Thursday, November 16, 2006

We're Gonna Need A Bigger Garret

by Marcus Sakey

I’m a new writer. My debut, The Blade Itself, comes out January 9th (notice the subtle plug?), and so I’m in the thick of the marketing and self-promotion jungle.

I’m setting up signings. I’m planning a launch party. I’m expanding my website. I’m also doing something new that’s quickly becoming the norm—I’m partnering with other writers.

More and more often, groups of authors are working together to accomplish what might be tough on our own. Take this blog: sure, we like each other’s work, we write in the same genre, and we’re all in Chicago, but I’ll let you in on a secret—the real reason we formed The Outfit is that we’re too damn lazy to run our own blogs.

Working together, we can create a forum for ideas and discussion without having to worry about the time blogging takes away from novel writing. It’s a good arrangement.

Sean and I are also part of another group, Killer Year. It’s a collective of suspense novelists with debuts coming in 2007. I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I joined, I figured, hell, why not? I imagined that while it probably wouldn’t do much good, it also wouldn’t take much work.

As it turns out, I was wrong on both counts.

It’s a lot of work. Even deciding what to do takes a long time when there are fourteen people with vested interests.

However, it’s paying off. Killer Year was adopted as an official program of International Thriller Writers. We each have an ITW mentor to guide us through our debut year (mine is David Morrell, creator of Rambo and the godfather of the modern thriller). We’ve chipped in to print a collection of our first chapters and ship it to several hundred independent booksellers. And in the biggest news yet, we just sold an anthology to St. Martin’s Minotaur. Edited by Lee Child, it will feature work from all of us and some of our mentors, including contributions by Laura Lippman, Duane Swierczynski, and Ken Bruen.

All of which is very groovy, and I couldn’t be happier. But the reason I bring it up is because I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the benefits—and limits—of authors working as a group.

This is a hot topic. Group blogs are popping up all over the place (without any thought at all, here’s one, here’s another, and a third). Authors are teaming up for signings and hitting the road together to bring down the cost of tours. We’re co-writing, link-seeding, and critique grouping.

Is this the new way of doing business? Or is it a phase?

Some aspects, like group blogs, make such obvious sense that I think they have the legs for the long haul. But will our traditionally solitary business now be about working as a team?

And if so, how far does that go?

I can imagine a day when in addition to individual writers, there are collectives, with shared characters, plots assembled by committee, and quarterly releases. You go to the store and buy the new Good Girls Kill For Money novel.

Good? Bad? Improbable? What do you think?


Libby Hellmann said...

"I can imagine a day when in addition to individual writers, there are collectives, with shared characters, plots assembled by committee, and quarterly releases." --

There's a name for that, Marcus... It's called "writing for TV." Just ask Lee Goldberg...

Nancy Martin said...

Thanks for the link, Marcus. One thing we did at Lipstick Chronicles this year (we're 18 months old and counting) was to stop writing to writers. Our blogs are aimed at our readers now--and we've been pleased to see our hits continue to climb. Now we feel we're communicating a collective brand, so to speak, to a growing readership of book-buyers. To reach readers this effectively, I just don't know how we could do it as individuals (at least not at our level in the biz.) Already, each of us is spending at least one day a week nurturing the blog.--One less day to write books, huh?--But not the kind of time a solo blog would require.

JT Ellison said...

Hmmm... being in the thows of this, I'm not the most objective person. As much as I love my groups, I'm glad to have my writing to escape to. Of course, finding time for writing amidst all of the group work is challenging. I don't know if it will continue, but other artists have been doing it for years. Look at the painting community, with their co-ops.
Nancy is right on the money -- the trick is to reach your readers, make them happy, and the rest is water cooler. Which I wouldn't trade -- as Brett Battles pointed out to me the other day, the Internet is our office.

Christopher said...

To me it begs an important question - shouldn't writers be writing stories vs. writing blogs and hustling their books? Is all the blog writing and networking online taking away from the very thing we’re trying to do – write an outstanding story that builds our audience and makes money for everyone?

Screenwriter/novelist Joe Eszterhas (of BASIC INSTINCT and HOLLYWOOD ANIMAL fame) makes that very argument in his latest book, and I think it makes for a very interesting debate. His whole case is (and I’m paraphrasing here) that the current generation of writers spends way too much time in coffee shops or blogging when they should be researching and writing.

He argues that the entire paradigm is out of line. That it’s a writer’s job to write books/screenplays, it's an agent's job to shop the book/screenplay to a publisher/studio, and it's the publisher/studio's job to market it. Why should the writer do the job of the agent/publisher/studio? Yes, go on book tour or attend screenings, but that’s where it ends. If the book doesn’t sell, then it wasn’t good enough. If the movie doesn’t churn box office gold, then it wasn’t good enough. The cases of great books and movies not making money are far fewer than the opposite.

I’m not saying I agree or disagree. I’m just saying the debate should be had.

Are all of the blogs and the hustling and the marketing really driving sales and building audiences? Or are they simply the digital incarnation of The Inklings where like-minded writers are getting together to preach to the converted? And if it’s the latter, is it all really worth it? Should the blogging and the marketing be kept to a minimum so that the creative devices of the writer are given the higher priority?

Like Marcus says, “It’s a lot of work. Even deciding what to do takes a long time when there are fourteen people with vested interests.” Imagine spending that time living life, knocking one back in a shady bar just to see what’s going to happen (and something usually does), or going for a ride along on a drug bust, or interviewing retired detectives, or researching criminal motivations…Wouldn’t that seep into the writing and leave a far deeper, and far more immediate, impact on the reader than a blog?

The reality is that it all comes down to that first printing, and those first customers buying the book. The rubber meets the road when the reader opens to page one. And if the plot traps them, if the characters seduce them, if the dialogue crackles, won’t those elements provide the catalyst for the viral marketing needed to sell books? And at that point, if those things aren’t there, will the writer’s blog really matter?

Who knows…As for me, I gotta get back to my three blogs.

Michael Dymmoch said...

Christopher said, "The rubber meets the road when the reader opens to page one. And if the plot traps them, if the characters seduce them, if the dialogue crackles, won’t those elements provide the catalyst for the viral marketing needed to sell books?"

Ah, but how does one get the reader to open to page one? Or even take the book off the shelf (assuming the bookstore has stocked it)?

It may be the publisher's job to market the book, but in my experience, beyond sending out galleys, the publisher doesn't do much. So midlist authors are forced to do what they can to sell themselves or they cease to be published.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Blogging can be a time suck, there's no doubt about it. And if you haven't yet written that novel I highly recommend that you work on it rather than a blog or anything else that's going to distract you from your goal. For published writers, however, keeping your name in the ring and promoting yourself are all part of the deal. It doesn't have to be a blog necessarily but it will likely be something else that takes up valuable writing time and you have to manage it. I think Marcus and Libby and Michael and the rest of us here like the Outfit because we can contribute but also keep a handle on the time commitment.

On the other hand I wish Joe Eszterhas had had a blog that might have kept him from writing Showgirls. And Flashdance. And Sliver. And Jade. And Basic Instinct 2. And Burn Hollywood Burn. His memoir was amusing in a galling sort of way.

As for collaborative novels, I can't think of one that actually worked (I'm talking about novels written by more than two people). A bunch of pretty good Florida writers tried one awhile back with mixed results. Ken Kesey used to teach his MFA students at Oregon collaboratively. At the end of the year the dozen or so students produced a single novel and at least one of those manuscripts was actually published. It's, um, about as good as you'd expect.

Marcus Sakey said...

I hear you on the collaborative novel thing. But what if the novels weren't, but the story line was? Libby sort of nailed it--what if it were more like writing for TV, where a large pool of talent comes up with ideas, jokes, and scenarios, but episodes tend to be more or less the baby of one writer or another? (This is only my understanding of the process--if I'm wrong, let me know.)

Imagine a largish cast of interrelated characters, say Ed McBain style. Regular meetings to help work out plot frustrations and to critique pages. A single writer for any given project, but a strong support group that helped with structure, complications, and even revisions.

I don't know. Not sure it's how I want to work, but I could see it happening. I know that when I'm stuck, sitting down with a regular critique partner to brainstorm has gotten me through.

Christopher said...

Again, I have multiple blogs going, none of which are big, but I’m all for them. Mostly because blogs in general are a great way to (a) find out what other writers are up to and (b) communicate with other writers. The thing of it is that I usually only see other writers or industry people commenting on the posts, so after reading Eszterhas’ latest offering, I was definitely curious as to whether the time investment yields audience dividends.

Perhaps the way to build an audience using a blog is to offer the book-buying audience something that they won’t get anywhere else, even in your book on the shelf. Something that proves to them (free of charge) that you can throw down prose with plots and characters worthy of their spending coin on your book.

Which ties directly into to what Marcus is chewing on – a collaborative novel. What if a bunch of writers got together and threw down a free, serialized, collaborative novel that could only be read at their collective blog?

The story gets ironed out via IM, email, phone, snail mail, whatever it takes. And seeing as how the writers here are all crime writers, then the story would be to - unlike the manatee story in Kevin’s example of other collective novels that failed. No offense to Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, Dave Berry or the other writers in involved in that one, but book about a manatee called Booger is a tough sell.

Regardless, when the plot, characters, and settings are settled upon, the writers in the collective get in line and chapter assignments are made. The length of the chapters should be kept minimal for multiple reasons - say five to ten pages.

Every two weeks a new chapter is thrown down on the blog by the next writer in line and it just keeps cycling back through the rotation of writers until the end of the novel is reached. For better or for worse, the chapter gets clearly assigned sole writing credit so that the readers can associate writers with style.

And like TV, you’d get the ten or twelve chapters written before launching the first one so that you’re ahead of the curve. You start promoting it early via other blogs, etc, and then on the launch date, bam! – you just go for it and see what happens.

Hopefully, word will travel, people will come to the blog and not only read the novel, but also start posting in the comments or emailing the writers about why he or she chose x, y, or z in their respective chapter. At that point, the blog starts legitimately connecting writers with audience members on a very real, tangible, book-buying level.

Or maybe it doesn’t, in which case you’ve taken part in a dope experiment, met other writers, honed your craft a little more, and perhaps the finished product sparks the interest of an editor in New York or an agent in LA.

Just a thought…

Rob Gregory Browne said...

I have to say that, as Christopher suggests, blogging and promotion and Killer Year and everything else DOES take time away from what I should be doing, which is writing my second book.

But they also help me ESCAPE from that once in awhile and that's a good thing. We can become so immersed in the writing that we forget to come up for air -- so it's nice to have a reason to, for the sake of my own sanity.

As I get down to the nitty-gritty of book two, however, I find myself neglecting my blog, neglecting other blogs, neglecting Killer Year, and I feel guilty because of it.

And if I knew what the hell point I was trying to make, I'd make it, but all these distractions have fried my brain...