“We tell stories in order to live.” ~~Joan Didion
“Isolation isn’t an excuse to give up.” ~~Carolyn Howard Johnson
An inteview with Carolyn Howard-Johnson by B. Lynn Goodwin
Carolyn Howard-Johnson brings her experience as a publicist, journalist, marketer, and retailer to the advice she gives in her HowToDoItFrugally series for writers. She’s taught for nearly a decade as instructor for UCLA Extension’s world-renown Writers’ Program. The books in her HowToDoItFrugally series have won awards from USA Book News, Readers’ Views Literary Award, the marketing award from Next Generation Indie Books, and the coveted Irwin award among others.
Howard-Johnson is the recipient of the California Legislature’s Woman of the Year in Arts and Entertainment Award, and her community’s prestigious Character and Ethics award for her work promoting tolerance with her writing and Diamond Award for Achievement in the Arts. She was also named to Pasadena Weekly’s list of “Fourteen San Gabriel Valley women who make life happen.” Her website is www.howtodoitfrugally.com.
I am not sure how she and I met, but we’ve supported each other’s work for at least fifteen years—maybe longer. She’s skilled, talented, and hard-working, which is a winning combination. She was a winner in one of the Writer Advice’s Scintillating Starts Contest, which is judged by the previous years winners, and as far as I can tell, she’s never strayed from her course of helping authors and doing the next right thing.
BLG: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how it led you to write The Frugal Book Promoter.
CHJ: Lynn, several careers prepared me for promoting my own books and those of others. I was the youngest person ever hired as a staff writer for the The Salt Lake Tribune—“A Great Pulitzer Prize Winning Newspaper”—where I wrote features for what was then called the society page and a column under the name of Debra Paige. That gave me insight into the needs of editors, the very people authors must work with to get free ink. Being familiar with the way news is handled helps me see how different books fit into different news cycles.
Later, in New York, I was editorial assistant at Good Housekeeping Magazine. I handled accounts for fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert who instituted the first Ten Best Dressed List. There I moved from reading effective media releases (then called press releases) to writing them for celebrity designers of the day including Christian Dior and producing photo shoots for clients.
I also worked as columnist, reviewer, and staff writer for the Pasadena Star-News, Home Décor Buyer, the Glendale News-Press (an affiliate of the LA Times), Myshelf.com, and others, and I learned marketing skills both in college (University of Utah, and University of Southern California) and as founder and operator of a chain of retail stores. When I wrote my first novel, I realized that my whole life had contributed in one way or another to helping other authors do the platform-building that we must do this new millennium—things that are very different from what the publishing industry required of them before that.
BLG: That’s an amazing background. You’ve picked an excellent title. How important are titles in selling books?
CHJ: It is more important than ever before. And that includes subtitles for nonfiction. The web practically operates on the concept of keywords. That’s why subtitles have gotten longer in the last couple decades. But a title is just as important for fiction. In a well-titled book of fiction, readers can usually sense the genre by the title alone. Of course, covers and the artwork (and graphics!) are important, too. And the more the author knows about that, the more control she has over the future of her own books. That may be a topic I will cover in a next book.
BLG: You’re in your fourth publishing, right? What makes this book so successful?
CHJ: “The Frugal Book Promoter” is in its third edition. Bookbaby called it a “classic” and offered it as a free download. It cracked all records for them. They gave away more than 37,000 ebooks! Now it is published traditionally (Modern History Press, and it is reaching an even wider audience. MHP is publishing all the books in my #HowToDoItFrugally series in their 2nd, 3rd, (or first!) editions.
BLG: How has marketing changed since COVID? Any recommendations for having a successful launch in 2020 or 2021?
CHJ: Well, it’s obviously more online stuff. And it’s more online-INSTEAD of. I just did a Zoom and Power Point writer’s conference keynote for UPPAA (Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association) in Michigan. I really missed a live audience, but I liked it so well, I watched some of the other presentations on YouTube at my leisure later on. By leisure, I mean “in my isolation.” Ahem!
Not only that, but many writer’s conferences aren’t charging for their zoom conferences, thus presenters reach incrementally more people than they could have in person because, I think it is fair to say most conferences record presentations and sell them after the conference. This conference was scheduled for spring in the upper peninsula and ended up on Zoom in September. It now shares my presentation at http://tinyurl.com/frugal2020 on YouTube! Please like and comment while you are there! Better, comment with an additional tip or question and use the signature I urge you to use before you click on “post!”
Here’s the thing. Isolation isn’t an excuse to give up. The web has always been a boon for writers wiling to learn enough to do their book marketing there. We can reach such a huge audience so much faster than any other medium, including TV. To prove my point, there is a chapter on ways to reach millions the stay-at-home way in my “The Frugal Book Promoter” and its first edition came out in 2004! It is now in its third edition from Modern History Press at https://bit.ly/FrugalBookPromoIII.
BLG: How does a good writer find a balance between writing and marketing?
CHJ: I don’t know that anyone ever does. We are all critical of ourselves. Our expectations get in the way. The most we can hope for is to get comfortable with the idea that we aren’t alone.
BLG: What is your favorite—or one of your favorite—passages in The Frugal Book Promoter? And why?
CHJ: “Oh, to remember all those who have been instrumental in the birth of a book! Once, at a writer’s seminar, I overheard a well known author deride writers who include many thank-yous to mentors and helpmates in their acknowledgements. He thought the process a ridiculous name-dropping tradition. He is a wonderful writer, but he must have an inflated opinion of his own abilities if he believes he writes book by himself…”
I love this excerpt from my acknowledgement because I know it has affected at least a few of my readers, including one publisher who mentioned it in a blurb she wrote for me.
BLG: Classic! What are some of the things you do to help authors?
CHJ: My favorites are, of course, my books. I often think how much better it would be for my readers if they read them before they spent a lot of money unnecessarily and then got discouraged from pursuing a writing career. But I also like one of my blogs, The New Book Review. I started it to help authors who often have trouble getting their first reviews. It’s at https://TheNewBookReview.blogspot.com. There are Google “pages” at the top of the homepage that will explain all the free services it offers. Or your readers can get my book on “How to Get Great Book Reviews Frugally and Ethically” where I give them everything (truly!) they need to get—and use—credible, free reviews. It even gives authors what they need to manage their reader reviews at Amazon. And it includes more information on how The New Book Review works. It’s like a two-fer available at https://bit.ly/GreatBkReviews.
BLG: What’s your best tip for being a good literary citizen?
CLH: Is the obvious okay? Respond to email and blog and website comments. And write thank you notes. A little less obvious apparently because few do it: When you respond online, sign your message. You wouldn’t think of sending a letter without signing it, right? Better still, install an autosignature. You will be doing your correspondents the courtesy of making it easy for them to add you to their contact lists, quote from your email and figure out how to credit you. It usually should have your most important metadata in it.
BLG: What else would you like writers to know and where can they learn more about you?
CHJ: This makes me laugh because it is sooo related to your question above and it’s perfect for the end of your interview!. So here is my most recent email signature with what I would like “writers to know and where they can learn more” about me. Obviously it makes it easy for people to learn anything else they would like to know EASILY! And it was frugal. No special signature services. Do-it-myself iPhone photo. Use the email feature that probably comes with your email account. And don’t be afraid to do your own thing or to change it out as new things come up in your life.
Great Little Last-Minute Editing Tips for Writers, 2nd Edition
Released on 9/1 and now available on Amazon as ebook, hard cover, or paperback: https://bit.ly/LastMinuteEditsII
Published by Modern History Press
Amazon Profile: http://bit.ly/CarolynsAmznProfile
- SWEATING IT OUT
- Written by Deborah Turner and Reviewed by Carol Smallwood
- Finishing Line Press
- September, 2020
- $14.99, softcover, 30 pages
- ISBN 978-1-64662-256-6 (paperback)
Coming Out Confident
Smallwood: What is your educational background?
Turner: I earned successive degrees from the Universities of California, Berkeley, Michigan, and then Washington, respectively. I majored in English and minored in Native American Studies and moved on to library studies. I eventually earned my doctorate in Information Science, focusing mainly on library management and talking as a way to exchange information.
Smallwood: When did sports become an important part of your life?
Turner: Very early on. My transition from playing to competing in sports went fairly easily. Likely this reflects how I benefited from Title IX. As a kid, I was very active and played sports. I’ve always been tall for my age. A coach once looked across the school yard and spotted me, head and shoulders above the other sixth-graders. He recruited me for a relay race. Basketball, rowing, softball, and track coaches would later repeat this gesture right up through my undergraduate years.
Smallwood: How did you come up with the theme for Sweating It Out?
Turner: A mentor and later a fellow member of my feminist writing group, Akasha (Gloria) Hull, heard my first sports poem and encouraged me. It used softball to explore the experience of becoming the family matriarch. “Five poems make up a series,” she’d said. Her words motivated me to write additional jock poems, as I called them. That series has become Sweating with its sports poetry.
Smallwood: Some lines in the first poem in your chapbook, “Juneteenth,” caught my attention:
And the children run free
like schools of sardines
lacing the kelp-like crowd in jubilee.
Please share some other imagery lines using your sports background:
Turner: Ah, thank you for mentioning that line. I do love having been fortunate to have spent several hours mesmerized by marine creatures at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Such experiences provide wonderful metaphors for poetry.
When elders step in to help right a situation, I feel a reverence that reminds me of the rhythmic tension involved in watching a tennis match (from “Something from Nothin”):
…a cautious serve, slow and inviting, a volley ensued smooth as a grandfather clock tocking…
There’s another instance of imagery in “Double Dutch,” perhaps a symbol of Me Too despite it having been written before that movement began:
It’s her turn to twirl
and the game ends
I first experienced and expressed real anger while playing in a basketball game. An 8thgrade teammate prevented me from scoring. For the good of the team, I shook a fist at and then one-armed hugged her, tight. Next, I let go of the intense feelings rushing through me and kept playing, certain we could still win. Sports helped me learn how to remain grounded when emotional, while remaining present during challenging situations (“Sidelined”):
She parents like she’s coming in off the bench.
Been coached forever, but the real thing—well…
It can be an incredible sensation to enter into a sporting event tentatively and come out confident—just as it is in life.
Smallwood: In the poem, “My Son’s Avatar” please comment on these very relevant lines:
And I try to recall what a decade of burning bras
and another of fighting, to make our lives matter,
Turner: Each generation does what it can; we hope, to make the world a better place. Yet, we have no idea how the next generation will make sense of our efforts. We strive so earnestly. Meanwhile, children are born; young people get old. When working to make sense of the moments we have, I’m moved to anger, sadness, laughter, and—of course—the unexpected. This poem emerges from watching a beautiful, mixed-race boy passionately select a cartoonish, stereotypically sexual girl from among all the available avatars to be his online game piece. His choice gave me pause and reminded me to make careful wishes. It results in a poem that, among other things, conveys a warning and a wish that we work to ensure our ethical and social practices keep pace with our technological advances.
Smallwood: When did you become conscious of feminism?
Turner: Hum, what a good question. It’s hard to pin down an answer. I studied it in college. Yet, I lived it as a kid. My mother was a hippie and a feminist. So, looking back, I recall being introduced to feminist ways of being from how she modeled it with her life choices. But I had no word for it back then. While studying it, I felt a sense of familiarity while reading classical works, like those in Cherrie Moraga’s This Bridge Called My Back. I once shared a stage with her. That was a real honor.
Smallwood: There are not that many librarians who also are accomplished poets. How did it influence you?
Turner: Yes, that’s true. I’m happy to be following in your accomplished footsteps. There’s an interesting anthology on this theme, Poet-Librarians in the Library of Babel: Innovative Meditations on Librarianship. I really relate to one of its poems about finding an especially moving letter in an archival collection and getting completely distracted from my professional responsibilities!
As a librarian, I worked mainly in library public services. Doing so allowed me to watch. I’ve listened to Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and many other poets describe how writers need to observe. I find helping and watching how people learn how to get much-desired information very satisfying. I relate to the showing/teaching side of library work. Enjoyment in such educational activities led me into the library and information science professorate. Since, I’ve realized there is a strong teaching and learning element in poetry. In that way, librarianship enhanced my career as a writer, which predates mine as a librarian.
Smallwood: Distinguished Professor of English Education, Jeffrey D. Wilhelm (Boise State University) observed that your poems deal with “…deep issues of identity and transformation.” Please share some of these lines:
Turner: The concepts of identity and transformation easily bring to mind how we come of age into adulthood. Yet, life is full of many moments in which we fully realize and accept who we are and use it to inform a different way of being.
A professional arrives at a new place of peace and ambition in “Time Out”:
one by one, lessons of assimilating
fly up and out the mediation retreat window,
taking with them the good sense your mama made you
promise to use
Some lines explore lovingly choosing oneself over others you love (“From the Lighthouse”):
May you know my love even as I leave the lighthouse.
Other lines reflect accepting one’s parents (“Black Patriarch”):
She used to think him snake-like, shedding families like skin
Still others focus on changing roles with one’s parents (“Switch Hitting”):
who has permission
to grant, to deny?
Pondering, she feels eight again
awkwardly switch hitting…
in the last inning
of her mother’s final season.
Smallwood: Please comment on your contributions to two anthologies: Philadelphia Says: Black Lives Have Always Mattered, and Testimony:
Turner: I have a poem and a prose piece in these works. In Philadelphia Stories, my poem, “Young, Gifted, and Back,” speaks to life after completing college. The title plays on Lorraine Hansberry’s famous play. The second work Testimony has quite a sub-title…Young African-Americans on Self-Discovery and Black Identity. My prose contribution to the volume, “Letters to My Sister,” provides a window into the lives of two young women, one in college; another, a mental institution.
Smallwood: What are you working on now?
Turner: I am working on a novel and a memoir. My first novel, Harvesting Her Own Cranberries is set in 1983. Harvesting tells the story of 12-year-old, mixed-race Tink, who goes missing. Readers follow Tink and her blended family, working to get her home safely. As readers learn what becomes of Tink, they’ll journey with her through a cranberry farm that nurtures more than what first appears. It also touches on a theme I mention above, coming of age at different times throughout one’s life. I’m also working on a memoir based on my life in West Philadelphia.
For a reading and discussion guide for Sweating It Out, or to learn more about Turner and her works, please check: http://www.deborahturner.online
Carol Smallwood, MLS, MA, Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, is a literary reader, judge, interviewer; her 13th poetry collection is Thread, Form, and Other Enclosures (Main Street Rag, 2020)
Make It More Vibrant and Active
An interview with Fran Cain by B. Lynn Goodwin
When I learned that Fran Cain was a winner in the California Writers Club’s Literary Review Contest with her story, “Full Moon,” I asked her about her experiences as a writer. She told me this is her first time as a winner, that it’s not difficult to enter, that there’s a fee for submissions, and that the competition had over 300 entries. There were around 28 winners across the categories. You can learn more about their contest at https://calwriters.org/?s=literary+review.
“Full Moon,” which covers a lot of ground without wasting a single word shows imagination and shares some exquisite settings. I choose not to summarize it in the hopes that you’ll order the magazine. Why not support Cain and all the other authors?
In this interview you’ll learn where Cain gets her inspiration and read her advice to short story writers. The 2020 issue will be available before December.
BLGB: Tell us a little about your writing journey. How did you get started and where did you learn to write short stories?
FC: I’ve enjoyed writing stories since I was a little girl. I remember writing my first “book” in grade school. I aced all of my essay exams and papers through college, and I still have some of them. Once I started working in the corporate world, though, business writing took the place of creative writing until I decided to take a creative writing class at the Lafayette Community Center.
I needed to stimulate my creative brain which I felt was starting to atrophy from all those business letters and reports. Taking that one class changed my life in terms of writing. From there, I helped start a critique group called Writers on the Journey. Many years later, we still meet biweekly and help each other with our writing projects and keep each other motivated. I also take art classes and have since left the corporate world. Much of my time now is spent writing and painting.
BLGB: What prompted you to write “Full Moon”?
FC: A lot of the story actually happened. My husband and I were having a romantic getaway on the beautiful island of Kauai. One evening we took a stroll and found an intriguing path to an outdoor elevator. No one was around so we pushed the button and rode to the top. When we stepped out, it was as if we were in a different world–a deserted place with statues that beckoned us to follow long pathways to nowhere. What happens next is fictionalized, but you’ll need to read the story to find out.
BLGB: Where do you go when you need inspiration for a story?
FC: My mind, my observations, events that have happened to me or to people close to me. Sometimes they are simple things. For example, I was hiking in the woods this past week and heard a cow bell. That sparked a story in my mind. I’ll be getting it down on paper soon.
BLGB: Did you know how “Full Moon” would end when you started it?
FC: No. I rarely know how my stories will end, unless they are nonfiction. I let the creative process lead me. Having said that, the first ending may not be the final ending. I will listen to feedback from my critique group, and from my husband, and decide if changes are needed.
BLGB: I love that the first ending may not be the final ending. What is your favorite part of the story? Why?
FC: Well if I told you, you wouldn’t need to read the story! I will say, it gets very spooky and suspenseful. It was great fun to write.
BLGB: Understood. How did you learn about the California Writers Club Contest and what can you tell readers about the organization?
FC: I learned about it primarily from friends in my critique group. This is the second time I have sent an entry. The first time, I felt like I had a good story. But there is a lot of competition being a statewide contest, and so many excellent writers are in the club. I belong to the Mount Diablo Branch of the CWC, which meets monthly, except in summer, and the speaker presentations are always outstanding. I especially enjoy the workshops. It’s like being back in writing class.
BLGB: My compliments on writing a story where every sentence counts. What advice do you have to help short story writers become successful?
FC: One of my biggest challenges is that I am too brief. Case in point, I was allotted 900 words for this interview and at last count, I was far below that. I believe this comes from those many years of business writing where lots of white space is the rule. But I also don’t waste words when I’m speaking. That has been both a strength and a weakness in my life. I tend to expect people to know what I’m talking about. It doesn’t always work out that way.
My advice to other writers is to go back through your draft to check all adjectives and verbs and ask yourself if you can make them more vibrant and more active, more immediate. The answer is nearly always yes. In my own case, if I miss any, my critique group doesn’t hesitate to help point them out.
BLGB: What impact do you hope do you hope your story will have on readers and where / when will they be able to find it?
FC: This story is just for fun. I hope they will find it mysterious and intriguing and enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Members of the CWC will receive a copy of the 2020 California Writers Club Literary Review as part of their membership. Extra copies may be available on request.
BLGB: Thanks so much for sharing this with us, Fran.
If you’d like to request a copy of the 2020 California Writers Club Literary Review, go to https://calwriters.org/publications/. If instructions for ordering the Literary Review aren’t there, click on the contact button and ask how to get a copy. Be sure to tell them that Fran Cain and Writer Advice, www.writeradvice.com sent you.
Secrets to Creating, Crafting, and Telling Memorable Stories
An interview with Kate Farrell by B. Lynn Goodwin
Storytelling has been around longer than the written word. How can you make your stories more vivid, compelling, and engaging? The tools are in Kate Farrell’s Story Power: Secrets to Creating, Crafting, and Telling Memorable Stories.
According to the Foreword written by Susan Wittig Albert, “author Kate Farrell guides us in the craft of creating and telling unforgettable, true stories for any occasion. She divides her chapters into Creating, Crafting, Telling, Exercises and Prompts. Dozens of authors share their approaches and the result is a rich compilation of techniques and ideas that will turn you into an effective storyteller.
In the interview below she shares the importance of oral storytelling, how she got started, and tips for marketing any how-to book.
BLG: Tell us what motivated you to become a storyteller. Can you add a reason that’s not already in the book?
KF: As a ten-year-old girl living on the Southside of San Antonio, Texas, I walked to the local public library and discovered the Andrew Lang Fairy Books, each one bound in a different color, like a rainbow. Enchanted with fairy tales from all over the world, I decided to put on a play of my version of the stories for the neighborhood children, and taught my five-year-old brother to take some of the parts. But when the day came for our performance, my little brother hid under the covers in his bed, and I had to take all the parts. It was my first, but not last, performance as a storyteller. I never lost my fascination for folklore and fairy tales, and wanted to share them.
BLG: How is oral storytelling different from written storytelling?
KF: The oral tradition includes folk literature that dates back to the beginning of time from all cultures. The ancients of every culture told stories to make meaning of life, to remember their history, and to entertain. A lot has changed since then, but stories haven’t. Some of the oldest stories ever told are still with us—because it’s in our nature to both tell and listen to them. Today, while many storytellers tell personal stories, their delivery is live, spontaneous, and engaging. The modern art of telling is similar, a performance, in the moment, with live interaction. It creates community and teaches universal truths.
Written storytelling, though it has some similarities to the ancient art, has a fixed text and is meant to be read in isolation, without deviating from the printed word. A printed text can have meaning and impact for the individual reader, but it does not, in and of itself, create community. Further, a literary work can be embellished with multiple literary devices, descriptive passages, and internal monologues, to name a few. Most of these stylistic features would encumber the tale a storyteller might tell, one that needs to move along quickly to hold the attention of the listening audience.
BLG: How can oral stories make people better writers?
KF: The obvious attribute that writers can take from the oral tradition is a sense of voice in their work. By learning to tell scenes aloud, to record them, and listen to the replay, writers can begin to develop their own voice on the page. All of us have a footprint in writing, a subtle rhythm, a cadence, and a rise and fall of emotion. Listening to your own voice, reading your own words, is a powerful way to increase your sense of its presence in a written text, and by so doing, engage your readers. Voice is the quality that brings a text to life, and lifts it off the page—gives a vital dimension to fiction and nonfiction.
BLG: When/how did you realize that you should be sharing your techniques with teachers as well as writers and how did you locate people who wanted to learn?
KF: Storytelling as an effective teaching strategy was my first focus, and I received a generous, long-standing grant from a local foundation. After three years, developing training ideas, research, and materials, the project became affiliated with the CA Dept. of Education, providing endorsement and access to CA schools statewide. Later, I learned the genre of memoir and began to edit and publish anthologies of personal narrative. Memoirists and storytellers have much in common, and both fields are increasing in popularity.
BLG: I like the pragmatic organization of Story Power. How did you select this format and where did your sample topics come from?
KF: I relied on the structure of my previous storytelling books and training materials, in particular, the first one, Word Weaving: A Storytelling Workbook, 1980. Over the 12 years of the storytelling project’s grant, I was able to identify training tools that worked and identify themes of compelling interest.
BLG: It was exciting to realize that I am acquainted with many of your contributors. What were you looking for when you chose them?
KF: After years of volunteering for writing groups, like the California Writers Club, the San Francisco Writers Conference, and WNBA-SF Chapter, I became fortunate to have a network of writer friends. From those, I chose a range of diverse voices: ethnic, racial, sexual preferences, cultural, even political. Knowing the published works of many of the writers and the themes within the book, I approached each person, chapter by chapter, matching authors to themes.
BLG: How is marketing a book like this different from marketing a novel or memoir?
KF: A nonfiction, how-to book for the adult market is a much easier book to sell than a novel or memoir, because its readers are already identified: those interested in learning a particular skill, a targeted market. With good strategies for discoverability, such as meta data, SEO, keyword choices, a robust online presence, readers can find a how-to book by its subject matter. Novels and memoir readers are not so easy to target, so marketing depends on book reviews, tours, the reputation of the author, a strong emotional and literary appeal.
BLG: What advice would you give to a writer who wants to share specific skills she has acquired?
KF: The most important first step is to research the market by looking for recently published, comparative titles; if possible, determine sales figures for those books. In that way, you can modify your approach and target a more specific reader. Next, look for a publisher that includes similar books in its catalog. Finally, develop your own platform in teaching those skills, if not already in place.
BLG: How was writing this book different from your first one, and where can readers learn more about you and your storytelling practices?
KF: My writing process clearly aligned with my first storytelling book, not only in style, but in the exact timing of writing a draft in 1979/2019 with publication in 1980/2020. I worked from an outline, and structured my work so that I could set individual deadlines. I was able to submit each chapter in draft form to Mango, as I once did throughout the summer of 1979 from a Sierra mountain town to a foundation in San Francisco. But in 1979, I worked on a manual typewriter, stuffed the manuscript for each chapter in a manila envelope, rode my bicycle to the photocopier, and mailed the original MS onion skin pages at the local post office.
BLG: Now that’s a story. I remember onion skin typing paper and manual typewriters. We’ve come a long way.
Two recommendations for those of you reading this interview:
Get a copy of the book.
Google Kate Farrell events to find her next Zoom workshop. It will bring her concepts to life.
Whether you’re telling stories to kindergarteners or an audience in a comedy club, Kate Farrell’s Story Power can help you out. Highly recommended!