Writing on the Edge

Recently, I heard a choir I’m familiar with, a lovely and accomplished group of sixty or so voices.  The director was new to me, and though the performance was nearly perfect, I was disappointed.  The former conductor—whose performances were never nearly perfect—brought something different to the music, a passion and energy that pushed the choir right to the edge every time.  When I listened to them under that director, I never knew what might happen, musically speaking.  What always happened, without fail, was that I was engaged and moved.  I felt a deep connection to the music and its message, perfection notwithstanding.

I’ve been pondering that, and thinking about how it might relate to writing.  Tastes are vastly different, of course, but for myself, perfection is not the element I seek.  I love beautiful language, but still, I’d rather read something that feels as if it’s pushing the envelope.  I like stories that teeter on the cliff, plots that might go either way.  I like unique characters, the ones who take chances, who surprise me as a reader.

This may be why I love writing villains, real bad boys (and girls), who are capable of all sorts of disturbing actions.  Heroines and heroes are hard, because they tend to be generic.  You expect them to make wise and virtuous choices, to be the sort of person we can all admire.

Villains can be much more fun.  They operate from a different context.  More than one reader has said they hated being in the mind (which is to say, the point of view) of Preston Benedict, the antagonist of my Benedict Hall series.  I loved it!  For me, his scenes were the most fun of all to write.  Antagonists are, in many ways, easy.  They’re already on the edge.

Creating protagonists who are capable of surprising readers is much more difficult.  A likable protagonist with an edge is much to be desired, and not at all simple to achieve.  I’m going to try to remember how affecting the choir was when it was less perfect and more adventurous, and apply that same effect to my fiction.


The Tightrope of Self-Promotion

In my dream world, I would be closeted in my study, creating the best fiction I’m capable of; my editor would take it out of my hands and polish it; the art department at my publisher would hire the best available cover artist; and, finally, the publisher would pass my precious novel along to the sales department, who would drop everything else they were doing in order to promote my newest book.

Of course, my dream world is just that. A dream. I suspect that for a very, very few novelists, this may be the way the world works, but for the vast majority of us, reality is a bit different.

One of the first things my agent did, when he signed me up, was to send me a huge packet of information and suggestions on how to promote my own work. This was some time ago, before the internet became the premier focus of promotion, and I learned all about doing bookmarks, sending out press releases, visiting bookstores, setting up book signings and other events. I did it all. I really did. My approach was always “If I can think of it, I’ll do it.”

Did that make me obnoxious? I don’t think so. One bookstore or reviewer wouldn’t necessarily know that they were one of dozens I was trying to interest in my work. Now, however, when I put some promotional tidbit online, chances are that everyone knows it, and has either seen it before or has been expecting it. The audience has expanded, thanks to online book selling, e-books, and book review blogs. But the conduit to that audience, I fear, has narrowed to the point that we, the writers dutifully trying to make our readers aware of each new novel published, walk a fine line between self-promotion and self-destruction.

I’ve lost count of how many complaints I’ve seen online about people endlessly and tediously flogging their books or art work or workshops or whatever. I wouldn’t dream of asking my friends to “like” my fan page (Cate Campbell on Facebook, in case you’re interested, ha ha) because I myself am inundated with such requests. I loathe asking colleagues to blurb my books, because I get weekly requests from people I’ve never heard of, and who clearly have no idea what I write or what I’ve written, to “review” their new novel.  I’m even hesitant to blog unless, like today, I really have something to say, because somehow it became de rigeur to blog every week to keep your name in front of the public.  The results of that development were both predictable and irritating.

So, all of us walk this tightrope, trying our best not to fall off on the wrong side.  Does self-promotion work?  It does.  It does because if we don’t do it, no one will (except for the favored few) and then our readers won’t know that a new novel has hit the shelves.  Does self-promotion annoy people to the point they won’t touch one of our books?  I have no data, but I would bet it does.  I don’t buy books (and I buy a lot of them!) because of a blog, or a Fan Page, or blurbs.  I do occasionally buy a book because of a review, but mostly, as has been true throughout the history of publishing, what sells books is word-of-mouth.  Therefore, I delicately and, I hope, tactfully, announce a new book or story to those folks I hope are interested, and then–I stop.

As I will now.  My new novel, The Benedict Bastard, is now out.  If you like historical fiction, or are a fan of the Benedict Hall novels, perhaps you’ll have a look.  Maybe, if it looks interesting, you’ll buy a copy.  Then, if you enjoy it, gentle reader, please tell someone else!  I thank you, and I’ll try not to bother you again.


The Romance of Beginnings

1920s wedding

There’s nothing like that first moment when a writer has a new idea for a story or a novel.  It’s like falling in love, when the object of our infatuation has no faults, no complications, only endless and enchanting possibilities.  Character, setting, plot . . . they all glow with promise.  The first lines flow, the first scene intrigues us, and visions of success draw us into this new project.

It’s been said that being in love is no assurance of happiness in a marriage, but that attempting marriage without it is a doomed effort.  There’s a strong analogy with a fictional concept.  Those first pages are easy.  The work begins when we try to make a cohesive whole, building a good strong fire out of the spark of imagination that got us started.

“In sickness and in health” is the way the traditional marriage ceremony goes.  In creating a work of fiction, the same principles apply.  We discover that our characters are two-dimensional.  We write ourselves into a plot corner.  We find–in writing historical fiction–that our timeline is wrong, or that the characters we wanted to use weren’t actually anywhere near our setting when we need them to be.  We learn, through research, that the cunning detail we had so looked forward to including doesn’t actually fit the period.  And now, the work of building a long relationship has really begun.

Still, the energy and inspiration of that beginning can carry us through.  It’s important to remember why we were excited, what drew us into the period or the event that made us commit to the laborious process of creating a novel.  Is it the political environment?  The social structure?  The clothes?  (I write in the 1920s.  The clothes are fabulous!)  Whatever it is that we found romantic at the outset will give us the energy and the drive to do the necessary work.

If we’re truly successful, and with a bit of luck, we can retain–or rediscover–what made us fall in love with the idea in the first place.  That will make our fiction work, and make our readers feel the same romance.


Because . . . a bookseller

Don’t you adore a great series of books, stories you know in advance will give you pleasure?  I do.  I always have. As one of my reading friends said, the best sort of book is the one that draws you to go to bed early so you can slip back into it.

Of course, those books can be hard to find.  A great many of my favorites have been discovered the old-fashioned way–browsing the stacks in a bookstore.  All those colorful covers, the intriguing titles, the smell of fresh print and the feel of different papers, and the way one book leads to another, and then to another–what a treat for a bibliophile.

I lament the loss of so many bricks-and-mortar bookstores.  In my own town of about 60,000 people we have–literally–none.  The charming small stores where I spent many happy hours were pushed out when a giant Borders Books & Music arrived, and of course we all know what happened after that.

I’m happy to report that the indie bookstore survives, just the same.  In 2013, independent bookstores were on the rise.  Many people, like me, don’t find online browsing nearly as entertaining as in-person, in-the-hand (and in the nose) browsing.  This past weekend, I visited Sunriver Books & Music, the perfect example of a lively and thriving indie bookstore.  It has, as far as I could tell, an unending flow of customers, and many of them make the store a regular stop.

Why would a charming place like Sunriver Books succeed where others might not?  And where, I think I can say without reservation, Borders Books failed?  You’re probably way ahead of me here, but I should still say it:  It’s the bookseller.  Or in the case of Sunriver Books, the booksellers.

It’s the perfect experience:  You enter the store, are greeted with enthusiasm, and are immediately surrounded by shelves and shelves of carefully chosen and beautifully displayed volumes.  The booksellers know their stock, and quickly know you and what you like.  They handsell books, and they succeed at it because they have actually read the books themselves, and can match the book to the reader.  Despite Amazon‘s efforts–and they’re impressive–the great challenge for all of us who read (and even more for those of us in search of readers) is to place the right book in the right hands.

Despite the general impression created, in part, by a flood of self-published e-books, the paper book is alive and well in the English-speaking world.  Taken from USA Today, May 2013:  “Preliminary data from the annual BookStats study, released Wednesday by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, shows that 457 million e-books were sold last year. That’s up 4456% since 2008, when just 10 million e-books were sold.  But it’s still fewer than the 557 million hardcovers sold last year. (Paperback numbers are incomplete.)”

Did that surprise you?  It surprised me, even though I own three separate e-readers. I still buy books–paper books–from places like Sunriver Books, Parkplace Books and the venerable and trusty University Bookstore in Seattle.  I also love my public library, and where I live, the public library is one of the busiest in the United States.   E-readers are convenient, but I love the heft and feel of a paper book, and thanks to the marvelous Deon Stonehouse at Sunriver, I’ve started a new series that I know will give me hours and hours of joy.  (It’s the Bess Crawford Mysteries, in case you’d like to know.  I love recommending a book I admire, and as with handselling, such recommendations are a sure-fire way to see that a book succeeds.)

I hope these thoughts will encourage you to seek out and patronize the closest independent bookstore you can find.  Need a guide?  Just visit the IndieBound website.  You can find a store, and also find good recommendations from real live booksellers–a precious breed.  You can even go to Sunriver Books & Music and buy an autographed copy of my latest novel!

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