I've Written the Book; Now the Work Begins

In the early days of ecommerce, every third article about driving traffic to websites included some sort of play on the Field of Dreams quote “If you build it, they will come”—something along the lines of “Just because you build a website, doesn't mean they'll come; you have to promote it as well.” I know, because I wrote and edited many of those articles. (Consider this my mea culpa for perpetuating that cliché.)

But clichés become clichés for a reason: They’re true. And this particular cliché applies to book publishing as well: Just because you write and publish a book, doesn’t mean people will read it. You’ve got to promote the damn thing.

Which brings me to my current obsession—how to promote the novel I’m publishing this autumn.

Here’s the blurb for Beyond Billicombe, my upcoming book:

Suzanne has come to Billicombe, a faded English resort town on the Bristol Channel, for one simple reason: to find her adored older brother. A recovering addict, Jax had moved to Billicombe after completing rehab, but it’s been six months since Suzanne last heard from him.

Her search, however, turns out to be anything but simple. For one thing, Suzanne is a former child actress, well known for her role on a long-running TV series, and she needs to avoid being recognized while exploring Billicombe’s seamy underside. For another, Richard, a local man Suzanne turns to for help, has problems of his own stemming from a car accident that cost him much of his memory. Suzanne’s quest for Jax and Richard’s attempt to put his life back together collide in ways neither could have expected.  

As you can see, it doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre. Mystery, possibly, in that the main character is searching for a missing person. To me, though, it doesn’t feel like a mystery in the Ruth Rendell/Arnaldur Indriðason sense, though I must admit I don’t read all that many mysteries.

All the same, I suppose I could go with the mystery aspect as my hook. When targeting book bloggers to send copies to for review, I could include those who favor that genre.

But the larger question is, what do I do, besides reaching out to bloggers and my local newspapers, to promote Beyond Billicombe?

I’ll post the prologue here on my blog, and maybe the first chapter. But what else?

You’d think, having written about marketing for most of my career, I’d be chock full of ideas. But a big stumbling block is that, deep down, I don’t really want to promote myself.

There’s a reason I prefer fictional people to real ones. I’m not a social animal (much to my more outgoing husband’s dismay). Real-life people make me nervous. I assume they’re going to reject me, so I hesitate to put myself out there. When I was a tyro reporter, I nearly doubled over from stomach pains every time I had to pick up the phone to interview someone. (Which leads to the question, Why the hell did I become a journalist? I still don’t know.) Years of practice (and therapy, and sertraline) now enable me to sometimes enjoy interviewing sources. But I still expect rejection at nearly every other turn. Which is why, despite having written this five days ago, I’m only posting it now.

So here goes: Any ideas on how I should promote Beyond Billicombe? There’s a free book in it for anyone whose ideas I use. 

Hearing Voices

From the time I learned to read, I wanted to be a writer. I also wanted to be an artist, but by age ten I realized I didn’t have the talent, so I switched my goal from becoming a writer/artist to becoming a writer/actor. Sadly not only do I have a face for radio but I also have a voice for silent films, so I soon struck that from my list of aspirations as well.

Yet I still do get to act, via my writing.

That’s largely why I gravitate toward writing in the first person. For me, writing a character is often about pretending to be the character (hence my acting out dialogue when I write). And writing in the first person makes pretending, for me, even more participatory. Like acting.

I recently finished the first draft of a novel that’s told in the first person by the two main characters. It’s a sequel to a novel I wrote several years back, which used the similar structure. My favorite aspect of writing both books was ensuring that the two voices were distinct, so that you could tell who was speaking without any sort of heading declaring which chapter was narrated by Steve and which by Cat.

For these characters, making the distinction was relatively easy. Steve is a schizophrenic in his 20s, born and bred in rural England, not particularly well educated. Cat is an American in her 30s who relocated from New York to London, a college grad, and a writer to boot. But I wanted to go beyond the obvious differences in vocabulary. So Steve’s sentences tend to be shorter, especially when his illness is manifesting itself, while Cat makes use of compound-complex sentences. Also, when Steve is having a psychotic break, like many schizophrenics he’s unable to interpret metaphors. Ask a symptomatic schizophrenic what “A stitch in time saves nine” means, and he won’t say that it suggests you should take your time completing a task correctly the first time to avoid having to redo it or fix it later; he’ll likely parrot that it means you should do one stitch now and not nine later, or go off on some tangent. So when Steve is in hospital and says that, for instance, his guilt is a vest of explosives strapped to his chest, he means he literally feels the weight of the explosive guilt strapped onto him.

The novel I’m getting ready to self-publish, however, is written in the third person.

I did this partly because I wanted to challenge myself to write in a style that doesn’t come as naturally to me. And partly because I wanted the freedom to fluidly move back and forth between the points of view of the two protagonists within the same chapter, and sometimes even the same scene.

This eliminated the need to worry about varying sentence structures and having to work with a more limited vocabulary (which is much more difficult than you might think; there’s a reason it took Dr. Seuss nine months to write The Cat in the Hat, which uses just 236 unique words). But I still wanted to show the differences in the characters within the language of the third-person narrative. Sometimes it was relatively simple: When the narrative is focused on Richard, a Londoner now living in Devon, I use British English to describe a scene; for instance, the bus stand shelter will be made of Perspex. When the focus is on Suzanne, a London who moved to the States when she was ten, the vocabulary is more American; the bus stop shelter is now made of Plexiglas. (This changes gradually the longer Suzanne stays in England, however. Over the course of the book, she begins thinking of her cell phone as her mobile, trucks as lorries.)

Then there are the elements that I’ll call out in my descriptions. Richard’s former girlfriend was a hairdresser, so when he meets someone, I describe her hair and other aspects of her physical appearance first. But because Suzanne is an actress, she tends to notice voices and accents first, then how a person carries himself. Maybe no one else will notice these subtleties, but they make writing more like acting to me. My favorite actors walk differently from one role to the other, adopt a different posture, hold their cigarette differently. I want my writing to do the same.

I try to do something similar when writing copy for clients. Say I’m writing about a figurine shaped like a lotus flower. If the target shopper is affluent, well educated, and well traveled, I might toss in a sentence about how the lotus is a millennia-old symbol of purity in China before describing the piece’s painstaking craftsmanship. If the target shopper is less affluent and educated, I would probably focus more on the lovely colors and how they’ll easily add a spot of color to even a neutral setting.

(Copywriting guru Herschell Gordon Lewis has written extensively on this subject, by the way. I learned just about everything I know about copywriting from the columns he wrote for Catalog Age/Multichannel Merchant back when I was an editor at the magazines. So thanks, Herschell, for enabling me to make a living now that I’m no longer working full-time as a magazine writer/editor.)

Getting into the head of a character, whether it’s a fictional creation that’s sprung from your own imagination or the target customer of a product you’re describing, prevents your prose from being pedestrian and makes it easier to sell your wares, be they a story about a young actress searching for her missing brother or a Limoges box. It also makes the task at hand, at least for me, more fun. And given that so much of writing is a matter of mechanics, you might as well inject fun wherever and whenever you can. Besides, if you enjoy the writing process, the reader is more likely to enjoy the reading process.

(I’ve illustrated this post with a photo of Robert Carlyle because he’s one of those actors who metamorphose among characters in the way I described above. Compare the swag of Gaz in The Full Monty to the contained vulnerability of Stevie in Riff-Raff to the repressed longing of Mr. Gold in Once Upon a Time. Of course, that he’s a pleasure to look at had a bit to do with his placement at the top of this post as well.)

Should Writers Write for a Living?

Writing is how I justify my existence. (Well, that, and trying to raise my daughter to be the best, happiest person she can be, but this isn’t a mommy blog.) I wrote my first stories when I was seven, and except for a few years when my daughter was a baby and I had a six-day-a-week job while working freelance on the side, I’ve never stopped. I have completed five novels, had an agent for a number of years but never did manage to get one of my novels published, and am getting ready to make the leap into self-publishing. When I’m not writing fiction, I’m plotting storylines, fleshing out characters, obsessing over phrases and structure.

So I’m a writer by avocation.

I’m also a writer by vocation.

For years I was a magazine writer/editor. Now I primarily write sales copy for ecommerce sites, with the occasional freelance article for extra cash and to keep my hand in. For at least nine hours every weekday and as many hours every weekend, I’m writing for a living.

But I sometimes wonder if writing the ideal job for a vocational writer.

Years ago I worked in an ice cream parlor, and everyone told me that I’d soon loathe the sight of ice cream. Unfortunately for my waistline and cholesterol levels, that never became the case. The same is true for writing for me. Once I’ve signed off from work for the day, I don’t want to run screaming from my computer. A part of me wants to immediately switch to whatever fictional world I’m creating.

But it’s not always easy to make that mental switch.

Good writing is good writing, right? Well, yes and no.

When writing fiction, I do my best to adhere to the old “show, don’t tell” mantra. And I try to show with a minimum of adjectives and adverbs.

When writing sales copy for the web, especially when your word count is very limited, you’ve got to rely on adjectives and adverbs. You’ve got to shove SEO-friendly verbiage in your first lines. And when writing an article, you’ve got to tell your story straight away, and your syntax and grammar need to be faultless. I’ve also toiled for years as a copyeditor, so I automatically follow up “everybody” with “he or she” rather than the colloquial “they” and shudder when I hear someone say “most unique” or “more perfect.” Shifting from the vocational to avocation mindset is often an effort.

Then there’s the fact that, after pounding out words and phrases for nine hours, a good part of my mind is exhausted. It wants to veg out with a few YouTube clips or a meander through a gossip blog. It wants to play a game of Uno with the family. Once in a while, it even feels obligated to force my lazy body off the futon where it’s been lodged all day so that it can clean the house. 

If my vocation weren’t words—if, say, I worked as a veterinarian or a customer-service rep—I would no doubt still want to veg out at the end of the day. But perhaps, because I hadn’t been crafting sentences all day, I’d see opening up my latest chapter on my desktop more as recreation rather than a continuation of why I’m so mentally knackered to begin with.

And I wouldn’t automatically be using “data” as a plural and typing “which” when my character would incorrectly be using “that.”

Quitting my day job is out of the question. Writing is pretty much the only skill I have, other than making a fabulous noodle kugel and managing to get everything I need for a weeklong vacation into one carry-on bag.

So what I started doing this spring is heading out to a nearby park every morning except the two days each week I have to be to Manhattan for work. I try to get out of the house by seven a.m., so that I can squeeze in nearly two solid hours of fiction writing. I leave the house partly because changing the venue makes it easier for me to change my mindset. Experts say you should never work in your bedroom, because your mind finds it more difficult to associate the room with sleep. That’s never been the case for me—I can fall sleep almost anywhere—but surrounding myself with trees rather than the walls of my house does turn off my brain’s vocational switch and flips on its avocational lever.

Also, I tend to mutter dialogue and even act out scenes when I’m writing. At home, I’m always conscious that my daughter or husband are thudding about and could walk in on me at any time—not to mention the inevitable shouts of “Where are my glasses?” or “Are you going to do laundry today?” The park I go to is relatively unfrequented, and anyway, I don’t really care if a stranger sees me talking to myself.

And by treating myself to a spot of fiction writing before plunging into the work world, I feel like I’m starting the day off right. I’m always in a good mood when I return home at nine a.m. Even if I had to stop short during a complex scene, it gives me something to look forward to tomorrow.

Of course, rain is a bitch. Bounding out of bed, brushing my teeth, my mind sorting out what my characters are going to do next, only to hear it pissing down outside, does make me miserable.

And there is one uncomfortable occupational hazard: mosquito bites. With all the scabs on my arms, legs, and neck from scratching the damn things, I look a bit like a junkie.

Then again, I guess I am a bit of a junkie. Otherwise I wouldn’t be on a park bench, huddled over my laptop in a down coat, fingers numb, on a blustering March morning or swabbing the sweat from my torso with my T-shirt while dodging bees as I peck away outdoors on a sweltering July day.

Do any of you have a similar issue? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.