Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Human Element

In this blog I’ve discussed several facets of the publishing business – submissions, editing, marketing and more.  But one part of our business that I haven’t gotten into is more ephemeral and harder to define. For want of a better term, I’m calling this side of the business the human element.

It is true that writing is both a skill and an art, while publishing is a business. But a publisher is more than a venture capitalist, investing in the potential value of a product.  That is because a publisher doesn’t simply invest in a book.  He also invests in the author, and dealing with the artistic temperament of a creative fiction writer is often much more challenging than dealing with that writer’s work.

For example, editing is the process through which good manuscripts become great manuscripts. At Intrigue Publishing, like most small presses, that process is collaborative.  Professional editors know how to improve pace, strengthen characters, and fill plot holes. But only the author knows how to present his theme, establish the chosen atmosphere and preserve her own voice. We want to end up with the best book possible, but we never want to take the book away from the writer.  Better to let the book and the writer go than to have an unhappy or bitter author in our stable.

The same applies to cover design.  Our job is to create a book cover that will get a reader’s attention, express the book’s genre and tone, and prompt the reader to pick that book up. But authors feel, often very strongly, that what matters is that their cover represents their story accurately.  So for many writers it can’t be a great cover if it depicts a scene that doesn’t actually occur in the book, if characters are facing each other who don’t meet in their story, or if the heroine is wearing a gown she would never wear.  This type of thing may not matter much to the big six publishers (or are there only five now?) but we don’t want to have one of our authors out there promoting their book but hating the cover.

Every press is bound to make decision an author doesn’t favor (we’ve debated the font, page layout and even chapter heads with writers) but we consider every choice carefully and always stand ready to explain why a writer’s preference isn’t followed.  We must never forget that it takes a special person to create a novel others will want to read, and that the publishing industry really rests on that human element.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

There is a handful of questions that every published author hears from time to time.  One of the most frequent is, “Where do you get your ideas?”  I usually give some smart aleck response like, “Over at Ideas-R-Us” or “Aisle 4 at Costco – cuz I need a lot of ideas.” If the actual question is, “Where do you get your ideas from?” I might say, “From behind the preposition at the end of that sentence.”  But today I’ll try to actually answer that query.

THE NEWS – Most of the ideas for  my crime novels and short stories come from newspapers and television newscasts.  Despite their efforts to be objective, reporters can’t help but present some theories about crimes they report on.  Whenever I hear that I like to play a “what if” game.  What if that isn’t what happened at all?  What if there’s a totally different motive? What if the witness (the arresting officer, the spouse) is lying?  Then I spin a story from that.  And it doesn’t have to be a crime story.  Sometimes a creative journalist will report on someone just doing something weird or unexplained.  I can make up a reason for the person to have base jumped from a city building or started a flash mob in the Metro that relates to a crime.

OTHER WRITERS – Sometimes another writer and I will brainstorm story ideas.  This can be a lot of fun, each reacting to the other’s plot points with a lively, “and then THIS might happen” or, “but at the same time, across town THIS is going on.”  We might leave that conversation with a clear story in mind, but the result is always that we go home and end up writing two very different stories that happen to take off from the same place.  This can even happen when I’m reading someone else’s story.  I might get to a point and say, “No no no… THAT’S not what happens next…” and then I’m off on a story all my own.

YOU – Story ideas often come up in unrelated conversations with friend and fans, and not even always in person.  For example, in trying to be both funny and provocative, I posted this on Facebook recently:

“Why is a school zone 20 mph? That seems like the optimal cruising speed for pedophiles...”

Well, it did turn out to be a conversation starter, but among the responses was a friend’s post with evidence that the low speed limit might actually help stop the bad guys.  It was a news story with this headline: Teens Chase Kidnapping Suspect on Bikes, save5-year old girl.  Two teenage boys are being hailed as heroes after they chased a car carrying a kidnapped girl… on their bicycles.  Depending on your audience it may or may not matter that the teens were African American and the little girl was white.  But really… with a little imagination I could pull half a dozen good stories out of that little report.  Couldn't you?

So that’s where I get MY story ideas.  How about you?  AND, if you’re a writer, what common questions do YOU get?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Wind Up... And the Pitch!

Yesterday at the Books Alive! Writer’s conference I saw a large crowd of hopeful writers lined up to present their work to a roomful of agents in five-minute sessions. But before that, a panel of agents talked about how they would like to be pitched to.  A live pitch is not the same as a written submission, but like submission letters there are definite things agents prefer, and I took some notes about what those are.

 The agents all agreed that the writer should start with the raw data they need to decide if the book being pitched is one they want to work with.  For fiction that means the length, the genre, and the fact that it is complete.  For a nonfiction book agents want to know the author has written a solid proposal.
 
After that, the agent wants to hear an elevator pitch.  And they don’t want you to read a prepared pitch to them.  They want you to talk to them, so that the pitch can develop into a conversation.  They don’t want all the details of the book, just a couple of minutes of the plot or idea, so they will have time to ask questions and discuss the book with you.
 
One agent said that writers should lead with their strength in a pitch.  In other words, if you have a past publishing history mention it right away.  If the book is the result of a particular inspiration, say so up front.  If the plot is the strongest point you have to offer, rush straight to that.
 
Writers were also advised to have comparison titles.  It’s good to say, “This book will appeal to the readers of [popular book.] and [popular book.]”  And if your nonfiction book would fill a hole in the marketplace that is important to share. 
 
One agent cautioned fiction writers to only talk about the most important characters in their story.  If more than three character names are mentioned, the agent could get lost in the cast, and more importantly, you could give the agent the sense that the book isn’t sufficiently focused.
 
One tip I thought was particularly valuable was that writers should avoid “basket words,” that is, words that might carry a lot of different meanings.  Don’t just say the heroine is beautiful – different people will have different pictures of beauty – but instead describe HOW she is beautiful.
 
And if any agents, publishers or successful authors are reading this, how about sharing your ideas I may have missed.  What else can help new writers succeed in an agent pitch session?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Book Festival - From the Inside

I have a quiet moment here at the Virginia Festival of the Book and thought I'd record some of my impressions. 

One point I want to make is that a book festival is not a conference or convention.  In this case, the entire Charlottesville community gets involved to simply celebrate the act of reading!  It is a warm, pleasant and decidedly NOT business-like atmosphere.  Right now I'm writing in one of the unoccupied panel rooms, thanks to the  kind assistance of Sara and Jenny, just two of the marvellously helpful volunteers who keep this thing running every year.

Last night I attended a nice little soiree at a local bookstore called Read It Again, Sam.  Authors scheduled to be on panels today gathered there for wine, cheese and war-stories.  It was nothing more, or less, than a chance for writers to chat in a peaceful environment. 

Afterward I enjoyed a panel called Friday Night Frights.  Ellen Crosby (a wonderful local author in her own right) moderated a lively discussion with best-sellers Dan Fesperman, John Gilstrap, Victoria Thompson and Lisa Scottoline.  The conversation wandered all over the map and the audience was wowwed.  Not many questions afterward, but this was a more academic and refined group than usually gathers at Cons.  They came to listen and learn from these great writers.

This morning kicked off with a brunch featuring Lisa Scottoline.  She was perhaps the best keynote speaker I have ever heard.  She had us roaring with laughter most of the time detailing her writing life.  Lisa says she loves book clubs because when she goes they spend ten minutes talking about her book and the rest of the time it's the kids, the jobs, the news, chocolate and wine.  The brunch was double fun for me because I was seated beside bookaholic Kathy B. Reel a blogger and reviewer with a big laugh and a sharp eye for good books. 

After watching Lisa Scottoline sign books for an endless line of fans (and BTW, she never sat down, but stood in front of her table and greeted each person with a handshake or hug before signing their book) I attended a great panel of mystery writers who are not so famous... yet. But be watching for Ellie Grant, Tracy Kiely, Nancy Martin and Jan Neuharth because based on what I heard today they will all reach the top!

MY panel isnt' until 4pm, and maybe I'll tell you about that later.  But I so often speak to you from here as a writer, or a publisher, that I wanted to take a chance to speak as a fan.  I am that too, you know.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Calm Before…

I am a writer and a publisher but this weekend is being devoted to my real life.  For a couple of days it’s grocery shopping, spring cleaning and straightening the storage area downstairs.  It’s also a chance to just relax, play with the dog and watch some TV.

I’m taking advantage of this lull because it is the last quiet weekend I’ll see for a while.  That’s because the life of a writer and publisher is a public one that calls for a lot of promotion and personal activity.  For example:

 
Next weekend beings Friday night in Charlottesville.  The Virginia Festival of the Book is a week-long celebration of the written word.  The Crime Wave section kicks off Friday evening at a small soiree for crime writers at a bookstore called Read It Again Sam. This is primarily a networking opportunity for me in my author hat.

Saturday is filled with panels on the various aspects of crime fiction.  I will be on one of those panels called “Futuristic? Paranormal? Creepy?” at 4:00 PM.  This is a great chance to speak directly to a room full of crime fiction fans and in fact the whole day I’ll enjoy the company of readers and writers of my genres.

I will spend the following Saturday at the Books Alive writers Conference in Bethesda, MD.  In addition to speaking to readers and writers about the Creatures, Crimes and Creativity literary convention and Intrigue Publishing, I will moderate a panel on self-publishing.

The next day it’s off to Dover DE, to join the other three writers who make up the Meet Myster Write team.  We, along with the Book Divas, will take over the 2nd & Charles Bookstore with the hope of drawing more readers and establishing a new fan base.

Saturday April 12, while everyone else in Washington DC is enjoying the Cherry Blossom festival, I will sign books as part of the Crime Authors Book Fair at the  National Museum of Crime and Punishment.  Being one of the half-dozen mystery writers presenting on the set where they shoot America’s Most Wanted should be excellent exposure for my author side.

The next day I’ll switch back to my publisher persona and talk up my company at the CityLit Book Festival.  The Intrigue Publishing crew will be at the Enoch Pratt Central Library in Baltimore.

Although I will have a great time at every one of those events, and those that follow throughout the year, I am very much enjoying the calm before that rush of activity.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

When You Say Edit…

As Editorial Director of Intrigue Publishing it’s my responsibility to make sure every manuscript we publish is as good as it can be.  Of course, I don’t do all the editing myself, but I don’t think most writers understand the challenges involved in just hiring an editor.  To acquire the right services, I have to be able to describe just what I want an editor to do.  I have to be able to explain what I mean when I say “edit” and I thought you might like to know too.   

Let’s start with the easy stuff.  Proofreading is not editing, although I expect our proofreader to do more than simply correct grammar and spelling errors.  She watches for capitalization, punctuation and proper word use (fowl language is what chickens speak.  The writer meant FOUL language.)

Copy editing is a step beyond proofreading. Copy editing actually addresses the mechanics of style, looking for inconsistencies. A good copy editor will notice dialog from a dropout that sounds like a college graduate, or vice versa.  Stylistic editing is more about clarifying the writing. This would include eliminating or explaining jargon and smoothing the language. It’s similar to copy editing – in nonfiction work it’s often called line editing.

Once we love a book enough to want to publish it I generally handle copy and stylistic editing myself.  Then I return the manuscripts to the author to rewrite based on my input.  The heavy lifting, the work I bring in higher-level experts for, involves structural and developmental editing. The manuscript has to already be in a good, readable form before I can ask a pro for these services.

Substantive structural editing involves further clarifying the storyline, often reorganizing the manuscript’s structure. This is where you get the pacing right, smooth the flow, refine the dialogue, and maybe punch up character development. At this stage, suggested changes bring me to negotiating with the author.  We don’t want to destroy a writer’s style or voice, but the writer needs to really understand their story so they can make me understand why our recommendations are not for the best.

Again the author makes the actual changes and after some back and forth we have a manuscript we can all agree on.  However, after the rewriting, the book gets a final thorough proofreading. 

So now you know what I mean when I say a book is in the editing process.  This is not necessarily the way it works at any other publishing house, but it’s the series of hoops a book has to jump through to wear the Intrigue Publishing logo.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Keeping it Short

I think most fiction writers are naturally more comfortable with a particular length. But even those of us who are natural novelists should try their hands at short stories once in a while.

Writing short stories is a great way to learn to trim your prose, and writing tight can really benefit novel writing.  It can also help you master character descriptions too.  When you can only afford a paragraph to introduce each character you sharpen your skills for careful word selection.

In other words, writing short stories is great practice. In a short story you get to work through every phase of story writing: the hook, plot twists, character development, pacing, and wrapping up a strong ending.  And as a bonus, you get to make all the normal mistakes without losing weeks or months figuring out how to backtrack and fix them.

And the time element allows for faster feedback too.  Instead of spending a year writing a novel to get some feedback on how you drive a story to a strong conclusion, you can write a short story so in a fraction of the time you can get feedback on your writing.  And it’s a lot easier on your first readers to get through a short story and give you immediate feedback.

There are also commercial advantages.  Short stories can be an easy and inexpensive way for new readers to sample your writing style before they decide to dedicate the time required to read a novel.  That’s the main reason I posted three of my short stories on Amazon for 99 cents as The Reliable Witness. 

Like any form of writing, it pays to associate with others in the trade.  I’m not aware of any conference specifically for short story writers, you can join a gathering of some of the best by joining the Short Mystery Fiction Society.  The Society welcomes writers, editors, publishers, and readers to promote the creation, publication, and appreciation of the genre.  Membership is free. You just have to join their Yahoo Group - - to get access to their discussions and participate in the annual Derringer Awards.

So if you’ve been laboring away at a novel for a while, why not take a break and try writing something short and sweet?