Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Author Spotlight: James Grippando

There's no one way to tell if you've "made it" as an author of captivating fiction. You can be prolific, yet never quite prolific enough to satiate your rabid fan base. You can create a series with a character (Miami criminal defense attorney Jack Swyteck springs to mind at the moment) that critics have called, "John Grisham meets Robert Ludlum." Your work can climb international bestseller lists in multiple languages. Your novels could be lauded by reviewers worldwide. You might branch out from thrillers and suspense and try your hand, with success, at a novel for young adults. One of your short stories might be anthologized in a collection featuring the writing of some of the most eminent thriller writers on the planet.

All of those things, individually and collectively, are sure signs your decision to pursue writing popular fiction was a sound career move.

All of those things, individually and collectively, are true of James Grippando, today's guest under the intense hi-beam that is Gazalapalooza Author Spotlight.

But there's another indicator that's at least equally plain proof you've touched a nerve among countless readers. And that's when the correct answer to a New York Times Crossword Puzzle is the title of one of your novels. On June 14, 2005, Grippando's novel Under Cover of Darkness was the correct answer to 38 Across.

Now that's "making it" as a novelist.

Grippando's latest suspense novel just came out this month. Published by Harper, it's a stand-alone book titled, Need You Now. In his typically enthralling style, Grippando tells the story of Patrick Lloyd. Lloyd is a young financial advisor who, with his enigmatic girlfriend Lilly Scanlon, risk all to expose a deadly $60 billion ponzi conspiracy that oozes from Wall Street's gleaming skyscrapers far into the dark heart of Washington, D.C.

What better way for Gazalapalooza to commemorate Grippando's new release than with a cordial invitation to bask in the blinding gleam of the Author Spotlight? Fortunately for us all, the esteemed author graciously accepted the invitation. Without further ado, let's see how well Mr. Grippando fares under the spotlight's fiery glare.

Gazala:    In my omnipotence, I've sentenced you to be stranded alone on a desert island for offenses best left unnamed. In my beneficence, I've decided to allow you a limited amount of reading material to make your stay a little less bleak than it would otherwise be. I'll spot you your religious text of preference, and the collected works of William Shakespeare. In addition to those, name the one fiction book, and the one nonfiction book, you'd choose to take with you, and why you choose them.

Grippando:   For fiction, since  you’ve already spotted me the complete works of Shakespeare, I’ll take Goodnight Moon. It reminds me of everyone I would miss while stuck on that island—from my own kids to my grandparents. Plus, if you were to ask me if there is one book I wish I had written, it would be this one. 

For nonfiction, my high school English teacher gave me one of the most unforgettable books I've ever read, the Pulitzer Prize winning play, "A Man for All Seasons." It's the story of Sir Thomas Moore, who was tried for treason and beheaded after he refused on principle to sign an oath approving the marriage of King Henry VIII to Ann Boleyn. I still have that book. It became especially meaningful to me in the early years of my legal career, when I was young and na├»ve and appalled to discover how many witnesses lied under oath. People complain that lawyers are always trying to trip them up with their clever questions, but in my experience witnesses too often had to be tricked into telling the truth. In my most cynical moments as a trial lawyer, I'd go back to Sir Thomas Moore and the sanctity of an oath. It's just one of the many ways I'm so often reminded of my high school English teacher. That would be a comforting feeling on my desert island. 

Gazala:   Your latest novel in an excellent and gripping thriller titled, Need You Now. I've read it. I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it highly. Shockingly enough, however, from time to time my bare recommendation doesn't always motivate a book's potential reader to become a book's actual reader. Tell us something about Need You Now, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader. 

Grippando:   My favorite thing about Need You Now is the sense of place. It's marketed as a "Wall Street thriller," but the feel of New York is what I'm most proud of. And I don't mean the typical hallmarks of Manhattan that find their way into every book set in the city. I just got an e-mail the other day from a "New-Yawker" who was convinced that I must have grown up in Queens near the Lemon Ice King of Corona and "spaghetti park." He was downright wistful about his old neighborhood, and he couldn't believe that some guy from Florida could capture the feeling of that place. Yes, Need You Now is a page turner...but slow down a little, and enjoy some of those moments.

Gazala:   What are books for?

Grippando:   Free, if we don't do something about Internet piracy.

Gazala:   W. Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no on knows what they are." Do you agree, or disagree, and why?

Grippando:   I go with Upton Sinclair on this one. Legend has it that he was the keynote speaker at a Harvard University graduation ceremony. His topic was, "the key to writing a great novel." After being introduced by the university president, he walked to the lectern as the crowd gave him a warm reception. Finally the applause silenced. He looked out into the audience and said, "Why aren't you at home, writing?" Then he returned to his seat and sat down. In my view, that's the one and only rule for writing the novel. 

Gazala:   There are profoundly unsettling noises in my basement I have to go check out. Ask yourself a question, and answer it.

Grippando:   All right, here goes. Q: All the characters in Need You Now have something to hide. Do you think everybody has something to hide? A: Yup. In my second novel, The Informant, one of my characters says, "The only people who can be totally honest with each other are lovers or strangers. Everyone else is just negotiating." I believe it. Don't you?

Grippando's Need You Now is available everywhere. If you'd like to do yourself a big favor and order it from Amazon, all you have to do is click here.




Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tear Down the Walls

For authors it's always intriguing to study the current throes of the "traditional" book-publishing business model. Rules and practices are fluctuating rapidly in almost every aspect of the business, from the ways books are published to the ways they're acquired and read. This places authors in a landscape as rosy as it is daunting to maneuver as they toil to capture the attention of potential readers.

In days gone by not so long ago, by the far the best path for an author to gain notice and a shot at fame and fortune was steadfastly treading the "traditional" route of book publishing. Many argue that the traditional route remains the best choice, and to some extent (at least right now), that might be true.

The question is, why was it ever true at all?

The answer is in those recently bygone days, and for many decades preceding them, the traditional publishing houses largely and most efficiently controlled the means of production, distribution, and marketing of books released for mass commercial consumption. Once an author contracted with a publisher for a book's publication, the publisher arranged for the book's editing and polish, its cover art, and its pre- and post-release reviews. The publisher arranged the book's physical production. The publisher had the wherewithal to get the book stocked on national and international retail shelves. The publisher had the money and means to market the book domestically and abroad before, during and after its release.

In the Internet Age, the traditional publisher's control in those matters is no longer as weighty as it used to be.

Authors now have access to a robust and growing array of means to have their books professionally edited and produced. Many independent publishing houses can arrange for "fully-returnable" book distribution to retailers via the likes of Ingram, and Baker & Taylor. (And as Kindles, iPads and Nooks abound and gain popularity, the necessity of producing physical books at all dwindles proportionately.) Any author reasonably familiar with social media, and possessing sufficient time and resources, can devise and implement a marketing campaign to support her work as vigorous as just about any rolled out by a traditional publisher.

So barring for the limited purposes of this post the undeniable benefits that accompany economies of scale, the traditional publishers don't enjoy any particular advantages in physical book publication and distribution, and only one (as we'll see below) in marketing. Yet at the moment, for sure, most independently published authors would be elated to move their books into the hands of traditional publishers.

Why?

Because not even the Internet Age has stripped from traditional publishers their one clearly invaluable power -- they have been for many years, and remain today, the arbiters of popular reading taste in the mass commercial markets. Whether rightly or wrongly so isn't relevant. It simply is so.

The popular music business is the traditional publishing model's first cousin, so a brief stroll into the music arena is illustrative. When I was a teenager, my family moved between two continents in the mid-1970s. Whether I was in Massachusetts or England in 1976 and 1977, just about every kid I knew had a copy of Peter Frampton's live double album, "Frampton Comes Alive." Record stores on both sides of the Atlantic displayed reams of promotional collateral devoted to the record. American and western European radio stations kept cuts from the album in heavy rotation for nearly two years without interruption. The album became a phenomenon that fed on itself, until for my generation owning the record was a commonplace rite of teen passage.

Alternatively, had the record label not so aggressively stamped the record with its seal of approval, the odds were only a small fraction of us would have ever heard of it, much less bought it.

A&M/Polygram was the record label that made "Frampton Comes Alive" successful. The label, which operated much the same way a traditional book publisher does to this day, excelled at convincing record-buyers that Frampton's album was good, and worth purchasing.

Frampton wasn't unheard of before "Frampton Comes Alive" was released. He had previously been a member of  the well-received band Humble Pie, and released four solo albums between departing the band and "Frampton Comes Alive." Neither individually or collectively did those four solo records remotely approach "Frampton Comes Alive" in sales. Was "Frampton Comes Alive" a great record, or one of the "best" ones released in the mid-1970s? Was it truly superior to hundreds of other contemporaneously-released albums in its and other genres, including Frampton's own previously released material?

Well, that's a matter of taste, isn't it?

Exactly.

In 1976 and 1977, A&M/Polygram was a formidable tastemaker in popular music. The average radio station, music store and record buyer had neither the time nor inclination to scour through hundreds upon hundreds of albums released around the time of "Frampton Comes Alive" to seek out lesser-publicized gems. The record label did this for them.

The major record labels were gatekeepers. Their imprimatur was perceived, to a significant extent and whether justifiably or not, as a pledge of product quality on which stations, stores and buyers were willing to rely. And this is only one example of labels' highly effective gatekeeping and tastemaking efforts before and since "Frampton Comes Alive." (I selected this specific example because it rekindles such fond memories of my youthful miscreancy in the 70s. You'll just have to indulge me.)

The only superpower that traditional book publishers still have today is that power of tastemaking.

Online retailers like the behemoth Amazon.com have millions of traditionally and independently published books for sale. As of this writing, independent e-book publisher/distributor Smashwords.com has "3,764,692,764 words published." Yet even a cursory glance at the current major bestseller lists will return almost exclusively the names of authors who are very well-known and widely read, and have been for years. The premier book review outlets (i.e., The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Times of London, major television programs and magazines, etc.), as well as book stores and book buyers, have neither the time nor inclination to scour through hundreds upon hundreds of books released every month to seek out lesser-publicized gems by lesser-known authors. As they have for decades, they rely on traditional publishers do the sifting for them.

Hence, at least originally and in considerable part, the remarkable success of Meyer's Twilight, or Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or scads of other "phenomenon" books. The underlying business model that made worldbeaters of Twilight and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the same one that propelled "Frampton Comes Alive" to such lofty heights.

I know many authors, both traditionally and independently published. I don't know one who wouldn't crave his or her book to be reviewed by The New York Times. And The New York Times, like The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and other major newspapers, magazines, television stations and radio programs, very rarely shine any light on independently published books. The Washington Post, for one, declines to review independently published books as a matter of stated policy, and it's far from alone in this regard.

My friend Marvin McIntyre recently released his debut novel, a great thriller titled Insiders. His book is professionally edited and produced, and it's distributed "fully returnable" via Ingram, and Baker & Taylor. It has earned great feedback from Internet review sites and online reader reviews. But his sales didn't take off until he was able, through his own professional connections, to get Insiders reviewed by Barron's.

I know it's the Internet Age. There are tens of thousands of web-based book review sites. Some are very good, some not so much. Some have lots of readers, but most have few. There are so many online book reviewer sites splintering readers' limited time and attention that none of those sites have aggregated sufficient gravitas to be a national tastemaker. None of them alone (and even some thousands of them put together) yet have the reach and prestige to launch a book's sales the way a single, brief mention in  The New York Times can.

The way to The New York Times' book review pages and their precious ilk is still, and for all meaningful intents and purposes is exclusively, via the traditional publishers. Relations between traditional publishers and the front-line prestigious book review outlets remain tight and cozy. The publishers will battle to the end to keep it that way, as it's the last vestige of their old-world value proposition that continues to matter. For the near future it seems in the reviewers' interests to perpetuate this status quo too, since it obviates the need for them to invest limited resources in seeking and evaluating independently published books that are as good as, if not far better than, the ones shilled by the traditional publishers.

These are the last walls between very talented but independently published authors and the widespread attention they justifiably deserve. Those walls won't stand forever. The sooner they crumble, the better it will be for everyone who loves to read books.

  "Something there is that doesn't love a wall..."
~~ Robert Frost ~~

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Author Spotlight: Alan Orloff

The area where I live and write is a roiling cauldron of dazzling literary talent. As you might expect given the plethora of politicians, staffers, judges, lawyers, bureaucrats, spies, lobbyists, judges and military folk who comprise the epicenter of this place, the vast majority of tomes produced around here are very, very serious. For example, try losing yourself in a few scintillating pages of An Annotated list of Literature References on Carpets and Rugs 1940 to 1963 (Dept. of Agriculture). Or perhaps you'd prefer curling up with a dog-eared copy of Distinguishing Bolts from Screws (U.S. Customs and Border Protection). True, every so often the ceaseless political and personal scandals abounding in our nation's capital produce some delightfully bawdy material for the bestseller lists. Be that as it may, "funny" isn't the first thing that springs to mind when "Washington, D.C." comes up in a game of word association. At least, not funny as in ha-ha.

Against such a somber backdrop, native Washingtonian author Alan Orloff's "Last Laff" series is a refreshing departure. His just-released book, Deadly Campaign, is the second entry in Orloff's series (coming hot on the heels of the series' debut, Killer Routine). The novels feature the amateur sleuthing of troubled stand-up comedian and comedy club-owner Channing Hayes, and are set in and around Washington. Orloff will be the first to concede he doesn't write the series to punch his ticket to the Comedy Hall of Fame. Still, his books are sprinkled liberally with sly humor and good jokes, in addition to being engaging thrillers.

To celebrate Orloff's new release, I invited him to visit Gazalapalooza for a fresh installment of Author Spotlight. Rather than pretending he doesn't know me, or faking his own death, we're fortunate he graciously accepted my invitation. Without further ado, let’s get this blazing spotlight fired up and test Mr. Orloff's antiperspirant.

Gazala:   In my omnipotence, I've sentenced you to be stranded alone on a desert island for offenses best left unnamed. In my beneficence, I've decided to allow you a limited amount of reading material to make your stay a little less bleak than it would otherwise be. I'll spot you your religious text of preference, and the collected works of William Shakespeare. In addition to those, name the one fiction book, and the one nonfiction book, you'd choose to take with you, and why you choose them.

Orloff:   Thanks for not mentioning my transgressions (embarrassing!). Would I be allowed to trade the works of Shakespeare for the works of Stephen King? If not, then I’ll take The Stand as my fiction choice. It’s a great book, and it’s long enough that I’ll forget most of it by the time I reach the end (making it ideal for re-reads). For nonfiction, I’ll take the Guinness Book of World Records. That should keep me entertained, and who knows, it may inspire me to try to break a record or two.
 
Gazala:   Your latest novel is an excellent and gripping thriller titled Deadly Campaign. I've read it. I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it highly. Shockingly enough, however, from time to time my bare recommendation doesn't always motivate a book's potential reader to become a book's actual reader. Tell us something about Deadly Campaign, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader.

Orloff:   First off, let me say that your recommendation should sway readers. I mean, from where I sit, you have excellent taste and judgment! My main goal with Deadly Campaign was to write an entertaining story with fun, three-dimensional characters. At the same time, if I could provide readers with a glimpse into the world of stand-up comedy, as well as skewer a few make-believe politicians, then so much the better. I’ve lived in the D.C. area most of my life, so I know something about the sordid stories associated with those walking the corridors of power.

Gazala:   What are books for?

Orloff:   Oh, where to start? Books are for entertaining, enlightening, enchanting. Liking, loving, lusting. Transporting, teaching, training. Enough alliteration? How about, “Books are for everyone to cherish in their own special way"? (Or is that too Mr. Rogers?)

Gazala:   W. Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Do you agree, or disagree, and why?

Orloff:   Actually, there are at least a dozen rules, but no one knows what the additional nine are either. Ba da bing. I believe there’s too much subjectivity/individuality involved in the writing/reading process to sum up the process with a tidy set of rules. If something works for a writer, then it works. Period. Ask ten writers how they write a novel and you’ll get eleven answers (at least). And that’s a good thing. Otherwise, one novel might read too much like the next (and the next and the next…).

Gazala:   There's someone at my door. Ask yourself a question, and answer it.

Orloff:   (If it’s a Girl Scout, could you please order me a box of Samoas?) My question to myself: What’s the best part about being a writer? Aside from the lax dress code and flexible working hours, I’d have to say the best part about being a writer is the opportunity to share your work—your ideas, your visions, your stories—with readers. Of course, working in sweats is pretty sweet!

You don't have to look too hard to find Deadly Campaign. If you want a quick and easy way to get your copy, clicking on this link will make you happy.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Hey, Baby... You Come Here Often?

How many of you lovely ladies reading this post have heard that lame line, or its functional equivalent, more times than you care to remember? I'm very sure you rolled your eyes and turned your back to the fool who uttered those words to you. I'm equally sure at least one of the thoughts you had about him was if that's the line he chose to attract your valuable time and attention, he wasn't worth your interest.

Opening lines are so important, don't you think?

That maxim applies just as much to your writing as it does to the slimy wannabe pick-up artists lurking at your local watering holes. So much so, in fact, that there's an annual fiction competition that hammers this point home without pretense of delicacy. Yearly since 1982, the English Department at San Jose State University in California holds the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Entrants compete "to compose the opening sentence for the worst of all possible novels." The contest's title "honors" British author Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel Paul Clifford is the one that actually begins with the infamous, "It was a dark and stormy night." The contest's 2011 winner is Sue Fondrie of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Her triumphant submission was, "Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories." 

Incidentally, at 28 words, Fondrie's entry was the shortest grand prize winner in the contest's glorious history. There's a reason why any journalism major is familiar with the rule that no sentence should be longer than 23 words. Shortly after World War II, the Associated Press determined that a sentence's readability declines after the 23rd word. If that rule is good enough for the AP and its millions of readers worldwide for the past 60+ years, it's good enough for you.

Authors are pick-up artists. We package our book in an attractive cover with our photo on it, along with some intriguing back-cover copy adorned by a few effusive blurbs. All this in an attempt to entice some stranger we've never met to trust us enough to leap from being a potential to an actual reader.

When that potential reader flips open your book to read the first sentence in your prologue or opening chapter, she's reading your pick-up line. Is it your best one? Is it sufficiently alluring to make her take your book home tonight?

My friend Austin Camacho is a very good and prolific author. Among other works, Camacho writes the hard-boiled  Hannibal Jones mystery series. I attended a talk Austin gave in Leesburg, Virginia, not long ago. That evening he stressed the incontestable importance of a story's opening line. He said that more than anything else, a story's first line must make a reader hungry to know more about something inside the narrative. It doesn't matter what the enticement is -- whether about a character, an event, a setting. That first line is a hook. It's an invitation that foreshadows joy or dread or adventure, if only the reader will keep reading.

An example's in order. I'm working on a short story for a national mystery magazine. It's a first-person narrative. Unless I change my mind, the opening is:

"She thinks I don't know. But I do."

 The objective of this succinct opening is to raise lots of questions, and tickle the reader's curiosity. Who is she? Who's the speaker? What does she know? How does the speaker know what she does? Why doesn't she think the speaker knows it? What's her relationship with the speaker?

Compare my opening to the hoary chestnut, "It was a dark and stormy night." The only question that comes to my mind on reading the latter is, So what? I'd have to keep reading, God knows how long, before something else Bulwer-Lytton writes might prove sufficiently provocative to seduce my curiosity. Assuming I keep reading at all, that is.

Your opening is your pick-up line. So work very hard on it. Keep it suitably brief, and make sure what it lacks in length it promises in intrigue, danger, mystery or romance.

An effective pick-up line both creates an itch, and promises the scratch. Will your first line make her roll her eyes? Or will your book be scratching her itch tonight?

 "Are you a parking ticket? Because you've got FINE written all over you." 
~~ Too Many Fools to Count ~~