For Whom Do the Poets Write, If Not for Me?

Mary W. Walters:

“[Jason] Guriel demands not only talent but signs of diligence in the poetry he favours. He seems intrigued by such questions as ‘What is a good poem?’ and ‘What is a good poet?’ and the answers he proposes often have to do with the way the poet has connected the language – the words themselves – with the purpose of the work.”

Originally posted on Mary W. Walters: Book Reviews:

GurielCoverThe Pigheaded Soul

Essays and Reviews on Poetry & Culture

Jason Guriel

Porcupine’s Quill

264 pages

I admired the cover of a newly released book on Facebook, and to my surprise I received a copy in the mail from the publisher – no charge, no strings attached.

When the book arrived, I found myself as intrigued by the first few pages of the work as I had been by the cover. This created a dilemma for me. I like to write about books that intrigue me: doing so allows me to engage in conversation about the book – with myself, with other readers and, theoretically, with the author. I read books differently when I know I’m going to write about them – pausing to make notes, to reread paragraphs, to check external references. I wanted to read this book this way, and then to write about it on this blog…

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“You Must Never Put Down Your Pen,” by John Degen

John Degen, Executive Director, The Writers’ Union of Canada (Photo: Claudette Boekstael)

Note from Mary: I am a member of The Writers’ Union of Canada, and have been for many years. I cannot recommend highly enough the value to writers as individuals and as a community of belonging to this organization. Some of the concrete benefits of membership are outlined here, but there are many less tangible ones as well – such as the sense of community a writer feels as a part of TWUC, and the interesting people she meets. If you are eligible, I encourage you to consider joining.

One of the interesting people I have come to know recently is John Degen, The Writers’ Union’s executive director. This past year, he shepherded my co-presenter Caroline Adderson and me across Canada on a series of writers’ workshops about publishing (soon to be available on video!).  Over our post-workshop dinners, we had some great conversations on writing-related subjects – the kinds of conversations that sustain writers (or at least they do me) when we retreat once more to our own garrets.

In addition to his work with the Union, John is a poet and a fiction writer. His deep convictions about the importance to the world of writers and their writing, and the need to ensure our ability to continue to do (and own) our work, inform everything he does. His column in the most recent (Winter, 2015) edition of Write, the magazine of The Writers’ Union of Canada, speaks to this conviction on many levels.

I read his essay twice, and then asked for (and received) John’s permission to reprint it here. I hope you find it as moving (and wonderfully written, and absolutely true) as I did.

You must never put down your pen

By John Degen

As a student, I worked for a prominent bookstore chain, and I was on duty during the early days of the Salman Rushdie fatwa. Corporate management at my employer had us remove all copies of The Satanic Verses from the shelves, wrap them in brown paper, and store them under the front counter. Our instructions were to “assess” anyone who came into the store looking for a copy of Rushdie’s book. If they looked “harmless,” we would sell them a wrapped copy. I didn’t know then how to differentiate a harmless book-buyer from a dangerous one, and I still don’t. I remember a lot of semi-embarrassed nodding and winking at the cash register. I also remember selling an awful lot of plain-brown copies of The Satanic Verses. All of a sudden, a relatively expensive book with not much more demand than any other was flying out of the store.

Halfway between work and my apartment there was a very small independent bookstore (remember the days when there might be two or more book retailers in a single neighbourhood?). The owner of that store was not one for looking retail horses in the mouth. His entire display window was dedicated to Rushdie’s book. I remember walking in and asking if he wasn’t nervous someone might throw a brick through the glass. He called that possibility “free advertising,” and laughed when I told him what was going on where I worked. I bought my own copy of The Satanic Verses from him.

I began writing this column on January 7, late in the afternoon, after a sickening day of reaction to the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, France. I have worked for and with small, underfunded political magazines for most of my professional life. I was, for a while, chair of the board at THIS magazine in Toronto. Many of my friends also work in this business. I believe I can picture exactly how informal, irreverent and alive that editorial meeting was just before masked gunmen broke through the door. Did they even have to break through? Do magazines lock their doors? When did that start happening?

The violence in Paris is an absurdity and an obscenity. People whose working tools are pens and keyboards suddenly confronted with Kalashnikov automatics? That anyone should be murdered over words and pictures is madness. I remain filled with nausea and anger. I’m also profoundly impatient to get back to my home office and write something.

On January 7, my Twitter feed contained sentiments and pronouncements with which I agreed, and many with which I didn’t. I assume the same is true for everyone reading these words, and I’m betting (maybe even hoping) our individual lists of what we do and don’t agree with might look quite different. I intentionally follow folks on social media whose opinions bother me, because I want diversity of thought all around me, all the time. I want to be challenged and annoyed. I think some of my best work comes from being annoyed.

Barely 24 hours after the attacks, many on social media were injecting nuance into their reflexive support for freedom of expression – removing “Je Suis Charlie” from their streams, and suggesting the puerile, clearly offensive cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo might not be a suitable hill to hold in the fight for free speech. Because I’ve been wandering the front lines of free speech my entire career, I value the existence of those arguments even as I strongly disagree with them.

Similarly, as someone who practices a private faith, I was distressed and even offended by a lot of the immediate anti-religion commentary that followed the attacks. The brilliant Salman Rushdie, whom I will defend to my last breath, called something I sincerely value “a mediaeval form of unreason” that “deserves our fearless disrespect.” These were hard words for me to read, but I’m so glad he said them. I’m so glad he was here to challenge and offend my own thinking. I cherish his fearless disrespect.

There’s a great deal published that I think is complete garbage. Had I paid better attention to it before January 7th, much of the work in Charlie Hebdo would likely have attracted my scorn and dismay. That doesn’t change my mind at all that those of us who deal in words and pictures are to be argued with or ignored, not violently attacked or censored.

By complete coincidence that same awful week in January, I was speaking with a respected colleague at Amazon.ca. You may recall the last issue of Write might have had a few less than complimentary things to say about the large online retailer. We were discussing the possibility of an Amazon response in Write (which I encourage), but we first took time to commiserate about Paris. My colleague became passionate on the phone and said to me, “You must never put down your pen.”

That goes for all of you as well.

© John Degen 2015. Originally published in Write, the magazine of The Writers’ Union of Canada Reprinted with permission of the author.

I Create my First Video Book Trailer (and Other Book Promo News)

Rita TrailerFirst, an update for those who have been wondering what happened to my call in July for a book “publicist, but not just any publicist.” I am very happy to report that I have found a person who perfectly fits the bill. Her name is Chelsea. In a future post I will explain how we connected, how we are working together, and what we are doing to promote my books.

In the meantime, I have already started to enjoy the benefits of having someone else on board who also has an interest in testing some of the book promotion ideas I’ve been accumulating. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I find it difficult to do direct self-promotion and, as as a result, I’d been avoiding doing the groundwork that was necessary for any real promotion to happen. Once I’d started talking with Chelsea about what we should do first, I needed to get moving on that groundwork… and I did.

The Website

The first thing I needed to do was to revisit my website. Previously, I had different websites for different books, each containing the kinds of materials that would have gone out in a “media package” in a previous era: a profile of the author, an introduction to the book, reviews of the book and of my previous books, photos, etc. Having so many websites was expensive so, when two of the sites came up for renewal, I didn’t renew them. Instead, I amalgamated them into my main website at marywwalters.com. Now, the background info about Rita Just Wants to Be Thin and The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid are sub-pages on my main site that are clickable from the Fiction/Books page.

While I was at it, I asked Chelsea’s opinion of my existing website and, using her input and my own thoughts, I revised and re-energized the entire site. There are still a few pages I want to add or reactivate, but for now I’m happy with what I have.

I think it’s worthwhile to revisit websites every year or so, not just to update them but to rethink them and to re-examine what purposes they serve. The previous incarnation of my website was directed at, among others, prospective clients who might need my editorial services. I am now focusing on my writing, and on getting my books to pay the bills at least in part, so the new version of the website has a different slant.

The Book Trailer

The other thing I’ve been meaning to do for quite a while is to make video trailers to promote my books. I’ve been talking about my options with several experienced video people for several years, and I had the names of some who I thought could do a good job. But then I also needed a video for another initiative I am working on — it’s called Success After 60 — and for that venture, I’m going to be making videos every week or so. I wasn’t going to be able to afford the money – or, even more importantly, the time – to deal with a professional for what were essentially going to be regular video blog posts, or “vlog posts”— most just a few minutes long on a single topic. Besides, I wanted both the trailer and the vlogs to to look amateurish rather than highly professional, because I think they’re more intimate that way.

So since I was making my “Success After 60″ video myself, I decided to try making one for Rita Just Wants to be Thin at the same time.

It took me two months to make those two videos. I learned a lot. I hope to be able to make the next one in a day or two, but the whole experience was not only educational. It was also a pain in the ass.

From the faint hope that it may benefit someone else who decides to attempt what I have done, here’s what I learned. (Note: If you find yourself tempted to watch either the Success After 60 video OR the Rita trailer,  and if you find them at all interesting, or learn anything from this blog post, I would be most grateful if you’d “like” them):

The script is key. You want to develop something short and interesting.

My first several attempts at the Rita trailer consisted of my introducing the novel, then reading a passage from it, then encouraging readers to check it out online or buy it from their independent bookseller. The trailer ended up being about 7 to 8 minutes long, and even while I was creating it, I realized that it was boring.

Listening to an author reading from her novel is one thing — I enjoy going to literary readings (I especially enjoy them if the material is interesting and the writer reads well, which isn’t always the case). But unless you are a performance poet, and you have a self-contained passage that only takes a minute to read and doesn’t need to be set up first, save it for those who are already committed to you and your writing.

For most of us, reading from our books is not a good way to promote them on video.

I sent the (boring) video I’d made to Chelsea for her input, and she said a brilliant thing. She said, “Maybe you could make it more like a movie trailer.” At first I was flummoxed. How do you make a book trailer like a movie trailer? – short of filming a scene from the novel, which I was not prepared to do. (Some authors, with deeper pockets than I, have done that — some to great effect.) I also wasn’t about to hire an artist to turn my trailer into a self-contained work of art by manipulating text and images, although I’ve seen some outstanding book trailers where that has been done, such as this one.*

So I thought, What is the underlying principle of movie trailers? I looked at a lot of them, and I realized that what they do is to run snippets of the movie together so you get a sense of the story from the trailer… and that is all they do. Look at any trailer on Rotten Tomatoes, such as this one, and you will see what I mean.

After several days of mulling over how in the world this could be applied to a novel, I finally had an idea while I was working out on the rowing machine (I get my best ideas while exercising). I would read only a sentence or two from various parts of the book, and that way I would give the reader a sense of what the book was like. And the structure I would use would be to introduce the characters and the central conflict of the novel. I’d explain that Rita has a lot of problems, and then tell readers what some of those problems are.

So I threw out the previous scripts and started over. And what you see is the result.

Attitude is also key.

During my first attempts at the book trailer, I looked apologetic. All of my reluctance to shill my own work was obvious in my face and in my voice and in my posture. Since I was feeling like the script I had developed was boring (introducing the book, reading from the book, asking viewers to check out the book), I also felt like viewers were doing me a favour by sticking with me through to the bitter end of the video: and that showed, too.

Once I had developed a script I liked, I was enthusiastic about it, and all of my insecurity disappeared. The new script reminded me that I loved the novel and its characters, and that I thought readers would love them as well. Instead of trying to persuade viewers to hang in there for the video so that they would eventually see why they should buy the book, I was simply sharing my enthusiasm for the book itself. Instead of impersonating a used-car salesman, I was speaking from my heart.

Brevity is Key

The new video is 3.5 minutes long. That length made it easy to record again and again until I was happy with it. The first version had been 7 to 8 minutes. When I didn’t like the ending and the light in the house had changed, I had to start all over again: redo every single clip. Sometimes I had to wait until the next day because I didn’t have another hour to devote to it — which meant starting all over from scratch the next day or whenever I had enough time: showering and blowing my hair dry and putting on makeup and getting into half-decent clothes (rather than my usual “writing clothes”) before I could even start to record the video.

That is one main reason why it took me two months to create a video I liked: I kept having to do it over and over again. When you’re redoing a video, you want it to be short.

Recording the same video over and over again is ultimately a good thing

Despite how I whine about how often I had to re-record the Rita book trailer (and you cannot imagine how many clips I threw out that ended with swear words) due to bloopers, poor timing, the battery in the camera suddenly running out, etc., there were real benefits to being so particular about getting the video to the point where it was as good as I could make it. By the time I did the version you see posted online, I was totally relaxed in front of the camera. All of my apprehension, camera shyness and lack of confidence had gone away. I was me.

The “Technicalities” (for those who are interested)

I used the following apps and objects found around my house to make the video:

Recording the Video Clips

I did my first few attempts at the video just talking to the camera that is built into my MacBook Air (using OS X Yosemite), with the help of an app called Photo Booth. Using that program was fairly easy, but there were disadvantages: I couldn’t get my eyes to look directly at the viewer, which was what I wanted to do in order to make “eye contact.”  No matter what I tried, I appeared to be either looking down or up. Reading from a script made this problem worse, of course, because I had to look at the script and then back at the camera. Another program on my computer, iMovie, offers a teleprompter function, but that didn’t help either because I still had to look down at my computer.

Furthermore, the recording came out reversed even after I processed it (more on the processing below), which meant that when I held the book up, the title was backwards.

So for the next attempts to make the video, I used Arnie’s Canon camera on a tripod. He helped me set it up so that when I sat down in my armchair I was seated in the right place  — my face close enough to the lens to feel personal, but not too close. Then we left the camera and the armchair in the same place for a few days, and I kept making different recordings until I had the ones I was happy with. I would sit in the chair, gather my thoughts, then get up and push “record” on the camera. Then I would sit down and start talking. When I flubbed it, I would get up and stop the recording. Then I’d take a deep breath. Then I would start at the beginning of the sentence or the paragraph before the flub, where it seemed like there would be a good pause that would allow me to cut and patch the clips together later. I gradually learned to pause at the end of paragraphs  every time, and in other places, so that if I had to do a patch, I’d have some elbow room.

Again I had to keep an eye on the lighting and make sure it was consistent. If I needed six clips, and I made Clip 1 at 2 p.m. and Clip 2 at 2:15 p.m. and so on, and then after I finished Clip 6 and started working on them, I discovered I didn’t like Clip 2 and had to redo it,  by then it would be 4 p.m. or later. The sun would have moved across the sky or disappeared behind a cloud, and I’d have a continuity problem. (I preferred natural light to artificial, so I didn’t tape at night. Also, I have a shorter fuse at night, so it wouldn’t have worked anyway.) The longer the video is, the worse this clip-matching problem can become.

To hold the script, which I tried not to simply read but only to refer to, we put up a music stand behind the camera, printed out the script in large type, and clipped two pages to the stand at at a time. If you refer to the Success After 60 video, you will see me reading the script more than I do in the Rita video. I’ve decided there is no way around this — short of buying a real-live tv camera like my son Dan uses on Daily Planet, which has a teleprompter built right into it. Life is too short for some things, and memorizing scripts is one, so I’m living with the fact that you can see me reading the script in my videos. I did, however, read the scripts over many, many times before I felt and sounded natural reading them.

Assembling the Video

After the recording was done, I imported the clips from the camera into PhotoShop on my MacBook Air, and then exported the ones I wanted to work with to a folder on my Desktop. I then opened them in QuickTime (it’s the default on my computer) and started trimming them, using the “View Clips” option and then “Split Clip” command. That way I eliminated the parts at the beginnings and ends of the clips where I had recorded myself sitting down (after starting the recording), and then standing up (to stop the recording). Where there was a flub, I cut that out too and then started the next clip in the appropriate place so that they would match. I didn’t worry about whether they matched exactly.

I didn’t do much editing in the middle of clips at this stage, either (taking out phrases or hesitations), because I found out the hard way that I could throw off the synchronization of sound and video if I did too much editing within clips. Cleaning up places where the sound doesn’t match the video is harder to do after the fact than it is to avoid it in the first place.

Then I uploaded the rough-cut clips to iMovie and followed the instructions (I watched several YouTube videos on how to use iMovie before I did it, and several more during the production process). I lined the clips up, did a bit more editing, added titles, and watched the whole thing in the iMovie library. When I was satisfied (several days after I had started), I uploaded the video from the iMovie Library to the iMovie Theater (this takes an hour or so). Then I uploaded it to YouTube (again, this takes a while. And btw, there is lots of info online about how to do this.) Then I watched it a few times, showed it to a few people, decided it wasn’t right, and started all over again: right from the getting-in-the-shower-and-blowing-my-hair-dry stage.

In all, for the two videos I ultimately created – the Rita book trailer, and the introduction video for Success After 60 – I probably recorded 50 to 75 clips. I threw out most of them. I made about five complete projects in iMovie before I had two I could live with.

I’ve learned a lot in the past two months, and I’m fairly proud of the results. I hope that it will go much faster next time, from scriptwriting to posting.

Going Public: YouTube and Facebook

I have now got two channels on YouTube in addition to my own: one for Mary W. Walters, Author, and one for Success After 60.  (Subscribe to one or both of these channels if you are interested in seeing other videos I’ll be creating in future.) Figuring out how to create channels, upload videos and manage the metadata on YouTube is fairly straightforward. The site is very user friendly. You can also edit the video some more from right inside YouTube.

I have learned that it is much better from a quality point of view to actually upload the videos to your Facebook pages than it is to just post the link to YouTube. (I found this article on the subject interesting.) But aside from Facebook, you don’t need to upload your video anywhere besides YouTube. YouTube gives you all kinds of link codes and one-click options for social media, as well as html text that allows you to embed a direct link to YouTube in your website.

So there you go. More than you wanted to know, I am sure. But maybe it will inspire you to get a video up as well. If I can do it, so can you. Just set aside six weeks.

If you have your own approach to creating and posting videos, please let us know below.

________

* I found the examples of great (but expensive-looking) book trailers here.

Água Viva – Clarice Lispector

Originally posted on Mary W. Walters: Book Reviews:

LispectorÁgua Viva

Clarice Lispector

Translated by Stefan Tobler

88 pages

New Directions Books

Although Água Viva is officially classified as fiction, it is likely to appeal more to those with a taste for poetry than to those who prefer the more familiar manifestations of prose. Água Viva lacks narrative structure: in fact, one reviewer described it as “non-narrative fiction” — whatever that means. For the most part the author betrays even her own basic construct, which is that this work has been written by an unnamed narrator — a painter who is exploring the artistic possibilities of the writing medium for the first time — to a lover from whom she has been temporarily and unwillingly parted.

Despite the wrench she claims to feel at his departure, the “other” to whom the writing is ostensibly addressed is not important to this work. For most of Água Viva, the narrator…

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Wattpad: Engaging Readers as You Write

Note: This article previously appeared in a slightly different form in Write, The Magazine of The Writers Union of Canada

________________________________
Confession: Sometimes I have trouble writing the next page of my new novel. WPNot because I am short of ideas, but because I have a lot of other urgent matters that demand my attention. I have often envied the writers whose editors or literary agents I imagine standing at their sides like midwives, encouraging them throughout their labour, reminding them of the rewards of manuscript delivery, telling them how much the world wants to see their next baby, and finally urging them to “push.”

When I heard about Wattpad, an Internet platform for readers and writers that attracts 27 million unique visitors per month, and 200,000 uploads of writing per day, I thought it might be part of the answer to my problem. And it has been. But it is also other things.

What It Is

Wattpad is a social storytelling platform where writers can register to post all kinds of work – poetry, drama, fiction and nonfiction – and where readers can read that work: all at no charge.

Most writers post short segments of their works in progress (1,000 to 2,000 words at a time, sometimes much less, sometimes much more), adding to it at regular (or irregular) intervals. Some writers are posting whole manuscripts in serial format that they have previously completed. Others (like me) are posting early drafts of longer works one section at a time. Still others slap up writing fragments like ill-mixed paint with hairs in it, and leave it there to dry — perhaps intending to come back and edit later, perhaps not.

Once the piece is up there, the effort to attract readers begins. You can contribute to this process (but probably only once) by emailing all of your friends and inviting them to check your story out, and by posting your Wattpad link to other social media sites (here’s mine). Of course, you also want to encourage visitors to your page whom you don’t already know, and you can do this indirectly by reading and commenting on the writing of others on the site, getting involved in the discussion forums, and entering the informal competitions Wattpad puts on from time to time. The goal is to get people to “follow” you so that they will be notified whenever you post a new installment or an update.

Every time someone takes a look at a segment you have posted, your “read” counter goes up. Readers can also vote for or post a comment on your work. The more reads and votes you get, the greater are your chances of being noticed by even more readers.

Some people use Wattpad as an end in itself – they are not interested in publishing elsewhere. Others are creating works ultimately intended for self- or traditional publication. Many writers have several projects on the go. Some ask for input and guidance from their readers; others just write.

Who’s on Wattpad?

The two Canadians who developed Wattpad (Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen) intended it for readers as much as writers, and Ashleigh Gardner, Head of Content: Publishing, says that “Ninety percent of Wattpad visitors are there to read and comment, not to post stories.”

She also says that regular visitors include publishers and agents who are looking for new talent.

“Some writers use Wattpad to promote their books to publishers,” she says. “Perhaps their novel was rejected when they submitted it directly, but now they can demonstrate that there is significant interest in their work.”

Gardner also tells me that the Wattpad app for smartphones and tablets is downloaded about 400,000 times a day. “Eighty-five percent of our visitors now reach us from mobile devices,” she says.

The advantage of Wattpad’s mobility component is clear: your work is accessible to readers no matter where they are, and your followers will receive “push” notifications whenever you post something new.

Copyright and Other Concerns

Gardner says that the site features a very sophisticated data-checking system that not only protects what is posted, but also works to prevent piracy. “All work on Wattpad of course remains copyright to the author,” she says. “Further, it cannot be copied and pasted, and readers can’t download it.”

A few people have told me they’re reluctant to sign on to Wattpad because they fear it will lead to spam, but so far Wattpad has attracted no more spam to me than have Twitter, Linked In, Goodreads or Facebook (which is, in my case, none).

Wattpad has had a reputation for being a place where teens post stories for one another, but if that were true at one point (and wouldn’t it be great to know that there are millions of teens who are interested in writing and reading?), the demographics are changing. “The majority of visitors are now between the ages of 18 and 30,” Gardner says, “and the subject matter of the content is changing as the average age goes up.”

Making Wattpad Work

The important part of making Wattpad work for you is to remember that it is a social media platform. If you don’t engage with it (read others’ works, respond to comments, participate in forum discussions), you will miss out on the very important reciprocation factor, and your work will languish. Further, thanks to algorithms, the more readers you attract, the more readers who will find you on their own.

Networking is not as painful as you might think. While it’s true that the Wattpad platform sports lots of dabblers and thousands of very bad writers, it doesn’t take long to sort the wheat from the chaff. And there are also some very good writers there, clearly intending to do as I am — get the work written and noticed by intelligent and discerning readers.

I’ve found a few manuscripts on Wattpad whose next installments I am genuinely eager to read and I’ve also found a few very careful and helpful readers who will probably help me get through Seeds and Secrets far more quickly than I would ever have done on my own. There is a definite motivation to keep going when readers start asking when you’re going to post the next installment. (As of Jan 1, 2015, Seeds and Secrets had received 1,500 “reads” and 121 votes. It stands about 450 from the top in the General Fiction category.)

In addition to pieces of my novel, I’ve put up a couple of works of short nonfiction on Wattpad – one previously published, one not yet – and received encouraging – and immediate – responses on them as well. I am also posting blog posts from my 2011 solo trip to India – Watch. Listen. Learn – which seems to be very popular. In fact, the response is making me seriously consider publishing it as a book, which I had not considered doing before.)

For me, Wattpad is like a humungous writing group where no one has to make coffee or serve beer, get dressed before offering feedback on other writers’ works, or pay any attention to comments from readers who don’t get what they’re doing.

Wattpad is not for everyone, of course, but if it sounds like a tool you could use to stimulate your writing and find new readers for your existing work, check it out. I’ll be happy to read the writing that you post – as long as you read mine. :)

_______

Update: You can check out Wattpad’s 2014 Year in Review here. According to Nazia Khan, Wattpad’s Director of Communications, the company has noted some interesting trends this year:

  • People are writing novels on their phones
  • Episodic/serial reading is back (Dickens would be so pleased)
  • Everyone is a fan of something as evidenced by the growing number of fanfiction stories
  • Teens are reading. Yes, really.

Who by Fire – Fred Stenson

Mary W. Walters:

From my Book Reviews blog….

Originally posted on Mary W. Walters: Book Reviews:

Who By Fire CoverWho by Fire

Fred Stenson

359 pages, Doubleday

A Human Face for a Complex Issue

A surprising number of the world’s most destructive conflicts can be related in one way or another to differences of opinion over how to manage the Earth’s non-renewable resources. Heated disputes over the ownership, use and fate of fossil fuels rage across scientific, political, economic, historical and cultural boundaries — damaging individual and community relationships as surely as tailing ponds contaminate nearby flora and fauna. Fred Stenson has brought the destructive power of these debates and arguments to a human level in his latest novel, Who by Fire (named, like Leonard Cohen’s song, from the Hebrew prayer/poem “Unetaneh Tokef”).

Bill Ryder is just a boy when a sour-gas plant opens downwind of his parents’ southern Alberta farm. Poisonous gases released during a series of plant malfunctions make the family sick — particularly Billy…

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2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,200 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

I didn’t buy your book this week, and your publisher is to blame

Mary W. Walters

Mary W. Walters

Dear Fellow Author who has the good fortune of working with a traditional, mainstream publishing company:

This week I read a review of your book or heard an interview with you on the radio, and I was so taken by it that I wanted to have your book immediately. I didn’t even want to take the time to make a note of the title, go down to an independent bookseller and purchase it there (sorry, Independent Bookseller). I wanted it right now.

So I went to Amazon/Kobo/iBooks to make what is known as an “impulse purchase.” (When it comes to books, I do not apologize for being an impulse buyer.)

But then I discovered that in the electronic version, your book was $13.50 or maybe $15.00 or maybe even $19.95.

Now, I can see paying that amount for a paperback, but I am sure as hell not paying that much for an ebook. Because I know how much an ebook costs to make when the book is already available in print: it costs next to nothing. I know because I have created two novels in paperback (DV and Rita) that I have converted to ebooks, and in each case it cost me a ONE TIME PAYMENT of $79. One time. That’s it. After that, I make at least 35% and sometimes 70% (depending on the distribution agreement) of the selling price on every single copy of each book I sell in e-version.

Your publisher wants to rip me off, and rip you off as well

Q: Why didn’t I buy your book in e-version at $15 if I would have paid that much or more for it in paperback?

A: Because I cannot stand to be swindled. And I cannot stand to participate in a scheme that rips YOU off as well, my fellow author. If you were being paid fairly from this widespread scam that sees ebooks being priced at over $10, you would be receiving at least 35% of the cost of that ebook in royalties or (depending on how the ebook is distributed, which is something you should know), even more than that.

Three times this week alone – with three different books by three different authors – my finger has paused over the  “Buy It Now!” button, I’ve thought about the price, I have not clicked, and I have closed the screen. And the problem is that I will probably now never buy that book of yours. It’s sad. I’m sad for you. You may have lots of other advantages over those who publish on their own, but for the reason of ebook sales alone, I’m glad it isn’t me.

P.S. Joseph Boyden has edited a new anthology that focuses on the plight of first nations women. It is called Kwe: Standing with our Sisters, and it features contributions from Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Gord Downie, and many others. It was published by Penguin/Random House and it is available as an ebook for $2.99. Now thats more like it.

(You are welcome to forward this message to your publisher.)

Turning Writers’ Blocks into Building Blocks, or “What don’t I know?”

(Note from Mary to subscribers and other regular readers of The Militant Writer: Please see note and update at the end of this post. Thx.)

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blocks__4971835856There is no worse feeling for a fiction writer than coming to a grinding halt in the middle of a story. One day all of your engines are firing, sentence after sentence pours out of you like hot metal, almost faster than you can type – it’s like the characters are alive inside your head and all you need to do is write down what they’re doing. You love the story you are writing and you know that everyone else in the entire world is going to love it, too. You are thinking that at the rate you are going, you’ll be finished by the new year, and rich and famous by next summer (or at least critically acclaimed within the decade).

And then the next day, the magic vanishes. You sit down at your computer as you always do, you start to key in words — but these words don’t fit with the words you wrote yesterday, nor do they even fit with each other very well. So you delete them. You try another sentence. Nope. Nothing good is happening on the screen. You tell yourself that you should ease up on yourself: this isn’t the final draft, it’s just the first one. It doesn’t have to be perfect. But still it isn’t working.

You get up and pace. You lie on your back on your bed or on the floor, and you start feeling nauseated. You go back to the computer, but you find yourself checking Facebook instead of writing. You read the news. You play an online game. Only at the end of the day, do you give up — hoping that tomorrow will return you to your state of authorial grace.

But tomorrow, it’s the same or worse. So you start reading back through what you wrote before you hit the wall — and, horror of horrors — you wonder if that part is any good either.

One day you reach a point where you can’t even bring yourself to open the file where you have saved your story.

What to do?

Some writing gurus will tell you to just keep going. They’ll tell you not to worry about whether what you’re putting down is good or bad… they’ll insist you must simply carry on. “Keep getting your daily quota down on paper,” they say, “and it will all work out.” They will cheerily suggest that you stop the day’s work in the middle of a paragraph so that you can carry on tomorrow … as if you could even write half a paragraph today.

Well, I’ve tried following that advice. As a result, I have printouts of several drafts of a novel called White Work in a box somewhere that, taken together, weigh about 20 lbs. White Work will never be complete because I kept going as advised, and never did find my way out of the mess I was making of it. Everything I did just made it worse. I grew sick and tired of it. Twenty years later, I still can’t look at it.

On other occasions when I’ve hit a wall, I’ve put the project aside, afraid of wrecking it. I’ve decided to wait until inspiration returned. Eventually a couple of those projects went into the fireplace or into my filing cabinet or still languish on my computer, unfinished. When I look at them I have no idea where I was going with them, what made me so keen about them in the first place.

In other words, if you don’t deal with them when they first show up, little blocks can grow into big problems.

Meeting the Block Head-on

I have finally found a solution that works for me when I run into a block, and I hope it works for you as well. It’s not really a solution, I suppose: it’s more of an awareness that you can turn into plan of action.

I have learned that when I find it impossible to move forward on a project, it is because there is something important about the story that I do not know.
Not knowing something erodes my confidence, and when I lack confidence I can’t write. Trying to move forward becomes like trying to walk across a frozen pond when I am not sure whether the ice is solid enough to hold me. My fear of seeing the ice begin to crack, of sinking into the deadly water — of getting trapped beneath the ice — becomes greater than my certainty that I can make it to the other side. I start to slow down, and then I stop. And that’s when I start sinking.

So now, when I find myself grinding to a halt in the middle of a story – as I did recently in my new novel, Seeds and Secrets (which you can watch me writing on Wattpad, one chapter at time, if you are interested) – I ask myself, “What do I not know about this story and its characters that I need to know before I can move on?” (There are lots of things I don’t need to know. I’m not talking about those things.)

“Where have I taken a wrong step?” I ask myself. “How did I get myself out here where the ice is so thin? When is the last time I felt myself on solid ground, and how do I get back there so I can once again move forward strongly?”

Kinds of Missing Information

What I don’t know about my story might be something small. For example, maybe the daughter of my main character was traumatized by the 9-11 coverage, but I’ve just realized that she could not have been traumatized by that event because she wasn’t even born when it occurred. Now I need to change everybody’s age in the whole story, or find the child another trauma.

Or maybe it’s a medium-sized problem. Maybe I haven’t spent enough time thinking about my main character’s best friend. I don’t know why she has turned into such a bitter adult. I realize that I need to spend some time thinking about what led her to become the woman she is now. (I may not actually include this information in my novel, but it’s clear to me that I do need to know it before I can move on.)

Or it might be a really big problem, which is, in my case, what almost always happens when I don’t know how a story is going to turn out. Some writers just keep on writing with no real plot in mind, hoping for the best, and some of those writers get lucky. (Or maybe, as in the case of Marcel Proust and Karl Ove Knausgaard, they just keep writing, and writing, and writing, until they stop.) But most authors, like me, need to know the ending before they can write the middle, or they will come to a grinding halt. (That’s what happened with White Work).

In order overcome a block and move on, sometimes I just need to go back a bit and fix something to make the story feel right again, as in the case of the trauma incident. Sometimes I need to draw a map or a floor plan or a family tree to make sure I’ve got my directions and dates and connections right. And sometimes I have a bigger job ahead of me: I need to figure out and then make notes on the balance of the plot, so I can see where I am going. (In Seeds and Secrets, my most recent problem turned out to be minor: I realized that I had no idea what career my central character had taken up as her employment as an adult: i.e., in the novel’s present tense. I had to decide what career path she’d chosen and how that path logically arose from what had happened to her when she was younger.)

To find missing information in my novel, the last place I want to look is at the novel itself. (That’s where the information is missing from, so why would I look for it there?) Instead, I often find it useful to go for a walk or head to the gym. For some reason, if I deliberately force myself to think about the problem while I’m sweating, the answer usually comes to me. Other times, I take my computer to a coffee shop or a park where I try to shake the solution loose — in my experience, a change of setting is much more likely to create a missing piece than is lying on the bed, staring in panic at the ceiling.

Once I’ve figured out what I don’t know about my novel, and have filled in the necessary cracks in what I’ve already written, I find that the ground again feels solid, and I am able to move forward. The book itself feels better — stronger — when I’ve done this. It’s sort of like turning writers’ blocks into construction materials. And when you know how to do that, you almost start to welcome those blocks when they start to crash down in front of you and bring you to a halt. (Almost.) You realize that if you don’t fix the problem, you are going to sink for sure. But you also begin to trust that you can fix it, given some time and focus, and that when you have –  when you’ve made the ground strong enough again to hold you – the readers who follow after will find it strong as well.

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Note to readers: I have traditionally posted my writing tips to another blog but I am thinking of merging that blog with this one. What I need to know is this: Are those who are used to reading about self-publishing and related political issues on The Militant Writer also interested in knowing what I’ve learned about how to write (or, rather, how I write), or should I keep these two worlds separate?  Let me know what you think.

And an update: I AM making progress on my mission to find a publicist who is not just any publicist. We are very excited here, but not sure enough to talk about it in public. Stay tuned!

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photo credit: turbulentflow via photopin cc

Book Publicist Wanted: But not just ANY book publicist

Book promotion is a career option with a big future. This is what my ideal book publicist – the book publicist of the future – looks like.

Media technologies conceptI am looking to hire a book publicist, so this post is sort of a job posting. It is also a blueprint and discussion paper for other writers who are looking for really effective people to help them promote their books, and it is a primer on the state of the industry for people starting out in the book-promotion business.

In future (starting now, for some of us), a freelance book publicist will be one of the two truly essential members of an author’s team – the other being (of course) the editor. Soon, great book publicists (like great editors) will only represent the books they love and believe in, and the fact that a specific publicist has taken on your book will act as a credential for the quality of the book itself.

Needless to say, for that to happen, the world is going to need a lot more freelance book publicists than it has right now. Unfortunately most of the ones who are around today – they mainly work for publishers – are just not going to make it past the jump.

I am going to tell you why existing book promotion methods have become ineffective, what does work, and why book promotion is becoming a really exciting and potentially profitable income option for enterprising, creative people who love books.

Why Traditional Book Promotion Doesn’t Work

In the past, book publicists have worked primarily with traditional media (newspapers, radio, television) on behalf of traditional publishers. There are two reasons why this approach is of no use to those of us who are producing quality books independently today – and, in most cases, not to traditionally published authors either.

For self-published authors, traditional outlets are next-to-impossible to crack – no matter how good our books are. Unless our sales suddenly skyrocket as a result of years of dogged hard work, or there is a spontaneous word-of-mouth epidemic, or we engage in some ridiculous public stunt — in other words, unless we become “news” – no one in the traditional print media or the broadcast sectors is going to even look at our books, much less review them, or interview us about anything. To them, we are pariahs.

There are several reasons for our pariah-hood: 1) If traditional media open the doors to one self-published author, kazillions of others will inundate them with their books and demand equal time. At least when media receive books from traditional presses, they can be fairly sure that the books have some merit – no matter how slight it may be. There are no such guarantees with self-published books, many of which are garbage. Who has time to sort the wheat from the chaff? 2) It’s a lot easier to work with the devil you know: publishers’ promotions people and writers’ agents make sure authors and their books arrive on time for interviews, and may even supply book summaries and questions for the interviewers to ask. And if media outlets say “No” to those publicists because they aren’t interested in a book, the publicist doesn’t take it personally. God knows what a self-published author might do if media outlets said “No” to them. To them, it is better to say nothing. 3) Publishers and media people know each other. Many have been friends for decades. To promote a self-published author over a traditionally published one would be like cheating on a spouse. Besides, isn’t it better to go down on the Titanic with your friends than to try to survive alone? 4) Publishers and booksellers buy ads in newspapers and sponsor events. Nobody wants to threaten that (very) thin thread of income.

But perhaps of even more import than the pariah status of self-published authors is the fact that, increasingly, book promotion through traditional media doesn’t work for any author. (Not that it ever was that effective.) People just aren’t reading newspapers and magazines cover to cover they way they used to. TV audiences are no longer captive, either: thanks to PVR/DVR, people only watch the programs that they want to watch. How many people download a book review or author interview from Netflix?

So what does book publicity look like today? Well, aside from the inundations of book promotion by self-published authors on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, we have traditional book-promotion strategies that no longer work – and people who have been trained in those strategies who are no longer useful.

What Book Publicity Must Look Like Now

Those of us who have chosen the freedom of self-publishing over the traditional route need to get creative. We need to think about how our books are going to be received, by whom, and where. We need to think about unusual ways to tell the people who we know are going to love our books that they exist. The routes we need to take to find these people are not the traditional promotional routes. Trying to get reviewed or interviewed in the places where every other writer goes to be reviewed or interviewed just doesn’t work. (Not that it helps traditionally published writers much, either: traditional promotion is like throwing blurbs at blank walls to see what sticks: it’s a one-size-fits-all approach that fits about as well as one-size-fits-all fits anything.)

What we need is a promotional program that is specifically designed for each of our individual books. If I have two books to promote (which I do right now, although several others are waiting in the wings), I need two promotional programs. I need to sit down with my book, think clearly and honestly about its prospective audience (and recognize that it is not for everyone–no book is for everyone), and devise really ingenious ways to find its audiences and tell them about my book. Once I’ve found them, I need to make contact. After that, the quality of my book will do the work for itself. People will love reading it, and they will tell other people, and once the ball is rolling, I’ll be able to turn my attention to one of the other books I want to tell the world about.

In my case, for example, when it comes to the novel Rita Just Wants to Be Thin, I want to reach women everywhere who love reading good fiction and are interested in body-image issues. Men will be interested too, but my primary audience is women. I know how to find these women: I just haven’t had the time to do it. The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid is likely to attract a very different audience. Here, John (my co-author) and I are looking for readers who love to read an unputdownable, thinking-person’s romp. We have a particular focus on those who love Westerns or historical fiction set in the early 1900s, but also on those who have a passing acquaintance with the story of Don Quixote (which includes those attending performances of Man of La Mancha and the opera Don Quichotte), readers of lesbian fiction, and several other groups. I have tons of specific ideas (some ingenious) as to how to reach my audiences for both books.

As authors, we can come up with a lot of great ideas for book publicity ourselves, but such lists are potentially endless and we can’t think of them all. We need creative input. We need help from someone who approaches our book as a reader, rather than a writer. We need to brainstorm ideas, and then focus on the best ones … and then we need to act on them. Consistently.

We can’t do a great job of book promotion on our own—especially when we’re writing the next book at the same time. It’s too time-consuming. It’s also disheartening to us and frowned upon by others. If we do it the wrong way or too often, it can damage sales rather than improving them. We need someone who loves the books we are promoting to help us. And we need to pay them. (And I don’t mean promising them a share of royalties. I mean paying them a reasonable hourly rate that is based on their education, experience, and the ideas and energy they bring to the table.)

Who Is NOT the Publicist I am Looking for

I am not looking for someone who has done a lot of promotion for the books industry, who thinks that he or she knows how to do it and that traditional methods are the way to go. Yes, I am interested in being interviewed on Between the Covers and getting my books reviewed in The New York Times – who wouldn’t be? –  but that’s not likely to happen in the near future (see section on “pariah-hood” above), and it doesn’t matter anyway because such coverage will only reach a tiny part of the audience I want to reach. My audience is a specific segment of the huge huge world of readers, and most of them don’t listen to CBC or read the NYT.

My audience is also international. The new books world breaks down all borders. Therefore I am also not interested in promotions people with a purely Canadian focus.

Publicists who offer to help me create an effective social media strategy incorporating Facebook and Twitter, and to help me build a great website and an attractive blog, are not welcome either. These platforms ONLY sell books for people who are already selling tons of books, and even then they probably don’t –  in and of themselves – sell books. As I’ve explained before, you can’t sell books on Twitter and Facebook.

Finally, I am not looking for former or current literary agents who are trying to earn a few shekels because their traditional paths to riches are closing down (which was the logical future given the state of the industry five years ago, as I described in the first-ever post on this blog: “The Talent Killers: How literary agents are destroying literature, and what publishers can do to stop them.” That was then.)

The Publicist I AM Looking for – Right Now

I am looking for a book promotions person who wants to work with me because he or she has made him- or herself familiar with the range of writing I have done and do, loves my fiction, and wants to work with me to promote my books (specifically Rita and Don Valiente at the outset) in unexpected, fun ways that no one else is using. I want him or her to have an Internet focus and a real-world focus rather than a traditional-media focus.

I am looking for someone who is already interested in the kind of work I am describing. Someone who is just starting out in the field would be ideal. An advanced student in a communications program would be welcome. This is a very part-time gig to start with.

The candidate must be an avid reader of literary as well as popular fiction, and must be creative, energetic and gutsy. Promotion is the really fun part of writing and publishing, and I want to work with someone who gets that. Someone who moves as fast as I do, and thinks as fast as I do. I want someone from whom I can bounce ideas, and who will bounce his or her own ideas back.

I want someone who will see me as a mentor as well as a client and employer. After many years in the books business myself – as former editor in chief of a publishing company, former executive director of a writers’ organization, and an author with more than thirty years of experience, I have been involved with all kinds of traditional books promotion. I know what works and what does not, and I have been intimately involved in the transition to self-publishing (read back through the history of Militant Writer blogs for evidence of that.) I have a wealth of innovative and unusual ideas for my books. To a book publicist who is building up a stable of clients, the ideas I am exploring and want to test are going to be valuable in promoting other people’s books as well.

If you’re in Toronto, that’s great, but it’s not necessary.

This will be a very part-time position at the start, but the hourly rate will be reasonable (you will need to suggest a reasonable rate at some point in our discussions). Just because I want to work with people who have new ideas who also want to learn doesn’t mean that I think that they should work for free.

Those who are interested in helping me promote Rita and Don Valiente should contact me via mary at marywwalters dot com I’ll get back to all emails within a day or two.

To my writer friends: comments and additional thoughts are, as always, sincerely welcomed and appreciated – not only by me, but also by other readers.