Books by Melissa Bowersock

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Artist's Process

Recently at my “day job,” I was fortunate enough to spend some time with a documentary filmmaker who was researching for a new film project. Like most of us, I am somewhat in awe of the film industry, probably because they are able to tell their stories in the most impressive, emotionally-charged way. A quiet, thoughtful book seems a pale second to all the CGI-created fantasy that flashes across the big screen. Granted, a book can have so much more in the way of plot―more complexity, more nuance―and can round out the characters with back story much better than a 90-minute movie can. They really do seem like two very different things, and yet … they both tell stories.

Wondering about this balance of similarities vs. differences, I asked her about her process. Did she story-board her ideas? Did she do an outline? Did she do most of her own filming?

Her answers surprised me. She filmed some on her own but if, funding permitting, she could hire a cinematographer, that person would do a good share of the filming as well. She talked about the importance of having someone else filming, seeing the subject through another’s eyes, having another person to bounce ideas off of. I realized the cinematographer for her would be much like an editor is for a writer: fresh eyes to see if the story flowed, if the characters played true, if the plot unfolded in a believable, unforced way. Authors, of course, are very isolated and insular story-tellers; having someone else look at our work is a good way to test if we are getting as much information out of our heads and onto the paper as we need to communicate the story. (I actually think that’s one of the hardest things about writing: knowing how much of the story is on paper and how much is still in my head, how much I know about my characters and how much my reader may or may not gather from the writing.) So this was definitely an area where, although the medium was different, the process was very similar.

The filmmaker said she did not story-board. She said she knew some filmmakers who scripted their entire film before starting, but she found that if she did that, she had a tendency to lock herself into the details and lost the openness that allowed the living, organic quality to infuse the work. If she set herself on a schedule, she found she was more worried about whether or not the sun was shining that day, whether the light was right for the filming she had planned. I could definitely relate to that. As I’ve written before about the dynamism of writing, I use a loose process that allows the story to grow and evolve, sometimes to my chagrin! I will set down a few descriptors of my characters (age, physical build, personality traits, main emotional drivers), then jot down maybe five bullet points that are the main development ideas and/or plot turns. I tweak those things a bit as I go just so I have a very brief outline of where I’ve been and where I’m going, but beyond that, I just open the gates and see where the story wants to go. 

I’ve been told I’m very undisciplined (which works for me), so it was nice to hear that this filmmaker did something very similar. Obviously there are a zillion ways to go about this, probably as many ways as there are story-tellers.

What’s your process?

(And now the lead character in my latest is dragging me back by the throat. Gotta write!)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Selling by Not Selling

We just had our 4th annual Tucson Festival of Books here in Southern Arizona. From its infancy, this festival has been massive; the very first year we ranked sixth in attendance (50,000) in book festivals across the country. By last year we had jumped to fourth (100,000 people), and this year we will probably go higher. But what really intrigues me is the fact that for numbers of authors in attendance, we are first. Over 400 authors show up at this two-day event, every single one of them hawking their wares.
So how the heck do you make your book stand out from all of this entrepreneurial noise?

I’ve appeared at every book festival from the start. The first year, I sold one book. The second and third years were better, but not by much. This year I almost ran out of books.

How did that happen?

Before I go into that, I have to say that so much of this is pure luck. With over 100,000 people browsing several acres of book vendors, both independent and large book-sellers, having the right person walk by my booth, see my book, and choose it to take home with them is just so much serendipity. You just can’t manufacture that, no matter what you do.

But you can improve your chances.

So back to the beginning. That first year, I sat in my chair, laid my books out on the table and waited. And waited. People walked by, glanced over, walked on. I chatted with my tent-mate. A few people stopped by to look. Time went by very S-L-O-W-L-Y. I felt like a leaf caught in an eddy behind rocks in a stream; I just marked time in my separate little area while the stream flowed by in front of me. When I finally sold that one book, I was pretty ecstatic, at least for a few minutes. It was the high point of the day.

I realized something had to change. I didn’t want any more excruciatingly boring experiences like that ever again.

For the second year I made bookmarks to give away. When people at the festival were being bombarded by efforts to SELL, SELL, SELL to them, I wanted to engage them easily, informally, on a friendly, non-aggressive basis. Most people were happy for the freebie; some declined, and that was fine. But at least the offer of the free bookmark slowed people down a bit, gave them a reason to stop and chat. I had succeeded in slowing that stream that was rushing past and now some of the water was swirling into my little eddy behind the rocks.

I also found that standing, not sitting, increased my odds of engaging with people. I was open, receptive, welcoming, on the same eye level with them―equals. People seemed much more willing to make eye contact, to follow up my “Good morning!” with smiles and comments of their own, rather than seeming to stand like errant children at the feet of the Published Author.

While all this was going on, I couldn’t help but notice my table-mate. Another author had set up next to me, selling his book on how to handle divorce. He also stood, as I did, but whenever someone stopped for more than a micro-second, he was out from behind the table, almost button-holing them, telling them all about his book, sometimes very obviously way more than they wanted to know. I continued my low-key, friendly interaction and sold my first book of the day. Some minutes later the divorce-author made a comment about no sales and I told him I’d sold a book. “What?” he almost shouted. “You sold a book?” He seemed almost insulted. I’m not sure if he thought my fiction ranked a low second to his non-fiction or if he thought my methods were too unfocused to produce results, but he was obviously not happy.

The third year was very similar; I handed out bookmarks, I stood and chatted at eye level with folks. This time my table-mate was a young woman who had written a book about her own life experience. She made a pile of about 6 books on the table in front of her, sat with her arms crossed and almost refused to look up. While I was engaged in almost continuous conversation with the ebb and flow of people, selling a book here or there, she had almost no one even look her way. Being a true introvert who has learned to be an extrovert, I could identify with her obvious discomfort but I sincerely hoped she would take a look around and learn from the experience.

Since that third year, I have been doing a lot of reading about book promotion. There are a ton of author forums online and some great blogs out there. One author who is writing particularly illuminating and pertinent information about promotion is Kristen Lamb. I’ve found that she is able to distill down and encapsulate very powerful information in just a few paragraphs. She kept mentioning her book, We Are Not Alone, and I finally realized I needed more than just the weekly blog and downloaded the Kindle version. It’s an absolute treasure trove of information. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but I’ve gained enough insight to tweak my process and take it to the next level. What was particularly gratifying was finding out that my free bookmark idea was a very good one. Kristen explains about the differences between putting up the neon sign that says, “Look at me! Buy my book!” (a la my divorce-author friend) and the non-threatening, non-expectant offer of something to the customer without a catch. I knew my bookmarks were working well, I just didn’t understand why.

Something else Kristen talks about are the social networks, tweeting or Facebooking in a quick but interesting way, again offering something (information, entertainment, education) to the customer without the flashing, “Buy my book!” sign. At the three previous book festivals, I had displayed all my novels (numbering 9 now), with posters that included reviews and pricing information. It was a lot of books and a lot of information, too much to read by most people walking by. For the 2012 festival, I decided to concentrate on just one book, my latest, the non-fiction biography of my aunt who was an Army nurse and Japanese prisoner-of-war in the Philippines during World War II. I had my novels there but did not display them on the table. I figured if anyone wanted to talk fiction or remembered me from previous festivals and wanted to look, I could whip them out, but I kept my display simple with the one book and a poster that said, in very large letters, “Could YOU survive a prisoner-of-war camp?” I figured the question was brief enough to be read and understood quickly, yet provocative enough to make people think and perhaps want to know more. Turns out I was right. I had several people stop and say just that, “That’s quite a question, isn’t it?” and then proceed to tell me stories of loved ones or friends who had endured similar experiences. The question, along with the free bookmarks, was a great way to engage people, to start the discussion, to share and exchange. And, it turns out, to sell books.

Who knew? The best way to sell books is by not selling. Interestingly enough, I had been very excited about the 2012 festival, about handing out bookmarks and meeting and talking to people. When I thought about it beforehand, I wondered why I was so excited when the previous festivals had been less than lucrative. Financially the festival had been almost worthless, but I was looking forward to it with energy and excitement. Instead of a dreaded selling event, it had become the opportunity for me to connect with people, to chat with my fellow readers, to appreciate good books regardless of who wrote them. By not concentrating on selling, I was taking the expectations off of myself and therefore off of the people who stopped by. By freeing myself and them from the burden of that heavy neon “Buy!” sign, we were now able to simply enjoy the conversation and the beautiful day. The fact that I was selling a book every 15-20 minutes was gloriously irrelevant and serendipitously amazing.

And the best part of it all? I had a fabulous, fun time!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Tucson Festival of Books

BOOK FAIR – I am guessing that most of the time those two words don’t conjure up much beyond a dusty collection of mismatched tables in a church parking lot, the tables crowded with cardboard boxes, the boxes full of old, used and worn-out books that just recently were hauled out of garages and storage sheds for their weekend in the sun.

No so in Tucson.

The Tucson Festival of Books debuted in the spring of 2009 on the campus of The University of Arizona. The central grass-covered Mall of the university is three blocks long and at the inaugural event every square inch was devoted to the love of books. The Festival featured 450 authors and presenters and had an estimated 50,000 visitors. It was noted at the time that the TFOB had slotted itself into the top ten US book festivals in its very first appearance. Ranked sixth in attendance behind such mega festivals as Miami, the National Book Festival, Chicago and L.A., the TFOB had actually more authors than any of them. Tucson, it seems, is a hotbed of literary talent.

In its second year, the TFOB attracted an estimated 70-80,000 people and last year it brought in over 100,000, leapfrogging Chicago and Decatur to rank 4th just behind the attendance of the L.A. Times Book Festival. Obviously, this is no parking lot rummage sale.

For whatever reason, we have an inordinate number of authors in the Tucson area. Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty), J. A. Jance (Left for Dead), Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) and others appear at the festival regularly. Sue Grafton (A is for Alibi) and Michael Blake (Dances with Wolves) have made appearances, along with many other mid- (and lower-) list authors from the southwest. The Festival has non-stop presentations by authors and editors, workshops, panel discussions and book signings. For two days, the U of A is almost giddy with book lovers. It seems that half the town comes out to enjoy the (usually) warm, clear days and revel in the joys of reading. I am always particularly gratified to see so many kids. The Festival provides probably 100 different ways of engaging the kids and encouraging them to read, and of course we all know that reading is the gateway to knowledge. We need more of that!

I have been at the book festival every year, claiming a spot in one of the Author’s Pavilion tents reserved for indie and unsponsored authors. I always sell a few books, but surprisingly, that is not the primary goal. What I really enjoy is meeting the people. I hand out free bookmarks and am always willing to chat with the visitors, whether it’s about one of my books, one of their books or their great uncle Fred or whatever else happens to come up. I’ve talked with soon-to-be-published authors, wannabe writers and a few who have been around forever. It’s just a blast talking with people who love books, who love stories, and who appreciate the written word. I’ve discovered that we are part of an extremely large and very inclusive club!

One of those authors who has been around for a long time is Gary K. Yamamoto, author of Creative Dream Analysis: A Guide to Self-Development. I bought this book probably 25 years ago and have recommended it to many but never loaned it out because I don’t want to lose track of it. I may not pick it up for long stretches, but inevitably I drag it out again and use it to bug out what a particularly weird or interesting dream might have to say to me. It’s one of those resource books I always keep handy.

So when I’d registered for the 2010 Festival and gotten my time slot in the Author’s Pavilion, imagine my surprise to see Gary Yamamoto was going to be my tent-mate! Of course I had to pull out my Creative Dream book and pack it for the day with all my own books, and Gary was very pleased to sign it and talk with me about it. He’s a very nice, down-to-earth guy, and it was great chatting with him. Who says published authors can’t be fans, as well?

I will be there this year (March 10) to introduce my latest book, Marcia Gates: Angel of Bataan. I will be showing the book trailer on my laptop. I'd love to see many of you stop by and chat.

So if you’re ever in Tucson in early to mid-March (March 10-11 this year), come on down and join the fun. It’s a tremendous event and it’s absolutely thrilling to see so many people out in support of books--those small, ordinary, everyday books that can open up a young mind to the entire universe. How cool is that?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Writing Romance

Romance novels seem to be most people’s guilty pleasure. I used to disdain them until I got hooked on them. Then I started writing them. Granted, a romance novel would probably never be construed as the great American novel, but they definitely have their place. They can be sweeping, stirring, historical, fantasy-fulfilling and fun.   

I do not like to write the same story twice. No sequels or series for me. With some authors, you know pretty much exactly what you’re going to get when you pick up their new book. Not true for me (at least, I hope not!). I don’t consciously work to vary my style with each book, but it just seems to work out that each book, each set of characters, demands a slightly different style, and I celebrate that. For that reason, my five romance novels are all very different from each other.  

My first romance (and my first book) is The Rare Breed, a historical (western) romance. It was published as Love’s Savage Destiny by Dorchester Publishing in New York in 1984 and underwent several subsequent printings. When they had had their runs with it and allowed the rights to revert back to me, I hunted around for a way to publish it myself just to keep it in print and found iUniverse. These days there are more direct ways of self-publishing, but at the time, this was one of the few options. I did some minor revisions and used my original title, having never been very fond of the “Love’s Savage Whatever” titles.   

I like to think of my books as a thinking person’s romances. Although I have varying degrees of titillation in my books, the most important aspect of the story is the growth and evolution of the protagonist. In The Rare Breed, Catherine Lance is a beautiful young half-breed, raised in the white world, who leaves wealthy civilization behind to search the Kansas plains for her Cheyenne father.  In this time of Western expansion and Indian wars, being a half-breed is dangerous; she is susceptible to denigration at the least, physical harm or even death at the worst. In order to carry out her quest, Catherine must be secretive and hide her true identity, all the while searching Leavenworth, Kansas, for information about her Cheyenne band. What jeopardizes that search is the amorous attention of two men, one a rough trapper, the other an educated lawyer. While trying to stay single-minded in her quest, Catherine finds herself getting sidetracked by the emotions evoked by the two men, at least until a sudden breakthrough gives her the access to her Cheyenne band that she had been seeking. 

It’s here that the book switches gears as Catherine, known as Gray Feather, attempts to sink back into the Cheyenne home and tradition from which she was torn at an early age. Complicating this process is the presence of the man to whom she was once betrothed―now married―yet eager to welcome her into his lodge as his second wife. Catherine struggles not only with her place in the unusual relationship but with her place in the culture as a whole. Her early years as an Indian made her assimilation into the white word impossible; now her years in the white world make it difficult for her to fit into her original home, as well. Like all strong women, it’s only with some deep soul-searching that she finally discovers the path her life must take, and the one man who can share that path with her. 

My second western romance, Superstition Gold, is decidedly different. Similar in process to the first, this book was originally published by Dorchester in 1987 under the title Love’s Savage Embrace. As before, once their interest waned, I republished the book with my original title. There the similarities end.  

Superstition Gold is written with a lighter hand and, while serious, has more humorous overtones to it. The protagonist, Leigh Banning, is a young widow who travels to the wilds of Arizona to find the deceased father she never knew, a prospector who lived among the Apache Indians. To that end, she is thrown into the disturbing and fascinating company of an Army major and his Indian scout. As the trio penetrates deep into the Superstition Mountains of Arizona, Leigh finds herself out of her depth, both physically and emotionally, in the harsh land and with the two rugged men. Her snobbish overconfidence leaves her completely unprepared for the primitive way of life and it is only after several gaffes and confrontations with her protectors that she finally begins to understand the alien culture and the strong, western men.  

Just as she begins to sort out her battered emotions, false murder charges linked to the storied gold of the Lost Dutchman Mine put her on the run. While Major Ryan attempts to clear her name, she and the Indian scout Walking Bear are captured by Apache raiders led by Leigh’s rival for the major’s affections. It is only by working with the Apaches to safeguard the mine and fully understanding her own true nature that Leigh comes to honor her father and the new love she bears. 

About this time, I switched gears completely. My next romance was the antithesis of the earlier books, a screaming satire of all romance novels.The Pits of Passion by Amber Flame skewers every cliché every written and takes all the most familiar elements of historical romance to the nth degree. It is bawdy, brazen, x-rated and completely over the top. If you’ve ever been embarrassed down to your toenails by Playboy or Penthouse magazine, do not buy this book! If you’ve ever been shocked by x-rated movies, do not buy this book! If you love Harlequin romance novels and their sacred, unchanging formulas, do not buy this book! But if you’re up for a slapstick, laugh-out-loud romp through the pirate and bodice-ripping world of romance, this might be for you. I actually never thought anyone would publish this, since it lampoons every aspect of a beloved genre, but New Concepts Publishing put it out as an e-book several years ago. Since then I have self-published it as a paperback. It’s a great change of pace, and like nothing else you’ve ever read. I promise you that. You can see a video book trailer for it here:

My next book, Remember Me, is again a completely different animal. This is a contemporary romance, more a deep character study than a sweeping action tale. When Elly Cole wakes up in a hospital with amnesia, she has no memory of how she was injured or of the huge, hateful man to whom she is married. During the painful process of stitching her life back together, she must battle not only terrifying nightmares, her husband’s certainty that she is a lying cheat and conflicting visions of her past, but her own doubts about her unborn child’s paternity and the future of her marriage. This is a subtle, delicate story of very human nature, of conflict and fear, doubt and conviction, strength of spirit and the power of love. It was published in 2004 by Draumr Publishing.  

My most recent romance, Lightning Strikes, is different yet again. This is another contemporary story yet almost diametrically opposed to Remember Me. In this slim volume, Jessie Evans is a freelance journalist doing a story on the Hopi Indians of Northern Arizona. When she encounters the half-Hopi architect Lucas Shay, sparks fly immediately, and not the good kind. Taking an instant dislike to each other, they can still not escape the fact that they are intensely attracted to each other, and soon their conflicted emotions start a fire neither can control. While their sexual attraction is too powerful and honest to be denied, their emotional coupling is fraught with doubts, misconceptions and suspicion. Both have to find their way through the labyrinth of their pride and fear to realize and grab hold of their complete and committed love. I self-published this book in 2009.

I suppose the point of all this is that romance, as a genre, is not a set or narrow field. It can be pretty much whatever the reader and writer want it to be. It can be hopeful, painful, inspiring, maddening, funny, heartbreaking, satiric and moving. The overarching commonality is simply the basic human need to connect and create relationships, to give and receive love in its most honest and satisfying form. And how following that thread to real love very often leads us to our own best, true selves.