Life After Twitter

This is a follow up to the blog post that put me on the map, thanks to a push from Dean Wesley Smith who directed his followers to my site for the post, many of whom ended up staying.

In less than 48 hours, my post The Great Social Media Flim-Flam received over 8000 views, 80 comments, and the blog, itself, gained 500 new followers.

Dang.

The vast majority of commenters—some from New Zealand, Germany, the UK and Venezuela—all said the same thing: “Thank God! Let’s quit this idiocy and get back to writing books.” It was like they were waiting to hear some kind of argument that would allow them to pack it in, close the Twitter account, sign off of Facebook for good.

I heard from one guy who I had noticed on Twitter several times spamming the crap out of everyone and who I’d always been annoyed to see because he was doing exactly what all the social media experts tell you not to do! He was obnoxiously repeating over and over again to “buy his book.” When he wrote me after the post he said, “I wouldn’t do it if it didn’t get results. Dramatic results.” My annoyance dissipated immediately when he told me that. I don’t blame someone for using a tool to get the result we’re all going after. If anything, he’s just more honest than the rest of them who tweet what they had for breakfast as some form of “relationship-building” but really they’re just waiting to slip you their books when you get all cozy and unsuspecting. He says he spams every hour. But he also retweets more than he spams because, let’s face it, he’s the guy the social gurus warned us about and it rankles being considered an untouchable by much of the Twittersphere, even if it does sell books. He said this internal conflict, spamming and then trying to make up for it with treble the re-tweets, has resulted in him spending so much time on Twitter that it’s taken him a year to finish a book he should’ve finished in three months. He says if he can stop the compulsion to watch his numbers rise, he’s going to quit social media and go back to putting his effort into writing again.

I also heard from one woman who was very testy and said that social media absolutely worked for her. She claimed to sell 10,000 books a month (at 99c). I can only imagine she’s a little friendlier in her other social media channels than she was defending herself to me!

I think the thing I’d want to stress is that, especially after talking to Jim (the spammer guy, who has decent books, I might add), I don’t feel judgmental about people who use social media to sell their stuff. If they can do it, power to them. Even if they do it by using a sledge hammer to the head—and it works—go for it. And if they can do it and sleep at night? Mazel tov. I think the thing that bothers me the most is all the people pretending to be friendly while keeping their not-so-hidden agenda in the background (“buy my book!”) Let’s face it, if that’s not the case and you really are trolling the internet to find friends, you have more problems than getting people to buy your book. I mean, come on. You do know you cannot really have ten thousand friends, right? Not in real life, not in cyberspace. (You can call the singles in your wallet twenties if it makes you feel better but they’re still singles.)   So where is the word of mouth coming from if these friends aren’t real?  Last year, I’d heard hundreds of people rave about “The Help” on Kindleboards and Twitter and never once thought it sounded like something I’d like to read, until one (real) friend of mine on Facebook mentioned she couldn’t put it down. And after I read it, I bought it and sent it to two other (real) friends. (Yeah, yeah, I wish it had been an indie book.)

And while it’s only been a couple of days, I can already make some things add up from this blog post experience. The biggest take-away has got to be so clearly viewing blogging as a mechanism to enlarge friendships with other writers. Their input, their way of looking at the same problems you’re wrestling with, their empathy, their experience—all of it is invaluable as shared Intel. (FYI: after 8000 views and a virtual outpouring of affection and “likes,” I sold not one book more than I have been averaging all along.) If you blog because you like to do it, or because you want to meet other writers, and you’ve got something to share, I think it’s a great way to spend your time. If you’re expecting a monetary ROI, probably not.

What an astounding experience these last two days have been for me. I sat at the dinner table last night listening to the steady stream of “dings” that heralded the email notifications that continued to come in (until my husband made our son get up and mute the volume on the computer) and I felt such a part of the larger writers’ community. Between that feeling and the fact that I wrote 3,000 words yesterday on my book, I’d say this whole Life-After-Twitter campaign is off to a great start.

I will get around to answering everyone who left a comment from the first post and I wanted to thank everyone who took the time to write me. Any and all sharing of experiences and information is much appreciated, so please let me know what you think. After all, we really are all in this together.

The Great Social Media Flim-Flam

A few days ago, Publishers Weekly published a photograph with one of its online articles that you will not want your children to see.

For authors of any stripe, (indie or trad) it is as gruesome and horrifying as anything Stephen King could conjure up. The photo shows a pie chart depicting those avenues deemed most likely to spur a reader to buy a book. (Yes, it adds up to 203% and yes, there’s no information on how these pie wedges were calculated, but let’s stick to the horrifyingness of it for a bit.)

Allow me to direct your attention to the “social media” wedge of the pie. While it sits at a puny 11.8%, this effort, for most authors, constitutes a concentration of time and work on par with creating their manuscripts. Are you really living on Facebook and Twitter for a measly 11% return on your (time) investment?

Okay. Let’s say we don’t believe the chart for whatever reasons.  I think it still prompts a very askable question for all writers:

Is social media bullshit?

Even before the offending pie chart landed in my Twitter feed, (I’m not saying social media isn’t great for curating info, the question is whether it sells books) I was in the midst of trying to understand a perplexing situation stemming from the surprise success of one of my titles.

Like a lot of Indies, I have my books published through Amazon and also via Smashwords. I have ten books up, most of them trunk material or “vintage.” I am actively pushing, via social media, two of those titles as my strongest and so, I figure, my best chance of being good sellers. Now I have only been doing this since August but I work from home so I was able to do significant catch-up on the learning curve vis-à-vis social media and blogging. I probably spend a minimum of two hours, often more, every day scrubbing and polishing my author’s platform: tweeting, making friends, posting, and carefully and widely disseminating my blog posts. I am careful not to be pushy but to be helpful, provide good content and be interested in others. I hang out adding to and creating threads on Kindleboards. I’ve read all of Kristen Lamb’s books, and anyone else she recommends as someone I can learn from.

And you know what? Here’s what I’m starting to think:

It’s not about us, as authors.

It’s about the book.

For the last six months, I bought into the whole “it’s a marathon not a sprint” thing and put in my two hours a day to garner my 40 sales a month through Amazon. And then I saw that I was selling 500 books a month on one title over on Smashwords (actually Barnes & Noble and Sony.) It is a title I wrote almost twenty years ago. Before I published it, I had to go back in and add in cell phones, for God’s sake. My protagonist in the ad agency she worked for was talking about “marker comps.”

Then, thanks to Giga Alert, I saw that it got a review on Diesel. The review said it was “the worst book I ever read.” Okay. I know, I know. But I was mortified that someone could say that. I’m here to say it upset me for days. I re-read the book to either reassure myself as to its quality or make the decision to take it down. (This was before I read the sales figures through Smashwords which would tell me that this title—for reasons I do not know—was my single biggest runaway best seller at 3,000 copies sold in four months at $2.99.) So I let the book, Walk Trot Die, stay but the point is, I did not draw attention to it because my confidence had taken a hit on it. Plus, it’s only ever sold ONE copy through Amazon and I live on Kindleboards, and Amazon is the website I link all my book titles to, on blog posts and comments and emails, not Smashwords or Barnesandnoble.com.

So here’s what I was looking at:

Putting in 20 hours a week on social media to sell, on average, eight books a week (on not one title but spread out over ten books.) versus:

Putting in ZERO effort via Barnesandnoble and Sony to sell, on average, 125 copies a week (of  one book with one review and that a bad one).

What do I make of that?

Do I start to believe that selling your book has bollocks to do with social media?

Is it possible that the prevailing belief that having an online platform is essential to a book’s success is wrong? Are we all just the cool kids playing with the latest gadgets and wanting them to be essential and really they’re  irrelevant? Is it really the author’s platform that’s important? Is that why YOU buy a book?

Isn’t it about the damn book?

The a priori stance for my argument (that it’s the book, not the author that matters) is based on the assumption that you begin with a good book, not even a great one. All equations must start from that so don’t let’s even bring in the dreck and the bad writers and the confusing story lines and the chapters that begin with a dream sequence. Let’s just say, for our purposes, that our playing field is a product that is publishable (in the old sense), i.e., a good read.

The next thing you need to do, as an author, is to get some luck and, unfortunately, nobody knows how to make luck happen. You can position yourself so you’re in a good place for luck to hit you, but you can’t make it happen and that’s what we’re all trying to deny. After we worked so hard on the book—and it’s an awesome book—are we really going to just throw the dice on it and go write the next one? Can’t we MAKE something happen with it? Don’t we all want to believe that?

Believing we can make the big numbers happen by building relationships or “liking” a bunch of Facebook pages (or getting people to “like” us) is just thinking we have some control over the process.

I’m not saying an influential blogger never helped a writer’s book. Relationships are helpful. But, dear God, trying to develop these relationships is more exhausting than writing the book in the first place, and unlike creating the book, they are soul-sucking because we’re doing it to push our book, not because we really want to get to know the person. No matter how many times the social media mavens tell us to be nice and non-self serving, the fact is, if it weren’t for your damn book you wouldn’t be trolling through tweets or posting comments on other people’s blogs. I mean, unless you were just some pathetically needy, lonely person, I have to think you wouldn’t be.

For example, ask yourself: is it really even possible to make friends on Twitter?

Twitter is like the River Styx. It is this tsunami of sound bytes that comes roaring at you relentlessly. At first, I held off following people because I figured I wasn’t able to “follow” the fifty or so I already had. How can you connect or make friends if you have 10,000 followers? If I leave my computer to refresh the dog’s water bowl, when I come back, I’m heralded by a notation that “265 tweets” have been sent in the interim. How can anyone process all this? Do you try to go read them all? Because, meanwhile, more tweets are pouring in over the transom. And what is the benefit of it all, anyway? Is it so you can deliver some industry-rich content and get a facile “Good point!” or “LOL!” back? Is that a relationship? Really?

If you’re a writer and you follow a bunch of other writers, you will be fed a steady stream of commentary on how many words they wrote that day or how difficult it is to start writing without yet having their morning coffee. Or they’ll link you to yet-another blog post on the importance of persistence and not giving up. (Do writers not post on any other topic?) Is this helpful to pushing your book? On the less friendly side, you have the other writers who push their books in your face constantly and don’t bother with the chit-chat (takes up precious character space to say “hi.”) Do they really think endlessly hyping their books is going to intrigue me? With all the posts on all the writers’ sites that talk about how estranging that sort of self-serving behavior is, are they not reading those comments? Do they just not care? Are they selling books this way?

How in hell can you make a friend worth having in this environment, I would like to know. Isn’t the true benefit of Twitter to get your book advertised to your 10,000 followers and hope it gets, somehow, re-tweeted to their 10,000 followers? How can it be about “relationships” when the whole reason you’re there—and everybody knows it—is To. Sell. Your. Book. ?

I just read a blog post about an author who had become obsessed about how many “likes” she got on her Facebook page. She had begun to check it hourly because, I guess, she had done some Facebook promotion that had gotten a lot of people to “like” her page. Okay, now, really? Is there anybody out there who believes that total strangers really can “like” you, that it means anything? Does it mean anything when you “like” their page? It’s all a game. A silly game that got started back in high school and for some reason we’re all still playing it.

Like a lot of authors, I would love to jettison the whole social media exercise. It takes up too much time and now I don’t see a direct or even indirect line between it and book sales. I don’t know what I did (did I do something?) to make Walk Trot Die sell. (And why isn’t it selling on Amazon?) I would like to do whatever it is I did better so it would sell even better. But that’s me thinking (wishing) I have control over this beast.

Isn’t it possible that, beyond creating a good book, it’s all out of our control? As Americans, that kind of thinking is practically sacrilegious. We are so into the “How to Lose Weight in Four Simple Steps” that the idea that success can’t be turned into an easy step-by-step formula that only needs faith and persistence is just not acceptable.

It’s not about the author. It’s about the book.

You are not your book. Selling yourself does not sell your book. As a reader, I don’t want to cheer you up by buying your book. I want to get lost in a great story. As a reader, I don’t care about you. I care about the story.

If a reader likes your book, they may be interested in knowing something about you, but why is it we believe the reverse is necessarily true? Just because I find someone interesting on Facebook, doesn’t mean I will plunk down money for her book. Why would I? Curiosity? That’s why Amazon invented Sampling, and believe me, I constantly use it to check and see if an engaging blog personality I like can also cut it as a storyteller. And even if they can, if the subject matter or plot doesn’t interest me, I won’t go further.

Selling yourself as a way of selling your book has to be one of the most asinine attempts at book marketing I’ve ever heard of. And responding to that by saying traditional marketing methods won’t sell books online (whether true or not) is not an answer. However you market the product, if you think YOU are the product and not the book, you are selling the wrong commodity to the wrong demographic audience. And that never ends well.

I respect Konrath and Eisler and Dean Wesley Smith and Mayer and I read their blogs to hear their take on the publishing industry. But I can see straightaway that their books are not for me. They are famous in writerly circles. But I can’t believe that celebrity, in itself, is a great marketing plan for their books or the reason they sell so well.

So what’s the take-away?

If you have a good book and you’re spending a lot of time building your platform, and you’re not selling a lot of books, is it because you’re not spending enough time on social media (Dear God!) or because you’re not delivering the right message in the right social media at the right time of day? Or could it be you’re working to promote the wrong thing?

I think you have to at least ask yourself: what if it’s true? What if it really is about the book? And not about how many times you, the author, get retweeted, reposted or “liked?”

Wouldn’t that be a kick in the head?

What Makes Historical Romance Work?

What happens when you combine a right-brain off-the-charts creative type with an inclination toward OCD? (No, I wishthis were a set-up for a joke.) While my husband and family wouldn’t be surprised, the results of a personality test I recently took (which inescapably established that I was indeed unemployable in any kind of corporate or structured setting) revealed that not only was I an intensely creative type but I had a heavy dose of the analytic compulsive personality. A creative who likes rules? So that’s weird. But I think, after essentially sloughing off the results of the test as if they were as irrelevant to my options for prospective work as a Cuisinart is to a bricklayer, I’ve assembled the Intel in a way that makes sense to me. (Which, by the way, is what the test predicted my type of personality would do.)

It is true I am creative, but I am also curious about the creative process. This is why I don’t just write, but wonder why I wrote what I did. My husband is a philosopher and he introduced me to the whole “an unexamined life is not worth living” idea. (I know that many of you learned about this in college, I live it with this man pretty much daily.) Okay, so my natural inclination combined with the company I keep has me questioning things I might normally just sit back and enjoy. (God forbid.) Because, see, if you want to re-create an amazing experience, first you have to understand it. You have to understand how it happened or how you happened to create it in the first place. My nascent left-brain tendencies don’t really accept the whole “it just wrote itself!” or “who cares why chocolate tastes good? Dig in!”

This is a lengthy introduction to my most recent self-question, which is: why do I like to read historical romances? Again, if you read this genre and do not care why you like them, that’s fine, of course. But if you discover the little nugget of why upon which the whole of your pleasure in the genre turns, then, possibly you will then be in a position to find a way to expand that pleasure by including other tints of the thing you (unconsciously) love or are drawn to in other plot lines within the genre. (If this next bit goes under the heading of “everybody knows that!” please remember that one person’s epiphany is another person’s “well, duh!”)

Okay, so I love historical romances. That’s easy enough to break down: I love history. I love romance. So far, not much to decipher.  When I examine it closer, though, I discover it’s not so much history, in itself, that I love, but the idea of what life was like during that time of history compared to my own life. It’s immensely interesting for me to imagine myself—with all the ups and downs in my typical day—trying to put dinner on the table for my family without the use of microwaves, Whole Foods or an SUV. I love the idea of having much the same goals and dreams: love, family, security, self-improvement only now plopped down in the 14th century. So the history thing I get. As I’ve written before, reading a story that takes place in a time other than the one in which I am living is time travel and I love time travel.

Okay, on to romance. Again, not too complicated. I loved falling in love when I was younger, I love reading about it now. The whole courtship thing is so exciting and, unless you’re Elizabeth Taylor, not something that gets repeated too many times in a lifetime.

The bolt from the blue, for me, on the whole historical romance genre—and an important reason why I love it so much—had to do with the kind of romance that’s typically portrayed. Unless it’s just my myopic worldview, relationships between men and women today tend to be very equal. We both work, we both take care of the children, we both share much of the same problems and concerns of career advancement, ego, worry about the world going to hell, etc. The differences between men and women back then were much more pronounced. The sexes were very different from each other. For one thing, the women were protected, the men did the protecting. If you had a woman behaving like a typical woman from today’s world—strong, resolute, decisive—she was considered (within the genre’s rules) to be headstrong (and therefore, much more worthy of the male lead’s love.)

God knows I’m not saying I long for less equality with men. I’m not saying I approve of the fact that women still make less money than do men for the same job. I’m saying, when it comes to fiction, it is quite pleasant to read stories in a time when the differences between men and women and their happy acceptance of each other’s gender roles actually augmented their attraction to each other.

Or am I over-thinking it?

Great Ways to Market Your Book!

I’ve scoured the Internet this last week to find every possible up-to-date article and blog post to help with the age old (and making us old) process of marketing our books. Since most of us are writers first and marketers, maybe tenth, (surely you’re a lover, mother, knitter, snowboarder and a bunch of other things FIRST before marketer?) we need every bit of advice we can get.

So here you are! Break out of the box a little and push that title. It’s not as much fun as having a full on root canal, granted, but it will reap so many more benefits. (Okay, no hate mail from dentists.)

Cheers! Until next time…remember, either click on the picture, above, or right here to access the articles.

Do I Know You From Somewhere?

I’ve lived in thirty-five different places in my life.

I’m an ex-Air Force Brat, and living in temporary quarters and moving about so much—especially as a child—led to a constant stream of new schools, friends, new rules and situations.

But how I viewed my experiences as a military dependent and how they shaped me as an adult was totally rewritten the day, about fifteen years ago, when I picked up the autobiography of Diane Fossey. In her introduction to her book, she wrote about a rare neurological condition that she suffered from called prosapagnosia.

Before that moment I never knew there was anything wrong with me but when I recognized in myself the condition she described—so many hundreds of things about my life—my past and my present—began to click into place.

Prosapagnosia is a fairly uncommon genetic brain anomaly manifested by the inability to remember faces. Visual recognition is generally considered to be the most basic of human abilities, one that I not only never had, but I assumed everyone else was pretty much the same.

I thought everyone:

· struggled to place characters in a movie as they came in and out of the scenes

· would be hopeless about picking someone out of a lineup (because naturally they all looked identical)

· had trouble recognizing themselves in a mirror

I honestly thought everyone was like that.

I can meet someone, spend the entire evening with them, laughing, talking, sharing personal experiences, and if that person gets up to go the restroom— I will not be able to recognize them again when they reappear five minutes later.

Not even a little bit. Not even a hint.

Can you think of a more disabling condition for a child who averages two different schools every school year?

How many potential girl friends did I piss off in high school when it looked like I was snubbing them later in the school cafeteria after a great chat session in class that morning? I wasn’t stuck up. I just couldn’t recognize them again.

Prosapagnosia, also called “face blindness” is genetic. My youngest brother has it, too. In men, it’s often manifested by the constant selection of women who are extremely tacky or outlandish in their dress and makeup: trailer-trash tarts. This makes sense when you think of it: if most women look alike to you, how much easier to remember one if she’s already standing out from the rest? For the same reason, all my friends in high school (and I apologize ahead of time if any of them read this) were either extremely fat, suffered from disfiguring acne, had gi-normous breasts or were in some other way distinctive from the pact. Pretty women are the worst. They totally all look alike. No offense to anyone who fits the description but there is a certain type of woman that is virtually impossible for me to tell apart and that is the typical tennis-Mom: blonde, athletic and, unhelpfully, dressed in tennis outfits.

Good-looking guys weren’t much better.

When I was single, every date I had with a guy was like a first date. If we met and I agreed to go out with him, when he came to pick me up, I never remembered his face from the initial contact. (Could he have switched places with a roommate who also wasn’t horrible looking? Sure. I’d never have known.)

Once my brother and I became aware of the condition, we both began to develop individual methods for remembering people: memorizing their outfits if we just needed to remember them for a day, or consciously noting differentiating facial characteristics.

Any situation, like at church for example, where people wear name tags is an incredible boon to me: it puts me on equal footing with all the normal people. I become much more relaxed and friendly.

The fact is, trying to fake that you recognize someone almost always ends badly. Either my face shows how much I’m struggling to remember who the hell they were, or I say something that indicates our last meeting obviously didn’t rate enough to be recalled by me.

Why not just tell them of my handicap?

Because most people do not find it believable that you could totally forget an evening of sitting and laughing together—and the next day walk right by them. They assume that you are being rude.

It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t suffer from it how you can study someone’s face and then, minutes later when they leave, it all just dissolves away like scrambled eggs off of Teflon.

How relieved I was to discover that my son had not inherited this ultimately anti-social condition. Instead, he would often serve as my “seeing-eye dog” as we met up with the parents of his many friends. As he would see them approach, he would quietly tell me–no matter how many times I’d met them before: “That’s Joe’s Mom, Mrs. Dansen.” And I could take it from there.

While face blindness has been an extremely frustrating situation for me, there was some relief when I realized that I was not, in fact, a racist for not being able to tell African-Americans apart. Up until I realized I had an affliction, I assumed that I fit the unfortunate definition of a racially intolerant person. If I’d really thought about it, I would’ve realized that it wasn’t just blacks that looked alike to me, but everyone.

I think, like any handicap, you get used to it, you re-route your habits to accommodate it and you stop wishing, uselessly, that you’d never had to deal with it. You, in fact, become stronger and more empathetic as a result of it. And I think that’s a pretty big pay-off for a little social embarrassment now and then.

Why local book clubs are the single, best way to sell more books online

Drum roll, please.
What is the one thing that all members of our writing/publishing industry—writers, publishers, legacy and indie—agree sells by far more books than any other method?
Word of mouth.
Ahhhh. You knew it wasn’t going to be something you could click on and just get.
No, word of mouth, like all things worthwhile, is not easy to create or obtain.
Marcella Smith, of Marcella Smith Associates, and a former Barnes & Noble executive has been quoted as saying that when it comes to selling books: “Nothing beats word of mouth. Nothing. These days, there is so much more book news in all kinds of media. I think it comes down to, ‘Who do you trust?’”
And we all trust our friends, right? I don’t even bother “sampling” a book if someone I know has already gushed all over it.
The question is: How to you make word of mouth happen? For your book?
I’m going to go with “book clubs.”
Nothing builds a writer’s brand better and faster than talking about her book to a group of people who are interested in hearing about it. All you have to do to make it happen is contact some book clubs in your area and suggest to them that if they read one of your books as a group, you will be happy to speak to the members about the book.
The reasons why a book club might agree are:
1. They are readers and most readers are keen to ask questions of the authors of books they’ve read
2. Everyone likes to be entertained or presented to
3. Most people like feeling proprietary about the books they read and the authors they discover
The benefits to you as an author are:
1. Once an author meets his readers he increases his “buy in” with them and increases the chances that they will talk about the book to their friends
2. It’s been shown that not only does the book club read and buy the book from the author but they tend to read everything that author puts out in the future!
3. Speaking at book clubs keeps books alive. Many books have been resurrected with a new generation or demographic of reader as the result of a book club embracing it.
4. Meeting with your readers opens opportunities for other avenues, related to your book or future books. In the November issue of IBPA Independent, columnist Linda Carlson told about an author who spoke at a club, met an attendee who was a writer for a magazine and ended up doing several keynote speeches and selling many, many more books.
5. Asking your new group of enthusiastic fans to post reviews of your book on Amazon.com, Goodreads and so forth will help boost your sales online.
If you go down this road, here are some things to keep in mind as you add book club presentations to your promotions tasks:

1. Be friendly and focus on connecting with your readers
2. Hand out bookmarks with new-book information
3. Always bring paperback or hardback copies of your book; if members bought it as an e-book, they may want a signed “real” book now that they’ve met you.
4. Bring a signup sheet to capture emails so your new friends will be some of the first to get information on upcoming releases

There is a strong belief in publishing circles today that one of the main things that can save publishing is book clubs.
They can do a lot for the author too, especially if they’re willing to “put themselves out there.”
Nobody said it was easy.
At least now you know what you need to do.

When Memory Lane was Land-Mined

I was nine years old the first time my eleven-year old brother placed a live bomb in my hands. I was living overseas as a military dependent in post-war France with my parents and three brothers. My Dad was the acting commanding officer of Chambley Air Force Base, an American air base situated in Alsace-Lorraine.

There was a best-selling novel a few years ago by Diane Setterfield called “The Thirteenth Tale” in which the author—and the protagonist in the book—states that everyone tends to mythologize his or her childhood. I think there’s some truth to that but I have to say there was a three-year period in my childhood when I didn’t need to make up or embellish the things that happened to me. And most people have difficulty believing me when I tell them my story.

The unexploded bombs my brothers and I found—and we found dozens during the year we lived in France—were the result of an allied bombardment in November 1945 when the 8th Air Force dropped a total of 3,753 tons of bombs in our backyard in one day…resulting in what surely must’ve looked like a demented Easter egg hunt 18 years later when four Boomer kids went on the ultimate scavenger hunt.

(The  photo, above, is of my older brother and myself walking in downtown Vogelway in the mid-sixties. We were as confident and sure of ourselves as brash young Yanks in an occupied land could be.)

A few other memories in my scrapbook at the time include:

The fact that I went to a French Convent school—built in the 1300’s—where I spoke only French.

I got my first kiss from a French boy in a stone washhouse built by the Romans in 300 AD.

When I was ten, I was shot at by an angry French farmer who patrolled his vineyards in an effort to keep pests out (read: wily American kids.)

I once tripped over a dead body in a snake-infested World War II bunker that my brother and I discovered and were trying to fix up for a clubhouse. (The Mouseketeers was real big back then and we were absolutely a product of our culture.) It was a skeleton, wearing a molding German uniform. Showing an early entreprenurial streak, my brother tacked up a sign at the entrance to the bunker selling tours to the local French kids—”Ten francs to see the dead kraut.”

When we moved to Germany, I had a full-scale castle in my backyard—built in the 1200’s—complete with dungeons, stone balconies and towers—that my brothers and I played in nearly every day of the two years that we lived there.

We moved back to the States when I was 12 at which point I began a fairly conventional adolescence, but I’ll always be grateful that there was a time in my childhood when I was not only allowed to discover the world on my own terms but was able to experience history and true adventure as a part of my daily round without exaggeration and without mythology.

Get Hooked on A Great Beginning for Your Book

A few months ago, my husband and I curled up with a DVD of one of our favorite BBC mystery series from the nineties: Inspector Morse. Such avid fans of John Thaw and this series were we that we had seen every episode and read most of the books by Colin Dexter from which the series was derived. So it was with absolute shock and disbelief when we realized we no longer had the patience for the slow moving blocking and painstaking theatre of our dearly beloved show.

Life had moved at a pretty fast clip in the intervening twenty years. We had gotten used to television that grabbed you by the throat within the first thirty seconds, racheted up the tension and kept you hanging on by your fingertips for the ride-of-your-life until the climax and, if you were lucky, a respite at the end where the body count and, if there was any to be had, love questions got resolved. I have to tell you we were not watching cartoons since our Inspector Morse days. We love dramas with buckets of dialogue and twisty plot machinations and lengthy character rosters. We watched Lost and CSI and Masterpiece Theatre. Yet, when it came to drama and staging, we had moved on and clearly poor Pagan Morse had not.

I mention this because it’s sort of an example of how audiences and readers can be totally happy and accepting of a sort of style and then, when they get used to something else, totally intolerant. I loved Morse’s character. I still do. I’m tempted to write something for the man that doesn’t fall down dead asleep on the page. Meaning: I want to write something with today’s tempo, today’s pacing.

This brings me to what Les Edgerton talks about in his amazing how-to book, Hooked. This is a book about “writing fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go.” Do yourself a major favor: get the book and go through it with a yellow highlighter and then re-read it and underline more bits after that and then type up all your notes and underlined and highlighted bits and paste it up on a wall or send it to your smartphone and read it in traffic or whenever you have a down moment.

Seriously.

You do this and you will be that much closer to being a better writer and that much closer to creating fiction that readers can’t put down.

Edgerton, who has a very engaging, easy writing style, himself, provides a list of agents and editors explaining why they often reject manuscripts vis-à-vis beginnings. It’s a real eye opener. Here’s just a taste:

Jodie Rhodes, President, Jodie Rhodes Literary Agency: “Unless you grab our attention immediately, your book has no chance. Never open with scenery! Novels are about people, about the human condition…Never open with the villain. We are looking for voice.”

Julia Castiglia, Castiglia Literary Agency: “Never start with weather, dreams, setup or a passive scene that take the reader nowhere. A story must begin with an immediate hook. That first sentence and paragraph immediately draws one into the story and makes it impossible for the reader not to read on.”

Barbara Collins Rosenberg, Literary Agent: “I tend to like books that start in the middle of a scene. I want to be involved in the action right away.”

Get the book and get better. Next week: let’s take a look at that muddle in the middle!

Living and Loving an Ordinary Life

About 20 years ago, a crisis occurred in a Texas suburb which captured the attention of the country—and then the world. A baby, named Jessica, fell down a well. Rescuers worked for 58 hours to free “Baby Jessica” from the eight-inch-wide well casing 22 feet below the ground..

The fame that came to the people involved in this drama was intense and, like so much in our over-stimulated American culture, fleeting. The young man who did, without thinking, what he thought he should do, was lauded as a “hero,” which, no one doubted that he was. He was told how super-extraordinary he was on talk shows, radio shows, he appeared on Good Morning America, was the focus of best selling books and a made-for-TV movie. When all the excitement died down and the cameras turned else where, when the next “hot” story eclipsed the Jessica story, this young man was faced with going back to living his ordinary life. But for him, there couldn’t be ordinary ever again. How, after you have tasted being a superstar, after you have had Presidents shake your hand, after you have been made to believe that you were so special? How could you go back to pumping gas and living in your hometown after that? He couldn’t. After ten years of trying, he killed himself. His sister said: “After being famous for a bit, he just couldn’t settle back down to living an ordinary life.”

What is this so-called Ordinary life? Do any of us really aspire to have one? Can you blame this poor guy for not being able to go back to life before all the fame and excitement? Remember, he was happy before he got famous. He was content.

A few Christmases ago, my son really wanted the guitar video game called Rock Band. This game allows players—who have never picked up a guitar in their lives—to  perform in virtual “bands” by providing the ability to play three different peripherals modeled after music instruments. These peripherals are used to simulate the playing of rock music by hitting scrolling notes on-screen. Can you imagine? During this period of his life, he didn’t know how to play these instruments, but he did produce music—and really, amazingly good music, with his friends, in the basement using an Xbox and a device that looks like an electric guitar. My husband, who had a real garage band as a teenager, was appalled. Today, my son, after five years of weekly guitar lessons and endless hours of practice, is a very good, real, guitar player. The playworld of being a guitarist instilled the pleasure and kudos of the accomplishment without the actual accomplishment. But the lie was felt. The kudos were undeserved. And that lie, as pleasurable as it was, was still a lie and eventually prompted my son to go for the real thing.

We are surrounded, engulfed by technology. It makes our lives so much better in so many ways, but it’s also helped to undermine our sense of reality because it suggests that life is constant high drama. Ordinary life is more subtle. It’s difficult for a developing chrysalis on the backyard oak tree to compete with the excitement of saving the world from invading aliens or making a Super Bowl touchdown. (The virtual experience derived from the most basic of video games.)

The real world, the natural world, doesn’t typically allow one the likelihood of being twelve years old and playing in a rock band (especially without all the hassle of years of music lessons.) Or to be pumping gas in Texas one day and speaking to Diane Sawyer the next on national TV.

While it’s possible that you or I might be able to handle the five minutes of fame better than poor Kevin Draper did, it’s also possible that this young man is, in himself, a cautionary tale. A tale that suggests that the further we get away from what’s real, the more we layer on the superlatives, the over-the-top praise, and add the extra, unnecessary gloss, the further we get away from who we are in a true, organic sense.

Real life is dull. It’s housework, watering the garden, and staring off into space as you do it. It’s preparing a meal. And most pleasures in real life are small ones…a hot shower, a beautiful sunset, a bowl of soup, a good book. When did we all start looking to win the lottery? Or star in our own TV shows? When did the manic drama of what could be, take the place of what is?

I am sure that we should all strive to be the best we can be and to try to achieve great things. But, in the process of doing all the hard work required to achieve those great things, it might help to remember what perfection there lies in an ordinary life, lived with pleasure and enjoyment of our surroundings and each other.

Just a thought.

John Braine on How to Write A Novel

John Braine was a famous Yorkshire novelist, considered one of the celebrated Angry Young Men of British literature. He wrote “Room at the Top.” His own life was fairly dramatic in that he rose quite high as a top author of his day and died bitter, alone and in debt at the age of 64. While some of his tenets on writing a novel seem a little old-fashioned compared with the typical advice one reads today, many points are spot-on, and serve to underscore the fact that certain rules of good writing are universal and timeless.

John Braine: “How to Write A Novel:”

• A novel is a story to be read for pleasure.

• As an author, you must write to please yourself and you must be completely honest about the world as you see it.

• Discipline and technique are infinitely more important than inspiration

• The people in your story should astound us

• Before writing your story, write a 500-word synopsis; the more quickly you write this, the better • Your novel should have at least 20 chapters (? Not sure if this is still relevant.)

• Each chapter must end with a hook to draw the reader on to the next chapter

• You must end your novel with a bang—nothing vague about the ending • Limit for length of time the story should occur—one year. (? Not sure what I think about this but may be some validity to it for the most part.)

• Your novel’s aim: show us your characters during a period when, suddenly, almost despite themselves, they start to move and everything they do and say is significant

• Characters should talk and think about the past. (There was much more interior dialogue and ruminating tolerated during Braine’s time. Today’s authors attempt to skillfully (unobtrusively) weave in back story when it’s needed to propel the story forward or explain certain coming action.)

• Always write from experience. A writer must watch for relevant detail, the detail which will epitomize the whole event.

• Writing is seeing. Always write as if the action of your novel were taking place before your eyes on a brightly lit stage.

• Nothing is shown without a purpose.

• People are places and places are people.

Next week, I will do a recap of the first five chapters of Les Edgerton’s manual, Hooked, a book that shows you how to “write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go.”

Which, I feel confident, is something we all strive to achieve.