Wednesday, April 26, 2023

More thoughts on marketing

 I'm always astonished when my day to post arrives and I'm delighted to read the posts by others. Charlotte's post on marketing was informative and alarming. If preorders and marketing strategies have already determined the future sales of a book, why am I going to book signings and readings, or reporting reviews on social media, or keeping my website up-to-date? Or even writing this blog.

Partly, I think it depends on what your goals are, both for writing and for promotion. I know I am really lucky, in that I am retired from a "regular" job and have a modest income from pensions that keeps food on the table before I even factor in my writing income. I am grateful that this gives me the freedom to tell the stories I want to tell, knowing they will never make me a bestseller. Yes, it would be nice to make more money because there are always things and experiences I'd like to have, like taking an African safari or going on a theatre tour to London or New York. But I would hate to be writing a book that didn't inspire me, just because it might sell more copies. 

Early in my career, I had an agent who told me to write a book set in the United States and make it more like the bestselling thrillers. I was told the "big" publishers don't want a book set in Canada because they don't sell. I understand that publishing is a business and that they buy products that they expect will make them money, but their money goals are loftier than mine. I want to tell stories that reflect my culture, my experience, and my land. Luckily I found a home with a Canadian publisher whose motto was just that. I love to write, but it's the passion of storytelling that drives me, and if I lost that, I doubt there would be much point in writing at all.

So what about marketing? Ultimately it's the challenge of making yourself known to the audience that might enjoy your kind of book. If they do, they also spread the word through their own social media and friendship circles. I have a pretty good idea who my target audience is. Louise Penny was apparently once asked who read her books and she replied "intelligent women with colds". The answer is brilliant, and I think it applies to many mystery writers. I know men read my books, and Millenials too, and maybe even busy people who can only sneak a few minutes of  reading into their day. But the bulk of my readers are educated women who enjoy the challenge and subtleties of a good mystery and who have the time to read. 

I leave the mega-marketing to my publisher (the targeted advertising and review copies, the bookstore and library sales reps, and so on). I focus on the one-to-one, by engaging on social media (mostly Facebook and Instagram), setting up bookstore signings and library readings, and attending book clubs. I actually love doing all those things, because they involve direct interaction with book lovers and readers. Nothing is more inspiring to a discouraged writer than meeting someone whose eyes light up as they describe reading your book.

Charlotte's post was comforting in a strange way. I know I'm probably missing swaths of potential readers by not using TikTok or BookBub or Goodreads, or sending out newsletters, etc. But maybe, at the macro level, it wouldn't make a whole lot of difference. What do others think?

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Start Soon

 A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a seminar sponsored by Sourcebooks, a powerhouse publisher whose sales are soaring. The house is frankly data driven and places a huge emphasis on marketing. 

When I began contacting vendors to schedule signings for my first book, my agent informed me that my sales had been determined long before my novel was published. 

How could that be? The truth is, it's the vast network of sales representatives, catalog copy, reviews, and word of mouth that determines preorders. By some fluke, that first novel was poised to take off and there weren't enough books available. That was years ago when it wasn't as easy to schedule another print run as it is today. My publisher gave me four printings--a thousand books at a time. But by the time the extra printing made it to the market, the bird had flown. 

Preorders can be critical. The problem is figuring out how to lure buyers when prices are soaring. It's more important than ever to spend time figuring out a strategy.

Who are the people the most likely to buy your particular book? Do they fall into a particular category of interests? If so, what kind of marketing campaign would most likely appeal to them? 

I'm working on a book now that has a strong contemporary/historical theme. That sounds like a funny way to put it, but it's set in the 1980s. Not old enough to belong in the truly historical category. Since it involves the banking and farm crisis that hit rural America my most likely readers will be those who experienced that devastating upheaval. 

I'm relying on sites that provide marketing savvy about various age groups. 

Luckily, this book will appeal the most to age groups that use the platforms I understand the best. Gen X (41-55), Baby Boomers (56-77), and the Silent Generation (76-) read a lot of books. Although, the prize goes to Millennials (21-40). This group reads the largest number of books in a year and is the most likely to use a library. 

The book will have little appeal to Gen Z (5-25). However, one never knows. If it's suggested as a gift book for grandparents, someone might buy it. 

Targeted marketing might work, and it might not. People are paid staggering sums of money to figure this out. But all the authors I know are concerned with beefing up their market share.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Slivers of History

Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts is the book that most recently advanced from my TBR pile and into my eager hands. Like many other writers, I've always been an armchair historian. Frankly, I'm jealous of Roberts' skill and academic labors. This is the kind of project many writers dream of--delving into original source material (in this case, journals handwritten centuries ago in French), having access to national archives and private collections, plus the time and resources to devote so much of your life to such a monumental effort. And this tome (926 pages) is but one of several works that Roberts has contributed to the historical and literary record. 

The book is as expected an illuminating account of the broad sweeps of events with enough supporting content to give both context and a flavor of the times. Besides helping me understand French history and its relevance to the world we live today, I am fascinated by the underlying details of Napoleon and his contemporary life. Despite relying on everything getting documented by ink and quill pen, we get a very thorough look at events as they unfolded. When things occurred is noted to the hour. From the movies, we expect to see armies lined up in neat rows before they massacre one another. Here, we are told of running battles that are surprisingly fluid and starting in the early hours of the morning and lasting well into night of the next day. There is no artificial light, no radio, no telegraph: the fastest means of communication overland is by horse; over the water, by sailing ship. Command and control must've been chaotic, yet they managed. Some better than others and this is where Napoleon prevailed.

We also get a sense of the casual attitude toward sex the French are known for. We read accounts of adultery and cuckolding (even to Napoleon), of men and their mistresses, of women and their companions. I'll home in on one anecdote as an example of how quirky and complicated people were then, just as we are today.

In 1798, Napoleon and his army marched into Egypt. It wasn't unusual for the wives, and especially the paramours, to follow the officers on campaign. On this occasion, Lieutenant Jean-Noel Foures of the 22nd Chasseurs brought along his wife, Pauline, who was an exceptionally striking woman. So much, that Napoleon became smitten with her and began an affair. Imagine today, a general having a dalliance with a subordinate's spouse! Jean-Noel discovered the infidelity and divorced Pauline, and she then became Napoleon's maitresse-en-titre in Cairo. When Napoleon left Egypt, he handed Pauline to one of his generals, and he passed her to yet another. Before you take pity on Pauline, she like other women of the period, knew how to game the system. She used the connections she had accumulated to make a fortune in the Brazilian timber business, then returned to Paris wearing men's clothing and smoking a pipe, accompanied by a menagerie of pet monkeys and parrots. That sliver of history would be a book in itself.

Friday, April 21, 2023

I'm Back

Frankie here.  It's the end of the day and I'm finally getting a chance to post. I didn't want to miss another Friday, I want to add my thanks to Johnny for his time with us. I'm going back to catch up on what I've missed.

It was one of those situations that became another and another.  You know that supersition about things happening in threes?  I hope I'm done with my three for the rest of the year.  

First, I thought I might possibly have gotten Covid somewhere along the way when I realized that I couldn't smell anything. I ordered all the essential oills that are recommended for the sniff test. I was relieved when it turned out not to be a prelude to "long Covid". I got back to work on my two classes and the gangster movies book..

That was when the second thing happeneed.  I found out that I had a bottles of eyedrops fron a brand that had been recalled because they might be contaminated. When I had gotten through that major scare, I had my third -- and hopefully final -- d thing. I saw my GP for my annual physical and told her about an issue with my hnad. She referred me to a specialist, who sent me for an ultrasound. It turns out I have carpal tunnel syndrome.

But I don't have most of the symptoms, so I'm hoping when I see the specialist again he will prescribe exercise and a glove and tell me to adjust my computer. And that I'll be able to carry on as usual. 

Anyway, here I am. I'm looking forward to the end of spring semester because it's been a rocky semester after my return from my fall sabbatical. But the good news is that I'm getting back on track and looking forward to Malice Domestic, one of my favorite conferences. This year I'm going to be moderating a panel on Saturday -- "The Best Advice I Ever Got".

Actually, come to think of it, among the best advice I ever got was the warning to remember to book your hotel room. I just found out today that I thought about it but didn't remember to do it. But that's sort of okay because I'll have my car. I usually fly with the one that has been having the meltdowns. That's an easy hour from Albany to Baltimore and then a shuttle. But I'm thinking twice this year. I''m also considering taking the train, but that's as expensive as flying and takes longer. So I'm considering a leisurely drive down and that means I'll have my car if I want to drive back and forth to the sessions. And, as much as I love seeing everyone, I'll be able to retreat and get some rest.

I've enjoyed reading the blogs this week. It's always reassuring to read posts from my blog mates in which they describe similar experiences. Right now, I am anticpating the good, bad, and the ugly of a new book when I'm done with the gangster movies book. I'm -- believe it or not -- working out and eating right and taking a vacation in May to get ready for that. 

Meanwhile,  I'm delighted to be back. If you see me at Malice, be sure to say "Hello!"

Thursday, April 20, 2023

When the End is Not Near

 I (Donis) have been fascinated by my blog mates' thoughts on ending a novel. (Sybil's fabulous information on the saggy middle is great, too) I agree that the end of a novel is easily as important as the beginning, and boy, it isn't easy to pull off a great one, at least in my experience. Every time I approach what I think is the end of a new novel, I end up having an existential crisis. I'm coming down to the end of a novel. I can see the finish line. Every day I come closer to the day that I write "The End". It's been a slog, but that doesn't surprise me. It's usually a slog for me. Sometimes it almost takes more sheer will to sit down and write than I can muster. Almost. I do it anyway. Norman Mailer says, "there is always fear in trying to write a good book ... I’m always a little uneasy when my work comes to me without much effort. It seems better to have to forge the will to write on a given day. I find that on such occasions, if I do succeed in making progress against resistance in myself, the result is often good. As I only discover days or weeks later."

So I keep writing and try not to think about it too much. Trust my muses. I observe that sometimes too much thinking gets in the way. If I try too hard to figure it out, I become Hamlet in drag, unable to take action. When I do enjoy myself, when I read what I’ve written and find it good, I have a strange feeling of dislocation, as though the words came from someone else. 

So the new book is going right along as expected and I see that the end is near. Until suddenly for some reason known only to the gods, it comes to me like a lightning flash in the dark--I should go about it in a totally different way.

Something like: "If I had a particular major event happen much earlier in the book, the whole story would be much better. The ending would hang together, create a more satisfying experience for the reader. It would make better sense, it would move much faster, it create more suspense. All in all an absolutely brilliant and instantaneous insight. I have to do it."

The only problem is that this brilliant alteration calls for a major rewrite. Suddenly the finish line is no longer in sight. Yes, I am excited to pursue the interesting twist that came to me out of the blue, I am also in a Dostoyevskian mood, all dark and Russian. The end is not near.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Do You Have a Sagging Middle?


by Sybil Johnson

We’ve talked about endings of stories on this blog. How about those sagging middles? Even if a writer has a clear picture of the beginning and the end of a story, we sometimes get lost in the middle. How do we get to the end in a way that makes sense and keeps a reader’s interest?

When I first started writing, I read a lot of how-to books on writing in general and mysteries in particular. Most, if not all, of them talk about how hard it is to write the middle of a story. It’s the point where a lot of writers run out of gas and have a hard time figuring out where the story goes next. Or a writer has a middle, but it’s a bit slow, bringing up the possibility that a reader will give up and move onto something else. Not something you want to have happen. 

Before we can talk about writing the middle, we should define just what the middle is. Is it the exact middle of the story? Or something else?

Nancy Kress, in her book “Beginnings, Middles, and Ends”, defines the middle as “everything after the introduction of the main characters/conflict and before the climax."

For my cozies, I define it as the point after the body is found and the investigation begins to where a major revelation occurs that sets the sleuth on the right path. Or, at least, she thinks it’s the right path. That encompasses almost half of my story. Maybe that’s a bit too broad, but it works for me.

No matter how you define it, middles can be hard. So what do we do about them? Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years.

My books have 3 plot lines, one that focuses on the main story (usually the murder or other crime), one subplot that focuses on something that’s going on around the fictional town of Vista Beach where the story takes place and one subplot that focuses on something personal that’s going on in a recurring character’s life (doesn’t have to be the main character). They generally all revolve around what I call a theme. For my first book, it was all about responsibility and who does and doesn’t take responsibility for their actions. In another book, it was about betrayal. You get the drift. I have no idea if other people do something similar, but it works for me.

Anytime, I’m not sure where to go I: 

  • think about the theme of the story and see if there’s something I can figure out from that
  • look at the different plot lines and ask myself which one I haven’t focused on recently. The majority of the scenes deal with the crime, but I do try to weave in the other subplots throughout the book and have them all come together at the end. I hope that by doing it this way, the book will keep a reader’s interest. 

A tip I found in one book I read on writing, don’t know which one, said if you get stuck, ask yourself what the bad guys are doing behind the scenes. They’re probably trying to make the sleuth’s life difficult in some way so she stops investigating. I have found that useful on a number of occasions.

I also do sort of a mini-outline. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a plantser. I know who did it and why, have the characters and have major points in my story figured out before I start writing. Somewhere in the middle, there’s something that happens that either raises the stakes or sheds a whole different light on the situation. When I’m writing, I figure out how to get from each of the points in the story in the most interesting way possible. If I don’t know where to go, I’ll review these points and think about them in more detail. I think having some sort of outline helps me to not get bogged down as often as I would if I were a pantser.

That’s all I have to say. Here are a couple interesting blog posts I came across that you might find interesting:

I’m not an expert on writing. I came to the game later in life. I don’t teach writing classes. But I’ve learned a few things over the course of writing books and short stories. I hope this post has been useful to some of you and sparks some ideas on how to deal with your own sagging middles.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Carteret Writers' Conference Was a Huge Success!!


This past Saturday, I was the master of ceremony for the first ever Quadrennial Carteret Writers Conference.  It was informational, friendly, and most of all…fun!

Our keynote speaker was Sara E. Johnson who writes the wonderful Alexa Glock mystery series that is set in New Zealand.  In addition to her lunch time talk, she gave a wonderful workshop on the importance of setting.

John Dedakis—mystery novelist, writing coach, and manuscript editor—did an incredibly educational workshop on Buffing, Polishing, and Editing. 

Additionally, there were workshops on poetry and creative non-fiction.  And, a good friend of mine, Sheri Hollister offered her views on independent publishing and Rose Cushing actually did a live podcast from our stage.

The last event of the day was a panel discussion
about publishing and writing that I moderated.  The panel consisted of John Dedakis, L. Diane Wolfe of Dancing Lemur Press, Robin Miura of Blair Publishing, and Ed Southern, of the North Carolina Writers Network.

What’s special about all of this was that the Carteret Writers Group had essentially become moribund during and directly after the pandemic, as so many organizations had suffered from the same fate.  I’m extremely proud that many of my former creative writing students jumped in, joined the board, and have taken the writers group to a whole new level.  It was their group that made the very first writers’ conference here on our part of the coast a reality.

The evening prior to the event, there was a lovely cocktail/pizza dinner at a local restaurant for faculty and organizers.  It’s always wonderful to get together with like-minded individuals who enjoy talking about writing and publishing.

And, of course, there was one unexpected guest.  Isn’t there always?  I included a photo of both him and me.  I mean, how often do you get to meet Spiderman at a writer’s event? 

If you have the opportunity to attend workshops or conferences geared around writing, I hope you’ll consider attending or joining your local writers’ groups. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

More thoughts on endings

 First of all, a note to Johnny, who recently posted his final blog. Thanks for the great job, you will be missed, and you are welcome back any time!

I too like to read the other posts on the blog. They often make me think or consolidate what I am already thinking. Recent posts have been about how to end a book, and the various discussions are fascinating. I'm with Thomas on this one. If you finish a mystery by letting the "bad guy" win or without even revealing who they are, that's your prerogative, but I am going to be annoyed and it's my prerogative to never read another book of yours.

But the devil is in the details. When I give workshops or write articles on writing a good mystery, I start off by listing what I consider the four essential elements of a good story. This applies to almost any story but more especially to crime fiction. 

1. A character worth caring about.

2. A question worth asking.

3. Three hundred pages of complications.

4. An answer that satisfies.

These are not original ideas – most books on writing agree on the essentials – but I like the precision and economy of my list. The elements are connected to and flow from each other. At least one character has to be worth rooting for so that the reader (and the writer) cares what happens to them, and the core quest of the book should be in some way connected to that character. The question should not be shallow and trivial, but have a deeper universal resonance that the reader (and writer) can relate to and care about. 

Finally, the ending... Now matter what else happens at the resolution, the ending should answer that question. If your book is about trying to conquer Mount Everest and the reader has followed you through crisis after crisis – near deaths from avalanches, altitude sickness, and blizzards – you better not end the story a hundred feet from the summit. You can kill them during the trip, you can even kill them as they're touching the summit pyramid, but unless you answer the core question Will they conquer Mount Everest or not?, the story doesn't work. 

The second part of #4 is trickier. What does "satisfies" mean? I mean it satisfies both the question (in that it answers it) and the reader. Real life is messy, goodness and justice often do not triumph, and if you're writing a gritty, realistic story, it's realistic that the end would be messy and the justice would not be tied up with a pretty Hollywood bow. I believe readers don't want to see the "bad guy" caught as much as they want justice served. In  stories where moral issues and good/ evil demarcations are not clearcut, justice may involve the villain walking away with the blessing of the hero. As long as the story is well written so the reader can see the justice in it, it will be satisfying.

Less often, the ending does not even clearly answer whodunit it but leaves the answer ambiguous – the Lady or the Tiger ending. Some readers like these endings, and some hate them. It leaves room for debate and moral questioning, but to me, these endings only work if the author hints at the probable answer and gives the impression that the hero will figure it out, or if justice is served in one way or another, no matter who pays the official cost.

I have used both these less orthodox endings in different books, but always with the belief that they suited the story and made it richer. There are many ways to challenge moral certitude and reflect messy reality without resorting to pretentious or contrarian gimmicks. In the Everest story, if the reader knows the character has the skill to climb the final hundred feet, or if the reader knows the biggest challenge has already been met, ending before the top may actually avoid cliches and melodrama.

Wednesday, April 05, 2023

Those Pesky Endings


by Sybil Johnson

 Endings are hard. At least they are for me. It’s the part of writing a story that I fret about the most. Thomas’ post on Monday got me thinking more about endings.

Here are my thoughts on them:

  • There are some stories that can go either way, i.e. the bad guy(s) get discovered and get their comeuppance or the bad guy(s) win and stay free. Doesn’t mean I have to like the ending as a reader, it just has to seem right. It depends on what the writer is trying to say. Are they trying to show that not everything turns out right?
  • The ending needs to be appropriate to the genre/subgenre. For mystery fiction, if you’re writing a cozy, you’d better have the bad guy caught or at least get some kind of comeuppance at the end or you’ll have lots and lots of readers annoyed with you. I know I like cozies because the bad guys are always caught, something that doesn’t happen in real life. I think there’s more leeway with some other crime stories. Generally, though I think most people want the bad guys to be caught. I’m not sure what the rules are for romances, but I suspect the couple needs to get together in the end. I’m not sure about children’s and YA books, but I suspect there are rules there as well.
  •  The ending should feel satisfying, or at least appropriate. I’ve written a number of short stories that the ending doesn’t feel right. For those, I read and analyzed a lot of similar short stories to get a feel for the typical kinds of endings. Usually, I find one for my story that feels more satisfying.
  •  There’s a Writer’s Digest book on “Beginnings, Middles and Ends” that I found worthwhile to read.
  •  This is an interesting blog post on endings that I think some people might find useful:
  •  On cliffhanger endings. In general, I don’t like these. I tolerate them if the cliffhanger has to do with a personal relationship and not the resolution of the main conflict in the story. i.e. you’d better say whodunit for a mystery at the end of a book. I won’t read the next one if you leave it unresolved. I've also read some ghost stories that were split into several books. Even though I found them very well written and interesting, I wouldn't recommend them because of the way the story was split between books. So, when you're splitting a story into a trilogy or something like that, watch how you do it!
  • On twist endings. I like these. They’re fun. They’re hard to do.
 Those are my thoughts on endings. What are yours?

Tuesday, April 04, 2023

Swearing Well

 I'm super busy right now. Overwhelmed with work. I'm an obsessive reader and when I get in this state I turn to fast-paced mysteries and thrillers. Stopping reading is not an option. I would probably have a nervous breakdown. 

For the past three weeks I have been reading David Baldacci's books. He is amazingly productive and has quite an amazing personal story. His first published novel received a record two million dollars advance and another million for foreign rights. Now he write two books a year and keeps several excellent series going. 

There is little profanity in his books. I am aware of this because people cuss too much in the historical novel I'm writing now. A reader who vetted the manuscript told me so. 

According to the folks who instigated the Will Rogers Medallion Awards, men didn't cuss around women before 1962 and ladies never swore at all. 

Times change. And change back. We've gone through a period when a surprising number of persons swear all of the time. 

However, Gary Goldstein, the editor in charge of the western genre at Kensington, informed the audience at the Western Writers convention in Montana last year that Wal-Mart did a search of his books and if they contained the f word or the s word, they would not stock that book. Seriously! He has a three-page single spaced printout of suggestions for replacements. 

I don't know if Wal-Mart's scrutiny applies to other genres. I'm going to play like it does. In my current work in progress only one person cusses all of the time and another only occasionally. What can it hurt?

It's certainly made me more creative.

Monday, April 03, 2023

When the Bad Guys Win

  My wife and I have been binging on the Neflix series, Peaky Blinders and tonight we will be watching the last two episodes of the final season.  If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s a story of a gangster family, taking place right after WWI in 1919 and through tumultuous years into the 1930’s.  The name Peaky Blinders is from the gang sewing razor blades into the peaks of their hats so that they can be used as a cruel weapons. 

Much like the series the Sopranos and Breaking Bad, we’ve watched episode after episode quietly rooting for the bad guys…the antiheroes. Rooting for them, more or less. 

We’ve seen this particular family overcome incredible obstacles while using absolutely detestable methods.  But still, they hold on to a modicum of morality, at least when it comes to their own family. 

After watching the end of the last season, my wife asked, “How do you think this all will end?”

Good question.  Do we want the bad guys to win?  

Spoiler alert…if you haven’t seen Breaking Bad or the Sopranos, you may want to stop reading. 

At the end of Breaking Bad, the main protagonist, Walter White is gunned down.  True, he did so while heroically fighting a gang who had enslaved his protégé and was forcing him to manufacture methamphetamines.  He’s been doing that anyway before being captured, but he hadn’t been chained up in the lab.

So, Walter wins but he’s riddled with bullets.

Tony Soprano doesn’t go down in a blaze of glory like Walter White.  As a matter of fact, we don’t know what exactly happened to him because while Journey is playing “Don’t Stop Believin’” on the jukebox, he’s sitting in a diner with his family, and the scene goes black.

When I saw that, I thought at first my television had glitched out.

Best guess as to that ending, Tony never saw or heard his bullet.  

But when we read mysteries, I’m a firm believer we want a satisfying ending.  We want the good guys to win and justice to prevail.  Most of the mysteries, indeed, most of the books I’ve read have that kind of ending.  Not always an ending that screams, “Happily ever after”.  But enough where you can close the book and say, “They had it coming.”

Once in a while, I read a book where that’s not the case.  Two in the last year.  I won’t name them because I don’t want to spoil the ending if you haven’t read them.

One of these was a New York Times bestseller.  It got wonderful reviews and when I read it, it really was a page turner.  And then I got to the end.  The villain kills the good guy…and not only gets away with it, but is successful at stealing his work, becoming wildly rich and famous. 

Will I ever recommend the book?  I don't think so. 

In a second book, not a best seller but written by a highly respected author, the good guy is really relatable.  You love the guy.  He overcomes incredible odds. I loved the book until, once again, I got to the end.  The villain not only kills the good guy, but nobody ever knows what happens to him.  He vanishes, his body never found.  His loved will never know what happened to him. It was awful. 

I was left with a feeling of anger and annoyance. 

When asked about his ending, this particular author said, “There aren’t always happy endings.”  No worries.  I'm angry enough, I probably won't read another one of his books. 

If I want unhappy endings, I’ll read the newspaper or watch a cable news station.  That’s real life.

In the meantime, don’t tell me how Peaky Blinders ends, okay?