My new novel, Underground Airlines, won’t be in stores until the distant date of July 5, 2016, but I’m now allowed to show you what it will look like, courtesy of the good people at Mulholland Books/Little, Brown.
I started writing this novel late in 2013, while I was still wrapping up World of Trouble, the last book in the Last Policeman trilogy. So it’s been a good long time that this story and this world have existed in my head. Showing you the cover, though it is still many months until the actual book is released, feels like a kind of dividing line between the terrifying/exciting period of writing it and the exciting/terrifying period of sharing it with the world.
This beautiful cover was designed by Oliver Munday. The art director at Little, Brown is Keith Hayes.
You can read a bit more about Underground Airlineshere or here.
I’ve just put two boxes in the mail, full of signed copies of World of Trouble and The Last Policeman, bound for New York City’s famed Mysterious Bookshop. So if you’re in New York and wanting a signed copy of one of my books, head down to Warren Street and get one. (I bet if you call over there they’ll even reserve one for you.)
While I’m at it, here are the other stores that (probably) still have signed Ben Winters stuff on hand, for in-store or mail order purchase:
* The Poisoned Pen, Scottsdale, Arizona. (If you’re there, eat at the taco place across the street. I did, and got guacamole on my shirt right before my appearance at the store—because I’m a professional.)
* IndyReads Books, in my adopted hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana. The great thing about IndyReads, of course, is that every purchase goes to support the IndyReads literacy charity, so you can catch up on my work AND help people learn to read.
I think it’s worth noting— in the midst of our current controversy about the future of publishing, and in particular about book retailing—what the specific value is of privately owned, community-based local bookstores. Like, for example, they will have special events where they invite hustling authors to come do readings and meet fans and earn new ones; and like how, for example, they will then have signed editions of books available.
So here’s an opportunity to take advantage of that value: buy one of my books—or one of anyone’s books—from one of the stores listed above.
At some point I will post some sort of complete report on my World of Trouble book tour, which I kept forgetting to officially call the Trouble Man World Tour, and now it’s too late.
For now I’ll just say I met a lot of terrific people, including a lot of Detective Henry Palace fans, plus a lot of smart and enthusiastic booksellers (and librarians!), a healthy reminder of how important it is to have an active (and interactive) “book culture,” in which real humans recommend books to each other, drink wine together and talk about the books they loved, go see authors and ask them questions, and all of that great stuff.
I also had dinner with some librarians at a Ukrainian restaurant in Cleveland, and I just wanted to write that because originality is important to me, and I doubt anyone has ever written those words in that order before.
The official title of Eric Smith at my publishing house, Quirk Books, is Social Media and Marketing Manager, but I just think of him as Internet Man. He spends his days tweeting, posting, blogging about Quirk authors—except when he’s writing his own books, like the hilarious (and handy) Geek’s Guide to Dating, pubbed by his Quirk colleagues, and the upcoming YA novel Inked, which’ll come out from Bloomsbury in the spring.
Over the past two years, I’ve had the pleasure of working on the online marketing for The Last Policeman, getting the series up on blogs, producing the book trailer, arguing over cover redesigns in meetings, running giveawas across countless websites… and just having a blast throughout all of it.
When I’m not talking to the Internet about books, sometimes I like to write. Looking back at the marketing campaign for Ben’s fantastic trilogy (which I’m very sad to see coming to an end), I realized there are a few fun things writers can take away from marketing a trilogy.
So, here’s a list, in trilogy format, of what you can learn from about writing from marketing a book trilogy.
Part I: Never Stop Looking for a New Story to Tell: The tricky thing about working on a series, is that after the first book hits and you’ve roped in lots of people to talk about it… there are still potential reviewers out there who might have missed out or passed the first time around.
Going back and reintroducing a series can be tough, so you have to think of fun new angles and new stories to make it enticing. What’s an angle I missed that could be touched on this time around? Should I talk more about the genre or the character? What thrilled the people who read it earlier? What can I do to bring new people in?
As a writer, this is an obvious tip, right? That you should never stop looking for that new story to tell. If you constantly stick to the same thing, you can get stale. Keep things fresh.
Part II: Read More Books: Whenever I find myself working on a book in genre I’ve never really explored, I try my best to really delve into that genre.
When I worked on Ransom Riggs’ Peculiar Children series, I started reading more YA. The book Taft 2012, which was a bit of political satire? Picked up some Christopher Buckley. The Last Policeman? It was time to check out more books about detectives, from novels by Duane Swierczynski to spending time with Bigby Wolf in Fables.
Why? It helps me out when I’m building those marketing campaigns. I can’t stand it when someone who is marketing something tries to infiltrate a community without at least knowing something about them. If you’re familiar with the genre, then you can actually talk to people about these kinds of books. You can be genuine. You can be real.
Same applies to writing. There’s a quote someplace from Stephen King, where he says if you want to be a writer, you need to read a lot. True story.
Part III: Don’t Kill Your Darlings, Save Them: When a book is coming together, a lot of things go into it on the publishing side. The production, the design, the book trailers, the promotional materials… man, that list just goes on and on. And sometimes, something along the way gets cut. Maybe it’s a proposed cover you absolutely adored or some clips from a book trailer you thought were amazing.
Instead of dragging these things into the recycle bin, I always open up a folder, and save them for a rainy day. Those little extras can tell a brand new story. The covers that didn’t make it. The original ARC compared to the finished copy. Photo stills from the book trailer. These are all fun glimpses behind the scenes that real fans get a kick out of.
There’s a popular term in writing, a bit about killing your darlings. Don’t do it. Keep those bits of writing, and give them life somewhere else. Maybe those first two chapters that got cut can become a prequel short story. Or that character you really liked that didn’t quite fit… maybe he or she can appear in a new novel. Keep them in a folder, writers.
All excellent pieces of advice—thanks, Eric! For some more advice, this time from me, click here. To see me on my summer tour, click here. To read the last few installments of my 2014 Reverse Blog Tour , stay tuned!
I never really thought of The Last Policeman and its sequels as being “dystopian”, but they have been put in that category—just as they have been put in the science-fiction category, though I never thought of them that way, either. The thing is, if you have a giant asteroid in your book, your book is sci-fi (like it or not), and if you have a slowly disintegrating government, your book is ipso facto dystopian.
Someone whose work perhaps fits more squarely into the genre is Adam Sternbergh, whose grim, riveting, and hysterical book Shovel Ready launched in hardcover this past January. (Although his book is also, like mine, a bit of a detective story—and, like mine, it’s in the first-person, present tense, a formal choice I find endlessly interesting…but that’s a whole other blog entry…) Adam is also a busy journalist, moving just now from a position at the New York Times Sunday magazine to one at New York Magazine.
He’s well positioned, then, as both author and cultural observer, to inform and enlighten on the subject of dystopias, both literary and actual.
I was originally going to hold forth on my love of crocuses (or croci), but then I realized Ben had already teased this post with the promise of something “creepy and dystopian.” And it’s true that I have a taste for all things postlapsarian, from Adam and Eve’s mishap with fruit to anything remotely zombie/virus/economic collapse/catastrophic weather event/dirty bomb-related, so here goes:
Imagine a story set in a world in which potentially irreversible climate change is threatening entire economies, coastlines, even countries. Now imagine a coastal city in that world that’s been ruled over by its single richest citizen for roughly the past 12 years. Imagine that this fabled city is increasingly split between the superrich and the also-rans — shiny new apartment towers rise, Babel-like, to unforeseen heights over the skyline, even as the city’s homelessness problem explodes down below in the streets, with some even taking to subterranean living in subway tunnels.
The other citizens of this city — those who subsist, barely, in the middle —make hardly any move to protest these developments; most of them either imagine they too will one day live in a glass penthouse, or they’re continually distracted by electronic devices that they carry on their persons at all times. These devices—which aren’t issued by the government, but which citizens purchase willingly at great expense—track their locations, their communications, their purchases, their preferences, their interests, their every whim. In exchange, the devices allow people to play a maddening game about grouchy fowl.
Thankfully, it’s not like the government is running secret programs that tracks all this ready information — oh wait, yes, it is. But it’s all done in the name of staving off a shadowy foreign enemy whose specter is evoked constantly. Meanwhile, native militias prepare — oh wait. I’m sorry. I got confused. The assignment was “creepy and dystopian,” not “creepy and non-fiction and now.”
As readers, we may be witnessing the advent of Peak Dystopia, at least as far as fiction is concerned — when my own quasi-dystopian* novel, SHOVEL READY, came out last January, it was released the very same day as another dystopian novel, SUCH A FULL SEA by Chang Rae Lee. (*I say quasi-dystopian because, on the Grand Dystopic Spectrum, it’s closer to, say, the bombed-out New York of “The Warriors” than it is to the baby-roasting wasteland of “The Road.”)
We not only have an abundance of dystopian YA novels, but we have competing dystopian YA novels that are almost identical in their premises. (Future society in which people are split into clans and forced to choose champions to fight in massive gladiatorial spectacles.)
You might think all this reflects some rising tide in our collective anxiety — that we’re telling ourselves so many dystopian stories because we’re unprecedentedly grim about our future. But is it really safe to assume we’re more pessimistic, or reflexively neurotic, than, say, the world that lived under the rise of fascism? Or the post-atomic threat of nuclear catastrophe? Or in a country openly split by tensions over civil rights that spilled into frequent and ugly violence? If anything, our recent age has been marked, in some corners at least, by a relentless, even gleeful, optimism — a belief that, thanks to all the recent technological advances, the future will be nothing but better, faster, shinier, more. So why are we also in such a freaking bad mood about tomorrow?
Maybe the answer lies in that opening parable, above — the details of which, of course, are not drawn from a pastiche of current dystopian fantasies, but from today’s most discomfiting current events. People who grew up with a Jetsons’ vision of the future — all robot dogs and flying cars — are constantly trying to figure out why things didn’t turn out as promised. But people who grew up (as I did) with visions of a darker future — post-Blade Runner, let’s say, though we could date it back to 2001, or 1984, or, hell, Brave New World — are left to figure out why so many things have turned out just like we were warned that they would.
I mean, we saw this coming, right? The video billboards and full-body scanners and instructions given in a creepily cold computer voice and the whole 24/7 surveillance state?
We were warned, and yet we couldn’t be bothered to step out of the way?
Today’s fictive dystopias aren’t about cashing in on a hot trend, or even reflecting some new plague of pessimism. It’s about doing what fiction, at its best, has always done: Grappling with the here and now. Sometimes that comes in the form of a novel written 150 years ago, yet which still perfectly captures the heartbreak of being denied a life with the one you love most. And sometimes in comes in the form of a story about a society that’s awfully similar to our own, if perhaps maybe two degrees more dystopic. If we’ve learned anything over the past 30 years, it’s that today’s dystopia can quickly become tomorrow’s reality. Before you can bring yourself to believe it, it’s already here.
Adam Sternbergh, folks. Give him a hand! And more tangibly, buy his book. Also, mine.
Prizes to be won include signed bookplates, amazing fan art by Joseph Laney,and the official “Hank Palace Survival Kit,” which has to be seen to be believed, but which definitely includes a big bag of coffee beans.
Big joy for me in Seattle on Friday night, where I had the great honor of winning the Philip K. Dick Award for science fiction for 2013, for my novel Countdown City.
As I said, or tried haltingly to say, in accepting the award, I am especially grateful that the Last Policeman series has won this particular laurel, because A) I so love and admire Dick’s whole idiosyncratic, impossible oeuvre, and because B) I didn’t set out to write science-fiction, it just ended up that way.
What I wanted was a way to tell a classic detective story in a surprising way, maybe to fold some new ideas into that genre—the mystery genre—and so I came to the world-ending asteroid business, and (as I’ve noted in the past) once you’ve got a world-ending asteroid in your book, it’s science fiction whether you like it or not.
Let me be clear: I like it. I like the novels being labeled sci-fi, and I certainly like winning an award in the category. I hope it’s not too cliche to observe that what successful science-fiction novels do (like those of, for example, Philip K. Dick), is similar to what successful mystery novels do, which is to use the conventions of genre as a lens through which to examine the ideas, the morality, the received wisdom, of the world we actually live in.
Anyway. Here on YouTube you can see me reading a selection from Countdown City at the award ceremony, and if you keep watching you can see me accept the award, after my new friend, the Japanese novelist Toh EnJoe, accepts the Special Citation for his insane multipart experimental novel The Self-Reference ENGINE.
(Side note: I have to ruefully acknowledge that in this clip I am wearing a short-sleeve salmon colored button-up shirt with my light-blue suit. This sartorial nightmare was occasioned by Mr. Fancypants Award-Winning Writer having forgotten to pack a dress shirt for the ceremony. I would have felt more self-conscious in the moment, except this award was given out at NorWesCon, a sci-fi/fantasy convention, so there were literally people there dressed as orcs.)
This is a very short blog entry that is really just to share one thing with you.
I’ve been doing research on the author Richard Price because on Thursday night I’m teaching his book (masterpiece, if you ask me) Clockers for my mystery fiction class at Butler.
I found this quote in an interview with him and it just about knocked my head off. One of the great true things I’ve heard said about writing…
“I have to be a little intimidated by what I’m writing about. I have to feel a little bit like I don’t think I can do this, I don’t think I can master this, I don’t think I can get under the skin of this, because when you’re a little scared, you’re bringing everything to the table because you’re not sure you can do it unless you bust your balls and really, really get into it. Terror keeps you slender. I need a sense of awe.”
That’s probably true of all art forms, and maybe all things that require effort to yield something complex and complete: “when you’re a little scared, you’re bringing everything to the table.”
In other words, when it’s hard you know you’re doing it right.
Can you tell I’m working out the idea for a new book? Can you tell it’s making me feel various complicated emotions, ranging from joy to terror?
The other thing that happened today was that I had a call with the marketing department at Quirk Books (or as I like to call her, Nicole) to discuss this summer’s little book tour in support of World of Trouble: The Last Policeman Book III. We’ll be announcing all the dates soon.
For those of you who are preparing for this year’s NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month, where participants are given tools and tips and encouragement to bang out a book-length work of fiction in just one month) I have just a quick piece of advice, which is that this whole “plotter versus pantser” thing is just a big pile of horseshit.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I say “plotter versus pantser”, you’re probably better off. There is this supposed dichotomy between plotters on the one hand, who decide in advance, in detail, what they’re going to write, and then write it; and, on the other hand, pantsers, who fly by the seat of their guess-whats, opening up their golden conduit to the muse and letting the ideas come willy nilly and then just slapping them into place.
My awareness of this distinction comes from doing blog interviews, where people ask with apparent seriousness, “which kind of writer are you? A plotter or a pantser?”
The question is flawed. The question is not, “are you a plotter or a pantser?”, the question is “how do you develop and maintain a healthy balance between these two complementary and crucial components of your process?”
For me, I start by writing a shitload.
Let me say that better: I get an idea I’m excited about, and I launch in, sailing on the wind of the idea for as long as the wind holds—maybe it’s a chapter, maybe it’s twenty pages, maybe it’s just a few exhilarating hours where the force is strong in me, the idea keeps racing forward, and I am just galloping along trying to keep up with it.
If you are a writer for whom that exhilarating white-hot feeling lasts long enough to write a whole novel, then I say peace to you and godspeed—and I will tell you what the pediatrician told my wife when she reported that our daughter was sleeping through the night at three months: Don’t tell the others, because they will burn you for a witch.
But usually, you feel lucky when the white-heat-exhilaration segment of the program lasts long enough to get that great idea on paper, to establish the opening scenes, to get a good strong sense of what this world is and where it might go. And, crucially, this is where a lot of people stop. How many marvelous ideas have been abandoned somewhere at the end of chapter three? At that moment where self-styled “pantsers” run out of steam, where their metaphorical pants fall off, and they figure they’ll go and check their email real quick, and leave their great idea to die, forgotten, on a fallow field.
So here’s what you do: you stop, there, and you outline. (By the way, I’m using a form I call the pretend-second-person, where you say “you” instead of “I”, to presume that your own preferences and habits are universal). But it’s not a solid rock, carve it in stone outline. You can’t know yet everything that will happen in the entire story,and you shouldn’t try and force yourself to know. It’s loose. It’s bare bones. It’s “here are ten basic story beats, here are three moments of conflict, here are one-sentence descriptions of each of the, oh, let’s say, 25 chapters”.
While you are making the outline, though, you will make discoveries—you will find new ideas—you will get flickers of the white heat, and one of them will drive you back to the draft with a revived passion.
You make discoveries in the outline and bring them into the draft, and then when you are working on the draft you make discoveries which you then build into the outline. Both documents are provisional, both are rough drafts, both grow together.
Because, look, when you get that white-hot feeling that says I have to write that’s when you know you want to be a writer. When you implement a set of strategies (i.e. building a provisional outline and then tacking back and forth between it and the draft), strategies that allow you to write in the absence of the white-hot feeling, that’s when you are a writer.
An open letter to my fellow murder-fiction aficionados:
This spring I’ll be teaching a class here at Butler University, where I adjunct in the MFA writing program, about reading crime and mystery fiction—my (accurate) thesis being that truly great crime novels and mysteries, far from being mere “popcorn books” or “beach reads”, have much to teach us about structure, style, tension, conflict…you know, all the elements of good writing.
So I’m in the process of drawing up a list of ten classic crime/mystery novels—no, you know what, forget “classic”—ten crime/mystery novels that are A) really good and B) pedagogically valuable, in terms of showing off some aspect or aspects of craft particularly well.
All I’m 100% certain on, so far, are The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, and Clockers, by Richard Price.