Monday, October 13, 2014

Damn Research Anyway

I write historical novels. Most of my books are Westerns, and I strive to properly reflect the lifestyle, technology, and politics of the era. Tempest at Dawn, my big historic novel, is a dramatization of the Constitutional Convention. Even The Shut Mouth Society, my contemporary chase-thriller has strong historical content centered on Abraham Lincoln.

Joseph Finder

When I’m busy and I discover an interesting web article, I bookmark it in a browser folder to read later. This morning I read Joseph Finder’s article Research: A Writers Best Friend and a Writer’s Worst Enemy. I think Finder has it just about right. He alludes to my worst habit: using research to procrastinate, but couches it far too narrowly. When I’m on a roll, I never let research get in the way of me getting the story down in black and white. On the other hand, when I don’t really want to get into writing, I bounce around the web and tell myself I’m making progress through research. Somehow, I convince myself of this even when I’m watching the GoPro video of the week.

A few years ago, I wrote an article on the hazards of web-based research. I even put together a Powerpoint presentation for a writer’s group. Today, I use the web more frequently for research. One reason is the proliferation of primary source documents. The internet has become easier than a library to find primary sources. The second reason, and the more important reason for my writing, is that reputable institutions have digitized their content. The web has grown up. Except for odds and ends, I rarely use Wikipedia. There are many more authoritative sources. You just need to know how to look for them.

I still need to walk the ground of my novels. I’m not a visual person, so I take gigabytes of pictures so I can look at them as a write descriptive prose. Walking the ground has another purpose. Every locale has a distinct feel to it. When I deplane in Phoenix or Honolulu, I know where I’m at as soon as I feel and smell the air. Some writers are geniuses when it comes to decretive prose, but for me to describe ambiance, I need to experience it. Besides, this is the fun part of research. Wandering around Virginia City or Old Denver sure beats trying to verify the exact time Virgil Earp lived in Prescott, Arizona.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Sojourn in New York City

My wife and I just returned home from seeing our son’s family in New York City. He and his wife have three young kids and because they grow so fast we try to visit at least once every three months. This was a great trip. We like Manhattan and we love my son and his family. What could be better than that? Here are some random thoughts on our trip.

  • It’s difficult to write in airports, especially LaGuardia. Before retirement, I wrote all the time in airports, but nowadays it seems much more crowded. It’s even difficult to find an unoccupied seat at LaGuardia. Maybe it’s me. I’m getting older and perhaps I’m finding it more difficult to focus. Naw … it’s everybody else’s fault. 

Ellen DeGeneres

  • It’s impossible to write on airplanes. I used to whip out my laptop all the time, but now I find it difficult to find room for myself, no less a supposed portable device that must have been designed to watch movies from twelve feet away. When I fly, I read my trusty Kindle. 
  • Why do electronic components keep getting tinier and tinier, but electronic devices keep getting bigger and bigger? I took my grandson to the Apple store to shop for his birthday present. This was my first encounter with the iPhone 6. The big model will hardly fit in a teenage girl’s hip pocket. My new laptop has a 16’ inch screen with Dolby sound and myriad other bells and whistles. I wanted one like my old 14’ model, but my preferred manufacturer no longer made this petite version. I’m a writer. I don’t need all this fancy stuff. Give me light weight, reasonable size, and MS Word. They can even make it black and white and I’ll be happy. I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, but I lament the demise of the Motorola Razr. Now that was a mobile phone. It was so light and thin you never knew you carried it until it buzzed with an incoming call.

action adventure fiction
Hurricane Sandy about to get unruly

  • Although I had floated around it many times, I had never been to Statue of Liberty Island. We took our granddaughter and her friend. We discovered Disney World lines managed with government efficiency. Next time, if there is one, I’ll pick inclement weather. At least, that’s what I thought until I found this picture of the island with Hurricane Sandy looming on the horizon. Still lots of people. Maybe next time I’ll just float around it again. 
  • I was walking the dog with my son when he pointed out a townhouse with narrow, one-car garage. He thought it would be wonderful to have a private garage in the city. I told him I owned three of them in Omaha. He asked if they were in front or behind the chicken coop. 
  • All bookstore have small Western sections, but NYC stores have relegated Westerns to a single shelf in the most obscure corner of the stacks. Since New York is my third largest sales region, I think they are missing a bet.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Real Wild West

Previously, I wrote that Mark Twain is my favorite Western writer. Twain actually experienced the West at its rowdiest and Roughing It describes his experiences with humor and a touch of the storyteller’s art. Owen Wister is another author who experienced the real Wild West, which gave The Virginian its authentic feel. Wells Drury’s An Editor on the Comstock Lode is yet another great source for Western lore. In fact, its organization and humorous writing makes it an indispensable reference source for Western writers. Drury’s time as a newspaper editor in Virginia City gave him a front row seat to the goings on in that raucous town. His book covers:
  • Everyday life in the West, including entertainment, food, and city services
  • Practical jokes galore and lots of Yarns
  • Saloon life and etiquette
  • Gambling
  • Bad-men and bandits, gunfights, and stage robberies
  • Mining
  • Financial history and shenanigans
  • Journalism, including Mark Twain
  • Politics
  • Western Terminology
  • And sketches of the prominent people of the Comstock Lode and Nevada politics.
My favorite, of course, is the chapter he dedicates to Candelaria and its suburb of Pickhandle Gulch. This mining camp figures prominently in my Steve Dancy Tales, but I chose to call the main town Pickhandle Gulch because I liked the name. Fiction writers get to bend history to suit their story. It’s one of the fun parts about being a novelist. I suspect Twain, Wister, and Drury did a bit of bending themselves.

cowboys lore of the old west
Honest Westerns ... filled with dishonest characters

Friday, September 19, 2014

Why print books are different

publishing, publishers
Mike Shatzkin

Mike Shatzkin has posted a discerning article about how print books are different than digital books. It’s common to assume that books will proceed along the same path as the digitization of music and film. Shatzkin disagrees. He claims books are very different from their digital cousins and make a number of good observations.

  • Readers routinely switch between print and digital
  • Whether digital or analog, music and film require power and a device to be consumed. Books require neither.
  • Compared to the digital variety, Shatzkin contends print books are easier to navigate, and that navigation is not a critical function for music or film which for the most part are consumed serially.
  • Print presentation can be more aesthetic. Digital book devices inhibit interior design. For music and film, there is no difference “between the streamed and hard-goods version.”
  • Motivation is different for book buyers. Music and film are consumed mostly for entertainment.  Books are frequently bought for educational purposes, making the ability to browse more important. This gives bookstores an advantage over online retailers.
  • Digital music and film is superior to analog which drives digitization. This driver does not exist for books.

Shatzkin argues that there are innate differences between books, film, and music which will alter each media’s adaption to the digital world. One of the most significant being that ebook readers still buy and consume print. Music and film buffs seldom go back to the prior generation technology.

Although I tend to agree with Shatzkin, he did miss a few advantages of e-books. First, they’re lighter. I’m reading a big, heavy print book at the moment and I don’t take it to bed with me because my hands get tired holding it up. Currently, I fall asleep with Tom Wolfe on a kindle. A second advantage of e-readers is the ability to read them one-handed. My wife makes fun of me, but when one of my hands is busy shoveling breakfast into my mouth, I turn the page on my Kindle by bouncing it against my nose. Try that with a print book.

reading readers books

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Word of Mouth Revisited

I’ve contended that word of mouth is the greatest marketing tool available to authors. Word of mouth includes book clubs, online recommendations at sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing, reader reviews, and good ol’ fashioned face-to-face conversation. Word of mouth does not include anything the author says, including social media leavings that come from gallivanting around cyberspace. Potent word of mouth comes unexpectedly from a trusted source. Every author’s marketing strategy must focus on generating positive word of mouth.

Recently, I had confirmation of this axiom. In the first of August, I ran a discount promotion for a couple of days for the e-book version of The Shopkeeper. I don’t believe in offering free e-books because there is no lasting effect beyond a couple days. Many people gather up free books and never bother to read them. I’ve discovered that there is an entirely different dynamic for 99¢ e-books. Evidently this tiny fee motivates people to read the book.

 I decided to use a brief 99¢ price for the first novel in the Steve Dancy Tales to give a boost to the entire series. It worked far better than I expected. Not only did The Shopkeeper sell almost two thousand copies, all the other books in the series showed accelerated sales. Actually, it has been over a month since the promotion and all four books in the series still sell at more than double the pace of sales prior to the promotion. Free e-books have no legs, but 99¢ e-books seem to have a long tail.

None of this was news to me. But I did make an observation about this promotion that had previously eluded me. If a promotion goes well and readers like the book, then word of mouth accelerates sales in other formats and for other books by the same author. I never track audio sales because they’re small compared to other formats. I kept an eye on them this time, and I noticed a major surge in sales about a week or so after the promotion. Print sales also surprisingly increased, and sales of my other books grew significantly. The additional sales could only come from word of mouth because none of these other books or formats were discounted or promoted beyond my normal feeble efforts. People who liked The Shopkeeper told other people about my books. Some marketing gurus tell you to make fans out of your readers. Good advice, but if you really want to sell lots of books, turn your readers into your own personal sales force.

How? Write an engaging story that never jerks your reader out of the story. This means you need to keep the story moving forward, avoid unnecessary plot detours, and have it all professionally packaged. If you enthrall your readers, they’ll tell their friends, family, and neighbors about this great new author they found. After you have a large and growing sales force, you can concentrate on what you really love to do—write.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Life without laptop

Last week I wrote about living without my handy Kindle. I relearned how to buy a paperback at the airport and life went on. Something far worse happened. My laptop went belly-up. Now, that shouldn’t have been a big problem, except my desktop computer is a massive-screen Macintosh that I use to edit home movies and my wife uses for everything I can’t do. That means the machine is loaded up with graphical, video, and photographic software. No Microsoft Office. Since Microsoft no longer allows the Office suite to be installed on three machines with a single license, we live without it on our Macintosh. The absence of this ubiquitous app occasionally irritates me, my wife almost never notices. And it’s her machine after all.

I use my trusty portable computer four to eight hours every day, so this appendage is a life necessity. I immediately ran to a couple of stores and eventually decided on a new machine. Being clever, I decided to go home and buy it on Amazon to save a few bucks. I get free shipping and I could read hard copy books I had bought for research on my next Steve Dancy Tale. Except … it was just ahead of the Labor Day weekend. Not only did the machine not get delivered, the holiday weekend backed up deliveries so much they didn’t get it to me until Thursday. Evidently, 2-day shipping is a highly elastic term.

Normally, I’m relegated to the basement with my laptop. During this hiatus, I was regularly upstairs asking my wife when she would be done with the computer. I paced around with a heavy footfall until she relented and let me use her machine. I wanted to try Open Office, check email, see how many of my books had sold, visit social sites, and generally get my computer fix. (I found Open Office to be wonderful substitute for the MS variety, but misgivings about compatibility with the next release kept me from working heavily on my next book.)

Then the big day arrivedmy brandy new computer sat on my front porch. Now I can get back to writing … just as soon as I get everything reloaded and organized to my liking.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Life without Kindle

I carry my Kindle with me almost everywhere I go. Now, instead of fuming at airport security, I read or shop for my next book. If my wife asks to run into a store, I wait in the car and read. I even read in the interminable lines at Starbucks where no one seems to know how to order a cup of coffee with less than fourteen words. I cheered when the FAA finally ruled that my Kindle wouldn’t cause a fiery crash if I forgot to turn it off. Now I can read during that bouncy ride down the tarmac while the aluminum behemoth decides whether it wants to fly that day.

In other words, my Kindle became an appendage. Until I forgot it in San Diego. When I got to Lindbergh Field, I discovered I had left my trusty device in our condo. Darn. I couldn’t figure out what to do. Then I remembered the good ol’ days when I used to read words on paper. In short order, I bought the Jack Reacher novel Never Go Back by Lee Child.

The first surprise was the paperback price of $9.99. No wonder I liked my Kindle. The second surprise was how much I enjoyed reading a real book. It instantly brought back memories of sand chairs beside Bass Lake or the Pacific Ocean, reading in bed, and getting lost in a story on an airplane. Really lost. Once, I didn't notice that we had aborted two attempts to land until the pilot interrupted my trance to tell us lowly passengers that if he couldn’t land this time he was diverting to another airport. What? Where had I been during all of this? Reading a paperback.

That got me thinking. I have never been that lost while reading a Kindle. There is something about the mechanical nature that interferes with total absorption. In a real book, I never think about flipping a page; I never stop to look up the definition of a word; I never adjust the little light bulb thingy; and I never glance down to see how far I am from the end. I wondered: are real books superior?
Then I thought about my son. I thought about how hard it is to tear his attention away from an electronic device. I thought about how automatically he jets around content, moves between reading different devices and even effortlessly switches between text and audio books. For me, reading a paperback was nostalgic, for him it would be foreign. Did I look back on good times with paperbacks the way my mother insisted that screenwriting was better when television broadcast in black and white.

I’d think some more about this, but I’m lost in a Jack Reacher novel I picked up at an airport.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend

When I attended the Tucson Festival of Books as a panelist, I also joined the audience in a number of other sessions. One of the best sessions was a panel discussion of the book, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend. This is a fantastic book that every Western enthusiast should read.  It’s really three stories, perfectly interweaved. A factual description of the abduction of Cynthia Parker; A historical critique of the novel, The Searchers by LeMay Alan; and an intimate look at the John Ford classic film The Searchers, starring John Wayne. The theme used to unite the stories is how history turns into legend until myth is stronger than facts. A fascinating read on many levels.   

John Wayne

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

From Bestselling Indie-Novelist to Also-Ran

Western fiction action adventure suspense

I self-published The Shopkeeper in 2007. It seems like a lifetime ago, but in indie-publishing terms, it was an eon. I stumbled into indie-publishing by accident. At the time, I had a New York agent with a major firm, but he declined to represent my Western because he said the advance would be less than a decent down payment on a small Korean car. He explained that his 15% wouldn’t be worth his time.  Okay, I decided to self-publish the novel. The Shopkeeper found an instant audience and it was consistently in the Top 20 bestselling books in the Western genre, and at Christmas it often ranked as the #1 Western.

In 2007, most indie-books were nonfiction. In fact, self-published novels were so rare; I pretty much had the field to myself. For a couple of years I was the bestselling indie-novelist in America.

Alas, good things never last. Today I hear there are 30,000 indie-books published each and every month, with most of them being fiction. My lonely world suddenly became very crowded. What happened? The Kindle. It was also introduced in 2007, but it took a few years to get rolling. Those were my years, when print dominated genre fiction.

I would lament the good ol’ days, but I sell more books than I used to. It’s just I can no longer claim bestselling status. I’ve published six novels and two nonfiction books, four of them Steve Dancy Tales. As of this writing, all four of the Steve Dancy novels are ranked at less than 30,000, with the seven year old The Shopkeeper ranked at #75 in Kindle Westerns. My novels for the Barnes and Noble Nook are doing better than I expected as well. (The Shopkeeper is ranked at under 4,000 overall.) More important, actual sales are better than they have ever been.

The moral to the story is that progress isn’t necessarily scary or harmfuljust different. e-books brought indie-authors vast numbers of new readers. Yeah, the ubiquitous device also brought competition, but with an expanding market, there’s room for everyone. Besides, savvy readers weed out the charlatans that crank out a book after book that they price at less than half of a cup of coffee. It seems newbie indie-authors flame-out more frequently than want-to-be actors in Hollywood. There’s some great stuff out there in the indie world, but to compete in this crowded market requires study, effort, and a love of writing. Good novels don’t just happen. Authors write and rewrite them until readers want to flip the pages all the way to the end.

So here’s a piece of advice from an ol’ fogeyif you want to sell a lot of books … write a darn good one.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Vacation over—Darn

I’ve returned home after an extended vacation in Pacific Beach, California. I made good progress on Jenny’s Revenge, but I keep forgetting how much work it is to bring a novel to the bookshelves. Lots more work to do. While I was gone, Steve did pretty well on his own.  After a couple day promotion for The Shopkeeper, August is turning out to be one of the best months ever for the Steve Dancy Tales. At one point, The Shopkeeper reached the 80th best selling e-book in the paid Amazon store. Pretty good for a 7 year old novel. Maybe I should go on vacation more often.

Now I have two big projects. Finish Jenny’s Revenge and do my 2013 income taxes. I was in the middle of a move last April with my records stored deep in a cave known only to the moving company. Taxes! I hate paperwork. I hate little pieces of paper. I think my phobia comes from my early years in management. I never went home until the In Box was empty. Paper, paper, paper. I thought man’s worst invention was the copier machine. It destroyed productivity. When carbon paper dictated the number of people to received memos, distribution was highly selective. Copiers were bad enough, but with email, at the tap of a key anyone can send copies to as many people as they wantat nearly the speed of light! I think I’m beginning to like texting.

Is there a point to this posting? Nope. Just grousing as I return from vacation to contemplate an disagreeable task. Soon, I’ll be wading through boxes of little pieces of paper so I can catch up with the rest of the world in almsgiving to the 16th Amendment. I’d rather be writing. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Working Vacation?

Great fiction
Yours Truly on an overhead wave.(Who're ya gonna believe, me or yer lyin' eyes.)
Writing and surfing and sun and good food and better friends. How could I have a better vacation? (Is it a vacation if you're already retired?) Jenny's Revenge is going well, the surfing so so. All the rest of it is perfect. The peacefulness of our getaway is about to expire. My daughter and her grandkids arrive tonight. Then it will be kinetic, noisy, and loads more fun. The energy level in our condo will leap 200%. Okay, that's a gross understatement. Anyway, I better get to writing, because starting tomorrow I'll only have snatches of time for the following week. Then we'll return home to Omaha, where I have vowed to focus on the next Steve Dancy Tale.
Great fiction
Three novels for $9.99