Monday, January 28, 2008

Changing tides

Blechta at the controls.

I had the chance to spend time recently with two young computer hotshots. Now I should state off the top that I'm a bit of a techno-weenie myself and when a new advance in computer technology comes out, I am generally all ears, and sometimes even shell out my hard-earned money. (I bought Apple's Leopard operating system just before Christmas.)

What we got talking about is publishing -- in all its facets. Naturally, I'm a traditional book guy. I like to read something made with paper and ink that you can hold in your hands, carry around, and if it falls in the water or gets lost, you're not going to have a hairy fit (unless it's one of Charles's books).

One of them was having none of that. "It's all going to be electronic books in 10 years, maybe even 5. You watch."

Having the perspective of more accumulated years than him, I could say with the full weight of history behind me that I'd heard all that before -- certainly more than 10 years ago when it was said that electronic books were going to be the next wave of digital innovation. "So what happened?" I asked, after pointing this out.

"The technology sucked. They've got that fixed now," he assured me.

"Oh really?"

The other person (a female and the guy's significant other) added, "Show him your reader. This is the future of books, and it is so cool."

He handed me that new electronic reader that Amazon rolled out with such fanfare a few months ago. They call it the Kindle.

"It reads like real paper!" the advertising trumpets.

Oh really?

Those of us who work over computer screens with our writing for far too many hours every day, know how difficult staring at a computer screen gets after awhile. I played with the Kindle for nearly an hour and at the end of that time, I decided that while it's a step forward, I'll stick with paper for a few more months. Sure I can download a book in just a few minutes, but do I really need that? It shows you where you stopped reading, but can't I take out that postcard Vicki gave me for her new book and mark a page with that?

I could go into a whole raft of other shortcomings and very few improvements that it has over "real paper", but the long and short of it is, a book is still better. When I want to hold a book reader more than I want to hold a book, then I'll be convinced. The Amazon Kindle didn't give me that experience.

And I'm not being a Luddite here, either. I swear!

I gave these nice youngsters a signed copy of one of my books. I'm not really sure if they felt appreciative or insulted.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Apparently Things Will Not Turn Out As Well As I Hoped

Donis yet again.

Well, this is annoying. Nothing of my previous brilliantly written entry posted except for the title. I probably should just leave things alone, let people read Charles' comment, and hope everyone thinks I'm a master of Zen. Why did the post disappear into the ether? I have no idea. I hit "publish" and it seems to have shot directly into another dimension, and I can't find it to save my life. I told you that I am not computer-adept, Dear Reader, and here you see the sad result.

After spending a long frustrating time trying to find my entry, I decided to take a rest and went to eat supper and watch Black Hawk Down. The movie was incredibly tense, and since I won't be able to blink for another hour I figure I might as well go ahead and re-post.

Though I'll never be able to reproduce the stunning quality of the first post, here is an approximation of what I wrote earlier:

In Shakespeare in Love, whenever things look absolutely hopeless, the theater owner, played by Geoffrey Rush, tells the concerned that "everything will turn out all right."

"But how?", asks the worried person.

"I have no idea," replies the theater owner. "It just always does."

This is the way writing is for me, at least up to this point. I don't belong to a critique group. I think that one has to be incredibly careful to find a group of people to work with who are simpatico, and as Debby noted, that's not easy. I function better on my own. I tend not to show my first draft to anyone. After writing four books in the same series, I feel like I know the direction I want to go, and I don't want to be influenced by someone else's ideas.

I don't outline the story before I begin, either. I usually start out with a juicy idea for a murder. For a couple of days thereafter, I ponder on what interesting and unlikely person may have committed this murder. Then I think about the setting and which characters will be involved. I do some research on what was happening in that place at that time, which always gives me some really interesting story elements.

Then I sit down at the computer and go, go, go, from the beginning to the end. I never end up where I thought I would. I never go in the direction I planned. The story goes where it will and the characters behave however they darn well please. I have been known to be reading on the screen the words that my flying fingers are typing and exclaim, "holy crap!", because I had no idea that was going to happen before it did. Sometimes I get lost and am unable to figure out where I'm going or how I got there. Often I get horribly stuck. But I keep typing, even if I'm spending days typing nothing but hogswollop, because suddenly I realize that the hogswollop has given way to deathless prose, and I pound my forehead on the desk, because I don't have a clue how I did it. And then one day I come to the end, and lo and behold, I have a book.

At this point, I usually show the book to my husband, Don, whose opinion I trust. He is very good to point out glaring errors. If he offers an opinion that I don't necessarily agree with, I feel comfortable blowing him off (though I admit I rarely do.) Then I go over the book about a dozen times and move this section from here to there, and change this word to that, and have this character do this instead of that and remove this guy altogether. Finally, I simply must send the MS to my editor, and besides, I can't stand to look at it any more. I make whatever changes she suggests, because she is very good and by this point I have completely lost any objectivity about the thing whatsoever.

Then, eight to ten months later, the book comes out. I look at it with fresh eyes and say, "damn, this isn't bad!" Once again, everything turned out all right. I have no idea how. It just always does.

Everything Will Turn Out All Right

Friday, January 25, 2008

Any group that would have me as a member...

If it’s Friday, it must be Charles

Interesting post on critique groups Debby, especially the mechanics of it all.

I belong to a critique group as well, one where I share the stuff I’ve been working on and listen to their feedback. Unfortunately, every one in my group is a hyper-critical, mean-spirited, know-it-all asshole who tears apart everything I write, blows holes in every plot I come up with, and rips every idea I suggest. I should also point out that my group lives exclusively in my head.

Everything I write – including that last paragraph – gets reviewed by those voices, and it’s a rare day indeed that I write something they all like.

“A rare day indeed” – what kind of shitty hack cliché writing is that?

See what I mean?

They’re not all like that, though. There’s the kindly ‘you can do it’ voice that’s more often a whisper, and the ‘weeeeee this is fun!’ lunatic that gets off on the whole process, and the voice that loves everything I write but that one only comes out after too many gin & tonics. The loudest voices are the most critical ones, and typing over their shouts is sometimes the hardest part of writing. They are legion. There’s the ‘you bore me’ voice, the ‘you’re so damn predictable’ voice, the ‘you are too far out there’ voice, the ‘that’s not funny’ voice, the ‘didn’t you just say that two pages ago?’ voice, and about a dozen others I have yet to categorize.

The loudest of late has been the ‘why do you bother?’ voice, and I gotta tell you, he makes a lot of sense. He brings up things like time spent writing compared to money earned from royalties, how great reviews haven’t made me a household name, and how fewer and fewer people read anything these days. He notes that my writing has kept me from really improving on the saxophone and how I will always pass up a chance to go to the gym – something that can truly improve my life and help me live longer – for the chance to tweak the same paragraph for the 43rd time. But his best argument is when he points out that while I’m up here writing, Rose is by herself, ignored. That one gets me because nothing I write – nothing I do – is as important to me as Rose, and I’ll tell you, when he goes down that road he really gets to me. He’s loud. In fact, he’s so damn loud that Rose hears him, too. But fortunately for me, she says all the things a writer needs a loved one to say, and I’m back up here typing away.

There is one voice in my critique group that I live to hear. He doesn’t speak up that often, but when he does, the other voices disappear. He was there the other day as I wrote a scene for the book I’m working on. “That,” he said as I typed the period and hit save, “is damn fine writing.”

I love that guy.

PS - check this out.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Critique groups--or not

Do you use a Crit group? Vicki and I were talking about this not long ago when we were discussing rewrites and getting outside opinions. She doesn’t have a crit group, and I do. We’re both happy with our situations, too. One of the listserves (MWA? SinC? I forget which one) recently had a discussion about crit groups and how individual ones work. There was a lot of variation, and I came to the conclusion that I’m lucky I’ve got one that works.

I have a hunch whether a crit group works or not depends on a handful of factors. Time and peoples’ availability would be big issues. But the biggest thing would be the chemistry of the group. Right now, my group consists of four people. For the past few years, the group has been all women, but it hasn’t always been that way. I think it’s best to have a variety. We’ve also tried five people, but we’ve returned to four (someone moved) because we found reviewing four pieces of writing fits in a two-hour time frame, and that’s handy for our group. If someone new begged to join us, we’d probably relent.

Here are our “rules:”
•We send our material out to group members several days before the meeting. (Email, snail mail, whatever)
•We all read what we’ve received and bring the pages, on which we’ve written comments before we come to the meeting. We assume everyone has done their homework unless someone says something. Every now & then, real life does intervene...
•We do not read aloud—we figure our readers won’t, so we don’t.
•We eat at our meetings, but we work at the same time. No one serves—it just happens that people pick up fruit or muffins on the drive over. Writing is the focus of the meeting, so we munch and critique simultaneously. Makes for some laughs and grease spots, but we don’t care.
•We are always kind. We don’t discuss a person’s education, experience, or ability—and fortunately, everyone we’ve had in the group has had decent writing skills.
•We don’t allow prima donnas. One person’s work is as important as the next. If one person goes first one meeting, another goes first at the next.
•When your work is being discussed, you don’t defend it. You listen. You can ask opinions on what would work, though.
•We talk about what is working AND what isn’t working: we try to balance positive with negative comments.
•We agree that if three people have the same criticism, the author needs to pay attention. If it’s a mixed bag, it’s up to the author whether to make changes.
•We focus on the writing, not on the genre. Our projects vary: fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, mystery, chick-lit, etc. Some of it may not be what certain members would choose to pick up and read, but we look to help each other with continuity, plot structure, character development, big-picture stuff.
•Grammar and syntax isn’t the main focus of the group. We’ll correct something if we see it, and we treat it like a typo—which happens in all of our work.
•Condescension isn’t tolerated. New people are accepted on probation.

People have come and gone, but we’ve never seen anyone leave in a fit of temper or with hurt feelings. The ones that left the group usually moved, got another job, or temporarily (we hope) gave up on what they were working on. Some may have felt that they weren’t getting enough out of the group, but were too polite to say. I’ll never know for sure, but they’re still saying hello when I run into them elsewhere. And we still ask how the writing is going and wish each other the best.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Don't worry. The title for this will come to me in time...

Blechta at the keyboard.

Welcome to the Flying Wallenda School of Writing, Vicki!

I've always written the way Vicki describes in her blog entry below. I sorta know where the book starts, where it should probably be at the top of its arc, and roughly where it will land -- maybe bouncing around a whole bunch before it stops moving. I often have to chase it down, throwing myself on top to smother its movement.

When I describe my approach to writing like this to readers and the general public, they say, "That's so neat!" Writers roll their eyes knowingly: "Why do you persist in torturing yourself?"

There are many facets to probable answers. (Describing it this way is most accurate since where ideas and characters come from is very much still a mystery to me.) First off, I've always detested doing outlines. For any reason. This goes all the way back to grade school. Next, as a musician, I've always felt more comfortable flying by the seat of my pants. After all, improvising is a big part of playing music. Lastly, doing things in an organic way, sort of letting the concept grow on its own is something that really appeals to me. I feel like I'm sort of there to observe and make sure things don't get out of hand. They often do, but that's because I get so caught up in watching, I don't see the cliff coming.

At times, this approach does make the writing process too exciting by half, but it all works out in the end, although I will admit to doing an awful lot of refining after the first pass at the manuscript.

So the big question is: why do I write this way? I know this seems to be a very silly way to create something that needs to be done precisely and in a well-organized way. Crime novels demand this.

Well, to me, the characters are the thing that are front and centre. If I do a good job creating my imaginary friends and enemies and then let them be true to who they are, they will invariably do the things that make sense for them to do so, respond to things the way you would expect. The plot points will (usually) come together without too much trouble. When they don't, you just have to hop in your car or take a long walk and talk it over with them. Maybe they just don't like the way I'm trying to do things. Occasionally, they have a better way.

Another dodge that helps me understand who it is I'm writing about is to just write about them. What happened when they were 7 that shaped who they are at 37? When did they first fall in love and with whom? Did/do they get along with their family? Why or why not? I just write about those sorts of things. They're never meant to be in the finshed novel, but they help me to define a real person in my mind.

Then I just let them loose and watch what happens. Like I said earlier, sometimes I have to referee. Sometimes I have to sit them all down and yell at them because they're not doing what the story needs and how can we all make this work? I guess it's sort of what a director of a play would do when things fall off the rails.

So far it's worked out pretty well (according to reviewers and readers who've spoken to me). It can be a little frightening at times -- especially when a deadline is looming out on the horizon. I've sometimes wondered if we're ever going to get out alive.

But then, I've always gotten a rush from working without a net. Until I come crashing to earth and can't get up again, I'll continue working this way. So far, my novels have always worked out just the way they need to. All sorts of things happen that I never planned. Characters walk into the book when I least expect it, and go on to become the stars. Others I've invested a lot of time and energy in, just fade away. It's a heady experience.

I think it was Ray Bradbury who said something like, "Writing a novel is like walking through a very thick fog. You know roughly where you're going, but you can't see more than a few feet in front of you."

People have often accused me of being in a fog. Little do they know I'm quite happy to be there.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Flying Without A Net

Great discussion on promoting ourselves; I really enjoyed it.

But in order to have something to promote, you have to have something ready to be promoted. Charles mentions that the first thing audiences ask is what he’s working on next. I find that everyone wants to know how I write. “Where do you come up with your ideas?” I build a story this way: setting-characters-plot. That is, I decide where to set the book, who’s going to be the main character or characters and then come up with a plot. Now that I’m working on a series, steps one and two are pretty much defined before I even begin. But as for the plot – with book Number 3, I’m doing something very different than the way I’ve always worked before. We’ll have to see if it works for me, or drags me into the depths of literary despair.

For most of my adult life I was a computer programmer and then a systems analyst. I guess I write books like I designed computer systems. I start at the end – I know who did it and why – and then I go to the beginning and create an outline that will, hopefully, route a course to get me to that end. Like designing computer systems: you really should know what you want to achieve (i.e. is this programme going to credit the client’s account or debit it?) before you begin. Although I have met some computer programmes that I don’t think were ever intended to achieve anything, but that’s another matter.

But with book number 3, the opening scene popped into my head over Christmas. What a great idea, thinks I. So I started writing the opening scene and carried on typing frantically away from there. At this point I know who died, but I don’t know who killed him, or why. It’s kind of a funny feeling; I hope I have some inspiration down the line. I have a great (IMHO) group of characters, assembled in Trafalgar for their Christmas ski vacation, who have the potential to have done it. But who did? And why? As this is a police procedural, perhaps I’ll discover the guilty party in the same way the police do – following the trail, reading the clues. It might not work out at all – but I’m interested in trying. I’m writing without an outline – sort of like flying without a net.

To mark the death of George MacDonald Fraser, I’m reading Flashman and the Tiger, one of the later books. And yes, Molly Smith is now speaking somewhat like Brigadier-General Sir Harry Flashman. That, I will definitely have to get under control.

Whenever I speak to writers about writing, I usually ask them about how they approach the writing process. Because I’m really interested in how many different ways there are to achieving the same end product, a good book. Do you outline? What comes first, character, setting or plot? Inquiring minds want to know.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Writing Game

Man, how did I get so lucky as to always follow Charles? When I have to follow a particularly good post, I tend to think of that George Goble line about the world being a tuxedo and I'm a pair of brown shoes.

That's a joke. I actually think rather highly of myself. I'm not shy in front of a group, and I'm a good speaker. But I'm also slow to warm up in a social situation, at least until I feel I have a handle on whomever I'm talking to. I told a friend once that I think I was born to be an observer in this life. This is a great quality to have if you're a writer, but not so good if you need to work the room.

The point of all this self-revelation is that when it comes to promotion, what one writer is willing and able to do may be quite different from another. I actually do force myself to make the rounds at every conference I attend and talk to as many people as I can, but I'll never be as effective at it as someone as outgoing and naturally talented as Charles. However, I'm guessing I'm a much better schmoozer than J.D. Salinger, who could buy and sell me. So as effective as that technique is, it must not be the end-all and be-all.

I've been doing this for just three years, and I keep trying a little of this and a little of that, and attempting to judge what promotional activity works best for me. I think attending conferences is very useful. Other writers have been extraordinarily helpful to me. but I can't afford to go to as many conferences as I'd like. I'm much less promiscuous with bookstore signings than I was when I started out. After sitting in lonely solitude behind a table a few times, I now choose my bookstores and signing times with great care, and do everything I can to publicize the event beforehand. For every other bookstore I come across, like Charles noted, I find it much more effective to talk to the booksellers.

My strength seems to be public speaking, so I registered with the local speaker's bureau. I find that the more I speak, the more I'm asked to speak. I get a lot of library business. I was a librarian for 20 years, so I know a lot of library types all over the country. Book clubs are good. If you can find a non-book group to talk to that has some sort of connection to what you write about, that can be fabulous for your sales. History groups are good for me. I know another writer who sells her books at an annual zoo event and cleans up. (Makes money. Though I think she does actually volunteer to muck out cages.)

My husband, however, who is a poet, would rather stand on his head in a mud puddle while poking himself in the eye than speak in front of a group. I understand that most people are terrified of public speaking, so my publicity plan would be torture for them. There is a book that I discovered early on in my writing life entitled The Shy Writer, by C. Hope Clark, which enumerates many ways to promote yourself if the idea of standing up in front of a group makes you feel faint.

The internet is a godsend, if you know how to work it, though less so for us Luddites. It would be hard for me to host an internet radio program, like Vicki, because I simply don't have the technical skills. My webmaster, who is also my brother, told me that my website should be "all Donis, all the time", and not concentrate solely on my books. This gives you leeway to change your focus, if you decide to do something other than what you have been doing. Change genres, for instance, or become a playwright, or an actor. The blog tour is becoming popular - that is, writing a guest entry on someone else's blog, and then returning the favor. I'm doing that more and more. In fact, I just posted a guest entry on Betty Webb's blog (, which is pretty good, if I do say so, so have a look. I actually write on two blogs myself -this one and my own website, the first page of which is a blog. Do they increase my readership? I don't know, to tell the truth. But I'm a writer, damn it, and more writing is always better than less. On my own site, I've more or less kept a public diary of my experiences as a novelist, and whether it's instructive to others or not, I have enough material for a book.

This writing game is tough. And when it comes to publicity, you just have to put your head down and go. What works for one may not work for you, so you try everything you can manage and do the best you can. The really important thing, though, is to do the best you can without making yourself miserable. Life is too short.

Friday, January 18, 2008

5 Things I think I know about Self-Promotion

What, Charles again?

Let’s stick on this promotion topic a bit.

At one of the first mystery conventions I attended, an author warned me about promotions – “Careful,” she said, “they’ll suck up all the time you give them and you still won’t be doing enough.” It’s proved to be accurate. So, to save any just-published author years of repeating my mistakes, I present the following list:

The Top 5 Things I Have Learned About Self-Promotion.

  1. Know Your Target Market – When Relative Danger came out, I sold myself as a mystery author, lumping myself in with every other mystery author out there because that’s what I thought you did. When Out of Order was published, one reviewer called it “a good old-fashioned action-adventure novel with a touch of humor, romance and mystery.” Since then, I’ve used that line as an internal tagline to remind me to focus all my efforts on the kind of reader I actually write for instead of trying to get the attention of every reader. It’s easier to identify your target market if you write, say, cozies or serial killer books, a bit trickier when what you do isn’t so recognizable, but it can be – should be – done. Common sense? Yes. Often done? No.
  2. You Are A Writer – Be sure to see yourself/market yourself as a writer who has written a mystery and not as a mystery writer. Why? Someday you may want to write something else and if you are ‘just’ a mystery writer, you will have a harder time getting noticed. The best thing I ever wrote (so far) is a YA book that’s not a mystery and the book I’m working on now is best described as a historical thriller. Plus, I’ve got plans for a comedy set in an ad agency. I’m not saying that mystery writing isn’t an honorable calling, I’m just saying that folks should know that what makes you special is your writing, not your genre.
  3. You Are A Brand – When you’re writing, you are a writer. The moment your first book comes out, you are a brand. This does not mean you should only write one type of book, but it does mean that people should be able to pick up any of your books and see the same quality/style in all of them. For example, every single Elmore Leonard book is filled with amazing dialog. The man could write a shopping list and I bet the dialog would be great. Find what it is you do best and make sure that all of your books emanate that quality. For me, it’s my ability to describe exotic locations, spotting the mundane stuff that’s easily overlooked, and my ability to add humor to the mix. Read anything I’ve written and you’ll spot it. That’s me, that’s my brand. What’s yours?
  4. Connect With Connectors – I spent way too much time the first two years trying to connect with individual readers. It’s great fun, yes, and I still do it, but if you want to move product (i.e. sell books) you should put the majority of your time on meeting book store owners, book club organizers, writing workshop directors, talk show hosts and other folks who influence what other folks want and buy. And a postcard to a bookstore is not a connection, it’s junk mail. Master Self-promoter J.A. Konrath once traveled across the country specifically to meet bookstore owners. Did it result in sales? I don’t know, but I’d bet that at least several thousand times when people said, ‘gee, Miss Book Store Owner, what should I read next?’ Joe’s name was mentioned.
  5. Associate Yourself With Winners – Who would you rather drink with – a confident, upbeat, enthusiastic winner or a mopey, whiney, sad-sack also-ran? The same is true with readers – they want to know the folks they read are firmly in category A, even if the writer truly isn’t that way at all. When you get published, hang with the kind of writers you respect, not just for their writing but for their approach to life. The folks on this blog are a good example of what I mean. We may not be fabulously wealthy or household names, but each one of us knows we deserve to be. Not arrogance, confidence. And yet every one of us are as thrilled to sit and chat with readers, authors, waitstaff and strangers, and definitely not just about us. Go to a mystery convention and you’ll find us there, hanging out late, having a ball. Because that’s what winners do. And it’s not just us, you’ll find scores of similar writers at every convention, and there’s always a crowd around and someone is always being witty or charming or daring, and people remember it – and the people involved – for years to come. And at every convention, you’ll find scores of the other type of writer, too. Guess who has a better time?

So that’s it. I reserve the right to disavow everything I just wrote, changing my mind the second I hit “post”. So, fellow bloggers, honored readers and others who stumbled on the list, what say you?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Promotion--again, hardeehar

A couple of ideas crossed my mind this morning as I read over the ongoing comments and blogs. You guys are right--promotion is part of the business these days. But how to best do it in the time we've got? I’m like Vicki—I hate self promotion. My husband is better at it (on my behalf, bless his heart) than I am. He hands out my postcards and book marks at his own job, which has nothing to do with books or reading. Except from a self-educating, technical aspect, that is. He’s a hand surgeon, in case anyone is wondering at this point. When he’s on airplanes, he tells people he fixes fine machinery. I think that’s so he doesn’t have to listen his seat mate moan about back pain for five hours. But I digress.

The phone, I agree, is a great tool. But how do we get to the big audience that’s “out there?” Yesterday, my crit group met and one of the women, for whom I have a ton of respect and who has a background in marketing, is looking into viral marketing. She said one of the techniques was to email a hundred of your best friends about your latest book and asking them to email a hundred of their best friends. There must be more to it than this. Do any of you know? I already get too many emails about so-and-so’s latest book. People must get my name/email address from some writers’ groups or my website. But I couldn’t tell you the author’s name or title of the book if I were threatened with perpetual anonymity.

What do you think of the author co-op idea? One of the big drawbacks is that it would have to be fairly exclusive. It would be similar to putting together a critique group. If one (or more, God forbid) of the members turns out to be an opportunistic, condescending, mother-stabbing back grabber, the whole group falls apart. Angrily. There would need to be some solid ground rules, including a member limit and specific credentials in order to qualify. Exclusive. But maybe that's okay.

Another idea—and again I’m riffing off Vicki’s thoughts—we could start a contest. (Though we’d be right back to the issue of promotion) I’ve been an Edgar judge. Though the task of picking one best novel/short story/etc. out of five hundred or more is extremely subjective, the Edgar awards are probably the most impartial, fair-minded competitions I’ve seen.

One of our commenters, Zhadi, brought another new concept to our attention. This is the blog book tour concept. Thanks, Zhadi, for showing the link. I checked it out and noticed that Roberta Isleib is one of the tourers. Roberta is a very smart woman and an excellent writer. I’ll ask her how it’s going, as I’m curious. But overall, I don’t read many blogs. Except this one, of course. Do you?

Which brings me back to one of the biggest problems I see as a writer. How do we find the time to grow as writers, meet our publishers’ deadlines, AND promote ourselves? (And feed the kids, work the paying job, get the laundry done) And why the #%@!# isn’t there more support for the arts? Charles, are you serving those martinis yet?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Getting on with it.

Blechta here.

I guess we're in promotion mode at the moment, so I might as well go along with it since I have a new book coming out in (gulp!) less than two months.

First thing I have to say to my blogmates is, "Wah, wah, wah."

I say that with tongue mostly in cheek, but there's something behind it. Look, if you don't want to deal with promotion, don't get in this business. You are way more than likely not going to go anywhere. And there are no ways to avoid having to promote your writing. As Charles pointed out, it's inevitable.

That being said, there are different levels of promotion: the kind where most everything is laid out for you and you just have to follow directions (be at this airport, be ready at x:xx in the lobby of your hotel so we can drive you to the TV studio, etc), down to where most of us are (doing pretty well everything ourselves). Now the interesting thing is that every writer, regardless of where they are in the pecking order, complains about having to promote their books. I have heard just about every whine in the business at this point. "I hate having to do two interviews and a signing all on the same day. It's just too exhausting!" (This is my favorite, overheard in an elevator at a conference between two big name authors. I felt like smacking them upside their heads.)

I'd be the last one to say that I don't complain. (Vicki's heard me do it -- long and loud, too!) It's just that when all is said and done, the last of the whine savored and enjoyed, we're no farther ahead. Every job has parts that are no fun to do. In the authorial business, promotion (for most) falls in that category. Live with it -- or give up writing.

To those who say they're no good at it, I say, "You're smart. Ask questions. Learn how to do it. Fortunately, it's not something you have to be born with. If your personality is of the mousey type, then make up a character who is great at promotion and become that character. You're a writer, aren't you?

I'd say for 95% of writers, you have to be a good promoter to have real success. Vicki's blog from yesterday makes some very good points. It helps if you're good looking, have a great voice, know how to dress, have an outgoing personality, or you're already famous. I'm not in that lucky 5% and I'm not very well known -- even on my own street. If I'm going to get anywhere, not as a writer, but as a successful author, I'm going to have to overcome my shortcomings, physical and otherwise, and learn how to do what I need to do. When I decide I've had enough (or my publisher does that for me), then I'll have to re-examine my options, but I won't stay an author and say I'm not going to do anymore promotion.

This thread started off with Debby saying we should pool resources, and I think that's a very good idea. But I think that first we should all decide that promotion is the yucky side of this business but that it has to be done -- by us -- at least for now, and then get on with it.

Vicki and I had the privilege of watching Sci Fi author Rob Sawyer work a room at a small con in Sarnia, Ontario. It was quite evident why he's such a successful author and we both learned a lot that day. What he did had nothing to do with his writing. He wants to sell his books and has learned how to do it. So has Charles. I feel his pain. He must get awfully tired of the promotion treadmill and he's on it far more than most of us. I think he was just having a down day when he wrote his blog entry.

His blog was a wake up call, though. I'm about to step on that treadmill and it's not a comforting thought knowing how many hours I'm going to have to spend between now and June, getting all my things together; booking appearances; designing posters, newsletters, hand-outs; driving; talking to people I really don't want to talk to; smiling when what I really want to do is throttle someone. It's part of being an author. I don't have to like it, but I do it anyway. I want to sell books, and sadly, if no one knows who you are, you aren't going to sell many. The only thing I have control over is what I do to promote myself.

At least I have a book coming out. That's a lot better than sitting at home writing yet another novel that I won't be able to get any publishers or agents to read.

It's kind of nice, though, that the first publicity thing I'm doing for A Case of You is with Vicki Delany. If you have a chance Thursday evening, listen in!

The little cartoon at the beginning of this entry sort of sums up the whole thing, doesn't it?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Promotion and Self-Promotion

Nice discussion started by Debby about the value of hiring a publicist. I hired a publicist for my last book tour, because I hate organizing things. And because I hate it, therefore I'm not very good at it. Was it worthwhile? Yes and No. More No than Yes. Was it cost effective? No.

Will I ever hire a publicist again? In the right circumstances I might, but I’m not entirely sure what those circumstances are.

So what can I do? Here’s an idea (as Barbara Peters says) – pick up the phone. Charles mentioned in his last post that he is speaking at a library. In the Poisoned Pen authors discussion group several people have talked about their library visits. Why, sniff, sniff, I whimpered to my dog, am I never invited to libraries? Poor me. So I had a brilliant idea, and I e-mailed two libraries in towns close to where I’m spending the winter to ask if they’d like me to give a talk. They replied almost instantly, and very enthusiastically.

Who woulda thought.

Which brings me to self-promotion and something I truly hate. And that is popularity-contest type awards. These are the ones where people write in to suggest books for a certain award, and then a group of select people such as conference attendees, vote on their favourite of the nominated ones. I have a huge problem with these sorts of awards. The value of the book, as a book, isn’t the point. It's a matter of 1) how well-known the book is and 2) how popular the author is. Some of this might be sour grapes on my part, as I was hoping that In the Shadow of the Glacier would be nominated for an award at Left Coast Crime and it wasn't. But I think my point still stands. The big awards such as the Edgars and the Arthur Ellis rely on a panel of judges to create the shortlist and to pick the finalist. Each and every book submitted is read by more than one judge. If Mary Unknown writes the best book of the year, even better than John Bigshot, Mary will win the award. Because hers is the best book. It doesn’t matter if more people have read John because he has a big advertising budget and better distribution.

But with the popularity contest awards, you don’t have to have read the book to nominate it. In fact, I wonder how many people actually have read the books they nominate. And you certainly don’t have to have read the book to vote for it. Say two writers of equal publicity value are nominated for the Vicki Delany award for best book set in Nelson, B.C. in 2007. Teresa Timid goes to the conference at which the voting will take place. Teresa is very shy, unattractive, badly dressed, doesn’t mix, spends most of the conference in her hotel room or with her face buried in the contents of the conference book bag. Alice isn’t on a panel because she hates public speaking. Tom Terrific is good looking, charming, affable, loves to meet everyone, participates in a super panel, while being mildly and humoursly self-depreciating and allowing his fellow panellists to take centre stage. The voting takes place – remember that you don’t have to have read one of these books to be voting. I’d bet my bottom dollar that Tom wins.

Because in small group voting situations, even if most of the voters have read all the books, and are voting based on the quality of the work, all it takes is a few who are charmed by Tom himself more than by Teresa’s writing, to swing the award Tom’s way. Am I wrong? If you think so, please let me know.

This week I’m doing my bit towards helping writers promote themselves by interviewing my good friend and blogmate Rick Blechta on my radio show on Internet Voices Radio, Thursday at 8:30 PM, EST. Please tune in, if you can. Next week, I’m pleased to have Julia Pomeroy. If you miss the live broadcast, you can always find them in the archives at (click on Archives from the menu on the left, and then on Vicki Delany).

Saturday, January 12, 2008

God Save Us

...for if Charles is tired of promotion, then what hope do we advertising tyros have? Donis here, and truth be told, it's a relief to hear that even the most talented promoter gets tired of the relentless push to be noticed. In fact, not long ago a Very Famous Author told me that she gets tired of "the merry-go-round", and she's rich as Croesus and flies to her gigs in a private jet.

Just today I was complaining to a friend about my 2008 promotional dance-card. I, too, wonder how I'm going to not just afford all the travel, but endure it as well. And yet, who besides another author will sympathize with me? I am getting to write my novels, and they are being published, and people are actually reading them. I have three books in print, now, and one fundamental change has occurred between books 1 and 3. I am now being asked to do talks and signings, (and sometimes getting paid for them, to boot) rather than having to beat the bushes for every single one. So, like Sisyphus, a writer may have to keep rolling that self-promotion boulder up the hill, but it seems that one's efforts do bear fruit eventually, however slowly, if I may mix my metaphors.

I finished the manuscript for my fourth book, The Sky Took Him, last week. And speaking of boulders, I feel like one has been lifted off my shoulders. I'm testing the recipes to put in the back of the book now. I'll be glad when I have them all figured out. I don't need pies and cakes around the house, especially after the holidays. My editor is leaving shortly for several weeks in New Zeeland, so she asked that I send her the MS after she returns in February. I've been working on this book pretty much non-stop for an entire year, so I hope and pray that there is no major rewrite in store for me. I've been told that the book on the publishing schedule for January '09. My last book came out in September of '07, so that means that I won't actually be having a book come out in 2008. Since 2008 has been annointed One of the Happiest Years of My Life, I take that to mean something, and I choose to believe it's something good.

And last, in the spirit of relentless self-promotion, I'll mention that I wrote a guest article for on Sunday, Jan. 6, which I invite everyone to visit. Lesa is also holding a contest to give away copies of my two latest books to some, may I say, lucky reader.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Advertising Space

Charles pontificating here.

So the discussion comes back around to PR and advertising. It always does. Not just here in this blog but in so many things in life, from saving the wombat to finding a job to fighting a war to hooking up for a one-nighter. Homo advertiseus.

I spend my days writing ads and helping other folks get their messages out, and if there was a secret to making it work I would have done it for me four years ago when Relative Danger was published. There’s an expression in the ad world – if you think advertising doesn’t work, just stop doing it for a while. I have seen what happens when companies think they don’t need to stay in the public eye. There’s a short period when their sales stay the same, maybe even go up a notch, then they drop, leveling off just below the break-even point. There’s no way around it – you have to get yourself out there.

That said, I’m pretty tired of it. Oh not the job, I really enjoy what I’m doing and realistically couldn’t be happier. I mean I’m tired of advertising myself and my books. My publisher does more than most – they get my books reviewed by the best critics, they get my books in every major award competition (several of which led to nominations and fancy trophies) and they provide me with more postcards than I’ll ever mail out as well as posters and press kits. But even with all that, the reality is that if I want to get noticed in the vast sea that is the mystery genre, I have to work at it. And that’s what I’m tired of.

I’m tired of sending out brochures, updating websites, making cold calls and endless lists of ‘things to do’ and ‘people to contact’. And while I always have a good time, I’m tired of attending expensive conventions, using up all of my vacation time promoting the books, the next of which I don’t have time to write because I’m busy promoting the last one. I got my birthday off at the ad agency – it was the first non-weekend/non-holiday that I had off from work when I wasn’t at a signing, driving to a signing, at a convention, coming back from one, or on a trip specifically to do research for a book, in four years.

I’m tired of hours on the road to get to a library at which two people show, and only because they were lost. I’m tired of pushing bookmarks and handouts to people who not only don’t plan on buying my book, they don’t plan on buying any book, ever. And, most of all, I’m tired of begging people to read what I wrote. I spent years writing my books, and they represent the best work I am capable of creating at this point in my career. I shouldn’t have to beg people to read them, but I do. I’ve received killer reviews, been nominated for the highest awards in the field, won my share of accolades, but if I don’t keep my name out there, I disappear. It’s expensive, it’s exhausting and honestly, it’s a bit humiliating.


I love meeting people who love books – not just mine (although that’s always great),but any books. I love discussing my craft with fellow authors, both pre-published and NY Times Best Sellers. I love telling stories from my travels, the stuff that ends up in my books and the stuff too unbelievable to include. I love helping new authors get started, sharing what I’ve fought to learn, knowing that it will help them get to my level – and well past it – much sooner. And, I’ll admit it, I love being the center of attention at a book signing, on a convention panel, in a newspaper article or on a radio interview. So what’s a boy to do?

Endless advertising and costly marketing are part of the job. If you have fantasies about just writing a book and not worrying about all this marketing crap, you are in for a huge surprise. Advertising, PR and marketing aren’t little extras you may find yourself involved in – they are as critical as the editing process and if you don’t believe it, ask any author out there.

So I’m tired of all. And tomorrow morning I’ll get up and jump right back in. Because next Saturday I’m appearing at the Pottsville Free Library, teaching a writing class and doing a signing. Drop in. I’ll give you a postcard.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Some thoughts on publicists and publicity

Debby here, intrigued by Rick’s question about computer technology, and distracted by a thought that parallels Rick’s subject.

When I fired up my email this morning, I had a solicitation from a publicity firm that had apparently seen my latest book title somewhere. Who knows—Amazon? Barnes & Noble? A review? (I wish) Receiving this bit of spam reinforced Rick’s question, but I want to sidetrack to the whole question of author publicists. The publicity firm used a touch of fear to make me realize how woefully under exposed I probably am, and stressed their expertise in the burgeoning field of public relations.

There are authors who are excellent at PR—fellow blogger Charles Benoit is invariably creative and tasteful, and I love observing his latest train of thought. But if a writer doesn’t have experience in the PR field, the idea of getting publicity for one’s novels is daunting.

Writers spend a good deal of time alone just getting books written, and a whole author publicist industry has developed because: a) pressures to get publicity seem to be increasing, and b) many writers are unqualified by nature or experience, or don’t have the time to get the job done. For example, a recent Mystery Writers of America listserve has had long discussions on book trailers—how to do them, whether they work, to whom to gear them.

Meanwhile, I ponder how much good it all does. Part of me wants to believe the old expression about the cream rising. That if an author keeps trying to write a better book with each try, the books will eventually attract the attention they deserve. Perhaps this hope is blindly naïve. Word of mouth works, but to what degree? We all can name poorly executed bestsellers that far outsell excellent work by lesser known people.

The issue is complicated. Big publishing companies have huge publicity budgets. It appears that enormous publicity budgets follow staggering advances. But that’s not where most of us sit—we’re not Hillary Clinton or Patricia Cornwell. But we mid-list authors observe the phenomenon and surmise that a lot of sales are based on name recognition. And we figure we need to have a little of that, too.

So what’s the publicity worth? Does it help to hire publicists? Though I’ve now used a publicist on a limited basis for three books, I still can’t answer these questions. I pay this publicity firm per event, and most of them are for mainland radio interviews. The publicist charges me about $85 to set up a radio interview. This means that an interview would have to result in the sale of 34 books just to break even. I have no idea how many books I sell because of a radio interview. I don’t even know how to find out.

What does an author spend to get to the average book store signing? Even if you make great friends with the owner of a wonderful indie, will you generate enough sales in hard cash to make the visit worthwhile? I’ll answer this one—probably not, but the emotional satisfaction, camaraderie, and new friendships are probably worth it. But what if you paid a publicist to set up the signing? Was that worth it? And do these efforts translate into sales beyond that day in the store?

Let me know what you think. And I have the germ of an idea... Maybe we could share our best bookstore visits, the contact phone numbers for fun and interesting radio interviews, and favorite reviewers in an organized manner. Could we start our own publicist team?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Information of Freedom

Blechta at the keyboard, wearing dark glasses and typing in a darkened room somewhere in the bowels of an anonymous government building somewhere.

Donis wrote an interesting entry on December 22nd, and since I was incommunicado (being in a place with only dial-up and very cantankerous Windows computer), I couldn't really respond to it. In itself, it's an historical document. How times have changed indeed!

I'm certainly being overly obvious when I say that computers have changed everything. I think, in North America at least, it would be easier to count the number of homes that don't have a PC with an Internet connection. The thing happy computer users don't realize is how much their little machines hold about who they really are. Anytime we send emails or go to websites, we leave a trail. There are people out there who can (and sometimes do) find out anything you share or do.

Also, if your computer is online, it can be hacked into. Don't ever forget that one. I don't care what sort of firewall you have, if someone wants in, they'll get in. Your emails can (and might well be) read on their way through the Internet.

That's all pretty sobering, isn't it?

Here's something else I found out recently: your computer's hard drive can be read even after you've erased it. I'm not talking about chucking the directory, leaving all the information on the HD disconnected but still present. I'm talking about someone being able to go into an HD that's been completely erased and harvesting information as if nothing was ever done.

The reason I found out this little fact is that we're getting rid of some old computers at the graphic design studio where I work. We have a program that will write scrambled info to the entire disk not once, not twice but up to thirty-five times. (US government rules state that DOD computers must be "zeroed" at least 8 times) to be considered unreadable.)

For most of us, that's not a problem. We all probably have some things on our PCs we'd rather not have someone else see, but it wouldn't get our butts thrown in jail. But what if we did? How many people knew that a supposedly erased hard drive could easily be read by someone with the equipment and knowledge?

What about paper shredders to keep people from harvesting information about you from your trash? Do you have one of those shredders that does the long strips? Have you ever looked at the way they come out of the machine into the basket beneath? If someone wanted badly enough to harvest the information, it really wouldn't take much work. That's why governments use document shredders that turn pages into confetti.

Now here's the real mind-blower. The same governments also have the ability to assemble that confetti back into documents again -- if they want to take the considerable time and computing power to accomplish this seemingly impossible task. They have sophisticated capabilities to scan each tiny piece, then run all those scans through a program that can eventually assemble the scraps into "possible" documents. A friend of mine has seen it done.

In a very real sense, there isn't anything someone couldn't find out about you if they wanted to. You wouldn't even know they were doing it.

I think there might be a crime novel in here somewhere...

As a wind up to this, what do you readers have to say about computers? I want a very basic, gut reaction here: do you feel computers and the Internet have been a good thing for mankind or something more sinister? (As writers, they've made our job more easy and more difficult. It's easier to produce that novel, but it also allows more people to write that novel they've always talked about. Ask any publisher. They are now absolutely flooded with manuscripts or requests to read manuscripts and that's also due to computers.)

So what say you? Thumbs up? Or down?

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Coming Up for Air

Donis here, sending you greetings for 2008.

First, a disclaimer. It has been pointed out to me that in my last post I may have implied that I bear a resemblance to Broomhilda or perhaps Sasquatch. Let me assure everyone that I am actually quite presentable. I was simply employing hyperbole to express a certain regret that since I've grown older, I'm no longer the cutest person in any room.

And now to business. After an exhausing end of the year push, I've finally finished the manuscript of the fourth book in my series. Writing this book was quite a different experience for me than writing the previous three. In the first place, it took me a solid year to get to this point. I did quite a bit more traditional research on this book, as well. Since my series is historical, I always do a lot of research, but until now, it has mostly been of the "go there and do that or ask someone who has" variety rather than hours on Google or in the library. The difference is that Book 4 is set in a relatively large town in rather than out on the farm. In 1915, life in a large town was pretty modern. Your house probably had electricity, indoor plumbing, a telephone and an automobile in the garage, whereas life on the farm wasn't much changed from the 19th Century. Therefore, I had to find out exactly what the state of electricity, indoor plumbing, telephones, and automobiles was in 1915.

Not to mention the fact that I set some of the action on an oil field. The 1910s was the beginning of the Oklahoma oil boom, and learning enough about the early days of oil exploration and extraction to be convincing was surprisingly difficult. I could find lots of info about modern oil exploration, and a lot about the beginnings of the oil business in the 1860s, but information about the time period and place I was interested in turned out to be not so easy for me to find. Now, if I still lived in Oklahoma, I think it might have been a different story.

Part of the problem was that I wanted to discover exactly how oil field workers used nitroglycerin to clear obstructions from a well. I am writing a murder mystery, after all, and I think that blowing someone to hell with nitro seems like a colorful way to commit murder. Sadly, I have reached such a state of paranoia that I was a little bit afraid to do nitroglycerin research on my home computer, lest the NSA bust down my door in the middle of the night. So I spent many hours doing anonymous research on the library computers, and finding lots of interesting facts about nitro, about oil wells, and about the 1910s, but not all together.

Then, in a moment of blinding insight, it occurred to me that my brother, computer geek extraordinaire, who wouldn't know an oil well from his elbow, was in fact the web master for the Society of Petroleum Geologists in Tulsa, OK. I rang him up, and he said, "I don't hang out with the geologists, Sis, (aside: he calls me Sis. He's the only boy among a bunch of girls. He calls us all Sis. I expect it's less confusing for him.) but, I sometimes eat lunch with a nice old petroleum engineer who may have an idea."

Two or three days later, he calls me back and says, "Bill tells me you should get hold of a book called Is There Nitroglycerin In This?, which is all about the many spectacular nitro accidents that have occured on oil fields in the U.S. throughout history."

Bob's your uncle.

How I love writing!

Friday, January 04, 2008

Flash - This just in

Charles reporting in.

George MacDonald Fraser, the man behind the Flashman series, died the other day at the age of 82. MacDonald Fraser was a great writer and an amazing storyteller and the inspiration behind my latest writing project. (That’s all hush hush right now, but you’ll be the first to know.)

Brigadier-General Sir Harry Paget Flashman, VC, KCB, KCIE, (5th May 1822 - 1915) was a self-confessed (boastful?) coward, bully, poltroon, liar, cheat, whoremonger, racist, sexist, licentious bastard, and one of the most entertaining rouges in all of literature. If you read the books – and if you haven’t, you should – you know what I mean when I say that Flashy is definitely not everyone’s idea of the hero. Flashy lambastes everyone and everything, and just when you think he’s singled out one group – say English Lords or Zulu women – for special debasing, he hauls out six more groups and does them all worse. If you love the books, I don’t have to explain his appeal – if you hate them, well, no use trying to sway you now. But I think even the folks who love the books – count me and fellow blogger Vicki in that mix – are disgusted by Flashman and his antics. He’s the classic anti-hero without an honorable bone in his body, the kind of hero you’d think no one would want to cheer on, but there I am, cheering on his every sinful escapade, marveling at his lack of morals and voyeuristically enjoying his many and wild romps.

Flashy isn’t the kind of guy I secretly want to be – he’s the kind of guy I secretly dread I am.

By one of those coincidences I’d never put in one of my own books, I’m currently re-reading Flashman in the Great Game, the best of the dozen Flashman titles that we’ll get to savor. It takes place in India during the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny/ Indian Rebellion and, naturally, Flashy is a key player at every major event of that blistering summer and the story builds to a heart-stopping finale that’ll blow you away. It almost did for Flashman. Despite Flashman’s attitude and insult-laced diatribes, I found the book to be surprisingly sympathetic to the Indians’ cause. Well, as sympathetic as Flashman ever gets. It was this book that sparked my first interest in all things India, and it was the book that led me to select the Indian Rebellion as my thesis topic in my first Master’s level history class.

If you love well-researched historical fiction, you have to put the Flashman books on your Must-Read list, and far more of what I know about the 19th century than I should admit, I learned by following Flashy.

If you read the Flashman books, you know that MacDonald Fraser was merely the man responsible for seeing that the Flashman papers were published. Who knows, there may be more. You see they weren't “novels” or anything like that. The Flashman papers were the autobiographical exploits of Sir Harry himself. Really. They were discovered in a Leicestershire salesroom in 1965, and all MacDonald Fraser did was get them ready for publication, correcting the occasional spelling error and adding a few insightful footnotes.

So George MacDonald Fraser is dead. But Flashman? He’ll find a way to keep on going. He always did.