Tag Archives: Liesa Malik

Judging A Book By Its Cover

By Liesa Malik

Malik_DierdreThree seconds is all you get. Three seconds to make the difference between a sale and a pass on your book. No matter how much time you as an author have put into your novel, or how carefully your work has been edited, artist Deirdre Wait of High Pines Creative knows you have those very few seconds to attract attention, make an impression, and influence the purchase of your book off a shelf. It’s her job to make those seconds count.

“Anyone with a computer may think they’re a designer,” said Deirdre, “but a good design requires technical and research skills as well as good ideas.”

She should know. For twelve years, Deirdre and her artist husband, Chris, have produced successful covers for Thorndike Press, Five Star Publishing, and independent authors. Generally, they produce 30 to 50 projects a month. Five years ago, the Waits moved to Salida, and currently work from a ranch they own there.

“As people, we may not have a long time on this earth, so Chris and I work on having a good time while we’re here.”

Deirdre didn’t start out to become a cover designer. She has a degree in marketing with several credits toward an additional degree in English literature, and her first work was on a newspaper selling ad space. But then, Chris, who has a background in software, purchased a home computer and Quark Express. The two artists learned that software and began selling more and more of their work.

“With this work, we never get bored,” said Deirdre. “In other design work, you’re told exactly what the client wants and you produce it. But with book covers, you have nothing to work from but the publisher’s notes, and through them, the author’s wishes. This is a real challenge, but we like it.”

STEPS TO A COVER DESIGN

Even with no specific graphics to work from, there are still steps to producing a quality cover design. Those requirements vary for each cover in order to preserve the individualism of the authors. Here are some of the items Deidre uses to produce a good cover:

  • Ask, what is the book about? Who is the audience? – If you were designing a cover for a cozy, you wouldn’t want to go into the dark tones of a hard-boiled mystery. Try to use color schemes that the audience may be drawn toward.
  • Research for the correct time period and props – “One time we were designing a cover for a Western, and used the wrong gun type. You can bet we heard about that very quickly,” said Deidre.
  • Produce covers that catch attention in 3 seconds or less – “Did you know that Amazon puts up about 100,000 new titles each day? No one has time to go through them all carefully, so as an artist, I have to provide a reason to stop skimming and look more carefully at my books."
  • Develop a mood for the book, and then dive into image searches. "Right now, I’m working on a cover for a story set in India. I’ve asked a lot of friends for images and cloth samples, and am finally ready to put the design in place."
  • Type is important, hugely important. For a while, it looked like cover designs would be pushed to the side with the advent of the ebook. However, Deirdre said that the new media delivery system has as much call for artists as ever, if not more. “Now you need to consider type very carefully,” said Deirdre, “because you have to format your ebooks to be displayed on the new smart phone platform. She said the image on a phone can be as small as one quarter inch wide by one half inch tall. If you use a script or other complex typeface, chances are the design will fall apart at such a small size. Use big type, she said, because it truly pops in the small images used today.

TIPS FOR AUTHORS

If you’re planning to hire someone to do your book cover art, or you want to send across good ideas for your publisher to pursue, Deidre suggests these tips:

  • Take the design process seriously, and work to communicate your vision with words. This is difficult, but not impossible.
  • Be prepared to spend a reasonable amount of money for the cover art. People claiming that they can develop a cover for $50 - $75 are generally not going to have the credentials and experience to get you what you want in a timely fashion. You should expect to pay $200 or more for a good design. The high end for designs is about $3,000, but that is for big name publishers using special papers, inks, and printing forms.
  • Boil your design down to as few objects as possible. Don’t ask for an entire scene to go into your cover. It clutters the page and dilutes the message. It invites people to go to the next book, instead of yours.
  • Don’t give too much away. If people can get the whole story on the cover, why should they buy the book?
  • Work on creating the best title you can. This way both your reader and your artist will be excited.

Lastly, Deirdre said, “No matter what they say, every single person out there is going to judge your book by its cover. Everybody likes pictures, even if they’re only on the cover.”

Setting Smart Goals for 2015

By Liesa Malik

New Year's Resolutions. Bah, humbug, right? The whole practice of writing down what amount to goals that seem firmer just by calling them "resolutions" can be intimidating and defeatist.

Me? I've always liked this clean-slate time of year.  At least for a week or so I haven't goofed up my brand new year.  I really will lose those ten pounds, leap tall buildings in a single bound, write that best-selling novel that gets turned into an Academy Award Winning motion picture, earn millions, and go live in the Bahamas when Colorado winters get to me.

But wait!

A resolution is a goal, a plan, a firm decision--not a wish and a dream.  And here's where the conflict begins.  As writers, our job is to live in a semi-dream state for a good deal of our time.  Without our imaginations we couldn't conjure up the stories we do.  Without a wish, our heroes and heroines would be, well, just like us.  We need that skewed perspective on life.

But as professional writers, we also need a foot firmly planted on the ground.  We need to take our literary vision and make it a reality. So how can we blend the two?

In my work as a marketing professional for twenty years, I've had this conflict a lot (both with my own goals and those of my clients).  Over time, I've learned to embrace it, and one of the best tools I know to do so is the S.M.A.R.T. goal. Here's how it might work for a writer.

One: Dream Big

Think of all the writing projects, awards, accomplishments, and kudos that could happen this New Year.  Go ahead.  Shoot for the stars.  Say things like, "I will finish that novel I've been working on and write a complete second novel to boot!" or "I will write twelve short stories that will make it into the finals of the Writer's Digest annual competition."  You can even go so far as to jot down, "My mother will be so proud of me!"  Whatever your heart truly desires.  Take time to enjoy a great vision of  yourself (hey, we're all entitled to a holiday gift from ourselves, right?)

Two: S is for Specific

Now take your dreams and turn them into a list of goals.  But be specific.  Writing a novel is a good goal, but a novel can be a romance, a murder, a sci-fi piece, and a novel can be 80,000 words or 120,000 or anything you determine is right for your project.  The point here is to choose what specifically is right for you.  Go ahead.  Look through your dreams and write down a few specific goals.

Three: M is for Measurable

Eew! As writers, measurable sounds an awful lot like math--hex, gag, whatever!  But being measurable doesn't have to be intimidating.  Let's say you've chosen to write a novel in the mystery genre. That's nice and specific.  But let's make that goal measurable by putting a word count to it.

"I will write a mystery novel with a goofy protagonist who likes romance but keeps stumbling across dead bodies in 85,000 words."

Wow. That is both specific and measurable. Cool. What's next?

Four: A is for Actionable

Now is where we start to deep dive on a goal.  What actions can we take to get that novel written? In other words, what smaller goals do we need to put into place to make that new novel appear in electronic form instead of in dreamworld hopes?  Here are some things I would consider as good actions:

  • Make a character list
  • Write character biographies or backgrounds
  • Develop a theme or life question that really challenges me
  • Write a list of obstacles or challenges that might appear by putting two or more of my characters in a life-defining situation
  • Write a short outline of "what happened" from each character's point of view
  • Make a master outline (sorry pants-ers, us plotters need this sometimes)
  • Write 1,000 words a day in my first draft

Five: R is for Realistic

Ouch! Who wants real in a creative writing project?  Well, to be honest, I do.  I have a hard time thinking that maybe one day I'll have a novel published when I don't have a plan to get that novel written.  For a goal to be realistic you need to be in control of the outcome.  You can't say "I'll get a contract for six new novel sales this year" because you don't control the editors and agents who might offer that contract.  However, you can say "I'll pitch to twenty agents and editors each month this year," and then you can have realistic hopes of landing a contract.

Six: T is for Time-Bound

Again, this may sound restrictive at first, but in reality a project with a beginning, middle and END is very satisfying.  Let's say you've been working on a novel for oh, six or seven years.  Will this be the year you finish it?  YES!  If you tell  yourself you'll have goals X,Y, and Z done by June 15th and that date comes, you have the power to say, "Know what? I've put enough time into this project. Do I still want to invest more in it, or do I want to go on to something new?"  That isn't being a quitter.  That is being realistic.  Some projects work, and others don't.  If you're into your new novel and the deadline (decision time) looms, you can sit back and say, "Okay, I'm behind schedule, but I can get back on track by doing . . . " It's your decision.

Yes. I like resolutions.  But I love SMART goals.  Wishing you a wonderful holiday season and a New Year that's filled with SMART writing success.

Bouchercon Delivers the Thrills

By Liesa Malik

Bouchercon, the world's largest fan-based crime, mystery, and thriller convention was held in Long Beach, CA this past weekend.  Colorado's literary community was well represented, and several RMFW members attended, including writer-of-the-year, Shannon Baker, Programs chair, Mark Stevens, and authors like Mike Befeler, Christine Goff, and Susan Spann.  As one fan said, "What a party it was!"

What is Bouchercon?

Malik_Bouchercon3Bouchercon (or B-con) is best understood by looking as much at what the convention is not, as what it is.  B-con is not a writer's only event.  There are no technical sessions on POV, or filling in the middle of your story.  Nor are the casual discussions centered around whether or not Indy-publishing is going to take over the writing world, how to find an agent, or how you'll get going on that next manuscript.

But the convention is still packed with information important to anyone who writes or aspires to write a great story. And the big reason for this is found in the attendee list.

Who goes to Bouchercon?

photo courtesy of Mike Befeler

photo courtesy of Mike Befeler

The guest list for this event is huge.  Approximately 2000 authors, editors, agents and fans come together to talk, sell, and acknowledge great writing.  It is not unusual to have a conversation with such greats as Jeffrey Deaver, Sue Grafton, or Deni Deitz.  Just as important, are the conversations you have with librarians and heavy duty readers, many of whom read as much as a book a day.

Photo courtesy of Mike Befeler

Photo courtesy of Mike Befeler

"This convention doesn't have just over-the-top fans," said Mark Stevens. "They aren't hunting down the famous writers, but are thoughtful readers. "

"It is a very humbling experience," said Rocky Mountain Mystery Writer of America author, Catherine Dilts.  "I've had a few readers tell me that this is their big vacation of the year.  That thought reminds me to keep trying my best to write a good story.  I'm in the entertainment business and my books are for these readers."

The Anthony Awards

Malik_Bouchercon1Catherine is right, both figuratively and literally.  Each year at Bouchercon, attendees vote for their favorite works of crime fiction.  These votes result in the Anthony Awards, named after Anthony Boucher, a science fiction writer who was very influential with his many years of writing mystery reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times.  This year's winners included William Kent Krueger, best novel, for Ordinary Grace; Matt Coyle, best first novel Yesterday's Echo, Catriona McPherson, As She Left It, and John Connolly, best short story, "The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository."  More Anthony awards can be found at Crimespree Magazine's website.

If You Go

Bouchercon is an annual event, and well worth the effort to attend.  Many conference attendees reserve their places for "next year" while still at the current convention.  If you decide to go, here are some tips from one newbie to another:

  • Wear comfy shoes and clothes.  Even if the event is in one or two buildings, there is a lot of walking.
  • Bring SWAG. There are many opportunities to hand out your information.
  • Go to the panels.  These showcases of authors' works add an extra dimension to your own efforts, and the moderators ask insightful questions that you can mull over when you get back to your writing desk.
  • Network.  If you're looking for readers, you'll find them.  If you want to work on building your author presence in our community, again, there is a lot of bang for your buck here.
  • Bring a little cash.  Rumor has it there is a poker game going on here and there and someone willing to lighten your load.
  • Have fun.  The biggest names in the industry seem to focus on this, and it seems a good lead to follow.

And as was echoing throughout on Sunday, "Had a great time!  See you in Raleigh!"

“Do you as an Amazon director approve of this policy of sanctioning books?”

By Liesa Malik

The first post on this topic was published on August 22 (Hachette vs. Amazon--Do We All Lose?) As before...any opinions expressed here are mine as an individual and do not reflect an official stance by RMFW or its members . . .

As the battle between Hachette and Amazon continues over the pricing and distribution of ebooks, Authors United took a second swipe at the on-line giant by publicly asking individual Amazon board members to reconsider the sanctions imposed on Hachette authors.

In May, Hachette and Amazon broke away from the bargaining table and took their disagreements public. While stories about the conflict started showing up in the press, Amazon apparently took out its wrath on individual authors who happen to be represented by publishing giant, Hachette Book Group. These authors, many of whom are household names, had things like competitive pop-up ads cover their author pages, delayed shipping of books, and removal of buy buttons from some of their titles.

I sat down with author Douglas Preston (co-author of the best-selling Pendergast thriller series, as well as several fiction and non-fictions works of his own) to talk about what authors may want from Amazon.

Photo credit: Christine Preston

Photo credit: Christine Preston

"We're not taking sides in this dispute, but simply asking Amazon not to target authors," said Mr. Preston. "Basically, there is a lot on the web misrepresenting our position, so this is a good opportunity to reinforce what we're trying to say."

The quiet and thoughtful writer said he decided to take action when he noticed his sales drop by 60% to 70%. "I wrote a letter hoping twelve brave authors would sign it. I've received over one thousand responses." That's how Authors United was formed.

The letter, an open missive to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, asked the online retail giant to curtail the harmful practices that were hurting individual authors. The letter went viral.

In response, Amazon started Readers United, with more verbiage to debate Mr. Preston's assertions.

Then, in the week of September 14-20, Authors United decided to take the additional step of contacting each board member of Amazon. In part, the new letter reads:

"No group of authors as diverse or prominent as this has ever come together before in support of a single cause . . ."

"We are literary novelists, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, and poets; thriller writers and debut and midlist authors. We are science fiction and travel writers; historians and newspaper reporters; textbook authors and biographers and mystery writers. We have written many of your children's favorite stories."

"Collectively, we have sold more than a billion books. Amazon's tactics have caused us profound anguish and outrage."

Mr. Preston said, "This feels like betrayal. Amazon wants authors to put up author pages, which is mutually beneficial, but we help them sell our books by listing other authors we like, reviewing other author's books, and occasionally writing blogs for them about books we like to read. We're happy to do this because everyone benefits."

Then Mr. Preston's voice took on an edge. "To add gratuitous insult, when you go to my page and pull up one of my books, a big pop-up window emerges suggesting I might enjoy another book (not by a Hachette author) at a better price."

Mr. Preston said that he's always had warm feelings for Amazon, and is himself, a Prime Member of the on-line store. But with this conflict his feelings may be undergoing change. "They (Amazon) shouldn't block sales or inconvenience customers. I can't get my own book in less than a few weeks."

Was the second letter effective? That remains to be seen, but last weekend (September 20th) an annual secret soiree held in New Mexico for big name authors and hosted by Amazon was missing some invitations—significantly, invitations to Hachette authors or those who have publicly shown support for Authors United.

I asked Mr. Preston in August if he could see a happy ending to the dispute. "What I hope," said Mr. Preston, "is that we can create a healthy eco-system in publishing for Amazon, for Hachette, for authors to be able to support themselves and feed their families.

Side Note: Attempts to contact representatives for either Amazon or Hachette have been met with refusal and reference to public relations bulletins. While I will keep an eye on this situation, this ends my entries for the RMFW blog for a while.

Tips for Conference Goers, Especially First Timers — Part II

As promised, we're back with more great advice for conference-goers from a few of your regular RMFW Blog contributors

Liesa Malik

1) Remember that all people at the conference are approachable, but it's best to have a few questions to ask. Things like "what do you like best about writing?" or "where do you see your publishing career a year/five years from now?" are a start. Just be sure you're interested in finding out the answers.

2) Go to the sessions. Yes you get a lot out of the networking, but many of the sessions are absolute gold for information and training in your writing life.

3) Buy CDs and books. The CDs are helpful reminders (and the keynotes are almost ALWAYS motivational) and the books are generally by people attending the conference. How better to support the people who are sharing their gifts with you?

Pamela Nowak

1. Workshop sessions are valuable to every attendee--we can all learn something--but select carefully. Read the descriptions and choose those aimed for your craft level and step-in-the process. If you're a new writer, stick with the basics and concentrate on where you are in the process so you are not overwhelmed. Advanced writers should focus on advanced craft or marketing or writing life sessions to complement their social recharging.

2. Take advantage of the FULL conference experience. Boost your knowledge by attending sessions. Energize by socializing with other writers. Charge up your commitment to writing by setting new goals.

Katriena Knights

1. Don't beat yourself up for not doing it "right." There are many ways to take in a con experience. You can go to the same con five, six, ten years in a row and never follow the same pattern.

2. Don't be afraid to take a break. In the past, I've spent so much time trying to do everything I thought was important that I wore myself down. If you end up flat on your back from exhaustion, con crud, or whatever, even what you're able to take home from the con isn't going to do you as much good as is could have if you listened to your brain and your body.

3. But...don't be afraid to try anything and everything. Don't limit yourself because you think an individual workshop might be "too hard" or "too basic," or not in your genre or whatever. If it looks interesting, or if something's just tweaking your brain about that event, go. There's so much to choose from that I've been known to close my eyes and point at the program to decide where to go. OTOH, I've been to conferences where I picked through the program and created a throughline for myself, following a specific topic from presenter to presenter.

I guess my basic advice is honor yourself even if you feel like you're wimping out, because you're probably not, and don't think because you didn't do what you think you should that you didn't get what you could have gotten out of the con. I have no idea if that makes sense, but I know I started enjoying this kind of thing a lot more when I started honoring my need to just get the hell away from everything and everybody from time to time.

Jeanne Stein

1. I think the most important piece of advice I can offer is don't be afraid to approach an author you've read and liked and tell them how much you enjoy their books. That's a great ice breaker. After an intro like that, every author I know would be more than willing to answer a few questions and perhaps share a tip or two about succeeding in this crazy business. And where to find the authors? If not on a panel, the bar is always a good place to start!!

Again, feel free to add your own conference tips in the comment section. And if you're attending Colorado Gold for the first time, have a wonderful time.

Hachette vs. Amazon—Do We All Lose?

By Liesa Malik

Personal Note: It has been several years (decades) since I last worked on news copy, and my journalism background is very rusty. Therefore, I have to admit to writing this with bias, and let you know that any opinions expressed here are mine as an individual and do not reflect an official stance by RMFW or its members . . .

Whether you love it or hate it, big business is here to stay, and stay involved with our lives. This is the story of two giants in the publishing industry and how we as authors might be involved.

BREAKING NEWS . . .

In May 2014, the New York Times broke a news story sure to rock the publishing industry. Hachette Book Group, fresh off an anti-trust lawsuit by the government, was the first of five major publishing houses required to re-negotiate pricing issues surrounding the ebook business. And talks weren't going well.

On the surface, the lines of this dispute were clearly drawn and easy to form opinions over. Hachette, as the publisher, would set prices for ebooks in a similar fashion to pricing for hardcover books. Some ebooks would be offered for sale at $12.99 up to nearly $20. Most of these ebooks were authored by some of the biggest names in the industry – James Patterson, Malcom Gladwell, Stephen Colbert, Douglas Preston, and more—and demand for these books would easily cover the prices asked.

On the other hand, Amazon wanted the books priced at no more than $9.99. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon has a standing phrase, "your margin is my opportunity." His focus is to bring the lowest price to everything Amazon distributes to the consumer. And that includes books.

Some problems here:

  1. The publishers claim the right to price their own products (often developed with hefty advances, public relations campaigns, and the costly editorial superiority of large publishing houses). If Amazon is allowed to price the books at below cost, the big houses could soon be in financial trouble.
  2. Amazon called foul over that thinking. In a printed statement the company said, "With an e-book, there's no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out-of-stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market—e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can be and should be less expensive."
  3. The Wall Street Journal weighed in on the pricing dilemma even before this latest dispute arose. In an April 2012 article, WSJ reporters wrote "publishers feared that $9.99 would cement consumer price expectations and make it difficult to charge more (for books) in the future." That fear drove competitors into an alliance between the five major publishers (Hachette, Harper Collins, MacMillan Publishing, Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster) and Apple computer, in which a new sales model would allow higher pricing to exist across the board. That's when Amazon complained and the government stepped in. The publishers and Apple ended up with millions of dollars of restitution to pay, and the demand that new negotiations take place.

THE PR WAR BEGINS

Soon after the break down this spring, Hachette and some of its authors began reporting on the semi-secret punishing tactics Amazon was using to drive down Hachette sales on Amazon. This is significant because Amazon owns 41% of all book sales and 61% of ebook sales in the U.S. The tactics being used were:

  • Slow delivery of book orders. Amazon claimed Hachette wasn't sending books over on time, and Hachette claimed Amazon was holding them back from consumers.
  • Removal of "Buy Buttons" from some titles
  • No ability to pre-order expected releases
  • Competitive advertising on a Hachette author's page that recommended different titles (by other publishers) at a better price.

These punitive actions were met by huge complaints in the press. Stephen Colbert even produced a questionable hand signal to the distribution giant. 

THE GLOVES COME OFF

As more and more authors found out about, and voiced concerns over, Amazon's "bullying" tactics, Amazon tried offering to pay the authors 100% of its sales of their books while the price war continued.

"That was not a real offer," said Douglas Preston (co-author with Lincoln Child of the Pendergrast series) "It was an attempt to divide authors from their publishers."

Mr. Preston dove into the fray with a letter that quickly circulated among the famous and not-so-famous author community. "I wrote that letter hoping twelve brave souls would sign it. I've received over one thousand responses. The letter went viral," said Mr. Preston.

On August 10th that same letter appeared as an advertisement in the NY Times and immediately faced tremendous support, and large skepticism.

Authors like Stephen King, Donna Tartt, and Philip Pullman "signed" and endorsed the letter, while Amazon called Mr. Preston "entitled" and "an opportunist." The Amazon team was referring to the successful career Mr. Preston has built as an author, and hinted that personal greed was the reason Mr. Preston may have written his letter.

NOW IT'S OUR TURN

The above notes only nick the surface of the publishing world at work. Some other salient points to ponder include:

  • If Amazon succeeds in cowering Hachette, will it be able to use this battle to set up negotiations with the other major publishers to its advantage?
  • Are consumers right in their demands for the lowest possible price on books? Is there such a thing as a "free lunch" in publishing?
  • As authors, are we receiving a fair deal from publishers who have little to no cost in converting our paper and hard bound books to ebooks?
  • In the past, Amazon had a program called "The Gazelle Project" where small publishers were pressured out of existence with similar tactics. In a Hachette published book by Brad Stone, The Everything Store, Mr. Bezos is supposed to have set the tone by saying Amazon "should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle." Since that became public knowledge, the program name has changed to the "Small Publishers Negotiation Program."
  • While Amazon sells 50% or more of all books sold in the United States, those sales represent only about 7% of the giant distributor's sales. Are the big five gazelles now?

I tried to reach representatives from the biggest two players in this situation. I was essentially told "no comment," and given links to press releases and public letters.

Next month, I will write up interview notes from Mr. Preston--one man, one voice who has shown once again that there is power in words.  The question is, will those words stand up to legitimate, albeit, hardball tactics by Amazon?

Collecting People

By Liesa Malik

How many books have you read recently on building characters? Not building character—as in developing your own moral compass—but building characters that you can write about in your next novel? A quick search on Amazon recently pulled up over 100,000 titles when I searched for "books, characters in fiction." Whew!

As commercial fiction writers we know that good characters are some of the most important ingredients to any story. Where would we be if Scrooge weren't such a delightfully well-rounded reluctant hero?

We've often been instructed on how to build characters, but today I want to talk about collecting them through real life adventures. Characters are in the people all around us. If we learn to use our powers of observation, and note people continuously, our stories will have a real boost up when seeking publication.

Here are some ideas for your "collecting" process:

  • Have a place to keep your collection. This could be a spiral notebook, a file on your computer, or a binder with tabs for collecting and sorting your observations. Thing is, try to keep this collection in one place. Mobility simply gives you opportunity for losing precious work (I still have a poetry book out in Atlanta, Georgia somewhere. Grr!)
  • When you're in a restaurant, look around. Find the most interesting or the most boring, cutest or ugliest person in the room and jot down a quick biography of him or her. So what that you don't know them? You're working on fiction. Pretend you're Sherlock Holmes and note things like the way they use their flatware, whether they're glued to their phone or are looking about, how they sit, how they chew, how they interact with the room around them. Give them a name that truly suits them. Bingo! You've just "collected" your first person. Here's an extra tip. If you go to a bagel or coffee shop each morning, as I do, you'll see the same people over and over. In the course of a week, you could build quite a lot of notes and history about your character. Pop them into your collection file. When you need that character, he or she will be ready to polish and run with.
  • Make a list of lists. Sitting around for fifteen minutes? You could play a game of Sudoku, or you could make a list of lists. Pull out your trusty notebook and jot down lists of people to remember. Start with the phrase "My favorite ___ is . . ." The favorites is a list of occupations or roles of people in your life: teachers, neighbors, relatives, movie stars and so on. At a later time you can choose one of these favorite roles and list actual people, or choose one favorite person and write about them.
  • Drive around and snap a photo of a house you've never been in. Okay. Got this idea from the July/August issue of Writer's Digest, but I just love it. They didn't say to take a photo, but what the heck? Live dangerously. You could only be accused of stalking, prowling, or "casing the joint." Once you have the photo or a clear image of the house, write down the story behind it and the people who live there. Bonus! You're learning to describe setting as well as build characters.
  • Be a busy body. Whenever I go to get a haircut or chat with someone on my street, inevitably people tell me stories from their lives about relatives I'll never meet, or bosses who only get worse with each retelling. When I get home I try to jot down at least part of my friends' story. It's good for building a character. One word of caution. When it comes time to retell any true tale, try to change something significant about the person gossiped over. I mark these notes with a phrase like "true recollection" and the name of who told me this, so that I know how much needs to be changed around.

This is such a fun topic that I could brainstorm all day with you. Bet you have some great ideas too. Why not comment here and let everyone know your best character-collecting tip?

Or join me this Saturday at the Lakewood Art Council's Art Gallery, 85 S. Union Street (behind the Wendy's) from 1:00 to 2:30. I'll be talking about repurposing books into arts and crafts and signing my book, Faith on the Rocks. Bet the place will be full of characters.

Have You Ever Considered Writing Nonfiction?

By Liesa Malik

Gasp! As storytellers and novelists, the word "nonfiction" can sound very constraining.  It conjures up all sorts of nasty images, like:

  • Deadlines
  • Pressure
  • Talking to, or interviewing total strangers
  • Taking notes when people talk too fast
  • Maybe even boring topics to write about.

But after over twenty years in marketing, and with a degree in journalism, I have to say that writing nonfiction is a terrific occupation for those of us who aspire to becoming published authors. Here's what I mean.

Many Great Fiction Authors Started in Nonfiction Work

Ernest Hemingway started his writing career as a reporter for the Kansas City Star, and his work in the Spanish Civil War generated the background for his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Stephen Crane never participated in the Civil War. Instead, his experience covering the Spanish-American War for the New York World led him to create The Red Badge of Courage.

And these are not the only journalists-turned-novelists. Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, E.B.White and many more learned the craft of writing through their reporting of the day's news before launching successful careers in fiction.

Writing Nonfiction Improves Your Research Skills

My granddaughter once told me she likes writing fiction because "you don't have to get all the stuff right." As experienced writers we know this isn't true. You cannot put your protagonist at a gold mine located in Limon, Colorado, because a little research will tell you that Limon is a flat, prairie town named after a railway man, and gold mining had little to do with the formation of the municipality.

But research can become a rabbit warren of wasted time without a plan. When it comes to writing nonfiction, writing several small articles on a topic of interest turns it into the background you may need for your next novel. Often, the response to one well-developed question will result in a full article of, say, 1500 words.

Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote several travel essays as he explored his world, and through the experience developed the knowledge that would help him write such great tales as "Treasure Island" and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

If you write science fiction, your research naturally lends itself to writing science. If you haven't the expertise to write deeply on a subject, you can still write for children's magazines and grow both your knowledge and your credentials from there.

If you write murder mysteries, police magazines may be a great place to both soak up the atmosphere and give you a venue to write up information you garner on investigating murders.

After all, it is said that writers often write to learn.

Writing Published Nonfiction Will Help Your Author Platform

Today, the author platform is all about you being a real person to your readers.  Unfortunately, while you and I know we're "real" we may not be "real-well-known" in the areas of literature we want.

But, when you start building a reading audience by guest posting on friends' blogs about topics you are expert in, you'll build demand for your work.

Let's say you have an elephant for a main character in your book (don't laugh: think "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen). A couple of trips to your local zoo, and a few articles written based on your growing knowledge will help others to see you as the expert you're becoming.

You'll also gain more audience from people who are interested in elephants.

And can you hear them now? "So-and-so wrote a great article on elephants for  Zoo Lovers' Digest. Now they have a novel out with elephants in it. Maybe I should give it a try."

Writing Nonfiction Adds a Positive Effect to Your Bottom Line

We are all engaged with the "starving artist" image. But do you really want to go through life without the funds you'd like, just because you write for a living? Writing nonfiction articles placed in magazines, newspapers, blogs or even your own corporate business news can pay good money. Carol Tice writes a great blog on writing commercially. She has enough business that she can even afford to turn some down.

In his book, The Freelance Writer's Bible, author David Trottier posts these popular nonfiction writing prices:

Case Studies . . . $50-$60 per hour
Ghostwriting . . . $25 - $60 per hour
Business Article . . . $.75 to $1 per word

This all adds up to great opportunity, if you're willing to use nonfiction as your stepping stone to fiction writing success.

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Liesa MalikLiesa Malik is a freelance writer and marketing consultant originally from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, but currently living in Littleton, Colorado with her husband and two pets. She has always enjoyed reading mysteries, from The Happy Hollister series, through Trixie Beldon and into Reader’s Digest’s Great True Stories of Crime, Mystery and Detection. A graduate of the University of South Florida with a degree in Mass Communications,

Liesa has built on her writing interest with long-standing membership in Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and recently joined the board of Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America. She is the author of Faith on the Rocks: a Daisy Arthur Mystery. Most days you can find Liesa either at her desk or at a local ballroom dance studio. For more about Liesa, please visit her website.

Bookends at the Broadway Book Mall

By Liesa Malik

Malik_RonandNinaElseWhat can you do when you and your spouse own more books than is possible to read in a lifetime? Open a bookstore, and end up with even more volumes, of course. For Ron and Nina Else, this is just what happened, and for the former Human Relations specialists with the government, it is a dream comes true adventure.

Ron and Nina own Who Else! Books, within the Broadway Book Mall on Broadway at Cedar. The mall houses nine vendors with a large variety of new and used titles, and a thriving community of both writers and readers to keep the place a Denver must see.

Malik_BooksonBench"We went into book selling to get rid of some of our extra books," said Nina. She glances over at Ron and they both begin to chuckle.  The Broadway Book Mall is overfilled with books, posters, and other items on just about every surface, and tucked into every corner. Ron adds his own special perspective. "I think we're hopeless book-aholics," he says.

The couple, married for 28 years, has been working side-by-side since they opened a stall at the former Denver Book Mall just a few blocks north.  He is gifted in display and stocking, and she handles the bookkeeping and general operations.

As word came that the old store was closing, Ron and Nina made a play to buy it out, but the deal fell through. Undaunted, the couple took a group of nine other booksellers and re-opened at their present location. For over four years they have been a staple of the surrounding community.

"The good part of opening this mall was that we got to choose the people to bring with us," said Nina.  "We selected them carefully, and only one person has since left—and that was for health reasons." The criteria that the Elses used to select the vendors were:

  • The people needed to be in the new venture for the love and knowledge of books
  • They had the business skills to close out the cash register properly each evening
  • They had to be very good with people. Very.

Malik_LogoAlthough the Elses are the owners of the mall location, for all intents and purposes this is a cooperative venture with several operational decisions being made by vote.  That's how they came up with the name.  And Ron quickly points out that the moniker is so good they could even use it if they moved to New York. Nina looks over to shake her head and smile.

Another vote determined that unfortunately, there couldn't be a cat mascot in the store.  A few people had allergies, so that plan wouldn't work.  Instead, the Elses put out water dishes and welcome neighborhood dogs in for a drink and a treat.  Nina prefers dogs to cats anyway, and the dogs seem to know this.

One canine friend, Carl, brings his realtor dad in frequently. But Carl is part active foxhound, and he tends to bang into corners and other things. Ron and Nina came to the rescue.  They put out plastic corner covers that they call "Carl's Corners," and all is well.

The Elses' strong devotion to community and authors make them a favorite for authors in search of a good book signing venue. "From the beginning, we made a commitment to support local authors," said Nina. As a result they tend to carry a wide variety of local authors.

"I just think local authors become such friends over the years," said Nina. "I cherish that."

And the Elses prove the point every day, both with their customers and their colleagues.  Laura Givens, artist and another vendor within the Broadway Book mall said, "They are definitely an old married couple, very much a pair. When Nina broke her foot Ron was as nice as butter in your mouth to her. We're happy to be with them."

You might even say that Ron and Nina make a perfect set of bookends for the Broadway Book Mall.

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Liesa MalikLiesa Malik is a freelance writer and marketing consultant originally from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, but currently living in Littleton, Colorado with her husband and two pets. She has always enjoyed reading mysteries, from The Happy Hollister series, through Trixie Beldon and into Reader’s Digest’s Great True Stories of Crime, Mystery and Detection. A graduate of the University of South Florida with a degree in Mass Communications,

Liesa has built on her writing interest with long-standing membership in Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and recently joined the board of Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America. She is the author of Faith on the Rocks: a Daisy Arthur Mystery. Most days you can find Liesa either at her desk or at a local ballroom dance studio. For more about Liesa, please visit her website.