Sunday, October 30, 2011

The art of fiction

I tracked down a copy of Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham, in the UK, because this novel I'd never heard of before is one of the first early spy thrillers to add to my prewar thriller list. To my surprise, Maugham had a pleasant little preface with some wisdom about writing fiction.

"Fact is a poor story-teller," he says, and life needs the creative artifice of the writer to become interesting:
For it is quite unnecessary to treat as axiomatic the assertion that fiction should imitate life. It is merely a literary theory like another. There is in fact a second theory that is just as plausible, and this is that fiction should use life merely as raw material which it arranges in ingenious patterns....The method of which I speak is that which chooses from life what is curious, telling and dramatic; it does not seek to copy life, but keeps to it closely enough not to shock the reader into disbelief; it leaves out this and changes that; it makes a formal decoration out of such of the facts as it has found convenient to deal with and presents a picture, the result of artifice, which, because it represents the author's temperament, is to a certain extent a portrait of himself, but which is designed to excite, interest and absorb the reader.
Maugham pokes fun at those writers who simply want to slavishly imitate life and present it as a whole to the reader. "They give you the materials for a dish and expect you to do the cooking yourself," he says. This may work for a Chekov short story, but longer pieces need the supporting "skeleton" of plot. Fiction as art needs a beginning, middle, and end. A story needs a climax.
There is nothing wrong in a climax, it is a very natural demand of a reader; it is only wrong if it does not follow naturally from the circumstances that have gone before. It is purely an affectation to elude it because in life as a general rule things tail off quite ineffectively.
For this reason, Maugham believes the artful short stories of Guy de Maupassant will outlast those of Chekov, and in any case longer stories need more structure.

This aesthetic battle has mostly been won, and certainly in genre fiction no one would dispute what Maugham is saying. His remarks are by way of introduction to a novel based on his own work in intelligence, which he confesses "is on the whole extremely monotonous." Most of it, he says, "is uncommonly useless." It is up to the writer to make a story out of this raw material. And that is a useful reminder for all of us.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The trouble with Harry

The trouble with Harry in Hitchcock's dark comedy is that he's dead. But that may be the only place he's dead, because he seems to be alive and well in literature.

Even leaving aside Harry Potter, there's an amazing number of characters in novels named Harry, considering how few you meet in real life. I'm not sure I've met a live Harry since the 1950s, when my Dad worked for Harry McKee. (One Internet source tells me it currently ranks 656th among masculine first names in the U.S.)

Several books I've read recently feature Harry as the hero. Jim Bruno's fine thriller, Tribe, features Harry Brennan. Bruno clearly references Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry character, to the point you can almost hear the actor growling the dialogue in the book. (Casting him in real life would involve some time travel since Bruno's character is a good deal younger than Eastwood is now.)

Another recent e-book, The Essene Conspiracy by Erich Wachtel, had Harry McClure as the hero and Wachtel clearly intends to build a series on this character. Harry seems to work particularly well with Irish surnames. Dirty Harry's last name is Callahan.

But not necessarily. One of my favorite authors, Robert Goddard, has written at least three books with Harry Barnett as the main character. And Michael Connelly's long-running series features Harry Bosch.

I'm giving this a lot of thought right now because I need a new name for the hero of my work in progress. It is a contemporary political thriller starring an American journalist based in Berlin. I started it some time ago and am just now getting back to it.

I think part of the appeal of Harry is that it has an old-fashioned masculine allure, like Frank or Max. Authors don't usually like the John, Jim, Bob, Dan, Bill and Doug you encounter so often in real life, especially if you are going to refer to him routinely by his first name. It may be the very rarity of Harry in real life that makes it appealing in fiction. Other less common first names -- like Mark, Carl, Phil, and so forth -- don't necessarily have that biting masculine quality you want in a thriller hero.

So some authors really venture outside the box. John Locke's hero is Donovan Creed, which I think works really well. Donovan is for me a singer from the 1960s who just uses a single name. Locke hardens the slightly effeminate ring of Donovan with the sharp-edged surname of Creed -- a guy you can really believe in.

Right now the best I can come up with is Sam Riley. Sam of course is in the Harry, Frank, Max category of tough-guy names -- e.g. Sam Spade. So I'll work with that name for a while and see how it goes.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Growing up a writer

I've somehow had the idea that I was unique in wanting to write my first novel when I was 9, but of course I wasn't. I'm discovering now through all this social networking that many authors have a similar story.

William Potter, for instance, who runs the great Independent Authors Network, says he wrote his first novel at 11. David Wisehart, who conducts the very nice Kindle Author Interviews, tells how he even bound together his typescript pages into a kind of book.

My novel never got finished, or bound. It was written in longhand on some my Dad's yellow legal pads. I did try to tape together my own comic book. My other passion was drawing so that comic books were ideal. I drew panels -- in the size they appear in print! -- and joined the pages with Scotch tape. It's hard work and they never got to be too long.

So here we all are, grown up, and still pasting together our own books. And it's still fun!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Franchise or die?

It seems the pressure to create a franchise is just as great for indies, if not greater, as it is for those published by mainstream houses. John Locke, who wrote the book on indie marketing, seems to take it as a given and his Twitter account is in the name of his franchise character, Donovan Creed.

When I sold my first novel to Dutton, the editor, Dick Marek, asked me if I was willing to write similar novels if he bought this one, and of course I replied I was. To build a brand name for an author, it's necessary to stick to a particular genre, the narrower, the better. It's one step further, then, to create a franchise, a series where the same main character and ancillary characters appear every time in an endless stream to satisfy readers who have come to expect this, and nothing else, from the author.

Rex Stout, for instance, wrote 77 novels and stories featuring Nero Wolfe, Archie Goodwin and the whole cast of characters and readers never got tired of him. The other side of that coin, however, is that no one had any interest in reading any of Stout's books that did not feature Nero Wolfe.

It clearly is a way to get mega-sales. Think of Janet Evanovich with Stephanie Plum and all the mystery writers, of Daniel Silva with Gabriel Allon and all the thriller writers, and I presume it's true for paranormal, fantasy and other genres as well.

It is, in fact, one of the ways to distinguish literary fiction from genre fiction. Literary writers have a different set of characters, different locations and so on for each novel. Their "brand" may include a certain voice, or tone, or themes, but the characters and plots will vary.

Can an indie aspire to be "literary" in this sense, attracting a fan base just on the basis of the quality of their writing? Probably, though it is much harder.

It depends in the end on what you want out of writing and self-publishing. If you want sales, it's going to be much easier to get there with a franchise or at least a narrowly focused brand. If you are writing for the art, self-publishing gives you the freedom to indulge that, but it would be a fluke to get volume sales.

I've branded by self-publishing imprint Barnaby Woods Books as "Suspense Fiction." I would like to establish Lord Leighton from The Grand Mirage as a franchise. But these books require considerable research and it will be hard to get one out more often than once a year. To keep busy writing while doing some of this research it would make sense to produce some other books. I have a good start on a contemporary political thriller -- a different sub-genre than the historical thriller. I want to re-issue Gold, the financial thriller I sold to Dutton. I've started at least two different Vatican thrillers. I've also talked to my brother, a retired police officer, about collaborating under a pen name with a series of police procedurals.

So a somewhat fuzzy brand, but hopefully consistent enough in quality and intelligence to appeal to a core audience of readers who enjoy a variety of suspense fiction, as well as in each instance to aficionados of each sub-genre.

So I guess I would answer the question yes and no. I envisage a couple of franchises within a wider brand that would include one-off thrillers of various sorts. But who knows, the liberating influence of digital publishing may inspire me to write other kinds of books as well -- humor, literary, even nonfiction, why not?

Friday, October 14, 2011

On being a book publisher

Apparently I've been waiting to be a book publisher all my life. Self-publishing has liberated me as a writer -- I can now tackle all those unfinished projects with renewed enthusiasm -- but it has also opened the door to a new creative activity that so far at least I'm enjoying.

It was fun to look for the images for the cover of The Grand Mirage (and big thanks again to Pedernales Publishing for putting them together in such a brilliant fashion), to write the product description and back cover, to decide on distribution, and now to undertake the marketing through social networking, book party, blogging.

It is in itself a creative process. I was involved earlier this year in setting up and launching a personal finance publication for the iPad. That, too, involved a lot of creativity and working with real pros in getting cover designs, layout, stories and putting the whole package together. Unfortunately, the unproven business model proved unsustainable and the publication quickly folded. But this creative phase was great.

The next project for my self-publishing imprint, Barnaby Woods Books, is to reissue my financial thriller, Gold. I've asked the original publisher, Dutton, for a letter of reversion of rights (the book has been out of print quite a while) and that evidently will take some time, but in the meantime I already like thinking about the new cover, the foreword to the second edition, the product description.

I'm sure self-publishing will have its own set of frustrations, as the weeks go by and sales fail to reach any sort of volume. But right now it's fun to have a good-looking book available in print and e-book for those hardy readers to find.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Social networking for writers

It's already conventional wisdom that social networking is the secret to sales of self-published books, particularly ebooks. As John Locke, the phenomenally successful ebook author, says repeatedly, however, the emphasis needs to be on social. The author needs to establish a real connection to potential readers and not simply beat them over the head with a Buy-My-Book club.

Twitter has been a total revelation to me. I first opened my Twitter account back in 2008 because my niece Amy was really into it, and even came to the Obama inauguration with a group of her Twitter-friends from Wichita. But I didn't get it, or maybe it hadn't evolved to the point it has now. It's not (no longer) about tweeting, hey, I just had a great slurpee (though some people still enjoy that). It is rather a bona fide way to share things with a vast and seemingly endless Twitter-sphere of real people.

That is the greatest thing. To see all these people out there, full of personality, thoughts, views, and open to sharing that in this environment. It seems to be that Twitter is far and away the most open and flexible social networking vehicle. It's fast and furious and sucks you in. It can become a bit intense, but you just have to take a deep breath and go with the flow.

When I first joined, I set up a Tweetdeck so that I could "manage" my 35 followings. That seems kind of silly in retrospect. I saw someone the other day with 125,000 followers. It's not about managing. It's about a river of information, links, hashtags, comments, jokes that you dip your toe into during the day and throw in your bucket of thoughts from time to time.

Does it sell books? Not sure. Locke's experience is that if you show something of yourself, if you provide help or advice or information to people that they need, it's a kind of pull marketing. They become interested in you and your books, and chances are they will buy them and like them.

What's clear, though, is that in the meantime it's a lot of fun. In my case, I'm immersed in a world of writers and readers tweeting about books and writing. I do look at the books of some of these people. Sometimes they are not to my taste -- not a judgment on whether they are well or badly written (Locke says writing doesn't have to be good, just effective) -- because many of these people will find their own audience. But I have also found some very excellent reading and one book that just astonishes me. I would never have seen this book in the NY Times Book Review or on a shelf at Politics & Prose, but I would much rather read it than the 10th installment of Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series (don't get me wrong, Silva's a very good writer, but even he must be tired of limping along through 10 books with the same characters, action, etc.).

The other thing about all this twittering and tweeting is that it's the ideal medium for writers. It is writing! It's a very real form of social interaction that writers sitting alone at home in front of their computers can indulge in.

I've also been expanding my connections in LinkedIn, joining some of the groups there. It seems to me it has become more flexible, a bit more vibrant than it has been in the past.

Facebook baffles me. They keep changing their interface and I have no idea how to find new friends or groups to interact with. I just joined Google+ -- the circles are kind of cool -- so we'll see how that develops.

For the moment, though, Twitter is one stop shopping for me. My blogs get tweeted immediately and my tweets go automatically onto my LinkedIn and Facebook pages. It's a brave new world.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


It's a golden age for writers, this digital era, and blogging is one of the best examples of it. I resisted blogging for quite a while because I write for a living and I couldn't see the point of writing for free for an audience that may never materialize. I just didn't get it.

But finally the light went on. I realized that although I love writing I don't often get to write about what I'm most passionate about. I'm a business and economics journalist and I love the storytelling involved in writing journalism, but finance is not a passion for me. So I started a book blog, Cogito Ergo Sum, and then a food blog, You Are What You Eat. Books and food are two things I am passionate about. I didn't much care if anyone followed or read these blogs. They really were for me weblogs, journals for my own amusement that allowed me to express things about books I read and food I liked.

When I decided, crazily, to accompany my brother on Biking Across Kansas, I started another blog, BAKpedal, to chronicle my training for this 500-mile bike ride across the state, and then for BAK itself.

When I finally decided to take the plunge and self-publish my historical thriller, The Grand Mirage, which had been languishing on publisher slush piles for too long, I knew I needed to accompany it with a blog/website. Blogger has enough flexibility that you can create a blog that looks a lot like a website, buy a custom domain name, and be in business for just $10. So I launched Barnaby Woods Books, a website for the self-publishing imprint I created.

Publishing my book liberated me from the blocks that had kept me from writing and made me enthusiastic about churning out some more fiction. Because I wanted to keep Barnaby Woods Books focused on The Grand Mirage and other books that will come along, I started this blog, Barnaby Woods Blog, to write about writing.

Then I thought there should be a blog for The Grand Mirage itself, but what can you blog about a novel that takes place in 1910? Well, aside from just the pure entertainment value, one of the reasons you read an historical novel is to get a perspective on the past that helps you understand the present. I think this particular era and the setting for my novel actually does have a lot to say about the present, so I'm experimenting with blog postings that fit the description, "The Middle East Then and Now." I think in fact it could become a fairly robust blog.

Too many blogs? Maybe. But why not try it? That's one of the beauties of blogging, too.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


When I first got an agent in 1982 I wanted to write a novel, but the agent, London-based June Hall, recommended starting with nonfiction because it was easier to sell. So my first book was Debt Shock: The Full Story of the World Credit Crisis, chronicling the debt crises in Latin American and Eastern Europe in the early 1980s.

Several people said, wow, it reads like a novel -- you should have written a novel. So I wrote a financial thriller, Gold, using a fraud in the gold market as the catalyst for a financial meltdown (a scenario that is remarkably relevant today!). The hero was a financial journalist who tries to save the world. Why not?

I went back to nonfiction for my next book. I was quite taken with Joel Garreau's The Nine Nations of North America, where he describes the U.S., Canada and Mexico not as three countries, or 50 states, but as nine big regions with their own cultural and economic trends. I wanted to apply this to Europe, though obviously it couldn't be called the Nine Nations of Europe, since there are 32 nations in Europe. So this book became The New Superregions of Europe.

It was a labor of love and a lot of fun to research. The thesis was that the fall of the Iron Curtain, removing an artificial ideological divide of Europe, and economic integration through the European Union together were allowing large historic regions, often determined by geography, to reemerge across national borders. There was a Baltic region, a Western Mediterranean region, an Alpine region, and so on.

The same questions of territory, nationhood and culture were behind a new political thriller I started. It was a novel that would include German ambitions to reclaim East Prussia and other areas that became part of Poland after World War II. The hero once again was a journalist who figures out what's afoot and tries to stop it.

The working title was Reich and I got a good third of the way through it. But then came 9/11 and because the plot entailed a terrorist threat against Washington, I decided to put it aside. That's when I embarked on the historical thriller that became The Grand Mirage, which has just been published.

It was frustrating not to find a publisher for Mirage in such a difficult market for fiction. Several friends were having success with their nonfiction book projects, but this time I was determined to stick with fiction. Then came the miracle of digital publishing and The Grand Mirage has seen the light of day. Now I can go back to Reich and finish it, and return to a number of other false starts from my lost decade.

Monday, October 3, 2011


The classic arc for a newly published books is months of waiting until the pub date set by the publisher, a flurry of activity at that time with book shipments, author appearances, and a smattering of reviews -- and then the book drops into the sinkhole of obscurity, often as though it never existed.

It may live on in libraries, college syllabuses, even a backlist for a while. It may get a second bump when the paperback version comes out. But eventually -- we're talking months, not years -- the publisher will tire of inventorying it and will remainder it or just pulp it, offering to sell the author as many copies as he or she will buy at bargain basement prices. A book will then be out of print, though somewhat more accessible now because the Internet market in used books.

The arc of a self-published book, I think, is radically different. It starts in the sinkhole of obscurity and must climb out of it. It can be a slow and painful process. The good news is there is no rush. You are not going to remainder your book and declare it out of print.

But it is tempting to follow the model established by the classic book publication. Omigod, my pub date is here. Must get reviews (reviewers don't like books that aren't newly published, why, really?). Must have events, book parties. Must make the most of my 15 minutes of not fame, but just notice in the glow of a new publication.

Every self-publishing success story I've heard, however, is a tale of patient promotion by word of mouth, slowly discovering and building an audience or fan base. One self-published friend has been at it for four or five years. He now has three titles out and is starting to see some significant sales -- not of his latest book necessarily -- but of the first two released years ago but slowly finding readers.

I've just been dipping into some writers' forums and the common complaint is why do I have to spend so much time on marketing? It distracts from writing. The good news, again, is that you can spend as much time as you like, depending on how fast you want this process to go. But I think no matter how intensely you pursue it, or how hectic you get, it will simply take time for news of a self-published book to percolate through the various networking vehicles that now exist.

I'm discovering, happily, books that were published months or years ago. I don't have to worry whether they were published last month or last year, whether they're about to go into paperback or are available as remainders. I can buy them or not and read them at my leisure.

All this is a long lecture to myself to be patient about building a market for The Grand Mirage. It took a long time to get here, and it will certainly take a long time to get to the next step.