"Roundheads and Ramblings"
A lot of writers recently seem to be worrying about getting
reviews and other kinds of publicity for their new books. Since the revelations about paid reviews and
Amazon’s over-the-top reaction of taking down reviews written by “competing”
authors, not many writers I know are willing to pay a professional
review-writing fee. Others are similarly
suspicious of those sites that offer
little revolving ads on Facebook, or Yahoo, or other frequently-visited pages.
So what’s a writer to do? We know that books don’t sell
themselves. Thousands of new books
appear every day, and it’s all too easy to get lost in the thickets. A book
that appears on Amazon does not automatically generate talk, book sales, and
raving reviews. The pundits tell us that
“word-of-mouth” generates the most interest.
But how do we start people talking?
How do we help a new book catch
the attention of readers, if not with ads or reviews?
One solution? Start
locally and hope the ripples spread. Ah,
but starting at the local level is not as easy as it sounds, is it? Living in a
small town might help. If you’re the only author in town, your neighbors may
get excited about your new book. But in
a big city? Not so much! I’ve had no luck getting local signings or
book talks in Memphis, outside of my own college campus. There are just too many writers here. After all, the city that was home to Shelby
Foote just aren’t much interested in some unknown writing about the Civil War.
What to do? If I had the definitive answer to those questions,
I’d be wealthy – and obviously I’m not.
But I have learned to value one small avenue to “getting the word out”
without paying for a review or paying for advertising. Find a small audience and let them do the
word-of-mouth for you. Start by offering
to do a talk to an open-ended group of people who have a reason to be interested in your
book. Check with the local library to
see if they happen to be celebrating some holiday that can be tied to your
book. Do they have a writing group who
might be interested in your route to publication? Do they provide meeting space
for a book club to whom you could talk about how to review a book?
Then, it is reasonable – and valuable – to make sure that
any venue where you are going to speak makes an effort to publicize your
appearance – and the earlier the better. Here’s my most recent example. Women’s History Month is coming up in March,
and many libraries will be celebrating it.
Since I tend to write about unknown but extraordinary women, I arranged
to be in Hilton Head, SC, for a week during March, and I let the local
librarians know last fall that I would be available to talk about my most
recent heroine, who just happened to be from their local area. Within a couple of weeks I had scheduled a
book talk on St. Helena Island, where Laura Towne lived and established her
school for former slaves. And from there, I simply sat back and let their
publicity people do the rest.
Yesterday I received a copy of the Beaufort County Library’s
January Newsletter, and there, featured prominently, was this announcement:
Author Talk: “The Road to Frogmore”
St. Helena Branch
Carolyn Schriber will speak on her recent novel, “The Road to Frogmore:
Slaves into Citizens,” which tells the story of Laura Towne and the founding of
Books will be available for purchase
after the talk.
Tuesday, March 19
at 12:30 pm
Look at the advantages here.
The announcement lets people know that they will be able to buy the
book, but it doesn’t shout “Buy Me!” The emphasis is on the talk – what people
can gain by coming, not what it’s going to cost them. Further it targets a large and an
ideal audience – everyone in Beaufort County who has a library card. They are the readers in the area, and it’s a
book about their own area. Notice that it’s an early announcement. There will be two more newsletters coming out
before my talk – one on February and another in March. Repetition helps. And finally, it comes from a third party, not from
me. That’s word-of-mouth in action.
I’m finding that the internet is having a strange, although
enjoyable, effect upon me. Maybe I can
call it “e-convergence.” What happens is that I spend an hour or so each
morning wading through email messages, Facebook postings, the latest figures on
how many people read yesterday’s blog and how many others bought one of my
books, the online version of the New York Times, and a few of my favorite
bloggers. And more and more often, the ideas from one item leap across the
screen to make some sort of connection with another that is totally unrelated,
or so it would seem.
For example, we have a cat calendar hanging in the bathroom,
and the first thing I noticed this morning was that I had missed “Burns Night,”
a Scottish holiday, celebrated, according to my calendar on January 25,
the birthday of poet Robert Burns. That brought a fleeting smile, a quick
memory of his poem to a mouse, and then I moved on.
A Facebook post led me to an article about the damage the
internet has done to our ability to concentrate. It argued that we are all learning to think
and write in short spurts – a pithy and obscure status post, a 140-word tweet,
a link to an article rather than a reasoned response. Yeah, I thought. That might be so, but I had too many other
posts to check. Moving along.
On a blog, I ran across an article about whether or not a
scholar attending an academic conference should, or should not, skip some
scheduled talks to explore the city in which the meeting is being held. Briefly
I thought about the number of such conferences I have attended without seeing
anything except the inside of the hotel where the sessions are happening. Too many, I’m afraid. So I came down firmly on the side of the
argument for getting out more, if only for a non-conference local meal. Then I moved on.
In the New York Times, I paused to read an article about
plans to remodel the iconic New York Public Library, and suddenly that
e-convergence happened. I was back in
New York City 10 or 12 years ago, supposedly attending the annual meeting of
the Medieval Academy of America. By that time I was close enough to retirement
that I had quit worrying about making the “right contacts” or pitching a new
book proposal to some bored publishing rep.
It was a beautiful day, and I couldn’t stand listening to one more
graduate student stumbling through a presentation only to be savaged by the old
salts in the back of the room. I literally moved on.
Outside I went and started walking. Within a few blocks I
realized I was standing in front of that New York Public Library. What a
wonderful morning I had! I climbed those steps eagerly, gaped in wonder at the
Reading Room, plundered a few open shelves for strange books that had nothing
to do with my career, and shivered with pride when I discovered my own book in
the card catalog. Then again I moved on, feeling guilty and intending to return
to the hotel in time for the scheduled chicken luncheon.
But outside on those same steps, I ran full tilt into a man
dressed in a complete Scottish tartan. He laughed as he caught my elbow to keep
me from falling, and acknowledged that it was hard to take one’s eyes off that
old building. So I looked down and couldn’t see anything but his bare knees
below his kilt. Again he chuckled and asked me if I was coming to the parade.
parade? Yes, it turned out to be a Scottish holiday, and he was eager to tell
me about his bagpipe band. “You must see
our parade,” he said. “We even have Sean
Connery leading the way as our Grand Marshall.” That did it! I learned their route,
and the starting time of the parade, and set off – in the opposite direction
from the conference hotel – to find a good viewing spot. I even bought a street cart hot dog that made
a better lunch than that promised rubber chicken. It was a day I thought I
would never forget, even if Sean Connery’s knees did turn out to be as knobby
as the others I had seen.
But I did move on afterward.
I hadn’t thought of that day until this morning, when casual but
completely unrelated internet blurbs – those short spurts of ideas -- caused that e-convergence that brought all
the memories together one more time.
Such is one value of our current fascination with the internet. It has the power to give us links to other
times, other places, other people – all coming together as one interconnected
|After talking about the kinds of advice writers hate to hear, it seems only fair to give equal time to the other side. So here's a column that originally appeared HERE. Jane Finnis is an English writer of Roman mysteries, and she is particularly clear-headed about giving advice. Here's what she has to say about "The Right Way To Write."
I’m not all
that keen on laying down rules about writing. You know the sort of
thing: “Ten golden rules every author must follow.” Hmmm…rules, as Lenin
almost said, are like pie-crusts, made to be broken.
When people ask me if I have any writing tips, I find it very
flattering, but I must begin my reply with a warning. I haven’t
(obviously!) found the secret of mega-success. I’d love to think I could
simply follow a list of do’s and don’ts to produce sure-fire
best-sellers, with film companies competing for my rights while I’m
alive, and universities fighting over my manuscripts after I’m gone.
Wouldn’t we all?
But I do know the kind of books I want to write, a
and I’ve accumulated
some guidelines – I’ll put it no stronger – that help me give my best
shot. They may help others, so here goes:
1. Write about what interests you. Don’t be tempted by something that
doesn’t, even though other people tell you it’s commercial,
fashionable, “a sure winner.” With luck it may turn out to be any or all
of the above, but only if you are interested and can make it
interesting for your readers. Writing a novel is hard work and it can
take years from creation to publication. If you’re bored at the start
you’ll be brain-dead by the finish. Your prose will probably be dead
2. Once you begin on a novel, write regularly. I’m not saying every
day; that would be nice, but may simply not be feasible because that
pesky factor known as Real Life gets in the way. Work on it more than
once a week. If you don’t keep up the momentum, you may lose interest,
however fired-up you were when you started.
3. Have some kind of a plan, don’t just launch yourself into the wide
blue yonder without any idea where the book is heading. How detailed
the plan is depends on you; there isn’t a right way for everyone, you’ll
find the method that’s best for you. Some authors prepare very full
chapter-by-chapter plot outlines and stick to them; others (like me)
just write a skeletal framework, a note or two about the beginning and
the end and a few key items in between. Then as I write, the details
emerge gradually and I go with the flow…but I do know where I‘m flowing
to. I call this the Colin Dexter method, because he claims it’s how he
wrote his Inspector Morse books: he says it’s like driving from London
to Edinburgh without a road map. You know the general direction, and
you’ll find the exact route as you go.
4. Try and keep your writing fresh, with a newly-baked feeling about
it; not stale or hackish. (My spell checker thinks I’ve invented a new
word. But you know what I mean.) Steer clear of obvious pitfalls: avoid
clichés like the plague…OK, an old joke, but nonetheless true. Don’t
slow down the action with pages of laborious description. Again I’ll use
the B-word; if you read over yesterday’s creative output and it’s
boring, don’t let it stand. We all have off-days, but we needn’t inflict
them on our readers. Delete it and do better.
5. Don’t give up. However hard it is, however long it takes, if you
have a book to write, persevere till it’s done. Whether it eventually
gets published, whether it sells millions, that’s harder to predict. But
if you’ve completed a first draft, you’ve achieved something important,
and you can be proud to call yourself a writer. So stick at it. That’s
the only truly unbreakable rule.
I seem to have touched a nerve when I asked about advice for writers that the writers themselves found irritating. Perhaps we're all just better at giving advice than getting it. Here are a few early suggestions, including the one I started with:
▪ "Show, don't tell." What's that supposed to mean? I can't just say that someone is tall? I have to show him hitting his head on a door frame? Yes, I agree that long descriptive passages can be deadly, but there are also times when nothing will do the job better than a simple adjective. And, for that matter, how do you "show" something with words? Isn't that just "telling" in another form? It's a silly phrase, one that makes the so-called adviser sound like an expert, perhaps, but so over-used by now that it deserves a compassionate burial. (Carolyn Schriber)
▪ The one that comes to mind is: "If you want to write you have to read--a lot." How can I write if I'm reading--a lot?! Besides, I have this paranoia about unwillingly plagiarizing someone. I'm working on a fantasy book and I refuse to read or watch Harry Potter. (Terry Gould)
▪ Oh, and while I'm at it--I see over and over again to never use adverbs and to never ever use the word 'that". Now that is purely and simply impossible. : ) (Terry Gould)
▪ I don't like to be told by friends: "You should never change anything that you get up in the middle of the night to write. That's when you're the most inspired." (Nancy Bullington Turnbo)
▪ I think a whole big old bunch of folks need to learn how to use the comparative and superlative forms. That isn't 'zactly what you're talking about, but it is one of my pets. (Michael D. Mullins)
▪ "Write drunk; edit sober."— Ernest Hemingway. It may have worked for him, but most drunks I know make no sense whatsoever! (Carolyn Schriber)
▪ I bet your list will be "awesome", a very overused word, in my opinion. (Linda Crim)
▪ “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” -- George Orwell. Nope. I write historical fiction, and in the 19th century people adored using long words. (Carolyn Schriber)
What are your pet peeves? What advice makes you want to move to a cave in the desert?
A couple of years ago, Blogger Janice Harayda began compiling a list of terms that are overused by publishers, critics, and reviewers. I'm going to borrow some of my favorites from her list, while I'm compiling my own list of bits of publishing advice that I'm tired of reading. Here are some of Janice's terms, accompanied by what the writer really wanted to say
- “brilliantly defies categorization”: even the author has no clue what he’s turned in
- “continues in the proud tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien”: this book has a dwarf in it
- “an eBook original”: still no proofreading and bad formatting
- “epic”: very long
- “erotic”: porn
- “literary”: plotless
- “long-awaited”: late
- “the next Elmore Leonard”: This book has criminals or Detroit or maybe Florida in it
- “novella”: short story with large font
Now I'm going to work on my own list of words and phrases that I would like to banish from all further use in treatises about "how to write." I'm starting with this one:
"Show, don't tell." What's that supposed to mean? I can't just say that someone is tall? I have to show him hitting his head on a door frame? Yes, I agree that long descriptive passages can be deadly, but there are also times when nothing will do the job better than a simple adjective. And, for that matter, how do you "show" something with words? Isn't that just "telling" in another form? It's a silly phrase, one that makes the so-called adviser sound like an expert, perhaps, but so over-used by now that it deserves a compassionate burial.
I'm particularly anxious to hear from other -book authors on this question. Do you have your own favorite? The one piece of advice that makes you want to slap the person who offers it? A meaningless phrase? A faddish, but unhelpful, suggestion? Leave your suggestions in the comments below and we'll form our own list.