Friday, July 13, 2012


Please give a warm welcome to my guest blogger today, Shelly Frome.  Shelly offers thoughts on what is being written, promoted and sold in these turbulent times. Read his bio and I'm sure you'll agree he's paid his dues and worth listening to.

Earl Staggs

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Shelly Frome is a member of Mystery Writers of America, a professor of dramatic arts emeritus at the University of Connecticut, a former professional actor, a writer of mysteries, books on theater and film, and articles on the performing arts appearing in a number of periodicals in the U.S. and the U.K.. He is also a film critic and frequent contributor to writers’ blogs. His fiction includes Tinseltown Riff, Lilac Moon, Sun Dance for Andy Horn and the trans-Atlantic cozy The Twinning Murders.  Among his works of non-fiction are the acclaimed The Actors Studio and texts on the art and craft of screenwriting and writing for the stage. His latest novel is Twilight of the Drifter, a  southern gothic crime-and-blues odyssey. He lives in Litchfield, Connecticut.

What is t   
What is the Story Here?

by Shelly Frome
To keep up with the times, I thought I’d take out a subscription to a few writers’ magazines and add a few more websites to learn more about what’s now termed “the new era in publishing”.   

And lo and behold, within the pages of the magazines, I found this statement to be typical: “Readers of fiction are faced with saturated genres and a limited amount of time and money. Any title has to immediately grab their attention. The market doesn’t lie.”

In one issue, someone calling herself a literary change agent claimed that reaching readers is a matter of blanketing social media, blogging anywhere and everywhere, and “passing out fliers on street corners” if need be.

To meet these demands, contributors who were billed as successful pros offered sure-fire tips like these:

“Use plotting strategies that make the book a winner. Give readers a hook at the get-go. And be sure to leave them with a take-home thought.”

“Make them laugh and cry. When readers laugh and cry they’ll get that emotional high they’re looking for along with that walloping payoff.”

“Before you start, come up with a logline that makes buyers sit up and say ‘gotta read it’.”

“Try this for a ploy. Redesign an old hit TV show for the texting, tweeting, Lady Gaga generation. It’s a great reminder how important it is to always have your readers in mind.”

Ah, yes. Oh, well.

The added websites echoed the same mindset. In fact, the dozens of new daily e-mails snowballed into a promotional frenzy. Urging everyone to check out a fourth winner in a row; or latch onto a P.I. story everyone loves because it’s an ultra rare extraordinary read; and/or get set for a page-turning thrill ride. One lady outdid herself shopping her hair-raising gypsy escapade by tossing in a war-horse. And she continued to push this angle with every post.

One of these networks was caught up in an ongoing harangue over eliminating all middle men. Agents weighed in claiming they alone can wade through the slush given their knowledge of what’s really trending.

Seeking a quieter approach, I began watching conversations with writers on Charlie Rose’s show. Arguably, there’s no more easygoing host than Charlie Rose and no more casual writer willing to share his secrets than John Grisham. Soon, however, it was back to more of the same. Grisham claimed that readers have an insatiable appetite for stories about lawyers and scandals. Novels that don’t work use too many words. And the generator is your big idea. To locate it, you steal something. “Everything is fair game. We all steal, that’s what we do.”

He went on to say, you simply narrow it down to a half-dozen one-sentence pitches and run them by someone. He chooses his wife who never fails to pick the one with the best hook.

Not that there’s anything wrong with this. It’s just that it reminded me of that  same vendor-on-the-street-corner mind-set.   

Next, I came across an interview with Lee Child. He suggested that a key to his Jack Reacher series was the fact that his main character never changes. Readers always know who Reacher is and are reassured that he’ll always be taciturn, smart and ruthless.

Again, whatever works for someone is fine. I just hate to think that readers nowadays are flipping through their touch screens while on the go looking for some way to pass a few extra minutes before boarding their plane or what-have-you. Along these same lines, I recalled yet another reference to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code in The New York Time’s book review section—e.g., utilizing “a badly garbled version” of historian Elaine Pagels’ analysis of the early church, eliminating characterization as Robert Langdon and other stock figures keep running. The scenarios formatted to quickly “blow the minds of as many readers as possible.”

To reassure myself, I went back to the book review and took solace in author Sylvia Brownrigg’s guidelines:  “Will I believe in these characters? How distracted will I be by implausible dialogue or forced plotlines? Hopefully after only a page or two there will be a sigh of relief. I don’t have to worry. She knows what she’s doing. She won’t let you down.”

From there it was only a few pages more to Marilyn Stasio’s Crime Reviews. There, as usual, I found myself drawn to stories designed to unfold organically. 

I also found myself remembering something Raymond Chandler once wrote:

“A good story cannot be devised: it has to be distilled. You can never know till
you’ve written the first draft. What seems to be alive in it is what belongs.”

Perhaps Mr. Chandler also found himself contending with the hustle and bustle of his day and opted for something more genuine.

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Morgan Mandel said...

It's mindboggling how much promotion is required these days. It seems everyone's an author out there. Hard to know what works and what doesn't.

Hard to find time to even write books.

Morgan Mandel

Jacqueline Seewald said...

As a fellow writer, I'm always interested in what works for readers and what doesn't. I very much enjoyed reading this intelligent essay.

Kaye George said...

So, you're saying I can quit standing on the street corner passing out bookmarks? Seriously, if anyone knew how to sell books--or how to write consistent blockbusters--wouldn't we just need one advice giver? Some stuff works for some people, I think. Other stuff for others. Most of us muddle through. OK, enough muddling, back to my first draft. Thanks for the thoughts!

E. B. Davis said...

There are a lot of great books out to read, but I also see many books that are cookie-cutter. If they don't have a gay friend, a dog/cat/horse/goat (some of which must be magical)with a very handsome detective named Derek, it can't be good or sell well. I'm not sure what readers want, but a don't want a cookie-cutter read. Thanks for your market insight.

Christinekling said...

Thanks for the thought-provoking blog. However, there is an air of condescension about this piece. How foolish these silly writers are to run about chasing the market with their how-to formula fiction, right? Thank goodness there are bright fellows like you around to set the minions right.

In fact, the one thing I have come to realize in this new era of digital fiction and marketing is just how vast and diverse the potential readership is. Writers often talk about "what readers want" as though readers were a singular entity with similar tastes and desires. There are folks who want stories that leave out all the characterization like the DaVinci Code and give them pure plot. Others want lovely prose and organic stories or all character and little plot. One group is not more noble than the other - simply different. And there are readers who will buy all these different books because now, for the first time, the book shelf from which they buy is not limited in size and it can offer all these different books. Readers who formerly rarely found books of interest to them in their own little corner bookshop, now can find books they love in virtual bookstores with limitless shelf space.

To me, this is the virtue of this new digital era.


Earl Staggs said...

If only writing were a one-suits-all endeavor. Or marketing a book as simple as following the bouncing ball. There are endless variables, all of which are meaningless if an unpredictable Lady named Luck happens to smile on you rather than one of so many others. If we were smart, we’d give up this crazy writing thing and take up something safe and reliable. Knitting, worm farming, robbing banks. Yeah, give it up. If only we could.

Shelly Frome said...

To answer Christine, I have no interest in setting anyone straight. In truth, I'm just saddened by the apparent loss of dedication and integrity as so many seek to crank out sequels and prequels just for their own sake.

Jaden Terrell said...

I think part of it depends on why you choose the elements you choose. Is it because Abraham Lincoln's Doctor's Dog is selling right now, or is it because you have a passion for Abraham Lincoln and doctors and dogs? My detective's best friend is a gay man with AIDS because when I began the series, I had just lost a close friend to AIDS. He has horses and dogs because I do--and because I love them. He has a son with Down syndrome because I taught special ed for twelve years and knew that Jared's relationship with his son would give him a depth of compassion he might not otherwise acquire.

The hardened detective battling alcoholism is so common as to be a stereotype, but Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder and James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux are anything but stereotypes. (I guess one might say the success of those characters led to a lot of Block/Burke wannabes writing about alcoholic detectives.)

Shelly, thanks for the insights and for the ideas about getting off the promotion carousel and back to writing.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Thanks Shelly, Earl. Enjoyed the post.