Hunting for Fans

fredrik-ohlander-399122-unsplash_(1).jpgI grew up in the country and spent a lot of time hunting. Hunting for food is akin to hunting for fans to like and buy your book. The difference, of course, is that you aren’t going to cook and eat your fans. Or you shouldn’t anyway.

Authors may write books to see that smile on their readers’ faces, but at the end of the day, writing is a business. You have to sell your books, if for nothing else than to justify the time you spent arguing with your editor over that stupid comma. And no matter how popular you are, you still have to meet your existing fans as well as find those new ones. This means you have to talk to people, face to face. One of the best ways to do that is at a Book Signing.

I’ve done a handful or so book signings, and each one is just as exciting as the first, and as I learn what works and what doesn’t, each one has been more successful than the previous one.

Stalking Your Prey or Venue

Just like looking for that big buck or that warren of rabbits, you’ve got to stalk the right places. Everyone thinks that bookstores are the best venue. That is not necessarily so. Unless you have advertised relentlessly, do not expect many walk-up sales. If there are twenty people in that bookstore, be truthful and ask yourself how many of them are actually in your target audience. There are way more genres represented in a bookstore than there are on your signing table.

Instead, think of holding a signing where your genre is represented exclusively. If you are selling a commercial fiction romance, you probably won’t sell many at a paranormal convention. Consider a swanky restaurant instead. If anything says romance, it’s a candlelit dinner. Be sure you get permission from the manager before you set up a table. I held a book release signing at a restaurant and did better than I expected.

Camouflage or Dress for the Job You Want

Your signing table or booth is your hunting blind. This is where you sit back and wait for your fans to wander by. I can’t say this enough: it should be appropriate for the venue. Don’t hang shrunken heads in that swanky restaurant, and don’t wear a suit and tie to an outdoors paranormal convention. Dress up that booth, and yourself, with implements of the genre you write about. Table cloths, stands to hold your books upright, and a professionally-made roll-up banner are worth the investment.

Ammunition or Book Supply

You should never go hunting without an ample supply of ammunition. We all know what ammunition means in the normal sense, but what is an author’s ammunition? Why, words, of course. And those words are in your book. You should always have a supply of books on your table. Even if you are in a bookstore that sells your books, keep some there with you. Asking that new fan to find your book on the bookshelf so you can sign it is poor form.

Game Bag or The Cash Box

Hunters have something in which to tote home their kills. Fisherman have a stringer or an ice box. Writers have a cash bag and a banking account. You should always have twenty dollars in ones and fives. But remember: not all customers carry cash. Get yourself a PayPal account and a Square Reader to accept electronic payments.

Bait or Freebies

Hunters sometimes bait their area in hope of luring their prey. You should do the same thing. Sweets like peppermint and chocolate, free pens with your name and website on them, and bookmarks are things you can give fans as well as people who don’t buy anything right then. People like free stuff, and free stuff that keeps you on their mind means a potential sale.

You can get 2,000 two-sided bookmarks for $75, delivered, online. That’s less than four cents apiece. I put a slimmed down version of my book cover on one side, and my business card on the other.

Snacks or Well, Snacks

If you have to man your booth for more than a couple of hours, you’ll want some kind of protein to keep you active. Don’t forget water, either.

Driving the Game or Have You Talked to My Writer Friend?

Some of my favorite hunting was when there were a few of us. One or two would rattle the bushes and drive the game towards the rest of the group. The same holds true during book signings. If you have a writer friend who’s in the same genre, attending conventions together and working the same booth, or working booths next to each other, is a good way to drive business back and forth. When someone is finished at my booth, whether they bought a book or not, I always introduce them to my writer friend. A personal introduction is a great way to build rapport between you, your writer friend, and the fans.

Equipment

Keep a checklist handy of everything you want to take with you to your signings. The night before, make sure you have all of these in a couple of clear plastic totes. I can be ready for a book signing within two hours if I follow my list.

Speaking of my list, here it is. Some things make sense. Some things were learned about the hard way.

  • Books to sell
  • Pens to autograph books sold
  • Square Reader for taking credit card purchases
  • Cell Phone or Tablet for use with Square Reader
  • Wolf Ring to camouflage as a werewolf author
  • Wolf Necklace to camouflage as a werewolf author
  • Werewolf Teeth for use with fans who want pictures with me. Yes, fans like pictures with the author of the book they just bought. Don’t be too shy about asking them if they want a picture.
  • Roll-Up Banner. You can get small, table-top versions for $100 or large, floor mounted ones for twice that. If you’ve got a good cover, put it on the banner. I’ve attracted more readers with my banner than not.
  • Cash Bag with Cash
  • Book Stands
  • Spare batteries for any battery-powered devices you have (like your cell phone)
  • Two Chairs
  • Two tables (one large, one small)
  • Table Decorations
  • Water
  • Bluetooth speaker for mood music
  • Tie wraps
  • Trash bag for trash

 Outside signings need a few other things.

  • Easy-Up. You can get a 10’x10’ sun shade at Wal-Mart for $40.
  • Sand Bag/Weights to hold the Easy-Up to the ground if you’re not on grass or dirt
  • Coat or light jacket
  • Light plastic sheet to cover your booth when it rains
  • Sunblock
  • Easy up hooks to hang things on
  • Bungy cords
  • Aspirin (or equivalent). There’s nothing worse than trying to be nice while your head is pounding.
  • Spill-proof coffee mug. Yes. I spilled coffee on six books. That was an expensive mistake.

Sure, book signings take time away from writing, but if you don’t want to meet your fans or sell your work, you may be in the wrong business. I love to meet people and find book signings are great way to do that.

Good Luck and Happy Hunting!


Making Friends with Your Characters

karine-germain-573941-unsplash.jpgAn engaging story is only as engaging as the characters going through the journey. Readers are investing their time (and hopefully their money), so as an author, I want them to feel as though they have a new person they can’t wait to spend their day with. Hero. Heroine. Villain. The cheeky best friend.  I want my characters to feel authentic and be memorable, to last long after the story is finished. I want readers to connect with them on a deep, personal level. Having that connection pulls a reader in and keeps them there from the ‘Once upon a time,’ to the ‘Happily ever after.’

Creating lasting characters goes beyond the standard appearance, attitudes, and accents. It starts with the author knowing the characters inside out, upside-down, and backwards. An author has to know their character’s goals, motives, and fears even when the characters themselves haven’t a clue. It’s usually in those key points where readers begin to identify and connect with the character; seeing something of themselves reflected from the page and learning how those factors were influenced by a character’s backstory can help tie the reader and characters together.

The writing world has beaten the word ‘backstory’ to death with the ugly stick, but a character’s history is the foundation for how they interact with their world, and most importantly, how they approach conflict. Backstory has to exist, not in page after page of info-dumping, but peppered throughout the story in a way that will allow the reader to make their own connections.

With a character’s goals, motivations, and fears in mind consider playing a game of twenty questions AS your main protagonists. Try journaling your answers as if you were the character being interrogated or being set up for a blind date. Be sure to take note of any personality quirks, word choices, or individualized idiosyncrasies that can round out your character. Sometimes it’s those small, subtle details that can make a reader fall in love with the world you’ve created.

  • What is your happiest/worst memory, and WHY?
  • What is your greatest accomplishment/regret and WHY?
  • What is your biggest pet peeve, and WHY?
  • What is your guiltiest pleasure, and WHY?
  • What is your greatest fear, and WHY?
  • Where do you see yourself in twenty years, and WHY?
  • You find $5,000 in the street, what do you do, and WHY?
  • Who is/was the most influential person in your life, and WHY?
  • Who is your biggest enemy, and WHY?
  • Who is your biggest fan, and WHY?
  • Regardless of pay, what would be your dream career, and WHY?
  • What is your ‘go to’ quote or phrase that seems to answer everything, and WHY?
  • What is your favorite film of all time, and WHY?
  • Do you consider yourself religious or spiritual, and WHY?
  • Who were you closest to as a child, and WHY?
  • What do you find the biggest waste of time to be, and WHY?
  • Do you believe in love at first sight, and WHY or WHY NOT?
  • If you could meet one person, dead or alive, who would you choose, and WHY?
  • If you had a theme song for your life, what would it be, and WHY?
  • If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be, and WHY?

The answers to these questions provide backstory, but the most important part of the twenty questions is the why. Having a character explain the why is what really dictates how a belief or experience will affect any future goals, motives, or fears and how they deal with conflict.

Example – “No, absolutely not. Love at first site? An alien invasion is more likely. I watched my brilliant best friend who had the world set on a platter in front of her, suddenly get all tongue tied and looney over a fella she just met… and oh how she loved him and he loved her and it was all hearts, flowers and head-over-heels nonsense, and now she’s swindled broke with twins on each hip living in her granny’s apartment. You know that sayin’ – ‘Jesus take the wheel?’ – well, when you let your fickle, foolish heart take the wheel for the first time, you will find yourself lost and in a ditch somewhere with no idea how you got there.” 

Given this example, this main character doesn’t just disbelieve love at first site, she is likely to have a complete distrust for romance in general. So when she’s dropped into a meet-cute with a swoony hero, the last thing she will be is bowled over by charm and a sweet smile.

Make friends or frenemies with the voices inside your head. Make it a goal to know your characters better than they know themselves. Always search for ways to get to the heart of what drives, and terrifies your characters. Give them real, human flaws and the kind of history that will connect with the readers of your genre. Readers want book boyfriends, and besties, villains we love to hate, give them characters they can’t stop thinking about because a story is only as interesting as the characters going through the journey.


Handling Rejection

D_Jones_photo.jpgSo you finally submitted a manuscript to that agent you’ve been creepily stalking online for months and she responded with a “thanks but no thanks . . . but mainly no thanks.”  What now?

First, what do I mean by ‘rejection?’  The word ‘rejection’ derives from ancient Sanskrit - rej, meaning ‘female’ and ecton, meaning ‘turns you down for the Wilco concert.’  Rejection comes in all shapes and sizes and I’ve experienced them all, but for now I’m only addressing when an agent or editor passes on a piece of writing you pitched to them for representation (if you’re looking for help handling dating rejection, I still haven’t gotten over some of those from 20 years ago).

If you’ve been doing this writing thing for any amount of time, then you’ve suffered the sting of rejection and have probably been consoled by anecdotes of successful authors who have famously undergone similarly crippling rejections.  Like J.K. Rowling, who was rejected by 405 publishing houses before finally breaking through with her debut novel (Barry-something), and who today owns 3/4 of England.  And Agatha Christie, who suffered through five years of rejections before eventually taking her revenge by elaborately murdering each of those editors one by one at a dinner party.

While such tales provide some comfort, you’ve sweated and bled onto this manuscript for months, or more likely, years (you might want to print a clean copy), so surely everyone who simply takes the time to read it will marvel at your genius and will hand you a cloth sack with a dollar sign printed on the side, right?

Well, not so much.  Think back to the traditionally published books you’ve read.  How many have you not liked?  Hated?  Given up on?  Yet all of those writers found an audience somewhere.  I once quit on a wildly popular novel during the final chapter (I won’t name names, but let’s just say I had a divergent opinion from the mainstream).  How much do you have to hate a book to just give up with only like ten pages to go?  Well, the author of that particular series is sitting on a beach somewhere lighting cigars with first editions of Ulysses and eating beluga sushi, or whatever it is rich people do, I wouldn’t know.

If an agent or editor rejects your work, it generally means one of two things: A) the writing’s fine, but he/she’s just not that into you.  Maybe that agent already signed a manuscript about a crime-solving penguin that week, and simply can’t take on a second, or B) you’re a lousy writer with nothing to contribute to the world and no one will ever love you.

In either case, the only thing to do is to keep sending queries and keep writing.  If that agent just isn’t digging what you’re selling, then maybe the next one will, and if not her, then the next one, and so on.  If the issue is that you’re a terrible writer (and let’s not fool ourselves, that might be it) then the only way to get better is to practice arranging words in different combinations until you unlock the secret code of not sucking.  Keep working on your next project.  More writing floats all ships.  If you just need to get better, it’s practice.  If you need to test that same agent who seemed very close to signing you last time with a new work then this fits that bill too.  Plus, what else are you going to do to fill the months in between Game of Thrones seasons?

Here are some ‘dos and don’ts’ of rejection for your reference:

DON’T:

  1. Respond to said agent impolitely.  Or politely.  Or at all.  The thought will come upon you, usually late at night, to reply to the rejection e-mail with something innocuous like “Thanks for reading” or “I know where you live.”  Suppress this voice.  (The only acceptable thing to send to a rejecting agent is a fresh query for a shiny new manuscript entirely unrelated to the last).
  2. Mention said agent or agency by name via social media, either good or bad.  I’ll certainly let an agent correct me if I’m wrong, but right now, I can’t envision any scenario where it would benefit you to single out an agent after a rejection.
  3. Become a Cowboys fan.  It can be tempting to turn to evil in those dark times in life, but things will get better.  Resist the urge.
  4. Call your ex in a moment of weakness.  You made the right choice; now be strong.

DO:

  1. Pour yourself a glass of good scotch.  If you’re under 21, you shouldn’t be drinking good scotch.  For you, I recommend 10-year Glenmorangie as a more modestly priced alternative for a college budget.
  2. Keep writing.  This should probably be number 1, but scotch.
  3. Keep querying.  If you’re a decent writer and just haven’t found your audience yet, this maximizes your chances.  And if your writing simply stinks, no harm done plus those agents probably appreciate the laugh.
  4. Attend nearby writers conferences.  Or not-so-near if you like to travel.  These are a hotbed of agent activity, often with query sessions and mixers.  It’s much harder to reject a person face to face, so take advantage.  That agent who passed on your homage to Charles Manson, upon meeting you and seeing in person that you are in fact truly frightening, might be impressed with your commitment to the subject matter and sign you on that basis.
  5. Join a local writer critique group.  Most agents won’t tell you if your writing is hopeless, but a good critique group will.
  6. Work on your writer platform.  Agents and editors love to see a vibrant social media presence with lots of built-in eyeballs.  That same rejected manuscript may very well have fared better if you had an active blog or another 20,000 Twitter followers.
  7. On second thought, go ahead and call that ex.  How bad could it be?

Rejection stinks and it’s deflating and demoralizing, but it happens in this industry, and in any creative industry.  The only true measure of control any of us have is to keep at it.  So suck it up and keep writing. Or don’t. Do what makes you happy.

Read more

Scatter Shooting the Muse

Being a writer is its own breed of paranoia. You lock yourself away in some little antisocial corner, hunched over a keyboard and pounding away for hours on end, and hope, in the end, someone will like your work enough to pat you on the back and tell you it’s all been worthwhile. You have a story to tell, an important one you want to share with the world, and the world wants it just as bad as you want them to have it. Rriigghhtt.

It rarely works out like that. You write for rejection, anticipating each one will be a little kinder than the last and you finally get a little bit of hope. Not necessarily acceptance, but hope. After reading your submission or query, if they didn’t tell you to burn your keyboard never ever send anything like that again, you can call that a success. Instead, they tell you taste is subjective and to keep on trying and you call that a victory. It’s like the high school cheerleader or quarterback telling the teenage you they would only date you if you were the last person on earth. Ah, then there’s still a chance, even if it’s a slim one.

You as a writer have to be tough as a three-year-old reaching for the candy dish on the coffee table. No matter how many times their hands get slapped and are told no, they know there is a prize just waiting to be claimed once they wear the hand slapper down. So, they keep reaching.

That’s what a writer has to do, keep reaching. There is no secret shortcut to success, just perseverance – and luck. Talent and luck. Hard work and luck. See the pattern?

Writer’s tears are more than a metaphor, it’s an emotional rollercoaster that you ride throughout your career. It just seems the valleys are a lot longer and deeper than the highs could ever be, but you don’t get off the ride. You persevere, that’s the artistry in your soul. That’s why you have to write. So write


Voice Trumps Plot

IMG_8647.JPGWriting saved my life today. No kidding. It absolutely did.

I had stopped off at Whole Foods after work to write, not because I’m some pretentious writer dude being all like, I only write at Whole Foods, but because I bought a sun hat at REI, which is right next door and it was the last day to get 25% off and don’t tell me sun hats aren’t manly because I plan to do real manly things like mowing the yard and weed whacking and moving dirt. And anyway, it’s not really a ‘sun hat’ – it’s a death ray deflector.

So I’m sitting there, death ray deflector in a bag at my feet, writing and drinking my beer. Or maybe it’s the other way around, drinking my beer and writing. And, just to be clear, it’s not like I’m, you know, drinking lots of beer, it’s honestly just one beer after work while I write. I’m on chapter 24 or something of my elevator novel, all in all making fair progress, but tonight the characters are just being buttholes. Being totally uncooperative. For instance

Lou is all like “Yes I believe that you are correct in your statement.”

And I’m all like “Hell no, she didn’t. She did not just say that.”  

And Henry’s like “Thank you Louise. You are a wonderful human being.” 

And I’m like, GUYS WTF??? Work with me, Lou. That is so not your voice. The reader needs to be able to see who you are in everything you do. They need to see you, Lou, to see your passions, your failures, your anxieties, your beauty, your compassion, your hatred, your vulnerabilities. They need to be able to feel this without thinking. And Lou, it has to be organic – it has to be in the way you fix your hair or open a door. In the way you see people. In the way you react to situations. And not just when the elevator cable finally snaps and you need to save the day, but also when Elliot pukes on you, when Hipster Dad yells at his kids. When Henry slights you.

I tell them this, I tell Lou and Henry this. And you know what they do? They just toss me a little nod and get back to talking. They’re evidently on break. Lou is drinking effervescent water or something and Henry’s vaping. And on the screen I’ve typed

“Wait,” Lou says and her face lights up and her smile, her smile is something like a

Like a what?

What’s the hell’s her smile like?

So I’m like “Lou, what’s your smile like?”

She rolls her eyes and nudges Henry. “Break’s over,” she says. “Writer boy is freaking out. Time to get back to the elevator.”

“Union rules say I still got a minute,” Henry says and takes another hit of his vape.

Lou exhales, folds her arms across her chest and taps her fingernails on her forearms.

Henry exhales a cloud of smoke in her direction and she snatches the vape, drops it in her half full glass of effervescent water and saunters toward the elevator shaft.

I’m excited. They’re off break and ready to rock and roll but it’s too late. My beer’s gone and it’s just about time to get on home to the family. But I think maybe just one more page. I’m feeling the voice, so yeah, one more page, the family won’t miss me except then my phone rings.

It’s my wife.

I love hearing from her. She’s awesome. But I have one more page to write. And besides, she never calls me at this time of day. So I’m picturing an emergency - broken pipes or swarms of flying fire ants or maybe lava spewing out of fissures in the back yard.

On the fifth ring I answer.

And she’s like

Did you buy pork chops?

Time stands still and I shut my eyes. My insides clench.

She’s referring the trip to the supermarket last Sunday, when I said, “Can you go get the milk and I’ll get the meat?” Because it’s so much more efficient that way. I’m a super fast grocery store shopping guy. My motto is “Just get what you need and get out ©.” So I sent her on her way while I got the meat. Because, like I said, it’s so much faster that way.

I’m about to lie to her, to say “Would I forget to buy pork chops? Of course I bought them. If they’re not in the fridge then I guess our twelve year old son ate them.”

But I look around and see that I’m in a GROCERY STORE. And so I’m saved. I can buy pork shops in the same place I’m writing. Problem solved.

And that, my friends, is how writing saved my life. Well, maybe it didn’t necessarily “save my life”. It’s not like Dot would have been waiting for me with a rolling pin in hand, ready to teach me a lesson about forgetting to buy pork shops. She’d probably just have been like okay let’s just have leftovers.

Maybe it’s that writing just allowed our family to adhere to our rigid dinner schedule that we establish every Sunday.  Or maybe, at the very least, it saved me from an unnecessary trip to the grocery store.

And that’s something.

So thank you writing. Thank you so much.

Voice is about allowing your characters to ooze off the page. For every action, every sentence, every movement, every failure, every success, for everything they feel, to be a description of who they are. Because, and I hate to break it to you, nobody cares if you forgot to pick up pork chops at the grocery store on Sunday. That’s boring. But throw some voice in with it and it becomes something more than a shopping mishap. It becomes personal.

What readers want is to get to know your characters. To identify with them. To love them. To hate them. To empathize with them. To discover what their insecurities are. What their passions are. What is meaningful to them and what is not. How that plays out in their actions and in their thoughts. And the last thing they want is you, the author, to tell them these things point blank. They want it to be how it is in real life, when they meet people and have to figure things out on their own. Because that’s interesting. It’s intriguing. It’s fun.

So yeah, go ahead, tell some lame story about forgetting to buy pork chops. Just add some voice. Make your characters come alive. Do that and the world will beat a path to your door.  



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