Perspective Lost and Found

Sometimes, if you take a break from your current WIP for an extended period of time, you lose focus on it. The next time you sit down it becomes hard to recapture the tone, the pace, the perspective on the work that you had when you started it. This can sometimes be especially true for those who write series, between books. This is what I'm struggling with now.

The first book in the series was so much fun to write, and I had all the time in the world to play with it, make it fun and exciting and frankly just wing it. That one was a phenomenal success. Now, faced with the daunting task of writing the second, having taken a few months off to write two other books (one a part of another series, the other a stand alone) I find myself struggling to make this one meet and, to some degree, exceed the first.

The problem is tone and perspective. There is a particular mix of chaos and complexity to the first thriller that made it so popular, the sense of not knowing what was going to happen next. But also a sort of Romancing The Stone pseudorealism to the action, things a little too fantastical or whimsical to ever happen in real life, but still fun to read. That's what I want to recapture in the sequel, while upping the stakes.

Here is how I got past the block.

First, I reread the first book, taking notes on things that I might revisit in the second book. Not just big things but little things that might make the reader chuckle to see reprised. Then I outlined the second book. While I've sometimes done this in the past, I usually just wing it. In this case it was absolutely essential that I outline the book, to help me with pacing. Lastly I watched several of my favorite pseudorealist action movies; the aforementioned Romancing The Stone, The Man With One Red Shoe, Knight and Day, the Indiana Jones flicks, etc.

When it's time to write, I set my Pandora to music conducive to the mood I want to cultivate, certainly not brooding or mellow, but not hard and driving rock either. Something strong, but also quick and exciting. For me, often, soundtracks to other movies help.

Lastly, I sit and before I touch the keyboard, I take a brief moment of meditation, wiping my mind of any ancillary concerns or stresses, concentrate on the feelings I want to put on paper. Then I write. I don't stop, I don't take breaks, I don't go back and edit myself. I write. I push away any other thoughts that may stray in, and I keep writing, building a momentum that will hopefully stay with me when I do walk away from it for a meal or whatever.

I know I'm doing it right if I find it hard to walk away, if even when eating or running errands or watching TV, I keep thinking about my book and feeling excited about what I'm writing, eager to get back to it.

So that's what works for me. Let me know if this helps you, too.

What Is This Blog Post About?

Into The DistanceSometimes an idea for my next post on this blog comes to me in a flash, all at once, all written in my head. Other times I struggle. Sometimes the struggle is to come up with an idea, sometimes the struggle is to pick from way-too-many ideas teeming around in my head. Today the struggle is that I have all kinds of disjointed thoughts about writing flitting around back and forth like an unruly flight of starlings, some near misses but never a collision, and no single thought amounts to a full and complete blog post. I'm trying to decide if any combination of thoughts might amount to one. Let's explore together, shall we?

One thought came to me as I binged on several movies and TV shows in rapid succession during a recent convalescence, interspersed with news coverage of the recent "peaceful" transition of power in Washington DC. No, this isn't a political post, as such. However, I saw vast numbers of people who desperately clung to their own paradigm of the world, so consumed with insecurity in their own beliefs that they simply - and quite publicly - flat-out refused to accept any reality that clashed with what they so desperately wished to be true, in the face of facts quite to the contrary. Often making up things out of whole-cloth in a shocking attempt to negate reality, and convincing themselves fully that their made-up things were true.

This got me to thinking about those who read what I, as a novelist, write. They are not reading my stories in a vacuum. They bring their own paradigm to the experience, as had I when I wrote it. To the degree that their paradigm clashes with mine, there is a sliding scale to which they are willing to continue reading. Some might accept my paradigm and still enjoy the story, perhaps even altering their own to some degree because of what they read. Some perhaps not, but still appreciating my vision of reality. Then again some, if the shift between my paradigm and theirs is too right-angle, might reject my story out of hand, some not even finishing it. Some who, I submit, are insecure in their own strata of beliefs, might feel threatened by my outlook, to the degree that they feel compelled to pen a particularly acid-laced rant in a review of my book.

I, myself, have only been unable to finish two or three fiction books because I couldn't tolerate the premise, but there was at least one book that I literally threw across the room in rage before I even knew what I was doing. Others I have put down it disgust, only that one gave me such a visceral reaction.

The point is, each reader who comes to peruse our work is diverse from any other at the margin, and in a spectrum those differences become vast. Can we predict what any one person is going to think of our writing? In some extreme cases perhaps, but at the margin I suggest it's impossible. There are just too many variables.

I often make the point that market chasing is a fool's games. Trying to read market trends and writing to what's currently selling is the quickest way to insanity, especially given how fast our market shifts. It's why the term "sell-out" is spoken with such disdain - people who attempt to do so fail more often than they succeed and often in the process lose sight of their own original motives for writing.

Just ask any published writer who sold the first book of a series that they wrote after years of market chasing. It's exciting at first...until they realize they have to write a sequel, and another, and yet more, all based on a premise they shopped for, not one for which they felt any real passion or love. Suddenly they're locked into a vortex of having to churn out book after book on a story line they feel no real connection to and invariably grow to hate. This also consumes all of their writing energy and time and leaves little or none for them to pursue the writing they always wanted to do from the beginning.

I have always encouraged other writers to write what they like to read, write what they love to write, write for themselves. The readers will come. The right readers. The ones who will love what you write because they can sense the love, the integrity, the heart with which you write. You will be much happier writing what you enjoy, and that will come through as well. You will write better because it's what you love. And you'll save yourself a lot of tail-chasing, teeth-gnashing, and head-to-brick-wall contact.

Advertise or Die

I recently had a brief email exchange with Janet Lane on a blog entry she was writing on the topic of book marketing, a topic that I hate. On later reflection I decided to add my own thoughts to hers, which you've no doubt read, precisely because I hate the topic so much.

(Janet: Forgive me if I step on your topic here, I walk only in your shadow.)

Much has been written about how writers are introverts and not easily given to socializing, networking, and schmoozing, all of it true. Marketing is my least favorite part of writing, and I strongly suspect I'm not alone. Marketing is hard for me, and while it comes easily to some, there are even those out there who claim they enjoy it but who are, empirically by observation, not very good at it. Marketing is an art, a skill, one not easily acquired and impossible to fake your way through.

First, when you advertise, remember that you are not marketing this one book. You are not even marketing your entire collection of publications. You are marketing yourself. You want to build an audience not just for your most recent release, but for future releases as well. Marketing yourself is entirely different than trying to sell a product. You have to give others a reason to read what you write, make them intrigued enough to do so, which means bragging on yourself. And yet, to stay likable, you can't come off as bragging about yourself. Doing something while not seeming to do it at all is like trying to pick up a pencil without actually picking it up.

We also live in a climate of very savvy consumers these days - people are very acutely aware of when you are trying to sell them something. Everyone has had the experience of being set upon by a salesman the moment we enter a store or used car lot - we cringe and recoil and are uncomfortable, even resentful, of this kind of hard-sell tactic. It leaves a bad taste in our mouth, and these days we are more likely to walk away having bought nothing than giving in to the pressure.

The term channel-hopping refers to the act of changing the channel on a television every time a commercial comes on. On-demand television must disable the fast-forward feature of their programs because they know, if given the freedom, viewers would much rather skip a commercial than watch it. Commercial-free streaming services have become ever more popular. Web browser ad-blockers sell quite well. I myself am a charter member of the national do-not-call list, and I faithfully report every unsolicited sales call I get. Hell, I never even answer the door unless I'm expecting someone. In short, consumers want to buy, but by and large hate to be sold something.

So now we have to market ourselves while NOT bragging on ourselves, and sell books without seeming to sell books. A more impossible task was never set before mankind.

What's left to us? Mostly indirect sales techniques. In personal appearances you'll notice people will avoid your table. I like to engage them on something entirely unrelated to the books so obviously stacked around me. I comment on the weather, or something they are wearing, or on anything else. I do not address the books I am selling until they ask. I answer their questions succinctly, never going on-and-on or offering any information they did not ask about. And the minute they pick up a book and start to leaf through it I shut up and walk away. From that point on they will buy or not, you have no further control over it.

If you don't keep a blog, start one. But don't write about your books and how good they are and how everyone should buy one. Instead, interview other writers or industry professionals, or write about topics peripherally related to the themes covered in your books. If your books are mysteries, write about other unsolved crimes in current media. If you write romances, then blog about prominent figures who have recently gotten married or divorced. You get the idea.

Keep your books, with buy links, prominently visible on your blog pages, just don't try to sell them directly. The hope is that people who happen upon your blog and like what you have to say on other topics will be spurred enough to check out your books and maybe - hopefully - buy them.

(NOTE: For god's sake, don't get political in your blog. In our current hotly charged, cavernously divided political climate it takes very little to alienate half of your consumer base with an off-hand reference to topics about which very few agree. Steer clear.)

Participate in events, such as book fairs, book giveaways, library drives, etc. Volunteer for things such as public speaking engagements, guest blogs, organizations that dovetail with the topics you write about. Send letters to editors, comment on others' blogs, leave thoughtful reviews for books by other writers on places like Amazon and GoodReads.

The point is, marketing is never going to be easy, and it gets harder as our industry changes. Your best bet at selling more books is to keep your name as prominent and visible as possible while never hard-selling your books or alienating possible buyers. Finding that marketing sweet-spot is as elusive as that cat hair tickling your nose that you can't quite seem to find. And frankly just as annoying. But keep at it - you're only certain to fail at the things you don't try.

Enthusiasm Refill

The festive holiday season fills us with excitement, hope, cheer, enthusiasm, optimism. For several months we have something to look forward to. For many of us it is the excitement to see family and friends we haven't seen is a long time, for others it's seeing what Père Noël left for us under the Christmas tree, and for still others, like me, it's the anticipation of watching loved ones open presents we chose and wrapped just for them.

Inevitably after the holiday season there is a period of blahs, the unavoidable doldrums as we look ahead to what can't help to be mundane pursuits after the bright tinsel and blinking lights of such a heart-warming and lighthearted time. The lingering hangover from New Years Eve doesn't help.

Santa WritesHere's a perfect way to reignite your enthusiasm: write. Whenever I write, even when I have to force myself to sit down and put fingertips to keys, whenever I allow myself to be transported into the world I'm creating in my own stories, my spirits are always lifted, my heart lightened, my mind liberated.

It's safe to say the time-constraints of the season have necessitated that many (most?) of us have had to neglect our writing, even if only for a couple of weeks or so. This is the perfect time to get back to it. It's therapeutic, it's fun, and it's productive.

And it will keep at bay the post-holiday blahs.

The Greatest Blogpost Ever Posted

So this is going to be the last RMFW blog post that I’m doing for a bit. I told Patricia Stoltey and Julie Kazimer that I’m stepping down. I just can’t juggle it all.

So I promised Ms. Kazimer thatI would write the greatest blogpost ever. I thought about calling it “The Greatest Story Ever Told” but I think that might have been done already. Then I was going to call it “The Myth of Success” but that didn’t feel right, so then I was thinking “Go Into the Light, Carol Ann” but that would date me.

So whatever this last post is called, the point of it all is this: I am claiming success and I am making definite choices about what my goals are.

That’s been my problem for a decade now. I couldn’t make a choice when it came writing. I wanna write for the market. No, I wanna write the book of my heart. I want millions of fans and trillions of dollars and billions of groupies. Er, wait, trillions of fans, billions of groupies…no…anyway…

I am deciding that my main writing is goal is to only write books I’m proud of and publish them by any means necessary. And whatever happens, happens.

That’s what I’m choosing. But choosing is hard. Take me to a Vegas breakfast buffet with both donuts and waffles, and you’ll see me eat both. Dammit! But no, I’m learning, I have to choose.

I can’t work on five projects all at the same time. I can’t accept every opportunity to market my books. I am a limited resource. So I have to choose where my time goes. In 2017, I should have five more books on the market, three romances I wrote with Andrea K. Stein and two more books in The Juniper Wars Series. And that’s a lot right there. I can’t do more. I am being forced to choose.

And I’m choosing to drop some of my commitments to focus on finishing those projects.

And I’m choosing to think of myself as a successful writer.

It’s December, my friends, and darkness reigns. The days are short, the nights are long, but even before the Christós event of 0 A.D. (ish), human beings have celebrated the light in the middle of these long, cold days.

For my writing career, I thought the only light that counted, the only success, was a long day of blazing sunshine lighting up every corner of every continent. I thought that J.K. Rowling or James Patterson international success was the only light that mattered.

And so I counted myself as a failure.

But no more!

I have a flickering candle of a writing career, five flickering books lighting up my little corner of the world. I am truly proud of the five books I have published, and that is a success. And I’m celebrating that success.

And I think I’m finding the courage and contrariness needed to write a whole bunch more. I will light the world with candles, one uncertain flame at a time. I’m trying to go back to basics: to write what I love and to let go of expectations, and to do the work while enjoying the work.

And that is key…to do the work of writing while enjoying the work of writing.

Knowing that all the while, there are people who will not like my books, that will criticize how I use commas, or sniff at me because I am not traditionally published. Let ‘em. What other people think of me and my books is none of my business. That’s not my job.

My job is to write Aaron Michael Ritchey novels.

And so, I have to let go of a few things, but what a great achievement that is, that I’m busy enough that I have to choose what to work and and what to step way from.

But I am truly grateful to Patricia, Julie, and to everyone at RMFW. Without that mighty Colorado organization, my entire life would be different.

I’ll be back though, when I come up with something I just have to share with ya’ll.

Until then, come gather around. It’s dark, but we have light.

For that’s the great promise of Christmas, that there will always be light even if it’s just a single candle burning.

“The Silver Moment”

It's a term I made up to describe a twist in fiction that can make the "black moment" more shocking to a reader. The black moment is a part of the basic structure of fiction that has been knocking around for centuries.

  • The inciting incident.
  • The mounting tension.
  • Complications.
  • Climax.
  • The black moment.
  • Denouement.

There are as many variations on this structure as there are writers who write about writing, but roughly this is the basic formula for your plot in fiction. Everything else is a refinement on this.

The black moment is the part of the story just before everything is resolved when things seem to be as bad as they can get for our protagonist, when all seems lost and the antagonist is about to win.

The silver moment, as I call it, is infrequent in fiction but you should recognize it when you see it. It comes just before the black moment. It is the part of our story when, in contrast to the black moment, everything seems to have worked out for our protagonist, when all seems to have been resolved as it should have been and the good guys have won. The silver lining of the cloud that has been hanging over our protagonist throughout the book has, in effect, been found.

In this case, the black moment comes when the antagonist, thought defeated, reappears out of the blue with one last card to play, one last-ditch effort at accomplishing his goal, or at the very least, at destroying those who prevented him from achieving those goals in the silver moment.

Rogue Agenda by Kevin Paul TracyFor example, in Rogue Agenda the terrorists have all been rounded up by the Feds, the Al-Serhemni family have successfully escaped to Canada, and while Lainie still has an arson/manslaughter rap hanging over her head the reader knows she is innocent and, if there is justice, will be exonerated. But wait...what about the hit man who started this whole mess by trying to kill the CIA agent and has been stalking Lainie ever since? For god's sake, check the closet before you go to sleep!

Presence of Malice by Kevin Paul TracyIn th conclusion of my book Presence of Malice the villain, Dr. Gerald Gannery, is wanted by several Federal agencies and our heroes - Jet, Gregory, Patricia, and Paul - are enjoying their victory and have let their guards down. Unaware - but about to find out - that Gannery has found the brownstone where Jet has hidden his paraplegic brother and is aware of the money that his henchman tried to bribe the fixer with...and is now driven by a murderous thirst for vengeance.

The silver moment can definitely be overused. If the reader comes to expect it, it loses its impact to make the black moment come as a greater surprise and seem even blacker. But if used judiciously, it can be an effective tool in bringing a shocking and satisfying story to your readers.

Platform Building At MPIBA

Jane Friedman, former publisher of Writer’s Digest and current columnist for Publishers Weekly defines author platform in her wonderfully succinct way, as “an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.”

For many of us, the definition above may feel as if we’re in this platform building project all alone. Where have I had a story published? What credentials do I have in my area of interest? How big is my mailing list?

But sometimes, I believe that the groups we belong to build our platform more effectively than any individual effort can.  And RMFW is one of those groups.

Photo of Corinne O'Flynn and the table setup for the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association.
Corinne O'Flynn and the table setup for the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association.

Take, for example, the opportunity to go to the Mountains and Plains Fall Discovery Show, which took place October 6 through 8 at the Renaissance Hotel in Denver. A group of PAL and I-PAL members were invited to this collection of independent booksellers and publishers to represent our Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers group, and to promote our own books in the process.

Both a treat in promotion and a great learning process, the Mountains & Plains show had well over 200 booksellers from Texas to Canada and throughout the west congregating to talk shop, promote books, and meet authors.

It was a thrill to go to “Pick of the Lists” sessions to see how publisher sales reps promote our books. They have the job of “pitching” our books the way we do at conference, only they haven’t actually written the work. Talk about a challenge.  In approximately 10 minutes they have to entice booksellers to order up to 15 titles at a time.  One rep I saw held up children’s books in groups of titles to complete his task.  Another rep pushed a toddler’s train through the cardboard pages of the book she promoted.  Mostly, though, the reps had to “tell the story” of the book they represent and its author in less than 2 minutes. No wonder practicing our pitch sessions are so important.

In the exhibit hall, RMFW had two tables stretched along a prime spot to reach into the book buying community.  We displayed our books and reached out into the aisle to meet sellers, publishers, and others in the publishing community. Many had not heard of RMFW.  Some didn’t think they had, until they saw “It’s A Book,” and then they said, “Oh! I know you!”  Thank you Laura Reeve, editor and publisher of “It’s a Book.” Your many years of service remain a quiet treasure for RMFW, and a strong plank in all of our author platforms.

Thank you, too, to the RMFW authors (both indy and trad) who participated in this event.  Because of your efforts, the “It’s A Book” mailing list has grown by approximately 30 more booksellers. Through them, our opportunity to sell more books has grown tremendously.

If you’d like to know more about joining MPIBA (Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association), check out their website, where you might find, like Anne Holman of the King’s English Bookshop in Utah, that “Bookselling is a nice family to be in,” and that booksellers represent a wonderful platform building opportunity.

RUMINATIONS ON THE WRITER-READER RELATIONSHIP

As I write this I am still days away from the most traumatic experience of my life - surgery. But by the time you read this, not only will it all be over, I will be well on my way to recovery, if not fully recovered. I will know whether or not the mass they found in a CT scan one fateful day while looking for something else entirely, was cancer or not. The worst, whatever it turns out to be, will have passed.

This bifurcation of time is extremely odd to me. It is backwards from what a writer usually experiences. Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, whether writing in present tense or past, the events the writer retells have already passed for him/her by the time the reader reads their words.

It almost feels as if you, the reader, have the advantage on me. For the first time the reader has the benefit of foreknowledge of events the writer has yet to experience. Does that make any sense to you? Would that you could tell me how it all turned (turns?) out.

Honestly I'm not entirely sure what bearing this has on writing or why RMFW members should read this blog entry. There is some insight here about our responsibility to our readers, as the ones conveying to them events they have yet to experience. Something about teasing their eagerness to know what happened, and why, while at the same time respecting momentary lack of knowledge until you eventually enlighten them through prose. Something like that.

All I know is this momentary reversal of roles, me the ignorant writer, you the all-knowing reader, is delightfully disorienting, and that fascinates me.

Retrospect

I was re-reading some of my past posts here on the RMFW blog. Can you believe I've been a contributor for two years? Who knew I had so much to say? I would've expected to be ridden out of here on a rail just weeks in!

As I revisited some of my old topics, there were many I feel made some good points, if I say so myself, and that might be worth a fresh look. So in lieu of fresh content this month I thought I'd share links to some of my favorite past articles over two years of contributing to the RMFW blog. If you missed any, maybe take a look at one or two, see if there is anything in them worth taking away and applying to your own writing.

I HATE MY BOOK (12/2014)
How I went from loving my book to hating the very mention of it to loving it again!

MORE POLITICS IN FICTION (2/2015)
How to enrich your world-building by bringing complex political pressures to bear on a plot.

WAR IN FICTION (4/2015)
Tackling what can be a daunting task: relating large-scale conflict while still keeping your story character driven.

THOSE WHO CAN'T TEACH DO (5/2015)
Academics will only take you so far. Without passion, you're just writing, not storytelling.

KEEP IT TO YOURSELF, SOMETIMES (10/2015)
The occasional caustic off-hand comment often says more about us than we know, and can have devastating effects on our fellow writers.

Something wrong with you.noʎ ɥʇıʍ ʇɥƃıɹ ƃuıɥʇǝɯoS (5/2016)
Worried that you aren't writing the traditional formula that sells books? Don't be - it's what makes us different that makes our stories stand out.

Thanks for reading for two years! Here's to many more!