A much looser, more relaxed day. Yesterday by about 3, I was fried toast. Today is better.
From ‘What Lies Are Spies Telling?’ a panel discussion of spy thriller writers:
-Sign in the CIA gift shop (reportedly they have a nice gift shop at Langley): Do Not Use A Credit Card While Under Official Cover.
-Jeffrey Deaver, who worked for Ronald Reagan says we would have won World War II without intelligence work, we would have won the Cold War without intelligence work but we cannot survive in a terrorist environment without intelligence work. The threat isn’t as total—we’re not up against annihilation on a national or international level—but it’s diffuse, all around. I find the first point doubtful and the second even moreso but the third is hard to argue.
-I couldn’t see all the panelists from where I was sitting, so can’t give a proper attribution but here’s an intriguing question: As the US doles out more and more intelligence work to private contractors, what happens when there’s a conflict between the national interest and the corporate interest? What happens when the corporate agenda is different? If a former agent gets his Top Secret clearance from the federal government and his paycheck from the contractor, as they say in the spy trade, who owns him?
-There is a writer’s group at CIA headquarters at Langley—and a lot of them not writing spy novels.
-At the end of the panel, the writers were asked what was their favorite thriller. The answers: 2 for Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal, 4 for John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Any of you who follow this blog know how highly I regard Le Carre so that made me happy.
Later on, by the way, RL Stine of ‘Goosebumps’ fame said his favorite thriller was ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ by Ira Levin. He said Levin was one of the very best. Never read him—he goes on the list.
From the Thrillermaster interview with Ken Follett:
Follett was talking to his friend, a screenwriter who’d done, among other things, ‘My Beautiful Launderette’ (I can’t look it up here) and asked what he thought readers want. The friend said “I never think about what readers want.” Follett’s answer: “That’s why you’re a great writer and I’m a rich writer.”
Now sitting listening to David Morrell on craft. Highlights:
He sits down and writes a letter to himself about why this book? He cites a note Frank Sinatra had on the door of his dressing room that said ‘You better have a damn good reason to knock on this door.’ Morrell says, “You better have a damn good reason to write this book.” So he writes a letter, about what he likes about the story, what he’ll learn in the research (he got a pilot’s license two years ago as a direct outgrowth of research), how the technique the story will require will expand his writer’s consciousness.
‘First Blood’ the novel that introduced Rambo, was 650 pages and awful. He got discouraged and put it away. When he came back to it, he read a section from the point of view of a deputy and decided it wasn’t necessary so he ripped it out. And proceeded to make the same decision about all the characters except Rambo and the officer. By the time he was done, the book was 300 pages and taut. So he says, “Writers worry too much about the first draft. It’s a process of discovery.”
Morrell was a professor of literature first and he speaks eloquently and at great length about the pitfalls of first person. It’s prone to narcissism, tends to ramble and the narrator has to justify how the narrative got to us, the reader.
“There are only about a thousand people in this country making a living writing novels.”—Morell
He says the sudden success of Amanda Hocking and Joe Konrath was part of the explosion of ebook sales and that that will end soon. There will be a marketplace for writing but none of us is likely to make lots of money.
Do not read in the same place you write. The associations are too strong. And change the medium—if you’re writing on the screen, read paper. Change the font—you see it differently. Do an edit on-screen, then an edit on paper.
I just spent the two most fascinating hours of the conference so far and I doubt anything to come later will change that judgment. It was, not coincidentally, the only panel here that was not video and audio taped for future sales.
The panel was Marie Harf, an impossibly cute blonde with granny glasses, a Midwest accent and a love of the Ohio Buckeyes and Chris, a very very fit lightly-bearded thinning-haired man with an easy manner and an authoritative way of speaking.
Marie is the Media Spokesperson for the CIA and Chris is an active CIA officer. They answered questions for our background. Often they answered cautiously, at least in terms of substance. Far more often than I expected, they offered a sense of humor and a working person’s perspective about their work. And certainly, they were the face of the Agency, the people sent out to put the best foot forward in public, Marie with the media and Chris (at the moment) recruiting potential officers on college campuses (but his background included a variety of analyst jobs all over the world).
I’m like most people. I am convinced I’m pretty good at sizing people up. I’ve hired a lot of people over the years and I’ve sent people (as journalists) into a few risky situations. I’ve learned to decide quickly upon meeting someone whether they’re someone I trust, someone I don’t, someone I trust publicly but watch closely or someone I can’t read.
These two never faltered. Their eyes wavered in a very real way when they couldn’t answer a question directly. I asked if Mossad was one of the more ‘innovative’ intelligence agencies and Chris smiled. I called him on it and Marie jumped in (it’s her job) about how effective Mossad is and how we have relationships with all sorts of intelligence services and the governments that run them and how our interests don’t always line up with theirs. Chris declined, smiling, from adding anything. But their reactions seemed entirely unforced and genuine, particularly after frank comments both made about dealing with Pakistan. And Chris’ comment that he assumed that every electronic communication he is involved in is monitored by the Chinese.
They both said MI6 did have a special relationship, that the two agencies operated in parallel and that the only time it became sticky was when they were both hoping to convert the same potential asset. At that point, Chris said, usually one service has an advantage and an agreement will be reached that, okay, you’re taking charge in this case and we’ll back off—as long as you share the tapes. “And then,” he said, “you just hope they share the tapes.”
Chris: The high points of my job are big stories that never made the papers.
‘I have repeatedly been forced to drink for my country.’
He said he was in the White House the day after Hurricane Katrina and that ‘it was fascinating to observe a wide array of personalities who lived up to their stereotypes and in some cases surpassed them.’
The key job of a real-life intelligence officer is to convince a friend or acquaintance, to lie, steal and betray their country.
One writer in the crowded auditorium launched into a speech (there’s always one in a crowd) about how the CIA had been wrong about everything in the past 50 years; wouldn’t we be better off if we just told the truth about everything but tactical issues?
Chris’ answer was (I’m paraphrasing) that if your expectation is that we will be able to accurately predict events that haven’t yet occurred, we will disappoint you most of the time. That’s not our job. Our job is to handle events when they happen, to provide context and find opportunities to effect change consistent with American interests.
He was asked whether he’d even been confronted with policy that he felt was just wrong and what did he do? His answer was that he’d tried to figure out whether his leaving would changed anything. Both times, his decision was that it wouldn’t. If he felt it would do any good, he said, he’d have resigned and they both offered up a couple of cases where high-ranking officers did so. It’s a military mentality and, while I might quibble with it on existential grounds, it was convincing and basically all I could reasonably expect of an officer in this type of organization.
At the end, Chris told us where he would set a novel if he was writing a spy thriller, but I’m not sharing, particularly since I’m already working on something there for the next ‘Mindbenders’. I mentioned to him, very quietly, the area I was most interested in and he said yes, that place was ‘very interesting.’
All sorts of subjects were covered and I have Marie’s business card—she prefers, she says, to hear from writers ahead of time, rather than getting surprised after the fact. So anything you guys want to know, I’ve got an in! (Not!)
But the thing that was most striking to me was the impression the two of them made, as intelligent people who had a sense of morality and of purpose, who really believed that what they were doing was helpful and in fact important work, who were very aware of all kinds of contradictions and limitations but were trying to do their job the best they can.
Either that or they were very good liars (Spies—good liars—who’d’a thought?)
Actually, I’ll belabor this point slightly. Not to gum up a decent joke but here’s a clue to the real answer—an answer that is just as murky now as it was before the session. Chris said he joined up because he wanted to know what was really happening in the world, what was really behind that war, what was really going on in that coup in Latin America. And, of course, he couldn’t share any of that with us—but he’d shared the fact that what we think we know is only rarely related to what is really going on. And that might be the most insidious side of living in the secret world, the idea that some people should know and most people shouldn’t.
Nonetheless, they were very good ambassadors for a very morally ambiguous profession. I will remember them when I write the CIA officer in the next ‘Mindbenders’.
I rushed this morning to make an early panel, ‘Alternatives to Traditional Publishing.’ I figured, logically, this should give me some good pointers to improve my Internet networking, help me market my books and find potential readers. Maybe somebody would finally have some mechanism to get my books into bookstores or at least offer the possibility.
The panel turned out to be something out of Monty Python. A panel of Romans scoffing at the Goths burning down the gates. It brought to a head all the hostility and fear I’d felt here every time I told someone I was an indie (see previous post below).
One panelist (I’m not naming anyone because they seem like perfectly intelligent human beings and, a year from now, if they’re smart, they’ll deny saying any of this stuff) said that, after having published several books already, he couldn’t get his latest published. His agent suggested self-publishing to him and he decided to do it. The next several exchanges among the panel members included references to ‘the chaff’ and ‘the static,’ etc.
That’s us, indie writers, just in case you missed the gist.
Talk continued condescendingly about how readers were beginning to find their own gatekeepers among ‘the bloggers’ (it’s a species of simian with typing skills) in order to separate the wheat from the above-mentioned chaff. One of the panelists said “I tweet but I don’t know why. If anyone can tell me, meet me after the panel.” Laughter ensued on the riser, if not the floor.
It’s fascinating imagining the level of self-delusion involved in all this.
The one writer up there can’t get published anymore (because of ‘industry realities’) but still decides that everyone else who’s self-published is still ‘chaff’, instead of just like him but with inferior contacts or luck. People who are fortunate never want to consider the luck factor—it’s too terrifying.
He went on saying that, having decided to self-publish, he decided to do it ‘at a higher level.’ Which, to him, meant using an editor ‘who edited Stephen King’ and a ‘designer who’d been a senior executive at Random House’ (a Design Executive? He didn’t say). And using a distribution company affiliated with Ingram, one of the three wholesalers who fill up every Barnes & Noble, the few remaining Borders and the independent booksellers in your town (go there and buy a book today—strike a blow against stupidity!) to get at least some copies into bookstores. How much did this cost him, he was asked? ‘Two MFA’s,” he said coyly.
So, the higher level approach is, the old elitist system doesn’t want him anymore but he’ll do his best to keep it alive anyway.
Okay, sorry, I’ll wave the red flag tomorrow, we can dance the socialist dance and smell the ganja. I’m a capitalist, folks. I’m out here everyday plugging books. But this is the sheerest crap and it’s the same tunnel vision that’s got the publishing business circling the drain in a whirlpool.
To these guys, indie books are ‘Aunt Mary’s book of cat stories.’ My first answer to that is, what’s wrong with that? The second answer is, indie books are the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Joe Jackson, Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Time to move on. Get the hell out of the way. A year from now, I (or someone just like me) will be on the panel telling these guys how to sell their books in the real world. Hopefully when we’re on the panel, we’ll be a little more open-minded. But my inclination at the moment is to spit in their eye.
I’m going to a panel. I’ll probably expand on this later, once the bile settles.
Something has been nagging at me the whole time I’ve been here and I’m just now recognizing what it is.
Writer’s conferences are always awkward places—writers, by and large, are misanthropes, happiest when allowed to stay in their own rooms pulling the wings off of flies. And if that’s writers, imagine what a convention of thriller and murder mystery writers are like. Allison Brennan, speaking about ‘The Villain’s Journey: Writing Compelling and Believable Villains’ this morning, noted that, going by the statistical frequency of sociopaths in America, we could expect to find at least thirty sociopaths at the conference. This fact was met with murmurs of approval from the rest of us. We’re an odd bunch.
Even so, conversation is constant and these are people who are fascinated by everything. It’s not that we’re totally indiscriminate, it’s just that the world is full of weird and compelling stuff and writers remember it when they come across it. They may not remember their own phone numbers or anniversaries (I know, I know—that just makes us men) but they remember the fact that there’s a crawl space between the old and new California Legislature Buildings and a panel that only the janitors know that opens into this crawl space—and it’s big enough to hide a body, if you might ever need to do that.
We remember this stuff because that’s exactly the kind of stuff we will need to do, eventually.
So I’ve had a really fine time and enjoyed almost everyone I’ve met and all the conversations—with one exception: when someone asks me whether I’m ‘a published author or pitching [for an agent].’ Like those are the only choices.
My answer—“Neither. I’m an independent. Self-published. Ebook”—no matter how I put it—causes such awkward silence that I cringe now whenever I’m asked.
I feel like the Muslim at the Mary Kaye convention. I suck the air out of the room wherever I go. People smile politely and move on to another subject.
The interesting thing is, writers are generally very supportive of each other. But these guys seem very much relieved to hear I’m spending 80% of my life on marketing and that I’m selling books retail—one or two at a time. As though the fact that it’s onerous and difficult makes it one per cent less the way things really are—and the way things are going to be.
I mentioned this to the only other guy I met with a ‘Press’ badge. He said I was like the guy with the cloak and sickle in ‘The Seventh Seal.’ And that’s how it feels. They all know things are changing but the people who come to this festival—so far—are still clinging to the dream, the publishing company that’s going to take them under the wing and send them out to fly. The fact that those companies—even if they find them, even if they like them—are unlikely to do any such thing anymore is a dirty secret that nobody wants to confront.
I’m continuing to show up because I signed up, because I’m doing this blog. I had a good time today in Allison Brennan’s session, in a ‘Buzz Your Book’ workshop where I got some good ideas for marketing and in a 3-hour excursion to Greenwich Village with another author to visit the locations she was writing about in her book (because neither of us were pitching to agents, which was the major session of the afternoon). But so far, it feels like either I’m just dead wrong about where things are going or the rest of them are just not ready for the world I live in.
(Sotto voce: David Morrell is on my side…)
While I was writing the David Morrell portion below in a lounge just off the main section of the convention, I was having a conversation with an author who’s here pitching his young adult novel.
By the traditional standard, he’s having success. Lots of agents like his storyline. They want revisions, which is a positive sign, evidence they’re seriously interested.
The original book, he said, was very bare-bones, plot-driven, paced and written like a Michael Crichton thriller. He’d shown it to kids—not kids he knew but kids of friends and in the school system he works in (he’s a librarian). They loved it by and large.
The agents told him kids wanted more character development and that they wouldn’t follow his fast-moving plot and different points-of-view. He told me their feedback had helped his writing but it sounded like the wife talking our how her husband’s infidelity had strengthened the marriage. He followed by bursting about how kids follow Lemony Snicket’s storylines and have lives that are so much more complex than ours were at their age (and maybe at our age).
And then he explained the thought process he’s observing among the agents and it catalyzed a lot of the thinking I’ve been doing since deciding to indie publish my own books.
He’s found the agents dividing into two camps:
The first camp want him to change the book until it’s just like something they’ve already sold—with one exception. The younger agents, he says, are more aggressive but have less power at their agencies. They feel they might be able to sell one new thing to their bosses but not more.
Here’s the bad news: these are the better group.
The other group were the ones who wanted the same thing as last year—with no exceptions. That is by far the larger group. He’s resigned himself to those few with at least a little imagination but after all the rewriting, he’s still here with nothing to show.
I asked, “How long have you been pitching this thing?”
“Four years—well, three, because I was in graduate school last year.”
So they’ve run him in circles and still haven’t taken him on. When I asked if he hadn’t considered going independent, he went on for about five minutes without ever giving me a real answer. And I saw myself a year ago, desperate for the approval and validation of a publishing establishment that has almost nothing to offer anymore—except that my mother would know I was a writer if they published me. So maybe it’s my mom’s validation I’m looking for (I’m okay with that).
I’m glad I went indie. This day is clarifying things for me in a very positive way. I may or may not ever sell a lot of books. But they’ll be mine, the best I can produce. I can stand or fall on my own abilities, on stories that speak to me. If I can’t find others they speak to, so be it.
On to the cocktail party (networking!)…
Interesting aside: Robert Parker is a model for reinventing an archetype. In ‘Finding Your Storytelling Voice’, Bruce DeSilva talks about how Parker’s Spencer character began as a direct clone of Philip Marlowe and then developed over a very short time into a very different character, developing friends (Marlowe was a strict loner), including cops (Spade and Marlowe despised cops), respecting women (I don’t even need to go there) and even developing a longtime lover who wasn’t a cliché.
But the highlight of my day and the payoff for coming, considering my doubts, was David Morrell. Dave Agranoff, you told me he was terrific and you did not lie.
Morrell stunned a room full of would-be series writers by telling them to stop chasing the market, stop trying to figure out what will sell, forget about the bestseller list and write what’s real to you, what eats at you, what matters. If you’re doing it for the money, it’s not worth it—the odds are too long, was the basic message. He puts it better: CD’s of the lecture can be had through the International Thriller Writers Association. See www.thrillerfest.com
This is the man who created Rambo, folks. And another thirty or forty books. Not exactly a touchy-feely guy. I’ve read a few of his books. They’re good taut thrillers—I like them. But he talked about how they were essentially his autobiography—years of writing about sons seeking fathers and then, after the early death of his own son, fathers seeking sons. He said the only way to write and continue to write is to know why you want to do it—and making the bestseller list isn’t an answer to that question.
He also said that, until publishers radically change the economics of their ebook royalties, he wouldn’t sign a contract. All anyone is interested in today is the ebook, he said. That ship has sailed.
It was like someone dropping water on me in the middle of the Sahara, folks. I might not have that much in common with most of the people at the conference, but if my consolation is to see things the same way as David Morrell, I’ll take it.
Not sure what comes next. There is a cocktail party, where I can do some networking. But I may have had the highlight of the conference already.
So I’m at Thrillerfest in Manhattan for the next four days. Actually I’m at Craftfest, a subset, for the next two days; then Thrillerfest kicks in.
I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing here, other than networking, a vague, nebulous term that could mean almost anything. When I signed up, it was February and I thought I was going to go to Agentfest, where I could pitch my books to 40 agents (in 2 1/2 hours!). Now that I’ve gone indie, I’m just here to learn what I can and meet whomever I run into.
One of the first people I ran into turned out to be one of the organizers. With my typical shrewd business sense, I failed to get his name. But I doubt it matters much. When he asked if I was a writer, I said “I’m an indie” and his eyes began to wander. But he rallied and told me this was the best conference to find an agent. Seeing the uncertainty in my eyes (writers are good at that—thriller writers particularly), he added, “An agent’s always a good thing—you need to sell foreign rights.”
“I’ll need to sell more books first,” I said and he hurried off to find a crisis to avert. I have to do something about this compulsive truthfulness issue of mine. But the whole nature of this place—300 writers desperately trying to figure out how to land an agent and contract—makes me feel like I must be wrong about the indie thing.
The other thing that makes me feel a bit odd here is that this is turning out to be the Citadel of Professionalism. These are by and large people who are trying to learn how to crank out six or sixteen books a year.
My first session was ‘Essentials of Story Structure’ with Steve Berry, a very nice fast-talking Southerner (Death to Stereotypes!) who could authoritatively say things like “I don’t think you should really start violating this rule until you’ve got sixteen or seventeen books under your belt.”
I took this one because of you, Bill. I’ve been told lately my stories meander. I like meandering. I like Springsteen’s early songs, with the fifteen time changes. But it never hurts to learn.
I’m not going to give away Steve’s lecture—that wouldn’t be fair. But he did a really fast and entertaining job of explaining the three acts, what they have to include (unless you want to make your writing life more miserable than it already is) and the Eleven Rules of Writing.
I will share, for the moment, Rule Eleven. It’s a good one:
A Good Story will forgive bad writing; Good Writing will not forgive a bad story.
I skipped the session on how to pitch your book to an agent. I may be wrong but I’ll at least be consistent. I went outside and got two slices in a hole-in-the-wall with a drink for $2.75 (New York is wonderful for poverty lunch) and then doubled the bill with a small piece of 72% Cocoa Dark Chocolate Almond Bark in Grand Central. Worth it.
Time for my next class.