Why Some Books are Worth Reading Twice

I recently ran into a writer of romances who was very proud that she had written and published three books (an entire trilogy) in a single year. It reminded me of Truman Capote’s famous quote when someone pointed to the best seller status of Valley of the Dolls. Now there’s no question but that Capote was a literary snob who really knew how to say something snide. Still, his comment that Jackie Suzanne was not writing but only “typing” is pretty memorable.

It’s possible to write a book pretty quickly, particularly if it’s been simmering around in your head for an extended period of time. But remember, that’s a first draft. I think the real challenge in writing is tweaking the book once it’s written to make it even better and maybe even memorable. I’m not sure you could do that and still write and publish three books in a single year. It is possible certainly to write three books that read reasonably well and have interesting plots, but would that alone make you want to read the books again?

So, what makes a book memorable enough to make you want to read it a second time or even a third time? Why are there some books that I routinely look forward to re-reading year after year? Here are some things I look for in a book that make me want to re-read it to the point that I can almost quote entire sections?

PLOT: Clearly the plot has to be interesting enough to keep me reading. Ideally, there are interesting subplots that beautifully meld together so that the sum total is greater than the parts. I also enjoy enjoy discovering subtle foreshadowing elements in a plot that I can appreciate upon re-reading the book. As a novelist, I can appreciate how cleverly the writer plants these unobtrusive signposts that later ring all kinds of bells for any reader who remembers them. Stephen King is a master of plotting. I’ve re-read his 11/23/63 several times and see something new each time.

CHARACTERS: There are certain characters I think of as real people not only because I’ve read about them so many times, but also because they are fleshed out real people with flaws that make them even more likable. Sometimes it’s their distinctive voice and sense of humor. I really like the John Corey character Nelson DeMille created. I once worked in a police department and Corey reminds me of some people I met there. His sense of humor still makes me laugh even though I’ve read the same jokes each time I re-read the books in which Corey appears.

SETTINGS: It’s always fun to be thrust into a setting completely different from your real world setting. Whether that’s the imaginary world of Harry Potter or Dune or even the real but exotic Ethiopia that Nelson DeMille describes in his new book, The Quest, doesn’t matter. I tried to describe modern Cairo in Egypt Rising. That required me to rely on my memory of my trip there but also on several guidebooks I used to fill in gaps in my memory. It also required me to study maps of the city.

USE OF LANGUAGE: Some books scream “literary novel.” Nowadays some of those books seem overwritten. Still, there are some popular modern writers who offer books filled with rich language without making their novels seem stuffy or unreadable. Ann Patchett does a wonderful job describing the rainforest in State of Wonder. Each time I re-read that book, I catch something I missed the first time.

Finally, there’s something comforting in picking up a favorite book, one that you’ve read many times before. The fact that you know what’s coming doesn’t prevent you from enjoying the anticipation of what will happen. The thriller you read the first time worrying that a character you like might be killed is different now that you can enjoy the story because you KNOW that your favorite character will survive. When I re-read some of Michael Connelly’s mysteries, I can enjoy Harry Bosch without worrying something will happen to him. I can enjoy the way Connelly plants red herrings, possible suspects, while planting enough clues so you feel satisfied when he reveals the real killer. I re-read Faye Kellerman’s books often, and I find I appreciate them even more the second or third or fourth times. Since she has a couple who reappear in several of her books, I can enjoy retracing the development of the relationship between Rina and Peter.

As a reader, I look for books that I hope I’ll enjoy enough to want to re-read them. I write novels with the hope that they’ll become a reader’s good friend, someone the reader will want to visit again and again.

 

 

Inter-Specie Sex: Could You Run That Sex Play Again?

I’m in the midst of writing a science fiction novel that features a lot of inter-specie sex. There, I’ve said it. What strikes me as I try to block out one particular sex scene is just how difficult the process is. Single cell organisms split and form new cells and that’s it. You can imagine a reporter describing the process: “It looks like the cell is about to reproduce. There it is!”

I’m reminded of when I programmed a football game years ago.  It was complex enough. I had to make allowances for both the offense and defense to run plays simultaneously and then determine based on their decisions, whether a pass would be successful or a runner would gain or lose yards. Still, that’s nothing compared to trying to figure out all the things that go on during sex.

There’s the female alien’s body, just filled with sensual areas. There’s the man, of course. There’s also the question of what’s going on in their heads. After all, the head plays as major a role as the lower part of the body. I haven’t even touched the other senses. What about smell? What about taste? When you’re different species, everything is new, and some of it isn’t that appealing.

My point is that sometimes dance partners preparing for contests spend months blocking out every move. It’s even more complex for a writer trying to capture every nuance of inter-specie sex. As the announcer used to say at the beginning of Star Trek, we’re going places where man has never gone before.

The novel is entitled TIL DEATH DO US PART. Look for it next year.

Helicopter Parents & Self-Published eBooks: A Nation of Authors and Not Readers

Time magazine frequently describes the phenomenon of a  generation of helicopter parents and the impact they are having on their “children.” You’ve read the stories. These children, now in their 20s, have been told that whatever they do is terrific. They’re received awards for participation throughout their childhood no matter how pathetic their performance. Many of this generation are described as self-absorbed. After all, their parents have always told them that they are so terrific that EVERYTHING they do is wonderful and memorable.

That generation has started to write and self-publish their thoughts. After all, it’s just a logical extension of stretching out a series of tweets to book length. I’m a member of a number of author group websites, and I can’t tell you how many authors in their 20s chat about the S&M “romances” they write. I’m sure their parents think these books are terrific. How many good ideas could there be out there for new ways to write about zombies or women who like men with whips and handcuffs?

A world where people tweet their every thought and then self-publish eBooks for less than the cost of purchasing a single hardbound book is a world where everyone is writing and fewer and fewer people are reading. If you’re self-absorbed, why read other people’s books? One young woman in her 20s has already published six eBook romance novels. She’s much too busy writing to be reading anyone else’s works.

Because Amazon has killed just about all the major bookstores except Barnes & Noble, authors are told that they have to become social media magpies in order to publicize their books. I receive dozens of tweets a day from self-published or indie published authors who are “appearing” virtually on various book blogs to promote their books. I think of the song from the movie, Midnight Cowboy that begins “Everyone’s talking at me. I don’t hear the words they’re saying. Only the echoes of my mind.”

Volume has become as important as quality for some of these new eBook authors. They are told by eBook “coaches” that they need to give away some of their older books to attract readers who then will pay for their later books. They’re told to write several books in a series before publishing them so the later books in a series can benefit from readers who clamor to know what happens next.

There’s also another self-absorbed part of this writing food chain. Take Young Adult (YA) book blogs, for example, One website lists close to 1500 book bloggers who specialize in writing about the YA books they read. Go to any of these websites and you’ll read about these bloggers. Many complain about being overwhelmed by review requests from desperate self-published and indie published authors. So, they set down their review policies as well as their criteria. One blogger only likes books that have happy endings. Another only reads books about red-headed protagonists. A third gives bad reviews if she’s in a bad mood because of one of her high school tests. Yes, you guessed it, some of these reviewers who help decide the fate of a self-published author are not old enough to drive.

These bloggers think they’re important and doing important things, and they’re right. The refusal of most traditional outlets for review to review self-published and indie books means that these authors have only two choices: submit a book for review to a book blogger and hope she’s happy because Mr. Right just asked her to the Senior Prom or pay several hundred dollars to places like the Kirkus Review that now will only review self-published and indie authors for a fee. It places these reviews in a separate supplement that I doubt librarians spend much time scanning.

I said we’re moving to a world where everyone is writing and no one’s reading. What about the book bloggers? Incredibly, some list the hundreds of books they read and review in a single year despite working or raising a family. Some of these bloggers are very good at what they do and should be commended for their hard work. Others, though, provide little more than a plot summary and a few random thoughts. They probably spend almost as much time maintaining their blog as they do reading books.

The big publishers have created this mess by focusing their energies on just a few blockbuster books by major authors who are almost guaranteed to sell thousands of copies. They have little interest in new novelists. A couple of major publishers  have even set up a division that offers authors the chance to self-publish with them. The problem is that the terms are far worse than these authors would have if they self-published on Amazon AND these publishers don’t really spend any money on marketing except for maybe placing a book cover on their website.

Project out what’s happening a couple of decades from now. Self-published books will be rolling off the assembly line so fast that no one can keep up when it comes to reading these books. Book bloggers will probably give up manually reading the books and rely on artificial intelligence programs that will digest the gist of a book and then create a review much the way that teachers now can purchase report card software that prints out comments that can be crafted to fit a student.

Amazon reviews are highly prized by self-published and indie authors because many people buy books based on the reviews they read online. Recently I published a novel set in the world of Minecraft. The book is selling very well, and had all five star reviews, until someone  young enough to use a crayon because students don’t use pencils until third grade wrote a review filled with spelling errors urging readers not to buy the book because he didn’t agree with the way some item was crafted. So, now authors don’t just have to worry about high school book bloggers, they have to deal with self-absorbed seven-year olds who can determine the success or failure of a book.

In the not too distant future I can imagine a teacher assigning James Joyce’s Dubliners only to have students respond that they would rather write about what they did at Disneyland on their vacation than write about people they don’t care about living in Ireland that long ago. They might add that they KNOW that their parents would love to read about their summer vacation. Why wouldn’t the teacher? Besides, it’s easier to write than to have to plow through a book. In fact, their parents suggest they collect a few of their essays and self-publish them. After all, it doesn’t cost anything to do so and there’s a world of readers out there just waiting to read their every thought.

 

 

 

What Writers Could Learn from Tribes

My wife and I saw the play, Tribes yesterday. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a dysfunctional family with a deaf son. One of the major themes is the difficulty people have communicating with each other. Another key theme is that people divide themselves and are divided into groups or tribes. So, for example, the deaf community divides into those who sign and those who don’t.

What I found particularly interesting in the play is the way the playwright uses dialog. It’s clear to me that what the characters don’t say is just as important as what they do say. The play reminded me of some of Pinter’s plays in that respect.

I’m in the process of outlining and planning a new novel, and some reviewers of my earlier works pointed out that I spent too much time telling rather than showing. It’s a difficult problem to overcome, but I’m working on it. What struck me is that one of the keys to overcoming this problem is to put more emphasis on the nuances of dialog including body language.

So, my new protagonist has PTSD. Rather than telling the reader this, I’m working on showing symptoms and letting readers draw their own conclusions. We’ll see how that goes.

The Indie & Self-Published Book’s Food Chain Makes Speed Readers King

How did publishers traditionally get the word out about a new book? The answer is that people responsible for publicity worked closely with major newspapers to arrange book reviews; they schmoozed and managed to get people sympathetic to their books to do the reviewing. At the same time, marketing budgets paid for publisher-sponsored book tours. Media specialists arranged for the authors to be interviewed on radio and television. All in all, the writer did not have to do very much except appear when requested and act semi-intelligent since the interviewer usually had not read the book before the interview.

Today budgets are so constrained that indie presses are limiting the number of review copies they distribute. They request “Marketing Plans” before approving a submission. They fully expect their authors to carry most of the load and pay most of the cost of reaching the public. Self-published authors lack even the semblance of that publisher support since they have to hawk wares from their own websites.

To make matters even more interesting, the only viable way for indie and self-published novelists to reach the public besides hawking their novels from the back of trucks at county fairs is to find book bloggers willing to read their books and then write reviews.

How the mighty have fallen. Read the biographies of many of these bloggers. They usually have full-time jobs and read in the evenings. Yet, some say that they read 1-2 books per week in order to keep up with their reviews. Do the math. These bloggers make Evelyn Woods sound like she was lip reading when she claimed speeds of 2000 words per minute through her speed reading classes.

Virtually all the bloggers I have researched have huge backlogs of books to read. Authors have to make a compelling argument to make it on their reading lists. Yet, these bloggers have figured out the way to jump to the head of the Amazon food chain because the public usually does not buy books that don’t have a number of positive reviews. Amazon has strict rules against relatives reviewing books, so authors have to convince strangers to do this critical work.

I wonder how enjoyable it is to have so many books waiting to be read. Yet, many of these bloggers do plow through their books and then write coherent, intelligent reviews that they diligently post on several additional sites like Goodreads.com in order to help authors gain some visibility.

So, my hat goes off to these bloggers. I picture them watching TV in the evening while trying to also concentrate on a book. I imagine them cooking dinner while a book or Kindle is open. Finally, I can visualize them counting books, rather than sheep, as they try to fall asleep in order to have the energy to go to work in the morning.

The Brave New World of the Writer Inc.

There was a golden time many years ago when writers wrote and publishers published and marketed books. That’s not to say writers didn’t promote their works. They would visit the Tonight show, be interviewed for Parade Magazine, and appear at book readings, but they were not primarily responsible for their books’ marketing campaign. There were publicity people who wrote press releases, graphic designers to design sales sheets, and nice neat relationships with major magazines and newspapers with writers eager to review the works.

Where has all this gone? I spent much of yesterday searching for a good Microsoft Word template for a Sales Sheet. I found one after an extended search, but then I had to spend a good deal of time modifying it to fit my latest book. I spent part of today arranging for flyers to be printed on very heavy, good quality paper, and then wrote the press release.

Of course, all that effort is for naught if I don’t find hands eager to receive the material as well as a review copy of the book. I’ve been spending a good deal of time developing my own marketing campaign list of potential reviewers. I’ve combed the blogger community as well as other sites to discover reviewers who fit the profile of someone who likes to read this type of book. The fact that my newest book is not just a children’s book but also a book designed for children who love to play the game of Minecraft makes it more difficult. Many older reviewers aren’t even aware their children or grandchildren love this game.

I’ve developed my own bookmarks as well. Once again, doing it right takes time, effort, and some money. I’m very thankful that I’ve worn marketing hats before as well as a researcher hat, because starting from scratch would be very difficult. I haven’t even mentioned the need to keep up a blog and become active in other social media.

Writing becomes a relief, a fun-filled escape from the business office. So, in effect, a writer today is his or her own corporation, complete with several departments all run by one employee. I suppose I should be thankful that my drawing ability is so awful that I didn’t even consider designing my own cover. If I had an iota of ability, that would have been one additional area to serve as a time sink.

My advice for newcomers is not to be seduced by the parasites who hover over places like Amazon’s bulletin board. They brag about how they have sold thousands of copies of their books because of clever marketing tricks that only they know. They then offer to reveal everything for ONLY a few dollars. It seems so simple. What harm could an additional $2.99 for a Kindle version of the secret to success do? If you read some of the reviews, you discover that writers who fell for this trick, spent valuable time reading pablum that consisted of obvious advice (create a website, blog, tweet, etc.). Meanwhile, they wasted valuable time.

So, throw yourself into this new corporate adventure with an attitude that you’ll learn all kinds of new things. Also, you’ll have complete control; you won’t have to worry about someone else screwing up. You won’t have to take any money out of your profits to pay others. Finally, in this brave new digital world, writers produce novels much more quickly than in the old days. So, whatever you learn in promoting your current book will make the promotion of your next book even more successful. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

The Publishing World is Changing

I’d hate to be a traditional literary agent these days. Traditional publishers keep consolidating, so there are far fewer outlets for them to serve as guardians at the gates. One interesting observation I read recently pointed to the fact that a very high percentage of these agents are women in roughly the same age range (25-45). What that means is far less variety in what whets their appetites. I received a rejection from one female literary agent who actually used the word alas. I think she’s been reading much too many romance novels although she professed to be an expert in YA fiction.

Lately I’ve been exploring the world of Indie publishers. Some have found niches where they can be reasonably successful. They tend to specialize in specific genres such as mysteries, romances, or science fiction. The trick is to differentiate the legitimate guys from the POD presses that claim to be legitimate but wind up charging fees at the back-end or stealing writers’ rights. I submitted manuscripts to a couple of these guys without realizing who they really were. The results were that I received slavish praise and contract offers. It felt great until I realized they would applaud anything that they received from a warm body with a checking account. One contract I received would have given the publisher first looks at my next three books. If they accepted my next book, then their horizon would have gone out even further.

The other interesting development is the rise of the digital publisher. I’ve discovered several that only care about publishing ebook editions. It’s an interesting niche because then the question becomes what can these publishers do for me that I can’t do for myself by just self-publishing on Amazon. A UK digital publisher offered terms of 50% on royalties. Since It’s easy to self-publish ebooks to Kindle and iPads, once again you have to wonder what a digital publisher brings to the table to earn 50% of the profits.