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Celebrating the Book at BEA 2011

 

Greetings from New York City, where I’m attending BookExpo America, the annual convention and trade show of the American Booksellers Association.

I’m happy to report that rumors of the death of the book, traditional publishing, traditional bookselling, and just about anything book-related have all been wildly exaggerated. I see a great energy at this meeting, and a lot of optimism about the future of books and bookselling. As I told an interviewer with Publishers Weekly, I think the changes the industry’s going through right now – painful as they may be – offer great new opportunities for booksellers, especially the independent stores that offer so much extra value to their customers.

This is what the signing line looked like from my perspective, around 11:00 this morning:

I was delighted to see so many booksellers, librarians, and other evangelists of the printed word, old friends and new acquaintances. Quite a few of them had already gotten advance copies of BURIED SECRETS, or could have gotten them through other channels; they took the time to stand in line just to say hi, which I appreciate most of all. Writing books is a pretty solitary business, and BookExpo is a unique opportunity to interact with colleagues and the people who make my work possible.  

Electronic publishing (Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, etc.) has made texts available in many new ways to many people who might not have had access to those texts before. I love the convenience of my e-reader, but I’ll never give up the physical book. In fact, the other day I asked folks on my Facebook fan page what they thought about a news report that women readers preferred the Nook e-reader for its color capabilities. Rather than weigh in on the merits of one e-reader over another, the overwhelming majority of people who commented said they’d rather have a printed book.  

What the rise of e-books says to me is that more people are reading, and that’s good for everyone. Readers read. People who discover the joys of reading in an electronic medium will want to share that with their friends and family, and the easiest way to do that is still a physical book. I look at the books on my shelves and remember where almost all of them came from: books I bought, books that were gifts, books I’ve written. Nothing will ever replace the pleasure of putting a book into someone’s hands and saying, “I think you’ll really like this.” And that, right there, is the secret power of all good booksellers. 

I have a clipping from sometime last year that quotes an MIT expert’s prediction that the physical book will be a thing of the past by 2015. I’m guessing that prediction will be just as accurate as the predictions that the world would end last Saturday. Just in case, I’ve marked my Google calendar.

(Thanks to my publicist Meghan Walker for the photos!)

Plan B: Getting to Know Nick Heller

Did you know Nick Heller used to smoke?

Neither did I, until I wrote “Plan B,” the short story available for free download today for Kindle and Kobo readers.

I don’t write many short stories. “Neighbors,” included in Otto Penzler’s collection AGENTS OF TREACHERY, was my first published short story, though I’ve also written chapters for the audiobooks THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT and THE COPPER BRACELET.

But constructing a series character like Nick Heller offers a world of new writing possibilities. In almost any situation I see or read about, I can ask, “What would Nick do?” I’ve also spent a great deal of time thinking about Nick’s previous life, his likes and dislikes, and all the things we know about the people closest to us but never really think about. It’s important for me to know these things about Nick, but only a fraction of it will ever show up in the novels.

That’s why I’m so glad to be able to share “Plan B,” which drops Nick into a dangerous situation far from home. Hearing that Nick had recently saved a kidnapped girl in Boston, a wealthy Ukrainian hires him to rescue his 15-year-old daughter, who’s being held in a Spanish billionaire’s compound in Barcelona. It would be easier to break her out of a high-security prison — but all is not as it seems, which is why Nick always has a Plan B.

“Plan B” is a free download at both Amazon.com and Kobobooks.com. It comes with a bonus excerpt from BURIED SECRETS, which goes on sale June 21. I hope you enjoy the extra time with Nick as much as I did.

The Myth of “Write What You Know”

Almost every time I talk to a group of aspiring writers, I hear someone tell them how important it is to “write what you know.” It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m always tempted to stand up like a character in an old courtroom drama and say, “I OBJECT!” 

Write what you know? Write what I know? If I wrote what I knew, I wouldn’t be writing thrillers. Believe it or not, I have never been a clairvoyant, a military lawyer (or any kind of lawyer), a manufacturing CEO or even a high-performing technology salesman. I’ve never been a Special Forces operative, a hired killer, or a teenaged girl.

Sure, I do research. I do a lot of research, which you can read more about here. I’ll go to great lengths to get the details right; did you see my post over at Criminal Element about being sealed in a coffin as part of the research for BURIED SECRETS? (More about that later; stay tuned in the weeks ahead.) But research is only part of the job, and excessive research does seem to support a belief in writing what you know.

The truth is, the novelist’s job is to write what we don’t know. Imagination is not only the author’s job, but the author’s privilege. It’s also the reason most of us got into this work to begin with. 

If I had started out writing what I knew, I’d have written very short stories about a kid who lived in upstate New York and wanted to be a cartoonist. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not knocking those stories. I love Philip Roth’s novels, and John Cheever’s, and Sue Miller’s, and Tom Perrotta’s, and all those authors who make art out of everyday life. But the thing was, that wasn’t what I wanted my life to be. 

I’m still not admitting that I daydreamed in class – okay, maybe a little. When I did, though, it wasn’t about the details of my own life. What would the point of that have been? No, I spent that time in my imagination traveling with Dave and Chuck to the Mushroom Planet, when I was younger, or playing baccarat with James Bond and catching trains with George Smiley, when I was older. I apologize to the teachers who suspected me of daydreaming, but my time was better spent than they realized. What is fiction writing, after all, but focused, purposeful daydreaming on paper?

Over the course of ten novels (11, if you count the one I’m finishing now), research has given me the practical details of so many lives very different from my own. More important, however, I’ve spent countless hours imagining what it was like to be them. I’ll never be a hedge fund manager, or a jet engineer, or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. I don’t need to be. I’ve already imagined those lives — and feel lucky to have this one, which has enough space for all of them.

To aspiring writers, then, I say, don’t write what you know. Write what you imagine. Write what inspires you. Write the story you want to tell, and fill in the details later. Research is fun, but it shouldn’t interfere with the momentum of your story, in either the reading or the writing. What you can’t find out, you can always make up. That’s why they call it “fiction.”


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