Sunday, September 26, 2010

Contemplating The End

I promised an entry about Sammy, so here we go! First off, for those of you who don’t know, Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher will be released in a couple of weeks. Yay! It will be the 13th of a projected 18 titles—a number that was finalized with my editor about two years ago. I did not originally intend to write a series. I had the idea for a single mystery and thought no further than the end of that story. But as Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief drew to a close, I already wanted to spend more time with Sammy. She was quick-witted, hot-headed, and, underneath it all, broken hearted. She was also in seventh grade, and man, that’s a tough place to leave someone you care about! So when the idea for Sammy Keyes and the Skeleton Man crept into my mind, I immediately began the ‘sequel’ to Hotel Thief. Midway through the writing of that second book, Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy began to infect my thinking. After all, I knew Sammy’d be slapped with a ton of detention for what she had to do to clear her name in Skeleton Man, and what better place to serve that detention than with nuns at a soup kitchen? So I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, and I found that no matter where the next story took me, there was somewhere else for Sammy to go…and grow. Thirteen books later, I still like her, still want to spend time with her, still want to see how she’ll surprise me next. Now, I say thirteen books because the thirteenth is ready for release, but in actuality I am almost done with Sammy Keyes and the Night of Skulls…book fourteen…and I find myself in a very emotional place. (Okay, okay, what else is new, right? But that’s how I am and you know that only because you read this blog. Believe me, I don’t let on to my neighbors or even most of my acquaintances.) I think the reason I find myself weirding out about this “place” is because after Night of Skulls there will be four books left. Four. Yes, that’s actually a lot of books…and nearly a thousand pages of writing to do! But I think the four is significant to me because that’s how the series started—with four. Again, you may already know this, but in case not: I didn’t have a contract for Hotel Thief or Skeleton Man or Sisters of Mercy or Runaway Elf…I’d actually be rejected by publishers and agents all over NYC and my response to them was to write the next book in a series they did not want. It was crazy, but I really thought I was onto something with Sammy, and I couldn’t seem to stop her from creeping back into my mind…and out onto paper. With each new book I hoped that one of those publishers who’d asked me to think of them again with my next project, would see Sammy Keyes the way I did. It wasn’t until after the first four books were written that I finally got my “yes,” and the ensuing contract was for all four books. So “four” has significance to me. It was the launch of this wonderful life, the evolution of characters I would have the luxury of getting to know book by book, year by year…it was a license to love Sammy with all my heart because she’d be in my life for as long as I could imagine. But now, here I am, getting ready to face the final four, and what’s been making this increasingly difficult is that I find myself obsessing about the last book. I’ve known for years how I want the last book to be structured, but there’s a new character that keeps appearing in my thoughts, demanding to be written in. One that shouldn’t be in the book because she has no business being there. One that promises to not interfere, but I’m not sure it’s possible for her to do that. Someone I can’t seem to shake. Me. I feel a little Inception-like—if you saw that movie—where I’ve been in my head with Sammy so long that I’m not sure what’s real…or where I belong. And the whole thing makes me weepy and confused, which is ridiculous because I’m still miles away from that 18th book. A thousand pages! All of us know that our time is going to run out eventually. It’s not knowing when The End happens that makes it bearable. And maybe this heightened emotion I’m experiencing is caused in part by the fact that Sammy has spent half of Night of Skulls in a graveyard or a funeral home or trying to understand death and beliefs in the hereafter, but I can’t seem to shake this looming feeling of The End. The consolation here is that Sammy may reach The End (of the series!) before I reach The End (for reals) (which better be how it goes, ‘cause if I reach The End first, how will Sammy get to The End?), but in the end, she will continue to exist much longer than I will. Which is something I can live with. Something that will help me get to—and through—The End.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Labor of Love

So, to continue the discussion from last week regarding the book-to-movie experience, I want to start with some back story about Flipped the book. I wrote it because I had this idea I wanted to explore, not because I had a contract to write it. And in the process of exploring that idea I became consumed first by Juli, and then (unexpectedly) by Bryce. It became one of those labor of love experiences that was worth all the time and effort and emotion, even if it had never been published. Upon publication it did receive some stars, but also some criticism. Some reviewers thought the character of David (Daniel in the movie) was contrived. (Obviously they didn't know anyone who'd come into this world with the umbilical cord wrapped around their neck.) There was no big push by my publisher, or large marketing budget behind Flipped. But it went out into the world and people started talking about it. One kid passed it onto the next and on and on and on. Word of mouth is what made the book catch on and it became, as my editor later described it, the Little Book That Could. That didn't happen in its "opening weekend" -- it happened over time. Flipped the movie was never supposed to be a blockbuster. It had a small budget (by Hollywood standards) and was a bit of a puzzle to market. And although it performed respectably in the original 3 major cities, its subsequent expansion was to 6 other big cities, and this is where I started to get a little worried. I don't see Flipped as a big city movie. It's quiet. Heartfelt. About real people. I started getting e-mails from people asking why it wasn't playing in their town. Asking if there was something they could do to get it to their town. So I asked people I know at Castle Rock whether there was some clearing house for requests, or how to go about letting these people have their voices be heard. To make a very long story short, I was encouraged to contact the head of Warner Brothers. This seemed excessive to me, but I did wind up e-mailing him and he did e-mail me back a very nice response which lined out some of the reasons for WB's decisions and strategies. I was impressed that he took the time to write such a thoughtful response. But it still left me wishing I could do something to get the movie into places where there were people dying to see it. So I called my local multiplex and was told that if enough people went to the on-line "comments" segment of the chain theater websites and requested a movie, the chains would actually listen. So I put the word out about that, even though I was skeptical. (In my experience it's much easier to affect a change at an independent bookstore than it is a chain bookstore where everything has to go through "corporate.") A few days later Rob Reiner called with the wonderful news that the movie would be opening in 350 theaters. The line kept "dropping" so the next day I called the Castle Rock office to verify that I'd heard correctly and was told that the number was up to over 450 theaters. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not claiming any responsibility for this "sudden expansion." But I was so happy to now have something to work with! So I put out an e-mail to my friends and contacts with a link to a Yahoo site that would allow the user to see if the movie was playing in their area, and I asked them to please pass it on. I heard "I'm on it!" from so many people. Librarians posted it on their list-serves. Friends sent it to their e-mail contacts. Principals told their teachers, teachers told their students. It was SO nice to feel like there was a growing army of people out there helping to spread enthusiasm about the movie, and I have the feeling that things will continue to grow over time. It's still playing in theaters, then it will be out on DVD, and I predict that in time it will prove to be the Little Movie That Could. One more little thought before I call it a night: In order for a book to become a movie, it seems that every star in the universe has to be aligned. And that's for a book that has obvious movie potential! I know that the only reason I'm lucky enough to have had this experience is because Rob Reiner loved the book and wanted to make it into a movie. It was his cache in the industry and his vision that made this a reality. I know that movie making is a business, but I get the sense from him that this was first and foremost a labor of love for him. Which is exactly what the book was for me. (Next week: Sammy!)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Stars and Gripes

It’s been another interesting week in the book-to-movie experience. Actually, it’s been two, but I didn’t want to talk about it last week. This week I’m okay with it. That’s probably because I know more this week than I knew last week and knowledge is king. Or something like that. If you’ve been following this blog you know that turning a book into a movie takes time. Lots of it. And along with time spent is a building anticipation of the day you are finally going to be able to see it on the silver screen. First, however, come the reviews, and today’s post is about that process. Book publishers release ARCs—advance reader copies—prior to a book’s publication. These are sent out to book reviewers and industry people so that summaries and recommendations can be made about a book prior to its on-sale date. The same basic thing happens with early screenings in the film industry. Production companies arrange screenings, reviewers go, and you keep your fingers crossed that the reviewers like the film and will say glowing things about it. In the book world, reviewers simply summarize and opine, and if you’re lucky, they grace your book with a star. We authors don’t get “three out of four stars” or any such ranking. We get no stars unless our book really stands out in the reviewer’s mind, and then we get one. One little star. But that star is cause for great celebration partly because stars are awarded in a notoriously miserly fashion. Now, if several reviewers all deign to stamp your work with a star, it actually matters because marketing budgets get increased, publicists have more to work with, and the publishing house holds its breath a little in anticipation of big awards being granted. If the reviews are not good, your book’s momentum for success comes to a sad, painful halt, and your book will probably be out of print in short order. If the reviews are mixed—meaning some reviewers like it and others don’t, then it comes down to finding the portion of the population that agrees with the reviewers who like it and selling to them. And the person in charge of doing that will most likely be the author. Over my career, I have gotten mostly positive reviews, and enough stars to keep me happy. But I’ve also been subjected to reviewers who “just don’t get it.” When you have one reviewer giving you a star and another slamming you, you start to see that it’s just subjective—an opinion. But when you realize how much that person’s negative opinion can shape your book’s success, you want to say, hey, wait a minute—what qualifies you to say that? What I’ve learned these past two weeks is that the movie business is very much like the book business. The reviewers give out stars. Or tickets. Or tomatoes. Or thumbs up or down. Or whatever. And marketing strategies are tied to reviews and early box office success. So even if you have good reviews, or good mixed reviews, if you have a “small film” (meaning small production budget) going up against 3-D or huge special effects movies, your initial box office (cash brought it first weekend) might not be enough to warrant further distribution. In other words the big multiplexes—where the majority of people go to see films—don’t want to take it in. With Flipped the movie, a lot of reviewers loved it and there were some wonderful articles in the LA Times and USA Today about it. There were other reviewers who made their cynical opinions quite clear, and the combination resulted in a situation similar to mixed reviews in the book industry. The question then became how do we get the film to that portion of the population that will agree with the reviewers who understand the film? The answer is ongoing, and I’m afraid it’s better left for next week when I have more data. Meanwhile, go see Flipped while you can. It’s a beautiful, heartfelt film, and I'm sure that, unless you're a cynic, you'll agree!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

News Flash!

We interrupt this blog's strict weekly scheduling for a special announcement! I just heard that Flipped will be opening in about 450 cities tomorrow (Friday, Sept. 10th) YAY! If you want to see if Flipped is playing in your area, click on this link, select Friday Sept 10th (when it opens) and type in your zip code and "Flipped". Then take your friends and go see it! Please pass it on!

Sunday, September 5, 2010


I'm a list maker. It's like my little daily road map, and without it I'm lost. Actually, I'm a lists maker. I have a large, lined Post-it on my (cheap little) portable events calendar. Next to (or, actually, sort of underlapping) that large, lined Post-it is another large, lined Post-it that has a list of things I have to remember to buy. In the kitchen, attached to the side of the refrigerator, is a magnetic pad of paper where another list builds. Usually it says DOG FOOD and MILK. I should just get a pad printed that starts with DOG FOOD and MILK. We go through a crazy amount of DOG FOOD and MILK. What I like about lists is how they make my brain feel. It's so relieved to have a list because once an item's on the list my brain is excused from having to remember it and lets out a happy little cerebral sigh. (Is sounds like, Ahhhhhh, thank you!) So my brain loves the lists, but I--the whole of me--love the ch-check! that I boldly deliver when something on the list is complete. Ch-CHECK! Oh, yeah! I will go so far as to add things to the list after the fact, just so I can go ch-check! I will also use The List to force completion of a task I've been avoiding. See, once the task makes The List, I've got to face it. There it is, amidst a stack of other tasks, and as the ch-check!s mount and I'm left with only a few items remaining, I will finally bite the bullet and do it.

How can a list be so powerful? I mean, it's not a law, or anything, that you have to do everything on your list, but--at least on a day-to-day level--there is nothing more glorious than a list fully checked.

People often ask me how I manage to do so much. Well, I'm not Superwoman or one of those people who don't require much sleep. (I need eight hours minimum.) What I do have, though, is The List. The key is to make your list manageable. Don't write Paint The House on your list. Write: Decide on Color. (next line) Buy the Paint (next line) Mask the Windows in the Living Room (next line) Remove the Switch Covers in the Living Room.... You need a separate line for each semi-major step in each room or you're not getting enough ch-check! therapy. (It is therapy, too, excellent for your soul and your productivity, so don't deny yourself.) Writing a novel is like painting the house. You need to break it down into manageable steps and give yourself ample ch-check! therapy along the way. And since most of us spend our days juggling more than we can really manage, it's easy to have Write Three Pages (or whatever a reasonable goal for your circumstances might be) never make it onto the list. So put it there. Somewhere between Water Plants and Soccer Practice put Write Three Pages. Somewhere between Take Out Trash and Call Landlord put Write Three Pages. If it's something you want to do, add it to the list of things you have to do.

If you're anything like me, it's the only way you'll get it done.