Monday, January 30, 2012

Guest publicist Penny Sansevieri: The Power & SEO Behind Blog Commenting

Penny Sansevieri is CEO and founder of Author Marketing Experts, Inc., a best-selling author and internationally recognized book marketing and media relations expert. Her company is one of the leaders in the publishing industry and has developed some of the most cutting-edge book marketing campaigns. She is the author of five books, including Book to Bestseller which has been called the "road map to publishing success." In the past 22 months AME's creative marketing strategies have helped land 11 books on the New York Times Bestseller list. To learn more about Penny’s books or her promotional services, visit her web site at

For the past five or so years, we’ve organized teams to support an author’s efforts to increase the SEO of his or her website. We’ve done this a number of ways, but the biggest and most powerful was - and is - blog commenting.

When we first launched teams to offer blog commenting, most people didn’t have a clue how powerful this type of marketing was. Most Internet people did and have been doing it ever since. Now it’s become more mainstream, and everyone seems to want to jump on the blog commenting bandwagon. But let me caution you, because there’s a right way and a very wrong way to do this. I’ll explain both.

Creating a Blog Commenting Plan

The first step in blog commenting is creating a plan and, of course, knowing who you’ll be engaging with. Here are a few ways you can get started:

Deciding who to follow: Who will become part of your online networking tribe? These are the people influential to your industry. They might be competitors to you, or spokespeople. They might also be authorities in one way or another. Whoever they are and whatever they offer, it should somehow dial into what you are promoting. I recommend that you make a list of the top 5-10 names. Don’t go overboard for now. I’m sure there are more people you could engage with but to start, I want you to focus just on a few. You can grow the rest of your list from there.

Once you have your list, you’ll want to start following their blogs and also find out where they are appearing. This might mean commenting off of their website, I’ll explain in a minute why that’s important. First, let’s look at how you can organize this information:

  • RSS feeds: This is the quickest and simplest way to get started. Subscribe to their RSS feeds and keep all of these in your online reader, or Google iPage. That way you can spend a few minutes in the morning going through your blog posts to see which ones you want to comment on. 
  • Twitter: This is another great way to find content to blog on. Follow your favorites on Twitter and follow the links to their blogs. This will often give you great insights into the biggest and most popular posts on their website. Don’t forget to comment on their Twitter posts too!
  • Google Alerts: Another great system for finding good content to comment on. Plug in the names of the folks you’re following. Also, enter their blog URLs too! Often bloggers will reference a blog post and not the name of the person blogging. Having this link as one of your Alerts will allow you to follow each and every mention of this blogger. So, why do you want to blog off their site? Anytime a blogger is featured on a website, it’s likely that site is one you’ll want to follow too. Or, at some point you may also want to blog comment on that site as well. It’s a great way to network with folks who might one day interview you or feature your book! 

Tips for a Great SEO Plan

Frequency: I generally recommend you try to comment on 3-5 blogs a week. I also recommend you spend no more than 30 minutes a day ferreting through blogs and posting, anything more becomes a time-drain that will prevent you from keeping up this work.

Engagement: Remember that each comment is no different than a post you would write for your own blog. You’d never consider writing “great post!” on your site and leave it at that, right? You should consider writing short but thoughtful posts for your blog comments. Offer additional insight, another perspective, or a link to where the reader can get more information. Don’t be salesy, that’s the first way you’ll get blasted.

Quality over Quantity: As per the above note: make it count. Don’t worry about the amount of posts you do, but spend the time considering the quality of the comment itself. You’ll find much better engagement and response when you do.

Where’s the Juice: The SEO juice from this strategy will be apparent in the incoming links that now direct to your site. Each time you post a comment it will ask you for your URL (if you’re already registered on a particular site, the login will remember your URL and post it in each comment). While not all blogs allow follow links, there’s a lot of debate on no-follow blogs and whether they are still good for SEO. What is “no follow”? No follow is a term used in the SEO world to describe sites that can block your outbound link (the link to your site), using a No Follow Tag. See here for more on no follow.

The No Follow essentially tells Google not to consider your link when ranking for algorithm. Even though you may get referral traffic, Google will act as if you aren’t even on the site. Meaning, you may get traffic from the link, but no “link juice” per se. This deters a lot of SEO people, but my take is this: If a link from a high-traffic site will get you traffic, why not post there? We still see a significant amount of traffic from links posted on No Follow sites. Also, keep in mind that search engines pay a lot of attention to social sites like Twitter and Facebook which are both No Follows.

The point being, a strong SEO plan should include blog commenting. Not just for the SEO benefits, but for the engagement and connections blog commenting brings with it. Consistent, high quality posts will not only bring you great traffic, but also fantastic connections as well.

Good luck!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Guest author Shelia Goss: Follow Your Dreams and Pursue Your Writing Goals

Shelia M. Goss is a national best-selling author and a 2012 Emma Award Finalist. She has thirteen books in print and seven ebooks. She writes in multiple genres: Christian fiction, romance, women’s fiction, suspense, and young adult. USA Today says, “Goss has an easy, flowing style with her prose…”  She's also the recipient of three Shades of Romance Magazine Readers Choice Multicultural Awards and is honored as a Literary Diva: The Top 100 Most Admired African American Women in Literature. To learn more, visit her website or follow her on Facebook.

Writing and wanting to be published comes with ups and downs. Sometimes it's easy to get discouraged when you have obstacle after obstacle against you. But if you feel that being an author is what you were born to do, you cannot let anything or anyone stand in your way.

So today, I want to talk about following your dreams and pursuing your writing goals.

You may be asking yourself: how can I achieve my dreams or goals of being a writer, if I'm working and going to school, have a family to take care of, kids and other responsibilities?

Here are a few things I've learned that will hopefully help you as you embark on pursuing your writing goals:

1. Remember, you only have one life to live. There are no do overs so why not pursue your dreams while you still have time. Don't let years pass you by and then you look back and say, I wish I had written that book. Now is the time.

2. Write it down. What is your dream or goal that you want to achieve? Write it down and place it somewhere where you can see it every day until it becomes a reality. Keep it in the forefront of your mind. Most importantly, if you want to be a writer, you must write. So write the story in your head down.

3. You must take a leap of faith. Know beyond a shadow of a doubt that your goal is attainable and put forth the effort that it will take to achieve it. That means take workshops, do your research, read books in the genre you want to write in, etc. Which leads to point #4.

4. Quitting is not an option. You will face obstacles. You will face rejections. Even after becoming published, you may get bad reviews. It's not going to be easy. But you can't allow the situations that will come up, to stop you from pursuing your goals in life. They may detour you, but don't allow them to stop you.

5. Set miniature goals in order to reach your ultimate goal. Simply set tasks that will lead you closer and closer to reaching your goal. Write a page a day. Then increase it to a chapter a day and before you know it, you will have completed a novel.

Set a goal to complete X number of pages or words by a certain date and don't allow anything to stand in the way of meeting that goal. A goal without a plan is just a wish. In order to make that wish into a reality, these are the things you must do.

     You must make plans.
     You must change your attitude.
     You must take action.
     You must focus.
     You must set boundaries with those around you.

Remember, You are never too old to pursue your dreams. Just don't let time pass you by. If I hadn't taken a leap of faith and pursued my dreams, I wouldn't be here today with more than thirteen books under my belt.

When you have a dream or a goal, you have to:

and last, but not least, DO IT!

If you do all of those things you can ACHIEVE IT!

Friday, January 27, 2012


I read an article in which a woman claimed that she writes 1,000 words every morning before getting her children ready for school. After that, she might write another 2,500 on some days, nothing on others, but each day she knew that she had 1,000 words under her belt.

I did a quick calculation. My children's books are usually about 15,000 words long. At that rate, I could complete writing two books each month (except February). What am I doing with my life?

I am not sure if this woman is typical of successful writers or not, but the article really brought home a single thought. You need talent to be a great writer, but it takes discipline to become a successful writer.

What are your targets for your writing? Are you meeting them?

Thursday, January 26, 2012


I was talking to a friend the other day about poetry, and I pointed out that, when poetry works, it is often because the ending “surprises” the reader. Haiku may be the best illustration of this. Here’s a couple of mine: “After a hard rain, in the field, fish,” “Cat asleep on a pillow, dog.” Here are some better ones from the master, Issa (the commas are mine): “from the great bronze Buddha’s nose, a swallow,” “snow melting, village brimming over, kids.” But haiku is not the only kind of poetry that contains surprises. In fact, a lot of poetry does, especially poetry written for children.

Prose writing is the same way, and it’s not just surprise endings or sudden surprising plot twists. Those can be great and are absolutely necessary in some genres of writing. But surprise is a tool that can be used throughout an entire story. Here are some potential examples. For a horror story: the opening paragraph suggests a scarecrow hanging in an autumn field; the second paragraph shows us that it’s a human body instead. For a fantasy story: the opening paragraph shows a theft occurring; the following paragraph shows that the thief is stealing something “back.” For a literary story: the opening paragraph shows a mother and child in public with the child beautifully dressed and the mother so caring; the second paragraph shows the mother and child arriving home, and in private everything changes.

Like any tool, surprise can be overused. If the readers can never count on any stability in your work, they may well move on to someone who is not so variable. And, surprises need to develop naturally in the story, not just be thrown in for the very purpose of surprise. But surprise, at the right moment, is absolutely delightful to most readers, especially at the beginnings and endings of stories. I know it is for me.

The key to using surprise, I think, involves withholding information from the reader. Consider the horror story idea again. We see the scarecrow in the field from a distance. We pan in closer. We notice an anomaly. There’s blood on the scarecrow’s clothing. Then the realization hits us (is shown us by the writer), that the “scarecrow” is a murder victim hung up on a stake to simulate a scarecrow. This isn’t really enough for a whole story, but it’s a great ‘set up’ for a story. The question becomes then, how long can we stretch out the moment of final realization? For such a simple reveal, probably not very long. A paragraph or two, perhaps. But the more we stretch it without losing the reader, the more powerful it will be. Then, of course, we need more surprises to keep the reader reading. The victim is not only not a scarecrow, but is someone the main character knows. Perhaps it’s someone the character knows, but who they “thought” was dead years before.

I certainly haven’t worked out everything about this “theory of surprise” yet. Maybe some of you have thoughts or comments on the idea. What I do know is, 1) surprise is a powerful tool for evoking interest in readers, 2) surprise is something the writer needs to consciously (at least most of the time) set up ahead of time, and 3), surprise is based on withholding certain information from readers.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sopa & Pipa—what does it mean for writers?

Last Wednesday I went online to do a bit of research for the second in my series of children’s science adventure novels. As a rule, I do not use Wikipedia for scientific information, since the system of entering information on that site exposes it to errors. But Wikipedia can get you in the ball park and does point you to more sources for gaining more accurate information. So I turned to Wikipedia. Much to my consternation, Wikipedia was blacked out. I did a Google search. The letters on Google were blacked out.

“What’s happening?” I asked myself. The words on the Wikipedia page filled me in. They were protesting SOPA and PIPA. What in the world are SOPA and PIPA?

Before then I had no idea that SOPA and PIPA were new legislation to be voted on by congress. SOPA which stands for Stop Online Piracy Act was being considered by the house, while PIPA which stands for Protect IP Act was being considered by the US Senate. Both bills would in effect allow U.S. attorneys general and copyright holders to enforce punitive actions against websites selling counterfeit goods or violating intellectual property rights. They would block access to websites containing unauthorized copyright material and content owners would be given the power to request court orders to shut down sites associated with piracy. Advertisers, payment processors and Internet service providers would be forbidden from doing business with infringers based overseas.

It sounds great for authors who constantly fight against websites pirating copies of their novels and selling them without their consent or remuneration. Sometimes these websites even offer the pirated copies for free. However, there is another side to the story. Many opponents of the bills suggest that it goes too far and limits freedom of information sharing. It threatens to shut down or censor legitimate websites that might inadvertently link to or display such content.

Massive protests were staged both physically and online. Wikipedia and quite a few other information websites blacked out their sites to demonstrate what would happen without access to information. Google blacked out its name but still
continued to operate. The biggest response however came from a group of hackers called “Anonymous” which shut down many government and entertainment businesses websites including the FBI, Department of Justice and Universal Studios. Millions signed petitions to stop the bill. Congress was inundated with calls and emails. In the end the bills were shelved indefinitely.

So what does this mean for writers? We depend on the internet for information and access, yet we stand to lose revenue with the peddling of pirated copies of our books. Many writers have complained and even tried to get some of the websites guilty of selling pirated copies shut down. Though some writers have had limited success in shutting down those websites and/or removing their books, it has been like a game of whack-a-mole. For each piracy website stopped, three more pop up.

Does the defeat of the SOPA and PIPA bill mean piracy websites are now emboldened to sell illegal copies of copyrighted material? Does it mean that the bills would re-emerge in a better worded, improved form that would indeed reduce online piracy without censoring free exchange of ideas and access to information?

What do you think? What does the proposed SOPA and PIPA and their subsequent defeat mean for writers?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Guest author Barbara Monajem: Hmm, does this story work?

Barbara Monajem wrote her first story in third grade about apple tree gnomes. After dabbling in neighborhood musicals and teen melodrama, she published a middle-grade fantasy when her children were young. Now her kids are adults, and she's writing historical and paranormal romance for grownups. She is the author of the Bayou Gavotte paranormal romances Sunrise in a Garden of Love & Evil and Tastes of Love & Evil, as well as three Regency novellas for Harlequin Undone: Notorious Eliza, The Wanton Governess, and The Unrepentant Rake. She lives in Georgia with an ever-shifting population of relatives, friends, and feline strays.

Last month, I submitted a full manuscript – a Regency – to my editor at Harlequin. A few weeks later, I got my revision letter. She wanted lots and lots of changes.

This in itself wasn’t a surprise.  I never get it quite right the first time, so thank God for editors. I’ve had four so far, and they’ve all been great at picking out what’s not working, at asking good questions, at putting me back on track. They’re not always right, but in this case she was 90 percent spot on. I suffered a minor twinge of dismay at having so much rewriting to do, but what really, really bugged me about this particular revision letter was that I already knew much of what was wrong with the story. Not consciously, or I wouldn’t have sent it in – but subconsciously, I knew, and had known all along. Thinking back, I remembered being uneasy about certain aspects of the story. I even recalled passages where I’d thought, “Hmm, does this work?” But those niggling doubts hadn’t registered strongly enough for me to do something about them.

This is a problem.  The more an author hones her craft, the more aspects of it should take care of themselves automatically. We learn to vary our sentence structure, to cut excess words, to stick to one point of view at a time, and so on. Catching what’s not working story-wise before sending it to an editor is just as important. Obviously, what works and doesn’t depends a lot on the genre you’re writing, but I’ve written for Harlequin before, I’ve received both acceptances and rejections, and I know more or less what they want.  I should get more and more efficient…right?

Hopefully so, but on the other hand, writers aren’t robots. We can’t write the same old stuff every time without getting burnt out or bored to death. We have to be willing to take chances, to listen to the muse, do something different even while doing the same. Which leads me to what I’ve been blogging about this month – my latest novella for Harlequin Undone, The Romance of the Toe Bone.

No , that’s not the real title. I knew Harlequin wouldn’t go for that. It’s actually called The Unrepentant Rake, which perfectly captures the hero’s personality. (He was a hoot to write!) But the story premise and the happily ever after depend on a holy relic that’s been passed down in the heroine’s family for centuries— the toe bone of St. Davnet, an Irish saint of the 6th or 7th centuries.

My muse loved the toe bone concept, and so did I!  It was so much fun. And yet, I was sure my editor would find it too weird – so sure that I forgot to look for St. Davnet’s staff when I visited the National Museum of Ireland last summer. (Duh! I wanted to see the staff anyway, and it’s not like I get to jet over to Dublin any old time I like.) I was surprised when her revision letter didn’t tell me to ditch the toe bone, and even more surprised when she accepted the revised story, toe bone and all.

Sooo… What do you listen to? Experience? Commonsense? Instinct? The muse? I hope to get better at this, but sometimes, I just don’t know.

One lucky commenter will receive a free download of The Unrepentant Rake.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Professional Organizers Can Help Writers

Professional organizers don't come cheap, but sometimes they can pay for themselves by making a writer much more productive.

I have used professional organizers twice, and they were a great help both times.

The first time, I had been living in New Orleans for almost fifteen years, and I had outgrown my home office. When a friend mentioned that she and a friend of hers were starting a professional organizing business, I commented that my office was a lost cause. Her eyes lit up. She said that they needed to get some practice jobs so they could get references and suggested that they give me a discounted price with the understanding that if I were happy with what they did, I would write a reference for them for their Website.

Dubious that anyone could help me, I still couldn't pass up such a good offer. The two women came to my office, crawled over piles and dug through the closet, took lots of measurements, and asked lots of questions. Then they came up with a brilliant plan that gave me lots more space and a more efficient work space. They even did all the work themselves in one day, shutting the door so I couldn't interfere. I was happy to write a good recommendation.

A lot of what they did for me was to make me question my assumptions. A few examples:
  • I had been keeping every draft and every piece of reference material for every article I had ever written, or ever proposed, since I had started as a freelance writer. They convinced me that now that the Internet had been invented and information was easy to come by, I could get rid of many journals and all but the most recent background information for articles. 
  • I had one table for writing and one table for editing, with reference books and basic supplies by each. That had made sense when editing work arrived by Fed-Ex or fax machine and I edited manually. But now that I edited mostly on the computer, they consolidated the two work areas into one. 
  • I had all my bookcases and tables against the walls with a big empty space in the middle of the room that I used for storing piles of papers. They took my tables and arranged them in the shape of a U, making a work cockpit. From my chair I could now reach every project on every table as well as my printer and fax. The room felt bigger because my work area was neat and there weren't piles all over the floor; I had more work space because the "cockpit"  took advantage of the middle of the room; and I even had wall space for more bookcases. 
I went from having a messy, crowded office without enough space to work to a work space that saved me time and energy and suited my work style perfectly.

The second time I used a professional organizer was a month ago. We had lived in California for more than four years by then, and yet many boxes from my former office were still sitting in the hall, waiting to be unpacked. My major problem was that my office in California has no closets and is lined with built-in wood bookcases and drawers. They look beautiful, but I can't reach their top shelves, and they leave no space for filing cabinets. I was at a loss where to put books so I could reach them and how to store papers I would otherwise file.

The problem only increased over the succeeding four years as I generated more paper and started new projects. I had nowhere to file or store them, so the floor and every other surface in my office was covered with stacks of paper. I wasted 15 to 30 minutes a day looking for phone numbers I needed to call, notes I needed for a project, and other important things such as scissors, my calculator, my pocket knife, even my house keys.

I was overwhelmed and, some days, frustrated to tears. The mess stressed me out, but I didn't know where to start.

This time I found an organizer by searching Google for professional organizers near my Zip code and then reading the organizers' Websites carefully to see what types of jobs they did and whether they had experience with people with memory and health problems. I selected a company that listed "elderly people" as one of the groups it served.

The woman the company sent out was a former nurse who had seen worse messes than mine and was not intimidated.
  • She took everything off the bookcases; I chose what books to keep, what to throw away (some of my medical and scientific books were so out of date that they were useless), and what to give to Goodwill. When she refilled my bookcases, I had room for books that were sitting in piles, waiting for a home. 
  • She cleaned out my cabinets and reorganized them. 
  • She convinced me that old computer, printer, and USB cables; old phones; and old phone cables should be boxed up and put in the garage, where they would be easy to access but not taking up limited drawer space in my office.  
  • We went through all the piles of papers and still-packed moving cartons and we filled boxes and boxes with papers and junk I no longer needed. 
  • With the addition of several files trays, my tall pile of "papers to do something with soon" became neatly organized by topic and urgency. 
  • Once the hall was empty of moving boxes, I bought short bookcases for along the hall wall to store  books and papers for current projects. Now components of projects are together at a level I can reach, and the hall looks nice instead of as if we're preparing to move.
  • My organizer took several empty plastic file boxes sitting in the hall and, using hanging folders I already had, filed important papers in them. I have no place to put the boxes except to stack them on the floor in the corner, but at least they look orderly and contained and I can find what I need.
  • Many organizers—watch out for this if you decide to hire one!—want their clients to buy expensive prepackaged systems for organizing and filing. Personally, I don't care for nouveau-middle-class matchy-matchy decorating, and I certainly don't want to pay money for it. My organizer was similarly frugal. She organized my drawers and cabinets with things we already had around the house or in the garage, buying only a few attractive—and cheap—storage containers and file trays at Target. 
  • Because my organizer didn't use a prepackaged system, she was able to organize my office and storage around the way I work and think, not around the way the designer of a prepackaged system did.
The professional movers who had packed us up in New Orleans had put things in boxes willy-nilly, without regard for what papers, folders, or books were grouped together in my office. Materials for a half-written novel had been packed in several different boxes. Thanks to the organizer's help in unpacking and sorting, I now have everything I need for that novel reunited.

My office is a haven again and no longer a place of stress.

This time, I received no friend discount or early client discount. I paid by the hour, and it was expensive. However, my organizer worked quickly and had excellent ideas for fixing my problems. I was amazed how quickly she got things in order, and I needed her for far fewer days than she or I originally estimated. I'm working efficiently now. I know where things are, and I no longer fret that I'm forgetting something I'm supposed to do. I don't have to climb over papers anymore to get to my desk or a bookcase or a cabinet.

As before, it was worthwhile to hire an organizer to get my office—and me—back on track. I expect 2012 to be more productive and lucrative than 2011, and hiring a professional organizer is a big reason why.

I'll be blogging again at Novel Spaces on February 6. Hope you visit again then.

—Shauna Roberts

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Free Book Bandwagon

Free: Without Cost or Payment - say what?

I know we've discussed the topic of free books before on Novel Spaces, but I'm starting to see the benefit of offering significant deals, including offering a title for free - every now and then.

I've wondered why authors or publishers would only charge $1.99 or $.99 for their titles (actually I have a couple of books offered for $2.99 - and my publisher will offer one of my titles for $1.99 this summer), let alone give them away for free. Just like shopping for clothes or renting a car, we all enjoy a deal, and price does matter. We still charge $20 and $15 and $10 for books and they do sell, especially if a reader really wants that particular book. But when readers are browsing online nowadays, thinking about taking a chance on a title that piques their interest, they are considering price more than ever, especially when they can get immediate gratification and have it delivered at the click of a mouse.

The question has been, does lowering that price or offering it for free devalue our works? After all, though we are in this for the love of it, it is a job, a career, and we want to make money so that we can live. Ya gotta eat! We want our hard labor, and our blood, sweat, and tears to pay off monetarily, literary masterpiece or not.

When it comes to ebooks, especially books that are only in the ebook format where print book versions are not available, and/or ebooks that have been out for a few years, to offer it for free for a short period of time can mean that readers who have not read our titles can have an opportunity to try our works and perhaps come back for more.

The concept of giving to receive may or may not come easy to some authors when it comes to offering books for free. Are the long terms benefits worth it? Or should we just give away ebooks every now and then because it's the good natured thing to do? I keep printed copies of my books in my car and hand them out for free, quite often. Not to mention giveaway promotions. It becomes an investment in the belief that the reader will tell someone who will tell someone, and so on. But free books on a major website like Amazon is something different.

I'd be interested in hearing what my fellow authors think. Are you ready to hop on the gratis bandwagon?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Reading (Brockmann and Burke) to learn

Most of my work is genre fiction, and each genre has its rules and tropes – attributes that define the genre. A writer needs to be familiar with these, and to remind herself often of how and when to use them and why. While I'm in the writing phase of writing – the actual typing part – I don't read fiction related to what I'm doing. However when I'm in the planning stages of a novel-length project – working out main plot arc and subplots, mapping the locations, making casting decisions – I do read novels in the genre by writers whose works I admire. I'm not looking for ideas, ideas are the easy part. I'm looking for tips on mechanics, looking at how the tools of our craft are utilized within the genre.

Take romantic suspense. A good (as in top-selling) romantic suspense novel is a taut suspense novel wherein the protagonists think and talk about their feelings a great deal. I haven't done a line-by-line count, but I would estimate that 25-30% of a Suzanne Brockmann "Troubleshooters" novel is Navy SEALs, mercenaries, and FBI agents working their way through past emotional baggage or talking out their feelings and aspirations for the future. A scene comes to mind in which a Navy SEAL and a female FBI sharpshooter are defending a family in an isolated vacation home against domestic terrorists. The terrorists have set the house on fire, but it's a big house so they've got time to respond. He's on his way to the garage to create a diversion and she's on her way to the third floor with her rifle to thin out the opposition when they meet on the stairs and have a three or four line conversation about trust; during the climactic firefight each is thinking of the other and their relationship. Objectively this makes little sense - in the midst of crises you focus entirely on what's happening and what you can do about it - but within the context of the story it works; not only does Brockmann's narrative leading to that moment prepare the reader to willingly suspend disbelief, the conversation and later ruminations under fire set up the satisfying resolution of the romantic conflict. Excise their romantic scenes and Brockmann's novels would rank high in suspense and action markets – and have something like one-tenth the sales. These scenes are vital to the romance trope, and the way Brockmann makes them work – and on rare occasions doesn't quite make them work – is worth careful study.

To my mind first person narrative and detective mysteries are perfect partners – they play fair with the reader, showing her only what the protagonist sees and challenging her to solve the puzzle. I cut my teeth on Travis McGee and Archie Goodwin, and the subgenre remains one of my favorites.
Among current writers James Lee Burke is often cited as the master of the form. He's also known for his ability to set a scene, creating a three-dimensional setting for the action. In a recent summer I read a dozen of his books, written over two decades, back-to-back. Found a few patterns. His evocative descriptions usually hinge on sly use of similes and slightly offbeat adjectives. A sky full of impending storm, for example, looks like burnt pewter or a trailer is dejected. His Robicheaux novels are set in New Iberia, a real town where Burke lives, not far from New Orleans; I suspect some of his descriptions are based on years of familiarity. A few times his descriptions threw me, however. Detective Dave Robicheaux may look out from his dock and smell fish spawning in the bayou or be on a street and smell dead waterbugs in the storm drain. I've never been on a bayou, but I'm a Florida native who (mis)spent a lot of my youth in blackwater swamps and salt marshes. You can't smell fish spawning; they're at the bottom of the water. I think I know the smell he means. Before a storm the water's surface takes on an oily sheen and there's a scent that's no one thing but the whole swamp preparing itself to receive fresh rain. And large colonies of waterbugs (aka palmetto bugs, aka cockroaches big enough to scare the housecat) do have a smell - a musky, musty odor – but it's the live ones, not the dead, giving off the gas.
One limitation to first-person narratives is the difficulty of depicting scenes when the protagonist is not present. In his Robicheaux novels, Burke uses transitions to present pivotal events the detective didn't witness. (Something along the lines of: It took me weeks to get the full story, it came in bits and pieces over beers on the dock, aimless conversations in the shade of the oak, and one long afternoon trolling for bass that wouldn't bite.) However in his Billy Bob Holland series, following a former Texas Ranger turned small town lawyer, the unknowable scenes (a murder from the victim's perspective; precipitating events Holland is never aware of in a distant time or place) are simply dropped in. I've not aware of anyone complaining about this, but it was enough to throw me completely off the series.

The lessons I carried away from my educational summer project? Keep the reader engaged with unexpected descriptors, but nothing that might pull her out of the story. And respect the rules of the genre.

Read widely. Don't analyze while you read. Some books recommend counting lines of dialog, or how many sentences are used to describe characters or actions, or how many pages between sex scenes; this way lies madness. Read authors you know you can learn from, but read like a reader – let yourself experience the book. If a scene from the novel sticks with you – if you find yourself thinking about it weeks or months later – go back and read the passage again. Then analyze. Figure out what the writer did right (or if it's a negative memory, did wrong). You may never write a scene just like it, but you will expand your storyteller's toolkit.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Writers Don’t Wait. They Write!

A couple of weeks ago, I paused to recognize a personal milestone: it was ten years ago this month that my first novel was published.

It was a media tie-in; specifically, a Star Trek novel. It was the first time I’d ever attempted writing anything approaching that length or level of complexity. The opportunity came about after I’d sold stories to each of Pocket Books’ first three Star Trek: Strange New Worlds writing contests, and the editor of those books asked if I was interested in writing a Star Trek novel for him. Heck yeah!

So, I spent a couple of months corresponding with my editor, who also acted as my mentor during the process of completing a story outline. Once he was satisfied and the licensing people at Paramount Pictures also gave their thumbs up, I went to work writing the actual book. Several months later, I turned in my manuscript, and then I waited. More than a year separated my manuscript delivery and the book’s scheduled publication date. During that time, I waited for editorial notes. I waited for the copyeditor’s notes. I waited to see galley pages. Wait, wait, and wait some more.

Meanwhile, a writer friend of mine was telling me that I should be working on my next novel. “Writers don’t wait,” he said. “They write. Get back to writing.”

It’s not as though I was sitting completely idle. While I was waiting for those various things to happen with my first novel, I still was working. In addition to the day job, I wrote with my friend and frequent co-writer, Kevin Dilmore, and we completed a couple of novellas for Pocket’s line of Star Trek e-Books, along with a magazine article or two. Those things took a couple of months to accomplish, after which I once more found myself waiting. My editor contacted me from time to time, and I tended to the various edits, revisions, and so forth which come with writing a novel.

However, I didn’t give serious thought as to what I might write for a second novel. Heck, I even felt sort of guilty for dividing my attention among other projects while this first novel, my baby, gestated in the hands of my publisher. Much of what I’d heard or read from other authors was that you agonized over a novel; you sweated it, bled for it, lost sleep over it, and when it finally was ready for publication, you sent it off into the wild to fend for itself. Then, and only then, did you start to contemplate your next trick.

“That’s crap,” said my aforementioned writer friend, himself a veritable writing machine who possesses what I call “Fingers of Fury” as well as many more years of experience and publications to his credit. “In the time you’ve spent waiting for your one novel to be published, I’ve written two. Write, rookie! That’s what you do if you want to be a writer.” Other writing pros I respect gave me similar advice, which soon started to sink into my thick skull and boil down into one simple nugget of wisdom. Yep, you guessed it: “Writers write.” This is particularly true when you write on assignment, such as for a newspaper or magazine, web sites and, as I was about to learn, media tie-in books.

Soon, the editor of the Star Trek e-Books line contracted me and Kevin to write additional novellas for him. Then, the editor of my still-forthcoming first novel came calling again, asking if I was ready to try something different. The process of outlining and story building began anew, after which I was working on my second book and what was to become my first original science fiction novel. Things were different, as by now I had plunged neck-deep into the world of “professional writing,” and that’s how it’s gone during the ensuing ten years.

The lesson here, if there is one, is that if you want to be a working writer, don’t spend all of your time and energy on a single project. Even as you’re working to finish one story, be thinking about what you’re going to do next. Over the last ten years and as I’ve (supposedly) labored to improve my writing craft, I’ve become much more adept at juggling multiple projects with overlapping or even competing deadlines while working in service to several masters.

If that sounds like it could be draining, is. Therefore, a companion piece of advice is to not overdo things. Writing is just like any job, in that you have to pace yourself and take a breather now and then, in order to avoid burnout. This is definitely a risk if you, like me, write as a “second job,” and I’ve made this mistake a couple of times.

Back in November, I had several deadlines which all converged on the same three-day window. I already was tired coming into the month after an extended period of demands placed on me by my regular day job, family, and other writing deadlines. I decided after meeting the November deadlines that I was going to give myself some time to recharge. So, with just a couple of small exceptions, I treated December as something of a “writing holiday.”

But, now we’re in a new year and the itch is back. I’ve started working on a new story, even as one or two others yell and stomp their feet for my attention. Yeah, I’m ready to get back into the thick of it. Though I currently have no pending deadlines or editors tapping their feet, I’m forging ahead. I’m tired of waiting.

After all, I like being a writer, and writers write.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Getting to know you

"Mom!" my son called from his bedroom, "My school pants are too small!"

Of course it was the first day of school, and before you chastise me for being a disorganised mother for not making sure that school clothes were in order before the start of the semester, note that it was the first day after the Christmas holidays. Children aren't supposed to grow over the Christmas vacation, are they?

As I write my fourth book in the Caribbean Adventure Series, I am faced with the dilemma of growing children. In my first three books, I let the book lead me. Don't get me wrong, I know my characters well. I can see their faces, expressions and mannerisms in every scene. With book 4, I feel the need to be sure that while the children are impacted by the events that unfold in the story, that they grow and change in a way that makes sense given who they are.

So I am writing a detailed biography of the characters that will hold me in good stead if there are additional books. This includes details on what the characters look like in great detail, where they live and were born, physical quirks, their siblings and parents, weaknesses, and deepest desires and fears. The last item is crucial as the fears are a potential source for conflict in the story and what child does not have interesting an irrational fears? The behavioral traits are the most interesting. How does the character behave differently with adults than with other children, for example; with his friends as against his siblings.

Some of the details may be relevant to this book and some may not, but I believe that the better that I know these children, the better my book will be.

How deep you you dig when creating characters for your books?

(Couldn't resist this one ...

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Genesis of an Idea

It’s back to school now, back to my daily hour and fifteen minute commute. (Each way.) The time isn’t wasted. I do a lot of thinking during my drive. I work on plot twists for stories I’m writing, and on brand new ideas for stories I haven’t started yet. I carry a little tape recorder along with me to record anything I might forget. This morning I got a whole story out of the drive and was able to quickly produce a rough draft as soon as I got into the office. I thought I’d talk about how the story came about.

On many days, I set myself a mental task for my commute. This morning I decided to work on ideas for a noir story using a title I came up with weeks ago: “Long Dead Woman in a Black Dress.” I started thinking about a crime scene in a forest, the discovery of the Dead Woman of the title. Immediately, a sheriff and a coroner character occurred to me. They didn’t get along, providing some nice conflict in the opening. Dialog began to unroll between them but I realized the story was moving toward a heavy duty CSI kind of tale, and my interest began to wane.

As I often do in such situations, I stopped pushing on the story itself and started thinking more about the setting. Many times, figuring out exactly where and when a story is set helps me generate the primary plot points. I don’t consciously decide on setting so much as I just let thoughts flow until something coalesces. Here’s what came to me: Southern Louisiana. The swamps. A small rural community with folks who hunt and fish and keep lacquered gator heads on their boats and in their river shacks.

A character appeared. I didn’t try for him. He was just there, embedded naturally in the setting. His name was Swampy Jack. I could see him; I could see the little store he ran, where he sold bait and bottled cokes out of an old timey dispenser, with aisles of dusty fishing lures and a jar on the counter full of homemade jerky.

That did it. I went back to the first scene, the local sheriff and the coroner examining a crime scene in the woods. That scene had changed because of my new knowledge of the setting. The sheriff character had changed, because in this setting he would be the type to know everyone. He would know Swampy Jack. Things began to fall into place, like dominoes toppling. The murder had to change too, and so the original title just wouldn’t work. A new title stepped up to claim supremacy: “Swampy Jack’s Finest Cut.”

I don’t know if other writers work this way or not, or if they could work this way, but the keys for me with this story were:

1. Having some time to think. In fact, the commute almost ‘forces’ me to take that time. I can’t be checking email. There are no students coming in. I can’t read or watch TV.

2. Visualizing a scene where there is some kind of mystery. This was the crime scene in the woods with the sheriff and the coroner.

3. Letting the characters in the scene talk. And I mean “letting” them. I try not to be directive. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to consciously write a story, but I think it’s pretty tough. Every story requires hundreds if not thousands of decisions, and it’s a lot easier and more productive, I think, to let the unconscious make most of those decisions, especially during the rough draft phase, and use consciousness to evaluate them for the final draft.

4. When plot blocks occur, and they will, switch your mental focus from the story itself to the setting. If you can’t answer one question at a particular moment, answer one you can. Just don’t stop generating questions, possibilities, and images.

5. For me at least, the most important thing in the beginning is to not be overly judgmental about ideas. So what if you generate ideas that ultimately don’t work. So what if you develop some that turn out to be silly. No one ever has to know. They can’t read your mind. Ultimately, thought is cheap. It costs you nothing. And the only thing that can stop it from solving your writing problems is you.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Lessons From Third Grade English

My third grader came home a few weeks ago with some English homework consisting of sentences with a verb and one or more qualifying adverbs. She was supposed to replace the weak verb and qualifiers with a stronger verb. Two of the sentences caught my attention. They both involved dialog. In one, the verb to be replaced was “said quietly”. Of course "whispered" was the correct word choice. The verb to be replaced in the other was “said excitedly” and that was replaced with “exclaimed.”

That got me thinking about dialog in writing. Dialog is an integral part of fiction writing because it gives the characters voice. That voice breaks the monotony of narration, highlights the personality of the characters, and tells what the characters are doing, feeling and thinking. More can be done with well placed dialog than with multiple paragraphs of descriptive narration. Unfortunately, too often the word used to describe what the characters are saying is that innocuous “said.” Oftentimes we use qualifiers and description of movement or position for example, “Oh No!” she said emphatically, placing her hands on her hips. However, a strong verb replacing the “said emphatically” could give a clearer mental picture of the person’s feeling and movement.

I went back over my WIP and I counted how many times on a page of dialog I used the word said. I was amazed at the frequency. There are so many more words available and yet I was stuck on the innocuous word said. I was limited.

I came to the conclusion that I need help. I would like a list of words that can be used instead of “said” to describe dialog, capture emotions and movement. Here is a short list of some words:

Exclaimed: said excitedly
Commented: said
Insisted: said forcefully
Whispered: said softly
Cooed: said soothingly
Inferred: said with implication
Intimated: said subtly
Shouted: said loudly
Cried: said loudly with passion

I know there are many more. So please add to the lists. Let’s see how much we can come up with. Be sure to include the meanings.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Guest author: Ty Johnston

Ty Johnston grew up in central Kentucky, then spent nearly 20 years roaming various Appalachian states as a newspaper editor before deciding it was time to get serious about his fiction writing. Now he spends his days writing or reading or traveling with his wife, their beagle and house rabbit. His novels include City of Rogues, Ghosts of the Asylum, and More Than Kin. In early December 2011, he experienced an extended stay in a hospital. What follows he wrote his first night in the hospital

As I type this, it is nearly 4:30 in the morning in the hospital where I am propped up in a bed. Thank goodness for netbooks, right? And thank goodness I’m still here to write.

Six years ago I was diagnosed with heart disease. There are multiple names that go along with my condition, most of them long and including words like cardio or cardiac and congestive, but it boils down to my own heart stumbles in its rhythm from time to time because it is enlarged and I had a virus a few years back. There are a half dozen lesser problems and symptoms with my heart, none of them having to do with blockages of the arteries. In other words, it’s not likely (though not impossible) I would have a traditional heart attack. Still, my heart could give out on me, or it could skip a few beats and then I would be up the creek without a paddle.

A little more than a year ago, I had an operation which implanted an internal defibrillator device into my chest right above my heart. You know what a defibrillator is, don’t you? If nowhere else, you’ve probably seen them in movies or on TV. Those things with electric paddles some doctor uses to shock a patient back to life, those are a defibrillator (though most of the ones you see on TV or in movies are kind of old fashioned at this point ... but they look dramatic on the screen). Well, I have a miniature defibrillator in my chest. It is there to give me a jolt if my heart should get out of whack. All in hopes of keeping me alive, at least long enough to get me to the hospital.

Well, the day before I am writing this, I was out in the woods behind my house doing a little work. We have several old barns and smaller buildings, and I was cleaning one of them out. I swear, I was doing nothing overly strenuous, just tossing some items out of one of the buildings.

Then my defibrillator went off. And it went off again. And again. Eventually, it was a total of six times before it stopped.

That is not a good sign.

Imagine an invisible god with a giant of a war hammer slamming that mighty weapon into your chest. Repeatedly. That’s kind of what it is like. Coffee has nothing on waking you up like a good old shock from the internal defibrillator.

This was the first time my defibrillator had ever gone off other than when it was tested after my initial surgery. An invisible blow cracked against my chest and I reeled, my eyes watering. I thought I was having a heart attack. I thought I was dying.

But I was still conscious, and still on my feet. I started moving toward the house, walking quickly but not running. I didn’t want to put any more stress on my heart than was already there. Maybe thirty seconds had passed when the next volt hit me and I yelled involuntarily.

You know how athletes shout out during a tennis match? That’s what I sounded like, and I couldn’t help myself.

At the door to the house, I could already hear my wife inside yelling for me. She had heard me outside and knew something was wrong.

I reached for the doorknob, and got zapped again.

I yanked the door open, stepped into the house and yelled something like, “Honey, call 9-1-1, my chest insert is going off!”

And I got slammed yet again.

By this point, I was sure I was dying. I was positive I had but moments to live, that my heart was going to give out any time now or that the next jolt from the defibrillator would just end me (though I knew in the back of my mind the defibrillator is supposed to do just the opposite, jolt me to keep me alive).

My wife showed up, not quite panicked, and our beagle was at her feet running circles.

I moved toward the nearest chair. As my wife grabbed a phone and started calling, I was blasted again.

Then again.

As I sit here typing, more than 14 hours since being zapped, I still keep expecting to get shocked at any moment. Yes, I’m suffering anxiety. And this after I talked to a half dozen cardiologists, had an untold number of tests done on me, been stuck with a hundred needles, and had and still have at this moment a dozen wires trailing from one point or another of my body. Now that I think about it, none of that probably helps my anxiety.

I have more tests coming later in the morning and over the next few days, but right now the consensus seems to be there was not an “event” that sparked my defibrillator, that it went to work because my heart rate had risen a little too high. The cardiologists have tinkered with my device (not directly, but through the magic of a computer and a wand of sorts that can literally control my heart – now that’s scary!), and have told me the device is not likely to go off again unless I have a major problem.

None of which makes me feel better.

When I sit and think about it (and I’ve had plenty of time today to do that), it has not been the fear of death that has bothered me so much as it has been fear of the lack of control. My defibrillator going off (six times!) is one of the most frightening events of my life, but what bothered me more than anything was that it kept happening and happening and happening and there didn’t seem to be a damn thing I could do about it.

Okay, if you’ve stuck with me this far (thank you), you might be wondering what this has to do with writing or books or fantasy, all things associated with me.

Well, here at  almost 5 in the morning, I’ve been feeling lonely for the last few hours. I sent my wife home because there is nothing she can do for me over night, and she needs to check on the beagle and our house rabbit. My mother was here earlier, but again, there wasn’t much she could do, so I sent her home as well.

I’ve been with no one but strangers (though nice strangers) for hours now. Normally that would not bother me, but I’m feeling especially freaked out today, so pardon me for not being the most manliest of men.

But sitting here feeling lonely, I remembered I have my Kindle with me in one of my bags (thanks for packing it, honey). Before writing this, I grabbed my Kindle and went to the main page. There I found a list of true friends.

And I no longer felt alone.

So, thank you Steven Erikson and Alexandre Dumas. Thank you John Milton and Geoffrey Chaucer. Thank you Edward C. Patterson and K.C. May. Thanks to all of you, and to others I’m too tired to list, for being there for me when I needed you.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Roasted Pepper and Four Cheese Cannelloni...

[with]...manchego, fontina, parmesan and goat cheese with pine nuts, spinach, roasted portabella and spicy tomato broth."

The above is an entrée description from the menu of Mat and Naddie's, a neighborhood restaurant in New Orleans' Riverbend area. Which would you  rather order, "Cheese-Stuffed Cannelloni" or an entrée whose menu description tells you what you are getting and makes you eager for it to arrive?  I doubt I'm unique in preferring lovingly detailed descriptions in the menu.

Fiction writers as well as menu writers need to sell an entire sensory experience with a few carefully chosen words, the "significant details."

What makes details significant? I'll give an example from my ancient copy of Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds: Eastern Land and Water Birds. Peterson doesn't bother describing each species completely; each bird could fill a book. Instead, he describes each species in a third of a page or less.

Use Important, not Unimportant, Details
How does Peterson describe a bird so compactly? He first lists the features shared within the taxonomic family and then notes for each species only the details that help the birdwatcher distinguish one species from another. He doesn't use photographs of individual birds; instead, he draws a generic member of each species and sketches in the details most important for identification. For example, on page 88, he says the Least Tern is notable for being very small and having a yellow bill. Adults have yellow feet.

Very small; yellow bill; yellow feet in adults: Three significant details are all you need to know to identify the Least Term.

For the fiction writer, important details are those that are, well, important. Few people go through life noting every sound, every sight, every smell, every taste, and every feeling. That would be unnecessary data overload. Instead, the brain filters incoming data for what's relevant—such as a red light or a train whistle—or interesting.

Viewpoint characters are people too. Put a book's characters all in the same small room, and:
  • The claustrophobic character cringes because the walls and ceiling close in.
  • The self-appointed leader frowns because the circular table has no head for him to sit at.
  • The architect compares the placement of the doors and windows with where she would have put them. 
  • The artist leaves the others to study an unusual painting on the wall.
To write a description of the room, you should not list every feature, but only the few that stand out or matter to your scene's POV character—and those few features likely are different for each character.

Use Significant, not Insignificant, Details
Some decisions about details must transcend the characters. If a character's blue eyes or the broken spine of the pine tree are crucial to the plot, you must mention these early in the book, whether or not they would normally be important to any of the characters.

Details should always be in the book for at least one reason, preferably more. For example, the examples above of "important details" enlighten us about the characters. Details can also create suspense, reinforce the theme, fill out the world, draw the reader's attention to something important, and advance the plot.

Use Specific, not Generic, Details
The fiction writer should also follow Peterson's example by avoiding generic details ("the jail cell had a barred window") and focusing on the specific, unique traits of a person, place, thing, or action, what separates that one from all others ("Jimmy took one look at the Pepto Bismol–pink walls of the jail cell and his stomach roiled").

What you don't describe, the reader fills in from experience. So there's no need to describe what your typical reader is familiar with. Focus instead on what is distinctive. Zoom in on the homeless person's Harvard class ring, not their shopping cart piled with blankets.

Specific details draw the reader into the story and make it feel more real. For that reason, it's good to include details from all the senses (not just sight) and to use strong nouns and verbs to bring the scene to life.

Why use nouns and verbs instead of adjectives to introduce details?
  • Doing so forces you to focus on action instead of passive description.
  • "Show, don't tell."
  • Details can fill more roles when they are revealed through action. Take this sentence: "'Lovely fuchsia dress, Emily,' Livia said to the new widow." We learn not only that Emily is wearing a hot-pink dress but also that Emily is flouting the social conventions of mourning and that Livia is catty. We wonder about Emily's choice of dress. Did Emily dislike her husband, or is she so poor she has only a few dresses, none black? Why is Livia cruel to Emily, and is she cruel to everyone?

A Final Word
One could write entire books on using details (and people have). I'll end here with advice from Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White. Their rule 16 for composition is, "Use definite, specific, concrete language," and they comment:
The surest way to arouse and hold the reader's attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.

What are your favorite rules of thumb for writing details? Do you agree with my three?

Thanks for stopping by. My next post here at Novel Spaces will appear January 21, when I will talk about how professional organizers can help writers.

—Shauna Roberts

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Author Goals and Getting Motivated in 2012

As a follow-up to Lynn Emery's GREAT blog post from New Year's Day, I began thinking about doing a "Writer's Wrap-Up" to summarize my accomplishments in 2011, and that prompted me to make a list for 2012. Thanks, Lynn, for inspiring me to do that!

I didn't start out with a list in 2011. Some of the great things that happened last year came about as spur of the moment ideas or opportunities: forming a group of female touring authors, publishing the e-book version of Something He Can Feel, accepting an invitation to contribute a story to the A Chapter A site, accepting an offer to write a 10k word erotica novella for the February 2012 anthology, The Heat of the Night.

What was scheduled for 2011 was my third Pynk book, Sixty-Nine, and also venturing back into print/electronic self-publishing with the release of Hot Girlz. I'm grateful for these accomplishments.

So this time, the items on my list for 2012 include publishing two e-book novellas, publishing the print/electronic sequel to Dr. Feelgood, You've Got It Bad, the release of my fourth Hachette book, POLITICS.ESCORTS.BLACKMAIL, and submit the option book, Sin City. I would like to participate in more events and book club meetings, as well as co-write with various authors, and also, embark upon some freelance gigs. One of my biggest goals is to read more books. I slacked off on that last year.

The beauty of having a list is that it is a visual, tangible item reminder. And what's even more beautiful is when you have an opportunity to add those unexpected, newly birthed, yet welcomed additions to the list.

What has been consistently on my schedule for the past three years has been the great opportunity to contribute bi-weekly to this amazing Novel Spaces blog. Even when the dates roll around quicker than sometimes anticipated, I always appreciate the opportunity to join other authors in discussing the business, our lives, and our works.

So as we embark upon another year of this thing called writing, I send positivity to each of you in meeting your goals, living your dreams, and enjoying all of the success and happiness you desire.

For now, I've got until the end of the month to finish my current manuscript, and so I'm headed off for a full writer's heaven retreat. And then, on to the next one, the next goal, the next item - and soon, the next year's list. Cheers to using the tools that will get us all motivated, including lists!

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The most important communication

Valerie and I and our youngest spent the new year weekend in Atlanta, staying in the home of Valerie's brother and attending a young cousin's wedding. Valerie's brother is a doctor, a career he came to late in life after pursuing design and architecture; his field is clinical research. His home is stunning, but though he identifies himself as "living in Atlanta," it's actually in a suburb several miles outside the city. Atlanta sprawls on a scale I associate with Miami or LA, and the sprawl evidently affects the minds and perceptions of those who live under its influence. The "good restaurant close by" was an hour's drive away, "up the road" required an afternoon in traffic to reach, and two places "right next to each other" had a half mile between them. I'd thought I'd have time to see a few people and places while in the city, but abandoned those plans once the scale of the requisite journeys registered.

The cousin getting married was on Valerie's father's side of the family, which meant I was only vaguely aware of who she was and how related. While family on Valerie's mother's side has always been involved with ours, most of the family who would be at the wedding hadn't seen Valerie or me since her father's funeral twenty years ago – many not since a family reunion a few years before that. Valerie grew up farther down the Carolina coast than we now live, closer to Savannah than Charleston. Before her mother moved to Wilmington we used to drive down every few months to visit. The fastest route from Wilmington to Atlanta follows our old run as far as Florence, which of course prompted memories of those days (which in turn prompted our 20-year-old daughter to don headphones). We passed South of the Border for the 900th time without stopping; I keep being surprised it's still standing. (Their official site and the Wikipedia entry.)

At the wedding and reception/family reunion/New Year's Eve party I kept introducing myself to people who knew me. (In my defense, I think that after 20+ years it's easier to remember "Valerie's white husband" than it is to remember 137 names.) More than one person commented on the fact last time they'd seen me I'd worn my long(ish) black hair in a ponytail; Valerie's aunt Stella gave me a playful poke and said: "You used to be a skinny thing," making her the only person to mention the additional eighty pounds. (Going to have to dig my bike out of the garage.) A few asked about my photography business, a venture I'd driven into the ground a quarter century ago, before I'd gone back to school to become a teacher. It struck me that that failed business had not been something Valerie and I had reminisced about while driving. As nearly as I could tell, no one knew I was a writer.

On the drive back to Wilmington Sunday night I couldn't help but reflect on the many jobs I've had over the years and my nascent Kvaad Press. Actually, it would be hard on the January 1st of any year not to be taking stock and considering the future; visiting my brother-in-law, meeting extended family I hadn't seen in decades, and attending a wedding merely sharpened the focus a bit. Normally I keep my musings to myself, but with both my wife and our daughter uncharacteristically awake and nothing but midnight interstate around us I ended up talking with them about the future – particularly my writing. I discovered both of them have read more of my work than I thought they had and learned one of our daughter's professors at William & Mary her freshman year liked "The Monkey Puzzle Box," my Dixon Hill (Star Trek) mystery. Neither of them is concerned about the lack of cash flow; neither of them had paid any attention to the fiscal milestones I'd expected for Kvaad Press's sixth month (January, 2012). At the same time, neither knew my goals as a writer or what I considered a reasonable investment of time and energy for reaching both my creative and business goals. For my part I'd missed some things my wife and family expected from me in terms of availability and involvement. In other words, though we'd talked about these in the past, we had either not communicated or forgotten elements we'd once understood.

The details of our discussion aren't relevant to this column; the fact the discussion took place is.

While writing is a craft, writing professionally is a business. And no business succeeds without clear communication both within and with partners, suppliers, and customers. None of us questions the importance of communicating with editors, book packagers, etc., and we put a lot of thought and effort into communicating clearly – making sure we understand and are understood. As freelance writers we work alone, but only at our craft. We live our lives as part of a family, a community, a network, whatever form it may take, made up of people we count on and who count on us. Communication is as key to personal relationships as it is to professional relationships; more so. Keep your family - your natural supports, whoever they are - in the loop. They don't need to know details about the passage that's giving you fits, but they shouldn't have to guess how your writing is going from your mood. Plan family events; be clear on deadlines and objectives; know other people's schedules; protect what you need to protect, but be flexible when and where you can. This may seem like a no-brainer, but tugs of war and contests of will are common in writers' families; avoidable stressors that negatively impact both our work and our relationships. Whether it's a weekly meeting, a master calendar on the kitchen wall, or a family-only private FaceBook community, create a structure for clear and regular communication with the people in your life you value. It will de-stress the writing process and strengthen your relationships.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

It's 2012 & I'm Back In Stride Again

Happy New Year!

Well here we are in 2012! Most of us think about the past year and set goals for the coming one. I've only briefly done my "Writer's Wrap-up", but here is how 2011 stacked up for me. 
  • Finished two original indie novels
  • I went from frozen with fear at the thought of indie publishing to putting on my big girl pants and getting it done. Two new mystery books plus four back list romance titles are now on sale (hint -hint)
  • Learned new POVs of traditional publishing that helped me make wiser decisions about what I want in the future
  • Participated in a cooperative promotion effort that had positive results
For the 2012 I will:
  • Finish the second and third novels in my paranormal thriller triology. A Darker Shade of Midnight is now on sale at Amazon , B&N and Smashwords
  • Take part in more cooperative promotions if I can find the right partnters
  • Start the second in my cozy mystery series. Best Enemies is now on sale.
What do I mean by "cooperative promotion"? Two author friends happened to have holiday themed romance novellas that they were getting ready to release as indie titles, eBooks of course. Angela Benson came up with a great idea. She suggested we do a group e-blast promotion through Shades of Romance Magazine (SORMAG). She also suggested we put blurbs and links to each other's titles at the end of our novellas. Monica Jackson threw in with us and we were off! We saw our sales rankings drop on the Wednesdays the e-blasts went out (last three in November). We scheduled those dates to fall in line with readers getting into the holiday spirit and shopping mode with all those eReaders being bought or gifted. Of course we tweeted and did Facebook wall posts. This was 3 holiday romances x 3 authors getting the word out = increased sales.  Fellow authors, I recommend this kind of effort for sure.

As a reader I fought with the writer side of me and made time to read more. I was rewarded with delightful hours that reminded me why I decided to be a writer at eleven years old. So readers, I'm not leaving you out. Here are wonderful books I read in 2011:
  • Kwanzaa Homecoming by Monica Jackson
  • Friend and Lover by Angela Benson
  • The Dead Detective Agency by Peg Herring
  • In Her Name (entire triology) by Michael R. Hicks
  • Cannibal Nights by Kiana Davenport
  • Darkness and the Devil Behind Me by Persia Walker
  • Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coal Pot by Susan Peters
  • New Orleans Confidential by O'Neil De Noux
  • Coyote Ugly by Pati Nagle
  • Dark Bayou by Nancy K. Duplechain
  • Sanctuary by Niambi Brown Davis
  • The Hungar Games (still reading) by Suzanne Collins
  • Dying on the Edge by Francine Craft
  • Black Water Rising by Attica Locke
Whoa, that's some list. I hadn't actually looked at it before writing this post. In fact, I believe I've left off a title or two. As you may notice my reading is all over the map: romance, mystery, sci-fi, memoirs, short story collections, literary, cereal boxes, etc.

In 2011 I did something else I'd scoffed at before, read all but the last two books on my IPhone. Yes, I bought a Nook Color for my twelve year old niece, two VTech readers for my five and six year old nephews;  but Aunt Lynn doesn't own a dedicated eReader device. Because I love reading books on my phone. I mean, this thing goes everywhere with me. That means I can whip it out and be into a great book at a moment's notice. Where I used to grind my teeth and mutter cuss words while waiting in lines, at the doctor's office, etc., I'm now serene. Time whizzes by while I catch up on news or even better, read a book.

Have a great 2012 writing and reading!

Lynn Emery
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