Be the Mouse

A recent exchange with the hubster went something like this.

Him: What’d you do today?

Me: Same as yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.

Him: You’re a persistent little bugger, aren’tcha?

Me: *shrugs* I’m a writer.

But it’s not as simple as that, is it? Persistence can be grueling at times.

If someone told me ten years ago that in 2021 I would stumble across a true story that’s so meaningful and important it might forever change my writing trajectory, my first reaction would’ve been: Ten years is a lifetime away.

But the truth is if I found this case ten years ago, I wouldn’t know how to do it justice. Today I do. 🙂 This narrative nonfiction/true crime project has so many parallels to my own life, my passion is at an all-time high. Which brings me to persistence. Persistence while researching. Persistence while re-investigating the crime. Persistence while interviewing witnesses. Persistence while submitting the proposal.

The Big Dream

When I wrote my first novel—longhand, by candlelight—the Big Dream was all I could think about. I remember searching for other writers’ interpretation of success and how long it took them to “make it” in this business. Most said a new writer won’t make any money until they’ve written five novels. If they’re lucky, they’ll sell a few hundred copies of their debut. That’s the last thing an aspiring writer wants to hear.

The aspiring writer thinks: If you build it, they will come.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad mindset if it drives the writer to the keyboard. I’m a dreamer. Always have been, always will be. As long as we offset the dream with a dose of reality, I say dream big, dream often, dream without limits.

Now, with a backlist of 17 titles and 5+ trunk novels, I look back on that early advice and it means something completely different.

Writing five novels isn’t only about building an audience. It means the writer has honed their craft. They’ve let their passion lead them on a journey of self-discovery (Think: Who are you as a writer?). It means the writer never gave up. Or quit. S/he continued for love, not money. S/he kept her head down, fingers on the keyboard, butt in chair, and created, edited, rewrote passages, scenes, or whole chapters, and finished five manuscripts.

What else happened?

S/he learned the business side of writing—found an agent, publisher, or learned the ins and outs of self-publishing. Lastly, it means s/he learned how to market a product, build a brand and an audience. S/he persisted, even though the odds seemed insurmountable. S/he leaped out of the nest and learned to fly.

Sometimes this biz can be disheartening, other times it’s super exciting. The ups and downs are all part of this amazing journey. The minute we stop trying to achieve future goals, we’ve already lost. Aside from creatives—writers, singers, artists, actors, musicians, etc.—I can think of no other field that requires as much persistence.

What is persistence?

The dictionary defines persistence as:

  • continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition
  • continuing to exist or endure over a prolonged period

The definition clarifies how difficult it is to persist.

What happens in the brain during the act of persistence?

Serotonin is a neurochemical in the brain important for feelings of happiness. It’s also known for:

  • promoting good sleep by helping to regulate circadian rhythms (a 24-hour inner clock running in the background to carry out essential functions like the sleep-wake cycle)
  • helping to regulate appetite
  • promoting memory and learning
  • helping to promote positive feelings and behavior

If you have low serotonin, you might:

  • feel anxious, low, or depressed
  • feel irritable or aggressive
  • have sleep issues or endless fatigue
  • become impulsive
  • have a decreased appetite
  • experience nausea and digestive issues
  • crave sweets

Scientists have studied serotonin levels and persistent behavior in mice.

During foraging, all wildlife explores an area for food and/or water. But at some point, they must move on to a different area. Thriving animals exhibit patience and persistence before exhausting their search at each location.

In the study, researchers required water-restricted mice to “nose poke” while foraging to obtain water as a reward. The probability of obtaining water in each area lessened with each nose poke. The higher the number of nose pokes equaled more persistence in that individual mouse. Scientists also used video tracking to measure how long it took for the mice to switch to a different foraging area.

Mice exhibited optimal foraging behavior. Meaning, they optimized the trade-off between time spent searching an area for water and leaving to find a water source in a different area.

The mice who received serotonin neuron stimulation performed a greater number of nose pokes compared to mice who didn’t receive stimulation. They also took longer to leave an area, suggesting they were more persistent.

This is the first study to show a correlation between serotonin neuron firing and active persistence. Previously, scientists hypothesized that serotonin was involved in patience. We now know a rush of serotonin is involved in persistence, as well.

If our persistence starts to wane, we need to increase our serotonin level.

Here’s how:

  • Eat healthy
  • Exercise
  • Bright light
  • Massage

The list is almost meaningless without more explanation. So, let’s dive into each tip.

Healthy Snacks

We can’t get serotonin from food, but we can get tryptophan, an amino acid that’s converted to serotonin in the brain. High-protein foods contain tryptophan. For example, turkey and salmon. But it’s not as simple as eating tryptophan-rich foods, thanks to the blood-brain barrier—a protective sheath around the brain that controls what enters and exits. Isn’t the human body amazing?

Like with most life hacks, there’s a shortcut around the blood-brain barrier.

Research suggests eating carbs along with tryptophan-rich foods pushes more tryptophan into the brain, thereby raising the serotonin level.

Some tryptophan-rich snacks include:

  • oatmeal with a handful of nuts
  • plums or pineapple with crackers
  • pretzel sticks with peanut butter and a glass of milk

Exercise

Exercising creates an ideal environment for serotonin by triggering the release of tryptophan in the blood and decreasing the amount of other amino acids. Thus, more tryptophan reaches the brain.

Aerobic exercise of any kind releases the most tryptophan. Don’t fret if you’re unable to do aerobics. The main goal is to raise the heart rate. This can be accomplished by:

  • a brisk walk
  • a light hike
  • swimming
  • bicycling
  • jogging
  • blaring the music and dance

Bright Light

This surprised me, but it makes sense when you consider seasonal affective disorder. Serotonin levels dip in the winter and rise in the summer. What should we do? Spend 10-15 minutes in the sunshine. Or, if you live in rainy climate or can’t get outside, use a light therapy box. Both will increase serotonin levels.

Massage

Massage therapy increases serotonin and dopamine levels. It also reduces cortisol, a hormone produced when stressed. If paying for a professional massage therapist isn’t within your budget, ask a friend/spouse/partner to swap 20-minute massages.

Be the Mouse

Writers cannot achieve goals without some form of persistence. Be persistent, dear writer. Be the mouse.

Down the Road

Photo by Sam Filip for Al Thumz Photography

I turn 70 in September. That is the plan, though I am aware that man plans and God laughs. That aside, there is no question that I have fewer miles in front of me than I do in the rearview and less time to traverse them. I am at the same time mindful that I still have a number of things to check off the “to-do list” and want to make time to do that. I accordingly have decided that this will be my last regular post at this wonderful place.

I assure you that the decision to stop contributing has not come easily. This moment nonetheless seems like a good time to make some changes. The thought of meeting deadlines and obligations  — even for things that I enjoy, like this blog — isn’t a good fit for me at this stage. It additionally feels as if it is time for my next act, and I want to end the current one on a high note (or at least a medium one).  I am also retiring from most of my professional activities, other than for writing.   I will continue to keep busy, but busy doing other things. Everything is on the table. You may even hear of some of them in other contexts and places. 

I’ve gotten to hang with the cool kids here at TKZ for over a decade. They are each and all wonderful, terrific, and enormously talented people who give, give, and give. It’s been a privilege to know them and be here with them. I’ve certainly become smarter by reading their contributions every morning while at the same time attempting mightily every other weekend to not embarrass myself in their or your presence. I won’t miss them because I will continue to read their contributions every day, as I do now. I’ll be commenting frequently too. I won’t be completely gone until I’m, uh, completely gone, which hopefully won’t be for another fifty years or so.

And you out there…I hope I have imparted something useful to you over the course of the past ten years or so.  I’ve made a number of dear and wonderful friends here. Some of them are no longer on this side of the veil. Many of them are still here and I want/hope to stay in touch with them. You will continue to see Dr. Steve Hooley —  speaking of friends, I could not ask for a better one — on alternate Saturdays. As for what I have come to regard as “my” Saturdays, the baton is being passed to  Reavis Z. Wortham who, commencing on Saturday, July 10, 2021, will be filling this spot on alternate Saturdays.  Rev is amazing. He writes a historical mystery series set in Northeast Texas during the 1960s and counts C.J. Box and Joe R. Lansdale among his many fans. It doesn’t get any better than that. Rev is an author’s author who, I assure you, will have you forgetting all about me within a month. 

That’s me for today. Let me leave you with a music video that seems appropriate. Be well. Keep reading, writing, and doing what you love. And thank you so much for everything. You’re the best.

Photo by Sam Filip for Al Thumz Photography

 

Writing Community Etiquette

One of the most amazing things about being an author is mingling within the writing community. Writers, as I’m sure you’ll agree, are some of the most generous, supportive, and kind humans on the planet.

That said, there are a few unwritten rules within the community. Let’s discuss to enlighten the newer members of our family.

Other Writers are NOT Competition.

They are our people, our tribe. The longer we’re in this business the more it becomes a kinship. I can’t even imagine working without other writers by my side. We share successes, as Joe so beautifully demonstrated last Saturday. We also share failures (privately, btw, never rant on social media). We lift each other up and try to help where we can.

Without other writers, imagine how lonely this profession would be? As it is, we spend countless hours alone at the keyboard, hanging with our fictional homies or burrowing down one research rabbit hole after another. What if we had no one to share our discoveries with? Or to bounce ideas off of? Or to help us celebrate a new release? Or to knock some sense into us when nothing seems to go right?

We’re better because of, not in spite of, our relationships with other writers.

Lose the Ego

If this business hasn’t taught you humility, you haven’t been part of the publishing industry long enough. You might be soaring now, but you will fall one day. It’s inevitable. Yes, celebrate your successes. Don’t let it go to your head, though. A reality check now and then is an important exercise. Chances are there’s plenty of writers who sell more books than you, who are more loved by readers, who has rocketed to heights you (or I) might never reach.

John’s recent post is the perfect example of success and humility. It’s one of my favorite posts he’s written because of its honesty and realness.

Don’t be a Jerk

Do you really need to point out a typo in a tweet? We’re all fallible. Smile and move on.

Do you really need to say how much you disliked a fellow writer’s work?

What you put out in the universe has a way of boomeranging at the most inconvenient times. It may not be today, but eventually Karma will bite back. Count on it.

When you first join the writing community, it may seem endless. Here’s the thing about skewed impressions. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. Cross a fellow writer, and that circle can and will get downright claustrophobic. Why? Because writers protect other writers. It’s what we do; it’s who we are as a community. Just ask Disney.

Give More Than You Receive

Did a fellow writer blurb a book for you? Great! What did you do to help support them? I’m not saying you need to match the gesture by blurbing their next book. Maybe you’re not at that level yet. What should you do? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Review one of their books
  • Offer to beta read
  • Share their good news, new release, book cover(s), blog posts, interview, etc. on social media
  • Better yet, pay it forward to a writer farther down the rungs of the ladder—most writers will love knowing by helping Writer X, they also helped Writer Y.

The worst thing you can do is to ask for another helping hand when you’ve showed no appreciation for the last favor. And for the love of God, NEVER ask a fellow writer to fund your writing career because, in your eyes, they’re successful and you’re entitled enough to think you shouldn’t have to work a day job while you hone your craft. Yeah, those people exist. And they all seem to have my email address. Lucky me. 🙂

Common Courtesy

Treat fellow writers as you would like to be treated.

  1. Respond to blog comments. If someone has taken the time to comment on your article, don’t treat them like they’re invisible. Reciprocate with a response. Common courtesy is not rocket science. How would you feel if one day everyone stopped commenting on your blog posts? If you continue to ignore your audience, that can and will happen. If chatting with your audience isn’t important to you, then close the comment section. By leaving it open you’re obligated to respond.
  2. Share a fellow writer’s posts. Let’s take Twitter, for example. If someone retweets everything you share, or even if they only share one post, return the favor. They didn’t have to take the time to share your tweet with their audience, but they did. Do the same for them.

But Sue, what if their books have sex acts on the covers? If you don’t feel comfortable sharing their pinned post with your audience, then scroll through their timeline until you find a more appropriate post that you can share.

  1. Never hijack another writer’s social media timeline. We’ve all met the writer who thinks it’s acceptable to tag 90 authors in their book promos. It isn’t. If anything, said writer looks unprofessional and desperate. I have a few followers on Twitter who do it constantly, and it drives me crazy. The only ones I haven’t blocked (yet) are the writers who also RT my tweets. Does that make tagging okay? No. Unless you’re having a conversation with someone or sharing their work, pretend tagging doesn’t exist.

Lose the Automated Message

I admit, when I first joined Twitter, an automated message to greet my new followers seemed like a good idea. Let me set the record straight—they are never a good idea.

Nothing screams amateur more than an automated message. I once followed this writer whose automated message read: “I want to be your favorite author!” I wrote back: “I want to be your favorite author, too!”

Surprise, surprise, she unfollowed me. Good riddance.

I can think of only two possible exceptions for sending a private message.

  1. If you’re extending an offer that will benefit them, not you. And it’s free. You wouldn’t ask someone you just met at a party for money, right?
  2. If you’re having trouble finding their books and are asking for a link.

In both these non-automated scenarios, most writers won’t mind. But first try to find their email address. Email is less intrusive than private messaging.

Auto-Add Email to Newsletter

If a fellow writer accepts your friend request on Facebook or follows you on Twitter/Instagram or subscribes to your YouTube channel, that does NOT mean they’ve signed up to receive your newsletter. I’ve had friends add me to their list, but they’re actual friends who I chat with all the time. For everyone else, there’s a big difference between showing support for your fellow writers and signing up to receive their newsletters.

Think of it this way. I have over 12K followers on Twitter alone. Imagine if they all added me to their email list? My inbox would explode! The less-informed writer may be thinking: But Sue, you can unsubscribe at any time.

Oy. I hear that excuse all the time. Newsflash. Unsubscribing from a newsletter you never signed up for in the first place annoys most writers. Plus, it takes time away from writing, researching, marketing, or the gazillion other things we do daily.

Read the room, dear guppy (new writers a la MWA). A follow-back or an acceptance of a friend request is just that. Nothing more.

Final Thought

As I said at the beginning of this post, writers are some of the best people on the planet. Most of us would agree that without other writers, this profession would be a lonely one. But we’re never truly alone. There’s always another writer who’ll be there when we need them, just as we were there for them. We’re blessed, and that gift should never be taken for granted.

Over to you, TKZ family.

Did I miss anything? Add your tip! If you can’t think of anything to add, then share a story of a writer helping you or vice versa.

Get Thee to a Party

Photo by Tyler Rutherford from unsplash.com

 I have a quick fix if you are out of dialogue ideas and/or characterization elements.

Go to a party. 

That would have been hard advice to follow a few months ago but the genie is out of the bottle now. Folks are throwing soirees for all sorts of reasons. There are mask-burning gatherings, graduation parties, birthday celebrations, and all sorts of other gatherings. No matter how social-adverse you are (and I’m in the redline there, I assure you. I just fake sociability. For awhile.) someone is going to invite you to a gathering somewhere. Go. Observe. Listen. Heck, with graduation parties you can just follow the signs and balloons and enter, whether you are invited or not. 

Photo by NIPYATA! from unsplash.com

I went to a graduation party last weekend for a young woman I have known for many years who has finished high school. She is part of one of the best families I have the pleasure to know. Each and every member of the clan is instantly memorable, for different reasons. . We live in the same city in a similar neighborhood. Their home is wonderful. It puts mine to shame. I have a backyard. THEY have a nature preserve.  It has a small barn with a fenced-in corral in which a mini-pony cavorts and takes apple slices from your hand while trying (though not too hard) to avoid stepping on a couple of Flemish rabbits that hop around while merrily depositing chocolate chips, or something like them. There is a separate chicken coop next to the corral, where a rooster and a few chickens warily eye a calico cat who wanders about gazing wistfully through the chicken wire at them (Buddy…I know how you feel). It’s all wonderfully maintained and beautiful. One could spend hours there, just watching.

Photo by Levi Guzman from unsplash.com

It is the family’s friends, however, who received the primary focus of my concentration last week. Imagine if the characters of Twin Peaks and Fargo came together for a party, all knew each other, and were benevolent, without a woodchipper in sight. That’s what it was like. I wandered about, aurally dipping into conversations and taking mental notes. I occasionally noticed individuals sitting more or less alone. I beelined over. If people are sitting alone for no apparent reason there is probably a very good one that will eventually manifest itself. You should find out what it is without directly asking. I always check to make sure that there is not a mechanism labeled “Point in Direction of Enemy” within their reach before I fully approach and strike up a conversation point like, “Pretty good ice cream, isn’t it?” 

They are going to say something

It might be anything from “No” to “That isn’t ice cream. I had an accident” to 

“Well, it was okay, but we had this Isaly’s in Wadsworth when I was growing up and my dad had just left us and the waitress knew the story and would give us a little extra because it was tough on my mom and everyone knew we didn’t have much and we’d get lunch for free sometimes too but what nobody knew was that Mom ran the Pain Clinic on Medina Street and was making money hand over fist but it was all in cash so we had to be careful, hee heh!”

Now…I did not have that conversation. I did, however, have one with an elderly-looking gentleman (who was actually younger than I am) who appeared unapproachable at first but quickly warmed up when we found a bit of common ground. He noticed the guitar pin on the Santana Mohican fedora I was wearing. It seemed he had played guitar for some time before turning to truck driving. My response to the truck driving information was, “You probably have driven more miles backwards than most folks drive forwards.” He liked that and proceeded to tell me all sorts of stories that were easy to remember because they were extremely interesting and for the most part probably true. I also encountered an individual who I have not seen for awhile and who I am convinced will develop notoriety as a serial murderer within the next five years. He may have started already and just hasn’t been caught yet. That is an entirely different story for another time. 

Circling back…I finished up my conversation with my new friend, said goodbye to my hosts and the guest of honor, and then sat in my car for several minutes while I recorded everything that I could remember of what I had heard and seen (yay, Easy Voice Recorder app!).  Everything, because that which might seem inconsequential and uninteresting on a Sunday afternoon might be of use the following Wednesday, in the same way that one might dual-purpose a screwdriver handle for a hammer, or use a party in general for a TKZ topic. 

Photo by Dallas Reedy from unsplash.com

I hope that your current weekend is as good as the one I had last week. In the meanwhile…have you ever overheard a conversation that developed into dialogue within your work-in-progress or provided inspiration for a new work? If so, where did it happen? Thanks in advance. 

Photo by Hedi Alija from unsplash.com

But wait, there’s more! I would be sorely remiss if I failed to note that TKZ’s Elaine Viets is named on the cover of the new Mystery Scene magazine (Number 168, Summer 2021) and contributes the article “My Book: Death Grip,” in which she discusses her new novel and dive bars. Congratulations all around, Elaine!

 

The Reluctant Book Marketer – Guest post by Mark Leichliter

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: Alex Loup, Unsplash

In May, Steve Hooley and I surveyed TKZ contributors about marketing and how they promote their work. Links below:

Part 1    Part 2

For most of us, marketing holds the same appeal as a kale and rutabaga smoothie.

A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with Mark Leichliter, author, writing instructor, and editor. I mentioned what writers really need is advice about how to overcome our aversion to marketing.

Mark took up the challenge. He probed into why we hate it so much and offered some solutions.

I thought his ideas would make a good companion post to our recent marketing discussion.

Today please welcome Mark to the Zone.

~~~

If a tree falls in the forest…okay, we all know how this old philosophical question goes. How about this one? If an author publishes a book and no one knows about it… Easy to answer, right? A book without readers is still a book in the metaphysical definition, but its existence is pretty pointless. With one exception, the person who wrote it—you. But what if you are the sort of person who would rather hang around in the forest awaiting the sudden tree toppling than face marketing your book?

Count me as a forest dweller. The thought of promotion sends me scurrying into the deep timber. But unless you’re one of the eleven and a half writers around the world that a Big 5 publisher runs full page Times ads for, the work is going to fall to you. Big press, small press, no press, if we want to expand our audience beyond our own front door, we’ve got to face down marketing, even if we hate it.

I’ve got a few counts against me when it comes to book promotion. Perhaps you do as well. First, I’m shy. Students in classes or participants in workshops I’ve taught might not guess this to be true, but it is. Give me a business dinner where it’s all small talk, and I’m a disaster. It takes me ten minutes of chanting mantras to make a phone call. Second, my parents raised me—and I thank them—to be humble. And I grew up in the Inter-mountain West, a culture where people respect my right to be an individual but they’d rather not hear about my individuality. Third, I openly despise consumer culture. It’s apparently the marriage partner to an open capitalist market, but why must we constantly be sold everything? Ads stalking us on our phone, our clothing, in our music and movies and emails. Why would I want to participate in something so intrusive?

Here’s the thing. We’ve got to think about that silent forest again. Unless you are content with your audience of one, you’ve already entered the marketplace. So how do we take our reluctance to promote our books and change our approach to marketing? And how do we rise out of the din? Here are some tips I’ve learned for those of us who become physically ill at the thought of book promotion.

  • Distinguish between the book you’ve created and your role as its creator. Yes, in the vernacular of the marketplace, you’ve got a product to distribute now. But it’s also a book, something that can defy demographic typecasting and time. Books are unique products, so treat them that way. It starts by letting the thing exist separately from you. Sure, you poured yourself into it but now it exists (more metaphysics!). So do it a favor. Here’s a simple analogy; you might be reluctant to share some tiny triumph at work or some personal accomplishment, but if one of your children scored a goal or won a ribbon at the science fair, you’re going to shout it from the rooftops, right? Doesn’t your book-child deserve the same?
  • This is key; change the game. Don’t see your actions as marketing. More to the point, don’t reduce the book to only being a product you’re trying to sell. You’re used to flipping psychological switches in your brain on slow writing days in order to remain productive, so flip a different switch in how you see interacting with readers. It’s really a matter of respect for them. People seldom want to buy “products” anyway. They want to participate in a lifestyle they value. They want to follow passions. They want to be associated with things in which they place importance. You didn’t spend the years and the drafts writing your book while lukewarm about its themes, characters, and ideas. See promotion as an opportunity to engage others with those fronts. Don’t sell a product to consumers, enter a conversation with readers. Even if you are shy like me, when speaking about the topics I’m passionate about, I come out of my shell without thought. I can’t stomach that trivial cocktail party chitchat, but find the person at the party who shares interest in something we both find meaningful, and we’ll be there all night. Instead of “marketing” your book, look for venues where you can have conversations about mutual passions. There are thousands of bloggers and podcast hosts who run author interviews. Readers like to know the person behind the page. They like to engage with a writer because they love books. Find venues that take reader questions. Reach out to book clubs. Provide readers something of value and neither they, or you, will see your outreach as a sales job.
  • Control what you can control and work from your strengths. If the idea of appearing on a podcast makes you cringe, then focus on print interviews instead. You’re a writer aren’t you, then the prospect of providing written answers to questions for a blog actually offers you the chance to be creative, probe topics you care about, and do so from the comfort of your writing desk. Get more creative still. Propose a “day in the life” first person post from the viewpoint of one of your characters. Interview one of your characters. Or present the city your write about from the lens of your book. Or get yourself off the hook entirely and use an actual human source you turned to as a consultant for your book and interview them. There are plenty of fun, creative ways that feed your imagination and give readers something original in the process.
  • “See your friends.” My favorite soccer coaching colleague was a wonderful Thai guy who was a genius at simplifying the game. His go-to expression to players during scrimmage was, “See your friends.” Shy? Uncomfortable? Humble? Rather than go it alone, reach out to other writer friends or other authors from your publishing house. There’s tremendous comradery among writers, probably because we’re the only ones who truly understand how difficult writing and marketing a book really is. Propose dual blogger posts or offer a book site a conversation between you and another author. Suggest a multi-author panel for a podcast, a remote event, or a live appearance. There’s strength in numbers, for you, and for your audience. I guarantee that you will enjoy the conversation that emerges, and it won’t feel like marketing because it really isn’t. Sales and exposure are the offshoot. Moreover, you can share the workload.
  • Champion others rather than yourself. Remember that comradery comment. It’s real. And I know you’ve found other writers you want to see succeed. I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to help find an agent for a writer friend simply because I believe in him and his book. Put some energy into broadcasting reviews, recommendations, and announcements about books by writers you admire or have learned from. Stand up for books you love. You’ll be doing a valuable service for readers. Do it because you care. Maybe the author will reciprocate. Don’t worry if they don’t. That shouldn’t be your motivation. You’re a participant in a bigger writing community, so be a good neighbor. We live in times where we need more kindness, so do someone else a solid. Put awful things like social media to some good use instead. Or take that five minutes to write a review on a seller’s site or a book community site. If people value what you have to say about books you love, many are going to want to know about your work as well.

You don’t have to become a PR cliché to produce effective promotion for your book. Look, you really do believe your book has value, right? Whether that’s simply entertainment value for a reader or a book that will challenge how they perceive the world, surely you are producing work that you are proud to have written—a book that deserves an audience. The thing is, you’re going to have to go out and find that audience. There’s a first step that has to happen before we can have the contemplative conversation about whether an unopened book on a bookshelf has value; first we’ve got to get it on the shelf, or better yet, in a reader’s hands.

~~~

Thanks for your insights, Mark! 

TKZers: Do you have mind tricks that help overcome your aversion to marketing? Please share.

~~~

 

Mark Leichliter’s new novel The Other Side debuts today, June 8. Sales links here.

How do you start an investigation when you have no evidence a crime has been committed?

 

In Praise of the Antikythera Mechanism!

When I was last here two weeks ago I discussed ancient books and authors. I was gratified to receive a number of comments on the topic, including one from Dan Phalen, who wondered what would become of our digital prose. Dan used the example of an archeologist coming upon an iPhone a thousand years from now who would be faced with the task of coaxing digital text from the device.  

Dan’s example isn’t going to have to wait for one thousand years to occur. It’s happening right now. Remember floppy disks? Some of you may not. They were and are these square things that were read by something known, by amazing coincidence, as a floppy disk drive. If some of you have a bunch taking up space in a forgotten corner of your office you might be surprised and disappointed to find that the data on them is corrupted or bye-bye. On the other hand, some companies, like Boeing, the airplane people, still use them.  Think about that the next time you are in the air and you hear your pilot say “Uh-oh” on a hot mike, followed by an extended period of turbulence.

There are also .art files. Back when AOL was (almost) the only game in town and you downloaded pictures from the internet using AOL those pictures were saved in the form of an .art file. A great many of those are corrupted as well. I have tried several programs to open them but none have worked. AMF. That said, the unknown of the obsolete goes back much, much further than the most recent turn of the century. More on that in a minute.

I did another research deep dive — this one into the topic of information storage retrieval — and almost didn’t get this post written because of it. I was in so deep and had to come up so fast that I am still recovering from the bends. I did find a number of interesting websites dealing with the topic of retrieving data from obsolete technical doo-dahs. I’ll (attempt to) limit my discussion to two of them, which hopefully will be particularly relevant for those of you who labor in the historical fiction grammar mine. As an aside, let me note that there doesn’t seem to be an agreed-upon definition of what “historical fiction” is. For our purposes, we’ll call it a story set at least twenty-five years before the year in which the story is written. That would be from the beginning of all of this around us to…um…1996. That is disconcerting because I can remember a number of major events in my life from that year but not what I had for lunch yesterday. Oh, the humanity!

Onward. There is a wonderfully nerdy (and I say that with the highest respect) site named the Museum of Obsolete Media which is a time bandit of the highest order. If you look under the “Popular Tags” section you will see links to decades beginning with the 1860s. If you are neck-deep in writing a series set in the 1900s and want to see what was there in 1906 that ain’t no more and want to use it as a starting point for some element of your novel, this is the place to go for that and so much more. I was surprised when looking through my own timeline to note how many cutting-edge items (at that time) were listed that seemed futuristic but are now practically forgotten. Anyone want to buy a non-functioning Apple Newton?

Obsoletemedia.org is a labor of love. If you want to get up to your neck in things, however, the oft-forgotten but absolutely indispensable National Archives has an area — a very, very large area — devoted to “special media preservation.” That area has everything from wire recordings and machines to play them on to that new iPhone that you’ll brick in two years. It is particularly noteworthy that you can email questions to them about such topics and the worker bees there will happily email you back with everything you ever wanted to know about, say, wax cylinder recordings, the same way that your local library still does for more mundane topics. 

It all sounds very cool. The problem, though,  is that all of that data, particularly the digital type on collections such as the ones in the National Archives, is sitting on a time bomb. The immediate problem with contemporary “media preservation” is that digital media isn’t built to last. It is fragile coming out of the box and deteriorates relatively rapidly.  That is but one reason that I can’t open .art files I made twenty years ago but I can go on eBay and buy photographs taken in the 1800s. As far as digital information is concerned, there is more and more of it being made, lost, and found even as there are fewer people dedicated to exploring the obsolete storage mechanisms and preserving what they find. Information is being lost, as is the ability to retrieve it in the first place. Meanwhile, wire recordings made by Thomas Alva Edison still work and can be repaired.

Getting back to archeologists and the like…this photo may look like the water shutoff valve in your basement

but it is something called the “Antikythera Mechanism,” considered to be the world’s oldest computer. It is believed to have predated Bill Gates’ monster by around two thousand years. The Antikythera Mechanism was discovered amidst the ruins of an ancient shipwreck in 1901. It was not until 2008 that it was recognized for what it was (“Why…that’s an Antikythera Mechanism!”). Yes. It took a looong time for archeologists and scientists to figure out what the f-heck it was and what it could do, which was predicting solar eclipses and organizing calendars (“Meet Lycastra on the down-low. 4P by the sundial”). It can probably do a heck of a lot more, such as spontaneously opening dimensions between our reality and the netherworld on July 11, 2021.  What I find particularly interesting is that our contemporary technology had to catch up with the Antikythera Mechanism so that it could be recognized for what it was. Otherwise, it would probably be a paperweight on a desk of a Greek fishing boat.

Sobering, isn’t it?

 I had a conversation last week with my granddaughter, who is starting high school next year. We talked about fields of study. My advice to her was to master computer systems and storage retrieval. “This is all going to break down,” I said. “All of it. It’s not a question of ‘if’ but a question of ‘when.’ When all the king’s horses and men need those digital bits put back together be ready to be the one to do it. You’ll be able to name your own price. Settle for nothing less than your own island and a bunch of people — well paid, but well paid by somebody else — to look after it.” 

When I think about the Antikythera Mechanism, that advice looks better with each day. 

So what technological device, program, or storage entity do you miss? Windows 7 is an okay answer.

 

Achieving Immortality Through Fiction

Debbie Burke’s recent post about falling down research rabbit holes has launched a couple of ships this week. Here is mine. I fell through a research wormhole and found myself engrossed in a topic totally different from the one on which I started.

What I ended up digging into is what is (generally) regarded as the first known book and its cousin, the first known novel. It’s a fascinating topic. Folks, including myself, might reflexively answer the question as to what the first known book is with the response (index finger in the air for emphasis) as “The Gutenberg Bible!” It’s not even close. The Gutenberg Bible is the first printed book from moveable type, which a noteworthy accomplishment to be sure. The first known printed book, however, is The Diamond Sutra, which was created in China in the ninth century, using wooden blocks somewhat like you can now find in arts and crafts sections at Michael’s and similar stores (don’t forget the ink pad). That said, even The Diamond Sutra isn’t the first known book. 

Since we are moving backward, let’s discuss for a moment what is currently regarded as the first novel. It is titled The Tale of Genji and is considered, with some dispute, to have been written almost one thousand years ago, in the eleventh century, by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. That name is believed to have been a pseudonym, but Lady Murasaki, as she is known to us, was a noblewoman who was invited to be a lady-in-waiting to the Japanese empress Soshi at the Imperial Court. The Tale of Genji is considered to be a psychological and romantic novel. What is remarkable about this is that in the world of Japanese literature at the time genre literature was held in low esteem. Time really is a flat circle, isn’t it? The Tale of Genji was so well-written and popular that it nonetheless influenced Japanese culture and mores and continues to do so in present times. Genji, a courtier, is portrayed as being passionate and gentle, which is part of the appeal of the story. The novel continues to be studied, researched, and translated. The most recent translation that I could find is approximately 1300 pages long. It looks to be somewhat rough sledding to read but it nonetheless endures. 

That brings us to what is acknowledged as the first known book, titled The Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is, by amazing coincidence, an epic poem believed to have been written in installments between 2100 and 1200 B.C. (what is a millennium between friends?) and is an exaggerated and fictionalized account of the exploits of Bilgamesh, the King of Uruk. It is preserved on cuneiform tablets but you can read it on a Kindle. You should. Its exact author is unknown but whoever it is launched a thousand literary ships. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s enemy turned BFF, cut a wide swath through the known world, drinking, fighting, and ravishing until they take things a step too far. A tragedy leaves Gilgamesh seeking the meaning of life and attempting to acquire immortality, with predictable results. 

Or maybe not. Gilgamesh lives on. There is a heck of a story here. You can find traces of it in Don Quixote, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, Robert Lee Howard’s Conan tales, and yes, the tales of Roland in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. Oh, and did I forget The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the Aeneid? There may be a book that is the source for The Epic of Gilgamesh, buried in spider doo-doo somewhere in the Middle East, but it hasn’t been found yet. So why isn’t it regarded as the earliest novel? It’s a poem, for one, For another, it’s only a hair or so over one hundred pages, which I guess qualifies it as a novella. It is in any event worth reading, in translation, of course.

Gilgamesh may not have physically lived forever, but he certainly has in the literary sense. I doubt the author(s) ever imagined that their epic poems would be read and revered thousands of years after being written but there you go. My best advice to you, my friends, is to dust off that trunk novel and give it another shot. Someone may be reading you at some point in the future and considering you the best of your time. Why not you?

Now, a question for you. Has there been any story/poem/novel from the time period which we have been discussing (a long one to be sure) that has influenced you, or that you still return to for inspiration, succor, or reference, for any reason, including but not limited to writing?

 

Out With Them!

 

By Elaine Viets

I was listening to a talk radio show when I heard something like this:

“You’ve given us a lot to unpack here, Bill,” the host said. “Destructive weather events are becoming the new normal in these uncertain times.”
The guest blathered, “Yes, we’re all in this –

No! I switched off the radio before he finished saying, “We’re all in this together.
I’ve learned to live with many of the old cliches and misused words. I no longer cringe when someone says, “Irregardless.”
But these uh, uncertain times have spawned a new and even more annoying crop of cliches. They’re infesting our language like termites. My husband Don is tired of listening to me gripe. But I can tell you, can’t I, dear reader?

Here is my list of words and phrases I’d like to see banned. I hope they don’t creep into our conversation – or worse, our writing.

UNPACK. Usually suitcases are unpacked – we remove the contents and put them away. But lately unpack has been used in another way: to consider, to analyze, to reveal. Webster says that use is legit, but it rubs me the wrong way. Never mind that Shakespeare himself used it, during Hamlet’s rant (uh, soliloquy):

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab

PROCESS. After you unpack something, you need time to process it. “After my mother died, it took a long time to process her death.” What the heck? Are you a computer?

EVENT. Here’s another one that gets me. A tornado trashes an entire town, killing innocent people and destroying their homes. And what does the media call it? “A weather event.”
Why? Do you sell tickets to a tornado?


LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL. Something we’re not seeing these days, but the media keeps saying it’s there. This phrase has been around for maybe two hundred years. Some sources say it goes back to the 1800s and was used “in a letter by English novelist George Eliot.” John F. Kennedy made it popular in the mid-1960s when he talked about Vietnam. The phrase can be either one of hope – or despair.

 

GIVE 110 PERCENT. Mostly said by corporate types. Can you folks even add?

BAD OPTICS. PR speak for “this looks bad.” For instance, “Widgets Inc. cut ties with their foreign supplier when they found out the supplier used child labor.” Did Widgets care about those toiling tots? Heck no. But they were worried what their customers would think.

EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON. Usually said after some especially senseless tragedy. Often followed by another favorite phrase: “thoughts and prayers.”

Covid has spawned a crop of cliches:

IN THESE UNCERTAIN TIMES. A euphemism for “in these hopelessly screwed-up times.” And unless we’re fortune tellers, almost all times are uncertain. We can’t see the future.

IT IS WHAT IT IS. A mental shrug. An annoying way of saying, “I don’t want to do anything about it.” Politicians as far back as George Bush have used it and it’s the favorite excuse in sports. Your Dictionary says, one famous example was when the coach of the US hockey team at the 2006 Winter Olympics excused his team’s “lack of rest by saying, ‘We’re going to do the best that we can. It is what it is.’”
If it will make you feel any better, other languages also have versions of this, according to Your Dictionary: “In Persian, ‘Fihi Ma Fihi’ means the same thing and was the title of a famous work by Rumi, a 13th century writer. In Spanish, the phrase ‘Que será, será’ means ‘what will be, will be.’ This is a somewhat more optimistic twist on the idea.” Doris Day made that phrase into a song.

LESS THAN. In mathematics it means smaller. Four is less than six. But the term is less than satisfactory when it strays in to everyday language. It’s wrong to make people feel “less than.” Less than what?

LIVING MY BEST LIFE. Oh? You get more than one? Lucky you. Like it or not, I’m already living my best life – now.

NEW NORMAL. The new normal not only isn’t normal, it’s not even new. Wikipedia, for heaven’s sake, points out that every time we have a major crisis, we dig up that term and dust it off. It seems to have appeared the first time in 1918, right after World War I. Henry A. Wise Wood spelled it out for us: “How shall we pass from war to the new normal with the least jar, in the shortest time? In that respect should the new normal be shaped to differ from the old?”
Pundits have been working variations on that theme after the 1990s Dot-Com Bubble, the financial crisis of 2007-2008, September 11 attacks, the aftermath of the 2008–2012 global recession, and now – the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The New Normal” was a TV show and country singer Cooper Alan even has a love song called “New Normal.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=poBwXChcvCY

So which words or phrases are driving you nuts in these . . .um . . .difficult times? Go ahead. You can tell us.

**********************************************************************
Now out! DEATH GRIP, my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery. Kirkus magazine says, “Viets produces chills with a murder hunt turned on its head.” Buy it here: https://tinyurl.com/ya9q9tfm

Preparing for the End of the Story

Photo Courtesy of Neptune Society, Inc. All rights reserved.

I recently attended three funerals over the course of a week. One of the deceased individuals was a month short of 90. The other two were much closer to my age. Of those two, one had an open casket. He looked good, but…you know. I had shared a number of meals and consumed a number of beers (when I did that type of thing) with the gent and seeing his empty vessel displayed in an open casket functioned as a wake-up call for me.

I decided to start pre-planning my funeral arrangements, or lack thereof. We talk of wills and trusts and of getting one’s affairs in order for the inevitable day of departure and the time that follows. What often gets lost is what is to be done in the minutes and hours that follow a death. The wishes of a deceased are sometimes noted in a will but a testamentary document isn’t usually looked at until weeks after passing. Telling your survivors ahead of time, with something in writing other than in a will, is an absolute must. I wanted to be cremated (and still do) without ceremony or recognition. Given that we are in the Age of Google, a quick search for “cremation” almost immediately in my devices being inundated with pop-up ads, emails, and phone calls from area funeral home representatives. This kind of browned me off, to be honest, though if you really want a lot of attention, google “housepainting.” That aside,  I was further upset by the refusal of the people contacting me to send me a price list concerning their services, insisting that I instead come to their offices for such information.  I know why. Funeral homes upsell. It is what they do. It is how they are able to stay in business. They have very high overhead and offer a service that almost no one else wants to perform. I just didn’t want it. 

I eventually as a result of my research contacted Neptune Society, a national organization that arranges cremation. I did this for a number of reasons. I wanted to be cremated. I contacted them, as opposed to them reaching out to me. They were upfront about their pricing and services. A friend of mine who would have found a problem with them if there were a problem to be found had personal experience with them (once removed of course) and strongly recommended them.  Their local office is on Cemetery Road(!) in a nearby suburb. And… they offered me a free lunch at a local restaurant where I could attend a seminar, even after I indicated to them that I would be using their services.

I showed up on the day and time appointed at a local sports bar with a few other crusty customers of the age where one wakes each morning with roughly equal amounts of surprise and regret. The other attendees eyed me uneasily across the table for a few minutes while I listened to them carp about the lunch choices (“I usually have a drink with lunch. Can I order a drink?”) and tut-tut about the cost of the services (“When my husband had this done ten years ago it cost less…”).  I silently promised myself to never be that obnoxious when I reached their ages. I learned over the course of the next hour that I was the oldest one there. You live and learn, even as you approach the end of the story.

The folks from Neptune Society were very nice and didn’t try to upsell me (“for just a little bit more, we can arrange a celebration of life for you”) or cross-sell me (“Don’t you think that a nice commemorative ribbon to match your urn would be a nice touch?”) as many funeral homes do. Their sales pitch was so low-key that it wasn’t an infomercial at all.  I was able to enter into an agreement with Neptune Society that afternoon and I became officially “pre-planned,”  meaning that my arrangements were paid for and my wishes set in stone. One item which was offered but not pushed was the “Travel Protection Plan.” I purchased it. The Travel Protection Plan is like “AAA-Plus” for a deceased, only better. If you have AAA or another roadside assistance service you are probably aware that there is a limit as to how far your car will be towed at no cost to you. If the towing mileage exceeds that limit there is a per-mile charge. It is not calculated in pennies. The same holds true for dead bodies. The general industry standard for funeral homes, at least in Ohio, is that if you die outside of a thirty-mile radius of your home the odometer starts ticking. Neptune Society has a seventy-five-mile radius, but with the Travel Protection Plan there is no mileage limit, even if the covered individual is out of the country. What this means is that should I pass away far from home Neptune Society’s sweet chariot will swing down and take me home at no cost.  The thought of my sons traveling to wherever I might be and doing a Weekend at Bernie’s trip to bring me back made me chuckle, but only initially. I paid for that and a storage box which I have taken to calling my “forever home.” Done. And done.

Photo courtesy of Al Thumz Photography. All rights reserved.

The surprise for me was how relieved I felt about making the arrangements, or lack thereof. I told my children that if they wanted a visitation to come to see me while I’m alive. If they want to celebrate my life, take me to Twin Peaks. It’s too late once that rusty gate swings open and I tapdance through. I also gave each of them a copy of my Neptune Society card so that when the time comes things would be taken care of promptly. 

All of this thought and consideration about death and its immediate aftermath of course sparked within me an idea for what I think will be a heck of a story with the potential to be much darker than The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh. That brings us to you, my friends. Have any of you pre-planned your funeral? Have you thought about it? Do you know what you want? Or is the topic like that closet that you haven’t opened in years and are afraid of what you’ll find (or what will find you)?

 

Guest Post by Agatha-Winner Leslie Budewitz

Agatha-winning author Leslie Budewitz

Today, I’m pleased to host Leslie Budewitz for this guest post. Leslie is an attorney, mystery author of two cozy series, and triple Agatha Award winner. For more than 20 years, she and I have been trusted critique partners and good friends.

Leslie offers insightful techniques to deepen emotion in our writing. Welcome, Leslie!

Emotional Research

by Leslie Budewitz

No matter what genre we write, readers come to our books in part for an emotional connection with our characters and the story. One way to give them that is to draw on our own experiences. We’ve all felt deep emotion—rage, betrayal, jealousy—that if pushed to extremes could lead us to do terrible things, planned or unplanned. I’m betting most of you have drawn on your own emotional experiences in your fiction, exploring your personal emotions, perhaps through a free-write, then giving that, or pieces of it, to your characters.

But sometimes characters have experiences we haven’t had. This is when need to call on our research and observational skills, as well as our empathy, to better understand a character’s emotional experiences, what motivates them, and how they will respond in a particular story crisis.

I first delved into this when writing my first published mystery, Death al Dente. When the series began, my main character, Erin Murphy, was a 32-year-old who had lost her father to a hit-and-run accident when she was 17; the crime was unsolved and I planned to solve it over the course of the first three books.

My father died when I was 30. That’s a very different experience. I’d worked on countless personal injury cases as a lawyer, including wrongful death cases, and knew some of what survivors went through. But I needed to know more about the emotion and how it might continue to influence this particular woman

I sat down and wrote by hand about every person I could think of that I knew—well or not well—who’d lost a parent when they were young. Some of my observations were decades old, but it turned out that I knew a lot. I remembered talking on the phone for an hour, back when daytime long distance was expensive, when my best friend from college lost her father at 21. I thought about some of the ways that loss at that age affected her—she’s still my BFF—and gave her a different experience than her older siblings got.

I remembered a conversation with a 35-year-old colleague whose father died when he was 18. “But you were grown,” a friend said, implying that that lessened the impact; “not really,” he replied, and his sadness told me how much he felt had been unjustly taken from him.

I wrote about the high school classmate whose father died the year after we graduated, and whose own husband died in his early 40s, leaving her with a small child, giving her—and me—a dual perspective. I let my focus drift and I wrote about my reaction and that of my high school classmates when a boy in our class was killed in a car accident junior year. Later that same week, a girl a year behind us in our small school lost her mother to wintry roads; the family lived near us and went to the same church. I thought about the baby, not a year old, who never knew his mother, and some poor decisions the oldest girl made that might have turned out differently if not for that tragedy.

Other options: Talk to people who’ve had your character’s experience, if they’re willing, or to people involved with it in other ways. I talked to my husband, who’s a doctor of natural medicine with a general practice and has treated many patients rocked by grief. Talk to your friend who teaches high school or your walking buddy who’s a social worker.

I searched online for guides for teachers and school counselors on dealing with students who lost a parent. You could also read memoir, personal accounts, or YA novels involving that situation.

And from all of that, I was able to see how Erin would have responded, the different ways her older brother and sister responded; how the death affected her relationship with her mother at the time, and how it affects their relationship now. Francesca still wants to protect Erin, who’s 32, and knows she can’t, any more than she could when Erin went off to college that fall. What does that lead Francesca to do—and say—when she sees her daughter investigating murder? Erin was on stage in the local theater rehearsing for the school play when the accident happened; fifteen years later, she still thinks about that every time she walks in the building. And the guilt she feels over having argued with him the last time she saw him doesn’t resolve until she solves the crime. It was just a teenager’s pique, but the more complicated the relationship, the more complicated the emotions and the bigger the potential story impact.

Of course, all losses have ripple effects. In college, Erin was aloof, focused on school and her own grief. She barely noticed a guy who was really into her. She meets him again, 15 years later. How does that history influence their relationship? And the impact on her friendship with her childhood best pal is a big driver of the story as well, because of what the other girl thought she knew and how she responded—and because she’s now a sheriff’s detective in their hometown.

For Erin, I did the emotional research during the first draft. For Bitterroot Lake, my suspense debut coming out later this month, I did the digging during revision, in response to questions from my editor. I thought about people I knew who, from my perspective, appeared to be driven by bitterness and resentment. I read articles online in Psychology Today and blog posts by psychologists. Tip: This is one time when you want to read the comments! People will say the most amazing things when given the freedom.

All that helped me develop what I knew, and gave me specifics on how such a person views the world and the language they use. I was able to imagine more fully what this particular character in this town, in this crisis, might do.

I said write by hand when you mine your memories and connections, and I mean it. Research shows that writing by hand bypasses our internal editors and judges, and gives us more direct access to our feelings.

You know how to research dates and car models and the color of prison jumpsuits. Turn those skills to your characters’ inner lives and you—and your readers—will connect with them more deeply, more fully.

~~~

Leslie Budewitz blends her passion for food, great mysteries, and the Northwest in two cozy mystery series, the Spice Shop mysteries set in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and the Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, set in NW Montana. She’ll make her suspense debut with BITTERROOT LAKE, written as Alicia Beckman, in April 2021. A three-time Agatha-Award winner (2011, Best Nonfiction; 2013, Best First Novel; 2018, Best Short Story), she is a current board member of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime. She lives in NW Montana.

Find her online at www.LeslieBudewitz.com and on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/LeslieBudewitzAuthor

When four women separated by tragedy reunite at a lakeside Montana lodge, murder forces them to confront everything they thought they knew about the terrifying accident that tore them apart, in Agatha Award-winning author Alicia Beckman’s suspense debut.

More about Bitterroot Lake, including an excerpt and buy links here: https://www.lesliebudewitz.com/bitterroot-lake/

 

 

A big thank you to Leslie for sharing her wisdom! 

TKZers: Do you have favorite techniques to portray emotions about experiences you haven’t experienced yourself? Please share in the comments section.