Thursday, February 28, 2013

Writer's Block Rx

by Michelle Gagnon

Recently, since NPR seems to be running an interminable series on African leaf cutter ants, I've devoted much of my commute to listening to podcasts instead. And thanks to a tip from a friend, I've become hooked on one that's absolutely genius, and perfect for writers and/or fans of the craft (or anyone, really): The Downey Files. Created by the Chris Downey, former writer and producer for the TV shows The King of Queens and Leverage, the description says it all:

"Welcome to 'The Downey Files,' a brand new weekly podcast that explores the half baked pitches and movie ideas Chris has scribbled down on beer coasters and cocktails napkins through the years. Each week, Chris sits down with a new guest to hash out these ideas in full and, you guessed it, hilarity ensues."

My favorite episode is "The Weekend," where Downey and Kirk J. Rudell hash out the plot of a father/daughter heist film in just under an hour. And you know what? By the end, they've pitched a movie that I'd pay $10 to go see. Listening to them spitball ideas back and forth, it struck me that as novelists, a format like this could prove invaluable. After all, virtually every television show has a room full of talented writers collaborating on each episode; even for films, frequently outside writers are brought in to "punch up" a script.

Yet we novelists sit there all by our lonesome, trying to muddle out plotlines without little or no outside assistance. How many times have I prowled back and forth between my office and the refrigerator, trying to figure out how to rescue "X" from peril in a wholly original way? I'm frequently downright desperate for a fresh pair of eyes, and there are only so many times you can hit up family and friends.

Imagine that the next time you're hopelessly stuck on a plot point, you were suddenly given the opportunity to throw half a dozen people at the problem, with everyone brainstorming a solution together. I'm convinced that if there was a team available to push me through the inevitable ruts in the road, I could probably shave a month off the time it takes to write each novel. And with all that newfound spare time, perhaps I could help other writers surmount their blocks. And so on.

This might be a pipe dream-I'm just spitballing here myself, after all. But I think there's something to this idea. Maybe we could form a "Writer's Block Helpline," or start a listserv. I'm open to any and all suggestions- and if you get a chance, check out the Downey podcasts. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

An Excess of Books

Nancy J. Cohen

What do you do when you have too many books in your house, and you can’t possibly read them all? Give away the print books and switch to Ebooks? That’s one solution. I prefer to be selective about the print books and combine my reading of paper copies with my Kindle reads.

Recently I had the occasion to sort through two cartons of books sitting on my dining room floor since who knows when. They contained an assortment of books obtained from conferences and booksignings. This examination became necessary when our recent ceiling remodeling had us moving loose items of furniture from the room, and we noticed flying insects along with coffee grounds material against one wall. And—uh,oh—they were in the boxes of books as well. My bookshelves are overflowing; I had no choice except to box up the surplus.

I reverently removed each book, dusted it off, shook out the pages, and stacked them on top of my washer in the laundry room. Noting the dust on the open bins in which I’d kept them, I resolved to obtain some sealed plastic containers from Target. But first, I really should decide which books to keep.

After making an appointment with the termite inspector, I proceeded to weed through the dozens of books. I made a pile out of the ones I knew I’d never read, the ones whose pages were yellowing, and the ones that only mildly appealed to me. The remainders I put into those plastic containers I’d just bought for that purpose. Hopefully these closed bins would not allow insects to penetrate even though it might not be ideal for preservation.

So what to do with the giveaways? These are not books I’d written, mind you. Those are in cartons as well and need a thorough inspection. But these discards deserve just as much respect. So here are the choices in giving away print books:

1. Donate them to the local library for their book sale.
2. Trade them in at a used bookstore and get some hard to find backlist titles in return.
3. Give them to a booklover who will enjoy them.
4. Bring them to an assisted living facility or other needy place that will accept them.
5. Donate them to the library in your housing community building, if there is one. If not, you could possibly start a library there with permission.
6. Offer a couple of dozen each as a contest prize (but only the newer books). I got this idea from another writer who does a Rafflecopter contest for her gently used books.
7. One of my FB friends suggested setting up a Sidewalk Lending Library. Maybe she has nothing else to do, but I'd rather just donate the books to the community center and set one up there. Plus you might need a vendor license for this option.

Do you have any further suggestions? And no, a bonfire is not an acceptable option. Where do you store your excess TBR print books if not on your shelves?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Is social media developing a personality disorder?

Like most people, I spend a lot of time online. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn--you name an Internet watering hole, and it's likely that its  Login barkeep knows my name.
But recently my love affair with social media has turned sour.

It started when my Twitter account started texting my cell phone. Suddenly my inbox got flooded with messages. Hundreds of them, from people I didn't know. All the messages were written in Portuguese. A bit of sleuthing revealed that my account had been hacked. After spending an hour deleting the reams of messages that had collected over two days, I changed my password. And voila! I immediately lost my fan base of piratas eletrĂ´nicos.

Then came a new wave of messages, purportedly from people I do know. These missives were mildly unpleasant. They said intriguing things like, "Oh my God, this person is saying horrible things about you online."  They included a link for me to click. Somehow I knew that if I clicked that link, I'd be the next person in line sending news of horrible rumors to all my contacts. Against huge temptation, I resisted clicking the links. (If you really want to read horrible things about me online, just check out my 1-star Amazon reviews).

t's not just Twitter that's gone wacky. Every day comes fresh news of some kind of Facebook privacy or hacking scare. Every so often I read desperate-sounding messages from friends, in which they disclaim some bizarre message that had been sent in their names. Yesterday someone sent out a dark warning that hackers were posting pornographic pictures on my timeline. The catch: I can't see the pictures, but everyone else can. (That one turned out to be a hoax.)

And then there's LinkedIn. I don't use LinkedIn much, but one day I made a minor change to my profile. Somehow that simple update auto-triggered a "connection request" to be sent out to everyone in my contact book. Those contacts included a couple of ex-boyfriends who, trust me, I don't want to be linked to again.

So what's happening with these social media sites? My relationship with them has gone from fun to semi-fearful. It feels like I've been dating  a guy who seemed charming and easygoing at first, only to discover that he's a passive-aggressive control freak with a secret cyberporn habit.

I have a theory about the whole thing. I think social media sites change their character when they go public. Once the bean counters start trying to figure out ways to wring money from their user base, a la Facebook and LinkedIn, the whole experience goes cockeyed. You have to start triple-guarding your privacy from that moment on. 

And let's talk about hackers for a second. What kind of pathetic, loser soul spends his time thinking up ways to randomly annoy strangers? Is this some kind of new mental illness going around?  Or simply the revelation of one?

Whenever I get exasperated by this kind of silliness, it's always nice to come back here to TKZ. Our little plot of cybersphere is actually a community. We all are trying for the same thing--to improve our writing--without ulterior motive. (Well, except for occasional BSP--Blatant Self Promotion--when we have a new book out.) 

So thank you, my fellow TKZ'ers, for being here. And tell me, have you noticed that the social media world is getting scarier? Have you had any experience being hacked or hoaxed?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Embracing the Risk Inherent


When I was in the sixth grade, I desperately wanted the role of the lisping Winthrop in my school’s production of The Music Man. I can’t explain now why I had that inner urge (I’m not sure I had even seen a play before then), but perhaps it was because I shared Winthrop’s shy, self-conscious demeanor and saw myself in his struggle to come out of his shell. I auditioned and got my first taste of rejection. I didn’t even get cast in the chorus. I can still remember the hollow pit in my stomach as I watched the musical, unable to enjoy it the way my fellow audience members did.

It was a whole year before I had the opportunity to audition again, this time for Anna’s son Louis in The King and I. It was a nerve-wracking experience, but I got the part, and the experience on stage was everything I’d imagined it to be. I’ve been in love with acting ever since.

Today, I still act, but I’ve raised the stakes to a level I couldn’t have comprehended when I was that seventh-grader. I’ve just moved to Los Angeles to explore the Hollywood acting business. It’s only temporary, but it means uprooting myself from my wife, who has been incredibly supportive of this venture. I’m also away from the comforts of home, although the discomfort is as minimal as can be because I’m living in my sister’s home and I’m able to continue my writing while I’m here.

Everything I just mentioned involved risk. Of course, it’s not risk in the sense we normally think of it. My life was never in danger; I didn’t fear bodily harm. But a devastated psyche can be even more painful and difficult to recover from. As soon as I auditioned for the first time, I was risking rejection, being told I wasn’t good enough, or at least not as good as the actor who got the role. To get the part of Louis, I had to put myself at risk again.

We constantly face risks. Should I risk leaving the steady job I have now to take a new job offer? Should I ask the cute girl out on a date and risk getting snubbed? Should I get up on stage and risk making a fool of myself? But if I don’t take the new job, I’m at risk of missing a golden opportunity. If I don’t ask the cute girl out, I risk not being with the eventual love of my life. If I don’t go on stage, I risk not exploring a new side of me that will make me more fulfilled.

Being a writer is rife with risk. We face rejection on a constant basis from agents, publishers, critics, and readers. We might spend a year of our lives on a project that ends up being a dismal failure. We may fall on our faces in a very public setting, with Amazon reviews broadcasting the results. If I failed in my old jobs, only my immediate co-workers would know it; now my work is out there for the world to see.

Achieving anything worthwhile requires risk. It means leaving the comfort of the familiar, facing the terror of being judged a failure, and embracing the change, come what may.

Stupid risks don’t count. Don’t mortgage your house to buy lottery tickets. It’s the smart risks that are worth taking. Prepare for the risk by doing your homework. Make it a calculated risk by weighing the pros and cons of each alternative. Minimize the risk by setting realistic goals that you have control over: you can deliver a novel by a certain date at your standard of quality, but you can’t control whether it will be a NY Times bestseller.

I’ve never regretted the risks I’ve taken in my career. Not all of them worked out the way I had hoped, yet I’ve always learned something from them. But of one thing I’m sure: I wouldn’t be a working writer and actor now if I’d accepted the comfort of a risk-free life.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Lessons My Father and Mother Taught Me

James Scott Bell

I was blessed with good parents. They were of the "Greatest Generation," decent and dedicated to taking care of their family of three boys. When I look at how I’ve lived my life, it’s all been a variation on a theme: I wanted them to be proud of me. 

Even now, with both of them gone, I still think about them when looking at my own behavior.

From my dad I learned these things:

1. Never hit a girl.

2. You have to work hard to get anywhere.

3. Never, ever use the N word (my dad played baseball with Jackie Robinson on the UCLA team).

4. Everybody is entitled to the protections of the United States Constitution, even (nay, especially) those who can’t afford a lawyer.

5. If you make a commitment to someone, keep it.

6. Don’t lie.

From my mom I learned:

1. Don’t be selfish.

2. Don’t drink milk from the carton.

3. Take care of somebody when they’re sick.

4. Stand up for a friend if he’s treated unfairly.

5. Laugh a lot—it helps get you through life.

6. Finish your homework before you watch TV.

If I’ve managed to achieve some measure of success, I really do owe it to my parents. They laid the foundation.

When I started to take writing seriously, I determined that while I may not have the native talent of certain writers (for example, I think Stephen King is a literary and imaginative genius) at least I could work as hard as anyone. And I’ve tried. Thanks, Dad.

I also appreciate the value of a good laugh at strategic times. I write suspense, but I like comedy relief, a la Hitchcock. Reader mail tells me I do pretty well with that. Thanks, Mom.

What about you? What lessons for life would you pass on, and who did you learn them from?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Why We Write

by Mark Alpert

One thing’s for sure: We don’t do it for the money. Yes, it’s possible to make a living from writing fiction, but on average it’s one of the least lucrative professions in the whole economy. And forget about fame or adulation from the masses. Have you seen the nasty book reviews posted on Amazon? It’s open season on novelists there. Even the best authors get trashed.

So why do we write? Because of the book parties, baby. There’s nothing like a good party.

On Wednesday I had the pleasure of hosting the book party for my new thriller Extinction. The venue was The Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca, one of my favorite stores in NYC. The shop’s owner is renowned author, editor and publisher Otto Penzler, founder of The Mysterious Press and co-author of the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection. Best of all, he’s a Michigan grad. His store has wonderfully tall bookcases and movable ladders for reaching the top shelves, and none of the employees seemed to mind when my kids climbed the ladders and started doing midair acrobatics. Well, they probably did mind, but no one told the kids to cut it out.

I signed a ton of books. I love doing that. Who doesn’t want to be the center of attention every once in a while? My only regret was that the party was too short. Over the course of two hours I could manage to say only three or four sentences to each of the friends who came. These are people I’d love to spend more time with, friends from high school and college and my old jobs at Fortune and Scientific American. These are the parents I see at my son’s Little League tournaments and my daughter’s soccer games, folks who are amazed to see me wearing anything but jeans and T-shirts. (“Oh my God, you own a suit?”) If life were longer and easier, I’d see these people all the time. We’d have brunch, we’d go skiing, we’d get on a plane and fly to Barcelona for the weekend. But in the real world, time’s winged chariot is always hurrying near, and I’m way behind on my next novel. I wrote only 700 words yesterday, so I have to write 1,300 today.

The best part of the event, by far, was my wife’s speech. The spouses of writers have to absorb a lot of bitterness -- who else are you going to complain to when things go wrong? -- so it’s only fair to give them most of the credit when things go well. And she made an excellent point in her brief remarks: book parties are especially important for authors because writing is such a solitary activity. We have to spend so much time with our fictional characters, talking with them and moving them around like chess pieces and inventing quirks and flaws and back stories for them. And sometimes we even fall in love with them. But it’s also nice to hang out with real people for a change.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Reader Friday: Who Was That Masked Man?

Who is your favorite hero? Who would you most like to see pop into action when the chips are down?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

What My Cat Has Taught Me About Writing

By Jordan Dane

I'm convinced cats are noble beings reincarnated into a beautiful and graceful creature with four legs and plenty of attitude. No one owns a cat. They allow you to live with them. They tolerate you. Their fierce independence is one of my favorite qualities of theirs. At the mere drop of a string, they are ready to play. And when they are happy, their purr sounds like a fine-tuned engine.
Here are TEN things I learned from my cat(s) about writing:


    1.) Be suspicious of every character you meet, even the ones you live with. That keeps the tension going and readers won’t know who they can trust either.       

    2.) Suspense is all about anticipation of something bad about to happen, like when my cat stares behind me and makes me turn around. Without even a word, my cat can make me think a serial killer is creeping up on me. How do they do that? I’m still working on adapting that technique for my writing.

    3.) If a scene gags you, think what it will do to the next guy. Cough it up and get rid of it. Some things are meant for the trash. When it’s a pile in front of you, you’ll know it when you see it. Then just walk away. This works in the litter box too.

    4.) A cat knows pace. If there is a back story path that meanders across the top of a sofa or winds around legs in a prodding fashion, that is all well and good, but why not walk OVER people to get where you need to go and take the most direct route?

    5.) Take naps. If you’re prone to writer’s block, a nap can’t hurt. There is nothing like a nap or basking in the sun to rejuvenate your perspective. Cats are specialists in looking out for numero uno. Learn from a master and take heed. Getting stressed out over things you can’t control is a waste of time and a distraction from your writing.

    6.) Be a good observer of your surroundings. Narrow your eyes and really take a look around. Don’t take anything for granted. Everything is interesting when you narrow your eyes. Try it. (People who Botox should avoid this.)

    7.) Look before you leap. If you pay attention, you’ll land on your feet with style and grace.

    8.) Be flexible. It feels good to S-T-R-E-T-C-H yourself.

    9.) Curiosity never killed anything.

    10.) Climb your way to the top. Be fearless and maybe even cop an attitude. You can’t reach your dream if you think small and stay safe. Dare to take risks and have an adventure.  

    I’d love to hear your cat stories. I have two rescue cats – Pinot Grigio (yes, we named him when we were looking at a wine menu) and Foochie Focker (don’t ask).

    What has your cat taught you?

    Indigo Awakening by Jordan Dane voted the winner of "Best of 2012" Paranormal Category by BookTwirps 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

We have liftoff!

By Joe Moore

blade-cover4-smallToday is launch day for my new thriller, THE BLADE (co-written with Lynn Sholes). This is our first venture into indie publishing. After 5 novels written together and released through a traditional publisher, we decided to try something different—sort of like a tennis player moving to a clay or grass court after years on hardcourt. The game is the same—write the best book you can—but becoming a “hybrid author” brings new challenges. Suddenly, we are the publisher making all the decisions that were left to our traditional publisher in the past—editing, cover design, marketing, budget, advertising, promotion, and on and on. So far, it’s been fun. Now we’re laying it out there for the taking. Like a science experiment, we’re either going to prove we can do it or blow up the lab.

So what is THE BLADE about, and how did we come up with the concept? First, here’s the elevator pitch.

While investigating the theft of a 4000-year-old biblical artifact, a federal agent finds herself hunting an international fugitive who threatens Las Vegas with a nuclear device if a ransom from all the casinos is not paid.

After writing 5 supernatural apocalyptic novels, we decided we wanted to tackle a “straight ahead” thriller—no “woo-woo” as we like to call it. We also wanted to write a book in first person. THE BLADE is the result—all the protagonist’s chapters are in first person.

But how did the concept come about? As I’ve blogged about before, we started with “what if” questions. What if the Nazis had developed an atom bomb? What if they were ready to use it but time ran out because the war ended? What if the weapon was hidden away in a secret Austrian mountain bunker and eventually forgotten? What if 65 years later, it was found and fell into the wrong hands?

The second part in developing the concept was our new main character Maxine Decker. During an attempted recovery of stolen artifacts in Iraq, Max is critically wounded. After 20 years as a federal agent for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI), she decides to call it quits and retire to her Colorado cabin to enjoy a life of not getting shot at. Of course, just when she thinks she’s out, something pulls her back in. Her ex-husband, a computer forensics expert also with the OSI shows up to inform her that a stolen biblical relic, one she has deep emotional attachment to, may have surfaced on the black market—the 4000-year-old Blade of Abraham. The news entices her back into temporary service as an OSI consultant. What she doesn’t realize is that from that moment, everything that happens is a planned setup motivated by hatred, revenge and a big dose of deception.

How does all this tie into the Nazi atomic bomb? You’re just going to have to read the book. But, as Lisa Gardner said, "THE BLADE completely kept me guessing. As fast as you think you know what's going on, you're wrong. An absolute thrill ride.” David Morrell called THE BLADE, “a dark, chilling cat-and-mouse game to stop an unimaginable act of terrorism.” Suspense Magazine calls it “One incredible suspense thriller.” And Doug Preston said, “From the opening scene in Iraq to the final explosive climax in the mountains of Colorado, this is one hell of a thrill ride.”

Starting tomorrow, Feb 21 through Saturday, Feb 23, you can download THE BLADE for free at Amazon. Also included is an excerpt from our #1 Amazon bestseller, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. I hope you get a chance to read and enjoy our latest thriller. Let me know what you think, and forgive me for this shameless promotion.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

How to make it to the Big Show

"Do you know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? That's 25 hits...25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points...okay? There's 6 months in a season. That's about 25 weeks, that means if you get just one extra flair a week, just one. A gork, you get a ground ball, you get a ground ball with eyes! You get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week and you're in Yankee Stadium." 
-- Crash Davis in "Bull Durham."

By P.J. Parrish

I love Crash Davis. And I really love his great speech about that razor-thin line between the major and minor leagues. I was thinking about this speech the other day as I read our royalty statement from Amazon. 

Because for two weeks, we made it to the Big Show. We made it to number one on a Kindle bestseller list. We had 47,000 downloads in 48 hours. We made some really good scratch.

We did it with one book. One book that is 12 years old. A book that is now out of print. A gork, a flair, a ground ball with eyes.

So this is the story of our great Kindle experiment. It's only one writer's limited experience. But it has totally reshaped my thinking about my career and my place as a business person within it. Maybe you'll find it instructive. Or maybe it will inspire you to try something different than what you are now doing. Because I believe that in this fast-shifting landscape, we writers -- nay, storytellers -- are the only things that can't be replaced. In fact, this new publishing machine is going to have to be rebuilt around us.  We aren't cogs anymore; we're the engines.

A quick caveat: Five years ago, I was one of those folks who preached the gospel of Never Self Publish. It was the road to oblivion, the realm of the desperate. There was a special ring of hell reserved for writers who didn't want to work hard or pay their dues. And five year ago, self-publishing WAS all that.

But ebooks have changed everything. Now major authors are buying back their ebook rights; mid-listers are finding new life for their abandoned backlist titles; newbies like Colleen Hoover are breaking into bestsellerdom; and everyone is reading the small print in their old contracts.

Five years ago, you were a fool if you self-published. Now, you're a fool if you don't.

Another caveat: I was really apprehensive about doing this. I had to be talked into it by two writer friends.(Take a bow Christine Kling and Sharon Potts.). I didn't think it would work. Boy, was I wrong.

Here's the background: Kelly and I have published twelve books with two traditional New York publishers.  Only our first two-book contract from 2001 has no mention of "electronic rights" so we decided to self-pub.

We chose our second book, "Dead of Winter" because it is far superior to our freshman effort. First rule of ebook self-publishing: DO NOT PUT OUT A "LESS-THAN" BOOK.

We decided to enroll it in Kindle Select. This means you can't load it into any other reader formats like Nook and Kobo. Why did we do this? Because Kindle Select lets you give the book away if you want (More on that later) and the book is placed in the Kindle library, which means readers can borrow it instead of buying it. (More on that too)

Also, Kindle's formatting is pretty easy to learn. Many authors pay others to do this but Kelly is tech-savvy and we mastered the learning curve quickly. Nook's formatting program is a bitch. (More on that later).

Kelly designed our cover (below). You can't legally use the original one your publisher created.

Then we wrote our "description." This is like the back copy on your book and potential readers can click on it to find out what the book is about. It's important that this be enticing; authors often go back and tweak this endlessly to get it right. Here is what we wrote:

Available for the first time in eBook! Read the thriller that launched the award-winning New York Times bestselling Louis Kincaid series.

In the quaint tourist town of Loon Lake, Mich., a killer is taking his vengeance. One by one, the bodies of cops are found, brutally executed, with mysteriously coded death cards placed with each corpse – the gruesome signature of a psychopath. And the only sound louder than doors being locked against evil is the sound of hearts beating in terrors. Louis Kincaid came north looking for refuge, a place to forget his past. But now he’s landed in the middle of an investigation that’s a terrifying journey through a town’s fiercely protected heart of darkness.

2001 Edgar Award Finalist
“Stylish blend of mystery, knife-edge tension and a complex hero readers care about.” – USAToday
“Tense, thrilling, and your manicurist’s best friend – you’re going to bite your nails.” – Lee Child
“Full of intrigue and edge-of-the-seat suspense.” – Michael Connelly
“The author’s ability to raise goose bumps puts her in the top rank of thriller writers.” – Publishers Weekly starred review

We priced it at $2.99, loaded it up, sat back and waited for the hordes to line up at our virtual door.

After 51 days, we had sold 128 copies. I'll do the math for you: Even at Amazon's 70% royalty rate, that means we made $267.90. Which means I made $133.95. (Remember, there's two of us.)

Big whoop, huh?

We decided we didn't like the way the cover looked in the Amazon store. It looked muddy and had no pop. (I wrote a KILL ZONE blog about bad ebook covers Jan 15; you can find it in KZ archives) We downloaded a new cover.
On day 52, we pulled the trigger on Amazon's giveaway option. We gave our book away free for three days.

In the first forty-eight hours, we had 47,000 downloads. It shot to No. 1 in Amazon's free bestseller store for all mysteries and thrillers.

After three days, we took it back to $2.99. In the first three days, it sold almost 3,000 copies. And here's the gravy: It was "checked out" of the Amazon library almost 1,400 times. You get an extra royalty for that which averages $1.88 per download but has gone as high as $2.85 for us.

"Dead of Winter" rose to No. 15 on the PAID mystery/thriller bestseller list. It made it to No. 39 on the paid list for ALL Kindle books (that includes all fiction and non-fiction, classics, cookbooks and even the Bible). We -- P.J. Parrish -- suddenly appeared on Amazon's Most Popular Author's list. (I didn't even know it existed).

We did no advertising. Nada. We announced it on Facebook and sent out a newsletter blast (But that goes to our fans who've already read it; we were trolling for new fish). The only thing we did was to take a day to contact blogger sites that are dedicated to giveaways. (There's a whole cottage industry devoted to this. See Christine Kling's FOR WRITERS website for advice on this. Nancy Cohen also listed some here at KZ in her February 13 post.)

The book continued to sell at the same fast rate through all of January and into February. Our borrows increased. Today, as I write this, the "glow" is over. (That's what Christine calls that big sales bump after a giveaway). Sales are on a slow descent but even last week, the book sold an average of 112 books a day.

Other benefits I didn't see coming: Our reviews for "Dead of Winter" went from 32 to 93, all from readers who said they had never read us before. The book was featured on dozens of blogs. And get this: We saw a bump in sales for our other ebooks (based on Amazon ranking). The ones put out by Pocket, priced at $7.99 moved up. But we saw a significant bump for the ebook that our other publisher priced at $4.08. That book, "An Unquiet Grave," published 7 years ago, went from Amazon Siberia up to no. 7,057 and today is hanging on at No. 64 on the Private Eye Bestsellers list. Which illustrates, to me at least, the important of being able to price your ebooks right.

And I just found this out an hour ago: our new book HEART OF ICE (due out next week) has crept onto the bottom of the Amazon PI bestseller list at No. 97.

Now one word here about Nook et al.

While we were doing "Dead of Winter" we self-published CLAW BACK. Because it was an original novella, we wanted to make it available to all formats. We went to the Barnes & Noble author website to find out how to self-pub it. It was like trying to cut your way through a thicket with nail clippers. We bought the Scribners software to learn Nook formatting but were defeated by its intricacies. (You have to decide where your tech breaking point is).

We sent "Claw Back" to Smashwords, a formatting company. Smashwords also distributes your ebook to all the non-Kindle sites. A week went by and the book still wasn't in the Nook store. We emailed; B&N said it was in the system. Two more weeks went by. Crickets. B&N just kept saying it would appear "soon."

On Jan. 17, we pulled it and enrolled it in Kindle Select at $3.99. Sales were small. We dropped the price to $2.99 and it took off. Sales aren't as great as "Dead of Winter" but they are steady. As I write this, "Claw Back" is No. 95 on the police procedural bestseller list. And we haven't given it away yet because we want to time it as a "slingshot" prelude for our new book.

I'm not trying to bash B&N here. God knows I don't want to see any bookstore die. But a report in Slate this week says that contrary to earlier reports, losses in the Nook division are going to grow this year rather than staying flat. They didn't exactly make it easy for me as an author to reach my readers.

So what's the take-away here?

I won't turn my back on traditional publishing. I still want "tree" books in my readers hands, if that is the delivery method they prefer. But I want to reach as many readers as I can and I want to do in ways that are creative and flexible. So I will continue to self-publish.

Because you can hit a gork or a flair and make some good money. If you're good and lucky you can even make enough to live on so you can write more. But maybe even more important, you get control. YOU decide when to put your book out there. YOU decide what the cover looks like. YOU decide what the price should be. And YOU decide exactly what direction your career is going to go.

Oh, there's one more cool thing: You can actually make sense out of those Amazon royalty statements.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Digging up the Past

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Being a wee bit of a history nerd, I greeted the news confirming that Richard III's bones had been dug up in a parking lot in Leicester with great excitement. I mean how often do we get to rehabilitate one of history's greatest (and many argue much maligned) villains? No doubt we will soon see a rash of new books, both fiction and non-fiction, on dear old Richard and there's even talk (no surprise) of a movie. 

What I love most about the 'mythology' surrounding Richard III is the passion it raises. For me that's what makes history come to life - real people and real questions over what they did or did not do (always more interesting when allegations of murder are thrown into the pot as well!). From Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time to Sharon Penman's Sunne in Splendour and Anne Easter Smith's A Rose for the Crown, I've always loved reading interpretations of Richard III's life. 

Who knows what other new evidence will come to light now we literally have his bones to study (for instance, they have already put together a facial reconstruction of what he would have looked like and confirmed Richard did indeed have curvature of the spine). The next logical step in the possible 'rehabilitation' of Richard III would be to locate the bones of the princes he supposedly had murdered (rumoured to lie beneath Westminster Abbey).

I just love this kind of stuff! 

So what would you like to see as the next 'coolest grave' to be discovered? How about Genghis Khan as some have suggested? Rumor has it British archaeologists have their sights of uncovering the remains of both Alfred the Great and Henry I but I'm not sure how much public excitement either of these 'finds' would generate. 

What famous bones would you like to see unearthed?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Write Your Truth

James Scott Bell

On a cool April night in 1950, a young actor got the chance to do a scene in the Actors Studio, in front of the legendary Lee Strasberg. This was the Valhalla of all up-and-coming actors in New York. It wasn’t easy to get a scene here, let alone be invited to join.

The scene called for this young actor to portray a soldier dying of gangrene. When the actor finished, Strasberg told him he had not sufficiently portrayed the pain of someone dying of this condition.

The actor interrupted him. He said that he, Strasberg, was the one who was misinformed. You see, this actor had been a Marine in combat during World War II, and had seen soldiers dying of gangrene. He knew that in the final stages they felt no pain at all.

Furious at being contradicted in front of the class, Strasberg told the actor to leave and never return. The actor responded with a two-word exit line before storming off.

The young actor’s name was Lee Marvin. 

Marvin would ever after infuse his acting jobs with whatever truth was inside him. And what was inside him was a volcano.

Growing up, Marvin had ADD and dyslexia in a time when no one really knew how to deal with them. More discipline was the only prescription. No wonder Marvin hated school and was constantly in trouble. He was always fighting. Once, as a teenager in a boarding school his parents desperately tried, his roommate threw some trash out the window. Marvin told him that was a stupid thing to do. The roommate called him a son of a bitch. Marvin later recalled, “I said, ‘Call me that again and I’ll throw you out the window.’ He called me it again and I threw him out the window. So, they kicked me out of school.”

With fighting such a constant in his life, it was no surprise when, at age seventeen, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lee Marvin joined the Marines.

After Boot Camp and training, he shipped out for action in the South Pacific. What he saw there was not the glory often depicted in the movies. He saw life-altering horror. He was a sniper with many kills. He also saw hand-to-hand combat, wiped out machine gun nests, and was almost killed on several occasions. Once, a Japanese soldier came at his face with a bayonet. Marvin took it away and bayoneted the soldier “all the way to the gun barrel . . .”

A climactic battle in Saipan resulted in 80% casualties in Marvin’s unit. Marvin was wounded and ended up in a hospital. He was 21 years old.

And from then on dealt with PTSD, alcoholism, and a four-pack-a-day cigarette habit.

But American men of that era were expected to “soldier on” in life, and that’s what Marvin did. Like so many returning vets he had a hard go finding what work to do. He spent time digging ditches and hand-threading pipes. And drinking.

Then one morning in 1946, Marvin was sleeping off a drunk in a public park in Woodstock, NY. A Red Cross nurse woke him up and started talking about community service. Next thing he knew he was involved in a local Red Cross benefit at the town hall, a production entitled (appropriately) “Ten Nights in a Barroom.”

He got the acting bug. He did what most actors did in those days, pounded the pavement in New York. He got some work, told Lee Strasberg off, and later headed to Hollywood where he heard there was money. He started landing small roles, and turned up on an early Dragnet episode. Jack Webb, star and producer of the cop show, was so impressed with Marvin’s performance that he made sure influential people around town saw it.

Marvin’s breakout role was Vince Stone, a mob strong arm in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953). In a chilling moment that made movie history, Vince gets mad at his girlfriend, played by Gloria Grahame. She’s been yapping to a cop. He throws a pot of scalding coffee in her face, scarring her.  No wonder Marvin became a steady movie heavy after that. 

To expand his image, Marvin starred in a late 50s TV cop series, M Squad. The money was good but he never took to the small box. Later he said, “Creatively, an actor is limited in TV. The medium is great for pushing goods. Sell the product, that’s the goal. . . But, I’m not interested in pushing the products; I’m interested in Lee Marvin, and where he’s going as an actor.”

We writers need to ask ourselves the same thing. Are we just trying to push a product, or do we have somewhere we want to go as a writer? Are we playing it safe? Or is there a truth we have that is burning to get out?

When Marvin was cast as the drunken gunfighter in Cat Ballou (1965), no one thought the movie or the role would do that much. But it became a surprise hit, and Marvin’s hilarious performance (given reality by his own struggle with the bottle) ended up winning him an Academy Award for Best Actor of the Year. 

And that, in turn, rocketed Marvin into a star status he never gave up. Next came some iconic roles, including the tough major in The Dirty Dozen, and the remorseless thief bent on revenge in Point Blank.

But I think my favorite Marvin performance is in the under appreciated Western, Monte Walsh (1970). It’s an elegiac tribute to a cowboy in the fading West who refuses to give in. In a way, it sums up what the actor was all about. There’s a point in the film when Walsh is offered a part in a Wild West show, but he’d have to dress up in gaudy duds and put on a false front. Despite the money, despite the comfort, despite the security this would offer him, he refuses, saying, “I ain’t spittin’ on my whole life.”

Which assumes you have a life to be spat upon. A life lived with purpose and a truth you will stand up for.

When you can get that into your art—acting, fiction, painting, song, dance—you are leaving behind something more than product-pushing. You have a chance to carve out a unique and, perhaps, unforgettable place in your chosen field. Like Lee Marvin.

So what about you? Do you want to dress up in gaudy duds? Or do you want to be an artist with something to say?  


Details in this article based in large part on the new Marvin biography by Dwayne Epstein, Lee Marvin: Point Blank (2013, Schaffner Press)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

You Can Observe a Lot, Just by Listening

I have adapted ---some might say maladapted --- Yogi Berra’s famous observation for my own purpose today, occasioned by a pair of incidents which took place on this past Valentine’s Day. I have written before here about how observing individuals who are caught in the act of everyday life can provide fodder for literary inspiration. Today we are going to talk about listening.

My wife and I celebrated Valentine’s Day by having dinner at the restaurant where we had our first date, even scoring a spot in the very booth where we sat some eighteen years ago, though for some reason the seat has gotten a bit closer to the table, at least for me. This time, we had our younger daughter with us. I have schooled our daughter on being aware of what is going on around her at all times and in all places, and, as in so many other things, she exceeds the expectations and abilities of her father. As it happens, her hearing is better than mine at this stage in our lives. So it is that about a third of the way through our meal she leaned across the table and whispered to us, “That guy over there? He’s breaking up with his girlfriend!” She nodded at a couple seated three tables over, and, indeed, the gentleman was on Valentine’s Day, over dinner, severing connections, romantic and otherwise, with the woman seated across from him. She was crying, though nonetheless doing a halfway decent job of containing an emotional meltdown while her companion sat impassively across from her displaying about as much empathy as he might when commenting on the occasion of a fifth of a series of spring days. I could not hear much of what he said, but he did not sound concerned, not even when she raised her voice slightly ---the only time the entire evening --- and said, “But how am I going to move out by next week?!” He merely shrugged and responded in a manner that was less than helpful. There was a bit more of some back and forth; my daughter was able to hear and relay some additional information, confirming what appeared to be going on, and, indeed, fully documenting that the fellow involved was a walking waste of skin. He finished his dinner --- his soon to be ex-companion left hers untouched --- before they left the premises while he patted her shoulder in the manner one does when assuring someone upon whom disaster as fallen that this too shall pass.

The evening, however, was not over. Shortly after the couple which I described had left another couple was seated behind us. It was easy to hear their conversation. I was able to tell that 1) they had not been dating overly long and did not know each other well (though I was able to discern from some other comments that they were acquainted in the Biblical sense; obviously they were somewhere in that stage which follows the third date and precedes a six month anniversary); 2) they had taken a trip together recently; and 3) had decided to end the relationship. Neither of them seemed especially upset about the turn of events. The gentleman was interested in trying to ascertain what had gone wrong, and when, and why, but his analysis was more suited to that of a biology teacher wondering why the oscillatoria specimen on the slide under the microscope is not behaving as it should. He apparently thought he had discerned the moment when things had turned south saying, “Things were fine until the fourth day (of the trip) and then something seemed to change.” The lady mumbled a response I didn’t quite catch but which indicated, in context that a) he was right and b) she didn’t know what happened either. Whatever had happened, they had determined that the relationship was dead at some point in the very recent past and had decided to perform the autopsy on Valentine’s Day. It was apparent that while they weren’t interested in a dating relationship any more, it wasn’t as if one of them had found the other’s secret porn stash and was so utterly repulsed that they decided to put an end to things. it was just...ending. After overhearing this, we asked for go boxes and the check. Kidder that I am, I thought for half a moment about turning to my wife and solemnly saying, “Honey, now is as good a time as any to tell you, but, uh, well, I’ve decided that...” I of course didn’t do that. She would never break my heart on Valentine’s Day, but she might filet it, given good cause.

Thus, a somewhat unusual night. I ask rhetorically: what sort of a character breaks up with a live-in girlfriend on Valentine’s Day? And what sort of couple uses the romantic occasion as an auld lang syne? And on the same night, in the same restaurant, at about the same time? Feel free to incorporate them into your project, whether as a springboard or as background. There are many ways you could use them. But what I really want to ask you is: What is the most unusual conversation you have ever overheard? Was it on or during a noteworthy occasion? And did you use it in a story or novel?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Reader Friday: Q & A

Today's topic -- a Q & A -- comes to us from a suggestion by our friend Diane Krause.  Let us know in the comments whether you have any specific questions you'd like the TKZ'ers to address. We'll all pitch in with our thoughts as the day goes on. Happy Friday!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

How a great story can change the world

by Matt Richtel

TKZ is once again delighted to host Pulitzer prize-winning author Matt Richtel. His latest release, THE CLOUD, just hit bookstores, and I can personally highly recommend it!

This true story ends with me sobbing. In public.

The story starts five weeks ago, on a Monday night, with a text. I was amid an exciting time, working on a front-page story for the New York Times (my day job) about a controversial new twist involving computers and schools, and I was preparing for the Jan. 29 release of my new thriller, The Cloud. 

The text came at 8.06 p.m. It read:  “Call me.”

The text was from Adam, a good friend of mine and editor at The New York Times. About a year earlier Adam had been put in charge of a group of eight, mostly veteran reporters, including me. The group was called “How We Live,” and its charge was to make a journalistic beat of the way people live their lives; how we eat, sleep, learn, fight, procreate, and how we die.

We were supposed to be a new generation of newspaper story tellers – part of an overall move in the newsroom to infuse stories with narrative, voice, and character. The days of authoritative top-down explanations in the New York Times were increasingly giving way to showing and not telling, and sophisticated story telling, appealing to heart not just head.

We were responding to the need to capture and keep reader attention amid the white digital noise of an Angry Bird world.

In response to Adam’s text, I called him. Before I tell you the shocking news he told me, please indulge some additional, necessary, backstory. 

Over the last year, my fiction career was also evolving to suit the digital world. Like many thriller-writing peers. I was writing more and more, adding to the already heavy book-a-year-load.

In August, I published a short story, Floodgate, 15,000 words I hadn’t anticipated writing, aimed at staying in touch with an audience feeding from the all-you-can-tweet-buffet.

And I took hard to Facebook, something initiated as a marketing tactic, but that transformed also into a usually welcome labor, in which I write stuff my toddlers say (funnier than I could ever make up) and occasionally quip about story telling. 

I amassed some 20,000 Facebook subscribers on my personal page. And several thousand likes on my fan page. We got nice press for Floodgate. Apparent success on all fronts.

The New York Times stuff seemed to be working out too. The How We Live team killed it. Something like 35 front-page stories and 90 stories for the front of our feature sections, like Dining, Home, Travel. We generated a ton of traffic. We were a hit. 

Then, fast forward to five weeks ago, I got the text. From Adam, on the Monday night. “Call me.” I called. In a nutshell, he explained, the paper was disbanding the How We Live group. And not just that; the paper was doing a whole bunch of shifting, all over the place. Voluntary buyouts, long-time editors and friends leaving, reorganization.

Why? Stating the obvious: because the paper’s news gathering operation – the news gathering and storytelling operation – cost too much. It was built in a different era, when our costs were supported by print advertising. Remember that old thing?

I’m no stranger to the ups and downs of the changing media landscape. I started and worked my way up from small newspapers, starting in 1990, at which I survived probably half a dozen rounds of layoffs. I know not to let macro-economic forces get me down.

But after I talked to Adam, I went into a tailspin. One that had been a year in the making, at least.

All this hard work. All this adaptation. So much terrible uncertainty. Part of what I experiencing, I am adult enough to know, was the personal uncertainty of the reality I’d need to find a new job inside the paper (I have), and that I was poised to have The Cloud come out (it did, two weeks ago). That meant marketing, travel, speaking, radio, and the subterranean terror that accompanies a book release: will only my family buy it?

But there was something much bigger for me too. I was confronting, squarely, for the first time, the reality that we don’t know what works. We.Do.Not.Know.What.Works.

What has value? How much value? Will we have mere chaos, only chaos, since Jack Dorsey, of Twitter, wrote his infamous missive:  "...we came across the word 'twitter', and it was just perfect. The definition was 'a short burst of inconsequential information,' and 'chirps from birds'. And that's exactly what the product was."

Inconsequential? Only if you’re not competing against it to pay the bills, and satisfy your muse.

My sleep deteriorated. I experienced a very unusual level of anxiety. I couldn’t write. I was a rotten dad. For two weeks, I felt like crud. I couldn’t find steady ground.  

Then on a Monday, two weeks after the text, I took myself on a Monday afternoon to see Lincoln. No sooner had the opening music began to swell then I had tears in my eyes. They stayed there, persistently, throughout. And by the time a bereft Sally Fields dropped to her knees during a particularly emotional scene with Daniel Day Lewis, I began sobbing. Just lost it.

I was a mess the rest of the movie.

When I walked out, it was the best I’d felt in weeks. Cleansed.

And it’s when I finally understood the thing that had been eluding me for weeks, maybe for much longer. I finally understood the value of The Story. And of storytelling. And of its place in the digital world.

I’ll tell you first my conclusion, and then explain.

My conclusion: The bad story and story teller has little value, or, at best, ephemeral value; so too the mediocre story and storyteller, and even the merely good ones.

The great story and story teller is more valuable than they have ever been.

They are a port in the storm. A place to pause and heal from all the white noise the world throws at us, a tiny closet to cower inside and rest from the swirl of inconsequential missives.

And, more than that, great stories are the place where we will change the world. In Lincoln, Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg, two of the greatest story tellers of our age team up to make a movie that is, perhaps above all, an homage to storytelling. They teach us that Lincoln used story-telling, narrative, anecdote, quip and emotion, to deliver the United States from slavery. 

I know this doesn’t answer the business-model question. That’s the one that plagues us, still. Will the New York Times face bigger challenges? Yes? Will The Cloud take flight? Not as it might have when the institutions of publishing had more power (It is my most ambitious and mature and entertaining work to date).

But it’s not the business model question I needed an answer to. It was the emotional one, the real one. And I got that answer sitting in a movie theater, sobbing. 

Fellow story tellers, take seriously your duty. The world seeks deliverance. You hold its key.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

FREE on Kindle

Today is my first venture with the Kindle Select Program wherein a book goes free to the public.WarriorRogue_w7578_300
Wild Rose Press, who publishes my romance novels, decided to enter their new titles into this program before the official release date. I am really hoping this offer raises awareness of my series.
Before we proceed further, please go now and download your free copy. Share this link with everyone you know! Please “Like” the page while you are there.

Warrior Rogue (The Drift Lords Series) by Nancy J. Cohen is FREE on Kindle Feb. 13-17.

I’m also running a Valentine’s Day contest in conjunction with the free giveaway. Click on the Contest tab here: and remember to Like the page while you are there.

What have I learned from this experience? It takes a tremendous amount of time away from writing to put up a free book. Why? Because you have to publicize it all over the Net. How do you do this? Here are some sites that will help:

From helpful sites such as these and from posts by other authors, I’ve gathered two pages of places to notify about an upcoming or current free release. Twitter and Facebook accounts have to be notified on the day of the freebie, but a bunch of other ones expect advance notice. So I’ve been busy filling out these forms.
Here is a list of tips, in no particular order, on what to do before your book goes free.
  • Make a list of promotional sites that will announce your free book.
  • Notify the sites that require advance notice.
  • Decide if you want to pay for ads at any of these sites.
  • Get your book reviewed. Some of the sites will only take your title if you’ve had XX number of reviews with a rating of 4.0 or higher.
  • Schedule a blog to run on the first free day to announce your freebie offer.
  • Prepare a sheet of tweets with hashtags and Facebook posts in advance.
  • Schedule tweets ahead of time to run throughout the day of your freebie.
  • Send a newsletter to your mailing lists with your free book announcement.
What else would you add?