Keep Cracking Yourself Open

Smithsonian Magazine did an issue last November on American Ingenuity. (I’m just now getting that far along in my magazines. They tend to pile up while I’m reading books.) The issue examined education, science, and the arts. Singer and songwriter Roseanne Cash was the subject of one of the articles, an intriguing story on how she and her husband went about the creation of a concept album The River and the Thread by writing songs that tells stories.*  A couple of her observations resonated with me as a fiction writer and a reader.

One: “The more specific you are about places and characters the more universal the song becomes.”

Two: “You have to keep cracking yourself open or you become a parody of yourself.”

Cracking yourself open. It’s like the work an actor does to get into character—using memories, feelings and imagination to fully experience a role. That’s where the stories come from, the ones that mean something. This doesn’t mean necessarily that stories are autobiographical. One of Cash’s new songs is about two of her distant ancestors during the Civil War. The creative person cracks open her compassion for others and her capacity for invention and hard work, not just her own life story.

On the opposite end of the creative spectrum, there’s the formula-for-success approach. I got an advertisement last week offering a special price on software that supposedly could help an author become a bestseller by analyzing the data on current bestsellers. The advertisement claimed that by using this analysis, an author could target his or her next book to the right niche in the market, and even choose a title based on what’s selling as well as key words to use in marketing. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to sell—no one writes a book with the hope of obscurity—but there were several things that bothered me about this ad.

One: Everyone can’t be a best-seller, although the developer of the software implied his product could get that result for his customers (I think he knew better than to guarantee it). Best implies exceptional sales, above average, and we can’t all be above average, though there are sub-categories so small that a book can be in the top one hundred, a best-seller within that category, without having significant sales. I have no idea if this software I chose to forego drills down into the sub-basement for narrower and narrower categories, small enough that everyone actually can claim to be a best-seller. It doesn’t matter—because of the second thing wrong with this picture: I can’t imagine writing a book quickly enough to tailor it to the current trends. They would change by the time I was done. And then, there’s the third problem: When a particular book is a big hit, it doesn’t mean that other books like it will be successful or that readers want more of the same. I haven’t read fifty shades of anything and don’t plan to. Reading books that reproduce what’s already popular has no appeal for me. With genre fiction, there are already so many conventions and expectations, an author’s challenge are how to innovate, not how to replicate.

I was talking with a friend about a best-selling series she follows, but which I quit reading half-way through the third book. She agreed with me that the books had become predictable, mechanized, and broadly caricatured, but she used them as audiobook background entertainment during exercise and housework, perfectly suited for that purpose. “It doesn’t matter if I miss part of it.” That particular author may not mind that her followers have such thoughts—she’s selling a lot of books—but I think even a popular writer could lose part of his or her fan base by losing originality.

One reason I enjoy indie books is that they often venture outside of the formulas or dare to bend them. And I think all authors, from little-known indie to traditionally published national best-seller, need to keep cracking ourselves open so we don’t become parodies of ourselves.

*Himes, Geoffrey, American Ingenuity: Performing Arts: Roseanne Cash: The Long Way Home, Smithsonian Magazine, Nov. 2014 pp 60-65


Review: Designer Dirty Laundry by Diane Vallere


Samantha Kidd leaves her sixty-hour-a-week job as a buyer for a major New York store to work as a trend specialist for a store in her old home town. Her first day on the job, things start going wrong.  Within minutes, she sees her new boss lying dead in an elevator. In a light mystery like this, the author has to walk a fine line between trivializing death and loss, and writing humor around it rather than about it. Samantha’s reaction to her boss’s death is human, appropriate for the level of connection she had to him. It’s an effective beginning which made me care about both the main character and the mystery.

As a narrator, she’s likeable and energetic, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Her personal story is engaging—in one career move she is both starting over and coming home. She’s better cut out for being a trend expert than a detective, but her motive for trying to take on that role is solid. It would be a spoiler if I told you more, but she couldn’t possibly have a higher personal stake. In an amateur sleuth story, I find it more believable when the amateur is highly motivated like this, and when she isn’t always good at detecting—doesn’t completely outsmart the professionals. In her determined effort figure out who committed the crime and why, Samantha makes progress but also misses major clues and makes a few near-fatal mistakes.

Though a couple of details in the final resolution of the mystery stretched my suspension of disbelief, the plot kept me turning pages, curious what would happen next. I was rooting for Samantha to notice those clues she overlooked. Even though I’d picked up on them, I still didn’t know whodunit, only that these things were clues to something. Overall, this book is tightly crafted. The characters are colorful but not caricatured, and the romance subplot shows promise for the series. I enjoyed the setting in the fashion industry. It’s fun when a protagonist has profession about which I was previously ignorant, and I learn something about it in the course of the story. A cozy mystery with good characters is like a well-made dessert with quality ingredients. Indulge yourself in this one: it’s a delightful treat.


The Paperback Choice


In this guest post, science fiction author Shanna Lauffey reflects on the importance of tangible books.


In today’s climate of easy downloading and cheap e-books, there is still a culture of readers who enjoy the feel of a “real” book in their hands. Sometimes I’m one of them.

As an author of a time travel series, I sometimes look at collections of older authors and note that combined editions in paperback can be even more economical that electronic editions. For example, The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny, a popular Fantasy series, can be bought in a paperback edition for $16.99 new, not to mention used copies which sell for half as much. Ten books are included in the collection, so the cost per story is very good!

My books are always released in paperback, but the cost of a hard copy novella can add up when you’re collecting a series. Combined editions of my series, consisting of five episodes each, will be coming out in response to this.

I think e-books are here to stay and I do enjoy sitting and reading with one hand free to stroke the cat or look like a real geek with my smart phone in the other hand looking up something on Google that I’ve just read about, but I could never live without shelves of books to enhance my home. There’s something about opening the cover, looking for treasures for the imagination, which naturally appeals to the book lover. I also enjoy looking at my own books on my shelf, watching the series grow volume by volume. This gives me a sense of satisfaction of something accomplished; something I can hold in my hands and say, “I created that!”

Readers still need paperbacks and hardbacks to be available. Have you ever tried to follow a recipe on a reading device? They tend to go to standby. Furthermore, used books have always been a part of the book lover’s world. Shops that buy and sell all sorts of books were a part of my young life and though I seldom have the time to browse as I once did, I think it would be sad if this opportunity were to be lost forever.

I encourage any authors reading this to make your books available in paperback. (I personally prefer over Createspace, but it’s an individual choice and it’s not all that difficult.) There are still a lot of readers out there who do not own an electronic device. Loyalty to paperbacks, or hard copy in some form, is still alive and well. That is why my books will always come out in paperback as well as electronic copy. Although the e-book sales outstrip the hard copy sales, if one reader enjoyed my books because they were available in a traditional form, then it was worth the small effort it takes to give them that choice.


Author’s Website:

I’m Reading a Twenty-Six-Dollar Hardcover …

… and my thumbs are tired. They are out shape for reading heavy books in bed. I find that funny—I’m such a fitness fanatic, I think every muscle in my body is shape, but apparently not. I used to read a lot more hardcovers, and not exclusively from the library. I used to buy them without a second thought. Those days are gone. This book belongs to a friend in my book club. Is she a member of an endangered species—the full-price book buyer? According the data I looked up, she’s not, but I’ve gotten frugal since I got my Nook, and even more so since I discovered indie fiction. What do I call frugal? To me, anything priced at $4.99 and under is a bargain. It’s less than the cost of eating out, and the enjoyment lasts much longer. My book club members say they’re accustomed to paying $7.99 and up for e-books, and they think that price is a bargain. We read an indie book once as our selection for the month—they don’t normally buy indie—and the price tag blew them away. An e-book for $2.99?

To some people, though, that’s expensive. A fellow writer recently confided that she seldom pays full price for a book anymore, but looks for e-books that are on sale. She hasn’t gotten as frugal as some people, though, who won’t pay for books at all—and I don’t mean they borrow them from their local library (which I somehow don’t think of as free since the library bought the books and the community supports the library). They claim they only read free downloads.

My friend who occasionally buys hardcovers isn’t rich, and the one who primarily buys discounted e-books isn’t poor. Some of the free-only readers are on tight budgets, and some aren’t. I won’t make generalizations or draw conclusions about why some people are changing their perspective on the “right” price for books or where the trend is going, but if you’re curious, here’s plenty of data on the subject.

The Publisher’s Weekly article looks at sales. The Author Earnings reports look at earnings. (I selected the Barnes and Noble report for attention along with the whole report page since this blog is dedicated to indies who publish everywhere.) What are your thoughts and book-buying habits? My thumbs salute you if you’re still reading a lot of hardcovers.