Another year of blogging and trying to figure this stuff out

I fell off my once-a-week publication schedule after the last post, for a number of reasons:

  1. My Bluehost web site began to experience horrific downtime, which made it seem rather pointless not to mention tricky to add content to it. It has settled down now, but I’m not too confident that this will last. (And I put dealing with web host providers right up there with waiting on hold with insurance companies as a way I’d choose to spend my limited time on this planet.)
  2. Some nasty bug got me. Presumably not the flu, since I got the flu shot this year, but it might as well have been. This coincided with the end of my semester, trying to wrap up four comp courses. As an adjunct professor I could only miss one day of class without having to write a check to reimburse the college, even after five years of not missing a single day. (I’m not betraying any rage here, right?) I could barely drag myself out of bed, but I got to class. Oh, and there was an emergency root canal in there, too. So the blog was the least of my worries.
  3. A lovely interview with Hazel Dawkins on Greenfield (MA) local cable station GCTV came online in December. You may find this surprising since I obviously have this blog and a social media presence in various places, but I suffer from an occasionally crippling horror of self-promotion and that hit in a big way. Or maybe I was just horrified at how dowdy and middle-aged I look. It’s a great interview that I really enjoyed, but it’s also a full half hour long.

    (If you’re a Franklin County reader, you may also be interested in my appearance at World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield Saturday, January 23 from 1:30-3.)
  4. Although I did improve my web site traffic significantly this year, I have been unable to establish any significant connection between that and any book sales. No doubt a lot of that can be related to my lack of brilliance at SEO, Google Analytics, email sign-ups, newsletters, and so on. But while I’m still game to learn that stuff, the most important thing I can do for my writing career right now is to finish the next novel. So I’m going to pull back on the blog to no more than once or twice a month until I’ve got a rough draft finished.

bardwellsfollyfallmasonic200Sometimes I start playing with covers just to help psyche myself into believing the book really does have a deadline looming (since I run Sheer Hubris Press, I have only self-imposed deadlines). So I came up with this new thumbnail for Bardwell’s Folly a while back. Like the manuscript, it’s still a work in progress.

Finishing this book is my most significant resolution for the new year. Have you ever had one single important resolution for a new year? I’m not sure I ever have before. Whatever your resolutions may be, I wish you a happy and successful New Year!

Cheers, Sandra Hutchison

Indie author moves to Booktrope: An Interview with Massimo Marino

Update: Booktrope is no more.

Sandra Hutchison interviews fellow Awesome Indies author Massimo Marino about his decision to republish his indie titles (and future titles) at Booktrope, an eBook publisher that is staking out new ground between traditional publishers and independent authors.

Massimo Marino

Massimo Marino

Massimo, give us a short history of how you came to be an indie author.

Writing, for me, started early in my childhood. My dad received Astounding Stories. I wasn’t allowed to read those magazines, but they also had astounding covers. Based on those covers, I created stories in my mind, then put them down on paper so that I could re-read and never forget them. I didn’t think in those days about plot and action, character development, building my voice, or what themes and belief systems I wanted to cover. The place and the setting came from those cover pictures, and I wasn’t that concerned with temporal or structural issues.

I stopped when I started my studies in physics at the university, but the urge to write always lingered. Then, after all seemed forgotten, a story found me and kicked hard to come out. It lingered for over a year, so I joined a writers’ group for peer review and honing my skills.

Like most, I started submitting manuscripts to agents. I got standard rejections but also some encouraging personal notes from agents. They pointed to “what the market wants” and said “nobody takes a risk on something at the edge.” But I decided I had to take the risk and prove to myself and others that writers cannot react passively to the market, but must be encouraged to innovate, forget about what sells, and write what they must.

For you, what have been the greatest rewards and frustrations of being indie?

The greatest rewards happen frequently: they are the words from readers, the thank you messages, comments like “from now on I’ll read whatever you write.” As an Indie writer, this is encouraged and I believe readers feel less intimidated and will often contact an Indie writer without fear, as opposed to trying to write to Stephen King, for example.

The frustration is realizing that it does not matter whether your story is good, or is so well-edited that readers find no issues, typos, mistakes, or find it completely engaging. Some readers still give you no chance because you are an independent author. The stigma is less than it was only a few years ago, but you’ll never convince the reader who only buys from the New York Times bestseller list.

We met through Awesome Indies. How have that and other communities for readers and writers been important to you in your career as an author?

It is always of the greatest importance to compare yourself and your writing with that of others. I also wrote about this on my blog, about the hubris of many self-published writers. (Sandra interrupts quickly here to note that she obviously decided to embrace her own sheer hubris.)

To be a good writer, you must make your ego fall apart like a soaked sponge. That will do marvelous things to your writing. Too many believe they are at the zenith of their craft and work entirely alone; thus, the majority produce unreadable stuff. They fuel those readers who say any writer who does not write with a publishing house is a joke at best.

You’ve recently transitioned from being an indie author to being published by Booktrope. What inspired you to make that change?

The glass ceiling. It is there, and I wanted to see how it was working with a traditional publisher. I met with a wonderful agent at a writers’ conference. She read my trilogy and liked it. She introduced me to the publisher. They accepted “Daimones” and asked for the others. So Booktrope is now publishing the “Daimones Trilogy” and will publish my fourth novel, too: “The Law” – YA Urban SF.

I work with excellent professionals, from the publicist, the editor and proofreader, to the cover artist. The staff is extremely supportive: they show a genuine interest in promoting and selling my books. After all, they can only make money if the books sell. Incidentally, the investment already made by them on the trilogy has exceeded my Indie budget for each book by not less than a factor of 10.

What are your major goals as an author right now?

The same as before. Getting better line by line. I was accepted at SFWA, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. There I’m meeting great authors and learning even more. “Daimones” has also been considered for nomination at the next Nebula Prize. While I don’t dare even think about that possibility, that would meet a major goal.

What’s your best advice right now for aspiring writers in your genre, science fiction?

You need to read: the SF classics, the big names, those who created new paths in SF, not those who followed. Then explore the current scene, from Scalzi to Howey, Crichton, VanderMeer. When you have read millions of lines from SF novels, you start to have the tools to help your imagination fire.


Learn more about Massimo Marino at his blog: http://massimomarinoauthor.com.

About “Daimones”:
Nothing could have prepared them for the last day. Explore the future of humanity in Massimo Marino’s sci-fi debut, Daimones, an apocalyptic tale that feels like it could happen tomorrow. You may never sleep through a windstorm again.

Discover the "Daimones" by Massimo Marino Daimones Trilogy on:

Amazon link to "Daimones"
Nooklogo

 

 

 

On NetGalley:
https://s2.netgalley.com/catalog/book/70976

 


Okay, this is Sandra, confessing that I have been curious about Booktrope myself. I found  another point of view, one that is a bit less enthusiastic, from Tiffani Burnett-Velez at “My Year with Booktrope.” I believe, however, that her experience may be colored by timing. Many indie authors are noticing that it’s a lot harder to gain any traction out there today than it was when she self-published her first book.

If you have any insights, feel free to share them with us below. (This is a moderated blog, so it may take half a day or so for your comment to show up, but it will get there.)

Technology, gay rights, the Confederate flag, and other cool ways to date your novel

It’s exhilarating to be living through so much change, especially when it seems to be going in the right direction. But what if your books become dated because of it?

Earlier this month at the Glens Falls Public Library Julia Spencer-Fleming, my favorite living Episcopal mystery romance novelist*, took a question from the audience about coping with changes in technology in her books.

As she pointed out, cell phones have made mystery writers’ lives a lot harder. She also noted that she is fortunate in her setting — a place an awful lot like Argyle, New York — because if necessary her characters can encounter poor or no signal in the local wilderness. (I’m thinking Clare and Russ really need to avoid Verizon, because so far I’ve had no trouble up north.)

Rico Shen [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 tw (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/tw/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Rico Shen, via Wikimedia Commons

Spencer-Fleming also mentioned advice she’d gotten to keep technology as unspecific as possible. In other words, perhaps your characters should just call someone rather than doing something with a “phone.” Specific devices or ways of using them can become obscure in a couple of years.

I had to deal with this as I spruced up (AKA finally coming up with decent endings for) some short stories I used in “Missionary Dating and Other Stories.” Cell phones hadn’t even been thought of when I first drafted one of them. Some beta readers told me I needed to clarify when these stories were set, or update them, because they were no longer realistic.

This week another of my books got dated in the way I had always hoped it would. “The Awful Mess: A Love Story”  has a sub-plot involving gay rights which is centered largely on Winslow the cop’s support of his lesbian sister, and suspense over Winslow’s conservative father’s ability to cope with the discovery that his daughter Laura is not only gay, but she and her partner Carla are having a child.Cover for The Awful Mess: A Love Story

One of the issues is that Laura would have no legal rights to a child born of Carla if something happened to their relationship. But as of this week, the Supreme Court has made marriage equality the law of the land. Laura and Carla wouldn’t need to worry that their marital or parental rights wouldn’t hold up simply because of where they were living.

So if the need for nationwide marriage equality had been my A plot, my book would have just become a bit quaint. Such are the risks of dealing with current events. But that can also add a depth of truth, assuming one can avoid stooping to mere propaganda.

ManfieldPark1999One of the reasons I enjoy the take on “Mansfield Park” in the 1999 movie is that it links the Bertram family to slavery in the West Indies, whereas in Austen’s novel you’d have to be pretty aware of the history to even suspect it. (It also spices up Fanny by crossing her with Jane Austen herself — an unforgivable sin in the eyes of some Austen purists, but personally I think this particular Austen novel needs a bit of tinkering before it will work on screen).

I’m also conscious of history changing as I work on my third novel, “Bardwell’s Folly.” It’s about the daughter of a famous dead Southern novelist who was raised in the North, almost completely ignorant of her family roots. When she gets caught saying something racially insensitive, she is forced to try to better understand her Southern legacy.

And oh boy. We have we seen some fast changes in that regard this week, especially in regard to the Confederate flag. Good changes. Way overdue changes.

Of course, the flag is the least of the issues involved, as opposed to the continuing institutional and social racism endemic in the South and the rest of the country, almost as if the Civil War continues to be fought — and sometimes even won by the wrong side.

Still, having people like Strom Thurmond’s son proclaim that the Civil War was fought over slavery is a good step forward. For someone who grew up in Florida watching people like Thurmond and George Wallace win elections using racist code language (or out-and-out hatefulness), it’s astonishing to see the Confederate battle flag so quickly lose supporters.

Sometimes it’s a minor thing that can mess you up. I’d been toying with the idea of having my heroine and her traveling companion, the daughter of a distinguished African American, meet up with a figure very much like Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. to explore their ancestry, much as is done in the fascinating series Finding Your Roots.

But that show has just been suspended. Gates is in hot water because the show left out Ben Affleck’s slave-owning ancestors at Affleck’s insistence.

My reaction to this: Affleck is a wuss. Part of what inspired “Bardwell’s Folly” is my own infamous ancestor, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (yeah, that guy who built his fortune trading slaves, massacred black soldiers at Fort Pillow, and served as an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan). My maternal grandfather’s first name was Forrest, after him. And Forrest, along with the Confederate battle flag, is more popular than ever on Confederate bling marketed to that anxious subculture of white Americans who say they “want their country back.”

I find that deeply disturbing, frankly. Especially in a country where, since 9/11, domestic terror is taking twice the toll of the foreign-inspired terrorism we’ve just spent vast fortunes and thousands of American lives trying to defeat.

In other news…

Summer blog post schedule

I’ve been keeping dutifully to a Saturday posting schedule for this blog since I started following a regular schedule in February, but as of this week I’m switching to summer hours. (Part of this is because I was with my lovely grandkids this weekend and vastly over-estimated the energy I’d have left after my return.) So, through August I’ll post every other Sunday. I may also have some interesting guest posts for you soon.

Requisite book flogging

Cover of Missionary Dating and Other Stories“Missionary Dating and Other Stories” goes live Tuesday, which (I just learned) is the absolute worst day to launch a book, because that’s when traditionally-published books release.

It’s always fun to learn these things.

Anyway, it’s currently available for pre-order in e-book format only at all the retailers.


* Dorothy Sayers is my favorite dead Episcopal (technically, Anglican) mystery romance novelist.

 

 

 

Is it the cover? A PickFu polling case study

by Sandra Hutchison

It became clear during my recent Kindle Countdown Deal that my second novel was not catching on as well as my first. Intellectually, I had expected this. It has a literary title, it doesn’t cross over into romance, and I never offered it free.

Emotionally, however, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d crippled it in some way. Was the problem possibly just the cover?

One of the things I’ve noticed over time is that my “also boughts” on the first book all have a certain look that my books don’t have. (They are also all indie titles, which is an indicator that when you’re an indie most of your sales come during promotions to the same lists of willing indie readers.)

Alsoboughts

My covers are a little edgier, which may be appropriate, or may just be scaring people off.

Sandrasbooks

It’s also true that guys are often scared off by books with females on the cover. This may not be terribly relevant since most book buyers are women, but some of my most satisfied reviewers have been men, so I hate to cut off that potential audience if I don’t have to.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my covers. I think Damonza.com has done a great job, hitting a nice compromise between literary and women’s fiction. (They didn’t design the last two shorter, lower-cost titles, since I did them myself, but as you can see I have tried to maintain some branding.)

Something else had happened recently, though. I’d been playing with cover concepts for my third novel and asking for feedback on my Facebook profile. Two of the thumbnails had women on them. The third had an “oilified” plantation house. And most people, including loyal readers, had come down in favor of the house instead of the women.

That got me wondering if I’d gone the wrong way with the first two covers. SHOULD they look more like those books on my “Also boughts”?

That’s when I remembered getting a code for some free PickFu polling from a Tim Grahl post.

PickFu is an internet polling service. It’s incredibly easy to use and very reasonably priced. How well it lines up with my target audience is another question. But I decided it was worth trying out the service to see about two other possibilities for covers for “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire.”

One was my best shot at a thumbnail using an “oilified” generic street scene that matches the neighborhood in the book, similar to the plantation house cover that my readers had liked for Bardwell’s Folly. So after narrowing in on that with my Facebook friends, I tested it versus the current cover on PickFu. (This would normally cost $20, but I had credits.)

thewinner

The results? The current published cover won handily. But when I dug down into the demographics, my target readers of women who are little older and perhaps a little more educated seemed to prefer the street scene.

demographicsThe comments were also fascinating. One thing became clear: My current cover is considered bleak. The title also puts off and confuses some people, suggesting to them that it’s either about eating disorders, a “trashy romance,” or erotica, none of which is true.

I knew I didn’t have time enough or money enough to act on the title (new titles require new isbns), but I’m definitely storing this away for the next time I’m trying to decide on a title.

Now, I’ve actually dealt with horrifically expensive, possibly flawed market research in my past life in publishing, so I knew (as PickFu will readily point out) that this poll of fifty people was not a scientifically valid sample size. I also had no idea how self-selected the audience might be. Given all that uncertainty, the time and money it would take to create a new cover based on this less than resounding finding seemed unwarranted.

That’s when I wondered how much damonza.com might charge me if I tested one of the original cover design options I had turned down (not without some trepidation). To my delight, they said they would provide it at no cost. And so I ran another test of that versus the neighborhood cover I was considering instead.

This time the results were clearer. You can see the whole case study here: a second A/B test at PickFu.

cutoffsversusoilified
So I switched my cover.

And nothing much happened. At that point, Amazon was still giving the book some play, but I saw maybe one day’s uptick in the trends, which could have been completely random.

So I’m back to the original cover now, because it’s a lot of work to go through everything I’ve done so far and switch the art out, and if it’s not going to make a significant difference  I’d just as soon put that effort towards my next books, “Missionary Dating and Other Stories,” which is available for pre-order now, and “Bardwell’s Folly,” which is still months out.

That’s not to say that someday I might not decide to put in the effort to switch over, because I do truly like the other cover. It’s definitely less bleak. But I’m still wondering if some women’s fiction-y neighborhood cover might not do better with my target audience than either of them.

So you’d better believe I’ll be testing different approaches with “Bardwell’s Folly” before I publish. Depending on how that goes, I might then work backwards on the other covers.

What do you want to know about your books before you publish?

If you’d like to give PickFu a spin, the folks there were kind enough to offer a discount for the first 50 readers here — just use the coupon code HUTCHISON and you’ll get 20% off your first poll. (I get no affiliate income from this. At least, I don’t think I do.)

If you find it useful, let me know! I know that back in the days when I was a marketing manager and an acquisitions editor, I would have really loved having access to a fast and easy tool like this.

Now if PickFu could just find a way to poll avid readers of our genre, we indie authors would truly be in data heaven…

 

Having trouble getting images to show in a revised Kindle book?

The only reason this is here — midweek, off the regular schedule — is so I can find it again someday. But who knows, maybe you’ll have the same problem I did. I’m quoting these instructions from “John_Ha” at an Open Office forum because it literally took me hours to figure out why the revised Word file I was uploading to Kindle Direct Publishing wouldn’t show the images once it was converted. He finally gave me the answer.

When you’re updating an existing file that has images, you have to organize the upload zip file a certain way. I’m sure this will be mere common sense to people with an intuitive understanding of html. I am not one of those people. So I needed this:

Books with images:
Creating a zipped file of your book contents

If your book includes images, you’ll need to create a compressed file of your book for it to work on Kindle. To do that, follow these steps:

1. Go to the folder where you saved your book (by default, Word will save your files in ‘Documents’ so if you aren’t sure where it is, this is a good place to look).

2. You’ll find two files with the name you used: a folder containing your images and an HTML file containing your book.

Right click on the HTML file, scroll over “Send to” and on the menu that appears, click ‘Compressed (zipped) folder’

4. A new folder with the same name will appear with a zipper on it.

5. Drag the folder with your images in it onto the new zipped folder.

This zipped folder will be necessary when it comes time to upload your book to KDP.

Cover of The Short, Spectacular Indie-Publishing Career of Matilda WalterBless you, Jon (or John) Ha. I didn’t want to have to pay for formatting, since I hope this updated version of The Short, Spectacular Indie-Publishing Career of Matilda Walter will soon be perma-free once again. (It already is free at Smashwords.) It has a new chick lit cover (mine, but done with a lot more care than the first cover) and updated back matter.

It also has an intelligent Table of Contents … or it will after I fix the one on Amazon. Smashwords is already fixed, since they wouldn’t take it the wrong way. (Doing a proper linked table of contents is another how-to, but you can find that one pretty easily by googling for it. If you’re anything like me with technical instructions, I recommend going for a YouTube version.)

 

 

 

What a failed Kindle Countdown Deal looks like

failedcountdowndeal
What you see here is what is known in babies as failure to thrive. In a book, it’s called not having legs. Or stinking up the joint.

When I ran a Kindle Countdown Deal for The Awful Mess, that spike went up hundreds of units further and stayed up, slowly settling even after my paid promotions ended. Because the book had done well enough that it went a bit viral, it rose in Amazon’s algorithms, and actually made more money for me after the promotion than during it.

That’s not going to happen this time. No wonder BookBub turned this one down. They know the market better than I do.

So, something didn’t work here. I can’t blame my paid promotions, either — I got noticeable bumps each day from E-Reader News Today (also known as “ENT,” and the biggest one), Fussy Librarian, Choosy Bookworm, One Hundred Free Books, and a few others. Just not enough to get them or me excited. I’m sure I also could have done more legwork to prep this and keep it going, but that’s true of everything in marketing. (I even tried boosting a Facebook post for the first time ever, with dismal results.)

Truth: Any given promotion will absorb whatever time and money you are willing to give it.

So now I need to do a postmortem, though it’s arguably a few days early. (The book is still discounted, though not as much, through Sunday.) But I doubt the questions will change much.

What went wrong?

Could it be the lovely, evocative, award-winning, but kind of bleak cover? Would the midriff cover (at left) have worked better than the one I chose? (In theory, I could test this.)Ribs2-1 The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.

Is it the overly-long, overly-literary title? (I could test that one, too. Not that I want to. I can be pretty stubborn, and I love that title.)

Is it simply that it IS a literary novel instead of an HEA (Happy Ever After) romance? (Not much to be done about that, and it’s true — genre fiction usually does better, at least until a book becomes that one book everyone is supposed to read — and that doesn’t happen very often.)

Was it my product description? (I just revised it, but it’s too late to make much difference. And for all I know I’ve made it worse.)

Is it not as well written? I don’t believe that. Feedback has generally been that it is better written, if not as much of a crowd-pleaser. I did choose to begin with an airplane crash and a wake. I have to keep reminding myself that I knew that was asking a lot of my readers going in.

This is a moment when I’m glad to be an indie author, able to tweak to my heart’s content.

But first, this is also a moment when I must acknowledge that a seasoned editor or publisher might have said, “I’m sorry, but this book simply isn’t going to work.” At least one fellow author warned me off on many counts, including cover, title, and less-than-idealized hero. I thanked her and went ahead anyway.

This happens to traditionally-published authors all the time, of course, whether the book is published and does poorly or never makes it out of the gate. As an indie it won’t impact my future career in any irrevocable way (at least since I wasn’t expecting to make a living doing this anytime soon).

In the meantime, I’m still proud of this book and glad it’s been published, because I’d like it to be read, and it has been — just not by as many folks as I’d hoped. I’ve enjoyed the feedback I’ve gotten. (I’ll have more about that next week). I also think it could save a girl or two from experiencing what Molly does.

And then there’s the reality that I could get hit by a truck tomorrow. At least this child of mine is out in the world. But is this really a case of unfortunate indie impatience? Could be. I’m at that point in life, though, when I vastly prefer asking forgiveness to asking permission.

Unfortunately, any changes I make now would be a bit hard to measure. Selling books is like sailing in that you have to be making some headway in the first place in order to execute a good tack. Otherwise, you could just stall and drift, sails flapping uselessly.

It’s not all bad news, of course. The book has done well in most reviews and has been well-received by most — but not all — of my readers. And the next novel, thankfully, does have a happy-ever-after romance in it.

In the meantime, since I was already searching for some more wind for those sails, I have put together a collection of short stories called Missionary Dating and Other Stories that is now available for pre-order on Amazon, releasing June 30. It’s 99 cents now, but that will go up once it has enough reviews. (God willing.)

The people on my mailing list will get the first two stories in Missionary Dating free later this week. I’m also going to be republishing my perma-free comic story soon, with a better cover, if only because I can now say that yes, despite the lack of reviews, it did keep a steady dribble of sales on my other books coming in, especially on the other retailers.

A BIG HUG AND THANK YOU to all who helped me get the word out! I really appreciate your efforts. (And I’ll happily accept any advice right about now, even if I may not follow it.)

If you’re a writer who’s feeling less than illustrious yourself at the moment, you might enjoy this article in the Guardian in which seven writers reflect on their failures. Of course, they are all successful now or they wouldn’t have been asked to contribute, so it may not be quite what you’re looking for. Still, I think most writers can relate to Anne Enright on this:

Failure is easy. I do it every day, I have been doing it for years. I have thrown out more sentences than I ever kept, I have dumped months of work, I have wasted whole years writing the wrong things for the wrong people. Even when I am pointed the right way and productive and finally published, I am not satisfied by the results. This is not an affectation, failure is what writers do. It is built in. Your immeasurable ambition is eked out through the many thousand individual words of your novel, each one of them written and rewritten several times, and this requires you to hold your nerve for a very long period of time – or forget about holding your nerve, forget about the wide world and all that anxiety and just do it, one word after the other.

And I can’t really think of a better note to end on than that.

Recipe for becoming a writer: be an outsider

by Sandra Hutchison

I know there are writers who never leave the town they were born in (think Emily Dickinson), but that’s far from my own experience. We moved often as my father’s career in newspapers advanced; I consider myself a journalism brat. And I think displacement is often a spark for writers who aren’t already tortured enough by some other trauma.

Moving can be fun, it can be educational, and it can be wrenching. One benefit is the keen eye that comes with simply not being local to a place. You naturally notice more — you have to in order to find your way around. It’s a survival mechanism that probably predates human civilization, when everything new in the environment was potentially deadly, and being the outsider was particularly dangerous.

I grew up in Florida, moved to the Northeast, and have always set my novels there. This makes sense because I noticed the hell out of the Northeast. It was a strange place with people who seemed standoffish compared to Southerners. I was a bit shocked by all the quaint housing and pastoral scenery that I had previously assumed was some sort of American mythology that only showed up in textbooks and historical novels like Little Women. Actual red barns covered in snow freaked me out.

This week as I am visiting my parents in Florida, I find myself noticing the hell out of their sleepy little town in Citrus County. I suppose if I moved down here, I’d be able to write realistic novels set here in a few years, not that I’m eager to do that. Right now, I’m still just observing, and aware that although I’m Florida born and bred, it doesn’t feel like home anymore.

I’m a naturalized Yankee who does remember and appreciate certain Floridian delights,  however, including live oaks covered in moss, Southern magnolias, the rare May morning that hasn’t gotten hot yet, pecans with just about anything, guava turnovers, Cuban sandwiches, and the vernacular use of “Bless her heart!” in the grocery store (you REALLY don’t want someone to say that about you).

A Florida live oak draped in Spanish moss

A Florida live oak draped in Spanish moss

And that’s all I have to say this week because I am busy with family obligations. As it is, I’m just glad I finally remembered my password to get onto my own blog.

Have you ever been an outsider? Did that end up being a good experience or a bad one, or — as is so often the case — a bit of both?

 

How authors can have fun with Pinterest

Like most Pinterest users, I tend to poke around in there for home decor, garden ideas, and recipes, as well as art and photography. But authors can get a lot of other use out of it, too.

I’m sure the number one way authors ought to use Pinterest is to market their books, but I haven’t added that to my regular duties yet. But I do find it ideal for seeking inspiration (or providing it) in three other areas: setting, characters, and cover design.

Pinterest is just great for exploring settings. I usually have an actual place in mind when I am writing, and when I need to ground my recollections in some details I can go looking for pictures of that place, or places like it, and easily “pin” what I find in one collection.

I actually started doing this the first time mostly so I could communicate with a cover designer. (If I’d checked earlier, I would have discovered that my memories of Peterborough — Lawson in the novel – did not match reality nearly as well as I thought they had.)

I have pictures from Greenfield, Massachusetts and environs for The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire, along with some of the art that plays a role in the book.

Bardwell’s Folly already has a page, too, but the tricky part is finding a slightly decrepit, entirely out-of-place Southern plantation-style house that could actually be sitting in a small town in Massachusetts. Feel free to suggest pins to me!

https://vanishingsouthgeorgia.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/hazlehurst-ga-jeff-davis-county-greek-neoclassical-revival-mansion-house-iron-fence-pictures-photo-copyright-brian-brown-vanishing-south-georgia-usa-2011.jpg?w=584

Pinterest is also fun for playing with characters. I’ll be honest and confess I don’t care that much how my characters look. I think readers fill in the details themselves. I only fill in enough to show that someone else has noticed them — for what is a better indicator of love than paying close attention?

So Mary did have to notice details about Winslow to be convincingly smitten.And for that I was inspired by a lovely painting I saw once in the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine of a young Jamie Wyeth. I don’t have the painting, nor can I find it online, but I do have a photograph of the actual young Jamie Wyeth on my Pinterest page for The Awful Mess.

Jamie Wyeth and a pig, from somewhere on the Internet. (I’ll update the source if I can ever find it!)

All I know about Mary’s looks is that she has brown hair she hasn’t cropped short yet, she’s underfed, she isn’t impressed by her own breast size, and Bert could describe her as horsy. My parents informed me that she should obviously be played by Sandra Bullock, which just shows you how long this manuscript had been kicking around. That got me thinking about how I would cast Mary, though, and I would probably go more along the lines of Hilary Swank.

I never got around to thinking of actors or paintings for Molly and David. It’s probably even worse for Dori and Joe in my current manuscript, because now I know what a pain in the ass it is to be limited by hair color when looking for good cover images. Seriously, I’m ready to search and replace hair color until I have a cover design I like.

Which brings me to my other favorite use for Pinterest: Whenever I see a cover I really admire, I pin it.This makes it easy to let my cover designer know what my taste is like. One of these days I’d like to use it to keep track of the books I read, but I have a hard enough time just keeping up with Goodreads.

PinterestbookcoversIadmire

You can set your Pinterest pages to public or private. I have a friend who keeps Pinterest pages as a kind of scrapbook for a book she is writing, pinning pictures and other sources of inspiration to it as she goes along. (Scrivener has a similar function, I believe, although I’ve never mastered it.) I know this because she invited me to join a secret page. So this means you can use Pinterest to share inspiration privately with friends, co-authors, a writing group, or a street team.

Last tip: If you do decide to use Pinterest, accept any time-saving plug-in or app it suggests. You definitely want pinning to be as effortless as possible.

I’m sure there are some real Pinterest power users out there. Feel free to weigh in with good advice. And if you want to ‘cast’ any of my characters, feel free. If you’re on Pinterest, suggest a pin for those pages!

The five stages of grief of being rejected by BookBub

1877 etching of Andromache grieving for Hector

“Grief of Andromache for Hector” from The Peep-Show: Amusement and Instruction for the Young, circa 1877. This and the background art below courtesy of reusableart.com.

  1. DENIAL. This stage can’t last long. The email is right there and pretty easy to read. Writers generally have good reading comprehension skills. You can spend some time scanning it for clues, but if you’ve gotten this email more than once you know it’s boilerplate language. You may wonder why it got sent to you on a Saturday morning. You try to imagine who’s making these decisions, and how late they are working, especially since they apparently mulled it for three days. Was it like that time you sat in the jury box all day during jury selection before getting kicked out in favor of someone who hadn’t seen her brother hit a motorcyclist? Or did it just take three days because they are inundated?
  2. ANGER. Oh, writers are surely used to this. It’s why a lot of us self-publish. Back when I was still trying to find an agent or publisher, I would get some lovely and encouraging rejections. A persistent, resilient, emotionally healthy writer probably would react to these by thinking, “Oh, X likes my writing, so I should try with another book!”
    Then there’s me. I usually think something like “If you don’t like this, you’re not going to like the next one. A writer’s style is her style and her subjects are her subjects. So let’s not waste any more of each other’s time.”
    I teach literature as well as writing it, and the one thing my students and I always notice after a while is that the most acclaimed writers are almost always driven by something a bit dark. Of course, I refuse to believe this about myself (see “denial”), but if I were not driven by some unmet need of some kind, wouldn’t I be out spending my time actually being in relationships instead of sitting in a room writing novels about them? So, I must rationally conclude that I am probably about as prickly and neurotic as the next writer.
    It’s tempting to react with anger to BookBub, too, especially since their short, 30-day submission window means giving up many other promotional opportunities with longer windows in an attempt to nail theirs down, especially while trying to triangulate with Kindle Select and past promotions.
    If I hadn’t already had success with BookBub on the first novel, I might well decide to forget even trying in the future. Which would be stupid. Not all books are going to appeal as well as others. Ideally I’ll translate any anger into determination to “show them” (“them” being every person or entity who has ever not been immediately bowled over by my genius — sadly, there are legions of these people).
    3. BARGAINING. This is when you might be tempted to send an email back asking what it would take, or perhaps expressing some of that anger or desperation you feel, as if you could elicit some pity or even shame someone into doing what you want. DON’T DO IT. Speaking as a former acquisitions editor, the least pleasant part of the job was dealing with writers who wouldn’t take no for an answer. There is absolutely no way to do this and sound like a person anyone would ever want to work with in the future. You’ll be remembered, all right, and not in a good way.
    4. DEPRESSION. As an indie author rejected by BookBub, I have suffered the loss of some future income and reviews. The trajectory I had hoped for (and that I had the pleasure of experiencing before) is just not going to happen. Whereas last year I turned a small profit on this enterprise, this year I can now forecast that I won’t. Even though the writing income was never going to be enough to change my life significantly anyway, this requires some grieving. I just found this out, so the publisher in me is still grieving, because she would really prefer to be able to strut around a bit. The writer in me is, thankfully, already focused on the next two books. But she’s still a bit bummed, too. Writing inevitably courts grief as well as joy. Publishing inevitably courts grief as well as joy. You must decide for yourself whether the joy outweighs the grief.
    5. ACCEPTANCE. There was an interesting post by RJ Crayton on Indies Unlimited this week about people getting fed up with the hard work and poor returns of writing and/or indie publishing and quitting (aptly titled “Self Publishing Shouldn’t Be Miserable“). If you’re writing because you think it will make you rich, or give you status, you’re going to hit this point a lot sooner than someone who’s writing because she has something she really wants to say. Unless you’re very lucky or unusually brilliant, or perhaps awesome at marketing, there’s a long, long road to success as an author. Many never get there. For some, getting there is sadly temporary. Those of us who are older understand that we might well die before we reach the magical golden land of steady book sales to hungry readers.
    But I’m okay with that. This is a road that has its own rewards.
    The Only Way To Get There

 

Creating believable relationships: Who are your characters’ imagos?

My husband and I made it through 23 years of marriage before certain fundamental issues caused us to decide to part as friends. I doubt we would have made it anywhere close to that long if we hadn’t, fairly early on, participated in a workshop at our church on something called Imago Relationship Therapy.

Have you noticed that you (or your friends, since it’s always easier to see it in others) tend to fall for certain types of people … who tend to have the same issues? We do this, Imago Theory says, because what makes us feel warm and loved is very much based on what we experienced from our primary caregivers when we were growing up. Yet these same things are also guaranteed to make us absolutely crazy.

Imago Theory posits that we are all seeking to heal the wounds of childhood through our choice of mate, which is what drives romantic love, but in the process we will inevitably exacerbate those wounds — cue the power struggle.

brokenheartI bring it up here because, although I am by no means an expert at this theory and its practical applications, it can also be useful to look at what drives your characters to each other, especially since what attracts people to each other is also what may ultimately heal them … if they can survive the conflicts along the way.

And conflict is the heart of all compelling fiction, isn’t it? Sometimes, but not always, with a nice healing resolution at the end.

(Those of you who know anything about typical patterns of codependency in alcoholic/addicted families will recognize similar patterns in Imago Theory.)

When I was writing The Awful Mess, I gave Mary an alcoholic father, a powerful, critical mother, and a mean-tempered alcoholic first husband for a reason. Winslow definitely has a judgmental streak, and I’m willing to bet that Mary unconsciously grooves on that, just as she manages to feel comfortable with his almost comically judgmental Bible-thumping father. But Winslow being a cop and ex-Marine also freaks her out, since it means he has the potential for violence, which is what scared her the most in her first marriage.

Similarly, I suspect Winslow is unconsciously drawn to Mary’s bordering-on-depressive, withdrawing personality (though she also has a pretty mouthy judgmental streak of her own) because of what he experienced when he was growing up.

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.David’s emotional remoteness in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire echoes Molly’s experience of her own distant father, which is probably why he becomes so compelling to her when he does begin to establish a bond of affection with her. Meanwhile, Molly’s plainspoken exasperation probably echoes something from David’s wife and his mother, who hadn’t made any bones about her disappointment in him at key moments — which is why Molly’s affection can be so healing for him.

I won’t claim that I actually plan this stuff out when I’m writing (I’m a pantser, and I’m also probably too busy unconsciously working out my own demons), but once something is written and developing I do look hard at it and try to evaluate it in these terms. What are the wounds my characters carry with them, and how might they seek to heal them? (Not necessarily consciously or wisely, mind you.) Because that is one way to drive any character forward in a believable way.

If you’d like to learn more about Imago Relationship Theory, whether for your writing OR your love life, here’s a really helpful page: http://www.imago.com.au/. You might also want to check out the many books by its originators, Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt.

And here’s wishing you a happy, healing heart!