Writing a Ghost Novel

I’ve been caught up recently in a novel that features a ghost —not the friendly, sassy spirit I write about in the Frankie and Josh mysteries, but a frightening female spirit that terrorizes the man who dated her before her death.

It’s an interesting exercise for a writer to try to create a frightening landscape, especially in modern times and even more especially if the novel is set in sunny San Diego. Much of the terror the reader feels has to be by his or her inference. I’m in the process of linking social media to the supernatural. It makes for a very exciting story. Two possible working titles interest me at the moment: HELLO AGAIN  or MEET ME IN HELL. I’m leaning toward the latter since the former is found in a movie with Jerry Lewis. Now there is the absolute opposite of scary.

Meanwhile Jane Blond International Spy continues to garner all four and five star reviews. One woman wrote that Jane is the type of girl she would have wanted to have as a friend when she was a teenager. What a nice compliment! Pen-L is readying A Bullet for the Ghost Whisperer for its November 15th release and reviewers are currently reading a pre-release copy.

Happy reading!

The Emperor’s New Clothes: The Wonder of a Conditioned Fan Base

I’ve been reading Faye Kellerman’s Murder 101. Shortly before that, I read the latest novels from Michael Connelly and Daniel Silva. I’ve enjoyed reading all three novelists for many years. In fact, I’ve written books about Connelly and Silva. That takes a lot of devotion because it means I read around twenty novels by each of them in order to survey their entire work.

What surprises me is that all three novelists have chosen to age their main characters in real time. The result is a distinct lack of energy. Take Faye Keller’s Peter Decker as an example. Now he’s RETIRED and working in a small-town police department to keep busy. Connelly’s Harry Bosch is out the door into forced retirement and Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon is being kicked upstairs to run the Israeli intelligence agency because he is just too old to be playing James Bond.

Yet, readers who have come to love these characters over the years eagerly await the latest new chapter and give effusive praise in their Amazon reviews. I love the characters as well, but you do need to take off your blinders and look at the current book and not be blinded by previously brilliant books. Kellerman’s book DRAGS. It really does. Not only that, but it grows increasingly tiresome to have a young snotty college grad keep calling Peter “Old Man” repeatedly. Silva’s book drags as well. The most interesting character in Silva’s book is not Gabriel Allon but a much younger Christopher Keller, the heir apparent to the violent scenes in the future. I actually believe that Connelly will grow tired of having Bosch help his half brother and will begin to have him help his daughter. I predict she will join the LAPD and turn repeatedly to Dad for help.

To read the over 600 positive reviews on Amazon for Kellerman’s book is enough to have me scratch my head in wonder. Did they read the same book I did? One reader who routinely gives all Kellerman books four to five stars gave it four stars and commented that he really didn’t understand a lot of the art talk. Still, if Kellerman wrote it, the book automatically deserves four to five stars.

I’m reminded of teachers in high school who often start with assumption they are reading an A student’s work when they pick up a paper from one of their favorites. Starting with that perspective caused them to overlook flaws and gloss over lapses. When I taught college English, I sometimes would have the students put numbers rather than names on their papers just to make sure everyone had an even break.

As a relatively unknown writer, I feel that I’m pushing a heavy load uphill in order to garner good reviews. I found one Goodreads reader, for example, who wrote that she automatically assigns one star to every book on her bookshelf. She changes the number of stars if she likes the book. So, damned to start with and only hopeful for a reprieve if you’re a novelist.

I cannot honestly say that the latest work by all three is of the quality of their earlier work, but you’d never know it from the reviews. Meanwhile, I’ve been writing hundreds of bloggers in an effort to find a group that will review my upcoming release of A Bullet for a Ghost Whisperer. If you’re interested in a free copy in exchange for an honest review, let me know and we’ll talk.

The Book Trolls

There’s an entire new species of low life stalking the web. As you might know, more and more authors are self-publishing their books, especially because the few major publishers left are looking for “names” even if they might be celebrities who are not necessarily great writers. To make things worse, even if the publishers accept a novel, they put almost no marketing dollars behind it. So, there aren’t many advantages left to publishing with a major publisher except the glory of an author seeing his book at a Barnes and Noble. I did publish one book that wound up in Barnes and Noble. Guess what? The chain ordered one copy for each branch. If they sold the one copy, they would order one more. Such is modern book selling.

So, many authors are self publishing or publishing with a small press or hybrid press. I’ve tried all three types and understand the advantages and disadvantages of each. In all cases, though, there is no marketing clout except what the author can generate. That means trying to generate clout on what for most authors is a very limited budget.

Now the trolls enter the picture. These are people who can’t write themselves, but they impose themselves into the book publishing business by offering promotions for authors at a price. Want to see a book advertised on a website that promotes free or low-cost books, well then you need to pay. Of course when you reduce your book to 99 cents in order to qualify, Amazon is happy to offer the writer 33 cents for each copy sold. If you work with a small publisher, you might keep 15 cents while with a hybrid publisher you’re fortunate to keep 10 cents.

There are hundreds if not thousands of entrepreneurs out there today who offer marketing “secrets” for writers for a small charge. Buy their course or book, and you’ll learn how to outfox Google to generate key words. You’ll learn how to build Facebook fans and Twitter fans and create a social media hurricane. Or so they say.

I generated a press release not too long ago for a non-fiction book I published. I received voice mail from several trolls who promised they could generate more interest by re-writing my press release and then distributing it for a few hundred dollars. I’ve had other trolls contact me and advise me that they could sell my book in other companies if I’d only send them a PDF. I suspect the PDF would wind up on one of those download for free pirate sites. Trolls put up those sites and then grab email and other info from the fools who think they’re getting a bargain.

For a while Fivr offered Amazon book reviews for $5. Now Amazon has instituted a new policy to try to kill that business. I suppose Amazon would like to encourage people to buy books rather than receive free review copies since there’s no money for Amazon when the author trades a book for a free review.

So, after a writer emerges from months of relative solitude with a book that is ready for marketing, the response is not necessarily jubilation from a public that is not even aware. Instead, it is hunting season for the trolls to bombard the author with promises of riches and hundreds of books sold for the mere price of an advertisement. Better yet, an advertisement and another fee to post on the website’s Facebook page.

I shouldn’t complain. I’ve been fortune enough to sell more books than the average writer. Still, I resent having to deal with people who treat books (something I regard as almost sacred) as nothing more than toilet paper or other commodities that should be sold by offering the product for free or 99 cents. The only one who wins are the trolls since they collect their fees whether the author sells any books or not.

Writers as Targets of Scam Artists

Scam artists have taken a page from Levi Strauss. Don’t make money trying to dig for gold when it’s much easier to prey on the miners and sell them stuff. In this updated version, though, it’s a group of scam artists who are preying on authors. God must loves writers because he created so many of them, particularly when it’s possible for anyone to publish a book for almost nothing.

Let me give you an example. Like most authors, I spend months working on writing and then rewriting and revising a novel. Once I finish, I still haven’t really accomplished anything unless I can find people to read the book. If I drop a novel in the forest and it goes unread, did I really write something?

No good deed goes unpunished. I wrote a press release for a non-fiction book about first contact with extraterrestrials. I sent it out to several media outlets. What happened? I received a dozen unsolicited emails and phone calls from PR companies that promised me they could do a much better job in reaching my intended audience. Well, it reached them, didn’t it?

I received an unsolicited email from a mailing list company that promised I could reach thousands of readers just waiting to receive word about my new book. I pictured these people sitting at their kitchen tables with their laptops open while they waited day after day for an email announcing my new book. I almost felt sorry for them.

Of course there are also the self-publishing “gurus” who promise the secret of how to use social media to sell millions of books. They all offer the same message. Start tweeting and be active on Facebook. Yeah, like that really helps. It’s preaching to the choir. Virtual book tour companies promise you’ll get all kinds of attention. Well, when you offer an Amazon gift certificate, people do tweet and re-tweet about your book, but that doesn’t result in sales. It’s simply a bunch of people who will do anything for a $25 gift certificate.

There are other scam artists at work as well. Companies offer to develop video trailers to advertise a novel much the way movie companies produce trailers for their next coming attraction. Book doctors offer to turn your novel into a best seller. I wonder if they were so good, why they don’t have their own bestsellers out there.

Evidently people are making money in the world of books, but it’s not the authors. It’s the group that has identified them as a prime target for over-promising and under-delivering.

Here Come The Vultures

The Age of Ebooks has created a very fascinating situation. Anybody now can publish an Ebook for virtually nothing. The problem is that there no longer are gatekeepers (i.e.; the old publishing industry) to separate the good from the bad and the bad from the truly awful. It used to be that a book that made it to Barnes and Noble had to pass the approval of a literary agent and then an acquisitions editor and then a board.

Today books filled with grammatical mistakes and misspelled words are being born by the millions. That’s not to say that some self-published books are not wonderful; I’m proud of a few of mine. Still, you get the drift of what I’m saying. How do you distinguish quality from dreck when the pile of books reaches half-way to the Moon?

One answer is the insightful book review. Book bloggers today are filling the role that used to be filled by newspaper and journal book reviewers. There are thousands and thousands of amateur book review bloggers. Some claim to reach a book a week on top of their jobs and household responsibilities. That’s pretty amazing! The vast majority provide a brief summary of the book’s plot along with their overall opinion and a star rating similar to the one that Amazon uses. These bloggers are a Godsend for authors because they help their books to be noticed by the general public. Some bloggers have hundreds or even thousands of followers.

The flood of books on the market has swamped most book bloggers. Many now are either declining new books to review or indicating that it might take months to publish a review if they do accept the book. Into this vacuum has stepped the professional vultures. Some of these vultures used to have decent reputations such as Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly. Now they offer paid for reviews. Of course they promise their reviews will be impartial, but a review loses much of its clout when the author is paying to have it written.

All kinds of websites have appeared recently that promise paid for reviews. Some book bloggers have even offered “step to the front of the line” queues for those authors willing to pay for a review. Unfortunately, this situation will only get worse and authors become more and more desperate to find reviewers. I’m in the process of looking for reviewers myself at the moment. Don’t think I haven’t been tempted to “buy” a review from one of these websites or even to go to Fiver and pay some poor hack $5 to write a review.

I’ve never paid for a review, but I realize the playing field right now is getting very uneven. Let’s say some author kickstarts his or her book by paying $1000 for a large number of reviews. Amazon now lists 50 four and five star reviews and begins suggesting the book to customers looking for a good mystery. The sales mushroom. Meanwhile authors unwilling to pay a vulture for a review, stand at the corner, cup in hand, and whisper “Brother, can you spare me a review?” to book bloggers as they walk by.

Where Do Book Ideas Come From?

Have you ever wondered where a novelist find ideas for his next book? For some reason, probably all the meds I take, I have very vivid dreams. When I’m talking vivid, I mean full length features in color. Sometimes I take an active role in the action while other times I’m just an observer. In any case, the dreams generally stay with me when I wake up.

“Dying From Pleasure on Omega Epsilon,” the short story I posted on Amazon, is an example of a story that came right from a dream. How else can you explain the weird premise? Other stories start with a dream and then I wind up fleshing out the content.

I’m at a point now where I’m ready for my next project. Alien Love is still being considered by the Kindle Scout Program (Please vote before January 15th). That novel eventually will be published by someone; it’s too good a story to remain unpublished, and I’m perfectly willing to birth the baby myself (self-publish) if necessary.

I keep files on my computer that have names like “new idea for SF novel” and “YA novel idea” and “Cozy Mystery Idea.” Recently I went through some old files on my backup server and found a wonderful plot. Three double-spaced pages of elaborate details describing a science fiction story that grabbed me right away. Interestingly enough, the file was originally conceived around 2006. It’s been sitting there all this time!

So, I have my next project, and I don’t have to worry about plagiarism since I know where the idea came from. All I can say is keep those meds coming so the well doesn’t run dry!

The Schizoid World of the Novelist

While most people don’t have several different personalities coexisting within them, maybe that’s the perfect mindset for a novelist. Take the writing part of the process. The novelist by the very nature of this art form works alone. Likely he or she spends a lot of time thinking as well as crafting words and plot. Before even that point, novelists spend a lot of time observing. Think about it, even when they are at a party, they’re on the outside looking in, observing people rather than really being in the inner circle.

Can you think of any novelists who were ultra popular in high school? The answer is that they likely were not that popular and certainly not part of the “in” group. Others probably thought of them as quiet, introverted, and just plain different. After all, how much introspection do the school’s most popular kids really have time for?

Meanwhile the students on the outside, the ones often ignored or marginalized tend to have the time to mull over their lack of success and think about how wonderful it would be if things were different. They likely are the same kids who don’t come up with the snappy response when ridiculed, but who come up with that response days later and play out the scene in their heads so that it ends more favorably.

Novelists by their very nature tend to be introverts and observers. They capture parts of people they meet and meld them into characters.  Often they even feel like observers when dramatic scenes play out in their heads. Characters often talk to each other while the novelist observes. How many times have you heard novelists admit that characters took over their story and went in a completely different direction than they had plotted?

Not too long ago writing a novel was enough. The big publishing houses would take the novel, package it, market the hell out of it, and sell it. They would send the writer on book tours while accompanied by a trusty publicist. The publishing house would make all the arrangements; the writer had to show up and sign books. Even the most introverted novelist can sit at a table and sign books.

Today novelists need a second and far different personality to take over once they’ve finished their books. Suddenly they need to become extraverts with sales personalities. They need the fearlessness of an insurance agent cold calling strangers and the friendliness of a door-to-door salesperson selling 100% on commission.

Novelists today often make their own arrangements with bookstores, including cold calling the bookstore managers. They solicit their own reviews by contacting editors and bloggers. Recently I saw a few writers with booths at the Carlsbad Fair where they sold their books.

Can you imagine the quiet, introspective part of a novelist coexisting with the extraverted people-loving part of the novelist necessary to sell the books? It makes Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple seem compatible.

I should point out that I’m not just talking about novelists who self-publish or publish with small publishing houses. Large publishing houses are hurting today to the point that they bet most of their resources on a few established novelists with legions of fans. The rest of their “lists” tend to receive very little support. Someone I know very well negotiated favorable terms from a major publishing house and discovered after the fact that it had laid off many of their editors. His editor turned out to be someone working at home as an independent contractor.

Occasionally you find novelists who enjoy the celebrity part of the job far more than the writing part. They appear perfectly content on late night TV interviews or even the early morning news shows. They joust with John Stewart on the Daily Show and dish it out with the women on The View.

Most novelists, though, shun the limelight. They’d be just as happy if they could hand over the marketing and selling of their books and concentrate on the next novel in their pipeline. Unfortunately the book’s not done until someone actually buys it, reads it, and enjoys it. Otherwise, we’re faced with a variation of that old philosophical question: If a book falls onto Amazon and no one hears about it or buys it, is it real or just part of the writer’s imagination?

Blue Jasmine: Lesson for Authors

I just saw the movie, Blue Jasmine. The story is a little slow, but the acting is terrific. The character of Jasmine is very interesting to me because she is a person who is not naive or ignorant. Rather, she chooses to look the other way and not see things that would make her life much more difficult. At one point, for example, she tells a friend that she believes her husband is having an affair. Her friend responds that everyone in town knows about affairs her husband has been having for several years. In fact only Jasmine has chosen to pretend they weren’t happening.

Note that this type of character is very different from a common type of American character, the naive narrator. Think of the famous Ring Lardner short story, “You Know me Al.” What the narrator doesn’t understand is very clear to readers. Similarly readers of Huckleberry Finn understand the satire when Huck describes the way decent folk act and we realize Huck is a far better person.

Jasmine in the movie is different, though. She’s not naive or stupid. She’s very intelligent. She just chooses to look the other way and not accept things that would cause her discomfort. I thought about how difficult that would be for an author to capture in a novel. It’s much easier in a film where you actually see the husband flirting and you watch Jasmine look and then turn away.

Most of us have been taught that a main character in a novel should undergo some change and come out changed somehow; perhaps he’s more aware of life or he learns a life lesson or he realizes how mistaken he’s been about something. Jasmine never really learns that lesson. She falls from a very high society position to the end of the movie where she’s homeless sitting on a bench and talking to herself. She still hasn’t accepted reality.

It struck me that if I were trying to convey Jasmine’s condition, I’d have to have at least three separate incidents in which the reader would note how Jasmine’s reaction differed from what would be expected. Each incident would have to be more extreme and more obvious. Only then could I be sure that readers would understand that Jasmine consciously chooses not to see.

Read Two Books and Call Me in the Morning

Recently the Uk publication, the Telegraph, noted an article published in the Journal of Brain Connectivity that provided evidence that people’s brains are changed by what they read. Experimental subjects read a specific book and their brainwaves showed that, in effect, they experienced what they read.

Think about the implications of that study. If you read about heartbreak, you actually experience the heartbreak. If you read about triumph, you feel triumphant. Presumably if you habitually read books designed to scare the heck out of you, your brain acts as if it has gone through that harrowing experience. So, when someone tells you that reading a certain book changed their life forever, it might very well have done that.

Hallie Ephron has gone a step further and published 1001 Books for Every Mood. This book permits the reader to decide what kind of experience he or she needs, and then read the corresponding novel. Need to indulge your senses? Ephron recommends a number of books including Like Water for Chocolate.  Need to satisfy your desire for revenge? Ephron’s choices include Carrie and The First Wives Club.

The study concludes that just as there is something called muscle memory, the same principle applies to the brain. So, if you practice shooting a jump shot enough times, your muscles remember how to do it and you perform that task from memory. Presumably, if you read enough books about joy, your brain builds patterns and you feel joyful.

Now think about the role of a novelist for a minute. Novelists and screenwriters try to manipulate readers and viewers by causing them to react emotionally. The scientific experiment seems to validate the idea that a good writer can cause you to step into the shoes of a character and react just as the character reacts. If it’s an adventure novel or movie, the reader or viewer might feel exhausted after all the twists and turns and near death experiences. If it’s a romantic book or movie, the reader or viewer might walk away with that warm fuzzy feeling that comes with experiencing romance.

Turn your mind to the dark side for a moment. What if a writer is really good at writing very dark novels featuring all kinds of sadistic torture? Does that mean that readers experience these episodes from the perspective of the sadist or murderer and feel some attachment to the character? Maybe the process is self-selecting and people with a tendency toward cruelty find themselves attracted to such books because the characters reinforce dark forces already within them.

There is still an awfully lot of information we lack as to the permanent impact of reading specific novels, but it should cause novelists some pause when it comes to the characters they create. Who knows? Someday certain novels might be labeled “Dangerous to your Mental Health” much the same way we label cigarettes now.

Why Some Books are Worth Reading Twice

I recently ran into a writer of romances who was very proud that she had written and published three books (an entire trilogy) in a single year. It reminded me of Truman Capote’s famous quote when someone pointed to the best seller status of Valley of the Dolls. Now there’s no question but that Capote was a literary snob who really knew how to say something snide. Still, his comment that Jackie Suzanne was not writing but only “typing” is pretty memorable.

It’s possible to write a book pretty quickly, particularly if it’s been simmering around in your head for an extended period of time. But remember, that’s a first draft. I think the real challenge in writing is tweaking the book once it’s written to make it even better and maybe even memorable. I’m not sure you could do that and still write and publish three books in a single year. It is possible certainly to write three books that read reasonably well and have interesting plots, but would that alone make you want to read the books again?

So, what makes a book memorable enough to make you want to read it a second time or even a third time? Why are there some books that I routinely look forward to re-reading year after year? Here are some things I look for in a book that make me want to re-read it to the point that I can almost quote entire sections?

PLOT: Clearly the plot has to be interesting enough to keep me reading. Ideally, there are interesting subplots that beautifully meld together so that the sum total is greater than the parts. I also enjoy enjoy discovering subtle foreshadowing elements in a plot that I can appreciate upon re-reading the book. As a novelist, I can appreciate how cleverly the writer plants these unobtrusive signposts that later ring all kinds of bells for any reader who remembers them. Stephen King is a master of plotting. I’ve re-read his 11/23/63 several times and see something new each time.

CHARACTERS: There are certain characters I think of as real people not only because I’ve read about them so many times, but also because they are fleshed out real people with flaws that make them even more likable. Sometimes it’s their distinctive voice and sense of humor. I really like the John Corey character Nelson DeMille created. I once worked in a police department and Corey reminds me of some people I met there. His sense of humor still makes me laugh even though I’ve read the same jokes each time I re-read the books in which Corey appears.

SETTINGS: It’s always fun to be thrust into a setting completely different from your real world setting. Whether that’s the imaginary world of Harry Potter or Dune or even the real but exotic Ethiopia that Nelson DeMille describes in his new book, The Quest, doesn’t matter. I tried to describe modern Cairo in Egypt Rising. That required me to rely on my memory of my trip there but also on several guidebooks I used to fill in gaps in my memory. It also required me to study maps of the city.

USE OF LANGUAGE: Some books scream “literary novel.” Nowadays some of those books seem overwritten. Still, there are some popular modern writers who offer books filled with rich language without making their novels seem stuffy or unreadable. Ann Patchett does a wonderful job describing the rainforest in State of Wonder. Each time I re-read that book, I catch something I missed the first time.

Finally, there’s something comforting in picking up a favorite book, one that you’ve read many times before. The fact that you know what’s coming doesn’t prevent you from enjoying the anticipation of what will happen. The thriller you read the first time worrying that a character you like might be killed is different now that you can enjoy the story because you KNOW that your favorite character will survive. When I re-read some of Michael Connelly’s mysteries, I can enjoy Harry Bosch without worrying something will happen to him. I can enjoy the way Connelly plants red herrings, possible suspects, while planting enough clues so you feel satisfied when he reveals the real killer. I re-read Faye Kellerman’s books often, and I find I appreciate them even more the second or third or fourth times. Since she has a couple who reappear in several of her books, I can enjoy retracing the development of the relationship between Rina and Peter.

As a reader, I look for books that I hope I’ll enjoy enough to want to re-read them. I write novels with the hope that they’ll become a reader’s good friend, someone the reader will want to visit again and again.