Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rockin' the 4th

My life’s experiences as an author often wind up in my books. While I’m writing, I let my mind wander wherever it goes to come up with settings, emotions, and dialogue. I free my mind and don’t censor myself. Chances are, if what I’ve written makes it through my own edits, it will stay. Being a writer has added to the quality of my life because I’ve become more of an observer and a listener and everything interests me.

So with the July 4th holiday coming up, I’ve been reflecting on my favorite memories of this celebration. It’s a federal holiday—typically a long weekend for most—which is reason enough to celebrate. Independence Day (commemorating our freedom from Great Britain and the adoption of our Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776) is typically celebrated with fireworks displays, parades, picnics, BBQs, baseball games, and gatherings of families.

I’ve had many fond memories of this holiday. My brothers and sisters used to wage war in the neighborhood with bottle rockets. I mean serious war, folks. We had bunkers and booby traps and body armor in the form of hooded winter jackets in the middle of the Texas summer heat. My oldest brother, Ed, once donned a hooded winter coat to protect himself from the onslaught of direct hits. He launched bottle rockets from a Coke bottle pointed wherever he aimed—like a young Rambo—but one blasted out of the bottle and turned on him. A self-inflicted wound. It spun back into his hood and sent sparks flying around his head. He looked like a human torch (except for the weird dance he performed) trying to smother the live round. He could have lost an eye, instead of the singe circle of hair that got burned off his head. This wasn’t exactly one of his stellar moments. Now that he’s a father, giving sage advice to his boys on fireworks, he has real credibility (even though it’s a story he’s never told them). Sometimes I’m amazed he’s still alive.

The memory of my brother setting his head on fire ranks near the top of my list of childhood memories for reason only a kid would understand, probably because Ed survived to laugh about it. But my favorite memory of this holiday came when I was in my 30s and vacationing in Hawaii. I lived in Alaska at the time, so spending weeks on a beach was as close to heaven as I could imagine. My husband and I didn’t know what to expect, but we’d been invited by friends to join them in an annual event they participated in on July 4th. A boat picked us up on the beach near our hotel. I’m not talking about a pier landing. We had to walk into the ocean and clamor—as gracefully as possible—from the cresting waves and into a raft. I should have taken note that arriving at the party onboard the boat, soaking wet, was a hint of things to come.

Every year, a group of close friends launches an all out war on the water between two boats. They make huge slingshots with surgical tubing and launch large water balloons, trying to score hits. Better than the old game, Battleship. The two boats run a parallel course and bombard the partygoers with mega-water-balloons. The battle was a lot of fun, but I will never forget being adrift on the ocean at sunset in paradise with warm water everywhere and the sounds of laughter filling my soul with a contentment I will always remember.

But after it grew dark, the boats anchored near shore. We had the best seats in the house as we watched the fireworks on the beach from the boats rocking on the waves. The dazzling lights reflected on the water and I couldn’t drink enough of that memory in, surrounded by friends and my husband beside me.

My favorite memory of the July 4th holiday was a little unconventional, but most good memories are. With the holiday coming up, how will you spend it? Do you have a favorite July 4th memory to share? Tell me a story.

Thriller Must-haves

By Joe Moore

Next week I head to NYC for ThrillerFest -- what many consider summer camp for thriller writers. ThrillerFest is really 3 events bundled into one general heading: CraftFest, AgentFest and ThrillerFest. This year, in addition to the 27 bestselling CraftFest instructors including Doug Preston, Michael Palmer, David Morrell, and our own TKZ blogmate John Gilstrap, the great Ken Follett will be teaching a course called “How Thrillers Work”. Taking a class from a guy who has 130 million copies of his thrillers in print ain’t too shabby.

AgentFest has grown to over 60 top New York agents and editors waiting to hear book pitches and look for that next big seller.

And ThrillerFest boasts two days of panels and interviews by some of the biggest names in the genre. As an added bonus, representatives of the CIA will be on hand to answer all those spy novel questions. And the conference ends with the naming of the 2011 Thriller Awards winners and the celebration of R.L. Stine as this year’s ThrillerMaster. There’s still time to register if you can make it.

On Saturday (July 9), I’ll be on a panel called “Are there must-haves in Thrillers?” My fellow panelists include Karen Dionne, Mike Cooper, William Reed, Larry Thompson, Norb Vonnegut, and F. Paul Wilson. It should be a great discussion.

I believe, as I’ve discussed on this blog before, that there are a number of elements commonly found in most thrillers. So to get in the spirit of my ThrillerFest panel next week, here are 6 general must-haves that I think can and should be found in most contemporary thrillers.

First, let’s define a thriller and how it differs from a mystery?

Although thrillers are usually considered a sub-genre of mysteries, I believe there are some interesting differences. I look at a thriller as being a mystery in reverse. By that I mean that the typical murder mystery usually starts with the discovery of a crime. The rest of the book is an attempt to figure out who committed the crime.

I see a thriller as being just the opposite; the book often begins with a threat of some kind, and the rest of the story is trying to figure out how to prevent it from happening. And unlike the typical mystery where the antagonist may not be known until the end, with a thriller we pretty much know who the bad guy is right from the get-go.

So with that basic distinction in mind, let’s list a few of the most common elements found in thrillers.

1. The Ticking Clock. Without the ticking clock such as the doomsday deadline, suspense would be hard if not impossible to create. Even with a thriller like HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER which dealt with slow-moving submarines, Tom Clancy built in the ticking clock of the Soviets trying to find and destroy the Red October before it could make it to the safety of U.S. waters. He masterfully created tension and suspense with an ever-looming ticking clock.

2. High Concept. In Hollywood, the term high concept is the ability to describe a script in one or two sentences usually by comparing it to two previously known motion pictures. For instance, let's say I’ve got a great idea for a movie. It’s a wacky, zany look at the lighter side of Middle Earth, sort of a ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST meets LORD OF THE RINGS. If you've seen both of those movies, you'll get an immediate visual idea of what my movie is about. High concept Hollywood style.

But with thrillers, high concept is a bit different. A book with a high concept theme is one that contains a radical or somewhat outlandish premise. For example, what if Jesus actually married, had children, and his bloodline survived down to present day? And what if the Church knew it and kept it a secret? You can’t get more outlandish than the high concept of THE DA VINCI CODE.

What if a great white shark took on a maniacal persona and seemed to systematically terrorized a small New England resort island? That's the outlandish concept of Benchley's thriller JAWS.

What if someone managed to clone dinosaurs from the DNA found in fossilized mosquitoes and built a theme park that went terribly wrong? You get the idea.

3. High Stakes. Unlike the typical murder mystery, the stakes in a thriller are usually very high. Using Dan Brown's example again, if the premise were proven to be true, it would undermine the very foundation of Christianity and shake the belief system of over a billion faithful. Those are high stakes by anyone's standards.

4. Larger-Than-Life Characters. In most mysteries, the protagonist may play a huge role in the story, but that doesn’t make them larger than life. By contrast, Dirk Pitt, Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, Jack Bauer, James Bond, Laura Craft, Indiana Jones, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and one that’s closest to my heart, Cotten Stone, are all larger-than-life characters in their respective worlds.

5. Multiple POV. In mysteries, it’s common to have the story told through the eyes of a limited number of characters, sometimes only one. All that can change in a thriller. Most are made up of a large cast of characters, each telling a portion of the story through different angles. Some thrillers are so complex in their POVs that you really need a scorecard. But even with multiple POVs, it’s vital to never let the reader lose sight of whose story it is. There should be only one protagonist.

6. Exotic Settings. Again, in most murder mysteries, the location is usually limited to a particular city, town or locale. But a thriller can and usually is a globetrotting event. In my latest thriller, THE PHOENIX APOSTES, co-written with Lynn Sholes, the story takes place in, amount other locations, the tomb of an Aztec emperor, Sao Paulo, Brazil, the sub-basement burial vaults of Westminster Abbey, Red Square, the Bahamas, a small island off the coast of Panama, and the Paris catacombs. Exotic locations are a mainstay of the thriller genre.

Like any generic list, there will always be exceptions and limitations. But in general, these are the elements you'll usually find in mainstream commercial thrillers. But the biggest and most important element of all is that a thriller should thrill you. If it doesn't increase your pulse rate, keep you up late, and leave you wanting more, it probably isn't a thriller.

Are there any characteristics of a thriller not on my list? What do you look for in a good thriller?


THE PHOENIX APOSTLES is “awesome.” – Library Journal. Visit the Sholes & Moore Amazon Bookstore.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The dark side of digital

After reading Clare's post yesterday about e-publishing's Radiohead moment, I read an LA times article that noted a disturbing new trend in the world of Kindle books: spam.

It seems that everyone and his brother is now uploading e-books to Amazon. Many of those books are e-wrapped versions of books that are no longer under copyright--others are pirated versions of original works, with new covers.  The article cited one author who discovered that one of her books had been copied and sold on Kindle

I suppose it was only a matter of time before the spammers who flood our email in-boxes with Viagra ads and solicitations to collect inheritances in Nigeria would figure out a way to inundate the Kindle world with literary dreck. Amazon will have to find a way to filter out the spammers. There are a number of ways to do it: They could create a "verified publisher or author" seal, a la Twitter. They could develop better filters. They might have to--gasp!--act like a publisher and wade through the e-slush pile before unleashing it on the world. Any way you look at it, Amazon will have to spend some time and money figuring it out--which will probably raise the price of Kindle books fdown the line. (I hear the dead-tree book contingent laughing in triumph).

As a reader, so far I haven't yet encountered much spam on Kindle, probably because I use filters when I browse. The only time I've been had was when I thought I was downloading a novel, only to discover that my "book" was only a few chapters, which had been bundled and sold as a bait.

Have you encountered spam on Amazon?  Have you ever paid for a Kindle book and then discovered that it wasn't what you thought it was?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Pottermore or Less?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Last week bestselling author JK Rowling unveiled plans for a new e-bookstore and fan focused website called Pottermore. The Guardian book blog called the move pure 'marketing genius' while others expressed disappointment that the webpage didn't live up to all the anticipation and hype (so far you can only register interest, full details aren't available on the website as yet).

The current description is that Pottermore will provide a 'free website that builds an exciting online experience around the reading of the Harry Potter books'. Exactly what that will entail isn't certain - although what is certain is that JK Rowling was very savvy when it came to withholding digital rights to the Harry Potter books until now. With the Pottermore website, Rowling has sidestepped all the middlemen to maintain control over content, pricing and distribution for all her Harry Potter e-books. Pretty impressive.

Wired Magazine hailed the move as book publishing's 'Radiohead moment' (in reference to their self-released album) pointing out that JK Rowling is the most significant author yet to turn her back on the established publishing houses when it comes to digital books (although she is maintaining links to her traditional publishers Scholastic or Boomsbury). She has even come up with a digital watermarking system that links the identity of the purchaser to the copy of the e-book, and as her books are apparently going to be available in a compatible form for all e-reader platforms, the books aren't tied to any particular e-reader device.

Although Rowling called her move a 'way to give back to the fans' clearly she stands to make a great deal more money going it alone that she would if she were merely receiving royalties for e-books from her publisher. I also think she will be able to cleverly direct fans to additional interactive content that will no doubt expand her readership as well as entice those who already own her books to purchase e-book copies as well.

All in all, I feel this may well be a watershed moment - one that a number of bestselling authors (and lesser mortals) will be watching carefully. What do you think? Could this be the final 'aha' moment for the publishing world?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Social Media Marketing Made Easy

Since the launch of my e-books I've been getting emails from author friends, some of whom are flummoxed or annoyed about the whole social media marketing thing. These are established writers, too, who feel under pressure to Tweet this and Facebook that, and blog the other thing. All of which takes time away from what they want to do most -- write fiction.

And then there are the newbies, who are being told You have to have a platform even before you have a book, which always seems like telling a Sea Scout he has to build a boat before he can go to the beach.

It's a real concern, because too much stress and attention put on self-promotion and marketing can actually have an adverse affect on your writing, and even your personal life. OTOH, an author does need to get in the game in some way.

So what's the balance? What follows are some tips for getting a foothold in social media marketing. They seem to work for me, so do with them what you will. 

1. Specialize

Don't try to be active on every possible platform. You'll end up diluting your effectiveness in each. Instead, choose two or three and get really good at it.

For me, it's primarily blogging (here at TKZ) and Twitter. I find the substance of blogging once a week, and the real time of Twitter each day, the perfect blend. On occasion I drop into other blogs and comment if I feel I have something to add to the discussion. I do have a Facebook author page.

I do an occasional video, like this one on writing advice

The smartest social media guy I know, Thomas Umstattd of Author Tech Tips, says, "It is much better to specialize. Seth Godin does not do Twitter or Facebook. He just has the most popular blog ever. Be faithful in a few areas and then you will be ready to be faithful in many areas."

2. Don't Be Like Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross

Remember the famous Glengarry Glen Ross speech delivered by Alec Baldwin? "ABC – Always Be Closing!" The hard sell, all the time.

Not in social media. If it's always about you and your books, it gets tiresome fast. You may think you're doing a numbers game, like sales folk, who cold call with the same script over and over until they land a fish.

In social media, the key word is "social" as in "relating to or designed for activities in which people meet each other for beneficial exchange."

Don't be repetitive, sending the same tweet or message over and over again: Please follow me on my fan page.  Followed a day later by, Please follow me on my fan page. You might as well type Apply directly to the forehead because that's what people will want to do with the headache you've given them. 

Try to give each message a unique spin or angle. You're a writer, aren't you? Prove it.

3. Use the 80/20 Rule

Spend 80% of your social media time focusing outward. Interact with people. Provide good content. Link to other sites and articles of value. Be personable. Make people glad they have you on their list of people to read.

Use only 20% of the time to "sell" something. And even when you do, don't make it a generic "Buy my stuff" (BMS) kind of thing. If you do BMS over and over again, people are going to tire of you and find ways to avoid your posts.

Instead, always provide some sort of reason people should buy your stuff. Maybe it's the launch, which you can announce winsomely and with a little panache. Or a contest. Or you're providing some proof of value (such as a clip of a review). You can be clever in how you word things. Anything but "Buy my stuff!"

4. Don't Hurt Your Writing Time or Your Life

If you find your social media presence detracting from your writing time and your ability to produce quality words, cut back. If you're on Facebook more than you're with your family, check your priorities. This stuff isn't as important as either of those two things.

5. Don't Sweat It

No one knows what works. In fact, even the stuff that works doesn't work all the time. This is a fluid and un-measurable sea we're in. So find a good balance, provide quality, be consistent and be patient.

Most of all write great books. That's the key to repeat business, which is what makes a career.

So what about you and the social media scene? What are you doing that works? What frustrates you? 

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Our Survey SAID...

I received a Kindle for Father’s Day 2010. I loved it. I still do. It is the junkie’s dream come true, instant gratification in a tool that will fit in Captain Kangaroo‘s pocket. On Father’s Day night, I looked at the stacks (yes, stacks) of books next to my bed that await my terminal illness (I figure I’ll have lots of time to read everything if I’m too ill to do anything else. Well, maybe not lots of time…) and told myself that there was no longer need for me to grab a book off of a store shelf that I didn’t have time to read, just so I’d have it when I wanted to read it. Since I could have a book when I wanted it just by pressing a couple of buttons, I didn’t need to create a backlog. I would load a book, read it, and then buy another. Never again, I told myself, would I need to hoard books. Right.

At last count, one year later, I have thirty or so books that have accumulated on my Kindle. I mean, why would I pass up the complete works of Sax Rohmer for a couple of bucks? Or a new Marcus Wynne novel for ninety-nine cents? I drop ninety-nine cents in change on the floor of my car when I’m exchanging bucks for ambrosia in the Sonic Drive-through. I’m going to resist buying Lawrence Block books, which have been out of print for decades, for less than the cost of a Venti espresso that I will purge within an hour? I’m going to pass that up?

So I ask…how many of you out there have an accumulation of unread books on your Kindle? If you have such an accumulation, how many do you have? And do you have any idea why you are doing it, since, well, it’s not like Amazon is going to run out of a particular title? Is there something really, really wrong with us? Or are we okay and it’s just the guy who collects virtual beer cans who needs an intervention? You tell me.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sometimes A Guy Can’t Win

By John Gilstrap

I’m no expert in young adult fiction, but over the past ten years or so, I’ve consumed more of it than I ever did when I was a young adult. (I don’t think that “young at heart” counts in this context.)

I’m an avid Harry Potter fan—in fact, I already bought my tickets for the July 15 opening. I love the concept of the boy wizard who has no idea who he is, but even more than that, I love the interaction of the characters. They seem very real to me. They’re not the best-written books in the world (J.K. Rowling loves adverbs enough to create brand new ones on the fly), but that doesn’t matter because the stories are so compelling. The characters are so compelling.

There’s no doubt in reading the Potter books that it’s Harry’s story. Still, the secondary characters really sing. Hermione Granger is among my favorites. Smarter than any of the boys, she has a strong moral center, and she’s willing to fight for what she believes. Cupid delivers her a few tough blows along the way, but never once does she go to that self-destructive place that seems popular in other YA stories I’ve consumed recently. She never ties her self-actualization to the whims of a jerk.

Then there’s Bella of the Twilight series—whiner in chief. Never mind that she has no interest in Jacob, the guy who actually loves her and treats her like, well, a human being. Never mind that Edward is constantly pushing Bella away. Let’s concentrate for a moment on the fact that Bella has to die to be with the one she loves. Yeah, I know, dying is part of the construct of the whole vampire craze, but in the second of the Twilight stories (or, at least the second movie I watched), Bella sees self destruction—multiple suicide attempts—as the only way for Edward to pay attention to her.

If you’ve read this blog for any time at all, you know that I am 100% against censorship in all of its forms, but is this really the message with which American girls bond so thoroughly? Is there a purer form of narcissism than the gambit of “If you don’t pay attention to me, I’ll hurt myself”? How is this remotely empowering to young girls?

When did it become cool for girls to hand their emotional future over to some guy who treats her like crap?

Most recently, I read the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy, in which young Katniss Everdeen (a girl) has to fight 23 other teens to the death in a contest that is televised as a sporting event. The Hunger Games is the new Big Thing in YA fiction. Having read and enjoyed Battle Royale—a Japanese version of a story that is strikingly similar—I thought I’d give Katniss and her adventures a whirl. It’s actually a pretty good book.

Katniss is no Bella. She can thread a needle with a bow and arrow at 50 yards, and she doesn’t take crap off anybody. As luck would have it, one of her opponents in the games is Peeta, a boy her age who fell in love with her at first sight back when they were both six or seven years old.


Peeta repeatedly saves Katniss’s life at the risk of his own, and he announces his love for her on national television, but she pays little attention because her heart belongs to another guy. It’s the conceit of the story that Katniss suspects that he’s merely using professed love as a strategy, but in the author’s hand, Katniss just comes off as obtuse at best, moronic at worst.


I know it’s all fiction, but for these stories to resonate as they have, there has to be some element of universal truth. Is this really how the adolescent female mind is wired? Do good guys have any chance at all—and in this case I mean that literally, as in guys who are good to others?

Okay, don’t answer that. Good guys are doomed—at least among adolescents and certainly in YA fiction. The romance of the “bad boy” is at least as old as the printing press. Certainly, as far back as my own high school days, really hot girls have always been drawn to the guys who treat them like crap. The good news is that like everything else about adolescence, most people outgrow the roles they play as teenagers and ultimately get their heads straight.

During that transitional time though, when the out-growing is underway, I hope there are some strong parental hands on the tiller.

When all is said and done, though, Hermione will have been a lot more help creating well-balanced young ladies than Bella ever was.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

E-Pub versus Indie Pub

My last topic here was on The Self-Pub Adventure. Here are my conclusions so far.

For three backlist titles in my futuristic romance Light-Years Trilogy (Circle of Light, Moonlight Rhapsody, Starlight Child), I went with Belgrave House to convert my books into digital formats. For no costs up front on my side, I had them scan the printed book, send me the file for proofreading, got a decent but simple cover, digital conversions, and all the titles uploaded to numerous e-book sites. My titles are priced at $5.00 each and I split the profits 50% with the e-publisher. They only accept works by previously published authors who have reversion of rights.

For my last remaining backlist title, I’d decided to try the indie route. One look at the Smashwords Style Guide, however, and I changed my mind. I would probably screw up my Word program forever if I followed their directions. Better I should hire someone to do the conversions than spend hours figuring this out. But once the file is ready, I’ll still have to upload it, as well as do all the marketing. 

With a cover and a conversion, this is likely to cost me up to $300…unless I stick to paying for the cover alone and uploading my doc file just to Kindle. I’ve hired a cover artist and for $125, she’ll make me a custom cover. I wanted one that’s competitive with the paperbacks out there. 

Let’s say I pay for conversions as well as a cover. If my indie published backlist book does well and I make this money back, it would be worth going the indie route again for original works. But if not, I would rather submit to a legit e-book publisher than go it alone. I’d have to give up a certain percentage of my royalties, but I need the services they’d provide. Indie authors make everything sound easy and profitable. But for how many, or how few, is that true? 

The Wild Rose Press gave me a beautiful cover for Silver Serenade, editorial assistance, digital conversions, and publicity opportunities. I get a 35% royalty for books bought at their site, where my title costs $7.00. On my own, I could be making double that amount on Amazon and control my own sale price. Yet their price point is somewhat understandable considering they have to pay cover artists, editorial, etc. as part of their publishing costs. But they also have no overhead in terms of office space, warehousing, etc. And readers want to pay $5.00 or less for an e-book.

It’s a very tough choice to make, whether to step off the gangplank on our own or swim the calm waters of having a publisher do all the work for us. You have to know what you’re taking on. But my adventure isn’t over yet. Once I get my new cover, I’ll see how it goes with uploading the file for this backlist title myself.

Here’s a great discussion on some of these topics:

And if you’re in Florida—or not—you may want to attend this important publishing industry event:               

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Writing and Basic Human Needs

By: Kathleen Pickering

A shudder ran up my spine when Clare Langley-Hawthorne asked in her last blog, "When is it time to stop writing if you haven’t sold a book?" I could not imagine never writing again.

That, of course, got me thinking, well why not? Not writing wouldn’t kill me. I’d feel less pressure to perform, my days would free up and I could enjoy all those characters in my head as imaginary playmates. But, then I realized why I reacted so uncomfortably to Clare’s question. Simply put, we all have basic human needs. For me, writing fulfills all six of the basic human needs Anthony Robbins says every person craves for personal happiness. No wonder we authors are addicted to the craft!

Here are the needs as Tony Robbins lists them. I’ve shown how they fulfill my need to write:

1. Certainty – We all want to feel safe in our world. As a writer, I know the world I create is my own, no one can hurt it, change it, take it. I feel safe in my writing cocoon.

2. Uncertainty – We all crave variety, surprise and spontaneity or we’d get bored. Well, heck, do we or do we not get uncertainty and surprise from our characters? They always take us somewhere we don’t expect. Also, the uncertainty of the publishing industry and reader/editor opinion offers no small adrenaline rush in working towards success.

3. Significance – We all need to feel important in our world and often carry a fear of “not being enough.” Writing offers me a sense of significance, in that I feel unique in my craft and how I tell my stories. Being an author gives me a sense of worth.

4. Growth – If we don’t grow, we die. The richness of every book experience, from creating the work to selling, to networking, to celebrating and sharing, all contribute to my personal growth as an author. I feel an internal shift upwards with every book I write.

5. Connection/Love – We all need to bond and feel grounded with others. We all understand this. A perfect example for me was at this year’s Sleuthfest conference. I asked Dennis Lehane what inspired him to write Shutter Island and how he conducted his research. I was rewarded with a smile, an in-depth and heartfelt explanation that ended with, “this book describes me the best.” We all need connection and welcome the recognition in others.

6. Contribution – We act to make the world a better place. I’m not alone when I say I am an author with more than just a story to tell. (My brand.) Every book I write has a purpose, a theme, and mine is redemption. My world view is that we were born perfect onto a perfect planet, and somewhere along the line we lost that understanding. I write hoping my stories will get folks thinking towards shifting our perceptions back to a place of dancing and joy and connection with ourselves, each other and our precious world. I tell you, writing rocks!

My urban fantasy, Mythological Sam – The Call, embodies all six basic human needs of which Robbins speaks. That’s why I love writing and could never stop. Who else gets the opportunity to get their message across with a hilarious, demon-busting call to adventure while meeting their own human needs?

So, I ask you, as an author and a reader . . . how does writing/reading meet your human needs? And which two are most important?

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Peek into The Teenage Mind (or How I Survived Exam Supervision)

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Last Thursday, for the first time in my life, I supervised a high school exam at my boys' school. I'm not sure what I was expecting but I certainly wasn't prepared for the bizarre teenage behaviour on display. My twin boys are only six, so I am used to Lego everywhere, Star Wars obsessions and the hilarity that seems to accompany any joke involving toilets. What I am not used to (and wasn't quite ready to face) was the sixteen and seventeen year old inability to focus, concentrate, sit still or behave any better than...well...a six year old boy.

The exam in question was a standardized test set by the government so the rules were extremely strict - to the point that I had to read out instructions verbatim from a booklet (no paraphrasing or deviations allowed) and had to watch the clock and strike off 15 minute time increments on the whiteboard. I also had to pretend to be a really stern mother patrolling the aisles to ensure no one had unauthorized stationery...So what did I encounter (apart from all the unauthorized stationery)??
  • The boys who arrived and promptly fell asleep at his desk for 45 minutes. I had to wake him when he started snoring but I still don't think he actually did anything on the exam. Instead he drew on his hand, drew on the desk, chewed gum, sighed, tried to sleep again, doodled all over the exam booklet and generally behaved like someone with a mental disorder of some kind.
  • Half the class who had come to an exam without pencils or eraser even though...yes, you guessed it that was all that was required.
  • The boy who constantly sniffed and made bizarre wheezy-nose noises but still refused to take the tissue I offered, despite grossing me out for most of the morning.
  • The boy at the back who decided that making dandruff pictures (a la the Breakfast Club) was the most inspired use of his time - oh, as well as cracking his knuckles. Delightful in a small confined space like a classroom...yes, truly delightful.
These were just a few of the behaviours I witnessed, and to be honest I shouldn't have been at all surprised except that I seem to remember when I was doing exams I didn't really have the urge to sleep but rather to panic. Perhaps what surprised me the most was that no one in the class seemed to give a toss.

So what insight has this experience given me?
  • Well, that it's no surprise boys aren't reading. From what I saw, it's a miracle they can get out of bed in the morning and dress themselves.
  • That most sixteen and seventeen year olds are really young and immature (I was giving them far more credit before this experience).
  • For most boys a toilet level of humour still applies.
  • That I will never be able to describe the hairstyles that have been adopted without laughing.
  • That Twilight level romance is so far-fetched at this level it's laughable.
  • That the gap between the maturity levels of girls and boys at this age is so vast, that I may as well forget boys as a target audience all together.
The experience was certainly 'interesting' and I rather liked playing the mean teacher role (hmm..what does that say about me) but it many ways this more of a reality-check for me as a potential YA author. many of you have ever had the delight of working closely with teenagers?
Any other insights you'd like to share on the shadowy depths of the teenage mind?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

10 Commandments for Writers

James Scott Bell

Back when I started teaching writing to others, in a moment of what can only be described as great hubris, I jotted down 10 Commandments for Writers. Recently I dug up the document and took a fresh look. And you know what? I think they're still pretty good. I've tweaked them a bit for updating purposes, but they remain essentially the same as when I first wrote them. And while I don't have them engraved on stone tablets – yet – I offer them here for your perusal:

1. Thou Shalt write a certain number of words every week
This is the first, and greatest, commandment. If you write to a quota and  hold yourself to it, sooner than you think you'll have a full length novel. 

(UPDATE: I used to advocate a daily quota, but I changed it to weekly because inevitably you miss days, or life intrudes, and you can run yourself down for "missing" your quota. So set up a weekly quota, divide it by days, and if you miss one day make it up on the others).

So important is this commandment that I posted a video on it.

2. Thou Shalt write passionate first drafts
Don't edit yourself during your first drafts. The writing of it is partly an act of discovering your story, even if you outline. Write hot. Put your heart into it. Let your writer's mind run free. I edit my previous day's work and then move on. At 20k words I "step back" to see if I have a solid foundation, shore it up if I don't, then move on to the end. There's magic in momentum.


3. Thou Shalt make trouble for thy Lead
The engine of a good story is fueled by the threat to the Lead character. Keep turning up the heat. Make things harder. Simple three act structure: Get your Lead up a tree, throw things at him, get him down.

4. Thou Shalt put a stronger opposing force in the Lead's way
The opposition character must be stronger than the Lead. More power, more experience, more resources. Otherwise the reader won't worry. You want them to worry. Hitchcock always said the strength of his movies came from the strength and cunning of the villains. But note the opposition doesn't have to be a "bad guy." Think of Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive.

5. Thou Shalt get thy story running from the first paragraph
Start with a character, confronted with change or threat or challenge. This is the opening "disturbance" and that's what will hook readers. It doesn’t have to be something "big." Anything that sends a ripple through the "ordinary world" will do.

6. Thou Shalt create surprises
Avoid the predictable! Always make a list of several avenues your scenes and story might take, then choose something that makes sense but also surprises the reader.

7. Thou Shalt make everything contribute to the story
Don't go off on tangents that don't have anything to do with the characters and what they want in the story. Stay as direct as a laser beam.

(UPDATE: This one seems self-evident now, but at the time I was seeing manuscripts with scenes written for their style, not their substance. Another way to put this is the old advice to be ready to "kill your darlings.")

8. Thou Shalt cut out all the dull parts
Be ruthless in revision. Cut out anything that slows the story down. No trouble, tension or conflict is dull. At the very least, something tense inside a character.

9. Thou Shalt develop Rhino skin
Don't take rejection or criticism personally. Learn from criticism and move on. Perseverance is the golden key to a writing career.

10. Thou Shalt never stop learning, growing and writing for the rest of thy life
Writing is growth. We learn about ourselves, we discover more about life, we use our creativity, we gain insights. At the same time, we study. Brain surgeons keep up on the journals, why should writers think they don't need to stay up on the craft? If I learn just one thing that helps me as a writer, it's worth it.

So there's my ten. Comments welcome. Or maybe you have an Eleventh Commandment you'd like to add?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Drinking with Authors and Other Scraps

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) – A New York children's author who used a curse word in exasperation during a plane delay at a U.S. airport was ejected from the aircraft for disruptive behavior.
Robert Sayegh, 37, said Atlantic Southeast Airlines overreacted to his salty language when it summoned police aboard to escort him off the Sunday evening flight at Detroit Metro Airport.

I get it. Most of us get exasperated and drop the F bomb, but not on planes. Flying is hard enough without upsetting flight attendants. Times have changed. They don’t fly terrorists, obvious madmen, drunks, or dirty mouths. If old Bob there hadn’t been a kiddie-book author it would not have been news. Kids don’t read papers, so the publicity won’t help his sales. It got me thinking about the times my mouth has thrown me into a bear stew. Roald Dahl proved you don’t have to be an angel, or even a nice person, to write great and classic kids books. But I’m sure Robert is a great guy once you’ve had a drink with him. Maybe the author was late for a conference. I bet the bar at a kiddie authors conference is Lamp Shade City.

On occasion, my social filters fail. One example of hundreds: I was in a restaurant in New York a few years ago sitting with another author and our conversation rolled around to some example of violence and gore. Conversation was purely technical, as I recall––heads of shotgun suicides that looked like day lilies, or perhaps what high-velocity rounds do to a human body. I was blissfully unaware of my surroundings until a woman at an adjoining table interrupted us to say, “Could you please change your conversation, we’re trying to eat here.” I don’t get that. I’ve been at an autopsy where the ME and an assistant were talking about cooking various venison dishes while the ME was popping out a brain, and weighing it. You get inured to what exposure to such subjects do to other people when you are always thinking and writing about it.

Most authors are curious about a wide variety of things, and they will go to amazing lengths to learn something potentially useful. Instead of having knowledge in a concentrated area, their knowledge tends to be as wide-ranging as that of a Jeopardy Champion. I once sat through an hour-long story that had no punch line at all. It was riding in a ox-drawn cart five miles across a desert only to ride off a cliff. Conversations with most of the authors I’ve met (especially in a bar) are almost always interesting, entertaining, and enlightening. It’s no surprise that authors tend to find each other’s company pleasurable. You sit having drinks, listening to people who know how to tell a good story with maximum impact¬, and it is never boring.

I’ve never decided if conferences were profitable, but they are worth the investment simply for entertainment value and being in contact with peers. It can be expensive to attend Bouchercon, Thrillerfest, Magna Cum Murder, or any one of a hundred national, regional or local writers conferences. If you’ve never been or can’t afford $1500.00 on a weekend, what you should do, if you’ve never done one, is drive to the closest one and go to the closest bar to the conference rooms (Usually in the venue hotel), get a table, order a drink to nurse, and just sit there. When the authors start walking in and the place starts filling up, offer one a place at your table. Soon the table will be crowded with authors because they are social animals, especially after a drink or two. The later it gets the better the stories. Don’t be shy. Most authors are approachable. This will never fail, and you can decide if you want to sign up for the next one and spend the money. You don’t have to be a published author. You can be a fan of a conference’s genre, a librarian, or an accountant. It doesn’t matter at all. If you have questions, you’ll get real answers and unguarded ones at that. And you will laugh. That in itself is worth the effort and the expense.

I am a fan of interesting conversations over drinks in a quiet bar or on my deck. I am not very comfortable in crowds, but I’m okay in crowded bars filled with good people. You don’t have to be a drinker for this at a conference. A quarter of the authors in the room will be drinking soda with a bit of lime in the glass, which is, of course, a fictionalized drink.

John Ramsey Miller

Friday, June 17, 2011

Can A Bestseller Be Engineered?

By John Gilstrap

In 1997, a literary author named Bradford Morrow made big headlines in the book industry when he allegedly told a reporter from New York Magazine that his publisher, Viking, was trying to engineer a bestselling thriller out of his next novel Giovanni’s Gift. To support the book, and to give it a leg up on sales, the publisher spent a lot of dough promoting it. That’s a good thing, right?

Well, not necessarily. When the New York Magazine story was published, New York Times Book Review writer Walter Kirn tore apart not only the book, but also the author and publisher. Here’s a link to a piece that Salon did on the brouhaha:

While some reviews leave room for interpretation, I think intelligent minds can agree that this is gratuitously awful: "an unintentionally campy blend of artistic ambition and commercial cynicism ... a case study in the novel as gilded kitsch -- a book that proposes to elevate its readers even as it takes calculated aim at their presumed stupidity ... a thin romantic melodrama insulated in operatic twaddle."

Morrow’s offense, such as it was(n’t) was his decision to share with the world his desire for commercial success. (In future interviews, he maintained that he never writes for money.)

How the world has changed, huh? In a mere fourteen years, we have come to a place in history where it’s okay for an author to publicly state his desire for commercial success. (I’ve long believed that even literary writers secretly want to make money off what they write.)

Carrying on with this week’s theme of finding the right strings to pull to engineer a bestseller, I continue to question whether any individual writer can do anything to significantly influence sales. Sure, there are outliers and exceptions (paging Joe Konrath), but in Joe’s case you have to give credit to the power of being first.

Yesterday ended a 10-day run for my book At All Costs on the Kindle Top 100. (As I write this, it sits at #105, having gotten as low as the 20s.) This is great news for a book that was written in the same year when Giovanni’s Gift was released. Could it possibly be that my fan base has finally reached that self-sustaining critical mass?

Maybe. I hope so. But I have serious doubts about that. If that were the case, my Nook sales rank would be substantially lower than 10,223, which is where it sits as I write this. So, what’s going on?

The answer in two words: Paid Promotion.

My publisher is spending real coin at Amazon on my behalf for banner ads and email blasts that alert anyone who has ever bought my work or the work of anyone who writes similar thrillers that there’s a new Gilstrap eBook out there at the readily affordable price of $1.99 (down from the original $4.50-ish). I assure you that it’s no coincidence that everyone who buys the At All Costs eBook will get to read the first chapter of Threat Warning, the front list book coming out on June 28 as an eBook and July 1 as a pBook.

Words cannot express how grateful I am to Kensington for getting behind me and my work this way. It’s all part of a strategy that was engineered and is continually tweaked by several departments of professionals who promote books for a living. If they’re doing this for li’l ole me, can you imagine the horsepower that’s behind the likes of Baldacci, Coben and Deaver? Sure, at the end of the day, the quality of the work is paramount—an author has to entertain his audience—but a lot of the frenzy that surrounds the release of a book is bought and paid for, including much of the stuff that seems spontaneous.

I have no idea what the price tag of all of this is, but I’m going to guess that it’s significant enough to be out of range for most people I know. It’s not just the absolute value of the time and the cash that’s involved; it’s the risk factor, too. There’s no guarantee that they’ll ever see a return on their investment.

My writing career is eight books deep now—eight books published, anyway. I’ve hired two independent publicists in that time, I’ve arranged book tours, I’ve typed my fingers bloody on blog tours, yet I can tell you without hesitation that nothing I’ve done in self-promotion comes close to providing the results of what Kensington is doing for me. And it’s not just the money; it’s the know-how.

I’m the first to say that I’m perhaps overly blessed at the moment, but some really dark times preceded the last couple of years. This is a tough, tough, business, and with few exceptions the road to success—whatever that means to whoever it means it to—is paved with divots and bloodstains.

Jeffery Deaver and I used to meet for drinks and dinner every Thursday evening for five or six years, and during the darkest of the dark times he endured my pity party for a while. Then, when I asked him what he’s doing right that I’m doing wrong, he put it in perfect perspective for me: “I’m twenty books ahead of you,” he said.

And there it is: the secret to publishing success. And after the twentieth book comes the twenty-first. I’ve come a long way since that chat with Jeff, but I have a long way to go.

Finally, at long last, I’m part of a team that supports me; but part of the reason they support me is because they feel I’ve earned it, a book at a time and a fan at a time.

Can you engineer a bestseller? I believe it’s done all the time. But key elements of the blue print include an established, enthusiastic fan base, and a proven ability to turn out good work.

Can a first time author engineer a bestseller on his own? The occasional exception notwithstanding, I believe the answer is no.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Reality of Book Promotion

Joe Moore’s post yesterday on the effectiveness of book signings made me think about what does and doesn’t work as far as book promotion goes. With each book release, I try new things, ditch what doesn’t work and constantly look for cost effective ways to reach the largest number of readers. For my debut young adult release, I had a marketing strategy to launch IN THE ARMS OF STONE ANGELS that encompassed four pages of a varied promo effort directed at indie stores, libraries, professional organizations, online social media, my mailing list, etc.

Book promotion has changed over the years and the developments are coming even faster as we trend up in the digital world. I have an e-reader now too, which has drastically changed how I buy books and how I hear about novels that interest me. So how does the average author today promote their own book in this evolving business?

This usually translates to online promotion since it’s free (except for the time you put into it). Focusing your marketing and branding efforts online can be an effective means to get the word out to the right people. On my recent summer read tour with fellow Texas YA authors, we had a tour blog set up a couple of months prior to our events that garnered thousands of hits and counting. Old school thinking on group signings is how many books did you sell. New school thinking is about exposure, perception, name recognition and the number of online hits you get before, during, and after the event if it's promoted effectively online.

A book signing might have ad promo and get people to come see you, but the exposure is greater online where a website’s traffic can be hundreds or thousands of hits a day with the post continuing to get hits even after the book signing event is over. And with a reader already online, they can click on a link and buy your book, or download a sample on their e-reader that might entice them to buy the rest of your novel. This doesn’t mean the book signing is dead. It just means authors have choices on how they spend their time. And some ingenious folks have devised a way for authors to digitally sign a photo taken at the event or their actual e-book. (Here’s one LINK on that.)

Online Marketing I’ve Found Effective:

1.) A professional looking website or blog - Blogs are free if money is tight and you can share the work by putting together a group blog, like TKZ. My website designer – - specializes in authors. For great examples of websites with cool navigation, check out her portfolio.

Twitter – Get to know your regional review bloggers. They can be great support.

3.) Other Social Media – I hate Facebook for many reasons, but there are other sites that could be more effective. I’m trying
Tumblr now.

Goodreads – If you don’t have an author page here, why not? It’s free and you can link your blog to your Goodreads author page to keep material fresh without much effort. Any Goodreads member is a reader and your target audience.

Amazon Author Central – Did you know that you can update your own author/book page for reviews, book endorsement blurbs, post book trailer videos, etc.? If your brand is important to you, you may want to take control of your author page.

The simple truth is that most authors won’t see a great deal of promotion dollars from their publishers. You’d think that if a house were taking on a new author and book that they would include a certain amount of money geared for promotion, but the reality is that the publisher spends generic dollars on promoting their line of books or other authors’ work and hope readers will notice your book in the process. They rely on the author doing their own promotion. It’s quite conceivable that the average author will spend more to promote their book than their publisher will, especially given that houses are tightening up on advances and other expenses.

So as authors look seriously at self-publishing and e-books, it’s real tempting to cut back on the time consuming and resource depleting efforts to promote that detracts from the time you have to write. Time literally is money in this empowering new future, but having online marketing supports your digital sales. Many might think that simply having your book available for purchase online is enough and that money will roll in. For the average author, this simply isn’t the case. You have to try things to see if they work for you. Traditional houses are watching the self-published authors with solid sales and offering them contracts because they have a readership and a marketing platform that will come along with them. When I first sold, I had no idea how important my own marketing would become. Self-published authors today will know more than I did when I sold, but they will also have to weigh how important it will be for them to sell traditionally if it means giving up control of their copy rights and business decisions.

In my opinion, the number one best thing you can do—whether you get published traditionally or go the self-published route—is to write a good book. And in either case, you’ll need to build a readership, people who like what you do and will come back for more. Online promotion on various fronts is a good way to get the word out in a cost effective manner to tap into a marketplace of the savvy readers we have today.

For discussion, I’d love to hear. How do you find out about books you want to buy these days? And how important is it for you, as a reader, to make a connection with the author either online or in person? What are your favorite ways to do this?

Specifically for authors—aspiring, self-published, or traditionally published—what methods of promotion have you found most helpful? (Yes, aspiring authors should weigh in. Having an online website/blog presence is important for you, too.)

Book tours and signings and such

By Joe Moore

A few weeks ago, my blogmate John Gilstrap, posted Best Advice Redux in which he said, “Standard book signings are to me a waste of time. Ditto book tours.” I left a comment that I agreed and could prove it was true, at least for me. So that’s the subject of today’s blog: are book signings and tours necessary? And in addition, are the marketing efforts of the publisher important if not critical?

First, let me start with a disclaimer. My comments here are my own opinion based on my personal experience. I fully expect that others will feel different, and have equally compelling reasons to believe that the opposite is true. That’s fine. But here’s what I believe:

You can have a bestselling novel and never conduct a book signing or book tour. I know because I’ve done it—more than once.

The first book I had published was THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY (2005), co-written with Lynn Sholes. It was released by Midnight Ink, a small Midwest imprint of a large and venerable house called Llewellyn Worldwide. We had modest domestic sales with TGC, earned back our advance and experienced an excellent sell-through percentage. Midnight Ink went on to publish our next 4 books including our newest, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. I don’t know the numbers on TPA yet, but the others (THE LAST SECRET, THE HADES PROJECT, and THE 731 LEGACY) also had modest sales, earned out their advances, and had high sell-through.

Lynn and I did many book signings through the course of the first 4 novels (the Cotten Stone series). Some signings drew impressive crowds while others drew a handful of friends and family. Sometimes we would sell 60-70 copies while other times we would sell just a few. Our number of signings fell off over the years in part because we are located at different ends of the state with over 400 miles in between. We still do a few signings a year, mostly at conferences.

Now, let’s shift gears. THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY was bought by a publisher in the Netherlands (same company that publishes Dennis Lehane, Clive Cussler, John Grisham, Stephen King, and others), dutchtranslated into Dutch and released. They bought it solely because they liked the story, not because it was a bestseller with high numbers in the U.S. In fact, TGC had no significant domestic track record. The only factor that affected the sale of the Dutch version was the efforts of the publisher to market it. Lynn and I never held a book signing in the Netherlands. We never did a book tour. In fact, to this day we have never communicated with our Dutch publisher. THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY (Het Graal Complot) spent 9 weeks on their national bestseller list and earned us more money than our domestic sales for the same book. And all we did was write the book.

sholes_moore_kyotovirus_08Our Dutch publisher went on to buy our next 4 thrillers. Our 4th book in the Cotten Stone series, THE 731 LEGACY (Het Kyoto Virus), also hit the bestseller list in the Netherlands and brought in more earnings than the domestic version.

The same thing happened in Poland. With no track record, our Polish publisher (Grisham, Cussler, Cabot, Tolkien) promoted THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY (Spisek Graala) right onto the bestseller list where polishit sat for weeks. No signings or book tour or any communications from us. Nothing.

Over the years, our books have been translated into 24 languages including Chinese, Russian, Greek and Thai, even Serbian. The majority of the foreign publishers have bought all our books. Almost half were hardcover deals. Many were later republished in paperback. Our foreign royalties have far exceeded all our domestic sales many times over. All done with no book signings. No tours. No communications with these publishers. How can you have a bestselling novel with no personal author involvement? I believe it’s starting with a good book combined with aggressive, savvy publishers who know how to market to their audience.

So, are signings useful? Should writers conduct book tours? Are the publisher’s marketing efforts important? I can only speak for myself, but my answers are, probably not much, no, and definitely yes.

What do you guys think. Do you tour? Do book signings work for you? Does your publisher do a decent job of promoting your books?


THE PHOENIX APOSTLES is “awesome.” – Library Journal. Visit the Sholes & Moore Amazon Bookstore.