Taser–er, TEASER Tuesday. Shall we have a continue-the-story?

[EDIT: I knew it. Y’all can’t DO it without zombies. Well, it didn’t work any better when I tried to do it on my BBS in 1982, either. It only works for some people.]

Yes, I think that would be fun. It probably won’t go very far, as people will miss this post and/or will forget to come back to it, but let’s start a story. I’ll go first, and then you can continue it in comments.

Or not, whatever. . . .

ALLIANCES AND DALLIANCES
It was too quiet. I think the quiet was what finally woke me.

I fingered the motel room’s brittle blinds and peeked out through a crack. An accusatory sky stared back: almost noon.

Why hadn’t I awakened at my usual early hour? Where were the roosters? Where was all the traffic? I jerked the cord and the blind screeched up to reveal . . . nobody outside.

No one on the street.

Had the city been evacuated? My heart sped up, but I fought down the panic. It was probably just some attraction across the street–a fire that everybody ran to watch, or whatever.

I tugged at my restraints; my hands were immobile. A heavy clank answered me, just outside my peripheral vision.

My Superiors had forgotten to loosen things before . . . before what? Evacuating and leaving me alone here?

The clank told me that the pin was loose, though. With a few hard shake-rattle-rolls it fell out of the socket and my wrists came free. The bonds must’ve been tighter than usual, or else I had struggled in my sleep.

Rubbing my wrists together and flexing my chilled fingers, I headed for the door. But then I realized I’d have to put something else on. I wasn’t street-legal. There were my regular clothes, still in the closet. I breathed a little easier. Especially after I peeled off the neoprene and got into regular street gear: jeans and a white tee, my white running shoes, a gimme cap to cover my dirty hair. In the pocket of my jeans my cell phone waited.

It still held a slight charge. But the service tower said NO SIGNAL.

I snatched open the room’s door and stared out. Now I understood why people enjoyed having their minds dulled and their fight-or-flight reactions damped down by psychotropics.

No one was out on the street, nobody out on the motel’s balconies. I grabbed up my gymbag, made a quick check that I hadn’t left anything behind, and ran for the Camaro.

On the radio, static. I managed to tune in a Mexican AM station playing faint salsa. I started down the street cautiously, weaving between parked cars. I thought i saw someone in the window of one of the vacant houses, but it was just a cat.

NOW . . . you continue the story. NO ZOMBIES!!!!! The only rule is NO ZOMBIES!!!!

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BIZ OF WRITING: Branding–or building an audience?

Self-promotion, getting readers, keeping readers. Now that the publishing houses aren’t doing very much promotion for the average book, we as authors are pretty much saddled with that daunting task.

I was intrigued by this post from Theresa of Edittorrent, the same blog on which I unintentionally upset people so much when I responded to their comments (which I requested) on the opening of my Pundit novel (I always forget that not everyone is an ex-debate-team engineer or college prof and isn’t up for a dissection of whatever they’ve just said in order to stimulate further discussion.) I think that the author she describes is truly a whiz at getting great audiences to come to her appearances, and that we can learn a lot from watching.

However, I respectfully disagree with the term “branding” for all of this. What I would call what that knitting author is doing during her book appearances is . . . entertainment!

“Branding,” to me, is the technique of making Stephen King synonymous with horror, or Judy Blume be the standard for young adult/middle grade, by simply making EVERY BOOK be in that genre (which isn’t my idea of growth and improvement in any pursuit). Branding has more to do with the audience identifying you with a particular genre and thinking of you as the one who owns that genre. Yes, this author has done the branding thing. But. . . .

What this lady is doing during her appearances is BUILDING AN AUDIENCE, which is (to my way of thinking) even better. After all, Steve Martin began to build his audience by playing the banjo and having a plastic arrow sticking out of his head while he made obscene balloon animals. Then he moved on to skits on SNL and the movies, after which he did some big films, and now he has written mystery novels. His audience has followed the Steve Martin “brand” wherever he took them, but that’s because he built an audience. He worked it so that he has a fan base. It may be a subtle difference.

She uses some of the same techniques real estate agents and other salespeople use when they refer to “YOUR house” when you’re only walking through a model. She takes photos of the audience, which flatters and charms them–and is cheap with a digital camera! She posts those photos on her weblog or website. She responds to the occasional e-mail or blog comment. This is just smart business. She turns the tables on the audience and makes THEM the focus. She isn’t the star–YOU are! It’s a feel-good rather than being all about “here I am as the big-time writer and here is how I got here and I am so cool, doncha wanna kiss my ring.”

I think that the lesson we as fiction writers can take away from seeing the success of a writer who does the appearances as “concerts” (think Gallagher) is that we need to entertain our audiences. Teachers today have found that there’s more to holding the attention of the class than just doing a little talk and a Q&A and maybe a drawing for a free book. Audiences now would like us to charm them. Make them happy. Get 187 people to show up because they’re excited about seeing what we’ll do and eager to hear what we’ll say that’s funny or entertaining.

One of the hooks that the author in the article uses is the sock she is currently knitting. She does a number of silly things with the sock to entertain the troops and keep them focused on her schtick of “knitting IS ME.” It’s a maguffin. What we need to do, then, if we’re gonna do this (and I’m not sure it’s not pretty silly, but I am sure it would probably work to get you a large audience) is have a maguffin for each of our books. People LOVE trinkets, souvenirs, “something I won” or “looky what I got free!” They put little figurines on top of their computer monitors, on their desks at work, on a shelf with other trinkets. Trust me . . . they’re popular. Each of your books has a maguffin, I’ll bet, or more than one.

For example . . . in my novel _Little Rituals_, Daphne’s charm bracelet plays a prominent role. So what am I going to discuss, in part, during my little Daphne book spiel to the huge booksigning audience we have somehow tricked into showing up?

I’m going to talk about charm bracelets and superstition and ritual and various beliefs, but I’m going to use the charm bracelet as a concrete attractor. I’m going to hold mine up and describe the charms and why I have them and what Daph’s mean to her. And then I am going to give a couple of starter charm bracelets to random attendees. A 7-1/2″ sterling charm bracelet goes on eBay (new, from a place like Zina’s) for around $7 to $10. A nice little mini charm might go for a bit less, depending on what you choose. Engraving it with something that’s a reminder of the book (if it’s a tiny round charm, there’s not that much room) might cost more, but could make it very collectible. So it costs me some cash. The reaction of the woman who wins it and remembers ME and my book? As they say in those Visa ads . . . “priceless.”

I will open my chat/appearance by walking in making an effort to not step on cracks, knocking on wood, and doing a few silly little things like that for attention-getting until they catch on to what I’m doing. Once they’ve guessed and laughed, then we’ll discuss the place of ritual in life. I’ll ask the audience, “What are YOUR superstitions? Do you have lucky rituals? What is a ritual that you do every day?” (I’m thinking here of the hi-how-are-you and handshake dance, not a ceremony under the moon.) We’ll talk about how these rituals might have arisen and been handed down in this culture. We can lead into some of the themes I explore. The bit with my arguing with the Magic 8 Ball and so forth would be a fun schtick, even if it DIDN’T move books, and I should think it would sell a FEW.

For my Marfa lights mystery, I’ll do a similar thing, using a theme of paranormal stuff such as ghost lights and the phenomena seen at Nellis AFB/Groom Lake and those tricky little aliens in their UFOs who only appear to farmers and small-town people in Stephenville and Cleburne (TX) in order to avoid being seen by big-city folks. Hell, for all I know UFOs the size of zeppelins DO appear in Dallas at night and nobody even NOTICES them amid all the flash and chaos that is the big city. I’ve always nursed a belief that these visits are from teenage aliens who have taken Dad’s UFO for the night and are just out playing a few pranks, like kids drag-racing on the old highway and other “American Graffiti” pastimes. We can discuss whether the consensus reality that we all see is real or not. My money’s on “not.”

What will I award to these audiences? I’ll give a couple of people a Marfa light, of course. You can buy a plastic ball that has a little flashing LED in the middle . . . I think I saw them in a pond catalog for floating in your pond. I know I’ve seen them. Or I might make them out of something. Whatever. It won’t be expensive, but it’ll sure make people remember. Another good souvenir for those visits would be a button (yeah, you know, like those old-fashioned campaign buttons that said “Snoopy for President” and “Kiss Me I’m Irish”) with a slogan that’s snappy like “The Truth Is Out There”–although THAT one is taken. I’ll come up with something good. Or really corny.

You see where I’m going with this. I don’t believe that the promotional stuff and stunts this lady does at her appearances has too much to do with “branding.” I think it is building a FAN BASE, and I think it’s SHOW BUSINESS, and I think it WORKS.

If I ever have the opportunity to do booksignings and promote my book and all future/past books, that’s the way I’ll do it. I’ll be a phenomenon not unlike a ghost light. I’ll become the most famous thing since Harlan Ellison.

Well, maybe not that famous. But just wait and see.

MARKETS: Tor anthology call for submissions!

For those who can do short stories (not my forte) and who have an interest in ghost stories, here’s a FANTASTIC opportunity to submit to Nick Mamatas and Ellen Datlow and be pubbed beside some of the SF/F greats!

Call For Submissions: HAUNTED LEGENDS

Mr. Mamatas says, firmly, “[S]ubmitters have all of […] July to write a new story for us. Do not submit immediately. Do not submit trunk stories. Haunted Legends, to be published by Tor Books, seeks to reinvigorate the genre of “true” regional ghost stories by asking some of today’s leading writers to riff on traditional tales from around the world. We don’t just want you to retell an old ghost story, but to renovate it so that the story is dark and unsettling all over again.”

I think the anthology is getting nearly full. But there may be one or two of you who could pull this off with great panache! It’s just not up my alley at all, but if you think you would like to try, click on the link for submission guidelines. The interesting part might be if you could rework an old trunk story . . . no, no, he says not to do it. But if he doesn’t KNOW and can’t TELL it’s reworked . . . well. . . .

Keeping my fingers crossed for you!

Goodbye, George–not goodbye, but see ya later, and thanks

Comedian George Carlin died Sunday afternoon of heart failure.

“[There is] a mysterious and little-known stage of dying: the two-minute warning. Most people are not aware of it, but it does exist. Just as in football, two minutes before you die you receive an audible warning: ‘Two minutes! Get your shit together!’ And the reason most people don’t know about it is because the only ones who hear it are dead two minutes later. They never get a chance to tell us.”–George Carlin

[Copyright ©2001 George Carlin. Excerpted from his book _Napalm & Silly Putty_ for purposes of tribute only: all rights reserved by whoever reserves those kinds of things.]

George . . . I know you got your two-minute warning. I know you and The Big Guy had your differences, and it seems you were pretty angry at the Universe for the last few years, but I am sure that now you’re finally hearing the answers to all your questions and are seeing again all those people you’d lost. It’s been a wild ride, hasn’t it? An easy transition to you, and we’ll see you again on the Other Side.

Informal poll: are people who post novels online lamers?

One of the interesting things that came up in my conversation with the New York agent last Thursday was that she felt I should try posting one of my novels–or serialized chapter-at-a-time versions–on my website. She thought it would be effective because of my possible win of the you-know-what contest. (Don’t want to jinx it any further. Am researching spells to make my essay win.)

Here’s the imagined scenario: I win the essay contest. This contest is known to NYC editors/agents as well as to librarians (the press release I saw was the one that reached the Richardson library, where I have a mole–I have spies everywhere) and Benchleyites. It is a contest that is well regarded, as it is judged by pros (unlike many RWA-sponsored contests, where the first-round judges are not necessarily pros.) The organizers of the event are happy to link to your site from the announcement of the contest win. Therefore, the theory goes, editors might be surfing around that site and might click on the link. There, they might take a look at some of the posted material, just for fun. If they like what they see, they might e-mail a request that I query them with whichever one it is they like.

She says that nontraditional methods work. That I should try to get my voice out there.

Okay. Well. Um. Sure, I wish she could reach down my throat and pull the Magic Book out of there that would make us both proud. (I once told my aunt to open her mouth so I could retrieve the other half of MY sandwich, which she had stolen while I was distracted fighting with the other kids at the table. Of course, I was four.) However, that didn’t happen. So why wouldn’t I want to try this route with the books I *do* have, the ones she doesn’t feel will snag an agent?

Here let us digress momentarily. Questions I have been asked about this include: (1) How do they know what’s gonna sell? and (2) Isn’t that just lame?

(1) They’re sales people. If I run the cosmetics counter at Dullard’s Dept. Store and I have a big seller in mascara, I’ll stock mascara. But if my twenty regular customers suddenly quit wanting it and tell me they aren’t gonna use it any more, then I have to try to sell them a product they DO want. It’s the reality of business. Maxwell Perkins is dead. Agents spend all day talking to their friends who are editors–their customers–probably about five to twelve of them are “regulars” to whom the agent sends manuscripts all the time, and sells to often. This customer will not like it if the agent continues to send stuff that the editor has said she can’t or won’t buy. Those cartons of melted crayons may look good to eat, but they don’t meet the minimum RDA for calories any more. *sigh* Such is life.

Two agents have told me recently that factors you’d never guess really DO affect the possibilities your book has at market. (1) If it is over 120,000 words or shorter than 80,000, it’s got problems. In fact, many agents and editors will look at your query and say, “I don’t wanna see it because it’s 130K words.” This is one reason that my mysteries don’t do well at the query stage–I know this. The realities of printing a book: there are certain sizes that books need to be to sell at the defined price points they have and to fit into those little racks. *cringe* (2) If you do not grab a modern reader on the first page or at least by page three, you are out of luck. This is affected by all sorts of personal preferences and is not something you can predict. You might use someone’s favorite name as the villain’s name, and that could blow the deal. Maybe you have a crash-bang-boom opening. But you don’t want to have a grabber of an opening that leads into a leisurely, philosophical, thought-provoking character study, either. They see many instances of a perfectly polished and “pacey” first three chapters that is then followed by a very different novel. These do not sell, though they win contests ALL THE TIME, apparently.

So. Let us concede that the Avon lady and the Amway distributor know what is selling out there on the street, and give up the quest to sell icicles to penguins.

Now we have to deal with the lameness factor. Isn’t it true that if you give away your book on your website, it is perceived to be one that wasn’t good enough to make it in the regular market? Do you want that perception to tar your book? Do you really want all those free copies downloaded out there by people who might go through and steal all your good lines and then put them into a book that DOES sell? (I know this happens. I just can’t check everything that’s in print against everything else.)

Is it as bad if you just give away the first chapter or two? Maybe not.

Hubby points out to me that my ISP has a little agreement dealie that we signed saying that we won’t sell stuff or have a commercial deal going on our pages. He thinks we would have to get a special page to do what she’s talking about. We could do that. But would it be lame?

I dunno. Next: the debate over where Dennis should send his paranormal novel.

(LONG POST WARNING) (NO, really, even LONGER than usual)

I wrote this post yesterday, but held on to it so I could reduce the Drama. That didn’t work. But I decided to post it anyway.
– – –
I just got off the phone with Yet Another Very Nice New York Literary Agent. She called me to reject _Little Rituals_. However, we had a lovely chat. For about an HOUR. On her dime! What a lovely person. Too bad I had a breakdown, as usual.
Details. *Includes subjective market report*

Happy Juneteenth!

President Lincoln freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on New Year’s Day in 1863. However, back then they didn’t have CNN or the Internet.

So it wasn’t until two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers sailed into Galveston, Texas, to announce the end of the Civil War, that African Americans learned the news. The Union troops read aloud a general order freeing the quarter-million slaves residing in Texas. June nineteenth became the Texas holiday, Juneteenth.

It’s a perfect day for those celebrations in parks across Dallas and throughout Texas. Have fun out there!

Also: My cousin Jay and his sister Jennifer were born on Juneteenth in 1972. Man, how can they be so OLD? Jay is in Europe on a college grant of some sort to design a new museum in Paris. Or something. I can’t remember what my aunt actually said, plus she’s ditzy and doesn’t tell all the right details. Jen is searching for a new house in Norman, Oklahoma, and will hate to leave her job at TCU in Ft. Worth–but her husband is a professor of architecture and is moving to OU/Norman. (“Namron” to you SCA types. Part of The Steppes. I think.)

So everyone who’s celebrating and picnicking today–have a good time out there!