Escaping Flashman: Still happy with Orange Turnpike

Orange Turnpike CoverI’m less than a week from the release of the third Jackson Speed book, and I’m still very excited about “Jackson Speed on the Orange Turnpike.”

I think most people who write for a living will tell you that as time goes by they become less enthralled with works they might have initially been very excited about. Whether it’s news stories or humor columns or political editorials or novels, any time I look back at my work I inevitably cringe.

“I can’t believe I wrote that,” I’ll think.

“I could have done so much better,” I’ll mutter to myself.

“Oh, Lord,” I’ll say out loud, “that was terrible.”

Lately I’ve given some serious consideration to completely rewriting the first Jackson Speed book. I probably won’t. But I might.

When you’re a journalist and you make your living writing stories on a daily or weekly basis, you don’t have time to cringe every time you write something, and you certainly don’t have the opportunity to go back and rewrite. You learn quickly to accept that it’s never as good as you wanted it to be and you just keep moving forward.

With the first Jackson Speed book, I was like a man possessed.

I loved the idea of the character, and I didn’t want Jackson Speed to go the way every other attempt at fiction writing had gone for me: Start and never finish. I’ve had other ideas before. I’ve worked for days and weeks on other novels, but eventually I grew bored with the story and quit.

But when I first had the idea for Ol’ Speedy, I really wanted to write and finish the Jackson Speed series. So I was frantic about it. I wrote almost non-stop for 28 days to finish the novel. I skipped meals, wrote at work and stayed up all hours.

And when I finished it, I sent it to my editor, India Powell and Lighswitch Communications, and I was done with it.

The second and third books did not go at quite the same pace. I slowed down, took my time and, I think, produced a better product.

I’ve made no secret about the fact that some of the inspiration for Jackson Speed comes from George MacDonald Fraser’s Harry Flashman. I also don’t claim that Jackson Speed is the next Harry Flashman. George MacDonald Fraser was a master, and I’m just having fun writing.

But there are similarities between the two that can’t be avoided: Flashman and Speed are both cowards masquerading as heroes; they’re both womanizers; they’re both brutally selfish; they’re both bullies.

At the same time, when I wrote the first Jackson Speed novel I wanted to make sure I was not writing about Harry Flashman – which is a hard thing to do because Flashman is such an overwhelming character if he’s in your mind – so I was deliberate in trying to make the characters different. I may have even been too focused on Flashman and not focused enough on Speed.

But somewhere early in the second book, Harry Flashman left my mind. As I wrote, Jackson Speed began to develop his own voice. Instead of thinking about Speed as a character, I really started to hear his voice in my mind. It started to become more natural to write Jackson Speed.

While retaining all of those qualities borrowed from Flashman that make Speed a character I enjoy writing about, I finally felt in the second book that I had broken free of forcing Speed to not be Flashman – Speed’s voice was clear in my mind. He’d truly become his own character.

I told India that I felt like I hit my stride, especially in the last chapter of Blood Tubs, and I kept with it through all of the Orange Turnpike.

As a writer with 20 years of experience, I know it won’t be long before I start thinking about specific passages or chapters in this third book and start thinking that I should have written something differently. It won’t be long, I suspect, before I’m standing in front of a crowd reading from the book and I cringe at a phrase or a word choice or maybe an entire paragraph.

But for now, I am very happy with Jackson Speed on the Orange Turnpike, and I’m excited for Speedy’s fans to read the book!

I’ve got books to write

Probably I should be passing the time at book release parties in New York City, sipping champagne and accepting attaboys and back pats.

But the truth is, I’m feeling a little under the gun.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00067]On Good Friday I published the second of the Jackson Speed Memoirs. Jackson Speed and the Blood Tubs is now available through Amazon.com.

On Easter Sunday the folks at The eReader Café were kind enough to publish an author interview with me. Thankfully, I’d published Blood Tubs just in time that they were able to use links and cover images in the interview. Whew!

And on Monday, April Fool’s Day, I published Four Things My Wife Hates About Mornings & Other Collected Stories.

In the span of four days, I tripled the number of books I’ve authored and published.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00065]So I am kind of a big deal.

It was chance and chance alone that brought the culmination of both these projects over the same weekend.

My extraordinary editor, India Powell at Lightswitch Communications, finished editing the Blood Tubs a couple of weeks ago. I was going through her edits and formatting the chapters into the book as I received the chapters back from her, so it was all ready to go. Last week, Kate Sherrill – the unbelievably talented artist who did the cover illustration for the Blood Tubs – finished the painting and provided me with a high res digital file.

I also finished editing and formatting my columns for “Four Things” last weekend. The cover photo was shot in December and all that needed to be done was put the pieces together.

My beautiful and talented wife, Jean, who does the cover designs for my books, ended up being the one who decided which book would be published first because she decided to design the Blood Tubs cover and then work on the Four Things cover.

Even though it was by chance, it was still a lot of fun to see the completion of two big projects on the same weekend. I’ve been in one stage or another of working on both of these books for several months, and especially in the last few weeks I was getting increasingly excited to finally have them completed.

So today, as Four Things went live on Amazon, I was sitting here admiring the vast array of books available if you do a search for Robert Peecher on Amazon.com, and that’s when I realized what a dreadful spot I’m in.

I’m dropping books like it’s easy (it’s not, and, oddly enough, it is), but I’ve also got a timeline for the next two Jackson Speed books.

My intention is to have both of these books coincide with the 150th anniversaries of the battles during which they are set.

Jackson Speed on the Orange Turnpike (which sees our reluctant hero stepping out of the woods just in time to send the entirety of the Army of the Potomac back across the Rappahannock) takes place at Chancellorsville. The 150th anniversary of Chancellorsville is now just a month away.

The next book, Jackson Speed at the High Tide, sees Ol’ Speedy fighting for both the Federals and the Confederates at Gettysburg. The sesquicentennial for Gettysburg is only three months away.

The Orange Turnpike is essentially written. High Tide is not quite half done.

I can do it. But it will not be easy. I don’t know about my editor and my illustrator and my designer, but my hope is to get all of them equally excited about sesquicentennials.

Anyway, I shot an email to my social secretary and I told her she was going to have to postpone the New York City parties and the champagne sipping and the attaboying and the back patting.

I’ve got books to write.

Lost in research, and a chance to win a signed copy of the next Jackson Speed book

The trouble with writing historical novels is getting lost in your research.

I write at a pretty rapid pace. The first of the Jackson Speed novels (at 75,000 words) took 28 days to write. The second novel (about 85,000 words) took four months, but there were a couple of long periods when I didn’t write at all because other projects were occupying my time.

A cover from one of the issues of Harper's Weekly.

A cover from one of the issues of Harper’s Weekly.

I am currently writing the third novel and that is also moving along rapidly. My goal is to have it finished by late April.

I’ve written one thing or another all my life, and particularly as a journalist I am accustomed to writing quickly under deadline pressure. I developed this skill when I was a student and would put off writing lengthy essays until the very last minute. My teachers and my parents thought I was procrastinating, but actually I was developing skills that would benefit me as a future journalist and novelist.

Or maybe I was procrastinating.

But as I write these novels, a big part of my time is spent in research. My friends know that if I’m going to write a historical novel it is going to be historically accurate. If I write in a novel that the first gun fired in advance of Pickett’s Charge on the third day of Gettysburg was shot off at 1:07 in the afternoon, I write that because that’s what time it was fired. You can take it to the bank. If I write that General Taylor ordered a retreat just as Colonel Jefferson Davis was about to take the Grand Plaza at Monterrey, I write it because that’s what history recorded.

My desire to be historically accurate stems from my love of history. I’ve always been a sort of arm chair historian, and any time I’ve run across inaccuracies in films or novels it has always rankled me.

As a result, when I start to do research for a book or a chapter or a scene, I tend to get lost in my research. I’m easily distracted. I go to find out what road Fitz Lee was on when he discovered Hooker’s flank on the Orange Turnpike at Chancellorsville, and two hours later I’m reading about Dan Sickles shooting Francis Scott Key’s son for fooling around with Mrs. Sickles.

One of my favorite sites for research is sonofthesouth.net where they have posted all the Harper’s Weekly issues published during the Civil War. I could (and do) spend hours reading these and studying the sketches and forgetting the nugget of history I was there to discover.

Today in the mail I received a book that contains diary and journal entries, letters and other first-hand accounts of Gettysburg, not from the generals or soldiers (whose accounts I have by the hundreds already) but from the civilians who lived in Gettysburg.

I am currently working on the third novel in the Jackson Speed series “Jackson Speed at the High Tide.”

In it, Speed deserts his way into the biggest battle of the war, and on the first day at Gettysburg finds himself caught in the town between the two armies.

I’ll give you one guess what brought Ol’ Speedy to Gettysburg in the first place. The first person who comments here on my blog with the correct answer wins a free, signed copy of “Jackson Speed and the Blood Tubs” (due out in late March).

So in doing my research I sought accounts from Gettysburg’s citizens and found this book. Seriously, I salivate over civilian accounts of the American Civil War and am most fascinated by those.

So I bought this book for “research,” and I will use it accordingly, but I doubt very seriously I will be doing any quality writing in the next few days as I once again get lost in my research.

Indie authors should give it their Best

I suspect that there is a sense out there among many people that if a book is written by an indie author then it probably means the book wasn’t good enough to get published by a legitimate, traditional publishing house.

Well, let me tell you about James D. Best’s “The Shopkeeper.”

Author James Best

Author James Best

A few months ago I decided to purposely try to find some indie authors to read. I feel compelled to support fellow indie authors because we share a struggle.

After searching around a bit, I landed on the Steve Dancy novels by James Best. I clicked on the “Look Inside” button and after perusing the first couple of pages of the first book in the series, I bought all three of the Steve Dancy novels. I couldn’t wait to get into the first book in the series when “the box with the smile on it” showed up at the door.

Seriously, “The Shopkeeper” is what every indie author should hope to be writing. It’s compelling fiction. It’s well written. Nothing about the book suggests that Best is an indie author. Best (who I’ll soon be interviewing for a post on the blog) has published the Steve Dancy series through Wheatmark.

I’ve only seen the print books and not the ebooks, but Best’s print books are professional in design and layout. There are not weird formatting problems that leave the impression the author has never seen the way a book is laid out before.

Also, the books are well edited, avoiding another complaint readers often have of the self-published and indie authors: There aren’t a lot of typos or mistakes that will hang up a reader.

But more important than the layout and design of a book is the content. If it’s a good story, I can get past a widow here or an orphan there.

“The Shopkeeper” is great on content. Best’s characters are well-developed, his plot is unique and engaging. At no time reading his book did it cross my mind that I was reading a book by an indie author. I found myself caught up in the story to the point that when I got to the last few chapters I abandoned all other plans for the day and just read until I finished the novel.

Best’s “The Shopkeeper” is the quality we should all be aspiring to. It’s a good story and it’s well told, and it will disabuse readers of the notion that indie authors aren’t good enough to be published by traditional publishing houses.

Let’s face it, publishing, like any other business, is driven by trends that produce dollars, and not all books – no matter how good they might be – are going to hit the bestseller lists. Publishers aren’t looking for a good book as much as they are looking for a book that will sell.

If you don’t believe me, then explain how it is that the pop star Ke$ha has a book published by Simon & Schuster’s Touchstone imprint. Is this quality literature or is it something that offers Simon & Shuster guaranteed dollars because Ke$ha brings a fan base?

So, as an indie author, I love it that there are books out there like James D. Best’s “The Shopkeeper” that dispel the notion that indie fiction can’t be good fiction.

If you enjoy a good Western, do yourself a favor and order “The Shopkeeper.”

First three in the Steve Dancy series. Read these.

First three in the Steve Dancy series. Read these.

New indie-authors shouldn’t obsess about marketing

Five months after self-publishing my first book, I’m learning what hundreds of self-published authors before me already know: Writing the book was the easy part.

One of the several reasons I chose to self-publish was that I really didn’t have any interest in sending out hundreds of query letters to publishers and agents and getting back dozens of rejection letters and hundreds of nothing. I didn’t want to go through the effort of trying to market my book to publishers. I just wanted to write.

Honestly, I don’t know if my book is good enough to find its way to the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble through a traditional publisher. I know I wrote a book that I would enjoy reading, and I think it’s pretty good.

So to claim that I “chose to self-publish” might be a bit misleading – the choice was never to publish the traditional route or self-publish; the choice was always to self-publish or put my novel in a desk drawer and forget about it.

As I said, writing the book was the easy part. Selling the book is the hard part. Maybe I didn’t want to have to try to market my book to agents or publishers, but as a self-published author I find I have to try to market my book to readers.

As most or maybe all self-published authors will tell you, very quickly you exhaust the sales you’ll get from your friends on Facebook and Twitter. If you offer your book for free as a Kindle download, you’ll have the joy of watching your book climb steadily among the rankings on Amazon.com, but at that point whatever lingering sales you might have had among your friends are gone.

With tens of thousands of self-published books coming out all the time, trying to find readers and attract those readers is worse than a fulltime job. Literally, for many self-published authors, I suspect it becomes an obsession.

You spend all your time reading blogs. You do internet search after internet search after internet search for “book marketing” or “self-published author marketing” or “how to market a book” or some other such thing.

You visit a thousand websites that claim they will connect authors to readers. You sign up for everything free that they offer and wonder if anyone will ever find your book posted at shvoong.com.

The blogs tell you that you must have reviews on Amazon.com. So you post it on Facebook and Twitter: “If you’ve read my book, please take a second to post a review at amazon.” For each twenty times you post this, one friend writes a review. Even friends who sent you messages and said they liked the book don’t post a review.

So you search for “book review” websites and each time you click a link to one you pray that it’s not “paid book reviews.” And often as not when you find some that claim to be free, you submit your book and wait two months and then get an email that says all their reviewers are backlogged. But don’t be discouraged! For $150 you can try their express two-week service and get a guaranteed book review.

The websites will nickel and dime you to death!

You can buy an ad for your book here for $10, or here for $25, or here for $75. You can be on this website’s front page for a month, or this one’s side rail for two weeks. Some of them are so awful looking that you’re certain the website was designed by a 3-year-old with a Crayon, but you dutifully cough up your $15 and wonder if the ad will produce enough sales to cover the price of the ad.

I’ll give you a hint: It won’t.

And you’re pretty sure, too, that the only traffic coming to any of these websites is other self-published authors just like you who have a book they want to sell, and they’re not looking to buy a book any more than you are. And you’re right.

And finally, you reach a point where you’re ready to scrap your book and figure out how to write YA fiction or something about vampires or (gasp!) erotica, because that stuff seems to be selling like crazy. I’m Rob Peecher, and my erotic novel “Whipped: Jackson Speed and his Slaves” is due out later this year.

Hmmm … actually, that doesn’t sound so bad. I’ll note that in my little black book of book ideas.

Here are the things that I think you’ve got to do (and nearly every self-published author has already done them because these are the first steps we all seem to find as we start with our searches):

  1. Start a blog to write about book stuff. Review other books. Invite other authors to guest blog. Host stops on a blog tour. Write about writing. Write about selling books. Whatever – you need a blog so that readers can find you. And fill your blog with links to your book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
  2. Do the Amazon.com author page.
  3. Have a Facebook account that you use to promote your books, along with a fan page. I’m not sold that Twitter or Pinterest are necessary, but if you’ve got the time to devote to that much social networking, then have at it.
  4. Do the whole Goodreads.com thing – author page, author Q&A, giveaways. Of all the websites I’ve tried out, Goodreads.com does seem to actually, in some cases, connect readers to writers.
  5. Book a blog tour, preferably using blogs specific to your genre. If you’ve written Historical Fiction, don’t do a YA or paranormal blog tour.
  6. Find anything free you can do: Author interviews and free book listings. Maximize the opportunities that someone might accidentally find your book, but don’t expect any of this to catapult you to the NY Times bestseller list.

If you’re self publishing, I think these six steps are the bare minimum that you absolutely must be willing to do. However, Numbers 5 and 6 I would do only up to the point that it is not overly burdensome. Judging from what other self-published authors have written and my own experiences, I suspect that your book sales will continue to be disappointing even after you’ve done these things. I would strongly recommend that you do not invest too much time and energy into these things.

I have not paid for any book reviews, so I cannot comment on the value of paying for reviews. It seems seedy to me, and my understanding is that Amazon.com only allows paid book reviews to be posted on its site from Kirkus Indie and Foreword Clarion. Those reviews are expensive, and I can’t afford to put that much money into a hobby. I also understand that Amazon periodically purges other, cheaper paid reviews, so whatever you paid for that review it is now all but worthless.

It seems to me that a lot of the self-published authors are probably people who really love their project and are emotionally invested in it. I can understand how they might easily be lured into advertising on various websites or spending money for reviews. I honestly cannot imagine that this money is well spent.

After months of obsessing and searching the internet for the magic bullet that will help me boost sales of my book, I’ve pretty much decided to give up trying to market my book, at least for a while.

I will continue to do those things among the six “bare minimums,” but I do not think these are things that will skyrocket my book sales. When I have the chance, I’ll do author talks and book signings. But for the present I think my time and money are better spent just simply writing books.

The really successful indie-authors have at least one thing in common: They have written a lot of books. Often, these are authors who have written several books over the years and finally get that one hit. At that point, too, they usually find sales of their earlier books increasing.

“Jackson Speed: The Hero of El Teneria” seems awfully lonely out there by itself, just hanging out at Amazon.com as the only book by Robert Peecher.

In the coming weeks I hope to have the second Jackson Speed novel available. “Jackson Speed and the Blood Tubs” – a novel about Speed’s involvement with Allan Pinkerton in foiling the Baltimore plot to kill Abraham Lincoln prior to his inauguration.

And after that, I plan to publish a collection of my newspaper humor columns “Four Things My Wife Hates About Mornings.”

I am convinced that indie-authors who self-publish through Createspace and have no connections in the publishing industry are probably deluding themselves if they’ve published one book and hope to see it sitting among the bestsellers.

So my advice to the newly self-published and indie authors (with five months of experience to back it up, don’t ye know) would be to not obsess over sales or marketing. Spend your time writing books. Do the basics, those things that must be done, but don’t waste your time and money pursuing readers who are probably not perusing shvoong.com looking for their next book to read.

Thankful for that rascal Jackson Speed!

It’s been a very thankful week in the world of Jackson Speed.

Wednesday I took most of the day off from work and stayed home to write. It wasn’t planned or expected, but by 9 p.m. I had finished writing the second Jackson Speed novel. Even better, I added a final chapter to the book that was a surprise to me, and I really loved the way it turned out.

With both of the Jackson Speed novels now written (and those that I have not yet written) I started with an idea of putting Ol’ Speedy in a specific place and time and the general overview of the story was clear to me from the outset. As I wrote, the details emerged, but I knew where I was heading with it.

But Wednesday morning as I was writing, I had a little bit of inspiration. I rewrote a few lines to add a final twist to the plot I had initially envisioned. And that was fun. A good book, for me, is one that provides moments where I cannot predict what will come next. But when I write a book, my expectation is that I generally know where my characters and I are headed. So this last little bit, unplanned, was pretty fun for me as the writer, and I’m really, really pleased with the way it turned out.

Then Wednesday evening – just as I was finishing – one of my best friends from all those decades ago when we were in high school sent me a text. Drew Mapp was up from Florida for the holidays, so we went out and grabbed a beer late Wednesday night. The last time I saw Drew in September I’d given him a copy of the first Jackson Speed book. Wednesday he told me he’d read it and enjoyed it, and it was great fun to be out sort-of celebrating the completion of the second Jackson Speed book with someone who’d read the first Jackson Speed book.

As I noted last week, I’ve gotten another review at Amazon.com for Jackson Speed (it was Review Number 4).

This morning I came into the office and got two more Jackson Speed surprises: I sold a book over Thanksgiving, and it’s always fun to see that I’ve increased sales. Also, I’ve gotten a fifth review at Amazon.com.

The reviewer referred to Jackson Speed as a twisted, Southern Casanova, which is very ironic because I’m fairly sure that was one of my nicknames in college.

Despite my book sale over Thanksgiving, I am still well short of becoming a wealthy novelist (haha!) but I am continuing to have so much fun writing about Jackson Speed and getting feedback from people who have read about him, that I’ve got to say I am very, very thankful this year for Jackson Speed and the massive amount of fun he’s brought into my life.