Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Indies First: Authors and Booksellers


I know, I know. The holidays are coming up way too fast. It's the season of gratitude, and yet your mind is all caught up in that holiday gift-giving extravaganza that begins...well, let's not go there.

This year, how about mixing it up, gratitude with gift list, by showing some love to your favorite independent bookshop? On Saturday, Nov. 29, Indies First brings authors into local bookstores to help hand-sell books. I'm excited to be joining Eowyn Ivey and Don Rearden, playing bookseller at Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska.

Saturday is the second annual Indies First celebration, an effort launched by bestselling author Sherman Alexie and taken up by the American Booksellers Association. The plan, as Alexie explains it:"We book nerds will become booksellers. We will make recommendations. We will practice nepotism and urge readers to buy multiple copies of our friends' books...I think the collective results could be mind-boggling (maybe even world-changing)...What could be better than spending a day hanging out in your favorite hometown indie, hand-selling books you love to people who will love them too and signing a stack of your own?"

I'm with Alexie - not much could be better. Indies First plays right into one of my secret but (usually) suppressed urges: to tug the sleeves of strangers whenever I spot titles I love on the shelves of a bookstore.

So mark your calendars and devote a portion of Small Business Saturday to visiting one of those great little bookshops where there's a lot more going on than just monetary transactions. And if you're in the Anchorage area, head on over to Palmer to Fireside Books. Eowyn, Don, and I would love to see you!


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Bounce: How Smart Authors Handle Rejection


Some call it resilience, but I think that’s too nice a word, too easy. I prefer bounce, because it often comes with a smack, and the whole game can ride on which way it lands.

I’m talking about how writers respond to criticism, and how this relates to our overall success, which directly connects to how willing we are to fail. Writers aren’t so different from students in this regard. It doesn’t take much time in a classroom to realize that some students will never try very hard to succeed, and while there may be many explanations for this phenomenon, among the most fundamental is that if you don’t try, you won’t fail. In other words, you won’t need bounce.

Like a basketball, a writer must be pumped full to bounce back from criticism. Full of what, you ask? Some will say ego, but ego is unreliable and quickly deflated. Bounce is what you need, a blend of confidence and strategy.

If the book in your head is always better than the one that gets on the page, how much better is the book no one ever reads? Except that’s not the goal, at least not for most projects. At some point your book must meet its readers, and that’s where you’d best be ready with the bounce: when early readers don’t like it, when reviews are lackluster, when even your mother doesn’t seem impressed, when your sales figures are an embarrassment.  

At its core, the bounce is a state of mind. When teaching revision, I often direct writers in a process I call “Potholes and Spine,” a variation on an exercise I learned in Now Write, edited by Sherry Ellis. Part of the process involves looking hard at the places that aren’t working in a piece and recognizing that each one is a gift, an opening where you are able to go in and tinker around with the assurance that you’re zeroing in on an important spot, because in most cases the messy parts are messy because you’re trying hard to articulate something that matters.

The other part of the bounce involves set-up and reaction. Let’s say you share a chapter from a nonfiction project with your writers’ group, or with other early readers. Two of them misunderstand what you’ve written. Another objects to your use of present tense, which you thought was strategic. You duly note these objections, writing them down the way you record all reactions from first readers—without responding or defending your work. It’s a great way to distance yourself, to avoid jumping in and explaining or justifying what you’ve got on the page. Still, it doesn’t squelch all the internal dialogue you’re having with your writer self: these people just don’t get it.

Thankfully, another reader likes the chapter, a lot—no bounce required. Then your four writer friends launch into a lively discussion over whether you should have included speculative language that allows for scene-making in nonfiction: this character might have done this, or perhaps she would have done that. Or maybe you should have stuck to one point of view. Maybe the whole project should be redone as historical fiction, not nonfiction at all. These are all approaches you’ve considered and rejected, but you write them all down, because—guess what—sometimes you’re wrong. When they’re done, you thank them and gather up their written critiques.

One person. One person liked your chapter. The rest, not so much.

Even as you sum this up in your head, you know it isn’t an accurate rendering. That’s where a good night’s rest—maybe a good week’s or even a month’s rest, if necessary—is critical.

The next part of the bounce, perhaps the most crucial, is figuring out what to do with the hodgepodge of reactions you’ve gathered. Your first readers are also writers, creative thinkers who’ll open a lot of lovely little doors to you. You can’t walk through them all.  You can’t do everything they say, and you shouldn’t. But since you wrote down all their ideas, you go through them, one by one. You make a master list that includes even those items you’re certain you don’t want to change, so you can study it all on the page.

At this point in the bounce you go back and do a little reading in aspirational books, ones that line up nicely with what you hope your book will one day be. Regardless of the nuts and bolts of your first readers’ comments, at this point you especially rethink the voice—what makes yours as captivating, at least in places, as the voice in books you admire.

Then you review that summary list of comments again and consider what’s behind each of them. Everything is laid out and up for grabs. Often one concern masks another. The objection about tense, you realize, has more to do with choppiness, a real concern you’ve been glossing over in the draft. You also consider why you made certain decisions in the first place and whether that reasoning still holds.

You know you’ve bounced when you realize it won’t hurt to rewrite with some changes, even and especially big ones, and when you find yourself getting excited to discover how those changes might sound and feel. Then you thrash around in the muck that is your manuscript and, by some miracle, it starts to get better, though in the end you may not be able to explain exactly how or why. 

That, my friends, is the bounce.

Rejection isn’t so much the cross you bear as the uniform you wear, that dorky little hat or crazy vest or pointy shoes or whatever you symbolically put on each day to say look at me, I’m a writer, a real one. Then your readers know they don’t have to pussyfoot around with their remarks: you’re a real writer and you know how to bounce.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Business Creep: How Much Should You Worry about Book Promotion?


If you’ve published a book, either the traditional way or on your own, you know what I mean by business creep: the way the business side of writing, especially promotion and marketing, can take over your life. For as much as we hear about buzz, there have to be limits to what we’ll do to get noticed. At the same time, we can’t abdicate completely the marketing side of the equation.

“I can’t self-promote,” I’ve heard writers say. “That’s just not me. If my book can’t sell itself, then I just won’t write.” Like Harper Lee, they say, or J.D. Salinger. But today’s writers who think like this have for the most part will fail to thrive. A handful may be able to duck out on the business end of writing; Haruki Murakami, for one. But for most of us it’s a reality: we have to find the right balance between what we want to do—create—and what we must do—help sell our books.

These days, much of the marketing legwork, though not all, is electronic. With ten million members, Goodreads is the largest site in the world for book recommendations. Compiled using data gathered from a title that launched with three Goodreads giveaways, a Goodreads post titled “The Anatomy of a Book Discovery” uses a color-spiked graph to show how one thing leads to another when it comes to book buzz. What’s harder to quantify is how good the book was to begin with: how timely, how well-conceived, how brilliantly rendered.

Beyond the scope of the Goodreads analysis is how a “following” that’s built before a book is published, or even before it is written, plays into its eventual success. Among the advice passed around to emerging writers these days is that they must make a name for themselves: get a website, get on Facebook, get on Twitter, start a blog, get a following. At best, this advice is overstated. At worst, it’s a gigantic distraction that will keep you from writing the book you must write.

Yes, buzz sells books. Yes, some of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers and blog followers will be among the first to buy your book when it comes out. And yes, a website shows you’re a professional. But you must absolutely guard your time. Even when you’re up and running and you’ve got a book or two under your belt, you should aim for spending no more than a quarter of your time on the business part of this grand adventure.

If you’re an emerging writer who’s still pushing out that first million words ahead of your real publishable work, you should spend a whole lot less time on promotion. The exception: if you write for a specialized nonfiction market—growers of heirloom tomatoes, for instance—you’ll need to be recognized as an expert within the field in order to successfully pitch your book, so you’ll want to spend a larger chunk of your time getting recognized.

While electronic buzz is huge, huge, huge, don’t forget that in the end what we’re really talking here are relationships. In that way, writing is no different than any other business. Your online presence must project the real you and your real book, because that’s what gets outted one way or the other. Fake reviews may sell a few titles, but if the book stinks, the readers won’t be back.

A profile of Emma Straub by Eryn Loeb in Poets & Writers magazine brings this point home. After her first four novels were rejected, Straub got serious about the quality of her work, putting herself under the tutelage of Lorrie Moore. A small press, Five Chapter Books, published Straub’s first collection of short stories. She has more than ten thousand followers on Twitter. She posts regularly on the Paris Review Daily and on New York magazine’s culture blog Vulture. Yet she says it’s her job at an indie bookstore in Brooklyn that really taught her how to market her work, one reader at a time.

As you consciously, purposefully, strike a balance between creativity and business, consider that relationships are at the heart of both. What you do with and for your fellow writers along with what you do with and for your readers will come back around in the best of ways to benefit you and your work. And there’s nothing creepy about that.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Is It Done Yet? How to Know if Your Book is Ready to Market

Sculpture by Marcel Buhler, courtesy Cream Contemporary

Scan advice from agents and editors, and you’ll find a common thread: too many writers send off their work before it’s ready. Reader reviews of self-published books echo this concern. But how do you know when a piece is as good as it’s going to get?

This is trickier than it sounds. Part of the fun and frustration of writing is that a piece can always get better. Most published writers will tell you they’ve wished for changes even after their work came out in print. And while much writing goes off half-baked, it’s also possible to overcook a piece, to fiddle with it till it falls apart on the page, or to play with it more or less forever, thus staving off any chance of rejection.

Let’s assume you’ve engaged in that recursive process of discovery, prewriting and drafting and revising until you have what feels like a decent draft. You’ve let it set awhile, and in the most objective of ways you’ve approached it again. You’ve gotten critiques from a few trusted readers. Is it ready for market?

Even when your instinct tells you a project is ready, it’s good to go one more round, taking time to move through the project chapter by chapter, doing the same sort of writer-as-reader analysis you’d do on a good published book by another author. If your piece is an essay or short story, so much the better – there’s a lot to evaluate.

Hand write your notes, both in the text itself – marking lyric moments, best parts, surprise and delight – and also in a free-standing list. Handwriting keeps your right brain involved in what’s essentially a left-brained pursuit.

Here’s what I look for. When it comes to revision, I’m not a big fan of checklists, so beware. This sort of analysis too early in the project can stifle creative energy. Plus this is my own personal list,  keyed to what I find engaging in narrative (fiction and non) and slanted toward my own shortcomings. Your ready-for-market survey might look quite a lot different. 

  • The basics: notes on time, point of view, narrative distance, voice, and length.
  • Beginning and end: Copy down the first and last sentences in order to study the frame for the piece.
  • Scene and summary: List these, in order. For the scenes, note ways in which characters change from beginning to end. Note how backstory, if any, works in.
  • Characters: What do the characters know about themselves? What are they blind to? Which feelings are articulated? Which feelings need to be articulated? In what ways are they larger than life?
  • Arc: Where’s the set-up, the climax, the denouement?
  • Surprise and delight: What feels most fresh and alive in the piece? Consider word choice, metaphor, humor, voice, plot, character.
  • Suspense: Foreshadowing, not overdone. Consider what’s not said, what’s withheld, and conversely, what’s revealed and where.
  • Language and details: Where’s the sharp, smart language? The humor, if any? Make sure nothing’s overwritten or over-explained. Even after a few rounds of revision, I find myself lopping off ends of sentences, where I’ve said too much.
  • Lyric moments: Identify the ones you’ve got, and look for places where they should be.
  • What it’s about: If you thought you knew and now you’re seeing something more, less, or different, that can be good, as long as you make the most of what you discover. Pay attention to how the focus is revealed to the reader. Sometimes it’s too obvious, sometimes it’s too subtle. Every story is two stories: identify both.
  • Where you copped out: Consider the ways in which your project could be more than it is – more emotional depth, more distinctive voice, richer language, more layers.
Beware, too, the opposing tendency: to hold back your work indefinitely, for fear it's not good enough. If you've done everything here, it's time to move the book on to a few trusted readers and/or an editor who'll help you see past your blind spots. Have courage! This is why you wrote the book, yes? So it will find its way to readers, once it's the best it can be.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Why We Care: Detroit’s Little Library Challenge

At the Little Free Library on Hiland Mountain

Never has there been so much noise about books, publishing, and authorship. Or so much handwringing. Amazon vs. Hatchette. The Big Five vs. the Little Guys. Sound bites vs. sustained immersion. Upheaval, bottom to top.

Let’s set that aside for a moment to focus on one simple precept: the power of the book to transform. Then extend that to an entire community that’s taking on the big, big challenge of transforming itself through the power of books.


I write my books from a little house on an Alaska mountainside that’s 3000 miles from Detroit. My closest Little Free Library is another three miles up the mountain, along a winding road with views of Cook Inlet and, on clear days, a big beautiful mountain, which we Alaskans call Denali.

Distance and differences aside, I’m rooting for Detroit’s Little Free Library Challenge. Kim Kozlowski’s IndieGoGo project is all about the things we Alaskans believe in: community, resilience, and self-reliance, empowered by a deep and transcending appreciation—call it love—for the spaces around us.

The goal of Detroit’s Little Library Challenge is to make their city the Little Free Library capital of the world, with a phase one goal of setting up 313 Little Free Libraries. It’s good press for a place that’s had more than its share of bad. But the Challenge is also about the fundamental transformations that happen through books. Readers are smarter than non-readers, with above average emotional intelligence and empathy. The number of books in a home is the single best indicator of how well a child will do in school. Reading reduces stress and improves sleep. All good things for a community that’s looking to make a comeback.

We’re rooting for them, all the way up here. Along with other Alaska Authors, I’m donating books to seed an Alaska Little Free Library on the streets of Detroit, a reminder that when times are tough, it doesn’t matter where you live—we all come together.

But for this Little Free Library to become a reality, we need your help. For just sixteen dollars, you can do your part to make it happen. Let’s show Detroit some love!

If you’re an author, Detroit’s Little Libraries project is accepting donations of autographed books to seed regionally-themed libraries as part of their Ambassador option. But for those libraries to be built, they also need cash, so please join in this outpouring of love and affirmation by pledging your support today(For Alaska: 16 authors bringing 4 pledgers each, and we'll meet our goal!) 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Are You Famous? Tips for Author Appearances

An onstage event: (left to right) Beth Hill, Seth Kantner, Peggy Shumaker, Joan Kane, and me.

I don’t mind telling you: I’m a tad exhausted, coming off two weeks of author appearances centered around my latest novel Cold Spell. For us author types, that much meet-and-greet can be grueling.

A friend of mine who has worked as a publicist asked if my publisher had arranged the events. Nope. I did that myself, though I had a lot of help from gallery owners and booksellers and college folks and a local writers organization. There was the launch, of course, and there were signings. But there was also a ticketed dinner event (sold out!), plus two “onstage” conversations and a workshop. At each appearance, I enjoyed the company of other authors, which made every event more enjoyable and better attended than it would have been had I gone solo.

A few tips for planning author appearances:

·         Venues: Although a few of my recent events were out of town, they were all within driving distance, which was a big relief to me. I enjoy travel, and if there’s a chance to connect it with books, so much the better. But as most authors will tell you, the traditional book tour is not nearly as glamorous as you might think, and it’s not especially good at getting books sold, either. For the most part, I chose local venues based on relationships I’d already built with the owners and managers.
·         Costs: The traditional book tour has two main objectives: to build relationships between authors and readers (including key readers, like booksellers) and to keep an author’s name out in front of audiences during the launch period. Is it cost-effective? Not really. From a publisher’s point of view, it’s more of a long-tail investment, getting their most popular authors out to meet and make fans. Regardless of how they’re published, some authors front the costs for their own book tours, but I haven’t run across any who’ve found it, dollar for dollar, to be a good investment. If there are places you’d love to visit or places you’re visiting anyway and you’re able to arrange author appearances there, great—you’ll enjoy the journey, and your expenses may even be tax-deductible, if your writing efforts qualify as a legitimate business with the IRS.
·         Occasion: Author appearances don’t have to be launch-related. It’s always a good idea to get out and meet readers at book signings, readings, and other events if you’re good at that sort of thing and you actively promote those events through your friends-and-fans network. My recent events were launch-related, but they also tied in with an annual event, Alaska Book Week, which I helped start a few years ago.
·         Audience: Don’t just expect people to show up. They’re busy, and even though you’re an author, that doesn’t make you famous. Line up your events well in advance (six months, at least, if they’re out of town), and think beyond the traditional reading/signing. Look for groups that might have an interest in your book or in your journey as an author. Or maybe there are workshops you could teach. If your appearances are value-added for the audience, with book sales taking second billing, you’re more likely to find interest.
·         Partners: Another way to expand your audience is to participate in well-conceived events featuring multiple authors. It’s more fun, too.
·         Preparation: If you’re reading, practice and—extremely important—time yourself. Any reading that lasts more than ten minutes, including the introduction, is probably too much. If you have more time to fill, engage your audience with slides, anecdotes, and the like. Your knees might be shaking, your onstage persona should exude charisma and confidence. Relax and have fun, and your audience will follow suit.
·         Numbers: You may not sell lots of books. But simply spreading the word about your appearances increases your visibility and draws attention to your book.
·         Blog tours: Because of the costs involved, many publishers now favor blog tours in which the publicist arranges guest blogs, interviews, and book reviews at well-read blogs and then turns the author loose to fulfill the assignments. No hotels, taxis, or airfare are required—only the author’s time. Lots of it. One friend of mine had to cover 100 blog stops for the launch of her book. Are blog tours effective? In theory, anything that gets you and your book in front of readers is helpful, and anything online has the advantage of creating a permanent presence for you and your book in the ever-expanding internet archives. If your publisher arranges one, you’re obviously going to participate, time suck or no; to refuse would be bad form. If you’re publishing on your own, consider whether the potential benefits are worth the time you invest. You can use the online service Alexa to make sure the blogs you’re touring are at least as well-trafficked as your own blog (assuming you have a blog). And as with most everything in publishing, be prepared for a lot of rejection (mostly in the form of silence) when you email bloggers asking for them to host a stop on your blog tour. I generally approach only those with whom I’ve developed some sort of personal connection, through social media or my fan base.
·         Party on: A new darling of the traditional publishing industry is the book launch party. But unless you’re a big, big name with a blockbuster title, they’re not offering to throw the party on your behalf; they want you to host a party and invite all your friends and sell a few books. All well and good—especially for the publisher, since they’ve invested nothing other than the suggestion—as long as you have the resources and enjoy that sort of thing. I like a party as well as the next person, but I agree with an author friend who points out, hey, we’re the writers—shouldn’t they be buying us drinks? If you want to celebrate your launch without breaking the bank, look for a no-host venue where your guests can buy their own food and drinks, preferably one that will allow you to sell and autograph books without charging you a percentage. Some authors even throw launch parties online, though to me that seems a stretch of what you can do with a keyboard. Maybe once someone invents virtual cocktails, the online launch party will catch on.



Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Fact and Fiction: Life into Story


Whenever I hear the latest update on the ebola outbreak, I think of Don Rearden. I can’t help it. In his novel The Raven’s Gift, he wrote about the devastation brought on by a deadly disease that spins out of control. Sure, his book is fiction, and at that time he wrote it, he was thinking bird flu, but the parallels between fact and fiction are a little uncanny.

On a less dramatic scale, I’ve seen a similar tension between fact and fiction play out involving a plot point in my first novel A Distant Enemy. Nearly two decades ago, I wrote a set-up that involved intentional fishing during an emergency closure in Southwest Alaska. In the last few years, a similar scenario had played out in a very real conflict over changes in salmon harvest more drastic than any I’d dared to imagine. Arrests and court battles followed. Decisions were reached, but the battle is far from over.

It would be nice to think that when it comes to such things, we authors are smart and savvy and maybe even a little prophetic (oh lottery numbers, please make yourselves known!). But really, the whole thing boils down to this: in fiction, our material is life as it’s lived and known and hidden and dreamed.

Not that our task is easy. Our own lives infuse our work with power even as “real life” gets in the way. We face hard choices about what constitutes truth. And sometimes what we think we know is only a smattering of what’s required of us to get it right on the page, which means research—lots of it, even for stories.

As author Peggy Shumaker so aptly puts it, "the whole truth is never available to us." And yet somehow in our work, we wrestle with the facts of who we are - the things we can face and the truths we aren't ready for yet. The unknown always feels bigger than the known.

Then there are the practical matters of whose stories we tell and what right we have to give voice to anyone, along with the fine points of perspective and the tension between getting the facts right (whatever form "right" may take) and staying true to the narrative as well as the extent to which we live the facts of our work as opposed to drawing on the experiences of others.

The intersection of fact and fiction makes for great conversation among writers. Tomorrow we’re headed to Soldotna to share that discussion with local readers, writers, and seekers, along with the just plain curious. One and all, you’re invited to “Fact and Fiction: Life into Story,” a reading and book talk hosted by the Kenai Peninsula College Showcase Series in conjunction with 49 Writers.

And wait, there’s more: Don and I couldn’t be happier to announce that Seth Kantner (Ordinary Wolves, Pup and Pokey, Shopping for Porcupine) will be joining us for this lively discussion. We hope you’ll be there too: 7 pm, at KPC’s McLain Commons. Admission is free, with book sales and signing to follow. The next day, Don and I will be teaching workshops on character and point of view. For the workshops, preregistration is required; head on over to the 49 Writers website to get all the scoop.