Marketing is not for wimps or the lazy.
I’m a bit of both. I’m so screwed.
I’ve read (and, admittedly, skimmed and half-read—lazy, remember?) a few books and several articles on marketing. They all agree that a mailing list is vital. That’s how you reach your customers. An author’s best marketing tool (other than a dynamite book) is her/his mailing list. Period.
But how do you build that list? One book recommends pop-up ads on your website that can’t be ignored. Actually, more than one recommends that although they describe the process differently: generate giveaways, great incentives, videos, etc., so that people will want more and will join your mailing list–which pretty much implies the pop-up.
But there are a few steps before having and sending to a mailing list.
The first step is, of course, to create your mailing list on a service like MailChimp. MailChimp is free, up to 2,000 subscribers. So start that account and put your mother and best friend and your gmail address on it. You’ve got 1,997 spaces left before you have to pay, yippee!
What’s the second step?
Where do all those other names come from?
Remember, anyone who gets an email from you through MailChimp (or another service) can opt out. They can unsubscribe and will do so if you waste their time, so entering a bunch of names at random is probably not worth the effort.
That’s the fuzzy part. Like this cartoon.
Why don’t these marketing gurus tell you that part?
Well, there are a few reasons.
The person who wrote a marketing book for authors has found his/her audience–you–but unless you’re also writing a marketing book for authors, your audience is hiding somewhere else.
And if you are writing a marketing book for authors, why are you reading this?
What did you write? A memoir or a zombie romance? Readers of those books are all over the place. Your job to figure out how to lure them to your website and make them want to sign up for more of what you’ve got to give, and only you can do that.
You must figure out where to reach your potential readers. It’s not obvious or easy. For example, when I managed to get the Historical Novel Society to review my book, I thought I had it made! Where else would readers of historical novels go, but to there? The review was wonderful, exceeding my fondest hopes. But when it appeared, sales did not jump–not even a little.
What to do? Well, one idea is to take to social media. And that’s a suggestion, not a guarantee of anything. However, many of your readers will be on Twitter and Facebook, so it makes sense to connect with them there.
Think of social media–Facebook, your blog, Tweets, Pinterest, the works—as play. Fill your accounts with posts and pictures of fun things that your target audience would love. 1970s trivia for the memoir, for example. Photographs. Mini-reviews of books in the same genre. Share and Link to clever articles or merchandise on the topic. Follow everyone who follows you, and follow everyone posting on anything peripheral to your topic.
Your website is your keystone. Use the other media accounts to entice readers there on occasion, so they can enjoy your blog post about mood rings or mid-century zombie films and be willing to sign up for more via the pop-up.
I’m gonna throw out two guesses here.
First, because the panorama of social media sites is constantly changing–just like the self-publishing industry—advice is going to be old by the time it’s tested. The tech-savvy (Hugh Howey comes to mind) have an enormous advantage, but luck plays a part too. Rather than rely on what worked a couple of years ago, you may be better off to poke around on your own. Try Googling “book marketing tips for Indies” to start with, just to get ideas.
The second guess is this: You will learn a lot—about yourself, your audience and about marketing–when you figure it out yourself.
Did I really write that? Even my Irish grandmother could not say such a phrase without sputtering with laughter.
Look, the marketing books tell you what the end product should be: a mailing list that you can use to reach your fans. They tell you how to use it. They tell you how important it is.
But where those addresses on the list come from is up to you. That’s the part you have to figure out, for the big reason above: each book is different and finding the audience is going to be different.
But in finding that audience, painstaking though it may be, you will connect with what works for you, and there is a lot of value in that.
Don’t. Even though I’m kinda doing that now because no one is paying me to write this blog.
But don’t write for free. Don’t give it away.
I have wanted to write this for months, years. I was afraid of offending people, or of being a hypocrite because I am a far cry from the successful, highly-paid writer idealized in the media. Maybe that’s all for the best; maybe you don’t want to listen to someone who writes for $3-a-word glossies and knows every editor in the Big Apple.
Those kind of writers are intimidating.
Last month, I went to a panel discussion on essays. The four panelists, all women, were lovely people and, I’m sure, competent writers. One had been paid $8,000 for an essay in her area of expertise. . . . in the 80s. Now they are giving it away. Seriously. Someone asked them how much they got paid to write their essays–their mommy-blog posts, their art posts, their brilliant bon mots. They looked at each other and admitted that they didn’t. Get paid. that is. A couple had self-published some books that had been profitable, but gee, you had to write for free just to get people to notice you–
NO! NO NO NO NO NO!
Do not write for free. Google that phrase and you will find many find authors who will explain why. Harlan Ellison recorded a rant that went viral a few years ago, featuring the phrase, “You’ve gotta pay me, dammit!”
If you can’t find outlets for your essays, you are not looking hard enough. Google. Yes, the print magazines and newspapers are drying up and have been for years. But . . . . There are hundreds of websites that pay writers.
Why did those nice ladies on the panel not know this? I suspect because they were not full-time writers. One stayed at home with her baby while her husband earned a paycheck. The other three were in academia. Yup, professors who marketed their work on the side, and getting close to retirement age.
They weren’t hungry. They didn’t have to write in order to buy groceries or pay bills. So (this is true for the older three) as their print markets dried up, they didn’t put a lot of effort into finding replacements. All four were looking at future books, thinking that their free writing builds them a platform.
Writing is a profession that sustains a minimalist lifestyle, if not an extravagant one. One example: a couple who are raising two children in New York on the paychecks they each earn from writing. They are talented, energetic, and don’t waste their time.
Those three qualities are key. Talent, energy, and–I’l rephrase–discipline. Many writers support themselves well on their writing, but you have to push yourself.
You can’t sit around all day writing blog posts or watching the Weather Channel’s team coverage of Storm Juno. (Bad Vickey, bad!) You have to get to work.
Looking for that job is the first step in any profession, and it’s part of your day as a writer. Every time you enjoy an article online, notice who hosted it. Go to the site’s home. Are there submission guidelines or a tab that says Write For Us? Do they list payment?
Maybe you need confidence. Could you see yourself writing a blog post or short article for fifty dollars? Here’s a starter list of sites that pay modestly (but they still pay!) for guest blogs or articles. Google for additional lists.
Many companies offer much more for essays. Christian Science Monitor, Modern Love and other columns in the New York Times. Chicken Soup for the Soul, Slate and Salon for more journalistic endeavors. And if you like writing about entertainment, movies, and stars, the possibilities are legion.
Do not let anyone–including Adriana Huffington–make you believe that the effort you put into crafting an article is valueless. Writers deserve to be paid. If we all started insisting on it, maybe we’d all start reaping the benefits.
If you are tweeting and posting on Facebook about your book, you probably include a link to Amazon so that people can buy said book. Right? And maybe you even used something like tinyurl or bit.ly to shorten that link.
But–has this ever happened? You check the link a few weeks down the line, and it doesn’t work. Maybe it takes you to someone else’s site or book, or maybe it goes nowhere. Bad enough that you stumble on that little flaw–but what about your potential customers who wanted to see your book? How long ago did the link stop working? How many sales did you lose?
One friend, believing her bit.ly or tiny links to be secure, had them printed on her business cards. Within a week, folks told her the links did work.
I don’t know why this happens. Whatever muse looks over Indie writers must have spurned a techno-nerd satyr, and this is his revenge. Just guessing.
For the record, my Boomer Book of Christmas Memories is for sale at Amazon, and the link is http://goo.gl/eHlwXv
Death Speaker: A Novel of Ancient Gaul can be found on Amazon by following this link: http://goo.gl/gtV7VQ
I’ll come back here in a month and test those urls again. If they don’t work I’ll bitch and moan because that’s what we do when we stumble over a tiny glitch in the amazing technological resources that are offered up for our use for free.
(In this case, PR means Public Relations even though it could conceivably stand for Press Release. Why use an acronym that could be interpreted as two different things in the same industry? Dunno, ask a PR person.)
For the rest of us, though, press releases are a mysterious form of communications that people used to pay a lot of money for. In Ye Olden Tymes, those seeking publicity went to a PR firm or expert, who composed a press release and sent it to a mailing list of thousands–thousands!–of eagerly receptive media moguls. Or so they would have you believe.
Today, there are as many folks telling you that hiring PR firms to send PRs “is a waste of money” as there are supporters and PR firms trying to drum up business and get paid to write more PRs. Yes, I do expect you to follow that sentence, but admittedly this PR stuff can be confusing.
Fortunately my amazing book designer did a webinar last year that Explained It All to me.
As far as books and writers are concerned, a well-crafted press release is simply an article in disguise. You are sending a harried editor an article that s/he doesn’t have to write. All they have to do is pretend to edit it, cut a paragraph or two* to fit their needs, and run with it.
Step by step, here is how you should write a press release about your own book or signing event. Here, PR stands for press release.
It may not be exactly the way a PR professional would send it, but it gets the job done.
*cut a paragraph or two: One trick I’ve learned with articles is to always insert a paragraph or two that can be cut without affecting the rest of the article. That way, the editor feels that s/he has done their job, but your great ending remains intact.
On Thursday, November 13, I’ll team up with two other writers to sign and sell books at Golden Cove Center in Palos Verdes–right where Hawthorne meets PV Drive South. The event will include a reading and drawing lesson from Beth Whittenbury, author, and Janelle Carbajal, illustrator, of the story Just Love Him, I Guess. That’s at 3-4:30 PM.
Then on Saturday, November 15, we’ll be back at the same location, sans Janelle, to sign books from 2-4 PM. Here is the flyer with the address: Kids flyer. It’s at the Postal Center, a bit hidden.
Jean Shrive will sign her YA novel, The Einstein Solution, a story based on her memories of her Princeton, NJ childhood during World War II, when she lived down the street from Albert Einstein.
But wait, there’s more! I’m also speaking at the Torrance Library, 3301 Torrance Blvd. in Torrance, CA (my home town), on November 22 at 2 PM. The talk will include a Power Point slide show of Baby Boomer holiday trivia: aluminum trees, songs from the 1950s, and toys like Barbie, GI Joe, and Slinky. Plus a door prize! Flyer: Boomer Family Christmas
Beth and I also have smaller, private events scheduled, like a big December 3rd Gift Fair and Peninsula High School, and an Artsy Party in Palos Verdes on December 14th. If you want details on any of these, let me know through the contact page.
I know that those of you with the PR Gene will roll your eyes, but I am excited!
Amazon now has something called Themes or Browse Categories. They show up on the left whenever you start looking for fiction books. Go ahead, try it. Go to Amazon and type in “Thrillers” or “Historical Romance.” By the time I post this they may be appearing next to non-fiction books as well.
I’m told these categories on the left reflect what people are searching for in books. So the savvy marketer will use some of those phrases as Keywords for their books.
That bit of advice–and much more–came from Penny Sansivieri, the Author Marketing Expert. She appeared on a panel one night and I went.
(Digression: I love living in Los Angeles where every week I can find a free-or nearly-free talk that improves me as an author and marketer! And I don’t keep these events to myself; you can find them all on the WritersCalendarLA.com. )
Beth and I are now using Launch: An Internet Millionaire’s Secret Formula To Sell Almost Anything Online, Build A Business You Love, And Live The Life Of Your Dreamsby Jeff Walker as our playbook.
It’s all about the preparation. Launch tells you how to build up a mailing list, send out enticing emails with offers that make people WANT to be on your mailing list, how to engage with potential customers–basically how to structure a product launch. The work is all in the buildup, and the launch itself (along with wildly successful sales, right?) comes at the very end.
If that interests you, we strongly suggest you get the print book so you can flip back and forth and stick post it papers all over. Beth says the videos are great and round out the information; I’m a week or two behind her so I haven’t viewed them yet.
And that was a lot easier than trying to read about Amazon algorithms or follow the steps for a product launch. How did I do it?
I go to a couple of writers’ group meetings regularly. One of the managers of Aloha Island Coffee also goes. She’s a very nice person, and we got to talking. That’s all.
Reminds me of the time writer John Vorhaus talked to another group, a few years ago, and mentioned that he once found himself talking to a previously unknown in-law at a family party. Turns out the in-law had recording equipment and wanted to get into recording and selling books.
John pursued the idea with this newfound relative, and now many of his mysteries (The Albuquerque Turkey) and nonfiction books (Decide to Play Great Poker: A Strategy Guide to No-limit Texas Hold Em) are audiobooks–which would not have happened otherwise.
The Lesson: For all our studying, sometimes the best marketing ideas just show up. All we have to do is talk to someone and make a connection.
Welcome to the Great Marketing Push of 2014. A few friends and I are going to try out the marketing strategies outlined in several books, and report on the results. Writer Beth Whittenbury (author of Just Love Him, I Guess, which I love) is also blogging about her progress, and you can follow her here.
This week, we are focusing on Amazon, but I want to say a few words about Goodreads first, because I just finished a giveaway there.
This is my favorite, because it’s almost free. You set up a giveaway through your author dashboard: look under the Explore tab for Giveaways. You set the dates and the number of books to offer. At the end of the contest, your only expense is the actual books you sign, and the $2 or $3 in postage.
For as little as $90 (which is billed to a credit card at the beginning) you set up ads, and pay each time someone clicks on the ad to see more information about your book. You decide how big the ad is (a bigger ad costs a bit more per click), and you can create several ads. One might appear whenever someone searches for a certain genre; another might appear whenever someone searches for certain authors. For example, if you’ve written an epic fantasy you might select Fantasy as a genre, then do another ad that will appear whenever someone searches for Tolkien or George R.R. Martin. The promotion lasts as long as there’s money left.
A giveaway for Death Speaker: A Novel of Ancient Gaul ran a year ago, and I think I’ll do another giveaway now. I cannot know how many people bought the book, but I do know that at least 300 saw it. Currently, 120 people have Death Speaker on their to-read list.
I also ran a promotion for Death Speaker, but I can’t say that I saw any spike in sales over the many months that it ran. I’m assured that it’s fairly normal for a promotion to go on for months. A lot of people click through during the first couple of weeks, then interest dies down.
I just wrapped up a giveaway for The Boomer Book of Christmas Memories; 500 people entered it. 215 have it on their to-read list.
I’m using two books: Lets Get Visible, by David Gaughran and Why Does My Book Not Sell, by Rayne Hall. So far, I’m pretty much in the theory section of Gaughran’s section on Amazon, rather than the practicum. I have learned that sales ranks are based solely on sales, and Top Rated lists are based on reviews/stars–but you have to meet a minimum number of reviews to qualify.
I also learned that corporate publishers get to put their books in more categories than indies (5 v. 2), which clears up a mystery I’ve wondered about. Gaughram advises studying categories and switching them judiciously to take advantage of openings. I would definitely need some practice there.
Hall’s book does not have a section on Amazon, per se, so I can’t compare. I did flip to the chapter on book reviews and read that I should ask my Beta readers for reviews, and using social media to offer a free book to anyone who will post a review. And don’t buy or trade reviews, which is good advice. Don’t get fake reviews, and don’t respond to reviews. Both books advise putting a page at the end of your ebook/book asking readers to leave reviews, pretty please, but I was hoping for a little more advice.
Maybe I should go read over Beth’s shoulder.
I’ve been tagged to do a the Writing Process Blog Post by Jenny Neill. You can read her blog post here.
If you follow these posts–which you can on Twitter by using #MyWritingProcess–you’ll see the wide variety of practices that creativity engenders. We all do it differently, there’s no one right way to write. Which can be comforting where you encounter dogmatic rules or teachers who insist that their method is best.
So, here are my answers to the four questions:
Tricksy question. Writers don’t just write, so here’s what’s up today (besides this blog post, of course): I just sent a query to a magazine, and put in four ideas for blog posts to another site. I check a couple of writing job sites each day. I also investigate writing markets that I hear about: who’s buying what sort of article, and how much do they pay? What kind of stories are they looking for?
I have two talks to give in September–one an hour long, so I must prepare those. The talks are in support of my books in a roundabout way–meaning, I wouldn’t be invited to a writing group to give a talk if I hadn’t written a couple of books, and the books will be available for purchase (fingers crossed). In support of those books, I also blog and stay active on Facebook.
About an hour each day is spent on my WritersCalendarLA.com website–a calendar of events in Los Angeles of interest to writers.
But I sit down and write as well as doing all that other stuff. I’m about 80% done with the next nonfiction book. and I work on that every day. Well, I try to work on it every day–today, I slipped up.
I wrote a historical novel about Ancient Gaul, then a nonfiction book about Baby Boomer trivia, so I’m tempted to answer “Genres, schmenres.” But both books are works of history and required a lot of research, and so history is my genre. Not every article I write is about history, but because I do have a degree in the subject, my queries in that area meet with a little more success.
I like to think I’m different from most historians in that I am not academic or dry. I don’t footnote everything (although some magazines request a fully footnoted manuscript). And I differ from most non-historians in my devotion to accuracy and detail. I enjoy research; I make sure of my facts.
My life as an author would be much easier if I had stuck to one genre and carved myself a nice little unique place in it, but freelancing teaches you different lessons. When you freelance, you must be able to switch from topic to topic on demand. History, especially, is not a big seller, so I write about other subjects as well.
A lot of writing is opportunistic. We write what we do because this is the writing that pays the bills–that kind of loops back to the previous section.
That said, most of the topics I pitch are of interest to me. Of course, right? Who would ask to write a story about algebraic functions if they hated math?
But even when I’ve been asked to write about a subject that bores me–home maintenance for air conditioning systems for example–I look at a few websites until I can follow the mechanics of how those systems work and how the pieces fit together. Then, I find it interesting–as if it were a puzzle and I had to devise clues and workarounds.
The books, though, are entirely my choice and I write what I enjoy. That’s probably why time just disappears when I work on those stories.
I write whether I feel like it or not. Oddly enough, very good prose can result from forcing yourself to write even when you’re uninspired.
For nonfiction, I often start writing in the middle of a piece. When I’m researching, I’ll find little stories or facts that I want to include, and I’ll start scribbling, playing with them, making paragraphs. I know absolutely that I still need a lede and an introductory paragraph or two, but writing out the middle helps me see both how the beginning should go, and what the ending will be. You could say I build a bridge first, then look for the best landing spots on each bank.
Then I rewrite. Constantly. And when I think I’m done, I put the work aside for a day or two, then reread it. I always find something to change! It’s amazing how a good night’s sleep refreshes your eyes and your brain.
I don’t work with outlines usually; the exception is personal essays. I find that an essay goes astray very quickly if I don’t create an outline. I need to know what my main points will be so I can move from one to the other. My guess is that’s because an essay is not a story, necessarily. The beginning, middle, and end are not self-evident so I must impose a structure.
And . . . that’s it!
Dana Melton and Jessica Alexander, who publish under the pen name Kirby Howell, have been writing together since 2000 when they met at the University of Alabama. Dana, a native Southerner, quickly showed Jessica the joys of living below the Mason Dixon Line. Having lived in nearly every other part of the country, it didn’t take Jessica long to acclimate to sweet tea, grits, and football. They now live in Los Angeles with their husbands and have penned two young adult novels, Autumn in the City of Angels, and its sequel, Autumn in the Dark Meadows. Their blog is at KirbyHowell.com.
Debra Ann Pawlak writes from southeastern Michigan. Her latest book, Bringing Up Oscar, The Men and Women Who Founded the Academy, is available online in hardcover, paperback, ebook and audio versions. Her work has also appeared in various publications such as Chicken Soup for the Soul, Scoliosis Quarterly, Aviation History, Pennsylvania Heritage, The Writer and Michigan History Magazines. To learn more, please visit her website at DebraAnnPawlak.com or her Facebook page (Hollywood: Tales from Tinsel Town). You can follow her on Twitter too: @DAPwriter.
Barbie Herrera writes under the pen name, Martha Emms. Her book, Portrait of Our Marriage: Memoirs of Love, Family, the Internet, and Obsession takes you behind closed doors into the hidden world of a couple’s sexual relationship. Follow their journey as a husband’s casual interest in pornography escalates and changes their lives. Intimate details shared from eight women’s lives add to this blatantly real addiction of our time. This story has mature content but is not pornographic. Follow Martha on Facebook and @barbiesway on Twitter, or on her MarthaEmms blog.
I won’t talk about how to get zillions of followers. (You can pay to do that but I advise against it–followers gotten that way do NOT turn into readers.) No, this post is about posting great content, so that you attract and keep the kind of followers who will read your book and articles.
Your plans may include asking all your friends to like or follow you. Ask them to recommend you to their followers. Add your new site to your business cards and email signature. All good. Then what?
Well, whole books have been written the then what. My suggestion is that you work your new accounts daily, putting up interesting posts and tweets, so that the followers who give you a try are intrigued enough to stay with you.
Every day. It’s gonna chew up some time, and I’m sorry, but unless you are wealthy enough to hire a personal assistant to do this for you, resign yourself to being on Facebook and Twitter for an hour each day–at least at first.
That hour does not include surf-time. It doesn’t include chatting or posting on your personal page; in fact, the smartest thing you can do is NOT EVEN LOOK at your personal page when you open Facebook. Go straight to your author or book page instead.
Can you cut the time down to less than an hour? Yes, and I want to guide you to that point.
I have actually read–I am not making this up–a “social media for authors” booklet or post that swore you could handle all your social media outlets in 12 minutes a day.* These were his instructions for Facebook, as well as I remember them:
Log into Facebook. Bring up your author page.
Quickly check to see if you have any waiting messages, and answer them.
Check and “like” any response to previous posts.
Post your message for this day; log out.
Bring up your book page.
Quickly check to see if you have any waiting messages, and answer them.
Check and “like” any response to previous posts.
Post your message for this day; log out.
Repeat for any other pages you have.
Now, let me be clear. This is good advice; you do have to do this. But the idea that it would take less than 12 minutes daily is bogus (yeah, I had another B word in mind).
The author lumped Twitter into that 12 minutes as well, assuming that his readers were all set up on a Twitter-management program like Hoot Suite which responds to all new followers automatically and sends out tweets at programmed times. Again, nothing wrong with that; my problem is with the 12 minute time frame.
Because . . . what are you going to tweet and post?
Once in while you might say, “Hey, my book, the fabulous NOVEL, is on sale!”
Once in a while. . . . But the rest of the time the posts and tweets must be interesting. A link to news that’s relevant, a clever saying, a picture–and it should be related to the book topic, or to you as an author. And it should be something different for each page.
See the problem? You have to go searching for fun, interesting content, so you’ll be spending a bit more that 12 minutes a day on the pages and Twitter account. You want content so great that Mr. Spock will do a double-take, or at least go “hmmm.”
I raised the question of what to post so that I could answer it, of course. If others have better or more efficient solutions, believe me, I’d love to hear them.
Like or follow interesting sites and forward along their good content.
Well, that’s 90% of it. Of course you watch the news, you see things, and if they are related and interesting you post about them. You generate charming ideas of your own, too, and you can set up Google alerts on phrases that will bring you odd little tidbits. But if you are a busy writer, your everyday posts will often come from other fascinating people.
First, log into your Facebook page or Twitter account.
#4 is vitally important, and will work differently for every author, because every book is different. The words you search for will depend on your book topic. For Death Speaker: A Novel of Ancient Gaul, I searched the terms druid, raven, Gaul, France, Celts, Celtic, Celtic lore, etc. Yes, I turned up a lot of basketball pages and moved on. Then I searched Beltane, Iron Age, Brittany, Carnac, Archaeology, and more. Not all panned out, but I found plenty to like.
Now, every day, I’ve got a couple dozen posts and pictures that could be very appropriate to the Death Speaker Facebook page. All I have to do is like and share.
Ditto with the Boomer Book of Christmas Memories page, where my search terms were along the lines of Baby Boomer, GI Joe, Barbie, Ideal, White Christmas, 1950s, etc. I can’t say I’ve got my social media handled in 12 minutes; most days it’s around 20-25. And there are days that it’s an hour, but that’s because everyone I follow is so dang fascinating.
A few more things, really, but all can be fun. These items lead you to Pay Attention and get the most out of Facebook.
I strayed from Twitter over the last few paragraphs, but you get the idea, I’m sure. Instead of commenting on a tweet, you might retweet it, or respond cleverly to the tweeter.
It’s all about getting good attention and building up followers, because they are your audience as well as potential book buyers. The number of followers you have could sway folks who might be deciding whether they should invite you to speak to their club or sit on a panel at a conference. The number of followers might interest an agent, or an editor who wants an essay on your book topic. Someone who follows you might have influence you haven’t even dreamed about. So consider each follower a contact that could change your life.
*Sorry, it has been a year or two since I read it and I don’t recall the author (other than his gender) or site.
** The Great Content jpg came from this website, which also posts about writing great content–the advice there is different than mine.
The setting can be the most important part of a story.
What brings this rumination on? I just finished reading In Paradise: A Novel by Peter Matthiessen.
Brilliant, wonderful book on so many levels: the precise language, the slow presentation of the protagonist (the overused metaphor “layers of an onion” comes to mind), the haunting descriptions of both the crumbling setting and its history, etc. etc.
And let me just say that I think the big reviewers (NYT especially) missed the point of the book, and were so eager to equate the character with the author that they missed Professor Olin entirely. I wish I hadn’t bothered to read their reviews, because it kept me from running out and getting the novel until last month.
But now to the topic of this post:
What really strikes a reader–what must be the first thing mentioned when saying anything about In Paradise–is how important the SETTING is.
In Paradise takes place at Auschwitz-Birkenau, in 1996. A group of 140 folks have come together to meditate at Auschwitz, and we follow one particular person as he reacts to others and to the place itself. I’ll say no more about the book because I don’t want to even hint at what you should discover for yourself.
But you can see that such a dramatic venue couldn’t be replaced with any other, fictional or not.
Setting. We all get it, right? We hear in classes and lectures and read in articles and books that setting is vitally important to a story. As important as a main character.
Take any genre. Westerns? Self-defining. Historical? Heck, us history geeks read the books BECAUSE OF the setting, first and foremost! Mysteries? Almost all good mystery series, from Sherlock Holmes up through Thursday Next, rely on settings to distinguish their books from the thousands of others out there. Anyone who picks up the next volume of a mystery series these days is welcomed into a world and decade they’ve come to love.
SciFi? Good SciFi novels bring the future alive. You come to recognize the spaceship or the exotic planet or the crowded, subterranean bunkers as home. The setting shapes the characters and forces most of their decisions.
In fact, that last sentence sums up the importance of place quite nicely: it shapes the characters and forces–or at least, guides–most of their decisions.
The setting can also set the mood of the story and of each scene. It can inspire awe, or present solutions to problems. It can create problems.
Pick your favorite book–the one you fall into as if it were a down comforter arranged on your reading chair on a winter’s evening. Now, could you take all those characters that you love and drop them into another place and time? I doubt it.
So if you write, be it fiction or not, treat the setting of your story as a character. Give it richness and complexity. Touch all our senses with its particular flavors and textures.
How? Do whatever it takes. Peter Matthiessen went to Auschwitz to meditate, not once but three different times. One can only imagine the notebooks he filled with descriptions and thoughts.
I went to France for Death Speaker, and came back with hundreds of pictures and notes on the weather, the moon, the bushes, beaches, and boulders.
Wherever you’ve set your story, go there–physically if you can, via imagination if you can’t. Learn what the streets smell like and when each plant flowers.
Even if the place is made up, even if it’s another planet, you have to know what your characters will experience there with all five of their senses (unless they have four or six senses, which I suppose is possible). How many moons, and when do they rise? Do they cross each other at times?
In the Game of Thrones world, winter comes every ten or fifteen years. In an Ursula LeGuin story I once read the seasons changed only once in every generation. Those kinds of shifts have repercussions! They determine how children are raised, the myths that are taught, the foods eaten (or whether there is food to eat). It would also shape a world’s economy and politics.
Look, I’ve read a few fantasy books that didn’t think these issues through. Those booksy were inconsistent, and worse–the stories were shallow. The characters often had no depth, either. IOW–uninteresting. And that is the last thing a book should be.
You don’t have to be wordy; the best descriptions can be terse and perfect. Think of Night Circus–better yet, think of your favorite book again. How did the author pull you in? Discover the tricks and use them to spice up your work. And by spice, of course, I mean specifically which spice: cinnamon? basil? an addictive substance? What color is it? Is it a pod or a leaf? How finely ground and in what sort of bowl? You get the idea.
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