Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the month “October, 2008”

“Yeah, I’ll Get By With A Little Help From My Friends…”

There are very few of us for whom writing is a social event. More likely, after barely an hour into a social engagement, we are surreptitiously checking our watches, and thinking about the next chapter we’ll write as soon as we can escape.

There are people who write together. There is a group called Shut Up & Write, in which I believe you can join a particular table at a particular time and place, and sit in silence writing. I hear it can be quite productive. But for most of us, I think, the issue is finding the time to write, and we do it best alone.

For the last ten years, I have always had something to write, even if I didn’t know that prior to whipping out the laptop. A good writer writes and s/he also reads – again something that’s usually done solo.

But humans are social animals, and writers are a subspecies of humans. Evolution seems to dictate that we come down from the trees and join writer’s groups. I am blessed to have spent the last two years in the Berkeley Writers Circle (http://writers.meetup.com/519). It is an informal group that meets weekly and gently critiques the work that different members present. The only real rule is for the criticism to be constructive and so far we seem able to express honest feedback without anyone throwing his or her coffee in someone’s face.

We’ve set a structure that the group amends from time-to-time, but the main thing is we are there to help each other and that we enjoy each other’s success and improvements. I think we find a comforting level of legitimacy from sharing an evening a week with other obsessed people who also spend a ludicrous amount of time scribbling and typing. It is a group where you can introduce yourself as: “My name’s John and I’m a writer,” and there is no embarrassed spouse or parent standing next to you who feels compelled to say: “He’s also a lawyer/doctor/lunatic.”

Ironically, I am writing this entry in the Borders in Emeryville, CA, where it all began. Well kind of. Truth is, I was the only one who turned up that first night, and felt pretty stupid gazing desperately at people who glanced at the red and white sign I had on the table.

But today the group generally has 6-12 attendees, and we find willing speakers to address us. We even have visitors who have come to learn how we work and there are other groups that have splintered off from us to concentrate on a particular genre or work differently.

I believe we all need to climb a psychological barrier, to be able to share our desire to write, to get published, to express ourselves, to tell a story that we believe has to be told. Writers groups can provide all this. They have the potential to implode and the wounds can be deep, even terminal, to one’s writing career. But I believe they are essential to help a writer define him/herself, to stand up and announce: I am a writer!

To the members of the Berkeley Writers Circle, past and present: You have helped me nurture this identity, this self-respect, and helped me believe in my work despite the rejections.

You have also helped me make Oilspill Dotcom a better story and a better read. I only hope I have helped you do the same.

Good Writing,


Editors: The Eyes of Eagles

I have two regrets regarding A Gardener’s Tale, my first published novel. My first, as previously mentioned, was working with a publisher who set too high a list price, and the second was not having the book professionally edited. I knew I should have, but I had no spare cash and a number of good friends who seemed pretty good and willing to help.

Everyone makes mistakes; the trick is to learn from them next time around. Having written Oilspill dotcom in the Queen’s (or UK) English, I decided to seek an editor from across the pond.

Online, I found the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), a professional organization based in the UK at http://www.sfep.org.uk/, and sent a letter to about 20 editors who stated in the site that they work with fiction. About eight of them replied and sent me samples and, honestly, they were all impressive.

I don’t recall exactly why I chose Alison Walters above the others, but so far I have no regrets. I do remember that she was very clear about how much it would cost and how long it would take. I also liked that she sees this as a partnership and that it is not acceptable for the author to relinquish responsibility.

The goal of the editor is to point things out objectively, to see the manuscript with a detachment that the author can’t possibly have. I don’t even know if Alison likes my story or if she likes my writing style. There is no preaching in her work; she is simply trying to help me make my work better.

Most impressive so far has been her visualization of the timeline. She noticed that my main characters were having sex to an Alanis Morissette album that only came out a couple of years later. I think that only the most astute of readers would have picked this up and it wouldn’t have necessarily saved me from an embarrassing blunder. However…

… In one scene, my protagonist, on entering a restaurant and seeing a vibrant young crowd, tells us that he is sure their intense discussions are not about Dennis Bergkamp (one of my favorite soccer players) having a goal disallowed in Arsenal’s (my favorite soccer team) game that weekend.

Alison noticed that I have this scene taking place in 1992 and Dennis Bergkamp only joined Arsenal in 1995. She then suggested that I take an incident from an Arsenal game in the spring of 1992 and even supplied me with a link to a match report.

Speaking as a dedicated soccer and Arsenal fan, this would surely have been an unforgivable blunder; my credibility shot. Thanks, Alison!

Oh, and for those of you looking for a good editor, Alison’s professional email is: Alison@proofwrite.co.uk, but hey, get in line!

Good Writing,


Choosing A Publishing Company

It all depends upon the motives behind your decision to publish with a Print-on-Demand (POD) company. If you are planning a memoir that is directed at family and friends, a selective circulation, your criteria would be different than someone who plans to sell thousands of his/her books and make a profit, and/or getting noticed.

What do I mean by getting noticed? If you don’t have a way “in” (a friend in the book business) to the conventional route, then you can make a splash by intensively marketing your book and hopefully be noticed by a publisher or agency, who see market-tested results.

Christopher Paolini (aged 16 or 17 then) and his parents took six months out to travel the country and market his self-published Eragon, the first of a tremendously successful trilogy. I understand that The Kite Runner only received an interest a year after it was launched when the book was picked up by a number of book clubs. There are numerous other examples. Either your sales make a splash (one expert judged this at 5,000 copies sold in the first year), or you show through your marketing efforts that you have media value (i.e. – marketing potential).

If your goal is to get noticed, then I believe the list price of the book is critical. Xlibris published my first novel, A Gardener’s Tale, and they did a great job in producing a physically attractive book – no complaints. My downfall, I believe, was that the list price for the paperback novel on amazon.com is $24. Would you pay that price for an unknown author (however good)? While I eagerly await each new John Grisham book, I would not pay that amount for his latest paperback.

My research, based on this criteria, narrowed it down to two companies: iUniverse and Booksurge.

I was particularly impressed with the former: their promotions, a book about how to go through the entire process including book promotion, and a number of awards and benefits that you can strive for. This includes the important incentive of having your book on the shelves of your local Barnes & Nobles.

Booksurge also has a number of benefits. They allow the author to set the price of the book (the lower list price, the smaller the royalty per book) and they have a solid marketing support including an ongoing webinar series with marketing experts which are all complimentary to their authors. Booksurge’s lowest list price for Oilspill dotcom is $13-$14 – Oilspill dotcom is just under 60,000 words – and this, as I mentioned, is very important to me.

But if I am honest, what swayed me was the decision by Amazon.com to only list POD books published with their own subsidiaries. I had almost signed with iUniverse, when I had dinner with the author, D. Patrick Miller (My Journey Through the Plant World) and heard of this controversial decision.

Amazon.com owns Booksurge, and I cannot see any chance for success of a POD book without the ability to sell on the biggest virtual bookstore. Whenever I hear about a book that might interest me, I go to Amazon.com and check out the reviews and the price.

So, I made my choice, and I will share with you in the coming months, the ups and downs of working with Booksurge. But for now, the next stage was finding a professional editor to help lock down the manuscript…and that will be the subject of my next blog entry.

Until then – Good Writing,


Thank You George W!

I honestly never thought that I would thank George W for anything. I’m sure I know him pretty well as, even though we’ve never met, I do compulsively watch The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Could Jon Stewart ever have anticipated that George W would sponsor this struggling left-wing author? Would Stephen Colbert be deemed too cynical to consider a Republican President from Texas seeing the obvious social value of Oilspill dotcom?

But I need to give him credit where credit is due – and that credit came in the form of a check from the Treasury earlier this year, urging me to spend it and stimulate the economy. All this occurred while I was trying to work out how to find the money to invest in marketing my own novel, when I am barely finishing the month, paying the bills, feeding and clothing the kids and putting gas in the car (note – at the time of writing this entry, it will be cheaper to buy five copies of Oilspill dotcom than fill your gas tank – and the novel takes you to London, whereas a tank of gas can’t even get you from San Francisco to LA).

Perhaps it is a message from God. I know George W and friends like to keep church and state separate, but maybe this can be defined as divine intervention. Perhaps the exception can be made when it comes to patronizing the arts.

What is particularly impressive is that George W would chose to sponsor a novel that exposes the abusive power of multinational corporations. Even more open-minded is the fact that this is an oil company. Good for you, George W – you answer to no one!

So, thank you for making my book possible, Mr. President. I guess I should send you a complimentary copy!

Good Writing to All,


Rejections, Rejections: The Road to Print-On-Demand

Every author has gone through rejection, its kind of a rite of passage. Stephen King, John Grisham, Upton Sinclair… the list goes on. But for how long can you go on receiving such letters? How many depressing seminars can you attend about the state of the book publishing business?

And then there comes a time that the writer wants to…write. To return to what he or she loves best; to give oneself up to an evolving story, to feel the energy of creative forces, to tell the story that is burning within.

It’s the near misses that hurt the most: the request to see more of the manuscript. Even more so, the requests for exclusivity, 6-8 weeks when you do not approach other agents, and they seriously consider your business potential. Then there are the agents who talk up the foreign markets, the movie potential, and, of course the triumphs and lifestyles of their successful authors.

I’m not blaming the agents (except those who rejected me, of course!). They are a product of the market they function in. The entire book business is in decline and we are desperately in need of more J.K. Rowlings’ to ignite and sustain a generation excited to open a book.

But not many of us can or will write the classic, the once-in-a generation, the book whose name is casually rolled out to a group of nodding friends. Many of us write for success, for recognition of our toils, our obsessions, for the knowledge that others are engulfed in a world we created.

I write for change. I have completed four novels, and each deals with transformation: of people who seek to better themselves or right the wrongs around them. My last two novels are about social injustices (Oilspill dotcom – the powers of multinationals, and They Returned As Heroes about the way we treat our war veterans). The use of the pen (I have one somewhere) and keyboard to effect social change is an exciting ideal for me, a huge incentive for my writing.

So I am motivated; I have sent submissions for Oilspill dotcom to about fifty agents either side of the Atlantic (Oilspill dotcom is based in the UK). I have edited and edited it, read it through twice to a very supportive Berkeley Writer’s Group and now written another novel in a 100 day ‘break’ I took from editing and marketing Oilspill dotcom. And I have my next story all lined up.

So it’s time to move on. Oilspill dotcom will be published by a Print-on-Demand company and I will give 6-9 months to marketing it and trying to ‘get noticed.’

Thank you for noticing me. Most of my blog entries will deal with choosing and working with the Print-on-Demand company, with editors, with creating marketing plans and such like. Until then…

Good Writing,


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