The Truth About the Book-Blog

Just before I published my first book on Smashwords a few years ago, I started this blog. The blog was intended to lead readers to the the book. A no-fail strategy, for sure.

Since then I’ve learned that a blog as a vehicle to promote your self-published books is only as good as the blogger. You have to work at blogging almost as hard as you did writing the book. Harder, maybe. And it isn’t as satisfying.

Here’s how to do it: visit and follow a lot of blogs. Those bloggers, flattered to get a follower, will return the favour. “Like” a lot of posts. WordPress helpfully informs bloggers when someone has liked one of their posts, leaving links to posts from the “likers'” blogs. When you get these messages, visit those blogs. Like, comment and follow. Then follow through. Before you know it, you’ll be following dozens, maybe hundreds of blogs and your world will be a whirl of likes and follows.

If you can manage it, leave comments (short ones, of course) on all the blogs you’re following. Bloggers will respond to your comments, and maybe follow your blog. Your followship grows and grows. Some of those people may buy your book.

That’s how it’s supposed to work, but I’ve decided this approach isn’t for me.

I don’t want to follow blogs just to get an obligatory follow-back. Same with comments. I follow only blogs that interest me, or at least look like they might. I want to read and comprehend most of the posts on those blogs, to push the “like” button only when I actually like something and comment only when I have something to say. I have found I can do this reasonably well while following about a dozen blogs, less well with two dozen. I really don’t want to go looking for fresh blogs to follow every day. Blogging becomes a blur and WordPress a bad word.

I’ve been blogging for four and a half years, writing a post every week. I’ve followed a couple of dozen blogs, just enough to experience that blur feeling, but haven’t noticed any increase in book sales as a result. Whatever motivates people to buy my books, I’m pretty sure it isn’t my blog. Maybe I’m not working the blogosphere hard enough.

My blog posts are on two main topics — writing and gardening. The posts on writing are (surprise!) of interest mainly to other writers, all of whom are flogging their own books. Selling books to other writers is not a great strategy. Yes, most writers are also readers, but what with critique group pieces, beta-reading, and reading for purposes of writing reviews (never mind actually writing), writers don’t have much time or mental capacity for leisurely reading. We’re all drowning in books.

My posts on gardening, especially those that include pictures, generate small flurries of “likes” and even a few follows, but no book sales. Evidently gardeners are not in need of novels about a corpse-revivifying physician on a journey of transformation.

The worst thing about blogging as a way to market a book is that it diverts the blogger from writing more books. Some say a writer’s best marketing strategy is to produce a well-written book with an eye-catching cover image and intriguing description, and then do it again. And again. Multiple books generate their own marketing mechanism, in the form of return customers, reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations.

Writers with a considerable social media following may find a blog to be an effective marketing tool. For me it isn’t and probably never will be, because I have no intention to engage in power-blogging. I don’t want to quit, because I find blogging to be good practice in marshaling my thoughts and writing short pieces to a self-imposed deadline. And it is satisfying to get those likes and comments.

But as autumn draws near, I intend to disengage myself somewhat from the time-devouring seductions of the Internet in order to write another novel. I will leave this computer alone much of the time and fire up my old Toshiba laptop (one of those two-inch-thick grey jobs from the turn of the century). It’s not connected to the Great Network in the Cloud, but last time I used it (in 2010) it worked just fine as a glorified typewriter.

 

Late Summer in the Garden

August is not this garden’s best month. Since I no longer have a vegetable patch, I don’t experience that plentiful harvest thing. Except for tomatoes. I grow them in pots, and this has been quite a productive year.

August 24, 2014

Otherwise, things have that dry and rattly look.

August 21, 2014

There are a few exceptions.

Dahlia "Bishop of Llandaff" and Delphinium in new flush of growth

Dahlia “Bishop of Llandaff” and Delphinium in new flush of growth

August 9, 2014

Today I saw developing buds on my Chinese witch hazel. One branch has managed to grow into a spot that gets a bit more sun than the rest of the plant, and so will bloom next winter. The Convolvulus sabatius I thought was killed last winter is alive and well (although small), and yesterday I potted up seedlings of Gaura lindheimeri. Now the trick is to get them through the winter. For some reason I have had trouble with this plant in recent years. I don’t know if it’s because of late cold snaps (such as last February’s -9 C) or excessive wetness in the dormant season. I do have more seeds if this batch fails.

I see I have mentioned winter several times in this post about late summer. Yes, I am actually looking forward to winter, which here is green and wet, a refreshing change from endless sunshine and drought. Before that, I hope, we will have the delightful season I think of as spring-in-fall, with shorter, cooler days and rain. Many spring-blooming shrubs put out a few blooms then and the garden seems to sigh with relief. Certainly the gardener does.

My “Fragrant Cloud” rose (a rather feeble specimen growing in a pot on its own roots, not grafted) escaped being eaten by deer this summer, so is blooming again.

Rose "Fragrant Cloud"

Rose “Fragrant Cloud”

These dark red sedums have likewise been spared by deer, even though they are in the unfenced front garden. It seems to me that deer have distinct preferences;  a couple of years ago sedums had no chance, but these have been blooming for weeks.

August 15, 2014

Fighting the Blurb

Audrey Driscoll:

I actually hate the word “blurb.” It sounds like a dumb, brainless thing. But blurbs are actually important when it comes to selling books, so getting them right is important. Here are some wise words on how to do it.

Originally posted on chrismcmullen:

Blurb Fight

BOOK BLURB

In modern times, the book’s blurb is dynamic—it isn’t etched in stone. You can change it as often as you like.

  • If you’re getting regular sales, don’t touch your blurb with a 12-ft. pole!
  • Otherwise, keep fighting your blurb until you finally get it right.

It would be ideal to perfect that blurb before you publish, and you should strive to do this:

  • Browse top-selling books similar to yours and search for successful books where the blurb likely played a strong role. Big-name authors and publishers can sell books without the best blurb, so you can learn more by studying effective blurbs from lesser-known authors.

But, try as we might, it’s really hard to nail that blurb. Thus, those of us who are merely human must keep trying (except while sales are good—”if it ain’t broke…”).

And even if the book description was perfect, external factors may prompt…

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So Your Friend Is an Author…

Audrey Driscoll:

Good advice for friends of authors. (You know who you are).

Originally posted on chrismcmullen:

Judge

Amazing, Isn’t It?

Yes. It is.

How many authors do you actually know?

Now your friend is one.

The key word there is friend.

This was your friend before. Becoming an author doesn’t change that.

Sure, you can tease your friend about this, if your relationship ordinarily involves teasing.

But your friendship is based on more than just teasing:

  • You support one another. Even if one of you writes a book.
  • You’re honest with one another. Even if you think the book isn’t quite, well, you know.
  • You know each other well. How to get on one another’s nerves. How to put things gently. So you can figure out the right way to share honest feedback.
  • You motivate one another. So in addition to honest feedback, you’ll provide encouragement, motivation, and direction.

Your friend wrote a book. That’s a huge accomplishment. Treat it as such.

There are some things you…

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Wishes and Horses: The Phenomenon of Self-Publishing

Last week I attended a book launch by a writer from one of my critique groups. It was a pretty splashy event, complete with an Elvis impersonator who arrived in a vintage Ford Mustang.

That got me thinking again about the whole self-publishing thing. It’s a remarkable phenomenon, the result, I think, of three things: thwarted creative ambitions, market forces and technological developments.

“Everyone has a book in them,” and when it became easy to create manuscripts, everyone wrote their book. With all the touting of books and featuring of authors in the media, wannabes began submitting their creations to publishers. To serve this market, how-to-get-published books and courses proliferated.

Publishers could not cope with the flood of queries and submissions. The big ones fenced themselves off behind agents. Smaller publishers insisted on print submissions, hoping that exacting submission guidelines and the cost of postage would act as a deterrent — to no avail. Who hasn’t heard of five-foot stacks of “slush” plugging up publishers’ mail rooms?

Rejections flooded out from agents and publishers to hopeful writers, many of whom (despite advice to develop thick skins) got seriously pissed off and started looking for other ways to get their creations out there. By this time the internet was available to all and creation and sharing of “content” was the name of the game. In the best tradition of the free market, alternatives opened up to meet the pent-up demands of writers. Self-publishing went from suspect (the vanity press) to last-resort (POD and “subsidy” publishers) to normal (today’s new world of ebooks, Smashwords and Amazon).

When you think about it, this progression is logical. Why wouldn’t people start to write memoirs, novels and how-I-did-it books, when all through school they were told to be creative, follow their bliss and take chances? Especially when the personal computer and Microsoft Word made whiteout and carbon paper obsolete.

Having poured one’s passion into a literary creation, why wouldn’t one hope to share it with others, receive admiration and make money? Most famous authors aren’t beautiful, athletic or talented at anything besides sitting behind a computer and stringing words together. Oprah’s Book Club, here we come!

Publishing has always been a business with narrow profit margins, in which a few wildly successful books subsidize the less-than-best-sellers. In the traditional situation, a book has a short time to prove itself before it’s taken out of print and remaindered. With the best will in the world, there was no way publishers could hope to publish all the wannabe authors flooding them with submissions.

And there was no way that the writers, full of newly-discovered creative joy and the self-esteem that had been introduced to them from childhood, would accept their multiple rejections and settle for bridge, bingo and birdwatching. Entrepreneurial types recognized a huge and eager market, and hastened to serve it. Editors, book and cover designers, advertising and publicity providers rushed to fill the gap. Writers, no longer thwarted by the gatekeepers, became published authors eager to market their books.

I am a self-published author, and I can say without hesitation that I much prefer that to being an unpublished writer, full of self-doubt, resentment and frustration. I decided to publish my works, and it was up to me how much and what kind of editing to do, what cover images to use and what sort of marketing to do. Several years have passed since I published my first novel. It’s still in “print” (as an ebook) and selling steadily. Instead of sending out submissions I am writing new material.

You could say that the slush pile has been liberated from publishers’ mail rooms and made available to readers. Some bemoan the flood of crap, but let’s face it — there’s always been a flood of crap. The internet has made it possible to create and share more of everything, “crap” and good stuff both. The best indie authors are producing books as good as anything by the traditional publishers. What can possibly be wrong with writers and readers having more choices? It’s an exciting time.

22 tips from Stephen King

Audrey Driscoll:

Some of Stephen King’s books are among my favourites. I started writing my first novel in 2000 after reading his book On Writing. These tips (note — tips, not Rules) are practical and worthwhile.

Originally posted on Kim Hooper: Writing by Night:

As one of the most successful and prolific writers that’s ever lived, I’d say Stephen King is a pretty good source for tips.

Source: Business Insider
(My thoughts in italics)

1. Stop watching television. Instead, read as much as possible.

If you’re just starting out as a writer, your television should be the first thing to go. It’s “poisonous to creativity,” he says. Writers need to look into themselves and turn toward the life of the imagination.

To do so, they should read as much as they can. King takes a book with him everywhere he goes, and even reads during meals. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” he says. Read widely, and constantly work to refine and redefine your own work as you do so.

Steve (can I call you Steve?), you’re killing me with this…

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The (Dubious?) Delights of Darkness

“…it’s a jubilant celebration that explores human darkness with a profound lyric tenderness…”

This is how one reviewer describes Rene Denfeld’s book The Enchanted. I just finished reading the book and can attest to the truth of this assessment (well, I’m not sure about the “jubilant celebration” bit). A day after reading the last pages I feel the literary equivalent of eating a meal of rich, exotic ingredients — queasy-uneasy, almost wishing I had never opened the book and started reading. It has left a layer of disturbing images in my brain (as well as a few gorgeous, heart-rending ones) that will take a while to fade. Which speaks highly of the author’s efforts.

For some reason I’m intrigued by books that promise darkness, as long as it’s delivered by means of enticing, artful prose. Being something of a misanthrope, I suppose I’m attracted to writing that shows the dark side of humanity. And perhaps I’m looking for explanations or even scraps of hope.

Reading these books can be a strange experience. It goes something like this:

You leave the familiar trail to take a path you’ve never noticed before (but which, when you see it, is too inviting to pass). It twists and turns through a wood full of strange plants and intriguing glimpses of dim, green clearings among tall trees. You keep thinking you should go back, but the path leads you along. It must go somewhere. When you reach a viewpoint or a creek, or if the path starts to peter out, you’ll just turn around and go back the way you came. Easy. (But how long has it been since you left the familiar trail? It feels like a long time, and the things you know are very far away). You come to a house snuggled about with vegetation — unpruned fruit trees, roses and brambles gone wild. It’s never seen a coat of paint and the roof is sagging, but the windows aren’t broken. The path you’ve been following leads to rotting steps that take you to the porch. A solitary chair, a mug half-full of coffee, an ashtray with a single butt. The door is ajar…

So you peer in. And you hear sounds. Wet, ripping sounds, thumps and grunts. Against your better judgment you follow the sounds to a room at the back of the house, where you see a thing of horror being done. Your brain doesn’t have a category for what you’re seeing, so you keep watching. And watching, while the horror goes on and on.

It’s a long way back to your familiar milieu. You can’t stop remembering, seeing those scenes on infinite repeat, feeling the sick and delightful roiling of your sensibilities as you process the images. Because you kept on looking (reading). Because on some level, you enjoyed the experience. You’re not the person you were before you took that path (read that book).

A couple of other books that had this effect on me are Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game and his novella 1922. But The Enchanted beats them both, because it feels less fictional. The fundamental horror is real.

 

 

 

August in the Garden: Weeds and Visions

In one of my favourite garden books — My Weeds : a gardener’s botany — Sara B. Stein reveals that by the end of July she has “had it with weeds and gardens.” She no longer bothers to pull up weeds and spends the month of August in a place without a garden, and therefore without weeds. Whatever plants happen to grow there are fine; there is no need to identify any as weeds and struggle to remove them from the scene. Gardening makes some plants into weeds. Without the gardener, the garden is taken over by weeds and ceases to be a garden.

Stein outlines some of the measures she used in her own garden to make it less dependent on her attentions — using native species when possible, along with non-natives that are at home in the same conditions as they. This means revising paper garden designs and compromising on colours, but the results, she hopes, will make her gardens less sad when she can no longer look after them. In a garden populated by plants that are quasi-weeds, the gradient between “garden” and “untended nature” is less steep.

I have often thought that a similar approach would make gardening less of a struggle in the latter part of the summer in a climate with little or no summer rainfall. Especially in a garden whose soil is sandy and full of tree roots. Artfully arrange the tough plants that tolerate such conditions and voila — a garden that looks after itself. Of course there will still be mowing and edging, cutting back and cutting down, and yes, some weeding too, but no longer that feeling of battling an implacable adversary who is slowly winning, cosseting feeble darlings and helplessly watching them succumb despite my efforts.

August is a good month for me to think about this, because my garden looks pretty sad, at least in the harsh light of noon. There is a weary, crispy look to things. It would be seedier if I hadn’t done a lot of deadheading and cutting down of old stalks in the past week. The pond area is especially beaten-down, thanks to the busy paws of a raccoon family — a mother and two or maybe three little guys. I should be used to this by now; there’s always a raccoon family. Several generations may have spent the summer here since we dug the pond in 1993. I don’t mind, really. In a way it’s good to know my patch provides shelter and a livelihood to creatures, but I wish they didn’t make such a mess. The plantings around the pond are supposed to be lush and jungly, a green oasis even in summer, but it’s hard to sustain that illusion when plants are broken down and mashed flat.

Never mind. I originally meant to say that August is a sort of time-out month in the garden. The plans and aspirations of spring have either succeeded or failed by now. It’s not too early to make some new plans; indeed, September is a great month for reworking and replanting. Rip out a Senecio that has never looked good, along with excess Geranium sanguineum (a rather sneaky spreader) and replace with the young plants of white Echinacea grown from seed this spring. Someday they will be joined by a Dierama and Gaura that are now just seeds in pots. Liatris looks great with white Echinacea, and there is a soft orange poppy, none of whose names I know, that would be just the accent for the planting.

Who knows how these notions will turn out in reality?

That’s the thing about gardening — so much of it is done in the gardener’s mind and in some perfect future. Much better than futzing with weeds.

 

The "jungle" by the pond (in June)

The “jungle” by the pond (in June)

Hey! There’s That Dog Again!

Farmer Brown froze in his tracks; the cows stared wide-eyed b... on Twitpic

I’m a big fan of Gary Larson’s Far Side and rue the day he stopped drawing those bizarre and wickedly funny cartoons. One of my favourites shows a couple of typical Larson cows discovered in the act of drawing a meat chart of a human figure. The caption reads: Farmer Brown froze in his tracks; the cows stared wide-eyed back at him. Somewhere, off in the distance, a dog barked.

I recently read a review of a book I’m reading — Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven — taking the author to task for ending a scene with the “ultimate cliche” of a dog barking in the distance.

I googled the phrase, wondering just how much of a cliche it could be. A 2010 article in Slate listed authors from James Joyce to Jodi Picoult who have put variations on this barking dog into their novels. Kurt Vonnegut used it consciously as a kind of leitmotiv in Slaughterhouse Five.

Side note: compiling this information is a lot easier now that ebooks can be searched for particular words or phrases. I’m betting the average reader would hardly notice these recurrent dogs (except as they are used in Slaughterhouse Five, where they are meant to be noticed).

Eventually, an uneasy feeling crept into my ruminations. Could there be — oh, surely not! — a barking dog somewhere in the Herbert West Series, written by one A. Driscoll? I pulled up the books on Adobe Reader and searched on “dog.” And there it was, in Islands of the Gulf Volume 2, The Treasure. Young Herbert West, during an awkward “date” with a girl called Violet, hears a dog barking in the distance when he should be carried away with the thrill of kissing Violet.

Well, dang!

So really — what’s going on here? Why do so many writers, including quite a few highly-regarded ones, make this barking dog an accessory to scenes in their novels? In my case, it was unconscious. I lived the scene as I wrote it, and I heard that dog. Revisiting this scene in the course of multiple revisions of the text, I never considered deleting the dog.

That Larson cartoon is a parody of the Moment of Crisis, as when Farmer Brown realizes those cows are Up To Something Serious. Even while laughing at the cartoon, I was reminded of similar moments in various novels, where a terrifying realization breaks upon the protagonist. They know I’m a fake. He’s planning to kill me. Those things aren’t human.  Here, the barking dog is more than a filler; it’s a reminder of the ordinary world in which the terrible thing is happening, highlighting the contrast between the mundane and the terrible.

If you find a barking dog in a piece of your writing, put out the dog and reread the paragraph. If its fine without the dog, leave it out. If a necessary tinge of poignancy is missing sans dog, let it back in.

Things other than dogs may serve the same purpose if the presence of a dog is either implausible in the situation or the writer is dutifully trying to avoid cliches. Consider the following:

A bird sang far away, and another replied, nearby.

A little breeze stirred the curtains.

A moth bumped against the lampshade.

A burst of laughter erupted from the street.

A siren wailed in the distance. (This one may be just as common as the dog).

On the other hand, the barking dog may be seen as a secret detail that unites a diversity of writers. William Faulkner, Jackie Collins, Chuck Palahniuk, Stephen King and Henning Mankell are all members of the Order of the Barking Dog. So am I.

Let Me Tell You This…

Here’s my final word on “Show, don’t tell.”

This phrase is sanctimoniously quoted in almost every discussion among writers. Critiques frequently contain the comment, “Too much telling, not enough showing.”

This has started to bug me. It’s too pat, repeated so often it has become meaningless. What’s more, it’s a rule that’s broken all the time, by successful, widely published authors.

I recently started reading Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. People have gushed about his books to the point I decided to try one as summer vacation reading. Imagine my surprise when I found the beginning, the all-important-hook-‘em-in-the-first-few-pages part to consist of Telling. Paragraph upon paragraph of it:

Amid the ten thousand noises and the jade-and-gold and the whirling dust of Xinan, he had often stayed awake all night among friends, drinking spiced wine in the North District with the courtesans.

They would listen to flute or pipa music and declaim poetry, test each other with jibes and quotes, sometimes find a private room with a scented, silken woman, before weaving unsteadily home after the dawn drums sounded curfew’s end, to sleep away the day instead of studying.

Here in the mountains, alone in hard, clear air by the waters of Kuala Nor, far to the west of the imperial city, beyond the borders of the empire, even, Tai was in a narrow bed by darkfall, under the first brilliant stars, and awake at sunrise.

In spring and summer the birds woke him. This was a place where thousands upon thousands nested noisily: fish-hawks and cormorants, wild geese and cranes. The geese made him think of friends far away. Wild geese were a symbol of absence: in poetry, in life. Cranes were fidelity, another matter.

Pure “telling,” with backstory yet, and three one-sentence paragraphs, another no-no. And yet, it’s beautiful, compelling writing. It captured my attention and kept it.

So now I’m thinking that “Show, don’t tell,”  is not a rule but a metaphor, a short way of saying “Write vivid, smoothly flowing sentences that create images in readers’ minds and resonate memorably in their ears.” Or my favourite: “Make a mind-movie for your reader.”

Now back to GGK’s version of Tang Dynasty China.

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