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Archive for August, 2009

My way is to just be there and see what happens. A lot of the big breaks I got happened just because of that. But you have to have a good intuitive sense about dealing with people. You have to figure out where they’re coming from and be empathetic. … A lot of times you only have thirty seconds to get across and connect with them, but you have to be there for those situations to occur. You cannot go in with a list of questions. You have to let things evolve. That’s what kills journalists who try these books. You have to have a relationship and go back four, five, six times before someone will talk to you; it can’t be fifteen questions and out the door. You have to let them go where they want in a conversation.

— True-crime author Harry MacLean, in Writing Bestselling True Crime and Suspense, by Tom Byrnes

Boy, did I ever screw that one up.

One of the hardest jobs a true-crime writer has, I imagine, is trying to convince people to talk.

You can probably guess all the reasons a potential source for a true-crime book has to dodge a writer in pursuit of an interview (and for a book-length project, I gather that it’s more like a mutually co-dependent relationship). Guilt, for one. Shame or embarrassment for having been associated with guilty people, for another. Desire to put horrific events behind them, certainly.

And, for a good many with whom I personally have dealt, an inability to see how they benefit from spilling their secrets.

(Ironically, the criminals themselves are often the easiest to get on board. At least in my experience. Mostly that’s because their fifteen minutes in the mainstream media came and went a long time ago, or never came at all. If they’re in prison, they’re generally bored out of their gourds and hungry for attention.)

Initial mistrust is the thread that connects all these passive motives, as I see it. Because, after 24 years in newspaper journalism, I firmly believe that everybody wants to talk. They’re just saving what they have to say for the right audience. An audience they can trust.

So it’s my job to be that right audience. Hopefully with a minimum of professional manipulation. (My favorite is: “Well, I have enough to write your story based on all the court and police documents I’ve been able to gather. It would just be a much better story if you gave your side of things.” That one works a lot. Mostly because it’s absolutely true. Does that mean it’s still manipulation?)

Just like with dating or job interviews, often you get only one chance to make a good impression.

Recently, I learned I was lucky enough to get a second chance … nearly five years after I’d blown the first one.

Here’s the story (with some details deliberately smudged because it’s my story, dammit … it’s my story!):

In 2003, while I was the editor of the newspaper in Gig Harbor, a town near Tacoma that’s next door to the Washington Corrections Center for Women, I went to the prison to report on a story about a Thanksgiving event for inmates and their families.

There, I struck up a lengthy conversation with a young woman — first, for the story and then about her personal history. This blonde, petite, waifish woman of 23, who looked for all the world like a teenager, had just entered her eighth year of imprisonment for first-degree murder.

I had to look up the story later, as she didn’t want to tell it to me in detail then and there. As a 15-year-old, she had run away from home to her boyfriend’s home. And she and her boyfriend planned to run away, out of town, together. But his mother found out about it, and tried to put a stop to it.

So they killed her.

Caught a few days later, both were tried as adults because the juvenile courts declined jurisdiction. The conviction was a slam-dunk; he got 28 years in prison and she got 23 years and 8 months.

And that was that. Except that her parents, with the help of an attorney, felt that the adult court in her county wrongly superseded the juvenile court’s jurisdiction in her case. But she was out of appeals, and so the only way she could air that argument was before the governor’s Clemency and Pardons Board.

She did so, by conference call from the prison, in a 2004 hearing in Olympia that I attended. (And, I noted with some surprise, I was the only journalist in attendance. By default, the story was mine.)

About sixty of her supporters were present; nobody was there representing the victim’s family. (According to the board’s rules, it’s incumbent on the people petitioning for clemency to make a good-faith effort to find people on both sides. Cherry-picking the facts and the people who are notified can wind up backfiring on the petitioners in the governor’s office. if opponents to the petition surface after the hearing.)

Before a packed room, over three hours, the five-member board wrestled with the case. Some, as you might guess, couldn’t get past the fact of murder, and certainly not after just eight years. Others were moved by her spotless record in prison and were troubled by the fact that she had been skipped over by the juvenile justice system — in what smelled to some like a backroom deal with a politically sensitive prosecuting attorney.

In the end, the board members made a decision I haven’t witnessed since. They decided that letting her out after eight years was too soon. But, a majority reasoned, ten years would be all right. So they voted to recommend to the governor that she be let out in the fall of 2006.

I took pictures of the hugs shared by family and friends, and wrote two long articles for her hometown newspaper — one about the hearing, another rehashing the crime.

The shit hit the local fan.

Friends and family members of the victim stepped forward. They made noise, they wrote angry letters to the editor, they circulated petitions in opposition to the clemency, for the governor’s consideration. More than 1,000 people signed.

As the months passed with no word from the governor, my relationship with the family deteriorated. I had talked to them about the possibility of writing a book even then, and we even sat around their kitchen table one morning to lay the groundwork for the project. But they eventually froze me out, ignoring most of my phone calls and e-mails.

Nearly six months after the hearing, the mother sent me a withering note. My stories, she felt, had the effect of swinging a stick at a nest of sleeping hornets. Now they were buzzing everywhere, and buzzing angrily. She and her husband had been confronted numerous time around town. Now, she feared, the governor would recoil in the face of all this eleventh-hour outrage and overturn the recommendation from his handpicked board.

In short, they didn’t trust me, didn’t feel that I wasn’t on their team, didn’t want to work with me any more. And didn’t want to talk to me anymore.

I later wrote a letter to the young woman herself (by then, I’d left the Gig Harbor paper and had thus lost my ready access to the prison). Her reply was polite, but she made it clear that she was putting all matters in the hands of her parents, who had spearheaded her clemency bid, and was letting them speak for her. So that door shut in my face as well.

Now, I felt bad about this. But I also felt bad about feeling bad. After all, ethically, I did nothing wrong. It wasn’t my job to be on their “team.” My stories were accurate. And I can’t be forced to feel responsible for how other people receive them.

And yet , I still felt bad. Guilty. Of a certain, I don’t know … myopia, I guess. I wanted to write a book, yes, but I also wanted the satisfaction of the quick score. I was a full-time freelance writer in those days, and it was hard to see past the next story and the next buck. The long term for me was the next week. I needed to keep gas in my tank and food on my table, not worry about a career that was halfway in the crapper.

But imagine how many true-crime book writers would be able to maintain their access to their sources if they wrote articles in newspapers or magazines after each development or each interview. Not long, is my guess. These stories, as good as they may be, lack the full context and nuanced perspective of a book-length dissection of events. And sources, as unsophisticated as they are, know this intuitively, I imagine. And as they say, you can shear a sheep many times, but skin them only once.

So, reluctantly, I let it go. I let them go.

A few months later, in early 2005, I got the word from my contact in Gov. Gary Locke’s office: The governor had upheld his board’s recommendation. The young woman was granted clemency. She would be freed in the fall of 2006.

I wrote my last newspaper article on the subject. A few weeks later, I was hired for the full-time newspaper job I still hold today, and moved on. But the young woman’s story never really left me.

So, late last year, when I conceived of the idea of writing a book that collected some of the most dramatic stories of crime, punishment and redemption that came through the Clemency and Pardons Board, it was the young woman’s story that first came to mind. But I admit I was intimidated to try to find her, to approach her and her family. And I needed to look at her file again, and I had other stories I could dive into immediately. So I put in my request for the file, knowing it would probably take months to fulfill, and went to work on the other stories.

Nearly two weeks ago, the young woman’s file was finally ready for me to review. And when I did, I realized that her story was even better than I thought it would be. For the first time, I saw the ferocious extent to which the people opposed to her clemency stated their case. Dozens of letters. Dozens of petitions, all filled to the bottom of each page with signatures. I’d love to know how Gov. Locke — now the U.S. Secretary of Commerce — came to see past that justified outrage and decided to grant clemency. (I suspect that’s one interview I’m not going to get, however. But you know what? I’m going to try anyway.)

So, sitting there in the governor’s conference room — now belonging to the current governor, Christine Gregoire — I closed the case file and realized it was time to try to renew the connection with the young woman and her family. Nearly five years had gone by. Nearly three years since she had gotten out of prison, if everything had gone according to Hoyle. Which, I realized, I had no idea if they actually had.

All I had was the same e-mail address and mailing address I had in 2004. But it was better than nothing, so I gave it a shot. I figured the chances were better than 80 percent that I’d either get no response at all, or get my missives bounced back to me.

I’m glad I didn’t play those odds at Emerald Downs, however. Because the mother replied to me a few days ago.

The e-mail read, in part:

Your book idea sounds like a very good one. I think it is a subject that should be told. I am also sure that we could add some very valuable information about our journey through the prison system and the clemency process. There are very few cases that turn out the way hers did and we are very grateful for that. … I have told her about your project and she said that she would think about it. She really wants to leave the past in the past but if it can help her to move on, emotionally and/or financially, I would encourage her to do so.

Knowing how much influence the mother has historically had over her daughter, I took this a very good sign indeed. I responded the next day, and we’re arranging a meeting — mother, father, daughter and me — sometime in the next few weeks.

I’ll keep you posted. Or should I? Do I risk making the same mistake twice by blogging about it … even if I name no names?

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One of my favorite writers groups on Facebook is the Suspense/Thrillers Writers groups, moderated by Denver author Pat Bertram. Why? Because it’s not just an idle aggregate of like-minded folk, but an active hotbed of moderated discussion among prominent authors and would-be authors alike. You don’t need to work in the suspense/thriller genre to get a lot of useful mileage out of the perspective shared by these folks — let alone the occasional polite disagreements.

Recent roundtable subjects I especially recommend include managing multiple points of view, naming characters, developing characters, coping with negative reviews and dealing with how much sex to put in stories. All are well-attended. And I took a lot away from each one.

Today, the topic is one near and dear to my wanna-be’s heart: How to promote yourself and your book well before the book is ready, led by Seattle-area mystery author Ann Charles. (She’s a member of a group dedicated to author self-promotion strategies well worth your time called 1st Turning Point.)The discussion goes on as long as it goes on (usually a few days), and once you join the group (simply by clicking “Join This Group”) you can chime in with the discussion if you’re so inclined.

And the discussion on this one is pretty damn good so far. Need proof? A few people on there say that they don’t understand the question!

The best part of these discussions is that if I see a comment from somebody whose words particularly resonate with me, I can add them as a friend on Facebook and continue a more personal discussion of the topics on my own.

And, it should go without saying that if you aren’t already signed up on Facebook, you should be. It is simply the easiest way I know (not to mention the most fun and the least costly) to build a tailored community of friends, fellow writers, fans and potential future fans. It should be one of the first building blocks in any writer’s platform — especially those looking to get established.

I have nearly 1,300 friends on Facebook. And because I’ve put in the hard work of cultivating these friends — many of whom I might never meet in person — I feel certain of selling at least 500 copies of my book out of the gate when I’m ready to go. For a first-time author, that’s huge. And I owe it all to this wonderfully intuitive social networking medium, which is where I’ll be at least half of everybody you know has a presence.

Oh, and it’s free. For a first-time author, that’s even more huge.

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Author and friend Craig Lancaster conducts a Q&A with me on his excellent blog. Check it out here.

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Overheard during a workshop at the recent Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference:

AGENT: “The thing an agent loves most is beautiful writing … yes? Question?”

WRITER: “”When I send you my query, is it OK if I paste it in the body of the e-mail field? Or do you want it just as a PDF?”

While the industry folks were encouraging writers to think about good writing and good storytelling — to please them objectively and subjectively with the substance of their work — many of the writers seemed to not hear them in the workshops I attended.

In their questions in response to the above wisdom, they would say things like: “Can my query be double-spaced? Can it be more than one page? What word length do you prefer? Can I send it by e-mail? Or do you prefer regular mail? Should I mention my author comps up top or at the end? Should I send a partial with the query or wait for you to ask me for one?”

What I took away from such questions was this: Many writers seem to want to believe badly in book publishing as a government-style bureaucracy. They seem to want to believe that if they please enough, that if they jump through all the procedural rings without touching the fire, they’ll be published.

To me, it was as if they don’t want to seriously consider that their works may need serious reworking, that they may be several whole drafts or several dozen rounds of revisions away from ever being published. That they may need professional book-doctoring beyond their ability to provide for themselves. They seem to want the process to be legalistic in nature, as if the book query was a tax return and a non-audit could be equated with a right to be published..

There is something to be said for following prescribed procedure when pitching and pushing your works (and agents, it can be said, feed this insecurity to some extent by having wildly different preferences for how they’re queried). But to focus on that seemingly to the exclusion of all else is to downplay and even ignore the necessity of coming to the table with a good book before all else — which agents and editors talked about, over and over, throughout the conference.

I never heard a question at the conference from a writer about how to make their writing better.

Either they think that their writing doesn’t have to be good now — that it’s meant to be improved by professional editing after the deals are made . Or maybe they think that they can somehow dazzle with their pitches to the point that the writing itself matters less than their concepts (or the highness of their concepts; interpret that as you will). Or perhaps they’re so confident in their writing as is that they see it as a total non-issue at agent-pitch time.

All struck me as dangerously naive attitudes. Even more so when I talked with several writers during breaks and learned that most had done little more than write a chapter or two, or an outline, or some character sketches.

I couldn’t help but think that if they got what they wanted — agents to bite on their pitches — they were going to be in big trouble when it came to deliver. Because, presumably, they were going to need to do some fast-and-furious writing — and such writing rarely shows an author at his or her best. Or most professional.

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When I was younger, I pictured true-crime writers like my hero Jack Olsen as fedora-sporting, notebook-schlepping Kolchaks who slunk around the back rows of courtrooms and shook down reluctant sources in seedy bars.

A very secondary part of that fantasy was picturing these three-day-growth-of-beard wonders poking through dusty file cabinets in forgotten basements, poring through ancient papers with a penlight in their mouths against noir backlighting in search of the “Aha!” moment.

Turns out that fantasy is actually reality, sort of. Just a very non-noir recasting of it, in my experience. And, really, just the paper-chase part of it. Hmmmm. In other words, not much like the fantasy at all.

A big part of my true-crime project involves searching for stories along a common theme — crime, punishment and cases made for redemption through the Washington state governor’s office. And finding those cases, and the diamonds of the stories that I can actually use amid dozens if not hundreds of rejects in the rough, means going through a lot of process. A lot of process.

I’m not going to describe every detail, to protect my proprietary interests, but here’s an idea of what I have to do:

First comes making the formal request for agendas, going back as far as 10 years, from the governor’s office as well as the state attorney general’s office, which took over responsibility for the state Clemency and Pardons Board in 2006.

Once I get the agendas, I run the names of people petitioning for clemency and pardons through Google and other databases to get an idea of how interesting their stories might be. Not many are; the majority are people who committed relatively minor felonies a long time ago and just want to be relieved of the stigmas, real and perceived, of being convicted felons.

Sometimes I can’t find the names in the search engines precisely because the crimes are so old and so minor. That means that, in the interest of being thorough, I have to “take a flier” on cases I’m not sure about and request the files.

This is not a casual decision, and calls for some diplomatic finesse. The people I deal with, by and large, are overworked paralegals and administrative assistants. And they’re even more overworked by what I pile on their plates, because by law they have to accommodate my requests. And it’s more than just going into a storeroom and pulling files — also by law, they have to go through each page and redact things like Social Security numbers, some medical information and victim-family addresses and phone numbers. I can’t even imagine how much time that takes, or how mind-numbing that task must be.

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So I try to be judicious about my requests, not only because it’s the diplomatic thing to do, but because the more I request, the longer it takes to fulfill those requests. In some cases, I’m asking for several thousand pages. If I’m lucky, it takes two months. If I’m not, it takes upwards of six.

(See, I told you this was fascinating. Now wake up.)

When the documents are ready, I have to make an appointment with the people I’m dealing with to reserve a room at the governor’s office and the attorney general’s office, in Olympia and nearby Tumwater. They then have to “babysit” me, sometimes leafing with thinly veiled impatience through a magazine at the far end of a conference table, while I sort through for those diamonds in the rough.

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This Tuesday, about three months after I requested about fifteen case files, I kept my appointment to spend the day in the governor’s conference room, driving an hour and half from my home in Bremerton.

There, several boxes of binders and file folders stuffed with tens of thousands of pieces of paper awaited my perusal. I spent the next several hours dutifully marking those pages I wanted copied — and I was careful about that, as the state charges me 10 cents a page, which I hope to God will be deductible on my 2009 tax return. (Thankfully, the attorney general’s recently converted to electronic recordkeeping; now I just pay a dollar for a CD full of documents to be mailed to me.)

A well-prepared Clemency and Pardons Board case file typically contains the following:

— Documents from the original court file. (These are often incomplete, because they’re selected by the petitioner and thus often somewhat shaded in his or her favor.)

— A letter from the petitioner describing why he or she is entitled to get out of prison or be pardoned from a past felony.

— Letters in support of (and sometimes against) the petitioner. In a perverse twist, it’s the responsibility of the petitioner to make a good-faith effort to find people from the victim’s family or from the criminal-justice system who might be opposed. If nobody is found in advance, then the petitioner will be asked about it as his or her hearing.

— A state Department of Corrections record of the petitioner’s behavior in prison. Also a Washington State Patrol check of the petitioner’s record after prison, if applicable.

It’s no one-stop-shopping stop for everything I need, however. Usually I need to go back to the county where the case was tried and dig up the original file. I like to dig up the newspaper accounts of the crime. (Depressingly, few newspapers maintain clip files or morgues any longer. And their online electronic archives are sketchy, incomplete and often hard to search. Usually I have to get what I need from the local public library or historical society.)

I wore no fedora, needed no penlight and I already have a beard. But there were some “Aha!” moments, I’m happy to say. Of the fifteen cases I scoured through that day, I came across two very strong “possibles” for my book, and three others that bear deeper scrutiny. It was time well-spent.

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But after nearly five hours of eyestrain under the watchful eyes of the portraits of past Washington governors, it was time do something else.

I headed for the nearest seedy bar.

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Self-publishing has gone from being the last resort of the desperate and talentless to something more like out-of-town tryouts for theater or the farm system in baseball.

— Lev Grossman, Time magazine, Jan. 21, 2009

I put the question to nearly two dozen agents and editors at the recent Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference, and virtually all said the same thing: If a book is good, they will not reject it merely because you’ve published it already on your own.

As Kate Kennedy, an editor at a Random House imprint publisher, put it at the PNWA conference: “Anybody heard of a book called ‘The Shack'”?

Young initially printed just fifteen copies of his book. Two of his close friend encouraged him to have it published and assisted with some editing and rewriting in order to prepare the manuscript for publication. Rejected by 26 publishers, Young and his friends published the book under the name of their newly created publishing company, Windblown Media in 2007. The company spent only $300 in advertising ; word-of-mouth referrals eventually drove the book to number one on the New York Times paperback fiction best-seller list in June 2008.”The Shack” was the top-selling fiction and audio book of 2008 in America.

— From the Wikipedia page for William P. Young, author of The Shack


Agents and editors, I was assured, just treat a self-published book as an unconventional but hardly unwelcome way to receive a submission they’ve requested, based on a conventional query or pitch.

It may need extensive editing and restructuring, as well as a new title and new cover — but it may not need too much work if you’ve done what you should have done in the first place and subjected your manuscript to extensive peer reviewing and professional editing. (My good friend Craig Lancaster, who self-published his excellent first novel, “Six-Hundred Hours of a Life,” is going through this process now that his book has been picked up and is set to be republished this fall by Riverbend Publishing.)

Granted, most self-published authors don’t do this, but they don’t pollute the waters by association for a smart and savvy self-publisher in the eyes of industry gatekeepers. And there are more of those kinds of authors than ever, and more mainstream industry gatekeepers are sitting up and taking notice of them — as are major mainstream newspapers like the New York Times and magazines like Time. Your work as a self-publisher will be regarded on its own merits, they assure you.

“I don’t look down on it at all,” said Maria Gagliano, an editor with two Penguin Books imprints. “Among editors, I know, there isn’t a stigma.”

Added Brooke Warner, a Seal Press editor who conducted a PNWA conference workshop with Gagliano: “If you had asked that question four years ago, the answer probably would have been ‘yes,’ but the industry is changing. Self-publishing has come a long way, and we have taken notice. We’ve had to.”

Louise Burke, publisher of Pocket Books, said publishers now trawl for new material by looking at reader comments about self-published books sold online. Self-publishing, she said, is “no longer a dirty word.”

— Motoko Rich, The New York Times, Jan. 27, 2009

In fact, Gagliano and Warner said, a good self-published work may give you an edge with an agent and a publisher because it shows that you, the author, have already done the hard work of platform-building — you’ve walked the talk, put something of your own out there and put your time and money and energy into promoting and selling it.

Your passion, in other words, is the unspoken part of your pitch.

And it’s a damned attractive one in the publishing industry, because it often inspires the passions of those who can help the product of that passion find the widest possible audience.

I came into the conference thinking that I would probably self-publish my true-crime book — that an agent wouldn’t take it on because he or she couldn’t possibly make enough money from it, thanks to its largely regional appeal.

But, I reasoned, if I knocked myself out selling, say, 5,000 copies on my own, I could then approach a mainstream publisher and say, “Hey, what do you say we make some money together?” and have a hell of a good case for thinking it could be done.

As Elizabeth Wales, a Seattle-based agent who represents Northwest-based literary nonfiction, put it: “Breaking the rules in the right way is important.”

And nothing I heard during the conference told me I was wrong for thinking that. It was nice to have validated my carefully considered conjecture about the publishing business. I left thinking, “I just may make it yet on my own terms.”

That said, I am assured that some readers are still prejudiced against a self-published book because it’s considered by definition to be less professional — because it’s not been vetted by the gatekeepers of the industry for literary quality and market viability.

As my friend, author Ron Franscell, put it in a post on my Facebook wall: “The whole vanity/self-pub oeuvre hasn’t shaken its stigma with booksellers, readers and others. It remains largely the territory of unskilled, self-celebrated writers.”

He was concurring with my friend and former colleague Chad Lewis, a non-author, who said: “I — and many other book buyers — still look at self-published books and think ‘vanity project,’ because, many of them are. And there is still something to be said about knowing that someone in the publishing world thinking it has some merit or value before I lose $17. I’m not trying to be a jerk, just honest.”

They’re right.

And that’s OK.

It’s on me to change their minds.

Lucky for me, it’s a challenge I’ll enthusiastically embrace — now, more than ever.

Stay tuned.

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Failing to carry author’s business cards was probably the single biggest procedural error I made at the recent Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference.

It was an error I made because I didn’t consider the potential for making new friends at the conference. Which was just dumb — for years, in my current career as a newspaper editor, I’ve attended the annual conferences of the American Copy Editors Society, and made a cubic buttload of new friends each year (and given away a gross of business cards each time).

I guess I just didn’t consider that authors would have business cards. But, at PNWA, there was pretty much everybody but me — elderly folks and savvy twentysomethings alike — handing them out like Halloween candy to everybody they met. Many of them were pretty cool, too — four-color, foil-stamped, embossed, with funky font selections, book-cover reproductions and customized logos.

I collected twenty-six cards, and gave away none.

At least half the time, I had to alibi away my unpreparedness with a sheepish smile. What a dumbass I was. How many potential Facebook friends, Twitter followers and blog readers did I lose that weekend? What kind of platform builder am I? By rights, Christina Katz should have driven up from Portland and given me a good hard slap.

But I now have cards on order.

In my view, a good author’s business card should have the following elements:

— Good thick card stock
— A little more color and font-based flamboyance than the average job-job card. Authors have personalities. What’s yours like? How can that be reflected on a a space that’s 2 inches tall and 3.5 inches wide?
— A short description; mine will probably say “Author and Journalist”
— The top few ways to find you online (e-mail address, Web site address, blog locale, Twitter, Facebook and/or MySpace IDs)
— Your phone number. This is no time to play the shrinking violet.

They’re not just for writer’s conferences, either. I probably find myself explaining my book concept to somebody who’s new to me two or three times a week on average — in coffee shops, on ferry rides, any time I meet friends of friends. What if I could leave them with something more concrete than a mere memory of a devastatingly handsome and talented man?

The principle is unshakeable: The more people you connect with in person — even in some small way — the more people who may follow you online. Who may become valued friends. Who may buy your book. Who may tell others to buy your book.

Even if they only get used as bookmarks, that’s fine. Hey, that way, I may wind up being the last thing you subliminally think about at night. You may wake up with the urge to look me up on Amazon (when the times, of course) and order my book before you have your first sanity-restoring cup of coffee.

Heheheheheheheh.

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