Sunday, April 23, 2017

Writers, Be Careful With Your Bad Guys...

In the world of fiction, it sometimes seems that the only kind of Bad Guy that doesn't get a writer in trouble is a white, male lawyer or doctor in his 40s or 50s. If you move very far from that model, watch out.

In one of my books, the "Bad Guy" was a lesbian. The fact that she was lesbian had nothing to do with her being the antagonist in my book. Yet I got hate mail. After saying some nasty things about me, the person added, "Being a lesbian doesn't make you more inclined to be a murderer."

Of course not. A person murders because they are evil or because they are pushed up against an unmovable wall and see no way out other than murder. I think I made it very clear that my "Bad person" was bad for reasons that have nothing to do with gender preference. But I learned an important lesson. Some people are extremely sensitive about certain characteristics that have made people prejudiced against them.

People who belong to groups that have rarely suffered prejudice or have even benefited from privilege that comes from belonging to such groups may not be so sensitive if a Bad Guy appears to come from their group.

But lots of people are part of groups that have suffered prejudice. At the very least, that prejudice is insensitive and unfair, and it brings people pain. At the worst, members of such groups have been subject to unspeakable acts that can't be described in a PG-13 blog. So we need to walk softly if we identify a Bad Guy as belonging to any groups that have suffered from bigotry. We don't walk softly only because we're afraid of the reaction we might get. We walk softly because it is the right, thoughtful, sensitive thing to do.

There is an emerging flip side to this as well. If you identify your Bad Guy as a member of one of innumerable groups that are known for promoting hateful prejudice, you may incur that group's wrath as well. The last thing an author wants is for the wacko (fill in the name of one of the many hate groups here) to come after them.

As always, your Bad Guy does his nastiness because he's evil, not because of the groups he or she can be associated with. But not everyone will realize that. Some people will draw a connection.

You can give your novel's antagonist any kind of characteristics. But do it thoughtfully. And make it clear that those characteristics are incidental to the Bad Guy's motivation and have no connection to the cause of it.

If you're not sure you can pull this off such that your reader is confident you're playing fair with your Bad Guys, then you can always fall back on a white, male doctor or lawyer in his 40s or 50s... 




Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Rule All Writers Eventually Break

Writers always hear the advice, Write What You Know. It's a great idea. We are more likely to "get it correct" if we know whereof we speak.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work for very long.

I started out writing about stuff I knew about. By the time I finished my 3rd book, I'd used up all my knowledge. I'd plumbed nearly every subject in which I was a bit expert. I'd utilized most of the character types with which I was familiar.

To keep going, a writer needs to move into unfamiliar territory.

How do you delve into unfamiliar subjects? Read. Google every relevant question you can think of. Interview experts. Find beta readers who know the subject and can tell you what you got wrong. Due diligence will get you through any territory.

Sometimes the advice goes beyond subjects and ideas and is extended to ridiculous extremes. People will say that a writer can't write convincingly about about a character from a background that's dramatically different than the writer's background.

For example, I'm a middle-aged, straight, white guy, born in America, married a long time, no kids, somewhat educated, never poverty stricken, with no physical disabilities. (When I can't remember the names of people I've known for ten years, the question of mental disability does comes up!)

So how could I presume to write a character who is dramatically different from my background?

Research. Empathy. Careful thought.

I know lots of people who aren't very much like me. By paying attention, I can reasonably get a sense of what it might be like to be a person very different from me. If I'm thoughtful, I can create a wide range of characters.

Of course, a writer needs to be thoughtful and sensitive, especially if a character from a very different background turns out to be an unsavory person. One doesn't want to offend readers. Provoke them? Sure. Get them to question their own presumptions? Definitely. But all characters need to be treated fairly and accurately.

Which brings us to the question of Bad Guys. Or what writers call the story's antagonist. How do you handle it if the Bad Guy in your story belongs to a group of people who regularly suffer from prejudice?

Tune in next week.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The One Cliché A Writer Can Never Ignore

Wanna be a writer?

As writers, we learn to avoid clichés at all cost. (Oops, there's a cliché) But there is one cliché we should never forget.

Writers write.



You can talk about writing, take classes about writing, think about writing, get together with other writers and discuss writing. You can even book passage to the next major writing conference or convention and lose yourself for days learning about writing and meeting writers and readers. But even at those events, you'll notice that real writers write.

At the recent Left Coast Crime in Honolulu, this maxim was on full display. I kept hearing people saying things like, "I couldn't make the early-morning panel because I had to finish my thousand words."

As with all such events, there were wannabes in attendance. That is to be expected and desired. If you want a career as a writer, you need to sample these things, meet the serious writers, and see what makes them tick. (Oops, another cliché)

If you're paying attention at such an event, you'll notice that a large proportion of the most successful writers (try 100%) write continuously, devoting a substantial portion of every day or week to writing. Not talking about it. Doing it.

If you look at successful writers, you'll find that the only thing they all have in common is that they've written a lot of books. (Yes, there are exceptions, but they are very rare. And some of them aren't really exceptions, i.e., the one book wonder who turns out to have written two dozen novels under a pseudonym.)

At Left Coast Crime, I hosted a panel with four of the finalists for Best Humorous Mystery award. Between these four writers, they'd written a combined total of 60 mysteries. It doesn't take much arithmetic expertise to figure out that these writers have together put in something like 30 to 60 years of full time work writing.

Hmmm.

What is the hallmark of a successful brain surgeon? She's done lots of surgery. What makes for the kind of pilot who can put a plane with dead engines down on a river without losing a single passenger? Lots of flying. How did that fabulous waitperson get so good at waiting tables? Waiting a lot of tables. How in the world does a figure skater learn to do a triple salchow? By putting in more hours at the rink than you can count.

So if you want to be a writer... Yep, pay attention to that cliché.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A Lesson From Lee Goldberg

During the Left Coast Crime 2017 convention in Hawaii, there were several dozens of notable moments, many of them worth remembering for writers. One of these was a statement that Lee Goldberg made during a panel.

Author Lee Goldberg
You are probably familiar with Goldberg's work even if you don't know his name. He created and/or worked on many popular TV shows including Diagnosis: Murder, Hunter, Spenser: For Hire, Monk and more.

He's also written something like 30 novels including the Diagnosis: Murder series, the Monk series, the Fox & O'Hare series that he writes with Janet Evanovich, and many others. The man is a writing dynamo.

The comment Goldberg made that struck me was when he said that "There is more story in a single TV episode today than there was in an entire season of a show back in the seventies."

For those of us in the story-telling business (especially those of us who were around in the '70s), Goldberg's statement is startling. It sums up what has happened in commercial storytelling. People want more story. Much more story.

Is this because we've all been so impacted by the profusion of inputs that only a fast-moving story will keep our attention? Probably. (I remember well the days when there were just three networks on TV, and everybody watched the same news at night - Walter Cronkite.)

Despite this new sound-bite world where a slow character-focused story has a hard time gaining attention, it's also likely that people are simply hard-wired to gravitate toward more story. We love a story that gives us many twists and turns. More of that is more exciting.

Two recent experiences made this real for me.

Back in the day, I devoured each Robert Ludlum novel as they came out. I recently reread his Bourne Identity. It was originally published in 1980. Rereading it 36 years later, it seemed rich and dense and fabulously plotted... And SLOW.

Yikes, what a terrible thing to think about a book I originally thought was fast and filled with action!

Another example: Not long ago, my wife and I rented the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The film stars Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katherine Ross. It was a smash hit when it came out in 1969, the kind of film that many people saw multiple times for the excitement generated by a fast-moving plot and charismatic, beautiful movie stars.

On seeing it again 45 years later we still found it wonderful... But SLOW.

Double yikes.

Lee Goldberg is dead on with his comment.

What exactly is the "story" he refers to? If current shows have more story than an entire season of shows in the '70s, what does that really mean?

I don't think the answer is particularly clear. But the best definition of "story" is "what happens." This mostly means plot. Yes, character growth and transformation is something that "happens." And those character qualities haven't changed. It's the plot part of stories that have shifted into high gear.

So, while we still need to have compelling characters who draw you into their trouble, we more than ever need stuff to happen.

Of course, there will always be readers who want "literary" fiction, stories that delve into complex characters, stories where the major action is when characters make internal discoveries and conflict is quiet, no car chases desired.

But commercial fiction has always had more action and twists and turns. This characteristic goes Way back. Just read Shakespeare. The difference today is that the action and twists and turns have to come at a much faster pace to keep readers happy.

This isn't as easy to do as it is to state. Many writers struggle with plot, sometimes complaining that they have a hard time simply plotting their way out of a paper bag.

Years ago I thought plot was the easier part of the plot-vs-character dichotomy. Now I think it's the harder part. But from now on, I'm going to keep Lee Goldberg's words in my head as I write.



Sunday, March 26, 2017

Left Coast Crime - What An Experience!


Last week, my wife and I attended the Left Coast Crime 2017 convention in Hawaii. Four days of great panels and talks. Just shy of 500 people, all fans of mystery novels, readers and authors alike. It was a rush of inputs, all valuable, many exciting, such as meeting authors whose books I've been reading for decades. I also met fans who are SERIOUS readers and dedicated to supporting mystery writers. Some of these fans are the book-a-day devotees who in many respects know the world of mysteries better than those of us who write them.

We writers draw sustenance from these readers. They support us in this business of making up stories for a living. And we learn from them, too.

My thanks to all of them.

If you are a fan of mysteries, you will likely find such a convention a great experience. There were over 70 panels where authors talked about writing and answered questions from readers. (I served on 2 panels.) I listened to many panels and all were informative and often funny. Even for writers, it's fascinating to hear raconteurs telling stories about how they tell stories.

At the closing panel...Famous authors from our left to right:
Lee Goldberg, Collin Cotterill, Faye Kellerman, Jonathan Kellerman, Dana Stabenow, and Laurie King.

Left Coast Crime was also instructive to me because I've been chosen to be the Toastmaster at Left Coast Crime 2018 in Reno. I hope to see you all there!
Click here to go to the LCC 2018 website

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Writers Beware. For Some Kids, This Profession Does Not Compute.

I got out of snow country for a little bit and found myself sitting on a bench on the American River in Sacramento, computer on my lap, working on my 2018 Owen McKenna mystery. (The August 2017 installment is currently in the editing pipeline. More on that in a future post.)

While we are still in winter at home for another two-plus months, this river in the Central Valley was rushing with snow melt, trees were in blossom, and a thousand birds were excited about spring.

Along came a school class with an eager teacher telling her students about those birds. After they began to move on, a girl left the group and walked toward me. She was about ten years old, wore large, tortoise-shell glasses, and she looked studious. It was clear from her inquisitive look that she was very bright and engaged.

When she got near me, she looked at my laptop computer and asked, "Are you a scientist?" Her tone was one of anticipation and her face was bright with enthusiasm. Imagine how exciting it would be to meet a real-life scientist.

I said, "No, I'm a writer."

She frowned, and the corners of her mouth dropped in disappointment.

To offer a clarification that might make her feel better about my profession, I said, "I write books."

At that, confusion seemed to join with severe letdown. She scrunched up her face in wrinkled dismay. She might as well have said, 'Why on earth would anyone do something so dumb?!'

Instead, she said nothing. She turned away and walked back to her group, shoulders slumped, her body language suggesting that I'd just taken all the joy out of life.

So, writers, be prepared. Your profession may go down well with some kids. But with others... Not so much!


Sunday, March 12, 2017

From 12 Feet Of Snow To Palm Trees In 80 Minutes

Yes, there are a few other places in the world that get as much snow as Tahoe. Not a lot of them. But they're out there. (As of this writing, the Mt. Rose snow survey shows 650 inches of snow has fallen as of March 1st. That's 54 feet.)

The snow gets so deep, you can't see to pull out onto the road. Your back and arms get brutalized by shoveling. Your snowblower can't always throw it high enough to get over the banks. And when you go a few days without fresh snow, those banks near the highway get nasty with dirt.



 



So what do you do? Whenever possible, you head to palm tree country. (Which we just did.)

Yes, there are other places in the world that have palm trees like much of California.



But there are very few places on the planet where you can drive from massive amounts of snow to palm trees in 80 minutes, the time it takes to cruise down the mountain from Donner Summit (Hwy 80) or Echo Summit (Hwy 50).

In California, not only is snow optional and easy to escape (like many mountains around the world), but the climate just down the road is warm enough for palm trees (unlike most mountains wherever you go).

We live in an amazing place.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

California Drought?

Four or five years in the making.
One year in the unmaking.
Was it random chaos? Were the weather gods just testing us? Or is this the new weather gyrations of climate change?
Whatever, Californians are tired of shoveling and tired of jumping into kayaks when the town floods. But, all things considered, we'll take it.

The drought map one year ago...


The drought map today...

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Starting Your Story With An Earthquake

The famous movie impresario Samuel Goldwyn (the “G” in MGM) said, “I want a story that starts out with an earthquake… and THEN builds to a climax!”

Ol’ Sam knew something about pulling people into a story.

As you know, Clint Eastwood also knows something about pulling people into a story.

My wife and I recently saw the Clint Eastwood-directed movie Sully, about airline pilot Captain Sullenberger. Sully, played by Tom Hanks in the movie, had to make a forced landing right after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport in New York City.  A flock of birds suddenly flew into the path of the airliner, destroying both of the engines on the plane. (Sorry about that, birds!)

After thirty seconds of engine tests and emergency diagnostics, Sully realized two things. First, his engines were toast, and he had to make a very careful emergency landing if he had any hope of saving the 155 passengers. Two, he didn’t have enough altitude to be able to glide back to the airport. So he landed in the Hudson River and didn’t lose a single life.



From the standpoint of a storyteller, this movie is fascinating to watch because the tense process of putting the plane down in the river only took a bit over a minute. How does one make a 90-minute movie out of one minute of action? Another challenge is that everyone who sees the movie (or read the book it was based on) already knows the outcome of the story. Yet a third difficulty is how to draw people into a story they already know.

It turns out that Eastwood took seriously Samuel Goldwyn’s desire for a story that starts with a bang. We barely hit the play button on the DVD when we see Tom Hanks in the cockpit as the birds strike the plane. He immediately begins preparations for an emergency landing.

Talk about starting with an earthquake.

All of us authors should make a mental note of this movie and its beginning. When we begin a story, we so often think we need to “set the stage” and explain to our readers who our characters are so that when the trouble starts, the reader will care about the characters because they already know them.

Eastwood shows in a powerful “earthquake” manner that we don’t need to know characters at all in the beginning.

If you want to grab your reader, put your characters in deep, deep trouble as early in the story as possible. The trouble makes us care about the characters who are struggling with it. The reader will eventually come to know your characters in the way you desire, no previous “stage setting” necessary. And perhaps readers will care even more because of the trouble your characters are in came on so strong and so fast.

Most important of all, when your characters get into bad trouble from the beginning, the reader is much more likely to stay with the story and not turn away looking for a “grabbier” story.

Take a look - or another look - at the movie Sully and see just how Eastwood does it. It’s a powerful lesson in storytelling.

P.S. Let's not forget what the real Sully did. Wow.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Self Publishing - What Not To Do Part 3

The last two weeks, I wrote about the worst way to self publish your books. The problem basically boils down to signing over your publication rights to a so-called "self publishing" publisher, which is technically anything but.

I've spoken to more writers who signed on with "self-publishing" publishers than I can count. These writers - like all writers - are universally smart, earnest, focused, dedicated, skillful writers. They have great ideas and great execution. They reasonably believe that the best focus for their limited time is the books they are writing, not the mechanisms to bring those books to the marketplace.

Unfortunately, this is a big error in judgment. Because they aren't driving their own writing/publishing/marketing vehicle, their books are just one more set of titles in a company that has hundreds or thousands of authors. And at whatever sales level these authors create, their so-called publishing company takes a critical portion of the money off the top, yet they still don't help those writers sell books. How can you tell?

Easy. When you find a compelling "self-publishing" company, go through their catalog and write down the titles and authors of their books. Pick out dozens of them. Or hundreds of them. Now look up those same books on Amazon. What are their sales ranking? (Remember, a sales ranking of #1 means the top-selling book at Amazon. A sales ranking of 100,000 means that 99,999 titles sell better. The lower the number, the better the book sells.) When you look at the sales ranking of all the books you've written down, you'll quickly see that most are over 500,000. Many are over a million. Some way over. That tells you how successful/unsuccessful the publisher is at selling books.

How can authors who signed over publication rights to a company that pays no advance and yet doesn't sell many books ever hope to compete with the real self-published authors? The simple answer is that they can't. Because real self-published authors have a full-time, or even double-time, person working exclusively on the publishing and marketing of their own books. Themselves. Their efforts are rewarded by being able to keep all of the profit. And their efforts aren't diluted by having to focus on other writers.

Self-published authors who have complete control over their work are nimble and faster and more motivated. They don't have to get any permission to make this little change or that adjustment in their story or on their book cover. When they see a promotion opportunity, they can jump on it. When a group, corporate or social or otherwise, asks for their participation in an event and they need to show up with 100 books, they can immediately accept. And every one of these things that they do puts more money in their pocket, not someone else's pocket.

Of course, many writers think that they don't have time to figure all this stuff out. So just pay the money, and the next thing you know, their book is for sale on Amazon. Yay. They're in the big time. Never mind that their books might not make any money.

Further - and this is a big point - these writers look at "real" self-published authors and see that most of them don't make money, either! Same for New York-published authors. So who cares what approach one takes?

I can't argue with that. As I said in my caveat at the beginning of this rant two weeks ago, if you're happy with your choices, great.

But because only a small percentage of writers earn a good living from writing, it's worth it to take a close look at them. Some of them have established long careers with New York publishers. It's a tough gig - the Authors Guild reports that the average New York-published author makes $17,000 a year - but it can be done. And an increasing number of authors earning a good living are self-published. But, as far as I can see, all of those self-published authors are true self-published authors, in control of their own career, with no other people between them and their readers.

The bottom line is this. If you want to have a chance at joining that small percentage - authors who earn a good living - wouldn't you choose one of the approaches that they all use? Yet many writers choose an approach that no successful authors use. Why?

Is figuring out how to be a real self publisher hard work? Absolutely. It takes a lot of research to learn what is necessary to truly self publish. Writing your book was hard work, too. As was studying for and developing your previous work career. You wouldn't have turned over control of your previous career to someone else to make all the decisions. You did it all yourself, going directly to the people who paid you money for your services. And your efforts and focus on every aspect of that career were important to your success.

Like any research project, start by Googling your questions. Then expect to read a hundred blogs on the subject. Plan to purchase several books on the subject. Join writer's groups. Attend their meetings. Ask questions. Get involved. Do the same stuff you did when you got into your first career. Education, apprenticeship, practice/study/practice some more/study some more.

If you're going to self publish, I think you should use as your role model those writers who are successful. Please don't fall for a slick website. The reality is that those companies are good at only one thing: Taking money from writers who have stars in their eyes and an unquenchable desire to see their books in print on a bookshelf right now. Consider the benefits of delayed gratification. You will benefit a thousand times for the moments when you paused to learn more before you jumped into deep water.

You did a great job on all the research to write your book. Put in a relatively small amount of research to learn the most effective way of bringing your books to market. Either get yourself a New York deal with a decent advance or be a REAL self publisher. The first is a very unlikely possibility, and the second is a reasonable, workable approach that has rewarded thousands of writers.

You may be wondering what makes me think I know so much about this stuff. Just that my observations come from 16 years of publishing, the fact that I make a good living from this business, and the clear knowledge that I could not have succeeded had I done any of the things I'm warning about.

P.S.

I know writers who made the mistake of paying money to such companies, eventually realized the folly, reconfigured their approach to take back control, and began to do very well. So if you've gotten your books hitched to other people and given others control over your writing life, it's not too late. Read the fine print on your contract to see what is involved in taking back every right you gave them. Maybe you can republish under new ISBNs that you own. Maybe you can do new, professional covers, and get proper editing. With effort, you can probably take complete control over your new writing career, just as you did with your first career.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Self Publishing - What Not To Do Part 2

Last week I said that there is a very simple way to cut through the hype and hyperbole on a publisher or "self-publisher." This is the most basic, obvious way to judge if a publisher or so-called "self publisher" company is worthy. It's so basic that we often overlook it. Apply this test to any and every publishing services provider.

Ask them for the names of their authors who make a good living from their books.

That's a simple question with a simple answer. "John Doe and Suzie Doe each made $50,000 last year publishing with us. And Mary Roe made $100,000 with us in each of the last six years."

I've posed this question before. No one has come up with any names of successful writers using these "self-publishing" services. NO ONE. Do they exist? For the good of writers, I hope so. But I have yet to hear of one.

Does that mean that self-published authors don't ever make money? Of course not. Thousands of authors who put their books out with real self-publishing - their own businesses with their own ISBN numbers and their own marketing and control of all aspects of their own books - do very well. Some make over a million dollars a year. Many, many make over $100,000 a year. Countless self-published authors make $50,000 a year.

Do any of these authors sign up with one of the internet companies that has a slick website promising self-publishing success, promising that they'll handle all of the details, promising that they'll give you all of these amazing benefits for only $50 or $199 or $499? Plus, because your writing is so stellar, they'll allow you to participate in their advanced marketing/editing/promotion package for only $999?!

Gag, choke, cough, give me a break.

Again, no one has yet given me the name of an author who makes a decent living working with one of these publishers. Maybe there are some one-book wonders, writers who bought the "self-publishing" service and then uncorked a bestseller and made a bunch of money in one year. But I've never heard of them. And as for writers who, year after year, do well? I'd be astounded. The reason is that if anyone can successfully sell books (which of course a writer has to do himself or herself, because the companies provide no help), they would quickly switch over to real self publishing so they can make decent money instead of giving a percentage to a company that did nothing other than add the book to their internet catalog.

So, if you are a successful writer earning $50,000 or $100,000 or more income by publishing through one of these companies, please reveal yourself. Let other would-be writers see the rewards of working with the "self-publishing" company you use. Let other writers explore your sales rankings and appreciate the professionalism of the book covers the "self-publishing" company put on your books. Let other writers see your reviews and media coverage and distribution and learn from your success. You would be doing the world a big favor if you could show us that in fact there are self-publishing service companies that really do provide a worthwhile service.

I've asked this before, but no one has responded. The simple truth is that successful self-published authors do it all themselves so that they have complete control. It is that control that allows them to succeed. Without control, if you have the world's greatest idea about your published books, you have to try to contact someone who has control at your publisher. Someone who can make decisions. Someone who is willing to implement your idea. Of course, that person may be on vacation. Or playing golf while you are waiting for a return phone call or email. And when you get a response, it may be negative. Sorry, we don't do that...

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Self-Publishing - What Not To Do

In last week's post, I mentioned several reasons why self publishing is a logical default approach for new writers. What I forgot to do was explain what self publishing is and isn't. So this post is a clarification.

A clarification that could properly be called a rant. The rant comes from the frustration I've witnessed in dozens of writers I've met over the last few years who've signed their publication rights over to a so-called "self publishing" publisher. This post and perhaps another or two won't be very much about the best way to self publish. It will be very much about the worst way to self publish. Thus a rant. A warning.

(First, a qualification. If your only goal is to get your book printed and up on Amazon so you can know that your kids and grandchildren and neighbors can read your story, then ignore this post. If you don't care about selling significant numbers of books or finding a substantial audience of readers, ignore this post. If you have no aspirations for a career as a writer, ignore this post. And please know that there is nothing wrong with the simple desire to take the easiest approach to getting your book printed and up on Amazon. That "easiest approach," whatever you determine it to be, needs no comment or critique from me!)

(Second, a disclaimer. What follows is merely one writer's view of the world of publishing. It is not the one true vision. I'm not the one true expert. Take everything I say with a healthy skepticism.)

(Third, a caveat. If you are already a published author and you are happy with your current publishing arrangement, whatever it is, then don't read any of this post. It will just distract you from what you should be doing, which is working on your next book!)

Having said that...

To state what might be obvious but often isn't in a world filled with companies trying to sell "self-publishing services," self publishing is publishing yourself.

Over and over, writers fall for "self-publishing" scams. They pay money to a company that claims to self-publish them. This entire premise is false. If you self publish, that means you publish yourself. If you pay money to an outfit that claims to help you, you are more than likely buying snake oil.

Self publishing means that you figure out how to get your books to the marketplace and you have control over that. You figure out the mechanisms to get your books into paper form and ebook form and you have control over that. You arrange for your cover design, your editing, your formatting. You get your own ISBN number. You decide your discounts, your retail price, which distributors and retailers you will sell to, whether they be the likes of the behemoth Amazon or the corner bookstore or the neighborhood cafe.

If, instead, you pay money to one of the ten thousand companies that call themselves self-publishing companies, you are not really a self publisher. You give up control to another company. They own the ISBN. They control the distribution. They make the critical decisions. Pricing, marketing, distribution, promotions. In the rare event that you find a company that claims to still allow you to make these decisions, move very carefully. Why are you paying them money? What is the point? To make it so you don't have to learn to do the very things that dramatically enhance your ability to find an audience and sell books?

At this point, I should point out that if they don't ask you to pay them any money and instead only ask for you to sign over your publication rights, then that's the fee you are "paying" them.

In other words, one could logically sort out publishing scenarios and consider the two most attractive versions. The first is when a publisher pays you a substantial cash advance in return for those publication rights to your book. The second is when you bring your book to market yourself, keep all the rights, all the control, and make certain that all reasonable monies flow to your bank account and not the account of some other company that owns the ISBN number. (Technically, the owner of the ISBN number is the publisher of your book and will be listed as such in all appropriate databases, i.e., if you own the ISBN number, you are the publisher.)

When you give up control to another company, you'd be amazed at what you can't do. In most cases, you can't control much of the most critical aspects of your writing career. There will be a layer of bureaucracy between you and your book. If you want to fix mistakes in your paper book or ebook, good luck. If you want to get a bunch of books at a really good price to take to talks and book clubs and festivals, you're out of luck. If you want to have enough margin to entice bookstores with a full 50% discount and free freight, you will make zero money or even end up paying out of pocket for the privilege of selling to them. If you want distributors like Baker & Taylor or Ingram to take on your book, you won't be able to give them the 55% discount they require.

The list goes on. If you want to change course with your marketing, you have to convince someone else to let you do it. If you want a reviewer to consider reviewing your book, you have to convince them not to be affected by a possible stigma connected to the reputation of your so-called "self-publishing services" company. If you want the larger world of books - stores and media and conventions and conferences to take you seriously, good luck. Professionals in the book world often take one look at your "self-publishing" company and see that you got sold by one of those "internet publishers" who made your book available on Amazon and other internet sales channels, and they know you paid good money to an outfit to have them do what you could have done yourself for free. You become stigmatized by your choices that suggest you didn't do your due diligence.

In addition is the possibility that your actual publisher - not you, but the company who owns your ISBN number - maybe takes a chunk of the money off the top, money that should come to you. You paid them to set up what you could have done for free, and then on top of that you may have given them permanent rights to take a percentage of every book that you sell for what could be the rest of your life and the life of your children.

That same "self publisher" may sell their business and then a stranger you've never heard of owns rights to your books. Or the ISBN owner dies and that person's wastrel nephew inherits the rights to your books. At the very least, you have a major problem on your hands. At the worst... Well, as a writer, you can probably imagine the worst. And all of it is unnecessary.

Next week: A simple measure that will immediately tell you if a publisher of any sort is any good at all...

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Three Big Questions About Novels, Three Possible Answers

I got an email from a writer. His three questions to me were:

1) How should I publish a novel?

2) How should I market and promote a novel?

3) What do you love about marketing and promoting? 

Because he was in the beginning stages of research, my answers were somewhat different from what I've blogged about before. Similar information, certainly, but new packaging.

Here is my response, slightly edited.

Dear Writer,

As for your first question, self-publishing is the default choice for most writers for two reasons.

First, the big New York publishers won't touch most writers because they don't have sufficient platform, i.e., the persistent rumor that Saul Bellow couldn't get a novel published after he won the Nobel Prize because the big publishers decided he simply couldn't sell enough books. But Paris Hilton can get a six figure advance. For most unknown writers, pursuing a New York deal is a waste of time and energy because the likelihood of a positive result is very small. And for those writers who do succeed in getting such a deal, 95% of them are dropped before the option on their second book is exercised. Once they are "orphaned," they are in a worse position than before they began the process. (Much of this information from a talk given at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference by Michael Pietsch, current publisher of Hachette - world's largest publisher - and former editor-in-chief at Little Brown.)

Second, small publishers won't give you any advance money and they still take 90% of your profits. (It is axiomatic that an advance is nearly always the only money a novelist ever sees from a traditional publishing deal.)

That leaves self-publishing. The supposed downside to going it alone is that you have to do all the selling of your books. But what new writers don't realize is that you always have to do all the selling of your books regardless of how you're published. Only when you claw your way into big recognition - Lee Child, Nora Roberts, Michael Connelly - will the publishers begin to hustle your work, but not before. And even those biggest of authors, all they do is work. There is no easy way...

As for your second question about marketing, my blog explains every step of how I have marketed my books and built my brand. (Click on the "On Writing" label in the right sidebar.) You have to write good books. Most of the time, those books need to be in a series. You have to have professional covers that all go together. You have to constantly get your books in front of thousands of readers.

There are a few one-book wonders out there, but they are very rare. And often times, it turns out that the whole concept is a fabrication and the author has written many previous books under another name, and the publisher is aware of, and focused on, that when they sign the writer to publish under a new name.

As for your third question about what I love about marketing, there isn't a great deal that any writers I know enjoy about promoting themselves. Although meeting readers - book clubs, library talks, festivals, etc, is always fun.

We are all introverts. Promotion is simply something you have to do in any business. Think about restaurants as a business model. Seriously. You have to have multiple good entrees on the menu to get people coming back for more. You have to keep adding to and adjusting the menu. You have to have good signage. You have to get the media to write about you. You have to get lots of reviews, and they have to be good. You have to have a theme or high concept to your presentation to set yourself apart from everyone else.  You have to be constantly involved in your community, whatever you perceive that to be, i.e., this is not a "Build it and they will come" enterprise. Maybe J.D.Salinger could do it 60 years ago. But I doubt it can be done today. Last, you have to be open long hours, i.e., there are few if any successful part-time authors. Successful authors generally work double time.

Here's a way to sum up what writers are up against and a good thing to keep in mind as you frame your plan. A writer needs to have an answer to the following questions: On any given day, Amazon has hundreds of thousands of free Kindle books available for download. So why would a reader pay money for my books? And what do I need to do to make that happen?

At this point, you are probably thinking that I make marketing/selling novels seem very difficult. That is probably true. That is also something that can help a writer be better prepared, and the better prepared one is, the better chance of success.

Good luck!

Todd

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Buried. Our Mountain Hamlet Is Under Siege.

At first, the snow was our savior in a world afflicted with drought. It will fill the lake and water the Central Valley farmland next summer. But right now, it's our nemesis.

All we see is white.

Multiple feet in the beginning of January. Ten feet a week ago. Two feet early this week. Six feet in the last 48 hours. Three more feet predicted by Monday. Yes, we live in a particularly snowy micro-climate near Echo Summit. But all of Tahoe is getting hammered. The West Shore particularly, from Squaw and Alpine to Christmas Valley, is getting buried.

Last week, we were snowed in for three days and were without power for 36 hours in one stretch in addition to two smaller stretches. We lived by candlelight and cooked on the wood stove. And we're among the lucky ones. Many others have been without power for much longer. (Given this weather and the number of trees that have fallen on power lines, it's amazing how well the crews do in keeping the electricity flowing to our houses and businesses!)

Two days ago, a huge ice/snow chunk slid down our roof and ripped off the support for the wood stove chimney pipe. No more auxiliary heat or cooking. Until that gets fixed, it's going to be peanut butter sandwiches when the power goes out.

The snow piled up so high on our new van that it caved in the roof. Decks and shallow roofs everywhere are in danger of collapse.

As of this moment that I'm writing on early Saturday morning, we have power and we are very thankful for that. But we are snowed in again. We can't see out our windows because the snow, even after the constant compression/settling, is up to roof level. Looking out our front door, we see a wall of snow. It's like shoveling a tunnel. I take small little scoops and attempt to throw them straight up ten feet.

Outside, the morning sun has yet to rise. But the forest is lit with flashes of light as they blast on Echo Summit, doing avalanche control, hoping to re-open the road. Seconds after each flash comes a house-shaking blast as the shock wave boom shatters the snowy peace in the forest. A friend who served two tours in Vietnam once visited during avalanche control and said he was having flashbacks.

I remember our first big snow year after we moved here. It was the winter of 92-93. I heard a ski resort spokesman on the radio. He said, "The good news is, we have fifteen feet of new snow! The bad news is, you can't get here from anywhere!" It's like that now, only more so.

For weeks, we've been continuously shoveling the walk outside our front door. But when the sun rose Saturday morning, this is what the view outside our front door looked like.

Someday, the rotary plow will come up our hill and we'll rejoin the world. Someday, the sun will come out and stay out. Someday, the songbirds will arrive again and sing their arias.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

What Does Ten Feet Of Snow Look Like?

Last week we got ten feet of snow. As you can imagine, this was a classic good news/bad news situation.


The good news is that Northern California is no longer in a drought. The lake is back above the rim and filling nicely. The ski resorts have more white stuff than they dreamed of just a few weeks ago.

The bad news is some places on the West Shore and the North Shore still don't have power as I write this on Saturday, the 14th. Some people are still trapped in cabins and houses with unplowed roads full of snow and draped with downed power lines from fallen trees. The West Shore Post Offices are still closed. 

At our house, we were only snowed in for three days and without power for 36 hours. At first, living by candle light and cooking on the wood stove was fun. (Thankfully, we have a wood stove!) But after enough time, we began to tire of it. Snow removal became a full time job. The return of electricity and the rotary plow was much welcomed!

Now, the sun is poking through. Ah, sweet, warm, sunshine. Until the next storm...

After spending hours clearing snow, you give up for a bit.
I know one of our vehicles is under there someplace!

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Atmospheric Rivers Can Dump 10 Feet Of Snow During One Storm

As I write this, the National Weather Service has issued stern warnings for Tahoe and the surrounding area. They say an atmospheric river is going to take aim directly at Tahoe beginning early Sunday morning. If the weather people are correct, come Sunday we will be struggling with massive rainfall, 6 - 12 inches over the next 24 hours.

The snow levels are expected to be high, 8000 - 9000 feet, which, considering the amount of moisture involved, is good for those of us who live here. Why? Because if an inch of rain falls instead as snow, you can get up to a foot of snow. If all this moisture fell as snow, we'd get 6 - 12 FEET. Ask a Tahoe local, and you'll hear that we can handle 4 feet of snow at once. However, 12 feet would be a bit much.



But imagine all that snow up at 8000 or 9000 feet. Those higher elevations could be hit with a major dump of fresh pow. So, skiers and boarders, consider what it will be like at the top of Heavenly, Tahoe's highest area (Remember that both Kirkwood and Mt. Rose are almost as high). On both the California and Nevada sides of Heavenly, the highest chairlift bases are around 8500 feet. The Sky Chair on the California chair goes up to 10,000 feet. The Dipper and Comet chairs on the Nevada side go up almost as high. Mt. Rose rises to 9700 feet and Kirkwood tops out at 9800 feet.



While Tahoe's lower elevations are flooding with rain, our upper elevations will likely have epic snow.



P.S. Over the last week, most of the ski areas got 6 feet or more of snow. They're about to get a substantial addition in a short period of time. Stay tuned...

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Thanks That's Almost 30 Years Overdue

I often get asked who my influences are...

The answer includes many important mystery and thriller writers such as Raymond Chandler, Robert Parker, and, of course, John D. MacDonald. Other important influences are writing teachers, and one stands out for me.

Back in 1986, a debut novel titled Red Earth, White Earth was published to critical and commercial acclaim. Written by a creative writing professor in Minnesota named Will Weaver, Red Earth, White Earth was about two young friends, one white and one Chippewa, and the way they coped with the struggles of Native Americans in a largely white society.

The novel, which was made into a movie, was an impressive story. It has stayed with me to this day, thirty years later. At the time it came out, I'd written a couple of novels, both of which are still in a drawer. When I learned that Will would be teaching a week-long workshop on novel writing at the Duluth campus of the University of Minnesota, I was probably the first to sign up.

The workshop was great, and Will's insight was so helpful that I remember many of his comments to this day. He was also kind enough to give me post-workshop input on one of my manuscripts.

Not long after that workshop, Will published a short story called A Gravestone Made Of Wheat. It was the story of a young woman who emigrates from Norway to Minnesota to marry a Norwegian American farmer. I've revisited this story many times and I still think it is the single most powerful short story I've ever read. A Gravestone Made Of Wheat was also made into a movie called Sweet Land, which was also good.


Will's other novels are great, too, and one of them, Memory Boy, has even been turned into an opera! (Just try to imagine Owen McKenna and Spot-meets-Verdi - Oooh, I'm envious.)

I've attended multiple workshops and writing conferences over the years. The week I spent at Will's workshop is still the high point of those experiences.

Will continues to teach outside of the classroom with his blog In The Write. In it you will find helpful tips on writing, an insider's look at the business, and trenchant observations about changes in the publishing industry.

Will Weaver is a serious writer of literary fiction. As a writer of entertainment fiction, my work is substantially different. Yet, I've always considered Will one of my major influences. I still hear his sage advice, I still remember his helpful critique, and I still value his early support of my writing.

My hat's off to Will, a great novelist as well as a great writing teacher.