Making Readers One at a Time

The other day I strapped my AlphaSmart on my back and rode my bike to Starbucks to do a little writing. I set up at a table, got my brew, started tapping away. The place was crowded, all the other tables were taken.
Presently, a gray-haired woman appeared and said, “Mind if I share your table?”
 “Only if you behave yourself,” I said.
She smiled (a good sign for a wiseacre such as myself). I motioned for her to sit. She had a coffee and an e-reader.
“So is that a Nook or a Kindle?” I asked.
“Kindle,” she said.
“You like it?”
“Love it. I’ve been reading some indie books lately.”
This surprised me. The word “indie” is rather specialized nomenclature. She knew what was going on in the self-publishing world.
Ever the opportunist, I said, “I like that. I’m also publishing my own books.”
“Well,” she said, “I’m getting very annoyed at the bad editing I’m seeing.”
Boom! Not, “Oh really? You’re a writer? I’d love to read one of your books!”
No, I was getting the boom on behalf of sloppily edited books everywhere. I had a little work to do.
I asked her what sorts of things annoyed her, and she talked about not just typos, but the misuse of words. The basic mangling of the English language. At one point she said, “Dude, open the dictionary or thesaurus.”
I started liking her then. A gray-haired lady who uses the word Dude can’t be all bad. I decided to interview her as a resource on what readers are thinking. She was a fountain of information. Here are some of the things she told me:
She doesn’t like too much info on “tertiary characters” because “I don’t want to get invested in characters that don’t do more in the novel. I get disappointed if you don’t follow through with them. Frustrating. Or they show up again in the last few pages and I think, ‘Dude, where the hell have you been for the last 300 pages?’”
Regarding reviews: “One star reviews are usually trolls.” But also: “Very few authors come up to a five-star review. I never read five-star reviews, especially with exclamation points. You see five exclamation points and I think, Please!”She looks at reviewer history and what other books they liked and reviewed, before making a purchase.
I asked her how she found books. She said:
1. Amazon mailings
2. Looks at the “customers also bought” books Amazon suggests on a book page
3. Sampling. “I love the free sampling.”            
4 “If I find an author I like, I read everything he’s ever written.”
That last, BTW, is in line with other surveys. The two biggest ways readers find fiction are 1) word-of-mouth from trusted sources; and 2) looking for more from a favorite author.
On opening pages:
“The first couple of chapters need to set out the story arc. Not too much slam bang boom.Where is it set? Still need the gotcha, gee whiz, but I need a sense of the larger story arc, too.”
“I like wit. I mean say something intelligent, say things that grab my attention. In that first chapter if all they’re doing is grunting and shooting each other, nothing is telling me if any of those characters has anything upstairs worth reading about.”
On style:
“Style does matter. I just read a book with a good plot, good characters, great dialogue, but the narrative portions were just subject-verb, subject-verb. Boring. Hasn’t he heard of any other parts of the language? After awhile I was dragged out of the story, almost like he wrote two books.”
She asked me about my books, and I gave her a card. As we chatted she was thumbing her Kindle, and about a minute later was ready to order one. She asked which one she should start with, and I suggested Watch Your Back.
“Done,” she said.
“You bought it?”
“How could I not?”
It was a pleasant twenty minutes, and I’d made a sale. Now I can only hope that I’ve made a reader, the kind who puts me on that favored list of authors she has discovered and wants to read everything by.
And then keep working on the one thing I can control, the actual writing, making it the best I can do each time out.
Because that’s the only way you build a writing career, Dude. 

How to Eat the Publishing Elephant

James Scott Bell

The elephant is our most versatile bestial metaphor. 
We sometimes refer to the big issue everyone knows is there (but no one is talking about) as “the elephant in the room.” Back in November of 2008, in conference rooms at publishing houses throughout New York, the elephant in the room was the Amazon Kindle. Was this device going to change publishing as we know it? Maybe no one wanted to talk about it back then, until the elephant broke out of the room and started stampeding all over midtown Manhattan.
Then there’s the story of the three blind men coming up to an elephant. One touches the tail, another the leg, the other the trunk. Each man assumes the elephant is something other than it is, because he has only one bit of data. This we can liken to those who think they know everything there is about publishing (or anything else, for that matter) when they only have experience with one part of it.
But the metaphor I want to work with today is the question, How do you eat an elephant? The answer, of course, is “one bite at a time.”
This applies to the world of successful self-publishing. Note the key word successful.It’s easy to self-publish (too easy, some would say). But to be successful at it is an entirely different matter.
A lot of people are expecting to eat the whole elephant in one bite. That’s because some of the early adopters did that. Joe Konrath, Amanda Hocking, John Locke, Blake Crouch – these are some of the names that jumped in early and did some heavy munching. Barry Eisler famously walked away from a traditional print deal and went E to feast on elephant. Bob Mayer, king of the backlist, consumed several elephants earlier this year when releasing all those titles close to one another. 
But these are the notable exceptions to what is now the undeniable rule: the vast majority of writers will not get anywhere near rapid success. And if they expect to, they will be sorely disappointed and may even chuck the whole publishing thing.
Which is fine. We need less content, not more, because most of the two million self-published offerings out there are, well. . . let’s just say the bulk of it pretty much affirms Sturgeon’s Law.
But if you want to be successful as an indie author, you can be – if you eat the elephant one bite at a time and chew thoroughly.
By “success” I mean making a profit. You can make a profit from your self-publishing if you do certain things and do them right (like knowing how to write. That really helps). How large a profit it is impossible to say up front. It may just be Starbuck’s money. Everyone’s mileage is going to vary. But here’s the rub: If you keep taking more and more bites, and do so carefully and with purpose, you have a chance to make more profit. That’s called “business.” If you want to be a professional writer, you are essentially running a small enterprise. Your job: provide value.
My business includes a traditional arm where I partner with publishers like Kensington and Writer’s Digest Books. It also now includes an indie division. I have taken a few bites at the indie elephant, wanting to learn as I go and see what works. I’ve studied the field, too. And while there are many things one needs to do well, the unalterable foundation is quality + volume. Thus, the elephant wisdom that has become evident over this last crazy year of indie publishing is: if you want to be successful at ityou need to be in it for the long haul, and by that I mean the rest of your life.
Let me repeat: the rest of your life.
If you are truly a writer, that won’t be difficult for you. But if you are just in this to try to make some easy lettuce, it will be. And should be.
A real writer writes, wants to write, would do it even if the prospect of making killer money was nil. Storytellers tell stories, which is why I plan to be found dead at my computer, my stone cold fingers over the keyboard. I only hope I have just typed “The End.” Or better yet, clicked “Upload.”

I will keep on biting the elephant. And when I’m old and toothless, I’ll gum the elephant. Because a real writer never stops.
Happy eating, friends. 

Where Do You Write?

James Scott Bell

Here is a picture of the noted screenwriter and novelist, Dalton Trumbo. He’s in a nice bath, his pad and coffee at the ready. He looks like he’s enjoying the whole writer thing.

Not sure I’d like to write in the tub. I split my time between my home office and my branch offices all over the world, the ones with the round green sign.
Here is the table at my local Starbucks, where I wrote several books. 

I loved that table. But they recently remodeled the store, and my table is gone. The new tables are a tad smaller and the chairs have lower backs, not nearly as comfortable. No one got my permission to do this, by the way.
So I got to thinking, if I could design my perfect writing environment, what would it look like? I think I know. It would be at Dean Koontz’s house, in the guest room upstairs, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Dean would be kind enough to let me use it whenever I wanted to.

Then again, would that be too distracting? Would I spend more time gazing than writing? Maybe my home office, with the blinds closed and the familiar mess surrounding me, is still the better idea.
So where do you write?
If you could design your ideal writing spot, what would it look like?

How to Write Your Last Page

James Scott Bell

It’s been a heady couple of weeks doing first pages here at TKZ. So I thought, just to catch our breath and balance things out, maybe we should go the other way for a moment.

What about your last page?

I love the Mickey Spillane quote: “The first page sells your book. The last page sells your next book.”

How true that is. How many times have we begun a novel or movie, only to be let down when the book is closed or the credits roll?

I love beginnings. Beginnings are easy. I can write grabber beginnings all day long. So, I suspect, can you.

But endings? Those are hard.

Why? First, because with each passing day another book or movie has come out, another ending has been rendered. So many great endings have already shown up. We who continue to write have the burden of trying to provide satisfactory surprise at the end when so much ending material is already out there.

Second, our endings have to tie things up in a way that makes sense but is also unanticipated. If the reader can see it from a mile away, the effect is lost.

I like what Boston University writing teacher Leslie Epstein said in a recent Writer’s Digest piece (“Tips for Writing and for Life,” WD March/April 2010). When asked if a writer must know the ending before he starts, Epstein says, “The answer is easy: yes and no. One must have in mind between 68 and 73 percent of the ending.”

Epstein’s having a bit of fun here, but his point is solid. If you have the ending 100% in mind, you’re in a straitjacket, unable to let your story sufficiently breathe, or twist, or turn.

OTOH, if you don’t have any idea where you’re going, you could easily fall into the meander trap, or the backed-into-a-corner trap.

There are some very helpful techniques for writing a great ending. Joe Moore discussed some of these last month. Type “endings” in the search box in the upper left of the blog, and you’ll get other thoughts by my blog mates. And I’ll humbly mention that I have also treated the subject in Plot & Structure.

But rather than focusing on principles, today I want to offer you my own personal approach to writing endings. It’s called Stew, Brew and Do.

Why is it called that? Because I made it up so I get to name it.

Here’s how it goes:

Step 1: Stew.

I spend a lot of time at the end of a manuscript just stewing about the ending. Brooding over it. I’ve got my final scenes in mind, of course, and have written toward them. I may even have written a temporary ending. But I know I won’t be satisfied until I give the whole thing time to simmer. I put the manuscript aside for awhile, work on other projects, let the “boys in the basement” take over.

I tell myself to dream about the ending before going to bed. I write down notes in the morning.

Step 2: Brew.

When I am approaching the drop dead deadline, I continue to outline ending possibilities. I will have files of notes and ideas floating in my head. When I know I have to finish I use Brew in both a practical and metaphorical way.

I take a long walk. There is a Starbucks half an hour from my office. (In fact, there is a Starbucks half an hour from anyplace in the world). I put a small notebook in my back pocket and walk there and order a brew—a solo espresso. I down it, wait a few minutes and then start writing notes in the notebook.

Then I walk another half an hour, to another Starbucks (I’m not kidding). There I make more notes. If I have to, I have another espresso. I am a wild-eyed eccentric at this point, but I do have ideas popping up all over the place.

Step 3: Do.

I go back to my office and write until finished.

Well, it works for me. I like most of my endings, but they were very hard work to get to. But hey, that’s good. If this gig was easy, everybody’d be doing it, right? Be glad it’s as hard as it is. Your efforts will pay off.

So what works for you? Do you find endings hard? Or do they roll out of your imaginary assembly line fully functioning and ready to go?

What are some of your favorite endings? Or better yet: what endings, to movies or books, would you change?

Welcome to…THE KILL ZONE!!!

By Michelle Gagnon

That sounds so ominous, doesn’t it?

So I drew the short straw for the inaugural Kill Zone posting. It’s a lot of pressure. I feel the need to write something weighty and momentous, a breathtaking post befitting the gravitas of a blog launch.

After a week of pondering, I’ve still got nothing. So in lieu of providing an illuminating perspective on an important issue, I’m going to do a whiny wrap-up of my recent book tour instead. With any luck, John and Clare have come up with something more impressive for their turn. A person can always hope, right?

And away we go…

My Book Tour, aka “Death March with Signing Pen”

Just to clarify, I’m not really complaining. I’m know that I’m lucky to have books published, luckier still that people appear to be reading them, and that foolish booksellers allow me into their stores armed with my bookmarks and refrigerator magnets. I love bookstores in general, and I’m a shameless performer, so the opportunity to get up in front of people and pontificate is something you’ll have to pry from my cold dead hands. That said, as I enter week four of my book tour (which I’ve officially dubbed “death march with signing pen”), I have come to notice the downside. I’m truly a homebody at heart; I love spending ninety percent of my time locked indoors with little but a keyboard for company. So being gone for extended periods of time is not only wearing, it makes me start missing things…

1. Food: I have no idea how a person manages to eat dinner during these tours. I leave my house around 5PM to get to most of these events, and then I generally get home around 10 or 11PM. Most local restaurants have closed by the time I’ve finished reading, and when I get home I don’t have the energy to assemble a bowl of cereal. Seriously, I haven’t had a hot meal in weeks. I’m wasting away. I’ve developed a theory that this is how Lee Child remains so svelte.

2. Television: I’m way behind on my programming. I’ve actually had to delete things from my Tivo UNWATCHED to make space for more critical shows. Which presents a horrible conundrum for me: though I have yet to watch the HD version of “The Science of Sleep,” I had intended to watch it someday. Will it be on again in the future? Can I really risk deleting it in favor of an episode of Project Runway?
Which leads to my next concern: as far behind as I am on my regular series, I’m completely in the dark when it comes to reality shows. This might not seem grave to some of you, but when my husband has a better idea of who might win “So You Think You Can Dance” than I do, things have gone horribly awry.

3. Company: I can pretty much guarantee that if you do more than a few tour stops with the same author, the two of you will quickly adopt the worst attributes of an old married couple. So it was with Simon Wood and I. Early on, we found each other charming. He chuckled at my “accidentally killed off my main character” story, I gasped during his “trapped at an underground fight club in Tulsa” anecdote. But the bloom quickly faded, and by week three we were sniping at each other, rolling our eyes, and generally behaving like the main characters in “The War of the Roses.”

4. Family: Granted, this should have come first. You know things are getting bad when your kid stops recognizing you. All right, I’m exaggerating (I am a writer, after all) but after being gone for five days, then heading out for a different corner of the Bay Area every night, it does become a little surreal. Plus, I reflexively tried to sign my name on my toddler the other day. Not good.

5. Beds: Of course, at times the beds have been the least of my problems. There was, for example, the Days Inn behind the strip club in San Diego, with all sorts of sketchy characters lurking in the corridor outside my room. But a month of sleeping on strange beds does tend to wreak havoc on my spine.

6. Flights: I’m not a nervous flyer; in fact I used to look forward to getting on a plane and going somewhere exotic. Now that I’ve spent the past four weekends getting on and off planes, I have a few…let’s call them helpful suggestions…for the airlines. For instance, why not take off on time? I swear, I haven’t been on a trip in over six months that didn’t experience a two-to-five hour delay at the airport (or better yet, on the tarmac). And hey, is it really so difficult to have some form of nourishment available? I’ll pay for it; I would just love to be able to purchase that twenty-dollar mealy sandwich on the plane if I didn’t have the opportunity to grab one during my two mile-long sprint from gate 1 to gate 50 as I changed flights. And while we’re on the subject, consider turning off the seatbelt sign from time to time (an especially good idea during that three hour-long stint on the tarmac). When the person next to you maintains a running monologue on the size of their bladder, as the flight crew flips through celebrity rags and growls at anyone attempting to get out of their seats, it becomes abundantly clear that the glory days of civilian jetsetting have drawn to a tragic close.

So, anyone else have war stories to share? Best comment receives a signed edition of my first thriller THE TUNNELS. If you don’t win, console yourself by signing up for my newsletter at and I’ll toss your name in the hat for an Amazon Kindle, iPod Shuffle, Starbucks gift certificates, and other fabulous prizes.

Michelle Gagnon is a former modern dancer, bartender, dog walker, model, personal trainer, and Russian supper club performer. Her debut thriller The Tunnels was an IMBA bestseller. Her latest book, Boneyard, depicts a cat and mouse game between dueling serial killers. In her spare time she frantically watches television in an attempt to make room on her tivo drive.