Sunday, July 15, 2012

Life and Death of a Novel

Our previous home in Tulsa had an underground tornado shelter in the back yard. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it went unnoticed and unused, but when the sirens for severe weather sounded, we suddenly became the most popular people on the block. I never actually measured the dimensions, but I’d guess the floor plan at around eight by 12 feet, roomy by most standards, but on especially scary nights when the TV had edge to edge angry red blotches, it was wall to wall people down there.

The door of the shelter lay flush to the ground. It was quite heavy, made of steel, and nearly impossible to swing open if not for the coil spring assist. On more than one occasion when I had gone down there to check for water seepage or replace a light bulb, a rather frightening thought would flicker across my imagination. If someone were to slam that door shut, stick a bolt though the hasp, and walk away, the shelter that was built to save lives would become my tomb. I would die there in the damp and dark. That cheery little thought would eventually become the premise for a novel, one that I called Fraidy Hole.

It would be my second novel. The first, No Refuge, about a wildlife photographer that happens to witness and document a murder by a hired killer, was fun but also a major struggle. The plot for that one slipped, fell, got lost, and wandered aimlessly for over a year before I finally finished it.  Never again says I. But that idea about the cellar hung around, nagging at me, growing in my head like a tumor and well, before I knew it…I was back at the computer.

The second one will be easier. That’s what I kept hearing and they were right. Unlike the early attempt with no clear idea where the story was headed, who the characters would be, or how it would end, Fraidy Hole, the outline anyway, was planned from start to finish. Except for the ending. That little twist popped up one night about 2 a.m. when the tired old brain knew that the plot needed something, some kind of surprise, something to make people say, “I didn’t see that coming.”

I enjoy writing, but It’s doesn’t come easy for me. I made C’s in English for Pete’s sake. Grammar and punctuation were invented by the Devil as far as I’m concerned, but alas, the book police have this strange obsession that both should be correct and in proper form. It takes a lot of the fun out of it.

Fraidy Hole begins with a young high school girl, living in the panhandle of Oklahoma, who opens her eyes in a storm cellar exactly like the one in my previous backyard. It’s night, absolute darkness, and she has no idea where she is. She only knows that she’s hurt, there’s something moving down there, and she’s about one minute away from going insane with fear.

Eighteen months later, the story ends. That’s real time, not fiction time. The make-believe story lasted for only a few days, but it was that many months before I finally typed The End. In between was a rough draft, research, write, rewrite, edit (with the help of a wonderfully competent and patient lady named Jane) , more edit, more rewrite, and then, final edit.

Now what? Like anyone that has ever written a novel, I’m thinking in terms of a wildly popular best seller, New York Times review, book signing parties, promotional travel, and dare we think it, a movie? The sad truth is, that’s not likely, not likely at all. Thousands and thousands of novels are cranked out every year; some very bad, some mediocre, and some extremely well written that go…nowhere. My first clue as to the competition came when I hit the upload button to an online e-book distributor called Smash Words. The popup told me I was 87th in the queue. What? There are 87 people ahead of me trying to upload their novels? Uh oh.

Luckily, the publishing trend seems to be shifting from paperback and hardcover to e-books. This was good news to me as my chances of being accepted by such giants as Random House were slim to none and Slim left town. It looked like Amazon and Kindle books were my best bet. I do the upload, everything formatted to their specs, assign a quite reasonable price of $2.99 for a download, sit back, and wait for the money to start rolling in. Oh yes, I did some self promotion. I put a link on all my outgoing e-mail. I put another link on my photo web site. I shamelessly begged everyone I knew on Facebook to spread the word. I even finagled a writer’s website called Studio 30, to put the cover on their home page and when they featured me as Member of the Week, I was sure the sales of Fraidy Hole would go through the roof. Didn’t happen.

The hard, sad facts were that the majority of sales could be traced to friends and relatives (thank you BTW). Why? Because like most readers, myself included, hesitate to spend time and money for a book authored by an unknown writer. This is where the Kindle reviews come in. A few dozen five star reader reviews give the book a far greater chance of selling than one with two or three written by friends and family of the writer: that would be me.

The minds at Amazon obviously foresaw this situation, discouraged new writers unable to get off the ground, and provided an outlet. That was to give the book away. No royalties, no income of any kind, nada. The upside, if you can call it that, was that your fresh new novel could now be downloaded by people without a monetary investment. If they read the first couple chapters and decide it’s trash, no big deal, delete it and forget it.

And so it came to pass that Fraidy Hole had reached a point with zero sales for two depressingly long months. It was time for a desperate move and I did it, clicked on the Kindle free option. Twenty-four hours later, 960 cheapskates had download my sweat and tears novel. It would be a little like an artist that worked a year and a half on an oil painting and then said here take it, it’s yours, and it’s free

At the end of the five day free period, 1997 e-book readers had jumped on the train to find out what happened to that poor girl locked in the cellar. All that ended last Friday. Here I sit on Sunday, staring at the reports. Three new sales (yes!) but not one new review, not even a bad one. There will be no book signings, no promo travel, no poster-sized cover of Fraidy Hole in the front window of Barnes & Noble, and the movie just faded to black.

I do believe the wide world of readers have sent me a message. “You should stick to photography my boy and leave the writing to people that got better than C’s in English class.”

Oh well, there’s always the blog.

Update: A brand new review has been added. This one by a complete stranger. Only four stars, but I thought it fair.

Update to the Update: Another review! This one is a gem. Fraidy Hole might not be dead after all. 


1 comment:

  1. Patience is a virtue. Possess it if you can. Seldom in a woman, never in a man.

    Fraidy Hole is a good read - - don't doubt yourself.


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