Sorry I’ve been absent for a week, but I had a story to finish, students to advise, and well —
Anyway, some potpourri?
The ladies of Clan Mondo spent the weekend in Lost-in-the-Woods County visiting family, which left me doing the bachelor thing for the last couple of days, keeping company with the Hound of the Basketballs at the Mid-Century Mondohaus. However, I took a trip of my own yesterday, heading to Real City for a day with author and MWA prez Jeffery Deaver and a few dozen of our closer friends. The affair was sponsored by the Southeast chapter of MWA, with participation from the Palmetto chapter of Sisters in Crime as well. The setting was St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church downtown, one of several churches along that particular street. However, when I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed a car with a decorative license plate that read, “Mystery Writer,” and cleverly deduced that I was in the right place. Thank goodness for graduate school.
Having arrived a little early, I had a glass of orange juice and staked out a spot toward the front of the room. I bumped into a couple of folks I remembered from my recent talk in Greenville, and introduced myself to SEMWA prez Maggie Toussaint. Krispy Kreme doughnuts were available as well, but I abstained, lest I grab all the boxes and flee to my car.
A bit later, another attendee asked me if I knew Mr. Deaver. I said, “No, but we’ve been in a book together, and there’ll be another in a few months.” There was also the general chat about where folks had come from in order to attend the day’s events. SEMWA takes in a lot of territory, and writers had come from as far away as Nashville in order to make it to Real City.
After getting established at my seat, I looked in the goodie bag I had been given, and saw, along with a copy of Deaver’s The Skin Collector (a recent installment of the Lincoln Rhyme series), an outline (with space for notes) on the seminar he’d be conducting. The class was on writing commercial fiction, and of course, Mr. Deaver knows that of which he speaks.
I don’t want to give away the store, but the class had information that I think would be useful to writers at every level of expertise and professionalism. And on that last bit…
Mr. Deaver described three main categories of writers. Category I would be what I think of as full-time commercial pros like Mr. Deaver, Lawrence Block, and Michael Connelly. Category III would be amateurs (using the word here in its root sense of someone acting from love rather than as a synonym for tyro) — folks who may passionately write family history stories, fan fiction, and such, frequently self-publishing. (Of course, sometimes folks in Category III catch lightning in a bottle — ask E.L. James.) I’m somewhere in Category II. I write and get paid for it, although not on a level that would allow me to walk away from my day job. Which is fine — I love (most of) my day job as well. But I wouldn’t object to getting better at the things I do, nor to earning more money for those things.
There’s an old saw among musicians that in the phrase “music business,” the second word is at least as important as the first. Similarly, in the term “commercial fiction,” that first word is a doozy. Deaver is very much aware that he is in the business of manufacturing well crafted entertainment products for a large audience. He does this with what Flaubert described as “clean hands and composure,” and he does it very well. But this seminar wasn’t the sort of place for folks who want to ponder the ineffable whiteness of the whale. He is a pro, speaking to pros (or those who to a greater or lesser extent would be pros). This wasn’t an “Ars gratia artis” MFA gig (for which thank God.)
Class is in session — I’m the guy in red on the margin.
Deaver spoke of the work as an attempt to follow the “mint-flavored toothpaste” model. If you work for Procter and Gamble’s toothpaste division, you’re going to work on making mint-flavored toothpaste, not because you feel a particular allegiance to mint, but because that’s what people want to buy. If you want to make liver-flavored toothpaste, you may be able to do that very well, but not many people are going to care for it, and you probably won’t be keeping the gig at P&G. People like and buy mint-flavored toothpaste; people like and buy Mr. Deaver’s novels.
He then went on to discuss the basic ingredients of his particular work (commercial thrillers), and I realized that I am basically the king of liver-flavored toothpaste. From the fact that most of my work has been short-form to the fact that little of what I write has an upbeat ending (although I often find it funny), it’s liver, liver, liver. Good thing I have that day job, huh?
The morning was filled with a discussion of the elements of commercial thrillers and how the professional puts them together, which Mr. Deaver delivers with engaging gusto. After a nice catered lunch (I went for the eggplant parm), he spent an hour or so talking about the business end of the commercial fiction game, from the necessity of agents to the advisability of staying with the same publisher when possible. He also discussed promotional activity and other steps toward the care and feeding of a writer’s career.
Finally, there was a one-hour roundtable with Deaver and some of the SEMWA board members, where they talked about the things he said and how they could relate his points to their (and our) work. Deaver signed books for folks (including my copy of In Sunlight or In Shadow), and the day wrapped with a nice reception. Alas, at that point I had to get back home to tend to the Hound, but even without canapes or fruit kebabs, it was a day well spent, and it left me thinking that it doesn’t have to be liver. As Deaver noted, some folks buy Tom’s of Maine toothpaste, which isn’t artificially minty, after all.
Did a little walking this week, putting in a few untimed, unmeasured miles at the local indoor track. I had some foot pain toward the end of the week’s walk, but it was better than the pounding I usually do on the treadmill. And I can hear the music better.
The Berries had a week off because of family travels for some of our members, but we’ll be getting ready this week for a full evening’s work with our friends at the Soundbox Tavern on Friday night. We hope to see you there!
And speaking of music, here’s a pretty nifty song from the spud boys of Akron. This was on their most commercial album, Freedom of Choice, but it got virtually no radio play, which is a shame, because I like the odd mix of simplicity and yes, yearning. Hope you like it, and I’ll see you soon.