Today is the Past of Tomorrow - (03/03/13)

From generation to generation, knowledge gets lost. Sometimes the information is no longer useful; sometimes people just don’t share what they know until it’s too late. But the end result is too often like a game of telephone. How many of us are ignorant of the knowledge our great-grandparents considered commonplace?

It makes me wonder how quickly knowledge would fade in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event. I’m not talking about skills. People would still know how to harvest maple syrup and train horses and build fences and spin yarn. In fact, that kind of knowledge would most likely increase, because we’d need to know those things to survive.

But what about historical and academic knowledge? How long would it be before people forgot the names of the presidents? Or the lyrics to songs well-known songs?

In other words, how long before our cultural identity fades?

Even in the absence of a major societal melt-down, cultural references and historical knowledge are transmitted imperfectly, at best. When the structures that help us maintain our collective memory collapse, how much more quickly will we forget?

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Interview with Arlene - (02/17/13)

Megan Cashman interviews authors for her blog. A couple of weeks ago, she featured Arlene Blakely, who talked about the process of creating Doom Days. Check out the interview here.



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Post-Apocalyptic Pets - (01/20/13)

I got a dog recently. He’s a good dog, even though he was clearly neglected by his previous family. He’s scared of almost everything, but he’s also really sweet, so overall, he’s a good addition to the family.

Spending time with my dog this weekend got me thinking about whether pets are a luxury. They appear pretty frequently in post-apocalyptic fiction, especially in the form of a faithful dog. We certainly didn’t think twice about including pets in our stories when we were writing Doom Days. One character owns a cat, and there are also horses, which are  companions as much as transportation. There are also goats and chickens, but they are livestock, so they don’t count.

The point is, when you’re writing about rebuilding humanity, it seems natural to include a few pets. I think they signify civilization in a way. Maybe that’s because they are a bit of a luxury. After all, when you’re struggling to survive, it doesn’t make sense to take on the responsibility of an animal. 

But as I’m writing this, my dog is wagging his tail in his sleep. And it’s friggin adorable. And it makes me think that pets are the kind of luxury we can’t afford not to have, in the event of an apocalypse. After all, if we’re so broken that we won’t care for an animal, maybe we’re beyond saving. Like the canary in the coal mine, except the point is to save the canary, not let it die breathing poisonous gas.

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The Mystery of Marketing, Part II - (01/10/13)

In my last post, I lamented the necessity of marketing (for the second time; I’m starting to sound like a broken record) and outlined two common marketing approaches: tapping into social media and mobilizing an existing fan base. Both of these marketing strategies rely on having access to people: blog readers, Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and people who are generally predisposed to read your books and/or listen to what you have to say.

Okay, but what if you don’t have a pre-existing fan base and the only person who reads your blog is your mom? Well, then, you (by which I mean me) have to make use of the other two categories of indie marketing.

Category #3 – Write like crazy. This is the Amanda Hocking approach to indie marketing. It’s marketing via momentum, and it works. When I published my first book, it became clear very quickly that people who liked Illegal Magic would be happy to buy the sequel. The only trouble was, I didn’t have a sequel.[1]

The fact is, writing is the best form of marketing. Successful authors, as we’ve established before in this blog, write a lot. They write series and they publish new books frequently. That’s why we’re already working on Doom Days 2, The Doomening.[2]

Of course, you also need to write good stuff. But you don’t have to write the Great American Novel. Tell a good story – better yet, tell a bunch of good stories – and then publish the heck out of them.

Writing is the ultimate form of marketing because it kick starts the virtuous cycle. Writing is the path to building a fan base, which in turn gives us people to connect with on all those lovely little social media platforms, which in turn provides a built-in audience for future projects. And so on and so forth.

I could wrap it up here, but I promised you four categories of marketing, and I don’t like to renege on a promise. So here it is:

Category #4 – Marketing as a continuum.


This might be a cop-out, but the fourth category of marketing isn’t really a category; it’s the realization that marketing isn’t a discrete activity.

People talk about marketing as though it’s a single, isolated skill that you can learn, like  swimming or spelling. But marketing is really just a way of describing a whole host of activities that help you connect with people who are interested in the stuff you’re offering.

So if marketing isn’t a discrete activity, that means it’s something you have to incorporate into your life in a way that feels authentic for you. For some people that means face-to-face interactions: at writers’ conferences, book signings, and social events. I have friends who are excellent at this kind of networking. They can walk into a room of strangers and walk out two hours later with six new best friends.

For folks who lack this kind of social adroitness (by which I mean me) indie author M. Louisa Locke points out that the Internet is a great forum to forge connections. Guest blogging, commenting on message boards, and joining online communities are all forms of marketing that feel more comfortable for some people.

I’m still trying to figure out what my marketing style is. I don’t mind blogging, but it takes a long time and I’m not sure how effective it is. I’m not a social butterfly and I don’t have much interest in joining a ton of online writing sites. The thing I’m really good at is teaching. Lately, I’ve started thinking about how I can translate my teaching skills into a platform for marketing myself as a writer. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

In the meantime, what steps do you take to market your work?


[1] Cue sad violin music here.


[2] Not the actual title. Probably.


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The Mystery of Marketing, Part I - (01/03/13)

The greatest challenge facing an indie author might be figuring out what to do after the book is published. In a world where even traditionally published authors are expected to shoulder the marketing burden,[1] there’s no way an indie author can escape the  pressure to market. 

So, okay. Authors have to “market” our work. But what the heck does that mean?

I’m ashamed to admit how little marketing I did for Illegal Magic. I barely even told anyone I’d published a book. It felt weird to blow my own horn, and besides, I wasn’t really a published author. I’d uploaded the book myself; that didn’t count.

I now know I was an idiot, but at the time it all made perfect sense. When the book sold more than 5,000 copies – plus another 30,000 free downloads – I was shocked. I’d managed to succeed at this indie publishing thing, in spite of  my marketing efforts (or lack thereof).

By the time Doom Days was published, I’d accepted the need for marketing. And thanks to the experiences of my fellow Doom Days authors, bolstered by a bunch of research, I now have better idea of how to go about it.

As far as I can tell, marketing tactics break down into four categories. I’m going to discuss the first two in this post. Tune in for my next post to read about the last two!

Category #1 – Social media. This is the well duh! category of marketing advice. Of course you should “leverage social media” to “connect with readers” and “mobilize your Internet connections.”

Those quotes are all sarcastic air-quotes. Because of course it helps to have a content-rich website, 4,400 followers on Twitter, and a Facebook page with 572,000 likes.[2] But how does one go about building that audience? Tweeting and blogging and commenting and posting are only useful if someone is out there reading what you’re writing.[3]

That takes us to…

Category #2 – It helps to have a pre-existing fan base. That’s why indie-publishing is attractive to midlist authors frustrated with the limitations of traditional publishing. It’s also why new authors may have a hard time selling books: without a built-in audience convincing people to buy your book is hard.

One of my favorite authors, Jenny Crusie did a 2011 blog-terview discussing the pros and cons of transitioning from traditional to indie-publishing. She pointed out that it’s disingenuous to claim success as an indie author only after building a fan base with the help of the traditional publishing system.

Chances are, if the only people who buy your book are friends and family, you won’t ever sell more than a few copies. Sooner or later you need to get yourself some real, live fans: people who don’t know you, but like your work and want to give you money to read it. These are the people who will review your book on Amazon and Goodreads, who will recommend your book to others, and who will turn you into a Real Author.

The trick, of course, is finding those people.



[1] Forbes did a great article that touched on this issue, citing the experiences of authors like Trey Ratcliff.

[2] Stephen King’s stats. I’ll bet he’d be super-successful as an indie-author.

[3] She says, blogging into the abyss.

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Don’t fence me in, man! - (12/23/12)

One piece of advice writers consistently receive from writing conference panelists, workshop facilitators, and assorted agent/author/editor blogs is to work on an elevator speech. The elevator speech is a 30 second synopsis of your book, the sort of thing you could pitch to an agent, should you, either by luck or by stalking find yourself riding in an elevator with one.

The idea is that a writer ought to be able to articulate what his or her book is about in a way that is engaging, accurate, and brief. Having an amazing elevator speech prepared ahead of time will save you from hemming and hawing while an agent politely waits for you to share your literary genius. It’s also intended to prevent authors from blathering on for fifteen minutes while the poor soul who made the mistake of asking about their writing surreptitiously inches toward the door.

Developing an elevator speech seems like a good idea, but it’s something I’ve always struggled with. Aside from my natural verbosity (which is really no excuse) most of what I write doesn’t fit neatly into a single genre. More distressingly, my stories sound really stupid when I try to explain them. It’s kind of like trying to explain Firefly to someone who’s unfamiliar with the awesome majesty of Joss Whedon. You end up saying, “Cowboys in space, but with Chinese cursing,” and people shrug and say, “Yeah, sure. Sounds great. I’ll put it in my Netflix queue.” And the more you try to explain, the less interested they get.

As part of the process of publishing Doom Days each of us wrote a blurb for our story. I think I had more trouble writing my blurb than writing the story itself. It was the elevator speech dilemma all over again.

Summarizing a story just isn’t the same as explaining what what a story is actually about. Nor is categorizing it by genre or identifying its themes or naming its main characters. A story is more than the sum of its parts, and trying to squeeze all its intricacies into a thirty-second speech or a two-sentence blurb feels not only impossible but also undesirable to me.

Of course, I can bellyache as much as I want and it won’t change the fact that having an elevator speech and a blurb makes good sense from a marketing perspective. That’s why I’ll continue to struggle with the task of condensing my stories, even though I hate doing it. But I’ll know in my arrogant, conceited little heart that the essence of my story can’t be boiled down to a tiny sound-bite.

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Character and Voice, Part 1 - (12/16/12)

For a couple of minutes I considered opening this post with a joke about schizophrenia (something something hearing voices in your head). In my defense I was reading Facebook at the time.

So let’s sidestep the bad puns and get to the meat of this thing: you need to be able to talk in your character’s voice. I don’t mean you need to actually sound like them – which is good because twenty years of playing tabletop RPGs has taught me that no amount of pitching or voice coaching is will allow me to sound like most non-Americans or a woman – but you should be able to open your mouth and speak in their words, their intonation and cadence.

Let’s talk about why in this post. I’ll go into how in the second.

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Write 2000 Words Every Day. No, Really, Do It. - (12/11/12)

Stephen King’s On Writing is my literary palimpsest. It’s also a significant contributor to my general thoughts on the subject of life and living well and it’s entertaining to boot. So, before we get too deeply involved here, let me recommend On WritingThis recommendation applies to everyone, whether you’ve written, you’re writing, you’d like to some day, or you genuinely believe you have nothing to say. At the very least you’ll get a laugh or two out of it.

So much for the plug. The reason I bring King’s book up in this context is simple: before I read it I had very little idea what I was doing when it came to writing. This is not to say I’ve gotten any better, but now I’m cognizant of how little I know. This isn’t because of his insights into the technical craft – while he provides them, these insights are, by and large, not the meat of the text – but rather what he has to say about the process of being a writer. Being a writer demands dedication, but more than that it demands passion. Your work necessitates a fire that will push you to sit down and plunge into the story, even when it’s hard, even when pulling each word from your mind has generates an excruciating despair not unlike passing a kidney stone. Your story lives in you and you alone until you commit it to the page – at that time, and only then, and only once truly finished, does it take on a life of its own, capable of a parallel existence within many minds other than your own. You will never be able to accomplish these acts of creation until you learn to write and you will never learn to write until you force yourself to sit down and actually do it.

This is all a somewhat florid way of suggesting that the process of becoming a writer requires practice, and the only way to get that practice is to write. The only way to practice well is to write quite a bit.

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Paradise into Dystopia, Part One - (12/09/12)

There’s a creaky old adage that goes “write what you know”. While I have just about no interest in writing what constitutes my daily life–i.e. driving, yoga, Facebook marketing, staring at my dog, drinking coffee, existential dread, working on the fifteenth draft of a story–I do like to write about locations I’ve visited. I find it reassuring to know that I’ve set foot in a place before I try to describe it.

So when the Doom Days author committee decided that the Collapse caused a mass exodus of United Statesians towards Mexico and Canada, I knew I had to use my brief and extremely limited experience in Mexico as source material. 

View from the Casa Las Tortugas cafe, Isla Holbox, Mexico

View from the Casa Las Tortugas cafe, Isla Holbox, Mexico

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Collaborating without Compromise - (12/04/12)

Collaborating on Doom Days was a balancing act. From the very beginning we knew that we wanted to create a shared world anthology. But we also knew that we wanted to give each member of the group the freedom to write the story he or she wanted to write. We wanted to preserve our individual voices and avoid infringing on each other’s creativity.

In other words, we wanted to collaborate without compromising.

We started our little experiment by establishing some parameters. We hammered out the details of our world and asked each other questions and argued over the answers. We came up with ideas and got excited and frustrated and confused and excited again. We ate baked goods and drank coffee and did research.[1]

Things didn’t always go smoothly. There were times when I chafed at the amount of time we spent planning instead of writing, times when we got bogged down in minutia or found ourselves discussing an issue we thought had already been resolved. There were times when the project felt overwhelming and impossible.

In fact, as it turned out, the hard part wasn’t coming up with ideas. The hard part was stopping. There seemed to be no end to the ideas we could unearth – concepts upon concepts. We spun the web of our shared world around us until I feared there would be no creative space left for us to actually write.

But fortunately, we managed to transition from brainstorming to writing. And once we did, something magical happened. The world we had built began to feel real. The project began to feel possible again.

In the end, I think we all compromised a bit: accepted an idea we had initially rejected or modified a character’s voice or tweaked the plot of a story to accommodate another writer’s needs. But we did these things cheerfully, in the spirit of creative teamwork. We cooperated and it never felt like compromising. It felt electric and authentic, the way the best writing always does.

[1] Lots of research. Creepy research. It became a running joke that if the NSA hauled one of us in for questioning the other members of the group had to help prove that we were NOT a terrorist cell; just a bunch of apocalyptic fiction writers.

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