Saturday, May 30, 2015

Set in Arkansas

By Velda Brotherton

The Boston Mountains in the Ozarks of Arkansas are some of the most beautiful non-mountains in the world. What? Not mountains. Well, I guess our friends out West could attest to that because the Rockies are mountains. But this portion of the Ozarks, contains the highest peaks, though they are really a high and deeply dissected plateau that stretches through Northern Arkansas into Eastern Oklahoma.

I was born here, moved away to live in St. Louis, Wichita, Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, back to Wichita, then to Long Island, and lo and behold, with these ancient non-mountains (if you don’t mind I’ll refer to them as mountains from here on) calling to my soul, returned to live within 15 miles of where I was born. For the past 43 years I’ve watched the four seasons pass in glorious beauty. Here I’ve lived and worked for 9 years as a feature writer and reporter and city editor for a rural weekly newspaper, one of the largest in the state. Without a journalism degree I earned three Merit awards for columns and stories from the APA. That’s Arkansas Press Association.

My adventures with that newspaper are truly amazing and I am busy writing blogs about them to share with my readers. Perhaps I’ll write one here next month. I can’t decide whether to write about the 30 foot reticulated pythons I made friends with, or maybe the magnificent white tigers I walked among. Or the day I spent behind bars interviewing those permanently penned up there. Then there was the marijuana dealer…well, those stories can wait for another day.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I decided to begin setting books in my little corner of the world. Why? Because up to that time, not very many readers were interested in us Arkies except as the stereotypical hillbillies that we aren’t.  Funny how no matter where one lives, those who live there have misconceptions of those who live anywhere else.

After living in New York for 9 years, I am amused when I hear people discuss “those New Yorkers” with all sorts of far out ideas about them. But it was no different in New York, where my accent (I really don’t think I have one) amused my friends and colleagues there. I worked in New York City for a while and enjoyed it immensely. What did I know, I was in my mid-twenties. The rush, the noise, the smells, the crowds, the traffic jams, walking the streets where construction workers’ whistled at pretty women, riding the train and then the subway to work. All these were exciting to me at that age. I loved it.

But the time came when I needed more peace and quiet, so the move to these serene Ozark hills. When I was young I eagerly bloomed where I was planted and had a great time doing it. My roots are here now and I make sure I pay attention to everything that’s around me. I drive to town on a highway with very little traffic. It winds north 21 miles, following a river on one side, bluffs and hills on the other, to the small town of Fayetteville, its University of Arkansas, businesses and residences scattered amidst seven hills.

My writing career began while I lived on Long Island. I joined a writers group and we met at the hotel in Garden City near the airport where Charles Lindberg took off for Paris on that long ago day to set a brand new flying record. My first published short story was a fictionalized tale about William “Coin” Harvey, who built an arena at Monte Ne in an effort to have his name forever known. It is now under Beaver Lake in Northwest Arkansas. My story was published in a small artsy magazine there.

But I had to come back to Arkansas before my writing career took off. And I credit it to my surroundings. I believe writers can write anywhere, yet there is a special place that makes everything come together so perfectly that no other locale will quite do. And I’m forever surprised that it took me so long to begin to set my books here where I live and have found peace.

Friday, May 22, 2015

So, you're a writer? Let me annoy you for a bit...

Back in April Dayton Ward wrote this post about the things people say to writers, which gave me the idea to do my own version. Every question/remark below has been said to me--by relatives, friends, or total strangers. As you can tell from the responses I wish I had made, this sort of thing brings out the very best in me. I deserve gifts of chocolate for not strangling anyone--yet.

Why don't you try to get your book on Oprah? 
Do you have any idea what I write? Do you have any idea what sort of book Oprah promotes? Do you have any idea how...  Sigh. Never mind.

I need some quick money to cover my bills while I wait for my severance payment to come through, so I'm going to write a book.
ROFL. ROFLMAO. Bwahahahaa! That's a good one... Oh--you're serious?

I'm not much of a reader but I'm writing a book. I'll send you the first draft and you can fix it up and get it out there for me as you know about this stuff.
Sure I will, you lazy SOB. That's what friends do. Because instead of writing my own books, I'd like to spend a couple years polishing your first draft, researching markets, submitting to agents and editors, following up, promoting, etc etc etc. Yeah, that's what I do because, you know, I took about 15 years to learn this stuff so I could do all your work for you.

So--you're writing the great West Indian novel?
No, I'm writing the great Nahuatl erotic sci-fi lesbian vampire novella. I'll let you know when it's out.

Can you get your agent or editor to read my manuscript? [Asked by total strangers]
Of course. Because that is what my agent and editor do--read manuscripts by people their clients do not know, recommended by said clients who have no idea what or how you write. This is the way we build trust in the author-editor-agent relationship.

So how much do you make? Give me a ballpark. [Said with a condescending smile.]
Frankly, it's bad manners to ask people probing questions about their earnings. Even if you know them. Even if you're family. What possible use can this information be to you? Until such time as I ask you for a handout [read: never] what I earn is none of your [expletive] business. Upside: You've given me a great opportunity to practise concealing my anger behind my mild-mannered facade while fantasizing about planting my foot up your smug rear end.
Are you getting a private jet?
I'll let that pass because you're technically still a child. A money-obsessed pest of a child, but a child nonetheless. I doubt I'll ever be into ostentatious status mega-symbols so if I ever strike it rich you'd never know it--unless you sneak into my shoe closet, maybe. Now get out of here before I whup your precocious butt.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

When Lightning Strikes...You Bottle that Stuff

You just never know when an idea will come along. Am I right? Likewise, you never know when a block you keep stumbling over in your story will suddenly work itself out of your way so that you can get on with the writing.

For me, these sorts of things happen when I’m not only not writing, but I’m nowhere near my desk or my laptop, and I have nothing—not even a scrap piece of paper—on which to jot down a quick note. It also happens a lot when I’m drifting within that netherworld separating sleep from wakefulness. One of the voices in my head (Morgan Freeman’s, for those keeping score at home) taunts me with a half-formed thought, idea, or breakthrough and I have to push myself from my bed so that I can write it down before I forget it all by the time the alarm goes off the next morning.

Little slices of writer torture like this tend to occur for me in the same places: when I’m taking a shower or shaving, or my personal favorite: mowing the lawn, and I let my mind wander, as I often do. A lot of the time, I’m pondering the current project in-progress, or maybe the next thing in line that needs a little brain space as I figure out what I want to do. Then there are the occasions when my noggin decides it’s going to run off and do whatever it wants, and to hell with my current project and deadlines and all of that.

So it was a couple of Fridays ago. I was outside, pushing the lawnmower around my yard, when my brain does its usual hop-skip-jump routine through various unconnected thoughts running through my head. For whatever reason, it opted to settle on this idea for an original science fiction concept with which I’d been toying off and on over the last year or so. I could never get any traction with it because I was always tied up with other writing projects and deadlines. Last summer, I figured that after I left the regular work force I’d find time to devote to this idea, but I’d done such a nice job of lining up contracted work, that this thing got pushed aside in favor of the writing for which people actually wanted to pay me.

On this day, however, my brain gave all of that the finger and started mulling. A few things started to click into place. Then there were a few more, and a couple more after that. By the time I was finished cutting the grass, I was convinced I had at least the skeleton of what I wanted this story to be from start to finish. Maybe that was why I was pushing the mower at a run that last half of the front yard, before dashing into the house to write down as much as I could before my brain started to fog up.

(Note: This sort of thing also happens during the showers/shaving thing, but my wife isn’t as amused when I go through tearing out of the bathroom on my way to my desk.)

Will anything come of this little bout of brainstorming? I don’t know. What I do know is that when something like this happens, I need to stop whatever I’m doing and write down as much of it as I can, and maybe even see if other dots start to connect themselves. After all, I don’t want to forget any of this stuff.....

.....what was I saying again?

So, what about you? Where does this “lightning” tend to strike, and how do you respond?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Audacity of Authors

While attending a recent writers conference I overheard a woman say “That author's ego is really out of control.” The catty remark was aimed at an author who did seem pretty full of himself. But it got me to wondering: Is there room for humbleness when it comes to writing?

The dictionary definition of “humble” is “Not proud or haughty, not arrogant or assertive; offered in the spirit of deference or submission; ranking low in a hierarchy or scale; insignificant; lacking all the signs of pride.” Does this sound like the traits a successful writer?

The simple act of putting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard announces to the world, “I have something to say. My thoughts are unique. My words are important!” That mindset is what drives writers, convinces them every day to sit in a chair and hope for the flow of ideas that will translate to the right words on the page. This is what deprives them of family time, TV time, sleep, and their favorite past time, reading. This is what makes them snap at people, growl at interruptions, overeat and add fat to their butt.

So, from where does this “arrogance” spring? I can only speak for myself: I'm inspired by the scribes before me. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Homer (not Simpson—Doh!). Their words lasted centuries—will mine do the same? In the lightening pace of today's plugged-in world, is it possible for my words to last longer than the next tweet?

Writers have to be overly proud of what we're doing—and yes, I'm in the non-humble crowd. We are out there trying for truth and recognizing it our fellow authors. Ego and belief in ourselves is what shores up our confidence when family members look skeptical at our efforts. Friends encourage us with pats on the back as if we've just escaped from a mental institution. Authors are strangers, not people they know.

We struggle alone and wait for the spark, that “Aha!” moment when our consciousness takes a giant leap onto the page. That's the moment when the pleasure of writing is transformed to the power of writing. There's no turning back.

The next hurdle is ignoring the censor in your head that says “Can I write what I really feel and get away with it?” Don't look for the green light from family and friends. They're already worried you're going to spill the dirty laundry. You can't wait to write until Granny and her church friends die.

On my list of the most daring, soul-barring authors I've come across are Philip Roth, who never let me look at liver the same way again. James Joyce, whose run-on sentences go on for pages. Joan Didion slouching toward Bethlehem. Erica Jong diminished my Fear of Flying. I never understood a word of Henry Miller's Cancers but am incensed that he was censored. Anais Nin who opened up her sexuality for public viewing. And my favorite author, Chuck Palahniuk, always makes me want to write brave, to bare my soul, not bar it.

I tell beginning writers that they must always stand by their words because critics are out there ready to tear them apart. Break new ground, break down barriers. Take old ideas and turn them around like a prism until they see light from another angle. Find their voice and use words that excite. What I don't tell them is in the process they're going to cut their emotional wrists and bleed all over the page. It's messy and some aren't going to survive.

I used the word audacity in the title of this piece. Definition: Bold. Disregard for normal restraints. Intrepidly daring. Marked by originality and verve. Exaggerating one's own worth or importance. Writers should be all that.  

Thursday, May 7, 2015

How to Not to Write a Novel

Things that were surprising but probably shouldn't have been.

As an author you will be marketing for the rest of your life. It will never end.

As part of the marketing you will join more social media sites than you need or want. You will wonder what to do. You will wonder what will work.

Almost all writers have cats. It's not mandatory but you will be on the outside of the other cat owners. Rare is the author with a dog. Personally, I like birds.

Finishing things are absolutely necessary.

Your friends will not review your book. Your book may  not get many reviews. Your book may get zero reviews.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Lit Fest & Novelnaut meet-up

Author panel at Bocas Lit Fest, May 2, 2015 in Port of Spain
Gadabout social butterfly that I am, I managed to completely avoid the Bocas Lit Fest every year since its inception. This year I had to be there come hell, high water or the onslaught of any of my usual avoidance impulses, and for two very good reasons: Carol Mitchell, my fellow Novelnaut, and Vaughn Stanford, my friend, first reader and publishing client, were featured authors this year. I made it on the second to last day and had such a good time my only regret is that I didn't attend at least one other day. On to Bocas 2016!

Bookstore's display
Bookstore chat
I had a long and sobering chat with the proprietor of an independent bookstore who has been very supportive of my work from the get-go. He said that sales are terrible (yes, everywhere), and the talk got around to a particular bookstore chain that continues to snub local writers unless they are already big names in the business. That chain snubbed me back in 2008--twice--and I've heard similar stories from other writers. Very unwise of said chain, since the books are in the big stores internationally and people can just get on their devices and order online. Way to cut your own throats, boys!

Celeb sightings
The legend Earl Lovelace himself, imposing as always in head-to-toe white; Nalo Hopkinson who set my groupie friend L'Oreal all a-twitter with adoration; and NYT bestselling spec-fic writer Tobias S. Buckell who hails from Grenada.

Liane Spicer & Carol Mitchell, with Gulf of Paria in background
I 'bounced up' several familiar faces, including my old UWI classmate, Chad Cumberbatch, who's now the Arts Minister in Montserrat. You go, Chad! Also met Kirk B. who will be joining the "Word Warriors" on our writers' retreat in July.

In a rare burst of maturity,
Vaughn ordered this drink from
the children's menu. 
We had our own little 'afterparty' at a seafront bistro on the Chaguaramas peninsula. Vaughn, L'Oreal, Isaiah and I started proceedings while Carol Mitchell and her charming friend Patti spent a lot of time driving around Chaguaramas (it was night by then) looking for the turnoff to our spot. Just so happened that the sign I told them to look out for was unlit so they never saw it. We eventually located each other and it was a blast! I'm here to tell you that Carol is every bit as lovely as she appears online. Writers, writer talk, book talk, coconut water and she-crab soup... It was bliss and I can hardly wait for the next Novelnaut meet-up. Who will it be, I wonder?


Liane :)

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Creative Marketing

There are many beautifully written books that have never seen the light of day.   There are many wonderful books that have been published, but sell at most a few dozen copies.  And there are many terribly written books that make it to bestseller status.  What’s the difference?  Marketing:  the most dreaded word in an author’s vocabulary.

Indeed when I first published, marketing was the farthest thing from my mind.  My books were published mass market paperback by an established publishing house which had built-in distribution and marketing. 

Recently I signed with a small publishing house which does not have the elaborate distribution networks of my previous publishers.  I quickly realized being an author goes way beyond writing and getting your books published.  It requires marketing.  So I designed a strategy: start small, start local and expand.  But despite my aspirations, I didn’t want to spend money on marketing when I was not guaranteed returns.

But then an opportunity came my way that I found hard to pass up.  It was the opportunity to expose thousands of kids and their parents to my children's novel by conducting a workshop at the Port Discovery Children’s Museum as part of the STEM in Spring Initiative.  At the same time it was an opportunity to teach kids about Science in an unconventional way.  So we discussed possible activities and I listened to my crazy co-author, at that time 11 years old, and decided on constructing a giant model of the cell to give kids the feeling of being shrunk and zapped into a cell as the characters of the book were.

It was an expensive venture.  I raised funds using gofundme and harassed my local stores for donations of supplies.  Then a week or two before the event, my husband, an engineer, looks at the plans and asks, “How are the structures going to stand up?”  So back to the drawing board we went to fix the structural issues. 

So how did it all work out?  Opening day was chaotic.  The first week we had to tweak the activity to make it flow, but the workshop was successful.  I know you are going to ask what made it successful.  If we measured success by the number of books sold at the event, then we failed miserably.  But here are some of the reasons why I consider this a success.

1.    We aimed to educate. 
We succeeded in teaching much younger children about the cell.  Kids enjoyed a scavenger hunt in the cell where they had to uncover clues to proceed to different organelles in order to rescue the characters of the book “Zapped! Danger in the Cell.”  The clues in the end spelt out the name of the book.
2.    We aimed to expose the book to as many children and their parents as possible
By tying in the activity to the book, we were able introduce it to many people.  We handed out quite a bit of printed material at the event.  We were interviewed by the local NPR affiliate WEAA and featured on the 5’oclock news on NBC affiliate WBAL, where our book was prominently displayed  for thousands of viewers.
3.    We aimed to have fun
This was fun for us and for the kids who visited.
4.    We aimed to create a lasting impression
Well the impression was good enough that we were invited back to be part of the Book Bonanza and Port Discovery Children’s museum later this month

Agreeably the number of copies sold at the event was a lot lower than we hoped, however, a seed has been planted.  Only time will tell if it will bear fruit. Many more people know about the book and its value as an educational tool as well as the pleasure it offers as a fun read. 

The bottom line: marketing requires investment, whether it is time or money or both.  It is a long term investment that may or may not see immediate returns, but the aim is to expose as many people to the book as possible and get increased sales.

There are many creative ways available for authors to market their books.  What are some of your more unique/creative marketing strategies?