The Savvy Author


Writing As Your Opposite Gender Can Be Successful


Authors love to tweak the imaginations of our readers; we love to provide those who have spent good money on our books a little something extra. While most writers write main characters in their own gender, many others, quite successfully, cross over and write as their characters in the  opposite gender. Anne Rice’s Lestat, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, and Alexander McCall Smith’s lady detective, Precious Ramotswe, have all been written in the opposing gender of their authors. And while character Mikael Blomkvist is technically the protagonist in author Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, his character of Lisbeth Salander is definitely the female protaganist.

Authors of both genders have consistently use narrators and protagonists of the opposite sex to weave a story and it can work very well. Struck by the number of women writing from male viewpoints, Natasha Walter, a member of a literature judging panel, has been quoted as saying that she was struck by how many female writers were now writing from a male viewpoint.  "I'm not trying to make some big generalization out of it … but if you think back to Virginia Woolf saying that her ideal for women writers is that they shouldn't be seen as women, they should be able to be androgynous. Well, maybe we are getting more towards that."

Almost all of my books have a female protagonist; Cate Harlow in the Cate Harlow Private Investigation series, is the latest in my line-up of literary women. There is only one exception to this gallery; Teddy Jameson in Welcome to Hell – The Teddy Jameson Chronicles. I can tell you that he was incredible fun to create and bring to ‘life.’ I enjoyed speaking in Teddy’s somewhat sarcastic voice and bravado, bringing him slowly to the realization of where he is and why. And while I have no problem whatsoever with my female characters cursing, (Cate can have some very choice words when working a frustrating case), I gave a more colorful vocabulary to my character of Teddy Jameson.

One thing to remember when writing in your opposite gender voice is that your character is unique and not a metaphor for the entire gender. The same is true when writing about race, religion, or class. Truthfully, most authors who create a new story are simply hoping that what we write will grab readers’ attention and they will find our characters interesting. As far as characters go, it pays to remember that not all women think and behave alike, and neither do all men.

The whole point of creating fiction is to entertain readers and to expand their experience of life. In the writer’s imagination there is neither male nor female. Some writers will enter into alternate minds better than others, but the success of the attempt will depend upon talent and technique, not gender.





You’re an Author? So You’re Really Not Working, Right?

Most authors have some sort of a home office which is good and bad. Good in the sense that you have a quiet place to weave your stories without major disturbances from co-workers. Bad because your neighbors and family members know that you’re home and they don’t understand the reality of writing. They don’t see it as a “real job.”

“Hey, Kristen, listen,” says Dan, a neighbor of mine, an accountant, who is basically a very nice man.“I was waiting for a delivery from Home Depot but I’ve got to get back to the office. Would you mind watching out for the delivery truck and signing for the lawn mower? Oh, and yeah, if they don’t come by 3:30, can you call this number and find out why? Let me know what’s going on, okay?”

Now I can say, “Sure, Dan, no problem,” but I’ve got a deadline to meet with my new book and it is crucial that I finish the last 2 chapters before it goes off to my editor. So I politely tell him I would like to help out but that I have writing to do. Dan looks at me in surprise, shakes his head, and says, “But you can do that at any time, right? You’re not going to get fired if you’re late, right?” I shake my head, tell him I’m sorry, and say I have a solid deadline. He walks away miffed and muttering, “God, it’s not like you have a real job.”

But I do have a real job. What Dan and many others don’t understand is that my writing, (my novels, my short stories, my articles, my columns), is a real job and my bread-and-butter. I am lucky enough to make a nice living out of the stories and ideas that swirl around in my head and it is my profession. Unfortunately Dan isn’t the only one who views writing as not being a “real job.” Many of my others neighbors and friends have Dan’s attitude about what I do. Parents of two children under the age of ten who live down my block, asked me if I wanted to baby-sit their kids during the summer. The mother told me, “I mean you write so it’s not like you’re really busy.” As Charlie Brown would say, “A-r-r-g-h!!!!!

Until my first book was sold my Aunt May always referred to my writing as a hobby. And while she was pleased and happy for me when I received a book deal, even now she feels that what I do is not real work and that she can call me to pick her up for a shopping excursion on any given afternoon. When I ask why she doesn’t call her daughter Karen, she informs me that, “I can’t disturb her at work. She has a real job.”

And my husband, my biggest fan, used to think nothing of calling from his office and interrupting me while I was in the middle of putting together a story. “You can get back to it, honey. Just listen to this.” The problem was I couldn’t always get back to it. I convinced him that my hours writing are sacrosanct and, unless it is of major importance, no interruptions, please darling!

As a writer I have to say that  I feel a job is a job, a profession is a profession. What makes one job or chosen profession more real than another? Is it that we tend to define real jobs in a certain fixed category? Does a “real job” have to meet the following criteria such as a full-time position with set hours, a position that pays a set salary, and gives you health insurance/sick leave/paid vacation? Is this it? 

I’ve had a so-called real job; teaching world languages in high school. While it was something that was lucrative and which I found pleasurable and rewarding, it did not satisfy the creative hunger in me that needed a writing outlet.

The idea that writers are “always available and not really working” is not only erroneous but a bit insulting. Writing is a profession that is time-consuming and doesn’t always have set hours. Distractions can have a negative impact on creativity. Concentration is an absolute necessity as is meeting deadlines whether set by an editor, publisher, or even yourself. This work is not something that can “be done later.” It is as important as any other job or profession. If you, as a writer, don’t see the importance of your work, you are doing yourself a big disservice. Your work is important and no one, least of all you, should treat it as any less than a profession.  

While writing for a living is chancy and a calculated financial risk, I would rather be doing this than anything else because I find it to be  fulfilling, stimulating, rewarding, and enjoyable! That’s the definition of a real job to me.

 Happy writing!


The Art Of Book Signing 101

I've been doing book signings for quite a number of years now but I never get over the thrill of meeting people who enjoy reading my books and want an autographed copy of one. I've learned to relax, be myself, and enjoy the 'meet and greet.' I've mastered the author's Art of Book Signing 101.

Several years ago, at the end of the day of my very first signing, it was all I could do to keep myself from shouting, "You like me! You really like me!" the way Sally Field did when receiving her second Oscar. I was so thrilled that my book was selling! This was, of course after I had had a terrible panic attack on the way to the signing because I was afraid nobody would attend the 'author event.' And during the event, which included my reading selections from the book, No Woman Diets Alone: There's Always a Man Behind Her Eating a Doughnut, my mouth was so dry with fear, I was glad that I'd brought a couple of bottles of water with me.

But no worries; the event was successful and I looked forward to more book signings and meeting fans.

As I began to be invited to more literary events, I learned quite a bit from other authors. I learned that you, the author of the book, need to be a source of information for your readers; a good question and answer session about characters and plot is something most book buyers enjoy. I learned that all fans appreciate a few minutes of your time to chat, something that I very much enjoy doing, and which fans of your work deserve.

And I also learned how to turn the curiosity seekers and those who just happen to wander into the store, not knowing anything about the book on display or the author, into potential fans and book buyers. That's an important part of book signing 101.

My most recent book signing for For I Have Sinned took place at a Barnes and Noble in the New York City area. Appropriate enough since the thriller takes place in NYC. Besides fans of my work, those eager to meet at the author event and buy an autographed copy, I had the usual 'curious people' and the 'I just wandered in here' folks who had no idea who I was. Having been primed by seasoned authors at past events about the curious and the wanderers, and being a fairly well seasoned author myself, I was ready to make new fans and generate book sales.

"Your book's title? For I Have Sinned? Are you a Christian or what? I mean, do you even have a religion?" asked one well-dressed but stern-looking woman. I assured her that I did believe in "Someone Greater" and told her the story behind the title. "It's the first in a series about a NYC private investigator,"I said. I was charming and I smiled. A lot. She ended up buying two books one for herself and one for her mother who, she told me, "loves murder, mystery, mayhem, and justice'. "God bless you," I said as she walked away.

"Oh, murder of a priest! You bet I'll buy one. Is this an autobiography?" said a woman who had wandered in and read the book's jacket. She was with a friend, both wearing running outfits. I told her it was fiction and explained that the murder was just a part of the thriller. She looked a little disappointed but decided to buy it. Her friend bought one too. "Thank you both. Enjoy!" I waved at them as they left.

"Can I have your phone number?" asks a curious man with whom I would hesitate getting into an elevator.

"No." I smile sweetly and glance around for the events coordinator. "This is a book signing."

"How about if I buy your book? Give me your number then?"

"No, not even then."

He looks disappointed and I hold my breath. Then he hands me the book he's been holding close to his chest for my signature. "Yeah, well, okay, I guess I'll buy it anyway; maybe you'll change your mind about giving me your number?"

I smile, say nothing, and autograph my book. "Enjoy reading it. Excuse me, sir, there's someone behind you who wants my autograph." He moves away but not before leaving me a slip of paper with his number on it.

"You're a writer, huh? Maybe you can write about my life." This is from a pregnant woman who has five children in tow. "Let me tell you that my life is an interesting one. I'll give you my email address. Contact me, okay?" I sign, and smile at the youngest child who has taken a book off the table and begun to bite the cover. "She's adorable," I say gently extricating my book. "You think so?" says the mother. She gives me an exasperated look but she buys my book.

A man comes up, checks out the book and the price. "You're charging $17.95 for this book? It better be worth it." I sign, smile again, and direct him to the cashier.

"Excuse me miss; where's the children's section and the bathroom?" asks a couple with a little girl. I direct them to where they want to go then tell them I am doing a book signing and invite them to stop by on their way out. The woman comes back an hour later and buys a book. Success with the curious and the wanderers!

Six hours later, I had sold all the books Barnes and Noble had ordered for the signing and had made plans with the events coordinator for a two day author event for the soon-to-be-published second book in A Cate Harlow Private Investigation series. It was a good day and I was glad I had mastered the author's Art of Book Signing 101.

So what are the learning points of the Art of Book Signing 101? They're really very simple.

First and foremost, bring water; you'll spend a great deal of time talking.

Be upbeat and not easily discouraged if you don't sell 5 books within the first hour. No one comes into the store the minute it opens.

Remember that you can't be shy; you're selling yourself through your book and you need to be bold. Tell people who you are: "Hi I'm Kristen Houghton and I'm doing a book signing today. Come join me over by the book table for a chat."

Be ready to talk about plot, characters, and settings in your book. It's amazing how many authors, including yours truly, sometime forget crucial points about the novel they wrote.

People like to socialize. Be sociable and listen to what they have to say.

Be polite to everyone, not just to those who buy your book. The curious and the wanderers may be potential customers. And anyway, it costs you nothing to be nice, right?

Smile, smile, smile! You're an author; be happy with your accomplishment and enjoy the day!


What You Really Need to Know to be Successful

"The writing world is a small one, Kristen," said my first agent, "And by that I mean that what you do and say can very quickly become common knowledge." This was my agent's cautionary introduction to a profession that I love and of which I was damn happy to be a part. Her advice was excellent for a young author and her brilliant handling of my first book made my experience in publishing a very pleasant one.

What she said was true 10 years ago and it is doubly true in today's constantly electronically connected world. I was reminded of her comment two years ago when I heard a story about an author who had pitched his book to an agent who had rejected it. Upon receiving the rejection email, the author immediately fired off a nasty-gram to the agent. People talk and his words quickly got around to other agents. The upshot was that he had a helluva time getting other agents to even consider his work.

Now it is easy to be upset when your work is rejected; I mean the word "rejected" has such a negative feeling to it. But what you have to remember is that it isn't you who is being personally rejected. It simply means that a particular agent wasn't interested in what you wrote. As Hemingway once said,

"A writer is a damn fool to give up. Times change, tastes change, publishers change. You will find an audience."

Thank you Papa Hemingway. By the way, Ernest Hemingway self-published his first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems, after a rejection letter and look at his success!

What the author whose work was rejected, (there's that unpleasant word again), should have done is bitch and moan in private and then send a polite letter or email to the agent thanking her for taking time to read his manuscript. Believe me that polite 'Thank you' would have been remembered and appreciated. When I was the head fiction editor of a magazine, one of the things I hated most was sending a letter of rejection. I worded it as kindly as possible and encouraged the writers to please submit other work. One letter I received back thanked me for my kind words and went on to submit two short stories later that year, one of which won an award for best new fiction. Being polite matters very much. The polite message should also go, not only to agents, but to publishers, editors, and anyone who is involved in your book's potential success.

One thing I urge new authors to do is invest in a good copy editor. Bad grammar, unless part of a character's speech, is totally unacceptable as is poor spelling. Any agent or publisher will immediately reject your manuscript. One of the best copy editors I have had the pleasure to edit my books is Courtney Davison. Even the best author can make a mistake and even if you re-read your work ten times over before submitting it, you may not catch an error. A good copy editor polishes your work.

Another area where authors need to be savvy is in the area of publicity. Unless you're already a well-known author whose publisher has a team of publicists working for them, you are your own press agent. Even well-known authors are doing a lot of self-promo these days as the publishing industry undergoes major changes and financial belt-tightening. One caveat; be very careful of hiring a publicist. While there are many honest, hard-working publicists, you can get burned in the thousands of dollars by a dishonest slick talker who promises everything, takes your money, and produces nothing. Think of hiring a publicist in the same way as buying a car; the sales pitch will be geared in favor of the person selling the product or service. You need to do your research before making a decision.

Be very careful of places that offer to publish your book for a fee. Scam artists are everywhere. Now that being said, I must also say that there are utterly reputable places, including many name publishing houses and literary agencies, that also offer this service. They do all the publishing work for you for a fee. Just remember: It's a business and they're in it to make money. You might be better off with CreateSpace and IngramSpark. You'll learn a lot and you'll reap all the profits. Once you have a published book, ask anyone and everyone for book reviews that you can post on your website and social media. Agree to all interviews; someone is listening.

Don't discount the power of social media but don't overestimate it either. Join everything that can help sell your book but make good choices. Authors' sites are great and you make some good friends and contacts on them but remember; everyone there is selling their own books and may not necessarily be potential buyers of your book. Your best bets are book clubs and local book stores where there are readers.

Never, never, ever, burn bridges! A colleague once sent me a card saying, "I burned all my bridges so they will light my way to a better future." Cute on a card but so wrong for an author. Remember you are the CEO of your business and the product you are selling is your writing. In business you have to let personal feelings go and focus on getting your work published. Keep all contacts, and I mean, all. Agents and publishers move from one job to another and sometimes start their own publishing houses. Stay on friendly terms. It will be worth it.

Redefine success for yourself. Success means different things to different people and the level and definition of successful varies from one person to another. I have a friend who is successful at doing nothing but ebooks; he doesn't want to do print, yet his ebook novels, coupled with writing for two magazines, have garnered him a very good income. He sees his writing career as successful and by all accounts it is. I have come to know many people who do nothing but ebooks. Then there are other authors like me who do both print and ebooks and see those sales as a measure of success. I like the idea of a print and ebook combo and it has been a successful venture for me. It's all subjective.

Believe in your own worth. Anyone in the arts, (writers, actors, dancers, musicians, painters, etc.), has to have a healthy combination of self-esteem and ego. You should know you're good. Be a savvy writer and author. You owe it to yourself.

Kristen Houghton is the author of 6 top-selling books including the PI series A Cate Harlow Private Investigation. The first in the series FOR I HAVE SINNED is available where all books are sold.
©copyright 2015 Kristen Houghton all rights reserved

© copyright 2015 The Savvy Author Kristen Houghton


What I Learned From Creating Cate Harlow

March is Women's History Month, a time to celebrate the achievements of women who have made our lives better. It's also a good time to remember the strong women in fiction who have inspired us and made an impact in our real lives. Female characters from Jane Eyre to Jean Louise "Scout" Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird to V.I. Warshawski, , to Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, all are written as females of strength and savvy. They get the job done and are a tremendous asset to those in their lives. I should also mention Lisbeth Salander, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, strong woman who knew how to survive and "take care of business."

You can learn a lot from women in fiction, and you can learn a lot from writing your own strong female character. By creating a strong woman in the Cate Harlow Private Investigation series, I found myself becoming stronger.

When I began to write For I Have Sinned, I had a very definite idea of who my lead character would be and how she would act. Many writers will tell readers that they base their characters on themselves and, in a sense, this is true. However, in many ways, Cate Harlow was as different from me as a hummingbird is from a hawk. Except for some physical characteristics, a passion for tennis, and being pet-friendly, I made Cate Harlow into someone I admired and aspired to be. She would be savvy, strong and very independent in all aspects of her life. Literally, she would take no crap from anyone.

I did give my character some human vulnerability; she has an aversion to dead bodies and death itself. In her business she is very well aware that she's sure to come across death and a corpse or two but she still has an unremitting fear of it. As she says in For I Have Sinned:

Personally, I never get over seeing a dead body. You would think that after a while in my profession you'd become immune to it but that's not true in my case. There's always the very brief startle factor for me. No matter how badly damaged the body may be, it still seems as if it will come back to life again, like some modern Frankenstein. Stupid I know, but that's always my momentary reaction. After that I get down to business and look for evidence.

I also injected humor and compassion into my character to even out the often seedy, dirty parts of her life as a private investigator and gave her a healthy sex life as well. More on that later.

The differences and similarities between Cate and me are interesting. A psychiatrist might have a field day analyzing them. Cate is a woman who walked away from a nice, steady paycheck as a law interpreter to open her own business as a private investigator. I was a high school teacher who began writing every spare second I had while I was still teaching, terrified of not being able to depend on that secure paycheck every two weeks. Unlike Cate Harlow, I needed job security. She handles a gun when needed, I'm terrified of them.

Cate doesn't cook, depending on take-out, microwaveable foods, and a great restaurant named Enzo's, to sustain her. Although I'm not a gourmet chef by any means I do cook almost every day. As far as drinking goes, she does enjoy a good bottle of Merlot which is something Cate Harlow shares with her creator, although she drinks more wine in a week than I do.

Cate is fit, I need to be. Cate juggles two men in her life, I am married to my college love. Cate loves food, and I am always dieting. The more I wrote about Cate Harlow, the more I wanted to be like her. Maybe I was writing the "me I was meant to be." Whatever it was, I began learning some good life lessons from my fictional character, Cate Harlow, Private Investigator.

I began to think like Cate Harlow, analyzing situations completely and thoroughly before making decisions. And I began to play tennis again, a game I loved but had always felt I was "too busy" to play. If Cate can manage to do it with her crazy schedule, so could I. I stopped dieting; I didn't splurge and go food crazy, but I began to do the Cate thing and to enjoy the food I was eating, rather than obsessing about gaining weight.

One very important "Cate change" was taking action against injustice. Like Cate Harlow, I saw the social problems around me, but where she was an active fighter, I was more of a pacifist who avoided conflict. As I began to write more about Cate Harlow and her need to bring those who harm others to justice, I began to see that conflict isn't always bad; it can produce healthy change.

I found myself changing and becoming an advocate for specific causes, such as supporting Shelters with Heart, a place where victims of domestic abuse and their family pets can go to be safe and start new lives. Many women won't leave an abusive relationship because they fear their abuser will harm or kill their dog, cat or other family pet. To support the shelters I donate five percent of sales from all my books to them and willingly speak at fundraisers.

I wrote Cate Harlow as a woman who knows what she wants in all aspects of her life, including sex. She is the one in charge of when, where and who -- a very ready, willing, sensual and equal partner to her man. Let's say that she, like her author, enjoys her erotic encounters as much as she enjoys that excellent bottle of Merlot.

Writing the Cate Harlow Private Investigations series has changed my outlook on being strong and capable. I no longer fear changing careers, I have a healthy attitude for making the most of living, and I use my strong voice and actions to benefit those in need. And, as with my character Cate, my sense of humor has gotten me through some tough times.

Perhaps writers project more of themselves onto their characters than anyone knows. Or maybe writing the character allows the author to become someone she has long wanted to be. Either way, strong fictional female characters can inspire us to be our best even if we're the ones creating them.

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