Eye to Eye

Two friends and I purchased a table at the Greenville, South Carolina Holiday Craft Fair last weekend and we took our books. We have all had a recent release and thought it would be a good place to sell them, or at least get some exposure and hopefully pick up some new readers.

It doesn’t seem, in this age of instant communication, social networking, tweeting and so forth, that exposure would be a problem. But it is. E books are a huge thing, and since just about anyone can post a book on Smashwords, Kindle, Nook, the inventory has swollen. The E stores are flooded with them but browsing is a problem, finding a good, well constructed, well edited book is a bigger one. You almost have to know the name of the author or the book you want to make sense of it all. Barnes and Noble overflows with books. Even if you know what kind of book you want, the selection is vast. Most casual browsers never get past the front table. That’s where all the “blockbusters” reside and that’s what most folks end up with. The library is no less daunting but at least it’s free. If you don’t like the book, you can take it back. Only, how do the librarians choose what to buy on their limited budgets?  Good reviews from major reviewers, and, occasionally, word of mouth or a request from a patron. So, how does a “mid-list” author stand out? Get known?

We thought the Craft Fair might be a way. Hundreds, maybe thousands, were expected to pass through over the three days we would be there. We could reasonably expect a few sales and even more contacts during that time, couldn’t we? Not knowing what to expect, we bundled up our books, our crime scene tape and white tablecloth and set off. Were we successful? I’m not sure. I really don’t know how to measure success under those conditions. I do know we sold a bunch of books, and I gave away more than two hundred bookmarks. I talked to just about everyone who took one. Some asked about my books, others tucked the bookmark into their bags for, I hope, a further look when they got home. We got very brazen, calling out to passersby, asking if they liked to read, or did they read mysteries. The results were mixed. Many said they never read. Others just smiled and kept going. Quite a few said they read but not mysteries. Too scary. After trying to say that cozies are not very scary I gave up trying to disassociate myself from Steven King.  People like what they like. Many did come over to the table, and were interested enough to ask about the books. Ellis Vidlar, Linda Lovely and I write very different kinds of stories, so there was a wide choice, and many bought. More took a bookmark and said they would order on line. Maybe they will. And will those who stopped to chat, remember our books and us? Don’t know. But I think it was three days well spent. Eye to eye, person to person, it’s always been a very good way to stand out.  People were kind, courteous, and mostly interested in what we had to say. Not all, of course. There was one woman who stopped in the middle of the aisle, looked at all the titles on display, and loudly commented, “I’ve never heard of any of you,” and stomped off. Oh, well.

I’ll be at Books A Million in, SC, Saturday and Fiction Addiction, also in Greenville, the Saturday after that. You see, I still believe in person to person, eye to eye. And, if I run into that lady at another event, who knows, she just might remember me.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Quality Control

Years ago, before I had anything published, I used to write little things and hide them in my cedar chest. I have always been an avid reader and secretly wanted to be a writer, an august state I was sure I could never attain. I didn’t have the imagination, the cleverness, to write a book, or even an article. My scribbling was destined never to see the light of day, and especially not the printed page.

One day one of my daughters wanted something in the cedar chest and came out with a handful of pages. “Did you write these? They’re really good.” They weren’t and I knew it, but shortly after a close friend commented on how well I wrote business letters and other things, so I gathered my courage and decided to seriously try. I wrote an article about my children’s adventures in 4H and it was published by Family Fun. I was thrilled. I was on my way.

It didn’t turn out quite that easy. Writing a book, writing anything, is hard work. At least it is if you want it to be good.

I wrote my first mystery novel without benefit of knowledge of the craft, or even the knowledge that it was a craft, one that needed to be learned. Why that never occurred to me, I don’t know. You have to learn to do everything else. No one dances the lead in Swan Lake without years of practice, no one is allowed to drive a car unless you can prove your competency, no one wants to grace your dinner table unless you’ve learned to do something more than boil water. Writing is no different.

I submitted my first mystery novel to St Martin’s Malice Domestic contest, by now certain my hard work and the sale of that one lone article had made me a competent author. I was certain to win. The book came back with a note from the judge, saying it had promise but I needed to learn how to write. Well!

How dare she! I picked up my precious manuscript and started to read. It didn’t take long. She was right. I realized I had two choices. I could put the book back in the cedar chest and do something else or I could learn how to write. I chose to learn.

Four novels, several short stories, articles and blogs later, I’m still learning. My work is earning praise from readers and reviewers and I’m about ready to tear down all of the rejections I used to paper the bathroom wall and replace them with glowing reviews. It’s taken years of hard work and I’m not finished yet. I’m sure I’ll still be learning, still rewriting, still giving my books more layers, tightening up the story, fleshing out my characters on the day I shut my computer down for the last time. Which brings me to my point.

Today almost any one can get just about anything in print, or published on the web in some form. Put your novel up on Kindle, Nook or Smashwords. It might sell. Create a Facebook page and get a Twitter account. and you’re good to go. Self publish and set the reading world on fire. Maybe. However, most really good books are still published the old fashioned way, with an agent to guide you through the hunt for an editor and that same editor doing what they are supposed to do. Edit. Conversely, many of the self published books are poorly written by earnest people, many with talent, all of whom were willing to put in the hours, days, months it takes to write a book, but haven’t taken the time to really learn their craft. How is a reader to know which is which?

For me, it goes back to quality control. I look at reviews, see if the libraries stock the book, see if others have read it, and see who published it. That doesn’t mean I’m going to like the book, and it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, but it does give me a guide. Trying to pick something to read out of the thousands of ebooks offered, or the hundreds of new books that just came into the local library, or find my way through the stacks at Barnes and Noble, is daunting. You can’t tell the quality by the cover. You never could, but now that so many people are proficient at photo-shop, you really can’t. I’m not saying all self-published books are poor quality. Many aren’t. I know authors who are talented, write tight stories, build beguiling characters, are meticulous editors, but for some reason haven’t made it through the slush pile or have had bad experiences and choose the self published route. But you, the reader, can’t tell that by the cover. There is no way to know if the story is tight, the characters convincing, especially if you are choosing an ebook. There is no gatekeeper.

So, I have developed a strategy for picking authors new to me. I look at who is publishing the book. If I know, and respect the publishing house, or the person giving the blurb on the back cover I am more willing to take a chance. Then I go back to my favorite method. I go to my convenient and friendly local book store and ask the bookseller what’s new and what’s good. She’s usually right. Besides, she carries my books.

The Tortuous Path from Idea to Story

Yesterday, I taught a workshop for the OLLI at Clemson University. OLLI, for those of you too young to know, is continuing education for seniors and a chapter can be found at many universities. They delve into all kinds of subjects; from teaching you how to clean your computer of extra stuff you don’t want (a class I need to take) to the history of Jewish Folklore (a class I took) My workshop has been included in their curriculum.

The object of the workshop isn’t to teach people how to write a novel, that pretty much takes a lifetime, but to show them the difference between an idea and a story, and the steps an author takes to make that leap. I handed out an outline I’d brought and started with an idea. We could start to build a story from it several ways but we still needed the basic ingredients. Like baking a cake, only in this case the ingredients were the antagonist, the protagonist, conflict, setting and so on. After we spent a few minutes discussing the outline, I passed out cards and everyone wrote down an idea of their own. We picked one at random and we were off.

An hour later, we had a protagonist who actually was fleshed out. We knew what he looked like, what his childhood had been like, that he was a widower, and a lot about his frustration with getting old and loosing his independence. Not an unusual topic in a class filled with sixty pluses. We had a secondary character we also knew a lot about. We’d explored his background, knew how he was raised by a single mother, knew his struggles with his sexuality, his resentment against the world and particularly with the great uncle who he was obliged to drive cross country. We knew the journey was going to be the adversary and that it would change both of these people. Did we have a story?

No. Not yet.

Stories are about what happens to people. About events that change them, in little ways and profound ones. About conflict and how the person, or persons, in our story react to that conflict. No two people would react the same way to the same situation. One might burst into tears at, for instance, the injury or death of a loved one. Another might retreat into private misery. One might freeze in the face of danger, another might attack. It depends on the person. Given a couple more hours, we might have constructed a story about Frank and Kevin’s trip and the things that happened to change them. What we did do was lay down the foundation for a story, by breathing a little life into two characters.

Every time I do this workshop, I’m reminded that stories are about people and what happens to them. What happens to Frank and Kevin is yet to be discovered, but now that we know them, we’ve got a place to start. What fun!