This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

There Has to Be an Algorithm for That

            Once upon a time I thought I had Amazon figured out, but upon further review, it turned out I had simply gotten lucky a couple of times and jumped to a conclusion.
            It had to do with the question of free promotions for my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance. The book was published in late July of 2012, and in the first six months, I ran free promotions on a variety of days, mostly weekdays, with not much success. I defined success then, as I do now, with 100 or more downloads on a free promotion day, the premise being that reaching that many potential new readers is worth whatever loss is taken in paid sales.
            Because it was my first book, strong free-promotion results were critical to getting it into the hands of an audience beyond my circle of friends. I felt there had to be a way of reckoning the best days for putting the book out there on the free list.

A Gambler’s Lucky Streak

            In late February of 2013, I put the book out on a Sunday and had a really good response — more than 200 downloads. Doubling up, I offered it again on a Sunday in early March and got a staggering 473 downloads, by far the best day ever. “Aha!” I said to myself. “Sunday’s the day.” I offered it another Sunday in March and again got more than 200 downloads.
            As matters turned out, I was like the guy at the roulette wheel who bets red three times in a row and wins each time — then thinks he’ll win on red every time and loses his shirt.
            When the next promotion period came up in April, I confidently put the book out again on a Sunday and received fewer than 100 downloads. I kept going with Sundays for another six months, and though I had a couple of days that barely topped 100, there was nothing remotely resembling the success I’d had in February and March. For want of a better explanation, I chalked up the slowdown in downloads to the book’s having been on the market for some time and having been repeatedly seen by people looking for freebies.

Let’s Try This Again

            On April 30 my second mystery, Wash Her Guilt Away, went up on Amazon, and I had five free promotional days to use before July 28. I offered it free the first Saturday in May, and it got more than 150 downloads. I figured I could crack 200 by offering it on a Sunday, and, bypassing Mother’s Day, put it up free on Sunday May 18.
            Fewer than 100 people downloaded it.
            Scratching my head, I came back three weeks later, on Sunday June 8, and this time moved just short of 200 copies. I concluded that Sunday in May was an aberration, so did another free promotion Sunday July 13. I barely topped 50 downloads, even though the book finished at #33 on the free crime fiction list that day.
            The take-home message from all this is that there is no message. I’m coming to believe that unless a book is by an established author or is highly searchable, books and readers on Amazon are like random molecules bouncing around in a large, enclosed space. When and where they collide is a matter of chance as much as anything else. And the success of a free book promotion on any given Sunday in March could depend on what the weather’s like in most of the country and what’s good on TV that day.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Flawed First Novel

            Show me the aspiring author who hasn’t, at some point in the writing of that first novel, imagined it being instantly recognized by the critics and selling like hotcakes with the general public. I don’t believe such an author exists.
            The fantasy is as universal as it is elusive. The author who writes the occasional first-book best seller is like the guy on unemployment who wins the lottery. Sure, it in fact can be done, but the odds are beyond astronomical — Fifty Shades of Grey notwithstanding.
            Then there are the authors (think Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison and Margaret Mitchell) whose first novels were terrific and are still read today, but who never wrote anything of consequence afterwards. I have a little theory about that, and it begins by imagining that To Kill a Mockingbird, Invisible Man, and Gone With the Wind weren’t their first novels, but rather their third.

The Path to the Masterpiece

            Suppose they had written their masterpieces after first producing a couple of good but flawed books, from which they learned a great deal about themselves and the craft or writing. That’s the curve for most good authors, and I would submit that it’s a beneficial thing in a number of ways.
            For starters, publishing a flawed book (and nearly every book is flawed) teaches an author the value of realizing that at some point you have to say, “This is as good as I can get it. It’s time to let go and move on to the next one.” Like any artist or craftsman, an author wants to get the work right, but right is a relative term. Bad Shakespeare is still better than almost anybody else’s best.
            Having a sense of perspective is essential to avoiding writer’s block and demented perfectionism. When your first book is a hugely successful masterpiece, you probably feel (I’ve never had the pleasure myself) that the second one has to be at least as good, which can be setting the bar too high. If the third book is the masterpiece, you know there are two others out there that were worse, and that knowledge is likely to make the writing of book number four a lot less daunting.

Working on a Series

            I write mystery novels, which by definition aren’t going to be masterpieces, but I see some of these factors at work. The first book in my Quill Gordon series, The McHenry Inheritance, was flawed, and I probably see the flaws more than most. But it told a pretty good story in a brisk fashion, and I felt it accomplished four things a first book in a series has to do: Establish a character, a premise, a tone, and a style.
            Doing just that much wore me out, but showing myself I could do those things freed me to concentrate on other elements of fiction in the second book, Wash Her Guilt Away. In it I tried to focus on improving three things: character development, dialogue, and atmosphere. Some of the feedback I’m getting suggests I met with some success.
            In the third book (still untitled), which I’ve just begun to write, my three goals are: Create a more intricate plot, create a stronger sense of the community in which the action occurs, and create more of a backstory for my protagonist. If nothing sidetracks the effort, the book should be out in the second half of next year, and we’ll see how I did. The way I look at it, every book I write should be better than the one before. Until I write one that isn’t.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Press Release for My Book

            The purpose of a press release is to pique the news media’s interest in a story so they’ll cover it, and also to frame the story in a way that helps them ask questions and write about it accurately. Following is a press release for my second mystery novel, Wash Her Guilt Away.

            SANTA CRUZ, CA — Ever had one of those vacations where it rained every day, and then someone got murdered? That’s what happens to Quill Gordon, the gentleman detective who makes his second appearance in Wash Her Guilt Away, a new mystery novel by Michael Wallace, former editor of the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian.
            Taking its title from a well known poem by 18th Century Irish-English writer Oliver Goldsmith, Wash Her Guilt Away attempts to recreate the spirit of the English country-house mysteries of the 1920s and 30s in contemporary America. It also features a locked-room mystery, where the victim is found strangled in a cabin securely locked from the inside and surrounded by snow, with no footprints leading in or out.
            “Almost nobody does the English country house weekend in America today,” Wallace said, “so I had to come up with an equivalent. The guests are paying visitors at a remote lodge in Northern California, and because the weather is so horrible, they’re thrown together in a way that sexual tensions begin to simmer, eventually boiling over.
            “The brooding atmosphere and the presence of a coven of witches practicing in the area add to the surreal nature of the crime. But in the end, the book is really a meditation on love, infidelity, and the secrets people keep from each other.”
            The first Quill Gordon mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, was published in July 2012. It has been steadily downloaded as a Kindle e-book since publication, and has sold another few hundred copies in local bookstores and through Amazon’s print-on-demand service. It has been generally well received, earning an average rating of 4.1 out of 5 stars from readers on Amazon.
            “It would appear that the first book created a modest base of fans for the series, and early sales for Wash Her Guilt Away are considerably higher than those for The McHenry Inheritance during the comparable time period,” Wallace said. “It’s beginning to look as if Quill Gordon and his adventures have some growth potential — both in a literary and commercial sense.”
            Gordon, the protagonist in the series, is a former college basketball star and stockbroker who made a modest fortune in the market and was able to quit working in his thirties. He is a skilled fly fisherman, and frequently travels to the small mountain communities where the stories occur.
            “The stories are very much in the classical tradition of mysteries where the crime grows organically out of a situation and the characters of the people involved in it,” Wallace said. “Gordon is an outsider who becomes drawn into the community he’s visiting through the crime that has been committed, and his becoming more a part of that community is part of the story. And because he travels a lot, each book can be set in a new location, with all new characters and issues.”
            Wallace is currently working on a third Quill Gordon mystery, which he hopes to have completed and published in the second half of 2015.
            Both The McHenry Inheritance and Wash Her Guilt Away are available at Crossroads Books in Watsonville and Bookshop Santa Cruz, as well as on Amazon.


Quill Gordon mystery website:

Wash Her Guilt Away video:

Wash Her Guilt Away on Amazon:

The McHenry Inheritance on Amazon:

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Fishing Days: Silver Creek

Second in an occasional series on memorable fishing days

            By the fall of 1986 I had been fly fishing for more than four years and had developed a certain level of proficiency, having caught decent fish in a number of famous trout streams: Armstrong’s Spring Creek, Hat Creek, Firehole River, Fall River, Henry’s Fork, among others.
            In October of that year Linda and I took a week-long vacation to Sun Valley, Idaho. It was the rump season there — the summer crowd had gone and the snows had not yet come to bring on the ski crowd. We stayed at the Sun Valley Lodge, got a good rate, and had the place almost entirely to ourselves.
            As fate would have it, we caught a beautiful Indian summer week. Early morning temperatures were in the low 30s or high 20s, but they gave way to sunny, cloudless days in the 70s. We took a couple of day trips from Sun Valley, one to the Sawtooth Mountains and another to Craters of the Moon National Monument. And of course there was some fishing.

Alone on a Legendary Stream

            A couple of afternoons I went out on the Big Wood River near the town of Ketchum, pulling off the road at a turnout and fishing my way upstream or downstream. I caught a few good fish there, but it wasn’t my real destination. The reason for going to Sun Valley was to fish Silver Creek.
            Silver Creek is a desert spring creek that rolls slowly and gently through the more arid regions south of Sun Valley. The Nature Conservancy has acquired a considerable parcel of land surrounding it and maintains it as a sanctuary for fly fishermen, bird watchers and nature lovers in general. It is full of large native trout who play hard to get.
            In the years since its fame has grown and it is no doubt more heavily fished now than it was then. But that October I just about had it all to myself. Linda and I went out there two days, and during that time there was only one other fisherman working on the stream. He stayed out of my way and I stayed out of his.

A Fish to Remember

            On Friday, our last day in Sun Valley, we went down there for a final day of fishing. We got sandwiches from the grocery store for lunch and left early in the day. I caught and released two trout, but I remember them well, because I had to work for them and do everything right to get them to take my fly.
            The first fish took a nymph, Hare’s Ear of Pheasant Tail, under the surface. I was working with a nymph most of the day because there was no regular insect hatch taking place on the surface.
            Late in the afternoon I was wading the creek. It was hard work because of the weeds, but the cool water provided some relief from the relentless sun. I had a nymph on the line when I noticed a fish rising to flies downstream from me. Standing in waist-deep water, I snipped off the nymph and put on a #16 dry fly that seemed to match what was in the air at the time.
            I made two bad casts without spooking the fish, but on the third one, I put the fly right over him on a clean drift. He was a lovely rainbow, and he took it. After a good fight, I had him to net — all 16 inches. I took a quick photo then released him, but to this day that fish holds a unique distinction in my angling career.
            He’s the only trout I’ve ever caught using a Quill Gordon fly.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Stopping to Smell the Flowers

            It was Mae West who once said, in a context other than literature, “I like a man what takes his time.” That used to be true in literature as well; readers appreciated authors who took their time to describe people, settings and situations in a way that made them come to life. Think of Dickens’ London.
            These days, not so much. Or so it seems.
            In the past month I’ve read two mystery-thriller novels by two different best-selling contemporary American authors, and what struck me about both of them was the utter lack of description. One book was set in New York and the other in San Francisco, but neither gave the least bit of feeling for the city in which the story took place. Either book could easily have been relocated to Cleveland simply by changing some place names.
            It was not always thus. Dashiell Hammett made you feel San Francisco; Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain caught the spirit of Los Angeles; and Ellery Queen captured the unmistakable aura of New York in the Twenties and Thirties.

Plot Coming; Outta The Way!

            All the aforementioned authors wrote pretty hard-boiled, fast-paced stuff, but they were still close to and felt bound by the older literary traditions that required a scene to be properly set and a character to be properly established. Those guys didn’t dawdle, but they colored in the picture well enough.
            I got to thinking about this on a more personal level lately when I went back and re-read the reviews on Kindle for my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance. The book was generally well received by readers and is averaging a bit over four stars, but several reviewers, including some who rated the book highly, complained that there was too much description of fishing in the book.
            As a matter of objective fact, there were two detailed fishing scenes in the book, each about three pages long. One scene introduced the story’s antagonist and the other established the time of death in the murder.
            And, to be fair, a number of readers praised the descriptions in the book, so who do I listen to? At the moment, I have to feel the complainers are so used to books that don’t pause to convey detail — books that race from chase to chase and killing to killing — that they don’t know what to make of a story that stops to smell the flowers occasionally.

Authors What Takes Their Time

            And there certainly are successful mystery writers who do take the time to develop character and atmosphere. Benjamin Black and Louise Penny come to mind. But then, one is Irish and the other Canadian. The list of leisurely Americans is short indeed.
            I personally enjoy the writer who takes the time and effort to establish a setting, develop a character more fully, let me know what time of year it is and what the weather is like, and who even might interrupt the narrative flow of the book to tell, as an aside, a good story that may or may not have anything to do with the matter at hand but is interesting in its own right. Those are the details that make a book more real and memorable.
            That’s the way I try to write my mysteries, and if there’s a smaller audience for that sort of book than there is for the slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am thrillers, so be it. Authors and readers relate to each other as lovers, and I’m content to find the lovers — book lovers, that is — that like a man what takes his time.