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#whatsyoursuperstition

Happy 2014!!

I wish you all a healthy, prosperous, abundant and joyous New Year. To my writer friends, I wish you rivers of words flowing easily and well, and mountains of eager readers. To everyone else, whatever your New Year’s wish is, I hope it is granted.

This holiday season has as usual been full of wonderful things–including some better-than-normal TV commercials. I was especially impressed with the beer company campaign showing crazed spots fans trying to influence the outcomes for their favorite teams with all kinds of odd rituals, and the tagline on the commercial: “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”

And doesn’t THAT speak to us as writers?

Writers are by nature superstitious. We never really know where the words are coming from, and when they’re going well, we want them to continue. When they’re not, we want to start the flow again. Either way, we’re never sure it’s what’s inside us that makes that happen, so too often, we ascribe it to an outside force we have to woo and anxiously placate.

What’s YOUR superstition as a writer? Do you have more than one? (C’mon, we all know writers have superstitions, whether they ever admit to them or not.) Do you give in to your superstitions or have you tried to bat them away and act like a ‘normal’ person? (Who am I kidding? If writers were normal, we wouldn’t be writing.)

I have a number of superstitions that affect my writing. Most I won’t mention, because as everyone worth their superstitions knows, the minute you tell it, you destroy the magic. (A lot like telling the story of your novel during a drunken evening with your friends–that’s a guarantee it’ll never get written.) And I’m in no mood, on this first day of a beautiful new year, to destroy any magic that might be coming my way in 2014.

But I’ll tell you about my superstitions involving numbers. It’s one of my longest-lasting superstitions, and as of this writing, it’s still true.

I have a peculiar relationship with the numbers 3 and 8.

They’re–well, how shall I put it? Lucky?

Yeah, maybe.

All I know is, whenever the numbers 3 and 8 show up in my life, something positive follows. For instance, 12 years ago when we left Chicago to move down to Charleston, and I was setting up our new phone service, I found out the area code for this part of South Carolina was 843.

An 8 and a 3–in the area code! That’s when I knew the move was going to be a good one. (And it has been; this has been by far the best place I’ve ever lived.)

At that time, the telephone company allowed you to pick your own phone number, and when I asked the woman on the phone for something with double numbers (easy to remember) that included the numbers 3 and 8, she suggested one that ended in 8833. And the other three digits, added together, came out to 8.

I’ve had that same phone number for 12 years. My South Carolina driver’s license also features the numbers 8 and 3, and the digits on my license plate come out to 3 (both through random circumstances–I had nothing to do with them). Are you starting to see a pattern here?

In choosing the price for two of my 2013 novels–STEALING FIRE and FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION–I explained my superstition to my publisher at Drake Valley Press. She was totally on board with it, and together we experimented with combinations of numbers till we came up with pricing that would be fair for the books while still favoring my 3 and 8 trend (STEALING FIRE is $8.99 for the eBook, $17.99 for the paperback, FORWARD TO CAMELOT at $8.99 for the eBook, $23.88 for the paperback–add up the numbers and reduce to a single digit–it works).

I certainly can’t claim those digits affected sales, but STEALING FIRE became a #2 Amazon bestseller within a day or so of going live in July. CAMELOT has received the best reviews I’ve ever gotten, and both books were named to separate Top Ten lists for Best Reads of 2013.  It will be interesting to see whether the pattern continues as both books continue in the marketplace.

Ultimately, what matters here is nothing but my belief that those numbers affect my outcome. When I see them in relation to a phone number, an address, or any other numerical designation, they make me smile. They make me trust.

Do they make me a better writer? Well … if I believe I am as a result of those numbers, then yes, I am. If I’m relaxed enough to do my best work because of some ephemeral (and probably silly) but recurring pattern that seems to bode well for me, then everyone involved with my work benefits. And so far (knock on wood), the 3’s and 8’s in my career haven’t let me down. Something good always follows when I spot them. (And yes, I’m looking.)

My mother always laughed at superstitions and said they were ridiculous. She may be right. I’m the only one who goes hunting for those numbers and lights up when they show up. Probably they don’t mean anything at all.

But, I mean, why take the chance?

What’s YOUR superstition??? And might it have anything to do with a new year meaning a fresh start and a new chance to do your best work?

So Much to Be Thankful For …

Happy, happy Thanksgiving! This holiday wish goes out not only to all my American friends, family and colleagues, but also to those who may not celebrate Thanksgiving as a holiday (to be followed shortly by the ritual of Black Friday, which will make a man out of you even when you’re a woman).  I believe that we need to take time to give thanks often. One day is not enough. But it’s good to have the reminder.

As writers, we need to be thankful for many things, and we need to remember how much we’ve been given. On days when we can’t think of a thing to write, it’s easy to forget all the words we’ve already written. When we don’t know how to get to the top of the mountain, we forget that we’re the ones who put up the mountain to begin with, and hey, we can move it if we want to. We can lop off a few feet or we can shrink it down to a hill, or a footpath. But we always have the choice.

We have many blessings as writers, and counting them often is a good exercise. It makes that mountain a lot easier to climb, in the long run.

This year especially I have so much to be thankful for.  Every year at New Year’s I hope for the following year to be transformative. 2013 really was, and I believe my life and career will be substantially better going forward. I’m sure you have your own list of writerly blessings. Here, in no particular order, is mine: 

1) My family, especially my two wonderful sons. Thank you for Colin’s scholarships to Clemson and for Kenny’s injury-free baseball seasons (all of them) and for all the time I’ve been able to spend with them, and for their forgiving me the times I didn’t. The truth is, much as you want the whole world to stand still and gape at your brilliance, there are days when you’re less than brilliant, and sometimes even less than kind. On those days (and the joyous ones as well), it helps to have people who love you and root for you. I will never forget that after Colin read the original version of FORWARD TO CAMELOT, his response was, “Gee, Mom, it didn’t suck.” I may embroider that on a sampler one day.

2) The three books I’ve published this year: STEALING FIRE and FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition, through Drake Valley Press, and REALIZING YOU (through CreateSpace). I’m so grateful they were out on time and for the wonderful reception they’ve all received so far.

3) Kevin Finn, my co-author on CAMELOT, for his patience and perseverance (especially when I argued) and for his talent, wisdom and willingness to concede on occasion (which I’m not sure I would have had the strength to do). His editor’s eye and his ability to coax me into cutting made the final version of this novel by far the best we have ever done. I believe the novel’s amazing reviews are due, in part, to the work we did this summer, cutting it down from an unwieldy 488 pages to a tighter and more manageable 382 pages. Thanks, Kevin.

4) Ron Doades, my co-author on REALIZING YOU. Ron and I struggled for a long time to create an entirely new genre, which was never easy, but his patience and optimism made the process so much simpler than it could have been. His vision for a new kind of self-help book was the catalyst for an amazing journey we both took. Thanks for inviting me along, Ron.

5) Drake Valley Press, for its hard work, prompt turnaround and endless dealings with the details. The company’s belief in STEALING FIRE and CAMELOT supported me greatly through two back-to-back production cycles. I’m not sure I could have gotten through it without their encouragement.

6) The reviews, which lifted up my heart with every line. Astonishingly, there hasn’t been a SINGLE negative review of any of the books, which is almost unheard-of. One of the two 3-star reviews of STEALING FIRE began, “STEALING FIRE is an exceptionally well written novel” and ended with “Perfect ending. Great beach read.” If that’s the worst thing I ever hear about something I wrote, I have NOTHING to complain about!

7) The cover art, which was an exercise in frustration on CAMELOT and REALIZING YOU and only went smoothly with STEALING FIRE, where I discovered almost at once the right image and already had the right color and font, so everything came together when they were blended. Kevin and I fought some of our toughest battles over the new cover for CAMELOT, and Ron and I went back and forth for the better part of a year over the final cover and cover text for REALIZING YOU. Nonetheless, they all came together beautifully, and just looking at the paperbacks on my bookshelf makes me happy. Thank you to the designers and publishers for a masterly job.

8) My author photo on STEALING FIRE and CAMELOT (same pic), which was beautifully shot by photographer Vicki Faith. I knew what I wanted to look like but wasn’t sure all those qualities could come out in a single image. She managed it, and bonus–it looks great on both book covers and every website where the image is displayed. Thank you, Vicki. You made me look glorious!

9) The readers who have already bought it and enjoyed it, and those who will in the future. The deep dark truth is, I don’t really write for readers. I write because I have an impulse I can’t resist. It makes me want to get it down on paper and it’s impossible to deny. The pleasure of crafting the story as I see it and then seeing it finished, as though by a force outside myself, is the greatest joy of my life. That others actually want to read it–and enjoy the experience–is the greatest bonus on earth. I am thankful for that impulse and the process that draws others to my work, and with all my heart, I pray it continues for the rest of my life and beyond.

10) Most of all, my heart goes out to God with thanks for the gift He has given me. It is so easy to think that what you can do, what seems to come naturally, is of no value–or that everyone else can do it too, so it’s not that important. If I’ve learned anything worth knowing this year, it is that this gift is only given to a few, and those who are given it are expected to use it constantly and wisely. It’s not for me to say whether I have used it wisely, or whether my efforts in the future will count as wise. I do know that this time, these last few years, are the first time I have felt I knew what I was doing as a writer. Whatever my shortcomings and whatever other writers can do that I can’t, I can still do what I’ve done this year. I’m very, very proud of all I’ve accomplished, and it’s clear to me that the only way forward for me is with my writing and with what I will learn through each new project.

My best wishes to everyone within reach of this blog, for the happiest of holidays, and especially for those writers who are struggling, for a way to find your light in the darkness. I promise, no matter how it seems right now, it’s there.

A Muse on Marketing: Free Amazon Tools to Promote Your Book

I love Amazon. Seriously. Though I’ve heard grumbling for years about Amazon sweeping other booksellers into oblivion, it seems clear to me that Amazon might just be a writer’s best friend—the website that attracts and informs millions, offers writers opportunity to publish their work through a variety of companies, and has a ton of tools to help invisible writers become visible.

I talk about this last point often, and I’m always surprised that more writers aren’t aware of it. Do you realize you can promote yourself on Amazon FOR FREE (which Amazon not only approves of, but provides tools for)?

How about:

1)  Your Customer Name. I’m not suggesting that if your name is John Smith you start calling yourself Carmen Miranda. BUT… if you’re a writer, why just say John Smith? My customer name on Amazon is not ‘Susan Sloate’. It’s ‘Susan Sloate, Author, Forward to Camelot and Stealing Fire’. Why? Because EVERY SINGLE PLACE where my name appears on Amazon, it’s a free advertisement for me and my book.

How do you use it?

WRITE REVIEWS. Book reviews, music reviews, movie reviews—whatever products you like and want to voice an opinion about. You don’t even need to buy it on Amazon!! If you got a good book at a yard sale for 50 cents, you can still write an honest review about its merits, and your name shows up on the review. Pick items you like, so your review is positive. If you write a snarling review, it might make you feel better, but will potential readers reading your review want to check out your book, given your attitude? Doubtful. And try if possible to pick stuff that’s ALREADY GETTING A LOT OF TRAFFIC and is in the same genre as your book (better yet is if it’s also the same subject matter as your book). Recent bestsellers are good, or books by authors who are already popular. You’re getting YOUR NAME AND TITLE on THEIR PAGE—for nothing! Isn’t that worth a few minutes of your time? I think it is. Besides, I like boosting other writers. It’s fun. Remember to write a review long enough to get some attention. Two sentences won’t impress other customers. A thoughtfully-written paragraph will.

I’ll admit I disregarded my own advice this summer, when yet another Kennedy assassination novel came to my attention. It was truly so awful–so historically wrong and so ridiculous–that I really had to comment on it. (What really angered me, though, was that the silly book was #7 under Political Assassinations!!! Can you imagine?)

So I did write a review–not  a nasty one, but pointing out several errors (including the fact that the book described Oswald physically and GOT THAT WRONG. How is that possible? Had he never bothered to look at a simple photo?) It was respectful but clearly negative. So what’s the benefit here?

THE POTENTIAL CUSTOMERS ARE READING ABOUT ANOTHER JFK ASSASSINATION BOOK BY READING MY REVIEW. I’m going straight to my target audience, and by mentioning my book (which I did, you betcha) and yet being polite in my review, I don’t think I alienated anyone. You never know who might click through to find the book and sample it. Worth a try, anyway.

Next great free Amazon tool?

2)  Listmania. Hard to believe more writers don’t take advantage of this one. Listmania allows you to create a list of items that have something in common—in the case of books, often books with the same subject or in the same genre. The list shows up on the page of EVERY ITEM that’s listed.

Example:  For the original 2003 edition of our time-travel thriller, FORWARD TO CAMELOT, I created a Listmania list titled “Best Time-Travel Novels Ever”. I listed THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, at that time a New York Times bestseller and #2 on Amazon, along with Jack Finney’s famous TIME & AGAIN and a few others. I also listed FORWARD TO CAMELOT. You as the list creator can make a comment on each item you list. Under CAMELOT, I wrote, “Best time-travel book ever”. Hey, it was an honest opinion. That list appeared on ALL the pages of ALL the items I’d mentioned—and customers look at them. You can also put the same item on more than one list. So I also listed CAMELOT with “Best JFK Assassination Books Ever”. You can create multiple lists using the same book, to take advantage of the buzz around OTHER books—why not? It’s a free and very simple way to leverage the power of others’ popularity to help yourself. Try it and see.

3)  Author Central. Amazon WANTS you to have an author’s page where you can post your published books (and Amazon will have all of them!), your photo, your blog URL (and if you don’t have a blog, shame on you!), your bio, and many other items of interest. Keep it up to date. Give people a chance to find you. That page has its own simple URL you can promote on Facebook, Google +, etc. Here’s mine:

Amazon has created a host of wonderful tools (these are just a few) to help you get noticed—if you take the time to learn them and use them. Amazon is by far the world’s biggest bookseller, so why not devote some effort to using it well? I guarantee you’ll sell more books on Amazon than anywhere else online. See it as a friend.

When my new novel, STEALING FIRE, went live on Amazon, it went live ONLY in the Kindle edition, and it was not available anywhere else on the web. After I mentioned it on my Facebook page (and I don’t have that many friends), the book went to #2 in its category and was listed as a ‘Hot New Release’. Without doing ANY of my planned promotion, I had an Amazon bestseller WITHIN 12 HOURS.

That’s the power of Amazon. Take advantage!

On Visualizing Success–My 2013 Breakthrough

This spring has been a huge breakthrough for me, career-wise. For the first time in my life, there are no boundaries, no red lights, no barriers. Every question I ask is being answered, “Yes!” Opportunities are turning up out of thin air – and leading to even more opportunities.

After thinking I had no choice but to self-publish for the rest of my life, in the last month, I’ve signed to publish two books with Drake Valley Press, a medium-sized publishing house in North Carolina. DVP chooses their authors carefully and sparingly, produces their books with meticulous attention to detail, and supports them with a barrage of marketing and promotion strategies that are low-cost but highly effective. I’m consulted on every decision from punctuation to cover art to scheduling, and the mantra constantly repeated to me is, “Your name is on this book. You make the final call.” I LOVE it!

It’s the first time I’ve ever experienced such a sense of team play in publishing a book. DVP loves my work, and the feeling that other people care about my books—and will invest their own hard work and energy toward my success–is overwhelming.

STEALING FIRE, a love story, will be published on August 31st. FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION, the reprint of the alternate-history novel about the JFK assassination that I wrote with Kevin Finn in 2003, will be published on October 31st. DVP will be focusing on promoting both books heavily for at least the first nine months and then steadily after that.

How did it happen? And why now, after I’ve been a professional writer for 25 years? I think because after all these years, I made a key decision, arising out of a fundamental change in the way I’ve chosen to live my life—and that has changed EVERYTHING. Literally. The universe is aligning itself to support my choices. Suddenly, nothing is hard.

The gurus tell you to visualize. SEE what you want in your future, imagine it, feel it happening to you. Theoretically, this brings you closer to that future. Well, either I’m too auditory for it to work (I hear sounds, music and words in my head all the time, but am much weaker at ‘seeing’ anything – blame all those years when my actual uncorrected vision was 20/400.)

What was that fundamental change?

Here it is. Drum roll, please: the fundamental change I made was deciding to LIVE MY FUTURE – RIGHT NOW.

I was one of those people who never lived in the now. I kept thinking that some time in the distant future (which I never quite defined), life would fall into place (didn’t know how) and I would make my living writing my own stuff, and everything would be wonderful. But years went by, I kept taking writer-for-hire assignments and never quite believed that writing my own original stuff would support me – and every time someone said something even slightly negative to me, I buried my original creative self in the sand and hoped no one knew where to find me.

Everything I did was ‘temporary, just until something better comes along’. But somehow, last year, the universe decided that wasn’t the way to go anymore. The writer-for-hire assignments dried up. I was no longer motivated to hustle for those jobs (and almost convinced myself I was no longer interested in writing, period), and my New York agent informed me a year ago that she no longer saw any point in representing me.

When your agent fires you, you know you’re on the wrong path. But how to get on the right one?

After thinking it over, I knew I had nothing to lose by LIVING THE FUTURE I thought I wanted, right now. Nothing else was working. The only jobs I could get paid $8.50 an hour and used none of my skills (and I had to take them; I desperately needed the income). It was profoundly depressing.

Early this year, I decided that visualizing my future wasn’t cutting it. No matter what rosy future I saw in my mind’s eye, it seemed completely disconnected to my present – and how to get from here to there was a problem too big for me to solve.

So I decided to go about it differently, using a two-pronged approach:

1) No more writer for hire. What I write from now on is MY OWN WORK. I stand or fall on it. I never felt like a real writer (whatever that is) fleshing out someone else’s ideas. I want to write my own. That’s why I became a writer to begin with (duh). Writing the books I have inside me is what keep me going – and I’ve previously delegated that task to some time in an undefinable future because I just could not imagine it on a day to day basis. But however well or badly I create a story, characters and world, that’s what I do, and what I intend to do for the rest of my life. While writing for hire is a GREAT way to get your name out there, to learn how to deal with assignments, editors, deadlines and the business of writing, it is not a substitute for letting your own voice be heard.

NO ONE BECOMES A WRITER TO WRITE SOMEONE ELSE’S STORIES.

2) I decided to stop even trying to visualize my future. Forget meditating with my eyes closed. Strategic planning (the business school version of visualization) never was my strong suit. I have trouble coming up with five-year plans; heck, I have trouble coming up with five-month plans. I can handle a week at a glance, but a life? Nope.

So the second decision was – STOP VISUALIZING AND START, INSTEAD, DOING EVERYTHING POSSIBLE TO FILL MY PLACE AS A WRITER RIGHT NOW. EVERY DAY.

What did that mean? For me, it meant no longer visualizing a project. It meant writing it NOW, with whatever creative tools I have TODAY. Get the idea, jot down some notes, write a first draft, make more notes, rewrite, polish, submit. Repeat. It meant no longer dreaming of being respected as a writer and earning the big house, the big car, the big whatever; it meant doing my very best as a writer TODAY, so even if no one else ever respects me, I can at least respect myself and be happy with some, hopefully most, of my own effort.

It also meant accepting the knife-edge of recognition. It’s lovely when someone writes to say they like your work. It’s not so much fun when someone posts a rotten review of your book on Amazon, where the whole world will see it. Accepting that I’ll never get 100% of the audience is one of those things that to me means I’m thinking like a professional writer who knows that as much fun as it is to create your own world, there’ll always be someone who doesn’t like it. I’ve decided to accept that (like I can do anything else!) and move on. Brooding about one rotten review when a dozen people like my work is stupid and unproductive. And, by the way, unprofessional.

I intend to have at least one novel, possibly two, published EVERY SINGLE YEAR from now on. That means sitting down and banging away at that keyboard NOW. Making short-term career plans NOW (I can do short-term). Having pages completed THIS WEEK, not next century. The more I found myself making ‘writerly’ decisions – whether on creative content or promotional ideas – the more I found the universe was treating me like a – gulp – respected writer.

What a surprise. (Second ‘duh’ here.)

I got invitations to speak at conferences I’ve never heard of, and for some reason, the conference organizers were THRILLED when I said I’d turn up. They offered me great speaking slots and – hello! – will pay me just to show up, apart from any book sales I made. The way the world is seeing me as a writer seems to be a reflection of the fact that I’ve decided to see myself as a writer – you know, the kind who writes from original ideas and presents something to the world that comes entirely from me.

It feels good. The hell with visualization – being highly auditory anyway (I hear songs in my head all the time), visuals just aren’t my thing. But being a professional writer is. TODAY.