Friday, March 31, 2006

True Grit Quiz

I rant a lot about how hard this business is to break into, and how it's even harder to succeed.

When people get the writing bug, it usually goes hand-in-hand with what I call "The Lottery Dream."

The Lottery Dream (TLD) is the fantasy that one day you'll be rich, famous, have movie deals, get on Oprah, and the world will finally realize what a genius you are.

All writers have TLD. Even bestsellers. But talent, hard work, and writing good books aren't enough for TLD to happen in reality. Luck still plays a part.

Some newbie writers convince themselves they don't have TLD. That they'd be perfectly content with no advance and a small print run, as long as they're published somewhere.

They are wrong. They'd be content, for a while, but human nature would demand they want more. That's how life works. Being satisfied is the same thing as being complacent, which is why you don't see many Buddhists running Fortune 500 companies.

The measure of a writer's grit is what finally makes them quit. At what point do you cry 'uncle' in your quest for TLD?

This quiz will tell you if you're in this for the long haul, or if your time would be better spent on some other more attainable goal.

True Grit Writing Quiz

  1. How long will you continue to try even if you don't succeed?
    a) Two years
    b) Five years
    c) Ten years
    d) I'll never give up
  2. How many rejections will you endure before you quit?
    a) 1-50
    b) 1-100
    c) 101-500
    d) I'll never quit

  3. How many unpublished books will you write before you stop writing?
    a) 1
    b) 2-5
    c) 6-10
    d) I'll never stop writing

  4. If you become published, how many hours will you spend promoting your work?
    a) 5 hours a week
    b) 10 hours a week
    c) 20 hours a week
    d) As many as it takes

  5. What are you willing to sacrifice in order to succeed?
    a) Hobbies
    b) Personal & vacation time
    c) Time with friends & family
    d) All of the above

  6. Why do you want to be a writer?
    a) Artistic expression
    b) Fame and notoriety
    c) Wealth
    d) This career chose you

  7. What is most important for writers?
    a) Talent
    b) Craft
    c) Luck
    d) Persistence

  8. How much will you compromise your integrity to sell a book?
    a) I won't ever compromise my integrity
    b) I'll only make editing changes if I agree with them
    c) I'll make most changes, but not all
    d) Pay me and I'll change anything

  9. If people hate you and your book, you'll:
    a) Be devastated and never write again
    b) Be upset, and try to please them by any means possible
    c) Shrug it off and keep doing what you want
    d) Try to understand their points and learn from your mistakes

  10. If you work your whole life but never get published, will you consider it:
    a) A waste of your life
    b) A disappointment, but at least you tried
    c) A bitter defeat
    d) A success, because you did it your way


If you answered "d" for most or all of the questions, it doesn't mean a damn thing. You might never become published or successful, no matter what you answered. But your chances are better than folks who answered a, b, and c.

If you answered "d" for five or more questions, here are four more questions for you:

  1. What is the difference between being stubborn and being persistent?
  2. What is the difference between being committed and being delusional?
  3. Is quitting an act of failure, or an act of self-awareness?
  4. In writing, is validation internal or external?

Later on I'll post my answers to these questions. Feel free to post your answers too.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Being Edited

I just got my edits back from my publisher, and it is taking me a few days to wrap my head around them.

The edits aren't major, but they do involve cutting some of my darlings--namely, jokes.

I HATE cutting humor. It's what makes my books different from most of the other thrillers out there.

But if humor gets in the way of the suspense, or of the story, then a cheap laugh isn't worth losing the suspension of disbelief.

That's what I'm trying to convince myself.

Being edited is very much like the stages of death. Let's recap:
  1. Denial - This isn't my book that's been cut to pieces, and I can't really be expected to make these ridiculous changes.
  2. Anger - How dare my editor think that this book is anything but pure gold? She's out of her mind.
  3. Bargaining - Okay, I'll cut these two pages, but let me keep the dog poop reference.
  4. Depression - I can't stand it, my book is being ruined. I can't face making these changes.
  5. Acceptance - Fine. I did everything you asked. And it turns out you were right all along.

I'm just getting over the depression phase, and am trying to work my way through the suggestions.

For those who have never been professionally edited, here's how it works. You get your manuscript back covered with red ink, and are expected to attend to every detail. In some cases, the editor tells you how to fix it (punctuation, grammar). In other cases, she offers 'suggestions.' They aren't really suggestions--they're expectations--but she'll suggest solutions to the proposed changes.

The hard part is when one thread gets pulled and the whole blanket unravels. One change can effect the story globally, causing ramifications later in the book that also need to be changed, which causes more problems, and so on.

In DIRTY MARTINI I've been advised that there is too much action in the first two days of the story, and it should be extended to three days. But when I do that, it throws off the whole timeframe, and I need to juggle scenes, write new scenes, and rewrite a lot of stuff.

I'm doing it, but it isn't a quick fix (like cutting jokes--but that really isn't a quick fix either because I languish over each cut.)

I'm sure I'll be thrilled with the end result--I always am. But plastic surgery is always painful, even if you look better after it is over.

So, I'm through whining, and I'm going to get these changes done right now.

Well, maybe one more day of whining first...

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Blogging 201

You might notice a few new items in the sidebar of this blog. Or you might not, because you aren't very observant. If that's the case, take a quick look.

First, I've made all of my previous blog posts accessible by title, so you don't have to go hunting through dates to find the info you're looking for.

Next, I've made it easier for people to subscribe to RSS feeds.

What's an RSS feed?

I'm glad you asked, because I only had an inkling of what they were until a few days ago. Fellow scribe Alphabeter patiently explained the whole RSS/XML/Atom business to me, and I found her so witty and informative that I asked if I could share her info with my readers.

So if you're looking to boost your blog traffic up to the next level, print out a copy of this guest blog entry, and then stop by Alphabeter's Blog to thank her in person--er, in cyberspace.


The "I don't want to look like an idiot" guide to Internet Syndication
by Alphabeter

If you are reading this, I am guessing you know how to read. But do you know how to use a Reader?

Let me throw a lot of terms at you. RSS. Atom. XML. Blogroll. Simple.

That last one hopefully caught your eye. I am going to try and explain how to get and read your favorite blogs, syndicated articles, and comics simply.

Feed Me Seymour

Firstly, the blog entry, article or comic sent out is called a feed. There are different kinds of feeds-Atom and RSS. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. RSS is based on XML, a standard for exchanging textual information between applications on the Internet. The current RSS is 2.0.

Because of opinions regarding the over-restrictions in 1.0 and the loose gaps in 2.0, several programmers branched off and created Atom. My personal preference is for Atom as it is easier to customize once you know what you want to do. Many blogs and websites only offer one kind of feed--for example, Blogspot only offers a full entry Atom.

What does that mean? With both Atom and RSS, there are several levels of feeds. They include: full entry, full entry with comments, excerpt, comments only, and index. Full entry is the entire blog post, article or item. Comments are the messages people add after the item is posted. Excerpt is an abbreviated entry. It can be the title and first few lines or an shortened entry specifically written for feed distribution. However, nearly every Reader can receive all the various feeds.

Read Me all night long

Now the Reader itself. If you want to collect and read feeds, there are many choices available depending on your computer's operating system. I use both Macintoshes and PCs, so I am going to try and be fair in covering all platforms. Whether you use Linux, Mac OS X, Windows 98, 2000, ME or XP (home or pro), there is a Reader for you. The main options are: a separate program, a browser build-in, or through a website. The laptop I am writing this on is a Gateway with a pentium 3 processor running Windows 98SE. I use Firefox 1.6 and a website Reader.

Separate programs

There are many desktop applications for Linux, Windows and Mac OS system users. Some are free and some charge for privilege.

Two quality free ones are RSSOwl (Mac OS X and Linux-Open Source) and Twins Web News (Windows; works like email client). Both require a few MG of installation space and must be running to update new feeds, but in my experience neither seems to have compatibility problems with the AVG, Semantic/Norton and/or Zone Alarm security programs.

Two that charge for what they claim is quicker access to popular feeds, special premium feeds and features are FeedDemon (Windows) and NetNewsWire (Mac OS X). Both have a small purchase price but dozens of feeds pre-loaded so you can explore the syndication "universe" right away.

Not all of these programs work on every variation of Windows and Linux. And the Mac ones often only work on OS X and up. Note the download requirements BEFORE installation!

Browser build-ins

These are extensions that can be added to the program you use to view websites to enable Reading within your browser like a webpage.

Firefox 1.0 and up (Windows and Linux) has several variations.

Internet Explorer 6 does not have this option. However, IE 7 Beta build has this ability.

Opera (Linux, Windows, Mac OS X) has varying abilities depending upon the platform.

Using a website to read feeds.

On my blog, I have a list of writing-related blogs I read daily or whenever they have new entries. It also includes a rolling blogroll javascript. Anyone can just go to my blog and click from there.

Another option is a website that is the Reader. This is called an aggregator. I personally use Bloglines. I give my email address, create a password and I can access it from any computer in the world with internet access. I can add any feed publicly available. On average I receive over 300 feeds a day. (Its addictive!)

Using Firefox, I can open entries in new tabs and bookmark items I want to save. IE will open in new windows, but can also save favorites for as long as they are on the web. For LiveJournal and other blogs with locked entries however, I need to go to their sites, enter my password, and read the entries there. Fortunately with (an online bookmark site) and Firefox, I can open these all in one window through tabbing.

Other aggregators include: NewsGator and My Yahoo.

Syndicating Your blog

How can you publish your own RSS Feed?

If you have a website or weblog, you can add RSS syndication as a publishing option. Some companies do this automatically. This depends entirely on how your site is served today. If you are using a hosted publishing tool like TypePad or Blogger, you probably already publish a feed. [] is the standard feed URL for blogs hosted on Blogspot/Blogger. It can be turned on or off in the dashboard control panel by the blog owner.

Investigate whether your provider's administration tools offer feed-related options or controls. Other types of websites and application platforms may require some programming skills in order to add RSS syndication capabilities. WordPress offers a free, multi-platform interface.

Once you have a feed established, you need to get it 'out there'. I joined several aggregators which added my feed to their directories. I also place their buttons on my blog so people finding it can easily add it to their Reader of choice. Google (You must have a google account), Pluck's Feed Finder and Syndic8 are just a few of them.

I hope this provides a simple overview of the basics. If you have any questions, comments or just want to send me your unpublished manuscript for a fee (KIDDING!!), feel free to drop by my blog anytime. I reserve the right to publish all dirty emails.


Thanks to Alphabeter for the info. Questions welcome.

And since we're on the topic of blogs and links, if you want to trade links, email me. If you already link to me and I haven't returned the favor, or if I promised to link to you and then forgot, let me know.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Talent and Craft, Luck and Persistence

Talent is something innate, and can't be taught. It's what makes you want to write, and gives you an advantage when learning craft. Those children I lectured to yesterday had talent, but unhoned talent won't get you published. It needs to be focused, refined, and directed. Talent alone won't make you successful.

Craft can be taught. Structure, format, conflict, hooks, characterization, style, tone, the machinations of the publishing business---this is all learned. And it can be learned, regardless of your aptitude or level of innate talent. Mastery of craft alone won't make you successful.

Luck is simply being in the right place at the right time, and actually is the most important factor not only in writing, but in life. Every important event in your life can be traced to something beyond your control. Your birth. Your friendships. Your family. Your jobs. Other people and things had to happen for you to exist, for you to be who you are. Luck alone will not make you successful.

Persistence, like craft, can be learned. While you can't control luck, you can improve your chances at success by continuing to write, learn, and submit. Persistence alone will not make you successful.

In my experience, writers place too much value on talent, not enough value on craft, give luck too little weight, and often use persistence as an excuse not to improve craft.

While you can't control talent or luck, you can keep improving as a writer, keep writing, and keep submitting.

It's still no guarantee you'll succeed, but it is the way that most writers have succeeded.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

For the Children (and the Adults)

I spoke at a Jr. High this morning, to a group of about 30 kids who want to be writers when they reach adulthood.

Here are the main points I hit, which don't only apply to young writers, but to all writers struggling to make it in this business.

  • Write when you can, finish what you write, and submit what you finish.
  • Know your genre and your market before you begin writing.
  • Avoid passive voice.
  • Show, don't tell.
  • Use proper manuscript format.
  • You can't learn from praise, but you can learn from criticism.
  • Luck is more important than talent, but you can improve your luck with hard work.
  • Pay attention to white space on a page; more is better.
  • You need an agent if you're writing novels.
  • If you write short stories or poetry, you don't need an agent. You'll also starve.
  • This is a business, and a very hard business.
  • Most of your future writing teachers won't be successful authors, and you can learn more about this business on your own (writing and submitting) than in school.
  • Conferences are good.
  • Money flows to the writer---never pay for anything (except for conferences).
  • Query letters need a greeting (Dear Ms. Jones), sucking up (I love your magazine), a brief description of the story, and a closing (hope to hear from you soon) and NOTHING ELSE.
  • Read a lot.

I also did some critiques of their stories, and explaned the difference between storytelling (they were all good storytellers) and salable writing (it's not what you say but how you say it.)

When I left, I felt pretty good about the future of this profession. These kids were anxious to discuss The DaVinci Code, and James Frey, and Eragon, and they really wanted to become writers when they grew up. They took criticism well, and were willing to work hard to improve their craft. In fact, they seemed to have a lot more dedication than I did as a 12 year old.

As technology gives us more (and cheaper) way to entertain ourselves, I don't think books are in any danger of disappearing. I'm happy to report that the insatiable desire to read and to write is alive and well in the youth of today, and that the writer is every bit as important now as when I was growing up.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Twelve Things Writers Won't Ever Admit To

There are a lot of unspoken aspects of a writer's life---things we don't admit to because it will make us look bad.

Since I gave up scruples for Lent (I also gave up Catholicism), I'll share the things that no one else will share. Here's the list in no particular order:

1. Answering fan mail is a drag. Sure, when we first got started we loved to hear from fans. But after the thousandth letter of someone proclaiming their love, we begin to cut and paste our responses (Thanks so much for writing!) Yes, I know this sounds sucky and ungrateful. But at least I still answer all of my fan mail---lots of big shots have a website moderator do it for them.

2. We hate being edited. Writers will say that they love a good editor, but none of us actually believes the editor knows better. We listen, because we have to, but we think we got it right the first time and that we don't require any rewrites or tweaking. That's why, when we become bestsellers, we refuse to be edited.

3. We think our last book is better than the one that won that award. Even if we weren't on the final ballot. Even if we weren't nominated. Even if we write in an entirely different genre.

4. We don't read every book we blurb. Some writers don't even write the blurbs--they let the author who asked for the blurb write the blurb.

5. We think #1 NYT Bestsellers are crap, and that our own books aren't on the NYT List because we refused to sell out, because our publishing house didn't do enough, or because the readers are stupid. We also resent Oprah, but in public talk about how much she does for the publishing world.

6. We say snide things behind each other's backs. There's gossip, rumor mongering, and pettiness, and we badmouth people that we call our friends. Especially if they are award winners or #1 NYT bestsellers.

7. We envy each other. If an author gets a movie deal, a huge advance, a big tour, a magazine spread, we're incredibly jealous because we feel we deserved it, not them. Then we hide our feelings behind well wishes, and say snide things behind their backs.

8. We all have a martyr complex, believing that writing is an heroic, impossible profession, and that our tremendous intestinal fortitude is the reason we're professionals. That, and our natural talent. Oh yeah, we're also all egomaniacs.

9. We all have a sense of entitlement. We expect to be treated better than the average Joe, to be catered to, to be fawned over. The higher we climb, the more prima donna we become.

10. We're all constantly afraid that the world will realize we're frauds, and it will all be taken away from us. Our careers are precarious, fragile things, and we know this all too well, but we hide that fear behind bluster and bravado and say things like, "That book flopped because the author didn't try hard enough" when we all know that but for the grace of God go I.

11. We blame our publishers, our editors, and our agents, when our careers aren't going well, but take all of the credit when they are going well.

12. We secretly think that 99% of all newbie writers aren't good enough to make it. But we also think that 99% of all professional writers aren't good enough either.


All of these things don't apply to all writers, but some of these apply to all writers. Even if they vehemently deny it.

And I want to go on the record and say that ABSOLUTELY NONE OF THIS APPLIES TO ME. I'm just relating what I've seen and heard. I'm a kind-hearted, giving writer who loves everybody and everything about this profession.

As far as you know.

Anyone else want to admit to some unpleasantness inherent in this business? Feel free to post anonymously...

Friday, March 17, 2006

Money Money Money

Every profession has salary differences.

I have a friend in a management position in a non-writing job, and he knew the man who held the position prior to him, and how much he made.

They offered him 10k less.

He was angry. After all, he was doing the same job, and was even more qualified. But he took the job regardless, because it was a promotion, and he didn't want to let an opportunity pass him by.

Ten grand is a lot of money, but that number is nothing compared to the differences that writers get paid.

The average advance for a novel is five thousand bucks, and has been for as long as I've heard statistics being bandied around. This average includes all of the micro presses who don't offer advances, along with the megabestsellers who make seven figures per book.

I've also heard other stats.

  • Only a few hundred people in the world make their sole income writing fiction.
  • Once you're in a "salary bracket" you can be stuck there for book after book unless your sales explode---or your sales plummit
  • Only 1 out of 5 books earn out their advance and pay royalties.
  • Bigger advances (generally) mean more support in-house.
  • Advances can vary wildly (as much as 1000%) within the same imprint.

No writer gets into this business for the money, because the money isn't good. There's a business rule called The 20% of the 20% (or something similar). It states:

The top twenty percent in any profession makes as much money as the other eighty percent. And of that twenty percent, the top twenty percent makes as much as the other eighty percent. And so on.

That's why Stephen King makes six million per book, and you make five thousand. Welcome to the Arts.

So what does this mean to you, the writer?

At first, it means nothing. You write for the joy of writing, and publication is its own reward.

I used to think, "All I want is to see my name in print, then I'll be happy."

And it did make me happy. It still does. But now, all I want is to be able to stop living off credit cards, stop spending so much money self-promoting, stop devoting 90% of my time to the business end of this career rather than the writing end of this career. And a Porsche. Or even a used Mustang.

Once you're published, you're going to want (in no particular order) more money, a bigger print run, movie deals, more publicity, more advertising, a tour, cover input, etc.

The more money you're paid, the more money the publisher has to spend to make sure they don't lose out on their investment. You want the big advance, because it shows that your publisher is behind you.

But beware the other end of the spectrum; big advance, big promotional campaign, and poor sales. That will likely be the last big advance you ever get.

So what does the writer need to do?

  1. Your main goal is to make the same amout or more as your last deal.
  2. To make the same amount or more, be prepared to spend a lot of your advance on self-promotion.
  3. Make sure you earn out your advance. You can, with hustle.
  4. Don't expect jumps in salary that aren't justified by sales.
  5. Don't expect to write full time unless you have a spouse who works or you know how to budget your money.
  6. Don't think that money isn't important; it's VERY important. Publishing is a business, and it's all about the red and the black.
  7. Writers don't normally discuss money with each other. If you do find out that one of your peers is making ten times what you are making (or ten times less) avoid the envy or the gloating. Your competition isn't with your fellow writers; it is with yourself.
  8. Get a good accountant.
  9. Don't expect instant returns on your self-promotion investment. It's not like day trading, where you can spend $300 on a conference and expect to sell 100 books to make your money back. This is more like buying mutual funds that will grow years from now. If you want to reap, you have to sow.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Parlez vous French?

I just received a bunch of copies of the Francais edition of WHISKEY SOUR.

If you know someone who speaks the language, drop me an email and I'll send one to you.

Monday, March 13, 2006

What Makes a Good Blog

You've got a blog but Sarona, Wisconsin--population 7--gets more traffic. Why aren't people visiting? Why aren't they commenting?

Here are some blog dos and don'ts to help you boost your blogrisma.

  1. Content is King. It's what brings people back. It's what draws new readers through search engines. If you share important information, experience, and wisdom, you'll build a readership. Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind is great one-stop-shopping for everything happening in the mystery world, and it is wildly popular as a result.
  2. Lists, Tests, and Bullet Points. A text-heavy blog is a turn of. Pay attention to negative space. People like to absorb information in bite-size pieces. The easier it is to digest and read, the more return visits you'll have.
  3. Stay Focused. Stick to one topic per entry, and make sure this topic is different from previous topics so your readership doesn't get bored. What is the reason for your blog? Do you have a reason? Tess Gerritsen blogs about the ups and downs of being a bestselling thriller author. She doesn't water down her content with opinions about last night's episode of the Sopranos, lists of her favorite foods, meme tags, or life stories unrelated to publishing.
  4. Ask Questions. A blog isn't a monologue. The best ones ask questions to provoke feedback. First Offenders is very good at this. Solicit opinions, ask for input and advice, and people will offer it.
  5. Be Friendly. This is the community watering hole, and you are the bartender. Be welcoming, friendly, and accommodating. Answer questions, be polite, and be genuinely glad people have shown up.
  6. Be Controversial. Arguing is good. Disagreement is good. As long as everyone remains civil, encourage debate. Lee Goldberg walks the line between entertaining, informative, and controversial, and his traffic shows it.
  7. Link to Other Blogs. Go to and sign up for free. It will let you see where your traffic is coming from. This is often an eye-opening experience. The more sites that link to you, the more hits you'll get. If you want to see who is alreayd linking to you, visit
  8. Free Stuff. Periodically hold contests or give away free things. Everyone loves free things.
  9. Keep Yourself Out of It. Unless the focus of your blog is your personal life, your personal life doesn't have much of a place in a blog. My focus is about the publishing business. As such, I don't blog about my children. In contrast, Melanie Lynne Hauser writes books about a single mother who becomes a super hero after a horrible Swiffer accident. Melanie is constantly blogging about her family because her books are all about family.
  10. Strive for Perfection. An occasional typo is harmless. Every other word spelled wrong is annoying. Most blogs have Spellcheck. Use it.
  11. Limit Self-Promotion. Sure, I hope everyone who reads my blog runs out and buys a copy of Whiskey Sour (or clicks on the Four Pack of Jack link to the right--four stories for only 49 cents!) But if you do this all the time you've become a commercial, not a blog. MJ Rose's blog is about self promotion, so she occasionally uses her own books as examples. But she also uses many other examples. Which brings me to the last point.
  12. No Blog is an Island. Besides linking to other blogs, you should reference other blogs in your blog entries. We're all in the same writing community boat, and giving shout-outs to your peers is classy and helpful. I encourage everyone reading this to check out the blogs I've mentioned in this article. And if you find them to be helpful, informative, or entertaining, consider buying their books.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Wine Me, Dine Me, 69 Me

Jerry Peterson, over at Tuesdays with Story, challenged me to write a complete story in 69 words. They have a bunch of them posted on their site, including mine:


How long? Three days? Four?
No light. No water or food. The closet door is thick. Solid. He's banged on it until he bleeds.
This isn't punishment. It's murder.
He cries. No tears come out. Dehydration.
"Please open up." Voice hoarse, raw. "I promise I won't do it again. I'm sorry."
The small, precious reply:
"You haven't learned your lesson yet. Be brave. That's what you tell me, Daddy."


That took me about five minutes---three to write, and two to edit down to 69.

Think it's easy? It's not. But it's a great excersise that makes you appreciate the value of every word---something you should be doing with ALL of your longer work.

Post your 69 word epic here, and let me know how long it took. The best story gets a signed Advance Reading Copy of RUSTY NAIL.

Contest ends at 11:59pm on March 11, Central time.

Good luck!

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A Newbie's Guide to Writing Conferences

For those who don't know, there's a wonderful mystery magazine called Crimespree that Jon and Ruth Jordan publish six times a year.

Each issue is crammed full of good stuff: Fiction, articles, pictures, reviews, and lots more. I've written a few things for them, one of which was released in a limited collector's edition for the Love is Murder conference.

I believe that writing humor is harder than horror, action, romance, suspense, or mystery. Let me know if I succeeded with this:


The Newbie’s Guide to Writing Conferences

Every year there are dozens of writing conferences. If you’re a fan of mysteries and thrillers, 2006 brings you Love is Murder in Chicago, Sleuthfest in Ft. Lauderdale, Bouchercon in Madison, Thrillerfest in Phoenix, Left Coast Crime in Bristol, Men of Mystery in Los Angeles, Magna Cum Murder in Muncie, and a slew of others, many of which suck.

What can you expect when you attend a writing convention? How can you make sure you get your money’s worth? Will you get a chance to corner David Morrell and ask him to blurb your new manuscript, “The Speech Impediment Murdererererer”? (David loves this, by the way. Try to approach him when he's eating, or in the bathroom.)

Reading this short article will fully prepare you for anything a conference has to offer. It might even save your life.

REGISTRATION - If possible, buy your conference pass in advance. Bring proof of your registration to the event (a Paypal receipt, a copy of the letter saying you’ve been confirmed, your hard drive) because there’s a 90% chance your registration was lost, and the people running the conference will have no idea who you are. A much easier, and cheaper, tactic is to simply buy a nametag and a black marker. Stick it on your chest when no one is looking, and you’re in.

THE HOTEL - If possible, stay at the hotel. After the days’ events are through, there are always exclusive parties where you can get free food and drink and meet cool people. You won’t get invited to these parties, but you can hang out in the hallway with your ear to the door, and listen to J.A. Konrath make a fool of himself. Actually, you probably won’t need to put your ear to the door to hear that. J.A.’s pretty loud.

WHAT TO WEAR - The fashionable conference-goer wears business casual. Comfortable shoes are a must, because you’ll be walking a lot. A book bag is a great accessory. Not only can it hold books, but also an emergency fifth of vodka (do you really want to pay $9 for a martini at the hotel bar?)

AUTHOR SIGHTING - Imagine it: You’re in the lobby, putting the cap back on your vodka, and suddenly William Kent Krueger appears out of nowhere. Do you just run up to him, squealing like a schoolgirl, and beg him to sign your paperback copy of IRON LAKE that you’ve read 36 times, the last time aloud to your pet parakeet that you named Cork O’Connor? The answer: NO! Kent is a bigshot author, and they all hate signing paperbacks. Go to the bookroom and buy a hardcover first edition. When you approach him, make sure it’s on your hands and knees, because you are not worthy. Address him as “Mr. Krueger” or “Sir” or “Your Highness.” And NEVER make direct eye contact. He’s far too important to look at you.

In contrast, if you spot David Ellis, feel free to bring him your paperback copy of LINE OF VISION. Dave will be thrilled to sign that. He’ll also sign other authors’ books, cocktail napkins, food products, and basically anything but the check.

PANELS - If you’re an author, you need to speak on a panel. But it’s too late to sign up for one now, bonehead. They’ve already printed the programs. If you are on a panel, there’s only one important rule to follow: Make sure you’re on a panel with Barry Eisler. Barry is the one with the gaggle of drooling women following him around, hoping he’ll suddenly keel over so they’ll get to administer CPR. Don’t expect anyone to remember a single thing you’ve said when you’re on a panel with Barry, but at least you’ll be speaking to a packed room.

FOOD - Conference food is usually barely edible, but it’s expensive to compensate. That’s why all of the popular authors usually go out to eat at the trendiest restaurant in the area. It’s very easy to get invited to one of these exciting outings, where industry gossips flows fast and loose, and Barry often takes his shirt off and dances the lambada—the dance of love. If you want to go along, all you have to do is write a NYT Bestseller. If you haven’t done that, then you’re stuck with the hotel food. Be sure to try the potato salad. Is that potato salad? It might be rice pudding. Or lamb. Or a big dish of pus.

ITINERARY - There are many things to see at a conference, and often you’ll be tortured by the dilemma of two good panels happening at the same time, and no idea which to attend. The answer is easy: Attend both of them. Authors love seeing scores of people leave the room while they are talking–they believe they’re being so effective, the crowd is rushing out to buy their book. Try to do this five or six times per hour, and make sure you open and close the doors extra loudly. Also, take that extra time between panels to talk on your cell phone. If your conversation carries on into the panel room—it’s okay. His Higness Krueger will forgive you.

WHERE ARE THE AUTHORS? - You’ve been trying desperately to get Robert W. Walker’s autograph, but he’s been missing in action for two days. Where is he? He’s in the hotel bar. In fact, all of the authors are in the hotel bar. If you want to spot your favorite, arrive early while they’re still coherent. In Rob’s case, I challenge you to figure out when that is.

THE BOOKROOM - This is the most important room in the whole conference. Here, you’ll find all of the books by all of the authors in attendance, expect for the one book you truly want to buy. They’ll be out of that one. But don’t worry, there will be plenty of pristine, unsold, unread copies of WHISKEY SOUR. Plenty of them.

BARGAIN HUNTER TIP - All the paperbacks in the bookroom are free if you simply rip off the cover beforehand! Don’t be bashful–the booksellers love it!

ETTIQUETTE - It’s during one of the delicious buffet-style meals. You’ve got your plate piled high with something that might be meat in gravy, and you’re searching for a place to eat and see an empty chair between Judith Guest and Libby Fischer Hellmann. Do you dare ask to sit there? In a word, NO! That seat belongs to someone a lot more important than you are. Go sit by Jon and Ruth Jordan, who publish this magazine. Always plenty of chairs around them. The surrounding tables are usually free too.

ATTENDEES - Conferences are a great place to meet new people who share common interests. They’re also a great place to get abducted by some weirdo and killed with a blowtorch. Wise convention goers avoid talking to anyone else, at all times. Try to keep some kind of weapon on you. They sell $59 letter openers in the hotel gift shop, right next to the $42 tee shirts and the $12 bottled water. If you’re an author, save the receipt—it’s deductible.

Or try carrying around a plate piled high with that stuff they served at lunch–the stuff in the gravy. That way, if someone tries to assault you, you can say, “Hey! I’m eating!”

AWARDS - At most conferences, the writers like to congratulate themselves by giving each other awards. They usually do this over a nine course meal that takes eleven hours, and a cash bar that charges so much for a Budweiser you’ll need to put it on lay-away. Be sure to congratulate the lucky winners. It’s also a lot of fun to go up to the losers and congratulate them for winning, and then pretend to be confused when they tell you they’ve actually lost. Do this two or three times to the same loser. They’ll start to find it funny, eventually.

CONCLUSION - Remember, if you want to have a good conference, that responsibility rests squarely on one person’s shoulders—the person running the conference. Be sure to complain about every little thing, at any given time, even if it’s something they can’t fix such as, “The carpet is too soft” or “Robert W. Walker touched me inappropriately” or “I hear voices in my head.” Demand a refund. Threaten to contact an attorney. And above all, remember to have fun.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Conventions, Panels, & You

I've been to a lot of conventions, and I've been on a lot of panels. I've seen writers excel at their panel gigs, and I've seen writers fail miserably.

A panel is a valuable opportunity to shine. Giving good panel will help fans remember you and your brand, which will lead to selling books.

Barry Eisler has some guidelines for moderating panels, and I agree with his points. Many of these apply to being a panelist as well, but not all of them.

Here then is a Panelist's manifesto.

1. Be able to describe your book or series in 20 seconds or less. Whatever topic your panel is about, the ultimate reason you're at this conference is to self-promote. This is your chance to pitch the book to potential readers. Here's my pitch:

"My name is JA Konrath, and I write the Lt. Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels thriller series. The books are scary, like James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell, but funny like Evanovich and Dave Barry."

That's all you need. More than that, you'll lose your audience.

2. Once you've pitched your book, stop pitching your book. After you do your 20 second sound byte, stop trying to sell. Your job is to be entertaining. Focus on that. If a question directly pertains to one of your books, that's fine. If you want to make a point using one of your books, that's fine. But less is more. If you ramble too much about your books, the audience will lose interest.

3. Be funny. If you can't be funny, be brief. Studies have shown that if you can't get to the point in ten seconds, you've already lost your audience. (These studies were conducted by me, watching innumerable panels.) The audience is interested in your answers, but only if those answers are entertaining. When you're on a panel, you're on stage. That means you're meant to perform. If you don't do well in front of an audience, let brevity be the true essence of wit.

4. About that brevity thing. Sometimes your answers may tend to run long. Try to curtail this. You think you're more interesting than you actually are. There can be anywhere from three to ten other panelists, and they all deserve equal time---don't infringe upon theirs.

5. Speak like a professional. Make sure you're loud enough so everyone can hear you. Avoid speech hesitations like um, ah, and uh. Sit up straight. Make eye contact with as many people in the audience as you can. Smile. Laugh. You should only speak if you have something to enhance the conversation. Many writers feel they have to get "their time in." If that time is boring, they're doing more harm than good.

6. Engage the audience. Public speaking isn't a monologue; it's a dialog where half of the conversation (the audience) isn't very vocal. But give and take is happening. You want your audience to be responsive, to show their interest through body language. Do the people look bored? Get them to pay attention. Is someone burning to ask a question? Stop talking and let them ask it. Pay attention to their reactions and responses. Your responses won't be remembered, but your enthusiasm will be. Be confidant, not cocky. Before a panel, I try to shake the hand of everyone in the audience, and hand out a signed coaster. This gets them on my side before I say word one.

7. Look professional. Dress for success. Appearance means a lot. Business casual or nicer. Pay attention to how you're sitting, and what you're doing, the entire time you're on the panel, even if you're not the one speaking.

8. Know the topic, don't read the topic. You will be asked to appear on panels that have nothing to do with your books. This happens. When it does, you need to prepare beforehand and make sure you have something interesting to say about this topic. But DO NOT READ YOUR ANSWER! It's okay to have notes, but once you start speaking, you must never refer to those notes. Reading is not engaging. Glancing down at a piece of paper is distracting to the audience.

9. Talk when you need to talk, but otherwise wait your turn. When the moderator, a panelist, or an audience member asks you something, you should always respond, but the length of the response should depend on if you truly have something to say about the topic. Just because you have the chance to speak does not mean you should speak. Passing off questions to other people on the panel who might be better suited to answer them is a classy move. Interrupting other panelists constantly with your monologues is bad bad bad.

10. Interrupt when needed. Sometimes a panelist is monopolizing the panel, and the moderator isn't doing anything about it. Sometimes someone says something that screams for a response or a joke. Remember why you're there: to entertain. If you have a joke, say it. If you disagree with someone, start a polite argument then and there. It makes panels more interesting, and more fun. Lee Goldberg is brilliant with one liners, and he always makes the panel fun. David Morrell isn't afraid to disagree with his fellow panelists, and this always makes the discussion more entertaining and exciting.

11. Help the moderator. Sometimes your moderator will suck. If the ship is sinking because the captain is incompetent, do something or you'll go down with the ship. Start asking questions of your fellow panelists, or of the audience. Interrupt the moderator if she's talking too much about herself, reading bios or questions, seems ill-prepared, can't keep the discussion going, or is otherwise crashing and burning. Also, if the moderator doesn't say anything about herself (when I moderate, I rarely even introduce myself) it's a classy move to ask the moderator some occasional questions. If another panelist isn't getting a chance to speak, ask her questions to get her to speak. If another panelist is rambling, stop it somehow.

12. Bring copy of your book with you. Many in the audience won't know you, or your books. Having your book next to you will help them find it when they're back in the dealer room. It's subtle, subconscious brand reinforcement, and it links your face to your cover.

13. Stick around. If you did well, people will approach you after the panel has ended. They'll ask follow-up questions, bring you things to sign, or just want to shake your hand and tell you how much they enjoyed it. Bask in this, and thank them for coming. Also thank the moderator if they did a good job.

14. Get feedback. The best way to know how you did is to watch a videotape of it. You can learn a lot watching yourself. The next best way is to ask a member of the audience whom you trust. Ask how you could improve. Don't settle for less than the truth. We learn from criticism, not praise.

Remember that facts and opinions aren't interesting. Personality, humor, and conflicts are interesting.

You're there to sell, but you shouldn't be selling, you should be entertaining. And if you're entertaining, you'll wind up selling.


I'm planning on sticking this manifesto up on my website, and I'd like to hear some comments/additions/disagreements. Many of you have done panels, and watched panels, both good ones and bad ones. Am I missing anything?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Liability and Responsibility

While I don't consider my books to be subversive, dangerous, or inciteful, I have noticed that I've written about some things that perhaps should have remained unwritten about.

In WHISKEY SOUR, I explain how to put fish hooks and needles into Halloween candy.

In BLOODY MARY, I explain how to beat a lie detector.

In RUSTY NAIL, I explain how it's possible to break out of prison.

And now, in DIRTY MARTINI, I go into detail about how to poison food products and make explosives.

On one hand, I want the books to be realistic. I write about things that interest me, and I think that these bits of 'forbidden' information make the story more compelling.

On the other hand, I'd be mortified if some psycho used my books as a blueprint for their own sick crimes.

I justify my forays into criminal explanations by rationalizing that:
  1. The information is already available on the Internet, in books, in movies, etc.
  2. Sickos are going to commit crimes anyway, no matter what the inspiration.
  3. It's doubtful disturbed individuals are reading my books when there's a wealth of prurient material already out there to indulge in.

Ridley Pearson's wonderful book HARDFALL was about some terrorists who fly a plane into the White House, years before 9/11. Clancy had a similar concept in one of his books.

Did the terrorists use these books as blueprints? We may never know. But if they did, are the writers to blame?

There was a big lawsuit involving the HOW TO BE A HITMAN book from Paladin Press, when this was found among the items of an actual assassin. Paladin lost, and had to pay big bucks.

With DIRTY MARTINI, I'm considering putting a disclaimer at the back of the book, telling would-be sickos that if they tried some of the things mentioned, it wouldn't work out as I've described.

What do you think? In an age where you can get any type of information on the Internet, are there still some things that shouldn't be written about? Should writers self-censor?

Outlines, Writer's Block, and Motivation

There are a few universal truths for writers.
  1. There's always something else to do other than write.
  2. Forcing yourself to write is easier said than done.
  3. Writing is easier if you have a game plan.

Writers are motivated by different things, but motivation often isn't enough to get the words down on paper. Every writer struggles with the blank page, at some point in their life. Doubt creeps in, the words just don't come, there are other things that need to get done, the deadline is looming, the story doesn't work, so why bother.

If you never played the game of baseball before, and you were put onto the field without knowing what the heck you were doing, it doesn't matter how much determination or enthusiasm or talent you have; you won't do well.

It's the same thing with writing. Knowing what you're doing is just as important as doing in. And the easiest way to know what you're doing is to come up with a plan.

For novels, the plan I use is an outline.

When you have a multi-book deal, you'll need to turn in outlines. It's specified in your contract. Money is portioned out to you in lump sums. You get paid upon signing the contract, upon turning in an outline, and upon turning in the next book. And your editor must approve the outline before you begin working on the book.

This is only the case for Book #2 and beyond. Your first book doesn't require an outline. No one will ask for one--not editors, not agents.

But an outline is still a useful tool to help you finish Book #1. First of all, it helps you know where the story is going, so you don't run into dead ends or run out of steam. It can help you find the slow spots in your narrative, it's much easier to add scenes and characters to an outline than a novel-in-progress, and it helps you focus on the craft of the story, as opposed to the art of writing.

An outline is also extremely helpful when it comes to motivation. Once the story is down on paper (in outline form) all you need to do is add the bells and whistles; the action, dscription, and dialog. You don't need to worry about what happens next because you already know. That frees up your mind to create characters and settings and scenes without having to wonder if the book is working, or if there's enough conflict.

I've never really understood writer's block, because I've never had it. I know it is part psychological and part motivational, sort of like being on that baseball field, knowing you have to perform, but not knowing how to get the job done.

Here's the thing; if you already have a template, you don't need motivation, and you don't get blocked. It's like painting by numbers.

What is an outline does is offer you a template. You simply need to fill in the color.

My outlines are very detailed. They run between 30 and 40 pages. I go chapter by chapter, and list who is in each scene, what information needs to be revealed, and what the conflict is.

I write outlines in present tense, and give each chapter a paragraph or two. If you're interested, here's the outline for BLOODY MARY as a download.

Q: How long does it take to write an outline?

A: Outlines are hard. They require a lot of thought, because you're plotting the entire book--every scene, every twist, every dramatic moment. It usually takes me a solid week of 8 hour days to knock out a forty page outline. But once I do it, writing the book is easy, because I already got all of the hard stuff out of the way.

Q: Do you use action or dialog in the outline?

A: Sometimes. It's sort of like describing a movie to your friends. Sometimes you quote dialog. Sometimes you mime some action. But the thrust of it is "What Happens Next?"

Q: Do you ever deviate from the outline?

A: All the time. A book is organic, and can change dramatically. Don't be afraid of that. An outline is a basic frame, but it's pliable. It's much easier to take a book in a different direction if you know your ultimate destination, and an outline helps remind you of that. It also keeps you focused, and allows you to bang out a few pages of manuscript even when the muse isn't around.

Q: Will your editor get angry if the book changes from outline to finished novel, especially since she had to approve of the outline?

A: Not as long as you're keeping the essence of the material.

Q: How detailed do you have to get?

A: The more detailed the outline, the easier it is to write the book. Some authors turn in a ten page outline, which is fine. But they usually do more sweating when the deadline looms closer.

Q: Isn't it harder to write a good outline than it is to write a good book?

A: No. The outline doesn't have to be perfect. When you turn it in, you aren't expected to make your editor laugh, or move her to tears. You're just showing her blueprints of your boat, and she's just checking to make sure it will float when built.

Q: Are there any good books on outlining?

A: Probably. I've never looked. I think most writers know about dramatic structure. In my books, I try to keep raising the stakes, constantly introduce conflict (both internal and external) , and make sure the chapters end on a high note so the reader wants to keep reading. Each scene has to have a point, a reason for existing. It has to fufill some kind of purpose--reveal clues, enhance character, add suspense, raise tension, ratched up the conflict. If a scene does several of these things, it's a really good scene. This is much easier to spot in an outline than in a book.

Q: Should I outline?

A: If you ever sign a multi book deal, you'll be required to outline, so you might as well start now. But don't worry about turning in an outline for a first novel---the agent and editor wants to see a finished book, not an outline.