- Your reader makes decisions, so you should be humble.
- Your reader is easily distracted and slow to act, so your writing should be concise, direct, and strategic.
- Your reader distrusts you, so your writing should be logical, error-free, and upbeat.
- Your reader is human, so you should share stories.
- Your reader wants you to be human, so you should show that you care.
MJ Pullen has a new romantic comedic novel out August 7th that combines two things I love — tennis and girlfriends.
Set against a fictional Atlanta enclave of Sugar Mills, Sugar Street takes you into the lives of four married Atlanta friends, who decide to take drastic steps to rekindle their marriages — hiring the hot local tennis pro who isn’t just good at backhands and serves to make their hubbies jealous. As you might expect, things don’t go as expected.
In the Q&A below, MJ shares her inspiration for Sugar Street, including the setting in tennis-obsessed suburban Atlanta, as well as her tips on how to stand out in this incredibly popular writing genre.
I highly recommend this novel, her fourth, which Kirkus describes as a “glitzy romp that features suburban wives making unconventional – and haphazardly disastrous – attempts to break out of the safe patterns of their lives.”
Q. What was the inspiration for Sugar Street?
MJ: Like many suburban moms—especially ones who are typically late for the bus—I’ve spent many hours of my life sitting in carpool. At my kids’ school, I noticed that one of the police officers directing traffic was, well… pretty easy on the eyes (he also happened to be the most efficient at keeping crazy carpool parents in line, so that helps!). I had a thought one day as he waved me into the carpool lane: as a parent, how embarrassing would it be to get arrested in your local town and have the safety officer from your kids’ school see you in jail? I pictured this awkward moment where the supercilious PTA mom is being led through the police station in handcuffs, and reminds the cop that she’s the one who bakes him cookies every year at the holidays. The whole idea of a crime ring in affluent suburbia grew from there. That seed of an idea later became the jail scene (with Maizy Henriksson and her cookies). The other three main characters and the super-hot tennis pro fell into place shortly thereafter!
Q. The setting of your book is Atlanta’s tennis scene — did you find it easy to make that your setting given how vibrant tennis is here?
MJ: You know, I didn’t know much about tennis when I started this novel: just that many of my friends and neighbors are really into it. (I’m more of a softball/Jazzercise girl myself). Tennis made a great backdrop for the story of four women desperate to rekindle the spark in their marriages… but the more I’ve learned about the Atlanta tennis scene, the more fascinated I’ve become. I now realize I could’ve included much more about tennis in this novel; there are whole books begging to be written about the tennis scene itself. It’s a world of its own!
Q. I really enjoyed the story and the vivid characters — women in mid-life crises who take a crazy risk to breathe passion back into their marriages. Which character in the book do you most identify with?
MJ: This is such a writer thing to say, but in some way or another, I see myself in every character I write. If I don’t relate to a character on some level, it’s hard for me to write genuinely about her motivations and behavior. If I had to choose, I guess Jess is the character I related to most while writing this novel – the book is slightly skewed toward her point of view, and while there are no direct parallels, her relationship dynamic with Tom is probably most similar to my own marriage.
Q. As a writer, how do you make these women so full-dimensional and “real?”
MJ: Honestly? I’m a people addict; I find all our flaws and foibles (as well as our capacity for goodness and redemption) endlessly fascinating. This may be why I became a psychotherapist, and it’s certainly one of the main reasons I write. While it’s rare for me to base a character on a real person, I do try to reflect the complexities I see in myself and real-life friends and family in my characters. That’s how I love my characters as a reader, and I’m not sure I could write any other way!
Q. What do you hope readers get out of this story?
MJ: First and foremost, I hope they enjoy it! There’s a very specific half-laugh, half-cringe experience I try to elicit with every book I write. I also hope readers will find at least one character or situation to which they can relate – whether they have a friend who’s always selling something like Delia, or they relate to Maizy’s desperation to find a place in the social circle. The need to belong doesn’t end when you graduate from high school or college, and “real life” can sometimes be just as isolating and frustrating for adults. I guess I’m trying to normalize that for myself and others.
Q. The genre you write for is a pretty crowded place – chick lit / romantic comedy. How do you stand out in this space? What advice would you give new writers seeking to make their mark in romantic comedy?
MJ: The market may be crowded in this genre, but I believe we need all the romantic comedies and funny, light fiction we can get right now. Whether it sells or not, I need to write it, because it gives me hope and serves a reminder of what’s worth fighting for: love, humanity, acceptance, friendship. So, I guess that’s my advice for writers in any genre: write the book you want to read, and readers will find you. You might be on your seventh revision of your fourth novel when they find you, but eventually they will! (Also, watch your posture. The struggle is real.)
About the Author
M.J. (Manda) Pullen is the author of playful women’s fiction and quirky romantic comedies, including the bestselling MARRIAGE PACT trilogy and the forthcoming SUGAR STREET series. She has also worked as a non-profit fundraiser, corporate trainer, psychotherapist and mom of two young boys. Each of these jobs has eroded her sanity and contributed to her writing equally.
Manda loves cheap wine, expensive beer, and coffee at any price. She lives in Roswell, Georgia, with her husband, two young boys and Zelda and Zora the Wonderpups. You can connect with Manda on her author page and blog, The Distracted Writer, or on Twitter (@MJPullen) and Facebook.
If you ask ghostwriting guru Claudia Suzanne, 8 in 10 people in America alone dream of one day writing a book.
But, a fraction of that number will have the fortitude and resources to make it a reality, and even fewer possess the writing skills to translate their vision into a compelling and commercially viable book. Suzanne has spent her career helping make those dreams come true.
“That has been my personal mission for decades now – to raise the literacy bar of the industry one author at a time,” says Suzanne.
Suzanne has poured all she has learned over three decades as a successful ghostwriter into the first professional ghostwriting designation program offered in the world. The 10-month program—taught virtually through California State University, Long Beach’s College of Continuing and Professional Education—has attracted students from around the world.
She also birthed a new venture, Wambtac Ghostwriters, with some of her best graduates to give authors risk-free ghostwriting services. Her innovative model allows an author client to have two ghostwriters and a team of experts for the price of one. The ghostwriter receives support from Suzanne and other mentors, allowing them to grow their skills throughout the project and ensure a successful outcome and a delighted client.
This January Suzanne will release the 5th edition of her signature book, This Business of Books: A Complete Overview of the Industry from Concept through Sales, which has been used in colleges, translated into Chinese, and carried in major libraries worldwide.
Suzanne, who tackles the craft of deconstructing books in the same way her father approached engineering problems, shares her unique perspective on the craft of ghostwriting, the book industry, and what writers thinking about moving into this field need to know.
Q. How is ghostwriting different than other writing disciplines?
Suzanne: It’s very different. When you are writing under your own name and you’re writing your own material, even if you are writing for a client, it’s very personal and very ego-involved. It’s all about you doing your best job to get the job done in your vision. You are conforming to the perimeters, but it’s still your vision.
When you ghostwrite, that goes out the window. Ghostwriting is all about the author’s vision—and you are not the author. You’re merely the person who makes the author’s vision work.
In order to write someone else’s vision, you first have to deconstruct what they created because oftentimes, what a person expresses verbally is generic and general. So step one is to figure out the gold of their material so you, the ghost, can craft something the author will be proud of.
Deconstruction requires an entirely different set of skills than most writers learn in school, or even over the course of their careers. It’s not the same thing as going to an English class and saying, “Let’s figure out what the author is trying to say.”
The next step is to uncover the problems that might keep the book from being successful and remedy those issues without overtly changing what the author’s vision. And, of course, we have to do it all in the author’s voice, tone, and flavor.
When we’re done, we get paid, and the author is very, it’s a win-win all around.
Q. How well understood is ghostwriting as a specialized writing craft?
Suzanne: A lot of people hanging out their “ghostwriter” shingles ghostwriter really don’t understand the depth of the process. They figure if they know how to write and have been successful in their own writing career, that’s all it really takes. They rely on their writer’s methodology because they don’t know the difference between it and the ghostwriter’s methodology.
I’ve dealt with authors who say the final book of their book doesn’t sound like them, or that the writer changed their vision/voice/style. They feel they’ve been cheated somehow, and are confused because they know the person they hired it a good writer—possibly even a bestselling author themselves!
Part of our mission is to educate not only the public, but the writing community-at-large about the differences between writing and ghostwriting. What we old-timers used to do instinctively doesn’t necessarily play anymore. Too many aspiring authors need help.
Q. Obviously, not every writer is cut out for this. What qualities does it take to be a successful ghostwriter?
Suzanne: Oh, I have a whole long list about that, and it starts with having a strong enough ego to not have to put your name on someone else’s book. You need to be a good writer and editor, of course, but even more, you need to be open to working with writing that may not be up to your personal standards.
It’s important that you feeling a calling to write, but it’s equally important that you not be a prolific author. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But writers who have a lot to say and know exactly how they want to say it often have trouble putting someone else’s vision above their own.
Q. What common mistakes do new ghostwriters make?
Suzanne: They don’t know how to price themselves; they don’t know how to close the deal; they don’t know how to make the client happy; they don’t know how to maintain the author’s vision, perspective and intent. They only know how to write in the client’s voice, so they make the book over in their own image.
In fact, one of my students was a New York Times’ bestselling novelist who had won many literary awards. People kept asking her to write books for them and she was writing them and getting them published, but the people were never happy. The referrals just dried up. We got into deconstruction, where we figure figuring out what the author’s intent is and how to make the manuscript work without impacting its fundamental weave, and she called me. She said, “I know what I’m doing wrong! I keep writing my clients’ books as if they were my own!”
That, in a nutshell, is the most common mistake writers make.
Q. I’ve read that you often describe ghostwriting as ‘recession proof.’ What do you mean by that?
Suzanne: We have about 300 million people in the United States, according to the latest Census data. According to a publisher in the Midwest, about 81% of the American public wants to write a book or feels they have a book in them. That’s approximately 200 million Americans. Let’s say 10% of those 200 million are really serious about it and looking for help. And then let’s say 10% of them can actually afford legitimate ghostwriting fees, which start around $35,000. That’s 10% of 20 million, or two million. So, two million people every single year in America alone not only want to write a book, but also are serious about writing a book and have the wherewithal to hire a ghostwriter.
Let’s also say, for the sake of argument, that there are maybe 200 legitimate, competent ghostwriters out there, and that each one can do three projects a year. That means the ghostwriter is making at least $100,000 per year from 600 people who are being helped. That leaves 2,999,400 people who aren’t getting helped every year.
It’s a huge market. And, that’s just in America—and it’s not counting the people outside the United States or those who want to be coached through writing the book themselves. There is a lot of work out there. It’s all the same methodology.
Q. Your professional designation program at California State Long Beach has evolved quite a bit. Can you describe how you have grown and evolved the program?
Suzanne: It started as a 7 week class, and my students left with their eyes rolling in the back of their heads. I expanded it into 15-week course of study, which grew to two-semesters once we went into CSULB. Now we have a solid 10-month professional designation program. Some students say it’s more intense than what they had to do to earn their master’s degree.
But that’s because people think, “Hey, I’ve got an MFA, or an English degree, or a PhD in English Lit and have been writing for years. I I can take this and expand my knowledge a little bit.” It doesn’t work that way. There isn’t much in this course that building on what we all learned in high school and college. In fact, people have to unlearn some stuff so they can absorb all these new techniques nobody else ever introduced them to. So, like all new life skills, first it’s a challenge, then it becomes practiced, and finally it turns into second nature.
We use at least two teaching assistants at all times because the class is so dense and demanding, and we all make ourselves available to our students constantly. There are no set office hours. You can email or call at any time, and we will help you figure it out. Our sole purpose in doing this program is to launch new careers.
Q. You also launched a new company to serve the ghostwriting market.
Suzanne: Yes, Wambtac Ghostwriters, which is staffed exclusively with certified ghostwriters. It’s a win-win: the client gets a team of ghostwriters and support people for the price of one, and the certified ghost gets support and an ear to bounce off of throughout the project. We have analysts to help make sure everything is on course, and we have in-house editors and proofreaders. We also are affiliated with a self-publishing service that will walk the client through the publishing process one step at a time.
We have no agenda as far as publishing is concerned. If the author wants to go to a self-publishing outfit, fine. If they want to go to a traditional publisher, we will help them put together those submission materials and find an agent to get there. Everything is a project-by-project situation because every book and every author is different.
Q. You have a new edition of This Business of Books coming out in January. What kind of new content will people find?
Suzanne: It’s a complete overview of today’s book industry from concept to sales. The opening chapter discusses how the book industry is a risk-management business, and how to mitigate that risk is woven throughout the rest of the text.
This is the fifth edition of the title, and the first time I’ve gone so deeply into the ins-and-outs of the industry. It covers close to everything—I’m sure I left something out!—including literary scouts; what authors need to be aware as they try to market their book; the real differences between a first and second draft; and the difference between market and audience. It delves into that a great deal. It also explains how to figure out what a book’s market is and how to extrapolate the audience from that. And it talks about the book-industry supply chain in much bigger depth than previous editions.
Q. Can you share your top ghostwriting best practices?
Suzanne: Here are my five rules of ghostwriting –
- Rule #1: Make the client happy.
- Rule #2: Get paid. Ghostwriters don’t work on spec. This is a profession.
- Rule #3: It’s not my book. That’s very, very important. If a ghostwriter can’t immerse themselves in that concept, they probably won’t make the client happy.
- Rule #4: Never quote before your read. Look at the manuscript first, or explore the unwritten concept as deeply as possible. Analyze. Extrapolate. Project.
- Rule #5: Always analyze for the positive – look for the really great stuff in the manuscript first, because it needs to be sacrosanct. Anybody can find the problems. Ghostwriters know how to deconstruct to find the gold.
About Claudia Suzanne
Claudia Suzanne, a former rock ‘n roll drummer, sold her first book, For Musicians Only, to Watson-Guptil (Billboard Books) in 1988 and promptly embarked on a career as a ghostwriter. Today, she has ghosted over 154 titles including tracked bestsellers, hi-volume-sales titles, peer-reviewed works, award-winning novels, and memoirs optioned for film. Spearheading the movement to elevate and advance ghostwriting, she penned the “seminal textbook” on the subject, teaches the only ghostwriter-training program in the world, and founded Wambtac Ghostwriters, a collaborative ghostwriting service. Wambtac also offers a referral program – anyone who introduces a potential author client and it results in a ghostwriting book contract earns 2% of the manuscript contract.
To learn more about Suzanne and her company, visit http://wambtac.com/. Read more about the Ghostwriting Professional Designation Program at California State University – Long Beach.
There’s something captivating about space exploration that ignites the imagination. I felt it as a child watching Star Trek, and it’s evident in the public interest in the ISS, NASA, and in space visionaries like Richard Branson and Elon Musk.
That’s why I am so excited to feature Sue Ganz-Schmitt, a talented children’s book author, mother and philanthropist. Sue has also served as a NASA Social correspondent, an experience that I enjoyed for the first time last April at the SpaceX launch to the ISS. She has taken insights from her behind-the-scenes tour of NASA and the launch pad and applied them to her children’s books.
Her third book, Planet Kindergarten, out this past August, earned a Kirkus starred review: “A genius way to ease kids into the new adventure that is kindergarten.” The Mommy Reads blog included this positive plug from a young reader:
“T is in love with Planet Kindergarten by Sue Ganz-Schmitt and Shane Prigmore. We have read it 38 times…..so far. It has been our bedtime story night after night. This book is ABSOLUTELY perfect for my guy and I feel like maybe, just maybe, it was written just for him. I love the rich vocabulary and comparison between outer space and the classroom. Seriously-one of our best reads this summer!”
Below, Sue shares her unique background and how she has applied her love of the stars to touch children’s imaginations, and offers tips on how to connect with readers and with fellow writers.
Q. You have such an interesting background, Sue, with your interests in helping children all over the world. You also love space. How were you able to combine these passions as a book author?
Sue: My first book, Even Superhereos Get Diabetes, was inspired by a play-friend of my then two-year-old daughter who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I wanted to reach out and help the family facing the shock of diagnosis. I tried to find an empowering picture book they could read to him. When I couldn’t find what I was looking for I decided to write my own book.
I watched the family become like superheroes in a blink – waking up several times a night to blood test their toddler, counting every bite of carbs he ate, injecting him several times a day. Exhausted and worried, none of them complained – they just rose to the occasion with grace and strength. I wanted to help them feel supported with this new unknown looming over them, and I wanted other kids to understand the medical challenge that their friends with diabetes face.
As a kindergartener, I watched several rocket launches that culminated in the Apollo 11 moon landing. I was very inspired by NASA and had a fascination with space. Almost subconsciously, a NASA reference found its way into this story where the hero discovers that his doctor has diabetes-related superpowers and a secret lair that looks like NASA’s mission control.
Q. What inspired your Planet Kindergarten book series?
Sue: In my third book, Planet Kindergarten, I watched the kids from my daughter’s pre-school make the transition to kindergarten. One of her best friends was having a really rough go of it and had to act as brave as an astronaut to get through it – but I could see lots of days he just wanted to abort this mission to kindergarten. A storyline came together and I wrote a book that I hoped would both inspire kids to be interested in space while easing their fears about their school journey.
Q. How did you incorporate real-life science and facts about space to make it engaging to such a young audience?
Sue: I cut my teeth on space-themed family TV shows like “Lost In Space” and “The Jetsons.” I visited NASA’s Kennedy Space Center while writing Planet Kindergarten and picked up some books on the Gemini/Apollo programs. I poured through them, as well as lots of space fact books from Barnes and Noble. One day I was online and found an article about how our earth is encircled by space trash (human created space debris). I was so disturbed that not only are we polluting our own planet – but the orbit around our planet. I had to include a nod to containing our trash in the first Planet Kindergarten book.
I love watching space-themed movies. For my just released book, Planet Kindergarten: 100 Days in Orbit, you may pick up on some influence from the movie “Gravity” (spacewalk scene). And the cover/last page image is modeled after a key scene in the movie, “The Right Stuff. ”
Q.What was the most challenging aspect of becoming a children’s author? The most rewarding aspect?
Sue: Great question, Anne. I think the most difficult part in pursuing a creative dream like becoming an author is perseverance. There were many obstacles and self-doubts that I had to face. I nearly gave up being a writer just two weeks before Planet Kindergarten went into a bidding war.
Being in a creative field, you are required to get feedback/critiques to make your work the best it can possibly be and that can cause you to question your abilities. Also the road to get a publishing deal is fraught with rejection. Even the best known authors have faced this (yes, you J.K. Rowling!).
As a sensitive introvert type – this has challenged me to grow. I have learned not to take rejection personally, but to get back to work each time to learn where my manuscript fell short, or to accept when the market isn’t timed right for my story. I have learned when to let go and move ahead on a new project. I often remind myself of the NASA themed line from Planet Kindergarten, “Failure is not an option!”
A reward for perseverance is when you hear from parents about how your book has helped their child. I have heard from parents with food allergies how The Princess and the Peanut helped their child not to feel alone; I heard from one parent who shared that their child decided to become a doctor to help other kids with diabetes, after reading Even Superheroes Get Diabetes. And from lots of parents how Planet Kindergarten helped calm their children’s nerves over their first days of school.
Another rewarding part of this journey has been getting to go to NASA rocket launches and NASA Social events, behind the scenes tours at JPL, space lectures at CalTech, and spending time with the great folks at the Planetary Society.
Q. What one tip would you offer authors who want to reach a young audience, from pre-school to elementary ages?
Sue: If they haven’t already, join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (scbwi.org). I learned much of what I know about the craft of writing for children and the business side of publishing and promoting your work from them. They are an incredible resource for all levels of writers from those who are thinking of writing to those who have published numerous books. A writing teacher once told everyone in our class to join, so I did. It was the best career move I have ever made!
Q. How important is social media to building an author platform? How can parents find you?
Sue: Authors often spend their workday in solitary – we need ways to connect with our audience and others. Social media keeps us in the face of the public. And while you shouldn’t over-promote your book on social media, people will build an impression of you and hopefully remember you when they see your book in the stores or featured online.
Don’t try to be everywhere, and if you aren’t keen on social media, just find the platform that you are most comfortable with and show up there often. I tweet throughout the day. I love Twitter as a newsfeed to learn more about science, technology, and space and to share that with my followers. I also love using it to reach out and connect with space fans and other authors so we can support each other. And – I met you there! So lots to gain from it.
Q. What is next for you in terms of writing?
Sue: I just won an award for my new manuscript Space Cow. So stay tuned for an adventure with a brave bovine heading to Mars! I am also making a plan toward getting my Master’s Degree in Fine Arts (Writing for Young People).
About the Author
Sue Ganz-Schmitt is a children’s book author, mother, musical theater producer, and philanthropist. Sue is passionate about helping children and families. She is co-founder of an AIDS orphanage in Haiti, has traveled to China to help medically-challenged orphans and set up a birthing clinic in rural India. She has performed on Broadway, run a marathon, and pursues other improbable challenges – as often as she can. Sue has authored four picture books found here: http://www.sueganzschmitt.com/. She has served as a NASA Social correspondent and as a volunteer for the Planetary Society. You can often find her with eyes to the stars. She tweets at @planetkbooks and @royallyallergic or connect with her on Facebook under key words: royallyallergic and planetkindergarten.
Today, The Writing Well talks with Atlanta mystery-thriller writer Lee Gimenez on his techniques for character development tied to the release of his twelfth novel, The Media Murders.
The story opens with a prominent New York Times reporter dying under suspicious circumstances right before breaking an explosive story. Then a well-known TV reporter commits suicide. Suspecting foul play, the FBI’s John Ryan and Erin Welch investigate. As they probe the mysterious deaths, they uncover a shocking truth: Reporters are being murdered to suppress the news. More shocking is who they suspect is responsible for the killings.
As a writer who regularly reports on technology trends, I found the premise compelling. And, having read earlier books by Lee, featuring Ryan and Welch, I knew I would be in for a treat. Lee has a knack for creating believable characters and suspenseful storylines. The Media Murders didn’t disappoint on both counts. Below, Lee shares his process for creating well-rounded, imperfect heroes and antiheroes who readers can identify with – a component that any good story must have.
Q. Your newest thriller, The Media Murders, takes readers into the world of ethics and journalism, and the growing corruption of the field by outside interests, in this case, political forces. How true-to-life is this trend, and how did it inform your writing?
Lee: Like all of my previous eleven novels, The Media Murders, is primarily an action/mystery thriller. It’s ideal for someone who enjoys a past-paced, plot-driven novel, witty and engaging characters, and a strong sense of mystery and suspense. But it’s also more than that, as it tackles a serious issue that faces society today. As you mentioned, the plot revolves around the news media and journalism, and the key element is the murder of several reporters. Although the murder aspect of the reporters is fictional in the U.S. (at least as far as I could discover), it has happened in Europe and Russia in order to suppress the news.
The background of The Media Murders is based on research I did prior to writing the book. From this research I learned that the news industry in the U.S. has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. The news industry now reports news that is intended to not offend advertisers or government institutions. This trend has accelerated to the point that much news ‘reporting’ now is actually editorials from one side of the political spectrum or another. The ‘free press’ and the First Amendment to the Constitution are under assault in the U.S., something much of the public doesn’t seem to be aware of. I hope that by talking about this topic in my book, more people will become aware of this alarming trend.
Q. The Media Murders features several favorite characters, including Erin Welch, J.T. Ryan and Rachel West. In fact, you actually grace this book cover with a male character, J.T. Ryan, a first for you. Your characters are always well-defined and multi-dimensional. How do you create memorable characters that people can identify with and want to root for?
Lee: I’ve found several effective methods of creating memorable characters. One such method is to realize that characters cannot be perfect. This is especially true in your main characters, both the protagonists and the antagonists. For example, your protagonist cannot just have good qualities. He or she has to have flaws, either physical or emotional, and better yet, a little bit of each. Remember that perfect people don’t exist. We all have flaws. In order to make your hero/heroine believable, you have to include things about the person that are not necessarily positive. For example, one of the main characters in The Media Murders is John (J.T.) Ryan, who works for the FBI. He is one of the heroes in the book, and he has many good qualities in his personality. But he’s also impulsive and hot-headed at times, which puts him and the people around him in some dangerous situations.
Another way to create multi-dimensional characters is to give them an engaging backstory and to include humor and wit in the dialogue. My novels all have serious, life-and-death action thriller plots, but I always try to lighten the mood by bringing in humorous and witty dialogue. It makes the novel more readable, entertaining and believable.
Characters also have to have conflict in their lives, whether it relates to their love life, their family, their jobs, etc. Without conflict there’s no tension, and you have a boring novel. I try to include tension, suspense, and mystery, on every page.
Q. How much effort do you put into creating equally interesting villains? What kind of balance do writers need to strike when it comes to crafting characters on both sides of the good-bad spectrum?
Lee: Just as important as your main good guys/gals, the villains are, I’ve found, equally important. I don’t want to give away the plot of The Media Murders, so I won’t discuss the villains in this book, except to say they are extremely dangerous and deadly. So I’ll use one of my previous thrillers, The Washington Ultimatum, to illustrate. The main villain in this book, Angel Stone (she’s the beautiful woman featured on the book’s cover) is the world’s deadliest terrorist. The key to making this book successful was portraying her as evil as you would expect, but also to show that she had a human side that at times made her compassionate. Another good example of how this can be successfully done is shown in the Godfather movies, where the mobsters were killers, but they were also family men that went to church, and occasionally did good deeds.
Q. Engaging the audience through social media channels like Twitter is important for any author. How have you done this using your characters? What has been the feedback?
Lee: I find that engaging your reader audience is very important to the success of your book. I currently have over 50,000 followers on Twitter, and I’ve found this social media site a good way to get my message out and engage readers of my books. I’m also on Facebook, LinkedIn, Goodreads, and Pinterest. The key to social media, I found, is to realize that it’s a great way to have a conversation with your readers. And what makes social media unique is that you can have a conversation with people not just in this country, but also with people around the world.
Q. What is coming up next for you in terms of book projects? Do you plan to continue with some of the character themes you introduced in The Media Murders? Will there be more interaction between J.T. and Rachel, for example?
Lee: I really enjoy writing about the main characters I’ve created in the last several novels. They include the FBI’s John (J.T.) Ryan and Erin Welch, and my other series character, Rachel West, who is a CIA operative. Four of my novels, including The Media Murders, Skyflash, Killing West, and The Washington Ultimatum, are based on these characters. In my next novel I plan on including them as well. I’m currently working on the main plot for my next book, which I estimate would be published in the later part of 2017. Stay tuned for more details!
About the Author
Lee Gimenez is the award-winning author of 12 novels, including his highly-acclaimed J.T. Ryan series. His latest thriller is THE MEDIA MURDERS. Several of his books were Featured Novels of the International Thriller Writers Association, among them SKYFLASH, KILLING WEST, and THE WASHINGTON ULTIMATUM. Lee was nominated for the Georgia Author of the Year Award and was a Finalist in the prestigious Terry Kay Prize for Fiction.
Lee’s books are available at Amazon and many other bookstores in the U.S. and Internationally. For more information, please visit his website at: www.LeeGimenez.com. Lee lives with his wife in the Atlanta, Georgia area.
Two Amazon indie authors, Angela J. Conrad and Kathy Hesser Skrzypczak, have never met face to face. That hasn’t stopped them from leveraging their mutual passion for storytelling to co-write Vodka & Vice, a romantic comedy book series set in New York City. The initial story takes readers into the lives of NYC couple, Naomi Swanson and Bradley Dobrov, as they go from happy lovebirds to heartbroken ex-couple against the backdrop of hidden speakeasies, luxury high rises, Russian dance parties and winter blizzards in the Big Apple. As a cast of colorful characters gets in the way of them getting back together, the two soon realize that their break-up is no accident. I found the story a fun, easy read, with characters and situations that were laugh-out-loud entertaining.
I belong to the same Facebook writing group as these two wordsmith collaborators, and am delighted to talk to them about writing as a team and what it takes to be part of a creative duo in today’s ever-changing independent publishing world.
Q. How did your newest series, Vodka & Vice, come about?
Angie: I’d been on Facebook a few years, to be connected to family and friends. I wasn’t promoting my books on blogs or author pages. My illustrator suggested I join a writing group, so in early 2016 I joined Write Life. I’d started a story in the group, with each writer adding a paragraph. It was hilarious, witty, and showed me what other author’s styles blended with mine. In a few months I’d made numerous friends, started three of my own groups, and met Kathy. I was finishing Body Double, Million Dollar Legs, and Kathy read it, we talked, I sent her an idea I had for my next series, and somehow we just decided to write a book together. It was a mixture of perfect timing, her NYC knowledge for the story’s location, and complementary styles.
Q. What has been most surprising aspect of collaborating with another writer on a book?
Angie: How wonderfully easy it was. I’m in northwest Arkansas and Kathy’s outside NYC. We did everything through email, Dropbox, and inside our co-author Facebook group.
Kathy: For me, it was the way it sharpened my writing. Once I found Bradley’s voice, the story developed so naturally, it was almost as though it were writing itself.
Q. What was the process like? How did you two divide up writing responsibilities? What about book promotion?
Angie: I had the first chapter idea already written. In my last ten books, I’ve written in several characters’ POV, bringing the reader inside each character’s head. So in this one, I started as Naomi, sent it to Kathy and she became Bradley. We used each other’s strengths. I’d already published 22 books/boxed sets on Amazon. I knew their formatting, rules, could design the front/back pages, and had an illustrator and a cover designer already in play. Kathy was a professional copywriter and worked on ads in NYC. She writes cleaner, and is a strong editor. Kathy knows the location; she also took the pictures for the interior of the book.
I write fulltime — usually 12 to 14 hours a day. Kathy and I are both character-driven writers. We don’t do a plot and know the ending in advance. We become the characters and they tell the story. It flowed so well, we turned Naomi & Bradley’s story into the series Vodka & Vice and wrote four cliffhangers.
Kathy: I would have never had the courage to publish on Amazon without Angie’s expertise. Every step of the way, she had advice and methods she had used before that led to her previously successful books. Originally, we had planned on releasing the first book in around five months, but the chapters flowed so easily, we were able to finish the entire four volumes in a little less than that.
Q. I felt that you both were very much “in tune” from a voice perspective. I couldn’t tell that two different people wrote this book. Did one of you gravitate to the voice of one of the characters more than another?
Angie: Thanks, several readers remarked on that and it’s wonderful that the story flows and there are no breaks or different styles to interfere with the story. For both of us, it’s all about the story. I think Kathy had the harder job being a cocky, gorgeous Russian male. She did it superbly.
Kathy: Ha! I completely disagree. Angie had it harder because her character was a strong and passionate woman. She actually had to delve into the complexities of female thought and emotion. And she did it beautifully. All I had to do was be a guy, which is as easy as I’ve always suspected it is.
Q. What I liked about Naomi & Bradley besides the story line and sexual chemistry, is the lively dialogue and pacing of this story. Any real-life people that you based these characters on? If you got an option for the story to be adapted to film, who would you envision playing Naomi and who would play Bradley?
Angie: Not for me. All my characters develop inside my head before I actually start typing. I give them dimensions, a past, a personality, maybe even an elevator phobia, I want them to be real people. We used the same models for our four covers, and we studied hundreds of other photos picking those four. Their faces are so ingrained inside me that I guess I’d hope they could act, because to me, they are the real Naomi & Bradley.
Kathy: Great question! Angie wrote the first chapter and sent it to me, so that’s when I met them both, already formed. Some of the other characters who introduced themselves to me during the writing process do have elements of people I’ve known, but not one of them is a straight up homage.
Q. What did you learn about yourselves from this experience? Would you do it again?
Angie: As an author, my main focus is to give the reader what they want, and we asked at the end of the book, if they would enjoy more of Naomi & Bradley. If they want more, Kathy and I agreed to continue. We already have ideas for the secondary characters.
Kathy: I learned that I don’t have to sit and labor over each and every word. I was writing “serious” stuff that felt laborious. Writing with Angie felt more spontaneous. Also, when you know someone you respect is waiting on your chapter so she can move on to hers, it really lights a fire under your desk chair. No procrastinating!
Q. Any advice for other writers who might want to team up on a novel? Is it best to establish yourself on your own first before collaborating with another writer, or does it matter?
Angie: I don’t think it matters, but it doesn’t hurt to have a following first, know Amazon’s twists and turns. Join a writing group, make friends with other authors, write a short story together, and see how you mesh.
Kathy: I agree. I knew from writing our improvisational stories that Angie and I would work well together. I had a little trepidation at first because I’ve never thought of writing with another person. When I worked in advertising, occasionally my art director would come up with the headline or I would create the visual, but I wrote all my copy alone. I think you have to have respect for your partner’s opinions and writing style, which we certainly do.
Q. As of this writing, have you two met in person? Any plans to?
Angie: We’ve never met in person, and have no plans to right now. We are far apart in geography, but in spirit we are joined. We’ve talked on the phone and daily in our group. We speak through our characters and a funny thing, when I’m Naomi and Bradley is with another woman, I actually found myself getting angry, even jealous. It was super to be so into a story.
Kathy: Although I would be delighted to meet Angie in person, I don’t feel I need to in order to continue our partnership. We already know each other’s strengths very well and of course the writing speaks for itself. She makes me a better writer.
Q. What’s next for you two either individually or as a writing team?
Angie: If we don’t continue with the series, we can always begin another one after a short break. All options are open. We’re also both working on other books. I’m usually working on two at once, overlapping. As I waited for Kathy’s chapter, I’d work on my next book, Gillian, Go Away. Oh, and book 4, Bradley & Naomi …What’s True will be released in early July.
Kathy: I have another completed novel and I’m in the process of querying publishers right now. So much ‘hurry up and wait’ that it was wonderful to be able to create and produce work in the interim. I had started a third novel just before meeting Angie. It’s a paranormal novel about all the ghosts trapped in a single building in Gettysburg, PA, and their relationships to each other and to the physical world around them, titled “The Corporeals.” I’m also working on a script for an animated film. Of course, all this will come after I put “Bradley & Naomi…What’s True” to bed.
Check out the first three books in Vodka & Vice at these links:
About the Authors
Angela J. Conrad
Angie writes fiction full-time, creating characters “who live colorful lives, people who often need redemption, and one more chance while facing pivotal moments in their lives.” She has published 18 books, four novellas, and boxed sets, and over 125 short stories on Amazon, internet sites, and news magazines. Her books have been downloaded in thirteen countries totaling over 9.8 million pages in the last eighteen months.
She considers full-time fiction writing another great adventure. She has crossed the US and Canada alone, taken extreme chances in the stock market, bet often in casinos, and yet balanced it with serious jobs in managerial finance. “I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie,” she says.
Connect with Angie on her Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/author/angelajconradaceshigh11, or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/authorangelajconrad.
Kathleen Hesser Skrzypczak
Kathy was born and raised in Pine Grove, PA. A small town girl with big city dreams, she moved to New York City with two-hundred dollars in her pocket and a degree in English Literature from Gettysburg College to pursue a career in advertising. After winning awards for clients like Penthouse Magazine, Tanqueray Gin, and Johnnie Walker Black Scotch, she left the glamorous life of the city to live in New Jersey with her husband and raise her three awesome kids. Her most recent success was publishing a popular blog about a family RV trip to Nova Scotia. Her latest adventure is a romantic comedy book series she’s co-authoring with accomplished Amazon author, Angela J. Conrad. When she’s not writing, Kathleen loves to dance, sing, and cook, sometimes all at the same time.
Connect with Kathy on her Amazon page: amazon.com/author/kathleenhesserwriter, or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/authorskrzypczak/.
By Anne Wainscott-Sargent
Seventy-nine years ago today the German passenger airship the Hindenburg disintegrated in a fiery crash in Lakehurst, New Jersey.
The disaster killed 36 passengers and 61 crewmen, and became the stuff of legend due to gripping newsreel coverage, photographs, and Herbert Morrison’s radio eyewitness reports from the landing field.
But, it’s Ariel Lawhon’s 2016 re-imagining of the doomed airship that has put a fresh lens on the story and with good reason: Lawhon knows how to blend real events into a compelling tale of what might have caused the explosion. It kept me turning pages well into the early morning hours.
Flight of Dreams tells the story of the Hindenburg from the vantage point of three actual crewmembers — a navigator, stewardess and cabin boy — and two passengers –a journalist and businessman. “At every page a guilty secret bobs up; at every page Lawhon keeps us guessing. Who will bring down the Hindenburg? And how?” writes The New York Times Book Review, while People Magazine described Flight of Dreams as “an enthralling nail-biter…[E]verything points to the inevitable disaster – but you’re still on the edge of your seat.”
Below, Ariel shares her journey recreating the last moments on board the Hindenburg, her love of history, and the one thing every aspiring writer needs to do.
Anne: As a lover of historical fiction, I am a big fan of the subject matter for both your first book, The Wife, The Maid and The Mistress, and Flight of Dreams. What is it about historical events that appeals to you as a storyteller?
Ariel: Oh thank you so much! I’m always glad to find another fan of historical fiction. I think that I’m drawn to those moments in history that remain unsolved. Whether it’s a missing judge as in my first book, or a disaster like the Hindenburg. I’m looking for those moments that have settled in the public consciousness but still have lingering questions. I enjoy exploring those events and coming up with my own theories as to what really happened.
Anne: What research sources did you draw upon to give your story authenticity and to put people in the time period of the Nazi Reich’s rise in the 1930s and to feel as though they were on board the Hindenburg?
Ariel: I primarily looked to survivor accounts (almost all of the people who survived that crash went on to write about it at some point in their lives), biographies like HINDENBURG: An Illustrated History, and hundreds of pages of biographical information about the passengers and crewmembers. With a project like this, the key is to immerse yourself fully in the subject as you work. I have to become a short-term expert. The good thing is that I love this type of work. I love to learn about different time periods and moments in history.
Anne: Point of view and characters are really critical components of telling a powerful story. Which character (and point of view) do you think is the most compelling in Flight of Dreams and why?
Ariel: That’s a great question! And while I don’t think any of the five points of view in Flight of Dreams is more important than another—I put them all there for a reason and they each have a purpose in the story—I can say that I related most to Gertrud Adelt. She was a bright, young, brash journalist who had just lost her press card. She was a mother. She was scared. She was madly in love with her husband. I understand all of these things and developed a deep affinity for her in particular.
Anne: In a previous Writing Well interview, you talked about plot and pacing, saying that the key to effective story pacing is to ask a question and as soon as you answer it, ask another so the story doesn’t sag and the reader will be motivated to keep reading. You also said that the little questions also have to support the “big” question. Do you think you did a good job following that approach with Flight of Dreams? What is the big question that underscores your story?
Ariel: What a great memory you have! The central question to Flight of Dreams, the question asked on the very first page is “What caused the disaster?” Every scene in the entire book builds to answering that question. Was it sabotage? Was it accident? Was it simply a tragic mistake? I want the reader to ask that question over and over in different ways as they read the novel. And I have to admit that I’m very satisfied with how I answered that question in the end.
Anne: How was Flight of Dreams easier/more difficult/different than your first book?
Ariel: Every book is so different. But I can say that this was the first novel I wrote under contract. And somehow knowing that the book would be published gave me a confidence that I didn’t have with my first novel and I do think that shows on the page. That said, writing under contract also brings a great deal of pressure and if you don’t learn to set that aside in the morning when you sit down to work it can stomp out your creativity. Also, this subject is so well documented that the research was easier.
Anne: The buzz for your book has been phenomenal. Are you getting interest from Hollywood to option your book for film?
Ariel: Flight of Dreams has been shopped widely in Hollywood but so far no one is interested in making it into a film. To me the reasons behind the disinterest are fascinating. I wrote a novel about the people on board the last flight of the Hindenburg. But producers have universally rejected the idea because they want no part of telling the story of an infamous German airship. Even though, in reality, the story is not about an airship at all. It’s about the people who were caught up in one of history’s most well known tragedies. Oh well. You win some, you lose some.
Anne: What advice do you have for other authors, who are looking to tackle larger-than-life historical events in their novels? Any advice?
Ariel: The same advice I always give. Write the book. There is no agent without the book. There is no editor without the book. There is no career without the book. I find that most people get caught up in the small things like research or plot questions or an agent search. In reality all of those things sort themselves out. Having a finished book that has been revised and edited and rewritten countless times until it sparkles is the only important thing.
Anne: What’s next on the horizon for you — next book or other creative projects? Are you still blogging?
Ariel: I blog when I can. But with four children and a very busy life I often skip the blogging in favor of working on my next book. Which, in this case, is a novel tentatively called, I Was Anastasia. It’s a dual narrative about the last days of Anastasia Romanov and the woman who became her most famous imposter.
About the Author
Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She’s the author of THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS (Doubleday, 2014) and the upcoming FLIGHT OF DREAMS (February, 2016). She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus) and a black lab who is, thankfully, a girl. Follow her on Twitter @ArielLawhon or on Facebook.
Read her tips on premise, plot and pacing on The Writing Well shared at the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference.
The day I spoke with Alabama author Kim Cross, it was on the one-year anniversary of her first book being published. The Alabama native and contributing editor with Southern Living Magazine wrote What Stands in a Storm, her riveting New York Times’ bestseller published by Atria/Simon & Schuster.
The book captures the true story of love and resilience in the worst superstorm in history – a three-day storm in late April 2011 that unleashed 349 tornadoes in 21 states, destroying entire towns. Alabama was ground zero for the disaster, where on April 27 alone a total of 62 tornadoes raked the state. The storm also claimed 324 lives, most of them in Alabama, which now leads the nation in tornado deaths.
Kim and I spoke by phone as she was driving to Roswell, Georgia, where today she was honored as the featured author for the Eleventh annual Roswell Reads Community Read program. Having finished her book in two days, I can attest to its power. The story was impossible to put down – it pulsates with tension as I experienced the love of friends and neighbors, parents and children, in the tension-filled moments leading up to the storm and its aftermath.
Ron Powers, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and coauthor of Flags of Our Fathers said it best: “…the terse dark poetry of this debut book explodes from every page.”
As a Dayton, Ohio, native who remembers as a child hearing the tornado sirens from neighboring Xenia, Ohio, in 1974, I was keen to talk to Kim. I also have been working on my own disaster story – the retelling of a historic flood that destroyed Dayton 100 years ago, I found reading her book and learning her writing process incredibly helpful and inspiring as I edit my own work.
What Stands in a Storm is Kim’s first book, but it doesn’t read like it. Her narrative was born from a magazine story she wrote with Alabama native son Rick Bragg for Southern Living. Rick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, was living in Tuscaloosa at the time. He and his family made it through the storm, but their street was hit “really bad.” Kim asked him to write something from the heart of what it meant to be in this storm and he agreed. His intro paired with her reporting along with fellow staffer Erin Shaw struck a chord in people. According to Kim, “We got hundreds of messages from readers, who said, ‘That it was the first time I ever cried while reading Southern Living.’ I realized it was touching this emotional place inside of people… I felt like that story needed to be told.”
“I started to look around and I realized that we have epic bestselling books about hurricanes and floods and Nor’easters (The Perfect Storm), but we didn’t find a book like that about tornadoes that really did it well. I wanted something like Isaac’s Storm and The Perfect Storm. I don’t know if I was aiming too high but that’s what I was hoping to do,” she said.
I think Kim met that standard of excellence and exceeded it with her phenomenal storytelling. Below is our expanded conversation.
Q. Where were you on April 27, 2011?
Kim: My husband and I were sitting on our couch [in a suburb of Birmingham] with our son who was 4 at the time, watching weatherman James Spann as the tornado went through Tuscaloosa.
It was awful. We knew the town so well. I had gone to college twice in Tuscaloosa and we had lived there. There is this moment where you watching it and it feels like a movie. It reminded me when we were all watching TV and the Twin Towers fell. I remember feeling, ‘Is this real?’ Then you have this moment when you realize, ‘I’m watching people die right now’ and it’s a horrible feeling.
Then the Tuscaloosa EF4 started making its way toward Birmingham and it actually got a little bit bigger as it came. From what we could tell we were right in its path. At some point the power went off and we lost TV. I watched live Twitter feeds from my phone, watching Jim, who knows the neighborhoods so well. At one point he called our neighborhood and that’s where it got really scary. My husband is an Eagle Scout – he’s Mr. Prepared. He was the one who had us put on bike helmets before it was widely done. Studies show that a helmet would have saved a lot of lives because of flying debris.
Waiting out a tornado is one of the few times in life where you have time to think about impending death. Usually you get a lot of time to think about it because you’re sick or there’s no time to think because it happens so fast. When the tornado passed – we didn’t see much of anything in our neighborhood but seven miles away a neighborhood of Birmingham was just flattened. It came within two or three miles of downtown Birmingham.”’
Q. I always thought that tornadoes mostly struck the central of the country – Kansas.
Kim: People think of Oklahoma and Kansas having a larger volume of tornadoes, but Alabama and the South – the so-called Dixie Alley — has more of the big ones, more of the EF4s and EF5s, so the numbers are a little deceptive. The other thing is Oklahoma and Kansas are flat, there aren’t a lot of trees and it’s not real humid so you can see the tornadoes and get out of the way. The chasers go there and that’s where they get filmed. Tornado chasers don’t generally chase in the South because we have a lot of hills and a lot of trees, and the roads are windy — they don’t go in a grid. It’s really hard to see the tornado across the landscape.
Q. I was impressed with the degree of research you had in your book. How important was research in writing What Stands in a Storm?
Kim: It was everything. I probably spent 80% of my time on research and 20% of time in an outright panic trying to get words on a page. There was so much research that went into it because it wasn’t this straightforward narrative in the sense that the central characters are all victims… There are so many stories that deserved to be told but you can only tell a few without confusing and losing the reader.
I started by getting the weather reports and the tornado tracks and see what towns were hit and then I went to all the newspapers in those towns to look up who was lost and who they were and who was left behind. I felt pretty strong from the beginning that Tuscaloosa was going to be one of my focused towns — one it’s the one people remember. People outside Alabama know Tuscaloosa because of Crimson Tide. It was well documented and also because it was one of my hometowns – I knew it very well. But I also wanted to tell the story of a small town and a volunteer fire department — a community that didn’t have the well-funded, well-equipped fire department / rescue squads that a town like Tuscaloosa would have. That represents most of the towns in Alabama and most of the towns in the country. They are saving people just the same as people who are paid a full-time salary.
Q. You did an amazing job introducing readers to some of the Alabamans whose lives were forever changed by the storm. What story resonated most with you on a personal level?
Kim: The story of the three college students — Danielle, Will and Loryn. I could relate to all of them in a different way. They were all working so hard to get through school and they were from a small town and close to their families. I felt a great emotional investment in each of them. When I look at my son I think of Will – Will was a brunette little boy who loves his mom. I think about Danielle and how much she just busted her ass to put herself through college, to work, and to fight for her grades. I liked her feistiness and her pragmatism. She wasn’t going to let anyone bully her sister. I like Loryn’s spirit and the fact that she was just wide open – she had a great head on her shoulders and was the kind of girl who was comfortable in a dress or cowboy boots.
I wanted you as a reader to not know who lives or dies until it happened for the reason that if you know who is going to die, you keep them at arm’s length and you don’t allow yourself to care about them too much. I wanted you to paint your own faces on these characters. That’s why there are no photos in the book so that when you did lose them, you really felt like you lost someone you cared about. My editor was the one who insisted on no photos.
Q. Your description of the destruction from the storm was almost its own character. How were you able to do that so vividly?
Kim: I got my hands on every video I could –so I could feel like I was there. There were some riveting videos. If you go on my website there is a little playlist I created. I read fictional accounts – including Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. She did a wonderful job of describing a hurricane. I studied the heck out of her verbs. I tried to figure out “how did she do that? What did she do there?” I read and re-read The Perfect Storm and Isaac’s Storm.
Q. How did you get your book published by a major imprint?
Kim: I had an agent, Jim Hornfischer, who I met at a literary non-fiction conference in Dallas. I always wanted to write a book and had gone to grad school and wrote a book about two nuns. It just wasn’t the right first book [I didn’t want to be pigeon holed as a religion writer]. I met Jim and I just knew he was the one — a straight shooter. We started batting ideas around for a book. I said, what about this [a story about the storm]? A lot of magazine stories evolve into books. I feel like the emotional response from readers in Southern Living shows how much people needed this story. When something horrible happens (like a tornado), you’re in just one little spot. I thought it might be helpful and healing for people to understand the magnitude of what happened but also the beautiful things that came from the brokenness. I think it turned out to be the perfect first book. I love science – taking something really complicated and esoteric and trying to make it come alive and be understandable for a lay reader.
Q. If you were going to advise someone who is writing that first book, what pearl of wisdom would you share that you learned from this experience?
Kim: To study structure in other books. Structure is the hardest thing. I didn’t understand structure when I wrote my earlier [unpublished] book – I’m going to have to go back and rewrite it. I also didn’t understand how book publishing worked. If you are a fiction writer, you write the book and then you find an agent who likes it and the agent helps you revise it and get it into shape and he or she sends the entire manuscript to publishers.
With non-fiction, you don’t write the book – you write a proposal, which is a 60 to 70-page document that lays out a blueprint of your book, including why this book is different. It has a 35- or 40-page chapter outline and you have to explain who your audience is and what your marketing plan is because it’s not enough to write a good book, you have to sell it. Publishers want to know if you have a platform and social media followers. The harder you work on the front end to get the proposal great, the easier it will be on the tail end to both write the book and sell it. You have to chip at it every day. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Also, you never feel done and you can never fact check it enough. I didn’t realize …magazines come with a staff of fact checkers who go behind you and they call your sources and make sure everything you’ve written about them is correct. Book publishers don’t have that, so if something is wrong, it’s all on you. I actually sold a beloved a mountain bike so I could pay for a National Geographic-trained fact checker. I ‘m glad I did it.
Q. How many places did your agent send out your manuscript?
Kim: I think my agent sent it out to 10 to 12 big New York imprints of publishing houses. I had two bid on it, including an imprint of Simon & Schuster. The rejections were so nice – they said we love the writing; we love the idea. The flaw they saw is that they didn’t see the characters [because I hadn’t fleshed them out yet], or they said that the story was going to too many places.
Q. How has the book done?
Kim: So far no one has come forward to come forward with a correction. Regionally it’s done well but I can’t get it on the national radar. The other thing I’ll say – this whole NY Bestseller List is a lot of smoke and mirrors. It did well enough in the first two months that it got on one of these narrow sublists of The New York Times – adventures, disasters and expeditions. The Perfect Storm and Isaac’s Storm are still on that list so I imagine it is not that big of a category. But, when that happens you get to put it on the paperback.
Q. How important is social media if you want to reach readers for your book?
Kim: I feel it’s an evil I have to deal with. Honestly it’s one of the hardest things we as authors have to deal with because most authors are introverts and in order to promote a book, you have to put your extrovert hat on. For social media – so much of it feel not very authentic… I’m torn about it. I feel like you can’t afford to not be on them unless you are Rick Bragg who has never been on them and people don’t expect you to be on them. I enjoy Instagram – I think that’s my favorite of the social channels.
One positive [aspect of Twitter] is you get to dialogue with readers. It’s an interesting reporting tool. You want to hear how people are interacting with your work. I put out something on all the social channels – where I’m looking for people who had a certain kind of Schwinn bike when they were a kid. People are posting pictures of their bike. The other way I use it is to put out some of my process of writing. When I went on a writers’ residency where I had to churn out 1,000 to 2,000 words a day, I shared that with my followers. Some days it came easy other days it didn’t. I think people need to see that writing is a lot of work. This is what the process looks like – it’s messy; it’s hard.
Kim Cross is a contributing editor for Southern Living and a feature writer who has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of American Travel Writers, and the Media Industry Newsletter. Her writing has appeared in Outside, Cooking Light, Bicycling, Bike, Runner’s World, Parade magazine, Popular Mechanics, The Tampa Bay Times, The Birmingham News, The Anniston Star, USA TODAY, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, and CNN.com. She lives in Alabama. Connect with her at kimhcross.com
The last seven months spent researching Atlanta’s amazing neighborhoods and the entertainment, economic and environmental drivers of the metro area culminated yesterday as we celebrated my book launch at Atlanta Movie Tours in Castleberry Hill, an up-and-coming artist loft neighborhood and popular filming spot in south downtown. More than 40 people made it to my event, in spite of light rain and the Donald’s appearance at a rally at the Georgia World Congress Center less than a mile from our venue.
The story of this book project and the way I approached both writing and marketing it are probably worth a few words on The Writing Well — at least for the benefit of other writers. First, a bit about the book.
Moving to Atlanta: The Un-Tourist Guide is the seventh guide book published by Newt Barrett of Voyager Media based in Estero, Fla. His other books have
spotlighted medium-sized cities such as Charleston, Tampa, Sarasota and Naples. Atlanta is by far his most ambitious city to tackle based on its sheer size and diversity. It was a big challenge to capture the story of Atlanta in 152 pages. I felt strongly that I needed to quote actual residents, who knew Atlanta’s diverse neighborhoods the best, and that’s what I did.
- For the chapter on education, I talked to two Atlanta moms who have navigated Atlanta’s public and private school systems in meeting their children’s learning needs ,and an academic dean of continuing education who briefed me on the many adult continuing education courses available to residents.
- For the chapter on entertainment, I talked to the editor of Creative Loafing Atlanta, the president of Atlanta’s Lawn and Tennis Association, and the founder of AtlantaTrails.com.
- For the chapter on choosing where to live, I quoted realtors and residents in 18 intown neighborhoods and six suburban communities.
In remarks to guests at my party yesterday, I thanked all the people who have contributed to my book. I said, “You’ve made Moving to Atlanta something more than a typical guide book …you’ve helped present an authentic picture of what it’s like to be a part of this amazing city. Your input, I’m sure, will help people decide if Atlanta is right for them. They’ll be able to begin to narrow down which neighborhood or community they could call home.”
I hope it will meet the needs of prospective new residents, but I also hope it is an enjoyable narrative for Atlanta natives. That’s why I was so happy to read this comment from an early Amazon reviewer:
“As someone who has lived in this wonderful state and city for almost 35 years… I have to say I’m impressed. ‘Moving to Atlanta…’ is up to date… contemporary with a wide range of information and tidbits about the city… its politics, people and culture. Spending 20 years here as a journalist has given me a unique perspective and access to all of the city and its neighborhoods… both inside and OTP (outside the perimeter, as they say..) The author covers the good and the bad (traffic and rush hour!!). But anyone contemplating moving to our city will soon learn the ebb and flow of the city and its interstate. Recommending the Wayze App is a good start.”
Writing a book as good as it can be is only the start of what we as authors must do. Marketing is when the real work begins! Here are 4 tips that I took to heart when developing my own marketing plan and author platform:
#1 Partner with people, brands and businesses that can help elevate your book.
For Moving to Atlanta, I ended up aligning myself with Carrie Burns of Atlanta Movie Tours, the center of Atlanta’s film tourism movement. I interviewed her for the Hollywood of the South chapter and learned that she was president of the Castleberry Hill Neighborhood Association, so was able to tap into her insights of having lived in that community for 15 years in my “Choosing Where to Live” chapter. Carrie not only offered to host my author party, but also brought in The Smoke Ring, a hip BBQ restaurant nearby, and both of these businesses contributed gifts to raffle at my party, and are now active on social media promoting my book by retweeting highlights of the launch.
#2 Don’t just post or tweet your book, engage people on social media.
- Share your journey along the way – I posted milestones as I was writing key chapters and shooting photos around the city on Facebook. Photos are a great way to engage followers to envision your book coming to life and feel invested in its success.
- Do a contest – I asked Facebook followers to weigh in on the top 10 reasons to move to Atlanta for a chance to win a free book.
- Embrace trivia surveys – I created a survey to test people’s knowledge of ATL – the answers found in my book. I incorporated humor into the summaries where people are ranked based on how well they answered questions. They could be an “All-knowing Atlanta Insider” or a “Soon-to-be-Undead” in homage to the zombie-hit TV series, “The Walking Dead” filmed here.
#3 Build relationships with journalists, PR influencers and bloggers.
They are powerful allies to get word out on your book because these folks already have a platform and readers! In a sea of so many other books being published, this is one way to be strategic and position your book that can really help boost your profile.
The key here is to target outlets that fall into one of these categories: (a.) they love your book topic — it ties to what their readers care about (b.) they are looking to feature local residents doing interesting things (especially a publication more local or hyper local focused such as the Patch) or (c.) they want to help you succeed because they know you and your capabilities as a storyteller, interviewer and writer. I find featuring other authors on my blog, The Writing Well, creates a lot of goodwill and willingness to blurb and blog about your book to “pay it forward.” I know at least one 11-time fiction book author who says a major factor in him being able to attract 50,000 Twitter followers is engaging with other writers.
Some of the blogs and news sites that are either covering Moving to Atlanta in editorial, or are promoting it on social media include: ALTA’s Net News magazine; Vinings Lifestyle Magazine; Points North Atlanta magazine; wanderlust Atlanta, a blog exploring some of Atlanta’s most popular tourist destinations; AtlantaTrails.com; and “Mitch’s Media Musings,” an Atlanta Media blog by Mitch Leff, who is interviewed in my book on what the media environment is like in Atlanta.
In late March, I will be featured on BlogTalkRadio’s show, “Write Books that Sell Now,” where I will talk about Moving to Atlanta and other book-writing projects that cross genres. One of the hosts of that program, Anita Henderson, known as the “author’s midwife,” is a respected colleague who has been interviewed on “The Writing Well.”
#4 Get your book reviewed early on Amazon…and don’t forget to secure a few book blurbs.
This is important, and it means thinking strategically about who would be the best person to blurb your book. In my case real estate agents who know Atlanta and executive recruiters who are focused on attracting talent to Atlanta as well as new residents or people thinking about moving to Atlanta. I was fortunate to secure all three for Moving to Atlanta, with two making it on the book jacket.
One Final Thought
Finally, the hardest thing about marketing is turning it off so you have time to write…I am still working on that as I carve out time to finish my novel this year while continuing to market my current book. There’s no question that being an author today is not just about great writing and research skills. It’s also about being strategic with your time, and finding ways to get your network of connections to work with you to get the word out.
I wish all writers the best in their efforts on both fronts — don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for people to support you. Believe it when I say, it takes a village to be an author.
Let’s Get Social!
Follow Anne’s new book adventure on social media or visit her book website at these links:
Moving to Atlanta Trivia Quiz: http://bit.ly/MovingtoAtlantaQuiz
Great storytellers are my favorite people – they have energy and a curiosity for life; they are students of human nature and what drives behavior; and they have a gift for crafting a tale that keeps one transfixed.
That’s probably why Jeff Herrington is one of my favorite storytellers. The first time I met Jeff, I was a twenty-something corporate communicator working for NCR’s Employee Communications team in Dayton. Jeff had flown in from Dallas to do a writing workshop that was filled with practical examples and best practices on how to reach and keep the attention of our readers. Jeff, even then, was at the top of his game, having done amazing projects for Fortune 500 clients like Whirlpool. His session kept my co-workers and I completely engaged. He knew the way to communicate with impact was through story.
It was no surprise to me that he has applied his considerable writing chops to the realm of novel writing, penning two mystery thrillers, Murder Becomes Manhattan and more recently, Murder Becomes Miami under his pen name Jeffrey Eaton.
The books are branded as “A Dalton Lee Mystery” – in honor of his quirky main character, a highly astute architect with a past. (By the way, Jeff, an architecture buff, has filled his books with wonderful insights on some of New York City’s and Miami’s most famous buildings). I found his premise and plot compelling – and the characters fun and very real. His details on the setting were so authentic that I was transported into the middle of the Big Apple. (In fact, readers can get acquainted with not only the murder scenes in his book, but also the detectives, victims and suspects on his well-crafted book page, http://www.murdermanhattan.com.)
I reached out to Jeff to find out more about his books, what he’s learned on the path to published author, how to build audience and whether his corporate communications career has helped or hurt him along the way. His responses, provided lightning fast after I shot the questions over to him, will enlighten the veteran and the virgin writer. Thanks for generously sharing your gifts, Jeff!
Q. What sparked your idea for your mystery thriller series?
Jeff: For some reason, I have always been drawn to stories of intrigue. I was a big fan of The Hardy Boys Mystery Series between ages 7 -12. After that, I got hooked on Agatha Christie’s novels. So writing mysteries has always been lurking in the back of my mind as something I’d like to do.
Then, a few years ago, I was in a bookstore and saw Sue Grafton’s series using the alphabet (A is for Alibi) and I thought, “What a gig!” It got me to thinking about how I might create a similar but different series and the idea of having each novel set in a different global location, but all starting with the letter ‘M’ was born.
Q. What was the most challenging and gratifying aspect to seeing your idea become a published book? What would you like to have done differently the first time (publishing or writing lesson to share with other aspiring authors)?
Jeff: The most challenging aspect was (and continues to be) finding the time to market the books. Although I enjoy marketing, I’m not terribly comfortable with guerilla marketing but these days you really have to do that to get noticed in a crowd. It pays off — we spend a week marketing heavily and see sales climb as a result, but then they drop flat again the minute you stop. It’s relentless.
The most gratifying thing is seeing the reviews. Both “Murder Becomes Manhattan” and “Murder Becomes Miami” have average ratings above 4.0 out of 5. And some people are really really hooked on the series. That’s exciting — to know I have created something people really cannot wait to read on the airplane, or once they get to the pool at their hotel in Cancun.
Q. I know you are an accomplished corporate writer and lecturer who has traveled extensively. How has your career as a corporate communicator served you well as you crossed into the realm of book author?
Jeff: Great question. The downside is that, in corporate PR, we mostly write to the AP Stylebook. But in the world of fiction we write to the Chicago Manual of Style. Thank heavens I have an editor grounded in that! The positive affect is that corporate communication emphasizes a need to get to the point quickly. I have adopted that in both books. You are very much dropped into the action from the get-go. Many readers have told me they find the books exciting in that way. They are ushered into the book pretty quickly and have to hold on from there.
Q. I noticed that you opted to not use your real name for your novels. What made you go in that direction?
Jeff: Three factors: A) The desire for privacy and the opportunity to write other more serious books later under my real name if I choose B) The name Eaton fits on a book cover much more easily than does Herrington. C) My father was a dancer in vaudeville and motion pictures back in the 1930s. His stage name was Jerry Eaton, so I chose Eaton as my ‘stage name’ as an homage to him.
Q. Who is your favorite character in each of your books and why?
Jeff: There is a team of architects/detectives in my books who work on solving the murders. However, my readers overwhelmingly seem to gravitate toward Dalton Lee, the head of the architecture firm and the main detective in the books. However, he has also become my favorite as well. Poor Dalton is 40ish and already grappling with the early stages of mid-life crisis. He has such a great heart but he is such a social oaf at times. Then there is the fact that statues, department store mannequins, even taxicab ashtrays have conversations with him. I think people find his quirkiness appealing, especially since, despite all of his goofiness, he is the genius who always solves the crime.
Q. Do you think writing a series is the wave of the future for authors? Do you find it’s an effective way to build audience?
Jeff: Certainly in the mystery genre it is. Most people are telling me they like the Miami book more than Manhattan, but mostly because it is like reconnecting with old friends and seeing story lines that piqued your interest in the first book evolve in the next, and so on.
From an author’s standpoint, it is a wise thing to do, for the maxim is you always sell more of your first book when the second book comes out, and so on. That has been the case for me, and on those days when we sell just 2 books, invariably it is one copy of one title and one copy of the other, which tells me one person likely bought both. Series build income, a following and back sales in a way individual stories don’t.
Q. What city or cities will you be tackling next for a setting to your thriller series?
Jeff: The next book is set in London. “But London doesn’t start with an ‘M’, Jeff” you say. You are right, however the entire book will be set in London’s most posh neighborhood, Mayfair. So there you go. The other cities and their order are a secret (the next location always gets revealed at the end of a current book), but I can say that places/events like Madrid, Milan, Malibu, Myanmar, Monte Carlo, Moscow and Mardi Gras are all in the running.
Q. What has been the most surprising reader feedback you’ve received to date?
Jeff: One person who REALLY did not like Manhattan said I had completely lost her when she hit the part that said the identities of certain hostages were made known to their family members when the captors sent those family members small body parts of the person. “Yeah right,” she said, or something to that effect. And yet, that plot line is straight out of the headlines, has happened in real life many times over the past 10 years. I guess it is good that we don’t want to believe the world can be really that gruesome. But it is reality, and I’ve been surprised by a few people (very few) who haven’t been able to believe some of the very real things that take place in my books.
Q. How important is it to build audience via social media? What tactics and platforms have worked best for the type of readers you are trying to attract?
Jeff: Social media is tough. I have a cohort who is a master at it and he knocks things out all over the place all the time. We get lots of likes, followers etc. But getting that to translate into sales is not easy. To be honest, I find personal appearances to be far more helpful than social media right now. I give a talk at a book club or a bookstore and the books fly off the shelves.
That said, all it takes is one key connected person raving about your books to their friends on social media and the next thing you know you are a smash sensation. There are certain days where we sell 3, 5, 8 copies of the books and I know someone on social media somewhere must have said something to prompt those sales because I haven’t made a personal appearance that week.
About Jeff Herrington
Jeff Herrington is the author of two novels, Murder Becomes Manhattan and Murder Becomes Miami under the pen name, Jeffrey Eaton. He is also the founder and president of Jeff Herrington Communications, a Dallas-based writing coaching and consulting company. He offers a wide range of workshops, training communication teams on their writing and their ability to come up with innovative content approaches.
A few of his workshop offerings include:
- Writing for the Web
- Effective Feature Articles and Case Studies
- Effective Organizational Blogs
- Making Your Writing More Powerful
- Making Your Writing More Professional
- Innovative Editorial Techniques
As a writer, Jeff has traveled to more than 45 countries on five continents as a writer for the internal and external publications of IBM, AT&T, Whirlpool, Baxter Healthcare and John Deere, among many other companies. Learn more about Jeff Herrington Communications at www.jeffherrington.com.
To read excerpts from Jeff’s books, visit his author pages:
- Murder Becomes Manhattan: http://murdermanhattan.com/excerpts/chapter-three.html
- From Murder Becomes Miami: http://murdermiami.com/excerpts/bonus-chapter.html