Interviewing . . . Me!

What genre are your books?

A Spark of Heavenly FireAll of my novels have elements of intrigue, adventure, mystery, suspense, romance, history, and some have a touch of science fiction. A Spark of Heavenly Fire, for example, is the story of people who become extraordinary during a time of horror — a bioengineered disease is decimating the population of Colorado, and the entire state is quarantined. One character is obsessed with finding out who created the disease, one couple tries to escape, one woman does what she can to help the survivors. A thread of romance connects all the stories. All these different stories entwined into one makes it difficult to settle on a single genre, though many reviewers call it a thriller, and my publisher, Second Wind Publishing, sells it as mainstream.

What are your favorite genres?

I like to read novels that have it all — mystery, adventure, romance, a touch of strangeness, a bit of truth — but since I can’t find that sort of novel very often, I settle for just about anything. Non-fiction, genre fiction, literary fiction, whatever is at hand.

Do you think you gain sales for your books through blogging?

I know I’ve made a few sales because of blogging, but I don’t think blogs are a particularly good sales tool. I do think blogs are wonderful for connecting with readers once readers have discovered you, they can be a great source for support and suggestions, and they are a way of meeting people who like the same things you do. Mostly though, I just enjoy blogging.

Tell us about your book, Daughter Am I.

Daughter Am I is a young woman/old gangster coming-of-age novel.

When twenty-five-year-old Mary Stuart learns she inherited a farm from her recently murdered grandparents-grandparents her father claimed had died before she was born-she becomes obsessed with finding out who they were and why someone wanted them dead. Along the way she accumulates a crew of feisty octogenarians-former gangsters and friends of her grandfather. She meets and falls in love Tim Olson, whose grandfather shared a deadly secret with her great-grandfather. Now Mary and Tim need to stay one step ahead of the killer who is desperate to dig up that secret.

What similarities if any between your other books and Daughter Am I?

The unifying theme in all of my books is the perennial question: Who are we? More Deaths Than One suggests we are our memories. A Spark of Heavenly suggests we are the sum total of our experiences and choices. Daughter Am Isuggests we are our heritage.

Do you sell your books as an eBook?

My books are all available for sale as ebooks, and the first 30% of each is also available free on Smashwords. The books are also available in print for those who still prefer to own a physical copy of the books they read.

What do you think the most influential change in book publishing will come from?

25% of the total production of books printed by the major publishing companies are pulped, which is an incredible waste, so I think more books will be digitally printed as needed. It makes sense financially, especially if the cost of production goes down. Ultimately, e-books will become the preferred format for “disposable” books, such as bestsellers that readers will only read once.

If you could give one tip for aspiring authors, what would that be?

I’ll tell them that a book begins with a single word. Many novice writers get intimidated by the thought of writing an entire book, but all you ever need to write is one word. I know that’s not much of a goal, but in the end, it is the only goal. That’s how every book all through the ages got written — one word at a time. By stringing single words together, you get sentences, then paragraphs, pages, chapters, an entire book. After that, who knows, you might even reach the pinnacle and become a published author. All because you set your goal to write one word.

Where can folks learn more about your books and events?

I have a website — http://patbertram.com — where I post important information, including the first chapters of each of my books, but the best way to keep up with me, my books, and my events on a daily basis is here on this blog: https://ptbertram.wordpress.com

All my books are available both in print and in ebook format. You can get them online at Second Wind Publishing, Amazon, and Smashwords. Smashwords is great — the books are available in all ebook formats, including Kindle, and you can download the first 30% free.

What do you do to promote other authors?

I do author interviews and character interviews, and post excerpts on my blogs, and I don’t charge a penny! Of course, since the authors get what they pay for, I can’t guarantee they will sell books because of my efforts, but they will be promoted via Facebook and Twitter. If I you are an author and interested in being interviewed by me, click here to find the directions for my Author Questionnaire. Click here to find the directions for my Character Questionnaire. And click here to Let me post your excerpt!

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Making an Impact With Our Writing

In Practical Tips for Writing Popular Fiction, Robyn Carr writes, “It is important to know what type of book you are writing, what it is mostly. Different types of novels are meant to accomplish different things. Some are meant to scare, others to thrill or provide vicarious adventure, some should fill the reader with desire. The impact of the story is consistent with its genre. To write a superior novel, the novelist needs a course to follow, a map to lead the way. You must know where you are headed, and what you are doing, and why this works.”

The impact I’ve always hoped for with my novels is shock that such things happen, perhaps fear that they such things could happen to any of us, and a dash of cogitation or at least a soupcon of second thoughts about how one views the current state of affairs. The irony, of course, is that we seldom can change anyone else’s views, so those who are aware of the truth will not be shocked because it’s nothing they haven’t heard before, and those who are not aware of the truth will not be shocked because they will assume the books are entirely fictitious.

Still, I add cupfuls of history to the cauldron when I am stirring up a story, in hopes that some people will see a bit more of the truth, yet I’m not sure what, if anything, that will accomplish. If we truly are living in a controlled society, there isn’t much we can do whether we know the truth or remain blissfully naive.

In case you aren’t familiar with my novels they all fall under the heading of “conspiracy fiction.” I wrote what I knew (from studying secret histories, not from first hand experience), partly to create the impact as stated above, and partly because it would have been a shame to let all that research go to waste.

So, what are you trying to accomplish with your novel? What is the impact you are hoping to make?

Searching for a Genre

I had a book I wanted to write, so I wrote it, following the dictates of the story without regard to the conventions of genre. Now that book — Light Bringer — is close to publication, and I have a problem. How do I sell it?

I received several rejection letters from publishers and editors over the years saying they liked Light Bringer, that the story was unique and well-written but they’d have to pass because they didn’t know how to sell it. My reaction each time was, “What????” I mean, it’s a book — you put it on the shelf in a bookstore and wait for people to buy it, right? Not quite.

Genre is how we classify books, but more than that, it’s about reader expectations. For example, a thriller is a wild ride with a hero and a villain in mortal combat. Readers expect the story to be exciting, the conflict to involve high stakes, the suspense to be cutting. Generally, the story is told from both points of view — the hero and the villain. Light Bringer is suspenseful, does involve high stakes —  the fate of the Earth — and it does have a villain and a hero, but (here is the crux of the matter) which character is the hero, and which is the villain? Besides, as those publishers and editors told me, the book has too many science fiction elements to be sold as a thriller. They also said it doesn’t have enough science fiction elements to be sold as science fiction. Since they didn’t know how to classify the book, they didn’t know how to sell it.

Now that Light Bringer is about to be released by Second Wind Publishing, I need to figure out who will be most interested in reading the book. Readers are quick to penalize writers for failing to live up to genre conventions, and Light Bringer has no clear genre. It’s too contemporary for science fiction, too outrageous for mainstream, too straightforward for a literary novel, too philosophical for action/adventure, too mythic for an historical, too mundane for fantasy, too scientific for magical realism, too western for urban fantasy, too . . . well, you get the point.

In truth, Light Bringer is  more “myth fiction” than science fiction. Instead of basing the story on science (though there is much that is scientific in the book), I based it on myths: ancient myths, modern conspiracy myths, UFO myths, flood myths, historical myths, pyramid myths. The story is the culmination of a lifetime of research, and in following the research wherever it led, I ended up the premise of Light Bringer. Perhaps I discovered some long-hidden truth. Perhaps I created a separate truth. Perhaps I conjured a fantasy.

Whatever it is, Light Bringer deserves a chance. Suzanne Francis, author of The Heart of Hythea called it brilliant. Malcolm Campbell, author of The Sun Singer said “Light Bringer is TYPICAL BERTRAM: plots within plots, multiple characters with multiple agendas, fast moving, more than enough mystery and intrigue for everyone, satisfying conclusion. Great book.”

So now comes the hard part — finding readers.

If you’re interested in taking a peek at Light Bringer, you can find the beginning of the story here.

Joe R. Lansdale’s Act of Kindness

The generosity of some writers never fails to amaze me. Yesterday I posted a bloggery called “Is Genre Writing an Endangered Species?” I quoted Andrew Vachss’s words from the foreward of the 1995 edition of Joe R. Lansdale’s novel, Act of Love, and today I found the following comment on my blog. I’m presuming it’s partly due to the wonders of Google Alerts, but it’s mostly due to Joe R. Lansdale. An act of kindness. Or an act of promotion. Either way, it impressed me. Joe Lansdale wrote:

Interesting to see Andrew’s kind words again. I have no idea who invented the serial killer novel, but my book has been cited by many as being the beginning of the type of novels that have become such a mainstay. I will also agree that it isn’t a great book. I was young when I wrote it, and I hope you’ll be kind enough to try some of the others, THE BOTTOMS, MUCHO MOJO, LEATHER MAIDEN, etc. But the bottom line is I think it blended a lot of things that are now thought of as the serial killer novel’s back bone. Actually, when I finished that book, I moved on. I’ve written about serial killers since, but never in that way, and never in any way as the heroes of a piece. Genre writing and mainstream writing are welding together, and sometimes in good and interesting ways. But the old fashioned genre writing is disappearing. Maybe it should. All things mutate. LONESOME DOVE was a Western, and a great one. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is bestselling genre, and so on. It’s there. It won’t die, but it will mutate. As for ACT OF LOVE, I think there may be a thirty year anniversary volume, 2011, and then I retire it. The reason it doesn’t have the impact it had then is now so many people have done what I did, and better than when I did it. But it’s also dated, and probably, at this juncture, my worst novel. But man, I’m glad I wrote it. I’ve been amazed over the years at how many writers have told me it influenced them. Surprising. I was just trying to learn how to write a novel and have a good time at it and maybe discuss a few social issues, if in a superficial way. Anyway, Thanks for the space. Joe Lansdale

Thank you for commenting, Joe. I will definitely check out your other books.

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Blog Exchange

Aaron Paul Lazar, the author of LeGarde Mysteries and Moore Mysteries, is blogging at one of my other blogs — Book Marketing Floozy. (I split the promotion aspect of writing off of Bertram’s Blog and set it up on a separate blog with an index so the articles will always be easily accessible.) Aaron’s  blog post is Writing Columns and Branding. Stop by and say hi. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.

I will be blogging at Murder by 4 today, talking about becoming my own genre. The article was written half-tongue-in-cheek, half seriously, but in the end, one cannot be their own genre. Where on a bookstore shelf would the book be placed? Of course, mine will only be available online for a while, so the bookstore placement is not an issue. I do wonder, though, if people who expect A Spark of Heavenly Fire to be a mystery will be disappointed. The mystery is only a small part of the story, though it is a thread that runs through it.

Either way, publication date is drawing closer. I should get another proof copy in about a week, and if there are no mistakes (keeping my fingers crossed even though it does make typing a bit rough),  it will be available on Amazon a couple of days after that. (It is available for pre-order from Second Wind Publishing.) And then I will be a published author. I wonder if I will feel any different? Well, you will be the first to know.

(And don’t forget to enter my contest so you can win the first autographed copy of More Deaths Than One.)

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Becoming My Own Genre

Libraries and bookstores used to be set up with a mystery section, a romance section, a science fiction section, and then all the rest of the novels. That’s what mine are — “one of all the rest”. Though that isn’t a genre. Drats.

When did we become so concerned with genre? When independent publishing houses were bought out by the conglomerates? It makes sense — because of my efforts at trying to promote my still-soon-to-be released novels (“soon” is sometime in January now), I’m becoming aware of how difficult it is to get people to notice a “one of all the rest” novel. Most people seem to stick with a reading a certain type of book, and they have certain expectations. Romance readers expect the romantic couple in a romance novel to have romantic conflicts, romantic interludes, and romantic delays until the final romantic finish. If any of their expectations are not met, they will hate the book even if it is spectacular.

I understand this; it happens to me with movies. If a certain movie is advertised as a comedy (Working Girl, for example) and it isn’t comedic all the way through, I hate it because my expectations have not been met. Later, if I watch that same movie without any preconceived notions, I might like it, seeing it (again, like Working Girl) as a drama with comedic moments. But how many people reread a book they hate?

A friend (James R. from Gather) told me: “Transcend genre, change the rules and the world is your oyster. Lamentably, only a few writers are able to pull that off, but hey, nobody said this writing, promoting, and editing stuff was easy, right?” So I need to build my own audience and then it won’t matter that I have no genre because I will be my own genre. Sounds good.

Now if I can only figure out how to do it.

Join the Suspense/Thriller Writers Group on Facebook

I accidentally became administrator of the Suspense/Thriller Writers Group on Facebook (just goes to show you need to be careful what links you click!), but now that I am in charge of the group, I intend to make it a resource for all writers. If you don’t think you write suspense, think again. Whatever genre you write, you still write suspense. Suspense at its most basic is making readers worry about what is going to happen to your characters. If they don’t worry, they have no reason to read. Besides, all genres make use of the same basic story elements: plot, characterization, scenes, description.

So I am extending an invitation to all writers, published or unpublished, neophyte or master, to join the group. If you’re like most people who join Facebook to make connections, you don’t have any idea how to go about it, so this group will help you get to know people, and it might teach you something — or give you a chance to tell others what you know.

Here’s where you find the group:
Suspense/Thriller Writers 
Here’s where you find my profile (add me as a friend):
Pat Bertram
Here are some of our discussions:
Voice
Branding
Backstory
Characterization
How Real Life Experiences Influence Fiction
Using Facebook for Promotion
Gifts From the Muses
Layering, The Art of Building an Onion From the Inside Out
Titles: What Makes a Good One
What is a Storyteller’s Obligation to History?
How Do We Make Our Writing the Best We Can?
How Do You Promote Your Book When You’re Shy?
What Makes a Story or Scene Suspenseful?
Fan Fiction: Parody or Tribute?

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Writing Discussion: Playing Fair With Your Readers

A novel is a writer’s contract with readers. The author promises to keep readers interested, to not waste their time, to play fair. The reader promises nothing, except perhaps to read the book if the writer fulfills the contract.

To a great extent, genre is about fulfilling the contract of reader expectations. In a romance novel, the story conflict revolves around the romantic relationship between two people and is characterized by romantic tension, desire, and often an ending that unites the couple. In mystery, the story conflict revolves around a crime and is characterized by clues leading to answers, increased tension, and often danger as the solution nears. If a story strays too far from the reader’s expectations, the reader will feel as if the author is reneging on the contract and might not finish reading the book. Even worse, they might not buy the author’s next one. That isn’t to say a writer can’t follow unexpected storylines, but somehow that difference must be conveyed to readers so they know the author is playing fair.

Suspense is considered a genre, yet suspense should be part of every novel, part of the contract with the reader. If readers are not at least bit curious about the outcome, if the story or the ending is obvious, readers have no reason to read. On the other hand, if the author withholds vital information to release at the end, it creates suspicion, not suspense, and the reader feels cheated.

So, let’s discuss playing fair with the reader. How do you create suspense in your genre? How do you gradually release the needed information, so that at the end, your reader feels surprise mingled with “Of course!” What is your contract with your contract with your readers, and how are you going about fulfilling it? How do you keep from cheating your readers? And for the reader in all of us, have you ever read books that made you angry because the authors did not fulfill their contract?

My online writing group No Whine, Just Champagne will exchange ideas about playing fair with readers during our live discussion on Thursday, November 6 at 9:00pm ET. Hope to see you there!

Writing Discussion with Cliff Burns — Part II

When I asked Cliff Burns, author of So Dark the Night, if he’d like to guest host my blog, he responded that he’d rather have a discussion. I was thrilled. I enjoy talking about writing, but even more than that, I love learning how other writers approach the craft. This is the second part of our discussion.

BERTRAM: How do you see the “indie world.” Is there hope for independent authors? By that I mean, is there a chance for independent authors ever to make a living at writing?

BURNS: The technologies are still evolving. Obviously, the two major concerns for indie writers is a) preserving and protecting copyright so someone doesn’t rip off your ideas without credit and/or compensation and b) getting paid for your efforts. 

BURNS: Right now, I have two full-length novels on my site and a good number of short stories — all available for free download and reading. There’s a “Donation” button for those who wish to voluntarily leave a small stipend but admittedly few people have taken me up on the offer. But money has never really been the object to me — it’s more presenting my work without editorial interference. Soon I’ll be moving into the world of podcasting and POD printing and hopefully that will spread the word . . . and earn a bit more money. We’ll see.

BERTRAM: Is the book publishing business as we know it coming to an end? How will that effect the “indie world”?

BURNS: The era of corporate book publishing is coming to an end. Media giants swallowed up various publishers in the 1990’s, hoping to milk them for as much profit as they could. Unfortunately, business models don’t work that well with publishing; book-lovers are notoriously eccentric and eclectic in their tastes and it’s hard to predict or graph or pie chart a bestseller. J.K. Rowling came out of nowhere. Profits are not nearly as high, stable or predictable enough in publishing, which is why I think many of the Big Boys will be dumping their publishing arms in the next 3-5 years. And, as I’ve written, this is the best thing that could happen for readers and writers. Smaller, more intimate and committed publishers will supplant the media giants and better books will be released as a result. Lower advances but maybe larger royalties (though writers will have to stay on their toes and make sure the people keeping the books are honest with actual sales figures) . . .

BERTRAM: Did you happen to see the New York Magazine article about the book business not living happily ever after?

BURNS: The New York Magazine article was brilliant, I printed it to have around. Confirms my view that the corporates are on the verge of dumping publishing from their portfolio . . . and also my opinion that most editors and agents are idiots. Some of the money they throw around for the worst sort of crap infuriates me. And meanwhile, their midlist authors (the most interesting of the lot) get no promo, no notice . . . and so they’re dumped from the roster for under-achieving (a classic case of a self-fulfilling prophecy).

BERTRAM: I wonder if the insistence the major publishers have in slotting all novels into niches was one of the things that’s leading to their downfall. It used to be that most books did not fall into the genre category except for, obviously, the different genres. There used to be the genres, which were just a step up from pulp fiction, and at the other end of the spectrum was literary fiction. I liked the books that fell in between — books with readable styles that could not easily be categorized. What I like to read or write cannot be considered literature, but I do prefer fiction that isn’t quite as trivial as that which is on the market today.

BURNS: I’m with you, I like fiction that crosses all sorts of boundaries and defies easy categorization. But, unfortunately, (back to the corporate model), editors and agents like fiction that can be easily slotted. Someone who writes “in the tradition of . . .”. In other words, derivative stuff. Yet another Dan Brown or Stephen King knock-off. Is it the chicken or the egg? Do we blame readers for being undemanding, reading the same old crap over and over again or do we point the finger at editors and agents for not challenging readers? Or both? The corporate model of publishing does trivialize and does not encourage innovation of any kind.

BERTRAM: I guess what I’m really wondering is if people are still reading. I wonder if there are far more writers than readers, thanks to the self-publishing industry. Two of my novels are being released by Second Wind Publishing, a new independent doesn’t yet distribute to bookstores, but I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. With independent bookstores disappearing all over the world, it only matters what is available on-line. People keep pointing out to me that less than fifteen percent of books are sold on-line, but if the vast majority of books that are sold off-line are the grocery-store books by best-selling authors, does it matter?

BURNS: My colleague Alexandra Kitty (she runs an alt.news site) insists that people are reading as much, if not more than ever, they’re just doing so on-line (and free!), rather than shelling out money for books. The free culture of the internet creates a mindset of “why should I pay for something when I can get it for nothing on-line?”. And that pertains to newspapers, music piracy and, increasingly, publishing. I used to be on the local library board and I recall figures that indicated people were checking out more books, our numbers went up year by year. Could the expense of buying books have something to do with that?  Hardcovers are getting close to that fifty buck threshold and even paperbacks are pricey items (especially up here in Canada).

BERTRAM: It seems to me that this is one of the best times to try to peddle a book because of all the online resources, such as blogging and discussion forums. It also seems as if this is one of the worst times because of the hundreds of thousands of writers looking for readers. I’m hoping that someone like me who is willing to do the work to promote can reap the rewards.

CLIFF: Yes, everyone can claim to be a writer these days and the new technologies allow people to publish their crap, regardless of the quality of their work. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff? I chose to publish on-line, I chose the “indie” life because I detest the notion of anyone having control or input re: my writing. Some folks who don’t like me would say I’m doing it my way because I’m not good enough for traditional publishing. I say the quality of the work wins out in the end and I’m willing to let readers decide if my work is worth reading. But the surfeit of bad writing on-line drags down the professional status and quality of craftsmanship of those of us who struggle mightily to compose good work. I implore potential readers to use their critical thinking skills and don’t lump us all together.

Writing Discussion with Cliff Burns — Part I

Writing Discussion with Cliff Burns — Part III

Why Should I Read Your Novel? Why Should You Read Mine?

Why should I read your novel? Why should anyone? Only you know the answer to that, and you tell us by the story you choose to tell, the characters you choose to create, the themes you choose to develop.

We read not so much to escape our lives but to add meaning, understanding, and depth to our days. If we find nothing but the same old stories told in the same old ways, we come away from the experience intellectually and emotionally unsatisfied. If the characters don’t change in a fundamental way, if they don’t struggle with an idea bigger than they are, we don’t change either.

Too often when I finish reading a book, I wonder why I bothered. The story is stale, the characters undeveloped, the stakes trivial, the theme banal. This is particularly true of books written by prolific authors. After three or four books, they plagiarize themselves, using the same basic characters and plots they did before. Perhaps their first book was fresh, with something new to say, but that something becomes stale with each succeeding book.

Not being a published writer myself, I don’t know how to keep that from happening, especially in today’s book market where an author is expected to churn out a clone every year. And new writers are being steered into that same pattern. We’re told to write in the genre we read because obviously we like the genre and because we are familiar with its conventions. But perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps we should write in a genre we don’t read so we don’t keep perpetuating clichés. We might unwittingly rehash old stories in the unfamiliar genre, but there is greater chance of saying something new.

My current work-in-progress is developing into an allegorical apocalyptic novel, which is bizarre because I don’t read that particular type of book; I don’t even know if that is a type. What isn’t bizarre, though, is all I am learning by writing in an unfamiliar genre. I may very well be writing a clichéd story — I have no way of knowing — but at least I am coming to it from my own unique viewpoint, not the distilled vision of all the authors who have gone before. And I am learning more about writing from this novel than any of my previous ones because I have to pull what comes next out of the creative ether, not from my memory of the stories I have previously read.

Without a mystery at its core as in my previous works, I have to search for other ways of adding tension to the story such as the inner conflicts that beset my hero. How much freedom is he willing to give up for security? How much security is he willing to give up for security? How much of freedom and security are illusory? And I am becoming cognizant of theme, symbols, and other mythic elements as ways of unifying disparate parts of the story.

So why should you read my book when it’s completed? Because, if I do it right, it will be an entertaining way for you come to terms with one of the major dilemmas facing us today, and it will take you into the life of a character whose conflicts and choices will help make sense of your own life.

At least, that’s the way story is supposed to work.