The Virtual Water Cooler

by Michelle Gagnon

The other night I found myself debating the merits and pitfalls of social networking with a group of friends. As always, people seem to fall into one of two camps: there’s the group that thinks Facebook and its ilk are slowly destroying the social fabric, ensnaring people into shadow lives that are only experienced virtually. On the other side are people who think that social networking sites have made it much easier to connect and stay in touch with people, improving their daily existence.

The subject initially came up because of an event I attended recently. “Pop up Magazine” is a one-night only live magazine produced in San Francisco. Like a print mag, it’s divided into “Shorts,” “Features,” etc. For me the most fascinating “feature” of the night was an interview with a former Guantanamo Bay prison guard. Apparently after he was discharged, his stance on things that had happened during his stationing there shifted. The soldier made it a mission to seek out former prisoners and apologize to them- and to find them, he used Facebook. The woman interviewing him asked, “Why Facebook?” And he looked at her as thought she’d asked why he considered using the telephone to call home. Apparently there are numerous FB groups subscribed to by both former guards and prisoners where they interact, swap stories, and try to find common ground.

I found that absolutely fascinating.

Now, I understand the argument against these networking sites. There’s something terribly depressing about seeing a couple tapping away at their various electronic devices in complete silence during dinner- as I witnessed the other night at a restaurant. But for some of us, the social networking tools have filled a void. Could we live without them? Absolutely. But I would miss my virtual water cooler.

Of course, I’m a bit of a rare case. I spend most of my day alone, in total silence. I work best under those circumstances-and I’m not someone who minds being alone. But aside from the UPS guy, without Facebook, my day would be devoid of most social contact.

Maybe that’s not a bad thing (although it does lend itself to bouncing a ball against a wall for hours on end, or typing the same sentence over and over…)

I love the little breaks spent chatting with people online. I get a kick out of what people post up there (within limits- I have no interest in knowing about your pet’s digestive problems, for example, or what you just scratched). The day after the final episode of LOST aired, I spent a almost embarrassingly significant chunk of my day discussing it with people. Maybe if I worked in an office, I wouldn’t need that. But having contact with the outside world, even if it’s only virtual, is a good thing for me.

I’ve always been terrible about staying in touch. But through these sites, I’ve been able to reconnect with friends from elementary school, high school, college, and my time in New York. (And one of those people volunteered to be a beta reader, providing some of the best insights into my latest manuscript).
My mother just set up a reunion with her college roommates, people she hadn’t seen in decades, via Facebook.

And of course, what would I do without my daily Kill Zone fix? I’ve made acquaintances across the world. Engaged in debate with people I probably would never have met otherwise. I’ve spent my entire adult life living in cities where chatting with strangers is a rare occurrence. But the online networking sites remove that wall, and suddenly I find myself discussing Nora Ephron’s send-up of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO with people in Tulsa, Akron, and Tokyo.

So…virtual water coolers: yea or nay?


The Elusive Fifty Percent

by Michelle Gagnon

There’s an old adage in marketing: fifty percent of your advertising will work. The kicker is that you’ll probably never know which fifty percent.
Large companies spend a lot of time and money trying to figure out which of their campaigns succeeded through surveys. But the little people (myself included) don’t have access to that option.

Which leads me to this week’s conundrum: trying to figure out how to divide my marketing money for The Gatekeeper. I would hate to eliminate an effort that made a difference last time- the trouble is, I have no idea which aspect of my marketing campaign impacted sales.

In an effort to narrow it down, I asked for help from the MIRA marketing team. Was there anywhere in particular where Boneyard posted more sales? In the Northeast, perhaps, or even in specific stores and chains?

Nope, they said. At least, not as far as they could determine- the best information they had to go on (which, as we’ve discussed in earlier posts, is limited at best) came from Bookscan, and the numbers appeared to be divided equally nationwide.

For other products, there are more options. You could try online ads one month, then print ads the next: if your sales showed more of a bump in the first month, the next time around you could focus more energy online.

Unfortunately, authors don’t have that luxury. Our books have a very limited shelf life. At least with my publisher, the first six weeks count most. Just one month after The Gatekeeper’s release date, many of the copies will already have been taken off the shelves. Hardcovers and trade paperbacks hang in there a bit longer, but for all of us, the next wave of releases knock us off the front racks and back to the stacks (or, worse yet, to the remaindering pile).

Which means that all of my marketing efforts are focused on that six week window. Which results in a madcap book tour, and thousands of dollars scattered in a dozen different directions. Let’s call it the “buckshot” approach to book marketing – throw out everything you can afford in every direction imaginable, and keep your fingers crossed.

I know what didn’t work with my first book. A mass mailing to over a hundred bookstores, which cost a third of my budget and hours of time, most likely ended up in the trash/recycling bin at most of them. Elaine Petrocelli of Book Passage illustrated this at a conference by holding up an enormous trash can filled to the brim with promotional materials from authors and publishers. All collected in ONE WEEK.
Obviously, the next time around I skipped that option.
Even ARCs end up in stacks in the booksellers’ backrooms, most never touched by a single staff member.

Advertising online has some advantages. On sites like Facebook, you pay per click – but whether or not those clicks actually turn into sales remains a big question mark. Some people even run strange programs to make fake clicks for these, meaning that it’s super important to invest in something like click guardian to keep your finances sound. It’s a bit of a minefield otherwise, and without the backing of a big agency individual authors can really risk a sizable amount of revenue just on making sure no one abuses those adverts on the platform. This is why some people choose to use some other method to utilize this system, with places like KlientBoost and other pay per click advertising agencies that could assist your business with pay per click marketing services.

The blog tour I did last time around had an added advantage in that it cost nothing but time- a lot of it, however. By the end of the thirty stop tour, I’d written more than 33,000 words, a full third of a book. And did that help sales? Impossible to know.

I doubt I’m alone in wondering if there might not be a better way. Now that the full burden of marketing has fallen on most authors’ shoulders, couldn’t publishers help by providing more feedback on where they see sales happening? Wouldn’t it behoove them to come up with a more accurate measure than Bookscan? If I knew, for example, that a significant chink of my sales were happening in Kroger’s stores in Arkansas, I’d make a personal effort to connect with those retailers.

Anyway, that’s my rant for the day. I’ve decided to create bookmarks, chapbooks, and magnets per usual- they don’t cost much, and are easy to pass out. I’ll probably do a more limited book tour this time around, and will focus my actual tour on visiting some stores I was forced to skip last year. Aside from that, I’m still at a loss, staring at my Boneyard marketing spreadsheet, wondering what else to include and what to cut. Any and all suggestions are welcome- what’s worked for you in the past? Has anything in particular compelled you to buy a book you might not have known about otherwise?


Social Networking Showdown

by Michelle Gagnon

At Left Coast Crime a few weeks ago, I was part of a great panel on utilizing the Internet to market your book. This is a bit of a double-edged sword: now that much of the marketing burden falls on authors’ shoulders, being able to reach people without an insanely expensive direct mailing is invaluable. However, online networking can also become a tremendous time suck, drawing valuable hours away from what writers should primarily focus on: their manuscripts. Today I’ll discuss which sites I’ve found most valuable in a head-to-head match up, as well as sharing how I stay on top of them without losing my mind.

facebookFacebook vs. MySpace

I confess to being one of the “old people who joined up and ruined Facebook.” I now have more than a thousand friends, and probably post something to the page once or twice a week. I’m also on MySpace, but have found Facebook to be far more user-friendly to someone as technologically challenged as myself. (However, if I was working on a YA novel, MySpace would probably be where I devoted more of my focus). A couple of things to bear in mind when using these or other social networking sites:

  • Public vs. Private: I keep my pages public, and will friend anyone who asks. So anything that’s truly personal, such as family photos, etc, doesn’t get posted there. And if anyone tags me or mine in such a photo, I immediately remove the tag. myspace
  • In order to maintain my sanity, I go onto each site once a week (Facebook on Mondays, MySpace on Tuesdays). That’s when I accept friends, answer emails, and respond to comments. If I stumble across an interesting article online, I have the “share on facebook” tab incorporated into my browser, which makes it oh-so-easy to post it to my page (another clear benefit of Facebook over MySpace).
  • The cocktail party rule: I rarely post anything political on any of my pages. Again, this is a matter of personal preference, but I would rather discuss my books or interesting developments in publishing than who I voted for.

Shelfari vs. GoodReads

shelfari The trick to these is joining groups that read books similar to yours. I’ve generally found Shelfari to be more useful, although I do get updates from GoodReads discussions as well. The Shelfari groups just seem to more active, especially the “Suspense/Thrillers” one, which graciously invited me to lead a discussion of Boneyard last August. Every so often I’ll remember to log in and update my home page with the books I’ve read recently.

  • One caveat: if I don’t like a book, I don’t review it, period. Other authors have no problem posting negative reviews, so it’s largely a matter of personal goodreads preference. But I know authors whose feelings were hurt when one of their peers negatively reviewed their book on these sites, and figure it’s better to follow the, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” rule. The crime fiction writing community is a small one, filled with people who possess an encyclopedic knowledge base of how to kill someone and get away with it. Bear that in mind when you’re considering giving a book one star out of five.
  • I join in whenever people are discussing a book I really enjoyed, or an author whose work I admired. After all, I’m a reader as well as a writer.
  • Be careful in how you participate. When someone I’ve never heard of joins one of the discussions and proceeds to blatantly flog their own work, it’s a huge turn off. Probably better not to participate than to do that. This isn’t to say that you should never mention your book- but other members will be more receptive if you’re someone they’re already familiar with.


twitter I’m not a big tweeter. I post links to my Kill Zone posts (and guest posts,) and occasionally link to articles or posts that I found interesting, but I simply don’t have time to announce what I had for lunch every day.

siamese Crimespace et al

I know other crime fiction authors love Crimespace, but I haven’t used it much. Most of the Ning circles (and I’m part of five) don’t seem very active to me. This could be my own failing- I find them challenging to navigate, and frankly my other pages are so easier I forget about these. Same goes for Gather, Bebo, Linked In, etc. You might have better luck. If you write books with a Siamese Cat sleuth, and there’s a Siamese cat appreciation group on one of the social networks, by all means take advantage.


I have a pet peeve. Say we met at a conference and chatted about marketing. I offered to continue the discussion by email. Then, I find myself getting a deluge of newsletters from you, none of which I signed up for. Or worse yet, you mined my email address from a mass email sent by a mutual friend (note: always bcc people on those emails). This has happened to me more times than I can count. DO NOT add people to your newsletter unless they have specifically asked to be included. Have a sign up sheet on your website, and make it easy for people to unsubscribe.

And that’s my two cents. So what have the rest of you found to be useful? Any tips to share?


Unsettling Self-Revelations Gleaned on Facebook

by Michelle Gagnonfacebook

Normally, I ignore about three-quarters of the stuff that arrives in my inbox from social networking sites. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll friend pretty much anyone, and love reading people’s updates. But a lot of it is just downright puzzling, and frankly I don’t have time to garden, be a pseudo-vampire, or poke people (the pokes! Good God, the pokes! I’m never sure what the point is. If they were real instead of virtual I’d seriously be black and blue.)

But I’ll confess, I was swept up in the latest Facebook craze. You’ve probably heard of it, the "25 Things About Me" lists. I thought it was an interesting concept, along the lines of the "six word memoir" (my friend Lisa’s was great: "I always thought I’d be taller.") So I jumped on the proverbial bandwagon, and in the process learned some rather disturbing things about myself. Here, then, is the list of "unsettling self-revelations gleaned while composing my 25 things list." (not a very punchy title, is it?)

  1. I have what some might term an unhealthy preoccupation with food. In fact, unless I’d exercised some restraint, nearly all of my 25 things could have been food-related, from likes to loathes. As it stands, I managed to keep it to four. But the original list? Twenty out of twenty-five.
  2. I might possess a somewhat-inflated self-image. For example, I’ve always suspected that given a few weeks training, I could hustle pool. And that I’d make a great spy. This from a person who can’t hold a gun without trembling.
  3. Although I don’t gamble, 3 out of the 25 are gambling-related. Helloooo, Vegas.
  4. Many of them turned out to be things not so much about me, but about who I’d like to be, or what I’d like to be able to do. Which is kind of depressing when you think about it.

So I’m curious to hear what others think about this navel gazing. Of course, no sooner had I posted my list than one of my gracious friends kindly forwarded me this sardonic take on such lists. Thanks, Ian. Now I feel much better about the half hour dedicated to composing it.

My challenge this week: let’s hear those six word memoirs. Here’s mine: "Years of constant rejection, one success."

And for anyone who is curious, I give you…my 25 things:sushi

1. I loathe salmon. And no, you can’t prepare it in a way that I’ll actually love it. Many have tried. None have succeeded.
2. Also, not a fan of sushi. I still can’t figure out when it switched from being weird to eat raw fish, to being weird not to.
3. I still hold the Rhode Island State JV High Jump record.
4. I have an unpublished first novel that is self-indulgent and horrible and will never see the light of day.
 goat 5. I love goats. If I ever have a farm, I want a whole herd of fainting goats.
6. I’m a Unitarian Universalist.
7. I have an Irish passport.
8. I never get tired of watching the original Star Wars film.
9. I eat cheese every day.
10. I have a Mixology degree
11. I’ve always wanted to be able to do a back handspring
12. I’ll watch anything with Jackie Chan in it. Love those out-takes.
13. I once lived in Cleveland Heights, OH.
14. Despite numerous attempts, I never managed to finish reading Moby Dick.moby dick
15. I’ve always wanted to be a pool shark. But I’m terrible at the game.
16. I don’t gamble.
17. I can never remember what beats what in poker.
18. I smuggle my own popcorn into movies, since what I make is infinitely superior to the sorry excuse they serve.
19. I always thought I’d make a great spy.
20. I own a set of commemorative Elvis plates.
21. I recently got hooked on Sudoku. But I’m terrible at it.
22. I never studied calculus.
23. The only class I ever failed was ballet in college. Because I thought I’d dropped the class, never went, then discovered when grades came out that I was, in fact, still enrolled.
24. I once sang in a gospel choir. Even though…
25. I can’t sing.

and a bonus one…

26. I’ve only had gin once in my entire life. Drank nearly an entire bottle during a visit to a friend’s college, spent the night seriously regretting it, haven’t been able to stomach the stuff since. Shame, I know.


Story Logic—Spell It Out

by L.J. Sellersljsellerssmall

Today The Kill Zone is thrilled to host the lovely and talented L.J. Sellers, author of The Sex Club, which I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed. Without further ado…

For the last two days, I’ve been filling in the details of my outline, working out the timeline, and crafting a sizzling ending that brings it all together. I’m already 50 pages into writing Thrilled to Death, and it felt like to time to solidify some plot points. I know many writers don’t do this; they prefer to wing it and see where the story takes them. (Stephen King, for example) I rather envy that style.

But I write complex mystery/suspense novels, and the outline/timeline has become more critical with each novel. In a police procedural, so much happens in the first few days of a murder investigation that a timeline is essential. For complex, parallel plots with multiple points of view, mapping the story in detail is the best way to avoid writing yourself into a dead end or writing 48 hours worth of activity into a 10-hour time frame. I speak from experience.

TheSexClubThen yesterday for the first time, I put in writing what I termed story logic. I’ve always done this in my head to some degree, but this was the first time I put it on the page in summary form. In a mystery/suspense novel, some or much of what happens before and during the story timeline is off page — actions by the perpetrators that the detective and reader learn of after the fact. Many of these events and/or motives are not revealed until the end of the story. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to convey to readers how and why it all happened.

So I mapped it out—all the connections, events, and motivations that take place on and off the page. Bad guy Bob knows bad guy Ray from prison. Bob meets young girl at homeless shelter. Young girl tells Bob about the money she found . . .

It was an enlightening process, and I highly recommend it. Summarizing the story logic forces you to think specifically about character connections and motivations. It points out holes and inconsistencies and gives you an opportunity to tighten and improve your plot. It may even force you to rethink and rewrite your outline. But it also may keep readers from getting to the end of your novel and thinking, How did he know that? Where did that come from?

I mentioned the process on a Twitter/Facebook update, and another writer asked me about it. So I explained it to her (in 140 characters!). She got back to me with this message: “I wrote the foundation of my book and did the ‘story logic’ for the rest before writing thestorylogic book to fill in details. It led me in a completely different direction. I took some risks in the outline and a lot fell into place. I’m psyched!”

I admit, all of this takes some of the spontaneity out of the writing process. But for me, writing isn’t magic. It’s work, and it needs the same detailed planning as any other project. Of course, I’m flexible. If better ideas or connections come to me as I write, I will modify my outline and resummarize the story logic.

Do you map the story logic? Do you outline? Can any of you wing it with complex crime story?

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, novelist, and occasional standup comic based in Eugene, Oregon. She is the author of the highly praised mystery/suspense novel, The Sex Club, and has a second Detective Jackson story, Secrets to Die For, coming out next year. When not plotting murders, Sellers enjoys cycling through the Willamette Valley, hanging out with her extended family, and editing fiction manuscripts.