Friday, December 31, 2010
His award-winning Burleigh Drummond short stories have appeared in the magazines Blue Murder, Tangled Web, Thrilling Detective, and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. His first novel Baronne Street, a Burleigh Drummond mystery, was published in September 2010.
After a recent reading some members of the audience suggested we continue the discussion of Baronne Street over a cup of coffee. My wife says I love to pontificate. She must be correct because I accepted the offer without hesitation.
For those who aren’t familiar with Baronne Street, the protagonist is Burleigh Drummond. Twenty-eight year old Drummond is the fixer New Orleans bluebloods and politicians run to when their problems become too complicated for their titanium-hearted lawyers.
In Baronne Street Drummond must employ his Machiavellian skills to solve and avenge the brutal rape and murder of Coco Robicheaux, an ex-girlfriend. As Drummond investigates he discovers Coco lived a clandestine existence in the city’s netherworld and had been drafted as an unwitting pawn in a plot to disrupt the upcoming mayoral election. As often happens with pawns, she was sacrificed.
During the discussion one of the most interesting questions posed was “What were the influences that led you to create the character of Burleigh Drummond?”
I have lived with Burleigh Drummond through four short stories, a novel, and outlines for several more of each. His biography, his life events, his motivations are what I think about. It had been quite some time since I had given any thought to how the character was developed.
Even before fleshing out the character I knew setting was a key component. I wanted to place the series in a small city with an insular society. A city controlled by the old money crowd who fears progress may disrupt their lives; for that reason they will thwart progress by any means necessary.
Initially I had planned to base the series in Palm Beach, but Lawrence Sanders had beaten me to that prime real estate with his fine Archie McNally series. In retrospect Palm Beach would have been the wrong choice. Palm Beach is less of a city and more of a winter vacation community for the ultra-wealthy; they only stay for “The Season”. And then there is all that beautiful sunshine, white sand, and crystal-blue ocean. Burleigh Drummond needed to operate in a dark city with even darker secrets.
Then I discovered New Orleans. A city filled with secret societies whose members don masks once a year and toss trinkets to the masses. The bluebloods make backroom deals to restrain new business and influence politicians. The politicians bleed every dime from the city coffers and do nothing for the city. Then the bluebloods and politicians dance together at formal balls while the city decays.
New Orleans was the perfect location for Burleigh Drummond to set up shop.
An early decision was to create a character who went against type for the hard boiled genre. He wouldn’t carry a gun or get involved with fisticuffs. His primary weapons would be brains, charm, and aplomb. Occasionally trickery, blackmail, and bribery would be used; I never intended for Drummond to be a choir boy.
For irony I chose to call the character Burleigh Drummond because it sounds like a tough guy’s name.
During the discussion I remembered three fictional detectives are in Drummond’s DNA: James West from the TV series The Wild, Wild West, Sherlock Holmes, and Phillip Marlowe.
What I always loved about James West is wherever he went people said “There’s James West, secret agent for the Secret Service”. It was so absurd. But I realized this would happen to Burleigh Drummond since he operates in a small city which only has three degrees of separation as opposed to the standard six. So I worked that concept into the stories. He seldom engages anyone who doesn’t know him or know of him. In one of the short stories a police detective mentions Drummond’s clients consider it a status symbol to say “Burleigh Drummond is fixing the situation for me.”
Many people think Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are middle-aged or older; probably because older actors have primarily been cast in those roles. (At forty-five Robert Downey Jr. is middle-aged.) Holmes began his career as a consulting detective after graduation from college; he was about twenty-four. He was twenty seven or twenty-eight when he met Dr. Watson and Watson began chronicling their adventures. Watson was few years older; in addition to being a physician Watson was an ex-military man who missed the excitement of war.
Also more often than not Holmes’ clients were wealthy blokes and government officials asking him to fix a situation for them (the italics are mine).
Baronne Street begins when Drummond is twenty-eight and has been working as a fixer for three years. His best friend and occasional partner, Morgan Cross, is obviously an ex-intelligence agent, though it is never explicitly stated. Like Watson, Cross knows his way around guns and death.
Phillip Marlowe – How could he not be an influence? Marlowe is the platinum standard for the hard-boiled genre. He is cool, hip, a great wisecracker, and obsessed with the truth while seeming not to care. Still he is haunted by his inability to make things right in an imperfect world. Just like Burleigh Drummond.
If you would like to continue the discussion there’s always email. I can be reached at Kent@KentWestmoreland.com or if you’re shy just go to the web site – www.KentWestmoreland.com .
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Hard to believe truly that we have come to the end of yet another year. Seems like only 365 days or so ago I was saying the same thing.
Makes you wonder about the very early years of civilization when there were no years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, or seconds. The people then just lived from moment to moment with no boundaries to guide their every move. Imagine that. Yet I suspect they managed just fine till the time came to start and finish days, week, months, years, decades, and centuries.
That as it may, things are as they are in modern times and that means having to say goodbye to another year, for better or worse. I have always found this crossover from one year to the next a bit intimidating, for while you can lock in the year past as one for the history books, there are no guarantees of what the next year may have in store. Will I be around to help usher in 2012? Will any of us? Can I use this year's wisdom to make the smart moves next year? Or will I have not learned anything meaningful?
I am sure others may not share my feelings here, but I am really going to miss 2010. For sure, there were some things I'd just as soon forget. Or wish had never happened. Second for second, minute to minute, hour to hour, day by day, week to week, and month to month, though, it was a good year with lots of memories I will long hang onto.
There was that terrific victory by the Saints to win the Super Bowl that seemed to be a victory for the nation itself, alongside New Orleans.
It wasn't quite as exciting to see the Giants of San Francisco win the World Series, but was happy nonetheless for that great city, having once lived within shouting distance.
Seeing Julie Andrews and the entire cast of my all time favorite musical, The Sound of Music, on Oprah, was quite a thrill. Looking at them, it hardly seemed that 45 years had passed since the movie came out and had us all singing, "Doe, a deer, a female deer Ray, a drop of golden sun..."
I had several novels come out in 2010, including my first young adult coming of age tale, HER TEEN DREAM, and mainstream suspense, THE SECRETS OF PARADISE BAY.
But what I will miss most about this year is that it was another year for personal growth and professional achievement.
I can only hope that 2011 offers as much to look forward to and well beyond.
What will you miss most about 2010?
Any memories that stand out?
Monday, December 27, 2010
Despite this understanding that life will go on (all things being equal), I feel a bit panicked as I realise that I did not take enough time to make notes to capture the emotions that I have felt at different junctures in this period of my life. I feel (irrationally) as if these memories may be dulled, even wiped clean and I will be presented with a clean slate on January 1, 2011. These notes could be the key to helping me to relive the raw emotions and impressions and thus enrich a character or scene in a future best selling novel.
So excuse the brevity of this post while I pull out my notebooks and write, write, write!
Two things persuaded me to try my hand at the author thing. First, I wanted to enthrall others the way I’d been enthralled by L’Amour, Bradbury, Burroughs, Howard, MacDonald, and many others. Second, I figured I could do better, or at least put more effort into it, than some of the other writers I was reading. I won’t mention names, but I was finding books that just didn’t move me. The prose was leaden, the pace stagnant, the characters as stiff as new jeans.
Sometimes the poor writers just didn’t know how to tell good stories. But more often it seemed these authors were writing too fast and not giving the care to their work that being a craftsman required. To me, this became, and remains, the definition of a hack. Turns out, however, that I learned quite a bit from the hacks, mostly, I hope, about the things a writer should not do.
I learned that well-written prose strikes the ear like music, not like the sound of a bell without a clapper. I learned that description is boring unless it fires the imagination or sets a mood. I learned that good characters can’t become chess pieces to be shoved around, that they have to have integrity of action and consistency in their behavior over time. I learned that fiction should give the illusion of reality even when it can’t illustrate reality absolutely, as when dialogue sounds as if real people are talking rather than serving mechanically to advance the plot.
One important thing I learned from bad writing is that there is no suspense for readers when things come too easily for the characters. I read a book where the villain gathered a huge army and cornered the last heroes. The villain had a great bomb but the hero defused it, and the enemy army just suddenly ran away. I might once have thrown that book across the room, but this time I kept reading, wondering what other gems of “thou-shalt-not-do” wisdom might be found between the lines of a weak tale.
Of course, the most important thing I’ve learned from poor writing is that good writing takes concentration and effort, and there is no substitute for either. It’s easy to tell a bad story. The good ones take time.
Sunday, December 26, 2010
With 2011 a few days away, I want to say follow your dreams. Make 2011 the year you complete your manuscript and submit it to a literary agent or publisher. It's so easy to sidetracked by real life, stay focused.
Have a safe and fun New Year's Eve and I'll talk to you in 2011.
Saturday, December 25, 2010
There are some foods we only eat at Christmas. We brew Sorrel, a blood red drink made from the Sorrel flower. The aroma fills the room and fills my heart with nostalgia. We make black cake. It is a fruit cake filled with wine and sometimes rum. I soak the dried fruits: raisins, prunes, currents, cherries etc in port wine for a few weeks then bake them into the cake. After the cake is finished, I pour port wine and a tiny bit of CSR, a rum made in St. Kitts, over it.
The smell of cake baking, ham baking, sorrel brewing and ginger beer fills me with memories of a time past. A time when there were no gifting or myths of Santa bringing presents. A time when Christmas and carnival went hand in hand… when people dropped by our home just to have some Sorrel and Black Cake. A time of joy that did not involve the excessive materialism that characterizes Christmas today.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
Liane's list of Christmas-themed books
1. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum
The creator of Wizard of Oz unleashes his imagination again in this story of the origin of Saint Nicholas.
2. Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl S. Buck
My mother was a fan of this author and I read several titles from her bookshelf, all of which gave profound insights into the Chinese culture. This story is a departure from her pet setting and themes: here a penniless teenage boy finds a way to give his father a precious Christmas gift.
3. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
What list is complete without this classic? Especially a list by someone nicknamed 'Scrooge' at this time of year. Meet Tiny Tim, Ebenezer Scrooge and all the Spirits.
4. The Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens
This novella is divided into Chirps instead of chapters. Published in 1845, it tells the story of a family with a cricket in the house. The cricket, their guardian angel, warns the master that his wife may be having an affair. Doesn't sound like Christmas fare, does it? Despite the sobering premise the spirit of the season manages to prevail.
5. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris
Sedaris turns his sardonic wit to Christmas and pulls it off with style in this collection of Christmas-themed stories. From the hilarious SantaLand Diaries in which Sedaris chronicles his time working as an elf at Macy's ("You are not a dancer. If you were a real dancer you wouldn't be here. You're an elf and you're going to wear panties like an elf.") to Dinah, the Christmas Whore and Six to Eight Black Men, these stories are funny and sad, hilarious and sobering.
6. On A Snowy Night by Debbie Macomber
Love romance novels? Love Christmas? Here are two heartwarming Christmas stories in one package from a queen of the romance genre.
7. The Christmas Train by David Baldacci
Baldacci has been venturing beyond the thrillers that made him a household name into historical and science fiction mystery. Here he takes a shot at the Christmas-mystery-humour-romance racket with a thriller set aboard a cross-country train. If you're a fan of train lore, you're in for a treat.
8. Hogfather by Terry Pratchett
A hilarious Christmas satire set in the fantasy universe of Discworld. The Auditors want people to stop believing in things that aren't real, so they've hired an assassin to eliminate Hogfather - you know, that fat, white-bearded, red-suited guy who cries "HO HO HO!"
9. Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Christmas Treasury by Jack Canfield
Looking for Christmastime inspiration? Pick up this book for a bowlful.
10. Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem by Maya Angelou
First read at the 2005 White House tree-lighting ceremony, this stirring poem and the lovely artwork will resonate with all ages.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
For the last six months I’ve been working on the third of the Vampire Testaments, PAST LIFE, which is set in 2028, twenty years in the future. In developing the world in which it takes place, I had to conjecture about what the world would be like in twenty years. I wasn’t writing a science fiction novel, per say, as the story continues my vampiric odyssey, rather than the future world, but I need to make my future world plausible.
I decided that I wasn’t trying to see into the future as much as decide what I wanted it to be like, then justify and explain the path that got us there. I looked back twenty years at the world of the nineties, and turned my gaze forward to consider what changes I wanted to make in the world. Most of what I saw had to do more with social changes and political and economic shifts, but I also found myself pushing what I see around me to the next level.
Half the fun in futuristic fiction is playing with the toys, coming up with devices, vehicles, appliances, and all the tech and biological advances that will change our lives. Half the fun of these prognostications is looking back at them from the realm of the imagined future, and seeing how close they were to where we are.
As I was working out my own futureworld, Rose Fox, an editor friend and running buddy from the KGB Fantastic Fiction and NYRSF readings, gave me a galley of a book she’d worked on to read. A compilation of pieces from Popular Mechanics over the course of the 20th century, it’s filled with “The Wonderful Future that Never Was” as the title suggests.
It’s filled with articles and the maddeningly tantalizing color illustrations that accompanied them, visions of all the things we always wanted and still haven’t quite gotten. The much-desired flying car makes an appearance here, as do rocket packs and the domestic promise of clothes made of paper, plastic, asbestos, and homes that clean themselves or can be hosed down. There are some that we managed to get, like moving sidewalks (at least in airports), electronic devices to filter dust from the air, superfast computers...you have to see some of it to believe it.
Forget buying a copy before Christmas -- Amazon is already sold out and waiting for more -- but don’t give up. It’s like a colorful box of bon bons to leave lying about for friends to nibble at a piece at a time. More than anything, it illustrates the endless fascination o the human mind with what lies ahead, and the boundless imagination we devote to it. Seeing what worked, what didn’t, and understanding why from the real point of view of that imagined future is an education in how to imagine the future.
If this book teaches us anything it’s that the future is never what we expect it to be. It’s never as flashy, but it’s always surprising. In the case of the computer revolution and the rise of data transmission as a major commodity and resource, the greatest change is proving to be where it always is -- in ourselves. The world and our future change to reflect what we want from them, and as I build my own dark future for my novel, I’m enjoying and learning from the lessons of past future predictors, both their failures and successes.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
An Australian friend who now lives in the U.S. recently remarked she'd miss the usual traditions of Christmas, such as barbecuing at the beach. It hit me then how many of northern hemisphere Christmas images are inextricably associated with cold, darkness, and death. Starry skies. Icicles with deadly points. Trees barren of leaves, looking dead. Snowmen with eyes of coal. A matchgirl lying dead in an alley. Tiny Tim on the brink of death. Mittens and knit caps and red, chapped cheeks. No wonder there are carols with names such as "In the Bleak Midwinter" and Christmas songs, traditional and modern, set to melancholy melodies: "The Coventry Carol," "The Old Year Now Away Is Fled," "What Child Is This?" "Mary Did You Know?" "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Blue Christmas," and "So This Is Christmas."
Many cultures around the world and through history have had a midwinter festival on or near the winter solstice. Often, this festival was to encourage the sun to come back, to celebrate its expected return, or to celebrate a historical event (such as the birth of Jesus) whose supposed timing was moved to coincide with midwinter. People could feast because the fields had been harvested, animals that could not be fed through the winter had been slaughtered, and wine, beer, and cider were being fermented.
In America, as the year comes to an end, we mourn those who did not make it through the year and long for those far away in time or distance who won't be with us for the holidays.
And yet, despite the darkness, a new year begins. The sun returns. Grief fades a little with time. In spring, the grass will green, the crops will grow, and we'll make new friends before the solstice rolls around again.
I wish you all a wonderful 2011.
Monday, December 20, 2010
This evening, as I sat down and turned on my laptop, preparing to write my NovelSpaces blog, my granddaughter sat next to me with her laptop, too. She was writing a story about a young boy who is bullied. My eight year old grand who loves to read, is actually a natural born writer. I noticed her love of writing when she was about three years old. She enjoys telling stories and coming up with titles, (she actually has about fifteen titles and stories) developing characters, deciding on cover images, and writing page after page, no matter where she is or what's going on. Her imagination is uncanny. She always asks me tons of questions about story and about sentence structure. She loves to write. She is gifted. She is blessed.
It is true that most kids want to be many different things - a doctor, pilot, police officer, singer, politician, teacher, and on and on. My grand actually has a few of those professions on her list as well as claiming that she will be an author. So much so that I have promised to publish her first book, which she'll complete by her deadline of August 2011, which is set for release on her 10th birthday.
With all that said, I decided that since I had this future author sitting right next to me, I'd actually conduct a brief interview with her and ask her to give brief answers, the very first replies that popped into her head. She was so in agreement that she traded laptops with me, and typed the answers herself.
With pride, these are questions to and answers from a 3rd grader. Alexis J. is her name, and writing is her game:
1) Why is writing so important to you? Because first of all it’s fun and second of all it inspired my grandma. You might recognize this name from her books. Marissa Monteilh.
2) How does it make you feel when you write? Writing makes me feel free, like you are expressing your imagination! You know? That is how I feel when I’m writing.
3) What makes a story or a character interesting? It’s by the character’s personality. Like if the writer makes him/her mean or good or generous.
4) What do you see as your future as it pertains to writing? I see my books at Books A Million or Barnes and Noble. I actually see my books!
5) What’s your favorite book and why? Mostly, I don’t have a favorite because all books are great. There are tons of authors out there inspiring you with their books.
Out of the mouths of babes comes evidence of a God given gift. My gift comes simply from her existence. Simply because of her birth. The birth of a child of God that has discovered her love of words at a young age. Alexis J. is born to write. Keep an eye out for her debut. She "sees" her books, and so it is that you will see them as well!
Here's to all of our young folks, the next generation, and the feeling we get when their discoveries bring smiles to their faces. Feel free to share the loves and talents of your youngsters - the things that simply make them, and you, happy!
Grand Holidays and a Happy New Year!
Sunday, December 19, 2010
I'd gotten away from that mindset over the years, wandered from the course that had taken me from wannabe to published writer. And I didn't realize I was wandering because I was still selling stories. Then real life slapped me around a bit and I discovered just how far off the path I was.
In 2010 I sold every short story I finished. In terms of sales per product produced, that's my best year ever. Of course, that ratio would be a lot more impressive if I hadn't submitted my last completed story of 2010 in March. In absolute terms, 2010 was my worst writing year since 1998. With the end of 2010 less than two weeks away, I can say that from April through December did not finish a single story. Oh, I did write. I outlined some stories and plotted two novels – I've even started writing on a few projects – but I haven't finished anything. For the first time in over a decade I have a backlog of half-done projects, stories I started then lost sight of before I got them on paper.
What happened? On the face of it my first thought was lack of discipline. But as I examined what I had done I realized it was the lack of intelligently applied discipline.
Twenty-ten was a rough year for me. The big event was of course my father's death last month. But before that there were a couple of family crises I don't know you well enough to share, and I lost two full-time day jobs, the ones that pay the bills, six months apart when the agencies I was working for went under. Through it all I tried to stay true to my daily word-count goals – made them more often than I thought I would, too – but in the end it didn't do me any good.
The Oregon Coast workshops taught me I can write fast and well at the same time. I developed a schedule (writing before waking the rest of the family) and set myself a goal of writing a story a week. I never sustained that for more than two weeks in a row – at my peak I was producing and submitting three short stories a month – but striving to meet that goal worked for years. Not only did I develop as a writer far more quickly than I would have at my old story-a-month-pace, I sold dozens of short stories and three novels (one of which was published online as a serial).
With those novels – written between 2006 and 2008 – I changed my writing goal from a story finished weekly to a number of words produced daily. I developed a 1,000-words-a-day average; on typically hectic real-life days I wrote 600 and on rare writing-only days I produced 2,400. At this pace I completed each of the three novels and their inevitable editorial revisions in less than 120 days. I figured I was on to something with those word-count goals, and adopted them for all my writing projects. Since at that time I was doing an eclectic mix of fillers, articles for role-player reference books, web content, and short stories, it also provided a universally applicable scale for tracking my output. But useful as counting words was, in the process I taught myself to think of the word count as the objective. I forgot my job is telling stories.
This wasn't really a problem while things were going relatively well. I dealt with the usual family crises, day job dramas, car repairs, home projects, etc., and fit my writing in around the edges. As long as I hit my weekly word count, I thought I was doing alright.
And I was until my non-writing life got out of control. I believe the emotional stress of my 2010 would have made it difficult for anyone to write. And I think I did better than I might have expected in terms of what I had trained myself to do. I wrote words. My discipline of producing words enabled me to hit my daily and weekly word-count goals more than you might expect. But the words I was writing – scenes and expositions and descriptions and dialog – did not add up to stories.
A professional writer must write every day for the same reason a professional athlete must practice every day or a professional musician must play every day. Not just working out, exercises to develop strength or endurance or flexibility; but practice the rhythms and moves and tactics and skills and tricks specific to her particular sport or instrument. In this way they not only perfect their craft, but they prepare themselves for the unexpected; they have a ready reserve of honed responses to whatever obstacle they encounter.
As writers we tend to think of our job as writing words, and we set ourselves goals based on that internal model. I very publicly set myself a daily word-count goal at the beginning of 2010. But we are at our core storytellers, and what we do every day should reflect that.
If I had stayed true to my original model of writing a story a week, I would have produced saleable stories all through 2010. Not as many as I would have in a good year; at this stage in my professional development that's beyond my abilities. But stories. I should not have focused on the number of words I needed when mapping out my strategy for writing my novels. I should have focused on scenes and chapters. A scene a day perhaps, or a chapter each week, would have served me better. Because then I would have been practicing and honing my skills at handling the tools of my craft as a storyteller. I would have had those tools and skills on hand when I needed them to produce good fiction in the face of adversity.
So if you're tracking words saved to the back-up disk (You do back everything up, don't you?) as a measure of your progress as a writer, stop. Write stories. One a week is good. And don't require the story to be a particular length; there are a lot of really good 3,000-word ideas out there that would die if bloated to 6,000. If you're working on a novel, make your weekly goal a scene or a chapter – whatever fits your pace and your vision of your work.
Not only will producing finished stories (or scenes) give you a more tangible sense of accomplishment, you will be practicing the skills particular to our craft. And developing the resources you'll need when life gets in your way.
Saturday, December 18, 2010
Let me sum it up for you. Stare at the calendar with my deadline circled in red and worry, worry, worry. Panic a little. Worry some more.
Even though I’ve written a synopsis and have a general idea of how the story is supposed to go, the worrying and panicking go on for months.
Then with just two weeks (or less) to go it all comes together in my head, and I type like a maniac, fingers struggling to keep up with my brain.
The thought niggles at (and terrifies) me. What if it doesn’t come to me in the last week or two?
Every time I make a deadline I heave a sigh of relief and vow to never wind up in the position again, but I always do.
I dunno? If it’s not broke (yet), maybe I should stop looking for a way to fix it.
Sooo, is there something about your writing process that gets on your last nerve? Click the comment button and tell me all about it!
Friday, December 17, 2010
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
An author creates something from nothing, a whole world of people, situations, places, and conflicts that up till now did not exist. Her words ultimately enter the minds of readers who then get to experience her genius. Even after he is gone, thoughts from the author’s mind can continue to speak to people for countless generations through his book. Here I present that book’s journey from when we receive it to publication from the point of view of an editor.
After the author has completed the book, revised it, had it critiqued by other writers, revised it again (and tossed it into the trash and resurrected it), and so on, the author must then find a publisher, which is not an easy task. Larger publishers generally only allow agented submissions while small press will often allow authors to submit manuscripts directly. Guidelines can vary and are generally posted on publishers’ websites. (Best not to ignore those guidelines. Why give an editor another reason to say no?) If the author is fortunate to have the manuscript accepted--usually publishers can only accept a small fraction of what they receive--the author and publisher start a new relationship and the first steps toward releasing the book.
When an author hears her book has been accepted (after waiting forever) she generally celebrates. Little known fact: the editor also celebrates, which sometimes involves much jumping around and screaming (but only in private), particularly if the book is from a new author, one the editor has now “discovered.” (Editors have egos, so go ahead and let them believe that.) The time toward publication varies, but for our press it can take up to a year, depending on the schedule of books already in the works. During this process, we offer an advance to the author and work up a contract.
Even a well-written book must be edited. The author may think his book is perfect--but it isn’t. Almost. Maybe. At our press, one or two editors and I will go through it and make comments and changes, each of which we run by the author. This usually involves passing the document back and forth with a “track changes” option enabled. Changes for which we disagree, we argue about, then the editor wins (but actually, we work with the author closely on any disputes and can be swayed to the author’s favor). When the manuscript reaches its almost final form, we send that to at least one proofreader who will search for typos and any inconsistencies that have slipped by our expert eyes. We run those by the author and when all corrections have been made, we produce a PDF “proof” layout for the author to read through once again. Sometimes we wait until this stage to send it to a proofreader. Any corrections--usually minor at this point--are made and we produce a file to send to the printer for advance reading copies (ARCs) to be made.
Meanwhile, we have been working on the cover. Sometimes we find already existing art that fits the story well; other times we commission an artist to produce the cover art. In either case, we involve the author in every aspect of this process, as much or as little as the author feels comfortable. Our goal is to produce an eye-catching cover, one that represents the book well (rather than have a catchy cover that has nothing to do with the book, or a rendering of a person who looks nothing like the character in the book). We hope the casual browser will want to pick up the book, read the cover blurbs, open the book, and buy it. The artwork is the foundation for whole cover design layout (the layout design is done by someone other than the artist). We try to have the cover ready in time for when we produce ARCs. The ARC is then very similar to the finished book.
When the ARCs are ready, we send them out to reviewers, including the large review magazines such as Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, and to various genre publications such as Locus, SF Review and many others, including prominent bloggers and anyone else we can convince that we are just about to release the best novel of the year. Additionally, we send books to authors and others who have agreed to blurb the book. ARCs are usually produced at least three to four months before publication to keep within the submission requirements of the review magazines.
When the ARCs are in circulation, we have one last chance to make corrections to the text and cover, which we can do up to about a month before release. Then the book goes to the printer in its final form. During those last three months we also we concentrate on marketing. Publishers, large and small, generally expect authors to help market. This includes getting around their communities and getting word out. Authors are often familiar with local bookstores and other venues that work for launching a book. We have done bookstore signings, house parties, and held launches in local historic places that will accommodate a good number of attendees. Often, the author will get an interview at a local publication and get the book launch included in local events schedules.
But we don’t expect the author to do the majority of the marketing. Our publicist produces press releases for local papers. We market the book directly to bookstores, particularly those where we’ve already done business. We contact libraries (especially those who already have titles by us) and let them know about the reviews. We place ads in the large magazines to support the books being reviewed there. Each book brings a new challenge and we always look for new ways to get attention. We attend conventions such as the World Science Fiction Convention and the World Fantasy Convention, and other conventions where we can meet all kinds of fascinating people. Sometimes we launch new books at those. We partner with convention-attending booksellers to make our titles available and sometimes we acquire a dealer room table and masquerade as hucksters ourselves. We make sure awards committees are aware of our titles--and we’ve had several books requested, including one that made the final list. Stories from our anthologies have been included in “best of” anthologies and have been nominated for awards such as the Hugo. All of these help lend much-deserved credibility to the new book.
Just before release, the book is placed with distributors from which booksellers and libraries will be able to order. The physical book is ready for the author to hold in her or his own hands. And then on the day of release, we try to make a lot of noise and we encourage the author to do so as well.
We not only produce hardcovers and paperbacks, but we offer titles on Kindle and soon they will be available in other formats. We’re entering a whole new world of publishing and we want the be at the forefront of new markets for author.
Publicity is essential for a successful release. Some of the areas where we’ve been successful have come from positive reviews (it’s during this time, just before or just after release, that libraries and book sellers are seeing reviews of the book), blogging by friends and acquaintances and their friends and acquaintances, and podcasted interviews. As the book makes its way to readers, word of mouth becomes an important way of getting books out to even more readers. (I remember a certain book that had a first small print run, only to gain from word of mouth. . .) After the book is released we continue to market it, and can set up book tours to help increase visibility of the book and its author.
Our titles remain in print for as long as the authors have granted us rights (and if we want to keep publishing them, we’ll beg for extensions). Best of all, with each new author, we have formed a new relationship that we hope lasts forever.
Monday, December 13, 2010
It is that time of year when resolutions are made for the New Year. Whether they are actually kept or not is often a different story, depending on how realistic such declarations may be.
I usually do not make yearend resolutions, figuring I am already motivated enough to do the things I might want to over the next twelve months-- such as exercise more, keep the weight down, improve on my craft, and avoid taking undue risks that could put my health in peril, etc.
But with the clock ticking on 2010 and my turn to blog, I thought it might be fun to make twelve writing resolutions for 2011:
1. I would like to expand my reach as a writer by becoming more involved with eBook publication, as this appears to be gaining ground among readers, with more and more equipped with all the latest digital reading devices.
2. I would like to up my daily quota of written material by 3 to 5 pages, which seems well within reach, especially on days that I'm on a roll.
3. I would like to spread my wings into young adult fiction, believing I have some great ideas that would appeal to this group. Indeed, I just released my first YA romance, HER TEEN DREAM, and have a YA ghost tale, GHOST GIRL IN SHADOW BAY, in the pipeline.
4. I would like to do more book signings. Not sure if they do much to increase overall sales, but it is nice to interact with fans who show up and are willing to shell out money to buy something you wrote.
5. I would like to donate more books to libraries. My publishers often give me more author copies of my books than I can give away to family and friends, meaning they usually tend to pile up in boxes in the garage. Library shelves would be a much better fit.
6. I would like to try and direct more traffic to my website, which is very cool with some great sounds to keep visitors company. But like other writers, I am battling a cross wind that is making author websites practically irrelevant with FaceBook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social networks giving readers all they need to know about writers.
7. I would like to read more for pleasure (something that has taken a real hit in recent years as I have focused on my own books). A fringe benefit of reading fiction and nonfiction as well is that it tells you what is being published so you can make sure your own writings remain relevant to today's times.
8. I would like to go to more writing conferences and conventions. These are a great way to socialize with your peers and get motivated to try and keep pace with your own writings.
9. I would like to volunteer more of my time and knowledge in helping other up and coming writers. Even a few words of wisdom can go a long ways in giving writers confidence and advice that could mean the difference between success and failure.
10. I would like to make one bestseller list or another. This is always a lofty goal of mine and have found some success there. Being amongst the top sellers in your field is always the highest form of flattery.
11. I would like to see if I can make some inroads into audio versions of some of my material. Short of seeing your novels adapted to the screen, hearing your books being read can be very gratifying.
12. Last, but not least, I hope to continue to learn ways to be an even more effective writer in plots and presentation. As the old adage goes, "The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement."
What writing resolution would like you to make for the New Year?
Any other resolutions that are important to you for 2011?
Sunday, December 12, 2010
Chee Chee isn't going to Jamaica with me, so I'm pretty sure that nothing will happen."
This is an excerpt from my second book, Pirates at Port Royal. The truth is that such a sentence probably would not come out of the mouth of the average child in St. Kitts. It is more likely to look like:
"Chee Chee not going Jamaica wid me, so nuttin' gorn happ'n."
Writing direct speech for my West Indian characters has been an ongoing struggle for me. On the one hand, I do want the books to be an authentic representation of life in the Caribbean. I want my characters to seem realistic and familiar to my West Indian readers. On the other hand, I recall reading books set in Scotland and struggling to understand the dialect speech and wondering to myself how these words actually sound. I have also read books written entirely in Jamaican creole which I have to read out loud to catch the gist of the text. I don’t want to alienate my non-West Indian readers by making them work too hard to figure out what my characters are saying.
There is a little more to the dilemma in my case. While I appreciate the use of dialect, I have spoken out about the way that it is proliferating our English and questioned whether or not it is the right way to go. Many people have responded positively to my suggestions and it does seem a bit hypocritical if I turn around and write a book in dialect!
Have you had that struggle between realistic and understandable speech?
Saturday, December 11, 2010
Resonance represents the degree to which a name, term, or subject evokes already existing associations in someone’s mind. Consider this, you hear about two good mystery novels by writers unknown to you. The first features Linda Harmon as the private eye. The second features Sherrill Holmes, a descendant of the great Sherlock. Which book captures your attention first? Which immediately brings thoughts to your mind?
I’m betting it will be the “Holmes.” Resonance is the reason. Whether you liked the Holmes stories or not, you recognize the name. It carries weight. It already evokes thoughts of detectives where “Harmon” is a cipher. “Holmes” impacts like Harmon cannot, at least for most people.
Some names carry powerful resonance even when separated from the historical figures who wore them. Consider “Moses,” or “Jesus.” What personal and physical traits do you automatically assign to a character named Moses? Does “Moses” suggest someone who is strong willed? What about “Morris?” Resonance gives your character “Moses” power the moment his name is put on the page. Not so much for “Morris.”
Resonance can be negative, as well, though. Take “Adolph.” Think very carefully if you decide to give your character that name. Most people will automatically associate “Adolph” with mass murder, concentration camps, and war.
Even fictional names can develop resonance. “Sherlock” has it. “Conan” has it. What do you think of when you hear the name “Homer?” Homer of the Odyssey or Homer Simpson? I bet you thought of one of them. For The Simpson’s fan, the name Homer is going to evoke a certain level of dumbness.
How many thrillers have you seen with Nazis in them? Nazis have resonance. And I wonder how much resonance had to do with the phenomenal success of The Da Vinci Code? Leonardo Da Vinci himself. Jesus. Mary Magdalene. The Catholic Church. The Vatican. Opus Dei. “The Last Supper.” All of these have resonance.
For adults, everyday words already come with varying degrees of resonance. What images come to mind when you hear concrete nouns like “blood,” “snow,” “death,” “lover,” or “child?” When I hear the word “blood,” I don’t just think of the liquid; I think of life itself, and of a color, and of violence. For me, “child” brings thoughts of my son, Joshua, pitching baseball, riding his bike, laughing and playing. Resonate nouns make more powerful engines for your prose.
Some abstract nouns, like “freedom,” or “violence,” can develop powerful resonance, but they are still different from concrete nouns in the specificity of images they evoke. Other abstract words evoke little: “humanist” or “theorist.”
Consciously or unconsciously, many writers in the past have used resonance in naming their characters. Mike Hammer. Sam Spade. Or consider the wealth of fictional characters named some variation of “Cain.” Unfortunately, this has been overused and I’m not sure you want to name your characters “Stone,” or “Steele,” or “Wolfe,” or “Hawke” anymore. Here, resonance has been lost because of overuse, or has been transferred from positive to negative.
Resonance is a writer’s tool just as much as punctuation and grammar. You just need to consider what resonances you’re evoking as you write. Should your character fly the “Stars and Stripes?” Should they be from “New York?” Should they be described with terms that evoke the “tiger,” or those that evoke the “snake?” There’s no real right or wrong answer. There are only resonances: positive and negative, and sometimes both.
Friday, December 10, 2010
How do you make all of the parts of your life even out, keep everyone happy, including yourself? You have children, a husband, another career, and family obligations, what do you do when your muse starts to talk to you and all you want to do is slip into your cave and write for days at a time?
I find keeping everyone happy, including myself to be a delicate balancing art and there a days that I don't always do an effective job. Although I don't have any children, I have a husband that expects time with me. I also have elderly family members that need me to do a million things for them in order to keep them as healthy as possible. Along with those obligations, I have a career that can be demanding at times, plus four nieces and one nephew that believe I belong to them.
As writers, what tricks do you use to make it all fit together? How do you keep everyone happy, including yourself?
I'd love to hear from you.
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
I have to admit, when I received the email from my boss insisting that I register for the course, I was a bit miffed. Wasn’t he the one who told me I was a good writer? Am I not a published author? Of course he didn’t know that, but I still complained to a few of my co-workers that I didn’t need the course. And I felt justified in not wanting to attend. That was two Saturdays that I had to spend away from my kids. And I had to drive on the highway to get there (I am terrified of highways).
Well I did take the course, reluctantly deciding I was going to ditch it the following week. Was I in for a surprise! Not only was it interesting and entertaining but it was indeed helpful and necessary for my development as a writer.
The instructor, Dr George Gopen from Duke University gave us one rule to writing from a readers’ perspective: there is no rule. That immediately got my attention. He went on to discuss about the importance of context and sentence structure that would make it clear to the reader. One thing he said that really made an impact on me was, “No matter how good a writer you are, if your reader cannot understand you, you have not done the job.”
So true! How many times have I read scientific papers three and four times and still could not understand what they were saying? I just thought I was dumb. But Dr. Gopen is right. When we write, the reader should not have to use up all his/her energy in understanding what we are communicating. We did some exercises that really drove home the point. They involved rearranging sentence structure to make it much clearer for the reader.
When I went home I re-examined some of my scientific writing and I was appalled. I had fallen into the trap of so many scientists writing long sentences with a million and one sub-clauses before getting to the point. It made it unclear for the reader.
I couldn’t wait to attend the next class. And it did not disappoint. At the end of the course I asked Dr. Gopen if offered courses like this for fiction writers. He said no, because fiction is for the interpretation of the reader, while expository writing, be it legal, journalistic, political, or scientific is to provide information for the reader. Therefore a writer of expository writing should write from the reader’s perspective.
I am happy I took that class. I spoke about it so much that my boss joined me for the second session. Now he’s still talking about it.
I don’t agree with Dr. Gopen about the utility of his course in fiction writing. I’ve read some fiction that are so hard to follow that I gave up reading midway. Yes fiction can have multiple interpretations. But unless the reader comprehends, or if that reader has to expend too much energy reading the material, it becomes unrewarding.
So I’ve begun to apply some of the clarity in my fiction writing. I think I am a better writer for it, both in the non-fiction writing required for my day job and in my fiction writing.
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Someone described his work as "philosophy lite". Call it what you will, his books captivated me decades ago, and his adventures in living his beliefs have helped to form - or at least validate - some of my own beliefs.
I was fascinated by the legend of this Indian writer who submitted the manuscript for The God of Small Things to a London agent who, not long after, found himself on a plane to India, contract and six-figure advance in hand. When I read the book I understood. It's the writing - lyrical, heart-wrenching... That's the way I aspire to write!
I read My Family and Other Animals when I was a child and was hooked for life. Durrell's accounts of his childhood in Greece, along with his adventures as an animal collector, zookeeper and conservationist, not only provided me with innumerable hours of high entertainment but also contributed to my development as a naturalist and writer.
During my sojourns in Florida the highpoint of my weekend was buying the Miami Herald and reading Barry's column. Every Monday for the past five years or so, one of his classic columns drops into my inbox courtesy the Herald, and it's a great way to offset the start-of-the-week blues. The quintessential humorist and satirist, Barry is unsurpassed, imho, at exposing the hysterical insanities in everyday life.
During my last teaching stint a few years ago I met a fifteen year old boy who shared my passion for The Bard. I wanted to hug him. When I left, he hugged me. After all, how often do you meet a teenager who also gets goosebumps every time we read certain lines of Macbeth? Shakespeare's trenchant observations on every aspect of life have so influenced me that his words constantly find their way into my writing - and even into my everyday speech, much to the disgust of a few people who just don't get it.
I've lost count of the number of times I've read To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee captures the essence of childhood while at the same time exploring very adult themes and telling a damned good story - a triple triumph I'd love to emulate.
After reading A Walk in the Woods I knew I had to get my hands on his other books. (Yes, KeVin, he does seem to have a jaundiced view of certain aspects of the American South but I'm not from there so I don't take it personally and the humour is undiluted by any perception of insult.) Bryson combines several of my reading fetishes, some of which I'm discovering are also my writing fetishes: humour, the natural world, travel, and social satire.
Here is another writer who speaks to the things I hold dear: conservation of the natural world, solitude, rejection of worldly values, the beauty and mystery of existence in all its manifestations. My tattered copy of Desert Solitaire is one of my prized possessions.
Others who have deeply influenced my thoughts and my writing, consciously and otherwise, I'm sure, are:
- Maya Angelou, for her genius at making me cry, rage, and laugh out loud - sometimes all at the same time!
- Erma Bombeck, for demonstrating that the most ordinary, humdrum aspects of living (what's funny about a housewife living in the suburbs, battling with spouse, spawn, cooking, laundry, crab grass, weight gain and her own expectations of domestic bliss?) can provide great fodder for humour.
- Erica Jong, for empowering wonderful, libidinous, flawed, lovable feminist heroines!
Monday, December 6, 2010
Recently a reader asked me for my opinion on why there are so many trilogies being published lately -- I have two answers, one short, one longer. You know me...
The first is financial. If an author’s books sell well, there’s nothing a publisher likes better than to have another book waiting in the wings to move onto shelves as soon as the initial sales of their first subside. The strategy seems to be to have new books come out within six months of each other, as my second did, which means that the old paradigm of taking a year to finish a novel is slowly being thrown out the window. That’s right, kids, your competition is now time -- the novelist who can produce good work faster -- i.e., readable and saleable, which doesn’t always mean the best writing -- is more appealing to a major publisher than a brilliant first novel with no guarantee of more.
If a publisher buys a trilogy and promotes it as such, it theoretically means that anyone who enjoyed the first book is a built in audience for the second and third. Since most book contracts are structured in step payments, publishers have no problem writing off any money paid on signature and stopping the ball before it rolls too far down the hill if the first book tanks. For them it’s a win-win situation -- not so much for the author who told everybody about a three-book deal that then goes the way of all things.
The second reason is aesthetic.
There has always been an attraction to the power of three. Off the top of my head I can cite the Holy Trinity that I was raised with as a Catholic -- Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The three witches in Macbeth, the three sisters in Aaron Spelling’s “Charmed”, three-eyed and three legged aliens in “War of the Worlds”, “The Tripods” series -- I could Google and find far more and better examples, but you get the point.
Almost any writing course will tell you that a good story has three elements - a beginning, middle and end. We talk of the three-act structure of plays, even of screenplays. Life is divided into past, present and future, with no side trips into parallel time or alternate dimensions. Bottom line, there is a magic and mystery to the number three that recurs frequently in literature and myth.
There's also something almost irresistible to taking on the challenge of writing a story so big it requires three parts to tell. It is a lure that can be as lethal as Ulysses' desire to hear the Siren's song, with equal risk of crashing to you doom on the rocks. When I started my first novel, “BITE MARKS: A Vampire Testament”, I didn’t plan for it to become a trilogy. That happened in the course of rewriting the first book, as I realized it had generated a valid continuation of the story. Book one took place in 1986/87 and involved a vampire baby that is “cured” by the end of the first book. Once I had that ending, I saw a second story that brought the baby, now human and approaching 21, back to New York to find out what happened to him all those years ago.
I was lucky in that the editor who bought the book saw the same potential, and bought the second book based on a half page description of what it would be. In the course of writing book two of what had become the first two novels of “The Vampire Testaments” at my editor’s suggestion, I had a choice -- cram everything that was coming up into one book that felt rushed, or break the story I saw remaining into two books, turning my first publication into the opening volley of -- yeah, yet another trilogy.
In all good conscience, I couldn’t cheat the characters or the readers with the former, so I wrote up enough details to see where the third book would go, and plunged ahead, counting on my editor to tell me I was crazy if the second book didn’t satisfy. She didn’t, and I am now hard at work on book three, with no contract, driven only by my need to know what happens next.
I did something unusual (I think -- I haven’t read everything, after all) in that each book of the trilogy is separated by a generation -- the first takes place in 1986/87, the second twenty years later in 2007, and the third will be set twenty years from now in 2028. My hope is that no one will assume the third is science fiction and shy away from it, or that first readers of the third will be disappointed in the first two for not having futuristic aspects. For the purposes of the story I am trying to tell I had to move forward in time for certain events to build to a boil. The third is more speculative fiction if anything, in that I am more concerned with social and moral changes than in how technology or science may have changed to affect us.
It does make for an interesting marketing issue, which I will address in future blogs. Publishing today is still struggling to deal with the question of how to effectively sell a book in the 21st century, when more books than ever are available, in more forms, and in more markets. My hope is that I’ll attract readers who like my characters, the way I tell stories, and my themes, and that, if done well, where or when they are set will be accepted without question.
When I realized that I’d thrown myself into a trilogy, as opposed to a series, (also popular with publishers today, though the Testaments will continue with individual novels), I took on the responsibility to end the third novel well, in a way that wrapped up the lives of the characters while leaving them open to future stories. I didn’t want to pad out a successful first story into two more, as the Matrix trilogy did so poorly, for seemingly no other reason than to milk the market.
In my opinion they destroyed the integrity of the first movie by the middle of the second, when Neo arbitrarily discards saving the real world to save his lover (named Trinity, ironic in the context of this essay) and then lies about it. Then they gave us a third movie that essentially reprised and expanded the action sequences of the first two and cranked them up until there was no room left for anything but more digital copies of the villains in motion. Consistency of plot, character or story were thrown out the window in a virtual orgy of hi-tech destruction driven more by Joel Silver’s action movie mentality than the intelligence of the Wachowskis that instigated the original idea.
For me, a trilogy is justified when it’s driven by an epic story that can’t be contained in anything smaller. The “Lord of the Rings” was a faux trilogy in that it was written as a massive single book the publisher cut into three parts for publication. Nonetheless, except for the abrupt close of the first two portions (I feel each part of a good trilogy should have a satisfying ending, even as it sets you up for the next), it tells an epic tale that couldn’t be told in fewer words.
The future of the trilogy will be determined by two things -- their effectiveness, how well they are written -- but first and foremost, their sales. If people keep buying trilogies, writers will keep writing them, and publishers will keep putting them out there. I will think twice before I launch into another. My only regret is that I didn’t pitch the first as a trilogy so that the publisher could have promoted it as such, but I am making clear that the story continues -- and ends -- with another. After that I have at least two more tales to tell in my vampire lore, and a host of unrelated books to write, supernatural and otherwise.
Sunday, December 5, 2010
Here's the official announcement:
Clarion is widely recognized as a premier training ground for aspiring writers of fantasy and science fiction short stories. The 2011 writers in residence are Nina Kiriki Hoffman, John Scalzi, Elizabeth Bear, David Anthony Durham, John Kessel, and Kij Johnson. Each year 18 students, ranging in age from late teens to those in mid-career, are selected from applicants who have the potential for highly successful writing careers. Students are expected to write several new short stories during the six-week workshop, and to give and receive constructive criticism. Instructors and students reside together in University of California at San Diego campus apartments throughout the intensive six-week program.
Application period: December 1 – March 1. Applicants must submit two short stories with their application.
Workshop: June 26 – August 6, 2011. http://clarion.ucsd.edu
So why should you consider applying?
- You'll learn how to critique other people's writing and thus your own.
- Your writing will improve amazingly.
- You'll make several friends for life.
- You get to spend six weeks on a tree-filled campus immersed in writing—no cooking, no chores, no noisy children or demanding pets, nothing at all to prevent you from living and breathing writing.
- You'll have the most fun one can possibly have while being severely sleep deprived.
- You'll find out whether you truly want to be a writer.
- Being a Clarion grad opens doors for you and gives you a professional connection to dozens of professional sf/f writers (and writers in some other genres as well).
- Your life will change forever.
Yes, Clarion is pricey—nearly $5000 this year. (That includes tuition, private room in a three-person apartment with kitchen, Internet service, and three meals per day at the dining hall, as well as a parking pass if you take your car.) Some scholarships are available.
However, if you truly want to be a professional or semiprofessional writer, Clarion is worth the money. In essence, it leapfrogs you and your career several years ahead of where you'd be otherwise. And if you discover that the writing life is not for you, then you can stop wasting time writing and get on with what you should be doing with your life.
If you have any questions about Clarion, feel free to post them in the comments or email me at ShaunaRoberts [at] ShaunaRoberts [dot] com.
Saturday, December 4, 2010
If you've discovered a passion for writing and been bitten by the bug, then you know the feeling of bringing a story to life knowing you've created it from a thought in your mind's eye. And then after all of the sweat it took to pen it, you give your story wings, and then jump right back in, only to need to meet another deadline.
Friday, December 3, 2010
I came up with one shy of a dozen. (I'm sure I'll think of more once people start chiming in with their own favorites.)
Robert A. Heinlein. A master storyteller. While he is best known for Stranger in a Strange Land, his juvenile novels like Have Space Suit; Will Travel or Podkayne of Mars are worth seeking out. Heinlein is also the archetype of the writer as no-nonsense craftsman. My approach to the process of writing is based on his: don't write drafts, write a story. His rules for being a writer should be posted above every monitor:
1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.
Toni Morrison. You just sort of dive into her prose and luxuriate. Her novel Beloved garnered her the greatest praise, but her Song of Solomon is far and away my favorite. (Do not read The Bluest Eye unless you are well fortified against depression; it's that effective.) My favorite quote of hers: "I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it."
Ray Bradbury, whom I first met through Dandelion Wine rather than his more famous Fahrenheit 451.. The Martian Chronicles, October Country, I Sing the Body Electric – I'd pay full cover price for any of his anthologies in a heartbeat. His gift for evocation and for presenting the alien as us – and vice versa – is unparalleled.
John D. MacDonald. The absolute master of the first-person mystery novel; his narrative voice is flawless. He never insulted – and never bored – his reader and always played fair. He gives us everything in advance and still manages to surprise and satisfy. Read any of the Travis McGee series.
Kurt Vonnegut. Hard to explain how this man's writing, his "unstuck in time" plotting affected my own approach to how a story can flow. I know Slaughterhouse Five is the Vonnegut novel everyone recommends, but go read it. Like Heinlein, Vonnegut had rules for writers:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Vonnegut added that great writers break all of these rules except the first.
Ursula LeGuin for world building.
T.S. Elliot for what he can make words do.
Tony Hillerman for his ability to make his adopted culture so real to the reader that you find yourself regarding your own way of seeing things as strange.
Bill Bryson. Though he hates my native south, his Lost Continent taught me how to make a location real. Notes From a Small Island and In Sunburned Country give Britain and Australia the same treatment.
Barbara Tuchman. History more vibrant than historical novels. I recommend A Distant Mirror.
And I have to add two writers who had a great impact on me as people before I'd read their works and who, as writers, have influenced my own work:
Kristine Kathryn Rusch and her husband Dean Wesley Smith. I am a writer – rather than a wannabe best-selling author with delusions of grandeur and a trunk full of half-begun manuscripts – because these two took the time to beat some sense into me.
So what about you? Whose work influenced your writing?