The Comma Sutra – Position One

The “Comma Sutra” posts were by far the most popular on my first blog, so I thought I’d repeat this one originally posted on September 1, 2012.

CommaSutraThe comma so perplexes me in writing that I think a whole book could be written on the topic. It is used in so many different ways and its usage is different depending on what you are writing and what you intend to say. I’ve gone from being a comma-abuser to a comma-avoider to everywhere in between.

Because of the complexity, I will concentrate on comma usage in a particular minute instance, and maybe one day, I’ll have it mastered. This week – the list.

I grew up hearing you always use a comma between the second to last item in a list with three or more items and the conjunction (“and” or “or”) appearing before the last item in the list (unless, of course, a semi-colon is appropriate which is a whole other topic). Then when I became a paralegal, I was told this was wrong – you should leave out that comma. And then I read somewhere you should use the comma when writing lists in fiction but you should leave them out when writing non-fiction. Even when reading a Harvard Business School case for a class, I noticed there were no commas between the last two items in lists in the text – “proving” the fiction vs. non-fiction distinction.

To solve this confusion, I turn to the “experts.” According to A Pocket Style Manual, Fifth Edition, on page 58, by Diana Hacker, you should follow the advice I received in grade school of “use a comma between all items in a series of at least three, including the last two.” Hacker acknowledges the paralegal no-last-comma camp but indicates “most experts advise using [the comma] because its omission can result in ambiguity or misreading.”

According to The Associated Press AP Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, 2009 Edition, you “do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series” which appears to consist of three similar items (p. 355). The Essentials of English, 6th Edition, by Vincent F. Hopper, Cedric Gale, Ronald C. Foote, and Benjamin W. Griffith appear to agree with Diana Hacker though it does admit it is “not absolutely essential” (p. 114). The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Sixth Edition, also agrees with the comma-always mantra (p. 88).

So what will the Wordsy Woman do? Well, unless someone asks me specifically to leave it out, I will insert a comma between the second-to-last item and the “and” or “or” in my list of three items or more.

(Writer) Freaks Shall Inherit the Earth

Like Think Like a Rock Star, I picked up The Freaks Shall Inherit the Earth at Brand Driven Digital’s 2014 Social Brand Forum, the second day of the conference after I’d heard Chris Brogan speak. I’ve always felt like a freak, so a book to tell me how I could inherit the whole Earth sparked my interest. Then the subtitle: “Entrepreneurship for Weirdos, Misfits, and World Dominators.” Weirdo and misfit is how I feel many times when I answer, “Writer,” or “Author,” to the question, “So, what do you do?”

Find Your People

This book, especially the chapter about connecting with your freaks, reminded me of a conversation I had once with my author-friend, Joanne. She talked about how wonderful it is when you “find your people,” those you feel at home with and who understand you. For me, those people are writers, and it took me a long time to find them. Over the years, my family and other friends have been great – always supportive – but I still have this sense that they really don’t “get me” or they still think I’m a little bit strange. Other writers understand my freakiness and I can carry on conversations with them like I can with nobody else.

In addition to embrace-your-inner-self, be-true-to-you, self-love encouragement, The Freaks Shall Inherit the Earth, offers some practical advice for, if not how to take over the whole world, at least how to successfully run your business. I’ve applied a couple of ideas to running your author/book business:

Define Success Your Way

Chapter three talks about defining your success; you need to do this with your books. What will it take for you to be considered a “successful” author in your own mind? Make a best-seller list? Get picked up by a traditional publisher if you’re self-published? Sell a million copies? Sell a hundred copies? Get featured on the news? Or have someone tell you how your book positively impacted his life?

Book success comes in many different forms; decide what that looks like to you. Similarly, chapter six addresses goal setting. For books, you need to decide how many you want to sell and in what time frame and then figure out what you need to do today and who you need to connect with to make that happen.

Play to the Market – Just a Little

In most businesses – or even almost every business – you have to match your offerings to what the market wants. This is true for books to a certain extent. I don’t necessarily advocate for writing for today’s book market because it takes time to write a quality book. By the time you’ve finished, the market might be onto the next big thing. Instead, I think it’s better to write your story and then find the market for it.

Even though you are a wonderful freak, chances are there are at least some other somebodies like you out there. It may not be enough somebodies to get rich, but keep trying and tweaking your work until you find a large enough market. If you’re lucky, what you write will be timed perfectly with what the market wants – and that’s when big things will happen. The key is to know the characteristics of that market, defined right down to the underwear color of that one ideal reader.

The Book Math Test

I like to spin Brogan’s mortgage math test to that of a book test. In The Freaks Shall Inherit the Earth, Brogan advises calculating the amount you need to cover your mortgage and other expenses, and then planning your work, time, and expenses around that number. You can use a similar concept for marketing books. For example, if you have to pay $2.75 every time someone clicks on one of your social media ads, but your royalties are only $2.10 per book (70% of a $2.99 Kindle version), assuming if everyone who clicks the ad buys the book (which they won’t), you still lose $0.65 with every click.

I only use this for deciding on paid advertising, though, and not things that only use my time. It’s so hard to measure return on investment and put a definite dollar amount on the exposure you get from participating in social media conversations or attending personal appearances.

If you ever have any doubts about your book life (and who hasn’t), The Freaks Shall Inherit the Earth is worth the read. It goes quick and offers helpful advice and encouragement. Once you read it, you will be ready to take on the world and proudly fly your freak flag.

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Joan Mauch, published by Whiskey Creek Press

Joan Mauch
Author Joan Mauch

Welcome to the inaugural Author Spotlight blog post, focusing on how authors market books. I’m proud to present author Joan Mauch who I met in a novel workshop series prior to publication of her first book, Halifax (2013, Whiskey Creek Press). I remember Joan was in the middle of a complete re-write of her book, but I could tell it would be good.

Joan Mauch’s background ranges from teaching and working for nonprofit organizations advocating for the poor to a career in marketing and public relations. She lives in Davenport, Iowa; she has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s in urban studies.

Joan created a marketing plan for her books based on her experiences in the marketing and public relations fields, with sections for “personal and professional contacts, news media, social platforms and public appearances.”

When asked if her attitude toward marketing had changed since her first book’s release in 2013, Joan said, “With my first book, I hosted a ‘launch party’ at a local pub and gave away 35 copies to family and people who helped me over the years. After adding up the expenses versus the income, I realized I was spending more than I was earning and that it wasn’t an acceptable business model. I justified it by the fact it was my first book and I needed to get my name before the public, but realized I couldn’t continue promoting future releases in this manner.”

This is an important lesson: though we are artists, authors still need to keep the bottom line in mind. If the finances don’t make sense or the potential intangible benefits (exposure, for example) aren’t great enough, reconsider what you’re contemplating. For example, I recently considered running a Twitter ad to promote one of my books, but the cost to get it to appear in a person’s feed was $2.75 – I make less profit than that for each sale of that particular book.

Joan has met some challenges in marketing her books. “Marketing is difficult for me despite my background. It’s one thing to promote an organization or product and quite another to promote yourself and your own work. It feels a lot like bragging, which is what we have all been taught is unacceptable.”

She’s also faced some surprises: “What surprised me was the amount of time it takes. Also the realization that over three hundred thousand books are published every year. I thought it would be easy to attract readers, but considering the huge number of books for sale, gaining a readership outside one’s personal circle is difficult.” This is so true; it’s so easy for first-time authors to naively adopt the “publish it and they will come” mindset.

Joan has found that what currently works best is promoting her books through personal appearances and direct mailing her contacts (and likely working to increase the volume of those contacts). She says it’s worked marginally well for her so far and she’s hopeful she will gain traction over time. Marketing books is definitely a marathon and not a sprint.

A strategy working for her most recent book, The Waterkeeper’s Daughter (2014, Whiskey Creek Press), is holding a joint presentation with the Quad-City Waterkeeper, Art Norris, at the Bettendorf Library’s Read Local series. This partnership has helped Joan spread the word in several ways, including an article in February’s Radish magazine, library produced and distributed brochures and fliers, and inclusion in the city of Bettendorf’s email news briefs. And none of it has cost Joan a penny.

Joan says, “Connecting the novel with a local issue or personality makes it easier to get publicity because it will be promoted along with a topic of local interest and the event or news story won’t simply be an obvious effort to sell a novel.” She’s also had good luck with book signings at the local The Book Rack locations and Midwest Writing Center’s signing at Southpark Mall in Moline, Illinois.

The Waterkeeper’s Daughter

Of course, some things haven’t worked so well. Getting listed on various book listing websites hasn’t been beneficial. “While that sounds like the perfect place to promote a book, I haven’t seen much by way of results – although I have received several editorial reviews, which is helpful.” Joan has listed her book on Readers’ Favorite, Manicreaders, Shelfari, Authors database, Book Pleasures, and Night Owl Reviews.

Joan has invested in some paid advertising. “I signed up for ‘Author Shout’ which promotes books on Twitter. I’ve seen it promoted and had some retweets as a result. I can’t say whether or not sales resulted, although it did get my book title and name out there.” She also gave away three copies of her first novel on Goodreads and over 700 people entered, but none of the winners reviewed the books (a courtesy, not an obligation, suggested to winners). This evidences the volatility in book marketing – what works for one author or even one book might not work for another. I’ve given away book copies through Goodreads and though not all the winners gave me a review, some did.

We all have personal (sometimes personality-based) weaknesses when it comes to marketing books. Joan says, “Using social media isn’t really my strong suit. I realize I need to work harder at participating. I have a website and blog which I use to promote my novels. When I blog, it is automatically published on my Facebook author page, Twitter, Amazon and Goodreads, so that’s a lot of exposure with not a whole lot of effort. I also participate in Pinterest and LinkedIn but again, not to the extent that I should.” She relates that using her website’s blog works best, though it hasn’t reached the volume she’d prefer just yet.

Joan offers this advice for marketing books: “Don’t overlook your personal contacts – friends, family, high school and college classmates, neighbors and co-workers. These are the people who will be most thrilled to hear that you’ve been published and will spread the word for you. Don’t be embarrassed to ask them to let everyone know and to post their comments on Amazon, Goodreads and Barnes & Noble (if they carry your paperback or e-book).”

She also advocates creating a website to promote your book titles with a blog chronicling your journey before and after publication. “Hook your website up with Twitter, Facebook, Amazon and Goodreads so every time you blog, it will get wide exposure.” She also advises, “Your book can be listed for pre-release on Amazon a month or so before it’s released, which builds excitement. Do the same on your blog, Twitter and Facebook. Don’t forget to send a news release to the local media, especially your local newspapers.”

The Mangled Spoon

I asked Joan if she had anything else she’d like to say about writing, being an author, or book marketing: “Many authors, myself included, give little to no thought about what happens once their book is published. They assume the publisher will do the heavy lifting with respect to promotion and marketing and all they have to do is show up from time to time and sign books for a long line of admirers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, publishers will send your book out for review and list it on some websites, but that’s about the extent of it unless you’re a top-selling author. The rest of us have to shoulder that burden on our own. While most writers prefer to sit in their study and write, the fact is, unless they actively participate in promoting their own books, their sales will languish and they will eventually be dropped by their publisher. Writing a novel is not only an art, but once it’s published, it becomes a business. Writers who think they’re too good to promote their work will most likely be disappointed in the outcome.”

Obviously, Joan is doing a great job promoting her books, since all three of her titles have been published by Whiskey Creek Press:

Halifax (January 2013, Whiskey Creek Press). Forty year old Eleanor Hurley is leading a life of quiet desperation when a single moment of violence changes everything. She kills a homicidal man to save a group of children. Rather than being repulsed, she is exhilarated and fearing she may be turning into a serial killer, flees to Halifax, but cannot escape herself or the trouble that lies ahead.

The Mangled Spoon (May 2014, Whiskey Creek Press). Psychiatrist Marcus Rukeyser’s newest patient is catatonic. Discovered foraging for food clutching a damaged antique spoon, he learns she’s connected to three dead or missing nuns from a prominent Chicago parish. With only two weeks until she’s committed to a state mental institution, authorities make it clear they’ll go to any length to prevent him from uncovering the ugly truth—including destroying his career, his home—and potentially his life.

The Waterkeeper’s Daughter (November 2014, Whiskey Creek Press). Twenty-one year old Annie Whitaker arrives home from college to devastating news—her beloved father, Lake Okeechobee’s waterkeeper is dead. Meanwhile a very angry man is bent on revenge for the damage done to his family by her estranged grandfather. Very soon the word “regret” will have a whole new meaning for the Whitakers—but by then it will be too late.

You can find Joan’s books on (click the titles above) and other online retailers. Visit her website at to Click here to connect with her on Facebook.


Writing Novels – My Approach

Source: Alan Cleaver, Flickr Creative Commons:
Source: Alan Cleaver, Flickr Creative Commons:

Have you ever wondered how novelists come up with their ideas? Or maybe getting the idea is easy; it’s developing it into a full story that’s the problem?

It’s a valid concern. And, like everything in authorship, it seems there’s no one magical way to do it. Though I’ve published two novels, have another on the way, and am developing another, I’m still honing my novel-writing process.  Here is how I’ve arrived from pre-idea to manuscript so far. Maybe you can find a nugget to borrow…

An Idea Speck

The idea first comes from a tiny speck of thought with no development or detail. My first manuscript’s idea extended from my paralegal job. I thought I’d write a story around a U.S. Supreme Court case, supposing it was decided the opposite way. So I found interesting court cases on the Internet and read books about famous Supreme Court rulings. Eventually, I settled on a story about a teenage attorney, Melody Madson – May It Please the Court?.

The idea for my second novel, Missing Emily: Croatian Life Letters, came to me after meeting my friend from Croatia. In June of 1991 when civil war broke out in her country, I had just finished my junior year of high school; my baby cousin had died about 1 1/2 years before; and my boyfriend, a foreign exchange student, returned home and didn’t write to me like he said he would. And I was so wrapped up in my own problems, I had no idea that there were children, like my friend, living through civil war, awake at night afraid someone would break in to slit their throats in their sleep. I thought about what might have happened if my friend and I had contact during that time. The idea was born.

My current novel, Taming the Twisted, takes place in 1860 in Camanche, Iowa, where I grew up. A tornado ripped through the town on June 3, 1860, which, legend has it, prevented the town from growing larger than the neighboring and currently largest city in the county, Clinton. For this book, I chose the setting and time frame and then worked to build a story around that.

My next book will also take place in Camanche, Iowa, but this time the story will center around clamming in the 1890 to 1910 time period. The main character is going to be married to a descendant of one of the toddler twin boys in Taming the Twisted. Eventually, I’d love to create a whole series of books about this fictional family throughout time, not unlike Jennifer Chiaverini has done in her Elm Creek Quilt series.


I love to research and did so for all three of my books, though less on the first one when I just looked up court cases to find a realistic one to base the story around. For Missing Emily and my current work, I performed extensive historical research. Missing Emily‘s involved several conversations with my friend, books, newspaper articles, and documentaries on the Yugoslavia’s breakup. For my current book, I researched newspaper articles about the tornado and then books about the civil war, Iowa and Clinton/Camanche history, and life in the 1800s in general. I also read novels written in or about that time period, the civil war, and other young adult historical novels.


I had an outline for my first book; I developed the characters as I went along. I performed more character sketching for my two most recent books by writing character profiles, descriptions, and thinking about their personalities. I had a difficult time outlining Missing Emily; it was hard to invent a way to tell both of their stories using just correspondence while still showing rather than telling. I went back and forth with it and then finally threw out my outline and just plowed through it.

For Taming the Twisted, I started with bare-bones outline. After writing about half the book, I decided I wanted to include a more prominent murder mystery element. So I threw out much of what I’d written and started the story a year later. For all of my books, I’ve known generally where I wanted the story to go and how I wanted it to end but had varying difficulty figuring out how to do it. When I figured it out, I went back and drafted more detailed outlines.

Safe Saving

I type my novels directly into the computer, saving backups of backups and emailing the partial manuscripts to myself to serve as an additional backup. Though it takes me longer than I would like, I strive to just get the whole story out and then go back to add to it, fill in any holes, and revise. If I think of a question while I’m writing, I make a note to myself and move on. I’m finishing incorporating feedback from my beta readers for Taming the Twisted; they have given me some great ideas of things I need to add or change.

My experience is proof that there is no one way to write a novel. What works for one author might not work for another. And what works for one book may not work for another. The important thing is just to get it written.

How About You

If you’ve written a novel, what has worked to help you get it out of your head and onto the page? If you’re contemplating your novel, what are some techniques or processes you’ve wondered about? Still stuck? Feel free to leave a comment, email me at, or use the contact form.



Source: Kristian Bjornard,
Source: Kristian Bjornard,

One of the biggest writing errors you can make and one of the easiest to correct is the proper usage of the words they’re, there, and their. Even though I know how to use these words properly, mistakes still show up in my writing. Apparently my typing fingers have minds of their own…

An easy way to correct these mistakes in Microsoft Word is through a “Find” search. (In later Word versions, it’s on the “Home” tab under “Editing” – to the far right on my computer.) Search each of they’re, their, and there separately to double check if the correct word was used. If you can’t tell, try these tricks.

They’re is the contraction for they are so read the sentence substituting they are for they’re; if it sounds right, keep they’re. If it doesn’t, try there or their.

Their shows possession for the group they or them. If your sentence is describing something owned by they or them (like their wares), then their is correct.

There is a little bit trickier. According to, there can mean “in or at that place; at that point in an action, speech, etc.; in that matter, particular, or respect; into or to that place; or used by way of calling attention to something or someone.” In my mind, there refers to a place or location but not necessarily a physical location. If the sentence isn’t talking about possession and they are doesn’t make sense, chances are you want there. To triple-check, decide if the explanation applies.

Happy their, they’re, and there hunting!


Think Like a Rock Star (photo from Amazon)
Think Like a Rock Star (photo from Amazon)

Being famous. People waiting in line for hours to buy your book and get your loopy signature on its title page. Readers scrambling to get your next copy. Volumes of pre-orders. Admit it, as an author, deep down, that’s your ultimate dream, isn’t it? Don’t tell me you’ve not been the least bit envious of J.K. Rowling or Stephen King? (My hand is sheepishly raised.) Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy for all those book-star successes, but there is that teeny, tiny bit of bitterness.

Think Like a Rock Star by Mack Collier is a general marketing book with the subtitle, How to Create Social Media and Marketing Strategies that Turn Customers Into Fans. (I bought it at Brand Driven Digital’s 2014 Social Brand Forum.) The book studies rock stars and provides helpful advice about cultivating fan relationships with any brand. As an author, your brand is more similar to a rock star’s than many products.

The book is good; not preachy. It presents case studies to illustrate real-world points. It also includes a backstage pass in each chapter with action items for putting the ideas into immediate practice.


The main takeaway is to listen to your customers. In your case, listen to your readers. Listen to what they engage with the most, what excites them, and give them more of that. If they rave about the way you describe your characters, repeat it in your next book. Don’t try to make your book appeal to all readers – the only people you need to please are your fans. Fans attract more fans.

Cultivate Fans

One specific idea for cultivating fans includes giving them an identity. For example, Fiskars® calls their website/forum members Fiskateers®. One of my author-friends has a series of books called the Greyhound Lady Walking series; she could call her fans the Greyhound Walkers (if she wanted to).

Take care of your fans. If someone takes the time to praise your book on social media, respond and thank them. Make your fans feels special. Give them backstage or insider information that only those who follow you on social media get to see. Do something special for them like hold a contest related to your book, perhaps a video, essay, poem, or writing prompt contest.

Let some of your trusted fans be beta readers. They already know and like your work so they can tell you exactly what works and doesn’t for your target audience; plus being a part of the product might make them want to tell their friends and family about their work, increasing readership.

Bad Reviews

Most of the advice in Think Like a Rock Star apply perfectly to books, except for one. For brands other than books, responding (and empathizing with) negative comments is important. If you liken a negative comment to a negative review about your book, I believe it’s important to not respond. It’s especially important to not defend your book. If someone mentions a typo, respond, say thank you, and that it will be corrected in future editions. If someone has a problem with receiving an order or a book arrives badly printed, of course respond and make it right, sending them a copy from your inventory if you need to, even if they ordered from a third-party vendor. However, if someone simply says they didn’t like your book or criticizes your writing, do not respond. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and the fact is, not everyone is going to like your book or writing.


What if it’s a troll, you ask? Yes, you occasionally see a reviewer who simply likes to give scathing reviews for fun. It’s mean. But your true fans are not going to care. And most readers are intelligent enough to determine when someone is just being mean-spirited and when someone is giving a thoughtful review. If a reader is going to believe such crap and avoid your book because of it, is that the type of reader you want anyway? If someone’s really out to get you and posts numerous such reviews, you need more help than I can provide in this post (and I’m going to assume that’s not going to happen). If you’re really lucky, your true fans will respond to the review for you, singing your praises. Most likely, though, you will have several positive reviews which will negate the bad review. Plus, people get suspicious if a book has 100% 5-star reviews, so it might actually make your overall rating more credible.

This is just a small sampling of general marketing principles you can apply to your book in Think Like a Rock Star. If you enjoy marketing in general, need to learn about using social media, or if marketing books is one of the things you like most about being an author, this would be a good read.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What would it be like if you were a book-star? If you are a book-star, tell me how you made it happen (please)! Do you have additional ideas for cultivating fans?

Just pop in a comment below.

and everywhere in between.