Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger, Ray Brock, Henry David Thoreau: Notes on a Berkshire Map

It was the summer of '63. We were driving my dad's 1957 Ford station-wagon on Rattlesnake Mountain Road outside of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I had just graduated from high school. I wanted to be a folksinger -- and there on this twilit country road was a tall man and a short man, walking. I recognized the tall guy immediately and slowed the car. I was keeping pace with them for a moment. The tall one was Pete Seeger, the shorter one was twelve-string guitar master, Bob Davenport from England.

I pulled the station-wagon over to the side of the road. I got out and walked over to Pete and said, "You mind if I walk with you?" It was brazen, and foolish. Pete looked at Davenport with less than a smile and more of a question mark. Davenport whispered, "I'd like to know what they're thinking, these American kids." Pete turned to me and said, "Come along then." I waved to my cousin Kyle and she got behind the wheel and drove off ... and I was alone with a legend and the legend's friend, who was really the one permitting the walk-along-side.

In my memory that walk lasted forty hours. But whatever time it took walking the length of it and then coming back and walking another length was sweet to me because these two great musicians were talking about everything under the sun. And then -- after the real sun sank behind Monument Mountain, Pete made that statement I'll never forget: "If you squeezed that mountain the sap would run out and turn into culture." I knew what he meant -- the Berkshires of Massachusetts was the heartland of New England poetry, prose and let's not forget maple syrup. The way Pete said it, and explained it, the dripping sap off that mountain contained the souls of Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Stowe, Sedgwick, Bryant, Longfellow and the rest.

After a while we sat down in a field and counted fireflies. I'll never forget that night. Nor will I forget, some years later meeting another folk legend, Ray Brock who gave me a pancake recipe that he liked to use in the Virgin Islands on a Baltic ketch, "and don't forget the fresh nutmeg" -- and I never do, Ray!

All this may seem like a long time gone, 1963-1968, but to me it's the wink of a firefly on a summer's night.

Monday, January 27, 2014

How Do I Sell My Book?


In recent months writers have asked the same questions at our workshops. How does one get a book up and running? How does one get a newly published book into the bestseller category? What are some of the secrets of learning how to be a writer whose first book succeeds right from the start?

We asked first-time author Dr. Andrew Lam who is one of our Irie Books top-selling writers if he would share the secret of his success with Saving Sight: An eye surgeon's look at life behind the mask and the heroes who changed the way we see. 

His response (below) is candid, clear and correct as far as the procedure one needs to follow in order to make a book into a success. Andrew's background is scientific and medical, yet his approach to book marketing is creative and inspirational. He is a retinal surgeon with a history degree from Yale and an assistant professor at Tufts School of Medicine. Dr. Lam resides in western Massachusetts with his wife and four children. 


Eight months ago, Irie Books published my first book, Saving Sight, which blends my experiences as an eye surgeon with the stories of medical heroes whose inventions saved the sight of millions around the world.

Since its launch, Saving Sight has been an Amazon bestseller in its category (ophthalmology) and sold thousands of copies. It won awards from the New England and London Book Festivals. I was flattered when my friend Gerry invited me to share the things I’d done to promote my book. I drew up this list, which I hope may benefit some fellow writers out there.

1. It’s all up to you.

From the start, my attitude was to take complete ownership of the success or failure of my book. Yes, your publisher will help market your book, but it’s useful to adopt the mindset that it’s all up to you. This keeps you alert, engaged, and constantly trying to think of ways to get your book into readers’ hands. Besides, no one is going to care about the success of your book as much as you will.

So, if you’ve just gotten your first book published, give yourself a brief pat on the back and then start learning the new skills necessary to promote it yourself. Don’t waste time waiting for others to do it for you.

2. Marketable? It better be.

Like a lot of first time authors, I loved writing my book. There were no deadlines, no expectations. I wrote in my spare time and did it because it was fun. I also knew I had a good, marketable idea, and I didn’t think anyone else had the expertise or ability to write a book like mine.

My first idea was to write a nonfiction book profiling a group of heroic medical underdogs—with my degree in history and familiarity with the scientific literature, I was well-poised to do this. Later, I realized my book would appeal to a far larger audience if I blended those stories with exciting episodes from my surgical training—to show what it’s like to learn LASIK and cataract surgery; to reveal how surgeons feel when they aren’t sure what to do; to share the joy of saving someone’s sight; and to be honest about what it’s like to fail, when failure can mean blindness.

No one had ever written a book like this. There was no competition. And, even if it didn’t catch fire with the general public, I knew there’d always be a niche audience of eye doctors and patients who would buy it.

In short: the importance of having a ready audience for your book cannot be overemphasized.

3. Write the absolute best book you can.

Books sales grow from word of mouth. Readers recommending books to their friends is a far more effective form of promotion than advertisements, media interviews, or even book reviews. No one beyond your circle of family and friends is going to buy your book unless it is actually good. So do all you can to make sure your book is the best it can be. I spent countless hours writing and re-writing my book. I showed it to a lot of readers and took their advice. I listened to my agent's and editor’s suggestions and took them to heart. If your book isn’t good, it won’t sell.

4. Make it look good.

Presentation. It’s important. And no one will care as much about the presentation of your book, website, or Amazon landing page as you will. I worked closely with my book designer to make sure the cover and layout were as perfect as possible. I made sure to have a nice-looking, professional website. When the book launched, I quickly learned to navigate Amazon’s Author Central and “Look Inside” functions to make sure everything about my Amazon landing page looked attractive.

5. Have an “all of the above” promotion strategy.

When I sat down and thought about what I could personally do to promote my book, I divided my efforts into three categories.

a. Personal Contacts – the first, and easiest, thing I did was simply reach the people I knew. I tried to enlist as many of them as possible to help me spread the word. Prior to the launch I invited family and friends to read advance copies and asked them to leave an honest Amazon review and share what they thought via social media. I used Facebook to announce the launch and share articles and reviews. I also posted to Facebook groups pertaining to ophthalmology, optometry, and patients with various eye conditions. Think hard about how to reach groups that might be interested in your book.

b. Local and Regional Media – I tried to saturate my local region (western Massachusetts) with news about my book. I gave numerous book talks at libraries in which I donated the proceeds to the libraries. I did the same with Lions and Kiwanis clubs. I priced my book inexpensively to encourage people to buy it—believing that growing my readership was paramount and would lead to greater word of mouth recommendations. I succeeded in getting articles about the book in local newspapers, radio and television. I sought out book clubs to speak to. No group was too small to talk to, no interview too insignificant. I sent a press release to my hometown paper in Illinois. Media exposure has a way of snowballing. The more you put your name and your book out there, the more opportunities will come to you.

c. Professional Resources – Not everyone will have these opportunities, but I was able to get articles and interviews in many ophthalmology trade magazines and newsletters. I reached out to optometry schools and medical associations. I made bulk sales to pharmaceutical companies. I sent free copies to reviewers and influential leaders in the field. In my practice, I am constantly meeting new patients who have an interest in the subject of my book, giving me many opportunities to interact with potential readers.

6. Never give up. And have fun.

Like a lot of authors, I spent years writing my first books, hoping they would one day be published, wondering if they would ever see the light of day. Before writing Saving Sight, I’d actually written a WWII novel called Two Sons of China (recently released by Bondfire Books). It took two years for my agent to land a publisher for my novel. While I was waiting, I wrote Saving Sight, and was chagrined when that agent declined to represent it. “Too niche,” she said. I then secured another agent for Saving Sight, who struck out with the major publishers and gave up. But I didn’t. I got yet another agent. I believed in my book. I didn’t know if it would ever “succeed,” but I never doubted its quality and that it deserved to be published.

This multi-year journey was only tolerable because I was having fun. I enjoyed writing. I was passionate about the history I wanted to share, and the idea that people should know what their surgeons actually think.

And remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. There will always be new opportunities to promote your book, even years after its release. There are also many definitions of success. Doing what you love is certainly one of them, no matter how many books you sell.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Ross LewAllen and the Elephants of Morning

Silver Mastodon by Ross LewAllen

Some legends say that the elephant is our closest relation to the spirit world.
His main and most accentuated virtue, patience. But -- of what use is this in a world such as ours, a world that is always on the move restlessly from one place to another?

The beauty of the elephant is that it cannot see its tail. It must move ever forward into the illimitable and indefinite future. Doing so, the great, gray eminence blends with the low lying clouds of which it is a herd member.

I am reminded of these things as I think of my friend  Ross LewAllen, my cohort in laughter and occasionally tears over these past 40 years wherein we have both taken counsel from the elephant. Let's promise to be patient with each other. We did. We do. We still do. Because I do not feel him gone. I feel he is here, watching, waiting, like the slow moving clouds.

I remember when he returned from Africa and had elephant visions, most of them things he'd seen with his beloved daughter Laura.


I watched a mother elephant
gently lay her tusk
over the back
of her baby
She carefully moved her trunk
from the left side to the right side
of the baby's body
I felt the powerful sense
of touch at work
Dusty gray
moving in the night
Kilimanjaro's healing water
fills their favorite swamp
The elephant's night pace
is tranquil.

--Ross LewAllen

I have seen Ross fly like an egret, white on blue. And I have seen him move like a man on fire. But mostly I see him moving among clouds, in a herd of gray, slow-paced beauties going to where they're going without haste, one step at a time.

Last night, in a dream, the question came up, "Will there be coffee in heaven?"

This morning I have an answer -- sitting in the chair in the sun that Ross liked to sit in while, together, we studied the lilies of the pond. 

There are slow moving elephants pacing the sky and coffee such as they have in heaven.

Ross is the witness in my heart. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Tree Frog That Painted A Cat


I write fewer and fewer poems because I see poetry everywhere around me. It is already written by nature.

When I was younger and I wrote poems every day, I knew that each one was a prayer of thanks for being alive. I literally wore the poem over my heart by folding the paper upon which it was written and placing it in my heart-side pocket. I wore it for the day in which I wrote it.

Now I see and say the prayer rather than write it. Sometimes I say it aloud. Sometimes I feel it so strongly it urges me to actually twirl my arms about. I feel a little like William Carlos Williams, who wrote the funny poem about dancing secretly and madly in his house when he was all by himself.

This morning I noticed the cat drawing on our bathroom window. It was done by a tree frog's sticky fingers.

It reminds that just beyond the window is where we buried our aged cat last Spring.

The tree frog's cat points to the old cat's burial ground. And reminds:  "Look again, my friends, I am here with you!"

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Bill Worrell, author of Places of Mystery, Power & Energy

There will come a time of great peace
All Creatures will live in harmony
All tribes will unite for common good
All people will see there is a great plenty,
Not a sparse scarcity

Bill Worrell, poet, songwriter, performer, sculptor, painter, author did the painting you see above and wrote the verses shown and his new book Places of Mystery, Power & Energy explains the way things work in the cosmos, on terra firma, and in the intricacies of the human heart. He is the original one-man-band artist and the tune that he sings -- whether in paint, poem, song or story -- is always universal. Hail to Bill! 
"Hail, Bill, how do you do it?" 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Tanque Verde

watercolor by Ross Lewallen

This saguaro seems to be dancing. They do dance, you know. It is the wind, the clear air, the rain smell from far off, but most of all it's the desert. As in the subtropics, the low desert is a player in the mood of the observer. You can't take the desert out of the sand nor the sand out of the desert. They belong together, as the sea on this island where we live abides in the bode of a shell. Plant the shell on dry ground and it will sing of the sea.

I still carry the mystery of Tanque Verde in my bones.

Impolite to talk
when wind burns
and saguaros dance
Sitting two of us
high over desert floor
looking down on level
plain where mule deer
browse among thorns

Gerald Hausman

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Kiss of the Bat

My mom used to say, "Creatures are talking to us all of the time. Are we listening?"

I listen. Last night, sitting on our dock as night settled in, there was no sound. Then the hoarse rasp of an anhinga. That is, a snakebird. Long undulant neck, long sharp beak. She nests in our paperwood trees and you can see her black sleek form against the whiter trunks. Silence.

Then the whirr of wings and something light and furry, something unknown lands on my left cheek. I feel a touch of softness. Then more whirr, and it -- whatever it is -- is gone. "What was that?"

Lorry says, "It was the largest moth I've ever seen." I'd seen it too, very briefly, and thought it was a hummingbird. But it was, in reality, the moth they call Bat in Jamaica. It kissed my cheek and hummed away into the night. I remembered Frost's line: "For once, then, something."

Last spring I mentioned a long black snake sliding up to where I sat on the dock. It kept coming. I thought it would stop. It didn't. It came right up to my big toe and sort of tasted it with its forked tongue. I got a good tickly feeling. And remembered my Navajo friend Jay telling me that he'd seen medicine men "toe herding rattlesnakes."

Once in New Mexico I was awakened by a magpie. I thought I was dreaming but when I opened my eyes there was a large black and white bird on my chest. For some reason I thought it was a she, and when I was awake enough to sit up, I did, and she flew to the open window. I followed her outside. She flew from juniper to juniper. Finally I came to the place where she wanted me to see something. Her nest. The wind had blown it down and her nestlings were scattered about on the juniper and pinon needles. I got my ladder and put the nest and the nestlings into the tree they had fallen from.

That is my story. Listen to all great and small. Believe your dreams. Feel more, talk less. Love everything, even pain, sorrow, bewilderment. Move along with your life, have no grudges. Above all, be kind and think of others instead of yourself.