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.


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.


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.

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 5.38.51 PM

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.

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.


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 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.

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 Publishing Industry

Creative Book Promotion to Schools, Part 1 – It’s Not Just About Textbooks

Author Mary Shafer Presenting To a Classroom

After you’ve written your book and gotten it published, you have about a year to really make a mark with it in the reader marketplace. Hopefully, you thought about how to promote your book even before you started writing it,  and have built some great marketability into the content and format. But even if you’re coming to book promotion late in the game, all is not lost. There’s plenty to learn and lots of places to begin to make a name for yourself and your work. In the interest of efficiency, it makes sense to put most of your effort into places where you can make volume sales. And there are few such markets as interesting and attractive as the education market.

For self-published authors and other small independent publishers, the school market may at first appear untouchable. It’s a crowded marketplace, with dozens of big-name publishers vying for the volume sales generated when whole schools or entire districts buy a title. Aside from the sometimes questionable tactics used by big publishers to get their textbooks into the schools (deeply discounting or even BOGO pricing one book to make huge sales on another, more profitable title — yes, it happens, and purchases are not always based on what’s most appropriate for any given course), there are all kinds of seen and unseen barriers to entry to this most lucrative selling field. But it’s not impossible to crack, if you set realistic expectations and take the time to understand the way schoolbooks get bought and used.

It’s a fallacy that only textbooks are used for teaching in schools. Remember back to when you were in grades K-12: Remember Scholastic’s Weekly Reader, and the neat books they offered for students to buy? Well, they’re still around, and though the Reader has gone digital (what hasn’t?), kids can still buy Scholastic titles to take home. And those books are often used as integral teaching content in the classroom.

Those titles have going for them instant publisher name recognition among educators, which carries with it a mantle of trust and confidence that their books will be of high quality and appropriate for classroom use. Still, you needn’t be a mammoth, venerated publisher to get your books into students’ hands. Sure, it takes some doing, but even small independent publishers — including self-published authors — can get their books into the hands of classroom readers, if they’re willing to devote the time and energy.

For the purposes of this post series, we’ll assume a high level of quality of the book: Professionally written and edited, illustrated and produced. Something you’d be proud to put in front of anyone, and that you know is well-constructed enough to stand the rigors of rough handling. Of course, if your book is in digital form only, this isn’t a consideration. What would be a consideration, then, would be a high level of interactivity, i.e., your book isn’t just “flat,” but contains enough weblinks, 3D animated illustrations and embedded audio and video to keep modern readers engaged. That’s a whole different post series  in itself, so we’ll deal primarily with p-books rather than e-books for this series.

The key term to remember when fishing for classroom readers is RELEVANCE. Teachers are forever on the lookout for fresh materials that bring concepts they’re teaching in the classroom to real-life applicability. This is particularly true for more abstract concepts that can’t be physically demonstrated, such as loyalty, perseverance, conscience, and many science and math concepts. Since teachers typically revert to storytelling to explain these concepts anyway, why shouldn’t it be your book they use to base this teaching on?

Regardless whether you’ve written fiction or nonfiction, there are likely several ways you can effectively promote your book to schools and schoolchildren of appropriate ages. This series will explore things you can do to make your book promotable to them, including how to get in front of the eyes of teachers and others who buy books for classroom use.

Come back and visit next week, when we’ll begin a series of actionable, accessible tips you can immediately get to work on to get your books in front of those who buy books for school use, in and out of the classroom.

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.


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.

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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.

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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.


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 Promotion Publishing Industry

Book Tours and the Changing Face of Publishing

A fellow author recently sent me a link to an interesting story from the L.A. Times about a recent do-it-yourself book tour by a husband-and-wife author team. The article details the many adventures and a few misadventures of a married writing couple who decided to take their promo show on the road.

Not only was it an entertaining read, it reminded me how vastly the landscape of the book publishing industry has changed since I first entered it 20 years ago.

Author Mary A. Shafer signs books at the Bushkill Falls Visitor Center
Here, I'm signing copies of my flood book at the Bushkill Falls Visitor Center in the Poconos.

All but gone are the multi-city author tours subsidized and heavily promoted by all but the largest of book publishers. It was never commonplace to see long lines of eager readers snaking out the door and wrapped around the outside of the bookstore building, but now the sight has become as rare as hen’s teeth. Between the actual costs of travel, food and lodging and the high cost of promotion, such tours are simply too expensive for most publishers to afford these days.

For many of us who write, this is but one facet of the excruciating death of long-held dreams of fame and fortune as a bestselling author. Or is it?

Fact is, there was never a brisk trade in in-person book tours for any but the most promising authors. Sure, a few no-names here and there managed to sweet-talk their editors and publicity departments into building a limited tour for them. Some enterprising souls at the bottom of the newbie author bucket — myself, included — were able to squeeze a few hundred bucks in gas money out of their small publishers in support of an exhausting, self-planned tour. But in general, the full-blown, fully supported book tour was reserved for those whose writing propelled them into the rarefied air breathed by those whose titles dwelled for extended periods on the NYT bestseller list. So, if we look at it with a less jaundiced eye, we’ll see that not much has changed in that way.

And yet.

What HAS changed is the fact that the very technology that is killing the traditional publishing model is also re-inventing the author tour in a positive way. Authors of any level can now do every bit of research needed to plan and execute their own efficient, effective book tours from the privacy and convenience of their own computers.

They can easily find the location and contact information for any kind of bookseller — big box or independent — and call the store’s event director or program manager to determine whether it’s a good fit for an in-person appearance. They can use Google Maps or some other similar tool to plot out the most logical, gas-saving route, and even choose to find good restaurants along the way. They can book their lodging ahead of time using discount sites such as Travelocity or Expedia. Some, like author Stephen Elliott, put their own twist on the traditional book tour, undoubtedly using these same kind of tools.

Best of all, authors can now choose to do a virtual tour that doesn’t even require them to leave home! Free services such as Skype allow authors to “appear” anywhere in the world using nothing more than their computers, a webcam and a decent microphone. Just ask author Barbara Techel and her sidekick, Frankie, the Walk ‘n Roll Dog!

Author Barbara Techel brings her message to classrooms via Skype.

Barb would be the first to tell you how easy Skype is to learn and to use, I’m sure. There’s even a Web-based service called LongPen that allows authors to sign books for their readers, almost as though they were meeting in person.

Traditional book tours, though long celebrated for their ability to cement star status and enjoyed by writers who seek the inimitable charge that comes from pressing the flesh with fans and readers, have never been a very efficient way to get the word out. And with each passing day, they become less environmentally friendly, when you add up all the emissions from cars, buses, trains and planes.

In fact, I’m one of those authors who enjoys getting away from the lonely keyboard once in a while, and I’m pretty sure I’ll always want to do the in-person thing in my home region. I’ll take advantage of the ability to do so in other places when I’m traveling anyway. But since we can’t stop the publishing world from changing, I’m also choosing to become the best darn virtual tour producer/promoter/star that I can be.

I invite other authors to join me in being good promoters of our books, as well as good promoters of environmentally responsible choices, when possible.

Awards Books Craft Publishing Industry

Good news for “cozy” mystery fans!

This legacy post first appeared on my old blog September 12, 2009:

According to the Southern Review of Books:
Two previously unpublished Hercule Poirot stories by Agatha Christie have been discovered among her family papers. The works were unearthed from the crates of letters, drafts and notebooks stored by Christie at Greenway, her holiday home set in a seaside garden in Devon, “The Guardian” reported. The new stories will be included in “Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making,” which will be published by HarperCollins this month.

Mission Murder book cover

And speaking of cozies, “Mission: Murder,” the first in the Hattie Farwell Mystery Series published by Enspirio House, an imprint of Word Forge Books, is celebrating its first-year anniversary. Some of you may be aware that I am the founder and publisher of Word Forge Books, so I am especially proud to announce that this anniversary is extra-special.

In May, Betty’s book was awarded a Silver Medal in the prestigious 2009 Independent Publisher Best Book Awards.

Author Betty Orlemann displays her Silver IPPY award medal

“Mission: Murder” garnered the silver for Best Regional Fiction, beating out 54 other titles in the category. Not bad for an 80-year-old author, huh? You can read more about Betty at her website.

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?