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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bad Critique Groups—8 Things That Can Push a Group Over to the Dark Side. Plus a Halloween Contest!

Good critique groups are the easiest (and cheapest) way for new writers to learn the nuts and bolts of the craft and keep those cringe-making first drafts from gumming up agents’ and publishers’ desks (or becoming part of Konrath’s tsunami of crap.)

UPDATE: If you're looking for a good online critique group or beta reader, Lynnette Labelle has formed a critique matchmaking service on her blog. She's got a great questionnaire that I think will weed out any of the following problems. Here's the link to Lynnette's Blog.

Group feedback can help skilled writers as well. A lot of us like to process our work through a group before we send it out into the unforgiving marketplace. (Nobody’s snarkier than the one-star Amazon reviewer.) I’ve read that even Amy Tan still runs her work by her critique group for feedback and suggestions.

I personally belong to a fantastic group that has become like family to me. I trust them with everything from nurturing my sucky first drafts to polishing final copy. We’re all veteran critiquers with long history together. Critiquing is a craft, just like any other aspect of writing, and abilities grow with practice. After fifteen years together, these folks are pros.

But I lucked out. Not all groups are useful. Group-think can be dangerous. One or two empathy-challenged control freaks can goad a group of mild-mannered scribblers into a verbal Lord of the Flies attack-fest that will stifle the most faithful muse and damage a fragile creative spirit.

And you can’t be sure the advice is worth heeding. As journalist Jim Bishop said, “A good writer is not, per se, a good critic. No more so than a good drunk is automatically a good bartender.”

Here are eight things that can make a critique group go sour:

1)     No rules. Without following standard protocol—like no cross-talk and no arguing—meetings can turn into free-for-all shout-fests.

2)     No moderator. Somebody needs to be in control and make sure rules are being followed and emotional arguments don’t derail the procedings.

3)     Misinformation. People who are full of false or outdated ideas of what constitutes good writing can ruin yours. For my tips on bad advice to ignore, click here

4)     The Grammar Taliban. You’re not going to be helped much by critiquers who harp about sentence fragments and how you should never use a preposition to end a sentence with. If you listen to them, your work will end up sounding like a high school term paper.

5)     Power Trippers. I’ve been to critique groups where one member went into a rage when it became obvious the writer being critiqued wasn’t going to make the changes the power tripper thought were required. These people need therapy, not a writing group.

6)     Praiseaholics. To them, any string of words typed onto a piece of paper is genius. Nothing is ever wrong and nothing can be improved. They might even get angry when you come in with a second draft, because the rough draft was “perfect.”

7)     Co-Authors. There’s often somebody sooooo helpful that she tries to re-write your story entirely—to sound exactly like one of hers.

8)     Dogmatic PC/Religious Policepersons. Critiquers who think you should only write stuff about people exactly like you, or them—or stuff that supports one political or religious world view—create tension that’s hard to overcome. Small minds create small books.

I’ve seen a number of wonderful writers pummelled by misguided critique groups. I first met author Catherine Ryan Hyde in her pre-Pay it Forward days when she read at a local critique group. Her story was brilliant. Scenes from it are still vivid in my mind. But the critiquers hated it—mostly because they didn’t think a woman who has never been in combat should be “allowed” to write about a male character fighting a war.

I was only a guest, so I wasn’t allowed to speak, but on the way out, I stopped her and said I thought they were full of crap. She shrugged and said she’d learned to cherry-pick the good stuff and ignore the rest.

But later that year I attended a prestigious writers’ conference where I saw an equally talented, but not as confident young man bullied by a bunch of know-it-all Bozos in a workshop. What was worse, they were egged on by the workshop leader—who seemed more interested in wielding power than in improving anybody’s prose.

I tried to speak to the abused writer afterward—to say how much I disagreed with what had been said—but he dismissed me with a few angry words and took off running. I realized he was close to tears.

That night I tried to write about that awful scene. In my story, the critiqued writer was so damaged by the bullying critiquers, he killed himself. Of course the story was way too melodramatic, so I later changed it to simply the appearance of suicide. Then I added a few more murders (I had to kill off that workshop leader!) plus some romantic sizzle, a couple of ghosts, a cross-dressing dominatrix, and a lot of laughs.

The result was a comic mystery called Ghostwriters in the Sky, set at a Z-list writers’ conference in the wine-and-cattle country north of Santa Barbara, CA. It was originally going to be published by my UK publisher as a sequel to The Best Revenge. I thought it had a great shot at finding an audience, because at the time I was a columnist for a popular writers' magazine, and this was a story I thought most writers would relate to.

But my publisher went belly-up and I slowly discovered that nobody in New York would go near a story about the publishing industry. 

“We live with this stuff every day,” wrote one agent. “We don’t find it entertaining in a novel.”

After a few hundred rejections, I put the book in the file of “not a snowball’s chance in Hades” and wrote a couple more books. But I was sad to lose the story. It’s got the most fun humor and most intricate plotting of any of my work. And Marva, the dominatrix, is one of my all-time favorite characters.

So I sure was pleased when Mark Williams asked to read Ghostwriters last August. He liked it and had some great suggestions of ways to make the convoluted plot less confusing. His suggestions were great, so I jumped into some major revisions.  

And now, ta-da: here it is. The world debut of the ebook of  GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY It's available at the US Amazon.com for $2.99 and the UK Amazon.co.uk for what I assume is the equivalent, which they won't let us Yanks see.

And as a Halloween gift: I’d like to give away a couple of e-books to any of you with e-readers or a reading app on your phone, PC or whatever. (And I can get a Nook version direct from the publisher, since Smashwords can be so slooooow.)

Just leave your name in the comments between now and 9:00 PM on Halloween, Pacific Time. I’ll give everybody a number and use a random number generator to choose two winners, which I will announce on November 1, along with some other exciting news.

I’d also love for you to share any experiences you’ve had with nasty critiquers. Have you ever felt bullied by a critique group? Or has somebody said something so nasty about your writing that you considered giving up? (It’s OK to comment even if you don’t want an e-book. I don’t have a Kindle yet, either.)

You can also read an interview with me today on Morgen Bailey's wonderful blog. Plus I’ve finally set up a Facebook authorpage. If you go over, you can see the covers of some upcoming books (and if you wanted to “like” the page, that would be awesome.)

And for you readers who, like me, haven’t yet been Kindlized: FOOD OF LOVE is now available in paper! You can buy it for $9.95 from Popcorn Press or Amazon.com (eligible for super saver shipping.) 

Coming up in the blog: Next week, on November 6, book reviewer DANIELLE SMITH of Chick Lit Reviews and News  is going to tell us how to query a book blogger, what her pet peeves are, and how to find reviewers in your genre.

Then on November 13, legendary mystery author and writing guru LAWRENCE BLOCK will be guest posting about his personal adventures with self-publishing. Usually you’d have to go to a writers’ conference or an MFA program to hear from a superstar like Mr. Block, so I’m totally jazzed he’s going to be visiting.

And in December, we’ll have a visit from one of my all-time favorite bloggers, Romance author RONI LOREN, who has an erotic romance coming out in January from Berkeley Heat. She’s going to counteract some of that doom and gloom and tell us some of the good aspects of being  published by a Big Six publisher.

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

6 Prescriptions to Cure the Heartbreak of Being Published

This is a post for every author who’s been in rejection hell—hoping, praying, and bribing assorted deities—living for that day when you finally land the book contract that will make all your dreams come true.

You know who you are: you’ve spent forever learning to craft a perfect query, sent it off to carefully chosen agents, and now you’re checking your email hourly, only to find one-line rejections or worse: that existential nothingness that is the trendy new rejection.

I feel your pain. I’ve been there. Like, for years.

But guess what? It could be worse. You could actually get that book contract! According to Ruth Harris, living your dream can sometimes become a nightmare.

Being published in real life is awfully different from what you see on Castle. (BTW, I love me some Nathan Fillion, but do you ever see that guy actually writing?)

Ruth isn’t telling you to give up your dreams. But reality checks are good. They help silence that demon that whispers in your ear that you can't be happy until you get published. Turns out: being published--even with a big, splashy corporation--has very little effect on happiness, and it can actually be a big downer. 

Ruth has worked as an editor at a number of Big Six houses, including Bantam and Dell, as well as making it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list many times—so she knows what she’s talking about here.

Please note: We’re not telling everybody to self publish. Self-pubbing works for some writers but not others. Choosing the small, independent publisher route is a better path for some of us, and others do reach Big Six Nirvana and actually enjoy the process. But it’s good to keep in mind there are going to be major hassles no matter what your level of success.

Also remember that most authors can use a good agent—one who’s keeping up with this ever-morphing industry—so don’t stop sending out those queries. But what you can do is tell that little despair demon to shut the #%*& up: things are tough all over. 

And if you want a little silliness from me this week, jump over to Alex J. Cavanaugh's blog and read the story about How the Trafalmadorians Saved My Writing Career


Rx:  6 PRESCRIPTIONS TO CURE THE HEARTBREAK OF BEING PUBLISHED (or at least dial it down to mere heartburn)

by Ruth Harris

We’re in answered prayers territory here: You signed your contract, the editor just loves your book, it’s set in the schedule, you’re on your way! So what could go wrong?

Let me count the ways.

1. Strikes One, Two & Three: Your Cover, Publicity, and/or Distribution Stinks

You hate the cover. Your agent hates the cover, everyone who sees the cover hates it. You point out that your book is romantic suspense but the cover shouts supernatural horror. You ask for a change but you’re told it’s “too late” — even though we indies know how quickly a cover can be created.

What goes wrong with the cover can go wrong in all sorts of other ways:

  • crappy blurbs,
  • slashed print orders,
  • crummy distribution,
  • no ads, publicity or promotion,
  • lousy reviews or
  • no reviews at all these days now that “no one” reads newspapers any more.
Or, as once happened to me, a new publisher who was intent on proving that her predecessor (the publisher who bought and loved my book and was going to make me a star) didn’t know what he was doing. Guess whose ad budget got slashed? Guess who the publicity department didn’t give beans about? Guess whose option wasn’t picked up?

Rx: grow an armadillo hide. Publishing is a hazardous business with lots of pitfalls along the way. Anyone who’s ever been published can tell you that—with war stories and bruises to prove it.

2.  Johnnie Superstar rains on your parade

You’ve passed the cover hurdle. Your book looks great and your agent even got you a decent publicity and promotion budget. So far, so good. BUT, turns out, Johnnie Superstar’s drugs-rehab-and-kinky-sex-with-celebrities memoir is going to be published the same week as the book you’ve poured your heart into for three years is about to be published.

Where does that leave you? In a word: Nowhere. JS’s books are stacked to the rafters. Yours has two or three copies placed spine-out in the back. If you’re lucky.

Plus, you can forget about radio, TV, newspapers, magazines. Celebs grab attention. You’re a talented writer with a debut book or maybe even a decent track record but you’re no celeb and no one except your Mom is interested.

Rx:  Hire your own PR rep. Your publisher might—or might not—like it but you own PR rep can be effective self-defense. Still, you’re  dependent on what else is happening at the time your book launches: a breaking news story, someone important gets married, divorced or dies, financial markets take a nose dive, a politician’s homosexual affair/corrupt business arrangements/”love child” is revealed.  Make a calculation based on dollars and cents, come up with a budget and stick to it. Maybe luck will break your way—or maybe not—but at least you’ve invested in yourself.

3. Speaking of money—don’t count on it

Your book isn’t going to do very much to help pay your bills. Seriously. Publishing Money comes in VERY slowly and is doled out in teaspoon-sized amounts.  Let’s assume you sign a contract for $15,000 (actually pretty good these days).  Payments are due 1/3 on signing, 1/3 on acceptance, 1/3 on publication.

That means you get three checks for $5000 less the agent’s fee: $4,250. Those checks will probably be spread out over three years. You will pay taxes on that money and will probably never see another dime unless, miracle of miracle, your book earns out. But don’t hold your breath. “Earning out” happens about as often as Gwyneth Paltrow flies Coach.

Rx: Keep your day job.

4.  Upward mobility bites you on the butt

Susie Q is a talented writer, she signs a 3-book deal with a small but flourishing publisher. Her books sell well, she decides to dump her agent and hire a more powerful agent. SQ and new, more powerful agent decide she’s outgrown the small publisher and is ready for the Big 6. Agent holds auction, moves writer to impressive Big 6 house. Susie Q loves her agent, she loves her editor, she thinks her books are getting better and better. And maybe they are but, for whatever reason, they don’t sell.

When Susie’s option comes up, her Big 6 publisher passes. Still, the agent has clout and Publisher X would like to butter up agent-with-clout so Susie gets another deal. Two books, this time, less money, but still Susie will be published by one of the Big 6. Problem is, her new editor leaves, the replacement has no interest in Susie and doesn’t return Susie’s calls. Pretty soon, agent-with-clout doesn’t either.

Basically, SQ will have to start all over again. With a new, less impressive agent and, to “erase” the downward trend of her sales numbers, she will write under a pseudonym.

Rx:  Beware the grass-is-greener syndrome. If your publisher is doing a decent job for you, think carefully before jumping to the next level. Upgrading can turn out well—but not always.

5: Being published isn’t very exciting

 In fact, except for the moment your agent calls to say s/he made the sale, the writer is treated mostly as an irrelevant PITA. Multi-published author ConsueloSaah Baer explains:

“Simon and Schuster bought and published the book [her first] and sold paperback rights to Avon. Publication of three subsequent novels followed with equally renowned publishers and foreign rights sales. Galleys arrived, book jackets arrived, bound books arrived but I couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t much joy in it. I was lucky, wasn’t I? One day I stopped writing completely and could not galvanize the will to return. It was only in Spring of 2011 that I figured out why I, like many writers, went silent after initial success.

“Imagine my surprise when I realized that traditional publishing was total bleakness interrupted by ten minutes of happiness when your agent called to say she had sold your book. Next came a year of silence while the book was “produced”. Once the book was edited, the writer was uncoupled from the project and advised to ‘forget about the book and go write the next one.’ Publication was brief and uneventful. The salesmen (you heard right) decided the print run and if it was in the low five digits, the book was DOA.

“Two years of your life had been eaten up. The Prozac months followed.”

Rx: Go indie. The book is yours and now the control is yours, too.

6.  Your wildest dreams come true--the downside

 You make a ton of money, your books are everywhere, the movies come calling and the movie actually gets made. With Brad Pitt starring as you! So now you’re a millionaire, you’re invited to the best parties, if you’re a guy, beautiful women will come on to you. You’ve got it made, right? Champagne and caviar every day, right?

Wrong. You now have to deal with tax attorneys, accountants and whether or not to move to a state—one you might not like all that much—for tax considerations. You also have to deal with dollar-drunkenness—think of the stars and athletes who end up dead broke and you’ll understand what I mean.

Even so, you’re confident you can handle all that but, as a mega bestselling author once told me: “You don’t drop your friends. Your friends drop you.”

What he meant was that his friends couldn’t handle their jealousy and envy and so they stopped hanging out with him. Sad, but true.

Rx:  Grow your armadillo hide even thicker. There’s a dark lining to every silver cloud. People you love—even including your own family—might not necessarily love you back, not after you’re a lot richer and more famous than they are. 

So, tell me, writers, if you’ve been published, was the experience all that and a bag of chips—or something else? If you haven’t been published yet, what are your dreams/hopes/fantasies and do you think you’ll be able to cope with success?

Coming up in the blog: We’ve got two fabulous blog guests coming in November—

  • Legendary mystery author and writing guru LAWRENCE BLOCK will be guest posting about his personal adventures with self-publishing. Usually you’d have to go to a writers’ conference or an MFA program to hear from a superstar like Mr. Block, so I’m totally jazzed he’s going to be visiting.
  • Also in December, Anne will be interviewing agent Laurie McLean, of the Larsen Pomada Agency, who is going to be giving us some very exciting news. 

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Sunday, October 16, 2011

When Landing an Agent Lands You Nowhere: Rick Daley’s Story

While I’m immersed in revision hell with two books and hopping around the Interwebz trying to promote two others that just came out—in case anybody wonders, this isn’t something I’d recommend—we’ve got a fascinating guest post.

Meet Rick Daley, the man behind the Public Query Slushpile, and author of the Middle Grade fantasy, THE MAN IN THE CINDER CLOUDS

When I heard that Mr. Public Query Slushpile—the man who has helped so many writers to learn to query and land an agent—chose to self-publish, I had to find out more. I knew he had an agent, so what was up?

It turns out Rick had an experience similar to mine: I’ve had four different agents, but none of them could sell my books. Two dropped me after a round of submissions and two left the business.

It’s an emotional rollercoaster that can break your heart. That initial acceptance by an A-list agent is such a high—then there’s the slow slide into disappointment when the editorial rejections come in—then, sometimes, an exhilarating spike when an editor loves it and agrees to take it to a meeting—then another kerplunk when the marketing people nix it. This can go on for a year or more. With me, all the agents dropped me when the first book failed to get a place at a big house.

But Rick’s agent suggested he write another book, hoping she’d have better luck with a two-book offering. In the meantime, unfortunately, she took on way more clients than she could handle (with today’s fast-sinking advances, agents have to sell a lot more books for a lot more clients to make a living.)

So Rick finished the book and waited. And waited. And waited. Nearly a year after he sent the manuscript to her, she still hadn’t even read it. 

He knew he had a fabulous, unique idea that was just right for the Christmas market. But he didn’t want to wait for Christmas 2013, which would be the earliest it could come out, even if the agent loved it and was able to sell it immediately.

So he fired her and went indie.

I think I probably would have done the same. But it must have been tough for him to give up that agent/Big 6 dream to go off to publish on his own.

Here’s his story--(plus some info on what sounds like a perfect gift for any MG-ers on your Christmas list.)

Where is The Man in the Cinder Clouds?
by Rick Daley


A team of climatologists stationed in the Artic reported a startling discovery: part of an ancient book found embedded in an ice core. After days of digging, they retrieved the rest of the book from deep within the ice. The book’s age and origin are unknown, but its title and text have been successfully translated, and it’s a story you have to read to believe. THE MAN IN THE CINDER CLOUDS reveals new truths behind one of the world’s most extraordinary legends, and exposes the roots of age-old traditions that are still in practice today.

Back in 2003 I came up with an idea for a story: What if the melting ice caps revealed a book…a very old book that was chock full of ancient secrets. A book that told an intriguing tale about the origins of western culture’s most well-known figures…

I came up with a whole mess of ideas. I clung to them, and jotted them down, pulling them into a semi-cohesive narrative. A mere page and a half, but within in it, the central piece to a tale that would grow to be a story-within-a-story (within a story). I saved it in My Documents and went back to work on my first novel, a paranormal thriller.

Fast forward to spring 2010. The first novel had been completed, but I stalled mid-way through a much-needed re-write.  I had other irons to tend to in my literary fire. I had an agent, and a kids’ chapter book (RUDY TOOT-TOOT) just went out on submission. I needed to decide what to work on next: my re-write, a new kids’ book, or that end of the world satire that is most definitely NOT a kids’ book.

I went with the new kids’ book. It made sense, because I was sure to get some offers for RUDY TOOT-TOOT. My agent had been an editor for 20+ years. She was well-respected and connected, not to mention a published author herself. It had to happen.

I waited confidently.

While I waited, I lost my job. The financial stress was difficult, but fortunately I did have some savings to fall back on. I hammered away at a new manuscript while searching for new job opportunities. This story had been in my head since 2003, and once I started writing it, it just flowed. Then moments of pure inspiration hit (Thanks Muse!) and the story became a special tale about the man in the cinder clouds, and his search for his true family one Christmas long ago.

I read through it and edited it, then emailed the finished manuscript to my agent and five trusted critique partners. I also sent it to my family and friends, including a 5th grade girl who is an avid reader. I read part of it out loud to my son’s third-grade class. All (save my agent, who did not respond) said they liked the concept, and had varying levels of criticism ranging from “This should be published” (opinion of the 5th grader) to being torn apart, shredded, and spat upon (figuratively, of course) by one critique partner.

A month passed. No word from my agent. I emailed her, politely asking about RUDY as well as the new manuscript. Nada.

At least I got a new job. 

I digested all the criticism and went back to the manuscript. I read and revised obsessively. Once a month I reached out to my agent. No response.

After six months I sent my agent an email to let her know I was going to look for a new agent and needed to know which editors had received RUDY TOOT-TOOT so I could let the new agent know the book’s history. After a six-month void in contact with my agent, I finally received an apologetic reply via email and a follow-up phone call. It seemed we might be able to work it out. She hadn’t read the new manuscript because she had been bogged down. She had taken on too many new clients too fast, and had to deal with an illness in the family. She was still fond of my writing, and disappointed RUDY didn’t fetch any offers.

I won’t lie…I didn’t want to go down the query path again and have to find a new agent. The lack of communication was concerning, but she was great to work with when she was engaged. I urged her to read my new manuscript. It was early December…the perfect time to read a bold re-imagining of the origins of Santa. She promised to read it before Christmas and get back to me the first week in January.

She didn’t call or email in the first week of January. I reached back out to her the following week. She acknowledged her tardiness, and asked for one more week. I gave it to her. I understand being busy, especially around the holidays. A week passed and again she hadn’t read anything and asked for more time. Shortly thereafter, we parted ways professionally. She never read a single page.

My new book was good. I knew it. I had to decide: Go the traditional route and try to find a new agent, or self-publish?

The traditional route would take a couple years. First getting an agent, then submitting to a publisher. I would be lucky if my book hit the stores by Christmas 2012. Most likely 2013.

Self-publishing I could have it ready for Christmas in July 2011.

While I contemplated the decision, I read the book again. A tweak here or there. (How can there still be typos after dozens of readings? It boggles the mind.) I read it again and made some more adjustments, adding nuances, grace notes to character revelations. I came to the realization that more changes would make it different, but not necessarily better. A very trusted critique partner agreed with me.

Decision time.

I chose self-publishing. I’m looking at this venture as a start-up company (something I have experience with), and the idea is exciting. I think the timing is right…for me personally, and for The Man in the Cinder Clouds.

So where is The Man in the Cinder Clouds?

He’s waiting for you, dear reader, at Amazon.com and BarnesandNobel.com.The Man in the Cinder Clouds is there to show you what really happened that Christmas long ago…To show you how the legend of Santa began.

About the Author:

Rick Daley has been writing professionally for over 15 years. His experience includes marketing copy for print and web, press releases, business proposals, training and technical manuals, and whitepapers. His essays, ranging from family life during the holidays to his first skydiving experience, have been featured in The Columbus Dispatch. An experienced public speaker with a background in music and theater, Rick has also authored and delivered numerous training seminars and workshops. Rick lives in Lewis Center, Ohio with his wife and two sons (and a neurotic schnauzer).   

You can read more about Rick in a great interview on Susan Kaye Quinn's blog. And do visit Susan’s indie book fair on October 25, which will include my new mystery with MWiDP, THE GATSBY GAME. 

 What about you, scriveners? Would you have done what Rick did? Have you ever been disappointed by an agent? Have you reached the point when you realize that any more changes to your WIP “would make it different, but not necessarily better”?

Want to win a FREE copy OF my romantic comedy-thriller FOOD OF LOVE? They’ll be giving away three at Chick Lit Central, the Blog from October 17th through October 23rd.

Don’t forget that our November guest will be superstar mystery author, MWA Grand Master and legendary writing guru: Lawrence Block  He’ll be right here on this blog on November 13th!

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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Dueling Agent Advice on Blogging. Who the $!%# Do You Believe?

You’ve probably been reading a lot of conflicting advice recently on the subject of writers and blogs.

Some experts are telling us blogging is dead.

Agent Wendy Lawton wrote a post on September 15th called “What’s Not Working” and asserted that blogging—and most social networking—is a waste of time for debut authors, because the market is already saturated.

“I wouldn’t recommend a writer start blogging in order to publicize his book in today’s climate. It would be tough to picture a scenario where the outcome would justify the means.”

Indie author Scott Nicholson also de-emphasized the importance of blogging last week with his post on the Writer's Guide to E-Publishing. He presented the following surprising facts:

  • John Locke hasn’t blogged since June 22, and hardly ever gets comments. (Scott says “Locke’s genius can’t be reproduced, nor can his timing, situation, and luck.”)

  • Amanda Hocking had maybe 200 blog followers at the time she got her seven-figure book contract. Scott attributes her success to “timing, Amazon algorithms, and luck.”

  • J.A. Konrath admits his blog doesn’t sell books. He also rarely shows up on Twitter and Facebook. “And he’s the first to admit he got lucky.”

Yeah, I know. All that surprised me too.

Also this week—Nathan Bransford’s forums had a discussion about how blogging is sucky idea for writers. 

However, the blogosphere is mostly filled with the opposite information

Not only do most experts agree that blogging is thriving, but some agents say prospective authors need to be überbloggers with stats like Nathan Bransford’s in order to be publishable.

Agent Rachelle Gardner wrote a post on platform on October 3, saying the minimum we must do is: 

“…shoot for 500 fans on your Facebook profile page and 15,000 monthly page views to your blog.”

Agent Andy Ross went even further in a comment on Meghan Ward's blog He seems to think you need the readership of the HuffPo and the Klout rating of Justin Beiber if you don’t want spend your life in the slushpile:

“It is going to take quite a bit to impress a publisher on how many hits you get on a blog. Probably 100,000 unique views a month is the ball park. But even that isn’t good enough.”

This is mind-boggling. Getting even 15,000 hits a month would be miraculous for a new blogger. I don’t always get that many, and I have an Alexa rating of 363,000 (most writer’s blogs are in the millions.) Roni Loren says she sometimes doesn’t hit that number either, and she’s one of the most popular author-bloggers in the business, with thousands of followers on several blogs.

Then, just to heap a little more pressure on us, agent Janet Reid told us last week:

“if you blog…don’t blog about writing.”

Meghan Ward and Kristen Lamb  posted similar advice.

So here we are, a bunch of blogging writers, mostly—oh, the shame—blogging about writing, and none of us have anywhere near the hits corporate marketers say we should.

So what should we do—give our blogs last rites and lumber back to the writing cave? Maybe plan to sell our books from our cars in the WalMart parking lot or make paper airplanes of our cover art and shoot them through the subway at rush hour?

Or should we forget about the WIP, the day job, the family, and those embarrassing self-indulgences like eating and sleeping, and blog, FB and Tweet 24/7 until we become Kings of all Social Media?

I don’t think we should do either. I think we should shut out all the noise and figure out what works for us, individually. Life is not one size fits all. Neither is social media.

If you’re blogging because you think you’re going to make money from the blog itself—by “monetizing”—like the guy who sparked the forumdiscussion on Nathan’s blog, you’re wasting your time. If you’re a published author who’s never blogged before and you’re doing it because your publisher told you to get out there and hawk your wares, resist the pressure. Blogging is not about direct sales. You’ll fail miserably.

But if you’re blogging because you like it and you enjoy connecting with other writers and potential readers, then by all means keep it up. And don’t listen to marketing experts or worry about your stats.

There are two major things wrong with listening to professional marketers when they talk about selling books.

1) Marketers don’t know you can’t sell books as if they’re meatloaf pans.

Bookselling isn't about broadcasting a message to hundreds of thousands. It's about hand-selling to people who like and trust you. Bookstore clerks used to do that, but we don’t have many of them any more. Writers who come across as smart and trustworthy and approachable are going to sell more books than some guy walking around wearing sandwich boards that say “buy my book”—even if he’s walking in the middle of Times Square.

2) Marketers don’t understand the writing blogosphere.

Aspiring writers who blog are part of a community. We make friends with each other. We get support. We network. A lot of us talk about writing and publishing. Because, um, that’s what we have in common.

Friends are very important in this business.

Without my writing/publishing blog, the following things would never have happened:

  • I wouldn’t have heard about the Literary Lab, who published me in two of their anthologies—keeping a spark of hope alive during the dark days of endless rejection.

  • I wouldn’t have met a publishing insider like Nathan Bransford, who gave me a guest post on his blog that showcased my writing and opened a lot of doors.

  • I would never have dreamed I could meet a NYT bestselling author like Ruth Harris, who is now my blog partner.

  • I wouldn’t have got to know Catherine Ryan Hyde as an equal as well as a fan—and she never would have invited me to collaborate with her on a book.

  • I never would have met either of my publishers.

  • I wouldn’t have friends who write book reviews, do interviews and invite me to guest blog.

In fact, without this blog—and the support of all my wonderful readers and fellow bloggers—I’m pretty sure I would have given up fiction writing by now. I might have given up writing altogether. Not only would I not have five books coming out this fall—I’d probably have been an out-of-print has-been forever.

“You’ve got to reach readers, not writers,” the gurus keep telling us. But newsflash: Writers read! Probably more than most people.

Do we want to reach readers who don’t write? You betcha. But there’s time for that after we get published.

And that’s what I want to tell all these “gurus.” Things take time. There’s a continuum. First start blogging for community—and after you’re published, your blog can evolve to include fans.

Nobody jumps into the blogosphere and becomes Neil Gaiman with a first post—especially somebody who isn’t even published yet. Anybody who expects you to do that doesn’t understand blogging.

The problem is that marketers are thinking of a blog as a storefront—a writer/merchant sitting alone in a little shop waiting for customers to show up.

But that’s not how it works. A blog is more like a place at a writers’ conference.

If you’re an unpublished author and you go to a writers’ conference expecting to make a six figure deal the minute you walk in the door you’ll be majorly disappointed. But if you go to learn and connect with potential readers and make friends who will be supportive of your career, you can have a fantastic experience.

If you’re a published author and you walk into a writers’ conference hauling a cart full of books and push them on everybody you meet, you’re going to have a pretty bad time, too. But if you go to share information, connect with people and have fun, you’re going to sell some books. (The booksellers at our local Central Coast Writers conference said they had fantastic sales during the two days of the conference—much better sales than at the reader-oriented book festival the next day.)

So don’t let people dis you for “preaching to the choir.” Or steer you into establishing a niche blog where you can only talk about one subject. If you’re interested in jelly doughnuts or Byzantine history or extreme cage fighting—certainly, blog about them. But if you’re interested in writing and want to meet other writers, blog about that, too.

Later, when you’re a published author, you can decide if you want to keep blogging about writing, or if you want to change focus. Most writing blogs alter a little after the author is published.

But if you start out with a blog entirely devoted to jelly doughnuts, what happens if you write a book about extreme cage fighting? I see no point in painting yourself into a corner at the beginning of your career. Or in starting a whole bunch of separate blogs for each subject you end up writing books about.

Blog about what makes you unique—all the stuff you have to offer. Blogging isn’t about screaming “buy my book.” It’s about presenting yourself to the world as an interesting person whose stuff might be worth reading.

Should all writers blog? No. Some very fine authors don’t have the knack for it, or just don’t like it—and it shows.

Should you let somebody pressure you into giving up valuable writing time in order to pump up your blog stats? No way.

“When I feel like I’m spending more time on social media than I am on my book…[that’s] counterproductive. Because without a great book, what’s there to market?”

Some other great bloggers weighed in on this subject in the last couple of weeks:

Romance author Roni Loren wrote an insightful post on September 21 titled “Is Blogging Dead” and said that even if blogging is dead, she’s going to blog because she likes it—plus it’s a great way to connect with readers.

Lawyer/author Passive Guy continued the discussion on Sept 24. He agreed with Roni that a blog is a good way for published authors to connect with fans, but repeated that it’s not the answer for everybody.

 Blogging isn’t dead, but blogging is an art and a skill that needs to be learned”

And I especially liked author Lydia Sharp’s response:

“We will always need blogs for writers as long as there are new writers looking for a place to start, and as long as there are veteran writers looking for a fresh take on something, and as long as there is a venue for blogging. 

I think in the end it’s up to you and your own gut feelings. Is blogging rewarding for you personally? Do you enjoy the process of writing posts and interacting with commenters? Great. Keep blogging. Are you feeling pressured to start a blog, but don’t feel sure about making the commitment? Get your feet wet first as a commenter and guest blogger. Have you been blogging a while, but feel burned out? Take a break and turn it over to guest posters the way Konrath is doing, or just shut it down and make room for new bloggers.

And if anybody tells you it’s impossible to get published unless you’ve got the stats of Snooki or Justin Beiber, give them your pity and move on. Corporate publishing marketers have a 90% failure rate. That’s right: 90% of Big Six books lose money. So shut out their noise and do what works for you.

As the great man the world is mourning this week said in the speech that has now gone viral:

“Your time is limited. Don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”


What about you, scriveners? Do you think blogging is dead? Or that every aspiring author should have the blogging stats of the Daily Beast? Do you feel pressured to have a blog even though you just don’t wanna?

Next week we’re going to have an insightful guest post from Rick Daley, Mr. Public Query Slushpile his ownself. If you want more from me, I'm interviewing with Jennifer at Books, Personally on October 10.

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Gatsby Game is Out!

My life continues to zoom along at warp speed. Mark Williams just told me that THE GATSBY GAME is up at Amazon this morning--a week ahead of schedule.

It's a book I had to write--one that's been sitting in my head  for decades. It's based on the mysterious death of David Whiting during the filming of the Burt Reynolds film, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. I knew David personally, and I've always wanted to tell my theory of how he might have died, based on what I knew of his quirky personality. (It was ruled an accident, but many people call it a suicide, and some think it was murder.)  The characters in THE GATSBY GAME are fictional, but some of the scenes really happened--and David was as obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald as my character Alistair Milbourne. A couple of letters that serve as clues in the novel are real--and I still have them.

This has been called one of Hollywood's Most Notorious Scandals of all time,  Here is what writer Phil Nugent said about it in his article in Nerve.com. Note he says David Whiting committed suicide, which was probably not the case.

#7: The STARS: Sarah Miles and Burt Reynolds

THE SCANDAL: In 1972, Miles and Reynolds, both of whose careers were just taking off, co-starred in the Western romance The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. In the movie, the rough outlaw played by Reynolds abducts and eventually wins the heart of the flinty English beauty played by Miles, in the course of a story that requires her to suffer at the hands of crueler, less photogenic men. Midway through filming, Miles herself was physically attacked by her business manager, David Whiting, and sought sanctuary by fleeing to Reynolds' quarters; the next morning, Whiting was found to have committed suicide.
THE FALLOUT: At first, the creepy synchronicity between the movie's plot and what happened on the set inspired a certain amount of interest and rumor-mongering, and Esquire ran a purplish article by Ron Rosenbaum titled "The Corpse as Big as he Ritz."...[Miles'] failure to become a star probably had little to do with the unhappy fate of David Whiting. As for Burt Reynolds, Cat Dancing was a blip in his career, sandwiched between his first big hits Deliverance and White Lightning, and was almost instantaneously forgotten."

In spite of what Nugent says above, the scandal did have a terrible impact on Sarah Miles. It destroyed her marriage (although she and Sir Robert Bolt did eventually re-marry) and her career came to a screeching halt. She's detailed these events in her fascinating memoirs, Serves Me Right and Bolt from the Blue

I've never met Miss Miles, but I have great sympathy for her. I think she was only guilty of too much compassion for David, who was a brilliant, tragic, and sometimes comically self-deluded man/child.

I have made the nanny the protagonist of the novel, giving her the name Nicky Conway, echoing the detached narrator of The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway. Although there was a real nanny suspected in David's case, I know nothing about her, and Nicky is not meant to represent her in any way. 

I changed the setting of the story from the small town of Gila Bend, Arizona to the small California oil town of Taft, for no particular reason except I've always wanted to set a story in Taft, which has a tragi-comic history of its own (it was originally named Moron) and it's closer to me than Gila Bend.

THE GATSBY GAME (with a forward by Saffina Desforges) is available as an ebook at at amazon.com and at amazon.co.uk, and will soon be up at B&N and iTunes, and will be available in paper in 4-6 weeks. 

This book would never have been published if it weren't for my blog, so I'll be talking a little about the rumored "death of the blog" in my Sunday post, and I'd love to have readers weigh in on whether they think blogging (or not blogging) has impacted their writing careers.

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Sunday, October 2, 2011

The $79 Kindle and the Most Interesting Publisher in the World

OK, I can finally say it: I have three brand new novels coming out this fall!

Within a couple of weeks, THE GATSBY GAME will debut as an e-book. It’s a stand-alone mystery set in the Mad Men era that proposes a fictional solution to one of Hollywood's most scandalous mysteries. (It's #7 on the top 10 list, if you follow that link.) 

The e-book will be published by a cutting-edge new e-publisher: Mark Williams International Digital Publishing.

Two comic mysteries will follow with MWiDP: GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY and SHERWOOD, LTD. They are the first two in a series featuring a perennially penniless socialite and her gay best friend.

Yeah but…sez you—what about Popcorn Press? Haven’t you already signed with them? Aren’t they re-launching your two UK books, FOOD OF LOVE and THE BEST REVENGE? Haven’t they been very, very good to you?

Yup. But because both of these presses belong to a whole new “united we stand” type of small publisher, Popcorn will partner with MWiDP and publish paper versions of the three ebooks. Paper copies will be available at the Popcorn Press site (and amazon.com) about one month after the debut of the ebooks. And yes! Paper copies of FOOD OF LOVE are available for pre-order at the Popcorn Press site right now for only $9.99. 

So who/what is Mark Williams International?

Because MWiDP only officially launched this week, I haven’t been able to talk about it before, but if you follow this blog, you’ve seen Mark Williams’ comments to many of our posts. He’s the “quiet half” of the UK’s phenomenally successful writing duo known as Saffina Desforges. He’s also mentored a number of other UK writers to bestselling superstardom.

After zooming up to the top of the UK’s Kindle lists—and staying there for months—Mark and Saffi have been courted by some of the biggest agencies in New York and Hollywood. But they turned them all down. They realized there’s a lot more money (as well as freedom) in the indie publishing world.

But Mark, who has been a teacher and editor for many years, knew a lot of writers (like me) who don’t have the time or entrepreneurial skills to self-publish. He also ran into many successful US indies who didn’t have a clue how to break into the European markets.

So he came up with the idea for a company which is a mix of small e-publisher, self-publishing facilitator, and marketer. They will provide professional vetting, editing, cover design, coding and uploading--and also use the networking and collective marketing developed by indie Kindle authors. MWiDP will also take on successful indie authors who want to expand their markets on other continents.

It sounded so good, I jumped in, even though it meant turning down three offers from the traditional publishing world: three offers I would have killed for a few months ago.

Here’s what happened to me at the beginning of September—just as I was madly preparing my three presentations for the Central Coast Writers Conference. In the space of less than 48 hours, I had a request for a read from one of my dream agents, an offer of representation from a top agency, and an offer of a read of my full manuscript from an editor at a prestigious mid-sized publisher. I also had requested full manuscripts awaiting reads at two other agencies.

But each offer had strings.
  • #1 was an initial request for a partial—the beginning of a road that usually takes over a year and so far has had about a 95% failure rate for me.
  • #2 was a maybe-offer conditional on a draconian rewrite that involved cutting most of the mystery elements, removing the gay characters and subplots and turning the book into something I wouldn't feel good about promoting.
  • #3 was from a company I’d recently discovered has a seriously author-unfriendly contract.
  • The two fulls had been sitting at the agencies for over 6 months with no word from the agents, in spite of several inquiries, so I had no idea if they were still being considered. (More and more agencies no longer bother to send rejections for requested manuscripts--even fulls.) 
I mentioned my dilemma in an email to Mark--and he let me in on his as-yet-to-be announced publishing company plans.

Twenty-four hours later, I’d joined Mark and Saffi’s new venture. Here’s my page at their new website

What am I—nuts? Isn't this just drinking the Kool-Aid that Janet Reid warned us about?

Maybe. And I absolutely do not recommend this for everybody. Especially for newbies. I think most first-time authors should try the traditional route first. Even if it's only to build up some soul-calluses. Publishing a just-finished first novel usually ends in disappointment and often discourages good writers from staying in the game.

But for me, it’s already looking like a smart move. One of the major factors that swayed me was that Mark could get my ebooks out quickly. He'd already read two of the three manuscripts and knew they were almost ready to go.

He also told me this will be the “Christmas of the Kindle.” He predicted Kindles would get very cheap for the holidays—under $99—and said they'll be THE gift. He expects this holiday season to be the hottest e-book buying moment in history.

And guess what happened on Wednesday this week? Amazon announced its lowest price Kindle will now sell for…$79. And the new Kindle Fire--an ereader/tablet that competes with the iPad, will cost only $199 (a loss to Amazon they expect will pay off in other sales.)

So I think Mark has a pretty clear crystal ball.

He pointed out that in the three or more years it would take to grind even one of my books through the traditional publishing machine, the whole publishing world will have changed. There may not be any more big brick and mortar bookstores. That window in Barnes and Noble where I’ve fantasized seeing my work will probably display only Nooks and Snookibooks. E-books will reign.

So I realized that for me--after fifteen years of bloodying my knuckles on New York doors--it made sense to get all my books out right now. (This isn't all the books I've written, BTW--I've got some practice ones in the files that will never see Kindle-light.)

Mark certainly doesn’t recommend that everybody take out their rejected manuscripts and throw them on Amazon (or submit them to MWiDP.) But I had three finished, multi-critiqued, edited new mysteries. (And yes, Mark did ask for more edits and I’m in the process of killing some darlings, but his suggestions improved the books instead of gutting them.) 

Do I recommend this for everybody? Again I repeat: no. Going the indie or semi-indie route is likely to lead to disappointment if you don't have a body of work and you’ve only been at this game a little while. Writing narrative is a craft that takes years to perfect. You don't open a restaurant after your first cooking lesson.

The reason this move is best for me is: not only will MWiDP make my ebooks available immediately, but my chances of acceptance by the Big Six are abysmal. I only recently figured out why I've been getting so many "I absolutely loved this, but..." rejections.

1) I’ve been previously published, without stupendous sales numbers.
2) My work doesn’t fit into a neat genre category.
3)  I write funny. Humor is subjective and can’t please all of the people all of the time.
4) Funny books by women are often lumped together as chick lit—the most hated genre in New York.

If you’re just starting your writing journey, please don't let me keep you from pursuing your personal publishing dreams. By the time you have two or three books ready to go, the industry will have settled a bit from the e-revolution and you’ll have many more options than we have now. The Big Six may not be as big and Amazon and maybe Apple might be the most desirable publishers. There will also be lots of collectives and small e-publishers like MWiDP to choose from.

If you’re in the process of looking for an agent, please keep at it. Agents will have very different job descriptions in a few years, but having a savvy agent in your corner will always help your career. I’d love to have one myself.

But right now, with all these books ready to go, it makes sense for me to join Mark's new venture and be ready for “the Christmas of the Kindle.”

So who is this Mark Williams dude?

He’s not a guy to toot his own horn. He doesn’t even post a picture of himself on his blog. What I’ve been able glean from his emails and posts is:

  • He’s a very good writer and editor.
  • And a phenomenally smart guy.
  • He’s based in London.
  • He spends a lot of time traveling the world, teaching third-world children and building schools.
  • He first became interested in electronic publishing because of the opportunity it provides to get books to children in remote parts of the world.  
  • He’s traveled and taught in lots of dangerous places, like Soviet Russia and Saddam’s Iraq. He has braved revolutions and lost dear friends in horrific civil wars.
  • Right now, he’s helping get solar power to a primitive village in West Africa so they can use computers and electronic readers—an effort partly funded by money from his book sales. (He asks that when you get your new Kindles, you consider donating the used ones to his project.)
  • He is apparently living in a mud hut. I don’t know if that’s a metaphorical hut, but it doesn’t sound like the Hilton.
  • I’ve got to admit I’ve done a little searching the old Interwebz for a picture—but a name like Mark Williams is as generic as, well, Anne Allen, so I haven’t got a clue how to find him. Unless maybe he’s that "most interesting guy" from the beer commercials:
So here I go on another publishing adventure….whee!

So how do you feel about all this, scriveners? Are you ready to take the self-pub or indie-collective plunge? Holding out for the traditional publishing dream? Willing to go indie, but want an agent to guide you? Or are you a successful US indie who’d like help getting into the European and Asian markets?
I'm starting little blog tour in my own slow way this week. I reveal a few personal secrets in a guest post at Karen Jones Gowan's blog, Coming Down the Mountain due to post next Friday, Oct. 7th, and I spilled more beans at Prue Batten’s ‘Mesmered” blog: (with a great comment from Mark Williams hisownself.) Plus I've got some very nice cyber ink from Danielle Smith over at Chick Lit Reviews. Anybody who'd like an interview or blog visit, do let me know (and anybody willing to do a review, I'll be forever in your debt.)

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