Friday, May 21, 2010

Macmillan Night at The Poisoned Pen

On Tuesday, I had the chance to spend the evening with two fun friends from New York, as well as three authors at the Poisoned Pen. The pictures aren't the best, but here are pictures of Talia Sherer and Bobby Brinson. Talia is the Director of Library Marketing for Macmillan. Bobby Brinson is the Senior Marketing Manager for HarperCollins. You haven't lived until you've spent eight hours with the "Talia and Bobby Show." Thanks, Talia and Bobby!

Talia and Bobby both made presentations for Back to the Beach, the annual Readers' Advisory workshop sponsored by MCLC, the Maricopa County Library Council. It's a treat to have them discuss the upcoming books from the publishers they represent. When it was over, I spent two hours visiting with them before we picked author Sandra Dallas up to go to the Poisoned Pen.

Talia didn't plan it, but all three authors appearing at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale were Macmillan authors. Sandra Dallas was there, promoting Whiter Than Snow. Andrew Grant's second David Trevellyan novel is Die Twice. Trevellyan has been called, "James Bond for the 21st century." And, Deborah Coonts' debut novel is Wanna Get Lucky?

Joanne Hamilton-Selway moderated the program, and, after introducing the authors, she asked each author to talk about their latest book. Deborah Coonts said Wanna Get Lucky? is her first novel, a funny mystery. It's set in Las Vegas. She let her son, a fifteen-year-old male, pick where he wanted to live, and he picked Las Vegas. It wasn't because of the women or gambling. He's a golfer, and Deborah followed him to Vegas. And, that's where she found her story, in Vegas. Deborah said she learned all the first names of the Chippendale dancers. She can guarantee she's the only author who submitted receipts to a male strip club to the IRS.

In Vegas, people can enjoy the bright lights, eat, and go to shows. Deborah had a lot of fun creating a major casino, the Babylon. She named rooms such as the Sodom and Gomorrah Room. She created Lucky O'Toole, the chief problem solver at the Babylon. Lucky handles all kinds of trouble. She becomes mixed up in murder when a young girl falls out of the Babylon's helicopter. Deborah said she's presenting the magic of Vegas, her view of it, and she hopes she makes readers laugh.

When it was Sandra Dallas' turn to discuss her novel, she said Whiter Than Snow definitely wouldn't make readers laugh. In the book, an avalanche sweeps away nine children. Only four live. It's the story of the families in the mining community in Colorado after the avalanche.

With his British accent, Andrew Grant said it's obvious he doesn't have the quintessential American voice. He introduced David Trevellyan, a Lieutenant Commander, and a British Intelligence officer in the Royal Navy in his first book, Even. In the latest book,
Die Twice, Trevellyan is walking back to his hotel in New York City, and sees the body of an old homeless man in an alley. He makes the mistake of going into the alley out of curiosity, and is found with the body, and gets arrested. He's sucked into a world of trouble.

In the next book, he leaves NYC, and ends up in Chicago where the British Consulate gives him another job. Another Royal Navy investigator has disappeared and gone rogue. It's Trevellyan's job to retrieve the secrets he's disappeared with, and take care of the situation.

Joanne asked if they always wanted to be writers. Sandra said she wanted to be a movie star, but, that wasn't meant to be. She said she wanted to write because she thought that was the best way to be rich and famous. She liked writing. She was a reporter, then the first female bureau chief for Business Week, at the time meetings would start with, "Gentlemen, and Sandra." She wrote Western history before turning to fiction.

Dallas said fiction is hard. With nonfiction, the subject matter sells the book, and the writing is just icing. With fiction, the writing is it. It's more stimulating to write fiction, and more lucrative.

Deborah answered that she was always an avid reader. She read, trying to escape an "interesting" childhood. Her mother had forbidden her to ride her bike to the bookstore, so she would ride her bike to her grandmother's, stash it, and ride her broken down pony to the bookstore. The two "ancient women" who ran the bookstore would give her milk and cookies, and let her sit and read whatever she wanted. Coonts said she mentioned this once, and someone said, oh, we know those women. They live across town. Those "ancient women" were probably in their 30s when Deborah was a child.

Coonts said she was in her late 20s when she decided she wanted to write a book, but didn't know what her story would be. It would be over fifteen years later before she found Las Vegas, and her story. Now, she's sold five books in the Lucky O'Toole series, and she still loves words.

Andrew didn't want to write. But, he loved telling stories as a kid, and was even sent to his room for making things up. His parents would take him on long car rides as a kid, and he remembers leaning over the front seat, telling stories. His parents said he would start out with the truth, and then would say, "And then suddenly...," and take off on a flight of fantasy. He learned to get out of a lot of trouble in school by telling outrageous stories.

Andrew majored in English literature, and hated it in school. That was a time period when professors had written on the subjects, and they would get mad if you said something different about what they had written. In 1986, a professor told him not to come back until he apologized. He hasn't. So, he moved to drama.

Then, Grant got sucked into the system, and worked for fifteen years. He couldn't go to the theatre, so he read more. But, it reached the point where he had the itch, and it became more fun to write than read.

Grant worked for a large company, and at one point they offered redundancy pay. he thought it would be good to get paid to leave, but they wouldn't let anyone in his particular department leave. Since they wouldn't pay him to leave, he tried coming up with outrageous ideas in order to get let go, but they just thought he was great for "Thinking outside the box."

On June 30, 2006, he finally quit, giving himself a year to write a book. He finished by June 30, 2007, and had a book deal by February, 2008. But, the publishing world doesn't move as fast as the business world does. It took until May 2009 for his first book, Even, to arrive on shelves. Now, his second book, Die Twice, is out, and there should be one every twelve months.

Sandra Dallas said it was a year and a half from the time her first book was accepted until publication. She had an amazing publisher at Random House, the type of editor that used to work in publishing. He would call, and pull the material out of her. Now, editors acquire property, and an author is only as good as their last book.

Deborah Coonts wrote two full-length manuscripts before one sold. She did get an agent after the second manuscript, though. It took her a while to find her Las Vegas story.

Coonts just wrote the story, and threw out the rules. Finally, she gave Wanna Get Lucky? to a friend who was an agent. One night, the friend decided to start it just before bed, and she was sitting there laughing. Her husband trotted off to bed, and then came back, and asked what she was laughing at. She gave him the first four chapters to read. A little while later, he came back, and asked for four more chapters. They stayed up most of the night reading the book. The next day, the husband, a senior editor at Tor/Forge, called, and said he wanted to buy the book. Tor/Forge is an imprint at Macmillan. Deborah said she's had a wonderful experience. Her editor is old school. He bought a five-book series. She's already written the first three books, and she's working on the fourth. The next book could be out at Christmas, but, probably in February, and then every nine months after. She's doing appearances right now, but she's eager to get home. Since she's doing promotions, she feels as if she used to be a writer.

When asked what their favorite thing about being a writer was, Deborah's answer was funny. She gets to create her fantasies. On a bad day, she can kill someone. If she's feeling lonely, she can create a really great guy.

Sandra answered that it's rewarding to talk to readers. That gives her a sense of satisfaction. Sometimes people tell her, though, that her books gave them courage to change their lives. She's received letters saying your book gave me the courage to leave my marriage. Dallas said that wasn't her intent.

Andrew said his books could only give people the courage to beat someone with a baseball bat. Grant was the first to field the next question about their characters and ideas. He said he can't get the ideas out of his head, and suddenly it all makes sense. He puts four or five of those ideas in a book. He said he had the best job in the world.

Grant then gave credit to Steve Hely's novel, How I Became a Famous Novelist. In it, Hely says you have to know who the bad guy is, what the crime is, and why they're doing it, in order to create a credible villain. A writer has to know the ending, and how the paths of the hero and bad guy crosses. Sometimes those ideas veer off, or there is another stunning idea. Grant said he uses the analogy, it's like driving in fog. You know the beginning and the end, and anything can happen in between.

Sandra said she's taught workshops, and she tells the students the same thing. You know the beginning and end, but subplots and other things happen as you go along. You also get to know your characters as you go along. Dallas' characters become real, and take on a life of their own. They become real people.

Deborah's books are all told in from Lucky's point-of-view, in her voice, so she has to know her. She also knows the ending, but had to rewrite the last scene in the second book, when something changed. Deborah writes the book in first person, and the characters change over the course of the series. She has to know the relationships, and the character arc, so, over the course of the series, she doesn't write herself into a blind alley.

Coonts starts with the murder. She wanted to send an oddsmaker into the shark bay in Mandalay Bay. So, she did research. She asked an employee if the sharks would eat a body if it fell in their pool. The man looked at her funny and asked if he should be calling security, as her son is standing behind her nodding his head. He then said, if the body fell into the pool when the fluorescent lights came on, the sharks would attack it. The fluorescent lights coming on mean feeding time.

They were all asked about their writing schedule, if they have one. Andrew treats writing just like a job. He's part of a production team in the business of producing a book. Everyone, from the agent to the editor, publisher, marketing team, is dependent on what he delivers. So, you don't get writer's block because it's your job to deliver a manuscript.

Deborah sits in a bar, a casino, or Panera Bread with her computer. She soaks up the atmosphere of Las Vegas, and can write anywhere.

Dallas has an office at home. Every day she writes fifty lines. She can only write in her office, while Coonts has a booth in Panera Bread. Deborah listens to music while she works. She puts on her headphones; the staff brings her coffee and takes care of her.

Sandra said she was a reporter for so long that she doesn't get writer's block. There's no such thing as writer's block for a reporter, or you're out of a job. You just write through it.

Deborah gets up, gets fully caffeinated. She goes to the gym to work out, and while others watch TV, she stares at a blank screen. Then, she goes home, and gets more fully caffeinated. Then she sits down at the computer and writes until she has 1500 words for the day.

Deborah and Andrew, who write series, were asked how they keep track of their characters and habits. Coonts responded that she's very visual. She sees the people in her mind. She doesn't take copious notes as some other authors do. Since she's visual, she keeps it in her head. She opens the front door of the Babylon when she opens her computer.

Grant said he's clear about his main characters. He loves reading series, and that's why he wanted to write one. Andrew, whose brother is Lee Child, was asked if he reads his brother's work. He said he only read the first three. Once he decided he wanted to write, he quit reading his work because he easily picks up other people's styles. He can read Shakespeare in the evening, and get up the next morning saying forsooth. That's why he doesn't read fiction while he's writing. He turns to nonfiction then.

They were all asked what they are working on now. Deborah's next book, Lucky Stiff, will probably be out in February. So Damn Lucky, the third book, has been turned in to the publisher. Coonts is working on the fourth book. It involves a World Series of Poker weekend in Vegas. One of the characters is a deaf professional poker player. She was fortunate to meet one. That book is tentatively titled Lucky the Hard Way.

Dallas is working on a generational novel, but said she didn't want to say any more than that, because so often things change. Grant's working on the next David Trevellyan novel. He's in the hospital. After that's done, he'll look for his idea for the next one. Dallas and Grant both said they do clip stories, and take notes for future ideas.

Sandra said she writes fifty lines a day. She edits as she goes along, and then again at the end. Her first novel took her three months. The current one has taken her three years. Deborah edits as she goes as well, and then goes back each day and edits. Andrew agreed with the quote from Nora Roberts that it's easier to fix a bad page than a blank one. But, he tends to get stuck looking for the correct word. He's trying to loosen up, and get more relaxed about writing. He wants to keep moving on, and go back and fix the word later. Deborah said if she knows she needs a better word, she puts it in italics. Since Lucky is known for her comments, Coonts will write, "Lucky says something funny here," and move on. Andrew commented in the type of writing he does, he has to have two things right, guns and cars.

The authors were all asked about the use of social media. Deborah answered that she likes the interaction, but it's time-consuming. How much do you put out on Facebook? She knows people want a sense of the writer. She likes the connection, but she has to write her book, not spend time writing on the Internet. Sandra finds it disconcerting. She spends as much time on promotion as she does on writing, but you have to do it. Andrew said he grew up in England, where they're more reserved and cautious. He finds it hard to use social media. It's just not natural for him.

And, before ending the program, they all fielded a question about writing workshops. Deborah quit after a little while because they wanted to tell her the rules for writing, and she wanted to make her own rules. So, her rule is, go home and write. Don't make a profession of workshops. Sandra never attended workshops, although she has taught some. Andrew said no, he didn't attend any. His first book, Even, contains David's psychological profile. It's actually Andrew's profile; he just changed the name. And, it said he doesn't like rules.

It was a very enjoyable evening for Macmillan Night at The Poisoned Pen. (And, thanks, Talia & Bobby!)

Sandra Dallas' website is

Whiter Than Snow by Sandra Dallas. St. Martin's Press, ©2010. ISBN 9780312600150 (hardcover), 304p.

Deborah Coonts' website is

Wanna Get Lucky? by Deborah Coonts. Tor/Forge. ©2010. ISBN 978-0765325433 (hardcover), 352p.

Andrew Grant's website is

Die Twice by Andrew Grant. St. Martin's Minotaur, ©2010. ISBN 9780312540272 (hardcover), 304p.


jenny milchman said...

Wow, what an interesting roster of writers, all new discoveries to me! As always, Lesa, your write-ups (and PP programs) are so in depth. I find it fascinating how very differently different authors approach the craft, and the differing experiences they had once exposed to the business side of things.

Peg Brantley said...

Thanks for this terrific peak inside the lives and styles of authors. I love the affirmation that there's no right way or wrong way.

Great post!

Bev said...

I just finished reading The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag and was reading the acknowledgments in the back of the book. How neat is it that you are mentioned in it? You're even more famous! :)

Beth Hoffman said...

Lesa, this is a great post. You always make me feel as if I'm right there experiencing the event with you.

Also, it was interesting to read about the author's editing processes -- I edit in a similar way to Sandra Dallas.

Have a nice weekend!

Lesa said...

Thank you, Jenny. I'm fortunate to have the chance to go to the Poisoned Pen and hear authors frequently. I love to share that with people who might not be close enough to a bookstore, or be close to an author's tour.

Lesa said...


All three authors found their own way to writing, and don't like rules. So, you're right. They all agree there is no right or wrong way.

Lesa said...


Isn't that neat? I was lucky in that Barbara Peters invited me to go out with her and Alan Bradley after his first appearance at the Poisoned Pen. It was marvelous just to sit and listen to them talk about their world travels.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Beth. Just think, in just over a month, that will be a recap of your appearance here at Velma Teague! But, notice I didn't say much about dinner with Sandra Dallas, other than we went to dinner. Our girlfriend time next month is just for us!

kathy d. said...

Oh, gosh, am I ever envious about being able to go to the Poisoned Pen. I love their website, emails with book news, and know that I would love the bookstore if I lived anywhere nearby.

Lesa said...

You would love the bookstore, Kathy. It's to die for, particularly if you're a mystery fan. You just want to scoop up a pile of books, and run.