Michael Haskins

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Writers need a bit of snake-oil-salesman's charm

Waiting for March ’08, when my book “Chasin’ the Wind” finally makes it into bookstores, has been frustrating. I turned in the final copy of the novel to the first editor in mid December. I would take it as personal if the publishers’ panel at SleuthFest, held in Miami in March, hadn’t discussed that it takes up 16 months from acceptance to publication.

After the New Year, I began working on a sequel, though I had no guarantee that the publisher would take it. Again, the publishers’ panel at SleuthFest talked about sales driving publishers’ desire for a sequel to a first novel. Sales! Not commitment to the author. Less we forget, publishing is a business and a dwindling business at that. Small publishers, God bless ‘em, are the best hopes for publishing a first novel.

The advance is small, but they will look at works from un-agented writers. Trying to get a reliable agent is a whole other blog and horror story! So there’s only a small advance and, most likely, no money to help in a book signing tour. The print runs are low, also. And a second printing is going to depend on (you guessed it!) the early sales.

My publisher, Five Star, does send out copies of the book to reviewers and that is a positive. A few good reviews will help sales and the early ones may even get on the back jacket of the book. A real good one from something like the New York Times Review of Books would probably make it on the cover! Of course, a NYT review would definitely help sales.

It is up to the writer to promote his/her book and make sales. May son-in-law, Paul Carpino, works in a business with a marketing department and he was able to get me a list of all the major US newspapers’ book editors and their addresses. Some were on the Five Star distribution list, but many weren’t. Five Star will give me up to 15 books to send for reviews. So, from the list I have to choose 15 publications to send copies of my book to. It’s one step toward sales.

LA writer Robert Crais reminded me that many of the bookstores I haunted when I lived in LA were still open, and he suggested I test the waters by approaching them. I did last June, when I visited LA, and received positive responses from Mysteries to Die For, in Thousand Oaks; the Mystery Bookstore, outside UCLA; Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse, in the La Canada-Flintridge neighborhood; Dutton’s, in Brentwood; Book ‘Em, in South Pasadena, and Mystery & Imagination, in Glendale.

I will be touching base again, after the reviews come out, and send my press package of review clips, book cover art, my photo and blurbs form other writers. And a T-shirt with the book cover on the back and a little blurb on the front with my website address. I just hope I don’t send a large to someone that would fit nicely into a small!

Yeah, T-shirts are another way of promoting the book. I expect to give away many and, with a little luck, sell a few to help make up the costs. I am fortunate to have Bill Lane, from Fastlane Advertising (www.fastlaneadvertising.com), as a friend and he has helped me with suggestions on promo ideas and some great art.

T-shirts and postcards are not that expensive and if some of the T-shirts sell at the signings, they may pay for themselves. The postcard will go in my press package and, hopefully, the bookstores will leave them on the counter or put them in the bag with purchased books.

I thought about bookmarks, but then realized most of the stores already had bookmarks that promoted their store. I didn’t want to be in competition with them, so I am going with the postcards. Postcards are also bigger than bookmarks and may get a second look when it comes out of the bag and before it’s thrown away. Maybe it will be saved and stuck on the frig, as a reminder of a book to buy.

Another good promotional item is the local library. Monroe County has a library system that includes three or four branches between Key West and Key Largo. Speaking to reading groups and the Friends of the Library will help sell books and the writer. If only a handful of people show up, and even if none of ‘em buys a book, and if I give a good presentation, they will talk about my book and me to friends and eventually some of them will buy copies.

I talked to Tom Corcoran, who can fill a movie theater in Key West when he signs, about how he does so well on stage. Especially with his readings. He had a great suggestion. He told me to pick a few short paragraphs, maybe from different sections of the book, and read them. They don’t need dialogue, he said and that made me feel better. I’ve been to readings where the writer reads dialogue and takes on the roll of each speaker. I am not up to that quality.

Another point Tom talked about was making the piece read leave the reader wanting to know more. Don’t tell ‘em too much and leave them wanting what followed. Sounds like an old fashioned snake oil salesmen’s pitch, don’t it?

Now I need to sit down and worry, because writers are such an insecure bunch; most of us, anyway. I will keep working on the sequel, hoping to finish it by September and then get to work on a short story I’ve blocked out. Jerry Healy told me to keep writing after the novel is finished and the short story works best for me.

If you have any ideas on self promotion, let me hear them.

Friday, August 10, 2007

More story ideas or why I drink

If you read an earlier blog, you know my friend Art, one of the managers of the Hog’s Breath Saloon, has decided to write a novel. I think his words were something like, “If you can do it, so can I!” He's discovering it is not as easy as he thought.

“I read you recent blog,” Art said and bought me a Jameson on the rocks. “Insightful,” he nodded and smiled.

I knew there was more to come, so I waited and sipped my Jameson.

“Thank you, Art,” I finally said.

The Carter Brothers, Tim and Danny Carter, were setting up on stage and when they began to play I wanted to listen, so I needed Art to get to what concerned him about writing.

“How’s the novel coming?” I took a sip of whiskey, to keep from smiling too widely.

“I haven’t gotten to the writing, yet,” he mumbled.

“You’re plotting?” I said without looking at him. “Good way to go, for the first one. Get all your ducks in a row.”

“I’m looking for a fresh idea.” He still mumbled. He moved closer. “When you read the newspapers and magazines, what do you look for? I mean, to stimulate your ideas?”

I lit a cigar and turned in my barstool. “Something unusual. Maybe a little quirky.”

“How do you know if it’s unusual or quirky?” He lit a cigarette and sat down.

“Art, you’ve lived here too long,” I finally laughed. “If you find something in the paper that strikes you, a long-time resident of Key West, as unusual or quirky, you can bet your paycheck that the rest of the world will think so too.”

“Okay,” he sighed, and I knew he wanted more. “How do you incorporate it into your story?”

“Maybe you do, maybe you don’t,” I blew thick cigar smoke into the night. “Sometimes I cut it out and file it for a future date.”


“Because later I may remember it and that way I have it to reread.” The Carter Brothers were almost ready to do a sound check. “I don’t trust my memory. I clip newspapers and magazine stories, I take notes of things I hear and people I see.”

“Why?” he frowned.

“Because, if I hear an unusual phrase, I want to save it, to remember it, so I write it down. Or I run into a person with a trait I think a character could have, I write it down.”

“Can you give me an example?” He twisted in his seat.

I looked around the large outdoor bar. It was getting crowded, as show time approached. Across the bar a young women, dressed in black, with dyed black hair, black nail polish and a pierced nose, sat talking to a young guy who dressed like a yuppie. They were talking into each other’s face, but not touching.

“See the couple over there?” I nodded toward the couple. “She’s Gothic and he’s a yuppie, probably on vacation together. I see that and I wonder why? What do they have in common?”

“Sex?” Art suggests.

“That’s a good first guess, but how’d they get to the point of sex?”

Art studied the couple and smoked another cigarette. “They guy’s sister is married with kids and she was the baby sitter.” He spoke quickly and smiled when he’d finished.

“Good, Art. And maybe at home he’s ashamed to be seen with her, so they’ve escaped to Key West.”

“Yeah,” Art agreed. “And they want to make a life together here.”

“But, you’re forgetting something, Art.”


“This is a mystery novel, so there has to be some mystery. A murder or a robbery or both.”

“Maybe to get the money to move here they committed a robbery and someone was killed?”

“That’s workable,” I told him and finished my drink, hoping he’d buy me another before the band started.

“I think it could be a short story,” he said, as he removed a small notebook and pen from his shirt pocket. “I need to get this down,” he said and began writing in the notebook.

I ordered a fresh drink from Frank and when I turned around Art was walking away, muttering to himself. It might have been dialogue and he wanted to hear how it sounded.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Where do your story ideas come from? Or, truth is stranger than fiction!

As a writer, I read newspapers and news magazines. It’s as mandatory as writing, as far as I’m concerned. I read to stimulate ideas. I don’t always spend time on the headlines, but look for the short pieces that carry unusual news. You never know when something strange might kick your imagination into gear. I can read a piece from Alaska and ask myself, “what if, in Key West . . .?”

I also watch TV news, both the Miami channels and CNN.

I watched, as most of the world did, in horror recently as the bridge in the Twin Cities collapsed. It was caught, wide angle, on a surveillance camera. It looked like something out of the new Bruce Willis Die Hard movie.

Of course, it wasn’t entertainment. It was death of innocent men and women and destruction. Today, days later, the disaster is still affecting the daily lives of the people that drove over that bridge to go to work, to go out for dinner, to go on a date, to go home from picking kids up at day care. It is unimaginable.

Or is it?

It was a very visual event, both during and afterward. Maybe, because of the visual affect I thought of the movies instead of a book. I’m sure I am not the only mystery writer who watched the TV footage and wondered what kind of story he/she could build around the tragedy. It’s what we do. I said a silent prayer for the victims and their families, but that was all I could do from Key West.

I don’t know if I will use the incident, but we do have a lot of bridges – one is seven-miles long – on the ride from Miami to Key West, so the possibility is there. In the newspapers, I’ve followed the reports about the condition of bridges throughout the United States.

An optimist might say it’s a good report because there are so few bridges in the same condition, or worse, than the one in Minneapolis; a pessimist might say it was a bad report, a warning of our failing infrastructure. I think most writers are, in their writing, pessimists because that’s where the mayhem comes from. Optimists don’t often commit mayhem; I don’t like to say never. But I think you get my point.

So, is truth stranger than fiction?

I have a family friend who lives in Orlando and doesn’t visit because of her phobia of driving over bridges in the Keys. I used to laugh at her phobia. I assumed that our bridges were safe because the government was looking out for our safety!

After the disaster in Minneapolis, I am beginning to wonder if government regulators and agencies do their jobs. Is the FAA really doing its job with the airlines? Traffic controllers? I'm having second thoughts.

Imagine a book that’s premise is the demise of America through the failure of its infrastructure. Where would you begin it? With the roads and bridges? The airlines? Communications? The legal system?

When I open the morning paper now, my hands shake because what I am seeing is the origins of a great thriller and you and I are characters in it. There’s a clown leading the nation, a Congress of inept (at best; corrupt, in a worse case) men and women who have not accomplished anything in almost eight years, even though the voting public told them to do something.

The list goes on and on. I’m sure you can add to it from your city or county. I guess another thing reading and searching through newspapers teaches is that truth is stranger than fiction, and less believable.

Where do your story ideas come from?

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