Publishers Marketplace
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
RSS feed of this page
Help help with RSS feeds
Ravings From The Writing Desk
by:  Gary Kriss
'The time has come,' the walrus said, 'to talk of many things: of shoes and ships - and sealing wax - of cabbages and kings.'
July 24, 2013

None So Blind

Publishers just don’t get it.

Not just the Big ________ (insert the proper number; I haven’t checked the news for today’s reconfiguration) and Amazon. All those companies that, in some way, fancy themselves a player in the book business. (Can you say Apple, Microsoft . . .?)

In a state of affairs more suited to soap operas than books, each day seems to bring a new story or new wrinkle on an old story regarding subterfuge, collusion, conspiracy, dirty dealings and good old-fashioned, yagottaloveit sabotage in the publishing industry. The reason is sadly simple: publishers just don’t understand subterfuge, collusion, conspiracy, dirty dealings and good old-fashioned, yagottaloveit sabotage. That’s why they get caught.

Now here’s the worst part: there’s absolutely no reason for publishers not to succeed at subterfuge, collusion, conspiracy, dirty dealings and good old-fashioned, yagottaloveit sabotage, even if they don’t understand it. They don’t have to understand it. They have people in their employ who not only understand it, but have proven they’re experts at it.

Not the suits, who, ironically, are the ones most often called upon. Talk about ill-suited! The only covert operation most suits are skilled in is padding expense accounts. Wait! I take that back. There are a few special suits who have given covert new meaning by secreting themselves into corporate crannies even roaches couldn’t conquer.

No, we’re not talking suits; we’re talking authors. Very special authors. Authors who have mastered a genre that commands best-seller lists. Thriller authors! Every publisher has them. But having is not the same as properly using. What brings this to mind is ThrillerFest, the annual Manhattan gathering of the International Thriller Writers, held two weeks ago at the Grand Hyatt. Some of today’s most renowned authors were there among the thousand plus attendees, an elite group of highly talented people who have proven in their books they can practice subterfuge, collusion, conspiracy, dirty dealings and good old-fashioned, yagottaloveit sabotage with the best of them and get away with it. The more far-fetched the task, the greater the ease with which it’s accomplished. These minds are amazing!

Need proof? Well, what about Brad Meltzer, who the government tapped to work with the FBI, CIA and Department of Homeland Security on creating possible terrorist attack scenarios? Don’t you think those have a generous dollop of subterfuge, collusion, conspiracy, dirty dealings and good old-fashioned, yagottaloveit sabotage? Then there’s Gayle Lynds, creator of spy novels so authentic they anticipated current happenings. You want plots? These people can give you plots, tell you how to carry them out successfully or, if you prefer, how to detect and thwart them. In other words, they’ve got both sides of the street covered.

Plots? I don’t need no stinkin’ plots, I need direct action, you say? In that case, maybe you need David Morrell, or, to be more precise, maybe one of his legendary characters: John Rambo. Think you’ve got a task Rambo couldn’t carry out, courtesy of Morrell’s creative mind? Or maybe the job is more suitable for Lee Child by way of his iconic Jack Reacher, provided you can find Reacher (he travels a lot, light). There isn’t much Reacher can’t handle. Unlike corporate attorneys, the firm of Rambo and Reacher can (literally) cut to the chase and at a lot less cost.

See that’s the point. Rather than spending millions on billable hours, publishers could simply tap their thriller authors, both famous and up-and-coming, to figure things out and/or bring them to a successful resolve. Instead publishers are demanding that these authors produce more books and faster. They consider this both a better use of their money and a solution to their problems.

Publishers just don’t get it. But it ain’t that hard. If you’re in a war, then gather your best troops and set them loose. That way, in the end, you’ll be able to proclaim, like Rambo, “I did what I had to do to win!” The key word there, in case you missed it, is win!

June 28, 2010

Fiction Writers MUST Be Preachers

Wait a minute! Let me read that Blog Title again. Does it really say that fiction writers must be preachers?! Waz Up With Dat?? Isn't preaching one of the fundamental "no-nos" for fiction writers. It says so--right there in every basic fiction writing book, so it's got to be so.

OK everyone--raise your hands: WHO WANTS TO PLAY LET'S BREAK A WRITING RULE!?

Let's start with why this a writing rule in the first place. You'll see a lot of reasons given, but seldom, if ever, the real one. Writers should preach because they're lousy preachers. That's what it really comes down to--writers don't know jacksomethingorother about preaching. BTW, neither do a lot of preachers. (A CYA moment of self-preservation here: my wife, who is a minister, is obviously not one of them.)

Preaching is nothing more than a means of trying to arrive at some sort of truth that has relevance for everyday life. It may be centered around a holy scripture but need not be, despite the common perception. That's its substance: every thing else falls into the realm of accidents. (Time to dig out Thomas Aquinas--or to get hold of him if you have nothing to dig out.)

What are some of these accidents (read--things that are non-essential)? Oh, I don't know, maybe: long-windedness (my wife had a homiletics professor at Yale, one of the greatest in the world, who would give any sermon lasting longer than five-minutes an "F"), pounding a topic to death, boring examples, lack of meaningful applications, way too much back story, infatuation with your own words . . . you get the picture. Some of these same things make fiction boring.

The trick is to make the message--the truth--almost invisible, to show it rather than to tell it (and tell it, and tell it, and tell . . .) and to make it engrossing so that people can and will relate to it. Fiction writers are skilled in the techniques needed to pull off this trick and good preachers know that.

Witness the fine book by Alyce M. McKenzie, Novel Preaching: Tips from Top Writers on Crafting Creative Sermons, published earlier this year by Westminster John Knox Press. McKenzie (officially "The Rev. Dr. Alyce M. McKenzie, Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, and an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church," so I'll use McKenzie) believes that ministers could learn a lot about preaching from fiction writers and, to this end, offers a guidebook drawing upon such luminaries as Isabelle Allende, Frederick Buechner, Julia Cameron, Annie Dillard, Natalie Goldberg, Stephen King, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates and Melanie Rae Thon.

I've read the book (stole it fr . . . oops, borrowed it from my wife) and found that it has some solid advice for novelists as well. (If you want to sample McKenzie's wares and other tidbits from her creative mind, swing over to her blog Knack for Noticing at

Unfortunately, right now, this is a one-way street. There's no guidebook for novelists to learn from preachers, with examples from, say, Niebuhr, King, Coffin . . . I'm not going to continue since there are so many Ministers, Rabbis, Priests, Imams that could be used. You need not be religious to glean lessons from these women and men, although if a spiritual insight or two creeps into the old cerebellum what's to hurt? That's right: they can not only offer some pointers on such things as structure and "grab factor," but demonstrate that there are man subtle ways to convey meaningful messages. And fiction writers need to pay more attention to meaningful messages no matter what their genre, messages such as good, evil, love, hate, forgiveness, revenge.

Yes, I know--these are a key component of all fiction, but there needs to be a shift: more often then not, these are accidental and they need to become substantial (go back to Thomas).

No, there's no guidebook as yet that tackles this directly. There is, however, a provocative work by a writer that provides some penetrating focus on what constitutes the essential preaching core of fiction. It's beautiful, brilliant, aggravating, challenging and, sadly, little read these days or, sadly still, often dismissed at the hands of the technicians. It's the late John Gardner's On Moral Fiction, still very much in print by Basic Books 39 years after it's writing. Gardner argues for the privilege of being a writer and the responsibility he or she has to the intentionality of truth. It belongs on the bookshelf--and in the mind--of every fiction writer. For right now, it's arguably the best bridge to how preaching can and should be incorporated into writing.

And now this sermon is ended. Go thee forth and preach the word, the word written in truth.

Miss some Kriss? Fear not, Pilgrim--all is available at Now does't that just make your day?

June 24, 2010

Soccer's The Write Stuff

Damn Wall Street Journal!

No, it's not it's political leanings (I also damn The New York Times on a regular basis, and I used to work for "The Good Grey Lady"). No, it's not its owner. No it's not its price.

It was a book review by John Heilpern, published earlier this month, on Soccer and Philosophy: Beautiful Thoughts on the Beautiful Game, edited by Ted Ricards and part of the wonderful Popular Culture and Philosophy series that Open Court publishes. Heilpern wrote a great piece--actually he had me at the opening sentence when he conjured up the classic Monty Python soccer game between Germany and Greece (Socrates as the Greek team's captain ranks right up there with Socrates--or So-crates--in Bill &Ted's Excellent Adventure!).

Anyway, forget that I had to buy the book--that goes without saying. No, what really gets me is that I knew the World Cup was coming (there was four years notice). I knew that great enthusiasm over the World Cup was coming up. I knew that everybody in the world would be trying to capitalize on the World Cup. I knew that writers would be among those trying to capitalize on the World Cup (can you say Franklin Foer's update of his fine How Soccer Explains The World, one of the better examples?). And I knew that once again I'd be a day (four years) late and (many) a dollar short.

And the real shame of it is I could have written a non-fiction book that would have sold thousands upon thousands of copies--maybe millions--of copies. Forget my novels-in-progress--THE ZODIAC DECEPTION and THE HOUDINI KILLER. Novels? I don't need no stinkin' novels! Not considering the money I would have been raking in. Want proof, beyond the (sad) fact that non-fiction outsells fiction. I don't need to show you no stinkin' proof, but I will.

My book would be directed at the writing market. Writing books are (fools?) gold. Would-Be Writers (every third person in any room and grow) buy any writing book that comes out in hopes that it contains a clue to The Philosopher's Stone. Established writers (secretly) buy any writing book that comes out just in case it contains a clue to The Philosophers Stone, which would then allow some Would-Be Writer to dislodge them from the Pantheon. That's a load of writers, so I think you get the picture.

I'd give the book a real catchy title like, How Soccer Explains Writing (Sorry, Franklin) or **** My Soccer Book On Writing Says or Soccer Soccer Bang Bang Write Write or maybe Change Your Soccer Style, Change Your Book. Catchy is the key.

Then I'd explain the connections between soccer and writing. Want a "for instance"? OK, for instance:

  • you've finished your manuscript and you put it (or at least a few chapters) out there in the world (the ball is on the soccer field)
  • where agents kick it around (the manuscript circulates among agents)
  • and sometimes the ball gets close enough to the goal for a good shot thanks to a midfielder (perhaps some one puts in a good word for you),
  • but your work is returned with suggestions (defenders kick it away),
  • which you make and send back (you're the striker now),
  • however the goalkeeper saves the shot (rejection, despite a brilliant effort),
  • so you keep trying (your work gets kicked around some more)
  • until you finally score (an agent takes you on)
  • or you get so exhausted you take yourself out of the game (quitting)
  • getting some rest and gathering strength so you can go back on the field (rising above it all)
  • and start all over again (dogged determination).
  • This, of course, is a very short and simplified abstract from the many brilliant ideas that the book would have contained (obviously you can easily substitute "editor" for "agent"), but I don't want to disclose too much. After all, there'll be another World Cup in four years and this time I intend to be ready.

    Therefore I'm alerting my editor, Jim Frenkel, and my agents, June Clark and Peter Rubie: a slight change in plans, starting right now. We're heading in a new direction so stick that in your vuvuzela and blow it because I have only one thing to say:


    Need another Kriss fix? Then check out Fiction Writers MUST Be Preachers, a new post on And if you like/hate what you read, join as a follower, tell your friends and link!

    June 21, 2010

    Eat Your Words

    Today's Recipe for Writing:

    Krispies Marshmallow Squares a.k.a. Rice Krispies Treats. (I would add another "s" to Krispies, but there's that damn copyright thing!)

    Why make this? Because it's comfort food and comfort food is diverting and fun. The writing equivalent of comfort food is the comfort book, also called the easy read--great for beaches, lakes, ski lodges, hammocks, fireplaces, air or train travel, ends of long and hard days--basically anytime people need something diverting and/or fun. Why write this? For money, of course, idiot!

    But there's lots of comfort foods. Why Krispies? Because they take no time to prepare, go down easily, have little substantial nutritional value and are portable. Like comfort books--no time to write, easy on the eyes and brain, have little lasting literary value and are portable. And both impart just the right amount of delicious guilt after being over-consumed, which they always are.

    Yeah, but peanuts and potato chips take zero preparation, have little or no nutritional value, are portable and lead to over-indulgence and guilt. True, but preparing food--even simple fool-proof food--takes work (ever try to tear open a package of marshmallows?) and shows love and dedication, things that even faux cooks like to brag about. Writers--even faux writers--also want to brag about the work they've put in (even try to tear open a printer cartridge bag?), their love of calling and their dedication to craft.

    Also, with peanuts and potato chips the most you can hope for is "crunch." But Krispies? Krispies give you, at the very minimum, snap, crackle and pop. For writers snap, crackle and pop are fantastic active words that leap off the page. Snap, crackle and pop are words that show rather than tell (all pause here to genuflect before one of the holy icons of the literary faith). Even when everthing else in the book is soggy, these small, simple words keep shouting and carry the day.

    Now that you've got the basic idea, you're ready. Here's the official Krispies recipe, modified for writers.

    Preparation Time: 10 minutes (Varies from less than a minute to 24 hours.)

    Total Time: 30 minutes (See above.)

    Servings: 12 (God, I hope not unless you're planning on using the royalty checks to fund a starvation diet. If you only get 12 servings you're doing something very wrong!)

    3 tablespoons butter or margarine (A dollop of plot.)
    1 package (10 oz., about 40) regular marshmallows (Characters having no substance along with assorted fluff in the form of overblown or vapid description.)
    - or -
    4 cups miniature marshmallows (Even less character substance and more fluff.)6 cups

    Rice Krispies® (Snap, crackle, pop and whatever other words you want to add that don't exceed two syllables. For example: rip,ravish, kill, club, stab, pummel--for advanced readers--kiss, fondle, arouse, run, seduce, trick, scream, blackmail, google, twitter . . .)

    1. In large saucepan melt butter over low heat. Add marshmallows and stir until completely melted. Remove from heat. (Make sure you spread your plot so it coats the entire book. Add the characters and fluff and stir until no longer ultra-gooey, although tacky is acceptible.) 2.

    Add KELLOGG'S RICE KRISPIES cereal. Stir until well coated. (Tip: use "the," "and," "he," "she," "a" and "an" and a lot of "said" as convenient binders)

    3. Using buttered spatula or wax paper evenly press mixture into 13 x 9 x 2-inch pan coated with cooking spray. Cool. Cut into 2-inch squares. Best if served the same day. (Lay the mixture on thick into a book, prepped so that nothing sticks with the reader, and cut into small and digestible chapters. Best if consumed within a day.)

    That's it! Pretty simply, huh? And consistent. People want comfort food and comfort books to be consistent. However, that doesn't mean you can't add a few of your own ingredients to give that special touch.Crushed cookies, bananas, decorative candy, sizzling sex, gratuitous violence, a detonated nuclear device. This is especially true when you consider the preferences of your eaters/readers (writers call this "genre.") Just don't overdo it.

    People generally don't take Julia Childs to the swimming pool.

    A R C H I V E / H I G H L I G H T S

    When Cooking Up A Thriller, The Plot Thickens
    originally posted: July 7, 2010

    The weather here in the New York metropolitan area is steaming beyond the danger point, so what better time for a recipe for a good hearty writer's stew. (Stews conjure up thoughts of winter and cold temperatures: don't you feel cooler already?)

    If you're a novice stew maker, here's an old secret: make it thick. That way even if it's not a gourmet's delight, it'll be satisfying. Later on, when you've had some practice in stew making, you can add certain things to give it that certain something and take it to a higher level.

    How old is that secret? At least 18 hours if a minute. That's how long I've been mulling a delightful conversation I had with David L. Wilson, a fine novelist (his Unholy Grail, is a great read published by Berkley) who also serves as the Coordinator of Volunteers for Thrillerfest, the annual gathering of thriller writers world-wide now going on in Manhattan under the aegis of the ITW, the International Thriller Writers, a really neat organization. Thrillerfest's a massive and magnificent event, made that way by unsung heroes like David and heroines like Wonder Woman Liz (Pink Cadillac) Berry, who orchestrates the whole four day shebang.

    Anyway, David and I were discussing thrillers yesterday. He had many interesting insights. I had a Black and Tan. One of the topics was plot-driven or character-driven(Open any writing book to a random page and there's a good chance that'll be the topic of wisdom.) It could have been the Mets or the Yankees--some parts of our talk are still hazy. But I'm pretty sure it was plot or character.

    I believe we both came down on the side that, in thrillers, plot trumps character (almost) every time. Now I'm not about to put words in David's mouth, even as repayment for him putting good ideas in my head, so I'll take responsibility for what follows, allowing him the out of claiming I'm depraved or, perhaps more generously, misguided.

    So here goes: Thrillers are like stews. First make them thick (in a good sense) so that they satisfy readers. And how do you thicken them you ask? Why with plot, of course. Thriller readers want plot. They want excitement. They want tremendous risks. Character? Character be damned! Come on--take some safety scissors and a sheet of construction paper and within 10 minutes you can create characters as good if not better than those found in many successful thrillers.

    Characters in thrillers can be superficial. If fact, it's often essential that they be superficial, lest they interfere with the plot. Readers don't need to have an intimate relationship with characters in a thriller. Many don't want one. What readers so need is to be infatuated with characters in a thriller. Not knowing much about them only increases the intrigue.

    Wait, you protest. A lot of thriller writers say their books are driven by character. Are they simply pulling a lot of legs?

    Some may be, maybe. And some may believe their books are character-driven, but really have no concept of what a well-rounded character is. Others are motivated by LC--Literary Correctness, which seems to hold character above plot. A very few may be manifesting the symptoms of acute newyorkermagazeosis, which the DSM-IV describes as as the tendency to explain all aspects of fiction in terms of character while denying the existence of any sort of plot beyond "he said, she said."

    Wait, you again protest. I've read lots of thrillers where the characters are well- developed and yet the plot doesn't suffer.

    Yes you have. But think. Generally this is a series character who has become more developed over the course of several books. Eventually memories blur and readers tend to believe that these characters were completely fleshed out right from the start.


    In fact, take a look at new characters, who are usually antagonists. They remain construction paper characters in contrast to the recurring protagonist(s) now modeled in amazing 3-D from clay. Should they become recurring antagonists, well that's another story (and another novel and another).

    Returning to our stew recipe: a clay character is one of things to give a thriller that certain something and take it to a higher level. But this comes after you've become proficient at making a stew thickened by plot, one that satisfies readers.

    And now my stomach's growling.

    Put on the pot . . .

    It's time to plot!

    Thrillerfest starts today at the Grand Hyatt and concludes Saturday night with a gala banquet during which Ken Follett will be honored as this years Master of the Thriller. If you're an author (published or would-be), agent or editor you should stop by and register for some really excellent events. And tell 'em Gary--a proud ITW member--sent you!

    Need/want more info on Thrillerfest or the International Thriller Writers? You'll find everything and more here:

    One last thing: Kudos to Patrick, Alice and the whole Barnes and Noble crew who with the able(?) assistance of authors Andrew Peterson, Ian James, the above-mentioned Mr. Wilson and yours truly (and an occasional sideline jibe from Jon Land) got the Thrillerfest Bookstore almost totally unpacked and set-up on Wednesday in record time during record heat! Maybe not a best seller, but certainly a best swelter!

    The Latin Write
    originally posted: June 18, 2010

    Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres it ain't, but it may be the perfect tonic for those who loved/hated/never took Latin or who think (depending on your age bracket) Latin means Ricky Ricardo disgustedly uttering "Loo-cee," Charo bursting out (that may not be the most decorous image) with an over-the-top Castilian "Coochie Coochie" or J.Lo belting out "Qué Hiciste."

    Today's delightful discovery is X-TREME LATIN, a new book by Henry Beard (or, to be more precise, Henricus Barbatus, which, when misspelled and misdeclined, still appears to have no relationship to the delightful Caribbean getaway.

    Subtitled "All The Latin You Need To Know For Surviving The 21st Century," the slim, but fully-packed, published by Gotham Books, certainly supports the claim that this particular language was "undead" and "undying" long before vampires and their ilk came into vogue. (Actually, I don't think those are vampires in Vogue, merely ghastly over-under-weight models who look that way.)

    I first became acquainted with shall we say "contemporary Latin" when Victor Bers wrote an inscription in my high school yearbook that included the word irrumator. (I'm not about to tell you, but if you're that curious, I would suggest you read Catullus, Poem 10 in particular). Victor went on to become a distinguished classicist at Yale, where he still teaches. I went on, like so many writers, to have a fascination with words in any and all languages. (Thought I was going somewhere else, didn’t you? Hey, parallelism has its limits. Oh, and BTW, if you have Dr. Bers for a class, I would strongly advise you fight the urge to address him as Professor Irrumator.)

    Yet it’s been a while since I’ve given Latin a lot of thought. Well, I take that back. In my novel-in-progress, The Zodiac Deception, I do use some (or rather one of my characters—a German priest—uses some. However, Beard/Barbatus’s book has made me think that it’s time to drag out the dog-eared copy of Wheelock.

    For example, take The Hangover, an obscure movie that came out last year about four guys at a bachelor party in Vegas. Now if the writers had given one of the four a line like “Crapulentus sum!” —“I’m wasted”—or “Vomiturus sum!"—“I’m going to hurl!”—the flick might have been a box office blow out.

    Or the next time your computer gives you a hard time, shout out “Si denuo congeles, confestum ibis in fossam purgamentorum”—“If you freeze one more time, you’re going straight to the landfill.” You’ll sound so damn educated. (There are actually better computer-directed threats in the book, but this is the only one you can safely translate in the presence of children and Shaker elders and eldresses.)

    And there’s so much more: things to say when you want to break up with someone, small talk during a colonoscopy, road rage (imagine—someone flips you the bird or Gagas you, as we say in New York) and you roll down the window and shout at the top of your lungs: “Ubi didicisti gubernare curram? In fuga ab Hunnis?”—“Where did you learn to drive, fleeing from Huns?” Besides the astonished look you’ll get, they won't know how to respond!

    The book even contains some great Romulus and Remus jokes, including:

    ROMULUS: Quem ob rem pullus viam Appiam transivit?—Why did the sacred chicken cross the Appian Way?

    REMUS: Nescio. Eum evisceremus ut, extane ostensura sint illius infausti facti causam, comperiamus!—I do not know. Let us cut it open and see if the entrails provide an explanation for this inauspicious behavior!

    I know, I know—you’ve heard this hoary chestnut a thousand times, but it’s still a toga slapper!

    Anyway, I’m going to get re-acquainted with an old (and I mean very old) friend and I would suggest my brothers and sisters in the writing trade (and other trades as well) do likewise. Or, make a new friend. Remember—you can’t have too many friends.

    Until the next post:

    Morde citharam meam!

    A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R

    Gary Kriss's THE ZODIAC DECEPTION, about a con artist who having learned the art of illusion from Houdini is recruited by the OSS to use his skills for the ultimate deception: infiltrate the Nazi Occult Bureau and persuade Himmler to plot the assassination of Hitler, and its prequel, THE HOUDINI KILLER, will be published by TOR/Forge in 2011 and 2012 respectively. A writer for longer than he cares to remember, including a respectible stint with THE NEW YORK TIMES, Kriss now exists solely to make his lovely wife, Pat, his publisher, his editor, his agents, his dog and his cats proud of him. He still holds out hope that he can win over the dog.