Conversations

I’ve had a series of conversations I took part in this week, and in them answered, or helped answer, some questions that I thought applicable enough to repeat them here. Writing, publishing, cover art… it’s all fodder for the blog, right?

I had a conversation the other day with a friend who is also a writer (at some point I need to sit down and tot up how many of those I have) and we were talking about world building. He was telling me he was going to make me blush, because he’d been talking to his wife about my work and they concluded that I build my world around my characters while he writes a world and then peoples it. Both work, he pointed out. I sat back and pondered on this. He’s a long-time gamer, and furthermore, the DM for his group.

A DM, Sanford tells me, runs the game. He sets up the situation and determines whether the actions of the players are successful and what the reactions of the encounters are. I can certainly see how this would translate very well into storytelling. Probably with a lot more control over his characters than I can possibly have. I’m a pantser. I fly through my worlds by the seat of my pants, no IFR available. For the non-plane types in the audience, that means Instrument Flight Rules, opposed to Visual Flight Rules, and it applies rather well to my style of writing.

I can’t outline very much. I can do a little, rough out the framework of the terrain that lies ahead of my characters. But most of the time I am writing what I ‘see’ and hear in my head. This can be a challenge if I have a character who isn’t talking to me for some reason. And yes, my worlds do revolve around the perceptions of my characters. I have a tendency to not know more about the world my character lives in than they do – since I write largely SF and fantasy where I’m making up the worlds.

The question was posed in one of the groups I belong to on facebook, “Do authors here have author-blogs or websites? How essential do you think it is for a newbie to get their own site early (before publishing)?ย Also for those of you who have established sites, could I get a link to check them out?” I’ve written at length here on the Mad Genius Club about the way I blog, and my motivations behind it. Some of that is formed by a conversation I had with Peter Grant when we first met at LibertyCon 25. He was telling me that he’d blogged for a few years (I can’t recall the exact number, 3-4 years I think) before releasing his first book to build a large fanbase of people who wanted it. I think that’s an excellent idea, but it’s predicated on a couple of things. First, Peter was giving his readers good content. The blog he runs, Bayou Renaissance Man, is very interesting to follow as he dances from gun geeking to social commentary to just plain funny stuff. It is rarely on ‘writing and publishing’ and the few posts I can remember seeing on those, he admitted up-front that it was inside baseball and possibly not of interest to his readers. Because here’s the thing. We’re fascinated by all topics connected to writing and reading. We’re writers, after all, or working on it. That’s why we come to the MGC (that, and the sparkling wit and scintillating commentary). Ahem…)

However, unless you are marketing to writers, filling your blog up with posts about writing is not going to build a terribly big fanbase. I modeled my current blog schedule (and went to a daily post soon after talking to Peter, although it wasn’t consciously connected) ย on this thought: building a broad base of people who come to my site to get interesting material. I give them value for their time, and in return, they have a trust relationship with me that means they are far more likely to lay some money down and take a chance on my writing. I blog on writing once a week, and vary it enough that I hope it’s not boring. I also blog on food, art, social stuff, and random bits that catch my attention as they flutter by (shiny! and if you doubt that, take a look at the list of topics on a day I do link round-up based on my open browser tabs! LOL) with the occasional book snippeting thrown in for good measure.

I’m a big fan of what I jokingly term the Jim Baen school of marketing: the first hit’s free. By snippeting the first quarter of the book, I should have hooked (or I need to hang up my author hat in disgrace) the reader well enough that on release day they are waving green folding stuff at me. But just snippets won’t bring the readers in, either. So, all the other stuff that I blog on does serve a purpose. The acronym WIBBOW, would I be better off writing? is yes. Blogging is writing. It’s just not paid writing, in a direct sense. Do you have to blog? No, you don’t. It will make building and maintaining a fanbase a little more challenging, but it can be done and blogging regularly isn’t for everyone.

Speaking of which, I have paying work to go do. So I’d better get my gear tidy and head out there… I will be back this afternoon to check on you all in the comments, so keep the sparkling and scintillating down, you hear? I don’t want to find this blog had burned down when I was out.

45 Comments

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45 responses to “Conversations

  1. Us? Mischief in the blog comments? Perish the thought.

    And this makes me feel a bit better about the miscellany that is my blog.

  2. “… keep the sparkling and scintillating down, you hear? I donโ€™t want to find this blog had burned down when I was out.”

    Oh, very well – spoilsport! I’ll remove my glittery sequins. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    As for the blog, I started it in January 2008, about five and a half years before my first SF novel was published. I wrote about it and the purpose it’s served in my first Mad Genius Club article:

    https://madgeniusclub.com/2013/07/24/guest-post-by-peter-grant/

    Thanks for the shout-out. See you and Sanford next weekend!

  3. I think one of the early attractants to my BabyTrollBlog was Dolly (my MC). I let her out periodically to dance around in her own bones. (Well, she prefers to dress, as she puts it, “At liberty.”, but that’s another blog post.) Don’t be afraid to let your characters address your readership out of character, as it were.

    M

  4. Blogging _is_ writing. It’s all practice, which leads to better story telling which leads to better books.

    • Yes, blogging is writing. But the tone, the style, the *flavor* is so very different. On the other hand, it does exercise your mind and hand muscles so you can churn out a (almost) thousand word blog post with 30 minutes and no coffee after sleeping through one’s alarm.

      • Not just that, but effectively communicating an idea is important. My first million words were blogging, which I think helped my learning curve be a bit easier when I decided I wanted to write fiction.

        It won’t do it all, but it does help more than you may think.

  5. Dang, you’re no fun…. [hides large flaming objects, damps pending explosions]

    Me, I use the WTF method of worldbuilding. My nonhuman characters do something that makes either me or a beta reader go WTF?? I then have to figure out what and why, and that becomes part of their world.

    In fact, I’m fairly sure I use the same method for just about everything… I don’t create; I extrapolate. To make up for my lack of creativity, I have a hypertrophied Node of Extrapolation. From one acorn I can grow a whole forest!

  6. BobtheRegisterredFool

    I’m not taking off the iridescent coating.

    • We’ll just hang you from the ceiling and point these spotlights at you. Disco time, people!

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        Are you sure the room is big enough, and that the ceiling will support my weight? I’m a humanoid robot of improbable scale, agility and structural robustness.

  7. Max

    I’ve tried pantsing … and I can do it. Just not nearly as well. It took me six months to write my last book pantsing it. As soon as it was done, I went right into a book I’d already done framework for. Similar length (both about 325,000 words). Took me 3 months.

    I’ve got mad respect for you pantsing writers out there. I don’t know how you do it. I guess I’m just a framework writer.

    Also, you raise some good points about blogging about other things than writing. I think I’ll give it a shot. I’ve been pretty focused on “not crossing the streams” and just delivering writing content for a while now, but you’ve raised some good points. Maybe it’s time for me to widen the aperture a little.

    • It’s a great way to keep people coming back for something different. It’s a huge challenge to come up with material. Keep in mind you don’t have to do it daily. And when all else fails cute cat/puppy/kid pictures will keep ’em amused for a while.

  8. Uncle Lar

    Cedar,
    Fair warning, I see several panels scheduled for Liberty this year dealing with writing, publishing, and indie. Already told Sarah and now you that I fully intend to badger y’all, Amanda, the Grants, and any other writers I can back into a corner for a solid answer to one simple question. What response are you wanting from your first and beta readers? I’ve done a fair bit of that for several of y’all of late, but I’m still uncertain as to whether the analysis I provide is all that helpful.
    My approach so far has been to make two runs at a work I’ve agreed to review. Once with my editor cap firmly affixed and red pencil sharp to flag spelling, grammar, continuity, and flow issues. Basically add a bit of intelligence to what MS Word does automatically. Then I let things lie for a few days and pick the work back up strictly as a reader and fan. Try to answer the questions: did the book pull me in? did it hold my attention? were there issues that kicked me out of my suspension of disbelief? were the characters believable, beings I could relate to?
    Guess it’s my engineering nature, if I promise to do a job I want to do a good one. I’m looking for guidance as to whether what I am doing is helpful and suggestions on how it could be better done.
    Oh, and I promised Sarah that if I could make sense out of what y’all told me I would write a post about it.

    • Laura M

      I’ve just gotten a bunch of different responses to my latest WIP from my beta readers, and your list looks great.

      They all know they mustn’t say things like “Why don’t you add some aliens?” but I persuaded my sons to beta for this book for the first time. Wow. That’s a little harrowing. I apparently have blunt children who can see right through me. Kind of revives the desire that your book be read by thousands of people, none of whom you know.

      One thing I like, contrary to the day job, is being told what failed with no suggestions on fixing it. Don’t bring me a solution. If I figure it out, it’ll be more organic. I say this despite the fact that one of my other beta readers spotted something in an earlier draft and told me what to do about it. As soon as she said it, I knew she was right and did what she said.

      One other good thing one beta did was comment on passages she liked that worked. More than once, that stopped me from changing something.

    • Because so much can change between beta draft and final draft, the spelling and grammar are rarely useful. What Peter’s looking for fall into two general groups: the reader reaction, and the continuity/flow issues.

      The first, and most important set of questions:
      Did you like it in general? (This is important, because if the beta reader didn’t like the book at all, that means it may not be their preferred subgenre, and they may be missing a lot of the genre cues. It does not, however, DQ them as a beta!)

      Where did you get confused?

      Where did you get bored?

      Where would you have put the book down and not picked it back up?

      Where did you really like it?

      (These questions give us areas to look at – and while the beta reader may not be able to say why the story broke, they’re very good at letting us know where. Sometimes it’s a lack of foreshadowing earlier, or missing setup; sometimes it’s the scene itself they foundered upon needs to go, or be rewritten. It’s up to the author to figure out a solution, after the beta reveals the oversights and shortfalls… or to decide that that’s not something they’re going to change on this story.)

      Second, continuity & flow issues.

      Was there anything that threw you out of the story?

      Was there any point that really sucked you into the story? (Authors like to hear the good as well as the bad!)

      Was there any point where you went “Wait, what about…” or “Who is this?”
      (These aren’t always defects, but need to be sparing and done for impact.)
      —-
      Of course, that’s for Peter. Other authors may be looking for different things. I know one author who used a self-professed “grammar nazi” as her copyeditor, in return for the fan getting the otherwise-final version of the book first. I agree that it is much more helpful if author and beta reader know what is wanted!

      Does that help you?

      • Uncle Lar

        Yes indeed, very much so.
        You reaffirm the feeling I’ve had that much of the spelling and grammar review was a waste of time. At least at the stage we’re talking of here. For some strange reason heterographs leap off the page at me, so I’ll probably always flag those. And of course mistakes in continuity and flow are always worth a mention.
        If the work is intended for sale to a publisher it’s probably safe to assume that they will perform a final copy edit, though some of the stuff I’ve seen lately from trad/pubs does make me wonder. For indie release a good spell and grammar checker would probably suffice, though I still think a second set of eyes can’t hurt. A consistent criticism I hear about indie works is the perception that they are riddled with such errors. Personally I’d say the best indie is at least on a par with mid-list trad/pub, and perhaps better, but that’s MHO.
        Anyhoo, thanks for the input. Hope we can revisit this at Liberty.

        • Heterographs??? You sexist, you!!!

          ๐Ÿ˜€

          • Uncle Lar

            Peter, if you’ll notice I was outing heterographs, the homonyms I left entirely to their own devices.
            Next I suppose you’ll be on me for neglecting polymorphs.
            Speak the language of the narrative my son and you will go far.

    • I think it’s a good question. Dorothy answered at length, and covered some of what I would say – she’s absolutely on the money with not needing copyediting at this point in the reading. That’s a final pass-through, although if I’m given a list I’ll fix รฉm. I think that having a post from you down the road is a terrific idea, and I think I will do a post on the topic as well. Thanks!

      • Uncle Lar

        I’ll take what I’ve been given here, much appreciated by the way, do some cogitating on the subject, and pick your brains at Liberty, then see what I can come up with.

        • A little late to the party, but I’d like to add that politeness can’t be overstated.

          On my last book, I had a new beta reader. As a writer himself, I didn’t give him any real instructions since I figured he’d know what HE wanted as a writer, so I let him go. Well, I got a lot of recommendations colors with snark. In his mind, he was just joking, but he forgot that a writer’s book is their baby, and it really pissed me off.

          It took a little while before I could bother to really look at what he was trying to say beneath that snark and see if he had valid points or not. Bluntness has it’s place, and jokes do too, but the beta reader needs to be conscious of where the line between acceptable and unacceptable is, and it’s up to the writer to pass that along.

  9. Thank you for this post. It was perfect timing, because I’d been wondering about writing more eclectic posts and if that would end up backfiring on me. So I didn’t. Now, I wish I had, and it’s something I’ll definitely be doing in the future.
    I’d gotten tired of writing about writing, so I’d settled on the web serial method for content instead. That’s been fun too, and has made it a lot easier and more enjoyable to blog more and more often. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Serializing is fun, and a great way to get feedback almost instantly as you write. I usually don’t snippet all of my novels, and don’t start snippeting until I’ve completed (or nearly so) but that’s me. Writing other content is as discussed, good exercise.

      • DanyelleLeafty

        I agree. I do the same thing, for the most part, in waiting. I tried doing a serialized novel a few years ago, and didn’t enjoy it as much. I probably used the wrong terminology, but I’m serializing serials rather than a full novel.
        And now I’m excited to do the other kinds of non-writing posts. ๐Ÿ˜€

  10. Timid1

    To ask a question on the To-Blog-Or-Not-To-Blog issue:

    This falls under that thing known as a Writer’s Platform, right? This brings up the main question: Should a writer build their platform before either indie publication or querying agents? Is (shudder) Facebook enough, or should the writer invest in a domain name and web site?

    • Domain and website will run you – through WordPress which is where I started – about $20 a year. I have moved to self-hosted, but that’s because I had another business site and it was basically free to do that as a subdomain. Which has had it’s own hassles. I do suggest that if you want to project a professional appearance you need at the barebones a facebook page, G+ thingy, or website. But it need not be a regularly updated blog, just a site for your business card as a landing pad for people to find out more about you… and that’s probably another blog post, eh? The minimums to put on a site, and how to set it up.

    • Let’s take a step back and lay the groundwork before you start trying to decide if on the color of paint. ๐Ÿ™‚

      What is the purpose of a Writer’s Platform? It is to provide an place for the interested reader to learn more about the writer and their other works.

      Where is this audience you want to attract? What are they interested in? How do you plan on making them interested in you / your works? If they liked your stuff, how will they find out where they can get more / when more is coming out?

      What kind of communication do you prefer: quick, snappy sentences (140 characters or less); single-paragraph with sentence-length dialogue afterwards; or long, interested monologues, with any length of reply? If, like my husband, you think in five-paragraph thoughts with linked footnotes, you want a blog. If you are more comfortable at paragraph-length communication, Google +, Facebook, or blogs may work well for you. If you think in pictures or short sentences, twitter or pinterest may be your best fit.

      How much time do you have to devote? Believe it or not, trying to keep up with the witty repartee of twitter or facebook may be a greater timesuck than posting to a blog once a day, and checking comments about that often. Shorter medium tends to demand more time and faster responses, due to the smaller informational content. (E.G. Brad Torgerson getting banned from a site because he has a job, and therefore didn’t respond to a slanderer challenging him to prove he’s not racist “in time.”)

      Now, when should you start building your audience? Two years ago. Since that’s not feasible, today. If you get a response from an agent, unless you win the publishing industry lotto and become on of their favored few slated for bestsellerdom, they’re going to expect you to provide all the marketing. So you’re agent is going to be asking the size of your twiter following / facebook friends / blog page views. (Note: this isn’t a one-to-one correlation with selling well. Remember the sad fate of a girl trying to put down Larry Correia as a “nobody” in writing, because she had more facebook likes than he did. But absent any sales history, they’ll use it to roll the bones and guess.)

      How do you start building your audience? The first is in your comment box: if you have a website or blog, or what have you, link it on your comments where it says “URL”. That’ll get people who are interested by your responses to check you out, without having to try to get out there and flag down random strangers.

      …speaking of thinking in multiple paragraphs, I apologize for the length and go unload the dishwasher now.

      • Timid1

        The scary thing is back when everyone had a personal web site, the number one issue was keeping fresh content. Even with a for-the-heck-of-it web site, fresh content is what keeps people checking in. No fresh content? No audience, unless you have something interesting that might show up in a web search.

        The reasonable way to handle it might be to take a page from the cartoonists and write several days, or better, several weeks of posts ahead of time. Easier said than done. I’m guessing there should also be a way to post this store of comments when life happens and you’re away from your desktop. The geeky part of me wonders if it could be done by a roll-your-own program/script to upload content on a schedule, which would mean you just fill posts into the queue and let the program do the rest.

        This gets into some rabbit chasing though: The problem is targeting the audience. Going for, say, SF & F, that’s narrower than adding non-related non-fiction, which is where I’m at with a how-to booklet. Ideally the content would be related to the product, so if someone showed up after a web search on a topic, they now have the option to buy a booklet or book on the subject. For something polymath (in my case, scatter-brained), I don’t see how to get around doing a generalist approach, but even the more general magazines have limits, and that’s the problem. The non-fiction booklet in question is straight-up simple math and science, with a smattering of associated history for padding. A potential follow-up booklet would be the same sort of thing on a related topic. But a third booklet idea is generalized flora, fauna, and climate without being a visitor’s guide, and fiction initially would be YA adventure. That’s a marketing mess.

        I tried to handle this on my old personal web site by “departments,” where visitors could go to one spot for history, another for folkways, and yet another for opinion. But that meant creating new content for each, which greatly increased the workload. That was why I pulled the plug on it.

        I wouldn’t have a cut-and-run option with a writer’s platform. I must come up with new content. This seems to mean that a scattered approach is going to be a repeat of that previous fiasco. Yet there doesn’t seem a good way to narrow the scope.

        • If I may suggest it, I believe a blog (or “author platform” by any other name) exists for one primary purpose: to let others come to know and like you as an individual. They like your style, they like your sense of humor, they like your choice of what interests you . . . all of that translates to a liking for you as an individual, as they come to know you over time through your blog/”platform”/whatever. That, to my mind, is the greatest weakness of short-form “platforms” like Twitter: they’re too short to reveal the person behind the thought. They can work well as an adjunct to a longer-form “platform”, but IMHO not on their own.

          That’s what I set out to do with my blog. I didn’t mention writing or books at all for years. Instead, I wrote about what I’d found on the Web that day, things that interested me, longer-form articles about my interests such as aviation or ships, the whole patootie. Those things slowly but surely built up a following that at its height approached 3,000 readers per day (it’s fallen back to an average of between 2,200 and 2,500 per weekday, but all blogs have seen that decline, not just mine). Those readers formed a “captive audience” when I drew near to publishing my books: not actual prisoners, but they knew my writing, liked what they’d seen, and were willing to give my book a try (particularly since I priced it to be easily affordable).

          What’s more, after beginning to publish books I kept my blog on the same course I’d taken with it before. I didn’t turn it into a “writing blog”. I know far too many of those that are of no interest whatsoever to a general audience. Other authors may find them useful, but readers generally yawn and look for something or someone else. We want to engage with our readers, actual and potential, above all others. They’re the main reason we have an author platform at all. If we lose sight of that, we may as well give up on our platform altogether. Furthermore, to keep their interest is hard work. We have to continually put up new articles (I average about three per day), and make sure that they don’t get stale or repeat the same old same old. It’s a lot of work (I estimate an average of two hours every day), and sometimes it gets very tiresome, but because it’s our primary interface with our readers, it has to have a priority even higher than writing the next book. It’s a critical commitment. It’s our bread and butter. We dare not neglect it.

          Just my $0.02 worth . . .

          • Agreed. I’ve spent a good portion of my spare time the past few weeks pre-loading material onto my blog because I will have, at best, sketchy internet access for part of June. I can’t let the blog “go to sleep” just because I don’t have good access, because I’ll loose eyes and potential readers.

            Like Peter, I try to make my blog personal, within certain work-related limits. Which means people looking for sci-fi stuff probably shake their heads at all the nature and history posts. *shrug* I live in the past, what can I say? ๐Ÿ˜‰

          • TRX

            Some writers are using forums instead of blogs. They post bloggish topics in a designated spot and let their followers entertain themselves in the other areas. New author content becomes a much smaller issue.

            This is usually great for their followers, but if you don’t have loyal minions to do the work of keeping it running and moderated it will eventually turn into a huge time suck.

            I ran a mailing list for fifteen years and a forum for a while after that; I’ve done my time in the barrel and have no desire to do any more. Most places, the users never get to see behind the curtain. When you’re moderating, most of your world looks like the comment section on YouTube.

          • TRX

            That can backfire.

            I’ve seen the blogs of a couple of SF authors I liked slide into platforms for their political, religious, and economic beliefs, then into slagging off entire demographics of their readership for being “other.”

            Maybe I’m just petty, but when their anger is directed at more than one of the subcultures I’m a member of, I tend to not buy any more of their books. There’s plenty to choose from, and no reason to give my money to someone who has indicated he doesn’t want it.

            Some of those people write good stuff, but I wonder if they’re the kinds of idiot savants who need help remembering when to zip up and when to zip down.

          • I now feel much better about planning several very long (serialized) posts about rocks as my primary blog content for a while. I’m a geologist, what can I say? I’d wondered if it would hurt when I eventually get things finished and start putting it all out there one way or another.

  11. Mary

    On D&D — I observe that the DM to a certain extent must develop the world differently, because the PCs will be really peeved if he boxes them in

    Being a DM requires some skills similar to being a writer. Other skills, it requires being the diametric opposite. You can see most clearly the differences the medium makes in webcomics set in RPG universes. (I follow Rusty & Co. and Order of the Stick.) The demands of story-telling mean that one group character is central, driving and unifying the story, and that characters that only appear briefly (NPCs) have significant roles in the action, and even sequences that have no group members appear at all. Try that in a game and watch the players justly complain.