Thursday, July 30, 2009

Two Other Writers' Lives

Today I am priveliged to have a wonderful pair of guest bloggers!

Visiting mystery duo Robert W. Walker and Miranda Phillips Walker have thriller books for summer reading—His being DEAD ON, Five star Books, Hers being The Well Meaning Killer, Krill Press. As a husband and wife both writing suspenseful crime novels, we wondered if it was a criminal advantage at home, at book signings, and on the web for this intriguing tag-team who have set out to do a thoroughly mysterious in tandem blog tour. As Miranda says in her replies below, “So far the only ones killed have been fictional.”

His and Her Q & A with Robert W. Walker and Miranda Phillips Walker
or When Mystery Writers Unite in Matrimony how much Acrimony?

Format – Toss a question out: Rob’s answer followed by Miranda’s answer.

Q: What is it like having two mystery writers working under the same roof?

R’s A: So far the roof has not caved in. Kidding aside, there are great advantages to having a partner in crime as in everything—someone to walk off dinner with, someone to support your resolutions, someone to act as a sounding board and visa-versa—or is that vice-a-versa in the case of crime writers? Truth be told our work stations are right beside one another, so there is a bunch of quiet time togetherness…silent running, but we also share one another’s scenes and as I said act as support and sounding board to one another. And it goes a long way in life when your significant other is proud of what you do and what you have accomplished, no matter the profession.

M’s A: So far we’re only killing people in our novels, I agree with Rob there are definite advantages to literally working side by side, like not having to run to another room to clarify a point. There are times, however when you’re trying to get the others attention and get no response because he’s so buried in his bleepin’ story. Not that this never happens to me…We have come to realize that and not take any silence as directed personally at the other. Another couple might think the spouse is ignoring and rude and obnoxious, which was how our previous spouses felt about us when we were writing. Rob says his ex thought he was having an affair and he was—with his characters. But see I am so aware of this aberration on account of having it muself!

Q: So you don’t get into one another’s way? What happens when you disagree, say on a line of dialogue or a scene or a given adverb?

R’s A: We never disagree. No, no…not true. However, we do listen to one another, and since we are writing separate books and separate characters—not co-authoring collaborative work, then it all goes back to “Hey, it’s my book!” So in the end, no matter, the author makes the decision. On the other hand, if Miranda says a certain line falls flat, or suggests another direction, or tells me a woman would never say that or a teen twenty years ago might use that slang but not today, I listen to her and will make an adjustment (after a bit of a defense, of course). In the end, neither of us have such huge egos that we can’t take good, solid advice, and we trust one another’s advice. Kinda like having a built in book critic at one’s shoulder but one without the acid tongue say of a PW reviewer.

M’s A: He’s going to get a big head if I keep agreeing with him like this. But he’s right the bottom line for both of us is our novels or work in progress. I am glad we both are humble enough to listen to each other and also other private readers we have for our books. We have a reader in Canada that picked out some important issues that so needed to be changed in TWMK. Her viewpoint was fresh since she was looking at it from my POV. It’s always critical to have the novel reviewed by fresh eyes so to speak. Spell check is great but Bertha—my computer—she misfires at times and so spellings and grammatical issues slip in. You want to know the real tough thing in living with Rob? He’s an English teacher. ‘Say no more, eh?’

Q: Obviously, as Miranda is a newly published author, her first title being The Well Meaning Killer, and as Rob has over forty novels and e-books on the market, his latest being Dead On, it would seem Miranda’s getting more out of the “sounding board” than is Rob. Is that the case?”

R’s A: Not at all. Miranda’s experiences in the ER are real life “horror” and “suspense” shows, and besides any time I give her advice, well it reinforces my own faith in how I work up a story, and one of these is research and using real life terror for authentic scenes. I help Miranda and she helps me fifty-fifty. She’ll read my book, and I’ll read hers, so we act as first readers for one another these past three years. We have four children in the home as well, so we also run interference for one another. Frankly, I don’t know how a single mom with kids can find time to write, but this is one of the lessons Miranda has learned from me—at times you have to stiff-arm your loved ones for them to understand that writing is not a game for you but a serious endeavor. You have to make people believe that if you expect them to leave you alone. Only bother me if there is blood. Finally, to answer your question, we teach one another each day, and frankly it beats “group” support as in a writing group—not that there’s anything wrong with that but you can get too many voices telling you in no uncertain terms to go in twelve different directions if you’re not careful.

M’s A: One of my biggest fears is that people will think, Oh, Rob must have written that, and is just throwing her a bone so to speak. From going to conferences and listening to other authors, the one theme I get is they are jaded. They have been in this industry so long and beaten down so hard they have no faith. Coming into this as a newbie, I certainly have a lot to learn, but I think I help Rob see things in a new light. For instance I share with him different ways to have an internet presence, unconventional local marketing, keeping a positive attitude in face of this crazy industry. We keep each other on track and focused, that’s what partners should do. I suspect if we were baking pies and selling pies out the door, we’d need one another’s emotional support for that as well. Matrimony not acrimony and mutual respect. I had been carrying The Well Meaning Killer notes around with me for years before I ever laid eyes on Rob.

Q: So how do you deal with the awesome job of organizing a mystery or suspense novel, and how has your partnership helped along those lines?

R’s A: I have two words I keep before me at all times while writing—one is “compelling” reminding me that every page must be compelling and to make that happen, this single word reminds me too to involve all five senses and strive to incorporate that nebulous sixth sense when I can. The other watchword is—oops! I forgot it. Oh, yeah, “Who’s story is it anyway?” This single question keeps me focused on the character whose name is synonymous with the title of the book (sometimes that name is in the title or subtitle). When a Japanese publisher came out with my Instinct Series, they at first wanted to rename it: Jessica Coran, FBI Medical Examiner! I don’t do an outline or rigorous storyboard. I rather allow the story to unfold and come into being much as a sculptor chips away at a block of marble until he finds what he’s looking for in the stone. In other words, I don’t know what I think until I see what I say…so to speak. Since Miranda works in the same fashion with her Megan McKenna we again support one another in our working method, our Modus Operandi.

M’s A: My method is similar to Rob’s. I don’t use a strict outline, but I do have a loose one with the names and descriptions of my characters, and location. I just sit down and write, trying to keep heat on every page, build conflict as I go. I try to keep to short chapters, since that’s the thing most readers like now, and I try to watch my POV. Megan McKenna’s is my character and everything in the storyline whether it deals with her at the moment needs to come back to her. So I focus on all threads or roads lead to Megan and Megan’s story.

One of the best lessons Rob has shown me is how to effectively use dialog to move the story along and keep it interesting. A favorite line of his is that dialogue must either illuminate character or move the story along. It can’t be static. And never stop to describe a person, place or thing—do it while that person is in action.

Q: Do you two have any plans of ever collaborating on a novel?

R’s A: That could put a strain on the marriage as it puts a strain on any relationship; collaborative writing is however something I believe—given the right storyline—we could be successful at. I believe we both have the right temperament to work that close in on a novel. The failed collaborations in my experience have failed for different reasons. One, my co-author at the time could not take the least suggestion or change and went berserk and it was broken off before it got anywhere; a second was great fun and was rip-roaring until suddenly my co-author simply quit on the project due to my agent’s inability at the time to sell it; a third has been greatly successful and that project was completed and I am very proud of it because my co-author and I did indeed have some shouting matches and knock-down, drag-outs, and cursing—mostly me pulling out my hair, but in the end we got it together. It is now published as a Kindle original and is entitled Cuba Blue with Lyn Polkabla. Miranda saw what I went through with Lyn, and she’s not, I suspect, anxious to collaborate but maybe some day…again if the right story came along. Can’t rule it out.

M’s A: Wow, that’s a loaded gun. I have witnessed the Rob and Lynn saga, the frustration, the if looks could kill, the large phone bill… Yikes! I think it is just a matter of time though until we do, but we will have ground rules, like no collaborating in the kitchen! OK, Rob does make a terrific hot Reuben sandwich to die for.

Final Q: You guys seem like a great tag-team match with a one-two punch, both your books hitting the stands at once and you’re doing “his and her” book signings. What exactly happens at a his and her book signing?”

R’s A: She sells my book, I sell hers. It is a win-win situation and you don’t have to be married to sell one another’s books if you tag-team with another writer. We have the added advantage of both books being in the same genre, but that could as well work against us. Two writers with different kinds of books can still tag-team readers coming through the bookstore door. I have known authors whose loved one—a husband, a wife, even a child “hawk” the book on behalf of the author and do far better than the author would have done alone and on his or her own. Point of fact, my dog Pongo, pictured on the jacket of Dead On with me, I believe, has sold more books than I ever could (insert laugh track here).

M’s A: I have witnessed Rob’s book signings, and I will be adopting his methods. He doesn’t just sit behind the desk. He is at the front of the store near the table ready to greet the customers as they enter the store, or throw a book out into the mall. (no kidding but with teens only, not the infirm or elderly). He has tons of energy and approaches people in a nonthreatening manner (usually!). I think we are going to have fun selling each other’s books and enjoying each other’s company simultaneously during an event which can often be a rather lonely one for the “lone” writer who has no one to go out to dinner with after the event.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

More on Setting up Signings

Before anything else I want to send a shout-out and big thanks to Eric Angevine of the Washington Examiner for his kind words about this blog. That article really jump-started my readership here. And it made me feel that what I share here really is useful to someone, which after all the point.

This “Frequently Asked Question” thing seems to be becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. The more tips I share the more questions come in. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. This one appears to be in response to last week’s blog:

Can I ask how you get book stores to allow you to come in to do the book signings? I know you are on the regular circuit now, but how did you get started? When I get ready to take my show on the road, I just need tips on how to get started.

The first thing I need to remind you is that not all booksellers feel the same way about book signings. The Borders chain has supported me well, but I have friends in the Midwest to tell me they can’t get a toe into Borders but Barnes & Noble welcomes them. I can’t seem to get the attention of B&N managers here. But, you focus your energy on the stores that welcome you.

When I decided I wanted to be active in promoting my novels I used the Yahoo local function to generate a list of bookstores within easy driving range of my house. I was stunned at the number! Since the search gave me addresses and phone numbers making contact was easy, but I knew that time would be the challenge, so I decided to outsource.

I was fortunate enough to find a person who has time on her hands during the day and is willing to contact stores to ask for book signings. We agreed on a low-risk approach in which I pay her for each phone call made and a bonus for each signing she gets. I sent her the list of all the bookstores within an hour’s drive of my house and she has called them all! Now we’re down to the list of 30 or so that welcomed me in and just go around that circuit. Cyndi has established strong relationships with these store managers that really paid off with the recent new release.

But you asked “how.” That is really the simple part. Cyndi simply calls the stores and tells them I’m a local mystery author and asks when she can schedule a book signing. Often they just pick a date. Sometimes they say they don’t do signings or only work with big name authors. Fine. Goodbye. Move on. Sometimes they ask if my books are print-on-demand. Cyndi asks them to check the warehouse on their computer. When they see 100 books listed in the warehouse, and that the books are returnable, they decide it doesn’t matter. (that part takes time. The more you sell, the more the warehouse stocks.)

If a manager is on the fence, I send them a media kit including a copy of the latest novel. Then she calls again.

BTW, under the heading of shameless self promotion: if you want all the details of how I do it you should hop over to Amazon and order a copy of my book, “Successfully Marketing your Novel in the 21st Century.”

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Book signings – More Harm than Good?

Recently I've been trying to respond to some of the most frequently asked questions, on the theory that if one new author asked, a dozen more want to know the same thing. Here’s one on a lot of proactive author’s minds:

I've heard a lot of mass market folk say that signings are a waste of everyone's time -- too often the bookstores get annoyed because nobody (or few) turn up to the event and then the publisher gets annoyed because those bookstores send back tons of returns. These authors say... rather than promote public signings, just visit all the stores to meet the managers and staff and offer to sign stock, thus ensuring that your book gets more visibility and life in that store -- but isn't OVER ordered and then returned. You seem like you do a ton of signings... what's your experience been? What do you do other than the e-newsletter to make them successful?

IMHO, the experiences you describe are the result of everyone involved believing that a successful book signing just happens automatically. In fact, a book signing is more like a sewer: what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.

First, the author needs to convince the bookseller that he can bring a valuable event to the store. Tell her what a reasonable number is to order for your first visit. Send him posters in advance to put up. Give her bookmarks or brochures to hand out. Make him believe that you will make him money.

Now, despite my pushing my presence on social media, my newsletter, the posters and everything else, rarely does a crowd of people appear at a bookstore specifically looking for me. But people do come to the store. I ask the manager to put me front and center, the first thing incoming people see. There’s signage pointing out that there’s an author signing going on. I wear a badge that says “author, Hannibal Jones Mystery series.” And I GREET EVERY PERSON WHO COMES IN. I offer them a bookmark. I tell them that I’m doing an author signing. I ask if they read mystery novels. A lot of them stop. If this is the kind of thing they like, they take a book. If not, they still walk away with a smile just because someone said hello. Booksellers like it when you make people happy.

I introduce myself to the staff and remind them that WE are having an event that day, not just me. When someone asks where the mysteries are tell them you have an author present. When someone comes to the counter with James Patterson or Robert B. Parker in their hand tell them there’s an author right over there who writes a similar style and he’s signing his novels today.

The point is, people don’t “turn up” looking for me, but I move books out of the store and make new fans.

I’ve learned to ask how many books were ordered. At the end of a signing I always ask if they’d like me to sign a few for late-comers. Books with “autographed copy” stickers sell better. Then I ask if they intend to return any of my books. At first this always startles booksellers, as if authors shouldn’t be concerned about such things. But I generally get an honest answer. If the store has too many left I offer right than and there to come back for another event and move the rest. Then of course I point out that it would be silly to return them and then order more. This seems to work most of the time.

In my experience it is much harder to get stores to order my books if I’m not going to be there to bring attention to them. Even when I get stores across the country to order a few I still send a poster and bookmarks to help people notice my titles.

Do I get returns? Sure, and my publishers hate it. But if you’re selling lots more than come back, they won’t beat you up too badly.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Give it Away Now

Recently I've been trying to respond to some of the most frequently asked questions, on the theory that if one new author asked, a dozen more want to know the same thing. This one is a common sense questions many of us have wrestled with.

I’m updating my Web site. It’s been suggested that I post excerpts from my published essays. While selecting which graphs to run, I’m realizing that excerpts don’t hang well on their own. Then it occurred to me that I may recycle/resell the pieces. Why give it away (on my site), if I can make a few shekels? Any thoughts?

I can see both sides of this question, but I fall on the side of favoring freebies. Let’s face it, we writers give away a lot of stuff all the time – bookmarks, postcards, coasters and so forth. But seriously, have you even bought a book because of a persuasive bookmark? I do know people who have bought a book or looked for a writer’s work in magazines because they read an excerpt or a free essay they liked.

I think a strong web presence can help with sales. That means a good web site or blog you post to regularly. These things can attract readers who are interested in your subject or your style. But there has to be a reason for people to go there, return later, and refer their friends there. Well written content is the draw. And yes, you’ll find sample chapters, short stories and essays on my own web site.

Before I buy a book or magazine in a bookstore I always stand there and read a few pages. I suppose that’s a kind of free writing sample. Some writers have been very successful offering their own free samples on their web sites, blogs, e-newsletters and even posting on message boards.

Free short stories or essays on line give readers a taste of your style and hopefully will make them look for more. Make it easy for them. Make sure you add links at the bottom of your freebies to where fans can BUY your work. Make sure there’s an e-mail address where editors can contact you if they’d like to have an essay or story that matches your style and subject matter. And don’t forget to post links to your social media sites (Don’t laugh. I’ve been approached for the foreign rights to my novels on Facebook!)

I am NOT suggesting that you give away the farm here. Limit the size and number of free samples or else you’ll be competing with yourself. Just tease those readers. Remember the objective is to leave them wanting more.