My suitcase is packed again

I’ve barely finished doing my laundry from my UK trip — and now I’m off to the Love is Murder conference in Chicago.  It looks like it’ll be a lot of fun.  Just hoping the weather cooperates and my flight actually gets there.  More when I get back next week.

When the writing doesn’t come easy

Sandra Scoppettone writes one of the most honest and heartfelt blogs on the web.  On January 24, she wrote:

“I have the awful feeling that I can’t write anymore. Some part of me is fed up with the whole process. It’s not that I have to feel pleasure all the time I’m writing. That would be unrealistic. But I feel no pleasure at all. It feels like I’m simply hitting keys. Writing for the sake of writing because I’m supposed to be a writer. “

Oh man, do I understand what she’s saying.  From time to time I’ve shared her feelings of hopelessness and ennui.  I’ve wondered when writing stories stopped being fun.  I’ve felt fed up with the process and the constantly churning anxiety of fast-approaching deadlines.  But who are we to complain?  We’re published authors!  We’re living the dream, and we should shut up and be grateful!

Yet Sandra’s blog (which strikes me as incredibly brave and just a touch foolhardy in its honesty) points out the downside of writing as a job, and it’s this: your whole career, the whole rickety house of cards, rests entirely on your continuing ability to spin something out of absolutely nothing.  It’s not like, say, building doghouses.  Building a doghouse takes materials which are readily available at the hardware store, a set of tools, and maybe a blueprint.  Follow the instructions, and you have your doghouse.  Every single time.  You can pretty much count on having those tools and those materials handy, and as long as you have the time, you can build endless numbers of doghouses. 

But a writer’s primary tool, beyond the pen or the keyboard, is his imagination.  And that’s a damn unreliable tool.  It fractures with just the slightest stress.  A serious illness or a divorce or a few sleepless nights can make that tool completely unusable.  Suddenly you can’t figure out the next plot twist.  You can’t hear the dialogue.  As the days go by, and no writing gets done, you start to panic and that warps your tool even more.  You just want to be writing again, but because you’re now so anxious about the whole process, the short walk to your desk starts to feel like a trip to the salt mines.  All because your most valuable tool as a writer, your imagination, has gone missing.

How do we get it back?  In Sandra’s case, it sounds like she plans to take a break.  She doesn’t know how long it will be, but she knows that in her bones she’s a writer, and she expects she’ll be back. 

I’m sure she will.

For Patry

About two years ago, a galley of a debut novel called LIAR’S DIARY by Patry Francis turned up in my mailbox.  I receive galleys all the time, and the author of this one was unfamiliar to me, so I had no reason to pay any special attention to it.  Often I don’t have the time to even crack open the covers, much less read them.  But this one had a seductive cover, and since I was headed up to Canada for a medical conference anyway, I threw the galley into my suitcase.  A day later, sitting in my hotel room in St. Andrew’s, I started reading it.  In straightforward but compelling prose, it opened quietly.  No explosions, no murders, just a gnawing sense of domestic unease that grew more acute and more disturbing with every chapter.  I was caught like a hooked fish and reeled helplessly into the story.  I recall sitting in a seaside restaurant, my outdoor table facing the water, but my eyes glued to the page.  The waitress who came to refill my water glass commented, “Wow, that must be a good book.”

Damn right it was.

I was delighted to give that book a blurb, and delighted to hear that so many other readers shared my opnion of it.  Patry thanked me profusely  and although we never met, we did exchange several emails.  The book was released, Patry’s career as a novelist was launched, and I looked forward to seeing other books from her.

Then, on Patry’s blog, she recently revealed that her life had taken a sudden and devastating turn.  She was diagnosied with an aggressive cancer, for which she had to be hospitalized.  Although she’s home now, and her prognosis is good, naturally it’s her recovery that’s consuming her attention.  Not the novel writing.  Not anything as trivial as fictional stories and people who don’t exist. 

She is coping with real life.

We writers often get so caught up in our fictional worlds that we forget our own lives and our own needs.  It takes something like this — a real illness, a real crisis — to make us focus on what’s truly important. 

Here’s to you, Patry.  May you come back from this illness stronger than ever.  May you go on to write many, many more books like LIAR’S DIARY.  All of us — readers and writers alike — are rooting for you.

Anyone (?) can write a romance novel

Over at the London Times, there’s an amusing article about a journalist who tries her hand at writing a romance novel.  When I saw the headline, my first reaction was to groan and assume it would be another hit piece on romance novels and novelists.  I could predict the tenor of the story: “I’m already a journalist, so I know how to write!  Romance writers make a fine living, so I’ll give it a whirl!  Romances are simplistic love stories, told to housewives eating bon bons, so how hard could it be?”

I was relieved to find that the article wasn’t a hit piece after all.  The writer interviews two charming editors from Mills and Boon, who ably defend the genre and its readers.  And they encourage the journalist to try her hand at it.  So she does … discovering that it’s not as easy as it seems.  The editors critique her novel in progress, give her a few tips, and encourage her to keep writing.  Which the journalist intends to do, and she’ll share her progress with the London Times.

The best part of the article were the writing tips the editors shared.  Among their tips were a few that apply to every genre:

“Base your story on universal emotional truths. Not just love and death, but renewal, justice, truth, strength, contentment, passion and tenderness.

Make your characters resonant and believable as well as aspirational. Have them communicate with plentiful dialogue, and motivate their actions soundly.

Who is driving your story? Make sure the conflict always comes from the main characters and their emotions – not from the supporting cast.

Layer the drama with highs and lows, advance and retreat.

To develop your heroine convincingly, feed her backstory through the action of the book, avoiding “chunking” – shoving in lengthy chunks of interior monologue. “

This is some of the same advice I give when I teach thriller writing courses. 

Whatever the genre, these tips are universal.

Novelists need a media hook

I’ve just returned from a terrific 10-day promotional tour in England and Scotland, where I was once again impressed by how book tours really can make a difference, especially in a country that’s as geographically compact as the UK.  In the US, touring novelists are challenged by long distances, frequent airline flights, disinterested media, and lackluster attendance at store events.  In the UK, distances are manageable and I’ve been delighted by the numbers of people who turn up at my signings.  In the U.S., I’ve sometimes traveled hundreds of miles to find only two people waiting to hear me speak.  (One of them being the bookstore manager.)

But no matter where we go in the world, novelists face a similar challenge when it comes to getting media attention.  Our books are fiction.  Our characters don’t exist.  Why should a newspaper or radio station want to interview us about a story we simply pulled out of thin air?  “Fiction is hard,” publicists will tell you.  And they’re absolutely right.  Unless you’re J.K. Rowling or you’re already a celebrity of some kind, no one really wants to hear how you made up your story.  

My solution has been to focus instead on the real-life background behind my stories.  At store events, I never read from my books.  Instead, I try to teach them things they didn’t know, things that they’ll find fascinating and even useful.  For THE BONE GARDEN, I spoke for 45 minutes about the history and horrors of childbed fever, and about the 19th-century medical heroes who eventually ended the scourge.  I told of the tragic story of Ignaz Semmelweis and the genius of Oliver Wendell Holmes and the primitive conditions of hospitals in 1830.  I read a passage from an early surgical textbook on how to amputate a thigh, which invariably made people squirm in their chairs.  (But they did stay and listen.)  I probably spent only two minutes total describing the plot of THE BONE GARDEN.  Almost all of my talk was focused on an era in medical history that would give anyone nightmares.  I wasn’t playing the part of novelist, but of history teacher.

No doubt there are many readers who’d prefer to hear an author read from his work, but I’ve aways loved hearing a good lecture, so it’s the way I’ve always done it.  For MEPHISTO CLUB, I gave a talk on ancient religious texts.  For VANISH, I discussed the phenomenon of people being mistaken for dead.  (Believe me, a few hair-raising examples was enough to get the audience squirming.)  I like to think that by the time they leave, they’ve learned something they didn’t know before.  Something interesting.

One of the benefits of doing it this way is that it can snag the media’s interest.  I’m more than just another novelist who’s made up a story; I’m someone who can offer educated commentary on a real-life topic.

Last Tuesday, I was lucky enough to be a guest on one of the most popular shows on BBC Radio, “Woman’s Hour,” hosted by Jenni Murray.  I was invited on the show not because I was a novelist, but because I could talk about childbed fever.  Along with medical historian Dr. Hilary Morland, we covered a topic that was both scary and useful to Jenni’s listeners. 

Plus, Jenni promoted my book.  Which is about the best advertisement I could hope for.

Would I have been invited on the show if I’d written just another psycho-killer tale?  I highly doubt it. What could I possibly have said about my psycho-killer novel that would be relevant to her audience?  “There are creeps out there, so watch out”?  That’s hardly special, and something any other crime writer could have spouted.  

If you’re a novelist headed out on tour, try to talk about more than just your plot and your characters.  Think about the cool stuff you learned during your research, or something about the setting or the science that the public would love to know.  Give them nuggets of information that they can’t wait to share with their friends.

Maybe if we all did this, publicists would stop telling us “fiction is hard.”

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And now:  photos from my UK tour!  I had such a terrific time and wanted to give you a glimpse of some of the places I visited:

With my reader Fabrice in Milton Keynes: 

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In Oxford with my UK team of superwomen!  My publicist Alison Barrow and my editor Selina Walker:

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 There were huge promotional posters in the London Underground for THE BONE GARDEN.  Here are my friends Wouter and Marie-Jose standing beside one of them:

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And in the Borders Bookstore in Glasgow, here I am giving my talk on childbed fever to a very nice gathering that spilled up into the stairwell:

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 And here I am at the Gosforth Library, with my publicist and my two wonderful library hosts:

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Why Blogging is dangerous

So I come home from two weeks of traveling to discover that I’ve offended a number of people with my last blogpost, about what I thought was an innocuous topic, and it was this:

Artists view art differently than consumers do. 

It wasn’t a blog that anyone could possibly get upset about, I thought.  Just a little quickie topic before I rushed off for the airport.  Perhaps if I’d stated it more elegantly, as the wonderful Elaine Cunningham did in the comments section, it wouldn’t have provoked some enraged readers to forever swear off my books.  I never believed that blogging could help a writer sell books; now it seems clear that blogging can make you lose readers.  Which may explain why writers who’ve reached a certain point in their careers cut off all contact with the public. It’s safer that way.

You never know when something you write will get people pissed off at you.  I never said that my books were “pearls before swine.”  I was talking specifically about OTHER writers’ books being unappreciated, books that i thought deserved better.  I suspect that a majority of writers agree that they read books with a different eye than non-writers do.  Writers can point to books they consider artistically brilliant which were ignored by the reading public.  And writers can also point to megaselling novels, beloved by the readers, that are clumsily written.  But perhaps we shouldn’t say such things in public.  

Last April, the Washington Post performed a fascinating experiment, described in an article (aptly) entitled: “Pearls Before Breakfast.”  They enlisted the help of world-famous violinist Joshua Bell to play in a busy Washington subway station.  He performed wearing a jeans and tee-shirt, so he might have been any street musician, except for the fact that he was Joshua Bell, he was playing a rare 18th century instrument, and the pieces he performed were among the most challenging ever written for the violin.  The Washington Post wondered: would the average passerby recognize genius?

They soon had their answer.

Thousands of commuters streamed past, ignoring the concert violinist in their midst.  When questioned later, many didn’t even register that there was a musician in the station.  Those who did remember him dismissed him as just another busker out to earn a living, nothing special.  Maybe played too loudly.  Big deal; they wouldn’t pay anything to watch him perform, even in a concert hall.

Only a few people did stop to listen.  One was a man named John Picarello.

“Like all the passersby interviewed for this article, Picarello was stopped by a reporter after he left the building, and was asked for his phone number. Like everyone, he was told only that this was to be an article about commuting. When he was called later in the day, like everyone else, he was first asked if anything unusual had happened to him on his trip into work. Of the more than 40 people contacted, Picarello was the only one who immediately mentioned the violinist…

(Picarello said):”This was a superb violinist. I’ve never heard anyone of that caliber. He was technically proficient, with very good phrasing. He had a good fiddle, too, with a big, lush sound. I walked a distance away, to hear him. I didn’t want to be intrusive on his space… Yeah, other people just were not getting it. It just wasn’t registering. That was baffling to me.”

When Picarello was growing up in New York, he studied violin seriously, intending to be a concert musician. But he gave it up at 18, when he decided he’d never be good enough to make it pay. Life does that to you sometimes. Sometimes, you have to do the prudent thing. So he went into another line of work. He’s a supervisor at the U.S. Postal Service. Doesn’t play the violin much, anymore.”

And then there was another commuter who stopped — a woman named Janice Olu who recognized that Bell was more than just a common street performer:

“Olu, a public trust officer with HUD, also played the violin as a kid. She didn’t know the name of the piece she was hearing, but she knew the man playing it has a gift.

Olu was on a coffee break and stayed as long as she dared. As she turned to go, she whispered to the stranger next to her, “I really don’t want to leave.” The stranger standing next to her happened to be working for The Washington Post.”

What struck me when I read the article was that the two commuters who immediately recognized Bell’s genius had themselves played the violin.  They weren’t professional musicians, but they had played the instrument and understood just how difficult and demanding the violin can be.  Surely their own struggles with the violin had taught them to recognize true musicianship, in a way that the average listener didn’t? 

In much the same way, I think that writers recognize good writing, even when other readers may not.

But enough of this topic; I’ll just get myself into more hot water. It’s hard enough dealing with bad reviews for my books; to get bad reviews of something as trivial as my blog is more heartburn than I can handle.  Dealing with the grumpy public can make any writer want to bar the door and stay out of sight. 

 

Writers aren’t like other readers

 (Not only am I annoyed by bad reviews of my own books, I’m also annoyed by nasty reviews of fine books by other authors.  When I saw a dismissive 2-star reader review of a thriller that I considered one of the best of the year, I got irritated on the other writer’s behalf.  I felt his book was horribly misjudged, and I was moved to write this blogpost about how we writers sometimes value certain books more highly than readers do.  I’m happy to say that my own opinion of the book has been supported by other authors.  That book is now a finalist for Best Thriller of the Year.)

Frequently I’ll cruise over to Amazon.com to see what readers are saying about books by other authors.  And often I’ll be startled by negative comments about books that I’ve enjoyed or even adored, books that I consider so well written that I can’t imagine anyone not loving them.  And I’ll wonder, what’s wrong with these readers?  Why don’t they appreciate the skill and talent that went into creating Author XYZ’s masterpiece?

I think the answer is this: we writers notice what the average reader completely misses.  We understand the enormous effort that goes into creating a special character and brilliant dialogue and a complex story.  We know how difficult the process is, and we know that what seems like effortless storytelling is often the most accomplished and difficult writing of all.

When writers are asked which of their books is their favorite, they will often name a title that their readers failed to appreciate, a title that perhaps sold poorly.  That book may have been the most challenging, the most artistic of all the writer’s works, the one book that he’ll be proudest of.  Yet the majority of his readers won’t recognize the achievement… because they themselves aren’t writers.

I remember a scene in the film “Amadeus”, when a nobleman (not a composer) offers his critique of Mozart’s brilliant new opera.  He says something like, “Very nice.  But perhaps a few too many notes.”

“Which notes do you mean?” Mozart asks.

“Oh, I don’t know.  But there are just a few too many of them.”

Everyone listens to music.  Everyone thinks they know good music from bad music.  Yet that scene of a clueless non-musician telling a musician how to compose an opera got a big laugh out of the audience because everyone recognized its absurdity. 

Whenever I see a nasty comment directed at a book that I know in my writer’s soul is a great book,  I think of that scene between Mozart and the nobleman.  Everybody’s a critic.  But very few of us can actually compose an opera — or write a book.

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 I’m off to the UK!  No blogging for the next two weeks.  More when I get back…

Received a bad review lately? Then this one’s for you.

One of my favorite films of 2007 was “Ratatouille”, about the rat who dreams of being a chef.  Toward the end of the film, there’s a quote that resonated with me as a writer.  It’s spoken by the fictional food critic Anton Ego.  It’s worth printing and hanging on your wall, to comfort you whenever those lousy reviews come your way: 

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy.

We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.

But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

— Anton Ego, “Ratatouille”

Be thankful we’re not in the music industry

Recently I spent an evening with a friend who’s a true American music icon, a man who made a fortune as a singer/songwriter.  We got to talking about our respective industries, and he said, “I’m grateful I had a career when I did.  I couldn’t make it today.”  The digital age, he said, has ruined the chances for any new musician to get as wealthy as he did.  He made his money as a recording artist.  Now anyone can download a song, thereby sucking the lifeblood from musicians.  “The most talented songwriter in the world will fail today,” he said.  “Why pay for a CD when you can get the music free off the internet?”

An article in today’s news backs him up.  Associated Press reports that U.S. album sales have fallen 9.5 percent in the last year.

“The only way to get rich nowadays,” my friend said, “is to look hot and sexy on a music video.”  It’s not real musicians who get the big bucks these days; it’s the talentless eye candy.  

He’s already made his fame and fortune so he’s not bitter; he’s simply being realistic — and sadly pessimistic — about what lies ahead for songwriters.  “If a truly talented musician came to me for advice about the industry,” he said, “I’d tell him that the best thing he could do is get the hell out.”

The digital age has indeed been a disaster for singers and songwriters because what they produce is so easily stolen and reproduced.  And as bandwidth and download speeds increase, making videos easier to steal, the movie industry will be suffering next.

But oddly enough, novelists don’t seem to be in that perilous situation because of one simple fact: no one has yet improved upon the sheer readability of a real book.  I know that the e-book was supposed to revolutionize the industry but so far it hasn’t.  I also know that the downoads of my books remain a tiny fraction of my sales.  The vast majority of readers still prefer (as I do) the feel of a real book with real printed pages.  Something that we can bring to the beach, drop in the bathwater, and stuff into our pockets.  Something that doesn’t require batteries, that’s cheap enough to toss once we’ve finished reading it.

Has there ever been a more perfect entertainment device?

The current format of the book was invented over two thousand years ago.  According to Pliny (who’s not always reliable, I should warn you) the bound book (also known as a codex) became popular during a feud between the two rival libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum.  Up till that time, the papyrus scroll was the predominant form of recorded text, and the great library of Alexandria was the keeper of the greatest collection in the world.  When Eumenes of Pergamum tried to build just as magnificent a collection, Egypt responded by halting all exports of papyrus.  In response, Pergamum was forced to use vellum pages, made from animal skins. 

And thus the bound book was born.  Except for the materials used in its manufacture, it hasn’t really changed since then.

That is an astonishing thing to contemplate.  How many other inventions (other than the wheel) can we point to as being so perfect they remain essentially unchanged for two millenia? 

For the moment, our industry is safe.  People will continue to buy books because there’s no easier way to read a story.  They’re portable, they’re relatively cheap, and they’re user friendly.  The batteries never run out.

Let’s just hope we never run out of readers.