Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Forget your book. Rewrite your attitude

Had two encounters with unpubbed writers this week. This is kind of like a Yeti sighting but in some ways more terrifying. Because you never know if they're going to turn on you. You never know when they're going to open their mouths and show those fangs of bad attitude.

I like helping unpubs. I was one once, rejected by every publisher in New York before someone took a chance on me. I know the heartbreak. I know how hard and utterly confusing this all is. But I also know -- learned this through ten years experience publishing books now -- how important having the right attitude is. In fact, attitude might be more important than talent in this game. So when I meet an unpubbed with a bad one, I have learned not to waste my time or breath trying to help.

Back to the two unpubs I met this week. I had agreed to give some advice over coffee. We talked about their writing, and I answered questions. I had read the first 30 pages or so of their manuscripts ahead of time. But I didn't really need to. I could tell from just talking to them which one is going to get published and which one never will. See if you can figure it out:

Unpub A:

  • Wrote eight books.
  • Tried writing both romance and mysteries.
  • Has had all eight books rejected by editors.
  • Just finished a ninth book.
  • Queried 12 agents and got one to take her on.
  • Agent-submitted ninth book was rejected by five New York editors who all said book had promise but was too slow and lacked suspense.
  • Is still working on Book 9 trying to fix pacing problems.
  • Is reading books on how to write suspense
  • Has enrolled in the upcoming SleuthFest Thriller workshop
  • Is thinking she should submit the book to small presses instead of the biggies just to get her foot in the door.
  • Is working on a new idea and outline about a series PI just in case an editor wants a series instead of a standalone.

Unpub B:

  • Finished one book.
  • Bought an established author's critique at a writers conference charity auction. Established writer sent back critique of the first 50 pages with suggestions to improve book.
  • Didn't change a thing.
  • Sent queries to agents. Was very offended by the "lack of personal tone" of the rejections.
  • Got an eager Florida-based agent to take on him on.
  • Didn't change title after agent suggested it wasn't very marketable.
  • Book was rejected after multiple submissions.
  • Didn't change a thing.
  • Is looking for a "more connected" agent.
  • Had book published POD. Sent a copy to the established author asking for a blurb.
  • Didn't like my suggestion that he hone his story down to a single POV and make his plot linear, cutting the confusing flashbacks. Said the book "needed multiple POVs because of the story's complexity demanded it" and that his book was "not really genre fiction but more literary, like Mystic River."
  • Thinks there is a cabal in New York publishing designed to keep POD authors from participating in the distribution system.
  • Hasn't started a new book...but has lots of ideas.

I think you get the idea. Too bad unpub B never will. Yes, you can still write the book you want to and get it published. No, you don't have to sell out. But you have to be smart.

Being smart means learning your craft and walking before you run. (I'm guessing Unpub B never read the five Pat Kenzie Angie Gennaro books Dennis Lehane churned out BEFORE Mystic River).

It means listening to good advice when you are lucky enough to get it.

It means not taking every rejection personally. An agent or editor sends out a hundred SASEs a week and when they say no they aren't rejecting you. They are rejecting your work. There is a difference.

It means writing maybe ten books before you get it right.

It means not automatically expecting the "big" writers to reach down and pull you up. If it happens, consider yourself blessed and give back when it's your turn. But don't whine if it doesn't happen.

It means increasing your chances by making your work as marketable as you can without being false to the writer you are.

It means not not looking for short cuts.

It means not giving up.

It means having the right attitude.

Monday, February 13, 2006

10 things you should NEVER worry about

I am shaking my head as I write this. Was procrastinating this morning by blog surfing and was over at Miss Snark's place where "a somewhat aspirant author" (is that like a slightly sanguine scribe?) was asking how much a manuscript should weigh.

Now maybe this guy was going for funny, but I didn't laugh. Because I have heard far more inane questions from folks trying to get published. There's so much advice floating around in the blogasphere, in how-to books and in magazines -- everything from plot structure to how to craft a killer query letter.

But I never hear one big thing that needs to be said:

Stop worrying about the dumb stuff. It drains your energy. It diverts your attention. It gives you a really good reason to NOT do what you really need to do -- write the best damn book you can write. See, if you're busy obsessing over what font to use you don't have to wrestle the hairy POV beast to the mat, do you.

So if you are trying to write a novel or you have finished one and are trying to get published, here is my list of things you should not waste one brain cell on. These are real questions I have been asked. I am not making any of this up, I swear:

1. Should I use Word or Wordperfect?
Whatever you are comfortable using. No one else gives a flying rat fart.

2. Will a publisher or agent steal my idea if I submit it?
No. If it is good and you show a basic command of the craft, they will buy it and work with you on it.

3. Do I need to get an agent?
Not unless you have finished at least one book. Preferably two. This is called counting your royalty check eggs before you have bought the chicken. Don't worry about renting out Carnegie Hall if all you can play is three chords of Heart and Soul.

4. What if they want me to change it?
They will. So don't sweat it.

5. Should I include a CD with my submission?
Paper is still the currency of choice in this business. Unless otherwise asked, don't bother with anything but. New York is a curiously 19th century place.

6. I don't want my mother to read the sex scenes, bad language or the character I modeled after my alcoholic Uncle Harvey. Should I wait until she is dead?
Being a writer means spilling a certain amount of blood on the page, taking emotional risks. If you aren't at this point in your life, you aren't a writer.

7. I'm querying an agent. Should I send my first chapter or my best chapter?
If your first chapter isn't your best chapter, you're in deep doo-doo.

8. Who should I dedicate my book to?

9. Should I include my picture with my submission?
Only if you're Brad Pitt or his wife old whatshername.

10. My life is kind of busy right now. Should I wait until (fill in the blank): my kids go to college, my wife gets her promotion, my basement is finished so I can set up a home office, I finish night school, I have more time, I have more money, I have more energy...?
No. You will never have the ideal conditions to write. Something will always come up to distract you -- if you let it. You must choose to write. You must do it knowing that nothing may ever come out of it but the satisfaction of finishing your manuscript. You must do it on faith. Poe was penniless and died in a sewer. He didn't wait until he had the right desk lamp.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Growing readers or selling BMWs

The publishing world seems to do a lot of things wrong. Like printing ever more books in a shrinking market. Most crime novels and mysteries are read by white women over fifty, and it doesn't seem anybody has a clue how to lure kids away from video games, computers, ipods and such and into books. Even adults are drifting away from reading, done in by the time demands of daily life and well, plain old laziness.

We all know reading is a habit, one acquired early in life if you're lucky enough to be born into a family or readers. I know that's where I got the bug -- reading the funny papers on my dad's lap, and later listening to my teachers read "Charlotte's Web" and the Laura Ingalls Wilder series.

But I'm a child of the fifties, a different world and a different mindset. And I'm worried that readers are an endangered species and no one knows how to save them.

I don't see much evidence that anyone in publishing is thinking outside the box about how to make things better. So it always shocks me when I hear about something that seems like a good idea.

Like Quick Reads.

You probably haven't heard about it. It's a new program over in the United Kingdom. It's a joint initiative of publishers, booksellers and writers. They are going to publish 12 paperbacks next month by bestselling authors. But these books are short (128 pages max, fast-paced and compulsively readable. They'll sell for about five bucks and cross genres from mysteries, romance and fantasy to self-help and football. Before you dismiss this as Reading For Mouth-Breathers, check out some of the authors:

Ruth Rendell
Val McDermid
Minette Walters
Maeve Binchy
Richard Branson

The target audience is "emergent readers and adult learners." So it is obviously a calculated attempt to appeal to those folks who might ordinarily find your average novel too intimidating or difficult. But I don't think it's a dumbing-down for the edges of the literate. It is a smart campaign to grow readers who, once hooked into the magic of the imagination, might move on to ever more challenging fare.

The first Quick Reads debut in the UK March 2 on World Book Day. Another 10 will follow in May in honor of Adult Learners Month. All with a big publicity push and major outreach campaigns for teachers, librarians and tutors. The books will be available in bookstores, supermarkets, libraries -- well, anywhere you'd find your basic James Patterson.

What a great idea. Leave it to the Brits.

I'd love to have one of my books in this project. But I'm not published in the UK and I don't see anyone in the U.S. setting up such a program. Here, Random House gives us their bestselling authors linking up with BMW to write product-placement audio books to sell luxury cars.

But I just figured out why I really felt compelled to write this blog entry. See, I have this brochure in my drawer. It's been there for years. It's from the Broward County Library Association “Each One Teach One,” program. It's our local adult literacy program and they're always looking for tutors. I've been wanting to volunteer for years, but I've always found reasons not to.

But I don't have time. Just like so many folks don't have time to read.

If I want more readers, maybe I have to get off my butt and help grow a couple.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

James Frey and the Edgars

I just found out that James Frey -- you know, Oprah's Punching Bag, Random House persona non grata and The Single Guy Most Responsible for the Decline of 21st Century Publishing As We Know It -- that same James Frey was nominated for an Edgar Award in 1988 for his paperback original The Long Way To Die.

I have no bloody idea what this means. But there is something creepy about the unharmonic convergence of the just-announced Edgar nominations and the Frey debacle. Can someone help me out here?