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Why I Go to Bouchercon

Among the highlights of my year is Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, held every fall at locations that rotate around the country. Jon Jordan, chair of this year’s Bouchercon, asked participants for their most treasured Bouchercon memories. Here’s one of mine.

What I really wanted to be when I grew up was a cartoonist. When I visited my older sister in college she introduced me to one of the freshman counselors, Garry Trudeau, who was already famous for writing and drawing “Doonesbury.” It didn’t help when I took basic drawing my freshman year and flunked out — literally got an F. (How bad do you have to be to get an F in basic drawing, right?)

But a man can still dream . . .

At Bouchercon in Baltimore, I accosted a DC Comics editor named Will Dennis at one of the parties. I told him I had a subplot in a novel I was writing at the time, VANISHED, involving a kid who was doing a graphic novel that would contain an important clue, and I asked him if he could give me a quick “Comics For Dummies” lesson so I could pretend to know what I was talking about. Will said sure and introduced me to the guy he was sitting with — a comic book writer named Brian Azzarello. The name was vaguely familiar — was it possible this was the genius behind “Joker,” which became the movie Dark Knight? And the hardboiled crime classic 100 Bullets?

Yep. That was the guy.

Then I came up with the idea to actually do a comic book based on the fictional one in Vanished. And Brian Azzarello volunteered to write it.

Very cool.

Will Dennis helped me find an artist, Benito Gallego, who drew in a sort of retro Silver Age comic-book style, which I wanted. The result was The Cowl. Which — I can say it, since I didn’t write it or illustrate it — turned out to be pretty awesome.

All because I was boorish one day at Bouchercon.

Driving Off Distractions

Ask any novelist: it happens every day. We meet someone new who asks, “What do you do?” We tell them, and that person – in line at the post office, at a PTA meeting, online, wherever – will say, “I have a great idea for a book. Want to write it with me?”

It’s a generous offer, meant with nothing but goodwill, but my answer is always some variation of “No, thank you.” I try to be polite. Some authors I know aren’t.

Coming up with ideas is never the problem. The ideas are out there, everywhere, too many of them. Everything starts with “what if?” What if the barista at the Starbucks near MIT is a spy sent to pick up scientific secrets? What if those parents at the dance recital adopted their child illegally? What if that old man walking his dog is a Balkan war criminal in hiding? It’s a strange, complicated world, and real life is just as dramatic and surprising as fiction. The Boston Globe alone could give me enough material for a lifetime of thrillers.

No, the challenge writers face isn’t ideas, it’s time — and focus.

I read somewhere that the average first novel should be about 80,000 words. My books run slightly longer than that (BURIED SECRETS is roughly 95,000), and it takes time to put those words on paper. A good idea, that initial burst of inspiration, might be good for 30,000 words or so. I also write very fast as I’m finishing a book; in the last week or two of writing, I’m up before dawn and writing well into the night, as the story takes on a momentum of its own.

Between that, I get distracted. And distractions kill more novels than anything else.

Over the years I have tried to train myself to avoid distractions, but new ones just keep coming. As big a boon as the Internet is to a writer, it’s also a curse. Googling anything is dangerous: one link leads to another, and the next thing I know, two hours have passed. I can spend all morning on email. Twitter is addictive. Facebook is the break room my office doesn’t have. And don’t get me started on YouTube…

I’ve set rules for myself. I’ve made it a game; an hourglass sits on my desk, and while the sands run, I can’t go online. It’s not always enough. A recent Wall Street Journal blog post reported on writers who deliberately seek out Internet-free zones so they can write without distraction. I’d do the same, if not for Mac Freedom, a program that literally locks me out of the Internet for some period I choose. Yes, I paid (a very reasonable sum) for a program to keep me offline. That’s how important it is.

So now I’m online in the morning, before I start writing, and I’m online in the late afternoon and evening, after the writing is done. Some days, if the writing’s going well, you’ll catch me online in the middle of the day. But the battle against distraction is constant, and I’m always looking for new weapons against it.

To Blurb or Not to Blurb

It gives me great pleasure to see the paperback edition of HIGH CRIMES back on shelves today, 13 years after its original publication. Like most paperback versions of books originally published in hardcover, it carries a few excerpts from good reviews — “Fast and furious,” according to The New York Times, right there on the front cover.

Pick up the hardcover of VANISHED, though, and you’ll see not a review, but a very nice quotation from Lee Child. I won’t reproduce it all here, but he says, among other things, that he thinks Nick Heller and Jack Reacher would “go for a beer together and set the world to rights.” This is what we in the business call a “blurb.” The word was originally coined to mock excessive praise on book jackets, but I don’t think of it as a derogatory term; it just means “A short description of a book, film, musical work, or other product written and used for promotional purposes.” Publishers like to use blurbs to promote hardcovers, particularly for new authors, as they give readers some advance confidence about the quality of a book before the reviews come in.

Lee’s blurb for VANISHED was unusual in the business (though not unusual for Lee), because it gave potential readers specific information about the book and its main character, Nick Heller. It’s clear from the quotation that Lee actually read VANISHED, as I know he reads all the books he recommends.

I too read every book I blurb, which is why I don’t give many recommendations. Some authors I know (naming no names) don’t feel the need, as long as the book comes to them from a trusted source. The columnist Calvin Trillin once wrote that anyone giving a blurb should have to disclose his or her relationship to the author under the quotation —“Brother-in-law,” “Share the same agent,” “Met him in a bar.” Several years ago, I ran into an author who told me he’d just read THE DA VINCI CODE, and it was great. It would have been rude to point out that this author had blurbed the book when it had come out the year before.

Do I blame the authors who blurb without reading? No. On a book-a-year schedule, it’s hard enough to reread your own drafts, much less the books people send you for endorsements. It gets to be a vicious circle, too: the more successful the author, the more requests for blurbs, the less time to read the books. It’s hard to say no, especially if it’s a friend asking. It’s tempting to say yes, because really, what harm does it do?

I learned this lesson the hard way. Once upon a time – I won’t say when – I gave a book a quotation without having read it. As it turned out, the book wasn’t very good, and what surprised me was how many people let me know. They felt betrayed. They had trusted my recommendation, and I let them down. I was embarrassed and sorry. If I’d read the book first, I’d have saved everyone some time.

As it happens, this week also marks the publication of a book I did blurb: BRINGING ADAM HOME, by the crime writer Les Standiford with Detective Sergeant Joe Matthews. It’s the harrowing true story of the hunt for Adam Walsh’s murderer, and my recommendation is right on the back cover. Like Lee’s quotation for VANISHED, it’s a little too long to reprint in full here, but among other things, I called the book “heartbreaking and hypnotically suspenseful.”

And now you know I really meant it.

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