Monday, March 27, 2006

Writers Groups II

I made a case for participating in writers groups in my last post, and in this one I’d like to follow up with some specifics about the first group I joined.

The group started, as many do, as a spin-off of a fiction writing class. All of the “founding” members had taken a University of California at Berkeley novel writing class from Donna Levin. Donna has published two great novels—Extraordinary Means and California Street—and has written two nonfiction books on novel writing. She has also ghostwritten several major projects and has discovered and nurtured a number of authors, including Lalita Tademy, who wrote the Oprah book Cane River.

The membership of the group changed over time to include others who hadn’t taken classes from Donna, but were “sponsored” by then current members. I felt the group was very successful: we met continuously for many years, providing great feedback, support and camaraderie to all the members, and three of us eventually published novels or short story collections that had been critiqued within the group. Furthermore, I can say without hesitation that all of the writers were talented enough to have book-length material published—and all had short fiction or poetry published in quarterlies. Other priorities in life may have gotten in the way of completing novels or other book length work, but lack of ability was not the issue.

Here’s a picture from one of our later holiday dinners. From the left are George DeWitt, Mike Padilla, Terry Gamble, yours truly (in my goatee phase) and Susan Pinkwater. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a waiter to take the shot, so our final member, Monica Mapa, had to do the honors. (To catch a glimpse of Monica, follow this link to a picture of Monica, her TV star brother and partner Marie at the GLAAD Media Awards.)

The book-length output from the group includes the following: Mike Padilla’s short story collection Hard Language, Terry Gamble’s first novel The Water Dancers and my own first novel The Immortal Game.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Writers Groups

Recently, there was a debate about writers groups on the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) mailing list. The debate started when one writer stated:

Who has the time to read other people’s junk? I need every spare minute I can grasp just to work on mine. I hire expert readers, and editors to make sure my stuff has quality. And even then … my editor … rips it apart and makes it better. My advice, don't waste your time on a group. Write, write and write some more.
After a little hiatus to talk about the impending release of the reprint of my novel The Immortal Game, I’m back to blogging about the process of writing and bringing to market my most recent novel, Candy from Strangers, and a writers group was an integral part of that process.

I can think of at least four benefits to writers groups:

  • Critique Feedback – This is the obvious benefit and the only one the writer from the MWA list considered, but his/her counter is that “professionals” would give you better feedback. My feeling is if you take care to select the group you work with, the quality of feedback will be on a professional level. What’s more, you get the benefit of discussion amongst the group: both to talk through divergent opinions and to brainstorm solutions for problems uncovered in a critique.

And no matter who is giving you feedback—hired “professionals” or other writers in your group—it’s incumbent upon you to do your own evaluation of the validity of the feedback and accept or reject it on a case by case basis. I find the benefit of working with feedback from a writers group is that you come understand the types of feedback each person is best at—one writer may be good a line editing, another at realistic dialog, etc.—and you can use that knowledge to your benefit in filtering the feedback. You can also filter feedback based on whether or not the particular individual giving it has the profile of your “target reader,” and perhaps be more sensitive to suggestions made by people in the group who fit that profile.

The converse can be true, too: it’s sometimes very eye-opening to receive feedback from writers who are not working in your target genre or would not be the sort of person to buy your book if they saw it in the store.

  • Writing to a Deadline – My current writers group meets once a month and submissions are due four to five days before the group assembles. I try to submit one chapter each month and I find this discipline helps me make steady progress on a novel.
  • Critiquing Makes You a Better Writer – I find that reading other writers’ work with an eye towards making suggestions for improvement helps me to better understand what does and doesn’t work in fiction. Good writers read a lot, and even better writers read a lot and analyze what they are reading.
  • Camaraderie and Support –Writing is a solitary activity. Getting together once a month with others who are struggling with that same solitary activity can help ease you through a rough patch or motivate you when you are stalled.

I’ve written novels in an out of writers groups, and my experience has been that it took much longer to get my book to a level I was satisfied with when I wasn’t in a group. And since I worked with professional editors in the latter stages of the rewrite process in both scenarios, I don’t think that a process that relies on paid-for editors and readers alone is superior.

In the next few posts, I’ll give some specifics about two of the great groups I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Pledge Knight

Our local chapter of Mystery Writers of America volunteered to staff the phone banks for San Jose public television station KTEH during their “mystery night,” which featured two different dramatizations of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple tale, The Body in the Library.

I joined the fun and it was definitely a learning experience. Just as Good Night and Good Luck suggests, TV studios are cramped (and cold) places and only the parts that actually appear on camera are dolled up to look presentable. The rest of the space is filled with scuffed linoleum, studio lights, bits of hanging cloth and large quantities of gaffer tape.

Fielding the pledge calls was educational, too. I think I handled about a dozen during the four pledge breaks I participated in, and probably chalked up something like $500 in total pledges for the station. I also chalked up a complaint call or two. The most entertaining one was the guy who called in to complain that the pledge break was too long, told me he was canceling his membership and hung up before telling me what name his (putative) membership was under. He had a cough and his speech was quite slurred, so I think he’d been hitting Miss Marple’s port or some of that ineffective, but inebriating, OTC cough medicine.

The other bit of learning I did was how not to handle oneself on camera. As this clip shows, I provided the home viewing audience with a great shot of the top of my head while the KTEH host talked about me and my book Vulture Capital. But, hey, at least I made sure I had that credit card number copied down correctly. (Thanks to fellow author Ronald Cree for providing the clip.)

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Mark, the Adman

I know from my “real” job in Silicon Valley that print or TV advertising is something you should only do when you are prepared to launch an extended campaign. And in the case of the software industry, at least, the over-arching goal isn’t to drive immediate sales, but merely to establish “brand awareness:” the idea being that when the customer has a specific need later, he or she will remember that, for instance, Acme brand has a full line of products for doing battle with roadrunners (including retractable steel walls, Burmese tiger traps and jet-propelled roller skates). Of course, in the case of Acme, establishing brand awareness apparently does not require that your products actually perform as advertised.

Given these tenets of advertising—only do it if you are prepared to spend the money for an extensive campaign, and the main benefit is establishing brand awareness rather than driving a specific purchase—the rational author would have difficulty making the decision to spend any hard-earned advance money on print or TV ads for his or her book.

But as the members of Kate Derie’s Yahoo group Murder Must Advertise will tell attest, it’s very hard to resist the siren song of ads. Every author is eager to do something—anything—to help call attention to his or her book, and placing an ad gives you the positive feeling of taking action. It is also much easier than some of the alternative approaches to promotion, such as cold-calling bookstores to request that they stock your book.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my novel The Immortal Game is being brought out in trade paperback by Bleak House books this month. I, too, felt the siren call to place an ad for the book, and this time, at least, I didn’t resist.

However, I did try to maximize the return on my investment by being careful about timing and placement. I selected Mystery Scene Magazine because: 1) it’s a damn good magazine, 2) they have a very well qualified audience—publisher Kate Stine notes that 83% of their readers purchase more than 13 mystery books a year—and 3) they are publishing an article of mine on Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye in their spring edition.

What I’m banking on, of course, is that some of the reader interest generated by the article will rub off on me and the ad for The Immortal Game will get more attention than it otherwise might.

Designing It

I have some familiarity with Photoshop as a result of my web design experience—the sites for photographer Mark Citret and the Northern California Chapter of Sisters in Crime are two I’ve done—so I figured I’d attempt to prepare the ad myself. But since I’m from the “monkey see, monkey do” school of design, I needed a model. I flipped through the New York Times Book Review section one weekend and settled on an ad for Camille Paglia’s Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems. I have to confess that I didn’t make the decision on the basis of Ms. Paglia’s work—I’ve only read the odd essay from her—but on the shape of the ad and on the relative simplicity of the design.

I wanted a narrow ad that would be placed as a 2-1/4" x 9-1/4" strip at the edge of the page. Her ad had was larger, but had the same narrow, vertical orientation. It was bordered in black and was divided into two halves: the top had a picture of the jacket with a picture of Ms. Paglia partially overlaying it, and the bottom had a set of review blurbs. The whole thing was sandwiched between black strips at the top and bottom that contained more praise for the book and gave information about the publisher.

Here’s what my interpretation of the design resulted in for The Immortal Game. (Warning: this is a relatively large (1M) pdf file, so may take a while to download.)

The hardest bit was cutting out the surrounding background from my photo so that I could layer a headshot over the cover. Although my publisher wasn’t picking up the tab (this time!), I ran the ad by Ben LeRoy at Bleak House Books since it was going to have their name on it. I also conferred with Kate at Mystery Scene to make sure it met their design guidelines and would reproduce well.

Both gave me the green light, so it’s a go and the ad will appear in issue #94. If it doesn’t produce the results I’m hoping for, I’ve already figured out the rationalization I’ll use to make myself feel better. Now that I’ve had a chance to reflect on the finished design, I realize the layout would be perfect for Immortal Game bookmarks!

Monday, March 06, 2006

Jacket Text Revisited

I mentioned in my last post I was looking forward to seeing a draft copy of Bleak House Book's reprint of my novel The Immortal Game, and lo and behold, it appeared in my in-box the next day.

Here's a reduced version of the full cover:

Turns out I have to eat some of my words regarding the jacket text. Alison Janssen, my editor at Bleak House, did decide to use a modified version of my suggestion about juxtaposing the stereotypical image people have of San Francisco from the old Rice-a-Roni ads with the grittier version of the city described in the book.

Here's the final version of the book's description, which appears just below the Chronicle quote on the back cover:

When the world's most innovative computer chess software is stolen, wisecracking, jazz bass-playing PI August Riordan is hired to find it.

Sifting through a San Francisco peopled with bruising, ex-NFL henchmen, transvestite techno geeks, and alluring, drug-addicted dominatrices, Riordan has got his work cut out for him...surely a computer game can't be that hard to find?

But with a smart-ass attitude like Riordan's, nothing is easy...

A darkly comic sojourn through a town unrecognizable from the Tony Bennett song and the Rice-a-Roni ads, The Immortal Game is a Shamus and Barry award nominee and a San Francisco Chronicle best book of the year

I'm very happy with the whole package, including the cover and the interior design.

In addition to Alison, thanks are due to Bleak House's designer: Peter Streicher of shu shu designs and Mark Citret, a wonderful photographer and friend who risked his camera lens taking the author photo.

I'll switch back to posting about the process of writing and bringing Candy from Strangers to market soon, but look for one more post on The Immortal Game when I write about designing and placing an ad for the book.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Q: What's Harder to Write than a Synopsis?

A: Catalog or jacket text!

In the last few posts, I’ve been writing about the process of bringing out the Bleak House Books’ reprint of my novel, The Immortal Game. One of the least pleasant tasks in the process has to be development of text used to describe the book in distributors’ catalogs, listings, and on the cover itself. It’s unpleasant because you have to convey the essence of the book in a fashion that: a) entices, b) uses even less words than the typical synopsis, and c) doesn’t give too much away.

As an illustration of how difficult this can be, check this (slightly camouflaged) text from the first edition of a popular novel:

[Character] is a knock-out detective and yet, personally, he cares not a hoot for the law; so little so that constantly is he just on the verge of being pulled by the [city] cops. When [he] goes out after anything neither lead slugs, women, nor the [devil] himself can stop him from landing it. Here he sets himself to outwit three contending factions who all want the same thing which he also wants and it is only natural, therefore, that many murders strew his winding wake, that several persons suddenly fall doped and a great liner burns mysteriously to the water’s edge.
Ring any bells? Make you want to run to the bookstore and buy the book? The only thing I really like about it is the alliteration in "winding wake."

Well, turns out it's the jacket text from the first of The Maltese Falcon--perhaps the most popular mystery novel of all time. Note that there's no mention of the falcon, no mention of the murder of Spade's partner and no mention of a beautiful femme fatal. And if it were being written in today's post Da Vinci Code world, you would certainly expect a big plug for the Knights Templar.

It's easy to sneer at somebody else's efforts, but the sneer fades quickly when you attempt to do better--especially with your own book. Authors don’t always have the opportunity to participate in creation or review of catalog or jacket text, but Alison Janssen, my editor at Bleak House, has been good about including me in the decisions made about the book.

Below is the text that was used for the first of The Immortal Game. I had a hand in the development of it, too, and reading it now, it sure seems l-o-n-g.
Meet Edwin Bishop: a multi-millionaire entrepreneur who has founded and taken public several very successful software game companies. Highly intelligent, arrogant, yet unschooled in social graces, Bishop lives an eccentric life in his Silicon Valley mansion with several paid female companions.

Bishop has developed a software program to play chess against human opponents that he claims is the most advanced ever written, but before it is released, he finds that the software has been stolen when he stumbles across a vendor demonstrating the game at a trade show.

Enter August Riordan: a jazz bass-playing private eye who is cynical, irreverent and given to speaking his mind with unreconstructed candor. Although Bishop wants to hire a discreet private detective with a strong sense of professional ethics, as Riordan says, It was his tough luck he happened to pick me.

Riordan careens through the very modern milieu of Silicon Valley in his quest for the chess program, enmeshing himself in more than just high technology. Jazz music, the underground world of S&M and an unlikely partnership with Chris Duckworth, a smart aleck gay man whom he meets at a bar called The Stigmata, are all part of the intriguing adventure.

Full of well-drawn, idiosyncratic characters, fast dialogue and compelling and realistic portrayals of many San Francisco Bay Area locales, The Immortal Game is a very fresh and entertaining mystery in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
Alison rightly wanted something shorter and snappier for the Bleak House edition. This was her opening volley:

The source code for the world's most innovative computer chess game is missing, stolen by the designer's jilted, drug addicted, ex-lover. August Riordan just got hired to find it. Sifting through a city peopled with nasty, ex-NFL henchmen, a female-impersonating techno geek, and rough and tumble S&M "trainers," Riordan's got his work cut out for him. Surely a computer game can't be that hard to find? But with a smart-ass attitude like Riordan's, nothing is easy.
And a good volley it was. It's refreshingly different and carries a lot of punch in a few lines. I suggested that we mention San Francisco explicitly and try alternative descriptions for the "female impersonating techno geek" (Chris Duckworth, Riordan's sometime partner) and the "S&M trainer" (Terry McCulloch, Bishop's paid companion). I also wanted to add something hokey about Rice-a-Roni ads, but Alison wisely declined to take the bait on that.

Here's what we come up with the end:

When the world's most innovative computer chess software is stolen, wisecracking, jazz bass-playing PI August Riordan is hired to find it. Sifting through a San Francisco peopled with bruising, ex-NFL henchmen, transvestite techno geeks, and alluring, drug-addicted dominatrices, Riordan has got his work cut out for him...surely a computer game can't be that hard to find? But with a smart-ass attitude like Riordan's, nothing is easy...

Since we're closing in on the date of the book's publication, I'm looking forward to seeing it on a draft copy of the book very shortly.