Eradicating ignorance

We take vaccines for granted. We get our shots as kids and forget about the process until we have children of our own. In the Western Hemisphere, we generally don’t see the diseases that plague the Third World. We call them preventable.

A hundred years ago, the science of immunology was struggling, and so were its advocates. Just before Dr. Richard Slee was born in 1867, the French biologist Louis Pasteur had proven the germ theory of disease. It wasn’t until 1885 that Pasteur field tested his vaccine for rabies.

Twelve years later, when Slee built his laboratory to manufacture smallpox vaccine in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania, the disease was still considered a major threat to public health. It would not be eradicated worldwide until 1980. To complicate the issue, the technology of the time caused some of those patients to become ill. Because of those adverse reactions, vaccines of the time stimulated fear as well as immunity.

Some things haven’t change.

In Minnesota, 73 cases of measles have been confirmed this year, three more than the Spirit of Swiftwatertotal for the entire country last year, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health.

The CDC and the World Health Organization also are concerned with the rise in the number of cases of mumps, polio, rubella, whooping cough and other vaccine-preventable diseases.

How did Dr. Slee manage to eradicate smallpox in America? And how has the science of infectious-disease prevention progressed over the last century?

You can follow the struggles and triumphs of the people who shaped modern medicine in The Spirit of Swiftwater, a history of vaccine development in the twentieth century. The book chronicles the pioneers of immunization who fought against the odds to establish this form of health care as standard public policy in America, with a focus on the U.S. operations of sanofi pasteur, the vaccines business of sanofi-aventis Group. Reviewers describe the work as “a thoroughly documented historical perspective of the vaccine industry in the US as seen through the history of one of its leading contributors that is also entertaining reading.”

Now, if you’re really ready for a Horatio Alger story with a medical spin, take a look at One in a Million by Mary G. Clark. In this ghosted memoir, Mary tells the story of how she took her wound-care company from the coal fields of Scranton, Pa. to the NASDAQ. The book starts with a touch of mysticism and ends with science, a fitting story for our times.

Thinking Out Loud

I met Anna Quindlen at a video store in Snydersville, PA. We were feeding cassettes into the drop-off box. It was after hours and getting dark. I think I startled her. She used to live in New Jersey and was living in Cherry Valley, not far from my home, near Stroudsburg. Maybe she still lives there.

I worked for the local newspaper. She worked for the New York Times. I’d written a corporate history. She’d won the Pulitzer Prize. Now she writes novels with an eye a detective would envy.

millers-valley-coverMiller’s Valley is her latest book. At times the novel sounds like the saga of the Tocks Island Dam. At times it sounds universal, as if the flooding and evictions take place everywhere, all the time.

In a passage near the center of the book, the narrator, a high-school student named Mimi Miller, is talking to her brother Tommy, who’s just back from Vietnam.

“I didn’t know exactly what Tommy did with himself all day, but he was still in basic-training condition. All the other guys at the VFW had big bellies sloping over their belts. ‘Baby likes beer’ they would say, rubbing their midsections like a genie would show up and they would get three wishes.”

I wish I could write like Anna Quindlen. I wish I could see like Anna Quindlen.

Just thinking out loud.

Lend us your friends’ ears

Audible has a new service called Clips. It works like bookmarks do in e-books and web browsers, with a feature for the sharing economy.

Here’s how.

Audible clipsFirst, you have to have the latest app for an iOS device. Then, when you hear a passage you’d like to share with others, tap the Clip icon, move the start and end points and save it the snippet, or share via email or social media.

Saving the clip allows you to return to that spot for a repeat performance. Benefit to you. Sharing the clip amplifies Audible’s marketing and might eventually put a few more pennies in the pockets of its authors and narrators. Game, set and match to Audible.

But before grow too critical, I’d like listeners to try the service on one of my audiobooks, Peak Season or Mr. Mayhem, depending on whether you like a strong female lead or a crazy disgraced journalist nattering in your ear for seven hours.

Speaking of nattering . . . let me know what you think.

Now hear this . . . tips on creating audiobooks

Kids aren’t the only people who like to hear a story.

According to the Pew Research Center, 14% of Americans listened to an audiobook in 2013. Adults with higher levels of education are more likely to have read audiobooks than those who did not attend college. And the vast majority of those who read e-books and audiobooks also read print books.

Good news for writers who like to listen to as well as tell stories.

Convinced audio could prove a way to boost my audience, I contracted with an Amazon service called ACX to produce an audio version of my first novel, Peak Season. ACX connects authors with producers and distributors of digital files, in this case, iTunes and Audible.com. It does not produce CDs.

ACX made it easy to import cover art and relevant details of the novel from Amazon. I completed a form with the specs I wanted–a female narrator with a voice in the lower range, speaking in American English with no regional accent. After uploading a short script that called for multiple voices, I listened to sample readings from producers, asked for auditions and even reached out to friends who have a flair for this kind of work.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00064]Choosing a narrator from the auditions proved difficult. All of them sounded professional. Most handled the multiple voices well, even the male characters. A few got creative and tossed in southern or Jersey accents. Two producers offered to include a short musical segment at the beginning and end of the narration, just as traditional publishers do.

The decision was entirely subjective. At the risk of sounding deranged, it came down to a choice of who sounded most like the voices in my head. I chose Pamela Almand, who does business as The Captain’s Voice. (She’s a former pilot. More on that in a later post.) The Audible.com cover appears at left. The audio version of the book should be listed on Amazon by the end of October.

For those of you who’d like to hear your work produced as an audiobook, a few suggestions:

Research the format before you head over to ACX. These projects take just as much work and time as independent print and e-book publishing. Fellow writer Erika Liodice (Empty Arms) has written a pair of insanely detailed posts on creating and marketing audiobooks, Navigating the Next Frontier in Digital Publishing: Audiobooks and 9 Easy & Inexpensive Ways to Promote Your Audiobook. The posts are encyclopedic.

Read the contracts. ACX says it delivers royalties of up to 40% but one example shows authors receiving a little more than $2 on a $30 audiobook. Audible gives free product to new customers and discounts to members, actions that will reduce the list price of your audiobook, and your royalty. Some producers will accept half of your royalty payments in exchange for their narration. Others want an additional stipend for narrating a book that may not sell enough to earn royalties. And unlike other Amazon services such as CreateSpace for print and Kindle Direct Publishing for e-books, ACX doesn’t allow authors to set the price of their audiobook, so you can’t control the profit margin.

Finally, learn from the experts. Indie author Joanna Penn offers several tips for creating and marketing your work as an audiobook. When it comes to running your writing career as a business, she’s one of the leading voices in the field . . . and well worth a listen.

A book by any other name . . .

Allusion Books logoThe U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has approved the registered mark of my publishing company, Allusion Books. Right now I’m only publishing books that I write, such as Peak Season, Riding with the Blues and a new crime series, Mr. Mayhem, due at the end of November.

The examining attorney for the USPTO did have to amend the identification of goods and services in my application to state that no claim is made to the exclusive right to use the word “books” apart from the mark as shown.  All you folks at the Big 5 publishing houses–Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster–you can breathe now.

Steaming up summer with romance novels

The heat is on this summer as National Public Radio takes on one of the steamier segments of the publishing industry.

Jennifer Crusie Bet MeNPR Books is focusing on romance novels. And their recommendations are not so-called “bodice rippers” or historical romances—they’re contemporary stories that straddle the categories of fiction.

The works blend the genres of romance and mystery or romance and humor to create contemporary novels that can appeal to a wide range of readers, not just those raised on Barbara Cartland or Janet Dailey. (Who hasn’t read at least one of the books in the Calder series? OK, don’t answer that.)

The NPR project features a more contemporary group of works like Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie, Match Me If You Can by Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Something About You by Julie James, a murder mystery involving an attorney and an FBI agent.

No mention of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. How would you categorize them, as romantic suspense?

You can listen to the series on the NPR website.

Changing the view of black and blue

A police officer shoots an unarmed civilian. A criminal assassinates a deputy. People march, riot, while others call for peace. Across a widening divide, battle lines form. Black Lives Matter. Blue Lives Matter. In the middle, a sheriff suggests that all lives matter.

America is coming apart. America is coming together. The people we hire to protect us attack and are themselves attacked. Support erodes. Doubts replace trust. In an increasingly hostile environment, what can law enforcement do to help society regain its balance?

It can show the public how policing works, the dangers, the challenges, the limitations officers face. Two agencies in Sarasota County do that, the Sarasota Sheriff’s Office through its Citizens Law Enforcement Academy and the Sarasota Police Department through its Citizens’ Academy. I’ve attended both, riding with officers, conducting mock investigations, standing in the use-of-force simulator with a gun,  a TASER and the feeling that life has spun out of control.

It’s an issue all of America faces, one that prompted me to write a book about the experience. The book is called Riding with the Blues, Behind the Badge with the Sarasota Police Department. It’s an attempt to find out what law enforcement does when the cameras aren’t rolling. Here’s the first chapter:

Chapter 1: Simulated Fear
My partner and I sweep into the office building, weapons held in firing position, stomachs bouncing like trampolines. There’s an active shooter in the building. People move in and out of the frame, a jumble of corridors and desks, the wounded lying on the floor, workers, police officers, some calling for help. We have no time.

Riding with the BluesA tall man with shoulders rounding a white polo shirt crosses between several desks and turns into an office. He raises his arm and fires. We edge closer. As the man backs out of the office he spots us and, half-turned, starts to raise his pistol. My partner and I yell “Police! Drop the weapon!” but he doesn’t and we fire, hitting him several times. As he goes down, silence crowds the air, and as we inch forward, a dark figure climbs from behind a desk.

Is he a shooter, a victim, a hostage? Is he armed? We’ve been briefed about the law, how shooting unarmed civilians can land us in jail, how hesitating may get us killed. As the man rises, we have a nanosecond to make a decision.

We freeze. He’s too far away to see his eyes but he’s got something in his hand, and we’re in the open, nothing between us but raw space. Crawling around the side of the desk, crouching in the corridor, the man raises a handgun and starts shooting. We return fire until he collapses. I have no idea if we’re hit, just that he’s not moving.

The officer behind the computer freezes the frame. On a screen larger than the biggest home theater, crosshairs dot the shooter’s chest, marking the places where we’ve landed rounds. As the adrenalin cools, we come back to a different reality.

In the dim light, everything looks gray, the walls, the carpet, even the screen. We’re standing in a classroom on the third floor of the Sarasota Police Department (SPD) in Sarasota, Florida, experiencing the use-of-force simulator as dozens of rookie officers have over the years. Only we’re not recruits. We are civilians enrolled in the SPD’s Citizens’ Academy, a twelve-week program designed to reveal the realities of police work and the people who live in the often closed world behind the badge.

The simulator is a humbling experience. It pinpoints our lack of training and resolve. It highlights the violence of our culture, and the risks that officers and civilians face in any encounter. This is the dark half of policing, the part we see in movies and on TV, always from the spectator side of the camera, the focus on how the situation looks, not how it feels. As we turn in our weapons and return to class, I recall the shooting of civilians by police in Ferguson, Baltimore, South Carolina. I think back to the first session of the Citizens’ Academy and the chief’s talk about community policing, the part about cooperation and understanding, about winning the hearts and minds of the citizens, and I wonder how the two halves fit.

Scouting for talent with Kindle

In another effort to challenge traditional publishers, Amazon has announced a program to test and market e-books before they’re published.

Called Kindle Scout, the program allows authors to place their unpublished work before a focus group of readers. If they like your book, Amazon may offer an advance and royalties through a five-year contract.

It’s crowd-sourcing for the unpublished author. And the key word here is unpublished. Only e-books that have not seen publication in any form except blog posts are eligible for Kindle Scout.

Authors thinking about selling their e-books through competing channels such as iBooks and Barnes & Noble’s NOOK should read the fine print. Kindle Press acquires worldwide publication rights for e-book and audio formats in all languages. The e-book is automatically enrolled in Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.

On the plus side, giving away a previously unpublished e-book enrolls the author in Amazon’s marketing program.

Amazon is looking for e-books in these categories: Romance, Mystery & Thriller, Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Literature & Fiction. Action & Adventure, Contemporary Fiction, and Historical Fiction will be accepted within the Literature & Fiction category. To apply for the program, the author must be 18 or older with a valid U.S. bank account and a U.S. Social Security number or tax identification number.

Should you jump in? Only with eyes open. You can review the Kindle Scout guidelines here.

Kindle Scout

Brave new (digital) world

Everything old is new again . . . thanks to a little help from my friends.

My new website launched today. In the words of Crosby, Stills and Nash, it was a long time coming.

Checking the Internet Archive, affectionately known as the Wayback Machine, my first website went live in 2002, back in the day of dialup service. It was designed by Tom Thornton, a true artist and a gentleman if ever there was one.

The next iteration, the version we just replaced, went online in 2009 with an update a few years ago by a blessing of a designer, Robyn Dombrowski of Creative Heads in Sarasota, Florida. For her fortitude, she gets the patience-in-the-face-of-ignorance award.

After six years, we discovered the custom features of the site didn’t play well with WordPress anymore. The site didn’t look like the home of an author, either, since we’d designed it to sell marketing communications services to corporate clients.

The new site emphasizes my shift in focus from nonfiction to fiction, specifically to a series of crime novels I’m developing around two characters, former detective CW McCoy and a defrocked journalist known as Brinker. The website incorporates new ways to share stories about them and the publishing industry through social media links and an e-newsletter called Behind the Book. And wonder of wonders, the new contraption is responsive, which means the site should adapt to any browser or device that taps into it.

It was a long time coming but we’ve finally caught up with the digital age. Here’s to good friends and guidance . . . and another decade on the Web.

Jeff Widmer

V is for verb

The leader declared war on passive verbs.

Noreen Wald, aka Nora Charles, author of the Ghostwriter and Kate Kennedy series, vowed to stamp out all forms of the verb to be. Her fervor had inspired the Wednesday Critique Group, an offshoot of Noreen’s class in writing fiction, to the point that its members adopted a vigilance Paul Revere would envy. As we read our work aloud, we’d slash and burn to invigorate our prose.

Now an obsession with active verbs can deliver a crisp manuscript, or drive a writer nuts. Active verbs speed the story but call attention to the writing, and sometimes pull the reader out of the scene. Passive verbs put those readers to sleep. With all due respect to our instructor, what we need is balance.

It’s not always possible to find alternatives to the word is. Sometimes sentences sound less pretentious with passive verbs, and sometimes they have a better flow. The question is (and I use that word advisedly), when do we permit passive verbs and when do we pop for active language?

Does the answer require a mechanistic approach—as a former president once said, does it depend on what the definition of is is?—or does the choice grow from the writer’s intent, which changes from sentence to genre to type?

In P is for Peril, Sue Grafton’s character Kinsey Millhone hears a woman calling to a dog. “She emitted a piercing whistle, and a young German shepherd came bounding over the hill, heading in my direction at full speed. I waited, bracing myself for the force of muddy feet, but at the last possible second, the whistle came again and the dog sprinted off.”

The passage ripples with tension as Grafton propels the prose with active verbs.

In Edwin of the Iron Shoes, Marcia Muller tackles a less straightforward task. She needs to convey supposition as well as continuing action. Leaving the scene of a murder, Muller’s character Sharon McCone wants to rejoin her employer. “The ambulance had pulled away and the crowd was dispersing. Across the street, a light burned in the front windows of Junk Emporium. Hank was probably waiting for me. . . .”

And we burn to read more of the story.

In Laura Lippman’s Baltimore Blues, Tess Monaghan writes the equivalent of her New Year’s resolutions in a student composition book. Keeping those resolutions has proven a challenge, so Lippman conveys the character’s frustration and resignation through a mix of active and passive language: “Tess slapped the notebook closed, filed it on a shelf with twenty-two others—all blank except for the first page—set her alarm, and was asleep in five minutes.”

Like Grafton and Muller, she uses language that embodies emotion as well as information. Had she stuck with passive verbs, we’d have nodded off in ten.

One more example and I’ll let you go. In To Darkness and to Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming conveys both action and reflection as one of her characters, the Rev. Clare Fergusson, searches for a missing woman: “Clare forced herself to keep her steps even, her head moving methodically as she climbed up the increasingly steep slope. She was, she had to admit, too impatient to be a naturally good searcher.”

As we are, too often, with passive construction.

So, do we need an iron rule about banishing passive verbs forever? Or can we allow the function and emotion of the scene to drive the choice?