Six Lessons my Five-Year-Old Can Teach You About Selling Books

It was a cold, rainy day and I was at the college where my wife works to meet with an acting student who needed to record an audition for a film role. Although college was in session, the elementary school was closed for the day and so my job after coaching my student was spending time with my five-year-old son.

Those of you who follow me regularly on Twitter (@pauljennynyc) and Facebook often see photos and hear stories about this little boy’s abundant energy, wild craziness and free-flowing imagination. He inspires me to write and to tell stories for a living. Seeing the world through his eyes keeps wonder alive in me. He’s always saying or doing something surprising, silly or even profound and I’m a better person in his presence.

After finishing the coaching session with my student, I came back to the lobby and my son had set himself up behind a low bench that he was using as a table. He had five paper cups festooned with push pins, screws and paper clips with hand written price tags next to each decorated cup.

I knew right away what those cups were. They were Daleks. My son is obsessed with the Daleks from Dr. Who and loves to make models of them with whatever he can get his hands on.

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Fair use. Uploaded by Edokter to Wikipedia.

Three of the Daleks had $1.00 price tags. One had a $10 price tag and another cost $1001. Each handmade Dalek pretty much looked like every other one, but he was trying different prices to see what would sell.

LESSON ONE: Try different price structures on your books. Most of them will probably sell at $.99-$2.99 but I think it’s a good idea to put a few of them out there at a higher price. There is even some research to suggest that setting the price higher and then marking that price down during a sale will suggest that the book is a really good deal. You already know that it IS a good deal, but the psychology of the good deal is well-documented.

I asked him why the one Dalek was so expensive. He said, “Well, if someone has that kind of money and really likes Daleks, they might buy it for that much.”

I had to agree with this kind of thinking, but I thought the more expensive Dalek needed something to set it apart so I took a gold paperclip and made it into a kind of antenna for him. I said, “Here put this on the expensive Dalek and say it is a ‘Special Edition’ and then people will think of it differently.”

He grinned from ear to ear and poked a few new holes to put the “golden” paperclip antenna on the special edition Dalek. Now it was different. Now it really was a special edition compared to the other Daleks.

Students wandered by the bench as they were passing from class to class. With each and every student, my son would hop up from behind his table, run over to them with a big smile and say, “Do you want a Dalek?”

The students would come over thinking he was giving them away, but then he showed them the price and their smiles would turn into frowns. Most would say they didn’t have any cash and then walk away. My son started to get frustrated.

I said, “You should always say, ‘Would you like to buy a Dalek?’ that way they know you are selling them and the people who are interested in buying will come over and look at what you’re selling.”

He agreed. He tried it with the next group of students. They were interested and came over to check out the paper cup Daleks.

LESSON TWO: Make sure you let people know you are selling your books. Just putting them on the various sites for sale but then never doing any kind of outreach won’t be very effective. You have to reach out and let people know that you have something they might want. There are may ways to do this without being spammy. By doing some research you can find the best ways to do this for the genre you’re working in.

Those students still didn’t buy. It seems college students don’t carry a lot of cash on them during class. So, I made another suggestion.

“Next time someone comes by, politely say, ‘Excuse me, would you like to buy a Dalek?’ then, when they say, ‘I would like to but I don’t have any cash’, offer to trade them something for the Dalek instead.”

He tried this tactic with the next student – a young man with glasses who was definitely a Dr. Who fan.

“Excuse me, would you like to buy a Dalek?” my son asked.

“How much are they?” The student looked amused and slightly uncomfortable and pushed his glasses back up on his nose.

“This one is $1001 but that is a special edition with a gold antenna. These are only $1.00.”

“That’s a great deal! But I don’t have any cash.”

“Would you be willing to trade something?”

“Let me see…” The young man pulled out his wallet and checked his pockets to see if he had anything he could trade and in doing so, noticed that he did have a dollar.

“Actually, I do have a dollar. Here you go!” The young man handed him a dollar.

My son beamed. He jumped up and down. He waved the dollar in the air.

“Don’t forget to give him his Dalek and say thank you,” I said.

“Oh! Here you go. Thank you!” He handed the young man his Dalek and continued to do the money dance while squealing and leaping around the room.

LESSON THREE: By engaging with your customers you can make more sales. By letting them know there are many ways to purchase what you have to offer you give them lots of opportunities to become a buyer. Being polite by saying “Excuse me” and “Thank you” is always a good practice. Also, money dances are a lot of fun and fill me with joy!

For the next three hours my son asked almost every person who stopped buy if they wanted to either buy or trade something for a handmade Dalek. After awhile he started offering them to buy or trade and his “sales” slowed.

I said, “You should lead with, ‘Would you like to buy a Dalek?’ then if they say they have no cash, offer to trade with them. By giving them too many options right away, they can’t decide and then make no decision at all.”

He thought about this and nodded. Then he started making some drawings to sell. He was getting low on Daleks. The only ones left were the $10 and $1001 Special Edition Dalek.

LESSON FOUR: Giving your buyers too many options all at once is confusing and can cause people to not engage with you. I have a few friends who are selling classes, books, lectures, seminars, workshops and I get so many emails and notices from them that even if I wanted to take part, I wouldn’t know which offer to take because there are so many of them. Some offer free things for participating, some offer discounts if I act by a certain time, but all of them are being offered at once and I get overwhelmed. I know I’d rather just get one solid, convincing offer that is a great deal than tons of offers all at once.

The drawings he made were almost as popular as the Dalek models. He drew a picture of New York City, Dark Vader (he insists that’s what he should be called), tanks fighting, a train, some scribble marks, a page full of ‘W’s and lots of pictures of R2-D2 and BB-8, his newest obsession.

LESSON FIVE: Diversify! You really need more than one book to make any money. Look at what other authors are doing. They are usually busy building up a catalog. The more product you have to offer, the more diverse of an audience you can reach. He needed more than one product to keep people’s interest. Not everyone is into Dr. Who. There were a surprising amount of college students who didn’t know what a Dalek was.

As the day went on he sold four of the five Daleks. (He let the $10 Dalek go for a pen/stylus combination that matched his tablet. Pretty good trade!) The $1001 Dalek went home with us, it was a Special Edition after all.

handmade dalek

He sold or traded all of his drawings. He earned $3.95 in cash, plus a 10p coin and a Danish coin (perhaps a 50 øre). He traded for a green pen with no top, a catalog from Mrs. Fields, a gorilla key chain with no arms that he said had a 3D butthole (turned out to be a small screw in the gorilla’s backside), a half pack of gum, a piece of a sugar cookie, a piece of a brownie cookie, the pen/stylus and a bobby pin to hold his money together.

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Treasure!

At the end of the day, as he was packing up, he gave away all the leftover drawings to his lucky last customer. The money dance was danced many times. He had a great day interacting with people of all ages and backgrounds. He earned enough money to go to the toy store later and buy himself a new toy, but he also learned a very valuable lesson:

LESSON SIX: By creating something from nothing, putting it out there in the world and saying “If you are interested in this, I will trade you something for it” you can have a very rewarding life. There might not be a ton of money involved but you could end up with a bag full of treasure by the end of the day.

If you take these lessons from my five-year-old and apply them to your book sales, you’ll be doing the money dance in no time! Leave a comment if you do. I love hearing from you.

Disaster Averted

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Success!

If you follow the blog, you know that I recently went through a terrible computer crash and lost some writing that was really important to me.

I tried everything I could to bring my computer back online and boot it, but nothing worked. I finally bought a hard drive enclosure, removed the hard drive from my Mac, plugged it into the enclosure and connected it to a working Mac.

The blue light came on!

As I plugged the hard drive into the USB port of the other Mac, it showed up as a disk drive. I was able to get almost everything I needed off of the laptop’s drive and onto an 8GB USB key.

I was shocked that I actually had that much to transfer over. I left behind some videos, some voiceover files and other files that if deleted, won’t mean the end of the world.

As soon as everything transferred, I made more back-ups of the files on the USB key by sending them to myself in Gmail.

Then, I finished rehearsal.

After rehearsal I took a run. I’ve been trying to get back into a more healthy routine and when I’ve been running lately it’s been more like run/walking/hobbling. But after getting all the data I needed, I ran for the full half-hour without stopping to walk. It felt good.

The moon was huge in the evening sky over Delaware. I tried to take a photo, but a camera lens doesn’t quite see the way our eyes do, so this photo doesn’t do it justice.

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What a day. I rehearsed a play, saved my data, went for a run, helped my oldest son with an issue he’s dealing with, and spoke with my wife and youngest son on Facetime. The only thing that could have made it better would have been to have my whole family here with me.

Now I can happily get back to work on my one person show about my dismal days on a big Broadway tour. It’s tough work because it brings up a lot of unpleasantness, but it’s important because I want to tell this story all at one time instead of in bits and pieces as I have over the past few years.

When it’s up and running in New York, I’ll let everyone know. I will probably workshop it a few times upstate before producing it fully in the city.

Thank you for all the kind words from everyone who reached out! Make sure you are backing up your stories! They truly are the wildest things.

The Worst Thing That Could Possibly Happen

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Well, maybe not the worst thing. There are a LOT of terrible things happening in the world right now. The stock market is fluctuating like crazy, monster storms are flooding cities, people are shooting other people instead of talking to them. Those things are the actual worst things that could possibly happen.

But for a writer who’s been off his game for a while and then just starting to get right back on his game, the worst thing that could happen, happened. Right in the middle of some really important writing that I did not back up, my computer just gave up the ghost and went blank on me.

I had just gotten several great pages done on a new solo show I’m working on. This one is big. It’s life changing. I’ve avoided writing this one for years, that’s how close and important it is to me. It’s about my dismal days working on a big Broadway tour and how I almost didn’t survive those days.

I decided to finally sit down and really start working on it because I’m in a hotel room in Newark, Delaware, away from the family to do an acting gig. It’s the perfect set up to get some writing done. I had a few days off because my scenes are all in the second and third acts of the Feydeau farce we’re doing.

I could feel a good idea coming on. So, I paced around the room. I drank some water. I took some notes on a legal pad. LOTS of notes. Suddenly I knew where I would start and what I would call the piece. I opened up OMM Writer (a great writing app) and zen-ed out while I bled words. I got just about as far as I could before I had to go to rehearsal. I was elated and exhausted and excited, all at the same time. (That’s a lot of “e” words, but I guess emotions are somehow tied to the letter “e”.)

I saved my file and closed everything down and went to rehearsal. I thought about backing the file up, but then thought, “What could happen between now and later?”

When I came back to the hotel, I talked with my family for a while on Skype and then decided to watch “Fear the Walking Dead” on AMC.com. I thought of it as “research” because some of my years on the big Broadway tour were like being one of the walking dead.

Everything on the computer was running a bit slowly. The ads were loading strangely, the computer kept freezing up. I thought it was just the crappy internet that the hotel lets you use for free. Then, suddenly, like a zombie jumping out from behind a door, the computer froze up, the screen turned into a bunch of horizontal lines that wavered and shook and then the screen went black.

Uh-oh.

I tried rebooting the computer. It’s an old MacBook Pro. The Apple symbol came up. Good.

Then the screen went black for the video test.
Fine.

Then…the dreaded gray screen hang.

I did some searching on my phone about how I might be able to fix it. I tried rebooting it to safe mode. The computer belongs to a college, so there is a firmware password. I couldn’t boot it. I could just take it back to IT at the college, but it’s over three hours from where I am now. Plus, they might have to wipe everything. I wanted to try to save it first.

So, I tried buying a Thunderbolt cable and booting it as a target disk to another Mac. Nothing.

I tried removing the hard drive and getting an e-SATA cable and hard drive enclosure and plugging it into a PC. Well, the pretty blue drive light comes on, but at the hotel’s PC I have no access to it’s hard drive so I was still out of luck.

I left the hotel and carried the darn thing around campus for several hours looking for a computer. No luck. School is not back in session yet, so no Mac labs are open. I tried the PC lab. No luck there. The library was closed. The classrooms are all antiquated and only have plugs for PC laptops. The bookstore was closed.  I was hoping it was open so I could just walk up to their Mac sales display and plug this thing in. I really want those opening pages.

But it’s not just the pages for the solo show. I was also going to publish my second children’s book this week. Now I can’t. The formatted book is on the Mac.

I was making great progress on another play I’m writing. I can’t work on that either.

I was several pages into a short film we want to shoot this winter. That’s in there, too.

All in all, I’ve put in about 25 hours trying to get this information back. Hopefully, I’ll be able to use the e-SATA cable with a Mac tomorrow and I’ll report back that I was able to recover the information.

If not, I guess I’ll have to try to reproduce what I originally wrote. I know I can get close to it, maybe even make it better. But there’s something about that feeling you get when you just know something is working and it’s good. That kind of experience is hard to repeat.

I guess the moral of the story is ALWAYS back up your writing. Every time. Otherwise, you’ll end up like me, a poor lost soul wandering a huge university campus in search of a Mac computer, hoping that you can either retrieve those pages or remember them just as they were.

8 Steps to Finding Your Field of Dreams Job? (1. Build it and they will come…)

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In the 1989 fantasy movie Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner, an Iowa corn farmer hears voices that tell him to build a baseball diamond in his fields. He does and the Chicago Black Sox show up! It’s a great film and was nominated for three Academy Awards.

Because I make my living as a writer and actor (as Wayne Pyle), I often hear, “You’re so lucky, you’re following your dream” or “You’re so lucky, you have a dream job.” I’ve never quite understood what people mean when they say that because my “dream job” is something that I worked hard to build, luck really had nothing to do with it (it sure helps, though).

Like any job, writing and acting are professions that you can prepare for or just jump into and hope for the best. I took the former path and prepared for a long time to do these dream jobs. Like Kevin Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, people often think I’m crazy for pursuing these professions. Like Ray, I’ve been on the brink of financial ruin. But by building my path to these professions, people have come and supported me in my dreams.

TheLadders.com inspired this post. I wanted to share my experience pursuing these professions with people who might be looking for a way to break into them right out of school or later in life.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been passionate about performing and telling stories. When I was four, my parents got me on the children’s television program Romper Room. Our local TV affiliate in Philadelphia hosted the show. My best friend, Bobby, and I were on set together. I still have very vivid memories from that experience.

When I was ready to go to real school (instead of TV school), we moved to rural Pennsylvania and there was no internet or cable television back then (gasp). My brother and I would make puppet stages and write plays. We’d play role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons or make up our own worlds. One of my favorites was “Chuck and Mack” where we pretended to be middle-aged guys with jobs. It was absurd and hilarious. I was always creating short stories and comic books. I got in trouble once when I “published” a comic at my junior high school called “Marshmallow Man” about an overweight bully who just happened to have the same name as the real overweight bully who was always picking on me in class.

We moved from rural Pennsylvania to a small town in Pennsylvania and I kept pursuing acting and writing. I went to undergrad at Susquehanna University where I pursued a Communications/Theatre Arts degree with a minor in Writing. I worked for the literary journal, wrote for the school newspaper (mostly parody essays) and did as much acting as I could. The school wasn’t giving me the professional training experience I wanted, so I pursued an apprenticeship at a professional theatre company called The Actors Theatre of Louisville. It was a well-known program and difficult to get into. I was accepted as a junior, but when they found out how young I was, they wouldn’t take me. They made me wait until I was a senior in college. I had to audition again, and this time I got in. I couldn’t afford to pay for the year away, so I convinced the college president that doing an apprenticeship at an established theatre company was the same as study abroad and that they should give me college credit while I was there.

It worked! I wrote plays and poetry for my writing minor and completed my theatre credits by keeping a journal of all the amazing work I was doing at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. I met some amazingly talented playwrights and I got to act in their plays. The theatre produced one of my monologues and a ten-minute play. It was a great experience.

When the apprenticeship was over, I moved to Chicago. The Second City was where I wanted to be. Chicago is an amazing place to do theatre. There was so much energy and excitement. I worked with a lot of small companies. One company, The Griffin Theatre, was also a place to produce new work. They included my ten-minute play in a short plays festival and I also became an actor in their company. Bailiwick Repertory was another company I worked for often. They produced a full-length children’s play that a group of us wrote together called, The Forest of Arden. It was a choose your own adventure play. At certain points we would ask the audience which action the main character should choose. We would then do that action and the story would change slightly. Most of the work I did in Chicago was because of relationships I built over time with actors, writers and producers.

I also had the wonderful opportunity of being on another children’s television show, The Magic Door. It was shown on early Sunday mornings, so my friends who were out partying late on Saturday would often call me and leave drunken messages on my answering machine. “Hey, saw you playing a screenwriting monkey on the Magic Door! Hilarious! I’m going to bed now. Zzzzzzz.”

I was also writing a lot of poetry in Chicago and participating in open mics. That was quite an experience. Dive bars would hold open mics and the barflys and the poets would be a little family for the evening. One of my poems, Sometimes: The Coat Closet,  was picked by the city for a program called Dial-a-Poem Chicago. It was advertised all over the city. People would call the poetry line and hear the poet read their poem. For some reason, a suburban Chicago housewife called the line and thought my poem was offensive. She called a local radio station and they played my poem about 10 times on the air. The usual call rate for Dial-a-Poem was 80 people. That week, my poem got 8,000 calls. I was “viral” before anyone knew what that meant. The famous Chicago Tribune columnist, Mike Royko, did a column about my poem. I felt like a real Windy City native.

Not long after that incident my mother died of lung cancer. Distraught, I decided to move from Chicago back to the East Coast to get into grad school for acting. That’s where I’m originally from and where my dad lives. I auditioned for and got into the University of Delaware’s Professional Theatre Training Program, known as the PTTP. It was training in the classics, Shakespeare in particular. It was three years of intense training in movement, voice, speech and acting but it also made me a better writer. Saying Shakespeare’s words all day instilled a sense of rhythm and rhetoric that I might not have gotten without that training. We also did an exercise cutting full-length plays into 10-minute versions. Every summer we’d get jobs at Shakespeare festivals around the country. I had the opportunity to work at the Wisconsin and Utah Shakespearean Festivals, the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival and a small festival in Rhode Island. I still do a lot of Shakespeare, mostly playing the clowns, my favorite roles. They now have a REP company and I get to go back and perform with them occasionally.

I graduated and stayed in Delaware, doing various temp jobs in the banking industry. The internet was just starting to boom back then and I found opportunities to write online. I would write book reviews and post them online. I didn’t know anything about blogs back then. I applied to Prestwick House Publishing as a writer for their educational series of Side by Sides. I would take a Shakespeare play and write a more contemporary translation next to Shakespeare’s words. I was also hired by Dupont-Merck to write a few industrial scripts for some important programs they were running. At the time, I was getting paid more to write scripts than I was to act in them.

I also worked as an assistant to a magician touring with a magical children’s show. We went all over the country and even traveled to Taiwan. I built some relationships with the producers in Taiwan and offered to bring them a show from my theatre company (that didn’t exist yet). They said, “Thank you.” I thought I’d never hear from the them again. About a year later, I got a call from Taiwan. They would like us to bring Hamlet to Taiwan. I instantly started a theatre company called The American Shakespeare Theatre Company and recruited actors from all over the US, mostly grads from the PTTP. I convinced the grad school to let us use their space to rehearse. I hired my friend, Ty Jones, as Hamlet and Robert G. Anderson as our director. We rehearsed the show and took it Taiwan with a videographer from The Sundance Channel. The documentary we produced about this crazy production, Within a Play, was shown on Sundance for two seasons.

My next stint was as a proofreader for First USA, a credit card company that later became Bank of America. I’d go into this darkened room and sort through stacks and stacks of papers with teeny, tiny print on them talking about how the rates worked and all the legal jargon and I’d proofread it until my eyes were almost falling out of my head. I was auditioning in New York City and living in Wilmington, Delaware at the time. I was hoping to get a break from all the mindless proofreading when I got a call from my agent that they were auditioning for the musical, The Lion Kingfor their first national tour. I auditioned. Five times. My friend from Hamlet, Ty Jones, was the reader and would tell me what the producers were saying about me in the auditions so I could adjust my performance. The last audition was just after 9/11. Acrid smoke was still billowing from the holes in the ground as I rode the Greyhound bus into the city. After my final audition, I went downtown and walked among the debris and hundreds of flyers looking for lost, and most likely dead, loved ones. I developed a hacking cough from the smoke. It was not a good time for the United States.

A few weeks later, I found out I got the job as Ed the hyena, understudying Timon and Zazu. I was about to live my dream. I was going on tour with a big Broadway musical. We rehearsed downtown at 890 Broadway, the big rehearsal studios for all the Broadway shows. Julie Taymor was there. The teams of producers and costumers and directors and choreographers were there. It was intense. People got fired the first few days. My knees were sore from climbing stairs and practicing being a hyena. I had to ice my hands from all the puppet work we were doing. Eventually, we made our way out to Denver, Colorado to start the tour. I stayed with the tour for five years. It was an amazing experience. I had my ups and downs (I’ll write about those in another post). I traveled the country and the world. Eight shows a week, 50 weeks a year, I worked on The Lion King.

I did a bit of writing while I was on tour, but mostly what I did was act. I taught myself video production and sound editing. When I got off the road, I moved back to the city. Not long after, the economy tanked. There was no work of any kind. I moved up north to the beautiful Hudson Valley to skydive and garden. I lived right next to a community college and convinced them to let me teach in the Communications/Theatre Department. I taught acting for the camera and script writing for film and television.

I had never actually worked in the production end of a television studio, but when they hired me, I taught myself how to run the equipment so I could teach the classes. The students came up with some really great writing and we also made some very funny videos based on their stories. That job ended and I started teaching in the Communications and Theatre Arts departments at one of the SUNY colleges. I was acting in small theatre companies and lots of independent films, writing for academia, teaching and traveling. I started a small film/television production company and voiceover business with my wife. We have a film casting business as well. But I missed the creative writing I had done.

I started writing fiction and short stories again and got into self-publishing about a year ago. That’s when I started my blog and started listening to Sterling and Stone’s Self-publishing Podcast. They did this great project called Fiction Unboxed and wrote a steampunk novel, The Dream Engine, in 30 days. I followed along with their process and learned a lot about how they worked together. I contributed to an anthology of steampunk stories inspired by The Dream Engine called Beyond the Gate and started working on a novel-length story based on the world of The Dream Engine. I’m also writing, illustrating and publishing children’s books through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program. It’s been quite a journey.

This blog chronicles that journey. I’ve been fortunate to be able to tell many stories in my life and I’ve found that Stories are the Wildest Things.

So, what are the takeaways from my long and varied career?

  1. If you want a “dream job” you have to build it and trust that they will come. Instead of thinking you have to “get” a job, think about how you can “create” a job.
  2. Keep looking for opportunities, don’t wait for someone to call you. You have to be active in the pursuit of your dreams.
  3. Do apprenticeships or internships. Find a way to afford it. If there aren’t any apprenticeships for the type of job you want, create one by funding a project through crowdfunding.
  4. Do as many different jobs as you want to. You never know which one is going to be the one you want to stick with. You might never want to stick with one. The freelance life is challenging, but you’re rewarded with a lot of freedom and many amazing experiences.
  5. Sometimes you have to convince people to help you in your journey. They get just as much out of helping you as you get from asking them to help.
  6. Persistence pays off. Five auditions and almost a year later, I got the job.
  7. Use the internet as a tool for finding work and building relationships. Be careful about going down too many internet rabbit holes. That happens to me a lot. But if you do, use the information you find in some way.
  8. Building relationships is one of the most important things you can do to build a career. Almost every “dream job” I’ve had has happened because of relationships I’ve built over the years.

Please leave me a message in the comments about how you are pursuing your dream career. Also, let me know whether you’ve stopped by TheLadders.com to check out their site. I’d love to hear from you!

Rainy Days and Mondays

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©2015 Paul Jenny

I’m a big fan of petrichor, that smell of rain after a period of dry weather. I also like Mondays. They are the beginning of a week filled with so many possibilities. So, rainy Mondays are something I’m particularly fond of, especially this Monday.

It’s quiet here in upstate New York and I’m getting some good work done today. I’m working as a full-time creative. It’s an opportunity that I’m grateful for.

My schedule feels a bit overwhelming now. I have four scripts to memorize as an actor, two for stage, two for film. I’m working on promoting my children’s book, “Thank You, Bear!” for Earth Day (It’s FREE April 20, 21, 22. Please download and leave a review!) and I’m finishing up another picture book, “Silly Animals Saying Silly Things” and trying to get the drawings done.

I’m about to teach a six-week adult acting class with eleven students and I’m gathering my materials in order to give them the best possible experience. There’s a lot of material to cover in six weeks. They’ll even get to perform for some casting directors at the end of the class.

I’m also starting a new business with my wife producing voiceover demos for actors and I’m opening in a musical this week after only a week-and-a-half of rehearsal. It’s the first time I’m doing a musical since getting out of a big Broadway touring company nine years ago. I was a little burned out by that experience and vowed not to do a musical for a long time. (That’s a story for another blog post.)

But this musical is so universally appealing that I gave in and auditioned. I’m glad I did. I love a good a challenge and trying to stage a musical in a week-and-a-half brings me back to my days as a young actor doing Summer Stock. We’d rehearse one musical in a week-and-a-half, open that musical, then rehearse another one during the day and perform at night, then when that one was open, we’d do it one more time. Three musicals in a row. I thought I’d never learn all the music, lines and choreography, but I did. I survived. Thrived even. The shows were popular and the producers made money. It was a great experience that helped me grow as a young performer. I’m grateful to have that opportunity again. Who knows? I might just do another musical after this one.

So here I am, on a rainy Monday in upstate New York, acting, singing, drawing, writing, filmmaking and blogging. I can’t wait to see what the week brings. Thank you for sharing in my journey. Please tell me what you are looking forward to this week.

Stories are the Wildest Things

Paul

WordPress Anniversary – One Year Later!

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This is wild. It’s my one year anniversary on WordPress and it’s been an amazing year of change and growth.

I wanted to take a moment to say, “Thank You!” to everyone who follows and reads Stories are the Wildest Things. I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to share my experiences and challenges as a writer with each of you. I appreciate each story you’ve shared and I’m moved by them. Please continue to share them with me.

As I move forward with the blog, I’m going to continue to share more insights I discover as a writer and more information about what is going on in my life as well. I also want to help others who are seeking to express themselves in the most powerful way they can. If you know someone who needs a little guidance, encouragement or just a virtual hug or high-five, let me know.

Through this blog and Twitter, I’m part of a great online community of writers and other creatives who are out there making things happen everyday and I’m proud to know them. I’ve listed them here so that you can get to know them as well.

Please stop by their websites and Twitter pages and tell them Paul Jenny sent you!

(If I left someone off this list, please send me a quick email pauljennynyc@gmail.com and let me know. I’ll add you to the list!)

@adamdreece                  @hull_libraries 

@soelver                           @Blunderbuss_W 

@debivsmith                     @TanyaMMDash   

@DebbieORiley                @Rowaenthe 

@mrubinsteinCT               @shanonaryder 

@alecwriter120                 @benswoodard 

@auskp69                         @cunninghamb103 

@Laurencelau10               @JacyBrean 

@nikostar                          Kate Loveton

@MRSDBOOKS                WCCunningham

@blacklily_f                       Deborah J. Brasket

@jessstites                        Moosha23 

@AuthorAngelaS               Ksenia Anske

@WilliamMeikle                @MeirKalmanson

Thank you for your guidance, friendship and support! Here’s to another wonderful year of telling the wildest stories in as many ways as we can! Thank you for being here.

Paul

How To Write & Publish a #1 Bestselling Children’s Book to Amazon in a Weekend (Sort of…)

Thank You Bear COVER FINAL

The title of this post was the promise made by a recent free webinar I did recently. One of the people responsible for the “Chicken Soup for the (fill in profitable niche group here) Soul” publishers sponsored the webinar. Like most of these free webinars, it was well presented and had some great information, but I think the title, “How To Write & Publish a #1 Bestselling Children’s Book to Amazon in a Weekend” is a bit misleading.

The thing about these free webinars  is that they are part of a “funnel” to pull people in with an offer of something for free and then, at the end of the presentation, they offer a class or service (or classes and services together) that they say is worth in $2000-$3000 range (or more). When they hook you with the price of how much everything would cost separately, they cut it a few times to around $300 (give or take). It reminds a bit of the late, great Billy Mays of infomercial fame saying, ‘But wait, there’s more!”

Just to be clear, this is not a post about trashing these free webinars. I want to share my experience of trying out the information without buying the product offered at the end. I don’t know how much money the publishers make running these free webinars, but it seems like a great way of making extra income that also drives people to your books. If you get 100 people to pay $300 for the product, you make a nice paycheck. If anyone has run one of these and has numbers they would like to share, please contact me.

Most of the free “Write a Best-Seller Quickly” webinars I’ve participated in give the same basic information over and over:

  1. Do research on Amazon.com in the niche you want to write in. Then do a mashup, i.e. Something that is popular mashed-up with something else popular to make a new thing. This one takes a video game that is popular and mashes it up with the “Diary of a Wimpy” kid series.
  2. Write and publish your book. (Made to sound easy!!!)
  3. Drive people to the site and have a free offer to develop an email list.

The offer was for a lot of videos, a website for support, a promotional group, phone coaching and seemed like a great deal, but I didn’t take them up on it. I wanted to see if I could actually write and publish a children’s book in a weekend.

So I hopped in the shower, where I usually go to get good ideas for books, and when I came out, I had an idea. I did the Amazon research, but wasn’t ready to try a mash-up just yet. It seemed like animal books about bears were doing pretty well, so I went to Morguefile.com, a site that has licensed photos that anyone can use for free as long as they transform them into something else. I searched for photos of bears and other animals.

While searching, a little story started to form. The photos of the Sun Bear showed him being very expressive. He was a cute bear and I thought, “What if the Sun Bear was always being asked questions by the other animals?” Then, when Sun Bear answers them, they say, “Thank you,” and he says, “You’re welcome.”Definitely not a novel length story, but it seemed like a charming way to teach little ones about that concept and the photos were gorgeous and already licensed.

By that paragraph it seems that, “Bam!” I had a children’s book. But, no!

I had to gather all the photos and format them properly, write the rhymes for the story with pacing and rhythm that worked, bring in repetitive elements, find software that would compile the book, design a cover, write the front matter and back matter and put it all together, sign up for a Kindle Direct Publishing account and THEN publish the book.

It’s a LOT more work than it seems and this was a fairly simple picture book.

So, I gathered my photos and put them in different orders. When a photo didn’t work, I looked for others that did. Like I said, Morguefile.com is a free site, so some of the photos are brilliant and some are rubbish, you have to really search to find consistent quality. All of the photos I found were bright and clear with the animals doing dynamic things. That took about two days.

In the meantime, I wrote the copy. I edited the copy about 8-10 times for clarity, rhythm and rhyme. I kept trying to find just the right rhythms for a read aloud book. That took about 3 or 4 days to get right. My son, Willoughby, who is five, was a big help with this.

Then there was the software. I downloaded Amazon’s Kindle Kids’ Book Creator software from their site. It’s easy to use, but the user interface doesn’t have a lot of explanation. It took me several tries to figure out how to place text on the pages, how to keep the photos looking clear and how to add clickable links.

When I had the pictures and words of the book assembled, which took about three days or so, I wrote the front matter and back matter and tried to add links. The front matter was the copyright and title page, the welcome letter and the dedication page. My mother-in-law, who was like a mother to me, passed away recently, so I dedicated the book to her. Then I found a great quote from Dr. Seuss that seemed right, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

I wanted to include fun animal activities and interesting facts about the animals in the book, too. It took a few more days to come up with the animal activities and then I had to research the facts about the animals. I finished these two pages, then added a few “thank you’s” on the back page.

I also wanted clickable links in the front and back matter, so I spent hours trying to figure out how to make this work. I went to the Forums for help, but the help varied and kind of explained what was going wrong. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t seem to get it to work. I finally stumbled on what I thought was the solution and tried that.

Then I designed and built a cover about 10 times. No matter what I did to the cover, it still ended up looking blurry when I uploaded the book to the Kindle Previewer. It looked fine as a thumbnail, but there is still something wrong with this part of the book. If anyone knows a solid solution to this, please contact me at pauljennynyc@gmail.com.

I signed into Kindle Direct Publishing on Amazon and went through the process to upload the book. I wrote copy for the landing page, describing ” Thank You, Bear!” and how the AGAIN, AGAIN books are meant to be read over and over so that children learn the words and concepts in the book.

When I finally checked all the proper boxes and figured out exactly what Amazon was asking for, I hit the PUBLISH button!

I now had a book on Amazon. Wow!

But it was a LOT more than just  a weekend. I took the free webinar on April 1 (no joke). I hit publish on April 6. Not too bad, but definitely more than a weekend.

I let the book be out there for a while before I ran a giveaway and invited friends and family to download the book for free.

They responded and left amazing reviews which drove “Thank You, Bear!” to #1 in ebooks for kids for Bears and Manners! The other benefit was I got to reconnect with a lot of friends I hadn’t spoken with in a long time. All of their news started showing up in my Facebook feeds since I had invited them to my virtual book launch.

After putting the book out there for several days, I realized there were a few problems with the book. The number one problem was the lack of clickable links. A good friend, the illustrator Anita Søelver, reached out to help.

After about 10 hours of searching forums, trying different things, she was able to find an article that showed how you had to REMOVE code from the page, not ADD anything to it. I finally had clickable links. We still haven’t figured out the cover issue.

So for about three or four days after I published the book, I was still tweaking things to make it better. Total time working on the book? I’d say about a week and a half, working on it part-time, three or four to five or six hours a day.

Conclusion:

You can write and publish a children’s book fairly quickly on Amazon with their Kindle Kids’ Book Creator, but it helps to have a knowledgeable community surrounding you that can help you when you get stuck. I think it might have been easier if I’d decided to sign up for the class, but then I would’ve added a few weeks to the process while I learned the information, processed it, and figured it out. I wanted to just jump in there and do it. I haven’t done a mash-up title yet, but I want to try that as well. I’ll post the results here.

I do have several more children’s books almost ready to go, but I’m taking a bit more time this time through. I want to avoid the constant updating of titles, descriptions, and covers that I went through the first time. If you ever need any advice or help, feel free to reach out to me. Here’s the next book’s cover:

SillyAnimalsCover

As always, I’d love to hear from anyone else about their experience of trying to publish something quickly. Please leave a comment and tell us all about it.

If you made it this far, I’d love it if you downloaded “Thank You, Bear! An AGAIN, AGAIN Book” and left a review. It’s only $1.99 right now. I’m running another FREE giveaway April 20, 21 and 22 for Earth Day. Just click the book cover to go to the page. Thank you!

Thank You Bear COVER FINAL

Five Things I Learned About Writing from Being an IT Cable Tech

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I’m covered in drywall dust. It’s in my hair, my eyes, the creases of my skin. My blue jeans are cloudy white from all the dust covering them.

As I walk, little puffs of drywall dust, fall from my shoulders. I spent most of the day as a cable tech for a small IT Telephone Installation company doing the telephone and computer cables for a methadone clinic that is moving into a new building.

I worked 10-and-a-half hours today, never sitting, always thinking about what to do next, trying to figure out how to accomplish the tasks that needed to be done. As I stood on that ladder all day, my head in the ceiling, I realized that what I was doing was a lot like trying to get a first draft completed.

One of the main jobs of a cable tech is doing cable runs. The boxes of CAT 5 or CAT 6 ethernet cable start in the telephone closet. From there I have to run the cables up into the ceiling and then out to each of the rooms that needs a voice and data connection. I gather as many cables as I need for each run and use electrical tape to attach them to a long, flexible fiberglass rod of about 10-30 feet, that are called “the sticks.”

Then I open the drop ceiling and push the sticks with the cables attached in the direction I want them to go. There’s a beginning, the telephone closet, and the end, the office that needs the voice and data connections. But what happens in the middle and how I actually get to the end, is the journey that changes with every new location.

As I was drilling holes in the wall all day, this seemed like such an apt metaphor for how I was working on my current first draft I wanted to share it with you.

Five Things I Learned About Writing from Being an IT Cable Tech

1. It starts out as a MESS.

When we show up for a new job, the telephone closet (if it IS even a closet, sometimes it’s a flooded, moldy basement) is usually a tangled mess. There are cables going everywhere. Some are punched down (or connected) on the patch panel where they’re supposed to be. Some are cut and stuck in a hole in the wall and we have no idea where they are going. Some are just wrapped in tight knots around each other in a pasta-like configuration we call “spaghetti.” The great news is that by the end of the day, that mess will be a neatly coiled, fully functioning phone and computer system.

The first draft I’m working on right now is just like this. I have some great beats that I know will work, they connect. The characters know what they want and how they are going to try to get it. Those are the cables that are working.

But for the most part, this first draft is filled with all of these crazy ideas and tangents and random characters that are kind of stuck in that hole in that wall with no idea where they are going.

The 30,000 words I now have (on my way to probably triple that) are nothing but a giant mess of spaghetti. But I know that as I keep working on the story, teasing it out, stretching out the story lines, just like with the cables, my first draft mess will eventually be a fully functioning story.

2. We make a PLAN and stick to it, until something BAD happens, then we make ANOTHER plan.

Before we start untangling and doing cable runs, we go from room to room and figure out how many cables we need for each room, where they have to go and how we’re going to get there. I have to pop ceiling tiles, climb ladders and see what’s up in the ceiling. If it’s open and it’s a straight shot to the telephone closet, the runs are easy.

But if it’s all closed up tight, we’re in for a long day, because we have to figure where we’re going to cut holes in the walls to run the cables.

Often we think we’re going to cut holes in one place, but when we cut into a wall, there can be some not-so-fun surprises. I’ve cut into cement, hidden brick walls, old iron staircases, desiccated squirrels, electrical lines, wooden beams, water pipes, nails, screws, even an old Yankee’s baseball cap. If you can name it, I’ve probably found it stuck in a wall.

This is like sitting down to figure out the beats of the story – this happens, and then this happens and that leads to this, and so forth, until I get to the end.

I’m a plotter, so I like to know where my story is going. I write the beats out and make a nice plan. But I often find when I “cut into the wall” of the writing, that my plan isn’t as solid as I thought it was.

This can sometimes be frustrating and makes me want to stop writing the story. But in cable tech work, I can’t just quit, I have to find a new way around the problem or risk the client’s wrath.

Sometimes when I’m writing and get stuck, I take a break from that part of the story and see if I can work on another part of the story.

I often resist this because I think I have to keep a beginning to end progression as if I was telling the story, not writing it. It’s funny, because I also make films and we almost never shoot a film in sequence. We might shoot the ending where the couple is breaking up many days before we shoot the scene where the lovers first meet. But when I’m writing, I resist working this way.

Another thing I’ll do is make flow charts to see if I can figure out a solution that way. It’s a kind of IF/THEN chart from back in my days as a computer programming student. IF this happens, THEN this must happen. Sometimes it helps.

I also like to record myself telling the story to myself. I find that talking about it out loud to myself is a great way to get out of my head and think about the story kind of like an actor would. I start to ask questions like, “What else could the character do at this point besides this?” “What if the character wants this instead?” “If this character meets this person and does this, what are the consequences?” I find myself answering myself and arguing with myself and it’s usually pretty hilarious.

3. We take ACTION until we’re done.

A lot of the businesses we do cable runs for need their telephone and data cables up and running in their offices yesterday. We have deadlines to meet that, if we don’t meet them, the business doesn’t open and we don’t get paid as much. We often quote the clients how long we think the runs will take and if we estimate that we can get it done in a certain amount of time and bill them for that time, then we don’t make our deadlines, we start losing money.

With writing my first drafts, I often let myself off the hook on this one. I justify my low word counts and inability to get past sticking points. But if I were running my writing business like we have to run the cable tech business, I’d be hitting those word counts because my boss wouldn’t pay me otherwise. That’s where an accountability partner can be really useful. Since I’m my own boss as a writer, it’s easy to give myself the afternoon off. But when I have someone I have to check in with, those words counts really soar. It really helps!

4. We expect to get DIRTY.

I don’t show up for a cable job in khakis, dress shirt and a tie. I’m usually wearing work boots, grubby jeans, an old t-shirt and a flannel shirt as a layer if I have to go outside. Being a cable tech is a dirty job. I’ve had to crawl through fiberglass in an attic when it was 102 Farenheit outside. I’ve waded through flooded basements with I-don’t-know-what floating by to get to the telephone punchdowns. I’ve been in a two-foot high, dirt floored, sub-basement, lying on my back with endless spider webs 2 inches from my face. My hands and fingers get cut, my head gets gouged and my clothes get dirty. I don’t expect it to be any different.

Why, then, do I think writing a novel should be different than it actually is? If I’m honest with myself, I think I have this idea that the novels I’m writing should just spring from my head full-blown and enter themselves into Scrivener without me having to do much else but think about it. Laughable, right? But with cable tech, a skilled trade, I wouldn’t even consider the notion that the cables will get themselves run just by thinking about them. I read other

To get a first draft done, I have to get dirty. I have to be ready for the struggle. Appreciate when things flow, but work through the knots when they don’t. I have to go deep into character. I have to be as specific as I can with my words so the story can live and breathe. Why do I think that’s easy? Why do I think that shouldn’t take just as much effort as doing twenty cable runs a day?

One of the things that stops a lot of us are our expectations. If we can figure out what it is we are expecting, we can get past the disappointment of not meeting those expectations. Our expectations have to be realistic. As a cable tech, I expect to get dirty. As a writer, I have to expect that there is going to be some hard work ahead.

5. It’s HARD WORK, but endlessly FASCINATING.

When we get to a site, we have to unload the heavy collapsible ladders, the boxes full of cable, the server racks, buckets, vacuum, tools and everything else we need to get the job done. I usually sweat through my clothing by the end of the day. I spend most of the 8-10 hours on the job with my arms raised above my head, constantly moving. Standing on ladders all day, especially portable ladders, is painful to the bottoms of the feet and usually leaves bruises on my thighs.

But I love the challenges of the job, finding the ways to get the cables run and make sure the wall plates and jacks look tidy and are easily accessible for the end-user. At the end of the day, if we hook up the computer and it accesses the internet, or plug in a phone and it works, we know our job is done. We’ve worked hard and created access to communication for hundreds of people. There is satisfaction in that.

Same thing can be said for writing a first draft. I might be banging my head on the desk trying to figure out a scene, but when it finally clicks, there is that buzz of recognition, that “knowing it works” feeling, that can’t be beat.

I might set myself a word count goal for the day and struggle for an hour or so and then the story-teller in me suddenly takes off and, before you know it, I’m surpassing your goal by many words.

I might even stare at the blank page or screen and then give up, returning to some other task, only to be inspired a few hours later to start again.

Like being a skilled tradesperson, writing is hard work, but endlessly fascinating. By looking at it as a skilled trade and not something that should happen easily, I’m able to really put it into perspective.

Here’s a summary of what I learned:

  • Even though your first draft starts out as a mess you can work through the mess and refine it by untangling the knots. Sometimes you have to work out of sequence to do though
  • When you write out the beats of your story, be prepared to run into some problems as you write. If that happens, work through it until you come up with a new plan. Sometimes you have to drill a hole in a desiccated squirrel to get to the other side of the wall.
  • Giving up halfway through is just as bad as not starting at all. Take action and keep going! Get that first draft finished. If you’re stuck, find an accountability partner.
  • When you find yourself wishing that you were writing, faster, better, more like someone else, remember that false expectations can get in your way. It’s your journey, expect it to be just the way it is.
  • While you’re doing all that hard work, think about how rewarding and endlessly fascinating it is to create something from nothing. In the end, you’ll have something that communicates with people in a way that only you can communicate. That makes it all worthwhile.

I always love to hear your comments. Let me know about how your writing is going and any other ways you find to keep getting those first drafts out of your head and onto the page.

If you’re a fan of Sterling & Stone and looking for something to read, you can get a FREE copy of the steampunk anthology Beyond the Gate by clicking this link. My story, My Strength Will Ease Your Sorrow, is in there. The first draft I keep referring to is the novel length story based on this short.

Have a great writing day!

Be a Straight Shooter – Use Straightforward Dialogue Tags

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(Credit: Morguefile photo by lightfoot)

“You’re in big trouble, Dastardly Dan. You stole my prize bull,” Cowboy Carl blurted.

“I did not,” Dastardly Dan babbled.

“You did, too,” Cowboy Carl objected.

“Prove it!” Dastardly Dan bellowed.

“He’s standing right behind you,” Cowboy Carl barked.

“Save me!” Dastardly Dan squealed.

The prize bull stomped his front hooves in the dirt and snorted. Then, he lowered his horns, snorted again, and charged. Carl and Dan grabbed hold of their ten gallon hats and ran. They both wanted to get as far away as they could from the prize bull and these terrible dialogue tags.

***

There’s a chart going around the internet that pops up from time-to-time on Pinterest, Twitter (and other writerly hangouts) called, 100 Colorful Words to Use in Place of Said. It looks like this:

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 2.40.25 PMThe poster was apparently created for the classroom by WeAreTeachers.com to help young writers use words other than “said” when writing dialogue tags. As you can see from the poorly written dialogue above, young writers might benefit more from using straightforward dialogue tags and saving the colorful language for the rest of their prose.

Teaching student writers about synonyms and how to look for the most powerful word is useful. But when it comes to dialogue tags, I think it’s best to stick with “said” when someone is speaking and “asked” if someone is asking a question.

If we use a lot of colorful words for dialogue tags, the reader’s brain has to stop and translate each tag. It’s better to find a way to write dialogue that is “snappy, stormy, nagging, sputtering, gushing, etc.” than to add a tag to let us know the way the dialogue should sound.

The next time you read a colorful dialogue tag, try saying the dialogue as the tag indicates. I can almost guarantee you that the tag will affect the way the words come out of your mouth. Then, get rid of the tag, write it the way you “said” it and use “said” for the tag. It will come across as much more truthful and the reader won’t have to stop and think about how someone might “snort” or “sneeze” your dialogue.

Another way to be a straight shooter with your dialogue is to put the dialogue tag within quoted material when you can and use an action to show us what state of mind the speaker is in.

Here’s an example from the Pulitzer prize-winning Western writer, Larry McMurtry. In Lonesome Dove (“the grandest novel ever written about the last defiant wilderness of America”) Augustus finds some of his pigs eating a rattlesnake on his front porch. He kicks a young pig, known as a shoat. He doesn’t begrudge the pigs the snake, he says that having pigs on the porch “just makes things hotter and things were already hot enough.”

Here’s the dialogue with the pigs:

“You pigs git,” Augustus said, kicking the shoat. “Head on down to the creek if you want to eat that snake.”

Notice how the dialogue tag is in the middle of the line and McMurtry adds some action for the character to do. Augustus kicks the little pig, then gives the pigs an order. I can’t imagine Augustus scolding, shrieking or protesting while he says those words. But I can tell just who Augustus is by the way the line reads and what Augustus has to say and what he does. As a reader I just want to hear him saying it, not think about how he might have said it. That part I can make up by myself using the information the writer has given me.

Next time you’re writing dialogue, stick to your guns and just use “said” and “asked”as a dialogue tag. If you need to break things up a bit, try putting the dialogue tag in the middle of some dialogue or, if you’ve already established who is speaking, leave off the dialogue tags completely. I think you’ll find that your writing is stronger and more truthful this way.

***

When they lost sight of the prize bull, Dastardly Dan stopped to catch his breath. “Hold up, Carl,” Dan said, clutching his sides. “I cain’t run no more.”

Carl stopped and turned toward Dan, keeping his hands over his six-guns.

“Dan, did you steal my prize bull?” Carl asked.

“I didn’t,” Dan said, shaking his head. “I only borrowed him to impress my girlfriend, Miss Daisy.”

“Dan, thanks for being such a straight shooter with your honesty and your dialogue tags,” Carl said, pulling out his six-guns and pointing them directly at Dastardly Dan’s chest. “Now I’m going have to take you to jail. Git your hands up.”

Dan raised his hands high. Carl walked him all the way back into town and locked him up in the county hoosegow. Later that night, the prize bull returned. Rumor has it that not long after, Cowboy Carl and Miss Daisy were at the saloon drinking root beer and talking quietly together. I guess that prize bull impressed Miss Daisy after all.