MANNERS!

Huddle up, writers. This post’s for you.

As social media has eroded the once formidable barrier between writers and readers, it is now commonplace, even expected, for readers to contact writers directly via the writer’s website, Facebook, Twitter or other online venue. For the most part this is a good thing for writers. Hearing from readers is encouraging and a balm to the essential loneliness of the job.

lurkerBut with greater contact comes greater friction. Writers are now exposed to unvarnished reader reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and other book venues, and therein lies the problem. Stories abound (and rebound) about writers retaliating for bad reviews by outing anonymous bloggers and harassing, stalking, threatening, doxxing, even physically attacking reviewers.

Writers, of course, have a long and storied history of bad behavior, but this particular form of misbehavior is seen primarily (though by no means exclusively) among self-published writers. This makes sense, because at its core, the behavior arises from a boundary problem. Overly reactive writers are like helicopter parents, fiercely protective and unable to distinguish themselves from their offspring. Writers who publish traditionally give their work over to specialists who expertly edit, package, produce and market the book. It takes close to a year. By the time the book is released, the writer has already let go and most likely is working on her next. Self-published writers go through a much shorter process, in which they control every phase. The cord is never severed, so when the book comes out, it is still flesh of their flesh, undifferentiated.

This is not a good thing. There’s a reason we speak of “releasing” books. They are finished works that we send out into the world. However they’re published, once released, they must be allowed to stand on their own. Readers have every right to their own opinions and interpretations, which at that point are just as valid as the author’s.

Much is changing in the publishing world, but some values remain constant. I have therefore taken upon myself the role of Miss Publishing Manners and jotted down a few simple guidelines:

Rogan’s Rules of Writerly Decorum

1. What do we writers owe readers? In return for their investment of time and sometimes money, we owe readers an entertaining and/or edifying experience, preferably both.

What we don’t owe are explanations or justifications. These are not good uses of our time and attention. The book stands on its own and speaks for itself.

2. What do readers owe writers? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Their side of the contract is fulfilled by reading. Specifically, they don’t owe us reviews, recommendations, accolades, attendance at events, or financial support in the form of book purchases. We are, to be sure, grateful for any of these, but we are not entitled to them.

But writers are not saints, you may protest. We can’t be expected to turn the other cheek when our work is maligned. I agree, being neither constitutionally nor culturally equipped to turn the other cheek.  There are times when strong language is indicated, and writers have great stores of the stuff on hand. We should feel free to vent in private to friends and family about the astonishing blindness and stupidity of certain critics.

But in public? Shtum.

dianagabaldonI have a friend and colleague, Diana Gabaldon, author of the wildly popular Outlander series. Her reply to a post from a critical reader struck me as the epitome of class, economy, and good sense.

“Not all books are for all people.  I hope you enjoy whatever you read next.”

 

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WHAT I LEARNED FROM J. K. ROWLING

Good writers never stop learning their craft, and the best teachers are other writers. My most recent lesson came from J. K. Rowling, a.k.a. Robert Galbraith.

silkwormVery few books in a lifetime of reading have delighted me as much as the Harry Potter series, so naturally I was eager to read the adult novels that followed them. The Casual Vacancy was a disappointment, lacking even the ordinary magic of storytelling. But the two books that followed, The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, showed Rowling back on track. They are wonderfully absorbing novels, hard to put down once begun.

Of course, writers can’t simply enjoy stories without poking and prodding the mechanism, trying to see how the thing works. I recognized some of the standard ingredients of good fiction: tangible settings, the skillful use of suspense, colorful secondary characters, and two exceptionally likable main characters in private detective Cormoran Strike and his assistant, Robin. As I read The Silkworm, it struck me that Strike and Harry Potter actually have a lot in common. They are both orphans, in Strike’s case functionally rather than formally, since he has a living but estranged father. And  both have painful physical problems. For Harry it starts with the scar on his forehead that burns periodically but goes far beyond that.  Everything he does to achieve his goals comes at a cost that is very often dangerous and painful. There’s a line in one of the books in which Ginny, seeing Harry enter the Great Hall, says, “He’s covered in blood. Why is he always covered in blood?”

Cormoran, who lost part of a leg to a war injury, has an ill-fitting prosthesis that causes him great pain throughout much of both novels. At one point in The Silkworm, he is unable to fit the prosthetic onto his swollen stump. Does he seek out medical help, like any normal person would? Of course not. Lives are at stake, a fiendish murderer is on the loose, and an innocent woman stands charged. He continues the chase on one leg.

RowlingCormoran, like Harry Potter, sacrifices himself to save others. I would hardly be the first to observe that the Harry Potter books are imbued with Christian theology and symbolism, or that Harry himself plays the role of Jesus, sacrificing himself so that others may live (although the Harry Potter books have a happier ending.) But Cormoran’s disability is less germane to the novels’ plots, and thus in a way more interesting. Its main purposes, as far as I can tell, are to make the character nobler and more sympathetic, and to create additional obstacles in his path to success. Rowling succeeds in both respects.

When solving a crime is just a job and the process unfolds intellectually, readers can enjoy the puzzle-solving aspect without getting deeply involved with the characters. But when the detective has flesh in the game, it’s a whole different level of story. Because I felt Cormoran’s pain subliminally throughout the story, there was an under-layer of discomfort to the experience of reading that lent a sense of urgency and fed my impatience for a resolution. I wanted him off that leg!

Mark Twain once said that his way of telling a story is to chase his protagonist up a tree and throw rocks at him. The harder we make life for our protagonists, the greater the obstacles they have to overcome, the more readers will care. One of the problems I see in a lot of student fiction (and occasionally in my own) is that writers feel too much for their protagonists and thus take pity on them. But writing requires a certain level of ruthlessness. Sometimes, to be kind to our readers, we must be cruel to our characters.

 

Cementing the Goal Posts

 

Writing is a rigged game in which the goal posts recede as you approach them.

champersAt first, the deepest desire of the writer’s heart is to find an agent, the necessary first step toward finding a publisher. No sooner is that achieved than the real goal presents itself: selling the book. It takes an agonizing while before that happens, but assuming it does, the writer has barely downed that first celebratory  glass of Champagne before she realizes that selling the book to a publisher is just the first step in selling it to the reader. Getting read is the real goal, the writer realizes, but for that to happen, the book must be discovered by reviewers.

The first review is a wonderful thing. Someone has taken the book seriously enough to write about it. The writer realizes that the book now has an existence of its own, separate from its progenitor. Soon, though, those elusive goal posts slip backwards. It’s all very well that Publishers Weekly liked the book, the writer thinks, but what about the New York Times? The New Yorker? People Magazine? And if the book is reviewed, where is it reviewed? Does it make the front page, or is it buried in a column somewhere?

crazyThen there are sales. In the past, writers had no way of gauging them except through publishers’ semi-annual royalty reports. Now they can track their relative standing via Amazon’s rankings, which are updated hourly: a wonderful trap for obsessive authors. Whatever his ranking, the writer aspires to rise higher. Thus writers conspire with the world to drive themselves mad.

Enough, I say. Time to stop and smell the roses. Time to look around and say in the words of the late great Kurt Vonnegut, “If this isn’t great, what is?”

So today’s post is all about having fun and celebrating what is, instead of fretting about what could or should happen. This is good for the book as well as the writer. Once it’s launched, the book is all grown up now, out in the world and fending for itself. It doesn’t need its author breathing down its back and monitoring its every step.

Here’s what I’m celebrating right now: NPR station WSHU reviewed A DANGEROUS FICTION. The reviewer was Joan Baum, who enjoyed it thoroughly and recorded this wonderful piece. Hearing my work reviewed on the station I listen to every day has long been a long-time dream of mine, and this time, I’m holding fast to those goal posts.

Lots of other critics have written wonderful reviews. A few called it “the best mystery of the year.” More cause for celebration.

Readers have written to tell me that after reading A DANGEROUS FICTION, they’re going back to read all my previous work. There are no sweeter words to whisper in a writer’s ear than those. Others ask about a sequel–and I’m writing one.

With shelf space shrinking, many published books don’t make it into bookstores. Seven weeks after publication, A DANGEROUS FICTION is still out there. How can I not be grateful for that?

A Dangerous Fiction launched!

I’m not sure where I rank on Amazon. I’ve quit checking. But I do know that the book is  the #1 choice for story hour in dog parks.

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Babies love it, too.

alex eating book

 

The story’s set in NYC and feels at home there. Here it is, in noir mode, keeping a lonely vigil over the mean streets of the city.

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Exhausted by the rigors of self-promotion, A DANGEROUS FICTION was recently spotted taking a break.

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Fair warning, though: A DANGEROUS FICTION is not for scaredy cats. This reader’s hair was black when she started the book.

 

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What about you? I know you have unmet goals, too; we all do. But let’s put them aside for once. Tell me about how far you’ve come, what you’re proud of,  and what you’ve accomplished already.

I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.

FIRST REVIEWS!

I’m thrilled to share the first pre-publication reviews of A DANGEROUS FICTION, coming out on July 27 with Viking Books. I wish I could quote the whole reviews, but for copyright reasons I don’t think I can.  I can, however, share these excerpts:

DangerousFictionHC_jacket2Library Journal wrote, “This literary mystery veers back and forth between insider-gossip tone…and genuine terror at warp speed, fulfilling many of the requirements for a perfect beach read.”

And Booklist wrote, “Boasting an exciting pace, well-constructed scenes, and inside information about the publishing world, this engaging mystery will attract readers of P. D. James’ similar Original Sin (1995), an Adam Dalgliesh crime story set in theLondon publishing world.”

Thanks so much, Library Journal and Booklist!

A DANGEROUS FICTION is available for preorder as a hardcover and an ebook. If you’re a print book person and like a bargain, the hardcover is currently listed at 35% off on the major bookseller sites.

I love to meet readers! If you’re in New York or on Long Island, please come out and say hi. I’ll be reading and signing books at the Barnes and Noble in Carle Place, NY, on July 29, 2013 at 7 PM and at the Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca, NYC.

And now, to return to our regular program: Make sure you check back soon, because in a day or two I’m posting Part 1 of an in-depth interview with bestselling author Diana Gabaldon of OUTLANDER fame. In fact, you might want to subscribe to the blog via email or RSS feed so as not to miss it.