Friday, September 27, 2013

Keeping Pace

My children and I have a well developed history of reading together. Before they were able to read, I would read to them every night. When they were developing their reading skills, we would take turns to read out loud. Even after they were reading fluently, I continued reading to them every bedtime, mainly books that I knew they would be reluctant to try if I left them to their own devices. (We still talk about 'The Magician's Elephant' by Kate DiCamillo.) We referred to our bedtime ritual as "Bath, Books, Bed", and all hell could break loose if I was tired and tried to skip the book portion.

Then life got in the way. The demands of homework and extra curricula activities suddenly meant that bedtime was unpredictable and often rushed. Our bedtime ritual lost the middle element. My children still read voraciously but we no longer share that nighttime reading time.

This story has a happy ending, though, because we still read books together. We recently all read 'Wonder' by R. J. Palacio at the same time. My daughter read it on a Kindle, my son on his iPod and I read it on my laptop. We bookmarked sections and spent a few minutes at bedtime, not reading, but discussing the parts of it that touched us the most.

This was not our only experience sharing a book electronically but it struck me that with much discussion about how technology is hindering humanity's face-to-face communication, with proper management we can actually use technology to enhance our human interactions.

I recently downloaded Orwell's 'Animal Farm' and I am hoping that we can enjoy this together as well. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Guest author Catherine McNamara: Why Writing a Short Story is Like Sky Diving

Catherine McNamara
Catherine McNamara moved to Italy after many years in West Africa. Here she translates for a WWI Eco-museum, runs a bed-and-breakfast and skis fanatically. She has great collections of African sculpture and Italian heels. She is originally from Sydney. Among her publications are Nii Kwei’s Day (children’s book published by Frances Lincoln UK, October 2003), The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy (2012, Indigo Dreams Publishing UK) and Pelt and Other Stories (2013, Indigo Dreams Publishing UK). 

I’ve never tried sky diving and I don’t imagine I will ever have the courage to do so, but in looking for an easy analogy between the writing of a novel and the rapid journey of the short story, I’ve come up with this.

Picture a long-haul flight: you ascend, you meet your characters/neighbours, you understand your context, you enjoy the wide-sweeping views and perhaps experience a little turbulence. You have your ticket in your pocket, you know your destination; you may drink and make a party of it, or you might even fall fast asleep.

When it’s over, you arrive refreshed or exhausted, depending on your resilience and the air company you have chosen. You may have been changed by your journey – it may have somehow seeped into your skin – but perhaps you are the same as before, untouched and impatient to get going and reach a new destination.

But the short story? It’s a far different type of venture. Firstly, there’s no ticket, no guarantee, no one holding your hand when you have a panic attack. Risks must be taken. You have to jump into the void. It is a fast journey where everything can go wrong. Technically, you must be adept. You must understand timing. You will see the wide views alter quickly, you will feel a sense of culmination – and dread. And when you hit the dust you may not be a different person but you will be altered, the experience will have shaken you, tested your senses, brought you forth from the unknown.

Have you ever dared to write a short story? Or have you ever proposed a short collection to an agent to be told, Nice writing but could you write me a novel? Or, Well I’m afraid short stories don’t sell at all – how about a novel? Why is it that short stories are so often viewed as the junior sister of the more worthy novel? Are they merely practice for the real thing?

I was once shocked to read a well-known author comment that a novel can have ‘baggy’ bits, where a short story must not have a word out of place. That’s the laziest definition of a novel I’ve ever heard! I prefer Isabel Allende’s opinion: she feels that writers should not be urged to move from the short story to the novel, but rather in the opposite direction – that after mastering the novel form, authors should progress to the more challenging technical skills required for the short story.

Interesting, no?

When I grew tired of being asked for a novel I sat down and continued writing my short stories, working on technique, voice, cadences. Gradually, most of them were published in UK and Australian literary reviews. Some threaded together of their own accord. Some were clearly attention-seekers, other were more subtle, written in a different key. Several years later I found myself with a diverse collection set in Ghana, Italy, Australia, Belgium, Germany. Would my small British publisher ever be interested in a book like this?

Fortunately, my publisher fell in love with the stories and offered a contract quickly. I was able to obtain cover comments from two prize-winning authors who also liked the work. A brilliant cover was designed and the book was recently launched at an independent London book shop.

And now a new free fall starts. Promotion and publicity. Hoping that this short story collection might stand out, that readers might be enticed by my blurb or excerpts, and perhaps buy a copy. Hoping that reviews will be good and that bookshops will order.

Hoping that my landing is soft and safe!

Lust and dirt from a world of places

Catherine McNamara’s stories take the reader on a pulsing, eloquent journey through post-colonial Africa and fading, melancholy Europe. McNamara deals with dirty family secrets, the stealth of AIDS, misunderstood gay love and neglected children. She shows Europe’s laundered, subjugated environment and its isolated urbanites.

Some stories are interlinked. Two foolhardy snowboarders challenge the savagery of mountain weather in the Dolomites. A Ghanaian woman strokes across a pool in the tropics, flaunting her pregnant belly before her lover’s discarded wife. A sex worker is enlisted to care for her Italian lover’s elderly parents. Hit by a car in Brussels, a young woman returns to her doctor boyfriend. And in Berlin, Celeste visits her suicidal brother Ray and his partner for the very last time.

Pelt and Other Stories lingers on the cusp between Europe and Africa, between ancient sentiments and modern disquiet.

Pelt and Other Stories is available from:
Indigo Dreams Bookshop
Amazon UK
Amazon US
The Book Depository (free international postage)
Kindle version out soon!

Catherine's blog

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A matter of perspective

Before I post this blog I would like to make a disclaimer: I am not a psychologist nor am I familiar with the field of psychology.  But you don’t have to be a psychologist to realize that people’s experiences are affected by their mindset.  Nowhere is that more evident than in the interactions of my two youngest kids.  My introverted five year-old is an aspiring Eeyore.  I think she was born that way.  No matter how much fun she is having if one minor thing goes wrong, it clouds everything else and she whines, “I didn’t have fun. “  My three , almost 4 year old, on the other hand is more like Winnie the Pooh.  I swear he came out of the womb with a smile on his face.  If he takes a nap, “That was awesome, it’s the best day ever.”  If he sits and watches TV, he’ll burst out, “I have so much fun!” 

A few days ago we were at the playground.  It was a little crowded and they both wanted to go on the swing but had to wait.  They occupied themselves with other things and we eventually left without using the swing.  When we got home, my husband inquired about their time at the playground.  My three year old blurted out, “It was awesome.  I had so much fun!”  My five year old who had been busy on the slides and the monkey bars looked sullen, “I didn’t have fun because I didn’t go on the swings.”  Same experience, two different reactions.  Their experiences were colored by their outlook on life.

I see that same dichotomy among authors.  There are many authors (especially newbies) that are full of hope and expectations.  They see their potential through rose tinted lenses and they have faith that readers and publishers alike would love their books.  Then I see the seasoned authors whose outlook has been tainted by the harsh realities of the publishing industry.  The former celebrates when he sells thirty books, the latter looks at his five hundred dollar royalty check with disappointment, even anger.

I’ve said this before on this forum and I really believe it, that the distance between expectation and reality is disappointment.  And I’ll go even further with this qualifier: the magnitude of the disappointment is directly proportional to the flexibility of one’s beliefs.  What do I mean?  If you can adjust your expectation to align a little more with reality, you will be less disappointed.

The thing is, after many attempts and disappointments, many of those newbies with the rose tinted glasses become frustrated and jaded.  They are the ones who have set an inflexible bar very high and have not adjusted their expectations to align with reality.
So here are a few tips to be happy as writers:

1.    Go in with eyes wide open.
  Learn about the industry: the bad, the good and the ugly, then make the decision to write because you love it and not because you want to make money fast.
2.    Let reality temper your expectations without interfering with your dreams
Be aware that there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of writers who didn’t debut a bestseller or make several million dollars on their first or even thousandth book.  Being an author is not a get rich quick scheme.  But also be aware that there are some authors who make it and make it big. So keep your aspirations alive.
3.    Be flexible:
Your expectations are not set in stone.  You can adjust it to reflect reality.
4.    Keep hoping and dreaming
Writers are essentially dreamers.  That’s what we do best.  Keep your dreams alive.
5.    Make a decision to be happy in spite of, not because of.
No one should depend on situations in their lives to be happy.  Being happy is a choice we make irrespective of the ills we face.
If you have tips to add, please feel free to share them.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Burned: Why I hesitate to give advice to new writers

Head in the clouds
Sunny Frazier's article "Fame and Fortune? Fugetaboutit" brought back memories of the times I almost injured friendships in my zeal to help aspiring writers come to terms with the realities of the publishing industry. Those experiences taught me to leave people to their illusions unless they specifically asked for my input.

First there was the case of Friend A. He is not a reader (except for the publications of his particular religious sect) and it shows in his writing which is unwieldy and preachy. He was out of a job and decided, since I had just snared a publishing contract, that he would write a memoir and make some fast money. Fast money? This was around 2006/2007 when Amazon's KDP platform did not exist. I explained the process of getting a book published and the time involved, but he brushed all of that aside. He'd get a big advance that would take care of all his expenses until the royalties started pouring in. Okay...

This brought us to the work that has to be done before signing that lovely contract—you know, the querying of agents and publishers. At the time few agents were accepting e-queries and the process involved lots of printing out of letters, synopses and sample chapters and mailing them to another country (my friend lives in the Caribbean, as I do) with International Mailing Coupons or return envelopes with US stamps on them. And before that, I informed Friend A, a lot of research had to be done to find the agents/editors who might be interested—online research with ultra-slow dial-up connections (remember those?)... My friend's response?

"Oh, you know all about that stuff so you can do it for me."

I think my jaw must have hit the floor at the same time my eyebrows collided with the roof, knowing as I did the years of hard work and research that led to that first publishing contract of mine. (And I'm not even talking about the writing itself here.) Hadn't I just explained all of this to my friend? Yet he thought I had a few spare months or years lying around, late nights included, to do this on his behalf. It was at this point that I began to write off his publishing aspirations, because writers must be willing to do the work. You're not willing to do the work involved? Then you're not serious, buddy. But a friend is a friend, so I hung in there and kept trying to help...

I took a deep breath and moved along to the actual writing. His book was going to be a memoir, and he had written an introduction and a few chapters. I told him the same rules apply as with a novel: there must be a narrative arc, it must be interesting and written in a style that makes the reader want to keep reading. Since it was a memoir, though, he needed to tell the truth, so he would have to excise all the intriguing anecdotes about fighting his (nonexistent up to that point) agent and editor to the death for "creative control" and "joining the ranks of the literati—damn them". He also needed, I told him, to leave out the parts about his vast qualifications to write the book and how much the reader stood to gain from reading the story—and let the story stand on its own.

He was horrified, and his first thought was that I was being malicious. Then he recalled our many years of friendship and that nothing I had ever done or said before provided a sound basis for such a conclusion, so he resolved that it must be the publishing industry that was rotten and biased and I was just showing him what he would have to deal with "out there". At that point he decided he would not waste his time and talent on such a system, and he moved on to other dreams and plans.

Friend B is another story. He also has a lot to learn, but makes up for his shortcomings with his love for and dedication to writing. He does the work, and has been doing it for many years. He puts in the time to learn more about the craft, constantly challenging himself. At some point he decided he wanted to have something to show for his years of effort, so he self-published an anthology on Xlibris. There was just one problem: he believed the royalty checks would start pouring in from the very next month. When I tried to tell him a bit about the reality of self publishing at the time, he got an angry glint in his eyes and a certain set to his jaw. I knew what he was thinking: that I had gone and gotten a publishing contract and now I was  trying to rain on his parade. I was being a wet blanket. A purveyor of negativity.

I shut up. He went ahead with his plans and at last check, after five years, he had not yet sold 10 copies of the book. He continues to ask my opinion and advice, though. The difference now is that he pays attention. I don't know everything, but I share what I do know. I'll always try to help Friend B to the best of my ability because he works hard and loves writing stories. I hope that he finds some measure of success in publishing, whatever his definition of "success" might be.

So, unlike Sunny, I no longer try to put new writers right about the realities of publishing. When they ask in person or write me for advice, I point them to helpful links on my personal blog. And I don't read their manuscripts unless they are paying me to edit them. I've discovered that to some aspiring writers, it's all about fooling around with a fuzzy dream of immediate fame and fortune. They aren't interested in the years of toil, setbacks, and disappointment, with rare moments of bliss, that go into the making of a real-world publishing career.

Liane Spicer

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Spaceship Bermuda

The first week of this past July, for our biennial vacation together, my wife Valerie and I took a cruise to Bermuda for the first time. That I found it a beautiful island and enjoyed myself immensely should surprise no one. For one thing Bermuda's beauty well documented in myriad travel magazines and for another most folk know I've never met an island I didn't like.

But I'm a writer, and when writers travel – or do much of anything, actually – we are always observing, picking up details that will probably in some form find their way into our work. Also, as always happens when we travel together, Valerie resumed encouraging me to write a romance or six – suggesting Bermuda as a perfect location. So I began taking notes on what I was observing, which I usually don't do.
Things I wrote down included:
Grass on Bermuda looks just like the Bermuda grass in our yard, but isn't because American Bermuda grass is African.
The Bermuda Longtail is the only bird I've found as viciously territorial as my favorite Northern Mockingbird. A cage match wouldn't be much fun, though; the Longtail's twice the size of a mocker.
The famous pink sand is ordinary white sand with (really pretty faint) swirls of pink flakes from crushed shells.
Sea turtles do not appreciate friendly snorkelers.
On the other hand, if you hold very still underwater (and are of hirsute eastern European stock) finger-long fish will line up along your arm to nibble your hair.
Wear sneakers in the water! Raw coral beneath the surf is the norm.
Mayonnaise is great for removing tar.
On a related note, everything is spookily clean.
Rude Bermudians are evidently kept in a secure compound far from any tourist areas.

Those last two are particularly significant. In our first exploratory stroll through the Dockyard on Ireland Island we sensed something a bit 'off' – not wrong, but different. It took us a while to realize what it was: no one approached us with discount offers. In every city with a tourist industry we've visited there were always folk on the street offering visitors half price or less on cab rides, local crafts, tours, etc. Here there were none. We'd heard Bermuda was expensive, but the prices in the stores were in line with anywhere else we'd been; what was missing were the street vendors. I even sought out alleys and back streets in Hamilton, testing the theory local entrepreneurs kept a low profile, with no luck. "Deals" were not available.

At seven every morning, as I sat drinking my third
coffee and considering a second Danish, I witnessed something that for me epitomized the aspect of Bermuda's character that struck me most deeply. The pilot of the ferry docked on the other side of the wharf from our ship rode his moped past a row of empty parking spaces to turn at the marked aisle and ride back past the same row of spaces before parking his moped – unsecured – for the day. On Bermuda there is a pervasive sense of orderliness.

Bermuda is not without crime – there are three prisons and we once saw a group of police officers surrounding a man on the street. And listening to a radio talk show in which the female host took calls from listeners debating some political controversy I didn't follow I learned Bermudians can indeed vent their tempers when they want to. (Though a heated argument in British Colonial English pales in comparison to southern talk radio stridency.) But Bermuda is alone. I'm typing this in Wilmington, NC, so Bermuda is about 770 miles east of me; the point of land nearest Bermuda is Cape Hatteras, NC, at just over 700 miles. Even on this shrunken globe of the internet and jets and 6,000-passenger cruise ships, in a very real sense the people of Bermuda have only each other to rely on. Which means that Bermudians need to trust one another to work for the common good, and behave in a manner worthy of that trust. Of course there are individuals who don't – they do have police and courts and prisons – and there are bound to be seven or eight or twenty opinions on what best constitutes the common good, but underlying it all is the knowledge they are all in it together.

What has this to do with writing? Quite a lot. Most of us have had the experience of reading a story set in a place we live or have lived and known by the second sentence the writer has no idea what she's talking about. She may know what street leads where and accurately describe the sunrise/set over the mountain/bay/river/skyline, but it's clear she doesn't "get' the place she's writing about. Every society, every locale, every family has its particular culture. More than any physical attribute a place and a people are defined by their culture – the givens upon which they base their decisions and behaviors. Any story set in Bermuda that vividly captures it's physical beauty, or engagingly depicts sea birds and turtles, or evokes its colonial history with insightful observations of architecture and ruins, but misses the culture of the people will ring false.

When you set your story in a place you don't know, don't just research its history and geography and politics. By all means, visit if you can and between snapping shots of everyday scenes and making notes about scents and sounds pay attention to how folk interact with each other when they're not playing for the tourists. Body language, manners. If you speak the language, listen to AM talk radio. If you can't visit, the internet makes local media scarily accessible. Listen to local talk radio stations, read local papers, read stories by local writers if you can find them. This diligence – which is by no means hard work – will add a depth and texture to your story and a verisimilitude the folks you're writing about will appreciate

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

10 Rules for Reading Your Work Out Loud

I go to poetry and fiction readings all the time. I host them, go to open mics, and often headline them. I do it for a lot of reasons. First, I want to promote my books. I write fiction, crime, and poetry, and it’s part of my job to sell the things. You can never and should never expect your publisher to do that for you. That’s not the job of the publisher. But I also go because I like them. They’re fun, and I love discovering new poets.

I’ve been going long enough to see a lot of people make a lot of mistakes, but I don’t want there to be any confusion here. I’m not going to make fun of anyone but myself in this post. All of these are mistakes that I have made at readings. A lot of people make them, but all of the examples are me. Here they are, The Rules for Reading Your Work Out Loud:

1. Don’t go longer than the organizer has asked you to go. You might have the best work in the world, but there’s only so much attention any one person has. The chairs are uncomfortable (always), and everyone has been working all day. Often the organizer has the space for a very limited duration because of insurance or the venue is going to close.

By the way, it’s generally a good idea to go too short. If people wished you’d read more, they’re likely to buy your books.

2. Time your bathroom visit. The very worst mistake was going to the bathroom a minute before the reading and then using the sink in the bathroom that splashed me in a strange place. Damn you Borders bathroom! Luckily I had tucked in my shirt, and I was able to untuck. I don’t know if anyone saw, but no one mentioned it.

3. Please don’t tell the crowd not to clap until the end. This is a common thing for a lot of readers to say, but it comes off like you’re saying that your work is amazing and that the crowd is going to waste a lot of time in needless adoration.

4. Thank the organizers.

5. Read the crowd and listen to the other readers. The last person who read right before you wrote about heartbreak and loss. People loved it. Be careful what you read.

6. Don’t swear or read about sex until you have read the crowd. Don’t read about sex if there is a well-used children’s section.

7. If you are the headliner, pay attention to the open mics. You should anyway, but you’re likely to be nervous about your headline reading and trying to deal with your nerves in way that people do, thinking about other things, joking with friends. You’re doing it innocently, but to everyone else it looks like you’re yawning and making fun of the readers. Flagellate yourself if you do this.

8. Humor should ONLY be self-deprecating. If you joke about yourself, that’s all right, but I’ve made the mistake of teasing friends and poking fun at students the way I would in the classroom or when we’re just hanging out. What comes off to you as friendly banter could be seen as a public attack -- if not by your friends, then by the audience members.

9. Read loudly and slowly. I’m a fast talker normally.

10. After the reading, chat with people. Listen to what they have to say. Be respectful. If you’re going to make a sale, this is when it’s going to happen, but that’s not the most important reason. By entering a reading, you have joined a community. Now is the moment when you enter into that community.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Voices Lost

Within the space of a month, three authors who've been inspirations to uncounted readers and writers were taken from us. On August 20th, we lost the incomparable Elmore Leonard due to complications from a stroke he'd suffered a month earlier. On September 2nd, I mourned the passing of Frederik Pohl, who had been a staple of science fiction writing for more than seventy-five years. And on September 6th, mere days after posting to Facebook what she suspected would be her final update to friends and fans, science fiction author and writer advocate Ann C. Crispin finally lost her battle with cancer at the age of 63.

For very different reasons, each of these three writers had an impact on me at an early age, long before I ever entertained any notions of writing at all, much less for publication. I first was drawn to Mr. Leonard due to his stories set in my home state of Florida, but before writing mystery novels he also was known for his western tales. He's long been acknowledged as someone with a gift for crafting wonderful dialogue and razor sharp, authentic descriptions to set a scene. When I started writing, I read his famous "Ten Rules of Writing" essay, then went back and reread a few of his novels to see if he practiced what he preached. Practice it, he did. My favorite of his rules are the ones you may have heard before, even if you didn't know who may have said them:

Rule #10: "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip."

And, his one rule that he uses to summarize the first ten: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

I'm not going to attempt to give my explanation of Mr. Leonard's "secrets for writing success." You're better off clicking on the link and reading them in the man's own words.

Frederik Pohl is someone I began reading almost by accident, after picking up a copy of his science fiction novel Man Plus when I was a teenager in the early late 1970s. I'd recently read Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and was looking for more Mars-based fiction, only to find that Mr. Pohl's novel was an altogether different animal from Mr. Bradbury's work. It didn't hurt that the main character in Man Plus becomes a cyborg in order to travel to Mars, which was something akin to Steve Austin, aka The Six Million Dollar Man, which I was enjoying at the time. Along with Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Richard Matheson, Joe Haldeman and Robert Heinlein, Frederik Pohl was part of my "golden age of science fiction reading," or the books I was enjoying at the age of 12 or 13. He's also the man behind the very wise Pohl's Law, which every writer, artist or other creator should always keep in mind: "Nothing is so good that somebody somewhere will not hate it."

Then there's Ann Crispin, to whom I was introduced thanks to a Star Trek novel she wrote in the early 1980s, Yesterday's Son. To this day, that novel remains popular with fans of such books, owing to her seemingly easy mastery of the characters and setting from what at the time was the only Star Trek television series. Her adaptation of the 1984 miniseries V still is one of my very favorite media tie-in works. I also read her original fiction, of course, but Ann ended up being one of my inspirations when I began writing tie-in novels of my own, because she never saw a need to distinguish between such novels and her own original fiction. To her, each was deserving of the best effort a writer could bring to bear. When asked about the difference between writing in someone else's "universe" and one of her own creation, her simple answer is one which also has served me rather well when confronted with such questions: "Personally, I believe a good story is a good story, no matter what universe it's written in."

Amen to that.

In addition to her fiction, Ann along with fellow author Victoria Strauss founded Writer Beware, a watchdog group with a mission to foster awareness regarding fraud, scams, and other illegitimate and illegal activities in and around the publishing industry. She and Victoria, along with everyone else working alongside them at Writer Beware, are among the best friends a new writer ever could have.

Elmore Leonard, Frederik Pohl and Ann Crispin: Thank you for decades of wonderful storytelling, and for not being afraid to mentor those smart enough to learn from your wisdom and hard-won experience.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Fame & Fortune? Fugetaboutit!

I was invited for Chinese food by a friend. He brought along a stranger who he introduced as someone with a “work in progress.” (Stop me if you've heard this one before.)

When asked what he was working on, the stranger replied, “I'm writing a self-help book based on my experiences.” Since he was barely 30, I really wondered what kind of expertise he might have had that would give him credentials to write such a book. He answered my question before I had a chance to ask. “I was abused as a child.”

(Pause. Why is it that some people believe it is perfectly acceptable to bring their most uncomfortable personal experiences into the conversation within ten minutes of meeting? “Hi, I'm Ramona and I was raped at fifteen.” “Greetings, I'm Tom. I've attempted suicide three times.” These are not great opening lines. Save it for the shrink.)

He proceeded to explain the premise of the book in great, convoluted detail. I listened, I really did, but none of it made a bit of sense. The words were self-helpish, all the right phrases and psychological terms inserted. Sentences knotted within themselves and came out as gibberish. I cut to the chase.
“How do you plan to market the book?”

Blank stare. I'd used the dirty “M” word. “I don't plan to market it. I'm going to write it and it will find a market.” I countered with “You'll need to market it in order to sell the book.” His reply? “Oh, I don't want to make money.”

(Pause. Money is another dirty “M” word. This newbie is out to save the world by contributing his unique experiences for the rest of us to learn from. He is the voice crying in the wilderness. No false profits here.)

I quickly assured him he wouldn't make money on the project—why should he be any different than the rest of us writers? I pointed out that a publisher would want to make a bit of cash from it. He seemed stunned that a publishing house wouldn't jump at the chance to get their hands on his unique work. I listed the costs of producing a book: editing, cover art, layout, printing, distribution. Books don't just appear out of nowhere. All of this takes money. While it's very altruistic on his part, a publisher has bills to pay.

“I'm sure it will get published and people will want to read it,” he assured me. Then he added, “I don't expect to become famous.”

(Pause. Anytime someone brings up fame, even to say they realize it won't happen, it indicates that they have thought about it, dreamed about it and hummed “Fame” when driving alone in their car. In fact, they totally expect the spotlight of fame to fall upon them. They are just trying to be humble by telling the rest of us it hasn't crossed their mind.)

I might be wrong. This person may have all the answers of the universe, he may change life as we know it by sharing all of his innermost thoughts with the rest of us. Maybe he's Gandhi reincarnated. Maybe I'm too cynical. Maybe going in blind and deaf to the world of publishing will bring him dumb luck. All I know is I've heard this many times before from too many wannabe writers. Illusions of what publishing a book is all about, delusions of what it means to be a published author.

I let him chatter on and concentrated instead on chow mein and orange chicken. I had a feeling the fortune cookie contained as much worthwhile advice as the self-help book he was writing. I should have kept that slip of paper.

Monday, September 9, 2013

A Modest Marketing Success

In June, my family and I set off for a nine-week European vacation.  The highlight for me was visiting Svalbard, an island north of mainland Norway.  I have always wanted to see polar bears in the wild, and they apparently have polar bears up in Svalbard.  Ultimately we didn’t see any (though I did see a jellyfish), but we had a lot of fun.
And because I was worried about doing nothing in terms of book marketing for nine weeks, I did a giveaway of one of my Kindle books just before we left.  I wrote about this on June 9, but I wanted to follow up, because I think I was onto something here. 
My three Henry Grave mysteries had been just sitting there for months.  You know what I mean – they sell some copies here and there, and then they flatline, and then they sell a few more.  And my last promo was kind of a disaster.  But Grave Passage had one thing going for it.  It had eighteen good reviews.  Reviews are the key to getting picked up by the freebie websites.  And the freebie websites are essential to giving away books.  And yes, that is the goal here – giving away free books, because that's what makes money.

Without access to the freebie websites, the best you can do is promote your Kindle promo on your platform, but that probably isn’t going to get you far because there are only so many people paying attention to your blog and your website, and many of them have hopefully already read your book.  And the freebie sites – check out for 45 of them - don’t cost anything.  But you do need reviews or they won’t touch you.
In three days, I gave away just over 14,000 copies of Grave Passage.  Since then, I’ve gone from 18 reviews to 55.  Not only that, but I’m getting more reviews for the other two books Mediterranean Grave and Grave Indulgence.  All three books are listed for $2.99 each, and I’ve sold hundreds of all three.  Here’s my latest paystub from Amazon.

Payment made to:
Our Supplier No.:
Supplier site name:
Paid to bank:
Hidden for security
Paid to account:
Hidden for security
Payment number:
Payment date:
Payment currency:
Payment amount:

That’s a not shabby $636.01 for one month of Kindle sales.  For sure, I'd like to do better.  But I've had a lot of months where I didn't come close.  And that’s not even counting the paper books, which are selling too.  Why?  Hopefully word of mouth gets around to folks who don’t have Kindles, so they buy the paper copies.  Kindle might be its own self-governed ecosystem, but it definitely interacts with other publishing ecosystems.

Amazon has also recently launched a new sales component called Matchbook, which I’ve already signed on to.  It allows buyers of your paper books to pick up the Kindle version for 99 cents extra.  It’s free money.
So here’s what I’m taking away from this – the Kindle KDP Select free-giveaway component is by far the best marketing tool I have ever seen.  It costs nothing and has a built-in audience of millions of Kindle owners who want content.  But you’re never going to connect with them unless your title shows up on their radar.  That’s why you need the freebie sites.  They’re free, and they will put your title in e-mails that will reach hundreds of thousands of readers.

And the key to it all (aside from having a great book and a great cover) is reviews.  So maybe the best thing that any writing community can do for it members is to help them get Amazon reviews.  So how about it, let’s start reviewing books with some renewed commitment.  It should be honest and sincere – if you don’t like what you’re reading, then don’t leave a review, just move on to the next book. 
As I make strides this Fall to finish my fourth Henry Grave book, I’m also working on a renewed marketing initiative for The Mummies of Blogspace9 (which may require a new title).  So, to get the ball rolling,  if anyone would like to help with Step 1 – leaving a review on Amazon, I’d be most appreciative.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Should writers share unpublished work?

Indecision & I-ll decision | MDI Executive PGPM (NMP) BlogHow many of you as authors allow others to see your work before it is published or in the pipelines for publication?  I figure the answer will span the whole spectrum.  I know many artists/authors who will not permit a peek of their work, not even to talk about their books before the publication date is set.  And then there are those who won’t stop talking about their WIP and you wish they would shut up and publish it already.

Not only is that done in the arts, but also in science.  I recall as a first year graduate student we had to write a mock grant on a particular research topic for Microbiology.  My partner and I chose a relatively rare infectious pathogen and were excited when the leading person researching that pathogen was the invited speaker at a seminar.  As you would expect we inundated him with questions.  However he looked at us with suspicion and asked who we were working for.  No matter how we explained that it was just a mock exercise, he would not answer any of the questions but referred us to his already published work. 
That was quite a surprise for me and my partner because both of our mentors were always willing to share their research with the world even before it was published.  In fact, once when I asked my mentor why he shared our research before it was published despite possibility of being scooped his response was that science is supposed to be shared with the world.  And yes the end result is that someone else published the same research before us—we were scooped.

That is why I’m having a little dilemma.  I have no problem sharing my unpublished work with others as long as it is not stolen.   Two years ago, my daughter and I wrote two books in a series of books that involves children on a journey into the cell.  The book was meant to help children understand the structure and function of the cell and its organelles in a fun and exciting manner.  My daughter is now learning about the cell at school.  I realize that both her and her classmates would benefit tremendously by reading the books, however, I haven’t published it as yet.  So after agonizing over it, I sat her down and asked her if she thinks it’s a good idea to offer her teacher access to the unpublished manuscript as a resource.  After careful thought (all of ten seconds) she says it’s up to me.  The ball is now in my court.

Should I do so?  Should I not?  I’m still undecided.  Why?  Well for one, will the teacher or one of the parents of the students take the story and publish it as theirs?  Would the teacher think I’m usurping his authority in the classroom?

I have about one or two weeks to decide, but as of now I am still between two minds.  What do you think?  Should I offer the unpublished manuscript as a resource or should I let sleeping jumbie rest?  And what are some of the downsides or upsides to this decision?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Blog Tours - How Effective Are They?


I’ve scheduled blog tours for my last few releases, and I’ve often wondered how effective they’ve been. I’ve tried my best to measure the value. To contact bloggers and invite them to participate, and then have those who are interested reply positively, is a great feeling. Depending on the blogger’s followers, and on the author’s ability to get the word out, not to mention if the bloggers write reviews, post an author interview, post the author’s guest blog post, and/or offer giveaways, blog tours can be valuable avenues to take prior to release date. My most successful blog tour garnered daily reviews for one-week leading up to pub day.

As the tour links are posted, I try to repost the blogger links via social media and email, which provides visibility to the blogger’s page and to the new book release, which should include a book purchase link and author website. A few tips: Sometimes, blogging on weekdays garners more replies than weekends. Also, I recommend limiting it to three to seven bloggers. Some bloggers might forget and fail to post, but most will remember and are actually excited, and very creative. It’s important to follow-up. Live up to your word to provide books, tee-shirts, etc. And live up to your commitments as far as delivery dates. Make it worth their while. If things fall through the cracks on our end, you don’t want the bloggers to have to suffer, so it’s best to plan ahead, keep everyone posted, communicate regularly, and be sincerely thankful to each blogger for their time and interest. Bottom line, they are basically agreeing to be your publicists during the tour. That’s awesome and not to be taken lightly. Also, you want them to be proud of the book you’ve written if they are representing you and promoting your work, so give them a page-turner to be proud of.

Have you had a blog tour lately? Has it proven to be a success? How did you measure the effectiveness? (Please inbox me if you need someone to plan and coordinate your blog tour. I will send their information to you)
Ciao and write on!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

My Life at the Chiron Review

I worked for a literary magazine called the Chiron Review for a lot of years. I was one of two fiction editors, brought in for the last 10 years of its 30 year run. It was a literary magazine distributed fairly widely. We had a devoted readership and I had been a huge fan for years before they asked me to be a part of it. The fact that they published me was one of those things that I counted as proof that I was a real writer.

I think it’s a good experience for any writer to be an editor of some kind. It taught me a lot of things not to do, but more importantly, it gave me a renewed sense of the magic of being a writer.

I have all the horror stories that everyone else has of writers who made terrible choices about what to send us or what to say in their letters, but those things never really bothered me the way it bothers other editors. What I mostly was reminded of when I got those letters was how isolated writers feel all of the time. They don’t know how to write the letter because they’re not a part of a larger community, and finding that community often seems difficult when people are first starting out.

Most of what I saw excited me. It reminded me of how thrilling it was and is to be a writer.

I was always eager to accept something into the magazine. It had been my dream to be included in Chiron for years, and I knew it was the same for a lot of people.

What I often enjoyed most though was when I got a story from someone who was starting out and had written something interesting, but it wasn’t right for one reason or another. I loved writing to those people, giving advice, maybe suggesting a revise and resubmit. The first time I did that, I assumed I was going to offend the writer. And I know that I offended a couple of people. For the most part, however, when I got a response people were excited. It reminded me of how good it had felt when I was starting out and had gotten my first bits of encouragement.

I wrote to one really promising writer. Her story hadn’t fit, but she had a great voice. I told her so and asked her to send another story if she wanted to. In her excitement, she misunderstood and sent me 7 stories.

That was all right. That was great. It hadn’t been what I asked for, but it reminded me of one of the reasons I wrote, and the biggest reason I sent out my work to magazines. The idea that my story was going to be read by other people, that my story might touch another person was magic, and that writer showed me exactly how magic it could be.

One of her stories hit, and we published her. I don’t know what her name is. I’ve forgotten, but I hope she’s having the kind of career I think she is capable of. Her work touched me and her work ethic did too. I’m a better writer and person for being an editor. I think it’s something all writers should do.