Author Archives: Peter Grant

When the message is lost in translation

I’d like to address how we convey our characters’ perspectives, motives, desires, experiences, etc. in our books.  I’ve been prompted to do so by two or three horribly inept portrayals in books I came across this week.  I’m not going to identify them, because I don’t want to single out authors for negative feedback;  in fact, I daresay I’ve been guilty of the same problem in my own writing.  Nevertheless, it’s a subject that deserves attention.

It’s very easy for us to become “proprietary” in our approach to our characters.  “He’s mine!  I invented him!  I know how he ticks!  Don’t tell me how he’s supposed to react!”  I’m sure we’ve all had those feelings internally, and many of us will have voiced them aloud or in print.  Nevertheless, in a very real sense, when we release our work to the buying public, they are no longer our characters.  The public now owns them (literally, by way of the dollars and cents they spend to buy our books;  and figuratively, in the sense that they will interpret them, analyze them, internalize them, and make them their own).

That being the case, it’s important for us to understand how we create characters.  For some of us, it’s unconscious.  We pick a protagonist, or antagonist, who expresses our own philosophies and/or experiences and/or perspectives, and write that person.  Others of us work out our characters beforehand, analyzing why we want them in our book at all, and then trying to “build in” personalities, backgrounds and other characteristics that serve the purpose.  However, in every case, our perspective as authors is influenced by who and what we are.  I don’t believe we can ever achieve a dispassionate balance in creating characters, because every one of them is, to a greater or lesser extent, an extension of who we are.  For example:

  • I don’t think I can “get inside” the mind of a woman, simply because I’m male.  I can analyze, study, and dissect patterns of female behavior, and talk to women to get an idea of how they would react to a given situation, or respond to a given stimulus;  but I can never experience their reactions with their emotions or internal thought processes.  I see this every day in my interactions with my wife.  She’s simply different from me, in a profoundly deep and innate way.  She doesn’t think as I do, and doesn’t react or respond as I do, and nothing in the world is going to change that.  She’s female.  I’m male.  Cat, meet dog.  Dog, meet cat.
  • There are some aspects of life that are so ingrained in us that it’s almost impossible for us to see things from any other perspective.  Take, for example, lightning striking a tree.  You and I, being educated First World citizens, know all about physics, and electricity, and heating, and how they combine to produce that fire.  To someone from an animist culture, the gods of the trees are fighting among themselves, and the god of that there tree just got zapped!  He may have a degree from a First World university, but deep down inside, he’ll never be able to rid himself of that fundamentally primitive reaction.  I know this.  I’ve worked with such people for more than half my life.  He’ll actually look pityingly at us, because our education has blinded our spirits, preventing us from seeing what’s obvious to any “normal” person.
  • Superstitions are ingrained.  How many people do we know who take their horoscope seriously?  There is absolutely no justification for that whatsoever, but I know Ph.D.’s who read it every day, and act on its advice.  Another example:  outside the Stock Exchange in Johannesburg, South Africa, for years I saw sangomas, witch-doctors, selling muti (“medicine”), herbal concoctions guaranteed to bring good luck to traders on the floor of the Exchange.  These traders had degrees (some of them multiple degrees) from top universities… yet they bought their muti every morning, because without it, they knew they would not have a good day at work.  Another example:  popular superstition in East Africa is that albinos are “touched by the spirits”.  They reputedly possess spiritual powers and properties that make them particularly suitable for the production of muti.  Therefore, albinos are routinely murdered for their body parts by witch-doctors, or gangs who will sell their body parts to witch-doctors.  Can you imagine what it must be like, to live inside a skin that makes you a target for murder?  Yet, for thousands of people, this is their normal, everyday existence.
  • Cultural norms intersect with religious norms to shape and form, not just a society, but individuals.  The hideosity of “honor killings” comes to mind.  There are in our midst today, here in American society, individuals who firmly, absolutely believe that it is not only their God-given right, but their duty, to kill their own daughters if they adopt American customs such as dating, choosing their own husband, refusing to permit themselves to be genitally mutilated by so-called “female circumcisions”, etc.  This is happening as you read these words.  These people have taken the primitive superstitions of their place and culture of origin, and transplanted them into our First World society.  When we hold them accountable for their actions, they regard us with contempt, as having no standards at all, and being blind to our duty to God.  “Honor killings” are an extreme example, but there are many others we encounter every day.  Jehovah’s Witnesses who shun their members who dare to think for themselves, and refuse to conform;  Mormon fundamentalists who insist on their right to practice polygamy, regardless of the laws of the land;  Catholics who regard it as, not just their right, but their God-given duty, to impose their solutions to moral issues, such as abortion, upon others whose world view is diametrically opposed to theirs;  and so on.  In their insistence that they have the right to impose their views on others, I submit that all of these groups are different only in degree, not in kind, from those who advocate “honor killing”.  We may, of course, believe that such views are right, proper and appropriate… but we’re doing so from inside those perspectives.  Others will disagree with us… sometimes violently.

By now some readers may be shaking their heads, and asking themselves, “What has this got to do with me?  I don’t fall into any of those extremes.  This has no bearing at all on how I develop the characters in my books!”  Well, actually, yes, it does.  Let’s apply the fundamental incompatibilities of such perspectives with others, to a more typical everyday encounter in our own worlds.

How many of you are aware of the number of criminals – convicts, ex-convicts, and those who’ve never been convicted, but have gotten away with their crimes – that surround us?  I’ve worked for years as a prison chaplain.  I can assure you, the numbers are daunting.  A 2010 study found:

About 8.6% of the adult population has a felony conviction.

. . .

About 20 million people have a felony conviction in America. That works out to about 1 in 12 adult Americans.

Note, those numbers are for 2010. Looking at the growth rate trajectory, we are probably up to around 24 million people today in 2014 with a felony conviction. This means we are probably pushing 10% of the adult population today. Of course, these aggregate percentages include women, which as we all know account for a small portion of all felony convictions.

One other thing to consider is that a large number of would-be felonies are plead down to misdemeanors, so the actual total number of people who were caught committing a felonious act is undoubtedly much higher than these numbers portray.

Think about that.  One in ten people you meet, statistically speaking, has a felony conviction (i.e. for serious, as opposed to minor, offenses).  In some geographic areas or segments of society, that number may fall to less than one in a hundred.  In others, it may approach one in two.  As real estate agents will reiterate ad nauseam, it often boils down to “location, location, location!”  There’s a whole science involved in understanding the criminal mind, and how it differs from normal attitudes and perspectives.  I’ve written about it in my memoir of prison chaplaincy, and recommended some other sources there.

 

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Unless we’ve taken the time and trouble to understand the criminal mind, we cannot and will not write convincingly about them.  We’ll write only our perspective on them – a perspective that will be uninformed, inaccurate, and misleading.

That’s where the headline of this article comes from.  When we write, we’re “translating” images, perspectives, inner realities, from our heads to the printed page.  (Whether it’s printed in ink on paper, or in electrons on screens, is irrelevant.)  The process of translation involves understanding and interpreting the people and situations we write, both as broadly and as deeply as possible.  If we don’t, their motivations won’t make sense to at least some of our readers, and their actions won’t square with their (supposed) motivations.  I’ve read far too many books where this problem is so great that I can’t continue.  The author requires me to suspend my disbelief, but proceeds to write so ineptly and so inaccurately about a subject that I simply can’t do that. I revolt against his words.

A classic example is anything involving military combat.  I know military combat.  I’ve been there.  I know what it is to be shot, and to shoot others.  I know what explosions sound like – more than sound:  they pound in the core of your being, like a physical punch, not just a noise.  I know what a battlefield smells like.  All these things are innate to me, so real that I no longer have to think about them.  They’re at a visceral level.  However, many authors purporting to write military fiction (whether SF, or historical, or whatever) have no idea whatsoever about those realities.  Sure, some of them have taken the time and trouble to research those issues, but that can only substitute for experience to a certain degree.  If they are conscious of, and write within, those limitations, their fiction usually works.  If they presume a visceral level of knowledge that they do not possess, and write as if they do, their books fail.  (An example I’ve used before is to ask someone whether they’d like their daughter to receive sex education, or sex training.  They understand immediately what I mean.  One’s theory.  The other… isn’t.)

Therefore, when we seek to portray a reality that our characters experience, or from which they come, or which influences the outcome of our plot, we need to be very careful to write it, as far as possible, to take into account the unconscious assumptions that we inevitably make.  Those assumptions exclude a large proportion of the human race that doesn’t share them, and can make our work unapproachable to many potential readers.  We can, of course, limit our intended audience in that way (“Well, I’m not writing for people from that background!”) – but once our book is out there, it’s no longer our own property.  “Our baby” has now become the baby of whoever buys it.  We’d like them to cherish it, rather than abandon it in the gutter!

We need to write so that what the reader receives is what we intended to send, and what the reader understands is what we intended to say.  We need to communicate between dogs and cats.  That’s a tall order.  If we succeed, I think we’ll do well.  If we fail… then the message is lost in translation.

 

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Breaking through the blockage

Two of my esteemed fellow Mad Genius Club authors have tackled the problem of “writer’s block” over the past two days.  First, Sarah Hoyt discussed “The Curse of the Second Novel“.

Second novel curse is the near ability to complete a novel after either your first sold novel or a novel that either performed or you felt was way above all your other work to date.

The symptoms are as follows: your novel feels dull, lifeless and flat; you second guess yourself constantly, every step along the way; you’d rather be doing anything, from scrubbing toilets to rotating the cat than writing, and as a consequence, you’re remarkably easy to distract. Things that would otherwise be no problem at all become insurmountable challenges. Minor colds flatten you and you can’t concentrate to write. The fact that you haven’t vacuumed in a whole 24 hours distresses you; your cat’s love and affection is a major interruption. As a result, whatever your normal writing period is ten times lengthened.

She offers various suggestions to get over the problem, which she sees as being rooted in insecurity.

Yesterday, Kate Paulk expanded on Sarah’s article in an essay titled “When You’re Lost in the Depths of the Pants“.

Of course, when you’re an extreme pantser like me, you do run the risk of getting lost somewhere deep in the pants, possibly with a bad case of plot kudzu making it impossible to see where you’re going. Some of Sarah’s commenters wondered what to do when they get lost or they run out of spoons and simply can’t make things work the usual way if they’re extreme pantsers who really can’t work from an outline.

. . .

As an extreme pantser, my experience is that something like 50% of the process is trusting your subconscious. Another 50% is having the confidence to let your subconscious steer. Then there’s 50% figuring out how to turn your conscious brain off, and 50% shaping what emerges so it doesn’t read like that weird dream you had where the talking carrot was utterly terrifying but nobody else in the universe can tell.

This morning I’d like to offer my own approach to the problem – which is pretty straightforward.  I take the literary equivalent of a roto-rooter to the blockage, and bore my way through it by brute force.  If one avenue of approach is blocked, I abandon it and take a completely different one, then turn back from that road and bore my way into the problem from another angle.  That’s worked twice for me so far, and looks set fair to work a third time later this year.  Let me explain.

I’m a combination of plotter and pantser when it comes to preparing to write a novel.  I work out the initial plot and structure in my mind, and frequently set it out in point form in a document.  However, this is never set in stone.  Those blasted characters turn out to have minds of their own (often of fiendish deviousness), and can head off in different directions almost before I’ve realized that they’ve left the straight and narrow path I’ve worked out for them.  I then have to go haring after them, screaming “Come back!  You’re my creation, dammit!  Where the hell do you think you’re going?”  Sometimes, they listen.  More often than not, they don’t…  (Sigh)

Sometimes I just plain get bogged down.  I can’t make the plot or the characters go where I want them to be, and all my efforts feel flat, uninspired, and frankly boring.  A couple of weeks of this, and I’ll be climbing the walls in frustration.  I’ve learned, in such situations, to make that frustration into a spur for renewed creativity.  I simply shelve what I’m working on and tackle something completely different.

In early 2014, I was working on the third volume in my military science fiction Maxwell Saga, which was published as “Adapt and Overcome“.  It wasn’t doing anything or going anywhere.  I spent almost six weeks circling the drain, getting more and more grumpy and irritable.  Finally, one morning, I just said “To hell with it!”, and started writing a stream-of-consciousness document – whatever came to mind, no plot, no outline, no nothing.  Thirty days and 150,000 words later (a third of that being excisions, deletions, insertions and additions), I had a 100,000-word military science fiction novel titled “War to the Knife“.

 

 

It went on to become the first volume of a trilogy.  The second volume, “Forge a New Blade“, was published in 2015, and the final volume, “Knife to the Hilt”, will be published later this year, the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.

I surprised myself by how successful this exercise was.  I really hadn’t expected that result – it was completely unplanned.  Nevertheless, my readers tell me that “War to the Knife” is one of my best mil-SF novels.  The thing was, by refusing to stay bogged down, fighting a losing battle, I moved the problem onto new ground of my own choosing.  I didn’t let it dominate me;  instead, I dominated it.  I broke new ground, and it paid off handsomely.

I remembered that lesson later in 2014, when I began to battle with another book I was working on. Instead of beating my head against a brick wall, as a deliberate exercise to distract myself from the blockage, I started writing a Western novel – a completely different genre for me (a moribund one, according to conventional wisdom), and one that required a great deal of research to make it historically authentic.  I treated it as an occasional project, one I turned to when I felt over-tired or frustrated from concentrating very hard on the mil-SF novels that until then had been my bread and butter.  I completed a rough, unpolished first draft by mid-2015, then set it aside for future reference if I ever felt that way inclined.

Quite by chance, not intending anything by it, I put up the opening chapter of that Western on my blog early in April 2016, because I was short of blog fodder that day and thought, “Why not?  What have I got to lose?”  To my pleased surprise, reaction to it from my blog readers was very favorable.  In fact, within 24 hours, I received an offer for a contract for three Westerns from a small publishing house.  Needless to say, I wasn’t fool enough to turn that down!  A couple of months of hectic polishing and fine-tuning later, and my first Western, “Brings The Lightning“, was out the door and on its way.

 

 

It’s sold pretty well for a first effort in that genre, and I’m currently writing its sequel.  Look for it later this year.

Finally, another “anti-blocking” effort has led to a similar development.  I’d produced a few fantasy manuscripts during my years of learning the craft of fiction writing, but none of them were much good.  However, the field still interests me, so after the experience of “War to the Knife” and the Western project, I decided to treat it as yet another exercise in distraction when I got blocked on my work in progress.  I ended up producing three or four fantasy stories that I think have the potential to become novels in their own right.  Two of them progressed until I’d written a third to a half of each one.

In December last year, I asked my blog readers to select one of the two for further development.  I put up an excerpt from each novel, and my readers selected the first excerpt as their favorite.  I’ll therefore be finishing that novel as soon as my current Western project is complete, for publication (hopefully) prior to LibertyCon in June.  (I won’t neglect the second fantasy novel, either;  that will be a future project – or I may merge it with the first one and make a multi-volume series out of them.)

Therefore, I offer this suggestion as a way to overcome “writer’s block”.  Don’t get blocked – find a way around the block by tackling something completely different, then come back to the blocked work when your mind’s been creative in other ways.  You may be surprised at how well it pays off!  So far I’ve got two books published out of such “distractions”, and a third on the way.  If this keeps up, I may end up publishing more “distractions” than main projects!

 

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Food for thought

Instead of an article dealing with a single theme, what I’d like to do today is link to several articles that I’ve bookmarked in recent months, all of which affect us as writers to a greater or lesser degree.  I invite you to read them in full for yourselves, to assess how the issues they discuss may affect you, your family, and your writing career.

Let’s start with an important issue for writers’ health:  our eyes.  The New York Times published an article titled ‘Computer Vision Syndrome Affects Millions‘.  It’s certainly a very important subject for writers, who use computers more than most.

Studies have indicated 70 percent to 90 percent of people who use computers extensively, whether for work or play, have one or more symptoms of computer vision syndrome. The effects of prolonged computer use are not just vision-related. Complaints include neurological symptoms like chronic headaches and musculoskeletal problems like neck and back pain.

The report’s authors … cited four studies demonstrating that use of a computer for even three hours a day is likely to result in eye symptoms, low back pain, tension headache and psychosocial stress.

Still, the most common computer-related complaint involves the eyes, which can develop blurred or double vision as well as burning, itching, dryness and redness, all of which can interfere with work performance.

I regularly experience this problem.  When I’m working flat-out to complete a writing project, I may spend twelve hours or more every day in front of my computer.  Dry, itching, irritated eyes are the inevitable result.  To stave off more serious problems, I use an eye ointment when I sleep, plus moisturizing eye drops at intervals during the day.  If redness or scratchiness results, I add allergy eye drops to the mix.

Next, a couple of useful articles on Amazon algorithms.  Self-Publishing Review put out an article titled ‘Mythbusting The Amazon Algorithm – Reviews and Ranking For Authors‘.

MYTH 1 – Nobody knows how the Amazon Algorithm Works

TRUTH – Yes they do.

The Amazon Algorithm is an A9 algorithm, a pretty run-of-the-mill product search engine with a personalization built in. A9 is a company in Palo Alto that creates product algorithms, code that tells Amazon’s website how to sort and load product lists for each customer’s experience. Anyone who wants to read about how this algorithm works has to do nothing more than search for information online and read the manuals, forums, science articles, and a myriad of other documents that tell you EXACTLY how it works. You can even see samples of the code that makes it work if you look!

. . .

MYTH 3 – You can figure out keywords that people will use to find you by typing into the search bar and seeing what is autosuggested.

TRUTH – The search bar is personalized to YOU and YOU ALONE.

The article contains many other very useful and insightful comments about how Amazon searches work.  It’s important information for those of us who rely on such searches to help potential readers find our books.

Startup Brothers adds to the mix with an article titled ‘How to Rank Your Products on Amazon – The Ultimate Guide‘.  I’m not sure how ‘ultimate’ it is, but it contains some very interesting information.  Here’s an excerpt.

These 3 rules are critically important to making the most of this guide, so make sure you read them twice:

  • Amazon’s top goal in everything they do is always maximize Revenue Per Customer (RPC)
  • Amazon tracks every action that a customer takes on Amazon, right down to where their mouse hovers on the page
  • The A9 algorithm exists to connect the data tracked in #2 to the goal stated in #1

From A9’s website and from the information that Amazon makes available to us through their Seller Central (login required), we can group Amazon’s ranking factors into three equally important categories:

Conversion Rate – These are factors that Amazon has found have a statistically relevant effect on conversion rates. Examples of conversion rate factors include customer reviews, quality of images and pricing.

Relevancy – Relevancy factors tell A9 when to consider your product page for a given search term. Relevancy factors include your title and product description.

Customer Satisfaction & Retention – How do you make the most money from a single customer? Make them so happy that they keep coming back. Amazon knows that the secret to max RPC lies in customer retention. It’s a lot harder to get someone to spend $100 once than $10 ten times. Customer Retention factors include seller feedback and Order Defect Rate.

. . .

What you’ll find below are 25 Amazon ranking factors that either Amazon themselves or independent marketers have confirmed the A9 algorithm to use.

I’m taking a good, hard look at those 25 factors, and considering how to use them in marketing my books.  There’s a lot of food for thought there.

Bloomberg may be stating the obvious in an article titled ‘It’s a Writer’s Market: Digital platforms have emerged to serve midlist authors‘, but remember, many of those reading it won’t have our exposure to the market.  It reminds us that niche organizations are emerging to offer trad-pub alternatives to self-publishing authors.

A new generation of online editorial services and self-publishing platforms … offer skills and services that used to be available only through traditional publishing, plus favorable royalty splits. They also allow authors to retain the copyright to their work. The array of offerings is spurring some writers to leave their publishing houses—particularly midlist authors whose books receive scant marketing support. Some are also using the new services to put out e-book versions of their out-of-print titles.

The always interesting Simon Owens surveys technology, media and marketing issues.  I’ve used two of his articles in previous blog posts, here and at Bayou Renaissance Man.  I recommend them to your attention.  The first, ‘Book publishers are incentivizing midlist authors to abandon them for Amazon‘, is a searing indictment of how mainstream publishers are effectively cutting themselves off from the next generation of writers.

… over the past few decades, what was once a diverse publishing field has consistently coalesced, through acquisitions and mergers, into an industry with only four major publishers. What’s more, these major publishers are owned by even larger, multi-billion dollar media conglomerates.

So when you’re a company that’s dealing with revenues in the billions (with a B), suddenly a product that can only sell a few thousand units and is ultimately “unscalable,” isn’t worthy of investment. So instead they invest in products that have the potential to not only sell millions of units, but also spawn spin-off merchandise and movie deals.

Amazon, with its ecommerce system and now its Kindle publishing platform, has figured out how to scale midlist authors, and is therefore willing to gobble up those writers the big publishers turn away, offering them a bigger cut of their sales in the process.

The second article, ‘Jeff Bezos is busy building moats‘, examines how Amazon is making sure no competitor can horn in on the territory it’s carved out for itself.

By encroaching into the spaces of other industries, Bezos keeps those other industries from finding cracks in the walk with which to encroach on his main cash cows. And once he has firm moats around his main profit castles, he can start increasing the price on those castles, capitalizing on competitor-free profit margins. The more power he holds over the ebook industry, for instance, the more authors he can direct away from traditional New York publishers and into Amazon’s internal publishing platform, where Amazon takes between a 30 and 70 percent commission on all sales.

Seen this way, Bezos is more concerned with future competitors who are nipping at the edge of his margins than traditional retail companies trying to move into his space. He’s cornered the e-retail market, now he’s simply scorching the earth around it.

Simon Owens brings a very valuable business perspective to our outlook as writers and publishers.  I’ve subscribed to his newsletter, and I highly recommend it to you too.

Next, I’ve said before that the subscription model of reading books, exemplified by Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program, is likely to become dominant, just as it has (and is continuing to do) in the music and video markets.  It’s not limited to entertainment, either.  It’s now penetrating other sectors of the economy.  To take just one example, the Guardian asks, ‘Is the mass sharing of driverless cars about to reshape our suburbs?‘  It’s written in the context of city rather than rural driving, but its points affect far more than just transport.

“Look at something like car parking,” Bondam told me. “It’s so old fashioned in my eyes. The private ownership of a car – that will end in the next 10 to 15 years. I think it’s going to be a combination of shared cars, of city cars, of public transport, bicycles, electric bicycles, of freight distribution by electric cargo bikes.”

This sounded like a rapid timeframe, I told him. Bondam was adamant: “I’m totally convinced about that. Why on earth would you make a big investment that you just leave outside 95% of the time and don’t use?”

Think of this in the context of reading.  More and more of our customers are asking themselves, “Why should I pay the full retail price for an item that’s going to sit on my shelves, or as a file on my electronic device, and never – or seldom – be read again?  Why not just ‘rent’ it for as long as I need it, then hand it back?”  It makes more and more economic sense for readers;  so we, as writers, are going to have to adjust our business model to take that into account.  We’ll make less on each ‘sale’ (or borrow, or rental, or whatever you want to call it), but at least we’ll make something.  This is an unavoidable wave that’s only just begun to affect our industry.  We need to be thinking very seriously about its impact on our income stream.  It’ll be considerable.

Finally, we need to accept that many of our potential readers are going to have a lot less disposable income to play with, as the ‘new economy’ takes hold and uproots long-established patterns of work and compensation.  MarketWatch warns bluntly:  ‘Workers will simply try to survive, rather than prosper, as tech takes over the economy‘.

For most people, a secure, well-paid job is the difference between a reasonable life and penury. Today, changes in the structure of the work force driven by globalization and technology make this objective increasingly elusive.

. . .

U.S. median earnings have not increased since 1975 in real terms. Average real Japanese and German household incomes have been stagnant for more than a decade. U.K. factory incomes haven’t risen since the late-1970s, after adjusting for inflation.

. . .

While there are well-paid jobs for a small portion of the workforce with the required skills, the vast majority of new employment is in the low-paid service sector, such as retail, security and health care. Youth unemployment remains high.

A large part of the population are now members of the “precariat,” a shortened version of the term “precarious proletariat” used in Japan to describe workers without job security who now make up over 30% of the country’s workforce as companies cut labor costs.

Changes in the workforce affect the nature of society. In the brave new world, a small elite, say, 5%, enjoy the significant wealth and control of much of its resources. They employ another stratum of people, say, 20%, to administer their affairs as well as control the precariat, 75% of the population.

Connections, beauty and brains will permit upward mobility, though movement between the groups may become more difficult. In the new economy, the precariat survives rather than prospers in an essentially subsistence existence.

We have to understand that a large – perhaps a very large – proportion of our readers are going to fall into the ‘precariat’, as the article puts it.  Their discretionary income to spend on luxuries such as entertainment is going to be severely circumscribed.  That’s precisely why the ‘sharing’ economic model in general, and the subscription model of entertainment for music, videos and books in particular, are becoming so widespread.  They’re all the ‘precariat’ can afford.  It’s even happening in luxury goods – for example, Cadillac has just announced a (rather expensive) car sharing scheme.  They haven’t done so out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they understand that their traditional ‘buyers’ won’t be able to afford to buy their vehicles in the same numbers as before.  They’re adapting to the changing market.

Whether we like it or not, as writers we’d better work hard to understand the wider economy, note what’s going on there, and adjust our income and expenditure plans accordingly.  It’s going to be more difficult to make a living in our field in future.  Unless we can confidently predict sales in the thousands every month, we’ll probably need to hold on to our day jobs.

Well, there you are.  That’s a selection of articles that I’ve found thought-provoking in terms of my writing career and activities over the past few months.  I hope they’re just as interesting and useful for you, too.

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“Never launch a book in December!”

That appears to be the advice freely proffered to independent authors by those who (allegedly) know best.  I’m not sure whether or not it’s accurate, but I’m in the process of finding out.  You see, circumstances kind of forced my hand.  Let me tell you about it, and the lessons I’ve learned from it (so far, at least).

At Libertycon in June 2015, I was afflicted by the first kidney stone I’ve ever endured.  It was no fun at all, and I spent most of the convention lying on my bed, groaning.  Two hospital procedures followed over the course of the next six months.  No sooner had I gotten over them than we moved to Texas, in early 2016.  Shortly thereafter a gall bladder problem manifested itself, eventually requiring a third surgical procedure.  All in all, it took fifteen months to sort out my various and sundry medical misadventures, during which time my writing came to a grinding halt as far as new work is concerned.

In the middle of all this, I was fortunate to be offered a contract to publish a Western novel I’d written some time before.  I put a ‘teaser’ chapter up on my blog, and within 24 hours received an unsolicited offer to publish that book plus two sequels.  Needless to say, I accepted with enormous relief!  Editing the book for publication (with an editor’s help, not having to do it all on my own – a new experience for me) was a lot less stressful than writing it from scratch.  ‘Brings The Lightning‘ was published in May 2016, and has done relatively well for a first book in a new genre from an author previously unknown there.  Certainly, I’m satisfied with results so far.  I’m now plotting the first of two sequels, and I hope more will follow.

 

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However, this still wasn’t helping me get back to creative writing.  My wife exercised what I can only describe as heroic patience in seeing me through my medical trials and tribulations.  How she avoided hitting me sometimes is a mystery, but she did – yet another reason why I love her.

I found it very difficult to ‘get back into the groove’.  My brain had become soggy with ongoing pain, the insidious slow poisoning effect of a necrotic gall bladder, and the mentally numbing effect of painkillers and other medication.  After all the treatments were over, it took me two to three months to begin to produce work that I thought was worthwhile.  It was a very frustrating time indeed!  Still, as the sages tell us, “This, too, shall pass” – and it did.  By early October 2016, fifteen months after my medical misadventures began, I was again writing fiction that I felt was readable.

Meanwhile, of course, my sales had fallen off the proverbial cliff.  “Publish or perish” is a well-known phrase in academia.  It has a different, yet equally ominous meaning for most independent authors.  We depend on getting new work out to our reading public at regular intervals to keep our names fresh in their minds.  We have no publicity machine working on our behalf, no publisher spending money on advertising campaigns, no public relations firm firing off press releases.  If we don’t produce work that readers want to buy, they look for other writers to satisfy their needs.  For fifteen months, I was unable to produce or publish any work in the military science fiction genre where I’d hitherto developed a following.  As a result, my sales tapered off, slowly but surely, until they were barely limping along.  A writing income that had averaged four figures a month, pre-Libertycon 2015, declined to a lot less than that by the fourth quarter of 2016.  (Of course, this excludes earnings from ‘Brings The Lightning’, which were in a different genre and came through a publisher at biannual intervals, rather than monthly, as most indie authors receive them.)

We were able to survive the lean times because we’d built up a reserve from previous royalty earnings (the importance of which has, of course, been drastically reinforced in our thinking by recent events!).  Also, my wife found a job locally, which helped to keep the wolf from the door.  (Did I mention I love her very much?)  Added to our slowly declining independent royalty income, plus earnings from ‘Brings The Lightning’, those measures sufficed to keep us afloat.  Nevertheless, it was clear that I needed to start earning more money from my independent writing again, as quickly as possible.  Therefore, as soon as I was able, I got down to business.

I’d completed about a quarter of the next volume in my Maxwell Saga, ‘Stoke The Flames Higher‘, before illness laid me low.

 

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I spent some time in September revisiting and revising what I’d written, then began expanding on it.  By late October it had taken shape, and I was able to send it out to initial readers and begin the revision process.  By late November, it was in publishable form.  The question was, should I publish it right away, in the pre-Christmas period that many claimed was not the best time to do so, or wait until the new year?  We heard dire warnings that December was clogged with so many potential gifts, all chasing consumer dollars, that a new book would be lost amid the clutter and go unnoticed.  What’s more, we’d be chasing dollars intended for entertainment in general, not just books.  We’d be competing with movies, computer games, sporting goods and everything else that comes under that heading.  In such a season, books were unlikely to be a priority for most potential purchasers.

Against these warnings, there was the simple reality that I needed to get back to earning a living from my writing.  We’d coped with the demands on our finances during my prolonged illness, but that couldn’t continue indefinitely.  We had to pay off credit card balances run up during the ‘lean times’, and rebuild our depleted reserves.  That reality forced my hand.  Whether or not it was the wisest thing to do, I needed to get something new into the hands of my faithful readers who’d been waiting for far too long, and I needed to begin rebuilding the momentum that my writing career had lost.

‘Stoke The Flames Higher’ was published earlier this week.  The timeline went like this:

Dec 4 – Day 1:

The book was uploaded to Amazon.com.  Even before I publicly announced its launch the following day, dedicated fans had found it, and bought almost 50 copies.  One even submitted a review that evening!  Hooray for fans!

Dec 5 – Day 2:

  • I announced the book release on my blog, and asked my friends, fellow bloggers and fellow writers to begin publicizing it as well.  We also sent out an announcement to my mailing list.
  • Thanks to brisk initial sales to blog readers, the book jumped straight into the top 20 (i.e. on the front page) of Amazon.com’s ‘Hot New Releases’ lists in both military science fiction and space opera genres.  This was wonderful news, as it put the book before the eyes of a great many potential purchasers, who use those lists to browse for reading matter.  (This reinforces the huge advantage of having a popular blog or large social media following.  Those readers are the core of our fan base.  Their early purchases drive our books up popularity lists for our genre[s], making our work much more visible to other potential readers, who may never have heard of us before.  Effort invested in building a blog or social media following is not wasted – it’s intrinsic to our publishing success.  I spend a couple of hours every day blogging, and I don’t regret a minute of it.)

Dec 6 – Day 3:

  • A number of reviews (all 4- or 5-star) began to appear on Amazon.com.
  • We found that Facebook was ‘throttling‘ almost all release announcements concerning my new book, which was very disappointing.  As a result, I think I’ll discount Facebook in future as a primary way to get the word out about new releases.  However, blog publicity was bearing fruit.
  • The book was also available on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription library service, and by this date, page reads took off like a rocket.  I noted that initial sales were slower than I’d expected, but KU ‘paid loans’ were higher.  This tends to reinforce my earlier impression that people have fewer dollars to spend on entertainment these days, so they’re using them on the most cost-effective forms of entertainment (including reading) that they can find.  This isn’t good news for authors, who will sell less books as a result;  but, on the other hand, we’ll at least earn something from KU royalties for pages read.  “Half a loaf is better than no bread”.
  • Sponsored product links began to show up on the book’s Amazon.com page.  Sales of earlier books in the Maxwell Saga also began to pick up, as readers who’d come across my protagonist for the first time in the new book started to look for more.

Dec 7 – Day 4:

  • The book was added to my Maxwell Saga series list on Amazon.com, and to my author page there.
  • Also-boughts‘ began to appear on the book’s Amazon.com page.  I’m watching them with keen interest.  It appears that many who buy my books also buy from Castalia House, other indie authors who write here on Mad Genius Club, and from Baen.  That’s a pretty select group, if you ask me!

So far, as I mentioned earlier, sales are somewhat slower than I’d hoped, but I ascribe that to three reasons.

  1. I’ve lost a number of readers who are no longer looking for new releases from me, thanks to the long gap between my mil-SF and space opera novels.  I’m going to have to rebuild my following in those genres, and that will take time.
  2. Christmas is a bad season in which to publish, as we’ve often been warned.  I’m sure that’s having an effect on our sales.  On the other hand, I’ll take what I can get!  The financial drought has gone on too long.  I need to break it.
  3. I’ve been saying for some time that we’re not competing for consumers’ reading dollars;  we’re competing for their entertainment dollars.  They can buy entertainment in many forms, from going to the movies, to buying a DVD or video game, to going out to eat, to whatever.  We need to provide something so compelling that they choose to spend their dollars on our books, rather than something of greater interest or value to them.  Also, because economic times are hard, there are fewer entertainment dollars available, and consumers are seeking to spend them in the most cost-effective way possible.  We’re likely to see declining direct sales, and increasing membership in subscription libraries like Kindle Unlimited.  That means less money to us as authors, but at least there will be some money.  We’re going to have to adjust to that changing economic climate.

Overall, I’m satisfied with progress thus far.  I’m going to continue to publicize the book launch over the next couple of weeks (and if those of you who blog or have a social media presence could please mention it to your readers, I’ll be very grateful).  I expect initial sales to be lower than my previous book in the series, ‘Stand Against The Storm‘:  but I’ll gladly take what I can get, and build on that foundation as I strive to rebuild my fan base.

I’ve got big plans for next year, if my health remains good.  I discussed them with my readers in a blog post last week, and asked for their feedback:  and I analyzed their responses in a subsequent post.  If all goes well, I hope to produce four books next year.  Two will be independently published, and two through a publisher.  I think that sort of mixed approach will probably be important in the longer term, so that I’m not dependent on an income stream from one avenue of publication only.  I also have a short story scheduled for publication in a Baen anthology, and possibly a second in a proposed Castalia House anthology;  so if all goes well, 2017 should be a banner year for me.  Here’s hoping for good health, and for writing success!

 

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How to assess a civilization

As authors, we build fictional universes, star systems, planets, nations, polities and communities.  We flesh out the details in many ways;  race, creed, culture, standards of civilization and education, and so on.  There are a number of books out there where this is done very well, drawing us into the fictional universe created by the author and making us feel right at home there.  Others – rather more – are less well done, with jarring inconsistencies and discordant elements that hinder us in the suspension of disbelief.

I was thinking about this recently as I surveyed the body of work that I have in progress.  In no particular order, I’m plotting out, or researching, or actually working on, no less than five manuscripts:

  1. The fifth volume in my Maxwell Saga, a science fiction series set about eight centuries in the future;
  2. The third and final volume in the Laredo War trilogy, set on different planets in the Maxwell universe, with different characters and focus;
  3. A fantasy novel set in a world reminiscent of the late Middle Ages in Europe;
  4. Another fantasy novel set in a more traditionally ‘fantastic’ universe, a cross between that described in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ series and the Norse Sagas and the Holy Roman Empire;
  5. A second novel in my Western series, set in Colorado in the second half of the nineteenth century.

In each case, I have to build a world that will be interesting to my readers, consistent with the events and incidents and tools and attitudes I describe.  Furthermore, I have to keep them separated from each other, so that attitudes, mannerisms, expressions, etc. don’t make the leap from (say) the Wild West in America to the court of Charlemagne (or its fictional analog).

As part of doing this, as well as looking for more information about world-building in general, I stumbled across an article titled ‘The decline and fall of toilet paper, or How to assess a civilization‘ by Dr. David C. Stolinsky MD.  He has an interesting perspective on the matter.  Here’s an excerpt.

There are many ways to assess a civilization. It all depends on your point of view. Some people believe we are advancing. These people point to a woman’s “freedom to choose,” more “rights” for those accused of crimes, and greater “tolerance.” Other people believe we are declining. These people point to nearly a million babies killed every year, up to the time of birth and sometimes even after. They point to increasing reluctance of the law-abiding to rely on the legal system. They point to widespread cheating in schools, in business, in government, and in relationships.

Those who believe we are declining point to the same events as those who believe we are advancing — they just see these events from a different perspective. But are there some ways to assess our civilization that most people might agree on? In an effort to find such methods, I adjourned to the bathroom, where I often do my best thinking, and came upon a possibility.

He argues that the ‘toilet paper index’ – the size and quality of toilet paper rolls – and the ‘lawyer-doctor index’ – the number of each in comparison to the other – are key markers of the state of our present civilization.  You can read more about them in the article.

Dr. Stolinsky is, of course, assessing our present Western civilization;  but perhaps we, as writers, should adopt his approach, and look for more intrinsic comparisons within our fictional universes (if, that is, they actually use toilet-paper, and not corn cobs – which would fit most fantasy universes I’ve encountered – or ‘three shells‘, as in one popular dystopian/science fiction setting) to suggest ways in which our readers can assess them for themselves, and perhaps be more drawn into them as they read.  What say you?

 

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Useful writing tips from L. Jagi Lamplighter

First, let me apologize for the late posting of this article, and its brevity.  My wife and I have just returned from our annual Blogorado gathering, accompanied by a new kitten who’s finding his feet (and everyone else’s) in his new home.  As a direct result of his presence, our regular routines (and our sleep) have become somewhat . . . precarious.  Still, that’s the nature of kittens!

In lieu of an article of my own, I’d like to offer you a very useful one by L. Jagi Lamplighter.  Jagi is an accomplished writer in her own write (you should pardon the expression).  She’s also the wife of Dragon Award-winning author John C. Wright.  My wife and I had the pleasure of meeting them at LibertyCon last year.  They’re a delightful couple.

Jagi has gathered together a series of articles she’s written over the years, dealing with many aspects of writing and offering her tips and tricks as to how to do it better.  I’ve found them very useful, offering many ideas I hadn’t thought of before.  You’ll find it here.  I highly recommend reading through it, and following the links she provides to more detailed articles on each subject.  I think you’ll find it as useful as I have.

Thanks, Jagi!

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A Lesson from Estonia

I was intrigued to read an article in the Economist about independent musicians and groups in Estonia.  Here are a few excerpts.

ON A recent day, Helen Sildna was sifting through applications, looking at products, business plans and strategies for market expansion. This may be business as usual for investment managers, but the applicants were artists, not companies. Ms Sildna, the founder and chief executive of Tallinn Music Week, is convinced that musical acts need to operate like start-ups, attracting investors and creating business plans.

. . .

During the one-week festival, which takes place in March and April each year, bands and solo artists perform (free of charge), exchange ideas with each other—and hone their business skills by negotiating with promoters, investors and other potential partners. The festival is essentially a boot camp for musical start-ups. “The artists know that you have to take financial risk,” Ms Sildna says. They have to learn to “find investments and develop efficient teams containing all sorts of expertise from finance to digital media and marketing.”

For the previous Tallinn Music Week Ms Sildna received around 1,000 applications, of which 250—representing 35 countries—were selected. The application round for 2017 runs until the end of November. “It’s easier to start on your own because you’re in charge of your own career,” says Andres Kõpper, an Estonian electro-pop artist performing under the name NOËP. “In Estonia that’s the way artists work now. You don’t stand around waiting for a magic hand to help you.” Mr Kõpper signed a record contract with Sony, after they discovered his music on Spotify. The young artist had, in essence, already done the heavy lifting by building his own audience.

. . .

Waiting to be signed by a major label may no longer be a good idea for artists anywhere. According to a recent survey by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the key 13-to-25 demographic only buys 14% of all CDs sold, while music lovers aged 36 and over buy 58%. The younger demographic accounts for 41% of all music ripping and downloading, while the much larger 36-and-over group only accounts for 40% of that activity. Ms Sildna argues that music fans’ changing buying habits have created more opportunities for enterprising artists. “Today investment and competent teams can be found in innovative formats. There is no such thing as the classic music industry route anymore.”

There’s more at the link.  Recommended reading.

I think this is very applicable to our industry – writing and publishing.  Of course, we don’t necessarily have to use a publisher at all, just as a music group today doesn’t have to go with an outside producer or distributor.  They can do over the Web almost everything that used to be done by music companies, and they can hire professional studios to record their own work (or build their own in the garage or basement of one of their homes, just as we set up our offices – “writing studios” – in our own homes).

However, one aspect I haven’t seen among independent authors is a concentrated effort to market ourselves in conjunction with each other.  I haven’t seen an indie “boot camp” along the lines of the Tallinn Music Week.  Sure, there’s a certain amount of mingling and discussion at sci-fi conventions and the like, but that’s not the same thing.  Should we be trying to set up a more professional, more sales-focused event like that?  Would it work for publishing books as well as songs?  I don’t know.  Tell us your thoughts in a comment, and join the discussion.

I think we should be looking closely at how other areas of the entertainment industry – which, after all, includes books) – are marketing themselves and their artists.  If we don’t, they’ll eat our lunch, because the average consumer has only so many dollars (or whatever) to spend on entertainment every month.  Those dollars can buy a movie ticket, or a DVD, or music, or a book, or a video game, or anything else that entertains.  Our books are just one of many possible purchases.  We need to figure out how to make them – and their authors – more attractive to potential consumers.

I was particularly taken by this excerpt from the Economist’s article.

Mr Kõpper signed a record contract with Sony, after they discovered his music on Spotify. The young artist had, in essence, already done the heavy lifting by building his own audience.

That’s exactly how I ended up publishing my most recent book with Castalia House (which is selling very nicely, thank you), and why I’m now under contract with them for several more;  and it’s how my friend Lawdog recently parlayed his blog readership and wide network of followers into a publishing contract for two books.  Our experience has been identical to Mr. Kõpper’s.  If you bring to the table, as an independent artist or author, an established readership, guaranteed to buy your books, in sufficient numbers that the proposition will be profitable for a publisher as well as yourself, you have a lot that will interest them.  I think that’s the way most authors are going to ‘make it’ in the more traditional aspects of publishing in future (assuming, of course, that traditional publishers learn to adapt to the market of today, and don’t go the way of the dinosaur).  The more we can put on the table, the more the other side is likely to put on the table in return.  Both sides have to win – and if we do well as indies, we hold a winning hand.

We’re in a business, whether we like it or not.  Art is for the birds.

 

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