Sunday, December 30, 2018

Is Your Fiction Literary?

At Intrigue Publishing we handle pretty specific genres of fiction: crime fiction in all its forms, Young Adult (or you might say New Adult) and romance. We’re clear in our submission guidelines that we do not publish literary fiction. And yet, we regularly receive submissions that fall into that category. I’ve decided that maybe different writers mean different things when they discuss those categories. “There’s a murder in my story” does not automatically mean it’s right for us. After all, To Kill A Mockingbird is definitely crime fiction, but it is also clearly literary work.

So, how do you know if your books is actually literary fiction? Here are three or four clues to look for.

Literary fiction tends to deal with broad ideas and big events. If you’re working more with the ideals an themes than day-to-day action, you’re probably working on something too literary for us. Sweeping social commentary about life in the Middle East? Probably literary. A story about a specific romance or an action-packed story about events impacting a couple of individuals trying to escape a terrorist attack? That’s more likely in our wheelhouse.

Pacing is also a clear giveaway. Genre fiction moves quickly from one plot point to the next. The entire story tends to take place over a fairly short period of time. So if your story takes place over generations, and you have a hard time pinning down the plot points, it may be too literary for us. Big romance may be an exception to this rule, but we also don’t want books over 100,000 words so they’d be cut out anyway.

The biggest difference may be that genre fiction is more plot driven, as opposed to character driven. A literary novel could be all about ideas, philosophies and themes. Genre novels are driven by the events.  So ask yourself, how does the reader learn about my main characters? Is it through introspection and inner monologue? If so, you’re building a literary novel. If you learn about these people by watching what they do, the actions they take, the decisions they make, then you’re in the genre track.

So create strong characters, but force them into interesting, challenging events and keep the pace up! Then you’re ready to submit to Intrigue.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Writing Holiday

For many of us, writing is a discipline. We get up every day with a clear plan to write for a specified amount of time, or to add a predetermined number of words to our work in progress. And we have a sense that to make any kind of progress, it needs to happen every day of our lives.

But what happens at the time of the most popular holidays. In my house Christmas is a time when family members abandon their normal daily routines entirely and gather together for group activities. This could mean board games, watching specific movies together, or entertaining other people’s kids. Shopping, cleaning, and cooking take up more time than usual. So how do we get our writing done.

I’m unwilling to abandon my writing impulses just because of family gatherings. But I have choose to rearrange my plans for two weeks every year. Instead of crafting new paragraphs I designate this time for gathering the raw material from which I will craft the paragraphs of the future.

Great fiction needs great characters. If you’re surrounded by my family, and probably yours, you’re drowning in them. So I try to be in it, but not of it, if you know what I mean. I observe their behavior, their reactions to situations, and silently try to describe them in words. How would I tell someone of this facial expression. I know he looks disappointed / joyful / grateful / bored… but what words would I use to describe that look in my book. Plus, I register how people dress, hairstyles, accents, all the attributes good characters will have in my next novel.

I’m also capturing dialog. Different people use phrases and sentence structures I would not, but everyone understands them. I get to hear people using baby talk to the grandbabies, and speaking in a very different way to the oldest relatives.

And drama? There’s no end to it, and I get to see how those tense situations get started, even among loved ones, and how they get resolved. People in my fiction will find themselves in these situations too, and now I can express it realistically.

So yes, I’m still working at being a writer, even in the chaos of Christmas morning. By mentally recording these experiences, I improve my craft, even if I’m not actively writing.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Fall and Rise of Independent Bookstores

When  appeared in the mid 1990s I thought it would be the salvation of all authors. Bookstores in my area had little use for local authors and like the major publishers, seemed to only be chasing the blockbusters. In fact bookstores and big publishers seemed to be presenting a united front against local, unique or mid-list authors. Amazon appeared to be a force to level the playing field.

By the turn of the century, I feared that Amazon would be the death of all bookstores. People loved the new way to shop for books, prices were great, and ebooks were available for 99 cents or free. I watched many of the local independent bookstores that wouldn’t carry my books go under. According to the American Booksellers Association (ABA) the number of independent bookstores in the US dropped 43% from 1995 to 2000.

Then, in 2011, the number 2 book chain, Borders, collapsed, and number one, Barnes and Noble, appeared to be on the ropes. I feared the death of retail book selling.

But boy was I wrong. Right about that time, independent bookstores began to grow. Between 2009 and 2015 the store numbers in the US grew from 1651 to 2227, about 35%. Today the ABA reports 2407 locations, making it more like 50% growth since 2009.

One read of those statistics could be that Amazon wasn’t the danger at all, but rather that giants like Borders and Barnes and Noble were crushing the smaller brick and mortar stores.  Maybe browsers who can’t find a store in the mall and don’t live near one of the few remaining B & N superstores have rediscovered smaller stores.

OR, maybe the owners of all those new stores have a different attitude. Independent bookstores I know are working to stress their ties to the local community, emphasizing how they are NOT like Barnes and Noble.

In that vein, they are curating their collections the way libraries do, offering personalized service to their customers by carrying the books their local readers want to read. Instead of just pushing the New York Times bestsellers, they are developing relationships with their customers so they can recommend what those individuals might want, particularly new writers customers haven’t found on their own.

I also notice that the “buy something or move on” attitude I used to see has been replaced with a “hang out here” mentality. To my delight they are hosting local author book signings. Some are also hosting book clubs and lectures, game nights, and reading groups for different ages. They are more of a public gathering place, replacing the bowling alley or skating rink some of us older guys remember as the place to meet our peeps.

Regardless of whether either of my theories is right, independent bookstores are back and that’s good news for up-and-coming writers, as well as for small presses like Intrigue Publishing who want to get their books on store shelves. So we have one thing to celebrate as this year winds up. The next challenge is to find the best way to take advantage of this good news in the new year.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Marketing as you Write

When I sit down to write a novel my mind is on plot structure, character development, pacing and dialog. Still, it would be smart to consider marketing even as we create our stories. It can help a lot after we finish a manuscript. 

For example, most stories can have a seasonal setting. For example, suppose your story is set in the Christmas season. Die Hard isn’t a holiday movie by any means, but because of the seasonal setting it gets a viewing boost every year about this time. The same could happen to your novel’s sales. That one might be obvious, but the same applies to a story set on Memorial Day, Independence Day, Valentine’s or even if the action is specifically set in mid-summer. 

What if your significant character is handicapped in some way? Or maybe he or she is dealing with a significant illness like epilepsy or autism? Real life reader dealing with those situations are one specific audience you can target and, if you got it right, they will probably be happy to help you promote your book. Or maybe your heroine is dealing with spousal abuse. You probably had to do a lot of research to get those situations right. It’s reasonable to push your book in April (Sexual Abuse Awareness Month.)  What if you’re writing about a military family. You can tie in to Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day and depending on your characters, perhaps Military Spouse Appreciation Day (its May 10th.)

And there are any number of minor holidays that you’ve never heard of. Google what you need and you’ll probably find something that relates to your characters. My own private eye protagonist, Hannibal Jones, is a fanatical coffee aficionado. Next year I’m planning a big push connected to International Coffee Day (September 29).  

While you’re at it, think of other ways you could bring your characters to life. There are ideas that aren’t tied to a particular time or date. Is there a wedding in your book? Maybe wedding boards on Pinterest will get some attention. Is there a birth? You could have fun with a gender reveal. Maybe you’d enjoy interviewing some of your characters. Again, Hannibal Jones maintained a blog for a year, and I think that posts written  by him got people involved with the character.  

So stretch your imagination while you’re writing. In the back of your mind, consider what you can set up in the novel that will make promotion easier when the book comes out.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Little Big Press

Aside from being an author, I’m the editorial director of Intrigue Publishing, a small press in Maryland. Unlike bars, restaurants and car dealerships, people in our business make a clear distinction between “large” and “small” presses. It’s an uncomfortable but unavoidable label.

But what do we mean by small press anyway? To some people in the industry, it’s everyone except the “Big Six” publishers.  Actually, they’re the big five now since Penguin Books merged with Random House. Their peers are Macmillan, Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster.

But is that a fair place to draw the line? Kensington Publishing is a family run company, but they put out more than 500 titles a year and have a healthy handful of NY Times bestsellers in their stable. They have 85 employees and are the last remaining independent U.S. publisher of hardcover, trade AND mass market paperback books. Are they a small press?  

By contrast, Intrigue Publishing is a four-person team that subcontracts some of the work of publishing. We have 21 talented authors working with us and are happy to release 6 titles each year. We are proud of the awards our authors have won, but we haven’t published a NY Times Bestseller yet. We aspire to do what the big guys do in order to be a legitimate publishing company, yet we strive to maintain a personal relationship with our writers and be an author friendly house like a small business.

So, running a small press is a one-way path to an identity crisis.

For example, when one of our authors gets ambitious and schedules a few events on their own without telling me, I’m happy for his or her success but I’m also thinking, “Wish I had known so I could set up a social media push. And don’t they know I need to coordinate with my distributor to make sure there are enough books in the right places in time?” In other words, I wish they treated us like partners.

On the other hand, when one of our authors asks for data on where his books have been sent, who has them in stock, and which stores have returned them, I think, “Would he be asking his editors this stuff if he was published by Random House?” In other words, I with they would treat me like a big publisher.

So, yes, an identity crisis, because we really want to be both things: a publisher that acts, and gets treated like, the big boys, while embracing our authors and treating them like individual who can talk to us anytime about anything. And in my heart, I hope I never stop reaching for both ends of that spectrum. Random House/Penguin is not who I want to be.

Although it wouldn’t bother me to be Kensington someday.