Book Promotion = More Writing

When I’m working on a novel, I write everyday. When I am promoting a book, it feels as though I’m writing every minute.  Why am I spending more time tapping away on a keyboard after finishing my latest novel than I did when I was working on it? In two words…guest blogging. For a debut or little-known author, guest blogging is a key tool in getting the name of your book out there. Sure, we mystery writers are all hoping that stellar reviews will sell our work (and they do). But unless you’re fortunate enough to have landed national press through your publisher, few people will visit your Amazon page to read any of that glowing critical praise. Folks need to either hear about your novel from a friend or read about it on a site that they regularly visit. In the month since The Widower’s Wife came out I’ve written: 2 posts for Booktrib.com (One story has yet to be published. Here’s the story that ran:How I Made Two Cinematic Book Trailers Each For Less Than $500) 1 post for Jungle Red Writers on why a horrible cruise inspired me to write my last novel. It’s scheduled to run on September 21.  1 post on How I Got My Agent for Writer’s Digest.  1 Q&A for Bookhounds. There are pictures of my dog in this one. 1 Q&A for MRS. MOMMY BOOKNERDS 1 article for Medium.com completely unrelated to my latest novel but, hopefully, enjoyable enough that people who like my writing style will consider visiting Amazon. 6 Pitches for articles in newspapers and blogs that would include my bio with a link to my book. 10 Letters to local libraries suggesting that they carry my book and volunteering to come speak. Dozens of book-related Facebook posts and tweets. All this writing is in addition to what I normally do here blogging with my fellow MissDemeanors and working on my next novel. Does all this blogging pay off? Well, I can’t know for certain. But I do know that I didn’t write nearly as much when my debut novel, Dark Turns, came out and I didn’t make any lists, despite pretty good reviews. I didn’t realize that I was supposed to write about writing or that there are so many books out there that writers have to assume much of the promotion themselves. The Widower’s Wife, as of this writing, is ranked in Amazon’s top 100 for all Mystery, Thriller and Suspense books. So I’m guessing that the blogging is having an impact. At the very least, all this writing lets my publisher know that I’m willing to do the hard work of promotion. And if they know I’m working, maybe they’ll work a bit harder getting the attention of other people who will write about my book.        

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Pitch Not-So-Perfect

             I tell long stories. Shortening them has always been a struggle.            From the time I was a child, I’d go on and on with details, trying to give a sense of place and character, while my overworked parents begged for the bare facts. Later, I became a newspaper reporter and the scourge of copy editors. Daily, I’d beg for another inch of newsprint to include a detail that I felt crucial to my story as the higher ups dismissed my pleas as trying to include needless, scene-setting “color.” Things weren’t much better when I moved to writing for business magazines. Serious people, I was told, didn’t want to know that some tech giant had twenty kinds of cereal in their cupboards. Such “fascinating” details were superfluous.            Eventually, I left daily journalism for fiction writing. Doing so felt like moving from a cramped New York city studio to a New Jersey McMansion. I was loaded with space. Finally, I would have eighty to a hundred thousand words to tell a story.           Imagine my disappointment when I learned that nearly every long-form writer needs to pen a pitch.            Pitches are the universe’s way of checking my ego. All the pride I feel after finishing a novel tends to dissipate when I’m forced to write the one page summary. In some ways, writing the pitch is worse than writing a short article. At least when I was a newspaper reporter I hadn’t already crafted my perfect story and then been told to write the Spark Notes version.            Thankfully, my agent has given me some sage advice on writing pitches. She’s told me not to try to get in every character arc or plot point. Agents and editors want a sense of the protagonist and the main problem. Maybe they’ll read about a subplot if its truly germane to the main action. They want a taste of my writing style. The pitch itself should leave the person pitched wanting to read the book, not feeling as though they already have.            Perhaps my favorite piece of pitch advice was to answer the questions: What If and So What. I used the technique to pitch my latest published book: The Widower’s Wife. WHAT IF a young New Jersey housewife fell overboard on a cruise ship with a large life insurance policy and an investigator must decide whether her death was an accident, suicide or murder. SO WHAT? And the life of her young daughter and others hang in the balance of his decision.  Here’s how the pitch came out:   Ana Bacon, a beautiful young housewife, tumbles off a cruise ship into dark and deadly waters, leaving behind a multi-million dollar life insurance policy for her small daughter. Investigator Ryan Monahan is a numbers man. So when his company sends him the Bacon case, he doubts that her death is the tragic accident that it seems. Initially, he assumes suicide. But the more Monahan uncovers about Ana’s life the more he realizes how many people would kill to keep her secrets hidden and that his ruling on the payout could leave a murder free to kill again.  What do you think about pitches? What is your favorite method?

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Writing Place

An author speaking at a writing seminar I attended commented it surprised him whenever someone complimented him on how well he’d described such-and-such a place, the geographic location in which he’d set his novel. His secret—he hadn’t really described the place. He included a few key details, aspects of the environment important to his point of view character, and left the rest to the readers’ imagination. He didn’t believe in complex descriptions of place.
I’m the opposite. I love stories that describe place so vividly I’m transported to the location and feel as if I’m walking the streets and eating in the restaurants and shopping in the stores alongside the characters. When Poe’s narrator approaches the House of Usher on the “dull, dark, and soundless day,” with “clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens” and sees the “bleak walls,” “vacant, eye-like windows,” and “rank sedges,” I’m right there with him and share his “sense of insufferable gloom.” The place becomes a character. New York City is as much a character in “Law and Order” as the detectives who investigate its crimes. Nero Wolfe’s brownstone is a character in Stout’s series just as much as Wolfe and Archie. Mitchell’s Slade House and Carroll’s Wonderland are the stars of their stories.
Some argue detailed place descriptions aren’t needed in the modern era when traveling halfway around the world is as uncomplicated as pulling up an airline’s app on your smartphone. Back in the day, authors had to describe their novels’ settings in detail because a reader in rural Pennsylvania was probably never going to travel to downtown Paris. Nowadays, even if that Pennsylvanian can’t swing airfare to the City of Light, she can visit virtually. Google Earth will let her zoom in until she can almost read the menu at a restaurant along the Seine.
So what’s a modern writer who loves rich descriptions of place to do? Invent one. World-building isn’t restricted to fantasy and science fiction. If you imagine a village, as I did in my novel, Murder in G Major, you have some license to describe what you’ve created. Readers can’t find satellite images of a fictional locale so you have to tell them where the pub is and whether the church is next to the post office or the school. When I write, I visualize my characters interacting with their setting, like watching a movie in my head, and put on paper what I see in my mind. I have difficulty writing without a sense of place.
One caveat. Internal consistency matters. Just because a place is fictional doesn’t mean the bus station can be on Tenth Street in chapter one but move to Fourth Avenue in chapter twelve. Unless, of course, you’re writing speculative fiction where moving bus stations is a plot element. I sketch maps to help me keep track of what’s located where.
Do you believe less is more when it comes to describing places or that less is less? Do you prefer locations real or imaginary? Or either so long as the writer transports you? (This blog post originally appeared on Club Hen House)
 

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Copy Edits

    This is my week for going over the copy-edited version of my new novel, Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency (which will be coming out on November 8.)  It’s my last chance to make changes before it goes into publication, which means it’s my last chance to get everything right. On every page of the draft, there are notes from the copy-editor. Sometimes he just wants me to think about a word. Other times it’s more substantive.  Here are some sample questions: 1. Timing is very important in mysteries, as you can imagine. At one point I say that something happened two weeks ago, but actually it happened 20 days ago. Fix that! 2. Early in the novel I refer to a cat as having green eyes, but later on he has yellow eyes. Fix that! 3. I keep misusing “further” and “farther.” 4. Maggie has a conversation with her nemesis, Walter Campbell, and she feels badly for him. But soon thereafter she loses her temper. Take more time, the copy editor cautions. Wait a beat before she yells. 5. I tend to use the word “dumbfounded” a lot. Which I frequently am. But I shouldn’t use it too much. 6. I refer to a book of magic spells. (There are witches in this book!) But I got the title wrong. I fixed it. And so on. None of these things are onerous, but it’s important to get it all right. There’s nothing worse than finding a mistake in a book. Completely damages the author’s credibility. In my first Maggie Dove mystery, the copy-editor found a real doozy. I was referring to a psalm and got the number wrong. Maggie Dove is a Sunday School teacher and that would have been an embarrassing mistake. One of my favorite things about this process is that it does give you a chance to fix mistakes, which is not something you always get in life. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were someone walking alongside you saying, “Just a minute. Are you sure you want to do that?” (Maybe that’s my husband’s job.) Anyway, only 100 more pages to go through and then my new mystery will be as fresh and shiny as I can make it. Then I can get going on a first draft of a new book and make whatever mistakes I want! Have you ever found a mistake in a book? Or have you made one? (In a book, or in life?)    

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Writers' Police Academy

One of the trickiest things about being a mystery writer is getting the police procedural facts right. Given that my protagonist, Maggie Dove, is a 62-year-old Sunday School teacher, I don’t imagine anyone expects her to know how to set up a perimeter. But she does come into contact with people who should know such things, and it’s crucial to get those facts right. I’ve spent a lot of time researching and reading and watching Criminal Minds, but when I got a notice about the Writers’ Police Academy, I jumped. The Writers’ Police Academy is a four-day workshop, located in Green Bay, Wisconsin, designed to teach writers how police work. The conference is run by former detective Lee Lofland and all the instructors have direct experience with law enforcement. In other words, they know what they’re talking about. I spent last weekend at the conference, and my mind is still spinning, but I want to share some of the things I learned. At the beginning of each day, there was a surprise scenario to give us the feeling of what it would be like to be caught in the midst of some disaster. On the first morning we were presented with a gruesome car accident. A drunk driver had plowed head-on into a car, and the body of one of the drivers was flung through the window. (Subsequently the body got up to take selfies.) As we watched, the police interviewed the DWI suspect and arrested her. The EMTs attended to the inured. A helicopter arrived to cart away one of the victims. (Helicopters are much noisier and windier than I realized.) When the scenario was over, all the participants came over to answer our questions about what happened.   The next day we had an even scarier scenario. We were all sitting in a lecture hall, listening to a presentation about the history of terrorism, and all of a sudden we heard shouting from the hallway. A man burst in saying he’d been stabbed. Then, other people in the lecture hall began crying out that they’d been stabbed. Then the police burst in, guns drawn, and shouted at everyone to put our hands over our heads (which turns out to be a hard thing to do for a long period of time.) After all that was over, they explained what they did.    So, as you can see, every day began with my heart pounding. And then there were the classes. Each day you had 20 or classes to choose from. I tried to pick classes that would be useful for Maggie Dove to know. So one of my first classes was on “Mashed Potatoes of Death: Are You Going to Eat That?” The instructor, Dr. Denene Lofland, told us about weapons made from natural sources that could be easily placed in food and drink. Easily! A treasure trove of information for Maggie Dove. The most unnerving class I took was on Death Scene Investigation. There, former police officer John Flannery showed us pictures of actual crime scenes and explained how they were handled. One thing I feel fairly sure of is that Maggie Dove will (probably) not come across dismembered body parts in Darby-on-Hudson. But if she does, I can describe them. One of the most entertaining classes was by David Corbett and titled, “Private Investigation: Or How to be a Dick for Fun and Profit.” Given that Maggie Dove is embarking on a career as a private detective, I was heartened to hear  Corbett say that being a PI is a career designed for women. They tend to be better listeners and people are usually less intimidated by them.  Another great class titled “Why They Were Bad” was taught by forensic psychology professor Katherine Ramsland, who has a new book out about the BTK murderer. She had each of us draw a picture of a person, and then she looked at some of the pictures and it was just amazing what she could deduce from what the person had drawn. (Let’s just say it was a bad sign that I drew a stick figure without hands.) This would be a fascinating exercise to try out with your character. How does your character view the world? On the last night of the workshop, there was a banquet and best-selling author Tami Hoag spoke. She spoke so passionately about character and how it’s impossible to know what a person is really like by just a cursory look at them, though we are all guilty of judging people that way. I was so inspired I bought her new book, The 9th Girl, and read it on the way home, along with fellow Miss Demeanor Cate Holahan’s new book, The Widower’s Wife. So would I go back? Absolutely! But next time I’d like to get in the class where you do high speed chases.   

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The Dreaded Word Count

  Does it help to count? The first 1,000 words of a new book are the hardest (and the most thrilling when they are DONE!). No more blank white page. You know where the story starts (in this draft at least) and you’re off and running. The next ten thousand slip by, then you re-group. Move through with edits and the beginning is richer, more detailed (in my case, real names for minor characters in lieu of Monsieur ABC and Madame XYZ). Thousands more words. Yippee!  On the other hand, there are days when you edit and see the words disappear. 32,032 is now 27,501. Yikes. I frantically do the math: How did I cut 16%? Why? A blood-letting. Now I question my judgement: maybe I didn’t need to trim that scene, cut that chapter, edit that description. There have been darker days:  When the manuscript was complete and in the hands of the publisher and I knew deep down in my heart that I needed to cut several characters and trim trim trim (okay, surgically remove) an entire theme or two. It felt dangerous. What if I couldn’t fit it all back together again? This was major surgery, none of your outpatient stuff. In the end I learned a good lesson…. Just do it. Have a plan—this isn’t willy-nilly cutting to see what happens—and keep track of what is cut and moved, and what is now missing and will have to be redistributed to other characters and descriptions. But do it. After I cut and redistributed and in-filled I ended up with a few thousand more words. By then the word count didn’t matter, but it illustrated that if I aimed for the best book the rest would follow. I’m trying to keep this in mind….. and not care that today’s work feels like driving in reverse. 

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What scares you?

  So much of writing is scary. Should you write down those thoughts? Will your family think you’re crazy?Should you send your work out to an agent? What if she thinks you’re crazy?Will anyone buy your book? What if all the reviews are one stars? So much of publishing makes me nervous, but I vowed to myself, when I turned 50, that I would try to say yes to everything people asked me to do, which is how I came to take part in a reading at the Parkside Lounge last Thursday night. This was an event fraught with anxiety. First of all, it was in the East Village in NYC.  Once I get south of 14th Street and the numbers go away, I just have to accept that fact that I’m going to spend an hour lost.  I carefully mapped out subway directions. Dragged my sister-in-law and a friend into a subway, which wound up being un-airconditioned. It was 100 degrees. My make-up dripped onto my lap.  Then there was the place itself, which was, exactly as I feared, much cooler than I am. (I’m not speaking of temperature here, but of a state of mind.) The walls were red (I think). There was a pool table in the bar. The emcee was a very cute young man who reminded me of Lin-Manuel Miranda. And there was I to read about the Sunday School teacher who is the protagonist of my cozy mystery. But not yet, because first there were three hours of other people reading. (I was the headliner, either because I’m that good, or because I harangued the most people into going.) First up was a man writing about his first time using a condom. Then came various other intense and very moving pieces. Then came a woman describing an intimate relationship with an ice cream cone, and then came me, talking about Maggie Dove. I went up to the stage and the light shone right into my eyes. I’m a teacher and used to relying on visual cues. When people start looking down at their cell phones, I know it’s time to move along. So it was weird to be in a cocoon of light.  Anyway, I started to read the first chapter of Maggie Dove. Suddenly everyone got quiet. You know that feeling when people are really listening to you? It’s a nice feeling. When I was done, everyone applauded. Sincerely, I felt. Afterwards I got an e-mail from someone who had been there who had been one of my students several years ago. She was so excited to hear about my book, had written one herself. Wanted to reconnect. The next day I got this group photograph, and as I looked at it, I thought how much fun the whole thing had been. Writing is about saying yes.   But now I think I’d like to stay curled up in my office for a bit. At least until Thursday, when I have a reading at Bryant Park. How about you? Have you ever done anything scary? 

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Writing in Stolen Moments

Sunday morning. The sky outside my car window is straight out of a Monet painting. Waves of cicada songs swell from the wooded lawn around the parking lot, overwhelming the electric guitar crunch wafting from the open windows in the building behind me. My six-year-old daughter is somewhere inside, jamming on the bubblegum pink Fender that we bought her when she decided Taylor Swift was more of an idol than her mother. I am sitting in the passenger seat with an open laptop. These are the stolen moments in which I write blog posts. Novels demand more extended periods of silence. When working on a book, I start writing at nine a.m., as soon as I return from dropping my kids off at their respective schools and walking the dog. When writing, everything else waits. The cooking. The laundry. The constant cleaning. A half-hour mid-day break is for walking the dog and moving my cramped legs. I swallow a green juice while circling the block or shove a cereal bar in my mouth. I’d be a good customer for soylent. Eating takes too much time.After I return to my manuscript, I work until 3 o’clock sharp. Unless, of course, I am in the midst of penning a particularly good or difficult sentence which takes me until five after the hour, resulting in a mad dash to the car and a rash of apologies to a nursery school teacher for lateness, yet again.  Once my kids get home, I am a full time mom: ferrying them to activities and play dates, sitting beside them at the kitchen table explaining the directions in workbooks or conducting science experiments or building snap circuits. I am cooking—constantly. Cleaning—constantly. At eight p.m., they go to sleep and I spend time with my husband while, likely, folding laundry. Around ten thirty, he sleeps. I edit. Sometimes, I miss being a journalist. Then, I was in an office by eight a.m. and returned home at seven. No one wondered what I did all day. No one questioned the worth of my efforts since, after all, I was earning a salary that put a precise value on an hour of my time. I never had to justify why, despite being “home,”  I really couldn’t make the latest school fundraiser. But, I would always miss writing more. Telling stories is part of who I am. So, though it’s a beautiful Sunday morning, I’m content to sit in the passenger seat of a hot car, banging away on a laptop.   

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Writer's Best Friend

Writing is a lonely job. Your only friends are the voices in your head and, if you’re a mystery writer, at least half of those voices are not the kind of people you want to encounter on the street. The other half are supremely stressed out about something dramatically awful. As a domestic suspense writer, I often feel that I spend all day sympathizing with someone who is having the worst day/week/month of their lives. It’s exhausting. And, after I’m done spending all day with my main character-in-crisis, I need time to recharge before I deal with people who expect me NOT to act like someone who has been talking to a woman running from, say, human traffickers.  Wine helps me destress. But nothing compares to my dog.  If I am writing an intense scene, my dog seems to know. He’ll come by and put his head on the knee not balancing my laptop, reminding me that no matter where I am in my head, my physical person is safe in my house with a furry companion. Petting him after a marathon writing session brings me back to reality. Walking him gets my muscles moving after sitting for hours, hunched over a laptop. Apparently, moving major muscles helps the mind. (More research on that here.) So, here’s to my dog. You’re cheaper than a shrink and you work for food.   

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