Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Ol' Subconscious Comes Through

Feeling very clever this morning. Very pleased with myself.

Last night I was laying on the couch, not thinking about the story, when out of nowhere my brain handed me a solution to the next problem facing me with Scurvy Dogs! I had put down the story hours ago, wasn't thinking about it. I was reading, and all of a sudden there it was. I literally threw my hands in the air in excitement.

I had been having trouble figuring out why Jamie – the main character and narrator – would do what I wanted him to do. There's a certain kid-logic that sometimes takes over in these stories, and this was one of those times. I mean, really, some of the main events in Treasure Island happen because Jim Hawkins does something stupid, some absolutely wrong thing. So I wasn't too concerned, but it was nagging at me. It felt a little like the character doing something because the author made him, rather than what was natural and right for the character. I'd be able to explain it, but it was bothering me that I had to.

Then last night's revelation out of nowhere. If the squire isn't there, if he's gone off to bring back help, then Jamie has to follow Maggie off into the night. He has no choice. It makes total sense and is perfectly natural.

Thank you, brain! Of course, now I'll have to deal with the consequences to the story of Squire Williams having gone off for help, but I'm sure my subconscious will come up with something. I can't wait to see what.

• I only just noticed while writing that my character and the main character of Treasure Island share the same first name. James. That was a surprise. Let me just say for the record that it certainly wasn't intentional, I'm not trying to make any connection or comparison between my story and Stevenson's classic. On the contrary, I have another classic fictional character in mind as my inspiration for Jamie, and he's not from a pirate story. I really don't remember where the name came from. I remember where I got his last name, but can't recall why I settled on Jamie. He just felt like a Jamie, I guess.

UPDATE: Just finished for the day, 1,175 words this morning. The idea mentioned above works really well. Makes so much more sense and gives me so much more room to work. I can't believe it never occurred to me until last night.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Writers Groups: A Matter of Trust

Went to my first writers group meeting last night.

I'm not a joiner by nature. Maybe it's the old newshound in me, but I've always been more comfortable as the outsider, looking in. But I thought it might be time, especially since I no longer have Tori's students on the island to test my stuff on. Too bad, they were quite a good critique group. I've always been kind of a loner – as I think most authors are. Except for the brethren of pirate enthusiasts, of course. I've always been a keen member of that group.

This writing group is sponsored by the local library. They put on the talk by book marketing guru Anita Paul last week, and Tori encouraged me to give it a go. So I went.

Writers groups can be places for feedback, for support, for critiques and just for the company of other people who are going through something similar to you. It's all a question of trust, of course, and I don't know these people, and they don't know me. We'll be learning together.

There were about 14 people, counting me, sitting in a circle in the library meeting room. Everyone seemed a little surprised, apparently it's usually about half that number. I guess the Anita Paul talk was a good recruiting tool. We were a wildly varied group, from several quite a bit older than me (yes, there are still a few people quite a bit older than me,) men and women, a 15-year-old girl who seemed to be suffering from the need to prove she belonged there. There were two people who have been published, one woman who writes fantasy that most seem to agree is the best writer in the group. A couple who've been published. Interestingly, not the woman everyone agreed is the best writer there. Isn't it always the way?

The oldest guy there had just attended a writing conference and handed out a precis of what he'd heard – it was mostly technical, grammar and sentence structure stuff, the kind of thing I've been trying to beat into the heads of young reporters for years. Then we went around the room introducing ourselves. I said I'd been a journalist for 40 years and was in the third revision of my YA novel. That was all.

Then the regulars started giving critiques. Six of them had submitted material a couple of weeks ago and each member had been given copies. They went around the room giving their feedback while the author listened. The rules were, the person being critiqued is supposed to sit there and listen without getting defensive.

I was a little surprised. I expected something a little more positive, and a little more literary. Virtually everything I heard was grammar and syntax, whether a word should be capitalized, better ways to attribute quotes, things like that. A couple of the older women (by which I mean – my age) discussed POV switches that confused things, but mostly it seemed like syntactical sharpshooting. I would prefer something more along the lines of whether the piece works for the reader generally, why or why not?

Of course, those of us who'd never been there before were lost, we hadn't read the material, but it was still interesting and I still was able to chime in once or twice. For instance, a woman had written something along the lines of – "I'll get it," the morbidly obese woman said. Several of the critiques pointed out that this was telling, a label rather than a description. The woman who had written it looked a little confused, so I suggested that instead of telling the reader the character was obese, she could show it by describing how the woman moved across the room, or sat heavily, filling the small folding chair. I think I saw a look in the woman's eye that indicated she got it.

Anyway, it was an interesting hour and a half. I'll certainly give it another few meetings before I decide for sure if it's a good fit.

Sometimes we have to force ourselves to do things that take us outside our comfort zone. Otherwise we never really grow.

Scurvy Dog update: 1,003 words today, pretty good job of inserting the new material and bridging the gap with the older stuff. Lots more work to do, though. Yesterday I spent some time with a pen and notebook just trying to sort out where I am and where I need to get things to make it all work, and that was time well spent, although my wrist was killing me when I was done. It's the 21st century and I'm just not used to writing by hand any more. Still, I've got a road map now of what needs to get done. I just hope I don’t' go veering off onto any more scenic detours. August 20 is fast approaching. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Too Many Ideas This Late in the Game

The problem I'm having with Scurvy Dogs! is not that I can't write. I'm not stuck. I'm having too many ideas. I suppose that's the good kind of problem to have, but it's still a problem.

This is the third draft, and it's supposed to be the tweaking draft, just making sure everything is "just so." Instead, I keep getting these pictures in my head – Oh! That's a great image! I have to work that in! Oh, and this idea, wouldn't it be better if they thought he was dead? And then were surprised when ....? Do I even need the cave any more?

And the damnable thing is, these are really good ideas. They will make the story better. So I'm going for them, but they'll require changes all up and down the story for everything to fit together.

I'm sticking with my Aug. 20 deadline, but it's gonna take some concentration and a lot of hours sitting at the keyboard. But the image of the scarred visage of Itchy John staring through the window is too good. Gotta have it.

I guess if I finish writing and working in the new ideas this week (that's do-able) that'll give me two weeks to smooth out all the tangles and make sure all the parts of the story are swimming in the same direction. I can do this.

The kids who were my first audience for the story when I wrote this are going to be very surprised. The story has change A LOT since I said, "The End" last year.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Wild West Bookselling

Thought provoking entry this morning on The Kill Zone blog, about the decline – nay, the disappearance – of brick and mortar bookstores and what that means to writers.

Physical stores have always been where people discovered books, even in the last few years when Amazon and other online merchants took over as the prime place people buy them.Which of course is a big part of why bookstores are disappearing.

I love bookstores, but as a writer, that model works against the newcomer. It was always the publisher that determined where they were going to put the big bucks in marketing and getting people to get excited about a new release, a new author, and the publishers put all their emphasis on the top of the list. Midlist and lower had to fend for themselves.

When Cap'n Slappy (my friend and pirate partner Mark Summers) and I got our two books published by actual publishers, we were surprised by how little the publisher did to sell them. Pirattitude did better than they expected – it ended up going into seven printings – but that was mostly because they expected so little from it in the first place. I often wondered why they bothered. There was a marketer assigned to the book, but she did almost nothing that we ever saw. We couldn't even get her to respond to emails. My then-agent Scott said unless you sell 50,000 copies, she wouldn't even return your call or email to tell you there was nothing she could do for you. I figured if I could sell 50,000 copies, who needed her? For our second book, The Pirate Life, the publisher put even less effort into selling than the first publisher had.

So with bookstores fading as the place to discover authors, that's actually a good thing for writers. It's no longer the publisher's prerogative to decide what is worth the reader's time. In its place is a sort of Wild West, ruled by the fastest gunslinger, or in our case, the author who can capture the reader's attention and sell their work on its merits. Quality and output are the gold standard. If you write a good book and can produce consistently, you can build trust with readers who will follow your effort and spread word of mouth.

What does that mean for us? Discipline, mostly. Write good books and be active in building your platform, then keep faith with the reader that every time you have a new book to sell they'll be happy they bought your book. (Which of course means, have more than one good book to sell them.) It's a reminder that, however you think of writing, getting people to read you takes work.

Anyway, there's some interesting food for thought.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Setting a Deadline

After Monday's session at the author'smeeting, Tori suggested I need to set a deadline to be done with Scurvy Dogs! Without it, I'll always have a reason to do something else – work for my day job, family things. And, as a longtime journalists, deadlines have always been part of my life.

Scurvy Dogs! will be finished by Aug. 20.

It's not really that far away. I'm mostly stitching new stuff into the early half to make it, as I said, more rollicking, and then going through to see how the changes I've made at the top effect the action later on. I don't think it'll be much, but you have to be sure.

So Aug. 20. That's the day.

Today was a good day, and about time. I wrote about 700 words before noon, and that got me rolling. I've finished for the day, and have cranked out a total of 2,199 words. Not a bad day's work.

And they're good. They set the story much more firmly, and I got to use a line I thought of six weeks ago and have been waiting eagerly to work in.

Two of the kids have a drunken bastard of a grandfather, once one of Morgan's men, now a fisherman who drinks too much and remembers the old days and basically ignores the kids.

The villain (well, one of the villains) threatens him – "You're a dead man!"

He replies wearily, "I've been dead for years."

I like it. Sets exactly the right tone for the character.

Just gotta keep it up now. I have 26 days to go.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Get It Done

Several years ago I saw Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson doing a reading of their book, "Peter and the Starcatchers." Very entertaining evening. Dave does a great job holding an audience, and mystery writer Ridley Pearson does the best dolphin voice I have ever heard. Ever.

He should start a holiday – Talk Like a Porpoise Day. Except no one could do it as well as he does so we'd all give up and go away depressed and he'd be drinking alone. So it's probably best that he didn't.

But the other thing I remember is Dave talking about the writers' reputation. Writers like to talk about how terrible the burden is, he said, how lonely the job is, how difficult it is, staring down the muse and tortuously prying their stories out of thin air and their deep pools of creativity.

Then – "Stephen King spoiled it all for us."

King makes it look too easy. According to King, “I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book."

Which brings us to the point about getting it done. As Anita Paul, the book marketing guru Tori and I heard Monday night, said – all the brilliant marketing strategies and pretty websites and email lists and guest spots don't mean a thing until you write the book. Finish. Finito. Done.

Paul has written a book on the subject, "Write Your Book in 90 Days or Less." She offers a formula and some rules, which I immediately rejected. Not because I thought she was wrong, I assume they work for her and could work for a writer. But the one-size-fits-all attitude doesn't work for me at all. It's like Somerset Maugham said. "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

Follow a formula if you want to. Follow her formula if that's what you want to do. Or write the story you want, without artificial constraints. The question isn't whether your story fits a particular structure. It's whether it works.

But she was right about something else. 90 days really should be enough for a first draft. Let's all agree that Stephen King is unusual, some kind of freak-of-nature, human writing machine. When I read – gosh, must be a dozen years ago – that he was retiring, my immediate thought was "Bullshit." Stephen King could no more stop writing than he could stop breathing. So when he says 180,000 words is "a goodish length for a book," I think we can safely ignore him. He's what my dad used to call a D.A.R. – Damned Average Raiser.

But 90,000 words is a reasonable length. These days, that seems to be about what editors and publishers are looking for. Today you'd better by King, or Tom Clancy or J.K. Rowling, if you're sending an agent a 180,000 manuscript.

And suddenly the math is pretty damn easy, isn't it? 90,000 words. 90 days. 1,000 words a day. That's pretty do-able. My goal has always been 1,000 words a day when I'm working on my first draft, and I almost always hit it. Some days less, some days more. Occasionally 2,000 words and one memorable day more than 4,000. (Man, that was a rush!)

My problem isn't words a day, it's days I can focus on the work in progress.

But assuming you can wedge a few hours of writing each day into your schedule, you can do 1,000 words a day and in 90 days, there's a book.

Or the first draft of the book. Then you have to revise and rewrite somewhere between two and 4,700 times to get it right and make it work.

And then you send it off to an agent and wait. More than 90 days.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Getting Noticed – It's Part of the Game

Writing a book is one thing. Getting people to read it, or even know it exists, is another.

The local library featured a speaker last night talking about how to get the word out, how to find free ways to market your book and – sorry, but it's part of the game – market yourself.

Anita Paul is the author of "How to Market Your Book Free," and for an hour and a half she talked about how to get people to notice you and your book.

Besides the book, and a couple of others, she's got a marketing service which runs the gamut from simple marketing plans to editing, design and cover art. You can find her online here. The audience was about 30 hopeful authors ranging from a girl of about 10 or 11, to a guy about 70.

Her first question was, "Why are you writing your book?" You want other people to read it, of course. Cynically, I wanted to say, "Well, I want other people to buy it. If they read it, that's gravy, but that’s up to them." Of course I didn't, and even if that were the complete, unvarnished truth, writing a book worth reading is of course a key component to getting them to buy it, and then buy the next one.

And that was sort of Paul's point. You have to build and constantly reinforce your platform. That means you have to know your potential audience – not something as ephemeral as "Oh, I'm writing this for women," but specifically which women, what are their interests, buying power, demographics, purchasing habits. Where do they "hang out," either physically or online, and how do you reach them?

Tori and I were satisfied that a lot of the things she was recommending we are already doing. Thanks to Talk Like a Pirate Day and the website and pirate festivals all over, the platform is pretty solid. And I know the target audience, hell, I know their names. As I've mentioned, I used Tori's fifth grade class as a test audience and it was a terrific experience. So I know my audience. I can see them.

Paul also talked about competitive analysis – how does your book stack up against the competition. That means you have to keep an eye on, and read, other books in your genre. To some writers this is anathema. I think that attitude is silly, and Paul certainly agreed. How can you know what's selling in your genre, what makes a book popular or not, if you don't read them? Don't steal from them (at least, don't be obvious about it) but you've got to know what's happening. I still don't understand people who think they can write in a genre that they never read. What are they basing it on?

She had some specific tools to use beside the obvious Facebook, Twitter, Amazon comments and other social media. There's a site called HARO – Help a Reporter Out – where reporters from media large and small can look for experts in a field and you can become a source for a story, giving you a little more exposure. And Radio Guest List is a place radio stations, especially smaller ones, go to find guests to interview online. Don't turn your nose up at the smaller markets – true, five minutes on a big city drive-time show will get you the same exposure as eight or ten interviews on smaller stations, but the converse is equally true, and a lot easier to do. The big stations are harder to break into. Trust me on this.

Have your talking points laid out, including the title of your book a really short precis, and your website. That exposure will help you get sales.

Because, as Paul emphasized, people like personalities. It's not enough to write a good book, although that's obviously key. But you have to convince readers it's worth their time, it will thrill or surprise or move them. It's entertaining. And the way to do that is to be entertaining. Writers, at least by stereotype, tend to be a quiet lot, uncomfortable in the spotlight. That's part of why we became writers. Because we can do that all alone, with the door closed and no one watching. Fear of public speaking is reportedly the biggest phobia of 'em all, and doubly so for writers.

Now, maybe I'm wrong about that, but if I'm right – and I think I am – I'm an exception to the rule. Because I like to talk. I'm a talky guy, chatty, even. I honestly don't mind talking, with one or two people or in front of groups of any size, on any subject, whether I know anything about it or not. Cap'n Slappy and I have done hundreds of radio interviews, once 80 in a 35-hour stretch. So I think I've got that covered.

I spent time this morning registering for both HARO and RGL, which are both free (although they have more advanced services you can pay for.) And Tori and I have been talking about what we need to do to promote "Chance" and "Chrissie" when – not if, when – they hit the market.

As Paul said, waiting until the book is on the shelves is too late to start planning to sell it. But of course, the first thing you have to do is write it. She has an answer for that, too. It's her book, "Write Your Book in 90 Days or Less." That sounds a little daunting, but it really makes sense, and I'm not talking about her formula. Writing a novel in 90 days sounds totally do-able.

But I'll have more to say about that later. This is too long, and I've got other work to do.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Old Friends

I greeted some old friends a couple of weeks ago, and it was as if we'd never been separated.

My ex-wife is apparently selling her house, and in cleaning out the garage she found a box of my books that had been stuck away for more than 25 years. Turns out they were my complete set of the Rick Brant Science Adventures, which I'd read as a boy.

Think Hardy Boys, but with science. They were published by Grosset and Dunlap, the same house that published the Hardy Boys, in similar volumes. The 21 books in the series told the story of Rick – the son of a famous scientist – and his pal Scotty and the adventures and mysteries they had while taking part in amazing scientific expeditions around the world.

The first was written in 1947, and the idea of an unmanned rocket to the moon was amazing. My childish scrawl on the inside shows I got my first one in 1963, and for the next seven or eight years I could count on at least one every year for my birthday and Christmas. The last – "Rocket Jumper," in which Rick builds a jet pack and uses it to foil the villains spying on the Nevada rocket base and escape a raging forest fire – was published in 1966.

I'm told one more was written a few years later and only released as a private printing of 500. When one of them occasionally finds its way onto the market, it usually goes for four figures. So I won't have the "complete" complete set until I win the lottery or something.

I have been catching up, and they're not bad. Much like their better known stablemates, the Hardy Boys, the Rick Brant stories have an earnestness to them, what I can only describe as a '50s-ishness. The science is terrifically outdated of course, sometimes almost comically so, but there's still a kernel of science fact in there. The author, John Blaine, apparently was motivated to write them because he really wanted to make science interesting, and he went to great lengths to make sure it was accurate.

It's been fun catching up. And I and picked up one or two ideas I can steal – I mean learn from and use – in "Scurvy Dogs," which is slowly coming into shape.

The main thing I remember about them is not the characters or the stories or the excitement of the adventures. It was the pride of possession. I grew up in a house with hundreds of books. Regular visits to the local library was part of our weekly routine.

But of all the books in the house, these were mine. A few of my friends were readers, some of them were big on the Hardy Boys. No one I knew read or cared about Rick Brant Science Adventures, but that made no difference to me. In fact, that sort of made them even more special.

As I scanned through them, I was surprised every now and then to see they were the source of some phrase or way of thinking I still use today. If someone mentions a person I've seen several times and know without actually having met or spoken to, I say "We've howdied but we haven't shook," which I was surprised to see came from "The Flying Stingaree." And a bit of legal phraseology that lawyers use when they mean, "He didn't say anything else" – "Beyond that deponent sayeth not" – is another phrase I use, and see that I got it when Scotty was being facetious in "The Electronic Mind Reader."

Also in the box was "The How and Why History of the Civil War." This was notable because it was the first book I ever bought with my own money. And considering I was seven at the time, it wasn't bad. In fact, my mother, a fifth grade teacher – borrowed it from me and used it in her class library for years.

I had also forgotten that one of the Rick Brants takes place in the Caribbean – in the U.S. Virgin Islands. St. Thomas in the 1950s ain't exactly St. Croix today, but who knew? "The Wailing Octopus."

I've been an omnivorous reader as long as I can remember, and the reader turned into a writer because of the love of a good story. And these books are part of the writer I am. It's good to have them back. They'll have to stay in the box for a while, but as soon as I can arrange it, they will fill a special place on our shelves.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Scurvy Dogs Update

1,341 words Saturday. Actually much more, but the more important thing was deciding that those two chapters should be one – really have to be one – and cutting mercilessly until they were. Everything is still in, just moves faster.

Finally feel like I'm getting back into the swing.


Monday, July 1, 2013

Sometimes You Write for the Rent

There's a line in the play, Emma's Child, where a visitor asks the main character where her husband is. Upstair writing. "The great American novel?" "No, this is pay copy."

In other words, sometimes you write for you, sometimes you write for the rent.

The last two weeks were all about the rent, so to speak. My boss was on vacation and tapped me to handle all the calls, sort through the email, assign stories and settle disputes (not that we have many, we're a pretty collegial bunch) etc. I was happy to do it because I could use a little extra income just now.

But it took a toll on the ol' WIP. I don't know about anyone else, but I need several hours to get any really work done, any flow going. Switching back and forth between the novel and the Source email and answering the phone and all of that doesn't help the old creative juices flow. I tried a few times, but I doubt I got 500 words done in the last two weeks, and I'll bet later today I'll throw half of them away. But at least it was on my mind. Sometimes that's the best you can hope for.

Also, in the last week read two really good posts in a writing blog call The Kill Zone. It's a collaboration by a dozen successful mystery writers and there's a lot of good advice in there that has nothing to do with thrillers.

We're All Long Tail Marketers Now was an encouraging and useful post on how self-publishing changes the calculus of how to make a success of writing. You don't need a number-one bestseller or Oprah's Book Club or selling the movie rights to make it – although all of those would be good and I wouldn't turn any of them down. It's about being in it for the long haul, and putting in the time and discipline to keep working your niche, keep producing. He's got a little graph and everything that makes it very clear what he's talking about. It changes the idea of what "success" means.

Another of the blog's authors wrote a really insightful piece on Are RulesMade to Be Broken? Short answer – Of course, but first you have to know what the rules are and, more importantly, WHY they are and what breaking them does for you. She uses as an example an author who pulled something that would be really annoying to me as a reader because s/he "wanted to do something different," wanted to stand out from the herd. The author did, but not in a good way.

The question you should be asking is NOT "How can I be different?" Your only concern should be, "How does doing this help me tell the story, and help the reader get what I'm trying to say?" Serve the story, not your ego.

Back to work.