Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Good Reader is Hard to Find (Apparently)

Over the past couple of years, I've followed a set of blogs written by literary agents and authors to get perspective and advice on writing well and on submitting work to agents in a way that will give it the best chance of being published. One of the blogs I had bookmarked was by a very popular agent who recently published a children's book. As the publication date for the book neared, the blog began to have more and more posts about the book, still with the slant of "here's my experience, it might be the same for you." Since publication, there have been several blog posts that were outright efforts to sell the book, including one that included related merchandise.

This morning when I checked the blog, I was a little surprised to find the author was having a PBS-style pledge drive. Briefly, the author was saying, "I put all this good content out there for free, so you ought to support me by buying my book." To be perfectly honest, I was rather turned off by that approach. I suppose that says something unpleasant about me, that I like the content but am not willing to pay for it.

The good/bad news is, I'm not alone in that sentiment. How many times have I seen groups spring up on Facebook which are protesting "We won't pay $9.95 a month for Facebook!"? I discovered (and briefly followed) a discussion thread on Amazon in which customers recommended "bargain" books for each other (with "bargain" often being defined as "free"). We look for extras or bonus features on our DVD purchases; we want hidden, bonus tracks on the albums we download.

When I was on my sabbatical a year ago, one of the webinars I attended was about 10 trends to be aware of/10 things to do to be successful in the new PR environment. I'd have to look at my notes to get the exact wording of what was said, but the gist of one point was, "People will expect to get something free. Give away something of value as a way to build loyalty and a relationship that will lead people to come to you when they are ready to buy."

The problem with that, as the blog author discovered, is people don't always feel a need to reciprocate. Just because he's giving good content about the publishing business, I don't feel obligated to plunk down $12+ for a book for kids younger than my own and in a genre I really don't like to read when I could spend that same $12 on something my kids and I would like to read. That's probably the case for a number of people who are readers of the blog; we aren't the target audience for his book, so he's not depending on true interest to spark book sales, he's relying on guilt. And in the internet age, it's pretty easy to avoid things that make you feel guilty (just hit "delete bookmark").

On the other hand, I recently found Royalty Free Fictionary, a blog devoted to allowing authors of historical fiction to post a description of their book - as long as it's not about royalty. Now that's interesting to me. That's a freebie that may actually lead to the purchase of a book, because it provides something that is both of value to me and related to a product I would want.

That's the risk of the new PR; not everyone you give something away to will become a customer. Actually, it makes me think of the people who sit at the commercial booths at our county fair, giving away balloons and nail files and brochures and business cards. There is probably a small percentage of the people who pick up those items who convert into customers. Business requires an investment; either you can pay money for the balloons and brochures, or you can pay time in writing a great blog.

I seem to have wandered away from the purpose of my title. The first thought that came to my mind when I read the pledge blog this morning was, "I guess it's tough to sell a book, no matter who you are." I have a friend who has self-published two books, and she occasionally (frequently?) is discouraged by how slow sales are. You would think the author of the pledge blog would not have the same trouble; after all, he's got the advantage of being in the business. But I suppose ultimately, it doesn't matter who you are.* The book has to find its own readers.

*After I had written this line, it occurred to me that Snooki and Bristol Palin sell books. I don't think it's because the books are riveting reads....

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

To Re-Read, or Not

Unless you've been on an extended space walk, I imagine you know Friday is opening day for the final installment of the Harry Potter movies. To prepare, the kids and I have been watching the earlier movies. I also thought I might brush up on the books, because when they first came out, I read them so fast (to find out what happened) that now I don't really remember some of the details. For the last book, actually, my memory of the major plot events is pretty sketchy.

I started re-reading the first book in the series, but I haven't made much progress over the first couple of days. It's not because I don't like the book; Sorcerer's Stone is actually a book that gives me a lot of pleasure; I think it is so well-edited and so imaginative. The problem is that I keep having this nagging feeling that I ought to be spending my sparse reading time on something new that I've never read before. There are all kinds of books on the shelves in this house that I've not read yet; shouldn't I reduce that TBR pile instead of going back to the same story I already know?

This is something I nag my daughter about all the time. I can't tell you how many times that child has read Princess Academy by Shannon Hale or the Warriors books by Erin Hunter. I'm glad she has favorite books, but I keep telling her she needs to expand her reading horizons. There are so many classics out there and so many good new books that she will miss out on if she just keeps reading the same thing over and over. I don't seem to be having much success with this campaign, by the way.

Another acquaintance once said she never re-reads a book. She said there are too many books in the world to spend time going back. I agree with her on the point that there are many worthwhile stories I'd like to read, but I also see the appeal of revisiting a book. It's the tension between getting back in touch with good old friends or meeting someone new. Both have value and can add pleasure to our lives.

I guess one thing that is bogging me down this time is the knowledge that Sorcerer's Stone is the first of a lengthy series. If I start on it now, it's likely to take me the rest of the year to finish (given what I have waiting for me this fall when school starts again - ugh). That means no chances to meet interesting new friends - and I had interest in "dates" with several characters. As much as I love Harry Potter, I don't want to miss out on meeting Mr. Darcy for the first time.

My compromise for the time being is to read the last three books in the series. They are the most complicated in the series and the ones I tend to confuse. And maybe I can finish with enough time to get to Mr. Darcy.

What do you think? Do you re-read or stick to books that are new to you?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

I recently finished reading Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. It's the story of a slave girl (Isabel) during the British occupation of New York City in the Revolutionary War. While I learned something about that historical event, the main thing I'm taking away from this book is an increased appreciation for the injustice of slavery.

The story indirectly described the suffering the rebels experienced during the occupation (I say indirectly because Isabel's owners were British sympathizers and therefore were given preference when it came to getting food. They are even able to have some elaborate parties.). Isabel also ends up taking food scraps to the American prisoners of war, and the description of the conditions in the prison is almost uncomfortably vivid. It's not the first time I've read about those kinds of conditions (The Heretic's Daughter and Forged in the Fire, for example, had pretty vivid prison scenes). What makes it different this time is that the main characters in Chains are slaves, and that adds a whole new dimension to their suffering.

Isabel and her younger sister Ruth are sold early in the book to a selfish, cruel woman and her husband, who take the sisters to New York City. Throughout the book, Isabel is trying to find a way to get away from Madaam. On top of all the work Isabel is expected to do, Madaam hits Isabel with a riding crop, constantly insults her, separates her from her sister, and even has her branded with an "I" for "insolence." That's all bad enough, but what really brought the injustice home to me was that Madaam wouldn't even allow Isabel her identity. Shortly after arriving in New York, Madaam renames Isabel "Sal," even though that's not who Isabel wanted to be. I don't know why that bothered me more than the branding. (spoiler) Actually, I decided as soon as she was branded that the "I" should stand for "Isabel" instead of "insolence"; it took Isabel nearly to the end of the book to come to that conclusion herself.

The fact that all this cruelty is set against the struggle for the patriots to free themselves from British "oppression" is ironic. At least a couple of times, Isabel appeals to people who are engaged in this struggle for freedom and they refuse to help her; freedom is not for the slaves. There's also a sad reality in the way Curzon (Isabel's friend) is treated in the prison. He was captured fighting for the rebels and taken as a prisoner of war along with all the free white men. However, even though he was actively fighting for their cause, the other prisoners still place Curzon in a lower position. They steal his blanket and they take the lion's share of the food - even when Isabel has brought it for him.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War, which means there will probably be a lot of discussions about slavery. Sometimes I think it's easy to intellectualize what slavery was about. Chains takes slavery out of the intellectual realm and makes the reader see and feel what it must have been like to be owned, body and soul, by another person and how hard it would be to escape that situation.

Let's add Laurie Halse Anderson to that list of people I want to study to be a better writer....

Saturday, July 2, 2011

"Pantsing" the Family Vacation

One of the questions I see fairly often on blogs about writing is "Are you a plotter or a pantser?" By that, the questioner is asking whether the writer plans every detail of what will happen in his/her story or if he/she goes "by the seat of the pants" and lets the story go where it will. The same question could be asked of traveling style. Normally, my husband and I are "plotters" when it comes to planning the family vacation, but this year we decided to try "pantsing" it.

We knew we wanted to go to the East Coast since we had a window of only two weeks. We had settled on going to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and our son had requested going back to Washington, DC. We planned to leave immediately after our daughter's concert for band camp (the flute came on the trip with us!) on June 18 and we had to be home by July 1 so our son could get his driver's license. We planned to stay in hotels for most of the trip, but we also wanted to do a couple of nights of tent camping. With those parameters in mind, we stuffed the back of our vehicle with tents, sleeping bags, two suitcases, and numerous duffel bags and headed east.

The first opportunity for spontaneity came when we hit Memphis at suppertime.
We headed to Beale Street to BB King's Blues Club, where we had horrendously fattening and wonderfully delicious Southern fare and were treated to live music by a blues band whose guitarist most certainly wasn't born yet when Elvis died (but who could play the guitar, for sure). The spirit of the spontaneous slid into my husband and me, who mortified our daughter by pretending to dance at the table. Pantsing is fun!

We saw the downside of pantsing a couple of hours later, when we stopped in Jackson, TN, for the night. No rooms were available in our first choice of hotels - seems the Miss Tennessee pageant and a Little League baseball tournament were both in town. We did find a room, however, without too much trouble.

Our next stop was Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We've been there several times, and we've passed by the sign for Laurel Falls several times but never stopped. This time we decided to stop and do the hike. What we didn't know is that it was a 1.3-mile uphill hike! When we were nearly to the falls, someone coming back down told us there was a bear and cub on the trail. By the time we got to the spot, there was no cub, but there was the adult bear, sitting in the path. This was really cool to us since we've been to the Smokies several times and to Yellowstone and never saw a bear in the wild. Pantsing has pleasant surprises!

One of the things we did this time that we hadn't done before was go to some places just because we saw them on the map and thought they sounded interesting. The first of those was the Mountain Farm Museum at the North Carolina entrance to GSM park.
It ended up being one of my favorite stops on the trip, partly because there were so many things that reminded me of my great-grandparents' farm (like the corn-sheller) and partly because it was THE setting for my novel. Several times I had little moments of daydreaming in which I could almost see my characters leaning against the rail fence or carrying wood from the pile under the woodshed. This visit also pointed out to me, though, how far removed my kids are from the way I grew up - my daughter helped feed the two young pigs with one hand pinching her nose shut because of the smell!

Another jewel that we visited just because we found it on the map was Chippokes Plantation State Park in Virginia. We got a private tour of a plantation home circa 1854 (well, ok, no one was there besides our family) and to visit a museum of farm equipment and implements. We also stopped at Seneca Rocks in West Virginia because we would be passing it on the way home, and that was neat. The Seneca Rocks themselves are a huge, impressive outcropping of rocks, but again, the cool part to me was a homestead site that had the home and some gardens with vegetables and herbs people of the 19th century would have grown. Both of those sites are things we would have missed if we had chosen to take the interstates rather than pantsing our way on side roads.

There were some interesting stops that crossed our path quite by accident. While in Asheville, North Carolina, we ate at the most impressive McDonald's restaurant I've ever seen.
Since that is the location of the Biltmore estate (which we didn't visit because it was too expensive for our budget), the McDonald's had a "Biltmore" theme, complete with a tapestry over a faux fireplace, a waterfall wall sculpture, and a player baby grand piano.

Another time, we were driving toward Washington, DC, and we saw a big spire sticking up above the trees.
"What's that?" Jeff asked, and we exited to find out. It was the National Museum of the Marine Corps, which was a great museum with LOTS of history (although it was, of course, oriented toward military history and specifically the Marines' role in that history). When we got to Washington, we visited Arlington National Cemetery - just in time to see a wreath-laying ceremony with the Prince of Belgium. Wow. What dumb luck! Finally, we got to see first-hand what Jeff called an example of political "pork." We drove for several miles on a beautiful 4-lane interstate in West Virginia that began outside a very small town and suddenly dumped us off in what seemed like the middle of nowhere (miles from the next town of any size). That was a weird experience that took us pretty far off the path we had planned, led nowhere, and forced us to find an alternative route back to where we wanted to be. I guess that happens sometimes with pantsing.

As it turns out, we didn't take quite the route we had thought we might take - no swinging up into Delaware and Baltimore. But we got to do all the things we really wanted to do on the trip - play in the ocean and go on a fishing boat (Jeff and the kids did that - I discovered I'm really not a fan of deep water, boats, and long, long bridges, ha ha!), visit Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, see all the relatives in that part of the country, and camp a couple of times. There were some stressful moments, but seems like maybe there weren't as many as when we've had to push to get to a certain location by a certain time (or at least a different kind of stress). After the first night, we had no trouble finding a place to stay. Taking the vehicle off the interstates and on the backroads let us see something of the countryside and the way people live, which I think is just as valuable as any museum. The verdict? I like pantsing some of a vacation and hope we'll do it again sometime. Just as with a story idea, we can take the basic framework, get started, and see where it takes us!