Friday, March 25, 2016

Who Does Best as an Indie Author, Why Write Funny Mysteries and More!


Anne Talks with Debbie A. McClure


This is a conversation I had with Canadian author and motivational speaker Debbie A. McClure on her blog last summer It was really fun to talk with her. It's interesting to see how well (badly) I predicted what the next six months would be like. Ha!  


                                                       Debbie 

Debbie A. McClure
You combine comedy with mystery writing. That can't be easy, or is it? What is the easiest and/or most difficult aspect to writing this type of book?

Anne

Actually, what's hard for me is taking the comedy out of my writing. I find humor in everything. Always have. When I was about seven, I used to put on puppet shows in my backyard. Lots of carnage. Lots of laughs. I was a twisted kid. LOL.

When I try to write "heartfelt" and deeply emotional stuff, it falls flat. I like fast-paced stories that are fun, but leave you with something to think about later.

Mysteries were an obvious choice for me. I've been a mystery fan since I read my first Nancy Drew book, and since then I've read all the classics: pretty much everything by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Chandler, Hammett, etc. I've written a few books that aren't standard whodunnits, but they always have a mystery element. I think I like the structure involved with the mystery genre.

My newest novel, So Much for Buckingham, is the 5th in my Camilla Randall series of comedy-mysteries. It deals with some major issues: cyberbullying and character assassination. I also delve into the mystery of whether Richard III really killed the princes in the Tower. (I don't think he did.) Camilla's best friend is accused of killing an historical re-enactor dressed as the Duke of Buckingham. The only witness is apparently the ghost of Richard III. I hope people will find it funny and thought provoking.

Book #4, No Place Like Home, deals with homelessness and "bag lady syndrome"—the fear many older women have of ending up homeless.

Because I write funny mysteries, I get to deal with these issues in an unsentimental, detached way that examines all sides and still provides a lot of entertainment.

Debbie

Many writers today struggle with how to fit into this new e-landscape we're seeing. What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

Anne         

Number one: let go of the idea that paper books are the only "real" publishing. Most authors now make the bulk of their money from ebooks.

Also, accept social media as a necessary evil and then find aspects you can enjoy. For me, it's blogging. Every author needs to find a place online where they can interact and make friends. That's where we find readers and mentors—and maybe an agent and publisher.

I'd also add this advice to new writers: don't believe everything you read online. Lots of the publishing advice on the internet is old, misguided, or just plain wrong. Always consider the source and read widely.

Debbie

Who has been your greatest life or business mentor, and why?


Anne 

I'm very lucky that I made friends with my California Central Coast neighbor  Catherine Ryan Hyde (author of Pay it Forward and Amazon superstar) early in my career. She has been an inspiration and mentor to me for the last two decades. She's an amazing human being. I am so blessed that she agreed to co-write a handbook for writers with me: How to be a Writer in the E-Age: A Self-Help Guide.

Her ups and downs over the last twenty years have shown me that there is no certainty in this business, and you need to keep in touch with your readers and stay true to your voice no matter what.

Debbie


 You and I are both representatives of the "Boomer" generation. What advantages would you say we have over our mother's and grandmother's generations?


Anne 

Oh, there are so many! Tech alone has totally changed the process. I started writing in the days of typewriter ribbons and carbons, and younger people don't realize how time consuming all that stuff was. No cut and paste. One typo and you had to start the page over with a carbon.

And now we have email queries. I still have some of those old nesting boxes we used to send out our manuscripts with postage for return. Expensive! Plus all that postage …

And of course there's the fact women have so much more freedom and respect than they did in the early and mid-20th century.

As an unmarried female, I'm not expected to live with other family members as their live-in servant, the way "old maids", divorcees, and widows did in my grandmother's day.

Even my mother had to fight hard for respect, even though she had an Ivy League PhD. in English literature. People accept me as an authority because of what I say, not my gender. That's such a huge thing that younger women take for granted.

Debbie 

Writing is far more difficult than most people understand. Was there anything in your past professions as an actress and/or stage director that helped prepare you for this role of writer?


Anne 

Acting and directing are great preparation for a novelist! As an actor, you learn you always need motivation for whatever action you take on stage. A novelist needs to remember that even the most minor characters need to have a goal and a purpose in every scene.
Anne as the evil queen in "Pippin"

As a director, I learned what short attention spans audiences have, and how to keep up the pace and never let up. The immediate feedback of rapt attention and laughter vs. coughing, rustling programs, and trips to the restroom lets a director know what works and what doesn't.

Debbie

What would you say has been the most difficult personal lesson for you to learn in life?


Anne

I used to be way too trusting and giving. When I was younger, I always assumed everybody had honest, altruistic motives the way I did. That was childish. I've had to learn that accepting people as they present themselves can lead to grief. Learning to recognize narcissists and sociopaths and avoid letting them dominate my life has been a huge (and tough) life lesson for me. 

But I've had so much fun killing them off in my novels! LOL. My novel The Gatsby Game was inspired by a narcissistic ex-lover whose death is still a real-life Hollywood mystery.

Also, I've had to accept that I have more highly tuned senses than most people, so I can easily get over-stimulated—which leads to health problems. So I can't push myself past my limits with things like NaNoWriMo, big conferences, or marathon book tours.

Learning that I'm a "highly sensitive person" has finally allowed me to learn to say no to overload and overwhelming situations.

(Update: Haha! I failed to follow my own advice and did the overload thing, big time--see my update below.)

Debbie

What do you see as the future for publishing and the new e-technology, and why?


Anne

Obviously the e-reader has changed the publishing industry in a major way, and the changes keep coming.

I'd like to believe the publishing industry won't go the way of the music business, where everything is expected to be free and people think artists shouldn't be paid. Definitely the new paradigm has led to a lower bottom line for most traditional authors.

It has also given rise to the self-publishing movement, which is great for a lot of authors, and I've even self-published some of my own books.

But the "Kindle gold rush" is over, and lots of amateur writers who hoped to make millions are giving up. Kindle Unlimited has cut into the self-publishing bottom line in a major way for a lot of us.

Most self-publishers need to spread a wide net on many retailers in many countries in order to continue to thrive

Things will never return to "business as usual" pre-Kindle days, but we also can't party like it's 2009. Self-publishing will continue to be a viable option, but only the savvy and hard-working will make a living at it.

I think bookstores will continue to exist, the way movie theatres do, in spite of Netflix, Hulu and other streaming sites. People like the whole experience of visiting a bookstore.

Debbie 

You've collaborated on two projects now, one with author Catherine Ryan Hyde, and one with NYT million-seller author, Ruth Harris. Can you tell us a little about them, and what you feel are the advantages of writers partnering?

Anne

I collaborate with Ruth on our blog, but we don't actually write together. Ruth writes her own posts once a month. I don't have much input into her posts, except to catch the occasional typo (which she does for me, too.) She always comes up with great topics. It's been a very friendly and smooth-running partnership. 
Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris
The book I co-authored with Amazon superstar Catherine Ryan Hyde, How To Be A Writer In The E-Age, came together very easily because it was a nonfiction book and we wrote alternate chapters. We were already good friends, so it was a great experience.

I've also worked with other novelists on boxed sets and anthologies, and we worked a lot on co-promotion. These were fantastic opportunities to network with other authors in my genre and meet new readers. I think authors should jump on any chance to collaborate with other authors in boxed sets and other co-promotions. It's a fantastic way to expand your readership.

Debbie

Blogging has become something more writers are discovering, but often struggle with how to create a "voice"or meaningful content. What recommendations would you give to writers just starting out on this blogging path?

Anne

Actually, I'm writing a book the subject. Because I've managed to build a very successful blog, averaging about 90,000 hits a month, with nearly 4000 subscribers, I think I am uniquely qualified to help new authors build a blog. (update: I'm referring to my other blog, Anne R. Allen's Blog with Ruth Harris here.) 

The most important thing to remember about blogs is that they are part of social media, and social media is, well, social. So authors need to interact and respond to comments, as well as visit and comment on other blogs.

A good way to find your voice is to pay attention to how you comment on other blogs. Use that voice on your own. Don't preach, brag, or condescend. Just chat. Treat people as if they're visitors in your living room.

Debbie 

What are your thoughts on the traditional vs self-publishing debate so prevalent in our industry right now?


Anne 

I don't think all authors are cut out to self-publish. It's very hard to make the big time if you're starting to self-publish right now and you've never been published before.

The days of breakout Amazon stars like Hugh Howey are pretty much over because Amazon's algorithms no longer favor indies, and Kindle Unlimited has drastically reduced royalties. It's also hard to get traction on other retailers like iTunes and GooglePlay if you're an indie.
Should everybody self-publish?

But self-publishing is fantastic for established midlist authors who are tired of the games Big Publishing plays, or who want to supplement their income with novellas and stories between "big books."

I would recommend that non-tech-savvy writers try for traditional publishing first, especially if they write literary fiction or children's lit—which sell better in brick and mortar stores.

I don't know of any literary writer who has an exclusively indie career that has taken off. I think that's because literary readers mostly depend on reviews in established print magazines.

And children's books (except for YA) don't sell as well in e-books as adult genre fiction does.

But it is true that writers going the traditional route need to be much more wary than in earlier times. They need to find agents or small presses that understand the new paradigm and will allow them to self-publish between books, and won't offer odious contracts that tie up work for your lifetime plus 70 years.

I've been with a series of small presses, some of which were better than others, but they always gave me my rights back with no problem. I also learned a lot and got great editing.

Now I have some books with a small press and some are self-published. That works for me.

I think most authors will do well if they self-publish at some point, but I don't think it's a good first step for all genres, unless you're really a savvy marketer with a lot of books in the hopper ready to go.

Romance, mystery, and thriller writers may be an exception. I think they can do well self-publishing right out of the gate, especially if they write fast and have a lot of titles. I know a number who do.

Debbie

What is it about writing mysteries, especially those with, ahem, older female protagonists that draws you in and holds you?


Anne

I love writing stories that mix mystery and romantic comedy, especially when the protagonists are older people. In No Place Like Home, 60-yr old former billionaire Doria Windsor, reconnects with her homeless high school sweetheart. That was so much fun to write.

And how often do you read romantic stories about older people? It's fun to do something different.

Debbie

What's next for you, Anne?


Anne 

 So Much For Buckingham launched July 8th and is now available in paperback and ebook.

After that, I'm working on a series of short books for new authors on subjects like blogging, building a platform, writing that first chapter, etc. I'm calling them "two-hour courses" –simple, "just the facts ma'am" type information you might have to plow through a lot of big books or blog archives to get. Plus, I put my own humorous spin on things.

I'll also be starting my next Camilla book, which has the working title, The Knight of Cups. (Update: yes, I know this title is taken now. Sigh.) 


Updates from Anne: 


The best laid plans go kerflooey when you have to deal with personal challenges.  Ever since I gave this interview in July, I've been tied up with medical and technical issues beyond my control. Ironic that I said I was going to say "no" to stress-inducing situations just befor all the stress hit. Haha!

First I lost the ability to walk due to a terrible attack of gout. Then in October, my writing blog got hacked and we've been going through 12-hour a day tech hell ever since. 

That's one of the reasons I started this blog. I have no idea if I'll lose that blog at any minute. Hackers are constantly trying to break in and steal the content and redirect our links. Success has its downside! That's why I like this quiet little blog where I can talk about my books and repost interviews and guest posts.

But my writing has suffered big time. I've hardly started on the short ebooks, and the WIP is now called the Queen of Staves because of that new film called The Knight of Cups (what were the odds? I thought it was kind of original.)

...Anne

Debbie A. McClure is the author of two paranormal romance mystery novels, In The Spirit Of Love, and In The Spirit Of Forgiveness, and the upcoming historical fiction novels, The King's Consort and Forsaking All Others . 

With a background in sales and marketing, as a motivational speaker she talks about following your passion in life and making life changes that matter. 

Debbie motivates and engages her audiences by advising them to "Step Up and Step In" to their lives, their business, and their relationships, take ownership of decisions, and pursue their dreams with solid intent. Too often we allow others to "should" on us, influencing our direction, our thoughts about who we are, and what we're capable of.


For more about Debbie, check out her website.




Friday, March 18, 2016

How to Be a Writer in the E-Age: A Conversation about Bullies, Trolls, and Social Media Pressure



I started this blog to talk about my fiction, but this week there's a 99c Countdown deal on the nonfiction book I wrote with superstar author Catherine Ryan Hyde, HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE: A SELF-HELP GUIDE, and I wanted to spread the word.

Catherine has been my mentor and friend for two decades. We met when we were both unpublished novelists suffering through harsh critiques and endless rejections. But in the late 1990s, Catherine hit the jackpot with her mega-seller Pay it Forward (which became a film with Kevin Spacey and Holly Hunter, but the book is better :-) ) Her star continues to ascend. She has now published over 30 books, and recently received a million-reader award from Amazon. She has made the #1 spot on Amazon several times. You can find her at CatherineRyanHyde.com

I was honored that she wanted to write a book with me. It gave a great boost to my career. We began writing it before I had found my current publisher, and my career was at a low point after my first publisher went under and my magazine work dried up.

I did have a successful blog, but that hadn't yet started to pay off. Unfortunately, it gave me enough of an online presence that I made a good target for the sad little people who troll the Interwebz looking for ways to ruin somebody's day.

When Catherine and I first published HOW TO BE A WRITER, we had both recently been attacked by the nasty trolls who swarm an author's buy page with one-star "reviews"  that have nothing to do with the book and everything to do with the trolls' weird agendas. 

This interview is from 2012, but most of what we talk about is relevant today. My blog with Ruth Harris was just getting started, but everything I say about blogging still applies in 2016.


Catherine Ryan Hyde Interviews Anne R. Allen


Catherine: Unfortunately, the Internet can be a nasty and disagreeable place. You watched me learn that the hard way. And supported me during that time. Then you were subjected to a similar disaster. A blogger is so "out there" on the Interwebz, where everything you say can and will be taken out of context, misconstrued, then used against you. How did you cope? How did it change you? Any advice to others?

Anne: Yes, I had my first experience with Internet bullies when I wrote what I thought was a completely innocuous post encouraging the non-Internet savvy older reader to write Amazon reviews of their favorite books. Because it had been prompted by an elderly lady who thought a two star review was a rave, I aimed it at grandmothers. First I called it "Amazon Reviews for Grandmas" but decided that wasn't hooky enough. So I called it "Amazon Reviews: 12 Things Everybody and his Grandmother Needs to Know."

Turned out to be the best header ever for getting traffic (over 50K hits) but unfortunately it got the wrong kind. Well, some of the wrong kind. 90% of the response was positive, but the other 10%—totally psycho!

The negative stories went viral and spiraled away from reality like the old game of "telephone." I was telling book bloggers how to do their job! I was a self-published moron who had beaten up a little old lady for giving me a 2-star review!! I was making reviewers wear evening gowns!!! (BTW, I'm not self-published, and I've never met the lady—a friend of the friend who asked me to write the post. And when I compared Amazon to other online shopping sites and said, "You don't give a pair of jeans one star because it's not an evening gown," I was NOT issuing orders from the fashion police. These people should see how I dress.)

But I learned that truth never gets in the way of rageaholics. They trashed my Amazon buy page with bogus one star reviews (most have since been removed.) They voted up the 2-star review so it was the first thing people read. A barrage of hate mail told me I'd never be reviewed in this Internet again. I actually got death threats. Some Bozo found out where I lived, described my house, and told me he was watching me and he had a gun. And I've got to admit I'm still scared to query a book reviewer I don't know for fear it will be one who heard the poisonous stories and thinks I'm a little old lady-basher.

What did I learn? The Internet is like a big, dangerous city. Yes, it's sparkly and exciting, but don't expect everybody to be sane and/or sober. And sometimes you step in dog doo.

My advice: 

1) Keep in mind that self-righteous anger is a drug, and people who are high shouldn’t be treated like rational humans. 

 2) Reason and kindness are wasted on bullies: it's better to ignore the craziness like a pile of poo on a New York sidewalk. 

3) Realize it has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with people who are addicted to the high they get from rage. 

4) Call law enforcement if you're in serious danger, but otherwise, just rally your friends and ask for support. There's strength in numbers.

Catherine: This will border on shameless plug, but you and I have a book coming out just about now, the co-authored HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE: A SELF-HELP GUIDE. A popular blog is a great way to draw attention to a book release. This seems to me like an excellent example of how a successful blog can be a boon to authors. Care to count the ways "Writing about Writing. Mostly" has helped your career?

Anne: First, I should say that my blog is now called "Anne R. Allen's Blog…with Ruth Harris. I initially called it "Anne R. Allen's Blog: Writing about Writing. Mostly", but moved the tag down last August when the wonderful Ruth Harris joined the blog as a permanent every-fourth-Sunday guest.

This is lets me make an important point. As a blogging teacher, I always emphasize the importance of putting your name in your header. A reader wanting to find your blog is going to Google your name, not a cutsie title they probably don't remember or may never have heard. If you're an author trying to build platform, it's really important to remember your own name is your brand, and your social media presence should be all about establishing your brand.

As far as how my blog has helped me as an author: it got the attention of several agents and two publishers. Those publishers now publish six of my books. That has all happened in less than a year, so I'd say blogging has been very good to me. But I've been blogging for three years, so I don't want to tell people a blog will lead to instant publication. It certainly can help, though.

But I should point out a blog is NOT a place to sell books. That's important to remember. A blog is a place to make friends. It's your little home on the Internet where people can stop by and have a conversation. 

Don't listen to people who tell you that racking up huge numbers of followers and Tweeps is the way to publishing success. Social Media is social. A blog is a place where you can let people know who you are and get to know people in more depth than on Twitter or Facebook . Once people know you, yeah—maybe they're more likely to be interested in reading your books.

Catherine:
Will you explain to my readers the concept of "slow blogging," why it works for you (and many others) and how it makes you feel when you read advice insisting that one must blog every freaking day?


Anne: This is one of my most important messages to all authors out there: Don't listen to the "boot camp" types out there who say you have to blog 24/7! Anybody who tells you to forget pesky things like family, friends, job and sleep…and that silly little book you're working on—is a doofus.

The Slow Blog movement is like the "slow food" movement (the opposite of McBurgerish face-filling.) It teaches that tech is our servant, not the other way around. Mindless, endless blogging is not going to help your career. Once a week is fine. Once a month is fine. Only blog if you have something to say. It's a marathon, not a sprint. Think quality not quantity. My blogpost on the Slow Blog Manifesto is here.

Catherine: I find myself feeling close to the people (like you, for example, but others I've never met) who follow my blog and leave comments regularly. What about you? How many of your blog followers feel like friends? Any stories that stand out?

Anne: Oh, I love my blog followers! I wish I could have a big party and meet them all in person. They're such a diverse group—people I might not meet in real life. From a religious stay-at-home mom to a nihilist extreme martial arts fighter. A lot are much younger than I am, but on the Web, we're kind of all the same age. I don't want to mention names, because I might leave somebody out—and I feel close to so many. But I've got to say that they've got me reading their books—many in genres I wouldn't normally read. I think commenting on blogs gets readers as much as having a blog of your own—my commenters sure got my attention.

Catherine: I try to give this opportunity to each of my blogger interviewees. We tend to feel a bit guilty blowing our own horns on the Internet. So I wave The Wand of No Shame over your head. Will you brag on yourself a little, and tell my readers the honors and recognition you and your blog have received?

Anne: OK, this is me tooting my horn. Last month our blog was one of fifteen finalists for the Best Publishing Industry blog in the Association of American Publishers/Goodreads awards. That was awesome. I'm so grateful to everybody who voted for us. The blog was also a finalist in several other big blog contests.

Early on in my blogging career my blog was named "Blog of the Week" by a couple of marketers in Washington DC and the same week a Canadian food blogger announced my blog was the best place to learn the basics of blogging—that was nice.

But I think the most exciting honor I got was after I'd only been blogging for a few months: uberblogger Nathan Bransford—who was then an agent at Curtis Brown—chose me to be a guest poster on his blog. My feet hardly touched the ground for weeks.

Catherine: Now that your blog is so successful, you must get a lot of contact from authors and others who would like to benefit from your blog's big following and good reputation. So I'll ask a similar question to the one I ask book review bloggers, who are solicited by authors all the time: What is an example (or some examples) of the best and worst approaches you have received?

Anne: Oooh—This is an important subject. People are so clueless about approaching bloggers. Asking to guest post or interview on a top-rated blog is asking for a huge favor, but most people do not get this.

Our blog averages 15,000 hits a month on four posts. (Update: by 2015, the number of hits grew to over 100,000.) That means each post has to get 3500 hits—in an ever more saturated market. A guest needs to have a big following or offer something unique and cutting-edge to say. Otherwise, they're going to lower our ratings. That's why we don't take many guests. The bloggers who get on are either already bestselling novelists—like you and Lawrence Block and Elizabeth S. Craig/Riley Adams, or they're long–time followers who've made good and have an inspiring and unique success story to tell. Also, we like author-friendly, positive posts full of useful information, not "buy my book" ads or boot-camp stuff.

The most clueless queries are from people who should know better: editors or other service providers who want free advertising, or publicists who want free exposure for their client's book. They're usually high-handed and rude about it: dictating their rules to ME as if they're doing me a favor.

What these people are doing is like walking up to a stranger on the street and demanding a hand-out.

I wrote a blogpost recently on guest blogger etiquette, hoping to cut down on the clueless requests—nobody likes to have to reject people, even rude ones. But one of the comments—on that very post—consisted of a query letter from a college kid who pretty much broke every rule in the post. You can read my "How to Be a Good Blog Guest" post here.

Catherine: What real-life opportunities have been extended to you, and what experiences have you had in the non-virtual world, that you felt were a direct result of your blog?

Anne: When I started the blog, I pretty much thought my career as a fiction writer was over. My publisher had gone out of business and the comic mysteries I write were being dismissed as part of the "chick lit fad" that had been declared dead.

But because of the blog, I was approached by a number of publishers who liked my humor and voice. One wanted to re-publish my backlist, and another wanted to take a chance on my new ones. It's been an exhausting nine months, but now all six of the books are published—three only as ebooks, but they'll all be in paper by Christmas.

Even before I was approached by publishers, the blog gave me a chance to be myself in a way I was often afraid to do in real life. I grew up at a time when women weren't supposed to be smart, so I developed a habit of dumbing myself down to please people that has plagued me for a lifetime.

But I let my brain loose in the blog and discovered that being a "smarty-pants" could have positive results. It made me brave enough to do it in the real world. A number of acquaintances disappeared, but I also started meeting people who were more like the ones who comment on my blog: people whose lives encompass more than shopping and TV and kvetching about work. I started to feel an intellectual freedom I hadn't felt since I was an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr.

Catherine: Will you recommend a few other book-and-author related blogs that you think are worth visiting?

Anne: The number one blog every writer should check in on periodically is Victoria Strauss's Writer Beware. She's a tireless watchdog who tells writers about scams and unethical stuff we need to know about to protect ourselves. Other must-reads are Nathan Bransford's Blog, and Jane Friedman's. Also, all creative people can benefit from reading social media guru Kristen Lamb. Her blog is funny and informative and she's started a Facebook-type site for artists and writers called MyWANA that looks as if it will be fantastic for networking.

Catherine: Please write your own question, and answer it.

Anne: What is the most inspiring piece of advice you received when you were an aspiring writer?

A famous author named Catherine Ryan Hyde said, "If you have a fall-back position, you tend to fall back." That's when I decided to cut back on my day job and give this writing thing my all. I'm not getting rich, but I'm not falling back, either.

***

Our book has gone through several editions since we did this interview. But it's on an Amazon countdown starting Saturday, March 19, 2016, and ending the following Saturday, March 26.

On Sunday, I will be talking more on the subject of Social Media Pressure on my Writing Blog, Anne R. Allen's Blog...With Ruth Harris.

99c Countdown!

HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE 
by Catherine Ryan Hyde and Anne R. Allen


e-age1



From March 19-March 25 it will be only 99c at Amazon.com  It's also available in paper for $12.99  

FOR UK READERS:
The countdown at Amazon UK starts on Tuesday, March 22 and goes until the 29th

Friday, March 11, 2016

When Does a Harsh Critique Become Verbal Abuse?



Readers often ask writers "where do you get your ideas?" and we sometimes find it hard to answer, because ideas are, of course, all around us at any given moment.

Critique groups can be great...or not
But I remember the exact moment when I was inspired to write Ghostwriters in the Sky. I was at a prestigious California writers conference and I'd listened to a young man read a compelling story in a late-night workshop.

The critiques that followed started out negative and got harsher as each speaker piled on. Most of them criticized him for breaking "rules" I'd never heard of. It was as if they belonged to some strange cult and everybody had read its scripture but me.

I was something of a newbie at fiction writing, but I had two Ivy League degrees and my mother taught creative writing at the university level, so it wasn't as if I was a total ignoramus on the rules of writing.

Nobody who spoke had anything to say about the young man's strong storytelling skills and fascinating characters. I raised my hand, but was not called on, apparently because I wasn't a member of the "writing rules" cult. (For more on this, I wrote a post on these "writing rules police" on my writing blog last month.)

What's worse, the bullies were egged on by the workshop leader—who seemed more interested in wielding power than in improving anybody's prose. He was obviously an empathy-challenged power-tripper who needed the whole workshop to be about him.

Being a newbie, I didn't know if what happened was a normal part of workshopping, but I felt as if I'd witnessed some pretty nasty verbal abuse. 

I tried to speak to the young writer afterward—to say how much I disagreed with what had been said—but he dismissed me with a few angry words and took off running. I realized he was close to tears. He could only see me as a member of the gang who had bullied him. 

That night I tried to write about that awful scene. In my story, the critiqued writer was so damaged by
The Santa Ynez Valley, the setting of Ghostwriters in the Sky
the bullying that he tried to kill himself. Of course my story was way too melodramatic, so I later changed it to a murder with the appearance of suicide. Then I added a few more murders (I had to kill off that workshop leader!) plus some romantic sizzle, a couple of ghosts, a crossdressing dominatrix, and a lot of laughs.

For me, the best way to deal with something that upsets me is to find a way to laugh at it. I suppose that's true of all humorists.

My final result became the first book in the Camilla Randall Mysteries series. Ghostwriters in the Sky introduces us to a thirty-something Camilla Randall a.k.a. syndicated columnist "The Manners Doctor." Camilla is caught in a downwardly mobile spiral after her nasty divorce from newsman Jonathan Kahn has caused a lot of papers to drop her column. She's also estranged from her best friend, Plantagenet Smith, and is fearful of losing her Manhattan apartment. 

An unexpected invitation to teach at a California writers conference sets off a series of events that lead to the mysterious death of a talented writer who has been savaged in a critique group run by a bullying teacher who is himself a failed writer. (He now only publishes as a ghostwriter--hence the title.)

The novel, which is set in the wine-and-cowboy country north of Santa Barbara was originally going to be published by my first UK publisher as a sequel to The Best Revenge. We thought it had a great shot at finding an audience amongst the international writing community, because at the time I was a columnist for a popular Canadian writers' magazine, and this was a story I thought most writers would relate to.
The Maverick Saloon, setting of several scenes in the book
But my publisher went belly-up and I slowly discovered that nobody in New York would go near a story about the publishing industry. "We live with this stuff every day," wrote one agent. "We don’t find it entertaining in a novel." That gave me a sense of the myopia of the industry at the time.

After a few hundred rejections, I put the book in the file of "not a snowball's chance in Hades" and wrote a couple more books. But I was sad to lose the story. It’s got some of my favorite characters and Marva, the cross-dressing dominatrix is one of my all-time favorites.

So I was thrilled when an international publisher, MWiDP (now Kotu Beach Press) offered to publish it in 2011. The editor had some great suggestions to make the convoluted plot less confusing. His suggestion to start the story in New York rather than California gave me an "ah-ha moment", and I jumped into some major revisions.

The book has proved to be popular and is part of the boxed set of Camilla mysteries that was on Amazon's humor bestseller list for most of 2013. 

I don't know what ever happened to the abused writer from the workshop. The writers' conference is still going, but under different management. I hope they reined in the guy who inspired my bully-boy leader. 

I often wonder if I could have done more for that young writer and why nobody spoke up. I suppose anybody who did got savaged, so everybody had learned to keep quiet. I must say I didn't go back to a writer's conference for some time after the experience. 

I usually recommend that new writers workshop a book in a class or a critique group. Most critique groups are helpful and very few are run by people with the mental health issues of "the Cowboy." But I do warn people to look for red flags before they settle into a a group. I've written a number of posts on my writing blog about the benefits and dangers of critique groups. One is Beware Groupthink: 10 Red Flags to Look for When Choosing a Critique Group.   Another is Why You Should Ignore the Advice from your Critique Group but they can Help you Anyway.

Have you ever witnessed a behavior in a group or workshop that seemed inappropriate or abusive? Was more than one person involved? Were you able to stop it, or was the "Groupthink" too strong? Have you ever been abused in a group or workshop? What did you do? 

GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY: CAMILLA MYSTERY #1


After her celebrity ex-husband’s ironic joke about her "kinky sex habits" is misquoted in a tabloid, New York etiquette columnist Camilla Randall's life unravels in bad late night TV jokes.

Nearly broke and down to her last Hermes scarf, she accepts an invitation to a Z-list Writers Conference in the wine-and-cowboy town of Santa Ynez, California, where, unfortunately, a cross-dressing dominatrix named Marva plies her trade by impersonating Camilla.

When a ghostwriter's plot to blackmail celebrities with faked evidence leads to murder, Camilla must team up with Marva to stop the killer from striking again.

Ghostwriters in the Sky is only 99c in e-book at all the Amazons iTunesGooglePlay  KoboInkteraScribd and NOOK.
It is available in paper at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

It is FREE at iTunesInktera, and Kobo

"Ghost Writers is set in a writers' conference in Santa Ynez Valley, where I've lived for twenty years.... This book is hysterically funny AND accurately depicts the Valley. Anne Allen gets it right, down to the dollar bills stuck on the ceiling of the Maverick Saloon. It was so fun to read as she called out one Valley landmark after another. Allen got the local denizens right, too, the crazy characters that roam our streets"...Sandy Nathan, award-winning author of The Bloodsong Series

Friday, March 4, 2016

When Your Editor Says Your Title Stinks



This week I came across an interview I did with romance author Peggy Henderson three years ago. I've pasted it in below. I'd answer most of the questions about the same way today, except the one about "what's coming up." At the time, I was working on two novels that changed in major ways before they were published (in 2014 and 2015.)

They both ended up with very different titles.

Grail Maiden with Cigarette
My editor hated the title I'd put on my Boomer comedy that became THE LADY OF THE LAKEWOOD DINER. I'd been calling it THE ASHTRAYS OF AVALON. I thought it was a hilarious title. I wanted to let people know it was a comedy about nostalgia and the need to imagine a "golden age" that never was. Like Matthew Weiner with his TV series, Mad Men, I wanted to remind people that the Eisenhower-Kennedy "Camelot" era that people look back on as innocent and idyllic stank of tobacco smoke, sexism, and hypocrisy.

Unfortunately, it just made my editor think of a smelly ashtray. Not exactly enticing. So I came up with the Lady of the Lake/diner combo I thought worked even better. And my brilliant cover designer Keri Knutson of Alchemy Book Covers managed to put a cigarette into the hand of Rosetti's Pre-Raphaelite Grail Maiden so I got my reference to smoking in anyway.

The second book I was working on was SO MUCH FOR BUCKINGHAM, my novel about Richard III and character assassination via rumor. I was still in the research stage, and I only had a few scenes mapped out. I knew the story would involve Plantagenet Smith finding the body of a historical reenactor in the Old Hall in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire (which I call Swynsby-on-Trent.) The historical reenactor would be dressed as the Duke of Buckingham, King Richard's nemesis. And someone who appeared to be Richard III would be the only witness.
Charles Collette as Plantagenet Smith

My working title was THE LAST PLANTAGENET, which I liked because the story involved both Richard III and Camilla's best friend, Plantagenet Smith.

I originally named Plantagenet Smith for a character in a one-act comic Victorian operetta called  Cryptoconchoidsyphonostomata (talk about a title that needed an editor's firm hand!) When I was writing my first Camilla book, I happened to be flipping through a New Yorker magazine and came upon a mention of the play and its protagonist and thought the name would be perfect for Camilla's gay best friend, who hid behind a self-invented, theatrical persona. 

But when I sat down to write the book, as often happens, an unexpected character wandered in. A cat. I decided to name the cat Buckingham, as a tie-in to the Duke of Buckingham storyline. 

When I gave THE LAST PLANTAGENET to my first beta reader, she didn't much like the title. She thought it sounded like a historical novel and would disappoint historical novel fans and not attract people looking for a contemporary mystery. She also didn't think it was very funny. 

I realized she was right. 

That's when I remembered the line in Richard III: "Off with his head. So much for Buckingham!" which wasn't written by Shakespeare, but a Victorian actor named Colley Sibber. So it's known as "the most famous Shakespearean line that Shakespeare never wrote." Since the book is all about deception and how things are usually not the way they seem, I suggested SO MUCH FOR BUCKINGHAM as a title, and she liked that much better. Since it involves a "Duke of Buckingham" being dispatched, plus somebody who does a whole lot for a cat named Buckingham, the title worked for both storylines. 



Interview with Anne and Peggy from February 11, 2013


Peggy: Tell us a little about the person behind the pen.


Anne: My life has been kind of unconventional. I love having adventures. I spent ten years after college wandering the globe. Then I spent a couple of decades in the theater, acting and directing,
Anne on the Wicked Stage
before I moved to writing full time.

One day I was backstage, about to go on in the Comedy of Errors, and I realized I didn't want to act any more. I didn't have that zing of stage fright that makes for a good performance. It was about the same time that my father died kind of tragically and left me a little money. I realized that life was short and it was time to go for my life-long dream of being a novelist. So I left Southern California, bought a little cottage on Morro Bay and haven't looked back. I love the solitude and the fog. I'm doing what I love every day.

Peggy: Why did you decide to write rom-com mysteries? What is the appeal?


Anne: I didn't set out to write mysteries, but dead bodies kept showing up in my rom-com plots. Also a lot of jokes. Especially the kind that come from romance gone wrong. (I think romantic comedy is way undervalued these days. Jane Austen wrote it—and so did William Shakespeare.)

Because of the romantic humor—and probably because I started writing at the height of the chick lit phenomenon—my agent at the time tried to market my work as chick lit.

But it never quite fit. It's not Bridget Jones humor. It's pretty sophisticated—sometimes very dark—and most of my heroines are too mature to qualify as "chicks."

My new publisher finally helped me realize I write mysteries with rom-com elements rather than romance with mystery elements.

I'd say my work is more like Janet Evanovich for English majors.

Historical research can take over your life

Peggy: How much research goes into your books, and how do you tackle that?


Anne: I did almost no research for my first few novels. They're mostly based on my own adventures. But my next one is going to require quite a lot. I'm fascinated by the discovery of what might be the body of Richard III in the English Midlands, so I'm planning a mystery around that. Lots of reading in English History ahead.

Peggy: What is the best comment you ever received from a reader? The worst or weirdest?


One of the strangest was a review for my novel Food of Love. The reviewer must have mixed it up with another book. She said it was the worst lesbian romance she'd ever read. Not that surprising, because it's not about lesbians—and it's not a romance. It's a humorous thriller about dieting. 

As far as best comments, it would be hard to choose. I have been blessed with some wonderful The Gatsby Game. I loved it when hardboiled mystery fan Ben Lelievre said, " I never thought I would have so much fun reading a chick lit novel, but this was great, even for my hardboiled sensibility."

Peggy: Tell us a little about your writing style? Do you plan and plot your stories, or do you just plow through them?


Anne: I'm kind of a "pantser"—at least I like to leave room for the odd character or plot twist to show up—but I always have the ending in mind. And a general idea of the story. I do write a sketchy outline, but I usually throw it out halfway through.

Peggy: Can you tell us a little about your current work, NO PLACE LIKE HOME? Is there a story behind the story?


Anne: I live near the town of San Luis Obispo, CA, which Oprah called "the Happiest Town in America."

San Luis Obispo's Mission Plaza
But we also have a big homeless population. Their stories can be heartbreaking. I wanted to write about how close we all can be to homelessness in the midst of this beachy, "happy" wine country. Even the uber-rich. I also saw a lot of potential humor in putting a Martha Stewart type into a homeless camp. Then I gave her a mysteriously dead husband and sent my sleuth Camilla Randall in to solve the case.

Peggy: What sets your heroine, Camilla apart from all the other women in your hero Ronzo's life? Why is she perfect for him?


Anne: Camilla has a new boyfriend in every novel. They're always Mr. Wrong. She's a former debutante and etiquette expert who's lost all her money. She's always attracted to blue collar guys who are intimidated by her former celebrity.

In NO PLACE LIKE HOME, Ronzo is from the East Coast, like Camilla, so he "feels like home" to her. They fall into each others' arms at the end of the book after she rescues him from nefarious evildoers, and they get a happy ending. But by the next book, something will probably have gone wrong. The only man who's a constant in her life is her gay best friend, screenwriter Plantagenet Smith.

Peggy: Have you ever had writer's block? How do you deal with it?


Anne: I'm so lucky that I haven't. I have the opposite problem. Too many ideas and too little time. I do write pretty slowly.

Peggy: Can you give us a little background on your hero Ronzo that's only in your author notes, and not found in your story? What inspired you to create this character?


Ronzo—Ronson V. Zolek—just sauntered into the story. All I had in my notes was "Mr. X, a tourist
Ronson is named for the lighter company
from New Jersey." But as soon as he walked in, I knew all about him. He's a Croatian-American and Iraq war vet and a fan of heavy metal. His immigrant parents named him Ronson for the cigarette lighter company in Newark where his dad got a job the day Ronzo was conceived. That's not in the book.

Peggy: Describe a favorite scene in your current novel?


Anne: I love it when Camilla's bookstore gets invaded by a "cash mob" perpetrated by Ronzo's blog. She doesn't know he's a blogger, and has never heard of a cash mob. Her bookstore is about to go under, but suddenly she's flooded with customers. Many of them come dressed as her—in her former celebrity persona as "the Manners Doctor." That's when she meets Doria, the homeless Martha Stewart type—who is dressed up as Camilla. I laughed out loud when I was writing that scene.

Peggy: What else do you have in store for your readers?


Anne: It's another rom-com mystery, but longer than a standard whodunnit. The working title is THE ASHTRAYS OF AVALON. Spanning five decades, it's full of Baby Boomer nostalgia. The theme is the myth of the Golden Age—and how it never existed. Every age had its drawbacks—like sexism and cigarette smoke.

Meanwhile I'll be doing all that research for THE LAST PLANTAGENET taking Camilla back to the English Midlands (the setting of SHERWOOD, LTD.) where she meets up with what may or may not be the ghost of Richard III.
***

So I was accurate about what the books were about, but I was on the wrong track with the titles. I've found out since that changing titles is very common. Lots of classic books started out with titles that might have kept them from becoming such huge successes. The Great Gatsby was originally called Trimalchio in West Egg, and Lord of the Flies was originally called Strangers from Within.

You can read more about rejected book titles and how to choose the right one for your book in my post 10 Tips for Choosing the Right Book Title

Have you ever been told to change the title of a book or story you've written? Have you ever decided not to read a recommended book because of an off-putting title?

BOOK OF THE WEEK


The Lady of the Lakewood Diner is available at all the AmazonsiTunesKobo, and Nook

 
 LadyLake-3-smaller


Who shot rock diva Morgan Le Fay? Only her childhood friend Dodie, owner of a seedy small-town diner, can find the culprit before the would-be assassin comes back to finish the job. Boomers, this one's for you. And for younger people if you want to know what your parents and grandparents were really up to in the days of Woodstock and that old fashioned rock and roll. Plus there's a little Grail mythology for the literary fiction fans.

"A page turning, easily readable, arrestingly honest novel which will keep you laughing at yourself."...Kathleen Keena

"I borrowed this book free with my Amazon Prime membership, but I enjoyed it so much that I don't want to give it up. I'm buying a copy to keep."...Linda A. Lange

"In The Lady of the Lakewood Diner, nothing is sacred, nothing is profane. And yet, in the end, love does conquer all. If you're of an age to remember Woodstock and the Moonwalk, don't miss it. If you're not, well, you won't find a better introduction." ...Deborah Eve of the Later Bloomer

"With rare perception and insight, the author lays bare the souls of the two women as they take their own unique paths though life, through fumbling first attempts at sex, to lopsided relationships, to the triumph of ambition and the agony of missed chances. It’s an epic coming-of-age story filled with passion, struggles, mistakes, and redemption. The main characters were extremely deep and realistic, along with vivid supporting characters. If you love literary fiction set against a fascinating cultural backdrop, you’ll love this book. Highly recommended"....Laura 6