Friday, June 29, 2012

And I’m Following Gilstrap, As Usual.


 By John Ramsey Miller

A few years ago one of my dearest friends, John Gilstrap, invited me to join the Kill Zone Blog Group.  I suppose I was the last of the original seven to be called on. And I got the best day, Saturday. I thought blogging would be a great way to exercise my pomposity, talk about where stories come from—life,  and to be truthful with newcomers about what the craft was really like. I hope I’ve done some of that over the past four years and whatever John thinks as to the number of blogs. I have had my dear friend, Joe Hartlaub taking every other Saturday since life started taking up more and more of my time. I’ve got nothing else left unsaid that I can think of.

I’ve truly enjoyed writing most of the articles, although sometime I had nothing in mind right up until I was against the deadline. Since I’ve had Saturdays I could write Friday evening. Sometimes I’d be into my happy hour before I realized I hadn’t posted my blog. A couple of times James Scott Bell would have one ready and he’d be kind enough to go in a day early, and let me go after him. My 5:00 constitutional is either a single malt self-served neat, a scotch on the rocks, scotch and soda, a vodka martini with big ole huge Mangarangololo olives, gin and tonic, beer, and I usually do several of one of those.

I have enjoyed great latitude blogging here, often bragging about my marvelous chickens, my grandchildren, children, my excellent dogs or the garden my wife loves tending. I was here when my Marine son was in Iraq on the Syrian Border pushing at the insurgents. Sometimes I have written a post I wished I had thought through better, or hadn’t taken on the subject matter.  I’ve been a nice guy and I’ve been a bastard when reviewing authors submitting first pages.  My sense of humor is sometimes hard-edged, my patience often too thin.  I’ve wished I knew more about this craft, but I’ve always been an instinctive writer, not a taught one because I rarely pay attention to advice or suggestions. My bad.

I will miss being here, but I’m going to keep writing at a relaxed pace (doing a book with Mark Tufo) and if it works, it works. I think it will.  Tufo is a great guy.

So far in life I’ve had several successful careers.  I had a career as a photographer. I produced 75 record album covers for major record labels. I traveled for LOOK, LIFE, PEOPLE, COUNTRY MUSIC MAGAZINE. I did a series of “formal” Death Row portraits. I loved it.

I co-owned a successful Advertising Agency in New Orleans. Loved that too.

I wrote features for the Miami Herald’s TROPIC MAGAZINE. Great fun.

I wrote a non-fiction book about the 2 Live Crew’s obscenity Trials. Weird, but interesting.

I wrote one screenplay and sold it to a major studio where it vanished into turnaround. 

I wrote a New York Times Best Seller. I followed that with six other novels. I have, last count, 2 million books in print.  A few have sold. It was all a blast.

I wrote a book with eleven other authors and it was the audio book of the year beating out Harry Potter and The BIBLE. Then I gave my slot to another author for the next book, because I thought the project was a great opportunity for me and I was convinced that another writer should have the same opportunity I'd had. I have never regretted that decision and I don't think THE COPPER BRACELET suffered for it. Great experience.

A few months ago joined my son in a silk-screening business he started in his garage and we moved it into a large commercial space with high-falooten equipment. His wife is expecting my seventh grandchild in a week or two. It’s just the two of us, working shoulder to shoulder. Nobody knows or cares that I was a best selling author. I'm just Pops up there. I’m getting my hands dirty and having the time of my life. I've got Plastisol inks under my nails right now. You guys ever need custom printed T-shirts or embroidered caps to sell your books, call us.  DaVinTee is the name. We’re in Concord, NC.  Just say that you heard about us on John’s Kill Zone Good-Bye blog and get a 20% discount off our already low, low prices. 

Will I miss this blog? I think so. Will I miss all of my blog mates and readers?  Absolutely. I've a few years left and I plan to run through them grinning. It’s time for me to walk away and let someone else step up. Joe and the gang will keep this blog at the top, where it deserves to be. I will be lurking, and like, Gilstrap. I’ll be commenting because it’s our nature. That is the way of life and the way it should be. I’ve spent my life walking from thing to thing, and it’s kept me smiling.  

 Hell, I’m smiling now. Oh, and may God bless you one and all.

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu

By John Gilstrap

I tell my students in writing classes that you know it’s time to stop writing when you’ve run out of things to say. It seems reasonable that what applies to fiction should likewise apply to blogging, and thus, this is my final post as an active duty Killzoner. It’s been close to three years, which means something along the lines of 150 Friday posts, and, frankly, I worry that I have begun to repeat myself. Y’all deserve better than that.

As one of the founding members of this corner of cyberspace, I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished, and I value each of the friendships I’ve developed over that time, both real and virtual. I feel as though I’ve come to know our regular posters, and I hope that we continue to communicate. To reach out directly, please feel free to email me at john@johngilstrap.com. I really do answer every email I get, though sometimes I’m admittedly a little slow.

If you’ve got some spare time, I hope you’ll make a chance to visit www.johngilstrap.com and join my mailing list. I don’t send out a lot of newsletters, but when I do, I work hard to make them short, relevant and interesting. Also, I encourage everyone to “like” my Facebook page, www.facebook.com/johngilstrapauthor. When I get the urge to write a blog-like essay, that’s where I’ll be posting it. And, of course, there’s my Twitter account, @johngilstrap; but I must confess that the usefulness of Twitter continues to elude me. (That semicolon was for you, Mr. Bell.)

I should point out that I’m really not going anywhere. I’ll continue to be a regular visitor to TKZ, and I’m sure I’ll be adding a few cents-worths from time to time.

It’s been a privilege, folks. For those of you who write, keep writing.  Never lose sight of the dream and remember my mantra that failure can never be inflicted upon another person. It has to be declared by oneself.

And for heaven’s sake, keep reading.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Freelance Editor Talks About Authors’ “Habits” & Predictable Writing

By Jordan Dane

I had the pleasure of working with Elyse Dinh-McCrillis (The Edit Ninja) on my short story anthology - Sex, Death and Moist Towelettes - and hope to send her more full-length novels. She came recommended from another thriller author - Brett Battles - so I owe him a beer. She is guest posting her thoughts on the patterns of authors. Enjoy!

This is Elyse laughing at my anthology...I'm sure.

Patterns in Writing
When Jordan approached me about a guest post, I decided to write about the patterns I’ve noticed in my clients’—and other authors’—work. These aren’t errors, but habitual things writers do that make their writing predictable. Most of my clients are surprised when I point them out, so it’s become clear these things happen unconsciously.

I’m not talking about a signature. One of Elmore Leonard’s signatures, for example, is his hip dialogue, with specific rhythms you can almost hear while reading. But the dialogue isn’t repetitive. I’d like to discuss things that show up repeatedly, and could potentially distract readers.

Here are some of the most common patterns I’ve seen, in everything from manuscripts by first-time authors, to finished novels by Pulitzer-nominated writers.

Reusing the same atypical word.
I was a beta reader for a friend and noticed he described many things in his novel as “dank”—basement, room, weather, smell, even mood. I suggested he substitute a few synonyms. He did a search and said, “I found only thirteen mentions in the whole ms. That’s not a lot!” I asked, “But how close were they together?” He admitted that in one instance, the word showed up twice in three pages. Astute readers would notice that.

A recent thriller by a New York Times bestselling author had an overabundance of “murmured” as a dialogue tag. After a while, I thought, “Is everyone in a seance?”

We all have words we overuse. One of mine is “just,” e.g., “I just saw that recently, and thought it was just a mole.” Be aware of your favorite words, do a search for them after you’re done writing, and replace if necessary.

Using the same descriptions and mannerisms for different characters.
In this one book I read, whenever the women were nervous, they bit their lower lips, and when the men experienced stress, they ran their hands through their hair. I started counting the number of times this happened, and could see it coming if characters started feeling stressed or anxious. I got so caught up in the counting, I lost track of what was going on in the plot.

A related pattern would be using the same descriptions as shortcuts for different types of characters. I edited an ms in which every good guy had chiseled features, every tough guy had a crew cut, and every bad guy had horrible teeth. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if a good guy had a facial scar, a tough guy wore glasses, and a bad guy looked like George Clooney? Not falling back on easy clich├ęs to denote stereotypes increases the chances of fully dimensional characters being born.

Repeating the same sentence structure.
Many writers fall into a rhythm as they write, which sometimes results in the same kind of sentence over and over: always starting or ending with a participial phrase, starting or ending a line of dialogue with a direct address, too much passive voice, multiple run-ons in the same paragraph, three short sentences in a row. (“He looks. He listens. He waits.”) All those stylistic choices are fine, but when one occurs too often, the writing becomes routine. Mix up the kinds and lengths of sentences, use them in different order, keep readers on their toes.

Different characters speaking the same way.
Sometimes writers get tied to one kind of speech pattern. I recently read a book by a well-known author in which many characters would eliminate the first words in questions: “That him?” “Help you?” “Hell you talking about?” It’s fine if one character talks like that, but I think a little old lady might say, “Is that him?”

Being attached to a favorite letter, name, number, or color.
In a novel I edited, there were characters named Linda, Lita, Lynn, Lila, Laura, Leslie, Lori (they were not related). I have a good guess as to what letter might be on the author’s monogrammed towels. In another ms, several of the names rhymed: Boris, Norris, Morris, Doris, Dolores. The thriller read like poetry.

Make a character list to see if too many names contain the same letters, or if some of your minor characters are named the same. I worked on a book in which a couple of “under fives” (a movie term for characters with under five lines) were named John, because they were less important to the author and he failed to see he’d used the same name for both.

I read a thriller by an author whose favorite color was seemingly red, because two in three characters were redheads, and different characters drove red cars, had on red dresses, and owned houses with red doors. Another time, an author was stuck on the number 9. There was a countdown to a momentous event, and every chapter had a time designation that ended in 9—3:19, 2:29, 6:39, 12:49, etc. These patterns weren’t part of a theme, merely coincidences that became distracting. Sometimes people wear beige, and things happen at 5:42.

Overuse of italics for emphasis.
This one book I read averaged one italicized sentence for every two paragraphs. So many things were important. The italics soon became mundane, which defeated their purpose.

There are other patterns I can discuss, but I may have already overstayed my welcome. Thank you to Jordan for asking me to be here, and all of you for indulging me.

What patterns have you noticed in your reading...or your writing?


Elyse's Website: TheEditNinja.com

Twitter: @EditNinja (official), @popculturenerd (where Elyse is more active) 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Magic words

By Joe Moore

WARNING: This post is not about self-publishing or gatekeeping or Amazon or e-books or all the other stuff we’ve been thrashing about over the last week or so.

It’s about magic.

Recently I was invited to speak during career week to third and fifth graders at a local elementary school on what it’s like to be a writer. Frankly, I expected only a handful of kids to show any interest while most would probably react with boredom. After all, how could I compete with the fireman and his Dalmatian that were the previous guests? I was pleasantly surprised to find classroom after classroom packed with genuinely interested kids who paid attention, asked great questions, and promised to go home and start writing their stories. I found out a few days later that some actually did.

I began my presentation by telling them that at the end I would reveal the two magic words every great writer uses to create great stories. This was my hook that kept them listening, and it worked.

The two magic words are: What if?

I’ve used them to create the premise of 6 novels, my two current works-in-progress and many short stories. Here’s a sample:

What if someone used the DNA found in the Holy Grail to clone Christ? THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY

What if a 5000-year-old relic revealed the secret to surviving Armageddon? THE LAST SECRET

What if a quantum computer could bring down all the resources of the world and throw nations into chaos? THE HADES PROJECT

What if a group of state-sponsored terrorists could deliver a lethal virus with something as innocent as a cough or sneeze? THE 731 LEGACY

What if someone was stealing the burial remains of the most infamous mass murderers in history in order to genetically regenerate them into an army of killers? THE PHOENIX APOSTLES

What if the search for an Old Testament artifact uncovered a plot to destroy a major U.S. city with a nuclear device built by the Nazis at the end of WWII? THE BLADE

magicAs far as I’m concerned, those two words are magical. Repeating them is like an incantation that launches a spell and sets the imagination afire. They form a seed that can start growing from the moment the question is asked: What if? The two most powerful words in the craft of writing.

I keep a list of “what if” questions and ideas that I’ve accumulated over the years. They come from everywhere; the newspaper, TV, movies, books, articles. And I’ll be a lot of you guys have a similar list.

So why am I even talking about this? After all, writers already know the magic words. What I want to suggest is that you use them like I did to ignite the imagination of future writers of all ages. If revealing those two words sends a kid home with the fire to write a story, and they do, then there’s truly something magical going on. Pass on the magic words to others as often as you can. You just might be responsible for the next future New York Times bestseller. And wouldn’t that be magic!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Becoming your own gatekeeper

I'd like to piggyback onto Clare's topic yesterday, about the role of gatekeepers in publishing. After I posted my comment yesterday, I found myself doing an internal rant about the subject, so I thought I might as well share it here.


Here's what I really think about gatekeepers: No matter which path you take to becoming published, legacy or indie, you must act as your own gatekeeper.


Lesson #1 I learned when I got published: You don't get much editing.


When I first got a writing contract, I expected to have lengthy, cozy conversations with my editor about my work. Granted, we lived on opposite coasts, but I expected to get some sort of in-depth discussion about where my drafts needed overhaul. What I typically got, instead, was a one-page email of bullet points. I was amazed by how few significant changes were expected. Even a bit suspicious.


As I met and talked with other writers who worked for Big 6 publishers, I heard similar stories. Here was the bottom line: Agents and editors sign you only if they think you're already publishable. They don't take writers who need work.


Of course, a publisher can be wrong about your writing. Sometimes they put it out there, and it doesn't sell. (We writers like to bemoan lousy covers or inattentive publicity departments for this failure to thrive.)


Now comes along indie publishing. Indie writers will have to become their own gatekeepers. But here's the truth: We writers  are always our own gatekeepers. We're wasting our time if we put stuff out there that isn't "publishable." We have to be able to know when our work is ready for publication. And especially, when it's not.


One thing I notice a lot in critique groups: Writers submit  material before it's ready. Sometimes a writer will turn to me with hopeful eyes and say, "Do you think my piece is ready to send out?" Most of the time I have to say (reluctantly, because I like the person) "no." What I don't understand is writers who can't figure that out for themselves.


When you're ready to self-publish (or submit to an agent or publisher), you must compare your work to what's already on the bookshelves. Does it measure up? Are you sure? With my own work, I am extremely reluctant to submit it. Only deadlines have ever forced me to push the Send button. (Knowing when a draft is finished--that's a blog topic for another day).


I know I'm preaching to the choir here. Most TKZ'ers visit our little blog in the cybersphere because we're  obsessive about perfecting our craft.


As Captain Picard would say, "Make it so."

Monday, June 25, 2012

Quality Checks and Balances

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

As always, the hot button topic of indie/self-publishing versus traditional publishing has generated lots of comments in recent days here at TKZ and one issue that comes up time and time again is the 'gatekeeper' concept - basically agents and editors acting as a 'quality sieve' for what comes into the publishing pipeline. While I agree this is an imperfect system - there's no doubt that agents and editors can get it horribly wrong - there does need to be some system of quality control. Doesn't there?


Nowadays on the indie front,  this typically comes from readers who are just as well-equipped to judge what makes a good book as anyone else. But from the standpoint of a writer who relies on her agent to raise the bar for her work -  I do wonder how these quality checks and balances will get made in the new era of indie publishing. As a reader, I don't want to troll through a plethora of e-books that were dashed off prematurely in my search for books to read. Though social media and reviews certainly help, the sheer number of releases makes my head spin and  I still fall back on buying e-books from traditional publishers as I know the system of quality control (though imperfect) is at least in place.


As a writer I have a group of beta readers who help me enormously - but though their feedback is invaluable, none of them ever quite bring the perspective my agent does. For all the tough love I get from them, my agent manages to point out ways in which I can improve the manuscript that they never even considered. So my worry is that if I went the indie route the books I put out there would be good but not as good as they could have been....Because my agent's 25 years of editorial experience in publishing adds a level of input that, quite frankly, none of my other beta readers can match (and they are an amazing group of people whose input I value enormously).


Many members of my writing group have used freelance editors to help polish their manuscripts but with mixed results. Many of these editors aren't looking to dissuade a writer from publishing a manuscript and so, given that they get paid to edit, aren't necessarily going to be as upfront about a manuscript's shortcomings - not if it means putting themselves out of business.  I'm sure they are all professionals and do their best but do they act as an objective assessor of 'quality' - I'm not sure they can. 


Now many of you will argue that this assessment is best left to readers (who will vote with their pocket books as well as airing their online opinions) but it exhausts me to think of all the half-baked e-books that might end up out there, just as it worries me that aspiring writers are becoming ever more impatient to release material before it has been crafted into the best possible shape.


So who do you turn to for editorial guidance? Do you rely on freelance editors to give you much needed input? Are you convinced your own circle of reviewers give you the tough love you need? 


Despite being published, I admit I still lack the confidence and experience to know when a manuscript is really, truly, finally ready. Most of my 'final' manuscripts end up being revised and reshaped based on input from my agent before they get shown to publishers, and as a result they become significantly better than the 'best' I originally could do (okay, so this might say more about my lack of talent...). In a world where we acknowledge the traditional system has many shortcomings, how do we view the concept of 'quality control'? If that is still even relevant, how do we achieve it?







Sunday, June 24, 2012

Writers Going Boldly



The late Ray Bradbury was a living, breathing testament to the joy of writing. He loved what he did and he did it every day. He wrote where his imagination led him. He explored his own inner universe, never quite sure where the path would lead but absolutely delighting in the journey.

His practice was to wake up and start writing and see what happened. He’d explode. “Every morning I step on a landmine,” he wrote in Zen in the Art of Writing. “The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.”

That was his practice from his earliest days as a writer. Even after he was married and had mouths to feed he found a way to make income as a writer while writing what he loved.

That’s the ideal, isn’t it? Yet in the past, only a few writers ever truly realized this dream.

I remember how happy I was when I first started writing. It was love. There was something rapturous about it, even though I had a lot to learn about the craft. Maybe it was because I was in touch most directly with my imagination and passion. I was just letting it rip. I was a landmine.

I worked hard at the craft, too. I enjoyed that as well, the way a race car driver enjoys working on his engines. And then came the day I got published. And after that, contracts. And now, looking back, a career. I’ve been one of the lucky ones.

But it struck me the other day as I woke up and started the coffee going that I was more eager than ever to get to my writing chair. Because when I sit in it, I can take myself wherever I want to go. Boldly. Like Capt. James Tiberius Kirk, I am on the bridge of my own Enterprise. If a galaxy looks interesting, I can tell my inner Mr. Sulu to take me there.



So I’m writing boxing stories and zombie legal thrillers and stand alone suspense and stories about vigilante nuns. I’m writing essays on writing and soon will be releasing non-fiction booklets on a variety of topics that interest me. Plus, I know that anything I write will get to readers and make me a profit.

You know, in all the recent debating about self v. traditional publishing (both of which I continue to maintain are of value) one thing perhaps isn’t emphasized enough. Writers who write what they love, care about it, figure out how to do it better, then repeat the process all over again—those writers may be having the most fun of all.

Of course, as my blog brother Gilstrap reminded us on Friday, a certain amount of sweat equity (which he maintains is gained only by going traditional, and I maintain can be had privately) is necessary for someone to develop into a real writer.

But you can sweat and still find joy, and most of that is in the freedom to write what you want to write and letting the market itself decide what to do with it.

“The first thing a writer should be,” Bradbury wrote, “is excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms . . . . [A writer must] look to his zest, see to his gusto.”

When you do that, it will show up on the page. And when it shows up on the page, readers will take notice.

Do you want to write? Really? Enough to work at it lovingly every day? To study the craft because you desire more than anything else to communicate with the reader in the most effective way? Enough to boldly go where no writer has gone before? Or, at least, to put your own footprints on some previously explored planet?

Then do it. And pay no attention to the naysayers. Brenda Ueland, in her classic little book If You Want to Write, says this:

"Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say. Everybody is talented because everybody who is human has something to express. Everybody is original if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself. So work with all your intelligence and love. Work freely and rollickingly, as though talking to a friend. Mentally (at least three or four times a day) thumb your nose at all know-it-alls, jeerers, critics, doubters. Work from now on, until you die, with real love and imagination and intelligence. If you are going to write you must become aware of the richness in you and come to believe in it and know it is there."

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Persistence



It so happens that my contribution to The Kill Zone ties in a bit with an element of John Gilstrap’s excellent piece yesterday. John at one point mentioned persistence; persistence doesn’t mean working at a job for two weeks and then wondering why you’re not the manager or supervisor. Persistence means learning and working and butting your head against the wall to go through it if you can’t go over it or under it or around it. And I’ve got a story about persistence for you. It’s not about an author, either, though there are plenty of those. There are freaking lists of those on Facebook, listing authors whose names you know and the number of rejections they received before selling their first story or novel. No, this one is about a musician. His name is Scott Hartlaub and yes, he is related to me. He is my nephew.

Scott plays drums. He has played drums for almost fifteen years. Scott is a quiet and unassuming and gentle guy who disappears into a room even when he is the only one in it. But he wanted to play drums for a living. He formed bands that disbanded and joined bands that broke up and lived in crappy apartments and drove hundreds of miles to gigs that barely paid and worked jobs that most of us would regard as beneath us to support himself in the meantime. All along the way he honed his craft and kept his eye on the goal. I am sure that he got discouraged at some point(s) but he just. kept. going.

A couple of years ago Scott auditioned for a position in a band that backed up an extremely talented singer-songwriter named Jessica Lea Mayfield who at that time hardly registered on anyone’s radar. She started playing small clubs where the dressing room and rest room were on and the same.  Scott was in the back of the stage pounding away, behind Jessica and a set of keyboards and a guitarist and bass player, not to mention loading and assembling and unloading his kit, and doing all of the things that drummers do and a few that they don’t normally do, either. Jessica (she has a huge story about persistence as well) got some notice, and then some more notice, and then she got signed to a major label (the equivalent of an imprint of a major publisher). She recorded a CD with Scott and the band and then one night, we turned on the television, and there was Scott, on Late Night with David Letterman, the camera in a tight shot on him as he counted off the beginning of a song before Jessica started singing. If it had been me, I would have screwed it up, but Scott didn’t. But you know what? When I called him the next day he was back on his other job, making pizzas and taking phone orders for a large pep with double cheese in the Merriman Valley area of Akron, and he never even blinked. Talk about compartmentalizing. And he stayed Scott, even though he had become SCOTT. He even gave the pizza shop two weeks’ notice before the band left on a world tour of music festivals.

Scott is living in Nashville now, in between tours and doing pretty well. He’s doing what he wants to do, after fifteen years of no’s and sorry’s and really, really tough breaks and pounding his head through the wall. But he broke through. So can you. But if you want to break through you can’t stop pounding. And don’t complain because the plaster is hard. That’s a given.

Friday, June 22, 2012

My Unsettling View on Self-Publishing

By John Gilstrap

On Monday, my Killzone mate Clare Langley-Hawthorne asked how prolific a writer should be, to which a commenter responded, unprovoked, “. . . you can always just go indie/self pub yourself . . . Of course, then you wouldn’t be able to post about how self-pub writers are ruining it for the ‘real’ writers.”

Oh, please.

On this, my penultimate post as a Killzone blogger, I want to dedicate my precious slice of cyberspace to a toxic trend that has really begun to bug me: the tyranny of self-righteous do-it-yourselfers. More specifically, I want to say my piece on why I continue to believe that self-publishing is an expensive road to frustration and failure, particularly for writers who do not have an established base of readers.

First, let’s define success. For me, that means thousands of books sold. If a few dozen to a few hundred is your ultimate goal, then self-publishing is your only option. No traditional publisher is going to invest their cash in such a tiny career.

Second, let’s establish the parameters of my argument: For my purposes here, my argument does not apply to anyone who has previously published books through traditional publishing. The sagas of Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler and others with established readerships have no relevance.

Charlatans Prey On Dreams

With the birth of the cheap-n-easy eBook, charlatans with dreams to sell are rising like weeds to capitalize on the desires of under-cooked writers to see their words in print(ish).

They’re all over the Internet, and they remind me of carnival barkers: “It’ll only cost you a few hundred dollars here, and a thousand there, but ladies and gentlemen, if you’ll follow my blog and buy my book and hire the editors I recommend, I guarantee that your book will be on a cyber shelf where millions of people can see it if they know to look for it. Don’t be fooled by those predatory publishers who take the lion’s share of your money! Come with me, and I’ll only take 30% for doing nothing and taking no risk.”

Deals don’t come sweeter than that. For the self-pub conduit.

Here it is for the record: 1. Not all self published books are crap. In fact, some of them are very good. Of those that are very good, the vast, vast majority are written by journeyman writers who have had experience in the traditionally-published world. 2. Not all proponents of self-publishing are hucksters, and neither are all freelance editors. Though some kind of warning label would be helpful.

I get all of that. I really do. But none of these factors make self-published freelancers any more courageous, noble or dedicated to their craft than those who do things the old fashioned way.

Desire Does Not Equal Talent and Persistence

I respect anyone who can squeeze some coin out of any corner of the entertainment business. There’s a guy outside the parking garage at the Vienna Metro Station in Northern Virginia who seems to enjoy the daylights out of playing hymns on his saxophone to greet customers on their way home after a long day. More times than not, there are a few bucks in his open case, so I concede that he is a professional musician. He may well be the best musician his family has seen in generations.

But he will never get a recording contract, no matter how much he really wanted one. It’s a talent thing. Or maybe it’s a training thing. Either way, I wager that traditionally-compensated musicians lose no sleep worrying that this guy and his subway-playing buddies might “ruin” the business for them.

As has been demonstrated in this very blog many times over the years we’ve done our First Page Critiques, a solid proportion of works whose authors felt confident enough to submit them are nowhere near ready for prime time. Like it or not, folks, writers like these represent most of what sits on self-published shelves. I say this with confidence because they represent the bulk of work proudly submitted to every amateur writing contest I have ever judged.

Yes, there are exceptions, and it you’re one of them, you deserve better company. But every time a reader takes a chance on a free download or views a free sample and learns how awful most of the choices are, the odds are stacked even more heavily against every other independently published author.

Self-published authors don’t threaten to ruin anything for the traditionally-published authors. They threaten to ruin each other by association. It has been that way since the very early days of vanity presses, only now the barriers to entry are lower. That means there’s more awfulness in play than ever before.

Freelance Editors Can Only Help A Little

Big Publishing editors reject authors who just don’t have the chops. Freelance editors adopt them as cash cows. Big Publishing editors stake their reputations and their mortgages on quality. Freelance editors live on process and improvement. I’m not suggesting malfeasance—ethics are tied to individuals, not to professions—but the difference in motivations is significant. There’s a world of difference between making a work better and making it publishable.

And how many freelance editors will reject a project outright?

Commonly Accepted Falsehoods

All too often, the debate about the merits of self-publishing are driven specious assumptions. Among them:

Standard eBook royalties dwell in the neighborhood of 17%. Not so, if you have an agent who is worth her salt. The true number is (or at least can be) much, much higher.

Agents are a thing of the past. Also false. (See above.)

Traditional publishers are irrelevant at best, dying at worst. This is simply not true. Their business model may be shaken, but every single one of them is adapting. When the dust settles, the public will be hungry for anti-dreck gatekeepers, and the keys will be in the hands of publishers. There might be different names on the doors, but the route to success will still be guided by professionals who know what they’re doing.

A 70% self-pubbed royalty is the route to riches. This is the most specious argument of all. Sure, at that rate, a book priced at $2.99 earns the author $2.09 for every sale. That’s a significant sum until you throw in the recent data that the average self-published eBook earns its author less than $500. That translates to fewer than 240 books sold, despite all the blogging and the book trailers and the social media stuff the author put into selling them. Seventy percent of very little is even less.

Think Value, Not Cash

Time has value, too. One of the reasons why publishers give smaller royalties is because they’ve already paid the author cash up front in the form of an advance that is going to be far north of $500. And that’s money the author never has to give back. Meanwhile, the publisher also pays for the cover art, layout, marketing, advance readers copies, catalogue copy, and the million other moving parts that give a book a chance at life.

Yes, publicity departments are shrinking and the pressure is increasing for authors to do more of their own publicity, but by working through a publisher, that work by the author is launched from a platform that is orders of magnitude more expansive than anything a first-timer could launch on his own.

I’m Not Trying to Run Any Author’s Life

Let me be clear: My point is not to rain on people’s parades. Everybody has a right to spend their money however they want, and everyone gets to define “writer” and “published” by their personal favorite lexicon. My opinions are no more valid than anyone else’s.

But if you’re a writer who has faith in your talent, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to exhaust all the traditional routes before you even consider the self-publishing dream that for so many has become a self-publishing nightmare.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Checklist for Indie Authors – E-Book Retailers (Post 2)

To get my e-book into the hands of readers, I had decisions to make. Should I upload my book through a Distributor/Aggregator with bundled services for multiple retailers or load them directly onto the sites of individual retailers? If you have a number of titles from your backlist, this could seem daunting, but bear with me. Some retailers are easy to upload into directly, regardless of the number of titles you have, while others restrict authors who don’t have enough offerings to meet their initial minimum requirements.

As I stated in my first post on this series, if you upload to Amazon and B&N, you’ve covered 60-70% of e-books sold today. That’s a good place to start. I could have formatted my own books to save money, but I went through a service provider to do this as I continued writing my contracted books. My formatters created my e-book files for Sex, Death and Moist Towelettes & Dark Kiss through Amazon (Mobi), B&N (ePub), and Smashwords (.doc), plus my e-book and pdf file for my Print-on-Demand (POD) non-fiction book with a cover design for the front, spine, and back of One Author’s Aha Moments.

To optimize an indie author’s outreach and distribution efforts, I’m listing other options beyond Amazon and B&N in this blog series. Stay tuned for more in the weeks to come when I post about Distributors & Library Sales, Retailers with Volume Restrictions, and I draw some conclusions from all this in my final post on the indie author topic. I plan to launch a page on my Fringe Dweller blog where I will list indie resources and maintain them.

Below are the e-book retailers that allow anyone to upload content, no matter how many offerings you have or your publisher status. (Kobo will be mentioned in the next post, but there are many interesting changes happening that will put them on this list soon.) Please be aware that each of these sites operates under different formats and you should get familiar with their guidelines.

Amazon’s Kindle Digital Publishing (KDP) - Amazon’s primary e-book format is Mobipocket (Mobi) files, with or without DRM. Amazon currently dominates the market on e-book retail sales. Authors and publishers have access to an effective online retail outlet. Their royalty percentages are split by price point. Currently, that is 70% if your e-book is priced between $2.99 & $9.99, or 35% for all other price points. There is a small delivery charge based on size of file and royalties are paid monthly.

Barnes & Noble - B&N's upload service is called PubIt!. PubIt! is similar to the Amazon KDP and gives indie authors the ability to upload a higher quality of ePub file that will not be lost through an automated conversion process where standards might be lower. The system also accepts Word, HTML, RTF, and TXT documents, which will be auto-converted to the ePub format.

Apple's iBookstore - Apple's iBookstore is open for authors and publishers to upload their own content. You must have a Mac computer to use the iTunes Producer program to upload the files. The signup process may seem intimidating, but an indie author can earn a higher royalty percentage by going direct and not through a distributor/aggregator. If you are unable to use Apple's system because of limitations, the iBookstore provides a link of Approved Aggregators you can go through.

Google - Google's e-book store allows readers to purchase PDF and ePub versions of your book, protected by the Adobe DRM. (Digital Rights Management is a term for any security measures designed to inhibit piracy.) The Google e-book store is part of the Google Books Partner Program. HERE  is a link on their system requirements.

Lulu - Lulu uses ePub, PDF, and Microsoft Reader (LIT) formats, with and without DRM. Lulu is well-known for its Print-on-Demand (POD) services and an indie author can sell e-books through them. Lulu takes a cut of sales and there could be an additional fee to use the DRM option. Lulu is an Apple-approved aggregator for the iBookstore.

ebookMall - A $19.95 submission fee is waived until June 30, 2012. ebookMall uses ePub and PDF file types. Lightning Source could be an alternate source into this retailer.

Scribd - Scribd uses PDF files only and cannot sell other formats.

Smashwords - Smashwords works off a specific Word document style (HERE) that must be in accordance with the Smashwords Style Guide. That Word doc is auto-converted into 9 different formats at the author's option. In addition to selling books at its own online store with the lowest fee of any retailer listed here (15%), the Smashwords Premium Catalog offers authors and small publishers a way to distribute their titles across a variety of retailers, including Apple's iBookstore, the Sony eBook Store, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and others.

In my next post, I will go into more detail on the various issues with a middleman distributor. Be aware that an indie author can have format issues by going through the conversion process and this can translate into downstream retailers taking issue with e-book quality from that distributor and YOU. Bottom line is, uploading directly to a retailer with relative ease might be your best option. You’ll see why in my next post when we talk about issues beyond formatting, like cumbersome and untimely price changes when going through a third party.

Some of this sounds daunting, but remember, if you’ve got your book onto Amazon and Barnes & Noble, you have your digital baby with the largest e-book retailers. Fine tuning your retailer outreach can be done as you have time. It doesn’t have to be done all at once. Many of these sites will take time away from your writing, so weigh the benefits against the time it takes for you to focus on this, but once you see how things go, you can fine tune where you will focus your retail and promotional efforts.

If you’re an indie author, please share your experiences with the retailers I mentioned and what has worked for you. If you are exploring the idea of self-publishing, do posts like this help you or intimidate you?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Dreaded White Page

After an interval of months due to editing my next romance release and polishing the sequel (these are big books, over 400 manuscript pages each), I am once again facing the dreaded blank white page. This engenders all sorts of fears. Do I still have what it takes to write a novel? Will I be doing justice to my fans with this story? Will I remember the plot threads I’d shuffled aside to work on my edits? Can I still write a mystery?

Distractions tempt me away from the WIP. I should check email. There might be something important waiting in my inbox. Or since it's Saturday, I should wait until next week to begin anew. Hey, I could write this blog! And so I do, neglecting my novel writing until later. But then I’m going to the MWA meeting.


Nonetheless, I forged ahead and by Monday, I'd finished the chapter where I left off. Here are some tips on how to get started after a long interval:

· Write a detailed synopsis before you begin the story. For a mystery, mine tend to run from 10 to 15 pages. I need to know where I'm going but this technique may not work for everyone.

· Write a cast of characters with brief background descriptions for each person and their role in the story.

· When you leave off writing, type in a few notes on what happens next.

· Start by revising what you’ve already written. You may have polished this piece of work already, but you'll always find more to fix when you view your writing with a fresh perspective. And this will get you back in your character’s head.

· Begin slowly, one page at a time, with no word count requirements.

· On a set day, put yourself on a strict writing schedule. My minimum is five pages a day. For a 75,000 word mystery, that means approximately 20 chapters of about 15 pages each. This isn’t written in stone but gives me a guideline to follow. As I approach the end of a chapter, I use a hook to coax the reader into turning the page.

· Determine your finish goal. If you write 25 pages per week, how many weeks will it take you to finish the book?

For example, I’ve written 75 pages. Thus I need 225 pages to reach the finish line. Divide this number by 25 pages a week, and that comes to 9 weeks. I take out my calendar. Can it be done?

I have to discount two weeks for family events and vacations, because it always takes me a few days to catch up after being away. This takes me to mid-August. So I will extend my goal for unforeseen circumstances and say I must finish my draft by the end of August. This is perfect timing, because my new romance release comes out in September, and I’d like to devote that month to promotion.

There’s only one kink in this plan. Assuming I sell the next book in my Drift Lords series, I’ll have to stop all work on my mystery when the edits come. And then I will want to polish the third sequel (already written) before submitting it to my current romance publisher who will only accept one book at a time. But since I’m not under contract for the mystery, it doesn’t matter. I’ll just follow my advice above and jump back in as needed.

What do you do to restart your brain into story mode when you’ve been away from the WIP?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

MOVE OVER HARDCOVERS: E-books Just Outsold You

By: Kathleen Pickering http://www.kathleenpickering.com

books

Before I even begin on today’s news, let me offer a superb website for the latest in breaking news for the publishing industry, called GalleyCat:

http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/

Don’t go there now, because I’ll lose you here. GalleyCat is chock full of fascinating info that could capture your attention for hours—but, I need you now!  So, do copy and paste this link into your Favorites to peruse after you’ve read my fascinating info today on e-book sales outselling hardcovers for the first time in the US.

This new is from an article written by Lauren Indvik on Mashable. (Another great site for breaking news, BTW!)

Looks like e-books brought in $282.3M in the first quarter of this year (up 28.1% from last year). Adult hardcover novels earned $229.6M (up 2.7%). Adult paperbacks continued to lead at $299.8M but sales are down 10.5% from last year.

Downloaded Audio books are up 32.7% from last year selling at $25M. So, the trend is pretty clear. The flood of e-reading devices crossing the board from tablets, smartphones to dedicated e-readers have taken a bite from the paper book industry.

What did I do? I went and bought some Apple stock (better late than never). The writing is on the wall--never mind on the e-readers!

kindle

Have you gone to the dark side and traded in your hard copies for your Kindle, Nook or other e-reading device? I cherish my hard cover books and can’t imagine taking an e-reader into the tub (unless of course, it’s waterproof!) Yet, I haven’t been loyal to my paper novels, either. Here’s a page in my iPad Kindle file of books by fellow authors. I mean, really? How can we resist carrying around hundreds of books on a slim little tablet? Are paper books doomed?

Tell me what you think.

xox, Piks

Monday, June 18, 2012

How prolific should you be?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Following on from Jim's post yesterday on attacking the self-publishing game, I started thinking about how the indie e-book phenomenon is affecting reader expectations as to the number of books a writer should be producing. In May a New York Times article explored how many bestselling writers now feel that one book a year is simply not enough. 


Publishers are placing increasing pressure on authors to accelerate production, often asking for additional material such as novellas and short stories to supplement the e-books being released. In a market where entertainment is being churned out at a faster and faster rate, I can't help worry that the push for constant new material in the e-book market comes at the expense of quality - but what writer can afford not to be prolific when the market demands it?


There aren't many of us who can match James Patterson in terms of output (I believe he released 12 titles last year with 13 due this year!) but with the demands on authors increasing all the time, I wonder how many of us feel compelled to produce more simply out of fear? 


In the indie market, clearly an author has to balance consistent output with quality in order to build readership but, as an author whose first novel was published, I don't exactly have a huge drawer load of old manuscripts I can put out there - and there are limits to how fast I can write new material to the level  that I feel is publication worthy. It seems rather a daunting challenge - balancing the need to produce with the need to keep quality standards high. 


So what do you think? Are some of these prolific authors sacrificing quality for quantity? Is your publisher pushing for you to produce more than one book a year? If you are considering (or in the process of attempting) the indie route, how are you approaching this issue? What is your target output - and how do you plan on achieving it?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

If You Seriously Want to Make Money Self-Publishing, Attack It

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell



I have this quaint notion that writers should be able to make money at their trade.

You may have seen the recent report that half of the self-published books that came out in 2011 made under $500. Though this report is not without its critics, it’s pretty clear a majority of self-published writers are not getting the financial returns they’d hoped for.

For some, those hopes are based on unrealistic expectations. Many writers still think of self-publishing as a gold rush. They believe they can come out with one or two books and win the lottery. But 99% of them won’t. Not even if they try to write another Fifty Shades of Grey (please don't try to write another Fifty Shades of Grey).

If you really want to succeed at self-publishing––and by that I mean make a profit and grow revenue over time––you’re going to need a plan. Like a good golf swing, this plan should be workable, repeatable, simple to understand and have a track record of results.

I have such a plan.

My new book, Self-Publishing Attack! The 5 Absolutely Unbreakable Laws for Creating Steady Income Publishing Your Own Books, is now available on Kindle and Nook.

I’ve spent the last year and a half studying, experimenting, watching, publishing and taking notes on what it takes to make a go of self-publish. My goal was to see what any writer could do, not just one with a massive backlist (where there really is gold). I have not put out my backlist immediately. Rather, I wrote new material––short stories and novellas and non-fiction––and kept track of the results. 

For me, the key data point is how you trend. You want your trend line in sales looks like this:


This is what long term self-publishing success looks like. Steady growth via the introduction of new product.

Just like in traditional publishing. Just like in any business.

With the upside that no one can cancel your contract. You have a lifetime deal––with yourself.

That also means you have a fiduciary duty to do the best you can. You are under an implied warranty of good faith and fair dealing, so you’d better perform or you’ll have to take yourself to court.

The strategies and tactics in Self-Publishing Attack! The 5 Absolutely Unbreakable Laws for Creating Steady Income Publishing Your Own Books have been tested by experience and confirmed by what other successful self-published authors are doing. 

These laws are immutable––that means they will never change. They will stand the test of time and the challenges of an ever evolving marketplace.

As someone who has run successful small businesses, I know how one has to think and plan in order to create the best possible foundation for making a profit. I'd like to see more self-published writers getting it right.

Because I have this quaint notion that writers should be able to make money at their trade.

Friday, June 15, 2012

...a red pencil clenched in their teeth

John Ramsey Miller


Do not get me wrong. I love and appreciate my readers ....mostly. I recall when fans sent letters to the publisher who forwarded them to me. That's how long I've been around. Most were complementary, some not so much...  


Every published author has to deal with people who find mistakes in their book and have to get in touch immediately so they can do a "superiority" dance. Nonny-Nonny-Boo-Boo, I know more n' you do! We all hate their slimy little entrails. I have written people and told them not to ever read my books again and I've offered to pay them for the book they bought if they would agree not to ever buy another one. My wife gets crazy when I do things like that. 


I have told people that the mistakes were obviously typos put there by a typesetter who zoned out and the copy editor missed catching it. With what publishers pay copy editors and the nature of the setters reading and keying in the words of every kind of book there is, and I get it. So now so should you, anal compulsive reader dearest. 


Most readers are truly dears, but there's that one in five thousand who read novels the way surgeons read the New England Journal of medicine.  You get words wrong in that tome and people can die. I seem to get a few readers who read with their feet up and a red pencil clenched between their teeth. 


Here's the thing. I write stories in real time as I imagine them. If I put in mistakes, they are often invisible to me in consequent readings and edits. I see something, I read it the way I imagined it--if that makes sense. Sometimes my lens is clouded. If (the editorial) you are going to read for grammatical accuracy, don't read my books. Read law books. If you find a mistake in my books, keep it to yourself, because it isn't in my control. Write the typesetter or the copy editor and tell them they ruined my book for you. I can do nothing at this point but allow how friggin anal you are and repeat for the twentieth time, "Tell somebody who will be impressed that you read each word and found something that didn't belong, or found something missing, even after a dozen professionals missed it."  


If the editor(s) don't initially fix it, it will remain as broken as when I built it. 


I was not an English major, and I couldn't diagram a sentence if my life depended on it. I will dangle participles like I used to hang those foil strip icicles on Christmas trees, end a sentence with a preposition, misspele words, run a sentence from Eugene to Miami Beach,  double tap words, CAPS and lower cases lie where they fall, and more terrible, unforgivable things. It's just me.


Here's an example. (Spoiler Alert) If I remember the book correctly, in UPSIDE DOWN I have a character say something in German when he is about to kill another assassin (like he could accomplish that). The reader should think this guy is the German assassin in a clever disguise. This woman writes to tell me that she teaches German and loves knockschnizzels and she has to tell me that my German grammar is badly flawed and whoever does my research should be "drawn and quartered." Otherwise she loved the book. My reply went something very much like this:


Dear (Her name here),
My stepmother is German. I took German in college as my foreign language. I have several close friends who are German or who speak German at least conversationally. The phrase you are referring to was taken directly from a Babel Fish translation of the English I wrote in the little block. You see, the character got the German he spoke from babel Fish because he wasn't German at all, which I thought clear enough. He wanted to trick the real German assassin by tossing off a phrase he got from Bable Fish (since he did not speak German) and having the other guy answer in his native tongue. I don't know how you missed that since this is the only note I've received out of 200,000 copies out there.
Thanks for taking time to write.
John


She wrote me a lovely e-note response apologizing and saying that she had gone back and re-read the scene and was shocked she got it wrong. The fact is, I got it from Babble Fish because I planned to make it perfect later and never checked it or had anyone else do it. The copy editor actually noted it and asked if it was a correct translation, and it was never repaired by me or anyone else. And truth is, it could be taken that way, or hers. But the point is, I recovered and I came back and performed the superiority dance myself. I loved it. I should have felt, but I didn't feel at all guilty. I wish I could have done that with every one of those I've ever received. But sometimes you are standing there naked to the world ashamed to be associated with a word-fail most foul, and to some, unforgivable. 


Truthfully, it's nice to know someone with literary Asbergers is carefully policing the pages. Although, as goes with real cops, we'd all rather see them pulling someone else over.


The big problem with me self-publishing a book is that fact that it will be rife and rifled with mistakes large and small. If I lose a few anal compulsive readers, I doubt I'll much notice ...or care. But I am sure I will hear from most of them.



Pixar Story Rules

By John Gilstrap

My son, Chris, sent me an interesting set of writing rules that he found in a blog called The Pixar Touch.  It presents one storyteller’s view on how to create compelling stories.  Here it is in its entirety:

Pixar story artist Emma Coats has tweeted a series of “story basics” over the past month and a half — guidelines that she learned from her more senior colleagues on how to create appealing stories:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on - it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

I think this is about as complete a list of “rules” (even though there are no rules in a creative endeavor) as I’ve ever seen.  What do you think?

==

P.S., I learned yesterday that Damage Control made the USA Today Bestseller List.  Yay!