About Writers

Why Don’t I Just Write, or, What Is That Character Up To Now?

I thought I would have more time to write after I left my day job. I’m not writing that much. I’ve had a few non-fiction pieces appear in local journals. I sent my first novel to a publisher, and I’m waiting to hear. I’m working on three short stories, with one planned for submission to a literary journal at a local college. I will read at two upcoming writers’ group meetings, and I’ve been asked to participate on a writers’ panel in March. But I can’t think of a story line for another novel. I haven’t been writing.

I tell myself I am busy. The farm chores occupy a good part of every day. I volunteer my time at four not-for-profits. I’ve been elected to the board of directors of one of them. Then there’s the garden work and the trout fishing and the horse training in their seasons. There are some inside house painting projects on tap. The days are full. But that’s just an excuse.

When I should be writing I am surfing the web and listening to YouTube videos of Janice Joplin and of the Ronettes. So, why don’t I just sit down and write?

I’ve been purging old work files and I found the interest and skill inventories and psychological assessments I took before being hired to my last job. I don’t remember reading this stuff, until now.

Wow. Now I know why none of the consulting psychologists would meet with me alone. It was a small firm, and the whole company was in the room for my sanitized, in person briefing on the results. The written report describes a not-quite-so-smart and a little bit crazy Sheldon Cooper.

But let’s move to the part about writing. The assessments determined that I had both an interest in and the capacity to be a writer. That was just the start. There’s more.

I want other people to like me, but it doesn’t much matter to me if they don’t. I won’t change my thinking, or what I’m doing, to please others.

I don’t start stuff. I’m satisfied with watching events develop around me, and only then formulating a response. I’m reactive, not assertive.

I’m satisfied with my standing in society. I don’t need to be out front. I’m the funny looking guy at the edge of the crowd. I don’t like to be called out by name on a trout stream or on the street. I have enough friends and a small and appreciative readership, and I don’t have a driving need to add to those groups.

I’m okay with my economic status. More money is not a motivator. I don’t need to be rich. I don’t expect to make any real money as a writer, and that’s okay.

I like to make things. At the end of the week I like to point to something tangible and say, “I made that.” It’s easier to do that with a new horse shed or a line of pasture fence than it is with a story.

The report suggests that I might have been a forester or a farmer. Horses are honest and direct, without the duplicity of the corporate office. Why didn’t I have this report forty years ago? I worked in an office because I could do the work and because I needed an income. I might have been happier at something else, away from people.

Am I a product of nature or nurture? There have been other guys like me in my family, so maybe it’s in the genes. But then there were calamities early in my life, and I have developed defenses. That one’s a toss up.

I’m looking in a mirror with the help of the psychologists’ report. It’s an odd reflection, but not one I need to change. It’s a powerful thing to know myself. It’s a powerful thing to know where I’ve been, and to know what I’ve come to, and to know that it’s okay. Maybe it’s okay that I’m not writing anymore.

I bought a book a few years ago that was supposed to help me write about characters. The book is a thinly disguised review of the sixteen Meyers-Briggs personality types. I dug out the book to see what it had to say about me. The book was generally accurate, I would say.

Then I started reading about some of those other Meyers-Briggs types, and looking at how they might interact with other people, older or younger, of the same or opposite gender, same or different personality types. What is it with those darn “E”s anyway?

Okay, now I have an idea. Let’s get that next story started.


Marketing 201 – The Advanced Course

On the first Friday in March the Friends of the Library held a fundraiser in our little town. My wife is a member of the Friends, and I was brought along to set chairs.

Admission was five dollars. The food was free. The Friends sold wine and beer, and there was a live auction of some nice things. I hoped the Friends would raise enough to cover the appearance fee of the speaker, New York Times bestselling mystery author William Kent Krueger, who would be driving out from his home in the nearest large city an hour away.

We set about 75 chairs. A few minutes after the doors opened, we scoured meeting rooms and offices for more. Krueger arrived with the members of the Friends who had taken him to dinner, and he opened a suitcase and put out the trade paperbacks and hard cover books that he brought for sale. People approached him with copies of his books, and he graciously signed them. Then he moved through the crowd, engaging people in conversation for several minutes each. He insisted on paying for his own beer.

Then it was time for Krueger to speak. He took the microphone, smiled at the audience, and spoke very little about his books. He asked for applause for the Friends of the Library and urged listeners to join. He said he arrived early to drive the streets of the town, and voiced his positive impressions. He spoke about how the public library is the first thing to be cut in a municipal budget pinch, but that we need to support our libraries as the only repositories of our culture.

When Krueger spoke about his writing, he talked about the personal connections with people that helped him form his character Cork O’Connor, the Irish/Ojibwe protagonist in his series of 16 (and counting) mystery novels. He spoke about his appreciation for publishers and editors, and for bookstores and not-for-profits that had supported him in his work. He spoke about what compelled him to write his award winning stand alone novel “Ordinary Grace,” how he had been given a boatload of money for a sequel, and how after struggling with the story he tried to give the money back. Many of the people in the room had read some of his books. Very few had met him. He was warm, approachable, friendly, honest and open. By the end of his talk, everyone liked him.

The auction, the principal fundraising event, followed Krueger’s talk. He had donated two items to be auctioned off, and he bid on several items also. My wife won a very nice hand made afghan before she realized she was bidding against Krueger. There was one item in the auction that I really wanted, and I got it: my chance for literary immortality. With my winning bid, I will be the main character in a William Kent Krueger short story, to be submitted to and most assuredly published by a magazine of his choice. We exchanged email addresses, and I have provided him with plenty of information about me for the story.

After the auction Krueger went to his display of books and began signing copies. I don’t know how many he sold. He left with a lighter suitcase and a bag of money and checks.

The crowd slowly left and just a few of us were still there. Krueger asked about his appearance fee. He was handed the check, and then he tore it up for the promise that the Friends would apply the money to a specific library program.

I spoke to Krueger for only a few minutes. It was about marketing. He stressed with me what I had just witnessed, a personal outreach to and a genuine appreciation for those people who are willing to read what he has written. This approach has grown his readership, his wide circle of friends, and his career.


It’s All Personal

We’ve written our best books. Now, how do we let people know this? How do we get people to buy our books? In my experience, it’s all personal. Let’s look at three writers I have known.

Joseph wrote eight novels. He couldn’t find an agent or a publisher. Confident in his own work, he invested almost a thousand dollars on self publishing, on paid reviews, and for on-line marketing of one of the books. He sold two copies. That didn’t work.

Charlie wrote a children’s book narrated by a Springer Spaniel living on an apple farm. He hired book consultants, a designer and an artist, and produced a full color, hard cover book on heavy paper with a dust jacket. He ordered a long first print run to keep the unit cost down. Charlie put $25,000 into the project before the first copy came from the printer. Charlie recovered his investment within three months, and after that his profits soared. His spin-offs include a comic book and a stuffed dog that looks just like Emmy, the star of the book, and he can’t keep the books and stuffed dogs in stock.

While Joseph’s book was lost in a sea of anonymous new authors, Charlie sold his book because he knows his market, and he has a personal touch to his sales.

Charlie owns the apple farm, and Emmy is a real dog. Charlie is also a retired school librarian with connections to teachers and school librarians throughout the region. He sells apples to the food service programs in the schools. He goes into elementary schools to read (but not sell) his book, trusting that some of the students will talk about his book and his farm when they get home. He reads in bookstores, and he brings Emmy to his readings. I’ve seen grandparents buy multiple copies at these readings. He sells his books, coloring books, and stuffed dogs off the back of his truck at farmers’ markets and at farm events in the fall. His apple farm supports the sale of the book, and the book promotes the farm. Key to Charlie’s success is his personal outreach at schools, at bookstores, at farmers’ markets, and at harvest events at the farm.

Michael writes creative non-fiction from a small Wisconsin town. He self-published collections of short works, and then had a full-length book picked up by one of the major publishing houses. He drove across the country with a trunk full of books to early morning interviews on local radio stations and poorly attended bookstore signings. Michael’s best market is near home, in the Upper Midwest. An independent bookstore advertises his local readings. I’ve been to three readings where there were 100 or more people in attendance. I bought books too, books that I never would have picked up in a bookstore. Michael’s now shares the stage with his own acoustic rock band, and he hosts a seasonal weekly entertainment show that is broadcast live by NPR.

Michael continues to write. He has a website and a long email list of fans. Most of his sales are to people who have heard him read or seen him perform in person. The personal touch sells his books.

I have finished my first novel, but it is not my first effort at writing. I have had short stories and essays appear in small literary journals and magazines. This builds a writer’s credentials, so say the experts, and builds a publisher’s confidence in the writer. A small traditional publisher of fishing-related books (and how I found and wooed the publisher is another story,) took a chance on me and published two collections of my short stories. I have little of my own money in the project, and the royalty structure is very good. Marketing the books, however, falls to me.

Online bookstores have resulted in few sales for me. Discussion boards where I am a known participant have been better. Some of the members of these discussion boards have given me unsolicited and very positive reviews, for which I am grateful. I can now say that I have an appreciative though small readership that stretches, thinly, from Hawaii to Finland.

I have sold dozens of books through local shops. Not bookstores, but shops where the owner is willing to display my books for a share of the revenue. This requires direct selling to the owner. Telephone contact doesn’t work; I have to walk in the front door with the books in my hands.

I asked the editor of a community events newspaper to carry an article about my first book. He said he would print an article if I would write it, and he added pictures. I was later drafted to be a columnist for the paper, which pays a little for each article, and keeps my name in front of local readers.

I was asked to speak at a meeting of a regional environmental group. My presentation was not about my books, but I had a box of them along. I prepared carefully, tried to be entertaining, finished my presentation by reading a story, and sold a few hundred dollars worth of books when the meeting was over. That was a good day for me.

This spring I was invited to read at a reception for the contributors of the literary journal of a local college. I accepted of course; personal appearances can’t be bad.

None of this easy for me. I have to work hard to sell myself and my books. But it is what works best.

I told my publisher that my novel doesn’t fit with the kind of books he handles. He offered his help in finding another publisher for the novel, another example of the power of personal relationships.

When the novel is released, what should I do to find readers? I believe that successful marketing, especially for emerging writers, is all personal.