books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, September 30, 2012

An Awesome Award—Plus The Story that Took 50 Years to Write: an Interview with Michael Harris


Ruth and I are totally jazzed to announce that this blog has been named one of the Top 50 Blogs for Writers by Tribal Messenger Daily. To be up there with Konrath, Kristen Lamb, and Jane Friedman is an amazing honor. Here's what they said:




One stimulating blog, two of the most prolific digital and print authors of today– that’s the Anne R. Allen Blog with Ruth Harris. Together, they make time to impart their successful writing and publishing techniques with other budding writers. This blog is replete with industry updates and other information that will make writing in the digital age easier– although not without hard work– and more successful than most. Anne Allen is the author of five comic mysteries while Ruth Harris is a New York Times bestselling author and former editor. In this blog they take turns in sharing what helpful tips and updates they have to fellow writers.

So: A great big THANK YOU to the folks at Tribal Messenger Daily!!

When I spoke at the Central Coast Writers' Conference last weekend, somebody asked me why this blog has taken off when most don't. I didn't have an answer for her. Why does one blog or book take off when other great ones don't?

Nobody knows.

All we can tell you is that making money from writing—whether it's for a book or a blog—is tough, so don't do it if it's not fun. Writing has to be done for the love of the process.

My post last week produced some thoughtful comments on the Kindleboards about whether authors should blog at all. Blogging certainly doesn't generate direct sales. But it does raise your overall profile if you do it regularly.

This week in a great post asking "Would Hemingway Blog?" Social media guru Kristen Lamb said "blogging is probably the ONLY form of social media that 1) draws from a writer’s strengths and 2) doesn’t try to fundamentally change our personality."

That change in personality thing is what happens to me on Facebook and Twitter, where I feel I have to pretend to be an adolescent. Here Ruth and I get to be grown-ups. Maybe that's why this blog works. 

That and the fact that we have such awesome readers. Thank you all!!

Speaking of grown-ups, we have a fascinating piece for you today on writing memoir. Michael Harris put off writing his story for longer than most of you have been alive. But it was a story he knew had to be told—about nuclear testing in the 1950s—and the horrors those tests created. He wrote about the experience at the time—smuggling manuscript pages from the secret test site at great risk (and this was in the days when there weren't even Xerox machines to back up your work.) But the book didn't come together for half a century. He'll tell you why.

Agents tell us memoir is the toughest genre to sell. It's also the toughest genre to write. It involves revisiting the most difficult scenes of your own past. Today we interview Mr. Harris and ask him about that process.

I find his last tip especially interesting: a third person omniscient voice can give you control over a shocking story. I usually advise against using omniscient voice, but in nonfiction, it can give you distance and authority.


Reliving Trauma in Memoir: Offering the Real Truth Vs. Fictionalizing Your Own History 

...an interview with Michael Harris 



Ruth Harris and Michael Harris

Q. As a young Army draftee you were sent to the island of Eniwetok in the South Pacific during the U.S. H-bomb tests in 1956. What made you want to write about an experience that you’ve told me was very difficult?

M.H. I knew at the time that I was witnessing an important slice of American history at the Pacific Proving Ground during Operation Redwing. I wrote about the experience while I was still there, and a friend who left the island before I did "smuggled" the manuscript back to the States for me.

Q. Why did your friend have to smuggle out your manuscript?

M.H. Eniwetok was a security post. There were signs everywhere impressing on us that the work going on (I mopped floors, typed and filed requisitions and wrote movie reviews for the island newspaper: All The News That Fits We Print) was Top Secret. “What you do here, what you see here, what you hear here, when you leave here, leave it here.”

I was afraid they would confiscate the manuscript if they found it. My friend concealed the pages in the clothing in his luggage and luckily they weren’t discovered. When he got back to the States, he mailed it to my father.

Q. What happened when you got home?

M.H. When I read it, I was dissatisfied. In order to avoid disclosing classified information, I had written about my year as a novel — and left out too much. I wanted to rewrite the book, but I also wanted to forget what I had seen and experienced, a common response among veterans. I was happy to be home and I was determined to get on with my life.

Ten years later, I wrote a new version of my H-bomb year, once again as a novel. This too was a failure. I was using "fiction" not just to follow security regulations but to avoid the truth — I was also leaving out unclassified material.

1. I blocked out the anger and frustration I felt about the life-threatening incompetence I observed in the officers in charge.

2. I buried the fears that my health had been damaged and that my life was going to be cut short by my exposure to radiation.

3. I shrank from the lies I had been told about our safety (“There will never be any fallout on this island!”) and tried to forget the deadly mistakes, some of which led to radiation sickness and worse. I tried to forget the three-eyed fish swimming in the lagoon. And the men whose toenails glowed in the dark.

4. I was reluctant to confront a deeply disturbing personal incident — the only doctor on the all-male island (the man most responsible for our well-being) tried to force me into a sexual relationship and took vengeance when I refused.

Q. How did you come to terms with your experience?

M.H. My perspective gradually changed in the years after I married Ruth. An editor and best-selling novelist, she read what I had written and, in conversations with her, I began to remember what I had tried to forget:

1. We were told we had to wear high density goggles during the tests to avoid losing our sight but the shipment of goggles never arrived — the requisition was cancelled to make room for new furniture for the colonel's house.

2. We were told we had to stand with our backs to the blast — again to prevent blindness. But the first H-bomb ever dropped from a plane missed its target, and the detonation took place in front of us and our unprotected eyes.

3. Servicemen were sent to Ground Zero soon after Zero Hour wearing only shorts and sneakers and worked side by side with scientists dressed in RadSafe suits. The exposed military men developed severe radiation burns — and many died.

Using these memories, I wrote a new version — one that a number of editors admired — but wanted me to recast as a memoir. Once again I started over, but by now decades had passed. I had changed and certain important external realities had changed.

1. Top Secret documents about Operation Redwing were now declassified. I learned new details about the test known as Tewa: the fallout lasted for three days and the radiation levels exceeded 3.9 Roentgens, the MPE (maximum permissible exposure). Three ships were rushed to Eniwetok to evacuate personnel but were ordered back after the military raised the MPE to 7. That, they reasoned, made everyone safe.

2. I was finally able to confront my memory of the Eniwetok doctor and relate the incident to a long-repressed episode of sexual abuse in my childhood.

3. I made contact with other atomic veterans, some of whom I had known on Eniwetok. They told me about their own experiences and in some cases sent me copies of letters written to their families during the tests. As we talked, we also laughed: about officers who claimed Eniwetok was a one year paid vacation; about the officer who guarded the daily island newspaper by deleting "pinko propaganda," including a speech by President Eisenhower.

4. Finally Ruth, who by now knew the material almost as well as I did, was at my side and on my side, providing crucial input and detailed editing expertise.

I was finally able to pull all the strands together. I had overcome the anger, the self-pity and the knowledge that I and the men who served with me had been used as guinea pigs. At last I could understand my nuclear year in its many dimensions and capture the tragedy and the black humor that came along with 17 H-bomb explosions. After 50 years, I was able write the book I had wanted to in the beginning.

Q. Do you have any advice for someone who’s thinking of writing a memoir?

M.H. 1. Make sure you have enough distance from the experience so you have perspective on what happened. Sometimes it’s obvious right away as in my once-in-a-life moment of meeting the Beatles at the airport. The facts themselves tell the story and being objective is a matter of reporting. Exposure to radiation—anger, terror, incredulity—are powerful emotions that take time to process.

2. Figure out how to use (or keep away) from your own intense feelings. In the case of the H-Bomb tests, anger and self-pity were emotions to stay away from. So was the hope of somehow getting “revenge.”

3. Voice/Point of view. Sometimes the unexpected works:

  • Finding humor in a tragic situation: military incompetence in planning the H-Bomb tests.
  • A third person omniscient narrative can be surprisingly effective if shocking facts are related in an understated way.

4. Figure out (by trial and error) how much or how little of yourself you want to reveal.

How about you, scriveners? Have you had to confront personal trauma in order to write a story you know needs to be told. Did you fictionalize it, or try to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Do you think you're at the point where you can laugh at it the way Michael has? Ruth Harris will respond to your comments below. And don't forget, now Ruth has her own blog with daily links to fascinating articles. 



SHOCKING, FUNNY, SAD, RAUNCHY!   Catch-22 with radiation!   Area 51 meets Dr. Strangelove!

"A gripping memoir leavened by humor, loyalty and pride of accomplishment. A tribute to the resilience, courage and patriotism of the American soldier." Henry Kissinger

An entertaining read in the bloodline of Catch-22, Harris achieves the oddest of victories: a funny, optimistic story about the H-bomb."
Publisher's Weekly

"Brilliantly conceived, elegantly rendered and persuasively authentic."
Robert B. Parker, bestselling author of the Spenser and Jesse Stone series

Attention Email Subscribers! Feedburner is apparently no longer sending emails to many people subscribed to this blog. (Does anybody out there know what really happened to Feedburner? I hear so many conflicting stories.) Until I can figure out how to get a new email service to work on a Blogger blog, I'm making a list manually. So if you'd like to get notifications of new blogposts, and Feedburner has let you down, just send me an email at annerallen at yahoo dot com. I will put you on my list of personal blogfriends and send you a notice when the Sunday blogpost is up. (I promise not to spam you with anything else.)

Also Short Story Writers! I don't usually plug magazines here, but since I keep telling you how you should be writing short fiction, I thought I should tell you about a no-entry-fee contest that sounds like a great opportunity:

And We Were Hungry, a New Literary and Arts Online Magazine, Announces Inaugural Short Story Contest. 

Four winning writers will share prize fund of $5,000 and publication in the inaugural Winter 2013 issue. Contest writing theme is “And We Were Hungry.” Top prize reserved for the short story that connects the theme with nature, in honor of the short story contest's sponsor, "Ashes and Snow" artist Gregory Colbert. No entry fee, deadline November 30, 2012. The Magazine publishes original creative writing in the form of fiction (more than 1000 words), flash fiction (1000 words or less), creative nonfiction, and poetry; as well as essays, photography and visual arts.


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Top 10 Self-Sabotaging Mistakes of Author-Bloggers


Aspiring writers are told we should all be blogging. If you're willing to make the commitment, I do think it's the best way to start building platform and getting your name out there.

If you have no Web presence, agents, reviewers and readers are a lot less likely to take you seriously.  The quickest, cheapest, and most reliable way to get that presence is to blog.

Before I started blogging, if you Googled my name, you'd find no mention of me until maybe page five. (I strongly suggest all authors Google themselves regularly to see what's happening to your name. It's not vain; it's more like checking in the mirror to see if there's any spinach on your teeth.)  These days,If you Google "Anne R. Allen" you have to go the bottom of page 12 before you find an entry for somebody else. (Carrie-Anne R. Allen, I apologize.) Almost all those entries relate to my blog.

So blogging does work. Not as a direct sales tool, but as a way of building platform.

But you have to do it right.

That means you need to keep your goal in mind.  If you are blogging to make a name for yourself as an author, then please, people, tell us what it is! I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but there are so many writers hiding behind cutsie monikers, I assume they're following somebody's bad advice. Don't listen to it!  If you want to become a professional writer, DO NOT bop around the Interwebz pretending to be one of your characters, an anonymous pundit, or your dog.

Unless you're planning to publish your books under the pen name "Fido" or "Anonymous Snarkisaurus" you're going to be wasting your time.

On the other hand, if your real name is Marilyn Manson or Stephen King, choose yourself a good pseudonym NOW and blog with that name. Otherwise everything you do online is going to be promoting Mr. Manson or Mr. King and not you.

Here are some of the other ways I see new authors sabotaging themselves:

#1 NO BIO 

Post a full ABOUT ME PAGE on the blog with a nice peppy bio and a good photo of yourself. Need help in writing your bio?  Read my post on how to write an author bio here.

And for goodness' sake, put your name prominently on the blog, preferably in the header. I’ve visited writing blogs where I can’t even find the author’s name mentioned.

Do NOT expect people to know that “Scribblings on Sand” is written by Susie S. Sands, paranormal romance author. You're blogging to promote yourself as an author--not beach scribbling. So give the Google spiders a fighting chance at finding you.

When people want a Stephen King novel, they don't Google "horror novels set in Maine,"or "scary clowns." They Google his name.

Make your own name Googleable. That's the whole point.

REMEMBER: YOUR NAME IS YOUR BRAND!!!

#2 NO CONTACT INFO

I’d say at least 75% of writers do this. You don’t know how much time I’ve wasted combing blogs for your email address so I can contact you to ask a question about your blog, ask you to guest blog, or ask you to participate in something that might help you with book promotion.

Opportunity knocked and nobody was home.

There is no point in blogging if people can’t reach you!! If you want to be anonymous, write in your basement with a kerosene lamp and a #2 pencil. Nothing wrong with that. But if you want to be taken seriously as a professional author in the 21st century, offer your professional contact  information.

The best place for your contact information is on your “ABOUT ME” PAGE.

#3 NO INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR BOOKS

Have books for sale? Tell us about them. List each book, give a synopsis, some review quotes and links so we can buy them. Your blog shouldn’t be one non-stop sales pitch for your books, but don’t go overboard the other way and neglect to mention them at all. Even if you have a separate website, you want to mention your books on your blog, too.

Contemporary consumers want things to be easy. This is why Amazon is so successful as a retailer. The one-click purchase is genius. So make it as easy as possible for people to buy your books.

I suggest all published authors have  a book page on your blog or a link to your website's book page.  If you want examples of book pages here's Ruth's Book Page and mine.

#4 TOO MANY BLOGS

How many is too many? For most writers, two is too many, because you end up neglecting one or the other 50% of the time. As Kristen Lamb says : "When do writers need multiple blogs? Um, never."

Unless you write erotica or extreme political stuff that’s not suitable for all readers, put all the stuff on one blog. Don’t make your readers jump through hoops to find your author blog.

If you want to blog about recipes AND zombies AND collecting floaty pens, use your pages. Blogger has 20 of them. Until you fill them all up, you do not need a second blog.

If you write books under different names, have a page for each. Ruth Harris and I share a blog. We don’t even write in the same genre. I write rom-com mysteries and she writes womens’ fiction and thrillers. But we are able to co-habit. We have a page for Ruth’s books and a page for Anne’s. We also have an About Ruth page and an About Anne page. And we still leave much of the blog unused.

If you write SciFi under the name Brad Goodyear and sweet romance under the name Beryl Goodwife, find a neutral color scheme and let Brad and Beryl share. Everybody who is trying to find you will be grateful.

#5 NOT LINKING YOUR BLOG TO YOUR WEBSITE AND OTHER PUBLISHED WORK

I don’t think most new authors actually need a separate website. If you have a professional-looking blog, it can provide all the information the media, publishers, agents and readers need. That way they don’t have to jump through extra hoops. Every time you make the reader click through to another site, you lose a goodly percentage of them.

I know not all people agree with me, but this is what I see when an author has a website as well as a blog:  “Look, I have a fancy, expensive website. It duplicates all the information on my blog, but hey, I spent money on it so I’m a REAL writer.”

So Ruth Harris and I aren’t real writers? Neither is Nathan Bransford?

But if you do have both, for goodness' sake put a link prominently on both sites. It is amazing how many times I've read a blogpost and come to the end and discovered there's no way to find out anything about the person who wrote it except to leave the blog and Google the author's name. How many people are going to do that?

This is also true of your published work. Have you guest posted on other blogs? Give us a link. Have you published short stories, essays, or done interviews for online zines? Let us know. Don't make us go on a scavenger hunt to find out who you are.

#6 MAKING COMMENTING DIFFICULT

Moderating comments on new posts is a big barrier to commenters. So is the CAPTCHA (that word verification thing that proves you’re not a robot.)

Yes, when you’re well established, you may get a lot of trolls and spambots and have to turn on CAPTCHA and moderate more closely, but until you do, make it as easy as possible for people to comment. The CAPTCHA these days is often so difficult it can take 5 or 6 tries to get it right. Guess how many people are going to stick around that long? Three tries is my limit, people, no matter how good your post is.

I realize most new bloggers don’t even know the CAPTCHA is there, and you should be warned that even after you turn it off, the Blogger elves may turn it back on.  So if your comments start falling off, ask a good friend to check for you to see if that sneaky CAPTCHA is back on your blog.

In Blogger, the place to turn off the CAPTCHA is in the “privacy” menu on the dashboard.

We're popular enough that we get a lot of spammers here, but I still have the CAPTCHA disabled and delete the spam by hand. Yes, it's a bit time consuming—but it's consuming MY time, not my readers'.  I think that's one of the reasons people keep coming back.

#7 MESSY, CROWDED, UNREADABLE BLOGS

I usually won’t read a blog that’s “monetized” with a lot of flashy ads. Unless the content is spectacular and unique, it’s not worth the annoyance. And if you’re not making any money from it, why crowd your blog with a lot of detritus? Don't use loud, quarreling colors or lots of flashy graphics.

Also note that many of your readers, especially those of us over forty, find a light font on a dark background difficult to read.

(I am so grateful to my readers who pointed out that a too-light color for the links is an annoyance too. You can change the colors and fonts in the "advanced" section of your design template. I discovered it's pretty easy, and if you don't like it, you can change it back to the default design.)

Yes, I know Blogger offers that cool Goth-looking template, but realize that a dark blog with light lettering will drive away a good deal of your possible audience.

# 8 SLOW LOAD TIME

Yeah, that video of your cat trying to kill the garden hose may be really cute--but if it takes so long to load that you lose ¾ of your visitors before they read your content, it’s not going to be building platform for you.

If you're a writer, you want to showcase your writing, not your video-making skills.

Any kind of animation slows your load time. People like me who check out dozens of blogs a day are out of there before we can see all your cute stuff.  I used to follow one writer’s blog regularly. He had great things to say. I’m sure he still does, but when he added animation, I had to drop him. We are all pressed for time.

Also, it’s good to be aware that Alexa rates blogs by loading time as well as number of hits.

#9 NOT BLOGGING TO A SCHEDULE

When people come back looking for a new post and don’t find one for a month, they’ll write it off as a dead blog.

But if you put a notice “Updated monthly” you eliminate the problem. You now have a schedule.

As most of you know, I advocate Slow Blogging (once a week or less: quality over quantity.) But of course daily blogs get popular faster and attract the Google spiders, so if you want to blog three days a week or more, go for it—just make sure you love blogging enough to make a long-term commitment to keep to that schedule.

The problem arises when you blog every day for a month, then leave the blog hanging for three. People stop coming back. But if you say initially that you’re going to blog once a week, nobody will be disappointed.

“No, No!” you say, raising hand to feverish forehead. “I’m not the kind of person who can be chained to an arbitrary schedule. I’m CREATIVE!”

Yeah, yeah, so are the rest of us.  Write the posts when your blogmuse is in residence, and save up the posts to post on a schedule.

#10 NO TWITTER HANDLE ON YOUR BLOG

Don’t make people click through your tweety bird icon to go to Twitter and find it out. It should be right there on the page. In fact, we should all get in the habit of posting our Twitter handle along with our byline so people can tweet the post and give us credit for it. Porter Anderson wrote a great piece for Rachelle Gardner on the subject that’s a must-read.


Do I say all authors should blog? No. Some authors aren't suited to it. Writing a nonfiction piece every week can be tedious, especially when you're in the middle of writing a novel. Some people can't come up with enough ideas, or they're not quite sure what their genre or author "brand" is going to be.

That doesn't have to keep you from participating in the blogosphere. You can build a simple website landing page as your home base (which makes you searchable) and comment on other people's blogs. (Wix offers a simple free website that looks easy to use and Google-friendly.) Commenting on popular blogs is a great way to get your name known in the blogging community.

But that means you want to comment under your OWN NAME. I'm going to say it one more time: YOUR NAME IS YOUR BRAND. Anything you do on social media needs to be branded with whatever name you write under, or you might as well be in that basement with the kerosene lamp.

What about you, scriveners? What annoys you about author blogs? Do you blog under your own name? Do you have your name in your blog header? Do you think CAPTCHA is offensive to the robot community? Is your real name Marilyn Manson?

Attention Email Subscribers! Feedburner has apparently had a meltdown and is no longer sending emails to many people subscribed to this blog. This seems to be happening all over the blogosphere. Many bloggers are switching to other email programs, but since I'm a cybermoron, it's going to take time, sweat and copious tears to figure out how to switch to MailChimp  (Plus I'd lose the subscribers who ARE still getting emails. It does work some of the time.) So if you'd like to get notifications of new blogposts, and Feedburner has let you down, just send me an email at annerallen at yahoo dot com. I will put you on my list of personal blogfriends and send you a notice when the Sunday blogpost is up. (I promise not to spam you with anything else.)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Writers Conferences: Are they Relevant in the E-age?



 Oh, the lure of a Writers' Conference! A luxurious place where writers can polish craft, learn the latest publishing trends and hang with successful authors, agents and publishers--undistracted by mundane life.

It's a mini-university course that just might get you published.

With parties.

The modern writers conference began in the U.S. in the 1920s with Vermont's famous Breadloaf Conference, but you can now find them all over the world. They last from a day to several weeks, usually in an exciting or idyllic location.

But they can cost a hefty chunk of change. And at some of the bigger conferences you get a chance to book a personal pitch session with an agent—for even more money.

So are expensive conferences a shortcut to publishing success? Are they still relevant? What role does the writers’ conference have in this fast-changing publishing world? 

Most agents and editors do recommend them. Many suggest attending a conference or two before even sending a query.

But these days, a lot of writers are bypassing the endless, frustrating agent-hunt system and going indie—either with small presses (once called indie) or self-e-publishing (the new definition of indie.) They’re totally over the whole idea of pitching to agents.

So conferences are catching up with the trend, and now provide more than just a course in traditional publishing. California's Central Coast Writers Conference, where I'll be teaching this weekend,  featured Smashwords founder Mark Coker last year. And I read this week about the conference in York, England where Irish e-publishing guru David Gaughran and indie chick-lit superstar Talli Roland gave a joint workshop for self-pubbers. 

Is a conference worth your time and money in the electronic age? Can't you get all of David Gaughran's advice in his book Let's Get Digital and learn from Talli at the Writers Guide to E-publishing?

Yes, you can--but real-world conferences have many other benefits. As a veteran of over a dozen, I can say each one was worthwhile for me—not because they helped me land an agent or publisher. But I got some solid instruction in how the industry works, plus some painful reality checks and a couple of ego boosts--and  most importantly, I met great people.

I first got to know my co-author Catherine Ryan Hyde at a conference. I never would have dreamed back then that the author of Pay it Forward would ever want to co-write a book with me, and I'm sure she didn't suspect it either. But as both our careers have grown, we stayed in touch.

I've also had a chance to hang out with my idol, the ever-classy Nathan Bransford, and share wine with super-savvy "Agent Savant" Laurie McLean and get to know Danielle Smith, the Book Review blogger I knew from "There's a Book" (I had no idea she was my neighbor.) I also met dozens of wonderful not-yet-published authors. We scriveners are solitary animals, so connecting with members of our species in the real world helps keep us healthy.

But for those of you who can't afford to go to a conference this year, you can find a mini-writers' conference in the book I wrote with Catherine, HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE...AND KEEP YOUR E-SANITY. Which will be FREE for Friday and Saturday this week.


The E-Book Will Be FREE Sept 21-22!
The paper book is now available from Amazon.com for under $10, and under £8 in the UK . And the ebook for Kindle will be absolutely FREE on Friday September 21st and Saturday, September 22nd in both the US and the UK  (In October, it will be available for Nook and Kobo.)

We wanted to make the book free for people taking my course at the Central Coast Writers Conference--so we're also making it free for all of you!

So even if you can't come to beautiful San Luis Obispo for this weekend's conference, you can have a FREE virtual conference for your Kindle or computer's Kindle app. 

But be aware that Writers’ Conferences come in all shapes and sizes—and one size does not fit all. Here are the basic categories you’ll have to choose from:

1) Scenic-Destination Literary Retreats

These can last a week or two and are the Maseratis of conferences. Held in lush resorts and exotic locales, they offer workshops from literary superstars and MFA professors. The emphasis is on Literature with a capital “L”, and applicants can be screened with Ivy League selectiveness.  

But some turn out to be more like fantasy camps for Scott and Zelda wannabes than training grounds for professional writers. I’ve heard it’s cleaned up its act, but the revered Breadloaf Conference is also known as “Bedloaf” for a reason. In a famous 2001 article for the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead said, “The triple compulsions of Bread Loaf have, traditionally, been getting published, getting drunk, and getting laid.”

These big, luxurious conferences seem to be faltering in our belt-tightening age. The Maui Writers Conference has disappeared, and he grand old Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference—where I got to stroll on gorgeous beaches between lectures by the likes of Charles Schultz and Ray Bradbury—went on hiatus for a few years. Although I see it is reinventing itself and sprang back to life in 2012 as our economy recovers.

If you ever have a chance to go one of these, and money is no object, you’ll probably have a memorable time. I’ve heard the one in San Miguel de Allende is fantastic.

But will these fabulous vacations help you get a book published? Probably not.

2) National Genre Organization Conferences

These usually run three to five days and serve as the annual meetings of national organizations for writers of genre fiction like Mystery, SciFi/Fantasy, Christian, Children’s, Romance, etc. With professional organizations like RWA, MWA, SCBWI, SFWA you have to become a member of the organization to attend. Others, like Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime are for readers and fans as well as writers. Some are moveable feasts that set up camp in a different large city each year and others, like Washington D.C.’s Malice Domestic, have a permanent home.  

These aren’t cheap, especially if you don’t happen to live in the city where they’re held, but they often provide a crash course in the publishing business in your particular area of the market. You’ll also have a chance to meet agents who are specifically looking for books in your genre.

One of the most important aspects of these national conferences is the awards. Being a finalist for an Anthony, Agatha, Nebula, or RITA award can make a career.

3) The Intensive Big-City Weekend Conference

More and more conferences are of this type—equally emphasizing “craft, commerce, and community” as the San Francisco Writer’s Conference advertises. Like the genre conferences, these are usually held in big city hotels.

The conferences themselves will probably cost between $600-$800, but on top of that you may have pitch-session and extra-workshop fees—and of course, your hotel bill. (And the tab from the bar from the night you tried to schmooze that agent.)

These can be exhausting and stressful—agent Betsy Lerner says she usually walks away from a conference “quasi-suicidal”—but you’ll meet fascinating people, learn a lot about the business, and the agent you treated to all those shots of single malt may remember you when you send your query.

4) Marketing Seminars

You’re not going to get any get-in-touch-with-your-muse writing workshops here. They’re all about selling.

a) Agent pitch-a-thons. New York’s Backspace Agent-Author Seminar is the pioneer in this cut-to-the-chase style conference, where you get “two full days of small-group workshops and panels with ONLY literary agents on the program.” At $500+, it’s a little pricey, but if you’re shopping for an agent, this is the place to meet them up close and personal.

b) “Boot Camp” sales-motivation talks. Some marketing conferences are mostly marathon sales pitches by direct marketers. These may have “boot camp” or “university” or “summit” in their name. They tend to be less like writers’ workshops and more like Amway Conventions or “Become a Real Estate Zillionaire with No Money Down” lectures. Their websites are often flashy and loud—and their approach is hard-core/hard-sell. Personally, I recommend staying away from these.

5) The Small Regional Conference: These are usually held at a local college campus and aimed at authors who can commute from home. Often they're aimed at a particular genre. They usually last no more than three days and are timed with the assumption the attendees have day jobs. They tend to be considerably less expensive and offer a lot of bang for your buck. The Central Coast Writers Conference has hosted great speakers like Nathan Bransford, Catherine Ryan Hyde, and Mark Coker. Because only a few hundred people attend, you get a chance for one-on-one chat with them.

If you want to learn more about specific conferences check out the Shaw Guide to Writers Conferences.

And if you do go, here are some tips to help you get the most out of your experience:

1) DON’T dress to impress. At one conference I attended, a woman came dressed as a tree. Shedding real leaves. Don’t do this. Also, dressing as one of your characters WILL get you noticed, but not in a good way. Wear neat but comfy clothes. The days will be long and intense.

2) DO wear something distinctive: a scarf, hat, or jacket every day that will help people remember you.

3) DON’T pitch your project unless you’re in a specified pitch session. (Especially when the pitch comes from the next stall in the ladies’ room. Don’t do this. Agent Janet Reid posted this hilarious video on how not to pitch a book at a conference.)

4) DO offer to get an agent or other presenter a cup of coffee or ask how she’s enjoying the conference. Or ask what books he reads for fun. It will give you great material for your query letter.

5) DON’T cart around all 800 pages of your magnum opus and try to thrust it upon faculty members. Something that can be helpful—if requested—is what’s called a “one sheet”. It’s mostly a convention in the Christian book world, but it’s useful for any kind of book gathering. It’s a printed page with your photo, bio, contact info and a short pitch for your book including word count, genre, target audience and short synopsis.
 
6) DO perfect your pitch beforehand, so you can tell an agent or editor in three sentences what your book is about. (See my post on “Hooks Loglines and Pitches.”) Then ask if you can query. (If you’re querying a novel or memoir, make sure to say if it’s complete.) If she says yes, you can put “REQUESTED” in the email header. A big plus.

7) DON’T compete for faculty attention like a needy two-year old. The accolades will come when you perfect that book and get into print.

8) DO bring a notebook, several pens—and if you are attending a hands-on critique session workshop—a first chapter, story, or a few poems. Business cards, if you have them, will help with networking. Also, bring some protein bars and energy drinks and/or water. Your breaks may be too short to grab real food.

9) DON’T forget to have fun. You’re there to make friends as well as learn. One of the most important aspects of a conference is meeting fellow writers.

10) DO remember agents and editors are people too. As the late, great Miss Snark said “It’s like visiting the reptile house. They're as afraid of you as you are of them. Honest.”

I should warn that writers' conferences do have their dark side. I've seen a few instances of  bullying and verbal abuse. Some workshop leaders seem to think "tough love" (skipping the "love" part) is the best way to teach a fledgling writer to produce great prose. Editor Victoria Mixon wrote a series of blogposts on bad writers' conference experiences last month that's hilarious.

And at one conference, I witnessed an incident of workshop bullying that was so scarring it turned into the inciting incident of my mystery GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY. (If you'd like to know more about the dark side of writers conferences--and laugh at them a bit--GHOSTWRITERS is available at the US Amazon.com for $2.99 and the UK Amazon.co.uk and at Barnes and Noble for Nook and Kobo.)

How about you, scriveners? Have you had good or bad experiences with writers' conferences? Were they worth the money? We'd love if you'd share some of your stories. If you've never gone to one, are you planning to? What do you hope to get out of it?

Attention Email Subscribers! Feedburner has had a hissy fit and is no longer sending emails to many people subscribed to this blog. This seems to be happening all over the blogosphere. Many bloggers are switching to other email programs, but I'm such a cybermoron, I'm going to need to get some tech help. Meanwhile, if you'd like to get notifications of new blogposts, and Feedburner has let you down, just send me an email at annerallen at yahoo dot com. I will put you on my list of personal blogfriends and send you a notice when the Sunday blogpost is up. (I promise not to spam you with anything else.)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

How to Write an Author Bio When You Don't Feel Like an Author…Yet


Maybe you've got a novel finished and you’ve been sending out queries. Lots. And you’re getting rejections. Lots. Or worse, that slow disappointment of no response at all.

Or maybe you write short fiction and poetry and you've got a bunch of pieces you've been sending out to contests and literary journals. You've won a few local contests, but so far you haven't had much luck getting into print.

You may still be afraid to tell more than a handful of people you're a writer. You'd feel pretentious calling yourself an "author."

But it might be time to start—at least privately.

Because one day, in the not too distant future, you'll open your email and there it will be:

The response from an editor: "You're the winner of our October 'Bad Witch' short story contest. We'd like to publish your story, Glinda: Heartbreaker of Oz in our next issue. Please send us your Author Bio."

Or just when you were giving up hope, you get that reply from your dream agent: “I’m intrigued by your novel Down and Out on the Yellow Brick Road. Please send the first fifty pages, and an Author Bio.”

You're so excited you're jumping out of your skin, so you dash something off in five minutes and hit "send."  Wow. You're going to be in print! Or maybe get an agent. Let's get this career on the road!

Whoa. You do NOT want to dash off an author bio in five minutes. Every word you send out there is a writing sample, not just those well-honed pages or stories.

So, write it now. Yes. Right now. Before you send off another query or enter another contest. Even though you've never published anything but the Halloween haiku that won second prize in your high school newspaper.

Actually, you want to write two bios: A paragraph suitable for a magazine byline, and a longer one-page version for sending to agents and later posting on your website, blog, etc.

How to Write an Author Bio


Title it only with your name. Write in third person. Keep to about 250 words: one page, double-spaced--or 1/2 page single-spaced, if you include a photo above it. (I advise against this unless it’s specifically requested or you have a great, up-to-date, professional photo that makes you look like a contestant on one of those Top Model shows.)

You’re aiming for a style similar to book jacket copy. The purpose is to make yourself sound professional and INTERESTING.

This may be perfectly accurate:  “Mrs. H. O. Humm is a stay-at-home mom who lives in Middle America with her dentist husband, 2.4 children and a dog named Rex.”

But a bio is all about making yourself stand out. “Hermione Oz Humm was born in the Emerald City and is an expert balloonist, ventriloquist and voice-over performer.”

Things to consider including:

1) Whatever might make you newsworthy: OK, so you aren’t the baby who got rescued from that well forty years ago, and you never cheated on Robert Pattinson, but whatever is quirky or unusual about you, trot it out. Keep homing pigeons? Run marathons? Cook prize-winning chili? Put it in.

2) Work history: Here’s where you say you’re a welder or a fourth grade teacher or whatever, even if it isn’t related to the subject matter of your book.

NB: Don’t call yourself a “novelist” if you haven’t published one.

If you’re seriously underemployed and want to keep it to yourself, you can call yourself a “freelance writer,” but consider saying what else you do, even if it’s less than impressive. I remember when Christopher Moore’s first book, Practical Demonkeeping, came out and all the Central Coast papers ran stories about how a “local waiter” had just sold a book to Disney. If he’d called himself a “writer” there would have been no story.

3) Where you live: Your hometown might make a good focus for marketing. Plus people like to be able to picture you in your native habitat.

4) Education: This includes Workshops or Writers Conferences as well as formal education—especially if you worked with a high-profile teacher. If you took a playwriting workshop with Edward Albee, even if it was 30 years ago, go ahead and say so.

5) Life experience and hobbies
 that relate to the book, or fascinate on their own: If you collect vintage Frisbees, and the book is about angsty teen werewolves at a Frisbee contest, include it. If you invented the Frisbee, it doesn’t matter what your book is about: toot that horn!

6) Travel/exotic residences: “Rudy Kipling once took a two-week tour of Asia,” meh. But “Mr. Kipling was born in Bombay and spent a year as the assistant editor of a newspaper in Lahore,” is something you want them to know.

7) Writing credentials/prizes: Here’s where you can list some of those credits in small presses and prizes that didn’t fit in your query. Include any books you’ve published, even if they were in a different field.

If you're writing this for an agent or publisher, remember books that didn't sell well are going to work against you with a marketing department, so you might want to leave out self-published books if your sales weren't in the thousands. You should also skip older books self-published with a vanity press, unless your sales were spectacular.

8) Family: Use discretion here. If you write for children and have some of your own, it would be useful to mention them. If your family has an interesting claim to fame (like your sister just won an Olympic medal) or if family history has made you uniquely qualified to write this book (Your grandfather was Dwight Eisenhower's valet and you're writing about the Eisenhower/Kay Summersby affair.)

9) Performing history: It’s helpful to show you’re not paralyzed by the thought of public speaking. You can mention you’re the president of your local Toastmasters, or host a jug band program on a public access station, or you played the Teapot in last year’s production of Beauty and the Beast at the local community theater. 

10) Your online presence: This is where you can mention your blog. Also put in your twitter handle and list what other social media you participate in.

How to Write a Short Author Bio


Again, write in third person. For the first sentence, this format works pretty well:

 "Name is a ______ who lives in ______ and does ______. "

Then you can add one or two of the following:

1. S/he is a member of _____ (if you're a member of any writing organizations like RWA or SCBWI)

2. S/he has won_____ (writing awards—yes, you can mention the Halloween haiku.)

3. S/he has been published in _____ .

4. S/he has a degree in _____ from_______.

Then add something interesting and unique about yourself, preferably something related to the piece, like:

"S/he played Glinda the Good Witch in a Middle School production of The Wizard of Oz."  


When writing these bios, think like a reporter. What would make good copy in a news release? Think unique, quirky or funny.

All set? Good. Now go look in the mirror and say, "hello, author!"

Then sit down at the computer and write those bios. Right now!


NOTE to queriers: neither of these author bios should automatically go into a query letter.


Only send a bio if it's specifically requested.

The paragraph about yourself in your query letter should be as short as possible and written in the first person. Unlike an author bio, a query shouldn't include any mention of what you do for bucks (unless it relates to the book.) Also leave out the fun stuff about family, pets, and personal history. 

Give only your most significant publishing credits plus your writing organizations or recent writing conferences you've attended*. Mention education only if it's directly related to your writing. ("I have a degree in creative writing from Pomona College, where I studied novel structure with David Foster Wallace.")


How about you, scriveners? Do you have those bios ready? Have you ever dashed off a quick bio and regretted it later? At what point do/did you start calling yourself an author?


Just off the presses! The ebook of Shirley S. Allen's second novel, Roxanna Britton is now available on Amazon in the US and the UK. It's based on the true story of how my great, great grandmother pioneered in the American West, and it's also a charming romance and great women's fiction. Little House on the Prairie meets Jane Austen.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

How to Query a Book Review Blogger—and Combat Paid-Review Mills

The literary community was shaken this week by an article in the New York Times revealing how many "reader book reviews" are written for hire by book review mills. The most shocking revelation involved John Locke, one of the self-publishing movement's greatest stars.

Locke admitted to buying hundreds of reviews from a review mill because "it’s a lot easier to buy them than cultivating an audience."

But other people weren't all that surprised. The NYT article quoted University of Illinois data-mining expert Bing Liu, who said, "about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake."

According to the article, Mr. Locke seemed to think purchasing reviews was OK, because he specifically asked the reviewers to be "honest." But once you're in review-buying territory, you're on a slippery ethical slope.

Things are complicated by the fact that Mr. Locke wrote a book about how to sell books in which he instructed writers in specific detail on how to go about "cultivating an audience." The book didn't mention this particular rung on his ladder to success.

To be fair, exchanging goods and services for book reviews is a time-honored practice. Most reviewers get free books, and reviewers in print publications are generally paid—not directly by the author, of course—but the publisher may have to purchase advertising in that publication in order to have that company's books considered for reviewing. And authors have always reviewed other author's books (not always favorably.) But there has always been an attempt to avoid a blatant quid pro quo in order to provide unbiased reviews.

When the respected Kirkus magazine started offering reviews for hire to self-publishers, a lot of people got uncomfortable. Does putting a price tag on a Kirkus review diminish its value to readers?

Some people think so. In the comment thread on an in-depth post on this subject on Porter Anderson's Writing on the Ether this week, Barbara Rogan said. "The only reason writers buy those reviews from Kirkus (at $425 a pop!) and the only reason readers respect them, is because of the reputation of the original Kirkus, respected for its (sometimes scathingly) honest reviews. They are degrading their own brand."

However, this is not only a self-publishing issue. Thanks to Nathan Bransford for pointing this out in his August 29th blogpost.

The traffic in fake raves is not the only way the review system is being abused. Fake negative reviews are up for sale too. And an article in the UK's Daily Mail this week reports some publishers are being sued for planting negative reviews for other publishers' books. Even academics are getting into the negative-online-review game, with rival scholars panning competitors' work on Amazon. The article also cites negative reviews given to books by somebody who dislikes the author's spouse or associates.

I've seen "reviews" like this myself. I have also seen sites for review mills that offer to write—for a slightly higher price—a batch of negative reviews for better-selling books in your genre.

Which brings me to what happened the day after the NYT article about the review mills came out:

A gang of cyber-vigilantes decided to voice their displeasure with Mr. Locke's behavior by writing one-star reviews of his books.

Um, people, how does abusing the review system give a message that abusing the review system is bad?

As the sensible Chuck Wendig pointed out Bad Author Behavior in Response to Bad Author Behavior is still Bad Behavior.

If you use Amazon reviews for ANYTHING other than giving your honest opinion of a BOOK, you are disrespecting the reader and further degrading the review system.

I don't care if the author is an ax-murdering, sulfur-spewing, puppy-eating alien from the planet Zog: using Amazon reviews as a tool for vigilantism is JUST PLAIN WRONG.

When you see this kind of abuse of the system, hit the "report abuse" button and let Amazon know. They are finally cracking down on the review mills, and they will crack down on the vigilantes, too. We all benefit from keeping customer reviews useful and relevant.

Amazon does seem to have been a little slow on the crackdown, and a new article by David Streitfeld on today's NYT blog says manufacturers have been steadily buying reviews for years with very few repercussions--like the Kindle Fire carrying case whose buy page exploded in 100s of ecstatic 5-star reviews last January. (Thanks to Jay Strouch for that link.)

But Amazon does respond to specific reports of abuse, so if you think an author (or a corporation)  has done something unethical, do report it. And there are many other ways to voice your outrage. Rant on your blog. Tweet and Facebook about it until the steam comes out of your fingers. Start a petition to have the author censured by the professional organization of your choice.

But if you haven't read a book, don't review it. Full stop.

Instead, how about doing something positive to fight the degrading of book reviews? Here are some suggestions:

1) Write reviews of the books you read. If you like a book, say so. If you don't, say that. (Unless the book is simply not your cup of tea and you don't feel like giving it any more of your time.)

Every time you write an honest review—even a couple of sentences—you're helping to balance out the phony ones. If you're my age or older, it may seem daunting, but it's really pretty easy. It's not like writing those book reports you hated in grammar school. All you need is an Amazon account and twenty or more words.

2) If you're an author, revel in your one-star reviews. Don't complain. Welcome them. They're a badge of honor. A wonderful piece on Galley Cat this week pointed out that all the big bestsellers have hundreds of them.

When you get your first one-star, break out the bubbly—you're in the big time now. When you get over 400 one-stars, you'll be up there with George R. R. Martin and Steig Larssen. Get to 1300 and you might be the biggest bestseller ever, like E. L. James. A one-star shows your reviews are real. If you're good-humored about bad reviews, you're more likely to encourage honest reviewers.

3) Encourage review sites to change their policies if they require books to have a certain number of 4 and 5 star Amazon ratings to be featured. Sites like Pixel of Ink and Digital Book Today are great—but they insist on 10 four-or five-star Amazon reviews for a book to be considered for review. Not easy if you're a new writer launching a new book. Easy if you're a fat cat who uses a review mill. Because these ratings can now be purchased so easily, the arbitrary barriers do nothing but exclude new authors who don't cheat.

4) Read traditionally paid professional reviewers.
Yes. They still exist. I still read the New Yorker reviews and even the NYT Book Review, (although I admit I skip a lot of the middle-aged male angsty stuff.) Let's hope these publications will join the 21st century and get out of the Big 6 pockets pretty soon. But some remnants of print culture are worth keeping. In this week's Guardian, Paul Laity wrote a great piece on the value of the professional critic. (Thanks, Porter Anderson, for the link.)

5) Hug an independent book review blogger today! Read their blogs!! Buy books by clicking through their ads!!! An honest, unbiased and independent reviewer is an author's best friend.

Most book review bloggers are not paid. They usually get the book free, or may receive a small click-through payment from Amazon or other retailer, but their work is mostly a labor of love.

However, I know reviewers who have received hate mail and threats after giving a less-than-stellar review. This is absurd, people. If you're that thin-skinned, you're not ready to publish.

I've recently had personal experience with the disrespect book review bloggers get. Since this blog was a finalist in the IBBA awards in June, I have been inundated by queries from publicists, agents, and publishers who don't bother to take the 20 seconds to click through to see this is a publishing industry advice blog, NOT a review blog. These people never personalize, never treat the blogger as an individual, and send a mass-query that says nothing but "review this book!"

No wonder book bloggers can sometimes sound a little cranky.

So how do you get a blogger to review your book?

That's supposed to be my subject for today, so I'll finally get to it.



Book Review Bloggers: How to Find Them and How to Treat Them Right


How do you find interested book bloggers?

The best way is to check similar books in your genre—especially those that have been recently released. Do a search for those titles with the word “review” and read as many reviews as you can. Make a list of the reviewers you like and read the review policy.

Almost no blogger will take all types of books. Some only read traditionally-published paper books; others want only indie ebooks for Kindle. Some specialize in Nook. They almost always have specific genre requests, so read carefully, and always follow them. Even if the blogger agrees to do a review outside their genre, you won’t reach the right readers. People don’t go to a chick lit review site to discover the latest zombie gore-fest.

How do you approach them?

You should make initial contact with a query—the same way you approach other gatekeepers like literary agents and editors. This means you send a professional letter—not a Tweet or wall post on Facebook.

Here are some general rules for scoring a review:

  • Read the guidelines carefully. 
  • Then, um, follow the guidelines carefully. 
  • Never send an unsolicited book: query first. 
  • Don’t query with books outside the prescribed genre. Personalize the query. 
  • Keep queries short and intriguing. 
  • Don’t take it personally if they turn you down. Reading takes a lot of time and most of them are swamped. 
  • Understand the review is for the READER, not the writer, so negative reviews happen. 
  • If you get a less than stellar review, mourn in private and move on. NEVER respond to a negative review.
Last November I interviewed popular childrens' book blogger Danielle Smith of There's a Book, and she gave some great advice on how to get your book reviewed by a blogger. She says the best way to approach a book blogger is to keep your query professional, but show some personality.

Reviewer Danielle Smith's guidelines for authors:

  1.  Make sure you address the blogger by name
  2. Include a two to four sentence synopsis—no longer
  3. Keep personal information to a minimum. And don’t guilt-trip.
  4. Attach an image of the book cover
  5. Give the age range of the intended audience
  6. Include the page count (for print books)
  7. Provide the publication date and expected time frame of when you'd like to see the review posted for scheduling purposes.
  8. Don’t ask for a review outside the blogger’s genre
  9. Don’t query if you don’t have a website or a blog. (That screams “unprofessional” to a blogger.)
In other words, treat the book blogger like a professional and she will reciprocate.

If you want to know more about book bloggers and how to approach them, Danielle Smith is leading a panel at the Central Coast Writers' Conference with several Book Bloggers, including Amy Riley of My Friend Amy, and Pam Van Hylckama Vleig aka Bookalicious Pam who is also an agent with San Francisco agency Larsen-Pomada.

And if you want to read some genuine, not-paid-for Amazon reviews, here are some hilarious ones for a set of Bic pens.

How about you, scriveners? Would you ever consider paying for reviews? Does this change your opinion of John Locke? Do you read book review blogs?