Author Reality + Charles Sterling on Marketing and Author Platform

Marketing, building a platform as a writer… There’s more to being a novelist than most people assume.

Photo of author Charles Sterling.

I’m no expert on how to market fiction writing. Although I’ve produced video documentaries, radio news, published non-fiction articles and a short story or two, I’m still editing my novels. However, what I know for certain is I’m having fun here — meeting you! Who knew I’d encounter so many friendly people from all over the world, who would open my ridiculously sheltered eyes?

In my hugely romanticized imaginings, I picture an Author with a capital “A.” On virtue of their talent, they only needed to work a little hard to attract a super-star literary agent and publisher. For this reason, they never have to lift a finger to sell their books. The Author sits at an incredible desk in a gorgeous office with a spectacular view. After a walk with their dog, a shower, and a scrumptious breakfast, they begin their day writing. Until they get hungry, that is. That’s when they enjoy a tea or a hot chocolate or an espresso with sweets such as the madeleines that writer Marcel Proust used as analyze memory.

Next, said Author does some more writing, takes a stroll for inspiration, writes a tad, then shares dinner with famed thinkers and creatives. The Author’s day ends with a blissful night of rest. The next day, they joyfully wake to do it all over again. Oh, no — I forgot to mention their lunch — well, you get the picture…

Alas, that day dream is akin to figuring that all the fab painters of bygone days did nothing but dab at their canvases between tasting the displays of sumptuous meals they depicted, and doing whatever with their human models. They might chat brilliantly with their clothed subjects who were always famed and genius, or they could indulge in a tryst with their naked, perfectly gorgeous ones.

In my fantasies, nowhere does marketing rear its head. Certainly, in my dreams, the fame of great Authors never involves any of them setting aside part of their day to develop an author platform.

Now for Reality…

Most Authors, even ultra-talented ones, work hard — and that work includes getting people to know about them. 

For instance, I don’t know how much of the day Charles Dickens , who wrote “A Christmas Carol,” and “Oliver Twist,” spent actually writing, but someone told me that each night he’d read his pages aloud to his family, so he could get their constructive input. For sure was a master of episodic, a.k.a. serial, storytelling. His episodes, which were featured in newspapers, garnered so much attention that he bound them into books that became the popular novels we know did quite well!

Another other successful writer who worked that way is Helen Fielding. Her colossal hit, “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” was first serialized in newspapers.

Armistead Maupin did the same thing with his “Tales of the City.” He’d get home from wild 1970s San Francisco parties, use them as inspiration for his serialized newspaper column, and voila! He was rewarded with success, fame, fortune, movies, and I hope more.

Now, let’s consider Bloggers.

The blog posts of E. L. James, who’s known for her “Fifty Shades of Grey,” mushroomed into a money-making atom bomb that included books, movies, and who knows what else.

Also, Julie Powell’s “Julie and Julia” blog eventually made her lots of money as a book and a movie.

My idea is to eventually podcast bits of my novel and then get it into print. First, I started with this blog. Here I continue to do my best to create a larger and larger circle of friends interested in novels and arts, and who might be so kind as to spread the word about my writing.

Author Charles Sterling, who blogs from Russia, is here to show us the marketing/platforming side of writing may not be all that awful after all. He published his first novel when he was fifteen! Since then he’s put out at least eight novels and a bunch more sorts of writing. He’s also a digital artist. Read on for his book selling experience…

Photo of author Charles Sterling.
Photo of author Charles Sterling.

Book Marketing & Author Platform by Charles Sterling

Introduction

One day at age fifteen I walk into my father’s room and I ask him; ‘how difficult is it to write a book?’ He replies, ‘son, it’s the easiest thing in the world!’ Now, whether he was right or wrong, I believed him, and that belief allowed me to write my first ever 75k book at that young age.

Had I asked him ‘how difficult is it to sell a book?’ perhaps the answer would have been different. Selling a book is a whole other world. When you’re writing, you’re an artist. When you’re marketing, you’re in the business sphere. That’s where book marketing and the author platform comes in!

How to market your book

Having been marketing since 2011, when I made my first thousand dollars I used methods that would never work anymore! As times change, so does marketing. But luckily I adapted my approach and saw a steady improvement and increase in sales. The wonderful thing is, it’s like a snowball that goes down a hill and keeps getting bigger. The more books you sell, the more Amazon recommends your books!

Here’s what I did for my past few books.

  1. Set your book for free and do some promotion stacking through “free book promotion” websites. This will give you thousands of downloads and some much needed reviews.
  2. Pin your book with an inviting image to the top of your Twitter.
  3. Promote it in forums like Reddit and GoodReads.
  4. Have an incredible book cover.

We eat with our eyes first! And we do judge books by their covers. I guarantee you that if you had the best book cover in the world, your need for marketing would be zero. The book cover would do the job for you all the way to the New York Times Best Seller list.

Often enough as writers, after we’re done writing and we get onto promoting we start looking for ways to get more viewers. We forget about what we’ve been working on so hard and begin relying websites and methods to get us where we want to be. I wish to reiterate on this extremely important point, a good book cover sells your books first! And the reviews sell your book second, so make sure your book is wonderful too.

Personally, I design my covers myself because I’ve been graphic designing as long as I’ve been writing. Essentially one must look at the top selling book covers in your niche create something thematically similar. The reason being that, readers out there already know what they’re looking for, so it’s your book cover’s job to accurately portray that.

Now, I chose to market my ebooks exclusively through Amazon for its KDP program allowing you to set discount prices as well as put your book out for free. The free book part is important to get some reviews going early on. Amazon is also a good focus point because by putting all your effort into your book, the algorithm helps push your book forward by placing it in the “Recommended Books” section of your potential readers, which is what allows you to sell books even when you haven’t marketed for months.

I’ve tried publishing in Barnes & Nobles and SmashWords, but so far really enjoyed focusing on purely Amazon.

The Author Platform

It’s super easy, but super important to have! Once you have an author platform you’ll be proud of yourself and even feel a little famous when you appear in Google searches.

Twitter

I believe Twitter is perfect for a few reasons; most authors and readers are either on Twitter or Facebook. Instagram is an image based platform, I tried it for a while and didn’t quite like it.

On Twitter the hashtag game is a lot stronger than on Facebook, making it easier to fit into a specific niche and target specific groups of people. The retweet function is nifty as well, as others retweet your stuff for more people to see!

So if you do decide on Twitter, get a photogenic picture of yourself and write a short and sweet bio. No need to be too long. Pin your book to the top of your page, and spend the rest of your social media rants about yourself, things you find funny and your opinions on things. If your Twitter is filled with nothing but your book, people will turn away.

Your book will already be pinned on top, so every single person that comes onto your profile is forced to see it before they see the rest. “The rest” should be inviting things and things that people can relate to and understand you better as a person. You want them to say “wow, I like this person. I’ll follow them and take a look at their book.”

To get followers is really easy; go around your niche and comment and put likes on people’s stuff. Thirty minutes of twittering a day and you’ll have a thousand followers in two weeks. I did just that with no complications!

Website

Get either a Wix or a WordPress website going, use a free template to make it look nice, and fill it up with your stuff. Have a page for your books, have a page for your author bio, a page for your short stories or poetry, or even a page for pictures of your pet.

Images you use on your website will appear in Google Images, so make sure to keyword them with your name.

Words that you use in “Heading” format will appear in Google Search, so make sure they’re your book titles or your name. Then add your website to your Twitter and you’re basically set! A website might seem like the hardest part, but once you did it, you no longer need to worry about it.

My own website charlesimagines.com is as easy as that, yet has all my work neatly laid out for people to see, and it took me just about two days to fully complete.

Amazon Page

Aha! An Amazon page is an author platform too! Make sure all your books are listed in your Author Central. If you have a blog, you can link it to your Author Central as well. Then in your GoodReads account make sure all your books are linked to your Amazon page, because often people write reviews and comment there.

This part is not difficult, and if you have some problems (like I did) just write them an email and they fix everything for you.

It’s a good time to mention that, Amazon has over 3000 different categories for your books, but you only get to see around 250 when you’re actually publishing. If there’s a specific category that you need (like mine was Young & Adult Pirate Adventure eBooks) then you’ll have to contact Amazon and they change it for you.

Reap the Benefits!

As a few final thoughts, I’ve only started using Twitter and adding things onto my website about five or six months ago and the benefits that came with it were enormous.  I was discovered by authors and readers, invited to do podcasts, got free book reviews on other people’s websites and most importantly… I emerged from the shadows and began connecting with people!

Book marketing is usually a slow and steady process that gets faster and faster the more you do it. I started off with numbers like 2, 5, 13 and some months later they turned into 900, 1500, 3000, and are still on their way up.

At first things might seem like they’re not working out, or you’ll get tired or you might feel like it’s a waste of time, but the longer you go on, the more the puzzle pieces start fitting together, and the more the grind seemed worth it.

My final tiny advice that I wish to share applies to anything and is based around the principal of ‘compound effect’. Much like going to the gym or eating healthy, it’s about doing something small every day. This gets multiplied by hundreds of days, and the effects become massive.

This was the case with me; my first books back in 2011-2012 kept bringing me paychecks (despite the books being clearly written by a teenager) and then the books that followed were stranded in a desert with no activity. I was left wondering what was going on and what I had to do to make it work again, and ended up committing a huge portion of my time to learning on promoting and marketing.

I had to change my old fashioned book covers, market in different places, create better keywords, and I started seeing my numbers grow again. As of recently, the author platform I built has greatly helped!

What are your thoughts on selling books?

COVID-19: Vids + Plants + Pets + Podcasting

Quick question and get your ears ready for another Happiness Between Tails podcast soon:

Have you checked out the new podcasting integration between WordPress and Anchor? I’m getting ready to try it and wonder if you have thoughts to share regarding it. (Here’s a podcast I published some months ago.) According to WordPress’ recent email, “We’re excited to announce a new feature that automatically converts the text of any page or post into a podcast on Anchor, the world’s largest podcast platform. If you’re already blogging on WordPress.com, there’s a good chance it’s podcast-ready—because our new integration with Anchor means you can now turn your words into audio in a few steps. The blog-to-podcast process is simple, and it opens up your work to new possibilities and listeners.”

COVID-19, staying-at-home included, is plenty hate-worthy. (I’ve griped about it here and here and here.) But not everything, i.e., I’m writing my novel, “Flamenco & the Sitting Cat” at a far better clip. (I elaborated on some COVID silver linings here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here, as did author Alice Renaud here.)

Our doggie sits politely for pumpkin seeds. Anyone got a pumpkin seed?

Nonetheless, there are those among us who love, loooooove, luuuurrrve COVID-19. Indulge me for how tickled I am by the “sound effects” of one such COVID fan…

Our fluffed, furred, feathered, slippery, scaled, and whatever else creature-family who can’t get enough of us — those guys are overjoyed! In their unique ways, they broadcast, “Hurray! Our people are home!”

At the start of quarantine, I heard a radio item about a doggie who needed a vet’s attention because she’d sprained her tail from wagging it so much!

People I know average an extra three hours to their days thanks to working from home. Here in Los Angeles County, “driving’ is a euphemism for “fuming in stand-still traffic.” Think of all the heart attacks fended off if we didn’t have to waste hours fuming behind the wheel. Just the other day, road rage triggered (pardon the sad but irresistible pun) a shooting in Long Beach.

More free time means more gardening. Urban gardening activist Ron Finley of South Central Los Angeles says, “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”

His TED talk describes how his first parkway (what divides sidewalk from street) orchard-ette turned eco-lutionary…

When we moved into our home, my dear husband, Khashayar, applied his engineer’s practicality to our front and backyards. “If we’re going to work it, we’re going to eat it,” he said. Or something to that effect.

Which is why we’ve got several fruit trees crammed onto our bit of green. We (okay, he did the grunt work as our soil is basically clay) spent Sunday laying the groundwork for this year’s tomatoes and herbs.

Our little garden blooms with future fruits and herbs. Our little garden blooms with future fruits and herbs.

Do you know a pet who’s celebrating COVID-19?

Novelist Alice Renaud’s COVID-19 Inspo: Animals + Publishing

Quarantine: I enjoy staying home, but only if it’s by choice.

Yet I must admit, living at a slower pace has offered me more space to work on finishing “Flamenco & the Sitting Cat,” my novel. Make no mistake, COVID is awful, as I’ve discussed here and here and here. However, silver linings exist such as those I wrote of here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

Read on for how staying home and animals inspire fantasy romance author Alice Renaud, a Londoner. She also details how she published her award-winning books!…

Novelist Alice Renaud.
Novelist Alice Renaud.

Our Furry and Not-So-Furry Friends by Alice Renaud

As we begin to emerge from our third lockdown in a year (and boy was this one painful – over four months, and in winter) I’m reflecting on what I learned during this extraordinary year.

One thing I’ve discovered is that animals and nature are even more essential for my well-being than I thought. I’ve always loved the natural world, but during the lockdowns it has proved a lifeline. Admiring fresh flowers, lying on the grass on a sunny day, and watching birds, have injected pleasure into otherwise drab days. I’ve realized that even insects are fascinating. I’ve enjoyed observing the butterflies, ladybirds and bees as they emerge from hibernation and launch themselves into the world (which is a little bit how I feel right now as I learn to go to the shops again and dare to have a coffee at a terrace.)

Photo of a butterfly by author Alice Renaud.
Photo of a butterfly by author Alice Renaud.

I’m not the only one. Many people in the UK have discovered the joys of nature during the lockdown. Long may it last! Many have also adopted animals. My favorite pet is the cat, or The Cat as I’m always tempted to write, because The Cat is an animal that would definitely write its name in capitals if it could write (and maybe they can but are hiding it from us). We don’t have a Cat at the moment, since our last pet went to the great basket in the sky, so I content myself with the neighbours and family’s Cats, like Tabitha, my aunt’s tabby, shown here staring at the neighbour’s feline.

Photo by author Alice Renaud of her aunt's tabby and a neighbor.
Photo by author Alice Renaud of her aunt’s tabby and a neighbor.

Animals and the natural world are a big source of inspiration for me and play a big part in all my stories. My Sea of Love series, which won its category in the Paranormal Romance Guild Reviewer’s Choice Award, follows the lives and loves of shape shifting mermen and mermaids. In their aquatic form my merfolk have a tail but not a fish tail. They’re mammals and look quite a bit like dolphins or porpoises. I grew up by the sea and love all marine creatures. I’ll never forget the day I saw a porpoise for the first time. I was amazed by the power and grace of that big animal, and the ease and speed with which it swam through the waters. I’m also fond of seabirds, even seagulls which a lot of people in the UK don’t like. They can make a nuisance of themselves by stealing chips and cakes, but they’re sociable, tough, highly adaptable, and fantastic airborne acrobats.

Cover of Mermaids Marry in Green, a fantasy romance novel by Alice Renaud.

My books feature both real animals and fantastical ones. In my latest release Mermaids Marry in Green (also a winner in the Paranormal Romance Guild Reviewer’s Choice Award) there is a shifter mermaid, a warlock who can change into a cat, and also a mythical Welsh water monster, an afanc. Part beaver, part crocodile, he possesses magical powers and brings the hero and heroine together. Welsh legends are full of marvellous creatures and I enjoy putting them in my stories. As well as the afanc, there is the Ceffyl Dwr, the Water Horse, and the Giant Cat of Anglesey. Now that’s a feline I’d like to meet!

Wherever you are, I hope you are keeping well in these strange times, and I hope that like me you will find comfort in the company of furry (or not so furry) friends and in the beauty of the natural world.

My Publishing Journey

I started writing at the age of 14, but it’s not until many years later that I got my first short story published in a UK mass market magazine. I carried on writing and publishing romantic and family-themed short stories for several years before trying my hand at longer fiction. My first three romantic novels did not find a publisher, then I discovered that witches, mermen and angels were a lot more fun than sheikhs and billionaires. My first paranormal romance novella didn’t find a publisher either, but then I joined a writing group and met my wonderful tutor and editor, Laurie Sanders. She helped me whip another story into shape, and in 2019 A Merman’s Choice was published by an indie publisher, Black Velvet Seductions. Since then I have published two more novellas with them, and have contributed to several collections of short stories. I enjoy working with BVS very much. Ric Savage, my publisher, gives his authors plenty of freedom, I can write the story that I want to write without having to worry about conforming to strict pre-defined criteria. The other BVS authors are a great bunch and very supportive. Our anthologies are a great way to discover the writing of all these talented authors. The latest, Cowboy Desire, is out now in ebook and paperback.

For more about Alice, visit her site here.

How’s your creativity going?

Make Transgender Visibility daily and Valeska Réon’s great news!

Rachel Crandall started Transgender Day of Visibility as a day of hope, back in 2009. Indeed it is this year! For the first time, a U.S. President, Joe Biden, issued a proclamation on it!

Here Rachel talks about the annual event…

Now is also a good excuse for an update on what Valeska Réon’s been up to since I wrote of her a while ago.

Valeska Réon has wonderful news!
Valeska Réon has wonderful news!

Her book, “Der Bibelkiller/The Bible Killer,” has a favorable opportunity to become a Netflix film. Here’s an interview with Valeska and director/actor/screen writer Nicolai Tegeler who will film it in Maastricht, Netherlands. If you, like me, don’t understand German, Google Translate does a terrific job.

Valeska Réon with director/actor/screen writer Nicolai Tegeler.
Valeska Réon with director/actor/screen writer Nicolai Tegeler.

In addition, her next book is set to published in less than a year. Already, Valeska is working to make it a Netflix miniseries. The historic novel features Anne of Brittany (1477-1514), the only woman who served twice as France’s queen consort (the most powerful sort of queen). Not just that, Anne was queen consort of Naples, and a duchess consort of Milan. All that and she died when she was only 34!

“Der Bibelkiller/The Bible Killer” by Valeska Réon.
“Der Bibelkiller/The Bible Killer” by Valeska Réon.

“The Multiple Lives of Author Valeska Réon” in her own words

When I started writing back in 1997, the world of literature was not like it is today. Self-publishing wasn’t yet invented, so you first had to find a publisher before the book could see the light of day. The Internet was still in its infancy in Germany, so you had to resort to traditional marketing strategies.

In 2012, after three non-fiction books on health and beauty, I took all my courage and wrote my autobiography, “Flowers for a Chameleon.” What happened next — I hadn’t expected that! Perhaps I should tell you that I was not born a woman, but had already worked as a model in Paris before the sex reassignment surgery. Always I was careful that nobody learned of my secret. 1985 was another time, and models like Andrej(a) Pejic and Lea T. did not exist. The reactions to my book were overwhelming, it sold very well, and a filmmaker contacted me to film it.

But above all, I became aware of one thing – as an author, you market yourself best when you are authentic. Due to my life story, I was suddenly in the focus of the German LBGT community, which I first had to deal with. Countless letters from my readers all had the same core message: “Thank you for giving us such courage with your book!”

Today #beyoubetrue is my favorite hashtag, and I use it not only on Instagram but also on my author portraits.

Valeska Réon wears her favorite hashtag.
Valeska Réon wears her favorite hashtag.

After that, I changed my genre to now writing thrillers –- and that’s when I had a new marketing idea. In my book, “Double Sacrifice,” the song, “J’aime tellement,” plays such an essential role that once I wrote the lyrics, I then found a singer/composer to set them to music. Finally, it was remixed and is now available for download –- a great compliment to the book.

My new thriller, “Walking on Sand,” is was rewritten into a stage play that premiered in Düsseldorf, December 2019. Another autobiographical story, this one is about the transsexual children’s book author Lea. After many years, she returns to her hometown to avenge the terrible things her classmates did to her. The children’s book mentioned within it, “Charlotte Inside,” is taken out of the crime plot and made into a book of its own. It is the first children‘s book ever to tell young readers about therapy with the inner child.

Valeska Réon lays on the sand, a watchtower in the background, with her dog.
What new creative adventure is Valeska Réon conjuring?

My greatest wish is for “Charlotte Inside” to appear internationally so it can bring joy and courage to children everywhere.

How many lives have you lived?

It’s Never Too Late: Especially for writer/actress Lee Gale Gruen

“No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatsoever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than others.” Martha Graham (United States, May 11, 1894 – April 1, 1991), modern dance pioneer.

“God has pitted you against a rought antagonist that you may be a conqueror, and this cannot be without toil.” Epictetus, Greek philosopher, (c. 50 – c. 135 AD)

Cover of “Reinventing Yourself in Your Retirement Years,” by Lee Gale Gruen.

Heck, anyone can tell us we’re never too old to embark on bold new adventures. But we all know what they say about seeing! To get any eyeful of believing, let’s take a gander at actress/author/blogger/lecturer Lee Gale Gruen.

A retired probation officer, Lee Gale first visited us here to describe her newfound passion for acting. Bringing her father along to classes inspired her to write her first book, “Adventures with Dad.”

These days she continues to act, now in the East San Francisco Bay Area. Catch some of her performances by typing her full name into the YouTube.com search bar.

Since she recently published a second book, “Reinventing Yourself in Your Retirement Years,” I invited her to tell us about that too…

Self-reinventor Lee Gale Gruen

Passion at Any Age by Lee Gale Gruen

Too many retirees and seniors have no idea what to do in the new stage of their lives called retirement. Many sink into isolation and depression. When I first retired, I had no clue what to do next. My 37-year career as a probation officer was over, and my children were launched. I struggled for a long time to carve out a new identity for myself.

After trying many different things, none particularly satisfying, I mistakenly signed up for an acting class for seniors, thinking it was just a play reading group. I was hooked on acting that first day despite my lifelong stage fright. My 85-year-old father began attending the class with me and was my scene partner in the class showcases where we performed the humorous scenes I wrote for us. From there, I networked with classmates and learned about going on auditions. I eventually found an agent and booked real, paid acting jobs. I then got the idea of writing a memoir about it, and in 2013, Adventures with Dad: A Father and Daughter’s Journey Through a Senior Acting Class, was published.

Cover of "Adventures with Dad," by Lee Gale Gruen.

As an author, I learned that I was expected to promote my book. Fortunately, I had slowly and painstakingly been able to overcome my crippling stage fright as a result of my acting. So, I started giving interviews and appearing before groups, talking about the book. People shared their own stories with me about how lost they felt since they retired. I realized I had something to give back to the community. I could show people how to reinvent themselves in retirement. I had discovered the secret: find a passion which will motivate you to want to get up in the morning, get dressed, get out of the house, and embrace life. That’s what happened to me after I discovered a passion for acting.

I developed a lecture from my own experiences as well as research I did, and I began giving talks titled “Reinventing Yourself in Your Retirement Years” aimed at the retiree and senior demographic. I also started writing a blog of the same name to share my thoughts, observations, and experiences with the goal of helping my readers reinvent themselves after they retire. I have been blogging and lecturing on this subject for the past eight years.

Audience members at my lectures began asking if they could buy a book about my talk. That has resulted in my recently published book which is an adjunct to my blog and lecture. All three share the same title, Reinventing Yourself in Your Retirement Years. My new book contains the contents of my lecture as well as seven years of posts from my blog. It is available on Amazon by clicking here. My goal with my blog, lecture, and new book is to help retirees, those soon to retire, baby boomers, and seniors find joy, excitement, and purpose after they retire just like I did.

Seniors make up about a third of the population of the United States, so that’s a pretty big demographic. However, it’s often a forgotten group. It shouldn’t be. A group that big has great influence socially, economically, and politically. The senior population can learn to flex that muscle. It would improve their status and put them back into the role of wise and respected elders that they once held and really still are.  There is no need for retirees and seniors to feel like their life is over. Plenty of exciting pursuits and opportunities await them. They only have to figure out what they might like, where it is, and how to access it. My new book is geared to help each individual find activities and pursuits at their own comfort level. It will guide them through the maze in developing their own “second act” in life.

For more about her, her books, and to connect with her, visit her blog.

Do you worry that you’re too old to accomplish something you ‘re passionate about?

Sci-fi Icon, Octavia E. Butler (and we’re over Covid)

Book-lover/library-lover Octavia at home. (c) Patti Perret/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

Please note: From the bottom of my heart, thank you everyone for your kind wishes for my husband and me while we were sick with Covid. Fortunately we’re well now and hope you and yours are staying safe. For anyone who thinks Covid is a simple flu, this is absolutely not the case. While it may start off mildly, it can quickly take a terrible turn. Please get vaccinated if you have the opportunity. Our doctor advises us to be as careful as ever as no conclusive evidence confirms that having been ill with it has gives us one iota of immunity, especially against the newer versions arising.

Savaged by self-doubt? Dry spells getting between you and your goals, including ones for writing your novel? You and I have brilliant company!

A first edition of Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler, 1979. Huntington Library, (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
A first edition of Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler, 1979. Huntington Library, (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

Octavia E. Butler, the first African-American woman sci-fi writer, wrote herself many pep talks. She suffered through crummy jobs (potato chip quality control, anyone?) and years of crappy pay to attain her writing aspirations.

Octavia cemented her goals inside a notebook cover in 1988. Octavia E. Butler papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Copyright Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
Octavia cemented her goals inside a notebook cover in 1988. Octavia E. Butler papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Copyright Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

Talk about paying off! She was the first science fiction author to receive the MacArthur Fellowship’s “Genius Grant”! And she was a multiple Hugo Award and Nebula Award winner!

One of Octavia's many self-reminders, this note regards forging credible characters and worlds. (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.
One of Octavia’s many self-reminders, this note regards forging credible characters and worlds. (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

All that and still she continued to work hard at bolstering herself. Proof is within her donation to The Huntington Library’s Art Collections in Los Angeles, a collection ranging from extensive drafts, notes, and research materials to more than a dozen novels, numerous short stories, essays, correspondence, ephemera, and assorted books.

Detail from Octavia’s notes for the Oankali, characters from the Xenogenesis trilogy. (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.
Detail from Octavia’s notes for the Oankali, characters from the Xenogenesis trilogy. (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

Born in Pasadena, CA, on June 22, 1947, she grew up poor. She watched her single mom endure racism and classism while cleaning homes to raise her daughter. Octavia towered over her classmates and grappled with dyslexia.

Octavia at around 15. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
Octavia at around 15. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

Her peers bullied her for not being more like them. As an only child most comfortable among adults, she spent her time at the public library, reading, and writing. Later she attended writing classes and workshops. Check out this cool interactive link the Los Angeles Times created regarding her stomping grounds.

In a 2000 interview for the New York Times, she said, “When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn’t in any of this stuff I read. The only black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn’t manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing.”

In 1979, with the publishing of Kindred, she chartered fresh territory for how to relay history. The protagonist is an African American woman who vaporizes from the Los Angeles apartment she shares with her Anglo boyfriend. She careens between the pre-Civil War slave era and back, a harrowing ride to put it mildly. Did Octavia dream of the present, when these days mixed couples are common and now high school teachers assign Kindred to their students?

Photo of Science Fiction novel writer Octavia E. Butler near Mt. Shuksan, in Washington state, 2001. Photographer unknown.
Octavia near Mt. Shuksan, in Washington state, 2001. Photographer unknown.

Octavia was taken from us in 2006, at a far too young 58. She was staving off depression and writer’s block to finish a trilogy that remains incomplete. Her fans continue to grow.

Her advice to writers: Keep writing, no matter how you feel about your work.

Three months before she passed away, here she chatted with investigative journalist Amy Goodman, who heads Democracy Now (a fantastic video and radio news show, by the way) and co-host Juan González.

This fellow blogger’s post features 15 anecdotes about Octavia. Within it, a video link includes an interview with another stellar African-American woman sci-fi and fantasy writer, N. K. Jemisin.

How do you reckon with self-doubt?

Me and COVID plus Imagining a New Place by novelist Chris Hall

‘Sunset over the Berg River ©River Tides Guesthouse’ – where author Chris Hall stayed when she began writing her book, "Song of the Sea Goddess." Owner Mike Harvey is a good friend of hers and the photo is from his website.
‘Sunset over the Berg River ©River Tides Guesthouse’ – where author Chris Hall stayed when she began writing her book, “Song of the Sea Goddess.” Owner Mike Harvey is a good friend of hers and the photo is from his website.

Writers get to build whatever world they please — sometimes our novels bend the truth only somewhat — other times they invent entire new gallaxies.

My works in progress, “Flamenco & the Sitting Cat,” and “Tango & the Sitting Cat,” are set in fictitious towns within Los Angeles during 2002 and 2003. Back then, COVID-19 didn’t exist…

Note: Earlier this week, my husband became feverish and unwell. Turns out he has COVID-19. He’s doing his best to get well while I feel healthy and am awaiting my test results. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been super careful. I’m letting you know this as a reminder that one can never be too conscientious about avoiding this severe illness and about working civically to help contain it. (Here’s the follow-up, and here’s after that. and here’s the latest.)

Deciding on setting and histories and all that goes into storytelling is chancy no matter what an author chooses to create. There will always be fans and foes. To be a novelist requires enough passion to outrun the discouraging thoughts that can torment us.

Chris Hall has been wonderfully prolific over the last few years. She’s published three novels and a short story collection! Originally from the UK, she describes herself as “a compulsive story-teller, cat slave and hen keeper.” To sample her short fiction, fan fiction, mini-series, and poetry, as well as to follow her on her various social media, check out her website.

“Song of the Sea Goddess,” her most recent novel, is set where she lives now, the Western Cape of South Africa. Here she describes why she decided to depict a South Africa different from how it is in real life…

Author Chris Hall.
Author Chris Hall.

“From the Writer’s desk” by Chris Hall

Writing a novel is not just about telling the story. There are other considerations that come into play. I’d like to share with you why I was motivated to write a book set in South Africa. In particular, why I chose to paint an idealised portrait of the place and why I drew on the overarching theme of environmental destruction, rather than dealing with the gritty issues of race and poverty in my latest novel, Song of the Sea Goddess.

The Setting

When it came to writing this, my fourth novel, I was determined to set it in my adopted country, South Africa. I’d been living near Cape Town for almost ten years and the time had come to give voice to the people around me. I’d also decided it was time to transition from historical fiction. It was time to write in the moment, but at the same time include elements borrowed from the ancient lore of the African continent, which are written on cave walls and embedded in the landscape.

I knew I needed a setting to match the story I was about to tell, although the story hadn’t really even begun. Then, at the beginning of 2019, while staying in a small town on our very beautiful west coast, while I sat by the banks of the Berg River and watched the little boats going past on their way out to sea, I was moved to write a story about a fisherman with a little boat.

Every writer needs a helper as inspiring as Chris Hall's kitty, Luna.
Every writer needs a helper as inspiring as Chris Hall’s kitty, Luna.

The Characters

I’m a lazy novelist. I let my characters emerge and develop and play around in my mind. Even before they are fully formed, they are always desperate to run to centre stage and act out their parts.

But there has to be a starting point.

A few of my key characters are based on people I met when I first came to live in South Africa. People whose backgrounds were unfamiliar to me; people who come from what are euphemistically called ‘formerly disadvantaged communities’ (as if their communities are not still disadvantaged in this country, which has the most polarized society on the planet).

I could have written about some of their struggles, about the conditions in which they live, about the poverty and lack of opportunity that characterizes their communities, of how they’d suffered under apartheid, but as I got to them better, I realised that none of them wants to dwell on any of that.

So I decided I could give them better lives, locate them in a much more pleasant place and put a positive spin on this beautiful country.

I mixed them up a bit, taking a little bit of one and blending it with another, but their voices are true and their characteristics mirror real life in many respects. There’s a nod to some of the darker side of people’s lives with Sam’s flight from the Cape Flats’ gangland and in the history behind Jannie’s tattoos from the notorious ‘28s’ gang.

On the lighter side, several of the comical incidents, like when Auntie Rose loses her false teeth down her pants’ leg, are little events that actually happened. The food that the Aunties make and sell in the novel is based on recipes that I tasted and talked about with people. The love of food and the common ground we found over cookery has cemented several friendships in my new town.

The Theme

Concern for the environment is a theme I continue to return to in the short fiction and poetry, which I write on my blogsite, and while watching a TV documentary about water pollution, an idea began to form in my mind for the backdrop to my novel’s narrative. Water is in short supply in our country anyway, but what if the rivers were threatened? And what would happen if the forces of nature were moved to fight back? Soon my emerging novel would take a new and interesting turn.

My love of the landscape and ancient lore of the country that I now call home will continue to feature in my work. I’m already embroiled in a sequel to Song of the Sea Goddess, where myth and magic will once again be awakened in the little coastal town where the great river flows from the purple mountains into the southern ocean.

Visit Chris' site to order her books, and to find out more about her and the rest of her writings.
Visit Chris’ site to order her books, and to find out more about her and the rest of her writings.

Have you ever created a new world?

DIY Podcasting: 15 Tips by Fiona Livingston

Reading… writing… listening! Hey, if “seeing is believing,” why doesn’t the same go for tasting and feeling and smelling — and hearing too?

Ancient Egyptian Seshat is goddess of writing and a host of other amazing things! Photo: Jon Bodsworth.
Ancient Egyptian Seshat is goddess of writing and a host of other amazing things! Photo: Jon Bodsworth.

When’s the last time you tuned into your fave radio show? Same as radio shows, podcasts are story readings, performances, interviews, and monologues. Radio shows are often repackaged into podcasts that allow you to dictate when to tune in.

When my first novel, “Flamenco & the Sitting Cat,” is edited (and then its sequel, “Tango & the Sitting Cat”), I’ll podcast it to create a buzz for when it’s published. Here’s an experimental podcast episode I produced borrowing a friend’s short story. A video version of it is on Youtube as well.

Creatives who want to control their work and keep 100% of their profits must become their own promoters. Podcasts are one way to get the word out. First, though, people need to know you have a podcast.

Here to clue us in on how to do that is London-based Fiona Livingston. She blogs about marketing and podcasting on Medium, and produces The Culture Bar, an  arts and culture-related podcast…

Blogger/podcaster Fiona Livingston is a content and digital marketing specialist.
Blogger/podcaster Fiona Livingston is a content and digital marketing specialist.

“15 Tips on Promoting Your Podcast Series” by Fiona Livingston

You’ve poured your heart and soul into creating and recording your podcast series on a subject you are knowledgeable about. Now you need to get your podcast in front of audiences who are as passionate about the subject as you are.

But how do you get your podcast in front of listeners when there are 850,000 active podcasts out there in the world? 

This article covers the best, easiest, and most effective podcast promotion ideas to help you build your audience and market your podcast.

Fiona's illustration of "eau de marketing" trends makes me smile.
Fiona’s illustration of “eau de marketing” trends makes me smile.

First, let’s make sure you have some key podcast staples under your belt before you start promoting your podcast:

  1. Podcast cover artwork. My top advice for creating cover artwork is to be clear. Once uploaded onto your podcast distributor, the size of your artwork will reduce a lot, so you want something bold, simple, and eye-catching. You can create your artwork by using templates on Canva, or if you have a mac you can use Keynote which is a very powerful design tool. Here are some great cover artwork examples to inspire you.
  2. Episode titles. The way you title your episodes has a big impact on your total download numbers. My main tips for you are to NOT use a naming system such as ‘Episode 4’ or ‘XYZ Podcast: Episode 4’. You need to let your audiences know at a glance what the topic is so, your title should be as descriptive as possible.
  3. Record 3-5 podcasts before your launch/start of your next season. This will ensure you have a regular schedule of events planned out and also gives you time to record future episodes. Make sure you have a launch schedule in place. For example, in the first week, you can release 2 or 3 podcasts to keep audiences hooked.
  4. Create a dedicated podcast website. This can either be a section on an existing website or you can create a podcast website for free using providers such as WordPress, Wix, or Squarespace. These sites give you a valuable presence on search engines and act as a home for your podcast so audiences can find out more about you. This also gives you further opportunities to supplement your podcast with more content to show your expertise and passion. 

Ok so now you have a great podcast recorded, fantastic eye-catching cover artwork, and launched a dedicated website. Let’s start promoting your series with these top tips (this list focusses on free marketing actions):

Fiona produces an arts and culture podcast.
Fiona produces an arts and culture podcast.
  1. Add your podcast to a distribution platform. Upload your podcast MP3 file to distribution sites such as Podbean (free and priced programmes) and Anchor (free) and they will automatically send your podcast episodes to a variety of podcast sites such as Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and Amazon Alexa. Apple podcasts capture 32% of podcast listeners and downloads so your podcast must appear here.
  2. Meta-tag your podcast. On your chosen distributor and website, make sure you complete the meta-tagging options. This is the place to add keywords relating to your podcast, so it shows up in search results and makes you discoverable.
  3. Create a promotional trailer. This helps audiences understand what your podcast series is about, and you can embed this on your website and social media channels. Find tips on how to make a trailer here.
  4. Add show notes and include hyperlinks for each podcast episode. It is good practice to give a short summary and overview of what is included in your podcast episode. This is also a great place to add links to your guest/s or any resources that you mention in the episode.
  5. Leverage guest audiences. Make it easy for guests to share your podcast by creating audio snippets, quote cards, or prewritten tweets for them so they can easily use these on their social media channels.
  6. Create podcast artwork for each episode. Using your main cover artwork template, adapt it to show the title of each episode, and change the imagery to give each episode an identity and theme.
  7. Create a dedicated podcast social media channel. Set up a Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Instagram profile to promote your podcast.
  8. Create quote cards in Canva or Pablo. Select attention-grabbing quotes from each episode. This gives listeners great insight into what’s to come.
  9. Share rich media. Create extra content such as soundbites, audiograms (using tools such as GetAudiogram), behind-the-scenes photos, or teaser video clips to build excitement about your episode. Also, Twitter has an embed feature using Soundcloud so you can play the audio directly from a Twitter stream.
  10. Tease the episode 24 hours ahead of time e.g. 3x on Twitter and 2x to Facebook/Instagram. Talk about behind-the-scenes content in Instagram Stories.
  11. Create an audio-video to share on YouTube. If you use a provider such as Podbean they will automatically create a video for you and send it to your YouTube page. YouTube is a huge search engine for content and should be included in marketing your podcast. Or you can create a video using a tool such as Screenflow (free trial period) and use free video clip assets from Pexels.
  12. Audio transcription. To ensure your podcast is accessible and aid SEO discovery, you can create an audio transcription and add it to your podcast website. You can use audio transcription tools such as Otter.ai (free for up to 40 minutes, otherwise it’s $9.99 per month) to help you do this.
  13. Include your podcast in your e-newsletter. You can easily create your own e-newsletter using email service provider such as Mailchimp, Flodesk or Campaign Monitor to manage your subscribers and send them notifications about your latest podcast. Mailchimp and Flodesk have free basic tiers, and Campaign Monitor starts at $9/month. 
  1. Publish podcast-themed blog content on your website. A useful way to keep your website content fresh and to also include extra in-depth content on your podcast theme.
  2. Be a guest on other people’s podcasts. A great way for you to showcase your knowledge and build awareness of your podcast.

Here is a list of other important Podcatcher sites your podcast should feature on to generate greater visibility:

  1. Overcast
  2. Stitcher
  3. Podcast Addict
  4. Podcast subreddit
  5. PodcastLand
  6. TuneIn
  7. Bello Collective
  8. Deezer (great for French/EU audiences)
  9. Podcast Listen notes

Is there a radio show or podcast you enjoy? (And btw, did you notice the new header pic of Ms. Black Dog Cuteness?)

The Henna Artist’s bighearted Alka Joshi on saris, plus my wedding henna

“When’s the last time you read something unapologetically pro-choice — & that’s as empowering as it is romantic? Me? Never. Can’t wait for Joshi’s next book! Wish there were more novels that discuss pro-choice issues head-on. Enchanting story set in 1950s India from women’s point of view about the choices we’re given and how much we can make with them. Audiobook narrator Sneha Mathan is marvelous!”

~ My review of The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi for Amazon and Goodreads

I absolutely adore books (after all, I’m writing two)! Whenever I finish reading an exceptional novel, I review it on Goodreads and Amazon. Sure, not all stories resonate with me. As a tender-hearted author, I know too well the blood/sweat/tears that even a crappy book demands, so I don’t review those.

Then I email the novelist to thank them for making my life more thoughtful and maybe even fun. Ditto for any audiobook performer involved. Some thank me back, and on the days my stars are truly aligned, they agree to contribute to Happiness Between Tails.

Anyone who doesn’t read The Henna Artist is missing out. Clearly it’s written by a generous spirit. Just glance through Alka’s website and Youtube channel, where she lauds other authors to the extent that poses with their books! Here she is, holding Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic as she says how grateful she is for it. Btw, I love that book too, so she’s got good taste to her credit as well lol 🙂

Bighearted author Alka Joshi lauds Bighearted author Alka Joshi lauds “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert in a video.

Allow me to digress a moment: Henna, oh, henna, you magical green powder! You enhance my hair, and you make lovely tattoos!…

Photo of da-AL's henna-tattooed hands. The day before I got married, I went to Los Angeles’ Little India for these gorgeous henna tattoos.

They’re far more forgiving than the permanent ink ones, and brides aren’t allowed to do housework until they’ve worn off…

Photo of my henna tattooed hands and feet. I needed just the right sandals to show off my enhanced tootsies!

Dusting off my photos to show you these provided an excuse to reconnect with Chris Miller, the super-talented photographer (check out her Instagram too) who was beyond kind to gift them to my sweetie and me. Back when she shot them, we both worked for the Beach Reporter, a Manhattan Beach community weekly. I reported on Hermosa Beach and, In addition to her work as an event fotog, at the time she was the publication’s photojournalist.

Wedding party photo of Khashayar and da-AL. It seems like yesterday when you’re having fun…

Back to our esteemed guest: Alka was born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India. At the age of nine, she moved to the U.S. As a Stanford University grad, she’s worked in advertising and PR, and owned a marketing consultancy. On top of all that, she has a Creative Writing MFA from Cal Arts San Francisco. The Henna Artist is her first book. In way less than a year, it’s a huge success! The sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, is set for July, plus the third book in the trilogy for 2022. And — she’s an executive producer for the novel’s upcoming Miramax TV series!

Read on for her thoughts on women in India. Note that it’s not just India — unfortunately, I’ve met women architects in the U.S. who encounter discrimination here too…

Alka Joshi, author of Alka Joshi, author of “The Henna Artist” and more!…

“The Sari vs. Modern India” by Alka Joshi

In January 2019, the Architecture faculty at Ansal University in Gurgaon, just outside New Delhi, received an email from the registrar to attend a convocation.

Architecture faculty at Ansal University in Gurgaon's news bulletin board. Architecture faculty at Ansal University in Gurgaon’s news bulletin board.

It requested formal dress: “trouser, coat and tie for men” and “saris for women.”

Students wear western clothes. Students wear western clothes.

This sparked a lively, funny, albeit very polite, conversation on WhatsApp among the female faculty, who normally wear trousers, Western blouses/tops, or salwar kameez (long tunics with legging-like bottoms) most days.

“I may not wear a sari…I don’t even own one!”

“I do not even know how to wear a sari.”

“[I’m] not against saris. But at 7:30 in the morning, especially when I’m not used to it is definitely a challenge.”

“Can’t tie one at 7am and drive…and get through the day!”

“No sari. Impossible to wear and report at 7:30 in the morning.”

“Why a sari at all?”

“If the women must wear a sari, wouldn’t a *dhoti be more in sync for the men?”

*(Now mostly worn by village men, a dhoti is a white cloth from five to seven yards in length, wrapped loosely around the legs and tied in a knot at the waist. While dhotis have gone out of fashion, saris are still a mainstay of female couture for weddings, special occasions and family gatherings.)

This Adjunct Prof of Architecture chose to leave her sari (if she has one) at home. This Adjunct Prof of Architecture chose to leave her sari (if she has one) at home.

“We are all sensible enough to know what to wear. Most of us might even have worn saris to the event without being asked. But when you tell us exactly what to wear, we are going to have something to say,” laughs Monisha Sharma, associate professor. “Our Dean, who is female, told us to just look as smart as we do every day, so that’s what we’ll do.”

Associate Professor Monisha Sharma prefers a salwar kameez over a sari when she’s teaching. Associate Professor Monisha Sharma prefers a salwar kameez over a sari when she’s teaching.

In addition to teaching in the Architecture school, these women are working architects. At construction sites they are often greeted with curious expressions: Can women really be architects? Are these women here to tell us what to do?

One professor told me that she had organized a site visit to a factory for her students. When they got to the site, the founder only responded to the junior male faculty who had accompanied her, choosing not to acknowledge her at all. 

Similarly, a female architect who was managing a project for her father’s structural engineering firm was not being consulted by the construction team until her father ordered them to talk only to her. She was, after all, the project manager and the only one who could answer their questions.

Architecture Professor in India. “At 7:30 in the morning, I don’t have time to gather and pleat a sari. It’s a lot of work!”

To someone like me, who’s been raised in the West since the age of nine, it’s surprising that the women’s reaction is not anger (that would have been my response, along with bewilderment and confusion). 

Instead, the Indian women laugh it off. “We have already made our mark in our profession,” they say. “We don’t need to hit them over the head with it.”

At the convocation, the female faculty wore Western trouser suits. Not a sari in sight.

There’s more than one way to make a statement.

Are dress codes unbiased where you work?…

Holidays Capote-Style by da-AL

Gentle and cruel, personal and universal — writer / novelist / artist / actor / personality Truman Capote captured the holiday season to a “T”-ruman in his “A Christmas Memory.”

A lifelong bestie of another of my beloved authors, Harper Lee of “To Kill a Mockingbird” renown, Truman grew up queer during times when that wasn’t allowed. Hell, it’s still not allowed, not really despite the two-steps-forward/one-step-back strides that humanity has been making lately.

Truman Capote at 23, thanks to Wikipedia.
Truman Capote at 23, thanks to Wikipedia.

I happened upon Truman’s “A Christmas Memory” by chance. It’s part of his book, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s: a Short Novel and Three Short Stories,” the whole volume of which is mind-blowing. His print version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is nothing less than enchanting for how it captures the heartbreaking nuances of love and friendship, particularly between a gay man and a straight woman. (Incidentally, another book I adore along those same lines is “The Object of My Affection,” by Stephen McCauley. That novel as well is much more profound in print than in the film.)

Poster for "Breakfast at Tiffany's" from Wikipedia.
Poster for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” from Wikipedia.

Please don’t judge “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by its movie version. It’s stunning because of Audrey Hepburn, her iconic dress by Hubert de Givenchy, and so forth — but its racism toward Asians is deplorable. Moreover, it’s nowhere near as deep as the fabulous book. Unfortunately, Truman seems to have actively prostituted his masterpiece novella to Hollywood. Why? Was it due to his tragic and increasingly alcoholic life?

Truman Capote, four years before his too early death. Thank you Wikipedia
Truman Capote, four years before he passed away. Thank you Wikipedia.

The story in its p.r.i.n.t.e.d. form reminds me of how this whole pandemic situation has upended our holiday season, yet in some ways “righted” them. This year I’m extra thrilled that my dear ones are in good health. I’m happier for the smaller gestures. Living “sheltered-in-place,” I’m reminded that even though we can feel alone, we never really are.

Writer/novelist/artist/actor/personality Truman Capote.
Writer/novelist/artist/actor/personality Truman Capote.

No matter how poorly we feel and badly we are treated, one kindred face can make all the difference. Here in this vintage video, Truman doesn’t tell us this — his story enables us to feel it…

How are your holidays unique this year?