Monday, March 28, 2016

Some Insights on Writing a Series

I mentioned in last week's blog post that another OTP author and I had spoken to a woman at the Tucson Festival of Books. This woman had told us that she wanted to write a book, but she wanted it to be a big hit, a one-hit-wonder, because she didn't think she had more than one book in her.

It would be wonderful for any author to be able to hit it big with just one book, especially their first book. Sadly, the days of an author living off the proceeds of a single book are pretty much over (if they ever existed in the first place!) Even though the process of getting a book published has become almost effortless, selling a book is just as difficult as ever, if not more.

One thing that helps authors find an audience is to write a series. Book series tend to attract a loyal readership and customer base, whether they are romance, historical, or mystery series. And, speaking from personal experience, series readers are quick to recommend their favorite series to their reader friends (I've discovered more series from word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and co-workers than from any other source!) So how does one go about writing a successful series?  I'll focus on mystery, since that is what my Black Horse Campground series is, and offer my own insights.

First, develop interesting, sympathetic characters that YOU, the author, like well enough to stick with for the time it takes to write the series. If the author likes their characters, it's a good bet that the readers will, too. Make characters interesting and complex enough to withstand the natural changes that occur over time and seasons and life circumstances. Don't create main characters who are so whiny and self-absorbed about their lives, no matter how "true to life" they may be, that readers will be rooting for the villain to prevail in doing away with them.

Know your story's setting, whether it exists in real life or is entirely fictional. Don't think readers won't catch inconsistencies in your setting. This also goes for other details in your story, especially the characters' ages, appearances, family history, friendships, and other minutiae that sharp-eyed readers will catch. If you mention in passing that your main character has a life-threatening peanut allergy in the first book, don't think you won't be called out by your readers if that character is noshing on Reese's pieces in book three or eating kung pao chicken in book ten.

It's okay to give a little backstory in order to explain why people are suspicious of the long-lost nephew who took over a business after the owner died in mysterious circumstances in the last book, but it's not okay to give an entire rehash of the previous book(s) to make sure the reader knows why Aunt Mary isn't speaking to the main character. A brief explanation is all that's needed without bringing the current action to a screeching halt. And keep flashback scenes to a minimum. The beauty of a series is that, if a new reader is starting with the third or fourth book and they find it interesting, they will probably want to get all the books and start from the beginning.

If you inject an element of romance into a genre, especially mysteries, make sure your characters are acting their age and not like middle-school kids (unless, of course, they ARE middle school kids!) Do not have them keep a secret from each other that reasonable adults would have no problem discussing with each other. If they have a reason for not jumping into a relationship, make it a real reason, not just because they have been wounded in the past in some way they can't (or won't) talk about. And if there is no way around these types of obstacles (because they really DO contribute to the plot down the road), don't drag it out for three or four books. Love triangles shouldn't take a dozen books to resolve. Neither should the characters engage in serial relationships with new characters in every book. Both scenarios grow tiresome after some time.

Perhaps the most important thing in a series is, don't keep the reader waiting. Or the publisher, for that matter. Series readers would like a new book once a month, but I know I can't write that fast and I also know that the traditional publishing world doesn't work that fast. Most series readers accept (grudgingly) the fact that once a year is the standard amount of time to expect the next book in a series. Never mind that George R.R. Martin went more than five years between "A Feast for Crows" and "A Dance for Dragons"... when you hit it THAT big, you can pretty much do as you damn well please. A good rule of thumb is to have the next book started while you're finishing up the current one. The storyline is fresh in your mind and, when you inevitably get distracted and slowed down by promotional work, you have something ready to work on when you do have the time to write. So don't disappoint your readers, series writers. Always be working on the next book. You already have an audience, so keep 'em happy. Your readers--and your publisher--will thank you.

And so, on to book five....

Monday, March 21, 2016

Get the Word Out! The Importance of Book Promotion

I had the privilege a few days ago of spending a delightful hour visiting with fellow mystery author, friend, and mentor, J. Michael Orenduff. Mike is the author of The Pot Thief mystery series which combines mystery, humor, and some archaeology and New Mexico history to make a rollicking good read! Mike was in Ruidoso, NM at Books, Etc. to promote his latest Pot Thief mystery, "The Pot Thief Who Studied Georgia O'Keefe" and we took some time to catch up on each other's writing endeavors.

One thing we talked about was book promotion. And this is one topic that writers share information with each other about. I related a story about one woman at the Tucson Festival of Books who spoke with me and fellow OTP author, Janet (J. L.) Greger, about how she wanted to write a book, but she wanted it to be "one big hit" because she didn't think she could write more than one book and she wanted her single book to be a huge success. Politeness kept Janet and me from laughing hysterically, but Janet finally told her it doesn't happen that way anymore.

Very few writers can make a living, let alone a lavish living, from one single book. Or a twenty book series, for that matter. Many publishers would rather have a writer with plans to write a series because they know they will have repeat buyers if the series is successful. But the cold hard truth is this: in this day and age, anyone can write a book. Not necessarily a great book or even a good book, but A book. And thanks to the boom in self-publishing (which is even available for free), anyone can get their book published, in either hard copy or electronic form. A few clicks on the computer and it's done... what once took a writer months and even years to accomplish can now be done in a matter of days.

Still, writing and publishing mean very little if your book doesn't get recognized and read... and this means promoting and selling your book. And since writers are, by their very nature, rather introverted, promoting and selling are probably the worst aspects of the entire writing process. An author has to be able to approach other people--book sellers, book promoters, and especially book buyers--and sell their books. And the author's approach has a lot to do with whether his or her books get the attention of the targeted audience. If an author can't sum up the plot in a simple sentence or two, you might not have the prospective buyer/reader's attention long enough to interest them in the entire story. Once you have the prospect's attention, make sure you can tell enough about your book and your characters to intrigue them enough to buy without giving away the whole story.

Finding a radio show that spotlights authors is another way to get the word out without actually coming out of the Bat Cave. The benefit (besides being able to meet the public in your pajamas) is that you know your audience is specifically interested in books and that the host will help direct the show in a way that helps you talk about things you might not think about in a one-on-one encounter.

Book talks, whether at a public library, a bookstore, or another venue where you can sell books, are another way to promote your work and give your prospective audience the opportunity to know the author a little better and delve more deeply into what goes into the writing process and how the author works. This works very well for a series or a stand-alone book with a specialized focus. Also, it may be easier for some authors to talk to a small group rather than an individual or a large group.

With so many new books on the market every day, it only makes sense that writers work just as hard on promoting their books as they do on writing and editing them.

Me and my "agent" getting the word out on "At the Crossroad"!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Reflections on a Book Fest--Tucson '16

For the last three years, I've been privileged--or dare I say blessed?--to have spent the second weekend of March in Tucson, Arizona, surrounded by books, authors, and book lovers of all kinds at the Tucson Festival of Books on the campus of the University of Arizona.

The first year was such a learning experience; we (fellow Oak Tree Press author, J.L. Greger and I) had a two-hour slot at an authors' pavilion tent which we shared with ten other authors... at the far end of the festival grounds, past the science pavilion, past the food court, past the live entertainment. All of us were trying to sell our books, of course, but it soon became clear that if we REALLY wanted to sell our books, we had to get off our chairs, get out from behind the table, and engage the few (very few) passersby with our book pitches. In the end, we were fairly successful--we sold a total of five books between the two of us. We actually outsold the rest of the authors at that tent.

Naturally, this did not mean that we were catapulted to the top of the New York Times best-seller list. Those sales didn't even cover our festival expenses. And, believe it or not, it did NOT discourage us from continuing to write, continuing to have our books published, and continuing to try to find more readers and make more sales.

Last year, our publisher secured a tent for us in a much better location for the entire two days of the festival. This time, the only other authors we were "competing" with for book sales were our fellow OTP authors... and we were more likely helping each other to sell our books rather than competing.

This year, we had an even BETTER location (right by the entrance--no one could miss us!) and more authors presenting their books. And sales were better than ever. Again, this does not mean that I am now able to leave my full-time job and buy a Greek island on which to write my novels (when I'm not in the states negotiating my next multi-million dollar movie rights deal.) In fact, my success can be measured in single digits. I sold NINE books. I also gave away about 200 book marks and we (my fellow authors and publisher) probably talked to about a thousand people about our books.

One almost has to be an author to understand how success is truly measured. Until one talks to a person about their book, watches them thumb through the pages and read the synopsis, sees them nod when you tell them about your book, your characters, and your story, and then hears them say, "I'll buy your book. It sounds interesting!"... until one can comprehend what that means, what that feels like, then it's hard to explain what drives an author to sit at the laptop and start working on the next book.

One book or one thousand... it all comes down to the reader.
In 2014 when it was just me and "End of the Road" in Tucson!

Monday, March 7, 2016

Riding the Wave

When I visited the California coast for the first time two years ago, I recall sitting on the beach at Carmel by the Sea, just watching the waves roll in. Over and over, I watched as what looked like a mere "bump" in the water slowly moved toward shore, gaining momentum and speed and height until it was a foaming wave that crashed onto the beach and then swept back into the water. It seemed like I would never get tired of watching that, even though it was essentially the same thing, over and over again.

To me, it was just like that at my last book launch. So much goes on under the surface of the "wave"... the months of writing, editing, polishing, correcting, re-writing, then the printing stage, and all the time there are a lot of other things going on below the surface: pre-publication promotion, advertising, lining up events and book talks, ordering promo items and generating a lot of "buzz" and pre-pub interest in the book. When the launch finally takes place, it's like the wave hitting the shore: a huge, beautiful, roaring splash.

And then it slips back into the sea. To start again.

Most people only see the splash. The roar of the wave as it approaches the beach drowns out the quiet work that goes on below the surface. The long days of writing, the countless rewrites and edits, the moments of worry and despair over how the story isn't going the way that was originally planned are all the things going on that are helping to build the wave. 

Last weekend at my launch party for "At the Crossroad", there was a lot of "splash" going on (mostly wine going into wineglasses, but....) and I think everyone enjoyed it as thoroughly as I did. But for me, it was more than just watching the waves create their own music on the sands. It was the knowledge that I had created the music, the melody, the lyrics just below the surface, during those times that the "wave" was building out in the ocean. Few people ever see what happens below the surface; only a few more even think about it or are aware of it. 

The thing that fascinates me the most, however, is how the cycle seems to repeat itself endlessly, effortlessly. Oh, I know that it's not effortless. But the effort is part of the beauty of the wave. And just as I sat on that beach and felt I could have watched those waves forever, I feel the same way about writing.

Time to catch another wave....