Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Downside Of Being A Writer - Outer Space Eggs

I spend a lot of time on the road. Festivals, talks, book signings. I always bring a cooler with my meals. I also bring a microwave. Yes, you read that correctly. I travel with a small microwave and bring it into my motel/hotel rooms to cook my dinner that I've brought from home. 

Sometimes in the morning, I venture to the "House Breakfast" room to consider an alternative to my mostly-coffee, in-room meal. Hotel breakfast meals are usually sugary muffins or sugary cereals with a choice of banana or orange. There is also what I call the "Outer Space Eggs" box. This is a plexi-glass cabinet. Inside are usually three trays. One has piles of sausage patties, and one has piles of bacon. The third has yellow, folded, half circles of spongy rubber material. Think yellow Frisbee heated up until it can be folded in half. And squirted into the folded Frisbee is a kind of milky, orange, polyurethane material that is a fourth cousin to imitation cheese sauce and served at four degrees above room temperature.

Please know that I appreciate that hotels provide food-like items. And I especially appreciate the efforts of the people who do the work of preparing and displaying the food. They do what they're told and work with what they're given. And after the groggy-eyed customers have attempted eating, the workers clean up the mess.

But Outer Space Eggs are to real eggs like colored water is to Scotch - a prop for a stage play that even a desperate actor wouldn't actually consume, a prop that the audience knows is a folded, yellow Frisbee.

Writing is the best job in the world. But even the best jobs have a downside.

Outer Space Eggs.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sneak Preview - Tahoe Blue Fire!

The new Owen McKenna mystery is in the pipeline, and I'm excited about it! It's called TAHOE BLUE FIRE. This is the 13th book in the Tahoe mystery series.

TAHOE BLUE FIRE is about a series of murders that appear to be motivated by an amazing artifact from the Italian Renaissance 500 years ago, an artifact that may have appeared in modern-day Tahoe. The number one suspect in the case is a former pro football player named Adam Simms who is suffering traumatic brain injury from his days on the gridiron. Detective Owen McKenna wonders if Simms is being framed. But he may also be a diabolical killer who is faking brain injury...

TAHOE BLUE FIRE will be out at the end of July. I hope you enjoy it!

Here's a link to more info:

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Being An Author: The Hardest Part vs. The Most Important Part

One of the most common questions I get is, “What is the most important part of being an author?” Another is, “What is the hardest part of being an author?”

Good questions. The answers are totally different.

Back in the early 1990s, Michael Pietsch gave a talk at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a major writers’ conference. For those of you who are interested, I recommend it. I went and learned a lot. At the time, Pietsch was Editor-in-Chief at Little Brown (think James Patterson, Michael Connelly). Now, he is Publisher at Hachette, Little Brown’s parent company. Talking about the consolidation in the publishing business, which was getting to full steam right about then, Pietsch said that while a good book was important to publishers, an author’s platform was much more important. He explained that, in considering what books to publish, the focus of New York publishers was deciding which authors had a chance of selling 25,000 copies in hardcover. The main driver of what helps an author sell books is how well that author is known. Does he or she have a syndicated newspaper column that will help sell books? A radio show? Is she the CEO of a big company with lots of employees who might buy her book? Is her aunt a producer on Oprah? Is she a celebrity? Famous or infamous? Is he or she - sorry to say it - beautiful and charming and articulate on the fly? (Those qualities that draw lots of attention in a TV-focused world.)

The measures of platform helped to explain the rumors that Saul Bellow, who’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature and was arguably America’s greatest living writer, had a new novel he couldn’t get published while Paris Hilton could get a book deal well into six figures. Bellow was a wonderful writer but not someone that many people remember as being prime guest material for, say, Jimmy Fallon’s gig.

It all gets down to how big is your impact on the vast pool of readers.

By comparison, a good book, while important, was not as critical as platform. That was true in the early 90s, and it’s still true today. Which brings me to the focus of this piece.

The hardest thing about being an author is not the same as the most important thing. (Note that this all presupposes that the author believes that an audience is critical to the equation.)

The hardest part of being an author is writing a good book. The most important part is figuring out how to get that book in front of readers. Mr. Bellow nailed the hardest part. Ms. Hilton nailed the most important part.

Let’s revisit what makes a good book (focusing, for these purposes, on fiction). You need a gripping story, told with authority and flair. You need to find the magic that gets your reader to suspend their disbelief such that, even though they know your book is fiction, they “buy” into it and get as involved as if the story were true. You need characters that readers connect with, characters that we love or hate, cheer or hiss, worry about or hope will die. You need to have a rising plot curve that makes it difficult for readers to put down the book. You need all the subtleties of clear and lively writing. You need to have an unerring ear for the way people talk as well as the ability to describe action and emotion so that the reader is never distracted by the writing. You need to have mastered all the mechanics of prose, point of view, dialogue, action, and the dreaded exposition. You need to understand and employ foreshadowing for every critical scene in your novel. You need your writing to be intelligent. You may even need the subject of your novel to be educational for the reader who is looking to learn something from every book they read. Last, you need to imbue your writing with that undefinable characteristic of stickiness such that the reader will stay with your book and, when finished, will buy your other books.

This book writing stuff is easy if all you’re trying to do is get 350 pages of stuff down. But if you want an audience larger than your mother and your best bud, it is really quite hard. Think of the books you’ve read - or started to read - that just don’t do it for you. The author went through all the motions and tried very hard, but the book didn’t grab you. If you are the writer, this is a daunting task. Writing a good book is the hardest part of being an author.

But it ain’t the most important part.

Once you have some good books, you will badly want to find readers. I’ve heard of a few authors who wrote dozens novels without finding an audience. Apparently, they were sufficiently satisfied with the joys of writing stories. But they are rare. You should expect to publish more than one book before you find much of an audience. But after several books, most of us will start to develop a strong urge to see other campers enjoying the bonfire we’ve carefully built.

So how does one pursue this “most important” part of being an author?

You identify the people you know or sort of know and you reach out to them with mail and email and social media posts and tweets and Facebook posts and a blog and whatever else you can think of. You figure out how to get the media talking or writing about your book. You participate in blog tours and online discussions. You join author circles where each author promotes every other author’s book. You plan as many “events” as you possibly can, giving talks, participating in panel discussions, making presentations at service clubs, going to libraries and bookstores. In short, you make appearances of any kind where you can introduce your book. Then you introduce it! “Hi there. I’m here today introducing my new book. It’s about .... I think it’s good, and I’m proud of it, and I’d love to have you give it a try!”

Is this easy? No. It’s very hard. Especially for introverts who make up 95% of serious writers. (Because authors by definition need to spend most of their time alone, writing and thinking. The extroverted, life-of-the-party, office gadfly rarely makes a good writer because social interaction and writing are mutually exclusive.)

Jane Austen, drawn by her sister Cassandra.
Austen was likely an introvert. If she were alive today,
she probably would have a very hard time getting
published because she had no platform.

Hard as working your platform is, it’s the most important part of finding an audience for your books. You have to get tough and get to it. When you succeed at earning a living from writing, you’ll be ecstatic, because making up stories is the best job in the world.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The New Number One Rule To Writing Success

Find a narrow niche and own it.

You're a novelist. You want to find an audience beyond your mother and your best friend. (Because there's no greater thrill than having strangers write to you and tell you how much they love your books.) There's just one big - very big - problem.

The world of books is saturated. 

Amazon now has something like 12 million books available. But there are only about 12 million really dedicated, addicted readers in this country. If each of them read 100 books a year, and if all books sold the same, that would mean your masterpiece would sell 100 copies a year. That would provide you with one or two hundred bucks a year in income. Not enough to buy a Starbucks frap more than once a week. Double the number of readers, the picture doesn't change much.

What's worse is that the above scenario is very generous. The reason is that most of the books in readers' Kindles or on their bookshelves are written by famous authors. So unknown authors have a hard time getting anyone to look at their book. In fact, I looked at one of the popular internet publishers. (Note that I strongly recommend you avoid using internet publishers.) I divided the total books reported sold by the total number of titles available. The result? The average novel they publish has sold less than two copies. 

By contrast, I once read in Publishers Weekly that the average novel published by print publishers sells 80 copies. Big by comparison, but still very bleak.

Where are the authors whose books sell enough to earn a living? They're out there, and we know their names. But they are a tiny percentage of all authors.

Does this mean that all those books by unknown authors are no good? Not at all. Some are masterpieces. This is simply the reality of too many books chasing too few readers. Which brings us to the new number one rule of writing success.

Find a narrow niche and own it.

This is the big fish/little pond concept. Let's say you've written a romance or mystery or fantasy. Or maybe you've invented a new genre. Further, let's say your book is really good and has a fascinating, sympathetic character in major trouble going up against one of the all-time greatest villains. David vs. Goliath. Write a great book and readers will come, right?

Unfortunately, millions of other authors feel the same way about their book. Every year there are another million titles out there. Another romance or mystery or fantasy or mainstream novel has almost no chance of making a blip on the graph.

Which authors have the greatest chance of finding an audience? Those who choose a niche that is narrow enough that their book pops up whenever someone looks for something in that niche.

Let's look at examples. Let's say someone wants to read a great thriller with a racing plot and heroic characters and a world's-about-to-end story line. What would they do? Search for that description on Amazon? Or Google? Probably not. More likely, the reader would think of a subject they really enjoy and search for that. Religious mysteries. Or time-travel fantasy. Or archaeology thrillers. Or twisted psychological novels. If so, would your book pop up? No. More likely they would find a book by Dan Brown or Diana Gabaldon or James Rollins or Gillian Flynn. 

The problem is that general search terms only bring up books that are already popular. Most authors who try to write those kinds of books never find any audience. There is too much competition and the field is utterly dominated by current big-name authors.

If, however, you write a book series that has an unusual story thread about, let's say, a history book club of elderly women who find a way to time-travel to the time just before Christ and, using their knowledge of how historical movements survive, help Caesar come to power. If you write that, you stand a very good chance of owning that niche by the time you've published just a few books in the series. 

Is the audience for this subject large? Probably not. At least, not yet. But there are people who love to read about the Roman Empire, and there are readers who love time travel. Those readers will periodically search on such subjects. Whenever their combined search terms get close to your books, they will pop up, often at the top of the search results. The reason is simply that your books will be the only series with this unique niche.

Assuming your books are well written and professionally edited and have professional covers, those few early readers will spread the word. Eventually, your narrow niche will grow. It may even become popular enough that other writers will try to adopt your niche, which simply gives it more credibility. Whatever attention those writers are able to get will build your audience. Everyone will compare their books to yours because you created the niche. In any discussion of those other writers, you will get mentioned. You will own your niche.

You may be wondering, "But what if no one cares about my narrow subject and my book doesn't take off?" That may be the case. But if you try to be one more of the 12 million minnows in the big pond, that will almost certainly be the case. Choosing a narrow niche at least gives you a chance.

This approach doesn't just work with writing books, either. Jeff Bezos could have decided to jump into the big pond and open a regular bookstore just like everyone else. Instead, he chose a niche so narrow that no one had ever thought of it. Selling books online. What kind of nut case was he? But he immediately became the biggest fish in what was then a very small pond. Of course, that pond grew a bit. And every imitator that came along only boosted his rep.

So how do you pick a niche for your book series? The obvious ones are easy. 

Pick a setting that is not featured in any other series. (Just Google your idea to find out - "books set in Anytown, Arkansas." ) Every person who grew up in, or is otherwise interested in, Anytown will be intrigued by your books. And people who've never heard of Anytown will be curious about books set in such an obscure place. 

Pick an occupation for your protagonist that isn't featured in any other books. Yes, the obvious occupations, like Medical Examiner, are already over-represented. But has anyone written a series featuring an ex-convict woman who makes hand-built, wooden sailing yachts that are prized by smugglers? You get the idea.

Pick a time-and-subject combination that isn't featured in any other books. A gay circus strongman set in the 16th century. A woman physicist who was Einstein's secret paramour and who also gave him many of his best ideas. A mother who's never slept with any man but her husband but discovers that the DNA of her children came from another man. An astronomer who discovers an intelligent laser transmission from outside of the solar system, a transmission that comes from himself in the future. (Maybe that one's been done - I'm not a SciFi expert.) The point is that it's relatively easy to come up with unusual ideas that can be intriguing.

What if you've already written the first novel or two in a series? It's not hard to retrofit them into a narrow niche. Look at your story arc and your characters and consider how they might be changed to take your novel from one of the masses to one that's unique. You might be surprised at how easy it is. The reason is that all stories have similar basic components. Changing the costumes and the stage and some of the themes is not that difficult. Bringing your novel into a narrow niche will distinguish it from a million others.

If you find a narrow niche and own it, you will find an audience. Then the only question is how big you can grow it.