Saturday, November 27, 2021

How I Write Reviews

 A reader recently wrote to compliment me on one of my books, and to ask my advice on how to write a review.  Here's what I suggested:

When I write reviews, I consider a couple of things. First, do the characters engage me? Are they funny, awkward, smart, etc. Do they seem like real people?  Reviewers often find that they believe Rochester finds clues because he does so in a believable way, doing doggy things like sniffing, barking and digging. Then they recognize their own dog's behavior in those actions. I did have a reviewer complain about one of the earlier books that Rochester mastered the weave poles in an agility course too easily.  Yet she didn't mind that he dug up clues to the crime!

That takes into account dialogue, too. Sometimes authors use too much dialogue as exposition. "Well, Rick, after Rochester dug around in my neighbor's yard and uncovered a human finger, I confronted him and asked where it came from. He told me to get off his yard and take my lousy dog with me."

That could be much better in scene, showing Rochester digging, Steve tugging on the leash trying to get him to stop, then Rochester backing off to show the finger, etc.

And speaking of scene, can you visualize the place? Are there details of the five senses used regularly? I'm not saying you would call out each of those, but you could write something like, "the author's use of details really helped me see the characters and the places."

Then there's pace. You often read things like "I couldn't put it down." That's kind of generic. But "at the end of almost every chapter, the author posed a question that I wanted to know the answer to, forcing me to keep turning the pages." "Oh, my god, Rochester," I said. "That's a human finger!" (Chapter end.)

Critics of mystery novels often indicate if they were able to figure out the criminal quickly, or if the author put in a bunch of red herrings that kept them guessing. 

I also often mention if I have read other books by the author or in the series. Readers want to know, if this is book six, do they need to read books 1-5 first? I feel that if you are reading for the mystery, you can read my books in any order. But if you want a real sense of the growth of the characters, then I suggest reading in order. A character like Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, however, don't change from book to book so there's no reason to read Agatha Christie in order.

I used to write book reviews for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, among other places, so I had to hone my skills, because often I only had 75 words for the review!

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Squeeze Pages and Newsletters

Here's a new term I learned this morning, courtesy of David Gaughran's newsletter. Gaughran is a marketing guru for the self-published; if you don't already read him, check him out online.

His "squeeze page" is a box on the right side of his home page, in which he offers a free copy of his book "Following" in exchange for signing up for his newsletter.

That's pretty much the definition of the term-- it's a page in which you offer something of value to the reader in exchange for signing up for your newsletter.

Here, Gaughran is offering a free copy of his e-book Following in exchange for your email address.

Your newsletter is your most valuable asset as a writer-- it's a way for you to get in direct contact with your readers. It's advertising on a shoestring-- if you have a small list (under 1,000), you can get a company like MailChimp or MailerLite to host you for free. Then all you have to do is periodically write some engaging content-- but remember, it can't always be about sales. Let your readers get to know you as a person.

Then you can begin to develop a personal relationship with your readers. Whether you send one out monthly or semi-annually, It's a way to remind your readers that you exist, to share your triumphs (new book, new contract, new story published) and turn your fans into superfans (another Gaughran book.)

I joined a massive 180-author promo in January. I wrote a new story on the theme “Winter Wonderland,” and we leveraged our joint promotional efforts to give away nearly 100,000 gay romance e-books to readers. By offering a free copy of an otherwise unavailable e-novella, Winter Term, I added nearly 5,000 dedicated readers of the genre to my mailing list, and the unsubscribe rate was fairly low – less than ten percent so far.

Right now, this story is unavailable. Soon I will make it a giveaway to join my newsletter. (Note to self: work on that!) I have three separate newsletters-- one for gay romance, one for gay mystery, and one for fans of my golden retriever mysteries. Eventually I will have a separate giveaway for each list.

The 5,000 new signups gave me a dedicated launch pad for my February 1 release, The Gentleman and the Spy. That audience is not the only reason why I sold 200 e-books during the first two weeks of release (I did some minor other promo, including a paid newsletter listing, a newsletter swap, and visits to two other authors’ Facebook groups.)

When you consider that according to Scribe Media, “Research suggests that the “average” self-published, digital-only book sells about 250 copies in its lifetime,” I’m doing pretty well so far. And I look at the “long tail” – sales over time.

My first self-published book, In Dog We Trust, came out in 2010, as the Kindle was gaining traction, and so far has sold a little over 21,000 copies on Amazon alone—add another roughly 10-15% for other sites like Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, Smashwords, and so on.

So I’d say that my gentlemen have gotten off to a good start, helped by my mailing list. I have been working, on and off, since December on my newsletter “onboarding” process—soliciting new readers, then welcoming them with a series of emails giving additional freebies and encouraging them to stay on the list, but that process is nowhere near finished—and now that I know the term “squeeze page” I’m going to keep that in mind as I polish the process.

Monday, January 04, 2021

 My favorite books of the year 2020

One good thing about this year-- lots of time to read! Here are my top mysteries, in the order I read them. Not always the BEST I read, but ones that were intriguing and well-written, with interesting settings. 

Best Mystery

Blue on Blue, Dal Maclean  Great MM police procedural

The Last Hunt, Deon  Meyer  Great police book in South Africa

Trace Elements, Donna  Leon  Love to be with Guido Brunetti again

Murder at the Mena House, Erica Ruth Neubauer  Clever Christie-like mystery set in 1026 Cairo

Bones in the River, Zoe Sharp   Great police mystery.

Next to Last Stand, Craig Johnson  Slow to start but ultimately satisfying

Quiche of Death, Mary Lee Ashford  Cute cozy with recipes in Iowa

Vera Kelly is Not a Mystery, Rosalie Knecht  Loved this lesbian mystery set in the 1960s

Left-Handed Booksellers, Garth Nix  Fun mashup of fantasy and mystery

The Sugared Game, KJ Charles  Loved this second pulp fiction story

The Sailor Who Washed Ashore #1 Frank W.  Butterfield  First in a series of very enjoyable gay mysteries set in 1947 Daytona   

 Best Non-Mystery    

The House in the Cerulean Sea TJ Klune  Fantasy that made me weep

Sharks in the Time of Saviors Kawai Strong Washburn  Excellent sense of place in Hawaii

The Confectioners Guild Claire Luana  Loved this YA fantasy mystery

Kings County David Goodwillie  Loved it. Like a Tom Wolfe set in Brooklyn

Slippery Creatures KJ Charles  Loved it. 1920s mystery with intriguing pair.

Two Rogues Make a Right Cat Sebastian  Lovely historical MM

The Calculating Stars Mary  Kowal  Excellent speculative fiction about alternative route to space

Cemetery Boys Aiden Thomas  Loved this YA with Latinx magic

Troubles in Paradise Elin Hildebrand  Loved this third in the series

The Sand Sea Michael  McClellan  Grand scope fantasy with historical twist

The Watermight Thief Jordan Rivet  Great worldbuilding and protagonist in this first in a series

Monday, March 30, 2020

Edward Albee and His Wolfhounds

Excerpts from Paws and Reflect

Here is another excerpt from this wonderful anthology, this one from award-winning playwright Edward Albee.

I BECAME INTERESTED in Irish Wolfhounds because a friend had one. He was a painter. He had invited me over to look at his canvases, and this dog came up and leaned against me. I sat down to look at a painting, and he sat down and looked with me. We moved out to his studio to look at another painting, and this big dog sat down next to me again.

We went to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee, and he stuck to my side. He had this big head, and wherever I sat, he put his head on my knee and looked up at me with his big, dark eyes. We became very good friends. He was the dog that introduced me to Irish Wolfhounds. They are the loveliest of creatures. I decided I had to have one. That was in 1969.

I’d always been a dog lover. Whenever I visit someone who owns a dog, pretty soon the animal of the house has drifted over to sit near me. People are always telling me, “This animal doesn’t like anybody—I don’t know why he’s so taken with you.” Animals and I just seem to get along.

I’ve had as many as three Irish Wolfhounds at a time. The Wolfhound breed is very special to me, but I like all dogs. At one time I had three Irish Wolfhounds, one Lhasa Apso, and one cat.

Irish Wolfhounds were originally bred to hunt wolves. We don’t have a lot of wolves in Montauk, so they’re not going after their natural prey. But their hunting nature is always with them. They are indefatigable. They can run forever.

Back when the Romans first came to Ireland, they took some of the early Irish Wolfhounds back to Rome with them and paraded them around. I wanted to parade mine around in New York. I got big leather collars for them. 

We would go to Central Park and walk to a huge hill. The dogs and I would stand at the top. The hill sloped down before us for about 300 yards. If they saw a squirrel at the bottom of the hill, they would race down it, knocking over people and bicyclists on their way. They just had to chase the squirrel. It was inconvenient for the people, but the dogs loved it.

I’ve gotten each dog from a different breeder. I make my choice on the personality of the puppy: Accessibility—a dog that’s not frightened of people. Alert. Sensitive. My Wolfhounds, in particular, have always been thoughtful, generous and intelligent—qualities that really mark the breed.

When I pick a dog, I want one that is both fully an animal, with animal instincts and one that relates to other animals, and one that is fond of being around people. I find that Wolfhounds satisfy both requirements.

Want to read more? Paws and Reflect is available from Amazon or other e-retailers.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Little Caesar

Another Excerpt from Paws and Reflect

CAESAR WAS DEAD. The little emperor who’d stolen all our hearts was gone after eighteen years, and we were left with silence and memories. He wasn’t my first dog, but he was the most memorable dog I’ve ever had the pleasure to call my friend.

His imperial name came from my little brother’s overactive imagination. But it fit Caesar’s regal personality, which was clear even in the squirming puppy that he was when he entered our lives.

I was fourteen, my sister and brother even younger, and we’d wanted nothing so much as we wanted a dog. A neighbor’s beautiful terrier, Sheba, was about to give birth. She had mated with a regal-looking, all-white Fox Terrier. My sister, brother, and I anxiously awaited the results of the match. 

When it happened, I remember my brother running home with the news that Sheba had produced a litter and that we were to choose one.

We trooped over to the house to take a look at the litter and make a choice. The squirming mass of puppy flesh was too indistinct for me to choose, and neither could my sister or brother. So Mom picked one of the puppies. We were to wait for him to be weaned and then could take him home. The waiting wouldn’t be easy, even if we could visit him each day.

A few days later, however, disaster struck—Sheba was killed by a car and the puppies had to be hand fed.

Mom picked him up, a shivering little squealing bundle who barely knew what was going on. He fit in the palm of her hand, tiny, vulnerable, and pitiful. I took one look at him and wondered how we’d keep him alive. But Mom knew more about puppies than I’d imagined. She promptly found a tiny bottle and fed him some kind of milk mixture whenever he wanted.

On the day he came home with us, my brother immediately named him Caesar. I looked at the tiny wriggling pink-and-white pup and laughed, thinking that such a big name would weigh down so small a dog. Watching him move and yawn, blink his eyes and fidget—the sight tugged at my heart and I knew that no matter what his name, I was bound to this little dog.

That was the beginning. The days turned into weeks, and he gained weight and strength and was soon standing on his own and demanding something more than milk. Next came the training—a gentle boot camp. 

Joe's website
Caesar was a quick learner and took his place among the family members in a short time. I remember staring at him and wondering how that little lump of flesh had become the handsome dog surveying his territory with an imperial air. He was like his father: shapely, sturdy, and smart. 

Unlike his father, Caesar’s white coat was marked with one black furry patch circling his right eye. But rather than appear foolish, Caesar managed to look dashing, black patch and all.

Small and quick, Caesar quickly became the neighborhood favorite. And he lapped it up. He loved the attention but also knew that he had responsibilities and took them seriously. He shook the windows with his barks and with his paws as he pounced on the storm door to frighten passersby. No one escaped his attention, especially not strange dogs, whether or not they had a human companion.

Enjoyed this excerpt? You can order Paws and Reflect from Amazon or other e-retailers.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Girls by Victor Banis

Another Excerpt from Paws and Reflect

I'm continuing my posts of excerpts from this great collection of essays about men and their relationships with their dogs with this bit from "The Girls" by Victor Banis.

Victor was a terrific guy, a gentleman and a pioneer of gay literature who wrote prolifically for the pulp paperback world beginning in the 1960s, under many pen names. This excerpt gives you an idea of how wonderful his prose is, and his attention to detail.

She was a year old when a boyfriend—mine, not hers—arrived one day carrying in his arms a peculiar-looking little animal that purported to be a German Shepherd with the ears of a jackrabbit. 

Her name, he informed me, was Prima, and she had been terribly abused in her previous home. I pointed out that I had neither the desire nor the room for a second pet, and reminded him that my landlord had not been happy about the first one, but he asked plaintively if I would just keep her for a day or so while he found a home for her. I made the mistake of saying yes.

In all fairness, he did warn me that she was not yet housebroken. By the next morning, however, Jennie had seen to that, and they were going outside together. That struck me as even more mysterious, since it was not the sort of oddity you would expect to have happen twice. Still, I had no reason to complain.

Since we lived in the city, I tried training the newcomer to a leash, thinking that Jennie’s instant understanding of that necessity was certainly not likely to repeat itself, as the toilet training had. But Prima was such a frightened little thing that, no sooner had you put any kind of collar around her neck than she fell to the floor in a quivering, peeing mass and could not be induced to regain her feet until the collar was removed and she had been reassured that no physical violence was intended.

It was Jenny once again who took charge. To my astonishment, by the next day she had taught Prima to heel at the snap of my fingers, and from then on I could walk down a busy sidewalk in, say, West Hollywood, with both girls safely and politely at perfect heel.

How had Jenny done that? What secret language had passed between them? I only knew that whatever I wanted her to do Jenny divined, and whatever Jenny did Prima did as well. So I could come out of the kitchen into the den, where the rug had just been shampooed, and walk around the bare-floor perimeter to cross the room, and Jenny would follow after me, and Prima after her, and not a paw upon the damp rug. I could entertain less–dog enthusiastic guests in the living room and, though the girls had the run of the house, they would sit politely in the doorway while I sipped cocktails with the guests. I have had two legged friends whose manners weren’t so good.

The story of Victor's life in the pulps
They could be parted from me only by trickery. If, of necessity, I left them home without me, they would sit at the upstairs window and cry in great mournful howls until I returned, to be greeted with wagging tails and scathing looks.

The girls shared my life for fifteen happy and loving years. About halfway through that span, we moved to a cabin in the mountains. They loved it: the great outdoors, exploring together, creeks to splash in, all sorts of scents to investigate. In the summer we took long treks in the woods; in the winter, they liked me to throw snowballs for them to catch. They got friendly with the squirrels, who lost their fear of the girls and would leap over Prima when she slept in the doorway to come inside and beg for a snack.

Victor Banis passed away but his work lives on.

You can buy Paws and Reflect from Amazon or other retailers.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Doomed for a Dog

Excerpts from Paws and Reflect

To celebrate the new cover for the classic essay collection Sharon Sakson and I published, Paws & Reflect, I'm publishing some excerpts from the essays. This one comes from Donald Hardy's very funny essay, "Puppy Whipped."

The last few weeks of my Cocker Spaniel Casey’s life, I took her for “walks” under the vet’s instructions not to let her walk.

The doctor on the case (who was fabulous) was upbeat but slightly evasive about the prognosis. Diagnosis, too, was slightly uncertain, but she did give Casey treatment: a steroid to encourage the marrow of her aging bones to crank out red blood cells; puppy Pepto to calm the stomach so she could take the steroid; antibiotics; and soft food, special stuff that looked, the doctor said, like paté. “She loves it,” she said. “She has been chowing down all day. Only feed her this. And no exercise. Out the door to pee, right back in, and rest.”

Permanently. She was supposed to do nothing but eat expensive pâté and sleep. It’s a dog’s life, indeed.” But Dr. Fab,” I said. “I live on a boat, about 200 yards worth of dock from the shore. We have to walk that far for her to get to where she can pee.”

“No, ” replied the doc.”That’s too far. You carry her.” Silence.

“Well, OK, ” I said. I let Casey do her business when I got her home, then carried her down the dock. This wasn’t too bad, as she only weighed thirty-five pounds, but I had a strong sense that it would get old fast. I eyed up the dock carts. I’d nearly killed myself the year before when carrying my other dog, Bear, up to the shore for a vet visit. Bear weighed in at eighty pounds.

“Hmmm,” I thought.”Maybe I’ll get a nice big one that’ll fit both dogs, and then neither will have to walk . . . assuming they’ll let me push ’em. If they don’t, that’s a wasted 250 bucks. I’ll wait.”

As I was coming back from walking Bear that evening, Patty and Dennis, my neighbors in the marina, asked what was wrong with Casey. I explained, and they offered a little dock cart they didn’t need. About twenty minutes later, Dennis knocked on my deck and said, “Here it is! You’ll have to hose it down, but it should work for her.”

I climbed up on deck and thanked him, and then looked at the dock cart.

Don's Novel
It was small. It was red. It was cute.

I was doomed.

Eleven o’clock rolled around, and it was time for Casey’s late night—well, I suppose one ought not to call it a walk—“outing.” I took some puppy blankets up and lined the bottom of the cart, then carried Casey up on deck, deposited her in her little cart, and started down the dock.

So. There I was. A forty-seven-year-old, six-foot-two, 200-pound man, pulling a small, fluffy golden dog down the dock in a cute, little red wagon.

Find Donald Hardy online here.

Buy your copy of Paws and Reflect at Amazon or other retailers.