Inspiration and a new Short Story

I’m pleased to announce the publication of a romance novella called ‘The Rescue’. The story is based loosely on the fact that I broke my leg in January just like Amanda did in the story. The difference was, I fell on ice, not wet wood and I never had a handsome search and rescue man come and rescue me. Sigh.

I had to walk out.

I hope you enjoy the story. Here is the blurb:

The Rescue, by Karen L. McKee

Amanda Ripper escaped a controlling husband who convinced her that she was weak and an invalid. To convince herself that it wasn’t true, she fills her life with friends and hiking and refuses to become involved with anyone again. Then she falls and breaks her leg, reigniting the specter of her old life. Can a handsome man from search and rescue to give Amanda a chance at life again?

Available on Amazon, Smashwords and Kobo.

“A Good Traveler (or writer) has no Fixed Plans…”

Porter on the Camino Inca. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

I purchased a lovely journal the other day. Though it’s not specifically a travel journal it certainly could be, because all of the quotes in the book relate to travelling, but when I read the complete quote by Lao-Tzu, all I could think of was its applicability to writing. The quote goes thus:

‘A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.’

As someone who loves to travel, this quote provides a cautionary tale, because it warns that if you focus always on the destination you miss a lot along the way. Personally, I prefer to meander from place to place because you never know when you are going to find some better place to go than the place you intended. If you are always focused on heading somewhere, you have a much greater chance of missing where you are. As the Buddhists suggest, mindfulness of where we are, rather than worrying about the future  (or where we are going) brings much more happiness than the rush, rush, rush of hurried travel. It’s for that reason that I don’t take bus tours. The tours point out what they think you want to know, not what you can really learn just by being there.

Yukon path, (2008) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

But Lao-Tzu’s quote applies equally to writing. The writer who spends all his/her time solely focused on completing a project isn’t really giving themselves the opportunity to enjoy the project. I’m not saying that you should fool around and never finish, I’m suggesting that you should enjoy the process, no matter how difficult it is, and—just like the traveler who takes the time to meander you don’t need to be so end-driven that you can’t enjoy the little sidepaths that your muse sends you down.

I guess what I’m talking about is allowing the story to carry you along, just like the road can. You don’t have to know where you are going exactly, though you may have a vague idea that you would like things to end in a certain way. Some of my best days of writing are when I have allowed the story to carry me away from the story I had intended—those are the mornings I get up and rush to get writing again because I want to know what happens next. The funny thing is that if you allow the little digressions and flashes of insight to lead you, often the ending will turn out to be some place better than what you envisioned. Believe me, if the ending surprises you, it’s going to surprise and charm your reader, too.

So as a recovering ‘plotter’ of novels I think all novelist should allow themselves the freedom to step off the path they are following to explore the new world they’ve created. They might just find it’s bigger and better than they ever imagined.

Angkor Wat reflections. (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Social Media, Pulling Teeth and Getting Started

I remember it well—the day my writing mentor said I had to be on Twitter. First came the panic.

‘No’, I said. ‘No way. E-mail eats enough time as it is.”

Another kindly pair of friends took me aside and explained that really, Twitter wasn’t so bad, and you needed it to market you books (no mention of how). So they helped me get an account and TweetDeck, and set me loose in the Twitter world.

And I never used it.

The few times I logged on, it was like going to the dentist and I HATED the fact that my darn computer dinged and disturbed my train of thought every time a new tweet came through. Now I know I could turn my speakers down, but I needed the volume to tell me when business e-mails came through. The trouble was twitter kept dinging and dinging. So this post is about Twitter and Facebook and social media in general and how to make it manageable for you. Next post will be on how to make it WORK for you.

The thing with Twitter and Facebook is that you have to understand that they have tremendous potential, but you also have to understand that there are downsides:

  • Social media can be frustrating as heck until you understand them and how they work.
  • Social media can feel like floundering in deep water until you decide the parameters of how you are going to participate.
  • Twitter and Facebook can become veritable time sinks.
  • Social media can begin to take over your social life.

Winter river near La Saucet, France (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Like anything new, understanding Twitter and Facebook requires purposeful learning. Yes, it is possible to simply open an account and begin tweeting or sending messages, but why, and what do you send messages about? One reason may be to simply keep in touch with existing friends. Once you’ve connected with your friends, it’s easy to fulfill this purpose. You can use Facebook and Twitter to send out urls for blogs, which is also useful, and if that is all you want, then the social media is working for you.

So to make social media work for you, this is a first decision point: what do you want from Twitter or Facebook?

If you want to leverage social media to help with marketing your books, this requires you to become more involved in the social media family. It requires you to become more comfortable with working with social media. A good place to pick up pointers is through Lynda.com, which contains video tutorials on the basics, but also sessions on marketing.

Marketing your book requires building your connections to others in the Twitterverse, or Facebook Universe. This involves building connections to friends, which means that you need to do more than marketing. You need to give people something of yourself and your interests, something that both you and other people find of value. This involves reaching out to others to become their friends, either by identifying common interests, or through their connections to people you friend or follow. This is easy enough to do, by simply clicking on a person’s profile and friending or following them. Hopefully they will reciprocate and follow you, too. But the trouble is this can become an obsession. You can spend hours identifying friends and follows, and you have to ask yourself what is most important—this social media work, or time spent writing (and time having a life).

This is a second decision point: Are you a writer first and a social media savant second, or is it the other way around? If you are a writer, then you may need to set parameters around your time spent on social media. For an example, I try to put in thirty minutes to an hour in the morning and the same in the evening.

Street scene, Montmartre, Paris (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

But at the same time you need to understand that social media is social. This means that even if your original intention in joining the Twitterverse and Facebook was to market your book, you need to do more than that. You need to have something to add to the Twitterverse. This was initially where I stalled. I didn’t know what I could add to all the comments out there. Well we all have things to add, whether it be book recommendations, reporting on your latest accomplishments, or links to blogs that you found important, these are the things that will build your followers and your social connections, and when you get your first message from a follower it starts to feel fun that you are building connections to people—people who might eventually become your friends.

And not your dentist.

Prepping for the Market

This post is on preparing your novel/story for the e-market. I’m not talking about the formatting required to put a novel on Amazon or Smashwords, I’m talking about what you need to do after you complete the manuscript, but before you begin the Smashwords or Amazon process. To make this of the most value to the most people, I encourage readers to please share what you’ve found worked for you.

Editing –

Of course you edit. We all learned to do this before we sent a manuscript to the traditional publishing world, but the stakes are a little different in the indie-e-publishing world. In the traditional publishing model, writers sent the best manuscript they could manage to an editor and it was that editor’s task to make sure that the book was the best it could be before it went out into the world for readers to see.

In this new world of indie publishing, the writer is selling directly to the reader, and thus ensuring the book is ‘the best it can be’ is now the writer’s job. Sure, we all say our manuscripts are the best they can be, but if you talk to writers who have been through traditional publishing they will tell you things like ‘the editor didn’t just pick up on things I’d missed, they saw the possibilities I had failed to explore’.

Editors are the ones who suggest to writers that their manuscript would be better if they shifted points of view. Editors are the ones who point out, for a second book in a series, that you’ve changed from writing a romantic thriller to just writing a mystery. Why is this important? Because the readers who loved the first book in a series are going to be expecting the thriller in the second book.

So editors are our friend and we writers becoming indie publishers need to find a way to overcome the lack of an editor. This means that writers have to develop new skills and resources.

Not only must the writer complete their usual editing process, but they must also go one step further to ensure their book is ready for the reader. This means that the writer must cultivate first and second readers for their books. These readers need to have the skills to not only read for proofing, they need to read for things like (and this isn’t a complete list):

  • Opening hook,
  • logic,
  • plot,
  • character arc and consistency,
  • consistency (e.g. character with blue eyes on page one, must have blue eyes on page 300), and
  • whether the book fulfills its promise and the promise of the series.

Sometimes this can be accomplished through a critique group, but in my experience most critique groups are not at a level to critique a book in this way unless they are professional writers. If you do have access to a reader like this, whether they be a librarian/spouse, or a writer friend, cultivate them and listen to them like they’re gold and treat them very well. If it’s another writer, trade reading/editing with them. We can all use a friend with those skills.

If this option isn’t available, then an alternative is to pay an editor. No, I don’t mean going to one of the author service agencies I mentioned here, because they often expect to sell you a package of other services along with the editing. Nor am I talking about the services of a book doctor who might keep you revising your manuscript for years.

But there are other services out there. For example, Lucky Bat Books  offers complete editorial and other services based on what the writer is looking for. Or check within your local writing community for writers who also provide editing services on a fee-for-service basis. Fee for Service means that you agree on the task and a price before the ‘editor’ provides the services and they DO NOT receive any royalties from your work. This is important as it could be a nightmare for the indie publisher to have to provide royalty payments and statements to an editor.

While this service will cost you, it pays in the long run. You’ll provide a professionally edited product to your readers, rather than alienating them due to numerous errors in the manuscript. Finally, even though your editor will provide you with a proofed copy and editorial comment, this doesn’t mean that you don’t still have to provide the manuscript one more read-through to make sure the manuscript is clean. Even after having one of my manuscripts well-edited, I found a continuity error no one else had picked up on.

Covers –

Lady of Ashuelot

Lady of Aushuelot (2010) Twisted Root Publishing

The bane of my existence and very important, because covers are (unless you are a known author) one of the most important ways to draw potential readers’ attention. I’ll discuss what makes a good cover in a future blog, but here I wanted to mention the importance of this and that you need to take the time to put a cover together. For e-publications, the easiest program for this is PowerPoint. You can change the slide size to 6-9 and then create a cover using photographs found on line and graphics provided by the program.

PowerPoint created all of my existing e-book covers using photographs either I had taken or that were available royalty free or free on the internet. If you are going to create your cover yourself, consider what you’ve written and what are strong images contained in your book. Go to bookstores or on line and check out the covers of the books that are in your genre. Often there are style conventions (some might say clichés) for the covers. For instance, Urban Fantasy often has the main female character in black leather standing before something indicative of the story setting. When you are designing covers, start well before you want to publish so that you can try different cover possibilities and get friend’s reactions. I had a cover designed for me and was pleased with it, but when a friend’s daughter saw it (and she was my target demographic) she just shrugged and said it ‘looked like a photo’. Back to the drawing board.

The alternative to creating covers yourself is seeking a cover artist. To find such a beast you can look at covers you admire and try contacting the artist, but this can cost many hundreds (or thousands) of dollars. The alternative is to look for graphic artists who are just starting out. This can be through your local art school or college and can give you the opportunity to work closely with the artist to sort out your vision. Like with editorial services, you want to conduct business on a fee for service basis so that the artist isn’t expecting ongoing royalties for the cover. Definitely set this out in writing.

If you are going with a graphic designer, make sure you give yourself enough lead time before your planned publication. Often preparing a cover can take an artist at least a few weeks, so while you’re doing your editorial reviews, get busy with the cover, too..

So like I said, creating a cover isn’t something you should do last minute. You spent a long time writing a book. You want it to sell. Spend the time to make sure your cover helps.

Blurb –

The blurb is what, in traditional publishing, you would find on the back of the book. In e-publishing, this is the description you’ll read on Amazon or Smashwords or Barnes and Noble that tells you what the book is about.

Let me emphasize that: It tells you what the book is about.

It should be short. It should be snappy and it should catch readers attention and make them go: “I’ve GOT to read this.”

It should not give you a detailed look at the plot or the back story. I’ll talk more about blurbs in a future post, but suffice it to say that if you are starting to think about Indie publishing, start seriously reading the backs of books now. Start to get a sense of how blurbs hook you and try out those techniques for your book.

So what do you do to get ready to publish? How do you make sure your book is edited properly and what have you learned about producing a book cover or blurb, that might help the rest of us?

Marketing: What I Learned From Peruvian Markets

Traveling in Peru, I visited many local markets, from the large mercados of Miraflores and Cusco, to tourist markets of Pisac, to the small village markets of Chivay and Ollantaytambo. I love the sights and smells and how they tell you a lot about the culture you are travelling in. But now that I’m home and starting to focus on the business of writing, I realized that there are marketing lessons for writers and indie publishers to be learned from the markets of Peru.

Before I list the five general lessons, I just want to comment on writers versus independent publishers. It used to be that independent publishers, were exactly that – small publishing houses as differentiated from the large houses of New York. Today, however, though the traditional independent publishers still exist (thank goodness), the self-publishing writer has a choice: they can either publish as authors, or they can create independent presses that publish their work. Either way, it’s the writer doing the work, but there are benefits to having a publishing house, that self-publishing as a writer doesn’t have – namely that an indie publishing house can get its books into bookstores more easily than a writer can.

The following five lessons apply to both independent publishing houses and writers publishing on their own.

1) Product must get to market – In Peru’s cities trucks unload crates of fruit and vegetables. In Chivay, the produce comes to town wrapped in colorful mantas (blankets) on women’s backs. They brought in everything from tomatoes, apples, and animal fodder. Sheep were tied upside down to the back of a moto-taxi on the way to market. So however, they did it, the bottom line was that items for sale had to get to market.

Papas (potatoes) on their way to market (2011) photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Papas (potatoes) on their way to market (2011) photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

For the writer/indie publisher, this is perhaps the largest issue. Yes, writers have the traditional methods of getting manuscripts to traditional publishers, but now they have the choice of whether to publish into the electronic market or POD – both of which are now extremely acceptable ways of selling.

2) You must have a regular place to sell – In Peru I purchased my snack food – oranges, apples or bananas – at the local markets. When I can get them, died fruit and nuts are a staple. When I found a merchant that sold produce I liked, I always went back to them. Thankfully, mercado and street vendors have ‘their’ spots so you can always find the same apple vendor in the same spot.

Women with their 'spot' picked out. Ollantaytambo (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Women with their 'spot' picked out. Ollantaytambo (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

For writers this means having a website – or two. At the very least you should have an author’s website (or possibly more than one if you are writing under more than one pseudonym) that includes in it a list of your books with links to where they can be purchased.

If you are serious about indie publishing, you should also have a website for your publishing house that includes all of your books (see examples, here and here and here), and presents all the books by all your writing personas. This allows people to find you and your books.

Shaman's stall, Cusco market (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Shaman's stall, Cusco market (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

3) You must have product – The markets of Peru are filled with produce. There are fruit and vegetables, meat, breads and cakes, fresh cheese, nuts, dried fruit, jugos (fresh mixed juice that is the most sublime treat – ever), shaman supplies, clothing, tourist weavings and so on. Most markets provide a wonderful place for browsing.

For the writer, this means that although self-publishing a single short story or novel is fine, to be serious about indie publishing you must have more product. Dean Wesley Smith talks about having a minimum ten novels. What this means for the writer, is that the focus HAS to be on writing more product, so that you aren’t dependent on just selling oranges in a world where oranges might fall out of favor.

4) Product must look good – I couldn’t tell you how many vendors I walked past looking for the perfect orange or apple. Imagine how much time I spent in front of the kiosk where the vendor had avocados the size of green footballs. Good looking fruit is a lot more likely to sell than produce that looks like it’s had a hard ride on a bucking donkey.

Fruit display, Miraflores market (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Fruit display, Miraflores market (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

For the writer this means that your produce needs to both look good and BE good – or at least as good as you can make it. As a writer you are responsible for the quality of your work both in terms of story and editing. Covers are the responsibility of the writer/indie publisher and are your calling card. Good covers, as Joe Konrath frequently talks abouton his blog (here), are critical to sales.

5) Product must be positioned – Peruvian vendors always took advantage of their location to show their wares. Some, near the doors, laid out attractive displays to catch the sunlight. Independent vendors crowded around the main doors to get attention. Others located themselves by side doors where they might not get as much traffic, but they might get more attention from those who DID pass through the doors.

Positioned for the light, Cusco maket (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Positioned for the light, Cusco maket (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

As a self-publishing writer, or an indie publisher, you also need to make choices about how to get the attention of booksellers and readers. This can be either as simple or as complex as you want to make it. Examples of means to get attention for product include:

• Social marketing on twitter, facebook, etc.

• Social marketing on reader and writer groups

• Providing free fiction as loss leaders

• Advertising at conferences

• Advertising to booksellers

Choosing the methods that are right for you is the trick.

Given marketing is as foreign as a Peruvian market to me, I’ve planned a series of blogs that will explore marketing and provide information from authors who have gone farther down this road. So don’t consider me an expert, but look at this as a place to pull together ideas. Over the coming weeks I’ll explore each area in more depth and include interviews and examples. And please, if you have experiences in marketing as an author or indie publisher, share them here. After all, the last lesson I learned in Peruvian markets is that vendors help each other.

Working together to sell pork rinds outside Cusco mercado (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Working together to sell pork rinds outside Cusco mercado (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Planning for the Long Haul

Planning a trip to Machu Picchu means planning for the long trek up hill. It means choosing a guide, choosing equipment, it means readying yourself so you don’t break down on the climb. Planning for a novel is much the same, but that doesn’t mean you have to plan everything step by step. Not in the least.

For the trek, I want to know that I’ll be comfortable and generally where I’m going. Yes, I have a basic equipment list, but whether it will be appropriate for Peruvian weather conditions needs consideration because I’m going  at teh end of the rainy season. For writing, planning means something similar—not a plan that guides every chapter, but a plan that will generally guide me through the arduous process of writing a novel.

Old Moslem Fortress at Sintra, near Lisbon, Portugal (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Old Moslem Fortress at Sintra, near Lisbon, Portugal (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

So how do I do that? I wrote previously about the process of selecting a guide for Machu Picchu (here). To plan for the trek involves gathering information. Who are guides that operate at Machu Picchu? Who is reputable? Before the internet it was much harder to find out. I used to go to my travelers’ bookstore and ask them what they knew, or else talk to other travelers. Those old favorite guidebooks Lonely Planet and Rough Guide provided helpful suggestions that I often took advantage of and often I’d arrive with only a general idea that I needed to find a guide and then would go on a search when for a good one when I arrived.

Finding a guide when planning a book is another thing altogether. I used to plan my books chapter by chapter and used wonderful chapter outline sheets that had been provided by my mentor, Dean Wesley Smith. These helped me focus on the important points of a chapter:

1. Point of view.

2. Where are the characters at the start?

3. Where are the characters at the end?

4. How have things changed?

5. How have things gotten worse?

I wrote many novels based on those chapter sheets. What I found was that often the novel started with those sheets, but gradually the writing took over and the sheets were put away toward the end of the maniscript. If people are relatively new to writing, or if they have a hard time finishing a novel, this can be a helpful tool because the sheets help you outline your novel scene by scene, chapter by chapter. But I found that I gradually outgrew the need for the sheets. I sort of look back at them as training wheels that helped me learn what chapters and scenes are all about.

From there, I began to plan books in large chunks. I knew the characters got from here to there and bad stuff happened, but I didn’t write it down. Or if I did, I just jotted brief notes. I once heard Nancy Kress, the wonderful science fiction writer; speak of writing a list of all the things you know need to happen in the book (or all the scenes you want to put in, or all the events you want to happen). She then suggests that you take this list and put the scenes/events along a story arc, thinking about try/fail sequences (everything always gets worse) climaxes, and the three-act structure. I’ve found this very helpful, not to start a book, but to help clarify my thoughts when I’m lost in the thick of the action.

For my last three novels, I’ve tried something much more spontaneous. I’ve tried the write-into-the-mists form of writing—something romance writers call ‘pantsing’ (writing by the seat of your pants), which is much more akin to how I like to travel. I start out with a general idea of where I want to go and allow the destination to guide me about where I want to go. With writing, I start with a general idea of what the story is about. This allows me to enjoy the experience of the story, much as the potential reader will. A mystery writer friend recently finished drafting a novel and told me she didn’t know who the killer was until the last two chapters. Let’s face it, if the writer is surprised by where the story takes her, no doubt the reader will be, too. To write in this manner I have to let the character speak to me and at any fork in the story I ask myself what would the character do? So the noval arises from the character.

To write this way is an exploration. As I write, events or facts arise that mean I have to go back in the manuscript to insert information. Whether you do that at the time, or wait until the first draft is finished is your choice. I either keep a notebook, or keep a running list, of ideas or things to insert or change at the end of the manuscript. Other people I know, use the comments function to make notes of changes they need to make.

Increasingly, I’m noticing that research is one of the most important aids to my writing. But this is another blog on its own.

So planning for a novel, or a back-packing trip to the Andes, both require you sort out your planning method. Both require you to do your research, and if you are lucky, one will bleed into the other so your trip feeds our writing and your writing feeds your trip.

Biting the Bullet – or the ‘Oh *@#%’ moment

The other day, in the midst of planning my trip to Peru I had that old familiar rush of anxiety that I’ve had when planning for every other trip I’ve ever taken. It’s what I call the ‘oh shit’ moment.

I first came across this feeling when I was in my late twenties.  I’d foolishly decided to relive my teen-age years by climbing onto a set of water skis. There I was at the end of a whiplashing line skimming along the water so fast I thought I was flying. Then the ‘oh shit’ moment arrived and all I could think of was ‘what the heck am I doing???????’ and ‘this is going to hurt like heck if I go down’.

And I did. Hard.

But I walked away with most of my pride.  I’d tried it at least.

So planning a trip, or a book for that matter, can be a lot like the anticipation I had waiting to go up on those skis. I want to do it. I need to do it. But darn it, it can be scary.

I knew I was going to be whipping at the end of that line, just like I know I’m going to be stepping off of a plane into some place I’ve never been before. Some place I don’t speak the language or know the culture. Some place I don’t know if I’ll have the courage to get through.

Now that’s deep water.  For a lot of people, that’s when they stop.

But that, to me, is part of what travel is all about. I don’t live in the age of exploration and I don’t have the physical prowess to climb mountains—so I do this. Run off to experience other places and the ways that people live.  So the ‘oh shit’ moment is something to push through to prove myself.

In that way, each time I start a new book I find there’s an ‘oh shit’ moment. That’s when you open the computer to that blank page and say “okay, hands, start typing”. Like with the travel, I don’t really know where I’m going, the culture, or the characters I’ll meet, or if I’m prepared for the geography. Sure, I have plans, but we all know about plans.

I used to plot out everything just like I’d plan a trip, but what I found was it took the spontaneity out of the whole experience. I’ve actually found that I get frustrated when I plan a trip in too much detail, or when someone plans it for me.  Having an itinerary means I can’t stay that extra day or take the time to step off of the beaten path or listen to locals about the road less travelled. The same can be said of a manuscript. Sure, having an outline can give you direction, but does it allow your characters to have adventures you never even imagined?

Travelling alone without any itinerary other than I know I want to go to this list of places (and sometimes I have to choose between them) means that yes, there are frustrations and yes, things might not always go as planned, but you also get some enormous gifts. Like meeting the young woman at Burma’s Schwedagon Pagoda who told me her tragic tale of love gone wrong, or stopping at the side of the road in Cambodia to meet shadow-puppet-making orphans whose story was so sad I ended up crying, or having dinner on the roof of a Rajasthani house with a family I met on the streets of a small Moghul fortress town. I learned so much from those encounters. Things I never would have had if I’d stuck to an itinerary.

And the same thing happens with writing. Yes, there’s the panicked feeling of not knowing where a story is going, and the fear that comes when I think things like ‘Dear god, I have to be coming to a mid-point climax, but I’m not sure what it is’. But I live with the fear and then, suddenly, by magic the driving direction or the climax appears.  And it’s usually better than I ever could have imagined.

So when I feel that ‘oh shit’ moment when planning a trip, or starting a manuscript, or even when I’m caught in the middle, I remind myself that the ‘oh shit’ moment is more like the feeling the race horse must get in the gate: anticipation at the race. And wonder at what might be around the first turn.

The whiplash at the end of the line, or the gift of feeling like you’re flying.

And even if you fall, you had fun while you were trying.