Saturday, December 19, 2009

Five Ways to Create Inspiration

Paula's note: I've been wanting to write about inspiration and came across this wonderful post -- which first appeared as a guest post on Cassandra Jade's site -- by author and blogger, K.M. Weiland. Katie was gracious enough to give me permission to reprint her very astute and insightful description of this critical element of the writing process. Enjoy! -P.M.

I think it’s safe to open this post with a broad, sweeping generalization: We write because of inspiration. Not only because without inspiration we wouldn’t have anything to write about, but also because inspiration is the writer’s version of runner’s high. It’s this top-of-the-world, explosion-of-joy experience that makes the personal sacrifices and hard work of the writing life more than worth it.

Inspiration, however, is a slippery thing. Ultimately, it is intensely personal, unrepeatable, and often unresponsive to conscious prodding. You can’t force inspiration. It either happens or it doesn’t. You can’t sit yourself down at your desk, squeeze your eyes shut, and demand that inspiration appear in front of you complete with a drumroll and a puff of smoke. Inspiration is a gift, and like all gifts it must be treated with gratitude and responsibility.

But none of this is to say that we can’t position ourselves in the path of inspiration. Instead of just waiting around for the muse to hit us in the head with a lightning bolt, we can learn, in a sense, to create inspiration. Following are five ways I’ve learned to be receptive to inspiration. Inspiration, after all, is all around us; we just have to learn to become a conduit for it.

1. Look at the world through the lens of your story. When I’m in the midst of brainstorming a story, I wear it like a cloak. I, in essence, look at life through the lenses (rose-colored or otherwise) of my story and its characters. I’m washing dishes, walking the dog, running late? Maybe my characters are too. I hear a song on the radio, and it becomes an anthem for the scene I’m working on. I pass an interesting old codger in the mall, and suddenly he’s running amok among the characters in my head.

2. Listen to your subconscious. Never underestimate your subconscious. When you’ve come to a snarl in your plot, don’t think too hard. You can only push your conscious brain so far. On more than one occasion, after I’ve backed myself and my characters into a seemingly insurmountable corner, I’ve sat at the keyboard for hours, racking my brain for an answer that just wouldn’t come. But when I return to the problem the next day, after my subconscious has had a chance to mull over the matter for the night, the solution is practically staring me in the face. When you come across an interesting snippet of an idea that you aren’t quite certain how to develop, toss it into your subconscious for a while. Sometimes ideas stew in the back of my mind for years before suddenly reappearing on center stage as something worth pursuing.

3. Lollygag creatively. Novelist Michael J. Vaughn, who coined the term “creative lollygagging,” purposely looks for mindless tasks (gardening, walking, pulling weeds) to occupy his hands, while his brain stews on his story. “We are not talking about sitting around on a couch. Just as a satellite dish needs electricity, you need some blood pumping into that brain. Next, consider low focus. The activity shouldn’t be so intense that you don’t have time to think (Grand Prix and ice hockey are out). Look for a mellow pursuit, surrounded by low-level distractions.” (From Vaughn’s article “Creative Lollygagging” in the December 2006 issue of Writer’s Digest.)

4. Combine stories. Like most every other writer on the planet, I have at least half a dozen stories romping around in my brain at any given moment, most of them in need of that spark of “something” that will suddenly transform a gem of inspiration into a full-fledged concept worthy of my time and attention. Stories require many layers, and usually they acquire their layers organically. But some of the best complexities in my stories have been the result of combining two (or more) entirely different stories. Juxtaposition creates instant conflict, originality, and depth. Take a look at some of your embryonic stories and see if you can get something special by combining one more of them.

5. Feed the muse. Your creative mind is a living organism that requires just as much attention and nurturing as any visible part of your body. Lavish it with care, and it will flourish. Feed it just as carefully as you would your stomach. Nourish it with quality literature, movies, music, and art. Let it lap up the offerings of other artistic minds—and just see if the muse doesn’t take off running all on its own!

Finally, and most importantly, don’t wait for inspiration. We’d all like to take up permanent residence in that rarefied atmosphere where the “inspiration high” is a constant state of being. But, as all writers discover sooner or later, that high will inevitably run dry. If we allow our writing to dry up with it, we’ll never so much as finish a story, much less be read by anyone. Inspiration is much more likely to strike when your mind is active. So even on the days when the mental well seems to have evaporated and blown away in clouds of steam, sit yourself down at your desk and keep writing. Inspiration, after all, is really a very small part of the big picture.
K.M. Weiland writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in the sandhills of western Nebraska. She is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the recently released medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She blogs at Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors and AuthorCulture.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Seven Ways to Make Hiring a Book Publicist More Affordable

Hiring a publicist can be an expensive proposition, especially for self-published authors and those whose books are published by presses that offer little or no marketing support. With some publicists asking $1500 - $5000 per month in fees, authors are often surprised by the amount of money they need to spend to get the word out about their books.

But publicity doesn’t have to be a bank-breaker. Here are some tips you can use to help defray costs when working with a publicist to promote your book:

1. Plan ahead
The best time to start planning how you’ll market a book is while you’re in the process of writing it. Think about who might want to read your book, where you’re most likely to find those readers, and how much you’re willing to spend on reaching them. If you plan to self-publish, research PR pricing in your subject area and start setting aside cash early, so that you’re prepared for costs when your book is published. Any amount is fine, as long as you’re willing to live within those monetary limits when your book comes out. If you’re offered an advance on your manuscript, don’t spend it -- save it to create promotional material, advertise, hire a publicist, and/or cover travel costs when your book is released.

Once your book is published, think about what you want in the way of events and media coverage. Decide who your readers are, and consider the different niche categories and venues you might explore to reach your audience. The more clarity you have about who your audience is and what you want in the way of publicity, the more you’ll be able to articulate that to a potential publicist.

2. Shop around
Get the names and numbers of publicists in your price range or area of expertise and spend some time getting to know them. Ask for references and talk to those individuals – they’ll give you a good idea of what it’s like to work with the person you’re considering hiring. Discuss your needs with potential publicists and be certain that they have the experience and contacts to do what you want done. Know how each individual publicist bills, how she provides updates, and when she expects to be paid. If you work on a contractual basis, ask to review the contract first, and don’t be afraid to make changes based on your own expectations.

3. Negotiate
Everything’s negotiable these days, and that includes public relations services. If you cannot afford a publicist’s fees, offer to pay what you can afford and see if there is some work the publicist is willing to do for that amount. Consider prepayment options – perhaps a publicist would be willing take a percentage off her rate if you offer to pay in advance for a set amount of work, or if you can guarantee a number of hours per week. Be creative, but be fair – if what you’re offering doesn’t cover what you expect the person you’re hiring to do, the relationship most likely won’t last.

4. Be prepared
The more footwork you do up front, the less you’ll have to pay your publicist to do. Learn how to write a press release and generate one that your publicist can either use as is or as a source for key information. Once your press release is finalized, post it on free sites on the web. Create a bio, Q & A, and brief synopsis, so your publicist doesn’t have to spend time on these pieces herself. Research venues, media, and blogsites you’re interested in, and provide your publicist with contact info – the more you do up front, the less she will have to do for you.

5. Participate
Once your publicity campaign begins, be a willing participant in the process. Keep your publicist informed of commitments and dates you’ve scheduled on your own, so he doesn’t double book you. Offer information and assistance with locating media in the areas on which you’ve focused – oftentimes a publicist will be trying to book you in a part of the country (or outside it) with which he is unfamiliar. If you have first-hand knowledge of certain city, county, and state areas, libraries, booksellers, and media outlets, share what you know, so that he doesn’t spend extra time on research.

6. Partner up
Even if you haven’t coauthored a work, there are plenty of other authors out there who are published in the same genre and niche market as you. Work with those writers to team-up at book signings, workshops, trade shows, and fairs. Share costs on booths, travel, and even publicity work by doing events jointly rather than alone.

7. Develop a backlist strategy
While it’s true that the window for marketing most books is during the first six-eight months after they're published, you’ll still want to promote your book once that time period has passed. Even if you choose not to continue appearances and book signings after the first year, you’ll want some kind of promotional effort in place for the months that follow. Work with your publicist and your publisher to develop a marketing strategy for your book once it’s backlisted. Enter your book in contests and issue press releases when it wins awards or garners any other news-worthy attention. If your book first appears in hard cover, consider a re-release in paperback form. Write columns and blog posts, and use social networking and a strong web presence to keep your book in the public eye.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

No Excuses

Because I work from a home office and will use any excuse I can to get away in the middle of the day, I slap on my loosest sweats and head out to a yoga class twice a week at the 24 Hour Fitness Center in the nearby town of Rancho Bernardo. There are two different instructors, one on Tuesday and another on Thursday, for the 11:30 a.m. class slot, but the group of students is pretty much the same for both classes. Because RB is made-up of mostly retired residents, my fellow practitioners tend to be on the older side. I don’t mind this at all; in fact, I find that many of the silver-haired enthusiasts who roll out their mats next to mine are quite limber and can kick my 53-year-old rear end on any given day.

One of the ladies in the classes (they’re made up of mostly women, although there are a few die-hard men who show up every week), is battling breast cancer. We’ve spoken a few times, enough for me to know that she has a grown son in New York and a daughter who is finishing her college degree here in San Diego. This woman has lost all her hair to chemotherapy treatments and sometimes comes to class with a bandana covering her head. On some occasions, she appears with a bandage on her arm; I don’t ask, but I assume it’s from having had a recent chemo treatment.

Even though my yoga friend is battling cancer, she’s a committed regular, who arrives at class every Tuesday and Thursday, chipper and ready to go. She warms up with the rest of us, babbling about kids, weather, cooking, and the latest substitute teacher, and enthusiastically assuming the starting seated position, despite the fact that the hair on her head is growing back in downy tufts and her arm bears evidence of the latest poisonous chemical concoction. She performs each pose fiercely, never taking the easy way out (as I sometimes do) by sinking into Child’s Pose instead of Downward Dog, or stopping in the middle of an asana to take a drink of water (something a few of the others do occasionally). Matter-of-fact and friendly, she doesn’t complain about the rigors of a particular class or the side-effects she endures. She appears centered, focused, and willing to participate, reminding the rest of us that each measured breath we take, in class or out, is a gift too precious to waste.

I couldn’t stop thinking about her today, on my way home from a class that went a little longer than usual because the instructor had arrived late. To make it up to those of us who waited for her, the teacher (a substitute) gave us an extra half-hour of postures. It was one of the best classes we’d ever had, and the group seemed particularly focused and in sync during this session. But it was long and tiring. Even the younger students were quieter than usual afterward, reaching for their towels to wipe the sweat from their brows and blinking at the bright sunlight as they stumbled out into the gym parking lot.

Despite the length of today’s class, my friend with the bandage on her arm and the cloth around her hairless head stretched, posed, and balanced with the rest of us, in tune to the vibes around her, never once complaining or giving in. Not once. Ever.

So, the next time I start to mentally complain about the number of calls I have to make for my clients, or the fact that my house is a mess, or the kids aren’t helping enough, or that I need to sit down and write some pages if I’m ever going to finish my second novel, I’m going to remind myself about my yoga friend.

And the next time I feel the urge to skip a class because I’m feeling too tired or lazy to go, or decide to blow off writing because I’m not mentally in the mood or don’t want to do the work of focusing on it, I’m going to think of her.

Because, heck, if she can show up to class twice a week and give it her all, with no complaining or excuses, then, certainly, so can I.

Happy Thanksgiving to all! And to my fellow yoga practitioners: Namaste.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Tips for Doing Radio and Television Interviews

Appearing on a radio or television show can be an important part of your book publicity efforts. But for some authors, especially those who spend the majority of their time in front of their computer screens writing, the thought of appearing on camera or tape can be terrifying. To help you get ready to for that infamous close-up, here are some tips for appearing in-studio for radio and television interviews:

1. Once you’ve booked an appearance at a radio or television station, find out who will be doing your interview. Make sure that the person interviewing you has a copy of your book in advance and, in addition to your press release and bio, a Q & A or FAQ sheet with standard questions, so that s/he is prepared for your segment.

2. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the studio where your interview will be taped/shot. Confirm directions and parking availability, and allow between 1-2 hours for the interview.

3. For television interviews, most media outlets recommend that your attire be business casual. If you’re not given specific instructions by your publicist or media contact, plan to bring several options for the wardrobe department to consider. Try to avoid solid black, solid red, solid white, super busy prints and shiny fabrics. Also, remember that in some interviews, the viewers will only see you from the waist up, so, it may not matter what kind of shoes or trousers you wear. Usually there is a wardrobe person on set who can steam your clothes to ensure they are ready-for-camera. And there are often some additional wardrobe options available on set.

4. Women who are interviewed on television should also consider bringing a few jewelry options to go with the outfits they bring along. Smaller jewelry may be harder to see on camera, so bring necklaces and earrings of varying sizes. Men should plan to bring along extra ties with different color schemes (avoid busy or wild prints and shiny fabrics) to go with their shirts and jackets.

5. When you arrive on set, often your first stop will be make-up. If you have allergies to certain products or are wearing hard contact lenses, be sure to tell the person doing your make-up ahead of time (I once lost a contact lens when a make-up person got too ambitious with her eye shadow brush while prepping me for a commercial shoot).

6. After make-up and wardrobe, you’ll be escorted to the stage area of the studio, where you’ll be seated in a chair and interviewed by a producer or news anchor. S/he may ask you questions ahead of time to get a sense of how you respond. Use any prep time you’re given to ask questions you might have about speaking into the microphone or where to focus your gaze during the interview.

7. When sitting in front of the camera, remember to sit up straight and try not to tilt your head when you talk. Also, be sure to look at whichever camera you’re instructed to face, even if there are lights or other cameras off to the side. While the interviewer is asking questions, look directly at him or her, and don’t forget to smile!

8. When answering questions during radio and television interviews, it’s a good idea to rephrase the questions you’re asked, so that they are somehow included in your answer. For example, if you’re asked how long it took to write your book, you might answer, “It took me three years to write the first draft of My Great Novel," rather than simply, "Three years." Try to answer in complete sentences, and be sure to use the title of your book as often as possible.

Note: If you have issues with your voice, practice speaking into a tape recorder before doing radio interviews. Play back your recordings and notice where you may have raised or lowered your voice, or inserted too many "ums" and "ahs." Before television interviews, have someone film you on a video camera, or practice in front of a mirror. See if you’re smiling enough, if you’re keeping your eyes focused and your head is straight while you talk. And don’t forget to practice using gestures with your hands to emphasize points (or tone it down if you move your hands too much).

9. Try to relax and forget that you are being recorded or on-camera. Doing a radio or television interview is a great opportunity to introduce yourself and your book to potential readers. Be yourself and have fun!

10. When your interview is over, be sure to thank the producers, anchors, and staff members who helped you that day. Also, find out when your segment will air and if there are clips or CD’s available of your interview. Let everyone on your email lists and social networking sites know when your spot is airing, and don’t forget to post any clips or audio recordings of your interview on your website or Internet fan page.

Friday, September 18, 2009

What Makes a Good Memoir?

As a publicist, I’m sent books of all genres by authors interested in my services, but lately I seem to be on the receiving end of a lot of memoirs. I’ve also spoken to a higher-than-usual number of memoir writers, who either telephone or approach me with questions at writer’s conferences. The bulk of these conversations have to do with why their memoirs aren’t selling and what the authors can do to make them better.

My first suggestion for all memoir writers is to take a look at their market and identify the different types of people who would want to read their book. This is tricky, for while many memoir writers have done a good job of detailing certain aspects of their personal history, a number of them have not thought about who might be interested in reading what they’ve written.

A lot of memoirs I’ve seen recently are nothing more than personal recountings of an individual’s experiences – some of which are, indeed, memorable. But I’ve found that a great number of memoirs contain information that might only be interesting to the author. In this category, I include stories about having a child out of wedlock, rescue missions by health care workers, struggles with family members over an elderly relative’s care, vacations or trips abroad that the author found life-changing, collections of stories that the author told his/her children while they were growing up, or collections of a family member’s letters from World War II. Although engaging and, occasionally, entertaining, books with these topics typically focus on material and/or experiences that a number of us have already encountered in our own lives. And, thus, because we readers are familiar with the situations ourselves, stories like these don’t always make interesting reading.

So, what makes a compelling memoir? I believe that in order to become a bestseller, a memoir must have a strong storyline. That means that there is a beginning, middle, and end to the events that are recounted in the book. Examples of breakout memoirs with clear timelines are Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, where the author, Danish baroness, Karin von Blitzen-Finecke, describes the political and emotional barriers she faced while trying to build a coffee farm in Kenya, and Before Night Falls, by Reinaldo Arenas, the rebellious and flamboyant Cuban poet and playwright, who describes both his early years as a homosexual artist under the Castro regime, including his imprisonments and escapes, and his last days as an exile in the United States.

Successful memoirs also have compelling or distinct characters in them. Just like fiction, a good memoir will introduce the reader to individuals who are memorable and, sometimes, highly unusual. Examples include Augusten Burrough’s mother, Deidre, and her unorthodox psychiatrist, Dr. Finch, in Running with Scissors, or the sadistic mother in A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer.

Oftentimes, as in fiction, the individuals in a memoir will be sympathetic, so that readers strongly identify with them. This is particularly true of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, who begins her book by depicting herself in a heap on the bathroom floor, devastated by a recent divorce, or Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, who lost her husband to a sudden heart attack and shares the aftermath with the reader in a way that is heart-wrenchingly honest.

Another reason for the success of these two memoirs is the fact that they both tell love stories. In Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert begins the memoir with the loss of love (after a failed marriage) and then ends it with the start of a new relationship with the man who will become her next husband. Likewise, Didion recounts the significant moments of her marriage to her husband, John Gregory Dunne, as she describes her attempts to grapple with her grief at his passing. These two books are skillfully written, with clear, strong voices and brave directness, and both authors draw painful moments with great tenderness.

People in successful memoirs often face situations with high stakes consequences and experience an emotional trajectory, or arc, whereby the individuals are changed somehow at the end of the book. Many memoirs have to do with the author or a parental figure teetering on the brink of alcoholism (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller), destitution (Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt), poverty and spousal abuse (All Over but the Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg), drug addiction (A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey), cultural adversity (Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver-Relin), and life-threatening adventure (Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer). What makes these books stand out above the others is that in all of these stories, the authors and/or their loved ones faced extreme circumstances – incarceration, kidnapping, starvation, emotional abandonment, and, sometimes, immanent death – and somehow survived.

In addition to the victim/survival type memoir, there are celebrity memoirs, where the author recounts his own story as a celebrity or his experiences living or working with one (examples include Here’s the Story by The Brady Bunch star, Maureen McCormick, or Everything about Me is Fake and I’m Perfect by supermodel Janice Dickenson). There are also tell-all or insider memoirs, where the individual describes events in an environment that most of us would never have a chance to experience. Many of these are political in tone, such as John Dean’s Blind Ambition, the anti-Nixon tome published in 1976, or George Stephanopoulos’s All Too Human, which describes intimate details about the first family during the Clinton administration.

The message here is that unless your memoir is something like the ones I’ve mentioned in this post, you might have a tough time selling it. That doesn’t mean that authors shouldn’t write memoirs – on the contrary, writing a memoir can be a wonderfully revealing and cathartic experience for the author and of great significance to family members and friends. But to reach further audiences, memoirs that don’t involve a celebrity connection or insider information must have a definable storyline, remarkable characters, high stakes, and a great love story – or some combination, thereof – in order to experience breakout success.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

How to Be a Poet

Because I am in awe of anyone who can write poetry (I, sadly, lack that skill), and because Wendell Berry is one of my favorite poets, I give you:

How to Be a Poet
(to remind myself)
By Wendell Berry

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill— more of each
than you have— inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your work,
doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places
And desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Using Q & A's and FAQ's to Your Advantage

One of the least expensive ways to promote your novel or non-fiction book is to create a Q & A or FAQ and ask bloggers to post it on their blogs and websites. These postings can be coordinated to appear at certain times/dates (this is known as a blog tour), or you can approach individual bloggers and ask that they list your information in future posts.

It's easy to create Q & A's or FAQ's -- use simple questions that all readers want to know about writers, and write brief, sincere responses to them. Examples of commonly asked questions include: What was your inspiration for this novel/book? How long did it take you to write? Who are your favorite authors and why? What is your next novel/book about?

Once you have a list you like, send it with a jpg of the book cover art, an author photo, and other information about your book (ISBN number, ordering information, links to websites, etc.). It's good protocol to follow the blogs where your information is posted and to include links to that blogsite or website on your own sites. Also, don't forget to thank those who agree to post information about you and your book after the post has run.

Here is a sample FAQ I use for my own novel, Coyote Heart:

Coyote Heart by Paula Margulies
ISBN: 1-933794-16-X
Publisher: Kirk House Publishers, April 17, 2009

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How long have you been writing fiction?
I started writing fiction about nine years ago, when I was in my mid-40’s (kind of a mid-life crisis, I suppose). I was an English major in college, but I studied composition and teaching, and had never taken a creative writing class.

2. Where did you learn fiction-writing?
In 2001, I took an Intro to Creative Writing course at Mesa College. I wrote a few short stories that won some awards, and took one of them to the San Diego State Writer’s Conference in 2003, where it won the Editor’s Choice Award from Brenda Copeland, who was then an editor at Simon and Schuster. She suggested that I try writing novels instead of short stories, and I decided to take her advice.

3. Where did you get the idea for this novel?
I had the idea for a short story about a married woman who falls in love with a Native American man. I don’t know where this idea came from, but I kept seeing the image of the husband, who I imagined had been in an accident of some sort, sitting in a chair with a rifle in his hands and his arms raised up in an Indian victory gesture. This image haunted me so much that I began a story about it, and that evolved into the novel, Coyote Heart.

4.How long did it take you to write this novel?
One and a half years.

5. How long did it take to get the book published?
I began Coyote Heart (then called Bow and Arrow) in 2003 and finished it in 2004. In January 2005, I took it to the SDSU Writer’s Conference, where it won an Editor’s Choice Award from Shaye Areheart, an editor at Crown Publishers. I met my agent, Bob Tabian, at the same conference, and in 2008, I was offered a royalty contract by Kirk House Publishers.

6. How did you find your publisher?
After the book made the rounds with the bigger publishing houses from 2005 – 2007, I submitted it to some university and smaller presses. One of them, University of Nevada Press, held it for one year and almost took it (it made it through internal and external reviews, but the editorial staff passed on it in a final publishing meeting). Kirk House was one of the small presses originally approached in 2007; they extended an offer in 2008.

7. Do you have a favorite character?
I read somewhere that an author should love all the characters in her novel, and I feel that way about this one. They are all flawed and all have suffered some kind of loss, which makes me feel for each of them, but if I had to pick one, it would have to be the husband, Everett Weedman. He is a rational man, who likes order and logic in his world yet, at the same time, he has a deep love of nature and he’s willing to sacrifice for what matters.

8. What is your next novel about?
I am working on an historical novel called Favorite Daughter, which is about Pocahontas, who tells the story in first person, in her own point of view. I recently read Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel, Abundance, which tells the story of Marie Antoinette in her own voice and was fascinated by the way it dispelled so many myths about her character, while showing us who she really was as a person. I’m trying to do the same thing in Favorite Daughter, by telling the story from Pocahontas’s perspective and letting her show us the true nature of her relationship with John Smith and how she came to play such a significant role in American history.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Factors to Consider When Plotting a Novel

Over the years, I’ve had some fabulous writing instructors here in San Diego. Some of the classes were taught at the UC San Diego or San Diego State University extension programs, others were at local community colleges or writing organization meetings. A few of the wonderful teachers I’ve had include Drusilla Campbell, Carolyn Wheat, Bonnie Zobell, Mary Balogh, and Diane Dunaway – all talented writers, in addition to being great instructors.

I recently came across notes from some of these classes and thought I’d share a few of my favorites. Many of these changed my life as a writer; in fact, I considered the following list so important, I pinned it to the wall above my computer while I was writing my first novel, Coyote Heart.

The following notes came from a course on novel writing, taught by Drusilla Campbell. I send deep thanks to Drusilla for sharing these tips and for her wonderful insight and instructive wit.

Here is a list of factors to consider when plotting your novel:

▪ Characterization is key.
▪ The story will demonstrate your character’s growth, her change from one kind of person to another.
▪ There will be a back-story influencing the current story.
▪ The story is about something that matters (a strongly-held belief).
▪ The story will not be predictable.
▪ The story will be full of conflict, tension, and suspense.
▪ The story will be rich with emotion.
▪ The story will be detailed and sensory.
▪ There will be a major inciting incident that will take the main character out of her comfortable state and put her in trouble.
▪ After the inciting incident, the major character has a goal, which can be put in the form of a question.
▪ The goal is always something tangible, though it may represent a spiritual or moral goal.
▪ There will be mystery in your story.
▪ Your plot will constantly generate questions in the reader’s mind.
▪ There will be a mix of good and bad characters, and no one will be either too good or too bad.
▪ Every character will always be fully motivated.
▪ Opponent(s) will thwart the view point character’s goal.
▪ The story will be about an active hero.
▪ There will be a darkest moment for your heroine.
▪ The hero and his opposition will confront each other at the end.
▪ Your story will follow the patterns of cause and effect, stimulus and response.
▪ Any flashback will move the story forward and deepen characterization. PROMISE.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A Unique Idea for Promoting a Year-old Book

One of the best parts about being a book publicist is that I learn so much from the creative and hard-working authors I meet. In addition to being great with plot, dialogue, and characterization, many writers are also gifted artists and marketers, coming up with some truly original ideas for promoting their books.

An idea I found particularly clever (and enjoyed being a part of recently) is author Paula Brown’s pay-it-forward travelling road show for her one-year-old nonfiction book, Fur Shui. Fur Shui explores the principles of chi, or energy, used in the traditional Chinese practice of feng shui and describes how to use them to create healthy and happy environments for animals. An animal communicator and graphic designer, Paula Brown came up with the idea of celebrating her acclaimed book’s one year anniversary with an exchange program she calls The Tour de Fur.

To kick off the tour, Paula sent out eight copies of Fur Shui to pet owners who wrote in by email offering to participate. After the first eight readers received their books, Paula asked them to pass the books on to other pet owners and animal lovers across the globe. Those who receive Fur Shui must take a photo of themselves and the book; the book and their animal(s); or just the book in their geographical location. Paula asks that they email a copy of the photo to her, sign and date the book, listing what city they’re in, and then pass it forward.After six months, Paula plans to call in the eight copies and see “just how full of love and signatures” the books will be. She provides instructions inside each copy for where to send it when it’s full, and also offers a free animal chakra reading to each pet owner who forwards a copy to another person.

Paula’s set up a new blog at, to track her books’ adventures and show off the photos that she hopes will come in from all over the globe. Check out her blog and her website at to see what’s happening with this creative author’s first birthday celebration for her imaginative book, Fur Shui.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Selling Books at Fairs and Festivals

It’s that wonderful time of year when local neighborhoods and specialty organizations begin holding their annual street fairs and festivals. Authors should try to take advantage of the festivals in their areas, as they offer great opportunities to meet readers and sell books. Many festivals attract thousands of attendees and provide excellent selling opportunities, especially for unknown and self-published authors who are not as likely to draw big crowds at book store signings. Selling books at fairs and festivals is also a smart idea for more experienced or well-known writers, who are looking to augment their book tour schedules.

Listed below are some tips if you plan to sell your book at a street festival or book fair this year:

1. Promote ahead of time.

If you plan to sell books at a festival, be sure to do all the footwork that you would normally do for any book signing. Send out a press release, list the event in print and online calendars, and use your email lists to notify readers that you’ll be selling books at an upcoming festival or fair. Be sure to include the date, time, and street address for the festival, as well as the location of your particular booth, in your promotional material.

2. Share expenses.

Some festivals charge quite a bit for booth space. If you find the price too prohibitive, consider splitting costs by sharing space with one or more other authors. If you are going to rent a booth at a specialty fair, invite other authors who have books in the same genre, or share with someone who sells something related to your book. Be creative – if you have a book with a Native American theme, share space with a historical author at some of the Indian pow-wows in your area. If you are a nonfiction writer with a how-to book, you may want to attend some of the local craft fairs and festivals that occur in the spring and summer months. Shop owners and local artists are often looking for opportunities to sell their wares and may be interested in sharing space at festivals. Also, watch for specialty events – children’s book festivals, African American festivals, Italian or Greek festivals, and library events, etc., where your book might fit in.

3. Come prepared.

Make sure you have the following items with you before you head out to man your booth:
Books – consider how many people will be attending the event, and plan accordingly. If you drive to an event, you can always keep extra books in your car, in case you sell those you bring with you to the booth. Be sure to bring “Autographed Copy” stickers if you plan to sign books at your booth, and determine what price and the appropriate tax amount, if applicable, you’ll be asking before the booth opens that day.
Giveaways – like any trade show, you should plan on giving out freebies to attract individuals to your booth. Bookmarks, candy, pens, etc., all work well as giveaways that will attract readers to stop by your booth. One author I know creates small booklets, with the first five chapters of her young adult fantasy novel, as a giveaway to use at book fairs. She hands them out to kids as they pass by, and urges them to ask their parents to purchase the book online or at a bookstore if they want to read more.
Set up items – make sure you have a table, table covering, chairs, canopy, cooler with food and drinks, sunglasses, sunscreen, a jacket for cooler weather, book stands, and signage or posters. Bring scissors, tape, and any other items you might need for setting up displays. Stash set-up items in a piece of carry-on luggage to easily roll them out to your booth. If you’re going to be outdoors, bring paperweights or heavy items to hold down any flyers or papers that might blow away on windy days.
Tax permits and change – some festival and fair organizations require that you have a business license or tax permit before you can sell at a booth and will ask that you bring those with you while you’re exhibiting. Also, be sure to bring change with you in correct increments: nickels, quarters, dollar bills, etc., so you can make a sale if someone hands you a $20 bill or higher. If you are set up to accept credit cards and checks, be sure to have the processing equipment with you (if you accept PayPal and have access to electricity, bring your laptop or PDA).
Pitch – plan a quick, one-minute pitch to use with individuals who stop by your booth. Outline your spiel in advance, and practice it so it seems natural and friendly when potential buyers approach you.

4. Practice proper booth etiquette.

If you’re sharing a booth, it’s important that you be considerate and polite to the authors you’re sharing space with, as well as the neighboring sellers on either side of your booth. When sharing booth space, arrange how you’ll handle customers ahead of time, so that you’re not jockeying for attention when individuals approach, and be sensitive to customers who are listening to your booth buddies’ pitches. Try to engage your customers before they buy; take the time to ask them what they like to read, if they read books similar to yours, etc., and really listen to their answers – although people will be interested in your comments about your book, they also like to be heard, so use your listening skills to help make the sale.

5. Have ordering info ready if you run out of books.

Be sure to bring extra info, such as business cards or flyers, to can hand out if you run out of books and giveaways. If sales are slow, you can lower prices, but doing so often means that you might sell out. Be prepared to make use of your remaining booth space time by having ordering information or contact information readily available for those who may want to buy after the event is over.

6. Follow up afterward.

Like any networking event, fairs and festivals provide ample opportunity to network with other authors, potential clients, and readers. Be sure to follow up after the festival: send promised books to customers, get in touch with networking contacts, and send thank yous to festival organizers, so they’ll invite you back next year.

7. Book early for next year’s event.

Some festivals are really popular and only allow a limited number of vendors. To ensure that you aren’t shut out of key festivals and fairs, research the ones available in your area and be sure to book them ahead of time whenever possible.

A great list of links for book festivals throughout the United States can be found at:

Happy selling!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Stop by and See Me in Booth 212 at the L.A. Times Festival of the Book!

I’ll be exhibiting with Coyote Heart at the Los Angeles Times Festival of the Book on Saturday and Sunday, April 25-26 in Booth # 212 in Section B. If you’re planning on attending the festival, please stop by and say hello!


Los Angeles Times Festival of the Book
Saturday – Sunday, April 25-26, 2009
10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
UCLA Campus
405 Hilgard Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90024

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Why I've Been Seeing Coyotes in My Sleep

As many of you already know, my first novel, Coyote Heart, was picked up at the end of last year by Kirk House Publishers, a small press in Minneapolis, and is coming out this month (publication date is April 17). The book is now available for pre-order via and Barnes & Here's the Amazon link:

For those of you who know me well, this has been a long time coming -- I started writing the book in 2003, signed with an agent in 2005, and after it stayed for consideration with some houses for a very long time (some for over a year!), Coyote Heart finally found a home at Kirk House. I'm honored that this press is willing to take a chance on an unknown writer like me, and hope you'll order a copy to show your support for my kind editor and publisher.

Following is a brief description of the story and some endorsement reviews. I'm grateful to all my writing friends, reviewers, and, especially, my patient family, for their ongoing encouragement and support.

If you're able to buy the book, pass along this information to readers who might enjoy a San Diego love story, or even write a review on Amazon, I'll be eternally grateful!

All best and happy reading, Paula

Coyote Heart tells the story of Carolyn Weedman, a forty-year-old librarian trapped in a troubled marriage with a disabled husband. After a chance encounter with a widowed Pala Indian professor, Carolyn finds herself drawn into an unexpected love affair. Torn by conflicting feelings, she discovers a secret about her husband’s past that forces her to confront her divided emotions and choose between the two men that she loves.

Set against the simmering backdrop of local politics on the Pala Indian Reservation, Coyote Heart explores the intricacies of illicit love and marriage, the strength that comes from sacrifice, and the courage to forgive the injuries of the past. The novel calls on several San Diego landscapes, including the Rancho Penasquitos preserve and the Pala Indian Reservation, to give the story a unique local flavor. Written with haunting natural imagery and lyrical prose, Coyote Heart tells a compelling tale of love and modern Native American culture.

"A graceful story of love and redemption, Coyote Heart is a gift for all of us who grapple to understand the complexities of relationships.”
-Patricia Santana, author of Motorcycle Ride on the Sea of Tranquility and Ghosts of El Grullo

“With Coyote Heart, Paula Margulies uses lyrical, yet restrained prose to take us into a world where the usual definitions will not fit—where the personal and the political, even the human and the animal, become increasingly difficult to differentiate. This novel bravely explores the difference between a relationship that bends and one that breaks; it even suggests that a healed fracture is stronger than what was originally whole.”
-Peter Rock, author of My Abandonment, The Bewildered, and The Unsettling

"Redemption is a destination we all hope to reach. Coyote Heart takes us on a wonderful journey, crossing cultural boundaries, toward that great human place."
- Mark Trahant, Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of Pictures of Our Nobler Selves, a history of Native Americans in media

Coyote Heart
ISBN 10: 1-933794-16-X
ISBN 13: 978-1-933794-16-7
Kirk House Publishers

Friday, March 13, 2009

The 10 Best Books on Writing

Whenever I find myself in one of those middle-of-the-novel writing funks, I turn to the experts, whose books on how to maneuver through the alternately frustrating and fulfilling maze of fiction-writing line the shelves in my office. Although I’ve read dozens of them over the years, a select few have made their way to a place of honor on the shelf reserved for books I refuse to give away. I know that many writers will have other worthy contenders on their lists; these are mine, in reverse order:

10) Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
I had trouble picking a tenth book, because there are so many others that deserve to be on this list and aren’t (I considered Burroway’s Writing Fiction, Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, Olen-Butler’s From Where You Dream, DeMarco-Barrett’s Pen on Fire, etc.). But this one made the list because it has remained on my shelf for over a decade and its short and simple chapters, aimed mostly at beginning writers, speak truth. From “Beginner’s Mind” to “Rereading and Rewriting,” each pithy and instructive section reminds us what we already know. We read Natalie Goldberg and, no matter where we are on our respective writing journeys, we learn.

9) 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias
I have returned to this book countless times to remind myself a) that writers have been telling stories for centuries and b) that the best stories have form. The form of a novel can be as simple as a beginning, middle, and end, or it can follow the patterns of quest, revenge, pursuit, maturation, sacrifice, and discovery. Tobias reminds us that though there are hundreds of plot variations out there, a few of those structures have become classics, loved by readers everywhere. It is to those that we aspire.

8) The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham
I loved this book from the moment I opened its cover. There’s nothing fancy in Bickham’s style – he grabs us by the neck and instructs us in each direct and wonderful chapter on what we should and shouldn’t do when writing. The chapter “Don’t Warm Up Your Engines” provides one of the best explanations I’ve read on where a story should start. When Bickham speaks, it behooves us to listen.

7) Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
I heard Ray Bradbury speak one year at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, and I’ll never forget the amazing zeal and spunkiness of this fiction-writing legend. Bradbury brings the same energy and outspokenness to Zen and the Art of Writing as he does to his own classic tales. He describes his early years trying to eke out a living as a young writer with a family and then urges writers to stick to it and to do it with love. “Let the world burn through you,” he says. In the Zen world of fiction-writing, Bradbury is a warrior-king.

6) Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice by Laraine Herring
This is one of my most recent acquisitions, but it quickly found a home on my shelf of favorites. I took it with me on a writing residency and only allowed myself to read one chapter a day, doling them out one-by-one so I could immerse myself in each section’s quiet relevance. The book is divided into three parts: “Focusing the Mind,” “The Deep Writing Process,” and “Embracing What and Where You Are.” Writing Begins with the Breath both illuminates and gently instructs, and the imaginative exercises called “Touchstones” at the end of each chapter make us pause, reflect, and return to this book again and again.

5) Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on the Writing Life by Anne Lamott
What hasn’t been said about this book? It’s a classic, and Anne Lamott has become a well-deserved fixture on the writing circuit and in composition classrooms all over the world because of this gifted text. As she says in the opening, good writing is about telling the truth and she has done that, taking us from “shitty first drafts” to publication and deftly addressing everything in-between. Honest, inspirational, and very real, Anne Lamott illuminates the writing process in a way that is both accessible and revealing, telling the truth about writing so vividly that reading her words is like coming home.

4) On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Who would have thought that a memoir by one of the world’s bestselling authors could so expertly define the practical facets of the writing process? In On Writing, Stephen King not only openly describes his own experiences as a professional writer struggling with personal demons, but he also shares his passion and knowledge about what makes writing good. My favorite section has to do with revision; in it, King tells the story about a piece of fiction he wrote in high school and submitted to a magazine editor. The editor wrote back: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.” King says that this piece of advice changed the way he rewrote his fiction “once and forever.” Thanks to Stephen King, it has changed ours, too.

3) How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey
I lent this book to a member of my writing group, and one of his dogs got to it and chewed through half of the front cover. I have to laugh every time I lift it off the shelf (it gives a whole new meaning to the term “dog-eared”!). But I love this book for its intensity and no-nonsense focus on what makes a novel good. Frey gives the best advice I know on how to create unforgettable characters, infuse a plot with conflict, and write dialogue that sings. I come back to this book often for the solid, no-nonsense advice that fills its pages.

2) The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers by Elizabeth Benedict
I don’t know how this became my #2 all-time favorite, but perhaps it’s because I (ahem) have trouble writing about sex. I use my Catholic upbringing as my excuse; for some reason, I imagine the nuns at my elementary and high schools peering over my shoulder every time I write a love scene. But whether it’s my own modesty, or the fear that the intimacy my characters display on the page will reveal more about me than it does them, writing sex scenes – good sex scenes – is really difficult. All of that changed, however, after I found Benedict’s book, which provides insight and advice on how to not only make sex scenes convincing, but also how to use them to reveal character and create and/or resolve conflict. Benedict uses wonderful examples from some of the most respected writers to illustrate the dramatic impact of a well-written sex scene. And she addresses it all – married sex, adulterous sex, illicit sex – in a way that is fresh, revealing, and inspiring. So, whenever those nuns appear, I reach for this book and let this classic guide remind me that it’s okay for sex to be part of the story.

And, drum roll please…..

1) Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas
My husband bought me this book for Christmas the first year I started writing fiction and it has become my all-time favorite writing guide. I’ve turned to it so often that the pages are covered with sticky notes, highlighted passages, fingerprints, and coffee stains. The book is designed for mid-list authors looking for a way to move ahead in the industry, but the advice packed within its pages is useful for beginners, as well. For a book to be a breakout success, Maas says, it must have the following: an original premise, high stakes, a strong sense of time and place, and larger-than-life characters. And Maas, a literary agent and author of seventeen novels, knows whereof he speaks. I was fortunate enough to attend one of his seminars, where we used some of the draft exercises that became part of his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Both the original book and the workbook are essential instruments in any writer’s toolkit, but if I was going to be sent to a desert island and could only take one book on writing with me, Writing the Breakout Novel is the one I would pack in my suitcase.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

First Impressions

As a book publicist and an avid reader, my first word of advice to anyone who contacts me regarding my services is to write the best book s/he possibly can. I am sent books by hundreds of people looking for promotional help, but since I only handle two or three clients at a time, I tend to be choosy about who I agree to represent.

Judging writing is a subjective art, and I try to be fair with every book I receive. Instead of asking whether or not I love the book (something I’ve heard a few agents say they must feel before they take on a client), I ask myself, Can I sell it? This is a bit of a different question – my concern is not whether the book is great fiction or non-fiction, but more whether booksellers, reporters, and media producers will be interested in it when I call to give them a pitch.

Even so, if a book is poorly written or riddled with typos and grammatical errors, it isn’t likely that I’ll be able to place it anywhere, even if it has a great topic. Likewise if the title is off-putting or the cover art is somehow wrong for the book or its audience. A young adult novel, for example, with a Goth title and violent cover art may fly with the kids it’s designed to reach, but it won’t get past librarians or teachers who are the gatekeepers that decide whether or not a YA author can appear at a library or school.

Every writer should have multiple pairs of eyes on a book before it goes to an agent, editor, or publicist. Best case, authors should revise and rewrite with a high-caliber writing group. After rounds of testing with other authors, the book should then go through a good edit, hopefully with a professional editor, but if that’s not possible, then with a trusted friend or another experienced writer or teacher who can help spot typos, grammatical issues, and flaws in the storyline.

I’m seeing more self-published work lately and many of those books, though interesting and decently written, have not had an agent or editor to help with the conceptual issues and editorial corrections that most books need. Although it’s tough to get an agent these days, and even tougher to be published by a larger press, the value those entities bring to an author’s work is immeasurable. I know this from experience – my first agent worked with me for four months on my debut novel before shopping it to publishing houses, offering input on what was missing and urging me to write seven new scenes for the book. Some agents give thorough critiques and mark-ups of manuscripts; others will work with authors for months, or even years, making certain that a book is the best it can be before it reaches an editor at a publishing house.

And editors, despite being over-worked and beleaguered by cut-backs and mergers, will put their own spin on a text. Some do more than others but, in most cases, a book will have gone through many rounds of revision and polishing before it hits the market if published by a larger house or even a diligent small press.

Can an author with a self-published book get the same quality end product without an agent and editor? Certainly, although the onus will be on the author to provide editorial and packaging resources for himself, which can be expensive and/or time-consuming. Many authors, in their hurry to get their books out, forego these steps and, sadly, their books don’t sell.

The bottom line is that self-published or not, if you want your book to be well-received by booksellers and the media, you must take the time to carefully edit, polish, and package it well.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Book Passage Connection

By Ona Russell
(Paula's note: The following article is by one of my clients, historical mystery author, Ona Russell. Since a number of you have asked about signing at Book Passage, I thought you'd enjoy hearing Ona's take on her interesting experience there last week. Enjoy! -PM)

We are all connected. So Charles Darwin, whose bicentennial is being celebrated worldwide this year, suggests in his theory of evolution. Indeed, a logical outgrowth of Darwin's well-known scientific observations about our common origin is this simple, yet profound idea: we are all connected.

I concur whole-heartedly with this idea having just had a first-hand taste of it at my book-signing this past Valentine's Day at Book Passage in Corte Madera. Now, I must admit that I have more than a passing interest in Darwin. My book, The Natural Selection, is a historical mystery set against the backdrop of the Scopes "monkey" trial, the 1925 legal battle that first put the teaching of evolution to the constitutional test (very briefly, the ACLU instigated the trial to challenge Tennessee's then Butler Law, which forbade the teaching of evolution because it conflicted with the Bible. Sound familiar?) In the story, Sarah Kaufman, a real 1920s Jewish woman whom I've adopted as my fictional sleuth, gets drawn into the investigation of the murder of a college professor. Through a series of events, she travels to the trial and ultimately solves the crime with the help of some of its key players.

With this in mind, consider that I was greeted at this wonderful bookstore by my gracious host, Susan Leipsic, with a mysterious-looking pamphlet in hand. Susan gave me an excited look, and then told me about the document. It was written by her grandfather, Herman Rosenwasser, the only rabbi solicited by Clarence Darrow to testify for the defense at the Scopes trial. Entitled Is Evolution Spiritual?, it was, like that of all the other expert witnesses for the defense, unfortunately never admitted in court. Well, of course I was fascinated. In doing my research for the book, I had never come across his name. Had I done so, I very well might have referred to him, because his words reflect precisely (and elegantly) the point of view that I have Sarah espouse in the book, a view that was typical before the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920s: that evolution and religion could coexist.

This was intriguing enough by itself. But the fact that he was a Jew, a rabbi no less, made the discovery all the more poignant as Sarah, in both this book and the one that begins the series, O'Brien's Desk, struggles with her own Jewish identity. Moreover, Susan informed me that she had only been given the assignment of hosting me the previous evening, that any number of others could have been delegated the job. The odds of everything falling into alignment were, in fact, remote.

Now, one is tempted to attribute such strangely coincidental situations to a mystical power. But on his bicentennial, one might also think of Darwin, of his notion that we are all connected and that somewhere along the path we may meet someone to help us illuminate that truth. Then again, as the good rabbi suggested, it could be a little of both.
Ona Russell is a historical mystery author and PEN/Faulkner Award nominee for her first Sarah Kaufman series novel, O'Brien's Desk. Her novels can be ordered at bookstores nationwide and at You can reach her at, or visit her website at

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Building Your Platform, Step by Step

Whenever I speak at writers’ conferences, authors often ask me what is meant by the term “platform.” Simply put, your platform is all about you — the experience, background, and expertise you bring to the table, in addition to the wonderful book you’ve written.

The concept of platform is important when selling a book because it’s what the media, especially radio and TV folks, are most interested in when it comes time to set up promotional appearances. I once had a radio producer in New York tell me, “Paula, I don’t give a damn about this author’s book; I want to know about his background and experience. If he doesn’t interest me, his book never will.” This may sound a bit harsh, but it’s all too true in the world of publicity. If you want premium exposure for your book through traditional radio and TV, you are going to be the story.

And it should be a good one. Media producers expect authors to be knowledgeable and experienced in their subject matter, whether the book is non-fiction or fiction. If you have a compelling personal history, experience in the industry you’ve written about, or an interesting angle to bring to the interview, then you’re more likely to get a yes nod from a producer trying to a fill radio or TV time slot. Reporters and producers look for individuals who are unique, compelling, and entertaining as interview subjects. If you’re a celebrity or have notoriety in your field, the pathway will be easier. But if not, you’ve got to develop a platform that will intrigue members of the media if you want to get maximum exposure for your work.

So, how do you go about building your platform? Many authors write about subjects that fascinate them, but they don’t always have expertise in those areas. When this is the case, I recommend the following:

1. Teach or give lectures, presentations, and workshops on the topic, even if it’s one you only know through research.
2. Keep a list of the presentations you give, and include them in your bio.
3. Get testimonials from the organizers and attendees at your talks and print them on all of your promotional material, including your website.
4. If you haven’t yet done so, create a website and a blog for your book and update both regularly with current information.
5. Follow other blogs in your subject area and comment on them. List your website and blog URL when you write comments, and develop relationships with bloggers and blog readers in your subject area.
6. Use your blog posts as starting points for articles that you can then send to established websites, blog sites, and trade publications.
7. Offer to become a guest blogger or reviewer on other sites, and invite experts in your subject area to guest write for your blog and website.
8. Make connections with experts in your subject area and ask them to endorse you and your book.
9. Demonstrate your passion for your subject when you speak about it. Know recent statistics and be able to talk about new research or events relevant to your subject area.
10. Develop an up-to-date curriculum vitae (c.v.) that lists all your accomplishments and achievements and demonstrates how well you know your subject area.

Many authors are lucky to have agents who understand the importance of platform and have helped them develop the items listed above. But self-published authors, or others who don’t have an agent to help them, may need to do some of the development work on their own.

Take a look at your platform and if it needs developing, get going on building it, one step at a time.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Surprise and Delight

My son, Max, and I volunteer every Saturday with the Escondido Humane Society (EHS), where we take care of the rabbits the EHS has placed in local Petco stores as part of an adoption outreach program. Our duties, begun two years ago, include cleaning cages, replenishing hay, kibble, and water, bringing the animals fresh greens, exercising them in an x-pen setup, grooming and interacting with them, and providing information to store visitors interested in adopting.

What began as a volunteer activity to help my son with college applications has become a labor of love for both of us. During the past two years, we’ve cared for over forty rabbits and have seen many of them get adopted. Even though we’re happy when they find forever homes, it’s hard to watch the rabbits go; after weeks of working with them, they inevitably burrow their way into our hearts. But our volunteering has been a wonderful bonding activity for my son and me and has allowed us to give back in a way that sustains our mutual love for animals.

Max and I have developed a rhythm to our volunteer routine; since he’s good with animals, he does most of the bunny handling and grooming. Since I’m more into organizing and chatting, I take care of the trays, hay boxes, and water bowls, and answer potential adopters’ questions.

On a recent volunteer day, I was busy cleaning one of the rabbits’ trays when a mouse scurried out from under a display rack and skittered across the floor in front of me. The sight of the tiny critter motoring so quickly across the linoleum made me laugh out loud. After months of the same routine every Saturday, this little interlude made my day in a fresh and surprising way.

The runaway mouse also got me thinking about the importance of surprise in our writing. An unexpected element, especially one that makes us smile, can infuse new life into a story that has been rolling along on cruise control. This concept is especially true for those of us mired in the middle of novels, where we’ve become bogged down by static plot lines and characters. An unusual event, an atypical action by a character, or even a surprising bit of dialogue, can give us fresh perspective on a storyline and lend renewed interest and enthusiasm to authors and readers alike.

As an author, I love when the characters in a book I’m writing suddenly do or say things that surprise me. This usually occurs when I’m not sure exactly what will happen next in a scene – suddenly, a character will behave in an unexpected way, and it’s so refreshing and unusual that it peaks my interest. Soon, I’m off writing the next few lines, eager to see where the new direction will lead.

I believe that readers, like authors (and volunteers), also love it when we surprise them. So, if you’ve been slogging through the middle of your latest novel, try letting your characters do something unexpected. The unusual twist may be exactly what you need to give yourself – and your readers – a reason to smile.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Finding Opportunity in a Teacup

I recently read Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin's Three Cups of Tea, the fascinating non-fiction account of how Mortenson, a mountain climber and American nurse, came to build fifty-five schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In one of my favorite parts of the book, Mortenson describes a 1998 talk he gave in a sports shop in Apple Valley, Minnesota, where the store staff was so busy he had to set up the seating -- over a hundred folding chairs -- himself. After weeks of publicity, including posters at a local college, an AM radio morning show interview, and segments in the local papers, he faced an audience of only three people: two store employees and a single customer, who hovered at the back of the room. Though he was dejected at the small showing and exhausted by his continual efforts at fundraising, Mortenson decided to give his talk anyway and began showing slides of K2's infamous summit and the eighteen schools he’d built so far in Pakistan’s remote and impoverished countryside. As he spoke, Mortenson felt a renewed enthusiasm for his work and his devotion to the Pakistani people and gave his all to the presentation, even though his audience was small.

When he finished, the lone customer disappeared, but the two employees approached him. One gave him ten dollars, while the other offered to volunteer his construction skills in Asia. Mortenson thanked them and then, as he picked up the brochures he'd set out on the chairs, he noticed an envelope on the last chair in the last row, where the customer had been sitting. In the envelope, Mortenson found a personal check, made out to his foundation, for twenty thousand dollars.

There is an important lesson here for all authors who initially see very little return on investment for the hours and dollars they spend promoting their books. Although a few lucky ones experience instant success when their books are published, the majority do not. Most writers, especially those who are publishing a book for the first time, can expect months and even years of effort, including building websites, posting on blogsites, giving interviews, sending out contest applications, presenting at speaking engagements, and hosting blog and book tours that don’t pan out to much in sales. And in our recently diminished economy, where consumers are pulling back on their expenditures, the return on an author’s promotional investment is lower than ever.

But, as Mortenson's story reminds us, opportunities exist (and sometimes abound) in every venture we undertake, and bad economy or no, there is always the possibility that a single investment of time and effort will somehow result in some good. Even a book signing with only one or two attendees can turn out to be worthwhile, especially if one of the two people there happens to be one of Oprah's producers, say, or a movie studio executive looking for a new idea for a script. We never know who will see our ads, read about us in a local newspaper article, stumble across our blog, or sit at the back of empty rows of chairs at a bookstore or university talk.

As another famous impoverished author, Henry David Thoreau, once said, "In the long run, we only hit what we aim at." Although the results we seek may not always come as quickly as we'd like, with persistence, patience, and good promotional guidance and execution, they eventually appear – sometimes when we least expect them.

Aim often and high.