Saturday, December 27, 2008

Learning to Be Like Water

As the end of the year approaches, it’s time to take a personal inventory of what the year was like – what went well and what didn’t, where we succeeded and where we failed, what brought joy and what brought sorrow, and what we learned from it all. For me, this year was a tumultuous one, filled with highs and lows. The low points had to do with a lot of dental work; the highs revolved around work, writing, and relationships.

The constant joy in my life is my family, and that held true for 2008. My husband and my two children are a never-ending source of love, happiness, and inspiration. At the end of each year with them, I can’t help feeling truly blessed for their presence in my life.

As for my business, I also couldn’t be more blessed. I had the honor of working for some truly great clients this year and am looking forward to continuing my work with many of them – along with some new voices - in 2009.

My writing has also been a source of joy and learning. I am privileged to be part of a creative and talented weekly writing group, and this year I had the honor of meeting some truly amazing writers during an artist residency at the Vermont Studio Center. I discovered the joy of blogging, sold a few articles, and reached the halfway point on my second novel. While I may not have completed as much as I would have liked, the first ten pages won an Editor’s Choice Award at the 2008 SDSU Writers’ Conference, and the remaining pages are shaping up into a presentable first draft.

In 2008, I went back to community college teaching after a ten-year hiatus. Surprisingly, I discovered how much I missed it and was lucky to have a group of students who were a pleasure to work with and taught me more than they’ll ever know.

And on November 4th, I felt tremendous pride in the American people for the ground-breaking change they brought to pass with the election of our first African-American president.

In all, it was a solid year, filled with achievement and wonder.

And now it’s time to look forward to 2009. I’m not big on resolutions, but I do believe in setting goals, even if they’re more generally focused on attitude and direction. For the coming year, I’ve decided to take a lesson from the Tao Te Ching by paying more attention to what is present in my life and learning to practice simplicity, patience, and compassion.

As Lao Tze says in Chapter 8 of the Tao, the roadmap for contentment lies in being like water, which nourishes without trying and is “content with the low places that most people disdain.” Lao Tze also gives some wonderful basic guidelines for daily life:

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don't try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don't compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.

Some wise words to live by in 2009.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Beginnings and Endings

Some experts would argue that the most important part of a book is the first sentence. Without a good opening, or hook, as we call it, we authors risk losing our readers right off the bat. But how many books have any of us read where we actually remember the opening line? Or even how the story begins?

For myself, I love a book beginning. When I’m in a bookstore or at the library, I don’t waste time reading the jacket copy on the back of a book. Instead, I toss open the cover and go straight for the first line. If it grabs me, I’ll pick up the book to bring home. But if that first line doesn’t stop me dead in my tracks right there, the book doesn’t stand a chance.

Usually the first line is a precursor to what’s to come in a novel. There is a certain tone to the writing, or the main character speaks with a voice so unique and compelling that we have to turn the page. These are the books that become our favorites, the ones that stay with us through our lifetime as key markers along the paths of our personal development.

We all have a few favorite opening lines. One of mine is the beginning of Barbara Kingsolver’s haunting novel, The Poisonwood Bible, which tells the story of an American preacher, who leads his family to tragedy and death as he descends into madness in the jungles of Africa. The first sentence prophetically reads “Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.”

Another one of my favorites is the opening line to Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel Abundance, which tells the story of Marie Antoinette in the doomed queen’s own voice. “Like everyone, I am born naked,” she states. How can any of us put down a book that begins this way?

And who can forget “Call me Ishmael,” Herman Melville’s famous opening to Moby Dick? Or Humbert Humbert’s painfully obsessed beginning words in Nabokov’s Lolita: “Lolita, love of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”

Likewise, I am fascinated by the last lines of certain books, especially those that have kept me spellbound for hours and made me loathe to have them end. One of my favorite endings appears in the title piece of Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find. After brutally murdering all but one member of a Southern family stranded on a country road, a psychopathic killer called The Misfit shoots the opinionated grandmother who, in a moment of redemption, has reached out and touched him after recognizing him as one of her own.

She would have been a good woman,” The Misfit says to his accomplice, Bobby Lee, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Some fun!” Bobby Lee replies.
Shut up,” The Misfit says, “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

Another favorite ending of mine (this one a bit more lyrical), lies in the final paragraphs of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. They read:

Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.

Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Gil Adamson’s marvelous debut novel, The Outlander. Everything about this book is wonderful, including the suspenseful plot and the unforgettable characters. Most memorable is Mary Boulton, the young widow at the heart of the story. But it’s the novel’s ending that nailed me to my chair (even though I suspected what was coming). Turn away now if you plan to read the book. If not, enjoy the delightful and chilling last words Mary leaves in a note for the lover she’s finally located after a desperate and eerie journey through the woods of Montana:

Find me.”

Thursday, December 11, 2008


When my friend, Pam, called to cancel on our movie date tonight, I was glad. Not because I didn’t want to go out with Pam – I relish our nights out, partly because I enjoy her company and partly because we share a love of indie films (something our husbands don’t have much interest in). But tonight I was glad we weren’t getting together because the unexpected block of time became an opportunity to bake holiday cookies with my son, Max.

Baking cookies may not seem like a big deal to some, but to me, it is. That’s because Max is sixteen years old now and between his interests - the homework, driving lessons, basketball and volleyball practices, and flag football games – and my own, there isn’t always a lot of time left for us to spend together.

We had made the dough last night, at Max’s urging. To be honest, with all I have going on with my publicity work and fiction writing, I could skip the whole Christmas-cookie-baking gig. I could skip the tree and the lights and the presents, too. But my kids, who are now fourteen and sixteen-years-old and straddling that gap between adulthood and childhood, won’t let that happen. So, with Max pestering me to pull out the New York Times Cookbook (we love the gingerbread recipe) and even reminding me to let the butter soften before he left for school in the morning (how many teenage boys do that?), the dough was ready to go.

After I hung up the phone with Pam, I called Max into the kitchen and said, “Let’s hit it.” My daughter, Sasha, and husband, Dan, made us promise that they could help decorate when they returned from softball practice, so Max and I were on our own to bake. We put some mood music on the CD player (A Charlie Brown Christmas, one of my all-time favorites), sprinkled the table with flour, pulled the cold dough out of the fridge, and selected Christmas and Hanukkah (for Dan, who is Jewish) cookie cutters from the drawer that only gets opened once every year in December. There were the old favorites – the rusty gingerbread man, the plastic Christmas tree, the rocking horse, the teddy bear, the holiday wreath, the Santa, the dreidel, and the six-pointed Star of David – along with some new ones: a Texas longhorn and a cactus shape that Dan had brought back from a business trip to Dallas this year.

And we baked. I rolled out the dough, and Max positioned the cutters and pressed them down, then peeled the excess dough away and transported the newly cut cookies (the longhorns gave us some trouble) to the new baking sheets the kids gave me for my birthday this year. Max and I shoved the filled trays into the oven and loaded up empty ones, working together in a rhythm based on years of doing the same sprinkling, rolling, and cutting Christmas ritual, on the same kitchen table, since he was a toddler.

We didn’t say much, Max and I, but as we worked together, gathering the loose scraps of dough to press into a ball and roll out again, I held my breath. I know that there won’t be too many more of these times. In two years, my son will be off to college, studying, working, falling in love and, some day, developing his own holiday traditions. But for now, I’ll treasure these stolen moments in the kitchen with flour on our hands, the scent of warm gingerbread in the air, and the fullness of this comforting winter ritual in our hearts.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Routine Matters

My son, Max, attends a local Sunday morning basketball clinic put on by Jim Brogan, a former NBA player and current coach/motivational speaker. Those who are familiar with Jim know already that he has an unorthodox and eclectic style. He pushes the kids – literally and figuratively – to be leaders as well as good athletes. And he does it with a mix of interactive coaching, conventional shooting and ball-handling drills, and bold “in-your-face” challenges and questions. At the end of each Sunday workout, the kids cluster on the gym bleachers, all sweaty and sucking on their water bottles, to listen to Jim’s “Thought for the Week,” which he prints out on colored paper and distributes after his talk. These talks are the best part of Jim’s Sunday sessions because that’s where he draws on his celebrity status as an NBA player, along with his fiery and determined personality, to drive home important truths about basketball and life.

Jim has been a fantastic source of inspiration and learning not just for Max and his fellow athletes, but for me and all the other parents who huddle close to the kids at the end of the Sunday workouts to hear the weekly thought. Of course, Jim doesn’t just aim his talks at the kids – he focuses on the parents, as well, and there are some weeks when his words are meant more for us than for our offspring.

Today’s talk was one of those “Parents, listen up,” lessons. Jim spoke about a former student who had stopped by and confessed that he was failing his freshman classes at UC Berkeley. The former student told Jim that he was partying until three in the morning every day and had lost his motivation and his ability to stay on top of sports and classes. Jim pointed out the obvious lesson for the kids – that we all have choices to make about how we behave and what we do with our time – but he also mentioned something that made me sit up and listen a little closer.

And that was the concept of having a routine. As Jim told the kids, any of us can go out every night and party and hope we get by on talent and luck. But, he asked, wouldn’t it be better to commit to a routine that’s good for you? He made some suggestions (ones that he’s mentioned before) about good habits for basketball players, including coming to the gym every morning before school and shooting one hundred free throws. But, he also pointed out that having a routine is an important part of life. Even more important, he said, was to use our routines to build up our lives. When life gets boring, or throws us a tough curve ball, Jim suggested that the best way to adapt and adjust is to add a new routine to our repertoire.

This idea hit home with me, especially after a holiday week, when a lot of my normal routines were disrupted. My husband was out of town, the kids were home instead of being in school, and my writing group, which normally meets on Thursdays, had to skip because of Thanksgiving. Even worse, I was involved in some pretty hairy dental work, which left me with a misaligned bite and a lot of soreness. All of this put me off my usual routine of making calls for clients every morning, working on my novel, meeting with other writers, and spending time with my family. I hadn’t realized how much I treasured those daily rituals until they were disrupted this past week.

But most striking to me is the idea that when things get tough, and the going gets boring, one option for getting over the hump is adding a new routine to our repertoire. Who among us writers hasn’t hit the proverbial wall when working on a book? And how many times have many of us, especially after a rough critique or another rejection, considered giving up all together? Jim’s solution, which can keep us in the writing game, is to add another routine. Stuck in the middle of that nonfiction draft? Add a routine of writing an essay or a blog entry on a similar topic every week. Can’t come up with a subplot for that historical novel? Consider adding a daily research or reading timeslot that might provide some answers. Run out of images for that new short story? Why not spend fifteen minutes every day reading a poem by your favorite poet. Creating new routines, I’ve realized, is just as important as having some in the first place.

We writers have all heard about the importance of writing every day as a means of becoming better at our craft. Even those of us who can’t, or don’t care to, write daily usually have some kind of ritual and/or routine that keeps us on our game. A weekly free-writing session, a meeting with a group of writers, an annual retreat or residency – there is typically something we do regularly that keeps us in touch with ourselves and gives us the momentum to keep moving forward with our work. I hadn’t realized how crucial my own routines were until this week, when they were disrupted. Thanks to Jim Brogan, I’m reminded of the value of the every day routines in my life, and how much we all stand to gain by doing those same things – as long as they’re things that are good for us – over and over. Even more important, I’m now going to consider adding new ones when the old routines wear out.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

What Makes Writing Worth Doing?

In one of my favorite Woody Allen movies, Manhattan, there's a wonderful scene at the end of the film where the main character, Isaac, a neurotic, divorced television writer, finds himself alone at home on the couch, holding a tape recorder. His teenaged girlfriend, Tracy, has left him, he’s blown a relationship with a woman his own age, he’s lost his job and his apartment, and has discovered that fears about his health were unfounded. In that final scene, alone and hopeless, he turns on the tape recorder and asks himself, "What makes life worth living?" He then answers the question, mumbling into the microphone in his hand: Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong's recording of Potato Head Blues, Swedish movies, Sentimental Education by Flaubert, Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra, the incredible apples and pears by Cezanne, the crabs at Sam Wo's, and, finally, he adds, "Tracy's face." These last words hit him in a way the others don't; he gets up and, in true Woody Allen fashion, runs through the streets of Manhattan to find Tracy before she leaves for college in England.

I won't tell you what happens at the very end (I’ll save that for those who haven't seen the movie), but I love the fact that the final realization in this film comes because of an image. The picture of a young girl's face in a man's mind summarizes her whole being for him: her sweetness, her radiance, her intelligence. It reveals these characteristics in a way that is so monumental that Isaac has to act. And off he goes, to whatever resolution the story has in store for him.

We writers deal in images. And like Isaac, we often find ourselves at a point in our writing lives where we’re on the couch, alone and hopeless, wondering if we can continue to pour our hearts out on the page year after year.

Most of us have been in the situation where something that was at one time important to us - our job, our marriage, a sport, a hobby - changes, and we suddenly find ourselves asking, Why am I doing this? What’s in it for me? In many marriages, this moment tends to occur after some years together (we’ve all heard the warnings about the seven year itch). We reach a point where we ask ourselves why we married our spouse, why we chose to have kids. We imagine what our lives would be like if we hadn’t gone down the marriage path. Or maybe we meet someone who seems like a true soul mate and wonder "what if?"

Writers often experience a similar pattern. We take some classes, win a few awards, find a good writing group, maybe even land an agent. But our first and perhaps even our second book doesn’t sell, so we doggedly write another one. And halfway through that next one, after maybe five or six or seven years of writing and going to classes and conferences and meetings with other writers, we ask ourselves, why are we doing this? Why spend so many hours away from our spouses, children, and friends, to slave over pages of words? Is it worth it?

And this is where our inspiration falters. Some writers stop writing. They begin to doubt themselves, they become more critical and anxious at their group meetings, or they don’t come at all - spending their creativity on inventing excuses: "I had too much work this week," "I’m not feeling well," "I have to go to an event with the kids," "I can’t find the inspiration/motivation/courage,"etc. Even published writers go through times of doubt, wondering why a book hasn't sold despite good publicity, successful book tours, and decent reviews. Why do any more book signings, they ask? Why write the next book? What makes writing worth the effort?

As in a marriage, when a writer's relationship with his/her work starts to falter, it might be time to examine the situation and get some counseling. A good conference or class can be the answer for some, providing a new way of looking at our writing, or offering new grounds for inspiration and camaraderie. Perhaps a stint at a writing residency might do the trick, providing some needed time for soul-searching and reconnecting with our creative selves.

Or maybe it's time to talk with a spouse, trusted friend, writing expert, agent, even a publicist. Anyone who’s a good listener can act as a sounding board. Have that person ask (or just ask yourself), "What makes writing worth doing?"

If you're honest, your answers might surprise you: maybe it's worth it because you love creating a world all your own from your own imagination; maybe it's the exhilaration you feel when you find that perfect word that illustrates exactly what you’re trying to say; maybe it's the admiration you receive from your friends, your family, your readers; maybe it's the friendships you've formed with other writers like yourself; maybe it's the voices of the characters you hear in your head, begging you to bring them to life on the page; maybe it’s an image of a young girl's face. You don’t know what that image means, but you feel driven to write about it, to find out why it haunts you, to discover what impact understanding it might have on your life.

Listen carefully to your answers. If you’re lucky, you just might discover an idea, a thought or, possibly, an image so powerful that it gets you up off the couch and running to create your next scene.

Oh, and for Isaac, I would have added one more thing that makes life worth living: writing.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Confessions of a Library Lover

From the time I was old enough to hold a book in my hands, I’ve been a huge fan of public libraries. Some of my earliest and best memories are of trips with my mother to our local library, where I could pick up to seventeen books at a time (the maximum allowed then) to take home and read. I was seven years old when I got my first library card, and I still remember my first selections: a couple of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries, a Zane Grey novel (pushed on me by my mom), a collection of Greek mythology, and what was to become my all-time favorite book, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I was a voracious reader and blew through so many books that sometimes we made two trips to the library in one week.

When my children were little (they’re both teenagers now), I continued the tradition and brought them on outings to our public library here in Rancho Penasquitos every week. We checked out all their favorites and read every book that had a series: Curious George, Dirty Harry, Dr. Seuss, Corduroy, Babar the Elephant, Madeline. As my kids got older, we graduated to Harry Potter and the Narnia series. My son doesn’t read as much now as he used to, but when he does, he goes for fantasy and video-game related novels. My daughter enjoys young adult fiction and will often read a book in one day.

Now that I’m a publicist and writer myself, I confess that I don’t get to read as much as I would like. But I still visit my local public library and do my best to get my kids to go with me (harder to do now, with their busy schedules). The Penasquitos branch that I frequent doesn’t open until 12:30 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. On those days, I’m often one of the twenty or so individuals congregated outside the door in the sunshine, eagerly awaiting the moment when the librarian slides the Closed sign to Open and lets us in.

When I’m away at an artist residency or on vacation, my first priority is checking out the local library. One of my most treasured possessions is my Hawaii state library card, which is good on any of the islands. Last year, while staying on the Big Island for a residency, I visited five branches during my trip. Some, like the Na’alehu branch, are housed in tiny trailers. The Hilo branch has a huge central open-air courtyard encased by windows and visible from all four sides of the stacks and Internet carrels that surround it. I’ve been to some equally gorgeous and unique libraries in California, Oregon, Florida, Hawaii, and Vermont, and can’t wait to pick up library cards in trips to future states.

As a book publicist, it’s no surprise that I urge my clients to hold signings at public libraries. These institutions offer terrific opportunities to reach an entirely different audience than those that authors meet at bookstores. Many libraries are willing to order books for signings and do great jobs of promoting events through newsletters, flyers, press releases to the media, and email outreach. Some libraries will showcase authors, placing books, posters, and signage in their lobbies or designated areas for announcements or featured items. And they’re open to all types of writing, embracing traditionally published, self-published, and print-on-demand authors equally.

Many libraries have dedicated sections for local authors, so every writer with a published book should be sure to get it housed in at least one branch in the local system. Authors can introduce their books to other libraries across the country by sending email inquiries and/or visiting the library websites for submission requirements. A great resource for locating libraries across the country can be found at

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Take-Away

I recently spent two weeks at an artist residency at the Vermont Studio Center, a large compound in the quaint northern town of Johnson, which caters to artists and writers who seek a get-away place to work, reflect, and experience a sense of community. My time there was a strange mix of esoteric highs and lows. On the low end, I found the place to be a technological twilight zone, with limited Internet capability, printers that didn’t work, and cell phone service that ranged from intermittent to non-existent. My calling card number wouldn’t go through on the local land line, my key to the writer’s studio building had to be replaced three times, and the light bulbs in my dorm room mysteriously flickered on and off the entire length of my stay, keeping time to the beat of some unknown rhythm they alone heard.

Compounding these technical difficulties was a distressing lack of sympathy by most of the VSC staff. In one instance, I made the mistake of asking for help with my Dell laptop, which refused to boot up. The staff member I approached sniffed disdainfully at me and suggested that since I didn’t own a Mac, which is the VSC computer of choice, I should just go out and hire my own technical support.

There were other lows: hot and hectic work shifts in the dining room kitchen; a floor mate who sang and/or shouted into her cell phone until two o’clock in the morning; models who didn’t show for scheduled life drawing sessions; the ophthalmologist back home in San Diego who refused to call in a prescription to the Rite Aid drugstore in Morrisville.

But the high points more than made up for the lows. The legendary Vermont foliage put on a spectacular display of yellows, oranges, and reds, and the Gihon River burbled merrily outside my studio window. The campus meditation house was a practitioner’s dream – situated in a quiet garden, it exuded peace and tranquility, and came furnished with candles, incense, and rows of comfortable meditation cushions. The food was plentiful and the conversation lively during mealtimes, and the resident presentations at the Center’s lecture hall provided fascinating glimpses into each artist’s personal view of the world. I managed to scratch out four new scenes for my novel; met with literary great, Antonya Nelson; took day trips to Burlington and North Conway, New Hampshire; saw a charming local production of 1776 in Hyde Park; and hiked the surrounding area in perfect 57-degree fall weather, photographing winding trails, flowers, green fields, and waterfalls.

But what I’ll remember most about VSC are the incredible voices of my fellow writing residents. There were eleven of us, and though we were outnumbered by more than forty visual artists, we emerged as the most vocal and boisterous segment of our creative community. We met as a group under our own reconnaissance in the Mason House conference room, a small living room area in one of the residence halls. Armed with wine, tortilla chips, and M&M’s, we read our poetry and prose aloud, shared constructive feedback, and exchanged observations about the writing life. The more the group met, the more we bonded, and our deepening respect and appreciation for each other made this residency one of the most profoundly memorable I’ve experienced.

There are many take-aways from this trip, but for me, the most vivid will be the amazing depth and grace of the non-fiction vignettes from Bill, a CPA in Idaho; the gentle wisdom and thoughtfulness of the animal poems by John, a spiritual guide and teacher in upstate New York; Monique’s sparkling wit and fast-paced coming-of-age humor; Nina’s southern twang and heartfelt take on life as an Indian American girl growing up in Kansas; Louise’s British bildungsroman, told in her cockney accent, all flashing teeth and smiles; Cortney’s adult fairy tales, magical and transcendent, punctuated by cigarette breaks and an impish smile; George’s lyrical narrative about the life of a Russian boy during the time of Perestroika; Heather’s dazzling flash fiction; Leigh’s revealing haikus; my own humble take on love and history in the time of Pocahontas.

I’ve measured my other residency experiences in terms of the beauty of the landscapes or the friendships I formed during my stay. But this trip, while mixed in terms of highs and lows, stands out for the deep admiration and tremendous heart and talent shared by the writers there.

To all my VSC friends (including the visual artists, who generously allowed me to participate in life drawing sessions; Gerard Huber, who touched me with his friendship and kindness; and John Fitzpatrick, who willingly shared his healing knowledge), I send my love and best wishes. Namaste.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Signing Trends: A Ground-Level Report from a Publicist's Viewpoint

A lot of writers who contact me want to know what booksellers are looking for these days when it comes to hosting author signings. Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer, since not all bookstores are alike and, thus, sellers have differing views on what kinds of books they allow authors to promote. I am seeing some general trends, though, when I call stores to pitch signings. Here are some items to consider when preparing to contact stores regarding your books:

Paperback Price Points are Lower
I’m seeing a lot of pushback from stores on pricing, especially for paperbacks. A number of stores don’t allow signings for paperbacks, but those that do are concerned about price. Most of my clients have priced their books reasonably, but those with a paperback priced at $16.95 or higher face a tough time booking signings. The economy is a major reason for this trend, and it affects everyone. For example, the B. Dalton bookseller in the downtown Los Angeles Mall says that she’s not selling any paperback priced over $15.99. Another bookseller in Encino, which is more upscale, tells me the same thing – even though their stores cater to two extremely different demographics. Because of our current economic conditions, price is becoming a sticking point, and authors, especially those who self -publish and/or have some say in their book’s marketing decisions, should take care not to price themselves out of the market.

Distribution is All
If your book is not in the Barnes & Noble or Borders ordering systems, many of those outlets will not allow you to sign. Likewise, if your book is not listed with wholesale distributors like Ingram Books and Baker & Taylor, many booksellers will turn down requests to sign. I can’t harp on this point enough – make sure your book is ready to go distribution-wise before you start your marketing campaign, or you may not find many booksellers willing to work with you on a signing.

To POD or Not to POD?
A lot of the booksellers I call these days won’t allow authors with print-on-demand (POD) books to sign at their stores. This situation is frustrating to writers and publicists alike, especially when publishers and literary pundits insist that POD is the wave of the future. Many bookstore managers, sadly, have a bias against self-published books and a number of them automatically assume that a book listed as POD is self-published, even though the majority of traditional small presses these days are deliberately choosing to deliver books via POD.

One solution for POD authors is to ask your publisher to do an offset run of 500-1000 books. You or your publicist can then inform bookstore managers concerned about ordering lead times that there are plenty of copies of your book available for purchase. Some bookstore managers find this arrangement acceptable, but others still avoid POD books. Because of this trend, I recommend that authors who can’t decide between traditional and self-publishing try to sell their books via the traditional publishing route first. If an agent can’t sell the book, then self-publishing is always a good fall-back option.

Be Prepared to Sell
A lot of destination bookstores – those in malls and other outlets that depend on location to bring in traffic – will host authors even if they don’t have seating space for readings and signings. These stores usually offer writers a table inside the store, or just outside in a mall walkway, where they can sell directly to store patrons. The booksellers at these destination locations prefer to host authors who are good at personal selling and willing to supply marketing materials for their signings. As always, I recommend that authors think outside the box and try to find other venues besides bookstores for signing opportunities. Some of the more creative destination locales include airport bookstores, book expos, street fairs, and professional organization meetings.

Take Home Your Leftovers
Many store owners don’t have the shelf space to house leftovers from book signings and are asking authors to either buy back books that don’t sell, or arrange a return policy with their distributors. Most of my clients’ publishers are good about taking returns, but authors should know that not having a return policy can be a deal-breaker when pitching signings.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

World of Bookcraft: Tales of a Writing Junkie

At lunch the other day, a writer friend confessed that she had become seriously addicted to writing.

“How serious?” I asked. For me, anything less than twenty-four hours a day – which is how often my teenage son would play World of Warcraft if we let him – is not an addiction.

“Extremely serious,” she replied.

It turns out that my friend’s concerns were valid. She had stopped seeing her friends, stopped doing any kind of exercise (she does yoga to stretch out an injured hip), stopped taking her vitamins, and, eventually, stopped sleeping. “I was coming home from work every day and doing nothing but writing,” she said. “I’d spend all night writing, then shower and go to work, and then come home and write some more.”

Not good, I agreed. She told me that the seriousness of the situation finally hit home when she realized that she was feeling angry, tired, and generally awful about everything in her life.

I was curious to find out how she addressed the problem. She explained that once she realized things had to change, she sat down and made lists. “In one column, I listed all the time I was spending on my book,” she said. “And in another column, I listed all the things I used to do that I consider essential to my mental and physical health.” My friend then took her lists and started crossing off items on either side until they were in balance. Since things were so heavily weighted in the writing column, she forced herself to write nothing for a month and even skipped three weeks of her writing group meetings.

This last bit worried me a little, but my friend assured me that she’s writing again, only now, she does so only in proportion to the amount of time she spends on other activities. She still works, writes, and goes to her weekly group meetings, but she also makes time to do yoga, take her vitamins, eat healthy foods, and have lunch once in a while with friends like me.

I’m proud of her. In the world of bookcraft, balance is everything.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Things We Cling To

The other day, my daughter ran into my home office and exclaimed, “Mom, there’s a bird trying to get into our patio room!” Sure enough, she was right – a small yellow parakeet was bashing itself against the windows trying to get into our attached screen porch, where we house our three rabbits and a cage of finches. Fearing that the parakeet would injure itself with repeated attempts to get inside, we opened one of the window screens and let it in. It immediately settled itself on top of our finch cage and wouldn’t budge. In fact, it spent the first night in our house clinging to the side bars of the cage, its tiny head tucked under its wing.

My daughter named the parakeet Kiwi, for its lemon-yellow and green feathers. We’re assuming it’s a female, since her ceres (the flap of skin covering the larger edge of the beak) is brown rather than the blue color associated with males. Kiwi’s protective of our finches, which are much smaller birds than she, and likes to distract us by flying around the room when we feed them and clean their cage. We bought her a cage of her own and, since parakeets need to exercise their wings every day, we left the doors open so she can fly in and out. She goes inside to eat and drink but, as soon as she’s done, she’s back at her post on the finch cage, keeping watch.

It struck me while observing her these past few days that even though she was free in the wild, Kiwi chose to fly into our house and spend the majority of her time with her feet gripped to the bars of a cage. Her determination to latch on to the very thing that restricts her reminds me of how often writers cling to what’s familiar, even if it limits us. Our fear of the unknown oftentimes leads us to eschew change. We stick to a familiar genre, for example, when we have ideas for characters and stories that might force us to explore new styles and techniques. Some of us remain with the same agent, publisher, or writing group, even when we know that new representation or a fresh critique environment might do us good.

For many of us, sticking to what we know is probably not a bad thing. The familiar provides us with a sense of history and experience; there’s a comfort and certainty in operating within those boundaries. They allow us a safe place in which we can grow and explore.

I’m also struck by the strength of Kiwi's drive to protect and be close to our birds. Her need to congregate seems to outweigh her need for freedom. Like Kiwi, many of us seek out fellow writers for companionship, feedback, and the feeling of belonging. And even when a writing group dynamic is limiting, many of us will forego leaving for the simple reason that we deeply desire to be with others like ourselves.

I admire this little parakeet for her willingness to join a strange household in order to be near other birds. Her instinct to protect and flock is apparently much stronger than her desire for freedom. She’s welcome to stay as long as she likes, and we’ll honor her choice by keeping her safe and fed. Similarly, we authors should nurture and support our fellow writers, who often prefer to operate within the certainty of what they know and congregate rather than fly solo. When they’re ready to soar on their own, Kiwi and our writer friends will let us know.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Stay Safe, New Orleans - Our Thoughts Are With You!

The other day, a writer in New Orleans contacted me regarding some publicity work. We talked about the coming storm, and I urged him to take the appropriate safety measures and stay away from home until the hurricane had passed. Having lived through the wildfires here in San Diego, I know how frightening and disrupting these natural disasters can be.

Our thoughts go out to our good friends in New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf states. May the storm pass quickly and may you all return safely home and be writing soon.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

It's All in the Pitch

Having just returned from a week at nationals with my daughter’s softball team, the subject of pitching is on my mind. Many would argue (especially parents of daughters who pitch), that there is no more important position on a team than that of pitcher. Without a true ace throwing curves, rises, fastballs, and change-ups, most teams don’t stand a chance of defeating their rivals.

The same can be said for those of us who pitch to the media and booksellers. Without someone on our team who can bring the right stuff, we don’t stand much chance of success in the hunt for publicity.

So, what’s the secret to good pitching? According to my husband, who coaches softball, ace pitchers are good at three things: velocity (being able to throw really hard), location (where the pitcher puts the ball in relation to the batter), and changing speeds (knowing how to spin the ball so that the batter swings at it). Ironically, the same three qualities are important to publicists:

Velocity - a solid pitch is one that has been researched and practiced, and sounds so good the person on the other end chases after it. Want the media to say yes to your call? Be prepared and throw hard; have your press release, bio and Q & A completed and know the material in each of them cold. Don’t waste time on pleasantries (“How are you doing today?” “Do you have a minute?”); instead, bring it – tell them who you are, why you’re calling, and what you’d like from them. Get your storyline down to one or two minutes and be able to elaborate if the person on the other end wants more information. Tout your awards and achievements, and don’t forget to sell yourself as well as your work.

Location – know the range of the publications/media/bookstores you’re pitching and make sure that their audiences will be interested in what you have to say. Choose venues where you know people (so you draw big crowds) and/or that will give you the most PR mileage. Locate the name of the right producer/manager/community relations rep before you call and be ready to show her how you and your book fits her bookstore/column/show.

Change-Ups – be sure to put the right spin on the subject matter you’re pitching and be flexible about availability, dates, and subject matter. Speak quickly and clearly when leaving voice mail messages, but slow down when leaving your telephone number or email address. If the person you’ve contacted can’t accommodate your request (no room for signings/schedule booked for the fall), switch speeds and ask for other options – would the store be willing to stock your book? Is there an opportunity for a spot in the spring? Ask if you can check back, and follow through if the answer is yes.

As my husband says, you've got to put the ball right where you want it to go, or you get lit up. Translated, that means that it's tough to win unless you've got some real pitching power on your team. But, find someone who's got the right combination of speed, location, and spin, and you can serve up some powerful publicity for your writing.

Play ball.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How to Get the Most From Your Book Signings

Summer is here and it's a great time for authors to do book signings. For those of you getting ready to appear at bookstores for the first time, here are some helpful hints for making the most out of your signing experience:

1) If the bookstore is near you, stop by a week ahead of time and see what kind of promotion the staff is doing for your book. If they don't have anything up, offer to give them posters, bookmarks, magnets, etc., to use in the store.

2) Talk to your friends and family and try to get as many people as you can to attend your signing. Even if they've purchased the book before or attended other signings, ask them to come and help draw people in the store over to the area where you're reading. Send email announcements to everyone in your address book prior to signings and ask your workmates, students, clients, etc., to attend. Mention that you're doing a signing everywhere you go -- at work, in the grocery store, at the bank, etc. Make up simple announcement flyers and leave them everywhere you can (at the library, on bulletin boards, at coffee shops, etc.).

3) Presign a number of the books you're bringing to help long lines move faster. After your signing, see if you can get the store to keep the presigned copies. You can make or order stickers that say "Signed Copy" for the spine of the book -- these will help the books move quickly on the shelves.

4) A few days prior to the signing, advertise your event on local websites that have calendar listings. Many local newspapers and weekly tabloids have event notice forms you can fill out online for free. Some have longer lead times, so start checking the websites early. You can also put a notice in the events section on Craigslist and on other free networking sites.

5) The morning of your signing, call and ask for the manager (if you're one of my clients, the names are on your reading schedule). Make sure the manager knows what time your signing will be held and has everything ready for you, including table, chairs, microphone, electrical outlet (if necessary), etc. Also, find out if your books are there; if they're not, bring at least 20 copies with you.

6) Get to your signing early and make sure tables and chairs are set up and your books are out. I've been to a number of signings where my clients have gotten there and nothing is ready, so be prepared for that. Be sure to place one of your promotional posters on the table with your books, so patrons passing by will see the cover art and, hopefully, stop to hear you speak.

7) Always have extra copies with you, in case you have a big crowd. Bring plenty of pens and don't forget to bring your business cards, so those who buy your books can get in touch with you later or find info on your website.

8) Be personable and friendly to everyone who walks by. Wait until there is a good crowd gathered before starting and, if there's no microphone, make sure you project your voice so those in the back can hear you (practice this at home in front of the mirror). Talk about what inspired you to write the book, what the story is about, what motivates the characters, and what you love about the book. Read a few pages, preferably something that has some action or conflict. Don't read too long -- less is more with public speaking. Those in the audience will often have questions, so be sure to allow for some after you finish. And don't forget to chat with readers while you're signing -- the more impressed the reader is with you and the book, the better chance s/he will tell others about it and help create the buzz you're looking for.

9) After the signing, thank the store manager and other staff who helped you set up. See if they'll stock any leftover copies and don't be shy about asking them to order more copies from your publisher.

10) Bring your digital camera and have someone take pictures of you while you're signing. After the signing, post the photos on your website and blogsite and write about the experience, the readers you met there, the helpful staff, etc. Be positive about the experience (even if it didn't meet your expectations) and encourage everyone to come out for your next signing.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Getting Those Ducks in a Row

One of the most important elements for successful book publicity is having printed copies ready for distribution. While this may sound like a no-brainer to some, many authors approach me to publicize their books before they're available for stores to order. This situation creates a dilemma for everyone involved: the bookseller, who wants to give the writer a signing date, but doesn't see the book available through the distribution channels he likes to work with; the publicist, who has to scramble to contact the publisher about the distribution issue; the publisher, who then has to contact distributors and buyers regarding the listing; and the author who misses out on a good signing event.

Many chain bookstores, like Borders and Barnes & Noble, prefer to order through their own distribution systems. This is an important concept for self-published authors to understand, because it often takes a certain amount of time (sometimes up to three months) to get the books into the system. Publishers will handle applying for ISBNs and setting up distributors, but writers should be aware that doing so takes time. And not all publishers do their homework; I've worked with a few authors who've had their promotions stalled while waiting for their book to become available to a certain distributor that a bookseller wants to use.

Most independent booksellers order through wholesale suppliers like Ingram Book Group or Baker & Taylor. Some bookstore managers are willing to order directly from the publisher, especially if the publisher allows returns and will give discounts and/or pay for shipping. Due to high shipping costs and lack of shelf space, many booksellers are now asking authors to bring books to signings. This is known as a consignment arrangement, where the bookstore will take a certain percentage (usually 40%) of any books sold. So, in addition to the expense of purchasing the books himself, the author also has to get them to the store, which can be a headache when the signing isn't local.

When I contact booksellers for book signing dates, the first question they typically ask is not about the book's content or the author. They usually want to know the ISBN number. Most of them will look up the book as we speak on the phone and their second question is invariably whether the book is available for order. If they see a print-on-demand (POD) listing for the book, they often express concern about availability, so I urge my self-published clients to see if the publisher will consider printing an offset run. Most publishers, if there is enough demand for the book, are willing to do so.

It can be tough out there for self-published authors who are marketing books for the first time. Not being ready to take book orders is a mistake that no author wants to make, especially when s/he often has one shot at a prestigious bookstore, speaking venue, or media appearance. Authors can assure themselves a much better chance at success if they take the time to get those proverbial distribution ducks all lined up before they kick off their promotional plans.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Working the Book Video

In the May 29 Random House/Zogby poll, 46% of respondents indicated that they spent the same amount of time reading as they had in the past year. 23% are spending more time reading (a good thing), while 30% said they are reading less than usual.

It's this last group that we all need to think about. The trend these days, especially for the younger set, is that people are reading less than in previous years.

So, what are these 30% who read less doing instead? Nearly two-thirds of them (65%) told Zogby that they're spending more time online, while 37% spend more time watching television or movies and 18% claim to be devoting more time to computer and video games.

These data show why so many writers are now making book trailers (a term coined by Circle of Seven Productions CEO Sheila Clover) to promote their work. For those who haven't seen one yet, a book trailer is basically a one-to-three minute promotional video about the book. The majority of them are mini-documentaries that include voice-over, visual images, and some type of musical score. A few show actors acting out scenes from the book and some include author sound-bites or even (least recommended) authors reading their work. Most authors run these on their websites and social networking sites like YouTube, MySpace, and Facebook. And publishers run them, as well. In fact, according to a June 7 Wall Street Journal article, many publishers are now creating divisions dedicated to making book trailers for their authors.

With so many readers spending time on the Internet, it makes sense for authors to use the web as a promotional space for their work. Yet, many authors make the mistake of creating videos and plunking them down in their websites, assuming that just having them there will entice readers to buy their books. It's true, having a book trailer out there is important. But even more important is working it. Like your business card and press release, a video does no good unless someone sees it. That means you need to tell everyone you know, including the media, about it and invent creative ways to distribute it.

And that's where a good publicist comes in. Your publicist can announce your book trailer release to the media, send out copies to reviewers and book sellers (in the old days, we sent video news releases (VNR's) on VHS tapes; now we send links to your trailer), and use your video to market to distributors, bookstores, universities, and libraries. It's all in the pitch, of course, but having a good video (more on that in a future post) and a sharp publicity person working for you will help get your book the attention it deserves.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Straight Talk on Book Publicity Costs

The question I hear most often from writers these days is a simple one: What should an author expect to pay for a typical book promotion campaign?

The answer is equally simple: It depends. Different public relations agencies will charge different fees, so costs will vary depending on the type of publicist you decide to hire.

As an independent public relations specialist, I work one-on-one with clients directly and usually only handle one or two clients at a time. I like to meet with clients to go over their requirements, and the extent of my services is determined by what they want in the way of publicity. Some just want a press release and/or limited media coverage for a one-day event; others want speaking engagements, a book tour, a blog tour, radio and TV coverage, etc. I charge $50 per hour, and usually work about ten-fifteen hours per week for each of my clients. I've had clients who contract for as little as five hours of work, and others who I work with for several months. I keep detailed time sheets that I send out every two weeks, and I always do only what clients have contracted with me to do. Most of my authors are self-published, although I have a couple who have published with larger houses and want to do a little more than what's covered in their publisher's publicity contract.

Many writers also ask about success rates for promoting self-published books. I've been pretty successful with self-published authors. For example, one of my clients, Paul Woodring, an African American writer, made the bestseller list at HueMan Bookstore in New York for three months after reading there. It was very difficult to get him in to the store, but I persisted and finally got the managers to say yes. He's also done a featured signing at Marcus Books in San Francisco (another prestigious black bookstore that was difficult to get in to) and did a national book tour that was very successful. He's exhibiting at BEA this coming week and has had a book trailer created by an established filmmaker, so he's really put a lot of effort into his marketing.

But, even those who can't afford to exhibit at book expos and create film trailers can still do a lot with a little publicity. I recommend that most authors at least have a professional press release done, and do some book signings, even if they're local. In addition to creating buzz and making personal contacts with readers, the writer can get some additional mileage out of those events by getting his/her books stocked in the store and placing photos from the signing on his/her website. I also think a blog tour is a relatively easy way to get noticed, although it can be time-consuming to set up (I research appropriate bloggers and their sites, and then contact them directly regarding participation in the tour).

The main thing I bring to the table is the phone work – I really push media and bookstore representatives to look at my clients. And I think that objectivity is what convinces them to say yes. It's hard for an author to call a radio producer or bookstore owner to pitch his own book, but when I call and say a client's work is great, the producers and store managers listen. And I'm persistent, which is key. It's often easy for people to say no, so I keep going back with new angles and approaches until I get them to say yes (this can be the time-consuming part, but it works!).

When you're ready to hire a publicist, be sure to check out a lot of agencies and individual consultants and find one with the right attitude and fit for you and your work. And don't be afraid to ask for references – a good public relations professional should always be willing to put you in touch with his/her clients so you can hear firsthand what they have to say about the publicist's professionalism, follow-through, and success rates.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Class

It's that poignant time of year when the spring semester ends and my community college students get ready to move on to summer school, four-year universities, or graduation. This year more than any other, I feel blessed to have worked with an incredible group of students. These are not the full-time, just-out-of-high-school students that I encountered as a new college teacher twenty seven years ago; these are students who hold real jobs (some of them more than one), who are raising families and caring for aging parents, who have come back to school to complete degrees or switch careers, and who burn with a desire to make the world a better place.

The old saying that we learn as much from those we teach as they do from us has never been truer. This latest group has taught me many things: to question openly, to share without judgment, to practice with intention, and to laugh out loud. They are smart, energetic and curious, and their futures are filled with promise.

So, it's with a sad yet joyful heart that I salute my Business Communication 128 class at Grossmont College. Thank you all for a wonderful semester; it's been an honor and a privilege to work with you this year. My best wishes to you on the next step in your journey, and I hope you'll keep in touch along the way.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Kwan of Book Publicity

In the seminal movie Jerry Maguire, we all remember the scene where Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s character, Rod Tidwell, shouts "Show me the money!" into the phone at his agent, Jerry Maguire. Tom Cruise's Maguire responds by begging his client to "help me help you" by proving himself worthy of the amount he's requesting. When Tidwell finally steps up and resurrects himself after a consciousness-losing hit on the field, Maguire lands him the deal of a lifetime, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Chock full of famous one-liners ("You had me at hello!"), this well-written comedy contains some nuggets of wisdom for writers seeking to land the best marketing deals from their publicists. Of course, we all want our publicists to "show (us) the money." But like Tidwell, we have to do our share. Here are a few suggestions for writers who want to help their publicists help them:

Be available. Your publicist is working hard to schedule signings and reviews, radio and TV spots, newspaper and magazine interviews, speaking engagements, and blog tours. Be forthcoming about your availability, show up on time for confirmed events, and make promoting your book a priority in your own schedule.

Be committed. It's hard work convincing bookstores and media folks to give precious air time to writers, especially those who are unknown. And the last thing your publicist wants to do is call back someone who's agreed to interview you and reschedule the date. Agree only to what you can honestly handle, and be committed to what you say you'll do.

Be patient. Like your agent, your publicist is working hard to promote you to those who may not be familiar with your work. The real magic of public relations – smiling and dialing, I call it – takes place at all hours, through continuous networking and numerous telephone calls and emails. Give your publicist some space, and trust that s/he is working hard for you. If you don't get the results you want after an agreed-to amount of time, move on, but make sure you've allowed your publicist the same distance and courtesy that you require when you're writing your book.

Be willing to go the extra mile. Place ads for your book signings, enter book contests, do pro bono speaking engagements, maintain your website, attend book expos, create a book trailer, etc. If you're willing to do whatever it takes to promote your work, you'll make it easier for your publicist to obtain the media exposure you and your book deserve.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Joy of Artist Residencies

Artist residencies are a terrific way for writers to beef up their writing c.v.'s and see some of this great country of ours. I've been lucky enough to be accepted at three of them: Caldera in Sisters, Oregon, in 2006; Red Cinder Artist Colony on the Big Island of Hawaii in 2007; and The Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, this coming October.

Residencies are usually awarded based on a writer's work. Some only accept published authors, but many will consider emerging writers who have won awards or otherwise distinguished themselves. A few require references with the application, and many want artists and writers who are able to spend a committed length of time at the facility. They usually offer some type of housing, which can be anything from a log cabin to a room inside a house. Most offer some sort of meal arrangement, although there are some that provide space to cook your own meals. Most expect you to get there on your own and provide for your own transportation while you're there.

If you have kids and/or a busy day job, an artist residency is the ultimate getaway. Imagine two-three weeks of nothing but fresh air and free time. You'll meet many other artists and writers who are there the same time you are. You get to sleep in or stay up late, read, write, and explore the local area.

A great resource for artist residencies can be found at Also, watch for announcements in literary magazines like Poets & Writers.

Here is an excerpt from a note I sent my agent after my stay at Caldera in Oregon:

The residency was an incredible interlude -- so peaceful and beautiful. I got used to waking up in the morning to a blanket of snow on the deck and trees outside the window of my A-frame cabin. I'd build a fire in my little wood burning stove and listen to NPR on my shortwave radio while I made coffee, then worked until 1:30 or so. I usually hiked around Blue Lake or Suttle Lake in the afternoon, or sometimes went into Sisters, which is a really pretty little town. There are lots of ranches up off of Highway 20, and some have a few llamas interspersed with their cattle. The forest in Central Oregon is all Ponderosa pine and Douglas firs, spreading for miles up the valleys and into the hillsides.

There was a blue heron who fed in Link Creek right outside my window. He flew up into the air one day in the middle of a snow storm. It was a lovely sight. I also discovered a pair of bonded eagles that nest at Suttle Lake. The male has an eight-foot wing span. We had lots of salmon in the creek, heading for the fish ladder just outside the Hearth Center. They were returning to Blue Lake to spawn. I laughed out loud one morning when a baby squirrel fell out of one of the pine trees onto the deck outside my cabin. I think his appearance surprised us both. He sat there kind of stunned for a moment before scampering away. There was also a resident blue jay, who was quite a persistent character. He'd hit the railing of the deck each morning with a loud thunk, and then come stumping up to the window, cocking his head and looking at me as if to say, "Okay, sister, cough up the food!"

I miss my fellow artists at Caldera. Even though we spent most of the days and nights working alone or in the center studios, we all got incredibly close. The whole experience of being there was amazing -- almost zen. There is something about being in the woods where, except for the sound of the creek outside your window or the wind blowing through the trees, there is nothing but you and your work. I felt a sense of everything falling away -- all of the noise and material trappings -- and experienced a heightened state of awareness. Everything you do up there, from lighting a fire to walking along the lake shore to putting words on a page, becomes filled with intention and seems so focused and beautiful. It was very hard to leave.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Processing the Process

After exchanging sample pages from our novels recently, a couple of my writing friends noted that my pages look really polished, even though they're first drafts. One of the writers asked if I always write so "clean."

My response to her was that I've always written this way, and I suspect it might be because I have so little time to write. I work as a consultant, teach at a community college, and have two teenagers in travel sports, so I'm lucky if I can write once a week. Because of my schedule, I tend to think about whatever scene I'm working on and try to formulate a few things before I sit down: what is the scene goal, what are the images I want to use (usually the images will drive what happens in the scene), and how I will start and end the scene. Sometimes I envision the characters and try to hear their voices talking -- this helps me zero in on what they're thinking and feeling during the scene.

Once I have all the pieces firmly in my mind, I try to scrape out an hour or two to write. It's hard. I've been really struggling lately, because my business has been going well, and I'm in the middle of the semester at the college. But if I know ahead of time what the scene will be about and, especially, what images I plan to use, I can usually get a scene written in one sitting.

The other dilemma for me is my own bias about being "in the zone." Even if I have the scene laid out in my mind, I have to be in a certain mood to write, or I can't do it. I don't know if this is an artistic thing, or if I just lack discipline (probably a little of both).

I know the experts say we're supposed to write every day, but I've never been able to do that. A lot of writers say we're supposed to revise what we write, too, but I don't do a lot of that, either -- I guess because I have so little time. It will be interesting to see if this process holds during retirement; right now, I can't imagine having every day to write. But I have had two-week periods during artist residencies where I could do nothing but write. During those trips, I usually write every other day. My process seems to be built around having some time to think it all through, or else nothing comes out. But, that's just me. I know other writers who sit down and write for a certain amount of time every day. I guess it's a pretty individual thing.

Do you write every day? If so, I envy you. I think it's a lot easier than the way I do it.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

When Writers Let Lesser Characters Rule

While discussing Thackeray's Vanity Fair with my niece the other day, it struck me that the roguish villain, Becky Sharp, is one of the most memorable characters in fiction. And she's not the main character. In fact, I had trouble remembering the main character's name (Amelia), while Becky and the big-footed William Dobbin came to mind easily.

This discussion got me thinking about the characters my writing group members are creating. All of us are writing novels, and all of us have pretty striking secondary characters. There's a gutsy German World War II POW with a French first name; a non-human child with tattoos and an endearing language all her own, who's trapped on a futuristic ship; a devoted African American man who nurtures his traumatized girlfriend without demanding explanations about her past; an aged college professor who's liberal in his teaching, but fears his daughter's interest in an Indian man; a sexy and dangerous young girl, married to an aged Native American chief. None of these are the main characters in our books, yet all of them stand out – in some cases, to the detriment of the protagonists.

I've pondered why so many authors give their lesser characters memorable characteristics, while their main characters appear faceless and dull. My sense is that, in our attempts to make our protagonists sympathetic, we often strip them of the very qualities that make them interesting. I also believe that many of us base our main characters on ourselves. And when we do this, we're loathe to give them flaws (we aren't like that, so why should they be?) or make them stand out in any way. What we end up with is ordinary protagonists, who pale in comparison to their more exciting and unique lesser counterparts.

Thakeray got away with creating dominant secondary characters, but I'm not sure modern writers can afford to do that. We need to assign some equally compelling characteristics to our main characters. Otherwise, the Becky Sharps and William Dobbins in our novels promise to steal the show.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

How to Build a Book Tour Audience - Part II

In a recent post, I described some tips on how authors can build audiences at bookstore signings. Here are a few more suggestions, based on some of my clients' experiences:

Hit the Malls
Candy Davis, who manages the B. Dalton Bookseller at the Los Angeles Mall, doesn't have room for a signing inside her store. But she loves to set up authors at a table right outside the door, especially during the noon-time rush. "We get all kinds of business professionals at the mall during the lunch hour," she says. And those professionals are interested in meeting authors and buying books. Melissa Wiles at Borders Express Tower City in Cleveland, Ohio, has the same situation in her store. "I set up my authors outside in the mall walkway," Melissa says. "It's a great way for them to be seen." Melissa also hosts an annual book signing table during the holiday season. She invites seven or eight authors to come and sign during one of the busiest times of the year for book buyers.

Partner Up
If you don't have a lot of friends and family to call on, consider partnering with another writer for a joint signing. Perhaps you're a fiction writer with a story about a baseball-loving detective. That non-fiction writer you know with a book about coaching in the minor leagues might be just the person to partner with. You'll bring your friends and acquaintances to the signing, and he'll bring his. And the book store manager will love you both for helping to sell two books at one event.

Consider Holding Your Own Low-Cost Book Tour
I've heard about one writer who takes his annual vacation from his day job in the summer and uses those three or four weeks off to create his own book tour. He packs his wife and kids in the car (along with lots of copies of his book in the trunk) and schedules stops across the country with friends and relatives. At each town he visits, he prearranges bookstore signings and also gives talks at public schools, libraries, and universities. He stays with his friends and family, so he doesn't pay for high-priced hotels, and the folks he stays with help get the word out about his signings and talks.

Promote on the Cheap
If your budget is thin, there are inexpensive ways to promote your signings. Create your own flyers and post them in super markets, college student centers, and community libraries. Email the same flyers to your friends and family and reward them (maybe with a complimentary copy of your book?) for passing the word along. List your signings in the event calendars on newspaper and magazine websites and on announcement sites like Craigslist. Mount printed posters of your book cover on foam core and send these to bookstores for in-store promotions. Give the owners at speaking venues your printed giveaways (bookmarks, postcards, business cards, magnets, etc.) to hand out to customers and guests. And finally, if you're lucky enough to have a friend who's gifted at walking up to people and convincing them to come and hear you speak, ask him to work the room the next time you're scheduled to sign. You could even consider offering him a percentage of your sales. It might be the best money you ever spend.

Friday, March 28, 2008

How to Build a Book Tour Audience - Part I

Many authors are leery of doing book tours, not only because it's expensive to travel across the country, but also because it's difficult to create a good-sized audience. How can a relatively unknown writer hope to guarantee crowds at signings? Here are some suggestions (with more to follow in a later post) to help put butts in the chairs, and hopefully, ring up sales:

Sign in Cities Where You Know People
This sounds like a no-brainer, but I've had clients insist on appearing in cities like New York, Chicago, or Washington, D.C., when they don't know anyone there. Being an unknown makes setting up signings difficult in the first place, but if you go to a city where you don't know anyone, chances are you'll have a hard time filling the seats. Instead, consider places where you know people – the town where you grew up, the city where you worked at that start-up company that now owns half the block, the places your college roommates live, etc. Don't just think big city or target market demographics – instead, focus on places where you can call up half a dozen people and get them to each bring a friend to your signing (or at least post a notice at work in the company break room).

Schedule Your Signings Wisely
At Areopagitica Books in Columbus, Ohio, bookstore owners Doug and Rebecca Rutledge suggest holding a signing at one o'clock in the afternoon on Saturdays. Why is that a preferred time? "Because," Doug says, "the farmer's market next door lets out then, and the overflow crowd tends to come into the bookstore to browse afterward." Likewise, James Jackson at The Know Bookstore in Durham, North Carolina, recommends holding signings at seven o'clock on Friday evenings, right after the weekly jazz session that's held in the adjacent café. If you don't have a lot of fans, or aren't familiar with the city where you're signing, scheduling your reading right after a nearby or in-store event can help draw interested listeners in to hear you without costing you a dime in advertising.

Think Outside the Bookstore Box
Many authors automatically want to hold readings at the big chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders, small independent book stores, libraries and, depending on the topic, schools and universities. But there are lots of other options for book signing venues. If your book has a non-fiction topic or is specialty-based, you might consider finding related outlets for that particular bit of information. For example, if you've written a cookbook, you may be welcome at a local bakery or restaurant that features your style of cooking. If your novel has a romantic theme, you might consider speaking at a romance writers meeting or at one of the local singles get-togethers. Got a book with a political spin? There are numerous Democratic, Republican, and Green clubs looking for speakers on any number of topics. Written a civil war historical? Find one of the many reenactment clubs, and ask if you can speak at the next meeting.

Don't be afraid to look for enticing or rarely considered venues as possible outlets. Museums, concert halls, churches – any place where people gather is a potential venue for book signings. Camille Forbes, author of Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America's First Black Star, recently gave a reading at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York. "The cemetery signing was a great start to my book tour," she says. "The audience had a unique vested interest in Williams, since he’s buried there." Not your typical venue, but people came, and she sold books.

Also, be sure to maximize your website as a place where interested readers can find ways to hear you speak. Contests are a great way to promote your book on the web and the possibilities are endless. You can run contests for phone interviews with book clubs, or even follow the lead of one enterprising writer, who offers a contest for filmmakers, allowing them to create entries using scenes from his novel.

Monday, March 17, 2008

To Sign or Not to Sign: Why Writers Should Consider Doing Book Signings

I recently attended a writers' conference where the instructor (a published writer himself) asked me to give a brief talk about book publicity and then privately confided that he thought book signings were a waste of time. I've heard similar rumblings from other authors and understand where they're coming from. Most of us have witnessed a book signing where the author sits at a table in a crowded bookstore with only two people (one of them most likely his mother) in the audience. Or perhaps, as a new author, you've had the first-hand experience of arriving for your signing to discover that the store personnel didn't even know you were coming. They couldn't locate your books, scrambled to set up a table for you, and then left you to try to scrape up a crowd on your own.

The Benefits of Book Signings
Despite these worse-case scenarios, there are hidden benefits to doing book signings. Yes, they're time consuming, and the travel costs can hit your bank account pretty hard. And for those who don't like to speak in front of an audience, reading your work in front of strangers can be downright scary. But book-signings can help you make tremendous inroads into reaching your reading audience. And a good book tour, as part of a complete promotional plan that includes targeted advertising, a strong web presence, effective media coverage, and good distribution, can really get your sales going. Here's how:

Creating Buzz
When you have a book signing at a store, a percentage of those in the audience (usually at least half of them) will buy your book. Of that percentage, the majority are likely to read it. If they like it, they'll tell others about it, or even pass your book along. As we all know from success stories about breakout books like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The Da Vinci Code, and Memoirs of a Geisha, many big name hits became that way not because of the publishers' promotions, but because one person told another person, "You must read this book." As people tell others about your book, you're creating "buzz," one of the most successful sales tools in the business. And one of the best ways to create buzz, is to get out there and talk directly to readers.

Motivating Bookstores to Stock Your Book
You can sell your books via Internet links,, catalogs, and on your own website. But you can also maximize those sales by asking the book stores where you've held a signing to stock your book. If you did a good job of filling the seats at your book signing (a subject we'll cover in a future article), the bookstore manager should be willing to order at least a couple more copies for their shelves. If the store keeps the promotional material around from your signing, they should be able to sell those copies. And if you're willing to come in and sign the additional copies, they'll move fast.

Also, some bookstores have their own bestseller lists. If you held a successful signing and sold all of the books ordered for it, chances are you'll land on the store's bestseller list. After a few weeks, (if your book is good) you might climb to the top of the list. Your publicist can use that news to sell other bookstores on hosting signings and to get you radio, television, and print interviews.

Even if bookstore managers won't let you do a signing (many of them don't have the space), your publicist can ask if they'd still be willing to order your book. Most managers are willing to stock a couple of copies. If those copies sell, you're on your way to more orders.

Getting Engaged
Like most authors, you probably toil alone in your home office, writing your heart out about subjects that matter deeply to you. Getting out and talking with readers is one of the best ways to share that passion and create a dialogue about the book itself. Those who attend your signings get to hear firsthand why you wrote the book and what you feel is good about it. They get to know you in person, ask you questions, and hear answers on the spot. And they'll tell you what they think about the subject. This exchange lets readers feel engaged in the process. And, as most sales people will confirm, a person who feels some emotional investment in the product is more likely to buy it.

Reaching Out
Many writers, fiction and nonfiction alike, write because they have something important to tell the world. And authors like to connect with their readers. One of my clients, who wrote a novel about being black in a white world of business, says that the people he's met at book signings have had a huge impact on his life. He's had young African Americans come up to him after his signings to discuss their dreams of being successful in the working world. He's mentoring some of them now and has built a network of email contacts with a number of people he's met as a result of his book signings. "It's been the most important part about being an author," he says. "I realize that I'm making a difference in someone else's life."

What author wouldn't want to do that?