What Writers Can Learn from Musicians


DSCN1951I’ve spent a lot of time in the car recently, listening to audiobooks and music on SiriusXM. I admit it, I have become a raging fan of satellite radio. (My favorite channel is 30, The Loft. My husband’s favorite is Outlaw Country.) Out here in the West, with miles of open country between towns, without satellite radio you either put on an audiobook or fiddle endlessly trying to get a signal from an FM station. Love my SiriusXM.

The other day I was listening to an interview by a DJ with a musician. The DJ asked him about his eclectic tastes in music: blues, jazz, rock, folk. Was diversity like that important to him? He said, yes, but — and this is what stuck with me — if you want to make money in music, you have to have something that appeals to a wide range of people. Some like blues, some like jazz.

This struck me as antithetical to what we often hear in publishing. Brand yourself! Write a series! If someone reads a book they like by you, they will want something similar next time. Hook them! Give them more! 

At a convention once a well-respected, well-published novelist said, rather chagrinned, that he had to continue his series because “that was the product they wanted.” They: his publisher. Another throwaway line that stuck with me for years. To refer to your novel as “the product” — okay, to a publisher it is a commodity, I get it — seemed so wrong. It still does. Your novel should come from deep inside you, should give us a glimpse of what makes you tick, what puts the twinkle in your eye, what keeps you awake at night. If you view it as “a product” I wonder if it will come from that deep place, or will it be written for the marketplace.

Musicians went through the digital disruption phase we’re experiencing now in publishing decades ago with Napster and iTunes. Many of them ended their record label deals and went indie. Many went straight to indie. Like musicians writers wanted more control over their careers, their output, their money stream. They developed strategies to give away songs to get buyers to purchase the album, they went completely digital, they went back to vinyl, they make videos for youtube, they tour, they don’t tour. All sorts of ideas that writers can learn from. Experiment with marketing but control the “product,” the essence of what you do. Don’t make compromises with what only you can do.

We had a little discussion at the novel-writing workshop last week. One woman objected to even the whiff of marketing or audience, saying that not everyone is interested in having their work read. I agree, but most are. Most writers want that two-way communication with readers. They want to be heard. Writing, unlike most music-making, is solitary. When the work is written, rewritten, polished to a shine and sent out into the world, writers want to be read. If you’ve graduated from amateur to professional, you want an audience, whether you’re a writer or a musician. Just remember, I always tell students, only you can write your book.

new pretty dreams 2-12Although I’m mostly a crime writer last year I published a book that meant a lot to me, All Your Pretty Dreams. (It was originally called Squeeze Box but I feared the anti-accordion lobby.) I started writing this book in 1997 as a Pride and Prejudice pastiche set in an isolated Minnesota town. Originally the schtick was that the town had the only lake without mosquitoes in Minnesota. I dropped that idea, dropped the manuscript itself for years. But it wouldn’t go away, the idea of a family polka band as the Bennetts of Longbourne. It was silly but that’s what I loved about it. Finally I spent one summer figuring out how to actually write the damn thing. It’s different from my other books. Nobody gets killed. But there is a birth, a death, and a change of heart. Just like Darcy and Elizabeth.

The sales of this oddball book have not been amazing in the year since its release. But it’s gaining an audience, slowly. Recently I’ve gotten reviews from people who have read my mysteries and gave this one a try. That’s all a writer asks. Give me a go. Just like a musician who writes blues for blues lovers and folk for folkies.

Have you discovered a musician lately? Where did you find them? On the radio, on the internet? What about a new writer? How did you find them? Discovering musicians is just like discovering writers. If somebody sounds interesting, give them a go. You never know. You may find your new favorite writer.

In the Flow, flowingly


You hear much about the vaunted “flow” among artistic types. Being in the flow, or the zone, or whatever you call it, means you’re inside the story, seeing it play out in your mind, being a simple conduit to the mystical power of your imagination. Which is wonderful when it happens but isn’t as often as you’d like. Often as a writer you have to simply be there, be present, and hope for the best.

In editing the first draft of my new novel I often find places where the flow was present. Unfortunately that usually means I show (not tell for godssake) my characters moving from place to place, thinking thoughts they’ve already articulated, and generally feeling a bit too much. Logistics, getting people from place to place, are the first to go. They are usually unnecessary. Take them out and see if it still makes sense. (It will.) I remember teaching seventh graders writing and a boy who was completely stumped at how to get his story started without having his character get out of bed, brush his teeth, take a shower, eat breakfast, etc. etc. All the boring parts of living, right? As Elmore Leonard says, take out the boring stuff. 

The other thing in editing your second draft is that the first chapter can probably go. It was necessary for your flow when you started. It made you get deep inside the psyche of your character. But now that you’re there don’t burden your readers with it. Let it come out naturally later. I tend to load up my protagonists with heavy baggage so I’ll have something to work with later. Maybe it’s not necessary. Or maybe I can work it in little by little and not load up the poor reader too.

One thing I’ve learned as a reader is that I don’t like serious angst at the start of a book. It’s a turn-off. I’ve done it myself, and I’ve read it. You have to be seriously skilled as a writer to make it work for you, to draw in a reader to care about your damaged character. Depression, sadness, grief: they aren’t attractive to readers. Start elsewhere, young writer. Crack a joke. It’ll get you farther. Then after the story is trotting along dig a little deeper. It’s okay to have damaged people, hey, they’re out there, plenty of them. But draw the gentle reader along, don’t hit him over the head.

Back to the editing. Wish me luck.

Who is buying your novel?


Who is buying your mysteries? I don’t know about you but I would love to know who buys mine. Short of that specific data, Sisters in Crime and the Bowker people collaborated on a survey about mystery and crime fiction buyers. It turns out about half of all buyers are avid mystery readers, always reading a mystery. But that means the other half are frequent and/or occasional mystery buyers.

And how about the information that although nearly two-thirds of books are purchased by women, men actually spend more on their books in dollar terms. Are they buying hardback? Are men more selective? They probably aren’t buying those 99 cent Kindle books… Speaking of e-books, in this study conducted in 2010 they remain a small part of the whole picture, less than 10% of all books sold.

Here’s the link to the full report: The Mystery Book Consumer in the Digital Age


For all genres, not just mystery, women continue to buy the majority of books, but men’s share of books is higher in dollars than in units.

Baby boomers and matures (people over 45) purchase over half of all books bought. In the “mystery-detective” category, women and older buyers are even more highly represented. Mystery buyers tend to be Mostly female – 7 out of 10 are women, and More mature– nearly 7 out of 10 are over 45

Retail Channels:

Mystery buying is not only about chains or online retailers. 11% of units are sold through book clubs. 6% of units are sold through independents.

Mysteries are mainly purchased in stores, followed by borrowing from the library, followed by purchasing online.

47% of books bought by men are purchased in a retail store.

E-books play an increasingly larger role •  7.0% of purchases in Q2 2010, increased from 1.7% in Q2 2009.

Book clubs attract more females than males. Around 20% of all readers acquire their mysteries at libraries. Online retailers mostly attract readers under the age of 40.

• Only 12% of readers 60 and older bought books from online retailers. 13% of readers 60 and older acquired a mystery through book clubs such as Mystery Guild.

Marketing and Awareness:

Browsing bookshelves is no longer the only way readers become aware of mystery titles. Book clubs such as Mystery Guild remain one of the top ways readers become aware of mystery titles. The majority of mystery buyers are over 50 and not as influenced by online marketing methods as readers under 50.

Mystery Reading Behavior Overall:

68% of mysteries are purchased by women.

Over half the mysteries purchased are sold to people over the age of 55.

19% of all readers acquire mysteries at libraries.

11% of all mysteries are sold through book clubs such as Mystery Guild.

39% of all mysteries are purchased in stores.

35% of mysteries are purchased by people who live in the South.

77% of mysteries are purchased by households with no children at home.

48% of mysteries are purchased by readers who live in suburban areas.

E-book sales are growing fast. In 2009, 1.7% of books sold were e-books. In Q2 of 2010, 7% of books sold were e-books.

Readers under 40 look for dark, suspenseful stories.

Readers under 40 don’t see mysteries as distinct from other genres as older readers do.

Readers over 60 are more loyal to the author or character than younger readers.

Readers enjoy mysteries to solve the puzzle. They also love surprises, thrills, and suspense.

Name recognition still influences readers to buy popular authors.

Readers are attracted by appealing book covers.

Readers want a preview of story elements before they buy.