Where are all these book parties?

I enjoy dropping in at the blogsite Galleycat, to catch up on the latest publishing gossip. Often there’ll be photos of smiling authors attending chic book parties, and I’m always left wondering: where are all these book parties?  Who throws them?  Who gets invited?

Why does everyone look so glamorous?

It must be a New York thing.  Because up here where I live, in a small Maine town of 5,000, I just never hear about book parties.  One summer, I did host a book party at my house, but it was in honor of a journalist friend, Nicholas Von Hoffman.  And that turned out to be a lot of fun, because a lot of surprise guests turned up whom I wasn’t expecting, including Jamaica Kincaid and Paul Theroux.  They just walked in my front door out of the blue and introduced themselves, and after I picked my jaw up off the floor, I think I said something stupid like, “Are you THE Jamaica Kincaid and THE Paul Theroux?  Are you sure you’re in the right house?”  That’s the closest I ever came to feeling as if I was cavorting with the truly glamorous. 

But that’s a very rare exception.  Most of the time, my life as a writer involves sitting at my desk with bare feet and uncombed hair, muttering as I crumple up bad pages and toss them in the trash can.  So I love looking at those book party photos over at Galleycat, and imagining what it must be like to live the party-going life of the glamorous author.  Which seems to be every other author except me. 

I’ve read in a blog somewhere that as part of promoting your own book, you should throw yourself a book release party.  You should reserve a place in some chic restaurant or bar, invite your friends, wear a little black dress, sip cocktails, give away free copies of your new book, and bask in the spotlight.  That sounds like fun, doesn’t it? 

No it doesn’t.  It sounds like torture, being the center of attention.  The crowd would expect a speech, and then they’ll all notice that you have spinach in your teeth.  Everyone will try very hard to be congratulatory, but meanwhile they’re off in the corner whispering:  “You know what?  I secretly hated her book.” 

If I ever get even a whiff that there’s a party being thrown in my honor, I swear I will run screaming the other way. 

Don’t get me wrong — like most writers, I love going to parties and sipping cocktails and nibbling on tasty appetizers.  I do enjoy cleaning up once in awhile and pulling on the appropriate undergarments.  But I want the party to be in honor of the OTHER guy. 

What would Jane Rizzoli say?

After that last little discussion on grammar, it’s time to play “you’re the writer.”  Below are the sorts of choices I have to make with every line of dialogue I write.  I know perfectly well when I’m being ungrammatical.  And when I am ungrammatical, I know that someone, somewhere, is going to look at that and think I’m an ignoramus.  That’s the dilemma you, as a writer, have to struggle with.  Do you write “proper English?”  Or “spoken English”?

Most of you know the character of Jane Rizzoli.  You know that she comes from a blue-collar background, that she’s a cop who worked her way up to detective, and that she doesn’t mince words.  So which of the following would Jane say:

“Who should I give this to?”  or:  “To whom should I give this?”

“I gotta go.”  or:  “I have to go.”

“He’s taller than me.”  or:  “He’s taller than I.”

“What’s that meant for?”  or:  “What is its purpose?”

“Give me that.”  or:  “Give that to me.”

 “Do you ever wonder about him, like I do?”  or:  “Do you ever wonder about him, as I do?”

In every case, I think that either choice is perfectly comprehensible.  There’s no doubt of the speaker’s meaning.  Some versions may not be grammatical, but they get their point across.  And that’s the whole purpose of language, isn’t it?

Beware: the grammar police are always watching

A few days ago, I received the following email from a reader: 

You are among several authors that I read regularly who are disappointing me in one small (for a non-neurotic person) way.  For instance, Edwina would not have said, on page 122, “He was quite a bit older than me.”  She would have said, “He was quite a bit older than I.”  Perhaps if Edwina were a teenager, she might have spoken ungrammatically.  I wish popular authors would not encourage that one particular bit of poor grammar, as I certainly hope I would never see, “Him and me weren’t the same age.”

Now, before you jump on this reader for being nit-picky, I should say that this is one of the milder criticisms I receive, and I welcome all readers to write me, whether they have nits to pick or not.  His comments, in fact, are not all that unusual.  I often hear from readers (many of them teachers or editor types) who tell me that I have not used correct grammar in my books. 

And sometimes, they’re right.

In the above example, though, the ungrammatical phrase was in the context of dialogue.  As a novelist, I try to portray real people in believable situations.  When was the last time you heard a real person say, “He was older than I”?  I myself can’t remember hearing it in years.  I know that the grammatically correct phrase would be “older than I”, but real people are seldom perfectly grammatical when they speak.  Real people say “uh” and “you know” and they use incomplete sentences.  And they say “older than me.”

Recently I’ve been listening to a delightful audio course called “The Story of Human Language“, taught by linguist John McWhorter.  He points out that “proper grammar” is a rather recent invention that developed in parallel with the printed word.  Most humans speak ungrammatically, and over time, spoken language can diverge from what is “proper” printed language.  As an example he cites French, which has major differences between the spoken and the written form.  If an American who learned “proper” French were to travel to Paris and speak the way he learned French in his American high school, he’d be considered a weird foreigner — because the French don’t actually speak French the same way that “high” French is written.

English, too, is always evolving.  Witness any conversation between California teenagers on a school bus.  Yes, they’re speaking English.  But most likely it is ungrammatical.  And it may, in fact, provide clues as to the direction in which future English is evolving.  Language, says Dr. McWhorter, is not static.  It is constantly changing, and he provides some hilarious quotes from grammarians of the 18th century deriding all the new-fangled changes occurring to the English language.  A language which resulted, after all, from an amalgamation of numerous foreign influences.

So the novelist, when portraying real people talking, must make the choice: do I have them speak with “proper” grammar — or do I have them speak like real people?  If they speak completely properly, trust me– they will sound like stilted robots.  If they speak like real people, you will get letters from the grammar police. 

I’d much rather get the letters.

Coincidentally, the next day after I got that email, I was alerted to a teacher’s website that dissected a sentence in MEPHISTO CLUB as ungrammatical.  The points raised were valid ones (although there was also a typo involved — not my fault– that temporarily confused them.)  The tone of the site was very civilized so I felt comfortable commenting on their analysis.  I agreed that a disputed comma was unnecessary, but I also pointed out that, in a manuscript of 100,000 words, it’s not uncommon for a little thing like an extra comma to slip in.

The point is, a writer’s published words are always being scrutinized.  We mis-use a word, someone will notice.  We slip up on our grammar, someone will notice.  We get a fact wrong, you can damn well expect someone to notice.

It makes one afraid to ever write another sentence!



The deadline approaches. Eeek!

Haven’t blogged in awhile, but then I happened to come across this reference to my blog and now I feel I really should post something since the fabulous Neil Nyren reads my blog!   

The reason I haven’t been blogging much lately is that the calendar is staring me in the face, and I’m getting my annual panic attack about finishing the next book.  I haven’t said much about the book, because talking too much about a new project almost feels like putting a jinx on it.  For the most part, I don’t like to discuss any story-in-progress.  I certainly never show it to anyone.  My struggles over a story are always absolutely private, and no one ever seens the darn thing until I think it’s polished and ready.

I’ve heard of some writers who work with an editor every step of the way, from rough draft till final draft.  I’ve even heard of writers who’ll fax in a chapter at a time, right after they write it.  I’m flabbergasted by that sort of working relationship.  I couldn’t imagine showing anyone my early drafts because they’re so flawed and awful.  I’d be humiliated.  Also, I don’t always know what my story’s about until I actually FINISH the first draft, and maybe the second. 

So right now, no one’s seen this story except me.  And no one will see it until I’m good and ready to send it in.  One of my fears is that I’ll suddenly keel over dead one day, and my husband will gather up the rough stuff I’ve written and send it in.  I’d rather he burn it.


“Rizzoli and Isles” to be a TV series?

Since the announcement has already appeared in Variety and other media and online publications, I guess it’s time to share the news.  This was the press release from TNT entertainment:  

ATLANTA, March 3 /PRNewswire/ — TNT is planning a significant boost in
original programming, with 14 series in development and a plan to change
most of the network’s weekday, primetime schedule to originals by 2010.
TNT’s aggressive plan includes a mixture of scripted dramas, unscripted
programs and the network’s award-winning telecasts of the NBA. Under the
new strategy, TNT will continue to showcase popular movies on Friday nights
and weekends…
    Scripted series in development include THE GENIE CHRONICLES, a fantasy-
adventure from DreamWorks Television, producers of TNT’s Into the West;
GENERATIONS, a family drama from executive producer Robert Redford and
writer/executive producer John Sacret Young (The West Wing, China Beach);
TECHNOPHOBIA, from executive producer Mark Frost (Twin Peaks); an untitled
project from the Hoosiers team of Angelo Pizzo and David Anspaugh;
and an
untitled drama based on characters created by crime novelist Tess

        In Development (Scripted):   
    Boston medical examiner Maura Isles and police detective Jane Rizzoli
join forces to solve crimes in Beantown. This project, based on Tess
Gerritsen’s popular series of crime novels, comes to TNT from executive
producer Bill Haber (TNT’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes).
This deal was actually closed some time ago, but because of the writers’ strike, we delayed making the announcement.  I’m quite excited about the possibilities, but I’m also wary of pinning my hopes on a series actually happening.  So many projects get stuck “in development” and never get made.

But this is a very good first step!

The downside of suing your publisher (Race and publishing, redux)

I’m not just a little hesitant, I’m also a little nervous about wading into this particular subject.  Although I write about conflict, in reality I avoid it in my personal life like the plague.  It must be the Asian side of me — we hate getting into arguments of any kind.  And boy, is this a story about conflict — specifically, a painful and increasingly nasty conflict between an author and her publisher.  But it’s a tale that’s been watched very closely by authors of color, and since I place myself squarely in that category, and since I’ve corresponded from time to time with the author involved, I feel it’s time I said a few words about the lawsuit by Millenia Black against her publisher, Penguin. 

Other blog sites have also been discussing it.  See what Monica Jackson and Author of Color have to say about it.

In summary, here are the facts as I understand them.  I don’t claim to have all the facts; this is just what I’ve been able to garner from public sources.

Author Millenia Black (pen name) wrote a book called THE GREAT PRETENDER.  The characters in the book were not African American.  The book first appeared as a self-published novel, with a cover depicting two wedding rings in flames, and it sold well enough to attract the attention of a mainstream publisher (Penguin) as well as foreign publishers.  Translation rights were sold to Turkey and Poland.  Penguin soon learned that the author was African American and decided to market THE GREAT PRETENDER as an African-American novel, with a cover design depicting two non-white women.  This was done against the author’s wishes. 

Now the author has sued.  She feels that being categorized as an African-American author has limited her sales and has banished her books to the “African American literature” section, rather than the general fiction area, of bookstores, . 

Some time ago, Millenia wrote to ask my opinion of her situation.  I told her that suing any publisher could be fatally damaging to her career, and I thought it was a bad idea.  But she felt this issue was about more than just her particular case; she felt it was about the more universal problem of racism in publishing, and she considered herself as not just a test case but also a crusader for other authors.  So she proceeded with the lawsuit.  The result has been, not surprisingly, industry backlash and what is perhaps fatal damage to her writing career.  And yet the author forges ahead, convinced that she cannot back down now.

And that’s where the situation now stands.

There are several issues worth discussing here.  First, I do not believe that the publisher acted with consciously racist intentions.  New York publishing is one of the most liberal industries in the nation, and the vast majority of editors would be appalled at the very idea that they had any racist thoughts whatsoever.  But they are business people. They make decisions based on what they think the market demands.  The bottom line is profits.  Obviously, someone at Penguin thought they’d sell more copies of THE GREAT BETRAYAL if it were marketed as AA fiction as opposed to mainstream fiction.  Or maybe they suddenly had a hole in their AA publishing schedule, discovered that Millenia Black was an AA author, and thought, “Hey!  We can stick that book into our AA program and take care of the gap in the release schedule.”  I don’t know what their thinking was, or why they decided to market it as an AA novel.  The real problem is this:

They did it against the wishes of the author.  The author protested.  They ignored her.  And that was a big mistake. 

Did it hurt the sales of the book?  I don’t know.  I’ve heard from industry sources that AA fiction is booming, that it’s an ever-growing segment of book sales, but I still have the gut feeling that AA novels can’t really reach the sales figures that top-tier non-ethnic novels do.  Would John Grisham sell as many books if he wrote AA novels?  Would I sell as many books if my books were classified as “Asian American fiction?”

I doubt it.

I do think this started off as merely a marketing decision on the publisher’s part — perhaps a bad one, perhaps a reasonable one.  But from the author’s point of view,  it felt like a move designed to marginalize her as an ethnic writer.  It placed her in a restricted category that has a thick glass ceiling over her sales.  But the worst part was that it completely ignored her vociferous protests.  This was her book, her creation, and to change the race of the characters purely because of marketing forces showed disrespect toward an author. 

And in the end, when it’s time to take a stand, I must support a sister author. 


Everyone thinks the other guy has a dream job

A lot of people think I have a dream job.  And it’s true, I feel incredibly lucky to be doing what I love to do.  But I’ve discovered that even people with so-called “dream” jobs fantasize about jobs they really wished they had.  An attorney once told me his secret dream was to be a heavy-equipment operator.  Some doctors want to be writers.  some writers want to be doctors.  I blogged here about shuttle astronauts and Secret Service agents each thinking the other guy had the cooler job. 

So who do I think has a dream job?  It’s this guy.

Not only do I envy Andrew Zimmern, I’ve also got a crush on him.  He’s the host of “Bizarre Foods,” and he travels the world in search of strange things to eat.  He has everything I love in a man: a yen to travel, a sense of curiosity, and a bottomless appetite.  Hey Andrew, you like fruit bats?  I like fruit bats!  You like sea cucumbers?  I like sea cucumbers!  Yep, I’ve eaten them. And I’ll even eat the stinky tofu.

Call me, Andrew.  Let’s do lunch.  And can I have your job?


And regarding my last entry about “How to write a bestseller,” there’s been some discussion in the blogosphere about just how valid those tips really are.  Some have questioned the meaning of “microtension”.  Is it just babble, signifying nothing?  Donald Maass isn’t here to define it for you in person, but here’s what I think it is.  (And yes, I do think it’s a great word.)  It’s that sense that, on every page of the novel, there’s conflict in the air, or that characters are slightly off-balance.  It needn’t be a flat-out argument or a gun battle or a huge confrontation.  In fact, you can’t throw in too many major conflicts or what you’ll get is melodrama.  But small and continuous doses of tension keep the story moving and keep the pages turning.

And no, just because you’ve written a novel of best-selling caliber doesn’t mean it will be a bestseller.  Too many other factors come into play such as publisher support and plain old good luck.  But garnering publisher support usually starts off with a manuscript that has the qualities Maass talks about.