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 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, has a new policy for reader reviews: If the reviewer bought the book (either print or eBook) at, 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, 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.


“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.


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, 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.


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.


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!

From Drafting to Editing to Polishing to Publishing, Part 2

Last week, I wrote about how I develop ideas for my novels. It’s not a particularly sexy method, and many authors do much the same thing. This time, let me tell you what happens to prepare the early drafts—and there are quite a few—to step out in public. Typically, I write between four and six drafts before taking the next step. I worked through seven–count ’em, seven–“first drafts” of The Bishop Burned the Lady before I felt it was ready for the next step: trusted readers.

The first draft is just that, a rough draft (very rough!). I let it sit for a couple of weeks (unless I’m really in love with it, in which case like any love, I can’t bear to stay away). Draft 2 is structural—do the inciting incident, the four plot points, the three twists, the climax all fall more or less where they should? Is the build of the story–the logic of each scene following those before it and preparing for those to come–sound and compelling? Draft 3, assuming I’m satisfied with the structural integrity and logic of the story arc, focuses on pace and timing. Does the story move well? Are there slow spots or passages during which my mind wanders from the story? Does the tension build appropriately through every scene (in some fashion)—including the scenes designed to offer some relief?

Draft 4 focuses on language and style: Are the verbs robust and the nouns able to carry the weight of the job they are doing? Are the style and language well suited to the scene? By “well suited” I mean, do they carry forward the scene’s purpose and do the words themselves reflect the dominant mood of the scene? For instance, if the scene’s purpose is to show a character facing a crucial decision on which much depends, are the words tension-loaded, heavy with implication?

Once I am satisfied (well, I’m never really satisfied), I turn to my trusted readers, also called “beta readers.” My wife, Michele, is the first one. She marks up the manuscript with her well-tuned teacher’s pencil, showing me breaks in the logic or word repetitions, confusing sentences or passages, inconsistencies either of plot or character, grammar goofs, and all sorts of other errors. So now I’m back to draft 5 or 6.

When that’s ready, I call on my other trusted readers, four or five folks who graciously read as, well, readers. They don’t offer editorial advice, but they do offer their insights into the story or the characters, criticism about passages that don’t work for them or don’t fit the flow of the story, suggestions for improving it, and overall challenges targeting how to make the manuscript stronger. Their feedback is always helpful, very often nuanced, and frequently wise. I wait until I have heard from everyone, then compile their feedback into a single document organized according to the structure of the book. Emphasizing the changes that more than one beta reader suggest, I use that document to work my way through the manuscript again, draft 6 or 7.

Finally, it is ready for editing. I’ll write about that next week.

From Drafting to Editing to Polishing to Publishing

Over the next few weeks, as I approach the release date for my next novel, The Bishop Burned the Lady (now available for pre-order here at 10% off) I’m going to share some of my experiences in bringing a book from the idea stage to publication. I’ll focus these posts on the process I went through in writing The Bishop—but it is very similar to how the first two books grew.

I am always fascinated to hear from other writers how they midwife a wispy idea into a meaty draft that hangs together as a novel. My own process is not unlike many other writers. I start with an issue that intrigues me, outrages me, somehow ruffles my feathers enough to make me want to dig into it. For instance, Book I of the series, Climbing the Coliseum, arose out of my frustration about tax evasion and anti-government conspiracies, which rear their ugly heads every few years and invariably get someone killed. In Nobody’s Safe Here, the second book in the series, I toggled between wanting to explore school shootings and their underlying drivers on one hand and investigating the long-term consequences of clergy sexual abuse on the other. So I wove them together.

The Bishop Burned the Lady grew out of a story I’d heard about rural sex trafficking, specifically about how many trafficking gangs operate as businesses, but often hide behind a religious cover, pretending to be a usually secret fringe church or cult.

Once I decided this might be a big enough subject with plenty of dramatic and human emotional power, I started the asking myself “what if?” What if sheriff’s deputy Andi Pelton (a main character in the series, set in a small Montana county) was assigned to investigate a suspicious fire in the forest above the town? What if she discovers charred bones in the ashes? What if, between her visits to the fire scene—which perhaps is a murder scene—someone completely removes every clue, down to the bare earth? What if she discovers an old man living in a forest compound—with a dormitory-like building on his property—near the scene of the fire? What if she invests a lot of energy in the old hermit whom she suspects of being the leader of the sex traffickers, but it turns out she’s wrong? What if, after she’s forced to start over, she is suddenly betrayed by her co-investigator? What if she is captured by the real leader of the gang and finds herself with his knife at her throat? What if . . .?

No doubt you recognize that each “what-if” is a turning point that makes things worse for Andi. Each increases the stakes—tightens the tension—for her and for the investigation. Those turning points, once I had fine-tuned them, formed the skeleton of a plot-structure, and once I was satisfied that that skeleton could support real flesh-and-blood and blows to the human spirit and conflict galore, I was ready to start writing the first draft. That’s when it gets fun, for me.

Next, Michele, my wife and a former teacher, read it and wielded her trusty red pencil. Her critique is always invaluable at this stage, because she shows me errors and gaps I failed to see (because I was too close to the story). She points out passages that don’t work so I can either rewrite them–or send them packing. The next draft incorporates her advice–and allows me to tighten and trim the story itself. The third draft then focuses on the writing itself–making it stronger, finding more robust verbs and sharper images, sentences that sing, nouns that pop. Each draft forces me to feel the book as a whole, to satisfy myself that the pace and sequencing, the conflicts and their resolutions, the dialogs and the inner monologs are true to the story and true to the characters. And when I decide they are, it’s time for my editor to take the stage.

Next week, I’ll write about that next step: beta readers and my editor.

Basho, Wisdom, and War

This morning, after the U.S. sent bombers and fighter jets perilously close to the airspace of North Korea over the weekend, the foreign minister of that country countered with a chilling statement:

Foreign Minister Ri Yong-Ho – CBC News

“Donald Trump [in a Tweet in which he said that Kim Jong-Un ‘won’t be around much longer’] has declared war on us,” and added that N. Korea has a right, as any country at war has, to shoot down American planes even outside their air space.

Friends, this is horrifying.

After I read the foreign minister’s words, I glanced down at my desk where a yellowed index card has rested, hidden under scraps of other notes and desk clutter, for years. It contains a translation of a haiko by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). I picked it up and re-read it, and it brought tears to my eyes:

How fortunate the man

who sees a flash of lightning and

does not think “how brief life is.”

When I see the flashes of lightning striking out between Trump’s tweets and the madman of North Korea, I cannot help but think how brief life is. We are still bearing the burdens of the longest war of our country’s history, yet our president wishes us into another that will dwarf the agonies of Afghanistan and Iraq. And those countries have no nuclear arms (although our last Republican war-mongerer lied to us that Iraq indeed posed such a threat). We stand on the brink, once again. And again, we’re asking, Why?

How brief life is. I was a little boy during the Korean War, a teen and young adult during the Vietnam War. As a young man, I watched the invasions of Panama and Grenada and then the first Gulf war. In my middle age, it was the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. How brief life is when you can count your years by their wars. And how full of rage–or cowardice– my country’s leaders seem, as they stand silent while Trump strains to unleash war—by words, and, he seems to desire, by weapons of mass destruction.

Basho was so right—how fortunate the person is who, hearing yet again the drums of war brought out and pounded, does not think how brief life is.

My ten-minute timer just notified me that my time is up. I pray that our leaders find the sanity to hear their alarms before all our time is up.

J.S. Bach, Stephen King, And Creating Suspense

At readings or book club gatherings, I’m often asked some variation on the question, “When you’re working on a book, how do you ____?” Sometimes it’s “. . . come up with your ideas?” Sometimes, it’s “. . . develop your characters?” One of the most interesting questions is, “How do you create suspense?”

The usual answer is, of course, to hint at some trouble that’s going to happen to an important character, but don’t give enough information that the reader can figure out what it’s going to be. This advice is useful to a point, but for me, at least, it’s easier said than done. When I’m writing, I know what’s going to happen, and I can get far too confident that I’ve nicely concealed it from the reader. But like Freudian slips of the tongue, unconscious slips-of-information find their way into the writing, sometimes in the form of hints that go too far, at other times not-so-subtle clues that I hadn’t meant to divulge till later.

This is why an evaluation and critique by a good editor is so important. Even before I send a manuscript off to my editor, Lorna Lynch, my wife Michele will have often read a passage and said, “You’re making it too obvious. I’ve figured it out already!” (Back to the manuscript for another re-write!)

I follow a number of writers’ craft websites, where experienced writers offer advice on the multitude of “how to do its” that comprise the writing craft. This morning I came across a fascinating video by an editor, Dave King, in which he discusses how to generate strong suspense in a novel. What’s fascinating, though, is that as he explains his points, he illustrates them by playing a segment of the monumental Fantasia and Fugue in A-Minor, by J.S. Bach.

Being an organist myself—well, having studied pipe organ for about eight years in my teens and early twenties—this music is one of my most beloved pieces by my all-time most cherished composer for pipe organ. So, it was doubly exciting to hear Dave King play the segment he played, and also to see how skillfully he used it to illustrate what Stephen King (no relation to Dave) does to create suspense in his books.

Like to hear the music and what Dave King tells us about creating suspense? It’s at the Writer Unboxed website. I promise you’ll enjoy it, and you’ll learn (or re-learn) something about good writing!

Okay, my ten-minute timer just went off, so I’m off, too. See you next week.