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 Even Reich, which I thought was getting out of date because the villain had to be 10 in 1945 could just be set in the late 1990s, which is when it was set when I started it.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.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Compelling writing

I'm trying to figure out what keeps me reading a book. I pick up any number of thrillers and mysteries and find myself putting them down, picking them up after a couple of days, reading only because I want to finish the book -- in short, plodding through. The concept is good, the writing is at least OK, the characters are all right, but somehow it's falling flat. For instance, I recently started Karen Dionne's Boiling Point, which is set in Chile and is about global warming, volcanoes, and so -- an environmental thriller. I enjoyed reading her Freezing Point a few years ago. Karen runs the Backspace conference and has a big following in the publishing world.

I'm not getting into it. There are too many characters, and the two women protagonists seem an awful lot alike (one is African American, the other is American Indian). There's a lot of busy-ness as Dionne clearly is setting up a lot of strands to weave together. I may stick with it and finish it, but probably not.

I suspect some readers have similar problems with my book. You hear things like it's too slow at the beginning. The slow development doesn't suit some people who are perhaps less fascinated than I am by simply being in Constantinople and in 1910. They don't have the patience to stick with the early part even if the overall concept appeals to them.

Good writing can pull a reader along in spite of all this. My classic example of this is Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song. There is no way I was interested in Gary Gilmore, his crime or his execution, and yet I consumed the thousand-page book because the writing itself was so compelling.

My other non-starters these days have been Ian McEwan's Solar -- the protagonist is revolting -- and Amos Oz's Don't Call It Night -- where the two main characters are so self-absorbed it seems to reflect the author's own narcissistic tendencies.

Clearly, as my former agent Stuart Krichevsky told me, it's important for the reader to care about the characters. His example was Dennis Lehane's Mystic River, where the characters were each flawed in their own way but you cared fiercely about them nonetheless.

Casting about for something I would actually enjoy reading, I seized on David Kazzie's The Jackpot after reading his account of how Kindle Select promotions provided what may turn out to be a breakthrough for his thriller set in Richmond, Va. Now this is a book that's hard to put down. Yes, part of it is the violence, the turns it takes and the suddenness of unexpected death. Part of it is the quirkiness of the characters; Kazzie takes the time to explore each character and endow them with surprising qualities. The concept -- what happens to the winner of a super-jackpot lottery -- is a great one, with lots of natural suspense. The writing, if not exactly scintillating, is much better than just competent.

But it's true that one of the main attributes is that from the first page you care about the characters. There is Julius, who is watching the lottery drawing with good-for-nothing cousin and realizes he actually has the winning number. There is Samantha Khouri, the ambitious associate who has just been passed over for partner at her law firm when Julius turns to her for legal advice about his ticket. You're on their side. But even the heavies, like Samantha's stressed-out boss at the firm, or the eccentric bounty hunter sent to find the ticket, draw more sympathy than antipathy from the reader.

Caring about the characters is not enough by itself. My disappointment with Mark Young's Revenge stemmed from his getting lost in plot convolutions. His protagonist, Travis Mays, was someone you could care about, though Jessie, his love interest, was never fleshed out enough to really care about. What's important for me, too, is the sense of place, and both Kazzie and Young excel at that. But I ended up plodding through Revenge (who knows, the same may yet happen with The Jackpot, but I doubt it).

Do people care about Lord Leighton? I hope so. They seem to care about Elena. I suppose it has to start with the author caring about these characters. I'm writing a new book in the first person for the first time -- does that automatically make the reader care for the protagonist?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Kindle Select

Totally amazing. In the second two-day promotion of The Grand Mirage, thousands of free copies of the book have been downloaded, vaulting it to #2 on the free Kindle bestseller list for historical fiction and #19 among ALL free Kindle books.

I'm not sure what the actual sales of the paperback versions of my previous three books were, but this may be the most copies of any book I've written to get into readers' hands. Of course, the likelihood that many of those who downloaded the book for free will never read it is much higher than in the case of people who paid money for the other books.

The downloads this time around are a multiple of those in December. It is certainly due in part to the fact that there's now millions more Kindles out there after the Christmas bonanza in Kindle sales. Also, this time I had the helpful notice in Anthony Wessel's Digital Book Today. I had deliberately timed this promotion ahead of Valentine's Day in case anyone thought this would be an appropriate gift, but I have no idea if that played any role at all.

I'm not sure how this plays out in terms of paid sales, or name recognition, or sales of other books. I don't think anyone knows the answers to these questions. But I'm overwhelmed that so many people found the cover and the description and reviews of Mirage intriguing enough to click for a free download and my hope is that many will actually have a chance to read it and enjoy it.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Authors Guild

Oh my. The Authors Guild sent out a long email citing the New York Times story on Barnes & Noble as great journalism and buying into the misguided notion that B&N is the great hope for book publishing's future.

The email came from "staff" and replies probably go into a dead-letter box, but I replied anyway. The original email is way too long to reproduce, but suffice to say it reflects the Big Six attitude of viewing Amazon as the enemy. (The text is available on the Authors Guild blog.) I shouldn't be surprised, since the AG board consists of big-name franchise authors who have a vested interest in the current system, even though they pretend to defend the little-guy author and a system that has served neither readers nor authors well.

Here is my reply, beginning with one particularly naive quote from the email:

Established authors, for the most part, do fine selling through online bookstores. It’s new authors who lose out if browsing in bookstores becomes a thing of the past. Advances for unproven and non-bestselling authors have already plummeted, by all accounts. Literary diversity is at risk.
What planet are you living on? What new authors are you talking about -- the lucky few that scrape through a series of middlemen to finally get into print?

Wake up Authors Guild! If you continue to betray a bias as representatives of established authors who have a vested interest in a flawed and doomed system, you will go down with that system. There is a whole new class of authors -- independent authors -- who will also need the kind of neutral assistance the Authors Guild can provide.

I published three books with mainstream publishers -- Doubleday and Dutton. I couldn't find a publisher for my latest novel so I self-published in POD and ebook. I listed for distribution everywhere and Amazon was the only outlet that sold any ebooks. So it was a no-brainer to sign up for KDP Select when Amazon offered it.

Amazon is the future of book publishing, so stop treating it like the enemy. It is the enemy only of legacy publishers and their franchised bestselling authors -- who of course dominate the Authors Guild board. Don't pretend to be representing me when you cling to B&N. Amazon will find competition, but not from an inefficient dinosaur like B&N, which has done more than any institution to narrow the midlist market by centralizing purchasing and often not buying a single copy of newly published books for any one of its 700 stores.

I'm astonished at the insouciance and naivete of this email. The Authors Guild has done a lot of good work for writers, and I've been happy to be a member. But I will need to see some evidence that you have a clue about where book publishing is going before I renew my membership the next time my dues are up.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Title time

It's possible to write a book with just a working title, but I think the sooner you have the title, the better -- and the easier. I waited too long, I think, to settle on the title for The Grand Mirage and it was hard at that point to actually figure it out (and then retrofit the title into the book).

Working titles are easy. They are one word and it only has to speak to me. Mirage, for instance, was called Orient, which told me what I needed to know but couldn't be used in the title because most people now associate Orient with the Far East. I thought of Orientalist as the title, but that didn't really solve the problem and the biography of Kurban Said had just come out with that title.

So now I'm working on the sequel to Mirage -- or really the next in the series. My first idea was one set in Cairo (working title: Cairo) and involving oil, tentatively titled Black Sands. I liked that because, as with The Grand Mirage, it directly evoked the desert. I may get back to that but in the meantime I feel more inspired to have the next one set in the Levant (working title: Levant, you see how it goes). Unfortunately, as I've noted in a related blog, this concept doesn't seem to be commonly known in the U.S. So any title like Shadows on the Levant would not resonate the way I would like.

I'm beginning to understand why many of Alan Furst's titles are so vague (Night Soldiers, Kingdom of Shadows, Red Gold, The World at Night, Dark Voyage). They are evocative but evanescent and I'm sure I'm not the only one who can't remember which title goes with which plot. I can't even remember which ones I read. Some of the others (Spies of the Balkans, The Spies of Warsaw) are literally easier to place, but betray a certain lack of imagination. His forthcoming book apparently is titled Mission to Paris.

In fact, one of the titles I considered for Mirage along these lines was Caravan to Baghdad. So in the sequel I should forget Levant and think about the names of some cities involved, such as Damascus and Beirut (Smyrna and Alexandretta probably don't have sufficient name recognition). Combining this with some evocative concept like "shadows" or "winds" may do the trick, but something more concrete may be called for. We'll see.