So I have several great friends who happen to make extra money writing. Not only that but they're good at it!
I was trying to figure out how I could get information from them as far as how they make it work and feature them on the blog.
For the next few Wednesdays, I'll be featuring writers I like and how they hone their craft, use the internet, get writing ideas from life, and rake in the dough.
I just finished Mark's latest novel Dirt by going to bed way past my bedtime for about a week straight. In addition Mark's blog The Screaming Room is not just about newspapers and writing but life. He does the funnest things with material on the police scanner (I wish I could get an editor to do a blog like this!). Mark is edgy, interesting, and good at his job.
Now you are a newspaper reporter and author. What percentage of your time do each of these things take up? What about income percentages?
I'm a reporter pretty much full time. By that I mean, I'm officially on-duty between the hours of 3 p.m. and 11 p.m. But unofficially, I'm always on the job. Always waiting for a news tip, scrounging for information, hanging out with sources. That's the way it's got to be for me. If I wanted a job where I simply punch a clock, do my duties and go home, I'd be in a different field. Grave digging, perhaps. Or proctology.
At the same time, when I go about being an author, I'm in a different zone. I do the bulk of my writing after midnight, when the news deadline has passed and most of the world is sleeping. That's make-believe time and I have no problem separating it from news time. In an odd way, it's like having multiple personalities. There's Mark who sticks to the facts and Mark who breaks off into fancy of all varieties.
As for income, it breaks down like this: the newspaper gives me a check every two weeks and its largely the same each time. Royalties from the book trickle in once a month. Some of the checks are decent, some are puny, still others are pleasantly surprising. The way I see it, income from book sales always has the potential to explode where income from the news business always remains static. Consistency and uncertainty. I like that balance, except for those times that I'm penniless and starving.
Both of your jobs seem related to writing. How do you keep things separate? Do you keep things separate?
I'm walking down a dark street near the mills next to the Lewiston canal. One eye is scanning the landscape for potential news. A criminal in the act of his crime, a homeless man with a story to tell, a band of thugs planning evil deeds.
From the other eye, I'm looking over the great, abandon mills and imagining them filled with government scientists at work on mind control experiments, or possibly alien autopsies. That's the author eye, co-existing with the reporter eye. Occasionally the two blend and something from the news realm will creep into the realm of fiction. More than occasionally, I think. I can always pilfer from the real world for my fiction. The other way doesn't work so well.
You are all over the place social networking wise: Twitter, Facebook, commenting on other blogs. How do you find that helps you as an editor and/or as a writer?
I got into those networks because book promotion experts will tell an author that they will perish without them. I haven't decided if they are right or now. It's clear, however, that a novelist can bring attention to his work to vast clumps of people that way. To not do it seems insane. I've run into people through Facebook and Myspace who have read and enjoyed my books. We become friends and suddenly, all their friends are my friends. If you do the math, it's frightening. Thousands of people who would otherwise never hear of you are suddenly exposed to your book covers and various pitches on your profile pages. I've garnered new friends and new readers that way, though there's no honest way of estimating how many.
From a news standpoint, the social networks are a great way of cultivating sources. Need information on something quick? Put a query up in your Facebook status and you'll get hits, I guarantee it. More and more reporters are taking advantage of this all the time.
Why do you think Lewiston/Auburn area has such consistently interesting news? (blobs in the sewer, criminals on the run, etc.)
For Lewiston, it's reputation precedes it. When something happens here, people give it an extra long look because so many bizarre things have happened here in the past. We don't have as many murders as say, Portland. But when people are killed here, there are almost always twist. The last murder I covered involved a young man accused of strangling his mother. As it turns out, he had been having sex with his mother who was also involved in a sexual relationship with her son's wife. To me, that's Lewiston flavor, dark and twisted.
Before that it was a man who shot his father through the window of his home, killing the old man dead at the head of the table where he was the focus of a birthday party. A sniper form of patricide. As the story unfolded, it was revealed that the shooter had been sexually abused by his dad all his life and now, all grown up, was exacting his revenge.
Before that, the bodies of two men were uncovered in a wooded area next to the railroad tracks. The killers had gone to a supply store for shovels and went through all of this work to cover up the crime, and then left the foot of one of the victims sticking out of the ground, where it was spotted by a hunter.
All of these things are unfortunate, but from a news standpoint, they are just tasty as hell. I don't know why Lewiston is such a great news down. There is an abundance of substance abuse and mental illness here, but it's more than that. In Stephen King's "It," the people of Derry had been submersed in the oddities of their town for so long, they no longer seemed like oddities. Lewiston feels that way a lot of the time.
Is all this doom and gloom about newspapers getting to you?
No. I'm as sensitive to the suffering others as anybody. More so, maybe. But I'm clinical about things as I'm going about reporting them. I'm there to gather facts for the reader and I try to gather as much as I can. I'm not ghoulish. My motto at work is "I don't want bad things to happen. I just want to be there when they do."
I've been at it 15 years now. Maybe it will all catch up with me one day – all the bodies and screams, blood and suffering – and I'll become a gibbering idiot. But then, who'd notice?
How do you think newspapers need to change to sell more papers?
Admitting the problem is the first step. Those that don't recognize that they are in trouble are dying or already dead. Those that accept the explosion of technology as a friend rather than a threat might be okay. The Sun Journal has gone multi-media. We use the Web to get our news to readers. We post video and sound clips. We have a Twitter account which provides news updates. I consider it steering into the skid rather than just locking up the brakes and waiting to crash.
How do you find inspiration for your fiction? Your latest novel Dirt is dark and indicates research related to the physical and psychological nature of what happens during and after death.
For one reason or another, a lot of my fiction focuses on that theme. My first novel "The Pink Room" was about a grieving man trying to use the science of string theory to bring his wife back from the dead. "Dirt," of course is about a man so unwilling to accept the loss of his bride, he digs her up and goes about his life. I have dozens of short stories on the same topic. If I ever find myself on a therapist's couch, maybe he or she can figure it out. In the meantime, I don't think about it too much.
Story ideas are everywhere. They come to me all the time. It's like being in a snow globe with ideas falling instead of little plastic flakes. It drives me crazy sometimes. I have notebooks filled with these concepts for short stories or novels and I know I'll never be able to get to them all.
Some of these ideas come out of nowhere, when I'm driving around or just sitting back and watching TV. Many of them – hell, most of them – come in the form of dreams; either full on dreams or the weird, semi-delirious things that happen in the mind at the edge of sleep. "The Pink Room" came from that gray place between sleeping and consciousness. So did "Dirt," so dig "Worumbo," which hasn't been published yet.
I think inspiration comes on the best when you are not actively seeking it. It's astounding how many ideas for a new work or for advancing a current one have come while I'm in the shower. I really should shower more often, as everybody knows.
What has been the best investment of your time and money, PR-wise, to sell more copies of your book?
None of the predictable things. Advertising in local papers? Not worth it. Better off seeking out talks or book signings and getting news coverage for free. Virtual book tours? My publisher paid for such a service. The company sends out press releases and gets your title reviewed on a handful of blogs. That's the kind of thing you can do on your own without forking over a fistful of dough. Not worth it.
Sending out review copies has worked well for me. Giving talks at libraries and schools has been helpful, though I despise public speaking. Book signings, always. It's not the number of books you sell, it's the exposure your book gets through store advertising, signs hanging in the bookstores, etc.
I like to have bookmarks printed for each new book I publish. I can leave stacks of them at bookstores, scatter them around airports, pin them up on bulletin boards everywhere I go. Very small investment – I think I paid $139 to have 5,000 bookmarks printed – very versatile use.
Do you do freelance work? If so, how do you seek out jobs?
Freelance jobs have a way of finding me. Magazine publishers need writers and know of me through my journalism work. Same with business profiles and big shots who need a speech written. I don't seek the work much. I did try advertising myself as a sort of literary gun-for-hire on Craigslist, but I got mostly offers of a sexual nature in response.
Do you have a set routine or time of day where you do your writing?
Sort of. Somewhat. Not really. I get up at noon and squint at e-mail and other correspondence. After a half pot of coffee, I might bang out a column for the paper or a post for the blog. I go to work and take care of the quick and dirty stories I've been assigned. I cover news as it breaks and usually have to write fast to meet deadlines. News usually stops breaking in accordance with press time at about midnight.
I spend an hour or so with my wife after work and then come to my weird writing room. If I'm working on a novel, I'll go at it until three or four in the morning. My minimum is 2,000 words a night. If I fall short of that – if say, I come up with 1992 – I'll go add eight words just to keep the discipline. "The severed head was found six blocks away" is a fine phrase if you need to make up eight words on the fly.
You seem to produce so much content for your blog, write books, work a full-time job, and have friends and family. How are you not writing constantly?
I'd like to ask you the same question, frankly. I'm always snapped out of a relative dry spell by yet another reminder through my feed reader that a new post is available at Breaking Even.
I am writing constantly, by choice rather than necessity. When I go long periods without producing anything, I get antsy. My feelings of self-worth plummet. I do odd things and tend to get into trouble.
Writing is always a distraction and that, maybe, is what the people who become writers need more than anything else. I think there's a lot of psychology there and probably a good thesis paper to be produced on the topic. I don't need to write scholastic papers, however, and so I don't explore it much. Although, now that you mention it, maybe I'll go write a blog on it. I mean, if I don't do something, I'm just going to get into trouble, right?
To see Mark's blog, order a book, or learn more, check out www.marklaflamme.com.