An Experiment in Genre

When I was 22 and fresh out of college, I got a job as a copywriter with Fawcett Books, one of the top three paperback houses of the time. They published several lines of romances that sold very well and paid well, too, for what seemed to me not too  much effort–much less effort than waiting tables at night, as I did to supplement my meager publishing pay. From childhood I’d been determined to become a writer, not of pulp but of the sort of novels I myself admired. But I knew that writers need either a private income or a day job. Lacking the former, I would need the latter–and what better day job for a writer than writing? I had a college buddy who also worked at Fawcett; we talked it over and decided to experiment by writing a paperback romance on spec. We had an obvious “in” with the editor; if we produced a novel up to her standards, we knew she’d buy it.

Romance novelWe read a few of the bestselling romances, analyzed the formula, and set about constructing one of our own, hashing out a plot, then writing alternate chapters.  But it was harder going than we’d expected, largely because neither of us had any real interest in the genre. And after a few weeks, our experiment came to an abrupt end when my writing buddy’s wife decided she didn’t like the idea of us collaborating.

I tell you this story by way of introducing my guest today, C.S. Lakin, indie author of 14 novels and conductor of a far more successful writing experiment.  A short while ago, I ran across a fascinating blog post about an experiment she did to test the importance of genre in marketing self-published fiction.  Her results surprised me; I think they surprised a lot of longtime writers.  As a former agent, I was particularly pleased to see a path for writers to support themselves and more by taking smart advantage of the opportunities in the self-pub market. What she did should replicable, too, by writers who are good, fast, and savvy, which makes it all the more interesting. Here is her own account of that experiment.

 

           Writing to Genre without Selling Out

                        Blog post by C. S. Lakin

 

 CS-LakinWriters who love to write fiction often eschew the idea of crafting a novel or novella solely to target a specific audience—especially if the primary goal is to sell a lot of books in order to make money. To many, putting money-making or the goal to top the best-seller lists ahead of writing “genuinely” or “from the heart” is a sellout, a compromise. It shows lack of scruples or integrity. It paints the writer as a cheap, spineless hack just out to make a buck. At least, that’s how some purists feel.

Aren’t we novelists supposed to be holding up the flame of truth and quality to shine in the world? Isn’t writing to a specific best-selling genre a sacrifice of quality and an affront to our muse? Good questions.

For years (decades) I wrote novels based on ideas I was passionate about. I created stories with deep, rich themes, and spent endless hours honing my craft in order to write the best, most compelling books I could.

And I wrote many of them, in numerous genres, but always honoring the purist’s oath, which might go something like “First, do not compromise.” I felt if I were to compromise my integrity by writing something just to sell big, I would bring shame to myself and my writing profession.

 “It’s Fine for Other Writers to Sellout . . .”

 Sure, I knew plenty of wonderful writers who wrote just to make money. They sometimes wrote books or magazine articles they didn’t like in order to get those checks and pay their bills. They had families to support. I didn’t judge them. In fact, I wholeheartedly supported what they were doing.

 But it wasn’t for me. I wanted to write books that meant something, that moved hearts, that changed lives. And I’m glad I spent those twenty-plus years writing beautiful novels that indeed did mean something, move hearts, and change lives. I’m very proud of those books.

 What Did I Do Wrong?

 But they’ve never really made me any money. Why? At first I thought it was just bad luck. And then bad marketing. I did everything my successful friends said to do. I build a huge online presence and engaged in social media. I paid for publicists and marketers and did blog tours.

 But even though I spent a fortune in time and money, nothing paid off. I joined the hundreds of thousands of authors who lament they just can’t get discovered. My novels won awards and got terrific reviews, but they didn’t sell.

 It Was Time I Faced the Truth

 I didn’t want to admit the truth to myself, so spent two years contacting successful indie authors, inviting them to share their stories on my blog Live Write Thrive, asked them endless questions. Finally the truth glared at me in the face.

 What truth? That genre matters. I had to admit that although my books were getting terrific reviews and winning awards, they were not strict genre novels—in fact many of my books were a bit experimental and couldn’t be easily categorized.

 With indie publishing, authors like me have been able to publish our “unusual” or “different” novels and find readers. Some do make that break into best-sellerdom, but not many. When I took a look at my author friends who were making easily five figures each month, often off one title, or would release a book and it would hit the best-seller lists off the bat, I paid close attention to what genre they were writing in. And that revealed the key.

 Maybe It’s Just Luck

 I thought they were just luckier than me. I thought perhaps they were doing something special with their marketing and author platform that I wasn’t. But when I interviewed them all, I found out the truth. They were not. Many had little author platform. Some (yikes!) had none. I mean—no website, no social media, no previous novels out, no name, nada. Huh?

 What I did see was that these hugely successful authors were writing to a specific genre, and often a niche genre. What do I mean by that? I mean a subgenre that has a particular readership—one that is very large and one that has few (compared to other main genres) books available for sale. What I was seeing was a manifestation of the old economics “supply and demand” rule.

 But could that really be true? Could an unknown author write a novel with no author platform for one of these subgenres and sell big, with no additional effort other than putting her book up on Amazon, carefully using the same kind of description, cover, etc.?

 I was dying to find out.

 My Genre Experiment

 So, here’s what I did, in a nutshell (I plan to write an entire ebook soon on this experiment/method called From Idea to Selling in Three Months, so others writers can do this too!):

  • I picked the subgenre I was told “sells itself” without any author platform
  • I came up with a pen name so I would be an unknown, unpublished author
  • I chose one novel to deconstruct. [NOTE PLEASE: I did not plagiarize or copy the plot, writing, or tried to mimic this author. I just deconstructed the structure. If you don’t know what that involves, buy my book when it comes out!]
  • After deconstructing the novel, I plotted and constructed mine
  • I hired the same cover designer to brand my look for my series
  • While writing the novel, I copied and pasted 30 Amazon descriptions of books in this genre in order to create my own in the same style and fashion [NOTE: this was a genre I had never even read, so had no clue how this differed from the genres I already wrote in]
  • I got a couple of well-known author friends and a reviewer for the Examiner to read in advance and write me reviews/endorsements, so I’d have something to put in the book and on the Amazon page
  • I did set up tweets (not as my pen name but via my real Twitter account) to get some exposure
  • I set up a Facebook page for the author, but did nothing to promote it. Even now it has maybe 25 likes. So no big influence there
  • I hired an assistant to find bloggers and reviewers, but only had three people blog about the novel when it was released

 So, essentially, as far as author platform goes, I did almost nothing to build or prepare for this book release. I felt I should do a minimal amount of promoting, just as many of my successful author friends do when releasing a new book. And of course, their subsequent books sell very well too, since they have, inadvertently, build a bit of author platform just from the sales and buzz of the earlier novels released.

 My Results

 Lakin's ExperimentThe novel has only been out a month. Within the first two weeks, the book jumped to paid #247 on Amazon, and hit the top-ten genre lists: Historicals, Historical Westerns, Western Romance. My genre is Historical Western Romance (and more specifically sweet Western—meaning no sex or heat).

 In those two weeks, the book sold more than 1,500 copies at full price ($3.99 US), while all the top twenty on the lists were sale priced. I wanted to start out the gate with the novel regularly priced and not discounted, based on Mark Coker’s research (Smashwords) that $3.99 sells better than any other price. I also wanted to imply “quality” because it is a long, rich, quality book.

 My novel has been on the genre lists’ top 100 ever since, selling about 30-50 books a day. Way more than I ever made on any of my other dozen novels. Here’s the interesting thing. I made $3,600 or so in three weeks. I was told by writers of that specific subgenre that they make about $3k a month off each book. Which is what it looks like I’m making. Why? Supply and demand.

 One author sold 80,000 copies of her first novel, with no Internet presence, website, or author platform. She still doesn’t have a website, and her books are all selling in the tens of thousands. Is she a terrific writer, better than anyone else out there? No. She writes good books for the genre, as do the others who are selling well.

 Genre Isn’t the Only Factor

 I can’t emphasize enough that first and foremost an author has to write a terrific book. And it now looks to me that a terrific book in one genre just may sell a whole lot more than a terrific book in another genre. Authors who lament that their “terrific” book (if it indeed is one) is not selling, may need to consider genre. Maybe they might even want to try their own genre experiment.

 My novel has been getting mostly 5-star reviews, and what pleases me most is when reviewers say I wrote a book that perfectly reflects the genre. I did my homework and it paid off. The strict genres I’ve noted sell well in addition to romance, romance, and more romance are paranormal, thrillers, and mystery (and YA versions of all those).

 I don’t read or particularly like romance, but the RWA (Romance Writers of America) recently noted statistics showing that 40 percent of ALL ebooks sold are romance. And I actually had a blast writing this novel, with two more in the series slated to come out in 2014. I love Lonesome Dove and always wanted to try my hand at Westerns.

 You Don’t Have to “Sellout” to “Sell Big”

 I don’t think writers should “sellout” and write something they don’t want to write just to make money, but hopefully I’ve given you food for thought. And it does feel nice to be able to pay the bills. Surely there is some big-selling genre you can tailor your writing to and even find enjoyment in the process.

 Barbara here again, with a special bonus. As I read Susanne’s guest post, a few questions presented themselves.  I posed them to her, and her answers are below.

Q:  Your genre for the experimental novel was an historical one. How much research did you have to invest to write this book?

A: I spent a couple of long weeks doing the research. I’d never written a historical before and the thought intimidated me, since I really dislike seeing historical errors in manuscripts or novels and know the author has a burden to be as accurate as possible. But since I had lived on the Front Range for a few years, I had a personal feel and experience of the locale at least. I contacted the curator of the Greeley Museum and was given a five-page list of bibliography that I drew from. I ordered a dozen or so books on the history of the town and region and took a lot of notes. I really had a lot of fun doing this and asked a lot of questions.

Q: As you had little or no platform and no publisher working for you on the experimental novel, how do you think so many readers discovered and continue to discover your book? (The more specific you can be on this point, the happier I’ll be. “Buzz” alone, though surely a factor,  doesn’t edify.)

detectiveA: I don’t think buzz really had much to do with it, if at all. The author I modeled after said she, as well as the other authors she knows who write in this subgenre, put her book out and it went right to the top of the genre charts and sold nearly 100,000 copies in the first year. She didn’t do any marketing or promotion. As I said in my post, there is a supply and demand at work, so I’m assuming readers of this genre go online and search for new books. I do believe, though the best way to be discovered on Amazon is for your book to come up in the top twenty (best to be in the top six so it shows at the top) when search words are typed in. I was careful to put in a lot of keywords in my product page and choose the keywords that readers would use to search for a book like this. Contrary to what Amazon recommends, I feel putting in the genres as keywords is crucial. Readers looking for a historical western romance are going to type those words in the search bar, not words like Colorado or horse vet or something obscure. Amazon feels people search by interests and would type in “strong female lead” or “grief.” To prove my point, before I even sold one book, the book came up on the top ten in lists (for the genres Western and historical Westerns) under new releases tab on the first day. I’m sure if readers were online looking for a new historical western and clicked on new releases, that’s how they found my book. The key is to be up at the top of the lists. The author I mentioned kept her book at 99 cents the whole year, never raising the price. Back a couple of years ago many thought that was the way to go, modeling after Amanda Hocking’s success. I notice usually all but about three on the top twenty of these genres on any given day are priced between 99 cents and 2.99. So that’s something for me to consider. I’ve sold nearly 4,000 copies in six weeks at 3.99. I did put the book on sale last week for a promo at 1.99 to see what would happen and the book jumped back up the lists. So I have to decide if I want to sell tens of thousands of copies to say I have a best seller or whether I want to make more money and sell less. I haven’t decided yet. I know I got off topic here, but feel the whole trick to selling is to be noticed, and this is the way you get noticed.

3. You say that you’ve invested a lot of time in building a platform for your other books with disappointing results; yet the book tailored to a carefully chosen genre sold extremely well without any platform. Given that time is a writer’s capital, what value do you now place on platform-building for writers?

I think platform is essential. Being a writer is all about connecting to your fans and readers. I don’t know whether extreme effort to blog and promote a book will pay off in terms of sales compared to the time spent, but to me the marketing and promo is important along with social networking. But I hear a lot of authors say similar things that I’ve said—that they’ve tried everything to promote their book and they are not getting sales. In contrast, many of my clients releasing good first-time novels in the big-selling genres often sell big right out the gate with no name or platform. I like the idea that I can write a book and get good sales right away while I continue to build a reputation. I do believe that writing book after (great) book is the way to keep sales going and draw in new readers. That is advice I’ve heard for years from every quarter. And really, if someone wants to be a writer, they should keep writing.

Susanne, thanks so much for this thought-provoking post. Readers, your reactions?

  Bio: C. S. Lakin is the author of fourteen novels and while she writes two novels a year, she works as a freelance writing coach and copyeditor, specializing in manuscript critiques. She offers deep, free instruction for writers on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive and provides critique services via Critique My Manuscript

 Her novel, Colorado Promise, is written under her pen name Charlene Whitman (nickname Charlie), and you can buy her “experiment” here!

Editing: Brain Surgery for Writers

 

brain surgeonsIf you needed brain surgery, how much time would you invest in searching for the right brain surgeon? Knowing that outcomes vary, experience and dexterity matter, competence is paramount, and an incompetent practitioner can leave the patient in worse shape than when he began, I guess you’d spend as much time as it took to find the right person.

Writers in search of an editor need to exercise the same rigorous search, because editing, especially editing of fiction, is a sort of brain surgery. The editor operates in the gap between the book the writer envisioned and the one that actually made it onto the page. Thus the editor must see clearly not only the imperfect story on the page, but the story it wants to become, its ideal self. If the author has taken chances in the writing (as good writers tend to do) some of these will have succeeded and others will have failed. If cutting is inevitable, the surgery must be performed delicately – because the last thing any editor wants to do is to excise healthy tissue.

What I mean to do in this post is to talk about some of the decisions writers face with regard to editors: whether to hire an editor and if so, what sort of editor to hire; at what point in the process; how to recognize good ones and avoid bad ones. But I should begin, in the interest of fair disclosure, by saying that I myself am an editor and writing teacher as well as a novelist. You can, depending on your disposition, take that as an admission of vested interest or as an indication that I have had occasion to think seriously about the intersection of writing and editing.

Types of Editors

First off, we need to define terms. There are different types of editing. A novel acquired by one of the large commercial publishers typically undergoes four layers of editing by at least three different people.

Developmental editors look at the big-picture items: pacing, structure, characterization, style, point of view, theme. They track plot and subplots, consider the arcs of the major characters and the novel as a whole, examine the opening and ending of the novel as well as its structure.

red penLine editors examine the novel on a line to line basis. They look for continuity, logic, clarity, consistence in POV and tone. They will also address grammatical and style issues, though not to the extent that a copy editor does. In publishing houses, developmental and line editing are usually done by the acquiring editor and may be combined.

Copy editors focus closely on language. Their job is to rid the manuscript of any grammatical, spelling, usage and punctuation errors, as well as stylistic inconsistencies.

Proofreaders are the last line of defense, the final readers. They read typeset proofs to look for the same mistakes that copy editors do, including errors introduced by the typesetting process.

In this post, when I refer to editing, I’m talking primarily about developmental and line editing.

Should Writers Hire Editors?

Some should, some shouldn’t. It depends on the writer’s intentions. I believe that writers who intend to self-publish should, in fairness to themselves, their books and their potential readers, have their books edited. Few self-published writers can afford the four separate layers of scrutiny given to books published by commercial houses. But many editors offer combinations of developmental and line editing, and some offer copy editing as well, although ideally that should be done by someone other than the developmental editor. In editing, as in surgery, two pairs of eyes are better than one. If the writer at that point is confident in her ability to spot any deviations in the proof from the copyedited manuscript, she can do her own proofreading.

Having one’s manuscript edited is a learning experience. As writers grow more experienced, one thorough edit in addition to their own careful revisions may well suffice. But every writer has a tendency to make certain types of mistakes, everyone is blind to their own worst prose; and writers who publish without an editor do so at their own risk.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Writers who aim to be commercially published have a different set of calculations. On the one hand, all four levels of editing are provided by the publisher at no expense to the writer, and the editors who provide the services are usually first-rate. Good editing is one of the great perks of being professionally published. On the other hand, the bar to acceptance is very high, and if the book is almost but not quite where it needs to be, a good editor can make the crucial difference.

I advise writers who are trying to make their careers in traditional publishing to do everything they can with their manuscripts before they consider hiring an editor. Writing is a craft that takes a great deal of practice to master. Learning to revise your own work is very much a part of that process. Writers can take classes, which I highly recommend, the more rigorous the better. They can join critique groups and seek out skilled, savvy beta readers; they can read books by great practitioners about their craft; they can study the work of writers they admire; and they can apply all that they have learned and are learning to their work in progress.

Foetus_in_the_Womb_detailA novel is not written in one go, and first drafts are still soft clay. I think it’s dangerous to turn an embryonic first draft or incomplete novel over to an editor. It should go through serious revision and refinement before that step is considered.

In fact, it’s not a bad idea for a writer to begin submitting that final draft to agents and seeing what sort of response she gets before deciding on hiring an editor. If the response is positive, she may never need to hire her own. If, on the other hand, she gets a significant number of rejections, it may be time to consider enlisting a freelance editor or manuscript evaluator (basically the same thing as a developmental editor), someone savvy and objective who can help her see the book as she could not see it herself.

Qualifications

Anyone can call himself an editor. He may as well call himself a “professional editor” too, while he’s at it; it sounds even better and means just as little. Anyone who’s ever corrected a child’s school essay is an editor, but not necessarily one who would be useful to an aspiring novelist. Academic degrees do not necessarily confer competence in the field of editing fiction. What qualities should a real editor have?

I’m going to respond to that from the point of view of a novelist whose books have been greatly enhanced by smart, sensitive editors. These are the things that I would look for in an editor.

Experience. This can come from several different areas. Some freelance editors have experience working for publishing houses, and if I were in need of an editor, I would take a good look at anyone who had edited for a major house. Those jobs are highly competitive and you have to be good to get them. Ive worked with editors from Simon & Schuster, Morrow, Doubleday, Atheneum and Viking, and I never had one who didn’t contribute significantly to the finished book. Be careful, though. I’ve seen editors who claim to have publishing experience… but when you check out the companies they worked for, you discover that they are merely fronts for the writer’s own self-published work.

A lot of writers moonlight as editors, myself included. The advantage of having a writer for an editor is hands-on experience: they’ve wrestled their own novels into shape, and they know the tricks of the trade. The disadvantage is that these editors can be tempted to impose their own taste and style on the work to a greater extent than editors who are not writers: one reason that a sample edit is essential. (More on that below.) Writers who offer editing services should have solid achievements in their own fields; otherwise, you have to wonder how can they help you succeed if they couldn’t help themselves. For the same reason, I would never hire a writer to edit a novel if I didn’t know and admire his own fiction.

A solid track record.  Everyone has to start somewhere, but you don’t want anyone cutting their teeth on your book. Editors should be happy to provide you with a client list. I would want to see that some of those clients at least had been published commercially. If the editor specializes in a particular genre, and you write in a different genre, that is at the very least a matter to be discussed. Many fiction editors don’t specialize, however, because while conventions may differ, good writing is good writing.

ArethaRespect. A good editor enters into what you are trying to do and helps you get closer, rather than trying to squash your work into preordained parameters. Part of respect is honesty. The editor has to be frank about what’s working and what isn’t. Soft-peddling problems to spare the writer’s feelings does that writer a great disservice.

Communication. The best editors are natural teachers; but every editor should be willing and able to explain the reasons for his recommendations. Honesty is important, but so is reasonable tact and the ability to point out what does work well, so writers can build on it.

Mad_scientist_02_by_LemondjinnEducation. A degree in English is a useful credential for a copy editor, but has no bearing on that person’s ability to do developmental editing. I would look favorably at an editor with an MFA from a good writing program. Someone who has studied writing seriously can be a very discerning critic. But I’d also want to see evidence of practical experience and/or achievements. Otherwise, it could be like hiring an astrophysicist to fix your toaster.

Regardless of academic degrees, a good editor is widely read and conversant with the literature of the day, including the best genre writers. A wide frame of reference is a necessary prerequisite of the job. Editors also need a solid knowledge of the publishing industry, to be able to help writers who aspire to break through.

How to Recognize Good Editors…

1. They possess the qualifications listed above. I realize that this is a tall order, and that by the time you finish eliminating all the editors who don’t measure up, you may be left with only me. This is purely coincidental. *

Kidding, of course. There are many editors out there, and some of them are excellent. Others aren’t. That list of qualifications can be a useful tool in looking beyond the hype on a website.

2. They come recommended by or have worked with writers whose work you admire.

3. They are willing to provide a sample edit for a nominal fee.

4. They are discriminating. The hard truth is that some books are too rough to edit. They need to be substantially rewritten, which is not an editor’s job. Even when the writing is creditable, there’s also a question of fit. Not every editor is right for a particular writer. Good editors know this and do not take on all comers. The sample edit is an essential way to assess how writer and editor would work together. I never take on an editing job unless I’ve first done the sample edit offered on my website, and I would be wary of editors with set rates who accept work blindly.

5. The sample edit knocks your socks off. It may sting a bit at first, because there’s a part of every writer that wants to hear nothing but praise. But there’s another part of every serious writer that strives constantly for better tools and more facility with the craft. Once the sting wears off, a good edit should enunciate things about the work that the writer sensed but couldn’t articulate, as well as showing a way forward. Of all the criteria, the sample edit is the most important in choosing an editor.

… And How to Avoid Bad Ones

1. They don’t meet the qualifications listed above.

2. They make inflated claims. Anyone who promises that with his help, his clients will go on to sell their work is either a huckster or shilling for a vanity press. There are no certainties in publishing.Free Clipart Illustrations at http://www.ClipartOf.com/

3. They solicit you. Good editors tend to be backed up with work. Anyone who solicits you is suspect.

4. They don’t offer to provide a reasonably priced sample edit, but press instead for a larger commitment.

 

I hope  you find this useful and welcome your comments. I wish I could append a list of recommended editors. I do know several who are excellent for nonfiction, and I’ve referred writers to them; but unless I’ve worked with a fiction editor myself, or seen their work, I don’t feel comfortable referring novelists. I invite readers who have worked with first-rate freelance editors to share that in the comments section, as well as any other experience you might have had with freelance editors.

 

As I mentioned above, I do some editing myself when I’m not in the midst of writing a book; but my special offer is valid for any fiction writer who cares to take it up.

I also teach writing workshops several times a year. These classes are small, rigorous and intense.  The next course I will teach will be One Good Scene, starting April 2, 2015. At the moment I have one spot left, so if you’re interested, drop  me a line at ASAP:  Barbararogan (at) gmail (dot) com .

For more on this topic, see What to Do When You’ve “Finished” Your Novel and Good Writers Are Good Editors.

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I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.

The Biology of Fiction: Putting Stimulus Before Reaction

 

Before we were writers, we were readers; and to understand how fiction works, we must first understand what happens to us when we read fiction.  When we immerse ourselves in an absorbing story, the real world fades out and the fictive world fades in. We are not conscious of reading; rather, we feel as if we’re inside the story, experiencing its events through a character, or watching like a fly on the wall as they unfold. To say we are transported is to express a literal truth.flying carpet

How does this transportation happen? Not by accident, flying carpet, or magic, but rather by art, the writer’s art. I couldn’t hope to summarize in a blog post even the little I know about the craft of fiction. But I can address (and do, when the pedantic spirit overcomes me) very  specific issues, those small things that, taken together, make the difference between the talented amateur and the professional. Previous posts have addressed settings and the use of body language. Today’s topic is chronology, aka putting the stimulus before the reaction.

Below are two versions of the same scene. The first one is an example of the sort of writing I often see in classes.

Version 1:

As Lola descended the basement stairs, bile rose in her throat, and her nose wrinkled at the stench of something rotten down below. It made her sick, but she kept going. At the bottom of the stairs, she moved into the open center of the room and shined her flashlight around the perimeter. What she saw filled her with revulsion.

Three dead squirrels, dressed in doll’s clothes, had been arrayed in miniature chairs around a dollhouse table, tiny cups and saucers in front of each. Lola’s flashlight clattered to the floor and the light flickered and died. She screamed in horror as an icy hand clasped her own, and a cold little voice said, “How lovely.  Lola’s come to play.”

 

What do you think? Nothing wrong with it grammatically, nothing glaringly wrong at all…but are those chills running down your spine, or prickles of irritation?

Now consider this alternative.

Version 2:

basementLola descended the basement stairs, one cautious foot after another.  The stench of rot intensified with each step, but she forced herself to keep going. She reached the bottom, moved into the open center of the room and shined her flashlight around the perimeter.  The beam snagged on something unexpected, moved on, came back.

Three dead squirrels, dressed in doll’s clothes, sat in miniature chairs around a dollhouse table, tiny cups and saucers in front of each.

Lola screamed. Her flashlight clattered to the floor; the light flickered and died. An icy hand clasped her own, and out of the darkness, a cold voice spoke.

“How lovely.  Lola’s come to play.”

Are you feeling the difference?

The reason Version 2 works better is clear when you consider it from the reader’s perspective. For the writer, words are the medium; but the experience for the reader transcends words and involves all the senses. The reader is in the story;  it’s happening all around him. Writers, working behind the scenes, create that world. We paint the scenery, write the dialogue, give the characters conflicting agendas and set them into motion. And we do all this to draw the reader in and keep him immersed in our invented world. The last thing we want to do, then, is to get in the way of the reader’s direct experience of that world. Nor do we want our POV character to interpose himself as a filter.

In the first version of the cellar scene, the writer tells the character’s reaction to something before showing the thing he’s reacting to. The reader’s experience is thus second-hand, channeled through the intermediary of the POV character, whose reactions, spelled out by the writer, are meant to dictate the reader’s own.

In the second version, readers experience everything first-hand. This allows for the elements of surprise and suspense that the first version lacked. Equally importantly, it allows the reader to react directly to the sights and events of the scene, rather than cuing him with the character’s reaction. The POV character is still there—readers see through her eyes, feel through her skin—but she doesn’t stand between the reader and the action. Things happen in the proper biological order: stimulus first, then reaction.

But notice what else happens when we put the stimulus before the reaction. Some lines from the first version were cut from the second: “bile rose in her throat, and her nose wrinkled,” “It made her sick,” and “What she saw filled her with revulsion.” Lola still screams, but the words “in horror” are gone. None of these explanations are needed in the second version. By allowing readers to experience the events directly and viscerally, we no longer need to tell them how Lola reacted. They feel it for themselves.

Screaming_In_My_Head_by_Etherhel

 

For writers interested in improving their craft, I teach several online workshops.  These classes are small, rigorous and intense.  The next course I will teach will be One Good Scene, starting April 2, 2015. At the moment I have one spot left, so if you’re interested, drop  me a line at ASAP:  Barbararogan (at) gmail (dot) com .

I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.

The Inside Scoop: A Publicist’s Take on Book Marketing

 

No one writes for his desk drawer. Books are a means of transmitting stories, ideas, history, experience, and emotion; and that transmission can only succeed when the books are read. But to be read they must first be discovered by readers, and therein lies the rub. Books need publicity the way lungs need oxygen, but with so many competing for attention, how can writers attain their moment in the sun?

Ben CameronRecently I had the chance to pick the brains of Ben Cameron, founder of the London-based Cameron Publicity and Marketing. (Rather a violent metaphor, when you think about it, but I promise no publicists were injured in the production of this post.) We talked about what sells books, how writers can help (and hurt) themselves, the role of independent publicists and what to watch out for, and much more. Have a read, then tell me what you think.

 

Barbara:  Tell me a bit about yourself and your company. What made you decide to focus on publicity and marketing for books?

Ben: I always loved books so when I finished university in the US and moved to the UK 20 years ago it was always my intention to work in publishing in some way. My first job in the industry was with a book wholesaler and it was there that I discovered marketing and publicity – I love the strategy and to creatively think my way around problems (marketing), and I’m a pretty decent talker (publicity). I was there for a few years before moving to a publishing company and then setting up my own agency.

 

Barbara:  Once, at a publishing party, I heard one well-known publisher admit that he really had no idea what sells books, while others at the table nodded. Do you know? Has anyone studied the question?

Ben: Great question!  There is no one answer. What we do is push books toward people and push people toward books and to a large degree we can influence sales. But for a big seller there is also an element of luck and magic that has to happen. The spark that made Harry Potter a phenomenon was awards, a marketing and publicity thing, but there was also a kindling of goodwill and great writing that needed to be there as well. Why did 50 Shades of Grey become a hit? I have no idea – erotica was certainly nothing new but it seems like its time had come and that book was in the right place at the right time. It was lucky, but a publicist did get it in the position that it needed to be in to become THAT book.

Barbara:  Can you give an example of a publicity/marketing campaign that elevated a previously unknown or little-known writer to the bestseller lists? What do you think made it so successful?

Thinking fast and slowBen: A good example is the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It is a big publisher book (Penguin) but an interesting example of how to position a book for the market. This is a very academic psychology book that was promoted as popular science/business like Freakonomics or Malcolm Gladwell books. There were great little examples and excerpts from the book that were used for publicity to get it into the media in places that would not normally be interested in such and an in-depth and difficult to read book. A lot of what publicists do is to emphasize the more popular aspects of a book.

Barbara:  Effective publicity services don’t come cheap. Are they a good investment for all writers? If not, what sort of writer should consider hiring a publicity and/or marketing firm?

Ben: They aren’t cheap because it takes a huge amount of time and finesse to run an effective publicity campaign. A very academic book or a poetry book, for example, is not going to benefit much from a campaign – there just aren’t enough media outlets that will cover them – while something that can capture the imagination of a wide audience can pay back the cost many times over. Genre fiction is great for a shorter campaign, say 4-6 weeks, as that is enough time to reach its audience. Non-fiction often suits a longer campaign depending on the author and topic.  The important thing is to have a publicist explain why they think a certain style of campaign will suit the book and to feel comfortable with that explanation.

Barbara: Your company represents both published and self-published writers. Are there barriers to self-published writers getting reviews and coverage in mainstream media? If so, how do you overcome or sidestep them?

overcoming barriersBen: Yes, there are barriers but they are getting less significant every day. Getting reviews in the big newspapers is almost impossible still for obviously self-published books, but a lot of self-published books actually slip past the gatekeepers because they look as good as books from traditional publishers. To my mind feature articles and interviews are much more important than reviews anyway, and the journalists who do them care less about where a book came from than telling a good story. Most media understand that they need to include self-published books now but have difficulty knowing which books are worth consideration. That is where a good publicity pitch can go a long way.

Barbara: Has the consolidation of retail outlets (i.e. Amazon) affected your publicity and marketing strategy, and if so, how?

Ben: It isn’t good in many ways, but Amazon has been great for marketing. A customer can read about a book and instantly purchase it online. That is incredibly powerful for sales. Ebooks play into that as well – I myself will often read a review, buy the book immediately on my Kindle and start reading it within a minute. All that said, I personally love nothing more than going through the shelves in a good bookshop and placement of bookshops and bookshop events are helpful as well.

Barbara: What are the most effective ways for writers, both published and self-published, to help their own books and careers?

Ben: If you can afford a campaign it can really give you a long-term boost, but if not you can also buy-in the tools that you need to do the job yourself. You can pay only for a professionally written press release or a media mailing list or a listing on NetGalley (a website that showcases books to journalists, bloggers and reviewers) and it won’t cost an arm and a leg.

Barbara:  What are the biggest mistakes you see writers make in promoting their own work?

sales pitchBen: Not following up. Just sending out emails, review copies of books or press releases will get you almost nowhere. There needs to be a proper sales pitch made to the journalist explaining, in no uncertain terms, why the book is important. The author needs to be persistent and not get discouraged if they get no initial response. It takes a lot of time and effort and many people give up before they have really made the case for their book.

Barbara: A great many publicity and marketing services have sprung up to service the boom in self-published books, and some of them seem sketchy to me, offering expensive services that are unlikely to prove effective. What questions should writers ask prospective service providers? What should they beware of?

Ben: Like every part of self-publishing, the sharks are out there and there are plenty of poor services on offer. Do your research, talk to someone at the company or meet them in person and make sure that you are comfortable that they understand you and you book. Be wary of anyone who “guarantees” results – those results may well be on their own blog or podcast with very little audience, and publicity just doesn’t work in that way. Go for experience, a campaign designed specifically for you, a company that will regularly give you feedback and someone who “gets” your book.

 

Many thanks to Ben Cameron for sharing his time and expertise with IN COLD INK.  He can be reached on Facebook and on Twitter at @CameronPMtweets .

You might also enjoy these interviews with leading literary agent Gail Hochman, Simon & Schuster publisher Marysue Rucci, and publishing specialist Elizabeth Lyon. There are lots more to come, too, so do consider subscribing to IN COLD INK through links on the right.

What To Do Once You’ve “Finished” Your Novel

Jo BourneEvery once in a while, I come across a blog post so informative that I just need to share it. Jo Bourne, for those of you who don’t already know her, is a critically acclaimed writer of historical fiction, including THE BLACK HAWK and THE SPYMASTER’S LADY.  She’s also one of the smartest people about the craft of writing I’ve ever met. We are old friends from the Compuserve Book and Author forum, where we both serve as section leaders, and over the years I’ve found myself savoring (and quoting) much of her writing advice. This time, with her kind permission, I am reprinting an entire blog post. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and check out her blog for yourself. If you’re a writer, you’ll thank me.

Here, with no further ado, is Jo:

 

“Congratulations on finishing your manuscript.
Woot woot.
Go celebrate.

We’ll wait.

 

 

…  All through with dancing and whooping it up?
Now there are a few necessary steps to take to get from here to publication.

 I. Get Crits

What:  Turn some chapters of your manuscript over to harsh, knowledgeable critters.  Listen to what they say.  You need critters who haven’t been with you every step of the way as you wrote.  Critters who are not your family or friends.

This is not putting a saucer of milk out for the tabby.  This is wrapping yourself in raw meat and stepping into the lion’s cage.

How:  There’s a Writer’s Workshop in the Books and Writer’s Forum.   Here.  Absolute Write, here has a ‘Share Your Work’ section.  Writer’s Forum here has a Writers’ Workshop.
If you are writing genre, there are probably specialized sites for writers of your genre.

Why:  Intelligent criticism of your work will help you write better and will prepare you to edit your manuscript.

II.  Let the manuscript rest

What:  Put the work away for as long as you can.  Six weeks.  Three months.  Six months.
(You spend this time working on the next ms and critting other folks’ manuscripts, which is an excellent way to improve your own writing skills.)

How:  Print it out and put it in a locked drawer in the bottom of your desk.  Put all the work in a folder named “Open in January.

Why:  This lets you look at your own work with a critical editorial eye.  It gives you distance.

III.  Learn how publishing works

What:  Spend a solid 40 hours studying the publishing industry.

How:  Start out by Googling everything you can find on the subject.  Then drop into places full of knowledgeable folks and ask questions.

Why:  If you were going to (a) take a job in Thailand for a year or (b) go to State Aggie to study animal husbandry or (c) work for Avis Rent-a-car, you’d do that much research about (a) the country, (b) the university or (c) the business.
Why would you go into writing with less preparation?

III. Learn about agents

What:  Start making a spread sheet of agents who work in your field.  See who they represent.  See who they sell to.  See what kind of deals they’re making.  Find out what folks say about them.
If they have an on-line presence, get a feel for who they are.

How:  Google.  Look at the acks in the front of books similar to your own writing.  Publisher’s Lunch and Publisher’s Marketplace.

Why:  That’s the list you will query, when you query, if you decide you want an agent.  And after all, you have some time while your manuscript is resting.

IV.  Revise

What:  When the manuscript has aged like, y’know, fine wine … take it out of hiding and read it over.
Now you will revise.  Now you see what’s wrong.

How: Read and correct as if someone else had written it.

Why:  Because, unless you have indeed done this, the manuscript is not as good as you can make it.

V.  Find Beta Readers

What:  Beta readers take an entire manuscript that is ready for submission and crit it.  Beta readers, if possible, have never seen the manuscript before.

How:  Find them by doing beta reads for others.  Find them by making friends in writers forums.  Pay them in chocolate.

Why:  Because they will tell you if the whole thing works.  They’ll point out illogical story lines.  They’ll improve the manuscript.

 
VI.  Re-revise in light of the Beta read

’nuff said.

VII.  Get an agent … or not

Three months have passed since you declared your manuscript finished.

You will have read 10,000 words arguing Indie/Big Press/Small Press.
You’ll have the best manuscript you can write in one hand and a significant bit of WIP in the other.

Now you make this decision.

 

Many thanks to Jo for permission to reprint this post. If you appreciate her thoughts, you know the best way to thank a writer, don’t you?

Speaking of which, I’ve just learned that my new book, A DANGEROUS FICTION, has just made one of Amazon’s top 100 bestseller lists recently, the one for thrillers with female sleuths. So woot woot!, as Jo says!  Recently there was a wonderful review by Joan Baum in Dan’s Papers and a couple of fun interviews, one by My Bookish Ways and one by writer Sara Bowers, and there’s more to come.

The past few weeks since launch have been quite a whirl.  In fact, A DANGEROUS FICTION, worn out from the rigors of self-promotion, was recently spotted taking a bit of well-earned R&R.

20130821_130753_1

 

 

Completing the Circle: From Idea to Book to Audience

ElizabethLyon-fIf you’ve ever gone to a writers’ conference, chances are you’ve met Elizabeth Lyon. As the author of half a dozen widely-read guides to the craft and business of writing, including The Sell Your Novel Took Kit: Everything You Need to Know About Queries, Synopses, Marketing, and Breaking In and Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write: How to Get a Contract and Advance Before Writing Your Book, she is in great demand as a workshop leader and presenter. I had the pleasure of getting to know her at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference near Vancouver, where we were both presenters, and having many interests and pursuits in common, we’ve stayed in touch and followed each other’s careers ever since.

Many of her books are about breaking into the publishing market. As a freelance editor, she  works hard to find agents for her editing clients. Her own books have been published by Perigree/Penguin.  So I was surprised to hear from Elizabeth recently that she’d self-published her latest book, WRITING SUBTEXT. In this interview, Elizabeth talks about why she made the switch. She also has some really smart, sensible advice for writers contemplating their options.

 

BR: After a career spent helping other writers get published, and having been commercially published yourself, you have now taken the plunge into self-publishing.  What led you to that decision?

EL: Actually, self-publishing is a homecoming. In 1980, I published my first book, Mabel: The Story of One Midwife, about a Ghana-born woman who “caught” my two children when I was doing the baby boom in Corvallis, Oregon. Handling all aspects of the book—interviewing, writing, editing, book production, and promotion gave me the publishing bug. It’s immensely satisfying to make all the decisions, feel all the responsibility, and earn all the rewards—or lack thereof.

No doubt, having a book accepted by a publisher is heady. When my agent, Meredith Bernstein, called with a four-book contract for writing books from Perigee/Penguin, I thought I had “arrived.”

“For everything there is a season.” When friends began “going indie,” with their e-books and POD (print on demand) books, they became my Sirens, calling me back to my roots.

 

BR: Many aspiring writers imagine doing what you’ve done, publishing multiple books with a major house like Penguin, as the height of aspiration. Why change a good thing?

EL: My editors at Penguin were and are highly skilled and lovely people. Yet, I’ve always been uncomfortable with corporate publishing policies that put most books on a conveyer belt. Most have a short life. Others, like my own, become slow backlist sellers.

While publishers don’t make giant profits, except from the mega bestselling authors, the standard publishing contract sucks. They are not written for fairness; they’re rigged for the publisher—in money and in rights.

The royalty in the contract is seldom what one receives. Almost all books are heavily discounted pushing the royalty rate to 5% of retail or even less. That’s 64 cents on a $14.95 paperback, subtracting my agent’s 15%. Publishers don’t promote non-best-selling books, and bookstores can’t possibly have midlist instructional books that span decades taking up shelf space.

I am grateful that I had that experience. I gained prestige and support for my teaching and editing work. My best publishing experience, however, was with Blue Heron Publishing, my first publisher. The owners, Linny and Dennis Stovall, nurtured writers and their careers and their publishing contract was modeled after one recommended by the National Writers Union.

 

BR: What have you learned from your venture into self-publishing that might be helpful to others contemplating that route?

EL: With “Writing Subtext,” my first booklet in a new series, I feel the weight of responsibility, which I’m also happy to have. I’m hyper-aware of accuracy, quality of content, and proofreading. That’s a good thing. I rely upon my critique group’s suggestions and corrections, perhaps even more so than in the past.

As I learned with my first book in 1980, there is a daunting number of skills to master when you DIY—“do it yourself,” including knowing when to job something out. I turned book cover design and digital formatting over to others who do those tasks well. With just a few hiccups requiring advice, I was able to upload my digital files and cover image files to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, for sale as e-books and to Amazon’s CreateSpace for print-on-demand.

pink elephantThe big pink elephant in the room for all writers who publish is promotion—reaching the targeted audience. If a writer is content with selling (or giving away) books to a circle of friends or family, that’s easy. But if a writer wants to build a name and following, and even make a part-time or full-time living, then book promotion skills will require as much time as writing and revising the book, and maybe more. Writers with money can hire publicists, and these days that means someone who knows how to use the Internet for book promotion in addition to more traditional publicity.

 

BR: If an aspiring writer asked for your advice on whether to self-publish or to seek an agent and try to get published commercially, what would you answer and why? Would your advice differ for fiction and non-fiction writers?

EL: My answer is the same for fiction or nonfiction writers: What is your dream? Most writers I know, and who come to me for editing, would like to see their books published in a traditional way, whether with a large publisher or a small press. I call this Plan A. The possibility of acceptance is slim. My job, however, is to support, help, and encourage any writer with a Plan A dream. Some do succeed. Realistically, novelists (and memoir writers) typically underestimate the amount of revision needed to reach a polished and professional book. Often it will be a 3rd or 4th novel that will be well enough written to succeed with Plan A.

Writers of other forms of nonfiction may reach the high bar of outstanding writing and a unique book that contributes to the literature. However, to fulfill Plan A, these writers face expectations of a strong author platform. Platform refers to how broadly a writer is known and whether he or she can guarantee strong sales through ambitious actions such as speeches, workshops, interviews, book signings, blogging, and other Internet-related promotion. Most nonfiction book writers either have to stop marketing and build that platform or move to Plan B.

Plan B recalibrates the GPS to a small, specialty, or regional press. For instance, I’ve had one editing client whose novel was published by an LGBT press. A health and medical press published a client’s nonfiction book. But all too many unpublished writers receive offers of publication from companies that are essentially print-on-demand publishers who, like the vanity publishers of old, make the writer feel as if the book is “acquired.” I always caution about these offers because there may be smoke and mirrors. In these situations, the writer can self-publish with more rewards in all ways.

Plan C is self-publishing. The long-ago stigma over “vanity publishing” is mostly gone. Producing a book with new technologies is now easy and inexpensive. For some writers, Plan C is their Plan A.

I’ve always believed that all writers deserve to complete the circle—from idea to book to audience.

 

BR: Positing a reasonable facility for writing, what other abilities does a writer need to make a success of self-publishing?

EL: Every self-published writer has to decide how to quantify or qualify success. I’ve worked with writers for whom a dozen copies given to friends and family constitutes success. Memoir writers, for instance, may be writing to leave a legacy as well as to reach other people who have experienced something similar to what they have.

When a book is well-written, it stands a chance of word-of-mouth recommendation, which is the most potent form of sales. Readers buy books that are recommended and books written by authors they have heard of. For the self-published author, there is typically no access to distribution, to bookstores, beyond being listed or having a page in an online bookstore. The good news is that online book sales continue to expand.

Writers seeking a large audience must devote regular time to promotion, and to the degree the writer is comfortable, learning the ropes of the Internet, and pursuing opportunities for talks, book fairs, and any face-to-face sales.

I should have said earlier that most self-published books could have benefited from more development and revision. And everyone who self-publishes should seek professional line editing or memorize The Chicago Manual of Style. I also recommend asking three eagle-eye, grammar- and punctuation- smart friends to do final proofreading.

 

BR: The e-book revolution has already changed publishing profoundly, in part by leveling the distribution playing field for self-publishers. Would you venture an informed guess on the future of publishing as we know it?Crystal_Ball

EL: People will continue to buy books for their e-readers or tablets, in ever-greater numbers. Instant gratification, the impulse buy, is not only going to increase readers but it favors the self-publisher. Our price points are typically lower, much lower, than traditional publishers. In that sense we are more competitive.

Many types of books are not presently suited for electronic format, although that hurdle is sure to be overcome. Even so, I can’t envision books featuring art and photography, for instance, offering sustained pleasure in any other form but paper. Any book that invites consideration, a chance to grasp a whole, to flip pages back and forth should if not will be preferred in paper.

Yet, my opinions may be a function of living six decades plus. When books owned in most households are few, libraries are Red Box outlets, or an aisle of Office Depot, the mega conglomerate publishing industry may no longer exist as it is.

 

BR: What is your new book about, and where can readers find it?

WritingSubtext-variation21AFINALEL: My newest work is “Writing Subtext,” a booklet of 50 pages available in paper at CreateSpace/Amazon and as an e-book for Kindle, Nook, and Kobo. “Writing Subtext” is the first booklet in a series that features one technique or topic at a time. Subtext is a subtle, often confusing concept and technique. Writing it, developing it in revision, makes all the difference in boosting suspense, deepening characterization, and supporting theme. I consider it one of the “super techniques.”

My next booklet will be “Crafting Titles.” On first blush, choosing a title for a book seems easy. I’ve seldom had an editing client or writing friend who hasn’t struggled to find the best title. So much goes into the choice.

 

Thanks so much for a really informative interview, Elizabeth.  With so much hyperbole on both sides of the publish/self-publish divide, it’s a pleasure hearing and sharing your balanced  take on the topic. Writers looking for a first-rate editor can contact Elizabeth through her website.

 

If you enjoyed this interview and want more like it, please subscribe through the link on the top right. Lately In Cold Ink has been overrun with news about my new release with Viking Books, A DANGEROUS FICTION,  and I guess that’s forgivable, seeing as my new books come around as often as cicadas. But as you can see, I’m slowly getting back to my usual subjects:  writing and publishing.  

That said, I do want to thank  Book Page for its wonderful review of A DANGEROUS FICTION, which they pronounced “a thoroughly entertaining and engaging mystery,” and to Zan Marie Steadham for the interview on her engaging blog.  If you’re looking for little frisson in the last hot days of summer, I hope you’ll give it a read.

 

Game of Words: Writing Lessons From TV

My name is Barbara, and I’m an addict.

I’m addicted to Game of Thrones. That’s not all; I’m also hooked on Bates Motel, and recently I kicked Downton Abbey, not through any effort or willpower of my own, but because the supply dried up.

The Game of Thrones trouble began with the George R. R. Martin books. I was writing A Dangerous Fiction at the time, and was in search of a bit of light reading as a palette cleanser.  I started reading the first book in the series, and several million pages later, I looked up blearily from the last and realized that three weeks had passed and I hadn’t done a lick of work. The TV series only made the situation worse. I started out watching each new episode on Sunday nights. Before long I was mainlining repeat showings two or three times a week.

I’m not proud of this. When I was younger, I took an elitist view of television. I owned a set, of course, because not to would seem like snobbery, and besides, TVs make great babysitters. But I rarely watched it. I am a writer; I read.child reading

I still don’t watch many shows, but those I do follow, I watch with a writer’s eye. I ask the same questions I ask when a book floors me: What makes this story so compelling, and where can I get me some?

MartinIn the case of Game of Thrones, I recognized all the basic ingredients of good fiction. Great characters? Check. High stakes? The highest: life or death, honor or disgrace, the fate of kingdoms. Interesting settings? Fascinating and vividly imagined. All sterling qualities, and enough to make any story compelling, yet I felt that something more was needed to explain the three-week hole Martin’s books had blasted in my life.

And then, as I watched a recent episode, the answer finally dawned on me. The scene was one in which Cersei visits Tyrion in his much diminished quarters to suss out what he plans to tell their father. Tyrion, in turn, wants to know precisely what she’s afraid he’ll say. It’s not an action scene; there are no dragons or swordplay. Yet the scene is terrifically tense. The dialogue shows each one trying to elicit information from the other while concealing his/her own intentions and concerns. Each character had a vital agenda, and those agendas were perfectly at odds.

What I realized at that moment was that the same could be said of nearly all Martin’s scenes. The man seems incapable of framing any scene that is not full of conflict and hidden agendas. In scene after scene, his characters use manipulation, intimidation, flattery, violence, seduction and every other means of persuasion to impose their will.

I was drawn to Bates Motel by its two stars, Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore, who are both outstanding, but I stayed because the story wouldn’t let me leave. It sent out tentacles, first implanting questions in my mind (“What happened to Norman’s father?” is a big one), then taking its own sweet time answering them: an old writer’s trick.

And even when answers are provided, they are only as reliable as the character providing them, which in the case of Bates Motel means not at all. The unreliable narrator is a useful literary device that works because readers initially trust the narrator’s version of events. Their gradual realization that a particular narrator may be lying or deluded casts a whole different light on the story. The Remains Of the Day, Gone Girl, and Shutter Island are excellent examples. Usually the device does not work as well on film, because it’s harder to keep up the illusion when readers can see events with their own eyes instead of through the narrator’s. But Bates Motel manages it beautifully in the death of Norman’s father.

We see two versions of that death, which takes place before the start of the story. The first is Norman’s memory of discovering his father’s body. In that version, he is shocked and heartbroken, while his mother, Norma, is clearly not surprised at all; the only emotion she shows is pity for her son’s distress. Viewers are led to the supposition that she staged the accident.

Many episodes later, we see the death from Norma’s point of view. In that version, Norma casts herself as victim and protector. But since viewers know by now that this is how she justifies all the crazy things she does, they still can’t be sure about what happened and who did what. Both Norman and his mother are quite mad. He suffers from blackouts and hallucinations, while she has a major personality disorder or three. That makes them classic unreliable narrators, which allows the real narrators—the series’ writers—to play all sorts of tricks on viewers. We can’t trust anyone, and that uncertainty keeps us watching. In stories, as in music, it’s the unresolved chord that draws us onward.

Now, I’ll concede that writers are adept at justifying bad behavior in the name of art, including addictions to worse substances than popular TV. Nevertheless, I will maintain that my affliction has its beneficial side; indeed I’ll go so far as to recommend it to any writer interested in improving his or her craft.

From Game of Thrones, writers can learn to seek out our characters’ hidden agendas; to frame scenes to take maximum advantage of those conflict; and to do this not once in a while, but in every scene. Bates Motel, is a masterclass in the use of unreliable narrators and delayed gratification to enhance suspense. Lessons worth learning, I’d say, whatever the price. Besides, when I said I’m addicted to these series, I was taking poetic license. I can stop watching anytime I want to. Really I can.

Reprinted from a post on www.Bookcountry.com.

Settings

The best way to sell a book has nothing to do with creating a platform or schmoozing with editors at writers’ conferences (though neither of those things hurt.) It’s writing a book that’s what agents call bulletproof—one so good that no one in the long chain of approvers can resist it.

Bulletproof_vest

In this blog, I talk a lot about the business of publishing, which is in a fascinating state of flux at the moment. I also write a lot about the process of submitting one’s work. But every now and then I like to take a step back to consider the basics. Writers who want to sell their work  must learn to write on their own dime; they need to master their craft. Dare I suggest that for people with writing talent, time invested in learning craft– by reading books on the subject, taking courses, working with mentors and good critique groups–will ultimately yield better results than the same amount of time spend networking?

This is part two in a series of blog posts about the craft of writing. It’s adapted from one lecture in a course I teach at www.nextlevelworkshop.com called One Good Scene, and it focuses on the importance of setting. In a later post I’ll go into the nuts and bolts of describing setting.

 Every scene takes place somewhere. That particular place and time may be actual or imagined, but that setting must feel real to the reader or nothing that takes place there will feel real. The way to accomplish this is through description that is vivid, concrete, and specific. I’ll talk more about the techniques for conveying setting in a later post; right now I want to focus on its functions in the scene.

Good writing is efficient writing. Novels may be expansive compared to short stories, but all the parts must mesh together and function in tandem or the thing won’t run. Thus setting should not be chosen at random any more than characters should be. Rather, it should be an integral part of the whole, chosen to enhance whatever the writer is trying to accomplish in that scene.

Like every other element in fiction, it should multi-task.  Setting always serves to enhance the reality of a scene, but it can also define and affect characters, advance the plot, reveal themes,  and create an appropriate atmosphere. D.H. Lawrence, no slouch in the setting department, wrote that “setting provides an ‘emotional landscape’ upon which a character’s own temperament may play counterpoint or may resonate in a wonderful symphony.”

In real life, all of us have a relationship with our environment. It affects us and we, in turn, affect it. On a macro scale, think of global warming; on a micro scale, think of the impact one person’s troubles has on his home or work environment.

In fiction, too, there is a necessary relationship between character and setting. Sometimes that connection is overt and in the foreground. In THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, for example, the sea serves as the antagonist. In a story about a pioneer family staking out a homestead, the push-pull between human desire and nature’s power  is likely to be an explicit part of the story’s plot and theme, as well as a testing ground for character. In a haunted house tale, the setting provides plot as well as characterization, since the characters’ reactions to what happens there will shed light on them.

But even in stories whose setting is kept in the background, there is still, or there should be, a relationship between setting and characterization. Our characters’ homes, their possessions, the contents of their drawers: all these can reveal much about them, if we pick the right details to highlight.

Fiction gives us the ability to inhabit our characters and see through their eyes. As you describe your setting, always consider whose eyes you’re seeing through. What your viewpoint character notices about his environment  tells us as much about him as it does about his surroundings.  A cop walking down a city street will notice completely different things than a love-struck young girl walking hand-in-hand with her boyfriend down the very same street.  In Pete Dexter’s wonderful novel Paris Trout, the title character runs a grocery store in the pre-refrigeration South. When his wife walks into the store unexpectedly, he looks at her as he would “six crates of melons that showed up unordered.” How much does that lovely bit of description tell us about Trout and the state of his marriage?

Setting  Reveals Theme and Create Atmosphere

For examples of settings that embody a book’s theme and create its atmosphere. think of the great Gothic novels: the descriptions of Manderlay in Rebecca, of the heath in Wuthering Heights. As John Gardner wrote, “Description is the author’s way of reaching deep into his unconscious.” It is symbolic, not because the writer deliberately plants symbols like someone secreting Easter eggs around the yard, but rather because the symbols arise out of the writer’s deep, often preconscious understanding of what the book is about: its theme.

Because descriptions appeal directly to the senses, they evoke the emotions that are linked to those sensory memories, some of which are fairly universal. The smell of fresh-cut grass, fresh-baked bread, or a baby’s hair are likely to evoke not only images but feelings in the reader. And those feelings create a certain atmosphere.

To illustrate, here are two different versions of a brief scene:  a character walking to his van.

1. Caleb walked down the street to his van.

 

What do you know about Caleb from this line? Where is he? What time of day, what season? What does his van tell you about him?  How do you feel about him? What sort of feeling does the scene leave you with?

Don’t know? Let’s try version 2.

 

2.    Caleb shuffled down the avenue in his oversized duffle coat, his cap pulled down low. He kept to the curb, skirting the light cast by plate-glass windows full of Christmas decorations and fancy goods he couldn’t afford and wouldn’t want if he could. His stomach growled at the smell of roasting chestnuts and spitted meat, but he passed the carts without pausing. Women were all around him, soft and fleshy, streaming out of office buildings, weaving between cars,  pooling on corners as they waited for the lights to change, bending to adjust a shoe strap, flashing their legs, swinging their shiny hair, laughing and talking, though never to Caleb. He saw them, but they never saw him…until he was ready for them to see.

He circled the van before opening the door, checking for tickets, but of course there were none; he’d been careful to park legally. The van was a white Dodge Caravan, not so old as to attract attention but too old to warrant stealing. The exterior was grimy, the interior immaculate. The engine was good. He hadn’t had to do a thing to the van since taking it off the old man, except for the tinted windows, and those were a necessary expense.

 

What do you know about Caleb? Where is he? What time of day, what season? What does his van suggest about him?  How do you feel about him?  What sort of feeling does the scene leave you with?

Can you answer those questions now?

What about your own work? As you think about it now, is setting integral or incidental to your stories?

 

More on settings

More on craft

Information on ONE GOOD SCENE and my other online writing workshops

I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.

Publish AND Self-Publish: an Interview with Bestselling Author Lorraine Bartlett

I’ve got a delightful surprise today: an interview with one of the savviest writers I know, Lorraine Bartlett. Lorraine writes fiction under several names, including Lorna Barrett. If you don’t already know her work, waste no time! The immensely popular Booktown Mystery series is what put Lorraine Bartlett’s pen name, Lorna Barrett, on the New York Times Bestseller list, but it’s her talent — whether writing as Lorna, or L.L. Bartlett, or Lorraine Bartlett — that keeps her there. This multi-published, Agatha-nominated author pens the exciting Jeff Resnick Mysteries as well as the acclaimed Victoria Square Mystery series, and now the Tales of Telenia saga, and has many short stories and novellas to her name(s). Check out the links to all her works here.

A lot of writers agonize over publishing vs. self-publishing. Lorraine does both very successfully. I’m delighted to pass along some of her insights into the advantages of having the best of both worlds.

Q: When did you first know you wanted to write? Was that realization prompted by any particular book you read?

A: As a teenager, I discovered Star Trek fanzines.  Regular people were writing fan stories that were good—and expanded the boundaries of the series.  I though t to myself, “I could do that, too.”  And so I did … although not very well.  It took many years to get where I am now. I never thought I’d have a career as a writer.

Q: Earlier in your career, you wrote stories for romance magazines. Did that contribute to selling your first novel?

A: No, but it got me the professional sales I needed to join Mystery Writers of America.  I wanted that kind of credibility. At the time, I felt it was necessary in order to get noticed by literary agents.

Q: How did that first book sale come about? Did you go through the traditional agent search?

A: I was rejected by literally hundreds of agents (and only tossed all those rejection letters last year).  It was my third agent who finally sold my first book to a small press where it failed abysmally.  Currently, thanks to self-publishing, that book (and series) is my best seller.

Q: What made you choose mystery as your genre?

THRESHOLD-sm A: I knew I’d never be able to write sexy romances, and mystery seemed the next best genre.  Although now I’m trying my hand at what I call “fantasy lite” with the Tales of Telenia novels. (They are THRESHOLD and JOURNEY … and I’m plotting a third now.)  I write character-driven stories, and I like strong women with an entrepreneurial flair.

Q: You’ve published under three names: Lorraine Bartlett, Lorna Barrett, and LL Bartlett. Why is that, and will you continue to write new books under each name?

A: When I sold the Jeff Resnick series, my agent suggested I write under the name L.L. Bartlett as she felt (and was right at the time) that men wouldn’t buy a book written by a woman.  I’m happy to say that things have changed in the last decade and that I’m finding more and more male readers every day—even for my cozy mysteries.  It just goes to prove that people like character driven stories—be the protagonist male or female.

As psychological suspense and cozy mysteries are quite different, I was asked by my publisher to take a pseudonym for the Booktown Mysteries.  By the time I sold the Victoria Square Mysteries, I wanted people to know (okay—all the kids in my high school graduating class who thought I was some kind of geek) that I could be successful under my own name.  Two of the three books under that name have hit the New York Times bestsellers list, but my Lorraine Bartlett website gets far less hits than the other two.

If I had it to do over, I’d only write under one name.

Q: You’ve written several different series and they’ve all done well. What do you think are the key elements to a successful series? And a related question: What mystery series (plural), past or present, do you particularly admire?

A: Character-driven stories.  The reader must be able to relate to or feel something for the characters.  I get letters from readers telling me they can’t stand Angelica Miles because she’s a bossy, opinionated person. In other words, she’s a big sister and acts like it.  Despite the fact I never had a sister, I’ve somehow managed to capture that love-hate relationship sisters often have.  I’ve had many more letters from readers telling me the relationship between Angelica and Tricia mirrors the relationship they have with their own sisters.  I also write about brothers in the Jeff Resnick Mysteries.  Brothers I understand.  I’ve got two of them.

Gee, I don’t think I have a favorite mystery series, though I’ve read a lot of them.

Q: I’m fascinated by your combining of mainstream publishing and self-publishing, and would like to pursue that subject a bit. You’ve had multiple books hit the New York Times bestseller list, most recently One Hot Murder, so it would One-Hot-Murder.large_seem that your publishers have done well by your books. And yet you have chosen to self-publish some of your work. What led you to that decision?

A: See above.  My small press experience was a disaster.  I had faith in my characters.  My friend Sandra Parshall (author of the award-winning Rachel Goddard mysteries) once told me that I’d be best known for my Jeff Resnick characters.  I don’t know if that’s true, because being successful as a self-published author is far different than success with traditional publishing, but I sell a LOT more copies of those books.  Oddly, the crossover audience is small.  I’ve had better luck convincing my cozy readers to try the darker Resnick stories than having the Resnick readers try the lighter cozy mysteries.  Price is also a factor.  My Resnick books sell for $4.99 as opposed to $7.99 for my traditionally published books  in e format.  The price difference gives them more of an incentive to try the books.  My Resnick mysteries are also available as trade paperbacks, but don’t have the kind of distribution the cozies have.  Still, the royalty for self-published books is far greater than an author gets with a traditional publisher.  But the most important thing an author needs to be successful in self-publishing is experience.  One really does need to write millions of words, figure out structure, plotting, and characterization, and present the best story they can write before readers will buy their work.  Have there been flukes?  Sure.  J.K. Rowling may not be the best writer in the world, but there’s no doubt she is a spellbinding storyteller.

Q: As a writer with a major publishing house, you have the support of professionals in all sorts of areas, including editing, proofreading, marketing, sales, promotion, publicity, and design. How do you replicate all the work they do for your self-published books?

A: You can buy the same services as a one-shot  deal and you’re not an indentured servant to a publisher or an agent.  The profit margin is all yours, and is often recovered in a surprisingly fast time period.

Q: What are the best methods you found for promoting your self-published work?

A: Social networking.  I rarely do face-to-face promotion anymore because it’s just not worth the time and effort.  I had some very lovely signings for the earlier books, but people don’t show up any more.  It’s not good for the author or the bookseller.

Q: Have your publishers encouraged your forays into self-publishing?

A: No. But when I offered my editor my Jeff Resnick series, I was turned down because he felt it would only garner a niche audience.  I’m happy to say he was wrong.  They haven’t discouraged me, either.  I suspect that’s because I’m making money for them and they want to keep me happy.  Should I be presented with a contract that says I can only write for them, I wouldn’t sign it.  I write other things besides cozy mysteries, if only for my own entertainment.  I wrote the fantasy novels while on vacation cruises.  It was fun.  I don’t want someone telling me what I can and cannot write.

Q: How does your self-published work sell in comparison to your published work? Or are we comparing apples to oranges?

A:  It is apples and oranges.  But I also make a lot more money with my self-published titles.  Why not?  I’ve got 30 of them, although the majority of them are short stories.  Some were projects that were rejected by traditional publishers.  It’s gratifying to be able to say, and have the numbers to back it up, that editors and agents were wrong.  I believed in my characters and my work when others didn’t.  I worked hard to make this happen.

Q:  There’s a lot of controversy in the blogosphere about pricing of e-books. Some people feel that pricing books at ninety-nine cents makes a joke of the author’s work. Others complain that pricing them above ten dollars, as mainstream publishers do, arouses furious buyer resistance. What do you think? Is there a sweet spot for self-published books?

A: No doubt about it, a 99 cent book by an unknown writer has a better shot at selling than a $7.99 book by yet another unknown writer.  I do have 99 cent titles, but they’re for short stories.  My first was an Amazon short.  I liked the idea of being able to sell a short story for 49 cents.  When Kindle took off, they abandoned that program and made the minimum price 99 cents.  I worried no one would buy short stories, but they do.  Not in huge quantities, but doesn’t take long to earn out the cost of production.

A good starting place is $2.99.  It rather depends on length.  My shorter novels go for $2.99.  The longer ones for $4.99.  That seems reasonable to me.  I think traditional publisher shoot themselves in the foot by charging the same price for an e book and a mass market paperback. (I haven’t really investigated the price relationship between e books and trade paperbacks.)  They argue there are costs for formatting a manuscript for an e book, but that’s also called overhead.  They’d do far better selling a high volume at a lower price than a lower volume at a higher price.

Often 99 cents is a loss leader.  Price the first in a series at that price (or free) and if readers like it, they’ll try the rest of the series.  It works well for grocery stores selling milk, etc.  It also works well for authors.

Q: What does the advent of low-cost self-publishing mean for writers and publishers today? I used to see publishing and self-publishing as two completely separate tracks. More and more, though, we are seeing writers cross from one track to the other or, like you, straddle both. Can you venture an opinion about where this is heading?

A: I have no idea.  But I like the freedom of writing what I want and that work finding an audience.  Publishing used to nurture authors.  They don’t do much of that any more.  I don’t have to sell 100,000 copies of any given book to be successful as self-published author, simply because the royalty structure is so different.  Authors who never earned out with their work now can earn a living wage from the titles that “failed” when traditionally published.  Genres that were said to be dead (such as Regency Romance and horror) are finding plenty of new readers via e books.

Q: Would you advise a first-time novelist to pursue mainstream publication or to self-publish? Why?

A: It would depend on how well they wrote.  Tossing a book up on Kindle and hoping it will fly is a crapshoot.  What makes self-published authors successful is backlist, and putting out new material on a regular basis.  When you’re tied to a traditional publisher, you’re often in the one-book a year trap.  Stephen King and Nora Roberts were far too prolific for their traditional publishers and had to take pseudonyms.  These days, they wouldn’t have had to.  Traditional publishing still has a lot of old-fashioned ideas they’re holding onto for dear life … like if you saturate the market with your work, it won’t sell.  I’m happy to prove that old saw wrong.

Q: What’s the most useful advice about writing you ever got? Who gave it to you?

A: Rewrite. A lot of people said it over and over again.  And one of the beautiful things about self-publishing … you can rewrite a story and put out a new version.  As technology changes, so do my books.  I just refreshed one a couple of weeks ago—keeping it relevant.  I like having that ability.  Younger readers are going to be better able to relate to the story if it doesn’t read like history.

Q: What’s the most important advice you have for aspiring writers?

A: Read a lot. Write a lot.  Rewrite a lot.

Q: Thanks so much for visiting, Lorraine.  What’s next on your agenda?

A: After my next contract works…I have no idea.  But no matter what I write, I’m sure I’m going to enjoy the journey.

 

I hope you found Lorraine’s remarks as interesting as I did. She’s a busy lady, but if possible she will drop by and respond to comments and questions, so please feel free to join the conversation. 

Some exciting developments on my end, too, with A DANGEROUS FICTION coming out in July with Viking Books. The one I can share now is that we’ve scheduled two appearances in the NY area. I’ll be reading and signing books at the Barnes and Noble in Carle Place, NY, on July 29, 2013 at 7 PM and at the Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca, NYC. I’m hoping Lorraine is wrong in this one thing at least, and that lots of people do come, because I love meeting readers face to face. See you there!

 

What Writers Can Learn From Game of Thrones

 

My name is Barbara, and I’m a Game of Thrones addict.

MartinI know I’m not alone. George R. R. Martin has millions in his thrall, captives of the TV series and/or the books on which it is based. For me, it started with the first season. I watched an episode or two, enough to realize that there was no way I was waiting years for the series to play out. So I started on the books; and several thousand pages later, I looked up wearily and realized that three weeks had passed.

After withdrawal, I was left with two questions. What makes this series so compelling, and where can I get some? I’m a novelist myself, and I teach writing, so I recognized the basic ingredients. Great characters? Check. High stakes? The highest: life or death, honor or disgrace, the fate of kingdoms. Interesting settings? Fascinating and vividly imagined. All sterling attributes in a novel, and enough to make any work compelling, but I felt that something more was needed to explain the three-week hole Martin’s books had blasted in my life.

And then last week, as I watched the latest episode, it finally dawned on me. The scene was one in which Cersei visits Tyrion in his much diminished quarters to suss out what he plans to tell their father. Tyrian, in turn, wants to know precisely what she’s afraid he’ll say. The dialogue between them, brilliantly written and acted, shows each one trying to elicit information from the other while concealing his/her own intentions and concerns. Each character had a strong agenda, and those agendas were at odds.

What I realized at that moment was that the same could be said of nearly all Martin’s scenes. The man seems incapable of framing any scene that is not full of conflict and hidden agendas. In scene after scene, his characters use manipulation, intimidation, flattery, seduction and every other means of persuasion to impose their will.

Sometimes the conflict is on the surface, and other things are going on underneath. Brianna and Jamie Lannister are clearly at odds as she attempts to deliver him safely to Kings Landing in return for hostages and he attempts to escape. That’s in the foreground. In the background, hardly noticed at this stage, is a growing affinity which adds depth to their scenes.

Other times, the conflict is hidden behind a veil… but it’s always there, animating the scene. Even when the primary purpose of the scene is to convey necessary information, Martin (and the series’ screenwriters) find ways to bring out the inherent conflict. For example, there is a scene in which Catelyn Stark and her son, Rob discuss the death of her father: not a particularly dynamic passage. But as they make plans to attend the funeral, Caitlin is in chains, and Rob has not forgiven her treachery. They love each other but they are at odds, and that strife bubbles to the surface of the scene.

Now, none of this is groundbreaking fictional technique. Good writers strive for maximum tension in their work, and conflict is one of the best ways of producing tension. Better writers know that all their characters, including the secondary ones, have agendas and act on them in one way or another. But only the best writers execute these principles consistently in scene after gripping scene.

So this is what I’ve learned from Martin: to seek out those hidden agendas; to frame scenes to take maximum advantage of conflicts between those characters; and to do this not once in a while, but in every scene.

How about you? Have you read Game of Thrones, or watched the TV series? What do you take away from it?

 

DangerousFictionHC_jacket2My latest mystery, A Dangerous Fiction, is coming out in July 2013 with Viking Books. It’s available now for preorder in hardcover and e-book, with a large discount on preorders of the hardcover. Also, please check out my other titles, newly available as Simon and Schuster e-books: Suspicion, Hindsight, and Rowing in Eden