You Can Help the Authors and Books You Love

You Can Help the Authors and Books You Love!

Raymond Chandler, Philip Marlowe, Humphrey Bogart
(art: wikimedia.org)

Friends and family members can be incredibly patient when they ask an author in their circle solicitous and innocent-sounding questions—like “How’s the book coming?”—and are met with blank looks, or, worse, groans and sighs.

Most authors today—OK, James Patterson’s an exception, and so’s JK Rowling—find that reaching “The End” is just the beginning of their work. Now they have to let the world know about it.  

If you have a sense of how much time and effort authors invest in their books, maybe you’ve wondered “What can I do? How can I help?” Yes, indeed, there are things you can do that will help! And, whatever you find time to do, you can be sure it will be greatly appreciated!

Ten ways you can help promote an author or book you admire:

  1. Buy the books! The author may have written it with readers like you in mind.
  2. Don’t be too quick to pass around a book; instead, encourage others to buy it. Amazon, or book stores, and the author’s publisher keep most of the price of the book. If a book sells for $16, the author receives $2 to $4.
  3. Remember, books make great gifts! Maybe a friend or family member needs a thank-you or has a special day coming up.
  4. Word of mouth is the most powerful form of book marketing. So, tell people about a book you’ve loved.
  5. What you say about the book in an Amazon or Barnes & Noble review will influence other would-be purchasers. No need for cringy flashbacks to high school book reports. Just say the two or three things you’d tell a good friend who asked, “Read any good books lately?”
  6. Share a few words about what you’re reading on social media—GoodReads, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.
  7. If you enjoyed a book, your book club might too! Many authors are willing to participate in book club discussions in person or by Zoom, etc.
  8. You can “follow” your favorite authors on Amazon. Search for one of their books, click on the author’s name, and their author page will come up.
  9. If your author has a newsletter, sign up! Author newsletters often include interviews, reviews, and favorites.
  10. An author’s blog and website are another way to keep track of their new releases and to learn more about them.

Many thanks, and happy reading!

Rules for Writing Fiction – Part 2

draft

The Guardian’s intrepid pursuit of writers in their dens produced yet more fiction-writing “rules.” Such lists are excellent for those–surely rare–times when you really don’t want to write, but feel you should be Doing Something related to your work-in-progress. If nothing else, you can assess how many rules you’ve broken already.

Some of these are helpful, some insightful, and a few may bring a chuckle. Last week’s Part 1 is here. [My comments in brackets.]

  1. Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant (Hilary Mantel). Later she says “you can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.” ! [I suppose by freeing herself of the tedium of arithmetic and spreadsheets, she has more time to engage in her preferred character-development strategy: having imaginary interviews with them. Would have loved to be a fly on the wall for her conversations with T. Cromwell.]
  2. Description must work for its place (in your story). It can’t be simply ornamental (Hilary Mantel).
  3. Find an author you admire and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters (Michael Moorcock). [So crazy, it just might work!]
  4. Think with your senses as well as your brain (Andrew Motion).
  5. Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader”—there may be one, but he/she is reading someone else (Joyce Carol Oates).
  6. To ensure that you proceed slowly, write by hand (Annie Proulx)[I do this sometimes when I’m stuck.]
  7. The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can’t deal with this you needn’t apply (Will Self).
  8. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else (Zadie Smith).
  9. Stay in your mental pyjamas all day (Colm Tóibín).
  10. If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane (Colm Tóibín).
  11. In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it (Rose Tremain) [A useful defense for us pantsers.]
  12. Respect your characters, even the minor ones. In art, as in life, everyone is the hero of their own particular story; it is worth thinking about what your minor characters’ stories are, even though they may intersect only slightly with your protagonist’s (Sarah Waters).

Now, get out there and break a few rules!

“Rules” for Writing Fiction – Part 1

Some years ago, The Guardian newspaper collected “Rules for Writing Fiction” from numerous authors, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s famous “Ten Rules.” Some of them made me laugh or at least chuckle appreciatively (note how I just violated Leonard’s Rule #4—no adverbs!).

  1. Never open a book with weather. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. (Elmore Leonard)(And see this)
  2. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting. (Margaret Atwood)
  3. Ask a reading friend or two to look at your book before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up. (Margaret Atwood)
  4. Do not place a photograph of your favorite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide. (Roddy Doyle)
  5. Do feel anxiety – it’s the job. (Roddy Doyle)
  6. Listen to what you have written. A dud rhythm in a passage of dialogue may show that you don’t yet understand the characters well enough to write in their voices. (Helen Dunmore)
  7. Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand. (Anne Enright)
  8. Try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself. (Richard Ford)
  9. The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator. (Jonathan Franzen)
  10. Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too. (Esther Freud)
  11. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. (Neil Gaiman) (Or, as I used to say about my writing group, they were super at diagnosis, but not so good at treatment.)
  12. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it. (PD James)

Next week – More Rules!

Met Your Metaphor?

In his July “language lounge” column for Visual Thesaurus, lexicographer Orin Hargraves dives in the deep and sometimes murky sea of metaphor. To get us in the mood for the topic, he cites the opening lines of Alfred Noyes’s poem, “The Highwayman.”

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor.

Each of those lines, even though they combine unlike things are easy to picture. As Hargraves says, metaphors are fundamental to “how we make sense of the world and how we integrate new information with things we already know.” We take some aspect of one domain (darkness, sea, ribbon) and apply it to another thing: wind, moon, road. With a well-constructed metaphor, we know almost instantly what aspects of darkness, sea, and ribbon we should apply, ignoring their many other attributes.

Seeing life as a journey is such a prevalent idea, we probably don’t usually perceive it as a metaphor at all. Think of common phrases like: the hero’s journey; the road not taken; a trip to nowhere (waste of time); his first marriage was a detour; on the right path; choosing a hard road; got off on the wrong foot; they crossed paths with . . .; “we’re on the road to romance” (Sinatra). Scholars Lakoff and Johnson believe that metaphors are essentially conceptual and coming up with the language to express them, as in the preceding examples, is secondary. We make inferences from these concepts and guide our lives according to the metaphors that derive from them (“just putting one foot in front of the other”).

But that’s a bit abstract. Hargraves focuses on a particular type of metaphor that most reminds me of a Hollywood pitch session. His examples: Twin Peaks meets Doctor Who; Le Corbusier meets Flash Gordon. Such metaphors assume a broadly shared cultural context between the speaker/writer and the hearer/reader. I assure you that any metaphor where one of the noun phrases referred to a hip-hop star would sail right over my head. Unless the audience can sift out what aspects of the two nouns are being compared, the metaphor doesn’t work on its own.

Hargraves gives an example from fiction (source not named) of what could have been an obscure pairing, but the writer explains it sufficiently to make it work:

“So what do you want in a man?”
“Butch. Beautiful. Brilliant. Captain America meets Albert Schweitzer. Spends all day dashing into (the) fray while making the world safe for democracy. At night, playing Bach cantatas while curing cancer.”

I know next-to nothing about Captain America, but with that explanation, I get it.

For Your Bookshelf
Metaphors We Live By – George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Reading Lesson: Bonnar Spring’s Disappeared

Bonnar Spring’s new thriller, Disappeared, is without doubt an exciting read, a heady combination of romance and menace. Romance, that is, in the “heroic and marvelous deeds” definition, not the “falling in love” one.

American sisters Julie and Fay, both adults and married, are together in Morocco for a girls’ getaway. Fay suggested it, in fact, insisted upon it. In Ouarzazate, she slips away on a mysterious errand. She leaves Julie a note explaining that she’s visiting a distant village, she cannot say why, and will be back in two days. But she doesn’t return. Julie vacillates between anger at Fay for having a hidden agenda for the trip and worrying herself sick. With no help from the US Consulate, and with the barest clues to go on, she sets out to find her sister.

In unraveling the reasons this book appealed to me so (aside from the confident, skillful, and evocative writing, which I don’t for a minute discount), I hit upon several.

First, the setting is somewhere a little mysterious, more exotic than, say, central London. It’s a place where there are unknown possibilities, where the outcome of situations is unpredictable (deftly exploited by the trailers for the new Ralph Fiennes/Jessica Chastain movie, The Forgiven). I’ve visited Morocco twice myself and both times felt my senses overwhelmed by so much—so much strangeness, so much to look at, smell, and taste, so many new sounds. Even in a metaphorically far country, Ouarzazate is even farther, located on the opposite side of the Atlas Mountains from the more cosmopolitan cities of Marrakesh, Casablanca, and Rabat. It’s back of beyond country, the gateway to the Sahara.

The setting teems with inherent dangers. The general ones that face a woman alone in Morocco’s southern and rural areas, where women are typically veiled and isolated. And the specific ones linked to Fay’s strange disappearance, as well as the bad advice Julie sometimes receives. Whom can she trust? The safeguards we take for granted—including social norms, charitable institutions, people we can ask for help—are simply not there. Unease operates at multiple levels.

Another source of the book’s appeal is the search for the sister itself. Looking for a missing sibling is a believable quest, one Julie is totally dedicated to. The story—her story—never loses its strong sense of mission.

Finally, there’s the complete unpredictability that’s part-and-parcel of any standalone thriller. For me, a good bit of a story’s tension is dissipated knowing protagonists will live to see another book. It takes the edge off the dangers they face. I know other readers are drawn to series—especially as they’ve become attached to or self-identified with a protagonist. Perhaps the attraction is partly because the tension is more manageable. In a one-off, anything can happen. And sometimes does.

Reading Lessons: Conversation

I recently read Gary Phillips’s One-Shot Harry, which I snagged with a successfully bid in the Authors United for Ukraine literary auction. Phillips is a Los Angeles-based Black author of twenty-two books, but this is the first I’ve read.

What most struck me about this book, set in 1963, was the dialog. Phillips’s characters speak in a remarkably engaging way. Yes, they’re Black and maybe their families originally were from the southern states, and some influences on their speech may be cultural. Having read some really boring dialog in my time (and written some), their talk was really fun.

My mother, born and raised in rural and small-town Texas, also spoke in a colorful way. She had a saying for everything. As a young person, I thought this way of speaking was much too countrified and worked hard to excise it from my own speech—going for bland, a bad choice. But, as I grow older, I find these long-forgotten words and idioms cropping up again. What do you call a baby or cat’s toy? A play-pretty.

Authors like to show their characters doing everyday things, perhaps in the hope that because going to the grocery store, putting in a load of laundry, and filling the tank with gas are tasks everyone does, readers can relate to them. But these quotidian activities are, let’s face it, mostly boring. What makes them interesting enough to put in a book is how the character feels about them and how they describe them. If Mercedes dreads the grocery store because one of the produce workers always manages to brush up against her, or if doing the laundry reminds her of the time the dye from a new red t-shirt turned all her husband’s underwear pink and he hit her for it, then it’s getting more interesting. What’s more, none of these tasks needs to be talked about in a ho-hum way.

Here’s an exchange as I might write it:
“I’m a substitute math teacher. But I’m working in the Bradley campaign more these days.”
“What’s math got to do with it?
“I look for patterns, where to find likely voters, based on their interests and affiliations.”
“You can figure all that out?”
“Sure.”

Here’s how Phillips did it:
“I’m a substitute teacher. I teach algebra and geometry in high schools and at a couple of community colleges [note how the specifics add realism]. But I’m doing more of the Bradley kind of work these days.”
“How does the math work in that situation?”
“I look for the patterns to develop profiles. Frequency of voters in an area—break it down by those who attend church, got to PTA meetings and so on [more specifics]. It’s boring shop talk, but you asked.”
“No, I’m digging it [toss in some slang]. You break down how segments of the voters vote?”
“Exactly. Ultimately, what excites them to come out and vote. Now them cigar-smoking white fellas overseeing the state Democratic Party figure just running a negro candidate is enough to get colored people to the polls [her attitude toward the politicos]. Which admittedly is accurate to an extent.”

The effect of Phillips’s richer conversation is additive, not easily summed up in a specific example. But if your character thinks going to the gas station is going to use up too much of his cash and prevent him from taking his wife out for dinner, maybe he’d say more than “Going to the Sunoco.” Maybe he’d say, “Gotta fill up the damn tank again and turn over my Saturday night supper money to those profit-squeezing vampires at Rich Oil Company.”

Order One-Shot Harry from Amazon here.

Staying Afloat in the Sea of Competition

If you read the advice to authors about what they need to do to promote their books (since publishers don’t do that anymore—you cynics will say, “along with proofreading”), the number of tasks can seem like a mountain too high to climb. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, TikTok, email newsletter, book tour, readings, special events, blog tour, web sites, in-store promotions, yada-yada-yada. Platform! It’s exhausting to think about.

As publication day for my mystery-thriller approached, I decided to do what I can reasonably do and not regret the hundreds of tasks I’ll never get to. I’ve had my own website and blog for a decade. I promote my posts on Facebook and Twitter. Those are activities I knew I could continue. I could also revive my quarterly email newsletter.

Another multi-year investment has been tracking various associations of crime writers—the meetings of Killer Nashville, Mystery Writers of America, our local New Jersey get-together Deadly Ink, the rich resources of Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers. Of course, in many of these interactions, I mostly meet other writers, not necessarily future readers. (They all have their own books to promote!) But if the workshops and the rubbing of elbows with my fellow authors helps me write a better book, that’s all to the good. And their advice and support and collegiality is invaluable. I can continue all that, gladly.

My daughter says I have many tribes—my writing tribe, my genealogy tribe, my theater tribe, my ballroom dance tribe (you weren’t expecting that one, were you!), my women’s club, my tribe from the World of Work, and more. Fifty-five delegates from these tribes came together June 8 for Architect of Courage’s launch party. Certainly, I’m capable of a party!

I also employed the tried-and-true problem-solver: throw money at it. I bought a few targeted ads and signed up for a Partners in Crime Tour of blogs, which has arranged showcases and reviews for me with fifteen book-related blogs. I purchased Atticus (text formatting) and Canva (graphics) software to create ads and flyers that I’ve distributed. Learning how to use both programs plus ConvertKit (email newsletter software) in the same week was a bit of process overload. But I can use those new skills again.

I’ve been Pennsylvania. Members of the writing group that met around my dining table for almost fifteen years (until covid) gave readings of our work twice a year, so I’ve had a lot of practice. So this was also quite doable. Two book groups I’ve connected with have put my novel on their agenda.

The list of possible promotion activities is pretty much endless, and I’ll continue to pick and choose the ones that (for me) are both doable and fun. Ultimately, whether the book will survive in the rough waters of the Sea of Competition will depend on its appeal, but that ship has sailed.

Where Story Ideas Come From: Picking a Time Period

Sherlock Holmes, detective

Knowing how much research I have to do to write a story in the near-present, the thought of writing historical fiction overwhelms me. Ditto, science fiction set in the future. I can’t imagine how much cross-disciplinary science a provocative author like Neal Stephenson knows, in order to construct a plausible future to frame his compelling plots. My head spins.

Writing in the current time also has challenges, of course. When cell phones first became ubiquitous, some authors tried to ignore this massive social change and offered plots that could easily have been resolved and tragedies averted with a quick phone call. We seem to be beyond that problem. A few authors get around it by setting their stories in the past—even the way past—which accomplishes many things, one of which is making it harder and slower for characters to travel from one place to another and to communicate.  

My novel Architect of Courage, coming out June 4 (pre-order link here), is set in the summer of 2011. The ten-year anniversary of 9/11 was approaching, and my plot is tied to it. In real life, the authorities are on high alert when any significant anniversary is looming that might incite anti-government or anti-American actions: Ruby Ridge, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, Texas, are examples. The biggest of all: 9/11. This made it plausible for the Joint Terrorism Task Force members in the novel to be hypersensitive about the possibility of a terrorist infiltrating the architectural firm at the center of the story.

Even though I cannot imagine tackling a whole historical novel, I have written three short stories that are Sherlock Holmes pastiches. These weren’t the result of any special knowledge I have about the period (except as a reader of Conan Doyle), but in response to the publishers’ solicitations. We know a lot about the late 1800s and the Victorian era, thanks to television and the movies. As a result, establishing a common understanding with readers is quite doable.

For one of these stories, the research was actually rather simple (fun too). It’s set in 1884, around the time Queen Victoria’s adult son Leopold, who had hemophilia, died from the effects of that condition. I have several biographies of the Queen on my bookshelf, and was able to find out how much people of the era knew about the heritability of the disease. Potentially damaging rumors abounded as cases appeared among her descendants. These were useful in the plot.

It was also easy to find old newspaper accounts of Leopold’s funeral, which provided vivid detail. I had Dr. John Watson attend the ceremony, and some of these details appear as his observations. Even the 1880s were not free of the fear of terrorism, due to mounting pressure for Irish Home Rule—another plot point. Again, the precise time chosen presented specific story opportunities

But going back further in time? I’ll leave that to the excellent authors of historical fiction.

Talking Funny

Language Lounge is a monthly column for word-lovers, and writers seem automatic members of that tribe.  I access the column through Visual Thesaurus, which is a graphical thesaurus that creates a network of word similarities, rather than a list, and helps in finding that word that’s ever-so-slightly out of reach.

The columnist, Orin Hargraves, this month talks about discourse markers (a new one on me), which help writers create and readers follow the flow of a narrative. As he describes them, “they’re linguistic signposts to indicate the direction they are taking or to clue up their audience about how something should be taken.” Perhaps the most obvious example is a negative one. How many times in the truncated communication environment of social media has one of your comments been completely misconstrued? Jokes and sarcasm, especially, are easily misunderstood. At least my jokes are. Why I insert a {ha!} at the end.

Examples of discourse markers he provides include “of course,” which indicate the writer (or speaker) knows the audience probably already understands the next bit. Of course you do. Writers (or speakers) can signal that what’s coming is an opinion with a discourse marker like “In my mind,” or “I think.” I knew someone who liberally used phrases like “To be honest,” or “Candidly.” It took me a while to catch onto the fact that whatever followed was likely an untruth. So, in a perverse way, his usage was actually quite helpful. Similarly, “With all due respect” usually signals an impending insult.

In particular, Hargreaves focused on the word “funny,” as in “Funny you should say that,” or “funnily enough,” when what follows is unlikely to be funny (ha-ha) at all. Nor is it “odd” or “peculiar,” which funny, by extension, sometimes means. What this discourse marker seems to signal is, “I’m about to say something that doesn’t exactly follow what you just said, but is somehow related to it.” Like this:

Joe: “I really hate broccoli.”

Jane: “Funny you should mention it. I feel the same about peas.” Nothing to do with broccoli at all, but related to the larger category, cringy foods.

Hargraves says people use a great many “funny” signals:

  • “that’s funny,” preceding an observation the speaker finds remarkable or unusual. (“That’s funny, I could swear I left my keys on the counter.”)
  • “funny enough” introducing a slight or suspicious coincidence (“The body was in the alley and, funny enough, in the exact place the psychic said it would be.”)
  • “funny how” about things not funny at all (“Ain’t it funny how time slips away.”)
  • “it’s funny to” introducing something unexpected (“It’s funny to picture them searching for that missing gun, while I had it all along.”)

When a character’s conversation is taking an unexpected turn, you can keep readers (and hearers) on track if you send a funny signal.

Where Story Ideas Come From: Why Courage?

I didn’t set out to write a book about courage. In fact I was probably on a second or third draft, pestering myself with questions like, “what am I really trying to say?” “why might readers find this book not just entertaining but meaningful?” “do I find it meaningful and why?” i’m not a writer who can dash off several books a year; I have to think about them a while. And thinking about these questions, I finally realized I was missing an easy opportunity to express what it is about, without having to pen a preachy narration.

In the opening pages of my new book, Architect of Courage, Manhattan architect Archer Landis discovers his lover has been murdered. He’s afraid of the fallout if he’s caught in her apartment, and without considering the implications, he delays calling the police. Instead, he hastily returns to the business dinner he’d left not long before, determined to make the call from there. Alas, circumstances prevent it. What had he been thinking?

The dinner is to celebrate the important award one of his best friends is receiving and now he has to sit through it. The friend, Phil Prinz, takes this speaking opportunity to talk about courage. Now, we’ve all been to dinners where the speaker rambles on about some high-flown topic, and we’ve occasionally been pleasantly surprised to hear some nuggets worth remembering. Phil chose a worthy topic, but he’s no orator.

Still he breaks the topic down in an elegant way, describing four kinds of courage (briefly in the novel): physical courage, you know what that is; mental courage, when people dare to think in new ways; emotional courage, when they put their feelings on the line; and moral courage, when they do the right thing simply because it’s right. Landis doesn’t spend a lot of time then or later reflecting on Phil’s remarks—he’s too upset about what happened earlier in the evening. But I hope I’ve planted a seed for readers so they recognize that, despite his early failure, Landis displays all of four types of courage before the story ends. But if all you’re looking for is a lively adventure, there’s that too.

Available from Amazon on preorder!