Category Archives: Toni McGee Causey

Thou Shout…

by Toni McGee Causey

When I was a little girl, I heard this preacher once, talking about the ten commandments. I didn’t understand much of what he was saying, but I was fascinated with the contradiction he presented: he was a dry man, like wood setting outside in the sun too long, warped and creased and bowed a little bit. Drawn up, I’d call it, settled into that shape with no intention of changing. But in the sermon he presented, he was going on and on about “thou shout” this and “thou shout” that, and I was confused by how dull and monotonous he was, droning without inflection, when his very sermon was all about shouting. And shouting sounded like a lot more fun to me than whatever it was he was plodding through. Shouting was living. It was exultation. And yes, sometimes it was anger. I was pretty disappointed later to discover that he wasn’t giving us permission to go around shouting about what we loved in the world, but was, instead, thou shalting us with rules. Rules are fine and necessary, but I still like my version better.

Thou shalt dance in the moonlight with someone you love. Of course, you’ll look silly. That’s the point.

Thou shalt listen to the old man’s stories. They are more than just history—they are a kindness you will one day hope to have.

Thou shalt tell your friends thank you, just for being there. They are a gift.

Thou shalt pay attention to which direction the hose is aimed before you turn on the water.

Thou shalt let the road rage idiot have the lane he wants. A car length is not a test of superiority. Nor is it something worth dying over.

Thou shalt take the time to build sand castles. Not everything has to go on your permanent record.

Thou shalt wear comfortable shoes. Two years from now, people will not remember what your wore. They will remember if you were grumpy, especially if they don’t know why.

Thou shalt pay attention when someone says they’re an asshole. They probably know what they’re talking about.

Thou shalt keep it fun—friendships, relationships. If you’re looking for ways to keep it fun, then you’re going to be paying attention to the other person and their needs, and you’re going to really see them.

Thou shalt not go down into the basement when the electricity is out, armed with a tube of lipstick and cleavage. This never ends well.

Thou shalt go fishing when you have the chance.

Thou shalt quit mocking your younger brother about that time you beat him up before you were twelve because one day he is going to be a fifth degree black belt and seriously, you do not want him to demonstrate that he is now able to break boards with your head.

Thou shalt remember that not everyone at the party (or conference) is an extrovert, and if they’re sitting there looking distant and unapproachable, it’s very possibly nerves. Go see. Ask them questions. Especially if you’re not comfortable at parties, either. [It is not like you have to marry them if you introduce yourself and find you don’t like them.]

Thou shalt eat all of the goldfish crackers, whenever the little victims present themselves. It is socially acceptable to hog them. [Hey. My rules. Get your own rules, if you don’t like mine.]

Thou shalt not eat all of the goldfish crackers and then ask the stupid question, “Do I look fat in this?”

Thou shalt be an advocate for children, wherever possible.

Thou shalt love. Not because you expect something back in return, because oftentimes people fail you. It is simply human nature. But you will love because the act of doing so, selflessly, helps us grow, helps us understand others when they’re hurt, and helps us heal.

There are so many more… but, now it’s your turn. Gimme your “thou shalts” for the day, serious or fun…


Dear Summer…

by Toni McGee Causey


Dear Summer:

Nice t’ see you. Do you really have to freaking fry my ass this early, though? There’s this thing called moderation. Learn it. Embrace it. We’ll all love you for it.

–melting, and you’re cleaning it up.


Dear Spin Class Bicycle:

You’re not serious. Do you not know my ass has been sitting on a soft leather ergonomic office chair for eleventy billion hours? Come back and talk to me when you’re padded. 

–and no, I do not find the “can hold 2 tons” sticker humorous, either. Bite me.


Dear Baskin Robbins Double Chocolate Chocolate Chip Ice Cream:

I don’t know how to say this. We have to break up. I know. I know. I promised you it would be forever. It’s just… it’s just that… oh, hell, I can’t take this anymore! You have no idea how damaging you are! You’re addictive, okay? There. I said it. You’re bad for me. Bad! And I’m stronger than this! NO! No, don’t even say it. Not even if you take the chocolate chips out. No, you’re just… I have to go. I can’t do this anymore.

–shut up, I am not crying, I have allergies, that’s all.


Dear Spin Cycle Instructor, otherwise known as the Chipper Demon from Hell:

What do you mean, that was just the warm-up?

–and yes, that is a death glare I am giving you, deal with it.


Dear Spin Cycle Creator:

Tell Satan I said hello.

–hope you are frying right now.


Dear Baskin Robbins Double Chocolate Chocolate Chip Ice Cream:

That was not me with my nose pressed against the window. You should see a doctor about these hallucinations.

–you really didn’t need the restraining order.


Dear Summer with your skimpy clothes:


–I always liked Autumn better, anyway.


Dear Spin Cycle Instructor, otherwise known as the Chipper Demon from Hell:

Are you out of your mind? You want me to increase the tension on the bike? That was the “easy” part? I have ALREADY been on this torture-cycle FOREVER and EVER and I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE and you cannot expect me to—what? I’ve only been on here 3 ½ minutes?  I have another 50 minutes to go?

–kill me now.


Dear Legs,

Look, I know. I know it sucks. It’s hard. But c’mon—see up there in that row in front of us? See that old lady? She’s 87. And she’s riding that damned bike way better than you are. You cannot let a little old 87 year-old out-ride you, now, can you? That’s it, that’s it…. You can do it.

–will one day be proud of you.


Dear Legs:

Telling me to ‘fuck off and die’ is not very nice. Just for that, I’m gonna follow the instructor and make you stand up and pump those pedals.

–ha! We’ll see who’s boss.


Dear Floor:

Thank you for catching me. Again.

–I would move if I could feel my legs


Dear Summer:

I am writing a harshly worded letter to your boss.

–and no, not even your pretense at giving me more time to read is gonna help you any.


Dear Baskin Robbins Double Chocolate Chocolate Chip Ice Cream:

So. Yeah. You’re looking good. Great, actually. Love what you did with the cone, there. Me? Oh, nothing. Really. Just, you know, here and there. Working out. Yeah, rocking the spin cycle. Oh, yeah, I’m really good at it. Yeah. Oh? You heard about that? No no, it was just those six times that I fell. Anyway, just… hanging out. Happened to be in your neighborhood. So…. you, um, seein’ anyone?


So how about you? What are you doing this summer?


Quick note – book 2 in the BOBBIE FAYE series — GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE GUNS — is out on TUESDAY, JUNE 30TH. Read an excerpt here.

CONTEST — everyone who comments will be eligible for a drawing for one  SIGNED copy of (book one) CHARMED AND DANGEROUS, + a $25 gift certificate to Borders ~or~ ~or~ Amazon, + some Louisiana goodies. WINNER to be chosen next Saturday announced NEXT SUNDAY at the end of Allison’s blog.

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by Toni McGee Causey

(oops, sorry about that HUGE jpeg that ate the internet–I think I have fixed that.)

Do you remember that first taste of freedom when you’d been in school forever and ever, amen, and finally… finally… it was summer? I had it all planned: going barefoot, toes in the grass, blue sky overhead, climbing trees, riding bikes. Magic in the night. There was homemade ice cream, lazy mornings, no homework, and adventures to be had running with the feral pack of kids that made up our neighborhood. 

Mostly, though, summer meant reading binge. Going to the library, checking out as many books as they’d let me, then huddling under the sheets into the wee hours of the night, reading. Snapping off the flashlight whenever dad’s alarm went off, and waiting (not very patiently), until he finally drove off to work. Mom getting dressed to go to her job, and you knew you had to wait ‘til she cracked open your door to make sure you were sleeping? You learned to face the wall so she couldn’t really see your face, and you waited for the almost silent schnick of the bedroom door as it closed. (And, if you were me, you knew that after she’d caught you reading a few dozen times at six a.m…. having had no sleep… she’d wait a few seconds and peek again, to try to catch you reaching for your book—because she wanted you to be at least part-human the next day instead of a sleep deprived growling grouch. You waited for the double-fake-out before moving.)

Even as childhood morphed into adulthood, summer held this shimmering lure, an oasis of potential. Even with all of the kids’ activities, there was less pressure and more focus on fun. Stretching out on a canvass chair, watching the kids play while I read a book. We didn’t have much of a chance to travel when they were younger—money, scheduling nightmares between this one’s baseball and that one’s karate, our own work commitments all meant we were more or less homebound. 

I didn’t mind. I got to read. I was a pirate, a chef, an international spy. I beheaded monsters, traveled through time, and flew a spaceship. (I was quite a good pilot, let me tell you.) I solved mysteries, had romances, danced in ballrooms, and handled a sword with an expertise that made me crave lessons. There were times that I was a superhero (never appreciated) and other times I solved mysteries and thwarted villains. 

I love the summer. I especially loved, at that time of the year, finding stories that were larger than life, transporting, fascinating adventures into a world I hadn’t yet seen. Maybe it was even the world right here, but with details that were just beyond my vision. I loved being more than just me, more than just this girl right here in the deep south, with my small collection of life experiences. There weren’t enough years to cram in everything I wanted to do… but I could live it, through books. 

So this is my love letter to summer, and to books. To librarians and booksellers and all of the writers who gave me such joy. This is my love letter to my parents, who carted me to the library or the bookstore and read constantly themselves and never once seemed to think it odd that their kid was constantly walking around in a haze, halfway living in some other world somewhere. (Not that they didn’t think it odd, mind you, that they had to say my name sixteen billion times if my nose was in a book before I’d even hear them.) 

And now, how about you? Do you love the summer? Does it mean more time to do the things you enjoy? Are you going to go on vacation? Read? Play? What’s up with you? 


 p/s… Charmed and Dangerous is out on Tuesday! Here’s the new cover:


And yes, this is BOOK ONE of the Bobbie Faye trilogy—all out this summer, back-to-back. Yep, that is a new title and design. I’ve gotten quite a few emails which have ranged from, “love the new look” to “OHMYGOD, ARE YOU ON CRACK, WHY THE HELL DID YOU CHANGE THE COVERS AND THE TITLE, BOO” and a large number of “what’s going on?” questions. The short answer is that when St. Martin’s Press wanted to re-release the series in mass market, the realization that shrinking down that original cover plus title plus my name was going to make the cover of the book look like a bunch of text. Bobbie Faye’s Very (very very very) Bad Day + Toni McGee Causey…. Hard to read on the front of a smaller format. It also didn’t help that, once reduced, the crawfish started looking like a spider. Also not good. 

I’m thrilled with the new covers—I think they have a certain danger (the gun) and playfulness (the smiles, the taglines) that indicate that this is an adventure—a romp—within the suspense/thriller genre. 

WINNERS FROM MY CONTEST two weeks ago for Allison Brennan’s last book, SUDDEN DEATH were announced in the comments section of Allison’s blog last Sunday. If you haven’t claimed your prize yet, contact me and I’ll get your prize out to you right away.


by Toni McGee Causey

It’s funny, but I would have thought the man didn’t even know my name. I had known him for some time as the teacher who was the writer-in-residence at LSU. David Madden, nominated for a Pulitzer in 1979 for The Suicide’s Wife. (He would go on to be nominated for another Pulitzer in 1996 for The Sharpshooter.) He intimidated the hell out of me.

(An aside: David intimidated the hell out of most people. He enjoyed that, he said a couple of days ago. He liked to start with a bad impression and then improve from there.)

I was in Allen Hall, second floor, walking past his office one day—just an ordinary day. I had no idea my life was about to radically change. Fifteen years ago, and I can still tell you the color shirt he had on (light green). Gold rimmed glasses. Khaki pants. And I can tell you that, because the moment struck me like lightning: David stopped me in the hall and asked, “Why haven’t you applied to the MFA program?”

I looked around to see who on earth he was talking to, and realized he was talking to me. “Uh, I have.”

Now, LSU had a very firm policy of absolutely not taking their own undergraduates into the grad program. I knew this, and applied anyway. (What was the worst they could do? Say no?) I did not hold out a lot of hope for an exception. However, as a young mom of two, and a partner in a construction company, I couldn’t exactly parade across the country to attend any other program, so I figured I might as well apply to LSU. And I knew David was the head of the program; David had created the MFA program at LSU.

“I haven’t heard back from them,” I continued. I probably looked calm and cool on the outside. On the inside, I was thinking, holy shit, he knows my name! And then wait… is that a good thing or a bad thing?

“I hear your stuff is good,” he said, more to himself I think, than me. “You’re published, right?”

“Just non-fiction.” I had been selling freelance articles for about ten years at that point—I had, in fact, interrupted that career to return to school because I wanted to go back to my first love, fiction, and I needed some structure to do so. I also wanted to finish the degree (which was referred to for so long as “that damned degree” that we started calling it TDD for short.)

“Bring me some samples and let me see.”

And then he was off, heading to class to scare the bejesus out of a few dozen other students.

The next day, I dropped off samples of my writing and a couple of days later, David stopped me in the hall and asked me again how the application was going.

“Well, I think there’s some concern because I’m an undergrad here,” I said, and he frowned at me from behind those glasses as if I’d just said, “I think there’s some concern that I have green ears and three noses.” I had no idea if “you’re an undergrad here” was the euphemism for “we think you suck and we’re not admitting you,” but I suspected it was.

“I read your stuff,” he said, as gruff as blunt force trauma. “You’re in.”

And the next thing I knew, I got an acceptance letter.

We talked about this a couple of days ago—David just retired, and a few of us met him for lunch. I wanted him to know how he changed my life. I’m not entirely sure I would have had the courage to keep writing fiction in the face of rejection if he hadn’t stepped in and intervened.

(A note about MFA programs… you learn when you enter that you don’t really know enough to claim to know anything at all. When you leave, if you’re lucky and you’ve had good teachers, you realize you’ll never know enough to claim you know much at all, but that that’s okay. The point of writing is the discovery and any kind of school is just part of the journey.)

One of the finest things about writers is that, on the whole, we’re supportive of each other. Sure, we’d like some of the good stuff to happen to us, but as Victoria Alexander said at the PASIC conference, “It’s not that we want it to happen to us instead of our friends. Just in addition to.” Writers have an inclusive sort of competition—let’s push each other to be better, let’s cheer each other on when we accomplish that goal, and let’s encourage each other when it’s going rough because one day, we will need that same encouragement.

I have been exceptionally lucky in mentors. Chocolate covered lucky.  Max Adams (who happens to be stunningly talented) ran an amazing online workshop that I credit with being one of the very best educational experiences of my life. Sharp, funny, brilliant writer Rosemary Edghill took the time to mentor me through the initial phase of my writing Bobbie Faye as a book (switching over from it as a script, as it was originally written) and then introducing me to my editor. Harley Jane Kozak stepped up and said, “Sure!” when ITW asked her to mentor this crazy new writer and has been an absolute joy. There is just no one funnier than Harley and I love her work; last year at RT, Harley had me in tears at lunch, she was so funny.

Our own Allison Brennan probably had no idea what she was getting into when we first met online. (I am like Kudzu. I am everywhere and hard to kill.) Allison’s super talented (and doesn’t seem to realize it); she’s smarter than any five people put together (no, seriously, there were tests). Mostly, I’ve never met anyone nicer. She’s mentored me through all sorts of business questions. I understand (well, as much as I think they can be understood) royalty statements because of Allison. (25 years doing accounting for our construction company didn’t hurt, but seriously? I am pretty sure the first royalty statements were created by the people who thought they would utilize string theory or alternate-universe-math.) I have a firm enough grasp on returns to be sufficiently depressed and best of all, I respect the hell out of her. [I know that when I pick up her books, I’m in for a great read. It doesn’t get much better than that, folks. Her newest book, FATAL SECRETS, is damned good, and is going to be out on Tuesday. Here’s a description:

Fiery ICE Agent teams with cool-headed FBI Assistant Director to stop a deadly human trafficking conspiracy in northern California.  

And because I think this is an awesome review:

RT Book Reviews gave it a Top Pick and said: Bestseller Brennan’s new heroine is the epitome of a survivor. In this chilling thriller, Brennan explores the consequences of sliding from fierce commitment into obsession. The sociopathic villain at the center of this tale is truly revolting. A master of suspense, Brennan does another outstanding job uniting horrifying action, procedural drama and the birth of a romance — a prime example of why she’s tops in the genre.

She’s taught me more about publishing than anyone else… which made me curious… who were her mentors? I asked and here’s what she said:

Mr. Kubiak. My sophomore English teacher who was both kind and belligerent, tough and supportive. He’s the teacher who most inspired me to read classic American literature. (My junior year was English Literature–I didn’t like that a fraction as much, partly because of the teacher I had. Except for reading Hamlet, which is probably my favorite Shakespeare play.) Mr. Kubiak set the bar for teachers, and while I’ve had some really good and some really bad teachers, Mr. Kubiak taught me the most that I actually apply in my writing. I still have the Prentice-Hall HANDBOOK FOR WRITERS that I used in his class. He also challenged and pushed me harder than most. I tended to be a student who naturally did well, so I slacked off most of the time because I knew when the final came around I’d ace it. Mr. Kubiak didn’t let me slack off.

Patti Berg. When I first joined Romance Writers of America (specifically the Sacramento chapter) as an unpublished writer, Patti Berg was one of the published authors who immediately introduced herself and made me feel welcome. When I sold, she was one of the first to congratulate me. When I hit the USA Today list my debut week, she’s the one who called to tell me. (I had no idea the list was online the Wednesday before!) When I nervously asked her to do a workshop with me at my first RWA conference in 2005 (after I sold but before my book came out), she happily agreed. She has been hugely supportive of me and my career and is one of the most genuine people I know. 

Mariah Stewart. When I first sold to Ballantine, I thought I knew nearly everything there was to know about publishing. After all, I’d gotten an agent the old-fashion way (blind query) and we’d sold pretty quick. But after asking my agent hundreds of really, really stupid questions, I realized I knew next to nothing about the business. Mariah Stewart emailed me out of the blue and introduced herself, leaving an open door for any questions I might have. I was nervous because she was a major author and I was nobody, but I started asking questions and she gave me honest answers. If it wasn’t for Marti, I would have made far more missteps than I have. Now, I can talk to her about anything–professional jealousy, our publisher, agents in general, covers, whatever–and we have a terrific friendship. She’s the big sister I never had, and I’d throw myself in front of a bus for her. (Though I certainly hope it doesn’t come to that!)

[I met Mariah Stewart at PASIC and Marti and I joked that I was her “grand-mentee.” She is as amazing as Allison says.]

As writers, we’re really in this together. Readers out there are generally not going to just read one book a year. They are, we hope and pray, going to read more than one, and I want the other books they pick up to be really great, because I want them to love that hobby, to love taking the time out of their hectic schedule to give some time to an author, and we need a lot of good books for that to happen. I know I haven’t felt like I’d learned enough about the business until maybe this year to feel like I could genuinely answer questions on the business, but I hope to be able to pass along some of what I’ve learned and make someone else’s path a little easier. We are a tradition. A tribe. A Club. A culture. A belief system. 

We are family.

I know I could spend several more hours listing people who’ve been mentors for me—who’ve either influenced my writing or answered questions. But for now, I want to hear about someone who has mentored YOU – whether it’s in writing or ANY other field. Give a shout-out to someone who encouraged YOU. AND TO CELEBRATE MENTORS, I’m going to give away FIVE COPIES of Allison’s previous book, SUDDEN DEATH, to five people who comment. I’m going to be doing other mentor-and-friend giveaways for the next couple of weeks, so come back to win.



By Toni McGee Causey


This past week, I finished proofreading book 3, WHEN A MAN LOVES A WEAPON, and sent it off next day to the publisher, and then I promptly died.

Okay, not entirely dead. Just mostly dead. Apparently, not hanging onto details real well, either, since I absolutely thought I had to be somewhere at noon today (as I write this, Saturday), and it turns out that it’s next Saturday at noon. Good thing it wasn’t last Saturday, huh? My mom said, “But I sent you an email with the date, and you responded.” I probably did. When I’m on deadline, I’ll agree to just about anything that will make the noise of whoever is talking to me go away so I can finish the sentence (or rend my hair). She could’ve written, “By the way, I’ve decided to store a thermo-nuclear weapon in your office, do you mind?” and I would’ve said, “Sure! Over there! Corner! Bye!”

My kids got away with murder when I was like this. (And sometimes, still do.) I have been known to forget major events, family. I am not even telling you how many times things caught fire in the kitchen. (Which was really embarrassing when the oven was just ten or so feet from my desk and I heard my oldest son shouting, “MOM!! MOM!!” and I looked up, saw him standing there, pointing to the oven… which was billowing black smoke while the fire alarm blared. Um. Yeah. This is why I do not cook.)

Über focus. Tunnel vision. Going with the flow. Or, as I like to put it, mad freaking panic. Steep incline, wet roads, no brakes. Get ‘er done.

It is really amazing how creative you can be when you have to be.

Now. That said, I am totally brain dead. [Brain dead enough to not realize that I agreed to PAINT THE SPARE BEDROOM. I would not be the least bit surprised to find out I agreed to purchase some sort of new fangled gadget that would assure me world domination or thinner thighs. (Wow. Wouldn’t that combo be great?)]


As you can see, I’m a goner. I think the only thing I’ve managed to do since then is Twitter (I can sort of manage 140 characters). (sort of) (barely)

So tell me, because I know I cannot be the only one, what have you forgotten to do… or gotten yourself committed to doing… while you were super focused? Bonus points for the craziest. 


How Do You Know When To Quit?

How Do You Know When To Quit?

By Toni McGee Causey

Unless you’ve been under a rock this last week, you’ve probably either watched the video about Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent, or you’ve heard about the Internet phenomenon she’s become. For those of you who haven’t seen the version with the interview prior to her singing, I give you this link and I want you to pay particular attention to what she says at 38 seconds into the interview:

Go, now, and watch. You won’t regret it, I promise.

At 38 seconds, Susan Boyle says to the camera that she’s going to “make that audience rock.” Now, if you haven’t just gone to see that video, and you hadn’t seen it before, here’s what the fuss is about: Susan is a 47-year-old woman who tells the judges (including Simon Cowell) that she wants to sing like Elaine Paige, whom some sites refer to as the “first lady of British Musical Theater.”

But even before that point, the audience has already written her off. She tells Simon she’s 47 when he asks, and when he rolls his eyes, she jokes and does a sort-of hip-waggle, saying, “And that’s only one side of me.” It’s nerves, probably, that has her acting a big dingy there, but it’s hard to tell for sure, and she comes across as clownish. Everyone in that audience, at that point, has written her off. Tell the truth—when you see her at that point, you’ve written her off. After all, she’s this frumpy, middle-aged, gray-haired woman. She’s not dressed in the latest fashion (though she is wearing a nice dress), she’s not slim, she’s not blonde, she’s not what you think of as a winner of these types of shows. She sure as hell doesn’t “look” like someone who could sing as beautifully as Elaine Paige. And in that moment, I think most people would agree with Simon’s eye-roll.

When Simon questions her, asking her what is her dream, she answers, “To become a professional singer.” He asks her why she hasn’t, and she simply says, “I’ve never been given the chance before, but here’s hoping that’ll change.” While she’s talking, the camera cuts to the audience where a young woman rolls her eyes. When Susan mentions Paige’s name as a singer she’d aspire to sing as well as, there is obvious snickering in the audience, and shots of women arching their eyebrows in disbelief. Some are obviously waiting for the train wreck this poor Susan Boyle is going to be, and some look as if they’re cringing for her, hating that she’s about to go through the public flogging of a failure.

She explains she’s going to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables.

The music starts, everyone waits for the disaster, and she hits that first note and bam, she has you. By the second or third word, the audience is applauding and the judges are floored. Utterly floored. Not half-way through the song, not two stanzas… by the second line of the song. The audience gets to its feet on that second line, and she does indeed make that audience rock. In the middle of the song, when she sings the rising lyric and her voice soars, the entire place goes nuts. 4000 people in that audience, and they are blown away.

Here was a woman who had gotten one small shot ten years earlier, who’d participated in a charity CD (singing Cry Me A River), where her talent was obvious to anyone with ears, but she hadn’t “made it” yet. She’d been taking care of elderly parents, she lived in a very small community, and she is (or was)  unemployed. That singing on that charity CD shows she had talent, but talent, alone, won’t always win out. Timing, opportunity, are the other key ingredients. And you don’t get opportunities if you don’t keep trying.

She stood in front of that audience, hearing their skepticism, seeing the giggles, and then rocked the song anyway.

I want to tell you about another person who did something quieter, who stunned me and made such a huge impact, I’ll never forget it. It was one of the very best motivational moments in any conference I’d ever attended, and I asked her permission to relay it here.

You may already know Christie Craig. She is incredibly funny (and giving) and she and Faye Hughes are practically a stand-up comedy duo. Christie writes funny mysteries that are a hoot, and I’ve always only known her as “that successful author,” the one who has something like five novels out as well as non-fiction. She’s one of those warm people that sees someone like me (who tends to freeze up in crowds until someone else breaks the ice) and she makes them feel welcome. And at ease. A terrific person.

At our PASIC conference, Christie was to give the very last session on the second day, and her talk was going to be on, “How to Know When To Quit.”  I saw a roll-on (carry-on sized) piece of luggage on the floor at her feet, and I was curious. While she introduced her subject, she opened the suitcase at her feet and pulled out a rather large UPS-type envelope. Not the normal letter-sized—the next size up. She started explaining how she became a writer, and what she’d gone through to get to where she is now—and she explained she’d been dyslexic, and how every single solitary step had been a challenge. She talked about how writing and telling stories was her dream, and she had to teach herself how to do everything, every single step of the way. It was hard—and I have a son and husband with dyslexia—I know a little bit about what she went through.

Then Christie asked, “When do you quit? Is it after the first fifty rejections?” and she pulled a stack of papers from that UPS envelope and let them rain down around her feet. “Or the next fifty?” and she pulled another stack out and let those rain down. I could see the letterhead of the pages as they fell, and I thought my throat would close up on her behalf. “Or how about the next hundred?” she asked, and pulled another wad of pages out and let those rain down. “Three hundred? Is that when you quit?” And she emptied that envelope and reached into the suitcase and pulled out another one, and asked, “Or is it the first 500? Do you quit then?” Those papers kept raining down, “Or how about the next 500?” and more envelopes, more pages. “How about a 1000? Is that when you stop?” And at this point, I couldn’t have spoken if someone had held a gun on me, I was so choked up. “Or how about the second thousand?” More pages. “Or three? Is three thousand the point where you stop?”

I was gobsmacked. Truly and thoroughly. And impressed as hell. She didn’t stop–she didn’t let the obstacles in her life define her. Christie became the definition… of tenacity. Determination. She has talent, and the skill to put it to good use.

We dream the dream, and we want it to be easy. We live in a society where pop stars get millions to show up and act badly and behave worse, and while we mock that, we’d all secretly like the trip to success to be just that simple: show up. But it’s not that simple. It’s not always easy. It’s hard work, it’s perseverance, it’s making sure you’ve got the goods when the opportunity comes along.

That last part? Yeah, that’s the hard part. It bears repeating: it’s making sure you’ve got the goods when the opportunity comes along. That means hard work, when it comes to writing. Telling a compelling story for an entire novel isn’t like making Ritz crackers and cheese and calling it a four-course meal. There’s a bit more to it than just sitting in front of the computer and spilling out a story. For some people, it may come naturally. For the rest of us, it’s a constant process of learning, improving, getting feedback, listening to it, learning from it, discarding what doesn’t work, and then trying again.

If you’re getting the opportunities to be read—and it’s not selling, it may be a matter of you having more work to do. We all hit that point. It’s just part of the process. But if you’re getting amazing feedback (consistently, from everyone), then it may simply be a matter of timing—you just haven’t had your manuscript hit the right person at the right time. There’s not a lot you can do about that but keep trying, because you never know when the next opportunity will open up because you handed it to the right person. In my case, I’d published a lot of non-fiction, edited a regional magazine, switched into screenwriting (where I wrote probably 15 scripts) and then switched back to fiction. I’d finished the script version of Bobbie Faye when a friend happened to be here and happened to want to read it and happened to want to hand it to a friend (just for fun, not for any particular thought of the friend helping) and then the friend happened to know this editor and was willing to pitch it… and when I got that phone call about the offer, it was a soaring feeling, like the audience suddenly coming to its feet on that second line of Susan Boyle’s performance. Almost twenty years to the day after I’d first sent out my first non-fiction piece. It wasn’t overnight. I’d worked two jobs, gone back to school, was mom to two boys, helped run a construction company, and wrote in the wee hours of the night when everyone was asleep, because I dreamed a dream. I wanted it. I wanted it enough to not sleep that extra hour, to take the notebook with me to the kids’ practice, to skip out on movies or TV shows.

I’d still be doing that now, without the sale. I can’t let go of the dream. It’s changed for me over the years—what I wanted, and how I wanted to do it, but the ultimate dream was to sell what I wrote, with the hope that it brought some pleasure to the reader.

So when do you quit?

If you think you quit when it’s hard, then stop now, because I assure you, it will get hard. Even if you’ve got a book or two or ten out, it’s gonna be hard. If you think you quit when it’s bleak news, then stop now, because there’s no way to have a career in any field that is all sunshine and roses up your ass. It’s gonna get bleak sometimes. Markets change, people change, culture changes, and with change comes growing pains. If you think you quit when people don’t see your talent, then quit now, because not everyone is going to agree you have talent and even when they do, they might not be able to do anything about it. If you think you quit when people say no, then stop now, because I guarantee you, people are gonna say no to you. The day before I sent the query to the agent who repped me for the deal, I’d found out my friend had handed the manuscript to her agent, who said to me that he could see that Bobbie Faye was a very funny woman who was incredibly strong-willed and yet he hated her and wouldn’t want to spend another single minute in her head. This cracked me up because (one) he was about 65 and not exactly my target audience and (two), I have always wanted to write a character who is a love-em or hate-em kind of person. I didn’t want a lukewarm response. I wanted her to be memorable. So, as negative as that note might have come across to most authors, I loved it. And I put the next query in the mail. Signed with that agent. Had a three-book deal. Was the first guy wrong? Not for him. That was his taste and I respect that. But everyone doesn’t have the same taste, and that’s why you keep trying.

So, when do you quit?

You quit when you want something else, more. You quit when you have another dream that means more to you.

I kept writing. There were days when the economy here was so bad, there was very little work, and we dug the change out of the sofa to get enough money to put enough gas in the truck for my husband to get to work, and he had to get paid before he left, or he wouldn’t have had enough gas to make it home. I understand hardships and heartbreak, depression and frustration. But “no” is not an option. It is only an obstacle.

I’m sitting down to my fourth book now. It’s scary as hell, to start something new. I emailed a friend and asked, “How do you write a book again? I’m thinking it involves words… probably in some sort of order… maybe spelled correctly? Something like that?” It’s like having to learn how to do it all over again, and it gets harder, because you’ve set a bar of quality for yourself and you want to beat it. It’s intimidating to think you can, that people expect you to.

But I will keep trying. I dream the dream.

How about you?


adapt or die…

by Toni McGee Causey

Allison and I were in New York last week for the bi-annual PASIC conference. It's a fantastic small con that allows its members to meet with a large number of industry professionals; I'm almost certain that the standing-room-only cocktail party had two industry reps to every individual member. We had panels with publishers, editors, agents, and long-time NYT novelists, and it was incredibly educational as well as just plain fun. (Best part, of course, is hanging out with friends and making new friends. I always come back to writing completely rejuvenated after conferences like this, but this one was especially helpful.)

One of the things discussed at the conference was how the Kindle and Sony e-reader are becoming more prominent and are changing some of the buying habits of the general public. There was an estimate that in a couple of years, there will be a million e-readers of some sort out there in the public's hands, and that doesn't include applications for phones like the iPhone. (There were over 12 million iPhones on the market as of last September–I can only imagine that number has doubled.) iPhones now offer several e-reader apps, including the Kindle and Fictionwise. Amazon's market share is increasing, and while it grew slowly in the past, it's growing exponentially now, so there's an anticipation of it capturing a larger market share. (There was an assertion that Amazon will be selling instead of other booksellers, not in addition to, which means the same number of books, but a shift in power of who's selling.)

There was another assertion made that I disagreed with, and that was that people who are purchasing online are not "browsing." The publisher who made this suggestion believed that buyers are going straight to whatever it was they wanted to purchase, buying that item, and then logging off. So "online" purchasing eliminated the impulse buying that going into a bookstore would net. I disagreed with this because I do browse the online stores. I actually find them easier to browse than a lot of bookstores because I can put in keywords and subject matter and things which I wouldn't have necessarily seen in the store will pop up there for my perusal. I've purchased dozens of books this way.

My question, then, was this: Given the growing popularity of the e-reader, isn't it logical to suppose that in the very near future, all college and high-school kids will be downloading their texts and workbooks and study guides and assigned novels… to their e-readers, which will be much much easier to carry around than the backpacks which weigh a ton now? And, given that as inevitable, wouldn't it be logical to assume that those kids coming up in middle school and grade school will get to a point where holding a book is a foreign thing–they'll have grown accustomed to having their books (many of them) in the palm of their hands. They'll be smart and savvy about how to find things online, between their e-readers and their iPhones and their laptops–and they'll probably make the majority of their reading purchases from downloadable files. And, given that, what is the publishing industry going to do to target that whole new crop of readers with their books? Targeted marketing? Implanted suggestions, like blog ads we have today? Why, for example, not have a link on a sidebar when the kid is studying a subject that then takes them to fiction about that subject? Or other non-fiction, even? Why not have novels related to subjects on "drill down" ads linked inside the texts or blogs that generation reads? 

There wasn't a satisfactory answer, and I got the distinct impression that the publishing industry is thinking that if this happens, it's years down the line. I don't think they're thinking about the current exponential growth of technology. ("Twittering" was a brand new thing to a few of the people there…) 

More importantly, I wanted to know what the publishers are going to do to cultivate these new readers and keep them interested in reading? The popularity of books like TWILIGHT and EVERMORE and, of course, HARRY POTTER, demonstrates that this group will read in large numbers, but it's short-sighted not to grant that they will also be mostly reading online in a few years. They're spending their entire lives online right now, reading tons of material–from blogs to surfing the internet. Sure, it's smaller bites than a novel, but what generation do you remember in the past which has done as much reading as the one we have coming up now?

I began "journalling" online over ten years ago. (Rob, I completely commiserate with the blogging topic-burn-out.) When I started writing online, the journalling community had less than a thousand online journals and I was friends with several of the "old-timers" who began the whole concept. I had found them back when there were less than a dozen online journals. When I started writing online, my family thought I was crazy ("Who wants to write about their life online?") and that this was a fad that would die down once the newness of the internet had worn off. I remember the uproar among "journallers" when the new phrase "blogging" came along. (They hated the term. They had a perfectly acceptable term and there was no use for something new.) (Irony, you see.) I started "journalling" when we had to hand-code the html and I learned enough to get by. (I hated it, and I was one of the "pansies" who thanked all that was holy and electrified when the WYSIWYG editors came along.) Then there was the shock… shock, I tell you, that someone would actually put an ad on a blog. I'm not sure that Satan taking over the internet would've managed quite as much horror and outrage. Then some bloggers like Heather over at dooce started making a living off the blog ads and a lot of other bloggers thought… hmmmm…. income… being able to sit at my computer and generate… income… from babbling… and the world as we know it changed.

Last Monday on Pari's blog, a commenter mentioned that the primary target audience for crime fiction and thrillers was the thirty-and-over demographic. (I am paraphrasing here.) My first gut response was that if that were true, fiction would be dead within a generation. Two generations at best. I buy stuff online continuously; I cannot tell you how many emails I've received from people who sampled my first chapters on my site and then went and ordered my books online, but I've also received a lot of mail from people who found me because they'd just bought something online and used the browsing feature and found me accidentally. These are generally not the over-30 crowds who are shopping
like this–it's generally the younger generations.

I'd raised baby raccoons once–the original story is here–and they adapted to me as their "mom" almost instantly. They didn't even seem to mind. So, too, will the next couple of generations adapt to e-reading as their primary source for material, and if the publishing industry as it stands does not adapt now and start thinking about marketing to that audience and cultivating more of that audience, someone else will. Whether that means Amazon creates a publishing arm or someone else does as the need will become more and more obvious, the future will change how we get our material out to the new audiences. 

What makes no sense to me, and seems to be shooting themselves in the foot, then reloading and aiming at the other… is the price publishers have for current book downloads. At the same price as many hard-backs or trades (with the exceptions of some special offers), it's almost as if the book publishing world thinks, "If we make downloading too expensive, the general public will stick to buying 'real' books and we won't have to worry about this e-publishing thing." That may have even been true a couple of years ago, but now? Now more than a million people will have access to e-readers and millions will have access to e-readers on their iPhones or similar phones (the Blackberry, I think, has a good internet interface), and that number will probably double within the next two years, and will grow exponentially as technology gets cheaper, more powerful and more user friendly. 

People will download cheap, affordable items. Again, citing the source above, in September, Steve Jobs predicted that there would be a "billion apps by the end of the store’s first year of availability, sometime in 2009." Now, many of those apps are free, but many of those are not. I've browed the apps, and quite a few of the top 50 are $2.99 to $4.99. The top 50 of over a billion apps downloaded… can you see the market here? I can. Add to that the fact that people are spending money on using those apps to download entertainment–movies, songs, books. iTunes are 99¢ each. A Jack Reacher novel on Kindle? $6.39–for a novel released back in 2004 and is only $1.40 cheaper than the printed mass market. (Lee is one of the best examples of a super popular author with an extensive backlist.)

I've heard many authors explain that their online sales are a teeny tiny fraction of overall sales… and I can't help but wonder if that's because of the pricing. If I could download the entire Jack Reacher backlist on my iPhone for a couple of bucks apiece? I'd do it. I'd pay more for the newly released novel, but the older ones? I'd download if they were cheaper. There are a lot of newer authors I'd try if I could get their book online for three or four dollars. They'd make roughly the same money, I'd get to try them cheaply, and if I liked them, I'd buy their next book. The first mainstream publisher who starts seriously targeting that market has the potential to grab a huge audience. Sure, it's not what we're used to… but we are not the future of publishing. Our kids are. I want to be around, in their marketplace. They're going to buy stuff… I'd like it to be my stuff. [Can you imagine the first publisher to package their book with a hit song playlist? Or cross-market? Downloads available on blogs?] The profit margin doesn't have to go down for either the author or the publisher–the distribution method cuts out a tremendous burden of costs, so why not go for volume in the pricing system? There is a reason Wal-Mart is gargantuan in the retailing field, including book sales–lower prices. There is a reason iTunes are super popular–legal, cheap downloads. 

Will downloading replace traditional books? No, not for many years at least. If you look at the car industry, for example, there is always going to be a desire by a group of people to have the old muscle cars–as gas-guzzling as they are–because there is an aesthetic pleasure in the owning and the handling and the beauty of such a car. But as great as they are, the industry as a whole moved away from that type of car for multiple reasons, and with the demands of global warming and need for cheaper, cleaner fuels, we're not going to go back to the era when those cars were common. I don't think books will be extinct… but I'd be willing to bet the midlist will change significantly. More critical to publishing's survival, though, is increasing the audience–growing it via capturing the teen market and selling to them as they get older. 

We'd better adapt… 

So how about you? Have you used an e-reader, ever? Purchased online? Is this something you're doing more of now?If you aren't, what about the kids around you? Do they like reading on their computers? 

Congratulations to our own Allison Brennan, who is a RITA nominee in the Romantic Suspense category for this year's prestigious RWA award! Her SUDDEN DEATH is out in stores, now!

plotting anticipation

by Toni McGee Causey

Oh, I am a sucker for anticipation. I've been thinking about this for the last week-and-a-half because I decided to go ahead and have the LASIK surgery (as I write this, on Friday) and normally, I'm one of those people who researches all sorts of things–from how much pressure it takes to pull the trigger on a Remington sniper rifle, to work tools of the 1700s, to the ignitability of dust in a grain silo. I enjoy research, and I have an incredibly random collection of books and bookmarks to make any analyst confused. And I said "normally" above, because when it comes to the LASIK, I don't want to know. They kept trying to explain the procedure to me and I was all mature and plunged my fingers into my ears, all la la la la la, I can't hear you. Because there is no better way to build my anticipation and fear than just enough details to create just enough awareness of the dangers, and no ability to control them.

[Seriously. I am going to be hopped up on valium. I'm not going to be able to explain back the procedure to my doctor or do anything more than giggle. I just hope I don't say something insulting, like commenting on his botoxed brow.]

All of which led me to think about how much anticipation means to story-telling. There have to be stakes raised from the very beginning–I'd say within the first few pages. We might not know the ultimate stakes of the story, but something has to be at risk, and we, the readers, have to anticipate what the main character is going to do… and then the writer has to surprise us. If the character does everything exactly as we predict, leading to the outcome exactly as we predicted, then the anticipation of the next event goes to zero–or worse, the reader will put the book down.

But building anticipation isn't just a matter of naming the stakes–the ultimate consequences. I mean, after all, thousands of people have LASIK surgery every day, somewhere in the world, and it's not like I had this pressing sense of urgency about the procedure before last week. And I'm pretty certain that my doctor (who, thankfully, has done thousands of these surgeries), didn't think about one day doing surgery on me and then his life would be complete. For him, it's routine. 

For me, it's my eyes.

It's personal.

Now, as I was sitting there in the consultant's office last week, studiously trying to ignore her description of the procedure, I did catch one part. She explained that at one point, as the doctor's working on each eye, there will be a few seconds where I won't be able to see. She said that he tells the patient, "Okay, you see that light above you? I'm going to turn it off for about ten seconds, and I'll let you know when I turn it back on." But really, she explained, you can't see because right then is when they're doing something to the cornea (I DON'T REMEMBER DO NOT TELL ME I DON'T WANT TO KNOW I AM NOT KIDDING) and then something something happens and "you can't see for a few seconds," and then she saw the look on my face and hastened to add, "but he's never not had a patient able to see the light as soon as that part of the procedure is over. Don't worry."

And I, being a fiction writer, immediately thought, Oh, shit. What are the odds of him doing THOUSANDS of surgeries and NEVER EVER having ANYTHING BAD ever happen, EVER? That would be akin to him being PERFECT and we know people aren't perfect so OH, GREAT, I'm going to be the one in ten thousand he has to admit to later who did not turn out so well. And I immediately wanted to ask about back-up generators (in case of a freak storm) and how many additional staff they had (in case a serial killer bursts in and takes out a couple of nurses) and did she know how long the wait was for new eyes from the organ donor people? [I did not bring all of this up, because I figured that freaking out the staff and making them nervous before I got there was probably a bad thing.] [I did ask for extra valium.] [They said no.]

So… anticipation. Tension. Raising the stakes. 

There are fundamental elements to how to do this in story-telling, and many variables on these basics, but the main things we need to remember in order to build anticipation are:

1) create risks for the character — there has to be a downside to any choice they make along the way during the story. They have to feel like if they choose a path, there is the potential that they will lose their ability to achieve whatever their goal is.

2) they have to have a goal (which I am putting second, because I think people sometimes forget that there can be a SERIES of goals, leading to the ultimate goal of the story). That ultimate goal, in my case, is to come away from that LASIK surgery with improved eyesight so that I don't have to wear contacts or glasses all of the time. But I have a smaller set of goals which can be summed up by DO NOT FREAK AND CHICKEN OUT OF GOING. 

3) both the risks and the goal(s) have to be personal to that character. Not just happening to them personally, which isn't the same thing, but personal to them–they have to care, greatly, about the outcome. They have to have something unique about them, and their story, so that the risks makes us concerned for them. We have to care.

4) things have to go wrong, and not in the obvious way. The things that go wrong for the character cannot go wrong in the way the character anticipates and fears… it has to be worse. It has to be worse in a way that they shouldn't have been able to anticipate, most of the time. If they can anticipate something going wrong and it goes wrong exactly as they anticipated, they don't seem very clever. If WE can anticipate it going wrong in a certain way and the character cannot, and that's the exact way it goes wrong, then the character is going to seem pretty stupid. If you want that character to seem stupid–if that's the point–then that's fine. But if you want us to root for them and to wonder oh, hell, what are they going to do NOW? then you have to twist the consequences and surprise us. Whatever you do, each time they anticipate something and try to do something logical, the outcome needs to get worse.

5) things need to go progressively wrong and that progression needs to escalate from bad to worse to horrible to no hope in sight to no way to win. One of the worst mistakes in a story is to have something go horribly wrong early on and the next two or three things that go wrong are about level to that first one (or worse, easier on the character)–because our interest will plateau. It will feel like they're marking time, like the writer is marking time until he or she gets a certain number of words done and can procl
aim the story "done." Keep the order of progression in mind when you're plotting (even if you're pantsing).

6) educate the reader along the way with only as much information as they need to understand the next section of the story. Build the information they need to know in bite-sized moments through the story, not in one big honking swallow up front. Readers are going to trust you that you're going to give them more information as you go. They're also going to trust you that you're only going to give them the highlights of what they need to know right now, not every single detail. They do need specific details, however. Do you think I'm ever going to forget her comment about that light going out? Nope. Not for years. She used a lot of technical language up 'til that point, but that point? Stuck in my brain. Do you think I'm not going to be counting those seconds when that damned light goes out? You bet I am. Do you think that I'm not also going to be listening intently for the sound of the storm, the sound of the outer door opening, anyone crying out in pain that may distract the doctor? Ha. Those are going to be some long damned seconds. For a crisp story, one that moves fast for the reader and makes them want to turn the page, give them the least amount of information that you absolutely have to give them for them to see and understand that moment.

7) we need to understand the emotional state of the character as these things go wrong and they try to figure out a solution. If we tell the story completely from the outside and don't get into the emotions, the reader has no reason to care.

One of the best stories that I saw recently that played with anticipation is INSIDE MAN with Clive Owen and Denzel Washington. It's a brilliant film, and one of my favorites. The story starts with Clive Owen's character telling you exactly what's going to happen next. He warns you that you're not going to understand (if I remember correctly) and he's not going to repeat himself. And even with that warning, you're still going to be surprised, because it's an excellent game of three-card Monty. (Figuratively.) And even as you see what they're doing, your mind is anticipating something specific and you're filling in those details and they end up meaning something entirely different. The thing that I liked so much about how this film accomplished its goal is that Spike Lee (director) and Russell Gewirtz (writer) didn't cheat the viewer. When you realize what it was you actually saw vs. what it was you thought you saw, you realize how the filmmakers used your own anticipation against you–and you respect them for it, because the clues were all there, all along.

That leads to:

8) use the reader's anticipation against them. Sometimes this means giving something a double meaning, or having a character lie. (It is critical to note that the CHARACTERS can lie to the reader, and to each other, but the AUTHOR cannot cheat by offering a suddenly different explanation to something that was already explained, just for the convenience of being a "surprise.") You do want the reader to be surprised, and that has to come from the duality of what's going on in the moment–not from acts of God or random coincidences at convenient moments. 

Building anticipation is one of the simplest ways to look at plotting because as a person, you know how to anticipate. Think about those elements as you're writing; if it feels like something is stagnant, then you've probably hit a tension plateau–nothing worse is about to happen to the character. If it feels like it's taking too long to get moving, then look to see if you've over-educated the reader for that moment. Etc. Think about how to paint your character into a corner and then surprise us by how they get out. 

I'm sure there are other elements of anticipation, but for now, tell me what movie/TV show or book have you seen/read lately that does anticipation really well?

[Update: the LASIK went well — painless, easy, and I can now see better than when I had contacts. I'm kinda floored. No serial killers bursts into the offices, no hurricanes or earthquakes. I have never been so happy to be so boring.]

there are things we do not say

by Toni McGee Causey

There are things we do not say.
They are safe here, on the page 
between us, you and me.
It started innocently enough, this hiding. 
Scribble scribble
on the back of homework  
folded into sixths and slid
quickly across the desk, hoping that Mr. Owen's
eagle eyes missed the pass.
Too much heart and hope creased in those sixths,
smudged with eraser marks, searching
for the right words that will seal my fate.
Praying that the magic wasn't in the folds, and
maybe the better choice would've been fourths
or eighths. I keep my face down in the 
chapter, hiding behind my hair as he unfolds
my heart and reads.
He pencils something in and slides it
back, studiously avoiding touching and there is
only the page between us. 
And a word: yes.

There are things we do not say.
We will talk about children and schedules
and sometimes, though very rarely, about shoes
and hardwood floors, or the way the
contractors did not match up the kitchen tiles.
There are no words like "hospital" or "cancer"
or "dying" that pass between us.
She does not want to hear them.
They jam in my heart, a 
thousand splinters. Instead,
I will hold onto her with a stubborn fierceness,
and write to her of the time we met. We were sixteen,
some thirty years ago. We sat on a bench
that hot summer, with tanned legs in short shorts
and became fast friends over mutual love
of Ding Dongs and boys. (But not in that order.)
Life was stretched out before us, 
green and eternal.
I will send her an email about
meeting up for a drink, and
she will say "Wednesday" and we will
talk about the weather. 
We will pretend that
everything is okay.

There are things we do not say.
We nudge them out, fledgling sparrows from the
nest and hope that they will fly, these stories
of heartbreak like fissures in the sea, or of love so fine, it is 
spun gold in the sun. We excavate crimes
from mountains of glass shards and
hold them up, prisms of our souls. We tuck into these
words the people we can no longer see, no longer
hear. We share the laughter at the
old inside jokes that made us feel
like a part of a family, the joy of watching
the trust of a child's face as they
decide we're a safe haven, their
arms reaching up for that hug. We slash open and expose 
the deep dark of sitting
in the corner of a closet, wondering if
the mistake we made will destroy
everything we love.
If we're honest,
we'll include the dank bleakness of that
heartbreak, where hope failed to shimmer and
lead the way back out. 
If you let us, 
we'll call it fiction, and dance away as if
we don't know we've just
handed you our hearts.

There are things we do not say.
They are safe here, on the page 
between us, you and me.

I don't really know what to ask you today, so tell me something about someone you love.

the tao of publishing

by Toni McGee Causey

A few weeks back, I wrote an article about publishing — and in light of things like Anderson Distributors parking trucks (which affects mostly magazines, but has also affected thousands of copies of mass market distributions) and HarperCollins' bad news, and other generally frustrating publishing news, I thought this might be relevant here.

Everything you really need to know about the publishing business can be learned from a garage sale.

I know. Crazy. But trust me, it's true. (I am beginning to suspect that there is a whole tao of garage sales just begging to be written.)

A couple of weeks ago, my house was the site of a garage sale, hosted by my son and daughter-in-law. It ended up going exceptionally well, surprisingly. And as they were collecting junk and pricing it and displaying it and handling the crowd, I suddenly realized I finally had a parallel to explain the whole publishing business to non-writing family members and/or friends who were in the first stages of writing, pre-publication.  And so I offer you: the tao of publishing.

1) It's not personal.

When you're selecting items for a garage sale, you have look past the personal value of an item, the sentimental value, and use an objective eye to decide if that item will sell. Something with a deeply personal meaning–a diary page, one ballerina shoe, that swizzle stick (bent) left over from that time you and your best friend had that thing happen in that bar in that other state that you've never told anyone about… those things aren't going to make sense out of context and to a marketplace. They may be vastly important to you; doesn't mean they're going to sell.

Sure, you've written the novel, and you want people to have a personal response to it, because then you'll know you've hooked them. But a personal response does not replace market reality. An agent, an editor, a publisher… these people are not rejecting a manuscript out of some nefarious plot to drive writers crazy. Publishing professionals want to make a sale. The agent wants to sell to the editor, who has to sell it to the marketing department and the publisher, who has to believe that there are enough people out there in book-land who will plunk down money for this property. They've got to weigh how many people will resonate with this project and they've got to be objective about its value as they're making that decision because their goal is not "to make you feel good about being a writer" and not to "support art" but is almost always to "make a profit." Which leads to:

2) Big ticket items draw people in.

When we advertised for this garage sale, we named the big items we knew would draw people in: electronics, furniture, exercise equipment, collectibles, a canoe. We didn't bother to mention the used books (which all sold), the glassware (all sold), the dolls (ditto), the purses (ditto), the shoes (surprised the hell out of me, but ditto). 

We charged a little more for the name brand items than we did similar stuff–even though the quality of the latter was the same as the former. People will pay more for the brand name stuff… but, while they were there, they inevitably picked up some other item and bought it, too. Almost all of the browsers ended up taking something home, and I suspect that the majority of time, it wasn't the item they'd originally shown up to see. 

Bestselling authors are that draw in the bookstores: they get the people in the door. They get paid more because the publisher knows people will likely pick up their book, but they also get paid more because the publisher knows that if they're on a shelf, the customer will stop and probably browse that shelf and, very possibly, pick up something else. When you start out, your book is possibly that "something else." 

3) Group similar things on the same table.

This seems pretty simple: put like things together. Someone looking for the Minnie Mouse collectibles may buy more than one, so put them all in on
e place so they can find them. One guy came early and bought every Cabbage Patch doll we had (ten) and then started buying boy-type-toys. Someone else snapped up all of the hot-wheels. Things which were similar to these items were put on the same table, or near enough by, so that they caught the customer's attention.

Publishers want to know what your book is so they'll know where they can put it in the bookstore. This is why you don't list six genres in your query letter: it's sort of a space fantasy with a love story and comedic elements as the characters solve a mystery is going to get you an instant rejection. They won't know where to put it, and if they don't know, they won't know how to market it, and if they don't know how to market it, they don't know how to let customers know where to find it, or that it exists at all. You've just made their job ten times harder, and frankly, there are a lot more books out there that will make their lives easier. What would you do when presented with two books of equal writing skill, but one was easily marketable and the other one wasn't? You'd buy the one you knew how to sell. If you didn't, and you didn't frequently enough, you would be one of the publishers who are now going under.

But…but... I can hear you arguing, odd, cross-genre stuff sells.

Yes, it does. Generally, though, there's some way of marketing that book–or at least, the publisher believes there is when they take on the project. I am the first to admit: weird shit sells. We sold a porthole table for $200. I know, you're scratching your head, aren't you? I have been scratching my head for 15 years. A long time ago, my husband dragged home a porthole–the kind you see on actual ships–that he had "rescued" from the scrap yard. No, I don't know why. Yes, I asked. The only real answer I got was, "because it was cool," and I suspect that it was because it was a challenge. He then (because he is crazy) made a round table and embedded the porthole so that it functioned (again, he's crazy) and fixed it so that it could be opened (which meant you couldn't really put anything on the table–I mean, seriously, why would you want to do that?–unless you put the item on the tiny perimeter. You had to be careful if you did that, though, because as soon as you opened the porthole, the swinging motion generally knocked off whatever you'd put there). You could put a display inside the porthole (because, and I don't know why, it had a glass backside and yes, I thought that made no sense). He then epoxied the table top in black, but the legs were a very light oak. Ugliest table ever. I was so relieved when he agreed to sell it. Until he put a $200 price on it.

Now I ask you, what is the likelihood that someone is going to saunter over to a $200 table made out of a porthole and think, "gee, that's what I need to spend this week's paycheck on?" I knew I was going to be stuck with that damned table 'til I died. And then my neighbor (who is, not surprisingly, crazy) came over to see what all we had for sale, and he fell in love with the porthole. I would've carried it to his house for free, but when he tried to haggle my husband down, my husband refused. (Again, cornering the market on crazy here, this is the man who dragged home one of those styling salon hair dryers because it was "Only $10!" and "Wasn't it cool?" and couldn't understand why I didn't want it in the kitchen. But he got the last laugh when he turned it into a "time machine" and showed it at a big local art show and it was the hit of the show.) 

As for the porthole table? Apparently, there's plenty of crazy to spare, because the neighbor bought it anyway.  

So the rule is, weird shit sells, but you cannot count on it. You cannot hope that there is always going to be a porthole-buying-nut who lives close enough to your porthole table, who for some reason, doesn't have enough portholes in his life and feels like he cannot go home until he owns yours. So, even if you do have a porthole table to sell, you need to be able to do what my husband did–find its unique selling feature: it was antique. And an antique porthole table becomes, apparently, an entirely different thing. (Hell if I know.) Point is, if your book is not easily categorizable, figure out what is it that makes its uniqueness marketable.

4) Pricing is determined by what the market will bear

Now, that may seem self-evident, but it's tricky and can make you want to plant your head in your desk when you see things sell too fast (could've gotten more!) or too slow (oops, priced it too high, better lower it). Years and years (and years) ago, I had one garage sale–an estate sale of my great-great aunt's property. I had about a dozen hand-made quilts we were going sell. I'd kept the prettiest ones for family heirlooms, but the rest… shrug. Didn't expect to get $20 apiece for them. I was hanging them on the makeshift clothesline ab
out an hour before the announced time of the sale, and a man pulled up in my drive, made a beeline for the quilts and asked me how much I wanted for them. I eyed him and thought, "He's here at six a.m., asking me for these things, didn't even look at anything else. He's a collector." Then I said, "$125 each." He said, "I'll give you $100 each." Sold. I was pretty proud of myself. He took ten of the twelve, and later that afternoon, a lady asked me how much for the quilts. I'd forgotten them in the flurry of the day, and I think I must've looked at her blankly. She offered $200 each. She lamented that I didn't have more–she would've bought the entire batch at that price per quilt. 

That was (I am not even going to tell you how many) years ago. Today, even factoring in inflation, I could not have gotten $50 each. 

While we were pricing things for this garage sale, we had to take into account several factors: it was after Christmas (therefore, we'd missed the "must find a gift item that looks expensive but didn't cost much" rush), it's a bad economy (everyone's saving their money to spend on necessities, none of which we really had at the garage sale), and it was likely to rain the second day, which meant even die-hard garage salers wouldn't come back the second day to scoop up the "must get rid of it" last minute pricing you can normally do at the end of a sale. By keeping these things in mind, we priced everything to move.

The publishing corollary is that everything has its time. Advances are going to be lower while the market adjusts to the steep drop off in sales and everyone panics. Something that a year ago might've fetched a $100K advance might not get a $25K advance now or the writer breaks through huge with a big sale and lots of marketing dollars thrown behind it because there is something so marketable about the concept, a publisher thinks, "This, at least, I can explain in a phrase and sell it." It's a crapshoot. 

Publishers are looking for ways to make a book work for this market–which might mean that you don't get the hardcover format because it's so expensive and they're not selling very well. It's not about prestige, it's about survival, and it's smart to look at what works for the consumer. I suspect there's going to be a bigger push over this next year for downloads–publicity and marketing–because there's next to no delivery costs–there's no warehousing, no shipping, no returns. In addition, trends will determine price–something that shows up when a trend is just heating up is probably going to get a bit higher advance than something that shows up after the trend seems to have peaked or the market is glutted. It's not personal, it's not about what you, as a person, are worth. It's what the market will bear. It's probably the most difficult thing to remember.

5) Reputation helps.

We managed to pull a lot of people into our sale very early in the day because our neighborhood is considered a hot spot. (We didn't really know that, but there have been a lot of successful garage sales out here… part of it is there are lots of families here, so the sales usually have a big variety of items). We got 'em in through a reputation we hadn't quite earned yet. We kept 'em (and made a bunch of sales) because we delivered: we had a lot of merchandise cheaply priced and people kept complimenting us on what a great, organized sale we had. Lots of people said we should have another. (Over my dead body.) But at least it worked for them.

Blurbs are the same thing–the publishing business is hoping that blurbs (or reviews) up your reputation from that of "who?" to "oh, we should give them a try." It won't work, though, if you don't deliver.

6) Some things are beyond your control.

The first day, we had a ton of people and huge sales. The second day, it rained. Stormed. I think we had two people show up, and one sale for the whole day. We had, luckily, made enough money the day before to have made it worthwhile, but it almost hadn't gone that way–we had almost opted to only have the sale for Sunday, not both days. Luckily, my daughter-in-law is a lot smarter than I am and she insisted we have it both days "in case of bad weather." 

You can't help a bad economy. You can't help if a sales rep doesn't "get" your book. You can't help if a hurricane shows up the day your book is supposed to be delivered or the Anderson people park their trucks. You can't help a snowstorm, or a national tragedy. You really cannot help the decisions made in-house–these are beyond your control. You made the thing and handed them the thing–they have to sell it. Now, you might be able to nudge a few people, but the parallel would've been me putting out a few fliers in the neighborhood. Sure, I can self-promote and that may help to a certain degree, but if the publisher doesn't promote my book on a national level and my book's not available on a national level, no amount of me flogging it locally is going to increase my numbers high enough, fast enough, to make a big dent in "sell-through." If the sale were going on over a long period of time (years), word-of-mouth might spread and bigger and bigger crowds would show up–like some of those big "annual" garage sales held by entire towns, or held near (Camden?) Texas every second Saturday… but for the short-term, I can't do it all by myself. I can't control everything. 

Sometimes, the wisest thing is to sell what you can, look at the rest, realize it is what it is (maybe it's a practice novel, maybe it's your third practice novel), and move on. 

7) There's always stuff left over.

It will surprise you what doesn't sell. You'll be convinced certain items are going to fly off the tables–maybe because it was a popular item when you bought it new, or it's in great condition now (and at such a cheap price), or it's just so cool, of course people are going to want it. You're going to have stuff that fills a niche and you know for a fact people are looking for that type of niche item, and yet, when the day is done, there will be stuff left on your table, picked over, and you'll wonder why. Did you price it too high? Did you not put it in a prominent enough place? Did you put it next to something that overshadowed it?

Who the hell knows?

In publishing, it's a "best guess" business. People are trying to gauge what everyone's going to want in the future based off what they wanted in the past. Except as humans, we don't want to have the same exact experience day in and day out for the rest of our lives–we want something new. Different. Maybe not too different. Predicting that is not an exact science. And if you happen to send in a space-alien-time-travel-love-story right after the editor just had to remainder a rather large order of her previous space-alien-time-travel-love-stories, she's probably not going to be able to convince a publisher to take a chance on yours. If she just had a significant other who was rather space-alien-like dump her for a younger, hotter similarly-looking-space-alien-tart, then she may be turned off space alien love stories for months, and no matter how good yours was, it didn't stand a chance. Someone else, somewhere else, may snap it up. The things that did not sell at my garage sale? We donated to the Battered Women's Shelter, and you know what they're going to do? Sell those items in their stores. They figure someone, eventually, will buy the stuff. Who knows, they could be right.

Which circles back around to rule number one: it's not personal. 

Okay, those are the big parallels… are there others I've missed?