Category Archives: writing

A funny post about short stories, by Steve Hockensmith

Just want to take a moment to pimp fellow mystery author Steve Hockensmith, who writes a bunch of stuff, including the Holmes on the Range series, which I love. In his recent blog post, he writes about the art of the short story.

Cliché – What’s the original meaning of that word?

It wasn’t until I read my own first line in a review of The Portrait of Doreene Gray that I realized I’d used one of the oldest writing tropes in the book.

Outside the darkened windows of Doreene Gray’s second floor bedroom, a squall buffeted the house and whistled across the gingerbread trimming.

Yup. I’d essentially written, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Then I thought about the word “cliché,” and then I wondered what the heck it meant in the original French.

Wikipedia to the rescue.

The word is borrowed from French. In printing, a cliché was a printing plate cast from movable type. This is also called a stereotype.[6] When letters were set one at a time, it made sense to cast a phrase used repeatedly as a single slug of metal. “Cliché” came to mean such a ready-made phrase. Many authorities say that the French word “cliché” comes from the sound made when the molten stereotyping metal is poured onto the matrix to make a printing plate,[7][8][9] including the statement that it is a variant of cliquer, “to click”,[10] though some express doubt.[11][12]

Pretty interesting, non? Anyway, this is all by way of pointing out that there’s a new review for Portrait. Bonus points for her use of “inveigling.” Haven’t heard that word in ages

Engagement. Why free short stories are better promo than free books.

Your most loyal readers are invested in you, the author.

Pre-internet, “you” consisted of your writing voice, an author photo, and the occasional interview. Now we have the option of engaging our readers with stories of our lives, our writing process, and the interesting things we learn during book research — all of it augmented with pictures, videos, and the opportunity for readers to have a conversation through comments. 

This is where short stories have a serious promotional advantage over free books. 

I want you to imagine two scenarios of reader engagement.

1) Free Book Offer

You give away your book for a certain period of time. The word goes out over FB, Twitter, through your blog, and if you’re lucky, an aggregator of free book offers. Readers looking for free books click the link to your book. The best of these people first read the description of your book and only acquire if it fits their preferred genre. The worst will read anything, and if it’s not to their taste, they may leave a crappy review on Amazon or B&N (this happens). Because they went directly to the book’s purchase page, there is no need for them to visit your website or learn more about you. If your ebook is being given away through a print publisher, there may not even be a hotlink to your website at the end of the ebook. If there is, it’s often unhandy to surf the Web on a dedicated ebook device.

2) Free Short Story Offer

You give away a short story, set in your series’ universe and with your characters, on your website. The word goes out as before, ideally with a photo that is larger than the average book-cover thumbnail. The reader goes to your website, sees a photo of you, sees the covers and titles of your other books in the sidebar or banner. Ideally, they begin reading the story immediately, because it doesn’t require a big time requirement. You include photos in the text that evoke the location, any featured animals, something that sets a mood. At the bottom, within the text, you include a personal note that says you hope they enjoyed it. They should feel free to pass it on. You encourage them to sign up for your email list, so they know when more free stories come out. Look, the email sign up box is right there on the right, see? And of course, if they liked the story universe, here are links to the first few chapters of your books, with links to buy at the end.

Unlike a temporary free book offer, your short story will always be free.

That blog post will work for you ad infinitum, not for a limited time. Along with other items on your website, that story is searchable, and contains key words that bring readers to your site through Google searches. If you want, you can put your books on sale when you promote a new short story, to sweeten the deal. 

I want you to imagine that instead of selling books, we’re selling food.

Let’s say there were as many manufacturers of food products as there are authors, and they came out with new items as often as we come out with new books, and they gave them away for a week at grocery stores. What would happen?

People would never have to buy food again.

When you go to a grocery story, those food demo people aren’t giving away free dinners. No, they give away samples, and often a coupon to buy the full item at a discount. 

We should stop giving whole dinners away. Get your readers to your website and give them a free sample. Engage them with photos, stories of your life, and links to free chapters of your other books. Give them the opportunity to buy a book on sale, if you want.

When enough authors give away books, people never have to buy books again.

This blog post is a follow up to My Plea to Self-Published Authors, which talks about ways short stories are better for readers as well as authors, and one author’s success with short stories. I hope you’ll consider passing these articles along, or writing your own post on the benefits of giving away short stories rather than whole books. If you do, send me a link to your post through my Contact Page, so I can pass it around.

Next time, I’ll talk about what Amazon could do to help us sell more books.  

My Plea to Self-Published Authors

Don’t give your ebooks away.

Why?

Even one day of pricing your ebook at $0.00, multiplied by countless authors, means readers never have to buy a book again. 

Hey, I’ve given away books in the past. But then I discovered that, as a reader, I could find enough free ebooks on one Facebook page, in one genre, in one week, to meet my reading needs for the next year. Sure, some of them are dreck, but there are enough enjoyable books to keep my entire family happily reading for free. And this is not a good thing. 

There has never been a better time to be an author, if we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot. 

The ebook is a revolution right up there with the printing press. For the first time, authors can market and sell directly to consumers. Now, I understand that we don’t have any control over whether Amazon gives our books away. But Amazon provides only a fraction of the freebies out there, and they do a lot of promoting of those authors, so that compensates. Let’s take Amazon off the table and discuss what we can control.  

How can new self-published authors promote their work, if not with free stuff?

  • Write short stories set in your books’ universe, and give those away.

A good author friend of mine, Lynda Hilburn, has had tremendous success with this strategy. Every time she put out a free short story and notified the Kindle boards, all of her books got a bump in sales. She was making serious money on her self-published books – enough that a big-name agent took notice and got her a print offer she couldn’t refuse.

Free short stories instead of books benefit readers, too.

  • You can judge an author’s voice in the first couple of pages of a book, but you can’t judge their ability to tell a story until you read the whole thing — and readers often wish they had that time back. A short story lets readers know if they like an author in a fraction of the time. 
  • Short stories can be placed outside the time frame of the author’s fictional universe. Let’s say I’m offered a free book, but it’s third in the series. That’s not an ideal situation. I’d prefer to sample the author without any spoilers for books one and two. 

The lure of free is too strong. 

When Amazon made their free Kindle reading app available, my purchases of books skyrocketed. But when everyone started giving books away in promtions, my purchases plummeted to the few authors I was determined to support. The lure of free books is too strong for most of us. We wind up reading books out of order, moving on to the next free thing instead of buying an author’s other books, and spending a lot of time half-heartedly reading full-length books, trying to decide if we like the story enough to keep going. 

So that’s my plea. Give away a sample of your talent, then price the ebook such that readers don’t hesitate to buy — the cost of a nice cup of coffee seems to work well. And of course, giving one book away in a contest, or for charity, is a different thing. 

Please spread the word.

The internet is huge. If even a fraction of authors continues to give their books away, we’re screwed. I hope you’ll share this post or write your own. Get the word out. 

Don’t give your ebooks away.

Feel free to read my follow-up post, Engagement. Why free short stories are better promo than free books, which explains how to use short stories to increase reader engagement and bring more people to your website.

Crowdsourcing the Bacon Museum

Within the next day or two, I’m going to be putting Porky Johnson’s International Bacon Museum on the page in Critter from the Black Lagoon, the third book in my Tripping Magazine mystery series.

I love coming up with creations like Porky and his museum. It’s a romp through the wilds of the internet, especially eBay. Usually I’m selfish and controlling as a writer. I don’t want input. But I have been working with a writers’ brainstorming group, and have loosened up enough to enjoy bouncing ideas off people. Also, there are fewer bacon collectibles out there than you’d think, even when including “ephemera” in the search terms.

“Ephemera” is a good word to know.

So I thought I’d see if anyone has suggestions on what an International Bacon Museum might contain. This is a roadside museum in central Florida. Porky is a hunter, a character and a highly motivated entrepreneur. For exhibits, he’ll probably have  Bacon through the Ages and Bacon in Wartime (I’m thinking a diorama for the first, perhaps a full-size scene using 70s-era mannequins for the second). There will be a painstakingly drawn Bacon Family Tree, which will include both the near relatives of ham and jerky, as well as far-flung cousins such as Vienna sausages in a can. There will be a gift shop, of course, with bacon bandages, bacon mints and bacon bumper stickers. There may be a curtained-off area devoted to jokes on the theme of “makin’ bacon.” He’s either gotten his hands on an educational film about the actual production of bacon, or made his own unflinching documentary. “Sensitive folks may want to cover their eyes at the beginning. You have to kill a pig to make bacon. That’s just a fact of life.”

So far, I have not found an actual, physical museum of bacon, which astonishes me. If you know of one, tell me. And of course, if you provide an idea that I use, I’ll put you in the book’s acknowledgements at a bare minimum.

Josie O, and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers

Josie O had a big day yesterday. She took her very first walk. It was morning, around 30 degrees F, so I put her black sweater and parka on and took her outside. Having never been on a real street, she was a little nervous about the occasional car going by, so I picked her up and carried her for a little. Then I put her back down. No more nervousness. She trotted along behind me. Whenever she didn’t make me wait and went in a straight line, I praised her to the skies. We walked about the length of a block, probably.

Yesterday I also gave a friend a ride from the hospital, very near our house, to her house. Joanie visited Josie a few weeks ago and fell in love with her, so she begged that I bring her in the car. So I did. Josie is good about peeing on command on her pad. Basically, I’ve praised her so much for peeing that if I put her on the pad and start praising, she pees. Handy. So she went potty before we left.

Joanie rode in the back so she could sit next to Josie in her car seat. Joanie has a great fenced patio, so Josie got to run around out there when she wasn’t being carried around or sitting in Joanie’s lap. When it was time to go, I took out the smallest of her pads, which I’d brought, and she peed again before we drove home.

I thought sure she’d be really tired for the rest of the day, but after a nap, she was her usual lively self for the rest of the day. Oh, and Joanie took the picture, above, of me and Josie in her kitchen.

In other news, I’m giving a workshop today on High Concept Marketing for your books, through the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. I love working with people on that. There will be index cards. Oh, yes, there will be index cards.

I’ll be giving a longer version of that workshop with Karen Albright Lin, on the Thursday before the remainder of the Pikes Peak Writers Conference.

Discussion Questions for Reading Groups

Today I received an email from Cynthia Provenzano of the Pikes Peak Library District, asking if I had discussion questions for reading groups. What a good idea! I asked if she had any tips, and she did. First, she suggested that I not have more than 10 or 12 questions per book. Second, she gave me the websites of two authors she felt provided excellent questions: Sandra Dallas and Carol Goodman. And finally, she said not to ask what actors would play the characters in a movie. (D’oh! That’s an author’s favorite game, but apparently we’re the only ones who care.)

With this information under my belt, I wrote discussion questions for both Chihuahua of the Baskervilles and The Portrait of Doreene Gray (available July 3, 2012). They are, of course, chock full o’ spoilers, so don’t read them unless you have already read the books. Or if you have no intention of ever reading them – that works, too.

Thanks, Cynthia!

The number one requirement of a book title

Yesterday I spent at least an hour on the phone with my parents, working on a replacement title for what used to be called Telling Lies, a book I’m going to self-publish real soon now. This book has had that title for probably 7 years, but in the middle of last year, someone came out with a mystery of the same name. I was about to say, “Eh, screw it,” and use that title anyway (they’re not copyrightable) when I got an email from the author (whom I’ve never met) asking me to nominate her book for an Agatha. It was just too much, you know? The hunt was on.

What makes a good book title?

It makes people buy the book. That is the number one requirement of a book title. Do not get this aspect confused with how well a title fits a book after it’s read. I don’t care how much someone appreciates your clever wordplay when they’re done with the book. “See, not only was she telling lies, but the lies she told were telling – about her!” Great, but remember, the book is already paid for at that point. P.S. My dad says that if a title really doesn’t fit a book, he might find that annoying enough to shun a second book by the author, even if he really enjoyed her writing. But Daddy fits no one’s idea of the average person, so let’s move on.

How does a title sell a book?

1) The title has tension, asks a question the reader wants answered, or piques the reader’s interest so much that he buys the book. Everyone knows that telling lies is bad, but it’s also sometimes necessary. One word can convey tension, which is why there are about a million romances with reckless in them. If you don’t mind a long title, you can create a whole scenario with tension. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Sometimes tension comes from words that seem to war with each other. The Accidental Tourist. How is that possible? (Oh, look, it asks a question, too.) Try piquing their interest: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. WTF?

2) The title tells the reader the tone of the book. This works particularly well with books of a specific flavor, especially one that isn’t widely available but has hardcore fans. Southern lit used to be rare enough that putting Sweet Potato Queens in the title was enough to make the right reader snatch it off the shelf. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Speculative fic readers LOVE that title, and for good reason. It’s frickin’ brilliant on so many levels. (In case you don’t know, that book became Bladerunner.) How ’bout The Da Vinci Code? Sounds kind of like an art-themed thriller, doesn’t it? (Btw, Da Vinci Code would also make a great self-help book title, a la The Seven Habits of Highly Lengthy Titles.)

3) No one else has used the title, at least not recently, or famously, or in a book that’s really similar. Yes, Telling Lies was a great title. I’m trying to get over it, okay?

Let’s talk about stuff to avoid.

1) Clichés. My book deals with a reluctant Tarot reader, so all kinds of card-related sayings suggested themselves. Wild Card. Full Deck. In the Cards. Meh. Clichés pass through the mind with barely a trace. You want a title that rattles around in the ear canal like a moth with fangs. 

2) Insulting potential readers. We briefly considered Mystic Lies, then realized that title would piss off every Tarot reader out there, and they might be expected to buy the book because there isn’t much fiction with Tarot in it. (Note to Tarot readers: This book is not anti-Tarot. You can safely buy it.)

3) Titles that make no damn sense. There may have been books with nonsensical titles that made it big, but I’m pretty sure they became famous because they had a publicity machine behind them. Case in point – I can’t remember any of them.

All right, so what title did we come up with? I’m not going to claim it’s great. I did use some card imagery, although I think I dodged the cliché bullet. I think it has tension. It works well with the cover art I picked, and also with the blurb. Here’s my very preliminary mock-up of the cover. Because it requires some photo manipulation (putting the card in the model’s hand), Angel Joe is going to clean it up this weekend. It will change in other ways.

And here’s the blurb.

LeeLee Moldovar’s mother is dead, leaving her debts, her angry Chihuahua, and her abandoned Tarot clients. After losing her job, LeeLee decides to read Tarot for a living. Her first client is a very attractive man, and there’s definite chemistry. The cards say Adrian should dump his newest girlfriend – or is that what LeeLee wants? It’s only after Adrian leaves that LeeLee discovers he’s dating her best friend. When the next client arrives, she’s afraid to say anything and risk another Tarot disaster. But something inside LeeLee speaks out, giving advice she doesn’t anticipate and can’t control. To silence this unwanted voice and regain her sanity, LeeLee must discover her true self, despite attractive men, best friends, and the specter of her mother’s loving wishes for her.

Oh, look, I’ve already changed the cover.

Comments? Suggestions? Lay ’em on me.

Do I really love Chihuahuas, or am I just using them?

I’ve been quoted in newspapers and on TV as saying that including Chihuahuas in my mystery series was a cold-blooded marketing decision, and I meant it – but not in the way you might think.

The internet is how we find things these days. Anyone can sell things on it, and almost everyone does. As an author, success depends on getting your writing into the hands of people who will enjoy it. You have to cut through the clutter of things clamoring for their attention and say, “Look at me. I’m what you want.” One of the easiest ways to do that is to find a place where your ideal readers are clumped together, and show them you can fill one of their unmet needs. “Excuse me, but is anyone writing fiction about this thing you love? No? Allow me to introduce myself.”

Ideally, an author’s hook should be lively and engaging, something that will add to the books’ tone. It’s even better if it doesn’t bore the general public. And wouldn’t it be great if it had authentic emotional content? It shouldn’t be done to death, or that whole “cutting through the clutter” benefit is lost. Most importantly, it needs to be something the author will enjoy writing about over the long haul. So I took a look at the various things I love: singing, playing guitar, cats, writing, Chihuahuas…hold on a minute. Only one of those things met all my criteria and then some. As a considerable side benefit, the characteristics of Chis, and the character of their owners, matches my writing style rather neatly – funny, mischievious, and very into people.

So yes, the decision to include a marketing hook in my books was cold-blooded, but Chihuahuas were there to be chosen because I am crazy about them. As a benefit, I get to own these dogs in my imagination, when my cat won’t let me in real life. Actually, she will, but she becomes a ghost in her own home. (I’ve tried  and may try again.) When Musette dies, clearing my sinuses but breaking my heart, I’ll get a Chihuahua.

——–

P.S. Years ago, before I knew what a marketing hook was, and just as I was getting into Chihuahuas, I wrote a book with one. It got me my agent and my first publisher, but has never been published. The problem, as all the complimentary rejection letters said, was that publishers didn’t know how to sell it. Well, I do, and as soon as I fix the ending and find a new title (the one I had was recently used for another book), I’ll publish it myself. Stay tuned.

P.P.S. You can experience my Chihuahua enthusiasm for free with the short story, ‘Twas the Chihuahua Before Christmas. Am I giving away a Christmas story for marketing reasons? Of course. Did I love writing it and want everyone to read it regardless of whether they buy my books? Also yes.

UPDATE: I finally succumbed to my obsession and got a Chihuahua. And by golly, she’s kind of a ringer for the Chi at the top of this page!

What from the Black Lagoon? What?!

I had two radio interviews today, one with Cathie Martin of WGRT-FM, serving Michigan’s towns of Port Huron and Sarnia (the latter is accessible by going out the back door of a sandwich shop [that joke is for the Brits]), and a second interview with Maggie Linton of SiriusXM satellite radio’s show, Book Radio. Way fun gals, both of them, and I was on my game. For early morning interviews, I get up at least an hour beforehand so I can eat, drink some tea or coffee, and be able to string two sentences together. “Yes, I am a writer! Thank you for talking with me today! Here is my website!” That’s three, but you get the idea. I’m actually a little more suave than that.

I forgot fellow writer Lynda Hilburn had rescheduled her visit today, so the house is clean, which is a nice bonus for the weekend.

I need to write two blog posts — one for Mystery Fanfare (one of my fave crime-fiction blogs) and one for Lois Winston, author of the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries.

And I’m still trying to find the perfect riff on Creature from the Black Lagoon for the third book in my Tripping Magazine mystery series. I’m willing to settle on Critter from the Black Lagoon, but I wish it were better.

I did find a more flexible online rhyming dictionary, Rhymer.com, and it suggested a few words that made me chuckle, although they have nothing to do with giant prehistoric pigs, which is what this book is about. Still, plug the following words into ” ____ from the Black Lagoon,” and see if you get a giggle.

Bachelor
Gesture
Moocher
Squelcher
Denture
Fixture
Cheaper

…and my current unusable favorite, which I came up with all on my own, Nietzche from the Black Lagoon. Is that unusable? I’m not sure. For all I know, giant prehistoric pigs are all over “will to power” and perspectivism. Has anyone asked?