At the Maui Writers Conference

I’m at the Maui Writers Conference now. And I’m so touched by the kindness of my readers, who’ve been emailing me about VANISH and where they’re finding it in stores. I promise, you’ll all get personal replies as soon as I get home Sept. 8th. And the bookmarks will go out to you then, too. Sometimes when I sit here blogging at a computer, I feel as if I’m just writing to myself – but you’ve made me realize that I’m writing to a whole universe of dear friends!

LESSONS IN HUMILITY FROM THE ROAD

Lest an author ever start to feel too cocky, all it takes is a visit to an out-of-town bookstore to remind her of her lowly place in the universe.

I’m in Honolulu at the moment, en route to the Maui Writers Conference. Since my book VANISH has just gone on sale, I thought I should drop into local bookstores and do some “drive-by” signings. My plan was to say hello to the managers, autograph any copies they had in the stores, and leave a bundle of my flashy new bookmarks. Honolulu, I should add, was my home for twelve years. My kids were born here, I practiced medicine here, and I have colleagues and friends and relatives who live here. So I showed up at the first store full of optimism that I’d be warmly greeted.

Here is what really happened.

I walked into a branch of a national bookstore chain, and introduced myself to the manager.

Me: “Hi, I’m Tess Gerritsen, an author, and I’m in Honolulu for the day. My new book VANISH has just gone on sale, and I wondered if you’d like me to sign any store stock?”

Manager: “What’s your name again, and how do you spell it?”

I tell her.

Manager: (dubiously) “And you say you’ve written a book?”

Me: “Yes. The title is VANISH.”

Manager: “I’m not familiar with that title. Let me see if we have any in stock.” She checks the computer. “Oh. I guess we do. I’ll go find them.” She heads to the back of the store and finds sixteen copies. In the BACK of the store. You’d need a bulldozer to excavate them.

And my book has been on sale for exactly ONE day.

She goes back to the computer. Frowns at the screen. Looks up at me with a look of surprise. “We’ve got a lot of your titles here. Have you been writing a long time?”

I walk out of the store with my tail tucked between my legs.

Store visit #2(to another national bookstore chain) is even more humiliating. This manager has never heard of me either. He finds eight copies of VANISH in the store. “But you can only sign two of them,” he says. “We need to be able to return them when they don’t sell.”

ONE day on sale, and he’s already talking about returning the books. And he won’t let me sign any of the paperbacks because… well, you guessed it. He needs to be able to return them.

It’s useless to explain to him that signed copies CAN be returned for credit. He’s been told “at a seminar” that they can’t be. I slink out, having driven an extra 30 miles to sign exactly three copies.

At Store #3, the manager doesn’t want me to sign ANY copies. She wants to be able to “return them all” if necessary. Then she looks in the computer and stares. “Wow,” she says. “We have a lot of your books in stock. I guess you must sell really well here.” Only then does she allow me to sign three copies of VANISH. I ask her if she has many authors come through her store.

“You’re the only one,” she says. (Do other authors know something that I don’t?)

By the time I reach Ala Moana Shopping Center, I am so demoralized, I am ready to crawl on my knees to beg the Emperor-Manager for the privilege of allowing my grubby author hands to touch his stash of VANISH. I approach one of the clerks, give her a pitiful look and explain the reason for my visit.

She says: “Wait right here.”

A moment later, another clerk with a sweet smile emerges shyly to say she loves my books. Then the manager comes out to shake my hand and encourages me to sign everything they have. I am so blown away by this sudden hospitality that I want to move into this store and set up housekeeping. These booksellers have HEARD of me!

Then they break the bad news. Their store is closing in a month.

I slog back to the car with my bookmarks and “Signed by Author” stickers, thinking that it’s time to just go back to my hotel and order a stiff drink. But I manage to drag myself to a little store out in Mililani, where the manager (who’s never heard of me) is nice enough to let me sign books anyway.

I hope his store isn’t the next to close.

That’s how it is for authors on the road. Whether you’re just starting out, or you’re already a NYT bestselling writer, any delusions of grandeur you may harbor will quickly be squashed by a few sobering bookstore visits. Some people imagine that the happiest time in a writer’s life is when he first sees his book in the stores.

That’s not true.

The happiest time in an author’s life is during the weeks BEFORE the book goes on sale. Those are the weeks when all good things are still possible, when we’re allowed to entertain our most deeply held dreams. Before the nasty reviews appear, before the disappointing sales figures. Before we’re reminded, yet again, just how insignificant we are.

Then, on a dime, it can change.

I get back to my hotel and get an amazing bolt of good news. The German translation of THE APPRENTICE has just hit #1 on the German bestseller list.

I’m getting whiplash from this roller coaster ride.

* * *

Dear readers, if any of you happen to drop into a bookstore in the next few weeks, I’d love to hear whether you had any problems locating copies of VANISH. Whether it was in stock, and where in the store it was displayed. Let me know what city you were in. And if you also email me your mailing address, I’ll send you some bookmarks for your kindness!

T MINUS TWO DAYS TILL VANISH RELEASE!

I’m off to Hawaii (and the Maui Writers Conference) tomorrow, so no blogs for a few weeks.

The timing of this conference, the very week that my new book goes on sale, means I’m unable to go on book tour this year. There’s been a debate in publishing circles about whether book tours really make a difference in sales.

I may be about to find out…

1. Word of mouth 2. The cover

On MJ Rose’s excellent blogsite (http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/members/BkDoctorSin/) there’s been some thought-provoking discussion of book packaging and cover design. It’s inspired me to mull over the importance of a good book cover. They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but the fact is, readers DO care about covers. If you’re a brand-new author, the two top reasons that a reader will pick up your book are:1. Word of mouth. 2. The cover.

While we authors can’t do much about #1, we may have a certain amount of influence on #2. But what, exactly, constitutes a good cover?

It’s a bit like pornography; while I can’t tell you precisely what a good cover is, I know it when I see it. Some things I don’t like: Brown covers. Dark gray covers. Mustard yellow covers. Covers that are overdone in gold and glitter and embossing, that shriek “Look at me,” because I get the feeling the publisher is resorting to desperate measures to sell a really bad book. I don’t like covers with guns; they make me think the book will be heavy on weaponry and light on character development. And oddly enough, I don’t like covers with medical imagery — scalpels, syringes, masked surgeons. I say “oddly” because my first thriller, HARVEST, had a syringe on the cover and it sold very well. Maybe I’ve read too many really bad medical novels with scalpels on the covers, and I’m shying away from the whole lot of them these days.

What I do like: Covers with human faces, especially women’s, or sensuous views of the human body. Covers that imply secrets. THE HISTORIAN, with a sliver of a face peering out through black, is a good example of that. Harlan Coben’s book cover for TELL NO ONE was another winner — a weird salmon-pink background with only the title on the cover in tiny type, and no other design element. (Plus, it was a great title.) That book practically compelled me to pick it up and look at the flap copy, to find out what the “secret” was.

Maybe it’s my XX chromosomes, but I also like what I call, for want of a better term, “pretty” covers. Covers with lush colors and painterly art. Yes, it may be merely female taste, but since most novels are bought by women, it behooves publishers to appeal to them.

I have one convincing example of the power of “pretty” covers, based on my experience in the German market. My early thrillers there had standard medical thriller covers — scalpels, forceps, etc. And my sales were, to put it baldly, mediocre. But with THE SURGEON, my German publisher decided to do something entirely different and used a gorgeous painting by Caravaggio, of anatomists. From one book to the next, my sales went from mediocre to bestselling, and I’m convinced that the cover had a lot to do with it.

Would that same cover work as well in the UK or the US? Who knows? Every country has its own sensibility, and it’s possible the same cover would be a complete flop elsewhere. If you look at the various covers on my foreign editions, you’ll see how different they can be. In the UK, they’ve chosen clean, bright covers with sometimes abstract elements. In THE SURGEON, it was a blood-spattered bathroom drain. In THE SINNER, it was a crucifix lying in the snow. And those seem to work; my books are LONDON TIMES bestsellers.

I’m just a reader and book buyer, not a design professional. Yet there are times when I walk through a bookstore, see a bad cover, and wonder: “What WAS that publisher thinking?” Recently I read an article about how one particular publisher came up with what they thought was a great “bestselling” cover for a book they projected would be huge. They showed all the various prototypes, and then proudly revealed their finished product. My reaction? What an ugly end product.

The book, sadly for the author, was not a bestseller. I could have told them the cover stank; but then, they didn’t ask ME.

The publishing world has developed a few superstitions about book covers over the years. The word used to be that there were three things you should never put on a cover because they were bad luck: Snakes, palm trees, and bare feet.

The first, I can understand. I’ve polled my readers at various book events and asked them how many of them would not pick up a book with a snake on the cover. There are always a few hands that go up, from people who say they wouldn’t even TOUCH a book with a snake anywhere on the cover. Their fear of snakes is that powerful! As for the bit about palm trees and bare feet, I have no idea how that came about. I suspect that sometime in the past there was a book that flopped miserably, and the publisher decided to blame it on the cover. Which happened to have palm trees and/or bare feet.

Since then, there’ve probably been enough bestselling novels with palm trees and bare feet to convincingly put that superstition to rest.

There also used to be a superstition that green covers didn’t sell. Then John Grisham’s THE FIRM squashed that one.

A cover illustrator for western novels was once interviewed about his work. He said that he read every single book before he painted the cover design, and that you could tell which ones he really liked by what he painted. “But your designs all have pretty much the same elements — a cowboy and his horse. How can we tell the difference?” he was asked.

“If I liked the book,” he said, “the horse is facing TOWARDS you.”

Sex Change Operations. Sometimes they’re absolutely necessary.

Ho-kay. Truth is, I could dish forever about the business of writing and the mechanics of bestseller lists. Maybe it’s my science background, but I love hard numbers. I love to hear them, share them, exchange them, talk about them. But after I saw how one little number (#17) got me into so much trouble, I think I’ll switch to a far safer topic. Which is…Sex change operations. Sometimes they’re absolutely necessary.

A reader wrote me recently about the plot description that a bookstore chain had printed about my upcoming book, VANISH, in its “new titles” brochure:

“A man about to be autopsied comes back to life, but he’s not very grateful. Rushed to the hospital, he shoots a security guard and takes hostages – one of them a very pregnant Detective Jane Rizzoli.” The reader said she later read the actual plot description on Amazon.com.

“According to Amazon,” she wrote me, “the reawakened corpse in VANISH is a WOMAN, not a man! You should complain to that bookstore chain for getting the plot completely wrong. What a a dumb mistake!”

Um, actually, it’s not the bookstore’s fault at all for getting the hostage taker’s sex wrong. It’s mine. And it’s all because of the completely disorganized way I go about plotting my books. (If my editor is reading this, I want her to now close her eyes!)

Months and months before I turned in the finished manuscript of VANISH to my publisher, I wrote the book proposal, which was a five-page summary of the story I planned to write. In that summary, the corpse-turned-hostage-taker IS a man. A former black-ops guy, cornered and driven by desperation because he knows a secret that will get him killed. I turned in that proposal, then plunged into writing the story, not knowing yet what that secret was, just knowing what the initial set-up was: that Jane Rizzoli is in the hospital to have her baby. That she ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. That the fact she is a cop could get her killed, if the crazy guy was to find out her identity. Writing a book is as much an act of discovery for me as it is for my readers reading it, and that’s what VANISH was for me — a twisting path with an end I couldn’t have foreseen.

Then, about two thirds of the way through the book, the writing came to a screeching halt. I knew SOMETHING was wrong, but I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Plus, I STILL didn’t know what the hostage taker’s dangerous secret was. And by then, the book should have been nearly done! Feeling pretty panicky at that point, I then had to head out to Abilene to address a writers conference. During those long drives past cattle and scrub brush, I mulled over why I couldn’t make headway on VANISH, why the story wasn’t working for me. The answer came to me in a flash of revelation.

I had the sex of my hostage taker all wrong! It wasn’t a man. It was a WOMAN.

Suddenly, the plot opened up in ways I’d never foreseen. The twists turned weirder, the secrets darker, the situation even more desperate than I realized. By the time the story was written, it was markedly different from the original book proposal. Only the premise remained intact: “A corpse wakes up in the morgue and takes Jane Rizzoli hostage.”

In the meantime, the catalogue copy for VANISH had already been published, using my original storyline. And that’s the copy that bookstores and libraries used to describe VANISH. In the meantime, the original plot I had given them had since — well, vanished!

I use this as an illustration that there are no firm rules to writing a book. Some of us are seat-of-the-pants writers who don’t know what’s going to happen on the next page. I also know writers who don’t set down a word of text until they’ve planned every single plot twist from beginning till end. They line up their ducks in a row and only then do they start to write, using their synopsis as a blueprint. They don’t waste time backtracking out of blind alleys, or struggling with writers block, or performing last-minute sex change operations.

I wish I could write that way. It would save me a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of wasted pages. But after nineteen books, I know how I operate as a writer, and I’ve become comfortable with my own process. When I speak at writers conferences, I tell people: There’s no right way or wrong way to write a novel. Don’t let anyone tell you that you HAVE to outline your story ahead of time. (Don’t even let them tell you that you have to be organized. They should take a look at my desk!) Just do it the way that works for you. All that matters is that you FINISH the book.

And that you’re happy with it.

Hungry for Respect

Judging by the reaction over at Lee Goldberg’s site, http://leegoldberg.typepad.com (a site I normally read with great pleasure), my latest blog entry was a really, REALLY bad idea. It reminds me of my very first entry here, about how maybe this whole blog thing could be a bad idea. It seems that writers who reach a certain level of success aren’t allowed to have any insecurities, any doubts about our careers. We shouldn’t be allowed to wonder if our sales are in a death spiral, whether we’ve lost “it”. We should simply smile and wave and feel like, well, the untouchable queen of England.I’ve thought about deleting my last blog entry entirely. Instead of talking about my experience with bestseller lists and my impression of publishing realities, I should talk about, oh …

say, isn’t this GREAT weather we’re having today?

The truth is, I’ve never conquered my insecurity as a writer, and having hit the list doesn’t change that. I’ve never lost touch with the feeling that success is a never-ending struggle. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I slogged my way up as a paperback romance writer, that I wrote nine of those before my first hardcover, and I’ve never forgotten what rejection feels like. Every time I sit down to start a new book, I’m always hit with that panicky feeling of “How on earth did I do this the last time?”

So it does sting when other writers tell me I’m not allowed to air the insecurities that I suspect every other writer — even those on the NYT list — probably experiences.

No wonder there are so few bestselling authors blogging about this. They obviously know enough to keep their mouths shut.

I came up from the bottom, so I know what it’s like to be starting off, hungry for respect. I know that pretty much every writer — whether or not others consider him a hack — doesn’t think of himself that way. He thinks of himself as an artist, and every bad review hurts, every bad sell-through is a disaster, every snide remark is an attack on his integrity as a writer. The same things that hurt you at the bottom will hurt you at every other level of your career.

But if those things don’t hurt you, if you no longer care what people think about your writing, then maybe you’ve stopped being an artist. Maybe you HAVE become a hack.

Anyway, this was my long sigh for the day. I won’t erase the previous entry — it’ll stay there as a cautionary tale to other blogging writers that there are some things you just shouldn’t be honest about.

T-Minus 18 days until VANISH release!

Haven’t been blogging much due to a steady influx of houseguests. Well, it IS summer in Maine, the time when everyone wants to escape the heat and head north to our little corner of paradise.

So what’s the latest in the writing life? To start off, I’m sorry to report that I didn’t drink champagne on Wednesday night. Alas, the first partial week’s paperback sales of BODY DOUBLE only got it to #17 on the NYT list. Sigh. Then I looked at the other authors whose books debuted the same week: Nora Roberts. Dean Koontz. Clive Cussler. Catherine Coulter. Janet Evanovich. And I realized — whoa, there’s some pretty tough competition there! I’m going to hang on tight this coming week and see what happens next Wednesday. And hope that there are enough readers out there who care enough about Jane and Maura to want to find out what happens next in their lives.

Publishing lesson: Success is never a sure thing in this business. Ever. This is what keeps me humble and always feeling like a struggling writer.

There are times, though, when this business can get discouraging. When you take two steps forward only to follow that by three steps back. This evening, I was looking wistfully at the latest list of Book Sense Picks and wondering what it takes to be recognized by the literati. But then I realize that it’s time to get back to my desk and just think about Jane and Maura and what’s happening in their lives.

To get past all the discouragements in this business, and just think about the next story, which is — in the end — what really matters.

The other task that has been taking up a lot of energy is …

THE TITLE SEARCH!

Nope, not talking about real estate. I’m talking about what to call the next baby in development. Believe it or not, I find the naming of a book a really, really difficult thing. Titles that strike me as terrific may make the sales force in my publishing house groan. Looking back at my nine thriller titles, here’s where the titles originated:

4 books: my own titles

2 books: my literary agent’s suggestions

3 books: my editor or publisher’s suggestion

Why are titles so difficult? Sometimes, it’s a matter of marketing. For instance, I really, really wanted to name my next book “The Mephisto Club.” That was nixed because my editor doubted that the reading public understood the significance of the name “Mephisto.” I also tried out “Succubus.” No dice, ditto reason. I threw out some others:

THE COVENANT

HUNT THE DEVIL

THE SATAN HUNTERS

“No, no, and no” came back the responses.

(In the meantime, I’m already writing the book — have got about 1/4 of it written — yet no title! What do I do now?)

This struggle I have with titles sometimes amazes writing students, who tell me that for them, naming the book is the easiest part. But then I look at the titles they’ve chosen for their books (e.g. MANAGED DEATH — oh, puh-leeze!) and I’m reminded how hard it is to find a good title.

So… the search goes on. Hmmm. Maybe I should run a contest…