Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Crikey! Acorn's calling for new plays again!

It happens every year.  Acorn Productions in Westbrook, Maine announces a call for new plays, and dozens of playwright hearts flutter. In April of 2013, the 12th Annual Playwrights Festival will showcase monologues, 2-minute plays, 10 minute plays, one-act plays and full length scripts. They are "looking for the best new plays by Maine-based playwrights."

There have been a couple of those years when I didn't think I had anything worthy of submitting, but I'm usually sending in at least one entry.  This year, my mind is occupied with following up the publication of my thriller A Bridge to Treachery with another novel, but I know that I won't be able to sit by and watch this deadline pass without submitting something.

This is one of the attractions of writing plays, the thrill of seeing your characters live onstage. In the case of short plays, the relatively short time frame from gestation to production can be irresistible. Writers who have worked on pieces that haven't come together satisfactorily for them yet, can start rummaging around in the drawer with a new incentive to try breathing life into them.  I'll be posting my own progress toward meeting the December deadline.                                               

Monday, September 10, 2012

It's not your father's Army...

...nor his country either. I've just returned from grandson Derek's Army Infantry "Turning Blue" and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) graduation exercises at Fort Benning, Georgia. It's been fifty years since I was last there doing a little training of my own, and I'm here to tell you that the place and the people are nothing like they were back in the day. Is there one enduring image that captures it all?  Sure.  How about several hundred moms, dads, siblings, and girlfriends around the perimeter cheering wildly as the newly minted Infantrymen galloped out of the barracks to 'form up' for the ceremony? The Army of today is definitely paying attention to the need to emphasize public relations in everything they do, as well they should.

Only four decades ago, such a scene would have been inconceivable.  We all know the reasons for that fact, or if we don't know, we should. Suffice it to say that Derek has now joined the 1% of his generation that has or ever will have any direct knowledge of military life, and he soon will also know something about service and sacrifice that the other 99% will never know.

On the way home from Georgia, I talked to another grandson, Henry, who is going to finish up at Amherst this December, and will probably be entering law school in September 2013. We talked about Derek's Infantry training and his ambitions relative to the Army.  Henry plays soccer at Amherst and is no stranger to strenuous exertion, so he shares an understanding of 'sucking it up' when your body's telling you to knock it off already. Henry and I talked about Derek's exposure to working side by side with contemporaries from all walks of life, about having to comply with anything his Drill Sergeant required of him whether it made any sense to him or not, and about the feeling of being a part of something bigger than yourself.

Then Henry said: "I'm not going to be doing anything between December and September.  You don't suppose I could go to Basic, do you?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

How to Participate in Amazon's Discussion Forums

I'm very pleased to welcome novelist and blogger Jeri Walker-Bickett to Learning Curve in my first ever Guest Post! 
Jeri's motto "Let's Learn Together" is an apt theme for her blog: Jeri WB What do I know? (http://jeriwb.com) as it never fails to engage and inform her readers and followers in a variety of interesting subject matter ranging from book reviews, art, author advice, video clip commentary on book adaptations, interviews, and notes on craft.

Jeri is working hard on her forthcoming novel, Lost Girl Road, a ghost story set in the woods of northwest Montana. A July 4th prank leads to a series of shocking and regrettable events when a 13-year-old girl goes missing and her remains are never found. Nearly 30 years later, cousins spin campfire stories about a mountain man, Bigfoot, and the girl’s charm bracelet. Her restless spirit lingers. What does she want? Who’s to blame?

At the same time that Jeri's Guest Post is appearing here, Jeri's review of my thriller goes up on her blog.  Thank you, Jeri.


I would like to thank Larry Crane for the chance to write a guest post for his blog. I made his acquaintance after deciding to post a review of his novel A Bridge to Treachery on my blog. He proposed the topic of Amazon Discussion Forums as an area in need of helpful information. The time it took to research and write this post certainly enlightened me and I hope it will do the same for you as well. Let’s learn together! 

Numerous forums on Amazon buzz with customer discussion and feedback. Such activity presents a great way for authors to connect with potential readers and reviewers in their genre. However, access to the boards is not a straight-forward affair as Amazon’s main page does not contain a link to its forum (which lacks a homepage).  

How do I find Amazon’s discussion forums?
Chances are you’ve stumbled across forums while visiting product pages where related discussion appears at the bottom. Or perhaps you’ve commented directly on a product review. In reality, most consumers would prefer to browse topic lists to find interesting threads to participate.

The original discussion board can be found at http://bit.ly/Q6TFQL and it functions as the home page which Amazon’s current forum lacks. It provides a search box for all topics as well as a link to Amazon’s guidelines for discussion participation. The affiliated Facebook group “Amazon Reviewers” can be found here: http://on.fb.me/Rl7PZ5.

A Google search on “Amazon Discussion Forums” will bring up links to the most popular boards. The Kindle discussion boards are undoubtedly a solid starting place for authors and readers to connect: http://www.amazon.com/forum/kindle

How to search forums?
The default option listed on the side of the discussion screen is to search only within that forum, but the box can be unchecked to enable a search of all customer discussions. A few tips to get better search results:
·         Use double quotes around words to search for phrases: “fiction writers”
·         Place a plus sign (+) in front of words that MUST appear in your results: Top 100 Books +Steinbeck
·         Place a minus sign (-) in front of words that MUST NOT appear in your results: Top 100 Books -Free 

How to follow discussions?
Discussions can be tracked through email or RSS feed. Subscribing via email to an extremely active feed will result in an overflow of email to your inbox. A better way is to subscribe via the topic’s RSS Feed. If you are unfamiliar with using RSS Readers, I’ve written a post I wrote on the topic:  http://bit.ly/PCqJPz

Who can post?
While all visitors to Amazon can read posts in the discussion forums, only actual customers can make comments so long as their account is in good-standing.

What can and can’t be posted?
It should go without saying, but using Amazon’s discussion boards to try to sell your book or otherwise promote yourself in blatant ways goes against their guidelines. Take the opportunity to connect with others based on your common interests and expertise. 

Follow this link to their Customer Discussion Guidelineshttp://amzn.to/OP3lvu

Share the blog love and share this on your favorite social media websites!
This post is only the tip of the iceberg as far as participating in Amazon’s discussion boards is concerned.

As my knowledge grows, I might someday post a related series on my blog: JeriWB What do I know? (http://jeriwb.com).


My Author Interview on Chompasaurus Reviews Blog

Random Effects of Ratings on eBook Sales. What's luck got to do with it?

Well... the answer may well be: a lot! This fact emerged from experiments carried out by sociologists Duncan J. Watts, Mathew Sagalnik and Peter Dodds which Watts described in his 2011 book, “Everything is Obvious* (*Once You Know the Answer)”. Their work focuses on online markets. This post of mine is based on Robert H. Frank’s article on this subject that appeared in The New York Times of August 5, 2012.

Franks describes the researchers experiments thus: They invited subjects to a temporary web site called Music Lab.  The site listed 48 recordings by little-known indie bands. The subjects could download any of the songs free if they agreed to give a quality rating after listening. The average of these ratings for each song then became a proxy for the song’s quality in the rest of the experiment. Importantly, since each subject saw no information other than the name of the bands and the songs, their ratings of each were completely independent of reactions of other subjects.

What does this have to do with marketing your book on say---Amazon?
Think of song ratings in this experiment as the rating that readers give to your book newly added to Amazon.

The result of the first phase of the experiment was that the independent ratings were extremely variable. Some songs got mostly high marks or mostly low marks, but a substantially larger number received distinctly mixed reviews.

The second phase of the experiment differed from the first phase in that two new pieces of information were added to each band and song title: 1) how many times each song had been downloaded by others, and 2) the average rating it had received so far. Eight separate sessions followed this protocol.

This phase is exactly what happens when readers consider whether or not to buy a book on Amazon based on early reviewer ratings.

The result of this second phase was that this social feedback caused a sharply higher inequality in song ratings and download frequencies. The most popular songs were a lot more popular, and the least popular songs were a lot less popular than the same songs rated in Phase 1. Also, each of the eight sessions which involved discrete subsets of subjects, displayed enormous variability in popularity rankings. An example cited in Frank’s article highlighted the results for a song called “Lockdown” by the band 52 Metro. “Lockdown” was ranked 26th out of 48 songs by the subjects who rated songs in the first phase without any information other than the name of the song and the band. But in the second phase which added the ratings given by other subjects in the group, “Lockdown” achieved a ranking of #1 in one of the eight groups, and #40 in another!

This is the crux of the issue when a potential buyer considers the ratings given by earlier reviewers and sees nothing but 3's or less for example. What are the chances that s/he will buy?

So, if “Lockdown” (in the middle of the objective ranks of quality produced in Phase 1) happened to experience the dynamics of the group that ranked it #1 with the social feedback information added it would have been miraculously transformed into the best song of the lot.  If it experienced the dynamics of the group that ranked it #40, it would be the worst.  Presumedly, sales is much affected by perceived quality. What dynamics, you may say? Well, the dynamics of the sequencing of the ratings, that is, do the early ratings reflect favorably, unfavorably or neither, for instance. If the sequence of ratings is completely random, a big if, it means that luck is everything.

So, if early reviewers are ecstatic about your book, you have a much better chance of making the sale when subsequent potential buyers consider it based on these high rankings. Nothing new about this.

As Frank points out, “the most striking finding was that if a few early listeners disliked the song, that usually spelled its doom.  But if a few early listeners happened to like the same song, it often went on to succeed. In their experiments, the sociologist researchers showed how feedback could be a vitally important random effect. Any random differences in the early feedback we receive tend to be amplified as we share our reactions with others. Early success —even if unearned — breeds further success, and early failure breeds further failure. The upshot is that the fate of products in general– but especially of those in the intermediate-quality range – often entails an enormous element of luck.  Chance elements in the information flows that promote success are sometimes the most important random factors of all.”

The lesson here would seem to be that independent of how good your book is, it's fate in the Amazon market place is determined largely by lots of early ratings that just might be extraordinarily bad for no other reason than the fact that of all the ratings your book will receive, the early bad ones begot more bad ones. Of course, the opposite could happen too; good early ratings that inflate the perceived quality of your book.


Querying Bloggers

Anne R. Allen's Blog: How to Query a Book Review Blogger—and Combat Paid-Review Mills

My Review

VenceremosVenceremos by Howard Waxman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I discovered Venceremos in the Book Section of the Portland Press Herald.  Howard Waxman is from Bath, a neighboring town. Most of all though, I was attracted to the novel because of its subject matter - the late 60's early 70's years when young men had a lot to think about with respect to the turmoil surrounding our involvement in Southeast Asia, a subject that will always be stuck in my craw. The protagonist, Jay Cardinale, who I assume bears at least some resemblance to Waxman is a character whose experiences and decisions couldn't be much farther from my own.
Jay Cardinale is a wounded Vietnam vet at home in the 1970s recovering when he deserts the Army and flees to Vancouver where he gets involved with the antiwar movement. The complications of his life multiply rapidly as he gets involved with militants like the Weathermen as well as the flower children. Soon he finds himself in Cuba cutting cane as a member of the anti-imperialist Venceremos Brigade, and secretly plotting to kill someone in order to earn clemency and a ticket back to America.

Waxman relates the story with a first person POV and a wry, smartass tone. The writing is spare, and the tale moves along smartly with a mountain of twists and turns at the end. The first person POV often seems to get in the way of a richer descriptive rendering of locations in the Cuban countryside and in Havana and other places, as well as of people in general. The few details revealed of Jay's war experience in Vietnam strain credibility. Nevertheless, Venceremos is an entertaining tale sprinkled with humor and tastefully done sex.

Waxman paints Cardinale as a very believable hapless 21 year old over his head in a pot of political intrigue. An interesting revelation is that Jay Cardinale's relations with his comrades in the anti-war movement include the fundamental feelings of kinship found in nearly all small units of the US Army Infantry.  It's a good read.