Awards, Benefits of writing, local author

An Honor That Really Matters To Me

Winner - 2016 Most Happening Author in Bucks County

There are many contests and competitions out there you can enter if you’re an author. Many of them are very tempting, and they’re usually expensive to enter and the odds are so great against one winning. Every once in a while, I’ll enter one of my books in one of those for independent “indie” publishers, but I’ve never entered one just as an author.

So imagine my surprise last year, when I looked in my inbox to find a post telling me I’d won one!

Of course at first, I thought it was just another spam scam, looking for money or to hack into my email account. But no, it was legit. Turns out there’s this area events-focused magazine—Bucks Happening that holds an annual “best of” type contest for any number of categories ranging from “Most Happening Nightspot” to “Most Happening Artist.” Because I live in Bucks County, PA—an area with a long history of embracing and nurturing the arts—there was even a “Most Happening Author” category, and that’s the one I won

So, big deal, right? Well…kinda, yeah. Because first of all, I didn’t even know about this contest. Second of all, I didn’t know I’d been nominated. And most of all, because this isn’t a thing where the hosting publication nominates you for its own self-promotional reasons; you get nominated by someone in the reading public. In short, someone who’d read my book actually thought enough of it to nominate me for this honor. And that, my friends, is the kind of thing an author lives for.

Sure, you can look on it as a flimsy popularity contest of sorts, and I suppose to some extent, that’s true. But since I’ve never spent one second of my life thinking of myself as a “popular” person, I choose instead to see this as recognition bestowed by someone who thought enough of my work to earn me the honor, with no reflection on themselves because it was done anonymously.

I’ll take that every time, and gratefully!

So, as nominations are again open for this year’s Most Happening List, I reflect on how thrilled I was to receive last year’s honor, and take this opportunity to say thanks to that person who nominated me, and to all those who voted and helped me win. I appreciate everyone who’s ever read my work, and hope you all enjoyed it and will take a look when my next book comes out.

Benefits of writing, Craft, Inspiration, local author, writers conference

Recharging Those Batteries

Since the economic meltdown of 2008, I’m probably not alone in saying it hasn’t been the best of times for writers and marketers and publishers — all of which I am, and that’s how I make my living. Still, I make it a point to find the means to attend at least one writers’ conference a year if at all possible.

I worked so hard to be able to call myself a writer, not so much for what it means to others as to believe it myself. I come from a family of writers, so it’s kind of in my genes, I guess. But being able to make a living this way is hard for pretty much anyone, unless you’ve reached those dizzying heights of bestsellerdom. And even then, there’s no guarantee the party will go on forever.

So we do what we have to do to be able to write, and for me, one of those things is recharging my writing “batteries” each year. I belong to several writing organizations, all of which offer great conferences. I usually find myself having to choose between them, so I try to rotate among them from year to year.

This year, I not only got to attend, but to present, at one of the finest regional writers’ conferences I’ve experienced: The Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group conference, “The Write Stuff.” And what a delight it was!

Not only were my sessions a blast, with engaged, interested audiences and fantastic questions, but I also got to attend a few sessions myself. My favorite, I must admit, was author Kathryn Craft‘s “Writing That Matters.” This seminar fed my writer’s soul in a way that I haven’t experienced in a while, and led me to finally purchase her newest novel, The Art of Falling.

The Art of Falling, by Kathryn Craft

I just finished that today — reluctantly, I’ll admit; as I neared the end, I had been rationing pages because I didn’t want it to be over. It turned out to be more than a book: It made my head explode with a simple yet profound insight on a personal struggle I’ve been facing; insight that’s been much sought and badly needed. I closed the book with tears of gratitude in my eyes. This…THIS is what writing is all about, folks.

Aside from the fantastic reading it provided, The Art of Falling reminded me of the powerful nature of truly engaging, compelling writing. Often, we as authors get so wrapped up in the work of it, the technique of it, the pickety-pickety nature of the writing and publishing process, that it’s easy to forget that what we’re doing is nearly always a labor of love, and that there was some reason that drove us to do it in the first place.

That reason differs with each person, but I daresay they all have one thing in common: We want our writing to leave a mark on our readers.

I left The Write Stuff having enjoyed the company of other serious writers, having spent time with delightful people such as keynote speaker Hank Phillippi Ryan (whom I was so happy to sit next to at the book fair—what a fantastic human being!) and the wonderful event organizers who worked their butts off to make the event the success that it was.

I floated on a cloud all the way home, reminded of why I write, and how lucky I am to be surrounded by so much real talent here in my little corner of Pennsylvania.

Author Interview, Benefits of writing, Blog, Inspiration

The Fellowship of Writers

It’s been a busy couple of weeks here at the offices of The Word Forge (my marketing consultancy) and Word Forge Books, my publishing company.

CelebrateTheBookLast weekend, I attended the “Celebrate the Book” Festival in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I think it’s the fourth time I’ve done this show, and I always enjoy it. Not only does it give me an excuse to travel back toward my old stomping grounds of central PA—beautiful any time of year, but especially in the colorful fall, and even more so when the early morning drive usually provides a stunning vista of rolling farmland with a huge harvest moon hanging overhead (sorry, no photos — I was driving alone)–but it’s always a wonderfully produced show, with great floor staff and good organization. If you’ve ever exhibited at any kind of show like this, you’ll appreciate what I mean. And this year, it was held in a larger, more modern and more well-lighted venue, so that’s always fun to experience a new place.

Then yesterday, I christened my new author/publisher consulting business with its first exhibit table at the First Annual Pocono Writers Conference. That was also fun — got to participate in the day-long, multiple panel discussions with a nice array of professional writers, while introducing my new Indie Navigator consulting service to attendees. And for a first-time event, it was well put together and covered a lot of ground in writing-related topics. Thanks os much to fantasy author Michael Ventrella for organizing the event, and to the Eastern Monroe Public Library for hosting.

All this activity reminds me of one of the things I love best about being a writer: the fellowship. As with any group that develops around a common interest, writers are a varied lot, often with just that one thing in common. But writing is one of those pursuits that’s most often longer on intrinsic personal value than commercial remuneration, so those who heed its calling tend to be a passionate bunch. And I love that.

Writers have something of a reputation as egotists and poseurs, and to be sure, those people definitely have their place among our ranks. But my personal experience when meeting other writers at conferences and author events and book festivals is most often one of cordial give-and-take among a group of uncommonly kind and generous people genuinely interested in supporting each other. I have had the same experience among independent publishers, especially at large industry gathering like Book Expo America. I truly believe there is no more giving trade group than the people in indie publishing.

This may be true in other industries, I don’t know. I never really got that involved in such trade groups when I worked in advertising or graphic design. Or auto mechanics or law enforcement for that matter…but I digress.

My point is that, while writers necessarily spend a great deal of time working in a solitary environment that offers little opportunity for social interplay, writers’ conferences, workshops and author events offer that chance on an intense level. I have learned over the years to take advantage of such opportunities when they present themselves, because it’s not just a matter of catching up on the latest industry trends and other things I should be professionally aware of; it’s also a rare chance to interact on a social and professional level with others who’ve chose this solitary pursuit, as well. And that’s solid gold.

An excellent example is just such an author event I had the good fortune to attend, Local Authors Night hosted by the Barnes & Noble situated between Easton and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I got to gather with 50 of my regional scribbler brethren at the busy venue to sell and sign our books and to visit with those who purchased them. It wasn’t a boffo sales coup, but I didn’t care. I happened to have the good fortune to be seated next to bestselling psycho crime author Katherine Ramsland, whom I’d wanted to meet for years. We had a great time chatting and getting to know each other (she’s a weather freak, too — who knew?), and exchanged our latest books. Then, she graciously invited me to guest post on her fantastic blog!

RamslandBlog

So today, I’m sharing that with you here, with the reminder that all authors, however successful, started somewhere and are people just like you and me. And many — even most — of them remember that, even when they’re busy enjoying their rewards, and reach down to help the rest of us up to their level. Just one of the many reasons I love being a writer.

Benefits of writing, Books, Characterization, Inspiration, Motivation, Plot

Characterization – Oh, the things it makes me think about…

Lonely Cottage Road is set in the American Civil War era

For quite some time now, I’ve been putting off working on a novel – Lonely Cottage Road – that I really, really want to be writing. There always seems to be something more immediately pressing, most pointedly making a living. But these days, snippets of dialogue between my characters comes to me unbidden, and I find myself thinking about them at the oddest times. I think the book is done gestating and is trying desperately to be born.

One thing that’s constantly going on somewhere back in the deep recesses of my mind is the consideration of my characters’ motivations. What do they most want? What makes them want it? And – most importantly of all, for it will be the juice that moves the story forward – to what lengths are they willing to go to get it?

Then, that musing leads to the characters’ basic emotional landscapes: Who are they? What are their worldviews? What made them like that?

And, finally, all this must, of course, at some point lead to an examination of those very questions about myself and those around me.

I’ve become convinced that much of writing is simply authors trying to work out their own issues, or karma, or whatever you want to call it. We navel-gaze in public. Some think this is egotistical. Perhaps, but I think it’s useful in that it somehow allows others who read the work — and even some who don’t — to maybe let down their guard a little and take a look at their own stuff. And I’m convinced this is a good thing. Maybe if Germany hadn’t been so rigid and oppressive, Adolf Hitler could have read something that rocked his world, forced him to look into his own soul, and stood firm in forging ahead with his artistic endeavors instead of that expression being warped into the grand evil it became?

Who knows, really, but a little self-examination never hurt anybody. It may have damaged their false-fronted contentment for a bit or jolted them out of apathetic complacency. That can’t be a bad thing.

Hmmm…guess it really is time to get started on my novel again.

Benefits of writing, Books, Motivation, Promotion

Book Promotion To Schools – Part 2: Finding the Decisionmakers

Author Mary Shafer teaches elementary students about writing
Here I'm teaching a special writing class to students at the Delaware Township School in New Jersey.

If you’re hoping to promote your book to schools, several good things may happen:

  1. Teachers get interested in using your book as a classroom text that will be required reading for all their students. If they do get enthused about your book, they will talk to each other about it and may start a sales chain reaction: Teachers are the original viral marketers. This will result in direct volume sales to these classrooms.
  2. What happens at one school could create the requirement of your book as a text district-wide, resulting in possible volume sales to several schools.
  3. Your book isn’t required as a text, but it gets used by the teachers as part of their content. More about this later.
  4. Your book may or may not get picked up as a text, but you or your author gets invited to speak to a single classroom, multiple classrooms, or even to an assembly. This usually results in an opportunity to sell your book afterwards.

There’s no guarantee that any of these will occur, but I guarantee that none of them will if you don’t learn the proper way to approach schools about your book.

Understand the Culture
First, understand that academia is all about hierarchy and chain of command. If you don’t know who to approach, you can doom your efforts from the start. So learn how your state’s school districts are set up, and who makes the decisions about textbook buying. It can vary widely, but usually it’s some version of certain texts being required at either state or district level, then some local — whole school or classroom level — control for individual titles.

You could research this on the Web or at your local library, but there’s an easier way: If you have kids in school and a decent rapport with one of their teachers, simply ask. Any teacher who’s been around for more than a year should be able to tell you how this works in your state. Another option is to ask your local public or school librarian. Either one should be familiar with your state’s setup.

Manage Your Expectations
Knowing this protocol won’t help you sell at the statewide level. Unless you’re a fairly large publisher with a dedicated sales staff that knows the ropes, that’s a losing battle if you’re coming from outside the system. But what this knowledge will do is tell you the general attitude about textbooks, and how much leverage you might be able to exert at the local or regional district level. Managing these expectations for your efforts is key to being able to maintain them for any length of time.

Generally, you’re looking at a structure something like this:

State DOE > Regional Administrative Unit (optional for larger districts) > School District > Individual Schools. There will be a school board somewhere along this line, made up of local officials, parents and businesspeople. It may be at the regional (admin unit), local (district) or — in the case of really rural areas — the individual school level. For the small, independent publisher or self-published author (who is also an independent publisher), this board is who you want to make friends with, because ultimately, they will make the decision about whether your book gets exposure in the schools they govern.

Gain Advocates
Yes, you can and absolutely should approach teachers directly with your ideas, because they are going to be your strongest advocate if they believe in the power of your book to help them teach kids. But it’s fairly uncommon for teachers to have the discretion to simply adopt your book as a classroom teaching aid without first running it past at least some kind of content approval committee, if not the school board. It’s not unheard of, but it’s not common.

First Impressions Count
Once you’ve determined who to approach, prepare a professionally produced package to send them. This should include a cover letter attached to a promo kit (your press kit, but slanted specifically to appeal to teachers), and a free reading copy of the book. If you can’t afford to give out that many free copies without knowing it has a good chance of selling more books, at least include a 4 x 6 postcard with some check-offs stating that the teacher wants more information or to request a reading copy (count on it — they will if at all interested) that they can send back to you.

Obviously, the hope is that you’ll be able to sell volumes of your book to classrooms, but it may not work that way. You may only be able to sell copies to the teachers, who will teach from it without requiring students to read it. This is not ideal, but it’s not a bad thing, either. With a teacher  in front of a class talking about your book for almost an hour (and maybe more, if you create a multi-class teaching unit) there are bound to be at least a few kids in each class who go out and buy the book. From there, it can turn into Referral City — the best possible kind of promotion!

Next: Meeting Curriculum Standards

Benefits of writing, Books, General Writing, Inspiration, Motivation

Author As Stress Manager?

Here’s something I think most of us heavy readers already knew: Reading reduces stress.

Woman reading to relax
Image courtesy Marie Claire UK

That’s right! Marie Claire UK reports that a University of Sussex study has shown stress levels decrease in people up to 68% while they read. Check out the article for more details, but I didn’t need a study to prove that to me. Just like petting a companion animal has been shown clinically to reduce stress — Duh!

Both of these activities are quiet and somewhat meditative. They take you into something of a Zen place (unless you’re reading something really disturbing or perhaps petting an animal who’s in pain).

But it’s nice to know that when we sit down to write something, we’re usually producing something that’s not only enjoyable, it’s therapeutic.

Now if we could just find a way to get the insurance companies to compensate us for being part of people’s stress reduction plan…