Thursday, September 26, 2013

The First-Person Novel, Part II: Creating Depth in Secondary Characters

So you know that the main character is the protagonist and his or her nemesis is the antagonist. Do you know what the second main character is called? Most of us refer to this person as the sidekick, but it turns out, he/she is technically referred to as the deuteragonist (I had to look this up, I don't know about you.) More importantly, in a first-person novel, it's easy for this character to come across as one-dimensional.

Here we continue our discussion of the first-person novel.

I have learned that in first-person, it's easy for the story to become more of a mystery and less of a thriller. The reader is seeking resolution to a dilemna alongside a single character and thus lacks the total picture of what is happening overall in the story. If done well, this can still be thrilling, and the mystery can add to your story.

But this comes with a price tag. On top of the pitfall of protagonist narcissism, it's easy for other characters to come across as stereotypes. We don't witness their perspectives or the thoughts behind their actions. We don't know anything about their peripheral actions, those that don't directly relate to the protagonist. Maybe the bad guy was lovingly tending to his quadriplegic child before building that bomb, but we, the readers, will never know that.

But there are ways to get around this issue. For one thing, characters can be fleshed out in dialogue. Instead of learning of an antagonist's motive through his inner monologue, the reader can learn of it through his conversation with another bad guy or with our hero. This is something that takes a little finesse, because the dialogue has to come across as realistic and not just as an info-dumping opportunity for the bad guy to tell the reader about himself. Don't pull a "so you see...I'm going to put you in this easily escapable trap and explain to you exactly what I have done up to this point, so that you may escape and foil my crimes! Muahahahahahaha!" That's bad. Very bad.

Instead, put the bad guy in a situation where we can see his humanity. I used the quadriplegic child example above because I recently re-watched "Extreme Measures." In this flick (which I thought was pretty good, as a scientist and thriller lover...) the bad guys are converted from stereotypical murdering goons into sympathetic, real people. And it only takes two scenes totaling about one minute each. Because we see that their motive is from the heart. I like that. But it can't be done in the first person.

So a lot of authors mix in third-person sections within the first-person novel. I'm a little on the fence about this approach and haven't used it to date. I think if done well, the third-person pieces can add depth to the story. But in many cases, they do come across as just an opportunity for an author to tell you something you need to know in order to understand what's going on. And because they bring you out of the POV to which you have grown accustomed, they can sometimes cause some jarring transitions. That said, I'm considering forging down this path in my third book.

Last, while we can diverge a bit from the "show, don't tell" rule with the protagonist, this technique is critical in developing secondary characters. You can't hear a character's frustration through her inner monologue, but you can figure out that she is frustrated when she bursts into tears and throws something across the room. You may think that the bad guy is a heartless, murdering goon, but what if he hesitates for a moment before pulling the trigger? Of course, the protagonist's role in this scenario is to witness the event.

How do you create depth in your secondary characters?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Correlation Between Crime Rates and Creativity

A guest post by Carmen Amato, author of the political thriller THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY and the EMILIA CRUZ mystery series set in Acapulco

It seems counterintuitive, but the most popular international mystery series are set in locations with the lowest crime rates.

In Oslo, Norway, the setting for Jo Nesbo’s terrific Harry Hole police mystery series, there were 52 homicides in Norway in 2012, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics of Norway, against a population of 5,051,275. The rate isn’t even worth calculating.

Henning Mankell’s Wallander series is set in Ystad, a provincial town so small I couldn’t even find murder statistics for it. The closest is 2010 European Commission homicide rates for Sweden. Overall, the country enjoyed a homicide rate of 1 in 100,000, also known as nil.

Bottom line? Both Norway and Sweden have such low murder rates that on occasion both authors have imported murderers, such as in Nesbo’s The Redeemer and Mankell’s Faceless Killers. Hole and Wallander shy away from guns, for the most part, too, while keeping readers guessing with intricate plots and moody atmospherics and self-destructive main characters.

Edinburgh, Scotland, home to Ian Rankin’s fantastic DI Rebus mystery series, has a darker side but only barely. European Commission statistics record 2 homicides per 100,000 people in 2010 for all of Scotland, while Edinburgh only had 14 murders in 2011, against a population of 482,640, according to the Scotsman newspaper. The Rebus series, while containing its fair share of murders, has a focus on Edinburgh’s organized crime scene that keeps from being gory. Once again, the protagonist is a heavy drinker whose own demons are as much of the series as the plots.

So are there mystery series set in a high crime location?

The late Leighton Gage’s Inspector Silva series centered in São Paolo doesn’t flinch from Brazil’s murder rate, which skyrocketed in 2012. According to local newspaper El Universal, there were 1497 homicides there in 2012, up from 1069 in 2011. In a population of over 194 million that might not seem like much, but consider the fact that over 10% of the city’s homicides are cops targeted by gangs. Gage’s Inspector Silva is well acquainted with Brazil’s violence, including murder, assaults on police, express kidnappings, etc, making the series prime reading for those who like their mysteries with a lot of action.

My own Emilia Cruz mystery series set in Acapulco, Mexico, has the distinction of drawing inspiration from the second-most violent city in the world, according to NBC and other news sources. In 2012, Acapulco had 1170 homicides in a population of 880,000, making the rate 148 per every 100,000 inhabitants. Emilia Cruz is the first and only female detective on the Acapulco Municipal Police force, confronting Mexico’s drug war as well as the country’s culture of machismo. Two versions of Acapulco, the one tourists know versus the one being fought over by drug cartels--claw at each other and force Emilia to survive between them.

What can we conclude from all these statistics? Maybe the lesson is that a good mystery writer doesn’t need a grim location to involve the reader in the story. And where the crime rates are highest, the main character can’t afford to drink so much.

Carmen Amato is the author of political thriller The Hidden Light of Mexico City and the Emilia Cruz mystery series set in Acapulco. She currently divides her time between the United States and Central America. Visit her website at and follow her @CarmenConnects. All her books can be found at

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Crypt Thief, by Mark Pryor: A Review

Hugo Marson isn't your typical investigator. He's not an alcoholic. If he has an estranged wife, I'm not sure I remember her. Indeed, he's actually quite gentlemanly. Perhaps because his author is a Brit.

But don't let Hugo's politeness fool you. He gets into some nasty stuff. Did you know there's an entire underworld in Paris? By which I mean, a literal underworld? A world beneath the city? Because, there is. 

The Crypt Thief is a fun, fast-paced romp through the seedier sides of Paris. Mark Pryor's characters are colorful and entertaining and his story is intriguing. Having now read The Crypt Thief, I look forward to going back and reading The Bookseller.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Marketing Your Debut Novel: Bookstores

Trying to sell one's first book can be a daunting experience. And a discouraging one. We work so hard to prepare that first title, and despite our deep-down knowledge of reality, we still expect it to fly off the shelves. But what if it doesn't?

This post is the beginning of a series of blog posts that will offer a step-by-step plan for post-launch marketing. Before I "launch" into it, I'd like to distinguish between marketing and promotion. For my purposes here, I'm defining "promoting" (in simplistic terms) as "getting the word out." I'm defining "marketing" as "selling the book." Previous posts on this site have discussed many ways you can "promote" your book and yourself as an author in the years, months, and weeks leading up to publication of your first title, as well as post-launch. For ideas from the Murder Lab community, please see this post and this one.

Here, I focus on post-launch marketing to bookstores. Future posts will detail other avenues for selling your book.

First, Write a Marketing Plan

If you're a reader of this blog (or any other writers' blog,) you already understand the importance of marketing your own book. So I won't reiterate the importance of this here, but rather, I'll share some insight for what has and hasn't worked for me.

Here's what doesn't work: Having abstract marketing ideas. Abstract ideas only lead to procrastination, because the execution of abstract ideas is not a straightforward task. For example, if you think to yourself, "I'll hit up some local bookstores," but you don't know exactly what bookstores, how you'll "hit them up" or what you'll say, then you'll never do it.

The benefit of a written marketing plan is both organizational and psychological. As long as the list is in front of you with items still not checked off, it's easier to keep a positive attitude - even if your book isn't flying off the shelves like you wanted it to - because you still have things you need to do in order to sell it.

So, first, write down a step-by-step, concrete, crystal clear list of action items that can be checked off as you go. Ideally, you should write this plan long before your book comes out, so that you have time to prepare all of the required materials, your 30-second elevator pitch, your hook, and all of the other details that you'll need in order to execute it. Here's the snippet of mine that relates to bookstores:
  1. Research local bookstores online to identify indie stores in your area. Here's an indie bookstore finder that you can use to get started.
  2. Generate a list of the stores who might be interested in carrying your novel. Here's a list of indie bookstores in the Southern California area, with notes about each one and contact info. (If you live in Southern California, I've already done steps 1 and 2 of this plan for you.)
  3. Call the bookstores and ask whether or not they carry:
    1. New books
    2. Mysteries/thrillers
    3. Local authors
    4. Self-published
  4. If no, cross off list.
  5. If yes, ask to speak to the person who sets up events and/or the book-buyer.
    1. Offer 30 second elevator pitch about book
    2. Offer to deliver introductory/press kit
      1. Copy of novel
      2. Book flyers
      3. Business cards
      5. Printed reviews
    3. Emphasize 100% returnable
    4. Emphasize that Baker&Taylor and Ingram are in place
    5. Try to set up a signing or other event
The above example is just one aspect of the overall marketing plan (marketing to and within bookstores,) but you get the idea. A word about steps 3-5: actual discussions with bookstores can be done either on the phone, via e-mail, or in person. Personally, I made the mistake of wasting a bit of time and gas driving around to bookstores that never would have supported my book (whoops!) As an example, bookstores that carry mostly used books are a tough sell. Their clientele don't enter the bookstore expecting to pay full price for any book, so the odds of an unheard-of debut novel selling there are slim. Most used bookstores won't even try.

After that day, I figured out that step #3 should always be done over the phone.

For step #5, I now use my judgement when calling about step #3. If I get the feeling that I'm talking to a bookstore owner and/or buyer, and that person seems to be receptive and have time to speak to me, I'll continue the discussion on the phone. If they seem in a hurry to hang up, or if they're not the right contact person, then I'll try to set an appointment to discuss things further. 

Execute Your Marketing Plan - Step by Step, Day by Day

My overall marketing plan for The Vesuvius Isotope is ten pages long. On top of that, I have multiple additional lists of things I need in order to execute the plan (such as the mother bookstore list I started out with, which in itself was 15 pages long.) Hence, the benefit of having this stuff in place *before* your book comes out.

To execute the plan, set aside a chunk of time each day for exclusive focus on marketing. Have a day-runner with one or more bullet points from your marketing plan assigned to each day. Then do the work and cross off the bullet points each day. It's as simple as that. If you can't call every bookstore in L.A. in a day, just block off the chunk that you *will* call each day and then get cracking. Next to each, annotate whether or not they answered the phone, what they said, and what your follow-up steps will be.

Initial marketing to San Diego bookstores took me about a week, between generating the list, calling the stores, and dropping off introductory packages. Had I not wasted a day (see above) it would have been shorter. And had I already had the list (as you do, So Cal people!) it would have been even shorter.

Ultimately, I was led to four San Diego bookstores emerging as the clear best bets for my novel.
  1. Mysterious Galaxy
  2. Warwick's
  3. Unicorn Books (Ramona)
  4. Upstart Crow
The first three bookstores were quickly receptive to The Vesuvius Isotope. Each of them first asked me to leave a book for the powers-that-be to look over. Within a few weeks, each of them got back to me and set up a signing event (details for upcoming events here.) The launch party, which was held at Mysterious Galaxy, was a fantastic success. The Vesuvius Isotope is on sale at Mysterious Galaxy now. 

Because my calendar is already full for the next couple of months, I haven't followed up with Upstart Crow...but I'll keep my readers informed as to whether or not they are receptive.

Look Forward

For the first couple of months after The Vesuvius Isotope launched, I found that marketing took up the majority of each day. After that, I found that my schedule was filling up with marketing/promotional events. Because I don't want to "overbook" myself on any given month (and thus dilute the attention given to each event,) I made the decision to decrease the focus on marketing for the next month or so. Instead, I'm promoting in steady-state mode (twitter, Goodreads, etc.) and have moved on to the fun stuff: I'm now working on my second and third books.

The next post in this series will address DOs and DON'Ts for the signing event itself. Readers... what have you done to succeed in the bookstores?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Introducing the So Cal Author Academy

A guest post by Susan McBeth, Events Coordinator of Adventures by the Book.

As an author events coordinator, I am frequently asked advice by writers (especially self-published and small press authors who do not have designated publicists) who are overwhelmed with the marketing process and setting up book events. Who do I hire for my author photo; do I need a book trailer; what do I invest for a professional website; where do I start with social media; how do I set up interviews; how do I develop my presentation skills; what good is a press release and how do I write one; how do I best approach bookstores and libraries for events; what other event options are available, etc.

The SoCal Author Academy will answer those questions and much more, as it takes you methodically through the process of marketing your book and setting up events in Anne Lamott fashion, Bird by Bird. Designed as a series of intimate workshops, taught by experts in each subject matter, the SoCal Author Academy will offer you a cohesive and interactive plan to market your book. Starting with a brief overview of Everyday Book Marketing, experts will guide writers from a logical first step thru planning and execution of an actual author event.

The inaugural workshop on Sunday, September 29, 2013, is divided into two parts, starting with a
general overview of Everyday Book Marketing that covers essential book promotion basics, followed by an interactive workshop that builds upon the morning session and in which, using a checklist, you will create your own customized marketing plan.

And who better to teach an Everyday Book Marketing workshop than Midge Raymond. Midge has been a writer, editor, and teacher for more than twenty years. She has taught at Boston University, Grub Street, San Diego Writers, and Richard Hugo House, among others. Midge’s short story collection, Forgetting English, received the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Her award-winning stories have appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines, including American Literary Review, Bellingham ReviewNorth American ReviewBellevue Literary Review, and the Los Angeles Times.

Future workshops will include websites, social media, author photos, event planning, presentations and interviewing, press releases, and book trailers.  And for those of you who graduate from the SoCal Author Academy, we will celebrate with you at an author event that we plan together!

Further information and registration is available at  Questions? Contact Susan McBeth at or at (619) 300-2532.  Susan has been an events coordinator for over twenty years, seven of which have specialized in author events for a major independent bookstore and now as founder and owner of Adventures by the Book.