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Shirley Link & The Black Cat: A growing up story

Shirley Link & The Black Cat: A growing up story

(4) Shirley Link The Black CatOur hometowns leave an impression. They help us define ourselves, for good or ill. My hometown of Santa Fe, NM was like a faceless fifth member of the family. I alternated between hating it and loving it, like a sibling who read my diary and then gave me a thoughtful birthday present. Its alternate routes, and hidden alleys and beautiful views and eccentric homeless citizens made for an adventurous childhood.

It was a good place to grow up and a horrible place to grow up. It had awful schools, which I miraculously avoided one way or another, and an intense friction between the Latino, White and Native American populations. It also had the richest cultural life in America, with a fascinating history and artists in every other house. Its winters were cold and snowy. Its summers were hot and dry. Its springs were rainy, the air filled with the smell of oncoming storms. There was a silence that spoke to you. There was poverty that could take your breath away.

It’s incredible that we all see these elements in our hometown. Maybe you grew up somewhere that was the exact opposite from where I did. A rural town maybe. Or a big city. But I bet you had the same extremes, and I bet they helped define you and how you see the world around you.

I was lucky. I ended up loving my hometown. I still yearn for it and all it promises. I see where it falls short, and I still love it. But so many people I know can’t stand where they came from. They’re out and they’re never going back. I wanted to explore that dynamic in a Shirley Link book to better understand it. I also wanted to tell a story, a hopeful one, to kids who are struggling with where they are.

In Shirley Link & The Black Cat, a young man, 17, and his girlfriend, also 17, are the prime suspects in a string of robberies. There’s very little evidence, if any, that they did anything wrong. But that doesn’t stop everyone, even Shirley for awhile, from jumping to conclusions. I tapped into a deep sadness as I wrote about them. They were flawed — mean, odd, petty. But they were that way for a reason. They’d constructed incredibly complex and effective weapons against their community, which, for whatever reason, decided they were outcasts. And they found each other so they could have something in their lives that wasn’t mean, odd or petty.

As I wrote this growing up story I rooted like hell for them. I didn’t know what would happen. It wasn’t mapped out. In the end, I depended less on my need for a happy ending than I did on my ever-developing sense of what we need from our youth. We need support and understanding. We need company. We need community. Either our family, school and hometown provides these things or they don’t. And if they don’t? My conclusion is that we still gravitate toward what will make us feel kind, loved and understood.

It made for the most realistic adventure in my middle school reader series. There are no pirates, or magic safes, or valuable comic books. Just two teens caught in a mess. And a fourteen year old amateur sleuth who wants to help, and who grows up a little bit in front of our eyes.

by Ben Zackheim

Film short: The Secret Files of Phillip Niles, by Russ Hexter (and starring me!)

Film short: The Secret Files of Phillip Niles, by Russ Hexter (and starring me!)

Secret Files of Phillip Niles by Russ Hexter, starring Ben Zackheim

Russ Hexter died in 1996 at the age of 27, and I still feel like giving him a call every day. He was the kind of best friend who dozens of other people called their best friend, too. Kind, generous, and so talented it was inspiring just to be around him. Yeah, it’s easy to put the dead on a pedestal, but Russ belongs there.

Just before his death he directed Dadetown, a mockumentary that helped define the genre. It screened at Sundance and blew audiences away. He was on a trajectory that was indisputable. He was Hollywood-bound. But knowing Russ, he would have kept his New York roots, even as the glitz of LA trained its eyes on him. He was just that way. He loved grit, and realism and he had a keen eye for what made it translate to film. He was scheduled to meet with Diane Keaton the day after he died to discuss directing her next film. I think they would have worked very well together. He was a huge fan and shared her sensibilities and sense of humor.

Recently, I was having one of those “how did I get here?” moments. They seem to happen more frequently as I grow older. I have a horrid memory as it is, so it’s always a bit of a dark comedy to be in my brain when I reminisce. Questions like, “did that really happen?” and “did I actually go to that party, or did I just hear about it happening?” plow through my head as I try to determine how much of life is what happens versus what I think maybe, kind, sorta, maybe not happened. One question I asked was “how did I end up writing a mystery series?” At first glance, it appears unlikely. I always liked action films, Star Wars, comic books. My life was supposed to be filled with super heroes and hidden identities. But when I dug deeper I remembered my love of Sherlock Holmes. I remembered my pile of Hardy Boys books. And I remembered Phillip Niles.

The Secret Files of Phillip Niles was a Russ Hexter student film. He asked me to play the lead for reasons I’ll never understand. I’m no actor, as you can see in the short film. But my love of mystery (and my old dream to be a detective like Sherlock) overcame my camera shyness. I’m glad I did. Watching the old movie (1988!) reminds me of the kind, efficient filmmaking Russ was known for. The shoot was as much a social scene as it was a set! We all had fun and I think it shows.

Sure, the film is rough. We were all just getting our hands on the equipment for the first time. It’s all voice-over and soundtrack. It was cut on an old Steenbeck. But you can see Russ’ love of story in every frame. And I hope you can see my love of being the sleuth hero. Thanks for the chance to go all  Benedict Cumberbatch, Russ. I miss you!

Shirley Link & The Secret (a 150 word story)

Shirley Link & The Secret (a 150 word story)

Shirley Link was at the end of her rope. In fact, she was just one tight grip away from falling off of it. As she contemplated the waves below, frothing like they couldn’t wait to eat her up, she wondered if she’d ever see her friend again.

Wylie had been missing for a week. Not like him.

Her search had led to Torrey Pines Beach. A red sand, unique to the area, was found all over everything in Wylie’s bedroom.

Shirley had been about to rappel down when she was shoved off the cliff.

But who did it?

“Looks like you could use some help,” someone said from above.

He peeked over the edge.


No, it couldn’t be. He’d never do this to her. They were best friends!

He reached his hand toward her, and smiled.

She’d come to save him, but now he was saving her.

She hoped.

Read more Shirley Link here.

Does advertising on Goodreads work? (Part 1)

Does advertising on Goodreads work? (Part 1)

Does advertising on Goodreads work? My first step into their self-serve ad system shows promise. I know there’s interest in the writing community about advertising on Goodreads, so I thought I’d share the results of my first (ten bucks!) campaign.

I advertised two middle grade books in my Shirley Link series. The campaign started 12-6-2012.

While I’m somewhat pleased with the overall views, I can’t measure the actual sales since Amazon and are black boxes. I plan on making my own landing page for sales so I can measure conversion next time! Sigh. I knew that, but I didn’t account for it. No soup for me!

I targeted one ad using genres and authors as filters. I used no targeting for the other ad. The ctr was higher for the targeted ad (.01 vs. .02).

daily cap $2.00
total credit purchased $10.00 transactions
total views 116,129
total clicks 20
ctr for all time 0.02%
cpc for all time $0.50

The ten bucks started to go quickly, but after a couple of days it dropped to a trickle. I probably wouldn’t have spent the whole ten bucks if I hadn’t redone the creative on one book, including copy. I also adjusted the link for the ad and made it point to my Goodreads page, and not to my books’ Amazon pages. That simple move seems to have pushed it over the top and my ten bucks quickly got spent. Another benefit of linking to Goodreads page is that I saw a spike in my books being added to Goodreads shelves. It implies that the Goodreads community likes to stay on the site. It also implies (though I have no proof) that Goodreads gives preferential treatment to ads that link to their book pages, and not someone else’s.

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[blockquote author_name=”” width=”50%” float=”left”]My goals for next campaign:

Get a full half percent ctr (you read that right! .5, not .05!)

Track my custom sales page![/blockquote]

[blockquote author_name=”” width=”50%” float=”left”]Lessons learned:

Make a product/landing page that you can track!

Target the ad, but not too strictly. Limiting it to a few genres and several authors is a good place to start.

Adjust the ad when the views drop. Change the copy and graphic, if possible.

For first-timers/dabblers advertising on Goodreads: If you don’t have a landing page of your own where you can sell the book directly, then point the ad to your Goodreads page, NOT an online retailer. Since it’s probably really attractive to link to the online retailers (just to see what happens) I’d wait to do it on your second campaign. That way you can spot your own ad’s performance and adjust around the most important part…the conversion![/blockquote]

Read Part 2 of this series

Contest for kids! Win the entire Shirley Link book series.

Contest for kids! Win the entire Shirley Link book series.

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Welcome to a New Year, my friends! This will be a good one with a number of Shirley Link books slated for release, including the next edition in the series, Shirley Link & The Treasure Chest! I can’t wait until you and your kids read this one. I’m really proud of it!

What better way to start the year than with a contest for kids? The holiday is over. The plastic stuff has been cast aside. What better way to refuel the soul, than with a book? By entering, you’ll be eligible to win both books in the Shirley Link series, in softcover. That’s right. Real paper and ink! I spent so much time on the print edition that my family probably wished I’d stuck with ebooks only! I’m glad I took the time, though. Seeing Robin’s art on the shiny cover for the first time was a moment I’ll always remember.

Shirley Link is a kids book series from the heart. I love writing about her. Thanks so much for supporting the books and spreading the word! Keep an eye open for an announcement about book #3 soon…