Friday, September 6, 2019

Constructive Feedback

Asking for it...

Authors are used to asking readers for feedback. We send out "advance reader copies" ARCs to people who promise to read our books before they're released to the public and post reviews on Amazon or Goodreads or their own blogs. We don't tell them what to write or that the reviews must be glowing. We leave that up to them and hope for the best. We also encourage people to leave reviews after the book is released because the more reviews we receive, the more the book is noticed by Amazon, Goodreads, etc. and the more people will become curious about it or even realize that we have a new book available. With thousands of books published every month, we need all the help we can get to reach our readers.

Writing reviews is a simple task for me (and, yes, I leave a review on most of the books I read), but it is a dreaded task for some. I don't understand why, but I suspect that some readers feel inadequate when they are asked to write something that other people (gasp! even the author!) will read. Since I've developed a thick skin over the years, having been charred repeatedly over the fires of public opinion, this is not something that I avoid. As soon as I finish reading a book, I write a review. If I love the book, I usually write several sentences about it. If it's okay, I write a sentence or two. If I really think it missed the mark, I might write a paragraph about why I think it could have been better. If the book just wasn't my cup of tea, I usually say that or I don't leave a review at all because it wouldn't be fair. I mean, it's my fault if I pick up a book with certain expectations and then realize I was wrong. It would be stupid to blame the author for my error in judgement. I note here, though, that I've had readers do this to me. They've written bad reviews because they were offended by the sex scenes or because the hero said cuss words. Those reviews add to the thickness of my seared skin.

Let me give some pointers to you readers out there who don't know what authors are looking for when they ask you to write a review. We're not looking for high-minded, soul-stirring phrases (although those do make us squeal with glee and melt our tough, little hearts). Imagine that you're talking to your best friend about a book you just read. Try writing like that. It can be something simple like, "This book is typical of what this author usually writes and I enjoyed it. The hero is sexy and the heroine is kind-hearted and I really liked her. He's a sports announcer and she has just opened a bakery. They have a cute meeting at a peewee baseball game where her six-year-old son is playing on a team against his six-year-old daughter's team. He's been divorced for three years and her husband died while she was pregnant. I read it in one day, so you can tell I didn't want to put it down once I started it."

What an author will like about this is that there aren't any "spoilers" -- nothing that reveals major plot points to ruin other readers' enjoyment. Also, there are a few sentences about the story and the reader mentions that she liked both of the main characters. That's important to any author. It's imperative that readers like and/or identify with the hero and heroine.

Now here's an example of what you might write if you had some trouble with a book. "This is a new author for me and I liked most of this, but I couldn't totally understand why the heroine acted like she did. She wanted the hero to pay attention to her and kiss her, but when he did, she'd get all huffy and push him away. Way into the book, she finally tells him that she was emotionally abused in her last relationship. I wish I'd known that at the beginning of the book, then I would have had sympathy for her."

Feedback like this is golden. An author with her/his head on straight will learn a valuable lesson from this reader. Also, the review isn't mean, but honest and helpful. It is criticism with a spoon of sugar.

Other helpful reviews point out typos or words that were used incorrectly or even misspelled consistently. Ouch! These hurt and embarrass us, but hey! We need to know this stuff. I have mentioned such things in reviews, hoping to let the author know that she/he has a bad habit to correct. For example, in one book I read a few years ago, the author kept writing "he must of" instead of "he must have." Drove me nuts! I noted this in the review and even suggested that she hire a professional editor.

Think of reviews as your way of paying it forward. A writer has spent months writing a book and is eager to hear what readers think about it. Other readers will be interested in your opinion, too. Ten minutes of your time versus ten months or more of frantic typing and editing. It's not such a big ask, is it?

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Beating Back the Blues

Stars and Gripes

You have to develop a tough skin when you're a writer. If you show your work to anyone other than a considerate spouse or a loving parent, then you're bound to receive feedback that isn't necessarily lofty or flattering. In fact, it's amazing how many people are willing to tell you exactly what they find lacking in your writing and storytelling. You don't even have to ask!

If you think that getting lousy reviews gets easier the longer you're at this game, you would be wrong. I have to force myself to recall all the good things that have been written about my work, but I can recall all the really nasty, mean things instantly. Those bad reviews fester, rising to the surface of my mind any time I falter, have a bad writing day, struggle with a plot, or rewrite a scene over and over again.

Since I know how important reviews are to writers, I do review books on Amazon and Goodreads. If I don't like the book and can't give it more than two stars, I don't post a review. Three stars get a review that isn't particularly favorable, but I attempt to point out what I didn't like about the book and why and I mention that others will absolutely have no problem with it and that this is merely my biased opinion. Because that's the truth, folks. Just because you don't like a book doesn't mean it's terrible and that you should tell others NOT to purchase it.

Which brings me to a review recently posted for one of my books. The reader did not like that book at all, but went one better by stating that, although the book had received five stars and great praise, people should not purchase it because this person thought it was predictable and poorly plotted and she/he hated the characters.

Let me point out that the review I received before this one was one of the best I've had in quite awhile and it was delivered by someone who said she was a writer herself. That makes it even sweeter. I was soaring and giddy after reading that one. Then the next one sent me nosediving back to earth. Ouch.

That's how it is, though. One review makes you feel warm and fuzzy and then another review makes you wonder how you could offend someone so thoroughly.

The good thing about having written for most of my life and having my first novel published in 1979 is that I know in my heart of hearts that I can write and tell a fine story. Otherwise, I would not have made my living as a writer my entire adult life. It's the only job I've had since graduating from college. Writer/editor. So, I must be pretty good at it. I know that I can't please everyone and only a fool would try. But the slings and arrows still manage to penetrate my thick skin every so often.

I get blue and feel sorry for myself. Thank God, it's fleeting. I reread my many good reviews, suck it up, and get back to my current manuscript in progress. It's what writers do. We don't write because we choose to -- writing chose us. Along with that, we humbly ask for reviews to attract other readers. Occasionally, we get a review that is difficult to get past, but we soldier on.

Reminds me of something I read on Facebook. "This, too, shall pass. It will hurt like you're passing a bladder stone, but it will pass."


Sunday, April 7, 2019

Courage in Numbers

Teaming Up

In the stone age when I first got serious about being a published novelist, I joined a team. Is there such a thing, you ask? A team that helps you get published? Maybe like those ads on TV where some "publisher" says that "if we decide to publish your book" they will do everything for you -- edit it, choose a cover for it, make it an ebook, send it to bookstores all over the country, etc. All you do is sit back and wait for those royalty checks to rain on you.

Uh, no. Not like that. That, my friends, does not exist. That "publisher" probably will ask you for money.

I'm referring to a writers' group. In my case, the Tulsa Nightwriters. I relied on several of their members to assist me from one summit to the next in  my quest to climb to the top of the mountain. One of the best things I did was attend the Oklahoma Writers' Federation, Inc.  (OWFI) annual conference in Oklahoma City. These educated me about the writing/editing/publishing process and gave me a window on how such conferences work and how to get the most out of them. By the time I joined the brand new Romance Writers of America (RWA) and attended its first conference, I was an "old hand" at such events. I had already acquired a literary agent, thanks to OWFI's conferences, and I was prepared to submit polished, professional manuscripts. I knew the "lingo" editors used and what they wanted from writers. I still had a lot to learn, but because of the Nightwriters and OWFI, I avoided a lot of the mistakes "newbies" make early in their efforts.

For example, I knew how to prepare a manuscript properly. I knew how to write a synopsis or outline and what editors would be looking for in the first three chapters of a novel. I knew how to write a professional and intriguing query letter. I knew how much each publishing house offered in advances and royalties to new authors. Thanks to my "team," I never embarrassed myself or shot myself in the foot in the starting gate.

Today, I still depend on a team. I rely on my literary agent and her staff to assist me in charting my next career choice, marketing my work, and in educating me on the ever-changing landscape of publishing. I rely on my prep team -- my editor, proofer, copyeditor, cover designer, and beta readers. And I rely on my "street team."

My street team -- or, as I call them, my Happy Campers -- encourage me throughout the process of writing a book and then help me announce it to the public once it's released. They also consist of reviewers I can trust to read my ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) and publish reviews as soon as the book is published. Reviews are very important in independent publishing. You just can't get enough of them -- or I can't! There are so many books released every month that reviewers are swamped and have to say "no" to more than half of the requests they receive. Therefore, it's smart to create relationships with as many reviewers as possible and keep the communication going in between your books so that you aren't forgotten and relegated to the back of the line again.

I'm constantly looking for more Happy Campers, so if you like my books and would be willing to post notices about them on Facebook, Twitter, Bookbub, Goodreads, etc., let me know! Post a comment here or message me on Facebook or through my website. I'll be launching another western historical romance this summer and I'll need all the help I can muster. I'm also in the early stages of devising my next contemporary romantic suspense novel and I'm seeking suggestions from my team on what they like or don't like about those kinds of books. As you can see, writing and publishing relies more on just the writer and writing. We all need a team.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

When Fortune Smiles

Oh, Happy Day!

When I look back on my life, it's still wondrous to me how three people are responsible for me being a writer.

First, there was Joann Ragsdale, my high school English teacher. At the end of my sophomore year, she took me aside and asked me if I'd like to take her journalism class next year. I asked her (no kidding, I did!), "What's journalism?" She told me we would study newspapers, magazines, and the yearbook. She mentioned that a couple of my best friends were going to be in the class and that's what sold me. I signed up.

That nudge from my English teacher set me on a career path that has been a pleasure and infinitely interesting. I fell in love with journalism and opted to be part of the newspaper staff in my senior year. Journalism was my major in college and earned me a scholarship or two. My first jobs when I graduated were working for newspapers and I've always been extremely proud of that noble and necessary profession.

While on assignment for the Tulsa World, I covered the state women's conference that would result in the selection of delegates who would attend the historic women's conference in Houston in 1977. At the state conference, church buses packed with women and a few men marched in. During the vote for delegates and the planks of our platform, the church bus men sat at the end of rows and wore white gloves. They raised those gloved hands during the voting and the church bus women watched for those gloves and dutifully raised their hands, too. Thus, Oklahoma adopted a strictly conservative platform that was against the Equal Rights Amendment and women's reproductive rights.

I also was sent to report on the national convention where Phyllis Schlafly and other anti-feminists (along with Oklahoma's) moved the Republican Party to the right more forcibly and managed to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. It was an eye-opening experience and I didn't know what to make of it.

Slack-jawed along with me were two women who were having trouble getting into meetings because their "press credentials" weren't legitimate. I eavesdropped and decided to help them. I told the door monitor that they were with me and they were allowed in. We struck up a friendship.

These two women -- Peggy Fielding and Mary Alexander -- had a huge impact on me and my career. They were feminists, loud, proud, and talented. They were writers, editors, educators, and speakers. They were bigger than life to me and they took me under their wings. They made me believe that I could not only finish writing the novel I'd been working on in secret, but actually sell it! And they were right.

After their generous and astute tutoring and the largess of the Tulsa Nightwriters club, the Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc., and Romance Writers of America, I did sell that book to Simon & Schuster and have since sold more than 50 others. 

In the cases of Mrs. Ragsdale, Ms. Fielding, and Ms. Alexander, I had no inkling that they would be monumental in the direction my life would take. Only in retrospect can I look at those chance meetings and marvel. When I think about those moments. I can't help but wonder what if I hadn't decided to take that journalism class? What would I be doing now if I hadn't decided to help those two women gain access to that conference meeting? My life would be so different, and I'm sure, not nearly as fulfilling.

It seems to me that when fortune smiles on us we usually don't even notice. Not until that smile has long since faded do we remember and thank all our lucky stars for those serendipitous decisions. Those three women are no longer on this earth, but their enormous contributions to my life continue to this day.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Creature of Habit

The Writer's Desk

When I read about J.K. Rowling writing in longhand on a legal pad while sitting in a coffee shop, I shudder. To each his own, but this sounds like torture to me.

Every writer has his/her own way of creating. I used to write on a manual typewriter at my dining room table. Then I wrote on an electric typewriter and then a desk computer in an office in my home. Then I moved to a different house and made the whole upstairs an office and library and wrote on a new desktop computer. Then the Internet, routers, and laptops took over and I now write on a laptop in a downstairs office. I keep thinking that I'll start writing in the upstairs office again, but then I think it's dumb to heat and cool that whole floor.

The point is, I like to write in basically the same place and on the same instrument, day after day. Sometimes, if my back his aching or I'm crushing a deadline, I'll take the laptop into the living room and sit on the couch to write during the evening after writing all day in my office. 

My library upstairs is hardly ever used now and I've donated more than half of my books that used to be shelved up there to charities. The Internet has become my main source of information, along with a few books about the west and cowboys that are out of print.

I haven't written in longhand anything fictional since I was a kid and didn't know how to type yet. I know of several writers who do write in notebooks, but it seems odd to me. They will have to commit their work to type for it to be saved and/or emailed, so why not start off keying in the computer and skip a step? Or they have to hire someone to key the whole thing into a computer. Waste of money. The longhanders say this way of writing makes them more creative and allows them more time to think.

For me, I think faster than I can type -- and I type fast. When I think back to the days of the typewriter and correction fluid/tape, I break out in hives.

I also use my computer to read back what I've written. The computer guy (I like to use the male voice) reads it to me and that helps me catch mistakes, misspellings, omitted words, etc. It also makes me laugh when he reads my sex scenes in his monotone, unemotional voice.

Back when I was part of a critique group, the reading of our work aloud was a godsend. We could hear it, catch the odd phrasing, wince at the wrong wording, tsk at the poor punctuation, and question how believable a plot point was and if someone really would talk like that. After years and years of being critiqued, I still have one or two other people I respect (as in, they are astute writers and/or readers) read my final drafts and tell me where I've succeeded and where I've failed. It's part of my writing "habit."

That's the thing, you see. Writers are creatures of habit. That's the only way you can actually become a writer. You have to make sitting down in front of a computer screen (or notebook) a habit. Every damned day until it is ingrained. Until it's almost an addiction. If I miss a day or two, I have withdrawal symptoms. I feel that something is amiss. I'm antsy. I feel guilty. That's why most writers write while they're on vacation. They need their "fix."

That's also why some writers continue to write in longhand on lined paper. It's habit. It's their daily drug of choice. The "fix" is in.


Friday, July 20, 2018

All Good Things Must End

I'm winding down on my Mind's Eye series. I admit I'm dragging my feet. I've loved being in Levi Wolfe and Trudy Tucker's world. I have loved their romance and now their marriage. #5 in the series -- THROUGH HER TOUCH -- is (or will be in a few days) available on Amazon and I'm writing #6 now (THROUGH HER HEART). 

I thought I'd create a new series, but I'm not so sure now. Series take a lot of planning, thinking, character development, etc. The Mind's Eye is my first one and I originally plotted three books. But the main characters had so much to say and reveal, that I had to expand it to six books. This series had been buzzing in my head for a good ten years, so I had spun a long tale in all that time.

A new series? I have a couple of characters in mind, but I might just place them in a single title romantic suspense novel. I haven't decided. After this series is finished at the end of the year, I'll write a western historical romance. That will "cleanse my palate" for the next contemporary novel, whether it is a single title or the first book in a series.

Marketing a series is also a big task because it is never ending. I'm always trying to tempt readers to read the first one and, hopefully, get hooked and read all the others. It's strange to me how readers can rave about the first book and say they want to read the whole series, but then don't seem to follow through. Maybe there are too many books out there and attention spans are extremely short these days. I've given away at least a hundred copies of the first book in the series and I haven't received a hundred reviews, although most of those people promised to post one. Readers, for the most part, don't understand how important reviews are -- especially for "indie" writers. Even my best friends admit they don't leave reviews. Most of the time they lament that they don't know what to say. I tell them, "Write that you read the book, liked or loved the book, and want to read another book by the author." How hard is that, I ask you?

So, if you're reading this and feeling a pang of guilt. Good! Go write a dang review on Amazon. Not for an author who already has a few thousand of them, but for an author who has fewer than 100 of them! You will give that author a thrill and feel that you've earned a gold star as a reader.

Happy Reading, Everyone!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Thinking It Through

Just Staring and Plotting

When a writer stares off into space, that writer is usually working. A writer acquaintance of mine once told me about how her young daughter -- the child was about seven at the time -- piped up one day and said, "Mommy, I'm going to work like you!" And she sat down at her desk and stared out the window.

What we do takes place in our heads -- in our fertile imaginations. If you don't have an over-active imagination, you'll be hindered as a novelist. Although I had one sibling, I was, for all extents and purposes, an only child because my sister was almost 10 years older than me. Therefore, my closest playmates were in my imagination. In my bedroom or backyard, I acted out whole TV shows and films I'd seen. I was Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and their horses.

Which brings me back to the point of this. It might look as if we're just sitting and staring, but there is more to it. We're imagining. We should wear a sign that states:Caution! Writer At Work.

I just returned from sitting out on the patio. I went out there for a minute to let the dogs do their thing and I ended up staying there for half an hour because I was working out a tangle in the plot I'm developing. Something about the story was wrong. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I knew that some element wasn't firing properly. Out there on the patio, I finally saw the trees and the forest. My antagonist was wrong. Not nearly frightening enough or disturbed enough. That pivotal character was coming off mild, and that's the kiss of death for a suspense novel. Problem solved. I blinked, realized that the dogs were dancing around me, wanting back inside, and I came back to myself and my desk and untangled the knot in my plot.

That's how it works. Half of writing a book consists of not writing. It consists of staring while your mind whirls, pulling up this plot thread, examining it, casting it off, grabbing another, until you finally find one that you can weave in and out seamlessly to tighten your story. The best outline ever still needs tweaking, revising, and bolstering. That's because as characters take shape and find their own voice in your head, plot points can change. What once made sense for a character is now out of character. Actions taken by a character now are preposterous.  Dialogue spoken by your protagonist suddenly seems forced. So, it's back to sitting and staring or jogging, doing laundry, vacuuming the rug -- it all works. Mindless activity to allow your brain to create scenes, conjure places, and pen dialogue.

As Dee Hock once put it: "Clean out a corner of your mind and creativity will instantly fill it."