Thursday, April 3, 2014

Avoiding the Poison Pen

It's mightier. Wield it carefully.
Last June, I met a fellow historical novelist--a truly lovely woman, who will remain anonymous for the purposes of this post--at the Historical Novel Society Conference. We chatted over Saturday breakfast about our manuscripts, and she handed me a complimentary copy of her self-published war novel, asking only that I post a review in return. I thanked her and told her that I looked forward to reading her work. I meant this. I truly did.

Well, I started reading it about two months ago. The novel opened with transcriptions of period letters that describe grievous war injuries (insert the obligatory pile of amputated arms and legs here) and then jumped to a present-day dysfunctional father-daughter relationship. How the historical letters figured into this shift in time and plot, I knew not--but I was willing to give the book more time to show me. I kept reading.

More problems emerged, though. The characters were not sympathetic. The father--a middle-aged, arrogant workaholic with a pot-belly and a chip on his shoulder--was realistic but not likeable. No sense of true urgency was established. More letter transcriptions appeared as the chapters wore on, but they didn't connect to the modern-day scenes in any meaningful way. The author seemed to have thrown them in for historical "flavor" in the same way a cook adds spice to an otherwise unremarkable dish. The result was artificial and confusing.

I once read a short and slicing book review that stated, "I can't remember exactly when I slipped into a coma while reading this." This novel wasn't quite that bad, but I began to daydream mid-sentence, literally jolting back to the present to discover I'd only read half a page at most. I chided myself for not focusing and began reading again, only to have the same thing happen again. And again.

When my mind wandered, it became mired in a bog of unanswered questions. Why didn't the author have a book editor look at her manuscript before she published? Couldn't someone in her writing group point out that there must be a reason for the transcriptions, like the letter authors' appearance as characters in the novel? Shouldn't someone have told her that "[sic]" wasn't needed; license to change historical text into something more understandable for the modern-day reader is implied by the genre? Why hadn't the author read (or if so, paid attention to) a few celebrated novels set in the same period to see how others had navigated the past-to-present divide before making her own attempt? As far as I could tell, none of the above happened--and boy, did it ever show.

So, I gave up about halfway through the book. I probably should have tossed it aside long before that, but I have issues with not finishing novels. "If you were bored by a TV show, would you switch it off?" a friend once asked me. "Yes," I replied at once. "Then why force yourself to continue read a boring book?" she asked. She had a point. I guess I kept reading until the midway point because I hoped that the "good part" was coming, and I didn't want to quit before I reached it. But then I remembered something a writing professor once told me: "Don't talk about the 'good part' of your book. Every part of your book should be the good part." He also had a point. Halfway through, I didn't care if the characters fixed their problems, conquered their sorrows, fell in love, or lived period, let alone "happily-ever-after." That's a problem, because the reader needs to care. The reader needs a reason to continue reading.

Now, here's my confession: I decided not to write the book review. It's poor form, I think, to kick the author in the teeth when the book has been gifted. Nor would I appreciate it if the situation were reversed. That won't stop me from getting my own bad book reviews, of course, but I'll feel better for having avoided picking up the poison pen myself. Yes, I could have been as diplomatic as a form rejection letter--I just didn't love your book. Perhaps others will feel differently--but I still chose not to write one. I'm not part of the literary police. Still, I feel a little guilty about saying nothing, even though I had nothing nice to say. Why is that, I wonder.

Have you ever given up on a book, or do you push through until the end, hopeful that it'll get better at some point? If you stuck with it, were you happy that you did? Have you written a bad review for a book that disappointed you? Why or why not?

I look forward to reading your comments below.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Publicize This!

I failed to post here in February, but I can say that it was for a very good reason.

Since the middle of January, I've been working on finishing my first "indie" publishing project, a short-but sweet book that discusses strategies for promoting community/nonprofits with limited or nonexistent marketing budgets. It's called Publicize This! and I'm proud to say that it's now completed.

The back story is this: In 2007, I joined the marketing committee at my son's private school. My first project was to print a school brochure, which was easy because it was something I'd done many, many times while working for McGraw-Hill at the publication and at the corporate level. After the brochure was completed, I was asked to publicize school events that were open to the public: Open House, craft fairs, the annual fashion show, and so forth. Unlike my prior assignment, I had NO idea how to accomplish this. None. Zip. Zilch. I had to educate myself swiftly in order to do this well. The wisdom in this book is the result of my studies and my efforts since that time.

Publicize This! is a beginner's guide for community and/or nonprofit groups who need to grow their membership, raise awareness of important issues, and solicit donations to advance their objectives—despite the fact that they have a limited or nonexistent marketing budget. Packed with practical advice, this brief and to-the-point book details specific steps that groups might take to make a simple marketing plan, compile a custom media distribution list, advertise group events, capitalize on post-event publicity opportunities, and generate ongoing word-of-mouth that furthers the group's overall goals. All it takes is "some dedication, a little targeted research, diligent collection of relevant information, and steady application of what is learned along the way." Quick and easy fundraising ideas are included, as well as samples of blurbs, announcements, a radio script, and other promotional pieces for modeling purposes. It's 80 pages in length, so it's a quick read.

If you (or someone you know) is involved with publicity for a small group, I hope you'll consider adding Publicize This! to your (or someone else's) bookshelf today. It's available via CreateSpace and Amazon, and is available in print and as an eBook for Kindle and other platforms (or at least it will be by tomorrow at 8:30 AM. It took a while to figure out formatting for Kindle Direct Publishing, so I only managed to complete the electronic file today—but I'll save that story for another post).

Thanks for reading this and for considering Publicize This!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Resolved - 2014 Edition

Are you keeping your resolutions?
Since 2004, I've been cataloguing my New Year's Resolutions in a black cloth-covered journal, purchased for three bucks at the now defunct Borders book store in Sayville, New York. Looking back on these handwritten resolutions, I see common themes that now disturb me. It's not that they're bad goals, per se, but the fact that they end up on the list every year regardless of my level of success in achieving them tells me that maybe it's time to stop including them. After all, it's not much of a resolution if it's perpetual.

What kind of resolutions do I make? Omnipresent on my list (and perhaps on everyone else's as well) is to "lose ten pounds." Whether I was at maximum weight (post-baby, 2007) or minimum weight (2011), that resolution always receives the place of honor: #1. The runner-up is the perennial and always nagging directive to "publish something." Although I've accomplished this with various levels of success from year to year, this resolution won't drop off the list anytime soon either. So how exactly are these "resolutions"? They aren't; they're personal mandates. Ergo, my New Year's Resolution list is in desperate need of a makeover.

Therefore, I have decided to ignore the old standards and create new resolutions for 2014, which will hopefully go a longer way toward improving life for the better. My new-and-improved resolutions are as follows:

1. Enjoy more. My kids aren't going to be kids forever, yet I find myself staring at a blank computer screen frustrated by a lack of inspiration at times when I could be taking the boys out to see or to try something new and fun. My primary goal this year is to be more spontaneous about taking them to the beach (a mere 1-1/2 miles from my home), the park, and whatever-else-have-you. Who knows? Maybe elusive inspiration will strike while we're out having fun.

2. Say more. My mantra this year is "Speak your truth." I have made an unfortunate habit of remaining tight-lipped when listening to flawed reasoning, weak rationales, and abject stupidity in general. Although this practice is grounded in some skewed perception of what makes for good manners, it's corrosive to the soul. I see no reason why I need to continue it. "That's wrong," may be hard for some people to hear, but this year they'll be hearing it from me.

3. Sing more. This may sound stupid, but the truth is that although I sing well (or so I am told), I haven't sung much in public since my college years. Therefore, I have a bunch of friends who have never heard me sing. I'm not sure exactly when I stopped or why. I sang to my babies every day and still sing to the kids when I tuck them in at night. It's well outside my comfort zone to seek opportunities in which I may begin to sing in public again, but that's probably a good thing.

4. Try more. I have a Chinese fortune taped to my computer monitor that says "Failure is only defeat when you stop trying." Truth. Even so, I sent out five query letters in 2013. That's downright pathetic, especially for someone who is trying to sell historical fiction set in the currently slow-selling Revolutionary War period. My new goal is to query at least one agent per week. The worst that could happen is that I'll have more practice in approaching agents. The best is that someone will finally say yes.

5. Read more. I already read a lot, but there's a backlog of books that I've been meaning to read that I'd like to cut down to size this year. My new strategy is to throw a book in my car and read it while waiting to pick the kids up. Call it "repurposing my downtime." I hope it ends with lots of really excellent stories having been devoured.

I have some other goals which fit under the general umbrella of these five resolutions, but I won't list them all here. What's important is that I've realized that I need to change my way of thinking about resolutions. Hopefully, this list will help me live life better. I'll let you know in a year.

What are your NYRs for 2014, I wonder.  Post them below, if you dare.

Above image courtesy of satit_srihin/

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"Serial Killer" - Flash Fiction

by Kathleen Powers-Vermaelen

The punk behind the register snorted when Dave dropped his grocery bag. Dave picked it up and looked the chain-wearing youth in the eye. "What's your name?" he asked.

"Rick Stone," the kid said. "Why?"

Dave left the store without replying.

That night, Dave wrote a graphic short story about the murder and dismemberment of a teenaged punk named Rick Stone.

Thursday evening, he read it to his writers' group. The newest member was the first one to comment. "Sounds like you're struggling with some adolescent angst," she said.

"What's your name again?" Dave asked.

First published in Beginnings, Spring 2004, p. 12. Accompanying image courtesy of Ambro/

Friday, November 29, 2013

To Indie Publish or Not - That is the Question

Go easy, cousin.
To indie publish, or not to indie publish--
that is the question:                          
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The rejections and apathy
of traditional publishing                         
Or rebel against its sea of dismissals
And by publishing oneself end them...*

I admit that I've been somewhat seduced by the idea of indie-publishing for a long while now. Articles such as this one, which my friend Sande shared on Facebook a while back, only fan the flames.

I finished The Devil's Belt, my novel about life on British-occupied Long Island during the American Revolution, back in 2010. I have been submitting (sporadic) query letters since that time, but the response has been lukewarm. "Revolutionary War fiction is hard [to sell] right now," explained one agent to whom I pitched the book at the Historical Novel Society Conference back in June of this year. Civil War fiction has seen a bump in popularity due to its sesquicentennial anniversary, but the next American Revolutionary War anniversary (250th) is thirteen years away. Those who know me best could tell you with authority that I've never been that patient.

So, do I or don't I?

A number of factors are in favor of taking this publishing bull by its horns. First, a traditional book has approximately three weeks either to make enough of a splash to command a second print-run or to simply sink, becoming one of those discounted copies found on bookstores' remainder tables. Indie-publishing sidesteps this time-sensitivity issue; a print-on-demand book is always available, as it takes up no space on a bookstore shelf and can be produced/downloaded at will. Additionally, authors are freed from having to appease traditional gatekeepers in order to have their work published; the middle-men (agent, editor, etc.) are eliminated from the process and the payroll. It's a brave new world for writers, who have more opportunity now than ever before to get their work to market--regardless of how "tough" the demographics may be--and into the hands of appreciative readers.

On the other hand, many of the indie books I've purchased seem only half-baked. Authors are so eager to get their work to market that they aren't taking the time needed to make sure the work is truly ready for publication. Many are rife with rookie writing mistakes and underdeveloped plots; I'd estimate that more than half are poorly edited/proofread. Popular book review sites heralded as the new gatekeepers of indie quality aren't foolproof; stellar reviews written by authors' friends have coaxed me into buying a number of unremarkable books. Each time I hit the "Back" button on my Kindle before reaching the end of a story, I am reminded of the value inherent in the traditional gatekeeping structure.

On occasion, however, I do find a real gem among the rocks. Will we look back at certain indie-published books in fifty years the way we look back now at James Joyce's Ulysses, amazed that the author of such genius had to take matters into his own hands and self-publish? I have no doubt that history will repeat itself in that way. It often does.

I've been invited to read excerpts of my novel at a couple of venues now. After each reading, I'm approached by people who want to know when and where they can buy the book. When I explain that I haven't found a publisher yet, they groan and ask me why I don't just publish it myself. Good question. The answer is that I'm mired in self-doubt. Despite years of revisions, I still worry that my novel is lacking in some essential way. How do I know that the story is truly ready to go? Interest from an agent or editor would validate that it's ready to be published.

So, should I step up my efforts and continue trying to land a traditional publishing deal? Or should I strike out on my own and get my characters out of the desk drawer?

Tell me your opinion in the comments below.

* with consummate apologies to my possible kinsman, William Shakespeare

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Better Late Than Never

"So, when are you launching your author's blog?" my good friend, Janet Berg, asked during our last writers' get-together, an evening replete with fine wine, good food, raucous laughter, and the occasional poem or flash fiction piece thrown in for good measure.

"I'm working on it," I replied, and although the use of adverbs is against my religion, sheepishly could well have followed that second verb. I created this blog back in March 2012. Until today, I had not made a single post.

That's over eighteen months of avoidance. Count 'em. Eighteen.

This failure-to-launch could be rationalized using a common excuse: I've been busy. Since creating this blog, I've started teaching English at two different colleges on top of running the creative services business I started in 2011. Additionally, I'm working on several personal writing projects at any given time. Finally, I'm a wife and mother, so one can figure out where my free time goes first. I have been, without a doubt, insanely busy. Pretending that this is why I haven't launched this blog until now, however, would be disingenuous.

The truth is that I had no idea how to begin. Too many writers' blogs start off sounding like an AA meeting: "Hi, my name is Kathleen, and I'm a writer." One can well imagine the groaning. Other bloggers just jump right in, as if they've always been there and will always be. I grappled with the temptation to do that--just show up all of a sudden, maybe with commentary on some controversial matter--but that didn't feel right either. I wanted to figure out a real and genuine way to wade in.

Writing for my other blog, Finding Mary Cordial, is easy. Presently, it focuses on giving genealogical research tips. Previously, it catalogued my own search for my ancestors. Writing that was just a matter of retelling the tale, starting at the beginning. Perhaps my hesitation to begin this blog sprang from not having a sense of exactly how it would go or how it will end. I'm one of millions of writers online, just another drop in an already overflowing bucket. Blogging is different than writing fiction or poetry. Do I really have anything to say about being a writer that's worth reading?

But then I think about Janet, who has been fearless in embracing self-promotion. "It sucks," she wrote in a recent email, "but it has to be done." Word. Nowadays it's a necessary evil. The old model, in which publishers promoted writers so as to sell more books and make more money, is rapidly falling away. "Indie publishing" has arrived, and the publishing industry struggles with the five stages of grief while making the necessary adjustments. Writers may have far less help promoting themselves as a result, but they also have far more options. I've always held the opinion that too many options are better than too few. It's time to begin exploring them.

So, this inaugural blog post is dedicated to Janet, who blogs at Writing In My Sleep. She shamed me into launching (finally), even if she didn't mean to do so. It's about time and for my own good. So thank you, Janet. I've just officially launched.

Image courtesy of winnond /