Then, first thing in the morning, I'll either jot something on the pad, or get my coffee and start typing the things that come to me.
First, I gotta thank my hostess, thriller author extraordinaire Michelle Gagnon, and the rest of the fiercely fabulous Kill Zone team.
Of course, the irony with all this personal cocooning is that people now have an even greater need to socialize and share ... but instead of playing a boom box, you can post an iTunes play list or even pretend to be a DJ on Blip.FM.
And, of course, if you write books, you can share what you listen to through your writing.
Quick poll for authors—raise your hand if you’re influenced by music when you write. Do you listen while you type? Does it set the mood, the tone, the pace for your scene? Do you channel Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho for your serial killer segments and switch to Bach for your upbeat ending?
This is one way to use music, and I’ve heard other authors claim that they like writing with the volume up. Me, I’ve never been able to hear my words and Gershwin at the same time, so I don’t actually listen when I write. But to sort of set the stage, to get in the mood … that I can do. I’ve always been a fan of jazz and the Great American Songbook, an affinity that served me well with my latest novel.
Y’ see, listening is particularly helpful when you’re trying to lose yourself in time. Because City of Dragons is set in 1940, I immersed myself in a lot of music from the era—and had to be very careful to not access something anachronistic. I wanted to hear what my characters did, and I was writing about a period in American culture when music was truly a mass medium of popular entertainment … and when our entertainment—thanks to radio drama—was more audio than visual.
The music was key to me feeling like I could capture the past. And then it became about character, too, about my protagonist reacting to that world, particularly the irony of achingly romantic big band swing juxtaposed to the atrocities of war.
So I found myself becoming immersed in the music, actually using it in the book. And I felt confident about being able to, since some writers I greatly admire—like George Pelecanos and Ken Bruen—reference music and lyrics in their works.
The rub, of course, is the permissions phase … something I didn’t know much about. But warning, all you Springsteen fans who want to include “The River” in your latest novel … the author is responsible for either acquiring permission or rewriting the scene.
In my case, I found out too late and had to rewrite certain scenes, retaining a line of lyric and hopefully the flow and rhythm and emotion of the original draft. But—like a DVD director’s cut—I was able to link up a City of Dragons playlist on my website, so that, whenever possible, you can listen to the music my characters do.
It’s a cool way of sharing not just what I like to listen to, but what became an intrinsic element of the book, and a kind of instant time machine back to February, 1940.
So … how do you respond to music in books? And what’s on your playlist today?Kelli Stanley's second novel, City of Dragons, has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist, is an RT Book Reviews Top Pick, and an Indie Next Book for February. Kelli's debut novel, Nox Dormienda, won the Bruce Alexander Award and was nominated for a Macavity. She lives in San Francisco, and frequents old movie palaces, speakeasies and bookstores. You can find out more about her and her books at her website: http://www.kellistanley.com.
There’s been a great deal of discussion here at TKZ as well as on other blogs and forums about the changes taking place in the publishing industry. Most of it revolves around the rapid emergence and popularity of e-books and electronic publishing, and how it’s affecting traditional publishing. The industry as a whole appears liquid and seems to be changing almost by the day. Many of us are trying to find a stable place to stand as the ground shakes around us.
I don’t have any solutions to present here today. If I did, they would probably be outdated by the time I post my next blog. But I do have some observations.
For over 20 years, I worked in the video postproduction industry. During that time, one of the biggest advances in television and motion picture production was the advent of digital technology. Before high definition digital video, the only way to capture high quality images was on film. Even for personal home use, there was nothing better than standard 35mm film (some formats in the professional arena were larger sizes). For decades, no one envisioned that high quality images could be captured and delivered on any other format than film. (Note that film is still far greater resolution than high definition video). Even with its inherent grain, its ability to attract dirt, its somewhat fragile, easily damaged surface, and its constant weave and jitter through the projection system’s gate, it was as good as it can get. No other image delivery method could match film.
Today, most major motion pictures are still shot on film due mainly to the fact that film, unlike video, has much wider latitude and dynamic range, and still has the highest resolution available. But the image delivery system is changing. Now, original negative is transferred from film to video and color corrected within the digital domain. It is then projected in digital format rather than analog. Instead of individual frames passing through the gate of a projector, the images are retrieved from a hard drive or transmitted via satellite and projected electronically in resolutions up to 4k. It’s called digital cinema. No more scratches and weave, no more prints wearing out or film breaking. The thousandth time the movie is projected, it looks exactly like the first time.
Has the movie-going experience been hurt by digital cinema? No. In fact, it’s been enhanced beyond what the audience even realizes. The image is rock solid, crystal clear, and comes with multiple channels of digital audio for a totally entertaining experience. In most viewers eyes, it’s better than film.
How does this relate to analog vs. digital books? We must remember that what readers get when they purchase a book is a container holding our writing. Just like film and digital files can contain the same images, analog and digital books can hold the same words. An analog or printed book is simply a delivery vessel—something that contains our words and delivers them to our readers.
Remember Kodachrome film? It was first manufactured in 1935 and quickly became the most popular method of capturing and delivering images to the casual photographer. Eastman Kodak canceled production in 2009. Why? Because digital cameras had finally surpassed film as the most popular method of taking pictures. No one was buying Kodachrome anymore. But pictures were still being taken. Only now, the delivery system—the container—is digital files.
Could that happen to books? Maybe. And if it does, it probably will take a long time. After all, it took Kodachrome 74 years to die. But I hold to the theory of the “threshold of pain”. When something new comes along—let’s call it a widget—the first adapters must experience a certain amount of pain in order to try it. As the widget is further developed, refined and perfected, the pain starts to diminish. As the pain continues to decrease, more customers migrate to the widget because they learn of its pleasures and are willing to tolerate or ignore any remaining pain. At some point, the negatives along with the price dips below the threshold of pain, and the widget is embraced by the majority of the audience.
Here’s an example. Six years ago, I bought a 60” Sony HD TV. They were mostly available in high-end electronics boutiques. Top resolution was 720p. It cost me over $5k. There was a lot of pain in my wallet and the fact that it took months to get any kind of HD into my home. Today, I can get the same size screen at 1080p resolution at Wal-Mart for less than half the price. Hardly any pain. A whole lot of pleasure. And HD TV’s are as common as toaster ovens. The TV is a delivery system. What it delivers is images—or more specific, entertainment.
I believe that as a delivery system, analog books can be replaced if the replacement brings the user more pleasure than pain. If the reading experience is as good or better than analog. If they are reasonably priced. Easy to read from. Easy to use. Massive storage. Unlimited battery life. Unlimited selection of books. Scratch-‘n-sniff paper smell. OK, that last pleasure is future-ware.
Are e-books the answer? I don’t know. But what has happened is that due to the economy, competition, and a shifting marketplace, the electronic publishing flood gates have begun to open. A lot of new widgets are flowing out. The one thing they all have in common is that they are delivery systems. But what they deliver will never change. Our words. Our art.
Are you an early adaptor who likes living on the bleeding edge of technology? Or do you sit back and let others be the lab rats before you pull out your wallet and head over to Wal-Mart?
You've no doubt read up on amazon.com's bold play this week to shore up its Kindle market share (estimated already to be 90% of all e-readers). They announced a new program, taking effect June 30, which offers a 70% royalty on Kindle editions priced between $2.99 and $8.99. That's double what they have granted before (and was timed to come just before Apple's announcement of a similar plan for their new iTablet. For more on the coming "price wars," see this article in Fortune).
This represents quite a nice chunk of the pie, even though the price point is low. For authors, it works out to be a very good deal, when 10% of list is not an uncommon number, especially in mass market.
Which is the point I want to make, one I have been pondering ever since the Kindle broke out wide: we authors may be entering an era that is very much like the mass market explosion post World War II.
What that ushered in was a golden age of paperback fiction in the 50's. Names like Mickey Spillane, John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, Jim Thompson. Some of the old pulp writers, like Erle Stanley Gardner, found new life and sales. While the old pulp magazines dried up, there was a market for good stories among the slicks—e.g., Collier's, Saturday Evening Post. The better writers got stories published there and made some extra scratch.
So what do we see now? Another mass market platform, this time electronic. The price points are equivalent to what people in the 50's would have paid in the drug store. True, publishers could actually get into the drugstores, on racks and spinners. But we have that analogue in the e-world. Buyers on amazon, for example, are directed to other titles they might be interested in, and so forth.
For authors, especially commercial authors—those who deliver an entertaining read—the prospects are intriguing. If they write great stories, word of mouth will spread, just like it does in traditional publishing. But now there's a 70% royalty, which is a whole lot better than the pittance the paperback writers of the 50's got.
But there's more good news, especially for writers like myself who have a ton of stories and concepts we'd like to write. We will be able to write different varieties of fiction––short form, novella and novel length, and see them brought to market in a fraction of the time it now takes to get one book out the traditional way.
I can see nice prospects for publishers and writers teaming up to take advantage of this new platform, even if it's just to supplement the traditional print model.
The short story especially interests me. I love doing them, but the short story market has long been a dead letter. Suddenly, there's new life. In fact, my colleagues and I here at Kill Zone are going to soon release our own anthology: Fresh Kills. It's been a matter of only a few months, from idea generation to writing to editing to e-publishing. And we don't have to print or warehouse the book.
Now, the temptation, especially for new writers who are thinking in terms of self-publishing, is to start throwing up (and I use that term purposely) their stuff before it's ready. We're going to see a lot of that. But a kind of Darwinism will take over, where the weak will be weeded out. The idea is to become one of the fittest and survive, even thrive. I would therefore advise new writers to hire a good freelance editor. You will only hurt your long term prospects if what you offer is junk.
How are traditional publishers going to react to all this? I don't know. Random House has entered an agreement with Apple, and that will change the landscape. The landscape will keep changing. We're in a whole new ballgame here, and the rules get updated almost daily. But as I said, I think there is a great chance for publishers and authors to partner up and make the best of this situation. I don't know that we're ever going to go back to hardcover prices. The production costs are too great, and consumers are rapidly being taught they don't have to pay hardcover prices, even for a new book by a celebrity author.
What that means for you, writer, is to keep concentrating on doing what you do, making your stuff the best it can be, then going to market. If you can write short stories (which are, in my mind, the hardest form of fiction), so much the better. Bottom line: if your stuff is killer, people will find it. If you write it, they will come.
Almost from the beginning of words chiseled in stone, there has been a slush pile—literally the mountain of unsolicited manuscripts that accumulate in the offices of publishers. And for decades, it was the hope and dream of unknown writers to have their hidden gem plucked from the pile and go on to be a bestseller. Despite the odds, which are slightly worse than Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty remaking ISHTAR, there have been a few slush-pile hits, or at least career starts. My friend Kris Montee tells me that she got her first break in 1984 when her manuscript THE DANCER was plucked from the Ballantine slush pile. Kris and her sister Kelly went on to become NYT bestselling authors as P.J. Parrish.
In a recent WSJ article by Katherine Rosman, she noted that CARPOOL by Mary Cahill was the last book published by Random House that originated from their slush pile. That was back in 1991. Today, most major publishers have a strict policy of not accepting unsolicited manuscripts.
There are a number of reasons for the death of the slush pile, the biggest being shrinking budgets. Now you’d think that having an unending supply of material at your disposal without even asking for it would be a plus, right? No. First of all, the publisher has to pay employees to weed through the slush. They simply can’t afford it anymore. The rare chance of finding a winner is greatly exceeded by the waste of time reviewing unpublishable work. Let’s face it, there’s usually a good reason why unsolicited work goes unpublished.
Another reason for the demise of the slush pile is the fear of being accused of and having to defend against allegations of stealing someone’s work. Again, it’s all about money. Why even take the chance.
And believe it or not, the anthrax scare after 9/11 became a major reason no one wants tons of unsolicited mail sitting around their offices. Even with no shrinking budgets, money can’t defend you against toxic death.
So how can a new writer hope to get their toe in the door? Get an agent. Next to writing the best book you can, it’s crucial that you find a literary agent. With few exceptions, publishers will only consider material sent to them by an agent. The agent is the primary filter and first line of defense for the publisher. And in some cases, it not only has to be an agent, but one they already know and have an established relationship. Today, there’s much more responsibility placed on the writer/agent than ever before.
A bit of good news: despite all the drawbacks to the slush pile, publishers are of a belief that a diamond might still be hidden among the mountain of coal. As long as there’s even a slight chance, there needs to be a way to find it. So some publishers are creating virtual slush piles. For instance, HarperCollins introduced a website called Authonomy that allows writers to upload a manuscript. Visitors can read the work and vote on their favorites. The HC editors will then review the five highest scoring submissions each month with an eye for publication. How are your chances? Over 10,000 manuscripts have been uploaded so far with 4 bought.
We should be seeing more of these virtual slush piles popping up as time go on, especially with the public doing all the work and only the overhead of the site being the primary cost.
So how did you get your start? Did you submit cold or acquire an agent first. If you aren’t published yet, have you ever sent in an unsolicited manuscript? What was the result?
BTW, anyone know when ISHTAR II will be released?
I love to teach structure, and Joe's post on Wednesday brought up a tremendously important question. Someone in another writing forum wanted to know how you figure out where to end Act 2, and go into Act 3.
The question of where the act breaks go, and what they entail, may be the most crucial in all of dramatic structure, because if they are weak, the entire edifice of the story will be unsound. Knowing how to fix them will go a long way toward making your novel more readable.
Think of novel structure as a suspension bridge.
As is obvious from the picture above, the suspension bridge is held up primarily by the two supporting pylons, one near the beginning of the bridge and one near the end. Without these pylons in those exact spots, the bridge will not be stable.
Now looking at the picture you can see that it perfectly represents the 3 act structure. A solidly constructed novel will look just like a solidly constructed suspension bridge. If that first pylon is placed too far out from the beginning, the first "act" of the bridge will sag and sway. In a book or movie, it means the first act is starting to drag.
Similarly, if the second pylon is misplaced, you'll end up either with anti-climax (the pylon too far away from the shore) or a feeling of deus ex machina (the pylon too close).
In my book, Plot & Structure, I refer to these pylons as "doorways of no return." I wanted to convey the idea of being forced through doorways, and once that's done, you can't go back again. Life will never be the same for the Lead. If you don't have that feeling in your story, the stakes aren't high enough.
Now, the first doorway is an event that thrusts the Lead into the conflict of Act 2. It is not, and this is crucial, just a decision to go looking around in the "dark world" (to use mythic terms). That's weak. That's not being forced.
A good example of a first doorway is when Luke Skywalker's aunt and uncle are murdered by the forces of the Empire in Star Wars. That compels Luke to leave his home planet and seek to become a Jedi, to fight the evil forces. If the murders didn't happen, Luke would have stayed on his planet as a farmer. He had to be forced out.
In Gone With the Wind it's the outbreak of the Civil War. Hard to miss that one. No one can go back again to the way things were. Scarlett O'Hara is going to be forced to deal with life in a way she never wanted or anticipated.
In The Wizard of Oz, it's the twister (hint: if a movie changed from black and white to color, odds are you've passed through the first doorway of no return).
In The Fugitive, the first doorway is the train wreck that enables Richard Kimble to escape, a long sequence that ends at the 30 minute mark (perfect structure) and has U. S. Marshal Sam Gerard declaring, "Your fugitive's name is Dr. Richard Kimble. Go get him!"
The second doorway, the one that closes Act 2 and leads to Act 3, is a bit more malleable, but just as critical. It is a clue or discovery, or set-back or crisis, one which makes inevitable the final battle of Act 3. It is the doorway that makes an ending possible. Without this, the novel could go on forever (and some seem to for lack of this act break).
In The Fugitive, at the 90 minute mark (the right placement for a film of just over two hours), Kimble breaks into the one-armed man's house and finds the key evidence linking him with the pharmaceutical company. This clue leads to the inevitable showdown with the "behind the scenes" villain.
In High Noon, the town marshal reaches the major crisis: he finally realizes no one in the town is going to help him fight the bad guys. That forces him into the final battle of Act 3, the showdown with the four killers.
By the way, this structure works for both "plot driven" and "character driven" stories. It's just that the former is mainly about outside events, and the latter about the inner journey. But that's beyond the scope of this post.
Now, there is always some well meaning literary genius howling in protest at the idea of structure. Too rigid! I don't write by formula! I am a rule breaker, a rebel! An artist! Away with your blueprints and let me run free! The 3 act structure is dead!
Let me say, first, I understand this artistic impulse. A good writer is a rebel, someone out to make waves.
But let me also say that the literary waters are littered with the works of those who ignored the basic principles of the suspension bridge. Unreadable novels with pretty words that didn't sell.
You want to write an experimental novel? Go for it. Just be aware that not a whole lot of people are going to care.
What they care about are characters, dealing with trouble by fighting their way over a bridge—meaning, through a plot that matters and is laid out in the right way.
Structure is "translation software" for your imagination. You've got a great story in your head. The characters, the feeling, the tone, the gut appeal, the thing you want to say. But it means squat unless you can share it with other people, namely, readers.
Structure allows you to get your story out with the greatest possible impact.
"But that's formulaic!" Well guess what, Skippy: formulas are formulas because they work. Try making an omelet without eggs. What you, the writer, need to do is get people so caught up in the characters and stakes that they can't see the structure.
Many published authors know this instinctively. But if there are problems with their novels, they may not always know where to look for the fix.
Is the first act slow? Does the novel take too long to end? Does act 2 seem interminable? Is the ending anti-climactic?
Most likely, the problem is structural. Get a grip on it, and your writing will only get stronger.
Your novel, in other words, won't end up as a bridge to nowhere.
The Kill Zone is the musings of 11 top thriller and mystery authors covering topics that inspire, anger, amuse, and entertain us. Each day, we’ll share what goes on inside our heads as we observe and write about the world around us. The Kill Zone is a doorway into the thriller and mystery writer’s mind.
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