Ode to the Reader

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No two persons ever read the same book.  Edmund Wilson – critic – May 8th, 1895-1972.

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Any author who has received reviews of their work will tell you the truth of Wilson’s quote. Writers write and readers interpret.

As Anna sings in the hit Disney classic, FrozenLet it go, let it go, can’t hold it back anymore.

As a writer, I fling my words out into the world and I let the readers do their job. Each person who opens one of my novels will bring to the book a unique set of life experiences, attitudes, values and expectations. Each will read a different book out of the very words available to all. And so it should be!

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Brushing Up and Reinventing–It’s All Good

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Home from my travels in the frigid lands of Southern Alberta. All I can say is that not everyone can live in the paradise that is the West Coast with wind, rain and stunning bursts of sun – all within the space of one rambling walk! Such is the diversity of Canadian weather. My first week of being home usually entails a process of orientation. I am not the best at moving seamlessly from one environment to another. It takes time for me to settle. I’m like an old dog that must circle and circle her bed before she can lay down.

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Back to solitary walks watching for bears. It is that time of year. Back to stationary bike rides while the rain pounds down beyond the covered deck. Back to thinking about where to go with my next book. I made a choice in January not to plunge into the writing of book five in the Crater Lake series. I have scads of starting notes and a gripping story board. I was perched on the edge when planning becomes doing. But I stepped back.

Naturally, I now question that decision. Such is life. There is an alchemy to the process of writing that is slippery to explain. I’ve always known when the moment is right, and it wasn’t. As lame as that sounds even to my own ears, I know it to be true.

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But I’m missing the Crater Lake setting, the characters and their conversations. I need a way back into that world. I read a great post the other day on Writers Helping Writers that suggested authors of books in sequence would be wise to have a series bible to help them avoid making errors. No one wants a reader noticing glaring inconsistencies. Like character A having a peanut butter allergy in book two and then gladly chowing down on a PB and J sandwich in book three. Things that simple and things more complex. Character sketches, important dates, timelines and storylines, setting details – they all need to be consistent across books.

So – here is my plan. I’ll create such a bible for the Crater Lake series. Most of this stuff is already written. I will pull all the stands together into a single document that I can reference and add to as I move forward.

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My second way back to Crater Lake is my intention to move all the softcover books from CreateSpace to the Kindle Direct platform. When I first contemplated this shift, it seemed like a wise move. The process of transfer looked easy and the benefit of having all sale information in one place appealed to me. Real life is seldom as smooth as one hopes.

I ran into a snag with Disappearing in Plain Sight. Kindle Direct rejected the book saying my author name disappears into the black on the front cover. Ironic – right? My name disappearing on the cover of Disappearing in Plain Sight. Oh well. In 2015 when I took the book back from Friesen Press, they provided me with the cover jpeg. When I reissued the book under my own imprint of Huckleberry Haven Publishing, I made use of the original cover with a major tweak – removing the Friesen Press logo and inserting my own. But it seems Kindle Direct has different standards than CreateSpace.

While my husband Bruce works out the glitches with the cover, I have decided – with the cooperation of my wonderful editor – to do a fresh grammatical edit on Disappearing in Plain Sight. The manuscript has gone through a number of revisions since our original editing work and now seems like a good time to shake it out like a crumbled quilt. Soon I must replenish my bulk supply of the softcover and it will be great to have pristine, updated copies to put on display. I’m also hoping for a BookBub feature sometime in the coming months and I want my flagship ebook to shine.

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So, there you have it – at Crater Lake but not quite onto new material. A few quick questions: Series authors – do you keep a series bible? How did you go about creating this resource? Waste of time (get writing!) or good idea? Is anyone else moving softcover books from CreateSpace to Kindle Direct? Have you run into any glitches with the process?

The Down and Dirty on Getting Book Reviews

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I remember once bemoaning my lack of book reviews with a close friend and she told me –

Real readers don’t write reviews. Think about it? Did you ever write a book review before you needed one yourself?

Good question and my answer was no.

Garnering my first book reviews was painful. The process involved trawling a limited pool of readers and that pool often seemed covered by thick ice. I chipped away at the following groups:

Other self-published authors. I was aware of my need for book reviews and I recognized that same need in others. Since publishing an ebook and starting to read on a Kindle, I discovered a host of great new authors. I wanted to be supportive. By fishing in this pond, I hoped others felt the same.

Future self-published authors. I solicited in this pool to catch authors who were hoping to build up future review capital. Yup – once again – reciprocal obligations.

Members of authors’ review circles. This is a type of group where reviews are either exchanged outright or there is an arrangement in which  A reviews B and B reviews C on down the line. A review in one of these circles can be powerfully echoed across social media on the Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of the various members. But whichever way I chose to drop the line, I was on the hook to provide reviews to get reviews. Do you see a theme emerging?

Book review bloggers. The best sites were absolutely not looking for any reciprocal activity but the competition to have my book work its way to the top of a blogger’s pile was fierce. Hooking a high-quality book blogger doesn’t happen every day.

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Suffice to say, I wasn’t catching many reviews for the effort involved in baiting my line. But I knew the numbers mattered. I wanted to qualify for various promotional opportunities and I needed those reviews.

In my last post, I wrote about the number of ways the self-published author is vulnerable to those who seek to make their money by taking ours. Many sites offer book reviews in exchange for cash. But purchasing reviews is not an advised practice with perhaps the exception of the big bucks required to get a Kirkus review. Amazon seems fine with those. Ignore the unfair reality that publishing houses pay top dollar to get high-quality reviews for their authors. No one said the life of the self-published author would be fair.

I have learned the hard way to avoid trading reviews with other authors. Amazon is onto this practice and they frown upon it. I know of one self-published author who has had most of her reciprocal reviews pulled down. A lot of effort for no gain on either side. But Amazon regulations aside, reciprocal reviewing put me in a tight spot. If the other person gave me a 5-star review, no matter the number of times I jumped up and down and sworn I would only review honestly, I did feel swayed to give a great review in exchange. This is human nature and if I’m anything, I am human.

I have recently heard of a new Amazon review policy, meant to stop the seemingly unstoppable tide of phoney reviews. Readers must have spent a minimum of $50.00 as an Amazon customer to place a review. Many have screamed unfair and shouted for the rights of the reader who has only bought one ebook ever and has developed a burning need to review that book. Too bad, so sad. Amazon wants reviews written by committed readers – not one-time only buyers, not bots or anonymous voices in the wilderness filling in blanks on a review template provided for them by a company who charged the author big bucks to get that book 50 reviews.

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So – what is the self-published author to do? How is he or she to get those all important initial reviews? How do you find genuine fans?

Do beat the bushes the best you can. Solicit book reviewers and bloggers. Make sure your contact email is at the back of your ebook. Invite readers to contact you. Offer them an incentive for making the effort. When a reader emails you, ask them politely to put their thoughts about your book in writing on Amazon if they haven’t already done so. Let them know that reviews can be as simple as – I love this book because ____________. They can fill in the blank and they’ve often done just that in their email to you.

Getting these initial reviews isn’t easy. It won’t happen overnight. But you don’t need hundreds. I snagged my first BookBub promotion with 33 reviews.

So – let’s talk about the genuine fans. They do exist! I didn’t catch them until I started commercial fishing in the great lake of readers who discovered my books through my first BookBub feature. This promotion meant wide spread exposure to a targeted audience of ebook readers who were interested in my writing genre. Since then, through various other promotions, I offer the first book of my series free and I’ve managed to introduce my writing to new readers and create a halo effect of sales over all my books.

It turns out real readers do write book reviews and post them on Amazon. At last count, reviews for Disappearing in Plain Sight (first book in the Crater Lake Series) have zoomed up to 163. And reviews still matter. I’ve discovered that even when I offer one of my books FREE, people still check out the latest reviews before downloading the book.

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There you have it – the down and dirty on book reviews for the self-published author. Please weigh-in on this issue. Let me know what you think, what you’ve tried and how the act of getting book reviews makes you feel.

Marketing Your Self-Published Book

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The year 2018 is my sixth year of marketing my novels through my self-publishing imprint – Huckleberry Haven Publishing. I’ve wandered down many a marketing road over that time. Without fail, each new road was promoted as the one and only route to success. Most turned out to be nothing more than the flavour of the month. These roads led to wash outs or curves I did not anticipate. And don’t get me started on the tollbooth roundabouts with no way out of the circle.

On the up side, some meandering trails came out on my version of the superhighway of success.

Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Write a Good Book

It does make sense that you would want something worth marketing. But remember, the quality of any book is decided on a highly subjective basis. I read a lot and many books that I would classify as pure crap are doing well on Amazon. There is no accounting for personal taste when it comes to reading. If your book is something you would want to read, no doubt there are others out there who will also want to read it. No one is an island when it comes to reading preferences.

Assisted Self-Publishing – not all it’s cracked up to be.

Do you have unlimited cash? Are you content to let someone else control your book sales? Are you okay with giving up access to most promotional opportunities?

I tried an assisted self-publishing company for my first book and I was not satisfied.

Most will promise the moon and deliver a mere sprinkle of star dust. You can format and publish your own books for a fraction of the cost while retaining control of important sales data. If you aren’t up to creating a book cover you can find someone who is. Contract with them and pay them once only for the service. The same can be said for editing and formatting. Or you can DIY the whole process. It all depends on your existing skills and how much time you are willing to invest in learning new ones.

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Ignore the Pseudo-Gatekeepers.

For me, the whole point of self-publishing was to let readers decide if they liked my work. I wasn’t willing to jump through time-consuming hoops and be rejected at the end of the process because the agents or the traditional publishers didn’t think anyone would want to read my books. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that gatekeepers are not restricted only to traditional publishing.

There are many pseudo-gatekeepers in the self-publishing world who make their money by preying on an author’s insecurities. They deal in the sale of approval – admittance to a special group, a pre-screening of your work, the opportunity to win a contest that will provide a shiny sticker for your book cover.

If you choose self-publishing, I would advise you to overcome the need for approval from anyone other than your readers.

Social Media – much ado about nothing?

I know you’ve heard the cast-in-stone rules about social media. The more places you are the better. You must be active on your Facebook author page, tweet everyday, write blog posts, get photos out on Instagram and Pinterest. 

I know a highly successful self-published author who does nothing on social media but her Facebook author page. She keeps her posts and updates on that page interesting and current. Her followers engage with her and are committed to her success. Her sales tell me that more and more social media is not necessarily better.

Here is what I suggest: find one or two platforms you really enjoy and stick to those. Stake out a little bit of real estate in cyberspace where you can post about your work and your life with creativity and ingenuity. People who show up to visit won’t mind if you promote the occasional special offer for one of your books. They will appreciate your effort.

At all costs, avoid papering the social media world with advertisements for your work. This is crass – period. And it won’t sell a single book. Enough said.

Create a Huge Email List

The self-published author’s email list is an imperative that is currently sacrosanct. We are urged to go down any and every road imaginable to gather email addresses then keep all of these people updated with news about our work and promotions. Well, guess what? Our well-crafted emails end up in the same spot as junk mail in the post office – the trash bin.

I’m not saying don’t gather email addresses. At the end of your e-book, provide your email and ask readers to contact you with their thoughts. Offer them a gift. I send an e-book copy of my short stories to anyone who emails me. Gather the email addresses of the readers who respond. These are the people who really like your work and want to hear when your next book is coming out. Using such a method, the email list you come up with is pure gold. It won’t be huge but then again, your emails won’t immediately hit the trash bin either.

Watch for Part 2 of this post. I’ll share my thoughts on the dilemma faced by self-published authors when it comes to getting book reviews.

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Rolling Out 2018

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I am indebted to a Facebook friend who captured, in a three-letter mnemonic, exactly what I am setting out to accomplish in 2018. CCM – my first thought was a memory of how, as a teenager, having a CCM ten-speed bike was all I could think of.

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Anyway – my CCM of 2018 translates to Clear, Create and Move.

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After a suitable recovery time from our wonderful twelve days of Christmas, I set out on my journey. And I’ve been lucky enough to discover a few tools to tuck into my bag. I signed up for a couple of online courses on simplifying and clearing space in my life. Wow! Daily meditation and reflection pieces are widening my horizons when it comes to the word clearing. I’m addressing clutter, but it turns out clutter is much more than the mess in my cutlery drawer. Clutter has shown up in my thoughts, in the ways I view objects and past situations. Well, to be honest, it’s everywhere. A year to figure things out is a nice thought. This is the drip, drip, drip method of change.

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When it comes to creating, I feel like I’ve been on the right path. Five books written and self-published in five years. I will continue to write and improve my craft. It’s what I love doing. And don’t be surprised if one of the Crater Lake characters needs to clear some clutter in his or her life. It’s all fodder for the writing mill.

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I couldn’t resist adding this picture of my lovely daughter, Kristen, on a Bayou tour in Louisiana. Over the month of January so many people I know have been out and about and on the move. From all-inclusive Mexican resorts to New Orleans.

So, onto the idea of moving. A few years ago, I had an awful episode with my knee. Strained beyond the beyond. The doctor suggested a recumbent, stationary bicycle to strengthen my quad muscles and hopefully keep that knee pain free. I got the bike and began my imaginary ride across Canada. Suffice to say, I’ve made my share of lengthy stops. But I am currently almost 2000 kilometers along the way, travelling between Strathmore and Drumheller, Alberta. And I walk daily – 2.5 kilometers around the trails near my home. My doctor upped the movement ante at my last visit by suggesting some gentle weight training to increase metabolic rate. To the frown on my face, she answered, “Soup cans.” I resisted the urge to burst out laughing. But hey, why not soup cans? No one is out here to collapse in a fit of hysterics as they watch me heft my tins of clam chowder. My goal is to get a couple of those bottles of Motts Clamato juice in my hands. Resistant weight training by day and yummy Caesars by night. Lake living is nothing if not innovative.

So … CCM … 2018 is going to be a great year!

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Rusty Beginnings

An era gone-by

Taking a dive back into the 5th book of the Crater Lake series has me reeling with how rusty I become when away from this work for a few months. My current notes show no measure of finesse. Everything is overwrought and jagged. Trying to sort out all the threads of this upcoming novel is akin to plunging into a knitting basket of yarn after a group of rambunctious kittens have had a romp.

I’m thankful that I’m not starting from scratch. The file folder for the upcoming novel already holds several documents – detailed sketches of all my new characters, research notes on bullying programs and Afghanistan vets, list of storylines, a master table of characters and a table for this book. I have some notes on dogs that baffle me. This information must have been something I thought would be useful. I’ve created a rudimentary storyboard – sparse with post-it-notes, a few tentative lines and connections. Much work remains to be done on this valuable visual aid.

The story is a mess in my head. At this point, there is a tendency to overreact to this chaos. I have tagged one new character for possible elimination from book five. Her story may be of more use in book six. But I’ll keep her in the notes for now. We’ll see. No need to be too hasty.

Simply begin. It’s the only way I know to proceed with the task of creating a novel. My method is to write my way into the story. The more words I throw on the page, the more organized and clear the ultimate story becomes. I’ve been here before. When I begin to glimpse the contours of the whole thing through the mist, that will be the point when I know I am close to tipping from note taking to actual writing.

The promise of that moment keeps me going through the difficulty of these early days. It allows me to bear my stuttering first attempts to unravel this mess of knotted yarn before me. Damn those kittens!

Where do you begin on the journey of creating a novel? How do you manoeuvre the first faltering stages? And what if your ideas are not even at the knotted yarn stage? I came across a post on Writers Helping Writers the other day that listed some great ways to generate ideas – Ten Ways to Goose the Muse. Check it out!

I’ll leave you today with a photo of my latest garden statue acquisition. We purchased ‘Edgar’ at the Millerville Christmas Market on our recent trip to High River, Alberta. He’s a mischievous gargoyle who looks as though he just dropped in for a bit of fun. Edgar may or may not be up to no good. I suspect he may show up in my upcoming book as a new addition to Izzy’s garden. She might see him from her kitchen window and experience the same delight I feel every time I see him. Edgar was created by Castaway – an artist out of Okotoks. I am sorry to say, I gave the business card away to someone who admired Edgar and now I can’t find a link to their work. All I can say is that they create lovely stuff at a reasonable price and if you’re ever in Okotoks, Alberta looking for a statue, look them up!

Edgar has found his forever home

Are You a Fan of Serialized Fiction?

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Be it via novel, movie or TV, I am a big fan of series. Words like book one or episode one make my heart beat faster. I love the way the series format allows character arcs to develop over time. I gain emotional satisfaction from the breadth and depth and incredible scope. And I don’t think I’m alone in these feelings. Consider the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones or Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. And few will fault the creators of the Lord of the Rings or Star Wars movies. Well, at least not in my hearing!

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As a novelist writing a series with multiple view-points and a large and vibrant cast, I sometimes face censor for the dearth of characters (all with their own unique stories) for the reader to keep track of. But when I look out into the world of serialized storytelling across delivery mode, I see a great hunger for the detail rich, character heavy saga type of story that I’m writing. 

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To illustrate this view, a reader emailed me the other day to tell me how much she loved Disappearing in Plain Sight. These are her words:

Your character development is excellent and your storyline complex but completely believable! You are quite the writer in keeping the climax climbing a very long time but you sure tie things up in quiet a bow!

Many thanks! That is exactly what I am trying to do.

Conn Iggulden War of the Roses

I’ve just finished Conn Iggulden’s War of the Roses series. Though he may play loose with historical time lines and break the head-hopping point-of-view rule, his books are amazing. Just darn good storytelling. Kudos as well to Phillipa Gregory’s books written from the viewpoint of the female characters who lived during the War of Roses and the Tudor era. I’ve read and loved them all.

I’m not a slave to genre. I’m in for any book, movie or TV series that demonstrates good character development. As the characters gain awareness, so do I.

Jack Reacher

I’ve read all the Jack Reacher novels and am in awe of Child’s ability to keep me coming back for more. He doles out the details of Reacher’s life at just the right titrated levels. I felt the same about Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books. I’ve sat in rapt attention watching Game of Thrones as I did with Firefly or Stranger Things or CBC’s Heartland.

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Even a character like Groot in the Guardian of the Galaxy movies has room for growth and thus something important to teach.

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How do you feel about serialized fiction? Are you up for investing hours in either reading or viewing instalment after instalment, following characters new and old through the breadth and depth of their life experience? Let me know and tell me about your favourites.