25 March 2012

On back-cover blurbs

In the writers' circle to which I belong I have often mentioned that the 100-word blurb (the one on Amazon and on the back of the cover) is one of the most important parts of book marketing. It is painfully ironic that the people who publish and distribute books don't like to take a lot of time to read much about them. They are as lazy as many other readers.  So as an author or book promoter you have to be quick, interesting and unique.  You have to interest someone as early as possible, even to get him to read till the end of your 100 words.  And you need to make him want to pay $19.00 for the book (or $6.95 plus $79.00 for the Kindle).

I actually enjoy writing an introductory blurb.  It's an exercise in brevity (something I could always use) and it's fun to try to depict the book accurately and as efficiently as possible.  Andy Warhol once suggested that each of us will be famous for 15 minutes.  (I don't know if I've got to my 15 minutes yet.  Maybe I am just an optimist.)  Imagine, now, that you were granted one minute of your fame to depict your book to people who, if they liked how it sounded, would buy it, read it and rave about it till you became a millionaire from the book sales.  This might be your one chance at stardom.  What would you say to such an opportunity?

At the risk of appearing self-important here, I shall pose my opening chapter to Deirdre, the Oyster's Pearl as a pretty good example:
Please don't count the words; it won't flatter either of us!

Here is the one for the forthcoming
This is longer, intentionally so; but it sets up enough of the story itself that you have an idea of what to expect.  This blurb may be edited later as the book nears completion.  As yet I have not wholly addressed some of the plot elements this blurb hints at and so I maintain this blurb as a kind of guide to what has to be covered by the text proper.

I won't claim that my blurbs are anything terrific; I view them as mere tools to accomplish what I need for them to do, no differently than I view the clever little tools I have made to facilitate the restoration of the boat.  The tools are not the boat; they are the means for me to benefit from the boat and for the boat to earn its keep.

And so goes for the blurbs we have to write for our books.  For my part I believe that these blurbs are adequate to introduce the book in such a way that the book itself appears interesting.  To do this I prefer to pose questions or to leave cliffhangers that can only be satisfied by reading more than the first third of the actual book.  And I do aggrandise or exaggerate certain plot elements in order to make them seem more like the core of the story-- the same as the preview does for the feature film.  Watch the 'trailer' feature on some DVD film you have to see how often it distorts or even misrepresents the film you know so well.  This is part of salesmanship; and, though we are all much more artists in our writing, we must learn some degree of marketing in order to survive-- and, perhaps more importantly, ensure that our work survives our efforts in promoting it during our lifetimes.  So don't be afraid to really pump up your work in those 100 words.  Make it seem like the greatest thing there ever was-- so long as it's really representing the story you really wrote and not the one you only should have done!

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04 March 2012

Jonnie Comet on 'Deirdre, the Wanderer'

from a PR flyer, 12 September 2011

What methods of research did you use in creating Deirdre, the Wanderer?

  I would like to say I sailed to The Bahamas; but I haven’t.  It was just too far out of reach at the time I was writing the book.  I do several kinds of research for a ‘location’ novel like DTW.  First, I read.  I read everything I can about the actual settings-- in fact this reading is usually what makes me want to set a story there.  Then I research details, via the Internet or, not so long ago, encyclopaedia, textbooks, CIA fact sheets (easily available), and especially maps and sailing charts.  Perusing cartography enables me to discover specific places for which I can acquire photographs and more detailed maps.  Google Earth has been an invaluable resource lately for the Asian and Australian legs of Deirdre’s journey (Adventurer).
  Whilst writing DTW (in 2000-2001) I used a then-current map of Nassau to establish Deirdre’s movements there.  More recent visitors will know of the shopping arcade off East Bay Avenue, new in 2005, or may not know of the old Straw Market which burned down in about 2002; but the details in DTW do accurately reflect the time period of Deirdre’s visit to Nassau (April-June 2000).
  This is all academic; it is only a start.  The refinement comes when I ask people who have been there to share their experiences.  I have several yachtie friends who have been to The Bahamas many times and one friend who owns a condo in Providen├žiales who have been fonts of knowledge.  My mother took a yacht cruise in the BVI; her experience with the harbourmaster at Jost Van Dyke (long before 9/11, when immigration got tighter all over the world) is the basis for that in Deirdre, the Oyster’s Pearl.
  Several times now-archaic details will alert an astute reader; but remember this is essentially an historical novel capturing a way of life no longer possible in the modern world; and a responsible author will ensure that details like prices and current events support, rather than detract from, the overall aura of the setting and story.

Is the character of Deirdre based on a real person?

  No; but like all good characters in fiction she is an amalgam of several different people with a good measure of pure make-believe thrown in.  I was once involved with a girl called Deirdre who told me of the Celtic legend, about the gifted singer who was pursued by her family members and their rivals until all she loved were dead and she was left to wander, weeping, for the rest of a short unhappy life.  The concept of a poor homeless girl who is forced to travel alone, never finding solace or security, was what inspired the theme of the novel.

In your opinion how do you believe the character of Deirdre can influence other people?

  In no way was Deirdre meant to be a role model for other young people, especially not for girls, especially not for girls who consider running away.  It is more appropriate to consider her a kind of anti-hero, doing exciting and interesting things but as a person not quite worthy of emulation.  She is a very flawed being who makes very human mistakes and quite often, by the standards of any responsible person, her decisions are just ‘wrong’.  One might suggest that she had no truly good reason to run away from home in the first place; but she does not mention her reasons for leaving with any detail till the very end of DTW-- and, some might argue, not convincingly.  Desperate for love and acceptance, she tends to fall too quickly into relationships upon which her safety and security depend; and most of these turn out badly for her.  And there is the whole question of why she has a need to keep moving when a safer and more lucrative course might be to simply find another job where she is and settle in.
  But in other ways she represents the kind of self-made, self-reliant hero or heroine we all want to be like.  She is clever and resourceful, beginning as a callow child with only a provincial, immature lookout on life, and gains self-confidence through trials and self-worth through successes.  If she should not be emulated for what she does, she might be respected and admired for how she does what she does-- for at her best she is the stuff of which all heroes are made, bravery, honour, dignity, perseverance and a not-inconsequential slice of unselfish altruism into the bargain.

Why should someone want to pick up and read Deirdre, the Wanderer?

  I have called DTW ‘escapist literature’, meaning that it’s the sort of book that takes you off to some alternate reality for a while and makes you yearn for a world in which things could really be like that.  I think to some extent all novel-reading is meant to do this.  When we read Jane Eyre we revel in a society without mobile phones or e-mail.  When we read Horatio Hornblower we cheer for the British imperialists and despise the French democrats.  Harry Potter makes us believe we could actually go to school to see, and even learn, magic.  Books like these we remember longest and most fondly.
  Deirdre is a reluctant heroine who tells her story from a perspective of sheltered innocence, youthful insecurity and na├»ve optimism.  She is placed in a situation that requires her to grow up quickly; and she relates her experiences with eye-opening frankness, as though she doesn’t know how surreal or shocking it may seem to other people.  As a reader you will naturally worry about her and sympathise with her, almost as though she were your own friend, sister, daughter or child.  If you’ve ever wondered or worried about the trials and tribulations of a teenager caught in a hostile environment, you will find an interest in her story.

What would you like professors and critics to see in Deirdre, the Wanderer?

  I would hope that professors and critics, from now through all posterity, will recognise clever style, intelligent use of narrative and monologue, authentic details with regard to both people and places, and a subtle but powerful message just beneath the surface.  I would like them to see the narration as something apart from other books ostensibly similar, and in time to see the character in the continuum of Pamela Andrews, Jane Eyre, Tess Darbyville and the second Mrs DeWinter as possibly one of the more charming female protagonists of women-centred fiction.

What would you like average readers of Deirdre, the Wanderer to see in the book?

  I would like people to recognise Deirdre as a normal ‘girl-next-door’ who finds herself in some very unexpected and often very formidable circumstances and has only a very normal set of personal attributes with which to effect her own survival.  She is no-one special; she could be you.  Yet in the way she rises to each occasion she illustrates what the average teenager is capable of doing, and that should both inspire and entertain you.
  I’d also like people to, as I often say, ‘live in the book’-- to have fun with the experience of reading it, to laugh when it’s amusing and shudder when it’s scary; for it is both these things in due measures.

What is your own favorite part of Deirdre, the Wanderer?

  There are so many parts that it’d be hard to limit myself to only a few.  I like the first paragraph, intended to draw you into a story you don’t know yet.  It is a technique I like to use even in face-to-face conversation, for it arouses interest and rather demands you pay attention to the next bit and so on; and you’re still left out of the whole story for quite some time afterwards and so have to sort of sleuth your way through it.
  I like how Deirdre’s own thoughts (given in italics) often question or comment on the reality before her, showing her real innocence and cluelessness.  It’s realistic, especially for a somewhat sceptical and almost insolent teenager.
  I like her sense of wonder at the new places she sees and the new experiences she has, as though she’s aware this doesn’t happen every day to most people.
  And I like how she so often puts herself down.  She is always too critical of her intelligence, her abilities and especially her appearance; she doesn’t seem to know she is lacking in none of that and so it’s actually ironic, humour at the expence of the character herself.
  My favourite plot segments are the struggles with Johnnie, the sail in the Optimist dinghy, all of Book VII and all the cosiness with Sandy.  These show Deirdre for who she really is, brave yet vulnerable, steely yet soft.  I like the characters of Tumblebunch, Iris, Tony and Petula, and Sandy MacNally-- one my favourite characters ever-- for the sheer humanity they impart to the story.
  I don’t like Rosemarie, Leslie, Clive or Ray-- and I think that shows-- because they seek to take advantage of Deirdre; but they also account for some of the scariest and most interesting parts of the book.

Can you recall the first and last parts you wrote to the story?

  The first conception of DTW was of a homeless teenaged girl walking the length of an island in a swimsuit and sneakers with all her worldly possessions in a bag on her back.  It was to be part of another story but did not quite fit into it and ultimately became the scene on Grand Bahama in which Deirdre walks from Freeport to McLeans (Book V).  The concept recurs several times throughout the next two or three volumes as a kind of a defining image of the whole series.  (If there were to be a film of DTW a snip of this scene would have to appear in the trailer!)
  The earliest elements of the plot to be established were (in no order) the sail across the Bahama Bank in the Optimist, the stay at the private island of Sans Souci, the scene after dinner at Ray and Marta’s house, and of course the whole of Book I.  Given these the rest of it began to fall into place like the remainder of a jigsaw puzzle of which one has completed only the fringe pieces.
  The last of the plot completed was either the description of how Deirdre lands the job at Ray and Marta’s (Book VIII) or the segment at the Morton house in which she devises a plot to get away from Clive (Book V).  I like to write such all-important connexions between earlier-written bits ‘on the fly’, during a session of editing what has been finished, just logically leading from a prior scene into a subsequent one by means of dialogue or brief description; and these often become some of the most crucial scenes in the book because they set up and provide rationale for the action segments to either side.
  I truly cannot recall what made me begin with that first line as I did; but I’m afraid I rather impressed myself with it and in the event it’s made the whole book through establishing the tone of voice and prevailing attitudes of the narrator herself.

What other projects are you currently working on?

  Deirdre, the Adventurer (book 3) is in the editing stage.  Also in the works is the initial volume of Janine, of Paradise, a story of a young ingenue growing up in a fictitious British territory in the tropical Pacific, as well as a sourcebook about the setting itself called The Essential Paradise.  I have been working painstakingly on the HTML files to make these works available to Amazon Kindle® readers.  Colin (Bunge, Surf City Source editor) has me devoting effort to a readers’ companion volume for DTW, featuring essays, study questions, and rosters of data such as Deirdre’s full itinerary, budget, and her wardrobe, all of which represent vital support for the authenticity of Deirdre’s story-- and make pretty good reading on their own!

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Jonnie Comet on nontraditional publishing

from a PR flyer-- 12 September 2011

In your opinion what is the effect of established methods of publishing?

  The current model of publishing, espoused by all the major publishers, retailers and, unfortunately, most authors is to have an expensive, premier agent in Manhattan approve your book, send it to a large, famous and well-established publisher as well as to his friends at the New York Times, have Ingrams distribute it to Barnes and Noble, and then sit back and wait for the Today show to schedule your TV interviews and the filmmakers to call.
  Though a precious few do find success this way, what I call the ‘B&N model’ is inherently flawed in numerous ways.  Conspicuously, it gives voice to only a very elite few.  If the agent has never heard of you, he will regard your voice as unimportant to the market and unlikely to earn him any money, since if you were any good he would have heard of you.  Notice that, besides being circular logic, this attitude cements the agent(s) as the chief arbiter between what gets said by whom to whom, the gatekeeper of free speech in a free market.
  And just because something is not out in the market now doesn’t mean it wouldn’t do well in the market if some industrious marketer got off his bottom and set to work.  The job of the agent and publishing marketer is to sell what’s not already there.  To me, the very fact that it’s not there suggests an opportunity.  A marketer should want to be the first and only one to discover new talent and to reap the benefits.  But to the average publisher or agent, the fact that it’s not there, for whatever reason, suggests that it has no right to be.  He’d rather take an easy 15% from a sure thing.
  Notice that this model relies heavily on the author’s either being a name already known to the media world (such as Tina Fey or Anne Coulter, both of whom worked hard in other areas of media to gain their reputations) or knowing someone who can do you a favour and read your otherwise unsolicited manuscript.  If you maintain that this is the only or even the most desirable way to get published, answer this: how famous are you already; or how many agents do you regularly golf, bowl, drink craft beer or attend university reunions with?
  This model of publishing has existed since at least the 1920s and remains the default which most retailers, publishers, distributors and agents (as well as authors) think is the only sensible way to publish and market books.  It’s flawed ethically and economically.  I’ve tried for years to figure out why it persists; and I can only imagine that it’s centred in ego or establishmentism, something more having to do with the personalities in question than with logic, common sense or marketing savvy.

In your opinion what are the benefits of nontraditional publishing?
  A small book-by-book publisher, whether selling through small shops or online, operates by nature and by necessity on a much more efficient scale.  The biggest benefit comes from adopting a Print-On-Demand (POD) scheme rather than relying on a huge and expensive inventory.  Under POD a stocking distributor has only to carry as many books as will sell before more can be printed.  This number can be as low as 1.  Compare that to a 25,000-per-title run by the average big publisher’s big printing contractor-- who pretty much dictate to the whole industry as it stands now-- with whom a lower-quantity run actually increases the price per copy.  This is a system based on waste.
  POD is more space-efficient as well, which results in less real estate needed for inventory, since the reorder point can be so low and the restocking time can be so fast.  It’s less shop to heat and cool, less taxes to pay, and more space that can be devoted to a greater variety of books.  In fact a ‘virtual’ bookstore, along the lines of an eBay trader, can be set up in anyone’s garage or basement, carrying only a few favourite titles and marketing to a very specific market-- though I always prefer a physical establishment where I can meet people and touch and open books myself; and I suspect most novel readers are of my mind here.
  And then, ethically, the POD model is purer and more sensitive.  Few, if any, books get returned unsold; so there is no paper waste.  I don’t have a problem cutting down trees to promptly produce a really nice copy of a book that has been requested and will be kept and cherished for generations; but I don’t want to chop down whole forests in Idaho and Oregon to produce hundreds of thousands of books when we don’t know if anyone even wants them yet.
  Despite these obvious and very real benefits, many people look down on POD titles as something less than being ‘really published’.  This is a snobbism that can only be bred of belonging to the ‘B&N model’.
  Why aren’t more publishers, even big ones, doing POD?  I think you should ask the print shops, who by virtue of their ‘requirements’ that they do only massive runs, thus binding the publishers to an inefficient relationship, rather dictate to the entire industry what may be done with what for whom.

What do you believe is the biggest drawback of nontraditionally-published novels?
  Most of them are not edited well.  It’s not the story that makes them seem amateurish, or any triteness about characterisation and dialogue.  Any of that can be overlooked when it’s got into an appropriate market.  It’s sad but true that most people with a computer word-processing program in front of them don’t have a sufficient grasp of English to be able to write mechanically well.  As a literature teacher I used to ask my students to ask of their own compositions, ‘Does this look like what I’ve read in this class?’  Are the conventions of writing dialogue observed?  Is the grammar similar?  Are there verb-tense or -agreement problems?  Did you use whom and who correctly?  Did you even check the spelling?
  I have come to suspect that one great reason for the inadequacy of amateur writers’ publications is their utter dependence on the functionally inferior MS Word spell-checker and grammar-checker.  They are absolutely atrocious and their suggestions should be regarded with scepticism or just completely ignored.  Get a real-life hardcover dictionary (I use the Collins, believe it or not, not the OED) and get into the practice of looking up every word before you select one of the spellchecker’s options.  You will produce a quality manuscript and learn English better besides.  And your attention to the actual mechanics of the language will elevate your story above those of the punters that didn’t bother and will ensure that those who read it can appreciate it on its more literary merits.
  It’s like racing a car-- if you think you’re a good driver worth notice, don’t let your car break down on the third lap in.  Failing because of mechanical problems is the worst way to go-- and most easily avoided!

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