NEW FEATURE: D STREET STORIES

A sign advertising Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Photo by Ken Lund.

 

Hello, all. I’m sorry to report that I’ve been held captive in an alternate dimension for [checks date on last blog post] about a year now; hence the dramatic reduction in frequency of posts on this blog. But! I managed to escape once I learned that in my captors’ world, their currency looks almost exactly like ordinary toenail clippings. A few well-placed bribes and I was able to hop the next portal home!

It’s good to be back and to share with you that I’m starting a new feature on this blog, called D Street Stories. In this series of short oral histories, a Ph.D. student in the folklore program at Georgia State University is interviewing people and asking them to tell how their lives have been affected by D Street, a strange little neighborhood in downtown Atlanta with a lot of unlikely stories and rumors swirling around it. (D Street features prominently in my novel, Blood Family). The first D Street Story is below. 

 

The Magician Next Door

Interview subject: Richie C., marketer, 31 years old

The story I want to tell you is about my neighbor, Clyde. We live—well, used to live in the same apartment building on D Street. Thing is, Clyde disappeared a couple of months ago, and nobody around here seems to know where he went or what happened to him. So now he’s my ex-neighbor. Last week the landlord taped an eviction notice to his door. I guess all his stuff’s still inside his apartment. No telling what might be in there, given what he does for a living.

See—there’s no easy way to say this, but Clyde’s a necromancer. At least that’s what people say about him on D Street. His website’s more discreet; it just says he provides “magickal services,” including “spells, conjures, and talismans.” Before I moved to D Street the closest I ever got to any of that stuff was in New Orleans when I walked by Marie LaVeau’s House of Voodoo on Bourbon Street. My girlfriend at the time and I were spending the weekend there, going to jazz shows and day drinking and having that good hotel sex, and we were walking around the Quarter one afternoon when we saw the sign for Marie LaVeau’s. My girlfriend, Carla, said hey, that place looks cool, let’s go inside. Something about the girlish enthusiasm in her voice made me say no thanks. I just couldn’t believe that some trinket you can buy off a shelf might be the key that unlocks your life.

Which is why it’s kind of weird that I wound up moving to D Street. What happened was, me and Carla broke up, and I needed a new place to live. It was something about that trip to New Orleans; after that is when things started going south with us. Anyway, I told my buddy Dan I was having a hard time finding something I could afford without moving to Bumfuck Trumpland outside the Perimeter. And Dan said, well, there’s this neighborhood downtown that’s always more affordable. And I’m like, what do you mean, “neighborhood downtown”? There are no neighborhoods downtown. Dan gave me a funny look and said, well, there is this one neighborhood. I’ll take you down there. I said, well, you can just tell me where it is, and I’ll check it out. He said, that’s not how it works. I have to take you.

You do know about that, right? If you haven’t been to D Street before, you can’t find it on your own; someone who’s already been there has to take you first. After that you can go back whenever you want. I know that sounds like bullshit in the era of the smartphone, but I’m telling you, GPS will not find this place. When you first started doing these interviews, did you try to find D Street on your own? And it didn’t work, did it? That’s what I’m talking about. D Street has a way of changing your mind about things.

Anyway, Dan brought me down here, and I looked around, found an apartment, signed a lease, and moved in. And you want to know the kicker? I found the apartment listing on a bulletin board in a fucking magic shop on D Street. I almost called Carla and told her because I knew she would appreciate the poetic justice of it, but I didn’t want her to think I was trying to get her back. She was the one who broke up with me. Apparently I’m not curious enough about the world. When she said that, I didn’t try to prove how curious I am. I just said I thought curiosity was overrated. You see how well that worked out.

When I told Dan where my new apartment was, he said, “There’s supposedly a necromancer who lives in that building.”

I said, “What, like a wizard or something? Like Harry Potter?”

He shook his head. “All I know is it’s got something to do with death.”

“Death,” I said.

“Yeah. You know, like necrophilia?”

“Wait a minute. Are you saying I’m living in the same building with a corpse-fucker?”

“No, I’m just saying that necro- is the Greek root meaning dead. So a necro-mancer is a magician who specializes in death-related magic. If you believe in that sort of thing.”

I started to wonder how my old buddy Dan knew so much about necromancy, and about D Street itself. I figured he had an interesting story to tell about that—one I might get to hear someday. In the meantime I now had a necromancer for a neighbor. And according to the address on his website, his apartment was right next door to mine.

I was torn between two impulses: knocking on Clyde’s door and introducing myself, so I could see what a real live necromancer looked like; and steering clear of him so I wouldn’t find out what a necromancer does to a nosy neighbor. I was hoping to run into him in the hallways, but he didn’t seem to keep a regular schedule, and we never crossed paths. Nothing much happened for the first couple of weeks.

Then came an unremarkable Tuesday morning when I was getting ready for work and out of nowhere the most strangest sound I’ve ever heard came from Clyde’s apartment: this deep, long, drawn-out groan that made the hardwood floor vibrate beneath my feet. It wasn’t a human groan; a human being could not have made that noise. I know this is corny to say, but it sounded like what a ghost is supposed to sound like. Or maybe like a massive iron door slowly swinging open. I stopped getting dressed and listened. Nothing . . . and then Clyde’s voice spoke rapidly, saying words I couldn’t understand. I wanted to tiptoe closer to the wall we shared, but the creaking floorboards would have given me away. A few more seconds of silence; then there was one loud thwack as something hard slammed into the floor in Clyde’s apartment: a hammer, maybe . . . or a meat cleaver?

For the next few days that groan was all I could think about. I felt a little panicky all the time, like whatever made that sound might be waiting for me around every corner. I even started having dreams where I heard the groaning but I couldn’t tell where it was coming from because it was all around me. Sometimes it was even inside me, as if I was the one groaning. The urge to knock on Clyde’s door was stronger than ever. So was the urge to stay away.

That weekend I heard a man come to Clyde’s apartment in the evening. They talked for a minute and then left together. Clyde sounded excited, like he did on Tuesday morning. I heard a car start up in front of the building and drive away. And that was the last that I or anyone here ever heard of Clyde. I never even laid eyes on the guy.

That’s the end of the story as far as your research is concerned. But I’ll tell you one more thing that I don’t want you to put in your dissertation. There’s a hardware store a couple of blocks down D Street. They’ve got a locksmith who supposedly can open any lock on earth. I’m going to ask him if he wants to do a job for me off the books. And one night at about two in the morning we’re gonna go next door, and I’m gonna do a little research of my own. Because I’m sick of lying awake at night, listening for a sound that never quite comes. I want to see if I can find out what there is in this world, or not in this world, that can make a noise like that. If I turn up anything interesting, I’ll give you a call. And if you don’t hear from me, maybe my curiosity got the best of me.

 

If you want to learn what became of Clyde—where he went that night, and why he never came back—check out my novel, Blood Family, available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indiebound.org. You can also read the first three chapters for free here.

Music Hath Charms to Help You Get the Damn Thing Written

Music Has the Right

Doesn’t this image just scream “literary occult thriller about a man from a dysfunctional family who might be haunted by the ghost of a missing relative”? Well, actually, it kind of does, now that I put it that way. Huh.

Screenwriter John August—whose credits include the movies Go, Big Fish, and Charlie’s Angels—has a website where he used to blog (now he does podcasts) about screenwriting, creativity, and the movie business. Back when I blogged a lot more often, I followed August’s blog, and I’ve never forgotten one piece of advice he gave there:

Before you start writing any screenplay, make a playlist of music that feels like the movie. It’s a fundamental part of my process.

Read the full post to learn more about why August thinks a custom-designed, project-specific playlist is so helpful for writing. It sounded like a good idea, but as with so many good-sounding ideas I’ve run across, I didn’t do anything about it.

Then I read Twyla Tharp’s amazing book The Creative Habit, where she discusses the absolutely crucial importance of using ritualistic practices to help you do creative work:

It’s vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive patterns of behavior—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.

Tharp gives a few real-life examples of these rituals, such as a chef who starts each day by tending the garden on his terrace, and a writer who can only write outside and who moved to Southern California so he could write outside whenever he wanted to. Here are a couple more:

The composer Igor Stravinsky did the same thing every morning when he entered his studio to work: He sat at the piano and played a Bach fugue. . . . A painter I know can’t do anything in her studio without propulsive music pounding out of the speakers. Turning it on turns on a switch inside her. The beat gets her into a groove. It’s the metronome for her creative life.

More good advice. Did I follow it? Of course not.

About a year after I read Tharp’s book, I left behind eleven years of freelancing to take a full-time job that required me to make a forty-five-minute bus commute to work. At first I was scared that my new work situation would compromise my writing, but I resolved to find a way around that by turning my commutes into writing sessions. I bought a MacBook Air—the lightest, thinnest laptop on the market at the time—because I didn’t want excess weight or bulk to dissuade me from bringing a computer on the bus. Then I got a laptop-friendly messenger bag that would also accommodate my lunch and a collapsible umbrella, and I was set.

I’ve always preferred to write while listening to music, and my bus writing sessions were no exception; but I soon learned that I was going to have to change my writing-music tastes. Until then I’d always listened to something quiet and meditative while writing, such as Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue or Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. Unfortunately, those albums are too quiet for a typical bus ride, where the rumble of the engine, the noise of other vehicles, and the sound of passenger conversation can easily overpower ethereal music that makes you feel like you’re floating in space.

When I worked as a freelancer, I discovered the joys of Internet radio, particularly SomaFM, where I found lots of new music that I still enjoy today. I started trying out some of my Soma music to see what might prove suitable for my new writing routine. After some trial and error I decided that a Scottish electronica band called Boards of Canada was just about perfect. Their songs had no vocals, other than brief, isolated dialogue samples. The music was mostly electronic and highly atmospheric, but it was usually paced at an amiable midtempo speed, often with hip-hop-flavored beats woven through interesting textures. I didn’t like any of their albums in their entirety, though, so I wound up making a cherry-picked playlist that was long enough to carry me through the entire bus ride and then some, such as when a wreck snarled the interstate.

That Boards of Canada playlist is what I listened to for the entirety of the four years and nine months I spent working on my novel Blood Family, from the initial skeletal story-beat outline—written by hand, in pencil, as bullet points on a yellow legal pad—all the way through final upload of the fully typeset pages for the print edition. That playlist got me through initial excitement, recurrent terror, exhaustion, self-doubt, excitement again, flashes of hubris, fantasies of success, certainties of failure; bad weather, bad traffic, bad writing; the years that came and went like signs on the highway, each one flashing a question: Aren’t you done yet?

Now that the answer to that question is finally Yes, people ask me: How did you make yourself be creative on demand like that? How could you just get on the bus, sit down, and start writing? And now I realize it was because, almost accidentally, I applied the advice of John August and Twyla Tharp. I didn’t exactly follow August’s advice to create a soundtrack that felt like my novel, but it didn’t take long for my Boards of Canada playlist to become very strongly associated with the novel in my mind and emotions. The sound of that music became the sound of me working on my novel. And, as Tharp had advised, my writing routine became a ritual: I would get on the bus, choose a seat, sit down, and set my bag on the floor beside me; pull out my laptop in its neoprene sleeve, take the laptop out, put the sleeve on my lap, and set the laptop on top of the sleeve; open the computer, turn it on, open the novel file, put in my earbuds, plug them into the sound jack, and start the playlist. The music pulled me into another world, the world of Blood Family, and my fingers started flying over the keys, or else I sat and stared out the window as I thought, or I used the bus’s WiFi to do research about Tarot cards or African folklore or Renaissance alchemists, and the ride passed like a dream from which I hated to awaken.

That ritual was all it took to get me going on a solid routine of doing forty-five to sixty minutes of creative work, twice a day, five days a week, for almost five years. This proves Tharp’s main point about the importance of ritual:

All preferred working states, no matter how eccentric, have one thing in common: When you enter into them, they impel you to get started. . . . It’s Pavlovian: follow the routine, get a creative payoff.

She’s right. So in response to a suggestion from a wise counselor, I thought I’d recreate my Blood Family playlist on Spotify for those of you who want good music for creating or reading or just chilling out. If you like what you hear, you might want to check out Boards of Canada’s newest album, Tomorrow’s Harvest, which I do like in its entirety—and which I’ve already decided will be the soundtrack for the writing of my next novel.

If a Book Falls in a Forest and No One Is There to Review it, Does it Make a Sound?

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In the future, print books will only be made of “free range” paper taken from unfarmed trees that have died a natural death, like this majestic beast. Regrettably, a book will cost as much as a Rolex, but paper money will have been abolished too, and we’ll just buy things by scanning the Mark of the Beast conveniently tattooed on our hands and foreheads.

 

When you self-publish your novel, you discover that writing the book is the easiest part of the process, no matter how hard it is or how long it takes (four and a half years, in my case). Why easiest? Because it’s the only part you have total control over. You can’t guarantee that anyone will buy, read, or like your book, but you can guarantee that you at least get the damn thing written.

Then comes the fun and excitement of marketing your novel to the public! For the longest time I had a visceral negative reaction to the word “marketing”; when I heard or read it I would wince as if I was smelling a particularly vile fart. Marketing had a bad ethical odor, and I wanted no part of it. Then my friend Krista Bremer—author of A Tender Struggle and associate publisher, marketing and circulation for The Sun magazine—gave me a different perspective on the concept.

“I think of good marketing as a win-win situation,” she said. “There are people out there who would genuinely want to read The Sun, if they only knew it existed. I’m just trying to let them know the magazine exists. What they do about it is up to them.”

I’d never thought of marketing this way before, but Krista’s description of it instantly made sense to me because I faced the same issue when I was a freelance editor. An editor’s main job is to make other people look good, but he can’t do that for you if you don’t know he exists. I tried various schemes to get my name in front of people—never very effectively—and now I’m in the same boat again, but with a novel.

Marketing a novel is both harder and easier than marketing professional services: harder, because you’re selling a commodity in a marketplace absolutely swamped with that very commodity; and easier, because a great marketing opportunity is built right into the market’s normal activity. I’m talking about reader reviews on sites such as Amazon and Goodreads.

Reader reviews obviously help when they’re good, but they also help just by serving as proof that someone has read your book. “Reviews on [Amazon] can give your book legitimacy, make you look popular (or not), and tip the scales for buyers browsing your page,” says book coach Brooke Warner. That appearance of legitimacy primarily stems from the number of reader reviews a book has garnered. This is especially true for self-published books, which have a very low bar to clear in order to enter the market. The more reviews a self-published book has, the more it seems like an actual book that might be worth actually reading.

The results of an Amazon search on “supernatural thrillers” (my book’s genre, more or less), sorted by relevance, show books with 429, 89, 39, 60, and 105 reviews each. The same category sorted by average customer review shows books with 120, 86, 79, 75, and 1,435 reviews (that last one was The Green Mile by Stephen King). And this is where you see my lack of marketing acumen: my book only has three reviews. They’re all very positive reviews, mind you, and I’m deeply grateful to each reader who has taken the time to write and post a review. But when you compare my book to its peers, you see that one of these things is not like the others, as Sesame Street used to sagely observe.

So here’s where I have a favor to ask of some of you. If you’ve read my novel Blood Family and you haven’t posted a review of it, would you mind doing me a solid and popping over to my book’s Amazon page to post an honest review? If you didn’t buy it on Amazon (which includes CreateSpace, Amazon’s self-publishing arm for print books), then you could post a review wherever you did buy it (links to other marketplaces are at the bottom of this page). And no matter where you bought it, you could post a review on Blood Family‘s Goodreads page if you’re into the Goodreads thing.

Many thanks, my friends, for helping an inept marketer become a little more ept.

 

 

An Audiobook Worth Its Weight in Gold

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A discerning literature fan listens with bated breath to my mellifluous voice reading the next gripping chapter of my audiobook.

A while back I said I was going to research what it would take to publish an audio version of my novel, Blood Family. I didn’t say that because I like audiobooks; I’ve only ever listened to one (David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish, which I do recommend), and I’ve never bought an audiobook, either. If I had a car commute to fill every day then I might listen to them more often, but my bus commute to work and back is always taken up with my own writing. Otherwise, if I want to read something, I want to read it, not listen to it.

But the experience of publishing my novel has taught me that people are very picky about their reading methods. Which is their right! ‘Merica, freedom, etc. For instance, when I published my book, I released it as an e-book first because that was the easiest format to publish. Ease notwithstanding, I was pretty damn proud of myself just for getting the damn thing written and for putting it out in the world. Yay me! But right away—and I mean on the morning of publication day, before lunch even—people said things to me like, “Congratulations! Wait. You mean it’s not a book book? Well, I want to read it, but let me know when the book comes out.” By which they meant the print book.

I had always intended to publish a print version, of course, but I’d wanted to have at least twenty-four hours to laze about on my laurels, drinking cocktails and reading congratulatory Facebook comments, before I had to face the possibility of more hard work. What was I thinking? I could enjoy myself later. For now, there was type to be set, so I slaved away over a forge, melting and setting each individual line of lead type, and once the print version finally came out, a friend said, “Yeah, I’ve been meaning to read your book, but I usually listen to audiobooks.”

I did not let myself sigh gutturally. I did not let my shoulders droop to the floor. Instead I kept my face and voice robotically neutral as I said, “Do you commute to work every day?” He did, and of course that was when he did most of his reading, via audiobooks. This was how I found out that there were people who prefer audiobooks just as fervently as those who only read e-books or only read print books. But surely there weren’t that many of these spoken-word fanatics, right?

Then another friend told me that even though he preferred e-books, he wouldn’t buy one from Amazon unless it could come bundled with an audio version too. He would read e-books during the day and then sometimes would switch to the audio version at night, in bed, where he’d pick up where he left off and read before he went to sleep. I had discovered another type of audiobook consumer: it wasn’t his preferred format, but it was still a precondition for the purchase of an e-book.

So I gave up and decided to be cheerful about it. An audiobook! Great! After all, how hard could it be to produce an audiobook? I’m a pretty good reader, always have been, ever since the fifth grade, when I was the one who usually got called on to read out loud from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I would read the book myself and find some audiobook publisher that would publish and distribute it for no money up front and a cut of the sales, like Amazon does with e-books and print books.

It took me about two seconds to learn that you can in fact self-publish an audiobook through Amazon for no money up front, just like with e-books and print books—and you have to supply your own audio file, just as you have to supply the text file with the other formats. So I checked out Amazon’s guidelines for how to record your own audiobook, and that’s when I realized I would need professional help with the recording if I didn’t want it to sound like the radio play I did in my eleventh grade theater arts class. (“You, old woman, always skulking on the edge of town with your herbs and potions! It is you who has brought this evil upon our village!” But the old woman wasn’t the werewolf; it was the little girl. Oh the pathos.)

So I found an audiobook publisher and contacted them, full of high hopes. They wrote me back, and we set up a phone date, and half an hour later I put down my phone and looked at the figure I’d scribbled on a sticky note on my desk:

$5,000

No, that’s not my projected royalties in the first year of sales. That is the price they quoted me for what they would charge to record, produce, and edit the audiobook of my novel—and that’s with me doing all the reading, you understand. They estimated that the reading would take about 40 hours of studio time, when meant I would have to take at least a week off from work, and probably two weeks. Although I could get an actor to read it for a measly $1,500 more! Which, let’s be honest, is a very good deal compared to the overall cost. As it turns out, contrary to my high hopes, this publisher doesn’t do the no-money-up-front-in-exchange-for-a-cut-of-sales thing. They do the you-hire-us-to-perform-a-service-and-provide-a-final-deliverable thing.

And who can blame them? It’s a solid business model. I’d love to hire them. I’d love to have $5,000 or $6,500 lying around that I could just turn into an audiobook version of my novel. But, as my former restaurant colleague Eddie—a gruff, formidable Mexican dishwasher—used to say, when I asked him for more platos medianos but he didn’t have any, “No gottie.” I do have some sales from my book, but not nearly that much—not yet, anyway.

So I have not yet solved the audiobook problem, but neither have I given up on it. If anyone out there is sitting on a pile of gold krugerrands that they don’t know what to do with, or if you have a fully equipped professional recording studio complete with a sound engineer who’s kind of bored and lonely and would love to hear a nice guy read a good book, you know what to do.

That Time I Bought a $425 Lottery Ticket

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The Lottery Office. h/t Flickr user Arralyn!

 

In 1978 the Paris Review interviewed Joyce Carol Oates as part of their ongoing “Art of Fiction” series. It’s a fantastic interview that I recommend highly to anyone interested in writing fiction. At one point the interviewer asks Oates whether she subscribes to the old adage that it’s more difficult to write a good story than a good novel. I find her reply instructive:

“There is nothing so difficult as a novel, as anyone knows who has attempted one.”

Preach, sister. And I would expand upon her answer by noting that for a self-published author the task is even harder, because once you’ve written this most difficult of all things to write, you have to turn around and become a publisher, and perhaps a typesetter and graphic designer too. And that’s just to get the damn thing out the door; then, if you want sales above the single digits, you’ve also got to become a marketer.

That’s the phase I’m in now with my novel Blood Family. I’ve written it, I’ve typeset it, a fabulously talented graphic designer created the cover, I’ve published it in two formats on more than half a dozen sales channels, and now it’s time to try to market it. But how? There are entire blogs about marketing self-published books, so I won’t dive deeply into that topic here. I will say that last year I became fascinated with the story of how a first-time author landed a major book contract and film deal by self-publishing his novel first.

This article on io9.com tells how Canadian writer and professional linguist Sylvain Neuvel wrote a science-fiction novel, Sleeping Giants, inspired by what happened when he told his son he was going to build a toy robot for him. Neuvel details his son’s response:

I was expecting a one-word answer, but he wanted to know everything about it before I built it. But Dad, where is it from? What does it do? Can it fly? He wanted a backstory, and I didn’t have one, so I told him I’d think about it. A few days later, we were watching Grendizer, a Japanese anime about a giant robot from outer space—like any bad parent, I made my son watch shows I liked as a kid—and I asked myself what it would be like if it happened in real life, if we found a giant artifact from an alien civilization. I started writing.

After Neuvel finished writing his novel, he spent six months sending queries to more than fifty literary agents asking them to represent it for potential sale to publishers. “Most didn’t answer,” he said. “All of those who did turned me down.” So he decided to self-publish his novel, but even so, he wanted to give it something extra to help it rise above the sea of self-published books released each year.

“I needed a quote to put on the cover to make it look legit, so I sent the book to Kirkus for a review,” Neuvel said. “I wasn’t expecting much, but I thought I might at least be able to use a couple words out of context.”

If you don’t already know, Kirkus is a respected book review organization, like Publishers Weekly. A good review from either one of those places can make a big difference in a book’s fortunes because it functions as an imprimatur of quality. We somehow don’t think a book is a “real” book unless its cover quotes a positive review by some trusted or authoritative source, such as Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, a big-city newspaper, or a successful author. Books published by major publishers or even small presses can get these cover blurbs far more easily than self-published books can.

Kirkus, however, offers self-published authors a way to get a good review quote on the cover—if you’re lucky. For a mere $425, you can pay Kirkus to review your book. Let me answer the obvious question right now: you are not buying a positive review. If you don’t believe me, you can read some of the reviews that self-published authors have paid Kirkus for. My favorite negative review on that page says: “An incoherent work that may be particularly unpleasant for animal lovers.” Ouch. Not only is that a negative review, but the author paid $425 for it.

If you get a negative review through this program, you’re out the money you paid, but the consolation prize is that you can ask Kirkus to bury the review, and it’ll never see the light of day. (I don’t understand why the author of the “incoherent work” mentioned above didn’t choose that option, but that’s their problem.) The hope, of course, is that you’ll get a positive review that you can quote on the cover of your book and elsewhere, helping you gain the attention of the book-buying public.

That’s what happened to Sylvain Neuvel—in spades. “I got a great review, a starred review, and the month that followed was the craziest of my life,” he said. (Kirkus designates books of special merit by placing a star next to the review.) Hollywood movie producers started emailing him the day the review came out, and within a month he had a film agent, a literary agent, and a two-book contract with a major publisher, in addition to selling the film rights to Ridley Scott, director and producer of the Alien films. Pretty good return on his investment, right? So good that it made me wonder whether I should get a Kirkus review too.

I thought about it and thought about it and thought about it, discussed it with my wife, did some research on it, thought about it some more, and after consulting an oracle (more on that in another post) I decided to go for it. Went to Kirkus, created a profile, uploaded the files, entered the credit card number, clicked Submit. Shook head. Tried to think about something else for the seven to nine weeks it would take to get my review back.

But it only took about six weeks for me to receive an email from Kirkus with the subject line “Your review is ready to download.” Instantly my heart and temples began pounding, and my palms grew slick with sweat, and I thought about those psychology experiments where they determined that any emotional response is heightened when your nervous system is already ramped up, and I knew that if I read a bad review in that hyper-aroused state, I would be absolutely devastated. So I closed my eyes and pushed myself back from my computer and slowed my breathing, and I reminded myself that no matter what this review said—good, bad, or indifferent—it was only one moment in a writing career with many years left in it. I repeated that to myself over and over until my temples weren’t pounding quite as hard, and I felt ready to open the email and read the review.

It was a good one. Here are some highlights:

Fantasy and horror blend in Winter’s debut novel about a man who discovers his family’s links to the supernatural. … Overall, this novel has a lot to recommend it, especially its complex set of characters, including protagonists and antagonists who provide clear context to Alex’s life and to the more fantastic elements of the story. The prose is clear and crisp throughout but never rushed, giving the tension plenty of time to build. Winter also makes sure the emotional elements of the story—fear, grief, uncertainty—fully hit the reader. … A clever, engaging view into dark places.

I bathed in a kind of warm broth of relief all day long after reading that review. People have very kindly congratulated me, especially my writer friends, who have told me that Kirkus is famously stingy with good reviews—a fact I’m glad I didn’t know when I sent the review off. It’s not a starred review, so Ridley Scott hasn’t been ringing my phone off the hook just yet, but I’m very happy with it. I’m happy that one of the biggest gambles I’ve ever taken has paid off. Now to actually use it in some marketing …

If You Hate Shopping With Amazon, Have I Got a Deal for You

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E-book formatters hard at work in an Amazon sweatshop.

 

Amazon has taken a lot of abuse in the publishing world, and with good reason. Amazon uses their marketing clout to force publishers to lower their prices, thus reducing authors’ income; they make it harder for independent bookstores to remain in business; their warehouse employees work at extremely high speeds in brutal heat; and whenever you buy a book on a Kindle, you don’t own it in the same way that you own a physical book, because Amazon can delete the book or suspend your account at any time, as a number of users have discovered.

But, in fairness to Amazon, all warehouses are brutally hot in the summer, with punishing productivity quotas. My father-in-law used to be a warehouse manager for a retail chain, and he told stories about workers narrowly avoiding being crushed by tall columns of boxes toppling in the aisles because the cardboard softened in the heat. He used to say that anyone who was still working in a warehouse at age 30 was an “old, old man” in warehouse years because of the physically demanding work conditions.

In addition, the ephemerality of Kindle books applies to many kinds of downloadable online purchases, such as apps and music. Many of the “Buy” buttons you see online really ought to say “Buy a conditional license for use,” according to one tech writer, but that’s a change that should be made across a vast swath of online sales activity, not just Amazon.

Amazon isn’t inherently evil for using their market size to get their way—that’s a feature of capitalism in general, not of Amazon in particular—but when Amazon’s successes hurt independent bookstores, it becomes a question of what kind of world you want to live in. I always want there to be independent bookstores, so I continue to patronize them. But I also share one car with my wife, and I ride a bus to and from work, and I don’t get home until later in the evening, all of which means I can’t hop in the car and drive to my nearest bookstore whenever I feel like it. Also, if we’re talking about driving a car to go buy a book,  a 2009 study by Cleantech found that e-books tend to have a much lower carbon footprint than print books. This is especially true for books bought at a bookstore, because 25-36% of all books offered for sale in bookstores don’t ever get sold, which means they’re returned to the publisher and destroyed. The additional costs of shipping and destroying unsold books are baked in to the U.S. bookstore business model, meaning that every book you buy from a bookstore carries an additional carbon load beyond its own.

So, as a reader, I generally prefer e-books to print books, not only for carbon reasons but also because I relish the lightness and convenience, the searchability, and for nonfiction, the ease of highlighting and taking notes. But one thing I love about shopping for print books in a bookstore is the ability to take a book off the shelf and read the first few pages, to see if it grabs me. At that point I already have an idea of what the book is about, based on the cover art and copy, so when I read the first few pages I’m tasting the book’s prose style. Does the author use apt word choices, solid nouns, evocative verbs, nimble sentences, illustrative metaphors? Are scenes and actions clear? Is dialogue convincing? Does the style fit the subject matter? And above all, is there something fresh and original about these sentences that pulls me in and makes me want to read more of them?

This is where Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature comes in so very handy. From my own desk, or the bus (the GoTriangle buses I ride on my commute have WiFi), or anywhere else that I have Internet access, I can click on a book and start reading to see if it pulls me in. Regrettably, no such feature exists at IndieBound.org, the website and marketplace of the American Booksellers Association (the nonprofit trade association for U.S. independent bookstores). IndieBound.org does have a way to buy e-books from your local bookstore through the Kobo e-book platform, which offers book previews comparable to Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature; but not all independent bookstores participate in that program, and none do anywhere in my home state of North Carolina.

So what’s a picky, pro-small-business, environmentally conscious reader to do? More to the point, what’s a self-published author with all those traits—like, say, yours truly—to do? The whole point of writing a book, at least for me, is to have people read it. And one thing I’ve learned from working in communications and marketing for the past five years is that if you want to reach an audience, you have to reach them where they are, not where they’re not. If they’re buying e-books from Amazon, you need to sell e-books on Amazon; if they’re buying print books from independent bookstores, you need to sell print books through independent bookstores; and so on.

And that’s what I’m doing. As of now, you can buy my novel Blood Family in both print and e-book formats from both Amazon and non-Amazon sources (see the links below). That leaves audiobooks as the last frontier for this book, and I’ve already begun the research to see what it would take to make that happen. In the meantime, enjoy either the pages or the pixels of your preference.

Amazon
Kindle Store (e-book)
CreateSpace (paperback)

Non-Amazon e-books
Barnes and Noble (e-book)
iBooks (e-book)
Kobo (e-book)

Non-Amazon paperbacks
Barnes and Noble (paperback)
IndieBound (paperback)

Here Is a Good Thing That Happened That Made My Head Feel as if it Was About to Pop

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Photo: Chris Breeze (Creative Commons-attribution), weirdness added by me.

There have been exactly two times in my life when my reaction to receiving good news was the bizarre sensation that my head was filled with a balloon that had suddenly been inflated beyond maximum capacity and was about to burst. The first time was when a literary agent responded to my query seeking representation for my novel by asking to see the first three chapters of it. (I actually had two agents respond to my queries by asking to see a portion of my novel, but my head-balloon didn’t fill up the second time; I guess I was already becoming jaded? In neither case did the agents offer to represent my novel.)

The second time I thought my head was going to pop occurred in the final week of 2016. I was in my kitchen, innocently doing dishes, when my wife, Angela, returned home from running some errands and said, “Have you seen this week’s Indy Week? The ‘Best of 2016’ issue?” She was peering at something on her phone as she said this.

“I’ve seen it,” I said, “but I haven’t read any of it. Why? Is Therese in it?” I was referring to my friend Therese Anne Fowler, author of the novel Z, which Amazon is developing as a TV series starring Christina Ricci in the title role of Zelda Fitzgerald. The trailer for Z‘s first season had just dropped and was getting huge amounts of attention, and I thought maybe the Indy had covered it.

“No,” Angela said. “You’re in it.” She held her phone up to me, and lo and behold, it displayed an Indy Week web page saying that my novel Blood Family was named as one of the “Ten Most Fantastical Local Books of 2016.”

Right away I felt as if a band was tightening around my temples, but from the inside, which makes no sense. I read the little blurb about my book, and the sensation intensified. I’ve been alone with this thing for so long now that it feels really strange for the novel to get any attention at all, much less such positive attention; strange, but very, very good. Many thanks to Indy writer Samuel Montgomery-Blinn for the shout-out!

Print Edition Hits the Shelves, if by “Shelves” One Means “an Online Store”

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It’s been a long time coming, but at last all my friends and acquaintances who said to me, “I just can’t enjoy a novel unless it’s been printed in ink on thin sheets of mulched, bleached pulpwood fibers” are in luck. My novel Blood Family is now available in a print edition from CreateSpace.

My CreateSpace e-store page doesn’t have the snazzy “Look Inside” feature that the Amazon store has, but if you’d like to read the first three chapters of the novel, you can download a PDF here. The book is also available through the main Amazon site (CreateSpace is a subsidiary of Amazon), although the author royalties are much higher for sales through the CreateSpace site than for sales through Amazon proper. I guess someone’s got to pay for that snazzy “Look Inside” feature, huh?

If you’re thinking about self-publishing a print book or e-book for the first time and you have a question about what’s involved, please send it to me so I can write a post about it. There was a fairly steep learning curve for the e-book and an extremely steep curve for the print book—and I didn’t even do the covers—so I plan to write future posts about what I’ve learned in case anyone out there can make use of the information.

One thing I’ll say is that doing all this myself (except for the covers) has given me a tremendous sense of ownership over the book. Each new step, each new iteration has made it feel more and more like mine. The more work I put into making this thing real, the more I feel as if I’ve truly created it.

Oh, and if you’re someone who wants a print book but doesn’t like buying from Amazon, I have a non-Amazon print book on the way as well. That edition will be available from IngramSpark, the self-publishing subsidiary of the Ingram book distribution company. If I’ve understood everything correctly, once the Ingram book is live, you should be able to order it from any bookstore that gets its books from Ingram, which is virtually every bookstore in North America and many more all over the world. Then the only thing left for me to do will be to create the Matrix stream of the book, which you’ll download directly into your cerebral cortex for a vivid first-person experience of the narrative. Well, that and the audiobook. Then I’ll be done with all the publishing . . .

. . . and then it’s on to marketing! But that’s another post or fifteen. For now, print book. If you’re a page-flipper, your time has come.

 

 

Statement from a Son of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District

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Attribution: By Daniel Mayer – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1819489

I was born in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, in St. Joseph’s Infirmary—right in the middle of the current boundaries of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District. I lived there until I was five, when my mother and I moved to Alabama. I returned to Atlanta more than 20 years later, and that’s where I started my editorial career, met and married my wife, and went back to school to finish my bachelor’s degree. I ultimately decided to leave again and settle in North Carolina, but I never left Atlanta in my heart; so when I wrote my first novel, Blood Family, I set it in Atlanta. I had my doubts about writing Atlanta-based fiction while living elsewhere, but I told myself that if James Joyce could write Dubliners while living in Zurich, Switzerland, it was okay for me to write about Atlanta from one state over. I cannot imagine Blood Family being set anywhere else but Atlanta, with its complicated and tragic racial history, its relentless pursuit of material success, and the undercurrent of darkness flowing beneath its skyscrapers and superhighways.

As research for my next novel, I’m reading Bound for Canaan, a history of the Underground Railroad. The book says the Underground Railroad was “the country’s first racially integrated civil rights movement.” The Railroad surely paved the way for our next civil rights movement, in which activist John Lewis had his skull fractured during a nonviolent protest in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Lewis went on to become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for Georgia’s Fifth District, which he still represents today. After Lewis described Donald Trump as an “illegitimate president” for being elected with Russian help, Trump responded two days ago by saying “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!”

I experienced Trump’s remarks as an insult not only against a true American hero whose whole life exemplifies the difference between talk and action but also against my hometown. I thought back to the seven years I spent in Atlanta as an adult. Yeah, crime was higher than I wished it was—my shitty old Buick Park Avenue got stolen there, while parked between a Volvo and a Mercedes, no less—but I never felt unsafe. I never felt like my neighborhoods were falling apart. I remember enjoying the sight of families having cookouts in Grant Park, and hating the sensation of sweating my ass off while jogging up and down the bike path beside Freedom Parkway (on a summer afternoon, like an idiot), and grooving on all the vibrant graffiti and murals and tats and piercings and music in Little Five Points, and trying to act like I knew what I was doing while volunteering as an adult literacy tutor in the Fulton County Public Library, and experiencing pure delight upon getting the singing weather report from Tyrone the crazy weather guy on MARTA.

Atlanta’s on my mind even more today because it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day. King, too, was born in Atlanta, and as a child he sang in a choir that performed at the 1939 Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind, an event that Flannery O’Connor dramatized in her short story “A Late Encounter with the Enemy.” He left Atlanta to go to seminary school and then to pastor his first church in Alabama, but later he returned, and Atlanta was still King’s home when he was assassinated in 1968. It was his home, and it’s John Lewis’s home, and it’s my home from afar, the same way that Dublin was Joyce’s home even while he lived in Zurich. My home from afar has now been added to the long and ever-growing list of people, places, and things insulted by Donald Trump.

Trump’s fundamental approach to life seems to involve devaluing others while assigning himself near-infinite value—an approach that my mother used to call “big me, little you.” Those of us who know Atlanta understand its true value in a way that a New York billionaire never could. Speaking as a writer, I know that Atlanta is a rich, fecund setting for stories that explore the mystery underlying the quotidian world around us, and that’s why I expect all my novels to be set there from now on, the tweetings of a reality TV star notwithstanding.

 

Leaping Off the Page and Into Your Earholes

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I miss those old console stereos; don’t you? Just the sight of one makes me want to go fix Mommy a drink and bring it to her with her cigarettes and lighter, as I used to do back in the heady days of unrestrained excess known as the 1970s.

But I digress. I came here today to tell you that my own voice recently issued from just such a contraption when I appeared on Carolina Bookbeat, a talk show on radio station WCOM-LP FM 103.5. The show’s host, Samuel Montgomery-Blinn, and I discussed dysfunctional families, the metaphysics of the supernatural, and how not to find a literary agent (a topic on which I am now an expert). I also read an excerpt from chapter 1 of my recently published novel, Blood Family.

The episode is available here as a podcast, so now’s a good time to put up your feet, crack open a Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill, light up a Virginia Slim menthol, and enjoy.