Wednesday, February 25, 2015

When Late Book Marketing is Better than Early

When Late Book Marketing is Better than Early
It seems that every time I read an article on book marketing, marketers warn that the author or publishing company should be out there selling their books now. Don't wait until it is published. That's too late.  Well, I'm sure that can work for some people. But not in some cases.

But wait a minute. Let me tell you of an experience I had.

Some months before I published one of my books with a small publisher, I was reassured that the book would be out at the end of September in time for a conference I was speaking at. Then in November I was attending another conference. Perfect, I thought. I could sell dozens of books and sign them at the same time. So although I am very familiar with human nature and my lack of control over other peoples actions, I trusted what I was told. Besides, everything I was reading had confirmed that earlier marketing was better.

So about a month prior to the release I flooded the conference and e-mail lists with an exciting  summary and a few excellent reviews of my psychological thriller, Justice Forbidden.  People were excited about the book. The beginning of September rolled around and I asked the publisher for the exact date of release. "We're trying very hard to get it out for the September conference," was the reply.

Well, you've probably guessed it. The September conference came and went, and then the November conference came and went, and Christmas came and went  with no book. And I was frantically trying to recoup by sending e-mails to my list saying there had been a delay. The book was finally released in March and by then my enthusiasm had waned and so had everyone else's. In the long run I sold 200 books in the first couple of months instead of probably  500.

So now I wait until I'm sure I can deliver what I promise. Unless you are a best known author, people need the product ready to buy while they are excited about it. If you can't deliver immediately, the likelihood will be your customers won't come back. They will go somewhere else. And if you are writing a series, it is probably a good idea to have the second one ready or at least almost ready before you begin to seriously begin your marketing for the first one.
Good luck writers!


Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Because I was so deeply enthralled in Marilynne Robinson's Home, it was a joy to purchase her new book, Lila. Now that I have read it, I find myself in her camp once again. Her style is very intimate and the world she describes feels familiar, even though the town is fictional. Some would call it a 'quiet' book, but I hesitate to describe it in such terms. Delicate and nuanced would be more to the point, as she delves into the thoughts of her protagonist, an unfortunate lost soul who finds love in the home of an aging minister.

It intrigued me to read the second book of Robinson's set in the graceful home of a minister.  With a Pulitzer Prize for Gilead, in 2004, and numerous other accolades and shortlisted novels to her credit, one would assume that she would be free to set her books wherever she would like. She has protagonists discussing Biblical passages and Home, published in 2008, is a tale of the prodigal son returning to his father's house.

In reading about Marilynne Robinson's life, I learned that she grew up in Sandpoint Idaho. She currently lives in Iowa and teaches at the famed Iowa Writer's Workshop. How she ever explains these to realities to public at large, makes me smile as people perpetually mix up Iowa and Idaho. Housekeeping published in 1980 is set in Sandpoint, but Gilead, Home and Lila are placed in the fictional town of Gilead. There is a flavor or a hearkening back to a particular American style that has always been precious. It exists in Canadian literature as well. The outside world can be harsh, the environment, difficult, but there is a place of refuge, behind closed doors, where life unfolds quietly, and with dignity. It makes the reader picture shafts of light coming into the parlor where a few carefully placed chairs seem comforting and familiar.

Last week, I read something on Twitter bemoaning the 'quiet' novel, and the dearth of women's fiction understandably bent in this direction.
 "Something has to happen. It has to have a plot," advises one literary agent.
I have always been fond of writing that gently wraps itself around me as if it is a warm blanket. My cousin once put a picture on my Facebook timeline where the pages of book take on a human form and wrap the reader in a hug. That is how I see Robinson's Lila.

What if we were completely alone in the world and understood almost nothing? How would we manage? Lila reaches that part of all of us that feels alone, neglected and abandoned. While the great majority of us have never been forced to deal with such a bleak existence, there lurks in us, a deep fear we experienced as children listening to Hansel and Gretel. It is that very private spot in our psyche that this book embraces.

Recently, Marilynne Robinson was the guest of Bill Moyers. Even in this interview, I find that there is something of her elegant writing in every sentence.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Creativity Abounds

We are all creative. We're made that way. Observe any kindergarten class anywhere, and you will see what I mean.

Every once in awhile, I will hear someone bemoan their lack of creativity. I never have a good response. My instinct is to tell them that perhaps it is just misplaced. An early critic probably dashed their hopes. Who among us cannot recall, word for word, what a teacher said about our earliest artistic efforts? Stop the paint from running down the easel. Stay in between the lines. Your figures are too small, too big, are not in the middle of the page and on and on. Well intended instruction can shatter the fantasy that fuels our tiny geniuses. Somewhere along the line, I think I decided to ignore everyone. I had a secret audience, and I looked to them for approval. They never let me down. I could tell them stories, give speeches, sing and dance. I showed them my knitting, my drawing, and I told them all of my troubles. They encouraged me to no end. Who were these lovely creatures? They were two hundred strong. They were a herd. They were the cattle on the family farm.

Last night on NBC Nightly News, Lester Holt showed us a video montage of Derek Klingenberg  playing to his cattle. Then he demonstrated a drone inspired painting in his field in which the cows created a picture. My husband and I laughed and laughed and then had a great discussion of how each innovation mankind creates, there is a burst of creativity somewhere. New inventions inspire unique and individualistic, original ideas. It is just one great aspect of what makes life so precious, and so entirely worth living.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Book Club Tips From Elle Magazine

How to Start a Book Club That Doesn't Turn Into 'Lord of the Flies'

8 commandments from Hollywood's go-to guru.

For ELLE's thirtieth anniversary, we're serving up weekly life hacks from 12 expert coaches. Our second expert of the year is Julie Goler, a book club expert who curates monthly, 75-minute salons on titles carefully selected to promote both an emotional journey and intellectual conversation. (Some of her groupswhich include celebrities, Hollywood execs, and stay-at-home moms alikehave been meeting for over a decade!) All this month on, Goler will give you the expert tools necessary to start a can't-miss meeting of your own.
Reading groups are a terrific way to continue the learning process, but your club should not be considered class, but rather an instrument for discussion. At your first get together, try and discuss a meaty-but-short story like Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" or Philip Roth's "Defender of the Faith" so that you have time to come up with a list of policies to which all members agree to adhere. This is important because, as you add members to your club along the way, everyone will be on the same page (logistically speaking). Below, my eight commandments for starting a successful book group

1. All group members shall agree to actually read the chosen book:

Sounds bizarre, I know, but just trust me on this one.

2. All books must have an intellectual or thought-provoking element to them:

There's nothing wrong with page-turners like 50 Shades of Grey, but I promise that Madame Bovary and Olive Kitteridge make for better company than Anastasia Steele.

3. That said, all selections should be enjoyable. At least one member—usually the facilitator of the meeting—shall have already read and approved of the chosen novel.

4. Meetings shall take place on a designated night each month:

Unless everyone in the entire group agrees, it is best not to change the night. Meetings should take place whether all members can attend or not. My meetings begin at 7:30 p.,., discussions commence promptly at 7:45 p.m., and the evening concludes at 9:00 p.m. Of course you can alter this to suit your needs, but it is critical to have a precise time that discussion begins or you will find yourself waiting for latecomers every meeting.

5. Only one group member should be responsible for leading the discussion: 

This person may come up with focus points for discussion, do research on the author, the time period, and/or larger issues discussed in the book. He or she will generally know just a little more about the book than the others. He or she will also do his or her best to make sure that all group members are involved in the discussion so that chat doesn't get monopolized by one person. (Some groups go "leaderless," but those are often the ones that hire me to come in and do triage.)

6. Groups shall rotate homes so that different members may host:

And note: some members won't want to. (Maybe they feel their homes are too small or there are too many dogs or kids.) No problem! Create an environment in which members are encouraged to co-host. Hosts can share the expenses, cooking, and the clean up (not to mention accolades for their creative meals).

7. Food and wine shall always be served:

During the very first meeting, the group should agree whether they would like to have dinner or "munchies" meetings moving forward. If you settle on a dinner meeting, it's a good idea to schedule the eating component either before or after the discussion. Most of my groups like to meet for theme dinners before discussion. If we're reading a book from the Heartland, like Nickolas Butler's Shotgun Lovesongs, it's a perfect excuse to serve macaroni and cheese with spiked lemonade. If we're reading Madame Bovary, the hostess might serve a spinach quiche with a French cheese board and Champagne. All of my groups serve alcohol, usually wine, but some get quite fancy with martinis or margaritas if the specialty drinks suit the book we're reading. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles for example, positively cries out for very dry martinis.

8. Allow time at the end of the meetings for information that is good for the group as a whole:

After we've shut down the book chat, I usually call out, "Is there anything that we all have to know about?" I like to recognize that book groups are places where like-minded people can talk about the things they love beyond the novel. So, at the end of a meeting, I offer my own suggestions for the best theater production in town, the must-see movie, or the not-to-be-missed TV show. My groups say that they love this part almost as much as our book group chats.

Monday, February 16, 2015

What is Your Intention?

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “ A good intention clothes itself with power.”

In order to write a poem, a short story, or a novel the beginning is set by the intention. Writer's are inevitably asked this question, “What prompted you to write this book?”

J.K Rowling, riding a train and looking out the window, had this thought: What if there was a wizard school? That one idea evolved into an empire. It made her a fortune and touched the lives of an entire generation.

She said that in her mind, she thought that the trick would be in getting it published, but after that it would be really big. She set her intention from that minute forward. Her thoughts came tumbling out, and she had nothing with which to write. As soon as she could get pen to paper though, her intention was very clear. She would write a book about a wizard school. She wrote as if on fire. An agent picked it right up, but eleven publishers turned it down. She did not despair because she focused on her intent. The rest is history.

The Irish have a saying about this topic. Throw your cap over the wall. You'll have no choice but to go after it. The race to the moon, described in these terms, was achieved in record time.

Is it enough? Yes, if the focus is constant. A writer is essentially creating something out of nothing. It feels, at times in the dark nights of despair, that the nothing wants its nothingness back. Anything worth doing, is worth doing well.

“There are so many more important things you could do with your time.” I have heard this more than once from very well meaning friends. It was most likely my fault for complaining, for whining about the nothing nipping at my heels. I learned it is a better idea to vent to other artists and writers who never, not in their wildest dreams, would ever encourage any work to go back to a blank page. Creating for the sake of creating may not seem that noble, yet if that was the intent, there is no turning back.

Books have shaped my life; they have given meaning to my very existence. Sharing our stories, telling others about the beauty of North Idaho, about the people who came before us, unearthing great moments in history and bringing them to life, that has meaning.

My father had a book of poems reprinted that were written by his grandfather. When he gave me that book, I had a glimpse of another light, one that had fallen away in the busy post-war years. I knew the heart of a man I had not had the privilege to know except through his poems.

He helped set my path. I would not dare to presume I could do the same, but it has always been my intent. I want to share what I have gleaned with someone who will never meet me or see me, but will know something of me, nevertheless.

That is why I am given to writing.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"Words Fail Me" by Patricia O'Conner

          "What is written without effort is generally read without pleasure." Samuel Johnson

Words Fail Me  What everyone who writes should know about writing; Harcourt Brace & Co., 1999 by Patricia O'Conner is a gem of a book for beginning writers.  It was easy to read and gives sensible, useful tips to make you a better writer. Good writing goes beyond mastery of words. "Good writing is writing that works, " states O'Conner. She believes a writer must have an understanding of the heart, the world and life. You have to have a capacity to make judgments. Following the rules, most of the time, will get you good writing. These are philosophies that she comes back to often.

The chapters are divided into sensible categories filled with humorous sentences of wisdom. "Crummy spelling," says O'Conner, "is more noticeable than crummy anything else." Her most important rule is "Your first duty to the reader is to make sense. Everything else -- eloquence, beautiful images, catchy phrases, melodic and rhythmic language -- comes later, if at all. I'm all for artistry, but it's better to write something homely and clear than something lovely and unintelligible."

Here are some compelling ideas she advocates.

1. Know your audience. Determine what things your audience (readers) have in common. Every choice you make is influenced by these communities. Write what you would like them to read. O'Conner says your writing will be clearer if you start with these tenets in place. Writing for ten year olds about pioneer cooking is different than writing about pioneer cooking for adult women. 
   Picture your reader, make him or her friendly and on your side, with you in this road you are both traveling. "Readers are not Olympic judges." They want to enjoy the time spent together. 
 Respect their intelligence by not talking down to them. 

2. Her mantra is: WHAT do I want to say, "HOW do I want to say it, and WHY do I want to say it. Write down ideas as they come to you. Also write a list of things you want to tell your readers. She calls this her "stash."  Cull from the stash and keep what you want in another place but never delete any ideas permanently. Change is fine. You can move ideas around once you get the basics down. The first two sentences of each paragraph must be strong.

3. According to O'Conner, there are several beginnings and a good beginning can win an audience for life.
   Summary beginnings...tell what you are going to tell them, tell them why it needs saying and how you will do it.
   Anecdotal beginnings...start with a short story or joke. These must be relevant to the topic of the rest of the story and age appropriate.
  Physical descriptions...set the scene by describing where the characters are and what they look like with their names.
  Leisurely opening...very hard to write. James Michener comes to mind It took him three chapters to tell you the sun was rising over Maui in his book  Hawaii. Audiences in today's fast paced world do not tolerate well leisurely openings.

4. Give yourself enough time to write. Set a schedule that you can stick to based on the other activities in your life. Some of us have school age children so our free time in between 9:00 and 2:00 with domestic chores thrown in. Others work at a job that negates free time from 7:30 AM to 6:00PM. Look at your schedules and determine what works. It may be every Saturday from 1:00-5:00PM or two hours daily.
 Every writer  has a time limit of how long he can write. Know yours. 
 O'Conner says that if you quit writing before your scheduled time, do not reward yourself with something pleasant like a cookie or reading for 20 minutes. Do some icky job until your scheduled writing time expires. 

Part 2 of this book: The Fundamental Things

1. "If you have done your homework, you do not have to disguise it in showy language." Use short words. Hemingway says that you need a built in  (paraphrased) baloney detector. Readers know inflated language versus true ideas expressed well. 
2. Short paragraphs are easier to read.
3. "Find an interesting verb and the rest of the sentence will take care of itself." Strong verbs don't need propping up. "He walked with a swagger." versus "He swaggered." "The meal took three hours to be eaten" versus, "They ate for three hours." Keep nouns and verbs close together to avoid confusion.
 Use single modifiers not " wet, red, snow-encrusted face."
4. Read your work aloud listening for cliches, boring phrases and stilted sentences.
5. Put the modifying item last. "This restaurant serves pumpkin ravioli, linguine and pasta." What it really serves is linguine, pasta and pumpkin ravioli.
6. Remove "training wheels" in your writing. " that is pleasing to the ear" and "...dancer is graceful on her feet." (How else would music be pleasing?)
7. Use exclamation points sparingly and never in multiples.

Part 3: Getting Better All The Time

1. Maintain the appropriate tone throughout. Good writing is not comedic in one part and grisly in another. Match the tone to the subject matter. 
2. "Rewriting is more than correcting what is wrong but pushing further what is acceptable."
O'Conner says to do a final analysis of your writing.
-----Do I still like the beginning?
-----Can I be simpler?
-----Do I make sense?
-----Do my numbers add up?
-----Do my sentences hang together?
-----Do I need every word modifier?
-----Have I got rhythm?
-----Am I playing the same tune throughout (tone of ideas)?
-----Am I using the right image?
-----Have I made my case?
-----How's my grammar?

I give this book five stars. She uses excellent examples for every point she makes. One final piece of advice from Patricia O'Conner: Any problem can be solved---sometimes by throwing it out.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Drawing/Painting and Writing

Power of the Pen writing conference is March 7, 2015 in Spokane, WA. The keynote speaker will be Mary Buckham. There will be several editors and agents taking pitches and giving workshops. The workshops will be geared toward writers of all genres of fiction. Here's the link to the website: The fee is $95 nonmembers, $70 members of Inland Empire Chapter of Romance Writers of America for this day long event.

A person cannot sit down and paint the perfect picture immediately. You are painting a woodland landscape and you have trouble with the deer. You work on that area for a while, work on the clouds, return to the deer or walk away and read for thirty minutes. When you again start to paint, your ability to render the deer has changed and it works or it is worse.

The same goes for writing. You cannot sit down and write the perfect first draft. In fact, the harder it is to write a certain part the more effort it will require. Every writer faces this situation. Janet Evanovich says that it is difficult for her to write sex scenes. It requires champagne and copious supplies of M&M’s. For another writer, writing tension in a murder scene may be difficult. All writers stumble on a different aspect of the story. Do not try to be Stephen King, Flannery O’Conner,  John Grisham or Elizabeth George. Write the story you want to tell.

 Although The Starry Night  (left) by Vincent Van Gogh was painted during the day in Van Gogh's ground-floor studio in a mental institution Saint Paul-de Mansole, now a convent in St.Remy, France,  it would be accurate to state that the picture was painted from memory. The view has been identified as the one from his second story bedroom window, facing east (lower right) a view which Van Gogh painted variations no fewer than twenty-one times, including  Starry Night.  The other two painting are of the
 same field facing east from his bedroom on the second floor. "Through the iron-barred window," he wrote to his brother, Theo, around 23 May 1889, "I can see an enclosed square of wheat . . . above which, in the morning, I watch the sun rise in all its glory."
View today of mental institution
St. Remy, France
Van Gogh's room,
second floor middle window
View today from Van Gogh's
room in mental institution
 Van Gogh depicted the view at different times of day and under various weather conditions, including sunrise, moonrise, sunshine-filled days, overcast days, windy days, and one day with rain. The hospital staff did not allow Van Gogh to paint in his bedroom, but he was able to make sketches in ink or charcoal on paper (like a writer's rough drafts), and eventually he would base newer variations on previous versions. In fifteen of the twenty-one versions, cypress trees are visible beyond the far wall enclosing the wheat field. Writers cannot use the same theme twenty-one times but we can write various drafts of the same theme from different points of views or by making one the people the main character in one version and a secondary figure in another.

Van Gogh used the same inspiration for many paintings. Writers can do the same. We can combine our fourth grade school field trip to a California mission with a family vacation to the Santa Ynes Mountains in the same area years later and produce a scene for our story. What we cannot do is sell the same scenes in different books like Van Gogh could sell the same scene with only slight variations. If you do that, your books sounds like a well known author whose main character drinks Knob Creek at Elaine's with the same pal almost every night, bedding different women combined with a sketchily filled in mystery plot. It is a formula that has worked for him but readers get bored quickly and quit buying his books.

Writing takes a plot plus a subject and turns them into a story. A book has a flow just like a painting. Artistic scholars tell us we take our eyes on a journey through a painting starting at the upper left of the canvas and work our way toward the center. I disagree feeling that I look at the largest or brightest part of the painting first and work my way spiraling out from that point. The artist has a story she wishes to tell and devises a one dimensional way to do it. There may be several stories going on at the same time via smaller sections of the painting; these are likened to subplots in books.

Books tell stories with the luxury of more space, i.e., pages and multiple characters and subplot(s). I expect the main character to be introduced in the first chapter. I prefer he or she to have a name and an accurate physical description. The artist wants you to understand the main subject of the painting and then fill out the story as your eyes travel around the canvas. Painters repeat themes in various spots so that it is satisfying to the viewer. Books do the same. We repeat the struggle the protagonist is having by having him try different solutions and failing.

Think of your story like a drawing or a painting. Visualize your story then write down what you see. Add the details. Rewrite and fine tune. Publish.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Dr. Watson, I presume? The Importance of Killer Sidekicks

The other morning I awoke with the idea of writing a script starring famous sidekicks as the main characters ... making them my heroes and heroines.  Imagine Sancho Panza, Dr. Watson, Ethel Mertz, Barney Fife, Barney Rubble, Tonto, or even Chewbacca, as the main character.  That got me to thinking about sidekicks in general.  We know their names almost as well as those of their famous leading characters.  And the reason we know them is because of the important role they play

.  Novelist Susan Spann explains some of the reasons for the literary importance of sidekicks below:

Dr Watson, I presume?  The Importance of Killer Sidekicks.

by Susan Spann

 Whether you write detective fiction, romance, historical novels or fantasy epics, a lone protagonist never receives as great a reaction as one with a well-developed supporting cast.
Foils serve to reinforce and highlight the hero’s good (and bad) characteristics, and also give the protagonist a chance to shine outside the primary narrative.
Although a “sidekick” isn’t mandatory, a strong secondary character improves many stories in several important ways:
1. Introducing an Alternate Point of View.
Sidekicks rarely agree with everything the protagonist does, and often have a radically different worldview. This gives the author a chance to present alternative theories, new opinions, and thoughts that the protagonist or hero might not propose on his (or her) own.
A sidekick proves especially effective where the sidekick has a different gender, religion, or race than the protagonist. In addition to adding great diversity to your fiction (and forcing you, as the writer, to stretch your mind to encompass another point of view), this lets you write from “multiple” viewpoints even when the narration is not omniscient.
2. Increasing the Tension on Every Page.
People argue. Animals fight. Aliens disagree in ways that sometimes require the use of laser pistols. (Did Han shoot first? Discuss.)
A protagonist needs to have conflict with the antagonist, and often with henchmen, but most of that conflict doesn’t resolve until the final pages of the story. A sidekick offers a chance for a disagreement—or at least tension—on every page:
  • How should the characters hunt for the killer?
  • Is pursuing that guy in the romantic heroine’s best or worst interest?
  • Which of these aliens should we trust, and which ones want to eat us?
The protagonist has her opinion … and the sidekick often has another.
3. A Different Kind of Interaction With the Protagonist.
We learn a lot about people (and animals, and aliens) by watching the way they interact with others, and we learn about protagonists by seeing them in various situations.
  • Does your detective have a fear of Zambonis?
  • Will that sentient unicorn stab someone for calling him “horn-face”?
A sidekick lets the reader see the protagonist interacting with different people, and in additional situations, rather than only interacting with the antagonist and/or henchmen. A sidekick allows the protagonist to develop a different kind of relationship “on screen,” in ways that usually deepen the hero’s character.
4. Playing the Shell Game.
A reader shouldn’t be able to guess a novel’s ending in the first few pages. Generally speaking, readers want some mystery—regardless of the story’s “real” genre. A sidekick can offer thoughts, opinions, and actions designed to distract the reader from the true solution, furthering not only detective fiction but other narratives as well.
By way of example: Father Mateo, the sidekick in my Shinobi Mystery novels, often misunderstands the social conventions and clues presented in the course of a murder investigation. Sometimes, however, he’s the one that gets things right. By keeping him in the foreground, and letting him argue with my ninja protagonist, Hiro, I can use their differing opinions to keep the reader guessing.
All of these, and more, will further the sidekick’s most important job: 
5. Strengthening the Reader’s Connection to the Protagonist.
Ultimately, we read because we enjoy the adventure contained within the pages of a book. We read because we like the hero, or heroine, and because we want to see the villain lose. Although there are many wonderful novels which feature a “lone wolf” protagonist, it’s often the interactions between that character and the ones around her (or him) which draw us in and keep us turning pages
This is particularly true in series fiction.
Holmes without Watson becomes a neurotic, slightly-too-talented sleuth without the humanity and sense of humor his partner brings to the narrative.
Batman without Robin is …. Ok, that might be a bad example. (But a good one to highlight the fact that a sidekick is not an absolute MUST.)
If you’re struggling to make a connection between the reader and your protagonist, to heighten the tension, or to expand your narrative’s world and view, consider adding a sidekick or increasing the role of a secondary character in your novel.
You might discover a “Watson” is exactly what your protagonist really needs.
Who is your favorite fictional sidekick (and why)? What other ways do you think a sidekick can help the protagonist?
*  *  *  *  *  *
Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, releases on July 15, 2014.
Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website,, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).