Roland Allnach

multi-award winning author of the strange and surreal
www.rolandallnach.com
 

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For the Writer

 

  On this page I have a series of topics for those either new to writing and publication or those who have taken their first steps into the wider publishing world. With all the challenges authors face in succeeding with their work, I believe it's important that authors help each other. That includes helping those who are yet to write, or who are curious as to what's involved in the publishing world.

  This page has evolved as my own publication career has evolved. In fact, I found that I had more to share than was practical to fit into a single web page. The result was a lesson itself in publication experience: I expanded all the topics here, included more topics, and put everything together into one handy reference - The Writer's Primer: A Practical Guide for Aspiring Authors Seeking Publication.

  The Writer's Primer is currently available in print and Kindle from Amazon, as well as the Bookstore on this site. 

  The topics are below are subjects I either didn't find in reference material during research, or lessons learned over the barrier of my stubbornness.  (Nevertheless, I'm still stubborn.)  That aside, I had to get over some misconceptions to get things moving for my own publication efforts.  And while anything I have here can be found in many other places expounded in great length, for this locality brevity might be its own reward.

  Much of my writing and publishing experience is from trial and error. Rather than revise a current project, I developed the habit of taking whatever skills I learned and pushing them into writing something new.  As the years went by I improved the mechanical quality of my writing, but I left a trail of stories and books behind me in some sorry states of disrepair.  It wasn't until I finally made the decision to approach publication as a professional pursuit that I was able to focus and maintain the discipline required to achieve publication.  It's a process that requires a great deal of patience and persistence.

  The point?  Be prepared to continue learning and refining essential writing skills over the course of submission and the inevitable reality of rejection.

  For short fiction, here are some topics of interest:

  For novels, here are some topics on publishing and marketing:

  In Remembrance of the Typewriter

     For historical curiosity, and for the fact that so much of this page is about writing and publishing, I couldn't help but think about that old beast, the typewriter.  So, to break things up a bit, I found a few images regarding typewriters and closed the page with some thoughts about how writing has changed as we've moved from typewriters to computers.  If you wish, jump to the bottom of this page, have a read, and let me know what you think.

 

(Print ball from an electric typewriter.)


  Topics for Short Fiction

 


Not every word is sacred

 

  Anyone who has taken the effort to write fiction will be familiar with the emotional investment required to put words to paper (so to speak).  As such, it's a natural inclination to feel that stories as originally told should not be touched in any significant way.  I'm not referring here to simple grammatical edits and proofreads, but to the larger scope of a piece of fiction.  I too feel as if my stories are my 'babies'.  It's a common thing, and you can read as much from many different writers. 

  But, as it says above, not every word is sacred.  There is another little adage, that the process of revision is endless.  I, for one, still find things in stories that I've published (particularly the earlier ones) that in hindsight I would prefer to change.  This is not a matter of saying that such things were sub-par, but rather that as I've moved along and honed my skills I take a more critical eye to my work, and often think that I could have done some things better.  The art of reviewing your own work is an evolving skill, part of what leads to the expression of your characteristic 'voice' as a writer.  You can't rush it and to a certain degree you can't learn it in a book. 

  Be ready to look back at your work and revise in stages.  One of my published stories, "Memento", went through an arduous series of revisions before I really had the story in the form I desired.  Though it had racked up a number of rejections with its earlier versions, the last revision found its acceptance in the webpages of Reed Magazine rather quickly.  It was a bit of a lesson for me: when I started sending the story out for consideration in its original form, I really believed it was the best it could be.  But as the story built up its track of rejections, I took a much more objective look at the story and dispensed with my subjective affection for the original form.  Once I was able to make that switch in perspective, the revisions gained momentum and ease.

  I've read in several places a recommendation that I've come to take to heart: after you write something and do your initial edits/grammar revisions, let the story sit for awhile.  This will allow for several things.  First, it gives you a vital sense of distance.  Remember that when you wrote something, you were aware of the story's totality, of facets that most likely transcended any inference in the writing and so will escape the reader.  This may create a problematic emotional flaw in the story.  Allowing the story to sit allows that inner awareness to dissipate, so that you can read your work more as the reader will experience it. 

  Second, after the story sits, you will find it easier to critique the way you assemble certain phrases.  Maybe there is a word used in repetition, a certain phrase that comes too often from different characters, or descriptive passages that aren't necessary. 

  Third, you should consider how interesting the story seems to you as you read it.  If you as the author don't feel that same 'magic' as when you wrote the story, something is wrong, because if you as the creator don't feel it, you can assume the reader won't feel it either. 

  Fourth, since the story isn't as intimate to you as it was when first created, you can ask yourself if you indeed told something new, or compelling, or captivating enough to hold an audience. 

  In the end, remember it's your story.  That won't change, no matter how many revisions you go through.

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Know your mechanics

 

  This should go without saying, but it nevertheless needs to be said: be sure your grammar is in good shape when you send out a story.  I put this after the above considerations for revision, because even a well told story won't hold an editor's attention if it is riddled with typos, spelling errors, and grammar errors.

  Remember that while you may be sending out your story as a hobby or a passionate side pursuit (of course there's always that background fantasy of lucrative publishing), to the editors and reading panels of magazines, journals, and/or literary agencies, this is their profession. 

  As such, you should treat your approach to them not only as an artistic foray but as a professional interaction.  Basic spelling, typing, and grammar is the best way to say to a reviewing reader that you are at least serious and respectful of the business of writing.  Of course there will always be a stray error that slips by, but if the first few lines of your submission hold errors, you can be sure your story won't see the light of day.  Editors are there to consider the value of your storytelling, not teach you lessons in grammar.

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Follow the rules


 
No matter what you submit or where you submit it to, there will always be submission guidelines.  Like basic  mechanics of the language, if you don't respect the rules laid out in a particular set of guidelines, it's a good way to torpedo your submission.

  At a minimum, your work should be neat, printed on one side of a page, double spaced, and contain either in   your query letter and/or in the story itself your contact information.  Some editors have more individualized  requirements, so you'd best follow them.  Thanks to the Internet many publications have web sites, so that you can gain current submission guidelines for the given market.  Address your submission to the proper editor.  For more on formatting your story, see below, Manuscript Formats.

  Be considerate which publications will accept simultaneous submissions and those who will not.  If you send a story to an editor that does not accept simultaneous submissions, and you have done that very thing, you will go straight to the rejection pile.  On the other hand, don't be careless and overload on simultaneous submits for a particular piece.  This tactic, often referred to as a 'blitz', can backfire.  It may sound wonderful to have two editors send an acceptance for the same piece, and even though editors who accept simultaneous submissions often understand this may happen, you need to be mindful to contact all editors who have the story in question that it's no longer available for consideration. 

  Further, though editorial comments can be rare on rejected submissions, you may get a vital piece of advice that you wish to use to revise your story, only to remember it's already strewn across the editorial landscape.

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Evaluating editorial comments

 

 Given the volume of submissions sent to publications/publishers/agents, it's often difficult, if not impossible, for editors to supply comments on rejections.  When those comments do come, you should give them careful  consideration.  But this doesn't mean you should take those comments as an absolute.  While there are  certain objective criticisms that are always valid, if your submission would warrant such criticism, chances are  you need to seriously consider if the piece is ready to be submitted in the first place.  The rest of the comments you might see are therefore all of the subjective nature.

  Being subjective, editorial comments are not absolute.  Consider the story you want to tell with respect to the comment and try to infer how the editor interpreted your story.  It may be that the editor missed what you wanted to convey, but consider as well that editors see thousands of stories, so if they missed what you wanted to convey, perhaps there's nothing wrong with your message or story per se, but only the way in which it was delivered.  This can be fixed.  Remember that regardless of the comment the comment is stemming from how the story was interpreted by an experienced reader.  Whether you agree with the comment or not, give it careful consideration.  It may lead you to see something you weren't aware of before, or perhaps even make you conscious of an element in the story you had not fully considered.

  My first experience with a professional editorial review came with the manuscript preparation for my first book, Remnant.  I thought I had done as thorough a job as I could in my own proofing before submitting Remnant.  It was a lesson in subjectivity, in that no matter how good an editorial eye you may think you have, you will always bring an inherent subjective bias to your proofing.  There were some bad habits in my writing, and I had no conscious recognition that I had such habits.  Well, now I do.  Without a professional edit, I don't know if I would've picked up on those faults. 

  You may find, as I did, that once certain things are pointed out to you, you wonder how you could've missed them all along.  This type of editorial input is worth its weight in gold, because it comes in the form of lessons you will not only build into your editorial tool box, but into your writing as well, so that the faults cease to be an issue in your writing.

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Selecting markets


 
Three words:  research, research, research.  Seeking publication is a tedious, time consuming process.  Even  if that first publication credit comes after a few submissions, don't be fooled to think it will be so easy the rest of the way.  I've read in several places that the average short story goes through 40 rejections and two years of time before finding a home in a publication.  If you're ahead of that curve, great.  The stories I've had published are ahead of that curve, but there are a few others that are nearing that average, and a few that  have passed that mark.  So with research, research, research, goes patience, persistence, more patience, and some more persistence.

  There are many reference books out there and, of course, there is the Internet.  Two great sites are Ralan.com and Duotrope.com.  I use both print and Internet reference to build lists of possible markets for my stories, then follow up on the Internet (for those who have an Internet site) to get the most current information.  Read through old stories archived on the site, if possible.  Pay close attention to the submission guidelines, where most editors will make it quite clear what kind of material they will consider. 

  On the other hand, there will be times when you don't get a thorough feel for what exactly an editor is looking for. There are those who say their tastes are 'eclectic'.  Aside from reading archived stories or getting your hands on previous issues, you may just have to take a chance, but use your common sense.

  At the same time, don't fixate on a particular market.  Sure, there will be publications whose guidelines and/or back issues you read and think, "Wow, my story is perfect for these guys!" (although, never say such a thing in your submission).  Remember that you will be competing against hundreds - perhaps thousands - of other submissions. 

  And if you get accepted, congratulations.  You were just chosen over hundreds - perhaps thousands - of other submissions.

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Overnight sensations

 

  Here's something you hear or read all to often:  Joe Writer, though never published, just landed a six figure  publishing deal with a major publishing house, and the movie rights have been sold and are currently under  development.

  For all the rest of us (99.99%, at least) who sit and very patiently send out submissions, go through edits and revisions, and understand the business of writing is one laden with persistence, that tired blurb goes down about as smooth as a razor blade cocktail.  I congratulate the people who are the subject of such blurbs.  At the same time, as I said, those blurbs are very discouraging as you sit and wonder, "Why can't that be me?"

  My advice is not to pay attention to such things, unless you can find out how such a person managed to secure some kind of unique attention leading to such overnight success.  Look at it this way.  For every Hollywood sensation that was 'discovered' standing outside a club, there's a horde of struggling actors who went to acting school and pursue the endless exercise of auditions.  The same thing can be said for the music industry.

  I think these blurbs are out there because they touch upon something to which we can all relate, the fantasy of quick and easy success, also known as the lottery mentality.  In most cases, it's just that - a fantasy.  When you get past that and look at successful people in any creative medium, you will most often find a far more familiar story:  after years of hard work and time spent developing the respective and requisite skills, success came along.

  Here are two interesting statistics I'm going to paraphrase.  These numbers can be found in many articles on publication:  the typical short story endures 40 rejections and two years of submissions before publication; the average author/book endures 75 or more agent rejections before being signed - and then the book has to be picked up by a publisher.

  And remember that 'success' has many incarnations.  Your first publication credit, that's a huge success, because no matter how far you go, you're not anywhere without that first step.  A second credit, that's great, because now you know you're not a 'one-hit' deal.  A third, and now you can build some legitimate confidence.  A fourth, and you start to feel like part of something, that perhaps you actually know what you're doing.  And so on.

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Exposure


 

  The literary/publishing world is a very crowded place, with many writers competing for exposure.  As such, a little self-promotion can be of help, that is, you need exposure.  And what's the best way for you to get  exposure?  Stand on the street and take off your clothes, of course.

  Bad humor aside, exposure is almost a requirement, at least from everything there is to read about trying to get yourself established as a writer.  Before I was published, I thought that I had nothing to present to expose myself, as it seemed a hollow act to promote nothing.  Like most writers, I'm somewhat of a private person, so the idea of laying myself out there wasn't something I was keen to pursue.  But the further along I've gone, and the more I've read, it seemed an inescapable facet of developing my writing life.

  I chose to build this site out of two thoughts.  One, using a social site opened the concern (at least in my mind) that I would have to keep up with a very fickle popular trend.  I didn't want to build something on one social network and then play catch-up by moving everything or re-establishing something on the next 'new' thing that came along.  Second, by building my own site, it would be my site.  This allows me to decide what content I want - or don't want - to include, and no matter how a social trend on the Internet might run, my site will still be right here. 

  That said, the simple reality of today's world is that social network sites have become entrenched in the realm of promotions.  Look around, and links for facebook, Twitter, etc. are displayed with prominence in any advertising or publicity effort.  The good news, the way I see things, is that a personal adversity to social networking doesn't have to get in the way of fostering a website or blog.  All things on the Internet are eventually related through links, so if you're not all that comfortable with social network sites, understand that they are a quick way to spread instant word about a news item - with the requisite link.

  I won't claim to be an expert at drawing traffic to my site.  SEO (search engine optimization) is part of a complicated profession to build website exposure.  I build site traffic by referring to this site with any publication credits so that an interested reader can take a look at some of my other stories.  Another thing to consider is posting a page on Author's Den (check out the Author's Den site here) either in lieu or in combination with your own website.  Author's Den draws a great deal of traffic, and authors are promoted by various parameters and updates, so even the 'new' writer will get good exposure.  If you're fortunate enough to get a book published, membership options on Author's Den allow for posting book ads, so you can get advertisement right on a busy site.  A good deal all around.

  As a side note to stress the importance/inevitability of developing a site of your own, take into consideration what some editors may look for.  A good number of independent and small publishers want to know upon query if you have a site, and how you plan to promote your work, should it be accepted.  Well, if you don't have a site, that 'promotion' part will be a little difficult.

  And, of most importance, when setting up a website read every last word of the policies of the hosting service you use, paying particular attention to domain name ownership.  Some hosting services retain ownership of your domain name.  What does this mean?  It means someone other than you controls the name of your website.  After all the work and time to build traffic to your website, you don't want to be in a situation where for some reason you have to move your site to a new name and start from scratch.  I use Hostmonster to host this site.  They offer comprehensive tools, help, competitive pricing, and yes, you retain ownership of your domain name.

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 Manuscript Formats


 
How you present your story is the first introduction of yourself to your editor, and just as how you dress is  important when you walk into an interview, so too the proper formatting of your story when an editor gives it a look.

  I'll discuss three things in brief: universal formatting, 'standard' formatting, and 'on-line' or 'web' formatting.

  Universal Formatting
 
These are the basic parameters every story should abide when they are sent out.  Some of them may sound ridiculous, but I guess some people do some strange things.  They wouldn't have those warning stickers about storing gas cans next to open fires if someone hadn't tried it, right?

  • Always double space.
  • Do not send hand written work.
  • Print on one side of the page.
  • Left margin, do not 'justify' margins.
  • Use 12 pt, Times New Roman font.
  • Indent five spaces for new paragraphs.
  • Contact information on first page.
  • Header information with your name, story title, and page number.
  • If submitting by Internet, be sure to submit in the requested file type: *.doc, *.rtf, or email paste.
  • If submitting by postal mail, don't forget to include a good old SASE for editorial reply.

  Standard Formatting
 
This is in addition to, or in place of, the above.  Don't get confused - I thought I knew what a 'standard' format was until I finally decided to check what it entailed.  Standard formatting is something you will see quite often when submitting to genre publications, such as SF, horror, and fantasy.

  • Use 'Courier' - the font that looks like old style typewriter print.
  • Contact information at top left of first page, word count at top right.
  • Approximately half way down first page, story title, next line put 'by', next line, your name (all centered).
  • Page header, top right, with your last name/story title/page number.
  • Denote scene breaks with a single centered asterisk.
  • Do NOT use italics.  Denote text that is to be italicized by underlining the text (excepting editor OK).
  • At story end, leave a few blank lines, then type 'THE END', centered.

  On-line Formatting
 
This is something I really didn't appreciate until I built this site.  It has to do with the differences of format code between word processors and HTML for websites.  So if you submit to on-line publications, and you see the specification for 'on-line' or 'web' formatting, be sure to follow the guidelines.

  • Within paragraphs, single space (NO hard returns).  Double space between paragraphs.
  • Denote scene breaks with three centered asterisks.
  • Do not double space after a period - follow with only a single space.
  • In some cases, it will be requested that paragraph indents are omitted.

  That about covers it.  Of course, as should go without saying, always follow the submission guidelines that editors lay out for their publications.  There are some editors with more specific guidelines and sometimes unique guidelines that, if neglected, can doom a submission.

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Word Counts and Story Length


 
I recently had the opportunity, and the pleasant experience, of proofing a story that was sent to me.  One of the notions that arose in reading through the story concerned the issue of word counts and story length.

  The first thing to consider is the market perspective on story length.  For the purpose of a general discussion, I would say that 5,000 words is the magical threshold in the short story market.  Stay below that word count, and a good ninety percent or more of publications (both web and print) will consider the story.  Once a story crosses the 5K word count limit, the number of publications drops by at least half.  In my experience there is another big reduction in available markets after the 8,000 word mark, and if a story surpasses the 10,000 word mark, the number of available markets is quite small.  Remember that increased story length entails a correspondingly larger space commitment for a publication, regardless of whether the publication is electronic or print. 

  Consider as well that most editors look to provide their readers with a spectrum of fiction in a given issue.  In quite a number of publications there are issues devoted to a particular theme; in others there are more understated thematic links.  Nevertheless, a thematically linked issue - no matter how subtle the link - will draw part of its strength from the very diversity of its contents.  For an issue of a publication to commit to a lengthy story is not just a matter of an editorial risk on one story, but a risk of casting a particular light on the issue itself.  Of course these concerns will vary depending on the individual constitution and editorial preferences of a given publication, but these factors contribute to understanding why longer pieces of fiction have so many fewer publications willing to entertain them.

  Now, with all that said, the second consideration on story length naturally comes in the actual writing of the story.  I'm sure different writers will have different views on this subject, particularly with writing being such the personal thing it is.  From my point of view, or perhaps in my experience, I would suggest not to worry so much about length or word count during the writing process.  I for one do not write my stories following an outline; on the contrary, I tend to have a general idea where I want to go with my story, and then let my character development decide on the complexity, and therefore the length, of the piece. 

  The general rule I have with myself is that if my characters don't have sufficient space to be emotionally invested in the story, then certainly a reader won't be compelled to emotionally invest in the story.  With a little bit of planning and thought, extraneous scenes can be avoided during the writing process; proofreading will reveal other areas of the piece that can be trimmed down, or, if necessary, expanded.  And don't forget the basic rule of thumb in fiction of any length, which is that you want your story to start as close to a spark point for your intention as possible. 

  That's not to say things have to be short and tidy - just that if there's a long run-up for events to start rolling, you may want to reconsider how the story is coming together.  A general tip for maintaining momentum, and by extension word count, is that your reader should never be wondering when something is going to 'happen'.  Once that squirming question enters a reader's mind, the story has, for all intensive purposes, run a high risk of losing that reader.

  So what does all that boil down to?  The easiest thing might be to consider how many characters you want to work with, the complexity of your story idea, and what may be required to relate your idea to your reader.  All these concerns will combine ahead of time to give a rough idea of what sort of length a story might entail.  One thing I do not consider, and something I would not recommend, is taking a story that has received a great deal of proofing and 'chopping' it to make it fit under a certain word count. 

  There's always a happy medium, an equilibrium, between the momentum of a story and its length.  With these sometimes opposing factors out of balance, a story will either drag, or feel choppy.  It's not an easy balance to achieve, and each story will have its own balance point.  Just remember that the longer the story, the less markets available as possible submission targets.

  With all this in mind, here are some rough guidelines on story lengths:

  500 - 1,000 (or <500)   Considered 'flash fiction'.  Good market availability for submissions.
  Up to 5,000   Considered 'short' story.  The main segment of the market, so excellent availability for submissions.
  5,000 - 8,000   Still in the short story realm, but significantly less markets available for submissions.
  8,000 - 10,000  The high end of the short story realm, few markets available for submissions.
  >10,000   Entering the realm of novellas.  Very few markets available; best bet is to submit to anthologies.
  20,000 - 70,000  A tough area between long novellas, 'novelettes', and short novels.  Even when submitting to an anthology, this is a major commitment for an editor, and so a tough sell.  If you have stories of this length, consider any common elements between them and group them into an anthology.  This was the strategy I used that led to the publication of my first two books.
  >70,000   Congratulations!  You didn't write a story, you wrote a book.  Humor aside, I would say that definitions vary by publisher but, in most cases, word counts in this range are the realm of full length, stand-alone novels.

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(The old days: typewriter, paper, sore fingers.)
 



Topics for Novels

 

 

The big question: self, small, or large publisher?

 

  This question might have more to do with your aspirations as an author, rather than a strict consideration of the type of publisher you wish to pursue.  As a strict starting point, the chances of landing a large publisher with a first book is not an easy thing, particularly if you don't have an agent.  Also, unless you've already had some experience with marketing and promotion, you might want to consider setting your sights a little smaller so that you can cut your teeth on these two prickly parts of the book world. 

  The reality of the publishing world today is that even with large publishers, authors are expected to take the lead on marketing their books.  If you don't have any experience with this, you might find yourself in the odd position of having the muscle of a large publisher behind your book but lacking the individual insight on marketing to make the most of that muscle.  The other reality of large publishers is that while advances have contracted over the years with the diminishing margins of large publishing houses, the advance has also come to be viewed more as the author's initial marketing budget rather than the pot of gold at the end of a fantastical rainbow.

  So, with those things in mind, most authors will find themselves courting a self or small publisher.  Before I get into that decision process, I'd like to say a few things about self publishing.  I've only been involved in the book world since 2010, when Remnant found a publisher with All Things That Matter Press, a small publisher.  At that time, there was still a considerable bias against self published books.  In the commercial market there was a palpable attitude bias:  many market level reviewers wouldn't accept self published books for review, and many of the creditable award contests either wouldn't consider self published submissions or would relegate them to their own category. 

  Further, the sophistication of self publishers was something to approach with a certain wariness, as too many of them lacked proper, professional editorial review and relied on author initial inventory purchase as their primary business model rather than income from professionally prepared and presented manuscripts.

  All those factors have changed dramatically in a few short years.  In my own experience I've watched the acceptance of self published books broaden to the current reality, where they are given equal stance with books from small and large publishers (for the most part).  Also, the increasing sophistication of reputable self publishers, the success of some self published titles, and the entrance of some A-list authors into the self publishing world have propelled the world of self publishing from a fringe curiosity to a main market consideration.  Nothing says more to this than the acquisition of Author House (home of an entire stable of self publishing imprints) by Penguin.

  That said, there is still a great diversity among self publishers.  If you choose the self publication route, be sure of a few things.  First and foremost, be sure that your book will undergo proper editorial review.  Remember that 'editorial review' is something every publisher will claim, but it comes in several flavors.  At the lowest rung, editorial review is nothing more than someone running a spell/grammar check on the manuscript.  Proper editorial review should help you, the author, focus your book into the best it can be.  With self publishers, you should also be wary of those who require you to lay out an investment on an initial print run.  In the current reality of digital/on-demand printing and e-books, this practice certainly hints of a publisher looking to profit off an author's volume purchase of books more than anything else. 

  Last, when deciding between a small or self publisher you might want to consider your individual goal as an author.  If your interest is to see a single book through to publication, self publishers certainly offer a wide array of options and flexibility in author determined pricing.  However, if your interest is to be an author and publish multiple books, seeking a small publisher might be more in line.  There's no substitute for developing a relationship with your publisher and, given that small publishers are more sensitive to selecting authors whose writing style and topics blend with those of the publisher, having a publisher that stands behind your work and supports your efforts as an author is indispensable. 
 

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The book is published - now what?

 

  As an author, it's a labor of love to write a book.  After comes the exacting process of revision and self edits, followed by the no less exacting process of locating and submitting to publishers.  Whether self, small, or large publisher, once the publisher is secured and the contract signed there now comes the process of professional editorial review, book design, and - at long last - the joy of publication.

  Now, if you're like most first time authors, you're probably wondering what will happen next.  The short answer is nothing, unless you've already done some homework about marketing.  My personal experience with the publication of my first book was more an adventure of learning the depth of my own ignorance for the market more than anything else.  I've said in numerous interviews that I was under the gross misconception that given the sheer number of books sold every year that any book would surely possess some default, built-in sales figure. 

  After all, that's the pipe dream presented to the greater public, that once you land a published book money just appears on your doorstep.  Reality couldn't be more different.  I discovered that there is a default sales figure, and that number is zero.  The hard truth is that more than a million titles are published each year in the United States alone, and your title will be just one little voice among all those others.

  So, what's the answer to the question?  Now that your book is published, the real work begins: marketing, marketing, and more marketing.  For all the accomplishment and satisfaction of seeing a book through to publication, you will discover that you have just entered a competitive marketplace vying to grab the attention of readers. 

  One of my other learning experiences was my first book signing.  I went to the LA Times Book Festival to do a signing coordinated through Author's Den, with high hopes that I could move a good number of copies.  When I arrived at the festival I realized just how small a fish I was in a very large ocean.  There I was, a first time author with one book, competing for attention among A-list names and many other authors with established publishing records and established marketing efforts.  The lesson that jumped up and hit me over the head was not just the importance but the absolute necessity of promoting my book.

  I knew nothing about marketing.  In the time since I've made a point of learning everything I can, and one of the most important things I've learned is that you must be persistent in your efforts.  The great thing about the Internet is that any book, large or small, basically comes out on equal footing to the marketplace.  Marketing efforts make the difference between what is noticed and what will languish.  Marketing can be daunting to learn and, at times, the effort invested coupled to sometimes dubious returns can make the effort seem not only discouraging but a towering impossibility.

  Do not despair.  Buckle down, prepare for the long haul, and go to it.  There's only one guarantee in the marketing of a book: if you do nothing, your book - your labor of love - will be lost in the crowd. 


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Considerations for book reviews

 

  My first foray into looking to set my books apart from the crowd was to send them out for market level reviews.  Reviews come in many flavors, and each has their place.  In my opinion and experience, market level reviews are a great aid in building confidence as an author, and for learning what narrative qualities translate through one's writing.

  Peer reviews from other authors, particularly if the reviewing author is a known name, can be a great boost to a burgeoning author's work, but access to known authors can be difficult to attain.  Keep in mind that if you approach a known author to ask for a review that the author in question most likely receives numerous requests for reviews.  Known authors, like any other author, have constraints on their time.  As much as a given author may love to read, committing to a review is a different matter. 

   As an individual, I put a great deal of care in writing book reviews.  If I don't have honest, positive comments to highlight an author's work, I simply won't publish a review.  That might be a mistake according to some pundits on author networking, but I believe I have a valid reason:  writing a review is an art form in itself - that's why we have professional reviewers.  I dread the prospect of possibly detracting from another's book by nature of a review that is faulty in its construction.  As I said, writing reviews is an art form in itself, and it's one I'm trying to get the hang of by using Goodreads and Library Thing to post reviews of books I've read in the past.

   Why do I make this point?  I think it's important to understand the difference between elective reviews and market reviews.  Elective reviews, such as those from other authors, may be more dependent on the reviewing author's tastes in regard to their inclination to write a review, as well as the reviewing author's time constraints.  A market review is a review written by a professional reviewer, and should be independent of time and taste.  While a professional reviewer should take some space to comment on the gut reaction to a book, more of the review will focus on the mechanics of the narrative.  It's a case of subjectivity versus objectivity between an elective review and a market review.

  Casual reviews from readers can be great for developing a 'man-on-the-street' appeal, but they are of questionable use when attempting to develop critical validity for a book.  In today's world, there's the unfortunate reality that some readers review books without having read them.  You can often detect this in reviews by a few tip-off's: the review is short (not just a capsule review, but short short), the review lacks any specific references to events/characters in the book, and last but not least the majority of the review's content is nothing more than a paraphrase from the book's trailer/back cover blurb. 

   In another area, it's natural for authors to ask friends, relatives, and acquaintances to write a reader review.  While it may be great for one of these readers to give your book a kind review, it's not good practice to cite compliments from reviewers that are part of an author's personal life for obvious reasons of potential bias. 

   As a final word, be wary of services that offer to wrangle up dozens of reader reviews on Amazon or Barnes&Noble.  If you do a little research, you'll find that some readers are posting reviews for multiple books day after day.  It doesn't take much thought to realize that these readers aren't reading the book - no one can read that many books in so little time.

  Market level reviews are professional critiques from book reviewing services, blogs, and print periodicals, with the delineation between them often blurred by multiple media presence.  Market level reviews offer a number of options that translate beyond the review itself, but also shed some light on the reviewing process itself. 

  First, any legitimate reviewing service should offer a free avenue for reviews, and should not operate solely on a fee based model.  Second, the review should always come with a disclaimer that there is no guarantee of a positive review, and that the book will be judged objectively on its merit.  Some reviewing services even offer an opt-out.  In the case that the book does not receive a positive review, the author can elect not to have the review posted.  Third, look at the fee structure for paid reviews.  Due to evolving market dynamics, reviewing services need to generate revenue from their reviews to stay in business. 

  Part of that revenue stream is derived from services coordinated with a review.  The first item of this menu will be an offer for a paid expedition of the review - the service will guarantee your book will be reviewed within a certain time frame.  This is can be a great asset if you want to coordinate several reviews or events, so that you have a definitive time frame for when the review will post. 

  The second item on review services will be to bundle some type of promotional service for the review.  These services vary in character, but often include premium placement of the review within the service's publication outlet (Internet, publication, blog, or combination), combination of a review with a text, podcast, or radio interview, inclusion of a press release, and last but not least an advertising offer for defined time frames with the service's publication outlet(s).

  Regardless of the source of your book's review, look at the character and content of the review.  As I said earlier, writing a review is itself an art form.  A well written review shouldn't just discuss the book's plot and whether or not the reviewer 'liked' the book, but should discuss in some length the flavor of the author's prose, the quality of character development and the refinement of the narrative, and the impression these create. 

  While these parameters may not seem particularly relevant to a book, keep in mind that as an author you not only want to receive accolades for the book - your product - but accolades for you, the author, as the brand.  A good review will tout both these aspects of a single book.  Remember that while readers buy books, they are very loyal to the authors of books they like.  A book, as the product, is a singular entity, but you, as the author, constitute the brand of future titles. 

  You want a review to help you build a return customer base.  That might sound like sterile marketing talk, but keep in mind that as an author you want to share stories, and the only way to do that is to have readers take an interest not only in a particular tale you told but in the way you presented the tale.  That involves building a reputation for your 'voice', the unique imprint you leave on your writing that marks it as something only you could write, that is recognizable as yours and yours alone.

  Remember that reviews have lasting value.  Though they can constitute an expense, market level reviews are investments that pay endless dividends.  As long as you credit the source, you can quote excerpts for promotional purposes.  Don't forget on subsequent book publications to include those excerpts of the current book or previous books on the first pages - it's a standard marketing practice. 

  In fact, if you go to a book store and open almost any book, the first few pages have exactly this kind of content.  If you look over the reviews, make note of the sources.  If you see the same sources in several books - particularly if they are within your book's or your writing's area of interest - research those sources as possible reviewers of your book.  Readers like to see quotes of good reviews, but readers are also wise enough to look at the source as a qualifier for the review quote.  If the review source is unknown, the quote's persuasion factor might go down a few notches.

  I've used a number of different reviewers for my books.  I won't list them here, because I think reading their reviews help further the points I've discussed here.  You can find the reviews, their links, and the names of the services on the 'Reviews & Interviews' pages for my books.


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Be brave - enter an award contest!

 

  Book awards share some similarities to the concerns regarding book reviews.  While you can guarantee obtaining a review by investing in an expedite service, there is no guarantee with book awards.  However, on the other side of that equation, if you place in an award contest, you'll have something that very few other people can claim.

  Like anything else, do your research when looking at award competitions.  There are many award competitions out there, but the stark reality is that many of them carry little recognition outside of their local supporters.  This is not meant to diminish their judging criteria or prestige, but for the investment required to enter award contests in book copies and entrance fees, it may serve better economic sense to try a larger, more established contest.  So, the question is, how to delineate between contests?

  There are several basic criteria to follow when researching contests.  The most obvious thing is to make sure the contest in question has a category that fits well with your book.  There are some contests I've found that just claim to judge books of any genre, and that's a red flag.  Established contests, even contests that are genre specific, will always have a detailed list of categories in which to enter.  Not only does this ensure that your book is competing against titles of similar flavor, but in the event you receive award placement the award category serves as an immediate label for your book's character. 

   A book on display will have to draw some attention to get a potential reader to read the back, flip through the pages, and get a feel for where the book sits in the landscape of genres.  Having a label on the cover announcing an award placement in a category not only draws attention, but lets someone know right away that the book not only sits in a particular genre, but is recognized within that genre.

  When looking at contests, get a feel for the contest's history.  Use a search engine to browse the Internet for winners of prior years.  A contest with several years of winners not only serves to validate that the contest will indeed announce and come to a conclusion, but allows you to see the caliber of competition.  While it would be nice to recognize the names of some authors, perhaps of greater interest is to see the publishers of the books that placed in award rankings.  If you don't recognize any of the publishers, you may want to look further into the scope of the contest. 

  Established contests also issue press releases for prior contest announcements, often detailing the volume of entrants they received.  This too will help you not only gauge the level of competition, but the comparative prestige of award placement and the scale of the contest.  The larger the contest, the greater the exposure.

  Be prepared for contest fees.  It's an unfortunate part of contests, but remember that running a contest is a big investment in labor hours for the host.  A review of the contest rules will often attest to this fact: most reputable contests have more than one reader assigned to judge each book (particularly in the latter rounds of the contest) and in larger contests that adds up to a significant labor investment. 

  It's easy to get lost in contest categories and end up spending a great deal of money, but keep in mind that you should only enter your book in categories that serve a good fit.  If you think it's a bit of a reach to classify your book under a particular genre, you might want to reconsider entering (and paying) for that category.  If a contest offers publicity packages to its winners, consider taking advantage of those offers.  They often come at significant discounts to standard pricing, and will coordinate with your award placement.

  Your research for book awards should start well before your book is published.  All contests run on rolling periods of publication dates, so your ability to enter contests is limited to a year or two after your publication date.  After that, the contests available are few and far between.  This was something I learned with my first book, because I didn't start looking into awards until a year after it was published.  With my second book, I already had several award contests in mind for submission the moment the book was published.  From what I've seen, most award contests announce in either the Spring or Fall, with a corresponding six to twelve month submission window ahead of the announcement date.

  On a personal note, I'd like to share a little experience I had while strolling about the 2012 Miami Book Fair.  It was an exciting time, because I was down in Miami to collect my awards from the 2012 Readers Favorite Book of the Year contest, and I had just found out the night before that I collected another three awards from the 2012 USA Best Book Awards.  So, not to be obnoxious, but more to gauge the value of having at that point seven national book awards, I made a point of mentioning my awards while talking with assorted publicists, editors, and publishers.  I can't stress enough how the complexion of the conversation changed after mentioning the awards. 

  Again, I don't mean it as tooting my horn, but, at the same time, it is about tooting a horn.  While I was speaking with a representative of Smith Publicity, she shared a very interesting piece of advice with me: publicity leads want to build on momentum, not create the momentum.  Awards are a great way to signify momentum, because they impart validity to both author and book.
 

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Some economic considerations for marketing

 

  The cold hard truth of the book world is that marketing efforts are expensive.  The publicity industry is built on the notion of contacts, and all the good contacts are of course held at a premium.  Furthermore, the art of publicity is something many authors don't understand and aren't prepared to tackle when first published.  It's a daunting task requiring patience and persistence.  All of these factors contribute to the existence of publicity professionals.

  All that aside, the first thing I'd like to discuss is the realm of 'free publicity', that is, publicity through social networking.  The successes here are often touted, but with a little investigation it's not hard to decipher the apparent ease of social networking success more as a lottery mentality, because the success stories are filled with the dreamy portent of great reward with minimal effort, financial and time-wise. 

  Unfortunately, this simply isn't the case.  I should frame everything I'm about to say in the context of my individual situation, which is that I work under a very crowded time schedule.  Like most authors, I don't live off my writing; rather, I work a 'day' job to pay the bills (and support my writing).  I also have a family.  Add to this some time for sleep (sleep?  What's that?) and there really isn't much time to go around.  Being active in social media not only means investing the time to post on respective sites, but also time to follow stories, locate groups that may take interest in your writing, and the time spent considering ideas that when posted might draw interest. 

  My opinion is that social networking has to be taken under advisement.  Yes, it can be a very powerful tool to add to your publicity arsenal.  However, I believe it works best when it adds to publicity momentum.  In addition, keep in mind that many authors will be looking to draw the attention of a potential audience within the same area of interest in which you write.  In this perspective, the virtual social networking world is no different than the physical world.  When no one knows who you are, they don't know to listen to you.  When people do know who you are, they're already listening to you, and you can build on that.  Networking can also provide great opportunities to link with other people but, once again, they have to be following you. 

  So, my verdict on social networking as a publicity tool?  It's a great alternative, but the deferment in financial cost is leveraged against a significant cost in time.  Consider it as something to complement traditional publicity efforts, not something to replace those efforts.

  With that in mind, sooner or later traditional publicity efforts will have to be engaged.  There are numerous publicity firms to choose from, and the prices on services vary widely.  In my experience, use an old wisdom as your guide: you get what you pay for.  I've seen some ads for publicity services touting prices that are a bare fraction of similar services from other firms. 

  What's the difference?  There are several areas where costs can be cut, but at great sacrifice to the service you receive.  The first way for a firm to trim costs is through press release distribution (see the section below).  Another way to trim costs is through the contact list - are they valid publicity leads, or just referrals to sites partnered with the publicist?  Last, consider what you will take away from the publicity service, namely, will you keep the media contact list for you to continue to follow?  I've seen some firms that retain the list at the conclusion of the service.  Reputable services will let you keep the media contact list to pursue your follow-ups.

  Ah yes, the follow-up.  Unless you invest in expensive, top tier publicity service, it will be up to you, the author, to ensure your leads mature into actual features for your book.  The publicity firm will open the door for you, but you have to invest the time and determination to make something of the contacts you've been given. 

  Once again, persistence pays, but remember each lead you see through to maturity is more exposure for your book.  If you're concerned about cost, consider a simple cost/feature calculation.  Take the cost of the publicity service, and divide it by the number of leads that have matured.  With each lead, the effective cost per lead decreases.  Premium review/promo packages can run upward of several hundred dollars, so if you invest in a publicity service and see even a few leads through, you'll be in this neighborhood of cost per feature.  After that, every lead knocks the cost down.

  A popular form of publicity involves the virtual book tour, or VBT.  For the blog exposure you get with a VBT, I consider it a great bargain.  It's certainly a much better investment than a static ad, which can get very expensive, regardless of whether it's a print ad or Internet ad, such as a Google or Facebook ad.  In either case, for a reasonable ad budget providing a two line promo that no one might notice you could, with the same cost, book a VBT and have your book featured on blogs, direct to an audience ready and willing to take interest in books.  A VBT may involve work preparing interviews and guest blog posts, with the scope of work relative to the scope of the tour.  Pick a tour period where you know you'll have time available before and during the tour.


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The fine print on press releases

 

  As with publicity services, there's a range of choices with press releases.  From the perspective of the book world, press releases are used to disseminate timely information to garner interest in a particular topic.  The information might include an awards announcement, pre-publication buzz, speaking event, etc.  So, after content, what goes into a press release?

  A press release is only as good as its distribution.  To understand how to compare values with press releases, you need to understand how the distribution model works.  Press releases can be distributed across a home site, distributed to partner sites, or distributed across national news wires.  The relative cost of a press release is related to these distribution systems, with home sites being of little or no cost, partner sites consisting of mid-range cost for distribution ($100-$300), and national news wire access being the most expensive (typically starting at $600 and going up from there).

  Free press releases are limited to the origin home site and rely on visitors to the home site to view the press release.  If they find it of interest, they can then reference the release to help distribute the news.  While this may be a free service model, its limited distribution handicaps the very point of the release, which is to disseminate timely information.  This is similar to the social networking model of publicity, where you rely on the established interest of various parties to raise awareness for you.  Remember, however, that the idea of a release is to get out a timely announcement to raise interest.  In the world of press releases, even more so than among the Internet in general, time is everything.  A press release that is a few days old is already ancient news.

  Mid-range cost press releases are often posted to a variety of press release origin sites, as well as the host site and its affiliates.  While this is a much more thorough distribution out of the box, it is limited to the audience already in place at the host and its affiliate sites.  If you're intended audience is very targeted or narrow in range, and the host site is within that interest range, this is a sweet-spot choice between cost and exposure. 

  National news wire press releases are the gold standard.  These releases are distributed nationally to all major media outlets for their review and possible interest.  Typically, when CNN picks up a press release, they didn't go to a free release website and find the release.  The release came across AP service direct to their news editors.  It's this very scope of reach and access that merits the higher cost of these releases.  For the opportunities and exposure they provide, it's certainly an investment to consider if you have something very big to announce, such as a prestigious award, premium appearance engagement, or upcoming book release.

  Regardless of the distribution, understand that there are certain standards to crafting a professional release.  A release is really a piece of ad copy, and there's a certain style inherent to ad writing.  Services that access national news wires will usually write the release for you; mid-range services will typically write the release if it is in conjunction with some other service; free release services require you to write the release, unless you pay a fee to have a writer craft it for you.  If you want to tackle the release on your own, consider these basic standards.

  • Press releases are typically no more than 300-500 words in length.

  • Try to keep the release limited to one page in length.

  • The release should be written in the present tense - remember, it's breaking news, and it's ad copy.

  • National news wire services will not accept releases with heavy images or fancy graphics.  In fact, no
    matter the distribution, aside from a simple letterhead graphic there shouldn't be any pictures or
    graphics in the release.

  If you're going to invest in a press release, my advice is to have one written for you by someone experienced in ad writing.  Just as writing a synopsis or pitch is very different from writing a book, so too ad copy is its own special brand of expression.  People go to college to learn this type of writing, so tap that expertise.  It may seem excessive, but remember that a press release is also an investment.  In the same manner as awards and market reviews, you will own the release after its distribution.  Releases can be of great use as part of book presskit packages, book pitches, or any other promotional endeavors. 


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  To charge or not to charge: gifts and giveaways

 

   Your book has just been published and is now available to the world.  Great!  You can't wait to tell everyone you know that the book is available, particularly to those who may have supported you emotionally, financially, or both, or more.  Now comes an interesting question.  There are those to whom you may wish to present the book as a gift in appreciation for their support.  Where is the line between gifts, charging for copies, and promotional giveaways? 

  Set your borders early.  This is the easiest way to avoid awkward and uncomfortable social situations, but it will require commitment and consistency.  Consider dividing your world into several circles.  In the first circle include the people whom you consider the closest to your life.  In the second circle include the rest of your private world.  The third circle will then consist of the unknown world at large.  This is a simple way to establish your borders and so remain consistent. 

  Since my first book I've stuck with my decisions on those borders:  I give copies of my books as gifts only to my wife, sons, parents/parents-in-law (first circle).  To others in my life (second circle), I offer the option of one of my author copies, which I sell at a discounted price.  How do I calculate that price?  I add the material cost of the book, shipping, and sales tax (I am incorporated for tax savings, so I must charge tax), and add the same royalty I receive from a traditional book sale.  In essence, my discount is to cut out any middle men, which, for rough calculations, allows a 25% discount.  I also sign the book.  To the remaining reading world (third circle), I use the same established price points as when I do author book signing events.

  It can be uncomfortable asking for money.  I don't like charging people I know, however, I've found that when I let people know I have copies they have always asked what the cost will be.  If people respect the effort you've made to produce a book, they will not haggle.  At the same time, respect your limits.  No one likes a hard sell. 

  My approach is to let people know I have copies and ask if they are interested in a signed book.  I let them look at the book, and if they don't ask to buy a copy, no problem.  I then tell them if they are interested later they can ask me or buy from traditional channels - Kindle, Nook, print, etc.  No pressure.  Remember as well that if you are in a work environment you don't want to be known as the one running a book business out of the break room. 

  Giveaways are a different matter.  Whereas it is up to individual authors to decide where they will draw the line of gifting among their social circle, book giveaways can be a valuable promotional tool.  Virtual book tours often use book giveaways to spark interest; likewise, authors can arrange their own giveaways through social media, Goodreads, Authors Den, Library Thing, and probably countless other services.  

  Giveaways should entail some type of reciprocation.  Blogs often require a visitor to comment on the blog post to be eligible for the giveaway.  Giveaways can also be vehicles for recruiting page likes, emails for later promotional purposes, blog follows, social network follow, etc.  In the end, though, a giveaway won't be successful without some promotional commitment.  Public response can often mirror an author's effort.  If you do nothing to talk up your giveaway - in effect, if you show no interest - expect a similar disinterest from the reading world.

  Authors can be quite divided on the topic of giveaways.  Some feel rather strongly against giveaways on the grounds that it can dissuade actual book sales.  After all the work to see a book through to publication, it is disheartening to think that you now have to hand it over for nothing.  However, as I said above, giveaways can involve other intangible values beyond a purchase price. 

   I think a good approach to giveaways is to scale your giveaway to your book's sales, and to remember that a giveaway, as with any other promotional effort, does not guarantee sales.  So, for example, if you're just starting out and your sales record is unproven, and you're still absorbing the various costs of publication, you probably shouldn't offer an expensive giveaway such as a Kindle device.  Stick with a copy of your book, or a promo bundle of several titles.  You don't want the value of your giveaway to overshadow the interest value of your book.

  With all that said, there's always room for flexibility.  If someone extends a particular favor, or extends some extra effort for you, by all means send a gift copy.  Remember that people in the publication world love books - that's why most of them are in the publication world.  Surprising someone with a signed gift copy can be a gracious and personal sign of appreciation.

 

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(Character levers from a manual typewriter.  Using the 'shift' key shifted the drum alignment so that the character at the top end of the lever struck the ink ribbon rather than the lower character. The caps lock just ratcheted the shift key in place.)

In Remembrance of the Typewriter

In the old days, we used things called 'typewriters'.  Writing was a very tactile process.  You had
to press a key and wait for the satisfying ka-chunk of a lever arm to imprint an engraved
character through a moody ink ribbon onto the page.  At the end of a line, you had
to grab the return lever and give it a good cross to bring the carriage back to the left margin -
origin of the 'return' key, before it lost relevance and just became an 'enter' key. 

 Oh, by the way,on all but the very top end of typewriters there was only one font -
Courier, the font I used for the title above.  Center alignment?
You had to plan out your words, count characters, divide by two,
and move over that amount of spaces from the center of the page.  Italics?
Forget about it.  Even early dot matrix printers had trouble with that.  Ugh.

The first word processor I used was a dedicated machine - computers were too weak to run
word processors as add-on software.  Typewriters are now museum pieces, antiquated not so
much for mechanical reasons but more so for the versatility and ease of word processing software.

In today's world, we type first and edit and revise later.  In the days of typewriters, typing
was the last thing to do, because change meant retyping, and that was an unwelcome proposition.
Gustave Flaubert (author of the classic 'Madame Bovary') kept notebooks full of his writing
with endless notes, cross-outs, and edits written in every little space.

Well, there's a little history lesson.  It's not meant to be sentimental, but I think it helps remind us
of the effort and care that should be put in the written word.  In today's world of texting and tweets,
acronym jargon and auto-completion software, it's easy to forget the artistic value of the written word.
When a society forgets the value of a thing, the society tends to lose that thing.  Even so, in the age of
digital timers and atomic clocks, grandfather clocks remain because of their artistic, antique charm.

  Let's hope the same will hold true for the written word, and literature as a whole.

Tick-tock of the clock, click-clack of the keys,
our language is more than the chatter of bees.

(Note the spaces between those round keys.  It's a dead giveaway that this is a
really old typewriter.  Nevertheless, all manual typewriters had gaps between
the keys, an unfortunate circumstance of the lever action of the keys.  Fingers
could easily slip off a depressed key into the lever assembly, only to get caught
between the upper key's lever and the lower key's spring return.  Ouch!  Not
kind to the fingers.)

 

 
     
All original content copyright by Roland Allnach.  Content may be linked and/or quoted, but not reproduced without permission.
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