Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Creative Mistakes: Five Ways Authors Box Themselves In

As an author, you’re a creative type. That goes without saying. But in your approach to your craft, your publishing, and your promotion, are you actually as creative as you might be?

Writing is a scary business, any way you cut it. In Write Your Best Book, the companion volume to What Every Author Should Know, I compare it to the position my son played on his high school hockey team. There’s nothing quite like being the mother of a goalie. He’s got his team out there, helping, but when pucks whiz toward the goal, it’s all up to him. And believe me, those pucks fly from every direction. The goalie has to watch every angle. He has to be quick. Fluid. Psychologically unshakable.

I don’t mean to suggest that the position of author should be a defensive one, although sadly, that’s how it ends up for some. What I learned from being a hockey mom (and please, no comparisons with thatother hockey mom) was that goalies shore up the uncertainty of their position with practices that don’t make a whole lot of sense, like never washing their jerseys during the season (my son claimed this was essential for his success) and talking to the goal posts, as top goalie Patrick Roy did in every game.

The equivalent for authors are these creative mistakes, all of which confine us in unhelpful ways:

·         A focus on the wrong kind of being: To write is to make yourself vulnerable. You will fail, time and again. Your work won’t be as good at first as it will become if you stick with it. Writers who fail to accept these truths typically end up spending more of their energy on “being” a writer instead of doing the hard work of a writer. The “being” that benefits writers is the “being” of everyday existence, the conscious effort of experiencing life as it happens, of staying actively engaged as opposed to striving to present ourselves as writers (or as anything else).
·         Risk aversion: In any uncertain enterprise, the natural tendency is to shy from risk. For survival, risk aversion is a healthy impulse. But in both the entrepreneurial and creative pursuits of a writer, risks are inherent. To avoid them means doing what everyone else does—and getting generic results.
·         Relying on formulas: Good writers balance reader expectations, which are sometimes taught as formulas, with the unique insights and approaches that are only achieved when we allow ourselves to think beyond formula. The same applies to promotion—do what everyone else does, and you’ll get lost in the crowd.
·         Believing you’ve got nothing left to learn: A writer’s education is never finished. Seek out the best—in the books you read, in the examples you follow, in the discussions of craft and business in which you engage. Be an active learner of both aspects of being a writer: your craft and the publishing end.
·         Seeking rewards too soon: The readers, the accolades, the sales—these will come. Focus first on your process, on doing your best creative work. Don’t rush a book because this person or that person has theirs out already. Don’t succumb to discouragement because your rankings aren’t what you’d like. Take your time. Persistence, diligence, completing your work, having the courage to publish—these matter, but check your motivation. If it’s all about rewards, your work will suffer, and you’ll likely be disappointed. Repeat after me: you have nothing to prove.

Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored fifteen books. Her most recent are What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion, and Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds,” according to Booklist. Deb lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier. A version of this post also ran at www.49writers.blogspot.com.   

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Why First Pages Matter, and a Critique Opportunity

One reason first pages matter: the "look inside" feature

No matter how you publish, first pages are crucial. From reading the first five to ten pages (sometimes even your first page or two), your readers—including agents and editors, if you’re going that route—are going to decide whether your book is worth their time, money, and attention. Online book vendors know this; that’s why they offer the “look inside” feature on a book’s “buy” page. 
You may think all this attention on beginnings is unfair. You’ve got a great narrative (either fiction or nonfiction). Lots of twists and turns. Unique characters. Readers can’t tell all that from the first few pages. 
Sorry. They can, and they do. 
From time to time, I’m asked to jury a writing contest or award. The first round of eliminations is actually easier than you might think; from the first page or two, it’s generally clear whether the author is capable and whether the selection is captivating enough to warrant a closer look. 
While recognizing the importance of first pages is a crucial step towards making sure yours are a worthy representation of your book, it’s also paradoxically true that authors sometimes try so hard to impress in a book’s early pages that their efforts end up attention of all the wrong kinds. In attempting to make sure your first pages “grab the reader,” it’s easy to overdo, putting the reader off instead of drawing her in. 
In What Every Author Should Know, I’ve written about five common flaws of first pages: clichés, bad pacing, insufficient grounding, flat characters, and shoddy dialogue. But of course it’s not enough to avoid the mistakes. You want your first pages to shine with an organic sort of magic, creating a magnetic pull from which the reader is helpless to escape. 
Study the first five pages of a book you love. Make notes on how the author draws you into the book­—the set-ups, the turns of phrase, the nuanced characters, the tension points that hint at the stakes. Then do the same with the first five pages of your own manuscript.
Sometimes it’s tough to see your own flaws. Or you see them, but you’ve worked the material over so many times that you’re not sure how to improve. That’s when a good critique can be helpful. 
In conjunction with my upcoming 49 Writers Ready to Publish workshop, I’ll be doing a limited number of first pages critiques. Registrants who opt for the critique will receive instructions for submitting their first five pages in advance of the workshop. On each manuscript and also in a brief editorial letter, I’ll point out what’s working well, and I’ll offer suggestions for improving the parts that need work. During the lunch break and after the workshop is over, I’ll meet one-on-one with participants to discuss these critiques. 
If you’re not able to attend the Ready to Publish workshop on Feb. 7 in Anchorage but you’d still like a first pages critique from an experienced author and editor, check with me at debvanasse (at) gmail.com and, time permitting, we’ll see what can be arranged.

Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored fifteen books. Her most recent are What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion, and Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds,” according to Booklist. Deb lives and works as freelance editor and coach on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier. A version of this post also ran at www.selfmadewriter.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Indie Publishing: Boom and Bust

Kris Rusch wrote a few weeks ago that the gold rush is over in indie publishing; in fact, it’s been over for some time now.

There’s no surprise to many of us. Neither is it cause for panic (or jubilation, if you’ve thought the indie revolution was a bad thing). Busts follow booms. It’s the nature of things.

For a long, long time, I’ve made my home in Alaska, the state that has the most volatile economy in the nation, dependent as it is on the boom-bust development of resources like oil and gold. For a forthcoming book, I’ve also done a huge amount of research on the granddaddy of all booms, the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush. So it’s impossible to resist probing what the metaphor illustrates for authors, whether they’ve been publishing independently or watching from the sidelines:

·         When the boom begins, the attraction is as much—maybe more—about independence and reward for hard work as it is about wealth. As with would-be and midlist authors who felt squeezed out of traditional publishing, most of the prospectors who came North felt squeezed out of opportunities within the dysfunctional economy of the 1890s.
·         Statistically speaking, by the time you hear about it, the so-called “easy money” is gone. For the most part, those who were already milling around in the vicinity of the Klondike when the first nuggets were found were the ones who made out well. By the time word reached everyone else, the best claims were all taken. The same has happened in indie publishing, where authors who jumped in early (2009-2011) found the biggest followings among readers. As with the miners, not all who did well were skilled; some were just lucky.
·         The volume of interest causes big problems. When a boom begins, there’s never enough infrastructure in place to deal with the influx. The sheer numbers complicate the situation for everyone. Confusion reigns. Sound familiar?
·         The resource has limits. No matter how many miners, there’s only so much gold. For books, there are only so many readers, and those readers have only so much time to read.
·         When the reality hits, most quit. With a lot of grumbling and excuses over what went wrong, some move on to the next big rush—from the Klondike, it was Nome; from indie e-books, who knows? Others will give up completely.
·         Aside from those who arrived early on, the ones who do best are those who “mine the miners.” Though the good Klondike claims were gone early, the entrepreneurs who set up shop to feed and house the miners (and keep them in liquor) did just fine. Some even hung around after the rush was over. In indie publishing, those who market services to authors trying to figure out how to promote their books will in many cases do better than the authors themselves.
·         When the rush ends, nothing’s as it once was. Klondikers tore through the landscape and created havoc among indigenous cultures. Post-boom, publishing has also changed in ways we’re still trying to figure out.
·         Despite the hardships and challenges, a certain percentage of those who came for the opportunities will stay because they like this new way of life. As with those who settled in the north, indie authors are here to stay—wiser for their troubles, better focused than they might have been, and content with the new landscape.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Hall of Shame: Don’t Make These Book Marketing Mistakes

Inspired by Doggy Hall of Shame, I decided to blast right into 2015 with my own Book Marketing Hall of Shame. Sadly, I’m pretty sure this list represents only a fraction of the bad promotional moves authors make (can you say “desperation”?). Please, don’t every let me catch you doing any of these things:

·         The unwanted “gift”: A few weeks ago, an author I’ve never met emailed me a promotional code to his book. Six days later, he followed up with this message: It appears you are not going to redeem the iBooks store promo code I sent to you. Apple issues a limited number and each has a lifespan of only four weeks and then expires forever, so I am resending yours to Cat Channel to begin my effort to drum up some publicity for Christmas Season 2015. If you should ever decide you want to become part of the millions who will yet read this book, just let me know and I will check out another from of [sic] my quota of codes and send to you. Let’s start with the obvious: Don’t dump your books on people who aren’t interested in them. Don’t chide strangers for not using a “gift” they never asked for in the first place. And please. The millions who will yet read this book? Dear me.
·         The spam blog comment: Recently, Mr. Z.H. left a comment on one of my blog posts: a linked title to a book, along with this book description: Author [name deleted, for obvious reasons] shares his triumphs and trials and experiences as an entrepreneur, car dealer, statesman, father and husband of 25 years and teaches us how to do more with less during tough times. He teaches how to leverage, barter, negotiate & stretch your dollar. These tips and tricks can pay big dividends throughout a lifetime. Dear Mr. Author (and your hired lackey, Z.H.), let me tell you what does not pay big dividends: spamming another author’s website.
·         The false friend: One of my (real) friends got so fed up with over-zealous promotion on social media that she made this pronouncement: As a published author and current writer-editor who used to work at a publishing house, I am a very strong advocate for books and authors. However, when someone becomes a FB friend and immediately begins marketing their latest book and posting their book trailer and more on my timeline, I'm going to delete it and unfriend you. Here’s the deal, authors: It’s great to share your book news with your real friends. But be prudent. Think of how it looks on the receiving end, especially on Facebook where it’s tough to figure out why particular posts end up on our timelines. Facebook, by the way, is reportedly cracking down on posts that do nothing but push people to buy a product.
·         The fake review: Online vendors do their best to target fake reviews and take them down, but judging from some of the adverts on fiverr (“fast glowing review,” “I will post a verified book review in 24 hours,” “positive verified review very fast”), the bogus review industry is still alive and well. Don’t feed it.

Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored fifteen books. Her most recent are What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion, and Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds,” according to Booklist.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Publishing 2015: Forecast from the Trenches

I’ll begin with the same disclaimers as last year: I have no crystal ball. I’m not clairvoyant. And I live in Alaska, pretty much as far as a writer can get from the Right Coast publishing industry without needing a passport. But I’ve published several books in a variety of ways—mostly traditional, but also independently and in hybrid arrangements. And I try to keep up where I can, believing that the view from the trenches is sometimes the clearest.

So, from here in my mountainside office, where fingers meet the keyboard, I offer my for-what-they’re-worth thoughts on trends in publishing for 2015:

·         Amazon still rules—and they’re changing the rules: Traditional publishers don’t like Amazon making the rules, especially when it comes to e-book pricing. Now indie authors are complaining too. Quoted in a recent New York Times article, one author complains that Amazon is “recreating that whole unfair bogus system where they make the money and we authors survive on the pennies that are left.” News flash: Amazon has always been in this for the money. A specific indie author complaint has to do with Kindle Unlimited, a new (in 2014) subscription program that features only title by authors enrolled in the KDP Select (Amazon-exclusive) option. KU titles get more visibility than others on Amazon, but the payment per download is less, sometimes substantially, than it is for straight royalty sales. (For details, see the most recent Author Earnings Report.)
·         As an author, the numbers aren’t in your favor: Simple math demonstrates that it’s not only the KU effect that’s causing indie author income to slide. There’s also way more inventory than ever before, partly because books no longer go out of print. By the numbers: In 2010, there were 600,000 Kindle e-books; four years later, there were 3 million. The net result is that it’s exponentially more difficult for new work to get noticed, no matter how you publish.
·         There are new gates: As evidenced by the recent kerfuffle between Kindle Direct and an author over the number of hyphens in his book, Amazon is increasing its efforts to make sure the book products it sells (yes, dear author, you are a supplier, nothing more) have some quality. Amazon also promotes book from its own imprints over other titles, and some of its most lucrative categories, such as Amazon Short Reads, are by invitation only. Amazon's not the only game in town, I know, but their domination of the market continues (see "Amazon rules" above).
·         Entrepreneurial fatigue will have a natural winnowing effect: In traditional publishing, there has always been a hefty attrition rate involving those who want to be published but get discouraged before the right combination of talent, luck, and determination gets them through the gates. That same fatigue will permeate the ranks of indie authors as well. In the end, those with a combination of perseverance and proper motivation (read: not solely for money) will remain, easing the numbers problem a bit.
·         The author services boom will moderate: One of my forthcoming books deals with the Klondike gold rush, so I speak with some authority on this: there’s always lots of money to be made “mining the miners.” A similar phenomenon occurred with the indie publishing revolution, in the form of all sorts of author services companies. Already some are going by the proverbial wayside as authors grow weary of dishing out lots of cash and getting little back in terms of sales.
·         Pricing will level off, with lower per-book returns for the author: A few years back, indie authors could increase their visibility with aggressive pricing. Now, KDP only allows free e-books for five days out of every ninety, and then only for titles enrolled in Kindle Select. 99 cents may be the new free, but readers aren’t as excited about 99 cent books. At the same time, there’s a glut of newsletters alerting readers to discounted titles, diluting the effect even as more and more of them require authors to pay for their listings. Adding to the bottom-line woes of independently published authors: traditional publishers are discounting their e-books more than ever before, offsetting to a certain extent one marketing advantage indies once enjoyed.
·         In this settling-out period, traditional publishers will continue to take few risks: Modest advances will continue to be offered, even for some authors who used to get big ones. The midlist author will continue to get squeezed out—and almost every author ends up at midlist eventually.
·         When it comes to discoverability and visibility, there’s no gaming the system: In the beginning (circa 2009-2011), there were tricks indie authors used to get their books noticed, especially on Amazon. Reality is starting to settle in; see the first bullet point about Amazon making the rules.
·         Readers want to be able to trust what they’re getting: Especially in children’s books, literary fiction, and nonfiction (except self-help), readers want to know that the books they’re getting are actually good, so even if they read on e-devices, they discover books in much the same ways they always have, with online reader reviews as a means of reinforcing their buying decisions.

Though this may all sound discouraging, it’s in fact nothing more than a natural correction in the marketplace, similar to what went on when the music industry went digital. As with musicians, the authors who make it will be those whose primary motivation is passion, tempered with enough good business sense to diversify their incomes from related enterprises that reinforce their branding.

Overall, it’s still an exciting time to be an author. Revel in what you can control: the joy of the creative process; the marvel that you—yes, you—can write and publish a book. Just don’t set yourself up for failure. Now more than ever, you need to educate yourself on your options in publishing and decide what’s best for you and your book.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Writer's Best Gift: We Have Faith in You!

For years, the reading of Harper Lee's "Christmas to Me" has been a holiday tradition for me. In this brief essay, Lee tells of a precious gift she received one long-ago Christmas, a gift any writer would cherish, a gift that in turn reached beyond one aspiring writer to millions of readers, in the form of Lee's classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Happy reading, and warmest holiday wishes to you and yours!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Writer's Brain - and Heart

Not long ago, I took a writerly side trip. You know how it goes. You’re getting back to your novel after a few too many days away for celebrations and family and a whole lot of other things that matter a lot, plus a few that only matter a little but still manage to snag your time, and you’re trying to get into the swing of your narrative because you know if you get to a certain spot you’ll be truly engaged and the story will carry you off the way you hope it will carry your future readers, but that spot teases and hides till you reach a little epiphany: it’s time for some research.

I won’t go into how and why I ended up researching prehistoric humanoids with over-sized brains, but it did get me thinking, not only about how to use the information in my story but how much nicer it might be if writers had the generous 25% bonus brain of a Boskop.

I stumbled on the Boskops in an excerpt from the book Big Brain by Gary Lynch and Richard Granger, reprinted in the December 28, 2009 issue of Discover magazine. These neuroscientists believe that skulls unearthed in Boskop, South Africa in 1913 come from a giant-brained group that flickered, sputtered, and died off approximately 10,000 years ago.

Lynch and Granger contend that in relation to their large cranial capacity, the Boskops had small, childlike facial features reminiscent of…well, maybe you've caught one of those Twilight Zone marathons?

Extrapolating on potential brain capacity, the authors believe these hominids may have boasted IQs averaging 150 and stretching to 180, not to mention an “inconceivably large” frontal cortex.

“While your own prefrontal area might link a sequence of visual material to form an episodic memory,” they write, “the Boskop may have added additional material from sounds, smells, and so on. Where your memory of a walk down a Parisian street may include the mental visual image of the street vendor, the bistro, and the charming little church, the Boskop may also have had the music coming from the bistro, the conversations from other strollers, and the peculiar window over the door of the church.”

The Boskops were a tad pre-Paris, but you get the idea. Higher IQ, heightened sensory memory. If only we writers had Boskop brains. Then there’s this:

“Longer brain pathways lead to larger and deeper memory hierarchies. These confer a greater ability to examine and discard more blind alleys, to see more consequences of a plan before enacting it. In general this enables us to think things through. If Boskops had longer chains of cortical networks—longer mental assembly lines—they would have created longer and more complex classification chains. When they looked down a road as far as they could, before choosing a path, they would have seen farther than we can: more potential outcomes, more possible downstream costs and benefits.”

If writers got three wishes, surely this would one: to imagine more deeply, while knowing the narrative costs of following one thread over another.

But there’s a downside to this super-sized thinking. Lynch and Granger speculate that aside from the difficulty of birthing large-headed babies, the Boskops may have been overwhelmed by their own potential and frustrated by their inability to make good on it. And there is that little extinction problem.

More important than wishing for long-lost genes is doing the best with what you’ve got, the way . pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly did. An aspiring poet, Lilly attempted but never achieved publication in Poetry magazine. Undaunted, she applauded the positive tone of her rejections and, in 2002, donated $100 million to further the magazine’s mission of advancing poetry.

The Boskops may have us beat when it comes to brains, but our hearts – well, that’s another matter altogether. In this season of giving, consider the many ways you can open your hearts to others within the literary community.  Recommend books you love; every author appreciates sincere word-of-mouth praise. Mentor an emerging writer. Donate your time, talents, and cash to a literary nonprofit like 49 Writers. Attend readings, signings, and other literary events. Support the innovative efforts of other writers on crowdsourcing sites, in journals, and on blogs.

When you finish a book, take a minute to leave your thoughts at online sites like Goodreads and Amazon. You’ll be giving the gift of social proof while helping readers find books they’ll enjoy. Like, comment, and share. Email writers to let them know you enjoyed their books. The few minutes you take to write your email will multiply into days (if not weeks) of encouragement for the author. 

Just yesterday I received this from a reader: 

That book blew me away! Thank you for it. Write more. Soon. I'm greedy . . . At this point I'm a raging fan! 

Sent from an iPhone, the note took only seconds to write. But what a gift. Never mind the size of my brain; my heart is warmed beyond compare.