Reelin’ With the Feelin’, or, Giving My Books Away

LIttleFreeLibraryThe world of book marketing is fairly straightforward: the more money a book has behind it, the better it tends to sell. Does that sound cynical? Maybe, but it’s also evident in industry practices like giveaways for newly released books on the Amazon-acquired mega social network for readers, Goodreads.com. Not that long ago, during the heavy marketing phases of my first two novels, anyone could post a book giveaway on Goodreads and hundreds—hundreds—of people would see that book, look at its cover and title, read its synopsis, maybe even the author’s name, and add the book to their to-be-read list in exchange for getting a chance to win a free copy. All it cost publishers and authors, big or small, was the wholesale price of the book, and postage. But by the time my third novel was published, Goodreads was charging hundreds of dollars to give away books on the site. Isn’t that nice? It’s great to see big, well-funded enterprises sticking together.

Like I said, the big marketing pushes for my first two novels have passed. The books are still in print but settled into my publisher’s back catalogue, a place without room for all of the remaining printed inventory. Some publishers would just “pulp” these excess books but mine offered to give them to me as long as I paid to have them shipped across the country. The shipping bill was in the two-digits so I agreed, and for the past few months, the storage room in my basement—the cold room—has been a crypt for overstocked books. Talk about being haunted…

Well, you know what? I don’t need to hoard these books and I don’t need permission or money to give them away. With a new novel to promote, what better ad could there be for it than a bunch of freely available copies of my previous work?  And so I spent today driving all over the Edmonton area sniffing out Little Free Libraries. They are adorable little cabinets, or repurposed newspaper boxes (look at that, newspaper infrastructure doing something for book culture again), and even one salvaged doll house set up in cafes, parks, and private citizens’ front yards. The rules of the Little Free Library system are simple: take a book if you want to read one. Be courteous, take good care of it. Don’t use it to balance a table or roll a smoke. Ideally, leave another book in its place or bring it back when finished.

I hit every Little Free Library I could drive to without seeing any cows. When I travel to Calgary later this week, past so many cows, I will hit some more LFLs there—slide my book in between all those copies of Animorphs and the fragmented works of Stephenie Meyer (her Breaking Dawn appears most often). If it turns out the LFLs are somehow centrally catalogued and controlled, I expect a cease and desist order soon. Until then, I’ll keep placing my books, like messages tossed out in bottles, because we all know that’s better than reaching no one.

But my giveaway madness isn’t limited to the domains of cabinet-making-book-swapping-LFL librarians I’ve never actually met. It’s also for all of you, my dear friends. Purchase my new novel from me and get my first two books as a free gift. Or don’t buy anything. The gift is still free. Message me and it’s yours.

At the Flywheel…

pages2If anyone thinks Calgary is all pancake breakfasts, politicians in Stetsons, and dubious animal handling ethics, they don’t know Calgary. It’s home to a great literary arts scene–poets, writers, literary mags, university programs, the whole package. It’s a pleasure to get to travel there as part of my own book tour. Last night, I was part of filling Station magazine’s Flywheel Reading Series along with fellow writers Erin Emily Ann Vance and Bren Simmers. It was the first time this tour I wasn’t either sick or late, making the event a triumph. I had a great time, was the subject of some horrible photos as I hammed my way through my reading, went back to the hotel, ordered room service with my sponsor (my husby), and crashed. Thanks, YYC!

This Is What a Good Day Looks Like

I emerge from 准备考试 (where I’m all about midterms in a class of super-smart people all clutching raw scores of over 90% which will eventually be hammered into a horrifying curve) to share this post from the Literary Press Group’s All-Lit-Up blog. It’s about both of my books.

Go ahead and read it here.

The author, Leonicka Valcius, compares my novels’ treatments of themes of family, love, and death. She even picks a favourite of the two books–and it’s not the same as mine. The piece is long and thoughtful and I enjoyed it immensely, reading as my bus rolled along Jasper Avenue, away from the restaurant where I’d had lunch with my tall, fancy husband and, for the first time this month, we hadn’t been asked if we wanted separate bills.

I got home and made dinner for my family, almost from scratch. And in the evening, whilst watching Chinese TV on the exercise bike, I understood not only a phrase but its cheeky play on words that doesn’t translate into English–because no matter what grade I end up with I am learning something.

That’s a good day.

Matters of Discretion, or, One Way Writing is Like Dating

Along with my IRL friends, my kids’ friends, and my enormous family, I’m accumulating a growing number of writers on my social network feeds. I like it a lot. One of the newest additions to my Facebook friends list is American novelist Sarah Dunster. I’ve met her only once, but through her online voice I’ve grown to admire the heck out of her as a human being.

She’s currently pitching manuscripts to major literary agencies. I learned about it through her fascinating practice of reporting the responses she’s been getting to her queries. It only takes one positive response – one agent willing to take on a book project – to end the pitching process. Sarah hasn’t received that one response yet so the replies she’s been reporting have been what dour folks like me would call rejection letters.

That’s not what Sarah calls them — at least, not all of them. She seems to prefer the term “polite letters.” She announces them and will sometimes share excerpts of them – anything positive or personalized. Perhaps it’s a way of celebrating warmth, encouragement, and humanity in a process that usually ends in dismissive dead silence. It’s one of the loveliest, most surprising acts of making lemonade out of lemons I’ve seen in a working writer.

When a “polite letter” arrives at my house, I log it, shred or delete it, don’t mention it to anyone but my husband, and only after I refuse to cook and insist he go out to dinner with me.

Maybe I lack the sweetness to make lemonade. I, the girl who, thanks to my parents, went to eleven different schools before I graduated, learned to cope with disappointment by moving on, starting over. When it comes to something like a book proposal, there’s nothing wrong with that strategy. The sooner a rejection is obliterated, the better for me and everyone around me. Get on with it!

I’m convinced both Sarah’s way and my way are fine approaches to rejection. As long as we go on writing and improving our writing, it doesn’t matter how we handle setbacks. Into the shredder or onto Facebook – either one is fine. Looking for the bright side or the blank slate — there’s no wrong choice.

Sarah’s sharing of her rejections on a social network is, by definition, social. My choice to not share mine isn’t meant to be social – but it is.

When an acceptance letter, an award nomination, a good review, or any helpful press coverage comes my way, I tell everyone. I hit Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and this blog to let everybody know my good news. And then I refuse to cook and insist we go out for dinner.

Sarah shares her good news too. It’s on her Facebook feed right along with her “polite” letters. Every writer does this. It’s 2015. The world is chock-full of books and if writers won’t talk about our own work, no one else will.

It’s especially true for writers working with small presses with constrained marketing resources. There are publishing companies (not mine, thank goodness) that require authors to prepare “marketing plans” and submit them along with manuscripts when there’s still no publishing agreement in sight.

My small publisher makes a little go a long way. Thanks to their efforts, I had good publicity for my novel’s debut. Still, my personal contributions of time and online platform-space were indispensable in promoting the book. That’s how this industry works. We may cloak it in humblebrags and earnestly sheepish modesty but writers cannot opt out of our own buzz and expect it to continue.

Buzzing really bugs some people. And not everyone caught in my social network puts up with me by choice. Many are connected to me by birth or other kinds of social superglue. They’d have a hard time tuning out my book promotion racket if they found it annoying. I know it. I’m sorry. And if I want to keep working in this field, I have to subject them to it anyway.

This is where not sharing my rejection becomes social after all. If I was more like Sarah — reporting setbacks with frank optimism, not fishing for compliments — maybe my good news would be easier for onlookers to stomach when it finally comes along. Talking about it would seem more balanced, less like a double standard. I wouldn’t be a humblebragger. I’d be simply humbled. Maybe it’s selfish — even dishonest — of me to advance only good news.

Here’s some honesty. I’m not yet emotionally equipped to post my rejections. I probably never will be. While doing so may be useful for writers like Sarah, and satisfying for a few fed-up readers, it has no value for me. It hurts. I won’t do it.

It’d be like publicly posting something about asking someone to love me and having them turn me down. Marketing writing is actually a lot like dating. Some people want to chronicle every detail of the chase, every high and low; some don’t. In my dating days I was never one to announce I liked a guy until he’d already made a very clear first move. It’s not that I never pined for anyone. It’s just that I didn’t talk about it. That’s how I write too – never announcing my submissions until a successful deal is struck. Neither approach to dating or to writing makes anyone selfish or bad. It’s a matter of discretion, not a character flaw.

I’ll always have more to lose, more to suffer, in flaunting my failures than anyone will have to gain in inspecting them. I still just need to move on. This is a tough business. Trust me: I do get bad news, plenty of it. In lieu of public rejection letters, let’s let this post stand as the official, general acknowledgement of all my bad news, past, present, and in perpetuity. It will remain here for easy reference any time my good news feed gets insufferable.

Book’s Belated Birthday

Roses we raised from a bare root. They smell fantastic.

Roses we raised from a bare root. They smell fantastic.

Goofing around on Google, I read a blog post by author Lauren Carter where she mentions a review I wrote of her debut novel, Swarm. The occasion was the one year anniversary of the release of her book and the post was a list of great, book-related things that have happened to her in that time.

Lauren’s idea struck me as a good one – a theft-worthy one, one to make me feel a little less robbed of the roses we were too frantic to stop to smell this summer when the one year anniversary of my novel came and went without my notice.

Here’s my version of the one-year celebration list. [If your Jenny-is-a-horrible-braggart-alarm is tripping, please close this tab or relax and try to read the list as gratitude – which it is and which ought to be expressed.]

  • My book returned me to Montreal and Toronto and gave me excellent reasons to leave their airports for the first time. Both cities were magnifique with cool people, great art, literary events, and me roaming around reading maps like a dork.
  • My book toured me around most of Alberta (no map required): Lacombe, Edmonton, Calgary, Sherwood Park, Cold Lake, Fort McMurray, Red Deer, Hill Springs, and a quiet homecoming in Raymond, the town where I graduated from high school.
  • Drama! In the peculiar American-Mormon book scene, my book was made a finalist for an award with one hand and branded heresy in a review in the local media with the other hand. Eventually, the review was revised (a mighty feat) and an apology made.
  • Apart from the Salt Lake City newspaper debacle, the book got great reviews and mentions in major newspapers, regional newspapers, trade publications, magazines, and online. It was awesome (in the literal sense that it inspired awe in me) to see thoughtful reviewers finding things in my book I didn’t realize were there. Making art is frickin’ amazing like that. Highlights include Publishers Weekly, National Post, and the sweetest text ever from my dad.
  • The book led me to discover my colleagues – my fabulous, generous colleagues. I wrote my novel in isolation and it wasn’t until it was nearly time to release it that I started meeting the writers, librarians, bloggers, and readers I should have been befriending all along. My book gave me a community.
  • On the merits of the book, I won a Lieutenant Governor of Alberta’s Emerging Artist Award. I got to take my parents, husband, and a few of my sons to a fancy ceremony in a sandstone mansion before wearing the medal inscribed with my name to vacuum my house.
  • The television appearances were challenging but book promotion also got me spots on radio and podcasts. As long as no one can see me, I enjoy speaking almost as much as writing and these appearances were great pleasures.
  • The book actually sold. It was distributed in large bookstores as well as in indies and online. In Novemeber 2013, it was a regional bestseller according the Edmonton Journal.
  • Meeting new people was wonderful but so was getting back in touch with old friends and long lost family and hearing how the book affected them. Sure, there was lots of “oh, it’s so morbid” but there were also touching tributes I will never forget as long as I have a mind that remembers anything.

Don’t mistake my list for a eulogy. There’s more ahead for Love Letters of the Angels of Death in its second year. More copies have been printed, more book clubs have been booked, and more good news will appear in due time. Thanks for your help and support. Yes, you did – simply reading to the end of this blog post is a show of support.

Morbid in the Mountains

April and Chris Demes’s guitar birdhouse in Hill Spring, Alberta as posted on canadiangardening.com

My May began with a literary festival in a world class city and ended with a book club in the village of Hill Spring, population not quite 200.

This book club was hosted by my friend and fellow writer April Demes.  Years ago, when we first met, April was an arty, precocious teenager and I was a newly married 21-year-old who knew EVERYTHING.  Now that we’re older, we have more in common: gardening, bird watching, CBC Radio, pretty blond children, and writing.

Despite their idyllic Rocky Mountain surroundings – a white house on the side of a green hill where a repurposed guitar is nailed to a tree as a birdhouse – April’s family hasn’t been luxuriating in a quiet simple life.  (Quiet simple life is a myth.  If we think we know someone living this way, it’s a sure sign we don’t know them very well at all.)  While still in his 30s, her husband was afflicted with cancer, right inside his skull. They nearly lost each other.  That my novel strikes any kind of chord with April is a great honour.

The Hill Spring book club was one of my favourites.  It was peopled with bright, interesting women of varied ages and backgrounds – some of whom may be distantly related to my well-connected husband.  They came prepared with questions and we had a great discussion about love and death and the writing process.  But it wasn’t because everyone unreservedly loved the book.

One of the ladies who enjoyed the book described her grownup daughter’s reaction to it.  They’d been reading aloud and the daughter stopped when the narrative got too “morbid.”  There is a fair bit of death and death paraphernalia in the novel.  It begins in the title and never really lets up.  It can be tough for some readers to see through it to the tenderness that is the real point of the book.  Sometimes, they dismiss it as “morbid.”

Strictly speaking the word “morbid” means sick, unhealthy.  I flinch when I hear this word used to describe my book.  Writing in frank, practical terms about loss is not something I consider unhealthy.  Not everything that’s uncomfortable – exercise, pelvic exams, insulin shots – is unhealthy.  Willfully ignoring the difficult and complicated process of dispatching our loved ones until we’re devastated by a crisis is what seems unhealthy to me.  As I wrote the book, “morbid” was not my aim – quite the contrary.

While I’m no longer surprised to hear “morbid” spoken at book clubs, I was surprised to hear which part of the book made the lady’s daughter squirm.  It was the chapter where the main female character is cutting up a grocery store chicken, making dinner.

I hate cooking more than most people.  I wrote about cutting chicken honestly, flaunting but not exaggerating my perceptions of it.  “Take that, cooking.  You’re gross.”  But even someone who abhors cooking as much as I do probably doesn’t find her own kitchen a morbid place.

Please enjoy this photo of a butchered chicken

Maybe death is the same.  Life on Earth means eating and it means dying.  Both are messy, inevitable, and natural.  It doesn’t matter how healthy or vibrant or “morbid” any of us is, we all have to eat and we all have to die.  It remains true even if we don’t want to know anything of the finer points of how either is done.

I don’t make money on book clubs but I did sell two books in Hill Spring.  One was to a lady who came to the meeting without finishing the book.  It was morbid, she said, but after hearing the rest of us talk about it she’d decided to give the book another chance and invest in her very own copy (personally defaced by me) instead of borrowing April’s.  She was willing to question her sense of what’s morbid and consider changing her mind.

It may have been the most gratifying book club comment ever.

Bon-Bons and Soap Operas and Other Stories

Stop asking me what I do all day.

I’ve been wanting to say that since 1996 when my sister arrived at my apartment during one of the fifteen-minute intervals when my ravenous newborn baby was asleep and found me standing in my living-room flipping through a board book about farm animals.  My reply to “what do you do all day” used to sound noble – the kind of thing that gets championed on Facebook by mothers in need of recognition and respect and, heck, some social justice.  When I was raising my little boys I would have been justified in replying with something like, “I spend all day making human beings from my own guts and mettle, you ignorant boors.”

Oedie, the blue lineolated parakeet. She’s nuts.

1996 was a long time ago.  It’s been ages since that original farm animal board book fell into the toilet and passed out of our lives.  But questions about what I do with my daylight hours remain.  In fact, I’m getting questioned about them more than ever.  My youngest son started full-day school last month.  From 8:25am to 3:40pm, no one has any business being in my house except me and my deranged parakeet.  When my last son left the building, so did my best “excuse” for being at home full-time.

Sometimes I admit my life is now all soap operas and bon-bons, all day long.

But when I’m not feeling sarcastic, I’ll go on and on about how when I’m not doing all the cleaning, errands, shopping, and emergency interventions my family of seven still needs during the day whether any of them are inside the house or not, I’m at home working on my writing career.

These days, enough people work from home that we should all understand it’s not a sham for lazy folks.  Working from home may not be slick and pretty but it’s real.  And it’s an especially common practice for people working as writers.  Still, claiming I’m working as a writer just triggers more questions.

“Working?  But you already wrote your book, didn’t you?  What’s left to do?  What do you actually do all day?”

As far as occupations go, writing is pretty flaky.  I get that.  There’s no tool belt, no lunch kit.  And sometimes working as a writer means looking out the window, driving around crying, or using all the hot water zoning out in the shower.  Yeah, it’s pretty flaky some days.  But in between all those black-box creative cognitive processes there is real work to do.  We write at our big projects but we also write smaller pieces, read and review other people’s books, scour listings for new places to send our work, and manage systems for tracking what’s been submitted to where and how long we should wait before we give up on getting a reply.

For new writers, publicity is vital to success.  It doesn’t come naturally for most of us and it takes a lot of time and energy.  In addition to doing spoken and written interviews (if we’re lucky), we maintain social media presences on three or four different platforms and most of us write blogs.  Sure, some people do this stuff for fun.  I happen to thinking mowing lawns is fun.  But that doesn’t mean people who get paid to mow lawns aren’t really working.

In many ways, writers bring the perception that our jobs are jokes upon ourselves by talking about our work in terms of a lot of goofy, mystical claptrap.  It might help us feel gifted and precious in our own minds but if we’re going to indulge in silly, fanciful claims that make our skills sound like dubious super-powers, other people aren’t going to relate to our work the same way they relate to their own jobs.  People don’t really believe in super-powers – and frankly, neither do writers.  So let’s stop it.

If we catch ourselves beginning sentences with “Only a writer would…” or “You know you’re a writer if…” we ought to know we’re being pretentious and throwing away our professional credibility.  We’re begging people to ask us what we do all day.  I know it may be fun to think we’re doing the opposite – getting people to take writing seriously by astounding them with the “specialness” of it.  But it doesn’t work.  Stop it.  Let’s get off the “Memes for Writers” Pinterest boards and Tumblr blogs and grind our way through some word processor software instead.  That’s what writers do all day.