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Author Interview: Libby Fischer Hellman, part 2

“Panic has a way of defining an individual. It scrapes the soul bare, strips away pretense, reveals the core of the human spirit. It’s hard to dissemble when fear crawls up your throat, your heart stampedes like a herd of wild animals, and your skin burns with the prickly-heat of terror. For the six people thrown together in a Loop office building on a hot June day, the moments they shared would reveal parts of themselves they had not known existed.”

DOUBLEBACK [1], Libby Fischer Hellman’s [2]latest release, starts off with a bang and never lets up. The book has more twists and turns than Highway 101, and in Fischer Hellman’s gifted hands, you never see the plot reversals coming.

In part one [3]of our two-part interview with Fischer Hellman, she talks about the tools needed to craft a great suspense story and the challenges of creating a series. In part two, Fischer Hellman continues the discussion about the craft of writing suspense and offers advice for innovative ways to promote your novels.

Please enjoy part two of our two-part interview with Libby Fischer Hellman.

Q: What do you make sure you do in each of your novels to build suspense?

LFH: Well then, let’s start at the beginning. The first sentence of a book, and sometimes of chapters as well, should compel the reader to read the second. Which means it needs to be riveting, dramatic, and suspenseful. It usually means starting “in media res,” in the middle of things. I teach a suspense workshop where I hand out some examples of great first lines. In fact, I blogged about some of them not too long ago, here [4].

Q: Is place important for you in terms of inspiration for your novels? How can writers use place to their advantage other than giving a travelogue?

LFH: A sense of place is vital. That’s one of the reasons I write about Chicago. I’m not a native, but I’ve lived here 30 years. Still, I cling to an outsider’s perspective and hope I describe it in ways that readers who aren’t in Chicago can relate to. In fact, many scenes in my books spring from the setting. Knowing where the characters are clearly affects what they say and do.

As for technique, writers shouldn’t feel they need to entirely describe the setting in one fell swoop. Start with two (or at max) three sentences about the setting, then sprinkle in bits as the chapter or scene unfolds.

Q: The trailer for DOUBLEBACK is pretty cool. Trailers are a new marketing tool for writers; do you think it’s been helpful in terms of building buzz for your book? What should authors know before deciding to do one?

LFH: I do think they play a role in creating “buzz” (and I’m glad you liked mine – I definitely think they need to be under a minute in length)… but for me the jury’s still out on whether they make a difference in the bottom line. I enjoy them, but I wouldn’t make a decision to buy a book on the trailer. However, I might seek out more reviews of that book, based on an interesting trailer. So, again, I’m not certain of the right answer.

What authors should know is that they cost a lot, unless you are already familiar with video and editing. Happily, I used to be a video producer in another life, and a good friend helped me create it on his Mac. I shot some footage around Chicago with my trusty video camera, did the same in Arizona during a research trip (See, research can take you to all sorts of places!), and used stock music, so my budget was next to nothing. But that’s usually the exception. I would caution authors who are not familiar with video to tread very carefully before shelling out precious promotion dollars.

Q: You are also active in other social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter. What do you feel is essential for writers to do in terms of self-promotion, and what do you think is “nice to do, if you have time”?

LFH: A website is imperative. And it should look professional. It is a writer’s introduction to potential readers. It is also the writer’s press kit. If you have limited funds, spend it on the website, and ask your techie friends how to add those little meta tags to make it come up in whatever subject areas are appropriate.

I used to think Twitter was indispensable. I still think it’s valuable, but I find I have less time to surf around it these days. But I like the fact that it’s short and punchy, and you can provide a link to people who want more information. I have never been so well-informed since I started on Twitter.

For me, Facebook is personal. (I love playing Wordscraper, if anyone out there wants a game). I’ve begun promoting my events on FB, even created a fan page, but I still feel a little funny doing it.

I am about to go on a book tour for DOUBLEBACK [1]. It’s more limited than my previous tours, and I keep hearing ominous things about reduced attendance at book signings. So we’ll see. But signings and personal appearances have always been a source of solid promotion for me.

The other thing that I believe is critical – and it’s not self promotion as much as a partnership between author and publisher – is getting advance reader copies out to reviewers and bloggers and booksellers before the book launches. I think PDF files are starting to make a difference, and I’m glad. It’s an inexpensive but effective way to get your “product” into “influencers” hands. If influencers like the product, and are willing to share their opinions on the web, that third-party credibility can make a huge difference.

So, for me, one of the most valuable self-promotion tools is appearing on book blogger sites like Writer Unboxed. I am thrilled to have an opportunity to introduce myself to you and your readers. They may not read me today, or even tomorrow (although I won’t complain if they do), but if what I say about the writing process makes sense to them, maybe they’ll see my book or my name someplace in the future and pick up a copy.

Q: How have you evolved as an author?

LFH: I think you’d have to ask readers that question. I hope I am a better writer than when I started. I am more aware of what doesn’t work in a novel, but that doesn’t mean I know what does. I still write myself into corners. I do tend to write darker than I used to, because what worries and scares me these days comes out on the page, and I’m seeing more darkness in the world. Also, the process doesn’t scare me as much as it used to. I know whatever I write will eventually be finished.

Q: What is the best advice you have ever received during your writing career? The worst?

LFH: Best advice: Your first draft doesn’t have to be good. It just has to be written.

Worst advice: Write what you know. I believe you should write what you want to know. (And then do the research to make sure you do.)

Q: What are you reading right now?

LFH: I’m in the middle of three books: Cloud Atlas (which I just started), Smasher by Keith Raffel, and The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane.

Q: What’s next for you?

LFH: I’m currently writing the last third of a novel that’s completely different from anything I’ve previously written. It’s a stand-alone psychological crime fiction story that takes place during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, mostly in Tehran. The Iranian husband of an American girl is murdered, and she is accused of the crime and goes to prison. It’s written in present tense, and the voice is completely new. It’s clearly a risk. But it’s also a challenge, and I like challenges. They help me grow.

Wasn’t that great? Thanks, Libby! DOUBLEBACK [5] is available everywhere books are sold.

About Kathleen Bolton [6]

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton [7]. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway [8]: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber [9].