Friday, June 11, 2010

Interview With Lisa Brackmann, ROCK PAPER TIGER

My guest Lisa Brackmann, author of a outstanding debut novel, entitled ROCK PAPER TIGER. I had the chance to read her book several weeks ago and loved it. Read my review here.

Iraq vet Ellie McEnroe is down and out in China, trying to lose herself in the alien worlds of performance artists and online gamers. When a chance encounter with a Uighur fugitive drops her down a rabbit hole of conspiracies, Ellie must decide who to trust among the artists, dealers, collectors and operatives claiming to be on her side – in particular, a mysterious organization operating within a popular online game.

I had a chance to chat with Lisa about her life, her trips to China, her book, and what's coming next from the pen of Lisa Brackmann. She's led a rather fascinating life.

Lisa, welcome to Over Coffee.

You’re a Californian by birth and live in Venice Beach area. You’ve had quite a few gigs in your life—singer/songwriter/bassist in an LA rock band, written screenplays :-), worked in a movie studio for quite a few years. I'd say you were pretty heavily involved in the art of entertaining people. How did that come about?

I’d always been passionate about creative writing, and after my freshman year of college, decided that I wanted to pursue a career in film and television. I felt that film and TV were the art forms that could reach the most people, and I’ve always had a bit of a didactic streak – to me, art is about entertainment, but it’s also about enlightenment.

I noticed a thread of that in your book. How in the world did you go from being passionate about writing to starting a rock band?

During my time in China (more about that below) I got the idea that I wanted to play rock music. When I came home to San Diego, I taught myself the bass and formed a band that helped pay for my textbooks in college. After I got done with school, I moved up to Los Angeles to pursue both of these interests. I had a band that lasted more than a decade. We played around town, got some nice reviews here and there, but never could quite crack that next level of success.

You certainly have drive and ambition so why do you think it never reached “that next level of success”?

I think in part because I always had an ambivalent relationship to performing, and in part because my attention was always divided – I was writing screenplays and teleplays at the time as well. I never had much success with those either, mainly because the stuff I wrote tended to be a little too out there to have much of a chance at being produced.

And oh yeah, there was this need for a day job.

Yeah, eating and having a roof over your head is always nice. Hence, going to work for a studio? What exactly does an executive at a major motion picture studio do?

After kicking around doing various things I ended up at the film studio in a pretty low level job, doing an esoteric form of legal research. I worked my way up to an executive director level, working in a more creative capacity, primarily for film/TV development and production. I like to say that I was a mid-level studio bureaucrat, but for book jacket purposes, “executive” is more or less accurate.

What does Lisa Brackmann like to do for fun?

I enjoy getting together with friends – I have good buddies who come over and we taste wine and watch DVDs – we went through the entire run of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” so we still call these evenings “Buffy Nights.” I like going to art events, to interesting cultural activities. I love to travel – I pretty much like seeing what’s out there in the world. I’m drawn to intense experiences, though more as an observer than a participant (I probably should have gone into journalism). Of course I love reading, and I really do like long walks on the beach. But not piña coladas.

You say, “Accidentally went to China in 1979. Never quite left.” How did you accidentally go to China?

I had a high school friend whose parents were in the first group of Americans to teach English in China since before the revolution. My friend asked me if I wanted to go with him to visit his parents. This seemed like a good idea at the time. We were supposed to stay for a few weeks but ended up staying six months.

I would imagine money would run out after being in China six months. How did you support yourself while there?

I taught a quarter of conversational English to college students older than I was, who had had their educations interrupted by stints out in the countryside due to the Cultural Revolution. We also traveled around the country for a month, mostly on our own, which at that time was pretty hard to do. Generally you traveled in tour groups with minders. We always tried to push that particular envelope, to see the “real” China rather than what the government wanted us to see.

What changes, if any, came from that experience?

I think when you have a very intense experience at a young age; it has a profound impact on your personality and actually shapes who you become as an adult. China at that time was particularly intense. We were there shortly after the Cultural Revolution, so it was the scene people sometimes still picture when they think about China – everyone in green and blue Mao suits, lives rigidly monitored and controlled. I went there with little knowledge and few preconceived notions about what China would be like, so I didn’t really experience culture shock all that much when I was there. I did experience it when I went home, in part because it changed me so much, but the environment I returned to had not changed. It was really jarring, and I don’t exaggerate when I say that it completely altered the course of my life.

For example?

I look at things I wrote before and after China and it’s like they were written by different people. I think this is reflected somewhat in my novels, which tend to feature main characters who almost by accident find themselves in situations for which they were unprepared and which completely change their lives.

China is an unusual setting for novels today. What fascinates you about China?

It’s really hard not to descend into cliché when talking about China in general terms, which is probably why I prefer illustration by anecdote or in fiction. But the contrasts are just so fascinating – the turbo-charged pace of modernization on the one hand and thousand year old traditions on the other—temples across the street from Starbucks.

What keeps drawing you back?

On a personal level, I feel as though in a way I return to China to examine my own life – returning to the scene of the crime as it were, in an attempt to understand how China affected me. I feel very comfortable there, so it’s like being in my second home. I have a great network of friends whose company I really enjoy.

I also just really dig speaking Mandarin. It makes me happy.

I thought it interesting the way you describe modern apartment buildings but parts of it are either not fixed or half built. This description is set in Beijing, which is suppose to be a *modern* city. Do you see a lot of this? Or is it only in certain parts of town? Or was it made up?

Beijing is quite modern overall, and things like the subway system are truly impressive (would that we had its equal here in Los Angeles!). But there is a lot of substandard construction, because a fact of life in China is that regulations on the books are frequently not enforced in reality.

Also, I find there’s a sort of weak sense of public, common spaces – why put any effort into an area that isn’t “yours,” where you don’t actually live? You also have to factor in the amount of over-building that’s gone on [in China]. This is due in part to the tremendous corruption and collusion between local governments and developers, and in part due to government policy – China depends on an 8 to 9% annual growth rate to keep unemployment at a level that prevents widespread unrest, and with export demand down, that means infrastructure projects that aren’t necessarily well-thought out or needed.

I have to ask, are there online games in China like you portray in the book?

I based the game in the book, “The Sword of Ill Repute,” on World of Warcraft, which is incredibly popular in China. Like a lot of other popular entertainment, the government isn’t quite sure what to do about it or how to regulate it. Gaming is a big part of youth culture; a form of escapism and a means of individual expression that I think is probably more vital there than it is here in the US.

Gaming is big with the youth of most countries; what makes it different in China?

There actually have been protests within online games, like the one portrayed in the book. And recently, a gamer made a funny and pointed satire about the government’s attempt to censor World of Warcraft that was done entirely with animations from the game. I wish my Chinese was better, but I can still appreciate the effort that went into it and the critique it represents.

You mentioned in an interview one of the inspirations for the book was the war in Iraq and something you heard an Iraq veteran say? Care to tell us about that?

I was fascinated/appalled by the Abu Ghraib scandal, which to me was a complete betrayal of our Constitution and the most fundamental principles of our government. The only people convicted for the prisoner abuses were low-ranking soldiers, and given that they were following directives from the highest levels of government, I think this is a real miscarriage of justice. One of these soldiers, a sergeant, once said in an interview, and I’m paraphrasing here, “I’m a good Christian. I teach Sunday School. But a part of me likes making grown men piss themselves in fear.” I thought there was something really profound and interesting about this seeming contradiction.

And thus we have Trey Cooper, yes?

I don’t see Trey as a bad person. He doesn’t have a sadistic streak like the sergeant mentioned above. He really wants to do the right thing, to be a good man. But he’s not a terribly strong person when it comes to resisting authority – and when it comes right down to it, most people aren’t.

No, they aren’t and especially in war situations. It's all considered justifiable.

Most people do what they are told to do; they try to find some way of rationalizing behavior that is contrary to their own best natures.

That’s very true and yet it happens time and time again.
Your main character, Ellie, tells the story in first person which I find puts the reader right there with her. What do you like about Ellie?

Ellie isn’t the toughest person or the smartest person or the bravest person, but she has a fundamental sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, and in spite of her own flaws and fears, she keeps going. She’s in a situation that’s way over her head, at the mercy of forces that are far more powerful than she could hope to defeat, but she doesn’t quit, and ultimately she holds true to her own hard-fought and won values.

Do you have a favorite scene in the book?

Not really. I mean, it’s weird to say this, but a lot of times the most disturbing scenes are the ones that are kind of the most fun to write! Except that they’re also disturbing to me as a writer. Like, “eyewww, where did that come from?” But I also enjoyed writing the humor that’s threaded throughout the book. It may not sound like it from all the stuff I’ve said above, but I think Rock Paper Tiger is a pretty funny book in a lot of places.

Yes, I enjoyed the humor—its dry but there. Many times just her reaction to things made me laugh.

I noticed in the acknowledgements you mention a couple of groups. As a writer, what benefit are groups such as the two you mention?

It really varies. At the most basic level, writers support other writers – we’re the only ones who really understand what we go through, and it’s nice having a forum and a sympathetic audience where you can share and vent and just sort of socialize. It’s a cliché to say it but it’s true – writing is a solitary activity, and having an online home where you can go take a break and hang out is really nice. I also count on my writer friends to give me beta reads and to fill in my own gaps about how the industry works – I can’t begin to tell you how much amazing information I got from our own Judi Fennell, who is a consummate professional.

Oh, absolutely. I’ve learn much from her as well in so far as applying marketing/promotion principles to writing and building a readership—not to mention her ability to get her name out there.

What’s next for Lisa Brackmann?

I’m working on a book that’s set in Mexico – about the intersection of drug cartels, political power and another woman who’s in over her head. After that, I plan on returning to China. I have a good start on a story that I’m excited about. Besides, my Mandarin is really rusty – I need to get back!

I'm looking forward to reading it, Lisa. Thank you for being with us today and I know right now you're heavily involved in promoting your book and building a readership, but I do appreciate you taking time out of your schedule to answer my questions.

Folks, be sure to check out ROCK PAPER TIGER. If you like thrillers and entertainment that enlightens, you thoroughly enjoy the story!

Lisa Brackmann has worked as an executive at a major motion picture studio, an issues researcher in a presidential campaign, and the singer/songwriter/bassist in an LA rock band. She still takes pride in her karaoke-ready repertoire of bad pop hits and an embarrassing number of show tunes. A southern California native, she lives in Venice CA and spends a lot of time in Beijing, China. Her three cats wish she’d stay put.

Lisa's Blog
Lisa's Website

This is Ghost, Lisa's cat. Of course, she thinks she's much better than a tiger any day!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Author Branding – Will It Help Sell More Books?

My guest is historical inspirational author, Jennifer Hudson Taylor. I have to admit I have a fondness of things Celtic--what a surprise, huh? But Jennifer, like me, has searched out her Celtic roots and I know that one part of her family, the Morgans, were part of the MacKay Sept. As you can see by her author pic, she is a fine Scot lassie, :-) Her debut book, Highland Blessing, and her just sold second book, Highland Sanctuary (October 2010) are both set in Scotland.

I know many writers have varying opinions on branding, but the truth is, branding is a necessary thing today. Successful authors play up their branding in various ways. One way is their websites. Trust me, as a blog owner who spotlights authors I look at every website. Some notable author branding websites and their realization of the importance of branding, Nora Roberts vs her JD Rob website. Christine Feehan, Jayne Ann Krentz--take a look at her website and then note each *entrance* to her books under her different pen names. Newer authors coming up the ranks? Jessica Andersen--even her author reflects her branding, Judi Fennell. Lydia Dare , and Donna Grant .

Jennifer speaks about branding: what it is, why it's necessary, and why aspiring authors need to start even before getting a contract.

  • What is author branding?
It's the reputation you build in the publishing community and to your readers of what kind of stories to expect when they see your name on the cover of a book.

  • Is author branding necessary? Why?

If you want to build readership, yes. If you want to sell more books, yes.

Readers who like westerns aren't typically interested in a science fiction book. For this reason, so many authors have had to create pen names for various sub genres. People work hard for their money and they can chose to spend it on a number of things. You don't want them to be disappointed if they take a chance and spend it on your book. If that happens, most likely they won't spend more money on anything else with your name on it, nor will they encourage others to do so.

Author branding is another way of target marketing. If you are promoting your book based on the book's contents, you are going to appeal to those who would like that particular book. Marketing and advertising is expensive. You don't want to waste your time and money trying to appeal to an audience who won't like what you write. You aren't likely to sell many books that way, and it doesn't make sense. So why wouldn't you create an author brand for yourself?

If you're like me, you might be hesitant to build a label around yourself because you don't want to be limited to writing one kind of book. I've already mentioned pen names as one way to get around this. Another way is to write the same sub genre for a decade or two and then rebuild your image. Lots of authors do this, and if you do it well, you won't lose readers, in fact you may gain more. For instance, a contemporary romance author may choose to brand him/herself as a romantic suspense author. That way you aren't losing readers who like romance and contemporaries, you're just giving them a new element to read along with what they already read. Keep the sub genres similar, but give readers more. This will ultimately lead to more readers, which will lead to more sells.

  • Do unpublished authors need an author brand?
Yes. Before you can sell books on a store shelf, you first have to sell to a publisher. You need to stand out among the masses of other writers. There isn't enough shelf space for all the wanna-be writers in the world, so you've got to find a way to stay out of the slush piles. There are a lot of good writers who sit in the slush piles year after year. Their works are good enough to be on the shelf of a bookstore. The difference is, their marketing proposals may not be unique enough or stand out and get noticed.

At one time I believe it was true that good writing would get noticed. But with the competition the way it is today, the demand so buoyant, and the hectic schedule of the publishing industry, I no longer believe that's true. You still have to get someone to read your work in order for it to be noticed. That can only happen if you stand out in promoting yourself and your work. You must make a good impression in your proposal and presentation of your work before an editor or agent actually sits down to read your work. If your impression in your proposal doesn't stand out, they'll never turn to the first page of your manuscript.

Remember, an unpublished writer is selling to an agent or editor. These folks are looking for specific markets where they know they can sell something. While good writing has to go along with it, if an author has written something that's great, but the story isn't right for an open spot, then it still won't sell. Don't waste their time or yours. Sometimes a quick rejection is a good thing. It will give you a chance to get that manuscript where it belongs much faster than wasting time on an editor's desk where it isn't going anywhere. By building an author brand, you will be letting them know upfront what they are getting from you. This will help you appeal to the right agents and editors. Target market to the right publishers and you will sell more and faster.

Plus, publishers have less in their marketing budgets for new authors and mid-list authors. They reserve most of their budgets for the BIG name authors where they know their investment will pay off. Therefore, a new author will have to do so much more of their own marketing. By showing you are ahead of the game in your promotion and author branding, an editor will feel more comfortable taking a chance on you. This means if it comes down to your good writing as opposed to another author's good writing for one publication spot, you might have the edge since you have self-marketing potential. Editors are looking for authors they can build into careers for a long investment, not one-time book wonders.

  • What new strategies are you trying to build your brand awareness?
  • What are your thoughts about brand awareness?

~ * ~ *~ *~ *~ *~
Highland Blessings (Scotland, 1473) Blurb:

Highland warrior Bryce MacPherson kidnaps Akira MacKenzie on her wedding day to honor a promise he made to his dying father. When he forces Akira to wed him, hoping to end a half-century feud between their clans, she struggles to overcome her anger and resentment ...
Yet her strength in the Lord becomes a witness to Bryce.

                     Chapter One 
Book Trailer

Jennifer Hudson Taylor is the author of historical and contemporary Christian fiction set in Europe and the Carolinas. Her fiction has won awards in the American Christian Fiction Writers' Genesis Contest. Her debut novel, Highland Blessings, will be released May 2010. Other works have appeared in national publications, such as Guideposts, Heritage Quest Magazine, Everton’s Genealogical Publishers, and The Military Trader. Jennifer graduated from Elon University with a B.A. in Journalism. When she isn't writing, Jennifer enjoys spending time with her family, traveling, genealogy, and reading. She resides with her husband and daughter in the Charlotte area of NC.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Monday Musings: Adaptable? Yah, Right.

"You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star."

Nietzsche does this mean I'm about to give birth to a galaxy?)

You know, I’m great at multi-tasking. Most of the juggling I do is easy to manage. I can track projects and solve problems regarding most jobs I have to do—I just seem to take it stride and always have. It’s been a strong suit of mine in business. No big.

However, when comes to my writing I’m not so adaptable. I’m fine working on a fiction WIP and moving to something non-fiction, articles, book reviews etc. I seem to be able to compartmentalize fine. You throw two fiction WIPs in the works and I’m in chaos. Gah. It gets noisy in my brain and it’s like being room with two TVs and both have good stories but you can’t concentrate on either because there is just too much noise. For me, insanity quickly ensues.

I have friends who write more than one story at a time, some who can write two different series and keep perfect track of what they’re doing and writing. I have to admire that because I’m so not there yet, lol! Of course the perfect solution is to put one on hold and finish the other.

E x c e p t...

They’re both screaming at me presently. As one friend put it, work on the one screaming the loudest and if they are both screaming equally loud? Then you gotta problem.

I knew that. But, I was hoping for a nice: well, first you do a), b) and then move to c) type of solution. Yup, I got a problem.

Sigh, what was I thinking? How did a nice writer like me get herself into this fine mess to begin with? Damned if I know. Blame it on an ADD type brain, I guess.

Meanwhile, I have one story I love and have wanted to write for some time. Entails quite a bit of research because the world base is different and you have to have that base accurate to build a viable world within our world and still weave the story into it. It’s also a story that makes me stretch as a writer, but that’s okay, it a story that excites me and I love the two MC, hero is hot and sexy and real wolf. Love those kinda males. :-) I’m quite a ways into this story.

Then there is story number two, which is now screaming at me. Different series, different world, more explicit sex, humorous, hawt hero who doesn’t believe in any type of woo-woo who comes face to face with big time woo-woo in the guise of a mouth watering heroine. Oh and few equally woo-woo practicing relatives.

So now I have to figure out a way to make both stories happy without having the characters from either or both stories attacking me in my sleep. Trust me, it would be a terrifying and bloody mess. I much prefer them visiting my dreams with scenes and dialog, not murder and mayhem.

I’ll let you know how I solve it because, dammit, I have to solve this or go nuts.

Fortunately, I got this nifty Stress Reduction gizmo. Who knows? It might just work.

Do you ever find yourself in such a fix? How do you solve it? Inquiring minds and all that.

On to something much easier to deal with:
Cue drumroll and release the balloons

Donna Grant’s autographed Dangerous Highlander, a dark but wonderful read, goes to Kat Sheridan.

Christie Craig’s Shut up and Kiss Me, a fun read, goes to Helen Ginger. Second place winner: Dana Fredsti, who gets to pick out any book from Christie’s backlist.

Congratulations Winners!

Be sure to contact me with your addresses.