Launching Your Book—What Works and What Doesn’t?

I’m about six months out from the launch of my next book and am working on plans for the launch. Call it a publicity plan or a marketing plan or a launch plan…it pretty much boils down to the same thing. The tough part is that I don’t have any true data indicating what works and what doesn’t.

With that in mind, I thought I’d explore strategies today. I’d love to generate some conversation about your experiences. It might not be hard data but maybe someone will come up with new ideas or even new takes on old ones!

Booksigning Events. They are at the heart of every launch but I see wide variation in how authors use them. Some go for a single, big event at a well-known venue which may come with an advertising fee. Others book events at multiple locals, concentrating on chain retailers. Some prefer to schedule with small, independent bookstores.  Authors also vary on how long the launch season lasts. Personally, I’ve done all of the above and have generally seen more response from a single big event I can blast about. With hard-cover books, I rarely sell a lot unless there is a personal connection or the timing matches a gift-giving holiday.

Online Events. More and more authors are doing blog tours or online interviews. I’ve not done much in this area…some isolated interviews but no big blog tours. Yet, I know other authors use this technique heavily. I routinely receive e-blasts about blog tours and often wonder how successful they are.

Advertising. This can be expensive and complicated. Some authors work with on-line advertising services that send information about their new release to thousands of subscribers. Others may purchase ads in local media to generate interest in signing events. I’ve tried this route in the past and seen no direct correlation to sales. On the other hand, I have received some very nice reviews in connection with ads. I’ve become selective, however, in my expenditures here.

Book related swag. This would include post cards, book marks, magnets, pens, and any other cute little item with the author’s name and a book title. The expenses in this area can also climb quickly. I can’t say that I’ve ever been able to correlate sales with swag. That said, I have found an inexpensive supplier and do like having bookmarks in my purse. I use them like business cards. It’s highly possible that someone has purchased a book as a result but there really isn’t a way to measure this.

Book Trailers. This was huge a few years ago but seems to have quieted down. Lacking necessary skills, I haven’t explored this area, though my publisher did a great trailer for me on the last book.

Reviews. I like reviews but I have never paid for them. I’m fortunate that my publisher sends ARCs to national reviewers and gets good response. I’ve sent out some of my own, locally, with mixed responses. I’ve also sent to some online reviewers. Since my last book, there is increased conversation about Goodreads reviews being important but I’m not sure I’ve heard anything quantitative. For me, good reviews from recognized reviewers are priceless. I have no sales data but they greatly enhance my credibility as an author—something that it valuable to me.

Direct announcements. I sent announcement letters to everyone I knew with the launch of my first book. I think it generated a lot of interest for the launch signings and, yes, some sales. Since then, I haven’t seen as much of an impact and my list has been trimmed. I also rely much more on social media announcements.

Press releases. These seem to work much better when sent to smaller media. My hometown paper almost always runs something when I send out a release. Metro papers don’t.

Library packets. I’m not sure if these work or not. Since my publisher markets to libraries, I do try to make contact with the libraries in Colorado as well as the state in which my story is set. I don’t know if the contact is effective but it’s a route I always follow.

Book clubs. Over the years, I’ve made contact with local book clubs and enjoy interacting with them. I usually let them know. So far, Oprah hasn’t considered any of my titles.

Radio and Television. Here, too, I’ve done little. A couple radio interviews but no big appearances. No guest spots on national morning news shows. Hmmmm….

So, readers, what’s been your experience? What do you do for your launches? Can you connect what you do with sales? What feels right?

The End: Bringing Your Novel to a Close

There’s a lot of emphasis put on story beginnings as well as its muddy middle, but what about the end? I think the topic deserves more consideration.

Every book has a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning must be engaging enough to hook the reader, and the middle has to hold your audience’s attention until the end. It would be awful for a reader to stay with the story all the way through and then be disappointed by how it ended.

The goal is for your book to leave a lasting impression. We want readers to close our books with a sigh and jump online to search for another book we’ve written. How the story ends is a direct reflection on an author’s skills as a storyteller.

What do we know about endings? First off, we know there are four ways to end a story.

Happily Ever After – A happy ending fulfills the promise made by the author to a romance reader because that’s what’s expected. The audience has stayed with the hero and heroine for a few hundred pages, witnessed the couple’s trials and tribulations. The romance reader’s prize is the reward of a blissful union, possibly marriage or at least an allusion to one. That’s why they read romance. They want to see good things happen to good people they’ve come to care about.

Romance isn’t the only genre that works well with a happy ending. Many genres have stories about characters that grow and achieve their goals so they can be rewarded for their efforts. In a mystery, the bad guy is brought to justice. In women’s fiction and a lot of commercial mainstream fiction, the story concludes with happy characters that rejoice in the favorable outcome of their journey.

Satisfying Ending – This can also be considered the “happy for now” ending. When the story reaches the final page, it’s not all sunbeams and rainbows. The main character is relatively pleased with the outcome, at least for the time being. He may have had to sacrifice something to reach his goal. Maybe someone dies in order for another character to live, or the character had to lose his job or wealth or title to achieve his objective. It wasn’t what he wished for, but he knows it was inevitable for the greater good.

Any genre can have a satisfying ending that’s not necessarily “happy.” But plot problems have been resolved, all questions answered, and readers are left feeling hopeful that a better life for the character or characters is on the horizon.

Cliffhanger – You can expect a cliffhanger at the end of a serial or a series book, however the central story question has already been answered. A mystery is solved, a romance engaged, a war won, a world conquered, a throne claimed... But somewhere along the line a subplot came up that hasn’t been resolved by the last page. Hints are left at the end to let the reader know to expect something more in the next installment.

The important thing to remember about cliffhangers is that neither cliff or hanger suddenly appears on page 351 of a 352 page book. It’s an established plot line that came up earlier in the story. Maybe the king’s illegitimate son was kidnapped twenty years before the story ends, and the last chapter alludes to the boy’s return as usurper. Or what if, at the end of a romance, the hero’s brother comes home injured from his last tour in Afghanistan and hits it off with the heroine’s sister, who just enlisted in the military. We know something is bound to happen with these characters, and we hope to read about it in the next book.

Unresolved Ending – Or what I consider the ambiguous ending. Can you tell I’m not a fan? Some readers enjoy being left to ponder what might happen now that the story is officially over without a conclusion. It’s left up to their imagination.

I can see the literary appeal of this sort of ending. Maybe the final note is a shocking event the reader wasn’t expecting. Or it ends with no one getting what they wanted, or there’s no foreseeable future for any of the characters, or not only is justice not served, but the antagonist comes out the winner. This could also be referred to as the unhappy ending. It’s kind of like one of those write-your-own-ending type of stories. It makes me think the last chapter was accidentally, or purposely, left out of the book. Nope, not a fan.

Should you plan your ending before you start writing your book? I think it’s a good idea to know where your characters will end up by the last page because that can help you figure out the middle and plan your character arcs. Synopsis writing is helpful for this.

What type of ending is right for your story?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Karen DuvallKaren Duvall is an award-winning author with 5 published novels and 2 novellas. Harlequin Luna published her Knight’s Curse series in 2011 and 2012, and her post apocalyptic novella, Sun Storm, was released in Luna’s ‘Til The World Ends anthology in January 2013.

Karen lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and four incredibly spoiled pets. Writing under the pen name Cory Dale, she released the first book in a new urban fantasy series, Demon Fare, in December 2014.

http://www.karenduvallauthor.com/

http://www.karenduvall.blogspot.com

https://twitter.com/KarenDuvall

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/405199.Karen_Duvall

http://www.facebook.com/Karen.Duvall.Author

 

Adventures in Genre Writing: Lesson Eight–Suspense

By Jeanne C. Stein

How do you keep a reader engaged? Creating and Maintaining Suspense

Our goal as a writer is to entertain, and make the reader care about your story.

How do you do this? By creating and maintaining an emotional bond with the reader, by manipulating their emotions, by creating and maintaining suspense.

We’ve already decided that we want our books to be as thrilling as possible. That each chapter should end with a hook designed to grab our readers and not let ago until they’ve reached the last page.

Let’s look at some of the most popular ways authors accomplish that same idea throughout their books.

1. The ticking clock. The ticking bomb. This is probably the most often used. Our protag is up against a deadline. If she misses it, the world as she knows it will be changed forever.

2. The “fifth” character. Also called the “disposable” character. A character the reader has come to know and love. Our protag’s friend, sometimes, our protag’s mentor. As readers, we are invested in that character. We love him or her. Then in a startling development, that character is killed off. It ups the stakes for the protag and ratchets up the emotional impact for the reader.

3. Personal agendas. Giving our secondary characters motives unknown to our protag that make it more difficult for her to achieve her goal. This sets up anticipation in the reader who realizes a verbal or physical clash is bound to occur.

4. Red herrings. Should be used sparingly. It’s okay to create a couple of false leads, but peppering the book with a different one every chapter will frustrate the reader. The opposite of this, of course, is one we mentioned earlier: cheating. Don’t wait until the very last chapter and spring an antagonist on us we’ve never met before.

5. Greatest fear. Make our protag face what she fears most. Can be a physical or psychological or moral challenge. The important thing is that the result of failing that challenge means utter disaster.

Those are a few of the more common ways to create suspense. Now how we write it.

We mentioned Dwight Swain in the last lesson. In his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, he shares the secret. They are called Motivation/Reaction Units. Or stimulus/response units. Here’s how they work.

The motivation is something our characters see, hear, feel, smell or taste. It’s a stimulus that results in a reaction or response. Motivation is external and objective—something happens. The reaction is internal and subjective—our character’s response.

Jack Bickham in his book The 38 Most common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to How to Avoid Them) puts it like this:

The law of stimulus and response works at the nitty- gritty level of fiction, line to line, and it also works in melding larger parts of the story. For every cause, an effect. For every effect, a cause. A domino does not fall for no immediate reason; it has to be nudged by the domino next to it.

Taking this one step further—the reaction/response must always occur in this order: feelings, reflex action, rational action. For example, our protag is attacked unexpectedly. First, she’s surprised (feeling), then she falls back (reflex action) next she gathers herself and responds to protect herself (rational action.)

Why do I say reaction MUST occur in this order? Because it’s logical. When the telephone rings, we answer it. Not the other way around. Sounds simplistic, doesn’t it? It’s such a small thing, why should we pay much attention? Because a sentence constructed this way: I walked to the door when the bell rang, marks us as amateurs. Remember when I said editors and agents are looking for reasons to stop reading our submissions? This is a big one. Along with typos, improper manuscript presentation and improper grammar. We’ll hit more ways to shoot ourselves in the foot in Lesson Ten.

But back to writing the page-turner. What else do we need to make our books come alive? Action verbs. Sophie plunged head first into the water. She didn’t throw herself quickly or drop precipitously into the water. Use action verbs. Omit adverbs and adjectives. Keeps the writing fresh and taut.

Use all the senses. Use sensory details and internalizations to:

Make the reader buy into our world (by suspending disbelief).
Create empathy with our characters.
Modulate pacing and tension to keep the reader hooked.
Keep the reader oriented in the story.
Key the reader to the important plot points.

Sensory details place the reader in the story through:

Sight
Sound
Smell
Taste
Touch (sensations)

Here’s an example:

Sophie smelled brine and seaweed before the cold enveloped her. Salt water burned her throat as the darkness rushed up to meet her. There was no sound. Just immense silence followed by…nothing.

Of course, you’re not always going to use ALL five senses. But use more than one. Brings the action to life.

Don’t interrupt action with back-story. There’s nothing worse than being pulled from the NOW for a trip down memory lane. If your protag is fighting for her life, there’s a good chance she’s not going to be thinking about how she came to be in this predicament. She’s going to be concentrating on overcoming her opponent. It’s all the reader should be concerned with, too. Our aim is to create a powerful emotional experience.

Let’s review, then, how we construct a good novel. We use:

Scenes containing Goals, Conflicts, Disasters

Sometimes followed by Sequels: Reaction to the disaster presenting a Dilemma, which leads to a Decision (used sparingly)

And we write these scenes and sequels as a series of Motivation/Reaction Units

In every paragraph, motivation/reaction units should propel the action. Every paragraph. It won’t be easy at first. In fact, what I want you to do now is to look at a scene you’ve already written. Make it the best scene in your entire book.

Now rewrite it as a series of motivation/reaction units. Get rid of everything else. Make sure the sequence of your M/R units is correct: feelings, reflex action, rational action (including dialogue, by the way.)

Done right, you should have an action packed scene that leaves the reader breathless.

Here are some examples of the Good, Bad and Ugly of what we discussed:
The Good: Warren Hammond’s EX-COP:

She ran her hand across the rack’s surface and began fiddling with the shackle again. I found my eyes moving from one rack to another. She caught me in the act, and smiled naughtily, fully back into her kinky librarian persona. I felt a good kind of stirring in my stomach that made its way down into my pants. For the first time in forever, I felt intoxicated on something other than booze.

The Bad:

She left the bar, drink in hand, and headed back to her table. Oh no! Somebody bumped into her, knocking the drink out of her hand.

The Ugly:

Bryce turned to see Jackson, who had just tapped his shoulder. He shoved Jackson with two hands, the memory of what Jackson had done to him making it impossible to control his emotions. Bryce’s cheeks burned red with a rush of blood.

The Ugly Revised:

Bryce felt a touch on his shoulder and turned to see Jackson. The memory overwhelmed. Blood rushed into his heating cheeks, anger surging beyond his control. He shoved Jackson with two hands.

Remember, too, every stimulus deserves a proportional response.

Try these simple exercises:

Stimulus: The waitress whizzed by, dropping the bill on the table, a waft of perfume hitting my nose a moment later. I eyed the bill, the seven-digit number making me think those were some damn expensive eggs, until I realized I was looking at a hand-written phone number.

What would be an appropriate response?

Every stimulus deserves a proportional response
Stimulus: The growl echoed in the dog’s chest, ears pressed against her head, and she pulled her lips back. Incisors. Canines. Molars.

What would be an appropriate response?

Every stimulus deserves a proportional response
Stimulus: The guy came out of nowhere, shoved me back against the car. “Give me your wallet.”

What would be an appropriate response?

Every stimulus deserves a proportional response
Stimulus: I looked at the wad of cash in my hand. The bank teller had given me too much. “I think there’s been a mistake, “ I began. She looked me right in the eye, “I never make a mistake,” she said.

What would be an appropriate response?

Next we have some fun: SEX—Do we need it (in our books, I mean ☺ )? How much do we need? How do we write it?

Remember, until next time: BICHOK—Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard!! See you in May!

The Real Deal Isn’t

NMS cropA couple of weeks ago an ex-MFA (Master of Fine Arts) teacher published a - I'm calling it a bitter rant - about how he can tell the "truth," now that he's no longer teaching. I think that's a fair representation, given that the article is titled "Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One."

The article annoyed people on a number of levels, largely because the author makes so many sweeping statements that he asserts as absolutes, but that are really a matter of opinion. For example, he says that writers are born with talent - either you have it or you don't - and if you don't, you might as well not even try. We could have along debate there about talent vs. work, but I think most people will agree that having talent helps, but it's far from a guarantee of success. And the concept of "talent" means different things in different aspects of life.

On of my fellow members of SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), Kyle Aisteach, asked on those forums how we all felt about the line "if you didn't decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you're probably not going to make it." He conducted an informal poll of the membership - and in SFWA, you have to meet a publication standard to be a member - on who felt they were serious about writing as a teenager. I'm one who was serious about being a doctor or a scientist as a teenager. That's me in the high school yearbook photo for those of us who qualified as National Merit Scholars. Yeah - we hammed up our nerdiness. It's can be a long story, but suffice to say that it took me many years to see a non-science career as a worthwhile pursuit. I didn't take writing seriously as a teenager because I didn't see it as valuable.

I think that's an important point in responding to the part of this article I want to address. In case you don't want to click to the article (really, who could blame you?), here's the bit I'm talking about.

If you aren't a serious reader, don't expect anyone to read what you write.

Without exception, my best students were the ones who read the hardest books I could assign and asked for more. One student, having finished his assigned books early, asked me to assign him three big novels for the period between semesters. Infinite Jest, 2666, and Gravity's Rainbow, I told him, almost as a joke. He read all three and submitted an extra-credit essay, too. That guy was the Real Deal.

Conversely, I've had students ask if I could assign shorter books, or—without a trace of embarrassment—say they weren't into "the classics" as if "the classics" was some single, aesthetically consistent genre. Students who claimed to enjoy "all sorts" of books were invariably the ones with the most limited taste. One student, upon reading The Great Gatsby (for the first time! Yes, a graduate student!), told me she preferred to read books "that don't make me work so hard to understand the words." I almost quit my job on the spot.

I have a number of issues here. Yes, I totally agree that writers should read. Reading is key to our understanding of our own work and the work others are engaged in. I object, very much, to the idea that a serious reader is one who reads books that are 1) "Hard," 2) "Big," 3) Not short, 4) "Classics" 5) Full of hard-to-understand words. That kind of arrogance rubs me the wrong way. The idea that more-difficult is more valuable is part of what kept me focusing on a course of study and career that I didn't love.

The worst part of this, however, is the unconscious sexism here. At least, I HOPE it's not consciously done! Note that the student he dubs as "The Real Deal," is male. It also seems he's quite privileged, as he spends his school break reading huge tomes and writing extra-credit essays. Not, say, working 12-hour days at a job to pay tuition. Note also that all three books the author suggests as "serious" reading are by white, male authors. Conversely the student he disdains, who - GASP! - had never read The Great Gatsby, another book by a white, male author, about white, privileged people, is female.

Could be a coincidence? Except his reported response to her is to want to quit his job on the spot, not the special effort he gave The Real Deal Guy, by suggesting specific books that might work for him.

(I also think it's funny that he decries the assumption that "'the classics' [are] some single, aesthetically consistent genre," when I could probably assemble a decent argument for that very thing.)

In the end, it's clear that this guy is Disappointed. He tries for the claim that it's not important that people think you're smart, when he's spent the entire article convincing us how smart he is. Certainly far smarter than the chick who'd never read The Great Gatsby. I don't really care about him - but I do care about the aspiring writers he may have wounded in his vanity. I wish I could reach out to that young woman and give her some reading suggestions. I'd like to tell her that talent means little compared to hard work and perseverance.

Most of all, I want to tell her - and that author - this: There is no such thing as The Real Deal.

When Life Gets in the Way

By J.A. (Julie) Kazimer

Ever heard the saying, When Life Gives You Lemons?

I’m sure sick of the bite of lemonade right now. Since January, and my stupid New Years’ resolution to write daily, the most I’ve written is 500 words and that was in the cafeteria of a hospital. My dad has been having some serious heart issues, and we’ve been in and out of hospitals for what seems like an eternity though it’s really only two months.

This isn’t a poor me post, though it probably sounds a lot like one (for which I apologize), so please read on as I do have a writerly point.

It’s hard to write when everything in your life is crazy. It’s also hard to write when everything is going as smooth as gravy (weirdly whenever I make gravy it comes out in clumps). It’s especially hard to write when you’ve in the throes of new love, like, or lust.

Okay, it’s hard to write is my point.

Anyway, even when it seems like an impossible task (like when I have an end of April deadline for my next book to be at the publisher) writing can be just what the doctor ordered, right after he orders a bunch of Xanax.

To lose yourself in your work is a healthy way of coping or so I’ve heard. So taking my own advice, I’m going to go write 2,000 words right now.

I’d love to know how you cope when life gives you lemons. Do you write more or less? How do you manage the real world and your isolated writerly one?

From a Dinosaur Publishing in a Digital World … by Chris Goff

Photo by Mark Stevens

Photo by Mark Stevens

Okay, I admit it, I got into this game long enough ago that my first words were scribbled on white tablets, with mistakes scratched out and arrows drawn to indicate where whole passages needed to be moved. Later, I typed stories on a manual typewriter, keeping copious amounts of Wite-Out on hand. Later, because an IBM Selectric typewriter was too expensive, I bought a Brother’s typewriter that could actually “delete” up to 300 characters using Wite-Out tape. Then, in 1987, when my mother died, I inherited her IBM PC. One of the first, it had 256K of RAM and a 1.2 MGB floppy disk drive.

Jump forward 30 years and I’m typing this at 33K feet in the air on a Surface Pro 2, on a Southwest flight to Seattle, while hooked up to the internet. I could be watching a movie, but instead I’m blogging—and extolling and lamenting the direction publishing has taken with the advancement of technology.

Don’t get me wrong. I love technology.

Now I can correct my mistakes, move passages around in my documents, delete unwanted text OR accidently save the new paragraph of my latest novel over the master file of the book due next week, with no backup and only the hope of piecing the book together from the pages I’ve sent the critique group over the past year or year and a half.

I can also research anything. With a few keystrokes, I can pull up the weather in Kazakhstan, a picture of Kiev in March OR I can get lost surfing the information highway and lose entire days to finding a plant that grows in the Amazon and smells like a zombie to make stinky car “air-fresheners” for my much younger brothers who love The Walking Dead.

But, while the benefits of technological advances are obvious, they come at a cost. Digital publishing has changed the face of the industry.

Goff_Dark WatersWhen I locked down my first publishing contract, a writer’s only options were through a traditional publishing house or a vanity press (the dinosaurs’ equivalent of self-publishing on the internet). And, just like today, there were some self-published who made it big. The difference—back then, if you didn’t hit, you ended up with a basement full of boxed books you couldn’t sell instead of being 2,996,254 out of three million on the Amazon list.

Today, the list of large traditional publishers has decreased to five. And while the number of small publishers has increased somewhat, the number of people digitally self-publishing has skyrocketed. The tendency of many of these authors is to put their books for sale online for $.99. No doubt many of these are quality books—well written, well edited, and well received. However, a large number of these books are not worth the pennies paid.

For that, the industry has suffered. Advances from traditional and small publishers have not increased. In fact, advances have for the most part have decreased, along with the value placed on writers.

Why? In my estimation, it’s due in large part to the sheer volume of material for sale out there; due in large part to the sheer number of “writers” whose primary interest is not to make a living writing, but simply a desire to see their work “published.”

Additionally, the digital world has become one in which a writer must not only find a venue for their work and have a dynamic website, but also requires a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and Goodreads. It’s not enough just to write a good book, a writer must now master the art of social networking.

Does this sound the diatribe of a “dinosaur?” No doubt. But it’s the reality of the world anyone who still dreams of making a living writing is faced with.

So, what’s a dinosaur—er writer—to do?

1. Suck it up! This is the reality and it’s not going to go away. We must learn to master technology, learn to utilize the web, learn to social network. For my part, I asked my kids to help me. Who better to show me the ins and outs of Tweeting and Tumbling?

2. Write a great book! and don’t trust Wikipedia. Put your new found technological skills to work, and fact check. We may be fiction writers, but a truth runs through it.

3. Publish well! Not your choice if you go with a traditional publisher, but there are things a self-published writer can do. Invest in an editor. (Note to dinosaur: this is not the time to turn to your kids. Hire a professional.) Design a great cover. Solicit some great cover quotes. Value your work. Price it like it’s worth something. Sure, take advantage of the discounted promotions, but for the most part, don’t undercut the market. In the long run, that only drives down the value of the product.

4. Enjoy it! There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing your book in print and having someone who's not related to you read your book and love it. Bask in the moment. Share the excitement! (Note: we’re back to social networking here).

5. Start the next book!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chris Goff is the award-winning author of five environmental novels and a new international thriller series. The bestselling Birdwatcher's Mystery series was nominated for two WILLA Literary Awards, a Colorado Author's League Award, and published in the UK and Japan. The backlist of the Birdwatcher's Mystery series was re-released by Astor+Blue Editions in November 2014 and a sixth book in the series A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS is scheduled for October 2015. DARK WATERS, her first international thriller, will be published by Crooked Lane Books on September 15, 2015. For more information, please visit Chris’s website.

You can follow Chris on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Pigeon-holed or typecast? It can happen to any writer

By Mary Gillgannon

I know how picky readers can be, but I never realized it would affect me until I was analyzing the sales of my indie published books. I have twelve books available, and sales of those titles vary widely, and always have. Some of my books I’m lucky to sell five a month. Others sell several times that. The books that sell well are the same ones each month. Even though I have other titles in the same sub-genre, there is very little carryover to them.

I started to think about what qualities my better-selling books share and realized that they all have alpha heroes and intense conflict between the hero and the heroine. (An alpha hero is an old-fashioned, macho, larger-than-life, domineering male.) When I was first published, I got plenty of criticism from my critique group, reviewers and sometimes readers for my ultra-masculine heroes and conflict-ridden storylines. (As one reader put it, “If I wanted to experience a couple fighting all the time, I could have just stayed with my first husband.”) Because of that, and also because I wanted to explore different types of characters, I started to write books with more external conflict and more complex and subtle heroes.

Those books were never as popular as my earlier ones. Initially, I blamed my declining sales on the fact that historical romances in general were in a slump. But now the sub-genre seem to be doing well, and I can no longer ignore the cold hard figures of my sales reports. There is a definite type of book that appeals to my readers.

It’s pretty frustrating. Like the writers I mentioned above, I don’t want to write the same story over and over. And it doesn’t help that lots of successful writers write books with beta heroes who don’t clash dramatically with the heroine. Why does it work for them and not for me? Maybe it’s my voice or writing style. Or that I get so deep into my heroes’ viewpoints that if I make them too nice they come off as wimpy.

At the same time, knowing what appeals to “my” readers is useful. I’m planning extensive rewrites of the last two of my backlist books this summer, and now I have a clear direction. I need to make my heroes more forceful and larger-than-life, and increase the conflict between the hero and heroine.

The irony is that I’m rewriting these books because I wasn’t happy with the way they turned out the first time, mostly due to editorial input. Now, once again, I can’t simply “follow my muse” as I revise them. It would be foolish to ignore what my readers apparently want. But I’m not about to give up on writing different types of stories. Maybe if I keep exploring I’ll find a new formula that will attract new fans. And even if that doesn’t happen, I have to keep growing as a writer or it wouldn’t be any fun. And I’m at the point in my life where fun is more important than selling books.

POLITICAL INTRIGUE IN FICTION

spyBy Kevin Paul Tracy

This month's post builds on the ideas in February's post with thoughts on infusing fictional politics into your fiction. In that post I refer to the root of all politics, economics, and how ultimately it is commodities in high demand - oil, gold, the spice Melange - and the need to share them that lead to politics, both good and bad. In any society, or world, no commodity is in higher demand, especially for governments, than information. No government can operate long where it cannot gain access to information - information about everything from how their own commonwealth are doing to how other, outside commonwealths are faring. Not to put too fine a point on it, a government is always starved for information, and no matter how much information there is to be had, it is never enough for any government.

And so we enter the world of political intrigue, where those seeking to hold on to their power, or to gain more, seek to control the flow of information. They want it, and they want to control who else has it. To do so they often indulge in some rather unsavory practices, such as spying and theft to gain information, lying to mislead others about information (often called euphemistically "misinformation") and even assassination to prevent information from being passed on to another. Information gained is then used in various ways to gain political advantage, from sabotage, to blackmail, to arms races, ad infinitum. We are entering a time in our own world where, due to social media and the Internet, information has suddenly become quite vulnerable to theft and exposure. There are those who believe if all information is available to everyone, even state secrets, then no one can hold power, and that is what they dearly long for - anarchy.

In your world-building, erecting a political infrastructure can give your stories pillars around which your plot can grow and intertwine. Deciding what information is critical to power in your world, and how that information is controlled and brokered, can be complex, but in the long-run very rewarding, enriching your fiction in ways you might never have imagined in the beginning.

One thing that pleases readers is to have information that the characters don't. Having your characters act on incorrect information is a great way to build suspense. For example, the information that King Mark has is that the neighboring kingdom of Latland has rich deposits of sulfur and nitrates needed to make powder for cannons, but peaceful King Fred of Latland denies this. So King Mark allies with the openly ambitious King Barney of Simlor, his neighbor on the other side: he will cede a hundred square miles of his southernmost lands to King Barney in exchange for his help in invading Latland and taking the mines. The information that King Mark doesn't have is that King Fred is not lying, Latland has minimal deposits of either commodity, if that. Unknown to King Mark is that the richest deposits of sulfur and nitrates are, in fact, in the very southernmost regions of his own lands that he is ceding to King Barney. So who do you suppose disseminated the misinformation that misled King Mark? Well, who has the most to gain from the situation? King, Barney, of course, right?

The key is that your story cannot be only about these political intrigues. If it is, it will ultimately lose the reader's interest. Your stories must be about characters, people. These worlds we build are only a backdrop to the real stories, about how the characters interact and affect each other. For example, the above story isn't really about King Marks being led into attacking his friend, King Fred, by the unscrupulous and greedy King Barney. It is about a young man, Mark, whom no one ever believed in, who inherited his kingdom by marriage and the untimely death of his father-in-law, and who is desperate to show his wife and everyone that he is fit to be king, that he can be a worthy husband, man, and leader after all.

As always, like character back-story, much of what you build may never actually reach the page, but it informs your story in subtle ways the readers can detect. The feeling that there is a living, breathing culture with a pulse behind and underneath everything that happens in your books is what can leave your readers feeling fulfilled and eager for the next volume, whether a series or stand-alone.


Check out Kevin’s latest releases, the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda, a startling and engrossing gothic thriller Bloodflow, and don’t miss Bloodtrail, the upcoming sequel to Bloodflow.

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The Curse of the First Pancake … by Shannon Baker

Shannon Baker 2015There’s a piece of writing wisdom that says to hone your craft, you must first write one million words. Back in my early years, I’d read somewhere that it takes, on average, twelve years from beginning writer to published author. If you’re writing every day, those might amount to roughly the same. If that’s the case, I’m a below average writer. I don’t remember when I became serious about writing but I started slowly, articles, essays, short stories, before I launched into novels.

I took a few years off here and there for life crises, and eventually published my first novel in 2010. Although I loved that book—as it lives in my head—I’m afraid it’s a First Pancake affair.

You know about the first pancake. For some reason, it never turns out right. Parts of it burn and others are doughy. That’s the one the dog gets. But after that, they rise up to a golden brown, all fluffy and perfect. I’ve learned not to get impatient and gobble that first one. I’m better off to save belly space for the really good pancakes that follow.

I didn’t apply the same wisdom to my First Pancake book. I worked on that poor story for far too long. I knew the characters from their DNA out, why they acted as they did, nearly every day of their childhood. I understood the issues at stake, the technology, the history. I researched and read, dreamed and created. Tore down, rewrote, revised, regurgitated.

My critique groups saw so many versions they grew to hate it. Oh, they never said so, but I knew their inner groaning when I’d cheerfully announce, “I fixed it!” and handed out pages. I queried agents in the hundreds. And in between rejections, I’d rewrite according to the last skill I learned or the latest critique.

Baker_Tattered Legacy (1)I buried myself in that book, refusing to give it up. By the time I finally got a nano-press to accept it, I couldn’t tell you what I’d translated onto the page and what only survived in my head. It was a goulash of partially rewritten scenes, action changed to meet so many others’ ideas, styles and timelines. When I started writing the book, data was stored on CDs and used in desktop computers. When I published it, thumb drives and cell phones were common.

I probably shouldn’t have turned it out for public consumption but publishing seemed the only way for me to let it go and move on.

I can’t say the next book was perfect, but it did rise and cook evenly all the way through. And to follow this analogy to the ridiculous, every book since then has been full of better quality ingredients that just weren’t available for that first pancake. And now I’m thinking of clever ways to incorporate butter and syrup metaphors, layering pancake on pancake to create a towering stack of literature, but I’ll go ahead and give you all a break.

I’ve got my rights back to that book. And I still believe in the story, even after the disaster execution. Every now and then, I get the notion I should pull it out and with my new skills, rework it. Again. The premise is great. The concept is still valid.

So far, my wiser side has prevailed. (That and my friends and family get a rabid gleam in their eyes when I mention it.) I’ll let the dog enjoy that First Pancake book and happily introduce the third book in the stack called the Nora Abbott Mystery Series, Tattered Legacy.

It’s set in the iconic red rocks of Moab, UT. Working to solve the murder of her best friend, Nora uncovers an unlikely intersection of ancient Hopi legends, a secret polygamist sect and one of the world’s richest men. Will Nora put all the pieces together in time to prevent disaster?

I have a friend who declares his oldest step-child is a Pancake Child. What is a Pancake in your life?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Shannon Baker is the author of the Nora Abbott mystery series from Midnight Ink. A fast-paced mix of Hopi Indian mysticism, environmental issues, and murder. Shannon is an itinerant writer, which is a nice way of saying she’s confused. She never knows what time zone she’s in, Timbuck-Three, Nebraska, or Denver, or Tucson. Nora Abbott has picked up that location schizophrenia and travels from Flagstaff in Tainted Mountain, to Boulder in Broken Trust and then to Moab in Tattered Legacy. Shannon is proud to have been chosen Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2014 Writer of the Year. Visit Shannon at her website.

While Tattered Legacy is available from your favorite online or bookstore, if you’d like to support indie bookstores, you’re welcome to contact Who Else Books at Broadway Book Mall.  Ron and Nina are the best! And they might have a signed copy to send.

Take A Little Trip

By Mark Stevens

Two random tidbits last week got me fired up.

The first was from a story in The New Yorker about new research into the positive effects of psychedelic drugs—psilocybin in particular.

The second was a line uttered by Alexandra Fuller during a podcast of her Tattered Cover presentation for her new memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come.

Combined, the two comments got me stewing over inertia, anesthesia, deadness, stasis, status quo, acceptance, monotony, stability, order, constancy and all those other awful traits which are the bane of good fiction and the certainly mean the beginning of a long slow death for a good character.

Right?

Okay, let me back up a tad.

In the New Yorker story called “The Trip Treatment,” author Michael Pollan (author of many fine books about food, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma) dropped the following little bomb:

Most psychologists believe that your personality is “fixed” by age thirty “and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change.”

One of the cool side effects that scientists are studying is the ability of hallucinogens to alter thought patterns—and personality—not only during the “trip” but after as well. Addictions are being eliminated, for instance, and attitudes permanently altered through “psychedelic therapy.”

My mind was blown—these are researchers at top-flight institutions like N.Y.U. and John Hopkins looking into treating patients and improving the quality of life through a properly dosed trip. In the instruction manual for those taking psychedelic trips as part of the research, they are encouraged to face their monsters. Isn’t that the basis of most great fiction? (It’s a great article.)

Okay, hold that thought for a second but, if you’re over 30 years old, do you think your character is “fixed?” Do you think the personality of your characters, if they are over 30 years old, is locked in place? Are they really facing their monsters?

Next, Alexandra Fuller’s speech at The Tattered Cover attacked—and I do mean attacked—how men have generally screwed up the world and it’s time for the male of the species to step aside and give women a shot. Can’t be much worse, can it?

This was one of many themes in a powerful talk about identity and self and women finding true, unadorned freedom.

Fuller is a force. She’s feisty, forward and, from what I gather, fearless. (Must now read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.)

Anyway, Fuller talked a lot about society growing comfortable and complacent and encouraged everyone listening to get down to their “absolute bedrock of self” and understand what voices are running their lives. Her message was aimed particularly at women, almost kind of a “rise up out of your chairs” speech from the movie “Network.” She invoked Franz Kafka’s rejoinder that it’s a writer’s duty to take an axe to the “frozen sea” inside us.

Here’s one nugget from Fuller: “If someone else is in possession of your mind, then you’re not in possession of your voice.”

And, back to the magazine story about psychedelic study, another researcher noted how we all pay a “steep price” for the order and ego in the adult mind. Adults, he said, give up their “ability to be open to surprises, our ability to think flexibly, and our ability to value nature.”

Writes Pollan: “The sovereign ego can be a despot.”

I’m not here with answers.

I’m not here with “ta da.”

I’m just here to wonder about my characters and how to give them a good jolt.

If they aren’t challenging the voices in their heads, the voices running their lives, then they are slouching and slipping toward anesthesia.

And that’s not a recipe for powerful stories.

So I’ve got to figure out a way to have them face their monsters, grab the axe and whack the frozen sea.

Maybe I need to send them on a little trip.

kafka quote