Creative process, General Writing, Inspiration, Writing process

One Writer’s Christmas Tradition

merrychristmas

I don’t know any creative person who isn’t curious about other people’s creative process. I always love to visit other writers’ workspaces, artists’ studios, crafters’ workrooms. I love to hear about their schedules, how they discipline their attention and divide their time to allow them to be most productive. I’m always interested in their little pre-work customs, the secret rites in which they engage to call forth the muse and bless their efforts. I even like to hear about other non-work rituals they enjoy away from the creative altar, that they do simply for enjoyment and to feed their hearts and souls.

I have some of those rituals myself, and it’s appropriate, I think, to end the year sharing with you a pre-Christmas tradition my partner and I have developed over the past ten years. It’s funny how these things come about. You do something once and the next year, remembering how you enjoyed it, you do it again, hoping to recreate the magic. Sometimes you can, sometimes not, but at some point you realize that in the effort, you’ve unwittingly created a tradition. And from then on, you consciously recognize and honor that tradition.

Ours begins with clearing our busy, not-very-often-in-sync schedules for an evening in the weeks before the holiday, after the tree is up and decorations are done. We try each year to choose from among the many fine, old inns and taverns in our beautiful Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and find one we haven’t dined at before. We go online to see the menu and make sure there will be at least one or two options we like (neither of us is big on fish, and I’m not a huge Italian fan, so sometimes that’s a little limiting), and make a reservation for two. We try to really go to the older stone inns, both for their ambience that usually includes a real fireplace, which so enhances that special holiday feeling, and to consciously keep our money in our local economy. We have tried a few newer style places here and there. We just always seem to gravitate back to the old ones, and fortunately for us, there are so many of those in our area.

We usually make an earlier dinner reservation for 6 or 6:30. This allows us to snag desirable seating in a not-yet-crowded dining room, and lets us enjoy a leisurely dinner with a special seasonal beverage beforehand, appetizers and our entrees, and sometimes even dessert, if we’re not too full. Based on our choice of restaurant, we have decided ahead of time where we’ll go afterward, which is always a bookstore. Our preference is to go to locally owned indie bookstores, but sadly their numbers are dwindling in our primarily rural region, so sometimes we must settle for a Barnes & Noble or other big box store.

So, appetites sated, off we go to the bookstore. Once inside, we head right for the children’s section to take our time perusing the Christmas-themed titles. We look for stories that appeal to both children and adults, and length isn’t really an issue. What IS paramount is that the book must offer a  good, ultimately uplifting story. It can have sad parts, as long as it ends happily. The secondary requirement is that it must be profusely illustrated with rich, beautiful pictures by a talented artist. If possible, we prefer it be a hardcover with dust jacket. It’s the one time of year we indulge ourselves thusly.

The Carpenter's Gift

This year, we chose The Carpenters’ Gift by David Rubel. It’s about the birth of the tradition of placing a large Christmas tree in the square in front of New York’s Rockefeller Center, and contains a touching message endorsed by Habitat for Humanity. Though we don’t usually go in for “cause” books, this one was too hard to pass up, and even without the Habitat link, this story conveys a strong message about the true spirit of Christmas through engaging prose and beautiful pictures.

We then make our purchase and take it home. Sometimes we read it together, but most often it’s late by the time we get home, and we save it to enjoy at leisure throughout the holiday season. So we add it to the growing collection we showcase proudly on our living room coffee table until the decorations come down. The colorful covers themselves create a festive area of holiday decor.

The best part of this ritual is that these gifts keep giving back to us every year, as we revisit them and their lovely, beckoning pages. The secondary gift is that we know we have contributed to our regional economy by enjoying a great meal at a deserving local restaurant; have contributed to the health of the book industry by buying a hardcover book; and usually contributed to the health of an indie bookstore by making our purchase there. It’s a winner any way you look at it, and a tradition we now look forward to with great delight each year.

I wish you all an enjoyable holiday season, and a peaceful and prosperous New Year, and leave you with a reminder that the quality of the first draft isn’t as important as the fact that you got it out of you and onto the page. That’s what editors are for.

“Another damn’d thick, square book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble — eh, Mr. Gibbon?”
– Duke of Cumberland to writer Edward Gibbon

Books, Promotion, Tips

Promo Tips for Book Authors

I’ve been in the publishing industry since 1990, with my first book traditionally published by a mid-size Midwestern publisher in 1993. Since I kind of lucked into that first book opportunity, I hadn’t planned on it and had built no support structure for learning how to be a successful first-time author. The Internet was in existence, but I was only online via a 1200-baud dialup modem (remember those?) on AOL, which was pretty much the only game in town at that time. There was no Facebook, no Amazon, no social networks for writers, authors and indie publishers. In short, I had no network and was on my own.

Truth is, that isolation from other authors was probably a blessing in disguise. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing when I set out to make my first book a success, but neither did I have the influence of what I now know were people who mostly believed the conventional wisdom that first-time authors, unless they’re A-List big names with huge publishers, don’t really stand a chance to succeed. Because I wasn’t infected with that negativity and pessimism, I plowed merrily ahead with learning how to promote myself.

Now, I made a lot of mistakes, but ultimately, I was successful in getting my book to earn out its advance so I ended up getting royalty checks. But still and all, it often would have been nice to have the support of other authors who were also trying, also bucking the trend I didn’t even know existed. It was often a difficult, lonely and sometimes scary time. The great part is that new authors today have more options than they can possibly choose from to develop a strong support network of enthusiastic peers, both new and experienced. We also have some fantastic informational resources I would have killed to have!

Sandra Beckwith, PR ExpertOne of those resources is an excellent website and eNewsletter from Public Relations veteran and author Sandra Beckwith at Build Book Buzz. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind me sharing some quick PR tips for the modern author here, which I gleaned from one of her recent newsletters. But for LOTS more excellent, free tips and other helpful author promo info, you really need to check out her site and subscribe to her newsletter. I promise the time you trade for the value you get in reading it will be WAY lopsided in your favor!

So, without further ado, here are some tips for getting national exposure for your book, from Sandra Beckwith (most of the links I added, so if you don’t like them, don’t blame Sandy):

How can you get cross-country, ongoing media exposure? Here are a few suggestions:

 

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, Characterization, Craft, General Writing, Setting, Technique, Writing process

Creating Chemistry

Today, I’m pleased to host a guest appearance by my fellow author and friend, LM Preston, whose new eBook, Flutter of Luv, has just debuted and is making the rounds among YA fans and adults who just like a good love story. LM shares with us today some tricks to creating chemistry among your characters, and — better yet — between you and your readers! Check out what she has to say:

Flutter of Luv book coverHave you ever read a book and, when you finished, missed the characters? Or better yet, fallen in love while you were reading how a character was falling head-over-heels in love with another character?

Well, creating chemistry in your novel can be with anything:

– Between the reader and the character
– Between multiple characters
– Between the scenery or scene (that you make a connection to)

Reader and Character Love

While writing my latest release, Flutter Of Luv, I really worked hard at making the character into the reader’s friend. Writing in first person allows for this type of connection.

Have you ever had a friend tell you some juicy news, gossip or prediction that you couldn’t stop listening to, because they told the story in such a way that captivated you? Well, that’s the frame of mind you, as the writer, need to be in when you are creating your character. You want to reveal what makes the character tick, get a strong voice, and slowly seduce your reader into falling in love with your character — flaws and all.

Characters’ Chemistry with Each Other

Reading a scene in which two characters have sparks firing can bring the reader right into the action through the use of the senses, bringing believability and substance to the relationship. This is a writing trick romance writers have a talent for.

To get your writing in ‘the chemistry zone,’ think about what makes you connect with other people, fall in love, or ‘click’ in a friendship. Those tools should be used to develop and unfold your characters, to bring substance to these on-paper relationships. The key is to make the reader connect with each character, fall in love with them, before you make the characters realize their love for or connection to one another.

A Scene Or Place Can Invoke Chemistry

I would’ve never thought this, until I started reading travel books – not the books that tell you how to visit a place, but the ones that show you how to EXPERIENCE a place. These travel books and authors have a gift for bringing a place alive, creating chemistry between the reader and the locale of choice, to the point where the reader falls in love with a place based simply on the way it’s experienced through the writing.

Chemistry takes time to build when writing, and the best way to figure out how to express it is to figure out what causes your own chemistry to spark.

You can find LM’s newest book, Flutter of Luv, which is ALL about the chemistry, at Amazon. Be sure to leave her a good review there if you like it — these reviews are really important to indie publishers.

LM will be guest posting tomorrow at the Searching For An Escape blog.

She invites you to the Twitter launch party for her book next Friday, July 27th, from 5pm – 6pm EDT. Get on Twitter, follow @Lm_Preston, and use hashtag #FlutterOfLuv to participate. (Hint: It’s easiest to do a search on the hashtag to isolate the conversation, especially if you’re using Tweetdeck or some other feed management app).

LM also welcomes you to the book’s Facebook Launch Party! Log on next Saturday, July 28th, from Noon-9pm EDT and navigate to the Party on LM’s Event Page!

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.

Books, Craft, General Writing

The Art of Storytelling – Thanks, Ira Glass.

Okay, let’s get away from the crass promotion aspect of being an author for a bit. It’s necessary, but let’s face it: NOT why most of us got into this line of work.

Why most of us DID get into it was to have a way to tell stories. Stories that run around in our heads and pop up at the most inopportune times. Stories that often serve as our best friends and our greatest nemeses. Stories whose characters speak to us so clearly, and so often, that they begin surfacing in our dreams, threatening to become more real than the real people we know.

What? You thought you were the only one? You thought you were alone in this sickness, this obsession that won’t leave you alone?

Please…you’re special, but not that special.

You share this particular brand of neurosis with bajillions of others. The difference is, you’re one of those who haven’t learned to put it in its place; to find a safe, dark spot to shove it into until it suffocates and its voice is extinguished.

Congratulations. You’re a writer.

And I do mean those congrats most sincerely. I fear for a world in which only what’s “real” is taken seriously (which is funny, coming from someone who primarily reads nonfiction because fantasy has never latched on to me that much). But that doesn’t keep me from understanding that the world of the possible — of the potentially real, of the imagination, where good really can triumph over evil and greed, self-interest and mistrust — is the only one that will ultimately save us from this very real world currently being torn apart by hatred, intolerance and fear.

As pretentious as it may seem, I believe wholly that imagination is the source of all art (along with other helpful playmates such as passion and hope, intuition and not a small amount of magic), and I believe that art will save the world. I do. Perhaps I must, since it’s apparent that nothing else is working and I need a reason to get up in the morning.

So, storytellers, we have a job to do, and we must do it well. The world’s counting on us. And so we must bend our backs to studying our craft and mastering its foundations.

Happily, these foundations don’t exist in a vacuum. They are shared across artistic disciplines. Which brings me to recommend a series of short videos I think really captures the root of storytelling in a nutshell. Granted, the teacher here — Ira Glass, host of Public Radio’s much-loved series, This American Life — is talking specifically about radio, and to a point, video and film. But it doesn’t matter. The ideas he puts forth are solid , storytelling-in-any-medium, gold.

So spend 20 minute or so and watch Mr. Glass, in his inimitable way, explain the building blocks of effective storytelling. Then think about how it relates to what you do every time you sit down with a pen and pad or your computer. I hope you revisit these vids more than once, to see if you missed anything.

I know I will.

Books, Craft, Promotion, Publishing Industry

A truly perfect author website

Today I ran across an author website that I think is just excellent, and want to share it with you.

Author Jenna Blum has created a compact little site that’s not minimalist but in no way cluttered; full of personality, yet confidently understated. And that seems to be the perfect showcase for her two novels, which are about deep emotional and psychological subjects that get to the very heart of what it means to be human, to be family.

jennablum.com

But from a marketing standpoint she’s got everything she needs, and it’s all there, easy to find, on the home page: links to

  • her books
  • bio
  • press kit
  • everything a reporter, editor, agent or publisher would want to know
  • And a great photo of Jenna to add that human connection.

As a marketing consultant who gets paid to help authors and other small businesspeople build effective websites, I will be referring lots of future clients to this site as an example of what they want to shoot for. Just really well done.

Authors, if you’re considering building an author site, this would be a good one to pattern on.

Books, Promotion

Creative Book Promotion to Schools, Part 3 – Meeting Curriculum Standards

One of the most effective ways to promote your books to schools is to develop teaching units that can be integrated easily into existing curricula.

Author Barbara Techel and Frankie the Walk 'n Roll Dog
Author Barbara Techel and Frankie the Walk 'n Roll Dog make an in-person classroom visit

Remember: As with most forms of free publicity, schools aren’t interested in promoting your book to  students and their parents. They ARE interested in what valuable content/substance you can add to their existing lessons through your book’s subject. If you remember that your material must work in service to their broader goals of teaching concepts in an interesting way, your material is likely to be favorably received and actually used.

You first need to think about all the ways your book’s subject could fit into the standard disciplines:

  • reading/spelling
  • writing/grammar
  • math
  • science
  • social studies/history
  • physical education
  • art
  • music

Use Your Imagination
This exercise should be pretty easy, especially for fiction writers, since it involves making connections where there previously were none: Think about each separate teaching discipline, then imagine a creative approach you might take to make your content relevant to that segment. Obviously, not all books will fit in all teaching categories, but you may surprise yourself with the connections you can make.

As an example, I’ll use my first self-published book, a narrative nonfiction documentary of a historic weather disaster. Here’s how I can imagine Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955 fitting into several standard disciplines:

Reading/Spelling – Create a unit that uses several excerpts from the book. One will be followed by questions that strengthen readers’ close reading and comprehension skills; one will introduce ten new vocabulary words, asking readers to define them according to their context; another can be mined for spelling words.
Writing/Grammar – Pull an excerpt that discusses a diary kept during the flood. Use that section as the basis of an exercise in writing a diary entry using the 5 Ws. This could be tweaked to be written as the classic journalistic inverted pyramid for older students. Other excerpts could be pulled out to show what kind of research was required to dig up the facts, organize them into a coherent narrative, and fit them into the larger story. Still other dialogue excerpts could be used to show how people often neglect proper grammar when speaking, especially when in a hurry or under duress.
Math – There are all kinds of applied math problems that could be pulled from this narrative: How much does one inch of rainfall covering one acre weigh? What’s the formula to determine the hydraulic force of two feet of water moving at 8 mph? If a river’s level rises beyond flood stage, how far out from the banks will it spread once it’s a foot over flood stage? Story problems: If a breach forms in a canal wall that’s 15 feet thick at its base, 7 feet thick at the top, and 10 feet high, how many sandbags measuring 2 ft. x 3 ft. x 1 ft. will it take to fill it? If six men can each move six sandbags per minute, how long will it take them to fill that gap?
Science – The no-brainer here is environmental science and weather: What conditions are required for a hurricane to form over the Atlantic Ocean? How does one storm continue cycling to produce extreme amounts of rainfall? What causes a hurricane to lose so much power once it’s over land? Why is it a bad idea to straighten a waterway? Could such a devastating flood ever happen again? Why or why not?
Social Studies/History – The social studies angle could deal with how rumors spread in a panicked population; the political ramifications of not enforcing ordinances against building in the flood plain; how the flood changed the way life developed in the river valley regarding location of stores and living space, traffic patterns from washed-out bridges. History could be served simply by pulling a few dramatic excerpts that address local, regional and state history as affected by the flood.
Physical Education – My book contains an account of an amazing helicopter rescue that was only successful because the people being rescued (camp counselors between 17-19 years old) were physically fit and prepared for what they needed to do to help save themselves.
Art – Younger kids could have a project in which they draw pictures of some of the more dramatic scenes from the book, while older kids could create memorials to those who died in the event.
Music – Groups of kids could work together to write lyrics and compose music for a ballad about the Flood of ’55.

Help From On High
If you can’t come up with much, don’t worry. Most state departments of education maintain websites containing their grade level standards for curriculum content in every teaching discipline. They’re pretty detailed insofar as what content is required, and this might help you spark some ideas. These curriculum standards are freely available to anyone willing to take the time to study them. It’s possible to develop lesson plans for teaching units in as many of these disciplines as your book pertains to. It involves some work, but you can develop one unit at a time and adjust it slightly for different grade levels.

It’s quite likely that you’ll find your efforts worthwhile: You never know when your book’s lesson might catch on among teachers, who are famous for both sharing what works and lobbying for official adoption of effective material. It only takes one such scenario for your book to become a mandatory or at least a recommended text for an entire school district, so your investment in development can really pay off.

Once you’ve finished creating your units, one way to make them work hard for you while you’re doing other things is to post them as PDFs in your online newsroom. This makes them available not just for download by grateful teachers looking for fresh material, but also makes them searchable by web crawlers that will help make them discoverable by those very instructors looking for exactly what you’re offering.

Most often, you’ll want to develop for a K-12 grade level, but some books might lend themselves to post-secondary level adoption. These more advanced teaching units should contain tightly focused readings, discussion questions, and an assignment for a 45-minute class period. Including a quiz or related game is optional. Remember to use social media to drive awareness of these offerings.

How-To Help Is On The Way
Ideally, not only will your books make it into classrooms, but so will you! It’s a rare teacher who won’t want to meet the author of a book whose content she’s using in her classroom, and to have the author come speak to her students on that subject.   For more information about making the most of such classroom visits as a marketing and promotional tool, learn about the definitive guide to such activities: Pioneering author Barbara Techel is currently at work on CLASS ACT, the ultimate how-to guide for authors wanting to get in front of audiences in schools and classrooms.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this three-part series and will find it helpful in getting your books into classrooms and beyond.