Showing posts with label workshops. Show all posts
Showing posts with label workshops. Show all posts

07 January 2019

Changing All Them Changes

by Steve Liskow

As the year winds down and I still wait for the last microscopic royalty check, I can't help noticing how quickly the publishing landscape changes. Axioms from a few years ago are now irrelevant and all you can do is try to keep up. My one concrete takeaway from 2018 is that I finished in the black for the first time since 2015. As usual, it's not because of book sales, but from events. About 47% of the income associated with my writing comes from workshops and panels.



Self-publishing means you do lots of promotion, which takes away from actual writing time. Tomorrow night, I will join a Sisters in Crime panel on promotion, but I'm not sure I really know anything to pass on. As things change, there's a good chance that I will guess wrong. I  hope that I learn from those mistakes.

My only core beliefs are (1) a good book is your best marketing tool. People will tell other people about it. (2) That same word of mouth is still your best advertising method. That means that you have to write a good book and behave yourself. Don't be a jerk because word gets around, and people don't buy stuff from jerks.

How do you get news of your book out there? That's a tough one. More and more "experts" agree that social media does little unless you're already well-known. Lee Child, Stephen King, Laura Lippmann and a handful of other writers can tweet about their new book and watch it fly off the shelves, but it doesn't work for mere mortals like me.

Every writer I know has a website and most of us have a Facebook page and maybe other accounts like Twitter or Instagram. Even though I post events and invite people on Facebook, they will only buy the same book once, so I can only invite a person to an event once or twice a year unless they like to stalk me (Hey, there's another plot idea!).

I no longer do a "reading" because they don't return much. I used to sell a book for every seven or eight people who attended, and often had fewer than seven attendees. Conducting a workshop means I actually get PAID, and I used to sell a book for about every three attendees. Maybe they felt they owed me because I gave them something back. Maybe they enjoyed the presentation. Maybe I wasn't a jerk (See above). Whatever the case, that number no longer holds true, either.

I used to charge libraries a flat rate for the workshops and draw ten to twelve people. I also used to conduct six or eight workshops a year. Unfortunately, library budgets in Connecticut have been slashed over the last three years, so in 2017 and 2018, I did a TOTAL of two workshops in libraries.


How have I kept up with the changes? Truthfully, I'm still struggling. The Storyteller's Cottage, about twenty miles from my condo, opened late in 2017 and does events almost daily. They promote local writers and do lots of events, including both workshops and signings. The staff is great and they promote like mad. They're worth their weight in uncut cocaine. BUT the Victorian house built in the 1890s has tiny rooms, with a capacity of about six people and my ego. I've done eight workshops there in the last year, but we split the tuition. That means a packed workshop nets me less than half what I made at libraries, and I seldom sell more than one book.

Last November, the cottage began selling local author's books on consignment at a generous split. It's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. I have several workshops set for next year already, so it's a little something. The good news is that people show up and feel I'm worth having back.

Plan C:

Last spring, O'Neil De Noux invited me to join an eBook package with nine other writers. I sold a lot of eBooks because people had to buy mine to get the Lawrence Block or Dean Wesley Smith book. I've never done that before, and it worked out well. Thanks, O'Neil.

Five short stories were to appear this year, my personal best (I hear several other Sleuthsayers snickering because that's a decent week for them). Four of them are to markets that didn't exist two years ago, which is good because many of the older markets have disappeared. Less advertising revenue is going to print media now, so both Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock, reliable markets since the late 1940s, have scaled back to six issues a year from their original ten (two double issues, Christmas and Summer). That means they buy fewer stories. Two of the five stories went to quarterly magazines that are still finding their way. One last appeared in May and the other in July, but they both told me their next issues would be out "in about two weeks." That was before Veteran's Day. I like to promote magazines that publish my stuff, but when they don't come out as promised, I look bad and can't help them.

Plan D:

Since June, three indie book stores have opened in my area. I've visited them to discuss consignment sales or events. I've met with with nice people who are still figuring out how things are going to work, so nothing is settled yet, but it's another way to go.

Create Space has become Kindle Direct. The mechanics of publishing Back Door Man were mostly the same, but the few changes were all to my advantage. I received proofs more quickly, so I could OK them and order copies more quickly, too. I can navigate the new site a little more easily to track my sales, too. Someone who understands computers and marketing could do far more than I can, but I'm a little less ignorant than before.

Plan E:

My cover artist didn't like the name of a band that appeared in Back Door Man, so I posted a "Name the Band" contest on my website and Facebook page and with Sisters in Crime. The person who gave me the best new name for the band (I ended up using two because they were both great) became a minor character in the book (not a victim) and received a signed copy. One recipient has already posted a five-star review. The other reviews on a website I had never heard of before...and she has over 1000 followers. As Herman's Hermits said, "somethin' tells me I'm into somethin' good..."

2019 will be different, and differently.

I have sold stories to two anthologies that will appear in late 2019 or early 2020, and I'm about 75% through the first draft of another Woody Guthrie novel. Five short stories are under consideration with various editors now and I have two more in progress. I have six events planned and I'm waiting to hear from those indie book stores.
Next week, I will be pitching another workshop at another venue.

If you aren't changing, you're falling behind.

23 July 2018

Why Workshops?

by Steve Liskow

I loved teaching. If it were still about interacting with the kids and helping them grow and develop--as opposed to getting them ready for a pointless standardized test that keeps getting dumbed down and is only used to gauge a teacher's performance instead of the kids it pretends to test--you'd still find me in the classroom, funky tie loose and sleeves rolled one turn below my elbows, 183 days a year. But it isn't and I'm not.

That's why I still conduct writing workshops. Sure, I get paid almost enough to cover my gas to and from the event, but the truth is I still have a major teaching jones. It took me a long time to learn this stuff, so I want to help other people learn from my mistakes.

When I turned in the key to my classroom for the 33rd time, I knew how to write a decent sentence and even a passable paragraph. But I didn't know how to tell a good story. That's harder than it sounds. You probably have at least one friend or relative who can mangle a knock-knock joke or put everyone to sleep telling about something that happened to them, don't you?

Once my writing collected enough form rejection letters to make the point, I went back to what my adviser on my sixth-year project (A novel, by coincidence) told me years before. He directed me to the paperback racks in the local drug store (If you're under about forty, you may have to Google those terms) and read the first chapter of ten or twelve books at random.

 "Don't read Austen and James and Conrad," he told me. "Read Arthur Hailey and Irving Wallace and Jacqueline Susanne and Mickey Spillane. Read Michener (He hated Michener). Figure out what they do in those first few pages that you don't. You don't have 'first-chapterness.'"

Plumbers, carpenters and electricians all train apprentices. So do doctors and teachers. People take dancing lessons, music lessons, golf lessons and painting lessons. We know that one-on-one training works. How do fish learn to swim and birds learn to fly? You can buy a bunch of books and read them, but a good writing workshop is even better.

Many writing conferences offer sessions by writers who are also excellent teachers. They may even feature a one-on-one manuscript critique. At the New England Crime Bake, Kate Flora analyzed an early version of my own Blood On The Tracks and turned problems into opportunities. At the Wesleyan Writers Conference, Chris Offutt looked at an even earlier draft of that same book.

When I met him over coffee (We both wanted beer, but we were on campus), he said, "You write excellent dialogue, and you probably know it. But that's both good and bad."

"How can that be?" I asked.

"Well," Offutt said, "it's good because it is good. But it's bad because you know it, so you try to make that dialogue do too much of the work. Have you ever done theater?"

At that time, I was acting, directing, producing or designing for four or five productions a year.

"You need to learn to write better exposition and description. Even plays aren't just the dialogue. The other stuff is the context that gives it meaning. And that's even truer in novels and stories."

My bookshelves sag under the weight of fifty or sixty books on writing, including a few on dialogue. None of them ever said that. The fifteen-minute chat helped more than all those books.

Now I pay it forward. I have five workshops scheduled through mid-November, and I'll share handouts with examples, both good and bad, and leave lots of time for people to experiment with them and ask questions. We do group activities, too: creating characters, punching up plots and premises, sharpening dialogue. Every time we encounter a problem (Which I often recognize in my own stuff, too) we figure out how to fix it. Mistakes are the best teachers I know, and I'm still learning every time I teach.

Most of the venues invite me back, which is great, but I don't do it for the money. Fortunately.

I do it because I still love it.

09 October 2017

BSP For You & Me

by Steve Liskow

On the heels of Janice's excellent discussion of how to prepare for an interview...

This year has been a good one for short story sales (for me, anyway. Most of the other contributors to this blog sell more in any given month), but it's still stacking up as my first losing season since 2013.

Yes, I have more books available than I did then (so far, twelve novels and a collection of stories), but both my close friends know that the annual sales and royalties from those self-published books won't pay for our cats' prescription diets for a week.

The bulk of my writing income--and "bulk" is a misleading term here--comes from other sources, mostly editing and conducting writing workshops. Over the last two years, the State of Connecticut has been plagued with horrendous budget problems that have been passed on to libraries, where I usually hold those workshops. In 2015, I led sixteen sessions, my all-time high. This year, I did one in April and only had one more scheduled until last week. I know three other writers going through the same straits, and for the first time ever, we're competing with each other for the same few gigs.

How do you get more business without bumping off the competition?

Packaging.

Years ago, comedian Bill Dana, AKA "Jose Jimenez," had a routine in which the interviewer asked him, "How did you get the title 'King of the Surf?'" and he replied, "I had cards printed."


 That's not quite as outrageous now as it was then. We need to figure out the continuum of shrinking violet, effective promotion and obnoxious BSP. It's a fine line, and when you're offering to teach, it gets even finer.

Most people want to drive a car before they buy it. I have yet to buy a guitar online because I need to hear it and touch it first. It's the same with writing. People need to believe that you can help them write better, so you have to show them what's under your hood. Obviously, your own books can help, but some people don't have time to read them before hiring you.

When I began editing, I offered a freebie through Sisters in Crime. I would examine the first twenty-five pages of a manuscript for free to the first three respondents in exchange for a reference letter I could post on my website. The requests arrived in my email so quickly that I ended up reading five samples. Satisfied customers give you more cred than anything else. If you're a writer, nothing tops reviews from happy readers...except maybe blurbs from other writers who have a large following.

Those references are on my website, and I keep a printed copy for when I meet a librarian or--as happened last week--the head of a writer's retreat that plans to open this month.

I also bring blurbs that better-known writers (practically everyone) wrote for me. These are people I met at various conferences. In a few cases they mentored me or led workshops I attended. Reviews written by a real person, especially a legitimate critic or Publishers Weekly or Kenyon Review mean a lot, too. I print out a list of my awards and nominations because they mean that someone who knows the business thinks I won't stink up the joint. Besides, it's great being able to say I lost an award to Karin Slaughter or Dennis Lehane.

Be flexible. I have a printed description of my workshops and can make them last from about sixty to ninety minutes by encouraging more questions or giving people more time to work on the activities I include. I taught high school English for thirty-three years, so I know how to create a decent worksheet.

One of the first rules of grant writing is that you have to show how the public will benefit, and it's the same here. You're working with the library, bookstore or other venue. Remember the new writers retreat I mentioned above? Instead of charging my usual fee for workshops, they will charge the students and we will split the fee. I'll get less money than usual, but the Story Teller's Cottage will get some money in the coffers right away, which means they can grow...and invite me back again. You can spend "less," but try spending "nothing."

I gave the new director some of my business cards (yes, thank you, Bill Dana), which mention my editing. I gave her several bookmarks, too. The front is a head shot with my website and Facebook page. Easy to read, and won't need updating. I can use it forever, especially since I don't plan to age at all. Ever. I assembled the list of books on the back three years ago when I had the titles but they weren't out yet. Planning that far in advance meant I could buy the bookmarks in bulk (lower price) and use them longer. Starving writers go for cheap, OK?

The bookmark serves two purposes First, it shows people that, yes, I did write a book, which suggests what's under the hood. Giving the titles means people can find the books and read them, which does even more of that.

Sure, it's creating an image, but it's also content and credibility. I don't wear a tie when I meet people, but I don't wear cut-offs and a Playboy tee shirt either.

I've learned to ask a few questions, too. These help the venue and me work together and help that professional image again.

Do you have Wi-fi? Most places do, but I'm beginning to sell more books at events by card than by cash, so it's good to know, especially if I post the event on my website or Facebook page. If you take a credit card, it suggests that you're a "real" business, too.

Will you print out my handouts? If the venue takes registration in advance, they know how many copies they need. That means I don't show up with a bunch of extras I'll have to recycle. It also means that if someone decides to attend at the session at the last minute, the venue can print up more copies and I don't have to ask someone to share.

Do you have an easel or dry marker board (I hate power point!)? I can bring one, which shows I have my own equipment, but it's easier if you have to cart less stuff around.

Finally, I encourage librarians and other people to take pictures I can use on my sites for further credibility. But do I really look that funny?

Yes, it's BSP, but it gets your foot in the door. And the best promotion in the world won't hide a lousy workshop.

Does this all work? I picked up three workshops last week. They satisfy my teaching Jones. And since this is a new venue and we're guessing at the best times and days for the sessions, I'm adding an evaluation sheet that asks participants about the format, content, presentation, time and space. It also asks if they'd like to take another workshop. Criticism and suggestions are how you get better.

The Story Tellers Cottage (check their website and Facebook page) held their open house last Saturday, and I made a point of showing up with more bookmarks and to meet more people. They're doing the same thing I am, but they're taking a bigger risk, so they have fewer chances to get it right.

I think they're on the right track.


22 January 2016

The Possiblities Are Endless

By Art Taylor

This week marked the start of the new semester at George Mason University, and except for an immediate snow delay Thursday and the cancellation of classes Friday (and potential syllabus reshuffling), all has been going well.

One of my classes this semester is a fiction workshop, and on the first day, I invited the students one by one to introduce themselves, to provide some background about their writing, and to say what they hoped to get out of the semester ahead in terms of honing their craft. Several of them mentioned various elements of fiction—character, plot, setting—as areas they'd like to focus on, but one student's response seemed particularly frustrated. She said that she simply had trouble finishing her stories.

I asked for clarification about that, since—to my mind—there were at least three different things she might be saying, specifically: 
  1.  I have trouble writing full drafts of stories.
  2.  I have trouble writing endings in particular.
  3.  I can write full drafts and get endings, but no matter how much I revise, the story on the page ever feels done, never seems good enough, never seems like it matches what I pictured in my head, etc. 
Turns out the answer was a little of all of that.

I assured her and the class that many writers have struggled with these same issues. Endings are indeed, for me, often the hardest parts of the story to write. And I'm a constant reviser—even after I've submitted a story for publication, I often keep tinkering with it—so I understand that sense of a story never feeling like it's entirely finished.

I've written elsewhere before—in other blog posts and interviews (so excuse me if you've heard it)—about a lesson I took from the work of sculptor Alberto Giacometti and specifically his Women of Venice series. Back when I worked at the North Carolina Museum of Art, we hosted an exhibition that included one of the sculptures (the series as a whole is pictured to the left), and I was fascinated not just by the artwork itself, the texture of it, the existential starkness of it, but also by the story of how Giacometti created the series. As I understood it, all of them were cast from the same mass of clay, clay which Giacometti worked and shaped and reworked and shaped until eventually it reached a form that he found suitable, at which point he called his brother in to make a cast of the "finished" product.

And then he began working and shaping that same clay again.

In the end, Giacometti ultimately created ten sculptures, each unique in its own way, each with a kinship, clearly, to her sisters, and each—here's the key—equally finished, perhaps equally perfect, as the next in the series.

Over the years, as I've thought and reflected on this anecdote (and hopefully not transmuted it in my own mind from the truth of it), it's become core to my own sense of process. Certainly we can and should keep searching for the best word, the best rhythm of a given sentence, the best flow of a paragraph, the best structure to a story, etc.—but after a point, we could keep working and reworking any choice we've made as writers and it might be tough to say with certainty which revision is better.

I'll likely bring up this story to my fiction workshop later in the semester, and as we embark on the revision section of the course, we'll study Raymond Carver's stories "The Bath" and "A Small Good Thing" in their various incarnations—the same story told in two dramatically different ways, and each with its own strengths and weakness, to the point that in the past when I've taught them, no class can agree which is better, which more finished or complete than the other.

It's not only the new workshop that has me thinking about this, but also a book that I've recently picked up. As I mentioned in my previous post here at SleuthSayers, I like to kick off a writing session by reading a little something about writing: craft essays, exercises, etc. Having finally completed Rules of Thumb, the book that had become a regular companion in that regard, I've just started browsing between two other books: Patricia Highsmith's Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (a rereading in that case) and Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, which was recently recommended my way.

Though I'm only partway into the Queneau, I'm already fascinated by the project—which reminds me of the Giacometti anecdote but also takes things a step further. Exercises in Style presents a very short story about a man on a bus—an argument, and a chance encounter later the same day, the whole thing barely a half a page in length—and then retells that story 99 different times, determined in each case by certain approaches. "Notations" is the headline of the first version, which presents the story as fragmented notes. "Litotes" tells the story in understatements. "Retrograde" tells it backwards. "Metaphorically" tells it... well, you can see where this goes. In addition to underscoring the fact that there are many, many, perhaps innumerable ways to tell any story—and tell it well each time—Queaneau's project also reminds us that writing is or can be or should be fun, playful even, which is something that I sometimes forget, I'll admit. That's a lesson for my students as well there, some of whom might be as fretful as I often am about my chosen craft.

Queneau's Exercises also remind me of something else too, an idea inherent in all of this: Style is constructed out of a series of choices.

Yes, we hear folks talk about a writer's style as if it's a natural part of their being, or about a writer needing to find his or her own style, as if it's waiting there for each of us if we'll just look hard enough. And maybe after a while, each of us does have a set of approaches and mannerisms, etc. that become like second nature—a part of who we are as writers and instantly recognizable to readers too. But at the same time, I think it's worth recognizing and remembering that the development of that style reflects a series of preferences and opinions and decisions; and an awareness of those preferences, opinions, and decisions—of the impact of those choices—enhances our skills as writers.

At least I hope.

Maybe.

In any case, I'm enjoying the new book, and I'm curious if others have read it—and curious too about a number of other questions. How would you define your own style? Is style something that you have self-consciously cultivated? Do you shift styles depending on the project at hand? Would love to hear, of course, about others experiences!