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Posts Tagged ‘writers’

Writers’ Rooms

In creative spaces on December 2, 2013 at 8:54 pm

briggs

I’ve been neglecting this space for quite a while, as I’m trying to finish the proposal for my next project. Because I’m the superstitious sort, I won’t divulge the subject matter yet. I’ll only do that if/when a publisher decides to run with it! But what’s brought me back here is a great series that ran a while back in London’s Guardian newspaper. Simply called Writers’ Rooms, it’s comprised of “portraits of the spaces where authors create.”

The image above shows the writing desk of author and illustrator Raymond Briggs, of whom I’ve been a fan since childhood.

You can check out the entire series here. It’s well worth the time. Each picture is accompanied by a short essay by the featured author, explaining his/her creative space and working habits.

The slings and arrows of online reviews

In Uncategorized on September 26, 2013 at 7:20 am

I put a lot of debate into whether I should publish this—but then I thought, “What the hell?” As an author, one is at the mercy of online reviews. I’ve been fortunate that the majority of those who have taken the time to review my books online have been very kind in their appraisals—especially with my latest book, Human Game. Several reviews for some of my previous books, however, have left me puzzled.

In 2006, Penguin published my second book, In the Dark, which details Scotland Yard’s hunt for a Jack-the-Ripper-type serial killer who stalked London during the Blitz. The killer, a Royal Air Force cadet, killed four women in six days (and attacked two others) before his apprehension. The press dubbed him “The Blackout Ripper.” Aside from the killer, the book’s central character is Detective Chief Superintendent Frederick Cherrill, who headed Scotland Yard’s Fingerprint Department at the time and was pivotal in Cummins’ prosecution.

Yesterday, while browsing some reviews on Goodreads, I came across a critique in which a reader said he couldn’t understand why I provided background information on Cherrill or why I bothered shedding light on the lives of the women Cummins killed. The reader thought such details were unnecessary to the story. I respectfully beg to differ. Considering Cherrill’s role in the story, I think it’s pivotal readers know who he is, otherwise he’s merely a name on a page and someone you know nothing about. Likewise, my reasoning for providing biographical sketches on the poor women who were killed. They worked as prostitutes, but each one had a story as to how they ended up on the streets. This made them human and—I hope—allowed readers to feel some empathy.

This brings me to a comment in another review. The Scotland Yard case files were the primary source of information for the book, though I relied on several secondary sources for details on life in wartime London. A woman, who did not like the book (fair enough), wrote, “It’s fairly obvious from the scant sources cited that the research was drawn almost exclusively from the Scotland Yard case files and court transcripts.” Personally speaking—and I’m obviously biased—I have a hard time seeing how this is a negative. In the Dark is the first and only book on the case, so there weren’t a whole lot of secondary sources to draw from. I’ll take primary source material over secondary sources any day. You’re getting information that’s not tarnished by another author’s biases or interpretations.

I should say, the woman was incredibly snarky in her write-up. I get you don’t like the book–but why be mean about it? Of course, to each their own. I’m thankful whenever someone reads something of mine. So, to the individuals I referenced above, thanks for your time!

Writing and the wisdom of Huey Lewis

In Uncategorized, Writing on May 6, 2013 at 9:07 am

Well, I shipped off the manuscript for my latest book a couple of days ago. My home office looks like a tornado ripped through it: research documents, books, and crumpled manuscript pages scattered everywhere. My first order of business will be to clean the mess up this week. Second order of business will be to enjoy a break from the keyboard this summer and ponder my next project.

The Case That Foiled Fabian will be my seventh book. A lot of people assume that once you publish a book, you become instantly wealthy and can quit your day job. Alas, this is not the case. I have an office job I report to each morning. One, of course, can always hope—but as the years have worn on, and I’ve become more knowledgeable of how publishing works, I’ve sort of abandoned the dream of having a major bestseller—but I have not surrendered the idea of someday being able to write books fulltime.

I’m a long-time fan of Huey Lewis and the News. I recently watched an online interview with Lewis in which he said something that struck a chord. Talking about the music industry, he said a lot of people get into it for the fame and glory. Eventually, however, the passion for what you’re doing overcomes everything and what you end up wanting most is just a decent career doing what you love while remaining true to yourself.

Years ago, I pined for a bestseller—and while I’d still love to score one someday, what I really want more than anything is to just be able to write fulltime and make enough to provide for my family. Of course, the odds of achieving such a thing are rare. Slowly, I’m learning to appreciate the fact I’m simply lucky enough to be published, as there are many great writers out there who never get the chance to enjoy that thrill.

Doubt: It’s every writer’s companion

In Writing on April 26, 2013 at 8:51 am

It’s something every writer deals with while banging away at the keyboard: doubt. We’re our own worst critics. It’s a terrible moment to read something you’ve put down on paper only to realize there’s nothing but a mess on the page. Of course, it’s not always as bad as you think—it’s just doubt mercilessly kicking your self-confidence in the groin. The next time you worry something you’ve written is not up to your usual high standards, consider this letter penned by a first-time author to a friend:

I had the idea that one could write a thriller with half one’s mind, and I simply wrote 2,000 words a day to show myself that I could. I didn’t read it through as I wrote it, and when I returned to England and did so I really was appalled.

The dialogue, a lot of the descriptions and the main characters are dreadfully banal and three-quarters of the writing is informed with what I can only describe as vulgarity. Such good action moments as there are in the story have been more or less thrown away and so far as I can see the element of suspense is completely absent.

After riffling through this muck you will probably never speak to me again, but I have got to take that chance. For God’s sake don’t mention this dreadful oafish opus to anyone else, and for heaven’s sake believe, as I am sure you will after you have read a few pages, that this is not mock humility.

The author, opining on his first manuscript, goes on for another couple of paragraphs and rips his work to shreds. Long story short, the manuscript wound up in the hands of UK publisher Jonathan Cape, who thought highly of the story and the writing. And on April 13, 1953, Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published.

See? Even the best writers harshly judge their own abilities.

Defending the self-published

In publishing on December 5, 2012 at 11:31 am

books

As I work on my current book project for UK publisher The History Press and prepare for Constable & Robinson’s British release of Human Game in March, my thoughts have been turning—with increasing frequency—to self-publishing. My first book, On the House, was released by Penguin in 2005 and went out of print a couple of years ago. Since the rights have reverted back to me, I have toyed with the idea of publishing the book myself in Amazon’s Kindle Store to give it a second chance at life.

While researching the benefits and pitfalls of releasing a book without a traditional publisher’s backing, I stumbled across a Forbes article in which a couple of mega-selling authors trash self-published writers (the article was published in August, so I’m a bit late coming to it). Here is what Sue Grafton, author of numerous mysteries–such as A is for Alibi and C is for Corpse–had to say on the subject. Judging from the following quote, I assume “B is for Bitchy”:

To me, it seems disrespectful…that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research. … Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall.

Maybe “S is for Snotty.” This quote astounds me. Why would Ms. Grafton assume a self-published author is a “wannabe” who thinks writing and publishing are easy? Anyone who has the discipline to sit down, write every day, and complete a manuscript knows there’s nothing easy about it. People can read, study, and do research into traditional publishing, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to get published. Think of how many great writers there must be out there who have been unable to land a traditional writing contract. Maybe someone did do their research and decided traditional publishing wasn’t for them. What’s wrong if they want to share their work with others? Ms. Grafton says self-publishing is a short cut—and that there should be no short cuts in art. James Joyce self-published Ulysses. Does that make Joyce a “wannabe”? Self-published authors have to hire graphic designers to do the book covers, editors to go over the manuscript, and they have to try and market and promote the book themselves–there’s nothing easy about any of that.

This brings me to the next quote—this one from thriller writer Brad Thor, author of Black List and Full Black, among others:

The important role that publishers fill is to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you’re a good writer and have a great book you should be able to get a publishing contract.

If traditional publishers “separate the wheat from the chaff,” how does one explain Fifty Shades of Gray or Twilight (my apologies to fans of James and Meyer)? What about books supposedly written by Snooki or Paris Hilton? If you’re a good writer, you hope you’ll land a publishing contract. What Mr. Thor seems to ignore, however, is that a publishing contract in no way guarantees success. You could have your book released by a major publishing house, only to face the frustration of seeing said publisher do nothing to promote or market the work. I spent three years working on one book only to see it come out in a blaze of obscurity: zero publicity and miserable distribution. It was a shattering experience. Yes, it was released in hardcover by a major publisher. And while I did everything I could to get the word out, one can only do so much.

Thor and Grafton must be oblivious to the fact that they’re the exception—not the rule. They’ve achieved a level of success most struggling authors will never attain. It seems contemptuous to verbally smack around authors who are simply trying to get their work into the hands of readers. Now, yes, I agree there’s a lot of crap that’s self-published. But there’s a lot of crap that’s been released through traditional publishing houses, too. In the end, it should be for readers to decide what’s good or bad. One reader’s James Patterson is another’s Raymond Chandler.

I’ve had six non-fiction books released thus far by major publishers in the United States and Britain, and am considering self-publishing. I don’t believe that makes me a “wannabe.” I don’t believe talented authors who’ve been unable to land publishing contracts and decide to self-publish are “wannabes,” either. They’re just as passionate about what they do as Grafton or Thor. I’ll even venture to say some are just as—if not more—talented.

Hope and Nerves: ‘Human Game’ publication date fast approaching

In books, publishing, Writing on August 16, 2012 at 9:24 am

There’s about six weeks to go before Human Game is thrust upon the reading public—whether said public takes notice is now the issue at hand. My publicist at Penguin has started pitching long-lead publications (primarily magazines), hoping to score hits in issues that come out near the time of the book’s October 2 release. Wired Magazine, which is doing an escaped-theme issue in October, has already confirmed they’ll include a write-up on the book. I’m hoping other publications take the bait. Near the time of the book’s release, newspapers will be pitched. Scoring book reviews in papers like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times is no easy task. To date, the San Francisco Chronicle is the largest publication to feature a review of one of my books. Fortunately, it was a positive piece!

This, to me, is one of the real nail-biting phases of the publication process. You can spend three years researching and writing a book, anguishing over every sentence—but that effort doesn’t guarantee you an audience. It’s been seven years since the publication of my first book. With subsequent books, I always wondered, “Will this be the one?” With Human Game, however, I’ve taken a more grounded approach. I’m incredibly proud of the book; I think it’s an important book—but I’m not approaching the publication date with overblown hopes that it will suddenly takeoff and score massive sales. I learned with my last work, which my publisher at the time said was going to be huge, that fostering such hope can bring you crashing painfully down to earth. That’s not to say one shouldn’t dream of success; it’s just important to hold firm to a healthy dose of realism.

I walked into a Barnes and Noble in the Bay Area last week and took a look at the “New Releases” table(s). It’s almost overwhelming when one considers how many new books are released on a weekly basis. Then, of course, there are e-books and the countless self-published works one can find on Amazon these days. The market is utterly swamped. It makes you wonder how any book can rise above the din and distinguish itself in the crowd.

As Human Game’s publication date draws ever closer, I do find myself falling off the wagon and surrendering to an old addiction: Sales Rank Checking. This is a syndrome defined by the chronic checking of one’s sales rank on Amazon. At the time of this writing, Human Game is hovering around the 300,000 mark. The highest I’ve ever had a book reach is 1,000. The Amazon sales rank is an albatross around many an author’s neck, for it’s the one real indication we have—albeit, a vague one—of how a book is doing. While maintaining realistic hopes about the book’s success, I’d love it if it cracked Amazon’s top 100.

I can only wait and see what happens. In the meantime, here’s the jacket copy to Human Game.

In March and April of 1944, Gestapo gunmen killed fifty POWs—a brutal act in defiance of international law and the Geneva Convention.

This is the true story of the men who hunted them down.

The mass breakout of seventy-six Allied airmen from the infamous Stalag Luft III became one of the greatest tales of World War II, immortalized in the film “The Great Escape.” But where Hollywood’s depiction fades to black, another incredible story begins . . .

Not long after the escape, fifty of the recaptured airmen were taken to desolate killing fields throughout Germany and shot on the direct orders of Hitler. When the nature of these killings came to light, Churchill’s government swore to pursue justice at any cost. A revolving team of military police, led by squadron leader Francis P. McKenna, was dispatched to Germany seventeen months after the killings to pick up a trail long gone cold.

Amid the chaos of postwar Germany, divided between American, British, French, and Russian occupiers, McKenna and his men brought twenty-one Gestapo killers to justice in a hunt that spanned three years and took them into the darkest realms of Nazi fanaticism.

In Human Game, Simon Read tells this harrowing story as never before. Beginning inside Stalag Luft III and the Nazi High Command, through the grueling three-year manhunt, and into the final close of the case more than two decades later, Read delivers a clear-eyed and meticulously researched account of this often-overlooked saga of hard-won justice.

The writer’s vice

In Random thoughts on May 2, 2012 at 9:13 am

“You’re a rummy, but no more than most good writers are.” So wrote Hemingway—a man who knew a thing or two about drinking—in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Writing and alcohol have long been companions. Indeed, numerous bars around the world continue to benefit from the patronage of their famous—though, now deceased—customers. There are more than a handful of watering holes who boast Hemingway as a one-time patron. The writer was a frequent visitor to Harry’s Bar in Venice, where he had his own table in the corner. He laid numerous daïquiris to waste at El Floridita in Havana and enjoyed drinking scotch at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West.

Dylan Thomas gulped his last drink at Manhattan’s White Horse Tavern. Hunter S. Thompson enjoyed frequent libations at the Woody Creek Tavern in Colorado. Ian Fleming drank a bottle of gin a day. This, coupled with his daily habit of smoking seventy cigarettes, contributed to his early demise at the age of fifty-six. His favorite pub was the Duck Inn in Pett Bottom near Canterbury. His favorite chair in the back is dully marked. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, while not heavyweight drinkers like the aforementioned scribes, met Tuesday mornings as part of a group called “The Inklings” at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford. A plaque above their table marks the meeting spot. Jack Kerouac paid regular visits to Vesuvio across the street from City Lights in San Francisco.

Tourism spots aside, many great scribblers have embraced alcohol—often to their own detriment. But I’ve always wanted to know why? Perhaps it has something to do with availability and opportunity. If you’re wandering around your house all day, trying to come up with something to jot down on paper, it’s pretty easy to grab a scotch from the wet bar or beer from the fridge. Perhaps it’s a distraction from the solitary nature of writing itself. Authors, by their trade, are loners, and a drink can be good company. A 2008 Los Angeles Times article I found on this subject matter states:

“Intoxication, if not the source of literary creation, creates a cerebral aura congenial to it. It recasts the glare of life in a softer hue. It soothes anxiety and other stultifiers of reflection. It warms the mind and thaws thoughts frozen in timidity. The fruit of the vine does not give us insight but aids our discovery of it; it can allow you to eavesdrop on yourself.”

While some authors claim drinking helps get the words flowing, it has the opposite effect on me. Writing, as all who do it know, is hard work. It’s mentally taxing at times and can wear you down. I might sit with a glass of scotch or wine beside me as I write, but I would never tackle a page while feeling intoxicated—or even slightly buzzed. Yes, alcohol takes the edge off, but I want my mind to be as sharp and focused as possible when I work. That said, I do enjoy drinking and take great pleasure in toasting a good day’s writing.

Of course, none of this answers the question as to why so many authors are full-blown alcoholics. Consider this fact from a 2011 article in Slate: “According to one study, 71 percent of prominent 20th-century American writers at least flirted with alcoholism. (Only 8 percent of the general population abuses alcohol.)”

In the end, it’s very easy to romanticize the notion of the hard-drinking writer. I mean, let’s be honest . . . it wouldn’t be the same if writers instead had a penchant for making shadow animals.

Writing room makeover

In creative spaces on April 19, 2012 at 9:01 am

Where I bang the keys . . .

Every writer dreams of having that perfect creative space, a place where they can retreat from the stresses of the real world and work in relative peace. The reality, of course, is many of us can’t afford a little studio out back or a separate office somewhere. The next best thing is a room in the house you can claim as your own. My hideaway is a bedroom upstairs I requisitioned as an office. The above picture is what the room currently looks like. I have long been threatening to do something with this space—to make it more of a writer’s retreat.

My dream involves installing a recliner, mini-bar, and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves—none of which will actually happen. If I really had my way—and the necessary cash to pull it off—I’d live and work in the English countryside. I’d own some quaint cottage with an appropriately English name, something along the lines of “Inkwell” or “Quill House,” on a wooded acre or two. It wouldn’t be far from a proper country pub. By proper, I mean stone fireplace, beamed ceilings, and no flashing fruit machines. The mornings would start with an early walk in the country—coffee mug in hand and dog at my side—followed by breakfast with the family. I’d then retire to my writing shed out back and get my daily quota of 1,000 words down on paper. With the writing finally out of the way, my wife and I would head to the pub for an evening drink and be home in time to catch the latest “Downton Abbey.” Yes, life would be grand.

Since I live in a suburban town in Northern California and not my native UK, I’ve had to amend my vision somewhat. I’ve started work on the project, though I’m not entirely sure what the end result will look like. Regardless, I’ll eventually post a picture of the great “Home Office Makeover.”

My apologies to J.K. Rowling

In publishing on April 13, 2012 at 8:40 am

She looks utterly devastated, doesn't she?

Today, J.K. Rowling is a woman consumed by fear and anxiety. “But, why?” I hear you ask. The answer is simple: Her first book for adults, The Casual Vacancy, comes out the same week as my humble effort, Human Game. The Parabolist of Potter, the undisputed queen of bestsellerdom, knows she has met a worthy opponent. In me, she faces a man with a few books released by respectable publishers but only purchased by a small circle of readers composed primarily of his wife, parents, and yours truly.

Yesterday, I discovered J.K. Rowling’s doomed tome hits stores a mere five days before mine. The poor lass; she’s probably in her Scottish castle, cursing her luck and kicking her priceless objets d’arts. I almost feel sorry for her when I consider the pressure she’s under. Expectations for her first non-Potter book are at a stratospheric level. Not only must she contend with fears of whether readers will embrace her as a “serious” novelist, she must now worry about the infinitesimal ding my book will make in her sales. Sorry, J.K., you can blame my publisher, Penguin, for the scheduling snafu.

True, her book will undoubtedly enjoy five months of pre-release publicity, rife with speculation about the plot and characters. Media outlets will hound her publicist to set up interviews, while pre-orders will likely push her book to the top of the bestseller lists months before it even comes out. But on the actual week when her publisher–Little, Brown and Company–thrusts The Casual Vacancy onto the reading public, a segment of the population will flock instead to purchase Human Game. Who are these people? The same folks I mentioned above: My wife, my parents, and me.

If the fates are particularly cruel, six inches of column space in some random book review section may even mention my book, cutting into the endless number of pages devoted to Rowling’s effort. It will surely be a bitter pill for the Goddess of Gryffindor to swallow.

Let it be known I take no pleasure in reducing one of the world’s most beloved storytellers to a quivering mass of insecurity and self-pity—but such is the cutthroat world of publishing. I wish there was something I could do, but things are out of my hands.

Sorry, J.K.

What’s the best way for an author to be remembered?

In books, writers, Writing on April 10, 2012 at 9:18 am

This past weekend, I checked the Amazon listing for Human Game and was pleased to see the sales ranking had jumped from the million-mark to the neighborhood of 200,000. Someone had obviously pre-ordered a copy. To that kind-hearted and anonymous individual, I send my sincere thanks. The book isn’t due out until October 2—indeed, the Amazon listing does not yet feature the cover image—so it’s great to know that someone is eager enough to order the book seven months before its release.

I once read somewhere that for a book to be a bestseller, heavy promotion has to begin about six months before it hits stores. Whether this is true or not, I have no idea—but, certainly, an aim of this blog is to get the word out. I realize blogging alone won’t sell books, but I’m hoping it helps. At this stage, it’s too early to tell. I do find it interesting, however, that several visitors to my blog have got here by entering the book’s title as their search-engine query.

While discussing all this with my wife over the weekend, I said, “What I’d give for just one major seller!” I feel no shame in admitting this. Yes, I want to sell out—I want to sell out an entire print run! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a writer, musician, or any artist, for that matter, wanting to make money from their toils. Of course, I don’t write solely for cash. I enjoy the process and take great satisfaction in receiving the final product from the publisher prior to publication. I’m just saying one bestseller would be nice!

This all leads to a question: As an author, is it better to be remembered as a prolific scribe who turned out high quality books that never sold in large quantities, or remembered solely for one big-selling book in particular? Pondering this question, I drummed up a short list of authors who only ever produced one book—but, of course, they’re works have the stuff of immortality.

Margaret Mitchell – Gone with the Wind
Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird
Ralph Ellison – The Invisible Man
John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy of Dunces
Emily Brontë – Wuthering Heights

As for authors who produced numerous works but are remembered primarily for one book, I came up with the following (this, of course, is open to debate):

Hunter S. Thompson – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Joseph Heller – Catch-22
J.D. Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye
Ken Kesey – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Henry Miller – Tropic of Cancer
D.H. Lawrence – Lady Chatterley’s Lover
F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby

Honestly, if I were to be remembered at all, I’d be happy to be remembered either way, for it means the work–whether multiple books, or just one–has touched a considerable audience.

The Guardian approached this from a different angle last year and composed a list of authors “famous for the wrong book.” Among them are Kurt Vonnegut for Slaughterhouse-Five and Evelyn Waugh for Brideshead Revisited.

Are there any authors you’d add to the above lists?

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