Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Who's In Your Network?

The more I learn about the wacky world of publishing, the more I see the importance of networking. Too often, book sales, rave reviews, and successful marketing campaigns are based, not on what you know, but who you know.

If you're an author with a book coming out, especially a debut novel, you have one goal: get the word out. Your book won't sell if people don't know about it. How do you spread the word? You reach out to your network:

Family - Your parents, siblings, and spouse are givens, but make sure you reach out to your extended family as well. They'll definitely buy your book, but more importantly, they'll tell their friends and coworkers about it.

Friends and Acquaintances- Friends are another given, they're definitely going to buy your book and spread the word, but acquaintances are trickier. Depending on how well you know these people, they may or may not buy your book. How do you persuade them? Invite them to your launch party or other social event. Hopefully, after a few drinks they're more inclined to pick up a copy.

Coworkers - Most of us have day jobs, but if you're fortunate enough to be a career novelist, reach out to your spouses coworkers. Don't be timid about bringing your two lives together, people are usually interested. Post a flyer for your signing in the punch room or e-mail coworkers announcing your book's release.

Writing Acquaintances - These are the people you've met at conferences, signings or other literary events. You mostly correspond via e-mail and don't correspond too often. Again, don't be timid about announcing your book's release or inviting them to a signing. Chances are, they're planning on doing the same when their book comes out. If it's been a while, remind them when and where you met.

Online Acquaintances - These are your followers on Twitter, your Facebook and Myspace friends, your LinkedIn connections. Many of these people you've never corresponded with, some of them you don't even know. But that's why they call these social networking sites. They allow people to network without meeting or even communicating. If you're using these platforms, utilize them, and announce every signing, reading, or conference you're attending.

Now that you have identified the people in your network, you can start putting together your mailing list. But how do you make the network grow? A few suggestions:
  1. Attend literary events in your area. Introduce yourself to the organizers, authors, and attendees if appropriate.
  2. Attend writers conferences. I find this the most effective way to build a network. Of course, it helps if your sociable and don't go up to your room after every panel. Station yourself at the hotel bar and don't be afraid to introduce yourself to people.
  3. Utilize the social networking sites by obtaining "friends", linking through to your webpage, and updating regularly.
  4. Join Backspace, an online community of writers. Don't just lurk. The more you post, the more your presence will be known!
  5. Be friendly, especially to the people you see on a regular basis. Introduce yourself to the barista who fixes your latte every morning, the bookseller where you buy your books, the bartender at your regular watering hole. They'd probably be interested in your book, maybe they'd even schedule or advertise an event.

The concept is simple: you sell more books if more people know about them. You tell the people in your network, they'll tell the people in theirs. So start twittering, handing out business cards, and calling that second cousin you haven't seen in years, because if you have a book coming out, everyone needs to know!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Must See Monday

It looks like a busy week for book fans. All events are free with the exception of 2nd Story. But at least your ticket includes a few glasses of wine!

Twilight Tales at Bourgeois Pig Cafe (738 W. Fullerton) Monday, April 27th at 7:30pm. Tonight, this long running reading series, features Fantasy Fiction students from Columbia College Chicago.

Ghost Factory Release Party at Women and Children First (5233 N. Clark) Wednesday, April 29 at 7:00pm. The celebration of the zine's release will include readings by Kathie Bergquist, Christina Correa, and others.

The 2nd Story festival continues at Webster's Wine Bar (1480 W. Webster) Thursday April 30, Friday May 1, Saturday May 2 and Sunday May 3. Tickets required. Doors open at 7pm. Ticket price includes wine flight. If you've never attended one of these readings, the combination of stories and music is fantastic and they always showcase talented writers.

SUBWAY ART Release Party at Novem (1104 N. Ashland). Friday, May 1 5-10pm. Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the book which documents early graffiti art. Martha Cooper will be signing copies.

Free Comic Book Day at Challenger's Comics and Conversation (1845 N. Western) Saturday, May 2 noon-3pm. Image Comics co-founder Erik Larsen will be signing.

Dorothy Allison and Thomas Glave at Women and Children First (5233 N. Clark). Sunday, May 3 at 4:30pm. They will be reading from a new collection of short stories, THE TORTURER'S WIFE.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Weekend Reading

Need a dose of Chicago crime fiction? Check out Kris Nelscott's DAYS OF RAGE, featuring Smokey Dalton, an off-the-books building inspector turned P.I. when he discovers human remains in one of his buildings. Set in late sixties Chicago, Nelscott expertly weaves truth and fiction, using the historical context to further the story.

Craving something different? Pick up THE BOY DETECTIVE FAILS by Joe Meno. His beautiful and unique writing style steps outside the boundaries of conventional fiction. A great mix of dark prose, magical realism, and a small dash of humor, this novel is unlike any other.

Feel like revisiting a classic? Dig out your old copy of Upton Sinclair's THE JUNGLE, an honest, gritty novel about the stockyards on Chicago's south side.

Want something new? James Grippando's latest novel, INTENT TO KILL, hits bookstores next week. Protagonist Ryan James, a minor league baseball player one game away from the majors, tragically loses his wife in a car accident. But years later, he discovers that his wife's death wasn't an accident, and he is determined to find the truth. A very basic premise, but the characters add great depth to the simple story.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Writer's Block: E-books

Recently, the Pulitzer Prize board expanded their guidelines to include online newspapers. One of the most prestigious journalism awards can now be given to a completely electronic newspaper.

When I started freelancing, online publications were easier to break into. They have lower overhead and no space limitations, but they weren't as prestigious. It was more impressive to be in print. The Pulitzer board has taken a step to change that.

So much in publishing has to do with money. Advances, marketing campaigns, sales, all come down to money. And these days, there's not much of it to go around. But what type of book costs nothing to publish? An e-book.

For years, everyone has been skeptical of the e-book, myself included. I enjoy holding the book I'm reading, I enjoy being able to stick a mass market paperback in my pocket for a long train ride, I like seeing the cover art and turning the pages. But I feel the same way about newspapers, and my kind are a dying breed.

What if the Pulitzer Prize board expanded its guidelines even further? What if they included books which were only published electronically? What if one of those books won the award? Would people go out and purchase a Kindle or Sony reader so they could read the latest Pulitzer Prize winning novel? Would e-books gain new recognition and a new audience, making paper books obsolete?

If an e-book wins a Pulitzer, I am confident that it will be the bestselling e-book on the market to date. It may even sell better than some of the bestselling print books. But paper books becoming obsolete? I think that could never happen. I believe that actual books will always have a place in this industry. But I used to say the same thing about newspapers. Now I'm not so sure.

What I do know is that e-books will gain recognition and popularity. More e-books will be published because of the low cost and, for the same reason, more people will be reading them. Why buy a $25 hardcover when you can purchase the e-book for $5? Also, as our society continues to become more environmentally aware, we'll prefer e-books because they use minimal natural resources.

Recognition is the first step to shifting the market. Once e-books are recognized for quality writing and publishing, people will begin purchasing them. Prestigious award committees, such as the Pulitzer, have the influence to make that shift. Will paper book sales plummet because of e-books? Probably not. But I do think electronic publishing will quickly improve and become more widespread, and more people will be downloading their reading material.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Must-See Monday

Welcome to the first installment of Must-See Mondays! Lots of great events going on this week:

Literary Gangs of Chicago at Museum of Contemporary Art (220 E. Chicago). Tuesday, April 21 at 6:30pm. Features slam poetry artists from Mental Graffiti.

Poetry Night at Book Cellar (4736 N. Lincoln). Wednesdy, April 22 at 7:00pm. Includes readings by local poets, including Robert McDonald, author of Field Guide to Gay and Lesbain Chicago.

Donna Seamon at Harold Washington Library (400 S. State). Wednesday, April 22 at 6:00pm. Booklist editor and Open Books host discusses the new book HOME GROUND: Language for an American Landscape.

2nd Story Literary Festival at Webster's Wine Bar (1480 W. Webster). Thursday, April 23 at 6:45pm. Authors read their work accompanied to music. The $18 ticket includes wine flight.

Friday, April 17, 2009

New Skin, New Format

When I first started this blog, there wasn't a true focus. I knew I wanted to blog about writing, publishing, and reviewing, but really the posts were whatever I was thinking about that week. After two and a half years of musing, I've decided it's time to focus the content.

This is The Chicago Contingent, and therefore posts will have a predominantly Chicago slant. I also want more structure, and therefore, will blog three times a week on the following subjects:
  • Must-See Mondays. This will be a listing of signings, readings, and other literary events going on that week. Hopefully this will encourage people to get more involved in the literary community and increase readership.
  • Writer's Block Wednesdays. Because I still love talking about the craft of writing, every Wednesday I will blog about reading and writing. I also may use this day to conduct Q&A's with authors and other industry people.
  • Weekend Reading. Every Friday I will recommend one or two books to read over the weekend. I will continue to promote Chicago writers here, and the books I recommend won't necessarily be new releases. This will simply be an attempt to answer that nagging question, "Which book should I read next?"

Hopefully this new format will do more for the literary community, especially in Chicago. I also encourage people to submit event listings for MUST-SEE MONDAYS or recommendations for WEEKEND READING.

Thank you and I hope everyone enjoys the new Chicago Contingent!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Curing Writer's Block

In the past few weeks, numerous writing friends have told me they are stuck in their stories. Either they are unable to get into their characters or they've reached a plot point they can't overcome or the novel idea just isn't gripping them anymore. Every writer reaches this point at one time or another, but hopefully, I can offer a cure.

The Problem: Unsure of what happens next. You're plugging away, and all of a sudden, you realize you don't know what happens next. Your characters have reached a fork in the road and you don't know which path they should take. You've tried a few different options, but none of them seem to work. Your plot is at a standstill.
The Fix: Dennis Lehane said that if he's blocked, it's usually because of a problem a hundred pages back. I tend to agree. Step back from your story and look at it as a whole. Write major plot points on post-it notes or a dry erase board. Rearrange, add, or take away plot points and see how it affects the overall story. Do you need to add a subplot or take one away? Are the characters' internal struggles being addressed? Stepping back and looking at the plot structure is the only way to find the kinks. Once those are addressed, the story should speed right along.

The Problem: The Inner Censor. Every writer has one. We all have a little beep, bell, or voice inside our heads that sounds off when we're writing. It can be caused by self-criticism, fear of what readers will think, lack of confidence, etc. Some of the most poignant scenes are the most difficult to write and can easily trip you up.
The Fix: Journaling or stream of consciousness writing is the quickest way I know to overcome the inner censor. Write without audience in mind. No one is going to read it. Let your voice go. Don't stop writing, even if you have nothing to say. Attempt to write continuously for five minutes. See what comes out of it. You may be surprised how much you can overcome when you're not thinking about audience.
Alternative: Sometimes the inner censor goes off due to lack of confidence. I often get stuck writing police procedural scenes, because I know very little about the subject. If you are having difficulty writing a scene due to lack of confidence, research is the quickest fix. Read cop blogs, call your local precinct, read one of the hundreds of books about police procedures. Having the knowledge will give you the confidence to write the scene and move forward.

The Problem: Sick of the story. This is bound to happen. You work on a novel for a year, sometimes two, and eventually, you don't want to even think about your story anymore. You're getting ideas for other novels that sound more exciting, and finishing your current project is like pulling teeth.
The Fix: If you're not excited about your story, readers won't be either. You need to figure out a way to renew the magic. Think back to when you first formulated the idea. What made you want to write about these characters? What intrigued you about this story? If you don't know the answers to these questions, then you may want to abandon this project for a while, because something isn't working. Otherwise, try to bring back the passion and need to tell this particular story. Write a few more character sketches or explore new plot possibilities. Hopefully this will rekindle the excitement you felt when you first began writing. Also, you can take a break from the manuscript and work on your two-line elevator pitch. Finding a way to intrigue potential readers using minimal words can renew your own passion for the story.

The Problem: Writing Stinks. You've reread what you've written and it all seems flat, unexciting and uninteresting.
The Fix: Thinking outside the box and trying new writing methods is a great way to liven up a drab manuscript. Try writing a scene from a different character's viewpoint. Write the scene as a letter, or as a script. Write a character's dream or childhood memory. These exercises often bring out new ideas and give the writing new depth.

If you're currently blocked, hopefully I've offered a possible fix. Feel free to offer up your own writing problems, as long as you include the cure!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Negating My Previous Post

A few weeks ago I blogged about the importance of a protagonist being a hero. I put a book down because the protagonist wasn't redeeming in any way. Yesterday, I picked up FAKE ID by Jason Starr. The main character, Tommy Russo, is a degenerate gambler who lies, cheats, and steals to get what he wants. He is the ultimate asshole: sweet talking a girl into bed then stealing her jewelry in the morning, taking the money out of the safe at work right after his boss told him he was the only employee he trusted, throwing away every last dime he has at the track. He seems to have no morals, no conscience, he has a sense of right and wrong but simply doesn't care. Going by my previous post, I should have put the book down immediately. Instead I read it in one sitting.

FAKE ID is published by Hard Case Crime, a line of mass market pulp novels. When you pick up one of their paperbacks, the ones with the painted cover art portraying seductive women and tough guys with guns, you know what you're in for: sex, violence, and hardboiled crime fiction. In this tradition, the protagonist in FAKE ID is not a detective. Actually, he's the offender in all of the crimes committed in the book. So how can readers be expected to root for a protagonist that's actually a villain? Maybe they're not.

The reason I couldn't stop reading was the suspense of the story. Russo continues to dig himself deeper and deeper, soon finding himself in a hole so deep, it's impossible to climb out. It's not that I was rooting for him; I actually got excited when his plans went awry or it looked like he would be caught. Starr continued to throw obstacles at his character, never made things easy for him, and I couldn't wait to see how he was going to get him out.

All morning, I've been thinking about the difference between this book and the one I put down a few weeks ago. Was it the writing? The story? Or was it because I knew what to expect, that since it was a pulp novel I knew the character would be flawed?

I think the main difference is the writing style and the intentions of the author. Starr is unapologetic in his writing. He writes Russo the way he is without trying to make readers sympathetic. Other authors attempt to make readers understand why their characters are the way they are, try to make you feel sorry for and sympathize with them. I seem to prefer Starr's approach. If your main character is an asshole, make him an asshole. Readers don't have to like him, they only have to like the story. If you want me to care about a character, that's different. I can't care about someone with no morals and no conscience, no matter what happened in their childhood or what circumstances led them to commit so many bad acts.

FAKE ID is a good story, and I enjoyed hearing it. I didn't like the character, I wasn't rooting for him, but I was still eager to see what happened next. But if the book is character driven, if it relies on the internal conflicts of the characters to drive the story forward, then the characters have to be redeeming. They have to be heroes.

More and more I see that the beautiful part of fiction is that there are no rules. I thought I pinned one down only to have it broken a few weeks later. As readers, we can form ideas about what types of books we like and don't like, but there are always going to be one or two that break the rules and disprove our ideas.