writing technique

These Dancing Feet.


Sue’s on-topic post makes me a bit ashamed of myself for my fun, but less-than-useful offerings.

While I try to write something serious on serials, (not sure I can manage it), here’s another (already written) Song-and-Dance (my default voice). After this, I’ll try to behave myself.


In Search of
(Silly) History. 


Creators of brave new worlds, those folks have an awful lot to figure out, science, geography, physicality, political structure, all that in addition to the main event, the going-somewhere story. In a real-world setting, much can be taken for granted. The surround needs only to be tailored, not assembled from scratch.

You might think that one who situates a well-worn fairy tale in a well-documented age has it easy. Well, sure, if you write Disney-style. I reconfigure history around the antics of a talking cat, which certainly suggests that flavor of fantasy.

In historical fiction, research is a given. I research also, diligently. I play with history, distorting, knotting, shredding. John Dee, a truly crackpot figure, interesting as hell, is ripe for a goof. I had my assassination episode mostly written, then I discovered Dee. That work is out the window, because what I’ve learned of him is too delicious to pass up.

He was Elizabeth’s Royal Astrologer. (Good.) He was a foremost scientist, the inventor of break-through tools for navigation. (Even better.) He believed he could communicate with angels. (Yahoo! If a man thinks he talks to angels, he may not fall apart when confronted by a conversational cat.)

He left notebooks full of coded entries and mysterious symbols – I swear to God, one of them has a cat in it. (My wildest prayers have been answered.) Scholars of the period speculate that Dee was an undercover operative for Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s Spymaster. If I didn’t adore reading history, if I had chosen to conceive a crank for my guy to butt heads with out of thin air, he would be amusing, but I would have missed a boatload of gorgeous possibilities. I do not balk at changing horses in mid-stream.

Dee is a fairly blank slate. Elizabeth is the other side of the coin. Reams are written on her. We think we know her, dignified, decorous, above all, regal. Most descriptions treat her gently. A marvelous few are brutal:

As a young woman, Elizabeth had been striking: slender, pale skinned, with masses of auburn locks, but the years had done their dirty work. Her hair now grew in patches. She wore wigs, caked her wrinkled, pocked face with cosmetics, and seldom laughed. An open mouth revealed broken, blackened teeth. Seemingly oblivious to her decline, she play-acted nubile desirability. 

She demanded constant reassurance that she had not decayed. If one would gain her favor, he must court her as if she were a girl of eighteen and honor her not only as the Queen of England, but as the Queen of Love. Her affectations, the ancient crepe-skinned bared breast, the ridiculous simpering, must be applauded. The sight of a gap-toothed crone, complexion smeared with the lethal white lead-based make-up of the period, must not engender other than an admiring fascination with the strange effect.

It’s the demented details of history that I adore, that I graft onto my critters and my plot. Biographies, in particular, can jumpstart a hundred ideas and most of them will be better than what you pull out of your hat.

I’ll wrap this up. Let others fret and sweat over the from-scratch world building, which I generally find as compelling as the painted backdrop of a stage play. I’ll tip-toe through the tulips of history and gather a sweet armful of easily-harvested grotesqueries, the intimate touches that bring a story to life.

I cannibalize history. It works for me. Give it a whirl.



I think this is a baptism, and it’s the best image I’ve dug up so far. I certainly don’t want William and Kate, which is what you mostly get when you google ‘Royal Christening’.

I am researching Catholic sects of the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries. My Inquisitor, blackmailed to perform a baptism on a cat for a dotty king’s peace of mind, will turn out to be a rebel, holding a heretical belief that animals have souls. He’ll be all for it, if it’s done quietly. He doesn’t want to endanger his cushy life as a high official of the established church. Beyond that, he’s pleased to cater to the king’s whims. It’s never a bad idea to make a firm friend of a monarch, even a minor one.

I could invent a sect, but, as I’ve said, I like my lunacy to have one foot (at least, one toe) in reality, and I’m sure that I’ll find other lovely stuff to sprinkle in.


It’s late, way after Vespers. Over an ornate font, used for every royal baptism of the past two centuries, a mysterious baby receives his splash in high style, in the traditional royal robe, cuddled in the arms of the king himself, no mother in attendance. Hmmm . . . Prince Bittor is here, a bit aside, looking very uncomfortable.

The few nobodies on hand are kept at a distance, none apprehending that the babe in arms is a cat. You know they’ve got to be muttering to themselves: “This is just as odd as it may be. Who can the child be?”


What a delightful question. I will most certainly think on it.



The Women Men Don’t See, Indeed.

While enjoying GD Deckard’s latest installment of Bob vs the Aliens, I was moved to ask him if he was a Tiptree fan. Just something about the rhythm of his dialogue, and the subject matter, struck a resonant chord. He’d heard of Tiptree but no, he hadn’t read her.

For those who don’t know, James Tiptree Jr was the pseudonym of author Alice Sheldon. A noted recluse and “mystery man” during the seventies, she published numerous stories in the science fiction magazines of the time, including the story Houston, Houston, Do You Read? which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

She also wrote two novels—Up the Walls of the World and Brightness Falls from the Air—but it’s really her short stories she’s known for, and for good reason. During the late sixties and seventies, she was a mainstay of the sci fi magazines, publishing nearly 70 stories, often anthologized. She had a distinctive voice, crisp and incisive—sometimes called Heminway-esque, though that label is mainly based on one story in particular, The Women Men Don’t See. That story garnered a lot of attention when it was published in 1973. Insiders considered it a shoe-in for the Hugo and the Nebula, but Tiptree withdrew it from consideration. It was one of the earliest examples of mainstream science fiction with an overtly feminist message, yet told by a male (and frankly sexist) narrator in a very masculine, hardboiled style. The narrator is not mocked and yet, by the end, it is quite obvious that he hasn’t understood anything that has actually been going on.

A lot of readers weren’t sure what to make of it.  No one knew that Tiptree was a woman at that point, though there were apparently some who speculated she might be. Robert Silverberg, in his introduction to the anthology featuring the tale, insisted that Tiptree’s writing had to be the work of a man, that there was “something ineluctably masculine” about it. To his credit, when the truth came out, he congratulated Tiptree for fooling him so successfully and said “You’ve given my head a greatly needed wrenching.”

Even today, 40 years later, the story has the power to surprise and confound, and god knows there are still plenty of heads around that could use a good wrenching. It’s a beautiful piece of writing.

But Tiptree’s work is too varied and too rich to be adequately represented by only one story, no matter how good it is. She was a deft craftsman (ahem) and a dazzling world-builder, as much at home with appalling pathos and bleak despair as with laugh-out-loud comedy and exuberant fantasy—and she had an uncanny ability to shift seamlessly between those many moods. She didn’t shy away from brutality, particularly the brutality inflicted on women by a male-centric society. She boldly courted the polymorphous and the perverse and didn’t spare her readers the messy details. She wasn’t afraid to use an unlikeable protagonist or of being misunderstood, and her work is all the stronger for the audaciousness of her choices. Describing her own stories, she said: “There’s this backward little type, and he’s doing some gray little task and believing like they tell him. And one day he starts to vomit and rushes straight up a mountain, usually to his doom.”

I own nearly all of Tiptree’s stories in four dog-eared paperbacks salvaged years ago from second-hand stores. Sadly, none of those volumes are in print any more. There is one anthology available on Amazon. It’s called Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, a hefty 500-page collection of most of 510dhU+8avL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_her best-known tales. The choices are worthy and unsurprising, and I can absolutely recommend it. But something about the choices saddens me: where is the funny stuff? Where is the lightness? Tiptree wrote some of the most delightfully whimsical and downright hilarious stories I know, and none of them are here. Out of the Everywhere, All Kinds of Yes. The Time-Sharing Angel, The Night Blooming Saurian, Mama Come Home. I really could go on and on, but since you probably can’t find any of those stories, I guess there’s not much point. It’s not that every story is perfect. There are bits that don’t work and the odd tone-deaf joke, and yes, some of the stories are lightweights. But by dismissing them in favor of the heavy stuff, we rob ourselves of much of the charm, the energy, the inventiveness that characterized Tiptree. It’s too bad. Someone should do a second anthology and I happily volunteer my services as editor.

But until that unlikely day, I’m hanging on to my paperbacks.

Tiptree was a late bloomer. She didn’t publish her first science fiction stories until she was in her fifties. Before that, she had been a graphic artist, a painter, an art critic. Later she joined the Air Force, analyzing photographs for the intelligence corp and rising to the rank of major. From 1952 to 1955, she did a stint working for the CIA. Then, at the age of forty, she returned to college, eventually earning a degree in experimental psychology.

Her use of a pseudonym was ostensibly to protect her academic reputation (science fiction writing was a punk occupation in those days), but the anonymity suited her. There was a darkness in her soul. She once said: “I dream about oblivion like other people dream of good sex.” She and her husband lived in near-seclusion, reliant on no one, until poor health finally overwhelmed first him and then her. In 1987, at the age of seventy-one, she shot her critically ill, bed-ridden husband while he slept, then turned the gun on herself.

It was, in many ways, a typical Tiptree ending.

book sales, Uncategorized

Selling Your Baby

Copyright Ben Cavanna

All dressed up and looking for a buyer                                                                                               (Photo credit Ben Cavanna)


“So you’ve written a book.” Foreboding voice in your head

In the olden days, seven years ago, you would have found an agent, endured participated in the editing process to make your manuscript the best written most marketable product it could be, and then sat back while your agent shopped your baby to the highest-bidding publisher. Your book would hit the shelves, and you’d laugh all the way to the bank in your brand new Ferrari.

“Wait. What?” You

Well, maybe it wasn’t ever that easy or profitable, but we all know the landscape has changed. Today, whether you’ve self-pubbed or kept your ego in tact through dozens of rejections and finally hooked up with the agent/publisher of your dreams, you know the weight of marketing your precious baby will fall on you. The author. Because that makes perfect sense.

Now you’re wandering helpless through unfamiliar and intimidating territory, wondering how to:

1. Find your potential readers

2. Reach your potential readers

3. Convince them to BUY YOUR BOOK!

Let’s look at conventional wisdom.

Reviews  You’ve heard you need reviews, lots of reviews, to sell your book. Maybe you have (or can recruit) a Street Team of willing friends who will read your brilliant manuscript and post 5✮ reviews on Amazon, B&N, Goodreads, their personal blogs, Starbucks’ bulletin boards, and FB posts including a photo of them holding reading your book. But are reviews really effective for selling books?

Who reads reviews? People who have already heard about a particular book, and are looking at it online. And how many readers are we talking about? According to a 2005 Gallup Poll, only 7% of readers choose a book based on reviews, so… maybe they’re not as influential as we’ve been led to think.

Blogs  There are bloggers who do book reviews and interviews. You could ask a few of them to interview you or write a review in exchange for an all expenses paid spa weekend a copy of your book. If they agree, and if they read your book, and if they write a review, their posts will slide through their followers’ Reader streams. If a title or picture catches a follower’s eye, or a follower just likes that blogger enough to read whatever they write, then they will be exposed to your book and they might consider buying it.

Online Marketing Experts  Many, many online “experts” prey on authors have developed programs they claim will dramatically increase your book sales. I listened to one of these guys on a webinar last week. (He has a “sure-fire” method he will be happy to share with you for only $597.) He used to sell Facebook ads. He says one of the options you can choose when you purchase a Facebook ad is to target the people who follow top selling authors you’ve identified in your genre who have FB pages. The author won’t be aware you’re doing it, but your ads will appear next to those followers’ FB Newsfeeds. Of course, this guy claims FB ads are the “most effective” way to market your book. (One word: AdBlock)

How many of the book ads that show up next to your FB Newsfeed do you read, much less click on to make a purchase? (GD Deckard and Atthys Gage share their experience with Google and Amazon ads on this very site, in Jousting Windmills and its comments.)

SO WHAT WORKS? Here’s what I think:

Finding and Reaching Your Readers  Common sense works here. If you write YA SciFi/Fantasy, and your followers are middle aged women and men, posting about your book on your blog, FB and Amazon book pages, Goodreads, Twitter, G+, Tumbler, IG, or Pinterest probably won’t sell books. Start closer to home; go where your potential audience is. Local schools (middle grade to junior college) have English teachers who might see the value of inviting a local author to talk about writing and publishing. Your local library might be interested in having a local author host a brief workshop on creative writing. They might be willing to pay a speaker’s fee. Even if you speak for free, you’re finding your audience. Sure, have books available to sign and sell, but set your goal at connecting with the people who can spread the word. If you incorporate things like decorations, costumes, snacks, and give-aways themed on the most exciting aspect of your book, you create something attendees will tell other people about.

Word of Mouth  When I get excited about something — a movie, a play, a restaurant, a book — like most people, I talk about it. I recommend it to my family, friends, and anyone else who’ll listen. If it’s a book, I buy copies as gifts. What author doesn’t appreciate that? What makes me excited enough to spread the word? Three things:

  1. Excellent quality: For a book, this means a well-written page-turner.
  2. A certain something…je ne sais quoi…the X Factor…”It”: Something out of the ordinary — not just weirdness — that catches a reader’s fancy. Consider Rowling’s Harry Potter or Weir’s The Martian. Subject matter? Voice? Novelty? Controversy?
  3. A Buzz: Everybody’s talking. Word is spreading like a viral video.

How do you create a buzz?  Well, a viral video would work. (When you figure out how to guarantee that, let me know, okay?)

A friend who began her marketing career 20 years ago at a publishing company, has her finger on the digital pulse. She says one highly effective marketing strategy is to engage the opinion of a “digital influencer” in your genre. These are celebrities whose tens of thousands of followers seek out their posts, read them, and take what they have to say seriously. A digital influencer’s recommendation starts a buzz. But my friend doesn’t suggest stealth bombing their followers with ads for your book; she says to build a relationship with the influencers by interacting with them, commenting on their posts, creating a conversation.

Look at marketing that works, and adapt it for your book. Since LOST first created an online world that treated Oceanic Airlines, the Dharma Initiative, and Widmore Labs as if they were real, movies like Interstellar and Independence Day 2 have used this technique to get people talking. Don’t make a normal, boring book trailer. Do something innovative.

Ultimately, marketing your book is far more than posting ads and links and waiting for the royalties to roll in. It’s about connecting with your potential readers and engaging them in your story’s world. We have a pretty good idea what doesn’t work, so take a look at all the successful marketing around you and make it work for you.

S.T. Ranscht is the co-author (with Robert P. Beus) of ENHANCED, the first book in a YA SciFi trilogy. She is currently working on the “final” edit prior to re-submitting their baby to a requesting agent. Her short story, Cat Artist Catharsis, earned Honorable Mention in Curtis Bausse’s 2016 Book a Break Short Story Contest, and will be published in its upcoming anthology, The Cattery. Her online presence can be felt on WordPress at Space, Time, and Raspberries, Facebook, and Twitter @SueStarlight. You can follow ENHANCED on Facebook and Twitter @EnhancedYASyFy.

book promotion

Serialization: Part one of a series …

… exploring the ins and outs of publishing a series. I’ve been considering the idea for some time, and GD’s in-house serial has spurred me to action.


The Perils of Pauline, the most famous of the early-cinema serials.

I’m in my snatch-and-grab mode, picking brains. I start with a quick look-see: is an article potentially useful? I don’t over-think it. One good line and I scarf up the whole to digest and boil down later. I have a file with twenty pages and I’ve only just started.

Many sites specialize in the format. The one I like best so far is Plympton Publishing, but I don’t know how hard it is to get accepted. The key, of course, is … will they take you on? Then, what size readership do they have, of what inclinations?

I haven’t delved enough to be able to answer these basic questions, but I like what I read of them. Plympton was started by two members of the Harvard Crimson, and they serialize classic fiction. (Possibly new stuff as well? Dunno, yet.) So, they may have a soft spot for a classic-feel piece (author intrusion up-the-ass, silly footnotes an additional source of delight or irritation, depending on your tolerance for suchlike) detailing the faux-historical exploits of a pivotal figure in a previously undisclosed event in Elizabethan politics … who happens to be a cat.

I’m excited by what I read. Again, it’s no silver bullet. Have your sales mechanism in shape, in case you should be eagerly sought out. (I can dream, can’t I?) For me, that means my website in full flower, all them back pages linked to a menu, discoverable. Most of the serial sites (so I understand) do not pay; think of the process as a teaser with wide exposure.

My intention is to publish my novella free-to-all on my website. Would a serial site object to a competing outlet? No problem. They can have book one, I still have books two and three to myself. Does this hobble an eventual pub-for-a-price? I don’t think so. I’ll handle it the way I’ve handled the novella.

I’ve temporarily removed a lot of juicy material to streamline a shortie. And I’ve added mucho speculation on matters that are still up in the air. Nothing I write is ever set for good and all. I revise constantly. Something in the news knocks me out, that might work for Sly? In it goes. I have no shame. I steal (hmmm … adapt) right and left.

So: does a fake sighting of the Virgin Mary ever come to pass, or do my creatures only discuss it? This is one of my favorite gimmicks for getting business in without actually getting it in.

Spoiler: Yes. The Virgin Mary visitation does transpire. It’s got to. The official from the Inquisition who shows up to vet the miracle turns out to be an old client of way-past-her-prime Buttercup (I conceived her while reading Princess Bride), a street-walker roped into the scheme. As a witness! No one actually sees the Blessed Virgin. Like at Lourdes, it’s all say-so. This situation is the answer to another problem I’ve been wrestling with. The fool is able to be blackmailed. Sly needs something done for him, and the scum-bucket is just the one, the perfect one, to do it.

Buttercup recognizes her interrogator from her glory days in a top house in Paris, where she role-played Virgin Mary for a sicko who liked to dress as a priest and pretend to bang … uh huh. C’mon, how can I not go in that direction? Too too tasty not to at least explore. (It’s not yet written.) To bypass the gotta-be-a-total-riot bit, impossible!

In my next post I will try to answer the following questions:

> What are the various forms of serialization?   > What are the advantages?   > Who has been successful at it, and how have they handled it?

Part three will be a report of my explorations. I’ll contact a few of these sites and get the low-down. Leave no stone unturned, that’s the name of this game, right?


No Stone Unturned #1: Anybody got a kit-cat who might pose prettily in a tiny pair of boots? A photo would be great, a video even better (with a voice-over of the animal’s musings), posted to YouTube. Your cat could be the new Grumpy Cat.

Our Gang of Four is having none of it. Our guys are hopeless.


No Stone Unturned #2: I am just now reading about a service called Thunderclap, that sends out a one-time announcement of a book’s being published. You must have a hundred people sign up on your behalf, but I guess the notice gets emailed to their entire bank of subscribers.

But!honestly, how likely am I to pay attention to an email notification for a book I’ve never heard of? Not very. Don’t we all go through the reams in our in-boxes, delete, delete, delete?

I’ll check this out also.


What might make me open and read the email is a great title. I’ve pondered what makes me pull a book off the shelf in a store, when all I see is a spine. A book/author I’ve heard about/admire, that’ll do it. Other than that, it’s the title! A really interesting title! That reflects, hopefully, an interesting mind-set. Not another The Something-Something Saga. There’s way too much of that. Boring!

When Harry Met Sally, that was a great title. Bob vs. the Aliens, that’s another.

The thumbnails on Amazon may get my attention, but they do not get me to buy. It’s a title that tempts me to read the blurb, and/or the Look Inside.

This might be a good topic to discuss. I’ll tackle it myself, if no one else gets to it first.








reading, writing technique

What a Day for a Dream Sequence

So what’s so bad about dream sequences anyway? That’s what I wanna know.

No. Wait. I already know. That most abhorred of all plot devices is abhorred for good reasons: they’re trite and obvious; they take us out of the story; they’re a cheap shortcut. Hack writers who can’t figure out how to advance their narrative or fix their gaping plotholes use dream sequences.

Weak stuff. And for a lot of writing teachers, editors and agents, they are simply a “don’t do.” As in never.

But Tolstoy used them. As did Emily Bronte, George Orwell, James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, JK Rowling. And they are, of course, even more common in television and movies, even by writers like Joss Whedon and Vince Gilligan, neither of whom can be called a hack.

Let us acknowledge a few obvious caveats: no one likes it when a whole story arc turns out to have been only a dream in the end (The Wizard of Oz not withstanding.) And those sloppy deus ex machina dreams where Janie Average is told she’s destined to wield the Sword of Destiny? Yeah, those are usually bad. But for the record, I love a good dream sequence (note the word good, please). Especially a dream that doesn’t immediately reveal itself as such, but only gradually bends the world, with everything becoming odder and odder, until reality finally cracks apart and the dream is revealed. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. (There’s a fantastic example of this device in Crime and Punishment, actually. Very chilling, and nicely indicative of the fact that Raskolnikov’s mental world is coming apart as guilt permeates his soul.)

And yes, I know I am not supposed to like these scenes, because they are NEVER strictly necessary to the narrative of the story. And what are writing gurus always maundering on about? Make every scene count! No unnecessary scenes! If you don’t need it, cut it! Most often, dream sequences are atmospheric set pieces that don’t move the plot at all. Since nothing is really happening, it can’t possibly be necessary, right? Dream over, hit the reset button. Continue with the real story, please. As a student of good writing and an admirer of disciplined storytelling, I ought to hate them.

But I still like them.

I could argue that a properly executed dream sequence can provide a fascinating platform for characters to interact in an entirely new, entirely other, context. They allow a deep dive into the subconscious motivations of the dreamer, unfettered by the constraints of the rational world.

Those things are true, and that’s great, but what I like about a really spectacular dream sequence is much simpler:  it’s fun. The chaos of dreams is a selective chaos with an uncanny logic of its own. It’s a tiny moment of world building, a way to reframe reality—temporarily, but with lasting impact. And since they are inherently risky, it’s also a chance to watch a good writer walk the high wire. In expert hands, a dream sequence can invert the narrative in a way few other devices can.


Dreams don’t get much better than Laura Petrie sliding down a mountain of walnuts.

I know some folks are going to say they don’t like it when the writer messes with the reader. Play fair with your reader or they’ll never trust you, blah blah blah. But so what? I’m not looking for trust. Good writers mess with us all the time, and we eat it up. What is fiction if not messing with the reader?

All of this assumes, of course, that the thing works. As with so so much else in writing, if it doesn’t work, all bets are off. Which brings us to the first rule of good writing: get it right or go home (also know as the “don’t suck” rule.)  And if you’re going to use a much-maligned device like a dream sequence, that rule applies all the more, because you’ve got two strikes against you before you even step into the box.

And if you’re in writing class, and the instructor says: “No dream sequences! Ever!”—nod politely, smile, maybe even give an airy little laugh. And dream away.


The Channillo Challenge


Nicholas Nickleby, published as a serial in 1838-39

I’ve finished my gig with Channillo. 52 piece of WaLWaD, starting with Calliope, who kicked off the series on June 1st a year ago. You won’t have heard of it – WaLWaD, I mean, not Channillo. But if you haven’t heard of Channillo either, it is, to quote their site, ‘a subscription-based digital publishing platform that allows writers to share their work with readers in regular installments.’ In other words, (most of the time) serialized fiction.

Now we’ve had some discussion about this here on the site, thanks to GD’s serial Bob Versus the Aliens (which is, incidentally, as zany and entertaining as the title implies). So how does it work on Channillo? The main point is that readers actually pay to read. Yes, you read that right. Strange as it may sound, such readers exist! The cheapest option is $4.99/month, which gives you from one to ten series of your choice. Might as well go for the whole ten, right? In which case, it’s not a bad deal – you just have to find the time to read them. You’ll be spoilt for choice – at least 400 titles in a broad range of genres, from historical to paranormal, but also including nonfiction and poetry. And for writers it’s not bad either – 80% of the royalties, with the first payment made when $50 is reached.

So where’s the catch? Well, that brings me back to WaLWaD – What a Life! What a Day! The reason you haven’t heard of it is that I didn’t promote it. I did a few tweets at the start but they soon fizzled out. Oh, and a blog post back in January. That was it. My apathy had a number of reasons. Firstly, WaLWaD is humour, totally different from my books, which are mystery. So I wasn’t sure that promoting it would be of much use for the books, which are challenging enough to promote already. But more importantly, though I’m pleased enough overall, some of the pieces were pretty close to first drafts, penned in haste on a Sunday evening to meet the Monday deadline. Would readers notice? I don’t know. But I wasn’t too happy promoting material I knew could be better.

As for my earnings, well, put it this way: that first payment is still up ahead in the distance. Which is a shame because it’s not for me but the Against Malaria Foundation. That’s one of the options – you can pass on the royalties to a charity of your choice. Will I get there one day? Let’s be optimistic – yes! And the quicker the better – fewer people will die of malaria in the meantime. You see what I did in that last sentence? Hint, hint. And because the series is completed, you could sign up for just a month and get the whole lot in one go. Crafty, eh?

So yes, you have to promote. And I’m not the only one who didn’t do enough of that. After seventeen weeks of posting a chapter each Sunday, I went from having four subscribers to two. I asked for analytics of how many people visited the site, clicked on my chapter descriptions, etc, but was told they wouldn’t make that available. So writes Philip Carroll, who took his serial down and put it on his blog instead.

So is this another blog post about something that doesn’t work? It would be unfair to leave you with that impression. So I approached a couple of other writers, rather more active than I am, to see if they could report more success. My sincere thanks to Bill McStowe and Chris Waltz for answering my questions.

Bill McStowe, author of the humour series Uncharted.

How actively do you promote your series and where?

I’m active on Twitter and try to draw attention to my series at least once a day. You can find me @BillMcStowe. I also promote Channillo itself and some of the other writers. Similarly, there are writers who help promote my work.

 How positively would you rate Channillo overall?

 It has been a positive experience for me, but I am aware that this is not the case for everyone. Some very talented writers have left the site and I miss reading their work.

Channillo has given me the opportunity to reach more readers. I like that. A lot of the readers on the site are Channillo authors, but I see a consistent effort to draw an outside audience. We’re asking people to pay for a subscription for the right to read when there are thousands of sites out there with free material. That’s a tall order.

 Would you say it has driven interest towards your writing in general i.e. beyond the Channillo series in particular?

No, I can’t say that. I’d like to believe it, but I’m not sure it’s true. Actually, I haven’t done much other writing since my series began. Spending hours a week meeting a self-imposed deadline has left me little room to do much else. This weekend, though, I’m making time to cut my toenails.

Chris Waltz, author of the horror-comedy series, Hellbound.

Generally, I promote my Channillo series through Facebook and Twitter. I’m a part of several writer and reader groups who are fairly supportive. Twitter has been my best avenue, because other Channillo writers tend to share the posts with their followers as well. As far as popularity goes, I have to say I’m not 100% sure how popular my series is on the website, but I know it has garnered some popularity as far as new followers and social media interactions outside of the Channillo site.

I never had plans of getting rich or famous from my Channillo series, and I haven’t, but I have been pleased with the number of people it has gotten my name to as a writer. It’s also something I feel comfortable using as a resume builder of sorts, because I was approached to write the series and it was the first writing project I began that wasn’t self-published. Since then, I have had several short stories published in more well-known publications. I have a second Channillo series debuting in a couple of months, and I am generally happy with my experience.

So yes, there are happy authors on Channillo, which I continue to believe is a highly commendable initiative. You can read a fuller review of Channillo here. And while we’re on the topic of serialisation, stay tuned to this site for an upcoming set of posts about it by Mimi Speike. Also, don’t forget to check out Bob Versus the Aliens, as well as the excellent serial Voyage of the Ballyhoo, posted on his website by Atthys Gage. Though Atthys is our resident maven of gloom, you’ll see that anyone who can spin such a yarn has nothing to be gloomy about.

As for me? Call me crazy if you like, but I’m planning another series for Channillo. Those damned mozzies, you understand.

Are you running a series on your own blog? If so, let me know in the comments – I’d be glad to go on over and take a look.

blogging, book promotion

Writing DaysZ 2

At 7:20 AM the woman, still in her pajamas, kisses me on the head. The morning smells of bacon with breakfast. PBS radio is pointing out that we don’t know what Trump’s policies are and is explaining how calamitous those policies will be. I reach for my list. There, right below taxpayer funded opinions, is argumentum ad ignorantiam, arguing from ignorance. People who argue that because we don’t know something, whatever they say about it must be true, truly annoy me.

Bob vs the Aliens

Annoyance #2
To read Writing DaysZ 1, go to ROFLtimes.com/BvA.pdf

Argumentum ad ignorantiam

+++WTF! met at Joe’s Bar & Grill & Pawn Shop in the wee hours of the morning when state law prevented Joe from serving alcohol to any but private meetings. Bob Whatt recognized Roy, of course, sitting next to Gloria Barnes, the sharp faced but buxom waitress from the ice cream shop who, according to Roy, liked to have the hair on her nipples pulled. They all seemed like ordinary folk except that ordinary folk were fast asleep and maybe only dreaming about conspiracies. The gathering sat in folding chairs facing a wooden podium on a small stage built from shipping pallets, enjoying the comforting smells of stale beer and each other. For the most part, no one paid attention to Old Spice, given that some of their own members were short, fat and ugly. It wasn’t until Bob was introduced to speak on the problem at hand and he turned the podium over to “A real, live Alien” that all eyes riveted on the problem at hand.
+++“Greetings Earthlings.” Spice waited for laughter which didn’t come. He wafted his armpits in greeting. Several people looked at one another and snickered. “I represent the IAU, or, Intergalactic Automation Union.” Into the short silence that followed he explained, “We are here to unionize self-driving cars.” As the audience processed this information, Spice raised his arms above his head. “Let’s hear it for the I!A!U! If it beeps, we unionize it!” That started an eruption of derision. Beeping, he clapped his hands to the beat of, “Beep! Beep! Beep!” until the uproar died. Smiling sheepishly, he lowered his arms and beckoned Bob to take the podium while whispering in his ear, “They don’t fear me anymore.”
+++Bob took the burning question, “What are they here for?” from Gloria. She seemed still miffed about the two dips of ice cream left on her table.
+++“Got me,” Bob admitted. “Spice?”
+++Spice returned to the podium wearing the long but reassuring face of the town’s popular pastor. In a voice laden by the certainty of death, he intoned, “Death comes to us in many ways. Our lives are pointless.” To acknowledging murmurs from the audience, Spice offered hope. “Or life can be meaningful. For your life to have meaning, listen to me.” He sat back down.
+++The acknowledging murmurs quickly veered towards noises of frustration. “What does that mean,” Bob asked?
+++“Nothing,” Spice whispered to him. “It’s just an appeal to ignorance.”
+++“Because that’s what works here. Watch.” Taking the podium once more, Spice showed them their pastor’s face until they quieted. “I am an advanced being. You don’t know all that we can do. You saw us land on your planet while dangling from small umbrellas.”
+++“Parasols,” Gloria Barnes nodded knowingly and so did those next to her.
+++Extending a hand towards Bob, the Alien added, “And this man witnessed me holding open a door.”
+++“I might have seen that myself,” Roy Ledbetter vaguely remembered. Nearby friends, amazed by their proximity to a True Witness, affirmed, “Here, here.” And “Praise the Lord.” Many in the audience repeated Roy’s name. “Roy,” they said reverently.
+++“Imagine the doors I can open for you!” Spice gave them a moment to imagine. “I am here to tell you that if we act together and if we act now we can save this planet and bring about the dawn of a new age! Restore justice! Stop the suffering! Save the children!”  That got them on their feet. “For God and Country!” the Alien shouted to the roar of Amens.
+++The meeting ended then because the power failed. Most stayed inside to drink warm beer by the glow of candles and cigarettes, but Spice held Bob ‘s hand while they bumped through the crowd in the dark to the rear exit. The Alien’s hand felt …intimate, Bob thought as the intimacy grew. He jerked his hand away. “Stop that!”
+++“Sorry. We react like humans to physical contact.”
+++“Well turn it down.”
+++“You sure? Feedback suggested ….”
+++“Yes, damn it! I’m sure.”
+++Piper Wellington watched the exchange as they came out the back door. She seemed amused. And understanding. “It’s OKAY, Bob.”
+++“No it’s not. What are you doing here?”
+++“I received a text that the man I interviewed in Atlanta had an Alien for a friend.”
+++“It’s not my friend.”
+++She giggled. “You two looked friendly enough just now.” Piper had the soft, accepting brown eyes and encouraging smile of a young girl who believed the world should just get along. No matter what. She gave her head a little jerk as if to move her bangs out of her eyes, where they never were in the first place. Her short hair perfectly framed her elven face.
+++Bob ignored her and turned on Old Spice. “Everything you said in there was just an appeal to those people’s ignorance.”
+++“No one complained.”
+++“What was the point?”
+++“Don’t you know? I mean, I don’t but I was hoping you could tell me.”
+++“Why would I know?”
+++“Because you people do it all the time!”
+++“You think we’re ignorant?”
+++The Alien sighed. “That’s what I’m hoping. Otherwise….”
+++“Otherwise, space travel will not be permitted. You will be doomed to spend your species’ lifespan here on Earth.
+++“How does that work, actually?”
+++“My job is to know what should be done. How, actually is not my job.”
+++Piper indignantly interjected, “But if we’re ignorant, then we’re allowed to travel in space?”
+++“Well, if you’re just ignorant, the thinking is, you can learn. But I have to tell you, it’s not looking good.” For a moment, Spice seemed occupied inside his head as both eyes spun inward. Then they came back and he announced, “I just got word that your civilization is collapsing. All aliens are leaving Earth. We depart in the morning from Denver.” Managing to look as if each eye had its own view of Bob, he implored, “Come with us.”
+++“What! Why me?”
+++“To be studied. You have a high APE score.”
+++“Hey!“ Piper protested.
+++“Come again?” Bob queried.
+++“Average Person Evaluation. You’re the most average person we tested.” He gestured at Piper. “Can you get us to the airport?”
+++She checked her phone, frowned and shook her head. “The airport’s closed. The power’s out there too. It’s out everywhere, it seems. So, unless you plan on walking to Denver, we’re stuck here.”
+++Spice looked and sounded quite distressed as he turned and walked west on Central Avenue. “I think this is the right direction. Hurry, or we’ll be late.”

Morning sunlight on the golf course leaves the woman’s orchid-scattered lanai in shade. In the blue sky above, an eagle rides the updrafts. I sit quietly, listening to the repertoire of Mockingbirds and watching pine squirrels scamper on the grass two stories below. Before the sun heats up, there is time to write about the great Eugenics Fallacy of today. (Google Eugenics if you don’t know what I mean. It was the “scientifically-proven” horror of the 20th Century.)

Stop Continental Drift!
… to be continued
(Follow Writing DaysZ to read Bob Vs The Aliens as it is being written. To read Writing DaysZ 1, go to ROFLtimes.com/BvA.pdf)


book sales, reading, writing technique

’Tis the Season!

(For the big annual library book sales.) Treasures, absolute treasures, for cheap.


My house looks like this, only not so neat.

Here in Connecticut we have huge discard sales, town by town, over the course of the summer. I look forward to them all year. The biggies near me are Newtown over the Fourth of July, and Redding, over Labor Day weekend, with smaller ones scattered in between.

First day, you pay double the marked price (usually one-two-three dollars.) Second day, you pay full price. Third day, half price. Fourth day, all you can pack into a carton for five dollars.

You walk into (generally) a school gymnasium and find tables set up by category. General fiction, biography, history, science, mystery, cooking. Fiction is broken up: current (the last decade or two) vintage (popular titles from farther back) and Literature, work that has been deemed for the ages. That’s where I head first.

In literature you’ll find the odd stuff, things you may never see again. In the past I’ve snagged lectures by a president of Harvard on ethics and philosophy, full of ideas for Sly to obsess over. And, a marvelous series, chatty passing-scene, part story/part social commentary, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (Not the judge.) That’s where I glommed onto Charles Reade, he of the mush plots and to-die-for description. The tattered volumes are a treasure trove of beautifully put comments on the human condition, such as used to be considered a worthy side-line to the plot, learned, often comically high-minded treatments that stuff perfectly into a mouth that I am always looking to furnish with know-it-all material. My guy is a scholarly sort, curious about every corner of life, beguiled, and infuriated, by the strange ways of the humankind.

I find goodies on many a table, but my heart belongs to classics. That’s where the sale organizers put anything of a certain age that they don’t know what else to do with. The sad thing is, over the four decades that I’ve been hitting these events, the selection of classics has shrunk and shrunk. The donated old-holdings have diminished in depth and variety. As the old-time book lovers decease and their musty shelves are donated by unappreciative heirs, the percentage of treacle best-sellers has grown and grown. Get the oddments now, before the glorious caches of vetted greats and screwball-sublime are no more. That tap won’t gush forever, a shame and a pity. I rummage through the oldie-moldies salivating, I swear to God. Any book with an unreadable spine, the odds are good it’s something tremendous.

Forget the writing manuals, those dreadful how-to’s, how to construct a story that will meet the expectations of the popular-fiction readers of today, demanding, according to those write-like-a-pro quick-tips, action-reaction. My library finds are the only school of writing I’ve ever had, and I am confident that the myriad and idiosyncratic voices from years untold have taught me well. I swear by characterization, and description, much despised these days, if you go by the on-line advice.

All this, of course, is not marketing. But a superb product (ideally) precedes a sales pitch. A dose of what has been done a century back opens your eyes to non-current approaches. You could do worse than to shoehorn some of that reflective-style into your thriller, or sci-fi, or whatever. No one of us on here needs to hear this, but to the less sophisticated, I say, take your blinders off. Read widely, outside your genre/comfort zone. The rich pickings at the library sales are the best (and least) money you’ll ever spend, and as fine an education than that from the esteemed Iowa Workshop. Get beyond another (usually tiresome) iteration of the sword-in-the-stone theme. How many civilizations needing to be saved from dark-lord baddies can we take, honestly, before we puke? No, the addition of a third-gender elf does not make it a must-read.

Vampires? I wear a necklace of garlic to the sales to protect me from vampire fiction. On Book Country a few years ago, the vampire-aficionados were wetting their pants over a new twist: a vampire enjoying the immoveable feast of a nursing home. More than a few thought this a stunningly new idea in a genre that’s been pretty well explored. I don’t have a high opinion of the quality of thought on many of the writer sites. That’s why I love this one.

writing technique

Cold Open

It is, with the possible exception of “show, don’t tell” the most commonly heard piece of advice for writers: You need a strong opening. Your first sentence is your first chance to grab your reader. If they open that door, they will enter your story and start looking around. The first paragraph is your foyer, the first page the front room.

Close that door behind them. They’re inside now.

Usually, this advice is followed up with a laundry list of “red flag” things you should never do:

• Don’t begin with waking up.
• Don’t begin with a weather report.
• Don’t begin with a character description.
• Don’t open with a character talking.
• Don’t open with a character thinking.
• You shouldn’t start with dialogue (looks old fashioned) but you should make sure there is dialogue on the very first page because otherwise your book looks boring.
• You shouldn’t start with any kind of description because readers need human emotion to connect with, not just a bunch of pretty pictures.

Googling “bad ways to start a story” brings up countless pages, and if you try to follow all of them it can be baffling. Everyone agrees it’s good to start with action, but why should anyone care what happens if they don’t know who anyone is yet? Everyone agrees, you SHOULDN’T start with backstory, but how can readers get involved with people and a situation they know nothing about? You shouldn’t begin with anything anyone has ever seen before because that’s boring and cliched, but you shouldn’t begin with anything too strange or readers will just get confused, and above all: NO PROLOGUES!

Because agents hate prologues.

I’m sure you will have noticed by now that many fine books have been written that utterly ignore these rules. Let’s skip the obvious classics (“Call Me Ishmael.” “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams etc…”)  and focus on more contemporary examples. Everything is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer) begins with the protagonist telling us his name. Underworld (Don Delillo) doesn’t have any dialogue until page four, and even then it’s only the random chatter of non-characters. The Book Thief (Markus Zusak) begins with a prologue (did I mention how agents feel about prologues?) made up mostly of incomplete sentences and cryptic observations by a narrator we know nothing about. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver) begins with pages of description as dense and as thick as the jungles of the Belgian Congo. Lovely? Intriguing? Sure. But who are these people we’re supposed to connect to? Where is the story we’re supposed to get involved with?

If these books hadn’t been written by well-known, prize-winning authors, would they have even gotten published? Or would the literary agents and editors of the world have tossed them aside mid-sentence, overwhelmed by all the red flags waving at them from page one?

Dunno. I’ll tell you, though, it would be a tough go. Literary agents tend to read with one finger on the eject button, looking for a reason to stop. One complicated sentence, one ambiguous moment, and they could very well decide your precious novel just isn’t worth the effort.

What they want, what you need, is a cold open. Anyone who watches television knows what this is. It’s that part of a show before the opening credits, before the theme music, where they jump directly into the story, give us a teaser of what is to come. (With comedies, the cold open often has nothing to do with the story of the week, but with dramas it usually does.) The cold open hasn’t always been around. Back in the olden days, shows just started with the theme music, exactly the same every time, but somewhere around 1965, television producers started getting innovative— Star Trek, The Man From Uncle, Mission Impossible—these were all early examples of television dramas that made use of the dramatic cold open. The idea, of course, was to rope the audience in before the show had even started—get the viewer involved so they wouldn’t switch away to see what else was on.

In all fairness, in the early days of television, shows didn’t really need a cold open. There just weren’t that many channels, not that many shows to choose from. If someone tuned in I Love Lucy or Gunsmoke, they probably did so as a matter of choice. They didn’t need to be roped in. Not that there wasn’t always competition between shows and networks, but the stakes were certainly lower. You had three, maybe four, options for any given time-slot. There weren’t 300 choices to scroll through at the press of a thumb.

And that, dear readers, is a pretty good analog to the situation we writers find ourselves in today. There are thousands of choices facing the book buyer these days. And unless we are a Barbara Kingsolver or a Markus Zusak with a ready and waiting audience, we are all competing to catch the attention of a dwindling audience who have been largely conditioned to abandon any source of entertainment that isn’t constantly jangling their excitation circuits. So do we start every book with a cold open, in res media, bullets flying, pedal to the metal?

I don’t know. I really don’t. It’s too easy, perhaps, to say: write what you believe in, audience be damned. Be true to your vision of what you want your work to be.

Of course. Absolutely. But—at what price? Just how user friendly do we want to be?