Food for thought

Try explaining that idiom to a non-English speaker. It came up this week in the ESL classes. The textbook gives the definition, something to think about. But my student still couldn’t get it. I tried to explain it in terms of mental nourishment, but then he thought I mean ‘brain food,’ stuff like fish and fresh vegetables. No, it’s an abstract concept, I tried to elaborate: A topic, an idea, a subject, something that makes you think, hard, as if your brain is devouring it in an eager way. Which would mean, I suppose (but did not say aloud) that thoughts and ideas formed by the digestion of such “food” is essentially…well, brain excrement (!)

That explains a lot! Sometimes the most intense thinking and ruminating in the world doesn’t produce an exceptional result or idea. I know this, because I pretty much regard everything as ‘food for thought.” I am a notorious over-thinker, and it’s not necessarily a good way to be. But I’ve learned over the years that it comes from being too sedentary, rooted to desk or sofa, so the best remedy is simply to move. I’m not a runner, so I walk, hike, take off. It doesn’t stop the thinking, but it seems to produce a better result, more helpful solutions to worrying problems and dilemmas.  Something about moving your legs unlatches something good in the brain, and the thinking that results is almost always good. Travel is a kind of sacrament for me: As long as it involves a lot of walking.

And I’ve been doing a lot of walking this past week, taking advantage of the uncharacteristically warm and sunny weather we’ve been having in late February. My favorite walking trail is at Jockey Hollow National Historic Park, which is a short drive from my house.  I’m getting to know the park, where Washington wintered his troops during the Revolutionary War, quite intimately, and even spent part of his birthday there. It has everything a timid hiker like me could want, the choice of paved roads or trails through the woods, a little water feature, beautiful scenery and interesting history, and a number of hills if I want to challenge myself. I always walk by the Wick farm, to see how their garden is doing, but I’ve never had the nerve to snitch an apple when the orchard is producing. I would live in the little red Wick house, if they let me! But it’s too popular on weekends. Better to go on weekdays, when it’s quiet and lovely, and it feels like you have the entire place to yourself.

On March 1st is a guest post by Lori Virelli, a fellow writer; we met online as Kindle ‘scout’ nominees, when we realized our books had a similar subject (marriage and morality) and demographic. Please do check back to read her post, and check out her work at Amazon, (hopefully I will set the link up correctly!) because if you enjoyed Wives, you will no doubt enjoy her books as well.

The Novice Master returns…

Today I’m re-launching the well-reviewed but sales-deficient Novice Master, with a new monk-less cover, and priced at 99 cents (!) This is an experiment in ultra-low pricing and the Wives may soon follow. And here’s the rationale behind that thinking, which will cut my earnings considerably, but may earn me that legion of readers I’ve been seeking all these years.

I think my books deserve to be priced fairly, and I should earn a decent wage for all I put into a novel, but…the marketplace is a cruel and capricious place, especially in these times. As the slogan for the Christmas Tree Shoppe chain goes,  everyone loves a bargain. Even when the most erudite reader is perusing the Kindle catalog for something to read, that 99-cent price tag can be quite persuasive. It used to be the tackiest kind of promotion, a way for bad genre novels to get a toe-hold in the market. But nobody’s really doing it anymore, so…why not revive the practice while the competition lays low?  I really became aware of the importance of price over the weekend, with my cut-rate promotion for Wives, which did quite well, the best it’s done to date, saleswise. I actually managed to squeeze (briefly) into the top 1% of the Kindle market (ranking 31,000 out of 4.5 million books), and it occurred to me that most of my demographic, the over-40 set, is strapped for cash. Including myself! And marketing studies on ebooks show that the lower you price your book, the likelier it is to move. And since my real goal is to find readers (I gave up on $$$ years ago!), I decided to give it a go.

Novice Master is my guinea pig, but I have nothing to lose: It’s no longer selling and has dropped into the rankings basement, despite all those lovely stars of approval on my Amazon and Goodreads pages. I’m pretty sure it’s because of that damned monk on the cover! A lot of readers probably thought it was a religious novel, and those who thought it was a religious novel were shocked and horrified (yeah, I heard from some of those) that it wasn’t. So it has a new cover now—not posting here, you must go to my Amazon page and view it there! And while you’re at it…Got 99 cents to spare? The paperback will change as well, but that’s still in progress, so it’s been temporarily taken down by Createspace.

Now the story behind the new cover. Yes, it’s pink. Well, it’s a foggy sunset over a lake.  I tried various color filters on it, including moody blue, but it just seemed best to go with the photo in its original form. Yes, I bought the photo, legally, from one of those photostock companies. As I was going through their catalog, it just reached out and grabbed me. I needed something that shouted, “Serious novel!” I wanted something evocative, that hinted at the spirituality, emotion and compassion within. And there is a lake in my novel, and even a little wooden deck, which my character Evan sits on, and even makes out with a certain lady with on…But mostly it’s symbolic to me of Evan’s search for emotional and spiritual guidance, as well as his search for the divine. It pressed all the right buttons for me.  We’ll see if readers agree. I started one of those nifty keyword ad campaigns  to kickstart it again.  I’m not quite ready to let Wives drop down to bargain-basement prices just yet, so we’ll give it a rest, and let it sink slowly downward for awhile, before I try to resuscitate it…

Please note that I revamped the ‘About Me and My Work” tab on this blog, since it was being swamped with views (I should charge 99 cents for that!), and I thought it needed more  information, so take a peek. And watch for my upcoming Irish-themed blogs ahead of St. Padraig’s Day. Also have a terrific guest blogger lined up for March 1st, so good things ahead—hang in there!

Not a pope, but he plays one on TV

To distract myself from my weekend Amazon promotion for Wives of the Saints, I’m binge watching the HBO series The Young Pope, which I’ve been very eager to see. This week our cable company bribed us with three month of free HBO to re-enroll with them, and even though we hate them, we took the bait. I hope to get through all ten episodes by Sunday night. But I’ve already formed an opinion about it.

First of all, I always approach that HBO stuff with a grain of salt: Most of it’s good, even very good, but usually too clever and arch and full of itself, with the slick dialogue, fancy camera tricks and ‘symbolic’ shots, along with quirky, haunting music to instruct us how to be feeling about it all. Sometimes these series just don’t seem authentic to me at all: The bells and whistles of polished production sometimes obscure the story or whatever truths they’re trying to tell. I often admire a cable miniseries, but it’s rare that I actually feel emotionally moved by one. And all this pretty much holds true for The Young Pope, although it’s a bit more complicated, watching it as a somewhat committed Catholic. I should probably be outraged or insulted by its premise. And I probably would be, if the main character wasn’t so falsely mannered, and if there wasn’t so much emphasis on ornate Vatican material culture and the tradition—which we all know isn’t really the true Church at all.

And yet, there is some authenticity in it, enough to keep me watching. The story is getting a little hard to follow, as the miniseries strains to come up with tricks and red herrings and surprises to keep us off-balance, which annoys me more than keeping me intrigued. Really not sure I buy the idea of the American “Lenny Belardo” pope, and although Jude Law makes a swoonably handsome pontiff, he just seems all wrong. It seems impossible that such a seemingly incomplete  man could be even a parish priest, let alone Archbishop of New York, cardinal, and then Pope. He’s obviously too troubled, something that would have been picked up on in seminary, and he wouldn’t have the emotional stability or social talent necessary for ecclesiastical careerism. Just my two cents! But I do enjoy the way some of the cardinals and even Pope Lenny’s own mentor are portrayed: As complex, sometimes tormented, sometimes smug, but authentic sort of men. And I’m liking very much Diane Keaton’s Sister Mary, although she’s starting to get very weird. I suppose I should wait till I’ve seen it all. Wish, too, the writers were better versed in Catholic theology—throwing in a single (and simplistic) quote from Saint Augustine on love doesn’t convince me they know any more about it than the average viewer.

All through the first few episodes, I kept wondering what Thomas Merton would make of it. I don’t believe he was  much of a TV watcher, even on the rare occasions when he had the chance; but he did love going to the movies as a youth.  He’d probably be a little intrigued at first by the perverse spectacle of it, but in the end would probably denounce it as nonsense. Which it probably is, but it’s interesting nonsense.  And it has been taking my mind off my own pathetic and persistent struggles with my art…

Marketing lesson: Promoting ‘upscale’ independent fiction


At the end of this week, Amazon will be running a special price promotion for Wives of the Saints, and it goes like this: Friday and Saturday (the 17th and 18th), the book (normally priced at $3.99 and $14.99) will be available for only 99 cents. Then Sunday and Monday, it will be $1.99. Tuesday and Wednesday it becomes $2.99, and by Thursday the 23rd it’s back to its normal price.  This is all a big experiment for me, but I think I may have hit on something: I’m already experiencing a modest rise in sales this past week, because I’ve made an interesting discovery. Either that, or books sales in general are starting to recover…

With my other books, I chose the ‘freebie’ promotion option, in which you literally give away your books in hopes of a big ranking boost and subsequent sales. It has never worked that way for me; I usually end up with a few paltry sales, and the book gets pirated and sold on shady Internet sites. The problem with these and other promotions on Amazon is that you, in turn, have to promote the promotions. And most promotions—which basically involves hiring a third party to tweet and publicize for you—are almost completely devoted to genre fiction. And I realized this, slowly, as I tried to book them in advance, and found I was either being rejected, or being forced into the Romance categories.

So for the sake of argument, let’s not call my book ‘literary’—it really isn’t, but it’s not typically genre fiction, either. There is actually an established, trad-pub category for my book, it’s called Upscale Women’s Fiction, and it’s a very big and bountiful category in that world. But there are very few independent or self-publishing authors doing this kind of fiction, because it’s a very hard thing to do well. You can’t just knock it off. The intended audience is usually comprised of educated or professional women, who know something about very good fiction, yet still long for the tales being told in romance and saga-type novels. As always, the primacy of story and character rules here as well. But this audience wants attention to things like structure, grammar, etc. I don’t want to list authors here, because this is a very diverse reading group: They might read Joyce Carol Oates or Alice Munro at home, but grab Danielle Steel to read on a plane.  They are the kind of women  who join book clubs. It takes more to engage them than your typical romance novel.

There’s no real marketing platform in place in the self-publishing industry for this type of fiction. Mainly because of lot of these readers will shun self-published work, on the assumption that it’s all bad. They don’t have the time or patience to ferret out the hidden gems. I don’t know how you overcome those obstacles, but I do realize now—ironically, just as I’m about to exit self-publishing—that it takes a very different marketing approach than the ones you read about on Kindleboards and other author forums. Basically, the promo sites—BookBub, Fussy Librarian, Book Gorilla, you name them—don’t work for us. Nor do mailing lists, or raffles or contests or giving away plush prizes, or  the other things (mostly romance or fantasy) writers do to snag readers. And even in genre fiction, they will only work well for a small group of writers, and not everyone.

This is what seems to work: Key words. I’ve always been wary of key words, and could never think of any that could describe my book in any coherent way, when Amazon demands seven of them for your product description. Oddly enough, I teach this concept in my language classes, trying to show my students how to pick out the most important words in a reading, words that are hints to its meaning. Yet, it’s so simple. Reduce my novel to a set of words and you have: Husbands, wives, marriage, friendship, love, faith. Then you can add specifics: Summer, secrets, fidelity (or infidelity), Catholics. And then so on…The more, the better. The AMS campaign allows up to 1,000! I used all these in my most recent Amazon product placement ads (very affordable, usually under 25 cents per click, and about 5 to 10 clicks generally lead to a sale) I also had the brilliant idea to use other authors as key words (which you can do without penalty), and your little baby ad will turn up on their bestselling sites. Successful authors are nice, but if you pick an author you think possesses your target readership, you’ll do especially well—One of my best ‘partners’ so far is Elizabeth Berg, who I personally love as a reader, so I’m very happy about that. The AMS analytics will show you exactly which key words bring in the sales.  And right now the two biggest are ‘husbands’ and ‘secrets.’

So I’m not worried about not having snagged a ‘BookBub’, which seems to be the status symbol for a self-pubbed author. I’ll just put my pennies in advertising (it is a lot like playing the penny slots at Vegas) and see how the weekend pans out. Anyway, I’m a biographer now, LOL, so I’m not going to worry excessively anymore about how my fiction succeeds. Even with help from key words and such, it’s still largely the luck of the draw…

Snow day

Thursdays are my ‘mortgage-lifter’ days:  I usually have a full slate of ESL students, not to mention a death-defying commute on Route 287 east to Edison, NJ, where, in the space of the last two months, I’ve managed to outrun the Grim Reaper at least three times (two involving inattentive tractor-trailers, the other a texter in a beat-up sedan, and all going 75 mph).  And that’s on a day with perfect weather. So I just went ahead and cheerfully cancelled  my classes yesterday, when the temperature was 65 degrees and I was running around without a jacket. The pleasure of having a snow day, I decided, would outweigh the big ragged hole in my paycheck this week.

As a native New Englander, I have bittersweet memories of school snow days from my youth: The day starts optimistically enough, with the giddy gift of a full free day without obligations and of course, the mandatory dash outside to play in the snow until cheeks and fingers turned numb. But then as the day stretched on, it all devolved into hours of bad TV, scraping the pantry for snacks and bickering—if not full-on brawls—with the siblings. And then you go to bed, feeling puzzled and disheartened, as if you’ve somehow wasted a whole day of your life.

And so when I awoke this morning, and saw the blizzard indeed raging outside our bedroom window, I felt a bit paralyzed. I knew I should probably just lock myself up in the office and write. But this is what I did instead:

–Got up and made myself a big breakfast of waffles. Gluten-free, of course, so as not to trigger the autoimmune monster. Couldn’t read the paper, which was buried in a foot of snow in the driveway (yes, I know it’s on the Internet but it’s not the same), so I read the stack of fashion catalogs that came in the mail this week and an old issue of Southern Living magazine instead.

–went out and shoveled the front walk—a solid 8 inches of snow! Wished my daughter were still little—and still home in NJ–because the snow was the perfect consistency and texture for snowballs, snowmen and snow-fort-making. Left the driveway for my husband…

–Then took a hot bath because I was pretty sure the snow shoveling would trigger my long-dormant sciatica. I salt-scrubbed my poor boot-bound feet, and exfoliated my poor aging face, and did all the other ‘recommended’ beauty chores I never otherwise have time for.

–worked on a cross-stitch project I’ve been working on for centuries, got bored and gave up, which is why it’s taking centuries to finish.

–Watched “George Washington Slept Here,” on TCM—it’s ‘Oscar’ Month—but couldn’t figure out what in the world it won an  Oscar for. It had its moments, but was mostly weird, boring and dated. But I liked the cross-stitched opening credits at the beginning,  even if it reminded me of my own unfinished, negkected project.

–And then Betty Wahl’s novel, Rafferty & Co., had come in the mail the other day, so I tried to start that, with the greatest of hopes. I was really hoping it she would turn out to be a better writer than her husband, J.F. Powers. But I just couldn’t get into it, as hard as I tried. It’s clever, and she’s a competent writer, but it felt rather sterile and superficial. Oh well…

–Cracked open my  Japanese textbook, and tried to learn a few more phrases. It’s not such a hard language–Romanized. But trying to learn some of the characters–Yow! It made my brain hurt.

–Finally went on line, but ended up playing this stupidly addictive word game for an hour.  Lurked about in the writers’ forums a bit and got involved in a minor scuffle  about the sudden drop in book sales this week most of us are experiencing (because you always get the idiot who has to say You need to market more efficiently…)Then made myself write this blog, so I could say I did some writing today and continue under the  illusion of being serious.

I did other things today too, but I didn’t want to admit that we are only just now cleaning up after Sunday’s Super Bowl gathering. Never got around to working on the biography, or book proposals, or marketing for Wives’ discount promotion on Amazon next week.  But sometimes it’s nice just to have a boring old down day: And hence, the true purpose of snow days.

And my garden is very happy, under its big new blanket of snow.





The Top Ten

This is actually part 2 of my last post, “What’s a Blog?” Which I thought was one of my weaker posts, but I got a surprising amount of positive feedback from it. So I decided to look back and see what my most  popular posts were—thanks to the WordPress analytics, which keeps track of such things. Out of the 130 or so posts I’ve put up since Oct. 2015, here are the ten most-read, listed a la David Letterman (I miss him), with the most popular of all time coming in as number 10 in last place (because apparently Word can’t format counting backwards):

  1. ‘Serious’ fiction: Jan. 22, 2016. One of the few writing-related entries that makes the list, but of all of them, I’m glad this one struck a chord. It was my push-back against the flood of bad genre writing dominating independent publishing and my own rubric for determining the quality of a novel.
  2. The Bluegrass Pilgrimage, and posts following: April 2016: You guys like it when I travel, and while this series of entries, from my trip to Gethsemani Abbey last year, wasn’t the overall crowd-pleaser, I did have a consistent core of readers following me all the way through. Thanks guys!
  3. My-baby-is-leaving-town blues, Oct. 14, 2016. Friends and family piled on this one, in which I lamented my daughter’s decision to move to Nashville, Tenn. Where, I’m happy to report, she’s still happy and thriving.
  4. Dialogue in the Graveyard, June 25, 2016. I have come to dislike this particularly post, which now strikes me as too sentimental and self-indulgent. I would delete it, but people seem to like it, particularly my overseas readers, for reasons I cannot fathom.
  5. My Rocky Start in Publishing: August 29, 2016. My honest, unvarnished tale of woe in the professional world of publishing, circa late 1990s, won me lots of views, and sympathy, mostly from other writers with similar experiences.
  6. The Unexpurgated Version: Dec. 23, 2015. Readers apparently found it hilarious that my novel The Novice Master, a mostly chaste novel about a former monk and reluctant mentor, was initially classified by Amazon as ‘Erotica.’ It probably would have done better sales-wise if I left it there.
  7. What I learned from my insane pre-holiday road trip: December 2016. It was an insane trip. Not always in a good way. Glad you all liked it so much. Or should I say , ‘y’all’?
  8. Sin City, May 28th 2016: No one could wait for the good Catholic novelist to weigh in on Las Vegas, Nevada. And I still feel guilty about enjoying it far more than I should have…
  9. For Mothers and others: Happy…day, May 7, 2016. This Mother’s Day post went a little viral, and got shared a bit on Facebook. It was about my own rocky road to motherhood (why everything good in my life has to come out of great suffering and difficulty, I don’t know) and reaching out to other women who cannot or choose not to become mothers.

And finally the all-time top entry:

  1. Sex in Fiction: Feb. 5, 2016.  Oh, you randy readers! You loved my primer on good dirty writing. This is the entry that got me the little gold trophy emoticon from Word Press; I think I picked up most of my followers on this one. But geez, I can’t write about sex all the time!  Well, I could…but then I’d have to be classified as Erotica.


So there we go. My readers love travel and sex. They love the personal and sentimental stuff, too. Actually, my readers sound a lot like me! I love all that stuff, too. But mostly writing, which I’ll continue to do until…well, until I don’t, anymore. But not anytime soon.

What’s a blog?

So, really, what is it? What am I doing here, on WordPress with thousands of other desperate writers, anyway? Trust me, this is a question I grapple with every time I sit down to churn out a new entry. I usually try to overcome the self-consciousness and not think about it, but this week I kept bumping up against the whole concept, whether it’s at all valuable or worth continuing with.

First was in language class, where the textbook I use for ESL (written and printed in Europe and already somewhat out of date) sometimes uses a blog as an excerpt for reading exercise. They’re not real, of course, and so are the most boring things you would ever want to read, since their primary duty is to introduce vocabulary and grammar points.  But they do make great launching points for discussions about blogs in general, and what they should be. Some of my students think they should be opinion pieces, others think they should comment on current events, like editorials; others say they should be narrowly specific and stick to illuminating a single subject or principle.  No one says they should be showcases for writing! And yet I would venture to say the majority are. Probably including my own.

Then while lurking—er, looking—at some of the various writers’ forums, I saw a thread about whether writers of fiction should even bother with a blog. I was a little dismayed by some of the responses. Apparently for fiction writers—according to the majority here—the only purpose a blog serves is to market and promote your own work. But the trick is, to not make it look like that! How the hell do you NOT? Most writers don’t have the skills to pull off that kind of trickery. Those who do…well, they usually go into marketing as a profession and make a killing.  Another point made was that your blog should be constructed to attract and interest as many readers as possible. But why? Why should a blog writer feel obligate to entertain unknown readers…for free? The fact that there are no deadlines, no paycheck dangling over your head, should give a writer the freedom to do what he or she chooses with a blog. The most discouraging advice of all was: drop the blog entirely, and just have a cut-and-dried website, complete with lots of media and a professionally produced trailer or two, and a tab where you can set up shop to sell your own books. To all that, I say: Boooooo!

And besides, unless you’re a very famous writer, no one ever really visits those sites!

Yet I have lots of visitors here. Still, I have been re-evaluating the old blog. I admit, I began the whole thing, over a year ago, only because I felt I had to, because of the common wisdom that every writer needs a blog. (Not sure that’s true, by the way. Maybe it’s better to let books and stories stand for themselves) I stated that I was going to chronicle my path as a writer (how original is that?!), but in truth, I had no clue what I was really going to write about. And mainly it’s about whatever pops into my head or is engaging me at a particular point in time. When I write ‘off-topic,’ about gardens and cooking and such, I actually feel guilty. But when I write about writing, I feel like I’m edging dangerously toward self-promotion. Still, I have no plans to change format or mission or whatever. I think I once—mourning the loss of the snail-mail age, those long heartening letters one used to exchange with friends and acquaintances—described my blog as epistolary in nature, letters to the world. Some blogs take the form of journals, and perhaps there’s some of that here too. I’m just going to continue on for now as usual.

I love my readers, and love when I get the “likes” and the comments and all that. But I don’t really write for them. I just put stuff out there, and hope it strikes a chord somewhere. So the blog promotes not my writing or my life in any way, but my continual longing for connection and community. It really is my form of social media.

Whatever you want to use your blog for is fine: Opinion, memoir, letter, fiction exercise, personal validation, challenge to the world… Accept the readers and followers who randomly come your way as the  gifts that they are. But if  you’re only wantonly trying to sell your books,  I’m not going to read it…