10 Lessons from Killer Nashville

10 Lessons from Killer Nashville

The Killer Nashville International Writer’s Conference was the first of its kind I’ve ever attended.  I didn’t know quite what to expect but tried to put my best foot forward:

  • Served on 3 panels (Writing Spies and Espionage, Settings, Witness Reliability),
  • Was a conference sponsor, which put my name on the back of the awards dinner program and a copy of “The Beast” short story in every conference tote, and
  • Wore my lucky red dress on the first day.

At the 4-day event I connected with terrific authors I only knew from Facebook and email, including Mike Faricy (the Dev Haskell series), Jim Nesbitt (the Ed Earl Burch series), Kathryn Lane (the Nikki Garcia series), and Mike Pettit (the Jack Marsh series, the Max Simms series, etc.). I made new friends too, including Dale T. Phillips (the Zack Taylor series), Ross Carley (the Wolf Ruger series), and Margaret Mizushima (the Timber Creek K-9 mysteries).

Me and globetrotter Mike Faricy, author of the inimitable Dev Haskell series. Check out the lucky red dress.

Related: Straight Shooting with mystery author Mike Faricy

Sharing a laugh with Ed Earl Burch creator, Jim Nesbitt.

Related: Hard-core hard-boiled with Jim Nesbitt

The presentations given by experts on DNA, toxicology, and drug smuggling were outstanding. I now have a long list of terms to Google, like “volatiles” and “fracture match.” Guest speakers Jeffrey Deaver, Otto Penzler, J.A. Konrath, and Anne Perry all impressed with their experience and insights.

Major takeaways from Killer Nashville:

1. Consistent, high quality production is the name of the game. The best known authors in the mystery genre have 30 or more books to their name  . . . and a fierce work ethic.

2. Even the best need to be resilient and take the long view. Jeffrey Deaver gave a great talk at Killer Nashville in which the word “escape” figured large. Stories struggling to escape the imagination. Writers struggling to escape the ordinary. Or in Deaver’s case, he wrote to escape being a nerd. Deaver read us entries from journals in which he recorded his epic fails on the way to publishing success. From no one showing up for book signings to technical glitches that destroyed pages, he showed that no author is immune. His bottom line? Be resilient in the face of disasters and persistent when it comes to writing what you love.

3. The divide between traditional publishing and independent publishing was the ghost at the banquet. For many attendees, traditional publishing still represents “validation.” The opportunity to sit down with an agent was the main reason they were there. Yet all four of the agents on the dedicated panel agreed that it takes 3-5 years for an author to get signed and published. The tortoise-like speed of that route would seem to be a serious handicap on the road to a big backlist. See 1, above.

4. Every traditionally published author has a loss-of-control horror story. Publishers putting the wrong title on a printed book. Publishing contracts that buy book rights for the life of the author plus 70 years. Publishers that pay 6% royalty. Publishers running a marketing campaign that targets the wrong audience. Publishers closing down their mystery imprint in the middle of a contracted-for series, leaving the author unable to publish elsewhere. And so on.

5. Discoverability is the golden ticket. Best selling indie author Christopher Greyson spends $100k annually on Amazon advertising. J.A. Konrath has written dozens of short stories to build discoverabiity in addition to his horror thrillers and the Jack Daniels series. Ironically, when legendary mystery editor and publisher Otto Penzler was asked how to get included in one of his popular anthologies, he answered, “Get famous.”

6. An author’s “platform,” or online presence and ability to influence others, is today’s must-have accessory. For those yearning to go the traditional route, it is one of the first things an agent looks at. A platform (read good website)  is critical for an indie author to build an email list (with a newsletter like Mystery Ahead!)

Carmen Amato's Mystery Ahead

Should this be the new Mystery Ahead newsletter header? Wearing a red raincoat in this photo. Not to be confused with red dress.

7. Anne Perry gets it. The bestselling author of 85 books gave the keynote on the last day of the conference. According to Anne, the role of a writer is to show lives we will not live. This really resonated with me, especially in terms of writing about Mexico’s disappearances in 43 MISSING. Incidentally, her publishing contract stipulates 3 books per year, 2 of which are around 100,000 pages, and the other is a novella. See 1, above.

Related: The real story behind 43 MISSING

8. Literary reviews are only useful to an author for one reason—the promotional quote. According to Deaver, there are very few credible literary reviewers any more. Reviewers rarely put your work into context. They generally don’t compare it to works within a genre or even the author’s own body of work. So take reviews with a grain of salt and ignore the sour ones.

9. Physical book tours are not worth the time. According to Deaver, hardly anybody shows up and you are better off using the time to write another book. That being said, Greyson has ordered (and paid for) 8000 copies of his independently published bestseller to send to bookstores and I’ll bet some signings go along. Secondary lesson: What you are willing to do re discoverabiity directly relates to how “discovered” you are . . .

10. When a friend reads your work . . . From Linda Sands, author of the Cargo series: Men friends will look for themselves in the worst aspects of male characters, but women friends look for themselves in the best aspects of female characters.

One last thing . . . 43 MISSING, the 6th Detective Emilia Cruz novel, was a finalist in the Best Procedural category for the Silver Falchion award from Killer Nashville. It was a big thrill to hear my name and title read out at the awards banquet. The winner was FOREVER YOUNG by Henry Hack.

The worst writing advice ever. Not kidding.

The worst writing advice ever. Not kidding.

“But the novel is set in Mexico,” she said. “All the characters are Mexican.”

“That’s right,” I replied. “Lives of the people fighting the drug cartels. And Mexico’s class structure.”

More than 5 years ago, I was speaking on the phone to a well-known American author about potential agents and publishers for  THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY. She was enthusiastic about the quality of my writing but we kept circling around an undefined problem.

“New York will never touch it,” she said finally. “And a New York agent is the only kind worth having. New York agents are looking for the next Sex and the City. Glossy. High heels. New York.”

“This is a political thriller,” I countered. “Makes the real Mexico accessible to the American audience the way Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series did for Russia.”

GORKY PARK, RED SQUARE and the other Arkady Renko novels were ground-breaking, taking us inside a crumbling Soviet Union and then a mafia-riddled Russia.

My book took the reader inside the real Mexico. How was it any different?

New York won’t buy a book with all Mexican characters

The famous author didn’t care. Her sniff was audible.

“New York won’t buy a book with all Mexican characters,” she said.And your main character is a maid. At least couldn’t you make her American?”

I made a gurgling sound.

“You know,” the author blithely went on. “A college girl from Pittsburgh named Susan or Tess who goes to Mexico on a cultural exchange program to work as a maid for a semester. Something like that.”

I could have tossed off a barbed remark about how it would cost an American in Pittsburgh more to get to Mexico than they would earn as a maid in three months, but I was too busy being appalled.

This was a book about Mexico’s drug war, the people fighting it, and their chances of survival. It was also a Cinderella story taking on Mexico’s unspoken caste system. Sue and Tess were not part of that narrative.

Related: Read Chapters 1 & 2

Was she right?

Most of the New York agents I queried never replied. The few that did were only taking on a few select projects. One agency well known for representing fiction and thrillers said they didn’t take on my specific “genre.”

Ahem, I was pitching a political thriller.

Related post: How to Solve Hollywood’s Lack of Latino Roles

Trend or snub?

The question became unavoidable. Was this the classic snub of a new author by the New York cognoscenti? Or a mainstream publishing industry bias against Hispanic-themed popular fiction?

I don’t have any empirical evidence either way, as I update this in 2018. But in 2014 I wrote:

“If this is a trend, then it is a trend that runs counter to both population demographics and marketing statistics. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics made up 16% of the US population in 2010 and that rate is projected to rise to 29% in 2050. This group has significant buying power.

The Latino buying power will be $1.5 trillion and steadily increasing by 2015, as asserted by The Nielsen Company in its early 2012 report “State of the Hispanic Consumer.” Meanwhile, ever alert to trends, Amazon introduced a bilingual English-Spanish Kindle e-reader.”

To play devil’s advocate, the lack of response to my queries is to be expected for most authors who try to break into traditional publishing. Some time later, an agent told me they couldn’t publish the first Detective Emilia Cruz because “I don’t know anyone who knows you.”

There are many more would-be authors knocking on agent and editor doors than there is interest in offering a contract to an unknown. But I think the message in that author’s suggestion to change the nationality of the main character speaks for itself.

Update

Drug violence on America’s border is constantly in the news and the US national debate over immigration is acute.  Fiction can help to socialize these issues and give them an understanding, a face, and an immediacy that often the news cannot.

Meanwhile, THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, with all of its Mexican characters, is available on Amazon in print and ebook formats. It is rated 4.8 out of 5 stars with comments like:

It’s a perfect blend of action, suspense and romance. The action keeps you turning the pages as the author portrays the gritty reality of the city. Amato captures the complexity of life in one of the world’s largest cities, expertly depicting the sleazy politicians, the drug lords, their violent lieutenants and the common Mexicans who are victimized by them. Her characters are sharply drawn and totally believable.”

Read the book and you will learn something about the drug wars cost and the people who are determined to end the corruption. You’ll learn about the class system that divides the Mexican culture. Amato fills the pages with three-dimensional characters that you care about. You will be thrilled with the way Amato shares the dinner between Eduardo and Luz. I wanted to read that whole scene out loud to my wife.”

And this from the Literary Fiction Review: “The Hidden Light of Mexico City by Carmen Amato is a rivetingly dramatic tale of politics and corruption, and a man and a woman from opposite ends of the social spectrum who fall in love.” 

The most viewed page on this website is the dreamcast of Latino actors who I think should star in any movie adaptation.

My sniff is audible.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

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