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Tuesday, December 13th 2011

12:52 PM

Lessons from a Forest Ranger turned Author

Some boys dream of growing up to be forest rangers or firefighters.  Although I don’t recall such aspirations as a youngster, I ended up doing both.  Later, when I was travelling in Jamaica, I found the house of Ian Fleming, who penned the wildly successful James Bond series.  It seemed the idyllic life, living in the Caribbean and writing—the ultimate portable occupation.  What could be easier?  All I needed was pen, paper and creativity.  I neglected one important ingredient in my recipe for success—time.  When you are young, you have plenty of time, and, like air, you don’t think much about it unless you don’t have any.  I worked during the day as forest ranger and when I had spare time, I would write.  Sitting at a keyboard was a pleasant contrast to a hectic day often spent outdoors, dealing with fire, timber harvesting, tree planting, and oil company developers.  During summer, spare time was at a premium and the bulk of my writing was done in winter, when the Canadian north was locked in ice and it was so cold it hurt to breathe outdoors.   This was the time to stoke up the woodstove, dream of a tropical island home, and write.


I began writing seriously when I was about twenty-three and stationed as a rookie forest ranger in the isolated northern Alberta community of Fort Chipewyan.  Two hundred and fifty kilometres from the nearest permanent road, the only way to Fort Chip is by ice road for three months in the dead of winter, or by boat, plane, or snowmobile, depending on the season.  In mid-winter, night comes early.  There are no movie theatres, bowling alleys or swimming pools.  No malls.  Little to occupy the restless young.  A sort of white, silent sensory deprivation settles over one; perfect for the aspiring writer.


The first book, a thriller (no doubt to compensate for the sensory depravation), was written on an electric typewriter, borrowed from office surplus at the ranger station.  Naïve about the business of writing, I hammered out nearly 500 pages, one after the other.  Exhausted, my one typing finger numb and calloused, I promptly mailed the hefty manuscript away to a prominent New York agent.  Perhaps it was the frosty wisps of icy vapour that might have come off a manuscript from the distant north, but it was summarily rejected.  In truth, I later came to realize, rejection was the result of myriad causes, not the least of which was inexperience and a complete lack of editing and revision.


After a few months of wallowing in the inhumanity of an indifferent publishing world, I determined to learn all I could about the business.  I discovered a book club catering to writers and purchased a small library of instructional and inspirational books on the craft which, not surprisingly, all said pretty much the same thing (but at a much higher aggregated cost).  What it really came down to was the writer needs to find an original approach, tailored to a specific market, and rewritten to polished perfection.  To break into the market, the unpublished writer has ultimately to produce a work substantially different or considerably better than the bulk of product that has been turned out in recent history.  Ironically, this objective is presented as though virtually anyone can do this, which no doubt supports brisk sales in writing how-to books.  The reality, I discovered, was a little different. 


Of all the fiction manuscripts written, polished, agonized over and submitted, less than one percent are actually purchased and published.  Fortunately, I possessed three traits key to the aspiring novelist—unbridled enthusiasm, a belief that I was different, and an almost sadistic level of self-discipline.   The odds, rather than discouraging me, egged me on like an unclimbed mountain. 


Armed with the accumulated written advice of numerous editors and writers, I commenced my second book.  Naturally, I wanted a blockbuster which would garner a massive advance and vault me into the rarefied air of those authors that had racks of their books in neat rows at stores like Wal-Mart and Costco.  I went with a high-concept futuristic thriller and signed an agent in the US, hoping to gain entry into the massive market south of the border.  My agent loved the concept, but suggested a few changes and enhancements.  No problem; I was a mature, realistic writer who could take constructive criticism.  It seemed a bit odd to me when the agent wrote an entirely new chapter for the book, to replace one of my chapters.  Hours upon hours were spent in long-distance phone conferences that assumed the tone of manoeuvres under the stern and uncompromising direction of a drill sergeant.  The line between editing and something more overbearing wavered and vanished.  At one point, the agent suggested his name also appear on the cover as co-author.  I moved to a new agent, who was refreshingly cooperative but, as time wound on, seemed to spend most of her time on the lecture circuit rather than pursuing sales.  I learned the hard way, as with all my lessons in writing, that anyone can call themselves an agent.  There are excellent agents out there, who can add tremendous value to your career, but my experience is they are as hard to engage as any publisher.  By the time I started on my third book, I had given up on agents.          


The third book came and went in a staggering blur of work.  It was a literary work, based on a profoundly Canadian theme, and by God, it was going to be perfect.  It would move people.  It would be a classic.  It would win awards.  Schools would put it in their curriculum.  I spent ten months writing the first draft, discarded it and started over, then rewrote it thirteen times.  More rejections.  Main character not sympathetic enough.  Not commercial enough.  Etc.  And, oddly (as I was marketing in the US) too Canadian.


By now I had written three books and had a stack of rejection letters with which I could wallpaper the interior of an average-sized house.  My skin had thickened and I could handle rejection (an important skill for any writer), but I had spent more than enough of my limited spare time writing without a tangible result and I seriously began to question what I might get out this endeavour.  That mountain home in the Caribbean seemed decidedly distant.  If I wanted to become published and enjoy any degree of success, I needed to approach writing not only as a creative process but also as a business.  I needed a business plan.


First consideration was what sort of product to produce.  I settled on a genre (mystery), as it is easier to break into the market with a genre than a stand-alone blockbuster.  A genre offers many advantages, but I also needed my product to be unique.  I chose to write about forest fire investigation, as no else in the genre had done so, and settled on a first-person perspective to heighten immediacy in the narrative.  Next concern was building a customer base, so I planned to write a series.  Now that I knew what I would write, I had to evaluate the resources I would require, which for a writer is primarily time and research cost.  Here again, forest fire investigation was a logical choice, as I had experience in the field and wouldn’t need to learn everything from scratch.  With this plan in mind, I wrote the first two books in the Porter Cassel series.


Now that my product had been produced, I needed a marketing plan.  For most of my years as an aspiring writer, I endeavoured to sell my books almost exclusively to publishing houses in the United States.  With a market ten times the size of the Canadian market, choice seemed a mere matter of size, with the anticipation of an equally larger reward.  It turns out that I should have done my homework not only in how to write, but where to market, as size is not everything.  The US market is dominated by a small number of very large publishers—there is no middle list.  The Canadian market, thanks in part to the Canada Council for the Arts, supports over 300 small publishers, constantly looking for fresh new Canadian works.  I selected a number of Canadian publishing houses that met my marketing criteria and finally landed a two-book deal with Cormorant Books in Toronto.


I still don’t have a house in Caribbean, but at least I have a plan.

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Tuesday, December 13th 2011

12:38 PM

Ten Rules for a Disastrous Book Signing

Oddly enough, most writers prefer to spend the majority of their writing career writing.  Marketing seems like someone else’s job, a nuisance, or a second thought.  Well, since writing is ultimately a competitive business, I thought I’d take this opportunity to assist you in making your book signing events as disastrous as possible so you’ll become discouraged and just focus on writing.  The more you write, and the less you sell, the better for me, your competition.  So, in the spirit of ruthless free enterprise, I offer the following suggestions:


1.      Don’t organize any book signings at all.  Do a launch, if you have to, with the publisher, then knuckle down, nose to the grindstone, and just write.  Your mom will be proud and you’ll avoid a lot of other distractions as well.


2.      Trust your publisher will be the only flag waving advocate you need to let the world know how incredibly talented you are.  The smaller the publisher, the more you should depend solely on them for promoting you to become an international best seller.  Publishers have unlimited resources to expend on your behalf.


3.      Do not develop a marketing plan.  Good heavens, those things take time.  You have to do research, talk to regional bookstores reps about placement opportunities, returns policy, and all sorts of other pesky time consuming tasks.


4.      Ignore independent book stores.  Sure, they keep your books in stock, available for discriminating readers to fondle and sample, without requiring steady high volume sales like the big box stores, but events at independents don’t sell as many books.


5.      Do not, under any circumstance, cultivate amiable, respectful, and mutually beneficial relationships with bookstore managers and sales staff.  Sure, these people could be your partners and your bread and butter, recognizing you and recommending your work to readers, but you have all that icky interpersonal work to do.  Best to remain aloof and untouchable.  You are, after all, the writer.  They just sell stuff.


6.      Sit down behind your signing table.  Shoppers are busy people and don’t need to be bothered with a polite and intriguing sales pitch as they walk past.  If they’re interested and want to know what your book is about, they can take the initiative to pry a conversation out of you—or they can just read the back of your book.  Standing and greeting shoppers is likely to cause them to engage and become interested.  More of that icky interpersonal stuff.  Better to sit quietly like a piece of furniture.


7.      Amuse yourself at a signing.  It can be pretty boring, stuck in one spot with people ignoring you.  Read someone else’s book.  Better yet, fiddle with your personal electronic devices.  Text.  Play games.  Hey, this is your time, right?


8.      Allow yourself to become easily discouraged.  Even if you are doing a tremendous job, giving it all you have at an event, you’ll only sell a book to a maximum of ten percent of the people you talk to. 


9.      Make your event as short as possible.  An hour or two.  Get it over with.  Why stay at a bookstore for six or eight hours?  You’ll just have to talk to more people.  Sooner you get out of there, the more time you’ll have to write.


10.  Take long breaks.  Wander around the store.  Observe your table discretely from a distance.  If people come over and browse at your table without you there it doesn’t get any better than that.  Heck, next time, you don’t even need to bother setting up a signing.  The book store can sell your books.  That’s their job anyway.


Often I’ve visited book stores where an author sits glumly behind a table, watching silently as shoppers pass by to search out the latest best seller.  They sell perhaps five or six books in the course of an afternoon.  To these authors I say: Keep up the good work. 
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