Southern Scotch

Southern Scotch

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Alcatraz Correction: Research before or after?

Stephen King likes to write the story first, leaving blanks for research.  E.g.: Type of sofa, handgun or security recording equipment.  And that may be the best way to write most types of novels, allowing us to focus on the story itself, not on the things we don't know.

Then again, what if the things we don't know could limit our chance of success?  Twenty years ago, when I first tried write a book based on the Great Escape from Alcatraz, the only thing I knew was that I'd have a hell of a story if at least one of the three cons survived.  I'd knew which one I'd want to live for the sake of the story of mind. But about the man himself or how the escape was pulled off, I knew zilch.

That first attempt never got off the ground for two reasons:  1) My effort to tell the tale as a horror novel, in order to make a quick sale, was all wrong.  What I had, I perceived, was a thriller.  2)  I needed to know more, much more, about all three of the cons and how they broke out of their cells.

And the more I learned, the more I realized how much more I needed to learn.  The Clint Eastwood movie, Escape from Alcatraz, was wonderful, but it missed the point completely: this Sistine Chapel of escapes was a major miracle of social engineering.  The cons had to play everyone, from their neighboring cons to the guards.  And the promises made and broken were the really the stuff of my novel:  We'll take you...and you...and you...More than one con left behind, and betrayed, could have nursed a long, violent grudge.

At the same time, as I realized the breadth of the convicts' achievement, my passion for the story grew and grew...until one day, one day like any other day, the tale I'd tried to write for years began to write itself.  So for this one book, at least, there was only possible answer for me:

Research before writing.


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Michael Prescott Live!

Michael Preescott was one of 15 self-published authors in 2011 to crack the top 150 on USA Today's Bestselling Books List.  And what a story lies behind his rise to ebook riches.

Q: Good evenin', Michael. You've been an inspiration to me and many other veterans of the traditional publishing wars. I've read that you'd published eight novels and had good reviews.
A: Twenty novels, actually, though the first five were horror books that I published under another name. Then there were six books that I published under the name Brian Harper, and nine that I published as Michael Prescott.

Q: You were also represented by a high-powered agent.
A: Jane Dystel.

Q: Top drawer. So, what led you to choose to go indie?
A: It wasn't exactly a decision, inasmuch as I didn't have any choice! The last two novels I tried to sell to traditional publishers were rejected across the board. I think Riptide was turned down by 25 publishers. It just wasn't a good time to try to sell a novel. The publishing business was in disarray and contracts were few and far between. I decided to self-publish Riptide simply because I wanted to get the book into print, and there was no other way to do it. It was simply a vanity publishing move. I didn't have any expectations for the book's commercial success and, in fact, it didn't enjoy much success for the first year that it was available.

Q: How long did it take for your work to catch on?
A: I self-published Riptide in the summer of 2010 and followed up with another couple of books from my backlist in the months afterward. Sales started to pick up significantly in the late spring or early summer of 2011.

Q: Why? Did you have a master marketing plan or did you just carry on with the writing and trust that the readers would come?
A: There was no master marketing plan at first. But at a certain point, a friend of mine named J. Carson Black, who writes excellent thrillers and was also going the indie route, suggested to me that I could have a lot more success if I lowered the price of my books to $0.99 and promoted them on Amazon.com's discussion boards. That's the procedure she was following and it was paying off very nicely for her. After I started doing that, the sales took off.

Q: You're almost unique in your non-reliance on Twitter, and your use of Facebook is sparing.  What can you tell us about that?
A: I've tried Twitter, but I can't get the hang of it. I really don't like promoting myself all that much. I find it kind of distasteful. I do send out a mass email whenever I put out a new book, and I announce the book on Facebook and on my author website, and in the past I promoted it on Amazon discussion boards. There's nothing wrong with self-promotion, but as long as my books can sell without my having to do too much of it, that's the way I like it.

Q: How many books have you published as ebook originals?
A: There have only been two. The rest were backlist titles whose rights had reverted to me, and which I then republished in ebook editions. Or, in the case of Grave of Angels, the book was original but it was put out by Thomas & Mercer, a division of Amazon Publishing. The two self-published books are Riptide and a comedy novella called Die Stupid. I had high hopes for Die Stupid, but readers absolutely hated it, so to protect my "brand" I took my name off and substituted a moronic pseudonym, Owen Fusterbuster. I've gotten a handful of emails from people who thought the book was hilarious, so there are a few of them out there. A very few.

Q: Have you found an average production time per book?
A: It typically takes me about a year to write a full-length novel. In terms of getting it ready for ebook publication, it's simply a matter of proofreading the book, preparing a cover, formatting it, and uploading it. Maybe a month.

Q: Can you give us some idea of what a Prescott Wannabe might hope to achieve in downloads/sales?
A: I'm up around 1.2 million units sold. Not counting Die Stupid, I've put out 16 books, so it averages out to about 75,000 copies per book. The $0.99editions sold many more copies than the $2.99 or higher-priced books. But I don't know if there's any way to estimate sales. It's all a matter of whether or not your stuff happens to catch on.

Q: You've written in numerous genres. Is there a common ground, something that makes a book a Michael Prescott novel?
A: Over the years I've proceeded by trial and error to develop the kind of book I'm most comfortable with--a book that feels like it's in my wheelhouse, so to speak. These days, a typical Michael Prescott novel features a female protagonist who has a job that can plausibly put her in danger. She goes up against a male antagonist. There are woman in jeopardy situations, one or two big plot twists, and usually a very compressed time frame--the whole thing might take place over 24 to 36 hours. That seems to be what works for me. When I write male protagonists, they have a tendency to be a bit stiff. The one or two times I've tried to write a female villain, it usually comes off kind of campy. So I like the female protagonist going up against the male villain. And the fact that the majority of people who read fiction are women makes it an intelligent commercial move, as well.

Q: Any training in the classics? You're also unique in your fondness for literary references: the makeup of Roman actors in 'the last decadent days of Empire'...'the bodily wisdom that the ancient Greeks called thumos'...'Cupid coupling with Psyche in the dark'...etc.
A: I don't have formal training in the classics, but around the time I was in my late twenties, I decided to fill in gaps in my education by reading classic literature on my own. For a long time I was particularly drawn to books about the ancient world, especially Greece and Rome. So naturally some details from all that reading will work their way into my books. I also developed an interest in mythology, which was reflected most strongly in my book Comes the Dark, which is filled with references to ancient myths.

Q: Also, you're not shy around sophisticated diction: luminaria...frisson of mutual excitement...
A: Years ago I read an interview with Sidney Sheldon, who said his aim was to write a book that would not require the reader to stop and think. He would go through the manuscript and if he came across a word that might perplex the reader, he would substitute a simpler word. He was basically admitting that he wrote down to his audience. I was pretty young when I read that interview, but I remember thinking that wasn't the way I would do it. In some of my books, particularly Comes the Dark, I probably went overboard in using esoteric vocabulary. I've toned it down since then, because it can seem like you're showing off.

Q: I think about wit vs. humor when I read your work. Riptide is a ripsnorting Jack the Ripper novel--as bloody in spots as they come. Yet enormous wit's at play in how the engine of the book is made and how the mystery runs its course. Do you play chess with your readers--or is the game more devilish?
A: I don't know if it rises to the level of chess. Probably more like checkers! As I mentioned earlier, I try to put in one or two big plot twists. For the twist to work, it has to be unexpected, yet it has to seem natural and even inevitable once it's been revealed. A good deal of thought goes into working those things out, but I think that's probably true of anybody who works in the thriller or mystery genre.

Q: Would I lose money if I bet that you like Ira Levin's trickeries?
A: You would win, though it's been a long time since I read him. His early books, A Kiss Before Dying and Rosemary's Baby, are taut, brilliantly plotted, and highly original. I don't think he ever quite rose to that level again, but most of his books are entertaining.

Q: What are the wildest things you've ever done on and off the page?
A: I don't know if it's exactly wild, but back in 1997 I moved three times in six months--from Tuscon to Phoenix, from Phoenix to Orange County, California, and from Orange County back to Tuscon. It was a very confusing time for me, probably an early midlife crisis. Otherwise I've led a pretty sedate life, which is a euphemism for saying that I'm pretty boring. I think many writers are like Walter Mitty, the James Thurber character who had a mundane daily existence but a hyperactive fantasy life. As for the wild stuff that I've done in my writing, I'm a little amazed by the sheer amount of gore in my horror novels and even in Shiver, which was the first non-horror novel I wrote. When I screened an advance copy of the movie version of Shiver last year, I was sort of aghast at the violence and gore, even though they were simply following my book.

Q: Is there anything about your work that readers still fail to 'get'?
A: People who don't like my books usually complain that they aren't realistic enough. That's fair, but the truth is, I'm not trying that hard to be realistic in the sense of mirroring everyday life. There are some excellent writers who can do that, like Joseph Wambaugh. My attitude is more in line with Alfred Hitchcock, who said, "Some films are slices of life; mine are slices of cake." I like larger-than-life characters and situations, as long as they don't get too over-the-top. But everyone draws that line in a different place. For me, Dan Brown's novels are a little too far-fetched, but he has millions of fans.

Q: Can we talk about the Great Taboo, the thing most agents will deny? I mean age discrimination against the Midlist Monster. To the best of my knowledge, no agent's ever stated that no one over thirty need apply. But a short while back, one NYC agency stated outright that they only represented first-time authors. And a well-known female agent stated that she didn't care to represent published pros, preferring young pups who'd grow into Good Dogs. Do you agree that age may be an issue?
A: It may be. It's entirely possible that agents and publishers would prefer to go with someone new, rather than someone who's had opportunities to break through and hasn't succeeded. I'm not even sure that's unfair. You see the same thing with actors, singers, TV personalities, etc. Let's face it, the entertainment business can be rough, but that's what you signed up for. One thing I did find aggravating was this notion that you're either a paperback guy or a hardcover guy. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, because they keep publishing you in paperback, and then when you demand hardcover, they say, "But all your books are paperbacks." But all this is becoming irrelevant in the age of ebooks and self-publishing, anyway.

Q: If your books had to come with a warning, what do you think that should be?
A: Harmful if swallowed whole.




Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Alcatraz Correction: Cutting to the Chase

After all those years of work...after thousands of hours of research, writing and rewriting...there still remained the thorny problem of The First Five Pages.  I'd read Noah Lukeman's book on that subject and I stood among the converted  I believed that readers know--as agents and editors do--if they'll buy after reading just that many pages.  And it takes more than hot action to rope them all in.  A tone loaded with punch and charisma will accomplish more than a thousand bullets.

Savvy beta readers inspired a pair of short newspaper clippings to get burdensome back story out of the way in a clean, convenient fashion.  Cool.  Boss' mentor, Lew Miles, has been murdered and his fiancee, Val--Boss' client--remains in critical condition.  Cut straight to the hospital, where Boss has just gotten the news:  Val's dead.  We're ready to get moving, right?

You'd certainly think so.  But pride goeth before the stall.  One leetle problemo remained:  I had a cute opening I  couldn't bear to change or loss:  'Boss MacTavin always hated having to murder his clients.  The little inconveniences that followed death confused them...'  Now, Boss has never murdered any of his clients.  The not-so-great idea was to hoodwink readers into thinking that he has, then give witty examples of those little inconveniences following death.  This accomplished, I did some fast footwork to reassure readers that Boss is actually in shock over the death of his client, that the 'murders' he referred to are staged events similar to witness relocation, etc.   (He's been laughing, like Lord Byron, so that he doesn't weep.) Then, on page three, came a killer sentence about a particular sort of San Francisco that set the mood just perfectly.  One beta reader suggested deleting the entire first two pages.

The funny thing was, my gut reaction all along had been to try doing that.  Now I did.  And what a difference it made cutting out the cutesies and getting directly Boss' grief and that great sky.  

Moral of the story:  When you hear a little voice whisper 'They'll love me if they just hang in to page 10'--cut directly to page 10.

This is my report.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Review of Storm Damage by John A A Logan

My shelves are filled with books that I've enjoyed and liked--two words that are inadequate when dealing with this book.  It is, indeed, elemental.  At the end, I felt as if I'd been flown from Kansas to Katmandu by a five-star hurricane.  Deeply moved, shaken, awed:  these words come closer to what I felt when I slumped back, exhausted.

Storm Damage consists of ten superb examples of the prose jeweler's art.  Though unpaginated, each comes impressively close to ten percent of the overall length.  Is that important?  In a way.  It tells us right off that the author has a sense of structure that Franklin Lloyd Wright would have admired.  And this sense grows stronger as we proceed through the ten:  a witch's brew of genres from sci-fi to revenge/redemption to a mystical thriller about a small child to a rousing ghost story...Ten wildly disparate tales arranged into a perfect whole that leaves us winded and gasping:  That's life.

Five stars.







Saturday, September 8, 2012

Rounding Up the Indie Big Dogs: September 2012

This one belongs to the ladies.  And it was inspired by a remark made a while back by a woman at Powell's Books in Portland.  I worked in the Gold Room there, handling genre fiction.  I had a reputation for knowing my way around mysteries.  The woman asked for my suggestions--but shot down everything I pitched.  Finally, she snapped:  "I do not read books written by men!"

My immediate reaction:  she was a bigoted fool.  But my previous roundups consisted of only male authors.  And, years after meeting that shopper, I find that I'm reading mostly male authors.  It's time to change.  To stretch.  To grow.  To this end, a first foray into the ranks of female Indie Big Dogs.

1)  Amanda Hocking.  Hollowland, (The Gollows #1).  A zombie novel by a young Minnesota woman (in her early twenties, maybe her teens, when she wrote it) didn't exactly cry out to be read.  Still, Hocking's achievement inspires real awe:  scorned by trad pubbing, she published a dozen-odd ebooks that earned her well over a million--then signed a 2-million dollar deal in 2011 with St. Martins. Clearly, she'd done something right and I wanted to know what.  That special something lay not in the prose (far better than expected, though cluttered with occasional howlers:  she ran her fingers threw her hair...she dreamed of Nazi's marching)...nor in a new zombie vision (nothing here that can't be found in George Romero or Danny Boyle).  Keep reading, though.  Keep reading.  That special something seems to lie in the volcanic energy of the action sequences and little grace notes that remind us that his young woman knew her audience:  the two-fisted but sexually shy heroine scorns bu.5.5t loves a rocker whose wild heart she's tamed.  She crosses her breasts when he looks at the sheer nightie she's wearing.  And on the run, she pauses to lift up the hem of the nightie.  I give the book itself 3.5 stars.  But five stars for Hocking's  ambition, drive and refusal to accept the trad pub verdict of her work.  Now she'll have the best editing money can buy.  I'm glad for that and yet I hope she doesn't lose the precious spark that earned her that first million.  Combined review total:  4.5 stars. (MacRathMath.)

2)  Melissa Foster.  Chasing Amanda.  Melissa Foster is an ebook success story that's equally inspiring.  The bestselling author of three novels, one now in film production, Foster is revered as the founder of the World Literary Cafe:  the life support system where new and established indie writers bond and ReTweet each other's promotional Tweets.  Okay, okay.  But can she write?  Affirmative--and she writes with enormous grace and power.  Three books since July 2009.  A rarity in EbookLand.  Chasing Amanda concerns the frantic hunt by a Molly, a clairvoyant, to find a kidnapped child.  This child's name is Tracey.  But Molly is both haunted and guided by her memories of Amanda, another victim whom she'd failed to help.  The setting is perfectly rendered:  small-town Boyds, where Molly fled, a haven filled with dark secrets.  The increasingly strained relationship between Molly and her skeptical husband is poignantly played out.  And mystery lovers will enjoy the cat and mouse game Foster plays with their expectations.  But the author has far more in mind than a quick page-flipping read.  Paragraphs are long and dense, some running for two or three pages, drawing us into the tangles of relationships and themes.  But whatever's lost in reading speed is made up for in reading involvement.  Drawn in as we are, we savor every twist and turn of this dark and moving tale.  5 stars.

3)  Barbara Freethy.  Taken.  Talk about ebook success:  as of March this year, Barbara Freethy had sold 2 million ebooks.  She began writing romance titles for Silhouette, under the name Kristina Logan, then moved on to Avon, NAL and Pocket Books.  So far she's written about thirty books:  women's fiction, romance and romantic suspense.  These include standalone ebooks, the Wish and Angel's Bay series, plus 'connected duos'.  Taken is one of the duo's, with its sequel entitled Played.  The book starts off on a high note, so swiftly and so assured that I thought of Lawrence Sanders and began telling everyone I'd finally met a new master: Kate Sheridan's abandoned on her honeymoon night by Nick Granville, the dashing man she'd known only a couple of weeks.  Shock.  Despair.  Desolation.  I'm hooked.  Turn the page and it gets better:  We now meet the real Nick Granville, who's as shocked as Kate is when she shows on his San Francisco doorstep wondering who the hell he is.  We're off and running now on what we're sure will be a classic tale of identity theft, mismatched partners on the trail of a charming sociopath--mismatched but sure to fall in love.  But at some point another author seems to have taken over and the book begins to read like an extended outline with a tell to show proportion that seemed a little too high.  Still, the San Francisco settings are gorgeous and the Alcatraz connection was nicely done.  Overall book rating:  3.5 stars.  Beginning of the book:  5 stars.  Combined total:  4.5 stars.



Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Alcatraz Correction:, Why You Must Escape With Me

One night like any other night in 1962 something astonishing happened:  three cons became the only ones to escape from the backs of their cells on The Rock...then either swim their way to safety or be taxied on a waiting boat.

No one denies the first half of that claim.  But the world divides then into camps:  those who insist the cons had to have drowned and those who refuse to believe that they did.  Members of the first camp are governed by percentages, odds in favor or against.  They're the ones who are eager to tell you that the book you're at work on will probably fail:  after all, 95% of all published books lose money, 3% break even or turn a modest profit, 2% bag the brass apple.  The bay was too cold, they'll inform you.  A section of the raft was found, along with a waterproof bag containing personal contacts, etc.  All others who'd tried to swim either drowned or thanked God they were caught.

And yet some of us are ruled by faith:  that our books have a chance...that our spouses may beat doctors' dreadful diagnoses...that we can whip our addictions despite the odds against us...that we can escape from the prisons of our characters or histories.  In other words, we must believe three nobodies did beat The Rock.

THE ALCATRAZ CORRECTION is a present-day thriller about the Sistine Chapel of escapes a half-century ago...and the fates of the convicts who bolted.  This is the book that I wanted to write since my trip to Alcatraz in 1980.   Cheers to three heroes who fired my soul.

http://tinyurl.com/ogptp5a

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Alcatraz Correction: How I Never Met James Coburn

Or:  How I said goodbye to Horror and began a two-decade effort to dig my way into the heart of The Rock.

First in a series of entries paving the way for the launch of The Alcatraz Correction in October.  Second in the Southern Scotch series starring Boss MacTavin.

The year:  1992.  I know, I know, that's just sooooo long ago.  But stick with me because there's a story that you need to know if you write, or want to write, one that may help shave long years from your quest.  To do that, I need to tell you how I never met James Coburn, my hero since my boyhood.

Setting:  Hollywood!  My fourth book as Kelley Wilde has just been published and, by Jove, I have a film agent.  Steve has flown me down to meet The Man--or rather The Man's partner/girlfriend.  But Steve's a little antsy because my proposal runs on for fifty pages.  The idea, he thinks, is smashing:  a book about the aftermath to the Great Escape from Alcatraz in  1962.  The cons, I believed, had escaped and remained uncaught for the next thirty years.  In fact, one of the cons, Frank Morris...Stop there.  No plot spoilers at this point.  I'd wanted to write the book as suspense, my great reading passion.   But I'd gotten locked into Horror because of my first book, The Suiting...and my literary agent had insisted I do a couple more horror tales.  So I was there to pitch a book, Nightmare Alley, that I couldn't seem to get right in my head because I didn't see it as horror.  Before the meeting, Steve begged me to keep my pitch short and sweet.

I still wish I'd listened to him.  But I was starstruck and simply DID NOT UNDERSTAND how things work in Hollywood.  Dudes and Dudettes, I was sitting across from the beautiful young lady who shared James Coburn's home and bed!  And I went on and on and on about the theme of the Alcatraz horror-but-not-really-Horror film I dreamed of making with JC.  I had ideas for the lighting, of course...the sort of suit JC should wear...even the music.  As I went on, JC's woman stared at me in confusion...then alarm...then Horror.  Finally, Steve jumped in on a note of high desperation:  "What Kelley's trying to say is that Nightmare Alley is a cross between The Thin Man, Angel Heart and Escape from Alcatraz!"  Near hysteria now, she trilled 'Ohhhhhh!' and said it sounded wonnnnnderful, promising to call.

Obviously, she didn't call.  I never met JC.  The film agent dropped me.  I in turn dropped the literary agent who'd insisted I write Nightmare Alley as Horror.  My time in The Desert now officially began.  And over the next twenty years I kept returning to the book on the subject that had obsessed me since the early Eighties.  what really happened to the cons who DID escape from Alcatraz in 1962.

In posts to come, I'll explore the main obstacles I faced.  For now, since this is about you as much as it is about me, the two main hurdles to tackle were these:
1)  Time:  the cons were in their thirties in 1962.  So, by 1992, they were already in their sixties.  Already I faced limits in terms of what I could do with the plot:  I could still get away with a sixty-ish former con who'd prospered and had a younger lover, a man who could still handle himself in a fight. But I'd need to handle the subject with skill and delicacy.  As five years passed--then seven--ten--my lead character neared, then passed the Big Seven-Oh.  By 2011, when the storyline had really come together and I knew as much about The Rock as any living writer, my man would have been in his EIGHTIES!  And I remained defeated...until I found a way around this--and stopped seeking an agent who'd sell the book in two more years to a house that would publish in three.  I could follow my own schedule if I published Live on Kindle.
2)  Self-perception:  If you fail at something long enough, and if you fall often enough on your face, you may come to share the world's opinions of your ridiculous pratfalls.  As you stand on stage yet one more time, you imagine the crowd's boos and picture the dreaded hook hoisting you up by your collar.  You picture past enemies jeering.  And horrifying flashes of all the rejections you've had through the years set your knees to shaking.  What if they're right?  What if your talent amounts to a mountain of doody?  But oh, friends, this is good.  This is better than good, this is righteous.  This is where you take your stand and get to face off with your fears.  Have you failed ten thousand times?  Well, that doesn't matter a bit, does it now, if the next time you discover the light bulb.

This is my report.