Thursday, December 18, 2014

Releasing

Great writing is important.  Compelling titles and riveting covers are important.  A book cover synopsis that entices yet leaves folks wanting for more is important.  However, there's something else that many writers struggle with without even realizing it.

When to release his or her novel.

Summertime is when all the blockbuster movies come out.  Even wonder why that is?  For both people who don't know, it's because school is out, families see summer as vacation and entertainment time, and movies sell better.  Studios aren't stupid - they release for when to gain maximum exposure to the audience.  Although a few other times can also resonate - December to generate Oscar buzz, for example - no one releases a great movie destined for mega-bucks in February.

Writers need to approach the release of their work the same way.  When can you release for the greatest impact?  When will people be looking?

The research I've conducted is in line with what should be common sense if thought is applied.  The first is mid-late Spring(think the beginning of May) because people are looking to go on vacation, and many want a book as a traveling companion.  They haven't gone yet(most wait for June or July), but they're in the preparatory stages.  They're gathering supplies, and a good book to read on the plane or by the pool means one less thing they need to think about.

Late fall before winter sets in is also good(think November).  Winter is harsh in many places in the US, and being cooped up all day is more bearable if you can curl up next to the fire with a cozy tome.  Also, it's the beginning of the holiday shopping season, and an early November release gets you out there for either purchase, or to be ready for those bookstore or Amazon gift cards that people get at Christmas.

Remember, these are generic dates that won't always work.  Sometimes you need to be timely, like releasing that horror book a week before Halloween or that patriotic novel just before the 4th of July.  However, this should be a good guideline to get started.  If you want to release more often, by all means, go ahead, but do some basic research and figure out when is good(the start of the school year?) and when is not(Spring Break?).  Like the high school prom, the right date can make all the difference.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Titles and Covers Reminder

I was at a Barnes & Noble a few days ago - browsing around is one of my favorite hobbies - and I was reminded once again of two of the most important elements of selling a book:  the title and the cover.  Yes, word of mouth is the most important elements of building a solid reputation to new readers, but that usually comes from those who already have a copy of your masterpiece.  To get a complete stranger to even pick up your work requires more.

The title was the first thing that drew my notice.  There were loads of generic books with ho-hum titles, and I skipped over those without so much as a second glance.  However, those titles whose names were just a little unusual without being too crazy won the right for me to look at the cover.

The cover was the second cut line.  Some books were nothing more than a title on a bland grey or red background.  Once I saw that, right back on the shelf it went.  After all, if the author doesn't have enough creativity to have a good cover, what should I expect from the writing?  Other covers were generic pictures of people fighting or a detective with a magnifying glass or some other clichéd garbage.  Those also went back on the shelf because it made me feel like the book would be boring or clichéd.

I realize how completely shallow this makes me sound.  However, I feel like I'm fairly typical of the average reader.  Yes, I can, and have, browsed more thoroughly, but by acting like 90-ish% of the casual buying public, I can get a sense of what it's looking for.  It reinforces how important the perfect title and suitable cover are.  You can write the best book in the world, but if folks can't get past the name or the display, it won't matter.

Writers need to spend time on the title. Bounce it off friends, family, and complete strangers.  Ask them what the title makes them feel.  Does it arouse interest?  A yawn?  A snort?  What?

The cover, although daunting, is one of the many benefits of the age of the independent writer.  Who better than the author to know what the public should see to draw them in?  Since you should know your book better than some faceless editor or artist, you get to decide the right approach.  If you're a traditional and first time published writer relying on a publishing company...well...best of luck.

Spend the time you need.  To get a sense, browse local bookstores and see what entices you.  Think of it as research, and research helps you gain market share.  It's not necessarily sexy, but it will give you a leg up that some arteest who thinks that writing alone will work doesn't understand.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Always On Sale

I was sitting in the GM dealership last week waiting for my 11 year old car to finish being fixed when an amiable woman in the chair next to me struck up a conversation.  She seemed like one of those chatty types who got out nervous energy by talking, and I had little else to do, so I participated.  We talked about her son(he just finished Basic Training), her job(she left teaching to become a real estate agent), and what we liked about Hawaii(it's not frigid).

We eventually got around to our interests, and I casually mentioned that I like to write.  Her eyebrows shot up and she asked if I'd been published.  Not yet, although I told her the schedule I was on to do so.  I finally talked a bit about each of my books, and her interest doubled.  It turned out that she liked similar stories, and she asked what it would take to get on my fledgling mailing list.

That round about story was the lead in to remind all of you writers in the audience that you're always on the market.  Perhaps once you've made it big you can sit back and allow your reputation to sell books for you, but if you're just starting out, be prepared to sell yourself and your work at every opportunity.

The catch is that you can't be an overbearing prick about it.  Don't walk up to random strangers and shout, "I'm a writer, and have I got a story for you!"  However, you'll be surprised how often the chance to hawk your wares presents itself.  People love to talk about interests, and writing should be one of yours.

The trouble is that you can't just talk about what a great storyteller you are - you have to show it.  How do you do that?  You talk about your story.  What is it about?  How is it different than what else is out there?  Can you make a favorable comparison to something well known in popular culture?  Do you know what your book's 30 second spiel/book cover synopsis is?

When discussing your story, do so with enthusiasm.  No, not the rah-rah cheerleader crap you see coming out of motivational speakers - just show that it's interesting by knowing what it is and be able to tell just enough to whet the appetite without giving away the farm.  Potential readers will know if you're not enthusiastic about your work, and if you're not into it, why should they be?  You have to strike a balance between being passionate and needy, so expand beyond "My book is sooo great" and into why it's "sooo great."  For Akeldama, I like to start off by tapping into public disgust over sparkly vampires by using a line I stole from the internet - "My vampires only sparkle after the human hero has set them on fire."

If you're not willing to expand your potential base of customers, then you're not ready to do this for a living.  It takes more than writing a great story.  Great stories are nice, but if no one buys them, they won't bring you an income for neat goodies like food and heat.  Always be on the lookout for a new customer, for you never know which one will bring enough referrals for you to break out.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Predictable Unpredicability

Readers seem to like being kept on their toes.  A story that's too predictable is one where interest is quickly lost, for no one likes to know exactly where a tale is headed.  However, in our zeal to keep people off balance, I think that we, as writers, try a little too hard.

M. Night Shyamalan has become a running joke for his overreliance on the twist ending.  Rather than allow a strong story to stand on its own, Shyamalan seems to feel it necessary to head off in a totally bizarre direction, undermining the storytelling he has engaged in.

We need to remember this as we write our novels.  A certain amount of unpredictability helps keep readers coming back, but there is also a modicum of security in a story playing out as the reader feels it can or should.  As a reader myself, throwing me for too big a loop actually pisses me off, taking the emotional investment I've made and playing it into something purely for the purpose of being out there.

Further, when such twists become a habit, readers start looking for them.  That's the great thing about a real twist ending or unpredictable moment - the reader should never see it coming.  If they look for it all the time, it loses impact, and it decreases the impact of the story when it doesn't happen.  Readers feel torn between "I got robbed" and "Thank God they didn't try that stupidity again."

Unpredictability doesn't always have to engage in the most overarching parts of the book.  While impactful, it can be applied more subtly, such as a character having an unexpected relationship to others, or perhaps a trail being followed leads to an unanticipated destination.  It needn't result in something that totally upends the story and makes the reader roll his or her eyes.

Stories need to, usually, make sense in the end.  And an unpredictability that folks look for means it's more of a shock effect that can be anticipated instead of something truly unpredictable.  Resist the urge to always go for the big shakeup, and look for other ways to surprise your audience - you'll be surprised by the way that creates anticipation.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Re-reading For Study

As recently mentioned, I've noticed a certain amount of sterility creeping into the way I write.  I've lost some of the storytelling aspects of the craft in my zeal to be that perfect writer.  By doing so, the tale itself has gotten less fun to tell.

In order to find ways to fix this, I've gone back and decided to re-read some of the writers that have had an impact on me.  I first went back and re-read A Call To Arms by Alan Dean Foster.  It's a silly little sci-fi book that makes no excuses about being a fun story designed for the amusement of the casual sci-fi reader.  I then re-read Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove.  Another fun story that let me become part of the world without interrupting the story.  Finally, I re-read the entire Thrawn Trilogy by Tim Zahn.  Once again, a terrific story that, although serious in its storytelling, didn't take itself so seriously that it forgot it was about enjoyment.

When I got back into these books, I noticed these writers breaking all kinds of so-called rules drummed into us by the traditional publishing world.  They told us instead of showing us on occasion(although not all the time), and many of them began by dropping us into scenarios of conflict without telling us why we should care; we simply did.  The flow of the book swept us into the narrative before we had the chance to ask the indignant, and, in my opinion, pretentious questions about whether they were doing things "by the book."

Character descriptions weren't done through lengthy paragraphs that described that scar down the person's cheek or that they were into 60s fashion.  Instead, we got to figure out what the characters looked like and sounded like by their actions and, more importantly, their words.  They left a lot to the imagination without chirping about it.

There was also a sense of grand adventure that so many "serious" works seem to look down on.  The authors made no apologies about being part of a thrilling tale that allows a person to escape the tedium of the real world.  They all said, "Come on in and forget about society for a while - let us entertain you!"

In short, I could feel the enthusiasm of the person writing the novel.  They just had to share the story, and if you didn't listen, that was your problem, rules be damned.  That's what I need to get back to in order to produce the work I want to produce.  I'm going to go back into my Homecoming prequel and apply this newly returned enthusiasm.

Finally, left unsaid up to this point but glaringly obvious, is that a good writer must be a prolific reader.  What you read doesn't have to follow a certain set of guidelines, but you must read.  Find someone you enjoy reading and get into them.  Figure out what style you like and go from there.  Without it, it's hard to get any sense of self because you've got no one to compare to.  Sounds great in a vacuum, but don't we all need someone to emulate?  More importantly, don't we need something to enjoy?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Hitting the Mark

I've had my ups and downs as a blogger.  Some of my posts have several hundred hits.  Some of them have less than five.  It's not like there's a huge degree of consistency.  The sheer randomness of the numbers is maddening.

Or is it sheer randomness?

Looking back, there appear to be three factors that contribute to some posts getting more traffic than others.  One of those factors is within my control(if not my apathy).  The other two are...well...a little more complicated.

Like any blogger, I market myself.  I try to put every post up for my friends on Facebook.  That way, my "friends" can see it and click over if they like.  I also comment on the posts of other blogs.  I don't do this solely out of a cynical desire to drive traffic - if I didn't enjoy the post and/or have something to say, I wouldn't say anything - but it doesn't hurt when someone looks at what I wrote and decides to follow the trail on over.

This part of driving traffic is completely within my control...even if I've slacked off recently.  My computer time has become severely limited over the last year and a half, and I don't have the time to spend roaming through blogs like I used to.  Other events may also hamper my ability to browse come next summer.  Nevertheless, I could expend more effort on this front and visit my blogging buddies with a little more regularity.  This excuses I have are just that - excuses.

The second element is a little more focused, and it's both good and bad.  I've noticed that my posts get more traffic when they involve the writing business, and they go way up when they involve ranting about the traditional aspects of that business.  I suppose this shows I have a knack for creating some level of emotion, but I don't know how healthy this is.  For starters, it will eventually start sounding like a CD stuck on a continuous loop.  I mean, how many times can I talk about why I think traditional publishing is stuck in the dark ages or why I took Amazon's side in its recent dispute with Hachette?  These things are novel when done infrequently, but relying on such righteous anger can easily get tedious.

The third thing I took notice of is that my short stories, for better or worse, also seem to get a lot more traffic.  This made me cringe.  Don't get me wrong - I love writing them.  However, the effort required to create a decent one involves a significant investment of time and energy(I believe the appropriate response here is "duh").  Therefore, I plan to write a few more short stories, but at not nearly so rapid a pace.  These things may go in the once or twice a month category rather than the weekly one.  Maybe that will help people forget the awful train wrecks I've produced.

Oh, and generate more traffic.  After all, that was the point of the post in the first place.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Online Learning

Now that I've abandoned my online novel, I've gone back and looked into what lessons I learned from the failed attempt.  Although success feels a lot better, I learn a lot more from failure...and believe me, this was a colossal failure.

First, I can't just write on the fly.  I didn't outline this story like I usually do.  Yes, I had a general idea the direction I wanted to go, but I never jotted it down in order to flesh out the details.  That's the biggest way I put meat on the bones of my novel - I outline.  It helps me explore threads before I put them on paper so I can see if they're viable.  Without it, my story wanders aimlessly.

Second, I need to be enthusiastic about what I'm writing about.  I came into this trying only to put something together for the blogging audience, and nothing more.  The books I've completed are all stories I've had some degree of obsession over.  I've played with them for months, if not years, on end, and they've become a part of me.  This novel didn't fit that pattern - I simply came up with an idea in front of the computer and decided that it would be the main idea.  I'd have had just as much luck and enthusiasm by putting ideas on scraps of paper and throwing a dart at them.

I also can't write anything great at one sitting.  Each chapter felt rushed since I usually put it off until the end of the week.  Then, in a mad scramble, I'd type furiously and hope it was something coherent.  It wasn't.

Finally, it reinforced that writing is hard.  Don't get me wrong - I love it.  However, that doesn't mean you can put forth minimal effort and create a grand masterpiece.  Good writing requires time, passion, and effort.  Without those boundaries, I could only poop out something a high school senior could do overnight.

I was and am ashamed of the crap I put out the past few months in this sham of an online novel.  I hope the quality, or lack thereof, didn't scare away too many people.  Still, I learned a lot about both writing and writing habits that will make my next real story even better.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Don't Do This!

A writer friend of mine wrote to me and said something along the lines of, "I'm just gonna start putting my book on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.  Once people snatch enough off the shelves, they'll be begging me to supply them more."

I shook my head...and laughed.

Don't do this.  Please don't do this.  It's tacky, it's petty, and it can frustrate potential customers.  When someone takes one of your books to the counter, and it doesn't ring up, the reaction isn't, "Gee, what talented author is this?  I must check into it more!"  No, the reaction is actually, "Well, that asshole struck again.  I'm sorry, but this is not one of our titles."(Usually followed by an eye roll)

It's not like it's hard to get your stuff out in this day and age, but please don't do it like this.  It's not even remotely imaginative, and it will piss people off.  Barnes & Noble employees will just laugh at you - the corporate office won't even hear about it - and people who were willing to take a chance will just sour on you.

Talk to independent bookstore owners and offer copies for free for them to sell, with them getting all the profit.  Get your message out on social media.  Get into reading clubs.  But don't do the dance of the desperate.  We all have images of our book with its own display at a place like Barnes & Noble, but just sticking your book on the shelf and hoping people discover your brilliance is like that dork at the school dance who is dancing with himself.

Just say no.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Re-makeovers

I've had no choice but to come to the conclusion that I'm a storyline snob.

I say this because I've looked at the stories I've seen recently that have been re-imagined, and I hate them.  Several of these have gotten critical acclaim...and I still hate them.  Take Maleficent - this is the retelling of the story of Sleeping Beauty in an entirely different way.  It re-makes the story so that Maleficent isn't an evil witch, but rather just a misunderstood dark hero who was wronged.  It has won praise from lots of critics, yet I see this as a corruption of the story.

The tale itself could be wonderful...on its own.  Unfortunately, the filmmakers had to coopt the original because they relied on it to draw in business.  Using Sleeping Beauty as a context, they knew they could count on all the folks who saw and loved the first movie to come see this new version.  To me, the new version twists the story into something it was never meant to be.

This isn't the first movie I've had this reaction to.  Star Trek Into Darkness had the affect on me since it took one of the greatest villains of all time, Khan Noonien Singh, and made him one dimensional, even taking away his raison d'etre by not having Kirk strand him and his wife.  This event was what made Khan so terrible, yet the filmmakers treated it like just another plot device, easily discarded if it was inconvenient.

Why am I like this?  I wish I knew.  I wish I could mindlessly accept stories, but a large part of my enjoyment rests on a story's consistency.  If a story is nonsensical within its own universe, I have trouble.  I think part of this is due to the implied laziness of it - it requires effort to maintain the same plot elements so that a universe makes sense.  Another part is the suspension of disbelief - the story must work for us to enjoy.  I have to be able to say, "I could see that happening within that universe."

Perhaps I'm the only one.  Maybe others can accept these things and think I just overthink them.  I could be in a company of one.  Does anyone else have this problem?

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Abandoning My Online Novel and News

First and foremost, I've decided to abandon my online novel.  Simply put, it sucks.  I've put no effort into outlining in advance or spending the time needed to make it worthwhile.  As such, it's nowhere near my potential, and I'm loathe to continue working on a novel that gives people the impression that my writing is shit.  This could make people think the rest of my work is shit, and that's not something a writer who depends on quality wants people to think.

I plan to go back and look at it, parsing it here and there, saying what stinks about it and what I've learned.  That shouldn't be too hard since it's easy to learn from bad work.

As an adjunct to this, I've also decided to stop doing Short Story Friday.  I don't know yet what will replace it, but the quality I like just isn't there.  It was easy in the beginning since I already had a few short stories done, and they could be copied and pasted into the blog.  Unfortunately, as time wore on and I had to come up with new short stories, the quality suffered.  I stopped outlining and editing as the demands of time pushed me down.  I just started throwing things against the wall, and it felt like a chore.  If I've learned anything, it's not to write when it's not enjoyable.

On other news, there may be a year delay in the release of Akeldama.  Originally set to come out in May 2016, I think I'm going to have to push that back to May of 2017.  The reason for this is that I think my job will take me away from the country for a year starting next summer.  I won't return until the summer of 2016, and I want about a full year to finish putting together the business aspects of my work, as well as marketing it.  Don't worry - I think I'll be able to continue this blog from my new, and temporary, home, but it'll make putting something out difficult.  If any of that changes, you'll be the first to know.