Category Archives: Tess Gerritsen

What happened to the book I planned to write?

by Tess Gerritsen

A few days ago, I finally finished the fifth draft of THE SILENT GIRL,  typed “The End” and emailed the manuscript to my agent and editor.  Then, as is my custom, I attacked the detritus that’s accumulated on my desk over the past 12 months during the writing of that book.  Into the rubbish basket went notes and stray scraps of papers, photocopied articles, etc.  Underneath it all, I came across my long-lost yellow legal pad on which I had jotted the original plot outline for THE SILENT GIRL. These were my personal notes to myself, notes that no one else has seen, with a sequence of proposed events in the story.  They might as well have been written by a Martian, because I didn’t recognize any of it.  That’s how different the finished story turned out from anything on that yellow pad.  

Before I turned in the manuscript, my husband read it and he asked, “How did you come up with all the complications of this story?  At what point did you know about the final two twists?  When did you know who the bad guy was?”  I couldn’t answer the questions because I couldn’t remember.  Writing is such a disorganized process for me that sometimes the most surprising twists occur on the fly, right as I get to that point in the story.  And the bad guy doesn’t become obvious to me until he suddenly unmasks himself.  I can’t tell you how these things reveal themselves.  I can’t tell you how character A morphed into character B, only that it happened somewhere between draft 1 and draft 2.  Which is why holding onto all those drafts becomes important to future scholars who might want to dissect an author’s writing process.  Because I’ve promised my papers to the University of New England, I’ve saved and stored all the drafts of my manuscripts since THE SINNER.  Whether anyone will be able to decipher my process is a big question; even I don’t know how I did it.

But here’s an example of how I first approached  writing my novel THE KEEPSAKE, about an “Egyptian” mummy found in a Boston museum.  When they discover she has a bullet in her leg, they realize she’s not Egyptian at all, but a modern murder victim.  That’s all I knew about the story.  I didn’t know who did it.  I didn’t know why the killer did it.  I didn’t know who the suspects might be.

So I jotted down notes, which I happened to save.  I don’t remember writing them, so all I can do is tell you what was on the page.

At the top, I’d written five possible motives for the killer:  JEALOUSY.  GREED.  DESIRE.  FEAR OF DISCOVERY.  REVENGE.  Nothing too original.

Then come notes that seem to be off the top of my head:

— A crazy grad student who got ignored by all the girls — now getting back at the famed archaeologist for stealing his girlfriends?

— Archaeologist’s third young wife is gorgeous and now being stalked?

— Archaeologist believes he accidentally killed someone years ago in Egypt — turns out his victim is still alive and out for vengeance?

— Archaeologist’s son killed someone and father is covering for him?  He’s an evil boy who hasn’t spoken to his dad in years?

— Group of young archaeologists in desert witnessed the death of a local child and archaeologist paid them to be silent.  Years later, these witnesses are being killed one by one, each victim killed by his or her own area of expertise?  (Mummies, shrunken heads, bog bodies)

The list of possible victims/killers/suspects goes on and on for three pages.  After I wrote these possible premises, I gave up on trying to settle on one, and just started writing.  I opened the book with Maura observing the CT scan of a mummy, and the discovery of the bullet.  I had no idea where the book was going.

 Those of you who’ve read THE KEEPSAKE (KEEPING THE DEAD in the UK) will know that the final book ended up completely different from anything on the list I’d jotted down.  Because as I wrote the book, better ideas kept popping into my head as I wrote the book.  Ideas that didn’t occur to me despite days of brainstorming at my desk.  Ideas that only showed up after I’d laid the groundwork of the first few chapters.  

I’ve tried and tried to be more organized about my writing.  I’ve spoken to authors who plot every chapter on notecards and don’t start writing the book until those notecards are in order.  I’ve spoken to authors who work off 50-page outlines, with every plot point logically thought out.  I envy them.  

Instead, I have five drafts of a book that kept changing on me, and an initial set of notes that appear to have been written by someone else.   And the end result is a plot that I don’t remember devising.

 

 

 

 

Confessions of a Failed Tiger Mom

by Tess Gerritsen

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of sitting on a literary panel with Jed Rubenfeld, a soft-spoken and charmingly self-deprecating novelist whose debut historical thriller, The Interpretation of Murder, had just been released.  After the panel, he invited me to an address in uptown Manhattan, where his daughter was giving a violin recital, which unfortunately I couldn’t attend.  I thought it an unusual invitation to get from a fellow novelist — until he told me that his wife was Chinese.  And then I thought: “well, of course,” and the invitation no longer seemed at all surprising to me.  Because I’m the daughter of Chinese parents, and lord knows, I endured a childhood of countless violin and piano recitals, to which everyone my family knew was always invited.  

Rubenfeld’s wife is now in the news, and in a big way.  Her name is Amy Chua, she’s a Yale Law School professor, and she’s just released a memoir called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about being a Chinese mother.  She also wrote an essay that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, which resulted in a storm of publicity and criticism about her rather strict style of parenting.  That essay has generated over 7200 comments and counting, some of them from people who call her an abusive control freak.  I haven’t read the book yet (although I’m looking forward to it), but based on what I’ve seen of newspaper reviews, Chua’s book is funnier and more thoughtful than the essay makes it seem, and Chua’s two daughters have reportedly matured into happy, talented young women.  Yet the criticism continues, because the American public is both astonished — and somewhat appalled — by Chua’s hard-driving parenting.  For instance, her children were not allowed to:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

For most Americans, that looks like a shockingly autocratic list of demands.  All I can say is, welcome to my childhood.  

When I was growing up in California, all the Asian-American mothers I knew were Tiger Moms.  Every single one of my childhood cohorts played the piano or violin or both.  It wasn’t as if my parents said, “You want to play the piano?” Instead it was: “Your first piano lesson will be on Tuesday.”

So now I play the piano and the violin.

I was also told, like Chua’s kids, that anything less than an A was an unacceptable grade in school.  Then, after my parents found out that there was an even better grade, called an A plus, they were no longer satisfied with a plain vanilla A.  My grades all had to be A pluses.  Except for physical education class, which was an exception that Chua also made for her kids.  Chinese parents don’t really care whether their kids are jocks, and they consider team sports a complete waste of time.  However, if it’s an individual sport where you can shine and make them proud — such as figure skating or gymnastics — that’s okay.

As for sleepovers? Dates with boys?  No way.  My dad absolutely forbade me from dating until I was a senior in high school.  That doesn’t mean I actually followed the rules. Chinese kids learn early how to get around those rules.  

I’m glad that my parents weren’t as strict as Chua when it came to some school activities.  I was allowed to perform in school plays, which was my biggest pleasure in high school.  I acted, wrote, and directed, which helped me learn the basics of drama — lessons that helped me as a writer.  I’m also grateful that my parents let me watch TV.  I can’t imagine a childhood without “Star Trek” or “Gilligan’s Island” or — hanging my head in embarrassment — “Mr. Ed.”  Those were cultural touchstones that made me into a real American.

But in so many ways, mine was the classic Chinese-American childhood.  For the most part, I’m grateful for it. I’m grateful that I play the piano and violin, that I was accepted at a top university, that I earned my medical degree.  

But there’s also a dark side to growing up with tiger parents.  I’ve heard from too many Asians whose dreams of careers in the arts were thwarted by their parents.  One 45-year-old computer engineer wrote me, mourning the fact he was now too old to pursue a fashion career.  “I have only one life, and I’m spending it at a job I hate.  Because it’s what my parents wanted for me.”  I heard the story of a young man whose parents wouldn’t let him pursue a singing career, and instead demanded he became a doctor.  The day he earned his medical degree, he called his father and said, “I’ve done what you wanted.  Now I’m doing what I want.”  And he became one of the top opera singers in China.  

My own childhood, with its emphasis on staying home alone and studying, probably led to my continuing feelings of social ineptness.  I still feel awkward in cocktail parties.  Small talk is beyond me. I never learned to be comfortable in social situations — and I wonder if other Asian Amerians feel likewise.  

When it came to raising my own children, I have to admit, I’m a failed Tiger Mom.  My husband is Dutch, and you know how lenient those hang-loose Dutch are.  Anything goes!  I managed to hang onto a few Tiger Mom practices.  My older son plays the violin and my younger son plays the cello.  I never asked them if they wanted to play an instrument; I just told them it was time to start.  But all the rest of it?  Demanding they practice their instruments?  Get straight A’s?  Get into Harvard?  Way too much work for this laissez-faire mom.  Instead, I’m the mom who waited in line with my kids for the midnight showing of “Star Wars, Episode I” and wrote them this excuse note for school: My sons couldn’t make it to school yesterday because they were exhausted from watching the premiere of the new “Star Wars” movie, which I felt was an important cultural event.  Yes, I really wrote that note.  My sons still talk about it.  

As a Tiger Mom, I failed.  I’m no good at demanding obedience from anyone.  And my boys have been allowed to pursue their own dreams, even if those dreams are wildly impractical.  

After all, it’s what I did; I wouldn’t expect them do do any less.

 

 

Will bookstores become merely holiday stores?

by Tess Gerritsen

The common wisdom in the book biz is that you want to bring out your big-name books in the fall, to take advantage of the Christmas shopping season.  I’ve long wondered just how much impact Christmas actually has on book sales.  Now, thanks to Amazon, I’ve been able to look at some real numbers and report back that the common wisdom is true.  Christmas really is a great time for bookselling.

Late last year, Amazon began offering free Bookscan data to authors who are enrolled in Amazon’s Author Central program.  Bookscan records sales of print books in selected markets across the country, and they claim their data captures approximately 75% of all sales.  (I’ve heard from other sources that the number is closer to 65%.)   It does not include e-book sales to Kindle, Nook, etc.  Authors are only able to see their own sales data, so you can’t compare yourself to other authors’ sales, but this gives us more data than we could ever access before.  And it’s all free.

 If you’re a published author, register now!  It’s easy, it allows you to post a profile, link to your website, and post a blog directly onto Amazon’s site.  When I saw the announcement that I can now access my Bookscan numbers via Amazon, I began keeping track of my sales.  (Because Amazon only captures a month’s worth of sales data at a time, you’ll have to check back regularly and keep track of your own numbers.)  Week by week, I’ve watched how my sales changed as Christmas approached.  I followed, in particular, my  most recent title ICE COLD.  Admittedly, it was published way back in June 29, 2010, so it wasn’t a fall book. It’s still in hardcover, but it’s now shelved in section and wouldn’t be particularly visible in bookstores. Still, I wanted to see if even a summer book would show a bump during the holiday shopping season.   

Here’s what the Bookscan numbers told me.

The first week of data available was November 22 – 29.  I’ll use the number of copies sold that week as my baseline figure.

November 29 – December 5: the sales of ICE COLD were up 27% from the first week.

December 6 – 12:  sales were up 30%  from the first week.

December 13 – 19: sales up 51%

December 20 – 26: up 60%.

December 27 – January 2: sales dropped back down to what they were the first week.

So there you have it.  Even a book that was a mid-summer release saw a nice uptick in sales thanks to Christmas shoppers.

Even more interesting were my sales figures for all my titles, combined.  This includes my entire backlist, all now in paperback.  Here’s what I found:

Week 1 (November 22 – 28):  baseline

Week 2: up 15%

Week 3: up 38%

Week 4: up 115%

Week 5: up 98%

And this is interesting.  In week 6 (after Christmas), my overall sales remained 77% above baseline.

So even backlist paperback titles get a boost from Christmas shopping.  No surprise — paperbacks make great stocking stuffers and they’re inexpensive.  Or perhaps it’s because people go on vacation, and they need some leisure reading during those weeks.

Not only do these numbers tell us that Christmas shoppers buy books, it also gives us a hint about the future of bookselling.  And it’s this: when it comes to buying gifts, real books, printed on real paper, continue to be a popular item.  Even though we’re in the midst of an e-book revolution, with up to 50% of book sales projected to be in digital form within the next few years, print books will continue to sell during gift-giving holidays.  

I can’t help but picture those mall “pop-up” stores that appear and disappear according to season.  Halloween shops, for instance, which turn up every September and are gone by November.  Or Christmas shops, which sell ornaments and gift-wrap during November and December, and vanish in January.  

Luckily, bookstores have more than one season to cater to.  There’s Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.  Graduation.  Back to school.  And then there are birthdays, all year round.  Such events demand a physical gift that can be wrapped and handed to the recipient.  Which means, if it’s a book, a book printed on paper.  

For that reason alone, I don’t see bookstores vanishing from our landscape.  

I’m traveling this week, so can’t respond to comments.  But I hope other authors will share what they found out about their own book sales during the holiday season.  And if you haven’t registered with Author Central, do it now!

Imprisoned by your fans

by Tess Gerritsen

The amazingly multi-talented Steve Martin (actor/writer/comedian/musician) doesn’t need me to leap to his defense.  But that’s what I felt like doing, claws bared, when I read this article in the New York Times a few weeks ago:

In the history of intellectual chatter, the events of Nov. 29, 2010, at the 92nd Street Y will be archived under disaster. Or comedy.

That night, a conversation betweenSteve Martin, the writer and actor, and Deborah Solomon, who writes a weekly interview column for The New York Times Magazine, resulted in the Y’s sending out a next-day apology, along with a promise of a refund.

Mr. Martin, in Miami for a book event, said in an e-mail on Wednesday that Ms. Solomon “is an outstanding interviewer,” adding that “we have appeared together before in Washington, D.C., in a similar circumstance to great success.”

But Sol Adler, the Y’s executive director, saw it differently. “We acknowledge that last night’s event with Steve Martin did not meet the standard of excellence that you have come to expect from 92nd St. Y,” he wrote in an e-mail to ticket holders. “We planned for a more comprehensive discussion and we, too, were disappointed with the evening. We will be mailing you a $50 certificate for each ticket you purchased to last night’s event. The gift certificate can be used toward future 92Y events, pending availability.”

 What was Steve’s big mistake that night?  What terrible misbehavior did he engage in to so enrage his fans? Simply this: he had the audacity to be himself and talk about his latest book — which is about art.  The audience came expecting to hear the wild and crazy guy they knew from his film and TV career.  They wanted to hear tales of glitz and glamor and movie stars. They wanted their trained monkey.  They didn’t want the Steve Martin who talks about art, which is what he is clearly passionate about, and what his book is about.  

When he didn’t deliver exactly what they expected, this audience was so disappointed, so incensed, that they pitched a tantrum worthy of spoiled brats and demanded their money back.

Now, if this were an audience who paid big bucks to hear Lady Gaga sing in concert, and instead had to watch her read the Manhattan phone book in a monotone, I could understand their disappointment.  When you pay for music, you expect music.  When you pay for dinner, you expect food.

This audience came to hear an interview with Steve Martin, and they got an interview.  But the man is known to have many facets; he is not just a wild and crazy guy, but an author who wanted to talk about his latest book.  A book about a serious topic.  Over the years, through his comedic movies, Steve Martin has been branded as a funny guy.  But that branding has locked him into such a tight cage that if he dares step one foot out of that cage, the public cracks their bullwhip to drive the prisoner back to where he belongs.  In the cage for wild and crazy movie stars.   

This, fellow authors, is the downside of branding.  Every time you write a book that reinforces your brand, you have welded in another bar of your cage.  Once that cage is locked and sealed, you’re going to have a hard time getting out of the thing again.  

Only a few authors have been able to do it successfully.  John Grisham has managed the feat, occasionally releasing a sentimental novel between his usual legal thrillers.  Stephen King has escaped branding, too, partly because he has regularly produced non-horror, literary fiction throughout his career.  

For most of us, though — writers who aren’t as prolific as King, or who don’t wield the clout of Grisham — a large part of our success is tied up in branding ourselves.  We start off wanting readers to think of us as the crime thriller or romance go-to gal.  It’s only later, when we get a hankering to try something else, or when our chosen genre starts to lose its audience, that we realize that being branded isn’t always such a good thing.

My own brand has skittered around through my career.  First I wrote romantic thrillers, then medical thrillers, then science thrillers, then crime thrillers.  With an historical thriller thrown in.  The one part of the brand that’s stayed constant is the “thriller” part, and that’s allowed me a bit of leeway.  Readers will forgive you for moving between sub-genres.  But try making a really big leap — say, from serial killer novel to sweet sentimental novel — and your audience is going to howl. The way they howled at Steve Martin.

If you truly want to slip out of that cage, you may have to do it in disguise with a pseudonym. Which means starting over again as a newbie writer trying to find your first audience.  Or you’ll have to find an understanding publisher.  Or you’ll have to publish it yourself as an E-book, an option that more and more authors seem to be leaning toward.

Good luck to you.  May you escape the wrath of fans who’ll never forgive you for craving a little variety in your art.   

 

I hate this book

by Tess Gerritsen

I have not been out of my house in days.  If not for my husband delivering nourishment to the refrigerator, I would have starved weeks ago.  My neighbors think I’m the crazy recluse next door, probably destined to turn into one of those weird cat ladies shuffling around in a bathrobe and slippers, muttering to myself.  Except I don’t own a cat.  But I do shuffle around muttering to myself because this is the very worst time of year for me, the time of year when I don’t answer my phone or my mail, when I turn into Greta Garbo and moan, “why can’t I just be left alone?”

It’s deadline time.  

It’s also called the I hate this book stage.  I’ve heard that some authors (I don’t know any of them personally) completely bypass this stage.  They rocket through the process of writing a novel with overwhelming passion and joy and they think their story, at every stage, is grand and a work of genius.  I suspect those people are merely psychotic.  Or maybe I’m the psychotic one, to put myself through this with every single book.

And it does happen with every single book.  It’s utterly predictable.  I will start off with an idea I love.  And then, somewhere between the first and second draft, I will start to hate the whole damn project.  By then, my publisher has a cover design in the works and riveting flap copy written, both of which seem so much better than the story they’re actually supposed to sell.  But no one knows it yet, except me.  And I’m afraid to tell my team how much I hate the story, because then they’ll worry that it really is as horrid as I think it is.

My literary agent, though, takes my misery in stride because she has heard it all before.  At some stage in the writing, she says, almost all her authors have whined, “I hate this story and I hate these characters.”  That, she says,  means the book’s done and it’s time to send it in.  

My husband has heard it all before, too.  “You said this the last time, so just finish the thing already,” he says.  Such an understanding man.  

If you are writing your very first novel, this stage will terrify you.  It will make you question your talent, cause you to surrender, make you wonder if you shouldn’t toss this deformed monster in the closet and start a different novel instead.  My advice?  Don’t.  Stick with it.  Fix it.  Shuffle around scenes, re-write dialogue.  

That’s what I’m doing now.  Fixing things.  Feeling alternately optimistic and hopeless.  Unlike the newbie novelist, I have the advantage of knowing this stage is perfectly predictable.  I also know that I’ve forged through this every time before.  Twenty-two books later, I have to believe I can do it again.  

I’m there but I’m not

by Tess Gerritsen

I just spent a lovely week with my family, cooking Thanksgiving dinner for ten, hanging out with my sons, catching up with out-of-town relatives, and watching the latest Harry Potter movie plus a season’s worth of “Mad Men” DVD’s  I’d like to report that I was completely focused on family and friends but, sadly, that is not the case.  Because no matter how scintillating the conversation, or how shocking the movie plot twists, there was always something nagging me, nibbling at the edge of my consciousness, sucking away from complete enjoyment of the here and now.

And that would be my book in progress. 

It’s the curse of the working novelist.  I hate to sound ungrateful for my good fortune — and yes, anyone who’s a working novelist, who actually has a contract with a publisher and an audience waiting for her next book, is a lucky duck indeed — but there’s a price to be paid for it.  And that is, your brain is not your own.  You may think you’re in control of it.  You think you can sit down to a nice turkey dinner and enjoy family conversation, but in reality your mind has been commandeered by thoughts of that novel in progress.  During Thanksgiving dinner we traded family news over champagne and turkey, yet all that fascinating gossip couldn’t drive thoughts of THE BOOK out of my head.  I’d be in the middle of a conversation with my darling niece and nephew, and suddenly, wham!  A snatch of dialogue would pop into my head, and I’d have to fight the urge to bolt from the table and head upstairs to my desk to write it down.  Or I’d see the way the candlelight glowed on my son’s face and I’d want to snatch up pen and paper to describe the image.  Or I’d get that searing jolt of anxiety about the fact my deadline is only two months away, and I’m having a leisurely dinner with the most important people in my life.  

When I really should be writing.

That’s a curse, it really is.  It keeps us from living in the moment, from being totally engaged with the ones we love.  And the ones we love sense it.  Even as we talk to them about what’s happening in their lives, they see that faraway look suddenly drop over our eyes and they know we’re somewhere else.  We’re in another universe with people who don’t exist.  

If you’re lucky, you have a family who tolerates your eccentricity.  Maybe they murmur to each other: “Oops, we’ve lost her again.”  And they tolerate you as they would the crazy aunt.  I acknowledge that I am the crazy aunt.  Here one moment, gone to Mars the next.  “What was that you said again, dear?  Sorry, I was thinking about ligatures.  Yes, the turkey is juicy this year, isn’t it?”

So that was Thanksgiving dinner this year at my house.  I cooked, I ruminated, I thought about strangulation. 

Next year, I promise, will be different.

 

Things I’ve been wrong about

by Tess Gerritsen

 

You live and you learn.  And what I’ve learned, over the past two decades as a writer, is how many times I’ve been wrong about developments in the publishing biz.  When I go back and see old blog posts of mine, I have to either wince or laugh about how poorly some of my predictions have come out.  Which only proves that too much of the time, I have no idea what I’m talking about.

But I’m willing to admit it.

Here are some of the things I’ve been absurdly wrong about.  Or maybe just a little bit wrong about:

 

“E-readers will never be popular.”

I believe I made this assertion as recently as, oh, 2007.  I said that no one would want to bring an e-reader to the beach, that we’re all too attached to real books, and that those gizmos were just too reader-unfriendly.  But then I had a conversation with a Kindle zealot and, in September 2008, I bought one.  And blogged about it.  Not just blogged about it, raved about it.  But I still didn’t see it taking over the publishing world.

 

“E-books will always be a small segment of overall book sales.”

  Can I stop whacking myself with the wet noodle?  I was so wrong about this, I want to blush.  As Sarah Weinman writes in Daily Finance, e-sales comprised about 25% of overall sales for John Grisham’s latest novel.  And they were more than 50% of overall sales for Laura Lippman’s recent hardcover release.  I’ve seen the growth in my own sales, and the steepness of the curve, from last year to this, has been nothing short of breathtaking.  The good news is that my total hardcover sales haven’t really declined because of it, which makes me think that many of those e-customers represent growth in overall readership.  Or they represent readers who are buying both formats.  I have absolutely no doubt that within the next few years, e-sales will make up 50% of the sales of most new releases.

 

“Piracy will destroy publishing.”

This past January, I blogged about how many of my books were turning up on pirate sites. I foresaw the same calamity falling upon publishing that fell upon the music industry.  I worried about authors starving because too many readers would just swipe our work for free.  I noted how many thousands of my books had been downloaded for free from sharing sites.  

I think I worried about it for nothing.  Because e-readers have become so popular, and downloading books has become so easy and for some titles, dirt cheap — that customers are bypassing those virus-ridden free-sharing sites and downloading books legally.  The iTunes model, it turns out, works for books as well.  It’s just a matter of keeping the books affordable and available.  And if a reader steals one of my books?  Well, I’ve come around to agreeing with publishing guru and author Joe Konrath: if the thief really really loves the book,  maybe he’ll actually pay for the next one. 

 

“Traditional advertising for books is the gold standard.”

By traditional, I meant the use of print ads in places like the New York Times and USA Today.  But after an online conversation with marketing guru M.J. Rose, I was forced to re-think my position, which I blogged about here.  And now, in 2010, I can tell you that I think print advertising is pretty much wasted money.  For my last book, ICE COLD, no major print ads were bought at all.  The advertising was pretty much all online, with two ad spots on television during the debut week for “Rizzoli & Isles.”  I don’t think we’ll be going back to newspaper ads for the next book, either.  Because why spend tens of thousands of dollars for an ad that will just be lining birdcages within 24 hours?  

As for TV ads, that’s something else that authors should re-think.  It’s cool, it’s glamorous, but for the most part it’s an expensive bust.  Consider this fascinating article, which analyzes the effect of a TV ad on one author’s book sales.  His conclusion: it’s a huge waste of money.  Now in my case, this may not be true, because I was advertising on “Rizzoli & Isles, a television show that was built on my books.  So I was playing to the same audience that already likes the characters.  But if you’re just putting up an ad on a random TV show that has nothing to do with your books, you might want to think again.

 

“Self-publishing is a fool’s game.”

Back in 2006, I wrote a blog about how self-published books almost always fail.    And I revisited the topic here.  I’m not going to entirely back away from that stance, if what we’re talking about is print books.  I still believe that if you pay to print your own book, you’re facing insurmountable odds when it comes to getting that book into stores, getting it reviewed, and finding any readers to buy it.  But something drastically changed between 2006 and today, and that is the e-book revolution.  Now you can self-publish your manuscript with Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and then sell it through their e-stores.  True, you’ll face competition with all the thousands of other authors who are also self-publishing their books.  But as Joe Konrath has proved, it is possible to make a living as a self-published e-book writer.  Again, the odds are stacked way against you.  But your investment is minimal, and there actually is the potential for an income.

Bottom line?  If you’re a first-time author who’s been offered a traditional publishing contract with an advance, I would still say you’re better off taking it.  Because you can’t dismiss the advantages that a real publisher can give you, from distribution to marketing to editing.  But if you can’t find a publisher, or you’ve been fired by your publisher, there is now another way to sell your book to the public.

 

“The vampire/zombie/fairy/werewolf/blahblah craze can’t last.”

When it comes to trends in public taste, I don’t know what I”m talking about.  And neither does anyone else. 

 

So what have the rest of you been wrong about?  Which trends did you dismiss, which developments did you pooh pooh?

characters have childhoods, too.

When I was five years old, I was held hostage for the price of a meal.

It was a Sunday morning and my mom was sleeping in, so my dad took me out for breakfast.  We went to  a restaurant a few blocks from the apartment where we were living, a dining spot we’d never been to before.  I was thrilled to spend time with my dad, who worked two jobs and rarely had time for a leisurely breakfast, and I dressed up in my favorite red bonnet and a plaid skirt.  We sat in a booth and ate pancakes and it was a perfect morning.

Until my dad opened his wallet to pay the bill, and realized he had only two dollars. 

Back then credit cards were still rare and he hadn’t brought his checkbook, but none of this mattered to the waitress or the manager.  All they knew was that these customers had just eaten breakfast in their establishment and we weren’t going to pay for it. My frantic dad told them he’d come right back with the cash, if they’d just let us leave for a few minutes.  No dice.  They wanted the bill paid, or they were going to call the police.  I don’t remember how the negotiations went, or how they came to the solution they agreed upon.  All I know is that I was told to stay behind in the booth as a guarantee that my dad would return.  Only then would they let him run out for the money.  As hostage experiences go, it wasn’t unpleasant.  I think the waitress might have brought me hot chocolate.  What I do remember was the look of utter humiliation and panic in my dad’s face when he came running back in with the cash.

As we walked home together, he said to me, “The worst feeling in the world is having no money in your wallet.”  

I have never forgotten his words, or the shame with which he said it.  And to this day, I feel anxious if I don’t have at least twenty dollars in my wallet.  Even if I have credit cards and a checkbook with me, I still need those twenty dollars on me.  It’s gotten to be a joke in our household.  Whenever my husband and I leave the house, I always ask him, “how much cash do you have?”  He knows it’s just one of my little neurotic tics.  He also knows exactly where it comes from.  When you’ve been held hostage for the price of pancakes, you make damn sure you’re never again caught with an empty wallet.

I mention this story because I’ve been thinking lately about how childhood traumas — even minor ones like mine — always stay with us. Thriller writer David Morrell once told me that he thought writers invariably focus on themes from their childhoods, and we work out our childhood issues in our stories.  I think there’s a lot of truth to that theory.  I grew up as the only Asian kid in my elementary school, so my childhood struggle was trying to fit in with the crowd, and knowing that I never could.  I realized that many of my characters are working out that very issue: Jane Rizzoli, trying to fit in as a woman in a man’s profession.  Maura Isles, trying to be accepted by cops who are a little afraid of her.  All the plain, awkward, unsophisticated heroines that populate my novels are longing for the same thing I did: acceptance.  (And they hate having empty wallets, too.)    

When I write, I find that I often include a character’s childhood memories in the story, because childhood incidents are such powerful influences on personality.  They tell us what a character fears and longs for, why a character reacts the way she does to an insult, or why she doesn’t believe it when a man tells her he loves her.  And sometimes those incidents come right from my own life.

In writing about Jane Rizzoli, I once had her remember the time her father lost his job and the family had to live on Potato Buds and canned corn.  (A memory from my own childhood.)  In another of my novels, my heroine’s dad lost his job but was too proud to reveal that shameful truth to his neighbors, so he got dressed every morning in his usual suit and tie and drove off as if he were going to work.  (Again, a memory from my childhood.)  

Even if the incidents aren’t from your own life, a character’s childhood memories give us powerful insight into character.  In The Apprentice, Jane thinks back to her days in the school band, where she was one of only two girls who played the trumpet. She was so bad at it that her parents banished her outside to practice.  The fact she chose a trumpet was part of what defines Jane Rizzoli.  No demure flute or oboe for her; she’s never been afraid to make noise or to irritate people, so she would choose the trumpet.   

Or the time little Jane fell and split her chin on the coffee table.  Any other kid would scream in distress, but what did Jane do?  She kicked and slapped the table because she was angry it had hurt her.  She refused to be a victim; instead, she was fighting back.  

Sometimes, when I’m creating a new character and I don’t yet have a good handle on him, I’ll use one of his childhood memories to help me define him.  All it takes is a remembered incident or two, and suddenly I understand why he’s so terrified of poverty, why goats make him nervous, or why he can’t stop arguing with his brothers.  It makes him more real for me. Because I believe that once you know the child, you’ll know the adult he becomes.

Why are readers so angry these days?

Yes, this is right on the heels of my last Murderati blog post, about whether I should pull the plug on the internet, followed by the post by Alafair Burke of being stalked online by an obnoxious woman.  But I can’t help blogging again on the problems that come with being so accessible to readers online. The reason I can’t get off the subject is this situation, which I mention over on my own blog.  

It turns out that some of my readers are angry (again), and they have no qualms about letting me have it with both barrels.  This time, it’s nurses who are up in arms about my book, The Bone Garden, because it focuses squarely on the contributions of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes.  The story takes place in 1830, when Holmes is a medical student, and in the tale, he gets the first inkling that doctors’ dirty hands are linked to childbed fever.  “What about Florence Nightingale’s contributions?” say the annoyed nurses.  “By ignoring her, you’ve revealed that you don’t value nurses’ contributions to medicine.  Don’t you know that Nightingale’s observations during the Crimean War changed hospitals forever?  Why is your book only about doctors?”

 I try to patiently answer the emails, pointing out that the  Crimean War was in the 1850s, a good twenty-four years after my story takes place, so for my characters to mention Nightingale would make them, oh, psychic.  I also point out that Holmes was in America and Nightingale was an English nurse, so the two of them probably wouldn’t have known each other anyway.  I point out that Holmes presented his groundbreaking paper on infectiousness in 1843, before anyone in America had heard of Nightingale.  But while I’m trying to be reasonable and patient with these charges, I’m also aware that my blood pressure has shot up, and another writing session has been torpedoed.  

All because a few readers are irritated and aren’t shy about letting me know it.

 I’ve blogged about other examples of angry readers.  There was the reader who told me I was showing my ignorance when I referred to Aphrodite as the goddess of love, because any educated person knew the goddess of love was Venus.  There were the pit bull and Doberman owners who took me to task for using their beloved breeds as scary dogs in my stories.  There are readers who tell me I clearly hate men (because the men are so mean in my stories) and that I hate women (because my female victims are so viciously attacked).  And on and on.  The question is, why do these readers get so worked up about stories that are merely fiction?  

I’ve tried to analyze the reasons readers get angry.  Most of the time, it seems to result from the fact readers are quick to personalize some element in the story.  They think the author is insulting them in particular.  They see it as a specific attack on their worth or their profession or their philosophy. And if an author makes a factual error (as we all do), the reader feels empowered by his own superior knowledge and feels compelled to let the author know it.

As a reader, I’ve read plenty of novels where I spotted factual mistakes, but I’ve never felt the need to tell the author he’s an idiot.  I’ve read a number of novels that I felt were poorly written, but I’d just shrug and move on.  I can’t remember any instance where a novel made me angry at the author.  Where does this anger come from, and is it endemic to today’s society?  If people are getting this riled up about something as trivial as a novel, what are their lives like at home?  Are they insulting their spouses and kids?  Are they screaming at their bosses?  

I suspect that the nasty letters we writers receive are just a reflection of generalized anger about everything these days.  It’s not hard to find angry people.  Just check out any online election news article or political forum, and take a look at the comments.  There are people engaged in name-calling and insults.  There are people demanding guillotines or firing squads for the opposition.  On both sides of the aisle, you’ll see calls to either “eat the rich” or “eat the poor.”  You can’t find much moderation, because it’s not newsworthy.  And when you turn on the news, you’ll find flushed, bug-eyed commentators yelling at the camera, spittle flying.

I guess I should be relieved that all we writers have to deal with are emails from a few pissed-off readers.

Have people always been this angry, or is this something recent?  Is it a result of our wired culture, where all it takes is a mouse click on “send” and the object of your derision instantaneously hears your unvarnished rage?  Please, can we go back to old-fashioned letter writing, when people got a chance to calm down before they actually sealed the envelope and licked the stamp?

I’m traveling today, so can’t respond to comments.  But I’d love to hear from other writers what sorts of things have made your readers angry enough to let you know about it.

Should I pull the plug?

by Tess Gerritsen

Last week, I flew out of town for a speaking engagement.  For four days, while I was away, I didn’t check my email.  The morning after I came home, still groggy from fatigue, I booted up my computer and stared at a hundred new emails in my in-box.  Only a few were from friends or family, a few were from my agent and editor, but the vast majority were from people I’d never met.  Some of them were very nice emails telling me they liked my books.  Others asked for signed books for their charity auctions, or for signed photographs (I seem to get a lot of these requests from Russia), or for advice on how to get published or get an agent, or whether I’d come to speak at their library/school/luncheon/etc.  There were emails asking for online interviews or to set up lunch dates so they could tell me the needs of their favorite charity.  There were emails asking for money.  And there were a few from people who were angry that I had insulted old people or obese people or their favorite dog breed in my latest novel, and they would never read another one of my books.  Facing that long list of emails, I felt a sense of overwhelming exhaustion because each one of these emails needed to be read.  Each one needed a response (and I do try to respond to every single one.)  And if I put it off for a day or two, I’d just end up with fifty new messages waiting for me.  Meanwhile, there’s a book I still have to write, a husband who’s irritated that I’m not downstairs for breakfast, and a stack of snail-mail that needs to be attended to.

Which is why I’m thinking about shutting down my public email access, unplugging my internet, and hiding in a cave.

Other authors have told me they’re astonished that I’m still accessible to the public by email.  They shut down their public email addresses ages ago because they didn’t want to deal with the nasty messages.  One author has her husband read all her emails first, and he deletes anything that might be upsetting.  If you’re a public person, you will certainly get those messages.  Sometimes they’re upsetting enough to screw up your writing brain for the day, as you obsess over how lousy a writer you really are.  

Then there’s the dilemma of how to graciously respond to all the requests for your time and attention.  You want to be polite.  You want to be understanding.  But sometimes I’m really bad at saying no, and I’ll fret over just how to word my response without sounding like a jerk.

The truth is, staying in contact with lots and lots of people is not just distracting — it’s work.  While I do have a Twitter account, I tweet only once or twice a week, and usually only about the TV show, “Rizzoli & Isles.”  I have a Facebook account, but I’ll post only occasionally, usually about publishing news or events. And that’s about it for my online social life.  In fact, it’s a lot like my real social life.  I like hiding out in my office. I like eating popcorn by myself on the couch, in front of the TV.  With the phone unplugged.

I just watched “The Social Network,” a terrific film about the founders of Facebook. I came home thinking that there’s something wrong with me, because I don’t understand the overwhelming popularity of Facebook.  Yes, I do use it.  I appreciate its ingenious design.  But I never imagined that people would want to stay so obsessively connected with each other.  

Because most of the time, I just want to be left alone.  

In the recent Time Magazine article about Jonathan Franzen, I came across a description of his workspace:

Franzen works in a rented office that he has stripped of all distractions. He uses a heavy, obsolete Dell laptop from which he has scoured any trace of hearts and solitaire, down to the level of the operating system. Because Franzen believes you can’t write serious fiction on a computer that’s connected to the Internet, he not only removed the Dell’s wireless card but also permanently blocked its Ethernet port. “What you have to do,” he explains, “is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it.”

Most people who read this probably think: “Wow, Franzen is a total weirdo.”  I read it and think: “How do I keep the superglue from getting into the rest of my computer?”

I think Franzen has a point.  All this social networking is getting in the way of our writing.  It’s distracting us.  It’s sucking up our time.  Yet we’re made to feel obligated to do it, for marketing, for success.  Every author’s been told she must have a website.  Every author must blog.  If you drop out of the chatter you’ll be forgotten, and no one will buy your books.  If you neglect to blog, tweet, and continually post on Facebook, you are doomed to die penniless and unread.  

Yet I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore.  I’m mulling over the consequences of getting unplugged so I can devote more time to what got me here in the first place: writing books.  Not answering emails.  Or taking on more speaking gigs.  Or tweeting and Facebooking.  

So here are some questions I’d like to address to other authors:

Do you still have a public email address?  

Do you answer your own emails?  

If you went private, why?  

Are you getting more writing done as a result?