Category Archives: Robert Gregory Browne

The Mystery of Marketing with Matt Baldacci

I’ve always been curious about the role of the marketing department at the big publishing houses.  And despite a few years in the business, my understanding of marketing is still a bit hazy.  So I asked my friend, marketing guru Matthew Baldacci, VP, Associate Publisher at St. Martin’s Press, to help clear a few things up for me.

Anyone who has met Matt knows he’s an incredibly nice guy who loves books, the publishing business, and is truly supportive of writers.

Rob:  First, tell us a little about your background and how you got into the publishing business.

Matt:  While I was one of those kids who was always reading (mostly at the expense of my homework), it turns out that didn’t lead me to publishing. Instead, it was a letter I wrote to a friend’s father, who was senior tax counsel at Gulf + Western, a huge conglomerate and parent of Simon & Schuster. That letter led to a summer internship, which led to an interview after graduation, which led to a job offer.

At the time, I didn’t realize that I had found an industry in which I could build a career. Twenty years later, I chuckle about my beginning, working in a corporate communications department for the legendary head of S&S, Dick Snyder.

Rob:  What was it like working for Snyder?

Matt:  Obviously, there were a couple of managers between me and him, but after a couple of months, a few pregnancy leaves, and a a couple of people quitting, it was me and one other woman working directly for Dick. Make no mistake, as the legend goes, he was a tough businessman and a demanding boss. But Dick was also very fair, honest with his employees, and generous if you worked hard and did a good job.

Rob:  What is the role of the marketing V.P. and how does that differ from what publicists do?

Matt:  This is a great question, as it is my experience that authors are very confused by these roles. But first a caveat: these marketing and publicity roles differ from house to house.  A very elementary differentiation is that publicists are tasked with getting cost-free exposure and coverage for the author. Marketing personnel have operational responsibilities and are involved in expense-related activities like advertising and paid promotion.

Much of my role is team management and motivation. I’ve got wonderful creative people, and sometimes my major contribution to a promotion is identifying obstacles, and then knocking them out of the way.

Rob:   Are there any genres or types of book that you find difficult to market (in fiction)?

Matt:  Nope Rob, they’re all easy. OK, the actual answer is yes, all genres present their own challenges.

At the moment, for hardcovers, male thrillers are difficult to get reviewed, and difficult to get people excited about. But it all depends on the book – it always comes back to what’s between the covers. If the author has created gold, you can do wonders for the book. If it’s dreck between the covers, as a marketer you might dress it up and create a little splash, but there will be no ripples carrying the book to success.

Rob:  Do you see any hope for male thrillers?

Matt:  Yes, of course. First, as I mentioned, if the book is wonderful, it could be about anything at all, and the marketer can find an audience. But more to the point, there is something going on with eBooks. It may be as simple as the audience for male thrillers includes “gadget guys” who bought Kindles, iPhones, and Sony Readers, but well-reviewed thrillers seem to be a strong category in eBook sales.

Rob:  How does your marketing strategy/approach differ when promoting a new author as opposed to an established one?

Matt:  The key difference is usually found in the galley strategy. A new author needs to be read to find an audience. Blurbs can help if they define comparative authors and thereby identify audience, but every author is unique, and needs to be read to be understood.

Reviewers do like new authors, as it’s always fun to “discover” the next big thing. So the marketing strategy must include a way (a great blurb, a previous distinction or honor for the author, cash with the galley – kidding) to get the reviewers’ attention. For an established author, the challenge is to completely understand what has and what has not worked. The marketer must maximize what has worked, and look for new opportunities to expose the author to new audiences.

Rob:  What’s going on with formats now? Is trade paperback the best? Is mass market declining?

Matt:  The success of various formats is evolving, and I feel safe saying they will continue to evolve. While in 2009, there are significant challenges to the distribution of mass market paperbacks, the format is too proven and practical to disappear. As the economy and distribution partners settle down, mass market should make a comeback.

I think what you’re really asking is what is the best format for thrillers? Right now, buyers and audience are indicating that they like the trade paperback format as a way to read authors’ work initially. This is an issue our industry is going to have to address. I think most publishers will be financially challenged by the margins of producing trade paperback originals.

Rob:  Most readers don’t realize that when they enter a book store that much of what they see in the front of the store is purchased space (coop). How much weight do you give to this practice in marketing fiction? What are the pros and cons?

Matt:  Coop is an essential part of the marketing plan. But like most things, it doesn’t work all by itself. So we put a lot of weight on the importance of coop placement, but it is still only one component of the marketing mix.

As to pros and cons, I’ll start with the negative: it can feel like extortion. The account wants to promote the book and if a publisher declines the promotion, the account could cut the buy (the number of copies they buy initially).

On the other hand, coop promotions can be good ways to get your book in front of the consumer at the time they are making a purchase decision. Another nuance is the idea of customizing promotions for accounts. These types of promotion may be tailored to the account’s own audience, and can really move the needle. The trick in using coop with fiction is to make sure it is only one part of the mix. You need reviews, word of mouth, and general exposure to make the coop placement effective.

Rob:  There’s a lot of talk about the print publishing business being in peril. What are your feelings about this?

I believe the print publishing business is in peril, but I also believe that a smart strategy can lead the industry to future health.

I used to think that the comment about a book being a tactile and efficient device was silly, but I have changed my thinking, and I believe that there genuinely is something extraordinary about the format of a printed book. I have a Kindle, I have a Sony eReader (prefer Sony), and the future of those devices and the myriad others to come is rich and creative.

I believe the printed book will live alongside these delivery devices.

Rob:  With the advent of the Kindle and other reading devices, do you think there will be a time when electronic books dominate the market?

Matt:  Yes, I believe that time is in our future. The potential for content delivery and new revenue models is too rich to be ignored.

Rob:  Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?

Matt:  I don’t love this question. Primarily because every novelist is different, and needs/requires different things. I will say this: every successful novelist has followed his or her own heart and instinct.

There are many wise and experienced people in this industry, and none of them are right all the time, or can even be certain about what is right for any author 100% of the time. This is not to say that a writer is always correct; rather, there are going to be turning points in every author’s career, and it is the task of the writer to identify the important ones, and make the crucial decisions based on their heart and instinct.

———–

Thank you, Matt, for being so generous with your time today.

To Be Made Flesh… Again

Many years ago, when I was still living in Honolulu, I went to a hypnotherapist for what’s known as a past-life regression session.

For those of you who don’t know, such a session is very similar to your typical hypnotic regression, but takes you beyond childhood and into your past lives — all in hopes of helping you find out what happened way back when that may be screwing you up now.

I didn’t, however, undergo this procedure because I was feeling screwed up.  Instead, I was researching an idea for a screenplay and wanted to get some first hand experience.

It was an interesting hour.  I don’t know if I was actually ever under hypnosis — it certainly didn’t feel like it.  But I did find myself seeing visions of a previous life.  Visions that were either real memories or simply figments of my overactive imagination. 

I tend to believe it’s the latter.

If the visions were real, then I was a Southern Belle during The Civil War who lived on a sprawling plantation.  If not, then I have problems that may well need to be addressed by someone with either a degree in psychology or intimate knowledge of the plot to Gone With the Wind.

Reincarnation is a subject that has interested me for many years.  I have no reason to believe it’s possible, but then I have no evidence that it’s hooey, either.  It makes perfect sense to me that we could well be living our lives over and over, in various forms, all in an attempt to finally get it right.

The woman who hypnotized me told me I’m a very old soul and am currently on my last life.  So I guess I’m finally getting it right.

One can only hope.

Reincarnation is one of those subjects that nearly everyone has an opinion about.  There are a ton of books about the subject and probably an equal number of movies and television shows that have addressed it.

While I’ve never approached the writing of a book from a commercial standpoint — that is, creating a plot simply because I think it’s hot and will sell — I have to admit that the idea of plotting a story based on a popular subject like reincarnation was pretty compelling.  Over the years, I’ve found myself so consumed with the phenomenon that I’ve never been able to let go of the story premise that sparked that long ago hypnosis session.  A story premise that goes something like this:

What if a woman discovers that she’s the reincarnated victim of a serial killer — a serial killer who may still be alive?

This creepy notion was the jumping off point for my new book, KILL HER AGAIN, which I’m happy to say was just released in the U.S. yesterday.

KILL HER AGAIN is the story of Anna McBride, a disgraced FBI agent whose life is slowly being destroyed by terrifying visions of a kidnapped little girl.  And while my original premise plays strongly into the story, it really was just a jumping off point.

After pitching the idea to my friend Peggy White a couple years ago, she had one of those “what if” moments that really turned the premise on it’s head and made me realize that it really was time to write this book.  So thank you, Peggy, for helping me make a good idea great.

I’d love to tell you more about the book, but I’ve already given you enough of a spoiler.  And if you’re at all interested in the notion of past lives married to an unrelenting thriller plot, I would be a fool not to urge you to pick up a copy <big grin>.  I’ve been telling everyone it’s a great beach book, and I certainly hope a lot of people will be going to the beach this summer…

Blatant self promotion aside, I’d like to bring this topic around to you, by asking you a few questions.

1. Do you believe in reincarnation?

2.  Who do you think you might have been in a past life?

3.  Who would you like to be in a future life?

And five of you who comment will be chosen at random to win a signed first edition of my debut thriller, KISS HER GOODBYE.  The deadline is midnight tonight, and the winner will be announced on my web page on Friday.

In the meantime, you’re all gonna have to do the right thing and immediately rush out and buy a copy of KILL HER AGAIN.  If not, I may just have to come after you in the next life….

 

Every Day

Our children sometimes forget about us.

When they get to a certain age, they go off to find their way in the world, and their parents (most often their father, who tends to be the more aloof of the two) become something of an afterthought.

I don’t mean this in a negative way. If you’ve done your job right, that afterthought will usually be a good one, a comforting one. But their lives are their own now and your part of it in the day-to-day scheme of things is less important than it once was.

And that’s as it should be.

If we’re good parents, we raise our children to be independent, but always knowing that they can call on us if they’re in trouble, or if they need advice or support. The job of a good parent is, I believe, to provide that support without judgment. Give them the advice they seek, yes, but do it without the color of “I know what’s best for you.”

Because you don’t. What’s “best” for any individual is something they have to figure out on their own. And that includes our children.

If you’re offering advice that they choose to ignore – despite the fact that it was given based on your experience and knowledge and understanding of the world – then you should accept that they’re old enough to make their own decisions and that this may mean making a number of mistakes as well.

I certainly made my share.

Being a parent is full of heartache and joy – mostly joy – but we can’t control our kids forever. And I think that parents who continue to try to lord over their children well after they’ve left the nest, are operating out of selfishness. They want this control because it makes them feel better. Not because it’s necessarily what’s best for their child.

Here’s my approach to parenting: Nurture. Encourage. Support.

But give them space. Don’t second-guess every move they make.

Oh, and worry. Worry plays a big part in being a father. And I do a lot of it. But I usually keep it to myself. I don’t want my irrational – and sometimes rational – fears to impede their growth.

My son graduated from college this past weekend. He’s a smart, sensitive, likeable young man who has spent the last four years searching for his passion and, I think, has finally found it. It’s a passion he had all along, but it’s something he wasn’t sure for all those years that he could turn into a reality. Now that he’s older and has spent some time in the world – even the insular world of college – I think he realizes that he’s in control of his own destiny and has a good shot at making his dreams come true. He has a plan of action mapped out and that has, I think, fueled him to push forward.

But beyond all that, he’s just a good kid. Someone who is, I believe, destined to contribute greatly to the world. And I couldn’t be more proud of him.

My daughter – our first born — has a Master’s degree in education and has just finished her fourth year as an elementary school teacher. My wife and I traveled up the coast with her this past weekend to watch our son graduate, and it’s always nice to spend time with her. She’s intelligent, funny and has one of the quickest wits of anyone I’ve ever known. And despite the fact that she’s been through more heartache in her life than most people her age, she has managed to get through it all with a largely positive attitude and a sense of optimism that I sometimes marvel at.

Her work is her passion. How many people do you know who actually say the words, “I love my job?”

Not many. But she’s one of them. And she’s exceptionally good at what she does. She is, I believe, the model of what every teacher should be. Committed, passionate, talented, creative and tireless.

And I couldn’t be more proud of her.

Whenever I’m with my kids, I see myself in them. The good and the bad, but mostly the good. And there is no greater reward than that.

With Father’s Day coming up this weekend, we’ll do the usual dinner thing, but I think it’s not so important that my children celebrate me as their father.

What the day should be about is me celebrating of my fatherhood. I’m the one who is lucky to have them. I’m the one who is lucky they turned out to be the wonderful children they are.

I probably don’t tell them this enough, but I can’t imagine loving anyone more than I love my kids, even during those times that I’m relegated to the back of their minds.  Even though I no longer control their destiny.

When I look at them, at what they’ve become – and how they continue to grow – my chest tightens and the tears well up and I feel nothing but pure joy.

And every day is Father’s Day for me.

100 Feet of Joy

I had been putting it off for several years.

Not that I was afraid, mind you. Such things don’t really scare me a whole lot. But most of the people I spoke to who had been through it told me that the truly awful part was not even the event itself.

No, they said, it’s the preparation that will kill you.

After Tess’s post yesterday about old coots like me who continue to write and will likely do so until our dying day, I’m thinking that a true sign of old age is when you start talking about your health.

I remember as a teenager listening to my grandmothers talk about this or that ache, this or that procedure, this or that disease, this or that pill.

Now, here I am talking about it, too.

You see, I went for a check-up several months ago and was ordered by my doctor to get a blood test. But I put off the test for one simple reason: it was hugely inconvenient for me to go to the lab and get it done.

What happened to the days when they did that stuff right there in the doctor’s office? I mean, come on. How hard is it to draw some blood?

Anyway, just a little gripe of mine.

So flash forward several months and I finally go to the lab to get the blood test done. I walk into this place and I’m telling you, it’s a low rent, one room office with a desk, a few chairs, a cheerless receptionist making Xerox copies of my medical cards, and a “technician” who draws blood with the same enthusiasm as a kid handing out burgers at the drive-thru.

Maybe less.

The word skeezy comes to mind. Assuming that’s actually a word. Even if it isn’t, it fits, because I was seriously wondering about the needle they used to draw the blood. But I let them do it and hoped I wouldn’t come down with some rare blood disease that would render me blind. Or stupid.

So, a few days later, my doctor’s office calls and the nurse says, “Your tests were all fine, except you’re anemic. The doctor wants you to get a colonoscopy.”

Oh, joy.

But I was overdue. As I said, I’d been putting it off for several years.

A couple weeks later, I went in to see the gastroentronologist and he described the procedure to me, and for those who don’t know, a colonoscopy is basically when the doctor sticks a camera up your ass and takes movies of your colon. All of it. From top to bottom.

But no sweat, right? I’ve known people who have had one, and they all said they were put to sleep. Didn’t feel a thing.

“We won’t be putting you to sleep,” the doctor tells me.

“Say what?”

“You’ll be given a mild sedative that will calm you and make you a little drowsy, but I’d prefer you to be awake so we don’t have to worry that you’ll stop breathing.”

“Say what?”

“Oh, and don’t worry. I very, very rarely puncture the colon wall. My track record is quite good.”

“Say the fuck what?”

That isn’t the conversation verbatim, but that’s pretty much how it felt. But I merely shook off my initial trepidation and figured he must know what he’s doing. I smiled politely as he wrote me a prescription for the prep medicine — something called MoviPrep. It is, I was told, the least offensive of the choices.

Friends had told me that this prep is the worst part. You have to drink a whole boatload of this stuff, then you sit on the john for about six hours and — as Dave Barry pointed out a while back — it’s like the space shuttle taking off from the launch pad, only YOU’RE the space shuttle and the fire is coming out of your ass.

Dave may not have put it so crudely. But it’s early and I haven’t had my coffee yet.

Anyway, I was really not looking forward to prep night. The worst thing, I was told, is that the stuff you have to drink tastes so awful that it’s nearly impossible to choke it down. And you have no choice but to drink it. The doc needs you COMPLETELY cleaned out or he can’t go forward with the procedure.

Finally, prep night came and I dutifully mixed up a liter of MoviPrep and, as instructed, I downed a glass of it every fifteen minutes until it was gone.

And you know what? It wasn’t bad at all. I’ve tasted much worse, believe me. Hell, a gin and tonic tastes worse to me.

So I had no trouble at all downing the liquid other than the simple fact that I felt like a bloated buffalo. The last glass was chugged in one gynormous gulp and I gagged a little toward the end, but a quick mouth rinse and I was fine. It was certainly not even close to being as bad as everyone said it was.

And as nature (or the chemicals) took its course, I kept my little netbook close and actually did some work.

How’s that for a little slice of TMI?

Hehehe.

The next morning, at 4:30 am, I had to drink another liter of the stuff and spend more alone time. Then around noonish, feeling clean as a whistle, it was off to the clinic for my date with destiny.

I wasn’t really nervous. The nurse who took my blood pressure will attest to that. For some reason hospitals and clinics and the like don’t really scare me. I figure I’m there for something that could potentially save my life, so what’s to be nervous about?

They hooked me up to an IV to hydrate me a bit, then I waited for an hour. Largely because the doctor had some complications with the guy before me. Turns out they found a very large polyp and it took them awhile to excise it. From the way they spoke to the man’s wife, you’d think it was the size of a golf ball.

Who knows, maybe it was. It was, as the doctor told her, 30% likely to be cancerous — and that’s when I got scared. I do not like the word cancer.

In fact I fucking hate cancer. Two of my uncles died of it. My aunt had colon cancer. My cousin has brain cancer, my ex-brother-in-law has esophageal cancer, my wife’s family has had its share of cancer scares, I’ve had skin cancer, and my daughter’s boyfriend had a prolonged illness and finally died of it — one of the great heartbreaks of our family.

So the word cancer gets me going. And at the moment the doctor said 30%, I got a little panicked. But then I told myself, calm down, Rob, that’s an anomaly. You’ll be fine.

A few minutes later, they finally wheeled me into the operating room (or whatever the hell you call it) and hooked me up to a couple machines. Then the nurse gave me a couple shots of some stuff that was supposed to make me sleepy.

Which it didn’t. Not one bit. And as I turned, I saw this technician walk into the room carrying a coil of what, I swear to God, looked like about a hundred feet of black garden hose.

And that’s when I REALLY got scared. Holy shit, I thought. THAT’S what’s going up my ass.

It’s a miracle I didn’t faint. But what’s even more of a miracle is that, despite the fact that I was wide awake, I did not feel a thing.

Oh, a slight bit of cramping and discomfort when they had to turn a corner or two, but for the most part, it was the proverbial walk in the park and — get this — I watched it all on TV.

I don’t know what drug they gave me, but it was certainly made by someone who knew his stuff. And I can say, without hestitation, that I have one of the most handsome colons I’ve ever seen.

The whole thing was completely fascinating.

And, fortunately, I was given a clean bill of health.

So, what, you may ask, does any of this grossness have to do with writing? Well, I can guarantee that this material will, at some point, wind up in one of my books. I don’t know when or where, but it’s bound to work its way into a story somehow.

That night, I started thinking about possible scenarios. Imagine if they hadn’t given me any drugs before uncoiling that 100 feet of joy?

Anyone remember the dentist scene from Marathon Man?

What if, instead of a dentist, the interrogator was a gastroentronologist?  I can just see him hovering over the hero, the nozzle of that hose poised and ready to make entry as he says:

“Is it safe?”

 

If Only These Were Book Reviews

It started with a T-shirt.  The Three Wolf T-shirt.

Let me explain.

We all spend a lot of time here blathering on about writing our books and all the hard work that goes into it and the trials and tribulations of the publishing world. But a lot of us forget that books and newspapers and magazines — traditional media, in other words — are not the only place to find amazing writing.

Blogs are the obvious outlet for people who have not yet made the transition to traditional publishing (assuming they have any interest in it). There are thousands of blogs out there with some truly creative people writing them.

But today I discovered something I didn’t know existed. An outlet for writing — writing humor, in particular — that you wouldn’t normally think of when looking for a good laugh.

And it started with a T-shirt. For me, at least.

But not in the way you’re thinking. I’m not talking about T-shirt slogans. Certainly those, like bumper stickers, have been around for years and have been a great means of expression for some very funny people.

What I’m talking about are — get this —

Amazon product reviews.

Yes, you read that right.

Amazon product reviews.

Today, thanks to a link on a website, I had the great pleasure of reading some of the funniest damn stuff I’ve ever read in my life. Product reviews gone viral.

But rather than try to explain it to you, I’ll simply give you a few links and let you read for yourself.

First up, the T-shirt in question.  And this is one SPECIAL T-shirt.  Be sure to scroll down to the reviews:

http://tinyurl.com/dy9ukm

I particularly like the one that by Chaon that says, “I accidentally spilled a glass of Tuscan Whole Milk down the front of this shirt, and my soul was torn from my body and thrown into heaven by a jealous God.”

Which, of course, led me to Tuscan Whole Milk, which is a jackpot of comedy stylings:

http://tinyurl.com/auatdw

My favorite review so far? By J. Fitsimmons, titled COMBINE WITH OTHER FOODS!:

“Has anyone else tried pouring this stuff over dry cereal? A-W-E-S-O-M-E!”

Then, finally, there’s Uranium Ore, which even has a review in the form of a poem:

http://tinyurl.com/chopwh

I not only had a great time reading these — literally laughing out loud many times — I was really struck by a) the wonderful creativity that went into them; and b) how, in the age of the Internet, you never know where you’re going to strike gold.

All of this may be old news to some of you, but it’s certainly a surprise to me.  And I love it.  I can’t wait to read more.

I wish Amazon book reviewers were as entertaining.

So now that you’ve read some yourself, what are your favorites?  Which ones made you laugh out loud?

Or, if you know of some hilarious reviews for another product, please post a link so we can all have a laugh.

And yes, I know this is a silly blog topic.  My lovely wife thinks I should be talking more about Casting the Bones, my new website for aspiring writers, and telling everyone to come to RobertGregoryBrowne.com for a chance to win an iPod and other prizes (ending soon!), or mentioning how my new book, KILL HER AGAIN is out now in the UK and will be coming to the US late next month….

But I just felt like laughing today.  I hope you do, too.

 

Against the Wind

by Rob Gregory Browne

IMAGINE THIS SCENE FROM A MOVIE:

It’s 1983.  A woman sits behind a typewriter, finishing up a page.  When she’s done, she types THE END, pulls the page out and adds it to a large stack next to her on the desk. 

She smiles, then goes to a liquor cabinet, pulls out a bottle, and pours a drink to toast a job well done.

All is good in her world.

NOW IMAGINE THIS ONE INSTEAD:

It’s 1983.  A woman sits behind a typewriter, crying her eyes out as she finishes up a page and types THE END.  She pulls the page out, adds it to the stack on her desk, but she’s crying so hard that she has to blow her nose.  She reaches for a tissue, but the box is empty.  So she gets up, still sobbing, and goes to the bathroom, looking for some toilet paper.  The roll is empty.

Moving about the house, she steps into the kitchen and grabs a note off the refrigerator — one that says BUY TOILET PAPER — and uses it as a makeshift kleenex.  Then, moving back into her living room, she opens a cabinet, pulls out a tiny bottle of “airplane” liquor, intending to use it for a toast, but when she tries to get the cap off, it won’t budge.  It takes all of her strength to get the cap loose and she finally makes her toast.

And it’s quite obvious that this woman is a complete mess.

Okay.

Now, tell me, which of these scenes would you rather watch?

Me, I’ll go with the second one.  In fact I have, in a wonderful movie called Romancing the Stone.  And I think most people would be much less inclined to fall asleep during version two than they would if subjected to version one.

Version one just sits there.  LAYS there, in fact.

Why?

Because it has no conflict.

As you may have guessed by now, I’m piggy-backing on yesterday’s post by Tess.  I was so struck by the aspiring writer’s attitude that I couldn’t contain myself to just a comment.

I needed more space.

And while I was certainly struck by the refusal of the woman in question to face reality and take the advice of the multitude of people who had tried to give her constructive criticism, what got me most of all was her insistence that her story just didn’t need any conflict.

I’m sorry — what was that again?

Conflict is the cornerstone of storytelling.  Conflict is what grabs our interest, makes us want to continue watching or reading.  And this isn’t just limited to movies and novels.

How many of us would watch the news if all we saw were happy, feel-good stories?  People THRIVE on conflict, and the person who suggests that her story doesn’t need it, is completely out of touch with what good, solid storytelling is all about.

Your basic plotline — no matter what kind of book you’re writing — always centers around characters in conflict.  There’s usually both an internal conflict AND an external one.  And the external conflict should challenge or contribute to the character’s internal conflict (and probably vice versa).

Otherwise what is the point?  If you give me a story about two people sailing through life without a care in the world other than they can’t make up their minds, then I might as well watch paint dry.  I need something in that story to grab me by the heart or the throat, to give rise to my emotions.  To make me laugh and cry and root for the hero.  And if all the hero is doing is contemplating his or her navel, then, please, get me the hell out of there.

Now, to be fair, none of us really knows what this woman’s love story was about.  And just because she wasn’t able to articulate the premise in a few sentences, does not mean it’s terrible.

But based on her apparent disdain for the concept of conflict, I’d say the chances are pretty good that it won’t set the publishing world on fire.  Many of you said as much.

So does this mean that all love stories suck?  Of course not.  Some of the greatest stories ever told have been love stories.  There are a boatload of pretty wonderful romances — the books this woman so despises — out there, and they have conflict up the wazoo.

What about coming of age stories?  Again, no.  They don’t all suck.  One of my favorite books of all time is James Kirkwood’s There Must Be a Pony, about a teenage boy coping with a troubled, movie star mother.  Kirkwood was a wonderful writer who certainly understood what makes a good story tick.

There is a writer/teacher, now dead, whose name unfortunately escapes me at the moment (maybe someone can remind me), who likened a story to a basketball game.

You have opposing characters.  Two teams.  Each of those teams has a goal:  to make as many points as possible by putting a ball through a small “basket” at the opposite end of the court.

But because these teams are both determined to get the most points, one side puts up all kinds of obstacles to try to prevent the other side from reaching their goal.

This is conflict at its finest.  Its most compelling.  And if you have a vested interest in one of those teams, you will scream and cheer and jump up and down whenever they encounter and, hopefully, overcome those obstacles.

If all you had was a single team bouncing a ball down the court with no one to challenge them —

— nobody would watch.

And it’s no different for storytelling.  Your characters must have a goal — no matter how trivial it might seem — and they must have strong opposition to that goal.

Conflict is one of the most essential elements of telling a good story.  Sharing that moment when a character overcomes conflict is what lifts us.  What thrills us.  What sends us soaring.

As Hamilton Mabie once said, “A kite rises against, not with, the wind.”

And anyone who doesn’t — or refuses — to understand that had better learn it fast or give up storytelling altogether.

 

 

 

It’s Your Turn

by Rob Gregory Browne

Okay.  Believe it or not, I was going to talk about Susan Boyle today.  I was going to go on a long rant about how people who do not look like movie stars tend to get less respect in this world, and how some of that seems to be spilling over into the publishing industry.

But since both Toni and Tess have already touched on Ms. Boyle, it makes little sense for me to contribute another post to the subject.

On top of that, as I write this I am sitting in a hotel room in Orlando after a long plane ride, only three hours sleep, and getting my brain to work beyond “Nuhhhhhhhh” is extremely difficult.

So guess what?  I’m going to let YOU do the work this time.  Yes, that’s right.  After trying desperately to come up with a non-Susan Boyle subject to talk about (damn you, Toni and Tess), I started flying around the Internet (with my special cyber wings) and stumbled across an interesting website called StoryCorps.  It’s a place that generates questions to help stir conversation.

So that’s what I’m hoping to do here.  Stir some conversation.  And I don’t want to see little namby-pamby responses.  Feel free to express yourself.  Go wild.  But do answer the questions.

And if I can steal away from the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention tomorrow, I’ll answer them myself.

So have at it.  It’s your turn:

1.  In the spirit of the Romantic Times conference:  When did you first fall in love?

2.  What was the saddest moment of your life?

3.  How is your life different than what you imagined?

4.  What is your earliest memory?

I look forward to reading your answers.

Casting the Bones

by Robert Gregory Browne

This week I’m stealing a page from our own Ms. Alex and going the “craft” route.  In order to share my ideas about the craft of writing both novels and screenplays — hell, fiction of any kind — I’ve started a new website called CASTING THE BONES, where you’ll find a collection of my articles on craft.

What follows is one of those articles.  Not strictly about craft, but certainly about process.  A side of the writing game that we don’t often share.  It’s called:

HOW TO SURVIVE WORKING WITH AN EDITOR

A lot of you who have been working toward getting a book published have no idea what happens once you sign a contract with a publishing house.  Well, I’m here to tell you:

Nine times out of ten, that contract will be the result of the sale of a completed book.  You’ve written a 100,000 word manuscript, had an agent shop it around, and an editor at one of the publishing houses has taken a liking to it, made an offer, and you’ve accepted.

Eeehaaaa! Your dreams have come true.

Believe me, I still remember the exhilaration of that phone call from my agent, telling me I could now call myself a published author.  I literally started dancing.  Like a freakin’ fool.

For those of you still working on it, that contract is the pot at the end of the rainbow.  But the contract is only the beginning.  Even before the thing has been signed, you’ll get a call of congratulations from your editor and he/she will tell you that he/she is planning to reread the book with an eye toward editing.

This is when your heart sinks a little.  Isn’t the book perfect the way it is?

Not usually, no.  If you’re like me, you like to write very clean manuscripts.  A clean manuscript is one that’s very tightly plotted, concisely written and polished to a lovely shine.

But even those manuscripts get edited.   How extensively it’s edited depends on the manuscript’s needs and your editor — whose only desire is to help you put out a book that goes straight to the bestseller list.  This rarely happens, of course, but that’s a different matter.

Once your editor has re-read the manuscript, you may get a phone call, but you’ll more likely get an editorial letter.  This is where the editor goes through your manuscript, scene by scene, and makes suggestions for changes.

Assuming, of course, he/she feels it needs any.

Here’s an example of what you might see, which comes from my former UK editor regarding one of my books:

p. 7/ line 16 South Dakota – does this refer to a special police unit/ or a geographical thing? I understand the meaning but we might need to change this for UK readers if possible (also see p. 9/15)
p. 9 Cover Girl change to CoverGirl (without space)
p. 13 Anna’s thoughts on shaking hands with men – not sure if we need this; or does this refer to something else later on I have possibly missed
p. 15 It turns out later that the killing of Kimberly was a mistake – should we explain at some stage towards the end why Red Cap killed the whole family?
p. 19 / 13 ‘The minute it stops bothering you…’ – Is this a deliberate repetition from page 13 when Anna also uses the expression. It sounds slightly cynical here though and as it comes from Jake, I wasn’t sure if it would match with his character.
p. 22 / last three lines I’d cut the neighbourhood staring at her. Doesn’t seem to fit.
p. 24 Anna’s self-criticism and her views on the past. She’s not confident about her work anymore – should we reflect on this later? Do the events change the way she thinks about her confidence?

Using this as a guide, I then go through the manuscript, read the passages in question, then make changes if necessary.

I then take this very same table and write a reply to my editor explaining why I didn’t make a suggested change, or if I did, what I changed it to.

Once the changes have been made, you then email or snail mail (depending on your editor’s preference) the revised manuscript and your editor reads it again, looking to see how it flows and whether the changes work.

If all is good, it’s a wrap. If all is NOT good, then you’re likely to get another letter/email/phone call with more suggested changes.

I normally get two or three pages like this. Much of it consists of line edits, simple corrections of spelling, missing words, that kind of thing, but some of it goes to character motivation and story.

I have friends who have gotten 10-30 pages worth. It all depends on the book and what your process is. Many writers send in a first draft that reads like a first draft, and they’re looking to the editor to give them feedback before the next draft (or two or three) and the final polish.

The key is that you have to trust your editor. Know that he or she is trying to get the best book possible out of you. And they, in turn, have to trust your judgment when it comes to which changes you decide to ignore and which ones you choose to make.

I remember after the editing process was done for my first book, I said to my American editor, “So what happens now? Do you take it to your boss and get final approval on the manuscript?”

He laughed and said, “This isn’t Hollywood, Rob. As far as I’m concerned, the book is good to go. It’s YOUR book. So if you think it’s ready, it’s ready.”

—-

And that’s it.  I hope you’ll go over to Casting the Bones and take a look at some of the other articles.  I plan to contribute more, and hope to get some of my writer friends to contribute as well.  Murderati?

 

Blog-Blocked

by Rob Gregory Browne

Photo-22I have never believed in writer's block. I've always felt that no matter how dire things might seem, no matter how stuck you might get in a story, no matter how difficult it might be to start a story, as long as you put your fat ass in that chair and start typing, something will come.

Because it has to.

Every writer in this crowd — every novelist, at least — knows how wonderful writing that first book was.  You may have given yourself a specific amount of time to write it or you may have simply written whenever you could, whenever you felt inspired.  But your time was your own.  You were
beholden to no one but yourself — and, quite possibly, to the family and friends you kept promising would one day hold your published book in their hands.

But again, as every writer in the crowd knows, once you get that publishing deal, you are under the gun.  You must write or perish — and that's a completely different mindset. 

That mindset, in fact, can often result in what Harley Jane Kozak calls Secondbookitis, in which the writer spends an entire year (depending on his or her deadline) screaming inside, a bundle of nerves and raw emotion, victim to late-night crying jags and a feeling of dread so pervasive that it's a wonder you can drag yourself out of bed and over to the word processor every morning.

But we do it.  We manage to sit our asses down (fat fat fat fat fat) and put our fingers on the keyboard and let them fly.

Because we have to.

So I don't believe in writer's block, simply because I can't afford to.  I have a deadline to meet, so I meet it (more or less.  Okay, Mr. Resnick, quit laughing).

Unfortunately, I have come across something that, while not potentially as devastating as writer's block, is certainly cause for concern:

Blogger's Block.

I used to write a blog called Anatomy of a Book Deal.  For two years or so, I would write a new entry every two or three days and, at its peak, the blog was getting around thirty thousand unique hits a month.  Since I was chronicling the evolution of my career as a virgin novelist, I had no trouble finding subject matter and blogging became part of my weekly routine.  It was an effortless enterprise, a chance for me to share the wonderful experience I was going through at the time.

But I didn't just write the blog.  I also became a comment whore.  I went to dozens of writing blogs and commented on nearly every post I read.  Part of this was PR and part of it was, again, the desire to share.

I think if you took all of my blog entries and all of the comments I made on other blogs over that period of time, you'd probably have enough material for half a dozen books.  Extremely boring books, no doubt, but what I may have lacked in quality, I made up for with enthusiasm (wait — how did my sex life wind up in this?).

Then, shortly after the release of my first book (KISS HER GOODBYE, a great gift for your friends and loved ones), I experienced blog burnout. 

And I wasn't the only one.  Nearly all of my friends who were coming up with me at around the same time, had also been blogging furiously, and whenever the subject of blogs was brought up you could hear the collective groan all the way across the Atlantic.

We were all suffering from blog burnout.

And slowly but surely, we all began to blog less and less, many of us shifting over to group blogs like Murderati so that it became a twice monthly deadline rather than every other day.

But despite the burnout, I've still managed to come here every two weeks and find something to say.  What I've had to say hasn't always been compelling — as evidenced by the low comment count at times — but at least I've managed to find something.

Until now, that is.

I am, ladies and gentlemen, suffering from a terrible, terrible case of blogger's block. 

Even though I knew my deadline was approaching, that I had a post to write for Murderati, I could not for the life of me figure out what to write about today.  Every time I thought about it, the wall would go up and that wall must be made of lead, because nothing can penetrate it.

I tried going back through all the recent Murderati posts to see if any of them would spur something, but no luck.  I went to other blogs to see what they were talking about, hoping I could rip-off some interesting subject matter.

No luck.

So here I sit, writing about not being able to write.  Or, more specifically, not being able to write a blog entry.  Not an earth-shattering worry, I suppose, but it does raise some concern. 

I'm blog blocked and I think there's only one thing that can save me:

Taking some time off.  So, I've decided, for the next two weeks I won't be writing another blog post.  No matter how much you might beg me, no matter how many comments you may throw my way, I will not be contributing to Murderati again until Wednesday, April 8th.

In the meantime, I have to ask you if I'm alone in this.  Do those of you who write blogs ever feel as if you have just completely exhausted any and all subject matter to blog about?  Do those of you who read blogs find your eyes glazing over when the writers of said blogs start to bitch and moan that they have absolutely nothing to say? 

I'm beginning to understand the appeal of Twitter.  You have 140 characters to get to the point.  Will there be a day when one of my tweets goes something like this? —

"I'm tweet blocked."

Pairing Off

by Rob Gregory Browne

I think one of the reasons I never got along very well in Hollywood is because I've never been big on collaboration.  It just isn't really my thing.

I don't know why.  Probably because I like the idea of succeeding or failing on my own terms.  I have no interest in writing somebody else's idea.

Oh, I've done it.  I worked many days together with my old friend Larry Brody — Mr. Television — writing animated shows like Spider-Man and Diabolik.  Brody and I had a lot of fun together, and were so well suited to each other professionally and personally that our collaboration was a successful and productive one.

I also collaborate with my editors.  They give me notes on my books, I make a few changes, and everyone is happy.

And when I'm stuck on a story, I've been known to bounce a scene off my buddies Brett Battles and Bill Cameron (we IM most every day), and they're always a huge help.

But for the most part, I'm happy to sit alone in a room writing my stories without input from anyone but my muse.

Still, I know there are a lot of people out there who love to collaborate.  Two writers feeding off each other, telling each other what sucks and what's great, creating characters and worlds together — I can see how that might be appealing to some.

And as I was thinking about such collaborations today, I thought, what if everyone on Murderati were to pair off and write something together?  We might have six interesting new books.

Or maybe not:

06-RHOADES-BATTLES
BRETT RHOADES
– THE CLEANER'S RIGHT HAND

Bounty hunter Jonathan Keller loses an appendage to a runaway power scrubber.

04-CORNELIA-ALEX
ALEXANDRA READ – THE PRICE OF DARKNESS

A fledgling journalist follows the trail of a family of blue bloods to a hospital full of monstrous nuns.

02-BRENNAN-SHARP
ZOE BRENNAN – SUDDEN STRIKE

Two soldiers-for-hire, Jack Fox and Charlie Kincaid, spend a harrowing week on the picket line.

05-ELLISON-GERRITSEN
JT GERRITSEN – THE MEPHISTO KISS

A Boston medical examiner meets a Nashville homicide detective and their accents collide.

01 - LOUISE-PARI
PARI NOSKIN URE – ANONYMOUS HITCH

A public relations consultant gets roadside assistance from a blind woman and all hell breaks loose.

03-CAUSEY-BROWNE
ROBBI MCGEE GREGORY CAUSEY
KISS HER FAMILY JEWELS (kinda sorta)

While making love to a slightly trashy but oh-so-hot Southern gal, an ATF agent finds himself rocketed into the afterlife.

Okay, maybe I do need a collaborator.  Somebody who's actually funny (or better at Photoshop than I am…)

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