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, June 24, 2015

Can't Tell the Characters Without a Scorecard

Slightly edited version of a post from spring 2013

            A couple of years ago, in the early stages of writing the second Quill Gordon mystery, Wash Her Guilt Away, I found myself thinking about Ellery Queen. Early Ellery Queen, to be precise.
            What drove my mind there was the experience of trying to write a book that is a contemporary American take on the classic English country-house mystery. If you’ve read Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, or any of the other practitioners, you’ll know that’s a story where a diverse group of characters are invited to a country estate for the weekend and a murder ensues, with all the guests being suspects.
            Americans in the present day don’t do that sort of thing (I mean the country-house weekend; we certainly do murders) so in my book the characters assemble at a remote fishing lodge that has a bit of a history. The challenge facing the writer is bringing in all the characters, establishing their characters, and getting the reader interested in those characters before the first corpse makes its appearance.

The Nephew or the Secretary?

            A caring and considerate author also wants readers to keep the characters mentally sorted without too much effort as the book progresses. When Jones reappears after an absence of 30 to 40 pages, you don’t want the reader scratching her head and saying, “Let’s see — was Jones the rich uncle’s nephew or was it his secretary?”
            Based on my own reading experience, this can be a serious problem. Quite a few mysteries (and serious novels, as well) have left me dizzy trying to remember what the relationship between the characters was. That’s what sent me to the bookshelf for a look at Queen’s The Greek Coffin Mystery  to see if my memory was correct.
            The Greek Coffin Mystery was published in 1932, which definitely makes it early Queen, and sure enough, right at the front, I found what I was looking for: A list of characters. Each was described in only a few words, but those few words established the relationships between the characters and generally what they did.
At any point in the book, a reader could flip back to that page to double-check on who someone was.

So Old School It’s Not Even Retro

            Looking through the character list of this particular book, the reader can quickly be reminded that George Khalkis is an eminent art dealer (and the victim); and that Alan Cheney is the son of Delphina Sloane, who is Khalkis’ sister, and who is married to Gilbert Sloane, the manager of the Khalkis galleries. Got that?
            That sort of scorecard to help the reader keep the players straight can be most helpful, but it went out of style in the 1940s. A writer who tried to use the technique today would probably be laughed off Amazon for being so out of date he wasn’t even retro. The contemporary author has to write his way through that problem without the help of a cheat sheet.
            My approach to separating the sheep from the goats, so to speak, is threefold. First, I’m keeping the character list short; Wash Her Guilt Away has 15 characters compared to 39 in The Greek Coffin Mystery. Second, they aren’t related, except for the married couples. Third, I try to introduce them one or two at a time so the reader can get to know them before moving on. Will that help the reader avoid confusion? I don’t know, but the more critical question is, will the reader care about them? Several reviews commented favorably on the book’s character development, so I guess so.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Trying Out Amazon Preorder

            Between the publication of my second mystery novel, Wash Her Guilt Away, last April and the publication of the third, Not Death, But Love, last month, Amazon introduced a new promotional tool for authors — the preorder. Although I’m not normally a cutting-edge sort of guy, I decided to give it a try.
            Preorder allows an author to put the book out there on Amazon as a coming attraction up to three months before actual publication. Interested readers can reserve a copy, which is downloaded to them on publication day. For the purpose of counting sales for book rankings on Amazon, the preorders are counted the day they’re recorded. For the purpose of paying the author, they’re counted on publication day.
            A book can be placed on preorder if it’s not quite done, but if the final copy isn’t submitted to Amazon a week and a half before publication, there are penalties. Like losing all the preorder sales. I knew I could make the deadline, so figured I had nothing to lose.

Not What I Expected

            My initial expectation was that the book up for preorder would sell about as well as the two books already up on Amazon, but that turned out not to be the case. The first month that Not Death, But Love was up on Amazon, the only buyers were myself, my wife, Linda, and two friends. I concluded that unless you’re a big-name author, you won’t sell many books in March to people who won’t be receiving them until the end of May.
            The next month picked up a bit, and when it got to be about two weeks before book publication date, the pace quickened. Ten days before publication, I sent a blast email to a large group of people I know and saw an immediate surge in sales.
            Not until the book went live did I get a breakdown of where the sales had come from. Most were from the U.S. (I’m guessing half to two thirds were people who knew me), but I also got preorders in the U.K. and Australia, where I don’t know anybody.

A Good Marketing Tool

            From the sales standpoint, I’d have to say the preorders were a bit disappointing, but they still helped somewhat. The unexpected bonus of trying this out was that it enabled me to do some test-marketing about how to present the book.
            When I first put the book up for preorder, the tag line on the book description was, “She was writing a family history, and her murder became the final chapter.” I tried tweeting that with an image of the book cover and a link, but I also tried out several other taglines. One of the alternatives came in head and shoulders above the others in terms of being re-tweeted and favorited.
            The winning tag line was “A Paean to Books, A Reflection on Love, and a Police Procedural With No Police.” That’s currently the leader to the book description on Amazon, and in spite of or because of it, the book is selling well compared to my previous efforts. In any event, I decided that the people had spoken and went with their decision. Well, the people who use Twitter, anyway.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Hot Dog Stand That Fueled the Newspaper

            For the first few years I worked at the newspaper, I was the Saturday reporter. That’s right — the reporter. It was a small-town daily that published Monday through Saturday in the afternoon, and the Saturday paper was put out with the stuff left over from the day before and whatever the skeleton crew could pull together Saturday morning.
            Weekdays, we had a city editor, who handled the local news, and a wire editor, who handled the state, national and international news that came via United Press International. Saturdays, one editor — Bud O’Brien most weeks — did both jobs. But before coming in, he stopped at the Highway Patrol office during the 5:45 a.m. shift change to pick up vehicle accident reports from the night before.
            As the reporter, I started at a more civilized hour. I’d hit Santa Cruz at around 7:45 a.m., pick up news from that city’s police department and the county sheriff’s department, and get back to the office in Watsonville, 19 miles away, around 9 a.m. I’d write up the Santa Cruz news, call the fire stations, and take the obituaries called in by the funeral homes.

Rolling With the Punches

            You never knew what a Saturday was going to be like. If the villains were having a quiet Friday, the fire departments were polishing their engines, and the elders were holding off on the final check-out, it could be almost boring.
            But if there were a couple of juicy crimes, a couple of fires, and a slew of people going to their final rest, things could get pretty wild. Because of the uncertainty as to what the reporter would be doing, our structure called for the sports editor or one of the sports writers to go to the local police station once the sports pages were down at around 10 a.m.
            And there was a tradition associated with that. At the time there was a hot-dog stand named Taylor’s next to the police station (they’re now a couple of blocks apart), and the police reporter had to stop there to get hot dogs for the Saturday crew. He or she would take orders and collect money, then bring back the dogs. Not even having a triple murder to write up would interfere with stopping at Taylor’s. The news was important, but there were priorities, after all.

I Remember It Well

            It’s probably been 30 years since I had a Taylor’s hot dog, but I can conjure up the taste immediately. There were several possible combinations of condiments, and I always had mine with chili and onions — no mustard, no relish. As you might expect from a small place that did one thing and did it well, the hot dogs were to die for.
            By the time the police reporter returned around 11, we were in the final hour of putting out the paper, and things were often pretty busy. I remember many an occasion when I was sitting at my desk with the phone on my shoulder, a chili dog in my left hand, and a pencil in my right as I wrote down the names of surviving relatives for an obituary. I can’t recall ever making a mistake that could be attributed to the distraction of the hot dog.
            By noon, both the hot dogs and the work were pretty much finished. Once the front page was sent off to be plated for the press, I got to go home. Getting into my car, I could look forward to Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday off, with the aftertaste of the chili dogs still in my mouth. It didn’t get any better than that.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

What a Difference a Dollar Makes

            Forty years ago, when I was a small-town newspaper reporter, people would call the paper all the time asking for information or trying to get us interested in their problems for a news story. There was one call that I remember to this day, because it made such an impression on me.
            It was from a man who lived out in the country, and whose neighbors (he said) were illegally using their property in a way that was causing spillover damage and loss of property value to his land. That’s one of those he-said-she-said things that we couldn’t readily get to the bottom of, so I suggested, because he stood to lose thousands of dollars from his neighbor’s actions, that he should report them to the county planning department, and if they found a major violation, we would do a story.
            His answer blew me away. “But the planning department is in Salinas,” he said. “That’s a toll call.”

What’s It Worth to You?

            So to recapitulate: We have someone who claims to be in danger of losing thousands of dollars due to a neighbor’s law-breaking, and he won’t spend a quarter on a toll call to the government department that could enforce the law in his favor. Go figure.
            The point that drove home — one that’s been repeated many times since — is that people are absolutely weird about what they think something’s worth, and it’s hard to figure for that irrationality. In the internet era, the problem is getting worse, particularly in the information/publication area, where people often resist paying for information or content because they’re used to getting it free.
            As a self-published author, this phenomenon is of more than usual interest to me. When I published my first mystery novel, TheMcHenry Inheritance, on Amazon, I priced it at $2.99 because that was the lowest price at which an author could qualify for the 70 percent royalty. Last year, when I put out the second mystery in my series, Wash Her Guilt Away, I kept the price at the same level.

The Caffe Latte Pricing Theory

            Talking to friends, I jokingly referred to it as the Caffe Latte Pricing Theory of book publishing: You had your book cost less than a latte on the theory that it could be an impulse purchase for someone who had never heard of you.
            That seemed to work fairly well. The books haven’t been bestsellers, but they have sold steadily over time and gotten largely positive reviews. They appear to be building a modest following with growth potential. So with the third book in the series, Not Death, But Love, coming out last month, I considered a price increase. Logically, there was no reason not to bump the price up by a dollar, but I kept thinking about that guy who wouldn’t make a toll call when he had thousands of dollars on the line.
            In the end, I decided to go for it and price the book at $3.99. It’s a reasonable amount of money for a book that provides five or six hours of pleasure, and with Amazon’s loan program cutting into author royalties, it made business sense. The book’s been out for a week, and its first-week sales have been double those of the last book. So far, so good, and all I did was go from the price of a small to a medium latte.