Friday, December 24, 2010
We hope to see you again in 2011, with more columns, writing advice, WriteBrain reports, author interviews--and to get ready for Pikes Peak Writers Conference! You are planning to come, right?
Until 2011, Happy Holidays!
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Books and the Future – Did Anyone Notice We Changed?
by Linda Rohrbough
The book publishing world is definitely changing. No one knows yet how things will shake out, but there are a couple of developments worth noting in the last year.
One is Andrew Wiley, principle of the Wiley Literary Agency, sold a series of twenty books by authors like Phillip Roth to Amazon.com for distribution as e-books. As a result the Wiley Agency got themselves blackballed by publisher Random House. Here’s The New York Times article on this interesting development.
On another front, Christian Retailing reported publisher Tyndale went into a joint venture with an African bookstore company and together they opened a big, new bookstore in Wheaton, Illinois. I see this as a move by a publisher to take some control over the distribution channel. And at a time when the big retailers, like Borders and Barnes & Noble, are bleeding red ink.
If you guys will remember, about a year ago I wrote that I had the privilege of being a technology news reporter when the VCR was introduced. Okay so I’m showing my age, but at that time the industry analysts all said there’d come a time when we’d never got to another movie theatre. And I dutifully reported it because that’s what I was paid to do. Well, we all know that didn’t happen.
And now I hear people saying paper books are going to go away. Since I have more experience now and I can say with certainty that’s horse hockey. What I think the real fear is among writers is people are going to stop wanting books. Nope. Not going to happen. Reading is up according to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Personally, I can attest to reading more than ever.
But the distribution channel is changing. It’s getting wider. In a way no one anticipated. That change is driven by something no one is talking about - we changed. I remember grieving the fact that I couldn’t read and I missed it. Not because I couldn’t find the time, but I couldn’t lug around a book along with the phone, organizer, computer and the other stuff I was schlepping. And travel has changed. I can no longer afford to lug six books around in my suitcase. Plus, I have no more space for bookshelves at home. The whole thing was getting too hard to manage.
Now I carry my phone and my iPad. So its much easier to read. However, if you haven’t figured this out yet, the publishing business is slow. While the bean counters are trying to figure out what happened, publishers are signing fewer book contracts and counting on the big name authors because they don’t know what else to do.
I wonder if this happened when the printing press was invented? Was there an outcry on the part of the people producing scrolls? Talk about a narrow distribution channel. What happened to their jobs as the world shifted to mass-produced, printed copy? I’ll bet no one producing scrolls lost their job. But a whole bunch of people without the skill to hand-copy text now had a whole world opened up to them. You see what I’m getting at here.
Writers, though, never went away. Not when scrolls were popular. Not when the printing press was introduced. And not now when e-books are flooding the market and change is happening again. Because the one lasting concept is someone who can tell a story is always in demand. Always. So don’t let go of that.
Linda Rohrbough has been writing since 1989, with over 5,000 articles and seven books along with a number of national fiction and non-fiction awards to her credit. Her latest book, co-authored with her surgeon, is Weight Loss Surgery with the Adjustable Gastric Band from Da Capo Press. She is also under contract for an iPhone App of her “Learn to Talk About Your Book” workshop, scheduled for release Spring 2011. Visit her website www.LindaRohrbough.com.
Monday, December 20, 2010
Good news! PPW member Barbara O'Neal's new novel, How to Bake a Perfect Life, will be released December 21, 2010, in trade paperback/e-book by Bantam (ISBN 9780553386776, 416 pages). It's a women's fiction/family drama that you can find online or at most brick-and-mortar bookstores. Her website is at www.barbaraoneal.com.
Barbara O’Neal fell in love with food and restaurants at the age of fifteen, when she landed a job in a Greek café and served baklava for the first time. She sold her first novel in her twenties, and has since won a plethora of awards, including two Colorado Book Awards and six prestigous RITAs. Her novels have been published widely in Europe and Australia, and she travels internationally, presenting workshops, hiking hundreds of miles, and of course, eating. She lives with her partner, a British endurance athlete, and their collection of cats and dogs, in Colorado Springs.
Congrats to Barbara! We love good news here at PPW.
Thursday, December 16, 2010
by Karen Albright Lin
Aristotle’s Poetics is required reading for students in programs such as the UCLA School of Film, Television and Digital Media. In it you’ll find the formula that has traveled through the centures and still makes for a satisfying story.
Though novels allow much more leaway and often get away with meandering plots, screenplays tend to succeed best when they stick to a three act formula.
ACT I is the story set up. It establishes the premise and introduces the main character.
ACT II can be the most challenging to write, as is the murky middle of a novel. It incorporates confrontation, adds complications, develops subplots, and rides a wave of conflict up toward a crisis.
ACT III is the conclusion and resolution of story questions and conflict. For simplicity, let’s assume you are writing a two hour movie. You have 120 minutes to work with. At one manuscript page per minute you have 120 pages (this would be a rather long script, especially for a romantic comedy that often falls closer to 80-90 pages).
Assuming 120 pages, ACT I is the first 30 pages. Near the end of ACT I (page 25-27) comes a plot point. That is an incident that spins the story in another direction. For example Luke’s family is killed by the empire in Star Wars. Another plot point comes between pages 85-90 spinning things toward the end, FADE OUT.
In The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger Cyborg emerges from the fire unexpectedly as the metal robot that he truly is. This spin is also called a reversal. Rick Reichman, author of Formatting Your Screenplay, suggests having an action or psychological reversal in every scene to make the plot really roll along and surprise the viewer.
That brings me to another element of a screenplay, the scene. A sequence is a series of scenes tied together as a unit by a single idea. It may involve changing locations – from a living room out to a car and down the street. A scene is the action at a singe location. A scene is signaled with a primary slug line.
INT. KITCHEN – Day
It tells the director that this is an interior INT. or exterior EXT. shot. It also tells location and what time a day. Dawn and Dusk are hard to capture, so often recommended against.
The character who speaks, a parenthetical (a personal direction to the actor), dialogue and direction are formatted like this.
Speech goes here and needs to be snappy, pithy.
Rarely are long speeches appropriate.
Here the direction tells what’s necessary to know about the surroundings and action in the scene. For scene setting, often no more detail is necessary than simply “typical teen room.” Action would include who’s on scene (first appearance in CAPS) and what they do.
The character cue is all CAPS. The parenthetical involves attitude or instructions to the actor and is frowned upon unless absolutely necessary because it bosses around the actor. The dialogue follows directly and is set inside specific margins. Avoid large chunks of direction. If you need more than four lines of it, break it up into 4-line chunks so that it’s easier to read.
FADE IN: starts your script. FADE OUT. ends it. There are many special slugs. Common ones include: MONTAGE (scene broken to show passing of time), BACK TO SCENE (after coming out of flashback), SPFX (special effects), MOS (German for without sound), SFX (sound effects), MATCH CUT (use of physical object to bridge shots), V.O. (voice over), Fades and Cuts (limit use of these, they step on director), CLOSE UP (only use when it’s absolutely necessary).
I wrote most of my screenplays using Word. I simply tabbed over as needed. If you are willing to fork out about $80-$150, you can buy Final Draft or Movie Magic, easy to learn programs that format for you. Details change over time so try to get the newest version. www.Zhura.com has free screenwriting software. There are also formatting macros that work with Word programs (about $40). Learning the format is easy. Pick up The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier and you’ll find all you need to know to get started.
Next posting I’ll discuss the industry, marketing, and types of representation. Meanwhile, keep your dialogue snappy and your directions brief. Don’t step on the director. Avoid dusk and dawn.
Karen is an editor, ghost writer, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll) each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at www.karenalbrightlin.com
Monday, December 13, 2010
By Debbie Meldrum
I know. I know. There are those of you who are screaming, “Graphic Novels!” If the author of “The Sandman” series, Neil Gaiman, refers to them as comic books, who am I to quibble?
Neil Gaiman has been one of my favorite authors for a while now. I’ve read his novels, children’s books, YA books and short story collections. But I avoided the comic book collections. My experience with comics was limited to “Archie and Jughead,” “Little Lulu” and “Casper.” And those when my age was still in single digits.
Curiosity got the better of me, especially after reading reviews and hearing interviews with Mr. Gaiman about “The Sandman.” I tried to hide the first collection “Preludes and Nocturnes" under a stack of magazines and other books when I bought it at a local bookstore. After all, I was a woman of a certain age buying a comic book. I didn’t want anyone to see. The clerk, however, picked it up and announced, “This is a great series. You’re going to love it.” Red-faced, I snatched the bag from him and left in a hurry.
He was right. The next time I picked up a Sandman book, I didn’t hide it. Not only did I enjoy the series, but I learned a few things about story-telling.
1. How you draw things changes the tone of the story.
Mr. Gaiman collaborated with many different artists over the course of the series. Depending on the style of the drawing, the feel of the story changed. Some were very stylized and the story seemed more sophisticated. In the few that were more whimsically drawn, the stories were lighter in feel even with the same dark subject matter. Although the characters retained the same basic size, shape and coloring, the artistic style of the drawings gave the characters’ personalities a slightly different twist.
The settings changed as well. Again, Dream (our Sandman), lives in The Dreaming. But what we see of his land or other magical realms, or our own world for that matter, effects the story being told. Is the setting dark and shadowy? Or is bright and sunny?
I love a well-defined setting in fiction. I may or may not be successful at drawing my own worlds with words. But I’m working on playing with setting more. What does it do when a happy occasion takes place during a thunderstorm? Can a change in background give a scene more kick?
2. Your protagonist doesn’t have to be a nice guy.
Dream isn’t even technically a guy. He’s one of seven siblings, known collectively as The Endless. At the beginning of the series, Dream has been imprisoned by a wizard. After his escape, he sets about atoning for some of the wrongs he’s committed. However, he’s still often thoughtless, stubborn and cruel. When you’ve existed for billions of years, you get used to doing things a certain way.
It’s in the contrasts between Dream and the other characters—some human, many not—that brings out the brilliance of Gaiman’s universe. Dream is often kinder than those around him, even if it’s by accident. Sometimes helping out can be the worst thing you could do for another person.
Could exploring my characters’ dark sides, especially my “good guys”, make them more well-rounded? How could a well-intentioned action create havoc for another character?
3. Mythology is your friend.
Gaiman uses myth a lot in all of his writing but particularly in “The Sandman.” The Greco-Roman pantheon is present, but so are Egyptian, Norse and Asian gods. I suspect that he also makes up myths—or I’m just not as well-versed, which is a distinct possibility. He uses them head on in the comics. Sometimes with a lesser known name applied to a god and always with his own twist, but still addressing the actual myth as it’s come down the ages.
Writers are often told to go to myths for ideas for their stories. Too often, I think, we just take a myth and set it in the here and now with very little change. And we have a lot of books on the shelves, including “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman, that take the gods and plunk them down in modern times.
Can I come up with a new way to use mythology in my writing? I don’t know. But I’m sure going to try.
4. Break Those Stereotypes
Death is one of Dream's siblings. What is the picture that just popped into your head? A hooded figure? Perhaps skeletal? Definitely male though. Not in Sandman. Death, in Neil Gaiman's universe, is a cute Goth teen. And it works.
Gaiman shakes things up in other ways as well, taking what we think of as fact and flipping it upside down and backwards. In The Sound of Her Wings, my favorite story from Preludes and Nocturnes, Dream is in our world. He is sitting on a park bench, feeding the pigeons, and he sees Death. They discuss humans. Death says, "Mostly they aren't too keen to see me. They fear the sunless lands but they enter your realm each night without fear." Dream replies, "And I am far more terrible than you, my sister."
I've been called out by my critique group on stereotypes and cliches in my work. Never intentional, but that doesn't really matter. one of the things I'm working on is really shaking up expectations with my characters.
I'm sure I'll come back to Neil Gaiman in the future. He's an amazing writer, who I've learned many lessons from.
Debbie is a daydreamer. A fact that caused her much grief during her school career but has served her well as a writer. Her short fiction has appeared in Apollo’s Lyre, The SCWP Marathon Anthology, and The S’Peaker. In addition to being a member of PPW, she belongs to Creek Writers Council—a tough but fun critique group.
Thursday, December 9, 2010
Our community partner BORDERS is hosting a huge fundraiser to benefit PPW December 11th and 12th! It includes donating a portion of all sales made with a PPW voucher (link to voucher is below for in-store, and a code to use online if that's how you'll shop) plus hosting eight different booksignings--four on Saturday, and four on Sunday.
If you've got any book shopping to do, it couldn't be easier to help PPW at the same time, and it won't cost you anything additional.
All you do is purchase a book, cd, calendar or such through Borders using the PPW Voucher, and a portion of your purchase price will be donated to PPW! It costs you nothing extra, but it helps PPW tremendously.
You can purchase online at Borders.com using the online promo code "PPWR1211Y" or if you're in Colorado, please come to one of the author booksignings. (See http://pikespeakwriters.com/html/events.html for the schedule of authors and locations.) Note that almost all purchases are eligible--you don't have to buy the books being signed. And you can still use any regular coupons and Borders Rewards discounts!
We hope you'll help out by sending the fundraiser information along to your contacts. If you can attend a signing and/or make a purchase, that would be fantastic, too!
***IMPORTANT*** Don't forget to use the voucher when you purchase. It's easy to download it at http://pikespeakwriters.com/html/events.html
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Frequently I dog ear pages that resonate with me as I read, whether it’s factual stuff I want to dig into deeper, or passages I find particularly lovely or funny or that show me something about the art of writing.
Often, though, I’ll revisit these passages after a week or two and they won’t light me up like they did before.
But these from DEAR MRS. LINDBERGH still work for me.
Water traveled well over this land. From time to time, her father had to reinforce the drainage ditches so that the water didn’t take over and start running any course it liked. She felt her life was like this sometimes, and the sadness, the urgency, was endurable so long as she didn’t let it get too far out of bounds. Give it a course, keep it there.
I love how that passage gives a perfect snapshot of this woman’s emotions. It also struck me, I think, because I’m cogitating over a rewrite of my own where I could do something like this. It would be easy for the author to have the character say, “Golly, I must keep control of my emotions,” but how boring. Mine has to do with light rather than water, however, and I’m not quite there yet. My passage is still at the boring stage.
What used to be a sanctuary from loneliness, these letters, eventually became a sanctuary of privacy, too, and maybe that’s what children and a husband at home do to you, they climb into every nook and cranny of your life until you have to search, to boot them away with a swift kick in the bottom, to have something, anything, to yourself. Writing the letters was the place she got to be alone.
I know this pings every writer’s heart. Surely it must speak to everyone in any kind of relationship who fears leaving that piece of self behind — that essence of you-ness which, when stripped away, renders you flat and stale, like week-old root beer. As much as we might love our kids and spouse, we need a sanctuary to remain fizzy.
He thought of the ghost story about the woman who wore a perfect scarlet ribbon around her beautiful neck at all times and the husband who finally could not resist removing it to see all of his wife’s neck. As it came away, her head fell off. If Ruth wanted to keep her scarlet ribbon in place, so be it.
Passages like this make me happy. Whether this is a real ghost story that Kathleen Hughes heard once or one she just made up, I love how she did that.
How ‘bout you? Do you find these passages as lyrical and evocative as I do? And Kathleen Hughes … if you’re out there … I’d love to interview you!
Becky Clark is a popular blogger, entrepreneur, speaker, and author of wildly divergent books — for example, An UnCivil War – The Boys Who Were Left Behind (middle-grade historical fiction); Reading Maniac — Fun Ways To Encourage Reading Success (a guide for parents of reluctant readers); and The Lazy Low Cal Lifestyle Cookbook. Her BeckyLand blog can be found at http:/beckyland.wordpress.com and her healthy living website/blog is www.LazyLowCalLifestyle.com. She is a highly functioning chocoholic.
Monday, December 6, 2010
By Mandy Houk
A few Monday mornings ago, I opened my eyes and blinked at the ceiling. I had a familiar feeling in my chest: that odd, fluttery mixture of tension and hope as I awakened and wondered if I would find the time to write that day.
Most days, this early-morning planning was not a problem. I could pinpoint a time in my day that I was sure I’d have open, and I’d set my thoughts on that not-too-distant hour. Then I’d set a word count goal, or just plan to revise through the end of a chapter. Or two.
Just as my mornings were consistent—hoping, planning, anticipating—my late nights were consistent, too. I fell into bed dejected, defeated, depressed—lots of “de” words. The precious hour(s) I had set my sights on had been swallowed up by other commitments—the “tyranny of the urgent,” as Charles Hummel would say. So I’d only written half of what I’d planned. Or worse, and more and more common lately, I’d written nothing at all.
As I lay there that recent Monday morning, staring at the ceiling, that hopeful fluttery feeling faded away. Too much of the previous night’s “de” words had stuck, and I felt I had to face it: I was straining toward something that I would never reach. I have published several articles, I told myself. I’ve placed in a couple of short story contests. Why not be satisfied with that? The time had come to let go of the novelist dreams and move on to a new phase in my life. The post-writing phase.
Over breakfast, I calmly informed my daughters that I would no longer pursue writing as a career. When they tried to respond, I told them I’d made up my mind, and there was nothing to discuss. Then I texted my husband at work and let him know. My original plan was to call him, but there was this huge sore spot in my throat that I couldn’t seem to talk around, so I resorted to communicating with my thumbs. They shook a bit, but I managed to get the message sent.
The girls cleared their dishes and we got ready to crack open their school books. I got out the bills and started paying them while the girls got settled. But my younger one seemed distracted.
“What are you doing?” I tried to swallow the irritation in my voice. It didn’t work. “We’ve got a full day. You need to get moving.”
She stepped closer to me and ducked her head. “I don’t want you to quit.” I would have answered, but I couldn’t. I was halfway out of the room, in search of a box of tissues.
I returned a few minutes later to find her at the desk, twirling a pencil and staring at her literature book. I leaned down and whispered, “I have to, honey. It’s not working.”
The rest of the day went pretty much the same. My older daughter said that maybe I could write in the summers. I could only shake my head, not able to articulate my feelings—that if I were to wait until next summer, the story in my head would be as tired and spent as a jack o’ lantern left out on the front steps a couple of weeks into November.
I did a lot of self-talking that day.
“You’re just sad right now because it’s a new idea – you’ll get used to it.”
“You’ll get more stuff done once writing is out of the way. Think how clean the house will be. And how much more time you’ll have to cook. You love to cook.”
“It’s a losing battle. Who wants to fight a losing battle?”
“Shake it off. It’ll get better. It has to.”
It didn’t get better. It got progressively worse until I noticed that my younger daughter was asking my older one for help with math, since apparently Mama wasn’t functional enough to be useful (not that I’m all that useful in math on a good day).
Then my husband called. He’d been in meetings all morning, so he’d only just gotten my text message. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.” He’s the master of the understatement. And is almost always correct.
But I’m almost always stubborn. I told him we’d have to talk about it later. Or not. I really didn’t see the point, since I didn’t seem to have any other choice.
By the time I fell into bed that night, my head was tight and aching and my heart felt sore. All those “de” words I usually felt—those were nothing. This was absolute despair.
On Tuesday morning, I opened my weary, sleep-deprived eyes, looked up at the ceiling, and realized I felt even worse than I had the night before.
So I quit again. This time, I quit trying to quit writing. And you know what? I wrote 2,500 words that day.
No, I didn’t. It hasn’t gotten easier than it was before that day. I still fail on a regular basis to spend as much time writing as I plan to spend. Life still throws things at me and I don’t do a very good job of juggling them. I still go to bed feeling several “de” words all at once.
But I learned something on the day that I quit writing.
When I try to shut writing out of my life, I work against the very fabric of who I am. Who, I believe, I was created to be. I don’t expect to be the next Anne Tyler (oh, how I wish). I can’t even guarantee that I’ll sell another article, let alone a novel (or two, or three).
But I can guarantee this: if I’m not hoping, planning, and taking every chance I get to actually sit down and write, then I’m not whole.
Over the next several weeks and months, I am going to try to figure this thing out. Figure out a way to be who I am—a writer—while still living in this crazy-wonderful chaos that I call my daily life. I hope the things I learn will result in a finished, sale-able novel, and a contract, and a book tour, and everything else in between and beyond. I also hope the things I learn will help you.
Mandy Houk is a freelance writer and editor, and woefully underpaid home schooling mom. She's sold several nonfiction articles and stories, and placed in a couple of short fiction contests, but she has yet to break into book-length fiction. Her first novel is safely and appropriately in a deep, dark drawer. Her second is in its final rewrite, and will be sent out to agents in 2011. No, really.
Friday, December 3, 2010
Question: Your novels are tightly plotted and paced expertly. One can assume there’s planning on your part with this. How extensively do you outline or plan the novel prior to beginning the prose? Do you know the entire story before you start, or are you a “just in time” kind of author that has a general idea of your direction and uncover the bones of the story – not unlike Knox and an archeology dig?
I’ve tried plotting books from the outset, but it doesn’t work for me, so I’m much more of a jigsaw-puzzle author, in that I put together small scenes in my mind, then try to find ways to fit them into the larger book.
I think that’s partly because of the genre I work in. My books are essentially treasure hunts, so the first thing they need is a lost treasure, preferably with an interesting historical mystery thrown in. Once I’ve picked on a basic premise, therefore, I’ll read up on it and go scout out potential locations. With any luck, I’ll come up with a lot of ideas for possible scenes and revelations during my research, which I’ll then try to knit together into a coherent plot, all aimed towards an explosive final discovery.
Inevitably, however, I’ll find that my first draft or two are very uneven (with massive plot-holes and way too many exposition scenes next to each other, for example, or too many uninterrupted action sequences), so I edit my books over and over again until I’m satisfied the plot is tight enough and the jeopardy, history and romance are more evenly distributed.
Question: Now tell the truth, is The Alexander Cipher your first novel, or is there a box somewhere collecting dust with novels past that served you as training vehicles along the way? A famous author is quoted as relating to an informal survey he performed with publishers asking this very question, and the answer he correlated is that the first published novel is commonly the fifth for the author?
Yes, I completed at least five other novels before I finally got published (though the precise number depends on what constitutes a finished novel). I actually think that some of them are rather good – but sadly my agent disagrees, and I trust his judgment.
The Alexander Cipher is in fact one of my earlier efforts, but while I put aside most of my other books from that period, I was so convinced by the basic premise of the story that I kept coming back to it (the published version is completely unrecognisable from the first draft).
I think the blunt truth is that writing novel-length fiction is hard. There are so many elements you need to get right (pace, insight, characterisation, authenticity, research, flow etc) that it’s not surprising that it takes time and practice. There are some people around with an extraordinary natural flair, but most of us learn by doing it wrong first. I certainly did.
Question: Any advice or hard earned wisdom to share on the query and pitching process?
I have no advice on searching for an agent, other than to keep at it and don’t let yourself be dispirited. I had The Alexander Cipher rejected by every plausible agent in England, some of them twice or more. I even began submitting it under aliases, out of paranoia that agents would recognise my name and think ‘oh no, not him again!’ But I kept working at making it better, and every time I saw that a new agent was setting up business, I’d send it to them too. And finally one of them said yes.
Question: You now have three Daniel Knox novels in print: The Alexander Cipher, The Exodus Quest, and The Lost Labyrinth. Are there any new Knox adventures on the horizon, or possibly on your lap top? Are you planning a new series or any one-off novels soon?
I’m finishing up the fourth one now, set in Madagascar and called The Eden Legacy, but it will be the last Daniel Knox book for the time being. I’d like to try something very slightly different (though I don’t yet know what).
Question: On preparation: Do you perform extensive research and site visits to your locations when initiating a project, or are you more of a virtual traveler utilizing the internet and libraries to create your scenes and plot points.
The Internet’s great, but for me there’s no substitute for getting to a place myself and scouting it out. I typically spend two or three weeks on site at the beginning of a new book, and another two or three weeks at the end. To be fair, however, I get to set my books in beautiful places like Egypt and Greece and Madagascar, and I love travelling to exotic places, so doing the on-site research isn’t exactly a great hardship.
Question: How long from concept to finished first draft does it take to create your novels?
About eighteen months (which is why I find it so hard to produce the one a year that my publishers want!).
Question: You live in the UK . How much success do you see at home, and here in the US? Is there a foreign deal that you’re particularly pleased about? Have you been translated into Russian perhaps? How difficult is it to enter a market other than your home market?
I was very lucky with overseas sales. Because Harper Collins made a big bid for my first book, it generated a lot of publicity, including a big interview in the Times of London. Off the back of that, I had offers flooding in from all over the world. After so many years of struggle, it was wonderful but surreal. And, yes, my books have been published in Russian, as well as Romanian, Serbian, Japanese, Thai, Hebrew and a bunch of other languages (I think The Alexander Cipher has already come out in over twenty markets now – though a lot of that is to do with how popular a figure Alexander the Great is). As for places where I’ve been most successful, it’s hard to know exactly, because I don’t get as much feedback as people might think. But I suspect that would be the UK and Germany – The Alexander Cipher actually made it to number three in Germany, which was wonderful; and it also briefly made it onto the New York Times mass-market bestseller list.
Question: Is there any advice based on your perspective about the entire process of the novel you’d like to share to new authors?
Let me start by saying that every writer is different, and so I’m only speaking for myself here, but one of the reasons it took me longer than it might have to find a publisher was because that I was trying too hard to impress readers, and not hard enough to entertain them. It’s an easy mistake to make, not least because there’s a certain amount of vanity involved in being a writer. In genre fiction, however (and as opposed to literary fiction), you have to clamp down hard on that. An obvious analogy is a sport’s referee: typically, the less you notice them, the better the job they’re doing.
I used to think that it was possible to write literary fiction that was breathlessly exciting too. But when you think about it, one of the jobs of the literary author is to make their readers put down their book for a moment so they can admire their imagery or mull over their ideas; but if, as a writer of a page-turner, your reader puts your book down for any reason, that’s a kind of failure. That’s absolutely not to say that genre fiction can’t be well written (I think Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon and Silence of The Lambs are superbly written, for example), just that different kinds of books have different aims, and that every writer should be aware of that.
Thursday, December 2, 2010
Knox is an underwater archeologist who has the knack, and bad fortune to cross very bad people who strive to hide or use the “true histories” of mankind for their own nefarious ends. Knox is a resourceful and likable hero who is accessible and recognizable to the reader. His travels and perils engage and entertain us, taking us on thrilling rides through some of history’s long unresolved mysteries. Adams’ exotic and sometimes gritty locations are described in a deft, tactile style that put us on site, smelling the dank of a half-sunken burial chamber in Egypt to the shock of a rare cold rain against your desert-dried upturned face.
Thanks to Mr. Adams for taking the time to answer a few questions for Pikes Peak Writers, and we wish him continued and great success with his future projects.
Question: Daniel Knox is the likable and resourceful character first introduced in your novel: The Alexander Cipher. Is Knox based on someone you know, or perhaps is he the vicarious shadow and alter ego of Will Adams? Or truly an invention created in whole by your imagination?
Knox is fictional, though of course he’s very much based on the person I daydream myself to be, if only I had the necessary courage, resourcefulness, knowledge, charm and looks. He was very much an organic creation, if only because I rewrote the story so many times before it finally found a publisher (I wrote the first draft in 1995; it was finally published in 2007). That said, there are certain things about him (such as his looking Bedouin, and losing his parents, and being a diving instructor) which were effectively solutions to plot difficulties. It’s one of the challenges of writing a multi-book series that you use up so much of your characters’ back-stories early on, which can slightly paint you into a corner for the later books.
Question: The Alexander Cipher is your first published novel. Can you elaborate on your experience publishing it? Did you have a chance encounter with an acquiring agent at a pub perhaps? Or maybe a family connection you took advantage of? Or more likely, are there more hours than you’d like to recall pouring over the successive drafts, fine tuning the prose, a stack of rejection letters filed in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet somewhere?
My sister actually worked for one of the big London publishing houses, so after I finished the first draft of The Alexander Cipher, she arranged for one of the readers there to look at it. I was really excited for a while, hoping he’d like it. But he didn’t. He was very nice about it, but he said no, and he was right to. It simply wasn’t good enough, not at the time.
I must have had well over a hundred rejection letters over the years, including a good fifty for The Alexander Cipher alone. It’s very easy to get angry at publishers and agents for that, but the truth is they don’t reject aspiring writers because they enjoy making other people’s lives miserable, they reject them because they don’t think they can sell their work to publishers.
I made a conscious decision a few years back, therefore, to take every rejection as a sign that I needed to do better. That meant taking a good long hard look at myself to try to see where I was falling short, then working to improve. And I did improve. It was slow and painful but noticeable. And finally I got a huge bid from Harper Collins, and within a week I’d had multiple interviews and sold foreign-language rights in a dozen countries. That would never have happened if that reader had made me an offer out of pity or because he liked my sister.
Question: Can you describe your typical writing day? Once you start a novel, do you set for yourself a daily goal perhaps? Do you write at a set time of day, in a specific place, need quiet or music in the background?
I have absolutely no self-discipline whatsoever, so while I set myself daily goals all the time, I never achieve them. The only two ways I can get myself writing are either through fear of missing a deadline or because I’m genuinely caught up in the story I’m working on – which is why picking the right subject when starting on a new project is so important for me.
When things are going well, I write best in the morning, from around seven to midday, and then maybe a little more in the afternoon. I also try to read some relevant book before I go to bed so that I can brood on the ideas overnight. As for my place of work, I have a very quiet study, because I need absolute silence and solitude to get into the story, and my concentration is very fragile. Even a phone conversation at the wrong moment can completely derail my working day.
Question: Was there a time when writing any of your novels that you considered giving up, wondered if it was worth it, wondered if this was the path for you? If so, how did you persevere and push forward?
Yes. I thought about giving up all the time. Relentless failure is very dispiriting. But the blunt truth was that, every time I tried to be adult about it and build myself a proper career, I kept thinking that I should be off writing instead. Not only did that mean I was always unsettled at whatever job I was doing, it also meant I was pretty hopeless at it. So I always worked with the intention of saving enough money that I could survive for a year or so, and write another book. And when I was on one of those writing breaks, I often used to feel that I wasn’t doing it very well, but I can’t remember ever once feeling that I should be doing something else with my life. So carrying on wasn’t a matter of perseverance so much as an acknowledgement of who I was.