The Writing Life

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Death and Taxes

Even now, with four books published and a fifth, hopefully, on the way, I worry that the IRS will look at my earnings and will decide that writing is really just a hobby. At which point, I will show them my publishing contracts, and after we’ve all had a really good laugh, I’ll explain that just because writing is a business doesn’t mean it’s a good business and then we’ll look at my royalty statements and we’ll all laugh just a little bit more.

It’s all good clean fun until someone finds the dead IRS agent (fictionally dead, my attorney advises me to tell you. Only and always, fictionally dead).

I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that it’s tax season. But if you’ve been waiting for the last minute to file, hoping to find those misplaced receipts documenting your legitimate business expenses, you are officially out of time.

When my first book was released, I realized I should have an author website. It wasn’t fancy (it still isn’t) but it gave readers a place to find me on the internet. It didn’t cost a lot of money and it was a legitimate business expense. At the time, my name was owned by a tax attorney, so I settled for jeffmarkowitzmysteries.com. At some point, the other Jeff Markowitz failed to renew his domain name. I swooped in and bought the domain (jeffmarkowitz.com). I kept jeffmarkowitzmysteries as well. After a couple of years, I decided to let go of the earlier domain name. Experts tell us to purchase all the variations on our name, but I knew I wasn’t famous enough for that to apply to me. I assumed that jeffmarkowitzmysteries.com would disappear into the ether.

But I was wrong. I learned recently that someone else now owns jeffmarkowitzmysteries.com. I’m pretty sure it’s a Japanese private eye. I’m relying on google translate here, but this is what I found on the home page, under the heading, Points when asking detectives to investigate cheating -

What is needed for cheating survey is "evidence of cheating" where you can apply anywhere you go. Although circumstantial evidence that can be gathered around us is also effective, evidence of flirty taking images of cheating sites themselves in images or images does not allow their opponents to escape. Also, by acquiring clear evidence of cheating, it will make it easier for you to claim consolation fees for partner as well as partner.

Obtain clear evidence that both partners and cheating partners can firmly identify. This is the result of a cheating survey asked for detectives. 

That seems clear enough to me. But in an age of frivolous lawsuits, every business needs a disclaimer.

Please be aware that "If you are a detective, you are dealing with a cat naked baby survey." 

(You’re probably wondering what you’ll find if you google “cat naked baby survey.” Before you try, let me remind you that your search history may soon be up for sale. This is just the sort of Google search that might haunt you later.)

Considering the role that money plays in crime, you might think there would be a plethora of great accountancy mysteries.  After all, it’s hard to imagine a more exciting combination than the deadly mixture of sex, drugs, and tax codes. If you’re looking for a good tax accountant murder mystery, let me refer you to the 1941 hardboiled classic: Death and Taxes by David Dodge.

We’ve all heard the advice to write what you know. Dodge knew taxes. In Death and Taxes, James “Whit” Whitney is a CPA whose partner, George MacLeod has been murdered. Whitney realizes he has a responsibility to his dead partner. (In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade famously says, “When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it.”)

Dodge wrote four mysteries featuring “tax man turned detective” James “Whit” Whitney. (He also wrote To Catch a Thief, but that’s another subject, for another day).

But there are surprisingly few mysteries which take advantage of the inherent sexiness of accountancy. So I’ve been thinking about writing one. In Death and White Diamonds, I introduced a forensic accountant who plays a small role in the story. I think she could carry her own series.

Miss Khan set up shop down the hall and began the tedious process of sorting through the financial records retrieved from Global Co. It had been her experience that police could be careless when they were logging in financial evidence. After all, most cops couldn’t tell the difference between a revenue statement and a trial balance. Before she began a forensic analysis, she made it a rule to go back through every piece of evidence, to make sure that everything is accounted for properly. She would never again allow a simple police error to embarrass her later at trial. And she would never again complicate that error by sleeping with the officer during the course of the investigation. She had been asked that question once, during cross-examination, and she would never put herself in that position again.

Detectives Johnson and McGowan seemed to Miss Khan to be capable of simple police error. Her face suddenly red hot, Miss Khan realized that she was capable of falling into bed with Detective McGowan.

Perhaps, Miss Khan told herself, the case will be settled out of court.

—Jeff Markowitz

Jeff Markowitz is a member of the MWA-NY board. You can usually find him at his computer at 5:30 in the morning, plotting someone's murder.

Self-Publishing 101: 10 Self-Publishing Tips

People who get through childbirth, jury duty, or self-publishing often want to tell you about it. Me, too. After self-publishing two mystery novels, one novelette, and one short story, with a third novel coming out in July, I’ll be — according to my Google search — No. 13,600,001, to write on the topic. I could go on and on. But, mercifully, today, I’ll just offer 10 self-publishing tips.

1. Write Your Best Book! Don't get distracted by the other stuff. The SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING is producing a compelling tale for readers — not a sloppy vanity press-caliber vehicle for yourself. Be daring. Be original. Make what self-pub advocates are calling an indie or artisanal book.

2. Think Niche. If you have a choice, it's easier to sell a self-published book to an audience passionate about something like gardening, knitting, cats, vampires, or a particular place. My mysteries are set in the Chautauqua Institution, a quirky/churchy/historic summer arts community in far Western New York State. Its fans are open to all-things-Chautauqua, including my books.

3. Pick a Strategy. You can write a book and write a check, paying a publisher-for-hire (between $1,500 and tens of thousands of dollars) to do most of the work. You can DIY (do-it-yourself). Or you can take a hybrid approach as I do. I pay for: a book cover design; two levels of editing (big-picture, developmental editing and copy-editing); and print-book formatting (formatting means converting my Word.doc text to a format that’s both attractive (with nice fonts, chapter breaks, and headings) and useable by my publisher, CreateSpace, a division of Amazon). I do the e-book formatting by following this tutorial online.

4. Study Up. No matter which way you go, read many how-to items online, including this good article on costs and this good overview book that covers a lot of the basics that I'm not getting into here, including marketing.

5. Priorities. No. 1, great book. No. 2 great book cover. No. 3 (in my view) is a great Amazon footprint. Polish and re-polish what's called your “product details,” grabbing readers with a fun plot summary, reviews, photos, hype.

6. Stay in the Driver's Seat. If you hire a publisher, check references and past work. Ask friends and me for leads. If you hire a cover designer, spell out, generally, what you want: by checking out the bestsellers in your genre. Require a thumbnail version be readable and attractive — because that’s how most people will see your cover online. If you hire an editor, set deadlines and goals.

7. Do-It-Yourselfers: Find great resources online including free tutorials on covers, formatting, etc. Consider bartering your services for others or getting free editing from beta readers, a writing group or friends.

8. Hybrid Folks: Find cover designers through 99designs.com and designers and formatters through Smashwords. Use who you know. My editor is a very brainy friend of my son's. My cover designer is an ex-boyfriend of my nephew's. My website designer is my daughter's roommate. I market to and through: my alumni, gym, work, and neighborhood newsletters; friends’ and readers' book clubs; social-media links; blogs of like-minded people; local newspapers and bookstores.

9. Budget for Inevitable Mistakes, what a trucking company might call breakage and spillage. I overpaid for last-minute promotional bookmarks to take to an event and overpaid for a rushed Kirkus Review, while my (too messy) manuscript was being simultaneously copy-edited.

10. Have Fun! I hope you enjoy the process of self-publishing — and unprecedented opportunity it offers writers to reach readers on our own.

—Deb Pines

Deb Pines, an award-winning headline writer and copy editor for the New York Post, is the author of two self-published novels, In the Shadow of Death (2013) and Deliver Us from Evil (2015), top-sellers in the Chautauqua Institution where they are set. She’s also a mother of two, the former chair of MWA-NY’s Mentor Committee, a former reporter, and author of a self-published short story and a novelette. “If you enjoy an old-fashioned whodunit, it’s perfect,” the Jamestown (N.Y.) Post-Journal, wrote of her debut novel Shadow.

 

How to Write When the World Is Too Much With You

Worried young woman at computer

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
—William Wordsworth

For me, the past few years have been tough ones on the writing front. I lost my editor and then my publisher. Lost my agent. My family had crisis after crisis and the political situation in the world today is not helping my mental state.  If that sounds familiar to you, maybe you, too, have struggled with how to write at all when your brain is “otherwise occupied” and how to imbue your characters with emotion when your own are wrung out.

Bad news: I don’t have all the answers.

Good news: I have a few suggestions that might help.

1) Consider how long the problem you’re facing will continue and whether there’s anything you can do about it. In the case of losing my publisher and agent, I sat down and considered what it meant. It was permanent, which was pretty chilling, but it also meant that I had the ability to try some new things. The family crises were more debilitating and there was nothing I could do about their emotional toll, but I managed to figure out a way to alleviate their physical toll.

2) If it's going to be a long road and you can’t fix it (major health crises in your family, politics, etc), see if you can schedule your way around stuff. For example, maybe you only write 3 days a week and give the others over to dealing with whatever is pressing on you. Think about what’s realistic for you in the situation and plan around it.

3) If the problem comes from the world around you, like politics, etc, download a program (I use Freedom) to block access to the internet to allow you to shut it out on the days you need to work. It’s okay. I promise. The good and the bad will both still be there  when you get back. If you’re the kind of person who can write half a day and concentrate on the things that worry you half a day, set up that kind of schedule. I can’t do it. I have to focus on one thing per day. (But I do allow myself to focus back on the distractions in the evening.)

4) Get out. Literally and figuratively. Walk outside for at least fifteen minutes. Come back inside, write for an hour, and go back out. You’ll feel better and you’ll give yourself time to process what’s going on in your manuscript while you walk.

5) Sometimes, even when the words just won’t come, you can still outline. Not a plotter? I recommend Rock Your Plot by Cathy Yardley. I have a brief review here. Can’t even plot? Try journaling or other forms of writing not related to your current work just to keep the habit of writing fluid.

How about you? Do you have any tips for writing when your brain won’t cooperate?

—Laura K. Curtis

Laura K. Curtis is the president of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America. She has written romance, romantic suspense, and crime fiction. She is currently working on a contemporary Gothic-style ghost story.

The #1 Thing You Need To Do To Get Your Book “Discovered”

This is the third in Valerie Peterson's series on author marketing. You may want to check out her previous articles, "7 Common Mistakes of an Author Website” and “How to Create a 'Selling' Author Bio.”

"Book discovery" is a much-used buzz-phrase of the publishing industry. In the increasingly competitive and very digital book marketplace with shrinking readerships and revenues, authors, agents, publishers are all engaged in figuring out how books are discovered by the readers who buy. Did they hear about it on television or online? Twitter or Instagram or YouTube? Word-of-mouth or a New York Times review?

Any author who wants his or her book to reach readers needs to understand by what means readers come to their books. When you understand how readers find — "discover" books like yours, you increase your chances of positioning yourself and your book appealingly and effectively in front of them. And if you do that right, you'll get them to buy and read.

Book discovery means author discovery, too — and setting yourself up to be "found" — found to be capable, found to have writing street cred — before you're even published will help position your for agent queries and publisher's editorial board appeal.

From what I've seen of my fellow MWA members, you're doing a lot right — but with some tweaking, you can optimize your chance of being discovered, bought, and read.

Book Discovery Is an Outgrowth of Book Marketing — But It's Not the Same Thing
"Book discovery" is the result of many factors, mostly "book marketing" (print or digital advertising, cooperative advertising placement or promotion at bricks-and-mortar or online booksellers, social media marketing) and "book publicity" (a publicist's efforts to gain coverage in the broadcast media, book tours, and author appearances).

Traditional book marketing and book publicity are resource-heavy for anyone who's taking it on. These efforts take either a lot of money or a lot of someone's time and, therefore, even at traditional publishers anything beyond the basic PR campaign is generally reserved for established authors who are most likely to bring a return on this type of publisher investment. This usually means authors with an existing platform or for books with hot topics.

From my own strategic content and book publishing pro viewpoint, "marketing" can be viewed as "putting out" — tweets, posts, press releases, "free first chapters." But more and more, in today's digital and social world, the critical concept to leverage is the flip side of the book marketing coin, the reader-centric view. Ask yourself: “Who is coming/will come to your book/s? Who is reading/will read them and why?”

There are those who answer: "Book lovers!" "Mystery lovers!" Or: "My friends and family, of course!" But I'll tell you frankly: not all that likely. I'm not kidding, even about your friends and family. Okay, they might buy the book to support you but the odds of more than a few of your nearest and dearest actually reading a book-length something just because they like/love you are surprisingly slim. (And that's okay, because you're going to be using them for other things, like researching resources.)

And that is because everyone is busy and there is much, much noise and distraction in everyone's lives.

I, for one, NEVER read that "FREE FIRST CHAPTER!" unless there are several other factors at play. And for first-time, little known, or midlist authors, those factors are rarely straight-on "marketing" unless there is the kind of critical mass of ads and media that is rare and/or cost-prohibitive for 98% of authors.

So while an author with a lot (A LOT) of disposable income or a great deal of free time on their hands can emulate a traditional publishers book marketing or publicity campaign, many miss a critical first step to boost their effectiveness and enhance their discoverability.

The #1 Step to Getting Your Book Discovered: Research
Marketing efforts without the "discovery" homework are wasteful and scattershot — like having your murderer try to kill her lover with birdshot versus a .22 to the heart. Sure, the victim might bleed out, eventually — but there's a good chance he'll get to the phone or escape or even overpower her before he collapses.

The digging needed to truly figure out how to leverage the combination of your book's content plus what you know about your readers and potential readers will help you reach the goal of: Helping more readers discover you and buy your books!

Research involves knowing your very specific marketplace — like the authors and titles that can be compared to yours. Deep research involves knowing about things like "search engine optimization" and "keywords" and "hashtags" — and where and how to can deploy them. I compare using them to planting the hidden clues to lead your potential readers to the places (your website, your social media channels) that you've ideally optimized for more discovery.

And, once readers have "discovered" you, you need to be able to deploy the secret weapon of your research skills on them to understand what might keep them coming back.

So much of book marketing is in the hands of every author these days — big houses like Penguin Random House are providing marketing education so authors can be more effective as the scale tips the onus toward them.

Research is a tool that authors can deploy more effectively than even traditional publishers because you'll likely have more time and brainpower to spend than the harried folks in the marketing and publicity departments (who have dozens of books to work on); you'll always be more intimately acquainted with your books than they are; and you'll always be more invested in the outcome. Even if your publisher is doing everything for you, it's great to be informed about what goes on behind the scenes. And if you're self-publishing, you'll definitely want to understand this.

The trick is doing the research and then using the info (thoroughly, consistently) to optimize the other tools of book discovery. Think of it as part of your ongoing job as an author.
Valerie Peterson

— Valerie Peterson

Valerie Peterson is a proud member of MWA-NY, a semi-finalist for a 2016-2017 Writers Guild of America East Made in New York Writers Room Fellowship, and a 2015 Finalist for the CBS TV Writers Mentorship Program. She is currently finishing her first novel, which involves several intertwining mysteries and at least two dead bodies. Peterson is also a content strategist and book publishing consultant who ran major book marketing departments and campaigns (including for James Lee Burke and Robert Crais) and for six years ran the Book Publishing site for About.com/The Balance.

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