Tag: reviews

Word architects

After a long hiatus, I finally started working on a novel again this month. With apologies to all the very patient Lindsay Harding fans, I haven’t started working on the next chaplain mystery. Instead, I’ve begun revising the manuscript for the middle-grade adventure novel I wrote a few years back in the hopes that I can submit it to agents in the fall. It feels good to be back in the saddle!

During this fallow period in which the sum total of my finished writing projects consisted of a single 1,500 word short story, something surprising happened. I’ve been offered two really cool opportunities to put on my Author Hat© and do Cool Author Things©. In my experience, that doesn’t usually happen. I’ve found that if I don’t promote the heck out of my books, attend conferences, and crank out new material, my sales dwindle to a trickle and my Author Hat© gathers dust in its metaphorical closet. Luck was on my side the past few months, though!

jeriandmindy
Celebrating with Jeri Rogers, Literary Editor of Artemis Journal at LitFest Pasadena.

Cool thing No. 1: I got to go to LA and be fancy in a room full of extraordinarily talented people. That 1,500 word short story I mentioned above won the Artemis-Lightbringer “Women hold up half the sky” competition for science fiction with feminist themes and a strong female protagonist. My story received dual publication in Artemis Journal and on the Hollywood NOW website in addition to a cash prize from Hollywood NOW. You can check out my story in the 2018 edition of Artemis or hear it performed by actor and filmmaker Kamala Lopez, recorded live at LitFest Pasadena a few weeks ago. My story starts around minute 57. There’s also a little awards ceremony at the end where I give an impromptu, margarita-fueled speech.

Cool thing No. 2: I’ve been invited to go to one of my favorite places in the world, the Outer Banks, and give a book talk on Saturday, September 29th. Here’s how that whole thing came about. My friend Pam is an innkeeper. Kind of an 18th-century throwback job, huh? She keeps inn (inn-keeps?) at the White Doe Inn in Manteo on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. She recently started up a series of evening arts events and, knowing that A Death in Duck is set near there, she invited me to come give a book talk as part of the series. I said yes before she even finished inviting me.

Both of these unexpected wonderful opportunities reminded me of something. When you publish something or otherwise put your writing out into the world, you lose control of where that writing goes or how it will impact people. Being a writer is kind of like building a house. You may build that house for a specific client or with a clear vision for who will inhabit it. But years, decades, or, if you’re incredibly lucky, centuries later, that house could be roughly the same. Or maybe it will have undergone a complete renovation or maybe it’ll be a crack den. Once you hand it over to the world, you can’t control who lives there or what they do.

The same is true of writing. People’s reactions can be scary or disappointing, like when a series of negative reviews from homophobes blights your book’s Amazon page (the literary equivalent of a crack house?). But they can also be thrilling and encouraging, like when you get to travel to both coasts within the space of a few months to share your work. Not bad for an unproductive year.

The day Col. Sanders met Lyndon Johnson’s dog

A reviewer once opined that, though she loved my books, she found the speaking in tongues scene in A Murder in Mount Moriah unbelievable. I laughingly noted that that scene, along with the notorious squirrel in the bathroom incident, are just about the only events in the book that are based on true incidents. This reader had happily swallowed the miles of yarn I’d spun and choked on the single nugget of truth.

I was reminded of this recently during a long road trip with a colleague, who I travel with several times a year. You can only talk shop for so long, so we often end up telling stories of our younger days to pass the tedious hours trekking back and forth along I-81. We were regaling one another with tales of pets our families had kept over the years–the bird who angrily demanded everyone in the house go to bed at 9pm, the filthy stray female dog who, because of an anatomically ambiguous mat of fur, was thought to be a boy and thus ended up with the name Bert.

My colleague then said, “Did I ever tell you about Blanco?”

If you’re a keen historian of Presidential dogs, you may know Fala, FDR’s faithful Scottie, who is permanently enshrined on the National Mall. fdr-memorial-falaAlso well known is Checkers, who Nixon famously refused to part with, even though accepting the dog as a gift may have violated campaign contribution laws. Less well remembered is LBJ’s collie, Blanco.

Lyndon Johnson was a beagle kind of guy, owning a pair of dogs named Him and Her and several of their puppies. Blanco joined the family in 1964, when he was given to President Johnson as a gift by a little girl in the Midwest. TBlancohough the Johnsons did their best to integrate him, Blanco was never happy at the White House. The constant noise and action involved in being a Presidential dog grated on the shy, high-strung collie. He didn’t get along with the Johnson’s band of beagles and didn’t like strangers. He ended up on tranquilizers to manage his anxiety. When the time came for the Johnsons to leave office, they started to talk about whether they should bring Blanco back to Texas with them or find a new home where he might be happier.

One of their Secret Service agents was part of these conversations and mentioned that he had a sister who lived on a 28-acre farm in Corbin, Kentucky with her doctor husband and their three children. The place would be perfect for a shy dog like Blanco. The arrangements were top secret, and Liz Carpenter, Johnson’s press secretary, declined to give the media any details. Citing the fact that several trees planted by Lady Bird Johnson had been dug up and filched, she said, “The dog is too likely to be stolen, so we decided not to say where he is.”

Despite these precautions, word spread quickly in tiny Corbin. Even before Blanco’s private charter plane alighted in the small airfield near Corbin, attempts at secrecy were undermined when Air Force One made a low, slow flight over the farm to check it out.

If the story so far isn’t wacky enough, here’s where reality becomes sur-reality. You see, besides being a favored retirement destination for Presidential dogs, Corbin, Kentucky has another claim to fame. It is the home of Colonel Harland Sanders, the man who founded Kentucky Fried Chicken. By the late 1960s, Sanders had moved away, but happened to be in town visiting. When he heard about Blanco from his chiropractor (who was friends with the doctor whose wife was the sister of the Secret Service agent who’d worked for LBJ), that LBJ’s dog was living nearby, he hightailed it out to the farm to visit with the vicariously-famous collie.

And that, my friends, is how Col. Sanders came to meet LBJ’s dog at my colleague’s childhood home. The story comes pre-packed with drama, humor, political intrigue, and small-town wholesomeness. It even has a happy ending, with Blanco living out his days in Corbin, happy, calm, and drug-free. Despite all that, I can never use this tale in a novel. Not even the most credulous reader would believe that reality could be so very much stranger than fiction.

 

Free copies of A Death in Duck

Those of you who obsessively check my Amazon and Goodreads pages (or is that just me…?) will have Final-Book-Cover-Vector-v4seen that the cover artwork for the Lindsay Harding series has recently undergone a facelift. In celebration, I’m giving away three signed copies of A Death in Duck with the older artwork (the original Doberman cover) to the first three people who post reviews of either book on Amazon. Or better yet, review both books and then post your reviews on Goodreads as well! 🙂

Book2-v3 (2)Once you’ve left your honest review on Amazon, post the link in the comments section below. I’m interested in your opinion–both critique and praise–so please opine freely!

Reviews page for A Murder in Mount Moriah
Reviews page for A Death in Duck

If you’ve posted a review previously, THANK YOU. Just post the link to claim your free book! I’m also running this contest via my mailing list, so I’ll post updates in the comments section below as the free books are claimed.

 

False Advertising, Indeed.

Over the past few years, I’ve occasionally asked friends and acquaintances to describe a typical chaplain. If people have any notions at all, they reference Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H—a Christian, middle-aged, celibate dude with a kindly twinkle in his blue eyes. I suspect that even in the era of the Korean War, that stereotype bore little resemblance to reality, and there can be no doubt that the Father Mulcahys of the world don’t make up the majority of the ranks of today’s chaplaincy. But the myth of the typical chaplain endures.

Being a chaplain isn’t a typical job, though. While there are federal non-discrimination laws that would bar a corporation from hiring or firing someone based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation, religious denominations are still free to ordain only those whom they deem worthy to provide pastoral care. So, depending on a person’s religious background, they may never have seen a faith professional who doesn’t conform to the mold that their denomination lays out. When these folks meet a chaplain, they may come to that interaction with a very narrowly proscribed vision of the right “man” for the job.

So what do you do when you’re not one of the Father Mulcahys of the world? At times, it’s hard to hide the fact that you don’t meet someone’s expectation of what a chaplain should be. When a female chaplain walks into a hospital room, it’s pretty obvious that she’s not, for example, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, or, say, the Pope. But what about those attributes that we can hold inside ourselves—our deeply held spiritual or political beliefs or our sexual orientations?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the dilemmas that humanist/agnostic/non-conformist and LGBTQ chaplains confront. At what point should they “out” the part of themselves that may not jive with someone’s expectations of what a chaplain should be? Here’s what got me thinking. I write murder mysteries about a fictional hospital chaplain in small-town North Carolina. Mostly, the books’ reception has been positive. But a reader recently posted this flaming one-star review to Amazon.com:

This review is from: A Murder in Mount Moriah (Reverend Lindsay Harding Mystery, Book No. 1) (Kindle Edition)

The cover says “A REVEREND Lindsay Harding Mystery.” Now I have no problems with women who are called into the ministry…and…I fully recognize that ministers are fallen human beings with good and bad moments, too. But a woman of the cloth who…enthusiastically supports the gay lifestyle of her boss, who is also an ordained minister…? No. Just no. False advertising indeed.

This review was titled “False advertising!,” and I suspect this reader felt tricked because no mention is made of a gay character’s sexuality until you meet his partner (well into the book).

Should I include cautionary labels for those who don’t like the idea of a gay chaplain?!

The experience made me wonder: am I under an obligation to warn readers about the liberal/progressive content of my books, even though there is no sex whatsoever and only one brief (heterosexual) kiss? And if I am, how would I do it, short of putting a Tipper Gore-style cautionary label on my covers like “Contains a chaplain who wrestles with the nature and existence of God,” or perhaps titling the next volume, “The Liberal Murder Mystery with the Gay Chaplain in It”? And in real life, should chaplains let people see their “content,” or should they simply remain closed books?

Theoretically, this wouldn’t come up as an issue very often. Pastoral care doesn’t provide a stage for chaplains to shimmy across, displaying their personal theologies and ideologies like Vegas showgirls. And there’s a reason that chaplains don’t carry ramrods; chaplaincy isn’t an evangelical mission. However, in order to build rapport, especially in longer-term pastoral relationships, it is sometimes natural and even necessary to engage in personal conversations. Some of those in spiritual care need that sort of quid pro quo sharing in order to establish trust. The Reverend Laura Arnold, a former hospital chaplain who now serves as a United Church of Christ minister in Iowa, vividly described this dilemma in her 2012 article “Life as a Queer Chaplain” on Kim Knight’s wonderful Patheos blog. Rev. Arnold talks about that knife-edge moment that many queer chaplains experience when deciding whether to play the pronoun game when asked about their romantic relationships. Is it worth the risk of potentially rupturing a relationship with a patient? Is it worth the sometimes soul-diminishing pain of ignoring a patient’s homophobic rant or disparaging comments about non-believers, when these things go right to the heart of one’s identity?

I’m not sure there is a right answer, and in some ways all of us deal with versions of what I call The Thanksgiving Dilemma. That is, do you call Great Aunt Pearlene out for making crude, racist comments about your sister’s new Filipino boyfriend, or do you just bite your tongue, keep the peace, and pass the gravy? Rev. Laura was able to reconcile her own position by embodying, “a living alternative to the hate filled rhetoric spewed from some pulpits that has scarred and convinced queer people that they are despised by God, abominations, excluded from heaven.” She said she feels privileged to be able to convey God’s love by fully inhabiting her identity.

For myself, all I can do is keep writing about my little by little my bunch of diverse, quirky, and fully human chaplains, hoping that they can crack open a tiny space in the hearts of readers. And that in that space, acceptance can take root and kindness can come into full flower.

Do you have a solution to the Thanksgiving Dilemma? Share it in the comments section!

Excerpt of the Patheos blog used with permission. Read the full text of Reverend Laura Arnold’s article on “Life as a Queer Chaplain.” 

Originally published in PlainViews September 3, 2014, Volume 11 No. 16. Reprinted with permission. 

What does it take to make it as an indie author? Interview with Kindle bestselling author Nicole Loughan, Part 3

Read part 1 of MFM’s interview with Nicole Loughan
Read part 2 of MFM’s interview with Nicole Loughan

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Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): I’ve heard it said that to be a successful writer nowadays, you need a PR person more than you need an agent. Do you think that’s true?

Nicole Loughan (NL): I have a friend who is a social media representative at a big company and acts as my PR consultant. She has been essential in teaching me about twitter and Facebook marketing, shout out to her Alyson Komyanek. Though in the beginning I recommend writers do their own marketing, especially when you don’t know how well your book will be received. You can spend a fortune on all the little doodads out there like PR and ads and the return on investment might never come. You have to be a pioneer and do a lot yourself. If I hadn’t known Alyson I probably would have spent another 100 hours learning about social media and marketing. Anybody just starting out can learn basic marketing from the already established advice of J.A. Konrath and David Gaughran. I read Konrath’s blog and Gaughran’s book “Let’s Get Visible.”

MFM: There are so many websites and services catering to indie authors. Many offer to make you a best-seller…often for a hefty fee. What has your experience of these services been? Which ones work and which would you steer clear of?

NL: I did not use any web services, eek, no. If you could see me you would know that I am holding up my hands like the sign of the cross trying to fight off a vampire. It’s not a good idea to use an online publishing service or most services catering to indie authors. The websites do not deliver enough to warrant the cost. I did not spend a dime on advertising for the first six months and still sold like hotcakes. I spent all of my money on editing and graphic design in the beginning, great investments. When I finally did decide to try an ad I did so after careful research. I learned there were essentially two places worth the money to advertise your indie book, Bookbub and Ereadernewstoday. I have now used both. Both times my books hit the bestseller lists. BookBub was the big time I hit the top of all of my categories with Bookbub and I am still feeling residual effects. It was pricey, around $180 but it was more than worth it. Here is the caveat; you have to already be very successful to advertise with either of these places. By very successful I mean you have to have a large number of reviews, which are favorable. To get a lot of reviews you have to have a lot of sales.

MFM: Thanks for these great tips, Nicole!

A Negative Amazon Review Didn’t Kill Me; It Made Me Stronger

Remember how I said that I was girding my loins for my first negative Amazon review? Well, it happened. An Amazon reviewer gave AMiMM 2 stars. Weirdly, the negative review was followed by a bounce in sales, two totally awesome reviews on Amazon, and several 4 and 5-star ratings on Goodreads. The Goodreads giveaway closed out with 800 entries, which was pretty great. I’ve resolved to do less marketing for awhile, and less obsessive checking of my sales figures. I probably like that side of things more than most writers, but I need to focus more on writing the next Lindsay Harding book, A Death in Duck, which I hope to publish in Summer 2014.

Also, for those who don’t regularly watch the Blacksburg-Christiansburg public access channel (which, I think I can safely assume, is all of you!), you can now view the 2013 Valley Voices competition winners on YouTube. My story comes on around minute 21.

Do KDP giveaways boost sales?

At the end of December, I ran a short freebie promotion for A Murder in Mount Moriah. I really can’t say whether it worked or not. I’ve continued to sell 1 or 2 copies of my book each day. Would my sales numbers have dwindled without the promo? Impossible to say. I did pick up a new review on Amazon.co.uk this week and a new rating on Goodreads. It’s always awesome to get positive reviews from strangers. I’m trying to gird my loins for the inevitable first negative review. I tend to think that people who would be attracted to a cozy murder mystery about a chaplain are slightly nicer people than, say, blood-and-guts sci-fi thriller readers, so hopefully it won’t be too cruel when it comes. I just can’t imagine some nice suburban grandma ripping me a new one on Amazon.

Anyway, I’d say unequivocally that KDP Countdown 99cent/pence promos work. Not sure about KDP freebies. The jury is also still out on the Goodreads giveaway. (My current giveaway ends on January 15th, so it’s too soon to tell.) I think all these things increase visibility, which can’t hurt. But clearly the Kindle Countdown is the only one that translates directly to money in your pocket.