Saturday, July 05, 2008

Now we gotta say goodbye...for the summer

from James Grippando

I was so happy to get the reassurance from Jackie in yesterday's post that this is just a "summer" hiatus. There's been enough change in my professional life lately. This month, my long-time editor decided to retire. Yes, retire. Can you imagine such a thing--in this economy? Well, maybe the publishing industry isn't so bad off after all.

So, for my summer send off, here's a little tribute I wrote to my Carolyn, which ran earlier this month in Publisher's Weekly . . .

Untitled (But Carolyn Marino would know what to call it)
Copyright James Grippando 2008

“I've been orphaned,” I said to myself as I hung up the telephone. I had published one novel, and my editor had called to tell me that he was leaving HarperCollins. An hour later, the phone rang again. It was my agent, Artie Pine. “You're going to get a call from Carolyn Marino. She's a big fan of yours. You're gonna like her.” That fan was my new editor. Over the next 12 years, Carolyn would guide me through 14 novels of suspense. The most recent is Last Call. The title now seems prophetic.

Amid all the big news at HarperCollins this month, something happened on a less public level: the announced retirement of an outstanding editor. Carolyn Marino had served the company brilliantly for 18 years. More importantly—at least from my perspective—she groomed her stable of authors the way editors supposedly don't anymore. Many she discovered as newbies. Others were household names. All are better writers today, thanks to Carolyn.

Carolyn is at least a foot shorter than my first editor at HarperCollins, and probably less than half his weight. She's thoughtful and soft-spoken. Her range of knowledge is astounding. (Can you, in the same breath, debate the legal niceties of bonding out a criminal defendant and then tell me when Prada shoes became generally available in the United States?) Her manners are impeccable. Thank-you notes are always handwritten—never e-mailed—and I've never heard her cuss. If you didn't know her, you might expect her to shush you at the library. You might even think the corporate world would eat her alive.

You'd be dead wrong.

“She's good,” Artie's son Richard had warned me. “And she'll bust your chops.”

She did, of course. Many times. But always politely.

Carolyn loves books. That may seem like an obvious and unnecessary thing to say about an editor. Carolyn's love is pure, however, and never cynical. Everything mattered—because everything could be made better. If it was time to start a new series, we talked about it. If my Russian mobster sounded too American, she'd tell me. If that scene with the python went a little too far, I'd hear about that, too. When Carolyn found a flaw in a manuscript, she truly couldn't wait to see how the author was going to fix it. If she didn't like the fix, we'd fix it again. Her gift was in knowing when it was just right, whether it was the plot, a character, a sentence or a word. Case in point: Intent to Kill. The first draft had my lead character take to the bottle after the tragic death of his wife. I thought I was creating the most engaging flawed protagonist since Paul Newman in The Verdict. “He's passed out drunk with his six-year-old daughter upstairs,” said Carolyn. “I don't like him.” He's now a lovable insomniac in the best father-daughter scenes I've ever written.

Sometimes Carolyn would tell me why a change was needed. Sometimes not. She just knew, even if she couldn't put it into words. That bothered me at first. I was a lawyer before I was a writer. Reasons were important. As a writer, however, you soon learn that only the weak and insecure feel a need to explain every editorial decision in terms of right and wrong or good and bad. The best editors aren't the ones who think their every hunch or impulse can be empirically justified. What you want is an editor who knows your body of work as well as you do, and who knows your audience even better than you do. Someone with the instinct and experience to predict what readers will want to read a year from now, and to recognize a character they'll still love 10 years down the road. A woman with the business sense to understand that even the best-written book doesn't jump off the shelf, and the wisdom to discern the difference between a really good book, and a really good book.

In Carolyn Marino, I knew a great editor. That's all an author needs to know.

Friday, July 04, 2008


from Jacqueline

As Patty reminded you several times yesterday, we are having an hiatus, as in a summer vacation. We will be back. Click on the link below to receive an email the moment a new post appears on Do not fret so much that you give yourself an hiatus hernia.

Oh dear, that just shows you how much I need a break! Mind you, though I will not be writing my posts, I will still be working hard, but am hoping to be able to have the odd day off here and there.

In any case, before I leave you for my hiatus holiday, I think this might be the moment to talk about fear, as in feel it and do it anyway. Whatever “it” may be, and for writers, it usually has something to do with hitting a send button or trooping down to the post office. I’ve just made the long drive down from the San Francisco Bay Area to Ojai, a journey I am well-used to as I make the trip about once or twice a month. I have become an avid fan of audio books and have learned a lot about pace, rhythm, language etc., etc., through listening to books on my six hours each way on the 101. On this occasion, I listened to a book that I have been putting off reading for years: Into Thin Air by John Krakauer, which tells the story of the tragic and unbelievably catastrophic series of events on Everest in May 1996. Much has been written and spoken about this misadventure, so I will not add to it at great length.

I had a peripheral interest in that one of my dearest friends is the great-niece of Eric Shipton, a man who scaled Everest (but did not reach the summit) and at one point drew back from further attempts because he abhorred the gathering commercialism and blatant disrespect for the mountain. Anyway, I was listening – riveted – to Krakauer’s book, and kept thinking to myself, “These people are all absolutely and completely mad.” Nuts. Devoid of all sense and reason. Why the heck would you want to go somewhere that cold and with such thin air, knowing it could kill you? This is why we have National Geographic, so that we lesser nutcases are kept well away from these places. Don’t they read their mythology? The highest places are the domain of the gods, and you don’t mess around up there. It’s Russian roulette Greek tragedy style.

In any case, with the book coming to a close (incidentally, as I came into Santa Barbara county on the 101, and saw the smoke billowing from fire after fire after fire atop the hills), I began thinking about fear, especially – and this is not such a leap – in the wake of the Book Passage Mystery Writers’ Conference and the various discussions that came up around fear. Fear of not being good enough, fear of rejection, fear of this and that. The fear that can paralyze a writer into inaction. My thoughts dovetailed with my post last week, about authors who have written a first novel while beset by difficult circumstances.

I once told someone that the reason I knew no fear when it came time to send out my manuscript, was that having almost killed myself in a riding accident, just sending off a manuscript was a walk in the park. What were the editors and agents I’d contacted going to do – come round and break the other arm?

So, for all of you who have promised yourselves that you will finish a book this summer, or start a chapter, or complete a manuscript by the end of the year, but you’re worried about this and that in connection with your work – get over it. You are not in Iraq, Afghanistan or Zimbabwe. Most of you know where your next meal is coming from, if not your next gallon of gas. You are writing, and that’s great. And you haven’t bitten off more than you can chew, because you’re not on a bloody mountain somewhere – at least, after what I’ve just listened to, I hope you’re not. And remember, editors and agents do not troll the streets at night breaking into houses to steal manuscripts. No, they wait for them to come in. If you’ve a finished manuscript, don’t let them wait a moment longer, because as soon as the summer’s over, they’re looking for good books all over again, and yours might be one of them. Tarry not. Thank your lucky stars that you have the freedom to write and get on with it. You do not need oxygen to breathe in order to send off a manuscript, though you may gasp a bit when your work leaves your hands.

And before I take the dog for a walk, I saw a great bumper sticker yesterday:

1.20.09 The End of an Error

And I shall add: We hope. Oh dear Lord, we hope.

Happy Fourth. Have a great summer. Sign up for the “We’re Baaaaack” notice, and we’ll see you later, alligator.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

I Just Don't Get It

James O. Born

I am a writer. But before that I was a reader. I still am. I’ve often expressed my interest in all types of books from history to fiction, from crime to science. I love being swept up by a god story with characters I care about. Fact or fiction, I don’t care.

I have, on occasion, questioned my own good taste in books. Too often I’ve read a bestseller and thought, “What the hell? Who likes this crap?” On the other hand I’ve tried to help a couple of unpublished writers who I thought had written pretty good manuscripts and none of them ever got published. None. Nada. Zero.

I’ve read a number of classics and loved them. I can still recite some of the opening lines to a kid’s version of Moby Dick that got me interested in reading, if not whaling. The Island of Dr. Moreau really got me interested in classics in sixth grade. Loved it.

In the last couple of years I’ve devoted a little more time to widely read “classics” or at least award winning books.

I just finished The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I know the guy is a great writer. Oprah loved him and The Road. I think it won the National Book Award. I didn’t get it. Future, bleak, love of a father and son. Blah, blah, blah, cannibals, bad people, hungry. It made Angela’s Ashes look like a whacky comedy. I love futuristic, speculative fiction. I love stories of fathers and sons. I just thought it was the same beat for two hundred and fifty pages. Holy crap I’m depressed even telling you about it.

Last I tried to slog through Atlas Shrugged. Wow, I don’t have the words. Who is John Galt? Who freakin’ cares? I made to page 50 and felt like I had climbed Everest. Life’s too short. Atlas Shrugged is too long. Communists bad, capitalists good. Government has no role in regulation. There, that’s Jim’s cliff notes of Atlas Shrugged.

I’m interested in classic or just popular books that you didn’t get the point of.

Also I wanted to say good-bye, at least for now, from my regular Thursday slot here at Naked Authors. I’ve met some wonderful people here and enjoyed sharing the stage with the other Naked Authors. I may post a comment or two on my Amazon blog or website from time to time.

Thanks for all the support.


Jim B.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Broccoli from China

Hey Guys,

This is Cornelia, who happily just turned in the manuscript of her third novel tonight, July 1st--374 pages, slightly upwards of 77,000 words, only one deadline extension. It's tentatively titled Invisible Boy, and could well be available within the next decade, depending how fast I can get my edits done.

In the meantime, I'd like to introduce all of you to fabulous author Michelle Gagnon, guest-blogging here just before she sets off on tour for her SUPER fabulous second novel, The Bone Yard.

We just got to hang out in person at the most excellent Book Passage Mystery Writer's Conference in fashionable Corte Madera, California. If you missed this year's extravaganza, I urge you to sign up for the one they'll be hosting next July. It's an amazing, exciting, inspiring experience for writers of all things mystery.

Have a great week, and I'll be back blogging in person forthwith.

Please give Michelle a big round of applause, and comment below to make her feel welcome here among the Nakeds.

With no further ado:

I give you Michelle Gagnon

So I was out to dinner with friends last night, discussing a book we’d all recently read (Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.) We’d each come away with a newfound resolve to consume only fresh organic local produce, most of which we’d be growing ourselves.

Speaking for myself, at least, these aspirations lasted less than a week. I did manage to buy a bowl of basil plants, which are currently withering on my back porch. But as for my plan to plant tomatoes and green beans in our yard, my husband reminded me that our crazy neighbor has over a dozen cats who treat our garden as their personal litter box. He added that I haven’t watered our plants in over six months, and that raising vegetables involves weeding, tilling, and a number of other gerunds that currently escape me. That went a long way toward killing my appetite for green beans chez Gagnon.

So my new game plan was to frequent farmer’s markets. Farmers in Virginia, where Kingsolver lives, apparently don’t price gouge. She claims that organic produce costs her a fraction of what it would in a store, but tell that to someone hawking corn in front of the Ferry Building in San Francisco. I swear, a bar of pure gold would be cheaper. On top of which, it’s a significant drive from my house to any of those markets, while I can walk to our little corner store. And those farmers keep insane hours, I suppose so they can be in bed by 4PM and wake up bright and early the next morning to milk carrots or whatever it is they do.

I, on the other hand, prefer to start my day at the crack of nine, spend some time writing, then deal with dinner when the clock is edging toward 8PM. Carbon imprint concerns aside, the markets just didn’t fit my schedule. (Mind you, I only make it to that corner store when the rest of the family starts looking gaunt and hollow-eyed. When we’ve been reduced to eating old mustard spread on scallions for dinner, I realize it’s time to go grocery shopping again.)

So one of my friends says, “Hey, did you hear about Whole Foods?” which instantly pricks up my ears. I’d been feeling fairly proud of myself, I know Whole Foods isn’t exactly a farm stand but hey, it’s not Walmart either. And they have dozens of little “California-grown!!” and “support local farmers!” signs scattered about those zen-like aisles with their oddly muted light. So I was secure in the knowledge that by spending food dollars there, I was doing my part.

Apparently I was mistaken. My friend claims that those packages of frozen vegetables that I’ve been stuffing into my daughter, you know, the ones stamped “California Blend” on the outside? Are actually being imported from China. That’s right, China. If they’ve been putting lead into the toys, can you even imagine what they’ve done to the food?

When shopping, I look for the Made in America label, but I was raised by a die-hard bargain hunter. When you ask where I got that great shirt, more likely than not I’ll say, “H & M! And it was only ten dollars!” And stuff that was made here? Generally not so cheap. So I’m as guilty as anyone else.

But on the list of Chinese-produced items I’ll happily fork over cash for, food is absolutely not among them, at least not after the recent news stories. Anyone remember the antifreeze-in-toothpaste episode? Or how about the tainted pet food scare? Ninety-six percent of last year’s recalled toys harkened from China. And now they’re responsible for what I thought was health food?!

Here’s a fun statistic from the Washington Post:

“By value, China is the world's No. 1 exporter of fruits and vegetables, and a major exporter of other food and food products, which vary widely, from apple juice to sausage casings and garlic. China's agricultural exports to the United States surged to $2.26 billion last year, according to U.S. figures -- more than 20 times the $133 million of 1980. The United States subjects only a small fraction of its food imports to close inspection, but each month rejects about 200 shipments from China, mostly because of concerns about pesticides and antibiotics and about misleading labeling. In February, border inspectors for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration blocked peas tainted by pesticides, dried white plums containing banned additives, pepper contaminated with salmonella and frozen crawfish that were filthy.”

Now I’d argue that crawfish are filthy bottom-feeders regardless, but that’s beside the point. I had no idea that a good chunk of the food on my dinner plate came by boat from Shanghai.

My friend’s father does quality control for a handbag company in Hong Kong, and he is apparently a busy, busy man. He cycles through 12 factories making surprise visits, and at each and every stop finds that things have gone horribly awry. Rather than the glue he sent them, they’re using something that causes workers to break out in rashes. There’s corruption on every level, misuse of resources, dangerous work environments…and mind you, this is with purses. I’m not afraid to own a purse that failed quality control, the handle might fall off but chances are that won’t be life-threatening. But broccoli, on the other hand: that could kill you.

So what’s the moral to the story? I’m sucking it up, setting my alarm, opening my wallet and devoting a chunk of my writing time to cruising farmer’s markets. I might even grit my teeth and go water that basil plant. And as for you, Whole Foods—I feel so betrayed, you turned out to be just like my college boyfriend: good-looking and seemingly sincere, but sleeping with my friend on the side. Shame on you.

So, has a purse ever threatened your life? Where do you stand on Chinese pepper (and salmonella that adds a certain je ne sais quoi…)? And is anyone else in the mood to lead a torch-wielding mob to Whole Foods corporate headquarters? Best answer receives an autographed edition of my first book, The Tunnels. If you don’t win, console yourself by signing up for my newsletter at and I’ll toss your name in the hat for an Amazon Kindle, iPod Shuffle, Starbucks gift certificates, and other fabulous prizes that more likely than not arrived on our shores via cargo container.

Michelle Gagnon is a former modern dancer, bartender, dog walker, model, personal trainer, and Russian supper club performer. Her debut thriller THE TUNNELS was an IMBA bestseller. Her next book, BONEYARD, depicts a cat-and-mouse game between dueling serial killers. In her spare time she runs errands and wonders how crawfish got to China in the first place.

Inspiration, Obsession & Incarceration

From Paul

I really enjoyed Jacqueline's post last Friday about desperation providing the inspiration for writers to start -- and finish -- their damn books.

Here's the personal story of my first novel. Late 1980's. I'm bored practicing law and not particularly happy about my contribution -- or lack of it -- to society.

I take a windsurfing vacation to Maui. First day, bang! The board pops out of a wave and clobbers my thigh. Pain to the bone. Feels like a broken leg. X-rays show no fracture, just a deep, deep bruise. The Doc suggests Maui Wowie to ease the pain. Really.

I'm hobbled and can't windsurf for two weeks, straight or stoned. So I sit on the beach with a legal pad and begin scratching away. A novel? Who knew? The story was based loosely on a case I handled involving the theft of $2 million from my 90-year-old client.

Here, then, are my very first words of fiction:

The old man loved gadgets, money, and large-breasted women, and at the moment he had all three. His thick hands caressed the newest gadget, a sixty-second camera, turned it over and admired its smoothness, a tidy little box cool to the touch. The money came from the sale of Corrugated Container Corp., the company he had founded in the 1920's. The breasts belonged to Violet Belfrey, and she relied on them as an aging fastball pitcher might his slider. Few men remembered a word Violet said, but the image of her full breasts endured for years. A lot of men and a lot of years. With her solid cheekbones and strong jaw, Violet's age was impossible to determine. Somewhere between forty and hell, the old man guessed.

At the time, I was unaware that, in establishing character, it's probably better to not to describe two people in the same paragraph.

Anyway, I finish the book and it sells for a million bucks. Nah! It doesn't sell. It's turned down by more publishers than Jim Born has guns.

Now here comes the moral of the story. Undeterred, I write another book. "To Speak for the Dead." It sells. I get a two-book, hard-soft, contract from Bantam. (For one cent, you can buy a used copy of the paperback on Amazon. The hardcover will cost you $16.85)
Then, the Hawaiian story sells. "Slashback" becomes the third book of the Jake Lassiter series. This one will cost you a buck on Amazon. Those first lines, blurred with sea water and speckled with sand, are the opening paragraph of chapter two.


Speaking of Maui...

That's where Stephen J. Cannell's hot, hot summer read, "At First Sight" opens.

It's a smart, witty page-turner with an unforgettable villain and a lesson about the self-absorbed, amoral Hollywood lifestyle.

A millionaire who's on his ass, Chick Best falls hard for a beautiful woman he spots poolside at a Maui hotel. If only he could possess her, his life would soar. Problem is, she's married. Or is that a problem at all? I won't give too much away.

Cannell, the famed writer/producer has a string of television hits going back to "The Rockford Files." His fourteenth novel is a crisply written tale about the meaning of love and consequences of obsession.


George Jung, the titan of cocaine smuggling now serving heavy time in federal prison, has his own Website where you can read his poetry and buy his CD's about, guess what, his life as a smuggler. Jung also has a MySpace page with a countdown clock, ticking away the seconds until his release date (another seven years or so). You may recall Ted Demme's firecracker of a movie, "Blow," with Johnny Depp portraying Jung.

Overheard at the meeting between Billy Graham and John McCain: "Rev. Graham, you have proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that God is not gay. A gay God could never have furnished your home with such mismatched, hideous furniture."


This, from columnist Thomas Friedman in Sunday's New York Times. Under the headline, "Anxious America," he wrote:

I continue to be appalled at the gap between what is clearly going to be the next great global industry — renewable energy and clean power — and the inability of Congress and the administration to put in place the bold policies we need to ensure that America leads that industry...

We used to try harder and do better. After Sputnik, we came together as a nation and responded with a technology, infrastructure and education surge, notes Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International. After the 1973 oil crisis, we came together and made dramatic improvements in energy efficiency. After Social Security became imperiled in the early 1980s, we came together and fixed it for that moment...

If the old saying — that “as General Motors goes, so goes America” — is true, then folks, we’re in a lot of trouble. General Motors’s stock-market value now stands at just $6.47 billion, compared with Toyota’s $162.6 billion. On top of it, G.M. shares sank to a 34-year low last week.

That’s us. We’re at a 34-year low. And digging out of this hole is what the next election has to be about and is going to be about — even if it is interrupted by a terrorist attack or an outbreak of war or peace in Iraq. We need nation-building at home, and we cannot wait another year to get started. Vote for the candidate who you think will do that best. Nothing else matters.

This has been fun. I'm going fishing. Great summer to all of you. Soldier on.