Something new is always a good idea

I’ve been enjoying learning the ropes from a cool bunch of writers on Facebook who are dedicated to writing LOTS of books. They say the more books you have out, the easier it is for readers to find you and thus, the better your revenue stream will be. That means money, to the writer. Crass and commercial as that may seem to some writers and readers, it’s impossible to not think about money. It gives the writer space to be creative, time to dream, and a reason to write another book.

Frenchman announcementAs my fifth book in my Bennett Sisters Mysteries launches I feel this effect. When I run some cheap ads on Facebook for the new book, people discover the whole series. Now at five, there is some heft, some reason for people to think about connecting long-term to these characters.

I’ve also been doing a blog tour for The Frenchman, the new one, and wrote this guest post about how the characters have changed, and I’ve changed in my understanding of them over the years. (See Beth’s post on Shelf Rider.)

As I launch the fifth installment in the Bennett Sisters Mystery series it occurs to me that one of the joys of writing a long series is the chance to really dig deep into the personalities of the characters. Although I originally conceived of the series as linked stand-alones about each of the five sisters, the first book, Blackbird Fly, centered on the middle sister, Merle. When I eventually continued the series, I continued Merle’s journey of self-discovery after the sudden death of her husband. It just made sense that one summer sojourn in France wouldn’t cure all her problems, lovely as France might be.

discoverFranceagainSo Merle has a Frenchman. Initially, like Merle, I didn’t see how a long-distance relationship with a man who lived across an ocean would work. How could she work in New York City and Pascal work all over France’s wine country and they continue a romance? Because, although I didn’t write the series as a romance, women have love affairs— have you noticed? And they like to read about them. Merle’s affair with Pascal might have just been a fling, a curative, that first summer. But as the series goes along it’s obvious that Pascal thinks of it as something more. Although Merle isn’t sure what he thinks— he’s a Frenchman and you know how they are— her feelings mature, especially in this fifth book.

Their relationship is an underpinning in the novels to intrigue, sisterhood, and the joys and trials of mid-life. The sisters range in age from 40 to 55, or so, and I try to find aspects of women’s lives that are interesting and challenging. Life can be hard but reading about how other women make choices and navigate the pitfalls is helpful and revealing to me, and I hope to readers.

As a writer you never know how readers will react to your characters. Will they think them weak and stupid for their choices? (Yes, I’ve had that review.) Or will they identify with them, cheer for them, hope for them? That’s what I live for, that identification from the reader. I am not an Everywoman myself. I am opinionated and cranky and sometimes not that nice. Also, funny, a good friend, a loving parent— I hope. We all have so many aspects. I see some of myself in each of the five Bennett Sisters. I am a middle sister myself though, that’s why Merle appeals to me.

I recently had a review of Blackbird Fly that made all the writing worthwhile. (I love that readers are still discovering the series.) A reader said “The main character, Merle Bennett, could have been me, though I’m not a lawyer, have never inherited a house in France, and never had her problems. The writing puts you in the book.”

Right there, that’s why I write.

Then, if you love France like I do, the reviewer says that for her, at least, I got something right: “I’ve spent enough time in France to know that Albert, Mme Suchet, and the others in the village who snubbed, helped, or sabotaged Merle are just so … French. The story unfolds just as it should along with Merle’s self-discovery and personal regrets.”

And so Merle’s journey continues in The Frenchman. Who is the Frenchman, you ask? There is of course Pascal, Merle’s Frenchman. But there are many more in this book, policemen and old villagers, young punks and charming neighbors. And in Merle’s novel, chapters of which are included in the novel, there are Frenchmen from the Revolutionary period: farmers and rebels, nobles and royals, villagers and strangers. I had such fun writing Merle’s novel— which will be fleshed out and published separately as well— about a goat-herder who flees the terror in Paris for a farm in the Dordogne. Merle calls it ‘Odette and the Great Fear,’ and it will be available soon as an e-book.

I hope your writing and reading goes well as we ease into chilly weather– the best time to read and write! Happy autumn.

Lise

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What I Read On My Summer Vacation

So I’m back from my  long-awaited and sorely needed vacation, in which  the missus and I spent a week on lovely Oak Island, NC. There’s just something about the ocean that makes it impossible to hold onto stress for long. A few days next to that immensity and that steady, eternal rhythm constantly in your ears is better than a truckload of Valium, IMHO.

I confess, I’m pretty boring at the beach. Some people seem to regard the beach as a place for vigorous physical activity. They bring volleyball nets, footballs, Frisbees, etc. Me, I tend to sit by the water and read, pausing only to take a dip when it gets too hot or a walk (and by “a walk” I usually mean a trip back up to the beach house for more beer). It’s great to have that leisure time to really be able to focus. It also helps that I’m usually away from the Internet. This time, my only connection was a weak (and let’s be honest, not totally legal) connection to the unsecured Wi-fi next door. So my web surfing, Facebooking, Tweeting, etc. was nearly non-existent, which gave me more time to read and fewer available distractions from it. And when I have that kind of time, I really plow through them.

So, this is what I read while at the beach:

 HOSTILE WITNESS, William Lashner: Dave White was raving about this underappreciated author a while back,  and Dave’s a damn fine writer himself. So I downloaded this one, and let me tell you, it’s great.

Victor Carl is the perfect noir protagonist: grasping, resentful, bitter that his legal career never put him amongst the elite of Philadelphia society. When he’s offered a chance to take over as counsel for what seems to be a minor player in a Federal racketeering and extortion trial, he jumps at the chance to play in the big leagues. Victor initially balks at the fact that the trial is in two weeks, but the blue-blood society lawyer defending the main player, a flamboyant city councilman, assures him that all he has to do is follow the lead of the big boys, show a united front, and keep his mouth shut. Pretty much everyone but Victor can see he and his client are being set up to take the fall. Fall he does, in spectacular fashion, including falling for the councilman’s mistress, a classic femme fatale if ever there was one. But he keeps getting back up….

This is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time, and I can’t wait to read the next ones in the series.

 NEVER GO BACK, Lee Child: Jack Reacher finally makes it to Virginia to meet the woman who he’s been trying to get to for the last two books, an Army Major (and commander of his old unit) who he only knows as an interesting voice on the phone. When he gets there, she’s in jail, Jack’s charged with the murder of someone he barely remembers, AND he gets hit with a paternity claim from a woman he doesn’t remember at all. Clearly somebody’s trying to make Reacher run away and abandon the damsel in distress, and we all know that’s not going to happen. Asses are kicked, names are taken, Jack does what Jack does. It’s the same old thing, but it’s the same old great thing. Recommended.

CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE, Don Winslow:  Disgraced former cop Jack Wade, currently an arson investigator for the titular insurance company, is convinced that the fire that  destroyed the house of real estate mogul Nicky Vale and incinerated Vale’s beautiful estranged wife Pamela was not, as his former colleagues in the Sheriff’s Department ruled, an accident. No, he thinks it was arson and very possibly murder. As he digs into the evidence, both literally and figuratively, he discovers a web of deceit, betrayal, and counter-betrayal that may just lead to his own immolation.

All I can say about this book is: Wow. Only a writer as skilled as Don Winslow could make a plaintiff’s lawyer like me love a book with a claims adjuster as its protagonist. A surfing claims adjuster, of course, because this is, after all, Don Winslow. But he keeps you guessing, twist upon twist, until the final surprise and an absolutely perfect twist at the end. Highly recommended.

THREE GRAVES FULL, Jamie Mason: “There is very little peace for a man with a body buried in his backyard,” this book begins, and there’s even less for hapless nebbish Jason Getty when the landscaping crew he’s hired turns up two other bodies, neither of which are the man he killed a year ago and buried to cover up the crime. When a pair of engaging small town detectives (and a dog who always follows her nose) pursue the investigation into the two bodies in the front yard, they turn up evidence of another crime they can’t identify…and then things get a little crazy.

One of the cover blurbs compared this to a Coen brothers movie, and there are definite similarities, particularly in the Fargo-esque setup of good hearted small town cops vs. a Casper Milquetoast scrambling to cover up the crime he committed when pushed too far. But Jamie Mason’s worldview isn’t quite as bleak as the Coen’s. The book’s a lot of fun, and I have to admire the skill of a writer who can use a dog as a viewpoint character and not make me roll my eyes. Recommended.

THE SECRET SOLDIER, Alex Berenson: Pretty standard stuff for an international thriller. Troubled ex-CIA agent John Wells is your usual two-fisted thriller hero in the Bolt Studly mold, who gets called in to set things right in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by no less than King Abdullah himself. There’s some interesting stuff about the House of Saud and how they came to power, and the villain is suitably scary and believable. There’s a long stretch in the beginning where Wells and his sidekick are chasing a renegade CIA agent turned drug dealer which I kept waiting to connect with the rest of the book, but which never really does.  Still, it was entertaining, and good for a beach read.

 THE LIVES OF TAO, Wesley Chu: Human history has been influenced since the dawn of mankind by a group of non-corporeal aliens who crashed here millennia ago and have been possessing human hosts ever since, using them to try and nudge human progress to the point where humanity has the ability to get the aliens home. A while back, they split into two factions, one more ruthless and violent than the other. When one of the more peaceful aliens suffers the unexpected and violent loss of his host, he winds up in the body of overweight and aimless computer geek Roen Tan and is forced to make the best use of his raw material. The “Zero to Hero, with hot ass-kicking chicks in leather along the way” trope is pretty obviously aimed at what the publishers assume is SF’s core demographic. The book takes a while to get going, but eventually ends up being a fun action romp. Still, I don’t think I’ll be getting the sequel.

FIDDLEHEAD, Cherie Priest: The final chapter in Priest’s “Clockwork Century” series (or so she says) ends up being the best one I’ve read so far. It’s got all the wild inventiveness of BONESHAKER (how can you resist an alternate Civil War history steampunk zombie story, with airships?) and the breakneck action of DREADNOUGHT (same thing with steam powered mecha and armored trains), without the clumsy characterization and stilted dialogue of those two. I liked it a lot.

So, what are you folks reading?

 

 

Who Do You Trust?

by J.D. Rhoades

Reviews.

Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, they’re part of any working writer’s life. Back when I was in dead-tree publishing, the joy of seeing a new book released was always tempered at least a little with the dread of opening the Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus website and praying they didn’t savage it too badly. I even left a perfectly good beach house on a lovely sunny day to drive into town and find a café with WiFi (smartphones with ‘net access weren’t everywhere in those days) and check out the PW review for Breaking Cover that was coming out that day.

To my relief, it was a good review, and the majority of mine in various publications have been generally positive, although the aforementioned Kirkus did always seem to find a way to kick me in the teeth, even in a “good”  review.

Like everything else in this business, the review landscape has changed with bewildering swiftness over the last few years. One newspaper after another dropped their review section. Kirkus folded, then was bought and resurrected with a “pay for reviews” model, swearing all the time that you weren’t necessarily paying for a good review. Professional book reviewers became more and more rare, even as website after blog after tumblr sprang up, offering the opinions of everyday readers. And, of course, people turned to the Amazon reviews on a book’s pageand to sites like Goodreads.

So is this a good thing? Well, as with so many things, the answer is, “it depends.” I’m a great believer in the idea that the more voices get heard, the better. On the other hand, not all voices are created equal. Most amateur reviewers are thoughtful readers who can clearly and cogently express what they find good or bad about a particular book in such a way that the reader of the review can make up their mind about whether to try it. Some reviewers, particularly anonymous ones, seem to be in a contest to see who can be the meanest or most cutting. And some are just batshit insane. That’s the Internet for you.

In addition, it soon became obvious that it was childishly easy to game the Amazon review system. In 2012, a furor erupted when investigative work revealed that thriller writer R.J. Ellory had been using “sock-puppet” accounts—false names and internet personas—to not only give his own work glowing reviews, but to attack the works of others. Fellow Brit Stephen Leather asserted defiantly that not only had he used sock-puppet accounts to promote his own work, but that it was “common practice.” A backlash ensued during which authors (including myself) signed a pledge not to use such tactics, followed by a counter-backlash by writers like Barry Eisler, who, even though he’d also signed the pledge himself, wrote that upon reflection, it was “disproportionate,” and that the document itself was “devoid of evidence and argument, relying instead only on an unsupported conclusion that purchased reviews and sock puppet reviews are ‘damaging to publishing at large.’” It should be noted that Eisler was not himself promoting sock-puppetry, he just had a problem with how it was being addressed in this instance. Meanwhile, Amazon went on a frenzy, deleting thousands of reviews that seemed to be from friends or family members of the authors or even ones from fellow writers. They did not, however, delete reviews from people who had clearly not read the book, stating that “We do not require people to have experienced the product in order to review.” Well, then. Glad to see they care about the integrity of the review process.

Wait, it gets worse. Now, social science researchers are confirming that people’s evaluation of a work is inevitably influenced by evaluations they see before it. In one experiment, researchers “allowed people to download various songs and randomly assigned people to see the opinions of others who had downloaded these songs. Sometimes a particular song was shown to be well-liked by the masses, and in other versions of the study, that same song was shown to be disliked. Regardless of quality, people evaluated the songs they believed to be well-liked positively and the songs they believed to be disliked negatively.” In another, the researchers went to a website, like Reddit,  where certain comments could be “up-voted” or “down-voted” by clicking a button. They up-voted some and down-voted others at random, and discovered what they called “significant bias in rating behavior and a tendency toward ratings bubbles.”  In plain English, up-votes tended to create more up-votes, and down-votes more down-votes. Interestingly, “people also ‘corrected’ the down-voted comments by up-voting them more than baseline levels, but even this correction never spurred them to the level of positivity that artificially up-voted comments attained.”

So what do we make of all this? In a world where self-publishing is exploding, Sturgeon’s Law (“95% of everything is crud”) applies, and professional reviewers are being supplanted by talented amateurs mixed in with some trolls, lunatics, and sock-puppets, who do you trust? In a market flooded with material that desperately needs curation, how do you make decisions when any stranger can be a curator?  I have some thoughts of my own, but let’s hear from the Thalians…