Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Publishing 2015: Forecast from the Trenches

I’ll begin with the same disclaimers as last year: I have no crystal ball. I’m not clairvoyant. And I live in Alaska, pretty much as far as a writer can get from the Right Coast publishing industry without needing a passport. But I’ve published several books in a variety of ways—mostly traditional, but also independently and in hybrid arrangements. And I try to keep up where I can, believing that the view from the trenches is sometimes the clearest.

So, from here in my mountainside office, where fingers meet the keyboard, I offer my for-what-they’re-worth thoughts on trends in publishing for 2015:

·         Amazon still rules—and they’re changing the rules: Traditional publishers don’t like Amazon making the rules, especially when it comes to e-book pricing. Now indie authors are complaining too. Quoted in a recent New York Times article, one author complains that Amazon is “recreating that whole unfair bogus system where they make the money and we authors survive on the pennies that are left.” News flash: Amazon has always been in this for the money. A specific indie author complaint has to do with Kindle Unlimited, a new (in 2014) subscription program that features only title by authors enrolled in the KDP Select (Amazon-exclusive) option. KU titles get more visibility than others on Amazon, but the payment per download is less, sometimes substantially, than it is for straight royalty sales. (For details, see the most recent Author Earnings Report.)
·         As an author, the numbers aren’t in your favor: Simple math demonstrates that it’s not only the KU effect that’s causing indie author income to slide. There’s also way more inventory than ever before, partly because books no longer go out of print. By the numbers: In 2010, there were 600,000 Kindle e-books; four years later, there were 3 million. The net result is that it’s exponentially more difficult for new work to get noticed, no matter how you publish.
·         There are new gates: As evidenced by the recent kerfuffle between Kindle Direct and an author over the number of hyphens in his book, Amazon is increasing its efforts to make sure the book products it sells (yes, dear author, you are a supplier, nothing more) have some quality. Amazon also promotes book from its own imprints over other titles, and some of its most lucrative categories, such as Amazon Short Reads, are by invitation only. Amazon's not the only game in town, I know, but their domination of the market continues (see "Amazon rules" above).
·         Entrepreneurial fatigue will have a natural winnowing effect: In traditional publishing, there has always been a hefty attrition rate involving those who want to be published but get discouraged before the right combination of talent, luck, and determination gets them through the gates. That same fatigue will permeate the ranks of indie authors as well. In the end, those with a combination of perseverance and proper motivation (read: not solely for money) will remain, easing the numbers problem a bit.
·         The author services boom will moderate: One of my forthcoming books deals with the Klondike gold rush, so I speak with some authority on this: there’s always lots of money to be made “mining the miners.” A similar phenomenon occurred with the indie publishing revolution, in the form of all sorts of author services companies. Already some are going by the proverbial wayside as authors grow weary of dishing out lots of cash and getting little back in terms of sales.
·         Pricing will level off, with lower per-book returns for the author: A few years back, indie authors could increase their visibility with aggressive pricing. Now, KDP only allows free e-books for five days out of every ninety, and then only for titles enrolled in Kindle Select. 99 cents may be the new free, but readers aren’t as excited about 99 cent books. At the same time, there’s a glut of newsletters alerting readers to discounted titles, diluting the effect even as more and more of them require authors to pay for their listings. Adding to the bottom-line woes of independently published authors: traditional publishers are discounting their e-books more than ever before, offsetting to a certain extent one marketing advantage indies once enjoyed.
·         In this settling-out period, traditional publishers will continue to take few risks: Modest advances will continue to be offered, even for some authors who used to get big ones. The midlist author will continue to get squeezed out—and almost every author ends up at midlist eventually.
·         When it comes to discoverability and visibility, there’s no gaming the system: In the beginning (circa 2009-2011), there were tricks indie authors used to get their books noticed, especially on Amazon. Reality is starting to settle in; see the first bullet point about Amazon making the rules.
·         Readers want to be able to trust what they’re getting: Especially in children’s books, literary fiction, and nonfiction (except self-help), readers want to know that the books they’re getting are actually good, so even if they read on e-devices, they discover books in much the same ways they always have, with online reader reviews as a means of reinforcing their buying decisions.

Though this may all sound discouraging, it’s in fact nothing more than a natural correction in the marketplace, similar to what went on when the music industry went digital. As with musicians, the authors who make it will be those whose primary motivation is passion, tempered with enough good business sense to diversify their incomes from related enterprises that reinforce their branding.

Overall, it’s still an exciting time to be an author. Revel in what you can control: the joy of the creative process; the marvel that you—yes, you—can write and publish a book. Just don’t set yourself up for failure. Now more than ever, you need to educate yourself on your options in publishing and decide what’s best for you and your book.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Writer's Best Gift: We Have Faith in You!

For years, the reading of Harper Lee's "Christmas to Me" has been a holiday tradition for me. In this brief essay, Lee tells of a precious gift she received one long-ago Christmas, a gift any writer would cherish, a gift that in turn reached beyond one aspiring writer to millions of readers, in the form of Lee's classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Happy reading, and warmest holiday wishes to you and yours!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Writer's Brain - and Heart

Not long ago, I took a writerly side trip. You know how it goes. You’re getting back to your novel after a few too many days away for celebrations and family and a whole lot of other things that matter a lot, plus a few that only matter a little but still manage to snag your time, and you’re trying to get into the swing of your narrative because you know if you get to a certain spot you’ll be truly engaged and the story will carry you off the way you hope it will carry your future readers, but that spot teases and hides till you reach a little epiphany: it’s time for some research.

I won’t go into how and why I ended up researching prehistoric humanoids with over-sized brains, but it did get me thinking, not only about how to use the information in my story but how much nicer it might be if writers had the generous 25% bonus brain of a Boskop.

I stumbled on the Boskops in an excerpt from the book Big Brain by Gary Lynch and Richard Granger, reprinted in the December 28, 2009 issue of Discover magazine. These neuroscientists believe that skulls unearthed in Boskop, South Africa in 1913 come from a giant-brained group that flickered, sputtered, and died off approximately 10,000 years ago.

Lynch and Granger contend that in relation to their large cranial capacity, the Boskops had small, childlike facial features reminiscent of…well, maybe you've caught one of those Twilight Zone marathons?

Extrapolating on potential brain capacity, the authors believe these hominids may have boasted IQs averaging 150 and stretching to 180, not to mention an “inconceivably large” frontal cortex.

“While your own prefrontal area might link a sequence of visual material to form an episodic memory,” they write, “the Boskop may have added additional material from sounds, smells, and so on. Where your memory of a walk down a Parisian street may include the mental visual image of the street vendor, the bistro, and the charming little church, the Boskop may also have had the music coming from the bistro, the conversations from other strollers, and the peculiar window over the door of the church.”

The Boskops were a tad pre-Paris, but you get the idea. Higher IQ, heightened sensory memory. If only we writers had Boskop brains. Then there’s this:

“Longer brain pathways lead to larger and deeper memory hierarchies. These confer a greater ability to examine and discard more blind alleys, to see more consequences of a plan before enacting it. In general this enables us to think things through. If Boskops had longer chains of cortical networks—longer mental assembly lines—they would have created longer and more complex classification chains. When they looked down a road as far as they could, before choosing a path, they would have seen farther than we can: more potential outcomes, more possible downstream costs and benefits.”

If writers got three wishes, surely this would one: to imagine more deeply, while knowing the narrative costs of following one thread over another.

But there’s a downside to this super-sized thinking. Lynch and Granger speculate that aside from the difficulty of birthing large-headed babies, the Boskops may have been overwhelmed by their own potential and frustrated by their inability to make good on it. And there is that little extinction problem.

More important than wishing for long-lost genes is doing the best with what you’ve got, the way . pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly did. An aspiring poet, Lilly attempted but never achieved publication in Poetry magazine. Undaunted, she applauded the positive tone of her rejections and, in 2002, donated $100 million to further the magazine’s mission of advancing poetry.

The Boskops may have us beat when it comes to brains, but our hearts – well, that’s another matter altogether. In this season of giving, consider the many ways you can open your hearts to others within the literary community.  Recommend books you love; every author appreciates sincere word-of-mouth praise. Mentor an emerging writer. Donate your time, talents, and cash to a literary nonprofit like 49 Writers. Attend readings, signings, and other literary events. Support the innovative efforts of other writers on crowdsourcing sites, in journals, and on blogs.

When you finish a book, take a minute to leave your thoughts at online sites like Goodreads and Amazon. You’ll be giving the gift of social proof while helping readers find books they’ll enjoy. Like, comment, and share. Email writers to let them know you enjoyed their books. The few minutes you take to write your email will multiply into days (if not weeks) of encouragement for the author. 

Just yesterday I received this from a reader: 

That book blew me away! Thank you for it. Write more. Soon. I'm greedy . . . At this point I'm a raging fan! 

Sent from an iPhone, the note took only seconds to write. But what a gift. Never mind the size of my brain; my heart is warmed beyond compare.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Trouble with Speed Writing

Back in the 70’s, the craze was speed-reading. Now it’s speed-writing, with authors churning out book after book at lightning speed.

They’re only words, right?

Here’s the thing: readers have access to all the words they want, for free, on the internet. They don’t need your book or mine. Not unless it’s truly worth reading.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about fluency—pushing through to the end of a crappy first draft, so you can see what you’ve got. Too much deliberation along the way, and you risk writer’s block. That’s why initiatives like NaNoWriMo, spurring writers to complete a novel draft in a month, make good sense.

To complete a book-length draft is no small achievement. But keep in mind that in the glow of your accomplishment, your draft will look better than it really is. Don’t be fooled. Don’t circulate it prematurely among agents and editors. Don’t hit that “publish” button too soon.

Particularly in the self-published e-book market, some authors are churning out book after book, each one completed in only a matter of weeks. A few have even found readers, some in substantial numbers. But if you look closely, you’ll see that most successful of these speed-writers first hit the market during a unique moment in publishing history, roughly between 2009 and 2011, when readers (of genre fiction, primarily) were just discovering how much bang they could get for their e-book bucks.

That era is already fading fast in the rear view. The authors who found their followings during those golden years continue to speed-write for their loyal readers, with decent though moderated success. These days there are exponentially more e-books to choose from, allowing readers to be a lot more discerning, quick to slam those with weak plots and flat characters and typos on every other page.

Traditional publishers sometimes push authors to speed-write, too, especially when the topic is timely and they want the book out right now. It's called "crashing a book." Too many crashes, and your writing looks pretty ugly.

Pace yourself. With ten years between books, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Donna Tartt is proof that readers will wait. 

Get it right, because books are forever.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Tips for the Successful Author: Flexibility

If you’re an author, you already know the importance of discipline: stick with your project and one day you’ll finish. And if you participated in NaNoWriMo, you know you can hit that finish line a lot more quickly than you’d ever imagined.

Now what?

First, you figure out whether your book is ready for market. If it’s a first draft, odds are that it’s not—not yet, anyhow. That’s where flexibility comes in.

When I first began publishing, I coveted the qualities of a real writer: persistence, diligence, tenaciousness, enthusiasm, confidence, humility, patience, and, of course, a thick skin. But flexibility was one trait no one said much about, and I believe it’s among the most vital.

I don’t only mean “kill your darlings,” though that’s great advice. Neither do I mean staying on your feet as the revolving doors of publishing present changes in staffing, distribution, and marketing, not to mention ever-increasing ways to publish. I’m talking about the kind of flexibility that allows you to rethink, rework, and even start over on a project, whether you’ve written 100 words or 100,000.

It’s possible that I appreciate flexibility because I’m not especially good at getting things right the first time. But not long ago, I completed a series of revisions on a novel that is, save the title, unrecognizable from its earliest versions. As I look back on the journey, I’m glad I stayed flexible throughout the process. It made all the difference in the end result.

Commenting on his process in writing “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” a terrific essay anthologized in Literary Non-Fiction, Jon Franklin affirms the value of flexibility. He began the project as one in a series of “practice pieces” in which he applied the Chekhovian story form to journalism. In particular, he wanted to do something highly paced. Since he’d already earned a reputation as a science writer for the Baltimore Sun, he was able to follow Dr. Thomas Decker into brain surgery. But on this particular day, Dr. Decker wasn’t the hero Franklin was expecting to write about. His patient died.

“I had somehow assumed that the operation would work out okay and have a happy ending,” Franklin says. “Now I had this terrible feeling that I had lost my story. It was an awful day. Here a woman had died and I was feeling sorry for myself because I didn’t have a story and, yet, that’s how I felt. I went over it and over it, and it wasn’t until seven or eight that evening that I realized I did have a story. It was just different than I thought. It was, in fact, a better story, one in which Dr. Ducker, not Mrs. Kelly, was the protagonist. Of all the lessons I learned on that story, the most powerful was that stories change…and a good writer lets them…When a story changes on you, always let go of your hypotheses and follow the story. What you find will be much better than what you abandoned.”

Profiled by Kevin Nance in Poets & Writers, fiction writerBen Fountain tells how he learned a similar lesson about flexibility. Two years after his 2006 prizewinning story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevera was published, Fountain’s editor turned down the novel he’d been working on for ten years. The editor didn’t suggest a revision—Fountain had already done several. He advised him to scrap it.

As you might imagine, this came as a big blow to Fountain. Although six weeks earlier Malcolm Gladwell had called him “a genius-level literary autodidact with unlimited promise,” there was the small fact that he’d been writing for two decades and had only the one published story collection. After the editor’s rejection of his novel, Fountain says he went through all the stages of grief, from denial through depression, before he landed on acceptance. He decided he had other things to write. A few weeks later he started a short story that became the novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, released with a blurb from Madison Smartt Bell that says it’s “as close to the Great American Novel as anyone is likely to come these days”; Fountain’s novel went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Here’s the thing about Fountain: he never gave up. He proved himself tenacious and persistent in the long haul, while with individual projects, he learned what to believe in and when to let go. In a word, he proved flexible.

When you’re flexible, it’s easier to be objective about your work. It’s easier to avoid the mistake of trying to publish too soon, when your book is half-formed. It’s easier to understand which rejections are happening because the book isn’t ready and which are happening because you haven’t found the right agents (or readers) who love the book the way you do.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Indies First: Authors and Booksellers

I know, I know. The holidays are coming up way too fast. It's the season of gratitude, and yet your mind is all caught up in that holiday gift-giving extravaganza that begins...well, let's not go there.

This year, how about mixing it up, gratitude with gift list, by showing some love to your favorite independent bookshop? On Saturday, Nov. 29, Indies First brings authors into local bookstores to help hand-sell books. I'm excited to be joining Eowyn Ivey and Don Rearden, playing bookseller at Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska.

Saturday is the second annual Indies First celebration, an effort launched by bestselling author Sherman Alexie and taken up by the American Booksellers Association. The plan, as Alexie explains it:"We book nerds will become booksellers. We will make recommendations. We will practice nepotism and urge readers to buy multiple copies of our friends' books...I think the collective results could be mind-boggling (maybe even world-changing)...What could be better than spending a day hanging out in your favorite hometown indie, hand-selling books you love to people who will love them too and signing a stack of your own?"

I'm with Alexie - not much could be better. Indies First plays right into one of my secret but (usually) suppressed urges: to tug the sleeves of strangers whenever I spot titles I love on the shelves of a bookstore.

So mark your calendars and devote a portion of Small Business Saturday to visiting one of those great little bookshops where there's a lot more going on than just monetary transactions. And if you're in the Anchorage area, head on over to Palmer to Fireside Books. Eowyn, Don, and I would love to see you!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Bounce: How Smart Authors Handle Rejection

Some call it resilience, but I think that’s too nice a word, too easy. I prefer bounce, because it often comes with a smack, and the whole game can ride on which way it lands.

I’m talking about how writers respond to criticism, and how this relates to our overall success, which directly connects to how willing we are to fail. Writers aren’t so different from students in this regard. It doesn’t take much time in a classroom to realize that some students will never try very hard to succeed, and while there may be many explanations for this phenomenon, among the most fundamental is that if you don’t try, you won’t fail. In other words, you won’t need bounce.

Like a basketball, a writer must be pumped full to bounce back from criticism. Full of what, you ask? Some will say ego, but ego is unreliable and quickly deflated. Bounce is what you need, a blend of confidence and strategy.

If the book in your head is always better than the one that gets on the page, how much better is the book no one ever reads? Except that’s not the goal, at least not for most projects. At some point your book must meet its readers, and that’s where you’d best be ready with the bounce: when early readers don’t like it, when reviews are lackluster, when even your mother doesn’t seem impressed, when your sales figures are an embarrassment.  

At its core, the bounce is a state of mind. When teaching revision, I often direct writers in a process I call “Potholes and Spine,” a variation on an exercise I learned in Now Write, edited by Sherry Ellis. Part of the process involves looking hard at the places that aren’t working in a piece and recognizing that each one is a gift, an opening where you are able to go in and tinker around with the assurance that you’re zeroing in on an important spot, because in most cases the messy parts are messy because you’re trying hard to articulate something that matters.

The other part of the bounce involves set-up and reaction. Let’s say you share a chapter from a nonfiction project with your writers’ group, or with other early readers. Two of them misunderstand what you’ve written. Another objects to your use of present tense, which you thought was strategic. You duly note these objections, writing them down the way you record all reactions from first readers—without responding or defending your work. It’s a great way to distance yourself, to avoid jumping in and explaining or justifying what you’ve got on the page. Still, it doesn’t squelch all the internal dialogue you’re having with your writer self: these people just don’t get it.

Thankfully, another reader likes the chapter, a lot—no bounce required. Then your four writer friends launch into a lively discussion over whether you should have included speculative language that allows for scene-making in nonfiction: this character might have done this, or perhaps she would have done that. Or maybe you should have stuck to one point of view. Maybe the whole project should be redone as historical fiction, not nonfiction at all. These are all approaches you’ve considered and rejected, but you write them all down, because—guess what—sometimes you’re wrong. When they’re done, you thank them and gather up their written critiques.

One person. One person liked your chapter. The rest, not so much.

Even as you sum this up in your head, you know it isn’t an accurate rendering. That’s where a good night’s rest—maybe a good week’s or even a month’s rest, if necessary—is critical.

The next part of the bounce, perhaps the most crucial, is figuring out what to do with the hodgepodge of reactions you’ve gathered. Your first readers are also writers, creative thinkers who’ll open a lot of lovely little doors to you. You can’t walk through them all.  You can’t do everything they say, and you shouldn’t. But since you wrote down all their ideas, you go through them, one by one. You make a master list that includes even those items you’re certain you don’t want to change, so you can study it all on the page.

At this point in the bounce you go back and do a little reading in aspirational books, ones that line up nicely with what you hope your book will one day be. Regardless of the nuts and bolts of your first readers’ comments, at this point you especially rethink the voice—what makes yours as captivating, at least in places, as the voice in books you admire.

Then you review that summary list of comments again and consider what’s behind each of them. Everything is laid out and up for grabs. Often one concern masks another. The objection about tense, you realize, has more to do with choppiness, a real concern you’ve been glossing over in the draft. You also consider why you made certain decisions in the first place and whether that reasoning still holds.

You know you’ve bounced when you realize it won’t hurt to rewrite with some changes, even and especially big ones, and when you find yourself getting excited to discover how those changes might sound and feel. Then you thrash around in the muck that is your manuscript and, by some miracle, it starts to get better, though in the end you may not be able to explain exactly how or why. 

That, my friends, is the bounce.

Rejection isn’t so much the cross you bear as the uniform you wear, that dorky little hat or crazy vest or pointy shoes or whatever you symbolically put on each day to say look at me, I’m a writer, a real one. Then your readers know they don’t have to pussyfoot around with their remarks: you’re a real writer and you know how to bounce.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Business Creep: How Much Should You Worry about Book Promotion?

If you’ve published a book, either the traditional way or on your own, you know what I mean by business creep: the way the business side of writing, especially promotion and marketing, can take over your life. For as much as we hear about buzz, there have to be limits to what we’ll do to get noticed. At the same time, we can’t abdicate completely the marketing side of the equation.

“I can’t self-promote,” I’ve heard writers say. “That’s just not me. If my book can’t sell itself, then I just won’t write.” Like Harper Lee, they say, or J.D. Salinger. But today’s writers who think like this have for the most part will fail to thrive. A handful may be able to duck out on the business end of writing; Haruki Murakami, for one. But for most of us it’s a reality: we have to find the right balance between what we want to do—create—and what we must do—help sell our books.

These days, much of the marketing legwork, though not all, is electronic. With ten million members, Goodreads is the largest site in the world for book recommendations. Compiled using data gathered from a title that launched with three Goodreads giveaways, a Goodreads post titled “The Anatomy of a Book Discovery” uses a color-spiked graph to show how one thing leads to another when it comes to book buzz. What’s harder to quantify is how good the book was to begin with: how timely, how well-conceived, how brilliantly rendered.

Beyond the scope of the Goodreads analysis is how a “following” that’s built before a book is published, or even before it is written, plays into its eventual success. Among the advice passed around to emerging writers these days is that they must make a name for themselves: get a website, get on Facebook, get on Twitter, start a blog, get a following. At best, this advice is overstated. At worst, it’s a gigantic distraction that will keep you from writing the book you must write.

Yes, buzz sells books. Yes, some of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers and blog followers will be among the first to buy your book when it comes out. And yes, a website shows you’re a professional. But you must absolutely guard your time. Even when you’re up and running and you’ve got a book or two under your belt, you should aim for spending no more than a quarter of your time on the business part of this grand adventure.

If you’re an emerging writer who’s still pushing out that first million words ahead of your real publishable work, you should spend a whole lot less time on promotion. The exception: if you write for a specialized nonfiction market—growers of heirloom tomatoes, for instance—you’ll need to be recognized as an expert within the field in order to successfully pitch your book, so you’ll want to spend a larger chunk of your time getting recognized.

While electronic buzz is huge, huge, huge, don’t forget that in the end what we’re really talking here are relationships. In that way, writing is no different than any other business. Your online presence must project the real you and your real book, because that’s what gets outted one way or the other. Fake reviews may sell a few titles, but if the book stinks, the readers won’t be back.

A profile of Emma Straub by Eryn Loeb in Poets & Writers magazine brings this point home. After her first four novels were rejected, Straub got serious about the quality of her work, putting herself under the tutelage of Lorrie Moore. A small press, Five Chapter Books, published Straub’s first collection of short stories. She has more than ten thousand followers on Twitter. She posts regularly on the Paris Review Daily and on New York magazine’s culture blog Vulture. Yet she says it’s her job at an indie bookstore in Brooklyn that really taught her how to market her work, one reader at a time.

As you consciously, purposefully, strike a balance between creativity and business, consider that relationships are at the heart of both. What you do with and for your fellow writers along with what you do with and for your readers will come back around in the best of ways to benefit you and your work. And there’s nothing creepy about that.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Is It Done Yet? How to Know if Your Book is Ready to Market

Sculpture by Marcel Buhler, courtesy Cream Contemporary

Scan advice from agents and editors, and you’ll find a common thread: too many writers send off their work before it’s ready. Reader reviews of self-published books echo this concern. But how do you know when a piece is as good as it’s going to get?

This is trickier than it sounds. Part of the fun and frustration of writing is that a piece can always get better. Most published writers will tell you they’ve wished for changes even after their work came out in print. And while much writing goes off half-baked, it’s also possible to overcook a piece, to fiddle with it till it falls apart on the page, or to play with it more or less forever, thus staving off any chance of rejection.

Let’s assume you’ve engaged in that recursive process of discovery, prewriting and drafting and revising until you have what feels like a decent draft. You’ve let it set awhile, and in the most objective of ways you’ve approached it again. You’ve gotten critiques from a few trusted readers. Is it ready for market?

Even when your instinct tells you a project is ready, it’s good to go one more round, taking time to move through the project chapter by chapter, doing the same sort of writer-as-reader analysis you’d do on a good published book by another author. If your piece is an essay or short story, so much the better – there’s a lot to evaluate.

Hand write your notes, both in the text itself – marking lyric moments, best parts, surprise and delight – and also in a free-standing list. Handwriting keeps your right brain involved in what’s essentially a left-brained pursuit.

Here’s what I look for. When it comes to revision, I’m not a big fan of checklists, so beware. This sort of analysis too early in the project can stifle creative energy. Plus this is my own personal list,  keyed to what I find engaging in narrative (fiction and non) and slanted toward my own shortcomings. Your ready-for-market survey might look quite a lot different. 

  • The basics: notes on time, point of view, narrative distance, voice, and length.
  • Beginning and end: Copy down the first and last sentences in order to study the frame for the piece.
  • Scene and summary: List these, in order. For the scenes, note ways in which characters change from beginning to end. Note how backstory, if any, works in.
  • Characters: What do the characters know about themselves? What are they blind to? Which feelings are articulated? Which feelings need to be articulated? In what ways are they larger than life?
  • Arc: Where’s the set-up, the climax, the denouement?
  • Surprise and delight: What feels most fresh and alive in the piece? Consider word choice, metaphor, humor, voice, plot, character.
  • Suspense: Foreshadowing, not overdone. Consider what’s not said, what’s withheld, and conversely, what’s revealed and where.
  • Language and details: Where’s the sharp, smart language? The humor, if any? Make sure nothing’s overwritten or over-explained. Even after a few rounds of revision, I find myself lopping off ends of sentences, where I’ve said too much.
  • Lyric moments: Identify the ones you’ve got, and look for places where they should be.
  • What it’s about: If you thought you knew and now you’re seeing something more, less, or different, that can be good, as long as you make the most of what you discover. Pay attention to how the focus is revealed to the reader. Sometimes it’s too obvious, sometimes it’s too subtle. Every story is two stories: identify both.
  • Where you copped out: Consider the ways in which your project could be more than it is – more emotional depth, more distinctive voice, richer language, more layers.
Beware, too, the opposing tendency: to hold back your work indefinitely, for fear it's not good enough. If you've done everything here, it's time to move the book on to a few trusted readers and/or an editor who'll help you see past your blind spots. Have courage! This is why you wrote the book, yes? So it will find its way to readers, once it's the best it can be.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Why We Care: Detroit’s Little Library Challenge

At the Little Free Library on Hiland Mountain

Never has there been so much noise about books, publishing, and authorship. Or so much handwringing. Amazon vs. Hatchette. The Big Five vs. the Little Guys. Sound bites vs. sustained immersion. Upheaval, bottom to top.

Let’s set that aside for a moment to focus on one simple precept: the power of the book to transform. Then extend that to an entire community that’s taking on the big, big challenge of transforming itself through the power of books.

I write my books from a little house on an Alaska mountainside that’s 3000 miles from Detroit. My closest Little Free Library is another three miles up the mountain, along a winding road with views of Cook Inlet and, on clear days, a big beautiful mountain, which we Alaskans call Denali.

Distance and differences aside, I’m rooting for Detroit’s Little Free Library Challenge. Kim Kozlowski’s IndieGoGo project is all about the things we Alaskans believe in: community, resilience, and self-reliance, empowered by a deep and transcending appreciation—call it love—for the spaces around us.

The goal of Detroit’s Little Library Challenge is to make their city the Little Free Library capital of the world, with a phase one goal of setting up 313 Little Free Libraries. It’s good press for a place that’s had more than its share of bad. But the Challenge is also about the fundamental transformations that happen through books. Readers are smarter than non-readers, with above average emotional intelligence and empathy. The number of books in a home is the single best indicator of how well a child will do in school. Reading reduces stress and improves sleep. All good things for a community that’s looking to make a comeback.

We’re rooting for them, all the way up here. Along with other Alaska Authors, I’m donating books to seed an Alaska Little Free Library on the streets of Detroit, a reminder that when times are tough, it doesn’t matter where you live—we all come together.

But for this Little Free Library to become a reality, we need your help. For just sixteen dollars, you can do your part to make it happen. Let’s show Detroit some love!

If you’re an author, Detroit’s Little Libraries project is accepting donations of autographed books to seed regionally-themed libraries as part of their Ambassador option. But for those libraries to be built, they also need cash, so please join in this outpouring of love and affirmation by pledging your support today(For Alaska: 16 authors bringing 4 pledgers each, and we'll meet our goal!) 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Are You Famous? Tips for Author Appearances

An onstage event: (left to right) Beth Hill, Seth Kantner, Peggy Shumaker, Joan Kane, and me.

I don’t mind telling you: I’m a tad exhausted, coming off two weeks of author appearances centered around my latest novel Cold Spell. For us author types, that much meet-and-greet can be grueling.

A friend of mine who has worked as a publicist asked if my publisher had arranged the events. Nope. I did that myself, though I had a lot of help from gallery owners and booksellers and college folks and a local writers organization. There was the launch, of course, and there were signings. But there was also a ticketed dinner event (sold out!), plus two “onstage” conversations and a workshop. At each appearance, I enjoyed the company of other authors, which made every event more enjoyable and better attended than it would have been had I gone solo.

A few tips for planning author appearances:

·         Venues: Although a few of my recent events were out of town, they were all within driving distance, which was a big relief to me. I enjoy travel, and if there’s a chance to connect it with books, so much the better. But as most authors will tell you, the traditional book tour is not nearly as glamorous as you might think, and it’s not especially good at getting books sold, either. For the most part, I chose local venues based on relationships I’d already built with the owners and managers.
·         Costs: The traditional book tour has two main objectives: to build relationships between authors and readers (including key readers, like booksellers) and to keep an author’s name out in front of audiences during the launch period. Is it cost-effective? Not really. From a publisher’s point of view, it’s more of a long-tail investment, getting their most popular authors out to meet and make fans. Regardless of how they’re published, some authors front the costs for their own book tours, but I haven’t run across any who’ve found it, dollar for dollar, to be a good investment. If there are places you’d love to visit or places you’re visiting anyway and you’re able to arrange author appearances there, great—you’ll enjoy the journey, and your expenses may even be tax-deductible, if your writing efforts qualify as a legitimate business with the IRS.
·         Occasion: Author appearances don’t have to be launch-related. It’s always a good idea to get out and meet readers at book signings, readings, and other events if you’re good at that sort of thing and you actively promote those events through your friends-and-fans network. My recent events were launch-related, but they also tied in with an annual event, Alaska Book Week, which I helped start a few years ago.
·         Audience: Don’t just expect people to show up. They’re busy, and even though you’re an author, that doesn’t make you famous. Line up your events well in advance (six months, at least, if they’re out of town), and think beyond the traditional reading/signing. Look for groups that might have an interest in your book or in your journey as an author. Or maybe there are workshops you could teach. If your appearances are value-added for the audience, with book sales taking second billing, you’re more likely to find interest.
·         Partners: Another way to expand your audience is to participate in well-conceived events featuring multiple authors. It’s more fun, too.
·         Preparation: If you’re reading, practice and—extremely important—time yourself. Any reading that lasts more than ten minutes, including the introduction, is probably too much. If you have more time to fill, engage your audience with slides, anecdotes, and the like. Your knees might be shaking, your onstage persona should exude charisma and confidence. Relax and have fun, and your audience will follow suit.
·         Numbers: You may not sell lots of books. But simply spreading the word about your appearances increases your visibility and draws attention to your book.
·         Blog tours: Because of the costs involved, many publishers now favor blog tours in which the publicist arranges guest blogs, interviews, and book reviews at well-read blogs and then turns the author loose to fulfill the assignments. No hotels, taxis, or airfare are required—only the author’s time. Lots of it. One friend of mine had to cover 100 blog stops for the launch of her book. Are blog tours effective? In theory, anything that gets you and your book in front of readers is helpful, and anything online has the advantage of creating a permanent presence for you and your book in the ever-expanding internet archives. If your publisher arranges one, you’re obviously going to participate, time suck or no; to refuse would be bad form. If you’re publishing on your own, consider whether the potential benefits are worth the time you invest. You can use the online service Alexa to make sure the blogs you’re touring are at least as well-trafficked as your own blog (assuming you have a blog). And as with most everything in publishing, be prepared for a lot of rejection (mostly in the form of silence) when you email bloggers asking for them to host a stop on your blog tour. I generally approach only those with whom I’ve developed some sort of personal connection, through social media or my fan base.
·         Party on: A new darling of the traditional publishing industry is the book launch party. But unless you’re a big, big name with a blockbuster title, they’re not offering to throw the party on your behalf; they want you to host a party and invite all your friends and sell a few books. All well and good—especially for the publisher, since they’ve invested nothing other than the suggestion—as long as you have the resources and enjoy that sort of thing. I like a party as well as the next person, but I agree with an author friend who points out, hey, we’re the writers—shouldn’t they be buying us drinks? If you want to celebrate your launch without breaking the bank, look for a no-host venue where your guests can buy their own food and drinks, preferably one that will allow you to sell and autograph books without charging you a percentage. Some authors even throw launch parties online, though to me that seems a stretch of what you can do with a keyboard. Maybe once someone invents virtual cocktails, the online launch party will catch on.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Fact and Fiction: Life into Story

Whenever I hear the latest update on the ebola outbreak, I think of Don Rearden. I can’t help it. In his novel The Raven’s Gift, he wrote about the devastation brought on by a deadly disease that spins out of control. Sure, his book is fiction, and at that time he wrote it, he was thinking bird flu, but the parallels between fact and fiction are a little uncanny.

On a less dramatic scale, I’ve seen a similar tension between fact and fiction play out involving a plot point in my first novel A Distant Enemy. Nearly two decades ago, I wrote a set-up that involved intentional fishing during an emergency closure in Southwest Alaska. In the last few years, a similar scenario had played out in a very real conflict over changes in salmon harvest more drastic than any I’d dared to imagine. Arrests and court battles followed. Decisions were reached, but the battle is far from over.

It would be nice to think that when it comes to such things, we authors are smart and savvy and maybe even a little prophetic (oh lottery numbers, please make yourselves known!). But really, the whole thing boils down to this: in fiction, our material is life as it’s lived and known and hidden and dreamed.

Not that our task is easy. Our own lives infuse our work with power even as “real life” gets in the way. We face hard choices about what constitutes truth. And sometimes what we think we know is only a smattering of what’s required of us to get it right on the page, which means research—lots of it, even for stories.

As author Peggy Shumaker so aptly puts it, "the whole truth is never available to us." And yet somehow in our work, we wrestle with the facts of who we are - the things we can face and the truths we aren't ready for yet. The unknown always feels bigger than the known.

Then there are the practical matters of whose stories we tell and what right we have to give voice to anyone, along with the fine points of perspective and the tension between getting the facts right (whatever form "right" may take) and staying true to the narrative as well as the extent to which we live the facts of our work as opposed to drawing on the experiences of others.

The intersection of fact and fiction makes for great conversation among writers. Tomorrow we’re headed to Soldotna to share that discussion with local readers, writers, and seekers, along with the just plain curious. One and all, you’re invited to “Fact and Fiction: Life into Story,” a reading and book talk hosted by the Kenai Peninsula College Showcase Series in conjunction with 49 Writers.

And wait, there’s more: Don and I couldn’t be happier to announce that Seth Kantner (Ordinary Wolves, Pup and Pokey, Shopping for Porcupine) will be joining us for this lively discussion. We hope you’ll be there too: 7 pm, at KPC’s McLain Commons. Admission is free, with book sales and signing to follow. The next day, Don and I will be teaching workshops on character and point of view. For the workshops, preregistration is required; head on over to the 49 Writers website to get all the scoop.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Query a Literary Agent: What to Expect

You've done the hard work of writing and sending out queries in hopes of attracting the interest of a literary agent. Now what?

If an agent is interested in a novel or memoir, she’ll request a partial or full manuscript. If you’ve queried a nonfiction project, an interested agent will request a book proposal. (There are many great resources on writing book proposals, including Write the Perfect Book Proposal by Jeff Herman and Deborah Levine Herman, and Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write, by Elizabeth Lyon.) In either case - fiction or non - you should be ready with the full manuscript or proposal when it’s requested. Unless you have a solid (read “bestselling”) track record or a close working relationship with a particular agent or editor, you shouldn’t expect to sell a book on spec (speculation) unless you’ve got a killer proposal.

As you commit to the submissions process, brace yourself for rejections at both the query and manuscript/proposal levels (more on how to handle rejections in “Live the Life”). Query rejections are generally form letters, expressing in some sort of generic language the sentiment captured in Jessica Page Morrell’s book title Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us. In many cases, these will be sent on behalf of an agent by an assistant or intern who’s charged with weeding through the slush pile (which is where queries land). Of the queries that make it to the agent herself,  most will meet the same fate—a form rejection—though if the query mentions a personal connection with the agent (met at a conference, referred by one of the agent’s clients) or if the project shows exceptional promise, the rejection may be personalized.

You may still get form rejections after sending partial or complete manuscripts (or book proposals) at the request of an agent, but at this point, more of the rejections will be personalized, including valuable information about what the manuscript’s lacking and/or how it might be improved. Sometimes these personalized rejections will include an offer to resubmit the manuscript after revision, or to submit another project in the future. If no such offer is extended, that doesn’t mean you should cross the agent off your list. Anyone who took the time to read and respond to your work would likely be open to hearing from you again, provided you’ve addressed the areas of concern.

Every personal response from an agent merits a brief note of thanks from you, along with a statement about your future intent (“I hope to have a revision finished within the year”; “Perhaps we’ll connect on another project”).

More etiquette involving submissions:

·        It’s great to be confident, but don’t grandstand. I once edited a query for a client who had included a statement to the effect that he was the next Hemingway. Not smart. Neither should you rely on gimmicks, gifts, or cutsy/clever approaches. Your query will stand out, all right, but not in a good way.
·        As a general rule, don’t query multiple agents within the same agency at the same time.
·        To meet agents in person, attend writers’ conferences that include pitch or critique sessions with agents. Sometimes agents will even extend offers to all conference participants to send queries. When interacting with agents in person, don’t over-schmooze and don’t over-sell yourself and your project. No one likes a hard sell, and when you’re trying too hard, you’re bound to miss valuable feedback from agents.
·        It’s fine to follow up on a query, but first check the agent’s website, where under their submissions (or “contact) information, you’ll often find the policy regarding responses. Usually, there’s a statement about no news being bad news: if you don’t hear back from the agent within a certain time frame, that means there’s no interest. In other cases, an agent will suggest following up on a query after a certain amount of time. If there’s no guidance at all on the website, it’s fine to follow up once, after three to four months. If there’s no response to your follow-up, consider your query rejected. Don’t nag.
·        Don’t fume about agents on social media; your venting does no good and will harm your chances of getting picked up by any agent. If you have a legitimate, documented concern about an agent’s credibility, make it known through a respected clearinghouse such as Predators and Editors.
·        Most literary agents are hard-working and above-board, but keep in mind that in theory, anyone can call herself a literary agent. The industry is self-regulated by the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), so look for agents who are members or have a proven track record representing successful authors. Be suspicious of agents who charge reading fees or who suggest in their form rejections that you hire their friends or associates to edit your manuscript.
·        Don’t give up after only a few queries. Statistically, the odds are against any book getting representation. But a great book will find readers, no matter how it’s published, as long as the author is committed to making that happen. If you’re going the traditional route, that often means committing to a long and extended search for the right representation—an agent who’s as passionate about your project as you are, and who’ll not only help you place your book but will also advance your career.
·         An offer for representation may or may not take the form of a contract between you and the agent; at the very least, though, it should include a discussion of what each of you can expect from the other in terms of duties and compensation. There should be no surprises. A good agent will keep you informed about where your work is being submitted and how it’s being received, including copies of any rejection letters the agent receives on your work. 

In the best of all worlds, your book will get snatched up by one of the first agents you query. But usually it’s a longer process, one that involves lots of queries and therefore lots of recordkeeping. To keep track of your queries, you can use a service like QueryTracker, but I prefer my own Excel spreadsheet, set up in a way that makes sense to me. I include columns for status (active, revise, rejected, no response), date, project, submitted to, email address, response (date and language copy/pasted from email), and notes (why I’m submitting to this agent; agent policies and guidelines for submission).

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Publishing: How to Query a Literary Agent

For most authors, traditional publishing begins with a query, a brief letter in which you pitch yourself and your project, usually to a literary agent, though in some cases (small presses; some specialty houses), the query may go directly to an editor at a publishing house. The query represents a turning point in the way you think about your project. It’s where your work of art becomes a commodity and where your passion morphs back toward business. Query-writing is such a valuable process that even if you self-publish, it’s worth the time to develop a query to yourself as the first step in the promotional process.

When I first began writing queries, I followed the usual formula—why I’m writing, what my project is, who I am—and I didn’t put a lot of time or energy into my approach. But as the market tightened, I began to spend more time crafting my queries, treating them like mini-manuscripts, prewriting and drafting and letting them sit and doing multiple revisions. When I query, I now pay careful attention to my audience and to figuring out what my project is really about, and I make sure my unique voice—the voice reflected in my manuscript—shines in the query letter.

These days, emerging writers seem to focus most of their attention on the one or two sentence “elevator pitch” and then build their query around it. I find this backwards. Any project, even a marginal one, can be reduced to a sentence or two that’s rattled off on the fly. If you take the time to produce a finely-crafted query letter, you’ll have all the content and confidence you need to pitch your project to any agent you happen to meet in an elevator.

Though it may sound odd, I often draft part of my query in the early stages of my projects, as soon as I feel the book beginning to take shape. Even though it will most certainly change, I find it helpful to consider how a project will appear to potential publishers and readers, in the form of back cover copy, which is how I think of the pitch line or lines of the query.

Despite the grumbling you hear (possibly even from me), placing your manuscript is not merely a crap shoot or a numbers game. It’s about knowing your book through and through and understanding enough about the market to know where it fits, and it’s about the project earning your conviction that it absolutely must reach its readers.

There’s all sorts of query advice floating around, but the best I’ve found is in a slim little volume called The Last Query by Cindy Dyson, a guide-book that also happens to be a fine example of the type of project that lends itself to self-publishing even though the writer has already published traditionally (a fine novel, And She Was): a viable topic, a knowledgeable author, and a niche market.

Dyson approaches queries from an agent’s perspective. What will make your query stand out among hundreds and thousands that all follow the same formula? We all like to think our projects are entirely unique, when in truth they’re not nearly as special as we imagine. That’s not to say they’re not worthy of publication, only that we must work hard to figure out how to help our target audience—first the agent, then the publisher and then readers—understand that they MUST have this book. Consider the fears and desires of agents, Dyson suggests. Ask yourself significant questions about your project, things you might not have considered before, like the metaphorical highlights and the soul of the story. Examine yourself as a writer, including what Dyson calls the “sexy hooks” of your life.

I’ve distilled Dyson’s query writing questions into a worksheet that I use for nearly every book I write. The worksheet pulls together my thinking about the book; in completing it, I inevitably discover new angles that have been lurking around beneath the surface of my project.

Once you’ve done the deep thinking about your project, you’re ready to draft a query letter. Ideally, a query letter should be personalized; you should research specific agents and let each know why you’ve chosen him or her—either because another author or agent referred you (that’s best), or because you admire another author represented by that agent, or because your research has shown you that this agent is especially interested in books like yours. 

Begin with a comprehensive search using an annual guide such as The Writer’s Market or Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents and/or online databases such as Agent Query or Query Tracker. Professional organizations (Poets & Writers, Society of Children’s BookWriters and Illustrators) also maintain databases of agents and editors that can be accessed by their members. Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog is a great way to keep up on new agents who are acquiring clients.

Besides your explanation of why you chose to query a particular agent, your letter should also include your pitch, or hook—a captivating sentence or two that would also work as back cover copy, something so riveting that a potential reader feels she simply HAS to read more. The query should also show that you understand how your book fits in the marketplace, and it should include something about you as an author—your experience, why you’re the person to write this particular book, your ways of connecting with readers—and it should end with an extension of thanks to the agent or editor for considering your project. As much as possible, your query should also convey the voice of your book. 

As you query each agent, be sure to check online for the agent’s policies and guidelines. At any given time, a particular agent may post a notice saying she’s not accepting unsolicited submissions. If that’s the case, don’t query that agent—your letter will go directly to the trash unless the agent has specifically requested your manuscript, which generally happens after meeting you at a conference or other event. However, if the agent’s website says she’s not accepting unsolicited manuscripts but gives instructions for sending queries, go ahead and contact her. If your query piques her interest, she’ll solicit your manuscript.

Also pay attention to whether the agent accepts queries by email or by regular mail. Most have gone digital, though there are a few holdouts for the slow and cumbersome system of querying by snail mail with an SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) for reply. Many agents ask for the first page to ten pages to be copy/pasted into the email that contains your query. (Because of the threat posed by computer viruses, few will open attachments unless it’s a manuscript they’ve specifically requested.)

Some agents will also ask for a synopsis, a one or two page summary of your book that, like the query, shows your voice and piques interest. No cliffhangers, though—a synopsis should include the book’s ending. Few authors enjoy writing the synopsis, but like the query, it needs to shine if you want your submission to stand out from the rest. For a sample synopsis, see the appendix.
With digital queries, most agents are now also amenable to multiple submissions, though upon requesting a manuscript, some still ask for an exclusive reading period (usually a few weeks). 

My advice: once you’ve cultivated a list of agents specific to your project, query eight to ten at a time. If you’re still getting form rejections after sending out two or three of these batches, take another look at both your query and your manuscript; revisions may be in order. In some ways, submissions are a numbers game—it may take forty or fifty queries before one lands in the inbox of someone who’s intrigued by your book premise and impressed by your chops as an author.
Once you send out the first batch of queries, the waiting begins. Next week, I’ll talk about what sorts of responses you can expect, how to keep track of them, and more query etiquette.