Once a Dork, Always a Dork.

Some of us are destined to spend our lives feeling like social misfits, the uncool kids who were lucky to scrounge up a date, any date, to the senior prom. And then spent the whole evening standing alone by the punchbowl. I’m thinking about my own inherent dorkiness right now, after having had one of those “things never change” epiphanies while I was at the Miami Book Fair over the weekend. The Book Fair itself was great fun, a place for writers and readers to meet and mingle. But what sticks with me now, days later, is a moment that took place on Saturday night. I had heard whispers of a “secret party” to be held late that night, an exclusive soiree that was said to be the smash hit of the whole event. Although I was not actually invited, I hitched a ride there with fellow authors Chuck Goldstone and Joe Finder.

Our destination was a stunning private residence on Flamingo Drive, its entrance barred by a young woman checking THE LIST. Only Chuck’s name was actually on THE LIST. I am embarrassed to report that I resorted to the desperate fib of “I’m with him,” and scooted through the door, clinging to Chuck’s shirt-tails.

Joe Finder, thinking fast on his feet (as befits every good thriller writer) said: “and I’m with her!” and scooted in right after me.

This is how we found ourselves in the land of the Cool People. Hundreds of them. Sipping champagne, slinking across the room in sequined gowns, balancing gracefully on stiletto heels. A Keith Richards look-alike glided by in a brocade pirate’s coat. Candace Bushnell was rumored to be somewhere among the blondes. Chuck marveled that this party was the coolest he’d ever been to. “In fact, this is such a cool party,” he said, “that 99.99% of the women in this room would never dream of sleeping with me.” Which is Chuck’s ultimate yardstick for coolness.

I didn’t know who all these beautiful people were, but I somehow doubted they spent their workdays trying to glue the pages back into their overused thesauruses.

We wandered outside onto the marble terrace, where we found a few other authors wandering around, looking equally dazed by all the glitter. Or maybe by the scent of marijuana wafting through the crowd. It was there on that terrace, standing among my writer friends, that the subject of our youthful dorkiness came up.

One of the guys suddenly confesses: “My high school girlfriend left me for a football player.” He says it matter-of factly, but surely there has to be pain there. He had gone on to study at Yale and Harvard and was now a bestselling thriller writer, but he still hasn’t gotten over being dumped by a girl who preferred the class mesomorph.

Another guy says, “The kids who were really popular in high school, they wouldn’t have a thing to do with me back then. Now they pretend we were best friends.”

Someone else confesses: “My old classmates, the football players and cheerleaders, can’t believe I ended up doing better than they did.”

Then it’s my turn to confess. Something so painful I almost never talk about it. “In high school,” I say, “my boyfriend’s parents told him that he’d be smart never to marry me, because a Chinese wife would be bad for business. And he’d never make as much money.”

The others all stare at me for a moment. As if they can’t believe they’re hearing this.

Then Chuck says, “Have you shown him your latest royalty check?”

Here we are, four accomplished people, all of us reasonably attractive. And decades after our high school years, the stab wounds of rejection still haven’t healed.

In my case, I’ve always chalked it up to race, to the fact I grew up in an all-white neighborhood. I wanted to be white like everyone else, wanted it so badly that whenever I looked into a mirror, I’d be shocked that a Chinese girl looked back at me. I thought I had every good reason to feel like a misfit.

But that night, standing with those three amazingly talented people, hearing their own stories of feeling like misfits, it became clear to me that you don’t have to be a minority to feel like you don’t belong. Maybe we all feel like the outsider; maybe we all identify with the dorks.

Maybe that’s why books about misfits and underdogs resonate so powerfully with readers.

————–

If you’d like to see an online video interview of me about VANISH, check this out!

http://www.booklook.tv/video/vanish.htm

“Dear Author: about that dumb error you made on page …”

I doubt there’s an author alive who hasn’t received a scolding by some alert reader for committing the unpardonable sin of — well, making mistakes in our books. Author Michael Palmer cheerfully talks about his medical thriller where tumbleweeds appeared in Colorado. Gun aficionados love to point out the numerous novels by various authors where revolvers sprout silencers. And then there are the grammar cops who love to remind us that the word “lay” must never, ever be used in place of the word “laid”.

I’ve just received a note from just such an alert reader pointing out that my Boston geography leaves much to be desired. He’s right of course — the errors I made, having to do with a scene that takes place in the Public Gardens, are well nigh impossible for me to explain, because I’ve stood in precisely that spot numerous times, have walked across the intersection mentioned in the book, and normally I can tell east from west. But in VANISH, “Arlington Street” somehow became “Huntington Street,” and I sent Jane Rizzoli walking in completely the wrong direction.

It’s hard to explain how we make mistakes like this. Mistakes that we KNOW are mistakes, if we just paused to give the scene a second look. As an author, I can tell you why they probably happen: because I’m so focused on the excitement of the scene, on getting the action down as quickly as I can, that I don’t always notice when I scribble down errors. (This despite the fact I keep a detailed map of Boston on my desk at all times.) It’s a little bit like mixing up the names of your own kids — of course you know which kid is which, but you sometimes call them the wrong names anyway. And once the wrong information gets typed into the manuscript, you’ll probably read right past it again and again on later drafts, never realizing that it needs to be re-checked.

Of course, there are some errors that can really only be chalked up to plain ignorance, not mere carelessness. And in the matter of automobiles, I’ll be the first to raise my hand and plead complete cluelessness. I don’t know a thing about cars. If my husband asks me what kind of car a friend of ours just bought, I’ll say: “a black car.” In BLOODSTREAM, I wrote about a 1945 Ford that had sat in character’s barn for twenty years. I had no particular reason for choosing that year in the story; it just popped out on the page.

Of course I got taken to task for that one. As a reader (a guy, of course) later pointed out, Ford made no cars that year.

I’m always grateful to readers who alert me to these mistakes early in a hardcover’s release, because I can usually make the corrections in time for the paperback.

And every time I feel like kicking myself for letting an error slip through into a book, I remind myself about those hapless rocket scientists who forgot to convert yards to meters … and lost a multi-million dollar spacecraft on Mars.

Murder is Easy. Sex is Hard.

At the moment, I’m struggling to write a love scene. As a former romance writer, this ought to be a snap, right? Wrong. I’m reminded, once again, that these are the most difficult scenes of all to write. There’s a great blog on this over at: http://pjparrish.blogspot.com/2005/11/sexual-reeling.html, where PJ Parrish asks: why do so many great crime writers fall apart when they write about sex? Why is it so much easier to write about autopsy rooms or crime scenes (which, let’s face it, most novelists have actually never seen) than it is about sex (which, one assumes — one HOPES — that most novelists have experienced.) Why are we so comfortable writing about blood and gore, but so squeamish about describing the simple exchange of body fluids?

The answer is simple. We don’t want to be laughed at.

Romance writers have the freedom to go at it unabashedly, because their readers expect these scenes, want them, and enjoy them. But there is so much prejudice against the romance genre that it seems to be fair game for ridicule. Hey, anyone can write a romance, right? Just follow the formula. Boy meets girl, they have sex, they live happily ever after. But read a few romances and you’ll discover it ain’t that simple. Writing about sex is an art that’s underestimated, an art so delicate that many crime writers just avoid writing about sex altogether. So we have hundreds of fictional detectives who go through life eating pizzas, drinking exotic micro-brews, listening interminably to jazz, chasing serial killers, dodging bullets… and never get any nukie.

These characters are supposed to be believable?

So what’s the problem here? Why is writing sex so difficult? We’re talking about simple plumbing. How hard can it be?

Well, to start off with, what do you CALL those body parts? Generations of romance writers have found ingenious ways to avoid calling them by their official anatomic names. Let’s face it, seeing the word “penis” just yanks a reader right out of the fantasy. Instead you’re back in sixth grade sex ed, staring at slide shows of male equipment.

So okay, let’s try out alternatives to the word “penis.” Throbbing member? His staff? His flagpole? Before you know it, you’re giggling too hard to write another sentence. Giggles are a danger sign, a symptom of the dreaded PURPLE PROSE.

Well, we just won’t write about certain body parts, then. Maybe we could take the tough-guy approach: “He threw her on the bed and took her. Then he sighed and smoked a cigarette.”

Yeah, the ladies will really love that one.

Ask yourself, as a writer, what your love scene is supposed to accomplish. If it’s just to show that your hero is a normal guy having sex, that’s about as interesting as watching him eat bologna sandwiches. No, the best sex scenes are those that accomplish something far more profound. They offer us a deeper understanding of character, or show us emotional awakening or healing. When I write ‘m also thinking of hearts and minds as well — and how this love scene will forever change these people.

Here’s an example from BLOODSTREAM:

“They made love three times that night. The first was a mindless collision of bodies, limbs tangled together, then the shuddering explosion deep within. The second time was the slower coupling of lovers, gazes locked, the touch and scent of each other now familiar.

The third time they made love, it was to say good-bye.

They’d awakened in the hours before dawn, and knowingly reached for each other in the darkness. They spoke no words, their bodies joining of their own accord, two halves gliding together into one whole. When, in silence, he emptied himself into her, it was as though he was spilling tears of both joy and sorrow. The joy of having found her. The sorrow of what they would now have to face. Doreen’s wrath, Noah’s resistance. A town that might never accept her.”

No body parts are mentioned. What I write about, instead, is a bittersweet parting. These two people have fallen in love against all odds — his marriage, her resentful son — and this is the night they finally come together. While knowing it can never work.

This, I think, is the trick to writing a good sex scene. It should never be just about sex; it should be about joy and longing and fears and consequences.

It should be about the human heart.

Flowers for Vanish

More flowers for VANISH, this time from Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine…While some authors use forensics in a very limited way simply as the entry for their hero to join the action, Gerritsen makes it an integral part of her story, so that Isless professional skills and the insights she provides are truly critical to solving the mystery.

Vanish, with its appealingly varied cast, solid plotting, and technical assurance sets a tough standard for forensic mysteries to try to meet.

(Thanks to alert reader Ken from Canada for the heads up!)

How much is a writer worth?

I know that it’s not polite to talk about money but what the heck. I like numbers. And I’ve got Chinese blood. While I hate to play into stereotypes, the truth is, most of us Chinese Americans are pretty blunt about monetary figures. (When I first introduced my soon-to-be-husband to my grandmother, the first thing she wanted to know was: “How much money does he make?”)

So let’s talk about money, because I know you want to know about it. And it’s a question I often get asked by aspiring authors: “How much can I expect to get for my first book?”

First, let’s dispose of the “first book” question. Because the answer on that one is, it’s a total crap shoot. First book advances are completely unpredictable and involve a lot of hocus pocus, because no one really knows the potential of a first-time author. Some first books get a pitiful advance of a thousand dollars. Then there’s Elizabeth Kostova who earned a two million dollar payday for her first book, THE HISTORIAN. Which, incidentally, turned into a very good investment for her publisher, as the book will almost certainly recoup that astronomical advance. Obviously the range for first-book advances is all over the board, and depends on factors as diverse as who your agent is, whether you’ve got a compelling personal history, whether you’re a hot looking stud…

And, oh yeah, whether you’ve written a really good book.

But once we move out of first-book territory and on to authors who have a track record, then the book deals get to be a little more predictable. It’s no secret that publishing is a business, and the goal is to make money. Or at the very least, to break even. If you follow the announced deals in PUBLISHERS WEEKLY or the online website PUBLISHERS MARKETPLACE, you’ll start to get an inkling of what multi-published authors are getting. But you can also guess, knowing typical royalty rates, what an author is probably worth in real dollars. With major publishers, hardcover royalties tend to run around 12 – 15% and paperback royalties tend to be around 6- 10% of cover price. So a writer who’s sold 25,000 hardcover copies has earned $75,000 in royalties in hardcover sales alone, and his next book deal should certainly reflect that. His next advance should be, at a bare minimum, $75,000. (And we’re not even talking about paperback earnings yet, which will be on top of that.) More likely, the next advance will take into account continued growth, and will probably reach well into six figures.

But once you get into the stratosphere of NYT-bestselling authors, the numbers may no longer be anchored to real sales figures, but may soar much much higher. From my own observations of the business, authors who consistently place in the bottom third of the NYT list (Positions # 11 – 15) are worth at least a million dollars a book, North American rights. We’re talking combined hard/soft deals here, since most publishers now retain paperback rights. If you consistently place #6-10, your deals go even higher, into multi-million dollar range. Once your books consistently place in the top third, the deals become wildly unpredictable, because now we’re talking Harry Potter and Dan Brown territory. Eight-figure book deals are not out of the question.

Occasionally, you’ll hear about a deal that makes you wonder what the publisher was smoking. I’m thinking of a multi-published author who recently landed a three-book, high-seven-figure deal despite never having landed, not even once, on the NYT hardcover list. (If you’re wondering what “high-seven-figures means”, here’s a guideline to the secret code of deal announcements: “seven-figure deal” = a million bucks. “multi-million dollar deal” means 2-3 million dollars. “Substantial seven-figure deal” means 4-5 million dollars. “High-seven-figure deal” means anything from six to nine million dollars.”) Did that deal, signed with an author who’d never hit the hardcover list, make monetary sense? Not one whit. And the truth is, if that author’s next book doesn’t sell like gangbusters, someone in that publishing house has a lot to answer for when the profit/loss numbers are tallied. But clearly they had great faith in the author’s future, and were willing to roll the dice.

And sometimes, they throw flowers…

Andrew Gulli, the editor of THE STRAND MAGAZINE, has named VANISH as one of his favorite reads of 2005.

If it’s so damn easy, why don’t you do it?

Forgive me for sounding irritable this morning, but sometimes I do something I absolutely shouldn’t do. I Google myself. Any writer who succumbs to the temptation of checking out what others are saying about her books should be warned that what’s out there on the internet ain’t always pretty. After eighteen books and twenty years in this business, I should know better than to go searching for more reasons to drive myself crazy, but what else is a masochist supposed to do in her spare time?

What got me going today was a seemingly innocuous comment by a reviewer that VANISH was just another “slick and readable” thriller. Meaning: it ain’t no work of art. Now, I don’t know when “readable” became a denigrating word, but among the literary crowd, it seems to have become a synonym for “hack work.” (Which I guess means that the opposite of hack work is “unreadable.”) And then there’s that word “slick.” I have a sneaking suspicion that any word that’s commonly used to describe used-car salesmen is not meant as praise.

Okay, I think, calm down. Maybe I’ve had too much caffeine this morning and should let that one go.

Then I come to another reviewer who sniffs that my books are just TOO commercial. Appealing to the masses, it seems, is a black mark against you.

And finally there’s reviewer Patrick Anderson in the Washington Post, who went to great lengths to say how much he hated VANISH. Just hated it. But then he conceded that VANISH would certainly hit the bestseller list because… well, because so many readers will love it. Those stupid people.

Are you hearing the common theme here? Commercial fiction is trash. If a book’s too readable and it sells too well, then there’s something wrong with it. (And, by implication, there’s also something wrong with the idiots who buy it.)

This attitude is certainly not new. The more popular an author becomes, the harder they get whacked by the critics. Everyone adores the undiscovered darling; no one loves Mr. Bestseller who is said to just “phone it in.”

A few years ago, annoyed by the runaway success of Nicholas Sparks and James Waller, a highly praised literary author decided to prove to the world that achieving bestsellerdom was simply a matter of writing a sappy book and promoting the hell out of. A million-dollar book deal was followed by a huge advertising campaign with all the bells and whistles. The result? The book flopped.

The lesson: Writing the bestseller isn’t as easy as everyone thinks it is.

But come on, isn’t it obvious? Here’s the dream: Sit at home and churn out slick, highly readable pages. Get paid a gazillion bucks. See your name and face on a million book covers. Yeah, it’s so easy. It’s just commercial fiction.

Why isn’t everyone doing it?

Why aren’t YOU doing, it, Patrick Anderson?

—————-

And finally, to put me back in a good mood: Wanna play a literary “tag” game?

Robert Gregory Browne has lured me into playing along. Here are the rules:

1. Take first five novels from your bookshelf. 2. Book 1 — first sentence. 3. Book 2 — last sentence on page 50. 4. Book 3 — second sentence on page 100. 5. Book 4 — next to the last sentence on page 150. 6. Book 5 — final sentence of the book. 7. Make the five sentences into a paragraph. 8. Feel free to “cheat” to make it a better paragraph. 9. Name your sources. 10.Post to your blog.

Okay, here goes:

“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings. I have an idea of something new we might try. Then meet me in my drawing room. You shall not serve me the bottled urine you call wine. After many bleak days and nights I could feel again, and what I felt was love.”

Sources: 1. FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley 2. BOUDICA: DREAMING THE EAGLE by Manda Scott 3. FACE DOWN BELOW THE BANQUETING HOUSE by Kathy Lynn Emerson 4. GREEN RIDER by Kristen Britain 5. FIRE AND FOG by Dianne Day

(Okay, so it didn’t quite work. But it made for an interesting result.)

“Did you sell movie rights to VANISH?”

I’ve been asked this question several times over the last few weeks — and the reason for that question is about to air tonight on the Lifetime Channel. “Human Trafficking,” starring Mira Sorvino and Donald Sutherland, is about the sex trade, and judging by the previews, it features a ruthless crime network that lures foreign women to the U.S. and then sells them into involuntary sexual servitude.

Sound familiar?

Then I received an email from a reader who said they’re currently shooting a completely different feature film up in Canada, about a ruthless crime network that lures foreign women into the U.S. and then sells them into … well, you guessed it.

No wonder I’ve been asked if I’d sold the film rights to VANISH. After all, my book is about a ruthless crime network that lures foreign women into the U.S. and … oh, you know what I’m talking about.

What exactly has happened here? Is Hollywood making a movie of VANISH? Has Hollywood stolen my story without telling me?

No. What this illustrates is a phenomenon that occurs quite regularly in entertainment, the simultaneous development of almost identical storylines. In this case, I can be pretty sure of the explanation. In 2004, the New York Times Magazine published an in-depth article about the shocking realities of the sex trade involving foreign women smuggled into the U.S. When I read that article, I got that big emotional whomp on the chest that told me I had to write a story about the subject. That’s how VANISH came about.

I suspect that, out in Hollywood, some producer or screenwriter read that same article and got exactly the same big whomp on his chest and thought: I have to make a movie about this.

This is simply what happens when so many writers and artists and filmmakers are all tuned into the zeitgeist. (Or reading the National Enquirer.) We read that a little girl’s fallen into a well and been heroically rescued, and everyone rushes to write a novel or make the TV movie about it. A Scottish researcher clones a sheep, and within two years there are half a dozen novels about cloning. It’s the danger of choosing a hot news topic as the focus of your next story; your book may be competing with a whole host of other novels about that very same topic.

Sometimes, though, there’s simply no explanation for the bizarre coincidences in the entertainment industry. A friend of mine who reads scripts for movie studios told me that she once received, in the same week, two different scripts about a man who’d been reincarnated as a dog, and who then had to win back the love of his still-human wife.

Okay, THAT’S weird. But it’s not plagiarism. Neither screenwriter had ever heard of the other. The fact that they simultaneously came up with the same wacky story idea is just one of those mysteries of the universe.