Throwing Fellow Writers Under the Bus

I’m reading an interesting book right now called Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy. It’s interesting as it deals with many of the concerns in my genre: Violence (how and when to do it), set pieces, designing suspense, etc. Percy’s writing is fun to read for the most part (though I will admit to getting frustrated while reading the beginning of the book. He waxes long and poetic about his childhood, which has little to do with the purpose of the book).

I read something last night, however, that genuinely surprised me. He was explicating the restraint writers should use when inflicting violence on our readers, and the fine line between authenticity and gory indulgence when he mentioned the writing of both Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis. To wit:

“That’s what the work of Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis occasionally feels like: a special kind of CGI meant to sour your stomach…Their flamboyant style aestheticizes the mayhem, as if the authors love what we are meant to despise. They linger on the violence, wallow in the gore, celebrate it to such a degree that I can almost see them smirking, hear them snickering, and they essentially become that kid we all went to middle school with – Cody: big ears, buzz cut, braces – who would fake a punch, and then, when you startled, would screech, “Two for flinching,” and sock you twice in the shoulder. Don’t be a Cody. Nobody liked him.”

Why did this surprise me? It’s not because I disagree. I haven’t been able to stomach Palahniuk’s writing since Survivor for precisely this reason, and I despised American Psycho so much after watching it that I’ve never agreed to watch it again despite many impassioned pleas for me to give it another chance because the violence is symbolic and a commentary and blah blah blah.

No, I was surprised because it’s quite rare for an author to publicly disparage a fellow author in this way. There’s an unspoken code of honor amongst authors that our critics are hard enough on us, so if you can’t say anything nice, keep your mouth shut and change the subject. (With the notable exception of Dan Brown. For some reason, it’s always fine to make fun of his writing, which doesn’t bother him in the slightest as he laughs at all of us plebes from his castle).

In a book like Percy’s, there’s plenty of room to use various authors’ work as an example of what to do, instead of what not to do, and up until now that’s almost exclusively what he’s done. That was why I was so surprised to see these two getting singled out. It’s possible they write their stories in precisely such a way as to elicit this kind of disapproval, in which case this was a smashing success.

I thought I’d open this up to all of you and see what you think. How do you feel about violence and gore in storytelling? Any pressing thoughts on either Chuck Palahniuk or Bret Easton Ellis that you’d like to share? Hit me up in the comments section!

Writer as Multi-Level Marketer?

I was talking to my husband last night about book marketing and he had an insight that set me back on my heels a bit. He said that it seemed to him like a first-time author is a lot like a recent multi-level marketing convert who’s been instructed to hustle up sales from among their friends and family first.

He has a point.

The wonderful thing about having been in the publishing world for a handful of years is that I’ve had a chance to develop some perspective on the appropriate role of friends and family in growing your reader audience. When I first started out, I was rabid for readers. After all, if you get a book published and no one buys it, does it even matter? And I desperately wanted my book to matter.

It wasn’t until Wes stopped me one day and gently told me how incredible it was that any of my friends and family even bought my book in the first place that I stopped thinking of them as potential sales ranking boosters and began gaining my perspective back. It was incredible that any of them bought my book. Even more amazing was that some of them read it, and then went on to tell me they enjoyed it!

I think that was the moment I redefined what success as an author means to me. Every single person who puts a book out, whether it’s self-published or through a publisher, wants it to be a runaway success. Did you know, though, that according to Bowker more than 700,000 books were self-published last year? And well over 300,000 books were traditionally published.

That’s over one million books published. IN ONE YEAR.

I don’t care who you are, that’s depressing. It’s overwhelming! If you believe some of the contradictory figures produces by informal surveys, readership of books is declining. Whether that’s true or not is tricky to find out, but what is true is that book sales figures are down, and look to be in continuing decline.

What this means is that there’s a deluge of new material coming onto the market, and fewer people are buying it.

So what does this mean for authors? Are we peddling wares that will soon be obsolete and irrelevant?  Are we the ice deliverymen and women of our generation?

Maybe. I’m convinced the world will always need compelling and entertaining content, but the form it takes may change. That’s okay. Because I’ve recently decided what success as an author means for me:

I want to entertain people, and encourage developing writers. I’ll keep writing my books for the people who enjoy reading them, but I’m not going to pull my hair out trying to lure a wider audience who isn’t interested in being lured. I’m going to take every opportunity I can to teach, equip, and encourage developing writers, because the world needs quality prose, and because I enjoy teaching.

So that’s it. I’m officially hanging up my MLM desperate-for-sales hat, and putting on my I’m-just-here-to-tell-stories pj’s. And if you’ve bought one (or several) of my books? Thank you, sincerely and heartily, for supporting my dream. You’re a kind and wonderful person and I deeply appreciate you.

Updates and Appearances and Anthologies, Oh My!

I just got back from a quick trip down to CA to visit family with my two children and these are the things I learned:

  • CA gets crazy flooding when there’s a monsoon-style downpour.
  • Dramamine makes my children almost catatonic.
  • In N Out is still delicious and the best thing ever.

I seem to have caught a cold while I was visiting, however, which is kind of a bummer because I’ve been invited back to do a guest lecture for the Writing for Publication class at Northwest University and I have this weird feeling like I’m going to need my voice for that. I’m getting really excited about it.

I had the chance to do this a couple years ago and it was a blast. There’s something invigorating and inspiring about discussing the craft of writing with other people who are as passionate about it as you are, and I fully expect to have a fantastic time (assuming, of course, that I have use of my voice and will not have to conduct the lecture via semaphore).

From one of my favorite Monty Python sketches, Wuthering Heights by Semaphore.

I’ve also recently applied to participate in the LitQuake Festival in San Francisco this fall, so fingers crossed for that, and I’m most likely doing a book singing on Bainbridge Island at the Eagle Harbor Book Company in late July as well. All told, 2017 is shaping up to be a very busy year, which is great because there’s almost nothing more frustrating than trying to get the promotional wheels spinning only to have nothing happen.

Oh! And I almost forgot the coolest thing that happened last week: I got invited by my writing buddy AC Fuller to participate in a thriller anthology that’s coming out in the fall! How cool is that?! Doing an anthology is on my writer bucket list, so I’m delighted the timing worked out for it.

I’m submitting a short story about what happens when Bai goes home to visit his parents after the events of Take the Bai Road. Hint: stuff happens. Lots of stuff.

I had a blast writing the story, and I think it’ll be a fun amuse bouche for those of you looking for something to read in between Take the Bai Road and book number three, which will be called Bai Treason. (Oh, man. Bai Treason is GOOD. I can’t wait to get started on revisions for that one after I finish Take the Bai Road and the anthology short story).

All in all, things are looking busy in a good way. Full steam ahead!

Toasting Marshmallows with Robert Ludlum’s Ghost

When I was a brand-new writer, the publishing world was overwhelming and intimidating. What was a query? How do you pitch? What’s a three-act structure? Why does no one use prologues anymore? And what’s the difference between awhile and a while?

I learned, as most authors do, the hard way. I self-published a book before it was ready because I didn’t know better. I wrote a book with a 20,000-word prologue. I used adverbs. I made one of my protagonists a writer. I thought people would just buy a book without any marketing effort on my part.

Over time, and through the loving tutelage of such fine organizations as the PNWA and ITW, I learned. I matured as a writer (maybe as a person?), and started learning the ropes.

Those ropes, as it turns out, are even more intimidating the more you learn them. It’s not until you’ve busted your butt trying to rustle up sales that you realize how remarkable it really is to earn that “New York Times bestselling author” distinction after your name. It’s not until you’ve done a book signing for an empty room that you understand how amazing it is when authors like Neil Gaiman pack entire theaters with eager audiences who want to hear him speak.

Over time, I’ve met some incredible authors. Generous, kind, helpful souls like Jon Land, Robert Dugoni, and Ted Kosmatka, who all blurbed my last book, Bai Tide. Or Anne Rice, who was kind enough to pose for a picture with me and answer my question at a Q&A she did in New York in 2013. Or Jeff Ayers, who’s a book reviewer, board member for the PNWA, and author in his own right.

And then there was the time RL Stine told me I grew up okay despite devouring all of his books in my youth.

I have too many writing heroes to name, and they’re all on my list for different reasons. Some of them are there because their books taught me something valuable about what writing could be. Some of them are there because they’re admirable people who help and serve and contribute. And still other are there because they’re all of those things and more.

Gayle Lynds is one of the all of the above heroines. She’s a legend in the thriller writing community, and one of the foremost espionage authors of all time. She’s also, lucky for me, a kind person who makes time to help nobodies like me.

When she agreed to read my book to possibly consider providing a blurb for it, I sent it off to her with my heart in my throat. I was so nervous, I held onto the package for so long that the mail clerk asked me if I was okay.

I told her I was and surrendered it to her, but how could I be okay? What if it wasn’t ready? What if Gayle hated it? What if she burned it and then toasted marshmallows over it while complaining to Robert Ludlum’s ghost about how schlocky these new authors are?

A month later, not only did Gayle email me back with an incredible blurb, she had the grace to thank me for sending it to her! Can you believe such a thing? I couldn’t. I read her email five times just to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.

So take it from me, kids. Dreams come true if you work for them and get really, really lucky. Here it is, folks. This is what Gayle had to say about Take the Bai Road, which is coming out in July 2017.

Erika, Why Aren’t Your Heroes White Chicks?

“Yay! Someone took me seriously even though I’m a woman!”

I have been asked a few times why I wrote my books from a male perspective. After all, I do not, nor have I ever, possessed a pair of testicles, so why am I writing characters who do?

Not only that, but my male protagonists aren’t white, either. In Blood Money, my hero is an Iraqi-born Muslim living in London. In Bai Tide and Take the Bai Road, he’s a second-generation Chinese man who was born and raised in Berkeley, CA. This is weird for people, and I’m asked frequently why I wrote these characters.

After all, I’m a white chick who’s been living in the suburbs her entire life. What qualifies me to run around the literary jungle pretending I’m something I’m not?

The subtext here is odd, I think. Is it possible to ask me why I’m writing heroes who are men of color without the unspoken assumption that because I’m a white woman, I should be writing chick lit with a nice, comfortable white heroine?

After all, men who write novels from a female perspective are often praised for their bravery (here, I would refer you to Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone, Jon Land’s Caitlin Strong novels, or Robert Dugoni’s Tracy Crosswhite series {which is excellent, and which you should read immediately if you like thrillers}). If done well, male writers are seen as taking a bold risk writing from their heroines’ perspectives; they’re asked about their choices from a place of praise. “Oh, you did such a good job writing from a woman’s perspective, how did you do it?”

Women writers, however, are held to a different standard, measured against a different set of biases. I read a blog post recently called “Homme de Plume” about one writer’s experience querying agents under a man’s name instead of her own name, and the shocking difference that made in those agents’ reception of her work. The same book that was submitted under a woman’s name received one request for more out of twenty-five queries sent.

Under a man’s name? That same work netted seventeen requests for more out of fifty queries.

The entire post is a fantastic read and well worth your time if you’re so inclined, but what it boils down to is this: Female writers are expected to write nice, compact little stories in the expected genres. Any time you decide to color outside the lines, be it by writing the wrong kind of protagonist, writing the wrong kind of story in the wrong genre, or daring to try something new, you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle against the expectations of an industry that rarely changes and, when it does, does so only grudgingly.

All this to say, I have an answer to the question I’ve been asked so many times. Why do I write male protagonists, and why aren’t they white? Why am I writing espionage stories when I am theoretically much better qualified to write cozy little chick lit stories?

Because these are the kinds of stories I want to write. Because I like guns, and I enjoy blocking out fight scenes in my living room. Espionage is interesting, and so are explosions. Writing, at least the kind I’m trying to bring to the people who are nice enough to buy my books, should be an entertaining escape. A fun thought exercise that lets you feel, if just for a second, like you’re pulling back the curtain of national security to peek, even if just for a second, at the roiling covert landscape beneath.

And why aren’t my heroes female and white? Because they’re not. It’s just that simple. The world is full of people who don’t look like me, and when I was coming up with those stories, those are the heroes I saw doing what needed to be done.

Despite what Hollywood would have you believe, there are some problems that even a muscled white dude can’t fix.

I doubt I’ll ever submit my work under a man’s name, if only because I imagine that might make writer’s appearances and book signings problematic should the book ever get published. Instead, I’ll keep writing the stories I want to write and encouraging others to do so as well. I’m well aware that my possibly odd choice of heroes and genre may well be the reason I never see my name on a bestseller list, but that’s an ambition I’ve learned to let go.

If I can bring a few hours of enjoyment to my readers, I’ll consider my job well done, and if I can make even one person who looks different than I do feel good because there’s actually a hero who looks like him/her in a book? That’s even better.