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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Getting back to work, and a preview of NET STALKER

Writers know well that there is what we do for love, and what we do for money, and the most frequent piece of advice to any writer is not to quit her day job (that is, until the sales of the first of your series about a boy wizard reach the stratosphere). I am blessed to be able to say that what I do for money is also a labor of love, for together with my husband Christopher, I own and run a bed and breakfast called A Butler's Manor. It does, however, absorb every fiber of my being during the summer months. While we're still busy either side of the summer high season, with the advent of fall, I can begin mentally to get back to the computer to pen stories, rather than reservations.

Up on the third floor of the bed and breakfast, I have a secret space that I call my aerie...my writing office, tucked under the eaves. Between the workload of high season and the fact that it's located above one of our most popular guest rooms and accessed by way of a pull-down staircase in the hall, I don't see it for months at a time. But after Labor Day, when the weather cools and the phones aren't quite so crazy, one of the first things I do is carve out some time to reclaim my space...give everything a good clean, reread my files, put Pandora radio on my headphones and settle back into my desk chair to find my muse again, who takes the summers off  but awaits me up under the eaves.

It does feel good to get back to writing. I have two projects underway: I'm noodling a brand new book on which I hope to make real progress this winter, and doing a final edit of my next psychological suspense book, which I hope to release on Kindle somewhere around Thanksgiving. Titled NET STALKER, it is the story of a woman whose search for her ancestry attracts a predator whose quest for revenge is also mired in the murky waters of her family history.

Here's the draft of the jacket copy:

In Orange County, California, Geordan Taylor’s shock and grief over her mother’s sudden death is great enough without discovering in the days that follow that everything she thought she knew about her mother is a lie. Bewildered and angry, she turns to the Internet in search of information about the only family she’s ever known. Much to the consternation of her roommate Jess, she soon finds a kindred spirit in a cyber buddy named Chase.  

She has no idea she’s attracted a stalker.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, a killer dubbed the Bagman has claimed his fifth victim, and once again FBI Special Agent Sam Cathcart is frustrated by the lack of leads. His colleagues don’t know how personal the case is for Cathcart; eerily, the Bagman’s victims resemble his own long-ago murdered daughter. But time is running out for if he doesn’t crack the case soon, the FBI’s retirement mandates and his own health problems will force him to end his career in failure.  

When Jess is brutally attacked, similarities to the Bagman’s modus operandi draw Cathcart’s team. But it isn’t Jess who resembles the killer’s previous victims—it’s Geordan. And because Jess’s attack too conveniently followed a date Geordan broke to meet her cyber buddy in person, Cathcart soon believes that the key to apprehending the Bagman is to be found in the same family background that Geordan seeks.

At the FBI agent’s request, Geordan offers herself as online bait to draw the fiend who nearly murdered her best friend. Though masked in cyberspace, this stalker is circling ever closer…a killer who believes he will avenge a decades-old injustice only with Geordan’s death.

The hardest thing about writing Net Stalker is making clear the time frame: It's set at the turn of the millenium, late1999 - 2000, and of course many things to do with how we communicate have evolved since then (texting, Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Still, the dependence upon and addiction to the Internet was in place then and has grown exponentially since, making the threat which is the centerpiece of the story all the more relevant in today's world.
 
Beyond the proofing, there remains some non-writing work to finish, such as cover design and permissions to obtain for quoted material...the sort of stuff a traditional publisher would be responsible for were I choosing to publish through one.
 
What do you think?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Publish or perish?

Many bestselling authors, especially in the mystery and romance genres, seem to publish a new book about once a year, often timed to come out late in the year (for Christmas and holiday sales) or late spring (to read on vacation). Recently, there was an article in the New York Times about how many authors are under increasing pressure from their publishers to write not one, but two (or more!) books a year. Why the increased pressure? Say the publishers, audiences are increasingly used to the immediate gratification of being able to download an e-book, a movie, a game on demand, and if an author can't keep her name in the public eye, she's likely to be forgotten in the crush of options available to the online world.

Uh-huh. My read? Print publishers are increasingly afraid that their relevance is on the brink of extinction. I mean, suppose you just enjoyed a book from a new author (new to you, anyway), and then found out that omigod, she doesn't have a backlist of another twenty books you can read right now! So instead you're going to quit reading books altogether and stream the last season of Royal Pains, right?

To my mind, this sort of demand is reminiscent of hack writing, a term first used in the late 1800's to describe those who were paid to write low-quality articles or books to order on a short deadline. In the context of fiction, the term was used to describe writers who were paid to churn out sensational fiction such as true crime novels or "bodice rippers." (In the context of nonfiction, this brings to mind the slew of political books that are rushed to market in an election season. Do not EVEN get me started on those.)

The whole argument reminds me of "publish or perish," the phrase coined in the university world which relates the continual pressure to rapidly and continuously publish academic work to sustain or further one's career. And while it's true that some authors can actually produce a book a year, they are generally authors who have an established series, such as those of a couple of my favorite crime fiction writers, Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch/Mickey Haller), and John Sandford (Prey). But literary fiction? Not often. And to my mind, nor should it be. Was it a career-buster for Khaled Hosseini that his second book didn't come out for four whole years after his incredible debut book The Kite Runner? No. The reading world's supposed micro-attention span managed to remember him long enough to make a bestseller out of A Thousand Splendid Suns. And chances are, whenever Hosseini publishes something else, we'll happily grab a copy in whatever form appeals. No, the push from the publishing houses is because THEY need to have a lot of product to keep you coming back--immediately!--for more.

My belief is that the immediacy of the Internet and mobile world, with all its apps, streaming videos, downloads, and 24/7 information allows a reader to stay more connected with an author, rather than less, regardless of how fast they publish. Now you can find an author online, learn about him, follow his blog if he has one, be the first on your block to know when his next book is due, and even pre-order it and have it delivered on the first day of publication.

I'm not among the writers who can quit their day job to write full time. And my day job is about 180 degrees different from the solitary life of writing: for the last ten years, we've owned and run a bed and breakfast called A Butler's Manor in the Hamptons, a popular resort destination. I was asked recently by one of our B&B guests how long it had taken me to write A Butler's Life. The short answer is that once I sold it to my original publisher (on proposal, as non-fiction is commonly sold), I completed the final manuscript in six months. But the real answer is more complicated. One, I had the outline and first two chapters and the introduction already written (and rewritten, probably fifty times), which was part of the proposal package I sent out to prospective publishers. Two, I was writing a memoir, not creating a story with characters and plot I needed to invent whole cloth. Three, I was so very green to publishing that I believed that, contract or no, the publishers would lose their enthusiam for the book if I didn't get the full manuscript into their hands as fast as possible. Four, nothing galvanizes you more than a deadline. And finally, at the time I sold A Butler's Life, I had the luxury of writing full time.

Novels, though, are a whole different story. Blood Exposure, and Net Stalker (not yet published) probably took five years apiece to write, when you factor in multiple drafts before it is polished enough to send out to my trusted beta-readers...waiting for their feedback...letting that feedback percolate in the brain for awhile before attempting the next draft...more honing, etc. And unlike nonfiction, you sell a novel in its complete, uber-edited, fifteen-drafts-is-not-too-many perfect form, until you're established as a bestseller, anyway. Also, both Blood Exposure and Net Stalker run about 400 pages or so...almost twice as long as A Butler's Life.

Not since our first year in business have I been able to commit to a regular writing schedule. That was back in 2002, and at the time, I was finishing my first draft of Net Stalker. I had set myself a goal to finish the draft before our summer season began on Memorial Day, and I achieved that goal. But since then, any sort of regular writing schedule has gone to hell in a handbag. Generally, what I try to do is complete a draft in the winter and early spring and send it out for comment and/or market it to agents during the summer and fall. You can imagine this makes for some long delays between books. On the upside, it does allow me the necessary time and space to see the story with fresh eyes, which makes editing more productive.

So even were I to write full time, no way no how could I crank out a book in one year, every year. Probably not even if I were writing a series, where the major work of developing the characters has been started. And I feel more than a little inadequate about this, because I have read scads of anecdotes about writers who labor deep into each night or wake up at 4:00 AM to write for a couple of hours before they wake the spouse and kids, get them off to work or school, then dress and go off to their own full time day job.  Last year, I spoke with Julie Otsuka, who told me that it took her five years to write both The Buddha in the Attic and When the Emperor Was Divine, so I don't feel so alone.  And one of the writers I most admire, Barbara Kingsolver, has said that a novel will percolate in her for months or years as she "earns the authority to write it." That's really what it's about: finding the arc of the story and the passion behind it, which often develops as I write, rather than before I begin. And there shouldn't be a time limit on that.

But I admit, the perfectionist in me still feels inadequate about literary output. And that will probably never change.

Quality over quantity? Does it depend on the genre? What do you think?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A certain kind of mother

Today is Mother's Day. This isn't my holiday, as my only children are comprised of words, rather than genes, and my own mother "changed addresses" long ago...in fact, I realized with a distant shock today that she has been gone more than half my life. But where these two intersect was a critical turning point for me.

My mother died of cancer at 51-- the precise age I am today. Though she was far from demonstrative, we were very close. She was diagnosed in late October four years after I graduated college.  Anyone who has lost someone to cancer knows the pain of witnessing the slow death that you can't stop, or often, even ease. I cried so much through the term of her short prognosis that when she passed away, I thought I had no more tears to shed. While I missed her dreadfully, mimicking her pragmatism, I boxed up my pain. I went back to work the day after her funeral and threw myself into practical matters like my then-career in advertising and marketing.I told myself I had done all my grieving; now it was time to get on with life.

Seven years later, when Chris and I moved to New York, I faced another type of grieving. I had moved far from everyone I knew, into a part of the country that had no work prospects for me. Without my familiar career, I didn't know who I was. I wrote long letters home to friends and family, and through this, I began to see my path. While I had journalled on and off since I was a teenager, until I made the paradigm shift of what our new life meant for my dreams, I'd never truly believed I might write seriously. Now I could. I took classes and signed onto the writer boards on AOL and began to work on A Butler's Life, the book I'd half joked I would write about Chris's life in service since we'd first met. I also wrote essays and a few articles, almost all unpublished, and began to rough out ideas for some novels. And I continued to write my long letters to those I viewed as my support team back home.

But where I wasn't writing...and hadn't since the day my mother had been diagnosed...was in my journal.

In September 1995, I sold A Butler's Life in hardcover. I delivered the manuscript the following March. While I waited for it to be published, I proposed Wedding Wonders to another publisher and sold that, too. As a small paperback, Wedding Wonders was published first, in 1996.

Writers often equate writing and, especially, the publishing of their works as akin to giving birth. (Many of us also admit to a form of post-partum depression following publishing.) I'm sure every writer remembers the feeling of opening that very first box from their publisher marked "Author's Copies." There, in full color (at least on the cover), is your baby. Your firstborn. Fruit of your heart, mind, soul. You crow. You coo. You show all your friends. And you employ all your marketing efforts to help that baby not only walk, but hopefully soar in the crowded world. Let's call it an extremely foreshortened parenthood.

I didn't cry fifteen months after my mother's death when my sister had no "mother of the bride" at her large traditional church ceremony. I shed a few tears two years later when, on my wedding eve, my father presented me with a figurine my mom had bought for that occasion on a European trip three years before she died. But when my only children -- my books -- were "born," a dam broke. The night that first box arrived,  I cried for the loss of my mom, for the accomplishment I longed to have her there to recognize and appreciate. For me, there would be no grandchildren in whom I might recognize her eyes, her mouth, her chin, or her sense of humor. But I had launched something into the world that would remain long after my death, if only in the Library of Congress archives. Something that would prove that I had existed. Something that would have made my mother proud of me. Something she wasn't there to see.

But when that dam broke, so, too, did another dam I hadn't recognized as being obstructive: I gained the ability to journal again. And truly, there was an ocean of unwritten words, uncried tears, unfinished grief of all kinds that poured out over that broken dam...and continue to do so, sometimes via journal, sometimes within my writing. It doesn't escape me that in the three novels I've penned so far, Blood Exposure being the first, all deal with mother-daughter issues. While none of the situations are autobiographical, there are commonalities and extrapolations that I just have to trust spring from a deep place. One that never goes away, and remains fascinating to me to plumb.

For those of us whose offspring receive their report cards on Amazon.com...wouldn't it be appropriate if royalty checks arrived on Mother's Day, like Hallmark cards?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Setting

A couple months ago, I attended a breakfast book event that featured author Elizabeth George, one of my favorite mystery writers. In the Q&A session that followed, someone asked Ms. George where she got her ideas. Elizabeth George writes a series in what the British would call crime fiction, and I'd have guessed her ideas mainly come from police blotters or the nightly news. Her answer surprised me: She gets the ideas. she said, from her settings. She visits the UK looking for a great setting and imagines what might happen there.

Starting a book from the setting -- I wonder how usual that is. Does it depend on the genre? Certainly, setting is critical in sci-fi and fantasy, where worlds are created wholecloth...think of Narnia, Middle Earth, or Hogwarts. Stephen King said that his horror book The Shining was conceived after spending a night as the only guests in the grand old Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, CO  the last night before it was to be closed for the winter. And certainly James Michener's sweeping historical novels (Hawaii, Texas, Tales From the South Pacific) are wholly dependent upon their settings.
Setting is what inspired Blood Exposure.  Born and raised in California, I was fascinated when I moved to the Hamptons to discover graveyards with stones dating back to 1648. The names on those stones corresponded to the names on streets in the towns...and on some of the businesses even today. About a year after we moved to East Hampton, I became friends with a woman whose family was one of the twelve original settlers of the town in the mid seventeenth century. Myself the child of Midwesterners who had moved West as young adults and settled permanently, until I was in college I knew no one else of my acquaintence who had also been born in the state. Everyone from from somewhere else, whether outside or within the US borders. So the idea of someone who could trace her entire lineage within the scope of one single cemetery boggled my mind. They came...and they stayed. Of course, not all of them. But many, like my friend, ventured away to college or early jobs, then came back to the tiny towns with admittedly limited employment opportunities because that's where the family was, where their history was.

I loved this.

I began doing research on the history and settlement of East Hampton, aided by a remarkable permanent collection in the East Hampton library called The Morton Pennypacker Collection. And then one day as I was contemplating how I might work something of this into a book, I took our dog for a walk in Northwest Woods, an aptly-named area on the outskirts of East Hampton Village.

Once upon a time Northwest Woods was a thriving village all its own, with a seaport and school and farms that raised not only potatoes and corn but peaches and soybeans. Residents shipped goods out of a port located just outside Northwest Creek not only to Connecticut and Boston, but all the way to England. But as ships increased in size and they drew more draft, Northwest Creek became too shallow for the boats and trade moved east to where Sag Harbor had just been settled. The farmers of Northwest Woods began to move to other areas where transportation of their goods was easier, and the village slowly became a backwater, and then a virtual ghost town. The woods reclaimed their own. Even today, after a development boom throughout the 1990s, you can drive down the roads and barely glimpse the houses hidden behind the trees. Yet with a trail map in hand, you can wander through the forest of dense white pines and find the foundations of the old school and of houses that stood in the early 1800s...old family cemeteries, surrounded by rickety white fences...even a sad little grave set all by itself for a child who died of smallpox in an era when contagion was believed to continue past death.

I knew I'd found my setting. Hidden back amidst the dense trees, I imagined a family homestead that was losing the battle of being reclaimed by the land it had once commandeered. And what family upheaval would have allowed such a circumstance to happen? It could be nothing less than murder, long ago committed and never exposed...unwittingly aided by a small town comprised of generations of interconnected families who took care of their own.

Setting can sometimes so evocative that it, as much or more than the story, is what stays with you. Beyond the examples mentioned above, one that comes to mind is one of my all-time favorites, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. So powerful is the image author Betty Smith draws of little Francie Nolan's world in the slums of Williamsburg, Brooklyn that I can envisage it even now, right down to the pickle vendor and the Christmas tree seller on the street.

In what books has the setting been so powerful that the book has remained in your memory for years?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A paradigm shift

It feels like changing religions.

As someone who even as a girl loved the feel of a hardcover book in my hand and who has a large collection of cherished favorites (including the first 50 Nancy Drew books, all of the same vintage in which I first read them!), I hereby admit to a paradigm shift in my publishing beliefs: I have come to believe that the future of most contemporary bookselling lies in e-books. And in accepting--and even embracing--the trend, I've just released my first novel, BLOOD EXPOSURE, on Kindle, following the November release of A BUTLER'S LIFE (also on Kindle).

This is exciting as well as bittersweet. Like almost all of my fellow book lovers and authors, I've been saddened to watch the closing of more and more independent bookstores in our communities. I want it all: the homey feeling of the small bookstore with the bibliophile staff whose handwritten recommendation cards are stuck into the crowded stacks; the vastness of the large chain store with tables and aisles piled high with a cornucopia of offerings in every conceivable category (and a coffee house within); the anytime ease of search, speed, availability, and pricing of books available through online sources such as Amazon.com; and the immediacy and portability of ebooks, ensuring that if I were to, say, finish one book of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series while traveling in Outer Mongolia, I can upload the next in the series in sixty seconds flat and not have to worry about not finding an English language bookstore. (And, let's face it, the feature that allows you to adjust the size of the type so that you don't have to fumble with reading glasses on the bedside table after a long day is a nice touch too.)

The print publishing industry is struggling, as anyone who has watched not only many of the small indies but even formidable Borders close, who hears the frightening rumbles about Barnes and Noble's financial woes. Authors on blogs and message boards all over the Internet have spoken of the shrinking of the industries, as big publishers gobble up the midsize and small ones, as midlist authors, even some with established series and a loyal fan base are summarily cut from the roster in an effort to rein in costs. Those of us who dream of seeing our efforts rewarded by a display pile in a bookstore's window are frustrated to read of million-dollar advances and half-million quantity print runs (in hardcover!) given to celebrities-du-jour or to political figures whose campaign-speech visions will be obsolete in six month's time. Publishers -- and by extension, agents -- are increasingly unwilling to take on anyone new unless they are positive they're onto the next Big Thing, defined by a debut novel which is an immediate home run (think Kathryn Stockett's The Help).

I think that publishers, to survive, need to rethink their business model. Yes, there are books that will always be superior when in print--for example, coffee table books or any sort of illustrated book, especially, of course, a children's pop up book. Currently, tens of thousands of books are published each year, hawked by sales forces that are squeezed to meet quotas, distributed to an increasingly smaller number of sales outlets who are almost always solely responsible for their promotion (publisher-sponsored book tours are rare unless you're already a bestseller...what kind of sense does that make?) Bookstores buy a few copies with the promise that if they don't sell, they can be returned (or, worse, in the case of paperbacks, stripped of its cover which is sent back, the rest of the book thrown away). Titles that don't sell fast enough are remaindered. I don't even want to see the dump that holds all that wasted paper.

The technology is out there, and has been for nearly twenty years: Print on Demand. Even, now, possible for hardcover books. The online bookstores get this. Why warehouse hundreds of thousands of pre-printed books and hope they find their market, when you can store the book as a file and print out a single copy at a time if needed? No remaindered copies. No fear of buying a book that doesn't sell fast enough to help pay the rent. A backlist that never goes out of print.

Which brings me back to Kindle and the e-pub future. I foresee the future to be books that are marketed largely through social networking and sampled and purchased largely online, whether in electronic or print format. So, for the bricks and mortar bookstores we still love to browse in, why not set up displays of e-readers where one can read a sample of a book and then choose to purchase it in the format of your choice?

Agree? Disagree?