Monday, June 23, 2008

Lessons from Lehane, Celebrity Author?

When the arc of Lehane's new book, THE GIVEN DAY, arrived in the mail, there was no doubt in my mind that Brian would read it first. I've been swamped with a) edits, b) writing the next book, and c) kids (never mind other life issues I won't bore you with) and it's really hampered my reading.

However, I couldn't resist opening it and reading a bit. Didn't manage the whole prologue with the kids underfoot, though.

The prologue is 29 pages.

We were talking about it, and I offhandedly (but not seriously) wondered if it was Lehane's response to those who refuse to read prologues. I realize THE GIVEN DAY is a very long book, but I'd have to think that skipping a prologue that's 29 pages long would mean that you'd miss some important information for the story.

When Brian got to chapter 1, he mentioned my comment about the prologue and then said, "You know Elmore Leonard's rules of writing?"

Of course. Why was he bringing it up?

The first line of chapter 1? Weather.

I doubt Lehane consciously chose to write a 29-page prologue, or start chapter 1 by breaking one of Elmore's rules, but to me it's fitting that Lehane would do exactly what he wants with his book instead of trying to pander to readers' or writers' expectations. I have the impression that Lehane is true to the work first and foremost, be damned what others think about it. What will be interesting to me is how readers respond - whether they let the prologue go for a writer like Lehane, or hold firm to their "skip the prologue" policy.

Lehane is a giant. People have been anticipating this new book for a long time. There are people who've expressed jealousy that we have an advance copy. It isn't something I'll get to talk to him about, though. Last year, I supported an attempt to get an interview with Dennis Lehane. I knew from the outset that the chances were next to none. Out of all the interviews we've run, I consider the Pelecanos interview to be the biggie, because it isn't easy to get to interview authors like Lehane or Pelecanos unless you've got a successful print publication, and even then it isn't that easy.

Lehane doesn't have to work the promotional trail the same way that other authors do. Authors like Lehane, Pelecanos, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin... you go to their websites and can't e-mail them, they don't participate on their own author forums, they don't blog. A few newsletters per year and whatever official interviews they chose to do are how fans connect and get new information. I've tried to get interviews with Lehane and Connelly and had no response in either case. (I've never met Lehane but have met Michael Connelly a few times, and have also met George Pelecanos. Not that either of them would remember me.) I've never asked Ian, although I did set him up for an online interview that will be out soon. I did have an experience with Ian a few years ago that made me smile, though, when he gave me heck for going to Edinburgh and not giving him a call.

Uh, how exactly do you get in touch with someone who doesn't have an e-mail address? In fact, I have his phone number now and I'm pretty sure it isn't listed...

I can actually say Ian's pretty approachable. One of the major differences with these authors is that they came up at a different time. In the late 80s when Ian was penning the first Rebus book people didn't have websites, blogs, forums and all of those things. I think of authors like Ian, Pelecanos, Connelly and Lehane, and I think of authors who wrote in solitude, who fed off the solitude, and who either didn't need, or learned to function without, constant immediate validation for their work. Ian, for years off in France putting his head down and just writing.

It's almost a foreign concept for newer authors, and it has me wondering what this means in the long term for readers, authors and books.

There are still a lot of readers who do not want to know anything about the authors. Selling off of personality is becoming more and more of a reality as things change within publishing and book selling, and most new authors are afraid to not do everything they can to build a profile for their work. Gone are the days of nurturing authors through 6, 7, 8, 9 books to build a backlist. Authors risk being dropped after book 1 or 2 if the initial sales aren't strong. Agents often encourage us to attend multiple conventions, to blog, to do a newsletter (have you seen how well that's gone on my website? I mean, why do you need a newsletter if you blog regularly?) to do blog tours, etc. etc. etc.

It's no wonder many authors will approach ezines and ask to be interviewed. I'm stunned by the guts it takes to do that, because I really hate approaching people, especially for favours. However, I understand how important it is to raise a profile. I've achieved that, in large part, through Spinetingler and I'm comfortable with that because it's raised the profile of dozens of others as well. It isn't just about me.

That isn't true for every zine out there, or for everyone on blogs. Most are entirely, or almost entirely, self-serving for the person behind them. This is where I can tie this in with yesterday's post: there are definitely publications that will take a story off of the author's name above the quality of the story. It isn't always about the writing. Some people will pick stories because the writer has a certain amount of selling power. It's a reality. In the same way that publishers have to think, at some point, about the bottom line and breaking even, magazines have that pressure and if ezines want to build a readership and get advertising revenue, they have to concern themselves with numbers.

Spinetingler's move to Mystery Bookspot will probably increase readership dramatically. Bookspot currently sees about 45,000 unique visitors monthly, with the numbers on a steady upward trend for the past two years. And the best thing is that the reader community is wider there, because of the multi-genre Bookspot philosophy. The online crime fiction community preaches to the choir, the hard-core readers who follow this genre often exclusively, but places like Bookspot reach out to those who read across the genres. Writers featured there will reach readers who don't follow the online crime fiction mainstream, and get missed by the standard promotional efforts.

But isn't it sad we even have to think about that?

I've maintained all along that I became an author because I love writing, I love books - not because I wanted to be a marketing guru. If I wanted to be a marketing genius, I'd go work in marketing. And I am concerned about the potential implications for books that are sold off of fame instead of writing, authors who spend so much time promoting that they spend little time honing their craft writing.

Will Smith was just on TV, talking about the difference between talent and skill. He said he doesn't consider himself very talented, but he has a ridiculous work ethic. He's been quoted saying that while the other guy is sleeping, he's working. While the other guy is eating, he's working. While the other guy is making love, well, he's making love, but he's working very hard at it. He laughs about that, but he says that talent is what you're born with but skill is what you develop by discipline honing your craft. Obviously, hard work has paid off for him, because his movies have grossed over 4 billion at the box office.

As Brian and I talked about authors like Lehane versus the authors coming up today, we found ourselves wondering if the demand for accessibility is going to change the writing business even further. Most authors have some limited online presence, or means of being contacted. Even best-selling authors have taken up blogging - Sara Paretsky is on The Outfit, Tess Gerritsen maintained her own blog for a long time before giving it up.

Is the day of the total introvert author with a private life a thing of the past? And should it be?

Our conversation eventually led to a discussion about whether or not an MFA is going to be a requirement for authors in the future. I can only say I hope not. Nothing wrong with getting one if you want one, but to be an author takes the discipline to sit down and write and write and write, and to go days/weeks/months at a time, living in that world, creating it, developing the story and characters and bringing a fresh story to readers. That isn't something you can learn to do from a text or a class. Those are starting points - being able to be an author takes the kind of dedication to developing your skill that Will Smith was talking about. And that means putting your head down and working.

I've been toying with the idea of giving up the blog, because I am concerned by the push for celebrity. Any author who seeks validation through blogging is putting the emphasis on the wrong things. My experience with Dorchester has taught me the difference between what a publisher can do for you that you can never do for yourself, by getting my book on end caps, wall displays and prime real estate in Barnes and Noble. Even now, two months after the release, I went to Barnes and Noble in White Marsh and found the books turned face out on the shelf.

That's going to do more to generate sales than any amount of blogging I can do.

Which brings me back to writers like Lehane and Pelecanos, and Connelly and Ian Rankin. They've risen to a level of profile and have a level of publisher support behind them that enables them to step away from the public spotlight and concentrate on writing. They don't have to worry that people will forget them if they don't blog every day.

I'm not jealous. They came up at a different time, and they all went through tough times on the road to their success. It didn't happen overnight with the snap of a finger. And that's what really concerns me about the idea of celebrity authors. People want success now.

Most want it without putting in the hard work first.

People are going to rush to stores to pick up Lehane's book because of the reputation he's built for himself, of quality writing and compelling storytelling, not because he's a good blogger. Same with new offerings from Pelecanos and Rankin and Connelly and many others.

I really want talk about my work to be about the work. I want to be reviewed/interviewed and commented on based on the quality of the writing, not my personality. Sure, I'll say myself if someone is entertaining on a panel I'm more likely to read their book (for heaven's sake, don't ever be nothing more than a walking advertisement for your book) but if a nice person writes a bad book I'm still not going to read it. We all want our work to be appreciated on some level, but one of the things that bothers me about the backscratching philosophy that's pushed hard on many online sites is that it's about exchanging favours, not plugging books sincerely. God, it's no wonder when I turn in reviews or the odd blurb that I do that so many authors say, "Do you really think so?"

We never know if the compliments are just about getting a return endorsement. Hell, you just wait. Everyone will be commenting on the new Lehane because of the vicarious publicity - leeching off his success. I'm almost tempted not to read it until next year. Fortunately, Brian will do the review from the house, so that's off my shoulders. I mean, I love putting out a great review on a book I've thoroughly enjoyed, because I'm a natural cheerleader for what I love. I just never want it to be confused with kissing ass.

As I've faced my own struggles, particularly with being snubbed by some author because of a negative review I wrote, I've had to think carefully about my career and how much of myself I'm willing to sacrifice for success.

These days, I think of authors like Lehane, and okay, maybe I am a bit jealous. Only because I wish I was at a point where I could step off the stage and not be involved in the community as much. I have so many great friends in it, and love them to bits, but it's the large percentage of people who will try to curry favour so that their story gets accepted in the ezine, or their book gets reviewed, or they get interviewed... the people who live on a one-way street, and as long as everything goes their way they're happy, but they will not lift a finger for someone else, just move on to the next promotional opportunity for themselves, they drive me nuts.

The backscratching climate is guilty of fueling the push for celebrity authors. You know, I just want to read a great book because it's a great book, not because it's the best book that's been written by the author that plays the best political game so that people like them. So, while I would have loved to run (an interview)* with Dennis Lehane because I find him interesting as a person, I'm glad there are authors that are a little less accessible out there, ones that still put the emphasis on craft.

Not popularity contests.

(Speaking of getting a look before something is released, Brian won tickets for WANTED for an advance screening Thursday night. Ummm. James McAvoy.)

* ooops - meant to say interview instead of review originally


Grant McKenzie said...

I hadn't heard of this "skip the prologue" group.

I don't know why readers would want to skip this part since the author obviously wants the story to begin here, and events that happen in the prologue often have profound implications to the rest of the story.

In my upcoming book, Switch, I wanted it to start at Chapter 0, but the editor changed it to Prologue, even though it isn't - it's the beginning of the book.

Sandra said...

My first exposure to the philosophy of some on prologues came via DorothyL. I have posed the question on 4MA, and the responses are interesting. Me, I'll read a prologue, no problem, but there are those who dislike them.

Don't worry, though. A good book is a good book is a good book, whether it has a prologue or not. :)

John McFetridge said...

"Is the day of the total introvert author with a private life a thing of the past?"

I sure hope not. That world be some of our best literature. The writer as extrovert? As salesman? Has that helped any other art? Can you be a watcher of things, as a writer is, and be an extrovert?

No prologues is actually another of Elmore's rules. Maybe Lehane was having fun, breaking them all. Are there exclamation points? Adverbs? Do people exclaim loudly?

I don't like prologues. I think stories should start on page one. If any information in the prologue can't go in the story, does it really need to be there?

Sandra Ruttan said...

I agree about the introvert/extrovert thing John. As for breaking all of Elmore's rules, I'm not sure. I haven't read enough to comment on that.

You're not alone. There are a lot of people who don't like prologues.

Austin Carr said...

Jennifer Crusie also teaches no prologues, and makes fun of those who use them.

I'm jealous you get to read The Given Day so early. Like so many others, I'm a big fan of Lehane, although it would not surprise me if he chose to break Elmore's rules. He's just that kind of guy--plus, he has the talent to do it.