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Monday, April 26 2010

Rumor has it that making a living as a writer is hard. Turns out that rumor is true. Especially if you're a fiction writer.

 My agent contract included a section that described how royalties generally work and how much first-time authors can expect as an advance. Now, I had low expectations. Really low. Or so I thought. Turns out I should have guessed even lower. Heck, even if I get a book deal, there's a good chance the advance won't cover my mortgage payment for a month. And the unspoken rule for authors is that you plow your first advance straight back into the promotion of the book. After all, if you don't sell enough books, you won't generate any royalties. And if you're not earning any royalties, that means you didn't even earn the publisher enough money to cover your advance. Thus, no second book.

And if you follow the advice and use your advance to promote your book, rather than, say, pay your mortgage, then you are essentially relying on any subsequent royalties to pay your bills. This explains the phrase, "Don't quit your day job." Because if you do, you'll be living in a cardboard box under a freeway overpass.

I once read an article about a female author whose husband had died (of course, I can't remember the author). She had small children to care for and no income. So she went out, bought a typewriter, and decided to support her family by writing books. Well, heck, if all it takes is a typewriter (or computer) and conviction, sign me up. What she failed to mention was exactly how she leaped that giant hurdle from a writer with no experience to a published and successful mystery author. Since the interview was years and years after she'd first started writing, I imagine the past had already been frosted over and beautified, like the wealthy retired couple who wistfully remember their first apartment with the leaky pipes and second-hand couch as the best place they ever lived. Years later, this writer had probably forgotten those sleepless nights and panicked days when she didn't know how she'd make ends meet.

I only hope to be so lucky. Frankly, I don't care how much of an advance they offer. I'd just love to have my book published and be given the opportunity to promote it. Then, twenty years from now, after my fifteenth novel is for sale at the bookstore, I can look back and say, "Remember when they gave me five bucks as an advance?" Good times, good times.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 07:44 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, April 19 2010

While reviewing my manuscript, my agent questioned the names of several of my characters, wondering why the names were so old and "country," especially considering that most of the characters are under the age of forty. An excellent question. While I want readers to be reminded that Blossom Valley is a small town, and not an urban location, not everyone should be named Marge, particularly the younger set. Blossom Valley might only boast eight thousand people, but the town isn't cut off from nearby cities or television or the internet. The residents would name their children something current, reserving that middle name for Great Aunt Agnes or Uncle Eugene.

Character names are an important aspect of any story. Readers will base certain expectations on the protagonist's first name, or even a nickname. One might assume a girl named Bambi works as a stripper (no offense to any Bambi's out there). A woman named Ruth is generally an elderly church-goer who performs volunteer work. Chance's parents most likely live in California and drink wine instead of beer.

But how to select a name? The obvious way to find a collection of possible names (other than the phone book) is to consider current singers, actors, and other people in the news. But I can't name a character Beyonce without repercussions. Everyone who reads the book will be picturing the actual Beyonce looking for clues and interviewing suspects, wondering if she'll break into song at any moment. But I can easily select a more general first name, such as Kim or Lindsay, without the reader immediately associating the character with their more famous counterpart.

The other issue to consider is negative connotations that linger around a name. Obviously I won't pick Ted Bundy for the name of the love interest. In fact, the name of the love interest in my book is Jason, a seemingly benign name. I've known several Jason's in my life, and they were all nice. But what if a reader went to school with a Jason and he was a bully? Or ditched her at the prom? Or ran over her cat? A reader's personal experiences often affect how they respond to characters and situations in a book. And the odds of finding a name that no one can relate a negative feeling to are not good, unless I make up a completely new name. Like Tree. Or Lamp. But then the reader will ask, "What kind of name is Lamp?"

So I just have to pick the names I like, make sure they fit the personality and age of the character, and hope people didn't have a boy named Jason steal their lunch every day at school.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 06:56 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, April 12 2010

Once more, I'm starting to doubt that everything I see on TV is real. Take Castle, one of my favorite television shows. Rick Castle, bestselling author to legions of adoring fans, spends his days shadowing the police and helping to solve murders. When he's not with the cops, he's at home, enjoying dinner with his family, or networking at a gala for his latest release. On occasion, you'll spot him in his den, typing at the computer, totally relaxed and confident. Clearly the life of an author is full of free time and no stress.

Or maybe that's after you hit the bestseller list. Because right now, I'm working faster and harder than the entire time I spent actually writing my first book.

My agent is anxious to send my book out in the Spring, but it needed another five to ten thousand words. Eek! How many? After she gave me suggestions on characters that needed further development and scenes that could be expanded, I got to work. I typed until my fingers cramped up, I sweated through the tough scenes that fought me, I even missed an episode of Survivor (well, okay, I DVRed it, but you can see my level of commitment). Finally, I leaned back in my chair and let out my breath. Done. Finished. Ready to go out the door. Of course, I could easily spend another year tinkering with my additions, changing a word here, deleting a sentence there. But my changes wouldn't improve the writing. They would merely alter it. So with a mixture of trepidation and satisfaction, I emailed the newly improved manuscript back to my agent. Time to scoop out a dish of ice cream and enjoy that Survivor episode I missed. Clearly I wouldn't have any more work for the next few weeks while my agent reviewed my changes.

But no. Not more than three hours after I'd clicked the Send button, an email appeared from my agent. A thank you for completing the work so fast? A job-well-done memo to cheer me along? I was half right. She thanked me for the updates and then suggested that while she looked over the new material, I use that time to write a synopsis, a description for the next two books (since she'll be pitching a three book deal), and my author bio.

I'm sorry, what? A description of my third book? While my second book is almost complete, I haven't spent even a minute thinking about a third one. What would it be about? Who would be killed? Where would it take place? I have no idea! How can I describe something that doesn't exist? And don't get me started on the author bio. The name is self-explanatory, but I don't know the first thing about writing one. Do I list my lifelong achievements? How I received a citizenship award in the fifth grade? How I was selected for Rotary Camp in high school?

Where was my break? My time to de-compress and think about nothing? This was exhausting! The life of a writer on TV is so serene, so enviable. I've been hoodwinked! Curse you, Rick Castle!


Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 12:02 pm   |  Permalink   |  1 Comment  |  Email
Monday, April 05 2010

Ever have a flash of brilliance related to your writing -- a solution to a plot problem, the perfect clue to the killer - that disappears like a wisp of smoke when you try to recall it later? As a writer, plot lines and unique twists of phrase can bubble up at any time, usually when you're not thinking about your book. The key is to capture the ideas immediately before they have a chance to escape.

For years, my Achilles heel was my conviction that my memory is better than it is. I'd lie awake at 3am, staring at the ceiling while the character I couldn't quite develop suddenly came to life in my head, vivid and entertaining. I'd work out all the back story and details on what role the character would play in my mystery, then drift off content and secure in my ability to remember. Then 6am would roll around, the alarm would buzz, and I'd think, "Now what was that fantastic idea I had last night?" But it would be gone. Lost in a fog of middle-of-the-night musings, like so many ideas before it. Or a brilliant idea would occur to me while showering, but I'd get caught up in mundane activities, like drying off and getting dressed, positive I wouldn't forget in those few minutes. By the time, I'd buttoned that last button, the thought would be gone. Evaporated like the steam on the shower door.

After enough forgotten ideas, I confronted my stubbornness and decided to start writing everything down. Which should be easy in theory. Take a pen, apply it to paper, and voila! The idea is forever cemented. But, no. It's not for a lack of supplies. I must have fifty notepads, tucked away in my desk drawer, perched on my bookshelf, buried in my purse. My writing group celebrates various holidays, and invariably, a goody bag or two will hold a notepad. I'll clutch it with delight, swear I won't lose it, and then never see it again. Ever. It slips into that vortex that swallows socks and working pens. I put notepads on my nightstand so I can jot down stories that wake me up. I put notepads on top of my desk for easy access. But the second I turn around, they're gone.

But where do these notepads go? They can't walk off by themselves. My four-year-old son confiscates a few, but he couldn't possibly steal them all. If I ever figure out where the notepads vanish to, I'll be sure to write it down. If I remember.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 07:23 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email