Message in a Bottle

So, once a writer gets a book out there, however they got their book out there, they are much like a seaman thrown onto a strange shore, who, having journeyed over the mountains that lay beyond their beach find, to their horror, that instead of being on some foreign continent, they are trapped on a deserted island.

Instead of reaching the end of their trial, they are, in fact, only just beginning it.  Once the book is out and about, the writer must begin to promote it.  There was a time when this was the job of the publisher, and some of the kinder publishers will help you with this step in your journey, but as a rule, the person who is going to do the most work in getting word of your book out into the world is you.

Unfortunately, when it comes to promotion, nobody is really entirely sure how the whole thing works.  Or if they are sure, they’re keeping it to themselves, which is probably a wise thing as nothing seems to work as well once everyone is doing it.

For most of us, promoting our books is a bit like sending a message in a bottle.  Oh, sure, there are certain things you can do that are certain to get SOME kind of response.  For example, you have to tell your friends and family.  They’re basically obliged to buy a copy and tell you that they love it.  But unless one of the people who has to buy your book and sing its praises is Brad Pitt, that isn’t going to be enough to get the response that you want.

Every writer knows, in their heart, that somewhere out in the world, his or her readership is waiting, desperately wanting to find out about their book.  They might not realize that this is what they’re waiting for, but it is.  All we have to do is put the message into the right person’s hands at the right time and it will spread like wildfire.

The problem is that we have no idea who the right person is, when the right time is, and where all of this will take place.  Even when we know that certain things have worked before, like setting up a cooking blog, or selling books at track meets, or sending a copy of the book to a celebrity, we also know that those things worked because of very specific circumstances.  The book tied in with this, or it represented that, or the celebrity in question had just taken their medication… whatever the reason.  The point is, we cannot possibly expect for something that worked yesterday to work today.  It won’t.  Instead we take pot shots.  We pay attention to the big things, the trends going on, and we try to find a way to make our book stand out just a little bit, and we throw our message in a bottle out into the tide here or there and cross our fingers and hope really REALLY hard.

Sometimes I think that there must be a better way to do this, some way to help the cream rise to the top, instead of just advancing the people who are good at promoting themselves.  I don’t have anything against those people, but I think that good writers and good storytellers often get the short end of the stick in the publishing world.

Or maybe I’m just not creative enough or not dedicated enough.  I will admit, I often find myself getting frustrated and walking away from the computer too quickly.  I really am drawing a blank on how to promote myself.

Well, almost a blank, there is that one idea…. and it might be crazy enough to work….

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The Sophomore Slump

Have you ever noticed that amazing first books are often followed up by mediocre second books?  I mean, not always, but often enough to be worth noting.  For example, I consider Fool Moon, the second book in the Dresden Files, to be the low point of the series.  In that particular case, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t good. The book was still better than half the crap I’ve read, but still, of the sixteen or so books in the series, number two is the one I am least enthralled by.

Patrick Rothfuss’s debut, The Name of the Wind, got widespread praise, and rightfully so.  His second book, however, was generally considered to be a bit of a letdown.

I think I’ve sorted out why.

My first book, Awfully Appetizing, is the work of years.  Not to say that I spent every waking hour working on it.  Not even close, sometimes I went weeks without touching it.  But the thing is, I never had to work on it, so if I wasn’t feeling inspired, if I hadn’t sorted out whatever problem had made me stop working on it before, I simply left it alone, letting everything percolate in my head for a bit longer.

But my second book is supposed to be sent in by September.  There’s a time limit on it.  I’m on the clock.  If I don’t feel like working on it today?  Tough luck.  The work needs to be done.

Now, fortunately for me, I have a publisher who has indicated that she is open to pushing back my due dates a bit.  Fingers crossed that’ll hold true, but however understanding she is, I don’t think she wants to push release days back years, so the shift is still there.  I spent years working on book one, polishing it, sanding the rough edges, looking at it in different lights… compared to that, book two is going to be a rush job.

Rated! Judged!

So, my book got its first rating by somebody I cannot immediately identify.  Of course, we’re online, There’s really no way to be certain that it isn’t a friend or family member, but nothing about the amazon review makes me think it’s somebody I know.  So for the time being, I’m assuming that a stranger bought my book, read my book, and reviewed my book.

And they gave it four stars!

Sure, five stars would’ve been better, but they wrote a review and were pretty complimentary.  I’m stoked!

I’ve said it before, reviews aren’t really the business of the writer.  If I had the discipline I’d ignore them and just continue working on my own crap, but who am I kidding?  First book?  I’ll be watching amazon and goodreads like a hawk watching a rat-hole.  the second something pops up… POW!  I’m all over that.

Man that’s a bad idea… oh well, watcha gonna do?

Four stars!  Somebody read my book and enjoyed it!  BOOM!

First one star review I get I’ll be on here bitching and crying….

When you’re an artist, your art is sort of like your child.  You spend so long trying to turn it into something perfect, and then you send it out into the world and just hope it doesn’t end up in a ditch somewhere.  Or starting world war three.

That perfect twist

So, I’m watching this show called ‘Mr. Robot,’ and I’m rather enjoying it so far.  They’re doing some interesting things with the characters and the story arc… anyhow, about halfway through episode two I get this feeling in my head that they’re pulling a fight club on me.  I think that the main character of the show, who has mental problems and is on drugs half the time, is also at least one other character, the guy Christian Slater is playing.  He might be even more.  It popped into my head about halfway through episode two, so I kind of need to re-watch up to this point to see if there are any more indicators.  The biggest thing that makes me think that, however, is the style of the show.  There’s this helpless rage at the corporate machine, a sort of mind bending narration combined with self doubt.  The character is reaching out, trying to find something, trying to change who he is, or how the world work.  It reminds me so much of fight club that I can’t help but wonder.

Anyhow, that got me thinking about movie twists.  And whenever I think about twists in stories, I inevitably think of the twilight zone.  Not the recent reboot, but the original, with Rod Serling.  I used to love watching twilight zone marathons.  The thing was, once you’d seen a couple, you could pretty much guess the twists on the rest of them.  Well, not always, some were too random to really be guessed at.  The box of damaged toys being donated to charity?  Really?  That’s just a couple of writers getting drunk on the weekend going ‘what haven’t we done yet?  come on, there’s gotta be something.’

The thing is, the best twists, the most excellent, most interesting ones, aren’t the ones that come out of left field, they’re the ones that you should have seen coming but didn’t.  My favorite movies and television shows (twist-wise) are the ones where when you watch it the second time, it seems so obvious.

But there’s a delicate balance in there, I think.  It’s a dance between the writer and the reader, or viewer, or whatever.  Making a story where the ending is too obvious isn’t any fun, but you have to give enough clues that your audience can play the game, which means that some of them will see it coming.  A good writer of epic stories will set up a number of red herrings, each of which is possible, so that the conclusion they’re heading for is possible, but only one of several paths they can go down.  It keeps people guessing.

I think it’s a little harder in movies and television shows.  In books you have infinite time and space to work with… well, not infinite, but a lot.  In books and movies, every second needs to accomplish something.  Everything you do needs to have meaning.

My favorite twists to write are not the twist endings.  I mean, I like those from time to time, especially when I’m working on a short story, a little change of pace, a sudden shift in perspective, something that changes the meaning of everything that came before, it’s cool.  But in long stories, in a series, the things that interest me are less about the way things end and more about the way they began.  Sometimes the biggest twist is not where we’re going, but how we got here to start with.

And the some of the most satisfying twists are the ones that you make the reader wait for.  I’m reading the Dresden files a lot these days, and one of the things I’ve come to admire about Butcher’s work is how patient he is at doling out the payoffs.  He had his main character suffering debilitating headaches for several books before finally we discovered why.  And I’m convinced that Dresden will, at some point, journey through time… that he will be the one who fixed the problem with ‘little chicago’ in his basement all those years ago, that he is the person who he hears shouting ‘fuego’ in the battle at chichan itza… that he has had a hand in guiding his own life. All these things which have been set up over years and years, both in the story and out of it.  That’s what I’d like to pull off with some of my own writing.  I have some things set up for that with the Corpse-Eater Saga, but I’m not sure I”m as adept at that as I’d like to be.