KAREN TRAVISS

#1 New York Times bestselling author

Tough guys have to eat too

If you want to check out the International Thriller Writers roundtable discussion on the role of food in contemporary thrillers, the discussion is here: it runs from October 13 to 19.

Food is a big deal in all my books. It defines us, reveals who we are, betrays what worries us (or not, because if eating pork scratchings is wrong, I don't want to be right) and identifies our culture and income. I'm not sure how I'd write fully realised characters or societies without it.

In other news, I had a great time at Roll Out Roll Call this weekend in Southampton, an event for fans of G.I. Joe, Transformers, and other IPs of similar vintage, organised by Dave Tree of
All The Cool Stuff, Fordingbridge. It was wonderful to have time and space to talk to fans – something that's near impossible at big cons – and meet fellow pros. I'm not ashamed to repeat the news that Larry Hama kindly did a terrific sketch on the cover of my first issue of THE FALL OF G.I. JOE. Larry is one of those rare people so accomplished that if you created a character like him in one of your books, the average editor would tell you to drop it because nobody could be that multi-talented and do so much in one lifetime. He's a lovely bloke, as well. A real privilege to meet him.

Thanks, too, to Dave for donating a batch of FALL comics and to Joe fans for buying the signed copies to raise money for Help For Heroes. A cheque for £67 is winging its way to H4H as we speak.

Quote of the Event Award goes to artist Jason Cardy (Transformers). When I was foolish enough to admit that I liked the Mortal Kombat movies and thought they should have their own retrospective season at the BFI, on account of their being cinema classics of which Orson Wells would be envious, he said: "Citizen Kano?"

"Get down here!"






Another ITW roundtable

I'm doing another International Thriller Writers roundtable discussion next week, October 13 to 19, and this time the topic is food. This is the starter question:

"We've covered weather, descriptions, settings, but what about the role of "food" in contemporary thrillers? Is there room to eat amidst the chasing?"

Well, we are what we eat, and none more so than characters in novels. Food's always been a big part of characterisation and world-building in my stuff. So if you're interested in seeing how a bunch of writers handle the topic, join us on the ITW Roundtable page. I'll post specific links in a few days.

International Thriller Writers' roundtable next week

Just a quick heads-up: International Thriller Writers holds a online roundtable every week where authors talk about an aspect of writing. Next week (October 6 - 12) I'll be taking part in a discussion on revealing characters' ages, with the question being: "Do readers prefer a protagonist who is ageless? When should writers provide details on age and when are the details too much?" Visit this link for the discussion, which is in a nice familiar blog format. If you check it out now, the current roundtable is about dialogue, which is definitely worth a look.

I'll also be taking part in another roundtable starting October 13. Details of that will follow soon.

First strike and the back foot

I've just watched an interesting response to an online debate between two authors. The details are irrelevant, except for the fact that these authors know each other well. One of them said something to the other that offended the lurking audience, and a backlash ensued in which some folks declared they'd never buy another book by that author because he was such a beastly, horrid man. (And variations on that theme.)

The interesting thing for an old spin doc like me was that the alleged insultee pointed out that the alleged insulter was a mate of his and that this was just blokeish banter. The context of the original comment, though, was completely lost because all the audience had seen was this apparently obnoxious statement. But it was too late: the author was already on the back foot, and judging by the reactions of onlookers, no amount of explaining and contextualising is going to change the minds of those who now think he's a grade-A bell-end and have boycotted his titles. The myth (I'm assuming the insultee knows if he's been insulted or not) has been born.

There are some lessons here for us all. Remember that I can make a politician look like a normal human being, so I know a bit about reputation management and how to put a parade-ground shine on a turd.

1. First strike. (Which can also be an own goal. The strike doesn't always come from the other side.) First strike is everything in PR. Rebuttal is for losers, even if you're right, you can prove it, and the first strike was so wrong it could bend space and time with its wrongness. Once something has happened and escaped into the wild, it's very hard to turn it around in the court of public opinion without a long campaign of drip-drip case presentation, no matter how right or innocent you are. I won't get into prebuttals and all that stuff, nor the dark art of bogus first strikes, because that's bound to end in tears. Just remember that humans form impressions quickly, so think before you write or say a word.

2. Context will bugger you every time. Relying on audiences understanding the context and tone of a statement is risky, especially on the internet. (It's bad enough in other media.) At the source, a comment may be clearly signposted and understood as banter between mates. Once a few lines are taken out and quoted elsewhere, though, they can become something very different. By the time the words are separated from the original source by three, four, five degrees or more, all the average punter can see is a statement that looks on the surface like a poor advert for someone's attitude to life. It may well be completely misleading; but it's a soundbite, and those have a life of their own, as anyone who's edited a TV interview will confirm.

Rebuttal and attempts at explanation end up being like Snopes. Everyone could check before rushing to judgement to see if X really said what he or she was quoted as saying, or if urban myths have any basis, but generally people don't. Most people, even apparently smart ones, swallow what they're told and never think of checking it. Fair enough: you could spend your entire life checking every word you hear and read, and become paralysed by mistrust and paranoia. But the more outrageous the words I see, the more I'm inclined to go back to the source. No journo worth their salt would take something at face value without making sure someone had said what was claimed, and I don't mean checking some half-arsed wiki page, either. But very few people can or want to do that amount of digging, and it doesn't occur to others because they're subconsciously cherry-picking the meaning that reinforces their world-view. Seeing what you expect to see is another hard-wired human trait, as I often find when I read a mind-boggling headline that suddenly becomes much more mundane on further, slower scrutiny.

And that's without misquotes creeping in. When readers shopped in stores and didn't spend so much time online, you could eat kittens and nobody would connect your eating habits with your product. Now that readers will search for your name online, your kitten-eating comments will be there, and they'll judge you accordingly. Even if what you originally said was about feeding kittens rather than fricasseeing them. People often don't read what's in front of them.

3. Like it or not, the way you present yourself in public may affect how people see your product and even if they buy it or not. In the good old days, the public rarely had a chance to find out what an actor, artist, musician, or writer was like in real life. In many ways, I wish that were still true. There are people whose behaviour I really don't want to know about, but it's hard to ignore it when it makes news headlines. Backlash is an issue for anyone in the public eye. (And these days, the bar for public eye is much lower than it used to be – like when your prospective employer finds that stupid stuff you posted on FB.) There's backlash. Some of it is conscious: people often don't want to line the pockets of someone who beats his wife or a woman who racially abuses staff. On a more subliminal level, poor image can taint everything you do. There's an actor whose movies I can never watch now because I can't get his behaviour off-screen out of my head and separate him from whatever role he's in.

Moral of the lesson: reputation management isn't only for politicians and CEOs – or even just for writers, come to that. By all means be yourself on the internet, unless you're a dick, in which case keep it to yourself. But it's easy to look like a dick when the audience can't or won't see the context in which something has been said. At which point, I'll switch from spin doc advice to journo advice; when it doubt – leave it out.

Picking your battles: censorship and self-censorship

Schleteva, Galibi, Nazani. And Westerham Falls, Maine. They're all places I write about, but you won't find them on any map. Okay, you'll find Maine. That's real. But other than the obvious, I made them up for the purposes of fiction. (Schleteva isn't Ukraine, by the way, nor is Galibi. Too far west, and I was already writing G.I. Joe by the time the Ukraine crisis kicked off.) Why invent a location when the world is full of great places to set a story?

One of the problems with fiction is that it has consequences in the real world, which is why you see all those boilerplate disclaimers at the front of every book and the end of every movie reminding people that it's all fiction and not intended to refer to anyone who actually exists. Of course, there are always writers who file off the serial numbers from real life, which doesn't help in a court case, but a lot of us really do make everything up. Because it's fiction. That's what it means. Characters like and dislike things, and expressing that is a central part of characterisation. Characters also disagree with each other.

So how far do you go? Readers sometimes think that writers invent places because it's easier than researching them. Actually, it's relatively easy to do the level of research you need without even visiting a country. But some of us still invent towns and countries because there isn't a real location that fits what we need, or because we want to avoid trouble in a world where someone always seems eager to be offended. In some ways, it's harder to invent a place because you still have to shoehorn it into an existing county, country, or continent. I spent days working out sunrise-sunset times, climate, and distances and consulting people with local knowledge to make Nazani and Westerham credible but clearly invented.

It might seem over-cautious, but I recall when Beirut threatened to sue the producers of Homeland because the city was depicted as being a place where terrorist incidents occurred. (Ironically, within days of that story, there was a pretty big car bomb.) Then there was the more recent row when a character in a Dan Brown book didn't much like Manila and the city took umbrage. There's a long list of cities that didn't like the way they appeared in TV shows.

But a city doesn't actually need to stand a chance of bringing a case to court to cause problems for writers. The storm-in-a-teacup nature of the internet means that a small but vocal group can take offence about anything and scare retailers enough to get items taken off sale. Indie authors will relate the story of Kobo panicking and pulling all its indie titles off its site last year regardless of genre – even children's books – because someone got upset about erotica being available. A big company can probably cope with its products being taken off sale for a while, but for individual authors, it's a potential disaster. It's not beyond imagination that a country could apply pressure to a retailer too.

So some of us tend to play safe these days because we're not big companies and we can't weather those storms of irrationality. What might be good rebound publicity for a big name can be crippling for those of us further down the food chain. If you're going to have a fight about controversial material, sometimes it's better to keep your powder dry for the battles that matter, like tackling controversial subjects.

© 2014 Karen Traviss