RectorWriter

Adventures in storytelling by Bob Rector


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BOOKS ARE NOT BREAKFAST CEREAL

A book is a unique and precious product. One of a kind. Not like breakfast cereal or toothpaste or light bulbs at the super market. These items are manufactured by the millions and sold over and over again. When you run out of Wheaties, you buy another box and it’s exactly like the one you just finished and the one you bought a year ago.

When I buy a book and read it, I don’t go back next week and buy another copy of the same book. It’s a unique and individual product that I ingest into my mind where it resides as part of my psyche, my life experience. If I like it, then I will probably buy and read another unique and individual book by the same author.

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As for Wheaties, I doubt if I will ever look back on that singular bowl of cereal I ate several weeks ago as a unique and memorable moment in my life.

If you haven’t already guessed, this blog is about the promotion and pricing of indie books. Recently my friend Claude Nougat posted a blog entitled ‘A Writer’s Life: Can Blogging Help You Sell Books?’

It brought up a number of issues I’ve been mulling over for some time.

I’m not so sure that blogging or social media in general generates book sales. I’ve made lots of friends on various social media sites and groups, and I enjoy interacting with them, sharing info, discussing issues, and I believe there is certainly value in belonging to a community of fellow writers. But from a sales point of view, too much time and effort, too little results.

I hear often that the reason ebook sales are generally less than what we all wish they were is because the market is over-saturated. That’s a factor, sure, but I think the bigger problem is under-valuation. In other words, the perceived value of the product being sold is . . . cheap.

I’m afraid indie authors/publishers shot themselves in the foot on this one, then lament the results of their action.

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Books are not breakfast cereal.

Why then do so many indie authors sell their books as if they were checkout counter trinkets, pricing them at 99 cents or, worse, even giving them away as if they were a promotion item at a store? Retailers put new products on sale, or give away free samples, to induce customers to try it so that if they like it, they’ll want to buy more – at the regular price – for years to come. The exact same product, month after month, year after year.

But if you sell a book at a bargain price, that’s it. You’re not going to have customers coming back over and over to buy it again. It’s done. A one time deal.

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It’s different to some extent if you have a number of books available, especially in a series. Since I don’t, I’ll leave it to someone who does to discuss book pricing and promotion in that arena. But I think certain marketing principals still apply, chief among them: Perceived Value.

I first learned about perceived value early in my career. I was primarily a film editor at the time in Atlanta, a fairly large market. I was frustrated because I knew my work was good but I wasn’t able to crack the big accounts. Through a series of circumstances an A-list editor on a TV spot for the State of Georgia had to drop out and recommended me for the job. This was with a major ad agency and the account exec was also an A-lister. We worked very well together and the resulting spot was a success. Since she was a ‘player’ in the biz, she was surprised she hadn’t heard of me before. I explained my dilemma and she immediately nailed the problem. “You’re not charging enough.”

“Huh?”

“It’s called perceived value,” she explained. “Most people believe you get what you pay for. You’re pricing yourself at a rate that says you must not be very good. I’ve worked with some of the best editors in New York and your work is as good as theirs, so you should charge a rate that says you are. Then you’ll start getting the kind of clients you want.”

It was like a bucket of ice water in my face. At first I was afraid to do it because I knew I’d lose my regular clients who couldn’t afford the higher rate. But finally I bit the bullet and doubled my rate. Guess what? It worked. Suddenly I was the hottest ticket in town and was raking in big fees.

How does perceived value apply to indie publishing?

When a book is priced at .99 cents it says to the potential buyer it must not be very good, trivial, like that trinket at the checkout counter. If it was good, it would cost the same as any other good book (when I say book, I mean a full length novel). When the book is given away for nothing, then the old business adage comes into play:

“When you give somebody something for nothing, that’s exactly what they think it’s worth.”

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I’ve written a book entitled Unthinkable Consequences, a romantic thriller, and am fairly new to the indie publishing world. I started by trying to follow established or recommended practices by the indie publishing ‘gurus’.

To little effect.

I started my book at $4.99. I was told that it should be priced at $3.99 since that was the new ‘standard’ price. Or I should sell it for 99 cents to create ‘awareness.’ I did go to $3.99 and engaged heavily and daily in all the social media programs for indie authors.

No effect on my sales.

I even tried a couple of promo sales for which I paid a small fee. These required that for the duration of the sale I had to price my book at 99 cents. Yes, I did get a substantial bump in number of units sold, but since I was only getting 35 cents royalty per sale, and after deducting the promotion fee, the increase in income was negligible.

Sure, it made my numbers look better. Briefly. But that was short-lived. My actual sales remained about what they were before the promotions. Smoke and mirrors.

My book has been priced at $5.99 since my last promotion about a month ago. By pricing it at $5.99 I’m saying that Unthinkable Consequences is a professional top-quality ebook and that $5.99 is a fair price for a professional top-quality ebook. Again, perceived value.

I participate only occasionally in social media, just enough to keep up with what my writer friends are doing and to occasionally put in my two cents worth, like now. The result: my units-sold has slowly but steadily increased, plus I get a bigger royalty payment per sale.

What do I attribute this to? I think Aretha Franklin had it right: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. I’m saying I’m a pro writer and my book is a pro piece of work. I’m saying I expect respect. And that starts with paying a respectful price for my work.

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This doesn’t mean that my book is flying off the Amazon shelf. But it’s on par with other indie writers who are considered successful. And I’m making more per unit sold. Am I satisfied with that? Not at all. To quote an old saying: “I’m in it to win it.”

When my wife and business partner Marsha Roberts and I decided to do a legitimate play, “Letters From the Front,” outside of the conventional theater world, we were in effect the theater equivalent of an indie publisher. We bankrolled it out of our own back pocket. I wrote the script and directed, and Marsha produced.

The play itself was successful. But it was a financial disaster. In fact, we didn’t turn a profit until after 3 years of touring. Yes, I said ‘years’. The show continued to be profitable for the remainder of the 15 year run.

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My point is that once Marsha and I commit to a project, we stick with it, do whatever has to be done to make it financially successful. We have no illusion that it will happen quickly. If you’ve got the power, resources, and funds of a major publisher, agency, etc. behind you, things may progress faster. We don’t and never have, and we’ve been in business long enough to know that for our books to really take off, professional marketing will need to occur. That will take money, of course, and we’re not there yet. In the meantime, we’ll be experimenting with other types of merchandising techniques until we find something that at least gives us a toehold.

Will social media be part of it? Maybe. We’ll continue to explore the possibilities. But the biggest problem with social media is that it’s primarily social. That’s the way it was designed from the git-go, not as a sales network.

Anybody who has run their own business knows that one of the tried and true paths to problem solving is called POE: Process of Elimination. You start with lots of possibilities, try them one by one, and eliminate the ones that don’t work – no matter how badly you’d like them to. Eventually all that’s left is the solution(s) that actually works.

It’s a journey. But one thing we’ve all proven by deciding to be writers is that we’re not afraid of taking journeys. I just don’t want to spend my journey counting cows.

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Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I hope you will let me hear your thoughts on the matter.

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CLI-FI – A DISCUSSION WITH AUTHOR CLAUDE NOUGAT

Claude Nougat is an outstanding storyteller who has written several books that are among my favorites, including the Forever Young series and Crimson Clouds. But before becoming a writer, she had a very colorful career at the U.N. Born in Brussels, she is a true citizen of the world who has made her home in Europe, Africa, and the U.S. She currently resides in Italy with her husband. She is also an accomplished artist, as this cover art she created for Forever Young amply demonstrates.

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Thanks for joining the discussion, Claude. I always enjoy talking to you. For a starter, pronouncing European names correctly (from the page) is difficult for many Americans, including me. Phonetically please tell the readers the correct pronunciation of your first and last names.

Don’t tell me you can’t pronounce “nougat”, such a wonderful sweet, my favorite at Christmas! Okay, here goes: the “au” in Claude is like in laud(atory) and not clod! Nougat sounds like noogah – don’t sound the “t”!

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That’s easy enough. Okay, lets talk about Climate Fiction, AKA Cli-Fi It seems to be the hot new emerging genre for storytellers and, not surprising to me, you seem to have your fingers directly on its pulse. Your futuristic series Forever Young, while technically not Cli-Fi, certainly does have climate destruction as one of its central motivating themes. The earth is dying and the main characters are searching for a place ‘somewhere out there’ where they can hit the reset button. As an accomplished storyteller, what excites you about the new genre of Cli-Fi?

The built-in suspense! Some people insist that global warming is a fib, but who cares? From a storyteller standpoint, it’s a gift from a wrathful God. The setting of your story is under water (like in Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow),

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invaded by insects (like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior). It’s just a way to turn the screw and get the best (or the worst) out of your characters…

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Yes, it always comes back to good storytelling regardless of the genre. What do you feel are the most common misconceptions about cli-fi?

That it is a way to push the agenda of climate activists. I do think that’s a pity because it is a bona fidae literary genre in its own right, regardless of anyone’s views about global warming. Cli-fi is not a genre meant to push a political agenda. In my view, it shouldn’t be and indeed, it has shown that it can accomodate all kinds of views about climate change. At least one major cli-fi novel, Michael Crichton’s State of Fear was definitely on the side of climate change deniers. He describes climate activists as “eco-terrorists”. But the problem remains.

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Climate activists hope that cli-fi, by pulling emotional strings in readers, will get people moving where cold, hard scientific facts about climate change leave them unmoved. Maybe so, but as I said, that’s a shame. I really don’t think you need that dimension as part of a definition of Cli-Fi to make it a viable genre, on the contrary.

My personal observation, especially as a filmmaker who has made many films concerning the environment, is that pollution control and effective conservation practices are very high on the public’s priority list, and has been for many decades. Few readers enjoy being lectured to, so what can storytellers do to keep Cli-Fi from becoming an agenda rant, yet still provide a strong narrative platform?

Any novel that tries to lecture is not a novel in my book. The message is implicit, it cannot be forced, it must come naturally, evolving out of the plot and NEVER be the subject of a speech by one of the characters – unless the plot demands it, of course.

Amen. Along those lines, what are the human elements of Cli-Fi that you think contribute to compelling storytelling?

Cli-fi puts characters in extreme situations.The characters are forced into a corner, what they do (or don’t do) next, will determine their survival. That brings out their qualities (eg. bravery, imagination) or their defects (cowardliness, stupidity), so expect to see some very strong characters!

A basic element of good storytelling is that the protagonist must have something vital at stake. Cli-Fi seems to offer this in spades. What are your thoughts about this?

What could be more vital than have one’s very life at stake? In a flood or a fire, you run the risk of losing everything you love, your house, your dearest possessions and of course your loved ones – not to mention your own life. But you have to realize that in cli-fi novels, this is not just any disaster: cli-fi is about the collapse of what one is used to. That feeling of familiarity is important, suspense in cli-fi works particularly well because it happens in a world that is familiar to the reader. The apocalypse is not something happening on a distant planet or in some unimaginable future. It is happening in the near-future – or at least at a time that we can imagine easily because it is similar to our own. That’s what makes it always so scarily plausible.

Well put, Claude. I don’t think it’s ever been explained so precisely. share with us your thoughts on the special ingredients of a Cli-Fi story that might not be found in other genres.

Special ingredients? Yes, there are specific features that you find across all Cli-Fi novels, above all, in the characters. In Cli-Fi novels – I’m only speaking of the good ones, of course – characters are never stereotypes, they are very “human”. For example, the young mother who lives in a poverty-stricken part of the Appalachian mountains in Barbara Kingsolver’s Cli-Fi novel, Flight Behavior, is incredibly real, you can identify with her, you worry along with her, you root for her. That is an essential “ingredient” of Cli-Fi, that feeling of familiarity. The novel’s setting is one of apocalyptic collapse, sure, but what makes Cli-Fi so special is that there’s something else at work here – not just sheer collapse and terror. The world in a Cli-Fi novel that is coming apart is a world you recognize, a world that you know intimately, and the people who struggle for survival are people that you know, they could be your friends, indeed they could be you. In Cli-Fi, Man is placed at the center of the plot.

Some might say that Climate Fiction is a contradictory term that undermines the important issue of climate control by labeling it as fiction. What are your thoughts on that?

Climate control? That is not a term I associate with climate fiction. Actually, the term “climate fiction” is a contraction or shortening of “climate change fiction” and it merely means fiction where climate change is given a major role, either primary, like in Ballard’s book, Drowned World, or secondary like in my own book, Forever Young. Incidentally, Ballard’s book was first published in 1962, well before the climate change controversy began!

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Yes, that makes more sense to me. I know that climate and/or environmental destruction is something you personally feel very strongly about. It’s also something our generation has witnessed during our lifetimes. Contrast the world today to the world you knew as a child. Is it better, worse?

I know what you expect me to say, that it’s worse! Well, no, at the risk of surprising you, I don’t think it’s worse or better. It’s very, very different. I remember walking in downtown Brussels when I was a child, and there was nearly no traffic. Blissful peace! And you could walk into a restaurant without booking and always find a place. The economic rise of the middle class has meant that millions have today the kind of life I was lucky enough to have been born into. So that’s good, very good. But what worries me is something else: in the last 20 years, something strange happened. The rich got richer, the rest didn’t move up along with them. I noticed it but thought I was wrong, but now we’ve got statistical confirmation that this is indeed what is happening. The difference between the rich and poor is as wide today as it used to be back in the 1920s and at the time of the Robber Barons, and it’s growing. I’m not making this up, all you need to do is read Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century,

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he’s shaken Wall Street! It’s a huge book, a compilation that he put together over several years and with the help of many graduate students and fellow professors. And the verdict is in: the 99 Percent vs. the One Percent is not the result of some feverish imagination. And that is what has really changed since I was a kid! And to be honest, that’s a change I don’t like.

Couldn’t agree with you more. We absolutely have entered a new age of robber barons and the politicians and the news media totally ignore this fact because they are members of the One Percenters. I thought you addressed this brilliantly in your Forever Young series. Which leads me to my next question: Cli-Fi at first glance wouldn’t seem to offer opportunity for much humor. But a story without humor, even a drama, is pretty dull reading (I wrote a post about humor in drama on this blog). In your books you employ an almost Hitchcock-like dry humor that I love. What’s your thoughts about humor in Cli-Fi?

Hitchcock-like dry humor? Bob, I’m immensely flattered! Yes, humor is important, especially in the face of adversity. Drama is too and I believe cli-fi is well suited to provide a stage for both…

Do you see story and character development being different for Cli-Fi than other genres? If so, how?

No, sorry, I see no difference. These are stories of love and death and suspense, and the characters are tried to their utmost…Which is exactly what you want from any good story regardless of genre.

What unique storytelling opportunities does Cli-Fi provide?

Unique? Whenever you are dealing with the collapse of the familiar and well-known, you have a unique opportunity. I think Stephen King understood that very well: he is not dealing with cli-fi but with supernatural horror stories and he is always careful to start his novels with a highly familiar setting and everyday characters, people like you and me. This is how he draws you, the reader, in, and that’s how cli-fi authors also draw their readers in.

That’s a good comparison. Hitchcock was also a master of this. Take an ordinary guy, put him inexplicably in a corn field, and have a crop duster try to kill him. Totally bizarre way to kill someone but we don’t think about that. We’re too busy gasping and screaming. How about you? Do you have any Cli-Fi books in the works?

Yes, a sequel to my Forever Young. All my characters are waking up from hibernation 400 years later. Those who have opted for space travel will find themselves on the Forever Planet, one thousand light years away, a planet that is supposedly pristine and green the way Earth was before industrialization – yes, that’s the way it’s supposed to be but of course they’re in for big surprises! The others will wake up in an unfrozen Antarctica that looks a lot like the Japanese archipelago (that’s what’s said to be under all that ice!) and get ready to resettle Earth where life by now has gone extinct. How will they all fare? To find out, you’ll have to read “Forever Young, 400 Years later”!

Yes, I’m waiting impatiently to get my hands on it. What Cli-Fi books and/or authors do you admire the most?

I love Michael Crichton, though his State of Fear was perhaps not his best novel and I find Nathaniel Rich’s tale about New York under water highly compelling and extremely well-written – and of course, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel I just mentioned. But I have only started reading cli-fi, there are so many fascinating titles, you can find them on Goodreads or on the website run by a small Canadian press that features cli-fi novels with the intriguing sub-title “climate change in literature”.

Do you have additional comments you’d like to add about Cli-Fi?

A: One last remark: some people see cli-fi as a “literary” genre. For example, for the Christian Science Monitor, cli-fi is about a “dystopian present, as opposed to a dystopian future”. And they further admonish: “don’t call it science fiction. Cli-fi is literary fiction.” Well, maybe. Though I would argue that the best science fiction has always been literary, think Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, both scary, full of suspense and…literary masterpieces! To be honest, so far I don’t think cli-fi has produced the equivalent but it may very well do so one day!
And one last comment: thank you so much for having me on your wonderful blog, I’m honored!

Thank YOU, Claude. I always enjoy hearing your views on the craft of storytelling, which you have certainly mastered. Those of you interested in learning more about Claude and her books, please click here.


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HONESTLY, SEX?

There’s a famous cartoon in the advertising world showing two half-inebriated account execs at a photo shoot for Alpo dog food. The object of the photo shoot? A buxom blonde on her knees, legs spread wide, holding a can of Alpo in front of her crotch. She wears a beaming 14 carat smile and nothing else. Right, spectacularly naked. One account exec says to the other, “Man, this is gonna sell a lot of dog food.”

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One of the oldest axioms in advertising, movies, TV – and books – is “sell it with sex.”

Why?

Well, the obvious answer is because it works.

But it goes deeper than that. Humans are the horniest critters on the face of the earth. Yeah, all other creatures do it too, but not with the creative flair, intensity, and emotional explosiveness of us humans.

And no other female of any other species was quicker to discover the power behind sex to more devastating effect than the female human.

According to the Bible, it was the result of eating too many apples, but right from the git-go women were stamped as using their sexual allure to control the more physically dominant male. This dynamic became the driving force behind writing and painting and storytelling since humans first learned to communicate with one another.

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Sex – raw, wild, and abandoned – is definitely the driving force behind my book Unthinkable Consequences, and the main reason it took me nearly twenty years to finish it.

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Why?

I was raised in a Christian church. I attended three times a week, every week, all the way through high school. Ours was a New Testament church focused on the life and teachings of Christ. Consequently we didn’t get all the juicy stories that filled the Old Testament, many of them involving illicit, quite descriptive, sex. I had to find out about that by doing extra curricular work on my own. But the message was clear: sex equals sin. Women who used sex for gain were Jezebels (and look what happened to her!).

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Ultimately the Bible stories had the reverse effect of what was intended. The ‘Thou Shalt Nots’ only made people more determined to do exactly the opposite (if it’s really that bad, I gotta try it). Yet the stigma remained.

So every time I picked up my manuscript for Unthinkable Consequences I would only make a little progress before I ran into the same brick wall. How do I deal with the sex scenes? Flustered, I would put the manuscript back on the shelf and continue with other projects.

No, I’m no prude. The normal raging hormones of teenhood got me past any ‘Thou Shall Nots’ concerning the opposite sex. Especially after I made the startling discovery that, contrary to what our parents told us, girls liked it as much as guys. Holy moley!

When I started working on Unthinkable Consequences, I didn’t set out to write a sex book. It was about a married woman who lived in a different time period in America, the 50s, who is having a mid-life crisis. Her only child is in college, her marriage is a sham, her life is empty and she doesn’t see it getting any better. A man enters her life who brings out long forgotten passions and they begin an illicit affair. In the 50s, those were the only kind of affairs there were, dramatized in the Susan Heyward movie Backstreet.

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The driving force behind the affair in my book? Yep, sex. The all-consuming incendiary kind.

The wall I kept slamming up against was: how explicitly was I going to explore this relationship? Was I simply going to take it to a bursting point, do a ‘fade to black’ followed by a ‘fade-in: next morning’ and leave it to the readers do imagine what happened?

Oddly, the answer came in a family-oriented play I was writing, Letters From the Front. The story takes place during WWII and the lead female character, Katharine Hartgrove, has just discovered that her son is missing in action. In our research, many war moms were interviewed and asked what did they do upon getting this news. Every single one of then said the same thing: ‘I dropped to my knees and prayed for my son’s life.” In contemporary theater, a prayer scene is the kiss of death and I was reluctant to do it. But I decided to go for honesty, and wrote the scene. It became the play’s most powerful scene and I’m convinced is one of the prime reasons the show ran for fifteen years.

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Honesty. What a concept. I decided I had to apply the same principal to Unthinkable Consequences. Uninhibited, fiery sex was what first brought Paula and Kurt together. They didn’t meet at a church social. Out of that urgent need, something much deeper gradually developed and a meaningful, committed love affair emerged. But the driving force was sex, just like in so many Biblical stories; sex so overpowering that Paula and Kurt could not resist its force. If I had not explored this force to its fullest, the story would have been, well, flaccid.

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So does this mean I’m a strong advocate for explicit sex in books? No, that’s something every author has to decide for themselves. But I am a strong advocate of honesty in writing, even when it comes to sex. I believe readers pick up on it immediately. As a result you establish a trust bond with them. And as storytellers, isn’t that what we should always be trying to do?


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MY INTERVIEW WITH ACCOMPLISHED STORYTELLER CHRISTOPH FISCHER

Christoph Fischer was born in Germany, near the Austrian border, as the son of a Sudeten-German father and a Bavarian mother. Not a full local in the eyes and ears of his peers he developed an ambiguous sense of belonging and home in Bavaria. He moved to Hamburg in pursuit of his studies and to lead a life of literary indulgence. After a few years he moved on to the UK where he now lives in a small hamlet, not far from Bath. He and his partner have three Labradoodles to complete their family.

Christoph worked for the British Film Institute, in Libraries, Museums and for an airline. ‘The Luck of The Weissensteiners’ was published in November 2012; ‘Sebastian’ in May 2013 and ‘The Black Eagle Inn’ in October 2013. He has written several other novels which are in the later stages of editing and finalization. His newest novel, Time To Let Go, will be released May 15.

As you will see, Christoph was both thoughtful and candid when responding to my questions. I hope you’ll find the exchange as stimulating as I did.

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Christoph, I’ve had the pleasure of reading two of your novels, ‘The Luck of the Weissensteiners’ and ‘Time to Let Go’, and even though they are set in different time periods and cultures, I was struck by their thematic similarities. Both are rich family sagas examining complex relationships. What motivated you to write these stories?

My mother’s side of the family were good Catholics and all of them had plenty of children, while my father’s side only had few and they were separated by the Iron Curtain. I experienced a vast contrast of family relationships and I guess that has made me very interested in and aware of family dynamics.

Yes, that reverberates in your writing. Your books have a sacred respect for the life force within us all. Don’t want to give too much away, but there is a scene in one of your books that brilliantly illustrates this when a character commits suicide and the response by his friends is not pity but disgust that he threw this most precious gift away while they were all fighting daily to preserve it. How did you go about creating this powerful scene?

Thank you very much. I felt some restlessness in said character and admittedly the circumstances for him and his surroundings had been very unnerving. It was inevitable that someone/something had to break under so much pressure, so I let him give in to his urge. His choice, but the tragedy is always for the others, left behind. In this case the question was: how could the others sustain their morale, if not by judging him? Compared to many of his contemporaries he was extremely lucky, yet didn’t see it. It probably reflects on my own opinion about suicide. Unless you have a terminal disease I believe it is a grave mistake. There is always something to live for at the other end of the tunnel.

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What attracted you to writing?

I came to writing purely by chance. I had an idea and spare time to dedicate to the ‘experiment’. I only meant to write down a short story but it turned into a full novel – a hobby was born. Two years later I decided to publish one of the books. Writing for me is escapism, an intellectual exercise and emotional inner healing and all of it is important and helps me grow as a person.

If you gave yourself a pen name that none of your friends or associates knew you by, what kind of book would you like to write?

I would really like to try and write a comedy. I would love it if I could make people laugh with my stories but it just doesn’t seem to come naturally to me. I seem to be more comfortable with drama, so a pen name for any comedy would be a good idea.

Here’s hoping you give it a try, Woody Von Bustergutt. Meanwhile, describe Christoph Fischer to us when he is writing.

He is very enthusiastic and excitable and writes away feverishly on his first drafts, forgets to eat and runs late for appointments: just one more paragraph, just one more dialogue, just finish that train of thought; then he re-writes the drafts, turns away in self-doubt and comes back with new ideas and fresh perspectives. My partner gave me a cuddly toy in the shape of Oscar the Grouch from “Sesame Street” which says “Go Away”. That sums it up perfectly.

Maybe you should collaborate with your partner on that comedy. What writers have inspired or influenced you most and why?

Christos Tsiolkas and “The Slap” was a great influence on me with his great use of varying perspectives. My first novel was told in chapters each of which focused on a different character. I have changed that now, but it was a fantastic exercise to get into the heads of all people I write about instead of using them as plot details. Lionel Shriver has a sharp and cutting writing style and includes some uncompromising and well observed details. That has given me confidence to be very honest and to write more controversial characters that sometimes change their minds, just like people in real life do.

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What person has influenced your life most and why?

My German Literature teacher from 8th grade had a lot of confidence in me and encouraged me to write. My aunt, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and who is a little bit like Biddy in “Time to Let Go”, had a wonderfully positive and life affirmative attitude. I am nowhere near that sadly, but her attitude stays with me to this day. When I am down, I try to picture what she would do and it often gets me out of my misery.

Yes, when I was reading Time To Let Go, it was very clear Biddy was based on someone near and dear. How do you feel about the world of indie writing/publishing in its current state?

I feel very good about it. Self-publishing is giving the big players a run for their money. Many smaller publishing houses ask the writer to do much of the promotional work themselves, so I am quite happy to be doing it all alone. I feel there is more recognition amongst readers. Publishers and agents seem to be flooded with books, but the readers seem to find us, so we are cutting out some middle men. You are in film, you must remember how the Independent Films challenged Hollywood and how their success has positively shaped the cinema landscape and even the kind of films produced. I hope for a similar effect in book publishing. There are many deserving authors out there.

True. The indie film market exploded when a wide diversity of markets suddenly emerged, from cable TV to home video to the internet, along with the technology to support it. It concerns me that currently one corporate giant dominates and controls the indie publishing world. How do you think indie publishing could be improved?

We probably need a little more organisation, indie awards and indie book festivals to showcase our work. E-magazines and other tools to get the word about us to the readers need to grow in numbers. Recently, at The London Book Fair a woman told me that the agents present only wanted to speak to authors that were already self-published. That is a sign that we are getting our foot in the door and are making progress.

What other fields or professions did you work in before becoming a writer?

I am a trained librarian, I worked for the British Film Institute in the Information and Research department and also at the Film Festival Office. I spent the last 15 years working for an airline.

I worked for an airline as well – a ramp rat, but not nearly as long. It illustrates the winding paths many of us take to becoming storytellers. Am I right in assuming your airline experience was the foundation for the lead character in Time To Let Go?

How very interesting. Yes, my airline experience was the foundation for the lead character, although not for the plot.

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Tell us a little about how you formulate your plots.

With the historical books I had a non-negotiable time frame of events and a basic idea for the plot. In “Time to Let Go” I also had a battle plan for key scenes and major events. However, as I write the story a lot of what I had in mind suddenly becomes cliche or predictable and the characters start having their own ideas. So I adjust and let the plot develop dynamically. It is much more fun that way, but incredibly difficult to find inconsistencies in the story later on.

How do you strike a balance between maintaining historical accuracy and developing a compelling storyline and characters?

Historical accuracy takes absolute priority. If the storyline does not fit with the facts then it has to be dropped or altered. Occasionally a plot hole or error in my planning can be a blessing in disguise as it challenges me to think: what would the character do now?

Are your characters drawn from life, fabricated from the needs of the story, or developed in some other manner?

The key characters in my historical novels are a little bit of both: Greta Weissensteiner is based in parts on the life of my grandmother and how I imagined her and her sister’s life during that period, but the sisters took on their own character that was different from my family, so they are also in parts at least fabricated from an idea for my story. I’d like to think that none of them are created to fit the story, but many grow with the story as it unfolds for us all. I begin to picture them as I write them and often find that I modelled them on people I know. I do that more than I thought. It took my sister to point some of these occasions out to me and I had to admit that she was right.

Greta is a terrific character, so strong, yet big hearted. So many times I wanted to give her a bear hug and tell her everything’s gonna be all right. So, of all the characters you’ve created, which is your favorite and why?

Jonah Weissensteiner is a tribute to my father, whom I lost almost twenty years ago. His jovial, artistic and liberal nature was a light in my childhood and I tried to let that live on in this character. Like Jonah my father was a widower, so I let him find love again and be witty and gregarious.

Loved Jonah, too. He hammered home the message that family is most important of all. What’s the funniest or most bizarre thing that’s happened to you as a writer?

All of my books have gay characters in them. Non sexual supporting cast mainly who just happen to be gay and illustrate some points but do not take over the story. An Amazon reviewer accused me of promoting homosexuality. Oddly enough, the book in question features a not very likeable, selfish lesbian couple.

Talk to us a little about writing good dialogue.

That is difficult and I am still learning the craft. Realistic can be equally boring and mundane but too fancy can be artificial and unconvincing. As a reader, I want a good compromise. Lifelike dialogue does often take too long and does not come to the point of a conversation fast enough. Since reading one of your interviews, I am painfully aware of the ‘remote control’ effect of TV: people might switch channels if I don’t keep it interesting. I have a personal dislike of writing in ‘dialect’. It is realistic but it takes me out of the experience. Sharp, witty and fast in my opinion is best.

If money was no object, what would you do with your life beside write?

If there were a lot of money I would like to run a charity: a caring facility or an orphanage in Africa. There are so many good causes that need our attention. Theatre work would also interest me.

Glad to hear that. I think playwriting is not fully appreciated in the writing world. What has been your most disappointing experience as a writer?

I would have to say a personal attack on a dear writer friend that was carried out by trolls. It was undeserved, negative attention by people who had probably not even read the book. There was a bias against self-published books in the reviews that was not justified by the work in question at all. All of her hard effort in marketing her wonderful book was almost killed in an instant by thoughtless and hateful people with too much time on their hands. It was disheartening.

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Do you think there is anything that could or should be done by Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook, etc. to control anonymous ‘drive-by’ or malicious postings, or reviews by people who have clearly not read the book?

I know of several postings and reviews that were taken down after being flagged or complained about by the authors or other readers. It shows that, at least in principle, the companies in question are taking measures. I wish they would devote more resources to this but their business models run on ‘cheapest offer’ (Amazon) or free services (FB and GR), so I doubt that this will ever happen. I hope someone clever will come up with a good solution, but I can’t think of any, despite having given it a lot of thought.

What do you think are the biggest pitfalls for aspiring writers?

There are so many, it depends on the individual and their knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses: lack of confidence, lack of research, lack of editing, lack of appropriate marketing…. Currently, I am thinking about the balance between letting your book go and giving it just one more re-write; the longer you wait the more afraid you get, but if you let the book go too soon it backfires from the errors that you let slip in creating an impression of poor work.

As an indy writer/publisher, what marketing techniques have worked best for you?

I notice that most of my sales seem related to my twitter activity. If I stop tweeting, my sales drop significantly. Giveaways have led to good “follow on sales”, so they were worth the effort. As avid reader and ‘book consumer’, I respond better to soft sales rather than hard sales. I try to do the same in my marketing and I believe it helps, although this is not based on statistics or evidence.

Is it true you never sleep?

It is almost true.

Thank you, Christoph. I’ve enjoyed this exchange immensely and appreciate the time and effort you put into participating. Best of luck on the roll-out of Time To Let Go. I’ve already read it and written a 5-star review, which can be read by clicking here.

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