Awards, General Writing, Inspiration, Motivation

On the Importance of Author Mentoring

Fannie Flagg and Harper Lee by Alex Roberts

I often tell folks that one of the reasons I love working in the world of publishing — in any aspect; as author, publisher, event coordinator, instructor — is that by and large, the other people in this industry are truly great. Yes, there are a few overblown egos and perhaps an author or two who’s too busy envying a peer’s success to be happy for them. You find those types in every field. But by an overwhelming margin, this industry is populated with interesting, interested, kind, caring, diligently hardworking, decent and deeply generous people who sincerely want to see each other do well.

And they walk their talk, let me tell you. In no other place have I witnessed the kind of selfless outreach to those on their way up or to those who don’t quite believe they can do it yet, by those in a position to lend a helping hand. You are almost certain that it’s not motivated by self-interest or the hope of some kind of return (other than, perhaps, a little interest gained on such investment in the Great Karma Bank), because in almost every circumstance, those who can help are no longer in need of such aid themselves. Usually, they’ve already “made it,” whatever “it” means to them. It’s this position of comfort and security that allows them to look beyond themselves to those still struggling to find their place in the great world of books.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. There is always that person who, regardless how hard s/he is working toward his/her own success, somehow finds the time, energy and interest to still hold out a hand to help a fellow scribbler learn the professional ropes, find an effective new tool or technique, or to make a needed connection. And never underestimate the importance of these small kindnesses, for there are at least as many stairways to heaven built of tiny bricks and cobblestones rather than mighty slabs of granite.

Certainly I have been the beneficiary of such spiritual largesse more than once. Countless times, for reasons that often still mystify me, someone saw something in me that sparked such uncommon kindness. From my first English teachers who encouraged my early, clumsy attempts at creative writing; to my high school newspaper advisor who saw that I could never quite make peace with the inverted pyramid form yet still told me to stick with it; to my college professor who agreed to write the foreword to my first history book; to the many author colleagues who cheered me on as I “went for it” as an  independent publisher when a contract fell through too late to find another publisher and still meet the deadline for my marketing hook; to the other indie publishers who constantly help me navigate this unsettled, revolutionary industry that never looks the same on any given day.

And equally certain is the knowledge that rarely can I pay these people back, because, as described above, most of them don’t really need my help anymore. And so it falls to me, and to others who similarly benefit, to pay it forward. It’s incumbent upon each of us to remain aware of those around us, so we may recognize those who may also be struggling as we once did, and to reach out that helping hand to offer advice, a listening ear, and maybe just a little hope. Someday, it will be their turn to do the same.

And that brings me to the particular example of this point that I’d like to share, one that points out that no matter how far you’ve come along this path as a writer and an author, there is always someone doing better than you are, and there’s always someone who could use your help. The grace of the situation enters when we remain humble enough to recognize that truth.

About a month ago, one of the more well-known Southern authors writing popular fiction today was honored with an award named after one of the most famous American authors of all time. Such an award is, in itself, such a massive validation of one’s lifetime body of work, it’s hard to imagine a greater honor. Until you imagine what it would be like if the famous author after whom the award was named shows up to present you that award herself, in person. And that’s what I want to share with you here.

Of course, anyone who knows me knows that Fannie Flagg‘s wonderful book, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café is my second-favorite book of all time, in large part because it inspired my favorite movie of all time, by the same name. But that work, for which Flagg also won a screenwriting award, and her book were just a part of the body of work for which she was honored. And she was given the award by Harper Lee herself, author of the classic To Kill A Mockingbird and whose name is carried by the referenced award.

Now if that isn’t the epitome of grace on Lee’s part, I just don’t know what is. I mean, this woman is literary royalty. She doesn’t need to bother herself to leave her comfortable home and traipse to some hot venue to give away a statue to someone who still aspires to breathe the same atmosphere. But she did. And apparently, it wasn’t the first time she’d made the effort to help an up-and-comer whose talent she recognized and believed in. No, there’s a long history of nurturing between these two incredible artists, and its story touched me and reminded me that fully half of what makes books wonderful is the experience we gain on the way to being able to write them. This article tells one of those heartening stories, and I just thought you’d like it, too.

May it continue to remind us all that none of us is ever too small to be worthy of a little encouragement, nor too big to be above lending a hand when we can. I hope that when it’s your turn to need help, you accept it with grace, and that when it’s your turn to give help, you do it with gratitude for the opportunity to give back.

Write on…

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

Books, Motivation, Promotion, Publishing Industry

Author Book Promotion: It was never really optional.

Author Mary Shafer launches second edition of her flood book
Here, I'm addressing attendees at the official launch of the revised second edition of my book, "Devastation on the Delaware."

The biggest difference I notice between a wannabe author and one who’s actually got a book out, or between a successful author (i.e., one who’s making sales and has a good chance for a second book contract) and one who’s struggling to get her/his book into readers’ hands and having to accept that there won’t be another contract offered, is simple: Successful authors understand that they MUST participate fully in the promotion and marketing of their own book to AT LEAST the extent that their publisher does, and likely more. Struggling authors believe that somehow, there’s someone else who can do a better job representing their work than they can.

Though in “olden times” — say, 20 years ago or more — this was a common and even acceptable attitude among most authors, it was never true. Ever. No one has EVER been able to be a more passionate advocate of an author’s work than the author him/herself. And I’ll go so far as to say that if it ever WAS the case, then that person should not have been the author of that book.

Whoever is the most passionate person about the book’s topic should be the one writing about it, or at least hiring a good ghostwriter. But if you feel moved enough by your topic — be it a nonfiction subject or a fictional story — to invest the time and effort it takes to write a book about it, YOU are the one who should be doing the bulk of your book’s promotion.

Why? Because book promotion and marketing is a long-haul effort. It lasts forever. And the only person who’s going to be able to muster the enthusiasm it takes to sustain that effort is the one with enough passion to have written a book about it. Yes, you can hire publicists to help you, and maybe you should. But the messaging must come from you. The right words to the right crowds must originate with you.

Seriously.

Look, I’m a writer and author, too. I KNOW that what brought you to the legal pad, typewriter or computer keyboard to capture your story wasn’t the desire to turn into a marketing guru. I get that. You love your topic and you love to write. You never intended to become a pitch person. But the cold, hard fact is that we all live in a world that’s very different from what it used to be. Nowhere is this more true than in the book publishing world.

The publishing landscape is no longer littered with small, medium and large publishing houses. Much like what’s going on in our economic stratification in the US, the “middle class” is fast disappearing. Basically, in the publishing “boom years” of the 70s, 80s and early 90s, it did look that way. But then a wave of corporate greed led some of the large, well-established houses to go into a frenzy of acquisition. Much like the movie “Wall Street,” these houses often cannibalized the backlists of these mid-sized houses, keeping and exploiting the best-selling titles and authors and essentially abandoning the rest.

During this same process, in an effort to cut costs and increase profitability, many excellent editors and other staff responsible for grooming and supporting authors were fired and never replaced. The editors who stayed on were forced to take on way too much production work, so much of their direct work with authors was forced to fall by the wayside. Many authors found themselves “orphaned” — without the editors they were comfortable working with, who had championed and shaped their work — and many of those ended up falling by the wayside, too. They weren’t offered any more contracts, because their work hadn’t proven to be a cash cow.

And now there are very few true mid-sized publishers left. There are mainly The Big Six — those now behemoth houses that swallowed so many of their smaller brethren in the merger-and-acquisition madness — and the rest of us.

And that reality means every author must be his or her work’s own best advocate. Even if you have a really dedicated agent, all those folks can do is get your foot in the door and try to negotiate the best deal for you regarding compensation. Yes, they can negotiate marketing points, but the truth is, if the publisher doesn’t want to support your work after publication for whatever reason, it’s very difficult if not impossible to force them to do so. So YOU are the one who will be doing it.

Even if your publisher does provide decent promotional support, you still need to be the one out there acting as the face of your book. Your readers don’t want to see and meet your agent, your editor or your publisher. They want to meet and talk with YOU, the person whose work touched them in some way. That has always been true, and it hasn’t changed.

The other reality is that today’s reading public is far more sophisticated, demanding, picky and splintered than it ever was before, especially when you add in the whole e-book phenomenon. If there ever was such a thing as “everyone” where readership is concerned — and I vote “no” on that point — it’s long gone. This means that the old concept of writing your manuscript, turning it in to the publisher, then retiring back to your chair in front of your keyboard is also gone.

Your publisher can’t possibly know your intended reading audience as well as you do. They may not know where these people gather and how to talk with them in the most effective way to charge them up about reading your book. Technology has allowed special interest groups to find each other and stay in touch, which is great. But that means there’s no efficient way of your publisher reaching them all efficiently with the kind of basic campaigns they’re capable of running. So, once again, it’s up to you.

I can hear the arguments now: “But I’m a writer, not a marketer!” “I don’t know anything about promotion!” “I’m a shy, retiring sort…that’s why I chose to be a writer, so I can work alone.” “I thought my publisher was going to take care of that!” And on and on.

Well, I hate to break it to ya, folks, but even back when publishers had budgets big enough to hire hotshot publicity teams, they never did it for any but their A-List authors. Think Stephen King and Ann Rice. If you’re a newbie, you haven’t proven your worth to the publisher yet, so aside from a press release and — if you’re lucky — a book website with a digital press kit, you’re probably on your own.

I know it’s not what you want to hear, but it’s the truth. Take a few moments to get over your anger, disillusionment and fear. I’ll wait.

Okay, now that you’re back in the real world, you know that the success of your book is going to depend almost entirely on you. Yes, you can request help from your publisher, and a good one will do what they can for you. But the truth is, you’re just one of their authors, they likely have very limited staff and budgets, and your book’s publicity isn’t going to get any special treatment.

This isn’t to indict publishers, at least not on the whole. I AM a publisher, so I understand the very real limitations they’re up against. But they should provide at least the bare bones of a marketing plan and some of its major elements for you. Nevertheless, you’re the one whose job it is to flesh it out and work that plan with your own time, presence and energy.

How to do it is the subject of vast — and some very goodbooks in their own right. But right now it’s time for a gut check, authors:

If you’re not willing to invest at LEAST as much energy, effort and enthusiasm into getting your book into readers’ hands — and that’s all that marketing and promotion is about — then why did you bother to write it?

I welcome comments here, or invite you to join the discussion on my Nabble forum.

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.

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…

Craft, General Writing, Inspiration, Motivation

Everyone Needs Some Inspiration

Just got done viewing the first episode of Ken Burns’ “The National Parks – America’s Best Idea” for the second time. Apparently, I forgot to delete it from my TiVo schedule, and now it’s in re-runs. I’m glad.

John Muir
John Muir, from the Library of Congress collection

This time, instead of being preoccupied with the lush cinematography and engaging storyline, I paid more attention to the voice-over itself, as a communication device. And even in the first introductory minutes of this piece, I was reminded of what an incredible storyteller Burns is.

Part of his secret is that he’s so confident in his own abilities, he’s not averse to turning the spotlight on the talents of others within his works, and letting their ideas shine through. And what a gift that is for all of us who view his work.

In this instance, there were several adeptly chosen quotes spoken over the top of said breathtaking scenery footage that revealed the particular genius of the National Park idea. One in particular, though, struck a chord in my writer’s soul.

The lengthy excerpt from John Muir’s writings used to set the tone for Burns’ entire series is, itself, breathtaking. I won’t repeat it here, but suffice to say that Muir’s writings here reveal the source of his singularity of focus and clarity of vision for what the Parks could become as the federal system was being formed.

Anyone who’s ever worked even on the periphery of government or any other mammoth bureaucracy can appreciate what kind of power it takes to move such organizations even a little in a cohesive direction. To understand the influence of Muir’s words (and, of course, his actions) on this immense, circuitous and unprecedented governmental undertaking is to truly embrace the power of the pen.

I strongly encourage you to view this series twice: Once for the initial awe-inspiring story, and then again to see example after example of the power of words and ideas to move nations. Then I encourage you to ask yourself: What have I written lately in service to the ideals I embrace?

We are all creative beings. We all have ideas worth exploring. But they can’t be explored until they’re expressed. Who have you inspired today?

Craft, General Writing, Motivation, Writing process

Writer’s Block: Um…no.

This legacy blog post first appeared on August 28, 2009:

Writer's block

I’ve long believed that “writer’s block” is a fallacy; nothing more than yet another excuse not to write. And today I found one of most lucid arguments for this point of view over at Publietariat.

So I’m sharing it here with you, because it’s one of those things I believe can derail a promising young writing career.

So, read and enjoy, and let me know what you think!