Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Getting that Book Into Print

I've had a lot of fun the last few years -- fifteen books, a bunch of writers' conferences, many book signings and...most important...many new reading and writing friends.

Indianapolis Barnes & Noble. Yea BN!
At a Sisters in Crime Book signing at an Indianapolis Barnes and Noble in December, another author asked how I had published so many books in just a few years. I love this question, because the answer is simple. Write every day, or as close to that as life permits.

The question prompted me to write (in three weeks) Writing in Retirement: Putting Your New Year's Resolutions to Work. I was told the title might limit sales. However, the point is that those of us of a certain age have lots of experience and hopefully more free time than in our thirties and forties.

Writing in Retirement takes you through the "do I want to do this" thought process, discusses types of writing, lets you know how to put your books for sale at online retailers, and provides guidance on marketing your books. While geared to self-publishing, the ideas apply to those who want to get a publisher.  

Writing can be fun. I enjoy it, but I also treat it as a part-time job. The ideas come fairly easily. Getting them into decent shape for a book, which I'm asking readers to pay for, take a lot of time. And a couple of cuss words now and then. I try not to have too many of those make it into books.

Writing to sell is a major commitment. I don't say that to scare people. The nice thing about semi-retirement is that our deadlines are largely our own. If a sick child or grandchild needs attention or some volunteer work
 becomes more pressing, those are important. Once those obligations clear, writing can be prominent again.

If we wait for the perfect time to write, the so-called large block of time, there won't be too many finished projects. Writing is a lot like learning a foreign language. You need to spend a consistent amount of time regularly, and you can't worry about doing it badly before you do it well.

In case you say you don't know where to start, I can recommend another of my books: Words to Write By: Putting Your Thoughts on Paper. The premise is that we have done many things well, so we may not want to tackle something (writing) that seems daunting. The book offers an approach.

Just take it in pieces, and start with something you know. Or begin with something you want to learn about. That's even more fun. Just get started Writing in Retirement.
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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Writing in Spite of Technology

Sometimes technology gets the better of me so much that I have to laugh. Mostly because it beats crying.

Here are my system failures, so to speak, of the last couple of months. Most are in the last two to three weeks.

1)   Laser and ink jet printers die almost simultaneously. I figure one was mourning the other. Problem solved by buying two new ones, with a dent in the wallet where bills used to be.
2)      Hard drive died on the laptop. I don’t own a PC, though I have one of the original Acer notebooks with one gig of RAM (honest). After much help from Office Max staff, I decided to buy a new hard drive. Reasonable price (on sale, even labor!), but the wallet is again lighter.
3)      Cell phone (which also gives access to email, though not a smart phone) won’t retain a charge. Find a battery for $5 online (because of course no local store has it). Yea! Battery does not help. Turns out when a phone is dying, it won’t hold a charge. Boo!
4)      Buy a new phone, not a smart phone. (Like I could really learn to use GPS on one.)  The voice part of my new touch phone transfers immediately. Not so data in any form—text or email. Spend more than two hours on live chat. (I did like that direct access.) After many resets and “is it working now?” exchanges, two technicians decide I have a dud and they will replace it. At least the old phone can be turned back on. It works when plugged in and for 15 minutes on battery.
5)      Return envelope arrives to send back nonworking new phone. Ask me if the replacement phone is here yet, after ten days. Nope.
6)      Buy another new phone, this time online so it’s just like my old phone (which is kind of like a Blackberry). It’s coming via FedEx today. I figure it will arrive too late for me to go run errands. Odds are the original replacement new phone will arrive in two weeks. No acceptance signature for that one!
7)      In the midst of phone fun…remember that new hard drive? The computer dies.
I’m talking no booting, RIP, time for burial. (See hammer, which I would like to use on the laptop.)
8)      Good luck here. It’s the day before Thanksgiving (yes, that’s good luck, no 
computers used during dinner). That means sales afterwards, and I get an HP Laptop for a really, really cheap price. And no one got trampled. Wallet is now very light.
9)      Gee, computers need software. I’m 900 miles from home and don’t have any of mine with me to load, so try the free 30-day Microsoft Office 365 trial. It lets me work but – and this may be the biggest advantage to the computer meltdown – I don’t like it at all. So, good old Office 2010 awaits me upon return home.
10)   Are you laughing yet?
11)   Take RIP computer to Office Max. Ask them to migrate my many gigabytes of files to a 32 gigabyte flash drive – for no charge. They agree, and will also study the dead computer—likewise for free.
12)   Just had a call from the Office Max staffer who installed the new hard drive. Computer is fine. Hard drive came loose. He has added more screws. (No, I did not say screw you, he’s young and has been very patient in explaining many things to me over the last couple of months.)

Is there a moral here? A couple of people have suggested yellow pads and pencils, but I compose at more than 100 words per minute on a keyboard.

The moral is: email yourself important files. I had all the fiction I was working on stored in my yahoo email account. Yes, one can use Google Drive or some other online storage system. Ask me how. Go ahead, ask.

I have no clue. I’m sticking with email (and flash drives) because my mind is so tired of learning new technology.

When the Fed Ex truck comes with the second new phone, I’m going to pick up my now-fixed computer. All wagers on the next breakdown will be accepted. Prize is a dead phone.
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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Learning to Tell the Difference

I’m appalled at what happened in Paris and Mali—and continues to happen in Syria.

My mother once described her reaction on December 7, 1941. She was sitting in a Redskins football game and said she and friends wondered why so many members of the military were getting paged. Later, she felt sad, but also guilty that she was enjoying herself when so many people were dying. My father and uncles were part of the Greatest Generation who fought in that war. We didn’t suffer through bombings and watch siblings get blown to bits as Europeans did, but we helped win that war against hate.

However, our reluctance to accept refugees meant far more people died in Hitler’s camps than might have otherwise. Look at history books. You’ll see references in diplomatic cables to the U.S. having its own “Jewish problem” and not wanting more. I admit, my initial exposure to the horrific rejections (that led directly to death camps in some cases) was largely through Leon Uris novels. And supplemented by Erik Larsen’s “In the Garden of the Beasts,” though it’s mostly about how we coddled Hitler before 1941 because we wanted war reparations from World War I. We KNEW what Hitler was doing in his camps.

I looked today for articles that cited the U.S. policies during WWII and found a new one in the “Times of Israel.” It notes how similar our reactions today are to those in the 1930s and 1940s.

“No historical parallel is perfect, obviously,” says Allan Lichtman, co-author of “FDR and the Jews” and a professor of history at American University. But U.S. limits on refugees during World War II, influenced by anti-Semitism, were fed by fears the Nazis “would plant agents, spies and saboteurs among the Jewish refugees and that they would pressure the Jews, particularly those whose families were still in Germany, to act as agents on behalf of the Third Reich,” Lichtman said.

So what about refugees today? It takes fully TWO YEARS to be vetted before you can become a refugee to the United States. Refugees stay in overseas camps or other dire circumstances while they go through the process. They meet with the FBI and other security officials.

You want to worry about terrorists (other than people like Oklahoma City bomber Terry McVeigh or the Connecticut man who shot up Sandy Hook Elementary School), worry about tourist visas. Worry about someone who walks across the border without one after overstaying a visa in Canada (where it would be easier to blend in than Mexico). Worry about the loner who’s stockpiling guns in the basement of the home where he lives with his mother because he has no social skills and can’t keep a job. Worry about the conspiracy theorists who say the Sandy Hook shooting never happened, it was made up by gun control advocates.

Should we be concerned about terrorists who say they act on behalf of Allah? Of course. They aren’t a large portion of the Muslim population and are despised by most Muslims. I know many people of that faith, have for decades. To say that all Muslims are terrorists is like saying that because some German Christians fought for Hitler it means all German Christians at that time were evil. (Hitler was not a Christian, but many who fought for him were. And the Catholic Church? Read about how often the church in Rome refused to help many Jews.)

What started this post was reading that Cedar Rapids, Iowa--home to Syrians for many decades, some of them refugees—may be less welcoming in the future. There are three mosques in Cedar Rapids. Christians helped the Muslims rebuild one after the 2008 floods. Muslims are part of the fabric of that city.

How can this hate be happening in our country? Why do good people stay silent while others profess that an entire religion is bad because of some horrible fanatics who act in its name? I’ve been to several countries with Muslim populations, most notably Morocco. It’s the only place (among about 30 countries I’ve been to) where someone invited me (a stranger) to their home for tea.

I get it. We're scared. Bravery takes many forms. Speaking up may be one of them.

I was at a prayer breakfast in my town in Illinois this week. A child from each faith gave a brief talk and prayer (Christian, Jews, Muslims, and more). I complimented several of them.

Here’s something to think about. We white folks often think ‘they’ all look alike, whatever the ‘they.’ While I waited to talk to the kids, I asked one woman if she was the mom of the girl of Hindi heritage who spoke. Nope. She was the aunt of the Muslim boy. Who, by the way, sat next to the Jewish boy. That’s America.

Refugees are not the enemy. The terrorists who create them are. We need to remember that.

I implore good people not to be still and let the discussion in our country be dominated by people who cannot tell the difference or want to use terrorism to score political points.

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Why is a discussion about U.S. fear of refugees on a blog that mostly deals about writing? Because I feel very strongly that not to speak up about this means letting the fear-mongerers take charge. That's scarier than letting in people who have been terrorized by ISIS.
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Saturday, November 14, 2015

In Honor of Reviewers

Reviewers are high on my list of good people, but I review few of the books I read. I'm selfish, but trying to do better.

Largely it's a time issue, but I also blame my mother. (I mean, why not?) She stressed being uncritical in personal relationships, and what is more personal than the connections with the books we read?

Not that my opinions are negative--usually quite the opposite. I finish a book by Sue Grafton, Terence Faherty, or Anne Tyler and think, "Why am I bothering to write?" It's sort of like visiting an art museum. You realize you are a speck on the planet's pallet.

But, why be maudlin?

The biggest benefit of reviews is not for the writer. Reviews help readers decide what to pick up next. We all have authors whose books we grab as soon as they are out (Robert Harris, Erik Larson), but given we are busy people, we may want to know what others think about books they've read.

There are common places to look, such as sites that sell books (Amazon, BN, Kobo, itunes). If you want to read reviews and talk about books with other readers, there is Goodreads. Join a group. I belong to several that talk about cozy mysteries.

You can also look at the lists of paperback giveaways. Goodreads must approve every giveaway offer, so you know it's not a way for some rogue website to get your email address. I have  used the Goodreads Giveaway program for my last few books. It's a neat way to garner interest while doing something for readers, too.

Here are some good sites to check for book reviews. Some let you sign up to review books.

Complete Review  Links to reviews (in English) in major publication, not all in the U.S.
More Than Review Good rankings on violence or sex, in addition to a general review.
Best Book Review Sites  Links to major sites, such as Kirkus and NY Review of Books.
New York Times Book Review   Have to be a subscriber to see the full paper, but you can get an email with the link to reviews.
Self Publishing Reviews  Good site for looks at indie books.
Goodreads lists of reviewers  Many blog authors note they will review books, and you can link to the blogs.

If you want easy access to best seller lists, check out the online version of Publishers Weekly. (It's a fee-based site, but there is a lot you can see without subscribing.)  Some sites, such as Kirkus and Self Publishing Review require that authors pay for a review. They don't guarantee a good review.

Finally, where is the best place to learn about good books? Your local library. Most have librarian favorite lists, and they nearly all have subscriptions to the book review magazines.

Next step? Start a good book.
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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

What the Age of Narcissism Means for Reading

Until recently, I've thought of the constant Facebook selfies and YouTube videos as occasionally amusing, more often simply posts to scroll through. Don't get me wrong. I think my nephew's puppy is maturing handsomely, and it goes without saying that any child of family or friends could be voted cutest kid on the Internet (especially my grandnieces).

I don't understand posting about daily activities (why would someone care if it rained as you drove to work?), or sticking out your tongue for the camera. (Hello! Who wants their photo to bring to mind Miley Cyrus? Yuck.)

There are security advantages to all the cameras in society. Criminals are apprehended or abuses uncovered because people grab their mobile phone cameras. Criminal mischief aside, people are free to behave as they want. Go ahead, post photos of  yourself looking into a fish bowl. No doubt some of my Facebook friends are tired of seeing pictures of my book signings.

But what has been the impact, especially for children, of knowing a camera could lurk in any wing? Perhaps they become more conscious of their appearance, expect to look up with a smile when Uncle Godfrey comes into the room to sneak a photo. Smiling is good, especially when we're pleased or happy. Fake smiles, or the newer oval expression, don't convey much except you know there's a camera pointed in your direction. Still, no harm done.

However, it appears to me that the constant awareness of how we look to others and the need to present our everyday activities eight times is expanding the Age of Narcissism, which largely began with the dawn of television and ease of home photos. (Wait, some are saying. There used to not be television? What do you mean Granddad burned his fingers on a flash bulb?)

So, who cares? Why am I thinking about this?

I think narcissism inhibits imagination -- imagination beyond how we might look in a photo if staged a certain way. Why read a book to envision Middle Earth in The Hobbit when we can pull down an Internet photo and insert our picture in the Shire?

Children have always believed fiction to be real, placed themselves in it. I looked for the House at Pooh Corner in a nearby area of mature trees, and even expected to meet Nancy Drew to help her solve crimes. (I may have spent too much time in imaginary worlds.) But, it was more about the story than me.

I think children today are less likely to travel to places in their minds in part because they cannot be part of the action. There is no camera viewer to check to see how they looked in the shot.

Have I any proof? No. It's also hard to conduct research in a field with no possible control groups. Plus, the impact of the "look at me" environment goes beyond selfies.

Maybe the enhanced focus on self and looks doesn't affect reading, or maybe I'm too 'mature' to envision how taking and displaying hundreds of your own photos every month can draw you into reading paper or digital books.

Do your own research. Sit near a group of kids in a shopping mall or playground. You'll generally see them playing video games to see who can get the top score--and then crowing about it on Instagram. Nary a book in sight.

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Usually I post photos or other graphics with blog posts. Somehow, that didn't seem appropriate here.
Elaine L. Orr
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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Writing Across Genres

Stories have been bubbling in my brain for decades. Like honey in a bee hive, they leak out, but not in consistent forms.

I began writing plays and screenplays, with the occasional short story. After a few years of doing this, with a demanding day job, I decided that screenplay production was a pipe dream. I liked my stories, but they probably weren't cutting edge enough to get Hollywood's attention. What was I thinking?

That left books, which had been friends since my Mother first read me Robert Louis Stevenson's Child's Garden of Verses. True, these were poems, but they told stories will brilliant pictures.

After two years writing what could be classified as a calm thriller (not exactly a marketable genre), I learned that I liked problem resolution too much to write books with constant, severe threats to the main characters. (Or, write good ones.) That discovery led to writing mysteries that focused more on the characters. It took years to write the first two books, but I was comfortable with what are called traditional or cozy mysteries.

Guess what aspects of my books are often complimented? The dialogue. Hmm.

I think a lot, often looking for common denominators within complex problems. That's probably why my day jobs usually involved analytical reviews of programs. Now, I think about why people argue so much about differences when humans are mostly alike. I can't fix that other than to contribute to equinimity by trying to treat everyone alike. But, I can write about it.

Common Ground is a play in one act, with four scenes. Three very different couples sit in three kitchens discussing plans to relocate. Some people are pleased, others don't want change, and one wants to ignore a very big problem. The first three scenes lead to a picnic, which includes the couples' adult children, some of whom are puzzled at their parents' choices. And amused. Since I've been writing mysteries for years, there has to be a twist at the end. That makes the story hard to describe -- giving away the ending would cut down on reader enjoyment.

Readers? People watch plays. Yes, but potential theater groups read the scripts first. I love the script format. When I lived in the Washington DC area, I would go to a library in the Kennedy Center to read scripts of plays I'd seen. I wanted to figure out how the writers built the story.

The Common Ground ebook is formatted to be read, and the paperback (out in a few days) is in traditional script format. The play can be produced royalty-free, the only cost to schools or theater groups being that of the scripts, which are not expensive.

Perhaps I'll get emails saying to stick to books, but that idea doesn't bother me. Common Ground is a fun story with snappy dialogue. With an ending that will bring a smile, I hope to lessen our differences.
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Saturday, August 8, 2015

Why Write about Family History?

Some of us know a lot about where our families came from and what our great-grandparents did to keep food on the table during the Great Depression. Others have a Great Aunt Minnie wants to tell stories about what her parents did when the shoe factory in Massachusetts closed or the Ford plant in Detroit laid off one thousand people. But, we're busy, so we may nod politely or make sure the holiday eggnog is in a different room so we don't have to listen.

Her stories would be a lot to miss.

Growing up, I heard about my father's family of nine siblings and his mother's indomitable spirit as a widow whose youngest was an infant. Spread across the country, the nine of them stayed in regular touch in the days of snail mail, and periodically even the far-flung families met at an aunt's farm in Mount Vernon, Missouri. I knew which uncle was in which branch of the service during World War II, and was happy that my mother went from Kansas to DC to work during the war. If not, she would not have roomed with my father's sister and met my dad.

Built on Orr land, Ozark Prairie Presbyterian Church
I thought I knew a lot. I knew next to nothing. In the early 1990s, business trips took me to the Midwest, so I (who, with my sister, stayed home with our mom who had MS rather than take trips to Missouri in our teens) spent time with elderly aunts and uncles in Mount Vernon. The stories about how my dad refused to go to school at age six, beating his mother home three days in a row, were funny. Even better was learning why my ancestors ended up in the state in the 1830s and what they did to build a church community and town.

A group of extended family has met annually since 1937, the 100th anniversary of the first arrival of Paul Orr and Isabelle Boyd's descendants in southwest Missouri. The initial families had gone to Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Missouri. Several forward-thinking ancestors (Lettie Hickman Wilkes, assisted by Jessie Stemmons and Harold Campbell) had compiled stories and a list of known descendants in 1954. That year marked the 100th anniversary of the church the Missouri family helped found, Ozark Prairie Presbyterian Church.

Several of the family stalwarts were quite elderly, and within a short time of attending
Family tree roll-out. We add new births annually.
reunions, I was secretary-historian of the OrrReunion Association of Mount Vernon. With the job came a lot of articles, letters, and photos that predecessors, such as Eleanor Coffield of Carthage and Mary Frances (Orr) Schnake, had stored.

Since I knew nothing (and have more than an inclination toward OCD), it became important to sort and organize the materials and identify people in--literally--one hundred years of photos. It would not have been possible without the keen memory of Mary Isabel (Hill) Matteson and encouragement from a cousin's daughter, Kathy Seneker Fairchild, who had already written much about local Missouri history. Just this year, we received decades of files from the late Mary Beth (Hickman) Barger. In many families, a carload of photos and files would end up in the local landfill. Because of the Orr Reunion, her daughter, Barbara, had a place to take them. The sorting will take a while, but we'll all be enriched.

Why name all these people? Why not get to this article's purpose of why writing about family history is important? Because you can't write about it now unless earlier generations have collected the stories. Sure, you can look at Census data or find wills in county courthouses. You'll learn ancestors' occupations and assets, but not a lot more.

Family history is significant because you know how your family fits into a country's history. Why did so many Orrs go from Missouri to Oklahoma in the late 1800s? Because land was available -- largely to white people, at the expense of Native Americans. We also know that William J. Orr and wife Ella Cochran moved across the Oologah River at Sander's Ford. Ella was a teacher and taught the officers' children at Fort Gibson. She took her own children there to teach. Plus, several people married Native Americans, so now the Irish Orrs are kin to this nation's earliest settlers.

Writing about family history lets others link to their ancestors. While I've prepared (with much input, especially from Mary Ann Vincent, a Shirley descendant) a book on the Orr family of Aghadowey, Northern Ireland, and the U.S., it's the postings on that reach the most people. I look at who downloads the material and can often tell where they live -- they are all over the North American map, some are from Australia, a few are from Ireland. There have been many notes from people saying that a photo that made its way from reunion files to the Internet has given them the first image of ancestors. More important, relatives who never heard of the Orr Reunion of Mount Vernon have learned of us and attended.

At past reunions, I've given talks on the family's immigration patterns, the many who operated grist mills, and the extent to which members worked in coal mines in the east and strip mines in the Midwest. This year, the project is military history. Longtime secretary Grace Shepherd compiled an Honor Roll of the fifty-seven men who served during World War II in U.S. or U.K. branches of the military. Some ancestors served as early as the Civil War, others were in World War I, Korea, or Vietnam, and some still serve. We also have at least one who performed service during World War II as a conscientious objector.

We'll seek input from the hundreds of relatives we know, and perhaps find more to ask. We'll also look for the roles women played in the past. Some were in the Red Cross or worked at munitions plants. My own mother (H. Rita Rooney Orr) worked as a 'spotter' one night a week at Andrews AFB near DC. The women who did this were looking for enemy planes that might attack Washington.

There is always more to write. It is getting harder to store the material. So we don't lose it, we're scanning a lot. Who knows, maybe a library will find us sufficiently interesting to keep some of it. It's probably time to look for one.
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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Text Neck and How Writers Can Avoid It

In retrospect, there were advantages to having my car rear-ended in the early 1990s. Really? Did I get a big financial settlement? No. I learned how to protect my neck, spine, and fingers from my writing career.

I'm sharing some of what I practice, with the caveat that I'm so far from being a medical professional they probably wouldn't let me in the door of a med school. In other words, if you are already hurting, talk to your health care professional.

In 1991, I didn't recognize until way too late that neck stiffness and headaches were the result of a car accident several weeks prior to the onset of pain. Whiplash! I was so far into the pain that I didn't even remember the accident when a doctor asked if I'd been in one. A colleague reminded me of it.

After seeing many specialists, a neurologist did a simple series of tests. The one I remember best (which is ironic) was him explaining that he would name three objects, we'd talk for a minute about other things, then he'd ask me to remember the items he named earlier. Didn't get one of them. Made him redo the test. Nada.

His diagnosis of "muscle tension headaches emanating from the neck" set me on the road to recovery. The journey started with three weeks of muscle relaxers three times a day before I could even do therapy. Trust me, these make you so blotto you can barely write your name, much less fiction. Your goal is to never get to that point. Unless a blotto fiction genre develops.

The good techniques taught to me by a mix of physical therapists and rolfers came to mind when a spate of articles appeared about 'text neck' -- neck pain from holding your head in a rigid, downward position while studying a tablet or phone. Look throughout the subway car or even at other shoppers in the grocery store. We all look down at our electronic devices, sometimes for hours every day.

The most important things I learned were to: look straight ahead when keyboarding, keep my feet flat on the floor, don't raise my shoulders, and vary my position often.

This led to some teasing. I'm so short, I couldn't keep my feet flat without putting them on a box. Then I'd put the computer monitor (in the days before I ditched a PC for laptops) on another box so I could look straight ahead. Finally, the keyboard would be on my lap, so my shoulders were not tense as I typed. I looked like a physical therapy reject. But it worked, and I still use all of these principles.

Laptops are great, but used alone they do not lend themselves to a relaxed neck. I position mine so I look straight into it, and use a keyboard and a mouse. The keyboard sits on my knees (or lap if I'm in the recliner) and the mouse is placed so that I don't have to raise my shoulders to reach it. What a pain, you say? The opposite.

Remember that fifth-grade joke about the best way to lose ten pounds of ugly fat? The response (yelled across the playground) was to cut off your head.

A very good physical therapist explained neck stress like this. "Think of your head as a bowling ball resting on a chopstick. If you don't keep the chopstick in good shape, the weight of the bowling ball will crush it."

A key way to relax the neck is to keep your shoulders down. Make a shrugging motion and relax. You'll feel the tension in your neck in the shrug pose. When a keyboard is straight across from you , or higher, your neck is tense all the time.

These techniques work well for a laptop, but what about a tablet or phone? Ironically, to look straight at your phone you need to hold it directly across from your eyes. (Duh) Holding up the phone puts stress on your shoulders. If sitting at a table, ignore mom's instructions and rest your elbow on the table. Less shoulder stress, but still some.

If in a car or on the subway, put your backpack or purse on your lap, and rest your elbow on that. In the grocery store, rest your elbow on the back of the shopping cart. In a recliner, put a pillow on your lap.

There are lots of gentle stretching exercises for a neck, but you won't read about them here. Too much like medical advice. Ask a therapist. I do regularly massage the back of my head (just above where it joins the neck). The first time you do it you'll be surprised how much it hurts, a sign of how tense the muscles are. I use my fingers or little wooden massage balls -- not battery operated ones, you can't control what they do. Better yet, trade gentle massage with a friend. Or pay a masseuse.

Fingers and thumbs -- another big wear-and-tear injury from electronic gadgets. Much harder to 'save,' but with dictation software on phones and computers, you have help. You don't want to yell out info in a public place, of course. But every keystroke or push on a phone is one you could find painful at 35 or earlier (given how much we keyboard now). I tape several fingers when I type because they are already sore.

An occupational therapist can build a gentle splint to wear at night. Sounds extreme, but how many more books (or papers or letters to the editor) do you plan to write? I've had several surgeries to fix thumb joints or repair disjointed finger joints. Take it from me, this is a true example of the adage about an ounce of prevention being better than a pound of cure.

You can ignore your stiff neck or thumb joints, but you can never get rid of the resulting arthritis. It's so much easier to take short breaks, look ahead rather than down, and dictate when you can.

Getting back to 1991. For those three weeks of blotto-land, I wrote on a yellow legal pad and paid a neighbor a small fee to type the material into my computer. A year later I had the first draft of what became a 100,000 word book that was essentially a learning tool. It's terrible, but proof that a few minutes a day, even under duress, can lead to a book.

Think about that. If you think you can't write, try my book, Words to Write by: Putting Your Thoughts on Paper.
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Text Neck revised August 2017. Check out Elaine's web page or sign up for her newsletter

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Harry Potter Entertains and Teaches

I walked into the Chatham Public Library a few days ago and was thrilled to see not only a display of the Harry Potter books, CDs, and movies, but also a terrific set of banners about the books. It was part of the library's many programs to encourage children to
read. School had just let out for the summer, so there were kids everywhere.

Seeing the continuing enthusiasm reminded me of how much I learned from reading J.K. Rowling's masterpieces. Probably the best insight was seeing how she planted characters and pieces of information in early books and groomed them to be important in future books. I can't say succeeding, because that implies the next one.

In book one (Sorcerer's Stone), Hagrid delivered newly orphaned Harry to Dumbledore by riding a motorbike he got from young Sirius Black. Sirius is not mentioned again until book three (Prisoner of Azkaban), and he then becomes one of the series' most important (adult) characters. And that motorbike? It helped save Harry's life in book seven (Deathly Hallows).

As Harry, Ron, and Hermione aged, so did the intricacy of the books' plots, vocabulary, and depth of evil. There was the predominant battle of good and evil -- Harry versus Lord Voldemort. I found the most malevolent character to be fifth-year Dark Arts teacher Delores Umbridge. Petite, kitten-loving Delores was sadism personified, disguised in a bow and cardigan. A reminder that evil takes many forms.

And there are the names of people and places. Mort means death in French, perfect for Voldemort. When Umbridge wanted a group of students to oversee others, with ill intent in mind, what better term than the Inquisitorial Squad? And where was Dubledore's nemesis imprisoned? Nuremgard. There are fun names, too. Ron's brother marries  Fleur Delacour, Flower of the Heart. And some names just make you laugh -- Dedalus Diggle, Filius Flitwick.

A recent article said that Rowling later wished she had paired Hermione with Harry, rather than with Ron. There was such wonderful teenage angst (and typical hormones) as the Ron and Hermione relationship grew. Harry and Hermione were both so focused -- Harry on saving the magical world and Hermione on her studies. They would have made (to me) a boring pair. I'm glad Rowling wrote as she did.

I read each book twice, and listened to them as I regularly drove the thousand miles from Iowa to Maryland. If I can't fall asleep, I pop in a CD. Each exposure is like taking a writing class. An enjoyable class, one that reminds a writer that masters still live.
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Friday, April 24, 2015

Telling Readers about Your Older Books

As with many things in an electronic world, readers tend to notice newer items--whether in digital, paper, or audio formats. This is clear from search engines. I typed in the words "new boo." Yes, that's boo, I didn't even have to finish the word books.

Here are the popular search choices:
New books
New books for 2015
New books out this month
New books released
New books by James Patterson
New books to read
New books released today
New books by Nicholas Sparks
New books out this week
New books released in 2015

So James Patterson and Nicholas Sparks, how about sharing the wealth--or at least in search results?

Here's the rub. Readers buy the books of these two authors, so the search engines assume you are looking for them. The attention is well deserved--great books. People in my mother-in-law's assisted living residence share Patterson books, and at the used book store in my Iowa town, the owner wants "any Nicholas Sparks books you want to trade."

Search for old books and the most frequent references are to the Old Testament, followed by the value of old books. My personal favorite was 'old laws still on the books.'

Authors tend to regard their books as something between a major accomplishment and a precocious (or is it recalcitrant?) child. Having created them, we want them read, not relegated to the bottom
shelf. We want readers to find the older ones as well as the newer ones.

I've developed some ideas for publicizing older books, and will update this post with additional ones as I hear from blog readers. Several ideas may make more sense for a series, and some pertain more to self-published authors.

1) In the back of every book, mention older ones. With ebooks you can have links, but I also have a note that encourages readers to let local librarians and bookstores know they liked a book and that it is available in multiple formats.

2) Self-published authors can easily add links to new books in their older books. If you work with a publisher, ask if they would be willing to add links in newer books to previously published books. If they do reprints of your paper copies, most do this automatically, but don't hesitate to ask.

3) My blog has a link entitled (imagine this) Find My Books. I used to list the web addresses, but am switching to just putting the site name with the appropriate hyperlink. I tweet the link to this page periodically, and put it on the back of bookmarks or other swag for in-person events.

4) Play with prices. I have eight books and a prequel in the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series, and have begun an approximately eighteen-week process of dropping them (one at a time) to 99 cents. This gives the chance to do a blitz of bargain tweets, Facebook posts, and inexpensive online ads. The book will be new to nearly everyone who sees these promotions.

5) Ask for more reviews. This can be in the back of every ebook, with gentle phrasing such as, "If you enjoyed this book, please let other readers know by writing a review on the web site from which you purchased it. Thank you!"
     Books two and three of my series have relatively few reviews compared to the others. I published the first three within a few months (having worked on them for a long time), and didn't put the effort into seeking reviews for books two and three. Fewer reviews lead to fewer sales. The 99 cent price point will bring in a few reviews. It's never too late to get more. The first book (Appraisal for Murder) was stalled at 25 for quite a while. It's up to 39 now, simply by putting the request in the back and doing a bit more free advertising. Many people get hundreds of reviews in the first six months. I don't, but the numbers will keep growing if I keep working.

6) Promote every site that sells your books. I love Amazon. Its business model changed my life. However, their promotion methods change, and you don't want your sales to rely solely on Amazons algorithms.
     There are fewer books for sale on many other sites, so yours stand out. My older books sell more (proportionately) on non-Amazon sites. You can create pages on your blog or web page for each book, or you can use Kindle Boards to have a page per book. Why Kindle Boards? Because in one place a reader can see links to all Amazon sites (U.S. and international) and three other sites of your choosing.

7) Put your books in more formats. Suddenly an older book is new again. It takes a lot of effort to put out an audiobook, but it can be done at no cost to the author, through ACX (an Amazon company). I also have almost all my books in large print now. Some people say they don't want to take the time because there might be relatively few sales per year. So what? Do the large print formatting while you watch TV (and then proof). As a largely self-published author, I do this at will. A publishing contract may give a publisher all rights for a period of years, or could be just for some formats. Check. Do it yourself if you can.

8) This one is heresy. After thirty years of nonfiction research/report writing work, those skills are pretty well honed. However, since 2010, I've improved some technical aspects of my fiction writing. I am going through early books in the Jolie Gentil series and a couple of stand-alones and taking out extra "I said" and "she said" phrases and doing a few other minor things. I doubt anyone who read a book earlier would even notice, but it makes for a smoother read, which can lead a reader to another book. No, I don't add a new ISBN number.

9) Read, read, read books on book promotion. There are countless more ways to promote via social media than there were when your earlier books were published, and ebooks on marketing are inexpensive or sometimes free. In the physical world, recommendations for media packets have evolved to less is more. Get current with Jeffrey Marks' Intent to Sell: Marketing the Genre Novel for a resource that deals with all forms of publicity

10) Pretend social media does not exist and promote without turning on your computer. What?! Some of us don't put much time into putting our faces (and copies of our paperbacks) in front of local media or the kinds of organizations that are mentioned in our books. My Jolie series features a real estate appraiser, and she now runs a food pantry, as a volunteer. My real estate agent in Indiana loved my books. Have I visited real estate and offices in my new town of Springfield, Illinois? Nope. I only made the rounds of some local media outlets and libraries. So, I bought a bunch of "Mystery Peeps," which are marshmallow candies of unknown flavor. I will drop these, plus one of my mysteries and some bookmarks, at some local businesses and media outlets.

11) Help others. Every time you give books to a charity auction or do a session at a library, you get new fans. Auction baskets are a really good place for those extra older books.

12) Cross promote with your blog. See what I did here? I have links to some of my books and other blog posts. On the blog, I have an index of posts. Each item can lead a reader somewhere else. If I do a blog post on planting false clues, there will be a link to one of my books as an example. If your social media presence is all "buy my book," you will be boring and few people will act on your pleas.

Things I'm thinking of doing
1. Sending a letter, to librarians and bookstores within fifty miles, highlighting nearly all of my books. In the past, I've publicized primarily new releases. I'll send a few bookmarks and information on how to buy the books on Overdrive. If your ebooks are not there, many librarians cannot purchase them.
2) At the back of ebooks, adding information about how to order paperbacks, including large print, and audiobooks.

Things Other Authors Are Doing
Send your ideas to me via comment here or email to I'll mention your tip in this post and credit you with the idea.

"Telling Readers about Your Older Books," Copyright 2015 by Elaine L. Orr 
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Monday, April 6, 2015

How Broad a Readership Do You Want?

Generally, authors want their books in front of anyone in the appropriate age group. Even so, most of us make conscious choices about our reading audience. We do that in the content itself, and who we populate the book with.

I write murder mysteries for adults, geared to readers who do not want to read about body parts that did not remain with the newly departed's torso. These are typically called traditional mysteries (think Agatha Christie, M.C. Beaton, Raymond Chandler, many books by Robert Parker) or more recently, cozy mysteries (Louise Penny, Parnell Hall, Dorothy Sayers, Donald Bain as Jessica Fletcher, often Mary Higgins Clark).

Many traditional mystery writers strike a middle ground for gore level. A key difference between the traditional and cozy categories is where the murder takes place—usually off screen, so to speak, in a cozy. Cozies often have an amateur sleuth, generally a woman.

You can debate categories. I put M.C. Beaton in the traditional category because her sleuths are (more or less in the case of Agatha Raisin) detecting professionals. Others say she writes cozies because they are set in quaint villages with quirky characters. I have seen Sue Grafton's novels listed as cozy mysteries, but Private Investigator Kinsey Milhone deals with more varied levels of violence than most cozy mysteries.

Cozy books frequently align with a hobby or non-law enforcement profession, and you won't find a car mechanic among them. There are a lot of bookstore, yarn shop, or coffee cafĂ© owners. Why? These authors have defined the bulk of their audience as women, and these are professions  with  more women than men. The pastel-colored covers with genteel furnishings (and cats) also cater to women. Some say cozies focus too much on the hobby/profession (how many kinds of coffee does a reader want to know about?), but for many readers, that's part of their reading enjoyment.

Not all amateur sleuths are in fields that hold more interest for women. Nancy Lynn Jarvis' Regan McHenry is a real estate agent, and my Jolie Gentil is a real estate appraiser. Some sleuths are college professors or people retired from varied professions. I picked the appraiser position for Jolie because it gave her time to get into trouble and she would be involved in a fairly broad cross-section of the town, including its business community.

Before a blog reader comments that my thoughts are sexist, take a pragmatic look at who buys books. Women read more in general, and read more fiction than men. Sadly, readership levels (as measured by the National Endowment for the Arts) are dropping. In a given year, barely half of U.S. adults read a book not required for work or school. Most authors don't write simply to sell books, and book quality can't be measured solely by sales. Still, if you're going to all the trouble to put a book out there…

Authors can't simply decide which readers to appeal to, they have to reach out to them. A traditional publisher helps do that (a lot) simply with a book's designation or the books they promote together. What author wouldn't want their book in the same publisher's newsletter as a new James Patterson, Robert Galbraith, or Janet Evanovich mystery? (None of which are cozies, and some have placed body parts in varied locations.)

As a self-published author, I reach readers through many publicity avenues. Most are through social media, but I also use traditional ways—library talks, book signings, letters to bookstores/libraries. The best (unpaid) publicists are the friends and readers on my monthly newsletter list. Personal relationships are as important in bookselling as life.

Some readers (mostly women) write reviews, and I truly value them. Occasionally I learn something about a character from a reviewer. I may see a person as quiet, readers may see them as aloof and uncaring. Do I want to maintain a character as perceived, or have them exhibit their quietness differently in a succeeding book? You can do that in a mystery series. The bottom line is that reviewer comments influence who else reads a book.

Iowa State Fair flowers
I'm continuing the Jolie Gentil series and starting a new one, the River's Edge series, set in a town on the Des Moines River in Iowa. The new protagonist is a female, but as a landscaper, she is more physically fit and does things that not every woman does. She can drive a tractor and get down and dirty in soil. Her brother taught his wife to rope a cow. Maybe Mel, the landscaper, can learn, too.

In choosing to make another protagonist a woman, I'm probably skewing readership to my own sex. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld says. However, I've given her a more gender-neutral profession, and she drinks beer and roots for the Iowa Hawkeyes. My kind of woman.

And now the book is out! From Newsprint to Footprints is the first of the River's Edge Cozy Mystery series, set in a fictional town along the Des Moines River. Good humor and believable characters. Too bad about the murder...
All Amazon sites
More soon!!!
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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Does Technology Make Mysteries Harder to Write?

     I recently did a story for an upcoming Speed City Sisters in Crime Anthology (Decades of Dirt: MurderMystery and Mayhem from the Crossroads of Crime). Set in the 1830s, my piece entailed a fair bit of research about life in Indiana at that time.

     My frame of reference was ancestors who operated a grain mill in Indiana, but they could only serve as a starting point for a mystery. When I delved more, I found that the kind of mill
A more modern grist mill.
they operated would have been very different from those even thirty years later—a period I was more familiar with. Thus, if I wanted to sabotage the family mill, I had to put the right kind of cog in the wheel, so to speak.

     When I shared the story with my critique group, someone asked if I was sure frying pans existed in the 1830s. My assumption was correct, but it reinforced the need to be thorough.

     While murder weapons or getaway vehicles were very different in the 1830s, the advanced technologies of the twenty-first century create their own problems in crafting mysteries. Thanks to smart phones and security cameras, it's hard for a perpetrator to vanish. On the other hand, there are more ways to kill people, too. I love poisons that are hard to isolate in the blood.

     So, what's an author to do to thwart technology? I've had protagonists realize that the purse with a cell phone was in the next room when the villain attacks. No way to call for help. Then there's the isolated beach with no signal. Even that's getting hard, since so many phones now rely on satellite technology. Those suckers never sleep.

     I write cozy mysteries, so the sleuth doesn't have to know a lot about law enforcement techniques or equipment. She or he does have to be smart enough to solve a murder, but not so smart that she does it quickly. However, something has to give the sleuth an advantage.

     I like visual examples, so think about the movie The Fugitive, with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. There's a long scene in which Ford's character (Richard Kimble) eludes the marshals in and around a Chicago detention center. Kimble eventually vanishes in a St. Patrick's Day parade. The U.S. Marshals used radios to stay in constant touch—some on the roof, some in a stairwell, and many other places. It sounds simple, but those radios were an important factor in staying even with the desperate Dr. Kimble.

     The movie came out in 1993. Twenty-two years later, those radios sound almost quaint. In all the NCIS shows, the teams constantly get photos from security and traffic cameras, sometimes in real time. (It's fiction, remember?) Snap a photo of a murder victim, send it to the office computer geeks and, voila, there's an ID. Another device lets investigators put a fingerprint on a gadget about the size of a smart phone. In almost no time, the print identifies a culprit.

     My low-tech sleuths use the computer to check old newspaper articles, and occasionally get access to security tapes. Still, those tools are relatively recent.

     M.C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth is in remote Scotland. He still does most of his sleuthing through tried and true personal contact. Sue Grafton keeps the Kinsey Milhone series in the 1980s. I understand she chose to do this so Kinsey didn't have to age beyond her mid-thirties. It also limits Kinsey's technology tools. Her smarts are what count.

     It's difficult (for most of us) to predict how technological advantages will make it harder for the bad guys to thwart investigators twenty years from now. In a few years, we'll think immediate access to fingerprint data is old-fashioned. I'm waiting for something like the Star Trek Hollow Deck so we can reenact a crime at the drop of a hat. However, that could put a lot of sleuths—amateur or professional—out of business.
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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Interact with Readers and Sell Books

(Updated May 2017)
Though it may seem surprising, the Kindle Boards offer you a way to interact with readers and publicize your books across multiple markets. Regardless of whether you use the boards for this purpose, it's worth getting familiar with them. 

When you go to the registration page (link below), you'll see a few paragraphs on treating other people respectfully. These appear before you enter identifying information because provocative comments (in the sense of flaming) and insults are not welcome or allowed. If you're insulted by not being able to be insulting toward others, the following sums up the Kindle Boards' perspective.

-  If the...guidelines irk you, and you're ready to get on your soapbox about free speech on the web... this is probably not the place for you.
-  If, on the other hand, you enjoy respectful and engaging dialogue and have a sense of courtesy to others... welcome! Enjoy! 

Assuming you follow the concept in the second bullet, here's the registration page.

After the usual steps and responding to the typical verification email, you're ready to go. 

The home page looks plain compared to the blinking buttons and dancing icons on some pages, but you can get right down to business. A menu at the top guides to you topics of interest to readers, authors, and more. 

A few inches below are headings for:
Amazon Devices
Authors' Boards
Content (as in the books themselves)
Reviews (geared to Kindle readers, but there is an 'other' category)
KB Boards Forum Central
KB Boards Info Center (lots of posts from authors about formatting, marketing, more)

Spend an hour or so figuring how you want to fit in. Find a forum you like and interact with readers and other authors.

If you're an author, you can create a topic for each book in the Book Bazaar (in the Content area)--but that's the only place you can do so. The single topic entry per book is firm. You can update it (to publicize a sale), but if you do a separate post about the same book, the moderators will merge it with the original page. Make sure you bookmark your topic so you can get to it easily.

Use the Book Profile Pages to Reach Beyond Amazon

This is how you reach readers beyond Amazon. Not that most readers want to, but some authors (like me) make most of their books available on all ebook retail sites.

Use the address below, and substitute the Amazon ASIN for your book after the equal sign. (First take out my ASIN and put in that for one of your books.) Because you have not created a book profile page, you will get an option to do so. The link page noted here is to one of my books (Ground to a Halt), which already has a profile page.

At the top of the finished profile page are flags that correspond to all of the Amazon sale sites. You can add three more purchase options, so you'll see BN, Google Play, and Smashwords on my book's profile page.

Imagine that -- one place to send readers to buy your books! Put in a link to your web page, too.

There is also a spot at the top of a book's profile page for you to write a note. Sometimes I quote a review, sometimes a thought about the book that is not in the description. You only have a few hundred characters (not words), so keep it short.

There is a place to link to the book's topic in the Kboards Book Bazaar. That's important. You publicize bargain or free days there, and may choose to add links to all sites that sell the book, not just three sites.

When you're done, save the profile page.

What's the best part about all of this? It's all free. When I created a Book Bazaar topic (different from the profile) for Ground to a Halt, 1,300 people viewed it before it went on sale. 

Get busy, and good luck!
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Elaine Orr writes the Jolie Gentil and River's Edge mystery series.
Check out Elaine's web page or sign up for her newsletter.