Monday, November 14, 2011

Putting the History into Historical Novels

Putting the history into an historical novel is not as easy as it sounds. Although it might seem that just a bit of research and flinging a few facts into the mix will do, trust me, it won’t. Historical novels can be both under- and overwhelming. The first kind either have glaring anachronisms, where the hero or heroine living a few hundred years ago comes out with a thoroughly modern saying, or curse, or pattern of speech/behaviour. On the other hand, some writers positively drown their readers in facts that, while interesting and pertinent, are too much. The story is swamped by an excess of detail. How to get it right? The perfect mix is just enough detail to create the setting and keep the reader in the era without an excess of technical and historical detail. I recently reviewed two books by the same author, Lucinda Brant, who has captured the essence of an age (Georgian England) and made it her own. Deft, subtle touches of details place the reader firmly in the history and society of this abundantly opulent age. For a reader like myself, gently reared on Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and post-Regency plots, the heroics of this brash, endearing, and vital period in history came as a wonderful surprise. I have included my two reviews in the hopes that they will persuade you to discover this eminently readable and skilled historical novelist.

Salt Bride
The Earl of Salt Hendon, with good looks, fortune, and the reputation of a lover par excellence, could have any woman he pleased just by crooking his little finger. So when he seemingly lost his reason and married a squire's daughter, Jane Despard, Society is aghast. Despite being a noted beauty, Jane's reputation is clouded, an incident in her past having cast a shadow over her marital prospects. What Society does not know is that Jane and the Earl share a dreadful secret: a past encounter that brought them both nothing but misery, misunderstanding, and mistrust. Their marriage four years after that encounter is sealed so that the Earl can discharge a promise to a dying man and Jane can save her stepbrother from financial ruin. Jane holds out the hope that the Earl will finally come to love her. Her husband, alas, is deeply influenced by the scheming Diana, Lady St. John, widow of his cousin and the mother of his nominated heir, his young godson. Can Jane's love prevail and will the Earl finally open his eyes to the Machiavellian maneuvers of the wicked Lady St. John?

It is the year 1763 and King George III is on the throne. Georgian aristocratic life is synonymous with elegance and a devil-may-care pleasure, and the upper classes enjoy a kind of amorality in their love lives. Men, and women, are inclined to take their pleasure where they choose. It is this angle, the tawdry underbelly of high society that the author captures so brilliantly in this eminently readable novel. The rakish, raucous character of the Georgian period is contrasted superbly with the sophistication of the age. The author has created a love story that fans of historical romance will relish. Details of the politics, manners, social mores, and dress are deftly interspersed within the plot lines to fully flesh out the era and the people in it. The author's characterization, even with secondary characters, is accurate and believable. The plot is complex and interesting; the author guides the reader through the maze of misunderstandings without ever giving the game away. The dialogue is witty and sparkling, with the characters' words often belying their actions and vice versa, thus further adding to the love confusion. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

Autumn Duchess
Antonia, Dowager Duchess of Roxton, has been in mourning for three years for her beloved dead husband and soul mate. Antonia has lost the man who meant everything to her and it appears she no longer has any enjoyment for life. That is until Jonathon Strang, a larger-than-life, forceful character bursts into her life like a hurricane, and turns it upside down. Although Antonia is easily ten years older than he is, her amazing beauty and enchanting aura soon have him captivated. Jonathon began life as the second son of an impoverished second son. However, by virtue of hard work and good fortune in the colonies, coupled with several family deaths that have put him in line for a title, Jonathon is very eligible indeed. He also has links with the Roxton family that he wishes to pursue, namely, the illegal misappropriation of property that rightfully is his. One of these properties can only be signed over to him by Antonia herself.

Antonia is initially repelled by the buccaneer; a man whose casual manners are almost insulting in a society obsessed with the niceties of conduct. His blunt approach, his sharp brain, his sense of humor and finally his blatant adoration serve to break down her icy disdain. Set in 1777, in Georgian England, against a backdrop of the imminent French Revolution and the American War of Independence, this compelling love story will appeal to romantics of all ages.

I recently reviewed Salt Bride by the same author and was keen to revisit Georgian England. Lucinda Brant has carved a niche for herself in this particular patch of history and she is gifted in weaving both story and history into a compelling read. Passion is the keynote of this novel; abundantly clear in the passion of the main characters, the robust energy of the age, and the pulse of action that creates an energetic and well-paced novel. The author has a wonderful turn of phrase, creating a sense of the opulence and oftentimes excessive luxuriance of the era. Food, drink, clothing, entertainment, appetites are all described in glowing detail in an era that celebrated abundance and sensual gratification. Although this is the third book in a series, and readers would derive even greater enjoyment by reading the first two as well, this story stands alone with enough back history threaded through to keep readers in touch with prior events. Highly recommended.

Both books by Lucinda Brant first reviewed for Readers Favorite by Fiona Ingram

Monday, October 17, 2011

Book Review: Tribe

Oh, for a good book ... one with action,  a layered plot, something interesting like a fresh viewpoint on politics and/or life. I have been struggling recently with finding a 'real' book. By that I mean dialogue, or inner monologue that sounds just like real people would speak, a viewpont that makes me think, "Yes!" or "No!" I read a lot of non-fiction while researching my children's book series and have been disappointed in my efforts to find some fiction to relax with. Many books just do not sound or seem 'real.' Either I don't believe the characters, or I don't like the characters (not a train smash) or else the themes don't grab me. Luckily, reviewing for Readers' Favorite allows me to choose from a wide range of possible me-pleasers. TRIBE is basically an exceptional book. It's the kind of book that is so interesting you wish the author had given you more information, more insight, more detail to chew over while the battle rages on. I will certainly read more of the books this author has already produced.

TRIBE by James Bruno
Meet Harry Brennan, CIA officer and go-to guy on Afghanistan. When his mission in Afghanistan is aborted and he finds himself back in Washington, Harry starts digging until he finds out what everyone doesn’t want him to know. And it comes as no surprise to Harry that it’s all about money, or oil to be exact. As the Western world’s need for oil increases, something must be done to break the stranglehold of the Arab world on oil supplies. A secret deal has been struck to get a U.S.-financed trans-Central Asian oil pipeline to the Arabian Sea built through Afghanistan and Pakistan. This scenario would bring Croesus-like wealth for the oil companies, back-channel cash to politicians and cement American political and economic supremacy in Central Asia at Russia’s expense. It would also force the Afghan allies to share power with the Taliban so pipelines could be built and US troops finally withdrawn. Harry becomes enmeshed in the double and triple cross of the relentless Washington political machine. In a surprise turn of events, Harry finds himself branded a traitor and fleeing for his life from jihadists in Afghanistan and Predator drones in Yemen, a target of his own CIA, while trying to rescue his kidnapped daughter.

This is a brilliant book that is well-paced and -plotted with many interesting layers. The author has created in Harry Brennan a likeable character, with a conscience that compels him to do the right thing. The author is a former insider and the book has undergone US government censorship, which explains the occasional ‘vague’ patch. However, nothing can detract from this riveting read. Harry Brennan’s dry, laid-back inner monologue adds to the appeal of the author’s style. Readers will also enjoy Harry’s pertinent, humorous references to the books, movies, and well-known personalities of popular culture that underscore his worn, somewhat cynical take on politics. The author has an eye for detail and a style of rich description that the eager reader can feast upon. I really enjoyed this book. Highly recommended.

First reviewed for Readers' Favorite

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Not Just a Pretty Face(Book)!

RIP poor blogger!
 I was recently inspired by a blog post to drag myself out of my Slough of Blogging Despond. The post was by the excellent blogger Roni Loren, entitled ‘Is Blogging Dead?’ Please read it. I found myself overwhelmed by the plethora of very much cleverer-than-mine blog pieces, and despite my promise of last year to cut down on subscriptions, I fear they have crept up and I now read even more incredibly intelligent posts. Plus, some of my favorite bloggers I follow now include loads of even cleverer pieces by people I have never heard of; I felt could not compete with them! My blogging enthusiasm died and my ideas for cute, inventive posts withered. After all, I reasoned, how can I compete with bloggers who create wonderful posts about developing characters when some of mine literally just arrive on my computer screen, fully fledged and grown? Sigh. But Roni’s piece got me all fired up again because at least I felt someone understood my problem. Then I just completed a tour with the wonderful World of Ink/Stories for Children and got such a great response I reasoned that maybe there is life after blogging. Still short on ideas, I drew some inspiration from a post by one of my favorite people in the publishing industry Penny Sansevieri. Here’s her take on how to commit social suicide, or something like that.

The Quickest Way to Kill Your Online Success

Penny says: I have a friend who lives in San Diego. She and her boyfriend rented this lovely home outside of the city. They have tons of land, a great house. It was really a fantastic deal. Since they were in such a good place, the rent was cheap and they had no intention of moving anytime soon, they decided to do some minor renovations to the house. This became their "weekend warrior" project. They'd paint, tinker, plant and in the end, they had a great and slightly improved property. Then one day the owner stopped by for a visit. "Bad news," he said, "I need to sell this property and I have a buyer who wants to offer top dollar, in a market like this I'm sure you understand why I need to take it." They had 30 days to move out.

Now, you might think this is a very sad and unfair situation, but it happens all the time. And it doesn't just happen to real estate, it happens online too. It's a great thing, this social networking, but what a lot of people forget is that you don't own the sites you are populating. While Facebook owns the world (pretty much) right now, things could change. But more than that, sometimes a slight "uh-oh" from you and a slight violation of the site's terms of service can cause you a world of grief. We had a client several years ago who built up 5,000 friends on his personal profile. I kept cautioning him about doing promotion on that page as Facebook has rules against doing promotion on a personal profile. He continued to do promotion (though not heavy) and lost his page. He never got it back. His entire tribe of 5,000 people was lost in the minute it took Facebook to pull down that page.

Don't get me wrong, it's great to utilize these tools and promote yourself, but just remember: as much as you might feel "at home" on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, YouTube, and Twitter, you don't own these properties. They do. Be smart and make sure you aren't making these sites the center of your success. Here are a few tips to help you own your real estate:

Website. You should always, always, always have a website. I know some authors who use Facebook as their websites. Big mistake. I know other authors who get a website that doesn't belong to them, meaning they are part of a community of free sites they don't own. If the community decides to stop doing websites and goes away, guess what happens? So does your content.

Smart Social Media. One of the things I really recommend is that you center all of your content around your website. That's partially why I suggest linking your blog to Facebook and Twitter. The content starts on your site and gets funneled from there, rather than in reverse.

Other Ways to Promote. Consider other ways to promote your stuff that isn't social media centric. Interviews on (other) blogs or websites, for instance. Yes, you are still putting stuff out there on other sites, I'm not saying not to. I'm saying that you need to make sure that whatever content you put out there is reflected on your site as well.

Duplicate Content. There's a problem with posting huge amounts of duplicate content online, but unless you are pushing hundreds of pieces out a month, I doubt you have anything to worry about. However, the flip side is that you want to make sure you have copies of all the content you put out there. If you're uploading a video on YouTube, don't delete it off of your computer because you think it's "safe" on this site. It may very well be, but if you lose your page or YouTube gets bought (again) and morphs into something else, you're in trouble.

Enhanced Website. When I talked about having a website, I'm not just talking about having a one or two-pager. I mean have a robust site packed with content. Make sure that you have a blog, and you might consider adding a resource section, etc. All information about your books should be on the site (don't rely on Amazon to house this for you) and be sure that any ordering information is on your site as well. Wait! You might ask, is Amazon in danger of going away? Not likely. But as they've shown in the past by pulling down books and buy buttons without warning: Amazon can do whatever it wants.

Gotta love that traffic!
 Traffic. So, the nitty gritty of promotion is what? Sales, right? Sure, and exposure too (though I think you should target exposure first, then sales, but that's another article). If you're sending all of your traffic to social media sites, guess what? Your website traffic is probably pretty low or non-existent. If you send traffic to social media sites guess who benefits? Well, certainly you do in the way of exposure, but long-term this isn't a good plan. Let me explain why.

If you aren't promoting your site as the center of the universe, and instead pushing people to social media sites, then your website isn't getting those super valuable incoming links from blogs, websites, etc. that you are promoting yourself to. As a result, your site will sink in Google rankings. That means if you lost one or more of your social media sites, you could certainly pick up the pieces and start sending people to your site, but that will be a long, hard haul. Better to focus on that now and gather that traffic, along with the buzz you create in social media, so you aren't caught with a zero starting point if anything happens.

You might think that the moral of this story is a slightly paranoid "trust no one" mantra but it's not. It's about protecting your stuff and being a smart and savvy author. You would never open up a store in a mall without a lease that locked you in for a certain amount of time, right? While there are no guarantees in anything, you need to be smart about all of these wonderful, free, not-owned-by-you social media sites. You might do a fantastic job of driving traffic, fans, and likes to various pages. But the reality is that you should focus on what you own, your website. I love my social media sites and yes, it's a widely known fact that I'm addicted to Twitter. Yet they aren't the center of my online universe, my website is. Yours should be, too.

Reprinted from "The Book Marketing Expert newsletter," a free ezine offering book promotion and publicity tips and techniques.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

30 Ways to Woo the Media

There is a reason so many pitches get rejected by the media. On average, the media rejects 95% of pitches they get. How can you become part of the 5% that get picked up for a story? First, you need to know the reasons why pitches get rejected. Keep in mind these aren't the only reasons, but certainly the majority of them:

Uninteresting email subject lines: Often your pitch is judged by the subject line. Make it something interesting, make it a headline or risk getting relegated to the delete bin.

Long emails: I don't know about you, but I hate reading long emails. The media hates it even more, in fact many of my media friends have told me that if they have to scroll through a pitch, they often won't consider it unless it comes from a very trusted source. How long is too long? If you can read it on the screen without scrolling down, you're in good shape.

Non-compelling topics: You won't get attention for your topic just because you pitch it. It has to be timely, unique, and relevant to the audience they serve. Think HUH: Hip, Unique, and Helpful.

An opened email isn't always a sure bet: Even if your email gets opened, it might still get deleted, here's why: For all of the above reasons. Create a tight, focused pitch that isn't too long and stays on topic. This will increase your chances that the media will read it through.

Not relevant: What I mean by this is that it's not relevant to the audience the media outlet serves. Don't think for a minute that just because you find it interesting and compelling that your media target will. For example, I once had an author tell me about the amazing world of fly fishing, and then insist that Oprah would be interested in this topic. Really? I think not so much. Watch the show, listen to the broadcast, or read the blog or publication - before pitching.

A false sense of urgency: Often I find that folks pitching, in order to get noticed, will call upon a false sense of urgency. Yes, it's urgent that we fix our school systems. Yes, it's urgent that we clean up the environment. Neither of these things is going to blow up tomorrow so don't pitch them as though they are. While it might make for a more compelling pitch, it will only serve to paint you as an unreliable and often excitable source. Neither of these is good.

Unknown senders: An unknown source or sender may be considered an unreliable one. It's easy enough to get to know the media long before you start pitching. And I highly recommend that you do so.

Now, let's look at 30 things you can do to make yourself, and your pitches, irresistible to the media!

1) Start early and Focus on Relationships.
2) Connect on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn: get to know your media, connect with any local and national reporters, journalists, and news people via these social sites so you can get to know them.
3) Comment on postings via Twitter and Facebook: comment on their postings and news when appropriate.
4) Facebook birthdays: this is a great way to connect to everyone on your list, especially media. Wish them a happy birthday, they'll appreciate it.
5) Watch those Twitter hashtags: as you follow your media, you'll start to see a trend of most-used Twitter hashtags, I highly recommend you follow them so you can see who else is talking about the story.
6) Blog about them on your site, referencing a recent story they did.
7) Comment on their stories, whether it's on their site or on their media site.
8) Sign up for (HARO) and respond to stories appropriate to your topic.
9) Get to know your smaller, regional publications, and also trade publications. Both of these tend to be easier to get to and could offer you some exposure well in advance of your book launch.
10) Get to know your local radio hosts, or the hosts of stations you'll be targeting. Especially in radio, it's great to get connected to the broadcast people as early as you can. They also tend to be pretty accessible.
11) Go to events where you know you might meet some media folk. This is often a great way to engage them on mutual ground. Attending the same event is a great way to start a dialog or relationship with the media.
12) Practice your elevator pitch! What's an elevator pitch? It's a short, succinct description of your topic or pitch. Short enough to keep them interested (1-2 sentences) but long enough to tell the story, or at least the headline.
13) Become a source for your target media: becoming a media source is something we'd all love to do. But this takes time. By getting to know your media, commenting on stories they write and letting them know your area of expertise, you might become one of their regular sources!
14) Become a connector: be the person the media goes to for other experts as well. How do you do this? Whenever you introduce yourself to media, make sure they know your area of expertise and your ability to connect them to other experts who might be helpful as well.
15) Every now and then, I will share a blog post with a journalist that I think will be helpful to them. I don't do this a lot - just every once in a while.
16) Be succinct: define your story in one sentence. Keep it short, sweet, and relevant to your topic.
17) Sell the benefits, not the features. The media cares about what consumers care about, and all they want are benefits.
18) Make sure the media person has all the information he or she needs prior to the interview. This is especially true for late/breaking news. If there are new developments, make sure they are aware of them. This will save them research time and make them look good!
19) Speaking of making media look good, this is your job as well. Yes! It's important to make them look good, give them a set of questions, a synopsis about the book or interview topic and be prepared in case they ask you a question that doesn't seem quite right. Sometimes the person who is interviewing you doesn't get the media packet until 10 minutes before they go on, which doesn't leave them a lot of time to prepare. Be sure to help make their job easy!
20) Jump on breaking news when it happens and be ready when the media calls.
21) Be flexible. If a reporter covering a big story wants to chat with you on a weekend or late at night/early morning, say Yes.
22) Be excited about your topic: if you're not excited, how do you expect the media to be?
23) Never, ever give up. It might take a while for you to hear back, and sometimes (most times) the media won't respond to you until they have a need for your story.
24) Keep it short. Write short emails, always. Generally media folk are on email overload anyway; don't add to that with long, elaborate emails.
25) Think locally when appropriate: craft a local spin to a national story. While local media will always cover local, they love regional angles to stories that are making national news.
26) Stay on topic: when you do get the interview, stay on topic. Don't stray all over the place, you will confuse the media person and you'll end up getting a much smaller piece of a story if you look too fragmented.
27) Respond immediately: even if you are on vacation, reply right away to all media queries.
28) Don't tell the media anything you don't want to see in print. Assume everything you say is "on the record" even if you ask them to keep it confidential. I've seen authors say "well, off the record;" when it comes to media, assume there's no such thing.
29) Avoid slang and industry jargon: it will confuse the media.
30) Be grateful: always. Send a handwritten thank you note after an interview, and even if you didn't get the interview for which you were being considered, send a note of thanks anyway and wish them well on their story.

When it comes to media, get started as early as you can and build those relationships. Remember that while the delete rate of pitches is high, they are still in need of great guests, interviews, and stories. Be all those things and you'll not only be irresistible to the media, but you'll get a lot of placements that could really help launch your career!

Reprinted from "The Book Marketing Expert newsletter," a free ezine offering book promotion and publicity tips and techniques.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Five Top Tips to Make Reading Rock!

With the plethora of gadgets and technology at their fingertips, getting kids to open a book seems a daunting task for many parents. However, as any parent knows, when kids are interested in something, it’s hard to tear them away from it! You can turn your kids into avid readers by making reading exciting and interactive. Creative and interesting approaches to reading will transform this activity into something novel and stimulating. These tips will also enhance your child’s reading experience, encouraging them to think more deeply about the characters and themes in books, while having a whole lot of fun! My guest post today comes from Susan Black, who is a freelance writer and mother of two pre-teens.

As pleasurable as reading is there are many ways to engage with a book other than simply reading it. Active reading strategies help young readers formulate their own ideas about characters, events and themes in literature. Outlined below are 5 active reading strategies to try with younger readers.

Strategy One: The Treasure Box

Whilst reading a book ask the young reader to choose a character and fill a shoe box with small items that would be important their chosen character. For example, if you were reading the Twilight series and the reader chose Bella they might fill the box with an old keepsake from her mother, a ring or flower given to her by Edward and a photo of her and her father. The idea is that the reader updates the treasure box as the story progresses. It’s almost like physically emptying the pockets of a character to find out what is important to them personally. This gives readers a deeper understanding of the characters at hand and enables them to engage with characters at a deeper emotional level.

Strategy Two: Reader Turned Reporter

Reading is a great tool for writing and a great activity is to get young readers to act as newspaper reporters throughout the story. This could range from getting them to read out a TV style news item to writing a column for the local newspaper based on events from the book. Most books involve dramatic events that would easily be covered by local, and sometimes even national, news channels and encouraging them to report on events from the book might help them look at the book from a new perspective. For example was the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood really the villain? The media’s penchant for twisting facts can make for an interesting perspective on new books.

Strategy Three: Hot-seating

Have young readers step into the shoes of a character and get them to respond to a series of questions. As all of the answers about a character are not always given in the book the reader will have to think imaginatively about their responses and make up believable answers. This works particularly well for stories involving passionate crimes as it can be set up in a court of law situation with the reader having to justify the actions of the character. If this is a little bit advanced for a child the adult may instead step into the shoes of the character and allow the young reader to question them. Formulating questions for a character is a higher level thinking skill as the reader is probing the material and creating a personal line of enquiry.

Strategy Four: Thematic Collages

Young readers who respond well to art projects will enjoy creating collages around the major themes in a book. Looking at the finished collage anybody should be able to tell you what a particular book is about. For example, in the case of Romeo and Juliet there may be images concerned with death, love and violence. This would give anybody coming to the play for the first time an idea of what to expect if they read it, or indeed, watched it. This works well for young readers as it gives them a visual representation of all the major aspects of the text. With complicated texts this can help to break down more sophisticated concepts into simpler terms.

Strategy Five: Create Your Own Ending

When you reach the last chapter of the book it’s always a good idea to stop and digest everything that’s happened. An even better thing to do is to make predictions about how the book could end and to write an alternative ending. The fun of this activity is that it can be easily made as serious or as fun as you want it to be. For fun you might try and get a young reader to write the most unlikely ending to the story. If you’re wanting the reader to take the text more seriously however you might get them to make sensitive predictions about how the book will end and write their own version. Not only is this enhancing their ability to analyse books it is giving them the opportunity to improve their creative writing skills. At the end of it they will have produced a piece of work they are proud of and will probably enjoy reading the end of the book even more to look at the similarities and differences between their written ending and that of the author.

Susan’s other interests lie in photography and amateur interior design. She has written this article on reading with kids on behalf of her favourite recliner sectionals specialists.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Beauty of Book Reviews

Just how important is a book review and why should writers bother with them? The benefits to any author are mind-boggling in terms of the potential reviews have to boost an author from obscurity into the stratosphere. Dana Lynn Smith’s How to Get Your Book Reviewed opens many possibilities that encompass not just reviews and their benefits, but also the add-ons of marketing and promotion.

How to Get Your Book Reviewed is a step-by-step method to creating a winning book marketing strategy. Beginning with understanding the book review process and why many submitted books do not get reviewed, this guide takes the writer through the entire process. Given the hundreds of thousands of book published each year, the author stresses the need for writers to make sure their product meets the industry standards. This book also offers great tips on the extras that can draw positive attention and ensure their book is chosen above others: a media kit, a good press release and sell sheet—simple elements that are actually a valuable tool to further publicity.

Each chapter is laid out in user-friendly fashion, with details that will save a writer time and money: how to search for favorable outlets, how to approach potential reviewers, timelines attached to review publications, and details on print and online options. The guide also explores the formal (literary and review journals, newspapers, magazines etc.) and informal avenues (blogs, book and author sites, virtual reader communities) available to the writer seeking reviews. Approaching people or experts for endorsements and testimonials is also covered. Interspersed throughout are the succinct savvy tips for which Dana Lynn Smith is renowned. The author also provides many useful web links to review sites, and explains the process of getting reviews uploaded. A section on Amazon gives great advice on how to successfully utilize the Amazon tool.

This gem is the definitive guide for any writer who wants to get their book out there. I highly recommend this publication!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Learning From the Movies: Another Year

I love movies and make a point of ‘seeing’ my story unfolding before my eyes as I write. I pretend my book is a film. Will the reader see, hear, feel, and notice everything that I experience as I write? So, that takes me to the next point. If movies can be thought of as ‘moving pictures’ or books come alive, what can we learn from them in terms of plot and character development? Inspired in part by Jami Gold’s wonderful character and plot analysis of The Green Lantern, I thought more deeply about a film I saw recently. A film that didn’t say much; it didn’t really go anywhere … so why did it hold me and my friend absolutely enthralled?

Another Year, by director Mike Leigh, follows a year in the life of a sixty-something couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen). He’s a commercial geologist; she’s an NHS therapist. The director is known for weaving stories around fictional ordinary folk. In Another Year we find Tom and Gerri (only one reference to the obvious in the movie) who live in a quiet street, somewhere in suburbia, and who are passionate about their allotment where they grow a variety of vegetables. They seem to spend a lot of their free time madly digging and planting; sometimes joined by their son Joe (Oliver Maltman), to whom they are devoted. Their smooth uncomplicated lives are punctuated by socializing with their son, and several friends with various troubled lives and personal problems. Nothing seems to shake Tom and Gerri. They reach out to communicate with their loved ones and then slide back into the comfortable, maybe even complacent shell that cocoons and protects them. In a way they are a sounding board to highlight the weaknesses and worries of the people around them. Their serenity only makes their friends’ lives seem even more chaotic.

So what is the captivating aspect of this film that quite simply moves through the four seasons in a quiet reflection of how times slips by? As I said, nothing really happens; or rather nothing happens directly to them. Tom’s brother Ronnie loses his wife and the terrible grief of these scenes is positively palpable. Again, sitting in the movie theater I asked myself what was so compelling about this film. With virtually no plot—no action, no real drama, no special effects, no computer generated gizmos, no car chases, no car crashes … we only hear about their neurotic friend Mary’s car troubles, we don’t see them—it can only be said that character, real living people drive this film.

The acting is sublime with characters such as their old friend Ken (Peter Wight), who visits from the North during the summer and masks an unhappy personal life with ample smoking, drinking and eating. His drunken behavior is totally cringe-worthy because we realize that we’ve all got friends like these. It is a tribute to the director that I felt as if I was watching real people; that somehow I had wandered into their lives by accident. I know and admire Jim Broadbent’s acting skills, but as Tom he was somehow not Jim Broadbent playing the part of Tom. He was Tom. From the moment I saw the opening scene of Tom and Gerri running through the rain from their front door to the car, with boxes of seedling and garden implements, I was hooked. I truly believed in the person called Tom and his wife called Gerri. Ditto for the remaining characters. The exquisite craftsmanship of the director draws the viewer into the situation so that by the time Mary (superbly played by Lesley Manville), their problematic friend, throws yet another tantrum related to her anxieties about ageing, you just want to throw her and her neuroses through the front door.

The film is made in unforgiving close-up, something I deeply admire the British acting fraternity for accepting as ‘part of the job.’ Most British films are characterized by a dearth of silicone and other cosmetic enhancements, minimal make-up, and plenty of real acting. The close-ups also reveal the inner soul of the characters and quite honestly, the internal life and drama of each person portrayed is so interesting, so much a raging tempest of emotional turmoil that one can do without the apparent lack of plot. Aren’t most of our lives like that? Fiction generally takes us into some unreal, often outrageous places and situations. It’s as if we need it to escape the dull humdrum existence that is life. Yet, somehow Another Year is like peering into a microscope at some seemingly insignificant leaf or drop of water, and seeing life teeming there. It seems that we are so blind to the beautiful simplicity of life as it really is that we need high drama and roller-coaster action to make a dent in our consciousness.

Writers, alas, have to work harder than directors or filmmakers. The human eye sees more in one image than we can say in a single word. Isn't a picture worth a thousand words? We have to work harder to ignite the imagination of the reader. Yet the joy and beauty of the printed page is that each reader will create a different image in their mind of what they just read. Each moment of the book will be unique to the people who turn those pages. Now that's creativity!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Book Review:The 19th Element

A murder, a suspect, a nuclear plant with a spent fuel reactor that no one wants to discuss, potassium, a terrorist plot and two stolen truckloads of fertilizer … plus a couple of Mongolian goons makes for a thrilling race-against-time plot. The man to tie up the loose ends and resolve the case is none other than James “Beck” Becker, a former elite U.S. government intelligence operative who has retired to his childhood hometown of Red Wing, Minnesota, just six miles down the Mississippi from the Prairie River nuclear facility. The 19th Element makes for a thrilling read.

When the body of a University professor of agronomy turns up on the Mississippi River bank, Beck suspects foul play of a terrorist kind. His instinct tells him there is a connection between the victim and his missing lab assistant Farris Ahmed, an international cell phone call and a stolen fertilizer truck, but no one believes him. After all, who could take seriously his suspicions of a potassium bomb attack on a nuclear plant facility? The local police, the FBI and the nuclear plant security scoff at his ideas until things start rolling and it looks as if there is only one way things will end … in disaster. In fact Beck is not wrong. Al Qaeda plans to attack Minnesota’s Prairie River Power Plant as a means to restore the organization’s fading reputation to international prominence. It is indeed a motley crew that Beck finds himself up against: Al Qaeda has struggled to get Arab operatives into the nuclear facility and has resorted to using homegrown anarchists and a Three Mile Island survivor with a pathological vendetta against the nuclear establishment.

The author has established a likeable character in James Becker, one who has appeared in a previous novel and will no doubt feature in future political thrillers. By handling much of the narration, Beck’s character imbues the novel with his own style and personality. Beck is laid-back, with a dry sense of humor and an unerring instinct for danger. He trusts his gut and so do his friends, namely Ottawa County’s Chief Deputy Sheriff, Doug Gunderson, aka “Gunner” and Terry Red Feather, a full-blooded Mdewakanton Dakota American Indian, aka “Bull.” This book is an excellent read, with the author managing to steer the untutored reader through a maze of technical details about nuclear power and potassium bombs without losing attention. My one criticism would be that the story slows down in the middle with the author “telling” rather than “showing” but speeds up to a satisfying and thrilling climax. An interesting snippet is the fact that potassium is the chemical element with the symbol K (Neo-Latin kalium) and atomic number 19, hence the title of this book.

First reviewed for

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book Review: The Hounds of Samaria

I love anything to do with the two World Wars and of course, ancient history and mythology. I found an amazing package all rolled into one with Nigel Patten's The Hounds of Samaria. Here's my review of a great book and a compelling read.

Era: World War Two. Place: Crete. George Ghikas has Greek ancestry so the British army sends him behind enemy lines on occupied Crete with orders to organize partisan groups in the White Mountains. Before his posting, George had begun having strange dreams, almost hallucinations, about a dancing girl. These dreams continue upon his arrival in Crete. It appears that George was once the victim of a human sacrifice ceremony that took place in a restored Minoan temple located near his current base camp. The girl who has been haunting his dreams was the officiating priestess during the ancient sacrificial ceremony ... until the temple was destroyed by an earthquake. The past merges with the present until George almost commits suicide by reenacting the sacrificial ceremony from 3,600 years ago in the restored temple.

This book has an amazing sense of lyricism that draws the reader into a complex, yet finely woven plot. The author is a consummate wordsmith, whose eloquent and poetic descriptions paint a vivid picture for the reader, giving a sense of timelessness and a link to an ancient, bloody past. Given the nature of the plot, the author has included historical and mythological details to deepen the mystery surrounding George’s recurring dreams. In counterpoint to George’s experiences and discoveries as he delves into his obsession with Lamia the dancing girl are the experiences and impressions of Doctor Vassilis Iatros. The doctor became a monk when his wife was killed in a car accident. His obsession is to painstakingly restore the ancient Minoan temple on the island, the same temple that features in George’s dreams. Both George and the doctor become increasingly aware of the power of the subconscious mind and its ability to transcend time and space. The author uses an interesting technique by deftly introducing back story and other necessary details in a series of poignant memories to bring the reader and the characters to the moment in time when literally all hell breaks loose on the island. This is a wonderful book with a compelling story; a real page-turner.

First reviewed by Fiona Ingram for Readers Favorites.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Writer’s Digest - 8 Ways to Write Better Characters

Writer’s Digest - 8 Ways to Write Better Characters

This is a great post if you're struggling with your characters and want to give them greater depth, develop their motivations and desires, or even just understand them better. Ask yourself just how much you know about your characters: their opinions, their likes/dislikes; what they'll die to save and what they'll kill to preserve; who they hate and why. Oh, yes, and lots more besides.

This article struck a chord with me today because while I was doing something very difficult in my Pilates class involving a ball and a theraband (?) my trainer asked me how I come up with my characters - do I plot everything out step by step or does it just flow? I had to admit that in fact it's a bit of both. I make a basic outline, place who I think will appear where in the story, and away we go. However, what I found hard to explain to her, although it seemed to make complete sense to her, was that often the characters surprise me, overturn my plans for them, and forge ahead with a better storyline for themselves. So, that tells me I didn't know them very well. In my first historical romance (The Dangerous Duke published by Aurora Regency) I created a wonderful baddie called Sir Marcus Solesby. Oh, the epitome of sleaze and just the man to disgrace and discredit the heroine. However, Sir Marcus refused to seduce the unsuspecting young lady. That's right. He refused because he said he'd fallen in love with her and although wooing her would definitely annoy her employer (the dangerous duke himself) and please said duke's nasty mistress Lady Penelope Vane, he wanted to court her honestly. Lucky for me he dug his heels in because the story took a sharp turn and ended up being a lot more interesting and exciting.

The conversation continued and I brought up the beautiful and malicious Lady Vane, the duke's mistress. As I was describing to my trainer what a complete cow this woman is, and how she's one of those ghastly females who always manages to turn any situation round, even though she is caught red-handed, I found myself being rather envious of my character's ability to twist everything to her advantage. I grudgingly admired the kind of rampant self-centeredness that makes Lady Penelope just the bitch she is. Well, she doesn't get away with it in the end, of course, but she survives...

So, just a little example of how well I did not know my arch-villain and villainess. How well do you know your characters?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Submitting a Manuscript for Review?

This is a question many authors have asked themselves. Is it a good idea to submit a manuscript as opposed to a finished and published book for review? I think the answer is yes. I recently reviewed a manuscript (see my book review below) and because I knew the author had not yet published, I was more tolerant of the few errors that a good editor would pick up anyway; and I was also more keen to be of assistance. I spotted things in the otherwise excellent story that I pointed out and suggested the author fix before actually publishing. Had this been a published book, I would have been a harsher critic. Surely, I would have thought, the author had an editor to fix these glitches. Alas, glitches are part and parcel of being a writer. I have recently prepared my children's book for e-publishing and OMG, would you believe it, I found something (actually there were two somethings) that almost made me curl up and die. OK, so they weren't too bad as mini glitches, but the awful part is I had my manuscript rigorously edited before publishing to hard copy. I also have an eagle eye when it comes to errors. So, yes, if you are considering getting your work reviewed at manuscript stage, go ahead. Critics will be more helpful when they know it's not completed. You may also pick up some very good pointers instead of the reviewer thinking, idiot, why didn't he/she get an editor?

Book Review: Cry of Eagles by Stefan Vucak

When the Valero refinery complex in Texas City is bombed, forensic evidence seems to point glaringly to one culprit—Iran, which had recently expanded its nuclear program. Instead of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities like they did in Iraq, the vacillating Israeli government has done nothing to crush this potential threat to their national security. In fact, Matan Irian, a former Israeli Army Colonel whose family was killed years ago in a PLO terrorist attack, created this strategy to protect Israel: sabotage a refinery complex in Texas City, plant evidence that incriminates Iran, and sit back while an enraged United States strikes back in retaliation. However, the president of the United States hesitates to act without complete forensic investigation. There seems to be no logical reason why Iran would willingly antagonize the United States, calling down upon itself the wrath of a much mightier nation, and one that instantly mobilized its two carrier battle groups off Iran’s coast in readiness to strike back. The perpetrators of the covert black ops have made one tiny but revealing error: they left behind a minute piece of forensic evidence that traces the operation back to Israel. When the real culprits are revealed, the USA turns on its former ally and demands that Israel makes reparations and finally recognizes Palestine’s right to exist. Israel rejects this demand as naïve. When the USA immediately withdraws all economic and military aid, Israel must either seek peace with the Palestinians or go to war on their own.

This is a great read, a real page-turner. The author lays bare the deep-rooted hatreds, as well as the tribal rivalries that dog the composition of the Middle East and preclude a possible resolution. From the start the author draws the reader into a world where modern and historical animosities are twisted together in a knot that seems impossible to untangle. Or is this indeed so? The actions of two men, Namir Bethan (Director of Metsada) and Matan Irian, the man who proposes a drastic solution to the nuclear terrors that threaten his county, cut this Gordian Knot.

The author draws on current events such as international fears of a nuclear-powered Iran ready to hit the red button at any time, to the natural anxieties of the USA bigwigs, to the defiant and entrenched recalcitrant attitudes of the Israelis towards any attempt at removing what they perceive to be their God-given rights. The author also eases the unversed reader into the technical and forensic aspects of explosives and armaments, as well as laying bare the complexities, the chaos and the internecine rivalry that dominates government departments in the delicate interplay of politics and war. I enjoyed the development of the characters and the dialogue. Each character came with his or her history and motives, created in a believable and natural way. The author also has an excellent eye for visual detail to paint the picture of different environments for the reader. This is a must for lovers of political thrillers.

The only hollow note for me was the author’s opinion of the television station Al Jazeera, which has one of the finest teams of international reporters, and reports fairly on Middle Eastern and international matters, given the hard-line attitudes of Middle Eastern governments towards the unbiased dissemination of information.

First reviewed for Readers' Favorite by Fiona Ingram

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Can Books Help Kids Cope with Life?

Can books help kids cope with life? Recently I thought about this because of a slew of articles that have appeared in the press and online, some denouncing the levels of violence and sexuality in YA novels, and others arguing that by reading about YA problems today's teens are able to deal with them.

This article appeared in the Guardian (UK) Writing in the Wall Street Journal, columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon argued that contemporary fiction for teens is now "so dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18".

This is a thought-provoking argument and it unleashed a firestorm of opinion. My own view is that the average teenager is not likely to encounter the dark and sordid side of life described in some of these novels. However, a sheltered teen from a wealthy family whose worst experience is being grounded or having their pocket money stopped is not the same as a young person struggling to survive in a situation of abuse, rape, incest and violence. I think the point is this: are novelists sensationalizing these real aspects of life in order to sell books? Have we, as a society become so hardened that only the most shocking of descriptions and experiences will move us? Will reading about these terrible experiences help the very young people who are undergoing the same sort of tribulation? One thinks immediately that possibly a poverty-stricken teen would not have access to either books or/and education, but I don't wish to split hairs. How can books help kids cope with life?

Life issues are sometimes a challenge for kids to comprehend. Although most parents wish to shield their children from the tragic side of life, many times reality intervenes and the parent may be powerless to adequately comfort their child when dealing with a sad or traumatic situation. Death, disease, divorce, moving house, loss of a pet, bullying, experiences with alcoholic or abusive parents, and drugs form part of a long list of potentially negative life experiences. The death of a beloved grandparent, parent, sibling, friend, or an important adult can have a potentially devastating effect on a young person. Books can offer the kind of therapy that a child will appreciate and in a format that they can understand.

Stories, either fiction or non-fiction, enable children to identify with characters and sad or devastating events and relate these experiences to their own lives. Children are then able to recognize and understand how other people respond to frustration and disappointment. This helps children develop empathy and understanding of human behavior. It can also enable children to respond to discussing issues with a parent or responsible adult such as a teacher or therapist.

Today’s books also have opened up discussions on a variety of previously taboo topics or at least topics that were avoided. These issues can include:

  • bullying at school;

  • negative comments regarding a child’s weight, appearance, or lack of athleticism;

  • tolerance of differences among peers, such as income levels, religious beliefs, nuclear families vs. broken homes, etc.;

  • a parent’s history with substance, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse;

  • long term changes in living situations, such as the arrival of stepchildren or grandparents;

  • issues such as homosexuality and lesbianism, especially where a parent decides to ‘come out’;

  • unique abilities and challenges faced by peers or family members with special needs, i.e., autism or Down Syndrome, debilitating illness, or illness or trauma resulting in disability, etc.

Regardless of the issue tackled or the story composed, a book’s therapeutic effectiveness will be enhanced by:

  • age-appropriate language;

  • honest and realistic characterizations;

  • an avoidance of explicit preaching while allowing the reader to make the moral connection through critical thinking;

  • a good, well-written story with relevant illustrations

Books are essential guidelines between covers and the younger kids start reading, the better they will be equipped to deal with the many curved balls that will be flung at them.

Of course, even the best written book embracing a particular problem is not a cure-all, and parents should take note that books cannot replace the expert advice of a health care professional where necessary. However, using books for the purpose of healing will often be a solid step in helping a child understand and accept the realities of life, even when harsh and unpleasant. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Improve Your Child's Reading Levels

Lately I've been reading some disturbing stuff about the fate of books and libraries, and the decline of children's reading levels. It is ironic that in England the law says prisons have to have libraries, but libraries are closing in schools and boroughs because of spending cuts. I've also been reading how some children never open a book and as a result their grades suffer. On many occasions the reason is that there are no books to open! Believe it or not, there are homes with not a single book to read. Whatever the reasons for a child not reading, this situation can be reversed. Can parents make a difference and turn a non-reader into an avid reader? The answer is yes!

Parents already know that books are vital to their child’s scholastic achievements, and developing life skills. It can be disappointing when your child expresses absolutely no interest in reading. However, you can change that by coming up with new and interesting ways to ‘package’ the art of reading. Reading is a skill, just like any other skill. It has to be introduced, nurtured, and developed. Imagine trying to play championship tennis when you can barely hit the ball? Children don’t enjoy what they can’t do. And when reading is difficult, they shy away from even coming near a book. Turning your non-reader into a reader will require your participation and encouragement every step of the way.

• A good way to begin is to actually assess your child’s reading level. If it’s below par, then that’s one reason why he or she isn’t keen on books—books are the enemy, boring, a problem. Have your child read a page or two from a variety of books. Make a list of the words they find easy/hard/not understood. Once you have an idea of their level, based on vocabulary skills, then you can move forward. In fact, to build your child’s confidence, perhaps begin with a book for a younger age. Your child will skim through it, feeling proud at having finished and understood it, and you can offer praise by saying, “Look how easily you managed that! Shall we try something else?”

• A book can appear quite a formidable object to a non-reader. Begin small. Start with a thinner book, not some great tome, and say, “I bet we’ll finish this quickly.” Then let your child read the book in bite-sized pieces. Don’t try for ten pages—read only four or five pages. Your child will feel this is not a huge task after all.

• Reading aloud is something that all parents should do, regardless of children’s age. Most children really love that special time when Mom or Dad comes in to say good night. You can say, “Hey! I’ve got something really exciting here. Want to hear some?” Anything to delay turning off the light, your child will say (of course) “Yeah!” You can make this session into something really memorable by acting the parts and using your Repertoire of Funny Voices, but more importantly, stop at a really exciting point, just when the hero is about to be plunged into mortal danger. Close the book and say, “Gosh! I hope he survives. We’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out.” Generally, no kid can go to sleep without confirming their hero is indeed still alive…

• Praise and admiration boost a child’s confidence. You can do this by letting friends and family members know just how well your child is doing. “It’s amazing how many pages (child’s name) is reading every day now!” Soon your child will be the one to suggest reading. Use the time together to understand your child’s thought processes, and structure the book choices around what really sparks their interest.

• Get your child their own library card and encourage them to begin choosing their own material. Buying book vouchers instead of other kinds of gifts will encourage your child to start building their ‘own’ collection of cherished books.

• Go slowly—tennis champions aren’t made overnight….

Friday, May 20, 2011

Book Review: Guinevere: On the Eve of a Legend

The Arthurian legends have timeless appeal and Cheryl Carpinello’s book Guinevere: On the Eve of a Legend is no exception. As an educator dedicated to encouraging reluctant readers, and having taught the legends of Arthur to high school classes for nearly 20 years, the author knows her stuff and her love of the legend shines from every page. Although much has been written about Arthur both as boy and king, and books have been devoted to the adult Guinevere and her ill-fated marriage to Arthur, this book comes as a surprise by introducing Guinevere as a young girl. In fact, our heroine is truly on the eve of a legend as the book centers around Guinevere’s 13th Birth Day, the turning point for her, when she crosses over from being a child to a young woman. We find Guinevere in the opening pages having the time of her life. With her friend, seven-year-old Cedwyn, she spends most of her time playing, roaming the castle grounds and occasionally the forest, hunting for rabbits or mythical creatures. But life has plans for her, as Guinevere finds out, and life’s plans, a combination of what her father and the wizard Merlyn have decided for her, do not sit well with this fiery-tempered and independent young girl. Upon hearing she will be betrothed to the young brave King Arthur and then married to him on her fifteenth Birth Day, Guinevere decides to run away from home. She is not interested in being married and is even less interested in becoming a queen. Her attempt at fleeing is short-lived, partly because Cedwyn’s legs are too short to do much running, partly because foraging for food in the wilds loses its appeal very quickly, and partly because Guinevere realizes that she must eventually grow up and grasp her destiny with both hands. In this coming-of-age story, her friend and advisor Merlyn is there to guide and instruct her. With magicality, tenderness, and spinning a sense of enchantment, Merlyn uses the teachings of legends and the forest to illustrate the lessons one must face in life. In this way Guinevere realizes that if she enjoyed being a princess so much, it is just a small step to enjoying being a queen. She also understands how much her father loves her and that her happiness is all he desires. Besides, she still has two whole years to enjoy before having to really grow up.

Cheryl Carpinello’s take on the Arthurian theme is unique and enchanting. Her descriptions of everyday life, food, behavior, weapons, and attitudes of the early Middle Ages display a wealth of research. Information is subtly introduced to enhance the story and does not overpower the reader. Her descriptions are rich, palpable, and appropriate to whatever scene one reads. The moment when the children see the unicorns is one of poignant magicality. The scene with the brachet, the rabbit, King Pellinore, and the hapless Painted Dragon is roaringly funny! Cheryl Carpinello has created a book along the lines of The Once and Future King, with the same kind of appealing humor and dry wit in her Merlyn. She has included an interesting glossary for young readers to fully enjoy their understanding of an historical environment; as well as Q and A for educators, and a recommended reading list. I look forward to reading Cheryl’s next book Young Knights of the Round Table: The King’s Ransom.

You can read more about Cheryl on

Thursday, May 12, 2011

How Publishing Works (in New York!)

The problem with many writers is that they don’t understand how publishing works. I am sure that many still are exactly like I was. I wanted to write a book, so I wrote one. Then I naively assumed an agent would immediately put me on his/her books, they’d get me a publisher in as much time as it takes to sharpen a pencil and BOOM! pretty soon I would be raking in the dollars. Of course, soon the rose-coloured spectacles were yanked away and I had to face the reality of doing it all myself. So, you’re not alone. Publishers are a strange kind of animal. The more you understand them, the easier it becomes to accept that there are many reasons why your book has not been snapped up … yet! (Note the yet!) In addition, times have changed and there are now successful e-authors who have made a huge amount of money in e-publishing by themselves.

When it comes to being competitive in publishing, it's important to know as much about the landscape as you possibly can. Because regardless of how you publish, it's important to have a clear understanding of the publishing landscape in general. While you may not work within the traditional publishing model, you should always be aware of new models emerging, new trends, and publishers breaking new ground. For example, did you know that a few select publishers are starting to dabble in self-publishing? It's big news in the industry and when you keep your head in the market, you'll be able to stay in tune with what's happening out there.

We all know what the big six are good at. They know how to produce a quality looking book and get it into bookstores. They know the publishing landscape, and they know how to get a title to market. But making yourself and your book competitive is not about understanding the strengths of these publishers, but understanding their weaknesses. To know where they miss the boat is to gain access to a market segment and marketing ideas that you might have overlooked.

Weakness #1: New York Publishers Don't Think Outside the Mainstream

Publishers have particular criteria they look for in a successful book; the first is mainstream appeal, which is understandable since they have to appeal to a larger bookstore-driven market. If you have a book that is outside the mainstream, this is actually good news, unless you're trying to find a major house to pick you up. The idea here is to understand that traditional publishing dominates the mainstream, but it's the niches that tend to do very well. You'll see these books in places like the Writer's Digest book collection and smaller, off-the-radar publishing houses.

Weakness #2: New York Publishers Don't Do Consumer Research

Most publishers (not all) do not do consumer research. How do publishers know what to publish? They often rely on bookstores to direct their attention, as well as trends, both cultural and celebrity. What does this mean for you? If you have access to consumer data, you are light years ahead of the big six. This doesn't have to be an exact science, either. Sometimes just having a mailing list on your website or even having a website where you interact with your consumer is sufficient. What this also means is that if you have access to this data and you are publishing mainstream, you are a very valuable writer to any publisher out there. Having access to this data is crucial for most of us and seen as a bonus when a publisher is considering a manuscript. One of the reasons you should get online early and have a mailing list is that the sooner you jump into the fold, the quicker you can start gathering this information.

Weakness #3: New York Publishers Don't Publish to Niche Markets

Niche markets have no appeal to publishers and ironically, that's where the trend of successful authors is headed: into the niches. Chris Anderson addressed this in his book The Long Tail: niches can be powerful but New York publishers stay away from them.The popularity or lack thereof isn't the reason that these publisher divert from printing these titles. It's because their entire model is set up to cater to mainstream product, so to slot some obscure, niche work in there would never work.

Weakness #4: New York Publishers Don't Sell Direct to Consumer

Publishers don't sell from their websites; many have tried and failed. Why? Because the publisher isn't the brand, the author is. This is starting to change in some areas as publishers seek to bypass Amazon and gather their share of the consumer market. Most consumers don't really identify with a publisher as much as they do an author or a trusted online shopping portal like Amazon or What this means to you is that if you can sell direct to consumer and bypass the traditional consumer model, you might actually do better than if you try to compete in a cluttered sales space. The other option (and usually most preferred option) is that authors sell from their own websites as well as from Amazon and other online stores.

Weakness #5: New York Publishers Only Promote Their Authors to the Top 30 Media Markets

When publishers develop marketing plans for their books, they don't look at markets that aren't in the top 30 (the list of top 30 media markets follows below). What does that mean? Simply that if you're in one of those markets, you might want to consider promoting there as well as in any outlying areas that aren't considered "top markets," especially during heavy promotional seasons. While it might seem discouraging to try to compete with a major publishing house if you live in Los Angeles or New York (both are top five markets), keep in mind that there are a number of markets not even on this list. For example, if you live in Los Angeles, maybe you want to saturate the Orange County market. It didn't make the list but it's close enough to the Los Angeles area that it could affect interest there as well. In order to succeed in publishing, you must have a working knowledge of all facets of the market. Understanding traditional publishing is one of them.

Knowing the landscape and marketplace will position you for success and you likely won't get caught off guard by a stumbling block or situation that could have been avoided. Know your market - the more you do, the faster you will succeed!

Top 30 Media Markets (US) (according to Nielsen, accurate as of 2009)
1.) New York
2.) Los Angeles
3.) Chicago
4.) Philadelphia
5.) Dallas/Fort Worth
6.) San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose
7.) Boston
8.) Atlanta
9.) Washington, DC
10.) Houston
11.) Detroit
12.) Phoenix
13.) Tampa, St Petersburg
14.) Seattle-Tacoma
15.) Minneapolis, St Paul
16.) Miami, Ft Lauderdale
17.) Cleveland, Akron
18.) Denver
19.) Orlando, Daytona Beach
20.) Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto
21.) St Louis
22.) Portland, OR
23.) Pittsburgh
24.) Charlotte
25.) Indianapolis
26.) Baltimore
27.) Raleigh-Durham
28.) San Diego
29.) Nashville
30.) Hartford & New Haven

So, the first step to your writing success is understanding the publishing landscape. Best of luck with whatever publishing route you choose!

Reprinted from "The Book Marketing Expert newsletter," a free ezine offering book promotion and publicity tips and techniques.

Monday, April 18, 2011

How to Write and Publish the (almost) Perfect Book

I love Penny Sansevieri’s newsletters because just as one gest a bit slack about things along comes another gem from the Author Marketing Experts. Here’s Penny’s advice on  …

How to Write and Publish the (almost) Perfect Book
When it comes to publishing, there is a certain recipe for success. And while nothing is guaranteed, there are significant activities which must happen in order for your book to have a chance at success. I often speak of promotion, websites, and gathering a social media footprint. Today we're taking a look at the equally important back-end issues. Now, I can't guarantee if you follow this that you'll come out leading the charge with the most perfect book, but you'll certainly be close. Writers never intentionally write a bad book, or a book that's not marketable. We do our best, and we often hope for the best. But in a world full of clutter, you have to do more than that. You have to step out to succeed, and you have to learn the ropes of your market and the publishing industry. Here are 11 points for you to consider:

1) How big is the market for your book? Before you launch headlong into a campaign or even write your book, be sure you know the market for it really well. Often, I find that authors don't take the time to study their market. This is important because you need to know first and foremost if there is a market for your book. I know this might sound odd, but hear me out. Some years back I worked as a literary agent and was being pitched by this super-talented author. He'd written a book on why good men fall for bad or mean women. He was proud of this book, saying there was no other book like it on the market and further, that he'd written it for men. There are two problems with this:

First, that there is no other book like it on the market. If there isn't a book like it on the market, there might be a reason why. It's not that there are no new ideas, but most of the models that work consist of books that fit a certain, existing market. Second problem: a self-help book written for men. No offense guys, but women buy 97% of all self-help out there. If you're writing a good book with a great topic but for the wrong audience, that's a problem. Know the market.

Go to bookstores and talk to booksellers, they can be the best source of information for you. Ask them if they have a book on your topic and then have them point you in the direction of where those books are shelved so you can see for yourself what the competitive space looks like. If there isn't a book on your topic, see if you can find out why. Ask a professional you trust. This could be your bookseller, or it could be a marketing professional. You'll save yourself thousands of dollars by doing this. Regarding my talented author with a book written for the wrong market, once we repositioned him it was fine. It took little effort but saved him countless hours, dollars, and frustration.

2) What will you call it? When we worked with author Marci Shimoff, she told us that she spent two long weeks agonizing over the title of her book: Happy for No Reason. Marci was featured in Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Secret, and had done extensive speaking events worldwide. Why would she agonize over the title of a book? Because the title (and the cover) are the most important elements of your book. People will judge a book by its cover and title, you can be certain of that. If you're debating on a title, or even if you've settled on one, do not take chances. Find a professional who can give you important feedback. If a title is unappealing, too confusing, or too tied to branding that isn't clear or benefit-driven, you could lose sales. Remember: the title of your book isn't for you; it's for your reader. Make it matter to them.

3) Don't fall in love with your own ideas. This is a big one. It's great to love your work; in fact, you should love it. You should be passionate about it. But don't love it so much that you aren't open to feedback. Feedback is critical to any successful book launch campaign. Further, if you aren't open to feedback, you might miss some advice that could save your book and you from spending thousands of dollars pushing something that isn't quite ready for the mainstream - or worse, a book that's missed its mark only slightly. Be open to feedback and then seek that feedback from professionals you trust and respect.

4) Do you know how to compete with major publishers? If you're self-publishing your book, or even trying to find a major NY publisher for your book, why would this matter? Because, as much as some folks like to say that NY publishers are doing it wrong, they are still the driving force behind the industry. Knowing when they typically release a majority of their titles and what their strengths and weaknesses are is important. Why? Because you need to understand what the competitive landscape looks like. It's important to note, for example, that major publishers don't generally publish to the niches. Why is that? Because they are focused (and must focus) on bigger areas: celebrity titles, trends, etc. Even the things (like the Snooki book) that might turn our stomachs. In an upcoming piece, I will spend some time discussing how NY Publishers work, as well as how you might compete with some of these giants.

5) What's the "look" of your work? I'm speaking specifically about branding and book cover design. I would never trust my book cover to anyone less than a professional designer. Why? Because there are certain things you don't want to leave to chance. This is another reason why you don't want to get too close to your work. You might love a book cover that's totally wrong for your book. Now, don't misunderstand me. You should love your final cover, absolutely. But don't love something that many professionals advise against. This could mean trouble. Further, you should do your research. Look at other covers; see what appeals to you and what does not. Make sure the cover is simple and powerful in design. If you have a brand aligned with your business, make sure there's a synergy between them. Also, your cover shouldn't be too complicated. If you have to explain the cover (or book title) you need to keep searching for a simpler message. Remember: you aren't going to be able to be everywhere and speak to every consumer interested in your book about what the cover or title means. It should pique their interest without confusing them.

6) What other titles are competing with you? Knowing your competitive space is not only important, it's mandatory. As I mentioned in #1, you want to identify your market and know that there's an audience for your book. Once you do, however, you'll want to get to know that market even better. You should read most (if not all) of the top books in your category (to the degree that time allows, of course). You should know the authors who write them and if possible, network with them via email, their blogs or (if you're lucky) in person. Why is this crucial? Two reasons: The first is that you want to know what other titles are out there because your book needs to somehow align with the market. Also, what happens if you do research and find that there's another book exactly like yours? Glad you found out now, aren't you? Now you can change your book slightly to support a similar, but unique, message. Second, networking with other like-minded authors is always a win-win. It's great if you can get to know them, share information, helpful tips, maybe even some upcoming networking events. Knowing your "neighbors" in publishing is never a wasted effort.

7) Who is your target audience and how will you reach them? Who are you writing for? Who is your audience? If you aren't sure, now is the time to find out. Specifically, you want to make sure there's an audience for your book and you want to know how to reach them. By reaching them I mean selling to them. If you're unsure, a professional can help you identify this. The reason you want to do this early on is so that if needed, you can incorporate elements into your book that matter to your reader and make it more appealing to your audience. Identifying your target market and how you will access them is important because this could help you align with them before your book comes out. Let's say that your audience is heavily into associations. This could be a great outlet for you to market to and even, if you're so inclined, to position yourself as a speaker. If you've written fiction, this is important as well. Key associations in your market can be very helpful to your success both through promotion and networking. Authors have a tendency to isolate themselves. Yes, I know this is a stereotypical way of describing an author, but let's face it, between writing, research, and promotion we're clocking a lot of computer hours at our desk. It's important to allocate some time to step out of your comfort zone and get to know the audience you are writing for.

8) How will someone buy your book? You might say: Duh - in bookstores and on Amazon. Well, maybe and maybe not. As I mentioned in #4, bookstore shelf space is often occupied by books published through major houses, therefore getting space on these shelves can be difficult. Your local store or stores may stock you, but that's never certain until the book comes out. I recommend that you offer your book on your website and if you aren't interested in shipping and fulfillment then link to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or whatever online e-tailer you feel most comfortable with.

Additionally, consider other outlets for selling your book such as: associations, gift shops, catalogs, specialty stores, etc. Why do you need to know this information so far in advance? For planning first and foremost. You want to plan your sales strategy early. If you're going after specialty shops, gift shops, or catalogs you'll need to target them early enough so the book can run through their internal acquisitions process. How will you sell them a book that hasn't been published yet? Print galleys (advanced review copies, also called, ARCs) that you can distribute. Even if the book is only 80% complete, meaning that it's written but in the editing phase, as long as you have a near-final cover you are good to go. Galleys tend to be 80% close to the final book. They should be bound and look like the final book but should indicate on the cover (top or bottom) that it's an advanced reading copy.

9) What's the best time to launch? Timing is everything, especially in publishing. Fall is always a big time for book releases. Publishers tend to publish their biggest titles in the Fall, making this sometimes a rough time to launch. Rough, but not impossible. If you're launching in the Fall you will need to start your efforts early. And speaking of that - when will you start marketing your book? As soon as you have the title and branding complete. Start early, often I recommend six to eight months prior to the book launch.

Remember, it's the long runway of promotion so there's a lot to do before you can take off. Starting well before the book comes out will help you gain significant traction by the time the launch arrives. So, back to your perfect launch time. If you're planning this far out, you should be able to align your book with a target date that supports the subject matter if appropriate. A mom-focused title on Mother's Day, a relationship book on Valentine's day, etc. Remember, it's much easier to sell something to someone who is already interested in it. Selling a topic that aligns with a commemorative date, holiday, or anniversary will make your marketing road a bit easier.

10) What's the unique message? How will you differentiate yourself from the competition? Your book is not the field of dreams; readers won't beat a path to your door just because you wrote it. Remember that you must be different. You must be unique. It's critical to identify your unique marketing message and, as well, identify your elevator pitch. What's your elevator pitch? It's a short, concise message that will help sell your book. It's short, benefit-driven, intriguing, and all about the reader.

11) It's not about you. The biggest and most important message in all of this is that despite the hours that you've toiled writing your book, at the end of the day it's not about you. It's about your reader, and moreover, it's about what your book can do for the reader. If you keep this in mind as you move through the process of writing and publishing your book, you will have a title that will attract readership and help your writing career gain momentum.

Many of us forget this important note. I mean, let's face it: Writing is a very personal experience. Whatever you're writing about, whether it's your life or how to lead a better life, it's all personal. We love our work and we want others to love it, too. Remember your book is your resume and this book is inviting readers into your world. Likely you would never invite a reader to your home, but if you did I doubt that you'd invite them into a messy house, right? Then why launch a "messy" book? Get it edited, vet the content, and get a cover that speaks to the reader. If you can step away from your own book in an objective way, you'll be head and shoulders ahead of most writers who stay too close and too tied to their work. Passion is great, except when it prevents you from making good decisions.

Now that I've given you several ways to succeed, how do you align yourself with professionals you trust? First, do your homework. Read their websites, blogs and newsletters if they have one. If they purport to be social media experts, make sure you take a look at their social media footprint. I've had companies pitch me who say they are experts at social media yet they have no Facebook Page or Twitter account. That doesn't seem very "expert" to me. References are always good to have as well. In fact, the more you can ask others who have been successful for the names of people they trust the quicker it will be for you to find people who have a good track record.

If you hire someone, make sure they can work hourly for you. You just want an opinion, perhaps some brainstorming time. You likely don't need a package, just an hour, maybe two. You don't need to spend your marketing budget on this process, but whatever you do spend can potentially save you a lot once the book hits the market.

Succeeding isn't always about getting to the starting line on time. Often, it's about all the work you do to get to the starting line and then, hopefully, to a successful finish. Our books are often an extension of ourselves, our businesses, and our personalities. But success requires more than just a good book. It requires a lot of sweat equity up front, and while it may seem like a hefty price for a book that hasn't even launched, I can guarantee you this: The more you do now, the more you'll save and succeed in the end. Good luck!

Reprinted from "The Book Marketing Expert newsletter," a free e-zine offering book promotion and publicity tips and techniques.

Thanks for the great advice, Penny! If any readers have more gems to add, please feel free to comment.