Books, Characterization, Craft, Creative process, General Writing, Genres, Plot, Promotion, Publishing Industry, Research, Setting, Technique

The Year of Teaching

Last year, after several years of being asked to consult with other authors and indie publishers, I finally formalized this part of my marketing business into a consultancy called The Indie Navigator. Since then, I’ve been pretty busy making appearances in that incarnation, helping my fellow writers become authors and indie publishers, and helping those indie publishers become better at the business of publishing.

Print

But I haven’t forgotten the whole reason we’re all doing this: Because we love to write, and want to get our work into the hands of as many readers as possible. So one of the things I made up my mind to do this year is learn more about the technical craft of writing for myself, while I help my fellow authors with marketing, promotion and self-publishing.

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To make that happen, I’ve been busy the first part of this New Year scheduling appearances as the Indie Navigator in venues where I can do both of these at once. I’m excited to announce that I’ll have the chance to do just that coming up in March, when I’ll be teaching two seminars at The Write Stuff annual conference, hosted by the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group.

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I first spoke at this conference back in 2009, and was so impressed by how professional and well-run it was, I joined the writer’s group that hosted it. I’ve been a proud member ever since. GLVWG (pronounced “GLIV-wig”) is a friendly, very active group, large enough to support many helpful and enjoyable activities and resources for its membership, but not so large you feel lost or insignificant. I strongly recommend joining for anyone in the Lehigh Valley area who may be struggling with living the writing life and needs some support. It’s a truly warm, welcoming organization wholly supportive of its members success, whether that be as a part-time amateur poet or a full-time professional author…and anything in between.

Author Mary Shafer speaks at the Cat Writers Association Conference

On Friday, March 21, I’ll be teaching a four-hour seminar from 1:00-5:00 pm, titled “Indie Publishing Intensive: A Quick-Start Guide to Self-Publishing.” The first half will be the “what-to” part – an expansion of my popular seminar, “Identity Crisis: What Is A Publisher, and Should I Become One?” It’s an overview of the book publishing industry, including a brief history of traditional publishing and how that background has shaped our current world of indie publishing. This helps potential indie publishers understand why things evolved the way they have (when so much of it seems not to make sense otherwise). Then it delves deeply into

  • What it really means to BE a book publisher vs. an author
  • Why it’s important to perform a reality-based “gut check” to determine if you have what it takes to be a long-term book publisher
  • The processes and paperwork you need to complete and for the appropriate agencies who can authorize you as legally recognized book publisher in the United States
  • Moving from manuscript to printed, bound book and ebook
  • Getting your book listed with the major online retailers, onto store shelves and into readers’ hands
  • The all-important promotional component

The second half of the session will be the “how-to” element. This seminar, titled “Switching Hats: Moving From Author to Indie Publisher,” gets to the gist of how to go about all the “what-tos” covered in the first half. It’ll cover all the nitty-gritty that’s possible in a single session, supported by a generous Q&A session during which attendees can ask anything they want about the whole indie publishing process.

I’ll also be offering on-the-spot critiques of first pages during the Page Cuts session on Friday evening. Then on Saturday, I’ll be leading a session titled “Narrative Nonfiction: Finding Freedom in Form and Function.” This session will cover the nuts-and-bolts of researching and writing true-life stories with a blend of journalism using fiction techniques in a format popularized by author Sebastian Junger. It’ll be a fast-moving, info-packed seminar on this increasingly popular writing style, now employed across nearly every genre you can imagine.

I hope you can join me, along with my colleagues Kathryn Craft, Phil Giunta, Scott Nicholson and many more, at this always-wonderufl event, this year headlined by keynote speaker Hank Philippi Ryan, bestselling suspense novelist!

Keynote speaker Hank Philippi Ryan enraptures her audiences.Keynote speaker Hank Philippi Ryan always enraptures her audiences.

Author Interview, Books, Characterization, Craft, General Writing, Genres, Promotion, Writing process

Author Interview: Thriller Mistress Amy Shojai – Part II

Trailer for Amy Shojai’s thriller Lost and Found. Check out the advance praise at the end! 

 

In honor of today’s release of her latest book, we’re back this week with Part Two of our interview with bestselling author Amy Shojai. Amy’s brought her enormous knowledge of pets and animal behavior to bear on her first novel, Lost and Found. This thriller has a breathtaking premise:  An autism cure will KILL MILLIONS unless a service dog and his trainer find a missing child…in 24 hours. I’ve already read the free excerpt, and that alone was enough to get me into the story. Now I’m getting ready to read the whole book (Full disclosure: Amy has provided me with an advance reader eCopy for review). Can’t wait to dig into it!

But meanwhile, let’s learn more about the author’s writing process and thoughts about this, her first thriller. We left off Part I talking about the book’s characters:

Author Amy ShojaiMe:  Speaking of characters, which do you consider the protagonist of this story: September? Steven? Shadow?

Amy: The main character is September. Shadow is very much the secondary main character.

Me:  And I have to ask: How did you come up with the September character? Is she your alter-ego, and should we expect to see more of her?

Amy:  LOL! I attended the awesome writers conference Thrillerfest this past year and sat in on some terrific seminars presented by bestselling thriller authors. Lee Child commented that in his experience, most protagonists seem to be written as someone better looking, more athletic, taller, thinner, and smarter. Yes, there are parts of September that are similar to me, such as her love of animals and passion for them. But she’s more athletic, taller, thinner, smarter–and younger than me. Oh, and she doesn’t like bling. Pity.

Yes, I do think you’ll see more of September. There are two more books planned at this time.

Me:  As authors, we all have different hopes for each of our books, aside from wanting them to be successful. In your writer’s heart and mind, what does success look like for Lost and Found?

Amy:  Success would be readers enjoying the book, and saying so. It would be having them better understand their dogs’ behavior, realize that cats CAN be trained. And having readers ask…no, demand…to know what happens next.

Me: Yeah, that’ll always be the most excellent reaction from a reader, won’t it? I understand you have a giveaway for Lost and Found on Goodreads.com. Want to share more about that?

Amy:  Thanks for asking! Yes, here’s the link. I will give away three copies of the paperback, and happily autograph the books to the winners–or paw-tograph to their favorite pets. The giveaway runs from September 1 to November 15. Simply follow the link, click “enter to win” and fill in your mailing address. The book releases today on Kindle for those who can’t wait, and will be available in all eBook formats and print shortly thereafter.

Me:  What other events and appearances do you have scheduled to support “Lost and Found?” Anything else you’d like your readers to know about you, your newest book or your career?

Amy Shojai's new book, "Lost and Found"Amy: I’ll be appearing thither and yon on a variety of blogs between now and the first of the year. A book launch and autograph party happens locally in Sherman, Texas in mid-October – date to be determined, because I’m scheduled around a musical play co-written with a friend, that we’re performing earlier that month. And I’ll be speaking at the 20th Anniversary Cat Writers Association Conference the first weekend of November in Los Angeles, and signing books, as well as in Houston the first weekend of January at the Houston Cat Club Cat Show.

Me: Amy, as an author myself, I know what a thrill it is to see and hold your newest book. It never gets old, does it? But I think sometimes readers believe that once we get published, all our books will be bestsellers. If only, right? In reality, we all depend on our readers to support our books by helping us create the buzz they need to get attention. I understand you’ve created an easy-to-follow list of helpful things readers can do to help promote your books. Can we share that here?

Amy:  Sure thing. I appreciate every little bit of support from my readers, and here are a few tips to make it easy for them to help get the word out if they like my books:

READER-ICITY RULES FOR GETTING BOOKS NOTICED

  1. “Like” it (just click the “like” button on the Amazon or Facebook page, for instance).
  2. “Like” the author page. Here’s mine on Amazon.
  3. “Tag” it. These are descriptive words or phrases that help others find the book when they search for it. (On the book page, type TT to open the tag box, highlight the tags and copy into the box, and save).
  4. Read it. Love it. Hate it. Talk about it. Share with friends. Argue about it. Get hissed-off about it. Wag about it. Say it’s GRREEEAAAT! Say it SSSSSUCKS! And then . . . .
  5. Review it (on Amazon, GoodReads, Barnes & Noble, your blog, etc.) ONLY IF YOU REALLY READ IT!

Me:  Great tips! Thanks, Amy, for the interesting interview. And I understand you’ve got a free eCopy of Lost & Found to give away to one lucky reader of this blog — how generous! So, readers, here’s how to enter our giveaway for a FREE EBOOK of AMY SHOJAI’S NEW THRILLER, LOST and FOUND:

  1. Watch the book trailer at the beginning of this post and LISTEN CAREFULLY to the narrator, September, explain her story.
  2. Go to the Contact Form of my blog.
  3. Send me a message with the Subject line: I want to be Lost and Found!
  4. In the message field, tell me something that New York Times bestselling author James Rollins has to say about Lost & Found — it’s in the book trailer.
  5. Of all the correct entries received by midnight on Sunday, September 30, a random name will be pulled from a hat to receive a FREE eCopy of Lost & Found, directly from author Amy Shojai. (Your entry into this contest constitutes your permission for me to share your contact information with Amy.)

So ENTER NOW, and you’ll be one step closer to the edge of your seat with Amy, September and one really smart dog.

 

Books, Characterization, Craft, General Writing, Genres, Plot, Point of View (POV), Publishing Industry, Technique, Writing process

Author Interview: Thriller Mistress Amy Shojai – Part I

Amy Shojai's new book, "Lost and Found"Okay, y’all (stop it, I’m allowed! My interview subject is a Texan!) – I’m very excited to be sharing with you the first half of an info-packed interview I recently did with an author whose work I admire, and who just happens to be one of the funniest, most interesting and truly sweetest people I know. Oh, and she also happens to be a bestselling author, did I mention that?

Amy Shojai is a certified animal behavior consultant, and the award-winning author of 24 bestselling pet books that cover furry babies to old-fogies, first aid to natural healing, and behavior/training to Chicken Soup-icity. I met her at my first conference with the Cat Writers Association, which she founded and still supports with gusto. (Come to think of it, there ain’t much Amy DOESN’T do with gusto!) You can learn more about Amy at her website, where you’ll also find her blog, Bling, Bitches & Blood. She’ll explain the title when you get there.

Author Amy Shojai, her dog Magic and cat Seren
Author Amy Shojai, her German Shepherd, Magic, and her Siamese cat, Seren

For now, I asked her a few questions about her newest book, Lost and Found, which is her first foray into fiction. But to be honest, I got to read an excerpt, and you’ll never know Amy’s not a veteran master at the thriller genre.

WOW! I can’t WAIT to read the rest of this great debut novel when it comes out in eBook on the 20th of this month (print fans, you’ll need to wait another week, but hang in there…)! She skillfully blends her background as an animal behavior consultant with her storytelling abilities, to weave a tale you’ll have a hard time putting down. But in the interests of “show, don’t tell,” I’m gonna stop here and let the interview speak for itself:

Me: We know it’s not your first author rodeo, with all your terrific nonfiction books out there enlightening the world, but Lost and Found is your first novel, right? Why a novel at this point in your career?

Amy: Yes, this is my debut fiction and I’m “thrilled” to be launched as a thriller author. The dirty li’l secret is that I first started out wanting to write fiction, and I couldn’t get published. Yes, I have five complete novels, plus one partial, under the virtual bed that will never see the light of day! Meanwhile, as I tried to write and publish fiction and submitted to agents, my nonfiction articles – and then a couple of books – were published. One of the agents I pitched for a novel said, “No thanks…but show me your nonfiction.” After that, I became so busy paying bills with the nonfiction (no complaints there!) that the fiction writing sat on the back burner, literally, for years.

Today, though – as you know – publishing has changed. It has especially affected the nonfiction, prescriptive types of pet books that I write. So I’ve needed to find new ways to get the furry message out there, and fiction seemed a fun and innovative way to do this.

Me: And why the thriller genre? Those of us who know you think of your Southern charm, your bright, bubbly personality – not necessarily the kind of brooding writer you’d expect to produce a thriller. What was your intent as an author in using this approach and format? Or perhaps it’s more correct to ask why you felt this format best served your story’s needs?

Amy: What a great question – and I’m flattered. You’ve a hefty dose of charm yourownself. <smile> Maybe I’m a twisted personality. Those other under-the-bed novels were horror, or probably more accurately, psychological thrillers. That’s what I read, that’s what I enjoy, so that’s what I write.

A novel must pose a question, and challenge the characters to answer that question. How that’s done somewhat defines the genre. A mystery presents a body at the beginning of the book, and asks, “Who dunnit?” A thriller may do that, but often shows the dirty deed, so readers know “who dunnit” and the question becomes “why dunnit?”

While I’m not a fan of being scared in real life, or the blood-and-gore school of storytelling, a rollercoaster ride via a great plot and characters I can root for offers all the vicarious spills and chills without the risk.

Me: I LOVE the fact that the excerpt from your book is written from Shadow’s point of view. Is the rest of the book written that way? How did you decide which POV to use?

Amy: Thank you! My early readers have without exception noted that Shadow’s chapters are their favorites. He’s a nine-month-old German shepherd pup, and a service dog (in training) to an autistic child. Part of the reason for the dog point of view was that I hadn’t a clue how to write the point of view of an autistic child and didn’t feel comfortable trying. So any time the little boy is “on stage” in the book with the dog, it’s from Shadow’s viewpoint. There also are chapters in dog viewpoint to offer insights into the story that the human characters couldn’t possibley know – through scent, for example.

I’ve always “imagined” what my dog and cat might be thinking, and there’s nobody to tell me I’m wrong. <grin> I think most pet lovers do that to some extent. I could also do this from the background of my pet behavior expertise and debunk some common misconceptions, while shining a light on other pet realities. I very much wanted to include animal companions in the story, in part because it’s a way to “edu-tain” readers about dog (and cat) behavior and care, without a dry lecture.

And yes, there’s also a hero cat in the story, although this book doesn’t feature a cat viewpoint. Maybe that will happen in future books. But in this story, the cat is a trained kitty and figures prominently in kicking bad-guy-assets at the end of the book.

LOST AND FOUND is very much Shadow’s story, probably as much as anyone’s.  His viewpoint is featured in one-third or more of the book. I consciously alternated viewpoint characters between the humans and the dog. Just as the human characters have a story “goal” and character arc, so does Shadow. He wants to belong and be loved, he wants to be a “good-dog” more than life itself, and being a good-dog means obeying and following the rules of the people he adores. But what if that gets in the way? What if the people are wrong – in his estimate? What’s a good-dog to do?

Me: Yeah, that’s a fantastic point of conflict to propel the story forward! And the whole concept of Lost and Found makes it such a groundbreaking book in several ways: Your first thriller, a dog’s POV without it being a humorous approach, and one of the main characters an autistic child. Where did the idea for this novel come from?

Amy: LOST AND FOUND was more than three years in the making. I wanted the main character to be an animal behaviorist or trainer, and to include a dog and/or a cat. But the main character, September (yes, that’s her name!) needed to train more than puppy manners. I’ve interviewed trainers of service animals, and my own dog’s breeder has placed autistic service dogs. Once one notion came to  mind, the others followed. Also, the most interesting characters to me are damaged, too, which means they must overcome internal and/or external obstacles to succeed. September suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress, and hates the thought of leaving her safe, secure home but goes out in the blizzard anyway to find her lost nephew.

Me: As you know, in my own book Almost Perfect: Disabled Pets and The People Who Love Them, we strive to build awareness that special needs pets can lead whole, happy lives even though they may not have the same abilities as most animals. I get the feeling from the excerpt that with Lost and Found, you had to deal with that on two levels: It seems you had to straddle the line concerning how people perceive both canine cognitive abilities and how they misunderstand the cognitive dissonance that may be occurring in the minds and senses of those living with autism. In researching your novel, what most surprised you about your own understanding of autism, and as a writer, how did you leverage what your animal behaviorist self knows about the way dogs interact with and respond to their humans in service to the story?

Amy: Wow. Let me think on that. I’m not sure that I’m able to fully understand how autistic people feel or think, but I am able to observe behaviors. The child character, Steven, is reported pretty much as observation – by the dog, Shadow. So I pretty much avoided – or tried to, anyway – making my own assumptions about what might or might not be happening regarding Steven. Instead, the story has the dog interpreting (correctly or in error, from his own canine perspective) what Steven’s actions and reactions mean. Therefore, when Steven claps his hands over his ears, Shadow can relate because he also wishes hands could cover his own ears to muffle too-loud noises.

What most surprised me was that one of my beta readers told me that I nailed the autistic child and adult Asperger character, as far as behavior and dialogue. Wow. This is a teacher who works with autistic children and also lives with a daughter partnered with a service dog.

END OF PART I

Isn’t this a fascinating interview? I’m learning a lot about novel craft as an author working on her own first novel! I hope you’re getting as much out of our conversation with Amy Shojai, and hope you’ll be back to join us here for Part II of this engaging interview!

Books, Craft, Dialog, General Writing, Genres, Promotion, Publishing Industry, Research, Technique

Narrative Nonfiction or “Faction” – What is it?

I had a question yesterday from a writing colleague, whom I met at last year’s annual conference for ASJA (American Society for Journalists and Authors — if you’re not a member, I encourage you to look into joining. My ASJA network alone is worth the cost of dues).

Anyway, this friend is about to embark on a book proposal about a lesser-known historical figure. There isn’t a lot written about him, and she’s having difficulty locating much reference to this figure in her research. There are no heirs to his estate that she could contact for further elucidating material, though she has  contacted some well-known archives whose staffs should be familiar with him.

Now, this author is an experienced, skilled, detailed nonfiction writer. This story she’s considering writing has plenty of Important and Exciting Plot Points. It’s mundane details of the subject’s day-to-day life that she doesn’t know about–other than the time period in which the story takes place.

Bottom line, she’s overwhelmed with the thought that, although what she’s already learned has been exciting and she’s sure there’s a salable book in it, she may not be able to find enough actual reference material to be able to fill in the gaps in her knowledge about this figure. But she really wants to treat this as nonfiction.

Her question was blunt: Do I make it up?

She’s an ethical writer and is well aware that nonfiction means FACT-based, not made up, so she was not being serious. What is serious is her desire to write a historically accurate account of this fascinating figure. She’s wondering if perhaps she should do most of it as nonfiction, but write a fictionalized version of the story to fill in the missing parts.

What my friend is struggling with is something historical writers have always come up against: How to remain true to historical fact while still painting a complete word picture of a specific time, place and subject, even when there is simply no extant material to verify the smaller details. Enter “creative” or narrative nonfiction.

This type of writing has been with us for some years now, and allows such complete storytelling to take place. Here’s Wikipedia’s explanation of the format, which of course has been decried by many purists as simple fraud. Essentially, narrative nonfiction uses fictional techniques to make a story come alive. Sometimes this must include the author’s conjecture on what happened in a given situation, because the people who actually experienced the situation are either no longer with us to bear witness, or simply don’t want to talk about the traumatic situation.

Book cover, The Perfect Storm

Sebastian Junger opened that door with his book The Perfect Storm, when he gave us his idea of what it must have been like as Capt. Billy and his crew went down with the Andrea Gail. No one who was there lived to tell about it, so he HAD to make it up. But it was a very small part of the story, and he made very clear in his notes that it was only his conjecture. And readers accepted it. The publisher took a chance with this maverick move, and it paid off — not just for them and for Junger, but it opened up a whole new world of possibilities that had heretofore gone unrealized for writers of historical nonfiction.

So now it’s acceptable in this format, if you have enough fact-based stuff, to fill in a few details based on conjecture and logic, as long as the vast majority — like 99% or more — of your story is provably accurate. And you must also explain in an Author’s Note that you have done so. Otherwise you MUST list the book as fiction.

I did this in my book, “Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955.” Because so many of the story’s subjects had either perished in the flood or were no longer with us when I was writing the book 50 years later, I needed to be able to take some license if I were to write it in a readable, engaging style.

Book cover, The Perfect Storm

And so I simply let my readers know that if dialogue appeared in quotation marks, it actually came out of the subject’s mouth that way, witnessed by someone verifiable; and if the dialogue appeared in italics without quote marks, it was something I conjectured might have been said. I was clear in my note that I only took license with relatively minor passages, and based my conjecture on what would seem reasonable to most folks to have happened in the given situation.

And you know what? People LIKE this. They’ve actually said things to me about this particular practice, all positive remarks. Now, no one has ever said anything to me about other techniques I use. But they have said things like, “I really like the format. Your book reads like a thriller. I couldn’t put it down!”

When I ask specifically what they liked, they note three things:

  1. The dialogue sounds like real people talking, not stilted, perfect prose. I use sentence fragments and contractions, because people are lazy and want to get their ideas out quickly.
  2. That I did try to imagine what dialogue might have taken place when I didn’t know for sure. As long as they’re aware of which is which, no one feels duped.
  3. I use tactics of good fiction writing: varying story pace, jumping back and forth between characters and scenes to set up easy-to-follow chronological order, giving enough background info to interest readers in characters and make them care what happens to them, and ending each chapter on a cliff-hanger that makes them want to keep reading to find out what happens.

If you’re interested in learning how to write using the narrative nonfiction format, I highly recommend Junger’s book and mine. I can also recommend three others that just happen to also be weather-related, because that’s what I read, as excellent examples of this type of format:

As to whether you should or shouldn’t engage in narrative nonfiction writing, I really do think it’s a matter of how much you’re comfortable fictionalizing. If you’re a purist, don’t even try — it’s not worth the internal struggle you’ll continue to have with yourself. But if you’re open to new approaches, here’s an online link that should help you learn more:

The Reading Experience – Forget Fiction (July 26, 2010)

And here are some books on the subject, both by Peter Rubie.

The Elements of Narrative Nonfiction: How to Write and Sell the Novel of True Events

Telling the Story: How to Write and Sell Narrative Nonfiction

I hope you learn something that will pique your interest in tackling this flexible approach to historical nonfiction.

Books, Craft, Genres, Promotion

Rebirth of a Nonfiction Success – The Revised Edition

Well, after a month-and-a-half of Book Production Hell, I finally sent the final files to the printer yesterday for the revised second edition of my book, Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955. And all I can say is, “WHEW!”

Book cover, Devastation on the Delaware, Revised Second Edition
Book cover, Devastation on the Delaware, Revised Second Edition


Compared to the initial 3 years of research, interviewing and writing for the first edition, this was nothing. Yet 45 days with no break — no days off, no weekends — is an endurance slog no matter how you look at it. This was a rather small update — I added 40 pages of new material including new stories, maps and photos — to an existing 456-page book. That brings this puppy in at just under 500 pages now, a hefty tome you wouldn’t want to drop on your head from a high shelf, for sure. Not to mention the additional shipping weight and larger mailers it will require.

Still, I opted to keep the retail price at $19.95 — that magic number for all TV product offers, for those who pay attention to such things. But my reasons are that in this day of a contracting print book market and shrinking leisure time in which to read them, I wanted to keep my book attractively priced. That, and I’m aware that most of my primary readership — people who live in the Delaware River Valley — are just like me: middle-class Americans struggling to maintain a decent quality of life on shrinking incomes in a crappy economy. Yet another reason not to raise the price.

But that’s really a publishing issue, not so much that of an author. What I want to talk about here are the concerns any author might have when considering updating a nonfiction work. What do you think about when you want to update an existing book, and how do you decide when it’s the right time to do an updated edition?

For me, and this work in particular, it was kind of a no-brainer. Devastation is a documentary treatment of an historic weather disaster. I first published it in 2005, on the 50th anniversary of the event. The entire first printing of 2,500 copies sold out in 42 days — probably a reflection of the fact that it came out just a month after Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast of the US, and hurricane-caused flooding was on everyone’s mind. That was a serendipitous stroke of timing I couldn’t have planned, and as tragic as it was for the Gulf, it was absolutely awesome for this book’s sales.

It went on to sell another 2,500 copies over the next five years, giving it a sales average of 1,000 copies a year. Given that most small press books sell less than 1,000 copies total, I am of course pleased and flattered that so many people find my work interesting enough to fork over $20 for. Initially, the book was supposed to have been published by another publisher, and the estimate was to sell that many in the first year. Had that happened, it would have officially qualified as a bestseller in small, independent press parlance.

However, short of having taken off work for that entire year (after having already taken so much time off to write it) to do nothing but promote it, I’m not sure I could have done anything more than I did to make that happen. I spent nearly every evening and almost all my weekends either sending out promo messages or making appearances on behalf of the book for the first year, about 75% of that effort the second year, and leveled off at about 50% of that effort in the remaining few years until now, mostly because I had another new book of my own and a couple of our other authors’ works to promote, as well (The danger of being both author and publisher).

During that time, as the book sold and awareness of it grew, I was contacted by more and morepeople with their own stories and pictures of the flood to share. Always, my first reaction would be (to myself, of course), “Where the heck were you when I was desperately seeking information about this in the first place?” But that kind of attitude is unhelpful, so I simply listened and followed up with gratitude for these people who felt that what I was doing with the book was of value, and who wanted to add to that value.

As I reached the four-year mark after the original publication, I realized it was time for an update. Enough folks had written in to correct me — usually gently, but sometimes not so much — on errors I had made in the original manuscript. Nothing hideous, mostly embarrassing things like geographical errors due to my less-than-stellar ability to read maps or names that were close but not exact. But it was enough all together to make the responsible historian in me wish to correct the errors in the interest of making the book as accurate an historical document as possible. Plus, there were some clarifications and enhancements of existing stories, and a few new stories whose addition I felt would add to the narrative.

As for timing, I realized that August 18 of this year would be the 55th anniversary of the ’55 flood — in essence, a Golden Anniversary. What better PR hook to hang all our promotion on? So I set that as our pub date, and backtracked the production schedule off of it.

So, for the past year I have been gathering all the new material, clarifying stories, getting photo permissions and doing a few new phone interviews. And in mid-June, as I returned from a ten-day road trip that served to both give me some time away from this office and to allow me the relaxation necessary to face the endurance race ahead of me, I started in on the actual work of updating the manuscript. We also launched a cover contest to allow the public to vote on three possible designs, which was a fun and very informative exercise that — happily — ended up confirming our own choice by an overwhelming margin.

Devastation on the Delaware 2nd Edition Cover
This is the cover for the new edition.
By mid-July, we were ready to start into production on the new layout. My poor designer had to endure many changes, as her layout process ended up coinciding with my last-minute writing changes because our production timeline had been inadvertently telescoped by other work I had to do in order to keep paying the bills. But she was a real trouper and got ‘er done. Between the two of us, and a VERY professional and excellent indexer who produced incredible work and delivered EARLY, we managed to pull it off on time.

Of course, if I had only been the author and not the publisher as well, this schedule would have been very different. Automatically add at least 6 months to a year to the whole process. Just another reason to be glad to be an indy publisher/author. And this time, we’re going the POD (print on demand) route. After all, I’ve already saturated my primary market of local and regional readers with the first edition. Few of them will pop for the second edition, too, so I’ll have to seek new readers. It took me five years to empty our warehouse of the original edition’s 5,000 copies, so it stands to reason I don’t want to be sitting on that much inventory again. The higher per-unit price will even out in my not having to pay to warehouse, ship and inventory that large run, not to mention carrying the large debt for its printing.

So now, with writing and production behind me, it’s on to the third and most critical step of the publishing process: promotion. Thanks to a fast, talented and affordable web developer — Caryn Newton of Lantern Glow Design — I’ve been able to streamline this process to include both traditional and online elements, and I get better at its implementation with every new book we do.

Just thought a window into one author’s updated edition process might be enlightening.

Books, Craft, General Writing, Genres, Inspiration, Motivation, Promotion, Publishing Industry, Research

Birth of a Novel

As a published author, I often am asked the same or similar questions, and many of those were recently rounded up in an interview I did with Sandra Carey Cody at her blog, “Birth of a Novel.” Thought it made sense to share it with you here.

Novel

Speaking of which, are you working on a novel? What’s it about? Struggling with anything? Share here, or over on our discussion forum. We’d love to talk with you about it.

Books, Genres, Promotion, Publishing Industry

The need for authors to promote their own books

A legacy blog post that first appeared August 24, 2009:

Author Mary A. Shafer promoting her books at a July 4th event
Here I'm promoting my titles at a local bookstore's Independence Day event. Yep, while everyone else is out partying, the author works to promote.

As a self-published author, I knew when I was starting my publishing company that sooner or later I’d want to help other writers become published authors, too. I already do speaking on the topic, but I knew I’d want to take a more active role in creating new authors. So I purposely did everything it took to become a “legitimate” publisher in the industry’s eyes.

I registered with R.R. Bowker and paid my fee to get issued my publisher prefix so I could get ISBN numbers for my books. I designed a logo and stationery. I created an invoicing system and registered my new business name with the state.

But the most difficult thing I do as a publisher is convince authors that active participation in promoting their own work is NOT optional nor negotiable. And that’s why it’s spelled out in our contract what we expect our authors to do to help sell their books.

I find that many people have a skewed vision of what it means to be a successful author today, the operable word being “successful.” Sure, you can yourself an author as soon as you get published, but that’s a technicality. To REMAIN an author is the challenge. And that means two things: you continue producing good new work, and you maintain enthusiasm for promoting the work you’ve already done.

As I’ve said before: The days of churning out a manuscript in the haze of a smoke-filled garret somewhere, sending it off to your publisher and then getting started on the next one are long gone. Today, if you are a successful (read: selling) author, you are a full participant in the marketing and promotion of your books. Even the biggies — Steven King, Janet Evanovich, Nicholas Sparks — are required by their publishers to support their books with personal appearances, book signings and similar efforts.

Yes, the big houses that publish them also have full-time PR departments to help, but their efforts would be wasted without the authors following through with their participation. Mid-size pubishers can afford to hire outside firms to help with their marketing and PR, and small ones must do their own. But they all depend on the author getting out there, too, to make the rounds of bookstores, introduce themselves to readers, blog, and generally get themselves known. This is called, in marketing lingo, “establishing your brand.”

Some authors are doing an incredible job at this. Two I know personally: Laurel Bradley is a tireless promoter of her work, and it shows. This time travel romance author is serious about doing what it takes to get her books into the hands of readers, and she does it with style and enthusiasm. Art Adkins is another promotional dynamo. This Florida cop knows his material but also understands that without him out on the street putting it into people’s hands, readers will not just magically find him.

And here’s one guy who takes promoting his book so seriously, he quit his job to do it!

Despite the best promo campaigns a publisher can put together and the biggest budgets they might spend on advertising and PR, the fact is that most people don’t buy books based on this kind of messaging. They buy books for one of two reasons: They heard about a new book from a friend who was raving about it, or they met the author personally and developed a connection that makes them want to buy.

Sure, sometimes an author gets lucky, appears on Oprah, and makes a million dollars. It happens. But not often. For every story you hear like that, there’s another one — just as true — about an author who appeared on Oprah, had a temporary uptick in sales, then disappeared again. And there are hundreds if not thousands more authors who WISH they could appear on Oprah but, for whatever reason, never will.

Bottom line: Yes, luck plays a part in book sales. So does timing, the economy, and many other factors authors really can’t influence. But the one factor you CAN influence is how much work you put into making people aware of your work and making them want to buy it.

Authors, what have you done to promote your books today?

Books, Genres, Promotion, Publishing Industry

The importance of a good author website

Another legacy post from June 18, 2009:

Mary Shafer author website home page

One thing that’s really important for authors is understanding that the days of just writing your manuscript and turning it in on time are over. In this marketing-driven world, you must also be your book’s most passionate, dedicated promoter. Your publisher will, at best, do only half the work required to get your book onto store shelves and into readers’ hands.

This topic could cover several posts, but the one part you can easily do something about in your promo effort RIGHT NOW is to create a professional-looking, content-driven author website.

You can’t expect anyone to take you seriously as an author without one. It’s just like back in the 80s, when fax machines were new. At first, people asked, “Do you have a fax?” Then, within a few years, they just assumed you did and asked you for your fax number.

Now, people may still ask you, “Do you have a website?” But most of them will assume that, as a professional published author, you do have one. They’ll just ask you for your URL or web address. Even unpublished authors should have a website, so they can build that all-important platform before approaching publishers with their book proposal.

But what to do if you’re not an experienced web developer? Do you have to settle for some ugly, first-generation site your nephew might be able to crank out with FrontPage. Heaven forbid! No, you have options.

One thing is that you can become an Authors Guild member and take advantage of their wonderful hosting service. It provides a fairly feature-rich, web-based site builder, complete with attractive visual themes. You’re looking at a website right now that was built this way.

Or you can go with another web hosting service such as GoDaddy.com or FatCow.com that also offers a web-based site builder.

But if you’d rather have a more feature-rich development application that you can use on any server (even with no experience and a small learning curve), then you may want to check out Joomla.

Joomla is a free, open-source, highly usable content management system you can use to build personal or business sites. It’s a proven tool: Websites made with Joomla can be found in many sizes, varying from a few pages up to entire community websites containing 10,000+ pages.

But even this great little app requires some training. So if you’re interested in using it, do what I’m doing: Take some video tutorials.

I’ve heard a lot about Joomla and have been wanting to learn, but haven’t had the time to do a lot of reading. So I’m doing the time-saving thing and downloading detailed, easy-to-follow tutorials I can play right on my computer as I follow along in the actual application. JoomTorial.com has just what I need, at way reasonable prices. I consider it an investment not only in my author career, but also in my future, for any other sites I may want to build later on.

Whatever works for you, but this is the way to go for a busy multi-tasker like me. And best of all, I can still host my updated, Joomla-created site right here at AuthorsGuild.net! I can heartily endorse the tech support team here at AG — I’m a stickler for customer service, and can give these great folks two thumbs up for responsiveness, helpful, friendly attitude and knowing their stuff.

So jump right in and get yourself on the Web. Now there’s no excuse not to!

Books, Craft, General Writing, Genres, Promotion, Research, Writing process

Researching Historical Nonfiction, Part III: Finding Sources and Archival Photos

This is another legacy blog post from April, 2009:

Researching in a library

As promised, here are some tips on starting out with historical research:
Local Media Sources – It seems a no-brainer that you’d start your research with media outlets that exist today, especially if they were around during the event you’ve decided to chronicle in your book. That’s certainly what I believed. I looked forward, too, to talking with other professional writers and journalists at our regional newspapers and other outlets.

Sadly, I discovered that certain of our regional newspapers — the Easton Express-Times being the most egregious — were unwilling to let me use their photos, even though I offered payment for that right. The EE-T re-publishes their own photo essay on the flood of ‘55 every 25 years on the anniversary, and somehow felt that allowing me to use those shots would lessen their sales, I guess.

Stupid, because that original booklet, published about a week after the flood, was what started my whole interest in the subject. I would have GLADLY included a page in my book promoting their booklet as a great addition to anyone’s flood collection, because obviously I couldn’t include all those photos in my book. Not only was this very short-sighted and promotionally retarded on their part, but I also think it was a real evasion of their responsibilities as a keeper of important historical public records.

On a more positive note, several other papers, such as the Pocono Observer-Record, was fantastic and very helpful. More than one staffer there went out of their way to help me make this the best book it could be. I’m grateful for their interest, help and dedication to their craft.

Regional Sources – Running into that roadblock, I had to depend on other sources for the images I’d use in my book. So, I got creative. I put out a call for people along the river to let me know they had private photos. It was a huge task, with many related efforts:

  • I put out several press releases to newspapers from Trenton to Port Jervis on both sides of the river.
  • I posted requests on some websites including those for historical societies and any private historical groups located in those areas (Craigslist would be a good one.)
  • I wrote to some historical societies in the affected regions with my requests, and that was productive. Many referrals to members and then those members referred me to friends and acquaintances they knew had photos and old newspapers, etc.
  • I also put up posters in as many communities as I could get to in the affected areas.
  • One element I will add next time I’m doing this kind of research is a website about the project. I’ll make sure it has lots of relevant keywords and phrases that people might search on for that subject. Then I’ll post my requests on there.
  • I’ll also blog regularly there on the progress of my project. This creates activity on your site and that excites the search engine crawlers to pay attention to you and rank you much higher than a static site.

A nice by-product of this kind of blog is that it makes people aware of what you’re doing and creates automatic customers of your regular blog visitors when your book comes out. They will have followed you from the beginning and have a sense of personal investment in the success of your project.

This is called “platform building,” and any publisher you talk with will want to know what kind of promotional platform you have before they commit to your project.

With any historic nonfiction project, don’t overlook any group where older folks congregate: civic organizations (Kiwanis, Lions, Knights of Columbus, etc.), church groups, senior centers, book clubs and reading groups in retirement villages, etc. Call them and send a request letter to be published on their website and in their newsletter.

Not only will you find many people to interview in these places, you’ll also find they’re enthusiastic about what you’re doing. They’ll be excited that someone cares about something they personally remember, and will lead you to all kinds of other interview subjects and people with archival letters, diaries, photos, etc.

Books, Craft, General Writing, Genres, Promotion, Research, Writing process

Researching Historical Nonfiction, Part II: Finding old maps

This post originally appeared on my legacy blog on April 11, 2009:

1838 Philadelphia map

Revisiting Amanda G.’s discussion forum post, she asked:
 How do I get maps of old towns that no longer exist?

That could probably be a little tricky. Depending on how old the towns were at the time they disappeared, there are a number of places you might look for maps. Here are a few ideas:

Historical societies are often the best place to start. Find the “keepers of the collections” and you’ve likely identified the people who not only know best what the collections include, but also about other resources you can consult, like other people and their personal archives. The trick is to really let them know you value and respect their vast knowledge.
Municipal or county clerks or recorders of deeds — depends on the town. They have official records of any properties that ever existed in their area of authority.

Public Libraries – They usually have a local history collection, and I have made some of my most interesting and surprising primary source finds in these. Make sure you as for the reference librarian, not just a page or front desk worker. You want someone who knows that collection up and down.

University and college libraries – They often have collections donated by alumni and other individuals in their immediate communities. East Stroudsburg University has lots of info on the flood of ‘55. The public library there has an awesome local history collection, and I’m thinking this would be your best bet.

Government Agencies – If you’re researching an area now encompassed by a national park, recreation area or other official preservation designation, the National Park Service will be a primary resource for you. They always have vast historical archives, usually have designated park historians (who are almost always obsessive about their subject). They’ll likely have lots of maps, photos and other visuals available. They’ll also want to stock your book in their visitor center gift shop when it comes out!

Secondary sources – Though this isn’t always the case, often if you’re looking for a map to an old place that no longer exists, you’re not the only one looking. It’s likely others before you have wondered the same thing, and sometimes were persistent enough to find what they were looking for. This helps you, because they’ve already done the work. So don’t pooh-pooh secondary sources as legitimate places to do some research. No use reinventing the wheel if it’s not necessary – remember, work smart, and you won’t have to work so hard. Think of other people who may have need of the same map you’re seeking, and try them first, before launching off on your own search. Lots of people need or want locator maps for now-extinct municipalities: land surveyors, real estate developers, fossil fuel energy companies, metal detectorists. See if maybe they haven’t already done the work for you!

This is by no means an exhaustive list of sources for research, but it’s a good starting point. Good luck to everyone taking on such a project. It’s a worthwhile effort, but a challenging one.