Everything I Needed to Learn About Writing, I Learned from my Fam-Damily

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Attribution: User: (WT-shared) Jtesla16 at wts wikivoyage

Attribution: User: (WT-shared) Jtesla16 at wts wikivoyage

The holidays are nostalgic for me. Family gatherings bring back memories, some good and others questionable. In 2016, I thought I would start the year off with my family memories and share how they shaped my writing. I’m calling this series – Everything I Needed to Know About Writing, I Learned from my Fam-Damily. Maybe I should consider having some of my family photos mounted to celebrate some of the better memories in my current home. My friend told me it helped him when he was writing similar reflective work he said to have your photos mounted here for high-quality prints which apparently helped with his creative process. But I digress.

Do you remember the classic Christmas movie – A Christmas Story – with Darren McGavin? It’s become iconic and a movie my family watches every year. Well, thanks to my older brother Ed, we had our own version of the Red Ryker BB Gun Rifle with the compass in the stock.

christmas-story

My brother Ed pleaded with my parents all year that he’d be responsible enough to own a BB gun pistol. After all, everyone who was anyone had one and he wouldn’t be denied. He swore he would be careful. He wouldn’t hurt anyone or kill a defenseless animal. With my brother’s deep voice and sincere demeanor, he could charm anyone. My mom finally caved and took him to the hobby store to pick out the best BB pistol anyone could ever own. I went along for the ride and was a firsthand witness to the questionable moment in my family’s history that would follow.

Ed rode back home with my mom, holding his prized possession in his hands, getting the feel and weight of it. He stroked the barrel and loaded it with its first BBs. He was ready to go.

Mom pulled up to our house and Ed got out. He turned to see my younger brother Ignacio coming up from the mailbox. I don’t know what went through Ed’s mind at that moment, but he took aim and fired a shot—at my little brother. He said he didn’t think it would shoot that far. Yeah, right. My mother grabbed the pistol and Ed never fired another round. The BB hit my other brother center mass. Great shot, Ed.

For the rest of the year, Ed worked on my mom again. He swore he had learned his lesson and would never take aim at his brother—or anyone—again. (I hoped his assurances would cover me and my sisters, but was never quite sure.) Forget about defenseless animals, Ed had leaped over that line and went straight for spilling human blood. Way to go, big brother. Ed knew he had a lot to make up for and he saved his best material for mom. She eventually caved…AGAIN.

She took Ed to the sacred place she had hid his BB gun pistol—a secret location no one had known about or would ever find—in her closet. (I did not inherit my imagination from Mom.) She pulled out the box that held Ed’s prized possession and they opened it together. Inside the box was his BB gun pistol—shattered in a million pieces and painstakingly put back together. If anyone tried to lift it, to would shred apart like confetti. (I wished I had inherited my little brother’s imagination…and patience.)

Little bro had found a way to never be a target again.

What did this teach me about writing?

1.) AIM HIGH – If the dream is yours, you’re the only one who should dictate the goals you set or how high you aim. People told me to shoot for a certain publisher or line because they perceived it would be easier. I didn’t want easy. I wanted to earn my place and wanted to sell single-title. I had my day job. I could afford to aim higher. I never regretted my decision and far exceeded my goals. You never know until you try.

2.) EXPECT BLOOD – Writing is hard. There will be blood. If it were easy, everyone would do it. Constantly strive for the best you can be, even if that means it hurts. You will be happy you did. It will mean more. This goes for project to project too. Dare to risk something you haven’t tried to push yourself. I like to write where I’m slightly off balance and not entirely sure I can do it. When I surprise myself, it means more and I can shoot higher next time.

3.) MOTHERS DON’T ALWAYS KNOW WHAT’S BEST – They say, “Write like your parents are dead.” That means to write with abandon. Don’t let anyone else’s opinion resound in your head as you write, fearing what they will think of you after they read your work. You’ll be defeated before you even start.

4.) IF YOUR GOALS GET SHATTERED, PUT THE PIECES BACK TOGETHER AND TRY AGAIN – You writing goals can change as the market changes. Be prepared to rethink your idea of success. Be flexible when things get tougher and hang in there. If your dream to write is important to you, you will find a way to make it work, even if you’re doing it only for your own personal satisfaction. Find the joy in your writing and hang on to it. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

5.) BE NIMBLE WHEN PEOPLE TAKE POTSHOTS AT YOU – There will always be naysayers and critics who will not understand what you’re doing. It comes with the territory of being an artist and creating something from nothing. But I like to challenge those who tear apart a book to write one themselves and put it up for public opinion. Perhaps they would understand the guts it takes to write. Be fearless.

For Discussion:
1.) Which of the 5 goals resonated with you the most?
2.) What keeps you going?

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The Last Victim now available! “Chillingly delicious!” The U. K. Crime Warp

Getting to Jack Reacher, or Someone Like Him

reacher said nothing

I am reading an extremely interesting book which will see the light of day next week — Tuesday, November 24, 2015, to be exact — everywhere books are sold. It is titled REACHER SAID NOTHING: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me. It is written by Andy Martin, who teaches at Cambridge but is nonetheless capable of writing a fun book, and more so, a fun book about the writing process. What occurred is that Martin approached Child via email in August 2014 about writing a book that would take the reader from the very beginning of the process by which Child does what he does so well to the very end. Martin’s timing was perfect, given that Child was about to start writing what ultimately became MAKE ME, his latest Jack Reacher novel.

 

I’m not going to present my review of REACHER SAID NOTHING now — you’ll have to go here next week over the Thanksgiving weekend to see that — but I can tell you that if you have ever thought of writing a novel you need to get a copy of REACHER SAID NOTHING and sit down and read it. You’ll feel better about the process, for sure. I can assure you that, whatever problem you may have had with completing your work, Child has had it as well, and yes, still has it and works to overcome it year in and year out. You will find within the pages of REACHER SAID NOTHING how he does it, as well as the very first thing that Child did when he started writing the very first Reacher book, lo those many years ago. Child utilizes many tools — copious amounts of coffee and cigarettes among them — but you don’t have to have move into Starbucks or have access to a secret stash of Chesterfield Kings to have similar results, with “similar results” being finishing your book, and then writing another, and another. And no, I’m not going to give away the specifics. Martin gave up a year of his life following Child around with  proximity and access that would make a proctologist jealous, and then compiled it all into something readable, so it would be neither fair nor right. I will tell you in one general word, however, how Child does what he does: discipline. That’s it. He sits down (among other things) and gets it done. The process of doing that is a part of Martin’s book, and so far, that book is an entertaining hodgepodge of an account consisting of emails, diary entries, and transcripts of conversations.

 

Will reading REACHER SAID NOTHING help you to write a bestseller or a critically acclaimed work? No. No. No. Life is not fair. Equity is not equal. If you want justice go to theology school and cross your fingers; maybe you’ll get it. But, if you model your work ethic after Child, you’ll finish your book, The rest is a combination of luck and ability and timing. As far as writing goes, remember that just because you like sausage doesn’t mean you want to make it. Have at it, by all means, but know what you are getting into. And if you still want to by the time you finish REACHER SAID NOTHING, by all means: start, and never stop until the job is done.

 

From my house to yours: Happy Thanksgiving! I’m old and grumpy and experiencing a health issue that is more an inconvenience than a herald of mortality but it’s a reminder that the sand is running, ever running, through the hourglass. Still, I have much to be thankful for, and you would be very high on that list, for stopping by The Kill Zone and spending a few minutes with us. Thank you.

 

Writing Down: Cultural Appropriation and the Fiction Writer’s Dilemma

9781631529603_fcPlease welcome Kate Raphael to TKZ as my guest today, continuing the discussion we started on diversity and cultural appropriation in fiction….

Where is the line between imagination and cultural appropriation?

Actors and musicians have faced that question for decades, but until recently, fiction writers seemed to have license to become, behind our pens, whoever we could convince readers we were. In the 1930s and 40s, Pearl Buck and James Michener won Pulitzer Prizes for their portrayals of Asian countries and the people who inhabited them. Tony Hillerman not only won several Edgars and a Nero, he received the Navajo Tribe’s Special Friends of the Dineh Award for his series starring Navajo policemen Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn.

In the last few years, however, cultural activists and writers of color have begun to raise the issue of who has a right to tell their stories. This conversation is a natural outgrowth of the public feuds between Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj, or Iggy Azalea and Azalea Banks, but it has certainly been helped along by episodes like Kathryn Stockett’s alleged misuse of stories told to her by her brother’s maid, and Michael Derrik Hudson’s admission that he put the name “Yi-Fen Chou” on his poem because it was more likely to be accepted that way. (Pearl Buck, incidentally, was sometimes known by her Chinese name, Sai Zhenzhu.)

The realization that all fiction is appropriation was the breakthrough that let me start writing fiction in the first place. Until my mid-thirties, I thought I couldn’t write fiction because I had no imagination. Then one day something crazy happened to a friend of mine and I thought, “That would make a great movie,” so I started a screenplay. The script was awful, but I had popped the cork on my storytelling juice. One of my friends had been a draft resister and gone underground. Others survived illegal abortions or helped sandbag Black Panther offices. A friend of a friend was killed during the contra war in Nicaragua. Steal! My own lackluster life fell away and I had a plethora of exciting stories to tell.

But stealing from friends, people basically “like me” is a different animal than telling stories of people with less social power than I have, people who have often been denied the right to tell their own stories.

As I honed my debut mystery novel, Murder Under the Bridge, and its sequel, Murder Under the Fig Tree, set in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I thought long and hard about whether it was fair for me, as a Jewish American, to write from the perspective of a Palestinian. The Palestinian people have fought long and hard for the right to control their narrative, a narrative which has been virtually eclipsed in mainstream U.S. media. Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa, author of the novel Mornings In Jenin, suggests that efforts to speak in the voice of people whose oppression we do not share “colonise our wounds and bring our pain under their purview.” I think it’s a valid position, and I didn’t want to do that.

At the same time, to write about Palestine and NOT put Palestinians at the center of the story seems worse. If I could not write from a Palestinian perspective, I couldn’t write these books. I needed to write about Palestine because I am a writer who lived in Palestine for several years, and my life was changed by that experience. So I had no choice but to try to inhabit the persona of a Palestinian protagonist, and hope that I could do it justice. I took some comfort from remembering that almost every Palestinian who gave me food, shelter, Arabic lessons or a badly needed ride around the checkpoints asked only one thing in return: “Go home and tell people our stories.” I took this as tacit permission to create characters who could live those stories.

I also took heart from my memory of reading Laurie King’s first Kate Martinelli novel, A Grave Talent. Kate Martinelli is a lesbian, as am I. I could tell immediately that King is not. Martinelli’s partner asks if she’s a lesbian and she answers, “We don’t know each other well enough for me to answer that.” A lesbian would never say that; she might as well say yes, because no straight woman would say it – especially in 1993, when that book came out. There were other things that also didn’t ring true. Nonetheless, I liked the book pretty well, and I was confident that the character’s voice would get better in future books, which it did. I could tell that though King was stretching, her intentions were good, so I was willing to give her a chance.

My friend Steve Masover, author of the recently released novel Consequence, says that writing about anyone other than oneself requires “an act of radical empathy.” I nurture the hope that radical empathy will shine through the mistakes I have no doubt made in portraying my Palestinian protagonist, Rania. And if it doesn’t, I’m sure people will let me know.

vivtoria secret my 07

Kate Raphael is the author of Murder Under The Bridge: A Palestine Mystery, and host of Women’s Magazine on KPFA Radio in Berkeley. Between 2002 and 2005, she spent eighteen months in Palestine as a member of the International Women’s Peace Service.

How to Be a Prolific Writer

Got an email the other day from a writer I met at Bouchercon. We’d chatted a bit about the craft, and he wanted to thank me. He’d just completed his first novel and was raring to go on his second. He wrote, “I’m amazed at how prolific you are.”

That was nice to hear, because when I started out that’s what I wanted to be—prolific. I was 34 years old and hadn’t written much of anything for ten years (I’d been told in college that you can’t learn how to write fiction, and since I couldn’t write fiction—fiction that was any good, anyway––I figured I just didn’t have it). So when I made the decision to finally go for it, even if I failed, I wanted to make up for lost time.

Now, according to traditional standards of the writing life, I am prolific. I’ve produced around fifty books, hundreds of articles, several stories and novellas. I’m happy with my output.

But I’m no Nora Roberts! Seriously, she is amazing. She may not be your cup o’ noodles, but as a highly successful professional writer, there is something awe inspiring about her production. And there are many other writers out there I could point to with the same wonder.

We all have our floors and our ceilings. The trick to the writing life is to get yourself up to the ceiling and stay there. Stay there long enough, and maybe you can blow out that ceiling and put in another story (wordplay intended).

I heard from a young writer recently who said he was having trouble getting started. He has a wife and young child at home, is working long hours, and when he gets some time to himself he is easily distracted by social media, and is too much of a perfectionist to get many words done.

For those who have these sorts of constraints, let me offer some advice on becoming more prolific, for it can be done!

1. Commit to a quota

Nothing has been as beneficial to me as a professional writer than writing to a quota. In the early part of my career it was a thousand words a day. Later on I made it a weekly quota: six thousand words a week, with one day off, usually Sunday, to recharge. I still aim for a thousand words a day, but I make it a weekly quota because if life intrudes one day, I can make up those words by upping my output on the other days.

I’ve heard some writers say they just can’t write to a quota, that it’s too much pressure, that it squeezes the creative juices right out of them. Look, if you want to be a pro, you produce like a pro. That means writing even when you don’t feel like it. Imagine a brain surgeon muttering, “I’m just not into my operation today. I can only operate when I’m inspired! Besides, this guy’s a lawyer. I don’t even want to operate.”

If you want to be prolific, you need a quota.

My advice for years has been this: figure out how many words you can comfortably write in a standard week. Maybe, because of job or other duties, you can only squeeze in half an hour a day during the week, with a two-hour chunk on Saturday. Whatever. How many words can you do without much effort?

Now, up that total by 10%. You need some slight pressure to become a prolific author. And ten percent more ain’t that much pressure!

Keep track of your word count on a spreadsheet. I can tell you how many words I wrote every day and week and year, and on what projects, since 2000.

I’ve not always hit my mark, but I’m batting about .880.  If you don’t make your quota one week, forget about it. Just start the new week fresh.

Periodically review your weekly quota and see if you can adjust it up. Only adjust it down if you have another child or join the Marine Corps.

2. Commit yourself to a Nifty 250 every morning

For most of my career I’ve used the Nifty 350 or Furious 500 as my standard morning practice. That is, before I do anything else (except make the coffee) I tap out 350 or 500 words of my daily goal. It’s amazing how much easier the writing day gets after that.

I’m going easy on you here in suggesting you aim for 250 words. Why? Because a Ficus tree can write 250 words in the morning. Do you want to be outclassed by a Ficus tree?

“But I’m just not a morning person!”

Oh really? You’re a person, right? And you get up in the morning, yes? And you find a way to get some coffee and hop on Facebook, don’t you?

I don’t want to hear that morning person jazz anymore. DO NOT OPEN ANY SOCIAL MEDIA, INTERNET BROWSER, OR EMAIL until you have written 250 words!

“But I’m so foggy, I just can’t think…”

Good! Don’t think at all. Just write! The discipline of writing your 250 will train your brain to get up and at ‘em.

This is where my young perfectionist will learn to let go. Don’t get it right, get it written is sage advice. Do not edit, spell check, correct, or otherwise stop your flow until the 250 is done. (Here’s a little secret. When you get to 250 you’re going to want to keep going. So go!)

You can also help your writing brain along by doing this:

3. Leave off your day’s writing mid-scene

This lets your subconscious cook during the night, and when you sit down to write on your WIP you’ll be back in the flow immediately. Hemingway even used to stop mid-sentence. I can imagine him writing:

He saw the fish and the fish was good. It was a good fish. It was a fish like the good bull in Spain that summer with Stein. Yes, and the beer was warm that summer, but it was good beer, it was

How easily he could continue the next day: beer that was brave and true.

4. Plan five or six projects ahead

Be like a movie studio. Have one greenlighted project going (your WIP) and have two or three “in development” and two or three “optioned.”

In development means you’re doing some planning, some notes, some character backstory, some plotting. If you’re a pure pantser, at least take some random notes about the plot and keep them in a file or notebook. If you’re wise, you’ll develop your idea into an elevator pitch that would make a reader lust after your book. That’s right, lust. See my post on that topic.

By optioned I mean having a simple What if premise that seems promising to you. I have a file with about 100 of these, and periodically I look them over and re-prioritize them. If one keeps sticking to the top of the heap, that’s the one I will move into development.

5. Don’t ever let rejection stop you

Not everything you write is going to turn out great. If you’re submitting to agents and editors, you’ll get the cold shoulder often. If you’re self-publishing, you’ll get the 1-star reviews. You may even give your first draft to your significant other and then endure a blank-eyed stare and the words, “I love you, but I just don’t get this.”

Know that this will happen.

But don’t ever let it stop you from producing more words.De Niro pillow

When a rejection hurts—and it will—try my sixty-minute-comeback.

Take thirty minutes to completely feel what you’re feeling––shout, talk to yourself, cry if you must, splash water on your face, eat a large bowl of ice cream, or shoot a pillow like Robert De Niro in Analyze This. Whatever it is, let yourself feel the feelings for thirty minutes.

Set a timer for this.

When the timer beeps, set it for another thirty minutes. During this second thirty minutes, you write. I mean it. Write! Write anything.

• Write the next scene of your WIP.
• Write in your journal.
• Write a song.
• Write something random.
• Write a letter to your future self explaining what just happened.
• Start an entirely new story or novel, not knowing what it will be (IOW, be a thirty-minute pantser!)

Whatever it is, give yourself fully to it. Write. Don’t stop, except to take a few breaths or refill the coffee.

After this writing stint, something interesting will happen. The rejection will still hurt, but it won’t be as bad. I guarantee you it won’t.

And tomorrow, if it tries to come back in full force, head it off with more writing. Five, ten, thirty minutes.

Writing, you see, is the best medicine.

Always.

The most wonderful thing of all is this. A year from now you’ll look back at your production and be amazed at what’s there. Do this for ten years and you’ll be blown away.

You will be a prolific writer.

So how about you? Are you happy with your output? How have you gotten around the obstacles to continuous production?

In the Produce Aisle

carrot

Stories can be found everywhere. You don’t have to look for them; they come to you. Richard Matheson wrote the immortal short story “Duel” after a highway encounter — what we would now call “road rage” — with the driver of a tractor-trailer. I read another great short story, decades ago (and I wish I could remember the author) about a guy who brought his Sunday paper in from the front porch and there was a gawdawful bug on the inside of the newspaper bag which tried its best to kill him and almost succeeded. The author in his Afterward noted that the story was born as the result of a spider catching a ride into his house in the manner presented in the story. And so it goes.

I got the spark — and I mean the SPARK — yesterday in the produce aisle of a local supermarket. I was looking over the carrots and such when I heard a male voice, coming from close behind me, saying, “Hey, old man.” I ignored it —I mean, surely the guy could not be talking to me — yet the person persisted. “You,” he said, using a low voice. “With the concealed carry.” As it happens, I do have a concealed carry permit, and at the time had in my possession a .38 in a pocket holster. It’s very unobtrusive, so that it is not easy to tell when or if I’m carrying, unless someone is specifically looking for it. I turned around to find a stranger of about my height and age, wearing sunglasses and a gimme cap, smiling somewhat strangely at me. “You a fast draw?” he asked. I just shook my head and asked, “What do you mean?” He answered, while moving a step closer to me. “You got a gun. Think you can outdraw me?”

I was thinking at that point that I was dealing with someone who was very foolish at best or mentally unbalanced at worst. My primary concern, however, was that the store was busy. The produce department in this particular store is located close to the entrance and exit doors and everyone  from retirees in golf shirts to moms in yoga pants were making cross patterns near us. I needed to move this encounter elsewhere, and quickly. I said to him, keeping my voice level, “This isn’t a conversation we should be having in here. Let’s go outside and talk about it.” My plan was to wait until we got into the store vestibule or just out to the parking lot where I planned to suddenly trip him, immobilize him, and have someone call 911.

This all changed when the stranger, instead of answering me, smiled, took off his sunglasses and cap, and said, “Hi, Joe.” The stranger turned out to be  a friend of mine, someone I have known for decades and with whom I speak frequently but rarely see. He is retired from a very elite government agency where he was renowned for being able to substantially change his appearance with just a hat or glasses a talent which he demonstrably still possessed (and yes, the passage of time helped him, too). He was pranking me. Some might regard what he did to be foolish, but he knew exactly how I would react, or intended to react — much of what I have learned about such matters, I’ve learned from him — and thus inferred that I would not take action beyond that which would reasonably be called for at any particular point in the situation. As for myself, it took a few minutes to get my heart rate back to normal, as I went through the stuttering motions of keeping up a conversation  and then completing my shopping. In addition to carrots, I suddenly needed to buy some bleach.

After I arrived home and got the groceries unpacked (note to the gentlemen out there: no husband was ever murdered by his wife while he was unpacking the groceries, no matter how egregious his sins) and started some laundry I realized that I had the opening hook of a domestic thriller which I’ve been toying with for months handed to me. Actually, I had several different beginnings handed to me. All of them involve a supermarket, a shopper seeming minding their own business, and an unexpected intervention which sets the plot for the rest of the book careening into a number of individuals’ lives like a bee bee in a box car.

So, tell us, please: have you been pranked recently (after all, it is the Halloween season)? Did it have a short or long-term effect on you? And does it have a potential as the springboard — a spark — for a story? If the answer to any of those questions is a yes, please share if you wish, but hold close if you must.

 

READER FRIDAY: Tell Us About Your Writing Rituals

Flickr: IMG_4240.jpg By Sebastian Wallroth per Wikipedia

Flickr: IMG_4240.jpg By Sebastian Wallroth per Wikipedia

Hemingway wrote standing up. Capote called himself a “horizontal author” preferring his bed or couch to write. Victor Hugo (Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) wrote in the nude. He had servants hide his clothes to insure he wouldn’t leave his residence.

What about you? Do you have any MUST DO rituals when you start your writing day or when you start or end a book?

CAUTION: If you are a Victor Hugo admirer, DO NOT post photos.)

Want a book review? Try these tips

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

The Oklahoman newspaper

The Oklahoman newspaper

It’s my pleasure to introduce someone I’ve known for a long time, an Okie friend. I first knew Ken Raymond of The Oklahoman newspaper as a crime beat and features reporter. He is a talented author as well. After he graced me with a glimpse of his work, I’ve been trying to coerce him to write a novel ever since and hope he does one day. Very talented guy. Now he’s the book review editor at the paper, a man of many hats. Please chat Ken up, TKZers.

P S – I will be traveling and in remote spots this week. I may not have access to the internet, but I will try to check in on post day.

Ken Raymond’s Post:

Last year I interviewed David Sedaris, the humorist renowned for essays such as “Santaland Diaries,” a hilarious chronicle of his days working as an elf at Macy’s one holiday season.

We didn’t have much in common, aside from our mutual appreciation of his work, but we both love books … and we share a similar problem.

Whenever Sedaris makes a public appearance, would-be authors thrust their manuscripts at him. He’s not sure why, but he thinks they hope he will read all the books, pass them on to his editors and launch the writers’ book careers.That never happens. Sometimes he says no to the manuscripts; other times he takes them out of a sense of politeness and civility.

Even if he wanted, he could never find time to read them all.

I’m not famous. I don’t make many public appearances, and when I do, they’re usually at writing conferences or classrooms. But I do get buried in books, most of them unsolicited. Dozens pile up outside my front door each week, and more still find their way to what used to be my office.

Who am I? I’m just the book editor for The Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City. Book editor sounds important, but really I’m just one guy who reads and reviews books and tries to convince other people to do the same. My staff, such as it is, consists of volunteer newsroom staffers and a handful of stringers, whose only recompense is a byline and a free book. I interview authors, write about industry trends and work hard to deliver the best possible product, but I’m also a columnist and senior feature writer. There are only so many hours in the day.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my job. I’m among the fortunate few in this world who are paid to read books. The problem is that there are just so many of them, good and bad, in all genres and styles.

Given all that competition, how can you make your book stand out — to me and to the countless other reviewers out there?

There’s no guarantee of success, but these tips may help:

Be honest.

For some reason, no one wants to come across as a beginner in the writing business. I guess everyone assumes that if they’re not all polished and shiny, they won’t stand out.

Me, I’m sick of flashy. I get hundreds of emails a week from authors or publicists, and sometimes from authors pretending to be publicists. The messages are so flashy they look like old Geocities websites, with weasel words thrown in to make it seem as if the books they’re pitching are the biggest thing to hit literature since the Gutenberg Bible. Read them closely, though, and they’re largely unappealing campaigns of self-aggrandizement.

I prefer a simpler approach: the truth. Don’t try to impress me; your book should do that. Your emails should tell me who you are, what you’ve written and why you think it stands out. Talk to me like we’re eating lunch together, and I’ll listen.

I’ll also tell you what I tell everyone these days. I can never promise coverage, but I’ll give you the same chance at a review that every other author gets, including the famous ones. I’ll look at your book, and if it’s not for me, then I’ll offer it up to my review team. If anyone picks it and thinks it’s pretty good, I’ll run a review. If they don’t like it, I probably won’t run a review.

Follow up.

If you apply for a job, odds are you won’t sit by the phone for two weeks, hoping it’ll ring. Instead, you’ll follow up a few days after the interview, letting the company know you’re interested and making sure you’re remembered. You may follow up again a week later.

The same goes for book promotion. Often someone will pitch a book to me, and I’ll ask for a review copy. By the time the book arrives in the mail, I may not remember it at all; I’ve dealt with a bunch of other books in the interval.

A simple follow-up email reminds me that we communicated about the book. It tells me that I was interested enough to request it. It’ll make me take a closer look.

Don’t take it personally.

Nothing turns me against a book more than an argumentative author. Earlier this year, a guy blitzed me with phone calls and emails, demanding that I review his minor book about his favorite subject: himself.

Somehow he had browbeaten other news organizations into writing reviews, none of which were particularly flattering. When his berserk behavior persisted, I told him I wasn’t interested in interviewing him or reading his book. He promptly called my boss eight times in a two-hour period and drowned him in email.

He seemed shocked, absolutely shocked, that he couldn’t force his way into the paper.

I don’t want to be a puppet. Most people don’t seek out needless confrontation. If we all act professionally, we should get along fine, even if I can’t get to your book or publish a review. I bear you no ill will; without you, I couldn’t do my job.

Play the odds.

Major publishers release fewer books during the cold weather months. The spring, summer and fall are all pretty hectic, so those winter months are your best opportunity to contact me. You simply won’t have as much competition.

At the same time, I scramble for content around that time of year. I suspect others in my position do, too. I start pushing gift books on Black Friday and continue every week until Christmas. Even if your book came out much earlier in the year, I may use it in one of my gift guides. I generally offer a range of books in different genres.

But winter isn’t your only window. Whenever possible, people like me prefer to publish reviews proximate in time to book release dates. If I could, I would limit most of my reviews to books that are about to come out in a couple days.

In order for that to happen, I need your book about a month in advance. Some critics prefer digital copies; I like physical books, even if they’re uncorrected page proofs.

Because I am in Oklahoma, I take special interest in books with some sort of Oklahoma ties. If you live here, went to college here, set your book here, whatever, that’ll up your odds of getting reviewed. The same applies to other regional newspapers. If you’re in Alaska, pitch your book hard to Alaskan publications.

Set up book signings, too. You probably won’t get rich at a book signing, since stores take part of the haul, but I always mention local book signings in print. Many other papers do the same. It may not be as good as a full review, but at least it gets your name out there.

Best of luck, and please contact me about your upcoming books. The best way to reach me is via email at kraymond@oklahoman.com. Follow me on Twitter at @kosar1969.

Discussion: Any questions for a book review editor, TKZers? You ever wonder what a crime beat reporter sees on the job? Or maybe you want to know what was the strangest features article Ken ever wrote? Ask away!

Ken Raymond - Book Editor & writer for The Oklahoman newspaper

Ken Raymond – Book Editor & writer for The Oklahoman newspaper

Bio:
Ken Raymond is the book editor and a senior writer at The Oklahoman. He publishes a monthly column called “Purely Subjective.” A Fulbright scholar and Pennsylvania native, he covered crime for much of his career, bringing dramatic stories to life through literary nonfiction. He has won numerous national, regional and state awards. Three times he has been named Oklahoma’s best writer by the Society of Professional Journalists. He lives in Edmond with his wife, three Italian greyhounds and a Chihuahua.

How long does it it really take?

I’ve been poring over my calendar this week, trying to assess what is realistic for me to achieve for the rest of this year (so far it’s gone WAY too fast!) – I’m half way through one WIP and have just the first few initial chapters and a draft proposal for another – so I’m trying to decide whether I can complete one or both of these projects and keep my sanity (that last bit is optional!).

Going through this process has made me realize just how little I keep track of the time it takes me to actually complete a novel – from initial research and drafts to the final version that is ready to be sent out on submission. My first book  probably took about a year and a half, the second a year…the third about the same (although it took much longer before it saw the light of day). One project, however, took almost two years to complete with a great deal of interaction and revision on the question of mythology and backstory with my agent and beta readers. However, beyond this, I can’t say I really know in quantitative terms how much time it takes me to finish a novel.

One of my author friends records her writing time in hour and minute increments so she can quantify just how much time it takes to finish her novels. I’m (sadly) nowhere near as organized and so my estimates are based on little more than cumulative time taken rather than hours actually spent (and let’s face it some days are way more productive than others!).

I know that when under pressure or deadline I can write efficiently and effectively (fear and panic are great motivators )- otherwise, I  find (at least at the beginning of a project) a great deal of dithering and second guessing especially over whether I’ve chosen the right book to pursue next (though don’t we always doubt this when we start a project?!). This year, in particular, has involved a lot of uncertainty and second guessing but now (I think) I’ve selected the projects to be finished. The question is, can I do it? Which led me to wonder, how long does it actually take most people to complete a novel? (I guess I’ve only just realized how few people I’ve asked this question).

So this means over to you TKZers…How long on average does it take you to go from the start (rough and horrid) to the end (polished and ready for publication)? Do you keep track of your writing time so you actually know how many hours it takes? And if so, do you then know how this time is divided into drafting that first draft, versus research or revisions and editing?  For someone like me, who has frankly never even considered using a time sheet or evaluating how I spend (or don’t spend) my writing time, do you recommend using any time management tools that enable you to (realistically) answer the question – just how long does it really take you to complete a novel?

 

READER FRIDAY: Write Like Sybil

Camille and Kennerly Kitt, also known as The Harp Twins (Free image Wikipedia Commons)

Camille and Kennerly Kitt, also known as The Harp Twins (Free image Wikipedia Commons)

Have you ever tried working on more than one WIP (Work in Progress) manuscript at a time? If so, what benefits did you notice? Did you double up on your word count or write half-speed on each?

(This question doesn’t apply to editing a completed draft while starting something new.)