Follow by Email

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Truth About Being a Writer

Imagine a doctor opening a clinic and having no patients.

Imagine an attorney passing the bar but his grand office has no clients.

Imagine a builder developing an idyllic neighborhood but it remains a ghost town.

Imagine a grocer stocking all the shelves but no one ventures inside.

This is what a writer's life can be like. In the wake of a down-turned economy, I saw scores of people putting pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard) believing all they had to do was put their thoughts into words and they would be firmly established with a lucrative career as an author.

But placing words on paper does not create a professional career any more than stocking a medicine chest makes one a doctor.

The truth is, no one needs fiction to live. Unlike medical treatment, a roof over our heads or food in our bellies, fiction does not sustain life. In a weakened economy as disposable income becomes more rare, often we must wisely select where our money goes, and reading for pleasure can be easily discarded.

When my computer books were released, they flew off the shelves; the personal computer industry was in its infancy, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs hadn't yet made their millions (or billions) and people needed to learn computers to remain viable in the workforce.

So how does an author of fiction sustain an audience?

First and foremost, by writing something so compelling that readers will spread the word. When you hear someone say, "You have to read this!" there's a good chance that book will sell some copies.

Second, by giving readers what they want. Reading is highly subjective; some people relax with a western, others with true adventure, still others with romance or suspense or a sci-fi trip to an uncharted galaxy. Write something that no one cares about and the book will flounder.

Third, by making it easy for readers to find them. This is where the largest publishers excel because they can afford the sales forces needed for maximum exposure. Even if a publisher does not spend a great deal of money on media advertising, they still hold all the clout in placing their titles where readers can spot them.

Fourth, an author is only as relevant as their latest title. I can't think of an author since Harper Lee who has been able to earn a sustained income from one book title. Today, the market is all about producing; some authors have even begun writing novellas in lieu of full-length novels so they can get as many as a dozen titles a year in front of their audience.

Fifth, by constantly perfecting their craft. Each book must be better than the last one or that climb to the summit will result in a few brief moments at the peak before plummeting back to base camp. I've met many New York Times bestselling authors who don't have two pennies to rub together today because their moment in the spotlight was all too fleeting.

Sixth, keep your eyes on the market. A downside to the largest publishers is their focus on constantly increasing book sales; one dip can mean a cancelled contract. Small and mid-size publishers have far less overhead than the big guys, but they still need books that sell to keep them in business. This means constantly viewing the market and assessing what will sell and what won't and making adjustments where necessary.

Seventh, understand each author is a brand. When Fifty Shades was released, I saw countless authors leave a set of genre fans behind in the pursuit of becoming the next millionaire author in another genre. Even more interesting were those authors who left the mainstream in order to write for a small niche market, believing that would be their claim to fame.

For every author who earns a living writing, there are thousands who can't sell books to anyone outside their immediate circle.

So considering the odds, why write?

First, don't write for the income. If it comes, it's icing on the cake but don't expect it.

Second, write because you love the process. Write because that story inside you absolutely has to come out, even if no one else ever reads it.

Third, write even if no one notices. If you are writing for the constant accolades, you'll be disappointed. If the attention comes, that should be an unexpected bonus.

Fourth, understand your words may never die. In this age of technology, it is possible for books to remain in print long after the author has died, even if they are not profitable. I've seen many authors dropped by traditional publishers who have re-released their titles as self-published eBooks. It is possible that long after the author is gone, the book could find an audience. One need only look at the authors we revere today who were unappreciated in their own time.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Titanic

Most of us are familiar with the story of the Titanic; a British passenger ship unparalleled in its size and d├ęcor, it sank on its maiden voyage in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, killing more than 1,500 passengers and crew. But here are some things you might not have known:

The RMS Titanic was built in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was the second the three Olympic class ocean liners built by the White Star Line.

The Titanic Museum in Belfast was built in the shape of a white star.

The Titanic Museum covers much more than the building of the Titanic; it begins with the history of Belfast. Belfast linen, for example, has been sought after the world over, and was just one of the exports that needed ships departing for Europe and America. As industry expanded in Belfast, so did the population, bringing scores of people who worked not only in the textile industry but in metals, iron works, furniture and buildings. All of these industries played an integral part in the building and outfitting of the Titanic.

Workers on the Titanic were often divided into very small groups overseen by a foreman. Because of animosity between the Catholics (Unionists) and Protestants (Loyalists), there was a time in which workers entered the shipyard through the entrance bearing the name of their faith. They were kept separated while they worked.

The Museum is built in what is known today as the Titanic Quarter, and it is the best known attraction in Belfast. It is built at the original site, and from the windows shown below, the visitor can view the location where the Titanic was built:

There are so many things to do and see at the Titanic Museum that the visitor should plan on at least one full day there. You can tour the multi-level museum, take part in a Titanic walking tour, take one of the Boat Tours, take the Wee Tram around the shipyard, and tour the Nomadic, one of the three Olympic class ocean liners and the last remaining White Star Line ship in the world.

Hours of operation: 9 am to 7 pm during the summer tourist season (June, July, August). Purchase the tickets online at to save 5% and avoid the queues.

The shipyard is still in operation today. In addition to shipbuilding, repairs are made here on oil rigs. Belfast is very close to some of the richest off-shore oil operations in the world.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Belfast, Northern Ireland

I grew up in America during the times of The Troubles in Belfast and Northern Ireland. Though the issues are complex, a simple explanation is the conflict between the Protestants or Loyalists (those who tend to be loyal to the British throne and who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom) and the Catholics or Unionists (those who want a united Ireland and a separation from the United Kingdom).

So when I traveled to Belfast recently, I was more than a bit apprehensive about going there. I worried about venturing into the wrong neighborhood, saying the wrong thing, or wearing the wrong colors.

Yes, you read that correctly. You can spot at a glance whether you’re in the Protestant section or the Catholic section by the colors displayed. The British Jack in its red, white and blue can be seen flying proudly over the Protestant areas, along with pictures of the Queen of England and other monarchy. Cross into the Catholic section and you could be verbally or physically assaulted if you flew the Union Jack. There you’ll see the Irish colors of green, white and orange flying proudly.

The most curious thing that happened to me while visiting Northern Ireland was a trip to the post office to purchase stamps for a friend in the States who wanted them for his collection. On the first day I went in, I asked the lady behind the counter for some postage stamps. She stared at me as if I had arrived from Mars. I asked her again, more slowly in case my accent made me difficult to understand. She said they didn’t have any and she turned and walked away.

When I told my sister of the problem, we returned together. This time, my sister asked her for postage stamps. Again, she said they didn’t have any. We must have had an expression like Elaine on an episode of Seinfeld because a gentleman came from a back office and asked us what we wanted. When we told him we were simply looking for postage stamps for a collector friend back home, he took us to another area where he sold us the stamps.

It turns out that every stamp in the United Kingdom is exactly the same except for the color: they all display the Queen of England. And it also turns out that Unionists or Catholics would never, ever collect anything with the Queen’s likeness on it. I had mistakenly stepped over the line when I asked to buy postage stamps but didn’t have a letter to mail.

In 1997, then-President Bill Clinton forged an agreement between the Unionists and the Loyalists to end thirty years of violence. Though the bombings stopped, the animosity between the two groups did not end overnight. In 2015, the vast majority of school-age children are raised completely separated by their religion—Catholic or Protestant—and integrated neighborhoods are nearly non-existent. It has only been recently that adults have begun working together in business, side by side.

The neighborhoods are separated by a wall. On one side there is a wrought iron gate behind which the Protestants live. On the other side is a graffiti-covered concrete wall behind which the Catholics live. The graffiti has risen to an art level, and even the most beautiful or poignant among them can be there today and gone tomorrow as they are continually covered over by newer images.

In this film clip of the Peace Wall (which is the name given to it after the peace agreement was signed) I was riding in a tour bus, which is the best method for seeing the city without the risk of venturing into the wrong neighborhood.

When I arrived in Belfast on the Ulster Bus, we stopped where every bus stops that ventures into Belfast: at the Europa Hotel. Little did I know at the time that the Europa Hotel held the distinction of being the most bombed building in the world until the Baghdad Hotel took that title after the start of the Iraq War.

I asked a Catholic lady in a village outside of Belfast how The Troubles had affected her family and friends, because it occurred to me that when I arrived at the Europa, I was amidst a number of people (predominantly women on my bus) who had come to the city to work or to shop. They were civilians. A bomb going off in the bus terminal would have killed or maimed primarily civilians of both faiths.

The lady I questioned told me that no one ventured into Belfast during that time; it had become too dangerous. The Troubles, she went on to say, hadn’t done anyone any favors and the violence had only made everything worse. If they couldn’t find what they were looking for outside of Belfast, they simply went without.

Belfast is growing today as a result of 17+ years without the bombings. It is a beautiful city about the size of Richmond, Virginia. One of the more impressive sights is the Titanic Museum, which I’ll cover in detail next week.

If you plan to visit Belfast, I suggest the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus. The tickets are good for 48 hours after you first use them, and you have the ability to hop off at any of the stops and hop back on when the next bus arrives, which is anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour later. In addition to the Peace Wall, it tours the Shankill Memorial Garden, Crumlin Road and Donegal Street, Falls Road, Queens University, cathedrals and the Titanic.

Colors to avoid wearing in Belfast: red, white and blue; green, white and orange. They represent the flags of Britain and of the Republic of Ireland.

Symbols to avoid wearing: the crown, the poppy flower, an orange ribbon or orange sash, a bowler hat, the star of David, and the red clenched fist are all symbols of the Loyalists. IRA slogans (representing the Irish Republican Army), the Crest of the O'Neills, the Celtic emblem, the Crest of the United Irishmen, the Easter Lily (symbolizing the Easter Rising of 1916 which led to Irish Independence), and the green ribbon all symbolize the Unionists. 

Subjects to avoid while in Belfast: religion and politics.

Next week: The Titanic, one of Belfast's newest attractions.