Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Impotence of Editing

After reading Jewel's excellent post, I wanted to add my two cents about editing. 

With the possible exception of marketing, the most onerous task a writer faces is editing.  I can pull a character out of a hat.  Here’s one now – Ned.  Setting – abandoned donut shop north of Muncie.  Plot – middle-aged taxidermist despairs of finding love in a post-apocalyptic world.  Theme – unending gloom.  Title – Mounted. 

Tell me you’re not dying to know what happens.  I can write it.  The only problem is that when I’m done, it will be riddled with errors.  And when I go back to edit it, it will look just fine to me.

The reason is simple.  As readers, we are trained to ignore the connective tissue of written language.  Punctuation becomes invisible, pacing is ignored, anomalies are forgiven, and dialog tags fade into the background.  And because all writers are readers, we fall into a trap.  We overlook the same things.  And when we make mistakes in the connective tissue of our own story, we don’t notice.

I’ll use a short story to illustrate my point.

Mounted – Chapter 1

Ned’s hands shook as he glued the beak onto the stuffed bat.  “Damn, he shouted, throwing his tweezers onto the ground, realizing he had glued the beak onto the back of the bat’s head by mistake.  “Damn post-apocalyptic word!”

Good, isn’t it?  But there are problems.  There is no close-quote after the first Damn.  There’s no such thing as a post-apocalyptic word (unless there is), and bats don’t have beaks.

Mounted – Chapter 2

Oriole shivered, her ragged hoodie no match for the evening chill.  If only her sisters had left Muncie before the troubles.  If Robin and Grackle were here, surely one of them would know how to stat a fire. 

Hugging her poncho tight, Oriole stepped gingerly around the piles of brand-new disposable lighters that littered the road like gemstones, shimmering in the sunrise. 

Up ahead, she saw something flicker in an abandoned donut shop.  It could be a campfire.  She approached carefully.  “It could be another gang of surfers,” she groaned, remembering her last encounter.

I know, right – you’re hooked.  So hooked you might be willing to overlook the slovenly writing.  You can’t stat a fire.  And the pacing is off.  First it’s evening, then three lines later it’s sunrise.  Is she wearing a hoodie or a poncho?  Surfers don’t form gangs.  And you can’t groan something.  Really, you can’t.  And even if you could, you shouldn’t.

Mounted – Chapter 3

Ned was gluing the last tail feather when he heard the door chime.  He turned away from the peacock as the girl entered.  She was the first human he’d seen since….since the troubles began.  “Damn Buffet Rule,” he gurgled, staring at her.  She was gorgeous.  Mid-twenties, maybe five foot two, mixed Scottish and Mexican heritage, judging by the poncho she wore and the pan of haggis she carried. 

Oriole came forward and knelt by the fire.  She rubbed her hands together

Ned carried the peacock to the display case, and set it next the owls and ducks and penguins, the product of his labor these long years.  Then he approached her.  He extended a hand but she cringed, spotting a distinctive feather that clung to his sleeve. 

“Is that spotted owl?”

Ned beamed.  “Do you do taxidermy too?”

Oriole shrieked as her eyes darted around the room.  “You…you kill them.”

“Well, yes,” he said.  “Otherwise they fuss when you try to stuff them.”

She shook her head sadly. 

What’s wrong?

“Im an ornithologist.”

Problems?  Actually, this part is pretty good if you can ignore the missing quotation marks, and the fact that you can’t gurgle words. Would the door chime still work?  The word I’m needs an apostrophe. 

Mounted – Conclusion

“I’m not currently in need of eye care,” Ned told her, eyeing her lustfully. 

“Not ophthalmology,” Oriole said, “ornithology – I study birds, I love birds.  I come from a long line of bird lovers.  I could never love a man who, who, who…”

“Shh.” Ned put a finger on her lips.  “You sound like that owl I strangled last week.  Look, we might have our differences, but we can make it.   At least we’ll have each other.  We can forget about the zombies for awhile?”

Oriole pulled back.  “There are zombies?”

“Probably not,” Ned said as he kissed her.  “I mean, I haven’t seen any but you never know.” 

“This is so wrong,” she said, kissing him back hungrily.  “I could never love a man like you.”

“We’ll make it work,” he said, gingery removing her poncho and her hoodie, and setting her haggis aside. 

“Tell me how this is going to end.”  She tore at his clothes, spilling the contents of his pockets.  Ear pins, wing screws, and spools of tail wire tangled with beak nuts of assorted sizes.  “Tell me how this is going to end.”

Ned took her in his arms, remembering the title of his story.

Problems?    How can he talk while kissing her?  Seriously, there’s way too much kissing dialog here.  Also, there’s no such thing as a beak nut. 

OK, so how can we avoid an editing nightmare?  Here are four ideas:

1)      Go to the TOOLS bar in Microsoft Word, and turn on the GRAMMAR AND STYLE checker.  It will drive you crazy.  But it will save you grief.
2)      Unless you’re willing to pay an editor, you’ll need some editing software.  I like PerfectIt from Intelligent Editing.  It will find mistakes you missed.  At $49, it’s a bargain, and you can download a preview for free.
3)      Read your story out loud.  Read it slowly as if you were recording an audiobook.  Also, try to sound like Morgan Freeman.  Reading out loud keeps you honest.  You won’t be able to ignore your mistakes.  
4)      Find a writing partner you can trust, someone who’s willing to look you in the eye and laugh uncontrollably at your story if that’s what’s called for.  If they can’t do that, find someone else.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

It's all about the editing

Sometime ago in a blog interview , I was asked, “What did you learn while writing this book?”  My response was, “Good editing makes a good book.” 

Never had that been more evident than a few weeks ago when a relative presented me with a book.  It was a self published book about life in my home village a generation ago.  With so few books about my island, much less the quarter square mile area where I grew up, anything written on that topic is of great interest to me.  The story told of many of the characters that I had heard about as a child. It spoke of the culture and mindset of the people of that generation, and of course gave little anecdotes about life in the area and how it has since changed. I began reading with gusto, but my enthusiasm soon fizzled. 
Why did my interest wane?  The writing.  I know the author and I know that he is a  decent writer.  But that book could have benefited greatly from some serious editing, preferably by someone who was not intimately familiar with the life, the culture and the characters described in the book.  The author constantly mentions characters that have no meaning to the readers unless they knew the characters personally or their legends and legacy survived them.  Most of all, he didn't give the readers a reason to care about any of the characters.

While grammatical errors were not an issue, the book lacked flow, proper syntax, and organization.  The story was all over the place: one topic now, a detailed digression, and sometimes the same topic or a loosely related one revisited. It immediately threw me out of the story.

That reading experience caused me to look back at my first published book and compare it to the drafts I still have on file.  I read the finished product and could hardly believe it was the same book.  I had already gone through at least ten drafts from initial writing to submission.  After it got into the hands of the editor, it was gutted and chopped, filed and molded, whittled and polished into something publishable.  In the original, I had at least ten chapters detailing a love affair that resulted in the heroine being left at the altar. In the finished book, the story began with the heroine being left at the altar.  Characters that did not advance the story were removed, no matter how colorful, and scenes that enhanced the story were added.  The result: a professionally pruned bit of artwork.

There was one point where I wrote a scene in a science lab.  The editor called me and said, “I can tell you are a scientist by profession.  Most people won’t understand anything in that scene.”  True enough after I looked at it through the eyes of a lay person, I realized that scene was riddled with jargon.  I was too familiar with that setting to see it.  The same thing happens when I have my daughter read over my children’s science adventure manuscripts.  Her comment is always, “too much science and not enough fun.”  So I just let her rewrite the scenes, bad spelling and all… (that’s what spell check is for).

The point I’m trying to make with my long preamble, is that good editing makes a good book.  This is even more important now that we can publish books with the click of a mouse.  So my advice to anyone attempting to publish: get a professional editor.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Guest publicist Penny Sansevieri: Why Regional Pitching Can Leverage Big Success

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

With all the talk of Facebook, Twitter, blogging and other social media, we often forget how we used to promote a book: locally. Many books that hit big success did so by building a regional buzz. But regional seems a lot less sexy these days and often gets overlooked. If media is being pursued, it’s often on a national level, bypassing individual markets altogether.

One of the things I’ve found about regional promotion is that it can often surprise you. When we worked on The Kennedy Detail last November, we had enormous success regionally, while major stations and national markets seemed to lag in interest for this exceptional title. In fact, I believe that part of  the reason this book hit the bestseller list was because of the regional buzz.

If you’re wondering how regional coverage can affect your success, let me tell you another story. Some years back two women in Louisiana wrote a Cajun cookbook. Now, if any of you have been to Louisiana you know that there are hundreds of Cajun cookbooks, nothing really unique there, right? But these women figured that out and decided instead of trying to do a national push, they would focus regionally. They were everywhere: airports, drycleaners, coffee shops, grocery stores and restaurants. The result? They built exceptional buzz for this book and ended up getting the attention of a New York publisher who offered them a big deal to buy the book. Sometimes small can be big.

So, what would regional pitching look like for you? Well, my recommendation to any author is saturate your market. Make sure everyone in your city or town knows about you and what you’re doing. Additionally, you don’t need to just focus on your region, you could expand this out to other parts of the country as well. If the idea of pitching regionally has piqued your interest, here are some ways to make it work:

Don’t repurpose national pitches: This is a big one. I don’t recommend that you use your national pitches for your local market. Local cares about local and even though every station will report on major national stories, it’s always best if they have a regional tie-in.

Get to know your area: This is especially true if you’re pitching outside of your market. Get to know the nuances of the market you are going after. Know their hot buttons and then decide whether your story can tie into them. But regardless, you want to understand the market you are pitching.

Local media varies: Local media will vary depending on the region you’re in. For some markets print has the biggest voice, for others it’s broadcast. By digging into your area and getting to know the region, important segments will start to become apparent. For example, in areas that have a lot of morning shows they will generally have a pretty balanced broadcast and print consumption. But other areas might surprise you. For example, I just moved from San Diego where, despite the size of the city, they only  have one paper serving it: The San Diego Union Tribune. If you don’t make it into that paper, you’re not in great shape. Especially if your regional campaign is heavily driven to print. The flip side of this is that this city has a lot of great broadcast opportunities both in TV and radio, so your time might be better spent there.

Tailor, tailor, tailor: Don’t forget that local matters so you’ll want to make sure and position your pitch on a local angle.

Getting to know you: It’s easier than ever to get to know a market by reading, listening, or watching online. This will help you identify reporters, journalists, and radio hosts who might have a keen interest in what you are pitching.

Event pitching: Regional media loves talking about events and other tie-ins. One of the best ways to get local media is by doing an event.

Getting into Bookstores: If your goal is to get bookstores to place orders, a regional push can help there as well. If you’re doing events or media locally, this will help drive readers into the stores and the numbers start adding up, which could encourage bookstores to order more copies!

Small is big: When we pitch regionally, we never overlook the small, local papers. Often they are the freebies you get in supermarkets. I have found that they are often very well-read in the community and can help to drive a lot of interest to your book or event. They are sometimes difficult to find though and don’t always show up in media databases. Having someone in the area is great to help identify these local publications. If you don’t have anyone locally, call the bookstore where you’re doing an event, and if there isn’t an event as part of this media push, call the local supermarket and ask them!

Getting focused regionally can be a great enhancement to any campaign. It’s also a great way to bring longevity to a marketing push. Regional markets aren’t always as hung up on book release dates as bigger, national markets are so the window is much wider here for pitching.

Good luck!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Still in Love with Paper

Computers and the Digital Age have made the life of a writer easier in too many ways to count. Yet, after trying new digital tools, I often return to my original paper and analog methods.

For example, after I got my new color Kindle, I bought a few background books for my next novel because they were cheaper as e-books. Yet I immediately forgot the names and authors of those books. It wouldn't surprise me if I one day buy some of them again in paper (if I haven't already), not knowing I already own them.

Other books I would have been willing to buy as e-books I didn't because for some reason the illustrations weren't included in the e-book, only the paper book. 

You might object that those are technical issues; that once Kindles allow one to tag books and then sort books by multiple tags, that once Kindles have bigger memories so they can easily hold many image-heavy e-books, these problems will disappear. True, and if those advances happen, I will reconsider my decision. In the meantime, I buy only pleasure reading in e-book form.

Some of the downsides of new digital ways of doing things are intrinsic. For example, software improvements so far have been inevitable. Twenty years from now, I won't be able to access the books currently on my Kindle or any files that are now on my computer because the software and possibly the hardware will have advanced too far.

Another example: office recordkeeping. I've found Quicken worse than useless for recording my business expenses. I don't like using Microsoft Excel, either. It's much faster and more convenient to keep records of expenses by hand. With an old-fashioned paper ledger, I can work on my account book anywhere, not just at my computer. For another, I can see all my expenses and their categories for the year with only three or four glances (or with a single glance if I tear out the pages and spread them out). I make fewer mistakes when I write numbers in by hand, and it's easier to notice and correct mistakes in a paper ledger.

These aren't the only areas in which I've decided to be a Luddite. Recently I decided to return to using a paper address book as my master list of addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. I loved having a Palm Pilot, with all data collected in one place and accessible in 30 seconds from anywhere I was. But my newer-model computer doesn't support such old technology. Contact data are now scattered through several different programs, and they're not accessible when I'm away from home. So it's back to a portable address book for me until smartphones and smartphone data plans drop drastically in price.

And it hardly needs mentioning that even if one makes many backups of computer files and stores them in more than one physical location, one can nevertheless irretrievably lose important information.

As a result, I'm still in love with paper. Where do you fall? Does your office and business depend entirely on computers and digital devices, does it still run entirely on paper, or is it somewhere in-between? And why?

I'll be blogging again on May 6. I hope you stop by again then.

—Shauna Roberts

Friday, April 20, 2012

Series Books and Shorter Books

It is no secret that readers seem to prefer series titles nowadays, falling in love w/franchise characters who they can't seem to get enough of. Some publishers are signing authors to more series deals, i.e. this link Karen Fox posts on recent deals - ( Deals - click romance deals) - and unlike years ago when an author's titles would be released annually, the trend now is to release every six months, sometimes sooner. And a lot of these titles are actually novellas, approximately 30k+ words, so authors are writing a 70k+ word books and cutting them in half - releasing half as part 1, the other half as part 2, and so on. Another trend is anthologies, authors coming together to write shorter stories together that add up to the 70k+ word count. It's almost as if most authors are making less money with the ebooks so we either write more titles to keep up, or write shorter titles for the same money.

Just further evidence of this ever changing world of publishing we live in. Gotta give the people what they want, but also be true to our characters, and to our livelihoods.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Writing vs. composition

The first week in April I began a two-year journey. I'm enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts - Creative Writing program. Of course I'm too old and it costs too much money - but I'm having my midlife crisis and it was either go back to college or buy a Porsche and I figured I'd be less likely to kill myself in a virtual classroom. As it happens no courses directly related to my degree were being offered this term, so I was given a choice of 600-level English courses that would count as electives. Made a blind choice and landed in a class I should have taken next year at the earliest: Composition Pedagogy. I figured I'd at least recognize where I was because I'd studied the Sophists (in 1972) and understood the importance of logos, ethos, and pathos - logic, culture/ethics and emotion - in well-crafted writing. (Not to mention eros for those writing pornography.) As it turns out, half-remembered generalizations from a survey course in Greek philosophy does not constitute a solid grounding in rhetoric. Who knew?

One of the things I discovered the first week of class: college-level composition is pretty much the opposite of writing - or writing the way I do it. An introductory essay rhapsodized on the hard-won pleasures of rewriting repeatedly, adding more and more layers in the construction of arguments that address all aspects of any question. At one point the instructor spoke of the benefits both she and her students gained by reviewing the first ten drafts of one of her articles. First. Ten. Anyone who knows how I feel about rewriting - as expressed here and here and in many elsewheres - will understand that I could not have been more alarmed if I'd suddenly found myself surrounded by Republicans. (Actually, no; that would be a bit more unsettling.) I've become known for "sparking lively debates."

However, in that introductory essay mentioned earlier I found this seminal sentence: At base, academic writing entails making an argument - text crafted to persuade an audience - often in the service of changing people's minds and behaviors. Switch out "making and argument" and plug in "telling a story" and you have what I do for a living. It's the same process; conducted under different conventions in a different setting, but the same process nonetheless. A landmark from which to get my bearings.

As I type this it's well after 4AM and I've been up all night reading and thinking about a collection of essays we've been assigned. Among other things, there's a debate among compositional pedagogs as to whether there can be thought without language, what is language, and what part language plays in composition. I'm oversimplifying.

But another parallel is apparent, a fundamental common to all writing: the use of language. Language is the most widely used tool for carrying ideas and information from one mind to another. Language is an extremely flexible tool, made up of words that can be adapted to countless purposes, but it is still a tool and separate from the thoughts its words convey. Like water in a cup.

Water takes on the shape of any container, and the shape of the container may influence how we perceive the water (Would you rather drink from an old sneaker or a Baccarat crystal goblet?), but the water remains water - separate from the container that gives it shape. We as writers choose the containers of our ideas - of the thoughts, images, and feelings we want to convey to our readers - and we are effective to the extent we choose wisely. Let's say the we're taking water from a fountain. We could use a graceful ewer, we could use a shallow pan, we could use a wooden bucket, we could use a hollowed gourd; what we use is up to us. The choice of container will dictate how we carry the water as well; we will need to move slowly with the shallow pan to avoid spilling, or make several trips with the gourd to transport the same amount of water.

Beyond the shape of what we carry the water in, there's the reason we're carrying the water. Context contains both the water and the manner in which it is handled. Are we carrying the water to dry plants around the courtyard? To the kitchen for soup? To put out a fire? To provide drink for a holy woman? To slake the thirst of a beggar? A person carrying a shallow pan of water to douse burning curtains will not move or act the way she would bringing an ewer of water to a guest.

The words we choose to convey our thoughts, whether we're telling a story or arguing a point, determine how our words appear en route and what effect they have when they arrive. Each must be selected carefully and delivered thoughtfully. Beautiful words can be beautiful things - and they can be used to build beautiful sentences. But our criteria for choosing words are not their appearance or sound. It's the context in which we are writing, the audience we wish to reach, and the objective we're trying to achieve that shapes our decisions.

Update on The Hunger Games, mentioned in my April third column:
My daughter did take me to the film and I must say it is the most exciting movie about a girl named for a water weed I have ever seen. (Though I cold not fathom the dozens of parents who brought small children.) Until seeing the movie I had not considered how filmmakers would bring some aspects of the novel to the screen. Most of the story takes part in Kantiss' head: her memories, her observations of the the district and the capitol, her interpersonal miscues, her thoughts and feelings and schemes. Filmed as written there would have been long scenes of her sitting motionless in trees thinking things through. Instead we're treated to scenes not in the book showing the behind-the-scenes machinations Kantiss Katniss only imagines (and a few events she doesn't learn about until later books, my daughter tells me). However, like the book the movie focuses almost exclusively on Katniss, making her the only fully realized and three-dimensional character on the screen. On the whole it was exciting, engaging, and enjoyable - every step in keeping with the young adult spirit of the novel. However, I cannot leave you without this link to the Harvard Lampoon parody: "Hunger Pains."

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Social Media Minefield: Watch Your Step.

Social media can be a wonderful thing. Obviously, it enables easy communication with people anywhere in the world, at any time of the day or night. It’s also great for finding long-lost friends. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter and even my blog, I’ve been able to reconnect with service buddies and other people I’d not seen in years or even decades.

As a writer looking to connect with an audience, such tools are a wonderful means of interacting with my readers. Who doesn’t like hearing that people loved your new book, or a story you wrote years ago and all but forgot? The immediacy brought by online interaction can be great for the old ego; there’s no denying that. It’s also a minefield, with every site and blog a Claymore or Bouncing Betty just lying in wait.

Watch your step, folks.

First, there are the general concerns that everyone should consider, such as privacy settings. Those, of course, are very important, and because of that I take steps to limit the sorts of personal information I share. For freelancers who also work full time jobs, there’s an additional element of separation one should employ in these environments. For example, I never discuss my day job, in any capacity. My manager knows about “my other life,” but trusts me to be discrete with respect to our business and clients. I certainly don’t want to violate that trust, even by accident, so my policy in this area is simple: Never talk about the day job.

Plus, getting fired over something I posted on Facebook would be an incredibly stupid way to go, right?

For writers and other creative types looking for that connection with an audience, there definitely are other things to keep in mind. Let’s get the easy snare out of the way first: Social media can be a huge time sink. It doesn’t take any effort at all to wile away hours reading and responding to friends’ updates, Tweets, or blog postings. There are evenings where I can have a blast just replying to people’s Facebook updates, or picking up spontaneous conversations on Twitter. It’s fun when I post a blog entry and it attracts a lot of responses and spins any number of discussions. Maybe I’ll jump into a “Tweet-a-thon” for a movie other Twitterers are watching at the same time, and we all goof on it, 140 characters at a time.

And don’t even get me started on the real games and other applications (sorry, “apps”) sites like Facebook offer. I don’t touch those at all, because I know that once I go down that road, I’ll never be heard from again.

Then, there are all the different sites. Which ones do you choose to frequent? Which ones are the best places to “see and be seen?” There seems to be as many different answers for this as there are people asking the question. For a while, a lot of writers, editors, agents and other people “in the biz” seemed to be pushing the idea that writers, in their never-ending quest to cultivate their online presence, should be setting up shop everywhere, and pimping themselves and their work all the time.

Website? Check.

Blog? Yep.

Blogs for you and maybe even your novel’s central character? Um, okay.

MySpace? What the heck is MySpace?

Facebook? Absolutely! Not just your own page, but a “fan page,” too!

Twitter? Sure. Does your book’s character Tweet? Be there or be square.

Foursquare? Google+? Pinterest? Tumblr?

Mommy, make it stop.

At some point, I finally dug in my heels and decided that enough, dagnabbit, was enough. Why was I running around from place to place, flapping my virtual arms and writing unique content for each platform in the hopes of attracting attention? How much self-promotion is too much? Come to think of it, how much of...well, too much? Yeah, about that much. I don’t know about you, but I tend not to follow, “friend,” or subscribe to anyone who does nothing on social media platforms beyond promoting themselves, Tweet after blog entry after Facebook update. It becomes a dull, annoying buzz after a while, and I tune it out.

Do I want to be having the same effect on my readers, or folks who might become my readers? Of course not, so I strike a balance between attracting attention to my work, and just being someone with whom people want to hang out. Besides, as a writer, a big chunk of my online audience is made up of readers, and I like to think that readers generally aren’t stupid people. So, I figure they should be able to find me by plugging my name into one of those Intrawebz search box thingees. And if the number one search result brings them to my doorstep, which has an easy-to-use interface with links to a few of those other places where I’ve established a presence, then everybody wins, right? I stick with a couple of the more popular venues: Twitter and Facebook. I love the immediacy of Twitter and the fun it can bring, and there’s no denying that Facebook is the Big Kahuna so far as social media sites.

Finally, the big social media booby trap, at least the way I see it, is just how fast and easy it is to stick your foot in your mouth, and to keep shoving it in past your kneecap.

Last year, before I became a regular Novelnaut, I wrote a guest piece here warning about how writers should avoid getting too involved with reviews and those who write them (“Reviews: You Can’t Win,” June 15, 2011). That’s a real minefield for writers and other creative types, and is just one aspect of social media about which you should be on guard.

But, that sort of thing requires concerted effort on your part, right? What if you’re just goofing off on one of these sites? When you’re spending significant amounts of time interacting with countless people via social media, and having all of that fun such virtual hanging out can bring, you have to maintain a “situational awareness.” After all, you’ve still got a name, reputation and maybe even a brand to protect. Now, I’m pretty irreverent a lot of the time, particularly in my own space such as my blog or Facebook page, but there are still lines I try not to cross. A single ill-considered remark or a comment made in anger can spiral out of control in minutes, and as the saying goes, “It’s on the internet, so it’s forever.” The damage can take months to repair, if indeed that’s even possible.

Social media, regardless of whatever form it might take, doesn’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon, and it’s a proven method of finding and nurturing an audience. It can also be a heck of a lot of fun, if used correctly. Are you someone who embraces social media in all its forms? Or, re you just dipping your toes into these particular waters, trying to figure out what works for you? Any big victories, cool moments, or horror stories you’d like to share?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Guest author Joanne C. Hillhouse: Love and Literature

Photo by Emile Hill
Antiguan and Barbudan author Joanne C. Hillhouse is the author of Oh Gad! – a novel scheduled for publication by Simon and Schuster in 2012. Her previous books are The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight. She’s published in various literary journals, and her literary prizes include a UNESCO Honour Award, the Michael and Marilee Fairbanks international fellowship to participate in the Breadloaf Writers Conference, and the David Hough Literary Prize from the Caribbean Writer. Her activities include youth writing programme the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize.

As I wrote Aeden, I found myself crushing on him a little bit. Before you ask, nooo, I don’t go around crushing on random fictional characters. That would be weird, right?  Okay, true the Twi-hards do seem to crush hard on the vampire and the werewolf, or maybe just the actors who play them. But I’m not a teen anymore.

Full disclosure, though, I did have a thing for Cloud Racer, the Iroquois Chief in Kate Cameron’s historical romance Orenda, and Fire, the JAmerican writer in Colin Channer’s contemporary romance Waiting in Vain. I had a thing for these men; with Cloud Racer it was his physicality and strength coupled with his gentle spirit, and with Fire, the fact that he was literary and literally hot. I can hear you now. How shallow! But we all have our guilty pleasures, right? Books come alive for me; is it any wonder that these men would too. I prefer to look at it as a testimony to the skill of these writers that I could allow myself the fantasy because they made it so real.

Aeden is nothing like Cloud Racer or Fire. He’s a twig of a man that moves through life like driftwood, shore to shore; not any woman’s dream man. But I had an attraction for him from the time I pictured him and his scraggly locks and mismatched clothes before writing a single word about him. I liked his spirit. I liked that he was unruffled by life and believed that, laid back as he was, if properly motivated, he’d fight for what mattered to him. Early readers of Oh Gad! my new book didn’t get him and I didn’t try to sell them on him, but I did take up the challenge to get readers (and Nikki, a character that also proved challenging for some readers yet was even more skeptical of Aeden) to see what I saw in him in spite of how infuriating he could be. Did I succeed? Well, readers will weigh in on that (and you’ll have to read the book to see how things shake out between him and Nikki) but my affection for him has only grown.

The thing was I didn’t try to make him perfect (never try to make your characters something they’re not). And if conflict is the lifeblood of fiction then writing characters who are perfect leeches all the life out of the process. Characters need the challenge of themselves, of the elements (man, nature, whatever), of the divide between the thing they want and the thing they have; the tragedy may lie in them not getting it. But where’s the challenge in perfection. So, I wasn’t worried about him not being perfect; I wasn’t even worried about him not being likable, a character can be interesting without being likable in my view. And it was important to me that he be interesting, that he not just be wallpaper or a stereotypical Caribbean fantasy. It helped that physically he wasn’t fantasy material if you’re into the tall, dark and handsome type. It helped that he had a certain je ne sais quoi that challenged me as the reader/writer to dig.

One of the things I obsessed about in this digging was his name. Aeden didn’t start out as Aeden. But as I reconfigured his family history, I came across Aeden – Gaelic, meaning little fire or fiery spirit, and intuitively I knew it was his name. Writing him with this new moniker, he settled more comfortably into his skin, and one of the early readers who’d previously dismissed him, sat up and took notice. Who knew a name could make such a difference, not in a superficial way but to the way you write the character and the way readers engage with the character?

Writing remains a learning process for me and as my Aeden chapter reveals, it involves a mix of imagination, reimagining real life, research, creative use of that research, and surrendering to the process. You also have to be sufficiently intrigued by these people to spend as much time with them as you will during the writing of a book; if they’re boring you, they’ll probably bore your reader. I feel fairly confident that whatever else you can say about Aeden, he’s not boring.

In fact, with Cloud Racer and Fire, he completes (for now) my trifecta of literary crushes.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Guest author Catherine McNamara: The Countdown Rush

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 (to be released on April 16 2012, Indigo Dreams Publishing UK) and Pelt and Other Stories (to be published in 2013, Indigo Dreams Publishing UK)

Just a few more days until the UK release of my debut book and I am uncertain what to feel. I’ve stopped drinking coffee as my nerves already seem alight, although I’ve detected an underlying sense of grace and completion with the approach of this moment. It has been long, as I wrote in a Guest Post here last December, but having read ‘could have been edited more’ in a review of a writer colleague’s debut novel, somehow I am happy my editor and I put in the extra mileage.

Time to celebrate or time to storm the internet with blog posts, interviews and giveaways? Time to place printed bookmarks in strategic places and organise readings? Is there any certainly either one of these – internet or physical promotion – will make a difference to sales?

There are several factors involved in what comes next for me. Primarily: budget. I am working with an independent publisher who though they have printed a beautiful work and sent off review copies to British newspapers, are not present for a book launch or major publicity. That falls into my lap. Which means that any publicity material – bookmarks, extra book copies for blog reviewers or magazines of my choice, a possible book launch in England which is my prime target market for the moment – has to come out of my pocket. Prioritising has become my new catch cry. I’ve tried to target both online and magazine reviewers who have the most followers or independent comments, reviewers who might also cast a kind eye over my genre (thinking lady’s lit) so as to make my investment (author-priced book and postage) worthwhile. Hopefully I may have some positive results. My deepest fear is that of the hundreds of books – both self and traditionally published – released each week in the UK, will mine even reach the desk of a kind reviewer? Column inches are notoriously hard to earn and, not having the clout of a major publisher or having a couple of prizes under my belt, I’m on tenterhooks.

Next, publicity material. I found a cheap local printer and am printing a batch of bookmarks from our cover design. Not a huge expense, but everything does add up. I’m confident they look good and will be worthwhile. It has been said that people need to see seven references to a product to instil familiarity and trigger the will to buy. Well, there’s my marketing theory in a nutshell.

Onward: the book launch. At first I wasn’t attracted to the idea of a book launch in London. Quite frankly, it seemed too much to organise, way beyond my budget (flights from Venice to London!), and some say the book launch being the ‘christening’ of the novel should be a get-together for the exhausted writer and his or her proud friends and family, and is therefore fairly ineffective in cranking up sales. So I put the idea on a back burner for a while, but it kept niggling. YOU’RE NOT DOING ENOUGH, YOU SHOULD BE DOING THIS.

I’ve organised minor events before when I had an art gallery, and being quite a   party girl I’ve hosted lots of big bashes at my home in the summer, but never anything as personal as my debut book launch. Thinking wider, I realised it was time to push myself out of my comfort zone (and Italy which is not my first target market!) and began to research independent bookshops in London that might host a foreign author. I found one, The Big Green Bookshop, and it proved rather painless to organise. I’ve sent invites to friends in London and close by, will haul along one older son and his cousin to serve drinks and photograph, have even managed to send off local (cheaper) prosecco to London for the bash.

Lastly but crucially there is the cost-free but time-consuming promotion that one can and must do online. There is no budget involved except the time you spend away from your job, your home responsibilities, your family, piano practice and pets, and I’m going with the advice of one major site editor whose interview with me will go up next week – online promotion is ‘well worth it’ (Elle Symonds-Trashionista). Like most authors I’ve organised the Blog Tour with various stops along the way. I’ll be up on chick lit, mature women’s, expat, mother sites and booklovers galore – in an effort to expand the appeal of the book which, while escapist and romantic, also addresses the more draining issues of teens and ex-husbands and sees my faded character blossom anew in an Italian world of espresso, alluring sex and unashamed architectural delights.

I realise my book will not appeal to everyone but I imagine all authors must reach this giddy moment. Do I dare to feel satisfied? Will I topple over in my heels at my book launch? Will anyone read my book besides my mother and aunt?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Children's Biggest Heroes

Last week a friend of mine brought me a manuscript. She had written a story and entered it into a competition. She did not win and she wanted my opinion on how she could improve the story. I read the story. Her writing style, her voice was good and I encouraged her to keep writing. The story needed some editing, but not enough to completely turn off a judge. The story had a good plot,a climax, moving dialogue and so on and would probably have been a commendable if her target audience was an adult.

But it was not.

In her story, the main character's mom steps in and saves the day. She conquers the bully and
teaches all the children about why bulling is wrong. All the research and literature on children's books will tell you that children don't appreciate stories where the problems are solved by the all-powerful adult. Adults may guide and support, but the ultimate solution must come from the children themselves.

I have heard parents complain about modern children TV shows. In the popular ones, the children seem to go about their lives with little adult supervision. They make their own decisions, break rules and deal with the consequences on their own. Conscientious parents don't like it because (most of us won't admit this) the shows make them look over-bearing and over-protective. But the truth is that those shows are successful for the very reason we dislike them. Children want to watch TV shows and read books that take them away from their adult-dominated reality into a world where they can solve their own problems. Most children understand that this is fantasy but enjoy it nonetheless. They want to see themselves as heroes and creators of their own destiny.

So, if you are writing for children, don't make your adult self the hero, turn back the clock and imagine the tall buildings you could have leaped over when you were young.

As you read this, I will be exploring South Africa so please excuse me if my responses to any comments are a bit slow. See you again when I post on April 29.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Write What You Know

Good morning, universe! The good folks at Novel Spaces were kind enough to invite me to join this fantastic blog, and I am really looking forward to reading and writing about reading and writing.

My name is William Doonan, and I write mysteries.

Many years ago, I wrote outstandingly bad novels that for some reason, nobody wanted to publish. Then one evening, walking home from yet another meeting with my critique group, I remembered the one bit of advice that writing coaches keep throwing around - write what you know.

I’d spent countless hours in creative writing classes and workshops, and somehow that advice never stuck. But I suddenly realized what I’d been doing wrong all along. Even though I was writing original stories, I wasn’t writing particularly engaging stories because I didn’t really know them.

Looking back, I can see why nobody wanted to publish 'Pinecone P.I.' Notwithstanding the fact that a private investigator who hangs from a tree branch probably wouldn’t be that effective, I don’t really know anything about pine trees.

In 'Shark Orbit', I sent two cosmonauts, a case of Polish vodka, and a two-ton mako shark, to the international space station. I know - it sounds great, right? But I know next to nothing about Polish vodka.

Similarly, 'Bullets for Babes', my crime novel about Harlan and Marlon Babe, cojoined twin police officers who grew up poor in the deep South, might have some appeal. But I’ve never spent much time in the deep South among cojoined twin police officers.

Clearly something had to change. So what do I know? Well, for starters, I’m an archaeologist. I’ve spent years working in Central and South America excavating pyramids and palace complexes. Mummies too. I know a great deal about archaeology. I’m also a college professor, and during the summers I give lectures onboard cruise ships. Over the course of sixteen cruises, I have learned a hell of a lot about cruises, including the stuff that most passengers don’t hear about.

So that’s what I know. Once I started writing what I know, everything changed. My first novel 'Grave Passage' was published in 2009. It’s about Henry Grave, an octogenarian detective who solves crimes on cruise ships. Henry Grave set sail again in 2011 in 'Mediterranean Grave', and this June or July, he’ll be back at sea in 'Grave Indulgence'.

Here’s the hook:

12 million people take a cruise each year.
Most have fun.
Some die.
Henry Grave investigates.

Hey, did you know that most large cruise ships have morgues onboard?

And two weeks ago, my archaeological mystery 'American Caliphate' was published by Dark Oak Mysteries. It’s based on an excavation I worked on in Peru. We found mummies.

Here’s a blurb:

Archaeologists Jila Wells and Ben Juarez are not thrilled at the prospect of returning to Peru; the ambush that nearly cost Jila her life still haunts her. But the ruined pyramids at Santiago de Paz hide an important document that would shock the Islamic world. Professor Sandy Beckham is assembling a distinguished team to dig quickly through the pyramid complex, following clues found in the diary of a wealthy Muslim woman who lived in Spain five centuries ago.

In the diary are details of an illegal expedition to Spanish Peru in three well-armed ships. Convinced that Spain was forever lost to Islam, Diego Ibanez intended to bring the word of Allah to the pagan Americans. Landing on Peru’s north coast, he learned that the fires of the Inquisition burned even hotter there than they did in Spain.

As the archaeologists brace for the ravaging storms of El Niño, Jila and Ben hurry to complete their excavations. But they’re not the only ones interested in this project. Other forces are determined that the document remain hidden. Should it be discovered, a challenge could be made under Islamic testamentary law to the throne of Saudi Arabia. And the House of Saud has no interest in sharing power with an American caliphate that might now awaken from a five hundred year slumber.

So once I started writing what I know, everything came together. I’ll leave it at that for now. I’ll be back soon talking about writing, and the business of writing. And if I can figure out how to rocket a book onto the best-seller list, I’ll write about that too.

In the meantime, feel free to visit my blog where I write about undead sixteenth-century mummies -

Monday, April 9, 2012

Stranger Than Fiction

A few days ago I was summoned to court. It was the first time I entered a courtroom in this country, so of course, I came prepared to take mental notes for my writing. As an author, just about everything is fodder for my fiction. But even with an open mind, nothing is without preceoncieved expectations. My conception was one of total order: a judge in long black robe with a gavel keeping order, a bailiff who called the court to order and announced the next case and led the witnesses to the stand, people talking in hushed tones with everyone knowing exactly where to go and what to do. In short, it would be well organized like the stereotypical court scenes of the television shows and the books.
In reality, it was nothing short of chaotic. Once we entered the court, no one told the mass of people waiting for the gazillion cases to be called what to do. After standing in a long line and reporting to one courtroom, some of us were sent to another courtroom to see if the case was on another state attorney’s docket. And yes, we had to wait in line then. For a while no one knew which state attorney had that particular case, and I feared yet another long line in another courtroom. Then the case was called and in a few minutes, it was over, postponed yet again. Yes it was chaotic enough to merit some space in a fictional tale, preferably a comedy sketch.

As I left the court, I was reminded of the first and only other time I had ever visited a court. It was in St. Kitts and I was still in high school. My friend, whose aspirations were to become a lawyer, insisted that I accompany her to witness a court case. If you think the court scene described above was strange, this one took the cake. It involved an aged man (mid sixties to seventies) dressed in pajamas suing his much younger (early twenties) girlfriend and her current boyfriend for battery. As the case progressed we learned that the older man was not only married, but he and his wife unable to conceive had raised the young woman. That young woman in turn, with the consent of his wife became involved with him, bearing children for him and his wife to raise. The old man, his wife, the young woman and their children all lived together as a family, albeit dysfunctional. The young woman, tired of the older man, sought a lover closer to her age. The old man’s wife saw her sneaking around with the young man, and promptly reported to her husband that the young woman was cheating on them. He confronted the young couple and a fight broke out.

Despite the deeper issues of incest and surrogacy, the court case was hilarious. Even the magistrate and the lawyers had a difficult time keeping a straight face. The ruling was even more ridiculous than the case. The court ruled in favor of the old man and ordered the young woman to pay him reparations for his injuries. But since she had no means of financial support, both the men in her life, that is, the old man she was living with and her young boyfriend were ordered to provide the funds. In other words, the old man was paying himself in the suit he won against the woman. It was like a sketch from Saturday Night Live.

Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction. This case proves that point. I have never seen or read a comic strip that had such ridiculous outcome. I can easily see that scene ending up in some story, or as a slapstick comic sketch. And that is why as a writer, my eyes and ears are constantly opened for some new fodder for my fiction.
I know I'm not the only author who get my ideas from reality around me. So I'd like to hear some of your stranger than fiction real life observations.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Guest publicist Penny Sansevieri: 30 Ways to Make Yourself Irresistible to the Media - Part 2

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

On March 7 we looked at 15 ways in which writers can make themselves irresistible to the media. Today we conclude the article with 15 more ways to make the media an ally in your book marketing campaign.

  • Be succinct: define your story in one sentence. Keep it short, sweet, and relevant to your topic. 
  • Sell the benefits, not the features. The media cares about what consumers care about, and all they want are benefits. 
  • Make sure the media person has all the information he or she needs prior to the interview. This is especially true for late/breaking news. If there are new developments, make sure they are aware of them. This will save them research time and make them look good!
  • Speaking of making media look good, this is your job as well. Yes! It’s important to make them look good, give them a set of questions, a synopsis about the book or interview topic and be prepared in case they ask you a question that doesn’t seem quite right. Sometimes the person who is interviewing you doesn’t get the media packet till 10 minutes before they go on, which doesn’t leave them a lot of time to prepare. Be sure to help make their job easy!
  • Jump on breaking news when it happens and be ready when the media calls. 
  • Be flexible. If a reporter covering a big story wants to chat with you on a weekend or late at night/early morning, say Yes.
  • Be excited about your topic: if you’re not excited, how do you expect the media to be?
  • Never, ever give up. It might take a while for you to hear back, and sometimes (most times) the media won’t respond to you until they have a need for your story. 
  • Keep it short. Write short emails, always. Generally media folk are on email overload anyway; don’t add to that with long, elaborate emails. 
  • Think locally when appropriate: craft a local spin to a national story. While local media will always cover local, they love regional angles to stories that are making national news. 
  • Stay on topic: when you do get the interview, stay on topic. Don’t stray all over the place, you will confuse the media person and you’ll end up getting a much smaller piece of a story if you look too fragmented. 
  • Respond immediately: even if you are on vacation, reply right away to all media queries. 
  • Don’t tell the media anything you don’t want to see in print. Assume everything you say is “on the record” even if you ask them to keep it confidential. I’ve seen authors say “well, off the record;” when it comes to media, assume there’s no such thing.
  • Avoid slang and industry jargon: it will confuse the media. 
  • Be grateful: always. Send a handwritten thank you note after an interview, and even if you didn’t get the interview for which you were being considered, send a note of thanks anyway and wish them well on their story. 

When it comes to media, get started as early as you can and build those relationships. Remember that while the delete rate of pitches is high, they are still in need of great guests, interviews, and stories. Be all those things and you’ll not only be irresistible to the media, but you’ll get a lot of placements that could really help launch your career!

Bonus tip! Ready to find media on Twitter? Head on over to Muck Rack.

Good luck!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Blog Tours

Now that physical book tours are becoming rarer and more expensive, some of my friends have toured virtually, visiting many blogs in a month in a "blog tour." Usually, these blog tours have involved a combination of guest posts, prize give-aways, profiles of the author, and/or interviews with the author.

I hope to self-publish a novel soon—some of you have been hearing that for months; all I can answer is that life keeps getting in the way—and I have wondered whether I should take the time and effort to do a blog tour. So I have been looking on the Internet for tips.

Here are ten important things I learned; I'll give links afterwards so that you can go to the original blog post or article and learn more about how to run a successful blog tour.
  1. Don't give away copies of your new book. Some people won't buy it right away if they think they may win it in a blog contest. (I know I've entered contests at blogs and then not bought a book I wanted because I forgot about it.)
  2. Your previous books or gift certificates to bookstores are good prizes to offer instead of your new book.
  3. Send your guest post or interview directly, not via your publicist, if you have one, or your publisher. Include a picture of your cover and yourself.
  4. Some bloggers don't automatically provide a link or links to places to buy your new book, so be sure to ask your host or hostess to.
  5. Always check the comments at the blogs that host you and take the time to respond to all people who comment. Do so repeatedly on the first day.
  6. Some blogs schedule months in advance, so arrange your blog tour well ahead of when you want your tour posts to run.
  7. Start writing your scheduled posts well in advance. That way, you still make progress on current progress and you have a cushion in case you have an emergency.
  8. Don't schedule a blog stop for every day of your touring month. People on your lists and on Facebook will get tired of and maybe even annoyed by your constant announcements of blog stops.
  9. Each stop on your tour should provide unique information, not the same stuff recycled over and over.  If the thought of writing unique posts for each stop seems daunting, consider providing other types of material at some sites, such as excerpts from your new book, good-quality photographs you took related to your book, or your book trailer. Also, you can ask your host or hostess whether they would like to review your book instead.
  10. Choose professional-looking blogs to visit on your tour (to showcase your book to its best advantage), and make sure your own blog looks great before it starts receiving visitors from your tour.
Here are the links I promised:
Do you have any tips to add, either from the perspective of having hosted a blog tour or having taken your book on tour? Please share!

Thanks for stopping by. I'll be blogging again at Novel Spaces on Saturday, April 21. Hope to see you again then.

—Shauna Roberts

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Phony Book Reviews

I had a recent conversation with a new author who said a friend posted a phony 5-star review of their book, without even reading it, and the author wasn't sure if they should ask the friend to remove it.

It is true that SOME readers check out reviews to get an idea as to whether or not to buy a certain book. They check the rating, from 1 to 5-stars, considering what others have to say before making a buying decision. Authors need reviews to help them sell books, and we hope that most of the reviews, if not all of them will be favorable (which is rare) - though it is true that you can't please everyone. Realistically, a fair share of the reviews will be less than 5-stars.

What happens when an author has tens or hundreds of reviews that are all 5-stars? Sometimes books are reviewed by paid reviewers, or by author friends and family, or by people who didn't actually read the book but they like the author so they write a positive review as a favor. What that does is set the tone for the book being a very good read, and then when the buyer reads it, they might find that for them it was nothing like all of the rave reviews. The reader might get so frustrated in feeling duped that even if they thought it deserved 3-stars, they could end up giving it 1-star, with a commentary about how they can't figure out what all of the 5-star reviews were about (which isn't right but it does happen - obviously reviews are subjective).

Some write reviews by only paraphrasing the back cover copy, others are generic and complimentary of the author, but give few actual details about the plot, their favorite characters and why they like them, or they don't take time to quote a line from the book, or tell how the book made them feel.

There are some reviewers (solo reviewers, not those who have a group of readers working for them) who read 3+ books a day - these are the speed-readers who review for a living. Some reviewers aren't paid but they request several book copies. Reviews are very important though most authors are noticing that readers aren't posting reviews as often as they did before ebooks, so they are being more creative in finding ways to get reviews, some offering book giveaways with the only stipulation being that the reader posts a review, though most don't.

I don't think fake reviews help anyone, the author or the prospective reader. Having one review or one-hundred, it's better to have honest and real feedback as opposed to false impressions, right? We'd at least know that 2 people out of 10 shared honestly that they didn't particularly enjoy our work, rather than having 10 out of 10 5-star reviews yet knowing two of them were fake.

What's your opinion on fake reviews? Have you noticed more or fewer reviews of your books overall? Have you noticed a title lately where you thought to yourself that the reviews were probably fake?

Write on!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Juvenile Fiction

This week is spring break for the public schools in New Hanover County, NC, and at some point during her time off our eldest daughter, the high school math teacher, will be taking me to see The Hunger Games. In preparation for this event, I read the book. The only thing I did not like was that it was written in the present tense, old-school past-tense guy that I am. The story itself was every bit as good as its reputation.

For those of you who have somehow missed the Hunger Games phenomenon, the Wikipedia article gives a fair summary of the first novel. Haven't read volumes two and three, so I don't know how accurate the other wiki articles are.
Some critics have dismissed the hoopla surrounding the movie's release as "hype," but they're missing the point. Suzanne Collins' trilogy became popular on its own merits long before the movie promotions - and with a broad spectrum of readers. The first copy of Catching Fire I saw was being read by a US Marine sergeant while we were waiting outside traffic court. These books have captured imaginations the way Harry Potter did a decade and a half ago, and for many of the same reasons. That they are well written has a lot to do with their appeal, of course, but it's the universal nature of their stories that enables readers to connect, to become personally invested in events.

At this point you may be objecting that you've never been a wizard nor have you fought twenty-three of your peers to the death on global television - how can these be universal? We'll get back to that.

Elsewhere I have reported that I became a reader during a long convalescence the autumn I turned twelve. I resisted at first, but alone in a room with no TV I eventually gave into the pressure of my own boredom and looked at the stack of books my mother had brought from the library. She had asked the librarian for stories a boy might like and though I don't think I ever knew that worthy's name, I owe her a debt of gratitude; she gave my mother a stack of Robert Heinlein "juveniles" - the sub-genre now called young adult. I have always called the first Heinlein book I read the gateway novel to my addiction to science fiction - but in fact it's responsible for luring me into a lifetime of reading: Have Space Suit - Will Travel. Over the past half century I've outgrown Heinlein's politics and his theories about religion, psychology, culture, or language, but I am still a fan of the novels he wrote for "young readers" - from Rocket Ship Galileo (1948) through Podkayne of Mars (1963). Heinlein had more respect for his preteen and teenage readers than most writers of the era - he addressed self-doubt, tragic consequences, doing all you can in the face of problems that could not be solved, and struggling with ethical choices. None of Heinlein's heroines or heroes ever approached anything like the popularity of Katniss or Harry, but the family resemblance is clear.

The Hunger Games trilogy, like the Harry Potter saga of the 1990s, is aimed at the young adult market, but they've had an impact on readers of all ages; that universal nature I mentioned. It's simplest to say what makes these stories universal is that they are all coming of age stories; tales of personal journeys as adolescent protagonists discover who they are and what they are capable of as they grow into their destinies. But it's more complex than that. Forgettable coming of age novels and movies are legion. What gives the works of Rowling and Collins power are thoroughly realized characters facing well delineated obstacles or adversaries and believably rising above themselves to triumph. These writers respect their characters and respect the readers who follow them on their journey (and will put themselves in the story). In Hunger Games teen Katniss Everdeen does what she can to live and take care of the ones she loves in a world over which she has no control. Like most high schoolers she spends a lot of time worrying about how what she does appears to others, trying to figure out what other people are thinking or why they do the things they do, and completely misunderstanding the thought processes and motives of peers of the opposite sex. (To my mind, one advantage she has over Harry Potter is Katniss doesn't inherit any special abilities and doesn't have a phalanx of supporters; she worked hard to master every skill she has and the only person she can rely on is herself.)

Will the Hunger Games trilogy spawn a swarm of imitators? Of course. Will they be worth reading? In most cases probably not. Because most imitative writers will focus on the superficial trappings of the stories - heroic struggles against dystopia, angst-laden love, cool fight scenes, and discovering hidden talents or reserves of inner strength. But even if we never write for the young adult market, we can learn from Collins and Rowling. Find what is universal in your story - the chord with which others can resonate - then nurture and build on that element, that theme, that journey, with respect. And give that same respect to your readers.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

I See A Short Gray Stranger in Your Future

Back in early 2006 (or maybe 2007) at a writers conference (Sleuthfest) I went to a product demonstration. There were only about 5 other writers who showed up. Most of the other authors were in craft or publishing business workshops, or pitching to editors and agents. A few authors I talked to viewed this new fangled gizmo with suspicion. I heard the usual comments of, "Too cold. I love the feel and smell of books." I listened to skepticism, "Seriously? Please, that thing will never catch on." I even saw fear in the eyes of some (that it would catch on, and that their beloved paper books would go away).

D.P. Lyle, MD and I ended up the last two authors who stayed to the end, and even lingered, talking to the young man showing us the feared, sneered at new fangled thing; the Kindle. Now Dr. Lyle didn't know me from Adam's house cat (don't ask, an old southern expression). In fact, he wouldn't know me today if he fell over me. But I remember him because I love forensics. The other authors lost interest and left. Yeah, I hear some of you laughing. I'm smiling at the memory myself.

The thing is I fell in love, as in Marvin Gaye singing, "Let's Get It On!" when I looked at the thing. Kindle had me at download books in seconds, no contracts or access fees. I'm not ageist, especially since I'm of a certain (cough, cough) age myself.  I'd say most of us were well over thirty-five, and I think that played a part. But I remember distinctly that the other authors I talked to about this wonderful new thing looked at me like I'd lost my mind. Some maybe started to avoid the "crazy person babbling about e-books". My dinner companions gave me polite, and quite chilly, smiles as I talked about a new phrase, "content creators", and how writers should be in control after all because we write the stories that drive this book business. I'm sure they were thinking, "Who the hell let her in here?"

Well, we all know how this story ends. Kindle release, world domination. I had started to write A Darker Shade of Midnight with a psychic heroine. But even I didn't see the rise of the indie author, not in my wildest dreams (proving that though I created a psychic, I'm definitely not one). I was just thinking of how wonderful it would be for me as a reader. Browse books, see book I want, order book with a few taps. Minutes later read book on a whisper light device. Now that's Supernatural!

Today. Write book the way I want to. Design book cover. Upload book + cover. Global distribution. Get paid monthly. Sales slowly build each month. Money drops into my bank account.

Kindle Select- valuable sales tool. I plan to use it to promote my soon to be released book. A few other things I've learned as an indie author: series and connected books do well. Readers love reading more about characters they read before, or the next episode in an on-going story. Some of my friends are making four figures and higher per month because they had 3 or 4 books in a series. Amazon helps authors tremendously by guiding readers who like the kind of book you've written to your books. So use those keywords and tags wisely and well. Promotion does work. The problem is no one can tell you which "thing" will work, or when, where or how. Or even if this or that "thing" will work for you. Authors are making good money not promoting at all, or doing very modest promotions. Writing faster, and writing shorter books work well in this new business model. Therefore I'm writing shorter, 75,000 to 90,000 words.

I finished the sequel to A Darker Shade of Midnight, called Between Dusk and Dawn. I'm stilling finishing the edits, and will announce the release date. In my humble opinion the cover is going to be amazing. The third book in the trilogy will be Only By Moonlight.

Let's Get It On.