Sunday, May 7, 2017

A new definition of success?

All writers define what success means to them. 
 
Success could include:  favorable reviews, completing the first draft of a novel, winning a writing award, a well-attended book signing, and of course, a publishing contract.  With the exception of a contract, I’ve experienced these achievements to varying degrees.  
 
Writing can be a lonely avocation, with days, and even weeks, passing without positive feedback. Writers need to be self-motivators, finding inspiration wherever and whenever possible.  I recently stumbled across what might be a new source of encouragement for authors—used booksellers.
 
I was checking my reviews on Amazon and noticed one of my books, CORRUPT CONNECTION, had five sales offers.  I thought it strange, so I clicked on the offers and found that in addition to Amazon, four other booksellers were offering used copies of my paperback at prices ranging from $10.75 to $33.95, plus shipping.  Keep in mind this book sells for $11.95 on Amazon and the Kindle download is only $2.99. 
I looked at my other books and found MELTING SAND marketed by several resellers with a top price tag of $19.95. One copy was featured as “signed by author.” The ad even had a photo of the signature page which I’d endorsed to a reader named Cliff.  Good ole Cliff must have picked up my book at one of my signings and decided to recoup his expenses after reading it. (The ad stated it showed slight wear.)
My first reaction was amazement.  How in the world could anyone expect to get $33.95 for a used copy of a book I sell as new on Amazon for $11.95?  I did a little research and discovered the selling of used books is a growing business, both online and in brick and mortar stores.  Amazon even offers instructional books for entrepreneurs on how to make a buck selling used books online. There are several book reseller websites where you can plug in the ISBN of your used book, and out pops a price they will pay you for it.  This still doesn’t explain the unusually high prices resellers ask for some of my used books.  I hope they don’t think I’m going to die soon and develop a cult following.    
After thinking about it more, I’ve decided to consider it a compliment that readers and resellers believe my books have a used value.  It’s better than ending up in a landfill. It gives me some pleasure to know that once my books are printed, they could float around for years, finding their way to new readers.  In fact, if it turns out my used books are selling better than new, I may even dog ear a few copies and open my own used bookstore.       

Saturday, April 29, 2017

One-Star Reviews

Well, it finally happened.  I received my first one-star review for one of my books.  Being 18 words in length, it really didn’t qualify as a review.  Frankly, it struck me more as a protest sign than a review. 
 
I’ve received about 100 reviews posted to Amazon and Goodreads, so it’s not like this one-star rating would sneak by me.  I notice them all.  While 80% of my reviews are 4 and 5 star, I’m not new to receiving 3-star reviews.  I’ve even been able to cope with a couple 2-star appraisals, but for some reason this 1-star slap in the face was different.  It bothered me.
 
I’ve read blog posts from authors addressing the subject of one-star reviews, each offering advice on how best to absorb harsh ratings.  I agree with most of what they recommend:  Don’t respond to poor reviews. Don’t contact the reviewers.  Accept the criticism as “part of the territory” of being an author.  If possible, learn from the criticism.  There are exceptions to these recommendations.  If the attack on your work becomes repetitive, lacks constructive content, and/or appears to have destructive motivation, it’s reasonable to contact Goodreads and Amazon to alert them to the problem.
It’s human nature to be disappointed, even hurt, by these punitive reviews.  How could anyone be so critical of something you spent months, possibly years, creating?   The book (a short story collection) receiving my first one-star review had a 4.5-star average prior to this blemish.  It even received contest awards for several of the stories included in the collection.  Still, my first reaction to the one-star rating was to be hurt rather than angry.  
Another typical reaction is curiosity, wanting to know more about the person who would tell you your child is ugly.  Are they outside my intended audience?  Are they experienced reviewers? Could they have other motives for being so critical? As I said earlier, it’s not wise to contact the reviewer or to publically react in any way.  It might escalate the situation.  However, it’s not hard to learn more about an Amazon or Goodreads reviewer without contacting anyone.  There are few secrets on the Internet.
As an author, I have principles regarding giving and receiving reviews.  Every reader has the right to critique my books.  In fact, I welcome ALL reviews.  I also believe reviewers should provide constructive feedback and a reason for their rating, regardless of the number of stars.  I will never give an author an overly harsh critique of their book or one that doesn’t include a balance of positive and critical comments. I’ve posted 2 and 3 star-reviews, but I’ve offered constructive comments as to why the book didn’t meet my expectations.  I’ve yet to give another author a one-star review.  After all, who am I to levy such a punishing literary verdict? Instead, I’ll send her/him a private message with my comments.  
I wrote this blog post for a couple reasons.  For one, it helped me calm down and move on.  I also hope readers will better understand how important reviews are to authors.  We are just people, proud of our work.  We don’t anticipate that everyone will like what we produce, but we hope they’ll take time to let us know why or why not. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

Finding Motivation

Motivation is defined by Merriam-Webster as a force or influence that causes someone to do something.
 
Motivation is abstract.  It’s not something you can see or touch, and it’s different for everyone.    Speakers make a living selling it.  Drill sergeants instill it.  Some people wake up in the morning filled with it, while others never can seem to find it.  But one thing is for sure, writers need it. 
 
Many articles describe ways for writers to get motivated.  I’ve included a few at the end of this post.   Some of the tips in these articles work for me, but just as many don’t.  Here are ways I’ve found to get in the right frame of mind to write:
Switch Gears - My blog is called Thoughts, Stories, and Novels.  I post thoughts to my blog two or three times a month.  I’ve written dozens of short stories and maintain an inventory of ideas for the next one.  When I get bogged down on my current novel, I’ll switch gears for a day or two, diverting my attention to writing a blog post or possibly beginning a short story.   I find the diversity helps stimulate ideas.  
Brainstorm – If I’m stuck at a certain point in a novel or story, I’ll try breaking away from the manuscript and brainstorming.  I might jump to the conclusion and jot down ideas on how the book might end.   Sometimes I’ll go back to visit a particular character to see what improvements could be made.  Was I consistent in building the character? Could I make the character more compelling through dialogue and actions?  Other times, I pick a chapter in the book I thought was particularly exciting and well-written and re-read it, hoping to rediscover the motivation that helped produce it.
Find the Best Time of Day – Early morning (and I mean really early) is the best time for my mind to be clear and ready to produce my best writing.  There is something about getting an early jump on the day to make me feel more energized.  Other writers may produce better work at different times of the day.  The key is to know what time works best for you.
 
Hit the Trails – Exercise is a great way to shake the cobwebs loose.  For me, there’s no better exercise than hiking the mountain trails around our home.  An hour or two on the trails, and I’m usually in a better frame of mind to write.
 
Envision Success – Reading about aspiring writers who’ve found success is very motivational. Writer’s Digest is a good source for these articles, but there are several websites, blogs, and Facebook pages featuring authors who’ve broken through. 
 
Be Happy - It’s always easier to write when you’re in a good mood.   Take a break and do whatever makes you feel better.  Listen to uplifting music, play catch with your dog, or check out this YouTube video on motivation:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sh5arV2cut0
  
These are just a few ideas that work for me.  I’m sure you have others.  I’d be interested in hearing them.

 
http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/improve-my-writing/9-ways-to-get-started-and-stay-motivated

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Do Authors Peak?

Whether it’s your career, athletic capabilities, sexual proficiency or anything else with a start, middle and an end, reaching your peak sucks.  Most don’t realize they’ve peaked because they’re too busy enjoying their view at the summit.   But when the slide down the backside begins, they know it, and there’s little to be done.
 
Being a baby boomer, I know it’s vogue to hype the advantages of aging.  I’m sure you’ve heard the “60 is the new 40” mantra coming from an ever-greying population.   I even wrote a novel, “Better Late Than Ever,” where residents of a futuristic retirement community become fixated on regaining their youth.   But the older I get, the more I accept that I will never be 25 again, or even 45.  Medical advances have enabled us to live longer and have made it easier to age, but these advances have yet to reverse the process.  Today, I hit a golf ball as far as I ever will.  I ran my last six-minute mile 30 years ago.  High school was the last time I’ll ever take to the basketball court in front of cheering crowds.  And I knew long before Bruce Springsteen that “Glory Days” will pass you by in the wink of a young girl’s eye.  
 
Peaking is more noticeable in some careers than others. Most professional athletes plateau before reaching 40.  Even in golf, a game many play ‘til they die, no professional player has won a major championship past age 46.  In business, corporate executives reach full stride in their 50s and early 60s, but the race to the top narrows dramatically for advancement-minded managers in their mid-40s.  By that age, if you’ve yet to be identified as executive material, you have likely begun a slow glide pattern back to earth.
 
Still, not everyone peaks by their mid-40s.  There’s good news for authors and others using their mind to make a living.  Studies (1, 2) have shown the more you exercise your brain, the longer your cognitive skills remain.  It turns out that learning and brain development can be a life-long process.  For writers, the message is to keep writing.  Staying healthy and physically fit also play a major role in these studies, so a long walk every day is advisable.  I find this news encouraging given I started my writing avocation in my mid-50s.  
 
There are many successful authors who didn’t publish their first book until later in life (3).  Laura Ingalls Wilder published “Little House in the Big Woods” at age 64, and then went on to write others in the series.  Earnest Hemingway was most prolific in his 20s and 30s, the period when he wrote “A Farewell to Arms.” It was generally accepted by critics that Hemingway was washed up by the time he reached 50.  Not so.  He wrote and published “Old Man and the Sea” at age 53.   Had he not suffered long-term injuries from plane crashes later in his life, who knows how many more Hemingway novels we would be enjoying?
 
I, and other aspiring writers like me, may never become bestselling authors, but as long we keep testing ourselves, we can enjoy the long uphill climb.  Who knows?  Our glory days may still lie ahead.
 

Friday, March 24, 2017

New Authors - Why So Many?

I’m amazed by the ever-growing number of new authors. 

In the U.S. alone, reports range from 250,000 to more than 500,000 new book titles published each year.  The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported 305,000 titles published in 2013, with a growing percentage of these books being self-published.

The growth in the number of authors and new books seems to defy trends in the book publishing industry.  A Pew Research survey of U.S. adults indicates those reading a book in the previous 12 months decreased from 79% to 72% between 2011 and 2015.  A July 2016 report from the American Association of Publishers indicates revenue from U.S. book sales was nearly flat from 2013 through 2015.  Competition is fierce.  Some genres and markets are saturated to the point it’s nearly impossible for new authors to be noticed by readers.  A writer self-publishing his/her first novel can expect to sell fewer than 1,000 copies.
So, why do more and more self-published authors elect to spend hundreds (if not thousands) of hours writing, editing, publishing, and marketing their novels?   It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times, but here I am, writing my seventh self-published book.  I don’t have a concise answer, but for me, it boils down to the following:
  • FLEXIBILITY - Writing is exhausting, but it can be done at a time and pace to fit most schedules.
  • MINIMAL BARRIERS - The cost of entry is minimal.  All you need is a PC, printer and access to the Internet to begin.  For those serious about being successful, a professional cover and editor are a must, and neither is cheap.
  • SELF-PUBLISHING TECHNOLOGY - The availability, simplicity and low cost of self-publishing make it easy for new authors.  The number of offerings and quality of tools continue to improve.
  • SOCIAL MEDIA - Goodreads, Facebook, Google+, Twitter and other social media sites offer writing groups for new authors to share ideas and market their books.   A new writer never needs to feel alone in the process, and for those wanting to learn, educational offerings are endless.
  • HOPE – Optimism is a trait writers must possess.  At times, our views of success are blind to reality, not unlike Jim Carrey’s view in Dumb and Dumber.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KX5jNnDMfxA
  • IT’S A CREATIVE OUTLET - I’d love to sell thousands of books, but I also write for me.  I enjoy writing.  My primary goal is to make each short story and novel better than my last.  It’s an objective that keeps me moving forward.  I think most aspiring authors feel the same way.      
I started writing books in 2010.  I’m not sure I would have made the effort 30 years earlier.  I don’t know if I could have sat at a typewriter, feeding in one sheet at a time, unable to share my progress in real time with other writers, and not knowing if my manuscript would ever be read, let alone published.
A lot has been written about the evils of self-publishing, claiming it’s watered down the quality of books by allowing less-skilled writers to be published.  This negativity isn’t likely to alter the growth in self-published authors.  If there’s anything I’ve learned in my three decades in business, it’s that you can’t fight technology or the role it plays in creating and satisfying markets.  Self-publishing companies serve two markets: writers and readers.  They generate revenue from authors by providing services beyond publishing (editing, cover design, marketing, etc.).  Many such companies also get a percentage of sales from every book sold.  Self-publishing is a business designed to make a profit.
I’m thankful for self-publishers. They came along at a time when I was ready to test my creative skills.  I expect we both will be around for a long time, although for different reasons.  Their longevity is tied to profitability, while mine only requires hard work and hope.  And that’s why there are so many new authors.                  

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Optics Can Distract


My mind wanders when I write.  As an example, I often think how the use of a word has changed.  I’ll come across a specific word, and the next thing I know I’ve been shot off on a tangent far from my writing project.   
Take the word “optics.”  It used to be defined as an area of physics involving the study of light.  I guess it still is, but it’s more frequently used to describe how something appears to an observer, as in, “The optics of the situation make them appear guilty.”
I believe the word has become popular in its new context because it allows the user to influence opinions without facts.  All you have to do is claim the optics support your position.  The word comes in handy in a country where politicians, media, and everyday Americans are engaging more frequently in debates where neither side presents sufficient facts.  What better way to win these disputes, or to cloud the discussions, than to state the optics support your views? 
When people don’t know what to believe, they usually believe what they want. We live in a world that is guided more and more by optics, opinion and ideology and less and less by facts. Opinions and polls seem to matter more than what is actually happening.  Indisputable facts bounce off of today’s ideologues like rain off a duck.
Benjamin Franklin gets credit for saying, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”  The difference between Franklin’s 18th century and now is no one currently works very hard at convincing the other side.  Instead, it’s all about “rallying the base,” hanging around in “safe zones” where those with opposing views can’t speak out, and labeling instead of listening.
It could be that social media magnifies discord in the 21st century, but I can’t remember this country being so divided.  I hope we find a way to come together soon, but I must admit, the optics don’t look very good.
See what I mean?  Words distract me.  Well, I better get back to writing.     

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Writing Distractions – Not All Bad

Most aspiring authors have real lives outside of writing. Even I do.  I often wonder if life gets in the way of writing, or if writing requires having a life, but that’s a much larger topic than what this post is about.

There are very few things I’d rather do than write. I find it relaxing, challenging, and satisfying. Yet, a number of distractions easily take me away from writing.  I’m not talking about time with family and friends.  They always take priority.  I’m referring to distractions I face while actually at my desk.
My office has an expansive window with long-range views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  I’m fortunate to have such a serene setting in which to think and compose.  I frequently gaze out this window, distracted by the natural beauty of the trees and faraway hills.  In the winter months, days pass without seeing another person, but rarely a day goes by without seeing a herd of deer wandering through my view.  It’s an interesting dichotomy.  The quiet and solitude which make this a great place to write often has me focusing elsewhere.
Research is a large part of writing, even for a fiction writer.  The internet puts sources of information at my fingertips. With one keystroke, I can switch from composing a novel on Microsoft Word to searching a range of topics on Google, Bing, or Yahoo. While this is infinitely more productive than going to the library and digging through periodicals, internet research also presents a risk.  The risk is never getting back to writing.  One minute, I’m verifying the location of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and the next minute, I’m buying a lawn trimmer off Home Depot’s website or reading my book reviews on Amazon.
I’ve concluded these distractions can actually be constructive.  While writing requires deep concentration to ensure continuity, consistency, and correctness, it also requires an inventive and open mind.  I am able to write head-down for an hour at most. Any longer, and I lose my imagination and my writing grows stale.  It’s at these times a cup of coffee is in order.  I’ll return to my desk to sip coffee and enjoy the views out my window, or maybe read an interesting article on my laptop.  These breaks often refresh my thoughts, enabling me to return for another period productive writing.
I must admit there are days when I stare out my window, never focusing on my writing, and that’s not all bad.  If my mind’s not into writing, I’d probably produce garbage anyway.  Oh, look!  My nephew just posted pictures of his new puppies on Facebook.  I’ll finish this post later.


Thursday, February 2, 2017

Does a novel need to deliver a message?


Does a novel need to deliver a message or lesson, or can it succeed on entertainment value alone?
Most of the books I read are suspenseful crime novels or legal thrillers.  I enjoy Michael Connelly, John Grisham, James Patterson, Vince Flynn and many others.  At times, these authors insert political or social messages, but they seldom detract from the main theme or plot of their book.  The messages are usually used to provoke thought, develop a character, or possibly create conflict.
Complex messaging is not needed for romance novels (or other genres) to be popular. That’s not why readers buy these books.  I doubt romance authors begin their stories with the intent of bringing attention to world hunger or saving homeless animals.  Still, an antagonist who verbally or physically punishes his partner in a romance novel can shine a light on the evils of domestic abuse, delivering a message within the context of the story.
I believe a fiction writer’s objective is to entertain. Readers come back to a given genre because they enjoy what it delivers: fantasy, suspense, romance or adventure. It’s difficult to write a fiction novel with a political, social, or religious message as its main theme. The few I’ve read kept dragging me back to the message, not giving me, as the reader, a chance to fully engage in the characters or the story.  I also think an author who continues to use his/her novels to convey messages and lessons risks becoming known for promoting specific causes, and not for writing.
So, does a novel need a message?  I liken messages in a novel to salt on a good meal.  If sprinkling a few messages throughout a novel enhances the reader’s experience and doesn’t overwhelm the main story, then I say season to taste.      

Friday, January 27, 2017

Persistence - It's Necessary, but not Sufficient.



I have a master’s degree in mathematics, and I followed it up with 32 years in sales and marketing for the same multinational company.  You may ask what either of these facts has to do with writing novels, but bear with me.  There is a connection.
Years ago, I was fortunate to retire with mileage still on my tires.  For the first time in my life, I had an abundance of free time. I filled it with many things, some productive, some not.  The most creative activity I pursued was writing.  I’d always wanted to write, but writing a novel required time, something I now had.  
I took on this venture knowing the odds of producing a published novel, or for that matter a novel that would be read beyond my small sphere of friends, were low.  After all, I spent six years studying mathematics.   The formula is fairly simple.  You take 200,000 new books written each year as the denominator and a couple dozen best sellers as the numerator, and you can calculate that 1 out of 10,000 authors might have his/her books read by someone outside their hometown.   I know there’s a middle ground for success between bestseller and throwing the manuscript in the garbage, but you get the point.  It’s hard.
So why did I think I could write a novel?  That’s where persistence comes in.  Anyone who works 32 years for the same company doesn’t give up easily.   A career is not a smooth uphill climb.  There are plateaus and even slippery downhill slides along the way, but if you keep moving forward with your eyes on the finish line, you’ll eventually get there.   It’s not unlike writing.   There are periods where the words flow, the characters develop, and the story explodes with action.  Then there are days where the page sits blank, or worse, you decide to scrap a chapter and start over.  
As I anticipated, my persistence paid off.   Over the past six years, I have self-published four novels and two short story collections.  None are bestsellers.  In fact, I’m often frustrated with the pace of sales.  After three decades in sales and marketing, it’s where I’ve faced my biggest challenges.  My books are all professionally edited, and naturally, I feel they’re well written.  I’ve received dozens of favorable book reviews, as well as contest recognition for several of my short stories. 
I’ve concluded that to be a successful writer, as measured by book sales, it not only requires a well-written book, it takes a cadre of support services.  You need to identify your target market, deliver well-written books that hit that target, construct a multifaceted marketing plan, and commit sufficient resources to execute your plan.   Most importantly, I’ve learned persistence is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Authors, do your characters resemble you?


Should authors channel their personalities and experiences into their characters?  
It took me five novels to ask this question, and when I did, I realized something.   My protagonists are pretty much alike, and for the most part, they have my values.  I even share a few experiences with them, and friends who know me well say my characters reflect my personality at times.  I believe it’s natural to reveal your experiences, thoughts, and beliefs through your characters, but I do this sparingly.  My protagonists are younger, braver and more cunning than I am. They find themselves in situations I hope never to face and react as only they could.
It’s obviously not necessary for authors to share the values of their protagonists, but I’ve found it makes it easier to get inside the heads of my fictional characters and to have them think and act naturally.  Consistency is important in making characters believable.  What better way to stay consistent than creating characters who think like you?  I know the counterargument is that truly great authors can relate to any character they create.  Stephen King isn’t a maniacal killer, and my guess is he wouldn’t be friends with many of the bizarrely malevolent characters he’s created, yet he’s been successful in producing suspenseful thrillers for many years.
I’ve written short stories where the protagonists are greedy brokers, thieves, or even pets. I’ve never been any of these.  I admit it’s more difficult to develop these diverse characters and have them think and act consistently throughout the story.  I often find my personality working its way into their character, requiring revisions.  Still, I enjoy the challenge and have received contest recognition for some of these stories.           
Some authors have had successful careers creating characters that make repeat appearances in their novels:  Michael Connelly has Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller, Sue Grafton created Kinsey Millhone, and even though John Grisham varies their names, many of his characters are crafty male attorneys.  I haven’t spoken to Connelly, Grafton, or Grisham, but I expect they easily relate to the characters they’ve created.  Connelly was a crime beat reporter in Los Angeles, where Bosch is a criminal detective and Haller an attorney.  Grisham was a successful criminal defense lawyer before writing legal thrillers.
Miles Stevens, Sam Stone and Phil Greenfield are the protagonists in my novels.  I can easily see them sitting down for a cup of coffee, discussing their adventures.  They have a lot in common with each other and apparently, with me, too.  I’ve concluded that’s a good thing.   
 
Protagonists in D.R. Shoultz novels:
Miles Stevens is the lead character in the Miles Stevens Series, which includes MELTNG SAND, CYBER ONE, and GONE VIRAL (to be released in 2017).  Miles is a 37-year-old Yale law grad and former U.S senator who gives up his political career after the tragic deaths of his daughter and wife.  He turns to the CIA and the recently formed Department of Historic Intervention (DHI) as a way to escape his grief.  A strong, tough-minded CIA agent, Miles and his DHI partners are sent back in time from the year 2050 to alter historic disasters.   
Sam Stone, the lead character in CORRUPT CONNECTION, is at the peak of his career, recently widowed and losing interest in life, when he meets Dr. Britney Young, a recently hired, beautiful and brilliant researcher at MemOne, Inc.  Sam is a low-profile, self-confident, fit but not athletic, 48-year-old sales executive when he’s thrown into the role of protecting Britney and MemOne from a deadly drug cartel.  Britney and the company’s biocomputer technology are targeted by the cartel to advance their illegal drug trafficking.  Fearing the threats against Britney, Sam works alone as he transforms into a fearless guardian and investigator.
Phil Greenfield is a handsome, silver-haired, divorced, 60-year-old retiree and the main character in BETTER LATE THAN EVER.  Phil sells his successful technology firm and retires to The Glades, a futuristic retirement community in Florida, seeking maintenance-free living, unlimited golf and sunsets by the pool.  Instead, he discovers the residents are fixated on reclaiming their youth through an underworld of medications and surgical procedures.  Phil meets an old flame, Sue, and the flame is rekindled.  Looking much younger than her age, Phil learns Sue is also under the influence of these drugs.  Tempted to join Sue and the others on their youthful journey, Phil becomes suspicious that there’s more to the story of The Glades. Unfortunately, he is right.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

E-readers vs. Real Books - It's Not Even Close


Technological advancements are intended to make workers more productive and the lives of average, everyday people easier.  However, I’m concerned some of these technologies are diminishing, or even destroying, those things that have brought us comfort and warmth. To prove my point, look no further than e-books.
Personally, I prefer the look and feel of a hardcover book.  Holding a novel in my hands creates a bond between me and the author.  I get the feeling the author intended for me to have it, to read it, and to share my thoughts about his/her work.   It’s hard to evoke the same emotions with an e-book.
There’s also nothing more relaxing than going to your local bookstore or library on a rainy day, especially if they serve coffee and pastries.  After perusing the shelves for your favorite authors, you select a novel and settle into a soft chair and enjoy a brew and your book.  You’re in a cocoon, oblivious to what’s going on beyond the walls of the building. Electronic bookstores and libraries may save you the drive and allow you to download any book you desire, but what’s the point?
I also like owning books, real 400-page novels. I know this may make me sound a bit materialistic, but I enjoy seeing my book collection lining the shelves of my living room and office, knowing I’ve read them (or at least most of them).  Over the years, I’ve collected books by my favorite authors, many first edition copies. (There are worse things to collect. I knew a guy who collected train lanterns.)  I even enjoy finding new and exotic bookends to complement and better organize my collection. Seeing e-books lined on the library page of my e-reader just doesn’t give me the same sensation.
My wife has passed many of the books she cherished as a child down to our grandkids.  These books contain handwritten notes and dates.  She has read some of these books to them at bedtime as her parents and grandparents had done with her, turning the same pages and making the same comments about the illustrations.  Try recapturing these moments with an e-reader.  
As a self-published author, one of my favorite ways to promote my books is to participate in book signings.  Discussing my writing and handing a reader a signed copy of my book creates a connection that can’t be recreated with e-books.  Without a physical book, such events would be meaningless.  I hope it never comes to that.
I get it.  E-books have their advantages.  They are cheaper and easier to access over the internet.  E-readers are lightweight and travel better than hauling two or three hardcover novels.  It’s more convenient to read an e-reader in bed with the lights off and not disturb whoever may be lying next to you.  Libraries and bookstores require expensive brick and mortar buildings to store the books, while e-books can reside inexpensively on electronic media.    
Even with all the benefits of e-books, I can’t imagine a world without libraries or homes without bookshelves.  I can’t imagine spending hundreds of hours writing a novel and not being able to hand a signed copy to a reader.   Most of all, I can’t imagine a child growing up without flipping the pages of “Green Eggs and Ham” while giggling at the same pages her grandmother found funny.         

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Air Travel - Can it get any worse?


My wife and I returned to our home in North Carolina after traveling more than 3,500 miles by air and 2,000 miles by car over the holidays.  The visits with our family members went well, and for the most part, the weather cooperated.  I’m grateful for the time with family and for our safe trips, but the service we received on our roundtrip flight from Charlotte to Phoenix was less than gratifying.     
I won’t specify which airline we used.  What we experienced happens on most carriers.  In my opinion, many of the changes to the airline industry in recent years have been made without regard to customer service or convenience.  My wife and I were victims of most of these changes.
I booked our flight six weeks in advance and scheduled it well before Christmas to avoid crowded weekend holiday travel.  With over 80,000 miles in my account, I tried to use frequent flyer miles to pay for the trip but found my miles would cover very little of the expense.  Oddly, I get a lot of emails encouraging me to use my FF miles for magazines and passes to airline lounges.  I guess they’d rather I pay to fly.     
When I went to book the flight online, I couldn’t get adjoining seats for me and my wife without paying extra fees for the available seats.  It seems sitting next to your family members is now considered a “perk.”  I was instructed to wait until check-in to see if adjoining seats were available.  They weren’t, so my wife and I sat 20 rows apart.
We were asked at the check-in kiosk if we wanted to purchase additional flight perks.  We saw no reason to pay for exit row/bulkhead legroom or early boarding privileges.  I laughed out loud when asked to pre-pay for additional FF miles.  We had decided to pack one large bag, allowing us to travel unencumbered without carry-ons, so paying $25 for checked luggage was unavoidable.
We got our boarding passes and checked our bag 90 minutes prior to departure, allowing plenty of time to make it to our gate.  As the departure time approached, the gate area began to resemble a 1965-era Greyhound bus station.  Passengers dressed in everything from parkas to pajama pants, not-so-service-looking service dogs, and runny-nosed kids in double-wide strollers flooded the area. It appeared my wife and I may have been the only passengers to check a bag.  The hundreds of travelers gathering were transporting their possessions in every possible container: backpacks, shopping bags, taped-up Amazon boxes, overstuffed travel bags, and purses the size of duffle bags.  Boarding reminded me of the Oklahoma Land Rush with passengers scrambling to stake claims to overhead storage.  Ridiculously oversized bags had to be checked at the gate, further clogging up the process.    
Thirty minutes later, I reached my seat. Every storage area within several rows had been claimed.  Fortunately, I only needed to find room to park my butt.  As I took my seat, I felt others were benefitting from me checking my bag.  Shouldn’t I get a sticker or something recognizing my contribution?
During the flight, I purchased a $7 gag-in-the-throat sandwich and $2 headphones to drown out the baby crying in the center section to my right.  The guy seated next to me pulled out his backpack from under his seat at least a dozen times, violating my space.  It was four hours of my life I’ll never get back.   
After landing and waiting 15 minutes for my wife to work her way from row 32C up the jet bridge, we arrived at Sky Harbor Airport luggage claim.  Although we’d boarded a non-stop flight from Charlotte to Phoenix at 9:00 a.m., we soon learned our bag boarded a non-stop flight to St. Maarten in the British Virgin Islands.  Even though we checked in 90 minutes early, the baggage handlers didn’t use the time to get our bag to the correct plane.  Airport code PHX must get confused with SXM.
I was impressed the airline knew where our bag was, and assumed it would just be a matter of putting it on the next plane back to Phoenix.  It was to be my first miscalculation of airline competency.  Following comments by the lost luggage agent about our bag reaching the better vacation destination, we were given toiletries in a zip-lock bag and a website address to track the status of our luggage.
After waiting nearly one day with no update, I called to insist that someone from the airline contact the airport in St. Maarten.  The bag was still there!  It took a total of 2 ½ days for our luggage to be returned.  During this time, the airline’s lost baggage website never reflected a change in status, and no one from the airline called us.  I assumed our $25 baggage fee would be automatically returned.  Wrong again!  I was told I needed to fill out an online request for the refund.
We were only in Phoenix for four nights and five days, so not having our luggage for most of our visit was a significant inconvenience.  It seemed reasonable to expect we wouldn’t be charged for baggage on our return flight to Charlotte.  Once again, I was wrong.
Our return flight was an hour late out of Phoenix while we sat in a crowded waiting area at the end of a terminal servicing five gates. The backup in flights had the area resembling a refugee processing center.  Eventually, we and our bag made it back to Charlotte.  As we loaded onto the waiting parking lot transportation, I was glad the next leg of our holiday journey was by car.