Kicking an Opportunity Till It’s Dead

[Atomic Blonde]
Photo courtesy of MovieWeb

Several months ago, I entered a contest that offered as the first prize the opportunity for my latest novel to be taken on by a reputable publishing company. Of course, at the time, I was pretty excited. Who wouldn’t be? A chance to have your book published professionally with everything that entails—great editing, eye-popping cover, and a brilliant marketing campaign? So, now imagine reading an email that just hit your inbox saying you are a finalist! Wow, am I dreaming?

Before I go any further, this isn’t one of those stories that go from fairy tale to nightmare. Everything was on the up-and-up. Along with the email, I received a well-written critique and was given a short timeframe to produce a new version for consideration. Presumably, they would read the draft, and if they felt the changes were what they were looking for, I would continue on in the process. And after reading the critique, I have to say I really thought I had a shot. Anyway, soon, a winner will be chosen…but I can say with certainty it won’t be me. Why?

Because I dropped out.

The Dilemma
Look, there was nothing wrong with the critique. In fact, the editor made lots of good points about things I might want to address. But in reading the comments, I got the sense that somehow my book hadn’t fully resonated with them. They just weren’t on board with what I was doing. The things I had intentionally chosen to do—the tone, the protagonist, and all the rest—was somehow not right for them. To be fair to the publisher, my story doesn’t fall neatly into a single genre. It’s what they’re calling these days a genre-bender. Also, I’ve mixed first-person narration with third-person—not unheard of in today’s fiction. Finally, the way I have written the fourteen-year-old protagonist makes her seem impossibly wise for her age. But that was the point! She is, in fact, incredibly precocious.

So, I was left with two choices: Make the appropriate changes and hope I won. Or walk away. Obviously, I’ve chosen the latter path.

But, dude, this was your shot! you’re probably thinking. You could have had a publishing contract! What are you, nuts?

Well, I probably am. But hear me out. In looking at the terms of the contract, I realized that I don’t want someone else owning my book’s copyright. Yeah, I know. This is standard for publishing. But I’m new to the game, okay? And another thing. I imagined myself watching as another company took control of my book and basically did what they thought was best regarding promotion. Okay, so they are probably way better at marketing than I am, I will admit. But I would be losing the one thing I have come to love about being an indie author these past few years—control.

A Silver Lining
Even after what may yet prove to be a bone-headed move on my part, there is one bright spot. The combination of the critique and the fact that I was a finalist in a reputable contest, for me, add up to a huge validation of my work. I am immensely proud of what I wrote, and apparently, there are others out there who feel it has value.

Now, it’s back to my world. The novel is going through a final edit, and my cover designer is hard at work creating something magical—I hope! I plan to publish in the spring. Stay tuned.

Here’s to opportunity!

2016 Top Ten Posts

“[Sparkler]”
Photo courtesy of Evan Long via Creative Commons

Personally, I won’t be sorry to see 2016 go. Good riddance, I say. Rather than dwell on all the bad news from the past year, though, I thought I would list my top ten articles instead. Here’s to a better 2017!

 

 

 

Damn You, Netflix—Another Distracted Writer
Fiction and Profanity—F-Bombs Away!
Free Fiction—Something to Hold
Free Fiction—The Traveler’s Tale
Getting Away with Murder
How to Write Better Dialogue ‘Schitt’s Creek’ Style
I Used to Write Poetry
Pulp or Poet?
What in the World Is “Family Fiction”?
Writers, Your Cell Phone Is out to Get You!

And if these aren’t enough to put you in a better mood, check out this Bruce Willis mashup. Seriously, the man just won’t die!

What in the World Is “Family Fiction”?

[Arrested Development]
Photo courtesy of Deadline | Hollywood

A while ago, I told you about a novel I had adapted from one of my old screenplays (see “Adapting a Screenplay—Fun Times”). As I was writing the book, I thought my biggest challenge would be making a decent novel out of what is essentially a blueprint for a movie, which is what a screenplay is. The good news? I showed a recent draft to a few trusted friends, and the consensus is that the story works. Now for the bad news.

Finding Your Genre
Typically, when writing a novel you have pretty good idea about which genre you’re in. We’ve been trained to think this way, and it’s my view that this is mostly due to the influence of movies and television. What’s the first thing an agent asks you (after “Who are you again?”)—what is it? And they’re not talking about the story, my friend. No, they are asking whether it’s rom-com, horror, thriller, period, coming-of-age, etc. In other words, they want to know how to market it.

And here’s the thing—because we as writers are already trained, we will write according to these predefined genres, or categories. Of course, Amazon makes it easy too. When you publish your book, you are asked to select up to three categories. Here’s one—Fiction->Romance->Contemporary.

But what if your story doesn’t fall neatly into a pigeon hole?

Genre Benders
This is where I found myself after finishing my novel. And I will tell you in all honesty, this is precisely why I had struggled with the screenplay. In my mind, I had a great story, but it wasn’t targeted at a particular audience (kids, millennials, older adults, etc.). So, now what?

Well, I had a great conversation with my friend Melodie Ramone, who I interviewed recently. Melodie is not only a brilliant writer, but she knows the publishing world well—particularly when it comes to what publishers want from fiction. And what they want is apparently no different than what those pesky Hollywood agents want—they want to categorize the book so they can market it in the same tired way they do all the others that fall into your particular genre.

Sadly, my book is what Melodie calls a “genre bender.” And, bless her, she didn’t discourage me from publishing it. Sure, I’ll probably never get a literary agent to look at it, but who cares? I’m focused on indie publishing anyway. Of course, I still have to figure out how to market the damned thing, and that is still the problem.

Family Fiction
In researching genre-bending types of fiction, I ran across a term I wasn’t familiar with—family fiction. I tried looking it up, and guess what—there is no definition. I found items as diverse as “Christian fiction,” “family saga” and “domestic fiction.” In fact, there’s a site called FamilyFiction.com that appears to try and own the brand, categorizing itself as a purveyor of Christian fiction.

When I searched Amazon’s Kindle store, I found that “family fiction” is a recognized search term. The first book that popped up on the list at the time of this writing was The Doctor’s Unexpected Family by Kristen Ethridge. You got it—Christian fiction. The second was A Legacy of Secrets by Jean Reinhardt, which is listed as a family saga. Then there’s Alone by Holly Hook, which appears to be targeted to the YA/Sci-Fi/Fantasy crowd. I saw other titles with “family” in them, which unfortunately means that Mario Puzo’s The Family is included. Now, most people are aware that Amazon is great at leveraging big data, but the fact that Christian fiction-themed books appear alongside stories about La Cosa Nostra tells me that family fiction is not a true genre, at least as far as they’re concerned.

Alternatively, if you visit Goodreads, you’ll find a list of family fiction that features books as diverse as The Round House by Louise Erdrich, The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling and An Acceptable Time by Madeleine L’Engle (which is part of her “A Wrinkle in Time” series). Now granted, the only reason the list contains these books is because readers shelved them that way, which tells me that readers themselves don’t really understand what family fiction is. They probably figure, hey, if it’s about a family, then it must be family fiction. So wait, could it be that simple?

Bringing It Home
Back to my story. My book is told mostly in the first person by a thirteen-year-old girl. But occasionally, I use third-person omniscient because there are important scenes that don’t include her but drive the other characters—her mother and father, for example.

I still haven’t figured out how I am going to market this thing, but Melodie gave me some great suggestions. I will keep you informed as to my progress. In the meantime, I would love to see some comments about what you consider to be family fiction.

Writers, Start Building Your Brand Early!

Photo Courtesy of Tony Harrison via Creative Commons
[Race Car]One of the great challenges for an indie author is dividing time between actual writing and marketing. And I would argue that the same goes for writers who are as yet unpublished. Sometimes, I like to think about giants like Joyce, Fitzgerald and Nabokov. How did those guys do it? Most likely, not at all—or very little. The work spoke for itself. But, hey, we’re talking about us. What are we supposed to do?

If I had to pick one person from history to travel forward in time and demonstrate how it’s done, it would have to be Mark Twain. That guy knew brand, and I’m sure he would do very well using Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. Can you imagine? Here are a few of his most famous quotes. And look—they fit so nicely into 140 characters!

All right, then, I’ll go to hell.
I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.
There are lies, damned lies and statistics.

Truman Capote was another famous author who truly understood brand. How about this tweetable quote:

Fame is only good for one thing—they will cash your check in a small town.

Getting It Right
Okay, back to Twain. Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the first thing he did was to fix his name. Mark Twain has a nice resonance, doesn’t it? It’s easy to remember and it fits nicely on a book cover. I’m not sure that’s what he was going for, but it certainly turned out well for him. Stephen King is another one. And he was lucky enough to come into the world with that moniker. Yay, Steve!

We all know Mark Twain as a writer, humorist, traveler, public speaker and general troublemaker. He had an amazing wit, and could really lay into someone around topics he was passionate about. I don’t know that he had a publicist, but it seems to me he was very conscious of his image—I don’t believe they called it “brand” in those days. We are all familiar with the wild shock of white hair, the white linen suit and the ever-present cigar. In my opinion, Mark Twain was a marketing genius.

Shy Will Get You Bupkes
I’ve met many writers over the years, and I will tell you that most are not comfortable in the spotlight. They are card-carrying introverts who love working behind the scenes, writing great stories which—if they’re lucky—get turned into movies.

If you ask my wife, she will tell you that I am an extrovert. I like being out and about, meeting people and engaging in interesting discussions. That’s just me. But I don’t think I would be comfortable being on the talk show circuit, delivering pithy one-liners in front of a studio audience. I’m better in small groups.

Which leads me to Brand. Many of the more seasoned authors out there know all about this. But there are those like you who are just getting started—who want to understand what it takes to not only write well but market well. As an aside, I haven’t figured it all out yet, but I’m happy to share what I know.

What is Brand Anyway?
Brand is rather a hard thing to define. I’ll use this definition from Merriam-Webster:

A class of goods identified by name as the product of a single firm or manufacturer.

Now let’s modify the definition to apply to authors:

A collection of writings identified by name as the product of a single author.

How about James Patterson? You have only to utter his name, and book titles and scenes play out in your head. Never mind that he has a writer factory churning out books, he definitely gets brand, my friend.

When you do it right, here is what happens. Not only is your name recognizable but the name itself becomes embedded in the culture on a global scale. Kind of like Kleenex. How many people say, “Can you hand me a tissue?” More often it’s, “Have you got a Kleenex?” The same can be said for Xerox and Coke.

There’s a huge responsibility that comes with this identification, though. Call me crazy but I think the Kleenex Corporation wants to ensure that when you think of their products, you picture nice, soft little squares of heaven—scented and unscented—that will make you feel better, especially when you have a cold.

Getting back to authors. When you think of horror, what is the first name that comes to mind? Stephen King, right? Of course. He has spent decades building his brand. His name is synonymous with horror. Can we all hope to achieve that kind of brand recognition? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make a nice living. People who love Stephen King don’t just read him. They read H. P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub and many others. It’s a huge playground.

Being Vigilant 24×7
So what does building your brand mean? For me, it’s awareness. I try to be thoughtful about everything I post. I don’t always succeed. But being aware is important because what gets out into the Internet stays forever. So no drunk tweeting, no profanity and no mean-spirited troll attacks on others. A good general rule is to always take the high road.

Linking your digital assets is important as well. There should be a synergy among the various digital destinations you have out there. Make sure your bio and headshot are uniform across the various social media sites. And use hyperlinks to cross-reference the other sites. This also helps with SEO, which is another topic entirely.

Here’s a quick tip to get you started. Want to know what not to do on Twitter? Don’t create a Twitter account, leave the default image and expect to get followers. I mean, seriously? Who in the world is going to follow an egg? Also don’t create some arcane Twitter handle with no description. People want to know something about you. Tell them. Remember, you are building your brand, and it’s supposed to stand out from everything else out there. More importantly, it’s supposed to mean something.

I’ll leave you with this post by Dan Blank of WeGrowMedia.com, “Branding for Writers: An Essential Step to Building Your Author Platform.” In it, he states:

This may sound basic, but many writers have a hard time embracing [their] identity. They see themselves as a writer only after the definitions of their day job, role in their family, etc. When speaking about your work, own that identity of being a writer.

Can’t get any clearer than that. You can write and publish all you want, but if you don’t pay attention to your brand you will have a tough time convincing people to buy your books. Best of luck in all your endeavors.

Want to Write Well? Learn to Research

Photo Courtesy of Ed Yourdon via Creative Commons
[New York Public Library]As writers, we like to pride ourselves on our ability to turn a phrase. And after having written for a while, we find that we’ve developed our own style—our own voice. But the best writing in the world can be ruined if we haven’t researched a topic properly. The cold blade of Truth will cut through our words and leave a wreckage of pretty ideas that, though appealing, make the reader want to scream. There’s a wonderful moment in Woody Allen’s film ‘Sleeper’ where the Diane Keaton character has written a poem (heavily influenced by McKuen) about a butterfly’s metamorphosis. The only problem is, she gets it wrong, with the thing ending up as a caterpillar. Awkward …

Some time ago I read a book that was, for the most part, enjoyable. The plot was taut, the characters real. And I probably would have given the author an excellent review, until I came to the part where he described the protagonist attending Mass. Now, I am Catholic and I know what a Mass looks like when I see it. And his description landed pretty far from the truth—to the point where I would have thrown the book across the room had it not been downloaded to my Kindle. Just imagine your readers tossing your book aside in disgust when they come across something they know to be patently false. Yeah, awkward.

A bad piece of writing advice goes like this: “Write what you know.” Well, here’s what the author Joe Haldeman has to say about that:

Bad books on writing tell you to “write what you know,” a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.

The point is this—if you are a horror, fantasy or sci-fi writer, then obviously you cannot write what you know. You are creating worlds that don’t exist, for crying out loud. But that doesn’t obviate the need for some solid research. You need to describe places and things, and how stuff works. But here’s the beauty part—most of the time, all you need is a great Internet connection.

Learn to Become Self-sufficient
I am a member of several online groups catering to authors. And nothing gets me more wound up than someone posting a question like this: “If my character gets shot, how long will it take for him to bleed out?” I have three little words for you, Mr. Lazy-ass writer: Look it up! Here’s a better question: “I’ve been researching gunshot wounds, and there seems to be a discrepancy on how long it actually takes for a person to bleed out, depending on where they were shot. If my character takes a bullet in the abdomen, what do you think is a safe estimate to make my story believable?”

Now, that’s a great question. The author has taken the time to do the research herself, and she’s also told us what she learned. Finally, she’s made her question very specific. A gold star for you!

Wikipedia is Good But …
Look, I am as guilty of this as the next guy. I use Wikipedia prodigiously. The key is to not treat this well-known site like Encyclopædia Britannica. Typically, when I find something of interest in Wikipedia, I also check one or two other sites to see if they are saying the same thing. If so, then I’m pretty confident that what I’m reading is accurate.

Another great source of information—especially when you are writing about how things work—is YouTube. It’s utterly amazing the stuff people post there! Want to know how to assemble or disassemble a particular weapon? Need to know what the inside of a morgue looks like? More than likely, there’s a video that will show you. Related to that are television shows. Many of the better ones hire real-world consultants who advise the writer and director on how something actual works. I recently finished watching the brilliant new Amazon series ‘Bosch’ (based on the Michael Connelly books), and I have to believe these guys know what they are doing.

The other thing to check for accurate writing is online product catalogues. I am currently completing my horror-thriller trilogy, THE DEAD SERIES, and all of the books reference weapons, both large and small. There are gun shops in my immediate area, but they don’t necessarily carry RPGs and Browning M2 .50 caliber machine guns. Both YouTube and online gun catalogs have proven invaluable.

The Joy of Research
In my view, research should not be burdensome. I’m the kind of person who likes to learn new things. So, the fact that I have to stop the creative process momentarily and look something up doesn’t bother me. Now, I may not get everything right. I’m not a trained doctor, soldier or police officer. So I may find things that are technically accurate, but would never work in real life because those people just don’t do it that way. Think ‘Bosch.’ And if I get something wrong, I always appreciate a reader contacting me and telling me so I can fix it.

Writing is not just about creativity and a command of the language. It’s about discipline. And doing research is a very disciplined way to approach your craft. Oh, and here is a link to a post about gunshot wounds and bleeding. In case, you know, someone in your story just got shot.

Authors and Goodreads

Photo Courtesy of Chris Dunn
[Cracked Matador]Sometimes, it’s hard being an author and a marketer. We want to spend all our time on our passion, which is writing. But in order to create awareness for the purpose of gaining more readers, we also need to market ourselves. Yikes! And we do this typically on two main platforms—Twitter and Facebook. But there’s another platform we seem to gravitate toward, and that’s Goodreads.

Goodreads started out as an independent platform devoted to readers—people who love good books and want to discuss them with folks who share their interests. Some time ago, Amazon took notice of the large membership and decided to purchase them. Now, as a destination, not much has changed. You can still add books that you have read or want to read to your shelves. You can create lists, and you can join lively discussion groups. To me, Goodreads is like a gigantic online book club. Except you don’t meet at peoples’ houses, and there are no Pepperidge Farm cookies.

Readers vs. Authors
Here’s where things get interesting, though. Goodreads also allows authors to join and, further, to identify themselves as authors, with their own profiles. My guess is, Goodreads did this primarily so they could entice authors to purchase advertising. I’m not sure how effective that is, and after having participated in Goodreads as an author for the past two years or so (you can check out my profile here), I’ve come to a startling conclusion.

Authors should stay the hell away from Goodreads.

Now, I realize that some of you will be upset with me. What does this idiot mean, stay away? Okay, so I didn’t want you to take me literally—I was trying to make a point. What I actually meant was, in my opinion authors should not attempt to promote themselves in Goodreads. At all. It would be like me showing up at your Wednesday night book club meeting, hawking my horror-thriller novels to your unsuspecting guests and tippling the Merlot when you weren’t looking. First of all, I wasn’t invited. Secondly, how did I get a key to your house?

The Well-behaved Author
Goodreads should be a place for readers, not writers. I think authors should have the ability to maintain author profiles there, but it should be purely for the purpose of interacting with fans who want to ask us questions. Goodreads features a wonderful section in the author profile called “Ask the Author.” Readers can post their questions, and authors can reply. I’ve done this myself, and I really enjoy it. You can check out my Q&As here. And if readers want to know more about the kinds of books I write, they should visit my website.

Well, what about reviews? Authors read too, you know. And if I really like a book, I want to tell the world—just like any other reader. I see nothing wrong with authors posting reviews on Goodreads. I’m not even sure my reviews carry any more weight than some of the best book bloggers out there.

So, what do you think? Should authors be active participants in Goodreads?

Note: This video is hilarious, but it’s NSFW.

And Now A Word About Professionalism

Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam via Creative Commons
[Pro Yo Buff Professional Volleyball]Well, kiddies, it’s almost time for Dead Is All You Get: Book Two of THE DEAD SERIES to go live. And it’s been a journey, let me tell you. Recently, I did a cover reveal, signaling the approaching publishing date. Now, we’re really close. I’m getting the manuscript back from the proofreader and, once the book is formatted by the amazing and inimitable JW Manus, it’s saving humanity one book at a time. Okay, that’s overstated. But, hey, I’m excited!

In the meantime, I wanted to talk a little about the publishing process from the point-of-view of a moderately experienced indie author. Because I write, I read. A lot. And I have to say that indie publishing is a blessing and a curse. First, let’s talk about the blessing part.

Amazon and the Masses
Like Gutenberg, Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and others have brought publishing to the masses. If you’ve paid any attention to the debate raging now between Amazon and Hachette, you’ll understand that this is a pretty big deal. No longer must authors be at the mercy of powerful literary agents and publishers. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can publish a book. Anyone.

This new reality has brought about a titanic transformation of publishing—with the reader at the center. New voices—authors who for the most part would never have gotten a shot—are now able to be read. All good stuff. But, as in most things in life, there’s a downside.

Up to Our Necks in Dreck
It’s precisely because anyone can hit the “Publish” button that there’s a lot of garbage out there. I’m talking bad writing, bad covers, no editing and no formatting. So what does this mean for the reader? Well, they have to wade through the dreck to get to the good stuff. And with way more than a million titles, that’s not easy. “What about reviews?” you say. Ever heard of sock puppets?

The major publishers have put forth this argument for years—implying that the only way to get your hands on quality books is to purchase them from The Big Five. Well, I’m here to tell you that this is a load of crap. Don’t believe me? Check out Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings site sometime and you’ll find that indie publishing is growing at a pace that’s alarming to The Big Five.

But enough of this. Let’s talk about making your indie book the best it can be.

The Cover Matters
Whether or not you like my book cover, it’s professional. I not only hired an artist to create it, but I used a professional cover designer. As many others have said ad nauseam, at least when it comes to eBooks, you can judge a book by its cover. And if the thing is rubbish, readers can probably assume the book is as well.

Editors Matter
You cannot hope to build an audience without entrusting your book to a professional editor and proofreader (often not the same person). Editors see things you don’t—gaps in logic, klunky language and bad grammar, to name a few. And a proofreader sees things editors don’t—missing commas, extra spaces after periods, etc.

Again, you may find that you don’t care for THE DEAD SERIES—I hope you do, though—but it’s professional. Unfortunately, typos will always make their way through. And I can tell you that I’ve found plenty of them in books from The Big Five. Nothing against these guys. It’s because we’re human—we miss things. What’s nice about eBooks is, you can easily fix the typo and republish.

Formatting Matters
I’m talking strictly about eBooks here. Yes, you can leave it to the Smashwords Meatgrinder to handle the formatting. Mark Coker has done an amazing job with that program, doing his best to automate the process of self-publishing. But it’s still a program. I prefer to work with a human.

The point is, don’t just upload your Microsoft Word document to KDP and hope for the best. You’ll be disappointed—and so will your readers.

A Good Synopsis Matters
When I say “synopsis,” I am also referring to the book blurb that appears under your book’s title on Amazon. It should be as professional as your book. And if you don’t know how to write an effective one, seek the help of other writers. You won’t be sorry.

Brand Matters
So what am I really talking about? Brand. This is all about your brand, people. Get the book wrong and readers will be done with you. And it will be hard to get them back. And I didn’t mean to imply that doing all of the above is cheap—it’s not. But if you’re serious about your work, you must do everything you can to produce a professional-looking product.

Of course, I am assuming that your writing rocks. That’s a given. All the more reason you should give it the respect it deserves.