Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Riding the dinosaur into the sunset

I've often commented in passing that print newspapers are doomed, their days are numbered, in x years or months they will no longer be a general option.

That is certainly all true, but it doesn't stop this child of the first half of the 20th century from getting really excited when his name appears at the top of Page One of a nationally distributed newspaper like USA Today.

I've been writing a weekly column on Washington and Wall Street for the Gannett newspaper since April. It generally appears just online and only occasionally in the preciously small space allotted to the Money section in print.

So this kind of play for this week's column -- a Page One "refer" complete with byline and a spread on the first page of the Money section with my photo -- is and will remain a rare event.

I'm sure using a film with Leonardo DiCaprio as a foil, offering editors an opportunity to run his photo not once, but twice, contributed to getting this kind of play.

But it's also true -- and kudos to Dave Callaway for recognizing this -- that the issue of Wall Street regulation has moved out of the shadows. It also merits front-page coverage and editorials from the New York Times and attention from other popular media.

So it's gratifying that the years I spent toiling in the weeds of the SEC, Congress and the other regulatory agencies for United Communications Group has given me the opportunity to provide this big-picture perspective for a wider audience.

And, as it has been for my entire career as a journalist, it's very satisfying to see my name in the newspaper.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Hungry for Words

I've been writing since I was 9 and generally feel like I should be teaching writing courses rather than taking them. I made an exception for Kathleen Flinn's workshop on food writing, however, because I know I have a lot to learn if I'm going to be good at it. (The other exceptions were Russell Banks on fiction and Richard Howard on translation and they were both very worthwhile.)

Kathleen Flinn (photo by Irene Flinn)
Flinn did not disappoint. She managed to fill two days with a mix of exercises, information, interaction and gossip so that time rarely lagged and everything worked together to be very helpful. In fact, it not only gave me some confidence about food writing but useful tips for blogging in general and for my fiction. In addition to the actual content, just taking a weekend for myself to focus on writing was motivational in itself. And the great plus of any event in Washington is the array of interesting characters who show up for these things; our group of 20 was no exception.

The two things I liked the most were Kathleen's focus on first lines -- I know this but never thought to apply it to blogging, for instance -- and her recommendation to storyboard any narrative, nonfiction or fiction, especially if you're stuck. I like drawing anyway, and storyboarding my exercise narrative was kind of fun. Particularly useful for food writing was her emphasis on using all five senses, starting with the introductory exercise of describing a lemon five times for each one.

For my purposes, Kathleen dwelt too much on book publishing and proposals, though that's fair enough given that she launched her career as author and speaker that way. Also, though she promised much in the way of supplementary materials, we had only a slim set in hand and when the rest arrived by e-mail it came in the form of scattered links that are anything but easy to download, piece together and use.

But that's all gravy. The main course was great. It will help me in all my writing, and gives me some food for thought for possibilities in this genre. For instance, she mentioned that culinary travel is hot right now and that's something that has considerable appeal. The field is of course very crowded, but what the heck, you carve out your niche or you don't. Beverages, another genre with great appeal for me, is also hot, she says.

In sum, it was a stimulating, worthwhile weekend and I'm grateful to Kathleen for the workshop and to Politics & Prose and the Writer's Center for bringing her to Washington.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


We had a little discussion at my monthly writers' lunch about how Paul Dickson churns out so many books. He brought his "book of the week" to the lunch -- a slim volume of humor explaining what various journalistic catchphrases mean. He said he had been collecting items for this book for 20 years. "These are shoe box projects," he said.

Paul writes nonfiction, often about baseball, and his cash cow is a regular update of the Dickson Baseball Dictionary. So many of his other books are also about words, their origins and their uses, such as a recent book on words coined by presidents. When someone else in our group asked how he keeps it all straight, he mumbled something about having different folders, not wanting to get bored with one project, and so on.

So I'm wondering whether one way to solve my output issue isn't just to switch projects whenever one of the stalls. If Econnovel -- the Gold sequel -- runs into a dry patch, why not work on another project. I have a number that have been shoved into the drawer, starting with Reich and including a number of false starts that I did with the writing group. But maybe they're not false starts. Even Reich, which I thought was getting out of date because the villain had to be 10 in 1945 could just be set in the late 1990s, which is when it was set when I started it. Why not? The interesting thing about the success of the Gold reprint is that it doesn't seem to matter to people that it's 20 years old. A story is a story and they make allowances.

I multi-task in my journalism, and juggle several projects at the same time, so why can't I do it in my fiction, too?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

First person

My financial thriller in progress is in the first person, the first time I've attempted that. It of course narrows the perspective of the narrative. No longer can you dart from venue to venue and from point of view to point of view to follow many strands of the story in parallel. (I always find narratives that switch from first person to third person in order to get around this jarring, and I'm not ready to go there yet.)

But it is also liberating. Since you are no longer an omniscient narrator, you no longer have to be omniscient. Gaps in the narrator's knowledge can be part of the characterization. If he (I'm also not ready to write in first person for a female character) doesn't know where he is, you don't have to tell people precisely where he is.

Of course there is a certain amount of illusion there. My character may not know, for instance, that the thingadingy you tie a boat to on a dock is a cleat. For him it may just be a thingadingy, but the reader is likely to draw the line there.

As a freelancer, I've dabbled in ghost writing, where you take someone else's persona and try to write in their voice. Writing in first person is like that -- ghost writing a story for your fictional character.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Beta readers

It is truly a brave new world. My friend and indie publishing mentor Jim Bruno responded to my question about how he vets his text before publishing by introducing me to the world of beta readers, proofreaders and copy editors that help clean up a self-published book.

Beta readers aren’t supposed to focus on grammar, typos, etc., but rather the substance and style of the story as well as characters. And you don’t necessarily have to pay someone to do this. There are folks out there who enjoy it and do it for free...Proofreaders come in various forms, but they generally bridge beta and copy reading...Copy editors are just like what you know in journalism – they nitpick for typos, format, etc.
I had hired an editor to work on The Grand Mirage and he was great, but very expensive. So for my forthcoming financial thriller I will go the route recommended by Jim -- two or three beta readers, a proofreader, and a copy editor.

I think it's great the way indie publishing is finding its way to make sure the ultimate readers of these books get a product that is comparable in quality to those from the legacy publishing houses. It is an industry that is evolving and maturing, and this is all part of it.

Let me take the occasion once again to express my appreciation for Jim's pioneering path in self-publishing and for his generosity in sharing his hard-won lessons. I literally could not have done it without him. Jim and I went to Columbia's School of International Affairs together many years ago, and he went off on a great career with the State Department before settling in upstate New York, while I pursued my own circuitous path to Washington. His political thrillers are great. He's about to finish his fourth, Havana Queen, and I can't wait to read it!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Making money

The small writers group I worked with for several years invited me back for a guest appearance the other night to talk about my experience with self-publishing. One of the writers immediately asked, "Are you making any money at it?"

I laughed and deflected the question by saying you have to figure out exactly why you are writing. He took that, rightly, to mean "no."

But just a couple of days later I got my first check from Amazon for my Kindle sales. Thanks to my successful free promotion in February, paid sales had crossed the threshold where Amazon actually writes a check, after its self-imposed 60-day waiting period.

It was worth waiting for, because it was a relatively fat 4-digit check (hey, not counting the numbers behind the decimal point). Not enough to quit my day job, but enough to cover the actual costs of self-publishing with enough left over for coffee at Starbucks. Profit!

Many writers dream of being a zillionaire bestselling author. Most of us would love it if we could make enough to live the idyll of being a full-time writer -- you know, a couple hours grind in the morning and the rest of the day for revising, research and naps.

At whatever level, though, it's nice to make some money for your fiction. It's like somebody paid you for going to the ball game, enjoying a nice meal, or otherwise amusing yourself. It also validates your effort -- somebody thought it was worth it to shell out $4.99 to read your book.

When I got my first advance check back in 1982 for Debt Shock, I was thrilled. I subsequently got advances on my three published books that totaled a (low) 6 digits. Most of it went into my loft in Paris at an extremely favorable exchange rate, and paid a handsome dividend as an investment.

One of the nice things about self-publishing is that a book doesn't have to go out of print. And the more titles an author accumulates the better the chance that all of the titles, including those first ones, will sell better. It's like planting a perennial in your garden -- it should keep blooming, year after year.

Saturday, March 17, 2012


Indie publishing is particularly well-suited to genre fiction, where even the most obscure sub-sub-genre can carve out a following (e.g. historical zombie fiction). One new genre or sub-genre I've discovered through the Twittersphere is steampunk. I'm hardly a devotee, but I do confess a grudging fascination.

Movie examples of steampunk are Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" and the movie version of "Wild, Wild West." The hallmark of the genre are clunky 19th-century style machines, often powered by steam, that mimic more modern inventions in a retro, quasi-Victorian setting. "Brazil" I found perplexing at the time -- it seems to depict a future society, but set in an indeterminate past. "Wild,West West" annoyed me because I thought it perverted a TV show I'd always enjoyed. But the campy TV show, which translated James Bond-type gadgetry into the wild west, clearly fits within the steampunk category and the movie just carries that to an extreme.

The Politics & Prose email this week featured a staff pick called Pavane by Keith Roberts, the reissue of a 1968 book billed as a science fiction/alternative history classic. The premise is that Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated in 1588, so that the invasion of the Spanish Armada was successful, allowing the Catholic Church to beat back the Protestant Reformation in England and northern Europe. Over time, in this alternate history, the pope becomes not only the ruling spiritual but also the ruling temporal power in Europe as well as a colony known as Newworld.

No mention of steampunk, but the first of the six interconnected stories forming the book is about a "haulier" who drives a steam locomotive. It took me some time to realize this locomotive and the "waggons" it pulled were not on rails, but road in ruts on the road. The action takes place in Durnovaria, or Dorchester, where they actually do have a Steam Fair featuring these so-called traction engines. OMG, I think, this is steampunk.

But, no, steampunk enthusiasts don't seem to accept Pavane as genuine steampunk (don't ask me why), but at best as "proto-steampunk" or something that steampunk fans will like. Steampunk proper begins only in the 1970s, it seems, so that even Jules Verne is excluded, though obviously an inspiration for the genre.

Be that as it may, we have in Pavane a book that is science fiction, alternate history, proto-steampunk, dystopian, and maybe a few other things. It is also terrifically well written.

Now, typing a book to best exploit the Amazon bestseller algorithms has become a minor art in the indie world, with numerous blogs explaining how your book becomes more prominent if you choose a genre path that's less crowded. I'm not convinced. My most successful KDP Select promotion was when I had checked the very broad categories of historical fiction and thriller. The latest promotion was not nearly so successful after I checked the much narrower category of espionage.

The Grand Mirage is a historical thriller. It is historical fiction, but it will not appeal to all fans of that genre. It is a political thriller, but it won't appeal to all those fans, either. It is an old-fashioned adventure story, but that's not a genre.  Next month I will re-issue Gold, which is a financial thriller, a sub-genre that has never been wildly popular. Because it is 20 years old, it actually takes on some aspects of a historical thriller, too.

Genre categorization has always been important. Print books started printing a category on the back cover so that bookstores could shelve it properly, and this was important to people browsing for titles in a certain category. A misshelved book could result in a lot of lost sales, back in the day.

The advantage of indie publishing and internet ebook sales is that it opens the field to all sorts of narrow-interest sub-genres. It will undoubtedly continue to be important to categorize a book so that fans of a particular genre can find it. There's a risk, though, that those books fitting the narrowest definitions will become the most popular, just because they're easy to find. Mirage could appeal to thriller fans who also like history, or to history fans who also like thrillers, but neither may ever find it. Ditto for Gold.