When writers get into trouble with readers

There’s a reader out there named Kathleen C. who’s really, really ticked off at me.  In fact she thinks I’m the spawn of Satan.

It’s because of an online interview I did for The Literary Guild, in which I talked about the background for The Mephisto Club.  Here’s the part that got her angry:

Question: Why do you think so many law-abiding people are attracted to “the dark side” of human (or maybe not so human!) nature?

Tess: We’re all fascinated by the very things we’re afraid of. Just look at the tourists in your local aquarium, or in the zoo’s reptile house – everyone seems to congregate around the shark tank and the venomous snakes. We study the very things that will harm us. We feel compelled to know more about them. Maybe it’s simply our instinct for self-preservation: as they say, “know thine enemy”.

But there’s also another, more disturbing reason why the dark side attracts us. We are animals, after all, and we still possess the remnants of a more primitive brain. Perhaps some of us still retain those ancient instincts to kill. Although we may be law-abiding, we can’t quite rid ourselves of those reptilian impulses.

Now, I didn’t think there was anything particularly controversial in my response above.  But oh, boy.  What got her mad was my use of the word “animal.”

“We are NOT ANIMALS!” she posted on the Literary Guild website.  As the Bible proves, “God made us in His image!” she pointed out, and to say we human beings are animals is to commit blasphemy. 

So I guess I am a sinful, Satan-worshiping person and anyone who buys my books should be forewarned that they are rewarding evil. 

Hoo boy.  It didn’t matter that my use of the word “animal” was clearly a reference to the biological realm (I do mention brain anatomy in that same sentence).  It didn’t matter that the #1 definition of “animal”, as stated in the dictionary, quite clearly puts human beings in that category:

Animal: –noun

1. any member of the kingdom Animalia, comprising multicellular organisms that have a well-defined shape and usually limited growth, can move voluntarily, actively acquire food and digest it internally, and have sensory and nervous systems that allow them to respond rapidly to stimuli: some classification schemes also include protozoa and certain other single-celled eukaryotes that have motility and animallike nutritional modes.  (Dictionary.com)

The point is, once a reader gets ticked off at you, they cannot be argued with.  They are lost forever.  And Kathleen C. is clearly going to be spreading the word to all her friends that only sinners read Tess Gerritsen.

I’m so often astonished by what ticks off readers.  One reader wrote to rant at me that I had personally insulted her — and every other hospital laboratory technician in the country — because I had made my villain a lab technician.  “Do you think we all go around killing people?” she said.  “I am never reading another one of your books!”

Then there was the gentleman from Greece who got all in a lather because in THE SURGEON, my villain Warren is a student of Greek mythology, and Warren likes to dwell on a particularly horrific myth, the sacrifice of Iphigenia.  “Why do you single out GREEKS as sick and violent?” he demanded.  “Do you think we go around sacrificing our daughters?  You have insulted our country!!”

Then there was the acquaintance who had adopted a son from South America, who was pissed off about my book HARVEST, because it explored the urban legend of children being kidnapped for their organs.  She considered it a direct attack on her, and she ranted that I should have been more sensitive to her situation when I wrote the book.  And she was never going to speak to me again.

And she never did.  She refuses to even go to any parties that I’ve been invited to.

(Umm, lady, I didn’t even know you’d adopted a kid at the time I wrote the book.)

The point is, some reader somewhere is going to take something you wrote as a direct and personal attack on them.  Even if you’ve never heard of this person.  

A few nasty letters or comments from readers can make a writer afraid to write about anything controversial — or even non-controversial.  It seems I can’t even use the official dictionary definition of “animal” without getting an angry Biblical lecture.  Kathleen C., you can bet, will never read another one of my books.

But then, if she gets mad at me for using the word “animal”, is there ANY author out there who doesn’t make her angry, ANY author who doesn’t offend her?

Who’s left to read? 

It never stops being nerve-wracking

According to the Scripps News Service  it’s a “sure bet” that 

“anything written by the big guns – on the level of, say, Larry McMurtry, Janet Evanovich, Alexander McCall Smith, Tess Gerritsen – will find a home on bestseller lists.” 

And several news services have listed THE MEPHISTO CLUB as one of the fall’s anticiipated “big books.”

If that were all true, you’d think that I’d be far more relaxed about my upcoming book releases.  (VANISH comes out in paperback this coming Tuesday.  And THE MEPHISTO CLUB goes on sale two weeks later.)  I’ve been in this business for twenty years, and in recent years, I’ve pretty consistently hit the bestseller lists.  So I should be feeling utterly confident, right?   

You wanna know the truth?  At the moment, I’m a blubbering nervous wreck.

It happens every year, when I have a new book out, either in paperback or hardcover.  First come the tense weeks leading up to the on-sale date, when I incessantly check my stubbornly  immovable sales index on Amazon.com, and start to feel ever more desperate because no one seems to be pre-ordering.  

When the on-sale date arrives, and I can’t stop myself from peeking into bookstores, to see if my book is actually on display.  And all too often, I’m plunged into gloom because the book’s nowhere in sight.  Or there are piles of them, and they don’t seem to be selling.  I’m like one of those doomed sailors drawn inexorably by the song of the Sirens, only to dash himself to death on the rocks.  I can’t stop myself from checking every store, every grocery shelf, every drugstore, even though I know that the chances are, I’ll walk away depressed.  Please, will someone protect me from myself and lash me to the closest ship’s mast?

Then there are all the other things that can — and too often do — go wrong.  In 1997, two weeks before my medical thriller LIFE SUPPORT was scheduled for release, UPS went on strike.  Boxes and boxes of my books ended up sitting in a warehouse somewhere.  I went on book tour as scheduled, only to find that in store after store, my books hadn’t even arrived.  There’s nothing like a protracted two-month laydown date to kill your chances on the bestseller list.

In 2001, my book THE SURGEON went on sale … two weeks before September 11.  When the Twin Towers went down, I was in an airport in Seattle, waiting to catch a flight to continue my book tour.  Needless to say, after that morning, I had no desire to continue the tour.  I just wanted to go home and be with my loved ones.  I couldn’t even think about bookselling — and neither could anyone else.

In the days after my new book is released, I’ll start to get phone calls from my agent and editor, with news about how the book’s doing.  Of course you want to hear an ecstatic:  “these numbers are amazing!”  What you dread hearing is: “we just don’t understand why this campaign isn’t working.”  That’s the kind of call that will cause me to go catatonic on the couch while I ponder what other occupation I should fall back on, since my writing career is so obviously doomed.  The only treatment for such catatonia is a good stiff drink, plus endless re-runs of Harry Potter movies.

I do believe in the healing properties of Harry Potter.

Maybe I’m just more neurotic than other authors, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop doubting my abilities as an author, or the durability of my career.  With every new book I write, I feel as if I’m trying to prove myself all over again.  There’s a lot of reality behind those doubts.  This is a tough business, and it doesn’t take much to transform an author’s promising future into a death spiral.  That’s the hard truth.  So my anxiety isn’t completely unfounded.

The only way I can deal with the uncertainties of this business is to remind myself why I got into this job in the first place: because I love to tell stories.  It’s not about the sales or the reviews or the money. 

Well okay, the money is pretty darn important, because it’s what allows me to keep doing what I’m doing. 

But even if I never again got paid for this, I’d probably still be writing … because I can’t help myself.  And because there’s no better job in the world. 

Why I feel sorry for screenwriters

On July 28, over on the blogsite Murderati, Paul Guyot had a funny post about people he calls the “Seed of Satan”:

http://murderati.typepad.com/murderati/2006/07/index.html

He was referring to film executives.   

That made me laugh because, eons ago, way back in the Ice Age, I wanted to be a screenwriter.  This was in the days before I found success as a novelist, in the days when I thought that writing for the movies just had to be the ultimate glamorous job.  And so much easier than writing books!  You come up with a measly 120 pages, made up of mostly dialogue and lots of white space, and you earn what I considered a stupendous fee, the minimum dictated by the Writers Guild of America.  (For theatrical releases, it was a whopping $35,000.  As I said, this was back in the Ice Age.)  And then there was the whole Hollywood thing.  You know, hanging out with the stars, the beaded gowns, the Malibu beachhouse.  Man, that was the life.  Why chain yourself to a desk and sweat over a 400-page novel when you could be writing for the moooovies? 

So I wrote a script and sent it off.  And Hollywood called back.

I won’t bore you with the details of my long and winding road to my first screen credit.  In a nutshell, I managed to land a Writers Guild – approved L.A. agent and I got the attention of a pair of producers.  While they didn’t buy that particular script, they did come calling a few years later, asking if I’d write something for them, based on my original premise, but with a somewhat different story.  They themselves had very little money to work with, so they asked me to write it on spec.  Since I wasn’t a member of the Writers Guild (which frowns on that sort of thing) I said: “OF COURSE I’LL DO IT!”

A few months later, I sent back a finished script.

Here’s where Tess’s Excellent Hollywood Adventure turns into a cautionary tale for would-be screenwriters. 

It started off with the story conference.  Which was, essentially, a meeting between me and the producers.  Now, if you’re a writer of any chronologic maturity, the first thought that will probably strike you when you get a close look at Hollywood producers, is: “Where are the adults?”   These guys were THAT young.  I was in my 30’s at the time, and I felt like their mom. (Conversely, they probably wondered who this old lady was.)

I’ve since heard, from a seasoned Hollywood veteran, that this explains the quality of films now being made.  “Incoming scripts are screened by lowly script readers.  And who gets hired as script readers?  Why, the Valley-girl girlfriends of these boy producers.” 

So there I was, the decrepit old screenwriter, in a room with two hotshot young producers.  And the purpose of the meeting was for them to tell me all the ways the script needed to be fixed.  I filled pages and pages with notes.  Can we make her younger?  Can we make him a judge?  How about we make them … whoa, SISTER AND BROTHER!  How about we change the dog to a parakeet?   Dutifully, I noted their suggestions.

Then I went home, re-wrote the whole damn thing, and sent it in.

A week later, I get a call.  They want more changes.  How about we make her older?  Does he have to be a judge?  Hey, maybe the parakeet should be … a cat! 

Another re-write.  More changes. 

Another call.  More needed changes.  And by the way, they’ve decided they’re going to do the final polish.  It would mean they’d be credited as the principal screenwriters — but, hey, that’s how it goes. 

And that was the last I heard for a long, long time.  Months, I think. 

Then suddenly, a call out of the blue: they’re headed down to New Zealand because the film’s going into production.  My movie’s getting made!  

I’m gonna get paid!

In 1993, “Adrift” aired as a CBS Movie of the Week, starring Kate Jackson.  I got story credit and third-screenwriter credit.  Yes, it was pretty cool, seeing my name on the screen. 

But I don’t plan to ever write another screenplay again, and here’s why: for me, it feels like writing by committee. Producers throw in ideas and want them executed. Then the director wants changes.  Then the actors want changes.  Then the producer’s girlfriend wants changes.  I didn’t feel like a writer; I felt like a secretary.

As a novelist, I have control over my story and characters.  It’s my universe.  I created it, I get to say what goes in it.  Yes, I get input from my editor, but hers are merely suggestions — and almost always insightful ones.  No dogs-into-parakeets.  Over the course of writing 20 books, from romances to thrillers, I’ve worked with terrific editors who have respected my vision.  Their revision letters were to show me ways to make my story stronger — not to wrestle control of that story away from me.  

Yes, I’ve sold the film rights to a number of my novels.  But I have no desire to write the screenplays for them.  My philosophy is: take the money, walk away, and get to work on the next book.  Because, ironically enough, a successful novelist can make a heckuva lot more money selling the film rights to his books than he ever will writing the screenplay.

So I’ll stay a novelist, thank you. 

I never did like Malibu anyway.

VANISH cover gets a transformation

hardcover

When VANISH the paperback goes on sale in two weeks, most of you are not going to recognize it.  The hardcover (above) was a gray-ish color, and it had a ghostly image of a pensive woman looking out through raindrops.  I thought it was a splendid cover — mysterious, literary, classy.  It sold well, hitting the NYT list at #7.  

Most of the time, when a hardcover does well, publishers will keep the same cover for the paperback, because the design has already proven itself a success.  The image is now familiar to booksellers, and hopefully there’s some carryover from hardcover success to paperback success. 

But VANISH the paperback is going to have an entirely new cover:

paperback

It’s too bad the color doesn’t reproduce very well here.  In reality, it’s an eyecatching, metallic blue-purple.  The figure is a scantily clad woman, holding a blindfold to her eyes. 

Why the change?  Since the hardcover was a bestseller, why mess with success?

Answer: the author (me) begged for it.

My reason had to do with how I perceive the difference between the hardcover and the paperback markets.  When I look at the respective bestseller lists, I’m struck by how much romance and women’s fiction shows up on the paperback lists.  It’s much less snooty and literary.  There’s far more popular entertainment. 

I haven’t seen any actual research to back me up, but I suspect the paperback lists are driven,  more so than the hardcover lists, by women readers.

When I took a good hard look at my VANISH hardcover design, and imagined it shrunk down as a paperback, I got this uneasy feeling that the image might “disappear” among all the other paperbacks.  It’s too subtle.  It’s also too “quiet”.  I began to study the covers of bestselling paperbacks, trying to identify what it was about them that grabbed my attention.  Some of them were just plain lurid, but… they sure got my attention.  Many of them had women’s faces or views of women’s bodies.  Many of them had immediate emotional cues: a look of terror, for instance.  Some of them were pretty sexy. 

And some of them were both scared and sexy. If you can imagine the combination.

I began to suffer paperback cover envy.  I wanted scary and sexy, too.  I’d already had my subtle, literary hardcover.  I didn’t want abstract art; I wanted a touch of lurid.

Now, the art director at my publishing house is a brilliant guy with classy taste.  He looked at some of the bestselling paperbacks I pointed to as cover examples and he just shook his head.  They were crass and downmarket, he said.  They screamed “slasher fic.”  I think he may even have shuddered as he flipped through them. 

But he did understand what I was asking for.  Not subtlety this time, but something a little more visceral and eye-catching.  “I’ll work on it,” he said.

A few months later, I got a package from Ballantine.  I opened it up, and slid out this absolutely gorgeous, electric blue-purple image of the woman and the blindfold.  I felt like giving a shout of joy.  This was exactly what I’d been hoping for.  As far as I’m concerned, the art director nailed it.

In two weeks, I’ll find out if my instincts are right.  I’m hoping the cover pops out on the stands.  I’m hoping that the blue/purple isn’t so weird that it repulses male readers.  I’m hoping that the more visceral image is offset by the reassuring words: “Edgar Award Finalist” at the bottom of the cover.

But you just never know.  I’m like everyone else in publishing — I’m just feeling my way through this.  And hoping I know what I’m talking about.

 

 

 

Legume Literature

On my August 7 blog, reader Genevieve wrote a comment: “I would like to say thank you for re-igniting my passion for reading which I had lost for several years. I have not read so much in my life as I have in these last few months!!!”

It’s not the first time I’ve heard such a comment.  And I think it’s time to show you a little piece that I wrote awhile back, about just that topic:

**********************************

I’m often asked to give library talks about my experiences as a writer.  These events draw an audience that is generally well-educated, well-read, and intensely curious about the world of books.  So I was taken aback after one of these events when, as the room emptied out, a woman of about sixty, nattily dressed in brown tweed, sidled up to me and confessed, on a mournful note: “I don’t read books anymore.”

This statement was as startling to me as if she’d said, “I don’t eat food anymore.”  I live and breathe books, and could not imagine life without them.  And here was this woman — meticulously groomed, with thoughtful eyes, a woman I would have guessed was a discriminating reader — telling me she did not read books at all.

“I liked what you said in your talk about how you grew up loving Nancy Drew,” she said.  “You reminded me of how much I used to love books.”

“But you don’t anymore?”

“No.”

“When was the last time you really enjoyed a book?” I asked.

She thought this over for a moment.  And finally said, with a look of self-revelation: “When I was a child.  When I could read what I wanted to.”

She did not need to explain this; we both understood that, along with the self-consciousness of adulthood, comes the compulsion to read books we don’t really want to read, books that are designed to challenge our minds and leave us feeling all the more accomplished for having read them.  Books that are “worthy” of our precious time.  Books we don’t necessarily want to read.

I recall the misery of having slogged through just such a book.  It was an early Oprah Book Club selection, a novel that came highly praised by literary critics and book group mavens.  I wanted to like that book.  I was filled with the anticipation of discovery as I climbed into bed and turned to the first page.  Reading in bed has always been my reward at the end of a day’s work, a quiet hour of pleasure just before I turn off the lights.

That book became my nightly torture session.

The writing was indeed elegant, but the woes — ah, the woes of the heroine!  They left me paralyzed by depression.  I began to dread my bedtime hour.  I would flip ahead, trying to gauge how many more chapters, how many more nights, I would have to endure.  But endure I did, all the way to the end, because the book was good for me!  It was nourishing!  It would feed my soul!

What it did was leave me a desolate wreck for days afterwards.

This is not to say that such books should be avoided.  Only that such books should probably be avoided by me.  Yet there I was, night after night, dutifully making myself miserable because some higher power (Oprah, the New York Times, my local independent bookseller — take your pick) had said this book would be good for me.  It was the literary equivalent of Brussels sprouts.

I finally managed to shake off the after-effects of the Miserable But Worthy Book by diving into the latest Patsy Cornwell thriller.  But I felt furtive and sheepish about reading Cornwell — like the dinner guest who’s hiding out in the kitchen, digging in the ice cream, while everyone else is dining responsibly on legumes.

Even if they don’t want to.

This weird craze for “responsible reading” has driven old-fashioned reading for sheer enjoyment into the closet.  It makes women hide their romance novels.  It’s turned Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark into guilty pleasures.  While “rediscovering your inner child” is generally thought to be a good thing, it doesn’t seem to apply to rediscovering our childish joy in books.  You remember it, don’t you?  What it was like to be so hungry to finish reading a story that you hid out under the sheets with a flashlight?  That you never even heard your mother’s voice calling you to dinner because Nancy Drew and her pals were trapped in some dark cellar, and you had only one more chapter to go?  You remember, don’t you, what it was like to read a book because you wanted to, not because it was good for you?  Perhaps this explains the huge popularity of Harry Potter books among adults.  It’s the only pleasurable reading we’ve been given official permission to enjoy, but only because we are obligated  — as responsible adults, you know! — to find out what our children are up to.   

It’s this childhood pleasure of reading that the lady in tweed suddenly remembered as she spoke to me that afternoon in the library.  She remembered the joy of books before she began listening to literary critics tell her what was good for her.  Before she let the tyranny of her book group dictate what she should read.  Before her well-heeled friends laughed at her collection of Danielle Steel.  she remembered the days when books were ice cream, not Brussels sprouts.  She has since been worn down, her love of books battered by the arbiters of literary taste.  But instead of merely driving her into the closet to read her romance novels in secret, it has done something far, far worse.

It has made her stop reading entirely.

This is the greatest cruelty of all.  It’s one committed every day, by every parent who frowns at the child who’s got his nose deep in a Dean Koontz novel.  By every bookseller who laughs at the pasty-faced men who linger near the science fiction shelves.  By every highbrow twit who says to a friend, “I’d never read that trash.”  Every single one of them is killing the soul of a reader.

So here’s a new and revolutionary proposal: let people read what they want to read.  Let them eat ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if they want to.  Some of them will eat the occasional Brussels sprout and like it.  But don’t make them think they’re any less virtuous for shunning it.

And for all those who read, my advice is this: never apologize for your books.  They are your friends.  And like friends, some of them are complex and demanding, while others are easy to spend time with.  Listen to the critics if you choose to, but remember that critics tend to praise the books that make them look intelligent.

That afternoon in the library, the lady in tweed had come up to me for a reason.  It was only after we’d talked for a few moments that I understood what that reason was.  She was troubled by the absence of books in her life.  she remembered the joy they had once given her, and she wanted to rediscover it.

“When you were a child,” I said, “what kind of books did you read?”

“Nancy Drew.  Mysteries.  Whatever I wanted to.”

“Then that’s what you should do again.  You don’t have to listen to anyone.  Just read what you want to.”

An obvious answer?  Perhaps.  But I think it was what she needed — permission to make her own choices.

I suspect she’ll be choosing ice cream.

Another interview

It appears at: The Bookclub Forum, a UK site.

 

 

You can’t please everyone

Recently I received a note from a reader telling me that she’d tried to read my medical thriller HARVEST and she just “couldn’t get into it.”  She said she liked the Jane Rizzoli series so much better, and she hoped that I would stick with that and never go back to those “boring medical thrillers.”

Then there was the reader who wrote to tell me that she didn’t really care for the Jane Rizzoli series and begged me to go back to writing those “great medical thrillers like HARVEST,” which was her favorite of all my books.

One reader told me that GRAVITY was the best book I’d ever written, and he asked when I’d write the sequel.  While another reader told me GRAVITY was just not her cup of tea, and that it was the one book of mine she didn’t finish.

A reader told me that of all my books, she thought BLOODSTREAM was my weakest.  A different reader told me BLOODSTREAM was her favorite.

Several readers wrote begging me to develop the love story between Maura and the priest, Father Brophy.  They can’t wait to see that bedroom scene.  And some readers told me to kill off Brophy because they’re tired of him, and of the flirtation.

What’s a writer to do with reader mail like this?

First, I’ll admit it.  It hurts when someone criticizes one of my babies.  I worked hard on every single one, so of course I don’t like to hear that someone, somewhere, thought the book stank.  But the longer I’m in this business, the more I realize that  reader opinions are all over the damn place.  If you write to please one reader, inevitably you’ll disappoint a different one.  Plus, some letter writers have their own agendas.  They’re looking for reasons to be upset, and — lucky me — they choose my book to get upset about. 

All you can do as a novelist is write for yourself — and for an audience of people just like you.  Because if you listen too hard to all that contradictory criticism (“no more medical thrillers!”  “no more crime thrillers!”  “no more space thrillers!”) you’ll be too paralyzed to write anything at all.

 

 

Tess’s interview on Murderati.com

Forgive me for being behind on my blogging!  It’s summer in Maine, the season for great weather … and houseguests.  In the meantime, here’s a tongue-in-cheek interview that appeared on Murderati.com.  (Scroll down to the August 5th entry.)

Some of my readers should be writing books!

I just have to direct your attention to one of the comments left on my blog entry At Last I Have a Diagnosis.  Scroll down to comment #26, by “struggler.”  This man’s story about his traumatic experience with prosopagnosia has got to be the damned funniest thing you’ll ever read. 

There’s got to be a great book here, starring a hero with this most embarrassing affliction…