Tuesday, July 24, 2007

KILLER Q&A: BILL CAMERON

We turn the spotlight on suspense novelist Bill Cameron, member of the KILLER YEAR: Class of 2007.

His debut novel is Lost Dog (Midnight Ink):

Disaffected klepto Peter McKrall finds a dead hooker in the park while looking for his niece's lost toy dog. At the crime scene, he has a chance encounter with the killer, who sets out to implicate Peter in the crime. Soon, the victim's frantic ex-con daughter is calling in the middle of the night, and the police have cast suspicious eyes his way ...


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AS A NEWBIE NOVELIST, WHAT IS THE SCARIEST THING FOR YOU?
Facing the reality that my long avocation suddenly has money riding on it.

I don't yet have a clear idea of what financial success for a first novel needs to look like, but for the first time in my life I'm worried about it. In one sense, I've already achieved a degree of success I'd long thought might be out of my reach, a book in print. And I'll never lose that.

But now I realize my novel needs to do more than satisfy my personal existential needs. It needs to earn out its advance, it needs have good sell-through (a term I just learned this year). It needs to meet (and hopefully exceed) the financial expectations of my publisher. And it needs to make money for my agent, who took a chance on me and has done a lot of work already for very little recompense.

And, sure, I don't want to forget myself. I'd love to make some money too. But in many ways, the writing itself has been its own reward for me. Right now, it's everyone else I'm worried about.

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO COMBAT YOUR FEARS?
The main thing I feel I can do is stay busy. There's so much waiting in the publishing process, and yet so much that needs to be done—and thank goodness for that. While I'm anxiously awaiting word from my editor, or waiting to hear if one of my favorite authors will be willing to read an ARC, I try to make sure I have something to do. Of course my next novel has been my main concern, and I'm making good progress on it. But I also try to do other things. Work on a short story, make a contact or two among local booksellers, and more. Killer Year has help in this regard, because it's created opportunities to be proactive in the promotion of our books. I've greatly appreciated the chance to keep myself occupied and feeling productive.

HOW HAVE YOUR "KILLER YEAR" CLASSMATES HELPED YOU THROUGH THIS CAMPAIGN?
I think the single biggest benefit of being part of the Killer Year is that I don't feel alone. Without the support of the group, it would be very easy to feel isolated and lost as I plunge toward the release of my book. yet here is this group of folks all in just about the same place as me. We can share our successes and anxieties, kick around ideas and learn from each other. Some of us have even had a chance to meet in person, which has been delightful. It's been a real gift and a joy. I feel like I'm making friend I hope will be with me for the rest of my life.

WHAT ARE YOUR WRITING HABITS?
When I'm behaving myself, I end my work day around three o'clock, then write for two to four hours. I'm self-employed by day, which gives me some flexibility, though when I'm busy I don't always hit that three o'clock target. Much as I'd like to, I have a hard time starting my day with writing. I find I have to deal with the pressures of my day job first in order to earn permission to write.

I usually have to write away from the house. When I'm home, there are too many distractions--chores, emails, phone calls. By getting away, usually to a coffee shop, I find I'm better able to focus on writing. Someday I'd love to turn it around--write first, in the comfort of my own office at home. But this process is working for me right now, so I'll stick with it until I'm ready, and able, to make a change.

AS A READER, WHAT DOES A BOOK NEED FOR YOU TO PICK IT UP?
I read for different things, sometimes for a light diversion, other times to be challenged—and sometimes a little of both. I don't limit my reading to crime fiction, of course. My favorite books work on many levels, and I love layered, complex tales with rich characters.

A big factor in me picking up a book is a compelling pitch from a real person. If a friend or bookseller says, "You should read this book because..." and then makes a good case for it, I'll probably buy. I love talking to people about books, and will strike up a conversation with a stranger in a bookstore in a heartbeat.

Reviews can sell me as well, though less often. I'm less influenced by cover art, though I love great covers. Too many times I've seen covers that seemed to have little relationship to the book inside that I tend to treat them as separate works of art. It's always fun, though, when I think a designer really captured the essence of the story, but I usually don't find that out until I've actually read the book!

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ASPIRING WRITERS?
Stick with it. That's probably the most common advice I heard over the years, yet the one thing I needed most to hear. I finished my first novel when I was eighteen years old. I had to write three more, plus a mess of short stories, to get to the point I'm at now with a debut novel coming out—at age 43. Obviously not everyone has to wait as long as I have, but some wait longer. If you want to write for publication, don't give up.

The other thing I'd say is don't compare yourself to other writers. There will always be writers you think are better than you, and there will always be writers (including a few big best sellers) who you can look at and think, "I'm better than that. Why aren't I at the top of the best seller list?" I find such comparisons counter-productive. At the same, don't ever stop trying to learn from other writers. Read with open eyes and learn from everyone you can. Never stop trying to improve your craft. But keep your focus on your own voice and your own vision. Whoever you read and learn from, never lose sight of who you are as a writer.

WHAT DO YOU WISH NON-WRITERS UNDERSTOOD?
I think one of the hardest things for me to hear from non-writers are the phrases, "I wish I had time to write," or, "I've always wanted to write a book, but I'm just so busy." When I hear that, my first thought is, "I'm busy too." I have a job and a family, chores and responsibilities, same as the next person.

It seems to me that most novels and stories get written because their authors carved out spare moments from very busy lives to make it happen. At some point, a few are able to make the jump from people who write when they can to people who write full time, but for most of us, even those of us with contracts and books on in the stores, day jobs still consume the greater portion of our waking lives.

Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't trade it. The fact that I can write and even have a chance of being read is a wonderful gift. But it's not the result of a life of leisure.

WHAT DO YOU WISH OTHER WRITERS UNDERSTOOD?
What a tyrant my cat can be. She runs me ragged. Goodness.

Other writers understand the writing process and how it fits into daily life. They understand the sense of isolation that comes when you're in the thick of a project and have little time or thought for anything else. Beyond that, they're just like anyone else. We all have our personal challenges and joys, and I certainly hope I can share those with my writer friends same as my non-writer friends. But in a larger sense, I feel like my writer friends already understand what it means to follow the path we've chosen.

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT PUBLISHING THROUGH THIS "KILLER YEAR" CAMPAIGN?
Mostly how precarious it all seems. On the one hand, publishing can be wildly successful, and yet there is so much that no one seems able to predict. Work hard, write well, generate positive buzz and good will, and you can still flop. Write poorly, get bad reviews, and you may still have a bestseller on your hands. Who knows? There are days when I think publishers are mostly like the fellows who live at the racetrack and spread as many bets around as possible, figuring a long shot has to come in sooner or later.

In some ways, it feels like writing is of secondary importance to other aspects of publishing. That may be a function of where I'm at in the process, but with all the things you must do to promote the book, to make it enough of a commercial success that you get the chance to write a second, the act of writing almost feels incidental. Down inside, I know that's not really true, or at least not completely true, but it can be hard to shake when you see so much talk about how hard it is to get noticed, let alone to sell books. In some ways, it seems almost a wonder anyone can make a living writing fiction.

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT YOURSELF?
That I can adapt to changing circumstances. My writing process has changed by necessity, yet I feel I've improved as a result. What's most exciting to me about that is the recognition I still have a chance to grow as a person and a writer. I don't feel static. I know I have to be open to learning and developing myself, but I feel confident I can. So long as I maintain my desire to learn and to work hard, my best writing should be ahead of me.

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT YOUR CRAFT?
The most important thing I've learned is the value of discipline. I spent a lot of years writing as a sideline, and only when I could find the time. It made for slow progress and often an inconsistent voice or foundering tales. I have a lot of false starts on my computer, and I don't wonder if a lot of them fizzled out not because of any fatal flaw in the story premise but because I didn't write on a regular schedule. One of the things selling a first novel did for me was provide pressure to write the next one. While I don't have a contractual deadline, I do have goals developed with the help of my agent for building my career. And that doesn't include sitting on my hands. I find I'm now writing more than any time since college.

As a result, I feel like I'm writing with a stronger command of voice, and with more consciousness of the elements of fiction. I hope it also means I've strengthened as a writer.


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Thanks to suspense novelist Bill Cameron. Find him online at BillCameronMysteries.com, and at his blog, Thinking With My Skin.

You can also find more at the Killer Year website, the Killer Year blog and the Killer Year MySpace page.

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Related links:
KILLER Q&A: MARC LECARD (Vinnie's Head)
KILLER Q&A: GREGG OLSEN (A Wicked Snow)
KILLER Q&A: PATRY FRANCIS (The Liar's Diary)
KILLER Q&A: ROBERT GREGORY BROWNE (Kiss Her Goodbye)
KILLER Q&A: MARCUS SAKEY (The Blade Itself)
KILLER Q&A: SEAN CHERCOVER (Big City, Bad Blood)
KILLER Q&A: SANDRA RUTTAN (Suspicious Circumstances)
KILLER YEAR: Class of 2007
Adopting Killer Year

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