Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Characters Strategies for Compelling Fiction

Characters that fail to engage are among the most common reasons that books are rejected or poorly received. What are your characters hiding from you? What are they hiding from themselves? Learn to develop compelling, multi-faceted characters and you’ll captivate readers.

From a recent workshop I taught on character development, here are three exercises that can help breathe life into characters that haven’t yet come into their own:

·         Interview your character, allow him or her to answer in voice. Start with three easy warm-up questions, such as where the character grew up or her favorite color. Then ask at least three harder questions: What are you keeping secret from your creator? (The creator, of course, is you, the author) In what way is your creator not being fair to you? What do you think about your capacity for love? For examples of insightful questions plus answers in voice, check out the Paris Review interviews with your favorite authors.
·         Make a Johari window for your character. I make these on index cards, with the traits in pencil so I can change them and move them from pane to pane as my characters reveal more of themselves on the page.
·         As suggested by literary agent Donald Maass, answer these questions about the connection between you and your main character: Why are you writing this story? How does it connect to you? What in your protagonist’s experience parallels your own? What need is most like yours? What fear is closest to your own darkest dread? What decision has an impossible cost, a cost you’ve paid yourself? When in the story could you be sitting in your protagonist’s place? Why there and then?

Always to be generous with your characters. Don’t lock them in. Allow them their complexities and contradictions, as long as they’re believable within the context. Allow their development to happen in layers, aided by the insights of good readers and editors. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Ten Tips for a Successful Author Appearance

Deb Vanasse at book festival

Once your book has launched, how do you make sure it continues to get noticed? One way is to make author appearances. I’ve not actually kept count, but my guess is that I’ve made over a hundred.

Here, ten tips for a successful author appearance:

·         If you’re going to solicit opportunities for appearances, make sure you have a specific program to offer, one that dovetails nicely with the goals and audience of the venue.
·         Be clear about the length of your program and what it will entail. Attention spans are short. In terms of audience satisfaction, less is oftentimes more.
·         If possible, coordinate with a single contact person at the venue. Ask about anticipated audience numbers and demographics. Make any equipment needs clear. For groups of larger than thirty, I generally ask for a microphone.
·         Program fees will vary with the venue and the extent to which the author is known. If there’s an opportunity to have your books available for sale, that may compensate for there being no program fee.
·         If you’re bringing books for sale, make sure to give the coordinator a list of titles and prices in advance. You might also ask about preparing a flyer that can be circulated in advance—especially effective for school programs.
·         Ask the program coordinator about how the program will be promoted. Using social media, piggyback your own promotional efforts onto theirs.
·         If you’re not entirely familiar with your program, rehearse beforehand. If reading is involved, your practice should include making eye contact with the audience.
·         Public speaking is one of the top all-time fears. Fear conquering tricks include looking slightly above the faces instead of directly at them. Engaging the audience with gestures and a small amount of movement across the stage can also help to put you at ease. If you’re overly nervous, join Toastmasters so you can practice speaking with confidence.
·         If sales are allowed, don’t hawk your books. Mention them no more than twice, at the beginning and end of the program. Greet people from your sales table, but don’t accost them. And don’t haul multiple boxes of books into the venue. For all but the most popular authors, what you can carry yourself, in a single load, is probably plenty. You can always keep an extra box in the car in case you run low.
·         Bring business cards, bookmarks, postcards—anything to help the audience remember who you are. If appropriate for the audience, provide an opportunity to sign up for your e-newsletter.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Treat Yourself to a Writing Retreat

Sunrise at Tutka Bay Writers Retreat

Sleep on your writing; take a walk over it; scrutinize it of a morning; review it of an afternoon; digest it after a meal."
~A. Bronson Alcott

Like a note held long in a song, a pair of eagles glides effortlessly across a crisp September sky as sixteen writers prepare to leave Tutka Bay, refreshed and renewed thanks to a gracious couple who for the last three years have opened this little pocket of paradise to writers. The stillness, the energy, the community, and the restoration fostered at the Tutka Bay Writers Retreat will no doubt make Carl and Kirsten Dixon godparents to much fine writing conceived at their maritime hideaway. But the retreat sells out early each year, and even those lucky enough to snag a spot find themselves all too soon back in the daily grind, their transcendent experience already seeming a collective hallucination.

For writers, retreating is crucial. A getaway to an almost-island like the one at Tutka Bay is the perfect getaway, but it’s not the only way to achieve or maintain a retreat state of mind. Within our daily routines, we must covet retreat, which means simply that we must consciously balance away-ness with being, stillness with energy, community with solitude, and learning with practice. The retreat state of mind yields refreshment, opening, insight, and change, all critical to our craft.

“Writing is utter solitude,” Kafka says, “the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.” But you can’t operate solely in the abyss, which 2012 Tutka Bay Writers Retreat leader Pam Houston calls “a very strange and self-absorbed place.” Writing is a dance between living and stepping back from that living, between falling into yourself and engaging in community and the literary dialogue.

Life is where our stories find us; retreat, be it for a week or a day or a quarter-hour, is where we find them. The retreat state of mind involves paying attention. It involves spending time in what Houston calls “the forest of not knowing.” Space and time away from daily demands restores balance. It encourages generosity with yourself and others. It reminds us of the value of patience, and of backing away. It calls us into solitude and nudges us back toward community and the restoration offered by good writer friends.

Because our business is words, writers are way too good with excuses. If only I could get away for a week or a month or a year, we say. Then you’d see what I can really write. But retreat is a state of mind. The daily grind that we long to escape generates the raw material for our work. Writing happens in living, and in getting away. It happens in solitude, and it’s enriched by community. Even when you can’t pull away to a place as remarkable as Tutka Bay, you must find and use the reset button in your head, where retreat is a state of mind.

Invest in your writing by signing up today for the Tutka Bay Writers Retreat. Instructors Ann Eriksson and Gary Geddes are both engaged writers who explore issues of considerable social and political importance. Gary has been praised for his “deadly accuracy in language and form,” Ann for her care for the shape and ring of sentences. Join them in their separate genre breakouts and joint craft sessions. Bring along your knowledge, questions, and short samples of your own work that might be worth sharing because they’re problematic, pretty damn good, or somewhere in-between. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Time Management Tips for Writers

Ah, summer! No matter where you live, it feels so fleeting. What’s an author to do?

I’ve known writers who refused to write in the summer—and not coincidentally, these writers haven’t published much. While writing’s not all nose-to-grindstone, it is hard work, and unless there’s anything other than a self-imposed deadline looming, most of us find it far too easy to fill our time with other activities.

Don’t get me wrong: For writers, breaks are important; in fact, it’s when you’re less task-focused that you’re more likely to experience “aha” moments of insight. Walking, in particular, has been linked to creative break-throughs. But beware distractions that keep you from the task at hand. Recognize them for what they are: a means of dodging the tough work of getting words on the page. Learn to recognize the difference between a break that helps you access the more creative parts of your brain and a break that’s merely avoidance. 

Know what has the greatest tendency to pull you away from your project, be it email or social media or even housework, to which writers have been known to resort when they’re feeling stuck, or when they’re dreading the hard part of beginning. Recognize that starting each writing session is the toughest part (which is why rituals help).

Once you engage in your work, it becomes its own source of pleasure, as long as you’re not overly hard on yourself. Keep your focus on process, not product. As you give yourself over to the act of discovery, the product will take care of itself.

In a recent interview on my book What Every Author Should Know: No Matter How You Publish, the interviewer kept circling around to questions of time and how writers should manage it.
Here, excerpts from that interview, with several tips on managing your writing time:

My favorite tip from your book is the 80/20 rule: 80% of your writing time on creative efforts and 20% on production and promotion. What do you use to keep track of creation/revision, reflection, immersion, community, and promotion and marketing time? How do you apply this rule if you suffer constant interruptions from what you call a “side trip” or other non-literary commitments like a full-time job or small children?

Mostly, it’s a matter of looking closely at how your days unfold, and then making adjustments where you can to preserve your craft time first, your time for creation and revision. When are you least likely to be interrupted? Alice Munro, one of my literary heroes, wrote short stories while her children napped. Once you’ve found that “sacred time,” be it 10 minutes or six hours, you have to commit to its purpose. No checking emails, no surfing for research, no staring at the screen for long periods. Just write. Everything else gets worked in around the crafting. Reflection is fun because it happens best when you’re going about the everyday business of living. I get my best insights while walking the dog, taking a shower, and right before I fall asleep. As for keeping track, all I use is a cheap spiral notebooks, one for each year. On each page I keep my to-do list for the week. What I can fit between those lines is about what I can get done in a week, after my creative time.

I’m most impressed with how you keep your web site and presence on a variety of social media fresh and engaging. How do you “systematize your involvement so it’s not a huge time-suck”?

I start my weekdays with 10 minutes on Twitter, then set it aside. I jump on Facebook only when I’ve got down time—when I’m waiting in line or enjoying a midday cup of tea. I set aside an hour or two every Thursday to draft two blog posts, one on an aspect of writing or publishing for The Self-Made Writer, and one on my work in progress for the WIP Wednesday feature on my website; I post both in advance. Cindy Dyson of Dyson UXDesigns recently revamped my website for me, and in addition to infusing it with this incredible energy, she also became very protective of my creative time, so she set it up to require minimal maintenance while still managing to maximize the ways in which I interface with readers. If I’ve got lots of news to share with friends and fans, I’ll use Buffer to schedule posts.

In the last section “Live the Life,” you offer important lessons you’ve learned about maintaining “bounce”: a blend of confidence and strategy. What tools do you recommend for generating ideas, managing promotional strategies, juggling several projects at once, and not giving up when you feel the universe is against your writing?

You have to believe not just in yourself but in the project you’re working on: that you’re speaking truth in the best way you know how, truth that in some way will better this world. You have to love what you do for its own sake. When I read about how writers need first and foremost to affirm themselves, it saddens me. What a set-up for failure! Writers are some of the least-affirmed people I know. But you know, sometimes when it feels like the universe is against our writing, maybe it’s actually trying to help us out, by prodding us to do the better work we can do if we forego the ego and take a learner’s stance with every project. The best writer’s tool, honestly, is joy: in what you do, in your approach to your life and your work. Regardless of external rewards, a writer, by virtue of her craft, enjoys a bountiful existence.

Deb's book What Every Author Should Know, No Matter How You Publish, is now $2.99 in e-book. It's also available in print.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Author Collectives: Notting Hill Press

Formalizing the ways in which they support one another, authors worldwide are forming collectives. For an article published in the IBPA Independent (before I joined the staff), I interviewed representatives of several author collectives. The authors I interviewed were so generous that I determined all the details should be shared!

 Here, the fourth in a series of interviews on author collectives, featuring a Q & A with Michelle Gorman of Notting Hill Press.

Who started your collective? What was the initial impetus and vision behind its founding?

Talli Roland, Belinda Jones and I started the collective as a way to share independent publishing expertise between a small group of hybrid authors. The idea behind Notting Hill Press is to have a hybrid publishing model that combines the best of traditional and independent publishing. We call it ‘the third way’.

It’s important to say that this isn’t a business model because it’s not a “business”. The collective is a group of authors who have come together to pool their knowledge and experience about independent publishing. We are all hybrid authors, which means we’re both traditionally and independently published. So all of us work with the big publishers on some of our books and independently publish others. This might be because our publishing contracts cover certain geographies, for example, my book, The Curvy Girls Club, is published by Avon (Harper Collins) in the UK, and I independently published it in the US. Or we may have a contract for a specific genre. For instance, Belinda Jones and Victoria Connelly have contracts with Hodder and Avon respectively for their women’s fiction, but independently published non-fiction this year. Or perhaps our contracts are for full-length fiction, like Talli Roland, who publishes with Montlake Romance (an Amazon Publishing imprint) and has released her Christmas novella independently under Notting Hill Press.

Each author runs his or her own independent publishing business exactly as they would if Notting Hill Press didn’t exist, except that he/she has the support and access to the expertise of the other nine authors. So when one of us runs a Facebook advert, for example, or a Bookbub promotion or puts a book into Kindle Unlimited, we share the results with the others. In this way we know what works and what doesn’t.

We also share resources - we’ve pooled a list of the best cover designers, line editors, copy editors, eBook creators and paperback options. We know which journalists, magazine editors and bloggers are nicest to work with and which ones provide the best reach (as I mentioned, we quantify and share the results of publicity and marketing initiatives wherever possible).

And we share the administration of the collective – one person looks after the website, another our twitter account, another handles Facebook, and when we publish a new book we share the promotion (e.g. contacting bloggers to offer review copies, chatting about the book on social media and working with Amazon to feature the books in their various promotions).

When was the collective started? With how many authors and books represented?

We started in 2012 and have 10 authors in total. Each author brings his or her business experience, professional contacts and promotional support to the group while retaining publishing control and royalties for their books.

How does the collective reach readers? How are the books published and distributed?

We reach readers via social media (Twitter and Facebook), both through our individual brands and via the Notting Hill Press brand. We put out two Notting Hill Press newsletters a year listing the upcoming publications and offering advance review copies. Everyone publishes his or her own books on each eBook distribution platform (Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, etc) and decides whether to produce paperbacks. The members of the collective have complete control of their books and make all their own decisions.

How do you vet membership?

We’re not looking for new members. We chose the existing authors because they’re all women’s fiction/romcom authors with very strong reputations who are supportive of other authors. And most importantly, they’re very nice people who we knew we’d like to work with. We have a few rules that all boil down to the same thing: professionalism. The books published under the Notting Hill Press umbrella must be professionally designed and edited and we have to conduct ourselves professionally at all times. This means that we use social media to sell books but as a way to engage with our readers. We don’t respond to negative reviews or criticize other authors (or anyone!) on social media.

What are the advantages of a collective over a traditional publishing arrangement?
      It isn’t an either/or decision – we do both, depending on what’s right for each book.

For more on author collectives and other publishing alternatives, see Deb's book What Every Author Should Know, No Matter How You Publish, available in print and $2.99 e-book.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Backstory: Four Tips for Writers

image from nomapnomad.com

Author Chris Abani says writers could avoid a good many problems if they applied some simple math to their works-in-progress: Identify which parts are in present time and which are backstory. Cut all the backstory. Then add enough back to achieve a ratio of 70 percent present time to 30 percent backstory.

For effective backstory, it’s helpful to know more than you say. If your character suspects she’s falling in love, but she’s leery because of a previous relationship in which she got hurt, you as the author should know the details of that previous relationship. Then you can decide how to parse them out within the context of your book—if you decide to use them at all. Sometimes less is more, with the doling out of backstory serving as a source of tension.

A few options for introducing the backstory of that example I gave, the old love gone bad:

·         The teaser: “There was Kenny. But she wasn’t going to think of that now.”
·         The hint: “Kenny intruded, as he always did, never mind the seven years and six hundred miles that separated them.”
·         Interior monologue: “Mark wasn’t Kenny. He never would be.”
·         The scene: Add an extra return on your page, and then spin backward in time, using subtle markers for the shift. “High school was a roller coaster through hell, thanks to Kenny. On the night of their senior prom . . .” The scene can, of course, turn into a series of scenes, if you decide a good deal of the tension exists in the past and is best parceled out all at once.

The hint and the teaser involve promises to the reader—reasons to read on, to find out what the heck went on with this Kenny guy. Used judiciously, these techniques also help you avoid the herky-jerky effect of tugging the reader forward and back through too many backstory scenes. As helpful as backstory can be, the reader’s biggest concern is generally the forward momentum of the present moment, however it’s defined in the book. 

Advice on backstory and other ways to turn good books into great books can be found in Deb's newest release Write Your Best Book. Dozens of "Try This" exercises included!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

E-Book Pricing Strategies

It's fun to watch your e-book rise in the rankings when it's free. But is it worth the cost? 

A friend whose first book came out with Hatchette two years ago complains now and again about e-book pricing, wondering how she can compete with self-published authors who can discount their books as they choose, even making them free. It only got worse for her when Amazon and Hatchette went head-to-head over e-book pricing last year; for a while, her book was part of the fallout, stricken for several months from Amazon’s inventory.

But before writers get too excited over the freedom to set and adjust e-book prices, consider this: e-book pricing strategies are more complicated than ever.

Here, for those authors who do have the freedom (and responsibility) of setting their own prices, six factors to consider in ebook pricing:

That was then, this is now: Back in 2009-2011, when e-books were a new thing, hitting the market in a big way, authors found readers by setting very low prices or offering their work for free. Especially for authors of genre fiction—mystery, science fiction, erotica, crime, etc.—this strategy worked by getting readers hooked on the first book in a series, then offering the rest of the series for free. An added perk: a free book boosted rankings, or so it appeared, in Amazon’s ever-changing and mostly secret algorithms. Flash forward four to six years. We’ve got a content flood: three million plus books available on Amazon. At any given moment, there are thousands upon thousands of free and cheap e-books—and that’s with restrictions Amazon put in place (KDP Select) to stem the flood of free and cheap books. Apply basic principles of supply and demand, and you’ll see why a few hundred downloads of a free e-book have little long-term impact on rankings unless the book actually gets amply read and reviewed, and unless it’s so exceptional that it generates word-of-mouth praise among scads of readers.
What readers want: It’s not always something for nothing. Yes, if you’re writing for speedy, high-volume readers—primarily readers of genre fiction—your readers need to be able to access lots of books at a reasonable price. But these days, subscription services like Kindle Unlimited, Scribd, and Oyster offer the best deal for genre fans, with a set monthly fee for unlimited access to their titles. Overall, authors make less per download with subscription services they do through outright sales, which accounts for much complaining in author forums. If you’re writing something other than genre fiction, your readers may be a lot more interested in value than price. When an e-book comes cheap or free—especially if it’s perpetually priced that way—the perception among such readers may be that the item has little value.
Good data can be hard to come by: The publishing industry has been notoriously secretive with the types of sales data that inform things like pricing, and none of that has changed with newer players like Amazon. Hugh Howey has made some great headway with his quarterly Author Earnings Reports, but you still need to read these carefully to make sure the take-away points apply to your circumstances; mostly, the data relates to best-selling titles, and while every author would like to be in that category, most aren’t. Mark Coker (Smashwords) and Amazon’s KDP platform both have done analyses suggesting that an author’s return is greatest on e-books priced between 2.99 (KDP) and 3.99 (Smashwords). A survey of 1200 readers conducted by The Fussy Librarian indicates that most readers believe a “fair price” for a full-length e-book to be between $2.99 and $4.99. But all of this data is skewed toward genre e-books, which occupy most of the digital shelf space at Smashwords and Amazon, as well as most of the free/cheap e-book listings in The Fussy Librarian newsletter.
Pricing sets expectations: Discounts teach consumers to wait for even more discounts, as Black Friday retailers have learned in spades. Your readers are no dummies; why would they pay the retail price for your e-book if they know you’ll eventually offer it for free? Use discounts strategically and sparingly.
Friends and fans first: These are your loyal readers. When you offer a discount, let them be the first to know. I discount sparingly, only as part of a larger promotional strategy—in other words, with a reason—and when I do, I use a plain-text email to tell my friends and fans first, because it’s more personal than a newsletter template or generic social media post.
Consider the cost: In terms of time, money, and energy, offering your e-book for free or at a discount can run up costs quickly. Many newsletters that promote e-book deals to subscribers used to list deals for free; now, most of them charge for this service, and unless it’s a vetted newsletter like Bookbub, you’re unlikely to see any sort of return on your investment. Beware especially the scams that “promise” results; unscrupulous practices by these scammers can get your book booted out of the Kindle store altogether. Even if you don’t spend money advertising your free or discounted book, getting the word out takes time and energy. Would you be better off writing?

Through Wednesday, May 13, you can get Deb’s last-ever free e-book deal*: For writers and aspiring writers, Write Your Best Book is a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest, including dozens of “Try This” exercises to demystify the process of turning good books into best books.

*Except for the always-free Alaska Sampler