Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Destroying the Reputation of an Entire Profession

A legal question arose in my WIP, and I needed the answer based on Pennsylvania law. I don't live in Pennsylvania anymore, and know no lawyers there. A few spins through The Google found the web site for the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The director was happy to post my questions on their listserve, and leave it to individual attorneys to contact me, or not.

That was last week. Since then I've heard back from ten lawyers and have spoken directly with four of them. (One called me on his way to a prison; said the destination reminded him he'd wanted to call me.) All have been pleasant, genuinely interested, and have been generous with their time beyond any expectations. They talked longer than I ever would have asked, were happy to provide ideas that don't quite apply to this book but will definitely be useful down the road, and to a person invited me to call them back if any other questions arose with this book, or another.

The episode reminded me how much people enjoy talking about what they do. Over the years I've communicated with a tracking dog trainer, cops, lawyers, child psychologists, and, by dumb luck, one of the leading memory retrieval experts in the world. All have exceeded my increasingly large expectations. This doesn't happen every time, but once someone is willing to talk, they're rarely stingy with their time.

Since I've always been quick to toss off a lawyer joke, it's only fair to give props to this batch who have been so helpful and generous toward a total stranger for no more remuneration than a promised acknowledgment in a book that may never see the light of day. (Well, one did ask for tickets to the movie premiere. Dreamer.) I'll not name them here, out of consideration of their privacy, but I'll follow up with all privately, and I'll make sure they get copies of the book, if there ever are any.

The lesson here is not to be too shy about developing real world sources, and to value them like the treasures they are. You never know when they'll tell you more than you asked for and end up giving you enough material for half a book.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Writing Advice from David Mamet

I don't like to dispense a lot of writing advice because, well, frankly, because I am still in a "pre-published" state, so I'm not sure why anyone would give a shit about what I think. But David Mamet is a different story.

No, he doesn't give a shit what I think, either, but anyone who wants to become a better writer should probably care about his thoughts on the subject. Thanks to Ken Levine--a kick-ass writer in his own right--here is what David Mamet thinks about drama.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


The Beloved Spouse and I were discussing when we'd find time to watch the episodes of Justified and South Park we have on the DVR when we remembered Southland dropped off our radar completely during and after the Olympics. We watched the first four episodes, then never came back. Neither of us feels any burning desire to catch up.

We both think the show was too inconsistent. The pilot was great, as close to The Wire as network TV is likely to get. After that, the sequence of episodes became too iambic for our tastes. The emphasis shifted from show to show: one week would mostly be spent with the street cops, the next almost exclusively with detectives. The shows focused on the black-and-whites were great; the detective shows were like watching Gray's Anatomy with guns. Too much of a soap opera.

Is it just us?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Nature vs. Nurture in Writing

Dan O’Shea has another thought-provoking post on his blog today, referring to posts by John Hornor and Chuck Wendig about how much of writing is talent alone, and how much of it can be taught. (There’s a lot more to their comments than that; go check them out. I’ll wait.)

I commented on the other blogs, but it occurred to me that my two comments tied well into a single blog post and, since I haven’t posted anything for about a week, I might as well get off my ass and do it.

Stephen King has my favorite take on how much one’s writing can be improved in his excellent book, On Writing. (Recommended for all writers, regardless of style or genre.) I don’t have the book handy, so I’ll paraphrase (while plagiarizing my comment on Dan’s blog):

There are four levels of writer: Incompetent, Competent, Good, and Great.

An Incompetent writer is, well, incompetent. Not much you can do with him.

A Competent writer can, with work and guidance, become a good writer.

A Good writer can, with sloth and dissipation, become a Competent writer. He cannot, however, become a Great writer, only a better writer.

Great writers are born. They can, however, piss that greatness away and become Good, or merely Competent. We all know people who have done this.

Greatness is that unteachable spark called talent, or a gift, or God’s Lips to our ear. Everything else can be learned. Incompetence is like anti-talent: no matter how hard you try, you’re just not wired that way. You’re never going to get it.

I suspect it’s not just writing. Every field is like this. I used to be a musician, and it’s certainly true there.

Can anything truly be taught? The best teacher I ever had says no one can teach you anything. Everything is learned through a combination of trial and error and rote. The teacher—if he’s good—is a guide. He uses his experience to suggest paths most likely to lead to success, and cautions against dead ends. He encourages, but not unrealistically.

So I’d say yes, writing can be learned, though it cannot be taught any more than anything else can. Which is still plenty.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Not Quite a Dream Come True

Well, someone finally offered me a book contract, with an advance and everything. There were a few caveats.

Among the documents I received were instructions on what I should do to promote the book, all on my time, at my expense. Okay, small publisher, this is the direction things have been moving the past few years. It's not unexpected.

This publisher uses the big distributors, but says up front there won't be any books in big stores. People can special order from Borders or Barnes and Noble, but they won't be stocked. Too much piffle with returns, and Borders is a slow pay. Again, not unexpected, but disappointing to have it laid out so starkly.

It's up to me to get the books into independent booksellers, too. By now I'm getting the distinct impression the publisher's sales staff is me. This, too, is not wholly unexpected, though the luster of getting a deal is officially fading.

Then I got to the good stuff: the contract itself. The publisher gets, for ten years, the right to publish or assign, without limitation, all hardcover, soft cover, and electronic version (including "mass market") editions in all print formats (large, small, or condensed). They also get all audio, electronic, television, movie, cinematic, and other versions, as well as general licensing rights to merchandise and other items based on the work. They'll split any secondary rights fees with me 50-50.

I am required to buy one hundred copies of the book, at a discount of 50% from the publisher's recommended retail price.


10% of list for trade paper.

3% of list for hard cover copies sold at discounts less than 40%.

25% of e-book sales.

25% of any hard covers sold at 40-60% discount, after the publisher's expenses for producing these copies have been deducted.

Finally, we get to the good part: the advance.

$25.00. They even spelled it out for me, so there would be no confusion: TWENTY-FIVE DOLLARS ($25.00).

I'm not arrogant about my writing skills. (Hard to be when I've been trying to get published for ten years.) This is not a guaranteed best seller. It's not going to make people cast aside their copies of the new Robert Crais or Lee Child or Ken Bruen so they can read it when it becomes available. But I'll be damned if I'm giving it away unless it was my idea to do so in the first place, just to see my name in print. I'm a whore, not a bimbo.

It's tough, reading their guarantee to have the book in print within eighteen months of a signed contract after ten years of trying. For the first time, I truly had an inkling of how virgin authors must feel when they hold their first copy of their first book. It's nice. For a few seconds I looked forward to it. Then I realized this is no better than vanity publishing, and a lot more expensive than going POD. I'm not saying I'll never do that, but I'm not going to delude myself into thinking I really "sold" a book.

I'm alleging no misconduct on the part of the publisher; they've done everything they said they'd do to this point, and have been up front about it. (I'm not going to name them, so don't ask.) I just thought some other fledgling author might come across this and get a better idea of what he or she is up against, maybe have a benchmark against which they can compare their offer. Or decide I'm an arrogant, self-centered prick who's walking away from a chance to get in on the ground floor. I'm not saying I'm right. Everyone can decide for themselves.

Just don't be surprised.

February's Best Reads

Olympic hockey cut into my February reading time, but what I read was first rate.

Let It Ride, by John McFetridge – The third installment of McFetridge’s saga of bikers who don’t ride much since they’re too busy taking over the Canadian drug trade has some characters from the previous two books (Dirty Sweet and Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.), but there’s no need to have read the first two before starting here. (Except that you haven’t read the first two, which is your loss.) McFetridge combines the best elements of Elmore Leonard and George V. Higgins into a unique style, writing what is truly a novel about crime. Lots of plotlines, lots of characters, this book is about shifting relationships and alliances with hard-edged dialog and well-drawn characters. Not for casual readers; Let It Ride demands your attention, then rewards it. (Released in Canada as Swap.)

Bury Me Deep, by Megan Abbott – Sometimes it takes me a while to catch on. I’ve been tripping over Megan Abbott’s name for over two years now, finally got around to reading her when my wife bought me a copy for my birthday. Fantastic writing. The neo-Thirties style took me a few pages to get used to, but once I caught the rhythm Abbott pulled me in a little deeper with each page. This is the book that proves you don’t have to start with a body on Page One and a shoot-out on Page Four. Abbott understands tension and suspense, making you wait until you can’t stand it anymore, and is still able to pull off the climax in an unexpected way. The rare book that lives up to all that’s been said about it.