Monday, August 13, 2012

What Makes a Memoir “Great?”

I just finished reading Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed's memoir about hiking from California to Oregon after the death of her mother sends her life spiraling downward. I'm still aching from the powerful punch of this story, delivered with so much grace and humor that I didn't even see it coming.

This book didn't just knock my socks off. It knocked off my t-shirt, jeans and knickers, too. It's a gripping adventure story that's brutally honest on every emotional level, and I was left open-mouthed with awe by Strayed's brilliant observations about everything from what it feels like to wake up with thousands of tiny frogs hopping on your body to her profound grief over the dissolution of her family.

As a writer, I've been mulling over this book, trying to think about what made this memoir—along with others I've loved by writers like Bill Bryson, Mary Carr, Alexandra Fuller, Haven Kimmel, Peter Matthiessen, Michael Ondaatje, and David Sedaris—rise to the level of art that's good for the soul. Here are a few thoughts:

Make Your Memoir about More than Just You
Unless you're Bill Clinton or Mick Jagger, nobody but your best friend cares about your life story (and she might be pretending). How can you make your memoir compelling? Find something unique about your narrative and focus the book around that instead of navel gazing about your first dog, your last lover, etc. For instance, Haven Kimmel does a brilliant job of this in Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana. She broke out big with this book by weaving her hilarious observations of small-town life around her own coming-of-age story. And, in The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen writes about traveling in Nepal and tracking the snow leopard as he asks some of the deepest life-and-death questions common to all mankind. We learn about the flora, fauna, and culture of the deep Himalaya as we follow his spiritual quest and the two narratives meld to create a mystical, timeless read.

Don't Whine.
Enough said.

Do Your Research
Whether you're writing about kayaking through Brazil after your Wall Street breakdown or the summer at Aunt Mary's lake cabin when your father went nuts, do your research. This means reading up on Brazilian history and wildlife or interviewing family members until your memories of that lake cabin become vivid and true. (You'll be amazed by how much your memories differ from, say, your little brother's.)

Be Respectful
Here's the thing: you may have grown up in a dysfunctional family —if you're a writer, the odds are pretty high that this is fact. But writers, no matter how neglected or abused we were in our youth, have an unfair advantage: We have public voices. The people we're writing about often don't. Think long and hard about baring other people's secrets without asking permission.

Be Generous
Okay, so your mom liked to stand on her head naked in the back yard and forgot to pack your lunches for school. It was a tough life! But the point of writing a memoir about it is to show how you resolved conflicts, just like any character in a novel. This isn't therapy. The story has to go somewhere. The best memoirs are those where writers arrive at a place of acceptance and even forgiveness—as Mary Carr, Alexandra Fuller, and Cheryl Strayed do in their books.

Build a Narrative with Tension and Shape
From that first scene, you want to build enough tension into the narrative so that readers are turning pages to find out what happens. Think about the natural start and end points, and what the climax of the story looks like. Each chapter should be shaped like that as well, with its own narrative arc.

Play with Time
Your memoir doesn't have to be chronological. For instance, Strayed does a great job of playing with time, starting the book in the middle of her journey, at a point where her hiking boot literally tumbles off a cliff, then backtracking to where she was before she left. She proceeds on her trip and backtracks many times throughout the book to highlight various high (and low) points in her life story. By the time we finish reading about her journey, we understand why she had no choice but to walk the Pacific coast alone to mend her heart and soul.

Now that, my friends, is a truly great memoir.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Hey Writer! What's Your Brand?

Most of us are cynical enough by now to see that life is all about branding, whether we're being bombarded by ads for colleges, books, cars, shampoos, or a new designer line of t-shirts ($90 for a white GOOP t-shirt, Gwyneth Paltrow? Really?). Brands are built via movie placements, billboards, your Kindle's sleep screen, your radio station, your Twitter Feed and Facebook page. Sure, you can DVR your favorite TV shows and zip through commercials, but there's no hiding from the marketing trolls.

I know this. Yet, somehow I was still shocked when a writer friend recently asked me to change her quote after I interviewed her for a magazine story.

“I can't say that sort of thing in print,” she explained. “I've worked hard to build my brand, and I need to be consistent.”

“Uh, okay,” I said. I edited the quote, but I was stunned. When did writers start being brands?

This question led me through a maze of other squirrely musings. If you write a memoir, are you forever a memoirist? Is a writer of so-called “women's fiction” always doomed to have a slender woman's body parts on her book covers? What happens if a thriller writer dares to try his hand at romance?

Did Mark Twain have a brand? Was it “Southern novelist and humorist?” What about Hemingway? “Lion hunter, womanizer, and minimalist?”

These questions really made my head spin as I was redesigning my web site. (These days, a writer without a web site is like a McDonald's without the golden arches.) I had a perfectly lovely web site—one that I paid to have built when my first book was published--but it was constructed using a software program that made me sob like a napless toddler every time I tried to navigate it, so I decided to switch over to every writer's best friend, WordPress.

In the process, I had an identity crisis. What was my brand? Who was I?

I hadn't felt this confused since trying to follow the plot of those Bourne movies. My first book was a memoir. My second one was a novel categorized by some reviewers as literature, by some as women's fiction, and by others as that poor stepsister of women's fiction, “chick lit” (which everyone knows is sexier and will probably catch the prince's eye at the ball).

My third book, The Wishing Hill, is being published by Penguin in spring/summer 2013. It, too, is a novel. This one, though, is decidedly not chick lit, and more women's fiction/literature. However, my next book—the one I'm writing right now--is a paranormal novel featuring a dead voodoo priestess.

Oh, and I also write humor essays and feature articles for national magazines--usually about parenting, psychology, or health.

So, who am I? What's my brand? Do I have to spell it out in a theme of five words or less?

It would certainly be a lot easier for marketing purposes if my work could fit neatly on one shelf in a bookstore (even a virtual one). Think of bestselling writers who have household names, and you'll see what I mean: Elizabeth George writes British mysteries while Toby Neal sets hers in Hawaii. Stephen King writes books that make you look under your bed at night. John Grisham is known for his legal thrillers; each of Jodi Picoult's novels is women's fiction with a contemporary news hook; and Elin Hilderbrand writes books about women falling in love on the beach. See what I mean?

On the other hand, what about writers who ignore the rules? I've just finished two splendid books by writers who dare to scribble outside the lines. One was Wild, a terrific memoir by Cheryl Strayed, whose first book was a novel and who is widely known as an advice columnist by the name of “Sugar.” Another is Carsten Stroud's skin-crawlingly creepy book, Niceville, a horror novel along the lines of Stephen King, but one that reads like a police procedural with snappy bad guy dialogue worthy of Quentin Tarantino or maybe even Raymond Chandler. Previously, Stroud was known for his nonfiction and more standard crime novels.

What about Tom Perrota? His early novels, like Election and Little Children, were satirical edgy domestic dramas. Then he gave us The Leftovers, which crosses over into another realm ( literally), as he explored what would happen if there really was a Day of Rapture where only some residents of a certain town were chosen to be whisked into the heavens.

How do you brand Tom Perrota, other than calling him “brilliant?” And don't even get me started on writer Neil Gaiman, a man who grinds through every genre like a happy kid with one of those multipacks of tiny cereal boxes. Gaiman has one quote on his Amazon page that says what I feel: “I make things up and write them down.”

At the end of a good day, that's what any good writer hopes to do.

Ultimately, I decided to stop worrying about my brand and just put myself out there. What I want people to be able to do is find me—and find out about me. I chose the tag line “Writer and Red Dirt Rambler,” because my favorite place on earth to write—and ramble—is Prince Edward Island in the Canadian Maritimes.

Whew. Thank heavens that's over. My new web site will be live soon. Meanwhile, I can go back to making things up and writing them down.   

Friday, June 22, 2012

Why Are Women Afraid of Mice?

I am not afraid of much. I have hiked through the Andes and the Himalayas, zip-lined through a Mexican jungle, driven on motorcycles far too fast. I have given birth to three children and beaten off two separate muggers intent on grabbing my purse. I have jumped out of a moving car to avoid a man.

Why, then, am I afraid of mice?

Recently, I came up here to Prince Edward Island to open up our summer home. Not surprisingly, I had a special greeter on the front stairs: a tiny gray mouse, a little bitty guy who was just as surprised to see me as I was to see him. I tried to stay calm and rational. But, since my husband wasn't here, I had to deal with the intruder myself.

“Get me a pan with a lid and a broom!” I yelled to my friend Emily, a poet who had accompanied me on this trip and who, despite being nearly six feet tall and having sailed the seas in Newfoundland and conquered sweaty Buddhist meditations, is even more panicked at the sight of a mouse than I am.

She fetched me my weapons while I stood guard, looming over the rodent. Being just a child mouse, he didn't know whether he should go up or down to escape this giantess who, in his little mouse mind, would most likely swoop down and eat him if he didn't seek cover. He scrambled up, but couldn't summit the stair; he then sat and washed his worried little face, awaiting his fate.

Emily handed me the broom and I got to work, trying to brush the mouse into the pan. In my mind, it was a perfect plan: brush the mouse into a tall spaghetti pan, cover it with a lid, and take him outside (where the mouse would no doubt turn around and come back inside for more yummy toast crumbs.)

Sweeping up a mouse isn't nearly as easy as you think it will be, though. The mouse zipped back and forth on the stair to avoid the broom, with me going, “Oh no, don't you run up my pant leg!” in both English and, for good measure, and who knows why, in Spanish. Finally the mouse decided to take his chances and tried climbing up the wall beside the staircase.

Now, mice are good climbers, but this wall had no wallpaper, so down he went, plummeting to the floor. If it were one of us, it would be like falling from the Empire State Building. But the mouse just scurried down the hall as if he'd meant to do that, with Emily doing a little Mexican hat dance in the hallway to keep her feet out of his path. The mouse then found his bolthole beside the front door and made for the safety of the wall, if only to drown out the shrieking of his tormentors.

All that first night, I had to keep the light on, imagining the mouse scurrying up the bed frame and burrowing into my pillow. All the next day, I kept slippers on, for fear of stepping on this mouse or one of his many, many litter mates who are no doubt just waiting for the cover of darkness before they raid our cupboards.

I told myself this was ridiculous. Irrational. I should be ashamed of myself, I thought, especially since my dad raised gerbils for a living, and I routinely lifted them out of their cages to change the shavings and even fed those little buggers treats from my fingers. Yet, after I accidentally dropped one of the chocolate covered almonds I was eating at my desk and it rolled into a place beneath the heavy bureau that I can't possibly reach, I panicked all over again, imagining a whole army of mice running out to carry that huge treasure home, and oh yeah, me along with it, like some giant Gulliver.

I'm not the only woman in the world afraid of mice; in fact, I don't know a single woman who isn't. “I would have died if that had happened to me,” my friend Andrea agreed. Then she told me a story of her own: something about finding a mouse in the trunk of her car, and her driving to a neighbor's house at sixty miles per hour with the music blaring, hoping to scare the mouse out of its wits and keep it in the trunk. They set a trap in the trunk of the car but never caught it; to this day, Andrea checks the seats every time she gets into her car.

I finally went down to the hardware store and had a long discussion about pest control with the clerk. I couldn't bring myself to buy traps, because I knew I'd never be able to empty them. The “have a heart” traps wouldn't work, either, since they're basically just fun rides for mice who can easily figure out how to hike back home. In the end I bought poison. Or rather, “mouse treats,” which I suppose are the same kind of euphemism we use when buying “roach motels.”

“I nail mine into place,” the woman explained. “That way, the mice can't carry the bait off with them and you'll know how much you have left.”

I haven't put the treats out yet. I keep remembering the look on that mouse's face, and his courageous, foolhardy attempts to scale a staircase that was his personal Mt. Everest. He was, by far, braver than I'll ever be.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

One More Careless Teen Breaks Our Hearts

This past week, when 18-year-old Aaron Deveau of Haverhill, MA, was convicted of violating a recent law that bans drivers from texting, he made history. He also broke a lot of hearts on both sides of the case—especially among those of us holding our breaths every time one of our teens gets behind the wheel of a car.

Deveau, who'd had his license just six months and was only seventeen at the time of the accident, swerved across the yellow center line on the road and crashed into an oncoming car driven by father and grandfather Donald Bowley, age 55. Bowley died and left behind a grief-stricken family. Deveau, who was also found guilty of motor vehicle homicide, is serving a year in prison, doing community service, and having his license revoked until he is 33 years old.

Not punishment enough, say many, to pay for the life Deveau took. But let's not judge him too harshly. This kid could belong to any one of us.

To me, in fact. I have four children old enough to drive, and every one of them has gotten into an accident of some sort, ranging from scraping up the side of the car while backing down the driveway to driving into a ditch while trying to switch stations on the radio.

Nor am I immune from carelessness behind the wheel. At age 22, I was driving too fast when my car slid on black ice. I ended up doing a 360-degree turn into oncoming traffic. I was just lucky that there wasn't any traffic coming at precisely that moment. At age 28, I bought my first brand new car; two weeks later, I drove around a city block too fast and sideswiped a parked car. I was just lucky that nobody was inside that car, or getting out of it at that exact moment in time.

And, just a few years ago, a cop pulled me over for swerving over the yellow center line because he thought I'd had too much to drink. I hadn't been drinking at all. I was just trying to reach down and push the lid onto my travel cup so the hot tea wouldn't slosh around. I was just lucky that nobody was coming from the opposite direction during those two seconds I took my eyes off the road.

I was just lucky all of those times. I was also stupid, stupid, stupid.

We are all stupid sometimes. Mostly, thankfully, we are also lucky. Think about how many times a day you—and your children—climb into the driver's seat of one of those sweet death machines, crank up the tunes, and zoom off to dinner or a movie or the grocery store. We talk on the phone, put on lipstick, sip hot coffee, and eat while we drive. We also make optimistic assumptions about the other drivers: Oh, that guy won't go through the red light. No, that jeep isn't going to pull out in front of me. That woman wouldn't dare turn left in front of me at this intersection, no way!

We are just lucky enough, until that one sad moment when we are not.

I grieve for Donald Bowley's family, I do. They lost a man they loved. But my heart breaks for Aaron Deveau and his family as well. This boy, so proud of his new license and working hard as a dishwasher while still in high school, was as stupid and unlucky as you can be. We must find it in our hearts to forgive him—and to remind ourselves that it could have been any one of us, or one of our children, behind that steering wheel.

We must remember that we are lucky until that one bleak moment when we are not.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Do It Yourself or Die Trying

     My husband came upstairs last night sporting a satisfied smile.

     “Did you fix it?” I asked.



     “Paper clip,” he said, and we both laughed.

     What my husband had done was mend our broken toilet by using a paper clip to reconnect the flush lever to the flush valve, thus proving once again how we're not only surviving this Do It Yourself time in our lives, but getting better at it.

     We have never been rich, but once upon a time, we had a little extra money every month. That was before we put four kids through college, my husband was laid off three times, and we had to pay for our own health insurance. What did we do, back in those heady days of plenty?

     We paid other people to do things for us: the plumbing, the house painting, the carpentry, the snow plowing, the lawn mowing. When I look back at those days now, I think, wow. What a waste. Think of the fun we missed.

     Why did it take me so long to get into the whole DIY thing? I blame it on growing up with a father whose motto was “Do It Yourself or Die Trying.” My father was a Navy officer who dreamed of becoming the world's most famous gerbil farmer. After a popular magazine hailed gerbils as “America's Newest Pets,” Dad spent his shore duties secretly raising them in our garage. He was still in uniform when he bought a remote, rundown farm and built a gerbil dynasty.

     As Dad's first employees, my brothers and I posed with gerbils for photographs he could use for pet books. We cleaned cages and doled out green food pellets. Meanwhile, Dad constantly reminded us that “frugal” was our new middle name.

     Whether my father had wanted to make it big by selling gladiolas or garage doors instead of gerbils, the bottom line of any start-up company is microscopic. Small business owners don't expect bailouts if they fail. Dad reminded us that sweaters were cheaper than heat. His office floor was a flotilla of coffee cans crammed with recycled screws and rusty nails. If something needed doing, we were to do it ourselves or perish in the process.

     We put our backs into making that old farmhouse a home. We built a stable for our horses out of an abandoned barn that we tore down and hauled across the street on a wheezing, Dr. Seuss tractor. Meanwhile, Dad's gerbils went about the happy business of breeding. When they'd multiplied enough to need a home of their own we built that, too, turning sheet metal siding and bags of bolts into the nation's first gerbilry.

     With me, Dad was a total stop-spending vigilante. I had already cost him more money than his other children combined; at age 12, my horse bucked me off and I landed mouth-first, losing seven front teeth. The year that Dad built his gerbilry, a dentist crafted a pricey, permanent set of teeth for me. I was thrilled. No more dental humiliations, like the time I laughed at a cute boy's joke and sent my false teeth flying onto his shoe. 

     The down side was that Dad now materialized at my elbow if I did anything more extreme than sleep. “Watch out for your teeth, Holly!” he'd cry, trotting after me. “Teeth don't grow on trees, you know!”

     Dad monitored my hot showers to the minute. I turned the toilet paper roll as stealthily as possible, because if Dad heard me using it, he'd come pounding up the stairs to knock on the bathroom door. “No more than three squares!” he'd call. “More than three squares is wasted!”

     This penny-pinching paid off. By my third year of college, Dad had nearly 9,000 gerbils housed in three buildings. He proudly announced that we could afford a family vacation. “It's a celebration,” he said. “This year, I made as much money as the governor of Massachusetts.”

“Wow,” I said. “You must have sold a ton of gerbils.”

“Of course, the governor enjoys a few more perks than I do,” Dad added generously. “A mansion. A staff. A secretary. A car at his disposal, and so forth.”

“You have a secretary,” Mom reminded him. “Grandmother's right upstairs.”

Given my history, you can understand why, even when my husband and I started struggling financially a few years ago, I dug my heels in when he suggested that we become DIY sorts of people, taking on projects like reshingling our own barn and putting in kitchen cabinets from Ikea rather than pay a carpenter.

The more we did things for ourselves, however, the more I realized that we were doing more than just saving money. When we dug an entire garden bed and laid the stone paths, when we stripped bedroom wallpaper and repainted the walls, when we shoveled out the old pig sty to create a pond, my husband and I felt, if not invincible, at least like a strong enough team to face nearly any economic or emotional challenge. Instead of drowning every time the economic tide turns against us, we know that we're going to bob to the surface of whatever happens, because we're both paddling like hell and getting stronger every day.

So far my husband has rebuilt that same toilet flush mechanism using dental floss, paper clips, and strips of aluminum. Meanwhile, I've become adept at street picking, gardening, painting, and refinishing. Each DIY victory is sweet indeed.

These days, frugal is the new cool. Boxed wine is in. Fashion magazines trumpet vintage finds. Waste not, want not, is the new reality--only it feels like old times to me, the daughter of a gerbil czar who wanted to do it all himself.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Don't Do What I Did: Make the KDP Select Program Work for You

Self-publishing is about as democratic as anything else, in the sense that 1) anyone is free to try it and 2) it takes money to make money.

I have one self-published friend who recently admitted to spending over $15,000 to market her Indie novel. She's doing well and has more than tripled her investment. In addition, she has built a platform of readers who are now eagerly awaiting her next novel.

That story has a happy ending. But what if you don't have $15,000, or even $5,000, to spend on publicity? What if just getting your book published wipes out your savings, because you already had to cough up a few thousand for the cover, the design, the ISBN number and an editor, too? What do you do then?

That's the situation I was in when I published my novel Sleeping Tigers.

Fortunately, there is advice aplenty for authors on how to advertise cheaply. Check out web sites for Novel Publicity, Ereader News Today,World Literary Cafe, Digital Book World, TeleRead, and The Book Designer for useful tips. These all offer great advice on book marketing—and, yes, it's all free! Indie authors J.A. Konrath and John Locke also have helpful blogs.

Now, after three months of testing out book marketing strategies, I can honestly say that probably nothing can help you market your book more effectively than the KDP Select Program.

What is the KDP Select Program?
Read the fine print on the Kindle Direct Publishing web site, but here are the bare bones: if you agree to participate in the KDP Select Program, you sign up for a three-month exclusivity term. This means that you agree to sell your ebook only in the Kindle format, but you can continue selling your paperbacks however you wish.

In exchange for this exclusivity agreement, you are granted five free promotional days during your three-month term. Your book is also included in the lending library for Amazon Prime members; this means that people with Amazon credit cards can borrow your book for free—and Amazon will pay you a royalty for each borrow.

Many authors object to the KDP Select program. Indie authors are a crowd of wild Mustangs and we hate being reined in—that's why many of us self-publish. We object to some of Amazon's monopolistic business practices. Plus, why would anyone want to give a book away for free?

I was one of those resisters. On the other hand, despite my steady blogging and my shiny new Twitter account, I was selling very few books. The first month after publication, Sleeping Tigers sold just enough books for me to take my husband to a movie or dinner, but not both. My novel was a cross between literary fiction, chick lit, and romance—no zombies, vampires, serial killers, cowboy lovers, or psychic detectives. In other words, there wasn't the usual genre crowd to rely on for sales.

I wasn't trying to get rich on this novel—in fact, I didn't even imagine making back what I spent on publishing it. But I am a writer who longs to reach out to readers. I had tried everything but the KDP Select Program to market my novel, so I signed up for the three-month term and chose my first two promotional days. Then I sat back and waited.

Don't Make the Same Mistake I Did
That was my mistake: I sat back and did nothing.

While I did have more downloads during the first two days my book was free—the book ultimately reached a rank of #18 in Kindle's contemporary fiction and a rank of 185 in the free Kindle store—after the promotion I was still selling only one or two books per day.

“What did I do wrong?” I asked a friend who also happens to be my guru in the Indie publishing world.

“Did you advertise the fact that your book was free?” she asked.

Uh. No.

By the next month, my book was back down in the ranks, sliding as low as 70,000 or so. I was getting desperate; I had always sold my book at $2.99, but many Indie authors who make it into the Amazon stratosphere sell their ebooks for $.99. My next experiment was to try this strategy. I decided to lower the price to $.99 to see what would happen. (This is called a “price pulse” and you can find lots of authors discussing this strategy online.) I even did a mild book pimping run on Twitter and Facebook to see if I could garner interest in a week-long $.99 promotion.

The result? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. In fact, my book rank plummeted, languishing around 134,000 or so.

“You have to do another free promotion,” my friend urged. “But advertise it this time.”

Do This Instead
For my second KDP Select Promotion, I waited until I had that magical tenth positive review on Amazon, courtesy of a generous book blogger in England. Then I set my promotion for three days, choosing the end of tax season, April 15 to 17, as my dates, figuring people would finally be finished with nasty paperwork and be ready for a fun read.

A week ahead of time, I emailed some of the big e-reader sites that my book would be free on those days, like Pixel of Ink and Ereader News Today. Then, to take the “layered marketing approach,” as the saying goes, I bought a (very cheap) ad on Digital Books Today to run right after the promotion.

As I waited for April 15, I began second-guessing all of my efforts. Was I making a mistake? April 15 wasn't just tax day, it was Patriot's Day, and the day of the Boston Marathon! Who the heck would want to download books if there was a holiday to enjoy? Why didn't I wait?

Plus, even by April 14, I still couldn't bring myself to blog, tweet or Facebook about the promotion. Authors who spend their time sending out book pimping messages make my teeth hurt. Yes, everything these days is “soft” marketing, but I prefer content with my advertising. I didn't want to inflict sales spam on people I'd come to know through social media channels.

I nearly pulled out of the second free promotion for another reason as well: I was having a crisis in confidence as a writer. How many readers are left in the world? In my most pessimistic moments, I imagine everyone sitting around in sports bars or lying on the couch watching American Idol or YouTube videos. Maybe everyone who would be interested in reading my book had already downloaded it.

On April 15, I could barely bring myself to check the downloads, but bam! There they were, and they were coming fast! In the very first day of the second promotion, I had as many downloads as the first two days combined! By the last day of the promotion, my book had hit #1 in contemporary fiction and #3 among all free Kindle downloads—with twenty times as many downloads as during my first promotion.

What's more, sales have declined but have remained steady. Thanks to the KDP Select Program, I may actually make a small profit from Sleeping Tigers. More importantly, I am creating an audience of readers and book bloggers who I hope will be interested in the next novel I publish.

What the heck happened to make this possible?

The answer is easy: I took full advantage of KDP Select Program's free promotional days. You can do it, too. Here's how:
  1. Before joining the KDP Select Program, check your book sales. Are you selling more on Smashwords or Kindle? If the answer is Kindle, then you have nothing to lose by going with the KDP Select Program—you can opt out again after three months.

  2. There are two schools of thought when it comes to deciding when to go with KDP Select: one is that you should wait until you have at least ten positive Amazon reviews (4 or 5 stars). The other is to do it right away, when you launch your book. That will give your book a higher ranking from the start. However, sites like Pixel of Ink are less likely to pick up books without customer reviews, because so many authors contact them, and of course it's in their interest to publicize the best free books possible. I'd advise contacting reviewers early, before your book is out, and waiting until you have the reviews posted on Amazon before advertising your free promotion.

  3. Remove your book from Smashwords and other sites at least two weeks in advance. I ran into a slight snafu, because I thought that removing the book from Smashwords meant I'd successfully made my book exclusive to Kindle; however, Smashwords distributes to a number of other sites, like Barnes & Noble, and it can take 2-3 weeks for them to remove the book.

  4. Once you sign up for KDP Select, make use of all five free promotional days, but don't do them one at a time—spread them out between a two-day and a three-day promotion. That gives readers time to see your book and download it.

  5. Follow up your free promotion with some modest paid advertising.

And that, my friends, is it. Simple as can be. Will I sign up again for KDP Select? I already have. I'll let you know how the next round goes. I'd love to hear your experiences, too. What has worked for you?

Friday, May 18, 2012

How Obama Won Me Over with a Single Speech

I am not a gushy sort of person when it comes to celebrities, nor am I particularly political. So, when I heard that President Obama was going to speak during our daughter's graduation from Barnard College last week, I was less than thrilled.

 “Think of the security,” I said to my husband. “What a nightmare!”

 “We can't even bring water through the gates,” my husband grumbled, reading through the detailed commencement regulations. “Maybe we should skip it.” He gave me a hopeful look.

 We both wanted to bow out of the event. New York City is enough of an ordeal as it is. But New York plus Obama? Chaos. We actually considered missing the first half of graduation, figuring we could order photos online and sneak into the reception tents later.

 But of course we went, because we love our daughter, who worked hard to graduate from Barnard with honors. We're proud of her, and this is what proud parents do everywhere, every day: we sit on uncomfortable metal chairs in gymnasiums and stadiums and auditoriums, trying to unobtrusively read our phones or Kindles during the boring parts of school celebrations and athletic events.

All of the advice from Barnard indicated that we should arrive on campus by 9 a.m., since they were going to close the gates by 11 a.m. Graduation wasn't scheduled until 12:30; there would be no food available, but the campus was providing water and paper cups. They were even confiscating umbrellas, I guess so nobody could stab Obama.

We didn't arrive until 10:30. (I think that my husband was still hoping there might be an excuse to go to the Museum of Natural History instead.) The security screening was remarkably efficient—pretty much like airport lines—and it was amusing to watch the collection of confiscated umbrellas grow by the gates as we plodded through the maze of barricades constructed to control the crowd. Inside the tent, we sat on the dreaded metal chairs and waited. And waited. Every building on campus was closed; this meant standing in line for forty minutes to use a portable toilet. The only food handed out consisted of one puny granola bar per graduation goody bag.

Eventually the graduates joined us, a vibrant ocean of nearly 600 young women in pale blue robes. Then, like magic, Obama was beamed into place, presumably escorted onto the stage via one of the tent tunnels rendering him invisible to snipers. I had been cynical about this whole idea of Obama giving a commencement speech. The election is coming up; this seemed like a pretty damn convenient move. I voted for this President, and I already knew I would vote for him again, given the choice between him and Romney. I disagree with Obama on certain issues (mostly military), but I agree with him on many, including abortion, gay marriage, and health care. At the same time, I'd have to say that for most of my adult life I've been that sort of passive, head-in-the-safe-suburban sand kind of liberal rather than any kind of activist.

But, when Obama took the stage, I was suddenly cynical and passive no more. I don't know how to explain this bizarre transformation. The closest I can come is to say that the President emanated an energy that was so generous and good in spirit that I swear I could almost see the halo. (No, I'm not religious, either.) The effect on me was such that I wanted to move closer to him, to be included in that circle of warmth, the way you edge closer and closer to a fireplace on a winter's night.

Obama is capable of being too academic and calm when he addresses a crowd. But he wasn't on this day. On this day, perhaps because he has two daughters of his own, the President's speech was inspired and inspirational. He made a few jokes and then talked seriously about the economic crisis—surely of uppermost importance in the minds of all new college graduates—and of how far women have come in the roles we play professionally, athletically, and politically.

And then he laid things on the line, telling these young women, “After decades of slow, steady, extraordinary progress, you are now poised to make this the century where women shape not only their own destiny, but the destiny of this nation and of this world. But how far your leadership takes this country, how far it takes this world—well, that will be up to you.”

Rather than spend too much time telling these remarkable young women just how extraordinary they were—which was the stump speech of almost every other person at the podium that day—Obama urged the graduates not to sit back and watch events unfold in the world, but to “stand up and be heard, to write and to lobby, to march, to organize, to vote.”

This part of the speech transported me to my own post-college attempts to make the world a better place. I volunteered as a Spanish translator in a juvenile court; I served with the Big Brother, Big Sister organization; I tutored inner city kids in math and science; I wrote grants to fund science enrichment programs for at-risk high school students; I volunteered as a mentor to teen mothers. Somewhere along the way, though, I got tired and my volunteer efforts flagged. These days I volunteer with local schools and libraries, but just a few hours a month, because I'm a working mom operating on too little sleep. My husband has been laid off one, two, three times. We worry all of the time about our own children and whether they'll have jobs, health insurance, and roofs over their heads when we're gone. Forget buying a house. Our kids will be lucky to pay their car repairs.

Yet what have I been doing, to stand up and be heard? Not enough. Finally, Obama urged us all to persevere. “Nothing worthwhile is easy,” he said. “No one of achievement has avoided failure—sometimes catastrophic failures. But they keep at it. They learn from mistakes. They don't quit.”

The President then shared a personal story of his own attempts after college to try and organize community meetings in a Chicago neighborhood plagued by gang violence. “Nobody showed up,” he said, despite the fact that they had done everything possible to get people there. He was tempted to quit. So were the other volunteers. But they didn't give up. They just kept chipping away at the problems in the neighborhood.

“Whenever you feel that creeping cynicism,” Obama told the Barnard grads and their families, “whenever you hear those voices say you can't make a difference, whenever somebody tells you to set your sights lower—the trajectory of this country should give you hope. Previous generations should give you hope. What young generations have done before should give you hope. Young folks who marched and mobilized and stood up and sat in, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, didn't just do it for themselves; they did it for other people.”

After the speech, Obama was whisked away immediately through another secret tent tunnel. One minute he was there. Then he was gone. Except that he wasn't gone, not at all. I could still hear his words ringing in my ears and feel that warmth and goodness, even as the gates to the campus were flung open and we cheered the graduates crossing the stage to receive their diplomas, young women with big smiles and, I hope, even bigger hearts, who will always stand up and be heard.

I am back in my real life now, away from New York City. Yet I still hear the President urging me to do my part. It's never too late to “reach up and close that gap between what America is and what American should be,” as Obama concluded, and I intend to do exactly that.