Category Archives: WRITING

Women are not Men

When I was in highschool, and mind you this was a very small school, or what I say next would never have been possible, I narrowly missed winning the Presidential medal for fitness. Because I could not for the life of me do three pull-ups. I could do one, and did meet all the other requirements for what I dimly recall after this passage of time, but my upper body strength was inadequate to a test regime designed mostly for guys. Do I want to go back and redesign the test to give myself the kudos I wanted then? Heck no. It’s just that even then I knew if it meant using my arms alone, I’d never make it. A year later while learning rock climbing I knew not to try to hang or pull myself up by arms alone. But give me a toeholds to employ the leg muscles, and…

That was a long intro to something else. In a group I’m part of, someone asked for help in finding books with strong women characters, because a woman had dismissed all SFF as having women who had to be rescued or just wanted to get married. I got tagged into the conversation because they wanted a list of books like that, and I’m known for making lists. Two days and several hundred comments later, the list was taking shape, and it was pointed out that perhaps it would be shorter to make a list of ‘weak’ females in SFF. This is not a genre where the women are commonly wimps. In fact, you’re more likely to find, as someone vulgarly put it, ‘men with boobs on’ in a book. Because women are different from men, an undeniable biological fact, if you choose to write a woman who can do pull-ups all day long and fight off gangs barehand and so forth, you need to hang a lantern on *why* she isn’t normal. In SF this is simple enough – genetic engineering makes great handwavium. But you also need to keep in mind that if similarly engineered, her male peers will be stronger than she. I’m not saying there are no exceptions. I’m saying that for them to be exceptional, we have to populate our books with averages as well.

I put the call out for self-rescuing space princesses, damsels who can’t be bothered to be distressed, and boy, did I get nominations! But it also got me thinking. What’s wrong with needing rescue once in a while? If I wrote a male character, cast into Durance vile, who had to be rescued by the woman in his life, that plot would get all sorts of happy responses, yes? But if I flip the role I’m a misogynistic sexist.

I like in fiction, as in life, a complementary pair. She has weaknesses, but so does he, and their weaknesses aren’t in the same place, so together they are stronger than alone. Which is much like real life. What I don’t like to see is a strong female character surrounded by milksops she needs to constantly belittle and drag out of truffle-flavored (damn you autocorrect! I meant trouble, but I have to admit that’s funny) so the author can show how smart and awesome she is. People like that are not fun to hang around with, and as characters they make me stop reading. Instead of writing the five-foot nothing waif who can toss grown men around the room (side-note: this can actually be done, but the girl has to be very high on PCP and it will wreck her body later. Source: my dad, the paramedic) all day long, why not do some research into bad ass women of history and see how they did what they did?

Women like Virginia Hall, who spied on the Germans from occupied France for years. Not so big a deal? She was also missing a leg from a hunting accident, and hiked through waist-deep snow in her wooden leg to escape capture at one point. She was definitely an amazing woman. Women have held down the fort for time immemorial while the men were out to war, or hunting, or just gallivanting. That doesn’t make them weak, because it wasn’t always an easy job. Women have also been portrayed as mere pawns, historically, but the simple truth is that far from always needing to be rescued, including seeing marriage as a form of ‘rescue’ from uncertain fate, women have been a force to be reckoned with. It’s just that they are different from men, so other than the rare exception who took up a sword (usually under great duress) a woman’s way was more subtle and hidden. She might not have the strength of arms, but she did have ways to influence those who were doing the hacking and bashing.

So write strong females into your stories. But keep in mind that ‘strong’ isn’t always about the muscles in your arms. Sometimes it’s the bit between the ears.

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Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, WRITING: ART

Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Meet the Internal Editor

(Work has Kate snowed under and she asked me to post this for her.)

You’ve finished your first draft, you’ve given it a decent amount of time to sit (trust me, for pantsers this is essential), and now it’s time to edit. As with all things pantser, particularly extreme pantser, it’s not that simple. Editor time is when you need to take this thing that’s lived inside your head for months, and put it through the shredder – and most of the pantsers I know (yes, including me) have major problems letting go enough to do this.

Probably the first and simplest tool in the kit for turning on your editor-mind is to phase-shift: to look at the piece in a different format than the one you wrote it in. Print-outs work for this. So does making a copy of the file and getting the copy onto your ebook reader or smartphone (preferably one with annotation or editing capability) and reading it there. The different format is usually enough to keep you out of writer mindset (or worse, “this is my baby” mindset).

Editing somewhere you don’t write is another tool that, while simple, works. The goal of moving is to put yourself somewhere your subconscious doesn’t recognize as writing-space. If you wrote the novel on your laptop while taking the train to and from work, don’t edit it there – or at the very least, don’t mark it up there. It doesn’t matter whether you mark up in approved editorese or not: you’re the only person who’s going to see this stuff, so you’re the only person who needs to worry about it. Highlights on a kindle with a one or two word note to say what it needs are just as effective as handwritten comments on paper, or comments embedded in a word processor file.

A word of warning here: if your word processing application uses any form of auto-formatting turn it off. There are multiple versions of Word in the wild, Word Perfect still happens, and then you’ve got Open Office and its clones, as well as any number of other applications that will create something more or less like RTF (aka “Rich Text Format” – which is text with fonts, bold, underlines and some other formatting, but not the fancy stuff). They don’t all use the same internal codes for anything that is not an obvious keystroke. What that means is that the beautiful file on your Mac ends up looking like someone threw confetti all over it with all manner of weird characters involving tildes and accents where you thought you had a quote mark.

Actually, that’s two words of warning. Do not use your word processor’s embedded comments feature. Not everything you’re likely to be playing with is going to be able to support that. My preference for this is to use something that won’t appear anywhere else in the manuscript as a flag character. So I’ll be writing along and there’ll be something like [add more description] in the middle of the text. That tells me what I’ve got to do and where I’ve got to do it. Sometimes it’s a plot note, sometimes flagging a really crappy sentence, and sometimes a note to remind me that a character’s name needs to change.

For stuff I need to research but don’t want to lose I use the same trick – a sudden burst of [research this] will get added to the story as I write. When I’m done the markup pass-through, I can search for [ and do what needs to be done. The benefit of this is that you can do it with anything, even Notepad (well, if the book isn’t too big – Notepad can’t read very large files. Although if the file is that big, you have other problems).

Okay, so you have your internal editor. Guess what? The editor popped over from Evil Bastard Central, and will cheerfully tell you what you’re doing sucks rocks, while leaning back in a recliner drinking your virtual booze. This is quite normal. I know it sounds like split personality, but heck, we pantsers already host a ridiculous number of personalities anyway. What’s one more?

Quite a few authors externalize the editor-mind, even going so far as to give it a name. Julie Czerneda calls hers the “Great Editor Voice” aka GEV, and posts interesting conversations between her and her GEV on her sff.net newsgroup.

You don’t need to go that far. If it helps to do something like this, go for it. Otherwise, don’t worry. So long as you can flip to editor-mind when you need to, that’s enough.

Of course, the other side of this is getting back to author-mind when you’re done with the editor-mind. That’s… interesting. It’s also crucial – you don’t want to be in editor-mind when you’re writing, any more than writer-mind is good when you’re editing. While the toolset is much the same, they’re used in different ways. The writer-mind is applying the paint, building the picture and framing it, while the editor-mind applies a scalpel to clean up the bits that got smudged, and takes the sander to the frame to smooth off all the rough places and hide the marks where the hammer didn’t quite go where you meant it to, and so forth. Not all writers are good at editing, and not all editors are good at writing.

Depending on how clean your drafts are (in the sense of dangling plot threads, odd byways you forgot to come back to, ideas that hit halfway through that you need to go back and seed and other such pantser oddities), you might not need much in your edit passes. Mine are typically pretty light: there’s a pass for plot/character issues where I’ll usually pick up most of the typo and grammar as well, and a second pass that takes a closer look at phrasing and tightening. After that will depend on what Amanda and Sarah, my long-suffering beta readers and in Amanda’s case editor as well, have to say. You might need dozens of passes to clean things up.

Or not. Pantsers have a horrible tendency to over-edit until there’s no life left. We really can’t edit our work until we’ve had a chance to forget it, and we’ve got to be careful about who we listen to. If you try to fix everything everyone says, you’ll end up with flat, rolled out tofu. Very dead tofu, at that. Instead, look for the possible problem that sits under what they’re saying, and work out how to address that.

And that, fellow pantsers, is that. Go thou forth and explore the pants.

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Filed under KATE PAULK, WRITING, WRITING: CRAFT

To NaNo or Not to NaNo

November is almost half over and all across the internet you will find writers and wannabe writers talking about NaNoWriMo. Some are gleefully extolling on and on and on about how they have been meeting their daily word counts and will make their 50k word goal for the month. Others lament about how they haven’t been able to keep up with their goal, but they are continuing to try. Some will tell you about the book they started in last year’s NaNo or the year before or the year before, etc. Then there are those who will boldly tell you that you’re a fool for taking part.

Each year, I see someone — usually several someones — condemning anyone who takes part in NaNoWriMo. These oh-so-superior authors are convinced that nothing good can come out of NaNo. They cling to the belief that no one can write 50k words of publishable material in a mere 30 days. To them, NaNo is a gimmick that does nothing more than make fun of their craft. And, yes, I have a mental image of these authors sipping tea, pinky fingers lifted, as they look down their noses at the peons laboring away in the writing trenches.

If you haven’t already figured it out, this attitude more than bugs me. It tics me off. First, it completely misses the point of NaNo (and full disclosure here. I’m not a big fan of NaNo for reasons I’ll go into later). Second, it assumes that every writer works at the same pace as these so-called authors and who are they to tell any of us what pace we should set when we are writing?

So, what is the purpose behind NaNo? That’s simple. Some years ago, a couple of friends got together. During the course of their conversation, someone said no one could write a 50k word novel in a month. These guys took up the challenge and NaNo was born. If you take part and if you follow the original concept of the challenge, you start a new novel on November 1st and work through the month with the goal of writing at least 50k words.

The goal isn’t to have 50k words of publishable content. It is to set a goal and meet it. To simply sit the butt down in the chair and write. Editing comes after that. This is what makes NaNo an effective tool for a number of writers. It is committing to a goal and working to reach that goal. It has been the impetus a number of writers have needed to move past writer’s block or the various distractions that all too often take us away from our writing.

There is another benefit to NaNo, at least for some writers. There is a huge NaNo community. During November, there are meetings you can go to, even write-ins. For a number of writers, especially beginning writers, this means getting to know in meat space others like yourself. That’s important because writing is a solitary profession and all too often our families don’t understand the demands of the career.

My issue with NaNo is that 50k word goal. There are a number of writers who are terrified of that number. They won’t sign up because they know they won’t be able to meet the goal. In other words, they aren’t going to give themselves the chance to “fail”. When asked about it by other writers, I tell them they don’t have to take part in the “official” NaNo. They can simply set their own goal for the month and then do their best to keep to it. One way of doing it is announcing the goal on social media, on their blogs, etc., and then doing daily or weekly upstages. That will keep them honest.

I hear some of you out there asking if I do NaNo. I don’t. I have in the past and, in most instances, I met the goal. However, with my writing schedule, I am rarely in the position any longer of starting something new at the right time for the challenge. That doesn’t mean I ignore the spirit of NaNo. I have weekly and monthly writing goals. Sometimes I meet them and sometimes I don’t. In November, I do my best to hit at least 50k words. It might be on a single project or on several different projects, depending on when I end one and start another. Sometimes, it might be an editing goal. There are times when it is both.

You might be asking about my goals for the month and how have I done so far? My goal wasn’t so much a word count goal as a project goal. I wanted to have the final version of Light Magic finished and ready to publish by the end of the month. I also wanted to have the final version of an untitled holiday short story/novella in the Eerie Side of the Tracks universe ready as well. Working drafts of both have been finished. I have also done some work on the expanded edition of Duty from Ashes. But, thanks to a knee injury, I am behind on my goal. Since the short story/novella and Light Magic are time sensitive, they are getting the bulk of my attention right now.

Here’s the thing. No one has to like NaNo. It isn’t for every writer out there. But just because it isn’t right for you doesn’t give you the right to decry it where every other writer is concerned. For those of you who haven’t tried it, or who have tried it and not met your goal, don’t discount doing it again. Remember, there is nothing stopping you from doing your own form of NaNo. If the 50k word goal terrifies you to the point you feel you will self-sabatouge and not meet the goal, set a lower goal. But give yourself incentives to not only meet but exceed that new goal. You might be surprised by how much writing you can get done.

The key isn’t whether you write 200 words or 50k words. The key is that you write. You don’t have to write every day, but you have to write. So many of writers stop writing, not because they have run out of ideas but because they fall out of the habit of writing. Yes, real life gets in the way. The challenges of work, family, school, etc., all have to be dealt with before we can sit down and put ideas to paper. Once we get out of that habit, it is often almost impossible to get back into it.

So, here’s my challenge to each of you. Set a goal for the rest of the month. It can be anything you want. But set the goal. Then set secondary goals. Goals that, if you reach them, you treat yourself to something special. Before you start telling me you don’t have time, give your daily schedule a hard look. Is there some way you can change your schedule or crave out an additional five or ten minutes a day or an hour over the weekend? If you ride the train or bus to work, can you grab your tablet and stylus and make notes (or even just an old-fashioned steno book and pen)? How about giving up five minutes of gaming at night or getting up five minutes early?

You’ll note, I didn’t say you have to write a story. In fact, if you have been having problems focusing on a plot, don’t force it. Do free-writing. When you get up (or before you go to bed), grab a piece of paper and a pen or pencil and just write. Write down whatever comes to mind. It can be your shopping list or it can be journaling. It can even be that letter you wish you could write to your boss or your neighbor or whoever but you just don’t dare. The key is to write.

The key is to write.

And, on that happy note, I’m going to go do just that.

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Filed under AMANDA, WRITING: LIFE

It’s a Business – A blast from the past

(Brad is still busy with life, family and writing. So I thought I’d do a blast from the past. In this case, from last year.)

There are times when I feel like I’m the crotchety parent sitting the kids down to tell them the facts of life. No, not those facts of life but the facts of life about business. It seems like almost every week there is a blog post or newspaper article about a bad contract or troubles in publishing or writers thinking about hanging up their keyboards. Why? Because all too many forget that publishing is a business and it needs to be treated as such.

I’m not going to discuss, at least not much, the publisher side of writing as a business today. Oh, there is plenty out there. Bad publishing decisions coming back to haunt the publishing company abound. But that’s not the point of today’s post. No, today I’m back on my soapbox reminding everyone who wants to be a writer that you have to remember that this is your business and you have to treat it as such.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve talked with writers, some traditionally published and others indie published, who went into this business with stars in their eyes and rose colored glasses firmly in place. The ones traditionally published just knew that once they signed the contract, the publisher would be spending all sorts of money to promote their book and make it into a best seller. The indie writers who are now wanting to go with a traditional publisher because — duh — they will get this huge advance and will be sent on tours to sign their books and will soon be playing poker with other best selling authors ala Castle.

That sound you hear, that slow thud-thud-thud is my head pounding against the wall.

It would be wonderful to live the life of Castle — less the murderers and other crooks trying to take pot shots at you every week. But that isn’t reality. The reality is that the vast majority of writers who have signed with traditional publishers see little if any real push from their publisher. In fact, the publisher — and the author’s agent — expect the author to do their own promotion. Oh, you might get reimbursed for your expenses if you go to a con or do a book tour but don’t bet on it. Don’t believe me that publishers aren’t spending as much on promotion of those authors they haven’t pegged as best sellers or the newest “best thing ever”? Think back to the last time you saw a book signing at your local bookstore. Now ask yourself how many times a year your local bookstore has such signings. How many of those are authors who aren’t best sellers or local authors?

Now, look at your local newspaper and tell me how large the arts section is and how many book reviews appear per week. Oh, wait. Sorry. Part of the reason there aren’t as many reviews is that there aren’t as many people reading the newspaper. Reviews, especially book reviews, were some of the first things cut when newspapers started cutting costs to make up for the lower advertising revenue and lower subscriptions rates. Few newspapers have their own book reviewers any longer and the books being reviewed are either best sellers or the newest best thing. Hmm.

But, Amanda, you get those huge advances and you don’t have to work any longer.

Wrong.

And this is where you have to remember that this is a business. Most advances, especially for “new” authors fall in the four-digit range. Yes, some new authors get more but they are the except and not the rule. You don’t get the advance all at one time and you aren’t going to see any more money from the publisher until you have earned out the advance and, believe me, that doesn’t happen very often. How can it when publishers use Bookscan to determine how many books are sold instead of a simple inventory tracker program?

That means you have to make sure you have a way to pay your bills between advances. This is why the vast majority of writers aren’t full-time writers. They have families to feed and are like me. They like having a roof over their heads and food in the fridge. Even if your first book is a success, you don’t know that the second book will be. More importantly, if you are publishing traditionally, you have no guarantee that the readers will remember you two years or more after your first book by the time the second book comes out. Remember, when you publish traditionally, you have no control over when your book is released and you are just one of many the publisher is having to slot into a finite number of slots per month.

I can’t repeat this often enough. Writing is a business and the writer is the business owner. Yes, you might sign a contract with someone to distribute your work (a publisher) and promote it (publisher or someone else) but it is still your responsibility to make sure the job is being done. You can’t just sign the contract and sit back and wait for the money to roll in, trusting the person you contracted with to do the job. You need to understand the supply chain for bookstores and the reality of how long a book is left on the shelves before it is pulled. You need to understand the financial aspects of the business and you need to study the numbers when it comes to sell through, resigning authors, etc.

What started me thinking about this again today was this article. The author in question signed a contract with a major publisher for her first book. It was critically acclaimed and not long before it was released into the wild, she quit her job. Yep, you read that right. The author quit her job — the job that helped support her family — so she could promote her book and write full-time. She did so after signing with the publisher for only this one book. There was no second book that would bring in additional advance payments. Nope. Just the starry eyed vision of living the life of a writer.

Now, I don’t want to kick this woman when she’s down but her story is illustrative of the problems so many writers — and folks who start their own businesses — face. They get a great review for a product before it hits the shelves and based on those reviews, quits their regular job to do this full-time. The problem is that reviews don’t always turn into sales and sales, especially for books, will slow down if the author doesn’t bring a new title out in fairly short order. For those authors going the traditional route, that very likely means no payments after the book is released because the advance isn’t earned out. So what are you going to do for money?

This particular author did finally go out and get a job — for awhile. But what struck me is that she doesn’t really seem to want to work. She would rather be writing but the worry and stress of not having enough money has shut down the writing. But a job makes her too tired to write. You see the circle. I feel for her but, to be honest, she needs to man up — or woman up — and realize that the situation she is in is the same one so many of us face on a daily basis. We face it and learn to live with it as we continue to write and put our work out there.

The lesson to be learned is that if you don’t have at least six months — preferably a year or more — of living expenses in the bank, do NOT quit your day job. If you are worried about putting food on the table for your kids or if you are worried about how you will pay the bills, do not quit your day job. It makes it more difficult to write, yes. But this is a business and you learn to adapt. You find the way to carve out time to write. But having all the time in the world to write isn’t worth anything if you are worrying about losing your home or having your utilities cut off.

It’s a business, damn it, and you need to look at it that way. Have your business plan. Have your promotion plan. Know that you aren’t going to get a regular salary that is the same from paycheck to paycheck.

And since I am a working writer, check out Sword of Arelion (Sword of the Gods Book 1).

War is coming. The peace and security of the Ardean Imperium is threatened from within and without. The members of the Order of Arelion are sworn to protect the Imperium and enforce the Codes. But the enemy operates in the shadows, corrupting where it can and killing when that fails.

Fallon Mevarel, knight of the Order of Arelion, carried information vital to prevent civil war from breaking out. Cait was nothing, or so she had been told. She was property, to be used and abused until her owner tired of her. What neither Cait nor Fallon knew was that the gods had plans for her, plans that required Fallon to delay his mission.

Plans within plans, plots put in motion long ago, all converge on Cait. She may be destined for greatness, but only if she can stay alive long enough.

Dagger of Elanna, the second book in the series will be released soon. You can check out snippets from the book starting here. (Edited to add, Dagger is out and you can find it here.)

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Filed under AMANDA, MARKETING, PROMOTION, WRITING: PUBLISHING

Professionalism and Passion

Picking up a bit from Peter’s post yesterday, but also from something that has been weighing on my mind recently, I wanted to explore what I feel is my responsibility as a businesswoman to be professional. For one thing, when I interact with fans, I am acutely aware that they are where the money comes from. I write for my work to be appreciated, but the mark of appreciation is cold, hard cash. My customer is the reader, not a publisher or an editor or an agent, and after reading Peter’s and Kris’s posts on the topic, I think there are writers out there who have forgotten that the fans pay them, ultimately, not the middlemen who leech off the writer’s works.

We’ve discussed many times here on the blog the value in responding professionally to critical reviews. A professional approach to fans, whether in person, or on the internet, is crucial to developing a long-lasting fan base. You will erode that support when you act like a jerk, even if it makes you look cool to your peers when you do it. Your peers don’t buy enough of your books to pay the bills, I can almost guarantee, so as a sales ploy it’s bollocks unless you’re trying to be recruited by the Right People, and even then it’s more likely to backfire.

If you’re putting it on the internet it is public, and it is permanent. I was reminded of a poorly known example of this today when Tom Kratman asked if anyone had a copy of a certain infamous author’s ragequit letter from Baen’s Bar, an incident which took place some fifteen years ago. I vividly remember it, but didn’t think at the time to screenshot it… However, he got offers immediately of folks who had saved it. They, like me, had been so taken aback by the unprofessionalism that in the last fifteen years they haven’t bought anything with that name on it. It’s out there, and it’s still doing damage. Think before you hit send.

Remember to be professional in your interactions with vendors, as well. One of the things that Indie Authors can be bad about is thinking about their profession as a business. Heck, small presses can be included in this as well. I’m thinking of some examples I’ve seen over the years of conversations that went something like “That’s a nice cover, great art.” “Yeah, I found it online.” “Um, who’s the artist? You can’t just use an image without knowing what the copyright is!” “Oh, I have no idea, I couldn’t find that…” Five minutes later I had it and sent it to them. No idea if they changed the art or reached out to the artist for licensing. On a more personal note, I once had a publisher who had commissioned cover work from me reject the art. I’ve had that happen before, and it wasn’t a problem – my style isn’t going to work for every book. But this time, instead of a polite and professional ‘this art isn’t working for us.’ I got a cruel assessment of my work as ‘unrealistic and cartoonish’ which I took as personally as it had been given, and nearly stopped creating art altogether.

Because the personal passion of our creation is very close to the surface, professionalism gives us a way to build a shield between that hurt of being rejected with hurtful words and the knowledge that it just business, nothing personal. We’ve all gotten nasty reviews on our books. With the professional barrier up, we can analyze those as more reflective of the reviewer than of our work – Dorothy wrote an excellent article on how to read reviews professionally recently. Taken as a whole, the poo-flinging monkeys compared to the rave fan recommendations of our work balance into obscurity, as they should. Thoughtful critique does not look or smell like the review a monkey would fling.

Passionate support of a cause sometimes impinges on the professional, and it’s a very fine line. I’m not going to say that if you come out publicly in support of one thing, it will cut you off from 50% of your readers because I don’t think it’s true. I do think that if the message leaks into your books, that’s one thing. If the leak becomes a flood and your books become a vehicle to convey your passion for, say, the social good of patting penguins in the park, then you are going to start turning off fans who would rather not pat fishy penguins, and prefer to sass squirrels by the swings, instead. I’ve been guilty of supporting causes on my blog – no, guilty isn’t the right word. Passionately provoking the status quo, which when I got publicity due to my involvement in Sad Puppies, got picked up and I still see to this day ‘that Sanderson, she’s the Worst’ because I supported something that the speaker didn’t understand and didn’t like. Was I unprofessional in my passion? No, I don’t think so. I tried to be balanced and polite in my rants, and largely succeeded. Because for me it was about supporting friends and shining a light on the things scuttering and hiding in the shadows. Which it did, and now I’m back to shining the light on my blog with writing about sciency stuff, which is more my style and speed.

But I digress. One of the reasons this had been weighing on my mind was that I am tossed on the horns of a moral dilemma. A writer who is also a friend has a book out, and I would really love to promote it. I am a small voice, not influential at all, but I’m always pleased to be able to use the platforms I’ve built to promote friends and colleagues, not just myself. Other than buying and reviewing books, it’s one of the things I can do to give back to the generous writing community that has welcomed me in over the years. So. The problem is that the publisher is the one and same who nearly shattered my artistic confidence. If friends hadn’t poked and prodded me back into it, I’d have given it up entirely. I still have moments where I look at my work and go yeah, that’s…

I want to support the author, but not the publisher. Sigh. Isn’t that a familiar mantra? So what do I do? Forgive and forget how I was treated unprofessionally? Or take a pass, saying that my support isn’t likely to be huge anyway?

A low-res version of the rejected artwork. Giant mecha and ruined city for the win! (Mecha is by Innovari)

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Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, WRITING: PUBLISHING

Reading Reviews Like A Publisher

One of the joys of being indie is that you get to be your own publisher, with all the control on how to bring your stories out to the world and represent them. One of the real drags is that you are your own publisher, with all the responsibilities and priorities therein that do not line up with your artistic priorities.

And one of those priorities, as a publisher, is gathering market feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the currently published catalogue, and what’s doing well and trending in the market right now, in order to make business decisions about future releases. (Unlike trad publishers, though, you’re rather committed to accepting any books that come out of your dedicated on-staff writer – you can’t simply turn down a book and go to the slush pile. Makes it a little trickier, it does.)

Feedback comes in several forms – first, the volume and velocity of sales. For your first couple books, this is going to be a real struggle and a giant mystery to you, because you have no internal sales baseline. You have external ones – kindle rank and the hot new releases / bestseller charts can tell you how you’re doing compared to every other book, and you can track the trajectory of sales on other books by watching their ranks rise and fall, and how long they stick around for visibility (but you can’t see what they’re doing for fanbase or publicity). You also have reviews on similar books in genre / subgenre, and you should be reading those, and developing your ability to look for trends.

The internal sales baseline will come with time and more books. But that’s for another article! Right now, let’s look at those reviews.

When the average reader looks at reviews, they’re looking for two very specific things:
1. Are these reviews trustworthy or fake?
2. Is this a book I’ll enjoy?

The first is why you look for one and two star reviews: they provide that curve that looks “real”, because humans know instinctively that if it’s too good to be true, it ain’t true. The second comes in when you skim through the reviews, discard the ones that don’t have much content or are obviously off the wall, and check to see if the things you like are in there, as well as the things you hate. (Even when a reviewer likes what you hate or hates what you like, the review’s still useful at saying if those things are there.)

But now, as a publisher, you’re asking new questions, with different answers:

1. Who is the intended audience for this book?
2. Did the cover / blurb attract the right audience?
3. Did the book fulfill expectations?
4. What did they like in general and in specific about it?
5. What did they want changed / not like?

Phase 1: Pick at least one subgenre you write in, and start reading through the top 50 bestseller’s reviews like a publisher. You’ll start to notice trends, and audience expectations – and develop the filter for weeding out “this person obviously brought their mental issues to this book, and review reflects same.” Get plenty of practice on the skills and plenty of data on broader trends and audience expectations before you try to apply this to a book where you’ve got skin in the game.

Also, on Amazon, people have the option of marking a review as helpful instead of leaving their own review. Weight reviews accordingly.

You’ll also start seeing trends of authors who have fans that read everything they put out, trends of early reviews (fanbase) versus later ones (word of mouth / browsers, and other non-prior-fans), and so on.

As you read through, you may find yourself strongly drawn to download a sample or buy a book you’re looking at. When that happens, make notes on what attracted you to that book – was it the cover? The blurb? A particular review? If a particular blurb or review made you go “I want this!”, write it down and come back later to study what made it so compelling that you can use in your own ad copy/blurb.

Phase 2: Pick at least 5 books that you really love, and a couple you really hate. Go read all their reviews. Now that you have a broad sense for reading like a publisher, you’re going to sharpen it on books that you know the characters, plot, and worldbuilding – so you can see again how the books draw an audience, what that audience is, how they fulfill reader expectations, and so on. Be aware that books that have been out for several reprintings are not nearly as useful for cover/blurb draw, because they will have gone through several iterations.

Are there any reviews or blurbs that make you go “Yes! This!”? Copy them down, so you can study later what they used to hook you in, and how you can apply that. (In fact, while the main function of a review is for one reader to comment to another reader, if you think of them as amateur ad-copy, there’s a lot you can learn.)

Phase 3: Now, only after several hours spent on learning to practice and hone these skills on other books, turn to your books and read the reviews. Did the cover/blurb attract the right audience for the book? What is the right audience for this book? What did they like / dislike?

Once you have this information, it gives you a way to gauge what covers and blurbs will work, and what won’t. What phrases and keywords, characters and plots, are going to hook the attention of the audience, and you should try to work into your ad copy/blurbs. What audiences are attracted by the book, and if you have it correctly categorized / keyworded to find them. And, also, what they really like, and what they want differently.

As an example, I fell into the classic trap in Scaling the Rim of going “My science fiction hits all the romance beats with a major subplot, so it’s romance-scifi.” But as I read the first wave of reviews, I realized that the audience that really enjoyed it weren’t the romance crowd (it had too much scifi for romance-scifi, and no sex scenes), but the scifi-thriller/action-adventure crowd I hadsn’t even considered due to lack of combat. So, I pulled it from romance and reset with action/adventure keywords to hit that subgenre’s lists instead. Sales them picked up – and the reviews were happier!

***Important Note***
Note that everything above has to do with marketing your book, and possibly with editing your publishing house’s books. It has almost nothing to do with writing your book! Write your books from your heart, from your muse, from your curiousity and wonder and dreams. Don’t try to paint-by-numbers due to what the market wants right now!

Kris Rusch speaks of writing and publishing as wearing two hats – and when she writes, she takes off the publisher hat, with its responsibilities and prioroties, and puts on her writer hat, with its completely seperate, and sometimes completely conflicting, responsibilities and prioroties. She even has seperate computers to help remind her that her creativity is not driven by her publishing – her publishing is a way to monetize her creativity.

There will be things that help with the general writing: in Peter’s earliest books, a number of reviewers complained that Peter’s protagonist was a golden boy, and his writing was too stilted. If you get common points in reviews in your own books, remember that reviewers are readers writing for other readers, they’re not professional authors and gifted teachers writing a personal feedback to the author. They’re not even beta readers. So they will identify that something is a problem to them – but they may not have the right cause, and generally don’t have the right fix.

In Peter’s case, he identified that he was writing a very old-school British hero for a very modern American audience. He was using British English with its more formal structure and style instead of the more informal American English his audience is used to, and they weren’t seeing the modern American ratio of challenge to success they were accustomed to. By changing the language in successive books and adding more metaphors and colloquialisms, focusing more page time on the difficulty of overcoming each challenge, and narrowing the scope of each book to a few challenges or limited time span, he brought the stories more in line with reader expectation and the reviews & reader satisfaction went up.

But he did not sit down and say “I am writing military science fiction. Therefore, I must have a galactic war humans are losing, a near-derelict ship, a rebellious antihero captain on the outs with his/her superiors, and a plucky crew of rejects and oddballs the captain must motivate for the do-or-die long shot that will turn the tide of the war / stop the invasion, because those are the most common current hot tropes.”

That is the difference between using market feedback to improve your writing, and “writing to market.”

As for Scaling the Rim? I noted that a lot of people shared my dislike for infodump and enjoyed building the world from clues and references – but a number of other people missed a few subtle bits of worldbuilding laid in, and were confused because there was no infodump to clearly explain what’s going on up front, who the good guys and who the bad guys were, and the history of the world and the peoples to date.

Because I choke on infodump both as a reader and a writer, I’m not going to start putting in lots of narrative summary. I will, however, clearly have to up my game on building more background in early along with the foreshadowing, so I don’t confuse readers – or they don’t stay confused!

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Halloween Tricks and Treats

This Halloween brings with it the usual tricks and treats in the industry. AAP and traditional publishing is touting a fairly small increase in sales as a huge gain. In the same breath, they crow about the continued slowing of e-book sales (without admitting that slow down is only in trad sales and mainly due to high purchase price). Depending on your point of view, those bits of news can be tricks or treats. Two other news items are definite tricks or, as I like to put it, “What the [expletive deleted] were you thinking?” moments. Fortunately, there are some treats out there.

Let’s look at the “tricks” first.

B&N continues with their efforts to shoot themselves in the corporate foot. It’s no secret they have been behind Amazon when it comes to e-book readers. The Kindle came out Nov. 19, 2007. The Nook e-book reader was available for pre-order for the first time on Oct 20, 2009. That is a delay of almost two years before BN realized it needed to get into the game. It has played a game of catch-up since then and is now throwing in the towel. At least that’s the way it looks. The most recent victim, er indication, is the Nook Glowlight Plus. For those not familiar with the Glowlight Plus, it is BN’s alternative to the Kindle Paperwhite (in a side-by-side comparison, the Paperwhite, the Paperwhite came out on top. The only reason the Oasis didn’t was the price differential.) However, it now appears that BN is phasing out the Glowlight Plus. If you try to buy one, I hope you are willing to pay for a refurbished model because BN isn’t selling new ones. Nor does it appear there is a replacement reader or updated reader coming down the line to replace it. Is this the first tangible example of how BN is going to abandon at least the hardware side of e-books? If so, how will this impact their e-book platform, both for traditional publishers and for indies?

The second “trick” comes from Australia. Gould’s Book Arcade in Sydney has been around since the Vietnam War. Back then, it was a gathering place for antiwar protesters. From what I’ve been able to learn, it’s well-known for its used books as well as remaindered, rare and out-of-print books. But, like many bookstores around the world, it has been facing financial troubles for some time. Now it appears the store has three months before it either has to close its doors or move to a new location. None of this is new in the industry.

What makes this a “trick”, at least in my book, is the attitude of the store owner. Unfortunately, it is an attitude I see all too often in not only the publishing industry but in life in general. Claiming that she is a socialist and “I don’t understand capitalism,” Natalie Gould wants someone to swoop in and save the store. In fact, she would have no problem with local government buying the store, saying, ““If I was (Sydney lord mayor) Clover Moore I’d buy the building. They (the city council) have got plenty of money.”

I would lay good money on the fact Gould has changed little, if any, of the way the store operates over the six plus years she says she’s struggled to keep it open. Reading her comments, it is clear she sees the store more as a place of protest, a gathering place and piece of local culture rather than as a business. She wants to keep having her fun on someone else’s dollar. This failure to adapt to changing demands — or, or perhaps and, in this case the change in the neighborhood — she dug her heels in. Now she wants someone to come in a bail her out. Doesn’t this sound a lot like traditional publishing and it’s failure to adapt to changing consumer demands? Traditional publishing (the Big 5, especially) dearly wants things to go back to the way they were decades ago. Instead, readers are looking elsewhere for their reading enjoyment. They aren’t paying the high prices for e-books from the Big 5 and its ilk, instead turning to indie authors.

Now for the treats.

I’m a fan of a number of the old horror films. One of my favorites is The Haunting. This 1963 film stars Julie Harris, Claire Bloom and Russ Tamblyn, among others. It is based on the book, The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson. The movie airs tonight on 8:30 CST on Turner Classic Movies. This isn’t one of your heavy special effects movies or hack and slash movies. It is one, however, that scared the crap out of me when I was younger and still gives me the chills, especially when it comes to the performance by Julie Harris. I highly recommend it. I also recommend the book, as well as Ms. Jackson’s The Lottery.

Then there’s always Poltergeist. Who can forget Carol Anne saying, “They’re here”?

Finally, I have three titles on sale through today in honor of Halloween.

Witchfire Burning (Now on sale for $2.99)

Long before the Others made their existence known to the world, Mossy Creek was their haven. Being from the wrong side of the tracks meant you weren’t what the rest of the world considered “normal”.

Normal was all Quinn O’Donnell wanted from life. Growing up on the “wrong side of the tracks”, she had been the only normal in the family. The moment she was old enough, she left and began life as far from her Texas hometown as possible. Now she has a job she enjoys and a daughter she loves more than life itself. Their life is normal, REALLY normal, until her daughter starts calling forth fire and wind.

Quinn knows they must go back so her mother can help five-year-old Ali learn how to control her new talents. But in Mossy Creek nothing is ever simple. Quinn’s mother has gone missing. Secrets from Quinn’s past start coming back to haunt her.

And the family home is more than a little sentient.

Can Quinn keep everyone — particularly Ali — safe? And will she ever get back her illusion of normalcy?

Skeletons in the Closet (Now on sale for $0.99)

Lexie Smithson’s family had never been what most folks would call “normal”. They had more than their fair share of oddballs and loners and even crazy cat ladies. Most families in Mossy Creek did, especially if they lived on the “wrong side of the tracks”. But things took a decidedly sharp turn to the left of weird the day Lexie’s sister came home from school, complaining about how Old Serena Duchamp had given her the evil eye. When her mother decided it would be a good thing to confront the town’s resident witch, Lexie knew life would never be the same. How could it when their loved ones began returning to the old homestead the day after their funerals. Lexie knew she should be happy none of her neighbors reported mutilated cattle or corpses with missing brains. But that can be hard to do when your loved ones have passed but not passed on.

Skeletons in the Closet is a novella set in the Eerie Side of the Tracks universe. It is the first of a series featuring Lexie, her family – both living and dead, not to mention furry – and their friends.

Nocturnal Haunts (Now on sale for $0.99)

Lt. Mackenzie Santos has seen just about everything in more than ten years as a cop. The last few months have certainly shown her more than she’d ever expected. She’s learned that real monsters don’t always hide under the bed or in the closet. They walk the streets and can exist in the best of families.

When she’s called out to a crime scene and has to face the possibility that there are even more monsters walking the Earth than she knew, she finds herself longing for the days before she started turning furry with the full moon.

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Filed under AMANDA, PROMOTION, WRITING