Friday, January 31, 2020

Writing: Does It Involve Self-Promotion?

I get email almost daily that involves books that are on sale--sometimes discounted, sometimes at full price, but always with descriptions that lead me to wonder how I've live this long without reading them. In case you've wondered (and even if you haven't), most authors make money from the books they've written from the advances they're given and (sometimes) from royalties after these books have "earned out" these advances. And why are these books bought? People hear about them, are interested, and buy them.

One of the things I was told when I first got into this writing racket was that no one was as interested in a book I'd written as I was, so the only way to get the word out get the word out. All of us who use social media have heard of the 40-60 rule or some variant of it. Plug your book in no more than 40% of your posts, reserving the other 60% for other things. Also, I've found it true that the best advertising is word-of-mouth, which starts with someone liking a book and telling others about it. But how do they learn about it? Ultimately, you get the word out.

The bottom line (if you'll excuse the hackneyed phrase) is that an author has to either get past his/her fear of self-promotion or employ someone who'll do it for them--publicist or whatever. Done well, and not beaten into the ground with admonitions to "buy my book," it can get past self-promotion and be a decent way to get the word to others. Not done well, it can be a real turn-off. It's a fine line we walk. Do I stray from that line? I hope that, if I do, you'll let me know.

BTW, my next novel, Critical Decision, should be available for purchase within a month or so. Those signed up for my newsletter (see right margin of this column) will hear about it first. End of self-promotion message. How'd I do, folks?

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Reflections From A Road Trip

My wife and I don't travel much. In my "more mature" days I've come to agree with the words of Nolan Ryan: Anyone who thinks travel is glamorous hasn't done enough of it. But we needed to go about 150 miles to Oklahoma for the funeral, and we decided to drive. I'm glad we went, but I don't think we'll do all 300 miles in one day again.

Things I learned from the trip? Quite a few, actually. First, it was nice to go to a smaller town where people still stopped their cars until a funeral procession went by. That simple gesture has almost been lost in some of the larger towns, but it was good to see that it hasn't gone completely. It's nice that people can still take five or ten minutes out of their busy lives to show respect, both for the passing of a fellow human being and for the family and friends who accompany them on this last ride.

Second, it was good to have the enforced "togetherness" of the trip. We're always in a hurry, and it seems that Murphy's second law holds true for most of us: Things expand completely to fill all available time. Admittedly, we had our cell phones, so it wasn't as though we were totally cut off from communication with the rest of the world. But it was good, nevertheless.

How about you? What lessons have you learned lately? Whether going about our normal business or when life causes a bit of disruption of our schedule, have you been struck by something that you didn't otherwise notice? I'd like to hear.

BTW, for those interested in my recent column about whether blogs are dead, let's just say that although some are still being read, others--and maybe this one--are on life support. We'll see.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Writing: No One Ever Tells You Everything

There are lots of things we learn along the way to becoming an author. The volume of material, the things that we have drilled into us until they become automatic, the steps that are necessary all make me cringe when I hear someone say, "I think I'll write a book." Oh, I don't discourage their trying. Maybe one in a hundred will stick to it long enough to string together 75,000 or even 100,000 words. And maybe yet even a smaller proportion will write one that's publishable.

We have lots of rules drilled into us: keep point of view constant (in a scene, chapter, even a whole book). Avoid the passive voice (keep the reader interested). Try to hook the reader from the start of the book, and don't let things wane too much or too often. Avoid the "sagging middle" in your book. Pay attention to the antagonist, as well as the hero. And on, and on, and on.

But the rule I find most helpful is one credited to Elmore Leonard, who "leaves out the parts people tend to skip." If the segment doesn't advance the story, doesn't hold the reader's interest, out it goes. Even if I like it. Even if it's one of my "darlings." Yes, we have to kill our darlings sometime.

You may study. You may take courses. You may have multiple books published. But you'll find that there's always more to learn. No one ever tells you everything--because, if they're honest, there's always something more.

Should that deter you from writing? No. But don't dismiss criticism out of hand. If it comes from someone who knows what they're talking about it, consider it. If you get the same criticism from two or more knowledgeable people, really take it to heart. But keep on. The writer who thinks they're beyond taking criticism is the one who doesn't realize that we all have to keep learning.

What do you think is the best advice for a writer?

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Every Author Needs A Blog...Don't They?

I was musing about this blog, and along the way I looked back at my first post, which hit on June 19, 2006. Since then, I've posted (according to blogger) just shy of 1500 of these bits of deathless prose. And now, I'm beginning to think that blogs--like bell-bottoms and convertibles--may have had their day.

Why did I start this blog anyway? If you read the link I've furnished to my first blog, you'll find that I thought establishing one would be neat, since most of my colleagues were also blogging. Since then, newsletters, tweets, Facebook posts, and even Instagram pictures have become popular. Why do I continue to do it? Why, indeed? You tell me.

Years ago, I was advised to establish a social media presence, to "get my name out there." With the explosion of social media, as detailed above, I've seen authors gradually drop blogs in favor of some of the other forms Some have even (gasp!) totally eschewed social media, depending on word of mouth (which I maintain is the best form of advertising) to carry them forward. Publishing, whether via a conventional publishing house or "going indie," has changed. Is this another change for authors?

So I'm asking. Do you think this blog has any relevance? What about other social media? What should an author do to "get themselves out there"? I really want to know. And the comments, or lack thereof, will give me a pretty good idea.

PS--In case you're interested (and even if you're not), my next novel, Critical Decision, should be available on Amazon by mid-March, maybe earlier. I know, I know--it's taking a long time, but I hope you'll find it worth the wait.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Writing: Resist The Urge To Explain

Anyone who's taken a writing class or attended a writing conference has probably heard the initials R.U.E. I learned "resist the urge to explain" at my first real conference, when I sat in a group taught by Gayle Roper. She had each of us read a section of our work in progress, but didn't let us answer questions about it. The reason, of course, was because we wouldn't be present looking over the reader's shoulder to explain. We had to make it self-evident, and if it wasn't, we should rewrite it. The author should give just enough information for the reader to draw his/her own conclusion, but not so much that the person looking at the book bogs down with explanations. It's a fine line that we have to walk, and some are more successful than others.

One example of an author who gets it right is Susan Sleeman in her new novel, Seconds to Live. She writes about the witness protection program (which is actually called WITSEC--Witness Security Program) and computer hacking. There are lots of terms used, most of them unfamiliar to most of us, but Susan does a good job of making them clear without going too far over the line.

As a writer of mystery novels that have a medical component, I have a dual task. I have to sprinkle any necessary clues into the novel without being obvious about it. I also have the task of making it possible for the reader to follow along and understand any technical jargon--any "doctor talk" if you will--without being obvious about it. Thus far, I've been fairly successful, but every once in a while I find myself going too far. That's when I have to back off and tell myself, "resist the urge to explain."

Have you found this to be a problem in some books? Any tricks for hitting the middle ground, not going to far in either direction--not explaining enough or too much? I'd like to know.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Who Do You Believe?

In the world of instant news that we inhabit, have you found yourself wondering which news source to believe? I'll admit that I have. Cable news, regular TV and radio programs, podcasts,  newspapers, Twitter, Facebook... The list goes on and on. It's reached the point where you can find out, any time of the day or night, what the latest opinion is. And if you don't like that one, move to another news source and get an opposite one.

My philosophy has always been to hear the facts and make up my own mind. But facts are sometime difficult to come by, although opinions aren't. How do you separate the two? Do you have any suggestions? I'd like to know.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Writing: Pay Attention To The Ending

I'm editing (for what I hope is the last time) my next novel, Critical Decision. As I went over (and over and over) it before sending it to the printer, I decided that there are a couple of things that should be carefully gone over by the writer: the opening and the closing.

The importance of the opening is obviously important. It's been said that this is the spot where you "hook" your reader and encourage them to keep on reading. Thus, the need for polishing that part of the book is evident. People spend literally months getting the opening just right, and I see why that's true. But the closing should also get the author's attention.

If the opening is what makes the reader turn the page and keep on turning, the closing scene(s) are what they take away when they're through with the book. Another way to put it is that you sell this book with the opening, but with the closing you sell the next one. Which is important to me? They both are--but I certainly spent more time on the closing of this one than I did on the opening.

What's your opinion? I'd like to know.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Anyone Having Trouble Getting Started?

The long weekend (or however long you had off) is over. For the adults, it's time to go back to work. Kids, you have to go to school again. But throughout the land echoes the cry (either voiced or silently), "I'm not ready."

It reminds me of the story of a male or female (it works either way) who doesn't want to go to school. The woman standing over the bed says, "You'll go for three reasons. Number one, you have an obligation. Number two, there are things there you need to do. And number three, you're the teacher."

Well, I'm not the teacher, and my profession no longer demands that I go to work, but nevertheless, I guess it's time for me to move. But I really don't want to. How about you?

Friday, January 03, 2020

Writing: Next Novel

I've been promising it, and here it is: the cover for my next book. I think the cover artist outdid herself. I've been through many revisions myself, did more after input from my first reader (my wife), then had it edited (twice) by an editor, and as soon as it's ready, you'll be able to read it--probably sometime in February.

Meanwhile, here's the first scene to pique your interest. Enjoy.

Dr. Kathy Hoover stood at the back door, but soon found that shouting “Go do your business” to her canine companion had little effect.  She was anxious to return to the office, but the dog didn’t seem to understand. She really hadn’t wanted to take the time to come home at lunch, but Darren was out of town, and Kathy forgot to let Archie out this morning before she left. If she didn’t want to clean up a mess on her return home, she figured it was best to go at lunch time and take care of that chore. 
Finally, patience and the passage of time accomplished what she couldn’t manage by exhortations, and the deed was done. The dog at the center of all this seemed to sense that Kathy was leaving now. He whined to signal his disapproval. The master was at home and Archie was ready for playtime. 
She looked down at the dog and shook her finger. “No time for play. I’ll be back this evening. Now be good.” She wasn’t certain the golden retriever understood, but when she turned toward the kitchen, the dog lay down quietly. Kathy headed for the garage but didn’t quite make it before the doorbell stopped her.
Kathy paused and listened to the door chime’s reverberation fade. The local TV news had run a feature just yesterday about packages disappearing from porches. What if… She sighed and reversed direction. It would only take another minute or two for her to open the front door, check to see if FedEx or UPS had left a package, and bring it in if one were there.
Kathy looked through the pane of glass beside her front door and saw a panel van just pulling away. It wasn’t the familiar dark brown of UPS, nor did it bear the blue and orange logo of FedEx. And it didn’t look like a Postal Service delivery truck. Didn’t she read that Amazon had their own delivery service in some areas? Were those vehicles marked in some way? Whoever brought it, she might as well look at what they’d left.
She unlocked the door, took one step onto her front porch, and saw a small box lying on the stoop. The package was about the dimensions of a shoebox, wrapped in plain brown paper, with her name on a label. Otherwise, it bore no address, no return data, nothing to indicate the carrier. Strange. 
Kathy reached down to pick up the box. Now that the dog was taken care of, she needed to get back to the office. Then again, she couldn’t turn loose of the situation with the box. She wasn’t expecting a delivery. Had Darren ordered something without telling her? No, that would be totally out of character for him. If he’d purchased anything, whether a small household gadget or a new car, he would have discussed it with her. Even if he’d done it on his own, he would have alerted her to expect it. 
She really needed to go right now. But her curiosity fought with common sense, and her curiosity won. Before she could change her mind, Kathy took the package inside and headed for the kitchen, where she rummaged in the “junk” drawer until she found a pair of scissors with one blade partially broken off. Using the intact half of the instrument, she removed the plain wrapping and cut through the tape that held the box closed. When there was no explosion, she let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding. Kathy dug through the packing peanuts in the box until she found what it contained—a cell phone. 
By now, the dog had become interested in Kathy’s actions. He stood, stretched, and trotted to station himself beside her, where he watched with his head canted to one side.
Meanwhile, Kathy hesitated over the package. Had Darren arranged for a loaner phone to be sent to their house while his was being repaired? But she’d talked with him just last evening on his cell phone, and it was working then. And wouldn’t a loaner or replacement be an iPhone such as they both used? This was nothing like that. Matter of fact, she’d never seen one exactly like this one. 
Kathy looked at her watch and decided she’d deal with this after she got back home this evening. She was about to put the phone back into the box when it started to vibrate in her hands. She almost dropped the instrument. Surely this was a mistake—probably a wrong number. The caller ID was no help. It showed a blocked number. She decided to ignore the phone, but found it impossible. Kathy finally pushed the button to answer the call.   
The voice she heard had a mechanical quality. The caller obviously was using a voice changer of some sort. Nevertheless, the words were clear enough. “Dr. Hoover. Don’t hang up. This is deadly serious. Carry out my instructions or your husband will die.” 
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. But this didn’t appear to be a mistake. The phone had been delivered to her house. The voice addressed her by name. 
So far as she knew, her husband was in Washington, DC, attending a conference. Yet the voice was threatening his death. Kathy’s first thought was to call Darren and check on him.
The next words that came through the phone made her wonder if whoever was behind the voice could read her thoughts. “Don’t bother calling your husband. No one will answer his cell phone.” 
            The voice continued as though Kathy hadn’t responded. Maybe it was a recording. Probably so. “I’ll call you later with more instructions. Keep this phone with you at all times. If you do as I say, perhaps you’ll see your husband again.”
            Just as Kathy prepared to ask a question, there was one more message from the electronic voice. “Don’t tell anyone about these instructions. And if you’re thinking of replaying this message for the authorities or anyone else, don’t bother. It will erase itself in ten seconds.” 
            A click in her ear signaled the end of the call. Kathy stood for another minute, holding the dead phone, wondering how she’d gotten into the middle of all this.