Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Newbie Does KDP Select

If you’re publishing your books through Amazon, you know what KDP Select is; Amazon requires authors who join the program to sell their book exclusively with it for a 90-day period.  During that period, the books are eligible for the Kindle Lending Library and most importantly, authors can make their book free for up to five days during that 90-day period.

When KDP was first introduced, a lot of authors saw downloads of their books skyrocket during free days, which translated to increased exposure, greater reader engagement and most importantly sales.  KDP was viewed as one of the most powerful tools an author could have in their arsenal and a lot of folks benefitted greatly from it.

Somewhere along the line though, authors began to fall out of love with the program, as it didn’t seem to have the impact it once had – there were too many books being offered free all the time.  According to the jungle drums, the novelty had worn off and the program was no longer worth it.

As a new author on Amazon, I decided to enroll “Live and Let Die” into KDP Select and give the free days a whirl.  Why not?  Free is free and not too many folks turn down free.

I’m now heading into my final day of offering “Live and Let Die” as a free download on Amazon Kindle through12/30/12 and overall, I’m happy (more on my results in a minute).  I had zero expectations going in with regards free downloads.  I could have had two or 20,000.  If nothing else, I figured I would put the word out and see what happened.  I did a few tweets and uncovered a really handy resource at www.authormarketingclub.com, which has a free book submission tool that gives you one place to submit your book’s free days to the most popular sites promoting free and bargain books.  Easy breezy. 

Instead of breaking up my five free days, I decided to lump them all together starting on December 26.  I wanted to take advantage of post-holiday bargain hunting as well as (hopefully) capture people who’d gotten a Kindle for Christmas and were in search of free books to fill it up with.

So far, I’ve had:

342 downloads in the U.S.
90 in the U.K.
10 in Germany
1 in Canada

I know these aren’t blockbuster numbers by any means, but as I said, I’m happy; that’s over 400 people who’d never heard of me or my book until now. Hopefully, they’ll like what they read and will be interested in reading “Sweet Little Lies” when it’s released in 2013.
 
You have to start somewhere.    

I will definitely stick with KDP Select when launching future releases.  I don’t think I’d do all five days at once again, but rather, break them up over the course of the 90-days and maybe do some giveaways and other fun stuff in conjunction with the free downloads. 

I think for new authors and even more established authors, KDP Select offers a great way to engage readers.

And that’s a good thing.

 

    

 

 

 

  

 

 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Just Keep Writing

I was a freshman in high school when I checked out Mary Higgins Clark’s spine-tingling novel, “The Cradle Will Fall,” from the library.  I finished it in a matter of days and was back at the library ready to scoop up “Where Are the Children?” another page-turner-that-keeps-you-up-at-night.  I checked out her entire backlist over the course of a few months and once I’d read everything she’d written to that point, I started waiting for new releases to come out in paperback and adding them to my book collection.  In short, I couldn’t get enough of what Mary Higgins Clark wrote.

By having a robust backlist and staying so prolific, Mary Higgins Clark turned me into an ardent devotee.  While these two factors have always been key for an author to build readership, in today’s eBook and POD world, they’re particularly crucial, especially for indie authors.  Readers have become impatient and no longer expect to wait a year or more for the latest book by their favorite author, but mere months.  You have to feed the beast.  A lot of authors are accomplishing this by releasing novellas and short stories to tide readers over until the next book release.

As the indie author movement continues to surge, we’re hearing a lot of overnight success stories of first-timers taking the bestseller lists by storm with their debut novels.  While it’s definitely awesome and inspiring to hear these kinds of stories, the cold hard truth is, it just doesn't happen like that for everyone. While our instinct is to throw all of our energies behind promoting our one and only book in the hopes we, and it, will become “The Next Big Thing,” our time is better spent working on our next novel.  And the one after that and the one after that. And so on and so on.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t market our work – of course we should!  But not to the exclusion of the most important marketing activity of all – writing. Being an author means you’re running a marathon, not a sprint and any marathoner will tell you that you have to pace yourself in order to run the race. 

While I hope my first novel, “Live and Let Die” is wildly successful out of the gate, I’m realistic; it could take some time before it finds its audience.  While I continue to be on the lookout for promotional opportunities for it, I’ve got my next release “Sweet Little Lies” in the hands of my “Ideal Reader,” with plans to release it in 2013, and have the first drafts of two more manuscripts in the queue for release next year.  I’ll also be spending my Christmas vacation plotting two more novels (in between shoving my face with Christmas cookies and wine, of course.)

Become prolific. Spend less time worrying about how to increase sales for your current book and concentrate instead on building ardent devotees for your body of work.

Just keep writing.

   

  

Thursday, December 6, 2012

"Live and Let Die" Available on Amazon Kindle!

I'm thrilled to be able to say that FINALLY, after some false starts, my suspense novel "Live and Let Die," is available as an eBook on Amazon Kindle!

Read an excerpt here and purchase on Amazon Kindle here.  In the very near future, "Live and Let Die" will be available in other formats via Smashwords, but for now, it is available exclusively on Kindle.


It has been a long journey towards joining the ranks of indie authors.  Who knows what will happen next, but no matter what, I'm excited to be here! :-)

   

Friday, November 16, 2012

Anna Devane – Charter Member, Bad-Ass Women Hall of Fame

I’ve been watching soaps since the womb – I was raised on the classic ABC/Love in the Afternoon lineup, from “Ryan’s Hope,” straight on through to “General Hospital.”  While “All My Children” (R.I.P.) was my favorite soap, my absolute, hands-down favorite soap heroine of all time is Anna Devane (Finola Hughes), superspy extraordinaire on “General Hospital.”

Anna was highly unusual as far as heroines went on the soaps.  You had your sweethearts (Laura on “GH,” Dixie on “AMC”) vixens (Tina on “One Life to Live,” Ava on “Loving”) matriarchs (Maeve on “Ryan’s Hope,” Ruth on “AMC”) barracudas (Rae on “Ryan’s Hope,” Dorian on “One Life to Live”) and tough, but fair career gals (Jill on Ryan’s Hope,” Brooke on “AMC”).  In other words, fairly stock soap characters.

But there was no one like Anna.  She was beautiful, of course – pretty standard prerequisite for a soap heroine.  And being a heroine, she was one of the good guys (eventually, but that’s another post for another day).  It was more than that, though.  She was smart, tough and fearless.  She didn’t need the man to save her – hell, SHE would probably be the one to save the man!  And look awesome doing it!  Yet as bad-ass as she was, she defied stereotypes yet again by actually being – gasp! – a woman!  Anna was not some sexless, alpha female who shunned intimacy and emotional attachments.  She had a passionate marriage to the dashing Duke, a loving relationship with daughter, Robin and shared a playful rapport with ex-husband, Robert.  AND she had girlfriends to gab and commiserate with.  

My all-time favorite Anna scenes were when she trapped psycho beeyotch, Olivia St. John, in an elevator and forced her to confess to all her crimes.  I remember being glued to my TV during those scenes, just DYING over how kick-ass the whole thing was.  Who HASN’T wanted to put their mortal enemy in an elevator to shake them up?  Am I alone here?  Okay, never mind.  At any rate, Finola Hughes gave an absolutely brilliant performance and even after all these years, I cheer like I’m back on the Spirit Squad when I see Anna wielding that blowtorch. 

 
 

Awesome to infinity.

Alas, Anna left Port Charles and turned up in Pine Valley where she was totally wasted, but I still loved her.  She made sporadic trips to GH over the years, but it was never the same.  Fortunately, “Cartini” saw fit to bring Anna home where she belongs and she’s just as awesome as ever.  She’s been appointed the police commissioner and is actually – gasp! – busting criminals! Solving crimes! Cleaning up corruption! That hasn’t happened in Port Charles since the 80’s.  Because she's a tad vulnerable right now due to her daughter's "death," I’ll forgive that whole sleeping with Luke and ignoring the warning signs about Faux Duke stuff.  Since the real Duke is alive, I’m putting my trust in Cartini that they’ll reunite them for real in due time. (As Robin said, “nothing gets past Anna Devane.”  Faison’s day of reckoning is coming).

While I don’t write about female superspies or cops, I DO like to write about strong, capable, fearless women who don’t dissolve into hysterics in the face of a crisis.  They tap into their smarts and exploit their ingenuity to kick over whatever obstacle they may be facing.  They’re okay with getting an assist from a man when the need arises, but they are more than capable of standing on their own two feet.  Kind of like Anna! 

So here’s to Anna Devane, first inductee into my Bad-Ass Women Hall of Fame.  She’s in good company, standing alongside Detective Olivia Benson and Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson.  And Wonder Woman.  Of course.  But to me, Anna will always be in a class all her own.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Men Plan, God Laughs

It’s a pretty empowering feeling to know you’ve kicked adversity’s ass.  In other words, accomplishing something you, or other people, deemed impossible.

I thought I could kick formatting’s ass on the manuscript for my E-Book, “Live and Let Die.”  As great as it would be to just upload your manuscript and have it translate beautifully across various e-readers, it’s a little trickier than that – there’s margins, paragraphs, spacing, etc., to contend with.  I knew trying to copyedit myself was silly and forget designing a cover – about the best I would have been able to do was some crayons on a page.  However, after doing some research, I decided to take on the formatting myself.  It looked like something I could master so I went for it.

It was a good idea in theory.  Not so much in reality.

After numerous tries threaded with a series of mini breakdowns, I had to face the sad fact that formatting would get one up on me.  I couldn’t get the fonts or spacing to behave and the end result looked like a bad cut and paste job.  Rather than put out an inferior product, I pulled “Live and Let Die” and sent the manuscript to a professional formatter.  I’ve been given a timeframe of mid-December (possibly sooner) for completion, so while I’m disappointed that I will have to push back the release of my book for another month, it was the right call.  I only have one shot to get this right and putting out something I know looks like crap would surely come back to bite me. 

Not worth it.

So, the waiting game continues, but as always, I will continue writing.

 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Cover Reveal - "Live and Let Die"


Whoa, boy…it's almost here…the release of my first ebook, “Live and Let Die.” (Available November 8, 2012)

In the meantime, here’s the cover and blurb:

 
 
On a bitterly cold January evening, Tracy Ellis went for a jog along Chicago’s snowy lakefront and disappeared.  Her body was discovered days later, her beautiful face bashed in with a rock.  Police determine her brutal death to be a mugging gone wrong and drop the matter into their cold case files.
 
Over a year later, Tracy’s sister, Sondra, still can’t come to grips with what happened.  She throws herself into her work as a documentary filmmaker to try and forget the cruelty of her sister’s death.  However, a chance encounter with a man from Tracy’s past rips the wound open and sends Sondra on a desperate search for answers about the secrets from her sister’s life that may have led to her death.
 
As Sondra struggles to uncover what happened to Tracy, she’s launched into a tangled web of deceit and danger that put her on a collision course with life and death…
 
More details to come!!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Moment of Silence

I’m a little bummed.  I found out today that “Bethenny Ever After” is not scheduled to return to Bravo for a fourth season (well, technically a third season, since “Bethenny Getting Married” preceded it).  Apparently, Bethenny is tired of the whole scene and has declared she is done with reality TV.  It seems she is throwing her energies behind her up-and-coming talk show instead.

I’m not a big talk show person.  I’m sure I’ll tune in on occasion if she has an interesting topic or provocative guest (will Jill Zarin make an appearance?  Ha!  Hell will probably freeze over first).  I’m happy for her – Bethenny’s said for a while now having a talk show was a longtime dream.  And for that I say, “mazel.”

“Bethenny Ever After” was a such a fun, light show, a total departure from the antics of the “Real Housewives” (pick a city, any city) and it was cool to see her continue her journey from the broke “underdog” to savvy entrepreneur and mogul who got the man and the baby along the way.  I’ve made no secret she is my girl crush.  I’ve memorized passages from her book, “Place of Yes” and am applying much of her gospel to my own life (some folks have Tony Robbins, I have Bethenny).  Huh.  I see a future blog post on this topic…   

Love her or hate her, you have to admire anyone who can leverage reality TV and then transcend it.  She used reality TV to build and strengthen her Skinnygirl brand, and then left it behind, deciding she wanted to walk out of the party instead of getting kicked out. 

And that’s always the better way.


 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Another Brick in the Wall

I’m starting to think this whole “author” thing might actually happen.

I’ve taken two more huge steps on my journey to “indie authordom”: editing and cover art.

A major complaint about indie books is the lack of editing, which translates to poor quality.  From what I’ve been able to glean, many indie authors skimp on this step because 1) they think they can’t afford it and 2) they think they don’t need it.

Trying to edit your own book yourself is a little like that old saying about the lawyer who represents himself – something about having a fool for a client.  In my past life, I served as a de facto proofreader and editor for the PR and advertising agencies I worked for, so I’ve got a pretty good eye for typos and such.  However, I decided I would be a fool not to find the money to pay a professional copyeditor to comb through my manuscript.  I was further proven right when I gave my manuscript one last pass before sending it out—I found a typo.  And this was after poring over this thing, no kidding, at least 50 times in the last three months.  This is too important to me not to do everything I can do make sure the book I put out looks as professional as possible.

Another non-negotiable was hiring a designer to craft a professional looking cover.  I’ve read about different indie authors who designed their own covers and I’m here to tell you, I won’t be one of them.    While I’m a lot more confident about my proofing/editing abilities, I am not a graphic artist.  AT ALL.  When I was forced to take Art 101 in college, by the end of the semester, I pulled out what little hair I had left.  My bowls of fruit always looked more like a game of Pick Up Sticks.   I read lots of advice about how I could download various graphics programs and manipulate stock images, but it’s just not in my wheelhouse.  While I definitely have a vision for what I want for my cover, I need a professional to help me bring it to life.

After scouring the Internet, I found an editor and a graphic artist who both offered reasonable prices.  I’m thrilled with their enthusiasm for my book and I can’t wait to share my cover and blurb very soon. 

I have a few more steps I need to take before I release my book, but overall, I am thrilled with where I am in the process. 

As always, though, back to writing.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Revise, Rewrite – Recycle?

Many, many, MANY moons ago, like high school moons ago, I had an idea for a book.  I don’t remember how the first line came to me, but I wrote it down and over the course of a few years, I played around with fleshing out the idea.  I wrote a chapter here and a chapter there, but never got very far with it.

I never forgot about that idea and about ten years ago, I decided to write the book in earnest.  I came home every night after work and wrote for at least three hours.  I wrote on the weekends.  I gave up sleep and girls night’s out.  I don’t remember how long it took me to complete that first draft, but eventually, I got it done.  Of course, I went through endless revisions and drafts and tweaks and suffered through all the self-doubt that accompanies anything you put your blood, sweat and tears into.

The next step was to endlessly research the publishing industry.  Everything from manuscript format to how to find an agent was dissected, committed to memory and indoctrinated as the gospel.  I pored over my query letter, stressed over my synopsis and compiled addresses for agents – not to mention vetting them to make sure they weren’t sharks out to take my hard-earned money.

Of course, I got rejection after rejection after rejection and I decided to put it to the side and move on to writing another book.

Here I am, many moons later and about to strap into the terrifying and thrilling roller-coaster known as the indie/ebook revolution.  When I made the decision to take the leap, I decided to do what so many have done and turn my unpublished (uh, rejected) manuscripts into ebooks.  I had two books collecting virtual dust on my computer and a third with more plot holes than a cobweb.  I committed all my energies toward closing the plot holes on the third with an eye towards tweaking the other two at a later date.

I looked at the second manuscript I wrote and was pretty happy with what I had.  I made a few tweaks and did some minor rewrites, but overall, I was good with what I wrote.

And then I picked up the one I first dreamt up many moons ago. 

Needless to say, I wasn’t good with it at all. 

Instead of a scalpel, I need to take a hatchet to this manuscript.  Too much exposition, choppy narrative and a host of other problems. I was tempted to chuck the whole thing into the recycling bin, but after thinking about it, I now look at this as an opportunity.  I can make this book better now than it would have been ten years ago.  I can take a decade’s worth of experiences and learning and make it a stronger book.

So, I’m drying my tears and getting to work. 

And I can’t wait to see how it ends.  

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Waiting Game

I’m playing the waiting game. 

When I first made the decision this past Spring to jump into the world of ebooks, I had a plan (as I always do). 

My goal was to have my first book up by November, with two more to follow over the course of a few months. 

As tempting as it was to just throw my babies out into the world without so much as a coat, cab fare and a lecture about stranger danger, I knew I had to go through the process: fix the plot holes in the first manuscript I wanted to release (and there were enough to drive ten trucks through), refine it, take what I learned in Joy Fielding’s class and apply accordingly, vet it, edit it, format it, cover it and release it.

My sister read it and gave me sound advice and then I decided to take two classmates up on their offer to read it and give me their feedback.  I’m anxious to get their thoughts so I can incorporate them then move on to the next stage.

In the meantime, I’m plowing ahead with another WIP (work-in-progress) and if all goes well, I should have a complete first draft by the end of October.  I’m also tweaking the next manuscript I plan to release and will be dusting off the third to see what kind of shape it’s in.  I haven’t looked at in ten years, so that should be interesting. 

As always, back to writing.

 

 

 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

True Story

My father has had a long and varied career path, starting out in broadcasting, moving into politics and eventually becoming a lawyer, his profession for the past twenty-five or so years.

Along the way, he’s met a lot of folks.  My siblings and I joke that we can’t go anywhere without somebody somewhere knowing him.  Well, mostly Arkansas.

Anywho, few years ago, we were on one of our many long-distance car trips, and, I don’t remember how the conversation got started, but he was telling me about a speech professor he had when he was getting his Masters in speech communication at the University of Texas in Austin and all the things he learned from this professor and how this professor eventually moved to Virginia for a more prestigious position, so on and so forth.

Then, my father says something like (and I’m TOTALLY paraphrasing here), “and actually, he was murdered a few years ago and his wife was found guilty.  Apparently, she gunned him down in his driveway.  I do remember hearing rumors about her when I was in school and everyone said it was a bad marriage, so nobody was surprised she did it.”

“Wait a minute,” I said.  “Was the wife from Houston and she was pretending to be her sister or something when she killed him?”

“Yeah,” my dad said.  “That’s right.”

That’s when I realized I’d seen this on “Snapped.”

What are the odds? (believe me when I tell you, my father wouldn’t know “Snapped” from “Chopped,” so this was a total coincidence).

The case in question was the murder of Fred Jablin by his wife, Piper Rountree.

 

“Investigation Discovery” just featured this on “Scorned: Love Kills,” and it made me think of it.

Random.

There's gotta be a book I can get out of this...

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Indie Games

Sue Grafton caught some flak recently for disparaging comments about the rise of indie/self-published authors.   She later apologized, saying her comments were based upon her experiences from when she first got into the business forty years ago, a time when self-publishing was equated with vanity publishers, meaning charlatans who would drain your bank account  in exchange for doorstops and paperweights (New York Times and USA Today bestselling self-published author, Jaime McGuire, has a great blog post about her experience with a con artist passing himself off as a legitimate agent before she took matters into her own hands and self-published).  Not sure why Sue Grafton is so behind the times – Joy Fielding, who came on the scene about the same time as Sue Grafton, brought this article into class and said pursuing e-books as a means of getting your work out there had some merit and was worth looking into.

Joy, you rock.

Publishing is curious in that, it really is one of the few artistic industries where doing it yourself is looked upon with the worst kind of derision.  Think about it.  There are movie theaters, film festivals, and cable channels that celebrate the indie movie maker.  The enterprising singer-songwriters who start their own labels to record and distribute their music are hailed for bucking the system.  But if you self-publish, you’re considered a lazy hack who couldn’t get published the traditional way. 

Publishing seems to be the only industry where this type of entrepreneurial resourcefulness has been discouraged.  The message has been don’t self-publish because no self-respecting author does it and no good will come of it.  It’s like telling a chef not to open his own restaurant because chefs don’t open their own restaurants.   

Maybe it’s partially because writing is seen as a highly intellectual pursuit and one not everyone is adept at.  Writing is so subjective, though.  For every critically acclaimed book/author who can’t crack the New York Times Bestseller list, there are writers who get savaged by the critics (and even readers) yet sell books like hotcakes (regardless of which category you fall into, if we’re calling ourselves writers, at the very least, we should all learn the basics of writing.)

I think ebooks are becoming the publishing industry’s version of the indie film.  A lot of authors who couldn’t get past the “gatekeepers” are redefining publishing by presenting their fresh, fun and unique voices in a new and exciting way.  Even more interesting, many of these authors find themselves in the position of entertaining offers from the big publishing houses. 

The publishing industry is only going to keep evolving and pooh-poohing these changes is a waste of time.  The best thing an aspiring writer can do is keep trying, keep learning and above all, keep writing.

  

 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Odds and Ends

I couldn’t decide on just one topic this week, so I’m throwing up some randoms:

Follow the Crowd
I had a baffling exchange with someone last week.  They were condemning anyone who leaves one-star book reviews on Amazon, saying they should just stop reading the book instead if they don’t like it.  They went on to say that anyone who didn’t like popular/critically acclaimed fiction probably couldn’t grasp anything more literary than a comic book.

There was one esteemed book in particular that she felt everyone in world should love, because…everyone in the world did love it (or so it would seem – it has a healthy amount of one-star reviews on Amazon).  I mentioned a member of my family with multiple advanced degrees who read said book and thought it was terrible.  The retort was something along the lines of “well, she’s wrong, because everyone loved that book.”

Huh?

While I had several issues with these statements (mostly the flawed logic), my biggest beefs were the assertion that 1) if you don’t like what everyone else likes, there’s something wrong with you and 2) in particular, if you don’t like so-called “highbrow,” critically acclaimed literature, you must be an idiot.

There are numerous critically acclaimed, award-winning everyone’s-reading-this-so-you-must-read it-too books that I’ve read in my lifetime that I just don’t care for.  And on the flip side, there are an equal amount of award-winning, critically acclaimed books that I have read and loved. 

And the great thing is, either way, I’m entitled. 

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The Next Big Thing?
Last week’s big buzz was all about the Kindle Fire HD.  There was also the introduction of Kindle Serials, which allows users to subscribe to a serial novel.  Instead of buying the individual segments, you buy the book up front and the installments are delivered to your Kindle automatically.  No line, no waiting.

This is a pretty brilliant idea. 

No judgment, but in a nod to my youth, this summer, I scooped up “The Sweet Life” (the new series based on the old “Sweet Valley High” books) like candy out of a busted piƱata.  The new series provides an update on what the Wakefield twins and their pals are up to today.  The six-part e-series was released in weekly installments and silly plots aside, I was hooked. 

Amazon says with the Kindle Serials, it wants to put a modern spin on serialized stories of the past and will allow readers to provide feedback, helping to guide future story.  Kindle Series means a built-in audience, audience buy-in and the ability to expand the audience as the word-of-mouth grows.

I’ll be very curious to see how this progresses, but on the surface, brilliant.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
It’s Not As Easy As You Think
New York Times bestselling author, Sue Grafton, caught some heat over the summer for disparaging remarks about self-publishing, saying the self-published are, “too lazy to do the hard work,” and “that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy…without bothering to read, study or do the research…learning to construct a narrative and create character, learning to balance pace, description and dialogue takes a long time.”

She has since apologized, calling self-publishing “a whole new thrust for publication that apparently everyone has been aware of except yours truly.”

I agree with her that you’ve got to do the work and learn the craft.  Where she’s dead wrong is the assertion that it’s easy.  You take on ten times as much work as Traditional Authors of Publishing’s Past; you’ve got to write the book, find an editor or edit it yourself (risky), find an artist to do your cover, format it, market it, build a platform and lather, rinse, repeat with the next books. 

Self-published authors don’t have the muscle of a traditional publishing house behind them to do the heavy lifting.  There was a time when all you had to was write (which, as we know is often easier said than done).  Today’s evolving marketplace means a lot of the old rules just don’t apply anymore. 

It’s a new day…carpe diem!

 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Devil is In The Details

A few months ago, while messing around on Amazon in search of some new material for my Kindle, I stumbled across what looked to be an intriguing little ditty about people mysteriously dying in a neighborhood.  I’m always up for a good suspense novel, so I downloaded it and dug in.

Well, I was pretty shocked by what I read.  And I don’t mean because it was such a delicious, twisty story that I couldn’t put down; it was because the writing was what I would have expected from a 12-year old, not an adult claiming to be a professional writer – and who’s charging money to boot.  This was a self-published piece, so I know some people say you have to make some allowances. 

There’s allowances and then there’s just turning a blind eye.

If anything, you have to elevate your game even more to overcome that “self-published” stigma of poor quality and amateurish writing (and frankly, calling the writing “amateurish” is being kind).  None of the characters were described beyond such shallow terms as “hot,” “good-looking,” or “disgusting.”  There was hardly any dialogue and a mountain of redundancies.  Not to mention typos galore, poor vocabulary and atrocious grammar.

In reading this particular book, so many of the BASICS were missing, I had to wonder if the author 1) had ever read a professionally published book; 2) asked anyone to read the manuscript for them before publishing it. 

While much of the writing that populates popular fiction is, shall we say, subjective (*cough*, “Fifty Shades of Grey” *cough, cough*), the truth is, besides the aforementioned basics of good grammar, syntax and vocabulary, there are some standard conventions we as readers should expect to see in a book and as writers, we should all be adhering to, such as: 

1.     Describe What The Characters Look Like
It’s not enough to say your character is “beautiful” or “handsome” or “ugly” or “impressive looking.”  WHY are they beautiful, handsome, ugly or impressive looking?  Are they tall, short, fat, have acne, thinning hair, or a neck littered with moles? Describing what people look like adds depth and richness to the characterizations.  

In “Gone With the Wind,” Margaret Mitchell gets right to it on page one when describing Scarlett O’Hara: “Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel…magnolia-white skin…her new green flowered-muslin dress…set off to perfection the seventeen-inch waist…and breasts well-matured for her sixteen years.” 

It’s even more interesting when you give them a flaw – like make your protagonist beautiful, but give her slightly crooked teeth or a limp or one green eye and one brown.  It’s not necessary to describe a character to within an inch of their life – in fact it’s distracting to do so – but give the reader SOMETHING to hang their hat on. 

2.     Make them Talk
Years ago, I read a book that contained a line of dialogue so awful, I still remember it to this day.  Two characters were talking about TV shows, when one asked the other, “Did you ever watch Show X?  It was a short-lived TV show that ran on CBS.”

Come on, now.  Who says “short-lived” in everyday life? (and mind you, this was a traditionally published book, which just goes to show bad writing isn't limited to the self-published). It would have been more realistic to say something like, “Do you remember Show X from a few years ago?  It wasn’t on for that long.”  Or even, “Did you ever watch Show X? It came out a few years ago, but it was only on for a couple of episodes.”

Admittedly, dialogue is tough.  It serves a multitude of purposes; it develops your characters, moves the story forward and provides conflict.  And it has to sound realistic.  Big job.

Elmore Leonard is considered a master at writing dialogue, winning praise for the whip-smart, snappy banter between his characters.  In a recent profile of Leonard, the “L.A. Times Magazine” says his dialogue twists, snaps and curls in the actors' mouths."   

Granted, we’re not all going to be able to do what Elmore Leonard does, but we can at least shoot to make our characters sound realistic.  Listen to conversations around you and take note of the cadence and the tone.  Also, have the dialogue count for something.  Don’t just say your characters had a nice dinner.  What did they talk about during dinner?  What plot points can you drop into that conversation? 

3.     Describe Everything Else
Similar to character descriptions, this one sometimes gets the shaft.  Giving a little bit of description as to what a room looks like or what something tastes, sounds or smells like, such as the crunch of sand between bare feet as the salty sea air washes over…you get the point. Using the five senses to paint a picture brings the story to life.

Sometimes, this can go overboard.  I read a suspense book years ago where the author described each and every meal the characters ate in excruciating detail.  This wasn’t a cookbook or book where one of the characters was in the food industry.  The overdone descriptions about food added nothing to the plot and just distracted from the story.  

Setting the scene anchors the characters, yet moves them and the plot forward.  Consider this vivid description from “The Firm,” of a crappy car:

“The ancient Mazda hatchback with three hubcaps and a badly cracked windshield hung in the gutter…with three job offers on the table, a new car was four months away.”

The description of this car really highlights the precarious financial situation Mitch McDeere and his wife, Abby, are in.  Sure, you can say, they’re poor and have a stack of bills and you kind of get the picture.  But giving this one little detail fleshes out the predicament while serving as a subtle, yet far-reaching plot point; when Mitch goes to work for the Firm, they’re gifted with a brand new BMW, which is one of a series of traps that sets them up to be sucked into the Firm’s nefarious Web.  Small detail.  Big payoff.

I never read that book I downloaded.  I gave up about 20% in before I skimmed through to the end before deleting it out of my Kindle altogether.  I can forgive a lot of things, such as occasionally stilted dialogue, the odd typo here and there, excessive exposition (if it’s interesting at least.  If it takes a character ten pages to walk into a room, I’m outta there), plot holes (seriously, if anyone can tell me what the motive for murder was in the otherwise highly-entertaining, “S is for Silence,” by Sue Grafton, I’m listening) convoluted plots – even paper-thin plots – if the writing at least is solid.  I can’t, however, suffer through bad grammar, limited vocabulary, and mangled syntax.  I do need there to be some meat on the bones of the characters, some descriptions, some dialogue.

Isn’t that what a story’s all about?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Finding Your Reader

In today’s Internet age, finding someone to read and critique your work is like tripping over piles of dirty clothes in a teenage boy’s bedroom – it’s not that hard. 

While a lot of book reviews on Amazon and other review sites are pretty spot-on, you can’t always take it as the gospel (as evidenced by this New York Times article “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy”).  How else to explain gushing five star reviews for crappy books?  Seriously, did we read the same book?  On the flip side, sometimes, people are just downright vicious in their criticisms.  It’s clear they get off on putting people down and nine times out of ten, without the anonymity of the Internet, they wouldn’t dare say even a fraction of those nasty things in person.

In short, sometimes you just have to take the feedback the masses give you with a grain of salt because you can’t please everyone all of the time. 

As I’ve mentioned previously in this blog, I’ve decided to take the plunge into self-publishing via Kindle.  As a girlfriend of mine declared when I told her of my plan, “let the people decide!”  Now, while I fancy myself an okay writer and have even managed to make a living as a freelancer for the past five years, I’m realistic.  As much as I would like to rush and upload the manuscripts that have been collecting virtual dust on my computer for the last ten years, I realize I need someone to vet me first.  It’s one thing to dash off a one-page press release, quite another to birth a 70,000 word manuscript filled with multiple characters and a plot. 

In his brilliant book, “On Writing,” Stephen King makes the case for the “IR” or “Ideal Reader.”  The Ideal Reader is the audience made up of one person you try to please with your writing (for King, this is his wife, Tabatha).  Will they bust a gut at this passage?  Will they cringe?  Will they think this is a sparkling piece of prose or the worst piece of shit they’ve ever read?         

In trying to think about who I’d like to read my completed manuscript, I agonized.  A lot of folks give it to their significant other, but since I’m currently single, that’s out for me (of course, my ex didn’t like to read, so he probably wouldn’t have done me much good anyway).  There are friends, of course.  To be honest, most of mine are loaded down with toddlers and newborns at the moment and just don’t have to time to sit down and read anything that’s not a picture book.  

I finally settled on my youngest sister as my “IR.”  I chose her for a few reasons.  One, even though she’s family, I knew she wouldn’t sugar coat it.  In fact, she’s pretty much renowned for hating everything.  It’s kind of her shtick.  Two, she’s extremely smart with an unusually high bullshit meter.  Three, she’s a voracious reader.  While she doesn’t read suspense, which is what I write, she wouldn’t be jaded – I knew she could give me a good perspective from a pure reader’s point of view.

I asked her if she’d be willing and she gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up. 

Yay!

After fiddling with the manuscript based on the feedback I got from my weeklong writing class, I sent it to her, bracing myself for the onslaught of criticisms.

I was happy to hear she liked it (yay! I mean, since she hates everything).  She had some good, solid suggestions for improvement and with one exception (remains to be seen if I’ll implement), I incorporated everything she complained about.  She was thoughtful in her criticisms, which I appreciated.   

While in Toronto for class, one of my fellow students offered to read anyone’s manuscript when they were ready.  I decided to take her up on it.  I think this will be worthwhile because she doesn’t know me from Adam, so she’s certainly not obligated to give me a good review, plus, it’ll be good to get another perspective.  I’m curious and nervous to see what she has to say.

It can be nerve wracking unleashing your baby onto the world, but getting solid criticism from others can only help you.  Joy Fielding said that in addition to her husband, she has two additional people that she always gives her manuscripts to before she submits to her publisher.  She said it was based on the feedback of one of those readers that necessitated rewriting the first ten chapters of “The Wild Zone” three times.  Stephen King says he has a group of four to eight core people he lets read his work while in draft stage.  Tabatha even shamed him into cutting two pages of back story in “Bag of Bones” down to two paragraphs.

Choose your IR wisely.  You don’t want someone to blow sunshine up your ass; you also don’t want someone to tell you it’s terrible unless they can give you solid feedback as to why.  Either way, look for people who will help you improve your work.

It can only help.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Oh, Drama


With daytime dramas (or soaps, as some call them) dropping faster than fleas off a dog in winter, the network heads who’ve pulled these shows off the air say it’s because viewers don’t want scripted, serialized drama.

 Say what now?

If audiences don’t want serialized drama, how to explain the success of the INSANELY addictive reboot of the classic “Dallas?” If you didn’t catch the first season on TNT this summer, HULU it, stalk your program guide for reruns, pre-order the inevitable DVD from Amazon – whatever – do what you have to in order to get caught up before the show returns in January.  You will find yourself hooked on this soapy, sexy drama before Larry Hagman can wriggle his scraggly eyebrows.

What about the shenanigans of that Emily girl on “Revenge?”  The continuing sagas of “Game of Thrones,”  “Mad Men,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Pretty Little Liars,” the forthcoming “666 Park Avenue?”

“DeGrassi?”

I could go on, but these shows differ from procedural dramas like “Law and Order” and “Criminal Minds,” in that the characters lives take center stage and feature continuing storylines.  These are critically acclaimed, award-winning dramas with loyal viewers who always wonder “what will happen next?”  (You pretty much don’t wonder what will happen next on “Law and Order,” because it’s the same each week; someone will be murdered, the detectives will collar someone who may or may not be the culprit and there may or may not be a trial.  Lather, rinse, repeat.)

Cablers like AMC, HBO, VH-1 and ABC Family continue to order scripted dramas for their primetime lineups, so clearly, they see the merits in offering this type of programming to their audiences.  Reality TV and crappy talk shows (seriously, enough with the talk shows) aren’t enough to sustain a network.

So why are primetime serialized dramas thriving, while their daytime counterparts have been slashed to a mere four shows?

The writing, the writing, the writing. 

“The Young and The Restless,” long the No. 1 daytime drama and once the symbol of masterful, character-driven drama, has suffered mightily over the last few years from moronic writing.  Dreary counterfeit painting heists, convoluted and uninspired murder mysteries, bank-robbing chipmunks, dual doppelgangers, a 70+ year-old man bedding his 30-something twit of a former daughter-in-law two times over and is the mother of his grandchildren, are but a small sampling of the drivel that has been allowed to run amok in Genoa City the past few years.  Stuff like this is why daytime has a bad name.  Perhaps recognizing it’d had been asleep at the wheel for far too long, the show’s owner, Sony, cleaned house and finally replaced the head writer who’d been allowed to trash this show’s legacy.  Time will tell if the new head writer can right the ship before it too goes the way of so many daytime dramas before it.

It’s not that audiences don’t want scripted, serialized drama.  We want GOOD, scripted serialized drama – not the work of uncreative hacks who think the audience is too stupid to realize they’re trying to pull the wool over our eyes by spoon-feeding us one stupid storyline after another.

The desire for serialized, watercooler drama is why we watch mini-series, read trilogies/series by our favorite authors and save a month’s worth of “Downton Abbey” and “True Blood” on our DVR.   We DO want intelligent characters, absorbing drama and stories that aren’t dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.  We want to be entertained, maybe even little shocked a little along the way, but we want to be HOOKED (writers should want this, too). But to say we don’t want to follow the trials and tribulations of our favorite characters each week or each day is just silly.

We want to know what happens next.