Celebrating the release of “Standing Our Ground”: Scene 2

Here comes scene 2!

I sincerely hope you felt something at the end of scene 1—a question, a sense of something immanent, perhaps curiosity about Deputy Andi Pelton—and even a sense of something not so good about to make Andi’s evening anything but boring. If not, my goal for the first scene wasn’t met. 

But it’s short, and scene 2 introduces two of the other recurring main characters in this series: Ed Northrup, Andi’s life partner, and Grace Northrup, Ed’s adopted daughter who loves to call Andi her “step-girlfriend.” See what you think (and let me know, if you can!). Here’s Scene 2 from Standing Our Ground:

2

Ed pocketed his phone, uneasy. Shots fired? His worst fear was losing Andi in a violent confrontation. “Let it go,” he said to himself. “She’ll be okay.”

 Grace walked past him, carrying another box. “Who’ll be okay, Northrup?”

He picked up the box he’d set down to answer the phone, following her out. “Andi just got a call at work. Shots fired.”

“Shots? My God, where?”

“In town, I suppose. But I don’t know for sure. I’m just hoping she’ll be okay.”

“She will. Andi can take care of herself.”

“Right.” He carried the box of Grace’s things out to his pickup, still jumpy. The last shots fired in Jefferson were the ones that almost killed Andi four years ago. He tried to dredge up that reverend’s name, the one who’d started it all. 

Grace’s car, a used pink Volvo she’d immediately named the Pink Vulva, groaned with her belongings jammed into every corner. When Ed dropped the box onto the tailgate of his pickup, she called, “Careful with that, Northrup.” 

“How’d you accumulate all this junk in just four years?” He snugged the box into the last open spot in the bed of the truck and raised the tailgate.

She studied him for a moment, calculation in her eyes. “I’ve been yours only three years and eight months.”

“Then it’s even more amazing you have so much junk.”

“Jen’s folks rented a whole trailer for, as you call it, her junk.” She sniffed. “I prefer to think of all this—” She pointed at the PV and then at his pickup. “—as beloved possessions.” 

“Any more beloved possessions in the cabin?”

“Uh-uh. But would you consider letting me take a few bottles of that wine you and Andi drink so much of?”

“Ah. Would you consider first turning twenty-one?”

“Come on, Northrup. Please? I can’t buy wine for three more years. Having some in my dorm room would be a nice ice-breaker for those new friends I’m about to make.” She gave a coy smile. “Work with me here. I’m on the threshold of my new life.”

Ed took that in. Her new life. It felt too soon, after three years and eight months. “All right. One bottle for breaking the ice.”

“You’re grits and gravy, Northrup,” she sang as she dashed up the porch steps and into the house. 

Ed smiled to himself: free “dad points,” and no harm done—she’d never remember the corkscrew.

He followed Grace up the porch steps, wondering who, if anybody, had been shot. In his head, he listed his patients. None of them were likely to take up arms against their particular slings and arrows, or to invite someone else to do so. Even Beatrice John, as broken and wounded as she was, wouldn’t shoot anybody. Except maybe herself. He pushed the thought away and concentrated on Andi’s shooting four years ago and the reverend who’d caused it all. As he opened the screen door, the name rushed back to him, riding a jolt of anger: Crane. The. Reverend. Loyd. Crane.

###

The purpose of the opening has changed over the years

It used to be that the opening of a novel could be leisurely, expansive; could focus on backstory or on a panoramic conveyance of information on the setting, the times, or the characters–long before any action begins. Openings could resemble long panning shots, showing the landscape, then slowly narrowing, closing in, seeing the protagonist’s face only after a long establishing scene. Not any more, at least not in the kind of fiction I write. Now we’re urged to enter in media res (which, of course, Aristotle recommended for drama–twenty-three hundred years ago!), in the midst of action, and not to “waste” time with backstory, rambling narrative, “introductions.” We writers are warned that agents and editors–not to mention discriminating readers–will not read past the first scene or two unless something compels them: a story question (who fired the shots? why? did anyone get hurt? what’s going to happen?), something about the protagonist (who should be in the scene) that endears or confuses (in a good story-question way) or unlocks an emotional response (will Andi get hurt? what’s this about their “unofficial marriage?), something that makes the reader want to go on, if only for another page. It will be the task of that other page to re-compel the reader to stay with it.

Did anything like that happen as you read? Was your curiosity piqued? Did you want to know more, even if at the moment that wanting was mild, just enough to go on to the next scene? I’d much appreciate knowing–good writers never stop learning, how to write better, of course, but also how readers engage with their work. You’re very welcome to help me learn by sending a comment.

See you tomorrow with scene 3!

Celebrating the release of “Standing Our Ground”: Scene 1

Book 4 of the “Monastery Valley Series”

Release Day is January 23rd!

I’m excited that my publisher, Black Rose Writing, will release my new novel, Standing Our Ground, this week–Thursday, in fact, January 23rd. To celebrate, I’d like to share with you, over the next three days, the first three scenes of the novel, one each day. They will be brief, so as not to take too much time to read. I believe you will enjoy them (if you like mystery stories enriched with a deep dive into relationships and a strong comment on current events). 

If you’ve already wondered whether the title says something about the “stand-your-ground” laws, you’re right on target (sorry, pardon the pun). So here we go, without further ado, with Scene 1 from my new Monastery Valley novel, Standing Our Ground.

SATURDAY, AUGUST 25

1

9:37 p.m. The hands on the big Howard Miller wall clock above her cubicle seemed like they hadn’t moved in an hour. Deputy Andi Pelton yawned and then called home. Ed would still be up. Just as he answered, she yawned again. Stifled it.

“Hey, kid,” Ed answered. “How’s the shift?”

“Shoot me. I’ve never been so bored. If this was Chicago, we’d have four, five drive-bys by now, a couple rapes, runaway kids. Here, everybody must be in bed.” She glanced up at the clock: still 9:37.

“I miss you on these evening shifts.”

That touched her. “Me too. Ed, let’s go public with our marriage. I want everybody to know.”

“How about we talk about it tomorrow on the way to Missoula? Grace’ll be in her car, so we’ll have plenty of privacy.”

“It’s a plan. Let’s—”

Suddenly, the receptionist’s voice cut in. “Andi, 9-1-1 call. Shots fired.”

“Oh, man, I gotta go. Shots fired.”

She heard Ed yell, “Be safe,” as she hit End. She grabbed her outer vest and started putting it on as she rushed out to Reception. She passed Marla without slowing. “How many shots?”

“Two. Caller said it sounded like a handgun.”

Andi kept moving toward the parking lot door. Over her shoulder, she yelled, “Where?”

Marla called after her, “206 East Cedar Street. The call came from the house next door.”

 “Radio Xavier. Tell him to meet me there and . . .” She shivered. “And to wear his armor.”

 She ran out to the lot. Just before flicking on her siren and lights, she heard Xav’s siren fire up north of town. Good. He’s close, she thought. She finished adjusting the vest as she drove. Four minutes after the call, she swerved around the corner onto East Cedar Street, Xavier’s siren close behind. 

Shots fired, she thought. “Be careful what you wish for,” she whispered. The dashboard clock read 9:41.

###

OK, that’s Scene 1. Tomorrow I’ll post Scene 2.

Authors are told (relentlessly), that if we don’t “grab” our readers in that very first scene, we’ve lost them. I think that’s an exaggeration, frankly, but I do try to infuse that first scene with a “story question,” and some emotional connection with the character(s).

I’d love to know if the scene raised a “story question” for you–What’s going to happen? How might it affect the deputy? Did someone get shot? Who? Why? If you’re so inclined, leave me a comment with your thoughts.

And if you want to pre-0rder Standing Our Ground, you can get a 15% discount before Jan. 23 at Black Rose Writing. Use promo code PREORDER2019. Click here to go to their website.

See you tomorrow!

Planning to Market a Book? How I Do it, Part 2

How I Think about Marketing—First, what do I want to do?

I’m a psychologist and a novelist; I’m not a natural marketer. But I have skills from my teaching and consulting days that come in handy. For example, I love talking to groups, so a natural marketing activity is giving book readings and talks at bookstores and libraries. I generally limit my geographical reach to the Pacific Northwest, eastern Washington, north Idaho, and southwestern Montana, so travel by car is realistic, affordable, a pleasure (unless, like today, we get eight inches of new snow). 

When I practiced psychology (I practiced hard, and I almost got it right!), I didn’t enjoy making face-to-face “pitches” to get referrals. (Those pitch lunches we called “building a relationship.”) But I’m a writer now, and writing pitches (and communicating them by email), is not only more congenial, it’s quite acceptable because face-to-face meetings are often impossible.

Professional reviews of the books can be a valuable marketing tool; these can run from inexpensive to wildly costly: Authors Reading Book Reviews start at $59.00, while the top-of-line Kirkus Indie reviews can run as high as $725.00. I prefer to come down in the middle of that range, and there are many excellent reviewing packages available to indie authors like me. For Standing Our Ground, I’m going to get reviews from four fine review groups: IndieReader Reviews, Real Reader Reviews (affiliated with IndieReader—the professional reviewers send the book to three non-professional reviewers who buy the book at Amazon.com and post an honest review there; thus the name, “Real Reader Reviews”). I’ll also get reviews from Sublime Book Reviews and Best Thriller Reviews. 

As an aside, Amazon.com has a new policy for reader reviews: If the reviewer bought the book (either print or eBook) at Amazon.com, he or she can post the review, declared by Amazon to be a “Verified Reader.” If not, Amazon takes the review down, or keeps it from posting in the first place. The rationale for the policy change is to decrease reviews by “friends and family” who, the reasoning goes, may lack the objectivity of a professional review. That’s an argument for later. The key point is, if you want to post a review on Amazon.com, be sure to research their “Verified Reader” rules.

Another useful marketing tool is the book giveaway: for a limited time, various promotional venues such as BookBub, Goodreads, and similar sites will offer an eBook version either for free or for a much-reduced price. (Some authors like print book giveaways, but those are much more costly, because the physical book must be purchased by the author and shipped to the winner(s) of the giveaway.) The point is to get people reading the book and (I hope) to get interested in subsequent books. Because my Monastery Valley Series is up to four books so far, this makes sense. These giveaways, while they can generate later sales, are not free. Goodreads giveaways, for instance, start at $119.00, plus the cost of the book and shipping (if giving away print books); eBook giveaways on Goodreads cost only the entry fee. 

Another valuable tool is marketing to libraries. I started that with my first book of the series, Climbing the Coliseum, offering to donate a copy of the book to about three hundred libraries. That obviously wiped out any hope of sales! For the second and third books, Nobody’s Safe Here and The Bishop Burned the Lady, I instead asked librarians to purchase the book. This cost me nothing beyond my time (to write and personalize the pitch email); there was no way to determine clearly how many librarians did buy the books, but a random search of their indexes suggested about sixty of the three hundred had at least one of the books in their inventory. A key value in selling to libraries is that librarians recommend books to other librarians, so if the library’s patrons check the book out, it can boost sales to other libraries. Again, the consideration of cost makes this a good tool.

I’d be remiss if I did not mention the lowly bookmark. Readers love bookmarks! I carry them in my car along with copies of all the books, and whenever I sell (or gift) one of my books, I always include the bookmark. In the past, it was a single design, but for this campaign, I ordered bookmarks for each of the books. For a small world example of how bookmarks can spread the word about a book, I went to a Friends of the Library used book sale in another community and was browsing the table when I saw a copy of my second book in the series, Nobody’s Safe Here. Sticking out of the middle of the book was the bookmark I must have given the purchaser! (I waited till another browser was beside me and murmured, discreetly, “Great book. Highly recommended.”) 

Shameless self-promotion.

Finally, there’s a long-shot marketing service that I have had good luck and good results with: Book competitions. Climbing the Coliseum (Book 1) and Nobody’s Safe Here (Book 2) each won two awards, either “Finalist” or “Distinguished Favorite” in various competitions. “Winning” means I can buy foil stamps to stick on the covers of my copies of the books, and that the publisher can add to the cover image for printing. Being able to honestly say that I am “an award-winning author” in my author bio is very helpful, and having the evidence of the win on the covers of all books sold is also a boost.

How Much Do I Want to Spend on Marketing?

Fortunately for me, my publisher, Reagan Rothe of Black Rose Writing (BRW), provides three very helpful services. First, he and his sales team negotiate reduced rates for many different marketing tools (reviews, promotions, giveaways, etc.) with the sponsors. Currently, they do this in two ways. First, they offer their “2019 Black Rose Writing Cooperative Marketing Catalog” (no doubt 2020’s catalog will come soon), which lists packages of marketing services and promotional venues ranging from $100.00 through $3000.00. They can do this because of the economies of scale, since BRW publishes many authors. 

Second, they also offer individual marketing tools—such as professional reviews with various reviewing agencies—at a reduced rate to BRW authors. They call this the “a la carte” menu. 

Third, the house will sometimes match what I pay for a service. For instance, I paid part of the cost of a recent giveaway and Reagan matched it. 

The first edition of Climbing the Coliseum was self-published (it was reissued in 2018 by Black Rose Writing with a new cover to match the cover art of the entire Monastery Valley series, all designed by David Levine). I spent many thousands of dollars on it, first for production–the full costs of producing the physical books–and then for various marketing schemes from the publishing company that never paid off. With hindsight and hard experience, I’ve learned to set a firm marketing budget and to choose carefully what services and activities I want to spend it on, rather than listening to a sales pitch and signing checks.

I described earlier the kinds of marketing tools and services I will be using in the campaign for Standing Our Ground. To the question “How much do I want to spend on marketing?” I have a glib answer (“Nothing!”) and a serious answer: I want to spend as much as I can reasonably afford. No, I’m not going to tell you what I have budgeted for this book, but I’ll close with a hint: For the amount I have budgeted for marketing Book 4I could buy 1003 eBooks of Standing Our Ground, at an unnamed retailer. 

I’d be a best-seller in my genre for a day. But what would I do with 1003 eBooks?

Wait. That’d make a heck of a giveaway, wouldn’t it?

Well, here’s what’s coming up as we approach the release of Standing Our Ground on January 23rd: Next week, I’ll offer an early scene from the book, and talk about the importance of the first page and Ray Rhamey’s evaluation of Standing’s opening. The following week, I’ll start a series of blog posts on the topic “Writing the Psychologist as a Protagonist.”

How I plan the marketing of my book, Part 1

A Series of Blog Posts Leading to Release Day

On January 23, 2020, my publisher, Black Rose Writing, will release Book 4 in my Monastery Valley series, Standing Our Ground. Here’s a short blurb from the back cover:

A cold-blooded murder. The victim: a fourteen-year-old boy. The shooter waits patiently for the cops and calmly explains his right to kill the boy. “I was defending my property.” Can Deputy Andi Pelton find the evidence to break the killer’s stand-your-ground defense? As she searches, Sheriff Ben Stewart almost dies and cannot campaign for re-election. Andi knows she must take his place—her nemesis, Deputy Brad Ordrew, runs unopposed – and he’s promised to fire her when he’s sheriff. Can she stand her own ground—to stay in Monastery Valley—while she solving the murder and defending herself against scurrilous political ads paid for by a mysterious stranger?

Folks are always interested in how I write my stories, but lately some have asked how I plan for marketing the books. I thought a brief series of blog posts describing how I’ve planned the marketing campaign for Standing Our Ground might be interesting (let me know!). I’ll toss in some juicy background about the book’s premise and theme as we go along.

What is a “Hybrid” Model of Book Publishing?

It’s a cliché to say that the days of the publisher doing most or all of the marketing are over. They’re not just over, they’re as over as the rotary phone and the party line. Even the big publishing conglomerates, such as Penguin Random House or Simon & Schuster, require their authors to participate actively in marketing. Sure, they offer support, but unless your name is Stephen King or Salman Rushdie, you can expect to do a lot of marketing events or activities. 

My publisher, Reagan Rothe, has created a hybrid independent publishing company named Black Rose Writing (BRW). Hybrid means that Reagan assumes the cost—and the risk—for preparing the manuscript for publication, for producing the physical books, and for basic marketing services. BRW maintains a large portfolio of relationships with various marketing providers and services, and promotes books through these services. For these, I pay nothing (compared with self-publishing, where I would pay for all marketing that is done).

For example, on Jan. 1-3 of this new year, BRW ran a giveaway promotion of the first book in my Monastery Valley series, Climbing the Coliseum. I paid nothing for this marketing. But over and above BRW’s services, I can choose to share in marketing services and activities that I can purchase through BRW. (And I can find outside marketing help on my own if I wish.)  BRW maintains an online catalog of marketing packages tailored to individual budgets that authors can purchase. Economies of scale—BRW publishes many authors—allow the house to negotiate reduced rates with many marketing services, so the cost to me is less than I would pay by dealing individually with those outside services. The hybrid model allows me to purchase more quality marketing (e.g., submission to a larger number of eBook promotional venues or custom paid advertising boost on Facebook, among many other services), than I could afford on my own.

So, What Marketing Services and Activities Will I Utilize?

Excellent question, thanks for asking! 

Not being Ernest Hemingway or J.K. Rowling, I have a limited marketing budget, as most authors do. Let’s say I can afford $1200.00 for marketing this year. The “BRW Cooperative Marketing 2019” has a variety of packages starting at $100.00 and going up to $3000.00. It turns out that the “White Rose” promotional package is, wait for it, $1200.00 on the nose. For this, I would receive the following:

  • The eBook of Standing Our Ground will be enrolled in Kindle Direct Publishing Select, with expected results including new organic reviews, new eBook sales, and royalties earned from Kindle Unlimited Pages Read;
  • The eBook will be submitted to up to 34 promotional venues (companies that put on free or reduced price giveaways, for example);
  • On Facebook, a custom paid advertising boost will be launched; 
  • An ad on BookBub will run for the length of the promotion.

I may or may not want exactly those services, or I may not consider them worth the investment. In that case I can purchase fewer—or more. Or none. The first question I must answer is which services and marketing activities I want. After that, the question becomes which ones do I want to buy from others and which ones do I want to create myself. 

These two questions are the first round I go through in planning my marketing campaign. My next blog will describe how I’m thinking about them for Standing Our Ground, and what my answers are. Stay tuned!

Jesus Comes Home-To What?

I’m no longer a Christian in the formal sense of the word. But I love the scene in Luke when Jesus returns home to Nazareth and in the Shabbat service reads from Isaiah:

  • The spirit of the Lord has been given to me,
  • For he has anointed me.
  • He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor,
  • To proclaim liberty to captives,
  • And to the blind new sight, 
  • To set the downtrodden free,
  •  to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor.

Luke says that he “won the approval of all, and they were astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips” (Luke 4:22). And then it all blows up.

Why?

“They said, ‘This is Joseph’s son, surely?’” (How many of us have been condemned without a trial because of our families?)

“But he replied, ‘No doubt you will quote me the saying, “Physician, heal yourself,” and tell me, “We have heard all that happened at Capernaum, do the same here in your own countryside.” And he went on, “I tell you solemnly, no prophet is ever accepted in his own country.’” (Luke 14, 23-24).

I love how Jesus ignores his towns peoples’ astonishment and their assessment that his words are “gracious.” No ingratiating for him, when they marvel at him in what he obviously takes as rejection, he erupts immediately in a blistering condemnation of his townsfolk.

But why?

Well, we don’t know. But we can guess. His condemnation is couched obliquely: Israeli widows were suffering during a famine, but the prophet Elijah was not sent to them, but to an Arab widow. Likewise, the prophet Elisha was not sent to cure Israeli lepers, but Syrians (Luke 4:23-24). “You Nazarenes,” he might have shouted, “don’t deserve my teaching, nor the Torah that I read to you this morning.” Is he saying that the natives don’t get how important the foreigners are?

He might have been shouting at us.

Ouch.

How do we treat Syrian “lepers”—or Hispanic immigrants? We return them to the desert.

How do we accept asylum seekers or displaced persons at our border? We reject them, sending them back to the horrors they hoped to escape. Or (some say this is us being compassionate), we cage their children.

Do we try to cure the sick? If they are immigrants without full documentation, we have until now deferred their deportation, a small moment of compassion. But no longer. Boil down the confusion around the medical deferred action program, and what do you see? Abandonment, not compassion. To the sick children and adults with life-ending illnesses, we offer thirty-three days to leave the county—for what?

To die.

To let a cowardly president with no soul, a man who plays golf and feigns strength while enormous hurricanes attack our neighbors and our coasts, boast of his compassion, while families with dying children try to encompass the enormity of the devastation his government has wreaked upon them.

A strongman-bully leads us.

Spirit help us. 

A Hell of a Story

It’s Been a While

Followers of this blog know that it’s been a while since my last post. What they don’t know is why. In one way, it’s simple: I have been heartbroken at the daily assaults on our American values by the Trump people, including himself, but I made a promise to myself when I began writing the blog that I’d avoid politics. So I have. The mission here is summed up in the subtitle: Psyche, Spirit, Story.

But finally (I’m slow), I realize that the behavior and rhetoric of the Trump people are nothing if not spiritual (in the darkest sense of that word)—and they deeply impact our individual and collective psyches and to top it off, are one hell of a story. Literally.

Cruelty at the Border

How is the separation of families, the imprisonment of children for no crime they are responsible for, something “spiritual”? It’s not. But what it compels, at least for me and for many whom I know, is compassion. Not to mention just anger. In others, it elicits either complacency or approval—and when the subject is injustice and oppression of the weak, complacency or approval are spiritual responses. All three reactions express a psychological impact, and each betrays a profound story of one’s relations with one’s fellow human beings: 

  • I care. I suffer with or for you.
  • I don’t care. You do not matter to me.
  • I’m glad you’re suffering. 

Now, I’m focused less on the “psyche” or the “story” dimension, than on “spirit.” I was raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and I rely on the Biblical tradition when confronting puzzling and outrageous social conditions. In Leviticus, we read, “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

This is bedrock. Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, writing in 2017 on HuffingtonPost.com, said that this statement in Leviticus “is a central preoccupation of the Torah as a whole. Why? Repeatedly we are told that because the Israelites were persecuted as the hated and dreaded foreign element in Egyptian society,one of their primary responsibilities as a free people is to not oppress the stranger.” The family of Jacob, grandson of Abraham, were immigrants in Egypt. Immigrants who were enslaved. 

Liberated by Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, these former slaves wandered forty years in the desert, so that the slave generation could die out and the young and free generation could develop self-reliance and could internalize the teaching at Sinai: To care for the immigrant, because their ancestors had once been immigrants, and enslaved. 

A Hell of a Story

It’s one hell of a psychological story, and you don’t even need a psychology degree to read it. Imagine: Your daughter or your granddaughter is torn from you, placed in a cage with nowhere to sleep, garbage to eat, no cups to collect water for drinking, no bath or shower for days, even weeks. Not even a toothbrush or toothpaste. You don’t need a PhD to recognize torture and trauma. You don’t need to practice psychotherapy to witness the sowing of the seeds of lifetimes of emotional pain. 

More perversely, it’s a hell of a spiritual story, because it’s main characters aren’t the Hispanic and Latino families who are torn apart—the main characters are us. It’s the story of who we are—who we side with, who we help, or who we let suffer. 

This is why I’m blogging again: I won’t stand by any longer.

Looking for Beta Readers

What’s a “beta reader”?

Writers need feedback of many kinds. Professional editors, of course, are essential. But another very important kind of feedback comes from “beta readers.” A beta reader is a person who’s willing to read a manuscript and offer suggestions and feedback from the perspective of an average or non-professional reader. Usually, the manuscript will have had a developmental critique by a professional editor, and will have been revised based on that critique before the beta reader receives it.

Like beta testers in software development, the beta reader looks for issues in the manuscript that distract or detract from the pleasure of the read. Glitches in the plot, inconsistencies in the narrative, confusing passages, breaks in the smooth emotional arc of the characters’ development: These are the issues the beta reader will comment on.

Beta readers generally volunteer and aren’t paid, as professional editors are, but they offer a enormously valuable service to the writer: providing the perspective of the reader, who after all is the key arbiter of any book’s success.

 

 

What do beta readers look for?

Here are some of the questions that a beta reader might be asked to consider, borrowed from Black Rose Writing, my publisher’s, blog:

  • Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?
  • Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when it’s taking place? If not, why not?
  • Could you relate to the main character? Did you feel his/her pain or excitement?
  • Did the setting interest you, and did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you?
  • Was there a point at which you felt the story started to lag or that you became less than excited finding out what was going to happen next? Where, exactly?
  • Were there any parts that confused you? Or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts, and why?
  • Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details?
  • Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likable?
  • Did you get confused about who was who among the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Were any of the names of characters too similar?
  • Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded artificial or not like that person would speak?

I am currently revising my fourth novel, titled A Patriot’s Campaign, following the critique by my developmental editor, Lorna Lynch. Patriot is the fourth book in the Monastery Valley series. In the coming fall, I’ll be asking folks to volunteer to be my beta readers. Usually, I look for five experienced readers, and this book will get the same treatment.

The manuscript, when it’s ready, goes to the beta readers electronically, as a PDF document.  There is no hard and fast deadline for the feedback to come back–beta readers are generous volunteers, after all!–but the normal turnaround time is a couple of months. When the book–incorporating the beta readers’ suggestions–is finally published, each beta reader will receive a complementary copy.

I worried about that word, complementary–should it be complimentary? So I looked it up, and am no surer now than before! (This could start a heated discussion in a pub.) The book-gift could be complEmentary, as in “completing” the beta reading transaction; or it could be complImentary, as in praising the reader for a job well done.

Sigh.

If you’d be interested in being a beta reader for Patriot, please feel welcome to comment on this post and let me know, and I will get back to you.

 

Garbage–physical and spiritual–in Michael Hartnett’s “Generation Dementia”

Author Michael Hartnett’s Generation Dementia is an engaging, bittersweet, and ultimately affirming story about the garbage—physical and spiritual—that we produce in our lives.

Hartnett has given us the opposite of garbage: A gem of a story, finely cut and beautifully polished. But it’s a story about trash, or really, about lost kids—Generation Dementia—high school seniors whose lives are adrift toward emptiness and who must find some way to connect to each other and themselves. They do this in a wildly improbable way: By signing up to collect their town’s garbage every morning before school. It’s called Operation Pick-up Kids, devised by a crusty school psychologist on the verge of retirement who hopes somehow—though he doubts it’ll happen—to save as many kids as he can.

The narrator-protagonist is Hash O’Connell, newly orphaned and heading for a collapse after the death of his mother, whom he calls “the Joan.” Hash, depressed and an occasional hallucinator, signs up for Operation Pick-up Kids and slowly seeks answers to his desperate questions. For much of the book, Hash not only empties garbage pails into the truck, he also carefully selects odd pieces of trash to keep and he slowly becomes a hoarder. One of the first pieces he collects is a set of old floppy disks, one of which is labeled “the Answer,” from a deceased Pulitzer prize winning journalist who was somehow connected to “the Joan” before she died. The book follows Hash’s probing into the mysterious “answer,” which leads him deep into the secrets in his family and in his town.

Hash—we never learn how he came by that remarkable name—is a rich and fully drawn character. Michael Hartnett’s story and his writing reminded me of Michael Chabon or the early John Irving: deep emotion without a touch of sentimentality, strong plotting full of surprises and twists, and well crafted and memorable characters with wonderful evocative names. Louie Sacco, Hash’s partner on the truck, Lee Lee, a girl genius who plays violin on the truck, Grandpa Artie, Mayor Heine, Eva (who, despite chain-smoking and guzzling coffee constantly, begins to help Hash begin the long journey back to life), Big Bill Hannah, Rev. Alexander Burr (as in “under the saddle”?), Selena Omaha, the mysterious Mavellas, and of course Pulaski, the school psychologist. All these characters are vivid and true to life, and Hartnett keeps their unique voices pitch-perfect throughout.

Garbage, of course, is not only the literal stuff Hash and the kids must deal with, it’s also a profound metaphor for both the kind of society we seem to want (the town is named “Frick”) and the psychological and interpersonal mess that our dependence on smart phones and screens and our absorption in reality TV are creating. In a remarkable scene early in the book, Hash finds that he is forgetting all the passwords, locker combinations, phone numbers, ID numbers, and personal information about himself—all the information that binds him to others and to his world. He ends up standing at his locker, obsessively and futilely spinning the knob, seeking the combination for hours, and missing all his classes. It’s a heartbreaking moment— but one deftly lightened by Hartnett’s humor. When Pulaski writes an order for Hash to apply for Operation Pick-up Kids, Hash observes that he looked like a physician writing prescriptions, and thinks, “I’d rather he was handing out passwords.” Hash, despite his pain and alienation, is one of the keenest observers and genuinely funny characters I know. Remember Holden Caulfield? Hash has Holden’s edgy wit and his own broken heart.

You can read Generation Dementia simply for its enormously entertaining story, or for its engaging writing, sparkling images and similes, and wonderful characters. You can read it as a commentary on how trash is perhaps the most enduring and connecting thing human beings produce, or as a keen psychosocial exploration of the alienation and despair afflicting so many who are coming of age in a world full of garbage. But at whatever level you read it, I promise you this: The twist in the last two lines of the book will knock your socks off.

 

 

 

Michael Hartnett’s “Fools in the Magic Kingdom”

Michael Hartnett’s Fools in the Magic Kingdom is a timely, complex, and entertaining novel, capturing both the bold outlines and the more subtle nuances of the contemporary anti-immigrant trend with a combination of biting social commentary and laugh-out-loud satire.

The story is set in the Magic Kingdom—Disney World in Florida—which is a perfect metaphor for the “American Dream”: A rosy illusory world built on a hidden underworld of racism and corporate manipulation. The bones of the story involve a crowd of “Dreamers,” the young Hispanics brought to the U.S.A. illegally when they were young children, who gather in Disney World on April Fools’ Day. They are enjoying the portrayal of the country in which they so much want to remain. Opposing them are various hate groups who want to “take back our World” (meaning both Disney World and the wider American society) from the Dreamers (and immigrants in general).

Hartnett deftly weaves together multiple story lines—I count at least seven! Without spoiling anything, I note that each of the seven could carry the weight of its own novel:

  1. A group of intellectuals tries to embarrass the Disney corporation by acts of humorous subversion of Disney’s perfect world;
  2. Groups of “patriotic” haters try to “take back our World” by violently attacking the Dreamers in the Magic Kingdom;
  3. The chief security officer of Disney World struggles to protect the Dreamers and to disrupt the plans of both the intellectuals in story #1 and the hate groups in #2;
  4. An aging actress manipulates a narcissistic movie director through a day in the Magic Kingdom laced with consumption—of toys, souvenirs, food, and alcohol—in order to reignite her career;
  5. Girl (from story #1) meets boy (from story #2), they fall for one another, until a tragedy strikes (perpetrated by a guy from stories #1 and #2);
  6. An elderly do-gooder (from story #1) falls for an elderly racist (from story #2, but also story #5), and both are changed in the process;
  7. The big corporation (Disney World itself) cons and manipulates everyone to line its own coffers.

 

Disney World might in fact be the main character in the book. It both helps and thwarts all the other characters as they pursue their goals. It offers the illusion of satisfaction to all, while relentlessly parting everyone from their money. A single illustration: On the positive side, the park provides Tucker, its chief security officer, a large, nimble, and effective security team who can take control of a disturbance almost instantly and nearly invisibly. But at the same time, the park’s vast size and enormous variety of rides, features, restaurants, and shops makes Tucker’s job almost impossible—there’s no way for him to know where the bad guys are and what they’re up to.

One of the most intriguing features of Fools in the Magic Kingdomis Hartnett’s almost gleeful violation of some of fiction’s cardinal norms. For instance, there is no single plot, as I already noted. Instead, Mike mashes stories and genres exuberantly. Is this a detective story? Yup. Is this a social satire? Yup. A critique of the current social and political situation in America? Yup. A coming of age story? Yup. A romance? Yup. Its all of them, and more. The mash-ups are strikingly like Disney World: They promise (and deliver) something for everybody.

Another way Mike breaches fictional conventions lies in his agility in switching points of view (POV), often within the same scene, even (at times) within the same paragraph. Yet, he’s so smooth a “head-jumper” that I never lost the thread or became confused. As an ardent “one POV per scene” kind of writer, I took guilty pleasure each time I “heard” the interior thinking of both Character A and Character B in the same moment. Mike pulled off his crimes as smoothly as Disney World makes the illusory “real.” His novel reminded me: No rule is too sacred to break—and if you want to break rules, do it with gusto!

I am left with deep admiration for this book. The intricacy of the plot(s), the dimensionality of the characters (every “good” character had some darker flaws, every “bad guy” had surprising virtues), the skillful—and wholly unexpected—way the multiple stories became one story at the end, the extensive descriptions of Disney World rides and hidden spaces, and the evidence that the author has done extensive research into all facets of the Magic Kingdom (did you know there are “hidden Mickey’s” scattered throughout the park?)—all tell me I was in the hands of a master story-teller. Mike Hartnett is an author after Walt Disney’s own heart.

From Drafting to Editing to Polishing to Publishing, Part 3

Editing the Manuscript (and a mistake in my last post)

 

 

In my last post, I talked about drafting the manuscript and my typical process of going through multiple drafts. When I feel it’s ready, the next step is to send it to my editor, Lorna Lynch. Lorna has edited all three novels in the “Monastery Valley” series, always profoundly improving them. (Last week I made a mistake in describing my process: I actually don’t send the book to my “beta” or trusted readers until after it gets its first round of editing, because these folks are doing me a favor and I want the manuscript to be in as good shape as it can be out of respect for them. Not sure what I was thinking!)

The developmental edit

When the manuscript is ready, I ask Lorna to do two rounds of editing: The first round is a “developmental edit” (also called a “structural” or a “content edit”). In a developmental edit, Lorna dissects and evaluates the structure of the book:

  • the consistency of the plot and character development;
  • whether the necessary structural components are all present and whether they fall more or less where they should;
  • whether the pacing and emotional tone of each scene carries the story forward and is faithful to the overall story arc itself;
  • and how well the story accomplishes its goals.

She always sends back the manuscript full of notes and comments, along with a lengthy document providing a separate critique of the story, characters, plot, and overall structure.

As you can imagine, this leads me to yet another revision, sometimes two. For instance, for my latest novel, The Bishop Burned the Lady, (you can preorder it now at a 10% discount from the publisher–click on the title and enter promo code PREORDER2018.) , I worked through the manuscript with Lorna’s separate critique first, because it tends to be more “global,” dealing with the overall structure and arc of the story. Then I went through the marked-up manuscript and dealt with each individual change she recommended.

No one expects an author to accept every one of her editor’s suggestions, but Lorna’s have always been reasonable and clearly aimed at strengthening the story and the writing. I seldom, heck, almost never, decide to ignore her recommendations.

The Copy Edit

The second round of editing also has various names: “Copy edit” or “line edit” are most common. This is the classic edit wherein your pages come back all marked with red ink. Lorna, as most editors do now, uses Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes” tool. The copy editor, rather than the big-picture focus on the arc and structure of the story and the development of the characters, focuses on individual paragraphs, sentences, words, grammar, style, usage. Not to say she may not notice something bigger that either she missed in the developmental edit or that I inadvertently messed up in my revisions after it. She even does a bit of proofreading—a third level of editing that focuses on typos, misspellings, and such gremlins that happen no matter how often the manuscript is revised or how many people searched proofread it.

I find that my revisions after the copy edit take quite a while. At this point, I’m not merely revising to address the copy edit, but I’m starting to polish the prose. That may be the wrong word choice—my prose is not meant to be “polished.” I aim for a style that is spare, consonant with life and society in a small mountain town. But while I’m working through the copy edit, I’m always on the lookout for a better verb, and more pungent image, a stronger noun.

The Proofread

Proofreading is the final edit. It usually happens just before sending the manuscript to the publisher, and more formally after publisher converts the manuscript into an electronic “proof.” (In the old days of paper manuscripts, the proof was called a “galley.”) Now, they come as PDF files, and the task is to check every letter of every word for accuracy. Some proofreaders, to prevent themselves from reading the story and possibly missing errors, start with the last sentence and work backwards, sentence by sentence. I can’t do that. Instead, I hire a proofreader.

I’ve worked with two proofreaders, each of them both marvelous and meticulous—Kim Cheeley and Lorna. I met Kim, in fact, after she borrowed a copy of Climbing the Coliseum from her local library—and promptly proofread it, marked up all its typos and misspellings (she found 51, this after I had proofed the galleys twice!), and sent me the library’s copy. (She bought them another.)Since she found numerous typos, misspellings, and errors, I vowed always to have a proofreading done by a professional.

When all is done, and the proof is approved, a release date is set by the publisher. My publisher, Black Rose Writing, set April 12 as the release date for The Bishop Burned the Lady. Watch this space or my Facebook page for news about activities around the release! You’ll be glad you did!