Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Pulling teeth

1,689 word Tuesday, and every one of them was like pulling teeth.

It always is when I come back from a break. Four-day Easter break, got almost nothing done. So Tuesday was my Monday after a four-day weekend, and getting started was hard. No momentum.

The funny part is, when read it to the kids in Tori's classroom, they loved it. "That was awesome!" is what Ryan said. Unexpected, to say the least.

With the school year entering the last lap before summer vacation, I really have to drive this thing to a close. So I'm pushing the action a little more, because "at my heel I hear time's wing'd charioteer," or whatever the poet said. You know the reference. So anyway, that might be what the kids responded to. The sound of desperation.

But it'll be a race to the end of the school year. And then all I'll have is a first draft that needs a lot of work. There's a story in here somewhere, a pretty good one I think, but there's a lot of dross that'll need cleaning off first.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Good News, But Nothing to Lose Sleep Over

If it weren't for the total sleeplessness and the come-and-go toothache, this would have been a good week.

It started Thursday afternoon day when I got an e-mail from an agent responding to my query letter and asking to see the manuscript of Gladys.

Yes, I know. Huge news. And at the same time not at all. It's a first step, nothing more. If he likes it, it's not as if the struggle is over. Really it's just the beginning. All it means is I won't be alone in the struggle. We're still talking months at best. Yet, having been told "No" politely about 18 times and completely ignored another 18 or 20 by people who haven't actually read the story, having someone say "Send me your manuscript" felt like a huge breakthrough.

It was also a little inconvenient. For a month or more I've know the manuscript needed a little tweak. Not a major thing, but a tweak that was gong to take some work and had to run consistently all the way from the first page to the last. I'd been putting it off. I knew exactly what needed to be done, but there was always something more pressing – working on Bones or something for the Source or something. I let it slide. It wasn't pressing.

Well, Thursday it became pressing. So I had the weekend to work.

The first chapter took pretty much all of Saturday. It had been almost a year since I finished the most recent draft of
Gladys (there are no final drafts, only drafts you've decided are good enough to send off. You never stop tinkering.) It took a little while to get the tone, the voice, the feeling right. And I'd known that this would be the hard part. The projected change would involve adding material – two new characters and a new situation. It would raise the stakes, make it even more essential that Chrissie get on that boat.

I ended up taking about about 2,000 words from the beginning of the book and putting in about 3,000 new ones. But by the end of Saturday that was done to my satisfaction. Tori read it and gave me all the right reactions.

An aside – Tori hates it when I watch her read my stuff. If she smiles or finches or – please God please – laughs, I'm right there with "What? What? Why did you laugh? Did that work?" I'm terrible. So Saturday – this is true and I'm pathetic – I hid in the hallway and watched through the binoculars – seriously! And I could see it was working for her based on her facial expressions. Tori is not going to lie to me, "Oh, that's just great honey." She'll be brutal if that's what I need, and I know she has thought this tweak was somewhere I should have taken the story months ago. Sometimes I'm a little slow on the uptake.

Sunday and Monday morning I just had to extend those references through the story, make it consistent, add that element all the way through. And re-mark the chapter numbers which got WAY screwed up.

But at the same time, I wasn't able to sleep Saturday. I don't know why, I usually sleep like a rock. But Saturday I tossed and turned all night, got u, went downstairs, came back. Just couldn't sleep. It wasn't
Gladys, I was feeling very confident. But there you go. Two, maybe three hours of sleep.

Sunday I made good progress. But I always work Sunday evening for the Source, it's my night as copy editor. That means I'm going to be up until about 2 a.m., which is when I got to bed. And I get up at 6 to get Tori and Max ready for school. Then stuff kept happening all day so I never got a chance to make up for the lost sleep.

I went over
Gladys one more time Monday and sent it to the agent before noon. Fingers crossed everybody.

Monday night was the worst. I know exactly why I didn't sleep – somehow I developed a toothache – like a mild inflammation in the gum. Not screamingly painful, but enough that every time I tried to lay down to sleep it imposed itself. Tried a bunch of different things. Think I got about half an hour of sleep.

I was able to sleep on and off Tuesday, and spending a lot of time on oral hygiene which paid off, the ache is gone. Got some decent sleep last night so I'm finally feeling more or less okay.

Now, the health report is completely superfluous. This is a writing log and really that's all you need to now. Except, for my own purposes, it does explain why I haven't worked on
The Bones in the Closet in a week. It's funny, at least to me. Every time I think I've cleared a hurdle and can feel momentum building on Bones, something happens to slow me down. Never fails. But this delay – the need to get Gladys ready for her closeup, couldn't be passed up.

Anyway, today is being unproductive for different reasons, but at least I got Gladys to the agent.

Gee, it's been two full days. Do you think I ought to call to see how much he's loved it?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Terror On the Road to – Yachats

Okay, terror is probably too strong a word. But just barely.

I mentioned in my last post that bad experiences can became great stories.

"Ask us about Modesto," I said, "or San Fransisco, or Yachats ... there is an upside to the 'Abject Poverty Book Tour.'"

Naturally, a friend wrote over the weekend and challenged me. "Wjt about Modesto?" he said. He is actually from Modesto, and a little touchy about it.

Well, there's too much to tell in one post. But every now and then I'll roll one of them out, just for fun. There's probably an object lesson in there somewhere.

Today I'll tell you about Yachats.

First, know that Yachats is pronounced ya-hots, equal stress on each syllable. Not YA-chits or anything like that. It's a small town on the Oregon coast, a short drive south of Newport, which in truth is also a small town but next to Yachats it's Gotham.

This was probably in early 2004, before we actually had self-published the book. We wanted to be ready in case we ever developed an audience and a need to entertain them. At the urging of our great good friend George, Mark and I had put together a stage show, heavily dependent on audience participation (because why should we do all the work?) But the only place we'd been able to perform it was for George's beginning acting class at the community college. We needed a real audience. I had heard about a community festival with a pirate theme to be held in Yachats and called the organizer, who as it happened owned a bar in the town. That may be germane to the story.

I want to be very clear here. I talked to the woman. I did. I talked to her several times. She was delighted, even excited, to have us come down. She gave me the details - when, where etc. - and said she'd see us there. If I hadn't spoken to her, how would I have gotten the details? Hmmmm?

So we drove down - me, Mark and Tori and George and his wife Barb, who were along for moral support. We got to the community center where they were setting up. I introduced myself and my cohort to the woman in charge, the woman I'd spoken to three times on the phone.

She looked at me like I was from some other planet. I explained who I was and why we were there. She said she had never heard of me, didn't know anything about me. Looked at me as if wondering if she should call the police.

We got it straightened out and performed, although she never admitted we'd spoken. It's not like they were operating on a tight schedule. Mark and I went on, did our schtick for about 20 minues, got an okay response. It would have been better, I think, if people could have heard us. It was a big, echoey hall and there was no mike. We did out best. George and Barb and Tori laughed a lot, sometimes with us, sometimes at us.

We also met Cap'n Bogg and Salty, the six-piece pirate rock band out of Portland, who were also performing. I guess you could say we opened for them. They had brought their own mikes – and instruments and amps and cords and all that stuff – so people heard them fine. They were great. Their names were actually on the posters. I'll bet they even got paid. And I still carry on an e-mail conversation with them. Kevin and Loren, by the way, the heart of the band, now write for the Disney Channel's "Jake and the Neverland Pirates." Good goin', guys!

It was a weird experiene, but we learned a lot. It came in handy a year later when we got to Las Vegas and the promised microphones didn't show up at our gig. By then we were used to making do.

To this day Mark insists I made the whole thing up. He claims I never talked to the woman before we drove out there, that I planned to just brazen my way onto the stage, that it was a big hoax on my part. He can't explain why I would have done that, but in the years since, whenever we found ouselves in a sketchy situation (like Modesto,) he has looked at me with one raised eyebrow and said, "This isn't another Yachats, is it?"

I don't know what I can say to convince him. I swear I talked to the woman, she agreed to let us perform. If she couldn't remember it later, it might have had something to do with the bar.

So if there's a lesson here for when you're on the road pimping – I mean marketing – your book, it might be this: Things will happen despite you best efforts. Roll with them. Have fun. No matter what happens, get on the stage and do your thing. Their failure to execute shouldn't stop you from doing what you went there to do.

And don't make business arrangements with a person who spends eight or more hours a day in a bar. That just seems logical.

Friday, April 15, 2011

(A Lesson From) Someone a Lot Smarter than Me

When you self-publish, you're spared the disappointment when you find out your publisher doesn't know how to sell your book either, so you still have to do it all yourself.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez

What's cool about this quote is that Jan actually said that to me, when I called her for advice in 2004. She was the cooking writer for the newspaper I worked for and the author of several cookbooks, some that she had self-published and some traditionally. Mark and I had written our first humor book and an agent was trying to place it, but after a year had had no luck (one editor called it "drop dead funny," but didn't buy it) and suggested we self-publish it to see if that could stir up a publishing deal.

Jan was right. After investing as much as we figured we could afford to lose, we worked our asses off getting the word out. Besides our Web site and newsletter, we sent thousands of postcards to bookstores all over the country, made our own press kits and sent them to newspapers and radio stations, did interviews with anyone who would talk to us. And travelled as much as we could.

That was where I learned the lesson that sales is a much harder job than writing. You've got, say, eight bookstores on your list for the day. And you paste a smile on your face, go in ask for the manager, do your spiel, he or she says no, you thank her or him for the time and move on to the next, smiling just as brightly at the eighth store as you did at the first, when what you really want to find is a bar so you can buy a drink and cry.

But somehow, it worked. Within six months we'd made our money back, and about six months after that we'd sold enough that a publisher wanted to buy the book.

And the publisher did almost nothing to sell it. We were assigned a publicist who did some good groundwork before the book came out, but she went off to get married three weeks before the release date and never came back. She was replaced by another woman who did nothing. Didn’t even respond to our e-mails. I was told by someone else that unless your book sold 50,000 copies she wouldn't even respond to say she couldn't help you. I felt like, if your book has already sold 50,000 copies what do you need a publicist for?

I have to say I was kind of surprised by how seemingly uninterested the publisher was in selling books. Why did they bother printing them at all? Another interesting thing I learned was the "list." There are a publisher's top of the list offerings, the books they expect to be big sellers, so that's where they put their effort. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course. Then there's the mid-list. Mid-list books seem to get tossed out on the market randomly, with little fanfare or support, and, if one of them hits, it's like a bonus and they'll throw more effort behind it.

There is nothing below the mid-list. It's sort of like fast food restaurants, where the smallest size fries you can buy is large and the smallest drink is a regular.

One thing we learned is that unless you're a pretty big name, or for some reason they expect big sales, they're not going to send you on a book tour. It's pretty simple math. If they don't think they'll make more money in extra sales than it costs to send you, they're not going to foot the bill. So you might want to save any advance you might get to invest in your own mini-tour. We travelled a little on our own dime, sent postcards and did all the same things again. Set up book signing events all over the northwest, did everything we could. And it worked. The book went through seven printings. Hooray!

That publisher was not interested in a sequel, so another publisher did our second book. We heard from the publicist once – to tell us he'd been assigned to our book and was looking forward to working with us. That was the last we heard of him. So we started to do it again – although shortly after the book came out the Baurs finally were able to sell our house and make the long-planned move to St. Croix. And with our forces divided we haven't been able to accomplish as much, and the book hasn't sold as well as the first. Sad.

The book business has changed quite a bit in just those few years. Now ebooks are taking an increasingly large share of the market, and between that and the growth of the "social media" have changed the calculus a lot.

But the bottom line is still the same and what Jan said to me then is as true today. Unless you don't actually care whether anyone reads your work, you're probably going to be the one who sells it, whether you're self-publishing or landed a book deal.

Do not take any of this as a complaint. It's not. I've had great fun with Tori coming up with ideas to market our books, and getting out there doing whatever it takes to sell them. I look forward to doing it again. And of course this is only my experience, well, and Jan's. You always hear of, or dream of, someplace, call it the Shangri-La Publishing House, where cadres of marketing people labor with ceaseless, loving devotion to sell your book, sending authors on round-the-world book tours that never involve going to Modesto.

On the other hand, Mark and I have some pretty good stories. Ask us about Modesto, or San Fransisco, or Yachats. So there is an upside to the "Abject Poverty Book Tour." It can be funny, once you get home and get some perspective.

Just consider this a cautionary tale. The work's not done when you type "The End." And it's not done when you've signed a contract (if you're very lucky) or gone over the proofs or hold that first copy in your hand. No, the work is just beginning.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Kids Come Through Again for Me!

Wow! Maybe this is so obvious everyone else has already gotten over it, but it just occurred to me.

Had a short, spirited discussion about writing with the classroom kids after today's reading (1900 words today) and I made the so, so prosaic observation that there are no rules about how to write, just as there are no rules about what to write. There are things a lot of writers do (write on a schedule, etc.) that may improve your chances to be successful. But no rule that says if you don't write 840 words between 9 a.m. and noon at least five days a week you're not a writer.

Well, on the way home I was thinking about the other half – no rules about what to write – and it suddenly hit me. You can write about anything, in any kind of world past or present, but the question you need to ask yourself is: How is writing a teen age love story, for example, different if they live in a world where there are zombies, travel between planets, or no cell phones or four hundred years ago. Why does setting the story in one kind of world make it different than in another? Why does setting the story among a tribe of cavemen different than setting it in a middle school in 1986? That's what you need to focus on, what are the things that make that world special, and which then make your story special?

Because it seems that if there's really no difference – if having a world just like today but all the teachers are vampires doesn't make a difference in the actual story you're telling, then you're just wasting your time and the readers. There has to be something about that setting without which your story couldn't work. If the story doesn't work, just arbitrarily adding some vampires won't fix it.

If it could work just any old place, then the setting is no more than stage dressing and you're really kind of cheating. Aren't you?

I immediately applied that observation to my two completed pirate novels,
Chance and The Wreck of the Gladys B, and breathed a sigh of relief. There really is something about those stories that you couldn't tell, or couldn't tell as well, in a modern, prosaic setting.

is set in today. I suspect I could tell it in another world as easily, but it wouldn’t change anything important about the story so I'm glad I didn't bother.

Anyway, that's probably ho-hum, no big deal observation and I'm sorry if I bored anyone. (As if anyone but me is reading this.) Everyone but me already knew that and now I do too.

But I never really thought about it in quite that way. The setting has to be integral to the story or you've missed something important.

See? I told you I probably get more out of reading the work in progress to Tori's class then they get from it. Those kids have done it again!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

News: Sad, Happy and Otherwise

Just learned that Brian Jacques died. He was the author of the Redwall series. If you have ever been a parent of a reader (and raising your kids as a reader is a big part of the job of a parent) you are probably familiar with the series. My daughter Millie was huge fan, read them all, most of them several times, and owned many if not most of them. So I know of Mr. Jacques.

The books are tales of adventure and derring do by the residents of Redwall Abbey, who are all animals. The stories are almost Arthurian, with the noble rabbits, mice, badgers and other critters struggling for good against evil foxes, wolves etc. The stories are good enough to stand on their own for adults, and with personified animals as their protagonists, they appeal more directly to kids.

Jacques died in February at age 71, and he left behind a treasure. In fact, he has a new one coming out in May, so in every sense the saga of Redwall Abbey in Mossflower Country lives on. That's not a bad legacy, and one of the things that writers have to look forward to, leaving behind something that will live on long after we're gone.

Adios, Brian Jacques.

Good Reading – Eric at Pimp My Novel, one of my favorite writer blogs, has a post that's well worth reading, some simple rules to keep in mind if you're a writer. In a nutshell (minus his very clear elucidation) they are:

• Create and Keep a Schedule

• Be Disciplined

• Be Willing to Revise

• Don't Give Up Easily

• Maintain Relationships with Other Writers

There's a lot more to it than that, of course, but that's a good place to start. Go over and give the blog a read. It's all about remembering that if you're serious about writing, you have to make it a priority and approach it in a disciplined, serious fashion. Almost businesslike, I'd say. These are all bits of advise I've given, when asked (which isn't often, I admit) and have tried to follow myself. You ought to write them and post them where you can see them daily, even needlepoint them int a sampler – except that would take away from your writing.

Anyway, very good advice from a very good writing blog.

My Update – How in the world did I write more than 2,000 words this morning? I had limited time, had to have the chapter finished to read it to the class, and I had barely started. So I just put my head down and was shocked when I checked the word count.

Not the greatest stuff I've ever written, but like I said before, it didn't have to be great. It had to be done. Great is for the second draft. And it was good enough to elicit a few laughs and a big gasp at the end. "Where's T.J.?" they all asked, echoing Leslie.

Where indeed. I'm not certain, although I think he's having a big adventure.

The key, for me, was realizing that all the other considerations were side issues. If the book is about getting those bones buried at the mall, then get the kids to the mall and commence with the shovels. There's plenty of things to get in their way once I get them there, and everything else is superfluous. So go, go, go!

That's about it for today.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Someone a Lot Smarter than Me (7)

Writing itself is an act of faith, and nothing else.

– E.B. White

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Matter of Perspective

That went well. Putting the chapter in first person, one of the kids' POV, made it easier to show the difference between the characters and made it more immediate. It also made the reactions easier to describe and gave me more latitude for what I hope are amusing observations.

For the most part, the kids in Tori's class seemed to like it. They laughed where I thought they would. I did lose them a little while the kids (in the story, not the classroom) were changing the tire, too much detail there apparently. Maybe I was over-influenced by the fact that I had to change a tire myself just a couple of weeks ago. Ah well, easy to edit down later.

Two of the kids – Ryan and Peaches – said they had trouble following in the first person, that they had trouble focusing on who was talking. So that's something to think about, but I really think it wasn't the voice so much as the fact that the voice changed, I had been writing third person and suddenly it's first, and even though I explained to them what I was doing and why, the shift may have been a problem. I suggested to both that I'd keep doing it this way for a few more chapters and see if they didn't get into it.

Because I really think this was an important switch.

Chance was written first person. Gladys was third But both books were told from a single character's POV. This book has four main characters and the perspective is going to shift from chapter to chapter. Which is a lot more work for me in getting it right.

But get it right I must.

Won't get much work on Bones today. Have two news stories to do for the Source. It's not as exciting, but it pays the bills.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Making Progress, But Now I Must Pause

1,500 words today, which is awfully good for me considering it's only 10:30. And 1,044 yesterday, plus yesterday's blog post. So I'm making good progress.

Well, I'm making progress. "Good" is subjective and beside the point right now.

I feel like I'm on a roll, and would like to keep going, but Friday is Kate's birthday and Millie and I are heading out to see about her birthday present. If you've got to take a break, a birthday may be the best possible reason.

And this afternoon I'm supposed to be reading the new chapter to the kids. We'll see what they think. If nothing else, I think they'll laugh a bit, there's some funny stuff in there, and trouble with a well-meaning police officer.

I have also shifted voice. As I mentioned, the early stuff was written in third-person omniscient" voice. I said I want to make each chapter more from the POV of a different character, but it wasn't really working that way. So this time I wrote it in the first=person voice of one of the kids. I'll try the next chapter in another kid's voice. We'll see.

If this gives it what it needs, then obviously on the second draft I'll have to do that from the beginning. We'll see.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Food for Thought

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." Samuel Johnson

Well, Sam there may have taken it a little over the top. Sure there are all the intangibles – truth, beauty, all that stuff, including the belief that women find authors irresistible.

But can we all admit that somewhere lurking in the backs of our minds like a dirty little secret we don't even admit to ourselves is the idea that we'll be "touched by the golden claw," as Calvin Trillin put it, that something we write will lift us out of the masses and make us rich. Didn't most struggling writers pause a couple of years ago and say (quietly, to themselves only,) "If my book could have 10 percent of the success over its lifetime that J.K. Rowling had in the first hour of sales of the seventh Harry Potter book, I'd quit my job tomorrow!"

Truth and beauty etc. are all very nice, but the bottom line is the bottom line.

One of the author blogs I follow spent the last week on "monetization" – how authors will make money in the future, or if authors will.

Nathan Bransford is an author and former literary agent. He knows the industry from both sides and gives an interesting, informed take on things. His monetization series is worth a look if you're even thinking about how to make a few dollars – or a lot of dollars – from your writing.

The first installment looked at self-publishing versus traditional publishing in far more detail than I could absorb in one reading. I'm not even close to figuring out his various scenarios, and will have to take several more passes through the material before I get it all. He also links to a site with a spreadsheet that takes it to even more fiendishly mathematical depths. But for all that, it still raises issues the author and aspiring self-publisher needs to think about. How was it, for instance, that one author could turn down a $500,000 advance from a publisher and make more money self-publishing? What are the factors the guy had to consider? In another scenario an author faced a similar choice and opted for traditional publishing. How did that work out? And why?

It raises questions you need to ask yourself. And it really highlights the way ebooks and print on demand and the web in general have changed the face of the publishing industry. It's definitely worth a read.

The next post took on the question of how an author can make money – even just beer money – from his or her web presence. All the usual culprits are addressed – advertising, Amazon affiliate links, selling coffee mugs from Cafe Press, etc. It's interesting, but there's less earthshaking about it. If you've got a big enough presence online, there is some money to be made. And he has a funny idea for a coffee mug, so it's worth checking out.

The final post in the series is a guest blog on how to use something called Kickstarter to fund your self-publishing venture. It's interesting, and gave me some food for thought. Kickstarter is a web site where you can post your creative project – books, art, music etc. – and your budget for achieving it. People can pledge support. As I understand it, about 40 percent of the projects up there eventually get funded.

You don't get any of the money until pledges equal 100 percent of the budget. The guest blogger wrote that she had a budget of around $2,000, and within three hours had received pledges for the total, by the end of the day she had doubled it, and be the time the pledge period ended she had received pledges for 500 percent of her budget. Although, since less than half actually reaching the full funding, that's obviously unusual. There are a lot of factors for why her project was so popular, and they raise questions you'll have to ask before you decide whether to go this route.

And you have to offer incentives for people to support you – different rewards for different levels of giving. It's sort of like a pubic television station's pledge drive. Remember that people aren't supporting you because you're cool. You've got to offer them reasons, that might include a T-shirt, or tote bag if $15 is pledged, or a coffee mug or a signed special edition of the book at a higher level. And at what level of giving would you be willing to name a character for the person who wrote the check?

And you've got to include the cost of that reward in your budget, or you're fooling yourself.

Anyway, the whole series is quite interesting and will help anyone who is poised on the edge of deciding whether to continue trying the traditional agent-publisher route or self-publishing. It certainly gave me plenty of food for thought.