Monday, October 24, 2016

Writer, Know Thy Reader

I wouldn't exactly call myself a "fan" of Emily Giffin. (As a heterosexual middle-aged man, I am far, far outside her target market.) But I do have a healthy respect for her work. A few years ago, out of curiosity to see what all the fuss was about, I read her first published novel, Something Borrowed. (If you ask me about reading this book in front of the guys at the gym, I will resolutely deny even knowing of the book’s existence; but I’m admitting this for you folks on the Internet.)

Something Borrowed is a fairly typical chick lit/romance lit novel in terms of the basic premise. A young woman discovers that she's in love with her best friend's fiancé. Hijinks ensue.

As noted above, I’m not the target market for this sort of fare, and this is not the type of fiction I usually read for pleasure. Not only was I not supposed to have read Something Borrowed, I was also supposed to have hated it. 

Nevertheless, I have to admit that Something Borrowed is a pretty good book, in terms of compelling the reader to turn the pages. Emily Giffin is a good writer, even if she doesn't write books with me in mind. 

I have looked at the plot summaries of Emily Giffin's other published novels. Her books are, indeed, romance novels at their core. (Most romance novels ask one of two questions: a.) Which alpha male will the female protagonist choose? Or b.) which woman will the alpha male choose?)

Miss Giffin has a large fan base, and she sells truckloads of books. She is one of the big players in her field. And if she was even able to please me, she is clearly good at what she does. 

But about two years ago Emily Giffin published a novel that her fans didn't like—at least based on the Amazon reader reviews. Why not?

It turns out that the plot of The One & Only involves a young woman having a romantic relationship with a much older man. The older man had also been something of a father figure to her during her youth (though he was not her biological father, I should emphatically note). Moreover, the novel is set in the South, and seems to involve a lot about football.

This was a big departure from the Emily Giffin formula in a number of ways. Almost all of her novels feature highly educated female protagonists who work in law, public relations, or other boutique professions. They usually live in a large city on the East Coast, like New York or Boston.

But the most significant departure inThe One & Only was the central romantic relationship. 

Emily Giffin's male protagonists are idealized, romance lit hunks. They are uniformly tall, dashing, and well educated. They are either surgeons or high-profile attorneys. And they go for women who are their peers, both in terms of age and education.

Looking at the reader/reviewer comments on Amazon, it was readily apparent that Emily Giffin's readers didn't like the cross-generational relationship in The One & Only. Many of her readers didn't seem to get past the premise itself, calling it "creepy" and whatnot.

Greg Iles could have gotten away with the central relationship premise in The One & Only. (He has explored similar territory before.) Clive Cussler or Stephen Hunter fans would have had no problems with it. (The romantic relationship is always secondary to the plots of these authors' books, anyway.)

But Emily Giffin’s fans have come to expect "age-appropriate" relationships between highly educated young women of the Brahmin class, and handsome, youngish alpha males. They don't want to read about a young woman hooking up with a man old enough to be her father…regardless of whether he is her father or not!

We could, of course, have a long, spirited debate about whether or not relationships between adults of vastly different ages are inherently "creepy" or exploitive. (That is one of those debates that always draws strong partisans on both sides.) But let’s not. None of that really matters as far as Emily Giffin's readers are concerned. Her secret sauce involves a certain type of relationship. This is what her readers have come to expect—and The One & Only didn't deliver it.

Readers like variety—but within certain parameters. Clive Cussler fans don't want to read coming-of-age romance stories. Jonathan Franzen's fans would have a cow if his next novel included a car chase or a shootout. Michael Connelly's readers expect his villains to be very human criminals, not ghosts or vampires. 

At one time or another, almost every writer feels the yearning to branch out, to go "outside the box". 

Experimentation and innovation are important in fiction. The writer who never branches out becomes the writer who endlessly repeats himself—writing the same story again and again.

But established reader expectations are important, too. The writer who fails to keep in mind the expectations of his or her reader base will likely suffer reader revolt, whether or not the book is objectively “good”. 

Don’t give them werewolves, in other words, if they’re expecting Islamic terrorists. Don’t go overboard on the romance if your previous books have been packed with gun battles. 

And if your readers have come to expect a youngish romantic male lead, don’t suddenly give them a father figure instead. 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Readings for 'Hay Moon & Other Stories'

These are now in-process at my YouTube channel. This is the first reading:

“What’s the scariest thing you ever saw, Gramps?”
It is odd how an innocent question like that can bring back such horrible memories; and even odder in this case, since the question came from none other than Lisa, my little great granddaughter. 
Today is Halloween, and Lisa’s mother, Emily, brought her over to visit her sole surviving great grandparent before an evening of trick-or-treating. Lisa was wearing one of those plastic Halloween costumes that parents nowadays buy for their kids at Wal-Mart or Target. This particular one looked like a cartoon ghost character that I have seen on television over the years.
“What’s the scariest thing you ever saw, Gramps?” Lisa was standing in my living room, unable to contain her self-delight over her Halloween disguise. She was holding a trick-or-treat bag that bore the image of a typical Halloween clichĂ©: a witch flying on a broomstick, silhouetted against an oversized full moon. I had just dropped two Snickers bars into her bag—her first of many before the end of the evening, no doubt. Lisa was filled with energy even without all that sugar. 
“Tell me what’s the scariest thing you ever saw.” She repeated. “Tell me, pleeeease! You always tell good stories, Gramps.” She stamped her foot once on my living room carpet.
I didn’t answer her right away, because the images that stirred as I considered the question made me lose my breath for a few seconds. Then I struggled to think of a suitable response. My answer would be a lie, of course. Not for a million dollars would I tell my great granddaughter the truth......

Update: ‘Eleven Miles of Night’ Video Readings on YouTube

The video readings of my Ohio horror novel, Eleven Miles of Night are almost complete on my YouTube channel. 

Anyone is welcome to listen to them in part, or in their entirety. 

Other options are, of course, to purchase the dirt-cheap Kindle edition of the book, or read it through the Amazon Kindle Unlimited program. 

But anyway, back to the videos:

There are more than 150 video readings, at last count. I’ve broken up the novel so that you can listen to it a little bit at a time, as you would when reading book in little blocks of time. The readings are organized into playlists. They should be fairly easy to listen to on your smart phone or iPad. 

It is the season of Halloween, after all.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Why I shamelessly blog about my stories—and not about cats and politics

If you’re a nonfiction writer, then social media is a relatively straightforward set of tools. 

If you write nonfiction books about history, you write blog posts about history.

If you write nonfiction books about car repair, you blog about car repair. 

You tweet news stories about cars.

And so on….

For fiction writers, the path is considerably less clear. 

Too many fiction writers have been told: “Don’t be too pushy! Don’t turn your social media presence into a sales pitch!” 

(I both agree and disagree with this advice, as I’ll explain shortly.) 

So what do (most) fiction writers do instead?

Well, let’s take a look….

The fiction writer as political pundit

As these are political times, many fiction writers blog about politics. “Hey, did you know how bad the Democrats/Republicans are? Let me tell you…”

I’ve recently visited the social media accounts of household-name writers like Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, as well as countless fiction writers you’ve never heard of. Lots of them are tweeting and blogging about politics. 

Did you know that Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates both really, really dislike Donald Trump? (Joyce Carol Oates hates Trump so much, in fact, that she won’t even type his name. She types it T***p. Cute.) 

But more importantly, do you care?

Probably not. I’m pretty sure that no one ever determined their stance on a controversial issue by saying, “Hey, let’s see what Stephen King has to say about this!” 

Likewise, you may love Donald Trump or hate him, but the endless anti-Trump tweets of Joyce Carol Oates have likely had a negligible influence on your opinion.

And if you don’t care what Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates think about politics, why should you care what I think? 

Don’t get me wrong: Political punditry is both a valid and a viable field of writing. 

But fiction writers are in the escapism business. 

Yes, I have lots of political opinions; but I’m not here to argue with you about the news—or to tell you who to vote for. 

(I am here to tell you (for example) a story about an eleven-mile stretch of haunted road in Ohio, and about a young filmmaker who was hired to walk that stretch of road one night, and the horrifying, life-changing experiences that he had along the way. (That would be my Ohio horror novel, Eleven Miles of Night.)

I am also here to tell you a story about an office complex—called Lakeview Towers—that is really a portal into another reality. (That would be my fantasy novel, The Maze.) One day three corporate employees visited Lakeview Towers with the expectation that they were going to an ordinary business meeting; but they ended up getting lost in another dimension, filled with killer robots, human-wolf hybrids, giant birds, and various other perils….)

The fiction writer should not be that annoying Facebook friend who constantly posts rants about the news, and political memes. You already get enough of that from your Facebook friends, right? 

The fiction writer as writing instructor/coach

Most people who write fiction have innumerable ideas about how fiction should be written/edited/marketed, etc. 

There are a few fiction writers who actually do this quite well. I particularly like Joanna Penn and the Sterling & Stone guys. 

But I have to admit: This isn't my calling. If I’d wanted to be a creative writing instructor, I would have gotten an MFA. 

(Many of my stories, like Termination Man, are set in the corporate realm, where I spent more than 20 years in various roles. This is about as far removed from a university English department as you can possibly get!)

The fiction writer as book reviewer

Like most writers, I was a reader first, and I still read for pleasure. And yes, I write the occasional book review or shout-out for other people’s work.

What I’ve discovered, though, is that my heart really isn't in the book reviewing business. I’m far more interested in writing and telling my own stories, than in writing or talking about stories that other people have written. 

But more importantly, book reviewing is an art in itself, and there are plenty of sites and blogs throughout the Internet dedicated to reviewing books. These are maintained by people for whom book reviewing is a singular passion. 

It is better for me to leave that work to them. They’re going to do a more thorough job of it. That will leave me more time to tell stories.

The fiction writer as blogger of random miscellanea

Although storytelling is my passion, I have a lot of interests

These interests include—in no particular order—weightlifting, running, foreign languages, history, current events, economics, coin collecting, and computers. 

I have a lot to say, for example, about learning the Japanese language. I have a degree in economics. I could say a lot about that, too.

But as before: There are people who can do all that much better than I can—people for whom these topics are passions, versus mere interests.

I will therefore leave those topics to them.

The fiction writer as socialite-at-large

Yet another school of thought says that fiction writers should go on the Internet with the aim of being widely chatty and gregarious. This will enable them to “connect” with as many people as possible. Build relationships.

I get that—to a point. I’m reasonably responsive on social media. And I appreciate hearing from readers. Do you like something I’ve written? Drop me an email or leave a post on my Facebook page. You’ll make my day. 

But let’s be honest here: If you’re an “average” person, then you already have about 338 Facebook friends, according to the latest research. 

You already have existing relationships with them offline. You don’t need a fiction writer who wants to be your pen/Twitter/Facebook/YouTube pal, because, golly gee, social media is all about being social

Why I’m here, why you’re here

As an author, I’m really only on the Internet for one purpose: To tell the best stories I can. (And I think I tell some fairly good ones, if I do say so myself—but that’s ultimately for you to judge.)

I don’t want to bring you here under false pretenses—that we’re going to talk about Spanish verb tenses, or politics, or the law of diminishing marginal utility. 

I’m here to tell you stories. That’s it, as far as my social media presence is concerned. 

“So now you’re going to ask me to buy your book(s), right?”

No. I use my social media presence (especially my YouTube channel) for telling you storiesnot for telling you to buy my books. 

This is a key distinction. 

At the time of this writing, I’ve made YouTube videos of a handful of my short stories. I’m presently finishing up video readings of the aforementioned supernatural thriller, Eleven Miles of Night. 

Next up is 12 Hours of Halloween, my coming-of-age horror novel set in the early 1980s.

Then, perhaps, Blood Flats, my Kentucky crime thriller. Blood Flats is a story about Lee McCabe, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran who is accused of a drug-related double homicide that he didn't commit. 

Almost all of the stories I present online are available in book form from Amazon. I obviously wouldn't be heartbroken if you sampled some of my fiction online and decided to buy one of my books—or two, or three. 

But even if you don’t (or never do) that’s okay. Really.

Because maybe you’ll tell your friend: “Hey, there’s this horror novel, ‘Eleven Miles of Night’. I’m listening to the YouTube videos right now, and it’s pretty scary. You should check it out.”

And maybe your friend will listen to several of the videos, and he’ll decide that he’d rather read the book, versus listen to the book being read, section by section, chapter by chapter. 

Authors should sell books like rock bands sell albums

Once, a long, long time ago, I heard Def Leppard’s song, “Photograph” on the radio for the first time. (That was 1983—you had to be there.)

Then I saw the video on MTV. (Believe it or not, MTV used to be wholly dedicated to music, rather than lame reality shows. But I digress.)

I probably heard a few dozen playings of “Photograph” before I actually bought Def Leppard’s 1983 album, Pyromania

But by then I was a fan. I subsequently bought Def Leppard’s other albums: On Through the Night, High ’n’ Dry, Hysteria, etc.

As far as I can recall, no member of the band ever said to me: 

“Hey, you—bloke,” (Def Leppard is a British band.) “We’ve got some bleedin’ good music. You want to listen to it? Well, then you need to plunk down some lolly and buy our album. Unless you want to be a wanker about it! Don’t give us any of your tosh—give us your quid!”

The rock bands that I used to listen to in the golden age of MTV and radio understood how to sell albums: First, you show the world a little (a lot, in fact) of what you’ve got. 

Because that’s only fair.

Not everyone will like what you have to offer. Some will only like it passively. And an even smaller subset will become fans of what you do. 

But the key point here is: You’ve got to show the world what you’ve got first. That comes before everything else.

Comparatively few fiction writers on the Internet act like rock bands. On one hand, there is the group of fiction writers who talk about everything but their stories (politics, cats, etc.) These are fiction writers who don’t want to lead with the fact that they write fiction…because they don’t want to seem “pushy”.

At the opposite extreme is the group that wants you to buy a book on faith, before you’ve seen what the author has to offer you. These are usually the authors who have written only one or two books, and are very concerned that someone will read their work without paying them for it. 

But who ever bought an album without hearing a few songs first?

I prefer to think like a rock band: Most of you are going to want to read (or hear) at least some of my work for free before you’re going to spend money on it. I’m cool with that—I expected no less of Def Leppard, after all.

My social media manifesto

With all the above in mind, I intend to shamelessly blog my stories on social media. 

I’ll do this mostly by actually presenting my stories—in both spoken and written form. 

I’ll sometimes talk about them, too—but only to the degree that I think will interest you as a reader

If you like what you read/hear—great! Please stick around. There will be more where that came from, I promise. 

If you’d like to buy one of my books on Amazon—great! I appreciate it. Thank you!

But my objective in being on social media is to build an audience/readership, not to extract the maximum revenue possible from every visitor and every pageview. So no--this is not a sales pitch.

But it is a project with a purpose. On a crowded Internet, focus is crucial. You can't be all things to all people, and foolish is the person who tries.

I'm not here to compete with the book review sites, or to teach creative writing. (Those are worthwhile endeavors, mind you; but others do those things far better than I can.) I'm not here to generate random blog posts about every topic that remotely interests me. Nor am I here to amass 300K Twitter followers for the sake of achieving a high Klout score.

And I'm not here to talk about cats or politics.

I’m here to tell stories. I hope you like them, because I don't dish out much else on social media. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Eleven Miles of Night by Edward Trimnell: Reading #131:

Between his initial lunch with Simon Rose and his departure for Carey County, Jason had read and skimmed dozens of articles about the Shaman’s Highway. Several of them mentioned a particular section of woods along the route that was more “spiritually active” than the rest of the Shaman’s Highway’s eleven miles. This area was called “The Forest of Lost Souls.”
Supposedly the Satan worshippers of the late 1960s and early 1970s had used this area for the worst of their ceremonies. There were rumors—unsubstantiated, of course—that human sacrifice might have even taken place here. A website that specialized in the supernatural lore of Ohio mentioned the confession of a long-dead felon, one who might have been involved in the performance of grisly rites in the area:

“Between 1969 and 1973, more than ten girls, aged 15 to 19, were kidnapped from suburban neighborhoods in Dayton, Cincinnati, and Columbus. No suspects were ever named, and no bodies were ever found. 

Eleven Miles of Night: Reading #130:

For a brief second, Glenn allowed himself to consider what she was offering. He could simply remain where he was standing, and allow this horrible creature to take his life. That would mean the end of his years of loneliness and self-loathing—the ones that lay behind him, as well as the ones that inevitably lay ahead.