Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Seven Ways To Open Your Fiction

According to Stephen King, the very first sentence is the most important in the entire work. Evidence that he’s right can be found in all the online lists of “favorite” or “best” first lines. You could spend days just going through all the ideas of what the best first lines in fiction are. But as you sift through all those terrific first lines, you will begin to notice a pattern develop: the various quality first lines or openings can be gathered into categories or types.

But before we discuss some of these types, we need to look at why they are so important.

The purpose of writing fiction, whether it’s flash, a short story, novel, or multi-volume epic is to tell a story. But telling a story isn’t really enough, is it? Telling a story is meaningless if no one is willing to read it. This is where the opening of the tale assumes so much importance. The opening is the bait and hook the writer uses to draw in her reader. The opening sentence and the paragraphs that follow need to intrigue a potential reader and make them ask that most important of all questions: “What happens next?”

In the modern world, where we all are under constant bombardment by almost infinite media, work, and entertainment sources, writers for fiction need to find a way to snare a potential readers attention and draw it in as quickly as possible. If not, we risk losing them to television or Youtube videos. In a novel, the writer seldom is given more than four or five pages to secure the reader’s interest; in a short story, that may drop to two or three paragraphs.

So we need to generate strong, enticing fiction openings. That is established. How do we do it?

This post will examine seven different types of fiction openings. Each of the opening types is a technical answer to the question of how to draw your readers in, using different strategies. If done well, each type works perfectly well, though some are more difficult than others and more suited to a particular fiction form.

Without further ado.

An Action

For example:

“The stranger came early in February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow, the last snowfall of the year, over the down, walking as it seemed from Bramblehurst railway station, and carrying a little black portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand.”

The Invisible Man

H.G.Wells

Action, by our very nature, attracts our interest quicker than even the most transcendent description. It’s just part of being human. If the action depicted is dramatic or unusual, it is even more powerful because it piques the reader’s natural desire to find out what is happening and why. A mysterious, dramatic action is one of the better methods of hooking a reader’s attention.

Because of the power of a dramatic event, this strategy is particularly useful in shorter forms such as stories and “flash fiction.”

But even longer, more complex works which will allow and require more development than can be handled in a short story, the Action Opening can be used effectively to draw the reader in immediately. The backstory and buildup can then be dealt with in flashbacks later in the work.

A Character

For example:

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”

To Kill A Mockingbird

Harper Lee

Character can be nearly as compelling a hook for a prospective reader as action, since nearly all good fiction is populated by characters. The key to make this Character Opening work though is having a compelling main character that will intrigue a prospective reader and depicting that character as quickly as possible.

In shorter fiction, this can be difficult because we don’t have as much space to depict that character, probably only a couple of paragraphs. It can—and has—been done, but it is definitely a challenge.

Dialogue

Example:

‘“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.’

Charlotte’s Web

E.B. White

This type shares much of the same characteristics as the Action Opening. Like the Action Opening, Dialogue presents the reader with something already happening. Dialogue is also much more compelling than pure description because it is active and presents the reader a window into something already happening, something they have to figure out.

Also like the Action Opening, the Dialogue opening is particularly useful in the shorter forms like short stories and flash fiction. This is largely because dialogue—done well—can also depict characterization and conflict in a minimum number of words.

A Thought

Example:

“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.”

The Outsiders

S.E. Hinton

This opening is a combination of the Dialogue and Character Openings. The reader is brought into the interior monologue of the primary character and drawn in by the conflict depicted there. As in the example given, the conflict (finding a ride) is already apparent as well as the character (probably a young woman because of the infatuation with the actor Paul Newman).

This opening also lends itself to the shorter forms of fiction.

A Statement

Example:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen

Depending on the nature and complexity of the statement, this opening may be harder to pull off in the shorter forms. It can be done (see Kafka’s Metamorphosis) but it can be harder. It has the advantage of letting the reader know right up front what the work is going to be about, but it also delivers the unspoken promise that I, the writer, will give the topic due consideration.

Somewhat easier to do in longer forms.

A Setting

Example:

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of Western Spiral arm of the galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams

Setting is kind of a traditional way of starting a novel. Think of Dickens, or Henry James, or a half-dozen other novelists from the mid-1800’s to the 1920’s who seem to spend pages describing the landscape or the furnishings of a character’s house. Today’s readers, however, have less patience (or attention spans) and usually won’t bother plowing through that much description.

The trouble with description is that it’s static. The river, in dramatic terms, doesn’t do anything; it’s just present. Modern readers want something to happen. If they can’t find it in your work, they’ll find it in someone else’s.

That isn’t to say the Setting Opening should never be used. If the setting is basically a character in your story, it often helps to begin with acquainting the reader with the setting. Ken Kesey did it in Sometimes a Great Notion, beginning the novel with an italicized description of the river the Stamper family would spend generations battling. The example from Douglas Adams also works quite well because it both establishes the science fiction/fantasy aspect of his story and the fact that his tale was going to be less than serious, maybe even irreverent.

It is much easier to use the Setting Opening in a longer form such as a novel or novella, just because of the amount of time you can devote to the description. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be used in shorter fiction, just that it will be much more difficult.

World Building

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

The Hobbit

J.R.R. Tolkien

This opening is mostly used in science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction, where the world in which the story takes place is radically different from the world the reader is familiar with. As in Mr. Tolkien’s classic high fantasy, he needs to acquaint the reader with the new world they are entering and do it as quickly as possible. It is a heavy load to lift. A lot of information must be transmitted as quickly and with as little effort as possible. It isn’t easy, but can be done.

Because of the amount of information needing to be conveyed, this opening is easier to do in a larger work, but can be done in a shorter form. For instance, were you writing a short story about a hobbit that takes place entirely in the Shire, you would not need to mention the Misty Mountains or Mordor. Unless it directly affects the story, it should not appear at all.

Of course, these days you wouldn’t have to mention anything other than your character was a hobbit in the Shire and most people would have all the information they need. But you see the point I’m trying to make.

So which opening do you select for your new story? It depends. What are you trying to do? What are you most comfortable with? As the author, no one but you can truly make this decision. Others can make suggestions about what works well and what doesn’t, but the ultimate decision always resides with the author.

Use the opening you think works best for your story.

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writing, Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Eight Non-rules For Writing

Recently, I was browsing a website called Lithub (which I highly recommend to anyone fascinated by any and all things writing and literature related) and came across an article by Elizabeth Percer entitled “The First Rule of Novel Writing is Don’t Write a Novel.” I was intrigued. The gist of her article was that all these different lists of rules for writers miss one very important aspect of being a productive (and good) writer: that writing is an art form more than an industry. Writers are artists and need to work like artists, not accountants, or machinists.

In response to this realization, Ms. Percer came up with a list of nine non-rules for writing. I thought they were so refreshing and original, I decided I simply had to share the best of them with you (along with my own interpretation on occasion). I think you will find them as valuable as I have.

So, the seven non-rules of writing.

Don’t Write a Novel

Ms. Percer states that every time she sits down to write a novel, she gets next to nothing done. In fact, she feels she often loses some critical ground. Her point that often the pressure of trying to meet a preconceived goal can make it harder to create. Call it performance anxiety. Call it the contrariness of the subconscious mind.

For an example, the famed composer John Philip Sousa really, really, wanted to write lovesick ballads (which were kind of the pop music of his time) and he kept working at it. The thing was, the songs he produced weren’t very good ballads. But when his wife changed the time signature and tempo, they became very good marches. He was a talented composer of marches that kept trying to make them ballads.

In the same way, we writers shouldn’t sit down with a preconceived notion of writing a novel, a poem, or a multi-volume history of a fictional family. We should sit down with the idea of a particular story, or emotion, or even just a simple image and simple write the story. The story (or image, or emotion) will reveal which form it should take as it’s written.

Don’t worry about the form. Just write and the form will take care of itself.

Writing Doesn’t Always Look Like Writing

Ms. Percer states that about 80 percent of her writing looks nothing like writing. Personally, I’d put it closer to 90 percent. Writing looks like daydreaming, or reading, or gardening, or driving, or sitting in the back yard watching the birds at the bird feeder. It’s about trusting yourself and your creative spirit, not that nasty hyper-critical inner voice that tells you you aren’t working hard enough. It takes both the hard-driving professional, pounding out pages on the keyboard and the playful, curious child to make creativity work.

Books Do Not Respond to Timelines, Spreadsheets, or Graphs

Timelines, spreadsheets and graphs are very efficient tools the modern world has invented to help manage time and increase our efficiency. However, it is in the nature of art to become stubbornly distant when it is asked to punch a time clock. Sometimes, these time management tools can do more to get in the way than they help production.

Ms. Percer states that because she’d a writer and not a physicist, she doesn’t believe “writing always follows the laws of space and time.” Much more writing can be accomplished in short time periods enhanced by patience, thoughtfulness, and peace, than gets done in months of “writing time” defined by expectation, disappointment, self-loathing and a diet of coffee and Snickers bars.

Accept What Comes

This goes back to the first point. If you have your heart set on writing a bodice-ripper historical romance, but all you can really come up with is a brilliant haiku about garden peas, by all means relish writing the poem about garden peas. Maybe the world needs a book of haiku centered on garden vegetables. You may be just the perfect person to create that book.

Just like John Philip Sousa, don’t reject the very good work that occurs to you, just because you had other ideas. Sometimes the story needs to be told and doesn’t care what you want.

Procrastinate

Writers like us want to create brand new works and if we’re going to do that we need to accept that the way we work is not going to look a whole lot like the way your accountant cousin works. It’s a different kind of work. This makes a certain amount of logical sense. However, in practice this can be threatening because creativity thrives with the very behaviors that many others label as lazy, self-indulgent, or some other label that might be appropriate if we were cogs in the corporate machine like everyone else.

Creative work demands that occasionally we stop and allow the well to be refilled, the slate to be wiped clean. We need down time. The key is that only you, the artist, knows when and how much down time you might need. We all need to learn to trust ourselves and have confidence in our judgement and to know when we need down time and when we’re just avoiding the work. The ability to discern the difference involves trial and error, but will always come back to trusting our instincts.

Sometimes the best thing for our writing is binge-watching a couple of seasons of Game of Thrones. Sometimes, a little voice is telling you that the small town murder mystery you’ve been working on should concentrate a little less on the evidence of the crime and a lot more on the town’s internal politics and Game of Thrones is exactly the example you need. Sometimes, you just need to walk.

Get To Know the Demons on Your Block

Every writer’s block is different. However, most have a few things in common. Maybe you’re blocked because your standards are too high. Maybe your expectations are so extreme that your creative self doesn’t want to show up. Maybe we’re taking ourselves and our work too seriously. Maybe your creative self is fighting to get yourself to do something different. Maybe it’s telling us to forget about writing a best seller and just write the story we want to read.

Don’t Neglect The Rest of Your Life

At its core, great writing comes from an unrestrained approach to the things that make life worth living. If you are neglecting those things, guess what happens? You’ll have nothing to say. So you’ll eat too much Doritos, stay up too late watching reruns of ‘70’s sitcoms and wake up hating yourself in the morning.

In short, what Ms. Percer is saying is that we should stop working so much at writing and, instead, just write. It doesn’t have to be such a chore.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

8 Rules For Beginners (And We’re All Beginners)

Sir V.S. Naipaul is the Nobel Prize winning English author The Mystic Masseur and many other works of both fiction and nonfiction. As an aide to a younger writer (who was struggling to overcome the academic-style jargon of the University) Sir Naipaul wrote up seven rules for beginning writers. By following these rules studiously for six months, the young writer was able to reinvent her writing style and publish her first book.

The key here (in my mind) was that the struggling young writer was not truly a beginning writer. She already knew how to write, well enough to at least successfully complete a University education. She was not learning to write, so much as she was learning to write seriously.

I would posit that no one reading my little essay is truly a beginning writer (I doubt many seven or eight-year-olds are reading this.) However, many of us are just beginning to try our hand at serious writing. Writing stories and novels that captivate readers’ imaginations, poetry that describes the indescribable, or nonfiction that makes the universe of reality come alive on the page.

These are the beginners Sir Naipaul wrote his rules for: us.

  1. Do not write long sentences.

A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words. It’s hard for most readers to keep track of such a complicated string of ideas. It can often be hard for the writer to do that too and it shows in the writing. I call it making the sentence work too hard. Have pity on the poor things.

  1. Each sentence should make a clear statement.

This builds on the previous rule. A sentence has one job and that is to make a statement, state one truth. By creating complex, intricate, sentences, we are often asking them to do too much. We overtax them. And like anything, when we overtax it, the sentence gets less and less efficient at its job. Short statements have power. Short sentences have impact. They are also much easier to read. If your prose seems confusing or disorganized, one of the first things to check is your sentences. You’re probably asking them to do too much.

  1. Do not use big words.

If you go back and find your word processor says your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small, common, words forces us to give great thought to what we’re writing. Though it isn’t easy, even the most difficult concepts can be expressed with small words. But it takes more work, more creativity. Do that work. Be creative.

  1. Never use words whose meanings you are not sure of.

Nothing marks an amateur than misusing words. As the movie said: “I do not think that words means what you think it does.” The writer needs the reader to believe her authority enough to buy in to their story. Using the wrong word kills that authority quicker than anything. We are writers. If want to be respected, we need to be professional users of language.

  1. Avoid adjectives and adverbs as much as possible.

Most adjectives and adverbs do little for your writing but slow it down and soften its impact. You can’t always make your project work without any at all, but you should try. Your prose will be crisper if you do.

  1. Avoid the abstract.

The concrete is always more powerful than the abstract. It’s why the folklore of virtually every culture developed fables and folktales. It is a much more effective way of teaching an audience, than simple telling them to follow a rule. Think of the fable of the grasshopper and the ant. The grasshopper lounges away the summer days while the ant works hard gathering and storing food. When winter comes, the grasshopper is starving, but the ant has gathered plenty of food. The tale is much more effective than simply saying: “You need to save for the future.” Concrete is more effective than abstract.

  1. Every day, practice writing this way.

Small words; clear concrete sentences; one idea at a time. It is training you in the use of the language.

These rules are intended to help with those periods (which we all have, sooner or later) when we get bogged down in some writing project or other. Often it’s because we have lost focus. More often, it’s because we have overestimated our own writing abilities and have tried to do too much. Returning to these basic rules can often show us how to work through our problem. As with much in this life, simple is often better than complex and that’s the gist of these rules: try to simplify.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Tips on How to Be a Writer (from Rebecca Solnit)

  1. Write.

There is no substitute. Start small, write a good sentence, then a good paragraph, and don’t be dreaming of writing the great American novel. That’s not what writing’s all about and it’s not how you get there from here. The road to great writing is made of words and not all of them are great, well-arranged words.

  1. Writing is not typing.

Writing is thinking, researching, contemplating, outlining, maybe with some typing, then revisions, deletions, additions, and setting the project aside and returning afresh; typing is just a minor transaction in between two vast thought processes.

  1. Read. And Don’t Read.

Read good writing and don’t restrict yourself to the present. Literature is not high school and it isn’t necessary to know what everyone else around you is doing. Worse, being greatly influenced by people who are currently being published can make you look just like them, which isn’t often a good thing. Originality is your gold standard. Write from the universal human experience. Write a true human story and write it well; it won’t matter what genre it may take place it.

  1. Find a Vocation.

Talent is overrated and is often mistaken for style. Passion, vocation, vision, and dedication are much more rare, and they will smooth out the rough spots when your talent will not give you a reason to get out of bed and stare at that problem manuscript for the hundredth day in a row. If you aren’t passionate about writing and the world and the things you’re writing about, why bother? It begins with passion even before it begins with words.

  1. Time.

It takes time. This means you have to find the time in your life. Don’t be too social. Live below your means. You probably have to do something else for living, but don’t let your job (or your bills) grow so much that they squeeze out time for your writing.

  1. Facts.

Always get them right. No one will trust you if you get them wrong and any author is doomed if the reading public can trust him. No matter what you’re writing about, whether it’s nonfiction, fiction, or poetry, you have an obligation to get it right, for the characters you’re writing about, for the readers, and for the record.

  1. Joy.

Writing is facing your deepest fears and all your failures, including how hard it is to write a lot of the time and how much you detest what you’ve just written and that you’re the person who just created all those flawed sentences. When it totally sucks (and it will), pause, look out the window, and tell yourself you’re doing exactly what you want to be doing. You are hanging out with the language. I am following in the footsteps of Shakespeare and Flaubert. Find pleasure and joy. Find joy in the work, just as a master carpenter does theirs. Enjoy the process.

  1. Success is very nice and comes with lovely byproducts (like money), but success is not love.

At best, it is the love of the work, not love of you. The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency, with independent thought, a producer of meaning, rather than a consumer of meanings. And, if you are writing to gain the acclaim of a fickle public, you run the risk of pandering to what you think will be popular. That will often end up seeming shallow and artificial. Instead, write truth. As Ernest Hemingway said: “Write one true sentence. Then write another.” If you write the truth of the human condition, the rest will take care of itself.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Write Descriptions like Raymond Chandler

Lately I have been reading Raymond Chandler again, specifically Farewell, My Lovely. For those who are not familiar with Mr. Chandler and his work, he writes what is called the “hard-boiled” detective stories. In fact, Raymond Chandler and his colleague Dashiell Hammett, pretty much invented the genre. Hammett had Sam Spade, of The Maltese Falcon fame, and Chandler had Philip Marlowe. Both are cynical, world-weary detectives without a tract of romanticism between the two of them.

But even if you don’t particularly like the hard-boiled detective genre, Raymond Chandler is still worth reading, just because he is so good at what he does. He’s a very good writer who is often overlooked by those who don’t consider him a “serious” writer.

Why do I consider Chandler so good? Because of the prose he produced. Yes, it might have been pulp fiction and is still considered (by those who spend way too much time sorting novels into particular boxes) “genre” fiction. And yes it is genre fiction, but it is very good genre fiction. There are a couple of reasons for this.

His description is uniquely interesting.

Part of the tradition in hard-boiled detective fiction is that the narrative is told in the first person, ostensibly by the detective. In Raymond Chandler’s case, Philip Marlowe. Part of that narrative is to portray the detective as jaded, cynical, and world weary, reflecting the detective’s low expectations of the world around him. Chandler does this better than anyone else and does it with nearly every single word he puts on the page.

Consider his description of a showgirl:

From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away. (The High Window)

Or a building:

The Belfont Building was eight stories of nothing in particular… (The High Window)

The very descriptions give the impression of a narrator who is more than a bit of a smart ass and not impressed by much anymore.

Another building, this time a mansion:

The house itself was not so much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building. (Farewell, My Lovely)

As a person who enjoys sarcasm myself, this is someone I would enjoy spending some time with. Chandler uses sarcasm to great effect, as well as understatement, and exaggeration. Each working double duty, telling us what is going on as well as Marlowe’s attitude towards what is going on.

Perhaps Chandler’s greatest gift though, is in the use of similes. They are unique, surprising, and yet perfectly in character. When describing the aftereffects of being knocked out:

My stomach took a whirl. I clamped my teeth tight and just managed to keep it down my throat. Cold sweat stood out in lumps on my forehead, but I shivered just the same. I got up on one foot, then on both feet, straightened up, wobbling a little. I felt like an amputated leg. (Farewell, My Lovely) (the bold is my own)

The passage not only conveys what is happening, it conveys the narrator’s attitude toward what is happening with a wonderful economy of language. The narrator reports what is happening in a unique voice, then comments on it in a way that intensifies the characterization.

And he does this throughout the novel, with impressive consistency.

A man in a striped vest and gilt buttons opened the door, bowed, took my hat and was through for the day. (Farewell, My Lovely)

There was a cornflower in the lapel of his white coat and his pale blue eyes looked faded out by comparison…he had the general appearance of a lad who would wear a white flannel suit with a violet scarf around his neck and a cornflower in his lapel. (Farewell, My Lovely)

And this is all fine and dandy for those who are writing hard-boiled detective fiction, where the narrator or main character is supposed to be cynical, expecting the worst from humanity because that’s usually what he sees. But I’m writing a romance, or a historical family drama; how does this help me?

Because every scene you write, is written from someone’s point of view. It is narrated in someone’s voice, usually the voice of the main character. Having that voice obviously change as the point of view changes goes a great way toward showing your reader the character.

A room described by a Marine Corps Gunnery Sargent is going to be different than that same room as described by a twenty-year-old kindergarten teacher and animal rights activist. They will each notice different things. Their vocabularies will be different. The aggression (or lack thereof) will be different. It’s an extreme example, but the principle is there. Use your description to help create the character’s voice.

Reading Raymond Chandler’s novel is one way to see just how a master does that and does it well.

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Marketing, Writing and Editing

8 Questions From A Book Launch

So, I held a “Book launch and reception” at my local public library last Thursday night. It was, by all relevant accounts, a success. More than twenty people attended, only one of whom is related to me. I read a passage from my new novel To Hemlock Run, gave away a gift certificate for our local bookstore, and answered several interesting questions from the audience.

Since I can’t share the homemade cookies, I thought I’d share some of the more interesting questions I was asked.

The passage you read (about sneaking through the night time woods on a deer trail) was so vivid and so realistic, how did you do that?

Well, I carefully chose specific sensory details—mainly of sound, temperature, and wetness—and used those to build the atmosphere. I then used specific incidents such as crossing a small stream and climbing over a fallen tree to add realism and give the reader the illusion of the passage of time.

Informing all of these choices were the memories I have of wandering around the neighborhood forests when I was a young teen. I still remember how those woods we knew as well as our own faces, became a different, alien, world when the sun went down. I tried to convey that faint sense of threat in the passage.

How do you plot out your novels? Do you know how they’re going to end before you start writing?

No. I almost never know how the story will end when I begin. It isn’t the most efficient means of writing a book-length work, but I generally start out with a character and put him (or her) into a problematic situation. Then I start asking questions. How will he react to this situation? Why has this situation occurred? What are the bad guys’ motivations? How do they conflict with the good guy’s intentions and go from there. I usually conceive of the final ending when I’m about three-quarters through the first draft.

Like I said, it isn’t the most efficient method of writing. Many writers work out the plot in an outline before they ever write a line of prose. I’ve never been comfortable with that. I want the first draft to be the first time I write the story. Besides, if a plot twist surprises me, it’s more likely to surprise the reader. Right?

How much do you read, on average?

Over the last couple of years, I’ve averaged fifty novels each year. But this year, I’m trying to slow myself down and read less, but better. I’m trying to alternate reading fun, genre-style novels with classic literature. So I read a Craig Johnson “Walt Longmire” detective novel (which I really enjoyed if you’re keeping track) and then read In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck. Right now, I’ve just started Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woof.

Do you like the college prep reading lists?

I think there is a lot of great writing and great thinking in those lists. One could always gain something by read Plato, Dante and Shakespeare. But many of those titles can also be very challenging reads. You really have to work to read and understand James Joyce, Dante, or Chaucer. There’s a danger in making reading so difficult that it is now longer fun. Reading should always be fun. That’s why I’m trying to lighten my load by allowing myself to read some less challenging material.

What are you doing to promote your book?

I’m limited greatly by my budget, but I’m doing the reading tonight and will be at another reading next month. I have a Facebook page for the novel and another for myself and use those, as well as a handful of book-related groups. I am also listed on Goodreads.com and have two ads running, though they haven’t been very effective up to this point.

Next month, I hope to schedule a blog tour, which is the online version of the old book signing tour. For a fee (or a lot of work if you want to set it up yourself) you are set up with a number of book-related blogs. Depending on the blog, they will review the book (also posting the review to Amason and Goodreads), post an interview with the author, or feature a guest post by the author. Whichever they decide, it will increase the book’s visibility and introduce it to people I cannot otherwise reach.

Are you working on a sequel to this novel?

Not actively. Right now, I’m working on a serious of short stories I couldn’t work on over the past year because I was concentrating on writing the novel. But, that being said, I am working ideas about the next novel-length work.

I am also hesitant about diving too deep into a series with the same character. Most authors like series because they take away one of the toughest parts of the job: creating a whole new set of characters with individual tics, problems, and backstories. In a series, the main character (and many of the supporting characters) are already designed, ready to go.

The one problem with a series is, unless it is a murder/police/detective series set in a major city, it starts to stretch disbelief. They really have multiple murders every year in that quiet rural town in Nebraska? I want to avoid that.

How long have you been writing?

In one form or another, since I was in high school. I realized fairly early on that I was easily able to express myself through writing and initially intended to go into journalism as a career, doing my fiction on the side. I first went to University as a journalism student, but quickly realized there was way too much competition for the jobs available. So I turned to English literature and became completely unemployable.

But throughout it all, my long term goal has always been to write fiction: novels and short stories.

So how did you make a living in the mean time?

With whatever I could find. I worked construction for five years in Texas until the oil boom of the eighties crashed. I returned to Oregon and found myself working in restaurants, managing several fast food locations, before switching to full service restaurants, where I worked as a waiter, a cook, and manager.

In 2010, I was able to retire on disability because of deteriorating scoliosis in my back. Since then, I’ve writing as a full-time occupation.

At this point, we needed to wrap things up so the library staff could go home.

It was an interesting, engaging discussion. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Nearly as important, because of the flyers the library distributed around town and coverage in the local newspaper many people weren’t in the audience are now aware that I have written a new novel. Perhaps at some point, they will buy a copy.

Oh, I also sold two copies of To Hemlock Run after the event and one copy of Deception Island, the first novel in the Jason Reynolds series. I might have sold more but most of the people at the event already had a copy. They were showing support, which is important.

So, I would say the book launch was a success.

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Marketing, Writing and Editing

A Writer’s Defense of Public Libraries

Next week (Thursday, to be exact) the library in my hometown will be hosting a book launch and reception for my new novel To Hemlock Run. Refreshments will be served, a door prize will be offered, and my books will be displayed enchantingly somewhere nearby. Of course I speak for a bit. Other than reading a sample passage from the novel, I really haven’t a clue what I might say. Probably some form of gratitude. Probably something about the forty years and counting struggle to become an overnight success.

I’ll figure it out over the next few days.

Now some of you might be wondering why I am holding the event at the library and not at our local (and very good) bookstore. After all, I’m in the business of selling my books, aren’t I? Libraries don’t sell books; they lend them. Right?

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first one is that the library approached me and offered to host it; the bookstore didn’t. And this is not surprising because bookstores are less and less willing to put on such events because—unless the author is a major national name—they don’t profit from them. In order to make the expense of labor, advertising, and general disruption worthwhile, they have to sell books. A lot of books.

Unfortunately, over the past few years, fewer people have been coming to these events and fewer of those who do come, actually buy books. The last one I did, a couple of years ago, lasted about an hour and was attended by about twenty people, most of them my friends and family. Unfortunately, most of my friends and family already had copies of the book. I probably sold five or six copies. So out of $90 dollars in gross sales, the bookstore netted $36, against $30 in labor costs and $60 in advertising.

The math just doesn’t work, so I fully understand why they are hesitant to host such events. It’s bad business.

Which leads into the second reason why I’m having this event at the local library: I am more than happy (and proud) to support my local library.

Libraries, particularly libraries in small, rural towns like mine are rapidly becoming the cultural and artistic centers of their communities, especially in modern times when local governments and school districts are too strapped for cash to sponsor such events. Where else, in a small town of 2000 souls can one attend—free of charge—a lecture on the efforts to save the endangered snowy plover; hear a demonstration of various musical instruments from exotic times and cultures; or meet and listen to the work of a published novelist?

Libraries are not just about lending books anymore.

They are also in danger. Libraries across the English-speaking world (I don’t know about other cultures but I assume they are facing the same forces) are being forced to shut down by calls for austerity. Taxpayers are disgruntled. They think they are paying too much and want the government to cut back and libraries are an easy target. More than half the adult population does not read for pleasure. To them the library is a waste of money. Others think everyone has access to everything through ebooks and the internet. To them the library is obsolete.

I think they are all terribly misguided. The library—any library—is neither a waste of money, nor obsolete. True, libraries have had to adapt to the new technology and demographics. Most now, in addition to books, allow you to check out DVD movies and television shows, as well as music CDs, audiobooks, and even ebooks. Some even allow you to check out a tablet.

Most also now have computers available for those who do not have their own at home, as well as wifi, and landline internet access. Many people, for economic reasons, would have no access to online media or services without the library. These same people, for the same reasons, would not read as much as they’d like to were it not for the library; they simply cannot afford to buy that many books.

Still, I hear someone whispering in the back, we’re in the business of selling books. The public library kind of defeats that, doesn’t it? After all, if you sell one book to the library and ten people check it out, that’s only one sale, versus ten. Right?

Right. But I think of it differently. I don’t think of it as nine lost sales. I think of it as ten readers I have recruited—especially if those readers actually like the book. Some of those ten readers can’t afford to buy my book and probably never will. If I was depending on them buying my book, I would never be able to count them as my readers.

Then some of them will be devoted readers who have never read my work before and have heard little about me. Realistically, probably the most challenging part of this writing gig is convincing someone who does not know you, your life, or your philosophy, to shell out $15.00 for your new novel. What if they don’t like it? What if it just isn’t their preferred genre? We’re asking them to take a chance here. We’re asking them to risk their money.

The way I allay their fears, is direct them to our library (which has all my novels) and have them check one out. It’s like the free cheese samples the grocers sometimes hands out. “Try it,” we say. “If you like it, buy the whole block.” The public library is the writer’s “free sample.” I’m not the sort who wants to sell my novel to everyone, whether they’ll like it, or not. I want to sell it to folk who will genuinely enjoy my stories and my style.

I do not write because it will make me rich. (And if that is your plan, I wish you the best of luck, but hope it is not your only motivation. The odds of becoming rich from your writing are approximately the same as winning the lottery. It happens, but not to people we know). I write to be read. And the library is one of the methods I use to do that.

Support your local library.

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