Driven by character
Cushing — When Midcoast native Jennifer Blood was growing up, she dreamed of being a novelist — and part of that dream meant getting a huge advance and going to New York with a team of publicists, “all pulling for you.” The book industry has seen a sea of change since then and Blood, a professional writer and editor going on 20 years now, has a more realistic dream these days, one that looks likely to come true.
“I believe by summer 2013 I can be making my living solely from my fiction,” she said. “This is good too.”
Getting to this place has taken a concerted effort of some five years, but Blood’s writing ambitions go back further than that. After graduating from Georges Valley High School and then Vermont’s Goddard College, she self-published a novel — at a time when such was not at all as common as it is now. The 1997 paperback came out of a local artists cooperative Blood had formed; songs related to its storyline, written and performed by local musician Paddy Mills, were included on a CD tucked inside the book’s back cover and the front cover featured a photograph of the Finnish church in South Thomaston.
“It was great experience. When I read it now, of course … well, I was 22 when I wrote it,” she said with a laugh on a recent morning at the Cushing home she shares with her mother and two beloved dogs.
Blood’s approach to writing has continued to be very hands-on, a mindful gathering of experience and knowledge. She also went back to school, earning a masters in fine arts in creative writing from the University of Southern Maine. Her final project at USM produced the first draft of “All the Blue-Eyed Angels,” which she released in February. But the road from that draft to the book’s 2012 launch took her away from Maine, and from fiction writing, for several years.
“I needed to do that for awhile … when I came back in 2007, I was really pumped up and had energy for it again,” she said.
One would think two degrees would be education enough, but Blood embarked on her own program of learning her craft. She loves character-driven mysteries and fantasy and wanted to know what made the books she liked best tick. So she took six or seven of her favorite mystery novels and typed them out, word by word.
“I wanted to really dissect the great writers’ work … it gave me an opportunity to deeply engage in their crafting of the stories. I approached it like a scientist, dissecting the work,” she said.
There is a science to the way writers of mystery and indeed any kind of serial fiction keep straight what happens and who is who and what clue is revealed when. Blood knows from her own passion for stories that people read very closely, sometimes keeping a better tally of things than the author.
“I’ve got flow charts and files — it’s very involved but fun; I love doing it,” she said.
Blood is unsure she should admit to writing fan fiction but that is how she started to put her studies into practice. And the way that work garnered fans, and the way those fans interacted with both the stories and the author, was illuminating.
“It’s a great place to do it in a fairly non-judgmental way,” she said.
Blood started looking at publishing models other authors had used to move from the world of fan fiction to more traditional publication — a world that has shifted dramatically in the last decade.
“I studied a lot! You really have to educate yourself; fortunately, there are a lot of resources for authors, some of it free,” she said.
She also pulled out “All the Blue-Eyed Angels” and began to rework it. Blood taught herself InDesign so she could lay out a book and parsed the options of e-book publishing, choosing to go exclusively with Amazon. By this time, she had established her own writing practice, spending most weekday afternoons producing between 3,000 and 5,000 new words a day and doing hours of editing on the weekends. That discipline got put aside many days as she began to zero in on releasing “Blue-Eyed Angels.”
“A good part of my time was spent on marketing, establishing an online presence and platform and building up a loyal online following before the release,” she said.
The effort is paying off. Six months after its release, some 40,000 copies of “All the Blue-Eyed Angels” had been downloaded. On Amazon’s lists, it placed No. 5 in Women Sleuths on Kindle and No. 11 in Suspense, the latter a category that includes both e-books and physical volumes. And yes, despite her online-oriented track, Blood believes in paper and ink — in fact, she writes her novels longhand, often sitting on a second-floor porch that overlooks a pond.
“When I find a series I love, I want it on my book shelf, even if I read it all on my Kindle,” she explained.
Producing a physical book is an additional set of challenges and expenses. With the success of “Angels,” Blood released its follow-up, “Sins of the Father,” in July, scrambling to find the funds for printing. In August, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough to have an actual budget for production and promotion for the next book in her Erin Solomon sleuth series.
“With the exception of the cover design, I did everything for the other books — formatting for print and e-book, web design, Facebook pages, blogging, tweeting, writing, editing,” she said.
Earlier this month, the campaign ended successfully, so “Southern Cross” is planned for a March release. Would she go the Kickstarter route again? After all, not everybody has success and she finished a little over goal.
“Oh, no! It was really wonderful experience, but I hate talking about money; I don’t think I’d ever do it again,” she said.
As her Erin Solomon series finds its audience, Blood is finding herself a little more able to relax back into her writing … and have a little fun with it. Part of her website, jenniferblood.net, features interviews she has conducted with independent writers whose work she admires and she has partnered with a few of them to produce a themed mystery anthology. “Serial Sleuths, Volume 1: Haunted” became available as an Amazon e-book earlier this month, featuring a short story by Blood, Joanne Sydney Lessner, Susan Russo Anderson and DV Berkom.
“I’ve enjoyed getting to know the indie community and there’s a lot of collaboration … we each have a series. I’ve been wanting to give back in some way … and it turns out we all donate to Doctors Without Borders, so all the proceeds will go to that,” said Blood.
Proceeds in e-book world are incremental. “Serial Sleuths” is $1.99 on Amazon, 70 cents of which goes back to the authors, who will donate it. That kind of small return means quantity is the key to success — which means authors have to keep their books “alive.” Blood has become adept at marketing a free download now and then and encouraging reader reviews to keep things active.
“I use Twitter and emails, free ads on sites that promote free downloads and some paid promotion — you can’t slack off,” she said.
Blood’s hard-earned knowledge has led to her doing some consulting on the side; next month she will lead a seminar on KDP Select (a Kindle Direct Publishing marketing tool) at Maine Authors Publishing in Rockland. But really, she just wants to spend more time with Erin Solomon and the other characters of her mystery series, even as the series’ story arc heads toward closure. Erin is an investigative reporter for the local newspaper in her hometown of Littlehope, Maine, described as being on the end of a peninsula jutting into Penobscot Bay.
“She’s just a cool, big character … that has a lot of issues,” Blood said of her sleuth.
Although her mother has said Erin and her creator are closely linked, Blood thinks otherwise. Erin is more assertive that she is, Blood said, and sometimes quite aggressive.
“I think when you start out, your characters are fairly transparent but eventually you can start to detach,” she said.
Detaching from the Solomon crew behind may be hard for Blood. Character-driven fiction is what she loves and she knows how invested people get in the characters they follow from book to book. Blood said she has a feeling her characters “have more to say.” Indeed, Blood recently released a prequel told from the perspective of Erin’s mentor, colleague and possible love interest Diggs — he also narrates the story in “Serial Sleuths.”
“That was a challenge, to write from a male perspective authentically,” said Blood. Challenge, it seems, is something Blood is up for. For more information about Blood and her series, visit jenniferblood.net and erinsolomon.com.
Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401, ext. 115 or firstname.lastname@example.org.