The-Stranger-by-Harlan-CobenThe Stranger by Harlan Coben begins curiously enough with a stranger meeting Adam Price in a bar and relaying information that he seemingly shouldn’t know about Adam’s wife. The stranger tells Adam that his wife faked a pregnancy and miscarriage to keep him from leaving her. The stranger even offers Adam a way to verify the information. With that revelation, Adam’s happy life begins to unravel.

I was hooked on the story, which is not surprising since I am a big fan of Harlan Coben’s books. (I even read his YA series.) However, I realized too early some of the key plot elements. I’m not sure if that means I’m getting better at solving mysteries or Coben simply let too much slip too early.

While Adam’s encounter shakes his life apart, Heidi Dann’s encounter costs her her life. Her friend, who is a police officer, begins to investigate Heidi’s death and the investigation eventually leads her to Adam.

The story grows more complex with unknown players in the overall mystery, which leaves the reader wondering from time to time who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

I enjoyed the characters, but I felt some of them seemed too familiar as Coben characters. When the base mystery is solved (there’s more than one mystery that need to be solved), I felt it was so commonplace that it was a let down given all the heartaches and headaches that it had caused.

For someone who is considering starting to read Coben’s mysteries, this is probably not the book to get started with. My introduction to Coben was Tell No One, which is still one of my favorites and it’s also a stand-alone book that doesn’t use Coben’s series detective, Myron Bolitar.

And I do recommend reading Harlan Coben. His books are fast paced with great mysteries and just the right amount of humor.

Lock ReadyMy latest novel, Lock Ready, is a historical novel set on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal during the Civil War. It is the third book in the Canawler series.

I never started to write historical fiction. However, in 2000, my wife and I were living in Cumberland, Md., where the canal ended. We decided to bike the canal towpath one summer and sightsee and camp along the way. The C&O Canal is a national park that runs from Cumberland to Georgetown.

We outfitted our bikes for the long trip and set out for what turned out to be a five-day trip. The weather was nice and the trip is a pleasant and scenic one. There are hiker-biker campsites along the way where you can camp overnight. We took advantage of those a few nights and stayed in hotels other nights.

As we traveled, I consulted the towpath guide to check out what might be nearby to see. I soon realized that a lot of history had happened along the canal. The Battle of Antietam, the Harpers Ferry revolt and James Rumsey tested a steamboat along the Potomac. There were also interesting architectural features like the Paw Paw Tunnel, aqueducts and canal houses to look over.

Being a writer, I started trying to figure out what was the best way to tell the story of the canal in a way that would interest readers.

I started playing with some ideas even while my wife and I were still biking the canal towpath.

My breakthrough came about when I decided that the most-interesting time on the canal happened during the Civil War. While the Mason-Dixon Line is credited with being the border between the North and South, the C&O Canal was the border between Union and Confederacy.

Not only did canallers have to deal with the normal issues of living and working on the canal, but armies were traveling along the towpath. Canal boats were being burned and confiscated. Saboteurs were trying to blow up the aqueducts and burn the locks. Loyalties were tested.

With my setting decided, I realized I was going to be writing my first historical novel. I started researching the canal history and canal life. As I learned more about the people who lived and working on the canal, I started to get an idea of who I wanted the characters of my books to be.

They took shape and I gave them their individual stories and personalities that seem to have resonated with readers over the past decade.

Here I am at The Book Center in Cumberland, MD, on Nov. 19. I'm the one on the left, in case you couldn't tell.

I’ve been a published author since 1996 and an independent author since 2001. While each new book that I publish presents new challenges, I’ve been able to build upon the things I’ve done to market my previous books. It doesn’t make marketing my books any easier, it just gets me up and running faster.

Now, I’ve come to realize that I’ve learned quite a bit about marketing over those years even if I might not be able to summarize it.

However, I have just come to realize that by seeing how far someone else has to go. In working with a new author, I’ve seen in him a large reluctance to market, a narrow focus on market area, a heavy reliance on book signings and Facebook fan pages, and a resistance to stepping outside of his comfort zone.

I used to do a lot of those things myself, and I can see that looking back. I can also see how wrong those ideas were. For instance, one of the reasons I became an independent author was because I thought that I could focus tightly on marketing my novel to a limited area. That worked until I started getting orders from places outside of the area where I was marketing. Then I realized that I couldn’t be so tightly focused.

I was also resistant to go outside my comfort zone, but I’ve forced myself to do that because I’ve seen the benefits as my book sales increase.

This is not to say that I’m at the end of the long journey of learning how to market books. I’m not, not by a long shot, but at least now, I can look back and see how far I’ve come. I can see that I have learned marketing lessons and applied them to my work.

So experience does pay off if you’re willing to learn the lessons that it is teaching.

collage-2015Looking for a way to jump start your writing? I’ve always found writer’s conferences give my enthusiasm a recharge. I mean, let’s face it, writing can be lonely work, and that isolation can lead to a waning of enthusiasm. A writer’s conference will put you amid a group of writers who will be talking about writing. Add to that workshops and talks and you’ll put your creativity on steroids.

I have never failed to leave a writer’s conference without some new ideas whether it on how to write, how to market, or some new contact that I want to pursue. I’m also anxious to start putting the things I’ve learned to use.

This year, I’ve discovered the Mid-Atlantic Fiction Writers Institute Conference in Hagerstown, Md., or rather, I rediscovered it. It used to be called the Nora Roberts Writers Institute Conference. I had seen that conference listed last year, but I thought it was a conference for romance writers so I had passed on it.

Now in its third year, the name has been changed to the Mid-Atlantic Fiction Writers Institute to make it clear that it has something to offer for writers of all genres. In fact, I’ll be teaching a session this year about writing historical fiction. Looking through the schedule for this year, I see sessions on science fiction, writing in general, thrillers, social media, independent publishing, fantasy, and more. I definitely see plenty of sessions that I’ll be attending to learn rather than simply teach.

Check out the web site for yourself and maybe I’ll see you there!

new-amazon-kindleI was reading Joanna Penn’s Author 2.0 Blueprint the other day and she noted, “If you’re self-publishing, most of us make the vast chunk of our income from ebooks, because there are no restrictions on sales and readers don’t even have to know who published the book.” (BTW, you can get this book for free from her web site and it’s a great resource.)

This statement in the book struck me because it’s far from my own experience. I get about 45% of my income from my books and about 5% from my ebooks. I certainly wouldn’t mind it being the other way around if my current book level made up the 5%.

With a $7.99 ebook, I earn a $5.42 royalty for each sale. For $2.99 ebooks, I earn $2.04 and for $0.99 ebooks, I earn $0.35. That a pretty high percentage (35% to 68%).

By contrast, for a $19.95 paperback, I earn between $5 and $15 after subtracting the book production costs. That means I’m earning between 25% and 75% in net profit for each book.

So per book, I make more for each print book than I do for each ebook. Ebooks tend to be less expensive, though, but you need an e-reader to read them. I still run into plenty of people who tell me that they don’t have an e-reader or that they like the feel of a book in their hands. To be honest, I also meet people who look at my books and ask if they are available on Kindle, Nook, or Kobo.

I still need physical books to sell when I do festivals or presentations. People are there ready to buy and are looking for them.

My book sales have been growing nicely over the past couple years, but the e-books haven’t kept up. It certainly seems like it would be a more efficient use of my time if I was selling a couple thousand ebooks a month.

I think Penn’s statement just shows how much better my marketing needs to become. It’s all right, but it needs to be better. It can be better.

So what are your experiences? Do ebooks or physical books sell better for you? What are your best marketing techniques?

thI recently read this blog about the “10 things authors have to learn the hard way…”. It made me think. My first novel was published with a traditional publisher in 1996. By 2001, I had decided to make the jump to independent publishing and I have looked back since.

That doesn’t mean it has been easy. Far from it. Luckily, the independent publishing world is a community that is willing to help each other out. I’ve try to be open to new ideas that I’m not trying and evaluate whether they work for me. When I have questions, I can usually find someone willing to share their knowledge with me. I try to reciprocate when the opportunity arises.

So here’s my list of the things I had to learn the hard way. Some are the same as the other blog, but I’ve included my experience with them.

No one but you cares as much about your book  

I considered the traditional publisher I was first published with pretty good. I didn’t have any complaints at the time and my books seemed to sell well. Looking back now, I see there are so many things I could have done to make the book even more successful. I was new to publishing, though. I didn’t know about some of the things I could have done and my publisher didn’t suggest them. When I became an independent author, I found myself on the lookout for ways to make my book better whether it was writing, production, or marketing. No one has as much invested in your book as you and no one should want to see it succeed more than you. Unfortuneately, the way I’ve seen this play out sometimes is that the author is unbending in believing that anyone could help them improve their book. If you want what’s best for your book, sometimes that means getting help from other experts.

Traditional publishing is not better than self-publishing

When I started independent publishing, there a definite stigma to it. Despite this, I still considered it the best way to go my first project. I’ve seen that stigma slowly vanish, though. That’s because the quality of indepently published projects has gotten better and better. I used to be hesitant to say that I was independently published, but it no longer bothers me because it shouldn’t.

You’ve got to step outside your comfort zone

Many writers are introverts. So am I. I would rather spend my days writing, but I’ve learned about half of my time needs to be dedicated to marketing and administration. I do it because it needs to be done. I was pretty eager with my first project and did a lot of marketing, which helped the book. With my second book, I didn’t do as much marketing for reasons I can’t remember and the sales of that book reflected it.

Success is not guaranteed

I love reading the case studies about people succeeding in publishing. I even try to duplicate some of the things they do. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I certainly haven’t achieved the level of success that they have. I have become successful, though. My income continues to grow and I grow more comfortable with what I’m doing.

While success is not guaranteed, persistence increases your chances

As my income grows and my comfort level increases with what I’m doing, I find that I’m more willing to put myself out there and develop new approaches to writing and marketing. With traditional publishing, there’s a strong tendency to make a big splash quick before the publisher’s marketing attention moves on. With independent publishing, you can continue to market your old titles as well as your new ones and build you audience.

girl_writing_outsideNow that the weather has gotten very nice, I find myself spending some of my days in the sun room of my house. It’s bright and pleasant, but most importantly, it inspires me.

Not directly inspire me, but it improves my mood. I find that the attitude change helps me focus on my work.

It doesn’t have to be the sunroom that inspires me. Many times, all I need is change a change of place that gives my work a jumpstart. The other day simply taking my work into the living room and sitting in the sun started my creative juices flowing. I sat in a chair with my face in the sun reading and suddenly I was writing out the draft for the beginning of a chapter on a book that I’m writing.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that sometimes it is just a change of position that gets me moving forward. Sometimes, I’ll take a notebook and lay down on the floor and start writing.

On gorgeous days when it’s hard to stay inside, I will even go outside and sit in a hammock swing or take a trip to a local park.

So does a change of location or position give your writing a jumpstart? Where is your favorite spot to write?

a7e3a582a5939d56e64ce62c407a426aI like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. I haven’t seen Tom Cruise playing him in the movies and I don’t think I will since I have a certain picture of Reacher in my mind and Cruise would destroy that. I liked 61 Hours even though I figured most of it out early in the book. It was still a fun adventure, though. I particularly liked how Reacher is definitely a warm-weather person and can’t handle the South Dakota winters.

61 Hours starts with Reacher getting stuck in a small (but growing) town of Bolton, S.D., after the bus he is riding on slides into a ditch. From there, he gets involved with the local police in trying to protect an old woman who witnessed a drug transaction that can bring down a huge gang of bikers. The problem is that the police know that someone has been sent to kill her.

I found myself liking a side story between Reacher and the new commander of his old unit, Susan Turner. He has to call her for a favor in trying to figure out who is after the witness whose name is Janet Salter. This begins a series of calls as the two of them exchange information and get to know each other or at least as well as someone can know Reacher. He even helps Susan catch a killer whom she is after just by her giving him a briefing of the case.

It an action-packed ride with a slightly ambiguous conclusion, though you know Reacher survives, otherwise there wouldn’t be a series anymore. I’ll have to check to see if there have been anymore since this one.

I’m sure I am now reading the books out of order. That’s one of the nice things about the series. Each book is a stand-alone title with little connection to any of the other books in the series.

BooksAlive-LinkedInI attended the Books Alive! Washington Writers Conference the other week as a panelist, but I also listened to different panels and picked up some good information. The panel that I enjoyed the most was the agents panel. Three agents spoke about what they want to see in a submission or hear in a pitch that can be made in about five minutes. Here are some of the things that I gleaned.

  • Start you pitch with a hook. Give them one or two sentences that will entice the agent to want to know more about the project (this works equally well for articles and books).
  • Move into a short description of the project. Again, keep it short. Imagine you are writing the jacket copy for your book.
  • A short bio about yourself. Why are you the person who should be writing this?
  • What’s your platform? Do you use Twitter and Facebook? Do you have a web site? Maybe you are a columnist or magazine editor who has a following? What are the ways that your name is already getting out to the public.
  • Where does your book fit into the market and how large is the market? What shelf in a bookstore would someone find your book?
  • What’s your next project? You can’t rest on your laurels. Build on the success of your previous projects.
  • What are some comparable titles to your book? Be realistic here. Don’t just go for the big name books. List books that have similar content and scope. If you try to pass yourself off as the next J. K. Rowling or James Patterson, it will come across as hype.

So that’s what I took away from that panel. Someone else might have gotten something different from it. I’ve heard a lot of these things before so it is a pretty good bet that it’s what most agents want to see, but you should always check the agent’s web site just to be sure that you are sending what that person wants.

20150422_181251Usually, I can come up with pretty good titles for my book projects. I come up with a few ideas and one of them usually jumps out at me.

I’m working on a biography now and I’m stuck for a title. It’s the story of a very interesting man who fought in the Pacific during WWII and was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He also worked out at White Sands for a bit when they were doing nuclear testing. He attended the 75th, 100th, 125th, and 150th anniversaries of the Battle of Gettysburg and met and corresponded with Civil War veterans. He is also a very talented sculptor. (The picture shows a figurine that he did of my son.)

So, I’m enjoying talking with him, researching, and writing his story. I would like to have a title, though.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

Clay Heroes: One Marine’s Story of the Civil War, WWII, Art, & Nuclear Energy

From the Civil War to WWII and Back Again: One Marine’s Story

Which one do you like? Any other suggestions?


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