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How do you know what’s the right book?

November 24th, 2008 10 comments

My question today is – “How do we choose what we write next?” And I really, really want to know.

When on panels or at events, I have been asked, “How do you decide what book you should write?” I have not so facetiously answered: “I write the book that someone writes me a check for.”

That’s maybe a screenwriter thing to say, and I don’t mean that in a good way, but it’s true, isn’t it?

Anything that you aren’t getting a check for you’re going to have to scramble to write, steal time for – it’s just harder. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, or that it doesn’t produce great work, but it’s harder.
As a professional writer, you’re also constricted to a certain degree by your genre, and even more so by your brand. St. Martin’s isn’t going to pay me for my next book if I turn in a chick lit story, or a flat-out gruesome horrorfest, or probably a spy story, either. My agent wouldn’t be too thrilled about it, either. Once you’ve published you are a certain commodity.

You’re even more restricted if you are writing a series – a kind of restriction I haven’t wanted to take on, myself. You have a certain amount of freedom about your situation and plot but – you’re going to have to write the same characters, and if your characters live in a certain place, you’re also constricted by place, so I’m really interested in hearing our series authors talk about how THEY decide on the next story they write.

I don’t let a lot of time go by between when I turn in a project and start the next one.

Part of this is mental illness. I know that. My SO sighs and shakes his head. Perhaps one of these days he’ll leave me over it; it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

And maybe I would be a better writer if I took more time to decide. actually. It’s an interesting question.

But I need to know what I’m working on. For me it’s better than Xanax. I’m not a very pleasant person when I’m floundering in the gaps between projects.

It’s a huge commitment, to decide on a book to write. That’s a minimum of six months of your life just getting it written, not even factoring in revisions and promotion. You live in that world for a long, long time.

But how does that decision process happen?

If you’ve been working at writing for a while you have a lot of stories swirling around in your head at any given moment, and even more in that story warehouse in the back of your mind – some much more baked than others. But I find it’s not necessarily the most complete idea that draws you.

Sometimes, maybe often, you need to do something different from what you’ve just done. THE HARROWING was about college students so I wanted to do something more adult. THE PRICE turned out to be maybe TOO adult – it was a very emotionally grueling book to write for me; I had to go to even darker places than usual, so instead of going on to write another book that I had completely outlined already, but was equally dark, I jumped in to a story that I only had the vaguest premise line for. THE UNSEEN has turned out to be much more of a romp than my previous two books, insomuch as a supernatural thriller can be a romp. It’s lighter, more romantic, and more overtly sexual than the other two (that last really was because when I stayed in the haunted estate that I used for the haunted estate in the book, there was a distinctly sexual imprint on the house, and it influenced the story. I had nothing to do with it. Really.)

For my new book, I knew I wanted to do something around water, because bluntly, I want to spend more time at the ocean this year, and research is one of the job perks. You take them where you can.

But again, once I’d turned in THE UNSEEN, the ocean story that I had been working on for a while already was not the one that pulled at me. I wanted to do the beach desperately, but I wasn’t feeling excited about that story, and it finally occurred to me that it was about a character who was very isolated, and a lot of the book would be about what was going on in her head, and I was just balking at the idea of having to write that. I really wanted to do something structurally more like THE HARROWING, more of an ensemble piece, with a lot of dialogue and one-upmanship among the characters. And suddenly it hit me that I did have a story idea about a group of people that also had a lot to do with the beach and the water, which I won’t say much about because I just don’t talk about it at this early stage. But I started piecing that one together and it just started to fly – the kind of can’t-write-fast-enough-to-get-the-ideas-down writing that we all live for.

And that brings me sort of to my point.

The way I really know what to write is when the entire world around me is giving me clues. Like when I keep getting into random conversations with strangers that turn out to be exactly what my book is about. Like when I am writing a scene about rum on the plane and I walk off the plane and the first thing I see on the causeway is a rum bar (I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a rum bar). Like when I am having no luck Googling the specific information I need on rumrunning during Prohibition and that night the History Channel has an hour special on rumrunning during Prohibition. Like when I meet a person on the street or see someone on television and realize THAT’S one of my main characters that I had been struggling to define.

Synchronicities.

In other words, it doesn’t feel like working – I’m in the flow. When you’re in the flow, your book comes alive around you and all you have to do is write it down. It’s being in love – an altered state in which everything feels ecstatic and RIGHT.

And you can feel the whole shape of the book in your head – it’s almost like being able to pick the story up in your hands and heft it and say – “Yeah, everything’s there. I can do this one.”

That may not make any sense, but it’s a really palpable feeling for me, physical, visceral. And such a relief to finally get there, I can’t even tell you.

So how do YOU know?

Alex

Crossing Genres, Part One (Left Coast Crime)

March 24th, 2008 5 comments

Being a cross-genre kind of girl myself, I seem always to be preaching to other authors to think more broadly about other genres their books might fit into, and about how to promote themselves in other genres. This kind of thinking and marketing is particularly important for authors in the horror genre because, let’s face it, horror is not exactly a popular book genre these days. In fact, I’m not sure it could be any LESS popular. I don’t know how many of the rest of you have considered the fact that with Borders potentially being sold and the most likely buyer being Barnes & Noble, there soon be be NO bookstore chain with a horror section. B&N maintains no horror section whatsoever, and even Borders’ horror section is rarely more than one shelf. Not one row, one shelf.

Yet you browse around in bookstores and you see rows and rows of, oh, science fiction and fantasy, paranormal romance, mystery and thrillers.

I’m sure eventually there will be a horror renaissance… we all know these things go in cycles. But I’m writing NOW, and I need to be making a living NOW, and I know I’m not the only one. It’s interesting to see how many cross-genre, cross-promotional panels that are scheduled at WHC – I’m glad to see it, because I think that’s a conversation all of us in the genre need to be having.

I’ll be doing a report on WHC with that slant next month (and also reporting on the Public Library Association, which is the reason I’ll be late for WHC, but for my money, in terms of promotion, PLA is unmissable.)

But this month I’m posting a report on Left Coast Crime.

I love conventions and maybe my cross-genre talk is really just an excuse for me to go to more of them. But since my books do easily fall into other genres (we don’t even use the H-word at St. Martin’s – I write “supernatural thrillers”) I spent a lot of time in my debut year exploring conventions in all the genres I fall into: horror, mystery, thriller – and (though admittedly this is stretching it) paranormal romance. And you can turn up your nose at the last all you want to, but guess where I sold more books last year than at any other convention – and I mean, ten times as many books, in hardcover?

Romantic Times.

Those readers buy books, emphasis on BUY.

But before I get all radical with the talk about the romance market, I’ll try what might be an easier sell to this crowd: the mystery conference.

This month I attended Left Coast Crime in Denver: http://www.leftcoastcrime.org/2008/

Left Coast Crime is primarily a fan conference, so if you’re writing dark and suspenseful and more psychological horror, or horror with a police procedural or investigative element, it’s a very viable conference for you to pick up new fans (and also get yourself into a Western market, if you’re based in the East). I’ve only been to two LCCs but I’ve been to a very wide variety of conferences in the last two years and I think LCC is probably the second best mystery con out there for me (Bouchercon is first – it’s HUGE and in Baltimore this year in October, really something dark suspense authors should think about attending…)

I love LCC because: it’s so casual and friendly, it’s very inclusive about sub-genres and again, it’s very, very, very fan-oriented. The organizers are great about putting all published authors on panels, so as long as you register in good time, you are guaranteed to have a nice spotlight.

I’ll set the stage: Denver is a fairly good-sized city in a great bowl of plains, surrounded by a ring of very high snowy mountains. Gorgeous. The airport is quite a ways away from downtown, where the con hotel was – a 45-minute car ride through a lot of open plain.

Downtown is very funky – there’s a Gold Rush feel to it and an instant sense of eccentricity – in the layout of the streets (narrow and veering wildly all over the place, coming to strange triangles everywhere), in the buildings (many of which are built in strange triangles to fit the strange triangular intersections), and the overall dress is Wild West: lots of cowboy hats and boots and fur vests. The people – well, the people were a trip. As in San Francisco (another Gold Rush town, come to think of it, Denverites cultivate their eccentricities. One of the first things I saw when we got off the freeway downtown was a homeless guy perched on a bridge with a sign that read: SPACESHIP BROKE DOWN – NEED MONEY FOR PARTS. And from the look of him, he wasn’t kidding.

So my top three things about LCC:

First – at the risk of beating this into the ground, LCC is a FAN conference. This was more true in Seattle last year, but the fans tend to outnumber the authors by a wide margin (more and more rare at conventions) and they are very much there to find new authors. They go to the new author showcases and all the panels and they take notes… then go home and report on the conferences and the authors to their book clubs. It’s fantastic word-of-mouth.

Here’s my specific tip: I’ve been to two LCCs now and for some reason the hospitality suite is the place to be. LCC is great about providing pretty full breakfasts and lunch, all complimentary, and coffee and snacks throughout the day. The suite wasn’t as packed as it was last year in Seattle, but I still had some of my best con experiences just sitting around drinking coffee, stealing coconuts from the catering decorations, and getting to know a lot of readers who I know will go out and get my books. It means that you will have to forgo some hanging and drinking with your author friends, but I really think you might have the most fun and useful conference experience just planting yourself in the hospitality suite and never leaving. It’s one-stop shopping, with free food and caffeine.

Second, if you’re an author, ALWAYS hit the local bookstores. On Friday, my friend Pari Taichert and I rented a car and drove around to eight Denver bookstores to meet managers and sign stock. It took about four and a half hours (because of Friday traffic and because Denver is much more spread out than you would think). We got to visit both Denver Tattered Covers, which are absolute cathedrals of books, each in their own way, one in a great old downtown building and another in a grand old theater – and the completely charming Murder By the Book, in a house in a funky little walking area – as well as make the rounds of the B&Ns and Borders. You get much more of a sense of the town driving around (renting a Garmin GPS helps!) and you are establishing a relationship with another book market.

Third – always try to hit the forensics panels, which are an entire track at LCC. You will always get your money’s worth in the forensics panels. Mystery Writers of America veteran and forensics expert Jan Burke did a stellar job assembling law enforcement and forensics professionals, and it’s always gold to hear her and Dr. Doug Lyle talk about their work – you can get a year’s worth of research in in an afternoon. And I love hearing forensics and law enforcement experts from the specific region – you get a much better sense of the whole region in general.

LCC is once a year in the late winter, and yes, always West of the Rockies… but I hope some of you will think about coming over to the Left side.

http://www.leftcoastcrime.org/2008/

Alex

Why We Strike

November 24th, 2007 20 comments

Sorry for the late post (and my first, too!). You’d have to be an idiot to travel on Thanksgiving weekend, right? Well, present and belatedly accounted for.

I suppose that being the newest member of Storytellers Unplugged I should take this opportunity to introduce myself. But, well, *@#% that. We can have polite chitchat later, or better yet, go out for a drink sometime. But right now I’m on strike, with the rest of the WGA, East and West, and today I’m here to tell you way.

I’ve been a WGA activist for six years, now including a term on the Board of Directors and founding the WGA’s unoffical message board, WriterAction.com. Because of my work with the WGA I’ve been living with strike plans and strike talk for three years, now. This has been a long fight, and it will be longer – as long as it takes for us to win.

It’s our future. It’s your future, too, if you’re looking for a professional career in anything relating to writing. It’s your future if you don’t want the corporations to be the sole determiner of entertainment content.

If you’re already glazing over, or just don’t want to read further, please at least watch one or both of these videos to get an inkling of what this strike is about:

Why We Fight:

The Heartbreaking Voices of Uncertainty

Every three years the Hollywood creative guilds – actors, directors, and writers, renegotiate their contracts – that would be the MBA, the minimum basic employment agreement – with the studios who employ us. The contract includes among many, many other things: minimum payments, residual rates (this is the screen version of royalties), and pension and health contributions, as well as creative concerns. If we don’t reach a fair and acceptable agreement, then really our only tool to sway the studios is to strike – to refuse to work until they negotiate fairly.

I say studios, but the fact is, the old style Hollywood studios no longer exist. Vertical integration has been a fact of Hollywood for going on twenty years now and the creative guilds are actually being forced to negotiate for fair payment with enormous, multibillion dollar, multinational corporations. There is a good argument being made that by now this is in violation of anti-trust laws. And the same vertical integration is increasingly a reality in the publishing industry, too.

There has not been a screenwriters’ strike since 1988 – before I was in the guild. There has not been a strike in large part because for various reasons, in the years when we needed to negotiate hard, the WGA has not been strong enough to even threaten a strike.

But this year, this contract, we needed all the strength we could get. There are dozens of important issues, but we are really only striking about one: internet downloads.

Anyone with half a brain knows that internet is the future of everything in entertainment. The corporations don’t want to pay writers, directors or actors for reuse of their work through the internet, and they think that if they squeeze us out of that now, that they’ll never have to pay us for that again.

That’s the bottom line.

Not only did the companies come to the bargaining table with a proposal that completely eliminated payment on internet reuse, but their initial proposal had 76 rollbacks of our previous contract, including separation of rights. Separation of rights is what screenwriters have instead of copyright: for example, it allows me to retain the right to publish a novel based on my original screenplay. It is one of the most cherished creative rights we have as screenwriters.

That’s just one of the proposals the corporations lay down which made it quite clear that they were not intending to bargain seriously or fairly.

That’s how weak they thought we were. We haven’t struck in twenty years and they probably assumed that we couldn’t pull it off this time. They thought this would be an easy win and they would be able to cut us out of internet profits once and for all time.

They were wrong.

As a former member of the WGAw Board of Directors, I have had the great pleasure of working with all of the current WGA west officers: President Patric Verrone, VP David Weiss, Secretary-Treasurer Elias Davis, WGAw Executive Director David Young, and most of the current WGA Board of Directors, and a great number of the WGA Negotiating Committee, East and West members, and they have been smartly and inexorably working toward this moment for three years, now.

Here’s when I knew we were going to win.

The strike of 1985 was a huge setback for the WGA in terms of residuals. Back then the issue was videotape residuals – videotapes were an emerging market and the WGA was striking primarily to get a fair share of the profits from videotapes. The WGA had previously agreed to a temporarily lower residual to help the companies build this “emerging market”. The “emerging market” had taken off for feature film releases and accordingly the WGA asked for the higher residual rate in the 1985 contract. The companies refused – making that issue a strike issue.

But the WGA has traditionally been deeply divided between screen and television writers. There are many, many more TV writers than screenwriters, and our issues are different. In 1985 there were no TV shows being sold on videotape yet, and the television writers perceived the videotape issue as a feature writers’ issue. A group within the television writers persuaded the other TV writers to cave on the issue and the WGA didn’t get the raised residual rates it wanted on cassette tapes. Two months later the original STAR TREK series was released on videotape and those TV writers realized just how badly they had miscalculated.

This year we have the same situation with the internet.

But we no longer have the divide between TV and feature writers. This is EVERYONE’S issue.

Three years ago I saw the current WGA leadership begin a massive courtship of the most powerful TV writers we have, the showrunners – the producer/writers who create and control the shows. The studios can keep pumping out feature films indefinitely – they have a huge backlog of scripts that they can pull out of their vaults while the writers are on strike. But television is much more in the moment. A TV show needs product every single week to stay on.

The showrunners are overwhelmingly united this time around. And they’re not working, period.

More than three dozen TV shows currently have no more than one episode left to air before they will have to shut down production. We’ll be going into reruns and reality momentarily.

The corporations have billions and billions of dollars to wait us out. But they have no stories without us. And without our stories, they’re going to be losing money faster and faster.

How long can this go on? As long as it has to.

What we’re asking for, as the creators of television and film content, is a tiny fraction of profit from internet use of our work.

That will be our living, in the future, and we’re not giving that up.

And now I’ll post some links to far more eloquent summations of the issues.
———————————————————————————————————————-

FAQ:

WHY ARE YOU ON STRIKE?

Payment for reuse of our writing has been a key part of our earnings for half a century. Now the studios are using the growth of the internet as a tool to take that away from us.

WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT MORE MONEY FOR SPOILED, RICH WRITERS?

True, some writers are paid very well — but in any given year, almost half of the Guild’s active writers go without any employment at all. They count on residuals to pay their mortgages and feed their families between jobs. These new pay cuts will be particularly devastating to our most vulnerable members. And right now, most of the writing for new media isn’t even covered by the Guild at all — which means no minimums or pension or health insurance. That’s not fair, and it needs to change.

HOW LONG WILL YOU BE ON STRIKE?

Until we get a fair deal. Because the future — the internet — is at stake, this is the negotiation of a generation.

AREN’T YOU HURTING THE REST OF THE COMMUNITY BY STRIKING?

This concerns us deeply. But remember, we didn’t want this strike; it was forced upon us by management. In fact, we even went so far as to take off the table one of our most important issues — DVDs — in hope of averting it.

ISN’T IT TRUE THAT IN A STRIKE, NOBODY WINS?

We’re fighting not to lose. Management is trying to take so much away from us that if we don’t dig in and defend what we have, next time around they’ll be coming after our pension and health benefits. So we need to draw a line and stand up to them. In that sense, we’re fighting not only for writers, but for many others in our industry as well. We’re all in the same boat, and if we succeed, the pattern we set will benefit every other guild and union in Hollywood.

Strike Captains’ blog: United Hollywood

http://unitedhollywood.blogspot.com/

YouTube videos explaining the strike:

Why We Fight:

The Heartbreaking Voices of Uncertainty: Media Moguls on the Internet:

Fade to Black:

Heroes of the Writers’ Strike:

My hero – Howard Michael Gould

Jon Stewart on The Daily Show:

http://www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?videoId=127766&title=moment-of-zen-torture


SNL writer Tim Kazurinsky on Chicago’s WGN explains the strike:

WGA Video Strike Log:

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP:

There are various online petitions that you can click on and sign to show support – I’ll link to some of them here.

http://www.petitiononline.com/WGA/petition.html

http://www.petitiononline.com/f4wga/petition.html

Keep up to date with actions at unitedhollywood.com (WGAw) and strikenotes.blogspot.com (WGAE), and I’ll update this thread with current actions for those who want to help.

Here’s another great site with suggestions for how to get involved:

http://www.fans4writers.com/participate.shtml

Here’s a viral pencil campaign for those who want to send a message to the corporations:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GggokNW-4c

Here are some virtual picket signs if you’d like to show support on your MySpace/Livejournal/Second Life, etc. sites:

http://community.livejournal.com/wga_icons/

A larger community with mega-graphics:

http://community.livejournal.com/wga_supporters/

And here’s the graphic people have been using to replace their main picture on Myspace:

http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v317/kullervo/wgamyspace.jpg

And we’re working on a T-shirt I particularly like:

SUPPORT THE WGA – HAVE SEX WITH A WRITER.

Anything for the cause, you know?

Great to be here, everyone.

Alex Sokoloff