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!


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.