"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Friday, July 29, 2011

I can rite gudder

Which of the following is true?

1. Self-published books are badly written by writers who are too anxious to be published.

2. Self-published books are carefully crafted by writers who take pride in their work.

3. Self-publishing will always have a mix of both badly written and well written books, but the cream will eventually rise to the top, as discerning readers go for the good books.

4. No, it won't, because most readers don't care about good writing, they only care about a good story.

You know the answer: they're all true, except possibly Number 3.

Authors keep saying that in the wake of the millions of books being tossed up on various e-sites, readers will become the gatekeepers and decide what's worth reading. The good books will rise and the bad will fade away. This may be true, but their idea of readable may astonish some authors.

I've taken the rules of writing good fiction to heart. When I edit my books, I look carefully for point-of-view problems, passive phrasing, and conflicting gerunds ("Running to his car, he drove after her" - he's either running or driving, but not both). I try to make my books pull the reader from the first page to the last. I work hard to show, instead of tell. My books take me kind of a long time to write, relative to some authors, because I do care about using the right word and phrasing things JUST SO.

The rules constantly tick in my head, though, when I'm reading other people's books. If there's a POV problem, it bugs me. Overuse of "was" makes me cranky. I'm aware of the author telling me the story instead of letting me live it with the characters.

"Bravo," you writers say. "You should look for quality."

What do you say when books that do not follow these rules sell better and have higher rankings than the well-written ones? You can't dismiss the thousands of readers who liked them.

Here's the thing - readers want a good story, period. As long as they are not wading through a battlefield of typos and bad grammar, they are not attuned to that stray sentence where the author entered someone else's head. They don't care so much whether the author has the "wassies". They are not reading the book on that extra Writer Radar level, so they can just dig in and enjoy.

I admit it: I'm a snooty-patootie writer. This is why, years ago, I picked up the first Twilight book while waiting in line at a bookstore, read the first page, and said, "Gah, I couldn't wade through this if you paid me." Passivity, wrapped in the unending thoughts of an annoying, angst-ridden teen.

But there are millions of teens out there, and soon-to-be teens, and they are all angst-ridden. They know this girl, know that the universe revolves around her, because it revolves around them, and they will go on this journey because if it ends well, they triumph and if it ends badly, they can wallow in it.

And, of course, who can resist a glittery vampire?

I may not be able to read it, but I can't argue with millions of fans who did and loved it and didn't care if the writing has been pronounced bad by other best-selling authors. So what can I do with the knowledge that only a select few really care whether I dump an entire paragraph because I've entered the cat's head and Peri can't possibly "know" that he's feeling tired or crabby or ANYTHING? Does it matter? Or should I just push stories out of my fingertips, get them up on Kindle and Smashwords, and keep the books flowing?

In the end, it matters to me. It's like telling someone with OCD to just stopping washing his hands three times and only do it once. You may take the soap away, but he'll wander around all day, unable to concentrate, because his hands are itching to be washed two more times. It took me a good long time to realize those rules were important, and I'm not about to ditch them now. 

Maybe readers don't care about all the rules, but I'm still betting they are more entertained by a book with a good story that reads well, even if they can't tell you why it does. They are always going to go for the good story first, though.

That's the cream that will rise to the top.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

There are lessons to be learned everywhere

I know I usually post more often than I have recently, and I apologize for anyone who now thinks I'm some kind of deadbeat. "Dead meat" is more the way I feel. I just completed teaching my second horse camp of the summer. I have one more to teach in two weeks, after which I will breathe a huge sigh of "It's over", even though I do like teaching the kiddos.

When I began teaching the camps, we usually had 12-18 campers for each two-week session. For whatever reason, the camp, while recommended by many, has decreased in enrollment, so that we've actually cancelled some camps. I think the economy has a lot to do with it, along with a general fear among some parents that horses are not a safe activity. (Ed. note: some parents are wimps.)

So this year, I am running three one-week camps. They are simpler and easier on me. The kids still ride horses and have fun. It's all good.

My last camp had four kids, all girls. Two of them are current students. The other two had never been on a horse.

The two students are a year apart in age, but worlds apart in how they approach their learning. The older girl is naturally athletic, fearless, and loves to learn. I remind her to slow down and enjoy what she's doing, as she can get pretty intense to reach her own imaginary finish line. She got along well with the other campers, but she's not what I would call a social butterfly. She's a steady-eddie kind of gal, a good sport, easy to hang out with and not worry about the conversation.

The (slightly) younger girl spent quite some time acting like each lesson was brand new to her. I often wondered if she was ever going to do more than walk her horse on the rail, oversteering left, then right, until the pair looked like they'd hit one too many bars. She was also silent as the grave. Over time, she thawed out and began talking. And talking. AND talking. I called her my little chatterbox, she had so many completely random things to say. Then one amazing day, she got it. She got her horse ready, hopped on, and rode. Straight, circles, around cones and over poles, as if she knew how to make the horse go where she wanted. At camp, she was happy and confident, reaching out to the other girls in friendship, whether it was returned or not.

One of the beginners was a six-year old who was cute as a button and, well, six years old. Very verbal, with the attention span of a gnat with ADD. Someone had to walk beside her horse at all times, because she was prone to forget where her horse was supposed to go and instead let Wendy stroll off to eat the rose bushes. ("Why is Wendy eating the roses? Don't the thorns hurt?") She tended to be afraid when it would get her a little attention, pouted when she was asked to be patient, but got over most of her fears and disappointments easily. She also liked to talk to everyone - all the time.

The fourth girl, also new to horses, was from another state, visiting family. At the ripe old age of eleven, she had already slipped to the edge of teenaged ennui. Her entire vibe said she was too cool for childhood. We had a few talks about kindness, because she wanted to belittle both the younger girls and my counselors. My normal goal of having them learn something about horses was replaced, for this girl, with trying to help her be a kid again and find her sense of wonder about life. Social interactions bounced between boredom and patronizing. On the last day, she almost fell off her horse, and secretly, I almost let her.

But that would be mean and irresponsible, even if I did think of it as a teaching moment.

I drove home after the last day thinking about the group, and my own childhood. We had these kids on my playground, too. Some of them wanted to be social and some didn't. Some were unpleasant to be around because they were so smug. Some were plain old bullies. Each day we had two recesses and a lunch period to learn how to interact with them. So we did, by playing, fighting, making up, and making do.

These days, some schools are cutting recess out altogether. It's not essential learning time, according to some educators. I would disagree. It's fundamental to learning how to talk to other people, how to deal with people who think and behave differently. We grow up and have to work with these people, have to serve and be served by these people. Where else do we learn to get along?

I know you're wondering what this has to do with writing, but in my head, this has everything to do with writing. At the heart of all stories is conflict. I worked all week among four girls to reduce conflict, because it makes a difficult camp experience, even if it makes a great story. But I could take these personalities, either keep them young or grow them up, and give them something to fight, and possibly bond, over.

My buddy, Michele Scott, has just expanded and re-released a book on writing. It's titled, aptly, "A Writer's Workshop" and is a simple guide to some of the things she has used through the years to go from an idea to a finished novel. I love Michele's storytelling. It's a joy to sit and talk to her and think of storylines - her creativity is inspiring.

But what I really like in this book are her worksheets. For each character, she builds a list of questions about what they like, where they went to school, their family structure, their astrological sign. She uses these to find out about the people in her story before she ever starts writing.

When I was writing Hit or Missus, my first draft kind of sucked. It took me a couple of reads to realize that, while I had my recurring cast of characters nailed, my guest stars were just a big, beige mob. No individuals, no unique qualities, among any of them. I went back to each person and looked into their lives, determined their moral boundaries and motives, until I could distinguish each voice in the story.

I learned my lesson.

For the next book I've started, I went back to my conference notes and dug out Michele's worksheets. I began journaling each new character, building their backstory, along with the background of the crimes to be committed in the book. I'm not quite finished, but I know, by the time I am, I won't just know my cast, I'll know where everyone fits in the novel. The writing will go smoother.

So if you're a writer, save yourself from my mistakes. Buy Michele's book and see how her techniques can help you tell a better tale.

Friday, July 15, 2011

What's the price point for an ebook?

When I got my Kindle, I was all atwitter with excitement about the thousands of books I could read for very little money. Then I started shopping. Bestsellers, books from the Big Six publishers, were rarely under $9.99.

Color me appalled.

There is no paper involved in producing an ebook. There is nothing that has to be generated or re-generated. An ebook is an electronic file that is uploaded ONCE to the e-distributor (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, etc), where it is sold over and over AND OVER again.

I might not mind if the author was getting the lion's share, or at least an increasing revenue, of their creation, but (correct me if I'm wrong) I think most authors in the Big Six houses rarely see more than 25% royalty on their ebooks. That's about $2.50 per book. The publisher gets to keep the rest. Why?

According to them, they have to keep the rest in order to keep the lights on, employ their staff, and look for new authors. Really? Perhaps they should find other ways to bankroll their operations, instead of trying to convince authors that being poor is for their own good.

When I published What Would Erma Do, I initially set the ebook price at $2.99. This is my own personal breaking point, so I thought it seemed fair. Within the first month, I dropped it down to 99 cents, for two important reasons:

1. It was a new book from a new author (of that genre), so I wanted to entice a quantity of readers. Who could refuse a book for a dollar?

2. I knew that if I sold enough books, sooner or later it would start to creep up the Amazon rankings and more people could find it. At that point, I could raise the price back up to $2.99.

I did the same thing for Hit or Missus. But now, the more I think about it, the more I think I'll keep my books at 99 cents, at least until the market changes. If the lowest priced book becomes $1.99, I'll probably follow the market. When you're thinking of buying an ebook or  selling one, consider the following: not only is an ebook uploaded once and sold multiple times, it's often not even "sold".

Welcome to DRM, Digital Rights Management, a system for keeping consumers from transferring a song or book or movie from one device to another an infinite number of times. (Yes, I know it's a little more complicated than that, but I only want to focus on one aspect today. Bear with me.) I'm not arguing for or against DRM. It is part of the landscape. I'm just saying that, unless an author has opted out of DRM, when you "purchase" a book, you are only purchasing the right to store it on your Kindle/Nook/whatever.

A year or so ago, there was a big brouhaha at Amazon. It seems there was a question about whether Amazon had the rights to sell George Orwell's books on Kindle. While the matter was being settled, Amazon pulled Orwell's books from their Kindle store and from anyone's Kindle who had purchased one. Yes, read that sentence as many times as you like, it will still mean the same thing. One day I had 1984 on my Kindle and the next day, I didn't have 1984 no more.

Everything got corrected and the books went back to everyone's Kindles and all was well. But you see my point?

Do you want to pay $9.99 to rent a book?

One more thing to think about: technology grows at an astounding pace. How many of your favorite albums have you re-purchased as 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, MP3s? How many of your favorite books will you end up re-purchasing when the next generation reader comes along?

It's just something to consider. Thoughts? Ideas? Jokes?

Friday, July 8, 2011

It's not necessarily about the money

Like many cities, Placentia holds summer concerts in one of their parks. The city's cultural arts group finds money in the budget somewhere, hires bands, then convinces non-profit groups to come and sell food. They also have opportunity drawings to get some income and give away donated prizes.

This year, Placentia decided to try an experiment and offered booths to craft vendors. The booths were cheap beyond reason - $25 per event. Since I had convinced the Placentia Heritage Festival that I was a craft vendor, I signed up for four of the eight evenings. I mean, I may not press the paper and bind my own books, but I created them. I wrote them, I worked with an artist on the cover and editors on the content and got them published.

After doing the math, I figured if I sold four books at each event, I'd break even. More importantly, I would be in a Placentia park meeting the residents, some of whom read my column. I would be with my people.

The first evening, I sold four books. I also met some lovely readers - they were so excited to meet me, it gave my heart wings. I also met a man who runs a singles group in Orange County and is always looking for speakers. Some of the singles are writers, so he asked if I'd be interesting in giving a talk on some part of the writing process.

"How much do you charge?" he asked.

Without hesitation, I told him, "I don't charge a fee as long as I can bring my books to sell."

Will I make as much money as if I charged a straight fee? I don't know. I do know that I become known to more people, and my books can get into more people's hands.

The next week, I was back at my post. It was a nice, if smaller crowd, and not many people came by the booth, although I met even more readers of my column and shared some laughs with them. Then a man walked up and introduced himself as a member of the local Rotary Club. Would I come and speak to them and sell my books?

Hell, yes. (Okay, I didn't say that. I said, "Absolutely!")

The bad news is I must be alive and perky at 7:00 a.m. The good news is they hold their meetings at the Alta Vista Country Club, which is one of the main settings for Hit or Missus.

I also met Jeremy Yamaguchi, our Mayor Pro Tem. He's such a fine young man, running for City Council when he was just old enough to vote. I like to see young people take an interest in how their town works. Maybe they'll move up the food chain, to how the state works, then the country.

Toward the end of the evening, I saw a pair of familiar faces, Mayor Scott Nelson and his wife, Robin. They had purchased my book, Freezer Burn, two years ago at the Placentia Heritage Festival. I showed them my two new books, and Mayor Nelson bought both.

"I hope you like Hit or Missus," I said. "It's set at the Alta Vista Country Club"

That seemed to tickle him. "It is? Tell you what. Give me two more copies. I'll leave them at Alta Vista for other people to read."

Suddenly I sold four books. Once again, I broke even, financially, but I had another speaking opportunity.

After awhile, Robin came back with another customer, a friend of theirs who bought Freezer Burn and Hit or Missus. We joked about setting the book in Alta Vista.

"You sure I won't recognize anyone from the club in this book?" he asked.

"If you do, it's by merest accident. I like to make up my characters." I did alert him that when I think of Peri's friend, Blanche, I always see Suzanne Pleshette, and I did give my late father-in-law a role as the bartender. "But other than that, I like to have characters I can do anything with. Real people tend to complain when you make them the killer."

And just like that, I had made a profit. Who knows if I'll break even on my next two nights (the last Thursday in July and first Thursday in August). But it's not about the money. It's about the people all the time.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Adventures N Danger


I confess, sometimes when I'm writing this blog, I think about famous performers giving concerts, yelling, "Hello Cleveland/Omaha/Phoenix! How ya doin' out there?" So I just wanted to give a big shout-out to my tens of followers. LOL.

My friend Michele Scott always has something interesting (or cool or funny or useful) on her blog, Adventures N Writing, but today she's talking about being stalked by creepy people and how she has been able to utilize her feelings from those experiences to write about people in danger. It's a really good post, very anecdotal. You should read it.


Go on over to her site.

I'll wait here.

* * * * tic toc tic toc * * * * tic toc tic toc * * * *

Back? Good.

Her post made me think about how I use my experiences, or maybe my non-experiences, to write danger. The thing is, I'm a big wimp. I've been blessed enough to have never been assaulted or beaten or brutalized in any way. When I started writing about Peri as a private investigator, I knew I could go one of two ways. Either Peri was going to solve crimes without a lot of personal danger, ala Jessica Fletcher, or she was going to march right into the fray and risk her own safety.

I knew it would be easy to be an armchair detective. I can easily put myself in that place. But it seemed like the easy way out. If Peri was going to be a strong, stubborn woman, I needed to be able to let her walk down that dark alley, or confront a possible killer.

The question was, how was I going to write about it, if I've never lived it?

I decided to take what little I had experienced and extrapolate it. The pain from every fall off a horse, every cut from slicing veggies, every time I so much as banged my knee against the coffee table, was put to use in my fight scenes.

But what about the fear factor? Apart from my overactive imagination, I've only known terror once. And let me tell you, once was enough.

I was twenty-one, and driving my car home from my boyfriend's house. It wasn't insanely late, only eleven p.m., but it was Sunday night in Decatur, Illinois. Trust me, in the seventies, there wasn't a bar open or a sidewalk that hadn't been rolled up on Sunday nights. My route home took me down the main drag, Eldorado Street, across the Route 36 Bridge to Country Club Road, and finally to Cantrell Street, where I lived with my grandparents.

I should also mention my car, Mary Lou. I think I've posted about her before. She was a 1960 Ford Falcon with a saggy bench seat in front, a window that fell out of the frame when you closed the door, and a broken door lock, gas gauge and heater. Serviceable, she was, but safe - not so much.

It started at the intersection of Eldorado/22nd Street/Route 36. I sat at the light, thinking of really nothing, as most 21-year olds are wont to do. Something caught my eye; I looked to the right to see a very attractive young man smiling at me. I returned the smile, then turned back to the road. He honked, so I looked again. This time, he pantomimed a suggestion that was both shocking and lewd. I mean, even in the seventies, he owed me dinner first. Suddenly, Mr. Attractive was Creepy Guy.

Ever the polite gal, I shook my head NO and turned my attention to my radio. He honked again and I kept my eyes on the road.

The light turned green, and I thought we were finished. Color me surprised when he kept his car beside mine, honking the whole time. By the time we were on the bridge over Lake Decatur, his car had swerved toward mine several times and my foot was shaking so hard, I could barely keep Mary Lou going forward. My whole body trembled, my hands felt numb, and all the blood in my veins retreated into my chest. To make matters worse, when I got into the left turn lane, he got behind me.

Crap. He was going to follow me.

My mom had told me what to do if I was followed (this is in the days before cell phones). She said to pull into our drive and honk the horn. I had a plan: I was going to drive into my grandparents' driveway and start honking.

Halfway down Country Club Drive, I realized that was the looniest plan in existence. First, I didn't want to stop a car with no locks and a loose window. Second, I didn't want Creepy Guy to know where I lived. Third, did I mention not wanting to stop the car?

I thought about pulling into one of the neighbor's driveways, but the whole car-stopping thing deterred me. Instead, I drove past my house and kept going. I doubled back toward town, thinking about Plan B, with Creepy Guy still on my tail.

Perhaps I could pull into the police station parking lot. Who would follow me there? Better yet, who would be there? It's not like a bunch of policemen would be standing around outside in mid-November. I'd still have to stop the car.

My mind ran through the list of other places where people might be congregating outside at 11 p.m. on a cold Sunday night. My body was still shaking, although I had better control of my foot on the gas pedal. We were approaching the intersection where we'd met. The light was red. In an instant, I knew what I was going to do.

I ran the light. And the next one. And the one after that.

There was no traffic to worry about. If the police stopped me, so much the better. I'd take the ticket, and give them the scoop. But no one stopped me. The only one who stopped was Creepy Guy, who didn't pursue me through the red light.

Just to make certain, I drove back by a different route, going through Nelson Park and over Lost Bridge Road. Not only did I lose Creepy Guy completely, I never told my parents or grandparents what happened.

Good thing they've all passed away, or I'd have to swear you guys to secrecy.

I may have never looked for a villain in a dark alley, or been confronted by a crazy person with a gun, but I'll never forget the heart-thumping, full-throttle, body-tremors of that night, my mind whirling with ideas for getting myself out of this mess. That's what I remember when Peri's in up to her ears in trouble.

How about you? If you're a writer, what kind of things do you try in order to get your descriptions as real as possible? If you're a reader, can you tell when a writer is faking it? How?

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