Wednesday, June 30, 2010
What is the best piece of advice you ever received about writing and/or the publishing business itself? And how did you put it to use?
I’d have to say that the best advice I ever got—from the beautiful and brilliant Tasha Alexander—was: “If I can do it, you can do it.”
Sure, there was a hell of a lot more to it than that, and I'm not sure it qualifies as writing and/or publishing advice, but I'm still gonna go with it.
I met Tasha when she lived here in Tennessee, just before her first book was released. It’s getting to be a few years ago now. She was a soon-to-be-published author and I was a wannabe, who always thought that authors were such special beings that I couldn’t possibly hope to compete.
And then I met Tasha, and believe me, she’s plenty special. Beautiful, talented, and one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. But she was also amazingly normal, and—I discovered—quite a lot like me. And that’s when she told me that if she could do it—become a published author—I could do it, too.
In between her own promotions, and her writing, and her family, and everything else that was going on in her life, she found the time to tell me about her life as a new author, and to listen to my plot ideas, and read my writing, and critique my query letter, and sit down with me and make lists of agents who might be interested in what I’d written. Which is why A Cutthroat Business is her book, entirely. In the acknowledgements for that book, the first I wrote, I thank four people: my agent, my publisher, my family, and Tasha. If she hadn’t told me I could do it, and hadn’t taken me under her wing, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Wherever that is.
In other advice, though, there are the oldies and goodies, all of which have served me well and that I spout in turn:
AIC = Ass In Chair.
Write every day.
If you can’t write every day, it’s OK. Don’t freak out, just do what you can.
It’s all right to write a crappy first draft. You can’t fix it if it isn’t there.
Yeah, some of them are mutually contradictory, but the thing is, they all work. The advice that I give out the most, though—and I have no idea whether anyone ever said it to me or if it’s just something I’ve figured out on my own through the years—is along the lines of, “Learn as much as you can about the publishing industry, because if you don’t know what you’re getting into, you won’t recognize what’s biting you in the butt.”
I’ll give you a little anecdote to illustrate my point. Eight or nine years ago, I thought I might want to write romance novels. Someone had told me that it was ‘easy’ to break into romance and that ‘anyone’ could do it, and so I figured I’d give it a try. How hard could it be, right?
(And for the record, no, it isn’t ‘easy’ to break into romance. It isn’t ‘easy’ to break into any part of publishing. For 'anyone.')
Anyway, I wrote a synopsis for a book I thought I might want to write, and I sent it off to an editor at Harlequin. (Not the book, note: just the synopsis.) A couple of weeks later, I got a rejection letter in the mail. It was a two page personalized rejection letter, detailing everything that was wrong with my outline and making suggestions for how I could improve it.
Of course, now I know that this is code for ‘fix this and send it back to me.’
Then, all I knew was that I’d been rejected. So I put the letter in a drawer and never looked at the synopsis again. I obviously never wrote the book. If I’d known then what I know now, I might have fixed what was wrong with the story, and gotten published a long time ago. It just goes to show that the more you know, the better off you are.
I’ll be back tomorrow to talk about the scariest and funniest things that have happened to me as a realtor, a renovator, and an author. (Damn you, Kelli. You had to ask, didn't you?)
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
My job today is answering Becky’s question: I know you write as both Jennie Bentley and Bente Gallagher, so what are the advantages of a pseudonym? The disadvantages? Is it really twice as much work?
Ah yes, the pseudonym.
As some of you might know, I almost ended up being known as Charisma Crafton. When Berkley asked me to come up with a pseudonym for the DIY-series, I started wracking my brain for a good name.
(I don’t think it was anything personal, by the way. Yes, I know my name is slightly weird—that’s how I ended up as a character in Kelli’s new series. I have an unusual, AKA interesting, name. But Berkley asks pretty much everyone to come up with a pseudonym, so I’ve decided not to take it personally. Since I know I have a weird name, I was prepared for the question to surface sooner or later, anyway.)
In my attempt to comply, I made up lists of names I thought I could live with, since sooner or later I knew I’d have to introduce myself as my pseudonym. I picked Bentley—and Benton and Bennett—because they’re close to my real first name, and because I wanted to have a connection to my new name. Then I picked a bunch of names I thought sounded suitable for a writer of DIY mysteries. Wood was one of them. Carpenter another. I think we even considered Hammer and Nail. It was at about this same time that we, the family, made a trip to Pittsburgh, where I fell in love with a neighborhood called Crafton, and I thought that might make a good last name for a hobby-mystery writer.
After that I came up with a few first names I liked, and then I sent the combined list to my agent for her input. It was someone in the office up there in Noo Yawk who came up with the Charisma Crafton combination; I know Charisma wasn’t on the list I sent them. They loved it, though. I’d love it too, if I looked anything like a Charisma. Or if I were writing erotic romance. As it was, I couldn’t imagine standing up in front of a group of strangers saying, “Hi, I’m Charisma Crafton and I write about home renovation.” When my editor said, very diplomatically, that Jennie Bentley sounded friendlier and more approachable, I could have kissed her.
Then A Cutthroat Business sold, and I needed a new name. And this time, both agent and editor pushed me to stay with my own. I didn’t really want to. Again, it’s weird. If you don’t know how to pronounce it, you probably won’t say it right. Most people misspell it, which is a problem if you’re trying to find me on Google—and I do want people to find me on Google. On the other hand, I don’t want people to find me anywhere else, and the real me is all over the internet, with phone number and address, which isn’t great when Big Al gets out of prison and decides to visit his favorite author.
They insisted, though, and I complied, so the second series will be published in my own name.
Now, to actually answer the questions: No, it isn’t twice as much work. I have one website and one Facebook page, although I have two Twitter handles. Sometimes I get myself confused with myself and answer people from the wrong identity. It makes it difficult for them, but I know what I mean.
Some of the advantages and disadvantages of a pseudonym I’ve already touched on. Pseudonyms are great if your name’s weird, or if you don’t want anyone to know your name or who you really are. Traditionally, steamy romance writers use pseudonyms so their kids’ teachers and friends’ parents won’t freak out because mom’s writing about sex. If you’ve got a thriving career writing one type of book under one name, and you want to branch out into another type of book, not related, a pseudonym can come in handy, too. (Eh, Becky?) That probably does become more work, though, if you can’t piggyback one identity on the other, since you have to start each identity from scratch. And the literary world is full of midlist writers who changed their pseudonym to get a second chance at publication and success. We stand and fall with our sales, and changing your name wipes the slate clean. Beautiful, innit?
As for disadvantages... it isn’t always easy being someone else. I’ve introduced myself by the wrong name, I’ve signed books with the wrong name—which sucks, because then you have to buy them—and there have certainly been plenty of times I’ve sat staring into space while someone was trying to get my attention with the wrong name. I live in fear that one day I’ll be walking across a hotel lobby somewhere, and I’ll hear a voice calling, “Hold the elevator, Jennie!” and I’ll let the doors close in Nora Roberts’s face because I won’t remember who I’m supposed to be that day.
Now a question for you: If you had to come up with a pseudonym for yourself, what would it be, and why? And to make it more interesting, why don’t you make it a pseudonym for a genre you’d probably never, ever write in, like erotica or space opera or Amish inspirational romance.
If things go well—and after this they may not—I’ll be back tomorrow to answer these questions from Graham: What is the best piece of advice you ever received about writing and/or the publishing business itself? And how did you put it to use?
Fair warning: it’ll probably be a short blog, because right now I can’t think of anything to say.
Monday, June 28, 2010
Yes, I watch the TV show. Yes—as I recently told Jeannie—I think Shemar Moore is extremely decorative. So does she. And since he also looks just like the love interest in my most recent release, I have a built-in excuse to ogle all I want. Or so I tell myself - and my husband. Frequently.
Moving right along: my name is Bente Gallagher, and that most recent release I’m talking about is called A Cutthroat Business. Library Journal says it will “appeal to readers of chick-lit mysteries and romantic suspense,” so that should give you a fairly good idea of what it’s like. Sexy and sassy and just generally fun. I was reading a lot of Janet Evanovich when I wrote it.
While I waited for A Cutthroat Business to find a home, I also started writing a cozy mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime, under the pseudonym Jennie Bentley. Jennie is a lot sweeter than I am. She doesn’t mention sex or violence in her books, and she doesn’t use bad words. Much. She tries, but her editor comes along with her red pencil and gets rid of all of that. So the Do-It-Yourself home renovation mysteries are very nice and clean, suitable for your aged grandmother, your thirteen year old niece, and everyone in-between.
Now for a couple of questions from today’s esteemed Criminal Minds:
Jeannie's Q: How much renovation research do you conduct for each book? The DIY series is set in Maine while you live in Nashville. Do you travel to Maine often for the sake of research?
A: Specifically for the books, I don’t do any research at all. I’ve owned and renovated nine houses since 2000, though, so I have plenty of renovation experience to draw on. I basically just write about what I already know. And since I also know a lot of people who renovate, I can ask questions and beg help from them if I need to. I do have to come up with the DIY tips that are at the back of each book, for how to do the crafts that my main characters, Derek and Avery, undertake in the books, so I have to research those.
Yeah, the DIY series is set in Maine while I live in Nashville. I’ve never been to Maine. I’d love to go sometime, but so far, that hasn’t worked out. I grew up in Norway, though, and the landscape looks very similar, or so I’ve been told. That was one of the reasons I chose Maine as a setting for the DIY series, instead of someplace else in New England. What I describe is pretty much what I grew up looking at, and what I look at every time I go home. Craggy coast, lots of rocks, small islands, pine trees, moose...
As for the Savannah series, that’s set in Nashville, so everything’s ready to hand. I use real places and mix them in with imaginary ones, and after living here for years, I’ve got the Southern flavor down pretty good, I think. Surprised the hell out of my then-prospective agent when she called me to offer to represent A Cutthroat Business, expecting a Southern girl and instead getting a woman with a Norwegian accent...
Lois's Q: How do you keep your two different series (characters and story lines) separate in your mind?
A: Amazingly, that’s never been a problem. The wildly different settings help, of course, and the characters are so distinct to me, and their storylines so different, that it’s really no problem to keep them apart. They’re both telling their stories in the first person, but while Avery is a hip and independent transplanted New Yorker, Savannah is very much a gentle Southern Belle. Avery’s in a committed relationship with Derek, while Savannah still has a lot of growing up to do, and is fighting her attraction to Rafe with everything she’s got. They’re two very distinct people, at two very different places in their lives—and in geography—and they don’t sound the same at all.
That said, I sometimes slip up and then Savannah starts to sound a little too much like Avery, or vice versa, and I have to go back and fix. The biggest problem is juggling the two genres: I can’t write sex, violence, or bad language in the cozy series, and all those things come kind of naturally to me, so my editor has to reign me in sometimes when I slip too far out of the cozy realm. I don’t have those limitations in the Savannah series, so it’s easier in that respect. It’s kind of ironic when you think about it, that it’s the sweet Southern girl who gets the sex and bad dude, while the sassy New Yorker can’t have any!
I’ll be back tomorrow, folks, to answer this burning question from Becky:
I know you write as both Jennie Bentley and Bente Gallagher, so what are the advantages of a pseudonym? The disadvantages? Is it really twice as much work?
Sunday, June 27, 2010
Catnapped and Doggone
I should probably go even further back in the creative process. There are no stories to tell if there are no friends, family, colleagues, strangers and crazies to populate my imagination. I feel compelled to reiterate that I write fiction and all my characters are pure products of my imagination and any resemblance to any actual person, living or dead is mere coincidence. I’m sure there are plenty of people who have inadvertently fallen out of a second story window while role-playing victim fleeing knife wielding (okay, so spatula wielding) psycho. I’m equally sure that the positions of the dead bodies in anything I’ve written have absolutely nothing to do with the creative process class students who may have, accidentally, turned a movement exercise into individual Camille death scene performances. And since I can say, with all honesty, that no one I’ve ever met has agreed to ride in the trunk of a car while I race down the freeway so I know what the rolling body, screaming for help, scratching to get out sounds like, if someone were to have that experience and describe it to me (or better still tape it), they may in fact become one of the imaginary friends that are the foundation of my publication team.
Next, comes the writing. That’s me. Except when I blame my parents. So I’m adding them to my publication team roster because they rarely assert that I am adopted when they take a hit for my salty language, my promiscuous imagination or my insistence on body drop field trips.
I have a regular critique group. They listen carefully to my perfectly written pages and then, without mercy, rip me to shreds. They say nice things, too, to keep me from going postal but I mostly hear the 'what the heck was she thinking' comments. I would never admit it to them, but their harshness and incivility have made me a much better writer. Without them, my work wouldn’t be publishable. It wouldn’t be readable. It might not even be written since they are big on kicking my butt when I start to slack. I’ll need team shirts for the evil, evil critique group. It will make it easier to target them in a crowd.
Next up are the editors. Editors come in two flavors – content and copy edit. The content editors are there to take the blinders off. After working and reworking a book, it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees. After all the tinkering, does the plot timeline still work or does it seem like I’ve changed the setting to Alaska and its endless summer day. Do they characters make sense or are they starting to show signs of a desperate need for an intervention? Am I, the writer, the only one who thinks I’m funny? Yes, the content editor is like a second brain. One that hasn’t been tainted by personal investment and isn’t dissuaded by the idea of going back to the drawing board for an entire section that doesn’t work if that’s what needs to happen to finish with a good book. The copy editors are your basic OCD run amoks. Every period, every capitalization, even margin size comes under their nose pressed to the page scrutiny. They must get tennis match spectator neck fatigue going back and forth between my pages and the style manual. I do not envy them their lot in life. They are vital to the look, feel and anal retentive perfection of a published book. They keep the number of emails from readers picking up on my spelling and grammar mistakes to a minimum. Bless them, every one.
A mythical member of the publishing team, one I’ve never met in person, is the cover artist. I envision these people as elfin creatures who dance in the woods under a full moon and sprinkle fairy dust in rainbow colors to turn my books into visual art. How, for example, did the artist for Doggone draw my dog Koko on the cover without ever having met her, seen a photo of her or even heard a description? If I could draw, that is what I would draw. I never talked to him or her but they somehow saw into my mind. Ooh. That’s a little creepy now that I think about it.
There are publicists and web designers and marketing specialists that could be part of my publication team. They should be part of my publication team. Live and learn.
The final, vital, members of my publication team are the booksellers. I love the big chains and they’ve done right by me but it’s the independent book stores that warm my heart. They hand sell my book. They do so with pride in me and their store. They put their reputation, well and long earned, on the line to support my success. They invite me to sign and then ask their friends to come. There is no publish without them.
For the same reason, there is no publication team without the readers. The people who take the time to send me emails that ask when Horsewhipped is coming out inspire me. The conference attendees who wait in line for a signature and a few seconds of my time lift me. The reader who tells her friends you’ve got to read this and hands them my book makes me. I’m nowhere without the readers. None of us are.
Last but not least, Koko is the team Gabi mascot, source of inspiration and general dog’s body. But she won’t wear a team jacket. The cat that lives on the corner mocks.
Thank you, all of you who are reading this, for being members of my team. You honor me.
Friday, June 25, 2010
Hi, it's Friday correspondent Shane Gericke, reporting from a secret location I like to call Bravo Sierra. No, I'm not reading "My Pet Monkey" like the last guy reporting from secret location Bravo Sierra. I'm on vacation this week! Sippin' spirits, eating seafood, climbing volcanos, seeing wonders natural and manmade ... and gloriously unplugged from everything digital except a quadrophonic car stereo belting Ray Charles. Even my cell phone doesn't work here. Hope I don't fall down a mountain. No way to alert rescuers except to find a mountain goat and tie a note written in my own blood on its chinny-chin-chin . . .
Who am I kidding? I barely know it's Friday, let alone the #@$^% official topic of the week. Too many martinis and lobsters. Well, bison steaks, as I'm in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest and they eat chest-beatin' stuff like that here. No matter. My blogmates will have already dispatched said topic with their usual vigor and grace.
Uh, where was I ...
Right. BP. They're feverishly exploring every option and sparing no expense to make things right, and I have the secret video that proves it. I am confident this video is real, not some homemade pablum by oil-hating hooligans. The execs speak Brit, which we all know says "class" and "honesty" like nothing else! I warn you, though: What the execs do on this video is even more gripping than . . . uh . . . when ABC lures those child molesters into that wired-up house and confronts them with blow-dried anchorages!
Watch and listen ...
All they have to do is lick their butts, and our world is safe again ...
And that's no Bravo Sierra.
Talk to you live next week.
Thursday, June 24, 2010
You may have noticed that the question over there to the right features the word vuvuzela. I certainly noticed, and I find myself obsessing about it. Vuvuzela … vuvuzela … vuvuzela.
This is what I now know: on my list of things I never want to hear about again, vuvuzela appears just before Robert Pattinson and right after any family which got on television via the method of the mother treating her uterus like a clown car.
Anyway, back to the question. My team.
CJ spoke eloquently of the most important part of our publishing teams: our readers. My readers are wonderful. They are gracious and generous and in many cases delightfully ornery. I am humbled every time I hear from one, and thrilled when I've succeeded in telling a story which moved or enthralled them. The writing happens because I have stories to tell, but the books happen because someone wants to read them. Readers are the reason.
In addition to my readers, I adore my publisher and editor, live in terror of my agent (not really, I love her too), couldn't have achieved what I have without my beta-readers, couldn't cope with the day-to-day vagaries of my writerly insecurities without my friends, fellow writers, and family. They are all part of my publishing team, as well as folks at the distributors, and the book shops who've sold my books. What would I do without any of them?
Not much, that's what.
One thing which strikes me is that, in a way, I see myself as part of other people's publishing team. As a kid, I got the "Don't brag" lesson pretty thoroughly pounded into me. As an adult, I find myself often unable to toot my own horn (oh, lord, not the vuvuzela again), but I find it easy, and quite enjoyable, tooting other people's horns.
I never thought of myself as a member of someone's publishing team before this question came up—not consciously—but in a way, I am. At my own signings, I find myself recommending other books over my own—shhhh, don't tell the Shark. My love of writing grew first out of a love of reading, and what can be more enjoyable than sharing something you love with others?
Go, Team All of Us!
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Journalist Hannah Vogel has vowed to never again set foot in her homeland of Germany while the Nazis are still in power. She has good reason: three years ago in 1931, she kidnapped her “son,” Anton, from the man claiming to be his father--Ernst Rohm, head of the Nazis' SA. A powerful man not to be trifled with, Hannah knows that Rohm will never stop searching for them.
Hannah is asked to write about a zeppelin journey from South America to Switzerland, but Switzerland turns out to be too close. The zeppelin is diverted to Munich, where
Hannah and Anton are kidnapped and, to Hannah's horror, separated.
It’s unlucky timing for Rohm, however. Hitler has ordered the execution of Rohm and hundreds of his storm troopers and is determined to wipe out any remaining traces of his name. The Night of the Long Knives has begun.
When Rohm is killed before Hannah can ascertain Anton’s whereabouts, she desperately enlists all of her remaining sources and friends to locate Anton before the Nazis do. And the Gestapo is closing in…
Thrilling and powerful, A Night of Long Knives breathtakingly recreates a shattered and betrayed city as it plunges into darkness.
If you just can't wait to get to a bookstore, you may click here to purchase a copy online.
Monday, June 21, 2010
First and foremost, you, my readers.
When I first get an idea for a story or character, it's all about me having fun with it, exploring all the possibilities, playing….yeah, I have the best job in the world, don't I?
But as soon as I decide a book is ready to be submitted for publication, the real work begins. Because now it's no longer about me, it's about giving the reader the best possible experience I can.
And that means work: slicing and dicing and rearranging and re-visioning and (yikes! the hardest part for me) making everything make sense.
But it's worth it, because as Jeffery Deaver says: the Reader is God!
To help me get a book to publication, there are sooooo many folks I rely on.
The folks who help me with research, my wonderful critique partners, my marvelous agent, my editor, copy-editor, the publisher's production staff, sales force, marketing and publicity departments, booksellers, reviewers, bloggers, reporters, conference organizers…..and, coming full circle, my oh-so-wonderful readers.
Your letters keep me inspired and motivated to start over again with a new project. I've heard from police officers, EMS workers, military guys (and gals), nurses, doctors, social workers, and tons of folks who have enjoyed my books.
Some of these letters make me cry—like the ones thanking me for inspiring or empowering or somehow helping someone with real life difficulties.
Told you this was the greatest job on Earth!
And now, I guess it's time to officially announce the newest member of my publishing family: the incomparable, indomitable, and indefatigable Erin Brockovich!!!
Working with Erin has been amazing—the woman is just as incredible in real life as she was portrayed on the big screen by Julia Roberts.
And of course, she's one of my personal heroes, so this is a real dream come true.
You tell me, if you could work with any of your heroes, who would it be?
Thanks for reading,
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels and has been called a "master of the genre" (Pittsburgh Magazine). Her award-winning, critically acclaimed Angels of Mercy series (LIFELINES, WARNING SIGNS, and URGENT CARE) is available in stores now with the fourth book, CRITICAL CONDITION due out December, 2010. CJ's newest project is as co-author of the first in a new suspense series with Erin Brockovich. To learn more about CJ and her work, go to http://www.cjlyons.net
Sunday, June 20, 2010
Simon Wood and Simon Janus are very similar people. They're both the same height. They look very much the same. They share the same social security number and bank account. And they both cast shadows, contrary to popular belief.
Where they differ is in the stories these Simons tell. The Simons have slightly differing world views. Simon Wood thinks in terms of crime and personal responsibility. People are the products of their decisions. If they make the right decisions and have a little luck along with it, then things go smoothly, but if they take a wander off the straight and narrow and bump into some bad luck along the way, then things go plenty askew. Those little indiscretions have a habit of catching up with us. Secrets and lies tend to get exposed. It’s how we, as people, deal with those scenarios that Simon Wood is fascinated by. Anyone who thinks they are immune from personal calamity is a fool. That’s what Simon Wood thinks.
Simon Janus runs a little colder than Simon Wood. Simon Wood’s stories feature characters who have some control over their destinies. Simon Janus’ characters don’t. In the fictional world of Simon Janus, fate runs everything and the only luck is bad. People are cast out from their normal lives and tossed into environments that they are entirely ill-equipped to combat. While this might seem very dark, there is light in guise of the characters. Their struggle against overwhelming odds is beguiling to the reader. It’s the actions of the people that counts. People are capable of achieving anything regardless of the situation. It’s something both Simons agree on.
So it’s not a case of me exploring my dark side, it’s a matter of one Simon exploring the dark side and the other exploring an even darker side.
I’m not sure I like this thing of talking about myselves in the third person. Isn't that sign of insanity? I may have to check with myself.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
I’ve lived in the US twelve years, but I still consider myself an outsider. I know there's that joke that English and Americans are people separated by a common language, but it’s more than that. As an outsider or observer of the American way of life I see massive voids between myself and you lovely people. Your outlook is different. Your psyche is different. Your moral compass points in a different direction. Your political and constitutional system shapes who you are and how you act. Just the sheer size of the country has an effect. How the news is reported and what is viewed as news is also different. It all goes into the melting pot and shapes how Americans view the world. Sometimes, it’s very positive and sometimes, not so much. The reason is time, place, landscape, history, natural resources and climate and circumstances form a culture. England and America weren’t seedlings planted in the same soil at the same time, so naturally they're going to be different.
Just look at England, a land where you can’t go fifty feet without tripping over a castle or Roman ruin. And look at America, a land that boasts the world’s largest frying pan and ball of twine. Yes, I see the differences.
I’ve certainly used these differences in my fiction. My first novel, Accidents Waiting to Happen, centered on the buying and selling of life insurance on the living. It’s a business that exists in the US and nowhere else as far as I can find. When I learned about this practice, I saw how the industry could be subverted and abused and found that it had. It became the perfect basis for novel. But it was a practice that had existed in the US for over 40 years and no one had batted an eyelid at it.
Another thing that drives me potty as a foreigner is jurisdictions. I’m used to one set of laws, taxes, governmental systems, but here, everything is so fragmented and I just don’t get it. With today’s technology and systems, you'll never convince me that decentralized government beginning at the city level and rising up through the county and state level through to federal makes a jot of sense. I understand the logic but it doesn’t work in principle. Example: Police departments recommend you don’t call 911 in case of an emergency because the system is overloaded so they recommend your local PD. My wife drives to 30 miles to work and passes through over a dozen police jurisdictions. Is she expected to have all those numbers programmed into her phone? It’s ridiculous. However, fragmented jurisdictions made for a great plot point in my latest book, Terminated, where the villain commits petty crimes in various cities making it hard to prove a history of crime because each crime has to be reported with a different police department.
Occasionally people are surprised to learn I’m English. After over a decade in the US, I’m pretty fluent in American and can pass for one on the street. But much like the Great Escape, it’s when I open my mouth that I give myself away. I won't lose the accent.
I think for the first few years, my wife acted as my Sherpa, teaching me the American rituals, such as malls, sporting events, tipping, menus with pictures instead of descriptions, national holidays, a preoccupation with things having to be super-sized and all the poisonous animals. I feel I’m very much versed in the way America works, but I’ve yet to find anyone who can explain how baseball is interesting.
Yours from over there,
Friday, June 18, 2010
There are a few reasons I write short stories. First, I like reading and writing them. I’m not sure why they're viewed as the bastard child of fiction. Episodic TV is essentially short storytelling. When you break an episode of CSI or whatever down, it isn't much more than a short story. People watch them, so I don’t know why they have an objection to reading them. There's an intensity to short stories that get lost in most novels. A short story can strip away all extraneous data and ready get to the heart of an issue. It can be a very intimate experience. Also some story ideas are just destined to be short stories that won't carry themselves beyond twenty to thirty pages. From a pure writing perspective, there's something gratifying about writing something that can be completed in a few days. I write quickly, but with the best will in the world, a novel is still going to take me months to write, meaning I have to live a plotline and characters for a long time and sometimes it can feel like a bad relationship where I can the same characters and their problems every day. So, having a finished product in my hands is good for the soul. Also, writing short stories helps me develop as a writer. I can experiment with voice, structure, style and all manner of writing standards and if it doesn’t work, the investment isn't as large as a novel. Short story writing has taught me how to be a very economical and succinct writer. From a business side of writing, short stories are great advertisements for my work. If a reader hasn’t read my books before and aren’t sure if they want to drop some money on an unknown quantity such as me, they are more inclined to give one of my novels a whirl but if they’ve read and liked a short story. It’s more effective than a glossy ad in a magazine and I get paid for my advertisement. So at the end of the day, short stories are worth devoting my time to.
It’s quite fun being English in America. I get to be the outsider, which means I get cut a lot of slack. My thoughts, expressions and opinions can get excused because I’m English and not familiar with your customs. It means I can be provocative and that helps me learn about my environment. We might speak the same language, but we are very different people. I’ve found people are unguarded around me since I’m not American, especially strangers. A few times people have opened up to me on subjects such as race, marriage, love and all manner of things because I’m not American. They’ve spoken freely because I’m not bogged down by expectation and I’m ignorant to their upbringing. It’s been interesting and enlightening at times. It helps me as a storyteller because I get to talk to people honestly and get to the heart of a subject. It helps me write about people in a convincing manner.
I think the only downside to life as an Englishman in the US is the slang. You don’t have very creative slang here, which is very disappointing. This has forced me to speak very plainly here. Very sad.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
From a profession point of view, motor racing and the world of writing and publishing are very similar. You enter them with a dream, which may or may not get realized. They are extremely tough businesses to succeed in and they require total dedication. Every waking moment is consumed with them. You’re unlikely to get rich and you need an understanding loved one to back you up every step of the way.
Motor racing helps you experience every kind of emotions. I experienced the very highs and the very lows. I knew what fear, rage, regret, euphoria and anything else you care to name felt like—and probably experienced them in the same afternoon. It’s made me empathetic when it comes to writing about characters in tight spots. It’s helped me emulate those feelings into my characters.
I think my background has also helped when writing adrenaline filled scenes. People don’t react they way you think they will in pressure situations. We have animalistic traits that kick in when we’re scared and we develop tunnel vision. The periphery goes out the window when survival is all that counts.
So yes, motor racing taught me a lot of life lessons that I use in my writing and in my career as a writer. As for driving tips, I’ll leave you with these:
• Always brake in a straight line before entering a corner and not in a bend.
• Every car from a Yugo to an Aston Martin stops twice as fast as it accelerates. So the brake pedal will get you out of trouble faster than the gas.
• Any idiot can drive fast in a straight line, but a hero knows how to make a car fly through the bends.
• ABS is for girls.
Bill asks: What's the status on Hellephant? Any other Syfy Original projects working in your mind?
I guess I should fill the readers in on this. I have a guilty pleasure in the form of SfFy Channel’s Original Monster Movies on a Saturday night. One of my literary dreams is to have a shot at writing one. Why should I want to write trashy monster movie, you might ask? The answer is simple—because it’s there.
Hellephant is my dream project. Hellephant’s special ability involves a little known feature about elephants that makes them unique from every animal on the planet. The story itself centers on revenge, a 200-year-old curse, ivory poachers and some much deserved deaths.
I have teamed up with a couple of writers to work on some monster movie projects. The one I’m working on specifically is Dog Town. Even if it never sees the light of day as a movie, I believe it has the basis for a pretty interesting novel.
Yours going too fast,
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Dyslexia doesn’t affect imagination or story ideas. It’s more of a hand-eye communication thing. Something goes awry and what I think I’m typing and what I’m actually typing are two different things. I don’t know if it’s a dyslexic thing but I am a messy thinker. I tend to have ideas pile up in my head at the same time. One of my schoolteachers told me once that my mind works faster than my hands. That kinda sums the situation up.
So, even though I know and understand my problem, I am literally blind to solving it. Sometimes I know something is wrong, but I don’t exactly know what is the problem. I don’t see the mistakes—the incorrect words, the impossible sentences, bizarre language structure and the plain incomprehensible. At times, it looks like I’ve printed off the work produced by the infinite number of monkeys at their infinite number of typewriters trying to produce Shakespeare—minus the Shakespeare.
I’m blessed, though. My wife, Julie, is a voracious reader and has the right temperament to cut through my jumble to highlight the problems and help me facilitate editing. She is my seeing-eye dog (she’s going to love that analogy), guiding me through the literary minefield I’ve created. Without her input, not one of my short stories or my novels would have ever been published. I am forever in her debt.
Besides Julie, my spelling and grammar checker is my other guide. I know a lot of writers turn them off, but I keep mine on. I may not take its advice, but I know it’s telling me there’s something from the land of dyslexia lurking in there somewhere. It forces me to really focus on what I’ve written.
Thanks to Julie, writing is a guilt free experience. I can write and not care about the problems because she will sniff them out.
Having Julie read my work aloud has been effective. It’s the acid test. It’s where we uncover where my dyslexia has masked what I really wanted to say or discover that I’ve written something I don’t like and I want to start again. When Julie reads, the issue presents itself in gory detail and sounds like fingernails drawn down a blackboard. When I read, Julie stops me after a sentence or two to point out what I’ve read and what I’ve written are totally different. Whatever misfire is floating around in my brain to cause these problems I don’t know, but I do know that between us, we overcome it.
Some might say it’s very nice to have a proofreader every step of the way and it is, but it is as equally frustrating. It’s tough relying on someone else to tell you where you’ve gone wrong. It’s like being fluent in a foreign language, but only on a verbal level, and being ignorant of the written language. I want to be able to correct the obvious. So at times, I’m not considerate or patient. To be blunt, I am a cantankerous son of a bitch when the words aren’t hitting the page just right, but we get through it.
I can't say this is the perfect system, but it’s a system that works for me.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Yes, my twin identities are a loosely kept secret. I write horror and I write crime, and there are quite a few people who know that and it’s these people I don’t keep my twin identities a secret from. The second identity (created for my horror writing) is essentially for people who are encountering my work for the first time.
The reason I split myself in two was to avoid reader confusion. I found I kept running into the issue of readers didn’t know what kind of writer I was and it made them wary of picking up a book. I’d attend Bouchercon or Left Coast Crime and people would think of me as a horror writer and when I attended the World Horror Convention, people would remark that I was that mystery writer. It was getting to the stage where it was really hurting my sales. So I created the pen name for my horror writing because I’d already had several thrillers published under the Wood name.
The additional identity has created some additional work for me, but I’ve also given myself a little bit of an advantage. Sometimes publishers have clauses stating that a writer can't have competing works out within so many months of publication. With a pen name, technically I don’t. Simon Wood isn't competing with Simon Janus and vice-versa. We’re two very different people, even if we do look alike.
Essentially, I wanted to create a distinction between my two writing styles by developing some product branding. If someone is shopping for Tide, you want it to say so on the label because you don’t want the consumer getting it confused with Frosties or whatever. The worst thing I can do as a writer is disappoint the reader by misinforming them. At the end of the day, I don’t care what name goes on the cover of the book, I just want to be read.
Now that I have the two identities, I promote each identity to the individual reader communities. I sometimes cross-promote by letting people know that I’m not just Simon This, I’m also Simon That in the hopes of some cross-fertilization of readers.
Yours from two points of view,
PS: In case, you're not tuning in every day. For anyone who leaves a comment, your name will go into a draw to win a copy of my latest book, Terminated. At the end of the week, I'll draw two names and send them a book.
Monday, June 14, 2010
Who called me twisted? If I find out who said that I’ll be around to their house to cut their brake lines on their car and laugh at them when it smashes through the barrier at dead man’s curve. Twisted indeed. Cheeky sod.
Hmm, I don’t know if I think of myself being labeled as twisted. Probably, I don’t think that I’m that twisted, which I’m sure some people will find quite troubling. I suppose it depends on the emphasis. I must admit I do get a kick out of it if a reader feels like they’ve been put through the wringer along with my characters. When that happens, I claim the title with pride. If it’s going to hinder me from getting a mortgage approval, then I renounce my twistedness.
I can safely say that my twisted nature has nothing to do with my racing past or my cats. I think I got my twisted mindset from my engineering background. Now I bet you weren’t expecting that for an answer.
Engineering taught me about cause and effect, and the safety aspect of engineering is preoccupied with “If this were to go wrong, how could it be stopped?” So, my mind now has a kink in it. When I look at a fictional scenario, I look at the characters’ weaknesses and fragility of the predicaments they’ve gotten themselves into and instead of leaving well enough alone, I’ll think to myself—how can I make this situation worse? How can I turn up the heat? What could happen to these characters to the push them to the brink of surrendering? What can I do make the reader’s jaw drop? This is great for crime fiction, especially when it comes to plotting and character decisions. I can create devious plans for my villains and teeth grating dilemmas for my heroes.
Oh, I am quite devious. I never realized. No wonder people call me twisted. Just shows you, don’t mess with an engineer. They're more twisted than cats. Maybe that should be my bumper sticker.
Sunday, June 13, 2010
Catnapped and Doggone
It’s not just that you are smarter than I was or am. It’s that you’ve already figured out a passion in your life. In high school, my sole focus was on getting into a really good college that didn’t bankrupt my parents. If you are in high school and thinking about something other than the practicalities of the next four or six or eight years, depending on your credential goals, you are once again way ahead of me. You are in fact, amazing to me.
I would encourage every high school student to recognize that their passion for writing needs brain food. There are more passions that can lead to better stories. If saving the planet is an idea that has somehow slipped onto the pages of your journal, take some environmental science classes. Understand the issues and then pick up your pen and make your case. If you’d rather be at the theater at night, write down what a critical assessment of the performances, adaptation, sets and experience before you lay your head down to sleep. I’m suggesting that you don’t wait for your life to start to begin writing about important things. I’m saying live and write about it. Right now. Write now.
I could give you the standard line of writing every day. It’s good advice even if a grocery list is all you manage. Like any passion, discipline can turn it into a career. But you don’t have to have a career to be a writer. There are entire blogs dedicated to this. There are people who will tell you you aren’t a writer until you’re published. There are those that draw a distinction between writer – a person who writes – and author – a person who makes a living as a writer. To me, a writer is someone with something to say who puts it on a piece of paper. An author is someone who lets others read what they write.
I feel truly blessed when anyone is prepared to share it with me. I read with a critical eye. It’s impossible not to once you’ve survived the editorial process involved in publication but I am pleased to say that I can still see genuine interest and real imagination, even when spell check would add a pleasing sheen to the finished work. So if you are a high school writer, take a deep breath, and trust someone with your words. It may be the hardest part of being a writer or an author whatever your definition. I know many people writing in shrouded bedrooms and under single bulbs at their kitchen table late at night or early in the morning before anyone can see. They are writers. But if you are a young writer, still able to stretch beyond expectations, take those hidden pages and offer them to someone. Become a writer with a reader. Start with someone you trust to support you even if they don’t agree with you. Choose someone who can see past grammar and experimental technique to the heart beneath. It’s great if that person can show you what would make your words more accessible to them but remember you don’t ever, EVER, have to make changes you don’t agree with. Listen, think, decide for yourself. Make that jump from writer to author. It’s like learning to swim as a baby. If you do it early enough, you’re an Olympian before you can even fathom fear of water. Be an author. Today.
The final thing I would say to a high school writer is good for you. It’s hard to be a writer. It’s really hard to say to your parents and friends and guidance counselor that you believe what you have to say is worth being written down. It’s so easy to get scared. It’s supposed to be scary. The good stuff always is. But you, high school writer, already exposing yourself to critical assessment and possible rejection, can take it. You have it in you to be extraordinary. I know it without ever having met you. Give me a chance to say ‘I told you so.’ Write. So I can read what you’ve written and continue to be awed. Just write.
Thanks for letting me read what you’ve written and letting me write for you.
Saturday, June 12, 2010
If I were talking to a
If the would-be writer said, “I can’t get there today,” I would say, “Then, come tomorrow: I’ll be on a panel (called ‘Stop! You’re Killing Me!’) along with some very funny writers at the Hotel Blake from . Again, I’ll be talking and signing before and after.”
If the would-be writer then said, “You seem to think you have all the answers; I hate it when adults pretend to be smarter than they are,” I would answer, “There’s a story of a young ballerina who lived in rural
If the would be writer said, “What the heck is that supposed to mean?” I would adopt a wise expression and answer, “One day, when you become a writer, then you will know.”
Friday, June 11, 2010
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Our own Sophie Littlefield and Rebecca Cantrell have been nominated for Macavity Awards!! Let's hear some hoopla out there, and congratulate these two on two stellar books!!
OK. Back to work. The question is what I'd tell a group of high school writers. The funny thing is that I had the honor of speaking to a high school creative writing class just a couple of weeks ago.
First, a little background. When I was in junior high--and junior high and high school were in a very rural community, tiny and remote--an author came to visit.
At the time, I was writing for the school newspaper, and of course books were like air to me. I read from a young age, and read voraciously, everything from comic books to Little House on the Prairie to Valley of the Dolls. Like most kids in junior high, especially the smart ones, I felt like a freak. That's the junior high gift, really ... suffering through early adolescence under typical junior high conditions allows most people to understand what alienation, despair, self-loathing and awkwardness is all about, and why creative, intelligent and sensitive young people in the world feel that pain so keenly.
So there I was, clutching my note pad, and thanks to the care and attention of our school librarian (I love you, Mr. McKay!), I was able to interview Ms. Maureen Daly.
Now, I was tremendously excited--I'd read her short story "Sixteen" not too long before, which had won an O. Henry Award (when she was still in high school herself). The story was written in '37, but was as timely to adolescence in '77 as it was forty years before. Besides, I loved it even more *because* it was set in '37 -- that era has always been a part of who I am.
A lovely, vibrant and cigarette-voiced redhead, she spoke about journalism--she was a journalist, as you can read if you click the links --and about writing. She spoke to me not as an awkward thirteen year-old, but as a newspaper reporter and as a fellow writer. She made me feel good about myself, and for those of you who remember what it was like to be thirteen, that took some doing.
She also told me never to give up, to keep going, to keep exploring, and filled my head with stories of her own travels and adventures with her husband.
Turns out her husband was noir writer William P. McGivern, author of three sublime noirs that became film noir classics: The Big Heat, Odds Against Tomorrow, and Rogue Cop. Mr. McGivern was an Edgar winner for The Big Heat, which won for best motion picture in 1954. I don't remember him, really, except as a quiet man who was also very kind.
But I like to think that my encounter with this generous and wonderful couple was a blessing, of sorts. They were the first real writers I'd ever met. And they inspired me, though life took me different places to learn different things, and I've never forgotten them.
So when I was invited to speak to a high school creative writing class at University High School in San Francisco--the school has an amazing history and quality of education and is ranked something like #23 in the nation--I was honored and thrilled to to do it.
These would be kids who were older, juniors and seniors, about to head to Harvard and Stanford and Cornell, and they weren't from an impoverished public school in the redwoods. But their needs would be the same as mine were at 13: they needed to be listened to, not lectured.
And I did listen ... I got a chance to hear about their writing projects (all of which sounded so creative and good that it made me much more sanguine for the future than I normally am). I told them about some of the challenges facing writers, about the business end of things, about experience and life and I answered any questions they put to me.
Most of all, I told them not to give up. And I treated them as colleagues and adults.
As Maureen Daly had treated me, thirty-three years before.
Thank you, Ms. Daly and Mr. McGivern. I am honored and proud to carry the torch you gave me ... and I'll always do my best to pass it forward.