Category Archives: Allison Brennan

Is the New York Times Biased?

By Allison Brennan

I had debated against writing this blog two weeks ago because I didn’t want it to come across as sour grapes. I actually wrote another blog for today, one about smart women in fiction vs. stereotyped femme fatales and bimbos. But as I was preparing my next “lesson” for the online group I’m teaching this month, I put together some statistics about bestseller lists and something jumped out at me. I may be making a few enemies, but at this point, I think someone needs to publicly talk about bestseller lists in general, and the New York Times in particular.

Nothing I say here is proof of anything. It’s just a comparison of the major bestseller lists for October 2007 and October 2008 and something in them that I think is odd. Coupled with the fact that the New York Times does not share how they compile their bestseller lists makes the whole process shadowy. We know, for example, that USA Today gets their numbers from very specific places, and we know that Walmart does not report to USA Today, for example. USA Today rankings most closely resemble the Bookscan numbers which is compiled from point-of-sale (POS) transactions weekly. Bookscan claims to track about 70-80% of all book purchases, and that may be true, but they certainly don’t track 70% of mass market sales. If you are a mass market author selling at Walmart, Bookscan reflects closer to 20-25% of your sales for the first quarter, and over a twelve month period maybe 35-40% of sales. Plus or minus. Because every author and distribution plan is unique.

In addition, different books and authors are released every month and every year so to do a proper analysis of the lists someone with more time and resources than me should pull together every list for the last three years with an algorithm to give an average % of books by genre that are released each month and when in the month. I’m sure some sharp statistician would know what to do; that would not be me.

I’m just looking at raw numbers. And I wasn’t going to write the article not just because of sour grapes, but because I know that publishing is fluid: there may be a glut of romance novels one month, and fewer the next month. But when I looked at the NYT, PW and USAT, something jumped out that made me think that I’m right. And JT’s “genre wars” rant got me thinking that if there was no genre designation, my theory wouldn’t hold any water because there’d be no genre designation in the files.

My theory?

The New York Times and Publishers Weekly use roughly the same formula for figuring out bestsellers, and that formula is biased against romance.

Playing Dead is my second bestselling title based on the first eight weeks of sales (Killing Fear is the first.) Playing Dead (10/08) sold more than twice as many copies opening week as Fear No Evil (4/07) which debuted at #10 on the New York Times list.

We all know that the month of release is hugely important: who is the competition? So to go up or down on the list is not a problem because one month might have a glut of bestsellers. For example, March 07 was a heavy-hitter month and I told my agent that if I was going to hit the print list, I had to do it with my Feb 07 book (Speak No Evil) because See No Evil in March had much more competition-both the number of releases and the heavy-hitter authors. Speak came out #14, See #20. And See had higher opening week numbers. So the ups and downs of the lists is no surprise to me and honestly doesn’t bother me: as long as my sales are doing well and my publisher is happy, I’m happy.

Walmart is hugely important for mass market authors. First, Walmart customers buy a lot of books, but because they are cost conscious, they buy mostly mass markets. Walmart offers very few hardcovers, and those on their shelves are the mega-sellers like King, Grisham, Roberts, Rowling, and Evanovich. Mass markets dominate their book aisle, discounted by a dollar or more. At some point at the end of 2007, Walmart stopped reporting sales to the New York Times. I don’t know if anyone knows why, but it happened and everyone in the business knows it. Around May of 2008, Walmart started reporting again.

But the lists were not the same.

The New York Times does not share with anyone how it compiles its bestseller lists. The general consensus is that they send out a list with pre-printed titles that are most likely to sell well. (How they come up with that list I have no idea.) They send it to a large sampling of booksellers and other retailers where books are a major item in the store. These people fill it out with sales information and return them. (This may be done online now-again, I have no idea . . . maybe a bookseller reader here knows more than I do?)

They do acknowledge that they adjust the numbers to represent a statistical sampling of all such stores.

I had always felt, as a mass market original author, that the NYT weighted their lists and gave more weight to books sold at independent stores than to books sold at mass merchandisers like Walmart. And that may very well be the case-we don’t know because they won’t say.

But whatever they did in the past, they changed it. In the past, the system may have been weighted slightly against romance novels, but since romance makes up 50% of mass market sales, and 39% of all fiction sales according to the RomStat report issued by Romance Writers of America we all know the genre is strong. (Note: The RWA research firm has changed and the last RomStat report is looking at other factors so there is no good comparison in numbers, though they reported that Romance is the leading fiction genre and is growing as a percent of market share even with the slowing economy.)

Playing Dead, which sold twice as many copies opening week as Fear No Evil eighteen months before, debuted at #26 on the NYT list and #37 on the USAT list. I could dismiss the poor NYT slot as being released in a competitive month (October.) And I would have, except that I’m really curious and did a comparison of publicly available information.

With the exception of my debut novel, The Prey, which had one week on the extended list, all my books have enjoyed 3-4 weeks on the NYT list. Until Playing Dead. It fell off after one week.

Week Two: Playing Dead was still in the Top 50 of USA Today (46), so I was optimistic that I’d stay on the NYT another week. Since USAT tracks point-of-sale I figured the book was doing well, even with the slight opening week drop from Killing Fear. (After all, our economy is in the tank.) But I fell off the list–and I’ll admit, I was surprised.

I think what really irked me is that the titles that bookended me on USAT (at numbers 45 and 47) were numbers 4 and 11 respectively on NYT. This was the first real clue that something wacky was going on. Full disclosure: #4 was a romance title that I know sells very well at the major chain bookstores and online. I don’t know if it was at Walmart-I sent my mom out to investigate and she didn’t see it at two Walmarts, but that doesn’t mean much because sometimes buys are regional, or it could have been sold out. I don’t know.

But just looking at the raw numbers told me that something was off. The following week, seven titles that were lower than me on USAT (I was at #55 that week) were on the print NYT list. I wasn’t even on the extended.

So, until tonight, this was all I had. And I looked at the facts and knew that it sounded like sour grapes and complaining. And it’s not. Seriously, every author that hit the NYT list deserves it and I’m honestly happy for them. It’s like entering a contest. All the finalists are great and deserve it-but we all know that there are other great books out there that didn’t make it for one reason or another that’s more subjective based on judging than anything else.

But the NYT claims to represent the bestselling books in the country. At the minimum they should tell their readers how they compile the list, and what has changed in the past year.

Why do I think something has changed?

In October 2007, romance novels (based on RWA membership-there could have been additional romance novels that hit who weren’t RWA members, such as Nicholas Sparks) enjoyed more weeks on the NYT and PW bestseller lists than in October of 2008:

NYT OCT 07
1 – 24
2 – 28
3 – 26
4 – 22
TOTAL: 100

PW OCT 07

1 – 9
2 – 9
3 – 8
4 – 6
5 – 4*
TOTAL: 32

NYT OCT 08
1 – 16
2 – 14
3 – 21
4 – 16
TOTAL: 67

PW OCT 08

1 – 3
2 – 6
3 – 8
4 – 6
TOTAL: 23

* PW tabulates differently than the NYT and had five weeks for October. To make it as fair as possible, I didn’t count week 5 for PW in the numbers-but it doesn’t seem to affect the numbers. If I did include it, it proves my point even more.

* Also, these numbers reflect hardcover, trade, and mass market bestsellers-the NYT and PW lists tabulate book release formats separately; USAT has all books-fiction and non-fiction, hardcover and paper, adult and children-on the same list. To be fair, I included all formats tracked.

* FYI: The NYT list comprises their top 35 bestsellers by format in h/c, trade, and mass market; PW is top 15 by format; USAT is top 150 ranked across all formats and genres.

* While this may not include ALL romance titles, it’s comparing apples to apples, ie RWA members for all lists.

There was a 33% reduction in romance list weeks in the NYT and a nearly 30% reduction in PW (if I’m doing my math correctly. And if I add in the 5th PW week because they use different days, then it’s almost dead-on the same percentage as the NYT reduction.)

Looking at this means nothing, really, because like I said above the lists are compiled from books selling that week. If there are fewer new romance releases, then the numbers will go down.

But when we look at USA Today, we see something completely different:

USAT OCT 07

1 – 24
2 – 15
3 – 10
4 – 13
TOTAL: 72

USAT OCT 08

1 – 25
2 – 25
3 – 21
4 – 20
TOTAL: 91

This is a nearly a 25% increase in romance title weeks on the USAT bestseller lists in these same months.

All I want is to know how these lists are compiled. Is the USAT list a true POS comparison? Can it be if they don’t include Walmart? And is the NYT intentionally, or through their statistical methodology, discriminating against romance novels?

And does it matter?

I would argue it does matter, but perhaps not as much once you can use the NYT bestseller designation on your books. Most readers don’t know or care how the lists are compiled. My sales may continue to increase and I may never hit the print list again, but because I have hit it in the past I can use NYT on my books. Yet, the industry perception may be that my career has hit a stumbling block. It won’t matter that my sales are strong and increasing, I’m not hitting * the * list. It may down the road affect distribution with vendors and wholesalers who look at the stats and wonder what’s up.

Honestly, the only thing that really matters is the bottom line. I know many authors who have consistently sold well over a long period of time, outselling many of the bestselling authors while they themselves have never hit a list.

But who it really hurts are the midlist romance writers trying to breakout and touch the holy grail . . . to be able to call themselves a New York Times bestselling author.

I just want to know what that means.

Stop Talking to Yourself, Mom

By Allison Brennan

“He was up and down like a restless puppy, alternately snapping out directives and singing lyrics. She didn’t know how anyone could get any work done that way. But she also knew he not only could, he had to.”
— CREATION IN DEATH by JD Robb

If we were all the same, we’d all be very boring. We don’t all like the same movies, television shows, books, or people. We don’t agree about politics, religion, or who should win the World Series. If we did, life would be dull and we’d walk around like robots.

Writers don’t write the same way. Some of us don’t like outlines or plots or any sort of real organization. Some of us need to plan down to which characters will be in every scene. Most of us are somewhere in between.

Some writers love the words themselves, how words become phrases and phrases complete thoughts. The cadence of the words that make up the story is as important as the story itself. For others, the words mean nothing without the story behind them.

Some writers take a year-or more-to craft their novel. Others, a few weeks. In his book ON WRITING, Stephen King says, “I believe the first draft of a book-even a long one-should take no more than three months, the length of a season.” He goes on to say he writes every day, and likes to write ten pages (about 2,000 words) which is 180,000 words at the end of three months.

The point is, some brilliant writers write one book a year . . . or every five years. Some writers write one book a season. It doesn’t make the former too slow or the latter too fast. It means that is how the stories come out.

I write fast. Once I get going and the characters take over and I stop trying to play God, I write as fast as I can to get the story out there.

It’s not pretty.

My first draft can be a bit of a mess. I edit as I go, so it’s pretty clean, but I don’t labor over the details. My transitions are rough, my setting is minimal, and half the time I forget to describe my characters. (I know what they look like, I rarely think to put it on paper until my editor mentions it.) If I need to research something that isn’t plot critical, I’ll put in XXX and keep writing. I can’t be slowed down to look up the name of a military base in Texas when it’s a minor backstory detail because I know that the minute I google the information, I’ll be online for an hour. That’s what revisions are for-at least for me. My first draft may come fast, but revisions take me just as long.

I don’t plot. No outlines, no plans, and I rarely know how everything is going to come together. It’s not unusual for me to be on page 450 of my projected 500 page manuscript, panicked, because I don’t know how my hero is going to stay alive. Yet, I’m constantly thinking about the book 24/7. Even in my sleep. Especially in my sleep. When I have a plot problem, if I’m thinking about it when I go to bed, nine times out of ten I have the solution when I wake up. If I don’t, it means that I went in the wrong direction, so I backtrack and try to figure out where I screwed up in the story.

I didn’t realize I was talking to myself, though. Thank God for hands-free cell phones-now I hope people assume I’m talking to someone over Bluetooth, not that I’m talking to my characters (or arguing with them.)

My son was five when he first said, “Mommy, why are you talking to yourself?”

Of course I denied it. I wasn’t talking to myself. Don’t be silly. So I turned up the music and started whispering. He still caught me.

“Mommy, I can see your lips moving in the rearview mirror.”

Damn smart kid.

I may not plot, but I do think a book to death. My characters walk on the stage fully formed, or I have to drag them out kicking and screaming. I picture a dozen opening scenes, discarding some, keeping others. I go back and forth until it hits me the best starting place. Sometimes it’s easier than others-with PLAYING DEAD I knew the first chapter was Claire’s father, a fugitive, confronting her and asking for her help. Sometimes it’s harder-with TEMPTING EVIL I wrote a half-dozen opening chapters before I settled on the beginning . . . and THEN that ended up being Chapter Three after revisions . . . after the teaser was printed in the back of KILLING FEAR . . .

As I’ve said before on Alex’s brilliant blog posts, I always get stuck at the beginning of Act Two . . . I cross the threshold and then WHAM! Can’t seem to find the Road of Trials . . .

For example, in SUDDEN DEATH (my April 09 book), I wrote crap for two months. 150 pages over and over because I couldn’t get past this one point. I was really worried because I actually had a lot of time to write this book, but now I was down to the wire . . . then I went off the Thrillerfest. I wrote on the plane, but it still wasn’t working. I tried to write during the conference, but was having too much fun (when I’m loving the story and it’s working, I can write anywhere, anytime-I wrote 60 pages at RT a couple years ago and they became the opening of SEE NO EVIL.) Then I got on the plane to go home and WHAM! It hit me. I knew what the problem was. I had a preconceived notion of backstory between Jack and Megan. I thought they’d known each other in the past. But every time I put them on the same page, it wasn’t working.

So I deleted everything but the first two chapters and wrote straight through for three weeks and finished the book before I left of RWA at the end of July.

Sure, there were some rough spots. And really, it wasn’t three weeks, because I was thinking about this dang story for three months before I even started writing. I also have a very kind, forgiving editor who just circles my XXX that I didn’t have time to research. And most important, I always expect a round of revisions. I want revisions. Why? Because no matter how good the story is-and the first two-thirds of SUDDEN DEATH was very tight when I sent it in-a good editor can help make a book better.

For example, in SUDDEN DEATH I have a killer who is truly mentally ill. He’s not right in the head. Therefore, I didn’t get into his head-I picked, instead, his partner who was sane. Much easier. My editor pointed out an obvious flaw-because the sane killer had her own covert plan, it wasn’t realistic that when I was in her head she wouldn’t be thinking about it.

Duh.

But I was scared to go into the head of someone who was insane. I’d never done that before. I’m talking about someone who really sees things, who really is not all there. His memory is not reliable . . . but my editor pushed me to do it because she said (rightfully) that it would really take the story to the next level. So I did it. It wasn’t easy, but it worked (I hope.) It was a challenge, and I pushed myself. And no matter what happens with the book, I’m proud of how that character evolved from a two-dimensional stereotype to a real person.

I’m not afraid to revise. In fact, I thrive on it. I’m also not afraid to delete. I tell people I deleted nearly 150 pages and they look at me like I’m crazy, or they start to hyperventilate because they can’t imagine deleting so much work. It’s not fun, but I don’t sweat over it. I’ve deleted twice as much . . . before I sold, I was thinking about my next project after I wrote a science-fiction romantic suspense (that didn’t sell.) I read some of the beginnings I had stashed away and came across a story I had called THE COPYCAT KILLER. The opening chapter was good, and the second chapter wasn’t bad, then the book completely deteriorated . . . 300 pages of total crap. Yep, you read that right . . . it’s not a typo. Three Hundred Pages. I deleted them all. Started with the foundation of those two chapters and wrote a completely different story.

That book became THE PREY, my debut novel.

Every writer has a different process. We have to work at our own pace. If I was given a year to write a book, I’d think about it a lot, but I wouldn’t actually start writing it until about eight weeks before it was due. I know me. I’m the person who waits until April 12th to start inputting my receipts into Quickbooks, then stays up until 2 a.m. three nights in a row because I have far more receipts that I thought . . .

My supernatural thriller series that launches in 2010 . . . I had the idea in August of 2003. In fact, I wrote the first couple chapters then, and have been thinking about the story for more than five years. I wasn’t ready to write it then; now I’m itching to get to it because it’s all clicked in my head. Would you say the book took five years to write . . . or three months?

I may be able to write and revise a book in eight weeks, but I couldn’t write six books a year. Why? Because I need that thinking time. I need to talk to myself, I need to sleep on plot problems. I need to get into the heads of my characters and see what makes them tick. I need to write and delete, write and revise, then think some more. That takes time. Writing time? Not so much. Thinking time? Absolutely. And if with the thinking comes some solo verbal communication, so be it.

And if my kids think that I’m a bit strange because I talk to myself, that’s not my problem. I’m writing.

Sex and Violence

By Allison Brennan

Now that I have your attention . . .

When JT asked me to come up with a tagline for the Murderati site, I was at a loss. I simply couldn’t come up with something as witty as the pun comma sutra, or the cool double meaning of ghost writer. As the only romantic suspense writer here, I decided to simply tell it like it is: sex and violence.

My books have a little sex, a lot of violence, and bad stuff happens. My disclaimer is that they are “Rated R” whenever someone asks me about my books in a non-book related setting (for example, I’d never say this at RWA or Thrillerfest unless someone specifically asked.) But when I’m at my kids school, or at church, or even at the grocery store when my favorite checker tells everyone in line about my books (see why she’s my favorite?), I stick with my standard line.

This habit came about when a friend of mine, a woman a few years younger than my mom, was thrilled for me when I sold and wanted to read my book. She’s a huge fan of Nora Roberts, was so excited that I had written a romantic suspense novel, and told everyone about my books-she has a lot of friends. So of course I gave her an Advanced Reading Copy. She read it and emailed me a week later saying that while she enjoyed the book, but she had to skip the sex scenes which were more graphic than Nora wrote, and said “I think of you like a daughter. It made me uncomfortable.”

I appreciated that, but then I thought, wait-my mom reads ALL my books!

Mystery readers who like my books tell me they skip the sex scenes, too. I just smile and nod, but inside I’m scratching my head. The scenes are there for a reason-to show the emotional connection between two people, as well as to both resolve and create conflict in the story. Much like sex in real life. It’s not gratuitous, or there “just” to sell books, as I’ve been accused of (as if selling books is a bad thing!)

Then I get the emails from people who don’t like that bad things happen to good people. Sometimes, I want to say, “Bad stuff happens.” (Well, I really what to say sh*t happens but figure this is a PG blog.) Bad stuff happens because that’s the story. I’m really sorry that Lucy Kincaid was hurt in my book Fear No Evil. I’m thrilled that readers became so attached to her that they cared what happened to her and were worried about her. But if she didn’t get hurt, the story wouldn’t have been the same. It wasn’t the book I was writing.

And then the people who simply think I’m a closet psychopath because I can even conceive of such ideas in the first place. As if I have control over my imagination. If I actually had fantasies about killing people, I certainly wouldn’t put them in print first!

I try to maintain a balance. The sex scenes serve a purpose in the story to raise the stakes, add characterization, solve problems, and increase conflict. The violence . . . ditto. I show it because it happens and I want the reader to care about the resolution, to empathize with the victim. If I wanted to write a cozy mystery, then I’d write a cozy mystery. I’ve chosen to lay it all out there on the page because I like a solid dose of reality in my fiction. I like it when people email me and say that my characters feel like real people, that they come alive off the page. Well, sometimes these emails scare me, like those who ask me what my characters are like in REAL life. :/

There are some who feel that writing stories with sex and violence-and especially movies with sex and violence-spread said activities. That violent shows beget violent behavior. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that romance novels are fantasies that distort a woman’s perception of relationships. Yes, they are a fantasy, but to have a man love you for who you are and be faithful is a distortion? Well, sorry, I’ll cling to that fantasy as being ideal, thank you very much.

Human beings are violent. We are sexual creatures. Obviously, both activities can go to the extreme and be dangerous to ourselves or to others. But I don’t buy into the philosophy that sex and violence in media-television, movies, or books-has increased sex and violence in our culture. There’s been plenty of both, long before commercial books and movies existed. Cain slew Abel, after all; hordes of people watched gladiators fight to the death; and men have paid prostitutes for sex before there was online pornography.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a point where gratuitous sex and violence doesn’t have an impact on society. I do think that our acceptance threshold is higher-meaning, it takes a lot more to shock us. I believe strongly in keeping kids young and innocent for as long as possible . . . yet at the same time, to keep them safe we still have to warn them about bad people. In an episode of CSI that aired a few years ago, Catherine Willows young teenage daughter was making some bad choices in her life. A girl of the same age was murdered, and Catherine–who at first feared the victim was her own daughter–took Lindsay to the morgue to show her what could happen if she didn’t get her act together. Several characters on the show criticized Catherine for this action, but I applauded her. Damn straight–your kids start going down the wrong path, there’s nothing wrong with showing them what could happen. It’s the same philosophy as bringing a wrecked car to a high school before grad night–look kids, don’t drink and drive, you could have died in this car. Other kids did–kids who won’t be going on to college because of one stupid decision.

Well, I segued into a completely different topic! Back to commercial fiction. Sex and violence . . . there are lots of books out there-statistics vary depending on whether you include non-fiction or vanity press and others-but because of the marketplace, more publishers are trying to fill more niches. And I know not everyone wants to read books with sex and violence-I’m okay with that. In fact, when I need a break from writing and reading my favorite genre, I’ll pick up a romantic comedy, still one of my favorite genres to read . . . maybe because I can’t write it.

But my books are Rated R, and I have to forewarn people, at least in certain situations. My personal disclaimer so I don’t get any more emails from friends who were scared spitless at the violence or whose face turned scarlet during the sex.

I ask you: do you think that violence and sex in media (either books or movies) propagates violence and sex in society? Are we just so desensitized to it that to sell more books and tickets, writers and directors are upping the stakes to shock us?

Fear of Speeches

By Allison Brennan

I love public speaking. Iโ€™ve done it many times, not only as an author, but during my previous life in public policy.

But Iโ€™m scared to death of having to write a speech. The only thing I can attribute this fear to is my dislike of plotting.

I don’t plot. I don’t plot my books, I don’t plot out my life. I have a vague sense of my career goals just like I have a vague sense of what’s going to happen in my stories. Why plan it all out? As Stephen King says in his book ON WRITING, “Why be such a control freak?”

While I can appreciate and learn from Alex Sokoloff’s fabulous and informative presentations on story structure-and I really love reading craft-related writing books-when if comes to my own writing, I can’t shape it into a structure beforehand. The story comes out one word at a time, and I learn about my characters and what’s happening in the plot pretty much as I write.

Most writers are rather middle-of-the-road when it comes to plotting. They have a rough outline, maybe a few key plot points, perhaps a couple paragraphs about the main characters. They might not have a clear roadmap, but they know the general direction they’re headed and have all the major intersections and turns identified.

Extreme plotters need to start with a detailed outline. They can’t even get behind the wheel unless they know where they’re going, how they are going to get there, and every gas station, restaurant, and hotel on the way. They often have spreadsheets, a detailed scene-by-scene written outline, and sometimes even character charts. They’ll know not only where they are going, but where they’ve been. They can’t even type CHAPTER ONE until that map is complete, and they keep their GPS open and functioning all the time.

I jump into the car, turn the ignition and start driving. Sometimes I go too slow and push myself to speed up; other times I’m in a race for the finish line and have to force myself to slow down. Sometimes I go down the wrong road and have to make a 180; sometimes I go down the wrong side street and find myself in a dark alley with no way out – but then there’s a Dumpster and I jump on it. Pull myself up on a ledge, throw myself onto the fire escape, climb up, leap into an open window and I have no idea where I’m headed, but the journey is more fun than terrifying. (Though there’s a lot of fear as well.)

When I present a writing workshop, I never go in over-prepared. In fact, I rarely go in with more than a couple of bullet points. Every time I give a workshop, it’s completely different-even if it’s the same material I’ve discussed before. That keeps it fun and interesting for me.

Workshops are interactive. They’re personal. I can read expressions in the audience, their body language, figure out whether I’m failing dismally or they’re interested. I ask questions of the audience, try to gauge what they want, play off their questions to me. I’m spontaneous and go off on wild tangents with stories that somewhat relate to the subject. But in the end, they seem to go pretty well-so for me, it works. And they came to my workshop because they wanted to be there. It’s not like I chained them to their chair, right?

But a year ago, I committed to something I’ve never done before. I’m giving the closing speech at the Emerald City Writers Conference in Seattle on Sunday. Speech. Speech implies a plan, words written done on paper that I will read or memorize and quote. Right? This isn’t a toast at a wedding where everyone taps on their champagne glasses and shouts, “Speech! Speech!” and expect you to be spontaneous. This is more like being the pastor and reading correctly from the book otherwise the couple might not actually be married during the reception . . .

I wasn’t worried about this until recently. In fact, I had no intention of writing an actual speech. I figured sure, I needed more than five bullet points–maybe ten–and a couple writing quotes that I can extrapolate on and relate to the writing life. I said as much to my friend Margie Lawson, a fantastic speaker and terrific teacher.

She looked at me and said, “You need a theme.”

I stared blankly. “Theme? What’s a theme? I don’t have themes.”

She laughed. She thought I was joking. “Sure you do. All your books have themes. A speech is no different.”

My books have themes? Really? “They do?”

“Of course they do.” Her smile faltered. I knew that she’d read at least some of my books because she’s used them in her writing classes. So if she thought I had a theme, wow. She probably knew what a theme was. She probably knew what my theme was.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines theme as: 1 a: a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation

Well. Duh. Who needs a word for it? Of course I have a theme. Once I get to the end of the book, I know what it is. Sort of. If put on the spot. With a knife to my throat. Sure. I got it.

To me, theme is like branding. I have no idea what my “brand” is. I’ve taken FOUR online or workshop classes about branding and still have no idea how to define my brand. When told one instructor that my brand was dark romantic thrillers, she informed me that was my genre, not my brand.

Getting back to Margie . . . so I need a theme. She gave me one (thank you!) She said because I was the closing speaker, I should be motivational, to rally the troops so-to-speak, to send them forth into the world to write!

Great! I had a theme, I was done. I could motivate. I motivate my kids to clean their rooms.

“Clean your room and we’ll go out for ice cream.”

“Naw.”

“Clean your room or no video games (or cell phone or television or computer, depending on the kid) for a week.”

The room gets clean. I know how to motivate!

But that wasn’t enough for Margie.

“You have to write a speech.”

“That sounds like plotting.”

“It’s not plotting. It’s writing a speech.”

“I don’t plot.”

“It’s a speech.”

A close version of this conversation took place in June. I’ve been stressed ever since.

Except for a short time during the RWA conference. I gave a speech to the Kiss of Death chapter (those of us writing romantic suspense.) It was a speech. I had five bullet points, no written or practiced speech. It went well, I’ve been told. (Unless they were being kind because I know 1001 ways to kill people. But I’ve never done it personally.)

Then I heard the incomparable Victoria Alexander speak at the luncheon and I knew I could never do that. She was funny, poignant, poised, perfect.

On the Levy bus tour I shared my fear with my good friend Roxanne St. Claire (at least, she was my good friend until she said . . . )

“You have to write a speech.”

“Define write.”

“What’s your theme?”

Aw! That I knew. Margie had given it to me in Colorado. “To motivate.”

She looked at me strangely. That was a theme, I assured her. Something positive and uplifting.

“Okay,” she said. “Write your motivational speech. Edit it. Read it out loud over and over and over until you know it so well you don’t even need to look at it. You’ll be great. Just practice, time it, and then print it out in large font in case you need to look down for a moment to figure out where you are. But you’ll know it so well you won’t even need to look down, as long as you practice.”

“I don’t have the time.” I wasn’t joking.

“I promise you’ll do great if you follow this formula. You’ll do as good as Victoria Alexander. Trust me. She wrote that speech and practiced it.”

And I knew that was true, because I talked to friends of hers who told me they listened to her read the speech over the phone the night before she gave it.

I began to stress again. Not a little tickle of doubt, but brain-numbing panic.

I started my June 09 book last week. It’s been slow going-I wrote and deleted the first chapter four times, but I think I have it down. At least, the opening paragraphs are strong and I’m finally starting in the right place. But I know that part of the reason I’ve been struggling is because I’m scared about the speech I haven’t written.

I need to write it.

I don’t want to write it.

I want to wing it.

Two people I like and trust told me I can’t wing it.

Ironically, I’m not scared of speaking. I stood up at Thrillerfest in July and winged my way through the Awards Ceremony with only the names of my judges that I had torn off a printed email. But I’m scared of writing a speech.

So I’ve decided to do something in between winging and rehearsing. It’s the only way I can keep my sanity, and finish my book by deadline. I spent yesterday pouring over my favorite craft books and pulling out quotes that are motivational and uplifting. I printed out all my motivational lectures from online workshops I’ve given over the last couple of years. I put everything into a folder, stuck it in my laptop case, and am forgetting about it. When I’m on the plane Friday afternoon, I’ll take everything out and (shiver) write talking points. I think I even have a theme, something a bit more focused than “to motivate.” I’m going to talk about fear. I think. At least, that’s the direction the quotes I’m pulling are sending me.

Might have something to do with the fact that I’m scared myself, but I’m still going to Seattle and speaking in front of 250 people.

Because that’s what professionals do. We acknowledge the fear, toss back a shot of tequila (or smoke or pray or all of the above), and perform.

How do you handle your fears?

Why I Love Romantic Suspense

by Allison Brennan

I’m on the road in Michigan, part of the Levy Home Entertainment Read This! Bus Tour. We’ve visited six Meijer stores in the last two days, and we have three more today (Sunday.) There’s a fantastic mix of 27 authors from memoir/true crime (Chip St. Clair) to humorous mysteries (Leslie Langley) to sexy paranormal (Gena Showalter) to historical romance (Kathryn Caskie) to romantic thrillers (Jordan Dane) to thrillers (Tom Grace.) There’s many more, you can go here to see the schedule and author list. So, please forgive me if I neglect responding to posts until I’m dumped at the airport later this evening.

I had considered writing about my experience with United losing my luggage, but decided everyone has a lost luggage story and I did get it, about thirty hours after my plane landed. So I’m going on with my previously scheduled topic: why I write romantic suspense.

Like most writers, I am an avid reader. I started light – Encyclopedia Brown, Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew – but by the time I was eleven, I’d discovered my mom’s vast Agatha Christie and Ed McBain collections.

But two things happened on my way to becoming a mystery writer.

First, I discovered Stephen King. I was thirteen, the book was THE STAND. Two days later, I felt like I’d discovered the world. This was a book that had everything: suspense, mystery, great characters and the highest stakes of all: saving the world.

I devoured every King book I could find, but to this day, THE STAND remains my favorite. The second time I read it while in college (which is a feat for me because I rarely re-read books) I realized that it was more than the suspense and stakes that kept me enthralled, it was the relationships between the characters. Flawed and so real they walked off the page, I discovered that it wasn’t just saving the world that mattered; it was saving the ones your love. The relationship between Stu and Frannie was as important as any other plot point in the book, and without it, the story would have lost that personal connection with readers that takes a good book and makes it great.

It was after dropping out of college that I started reading romance. I came home to visit my mom and pulled a few books off her shelf. Who I discovered was Nora Roberts through her Bantam romantic suspense titles. HOT ICE, CARNAL INNOCENCE, and DIVINE EVIL, among others. I was hooked. These were the books I had been waiting for: romantic suspense. Character driven stories with a crime or suspense component. Books where bad things happened and you turned the pages as fast as you could, but in the end, the good guys always won, and the girl always gets the guy.

I read every romantic suspense or romance novel with even a hint of mystery that I could get my hands on. I also discovered lighter, humorous romances with quirky characters and found them so much fun to read: Jennifer Crusie and Susan Elizabeth Phillips come to mind.

I had fallen in love with romance . . . in danger. To me, romantic thrillers were the best of both worlds. Two people who both come together because of evil, and are almost torn apart by that evil.

I love romance because I want a happy ending. True love should win over adversity if the hero and heroine are worthy. They need to earn it, because nothing easily achieved is truly appreciated. But I also love thrillers because they are physical–fear causes pounding hearts and shaking hands.

Together romance plus suspense is a natural. It gives the satisfaction of seeing two worthy people triumph over a very real evil in order to live happily ever after, with themselves and with each other. In a romantic suspense there will be a happily ever after-that is the story promise-but the danger must be real. There should be doubt. There should be the belief that maybe-just maybe-evil will win. Until the very end, the reader should fear that the hero or heroine may fail. That they could die and the villain will succeed.

Romantic suspense is a vast genre. There’s something for everyone–heavy romance-driven RS to heavy suspense-driven RS and everything in between. You have light and fun mysteries all the way to dark and edgy thrillers; the romance may be a major plot point or a smaller plot point, but the relationship between the hero and heroine is always integral to the story.

If you don’t doubt, cringe, worry, fear, it’s not suspense. Suspense is personal. It could happen to you. When you’re in love, everything matters more. When the life of your loved one is in jeopardy, you will do things you never thought yourself capable of. Because the stakes are higher, the happily-ever-after is all the more sweet.

When I committed myself to pursue a writing career (in March 2002) and actually finish one of the over 100 novels I’d begun, I didn’t even question what I would write. Though I was told by more than one person that the romantic suspense market was "dead" or "difficult," it was all I wanted to write. It took me a couple books to find my voice, which was a lot darker and scarier than I thought. Hmm, perhaps influenced a bit by Stephen King and Dean Koontz . . . but fortunately, the villain gets what’s coming to him, the hero and heroine survive–and are together–at the end of the book, and while bad things happen, justice is always served. Because real life isn’t always so happy.

Okay, now for my news . . . the PLAYING DEAD book trailer is done and on my website–which has a new title page– and it’s also on YouTube. I figured out how to embed it in a blog. Isn’t that cool? Who’da thunk I was that proficient. (Boy, I hope this works . . . . )

Fish Out Of Water


By Allison Brennan

I’ll admit, I’m nervous to be here. Okay, we’ll say terrified.

I’ve been a regular visitor and fan of Murderati for a couple years. I met JT, Rob, Brett and Toni at Thrillerfest in 2006 and we hung out. We were in Arizona and there was something about that first ITW conference that was intoxicating. Not just the drinks, but the atmosphere. I mean where else could a newly published author like myself walk into a bar and see Lee Child hanging out? Or share a ride with the classy and smart and talented Tess Gerritsen? I felt out of my element. I wasn’t a real thriller writer, after all. I write romantic suspense. A little sex, a little violence, and the guarantee that my hero and heroine are going to survive and be together at the end of the book.

I felt far more comfortable with the Killer Year gang–the soon-to-be-published thriller writers of 2007. Sure, I had three books out in 2006, but they didn’t really count as three because they came out bang-bang-bang in consecutive months. It was *like* having just one book release.

Today, I feel just like I did two years ago when I stepped into the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. A bit in awe, shocked I’m here, happy as a clam, and feeling a bit unworthy. (Four cliches in one sentence! How about that.)

I rarely write anything profound. Occasionally, I can turn a phrase and impress myself, but usually I write how I talk–too long with lots of tangents. One thing I love about writing novels over short stories is that I have 100,000 words to play with. I can throw out all these threads and have plenty of time to tie them together. When I write short, it’s painful. Agonizing. My high school American History teacher gave me an “A-” on my final essay because I, “So eloquently said in ten pages what could easily have been said in five.”

The other bloggers here at Murderati have backgrounds that are professional, interesting or fun. Doctors, attorneys, executives, business owners. They’re smart, profound, and probably read all those intelligent literary books that make them even smarter and more profound. They care about the words, what they mean, and how they look and sound together. They anguish over making a sentence just right, to leave just the right image in the reader’s mind. Don’t try to deny it, I’ve read your blog posts, I know this about you.

I envy you. Sure, I get excited when I come up with something that sounds so good I can’t believe I wrote it. Those are the sentences that usually get deleted during revisions. I recently had one of those, “Wow, I can’t believe I wrote that” moments.

Okay, tangent time . . . I don’t plot. Ever. Even when I think I know where the story is going, it doesn’t go there. For example, I just finished writing SUDDEN DEATH (4/09). About two weeks before I was done, my editor needed a synopsis for the two books that follow it (for sales, art and the copy editors.) They had to know what the books were about so they could write cover copy. (Okay, tangent again — I wrote a synopsis for SD before I wrote the book because they needed it . . . I didn’t expect the cover copy so soon, and I sort of forgot to tell my editor that the story wasn’t what I said it would be. The cover copy sounded terrific–except I hadn’t written that book. We fixed it.) Anyway, back to the first tangent . . . I still had 100 or so pages to write for SUDDEN DEATH and I wrote a new synop and figured I knew how the book was going to end, I was so close to the climax, right? I finished the book Thursday. It didn’t end anything like I thought it would. You can see that writing a synopsis is paralyzing for me because NEVER has a book turned out remotely like the synopsis.

I wrote a brief synopsis (about 3 paragraphs each) for FATAL SECRETS and CUTTING EDGE, books 2 and 3 of my FBI trilogy. Immediately, I knew book 2 wasn’t going to work. The characters were wrong, the premise was great–but the story would be boring. I could see it. I put myself to sleep just thinking about it. And then woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat fearing I was stuck writing a boring book. So I emailed my editor and said, um, don’t send FS to copy because I’m not going to write that book. It doesn’t work.

But I’m getting excited about book 3 because already I can see all the possible threads and potential outcomes. Within the short synopsis I laid out I can go in infinite directions. I like my characters, they’ve walked right in and made themselves at home. I see them. My villain creeps me out, always a good sign. The story doesn’t have to go the way I think it might, because the set-up works. I have many paths my characters can choose.

My “wow” moment came Thursday when my editor sent me the draft back cover copy. I read it and loved it. I wanted to read the book! Well, first I have to write it, but still, I couldn’t believe they extracted that cool story out of my pathetic synopsis. The copy is going to be hard to live up to.

I get thrilled very easily. I lead a very boring life. When you get excited about touring the morgue or going to the gun range to shoot guns you can’t buy in California (but it was okay, because they were cops letting us shoot them–I wasn’t breaking any laws, so please don’t turn me in. Okay, I did break one law last week when I talked on my cell phone not using the hands free device that I hate, but the kids were in the car and the story I was hearing was not fit for their ears . . . )

So, anyway, I’m rather simple. You probably won’t get any brilliant commentary from my blog posts or find me as crafty as Alex or laugh-out-loud funny as Toni or as poignant as Pari. I love wine like JT, but for me it’s either, “This is really good” or “This is crap.” I often start talking about one thing, and end on a completely different note . . . for example, I originally planned to introduce myself here on Murderati with a post about why I love to write romantic suspense. I even talked out my blog while driving home after dropping the kids off at school Friday morning. You can see from my opening, where I mention I write romantic suspense, that I did intend to come back to that at some point. But this is already running long and — wait!! I now have a blog topic next time. Woo hoo, I’m already ahead of the game. ๐Ÿ™‚ And I didn’t even plan it.

I thought I would share a couple facts about me you may or may not know:

** I have five kids. (Yes, I know where babies come from and how they are made.)

** I’m a college drop-out. UC Santa Cruz. Yes, our mascot was the banana slug. . . . okay, stop laughing. Seriously. It’s not that funny. It’s actually quite weird and disturbing. But . . . I suppose I saw this fate in my future. When I was 10, a columnist for the San Mateo Times, John Horgan (who was my uncle’s college roommate,) wrote a column titled, “Allison and the Banana Slug.” Yeah, I was THAT Allison. The rest is history. Please rewrite it.

** I love video games. It’s sad. I’m going to be 39 this month.

** I wrote a gushing fan letter to Stephen King when I was 13 and he wrote me back.

** When I was a kid, I wanted to be a forensic pathologist. Why? Because Quincy was my favorite tv show. (Yes, I know it’s not realistic. There was never any blood.) When I did my morgue tour last year and observed an autopsy, I realized that I wasn’t as squeamish as I thought. Maybe I should have pursued that career path . . . naw.

In light of my virgin post here at Murderati, I’m going to give away some books. Why not, right? And I’m being perfectly selfish in my gift-giving. The last book of my prison break trilogy comes out at the end of the month. I want to suck you in with the first two books so you’ll run out and buy PLAYING DEAD on September 30th. See, I’m really not a nice person . . . just ask my fourteen year old daughter who thinks I’m evil, don’t care, don’t understand, and just plain mean because I won’t let her date until she’s 16. And sometimes I think it’s odd that my agent has to preface any conversation about me with, “Allison is really very nice, honest . . . “

To win, all you have to do is comment. And maybe tell us one thing we don’t know about you. I’ll randomly pick five winners over the course of the week and ask Toni (please!) to post them next Sunday.

Thanks, gang, for having me. I’m truly honored to be here.