your research to be accurate.
5. PLAY FAST AND LOOSE WITH THE FACTS. Story trumps all. Crichton’s gift was making the impossible believable. Everyone knows that dinosaurs can’t be cloned from fossilized DNA, but if they could …
This article appeared in the March/April issue of Writer's Digest. Click here to order your copy in print. If you prefer a digital download of the issue, click here.
Karen Dionne is the author of Freezing Point (October 2008, Berkley), a thriller Douglas Preston called "a ripper of a story," with other rave endorsements from David Morrell, John Lescroart, and many others. Her next novel, Boiling Point, will be published by Berkley in October 2010. For more information about her, go to www.karendionne.net.
Friday, July 24, 2009
Thrillerfest Field Report: From the Mouth of a Fan
John Beaumont has set the bar high for Thrillerfest fans.
He decided to attend the convention Thursday. Flew to New York Friday. Bought a day pass Saturday. And met his idol, Clive Cussler.
"I was star struck," he said. "My IQ went down 60 points. I couldn't think of anything to say except, can I get your picture?"
Beaumont and I were both flying out of LaGuardia Airport Sunday morning when we met. He asked me if I was an author because I was carrying a giant poster board of my new MISSING MARK book cover. We discussed whether the airline folk would let me take it on board. He beamed as he told me his Thrillerfest tale. Then he showed me digital photos on his camera of him and Cussler. Then him and Steve Barry. Then him and David Morrell. Then he beamed some more, even though the whole impromptu trip had cost more than he expected.
"It was a lot of money." Beaumont says he spent $870, but it was worth it. "I would do it again in a heart beat."
Beaumont lives in Sarasota, FL, a place he calls "the dead end of America," because once you get down there you pretty much have to go back the same way you came. He says authors don't visit very often, so he might never have had another chance to mingle with top thriller writers if he hadn't gotten a buddy to take his work shift at the last minute.
We said goodbye, got on your planes, and now Beaumont and I are Facebook friends. When he got home, he told his sister all about his adventure, including meeting me. And while she'd never heard of Clive Cussler...she'd read my debut, STALKING SUSAN. Maybe he can bring her along to Thrillerfest next year :)
Julie Kramer's second book, MISSING MARK, was just released by Doubleday. Her debut STALKING SUSAN won Best First Mystery in the RT Reviewers' Choice Awards as well as the Minnesota Book Award for genre fiction. It was a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award and has been nominated for Best First Novel in both the Anthony and Barry Awards.
Monday, July 20, 2009
ThrillerFest 2009, an After-Action Report
WEDNESDAY, July 8
Landed at Newark-Liberty International Airport at 2pm. Navigated my way to the AirTrain. Got off at the wrong stop. Reboarded the Airtrain. Got off at the right stop. Bought a ticket for a runaway train. Stopped singing Soul Asylum and bought a ticket for a NJ Transit train. Lounged my way to Penn Station. De-boarded the NJ Transit train and looked for the up-escalator. Up-escalator was broken. I pouted. Hefted my luggage up the stairs to the subway. Took the subway to 42nd Street. Hefted my luggage down the stairs to the 7. Took the subway easterly to…42nd Street. De-boarded the subway and looked for the up-escalator. Up-escalator was broken. I pouted. Hefted my luggage up the stairs to the Grand Central Station terminal. Overwhelmed by Grand Central Station. Overwhelmed by puddle of sweat accumulating at my feet. Navigated toward my palatial hotel (room rates negotiated by the gun-toting protagonists of ITW's board). Check-in. Rode world’s fastest elevator up to the 18th floor. Waited for spleen to join the rest of my body and then I proceed to my room. Need to take a shower. Opted instead to head down to the signings. Introduced myself again (after 22 yrs) to Jon Land. Dripped sweat on his book. Read the lovely inscription he wrote. Floated back to the 18th floor. Nap. Dinner. Phone calls. Writing. Nap.
THURSDAY, July 9
Met agent for lunch. Asked me if I like seafood. Yes. Took me to the Oyster Bar. Consumed best lobster roll ever (sorry, Maine). Watched him eat raw tuna. Went back to the hotel for more panels. Met Jordan White at a comic book shop for dinner. Dinner not eaten at comic book shop but rather at Junior’s in Grand Central. Much fun had. Accompanied friend Jordan White to Drag Me to Hell. Much fun had. Confused, though, by tables and chairs in Times Square.
FRIDAY, July 10
Met editor for breakfast. 90 minutes of absolutely pleasant conversation and absolutely delicious pancakes. Attended more panels. Surprised/amused by hostility of some in audience. Met up with other debut authors for late night drinks. Absolutely decent shirley temple and absolutely pleasant conversation.
SATURDAY, July 11
Crawled to 8am panel. Ate eggs, bacon, and butterflies. All abound in belly as crowd enters. Informed that we need to stand up and hold a microphone when we present our books. Not amused. #8 in line. Stood up, held microphone, presented book. Laughter. No sure whether with me or at me. Attended another panel, then signing. During signing, browsed through amazing photographs of Chilean volcano. Returned to room. Took a power nap until 4:30pm. Attended cocktail party. 250 people squashed shoulder-to-shoulder and martini-to-martini. Miraculously found by editor. Instructed to meet at pillar. 8 pillars to choose from. Wandered. Finally found correct pillar, my publisher, and publisher’s luminary writers. Headed over to restaurant for banquet. Literally stopped traffic on 42nd Street. Take that, David Merrick. Sat at MIRA table. Felt like one of the cool kids. Ate magnificent feast. Watched magnificent people receive magnificent awards. Returned to hotel for post-banquet cocktail party. Returned to hotel room for post-post-banquet cocktail party nap.
SUNDAY, July 12
Took a car to Newark. Had to give driver an organ to pay for fare. Reflected on week that was. Smiled. Ate cereal bar. Corralled to row on plane. Sat. Waited 90 minutes on tarmac before takeoff.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
From Debut to Career: David Hewson
Any author would love to debut like David Hewson. His first novel, SEMANA SANTA, set in Holy Week Spain, received acclaim, awards, even a movie deal. But the path to publication was a long haul for the former London Times reporter and his is the kind of story that inspires writers at various stages of their careers.
Hewson was turned down by every literary agent in the United Kingdom -- without even reading his manuscript.
He eventually got his agent through a referral even though her agency had already rejected his query. When she called him to discuss his novel, "I neglected to mention this."
Hewson was on assignment in California when The Call came that he'd sold his first book. "To be honest, life was very hectic back then and it took a while to sink in. I'd kind of given up on the book in some ways."
Hewson, definitely not a broody, moody writer, went on to craft a best-selling mystery series based on Nic Costa, a detective in Rome. His latest book, THE GARDEN OF EVIL (sixth in the series), sold out its first print run the first week of publication, so Hewson seemed a logical author for ITW novices to turn to for career building counsel.
"Be professional." That's his top advice for debut authors. "Understand the needs of the people who sell and market your work and do everything you can to support them in meaningful ways. Don't pester them to do things that don't make sense -- such as demanding a nationwide tour. Don't be a jerk. Get them on your side."
His suggests every author have a website and keep it current. Networking at conferences like Bouchercon and Thrillerfest can also pay off. "Be visible, go places, talk to people, make friends. Be persistent, write regularly - nothing beats an annual book for maintaining momentum."
David Hewson’s novels have been translated into a wide range of languages, from Italian to Japanese, and his debut work, Semana Santa, set in Holy Week Spain, was filmed with Mira Sorvino. Dante’s Numbers is his thirteenth published novel.
David was born in Yorkshire in 1953 and left school at the age of seventeen to work as a cub reporter on one of the smallest evening newspapers in the country in Scarborough. Eight years later he was a staff reporter on The Times in London, covering news, business and latterly working as arts correspondent. He worked on the launch of the Independent and was a weekly columnist for the Sunday Times for a decade before giving up journalism entirely in 2005 to focus on writing fiction.
Semana Santa won the WH Smith Fresh Talent award for one of the best debut novels of the year in 1996 and was later made into a movie starring Mira Sorvino and Olivier Martinez. Four standalone works followed before A Season for the Dead, the first in a series set in Italy. The seventh Roman novel featuring Nic Costa and his colleagues, Dante’s Numbers, appeared in October 2008. At the end of 2006 he signed renewed contracts with Pan Macmillan in the UK and Bantam Dell in the US to extend the series to nine books, running to 2012. The titles are published in numerous languages around the world including Chinese and Japanese… and Italian.
He has featured regularly on the speaker lists of leading international book events, including the Melbourne and Ottawa writers’ festivals, the Harrogate Crime Festival, Thrillerfest, Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime. He has taught at writing schools around the world and is a regular faculty member for the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference in Corte Madera, California, where he has worked alongside writers such as Martin Cruz Smith and Michael Connelly.
In 2006 he launched a campaigning web-site save-wye which was instrumental in a successful battle to prevent one of the largest environmental threats to the countryside of Kent in southern England. His non-fiction book on the campaign to defend Wye from development, Saved, was published in May 2007. David lives close to Wye, Kent.
Saturday, July 4, 2009
Lessons Learned in the First Year
by Laura Benedict
Early last November, I was nearing the end of a seven-week of tour for Isabella Moon. When I finally returned home--after a week in Alaska, thirteen reading/signing events, twenty bookstore drop-ins, and four thousand miles of driving through Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri--I collapsed in a heap in my bedroom and could barely be dragged out of it for a week. My mind was so scattered and I was so distracted that I could hardly write. Laundry went undone, and we ate out way too much. But I recovered and my family recovered and we made it through the year just fine.
When I looked back at the events of the past year, I pondered writing a long, heartfelt essay about how my life was changed by the publication of my first novel. My life has changed alright, but the most significant way in which it has changed is in my obligation to my readers--My second novel, Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts, will be out in a few weeks and I'm way behind on the writing of number three. So, as I'm a big fan of lists, here's a quick and dirty sketch of what I've learned over the last twelve months:
My agent is a treasure. A good agent is worth her weight in gold. My conversations with my editor are always focused on editing my work because my beloved Agent Susan handles everything else. She does all the truly hard work. When I get worried and start fretting about things over which I have no control, she gently reminds me that my primary job is to write. If she hadn't reminded me of this frequently over the past year, Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts would not be coming out January 6th.
To take my own press with a grain of salt. At first it was kind of fun to read all about my bad self in the press and to discover the many nice things (and not so nice) said about me and my novel. There were times during the year, though, when I felt like the newspaper and magazine interviews written about me seemed like they were actually written about someone else--someone who was way more together than I actually am. The truth is that I procrastinate, lose stuff, say regrettable things, get perfectly silly after two beers and get very nervous when I have to get up and talk in front of a room full of people. I am the same person I was before I had a book contract.
As a writer, I have very little control over how many of my books are sold. Many other writers will disagree with this statement, and that's just fine. I know writers who have done end-runs around dilatory marketing departments and gotten themselves into big-box stores. I know writers who carry boxes and boxes of their books in their car trunks and hand-sell them everywhere and spend the rest of their waking hours doing online promotion. Sometimes these things work. Mostly they just sound exhausting to me. There are limits to what writers can and should do, and those limits will vary from writer to writer. The most important thing is to write the best book one can.
The only person who really, truly cares about a writer's career is, well, the writer. There is always another writer waiting in the wings, someone who has written something just as good--or even better. And so writers must do what they reasonably can to construct their own careers and not whine when they think they are being treated badly. There are no Svengalis to take blossoming writers in hand and lead them to commercial success. To borrow an old EST Training phrase: You are responsible for your own career experience! I've had to decide what my own idea of success is and pursue it, rather than use someone else's definition.
Publishers don't have a magic formula to sell books, either. This was a big surprise to me. Yes, co-op money will get a book better face time in the bookstore with potential buyers. Yes, a good gimmick or timely topic will sometimes get a writer on the Today Show. But there are never guarantees. There are many highly-touted books that end up in remainder bins, to the dismay of both writers and publishers. (If you see my book in a bin for cheap money, buy it! Even cheap hardcovers last a long time and make wonderful gifts. Those pesky red stickers peel right off! But, uh, please don't drop me an email to tell me you saw it there. It stings. Just a little.) It's good to keep in mind that publishing houses are corporations and corporations need to consistently improve their bottom lines. They are not thoughtful caretaking entities. From writing to promoting, they will take every bit of energy a writer has to offer--and it's nothing personal.
Most bestselling writers deserve to be bestselling writers because they work at it all the time. I have met many amazing, successful writers in the past year. They are some of the hardest working people I've met in my life. They are generous to a fault and often put their work ahead of nearly every other personal consideration. And they never whine. Well, almost never--they're only human.
It's foolish to be jealous of other writers. I watched with horror as my publisher devoted more resources to other writers' books than they did to mine when it came out. Sometimes I pouted about it, but soon realized that my distress was only costing me time and energy better spent working. My religious training came in handy here: there's a parable in the Bible about the owner of a vineyard who, in the morning, hired a number of workers at a given day rate. Later in the day, he gave late-arriving workers the same pay that he gave the first workers even though the latecomers only worked for an hour or two. When the first workers complained, the owner said, "Didn't you agree to work for that rate?" He was the owner and he could pay whatever he wanted. Every writer has to make his or her best deal and live with it.
Publicists are worked to death. Be nice to them. Remember to say, "thank you."
It's not necessarily a good idea to hire an outside publicist for one's first book. They're way too expensive to make a real difference nationally, but are often useful in smaller markets. I didn't do this, but asked a lot of people because I thought about doing it.
I have to stay away from my Amazon and Barnes and Noble pages. The fluctuating numbers there are like some kind of dangerous drug. They thrill me then break my heart--all in the space of any given twenty minutes. Too stressful!
If one believes the good reviews, one has to believe the bad reviews, too. Just a fact of life. A few reviews of Isabella Moon were unbelievably cruel and they wounded me deeply. Others made me unreasonably happy. I read way too many of them (though I was amazed and pleased seeing how many of them were out there) and even sought them out. Many times I lost confidence in myself and in my writing because they affected me so profoundly. Reading one's reviews really is a bad idea. But I'll probably continue to do it anyway.
Book tours are a whole lot of fun, but not particularly glamorous. I love, love, love meeting readers and book groups and bookstore staff. There are few things more gratifying than walking into a bookstore and connecting with someone who is excited about my work. Sometimes signings can be quite lonely affairs for the author (I've discovered that this happens to well-known writers, too.) and won't meet anyone's expectations. It's hard when that happens. And it's a challenge to sleep in a different hotel bed each night and an even bigger challenge to not to indulge in the small, dangerous comforts of vending machine donuts and delivery pizza when one gets back to one's hotel room. But there was that moment when I walked into my spartan Roanoke, VA Hampton Inn room to see that my frequent-guest status meant that I got a bottle of water and a pack of Oreos!
Oh, and pack light. Always. I schlepped a lot of heavy suitcases through airports and hotel hallways. I always regretted overpacking. I got better at packing light as the year went on. I only took five pairs of shoes to New York for Thrillerfest--down from eight the year before.
Independent bookstores are filled with wonderful people who care about books--but the big stores are, too. I always feel so at home at an independent bookstore. When I was in Denver for Left Coast Crime last year, I visited Murder by the Book, one of the coziest, most welcoming bookstores in the country. I wish I could have spent the whole day there just browsing and reading and chatting about mystery books with the owner. I've heard many writers and readers complain about big stores simply because the stores are attached to large corporations. But most of the people who work in them love books just as much as the folks who work at independents do. I'm grateful for all of them!
Conferences are a heck of a lot of fun. Community is important. If you're a reader or an emerging writer (or both), take some time to attend a conference. It's a wonderful way to get out from behind the computer and meet people and talk about books. Writing is a necessarily solitary pursuit, but it's good to get out sometimes. Book publishing is an industry, just like health care, manufacturing, etc. and networking is important. (Hint: all the meaningful business is done in the bar after all the panels!)
My favorite live interviews are radio interviews. Television interviews scare me. I could sit and talk into a radio microphone all day.
I miss my family when I'm away from them. A lot.
I spent a too much time worrying about marketing my work this past year, and not enough time writing. While I did finish my second novel, Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts, this year, I'm glad I got a start on it the spring before Isabella Moon came out, or I never would have made my deadline. I'm better organized now.
Online social networking is a distraction. I'm on Myspace and Facebook. I dropped Twitter because it distracted me from writing. I love meeting new people online, but I would get much more writing done if I spent less time socializing. And, in the end, that's how I got to have a debut year in the first place.
I wouldn't give up my blog for anything. It's my link to the outside world, the best way for me to communicate what's on my mind on a daily basis.
The last year was an astonishing adventure. Dream after dream came true for me. Finally--after many years of writing--I was able to come in close contact with the people I was writing for. I'm very grateful whenever someone takes the time to read my work. If I had it to do all over again, I think that the only thing I would do differently is to spend a couple extra days in Alaska (after the Bouchercon Conference) to see the sights. I feel a little cheated that I didn't even see a moose!