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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

July 2012

Day Two of Book Launch for "Left by the Side of the Road."


You know what she's thinking, don't you?  "How can it take you an entire year to write a book?  You can make a baby in less time than that. And just look at the authors on supermarket book shelves.  They have a new book almost every month. Come on, Schriber, get with the program.  Why so slow?"

Well, the truth of the matter is that it takes even longer than that.  I can't possibly write a book I'm proud of and satisfied with in a year. Here are my production figures:

A Scratch with the Rebels:  Started in 1981, revised in 1987, put away until 2002, started hunting for a publisher in 2004, and finally published in 2007. Twenty-six years is not a record, but it's close!

Beyond All Price: Started in 2006 while waiting for Scratch to hit the bookshelves; self-published in August, 2009. Three years!

The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese: Started blogging about the writing process in 2008 while finishing up Nellie's story and then kept it up while I did the research for The Road to Frogmore.  Finally had enough material for a "how-to" book in January 2012. Three and a half years!

The Road to Frogmore: Research started in 2008; will be published in October/November 2012.  Almost four years.

And there's the explanation for bringing out Left by the Side of the Road: Characters without a Novel.  I wrote the first of these little sketches during National Novel Writing Month 2010.  They've been floating around ever since without a home and without much hope that they will ever find their place in a book dedicated to them.

So here they are, in the hope that the weeping lady up there will take some small comfort in having something new to read.  Is the launch successful?  It's too early to tell, yet, but I can give you a couple of figures.  A couple of hundred people have downloaded the short stories -- enough to boost their ranking to #19 in Kindle Short Stories and #25 in Historical Fiction.  The book is still free until midnight tomorrow night, so please pass the word in case there are other desperate readers out there.

Take a Deep Breath and Add a Comma


Over the weekend, I spent some time editing articles (identities hidden)--not for content, particularly, but for the pesky little errors that make language purists throw up their hands in despair.  Does a misplaced comma matter? Well, yes it does, if it gives your reader the impression that you're not a polished (or well-edited) writer.

I understand that rules about how to use commas make you turn purple. No wonder! But instead of taking a correction as an insult, let’s see if we can make the rules easier.

Commas are a relatively recent invention. When the Romans first started writing things down, they didn’t have punctuation marks. They didn’t have spaces for that matter, or lower case letters.

SOALLTHEIRWRITINGLOOKEDLIKETHISOBVIOUSLYTHATWASA PROBLEMFORTHEPOORGUYWHOHADTOREADIT

Just as spaces showed a reader when one word stopped and another started, so commas told a reader when to breathe. They were especially welcome when sentences grew longer than “Me hungry. Kill deer.”

Some rules are pretty straight-forward.  If you start a sentence with phrases or clauses that describe or limit the main idea in some way, you need to separate that group of words from the main clause, as:
"While I was reading your book, I found myself irritated by missing commas."

If you write a sentence that has two complete ideas in it, they need to be joined by a comma and a conjunction, not just run together, as :
I walked into the room, and everybody stared at me.

On other occasions, a comma becomes necessary to make the meaning clearer. Try reading this sentence out loud: “At the grocery we bought the following items: peas and carrots and macaroni and cheese and chicken and dumplings.”
 
Obviously you need to replace some of the ands with commas, but which ones? That will depend on how many separate items appeared on the cash register tape. Did you buy peas, carrots, a box of dry macaroni, a package of cheese, a whole chicken, and some frozen dumplings for a total of six items? Or did you just buy three: peas and carrots, macaroni and cheese, and chicken and dumplings? Read the two versions aloud and listen for the places where you take a breath or at least pause.
 
Other comma rules apply to things like appositives, direct address, and restrictive versus nonrestrictive clauses. You won’t need such esoteric terms if you apply the pause rule. Consider this scenario. A fire occurred in the middle of the night at a rooming house where several men were living. Deaths resulted. How many died?

“The men who were asleep died in the fire.” (The sleepers died. The poker-players did not.) “The men, who were asleep, died in the fire.” (They were all asleep and they all died.)

Listen for the pauses. Add commas.

As an aside, academics sometimes argue over what is called the Oxford comma. That’s the one that appears before the final “and” in a series. When I read a series of terms (like pens, notebooks, pencils, and erasers), I hear a pause after pencils, so I always use the Oxford comma. In other words, I follow my own rule about hearing commas. You may, however, encounter an editor who thinks that extra comma is not only unnecessary but adds an extra expense--one likely to drag the publisher into instant bankruptcy. She will tell you that a comma takes the place of an “and”, so you never need both. My advice? Don’t waste your breath on an argument in which both sides are right. Gracefully bow out, taking your Oxford commas with you. (Because editors always win.)

RULE: A NATURAL PAUSE INDICATES THE NEED FOR A COMMA. PUT IT IN.
 

When Once a Year Is Just Not Enough

On Friday, I blogged a list of questions about self-publishing. Now, slowly, I’m trying to find the answers. One of the questions was this one: “Is it true that publishing a "book-a-year" is no longer enough? Are our readers demanding extra books, even if they are nothing more than long short stories?”
 
I’ve seen several people try to examine the assumptions behind the statement, while other authors are testing the water by issuing small volumes between their longer works or by publishing a short story here and there.  Recently author Lee Child filled a gap in his Jack Reacher series by publishing a short story in Esquire. John Grisham has published a book of short stories, called Ford Country. And Sharan Newman, one of my favorite medieval novelists, now has a book of stories out. In Death before Compline, she explains the origins of these stories, many of which have been published before, and by doing so introduces new readers to her ten Catherine LeVendeur novels.
 
It’s a fairly recent development--made easy and accessible by the proliferation of e-readers and an audience hungry for inexpensive new reading entertainment. I suspect that most authors have had readers finish one book and immediately ask, “When is the next one coming out?” This is one way to answer that demand without lecturing readers on how long it really takes to write a book or resorting to publishing dreck.
 
Once I thought about the issue without breaking into a cold sweat over how long it takes me to write something, I realized that short pieces might be the answer for me as well.  When I first started writing my next book, The Road to Frogmore, I pounded out 50,000 words, and then promptly trashed over 35,000 words because they didn’t have a whole lot to do with the story I wanted to tell.  I even wrote a blog post about it a year or so ago, in which I described “killing my darlings, “ which referred to all the minor characters whose stories I had cut out of the manuscript. Those bits and pieces were still lying around – good stories and interesting characters who simply didn’t fit.  I left them by the side of the road because they didn’t belong in this novel.
 
Until now! In my own attempt to test the idea that readers are eager for new material and will gladly pay small amounts for a quick fix from their favorite characters, I’ve put together a small volume of stories and character sketches, meant to fill the gap between Beyond All Price and The Road to Frogmore.
 
All of these interesting people may some day become main characters in novels of their own. But for now, they serve two purposes. Through their observations and experiences they shed additional light on what life was really like during the Civil War. And more important, they form bridges between the stories I have already told and those that are yet to come. I hope some of you will enjoy Left by the Side of the Road: Characters without a Novel. You can get the e-book free for three days, starting tomorrow, Tuesday, July 24, at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008K32SZ4
 

One Man's Victor Is Another Man's Thief

In recognition of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, "Civil War-Era Memories" features excerpts from The Memphis Daily Appeal of 150 years ago.

July 17, 1862

Memphis is quiet, very quiet — more so than it has been for many months; the military police proving here, as in all countries where it is used, a real social blessing. The midnight brawl, the drunken assassination, the causeless fiery fight, the drunken orgy, the brothel news, and [the] thousand ills Memphis was heir to, have ceased to disgrace the city. (This excerpt appeared in the Memphis Union Appeal, published by Union troops in the former offices of the Memphis Daily Appeal, which had moved to Grenada, MS.)

GRENADA, Miss. — The thief who has appropriated our office and material for the publication of an abolition organ in Memphis will not, as we feared, do us harm by appropriating our name. Those who have perused the Appeal of days gone by will soon learn, from the columns of the bogus sheet, that is a counterfeit.

July 19, 1862

THE VICTORY AT MURFREESBORO! Gen. Forrest's dispatch states that he has captured twelve hundred prisoners, including two brigadier-generals, four cannon, and destroyed stores worth half a million.

July 21, 1862

Gen. W.T. Sherman's division, which has been camped along the road from Corinth to Memphis, has marched to the outskirts of the city and General Sherman is preparing to take over command of Memphis.

July 22, 1862 In the abolition organ (the Memphis Union Appeal) we find the following peremptory decree from the new commander, which will, of course, be enforced, at the point of the bayonet if necessary: If any person within the limits of said city shall hereafter publish, speak, or utter seditions or treasonable language toward the government of the United States, the provost marshal shall, upon proof of the fact, banish every person so offending, to the State of Arkansas. By order of Alvin P. Hovey, Brigadier-General commanding.

Compiled by Rosemary Nelms and Jan Smith, The Commercial Appeal News Library

8 Questions for the Publishing World

I've been reading and posting a lot lately about the future of publishing.  The most recent is an article in Forbes Magazine, which gives thumbs up to Amazon, Harvard Business Publishing, and hybrid self-publishing companies, while predicting that traditional publishers will fade away and the written word will go online in shorter ebooks.  (Read the
here.)

For authors, it's an exciting time and a terrifying one.  Unlike the publishing model I first experienced in the 80s, where all I had to do was write the book and give it away to the publisher, now I'm facing all kinds of decisions, any one of which could make or break me as an author.  So, this morning,  when Amazon e-mailed me a new list of books on publishing they thought I'd be interested in reading, I simply shuddered and deleted them all.

it's time to ask some important questions and find some answers through personal experience.

1. Does offering free copies of e-books for a few days really spark sales and boost the book's rankings?

2. What about the relatively new Kindle Select program? Will people really "borrow" books that they could buy for a couple of bucks?

3. What are the consequences of giving Amazon exclusive sales rights over a new book?

4. Does Barnes and Noble offer any marketing advantages to the authors whose books they sell? And if so, why don' we hear about them?

5. Is it true that publishing a "book-a-year" is no longer enough? Are our readers demanding extra books, even if they are nothing more than long short stories?

6. What about serious works of non-fiction? How are the few daring academics who have chosen to self-publish their dissertations faring?  Is there an untapped academic market out there?

7. What about out-of-print books, which an author can re-issue in trade paper if the original publisher will return the author's rights?

8. How effective is the new ploy of re-issuing "old" books (i.e., those that are no longer selling well) with a newly revised title and eye-catching new cover?

I'll be starting my research next week.  I have just released on Amazon Select, a small volume of short stories designed to serve as a connection between my last book, Beyond All Price, and my upcoming book, The Road to Frogmore.  Starting on Tuesday, July 24 and extending through Thursday, July 26, Left by the Side of the Road: Characters without a Novel will be available as a free Kindle download. How well will it do? What will happen to its ratings because of free downloads? And will that nudge carry over and result in actual cash sales once the promotion is over?  What do you think?