Sunday, September 25, 2011

Guilty Pleasures with Stephen King

All of us have guilty pleasures. I'm not referring to anything illegal or maniacal that feeds the insatiable maws of countless true crime shows around the world. I'm talking about those harmless self-indulgences that we delve into from time to time -- the little physical or mental voyages we grant ourselves as temporary reprieves from the daily grind's tedium. Some of us keep those guilty pleasures strictly to ourselves. Others of us wave them from the tops of the highest flagpoles we can find. I suppose I fly my favorite guilty pleasure at half-mast, neither keeping it in the dark, nor going to any great measure to shield it from day's bright glare.

My guilty pleasure is exploring places renown for being creepy. So last April I booked a room at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. It's a gorgeous old hotel nestled against the Rocky Mountains, and is duly famous for its old-world charm and allure, and for being very haunted. It's also well-known for inspiring Stephen King to write "The Shining," which is my favorite of his many excellent novels. The story goes that on Halloween Eve, 1974, King and his wife stayed in the hotel as its sole guests the night before it was to be locked up tight for the coming long and bleak mountain winter. The Kings occupied room 217, a room which 20 years later allegedly scared actor Jim Carrey into the night half-naked after a mere three hours' stay following the first evening of filming scenes at the hotel for the movie "Dumb and Dumber." To date Carrey has never spoken publicly about what drove him from room 217 in the middle of the night. All we know for sure is after King's single night in room 217, "The Shining" was coursing through his veins, and he had no option but to write it all down.

I didn't stay in room 217. Because of "The Shining," you've got to reserve that room eons in advance if you want a chance to witness whatever King and Carrey and countless other guests have seen in 217 over the past century. I was a few eons short, so my room was two floors directly above 217. No ghosts harassed me during my tenure at the Stanley. None I saw, anyway. Sure, some doors opened without visible reason. And during a raging blizzard immense snowflakes blew through two big windows I kept open for my entire stay in a vain effort to keep my un-air conditioned room cool enough to be bearable. Yet for five days the temperature in my room never dropped below 78 degrees, even with the heat turned off and ceiling fans spinning and snow flying through my windows and piling on the floor at midnight. Not normal, granted, but I don't know if that constitutes "paranormal." Maybe extremely localized global warming explains it.

All that was bubbling in my head when I exchanged a few words with King last Friday night after the event celebrating his receiving the 2011 Mason Award at the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. I signed a copy of my book, "Blood of the Moon" for him, and also handed him a copy of "The Shining" for his signature. I told him I bought my copy of "The Shining" at the Stanley's gift shop after I had a chance to duck into 217 while the maintenance guys were changing out the carpeting between guests. I mentioned I didn't see any ghosts in his old room. He laughed out loud while he scrawled his signature on my copy of "The Shining" and handed it back to me.

"I made all that shit up," King told me.

All of us have guilty pleasures.

I guess I'll have to wait till I run into Carrey to find out what I missed in 217 last April.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Charge of the E Brigade

According to a Harris Interactive poll surveying around 2200 people and released this week, the number of Americans using e-readers has nearly doubled over the past 12 months. A year ago, eight percent of respondents said they used some sort of e-reader. This year, that number is 15 percent, and that’s in spite of the limping national economy. The Harris poll indicates this e-reader trend will continue through next year, with another 15 percent of respondents stating they’re likely to get an e-reader over the next 12 months. That figure reflects a 25 percent increase since the same question was asked of poll respondents last year.

That’s good news for us authors. E-reader owners are fairly voracious readers, especially when contrasted against the non-e-reading public. One third of American adults didn’t buy even one book in the past year. (WARNING – PARENTHETICAL DIGRESSION AHEAD – So, wow… I guess the way to look at that and feel better as an author is to flip it – two-thirds of American adults bought at least one book last year! Cool! Of course, “one book” would include fulfilling that yearly single-book purchase quota with a mindlessly spontaneous airport grab of “The Last Stand of Chuck Norris: 400 All New Facts About the Most Terrifying Man in the Universe” instead of a literarily meatier selection, but a book’s a book, right? And personally, I love those Chuck Norris fact books, and own them all. The one about Chuck versus Mr. T is mandatory reading in my house, and quotes from it are often all one of my family members needs to win an argument, especially if that family member is me. Thank God I’m a book buyer. THIS CONCLUDES THE PARENTHETICAL DIGRESSION. THANKS FOR YOUR PATIENCE.) That’s only true for six percent of e-reader aficionados. Instead, nearly 60 percent of e-reader owners buy more than 11 books annually, and over a quarter of them buy more than 21 books a year.

The same Harris poll throws light on what American genres book buyers of all stripes, whether digital or analog, bought most over the past year. Nearly half of fiction readers go for mystery, thriller and crime books, and a quarter prefer sci-fi. The most popular nonfiction book buys were biographies at about 30 percent, trailed very slightly by history and spirituality books.

What does this poll tell us? Well, there aren’t 15 percent more Barnes & Nobles or Books-A-Millions or independent bookstores on the ground this year than last. All the Borders around a year ago are gone. The facts speak for themselves. Any author or publisher or retailer who doesn’t focus intently on learning to love the stampeding charge of the e-book brigade is a dead man reading. As e-reader devices and platforms grow increasingly sophisticated, the reading public will come to expect ever more sophisticated e-books. That bodes ill for Luddite authors and publishers, in that they’ll have to learn to incorporate multi-media components into their e-books to take advantage of the electronic devices on which those e-books are read. On the other hand, that bodes well for authors and publishers appropriately excited about exploiting e-reader technologies, since a more media-robust e-book reading experience justifies a more dollar-robust pricing point.

That reminds me -- did I mention I’m selling my new short story e-book anthology, Trust and Other Nightmares, for a mere 99 cents? I’ll be more multi-media robust next time, I promise.

“What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?
Only Chuck Norris and Mr. T will ever know.”
~~ Ian Spector ~~

Saturday, September 17, 2011

99 Cent E-Books -- Boon or Bane?

I've read on many sites and blogs reams of thought regarding the 99 cent e-book. As with any controversy worth the rage it stirs up, opinions for and against the 99 cent e-book have merit. Having just released for the first time such an e-book myself, I've been following the discussion with interest. Doing so, I came across a thoughtful piece a few days ago that merits sharing and attention. The piece's author is Donna Brown, who is a freelancer editor and also handles promotion and marketing for her husband, author David M. Brown. She is the main contributor on their shared blog Book Blogs and Cat Naps and occasionally guest posts on The World According to Dave. Her piece below is titled, "The Real Cost of the 99-Cent eBook."

As told by a passionate book loving author promoter
I have nothing against 99-cent eBooks. I’ve bought them, I’ve read them and I appreciate that now it is easier than ever for authors to put their work out there and pricing is at an all time low. Whether books are priced $0.99, $2.99 or $4.99, it’s hardly a financial risk to try something different. When you can get 100 titles on your Kindle or Nook for a couple of hundred dollars instead of a thousand dollars, that has to be something to smile about.
However is the true cost of 99-cent eBooks all about the sales? Do they take away from higher priced authors? Or is it actually something much more insidious and sinister: do they diminish the quality perception of eBooks altogether?
I recently posted a customer review of a story I loved on Amazon. The writing was excellent, the story flowed beautifully and it was wonderful to read. It cost me five times less than a glossy magazine and was perfect alongside my morning coffee. I gave it a well deserved five stars. Unfortunately not everyone was so generous. The reviews ranged from cynical to scathing then to downright nasty.
But why? Simply put: it was not a 200-page novel but a short story. They felt like they were ripped off because they paid 99 cents for a short story; about 0.0005 cent per word! Hmm… when you look at it like that…
Amazon allows authors to upload short fiction in the form of short stories, novellas etc. The lowest price available is 99 cents regardless of length. Some works are listed for free, but only at Amazon's discretion. The author receives just 35 cents from each eBook sold for 99 cents. Once you factor in tax, marketing, writing time, formatting time, preparing or paying for a cover image, hiring an editor/proofreader and so on, an author has to sell an awful lot of copies to even make their money back. So who’s selling who short?
When authors are kind enough to share quality fiction with us, how do we respond? Not by considering that we got a great piece of writing for less than the cost of candy bar but by insulting them and making them feel that they’re ripping us off?
Drinking instant coffee at home can be just as fulfilling as the three dollar cup of coffee at the local cafe bar. We appreciate the quality, we appreciate the treat, and we appreciate the value in something we enjoy. Is it so difficult to apply the same principles to eBooks?
So, authors, I implore you: the next time you see a 99-cent short story listed for the same price as a 200 page eBook, don’t feel that you have sold yourself short. Feel lucky that there are still passionate book lovers, like me, out there that take pleasure in quality pieces of fiction. At least you've given someone the chance to try something distinctively satisfying for less than a dollar.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

243,000 Characters in Search of an Author

I've been approached often over the past couple of years by young writers asking me where I get the initial ideas for my characters. For example, last week I was in my local Best Buy, and the young man who was doing a great job helping me pick out a video camera got excited when he found out I'm an author. He wants to be a writer. He asked me lots of questions about writing, publishing and marketing, but by far he was most interested in how I conceive the characters who populate my stories.

"Do you just use your imagination completely--just totally make them up in your head?" he asked me. "Every time I do that, my characters feel so artificial and unreal."

After delivering the boilerplate authorial caveats that anything I said in reply to his question is no gold standard but only the way I personally go about constructing some of my characters, and that he pursue the process in whatever way he feels most comfortable, I answered his question by waving an arm around the crowded store. I told him the raw material to start building his characters was all around him at that very moment. All he had to do was pay attention.
Earlier today I was sitting near my departure gate during a layover in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. A quick hop onto Wikipedia informed me it's the busiest airport in the world, with an average of 243,000 passengers passing through it daily. That huge number doesn't even include the thousands of people who work there. Briefly throwing my eyes around, 20 feet away from me I saw an attractive woman in her mid-40's wearing elegant, expensive designer business attire and holding a smartphone to her ear. She sounded like she was highly agitated, yelling and cursing into her phone. Her voice was loud enough that she obviously didn't care who heard her. But belying that seeming agitation, she was seated calmly, twirling her shoulder-length auburn hair with a long, perfectly manicured finger. Her skin wasn't flushed at all, her green eyes were wide and luminous, and there was even a small, crooked grin on her glossy lips while she berated the unfortunate party on the other end of her call. Was it a business call? Was she fighting with a lover, or one of her kids, or her parent? Was she actually having a phone conversation at all, or was it really a charade to see what attention she could lure as she whiled away some idle time waiting for her flight?

One character kernel sown, 242,999 to go in just one day at the airport.

I do the bulk of my writing at my favorite local Starbucks. It's a busy place. Many of my characters had their initial germination from some person or another I saw passing through or by that coffee shop. Maybe it was an accent that first drew my attention, or an outfit, a hairstyle, a walking stick, perhaps a laugh or quirky mannerism. In the end it doesn't really matter what first caught my eye or ear. The world is full of interesting people, and they're all around you, all the time. A fleeting encounter with almost any one of them, plus a dash of extrapolation and a pinch of imagination, are the basic ingredients in a surefire recipe for birthing characters both memorable and realistic. After that, it's up to you to get inside the skin, mind, heart and soul of the character you've just created, breathe him full of life, and let him loose to reap and sow his just due.

"It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, 
all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to 
keep up long enough to put down what he says and does." 
~~ William Faulkner~~

Friday, September 9, 2011

No Your Writes

As an author or not, I’ve always had a testy relationship with No. I doubt I’m alone in this. No is ubiquitous, curt, and negative. Absent due consideration for its nuances, No is freely equated with sheer and hurtful rejection. When I was a kid, a parental No stood between me and many things I was so sure (mistakenly, I discovered as I aged and gained a tad of wisdom) would bring me untold joy or adventure. In so many words however sympathetically phrased, more colleges and grad schools said No than Yes to my admission applications. No outnumbered Yes in my job searches since I left school. Those of you reading this who are writers or writers’ friends know well that the vast majority of authors hear No far more than Yes from agents and traditional publishers.

It’s too easy to conclude No is the enemy.

That makes it too easy to be wrong.

My parents’ No’s more often than not saved me from injury or incarceration, if not injury and incarceration. The schools that rejected my applications couldn’t have done a better job educating me academically and otherwise than the one I attended. The jobs and clients I’ve been fortunate enough to have over the years more than compensate for the ones I didn’t get. A couple of the "Big 6" publishing houses in New York turning down "Blood of the Moon" lead me to explore and appreciate the rewards of publishing independently. In turn, this positioned me to forge meaningful relationships with my readers all over the world, such that my new e-book release, "Trust and Other Nightmares," is enjoying a warm reception for which I’m most appreciative.

Frustrating as it may have been at the time of its utterance, each No eventually and inevitably guided me toward a resounding Yes, and I’m the better for it all round.

This is especially true for my writing. I have a generous group of early-readers who graciously read what I write and offer me priceless feedback, a great deal of which is No-centric. My lovely and talented editor for "Blood of the Moon," Jennifer Sawyer Fisher, said No to me more than just about any other person I can think of said No to me about anything ever, and she was right (almost) every time. Hearing a resounding No about a character, a scene, a stream of dialogue, or a plot or subplot, forced me in each instance to revisit what I had so proudly written. Every No forced me to see my work from an eye not so biased as my own, and to make thoughtful and sometimes painful revisions accordingly. Confronting the No my writing earned from someone whose opinion is invaluable in making my writing better and more engaging outweighs exponentially an equivocal Yes from someone lovingly reluctant to hurt my feelings.

Writing is hard. Good writing is harder. And putting what I deem my best writing in front of a person whose opinion matters and who’s willing to say No can be extremely nerve-wracking. But properly considered, every No that I don’t let derail me is a long step directly toward Yes.

Any Yes that doesn’t first raise its head only after an army of No’s has assaulted my writing is not a friend.

No is not the enemy. It’s a badge of honor.

No is the greatest ally a good writer can have.

"From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down I was convulsed with laughter.
Some day I intend reading it." 
~~ Groucho Marx ~~

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Christopher Buehlman's Debut Novel -- "Those Across the River"

Since taking my first tentative steps on this authorial sojourn five years ago, many things have happened because of and for and to me that I never foresaw. Some of them were more edifying than others, but I'm unaware of any of life's avenues where that's not true. Thankfully, and likely luckily, far less than most of them have proven to be discouraging. Many of them have turned out to be pleasant surprises.

One of those surprises was Amazon's inviting me to be a "Vine Voice" reviewer a few months ago. I was pleased to accept that invitation, since no author is any better a writer than he or she is a reader. I find it stimulating to read new work by skilled authors slightly less than famous enough to ride perennially atop the common bestseller lists -- especially since that's a category into which I fit nicely, too. I find it satisfying to do my part, in some small way, to bring attention to new or unheralded authors whose "Q Score" hasn't yet gone stratospheric.

Christopher Buehlman is such an author. I first encountered him, and his new horror novel, "Those Across the River," buried deep in a long list Amazon e-mailed me from which to choose the subject of my next Vine review. Based on his publisher's brief description of the book, I took a chance on it. I'm glad I did, and if you enjoy a scary book steeped in Southern Gothic tradition, you'll do yourself a favor by checking it out. Buehlman's web site is His book came out today.

For the record, I've never met Buehlman. He's not a friend of mine, and I'm not shilling for him. If he walked up to me and said hello, I'd have no clue who he was. But his novel deserves notice, which is why I've taken the liberty of reproducing my Vine review of it below.

Besides, no one truly enjoys an author blog that's nothing but incessant self-promotion. I know I don't, and I assume you don't, either.

My review follows. Happy reading, and thank for your kind time and interest.

An Impressive Debut  (4 out of 5 Stars)

The roots of Christopher Buehlman's novel, "Those Across the River," are tangled inextricably in the classic Southern Gothic literary tradition. Emblematic of the best of the genre, Buehlman's writing is as elegant as it is powerful. Through deft choices of language, idiom, place and pace, he conveys well the cadence of life in the American South at a time the country teetered between the first and second World Wars, the Great Depression raged with seeming immortality, and the American Civil War remained a deep, haunting wound far from healed in formerly Confederate states.

Retreating from Chicago and the professional and personal ruin wrought by their indiscreet adultery, Frank and Eudora alight in Whitbrow, a tiny Georgia town, to take possession of a house willed Frank by his recently deceased aunt. Rejecting his aunt's warning not to live in her bequest but instead to sell it immediately, Frank and Eudora begin settling in the quaint yellow house, which is separated by a small river and a large forest from his family's ancestral family plantation. Frank is descended from a notorious Confederate officer who evaded Union bullets only to die brutally at the hands of his own slaves, on his own plantation. In an attempt to right his shattered life both in the aftermath of Chicago, and of his ghastly experiences as a doughboy fighting in bloody French trenches, Frank comes to Whitbrow to explore the remnants of the estate with an eye to writing a definitive history of the plantation and the infamous man who owned it. Yet despite the decades that have passed since the plantation's demise, it's not uninhabited. To the contrary, it has been waiting patiently for Frank's arrival, as have its handful of infernal denizens who smelled Frank and Eudora coming long before they fled Chicago.

Fans of Southern Gothic tales will love "Those Across the River," as will admirers of shrewd writing. Buehlman's storytelling is captivating, and unsettling. It's a very good book.

Monday, September 5, 2011


The typical image of a working author is a slightly deranged person hunched over a keyboard in a lonesome subterranean room, his haggard face lit only by the cold azure glow of an unsympathetic computer screen.  Between intermittent flashes of madcap productivity, when characters laugh and cry and cheat and lie and thrive and die through the mystic conduit between the author’s fevered mind and the plastic lettered keys his fluttering fingertips rap, this reclusive soul wails and moans at blank walls and musty ceilings and threadbare carpeting.  He waits in silent, endless agony for inspiration to stop shunning him so cruelly.

To the extent this image bears accuracy, it’s not the poor author’s fault.  It’s not his choice.  Blame his muse.

Most muses prefer their authors very lonely and irretrievably co-dependent.  They are such faithless trollops.  They keep fiendishly irregular hours, flitting away for interminable days and nights at their wicked whims, always whispering pretty lies about when they’ll be home next.  They pique their jollies through the sadistic pleasure of making their simpering authors beg for their incessantly divided and fleeting attentions.

So the author suffers, and that typical image of the working author is not entirely based on unreality.

This inequitable and unreliable allocation of inspiration that is the author’s bane is purposeful.  It’s endemic of any rigidly monopolistic distribution structure, and the dispersion of authorial inspiration is firmly dictated by the Muses.  I know.  I’m a card-carrying, dues-paying member of the Immortal International Muses Syndicate.  No one receives the blessed inspiration we control except when and where we allow.  It’s in the handbook.  So you get a glimpse of how long we’ve been in operation and doing these things the way we do, I’ll just point out our original handbook was written in Sumerian.

It’s actually a fairly simple system.  It’s an ancient system, too, misty time immemorial stuff.  Sticking with what works is sound strategy.  Ask any successful monopolist.

We have scouts scanning the human masses, watching out for the particularly artistic, creative types.  Not just authors, of course.  We target painters, musicians, architects, scientists, choreographers, poets, priests, even overly ambitious politicians with delusions of beneficent grandeur. We confirm our prey is prey when we get our first whiff of a new artist’s creative effluvia.  Immediately, one of us becomes the new artist’s muse, and his fate is sealed instantly and irrevocably with divine suffering. One of us invades his mind, gussies up the place to suit our particular taste, and thus his slavery begins until he decides maybe going back to that 9 to 5 cubicle job’s not so bad after all.

Don’t misunderstand.  It’s always discouraging to us when one of our prey surrenders under the constant adversities and abandonments we foist on him.  It’s not why we do what we do.  We want our prey to succeed, and succeed spectacularly.  It’s just that we will accept not a scintilla less than all the credit.  We punish him relentlessly while he toils, and make him doubt himself when he’s done and he prays he has created something good.  In every interview he does and at every appearance he makes we insist on receiving all the credit for all his successes and none of the blame for all of his failures.  That’s also in the handbook.

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking all us muses have horned heads and leathery wings and tails with razor-sharp points at their ends.  Some of us do.  A lot of us do, actually.  If the shoe fits, right?  But it’s impolitic to stereotype nowadays.  I, for one, don’t fit that stereotype at all.  I’m Richard’s muse, no one else’s, and I’m as unique as he is and you are.  The horns and wings and tail don’t suit me, so when I grace him with my presence I’m a long cool woman in a black dress with blood red lips and fingertips.  He seems to respond best to me when I let him see me that way.

Unlike the majority of my colleagues with their prey, I don’t like keeping Richard in solitary confinement in some dank basement room when he writes.  Not so for his benefit, though, but for mine.  I’m a gregarious sprit, as is he, and I like taking him out to happen upon inspirations from the world at large, when I allow him inspirations at all.  I had him write his novel, “Blood of the Moon,” in a Starbucks.  One the one hand, when I let him write well but he started to bog down and plead for my intercession, sometimes I guided him to thoughts and ideas to spur his creativity by showing him slogans on tee shirts or bumper stickers on passing cars, or from letting him overhear snippets of fervid lovers’ quarrels amid the cacophony of a bustling coffee shop.  On the other hand, when I left him cold and dry and shivering for my attention, I admit I rejoiced in witnessing his public humiliations.  His friends coming over to him to ask how his writing was going, and hearing him tell them it was going awfully and he doubted he would ever finish “Blood of the Moon,” that never failed to fling tremors of sheer pleasure vibrating through my ethereal flesh.  I love my job.

So all of us muses, we’re all the same.  And we’re all different.  Your muse may not let you out much or ever, or maybe your muse is like Richard’s and insists on your writing in the bright light of public view.  Each of us knows what works for you, and what’s best for your writing.  We’ve been doing this for a long, long time, and we’re always right.  Trust your muse.

"O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention."
~~ William Shakespeare ~~