Saturday, May 20, 2006

Atlas Shrugged at BookExpo America

Dinner with the Gang

We pick up our coverage of BEA with a Big Earth Publishing dinner I attended on Friday evening with Big Earth staff and authors. From left to right, the five gentlemen in the foreground in the picture below are: David Oskin, President of Big Earth, Ben LeRoy, Publisher of Bleak House Books, a Big Earth imprint, Reed Farrel Coleman, Bleak House Books author, Steve Brewer, Intrigue Press author and yours truly, showing off my bald spot. Reed is telling us a great story about research he did into the pornography industry for an upcoming book. I would repeat it, but I suspect we are going to find a variant in Reed's book and I don't want to ruin it for you!

No Chuck Yeager

The next morning before hitting the show, I dragged my wife to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. Here I am getting strapped into a flight simulator with full pitch, roll and yaw capabilities. I managed to crash into a hillside while flying inverted at Mach 2. I definitely don't have the "Right Stuff."

Fun at The Booth

I stopped in again at the Big Earth booth to say hello to the crew ... and did a Carol Merrill number in front of the poster for Candy from Strangers. Turns out that's very appropriate because Carol is from Wisconsin, just like Bleak House (and Big Earth).

Here's a shot of fellow author Steve Brewer in front of the cool cover for his great new book.

Here are Ben and I showing off our black formal wear.

And here is my editor, Alison Janssen, carrying all of Big Earth Publishing on her shoulders, which might lead some to make a bad pun about Atlas Shrugged. But I would never do that.

That's One Addiction I've Avoided

My private eye protagonist, August Riordan, makes a little joke about being hooked on phonics around about chapter 4 of Candy from Strangers, so I had to snap a picture of this podium when I saw it in a booth in the children's section of the tradeshow.

Just a Taste

Given the outright hostility Google's Book Search project has engendered amongst publishers and authors, you have to give them credit just for having the guts to show up at the industry's largest tradeshow. The tag line reads, "Just a taste." Isn't that what Eve said to Adam?

Gallery of Poorly Executed Author Photos

I had a signing in the autograph hall late in the afternoon, so I decided to go early and see if I could spot some of the big names who were signing before me. Some eye of the Newt:

And a particularly fuzzy and dark photo of Joyce Carol Oats (because the large crowd waiting to see her kept me well out of effective striking range):

John Connelly waiting in line to see Laura Lippman--and suffering greatly from my inability to correct red eye.

The aforementioned Laura:

And probably my best shot of the bunch, a goateed Dennis Lehane hamming it up a little. The caption could be, "How ya like me now?"

Signing Time

Here's the long line of people waiting for me to sign at 4:30.

I wish--they are waiting to see Dennis.

But we did have a good stream of folks coming by to get signed advanced readers' copies of Candy from Strangers. I was gratified to see Bobby McCue, the manager of the Mystery Bookstore, Mary Riley from Book'em Mysteries, mystery reviewer, blogger and writer David J. Montgomery and a gentleman from Baltimore's Mystery Loves Company whose name I didn't get.

Thanks to everyone who stopped by!

Friday, May 19, 2006

BookExpo America and The Juiceman's Power of Juicing

Well, I'm at BookExpo America in Washington, D.C. and although I'd been warned that the scale of the show was daunting, I still wasn't prepared for the immense size of the thing. Here's a picture of the main conference floor from the balcony. Even with this shot, you're only getting about an eighth of the floor because my little point and shoot just doesn't have a wide enough lens.

My first stop was the Sisters in Crime booth where I was doing a signing at 1 pm. I'm the current Vice President of the Northern California chapter of SinC, and president Marcia Talley and Vice President Donna Andrews of the Chesapeake Chapter were wonderful hosts of the organization's booth at BEA this year.

While the conversation my fellow "sisters" and the people stopping by the booth was great fun, the highlight had to be the opportunity to watch this gentleman in the booth across from us:

Yes, that's best selling author Jay Kordich, aka "The Juiceman" whose titles include The Juiceman's Power of juicing, which currently has a sales ranking of under 23,000 on Amazon. Now some of your skeptics will say his ideas are quackery, and even his own marketing material references his astounding eyebrows, but to watch the guy in action pitching his product and grinding up fruit is truly a lesson in book promotion. Come to BEA and get juiced, indeed!

My next stop was the Mystery Writers of America booth. Denise Hamilton was signing before me:

BEA signings are a little funny because the books are being given away free, ideally to bookstore and library buyers who will purchase more for their stores and libraries, but it's still quite a challenge--for certain authors like yours truly at least--to unload the merchandise in the time allotted.

This time I brought professional help:

My wife Linda served as a barker, reeling in unsuspecting passersby to accept an autographed copy of Vulture Capital and a flyer or two.

I also had the opportunity to (finally) meet MWA Office Manager Margery Flax, writer Maria Lima and get reacquainted with Chris Aldrich of Mystery News.

The final stop for today was a visit to my publisher's booth. There'll be much more Bleak House Books doings in tomorrow's post I'm sure, but for now I'll leave you with a shot of my publisher Ben LeRoy against a backdrop of some of Bleak House's great titles.

He doesn't always look so serious, I can assure you.

Stay tuned for more!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

WTPEN -- Point of View

Continuing with my “slide presentation” on writing the private eye novel, let’s dig into the first topic on the agenda: point of view.

This is the menu of choices for point of view. While first person is most often associated with the private eye novel—as a case in point, note that Michael Connelly felt obliged to write in first person for the one novel where Harry Bosch goes “private”—it’s not always the PI who does the narrating. Watson’s narration of the adventures of private eye Sherlock Holmes is the obvious example of the non-hero narrator. See also Archie Goodwin in the Nero Wolfe books.

Second person is rarely used in any fiction. Bright Lights, Big City is the only recent example I can cite.

Third person has a number of variants. You can tell the story in third from one character’s point of view or multiple characters'. You can restrict the POV to what one character sees and thinks (limited) or you can have omniscient narrator who sits above the world of the story knows all. Objective third is an interesting variant of limited wherein the POV is limited to what one character might see, but does not include insight into the character’s thoughts. It’s a “fly-on-the-wall” POV that is basically like following around the selected character with a movie camera. Objective has an interesting history in private eye fiction.

Finally, you can mix POVs between chapters—or if you’re brave—within them.

As I said, first person is now most often associated with PI novels. One advantage is it provides an opportunity for a distinctive narrative style. It’s distracting to the reader to have an omniscient narrator tell you that something was as inconspicuous as a “tarantula on a slice of angel food cake,” but it’s: a) in character, and b) entertaining to have Raymond Chandler’s wise-cracking Philip Marlowe describe something that way in first person.

Because it’s possible for the narrator to omit description of his own life and focus only on the case at hand, first has been used in some private eye novels to reduce the PI into a sort of camera on a corrupt world: the PI is there only as a catalyst and a recorder of action. To a large extent, he remains an incompletely developed character. Examples of this are Hammett’s Continental Op books, where we don’t even know the PI’s name, and to some extent, Lew Archer in the Ross MacDonald books. Lew is a sort of PI therapist, having interview after interview with other characters, drawing out their feelings and emotions, but never conveying any sense of his own.

It can be harder (or more tedious) to weave suspense in first person because the narrator can only know what he or she observes. Lots of thrillers work by having an omniscient narrator or an additional third person POV let us know what the bad guy is doing while the good guy works to save the day.

Conversely, first can also encourage the use of PI-gets-hit-on-the-head-from-behind type of plot twists because blacking out the narrator entirely and having events occur without his knowledge is an easy way to inject mystery into the story. (And, yes, I’m guilty of this on occasion.)

Finally, it can also be a challenge to build tension without withholding information from the reader (which some characterize as cheating) because the PI will often figure out the mystery at some point before the showdown, but having him reveal the solution prior to that scene would ruin the arc of the story.

Third person was actually as prevalent as first in the early days of the PI story. And the objective third person POV, in particular, as used by Hammett in The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, Gores in Interface and yours truly in Vulture Capital, can really convey an impersonal hardboiled feel to a book.

As mentioned during the discussion of first, multiple third person POV can help to get complex plots across since it makes it possible for the reader to be more than one place at a time or know more than just what a single narrator knows.

And using third person can arguably help you to enrich your PI’s character with flaws or weaknesses without diminishing his stature by having him come across as self-indulgent, weak or just plain dumb. For instance, having a first person narrator describe himself crying has a different impact than a more objective third person description of the same thing.

But, as you’ll learn in all Fiction Writing 101 classes, the conventional wisdom is you’re not supposed to switch POV mid-scene, so a downside of using multiple third person is that it makes it easier to fall into that trap.

Many different hybrids are possible. One worth mentioning is the mixing of first and third, which has a similar impact as multiple third person. Parker used this approach in Thin Air to give the reader insight into a kidnap victim’s plight while Spenser and Hawk work to save her.

Mixing first and third may come off as contrived to some readers, but an even tougher one to pull off is first person omniscient where the problem of the narrator only knowing what he or she observes in linear time is solved by giving him or her knowledge outside his or her direct observation.

I can’t think of an example where this has been done in a PI novel, but, in my opinion at least, Fitzgerald somehow made it work very smoothly in The Last Tycoon—which is not to suggest that us mere mortals would have the same luck with it if we tried.

I’m going to BookExpo America this weekend, so I plan to use my next few posts to describe my adventures there, including my scheduled signing of advanced readers’ copies of Candy from Strangers at the Bleak House booth!

After that, I’ll pick up again with our next topic in “Writing the Private Eye Novel:” character development.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Writing the Private Eye Novel

Although it’s been a long, meandering journey, I’ve been using this blog to document the process of writing my new novel Candy from Strangers, place it with a publisher and bring it to market.

Just to recap, we’re still in the writing phase of the lifecycle, and if you click on the table of contents link to the right, you’ll find that I’ve covered such topics as outlining, research, the actual mechanics of my writing process and some of the benefits of participating in a writers group.

Before I finish with writing and move on to a discussion of finding an agent and placing the book, I wanted to do a few posts on my philosophy about writing the private eye novel. I’m going to draw upon (read shamelessly repost) the slides I put together for a class on the same subject I taught one year for Book Passage’s Mystery Writer’s Conference.

And speaking of reusing material, I need to state right up front that I’ve leaned heavily on ideas from Donna Levin’s book Get That Novel Written!, so if you’re intrigued by the suggestions in the slides in the next few posts, I’d encourage you to buy the book to get the benefit her much richer, more wide-ranging discussion.


Here’s the cover slide with—guess what—my photograph of Riordan’s Desk.

We’re going to talk about writing the PI novel, but the point is not to provide a catalog of conventions you can copy. The point is to look at the elements of craft that are important for all novels and understand the special requirements that PI novels place on them.

The first five topics are common to all fiction writing—but again—I’ll be looking at them from the particular perspective of the PI novel. The discussion of the “PI Helper” character is unique to this sort of book and the use (and over-use) of them is a pet peeve of mine.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

My wife and I drove down from San Francisco to Los Angeles last weekend so that I could do a signing at The Mystery Bookstore's booth at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Here's a pic of me in front of the store in Westwood Village:

I actually had a number of reasons for making the trip. The first was to meet with my agent, Whitney Lee, who is also based in Los Angeles. Whitney and I have corresponded over e-mail and spoken on the phone, but we had never met in person. I spent a delightful two hours talking with her at a local coffee shop. She's focused on selling translation rights to The Immortal Game, Vulture Capital and Candy from Strangers and I was able to give her some copies of the snazzy Game reprint to help her pitch the book to overseas publishers.

My wife and I also had dinner with Mike Padilla, a good friend and a member of my first writers group. We had dinner at Luna Park, a restaurant my wife selected since we've had such good experience at the San Francisco branch in the Mission District. We talked about Mike's novel-in-progress and the (very positive) feedback I had for him on the climatic chapter. He's only about three or four chapters away from having a complete draft, and I'm very excited for him. I think the book is going to be very well received.

Finally, we had brunch on Sunday with my friend Steve Freedman and his girlfriend Amy Goldstein. Steve is in film production and at one point he had optioned the film rights for The Immortal Game. Steve was also very helpful with suggestions for rewrites to Vulture Capital and I gave him a big thanks in the book's acknowledgements as a consequence. Here's a pic of me, Steve and Amy in front of the bookstore booth just before my signing:

If all that weren't enough, just before I sat down in the booth during my allotted time, I found Richard Brewer signing the book he co-edited, Meeting Across The River. Richard is an actor and an author and used to co-manage The Mystery Bookstore. Naturally, I had to get a copy of the book, which he personalized for me like so:
Finally I joined the other authors who were signing in the booth at 11. I was seated between Paula Woods and Craig Johnson. Thomas Perry and Theresa Schwegel were signing a couple of chairs down ... and there were two other very big guns present. If you look carefully at the picture of me below, you'll get a hint or two as to who they were.

Hint #1 is the distinctive (balding) head of the gentleman in the blue shirt seated behind me. Hint #2 is the hard cover first of Angels Flight being held protectively by the mystery fan for whom I'm signing The Immortal Game.
Yes, that's right: Harlan Coben made an unscheduled surprise appearance at the booth to sign.

And if you look down the row past me, Criag, Thomas and Theresa, you'll see Michael Connelly doing a 30 minute whirlwind, speed signing of his new book Crime Beat, which is a non-fiction collection of crime stories from his days as a journalist. What you can't see is the long line of fans waiting to get their copies.

It's well known among first edition collectors that Michael's signature is nearly unreadable. Richard Brewer told me that the Mystery Bookstore staff is to blame for that. Apparently, some time after Michael had "made it big," the bookstore staff uncovered a cache of 500 or so first editions of his first two books. They invited Michael to come to the store to sign them in one sitting and his signature has never been the same since.

Here Craig and I are talking about the West, the Southwest and Tony Hillerman. Craig is from Wyoming and I'm originally from New Mexico.

And here I am doing a stalker fan number on Mr. Connelly. I very much wanted to get a picture with him, but he was so beset by fans, staff and fellow authors the moment he appeared at the booth, that I couldn't bring myself to ask him to pose with me. I settled for this sneak attack shot. Sort of looks like Forest Gump popping up behind the president, doesn't it?

However, just before Michael left, I did manage to introduce myself and thank him for the very generous blurb he gave me for my upcoming book Candy from Strangers. I'll talk more about the process of getting blurbs for Candy in later postings, but for now here's the blurb from Michael:

“I've been waiting a long time for a fresh look at the private eye story. Mark Coggins has delivered it here with Candy from Strangers. It’s original, it’s smart and it was good to the last page.”