Coronavirus and the Golden Rule

The Columbia Study

A study by Columbia University mathematicians estimated that if the United States had instituted aggressive shelter-in-place and social distancing requirements one week before they in fact started, as many as 36,000 lives could have been saved. Had the lockdown and social distancing order been given two weeks earlier, as many as 54,000 souls could still be alive.  

A caveat: The estimates are based on dense mathematical formulae, and the study has not yet been peer-reviewed. This means that it should not be used to guide clinical practice. However, nothing precludes using it to think about future personal practice in dealing with the pandemic, pending peer-review and certification of the accuracy of the mathematics. 

What do I mean?

Suppose the study is correct. We might be tempted to blame leaders who did not impose the restrictions until later, but that is fruitless: The dead are still dead. We face the same dilemma now and will face it for a long time to come: How can we balance opening society with saving lives? If the study is accurate, perhaps it offers some guidance. There may be value in considering stricter social distancing as we slowly reopen society.

 Staying at Home, Keeping our Distance: Two Views

How often do we hear—or say—that we’re tired of being kept at home, tired of keeping our distance and wearing masks in public. There are significant downsides to sheltering in place—a rise in domestic abuse being an important one. Even absent domestic abuse, “lockdown fatigue” remains a problem, and both our mental health and social needs and the perilous state of the global economy argue for some degree of “opening” society and returning to work. 

But there are equally compelling arguments for opening in very tightly focused ways and for maintaining stricter social distancing, masking, and stay-at-home when possible orders. The opening-up of the states is being handled sloppily in most instances, with no states meeting CDC guidelines for doing so. As a result, in nearly all the states, the rate of new cases of COVID-19 have not fallen to the level the CDC considers reasonably safe. Indeed, in many states, if not all, the rate of new cases is steady or increasing. Naturally, given the state of American politics, any discussion of the merits of the two viewpoints—open faster to save the economy and open slower to contain the pandemic—swiftly becomes partisan. Red versus Blue, Trump people versus non-Trump people (the majority). I’d like to take a thoughtful approach.

Flip the Debate

I do not want people who are infectious sneezing on me, coughing at me, singing around me, talking too closely to me, or violating my space (which has expanded to six feet). Nor do I want to do that to them. If people are required to be out and about (by their employer, for example, or because they’re deemed “essential” workers), I want them to have the safest possible conditions to move about or work in, and everyone else does too. 

This is simple justice. What I’m saying boils down to the Golden Rule, the single moral injunction common to all the world’s religions: Treat others as you want them to treat you.

Instead of debating on political (or economic) grounds, what if we think about the vexing question of how to open our economy safely as a question of morality? What if instead of “I’m tired of being at home and I need a paycheck,” we were to say, humbly, “By staying at home as much as possible and wearing a mask and socially distancing when I’m out, I am doing what I can to protect others as I wish to be protected”?

“O, Felix Culpa!”

The loveliest Easter words

For me, the loveliest words in the whole Catholic Easter vigil service come in the long opening proclamation, the Exultet. Those words, in Latin, are “O, felix culpa.” They translate in English as “Oh, happy fault.” Crucifixion, happy?

The point is, without Adam’s sin, the “happy fault,” there would be no crucifixion. And without crucifixion, there would be no resurrection.

Instead of attending Easter service last night, sheltering-in-place, we watched a live staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar on YouTube (Andrew Lloyd Webber offered it free for forty-eight hours from Friday through Sunday.) I’d seen the much milder movie version in June 1973, but the stage play was stunning in its intensity and deeply moving in its message. I was swept away by the portrayal of Judas Iscariot, not as a coward and traitor, but as a loyal devotee and faithful adherent to Jesus’s original vision and mission. In the play, he gave Jesus up not because he did not love him, but because he did and could not bear seeing Jesus appear to lose his focus on the poor. During the scene in which Judas recognizes that he will forever bear the blame for Jesus’s death and therefore hangs himself, the words, “O, felix culpa,” came to me. Without betrayal, no death. Without death, no resurrection.

Healing our divisions

As we make our stumbling way through the pandemic, I wonder if someday the coronavirus will be remembered as a “felix culpa,” a happy fault. When we who survive look back, might we see the virus as having healed us of the divisive partisanship, the political and social viruses that beset us now?

If the “cheerleading” continues from the White House podium (Who is cheering? Why do we need a Cheerleader-in-Chief?), might the roughly 40% of us who click “Yes” on the pollster’s question “Do you support President Trump?” start clicking “No”? Might both the right and the left recognize that the fear we carry is common to us all, not a product of ideology? Might we wake to the realization that we value the life and civilization we share? Might we get it at last that being human is more precious than being conservative or liberal, than being White or of color, than being citizens of the U.S. or of Europe or China or Saudi Arabia or Iran?

“Oh, happy fault,” this coronavirus, if it were true. But probably it will not be true.

Our America

More likely, I’m afraid, we seem to be a perennially immature people, unable to put aside our ingrained beliefs and attitudes toward one another and learn the lessons of our catastrophes. Example: The Civil War killed more than 750,000 Americans from the North and the South. One decade later, when Reconstruction was demolished, it was replaced by the ruthless repression of African Americans and reduction of their freedom almost back to slavery status. Jim Crow remained the rule in the South (supported by both overt and covert racism in the North) until the 1960s, and in the last twelve years, White supremacy again rears its ugly and violent head: No lessons learned that could help us survive as one people.

In World War I, 116,708 Americans died and 204,000 were wounded. The surviving soldiers brought home the “Spanish flu,” the worst pandemic in world history. An estimated 675,000 Americans died in the pandemic. No sooner than we’d recovered from both catastrophes, our nation embarked on the Roaring Twenties, a decade-long orgy of conspicuous consumption, financial narcissism, and blindness to the unsustainability of the revelry. For all the fun, though, the plight of African Americans under Jim Crow remained as debilitating as ever, and income inequality was probably even worse in the 1920s than it is today. The Twenties delivered our country to the Crash of ’29 and the subsequent Great Depression: No survival-worthy lessons learned. 

My point is that national catastrophes do not seem to teach Americans much. 

“O happy fault”?

More likely, the combined damage of the coronavirus and the collateral devastation of the economy will likely leave us with a profoundly wounded and different country and world. If we refuse to learn the lesson that we are all in this together, unchecked naïve partisanship and blindfolded ideology will end our time as the great democracy we have sometimes shown we are capable of sustaining. Like Alexander’s Greek empire, like Nero’s Roman empire, like Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spanish empire, like Henry’s English empire, like Napoleon’s French empire—we will be diminished as a meaningful player on the world stage.

On the other hand, if the pandemic and the fragility of our economy shock us awake so we can see our common stake and our bond as citizens of a country founded upon a noble truth—that we are all equal—then it may be we’ll survive.

 If so, “O, felix culpa.”

Book 5 of the Monastery Valley series

What’s in a name?

The manuscript of my fifth novel in the Monastery Valley series is at the editor’s desk. It’s perhaps the ninth or tenth draft–I lose count after six or so–and it’s working title expresses the main story and sub-plots: The Posse, the Hotshots, and the Miracle. Without spoiling the story, I want to share how I came up with that title.

The first four books of the Monastery Valley Series . . . the fifth is in the works!

Briefly, the main story of number 5, like all my books, is inspired by events in the news–in this case, the takeover of federal land by right-wing extremists affiliated with the Posse Comitatus. The Posse is named after a law passed by Congress in 1878–at the end of Reconstruction–explicitly banning the use of Army or Navy personnel to enforce the law within the United States. It was a reaction against Reconstruction, during which the Union Army was used in some states to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment (which freed the slaves and allowed for penalties against states that prevented freed slaves from voting). The “unreconstructed” (vengeful) supporters of the Confederacy hated Reconstruction and did all they could to weaken the federal government in retaliation for it.

In the late 1960s, Henry Beach, from Portland, OR, founded the modern Posse Comitatus (the Latin name means “power of the county”). Beach’s extreme anti-Semitic, racist, and anti-government views included the belief that there is no legitimate government higher than the county, and that the county sheriff is the highest authority in the land. Beach wrote that if any local sheriff were to allow federal authorities to come into the county and impose regulations, “He shall be removed by the Posse to the most populated intersection of streets in the township and at high noon be hung by the neck, the body remaining until sundown as an example to those who would subvert the law.” Note: Beach founded the Posse in 1969. Yep, 1969.

In The Posse, the Hotshots, and the Miracle, against the extreme threat posed by the heavily armed Posse members–whom Deputy Andi Pelton must confront to prevent violence–a summer wildfire threatens St. Brendan’s Monastery high on Mount Adams. St. Brendan’s is Monastery Valley’s namesake. As many of you know, “hotshots” are twenty-person teams of elite wild land fire fighters deployed on the most dangerous fires. But before the hotshots arrive, even as she works to contain the Posse’s danger, Deputy Pelton needs to mobilize the community to build a fire line to protect the monastery–in case the hotshots can’t get there in time.

The premise of the novel is that wildfire and heavily armed protesters have something in common: The capacity to do great violence to a community. Poised against that violence is the character of the community and its leaders.

Okay, that’s enough for the “Posse” and the “hotshots.” What about the “miracle”? I’ll save that one–maybe you’ll read the book when it comes out. Suffice it to say, this isn’t a “walking on water” kind of miracle. It’s the sort that can happen when folks in a small community face a daunting challenge and must eke out a way to confront it.

The Posse, the Hotshots, and the Miracle will be released late in 2020, or very early in 2021. Watch this space!

How Do I Do That?

The Question

A couple of days ago, a friend wrote, “I’m 200 pages in!” (That is, she’s reading Standing Our Ground, the fourth book in my Monastery Valley Series of novels.) “It’s a page-turner! How do you do that?” Her question gave me an idea for this post.

Writers have rules for how to do it . . .

I suppose there aren’t really rules that writers must follow–after all, any rule you could possibly name has been broken by wonderful writers. Take the often-proclaimed “rule” that “you must grab your readers’ attention and interest on the first page, or you’ve lost them!” In fact, writing coach and editor Ray Rhamey says you have to do it in the first 17 lines! But Richard Powers’ powerful novel The Overstory opens with four pages of trees talking about humans before even introducing a character. By the way, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

There may not be hard and fast rules for writing, but there sure are some powerful agreements among readers and writers. And one of them is simple: It all comes down to conflict, internal and external. And a corollary to that is equally simple: Make it worse. There are other agreements readers and writers have, but I’m going to reflect on these two today.

It all depends on conflict.

Without conflict, there is no story. Period. “Conflict,” of course, does not need to mean war, violence, mental illness, or loud angry arguments. If a character wants something and cannot get it, that’s conflict. You’ve no doubt read Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain. (No? Do read it. You will be changed.) Enzo, the dog who is the main character, is old and dying–and he wants to die, because in his next life, he will become human. Dying and becoming human is his goal, his desire. But he loves Denny, his human, and he knows that dying will mean losing him and all it has meant to them both. Conflict. The story’s question is how–indeed, whether–Enzo can resolve his conflict, say farewell to Denny, and die happily into his next life. And the ramifications of that conflict and that question make for a marvelous and profoundly beautiful story.

That conflict is at the heart of story-telling is an idea as old as Aristotle, who placed conflict first in his list of the essential features of drama. But why does conflict have this honored place? Isn’t character more important? According to Aristotle–and to every writing teacher I’ve ever learned from–the answer is “No.” Character is only revealed through action (“Watch what he does, not what he says.”), and action requires conflict to reveal character. (Watching their actions, not their speeches and Tweets, isn’t a bad admonition in this political climate, eh?) Conflict spurs action and action reveals character.

Example: Suppose a story shows a man getting up, stumbling to the bathroom, brushing his teeth, shaving, washing up, drying his face and hands, returning to the bedroom and getting dressed, and picking up his briefcase and saying to his wife, “See you after work, honey.” See any conflict? You want a whole book full of this kind of no-conflict action? Okay, now try this:

The angry buzz of his cell phone beside the bed jerked Ted awake. He growled a half-startled, half-angry ‘What?’ into the phone, listened, jumped out of bed, grumbling.

His wife said, “Where are you going? It’s your day off!”

“Damn office called. We got a problem. I don’t know when I’ll be home.”

“Come back to bed, Ted, it’s our anniversary!”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

Conflict, both internal (Ted wants to stay in bed with his wife but also wants to keep his job) and external (he wants his anniversary day off but also wants to solve the problem at work, not to mention his awareness that he’s disappointing his wife).

Books have been written about conflict in story-telling, much deeper than what I’ve just written, but this is enough for now. Let’s look at conflict’s corollary.

Make it worse!

Romeo wants Juliet, but their families stand in the way. Can he find a way to be with her? Scout (in To Kill a Mockingbird) wants to believe people are good and kind, but the racism in her town disturbs her. Can she come to terms with it without losing her belief in people’s goodness? Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games) wants to be closer with her friend Peeta, but to protect her sister’s life she must compete against him in the lethal games. Can she survive without harming him or losing their friendship? The PI/detective/deputy/cop in any mystery or police procedural wants to get the bad guy, but it’s next to impossible to find the evidence or even to identify who the bad guy is. Will she win or lose the case? The formula for all this is “desire plus obstacles requires action.”

Most readers and writers agree that if a character immediately succeeds in getting what she wants, the story ends, because no more obstacles means no more conflict. So how does the writer keep the story going? By seeing to it that the character fails: The obstacles win.

In other words, writers keep making it worse for their characters. Every action taken by the character to resolve the obstacles fails, and the character finds that the problems he faces have just gotten “bigger and badder.”

There’s one more ingredient in how to write a spell-binding or page-turning story (novel or short story or screenplay or stage play): Helping the reader care about the characters. “Care” doesn’t have to mean “like.” Dudley Smith in Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential (and other novels) is a proficient detective and a thug, but he has a mesmerizing personality and does good as well as thuggish things. He fascinates, and being fascinated by a character often means one cares what happens to him.

But although I can easily make things worse for my characters, I can only make my readers care about them to a limited degree. The rest is up to the readers themselves. But if everything clicks and my readers care about Andi and Ed and Grace and other important characters in my Monastery Valley series, watch what happens: In Standing Our Ground, the fourth novel in the series, Deputy Andi Pelton desperately wants to prove her suspicion that Daniel Essex wasn’t “standing his ground” in self-defense when he murdered young Bernard Cirilo, he had cold-bloodedly planned the shooting. At every turn, though, she fails to find the crucial evidence. Do the readers give up, throw the book against the wall because Andi is thwarted, send me nasty emails about writing such an incompetent cop?

Nope. They write, “I’m 200 pages in. It’s a page-turner!”

Why? Because readers have a goal too. Their goal is to find out whether Andi succeeds–which they want because they care about her. And each time I make it worse for Andi, I also make it worse for the readers, and we all know what humans do when their goals are frustrated: Almost every time, they forge ahead, hoping this time it’ll come true.

And that’s how I do that.

Celebrating “Standing Our Ground” release day: Scene 3

Here we go . . .

If today’s your first day at the blog, we’re celebrating tomorrow’s release of my fourth novel in the Monastery Valley series, Standing Our Ground. I’ve been sharing the opening scenes to give you a taste of the book. If you want to review scenes 1 & 2, they’re available in the previous two days’ posts.

You met Deputy Andi Pelton in scene 1, where she’s notified of “shots fired” in town. In scene 2, you watched Andi’s “step-girlfriend,” Grace Northrup (Ed’s adopted daughter), packing to leave for her first year of college. You saw a bit of Ed’s and Grace’s relationship. But now it’s time to meet the shooter. Here’s scene 3 from Standing Our Ground:

3

Andi pulled up at 206 East Cedar Street, lights flashing, siren screaming. Xavier’s squad sailed around the corner just behind. As her tires screeched, braking in front of the darkened house, she switched off her siren. Xavier pulled up fast, his own tires squealing. His siren died. Both flashers stayed on, spraying red and blue lights around the dark neighborhood. Scanning the shadows, she made sure her body armor was secure and, cautiously opening her door, stood behind it. Jefferson had never put streetlights in its neighborhoods, but the flashing lights illuminated a figure in the deep shadows near the house. No lights inside. She drew her weapon as Xavier climbed out of his squad, staying behind his door, gun drawn. 

“Identify yourself,” she demanded of the shadowed figure. 

Raising its hands to shoulder height, then higher, the figure replied, “I’m Daniel Essex.” His voice carried on the cooling air. “This is my home.”

“Did you hear shots?”

“Of course. I fired them.”

What the hell? she thought.

“Mr. Essex, I want you to keep your hands where they are. I’m going to approach, and my weapon is drawn. I will not shoot unless you move suddenly. My partner will come toward you from the side. Are you good with that?”

“Sure, Officers. Come on.”

She glanced at Xav. He nodded and moved off to the side, flanking her. 

As she approached Daniel Essex, she said, “Are you alone?”

“I am.” 

Coming closer, her eyes adjusted to the dark, and the red-and-blue flashes from the squad cars showed a bulge at Essex’s hip. “Mr. Essex, are you armed?”

“Of course, Officer.” He started to lower his hands.

“Freeze, sir.” Oh, man. Don’t make me shoot. She was ten feet from him. A few feet to her left and a bit behind, Xavier had his weapon trained on Daniel Essex, but that didn’t slow her racing heart. Essex froze, hands high. 

“Sir, please turn around slowly, keeping your hands in the air. Don’t do anything fast.”

“Sure. Whatever you say, Officer.” His tone was cool, almost friendly. When he turned, Andi approached, saying, “I’m going to disarm you, so please be still.” She patted him down, found the gun, and took it. She stepped back. “Do you have any other weapons on your person, sir?”

“Just that one.” His voice sounded less friendly. “And I want it back.”

She moved a step back, holding out the weapon grip-first to Xavier, who took custody of it. “One thing at a time, sir,” she said. “You’ll get it back once we straighten all this out.” Which could be a long time. “You can turn around, but please don’t make any sudden moves.”

“I won’t hurt you, Officer.”

“Glad to hear it. And please, call me ‘deputy.’” The guy must be new to the valley, she thought. Doesn’t know we’re deputies, not officers. “Sir, you fired the shots a few moments ago?”

“Like I said, yes.” 

Andi noted that his voice remained friendly, but his words were clipped, exact.

“Why did you fire, sir?”

He pointed toward the open garage. “He’s in there.”

“Who is?”

“The intruder who invaded my home. I stopped him.”

Andi’s chest tightened. She said, “Is he all right?”

“I doubt it, Officer. I’m a good shot.”

She moved toward the open garage. “Mr. Essex, Deputy Contrerez will wait with you while I look in the garage.” 

When Essex nodded, she glanced at Xavier. He nodded. “Go.”

She holstered her weapon and moved toward the garage.

She heard Essex say to Xavier, “Contrerez? Name like that, you must be Mexican.” He no longer sounded friendly.She smiled faintly as she heard Xavier say, politely, “No, sir. Born and raised in Billings.”

###

Did you like it?

I would deeply appreciate your letting me know your thoughts about these scenes. I realize that reading them on a blog is not the same as sitting in a comfortable chair and opening a new novel with the anticipation that fiction lovers feel as they begin. But perhaps you have some response–positive or negative–that can help me improve my writing for book 5 of the series.

You read that right: There’s a book 5 in the works! Meanwhile, I’ll be exploring, in this blog, some of the challenges in writing a psychologist as the protagonist. There are plenty! Hope to see you back here soon . ..

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.