Defending Jacob

Public Writer, Private Writer

Preparations continue for this winter’s publication of Defending Jacob. The cover art is locked in (sneak preview soon). Yesterday I spent six hours being photographed on Boston street corners in various brooding writerly poses. This morning comes news that the book has sold in China, making it the rare product that we export to them. (Hang on, America, just a few more books and I’ll get this darn trade deficit turned around.)

But the strangest bit, to me, is that I will soon go off on a “pre-publication tour.” In September and October, I will visit regional trade shows for independent booksellers in New England, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, southern California (Long Beach) and northern California (San Francisco). I am delighted to do this, of course. Author tours, pre- or post-publication, are rare today. Not penny-on-the-sidewalk rare — unicorn rare. So I’m very grateful to my publisher for putting increasingly scarce resources behind my book.

At the same time, I can’t help thinking that I am a hell of a lot less interesting in person than I am in my books. In person, I am a perfectly pleasant guy, I suppose, but no author can replicate the intensity and intimacy of a good reading experience. Most authors I’ve met? Meh, the book was better. That’s the nature of reading, which requires the reader to conjure the author’s voice out of squiggles on the page. Inevitably the voice you, the reader, create in your head has a special quality. It seems to come from inside you, it seems to originate in your own thoughts. A good book hijacks the inner voice that burbles constantly in every reader’s head. That’s what makes the medium so powerful: the story takes place inside the reader’s consciousness. No wonder the author’s voice seems so familiar and authoritative.

The author’s voice is not my real, conversational voice, of course. When you read my books, you hear only my most articulate, well-crafted sentences. My best and most refined self. That’s what good writing is. The rest — the clumsy phrases, the not-quite-right words or metaphors, all the inarticulate flubs that characterize ordinary speech — is edited out. Even my realistic dialogue is not quite real, the quotation marks notwithstanding. It is shaped, polished, crafted, improved. Every stammer and stumble is calculated for its precise effect. It is the way you would talk if you had a writer scripting your life. (How great would that be?)

Surely readers know all this, but they crave the writer’s personal presence anyway. They want to meet the awkward, bashful, inarticulate writer behind the exalted, hyper-articulate authorial voice they’ve heard in their heads. That’s why there are bookstore readings and author tours and Oprah (well, there used to be Oprah). Continue reading →

Promoting Jacob

The publicity onslaught continues! Random House has printed a second round of advance editions, this one for independent booksellers, and again it’s a doozy. The cover is below.

Obviously this is incredibly flattering. It is not every day that the publisher herself personally goes to the mat for any novel, let alone endorsing one in such glowing terms. I am deeply grateful. Thank you, Libby!

Defending Jacob - ARC 2d edition

It is odd to read such enthusiastic praise while I am in the early, floundering, confidence-crushing stages of my new book. Even now, with three decent novels under my belt, I feel like an absolute beginner every time I start a new one. I think that will always be true for me. Novel-writing will always be an uphill struggle. It can’t be mastered. That is especially clear now, at the start, when the story hasn’t revealed itself yet. Everything I learned writing the last book does not help much when I sit down to write the next one. So this endorsement comes at a welcome moment. After all, Defending Jacob was a struggle, too. It is helpful to remember that.

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Win an advance copy of “Defending Jacob”

For the next couple of weeks, you can win an advance copy of Defending Jacob. These pre-publication editions are actually pretty rare. Intended for reviewers and booksellers, Random House is printing fewer of them than they used to, as all publishers are these days. I was only able to wheedle a few of them out of my editor. I’ll be giving away four to people who are on my mailing list. Details are here.

And while I’m openly shilling for my books, a little reminder: if you haven’t “liked” my Facebook fan page, please do. I’d love to have all these social-media channels ready when the book comes out next winter. The only way to promote a book is word of mouth, and this is what word of mouth looks like now.

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Pre-first edition

A sneak peek at the cover for an advance promo copy — an ARE, or advance review edition, in Random House parlance — of my new novel. This is how buzz is built (we hope). Click to view full size.

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Defending Jacob update

We received a couple of very nice blurbs this week. I particularly loved this one from Lee Child:

Waiting for a new Landay novel is like waiting for a guy from Cremona to build a violin: anxious but worth it. Defending Jacob is smart, sophisticated — and suspenseful on more levels than one.

At the moment I am struggling mightily to get my next book started. I feel more like a guy from Hackensack building a ukelele. So thank you, Lee.

Author Stephen White also sent along this endorsement:

Nuanced understanding of the psychology of carefully considered, layered characters makes Defending Jacob more than a terrific legal thrill ride with courtroom scenes that explode off the page. William Landay’s latest is a heartfelt exploration of the unanticipated complications of loyalty among old friends, and an unflinching appraisal of the darkest, most poignant consequences of the love that binds, and blinds, families. Defending Jacob is one of those rare books that calls for contemplation and insight along with every breathtaking surprise. Read it.

I am grateful to both Lee and Stephen. The generosity of established authors never ceases to amaze me. It’s not just the blurbs, which I suppose you could write off as self-interested logrolling. It’s also the warmth and respect these guys consistently show to unknowns like me at the various conferences and events that authors are subjected to. When you are are trying to break in, it is hard to fight off petty jealousy and resentment. Publishing seems to be a zero-sum game: a finite number of books will be sold each year, therefore one writer’s gain is another’s loss. It just isn’t true. The way the best authors constantly help out the “competition” is the proof. In any event, I’ve compiled all the blurbs for Defending Jacob here, if you’re interested.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes my publisher continues the buzz-building effort. Ballantine-Bantam-Dell will be printing early galleys — advance copies, basically — to hand out at BookExpo America, an important publishing-industry conference in New York in May. In fact, Defending Jacob is the only Spring 2010 title that BBD will be printing early galleys for, which is wonderful news except for what it suggests about the reduced resources across the industry for publicizing new books.

The early galleys will also include a call to action to drive people to “like” my Facebook fan page. Facebook could be an important channel for me to reach new readers, so if you haven’t already — not to get all Sally Field on you — like me.

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More blurbs continue to roll in for Defending Jacob. I won’t reprint them all here. I hate to turn this blog into an endless infomercial for my books. But if you’re curious, I put together a page to gather up the advance praise — read: blurbs — for the book. My sincere thanks to the authors who chimed in recently, Chevy Stevens, Stephen Frey and John Lutz, as well as the earlier contributors, Phillip Margolin, Lisa Gardner and Nicholas Sparks.

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Blurbing Jacob

We have received a few early blurbs for Defending Jacob and they’re doozies.

“In Defending Jacob, William Landay makes bold use of his genuine storytelling gift, his amazing ability to craft believable dialogue, and above all, an extraordinary understanding of what it means to be a husband and father to present us with the unforgettable tale of an ordinary marriage and family in crisis. In his hands, the tender, passionate union of Laurie and Andrew Barber — of anyone’s marriage, by implication — is tested by the notion that parenting is never quite what one imagines it to be. On the surface, this novel reads like a first-rate thriller, but at its heart, it’s a love story. It’s the story of a man who adores his wife and child, but more than that, it’s a novel that describes the fine edge between love and madness, and the lies we sometimes tell ourselves. Landay has proven himself to be an extraordinary writer, and Defending Jacob is an amazing novel. Do yourself a favor and read it. It’s that good.” — Nicholas Sparks

“William Landay has hit a home run. Defending Jacob is a stunning novel that will be compared to classic courtroom thrillers like Presumed Innocent and Anatomy of a Murder.” — Phillip Margolin

“A powerful portrayal of a family, a crime and a community. Defending Jacob compels you to flip frantically through the pages, desperate to know what will happen next, then leaves you gasping breathlessly at each shocking revelation. A page-turner with a bite … and that’s before you get to the end.” — Lisa Gardner

All three are perennial New York Times bestsellers. Actually, in the case of Nicholas Sparks, that is an understatement. He is a phenomenon, one of the best-selling authors out there. He is to the Times bestseller list what Godzilla is to Tokyo. Sparks rarely blurbs at all, let alone with this sort of enthusiasm. And because he writes in a very different genre, romance, his endorsement could introduce my books to a much wider readership — readers who would not ordinarily consider a “crime novel.” So I am very excited at the news, and I sincerely thank all three authors. Still, is it wrong to be greedy for just one or two more?

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Jacob’s knife

My upcoming novel, Defending Jacob, tells the story of Jacob Barber, a 14-year-old boy who is accused of murdering a schoolmate. The murder weapon is this knife, a Spyderco Civilian. In the novel, the knife’s sculpted appearance shocks Jacob’s father: “The knife was sinister and beautiful, the shape of the blade, its curve and taper. It was like one of those lovely deadly things in nature, a lick of flame or the claw of an enormous cat.” That is a nice description, I suppose, but in this case a picture is worth a thousand words.

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Good News, Bad News, Great News

Over the last few weeks, the manuscript for Defending Jacob has begun making the rounds and the initial response has been, well, ecstatic. Inside Random House, the editors, publicists, sales reps and all the rest have been very enthusiastic. So have buyers representing all the major sales channels: Amazon, B&N, Borders, Costco and Sam’s Club, the wholesalers who place books in supermarkets and airports. We even have our first couple of blurbs, glowing endorsements from Lisa Gardner and — brace yourself — Nicholas Sparks. Yes, that Nicholas Sparks. I am so excited to have Sparks’s endorsement. He very, very rarely blurbs, and as a “crime writer” looking to broaden my audience, I can’t imagine a better key to the Promised Land. (I don’t think I’m free to share these blurbs yet because they’re still in draft form. When I have the final text, I’ll post them here. Hell, I’ll plaster them everywhere.)

As for scheduling, the book is technically a spring 2012 title, but is currently scheduled for release in December 2011. There is still some debate about whether December is the best timing, so the publication date is likely to be pushed back a bit.

But Defending Jacob is off to a roaring start. That’s the good news.

Continue reading →

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Copyright Run Amok

Last week I reviewed the copy-edited manuscript of Defending Jacob, the last step before the manuscript is sent to the production department. Production will lay out the text in proper book format, a stage known as “galleys.” So copy editing is really the last chance to make changes before the book designers take over. It is about cleaning up details: grammar, typos, internal consistency (things like dates and characters’ names), and fact-checking. (Technically, you can still make changes after the book has gone to galleys, but it is more expensive. If the bill gets high enough, the standard Random House contract permits the publisher to ask the author to foot the bill himself.)

Copy editing is also the time when I make sure I have permission to use any copyrighted material that is quoted in my book. It is the author’s responsibility to secure reprint rights — and to pay for them.

In the case of Defending Jacob, there was one such quotation, which was used as an epigraph on a section title page. The quote was from H.G. Wells’s 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, which predicts events from 1933 through the end of the twentieth century. Here was the quote:

In 1900, a visitor from another sphere might reasonably have decided that man, as one met him in Europe or America, was a kindly, merciful and generous creature. In 1940 he might have decided, with an equal show of justice, that this creature was diabolically malignant. And yet it was the same creature, under different conditions of stress.

To use these three sentences, I had to determine, first, whether the book was still protected by copyright. If the copyright had expired, the book would be in the public domain and I could quote from it freely — freely in both senses.

No such luck. It turned out, The Shape of Things to Come was originally due to enter the public domain in the U.S. in 1989, but the copyright was extended for another 20 years in 1976 by the federal Copyright Act, then extended again for another 20 years by the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. So The Shape of Things to Come — a book that has been out of print for years now — will not enter the public domain in the United States until 2028, 95 years after it was first published, 82 years after the author’s death. (A good summary of current copyright rules is here.)

Continue reading →

Five Fingers of Death

5 Fingers of Death

Five Fingers of Death (1972). This poster hung in Jacob Barber’s bedroom.

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It’s All Been Done

For a crime-novel writer of any quality or ambition — for a serious writer working in any genre, I imagine — there is always the little voice whispering, “It’s all been done.” How can you possibly produce, say, a courtroom drama that is original, fresh, unpredictable when there have been ten thousand courtroom dramas already written? (And that doesn’t count the endless loop of “Law & Order” reruns on basic cable.) The ten-thousand-and-first, no matter how clever or well crafted, will inevitably feel derivative, formulaic, small.

On the other hand, writers choose to work in a genre for good reasons. I write crime stories because, first, the situations are dramatic and emotionally resonant (“bad men do what good men dream”). Storytellers need drama; crime stories have it in spades. But I also like writing crime stories because they come with a ready-made shape. A murder mystery will proceed, one way or another, from the crime to the unmasking of the criminal; a courtroom drama from indictment to trial to verdict; a heist from the planning to the robbery to the escape (or failure to escape). You can play around with these formulas as much as you like, but the formulas are there and that is no small thing when you are staring at a blank computer screen. (There is another, more obvious advantage to writing genre novels, of course: people actually read them. But we’re talking about an artistic problem here, not a commercial one.)

So that is the bargain. And the little voice whispering “It’s all been done” generally doesn’t bother me. On the contrary, I find the conventions of the genre stimulating. Twice now, I’ve had a fine time playing with the tropes of police procedurals, subverting them in my first novel (“no unreliable narrators!”) and taking them out for a spin in a strange new neighborhood (Boston in the Strangler era) in my second. All been done? Well, let’s do it again, in a new way.

In fact, I try quite consciously to find a “precursor text” for all my books, that is, a book or film (usually several) that will give shape to the story I am trying to tell, particularly in the early stages of writing when the story is still unformed.* You don’t have to dig too deeply in The Strangler, for example, to see the influence of L.A. Confidential. All writers do this, with varying degrees of awareness. How could any writer not be influenced by the books he has read and loved? Even using the term “precursor text” to describe the practice is something I borrowed from one of my betters, novelist David Lodge, who always identifies a precursor for his novels.

But with book three, for some reason I listened to that little voice too much. I let the genre novelist’s insecurity get to me. The book is, in the end, a courtroom drama. It is narrated by a man whose teenage son is accused of killing a classmate, and the centerpiece of the novel is the boy’s trial. The trouble was, when it came to writing the critical courtroom section of the book, I was too determined to avoid cliché, to write a courtroom drama utterly unlike any of the ten thousand that have come before — a fool’s errand, but then it’s easy to make a fool of yourself in this business. So out went the usual pre-trial strategy talks. Out went the tried and true good-cop-bad-cop interrogation of the defendant. Out went the dramatic parade into the courtroom for the arraignment. Any scene that felt remotely secondhand was cut or truncated.

Monday I heard from my editor that this section of the manuscript needs a rewrite to restore at least some of these conventional scenes. After I had ruthlessly excised every scene that had ever appeared in a legal novel, she suggested, there just wasn’t enough drama or mystery left. The storytelling was fresh and innovative, yes. It just wasn’t very compelling.

It ought to have been devastating news. This is the third or fourth major rewrite of the manuscript (I’ve lost count). And of course I was disappointed. The trial sequence ought to have been the most sure-footed part of the book. As a former trial lawyer, it’s what I know best. Worse, I had resisted making these very changes in previous rewrites.

But I see now, after taking a day or two to wrap my brain around the problem, that my editor was right. The formulas work. Subvert them, twist them, depart from them by all means. Be daring and original. But remember that story comes first. It is a mistake to sacrifice good storytelling to some abstract conception of immaculate originality. It has all been done, it’s true. The trick, so late in the life of the genre, is to innovate just enough — make it new, but keep what works.

Another rewrite. So it goes.

* Note to the book-nerds out there: Yes, yes, I know, the term “precursor text” is borrowed from Harold Bloom and I’m not using it properly. Obviously I am talking about a purposeful, self-aware sort of borrowing, which is not the “anxiety of influence” that Bloom means. The term is a useful descriptor, though, and I’ve been using it this way for years in plotting my books. No emails, please, about what a boob I am to have misappropriated it. Emails calling me a boob for other reasons are of course always welcome.

Starting Over

Tuesday I got the very good news from my editor, Kate, that my manuscript is finally finished — “nailed,” in her word. For those of you who have been following the stuttering process of bringing this book to completion, you will recall that I have reached the finish line several times before, only to have the manuscript returned to me for more changes. For the last month or so, I have been making a last round of corrections. The ending was particularly troublesome. I completely rewrote it several times, not to change the story but to fine-tune the storytelling. This time it really is done.

There remains just one nut to crack: the book still does not have a title. In my desperation, a couple weeks ago I took a very unscientific poll of my friends and family to pick among the likeliest candidates. The winner in a landslide was “Line of Descent,” a title my editor has already judged insufficiently attention-grabbing. At this point I admit I have lost interest in the whole subject. My publishers can call the damn thing whatever they want. I’m sick of thinking about it. In my own mind I have already moved on to the next project.

So what is the next project? That is not entirely clear to me yet. Here is what I do know.

I want to write about the Combat Zone, Boston’s notorious old red-light district, in the bicentennial year of 1976, an epochal moment in Boston. I have wanted to set a story there for a long time. I have written about the Zone before. A few years ago, I even tried to sell Kate on a novel set there. She did not buy it, and I wound up scavenging the proposed novel for the bones of a story that ultimately became my just-completed novel. (Lord, it would be easier to talk about that book if it had a name.)

Why the Combat Zone? There are a few signature Boston crime stories: the Strangler, the Combat Zone, the rise and fall of Whitey Bulger, the pedophile priests scandal. To me, it always seemed like bullshit that local writers kept churning out generic hard-boiled detective stories that had nothing to do with the real Boston when these true, epic stories were hanging there, ripe for the taking. Imagine the audacity of the Combat Zone experiment: in order to contain an intractable, spreading trade in prostitution and adult entertainment, Boston created a lawless zone — a sort of mini Tombstone or Dodge City — right in the heart of downtown. What writer could resist that?

Continue reading →

Inventing Laurie Barber

Last Friday I turned in a second version of the manuscript of my novel-in-progress, and this week I got back notes from my editor and agent. The changes they suggest are mostly minor — an off-key note here and there, a few details to clarify. The book is in good shape, for the most part.

One not-so-minor problem continues to dog me: the novel still does not have a title. The latest suggestion, Cold Spring, was rejected (rightly) as “not big enough.” [sigh] It is hard to believe I have been puzzling over this title as long as I have, only to find on the eve of finishing the book that I have no idea what to call the damn thing.

The tallest task in this rewrite, though, is to breathe life into the female lead, Laurie Barber, a suburban mom whose 14-year-old son is accused of murdering a classmate. For reasons I can’t quite articulate, Laurie still feels a little flat to me. My editor and agent both are women (as are most editors and agents) and both expressed reservations about this character. I wonder if they are more alive to the gaps in her presentation — if they sense something missing that I had not, until now. They suggested only tweaks in Laurie’s character, “I wanted to hear more from her” or “I didn’t think she would really say this on page 22.” But to me the problem is bigger: Laurie does not come off the page and live the way the other characters do. She still feels faintly artificial, a creation of words. You don’t sense a real person with a beating heart behind all those words on the page.

Of course women are difficult for a male writer to create, as men must be for women writers — as any alien character, a Belgian or an extraterrestrial, would be for any writer. It is quite a leap to imagine the actual experience of being the opposite sex. Which is odd, since I have had no problem imagining the experience of being all sorts of homicidal or otherwise deviant characters. (Empathize with the Boston Strangler? Sure. But a suburban mom? Impossible.)

The task is made harder by the fact that I don’t like to base my characters on real people. I prefer to write them into existence from a blank canvas. That is obviously a more laborious, painterly process, sketching them in with ever more detail until somehow, mysteriously, the girl in the picture quickens into life.

I have two weeks to accomplish it. One last chance before I turn to the next project. Who are you, Laurie Barber?

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A Hangman’s Metaphysics

We no longer have any sympathy today with the concept of “free will.” We know only too well what it is — the most infamous of all the arts of the theologian for making mankind “accountable” in his sense of the word, that is to say for making mankind dependent on him…. I give here only the psychology of making men accountable. Everywhere accountability is sought, it is usually the instinct for punishing and judging which seeks it. One has deprived becoming of its innocence if being in this or that state is traced back to will, to intentions, to accountable acts: the doctrine of will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is of finding guilty. The whole of the old-style psychology, the psychology of will, has as its precondition the desire of its authors — the priests at the head of the ancient communities — to create for themselves a right to ordain punishments, or their desire to create for God a right to do so…. Men were thought of as “free” so that they could become guilty; consequently, every action had to be thought of as willed, the origin of every action as lying in the consciousness (whereby the most fundamental falsification in psychologicis was made into the very principle of psychology)…. Today, when we have started to move in the reverse direction, when we immoralists especially are trying with all our might to remove the concept of guilt and the concept of punishment from the world and to purge psychology, history, nature, the social institutions, and sanctions of them, there is in our eyes no more radical opposition than that of the theologians, who continue to infect the innocence of becoming with “punishment” and “guilt” by means of the concept of the “moral world order.” Christianity is a hangman’s metaphysics.

— Frederick Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, 1889 (via)

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The Murder Gene

Last September in Italy, a man convicted of what would, in this country, be called second-degree murder or manslaughter had his 9-year sentence reduced on appeal on the grounds that he exhibited

abnormalities in brain-imaging scans and in five genes that have been linked to violent behaviour — including the gene encoding the neurotransmitter-metabolizing enzyme monoamine oxidase A (MAOA). … Giving his verdict, [the judge] said he had found the MAOA evidence particularly compelling.

The ruling marks the first time a defense based on behavioral genetics — the argument that a defendant’s genes caused him to commit the crime — has affected the outcome of a criminal case in any European court. To my knowledge, no defendant has ever succeeded with this argument in America, either, though many have tried.

I have written before about the implications of behavioral genetics for criminal law, which is built on the assumption that we are generally responsible for our own actions. Surely this is an issue the criminal courts will have to face: some people may indeed be genetically hard-wired for violence. But this decision comes as a surprise to me because the science does not seem to justify it, not yet. We simply don’t know that a single gene like MAOA causes specific behaviors, even in very specific gene-environment interactions. It is a bad decision but a telling one: as the science of behavioral genetics advances, at some point the courts will find it impossible ignore. (To learn more, a great scholarly article by law professor Owen D. Jones is here.)

For now, though, the idea of a “murder gene” is the stuff of novels, not science. My own next novel takes up this very issue. It involves a man named Andy Barber, who descends from a long line of violent men and whose teenage son Jacob is accused of murdering a classmate. Jacob, it turns out, also carries the MAOA gene variant — sometimes called the “warrior gene.” Preparing for his son’s murder trial, Andy says,

The legal question we discussed most … was the relevance of Jacob’s violent bloodline. We referred to this issue as the “murder gene” to express our contempt for the idea, for its backwardness, for the way it warped the real science of DNA and the genetic component of behavior, and overlaid it with the junk science of sleazy lawyers, the cynical science-lite language whose actual purpose was to manipulate juries, to fool them with the sheen of scientific certainty. The murder gene was a lie. It was also a deeply subversive idea. It undercut the whole premise of the criminal law. In court, the thing we punish is the criminal intention — the mens rea, the guilty mind. There is an ancient rule: actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea — “the act does not create guilt unless the mind is also guilty.” This is why we do not convict children, drunks, and schizophrenics: they are incapable of deciding to commit their crimes, not with a true understanding of the significance of their actions. Free will is as important to the law as it is to religion or any other code of morality. We do not punish the leopard for its wildness. But that is the argument Logiudice [the prosecutor] would make if he had the chance: born bad. He would whisper it in the jury’s ear, like a gossip passing a secret. We were determined to stop him, to give Jacob a fair chance.

The murder gene may indeed be junk science, for now at least, but it is a haunting idea. We are quite comfortable with the idea that certain benign traits may inherited — musical talent, athleticism. Why not a talent for violence?

Image: Bryan Christie, “Pharmaceutical Brain”

A Male Jodi Picoult

Yesterday my novel-in-progress reached a critical milestone. My editor and I had a long talk in which we agreed that the story is now all in place. A new ending, which takes the story in a direction I never dreamed of when I began writing page 1, now seems right and credible, even inevitable — in the way that good endings always seem inevitable once you have “discovered” them. So what remains now is just minor changes, polishing. In 2-4 weeks I will turn the manuscript in and essentially be done with it. There will be a few more rounds of edits, but from here on the changes will be increasingly picayune, things like moving commas and checking for internal consistency. Important, yes, but less arduous.

The feedback from my editor, Kate Miciak, has been glowing. Kate is a brilliant editor and not one to bullshit. Lord knows, she has been blunt about my manuscripts in the past. So when she raves, I take her at her word. And she is raving about this book.

The hope is that the book will appeal to a wider audience than my first two have. It is not a gritty urban crime story. The setting (the suburbs) and the characters seem more “relatable.” It should be more accessible to the wide swath of readers who, to be frank, I will have to reach if I am to make a go of this: women, book clubs, general-fiction readers who simply won’t consider genre mystery or suspense, no matter how literate or rich. Not to worry: the book is a crime story. But it is equally a family story and a lot less bloody than my other novels have been. I know, I know — I’m getting old, going soft.

A few other random developments:

  • The book still does not have a title. This has bugged me from the start, as I’ve written here before. A title brings the whole project into focus. A book without a title is like a forgotten name — it is right on the tip of your tongue but you can’t quite find the words. Infuriating.
  • I hope to “publish” the first chapter online very soon. I’d love to share at least a little bit of the story with readers who have been waiting for a long time already and now will have to wait until next summer. Obviously this raises copyright issues but I can’t imagine Bantam will object. They routinely publish the first chapter of upcoming books as a teaser. Stay tuned.
  • The last couple of weeks have been a root canal. I lost energy and focus. Attention fatigue set in; I have been staring at this project too damn long. Worse, I had just expended quite a bit of energy to get the manuscript in, only to be told the ending needed a complete rewrite. So maybe a letdown was inevitable. Still, this was a lowpoint. That’s the way it goes, though. Writing a novel is a marathon. There are lots of ups and downs like this. Now, at least, I am over Heartbreak Hill and racing for the finish. Now run, you lazy bastard, run!
  • The book will be a lead title for Bantam in spring or summer 2011. The precise pub date has not been set yet and won’t be for quite some time. As all publishers do, we will look for a window when no bigfoot authors are rolling out their summer blockbusters. It’s hard enough to generate buzz during the lulls.
  • My editor envisions a hardcover-to-trade-paperback path for the book. That is a big step for me, one I am very excited about. I have always felt that my books are miscast as mass-market paperbacks, and I have always wanted to see them in trade format. (Trade paperbacks are the larger size, priced around $12-$15. The format signals readers that the publisher considers the book a significant one, worthy of the higher price even for a paperback.) There has been some category confusion about my books, I’m afraid. They look for all the world like airport thrillers but they read like something else. What that “something else” is, exactly, is anybody’s guess. “Literary crime”? Good luck finding that section in your local bookstore. Unfortunately, there is no precise pigeonhole for me in the market, which is why my books have been tough for publishers to position. But trade paperback gets closer to the mark.
  • It has been suggested that this book might become a template for me and, rather than pursue more violent tales of urban mayhem, I might just settle down and become “a male Jodi Picoult, with a touch of Scott Turow.” Which sounds just grand to me.

Finally, thank you, sincerely, to everyone who reads this blog and sends emails and “likes” me on Facebook and waits around for years between books. You readers mean the world to me. It is a privilege to be a novelist. You all make that possible. I never forget that.

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Will e-novels be shorter?

Ephraim Rubenstein - Still Life With Burned Books

A few weeks ago, over on Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell wrote a post that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

I would estimate that about 80% of the non-academic non-fiction books that I do not find a complete waste of time (i.e. good books in politics, economics etc — I can’t speak to genres that I don’t know) are at least twice as long as they should be. They make an interesting point, and then they make it again, and again, padding it out with some quasi-relevant examples, and tacking on a conclusion about What It All Means which the author clearly doesn’t believe herself. The length of the average book reflects the economics of the print trade and educated guesses as to what book-buyers will actually pay for, much more than it does the actual intellectual content of the book itself. Length may also, of course, reflect some practical judgments concerning the book as a display object.

He went on to predict “an explosion in the number of very short books/essays” as we move to a world of electronic publishing, because buyers will not be put off by shorter books when they can’t actually see (or display) them as physical objects.

I hope he is right, of course. The extinction of padded-out nonfiction books would be good news for everyone, except maybe Malcolm Gladwell.

But what struck me most about the post was how rare it is to see a discussion of how this new medium will affect books themselves. The conversation about ebooks is obsessed with the business of publishing. Which traditional publishers will survive, which won’t? Which reader will dominate, iPad or Kindle or something else? How will authors get by when publishers’ margins approach zero, as resellers like Amazon drive down prices and tent-pole authors find they don’t need traditional publishing houses at all? In all this, relatively little is said about the books.

What about fiction? In a world of ebooks, will fiction shrink, too?

I think it will, but not for the same reason. Unlike nonfiction, which begins to feel overstretched when there are more pages than ideas, there is no “natural” length for a story. Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby are equally masterpieces, of unequal length. I just finished Wolf Hall, a cinderblock of a book, but it did not feel overlong at all. If anything, it ended too soon. (I raved about it here.) The test is whether a story works dramatically. Even a very short story can feel too long.

And that is what will force novels to shrink: as we increasingly move to reading on screens, everything begins to feel too long. The reading public is losing its ability to stay focused on a longer text. Online, readers are conditioned to graze, to nibble and move on. Even the verbs we use for reading on the internet, browse, surf, suggest how superficial the experience feels. These increasingly are our readers, of fiction and nonfiction alike: harried, restless, impatient.

Worse, ebooks will increasingly share the same screens as the rest of the digital tsunami. No longer will you turn off your computer and open a book in peace. The iPad and whatever is likely to follow will be fully web-enabled, so the whole Times Square of the internet will always be one click away. For the moment, dedicated ebook-reading devices like the Kindle offer a quieter reading environment, but that is likely to change as more versatile devices like the iPad enter the market.

I have seen my own patience for long books begin to shrivel. So many novels now seem to drag, particularly in the second act. To be fair, part of it may be other pressures: between two young kids and working, I am squeezed for time. But part of it is the distracted feeling we all share today. It is the way we read now.

I have begun to tune my own writing accordingly. I made a conscious decision to make my third novel shorter than my first two by about 20%. Most of the tightening is in that critical second act, where the pace tends to slow down and the plot often wanders, to no real purpose. I am keenly aware that this novel will be competing with an array of new media and that my hold on the reader’s attention is precarious, and it scares the hell out of me. My competition  is not other novelists; it is all the other media crowding onto my readers’ screens and into their minds, try as they might to shut them out. I simply can’t afford to shuffle my feet for a hundred pages and expect the reader to still be there for act three.

Of course, there is nothing new about novelists shaping their work to the tastes of contemporary audiences. Dickens’ novels are long and intricately plotted because that was what his audience demanded. He generally wrote for serial publication in periodicals, so his stories had to extend and ramify over very long periods, like modern TV series. (HBO’s “The Wire” was often compared to Dickens’ stories, and rightly so.) Serial publication also allowed Dickens to monitor how his books were being received and tweak them as he went along to give readers what they wanted.

It is hard to give readers what they want, of course, because it is impossible to know what they want. But I suspect that shorter novels will increasingly become the norm, just as shorter nonfiction will. This, it should be noted, is a hopeful prediction. Better that novels go on a diet than die out altogether.

Image: “Still Life With Burned Books” by Ephraim Rubenstein (oil on linen, 38″ x 50″).


Last Friday at 11:00 PM I emailed the finished manuscript of my book to my agent and editor. At this point, it is hard to know how long it has taken to refine this book from the first gleam of an idea to completion. But it has been almost three years since I finished my last book and started to develop this idea. The story has been through several iterations in that time. At one point I got so frustrated with it I even set it aside to work on something else. So it is obviously an enormous relief to be done with it.

The story in its final version involves a 14-year-old boy accused of murdering a classmate in a comfortable Boston suburb. My film agent described it, in perfect filmspeak, as “Presumed Innocent” meets “Ordinary People,” which puts you in the right ballpark at least. But the story began life as something quite different. The germ of the idea was simply: father watches his son accused of murder and wonders, “Who is this stranger I have raised?”

What first caught my imagination was the sight of defendants’ parents sitting stoically in the back of a courtroom during a trial. What is it like for them? I have seen crime stories told from the point of view of criminals and victims, but here was a player whose misery goes unnoticed. In a way, they are blameless victims, too.

The parents’ situation also gets at a question that was on my mind, not about crime but crime novels: why do good people who would never dream of stealing a piece of gum read with pleasure about bloody murder? The question is not limited to crime novels. Stories about crime dominate the news, too, for the simple reason that people watch them. We have always been fascinated with crime dramas. Some of the oldest stories we have are crime stories.

I think that in crime stories we must see some reflection of ourselves. Just as the Oedipus story — the first detective story, reputedly — enacts a primal instinct, so do other crime stories resonate with us by touching fantasies and fears we only dimly understand. “Bad men do what good men dream,” as one observer puts it.

The audience’s fascination with crime is especially poignant in the case of the murderer’s parents. Here the identification with the criminal is more than an imaginative projection, because every parent identifies so closely with her child. Genetically and socially, the child is made of the same stuff as the parents in some mysterious combination of nature and nurture. So, when those parents sitting in the back of the courtroom ask, “What does this story say about me?”, they are asking the same question as the reader curled up in bed with a crime novel — they simply have more at stake in the answer.

These were some of the ideas I wanted to tease out in this novel. Now, finally, it is written. There will be more work to do, of course. What I have handed in is just a draft. There will be rewriting. Depending on what my editor thinks of the pages, there may be a lot of rewriting. But the hardest part is done, not just the writing itself, going from a blank page to a finished manuscript, but the conceptual work — going from that first dim inspiration to seeing the story before you. Some of the hardest work is done, invisibly, before you write that first sentence.

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Last Words

Yesterday I finished the last scene of the new book, a scene I had been wrestling with for days. Endings are a tricky business. Obviously the last page of a novel should move the reader somehow, which is why writers tend to swing for the fences. This is where the prose often puffs itself up — “So we beat on, boats against the current,” that sort of thing.

There is an old joke that no man should wear a Greek fisherman’s cap unless he is both (a) Greek and (b) a fisherman. Well, stirring finales like “So we beat on…” ought to come with a similar warning to writers: Don’t try this unless (a) you are F. Scott Fitzgerald and (b) you have just written The Great Gatsby. By the end of an effective novel, the drama of the story should be moving enough, anyway, without the need for grandiose writing. Less is more.

But there is danger at this end of the spectrum, too. I find a lot of novels end too abruptly to be satisfying. They show too much restraint. They simply stop. To me, as a reader, I want all my time and emotional investment in the characters to be paid off somehow. Less is more — but only to a point. Then less becomes too little.

So it is a difficult balance, and I finally managed to get something down that I could live with. Now I go back to fill in a few holes. There are a couple of short scenes to write from scratch plus one to rewrite, then I will have a few weeks to edit and polish before I send it all to my editor, Kate Miciak, at Random House. Several more rounds of edits will follow, until we all run out of time or patience, whichever comes first. But the heaviest lifting is done, and that is a huge relief.

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