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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Marketing, Uncategorized

To Hemlock Run

THR promo 3

When reporter Jason Reynolds is asked to look into the disappearance/abduction of a young woman in rural Washington State, he agrees to do what he can. What he discovers is this is no ordinary case of domestic abuse. Instead, he’s stumbled upon something bigger and more dangerous.

What he’s found is the Barton family, the de facto rulers of Dunham County. Not only are they the wealthiest family and largest employer, but they have nearly total political control of the county’s legal system. Residents of Dunham County like to say: “You don’t cross the Bartons; bad things happen to people who cross the Bartons.”

And no one has ever crossed the Bartons like Jason Reynolds crossed them.

Soon he is dodging the Bartons’ Sheriff’s Department and trying to find a way to bring them to justice without sacrificing his life and the lives of his friends.

Read To Hemlock Run by James Boyle, out now.

 

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writing, Writing advice

Generating Ideas, Part Two

Last week I shared a productive exercise I learned in a workshop at the South Coast Writers Conference. The workshop, instructed by Bruce Holland Rogers, was devoted to producing ideas and chock full of methods to do that. Some of them (like the one I told you about last week) I really liked and will probably use in the future. Others, not so much.

Today I’d like to share another method that I like, but not as much as last week’s. Mr. Holland Rogers called it “Arbitrary Beginning.”

In this method, we took the first sentence of an existing story, without the title or context, and attempted to finish the story. In the workshop example, we were given this first line: “Clara, neither the first nor the most loved, was the one that showed me I could withstand the pain.” (I apologize for not writing down the title of the story, or its author). Again, we were timed. Again, we were freewriting, taking the information and conflict we found in that first sentence and building upon that to create a story.

Like last week’s exercise, it is meant as a way to step around the critical self-editor that so often paralyzes us. As such, it is particularly useful when we find ourselves (as we all do at one time or another) fighting writer’s block.

Sometimes, what we need is an exercise to work around that critic.

Another, similar exercise is to read a book or short story by an author you admire, but have not read before. At some point a sizeable way into the work, pause at the end of a scene or chapter. Now, knowing the author and his/her style, ask yourself what will the next scene entail? If you were writing this work, this story, what would you have happen next? Write that scene. When you have finished, compare your scene with the one the author actually wrote. Were they similar? Did you take the story in an entirely different direction?

In a similar way, find a story that interests you. Read it half way through. Now put the story away and finish writing it, using your own imagination. How does your story compare to the original? Do note that yours will be a rough draft while the author’s is a polished, finished work, with several drafts behind it. The object is not to compare your writing with that of a professional author, but to use another author’s inspiration to jumpstart your own.

It is pretty much the basis for all the many forms of fan fiction, right?

Another exercise is what Bruce Holland Rogers calls “Collaborative Writing.” This is like the old game of “telephone” except that each person has more invested in the final product. For this exercise, you need a small group of willing participants. Your writer’s critique group is good for this.

Choose one writer at random. He or she writes the first paragraph (or few paragraphs) of a story, then hands it to the second writer, who writes the next paragraph, then hands it to the third writer. The story should make at least three rounds of the writing group (to keep anyone from getting too absurd during their part) and the object is to end up with a coherent, unified story. You may not be able to do it, but the object is to let your imagination feed off and be reinforced by each other.

But that’s the purpose of all of these exercises, isn’t it? They are designed to get our imaginations up and running when they don’t really want to. They are to help when our creative juices need a jump start.

So start.

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writing, Writing advice

Generating Ideas, Exercise One

I didn’t post last week, but not because I was lazy, or had nothing to say. (I almost never have nothing to say). I was busy attending and hosting the 22nd South Coast Writers Conference, in Gold Beach, Oregon. A good time was had by all.

And I have lots I will share with you over the next few weeks.

The most memorable workshop I attended was called “Writing from Zero” and presented by Bruce Holland Rogers, creator and host of www.shortshortshort.com and a specialist in flash fiction. As indicated by the title, the workshop concentrated on techniques and tools to generate ideas. (Something every writer at some point struggles with; the battle with the blank page is a universal one).

Today, I’d like to share one of the techniques we tried during the workshop that worked much better than I’d expected. It’s called “Arbitrary Subject.”

What you’ll need:

Ten random, unrelated nouns and noun phrases

Ten slips of paper

A timer

Your writing materials: notebook or paper

How it works:

In the workshop we generated the ten nouns by having the class suggest them, but you can generate them in any number of ways: the third noun on the hundredth page of ten books, the seventh noun on random pages of a dictionary, or you could use a computer application to generate the ten subjects. They can be as interesting or mundane as you wish. Some of the subjects we started with were: a neighbor, a ghost, and picture on exhibition.

Now you write the subjects on the slips of paper in order to randomly draw the subject you will write about.

Do not look at the subjects until it’s time to write. Part of the effectiveness of this exercise is the inability to over analyze what you are about to write about. You need to be surprised.

Now set the timer for two-and-a-half minutes. It helps if you have a timer that can quickly and easily be reset because you will need to reset it twice, for two-and-a-half minutes each time.

The object of this exercise is to write a complete story, with beginning, middle, and end, in seven-and-a-half minutes, based on the subject you randomly draw from the ten subjects you began with.

Draw a subject from the ten you began with. (In our case, it was “Picture on Exhibition.”) Start the timer and begin to write your story’s beginning. When the timer goes off, two-and-a-half minutes later, reset the timer and move to the middle of the story. When it goes off the second time, reset the timer and move to the end of the story. When the timer goes off the third time, stop writing.

We did this three times, with three different random subjects, over the course of thirty minutes. Somewhat to my surprise, it was fairly effective. Of the three stories I produced during the exercise, none were finished, polished stories, but that wasn’t the point. The point of the exercise was to get the creative process started. In that respect, the exercise was very successful.

Of the three stories I generated, one was a throwaway, but another had a solid kernel I think I can polish and revise into a good story. The third, was not as good, but still holds the promise of being something I can work into an acceptable story.

So in this thirty minute exercise, I generated one pretty good story and another moderate one. That’s a pretty good success rate, in my humble opinion.

For those who might be keeping track, the good idea was for “Picture on Exhibition,” and the moderate one for “Ghost.” I didn’t have much for “Neighbor.”

The object of this exercise is to combine the benefits of “free writing” with the motivational benefit of a deadline. By drawing a subject at random, the hope is to bypass our critical self-editor and tap directly into the creativity of our subconscious. Of course, for this to work well, you have to write continually (as much as possible) and continuously (as much as possible). Do not worry about grammar, spelling, or logic; just get the ideas on paper as quickly as they come to you. This is a first draft; grammar and spelling can be fixed in re-write.

The timer gives you the incentive to do it now. Something, personally, I truly need more.

Like I said earlier, I was mildly surprised at just how productive this exercise was. I will use it again in the future. You should give it a try.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

After Rereading Hemingway

Last week I read Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I had read it at least once before, during my pursuit of a University degree in Literature and it had impressed me, primarily because its style was so different than most novels that had come before. However, it had been a while, like (I hate to even say it) thirty years.

It would appear that I have changed a bit over those thirty years.

Why? Because as I read what is often considered Hemingway’s best novel, the work that almost single-handedly changed the way the modern novel is written, I found problems. They weren’t major problems, mind you. But there were problems. Often the very same problems I work to eliminate from my own writing.

Thirty years ago, as a young student and writer, I had read the novel in something like a religious awe. This was HEMINGWAY. This was a master. Everything about his novel had to be—by definition—perfect. I dedicated myself to reproducing his style.

Apparently, I have grown some, both personally, and as a writer.

So what problem did I find in The Sun Also Rises? Nothing terribly earth-shattering, but a problem nonetheless, in my opinion.

Hemingway is reknown for his spare, understated prose. He often tries to employ innuendo and nuance to tell the story as much as he does verbs and objects. And he pulls it off very well. Most of the time.

For example:

“The road came out from the shadow of the woods into the hot sun. Ahead was a river valley. Beyond the river was a steep hill. There was a field of buckwheat on the hill. We saw a white house under some trees on the hillside. It was very hot and we stopped under some trees beside a dam that crossed the river.”

Very simple, but effective. Compare his description with anything by Henry James, or F. Scott Fitzgerald. He uses no similes or metaphors, just simple, declarative sentences.

But sometimes it falls short, as in this conversation between Jake, the narrator, Mike, and Brett:

“I’m a little tight, you know. I wouldn’t ask you like this if I weren’t. You’re sure you don’t mind?”

“Oh, shut up, Michael,” Brett said. “How can the man say he’d mind now? I’ll ask him later.”

“But you don’t mind, do you?”

“Don’t ask that again unless you want to make me sore. Bill and I go down on the morning of the 25th.”

“By the way, where is Bill?” Brett asked.

“He’s out at Chantilly dining with some people.”

“He’s a good chap.”

“Splendid chap,” said Mike. “He is, you know.”

“You don’t remember him,” Brett said.”

What bothers me about this passage is the question of who, exactly, says: “He’s a good chap?”

At first reading, I wasn’t sure who is saying it. I’m still not absolutely sure, but think it’s Brett. In my opinion, this is a mistake. If someone has to pause to figure out who is saying what, the writer has not properly done his job.

Anything, that bumps the reader out of the flow of the narrative, is, in my opinion, a problem for the writer. This happens a handful of times in The Sun Also Rises, always in the dialogue. Mr. Hemingway occasionally writes so sparingly that we are left trying to figure out who is speaking.

Other than that, I thought it flawless.

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writing

“Story” Revisited

This week I’ve been having (or am going to be having) a conversation with a beginning writer about just what, exactly, a story is. He is ardent and trying very hard to grasp the “artistic” side of the whole gig. I get the impression his background is in engineering/math and he doesn’t really comprehend the stunned faces when he asked the rest of the writing group to explain poetry to him.

It’s not like the Pythagorean Theorem; it can’t really be adequately explained in a single sentence. Or paragraph. Or essay. Entire books (footnoted and everything) have been written about the subject; entire careers have been dedicated to the study of poetry.

And they still haven’t completely explained it.

“Story” is similar, except that it hasn’t been studied for nearly as long.

Okay. What is a “story?” A story is a form (usually prose, but not always) in which a narrative is told centered around a character and his/her mission to achieve a certain goal. The goal cannot be too easy, or the mission lacks interest or “drama.” The mission is often made more difficult by a series of obstacles the character must overcome along the way. These obstacles can be placed by an opposing character, the environment, or even be the main character’s own personal flaws. The harder the obstacles, the harder the mission, the greater the reward when the goal is reached.

Without the obstacles, the story descends into something more like a vignette.

For instance: a young woman steps onto the elevator in an office building, presses the button for the fifth floor. When the elevator arrives, she steps out and enters her office.

Realistic. A slice of life, done well. But it isn’t really much of a story, is it? There is no conflict. It’s meaningless.

So we ramp up the conflict a bit. We still have the young woman step onto the elevator and push the button for the fifth floor, but this time a man is already on the elevator and she can see that he’s headed for the seventh floor, two floors above her. As the elevator begins to move, she can feel his eyes on her, mentally undressing her. As the door opens on the fifth floor, she does everything in her power to keep from running into her office.

Now we have the beginnings of a story. There is conflict (can she get to her office without being attacked), a goal (the safety of her office) somewhat in question, and the goal achieved in the end.

Now there are some variations, tropes and rules pertaining to different genres of story. Realism is always a plus, but there limitations. Absolute realism is boring, mundane. “Story” is the illusion of reality; it is enhanced reality.

Consider a familiar horror trope: the young family moves into an old, historic house. Soon, they begin to see glowing red eyes in the mirrors and the faucets spill blood. In reality, you or I would be grabbing the family and staying in a motel—or the mission—until we could find a new house. But that wouldn’t be much of a story, would it? For the sake of story, we need to suspend our disbelief for a while. We need to believe that someone would walk into certain death and still manage to not only survive, but to defeat the bad guy. We need to believe that someone would open the attic door in that haunted house, something we’d never do in reality.

We like “story” because it allows us to have a taste of lives and decisions we would never dare to make in reality.

It is supercharged reality.

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