Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Reversing Expectations

Is anyone else watching The Sopranos? Big warning. Huge spoiler alert if you're not caught up on this season. STOP READING NOW.

The first few episodes this season, I was enjoying the show, but thought they were setting up/foreshadowing a certain development to help tie up the show. What was I expecting? It seemed like they were making us think that Christopher was going to turn states evidence on Tony.

They showed Christopher falling apart. Showed the growing rift between him and Tony. Showed him murder the Tim Daly character in cold blood and totally out of control. Not cleaning up his mess etc. Clearly, I thought, setting things up for Christopher to be arrested for a serious crime. One serious enough that he'd turn on Tony to get off more easily.

At the end of the episode where Christopher killed Tim Daly, I was starting to get so upset. I was so sure I was right about where that storyline was leading and thought it was a little boring, a little predictable, a little too heavily foreshadowed.

And then the writers totally reversed my expectations.

Okay, I've decided not to post the spoiler. If you've seen that episode, the one that "finishes" Christopher's story, you know what I mean. If you haven't seen it, then you should. Now.

I think reversing expectations is a very powerful tool in the writers kit. But one to be used wisely and sparingly. If all you do is reverse expectations, then that can get predictable, too... Or people can have their reversal expectations so high you can't meet them. M. Night Shyamalan anyone?

How about you? Do you purposefully try to reverse readers' expectations? Do you like books that do, or do you like to know where a story is heading?

Monday, May 28, 2007

How to Write Faster

Harlequin is making no bones these days about wanting their writers to write two or three books a year. And frankly, if you want to make a living as a Harlequin writer and you're just starting out - this is pretty much what you need to do if you dream of quitting that day job. So - you have to write fast.

I just finished another book. Trust me - I'm not writing this to brag. I CAN'T BELIEVE IT! There are plenty of problems (thank God for critique groups) but 85% of the work on this book is done. And I started it three months ago. So -- we all need to write fast - I am writing fast - this is what I am doing - I hope it helps.

1. Outline. 5- 10 pages. It will change. But it gets you thinking about where you need all your characters to go -- it gives you guideposts of big scenes that you know you're going to have to write. Most of all - it helps you in Chapter 5 when everything has ground down to a halt. It's a reference point and when you're trying to write fast reference points are very nice to have. I actually take WAY more time at this stage than I do with writing. Makes sense when you think about it.

2. Subplots -- you're going to need them. When things slow down in the main plot and you want to walk away from the computer you throw in your subplot and it not only picks up the slack in your slacking book - it keeps you writing.

3. Get off the FREAKING INTERNET -- never has there been a bigger time suck. Never.

4. Never sit down without knowing what you need to do for that day. You don't want to spend your computer time thinking -- you need to be writing.

5. Only write for an hour - two hours at a time MAX. This is really the longest you can stay on task -- and by you I mean me. But I find after about an hour and a half no matter where I am in the book - how good things are going - I start to drift towards the fridge. Shut down the computer - do something else for at least and hour and then come back to it. It seems counterproductive - but it keeps me fresh, on point, diligent and hungry to write.

6. Forgive yourself the crappy first draft you are going to write. Fixing is for later. Now is for writing. Just get down the bones.

7. Get a critique group because when writing fast you have no real perspective and speaking for myself no idea if what I vomiting on to the screen is working.

There you go. Gotta run.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The death of the historical romance

It’s been a topic discussed in various forms on several blogs I’ve read lately, and I’ve seen quite a few historical romance authors leave the genre, or leave writing altogether.

And considering this is what I write, I’ve given it some thought lately. I’ve been telling my critique group (wrongly) for ages now that the historical is making a comeback. Waiting, hearing on agent blogs that editors are asking for historical submissions.

And then the caveat - if they’re hot, steamy, erotic. Does that put them in the erotic category, or historical category, or is this just more blending of genres, which we’ve seen a lot of lately.

I’ve waited for a new historical author to really make a splash, the way Allison Brennan has in romantic suspense, or Gena Showalter has in paranormals and nothing’s hit my radar, not that it means there hasn’t been that author, I may have missed them.

So what’s happened to the historical?

Some of my favourites, Iris Johansen, Julie Garwood switched to suspense and have done really well. A couple of others either retired, Maggie Osborne, or really slowed down, Laura Kinsale, we miss you.

Some authors that did well five years ago continue to do well, Julia Quinn and Stephanie Laurens come to mind, but I think right now, they are in the minority.

Now we all know, publishing is cyclical. Five years ago, people tell me, you couldn’t give away a dark romantic suspense, or a paranormal. And now, well… we all know how well those genres are doing.

So what did happen? There are a lot of theories out there. My own is that a lot of similar books were released and the consumer got bored. How many variations on the lite regency can someone read before they get sick of them. Not enough variety in the market, and too many of the same plot devices.
I even got bored and turned to other genres. Which is a sad state.

And the future?
No clue, but I’d love to hear other’s opinions. I know how much I love a really good historical. The first two books in the Dark Queen series by Susan Carroll were amazing.
They were different, occasionally dark and really well written.
I’d like more of those books. Books that don’t read cookie cutter, where actual stuff happens that challenges the protagonists, and they have to overcome obstacles. You know, books that have conflict, drama, be it lite, heavy, dark, I don’t care.
I think there are others out there like me. Just waiting for a really good historical romance to re-ignite their love in the genre.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Best Writing Advice...I Never Took.

There is so much good information out there. Listening to other writers talk about how they pry story out of their heads is nothing but entertaining...most of the time. I have a list of authors I would go a long way to hear talk - because they are not only funny and self-deprecating and interesting - but every time I go -- it's a gold mine of craft info. Eloisa James, Lisa Gardiner, Robert McKee, Virginia Kantra - the list goes on and on.

I wish Maureen and Sinead took better notes or I had a better brain but I feel like I've heard so much good information and it's all just slipped away from me - unused. The key to writing faster, smarter, more emotionally satisfying books is probably something I've heard and forgotten a million times.

But I realized something this weekend - what's even more shameful than that is the fact that I've heard some AMAZING advice, remembered it, think about it often and NEVER DO IT! What's wrong with me?

So - here it is the best advice I ever heard and never took (besides the only eat half your meal and salt the rest so you don't eat it) is from the incredible Lisa Gardiner. Write each of your scenes on a different notecard. Use different colors for the different, plotlines and characters in your book so you can visually keep track of your scenes, your subplots, your red herrings and character reveals. Genius! Brilliant! Wish I did it.

So -- let me have it -- best writing advice you've never used

Friday, May 18, 2007

the bad news and the good news...

If you read Molly’s blog this week, you’ll know in the majority of cases, most writers starting out don’t make a ton of money.

And please don’t think this situation exists just in category. I’ve heard of single title advances being lower than category advances for romance and other genres.

And if you read Maureen’s blog, you’ll know publishing is one large guessing game. No one really knows, we’re all throwing out darts, hoping one will stick, and that includes editors and agents.

So where does that leave us aspiring writers. Chances are, even if I do sell my next book, my advance broken down on the work I did on an hourly basis for just that book would be pitiful. And thats if it sells, which in this market can be a long shot.

So why do we keep going?

Had a drunk writer conversation with Molly and Maureen on just this topic. Maureen’s theory, we’re too stubborn to give up. I completely agree with this. I’m really stubborn and once started, I hate to give up on anything.
But there is more to it. In the hard work, and the revisions and constant edits, is this entity, my book - people, conversations, events, and I created it from nothing.

400 pages of actual stuff that wouldn’t have existed had I not sat in front of the computer. A concept I love, an idea that makes me genuinely excited and in all of this, a serious love of storytelling that’s really only come to light in the last two years.

Any storytelling and a deep down appreciation of great storytelling.

And in that, an ambition to create a great story. I’m far from there, but with every book, I get closer. And I find that really exciting.

Basically I’m a story geek and proud of it.

So amidst all of the uncertainty and difficulty, this keeps me going more than anything. That and my great writer friends and my critique group.

What keeps you going?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Life in the Casino

The world of publishing is a confusing one. On the one hand, it's a business. Obviously it's a business. Publishers aren't there to lose money. Writers expect to get paid for their work and all the many other people involved (agents, editors, book designers, sales and marketing people) expect to get paid, too.

On the other hand, publishing falls clearly in the arts with one big foot in the entertainment industry. Many other discliplines in the arts require fundraising or grants (public or private) to exist (ballets, theatres, art galleries) but publishing does not.

Because of this one foot in the arts and one foot in business dichotomy, publishing, in many ways, doesn't (thank God, in my opinion) follow many of what would be called "best business practices" in other industries. If it did, then only the sure things would ever get published. And only the lowest common denominator of reader (in terms of taste, education, etc.) would be catered to.

Now, some may argue that's already true. But I think that's too cynical. (And this from a known cynic.) Lots of really different and exciting and challenging books get published. Books I'm sure are considered a HUGE gamble by everyone involved and that are published not because anyone can produce a spreadsheet or report predicting with any accuracy how well it will sell, but simply because those involved in the process LOVE the book and believe in it. Often it's those books that break through and sell well. Often it's not. Often it's the ones with more obvious mass appeal that do well... And nothing wrong with that either. Point is, there's still room for lots of different books to get published. (Just not room for as many as those of us hoping to join the ranks of published authors would like.)

I found the recent article in the New York Times very fun and interesting to read. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/13/business/yourmoney/13book.html?_r=2&h&oref=slogin

I'd read a similar (but much less accessible) essay on this topic written by a British statistician, a few years ago, but can't remember the man's name. One of the arguments I do remember him making in his essay stood out for me, though. He argued that if Yann Martel hadn't received so many rejections from all the big publishers for Life of Pi, it never would have become a bestseller. Why? Because a bigger house wouldn't have put him forward for the Booker prize (they would have nominated one of their bestsellers) and it was only after winning that prize that the book got so huge. So, if he'd sold sooner and to a bigger house, (even the publisher of his first two books which passed on Pi, it probably would have languished on the shelves and sold a few hundred copies. (Most people don't realize that of Life of Pi was first published by a small press and only picked up by the big boys after it won the prize.)

Moral is, Many different random stars need to align for even the best books to get noticed.

My favorite line of the whole NYT article comes at the end, where Sittenfeld states that an editor once told her, “People think publishing is a business, but it’s a casino.”

Yes, it's all a big gamble.

Every time a writer sits down at her computer, she's taking a huge risk. Spending hours, weeks, months, years working on something that may never earn a penny and that others may not like. Every time an agent takes on a book or a client he/she's taking a risk that he/she'll spend a lot of time/effort trying to sell a book to no end. Every time an editor decides he/she loves a book she's taking a risk on her credibility and her job by telling her bosses at the publisher she thinks they should spend money on acquiring the rights to publish it. The publisher is taking a risk that the editor is right. The publisher also takes a risk when they decide how much of an advance on royalties to pay an author, how much publicity to do, how much co-op advertising (usually zero) to engage in, etc. etc. etc.

And it's all a big crap shoot.

Just a few days before I saw that NYT article, I found these statistics in a Harpers magazine. (On the always fun and interesting Harpers List page.)

  • Minimum number of different books sold in the US last year based on Nielson Bookscan: 1,446,000

  • Number of these that sold fewer than 99 copies: 1,123,000

  • Number that sold more than 100,000 copies: 483

A bit depressing? Sure. But it's just reality and further proof of the whole casino theory.

Better get back to rolling the dice.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A totally blunt conversation about a category romance writers royalities

Happy Mother's Day to me -- I got my royalty statement last week. And I really want to talk about these - because I would have died to get some real information when I was starting out. But in this industry like most industries it feels really strange to talk about money. But I can't think of what the negative of it would be - so - here's a really blunt conversation about money and writing category romance.

I sold my first Harlequin Duets (Too Many Cooks) and my advance was 3,500 dollars. It came out in 2001 and it has to date sold 46,623 copies in the US, Canada, France, Italy, Latin America, Argentina and some other odds and ends. That translates into around 5,000 dollars that I got in bits and pieces over the years. My other duets have done about the same give or take a few thousand copies.

Flipside - that fantastic line that never really got a shot - yikes. My advances for my two Flipsides - Pencil Him In and the award winning Dishing It Out. Was 4,000. I didn't have an agent and from what I can gather at that point in my career it really wouldn't have made a difference. Your agent, should you have one, will not change your advance for a category line - they come in real handy later - but up front (from what I can gather) new authors get what they get. Pencil Him In came out in 2004 and to date has sold around 35,000 copies in various markets. That translates to just over 4,000 dollars. Dishing It Out, which came out as the line was being pulled has not made any money over my advance and probably never will. Which is pretty sad.

Superromance - my advances for Family At Stake, His Best Friend's Baby and my part of the Valentine Anthology were each 5,000 dollars. And, again, from what I can gather that's the standard first time out author advance - I would LOVE to hear if there's something different. Now His Best Friend's Baby which didn't get great reviews and didn't win the awards that Family At Stake won - sold DOUBLE what FAS sold. HBFB sold around 16,000 copies retail - this does not include the subscription services. Now, both books have huge reserves and the reserve is what Harlequin thinks will be sent back to the publisher. For example Family At Stake has a reserve of over 20,000 books. My next royalty statement this might translate into books sold or books returned and that book may actually prove to be my best seller. Who knows? That's what I learn with every royalty statement - who knows?

I think the retail sales really come down to covers. HBFB has a nice picture of a kid - FAS has the creepy older guy, younger girl cover.

So, there you go. Some numbers from a fairly new writer starting out in the line. Is it a lot of money? Not yet -- but someday. Maybe. Who knows?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

TV and mediocre genre books

Here at Drunk Writers there’s been some lamentation this week over the death, not just of Friday Night Lights, but other amazing series. Arrested Development, Homicide, Firefly, and others I’ve missed. Shows that weren’t given their chance to really play out.

I’ve been trying to figure out what the appeal of shows like Deal or No Deal, or Everyone Loves Ray and other such shows.

Part of it I believe is accessibility. You can turn them on at any point during the season and know exactly what is going on. They are mindless, and you know, after a long day of work, rushing to get dinner ready, kids to bed, when you finally get to collapse on the couch for the whole hour you have before you go to bed, mindless works well.

I’ve been there. It sort of explains why I still watch American Idol, and the occasional America’s next top model. I can miss several episodes and still be clear on what’s happening.

The same cannot be said for the serialized dramas that we now mourn. I put off watching Friday Night Lights to wait until the DVD release to catch it on DVD. Anyone who turned on Firefly on a whim would have wondered why the people on the spaceship talked like characters out of a 1940’s Western and would have switched the channel and missed an amazing show.

There’s comfort in predictability. And the best shows, the ones I love and adore gave us unpredictability. Or in the case of Arrested Development, the funniest, harshest, most unlikeable people on TV. Nothing warm and cuddly about that family, but some of the funniest moments I’ve ever seen on TV.

I’ve noticed the same with some of the genre books lately. Why are so many romances predictable? And no, it has nothing to do with the happily ever after pre-requisite. There are many different ways to get there.

There’s a comfort in picking up a book and knowing what to expect. The hero/heroine will face challenges, bicker, have sex by page 200 and by page 250 have a serious drawback in their relationship, which they will rise above and overcome, all by page 350.

The best books, like the best TV shows rise above this and surprise us, provoke thought and in the case of the best books, thrill us.

But they’re not necessarily bestsellers, cause not everyone wants to be surprised.

I guess that’s why I still watch re-runs of Friends, and read the same Maggie Osborne book once a year.
Sometimes it’s easiest for my tired brain to process.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

While we're on the topic of TV

First, a huge thanks to Deb Kristy -- aka Kristy Kiernan of The Debutante Ball whose amazing debut novel Catching Genius is on shelves now -- for tagging Drunk Writer Talk with the Thinking Bloggers Award! Who'da thunk it?

Thanks, Kristy! It's nice to know a few of our drunken ramblings came out half-way coherent.

That said, I'm so not up to thinking tonight, and since Molly brought up the topic of good TV getting cancelled on Monday, I thought I'd blog about a possible new series based on the wonderful Gemma Halliday's "High Heels" series of novels.

News Flash!

Gemma's debut novel SPYING IN HIGH HEELS is in development for a television series on the USA Network!!!!! It's currently one of five new shows being developed for their fall 2007/2008 season.

Pretty exciting, huh!

Here's a blurb on the show:

A new cast of characters are being welcomed to USA Network's
ambitious development slate for the 2007/2008 season. Bolstering
the "Characters Welcome" brand, a slate of five new pilot scripts was
announced by Jeff Wachtel, USA's executive vice president, original

One of the projects includes a show entitled Spying in High Heels,
based on the characters from Gemma Halliday's 2006 release of the
same name.

The show concept follows shoe designer Maddie Springer, who in an
effort to track down her missing boyfriend, realizes that her knack
for fashion also serves another purpose: It makes her a great
detective. Maddie's uniquely female perspective helps her pick up
clues, using her designer's eye to discern tell tale shapes, colors
and patterns, among other things. Along with her best friend Dana, an
out-of-work actress, Maddie decides to open a detective agency
operating out of her stepfather's hair salon. Producer is Larry
Shuman and Executive Producer/Writer is Sara Endsley.

I've read Gemma's book and it will make a really fun and exciting TV show. Sadly, not ALL shows that go into development will make it on the air so I'm trying to create some BUZZ. If only our blog got enough traffic to create crazy buzz so that USA networks couldn't ignore it. (Maybe Sinead should blog about Dexter again.)

One thing Gemma tells me we can all do to support the cause, is to send an e-mail to feedback@usanetwork .com
If you've read the book, tell them you loved it. If you haven't read it yet, well, tell them you're excited about seeing the series (and then go buy Gemma's book. LOL.)

Help spread the word! It would be so amazing to see Gemma's fun and smart book transformed into a series.

Congratulations Gemma! I really hope we can all help make this happen for you!

P.S. I'm going to be posting an interview with Gemma on my blog on Friday or Saturday.

Monday, May 07, 2007

They killed Homicide: Life on The Street, Arrested Development and NOW! Friday Night Lights OR What is wrong with TV today?

The wailing you heard coming from the East end of Toronto last Thursday night was my husband and I learning that Friday Night Lights is being cancelled. Sort of. They are commissioning 6 more episodes and after that "we'll see." But we all know what that means - it means the best show no one watched is going to be off the air.

That same night we saw a preview for a reality tv show with a bunch of people stuck together on a "pirate ship"!!! What is wrong with TV today? Are we so brain dead at the end of the day - so longing for easily digested mush that we actually want to see Deal or No Deal several nights a week? Do we need two different nanny shows to show us over and over again that kids want to be talked to and disciplined and played with and fed good food - at the cost of such seriously quality television as Arrested Development? Does everyone in the world need to be likable (which is my theory why they cut Arrested Development because the Bluth family was simply too unlikeable - which doesn't explain why every other comedy out there makes marriage seem like misery for the sake of tired laughs) and if that's the case explain to me the total unleashing of asshole qualities from the judges and host of American Idol this year? Thank God HOUSE is saving lives or we'd lose that fantastic character from the Tuesday night line up and we'd all be watching - Are You As Smart As A 5th Grader?

Why do we need seven thousand CSI's when they took the only good Crime Drama off the air - Homicide: Life on the Streets. The only crime drama that didn't somehow make everything over the top sexy. Or ridiculously formulaic as in Law and Order. And actually touched on why crime happens. Not to mention the fact Bayliss was just getting in touch with his homosexuality!!!

And this is what kills me -- Friday Night Lights was Americana Soap Opera -- how does that not work? Sopranos is ending - but GOOD GOD was last night a good one. Rumors of Dexter's demise are circulating. Rome is gone. I am going to have to actually get some work done in the evenings now -- that's how sad things are.

What shows do you miss? Bonus points to anyone who says they watched Friday Night Lights.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

I should have been working...

After Maureen’s post, I’ve been thinking a lot about what to write. And couldn’t come up with anything nearly as thought provoking.

My mind has been scattered the past few days, all over the place, personal, writing wise, I’ve got a to do list a mile long, which is so daunting it’s making me procrastinate.

And to procrastinate I usually surf the net, read blogs, and writing industry web sites.

What I’ve learned is that the market is still very much in a bit of a flux right now. Especially the romance market.

So here is the result of three days of way too much internet surfing.

What’s seems to be selling right now.

1) Erotic, is still doing well, but seems to be reaching a maturation stage. It’s also doing well in combination with other genre’s. So the hot paranormal, or hot historical is doing well.

2) Paranormal – Anything but werewolfs and vampires. Apparently editors are all stocked up on those two. They’re looking for different ideas for paranormals.

3) Straight romance, or romantic comedy. A really tough sell these days.

4) Romantic suspense – this is one place where editors do seem to be looking to acquire. There have been a couple of breakout authors in this area which I think seem to be fueling demand. Allison Brennan comes to mind.

5) Historical – still very slow, even though a lot of people, myself included have predicted a comeback for months now. I think editors are waiting for a big, breakout historical novel to start things moving again.

Outside of romance, Chicklit, this market got seriously inundated a couple of years ago and it’s still having an impact on how editors are buying. I think YA is heading there, but I know really little about this, so I could be seriously wrong.

Apparently straight historicals are still going strong.

Where does that leave us? With a tough market looking for new voices and fresh ideas. I know this sounds discouraging, but perhaps it’s the best possible thing. Perhaps editors are open to anything really interesting, written really well.
Now might be the time to really open up the wells of our imagination, come up with concepts and ideas that five years ago would have been too risky.

Or maybe I’m just having a glass half full kind of day, but I like the idea of stretching the boundaries of romance, or any genre.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Does reading fiction make you a better person?

According to an article in Psychology Today, "frequent readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than did readers of expository nonfiction."

The article goes on to say that a follow up study showed that starting to read fiction could actually hone those skills... answering the chicken and egg question. (That is, do empathetic people read more fiction or does reading fiction help make you empathetic.)

This seemed pretty obvious to me -- at least after I'd read it. I know one of the main reasons I love reading fiction is to understand better how other people think, to walk in someone else's shoes for a while, to, through understanding and exploring the emotions and experiences of others -- even fictional others -- understand better how I feel/act/react to the world.

A doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto, Raymond Mar, was the lead researcher on both studies. Yay, Ray. My new hero. He is quoted in the article I read as saying, "Stories often force us to empathize with characters who are quite different from us, and this ability could help us better understand the many kinds of people we come across in the real world."

I think this really sums up what I most enjoy about reading or basically any kind of story. (Frequent readers of this blog and my own, will know I see the occasional movie and watch just a tiny bit of television, in addition to reading. LOL.) I think statement also explains why I enjoy character driven movies and stories the best. I was talking the other week to my fellow drunk writers about how even the most theoretically fast paced film (like 300) can totally bore me, (okay, I wasn't that bored looking at those buff naked men) while theoretically slower paced films like Short Cuts or The Station Agent (just two that came to mind at this instant) can hold my attention, such that the time flies by.

A sidebar article in Psychology Today compares the reading habits of men and women and what kinds of books they list as ones which helped to shape their lives. This was interesting, too...

It got me thinking about what books have helped shape my life. I haven't thought about it long enough to come up with a definitive list, but I know of two for sure.

Okay, slightly more than 2 because one is a trilogy.
First, The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies: Fifth Business, The Manticore and World of Wonders. Reading these 3 books as a young adult (many Canadians read Fifth Business in high school. I didn't) I made some decisions about how I felt about organized religion, about Jungian psychology, and I developed a deeper understanding of how events like the depression and WWII affected the world. I also think I got a stronger appreciation for being a Canadian, a stronger feeling of my identity as a Canadian through Robertson Davies' books.

The other book I instantly thought of was The Cider House Rules by John Irving, who, incidentally, was mentored and greatly influenced by Robertson Davies. This book helped me decide how I feel about many things, abortion in particular, but also about social disobedience and how sometimes it can be better and braver to follow your conscience regardless of "the rules". Or at least to question the rules.

Remembering how the Deptford Trilogy helped me make some conclusions about religion made me think of a movie that was pivotal for me... The Mission. Now Molly and I disagree about this movie. It's one of my absolute favorites and she think's it's flawed. But I was a different person after I saw that movie. It made me see how even with the best intentions, people can do so much harm to each other. (Plus it was the first time I ever set eyes on Liam Neeson and that changed my life, too. LOL)

What books have been pivotal in your life?
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