Category Archives: Guest Blogger

The Case of the Mysterious ¶ or Things Your Creative Writing Instructor Never Told You

GORDON AALBORG

Once upon a time, long ago and far away, I taught creative writing despite believing then (and now) that creative writing cannot be taught. So I’m a hypocrite. And since we’re being honest here, (aren’t we?) I’ll admit it was a course in writing the romantic novel, something I’d done a lot of in those days. I needed the money, or at least the strokes, so I taught the course. And occasionally I got lucky.J

This was back in the early days of PCs, long before the evolution of e-books and POD and websites and blogs, and what I’m leading up to here with such bodice-ripping, breath-quickening suspense is that if I were to do it today, I would do it differently. And this is why.

First, because creative writing cannot be taught. It’s possible to teach grammar and it’s possible to teach structure, but creative writing—in my semantics—is storytelling and storytelling isn’t something you learn; it’s an ability one has. It’s a gift, albeit a gift that comes from exposure to stories and exposure to the love of stories and storytelling. I do not know of a storyteller who wasn’t thus exposed at a young and tender age, either by a parent or grandparent or teacher who also loved stories. I could quote Alfred Noyes’ "The Highwayman" chapter and verse before I could walk, because it was read to me in my cradle. But I digress.

The other—and more important—reason I’d change the course is that storytelling itself has changed so much, thanks (and sometimes no thanks) to technology. Not the form … but the function. Today’s aspiring writer is better off taking a course in computer sciences, or MS WORD for Beginners than creative writing.

Today, as all too many of us know (sometimes to our horror and loathing) just writing the story isn’t enough. To be a storyteller in the 21st century, you must also be a marketing expert, a promotions expert, and a publicist. Being young and good-looking doesn’t hurt, either. But—and this is the worst part—you may need to be a computer expert and a specialist in formatting manuscripts.

Because everybody in charge of determining whether the world actually reads your story seems to want things formatted differently. Truth! In far too many cases these days, a ms that isn’t formatted properly according to the publisher’s own unique, esoteric style guide risks rejection for that sin alone. And most of the time they won’t tell you ahead of the game what they do want!

Doesn’t matter how great the story. Doesn’t matter how vivid the writing, how compelling the characters. Wrong line spacing—Phfttt! Wrong font or font size—Phfttt! One space between sentences when they want two, or two spaces when they want one—Phfttt!

Bloody oath! I used to think things were tough when all the romance editors were twenty-six-year-old virgins hoping to learn something from the slush pile (a situation that hasn’t changed much, I sometimes think J).

And the problem for us as storytellers is that too many of us know as little about our computers as the aforesaid romance editors know about sex.

Which leads us to the elusive, mysterious ¶.

It’s called a Pilcrow Sign, and you should have one somewhere on your computer’s toolbar. What it does is turn on/off your ability to see on your screen the word spacing and letter spacing and indenting and paragraphing you use.

Here’s how you find it: Click on ToolsOptionsFormatting marks and make sure "all" is ticked.

Confession: I am being situation specific here. MS WORD has this facility; I do not know if other word-processing systems do, but if they don’t, they should.

And yes, Matilda, I know there are those of you who use WordPerfect and all manner of other esoteric word-processing packages, but the industry standard (if such animal exists) is MS WORD, just as the defacto font is Times New Roman 12-point with one-inch margins all-round and when you submit electronically things (usually) go best if your submission is in rich text format. Right or wrong, that’s the way things are and we have to accept them or go mad more quickly than we already are.

So: Consider your computer’s tool bar for a moment. More than a moment, actually—take some time to learn how the damned thing works. Because I know of at least one publisher who is demanding that authors (after acquisition, which usually means after the meager advance has already been spent!) format their manuscripts to specific settings, and if one publisher embarks on such a nonsense course and survives, others will be doing it before the waves of author outrage strike the already-rocky beach. Count on it. And weep.

You’re a survivor of the typewriter era and still have the habit of drumming your thumbs on the space bar? Don’t worry about dating yourself, just STOP IT BEFORE YOU GO BLIND. Failing that, check your ms before submission and the ¶ Pilcrow Sign will show you where you’ve stuck in spaces that shouldn’t be there. The first time my own transgressions were revealed to me by this handy gizmo, I nearly swooned from the shame, but we needn’t discuss that. So, moving on…

You want a half-inch indent but you don’t want "tabs" (because most electronic publishing types don’t want tabs, as such, in manuscripts)? Easiest is to set up your ms in the first place by clicking FormatParagraphIndentationFirst line … by .5" or whatever amount you want the automatic indentation to be.

It’s a bit trickier if you’re trying to change a ms that’s been tabbed through all 677 pages, but it can be done. First use "Find/Replace to get rid of the tabs, (see "More" and "Special" within that facility) and then reformat.

There are all manner of interesting features that can be accessed via your tool bar—CHECK THEM OUT. Pick a manuscript that doesn’t matter, or make a copy and play with that.

Hint: Under the vast majority of circumstances, the use of weird’n’wonderful fonts, font sizes and the like in your ms is folly. Might as well brand AMATEUR on your forehead and stamp it on your letterhead. Stick to a single font and size and whether you choose to double-space between sentences or not, at least be consistent!

So when you set up to begin your next epic—check out your tool bar. See how you can format your ms properly from the start. Find out how your computer works. Don’t be afraid of the damned thing … take control! Your computer is just a tool like that of any other tradesman and it is good for a tradesman to know his tools, understand them, even (dare I suggest this?) love them.

A writer in love with his computer … now there’s a tale…

Gordocolor_1 www.gordonaalborg.com

Gordon Aalborg is the author of THE SPECIALIST (A Five Star Mystery, 2004) and a plethora of category romance. He does NOT love his computer, but he does love storytelling.

Going Hollywood

It is my honor to welcome a phenomenal writer, friend, and all around great guy to guest blog today. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you…

Paul Guyot!!

I
can’t write.

I
want to write, but I can’t. I woke up, showered, dressed, went straight to the
office, fired up the Mac, and then nothing.

Everything’s
in place, everything’s in order, all systems go.

But
the words won’t come.

Mind
you, this is not writer’s block. First, I don’t believe in writer’s block, but
secondly, that thing people call writer’s block is when you’re actively inside
your story, trying to come up with the next scene, or next line of dialogue, or
the denouement, and you’re stuck.

Writer’s
block is NOT sitting in front of your keyboard and doing nothing.

I
haven’t even opened my screenwriting program.

Oh,
yeah. By the way, I’m a screenwriter. Television. I’m supposed to be writing a
pilot (for a new one-hour drama series) for Sony Pictures Television.

But
I’m not. Because I can’t write.

Can’t.
Is that accurate? No. More like – I am not writing. I mean, it’s not like I’ve
lost feeling in my fingers, nor have I gouged my eyes out upon seeing Joe
Konrath and a canine from Berlin. No. I’m just not doing it.

I
am not writing.

My
wife thinks I’m writing. Or I should say working. Because I have made it very
clear to her that I’m working even when it appears I’m not.

I
will take Burton Rascoe’s quote to my grave. I’m paraphrasing, but it’s
basically, “What no spouse of a writer will ever understand is that when the
writer is sitting, staring out the window, he or she is actually working.”

But
I’m not working. I’m not staring out the window. I’m staring at this very nice
fifteen inch screen.

I
am not writing.

What
is it that causes this? Why do some writers not write? I’m sure there’s dozens,
if not hundreds of theories. No, probably just dozens. But most of them are
excuses created by non-writing writers to feel better about themselves.

I
am not writing for one reason. I am not disciplined.

Discipline.
The single greatest asset a writer can own. Better than talent, better than
imagination, better than anything.

If
you have discipline, you are light-years ahead of anyone trying to write
without discipline. It is no coincidence that the best writers I know – both
prose and screen – are also some of the most disciplined.

And
it’s no coincidence that the majority of people I know who have yet to taste
any real success as a writer lack discipline. And most of them don’t even know
it.

Discipline.
Stephen J. Cannell, of TV and multiple novels, is disciplined. Up at 4:30am
EVERY day, works out for an hour to an hour, showers, eats and WRITES. Every
day.

Sheldon
Turner, one of the “hottest” screenwriters working in Hollywood, is up at
3:57am every day. Yes, 3:57. Like the gun. He writes for ninety minutes, then
works out for an hour, then back to the keyboard. Every day.

Ridley
Pearson, Nora Roberts, Michael Connelly, John Grisham. Disciplined. I was going
to write “extremely disciplined,” but realized that is wrong. There are no
levels of discipline. You are or you aren’t. It is black and white, despite
what your ego may be telling you.

And
it’s not simply sitting in front of the keyboard every day. I do that and I
have the discipline of a six-week-old Irish Setter. It’s getting up at the same
time every day, and doing the same thing every day. A job. Sometimes I’m at my
keyboard at seven, sometimes eighty-thirty (like today), or sometimes nine or
even ten. If I did that at a regular job, I’d be fired.

I
should fire myself.

If
I were disciplined, I would have already finished that novel I’ve been
blathering about for three years. Three years. How embarrassing. If I were disciplined,
I would have finished the two film scripts I’ve “started.”

But
I’m not.

What
I am is lucky. Very lucky. To have made a reasonable success of myself without
discipline. Sure it can be done, but it will always bite you in that writer’s
ass you’re sitting on.

My
ass is being bitten right now. And not in a good way. My lack of discipline is
not only keeping me from writing today, but its domino effect on my entire
process is awful. Because my deadline doesn’t care. It continues toward me.
Like a freight train. And losing one day of writing means that when I do turn
in my pilot, it will not be as good as it could be. Because I lost roughly six
or seven hours that could have, most likely would have, been spent making the
thing better.

And
this isn’t the first day I have not written. Because I lack discipline, this is
one of many, many days in my writing career that have been spent not writing.
Not staring out the window working, those days count as writing days. I mean
simply not doing anything.

I
hurt myself. I hurt my family. By not being disciplined. So, I’m trying to fix
it. Right now. This very second.

See,
I’m writing this because, one, I love JT and would do anything for her. But
also because I’m trying to jumpstart myself. Get my bitten ass in gear. Because
writing something, anything, is better than not writing.

I
urge any of you reading this, pros or amateurs, to get disciplined. Force
yourself to learn discipline. Do whatever it takes. I’m trying. Believe it or
not, I am much more disciplined now than I have ever been.

I’m
writing more now than ever. This year I’ve written four short stories. Not just
bullshit stuff – they’ll all be published – two online, two in anthologies. I
also wrote the first draft of this pilot, and five drafts of the outline.

Five.
Freaking. Drafts. Of an outline.
Those of you that deal only with editors and publishers – trust me, when you
hit your knees tonight, thank your God that you don’t have to endure the seed
of Satan known as the studio executive. But that’s for another post, another
non-writing day.

So,
for six and half months, that ain’t bad body of work. For me, that is. For
Connelly or Cannell, it’s about a week’s work.

Forgive
the stream-of-consciousness of this post. But as stated, I’m trying to work
through some heavy shit, people.

You
– right this very second – are getting a look inside the mind of a professional
writer. Not necessarily a very good one, but someone who gets paid lots of
dough for putting words to paper. And it’s a mess, isn’t it? If I knew you were
coming, I would have picked up a little.

But
yes, right now, you are in my mind, as I try and write my way out of this pit.
I literally have no idea what the next sentence will be – I’m just writing, so
as to keep from not writing. Because if you’re not writing what you should be,
then write something. Don’t check email, don’t read blogs, don’t download
Filipino bird porn. . . write. Anything.

I
have no idea how long this post will be. JT may find it so boring that she
edits sixty percent of it, and you may not even be reading this sentence right
now. But a writer is like a shark – if we stop moving, we drown.

Always.
Be. Writing.

I
must keep typing. It’s all muscle memory, like working out or anything else.
If, IF, you get disciplined enough where you write, not just every day, but AT
THE SAME TIME EVERY DAY, then it comes much easier. A disciplined writer does
not encounter days like I’m having. If you think you’re disciplined, but still
have days where you don’t write – guess what? You ain’t disciplined.

Want
to be a good, successful writer? Do this:

1.
Learn how to write. Meaning, learn all the rules of writing – so you will be
able to intelligently break them later.

2.
Get disciplined. I have no idea if this can be learned or not. I’m inching my
way there, year by year. If I do learn discipline, I will let you know it can
be done.

Now,
unfortunately, I know there are some of you out there who only care about the
“successful” part, and not the “good” part. Well, you’re in luck. As the
shelves at Barnes & Noble can attest, you don’t have to be good to be
successful.

But
you do have to be disciplined. So, for you folks, skip the learning how to
write part, and just get disciplined.

Oh.

I
almost had it. There was a pause of maybe thirty seconds or so between that
last sentence and “Oh.” I was almost out of it, almost ready to open my
screenwriting program.

But
it didn’t happen.

I’m
still here. You better put a pot of coffee on, grab your fuzzy slippers, and
order some kung pao, cuz we may be here a while. Let’s check back in with my
mind.

Right
now I’m actively trying to think about my pilot. Even as I type this. I’m
thinking about my characters and where I left them. Thinking about what comes
next for them. If I can get my head inside their heads, I’ll be good to go.

Some
of you who know me may be wondering where my music is in all this. Why not
crank the pilot’s playlist on your iPod and go? Yeah, well, I haven’t. Not one
note so far today. Why? Because I’m not disciplined. If I were, I would sat
down, opened up iTunes, and started writing.

But
I didn’t. I couldn’t do anything associated with writing this morning. Or, I
should say, I chose not to do anything. Like turn my music on.

Okay,
I’m going to try it. After this sentence I will go and open my iTunes.

Okay,
there. Bad Company by Bad Company is
playing now. The working title for my pilot is BAD COMPANY. Let me know what
you think of that title – because the studio execs hate it. Are they correct?
I’m too close to tell.

All
right, I’m just about where I need to be. Take heart – this is almost over. I
can feel it. If you’re thinking I should have put the music on hours ago, well,
like I said, lack of discipline.

Bad Company,
and I can’t deny. . . Bad Company, till
the day I die. . . till the day I die.

Thanks
for hanging with me through this. Thanks to JT and all at Murderati.

Be
disciplined, people. It will make your lives much easier. Trust me.

Write
well.

Anatomy of a Murder

Please welcome Guest Blogger Dylan Schaffer to Murderati!

The only serious disagreement I’ve had with my publisher in
the past five years related to whether the bio on the back of my first book
ought to refer to one of my particularly infamous cases (along with writing
books, I’m a criminal appellate lawyer). Although Peterson and Jackson and
others have since occupied the center stage, for more than a year my client,
Marjorie Knoller, was the nation’s leading villain. Knoller was the resident of
a fancy San Francisco apartment building. One day she left her apartment with
two enormous dogs; the animals got loose, and one killed a neighbor.

Knoller was charged with murder. Other lawyers represented
Knoller at trial and she was convicted. I (and my colleagues) took over the
case and convinced the judge who’d presided over the trial to toss out the
murder charge. Knoller was left with a manslaughter conviction and a four-year
sentence, which she served. (To see what a lawyer and his client look like
moments after a judge throws out a murder conviction, go here.)

Publisher was perfectly happy to publicize my books by
referring to other high-profile cases I’ve worked on involving rather unsavory
types–the Gambino family, a very sweet elderly lady who buried nine bodies in
the small backyard of her seedy Sacramento boarding house. But publisher felt
strongly that while the Knoller case might draw attention, it would also make
people hate me. Because it was my first book, and I knew next to nothing about
the business, I conceded the point. But if I had it to do over again, I’d
insist.

In an attempt to avoid precisely the fate my publisher
feared, let me be clear: the victim in the case died in a horrible, appalling
manner, and it’s not at all hard to see why the public was enraged at my
client: if you know anything about the case, you know that she acted
unbelievably irresponsibly in taking the dogs walking by herself, when she
quite clearly could not control them. Also, the dogs were owned by neo-Nazi state
prisoners, with whom Knoller (a Jew) and her husband had inexplicably close
relations, and the animals seemed to be raised for the purpose of protecting
narcotics operations or other nefarious activity. Perhaps most importantly,
after a dog in her possession attacked and killed a young woman, Knoller and
her husband displayed a stunning lack of contrition. It was hardly surprising
when the trial court judge later told the Knollers that they were “the most
hated people in San Francisco.”

Nevertheless, I am enormously proud of the work I did on the
Knoller case. That is so because (a) my client was factually innocent of the
charged crime and (b) the case and the result serves as a very effective
teaching tool. The lesson is simple: there may be a body, and there may be a
person who, from a lay perspective, seems responsible for the body; but there may
not
be a murder.

(If you’re a real student of the case, then you know that
the result in the trial court was reversed by the Court of Appeal, and is now
under review by the California Supreme Court. I am confident the high court
will reinstate the trial court’s ruling, which is discussed below. Then again,
I could be wrong. In any case, the discussion that follows assumes my
colleagues and I are right on the law.)

Our books tend to be about bodies and the people responsible
for them. But there is widespread misunderstanding of the law of murder. This
is true in some very good books, I’m afraid. And I hope it won’t come as too
great a shock to learn that Law & Order has massacred the law of
homicide beyond recognition.

So, because dear Elaine has fled for the moment, and, in a
moment of profoundly dubious judgment, left me to fill her unfillable shoes,
and because the name of this here blog is Murderati, I thought I’d do a
quick primer. After you read the following, you’ll be better equipped to
discuss and/or write about the subject of murder than most criminal lawyers and
many writers of legal thrillers.

A corpse is tangible–you can touch it, smell it,
dissect it. It’s a real thing. A homicide exists at a considerably
higher level of abstraction, although even the writers on Law & Order would
correctly say that when a human being causes the death of another human being,
a homicide has occurred. But you can see where questions might pop up–for
example, what does cause mean? Knoller didn’t pull a trigger, so did she
really commit a homicide? In the end, though, the existence of what is clearly
a homicide–say, a gun to head killing–has no legal significance at all. You
can’t be convicted of homicide. The crime is murder.

But murder does not exist. The dictionary says murder
is the “unlawful killing of a human by another,” but that’s wrong, wrong,
wrong. In fact, as I’ll describe below, it’s wrong in precisely the way the
prosecutor and jurors got it wrong in the Knoller case. If a character in a
book you’re reading (or writing) says, “she murdered her husband”, I hope, now,
alarm bells will go off. The statement means nothing.

Truth is, murder is whatever we, or, more accurately, our
elected representatives say it is. (To make things simple, I’ll focus on
California; but while other states and the feds sometimes use different
terminology, the rules are usually very similar.) Murder is a statutory
wrapping around a concomitance of two things: certain kinds of conduct (say actus
reas
and the judge will be impressed) and certain sorts of intent (or mens
rea
). It’s just our way of saying that if you do X act, and you possess Y
intent, you will be punished according to rules set for in the California Penal
Code. If tomorrow the legislature decided to change the meaning of X and Y, or
if the California Supreme Court issued an opinion interpreting X or Y in a new
way, the meaning of murder would (and often does) change.

As of this writing, here’s how it works. Murder is defined
as the “killing of a human (or a fetus) with malice aforethought.” Immediately
we have reference to both X (conduct) and Y (intent)–X, you have to kill
someone; and Y, you have to do so with a particular sort of intent we call malice.

X is easy. You picked up the gun, you aimed, you fired, the
shot hit your target and the target died of trauma caused by the gunshot wound.

Y is not so easy. Malice is no more tangible than murder.
And there are hundreds of opinions discussing it, many of which disagree. But
there are some things we know. First, there are two kinds of malice: express
and implied. Express malice is easy to describe: if you intend to
kill someone, you have express malice.

(In California, there are two degrees of murder.
First-degree murder is simply X + Y
(where Y is express malice) + one additional element: the killing has to have
been the product of premeditation and deliberation. So, how are those defined?
Actually, that’s kind of a complicated question, and I think I’ll wait until
Elaine asks me back–yeah, right–to get into that. Suffice to say that if you
plan to kill someone, and you kill them, then you’re guilty of first degree
murder. And if you plan to kill, and you kill, and you kill under one of a
number of special circumstances detailed in the Penal Code–for example, two or
more victims, or in combination with some other horrid crime like rape or
robbery–then you’re eligible for the death penalty.)

The form of intent known as implied malice is the one
that made such a mess in the Knoller case. Here’s a clear example of an implied
malice killing: say I go out on New Years eve with a loaded gun and shoot
through the front window of a house crowded with revelers, and say I kill someone.
But let’s also say, as a matter of fact, that I didn’t intend to kill anyone; I
just thought it would be fun to empty my .9mm into a crowded residence.

In this case it’s not possible to say I intended to
kill anyone, so I don’t have express malice. But the legislature would like to
avoid morons like me firing at crowded houses, so they say that even if you
don’t intend to kill someone, if you do something you know has a high
probability of leading to the death of a human being, and your conduct in fact does
result in a death, then we don’t care about your lack of intent. We’re going to
punish you just as severely as someone who intends to kill.

In accordance with the statutory scheme, juries in implied
malice cases are told that to be guilty, the defendant must have “(a) intentionally committed an act; (b) the
natural consequences of the act were dangerous to human life; (c) the defendant
must have known the act was dangerous to human life; and (d) deliberately acted
with conscious disregard for human life.

So, what happened in Knoller? The prosecution in that case
conceded from the outset that my client never intended to kill anyone. So in
order to convict her of murder it had to rely on an implied malice theory. And
now you know that means it had to prove not only that her conduct resulted in a
death, but also that she knew her conduct had a high probability of
leading to such a death and didn’t adjust her behavior. The DA had to convince
the jurors that leaving her apartment with the dogs was the same as shooting
into a house filled with people.

The prosecution offered plenty of evidence that Knoller knew
the dogs were dangerous: in the weeks Knoller and her husband had the dogs the
animals snapped and growled at various people, they lunged repeatedly, and they
had once killed two animals on a farm. One of the dogs bit Knoller’s husband on
the hand when he tried to break up a dogfight.

Given this evidence, the DA could easily make the argument
that Knoller was on notice that the dogs would snap, growl, lunge or bite. But
the state produced no evidence at all that Knoller knew the dogs would kill
a human being. And as you now know, because you’re an expert on the law
of murder, Knoller could not have been guilty unless she knew her conduct was
dangerous to human life and acted in deliberate disregard for that
danger. Amazingly, the prosecution’s own expert testified that instances of
dogs killing people are so extraordinarily rare, that as statistical matter,
dogs don’t kill people. Therefore, Knoller could not have predicted her dog
would kill because (a) her dog had never killed and (b) dogs, unlike guns fired
into houses, don’t kill.

When the judge threw out the murder conviction based on
precisely this reasoning, the prosecutor fumed that the court had ignored the
will of the jury, which had convicted Knoller of murder. The problem with this
argument, as the DA well knew, is that the jury had been lied to about the true
nature of implied malice (an error you would never permit given your newfound knowledge
of murder law). Basically, during the trial, the DA convinced the court to tell
the jurors that if Knoller knew that the dogs were capable of causing serious
bodily injury
, then she had implied malice. But eventually the court saw
that it had been wrong. Injury is not enough; to be a murderer, Knoller had to
have known that the dogs would kill. She couldn’t have, and didn’t.

Once again, so I don’t spend the rest of the summer getting
flamed and fighting off horrified e-mails, I’m not saying Knoller was a
conscientious dog owner, or a nice person, or that the victim did not die an
entirely undeserved, savage death. My point is just this: there was a corpse.
There was a homicide–Knoller didn’t pull the trigger, but she took dogs out
into public she knew might snap, lunge or bite, and so it’s clear she caused
the victim’s death. And there was (as the foregoing dictionary definition
suggests) the unlawful killing of a human being. But there was no murder.

Dylan Schaffer writes the Misdemeanor Man series. His new
book, Life, Death & Bialys: A Father/Son Baking Story, is about life,
death, bialys, fathers, sons, and baking. It arrives in September. Dylan also blogs and globs, stop by and say hello.

Welcome Guest Blogger P.J. Parrish

By P.J. Parrish

It
hit me the other day – as I was watching that cheesy old Clint Eastwood movie
“The Eiger Sanction” – that publishing is all about mountain climbing. And we are all on different parts of the
mountain, hanging on by our Lee’s Press-Ons, digging for whatever footholds we
can find on what seems like an increasingly icy slope.

Bear
with me here, I used up all the good metaphors on the just-finished book).

Now,
I’ve never climbed a real mountain, but a friend who has tells me that you need
stamina, skills and guts. I’d like to add something – ingenuity.

Eiger_sanction_1
I
know those of you who are just starting out don’t want to hear this, but here
goes: It is damn hard to get published. But it is even harder these days to stay published.

You
think it’s easy to climb Mount Everest? Wait until you have to camp on it.

When
you’re first trying to get published, it’s like you’re standing at the bottom
of this towering mountain. It all looks so intimidating but still exciting and
you’re dizzy with the possibilities.

But
damn, it’s perilous. One false move, and you can have what my climber friend
calls a “zipper fall.” This is a fall of such length and velocity that the
climber’s protective devices are ripped from the rock in rapid succession. AKA:
Your publisher went bankrupt, your agent disappeared into the witness
protection program, your C-drive crashed, and the manuscript you’ve been
working on for ten years, “The Rembrandt Rubic” just came out with Dan Brown’s
name on it.

But
most us who are climbing the mountain will experience something less dramatic.
We will simply hit a plateau and find ourselves stranded on some cold, windy
tor. Maybe this has already happened to you.

Maybe
it is because, after climbing for so long, you’ve just run out of gas in the
ever-thinning air. You might have starred reviews in PW and window display in
Black Orchid. You snagged an award or two. Hell, even Kirkus likes you. But you
just can’t seem to get any higher. You are stuck on Midlist Mountain.

What
do you do? Two choices: Sit there and freeze your ass off or find a way to
reinvent yourself and get moving again.

I’ve
been thinking a lot about the extremes authors go to to survive these days. I
am involved in the Mystery Writer of America’s mentor program and have been
trying to help a writer who was on a fast track, lost her footing and went into
a free fall. Her first novel was named to PW’s Best Books of the Year list, she
had great reviews and name-in-lights promises from her Big Name Publisher. They
gave her a huge print run. You can guess what happened: her sell-through was
abysmal because, let’s face it, not a lot of readers are going to shell out $25
for an unknown. And now, her name is “poison” because whenever the buyer at
B&N punches it into a computer, the bad numbers come up.

None
of this was her fault. I read the book and it’s terrific. But her publisher, by
overprinting a debut, set her up for failure. So now she is trying to climb
back out of the crevasse.

So
how does she get around this numbers game? She could take a page from some of
the strategies other authors are using to keep ascending the mountain:

1. THE DEBUT REDUX: So you’ve got four
or five books out there and you’re doing okay. But your sherpa agent says he’s
taken you as high as he can. The new attack: You come up with a new name and go
out as a “first-time” author. Your name isn’t in any bookstore computer, so you
have a blank slate. Take the case of Lisa Unger. The author of the April
release “Beautiful Lies” got starred reviews in PW and Booklist, the latter
saying: “An outstanding debut…Unless readers scan the biographical
information first, they will never guess that Unger is a first novelist.” Well,
she’s not. Lisa Unger is Lisa Miscione, who wrote five fine books featuring New
York crime writer Lydia Strong. Do I begrudge the author this strategy? Hell
no. Lisa Unger nee Miscione is now a New York Times bestseller. She’s not
sitting on her butt in the cold anymore, folks.

2. THE NOM DE GUERRE: Many authors have
gone this route, starting a new series under a new pen name. Reed Farrel
Coleman, whose “The James Deans” has been shortlisted for the Edgar, Macavity
and Shamus this year, has a new book coming out this October called “Hose
Monkey” written under the name Tony Spinosa. It’s third-person POV to his usual
first, and he calls it “grittier, sexier, harder edge.”

He
tells me, “I did it under a pen name just to create some buzz and some
separation from the Moe Prager books. It’s kind of a lark. However, there are legitimate reasons to do series
under a pen name. I think publishers are almost more comfortable with a blank
slate than they are with numbers that might be okay but below
expectations. It’s easier for
publishers to sell unknowns to Borders and Barnes and Noble. By using a pen
name, you take history out of the equation. Do I wish things were different? Of course, but wishing never counted
for anything in this world.”

3. THE PAPERBACK TRAIL. This strategy
is suddenly hot in New York, with publishers taking their hardcover midlisters
“back” to PBO in the hopes of
generating the higher numbers needed to grow a mass market audience. This is
mostly being used with titles by promising — but not yet blockbuster —
authors.

I have several friends traversing this route up the mountain. When Paul
Levine wanted to get back into the novel-writing biz after a stint in Hollywood
(writing mostly "JAG") he found “the publishing industry wasn’t
exactly kicking down my door.” Despite the fact he had eight critically acclaimed
crime novels behind him, he had to sell his new comic courtroom novel “Solomon
vs Lord” on spec. When his editor at Bantam, Kate Miciak, suggested that the
best way to build an audience quickly was in mass market with books published
six or seven months apart, Paul wasn’t happy.

“This
wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear,” he says. “All seven of my Jake Lassiter
novels and one stand-alone were published in hardcover. But I put my ego under
wraps and agreed to a four-book deal with all the paperbacks to be ‘Super Releases’
and Bantam doing ample promotion.”

He’s
happy with the results. "Solomon vs. Lord" (Oct. 2005) did well; "The Deep Blue Alibi"
(Feb. 2006) showed growth; and the outlook seems bright for "Kill All the
Lawyers" (Sept. 2006). Paul says it’s an exhausting schedule, “especially
because I also wrote a pilot for CBS last winter. Now, I’m working on the
fourth book of the Solomon series and, if all goes well, looking forward to
moving into hardcover with the next contract."

And apparently, there’s no loss in quality: “Solomon vs. Lord" is
nominated for both the 2006 Macavity award and the Thurber Humor Award.

Another
example of HC to PBO success: Jim Swain, author of the popular series featuring
casino-crime expert Tony Valentine. With great hardcover reviews and a solid
base of loyal readers already in hand, Jim recently agreed to a book deal that
would make most authors slit their wrists. He is writing two $6.99 paperbacks
that will be released five weeks apart.

"I know a hundred great writers in this field," he told the
Wall Street Journal recently. "The key is reaching readers. You need them
to try you at least once. All the advertising in the world won’t accomplish
anything if a person won’t pick the books up."

Did
Swain’s switch work? Here are some numbers: 150,000 copies of both his PBOs
"Deadman’s Poker" and "Deadman’s Bluff" in print. His
earlier hardcovers have sold 30,000 to 35,000.

I
know what Paul and Jim are talking about when they mention the ego thing. My
own 1999 debut “Dark of the Moon” came out in hardcover. But then a veep took
over who had made her chops in breaking out authors in mass market. So back to
the paperback ghetto I went.

Sure,
I was upset about less prestige and fewer reviews. (But you’d be surprised how
many PBOs DO get reviewed). But I got a tradeoff payoff. My press runs have
steadily increased over seven books. The books are now in outlets like Costco
and Walmart, which are, sad but true, now essential to bestseller success. We
have made the lists of USA Today and even the extended New York Times.

Do
I still yearn for hardcover? You betcha. But I ask myself one question every
day: Would I rather have 25,000 chances to win a new reader or 250,000? Forced
to choose, would I rather be reviewed in the New York Times or be on its
bestseller list?

The
answer is simple. In these tough times, I want to make a living doing what I
love to do, and that’s tell stories. And I want those stories to find readers.

My
climber friend says there’s a slang term called “scuzzing.” It means to gain a
hold on the rock with body parts other than the hands or feet, however tenuous
or aesthetically displeasing.

So here I am, bivouacked with my buds on paperback hill. Some might call
it scuzzing. I call it surviving.

P.J. Parrish is the author of the
critically acclaimed Louis Kincaid series. Her books have been nominated for an
Edgar and three Anthonys. She just received her fourth Shamus nomination this
week.

Slowly and Inexorably

Naomi’s note: I actually met Gary Phillips’ wife, the indomitable Gilda Haas, years before I would lay eyes on Gary Phillips. And before I met Gary, I would meet his books–first VIOLENT SPRING, his first Ivan Monk mystery, published by the now defunct imprint West Coast Crime, which Gary launched with writer John Shannon and a Portland-based publisher. In Gary’s work, I discovered a verve and energy that matched the backdrop of his novels–whether it be post-riot Los Angeles or seedy Las Vegas from the eyes of his other series character, Martha Chainey, a former show girl.

Although committed to his politics, Gary is artistically a bit of a chameleon. He writes crime novels, but he has contributed much to the body of short story literature, editing COCAINE CHRONICLES for Akashic and writing short stories for a number of anthologies, including most recently DUBLIN NOIR and a YA poker-themed anthology edited by National Book award winner Pete Hautman. Gary’s written a graphic novel for Dark Horse Comics called CULPRITS and is doing another one for Oni Comics, a murder mystery called the PROMISE OF NIGHT set in post-World War II Paris in the jazz scene. An article in the July/August Black Issues Book Review–on the stands now–mentions the Angeltown miniseries that Gary did for DC Comics last year. He’s also currently co-writing a black surfer mystery screenplay.

So you get the picture? Gary cannot be easily classified. He is also hands-down one of the most professional writers you’ll ever meet. He’s also the first to meet a deadline and the first to show up to a book gig. With Gary serving as toastmaster of the 2007 Left Coast Crime in Seattle, you all will be in for a treat. To whet your appetite, here is Gary Phillips.

GARY PHILLIPS

Slowly and inexorably I’ve been finishing my next mystery novel. I’m not particularly stuck on where the book is going, what changes I want to unfurl about the characters or the resolution of the main plot points. It’s just that novels are too often exercises in delayed gratification between the time you write one and when it’s published. Then there’s the heartbreak if and when your baby sees the light of day, racks up a few decent reviews (or not), and doesn’t exactly burn the house down in terms of sales. In this case, this manuscript isn’t under contract so I’m operating on pure faith here that I can get this bok into the marketplace.

If you’re not selling Dan Brown numbers–okay, that’s setting the bar a wee high isn’t it? Let’s say you’re not selling enough to be on some paper’s or magazine’s bestseller list; the book gets optioned for film and/or some other way that the work is set apart from the rest, it’s tough slogging to sell that next one. Added to that, this one I’m writing is with one of my series characters, private eye Ivan Monk (yes, he had that name years before that chap on cable TV), and editors are loath to pick up a series in mid whatever unless said series was a smoker on the charts.

The sad fact remains that writing is something of a sucker’s bet, the big gamble. You put in all this sweat, sometime for little or no scratch, but what can you do but take your chance on one more spin, one more roll of the dice? It’s in your blood. It’s an addiction that no 12-step program can cure if it’s the thing that keeps you sane. The ideas burn inside your head and you have to do something with them–they can’t be ignored at the peril of your mental and physical well-being.

This gets me back to the "slowly and inexorably" bit. In between writing the book, as there’s no extant deadline for its delivery, I’ve recently written a few short stories and a graphic novel–which is sort of like an extended short story but sort of not.

Writing short stories keeps your writing muscles from atrophying. Sometimes you’re asked to do a short story for a themed anthology–you know, all the stories must be about one-armed dominatrixes who read Focult or set on the day Jerry Lewis was named a genius by the French. Sure you have to wait for the story’s publication like with a novel, but there is an aspect of instant gratification to finishing this little gem.

Now I’m sure some writers find it irritating to be hampered by a theme, and are more charged with their own notions. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that to paraphrase Seinfeld. But I find if I’m intrigued by the theme, that gets me wondering and if I can ask what if this, and what if that, I’m on my way. One of the shorts I’ve done is for a poker-themed anthology for young adults, 12 to 18-year-olds.This seems like a strange span (let alone we’re depicting kids around gambling, I can hear Bill Bennett sharpening his knives now) to me as my young’ins are 17 and 19 and way the heck beyond the sensibilities of a kid who’s 12 (my son is 6’4" and I have to look up at him–jeez). Another is about the Phantom, who celebrates his 70th year of, er, existence. He is the first costumed adventurer in a daily comic strip for a prose anthology from Moonstone, an indie comic book company.

Short stories have their own rhythm and feel. The elements are the same as in the novel, but the punch is delivered quicker. This was emphasized to me recently as I was one of the judges for the Private Eye Writers of America best short story contest. To my surprise, not being of the cozy or soft-boiled school, I came to appreciate more these sort of tales and the various tones set by the writers of the stories we read. Admittedly some of those stories wouldn’t be the kind I’d usually gravitate to if I was merely browsing, but I was glad I did read them all.

Maybe it’s this getting to the pay off quicker that has served short stories well in the film world. "3:10 to Yuma" by Elmore Leonard, "Bad Time at Honda" by Howard Breslin becomes BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, the "Tin Star" by John M. Cunningham becomes HIGH NOON, "The Minority Report" by Philip K. Dick (also "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale" becomes the Governator’s TOTAL RECALL and others), "Rear Window" by Cornell Woolrich and of course "Brokeback Mountain" by Annie Proulx. The Prada-Hugo Boss wearers of Hollywood aren’t known for reading so how better to tell them a story than the short form that delivers the goods in a tight package.

This could be why comic books and graphic novels are making an impact in Dreamland as well. That’s not the reason I write them, I dig this most American bastard form of words and pictures. Decades ago my hope was to write and draw my own comics, but turns out I suck as an artist. Anyway, like a short story, what with the impact of the images, comics have an immediacy that is accessible to this generation of junior execs who read fare like the seminal Watchmen comic book mini-series in college and dug it.

Well, I’ve got a re-write on this graphic novel to get back to so thanks to Naomi for letting me sub for her.

###

Gary’s website is www.gdphillips.com. He’s recently written an Ivan Monk short story entitled the Socratic method available for download from amazon shorts.

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