Sunday, January 29, 2017

Why I Write

Over the past few weeks, as I see the world changing, becoming a more uncertain and unsafe place, I’ve thought long and hard about why I write, if it matters that I write. 
I’ve thought about that first novella of mine that came out in 2013, Tales from the Fountain Pen, and why I wrote it. Why I wrote down the few stories my mother was able to tell me from her experiences during the German occupation of her country, my country, during her teen years. 

For a long time I just thought they would make a good addition to the stories about WWII that are already out there, slice-of-life stories, but now I realize their true importance: These stories get played out again and again and again. History keeps repeating itself, at a faster and faster clip. Humans don’t learn it seems. 

Over the years a number of strangers have entrusted me with their stories. Stories of childhoods spent in war, stories of survival and of extraordinary kindness by strangers during difficult times. These people tell me their stories because I’m an outsider here too and often the only one who will listen to their history. They’ve often been told to not dwell on the past, they’re in America now … but their stories matter.

I will never forget, when growing up in the Netherlands in 70s and 80s, going to the open air market in the city square on Tuesdays after school, and the feeling of shock and horror in the pit of my stomach at seeing the Nazi concentration camp number tattoos on the wrists of some of the stall holders. The haunted look in their eyes. It made the generic history lessons from school seem far more real, and far more recent. 
My mother was not comfortable talking about those years. The few stories I got her to tell me - of which 4 or 5 made it into Tales from the Fountain Pen, fictionalized - were painful for her to relive. But they are true and they continue to matter. 

Those of you who’ve read “Sophie’s Choice” by William Styron, might not know that the choices Sophie has to make were not unique to her. Those choices were made by other women, women put in impossible positions and who’d experienced unspeakable abuse. Some of these were women my mother knew as friends, in-laws, neighbors, during and after those war years. 

But these impossible choices women are forced to make continue today and with travel bans and fear mongering they will only happen more frequently; emotionally and spiritually shredding people.

So why do I write? Why do I keep writing? Because I’ve been entrusted with people’s stories, because no matter where I set my books and short stories, these are the people who inform the characters in those stories. Looking back, I see now how I weave them into what I write, even if it’s a minor character in a subplot, or a chance encounter for the main character. The stories are there; resisting, questioning, informing. 

I have experienced the darkness of human fear and cruelty, I’ve listened to and held the hands of others who’ve suffered far more than I can ever imagine even with my fertile writer’s mind, and I feel compelled to weave all that into my writing. Sure, I write fiction, but that is a valid way to teach, to slip information in, to make a reader think about the world around them.

I understand now that writing is my way of protesting, of standing up and speaking up. I will write the other Fountain Pen stories my mother told me, I will continue to work on the sequel to “Out in the Dark” under pen name Nicola (Nicky) Adams, and I will continue to pitch my WWII trilogy for teens and the SciFi novella I just completed. All of them have stories that matter and in some way reflect the world we now find ourselves in. My books and stories are my voice speaking for others. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Lost Customer

Or the Missing Readers

I recently had the opportunity to talk to some of the kids who used to be on the high school robotics team I mentored. They’re now in college and I thought they might be interested in my YA novel Out in the Dark.

They were interested, but just don’t have the time to read. Which got me thinking about the marketing of Young Adult (protagonist between age 15 - 17) and New Adult (protagonist between age 17 -21) novels. In high school this audience still has time to read for pleasure, but in college that time drops to next to zero.

That’s a very sizable chunk of an author’s audience that drops away, and I suspect book publishers as much as authors are trying to figure out how to get them back, or not lose them to begin with.  

Marketing via Twitter is an option as that was very successful in building an audience for the Hunger Games series quite a few years back, but you can’t just tweet ‘hey, get at this awesome book’ anymore. There needs to be a value-add to lure the savvy young consumer.

For a while short promo films, called book-trailers, highlighting a book’s story, or a single scene, were popular - similar to movie promos - but I don’t hear much about those anymore. Probably because they’re expensive and time consuming to make, even if you use friends as actors and can borrow some of the equipment.

What about audio books? A busy student might just have time to unwind after a stressful day of learning and navigating campus with an audio book.

Audio books are a great way to reach that audience, but that really only works for the big publishers who can afford the upfront cost of creating an audio recording of a book. Small, independent publishers just don’t have the means to pursue that avenue, which means many good books have trouble reaching their audience.

But perhaps authors can pool their talents. The publishing industry isn’t done changing and growing yet and there is plenty of room left for innovation and new ways of doing things. As an example: An author friend in England ditched his publisher and formed a cooperative with a group of authors to publish and market their books collectively under their own banner.

In fact, let me try something different too, on Twitter; serializing a novel in 140-character bite-sized nibbles.