Ten cool things about being a writer

Some days, when writers’ block descends, our query letters return like boomerangs and our books aren’t selling, it’s nice to reflect upon what we have going for us.

1. We can travel light. Unlike plumbers and brain surgeons, writers need only a small notebook and a pencil to do our jobs (the current electronic paraphernalia is fine, but optional). And if you’re one of those fortunate souls able to conjure lengthy passages in your head, you don’t need anything at all.

2. We can eat and drink while we work.

3. We face no institutional barriers.  You can’t call yourself a doctor, a lawyer, a minister or a police officer without jumping through some societal hoops. To call yourself a writer, though, all you have to do is write. It doesn’t have to be how you make your living, you don’t need to be published, and you don’t even have to be good at it.

4. It’s OK to be poor. True, it’s not fun — but our literary culture has elevated the starving writer into something of a noble sufferer.

5. It’s OK to be weird. Indeed, for writers, artists and musicians, it seems that the stranger and more anti-social you become, the more intrigued people are by your work. Creative types also get a pass on habitual drunkenness, self-destructive drug use and sexual adventurism.  Think about it: In what other profession would Edgar Alan Poe and F. Scott Fitzgerald have been considered success stories?

6. We can change identities at will. All of us, in our darker moments, have fervently wished we were someone else. Fortunately, writers can use a time travel device called “first person” to transport themselves anywhere we like, at any point in history.

7. Writers are allowed to use pen names, a rarity among professions. How would you feel if your banker told you: “You know, this isn’t my real name”?

8. The best writers can become famous without the downside of fame — no paparazzi, no autograph hounds. Most of us wouldn’t know any of the current Top Ten best-selling authors if they were standing at our front door.

9. Everyone has the right to our opinion. If you stood up in a bar or on a street corner and told the world what you thought about some controversial issue, you’d risk being punched in the face or arrested (or worse, in some countries). But if you express your opinion in writing, you generally need fear only a few nasty e-mails.

10. You may never be published, but chances are you will have the ability to write memorable responses to creditors (See No. 4 above), devastating breakup letters to end bad relationships, and, if worst comes to worst, suicide notes.

What I’m looking for in a Snowflake

OK, I know that headline sounds kind of cutesy. Sorry — it goes with the general concept, which is: “Getting noticed as a writer today is like a snowflake trying to stand out in a blizzard.”

The problem with most marketing devices is that they just toss your book in with thousands of other books — or millions, in the case of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. How does that help?

I know, because I’m also on this journey, snowblind like the rest of you.

My novel, “The Kudzu Kid,” is not great literature. At least, I don’t think it is — I’m not even sure what constitutes great literature any more. But it’s my first novel, so it was a learning experience. The next one will be better.

Still, I was happy with it. My goal was to tell an entertaining story with interesting characters and provide some insight into what the profession of journalism is really like, especially on the gut level of a small town. I feel like I accomplished that, and I think a lot of people would enjoy reading it.

Except, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, why should they?  I’m an unknown novelist whose book doesn’t fit into any of the popular genres. Hoping that the average reader might snatch it up off a Barnes & Noble shelf or click on it on Amazon is a little like my Dad’s faith in his perpetual New York State Lottery number.

After nearly two decades passed, during which he never won a dime, I asked him: “Dad, don’t you think it’s time to try another number?.”

He bristled.

“Are you crazy?” he said. “That’s my lucky number.”

What’s that Einstein quote about doing things the same way but expecting different results?

I have a dozen or so reviews posted on Amazon, all of them complimentary.  Yet it wouldn’t matter if I had a thousand if no one ever looks at them.

So the idea behind “Snowflakes in a Blizzard” — a free service, by the way — is to take a book like mine that’s struggling for attention and place it in a setting where it can go one-on-one with prospective readers. Think of it as like a winery or brewery offering twice-weekly tastings of off-brands.

I’m looking for books that are self-published, or came from small presses, or were published a while ago and have seen sales level off.  Or maybe books by authors from other countries looking to get traction in U.S. markets (fluent English is, however, a requirement — our books can’t have subtitles). I’m especially interested in good books that are as yet unpublished, hoping that exposure on this site will help create a pre-publication buzz and maybe influence a publisher or agent (although there is nothing at all wrong with self-publishing). These books can be fiction or non-fiction, and the 27 authors I’ve plugged in so far represent both.

Much as I hate to become just another gatekeeper, I do need to make sure that what is submitted is something most people would want to read. This, I realize, is subjective, but there are standards. Something riddled with typos and grammatical mistakes obviously won’t pass. I will also read enough of a submitted book to make sure it makes sense. Other than that, I have a broad tolerance for different styles, genres and viewpoints. It can be weird, as long as it’s readable.

I have tried to schedule books in such a way as to provide variety. I don’t want two mysteries back-to-back, for instance, or two self-help books, or a couple of consecutive sci-fi efforts. Ironically, the one exception will be the first three blogs, where I’m featuring books that connect in some way with the Vietnam War (but all in different ways).

We have to maintain our collective credibility, or risk chasing our audience away. And without an audience, we’re just another tree falling in the forest. There would be no point.

Therefore, I’m working hard on that element prior to the official launch of this blog sometime in April. And I do have some ideas.

1. What if we gave book or two away in connection with every blog entry, based on a random drawing of people coming to the site?

2. What if the author let it be known that he or she would love to talk about their book, how and why they wrote it, and about writing in general, for a certain period after the book was featured?

3. What if we took a vote of readers at the end of the year and gave some sort of significant prize to what was deemed the most popular blog entry? I, for one, would be glad to offer a free edit for some future piece of writing.

4. What if we featured a person or company every Snowflake edition that helps writers in some way?

5. What if we did a really good job of archiving prior posts?

Anyone else have any ideas? The time is getting close.

What if? Where did your novel come from?

With a new blog, the idea is always to generate comments. This is my first attempt in that direction.

I’m doing a book signing for my first novel, “The Kudzu Kid,” later this month at a weekly newspaper office in Amelia County, VA.  Because part of the inspiration for that book came from research I did in Amelia, publisher Ann Salster asked me to write a short article in advance on how the story line came about.

I probably went a little overboard, as you’ll see, but I thought it might be interesting to hear where other novelists come up with the initial inspiration for what they wrote.

Here’s that article:

Very often, works of fiction spring into being based on a fleeting thought of “what if?” So it was with my first novel, “The Kudzu Kid,” which owes its very existence to Amelia County in general and the Bulletin-Monitor in particular.

As a reporter for the News & Advance in Lynchburg, I once covered an Appomattox County controversy over the need for a new landfill. A local citizen had offered a piece of land to the county free in exchange for certain considerations, one of which was that out-of-state waste firms would be able to use the facility.

A good deal, on the surface. But what if this outwardly public-spirited citizen was only a front for organized crime? Those were the rumors, anyway. And what if these were truly evil people who are willing to poison people — innocent kids, even — just to make a profit?

Nothing ever came of this proposal, as I remember, and there was never any proof that there was anything nefarious about it. But I asked myself: “What if it really had been  backed by the Mafia? And what if the plan really was to use that county as a convenient place to dump hazardous waste and foil the EPA?” That planted the seed for “The Kudzu Kid.”

In order to make this alternative reality seem real, though, I needed a real life landfill controversy. Amelia County had one, and Ann and Mike Salster of the Bulletin were more than happy to fill me in on it. When I learned that several opponents of Amelia’s landfill had been witches, I all but salivated.

Over a two-year period, I made several trips to Amelia, and before long the landfill had become just a subplot. The real story became what would happen — what if? — if you took an arrogant young investigative reporter with a broken big-city career and forced him to take a job as the editor of a small weekly newspaper in Southside Virginia. Bulletin editor Mike Salster, a native of Ohio, had lived part of that (not the arrogance, just the culture shock).

But I drew other ideas from Amelia, as well. Sheriff Jimmy Weaver gave me an insight into the humorous side of small-town law enforcement, although the sheriff in my book was based on Carl Wells from Bedford County. I pasted certain geographical and architectural features of Amelia into my fictional town of Jefferson Springs. I went to a couple of Board of Supervisors meetings and read lots of newspaper clippings.

As he emerged, Eddie Fogarty — the editor in the book — contained a little of Mike Salster, a little from my own college experience, and a few character traits borrowed from a number of reporters and editors I had worked with or known. Zoe, another main player, was inspired in large part by a former co-worker who used to take vacation time to chase the Grateful Dead.

It was also important to me to make my gangster characters real people. One of them, Denny DeBrocco, was portrayed as an overweight slacker, a family man who hated violence but  was twice forced to function as a hit man. The local don, meanwhile, threw a big 16th birthday party for his grandkids and fled to his office because he didn’t like the music the kids were playing.

My book in progress did hit a snag when “The Sopranos” became popular. Here were gangsters who acted like real people and trafficked in hazardous waste, and everybody knew about them. So I waited awhile before I finished mine — silly, I know, but we writers are not always rational. Adding gangsters also meant adding some four-letter words. I was a little ambivalent about that, but according to my research, that’s how gangsters talk. Nor are Fogarty and Zoe, a couple of semi-reformed wild children, intended to be role models. Nevertheless, the book is ultimately about redemption.

Finally, I interviewed nearly a dozen weekly newspaper editors around Southside and Central Virginia. I went with weekly reporters on stories, sat in on a murder trial, even stayed up all night watching a bunch of weeklies getting run off at a communal printing plant. I read weekly paper after weekly paper, with all their quirks and unique personalities.

One of those weeklies was a now-defunct paper in Appomattox. It was located in a three-story building, of which which only the first floor was used. A creaking freight elevator led to the upper two floors, and it gave me another idea. What if Fogarty moved into the upper floor of that building, reincarted as the headquarters of the fictional Southside Echo, to save rent money? That became something I was able to use several times as a plot device.

What if? ,

Marketing, according to Yogi

That eminent philosopher, Yogi Berra, was once asked about an apparent dip in attendance at Yankee Stadium.

Quoth Yogi in response: “If people don’t want to come to the ballgames, there’s nothing we can do to stop them.”

As with so many of Yogi’s pronouncements (“Now I know why nobody ever comes to this restaurant — it’s too crowded”), there is a hidden logic in that one. And it’s quite applicable to book marketing.

If people don’t want to buy your book, there’s nothing you can do to stop them. So forget about those people. Your job is to connect with all the people who might read your book, if only they knew it existed.

My first novel, “The Kudzu Kid,” currently sits becalmed on the vast Amazon ocean, without a hint of a breeze. Sales are flat, bookstores are returning it as if it were infected with the Ebola virus, and I rank somewhere in the two millions on Amazon’s sales rankings. My publisher, who is a nice guy and generally supportive, has suggested that I may want to try self-publishing my next book.

Am I panicking? Have I lost faith in “The Kudzu Kid”? No, and no.

In a way, I’m luckier than a lot of first-time novelists. I was blessed with a lot of validation during a 40-year journalism career, won a lot of awards. There are lots of things in life that I don’t do very well, but I know I can write, I can tell a story, and I can grab and hold an audience. It’s what I do. My two efforts at non-fiction books each sold over 3,000 copies — most within a 50-mile radius of where I lived and worked — with no help from Amazon.

This sustains me in my time of trial, as well as the fact that I just finished another book (a contract job for a business) and am working on two more. But it also tells me that there’s something wrong.

To be sure, there are a lot of poorly written books out there. For whatever reason, these writers never took the time or spent the money it took to have their work edited — and while I applaud anyone with the persistence to finish an entire book, the Darwinian law of mass marketing will probably wind up biting them.

By contrast, I still like “The Kudzu Kid” very much.  It’s a first effort, and I can do better, but the main objective was to re-create the crazy world of journalism within the framework of a fictional weekly newspaper, and I feel like I succeeded. I’ve gotten good reviews from strangers who have no reason to give me a good review, and other journalists have told me that it had an almost eerie connection with their own experience.

What’s the difference between this and my non-fiction books? Back then, I was writing a three-times-a-week newspaper column and selling my books to people who recognized my name. If they liked the way I wrote, they bought the books. If they didn’t … well, remember what Yogi said.

With the novel, though, I had to check all that at Amazon’s front door. I have joined the ranks of anonymous authors frantically trying to stay afloat in a big pond, leaving my small one behind.

At the beginning of this winter, my wife and I put up a bird feeder off our rear deck in Lake George, NY. Within an hour, whole squadrons of small birds showed up to partake. I have no idea how they heard about it.

But what if there had been a bird feeder every hundred feet throughout our whole neighborhood? Our attendance would have been quite different.

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads and other such entities, including publishers, are very useful in that they serve as the bird feeders. Unfortunately, it’s generally up to us to supply the birds.

I could wring my hands about all this and simply wait until my book winds up in the $1 bins at bookstores, but I’ve decided to use my energy in another way. I’m e-mailing every newspaper reporter and editor in the country, some 30,000 of them, with a very brief mention of my book and how I think they could relate to it. I’ve gone through five states so far, and the rate of response has been good. If 10 percent of these people buy the book, I’ll have reached my publisher’s sales goal, and there are a lot of other people out there whom I think would like “Kudzu” if they read it.

This is just one approach, and there are lots of others. Figure out what your niche audience might be, and go after it. If what you’ve written is a religious book, go after churches. If it’s a book on how to beat alcohol addiction, go after treatment centers and hospitals. If it’s a book about baseball, find baseball fans on the Internet.

And for all of you who have written good books that nobody seems to want, don’t take it as a personal rejection. They just haven’t met you yet.

A few inconvenient truths

Optimism is a wonderful thing, something writers need not just to succeed, but to avoid acting upon the inevitable suicidal thoughts. Still, this optimism has to be be tempered with reality.

Here are a few things to think about as you launch yourself into the deep and turbulent waters of book publishing.

1. Great writing is overrated. Maybe there was a time when publishers bought books because of their marvelous and imaginative prose, but not any more. Now, they want to know if your book will sell — and if they don’t think it will, they don’t care how well it’s written. A book about a particular species of octopus, even if the writing is worthy of Hemingway, will probably not find a general publisher.

And that extends to readers. While they do expect a certain amount of literacy in what they read, great writing is subtle, and most readers wouldn’t recognize it if it bit them. What they do recognize is when a story line leaves them cold, or characters aren’t believable, or facts are left out.

Which is not to say that you shouldn’t strive to be the best writer you can be. Just understand that much of that will probably be for your own satisfaction.

Here’s how I look at it — since only a tiny percentage of us are going to be great writers, that’s good news. The bar may be set lower than you think.

2. Not everyone is going to like, or be interested in, your book. This may seem self-evident, but too many writers predicate their marketing on the idea that they can somehow please everybody. You can’t, because people are different. I would never pick up a book on physics, my wife avoids anything to do with sports. If you’re lucky, you might potentially connect — in theory, at least — with 50 percent of the reading public, far less for a specialized non-fiction book.

3. Readers tend to stick with writers they know. We all have our personal “clubs,” and just like most of us wind up ordering familiar food in a restaurant, so we tend to return to authors who have earned our trust. It is a world of too many books, too little time, and thus we are reluctant to invest that precious time in a writer who is unknown to us.

4. Because of that, you may remain an Amazon click away from your real audience. Imagine yourself as a door-to-door salesman. You can be pitching the greatest product ever invented, but it won’t help if no one opens their front door to you. Similarly, the 50 five-star reviews you may have earned on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Goodreads don’t mean a thing if no one ever sees them.

5. Therefore, if you’re an unknown author, there is no logical reason why someone would pick your book off the shelf at Barnes & Noble or click on it on Amazon.

Does this mean we should all just give up? Of course not. But it’s important to realize that your book sales will be in direct proportion to the work you put into marketing.

And there are other factors, of course. Don’t go cheap. Get a bank loan if you have to, but don’t put a book out there with an amateurish cover and a plethora of typos. I’m not a writing snob, but I know that if I pick up a book, crack it open to the middle, and see a glaring grammatical mistake, that’s it. Game over.

If I learned nothing else after 40 years in journalism and the publication of several books, it’s this — nobody can adequately proof their own work. You think you can, but you can’t. The reason is, your mind plays tricks on you. Because you know how a passage is supposed to read in your head, that’s what you see on the page, even if it’s not quite that way.

A particular trap with novels is inadvertently changing things as you go along.   With non-fiction, facts are facts — or, at least the information you present usually remains consistent. On the other hand, if you call a peripheral character “Bill” in Chapter Three of a novel, then inadvertently switch his name to “Tom” four months later in Chapter 25, chances are you’ll never catch it. But a reader will (“Who the hell is Tom?”)

Going back to marketing, though, you have to ask yourself the hard question: Who is going to read my book? If it’s a local history of Louisville, KY, no matter how well written, you’re probably better off self-publishing, because no one in Omaha or San Diego is likely to pick that book off the shelf, any more than you would be likely to read a book on Omaha or San Diego. Why would you?

There is a lot to be said for self-publishing, though. Once you bite the bullet and pay for the book’s publication, you get to keep all the money from its sales (minus the fee paid to retailers, of course).  You can give away books to whom you want, either for personal or business reasons. You get a better sense of how your book is selling, instead of having to wait for quarterly reports (and checks) from a publisher. These days, you can even hook up with a national distributor after self-publishing, if you like (just don’t ask Barnes & Noble to host a book signing)..

These are some of the things we can talk about in subsequent posts. Just so you know, I’m not coming at this from the lofty perspective of a best-selling author. My first novel, “The Kudzu Kid,” which I think is wonderful (don’t we all), currently ranks something like 2,300,000 on the Amazon sales list. So I’m slogging along on this journey just like the rest of you, and whatever I learn, I’ll share.