Step Right Up

"Hurry, hurry, hurry! Step right up! The show's about to begin! For the price of one thin dime see wonders beyond imagining. Sales beyond your wildest dreams and begin earning good money right out of the box! Hurry, hurry, hurry."

Yeah. No.

P.T Barnum gets the credit for "There's a sucker born every minute" but it's more likely author is a Chicago conman named Michael MacDonald(1). With the rise of self-publishing and the subsequent success of self-published titles, the hardcore scammers and Johnny-Come-Lately wannabees have proliferated like daffodils in the spring--each eager to fleece the hopeful, the earnest, and the gullible.

And they keep finding new flocks to fleece every day.

How to keep from being clipped.

  1. Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: Whose books does this company publish? If they call themselves a "self-publishing company" and they want to publish your book, it's a rip-off. The degree to which they're willing to fleece you is the only differentiation. If a company publishes books, it's a publisher. If they only publish their own books, they're a self-publishing company and they're not going to publish yours. If they're trying to say they're something they're not, they're warming up the shears in the back.
  2. Do your diligence: Google the company name with "scam" as an additional identifier. There's a wealth of data which should be making it more difficult for the shearers but too many people see a glossy website and a promising pitch without remembering the golden rule of grift: If it seems too good to be true, save your gold.
  3. Who pays whom?: If you're paying them, it's a scam. This shouldn't be confused with a self-publishing author who pays an editor or cover artist for their services. Of course you'll pay but the editor will give you your file back and the cover artist won't try to upload your books to the storefronts for you. That's on you, as it should be.
  4. Ask around: If you're still not sure about a company, even after exercising a bit of Google-fu, then ask somebody you trust. There are whole communities of people who can give you guidance--people with no vested interest in separating you from your money--or your book.

The whackamole process of avoiding scammers while still trying to self-publish can seem daunting. It's not really that difficult as long as you remember that anybody with a few bucks and a willingness to lie to your face can make a good living. Some of the worst offenders have been around for decades as vanity presses. They've only changed their storefronts, not their businesses. They're expert in separating the sheep from the goats--and the gullible author from his money.

Just because there's a sucker born every minute doesn't mean it has to be you.

 

1. Asbury, H. (1940). Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld. New York, NY: Knopf.
 
Image Credit: W C Fields as Gabby Gilfoil in Two Flaming Youths (Paramount, 1927).
Image Donated by Corbis-Bettmann to Explore PA History.

Thrillers: Part 4 of 4: Plotting And Pacing

The key to any fiction is tension. Romantic tension, professional tension, survival, etc. In a thriller, the tension is primarily adversarial in nature. Here, whether our protagonist is striving for some sort of reconciliation, kumbaya moment with the antagonist or is willing to stop them at all cost, the thriller is driven forward by the intensity of the conflict between our hero and our villain. The more intense the conflict the better.

Some thrillers open with an inciting moment that amps the conflict up to eleven right from the start, but maintaining that level of intensity through an entire novel can be challenging. You must be sure that your story has enough constant tension to carry it through to the end. This can also sometimes be a little much for readers, who may need to set your book aside if only to catch their own breath for a moment. There is then the slow burn: a build-up of tension from what may seem an innocuous incident at the beginning, mounting through a series of cause and effect events of ever greater intensity that eventually lead to the all-out war of good or bad outcome.

One method of maintaining tension throughout your book is the ticking clock. Whether it is a loved one dying of a rare disease the cure of which must be found or gulp; an actual ticking bomb (or multiple bombs) that must be found before it explodes; or simply a deadline by which the antagonist must complete their preparations in order to meet some window of opportunity for their plan to succeed. The last one places the ticking clock not only on our hero but the villain as well.

In contrast to, say, the mystery, the romance, or the historical, thrillers generally have few quiet, introspective moments. Character development must be done on the fly, in the midst of conflict and tension, the quiet moments brief and still filled with the tension of an oncoming missile which may not be here yet, but whose whistle we can hear bearing down on us from the air.

The greatest challenge, I think, in writing the thriller is finding the right pace of building tension, and maintaining tension throughout the book. This is what the thriller writer must focus on primarily.

Do you have some examples in thrillers you've enjoyed or, most importantly, learned from? Let me know in the comments below.

Panic Time

Gack! I just found out my book will be released in ebook and print on January 10th. I knew it would be sometime in early 2018 but was hoping for February at the earliest. My first book didn’t come out until almost 18 months after I accepted the offer. My last book with this publisher was scheduled three months ahead. But now, because so many writers drag out the editing process, my publisher doesn’t schedule release dates until the book is almost ready to go.

So, I have six weeks to send out review copies, write tweets, pick out excerpts, update my website, figure out how to send out a newsletter, write blog posts and promo copy, book a blog/review tour, sign up for the PAL mailer and organize advertising. And that’s just the things that come to mind immediately.

Oh, and there’s the little matter of the holidays in between now and then. Which at my house is a big deal, as my husband loves Christmas and we usually go all out. And we won’t even talk about the fact that I need to keep writing the next book in the series or I’ll never finish it and any following I’ve built with this book will go to waste.

What’s a person to do? Make lists, I guess, and then start working on my least favorite part of being an author. I’ve always hated promotion. It seems unnatural, awkward and downright embarrassing. I was raised in a social culture where it was rude to boast, or even draw attention to yourself. I was trained to deflect compliments and always be self-deprecating. And being female, the admonitions were even more intense. It was considered a tiny bit more acceptable for a man to promote himself. But a woman? No way.

The only hope for me is to pretend I’m promoting someone else. And I am. I’m promoting my hero and heroine. Especially my heroine. Because she is strong and determined and willing to break all the rules. She refuses to be modest and demure and biddable and everything that society in her time period said was the only way for a woman to be. (Funny how little things have changed in 800 years.) The book is named for her: Lady of Steel. She’s willing to defy all the conventions and risk everything because she’s doing it all for her son, whom she loves more than anything in the world. And that’s what I need to tell myself: I’m doing this all for my book, which I slaved away at for over a year (or actually twenty, as I first came up with the idea for the story that many years ago). For my heroine and hero and my story, that I still love, even after the tenth rewrite and the fourth time proofreading.

OK. Got it. My pep talk worked. Sort of. Now to finish this blog post and start on that list.

Happy holidays, everyone!

How to Pull Off a One-Day Writing Retreat

This November, I participated in NaNoWriMo with the goal of finishing the first draft of my next novel. I had a disadvantage, though, because I had family visiting for a week at the end of November. Unsure if three weeks would be enough to finish my draft, I decided to try something new at the end of those three weeks: a one-day mini-retreat.

I checked into a hotel at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday and checked out at 11:00 a.m. the following day. In that time, besides getting eight hours of sleep and eating two meals, I wrote over 12,000 words and got my first draft finished. It was easy, cheap, and invaluable—here’s how I did it.

  1. Get a room. It’s important to get away from your natural habitat, and all the distractions that come with it. If you can afford it, get a hotel for the night. Join hotel loyalty programs like I did, and put your points toward your retreat. If you can’t swing it financially, try a cheaper alternative like Airbnb, or ask a friend if you can hole up in their guest room for a night.
  2. Plan your meals. Snacks are fine, but you can’t get through a write-a-thon on protein bars alone. You need real food to keep those creative juices flowing. If you get a hotel with a fridge and microwave, you can bring leftovers to reheat between writing stints. Or, if there are restaurants near your hotel, you can take a break to grab dinner.
  3. Plan your words, too. When I’m struggling to get words on the page, the problem is never my typing speed—rather, it’s a lack of ideas. Set yourself up for success by mentally diving into your WIP the night before. Think about what you want to work on during your retreat. Make a list of scenes you could write, settings that need descriptions, or characters that need development. When you begin your retreat, you won’t have to waste any time thinking about what to write—just review your list and get to work.
  4. Ditch distractions. When you arrive at your retreat, set the tone for the rest of your stay by organizing your new space, settling in, and writing. For me, this meant clearing the coffee tray and phone from the desk, setting up my laptop, filling my water bottle, and turning on my favorite ambient sounds for writing (they’re Harry Potter-themed, and you can find them here). Don’t turn on the TV. Don’t check your email or Facebook. If needed, send a text message to your loved ones—then silence your phone and put it somewhere out of sight and out of reach.
  5. Adjust your goals as you go. You should go into your retreat with some idea of what you want to get done—preferably, something ambitious yet reasonable. For me, it was writing 9,000 new words. When I hit 9,000 at 9:00 a.m. Saturday, I could have given myself a pat on the back and left early. Instead, I set a new goal: 3,000 more words before checkout at 11:00.
  6. Take breaks. Writing is hard, and exhausting. I kept a pace of about 2,000 words per hour in the first two hours of my retreat, then slowed to half that in the third hour. I realized I was starting to lag; I needed a break to recharge. I stopped for dinner and a shower, then returned to the novel with renewed energy. Don’t feel bad taking breaks—in fact, you should plan to. But you should also plan when the break will end, and hold yourself to it.
  7. Push yourself. This retreat isn’t supposed to be relaxing. You’ll be drained by the time it’s over, but you’ll also have some major progress on your WIP. Be prepared to work hard. Then, when it’s over, celebrate.

Have You Googled Today?

I just Googled myself. I’ve done it now and then, and I’ve set up a Google alert (but all that does is tell me someone with my name got arrested for cruelty to animals, which really isn’t what I had in mind), but I was reading an article on making sure you have a “platform” and decided to do it again.

Of the first six items on the main page, the top two were Facebook telling people they could find me there. The third one was LinkedIn saying there were fifty Terri Bensons listed. Googling

But, the next three were my website and my book. Yeah, me! A co-worker suggested I look at images as well, and I found myself starting on line three – so not too bad again. I don’t post a lot of photos of me or my family – most of them are business photos from our office website or RMFW, or the ones associated with my book launch. There was this lady in the orange jumpsuit (no, it’s not the new black!) with the big label “Terri Benson” and side bars that say CaseyAnthony.com – not a good look for her, and not really anyone I want to be associated with. Image of

But it was interesting to see how much I showed up (or didn’t) online. I only have the one book out, but I do have a website and a personal Facebook, which may or may not be connected to a business and/or author page (Facebook and I are having a bit of a battle about that). I had a Twitter account until my provider quit (providing, that is) and Twitter demands that you log on only with the original e-mail address, no matter what, in order to change your e-mail (??!!??), so the two Tweets and three followers (how the heck did that happen) I had are out there somewhere in the ozone, all alone.

I realize I need to do better. And I’m thinking about it. I use Facebook and Twitter daily for work, and so far my stubborn brain is telling my marketing brain that I’ve already done my share for the day and it isn’t going to go any further. That’s another thing I’m working on – getting my brains all on the same wavelength, but no luck so far.

So, have you Googled today? If not, try it. And if nothing else, you’ll find some really creepy person who has the same name and will explain the looks you got from co-workers a couple weeks ago, right?

Oh, and Write On!

WHEN, WHERE, and HOW do I write a book?

I’ve been so busy writing, editing, and reading, I almost forgot about this blog.

 

WHEN:

A wise friend of mine said to me, “Time is there, you just have to take it.”

If you have trouble with it, then tough. That’s right, I said it—tough! Too many writers use lack of time as an excuse not to write. When you say you don’t have the time, what you are really saying is, “Something else is more important right now than writing.” ~Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D

Create a schedule (please don’t forget about pets, spouses, children, and a steady income).

An old song’s chorus begins like this: "To everything there is a season..." Be sure this is the right season for you to write an entire manuscript. If not, one suggestion is keeping separate files for future characters, settings, plots, etc.

If you ride a bus to and from work, well, there you have it.

 

WHERE:

Be prepared to write wherever you may safely do so. Jeffery Deaver writes in his office in the dark. The only light is from two computers, one for internet use and one for writing. Anne Perry often writes (by hand) overlooking a beach.

“When you’re reading, you’re not where you are; you’re in the book. By the same token, I can write anywhere.” ~Diana Gabaldon

 

HOW:

Invest in you. Join RMFW for classes, retreats, conferences, blogs, critique groups, or monthly presentations. There are many incredible authors (traditionally published and self-published) willing to help—check out the wealth of education, knowledge, and experience our members have.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.” ~Stephen King

“You start at the end, and then go back and write and go that way. Not everyone does, but I do. Some people just sit down at the page and start off. I start from what happened, including the why.” ~Anne Perry

Be observant. “You see something, then it clicks with something else and it will make a story. But you never know when it’s going to happen.” ~Stephen King

Participate in RMFW’s NovelRama. “25,000 words in 4 days. Because you can.”

Interaction, Engagement, Influence

Back in the 40's Abraham Maslow(1) put forth the proposition that humans are motivated by needs. Maslow postulates that each low level need must be satisfied before the next higher need can be addressed. It makes a certain sense. Without the foundation, you can't build walls. Without the walls, you can't build the roof. His pyramid of needs has served as a model for understanding human behavior ever since.(2)

I maintain that a similar hierarchy exists in social media marketing.

Marketing is about getting people to do what you want. Doesn't matter if you're selling toothpaste, insurance, or an elected official. Your goal is to get people to do the thing you need them to do. Buy the toothpaste. Enroll in the plan. Vote for the person. For that to happen you have to influence the public's behavior.

Mass marketing has been with us almost forever. From the Molly Malone to carny barkers. From paperboys to fast food restaurants. From magazines and billboards to television and radio. Mass media has developed some pretty compelling models regardless of what scale the seller operates on. The mass marketing is getting your message to as many people as possible in the hope that some tiny fraction of people will hear your message and take the desired action.

Social media marketing has only really been a thing for the last twenty years or so. The desired result - get people to take the desired action - is the same but the process is different. Social media marketing strives to get your message to only those people who want to hear it so that a large percentage of those people will do what you want. Mass market techniques are antithetical to social media because social media messaging is controlled by the receiver, not the sender.(3)

That's a long set up to understand the three levels that govern social media marketing.

Interaction is the base. Without some level of interaction, nothing else is possible. It's where you get likes, retweets, and followers. It's requires nearly nothing of the receiver - only that they don't block, unfriend, or unfollow you. Most social media marketing advice tells you how to grow your numbers but not how to move up the pyramid.

Engagement is the next tier. This is where people actually pay attention to you, maybe talk back to you by leaving comments or adding their own ideas to a re-tweet. Engagement is a required - but not sufficient - condition.

Influence is the goal. Just like mass media marketing, social media marketing works to get people to do what you want. For authors - particularly self published ones - it's "buy the book." There are other less demanding goals that you might pursue - sign up for the email list, leave a review, tell a friend - but the ultimate goal for authors in doing social media marketing is to sell more books.

Here's the thing:

Most measures of influence *kough*klout*kough* use interaction as a proxy for engagement. Advice on how to get more followers, more friends, bigger numbers only applies to interaction. Sure you need to reach people but these numbers by themselves are meaningless. How many are bots? How many just follow you because you're a joke to them? How many just clicked like because it's almost a reflex action and not any kind of thoughtful response?

You can actually get a sense for engagement by comments and quoted retweets. It's a rough measure because most engagement will come from the lurkers - that 90% of people below the surface who actually follow what you do and pay attention to it, think about it, but don't actually step out of the ether to make themselves known to you. It's why counting doesn't really work here. Numbers aren't the answer and can be misleading.

Influence is even harder to measure because the action you want people to take isn't an action done in social media. It's invisible in that realm and only shows up in sales. The problem gets compounded by delays between message and action fostered by the internet. _Once on the internet, forever on the internet._ A comment you left on somebody's blog last month could drive a sale next week. Messages you put out last year could result in actions taken next year. You find yourself in the position of seeing a spike in sales when you've done nothing to promote your work, because somebody somewhere referenced a tweet that you responded to and forgot about.

Bottom line:

Keep interaction going by remembering that - on social media - "yes" is conditional but "no" is forever. Foster engagement by being engaged with your audience - don't robo-tweet, reply to comments, like and +1 posts. Remember that your goal is not numbers, but engagement. A mailing list of 20,000 names where only one or two percent click through to your book is much less valuable than a list of 1000 names where eighty percent open and fifty percent click through. It means you have more influence and it's influence that gets you sales.

 

  1. Maslow, A.H. (1943). "A theory of human motivation"Psychological Review50 (4): 370–96. doi:10.1037/h0054346 – via psychclassics.yorku.ca.
  2. The other model is called the "expectation theory" - or sometimes "drives theory." It suggests that people are motivated by experience and that a person's motivation to undertake a task will be based on prior experience and their expectation of how much they'll enjoy the reward they'll get from doing it. Restated: If you expect to enjoy your day on the job, you'll be more motivated to do it than if you expect your day will suck. If your day doesn't suck (or doesn't suck as much), you're going to be more motivated to go back tomorrow and vice versa.
  3. Social media is "pull." The receiver pulls messages they want to get by controlling who they're willing to get messages from regardless of channel. Mass media is "push" because messages are pushed to every receiver who uses the channel regardless of whether the receiver wants it or not.

Jack Up The Moderation

The 'Urban Noir' panel at Bouchercon 2017 last month in Toronto.

Such a calm word—moderator.

Merriam Webster: “Someone who leads a discussion in a group and tells each person when to speak: someone who moderates a meeting or discussion.”

I’ve been going to book conferences for years and for some reason this year I sat in on a few panels led by some truly awful moderators.

I’ve also seen some knock-outs.

So I’m offering the following suggestions and recommendations.

I mean, holy cow people! If you get asked to moderate a panel at Bouchercon (the annual conference for mystery writers and mystery readers) it’s very possible that several hundred people will be watching. Listening. It’s their chance to meet new writers, get to know them. As moderator, it's your job to give them a showcase moment.

ELEVEN RULES FOR BOOK CONFERENCE PANEL MODERATORS:

1. Read your panelists’ latest books. Really read them. Don’t skim. Get to know their themes and characters. Yes, this takes time. But the moderator gig is a good one—for you, too. Don’t give it short shrift.

2. Study up on your panelists’ bios. Do a bit of research and dig out a fun fact or two about their lives—it might come in handy.

3. Speaking of bios, don’t use up a quarter of the panel time reading introductions. The bios are in all the programs. A couple sentences will do. Thirty seconds! Think top line of Wikipedia. Sample: “Stephen King writes horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, science fiction, and fantasy. His books have sold more than 350 million copies, many of which have been adapted into feature films, miniseries, television series, and comic books. King has published 54 novels and six non-fiction books. He has written around 200 short stories. His bookshelf is crammed with major awards.”

4. Huddle with your panelists before the show. A huddle on email is fine, sure. Tell them how you’re going to run things. Send them a few sample questions to give them an idea of the issues you want to cover. Help them look good. The more they can prepare, the better their chances of leaving a good impression (and not stumbling around for an answer).

A Left Coast Crime panel (2016) moderated by William Kent Krueger (center). Also, left to right: Lou Berney, Lisa Brackmann, Chris Holm, James W. Ziskin.

5. Write meaningful questions that show a bit of insight and analysis. Look for genuine comparisons among your panelists’ works. And also how the works diverge—setting, style, narrative voice, level of morality, anything.

6. Write those questions down and then make them tight and clean. The more the questions are precisely about the writers on your panel, the better. Stock questions lead to stock answers. Stock answers are snoozeville. Develop questions designed to provoke debate or, at least, solid discussion. Do not show up and ramble your way into a question.

7. Speak up. At Bouchercon this year in Toronto, one moderator spoke as if she was in a back booth in a dark restaurant whispering like a nervous informant to the FBI. If she smiled more than the Mona Lisa, I missed it. If you’re not up for showing a bit of enthusiasm, don’t take the gig.

8. Listen to the answers! You may have a list of questions, but react to what’s being said. Engage. It’s a dialogue. You’re sparking conversation. On the other hand, cut off the spotlight hogs. (You can warn your team about your expectations on the issue of rambling on during the pre-panel huddle.) You are in charge so … take charge. And if other panelists are too brisk with their comments, probe deeper. Press for more detail.

9. Pretend it’s the only panel that matters. Your panel is NOT just another panel. This is YOUR panel. It’s the only one as far as you’re concerned. The writers you’re leading? If they are on one panel during the whole conference, then this is their moment in the spotlight—even if it’s 8 a.m. on Sunday morning. It’s your job to make that light bright, entertaining, meaningful, and fun.

10. Leave time for audience questions. If you’re running a 50-minute panel, leave at least five or ten minutes for the audience. If there are none, have a few more questions ready to go.

11. Leave yourself out of it as much as possible. That includes criticizing something that’s been said. Even if your impromptu quip is meant to be funny, it’s a really bad idea to accidentally put one of your panelists down in front of a crowd. This ain’t about you. Wait your turn to be a panelist and hope for a good moderator. A really good one. Like you.

Writer, Beware

One of the things agents and editors will often say is “Don’t write to the market.” The idea is that by the time you finish the book, the market will have moved on and something else will be popular. Unfortunately, the writers who usually get the most interest in pitch appointments are those who are pitching something that is popular at the time. Those writers also often end up selling those books, because even though agents and editors may really be looking for something new and different, their marketing departments want something that’s a sure bet.

Gone Girl came out five years ago and was immediately a sensation. It “created” a new sub-genre: the domestic thriller, with a twisty-turny plot set within the intimate circumstances of a relationship/household. The phenomenon grew as the movie came out, and then Girl on the Train and several other “girl” books had huge sales.

Suddenly, the domestic thriller/psychological thriller was the hot ticket. Of course, writers had been writing books like that for years, but now editors were clamoring for them. Other unpublished writers thought “I can do that,” and started writing them, too. Some of them sold those books, probably thinking they were finally breaking out and embarking on a great writing career.

Fast forward to this year, and I can tell you, as someone who purchases popular fiction from literary journals, that there are dozens of domestic thrillers being published. Dozens. I order quite a few, because it is a popular genre. But I can’t possibly buy even a majority of them. I have to spend our budget on other types of books for other readers. There are just so many domestic thrillers to choose from. And the longer the trend goes on, the pickier I have to be.

I think about those writers who wrote those books that are coming toward “the end of the wave,” and I feel bad for them. Because their books are probably going to tank. No matter how good they are, their books are going to get lost in the staggering pile of similar books. And suddenly, those writers’ new careers, which seemed so promising, will be over. Some of them will reinvent themselves and write something else, and find another genre where they will be successful. Others, who are really prolific and determined and energetic, will go the indie author route and keep writing the same kind of book and building their fan base and also be successful. Some of them will flounder around for years trying to find “the next big thing” so they can get another shot. Some of them will, probably, at least for a while, quit writing.

What can a writer in the early stages of their career learn from all this? There are lots of things to think about: Are you the kind of writer who can write to the market? Do you have lots of different types of stories in your head? Or are there really only one or two genres that truly call to you? Can you write fast? Are you a natural marketer, someone who knows how to promote themselves and is comfortable doing so? Are you comfortable “writing to live” (i.e., making money writing is your main goal)? Or do you “live to write” (i.e., writing feeds your soul and you need the satisfaction of creative expression to be happy)? Is your main goal to be published and get that validation? Or do you really want a long writing career?

These are things to think about before you go down the path of writing to the market. It’s a tricky, sometimes treacherous route. There can be huge rewards at the end. Or there can be desolation and despair. In this era, when there is so much information on writing, so many tools and resources, it just makes sense to think about the hard realities. I wish it wasn’t like that. I wish we could all go back to being starry-eyed, creative dreamers, hoping for our lucky break. But you can indulge those things. You just have to put all that emotion and passion and heedless longing into the creative process. Which is something that will never break your heart or let you down.