Thursday, April 16, 2015

That ’10 Things People Say to Writers’ List Thing

You’ve likely seen it in an e-Mail chain or in your Twitter or Facebook feed: That list of “10 Things People Say to Creative Writers (but probably shouldn’t).” It’s definitely a conversation starter, at least among several of my writer friends.

Most of these are amusing in their own way. Only a couple of them are really irritating, and even then it depends on the person doing the asking. It’s easy to distinguish between someone asking an innocent question and THAT PERSON we’ve all encountered, who’s hoping to hitch his wagon to yours so you can pull them to some “Writer’s Promised Land” that people seem to think is out there over the horizon somewhere.

Looking over the list, my first thought was that there are a lot more things people say to writers that didn’t seem to make the cut here, but maybe the person who compiled the list was trying to keep things simple, and perhaps even family friendly. For example, there’s no mention of the classic, “Want to write for me? I can’t pay you, but....” I figure that one’s missing because the list is aimed more at things said by people who aren’t writers, or who have no connection to the writing or publishing realms. Fair enough. With that in mind, let’s see what we’ve got:

1. “So, you’re still writing your little book/poems/etc.?”

I’m sorry, did you say something? I was pondering the death of a character in this next scene I’m writing. Come to think of it, the character looks a lot like you, all of a sudden....

2. “Must be nice not having a real job.”

A “real job?” As in, “soul-sucking hell I tolerate in order to pay the bills and I’m miserable all the time while I’m overworked, underpaid, and constantly threatened with being laid off because the shareholders need another hundredth of a percentage point on their stock shares in order to be appeased for one more quarter?” If that’s what you mean, then no, I no longer have a “real job.” I gave it up so that I could do this all the time, and now I’m happier than I’ve been in ten years. Look at my face. This is the face of a dude who’s happy.

3. “Writing doesn’t sound too difficult.”

Neither does what you do for a living. Where do I apply?

4. “I always thought I’d write a book after I retire, once I have some time to kill.”

Actually, you don’t kill time. Time kills you. This process varies in speed and intensity from person to person, particularly for people with “real jobs.” Your mileage may vary.

5. “Wait a second: creative writing degrees are a real thing?”

To be honest, I can’t really speak to this one with any authority, as I don’t have a writing degree of any sort. However, yes, they are a real thing, and I suspect that like many if not most degrees, they offer nothing of actual value even if you manage to land a “real job.”

6. “Have you been published yet?”

Here. Let me Google that for you.

7. “Can I be a character in one of your stories?”

Absolutely. I’m always looking for a name to give to a relatively minor character who needs to suffer a horrible, agonizing death in order to advance the plot, just after my main character sleeps with your spouse or partner because your namesake is an inconsiderate and inept lover.

8. “So, I have this great idea I think you should be using in your book....”

If it involves the horrible, agonizing death of a character I name after you, I’m all ears.

9. “Aren’t writers just professional liars? They tell stories for a living, after all.”

Stories. Alibis. Let’s not get too caught up in the jargon.

10. “You’re writing a book? Tell me everything.”

Now this one I like. Most writers—at least the ones I know—actually do like talking to people. I certainly enjoy engaging a reader (or group of readers), and if you give me the opening, I might very well tell you everything about the story I’m writing. For one thing, it gives me a chance to interact with other humans, rather than just arguing with the voices in my head.

Okay, writers of every sort: What questions to you field on a regular or even frequent basis that make you cringe?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Making it stick

There has been quite a bit of discussion in recent blog posts about how to get the word out that you've written a fabulous book that the entire world should read. In the past my efforts have been fairly low budget, however, recently I have been investing a bit more into marketing my books and the books that CaribbeanReads represents by attending literary events, running workshops, and so on.

Most of the books I work with are children's books and so blogs and social media are not always the best way to reach my audience. We need to get out there and meet with the children, beat the drums through the town, and get them so excited that they insist that their parents buy the book. We also need to reach out to the parents, of course, but the truth is, if you get the children interested, it's really hard for a parent to tell their child, 'NO, I have the money but I will not buy this totally appropriate and potentially educational book for you' ... although I have seen it happen. 

The problem with this method of marketing is making it stick and making it bear fruit. Yes, you have the captive audience, the immediate sale, but how do you ensure that those who attend spread the word and that those who don't buy remember to do so after they leave and the hype dies down. I know that on many occasions I have attended an event and left with full intentions of purchasing the book or product only to forget or talk myself out of it afterwards.

Some of the ways that we have tried is:
  • sending the children away with something fun. In my latest workshop, we gave the children buttons that read "I Survived Zapped"
  • sending the parents away with paraphernalia, postcards, bookmarks
  • collecting email addresses for your mailing list although this has proven to be quite a challenge. If you promise a chance at a free book in return for the email address this discourages the immediate purchase.
When you do authors' visits or presentations, what methods do you use to ensure that participants continue to interact with you and your books after they have left the event?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

How to Not to Blog

Chuck Wendig recently wrote a wonderful post extolling the value of NOT blogging. Check it out here, I'll wait while you read his glorious words.

So, blogging. What are we really selling? Because I'll tell you what, he's right when he says it isn't books. What you are selling is yourself. What you are really aiming for is visibility. Staying present on the internet. It won't directly translate to sales. Sales are a long con. They aren't won by spam and feeding you Twitter constant book links.

A friend of mine, author Reggie Lutz does one thing a week to promote her books. Just one thing. And that one thing varies. She's appeared in the local paper, been on college radio and tweets links to her books. She has a blog where she interviews other authors and like the rest of us has a Facebook page.

But one thing she's conscious of is that the tools we use now, may not be what we're using tomorrow. Facebook is relatively dead, though it's the first thing that readers who have already bought your book will probably find. Twitter is fine, for now. as long as you don't spam. Blogs, if insanely valuable can help a little. But these are things that people (readers) often look up AFTER they've discovered your book somehow. Maybe they met you on the street, at a convention of conference. Maybe they bought the book on Amazon and decided to look you up online to see if you have an interesting Twitter.

So what do you do? Pfft. I don't know! I do stuff... my website is a Wordpress site where I write snarky and humorous recaps of genre TV shows. The worse the better! Only once in awhile do I post anything about writing or my own books. I just happen to like riffing on TV. My twitter @CheGilson is full of my interests, retweets of architecture, fashion, the occasional cute puppy, and then my random thoughts. I have been gaining followers lately because I recently joined UK Horror Scene as a reviewer. Because I like horror movies and I like being a critic.

And finally, you never know what will hit. The marketing ploys everyone is telling you worked for them and their book might have been a fluke. Even big publishers don't know what will work. And anyone telling you what to do is probably wrong.

And finally FINALLY- I'm sorry there's no comic! My scanner is down. so I'll be back with a new comic next month.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Winners never quit and quitters never win - or do they?

They say winners never quit and quitters never win. That's what I've always believed.

After reading the previous amazing post by fellow Novelnaut, Velda Brotherton. I decided to write a post on the subject of quitting as well because I think about it a lot, as many authors do.

Recently, a guest pastor at my church spoke on when it's time to quit. He said quitting makes sense, if your efforts do not bear fruit and you're exhausted, there is a right time to walk away. Well, sometimes the business of writing bears very little fruit, and it is definitely exhausting, yet we churn away at it and stay in the game. Does that mean we're riding through the rough times, staying positive about the future, and staying the course because we believe there really is a light at the end of the writing tunnel? I guess that's called faith, believing without seeing! Do we write to make a living or because it's our passion? Are we addicted to the process with hopes of one day making that list, signing that deal, the next book being the one to sell out, break records, end up optioned for a movie or TV show, etc., etc., etc.?
When do we know it's time to quit, because we understand that quitting does not mean we didn't win, but it means we can say we at least tried, and there are no regrets? But what about fueling your passion, and living out your dreams until they become reality? That can't happen if we give up? Would you be happy if you walked away from this business?
I know I've asked a lot of questions. I've done so because these are the questions I ask myself. I listened to that guest pastor and it really made me think, and honestly decide, that being exhausted without fruit was not the life I wanted to live. However, as you can imagine . . .  and still I write! Actually, I just thought of a new story angle this morning.
Hank Aaron struck out way more times that he hit the ball. Tyler Perry didn't give up when there were only a few people attending his stage plays. He kept at it. Oprah never stopped believing, and the reality of her dreams ended up being bigger than even she imagined.
As my agent says, "Yeah sure, this will be the last book. Until the next one!" And as Velda said, we should make a list of what we would do if we quit, and then tear it up, sit down, and get back to work.

Write on!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Why We Write and Why We Don’t Stop


by Velda Brotherton

Ever think of why you write? I do. Lately I've been thinking a lot about it. Yet, when everything goes wrong and I swear there are other things I’d rather do, and take a few days off just to see,  I’m convinced I’m right where I belong. It’s more of a calling than a career. Because, let’s face it, there’s not much money or fame involved, like in the movies about writers. So I made a short list.

§  I write because of all the things I want to say that haven't yet been said.

§  I write because there are people in my head who wake me in the middle of the night.

§  I write because it's fulfilling to my soul.

§  I write because I'm not much good at anything else, though I've tried other things.

§  I write because I am.

To tell the truth, I haven’t stopped this maddening pursuit once since that rainy winter day when I sat down with a notebook and began to scribble out my first novel back in 1983. {A little aside here. That novel was published the end of 2014 as Beyond the Moon, so keep those old efforts.} Stories and voices plague me every day and most nights. It's like being haunted by real people who want their stories told and I dare not ignore them. What worries me is what will happen to them when I can no longer answer their plea? I have visions of them wandering about as if on a vast desert, calling out to me in anguish.

Mostly, this writing life is a great life and I enjoy all that goes with it. The good, the bad, the wonderful. You thought I was going to finish that off with the ugly, and I might have, except I couldn’t think of anything in this business I call ugly. Promotion comes close, but I’m learning to enjoy it with the help of my new publisher, who just happens to believe that his company should help out in that department. This may be the coming change in publishing.

Here's a list of things I've tried at one time or another to occupy my spare time:

§  Leather Work: One can only make so many billfolds, key chain tags, and belts before running out of customers.

§  Teaching Piano: This one filled a lot of satisfying hours, but didn't challenge me much. After ten years, I had to quit. Writing had taken over my life.

§  Painting in Oils: After accumulating three or four dozen paintings I ran out of places to put them. A few sold and I managed to convince some people, mostly family, that they needed one ‘cause I would one day be famous.

§  Quilting: After a disastrous and humorous afternoon at a quilting frame that resulted in my mother falling down laughing, I decided this definitely wasn't my calling.

§  Sewing: I enjoyed this and for years bought no clothes but hubby's work clothes. I was never the seamstress my mother was. She could look at something, cut out a pattern from her head and sew up a right nice outfit.

§  Giving Hubby a hard time: Acceptable during any phase of career changes.

§  Cooking: Baking is my favorite, but why cook what you shouldn’t eat?

§  Gardening: Had some good years with this venture, grew fantastic crops, canned, froze, and ate them. Then my body played a trick on me and wore out.

Why did I have time to devote to all these endeavors? In our late 30s we quit our jobs in 1972 and left the dizzying life of commuters in New York and came to Arkansas, determined to raise what we needed to eat. At my uncles urging we bought a few cattle to graze on a fenced acreage of pasture. Encouraged, we then bought some rabbits and chickens and settled down as back-to-the-landers. A wonderful time when I learned to butcher chickens, rabbits and even a hog (once was enough of that). Because eating wasn’t our only need, my husband got a job that didn’t involve stress and we settled into our country home.

As you can imagine the office I write in today has gone through many phases. It once held a sewing machine and stacks of material. I made almost all our clothes. I knitted sweaters and learned to crochet, which is something else I'm not intended to do. During my music teacher phase it held an old upright piano and an electronic piano. I kept my saddle there too because the barn was across the road and open to one and all, including my lovely precocious, ornery Tennessee Walker Katy. I rode her frequently, thus filling more time with an enjoyable hobby. Had to give that up, too. See reason stated after gardening above.

The next time you get upset, or moan and groan over your chosen occupation, think about why you write, how you manage to remain in the profession, and make a list of what you might do if you quit. Then tear it up, sit down and go to work on your next writing project, ‘cause you know you gotta love this life or, like me, you’d be butchering chickens, raising cattle, crocheting sweaters, or fill in the blanks from your own list.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Collaboration: generalizing from a limited sample.

If you want to learn about how a successful, established collaborative team works, read anything about writing by Dayton Ward. (After you've read this, of course.) He and writing partner Kevin Dilmore have written a dozen and a half Star Trek stories, eBooks, and novels, plus at least one 4400 novel. I, on the other hand, have had one good experience working with another writer, one not-good experience working with another writer, two experiences outlining and pitching Star Trek novels that didn't get picked up, and one "run away!" successful avoidance of working with another writer. Everything I know about collaborations would fit in a monthly column. Which, as it happens, is coincidentally fortuitous.

Note that collaborating with another writer is completely different from being on a writing team.
I have been part of the writing team for over a dozen campaign books, scenario books, players' guides (to equipment/character creation/NPCs/settings/etc.) and rule books for assorted role-playing games. I've been on the editorial team for nearly as many more. On one occasion I was the leader of the editorial and writing team – "herding cats" does not do the experience justice. In a team setting the degree of collective brainstorming and/or who's involved in the brainstorming varies during the development stage varies widely from project to project, but once the general structure is set, each writer is assigned sections to write and each editor is assigned writers to edit and from that point on everyone pretty much works independently.
In a collaboration the writers work together on every aspect of the project from brainstorming to final edit.

From my limited experience I think there is one criterion vital to a working collaboration. With this criterion in place it's possible to overcome any creative or stylistic differences. Without it, it's impossible to complete anything worthwhile no matter how well the skills and artistic vision of the writers involved might compliment and support each other. It's not a new revelation, or one you haven't heard applied in a dozen settings, but it's one that can be overlooked or taken for granted.
The indispensable foundation of an effective partnership is mutual respect. But not too much.

By "too much" I mean, way too much – which pretty much means it's not actually mutual. The writer who reached out to me with the collaboration offer from which I fled, positively gushed about my work. They'd had a couple of stories published to date and their question about collaboration included a high concept for a novel that was intriguing enough for me to ask to hear more. They sent a three-paragraph narrative summary that was fairly solid and showed clear thinking – but it was accompanied by three more paragraphs describing how honored and blown away they were by the fact I was even considering working with them and how much they hoped to learn from me and that, who knows?, we might develop into a lifetime writing team like Ellery Queen. There was no way the real me would ever measure up to the fantasy me this person had created. I told them that, regretfully, my schedule was to jammed to take on another project for at least a year and encouraged them to develop the novel on their own. It's been four years and I haven't heard from them.

In the collaboration that didn't work my partner and I worked out a detailed narrative summary and seemed to be in agreement as to what we were doing, and our skillsets seemed to be compatible. He was well versed in what we were writing about and lived in the area in which the story was set, but wrote in a wooden, passive, academic style ill suited to storytelling. I was almost but admittedly not quite as familiar with what we were writing about, had lived in the setting area in the 1970s but not visited for any length of time since (so everything I remembered was either no longer there or useless to our purpose), and wrote like a storyteller. Somehow this translated into each of us being under the impression that we were the more knowledgeable, more experienced, and more naturally the leader of the team. Worse, when it became apparent early on that we had different visions as to what the final product would look like, we both moved forward with the internal conviction that once the other person saw how it was going to be he'd come around to the correct view. Everything became a power struggle – or rather, everything became a teachable moment in which we each tried to enlighten the other. Not surprisingly, what we ended up with was not what we'd set out to do and was at best 33% as effective as it should have been.

The collaboration that worked began on a fiction site. A reviewer who'd given me glowing reviews of the sort that indicate some understanding of the craft (pointing out how skillfully I'd placed Chekov's gun in an opening scene, for example) mentioned he wanted to write and would be studying my work, along with that of a few others, to see how it was done. I said the encouraging things I usually say to new writers in response, directed him toward a couple of useful writers' blogs, and suggested he look around for serious writers' groups in his area. He told me he really appreciated my guidance, but that last would be difficult because he was in the Army and deployed in Iraq. At which point I realized the appreciation was flowing in the wrong direction and broke my rule about never entering into private conversations with fans. I did not offer to read or edit his work, but I did encourage him to write, offered a few tips and strategies, and browbeat him into submitting his stories. Which got published. And were good. And weren't anything like my stories. For all his saying he was copying me, he'd developed his own voice. We kept in touch, mostly about writing, via emails through his Afghanistan deployments and moves between bases in the US. We met only one time, when he and his wife drove down from Fayetteville for one of my few bookstore signings. Recently I was given the opportunity to pitch for a military science fiction project, and I had an idea for which I'd need help: the story of a battle – including the events leading up to it and the aftermath – told in two narratives from the trenches on both sides. He was game, we hammered out a high-concept pitch, the pitch was greenlighted, and we're now in the throes of actually writing the thing.

Our narrative voices are distinctly different – which in this case supports our premise. Our writing methodologies are diametrically opposed. I work mostly in my head – occasionally blurting bits of dialog at the dinner table or mowing the flowerbed as I build bridges between plot points. I may have little more than notes on graph paper in hand when I sit at the keyboard, but I already know the story I'm telling. He makes detailed plans and maps things out. (Literally – he's drawn maps of the major events of the battle that will be in both narratives so the choreography and rhythm mesh; I had to download a pdf of NATO military symbols to read them.) We sometimes seem to speak completely different languages when discussing the project. But. Each of us respects the other as a writer and, more importantly, as a person. And that makes working together possible.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Old Habits Die Hard

Last year, I babbled a bit in this space about the challenges of finding the time to write while balancing life, family, a regular job, and various other demands on the precious few hours to be found in any given day. Over the course of several years and fueled more than anything else by necessity, I found that I was at my most productive and creative late in the day, after everyone else had gone to bed and it’s just me and one or both family pets hanging out in my home office. 11pm to 1 or 2am was my prime word-pushing time, by golly.

Since writing that article, my personal circumstances have changed. For those of you joining our programming already in progress, I made the leap last summer to writing full time. Now, instead of having to scrounge for a few hours after a long day of work, shuttling kids to and from school or after-school activities, yard work, and so on, writing now has the opportunity to occupy my prime working time.

My current weekday schedule typically is bracketed by my kids’ bus times to and from school. I normally have a plan of what I want to accomplish, which usually consists of a daily word count for one or two writing projects, any blogging I want to do, and various “administrative tasks” such as reviewing contracts or manuscripts or editor’s notes. My goal is to finish my daily “Writing To Do List” before my kids get home from school. I still might work on something after dinner, depending on the evening’s schedule, the proximity of a looming deadline, or if I just feel like “tinkering.”

Yet, more often than not, I’m still working that 11pm-2am shift. You’d think I’d be diving head first into my bed to enjoy some of that...what do they call it?

Oh, yeah: SLEEP.

Nope, not me. That'd make too much sense.

Heck, I wrote this blog post right smack in the middle of that window. Why? Because that’s when the mood struck to write the thing.

I’m still getting that burst of energy after everyone else has gone to bed, and I end up just riding the wave for as far as it will take me. The key difference these days is that it usually ends up being “bonus” writing time, rather than my only or primary opportunity to make my day’s writing goals. Even though I’m still hit by the need to be “productive” during this time, I’m not feeling stressed about it. I’m therefore having more fun with the entire process, rather than having to treat it as the work it was required to be at this point last year.

So, as I said with the title: “Old habits die hard.”

How about you? Have you had a reason to try shifting the time you do the bulk of your writing? How’s that working for you? Have you embraced the new paradigm, or do you find yourself falling back into old routines?