Testing Amazon’s Giveaway Program

Like other writers, I’m always trying new ways to build an audience. I’ve run several giveaways on Goodreads (in fact, I have two running right now, Return to Kaitlin and The Money Tree ).

Recently, Amazon started to run a similar program, open to anyone in the US. They take care of the shipping for you, and I decided to give it a whirl for RTK, so offered two copies, setting the odds at 1:300.

The strangest aspect of this little program was the silence, which was thunderous. On Goodreads you can at least track how many people have signed up to win a copy. On Amazon, not a peep. I thought no one had even seen the offer, much less signed up for it. Once I’d set up the giveaway I heard not a word: no cheery, encouraging message; no summary of daily progress; nothing. In fact, when I forgot the start and end dates on the damn thing I had the devil’s own time finding out any details. It was then that I discovered I’d omitted any description or book blurb at all.Facebook Ad, Return to Kaitlin

Slightly panicked, I decided to run a little Facebook campaign for the five days remaining. I’d been wanting to test the image at the right with the target group Grumpy Old Men. In the event, it pulled less than 1% interest. I choose to believe that’s because grumpy old guys don’t read, but maybe it’s just not a compelling ad.

Whatever the case, I had by this time become convinced that the entire thing was a bust, and was waiting for Amazon to confirm this. Imagine my surprise, then, when they told me 343 people had signed up, and that Courtenay C. was the lucky winner. Romance writers, of course, will have a different experience, probably finding 5,000 interested readers panting for the winner to be revealed. But I was moderately pleased with this result. The idea is to get one’s name out there, so in a modest way, this filled the bill.

In addition, it’s remarkably trouble-free in that Amazon does everything for you. I may give it another whirl some time. And if I do, I’ll add a sentence or two of sales blurb.

Are Fossil Fuels Passe?

My new novel, Return to Kaitlin, is set in the oil patch. Yet the G7 has just announced the end of the century as the deadline for getting out of fossil fuels. So oil’s passe, isn’t it?

I wonder. We need energy, lots of it. We need it in the developed world and even more in emerging nations. The public has no taste for nuclear power, and limited tolerance for hydro, the only other high-volume, cheap fuel sources we know of.

As part of my research for Return to Kaitlin, I read Alex Epstein’s The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. For me, it was a reminder of how far we’ve come in my lifetime at giving everyone on the planet a shot at a decent life. I’m talking about things like food and medicine and education and hope for the future–things that, when I was a kid, were almost entirely absent in China, Korea, India and most of Africa.

Here’s something to consider, the next time oil and gas hits the headlines. The staggering progress we’ve made globally in the past fifty years has arisen partly because of open markets but also because of cheap energy. We have cleaner water and air, more food for a growing global population, less malnutrition and starvation, and fewer climate-related deaths. The next time we feel inclined to protest a pipeline, we should weigh these benefits along with the risks.

If we’re going to lessen or replace our use of fossil fuels, our current alternatives simply won’t cut it. They’re too scarce, inefficient and expensive. Instead, we’ll have to rely on something as abundant as the air we breathe: human ingenuity. And for the time being, we need oil and gas to fuel that ingenuity, to help us find the technologies that will protect and preserve our world.

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Guest Post

I’m busy with promotional matters and systems these days, while the next story percolates, waiting to come out. To that end, Chris Graham was kind enough to offer me a spot on his blog, The Story Reading Ape. Here’s my guest post, all about me and my books.


The Land of Moose and Cattle

mooseI saw moose everywhere on my journey last August through western Canada. Moose, elk, deer, bear. I saw them all—on signs. Lots and lots of warning signs, the most unnerving of which was “Watch for moose next 65 km” followed seconds later by “Moose next 2 km.” They never materialized. Not once during my 4,000 km journey did I see a live moose. Nor any other wildlife except for a herd of goats by the roadside in Lake Louise.

Dead wildlife, however, was another matter. When roadkill is larger than a rat or a rabbit it’s not only messy but painful to see and I worried for miles whether that deer, coyote, dog or muskrat lying by the roadside had died quickly and painlessly.

As for other living things, I saw far fewer cattle than expected, and most of them in Alberta. The Caribou-Chilcotin region of central BC (aka “cattle country”) had as many camels as cattle, which is to say, none. A Williams Lake resident assured me there are plenty around. They had probably been out of sight, somewhere in the shade, he said, which made sense: the temperature was around 33 Celsius. And in Saskatchewan I felt and saw plenty of bugs, especially dragon flies.

In northern BC, long, empty highways wound through wonderful uplands, vast tracts of grass already hayed.  Pines, cottonwood and aspen lined the roads, and mile upon mile of wild flowers: fireweed and Indian paintbrush and profuse yellow flowers that might have been buttercups or dandelions or something else entirely; I didn’t stop to find out.

I live in southern British Columbia, in one of the richest dairy-farming valleys in the world. But hundreds of miles to the north, the country of the Peace River looked every bit as verdant. If I were a cow, I believe I’d be quite content there.

Researching “The Roughneck”

It’s astonishing how much detail you can find online for just about any background, locale or occupation. For my forthcoming book about oil drilling (working title The Roughneck) I have pages and pages of link references to forums, videos and websites. Much of it is good stuff, and most of it’s reliable, although you have to be careful not to rely on a 1990s website, say, for details on contemporary drilling equipment.


Statue, Williams Lake

But I wanted a taste of real life in northern BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan, and so I recently spent two weeks exploring these areas, travelling more than four thousand kilometers over wondrous highways and, less happily, over truly ghastly streets filled with frost heaves and pot holes.

I spent a night in Williams Lake, where some of the action in my book takes place. I felt an instant liking for this town, 550 km north of Vancouver. It’s predominantly lumber and cattle, with friendly people who were glad to help. I chatted with Phil, a Korean who owns a carwash, while he washed my car, and with Kim, the reception manager at my hotel. Waitresses are a great source of local info and I chatted with several during dinner and breakfast.


A hydrovac truck; note the size: Doug is over 6ft tall

In Fort St John I had an interview with Rob Smith and Doug Phillips, managers at Scott Hydrovac. I was given a tour of one of these mammoth trucks, each costing about a million dollars. The cab height is about twelve feet and even with the steps I had to work to get up there.

I’d gone in armed with two boxes of doughnuts, and Rob and Doug gave me solid information not only about hydrovacking (using high-pressure hot water to drill post holes, expose cables or clean tanks), but also about their experiences working on oil rigs.


Rig, Northern Lights campus

I had a tour of a rig set up at the Northern Lights college campus and Arnold Drschiwiski, the retired roughneck who took me round, told me some hair-raising stories of rig collapses and the harsh working conditions.

In Whitecourt Alberta, which plays a pivotal role in the book in both bad and good ways, I learned how desperate northern employers are for workers, how kids today don’t work because they know they don’t have to; their parents will give them what they want. When they do take a job, they won’t take direction, and they almost always think they’re instantly ready for a management position.(I took this information with several grains of salt but have since learned that it is a view held not just by northerners.)

Bryan Passifiume, the editor of the Whitecourt Star, recounted stories of the dire shortage of workers in the region. I learned about the raids by the service companies, who will offer any young person, male or female, $25/hour to work in the oil camps as cooks or cleaners. A restaurant manager who one evening went into his office to do the accounts, came out later to find all his staff had quit, lured away by higher wages than he could afford to pay.

Whitecourt fire chief's truck

Whitecourt fire chief’s truck

I had an interesting chat with the Whitecourt firechief on matters having to do with rescue, and admired his truck.

On through Alberta and in to Saskatchewan, I was astonished at how North by Northwest so much of it was. On the side of the highway, with nothing in sight but wheat and sky, I could believe I was Cary Grant running from the crop duster.

Grain elevator, Sedley SK

Grain elevator, Sedley SK

I eventually reached Carlyle in southern Saskatchewan, where I had interviews with Mark Scott and Billy Wilson of Savanna Well Servicing, executives with both drilling and servicing experience. They answered my long list of questions and provided rich details about equipment and rig life, about danger and injury and disability pay, though I must admit the most insightful thing I learned on this subject came much later, after I’d returned home, when I had the good fortune to chat with a derrickhand.

Lastly, I met up with Gerald and Jeannette Biberdorf, owners of a farm near Carlyle, and took a tour of their barley, wheat and flax fields. A number of pumpjacks worked away on small plots of their land and I learned that although farmers generally don’t own the mineral rights and therefore can’t earn a royalty on the oil coming up out of the ground, they do get an annual rent for each pump.

Pumpjack in wheat field

Pumpjack in wheat field

There are pump jacks dotting the fields all over southern Saskatchewan, and when the wind’s in the wrong direction, you get a whiff of the rotten egg smell of natural gas.

I also learned of the difficulties confronting farmers with the growing demand for oil shipping that stretches rail resources too thin, leaving farmers holding the short end of the stick. Every town has a Railway Avenue and I saw many many trains throughout my trip. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, it seemed to me that black oil tanks outnumbered brown wheat cars.

I enjoyed a beautiful sunset that evening, and the following day I set off westward to return home after a fantastic and fascinating trip. I learned that every hotel, motel, cafe and hospital in northern BC and Alberta has rubbermaid mats inside the entrance door, where visitors are expected to leave their muddy boots. I learned a lot of country songs. I learned that McDonald’s lids work best for coffee on the road. Still trying to clean my seatbelt.


What a country.

Getting the Lowdown on Big Equipment

I recently completed a first draft of my fourth novel, set in the Canadian oil fields. The research had an appeal all its own and might have gone on for weeks, but I finally called a halt and simply pushed out the draft. Bitter experience has taught me that you can make research the end rather than the means—you can go on and on and on researching the background to a story before you know where the story’s going or how it’s going to get there.

Writing a draft gives you boundaries. You learn how much you still have to learn about a given procedure or setting, and what you can dispense with. My novel is partly set on an oil rig, and for the first draft I was able to conjure up some issues, some problems, a couple of incidents and a suggestion of the day-to-day routine on a rig. This information was sufficient to allow characters and plot to develop.

Now the research goes to the next level. I can rule out all the areas where my surface knowledge was sufficient, and concentrate on those where I really need some detail. How and when is a well cemented? How long does it take to drill 30 feet (the length of a piece of pipe)? What can go wrong with the drawworks? The catwalk? What, oh what, is invert? It’s some sort of drilling mud and you get bonus money for working with it (which suggests that it’s unpleasant) but exactly what is it? Can a rig do both vertical and horizontal drilling? Can you trip pipe on a horizontal bore? Do rigs ever stay in one place 6-8 weeks?

The most important thing I learned from writing the draft is how hard it is to convey the size, weight and danger of the equipment used in rig work. Roughnecks work with heavy equipment—iron tongs, steel pipe and pipe collars—and injury lurks around every corner. I watched hundreds of hours of videos covering the processes involved, yet conveying a sense of this on the page is not easy.

That’s why I’m off to see the wizards: the rig wizards who work in northern BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan. I’m going to explore the oil fields, look at rigs, talk to rig workers, and get a sense of life in the oil world. No matter what we think about this stuff, we need it if we want to drive cars or heat our homes. I’m off to talk to the men (and I’ve learned, women) who produce the oil that powers our world.