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Saturday, March 25, 2017

From Minnesota With Love: Surviving My Ice Age

                                                       
      History was my favorite subject in school. Westerns were my favorite TV shows.  My favorite books ranged from mystery to historical romance. Every movie on my favorite list is a historical. So when I began my first novel, guess what?  It was a 19th century historical romance epic that took years of research, spanning several states I personally had to visit.
     Birthweight was more than a ream of paper. And when I was told by agents or publishers that it was too long, or “sorry, try again,” I wrapped it in cellophane and boxed it up in the garage freezer. For years. Thirty to be exact. Thin-skinned over rejection? Hubby eventually scanned all 700 pages into his computer and then onto a thumb drive that is now in our safe deposit box. But I still have that initial freezer baby—lingering now in a warm file cabinet—waiting to be edited into two, maybe three books.  
     Fast forward to present. I’ve attended a dozen writer conferences in the last four years, and even pitched the freezer book at a few of the early ones. Still too long. But the advice I was given paid off. Write a shorter book first, build a platform and presence. Then bring out the big one…or divide it into a series.  Meanwhile, I had been writing shorter stuff: stories and articles for the local paper, national anthologies and magazines. I entered contests…and placed or won. Good sign. Skin thickened. 
     When I received an award at a Women Writing the West Conference in Kansas City for a short story, Publisher Rhonda Penders was in the audience. We connected over dinner and she told me to contact her if I expanded the story to novel length as the judge had suggested. A year later, The Accidental Wife was in galley at Wild Rose Press. 
     My inspiration for the time-travel romance was Diana Gabaldon, whom I met at two of the HNS Writer Conferences. (The only author I know who can get away with creating thousand page books, though each one takes her three years to write.) The Accidental Wife was a Golden Quill finalist—ironically for best FIRST book.  The Accidental Stranger was released two months ago and I’m researching now for book three in my “Accidental Series.”

     So what about that real first book—put on ice?  It could be a good prequel to the present series. But living in Minnesota, I’ve grown accustomed to ice…and skating into opportunities when they arise. I’m on a roll now with thicker skin and a series agenda.  My ice age is history.

CJ Fosdick

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

TOUGH TRUTHS ABOUT REVIEWS by Cj Fosdick


      Reviews are to books what “Consumer Reports” is to electronics.  A book can live or die by review buzz—whether written or by word of mouth.  Reviews are important for new releases, especially important for debut authors. Authors understand this; readers not so much.
     With my debut novel, The Accidental Wife, I didn’t know about marketing early for pre-orders or even that an ARC was an “Advanced Review Copy.”  Blogging, tweeting, street teams and book tours were foreign terms and interviews were something you did only when asked—after your success was validated. Trolling for reviews and endorsements was something extroverts did, and swapping reviews was almost as uncomfortable as paying for them. It took a year of discovery and networking with other authors to learn the truth.
     For my earliest reviews, I trusted my most important beta readers—both of whom were experienced writers and editors.  I was married to one, but had lost touch with the other —a colleague who co-produced a Minnesota anthology with me thirty years ago. After reading my finished manuscript, both betas gave me the equivalent of five star reviews.  
     Could I trust them to be impartial?  Hubby—not so much. More to lose there, according to his POV (point of view).  Also, his left brain talent at IBM had him editing technical manuals; He never even read a time-travel historical romance, though he does love history and suspense and epic storylines in movies.  Plus, he is great at editing grammatical errors and relentlessly honest in the larger picture.
    My old colleague labeled me a “helluva writer” and admitted she laughed and cried while reading The Accidental Wife. Known for her encyclopedic mind and creative fantasy, she had poems and two published books of her own: Minnesota Trivia and Growing Wings. It had been years since we touched base after she moved to another state, but I trusted Laurel Winter and loved the review she offered.
     I warmed up to inviting others to read and review IF they liked the book, but I hesitated to ask other family members to even read it.  Particularly my 80 year old stepmom and my daughters, as I worried about their reaction to the sex scenes WildRose Press rated “spicy.” All were fine with the sex, but my stepmom said she did not believe in time travel. Still, she got a print copy accepted in her local library in Wisconsin. Nepotism has a silver lining!
     Though my short stories and articles were published for decades, many people knew me only as a horse trainer. Discovery and Acceptance precede sales which precede reviews. Fishing for reviews for a novel was going to be hard for a new “minnow” suddenly swimming in an ocean of writers all hoping to hook readers. Harder still for a technophobe inept at posting in Facebook and new to Twitter, Goodreads, and other social media apps and opportunities.

     I celebrated my debut by ordering “Novel CJ”—a vanity license plate for my car, then spent months of self-education, embellishing my website, writing a newsletter titled “Accidental Connections,” even distributing  business cards and stocking up on print copies to sell. At a Historic Home Ec Club appearance, I laughed when an elderly member asked if I thought sex sold more books. (I side-tracked her with my cookies.) Both Accidental books have scenes involving historic cookie recipes. Armed with recipe cards and baked samples, the cookies were a hit even at subsequent Book Club appearances. I also donated a dozen copies to my local library for their book club program, reasoning “discovery” is more important than sales, then followed through by giving away as many debut books as I sold.
     Whichever way a copy found a new reader, I couldn’t count on an instant review.  Busy people took longer to read and when I ginned up the courage to ASK for a review, I sometimes got an intimidated deer in the headlights response: “You want ME to write a review?”  Some readers felt unqualified to write one, some didn’t know where to post or how to navigate online.  Eventually, I plugged little cards into all the print copies I sold, explaining the importance of reviews and listing the link sites. I even sent a “click list” to one reader who told me her grandchildren might be able to show her how to add a review on Amazon.
     There are three other review sources, aside from betas, family and friends:
     1. Unsolicited reviews, also termed “organic.”
     2. Paid Reviews.
     3. Swapped Reviews.
     Every writer is happy to collect unsolicited reviews, especially if they are three to five stars. Paid reviews vary in cost and value, along with results. The WildRose Press publisher warns against them.
     If time is money, swapping reviews also has a cost factor beyond the fact that Amazon and other sites frown on them. I thought swapping was an inexpensive way to add reviews, even though I read as deliberately as I write. My editing eye zeroes in on errors, and faulty research. Knowing first-hand how much work the writer invests, however, I always find something affirming, and try to suppress the niggling dishonesty that gives four or five stars to a review that merits less. Isn’t it tacitly understood that getting five stars means giving the same in a swap? Wouldn’t it be less of a head game if we gave a STARLESS critique?  It might increase the number of reviews with no risk to writer or reviewer, especially if they share a connection!
     Recently, I was asked by a fan to endorse her friend’s fiction Indie book for her cover. This helps to sell the book if the endorsement normally comes from a successful writer or celebrity. I was flattered into reluctantly agreeing, telling myself this was only to save a fan. It turned out the Indie’s first 67 pages were an info dump. Dialog was stilted, with hundreds of he said/she said dialog tags, even with two people  conversing. Supporting characters were more sympathetic than the main characters, and the ending drifted. I affirmed that she had an editor, and asked her if she truly wanted MY honest opinion. Her editor also worked with Bob Woodward of the Washington Post and since Watergate, Bob has written eighteen non-fiction books. Okaaay. I emailed my notes anyway-- probably with too many suggestions. For three days of work, I received NO RESPONSE back. File that under "valuable lessons learned"--on many levels.
     Endorsements and good reviews aside, ultimate best sellers—even those by well-known beloved writers seldom hit the mark with everyone. If you are counting reviews, even bad ones can be a plus. Think about the Fifty Shades Trilogy by E.L. James, which hauled in more than 60,000 reviews over the last six years  Over 30% of them earmed 1 to 3 stars, with even the five star reviews holding some objection. Lower ratings usually indicate disregard for subject matter or writing skill. But Fifty Shades got people talking, saved a publishing house and planted erotic books firmly into the mainstream. True then, some best sellers are the gift of public curiosityniche readers who take a chance on a book outside their favorite genre because it has an intriguing hook and a lot of buzz?  Refute the idea that only good reviews pay off. Mixed reviews mean a broader reader base penning  those cherished unsolicited reviews.
     With The Accidental Stranger—the new sequel to my debut book—I’m working the review game smarter, investing more marketing time...and money while still conceding that reviews come easier to veteran writers with devoted fans and a broad base that may take years to cultivate. Unless, of course, I come up with a novel hook that flutters through demographics like a contagious flu.
     My favorite series author, Diana Gabaldon, has sold 26 million books in more than 40 countries. Outlander, her first book published in 1991, has accumulated over 22,000 Amazon reviews, with only 7% of them pulling one or two stars. I met Diana twice at HNS Writer Conferences. She has said in interviews that she won fans “ten at a time,” until she caught on. Inarguably, she may have the largest fan base of any popular author today. She is my social proof and inspiration. We both love character-driven time-travel with multi-genres in the mix. My dearest fantasy is asking for her... endorsement.

 Another fantasy is accumulating even 1,000 reviews!      

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Morphing the Christmas Letter

      Since 1968 I’ve sent out a dutiful Christmas letter each December that had three major intentions. Touching base with friends and family was always a given, but exercising my writing skill and incorporating a historical timeline were ulterior motives. Each of our children will someday benefit from a Christmas binder of letters that includes a parallel view of the family in changing times, along with some family photos and greeting cards through the years.
     When the nest thinned out, we opted to take Christmas photos of hub and I with one or more of the animals left in our domestic “zoo.” In my Pride and Prejudice phase, we rented costumes and posed as Darcy and Elizabeth with our favorite white Arabian. Another year, we posed in bathing suits on a snow-covered patio, enjoying summer drinks. “Greetings from tropical Minnesota” topped that year’s newsletter.
     Keeping the letter witty, cheerful and held to one or two sides of a single page was often a challenge.  Running an impromptu wildlife preserve on our woodsy Minnesota acreage the last few decades, however, provided a wealth of material. (I count four children and even their children among “wildlife” which included horses, deer, turkeys, dogs, cats, rabbits, squirrels, birds, snakes, rodents and even a pygmy goat and a pelican.)  
     After the holidays, I always regretted time constraints that squelched focus on more than the occasional article or feature for a local paper or magazine. Somewhere deep inside those spurts of creativity the Great American Novel fluttered impatient wings. When I did carve out time in my busy life to freelance—that demanding novel raged and pouted over the put-off. Things began to pop when I joined a few National Writing Associations and began to attend their writer conferences. 
     After placing in a short story competition , the judge wrote a letter begging me to continue the story. An agent at a Las Vegas Writers Conference suggested I write a novella first, then pursue the longer novel I finally got around to pitching. I took their collective advice and my debut novel, “The Accidental Wife,” was scooped up by Wild Rose Press and released in 2015 to good reviews and several awards. Confidence surged into motivation. With an empty nest and only one dog left in our menagerie, I had no more excuses! 
      I write full time now, churning out ideas once suppressed by time. The vanity license plate on my hot little red car expresses it all. “Novel CJ” is finally in gear. Book Two, “The Accidental Stranger” will be released January 6th  in my “Accidental” series. The annual Christmas letter is morphing into a newsletter put out bi-monthly for fans. It is no accident; there is never a time-stamp on creativity or new careers. Never too late to promote delayed dreams! And to think…it all began with one of those much maligned, dutiful Christmas letters.


Cj Fosdick

Saturday, September 17, 2016

MOVIES TO BOOKS OR BOOKS TO MOVIES?

                                           WHICH DO YOU PREFER?

Ever see a movie based on a book that drives you to pick up a copy of the book? Or vice versa--read a book that sends you to the theater adaptation? Chances are you may be disappointed by one or the other...unless you are an author. I was conflicted after seeing "The Girl on the Train" at a theater recently. The flashbacks and setting locales were confusing. While reading the novel would have helped clear things up, it would have removed the suspense and "who-done-it" conclusion.

Any author who has gone through the editing process with a professional editor is often cautioned every scene should drive the story forward. Rule exceptions that stands out with a "but" are mysteries that requires red herrings--like Girl on a Train--or historicals that call attention to actual history. A backstory that reveals character may also earn a pass for adding length to a novel that may or may not be cruicial to the story.

A screenwriter's job is to taper that novel length down to a fixed number of screen minutes. That may mean vaporizing characters, dialog, and even some plot lines until a viable outline of the novel remains to be adapted. Even some of the author's "little darlings" that remain may end up on a cutting room floor once the screen editor does his job. If you've read the book first, at least you can plug in missing links to the story, however.

One of my favorite movies, Gone With The Wind, was a very large and popular novel that became a very long and popular classic movie. But when I read the book, I noticed several characters had been eliminated in the movie. Scarlett had two other children by her previous husbands before she married Rhett, and commentary about Civil War battles was obliterated by the character-driven plot. I appreciated the history in the novel, but I loved the streamlined romantic movie version that still took four hours to tell. 

I felt the same about other favorite movies, after reading the books, Raintree County and Pride and Prejudice. The screen version of The Last of the Mohicans was almost unrecognizable as a book adaption when the romanticized Daniel Day Lewis movie was released twenty years ago. However, To Kill a Mockingbird was entertaining in both of its venues.

Some fans of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander books have commented about some of the casting in the Starz TV series of Outlander. Wrong hair or eye color, a different twist in the plot? I've read all the Outlander books and think the small screen version has brought the books to life with uncanny accuracy. Diana wrote one of the screenplays herself, and has been concordant about any changes, remarking instead on the talented cast and scriptwriters in the lavish production. I wholeheartedly agree. Adapting a novel to the screen is a huge validation and compliment to any author. And reading the book--before or after you see the screen version--can be a DOUBLE TREAT, even with a preference.  Which do you prefer?
                                                                                                                                           Cj